6 lessons I learned from the recession
Recovery from the recession has been a slog over the past few years. But lately, coming out on the other side, I am finally feeling optimistic about my own finances.
Recently, though, I saw a May 2013 report from The Pew Charitable Trusts. It found that my generation — Generation X — was hardest hit by the recession, losing an average of more than $30,000, or almost half of our wealth. When I add up all of my financial losses during the recession, that number sounds about right.
Worse, the report predicts the effects of the recession will reverberate into the future, putting many of us on shaky ground for retirement. I guess it’s a good thing that, along with all of those losses, came some hard-won lessons that might help us in the future.
Here are six things I learned from the recession:
1) A little money can go a long way. When you’re vague about your money and spend it willy-nilly, a lot of money can disappear in a flash. The opposite also is true: A small amount of money can go a long way with careful planning. As the personal finance blog Budgets are Sexy reminds us, budgets are key when you’re trying to stretch a dollar.
2) Don’t finance fun on credit. Before the recession, I felt bad when I’d turn down invitations to go on vacations or out to eat with friends who always seemed to have money. I felt like a boring penny pincher. After the recession hit, I found out those friends had been financing their outings on plastic and were in much worse shape than I. Suddenly, it seemed that everyone had realized there’s nothing glamorous about spending money you don’t have. I hope this lesson sticks.
3) Be willing to reinvent yourself, your job, your life. As 20 Something Finance points out, a financial catastrophe can present opportunities. That’s what happened with my husband and me. Just as the recession was getting into full swing, my husband lost his job. And I, then a fairly new freelance writer who had just gotten my business off the ground, lost several steady clients who suddenly had no budget. My husband decided to go to grad school and pursue his dream of becoming a writing professor. I started writing less for magazines and more for the web about the suddenly hot topic of personal finance. Money was very tight for a while, but both of us were using a setback to gear up for something new.
4) Everyone — including the experts — can be wrong. I bought my first house partly because everyone from my dad to, oh, every personal finance expert on earth, said it was a smart idea. They said it was a good investment, I wouldn’t be throwing away money on rent and I couldn’t go wrong. I bought a house I could comfortably afford, applied for a first-time homebuyer program that would pay about $17,000 of my purchase price over 10 years and dreamed about the big check I’d get when I sold the house. But when my husband got a job in another state as the recession was winding down, the first Realtor we called told us she didn’t think she could sell our house. Foreclosures were selling for low prices all around us. We found a Realtor willing to take a chance on us, but ended up having to take out an $8,000 loan just to sell our house — and we were lucky it sold.
5) When you get knocked down, get up again. Before my husband and I sold that house, we bought another one. This time, we didn’t buy it because we thought it would be a good investment or because we were seeing dollar signs imagining getting a fat check when we sold it. This time we bought because we wanted to own a home rather than rent. We didn’t want to deal with asking a landlord if we could paint walls. We wanted something that was ours.
6) Remember the recession. As personal finance expert Clark Howard points out, we should all remember the lessons we learned from the recession as we move forward. Because the road ahead might not be easy, and those pieces of wisdom will serve us well.
Questions About Student Credit? Join Us For A Google Hangout
A new world of financial responsibilities awaits young adults leaving home for college. For many students, that includes navigating the financial products marketed at them — such as credit cards. Unfortunately, mistakes made with that first credit card can set students up for years of financial problems.
That’s why we’re gathering some experts for a Google Hangout to talk about credit tips for college students. Have a question for our panel? Or just want to watch? Here’s everything you need to know.
Who: On our panel, we’ll have Martin Dasko from Studenomics, Rebecca Barry from the University of Arizona’s Credit-Wise Cats, and Susan Knox, author of the book “Financial Basics: A Money Management Guide for Students.” Our credit expert-at-large Erica Sandberg (you know her from our Ask Erica column) will be moderating.
When: Tuesday, June 18, at 4:15 p.m. EST. The video will remain viewable afterward if you miss the live chat.
Where: You can watch live by visiting our Google + page.
What we’ll be talking about: Some of the topics we’ll be tackling include:
- How students can know if they’re really ready for a credit card
- What parents should tell their kids about credit before sending them off to college
- What college students find most confusing about credit
- The risks of co-signing credit cards
Want to ask a question? You can send it to us in advance at email@example.com. During the chat, you can tweet at us using the hashtag #studentcredit or leave us a comment on our Google+ page.
We hope you’ll hang out with us. In the meantime, check out our Love and Money Google Hangout from February.
Overspending is Easier Than I Thought
Mint is mad at me.
I have my account set up to yell at me (send me email alerts) when I exceed the budgets I have set for certain spending categories, and it’s pinged me a few times this week.
Truth be told, I don’t exactly monitor my Mint budgets that carefully. When I first signed up for Mint about a year ago, I set the budgets for its various spending categories based on my average spending.
When I started an expensive hobby a couple months ago, I decided to tighten things up by decreasing the budgets for “Restaurants,” “Alcohol and Bars” and “Clothing.” I had never exceeded my budget in any of those categories in the past and figured making a vague effort to “spend less” would enable me to do the same, despite the lower spending thresholds.
Then, this week, I got my first email alert from Mint, warning me that I’d exceeded my “Alcohol and Bars” budget. In the next couple days, alerts about “Clothing” and “Restaurants” followed.
So what went wrong? After looking at my transactions, I was able to narrow it down.
1. Vacation has ruined my motivation to cook.
What went wrong: I’ve been pretty good the past few months about buying groceries for the week and making them into meals. As a result, I was able to limit myself to one meal at a restaurant per week and one fast-food lunch.
Then I went on vacation — and got used to eating delicious, exciting food every day. Suddenly, the five chicken marinades and three pasta recipes I know how to prepare seem much less appetizing. The Texas heat makes turning on the oven a lot less appealing, too.
It’s only halfway through June, and I’ve already killed my restaurant budget.
What I’m going to do about it: I’ve got a gift card to a restaurant, and that’s going to be my only dining-out splurge the rest of the month. I’m going to learn a couple new recipes to keep home cooking exciting. Plus, I’m going to take a suggestion from Money Ning and “assemble” rather than cook. Instead of preparing meals that require an oven, I’m going to stockpile things that involve no cooking (fruits, veggies, cheeses and cold cuts) in my fridge so that going to a restaurant is no longer the quickest option.
2. I threw a party without consulting my budget
I never thought I could run through my “Alcohol and Bars” budget so quickly. It had been some time since my boyfriend and I had hosted a party at our apartment, and we were itching to throw one. So we invited some friends over, and I hit the liquor store. I got a little too excited about matching wines with our menu choices and selecting fancy microbrews.
I haven’t attended a single happy hour this month, and I’ve already spent more than twice my monthly booze allotment because of this party alone. On Monday, I got a reminder from Mint. Our fridge is still full of beer that wasn’t finished.
What I’m going to do about it: Had I pulled out my phone to look at my budget for alcohol, I would have bought cheaper beer — and less of it. Sure, there are many who appreciate good beer and wine. But I’m certain that our friends would have had just as much fun without the fancy stuff. In the future, I need to plan impromptu splurges (like parties) within the context of my budget — and remember that party guests tend to bring beer with them.
3. I fell into the cheap-clothing trap
There is a fantastic thrift store near my apartment. I needed a new purse (my favorite one got waterlogged on vacation), so I made a trip there earlier this week. I found a purse. Then I found a few shirts. And a summer dress. And a skirt. And a belt. Alone, none of these things cost more than $10. My total at the register, however, was nearly $70. My monthly clothing budget is $50.
What I’m going to do about it: Overspending on inexpensive clothing is a common phenomenon, Manisha Thakor, founder of MoneyZen Wealth Management, points out in an article for The Huffington Post. The high that comes from getting a deal makes you buy more than you need.
The next time I go clothes shopping, I’m going to do what’s always worked for me at the grocery store: Hit the store with a list of things you need, and don’t look at or touch anything else.
Have you found yourself spending too much money lately? The personal finance blogosphere is full of tips for preventing — and putting a stop — to overspending.
Modest Money warns that buying a big-ticket item can make other things seem dangerously less expensive in comparison.
Johnny Moneyseed breaks down some of the motivations behind overspending.
Yakezie points out that the best cure for overspending may be uncertainty — fear of the future makes people close their wallets.
The Digerati Life lists the symptoms — and cures — for binge buying.
Money Crashers explains what to do if it’s your spouse who’s overspending.
The Biggest Credit Lessons I Learned — the Hard Way
I use my credit cards responsibly, paying them off in full every month and earning rewards. But it hasn’t always been this way: credit cards and I have a long and rocky history.
Looking back down credit card memory lane, though, I see that I’ve learned a lot from my mistakes.
Lesson No. 1: Learn from others’ mistakes. It makes life easier. When I was growing up, my mom always used cash or checks. My first real awareness of credit cards came from a college roommate who had a Discover card. Let’s just say she didn’t use it responsibly, and she owed about $240. Soon, Discover was calling our home phone all day, from breakfast until bedtime. At our house meetings, arguments about who let dishes pile up or who never cleaned the bathroom suddenly got overshadowed by “What to tell Discover when they call” and whether “Tammi” would ever pay her bill.
It should have been a cautionary tale about the problems that come from credit cards used irresponsibly. Instead, my takeaway was, “I can get a credit card!” To a broke college student who made about $13 a week working as an editor for the campus newspaper and who considered a meal at Taco Bell a luxury, this was an exciting development.
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Lesson No. 2: Always read the fine print and understand how your card works. Not knowing the difference between a credit card and a charge card, I got a basic American Express card and didn’t read the terms and conditions. I quickly bought $100 worth of clothes and was shocked (shocked!) when I was expected to pay the balance in full at the end of the month — as one must do with a charge card. After much worry, many phone calls from AmEx and several late fees, I managed to pay off my balance. I swore off cards.
Lesson No. 3: If you find yourself using a credit card to make up for regular cash shortfalls, you need to find a way to cut your expenses or make more money. Fast forward to my first real job. I was making about $25,000 a year as an entry-level newspaper reporter, and I never had enough money. I thought it would be OK to get a credit card since I had a job. I used it to make ends meet and, over several years, racked up a balance of about $3,000.
This time, my financially responsible mom stepped in and paid off my balance for me. That was extremely generous of her, but I might have learned more if I had to struggle to clean up my own mess.
Lesson No. 4: Don’t try to go it alone. A credit counselor or trusted friend can provide encouragement, ideas and accountability. After my mom bailed me out, I swore off credit cards again and started getting my finances in order. I did pretty well, and when I decided I wanted to buy a house, I went to a first-time homebuyer education program. I found my credit score wasn’t as great as it could be, partly because I had a “lack of revolving credit.” The educator suggested I get a credit card, buy a small item each month and pay the bill in full. I did. After I bought the house, though, I “needed” furniture. You know where this is headed. Soon my balance reached $5,000.
I looked at how much interest I was paying and told myself, “Never again.” Over the next few years, I budgeted to pay extra each month toward my credit card balance. I gave up little luxuries. Windfalls went to the credit card company — my old friend Discover — and the balance began to dwindle. I traded encouragement with a friend who was trying to pay down a similar balance.
Lesson No. 5: Know exactly how much you’re paying in interest and fees. Working to pay off that balance over about four years helped me learn why it was bad to carry a balance. I saw hundreds of dollars going to the credit card company for interest and fees. I calculated how much extra I was paying for the items I’d bought on credit. I thought about what else I could buy with that money. I felt the pain of debt.
I learned something from my experiences that no expert can teach you: What it feels like to be staring at a balance you can’t pay — the sick feeling you get when late fees pile up or when you’re so stressed out you can’t open your mail.
I admire people who manage to organize their finances without ever having those experiences. But, for me, they were good teachers that helped me learn how to, finally, use credit cards responsibly.
‘Want’ Money Can Help You Stick to Your Budget
Some people call it “mad” money, others call it “fun” money, and I call it “want” money. Whatever term you use, many personal finance experts say it’s important to have some money designated for splurges.
I love the definition of “mad money” from FreeDictionary.com: “Money for frivolous purchases or little luxuries; money for a bit of riotous living it up.”
Everyone needs some “riotous living it up” from time to time, right? Even if you’re trying to get out of debt, setting aside just a small amount of want money each month can help keep you from feeling deprived and prevent a scrimp-and-spend cycle that can lead to more debt.
But just like the rest of your money, mad money works best if you budget and plan rather than frittering it away. Here are some of the things I’ve learned, along with a few expert tips on making the most of want money:
1. Put your needs first. One thing I learned early on about want money, from one of my favorite personal finance books (“All Your Worth” by Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi) is that wants should never trump needs. Make sure your rent or mortgage, utilities and other needs are taken care of before you even think about allowing yourself some fun money. If you’re having trouble paying for needs without going into debt, you might need to meet with a credit counselor and make some big changes.
2. Define wants. Certain items, such as clothing, fall into a gray area. You might need to be brutally honest with yourself to determine whether a gray-area item is a want or need. For example, if my last pair of jeans has a hole in it, I need a new pair. But if I’m bored with all my summer shirts and want something pretty to wear Friday night? That’s a want. New underwear? Need. A cool pair of earrings from Etsy? Want. You get the idea.
3. Decide on an amount that works for you. In “All Your Worth,” the authors recommend allocating 30 percent of your budget to wants — with the rule that once your want money is gone, it’s gone. To some, that amount might seem high. My husband and I spent a lot of time discussing amounts — the number that felt right to him was much higher than the number I wanted to go with. We compromised by agreeing to go with a lower amount until we were out of debt, and we bumped it to the higher amount once our last loan was repaid.
4. Have a system. We have a bank transfer set up so that our want money gets deposited into both of our individual checking accounts on the day my husband gets paid. I also have an auto-transfer set up on the following day to funnel a small slice of my fun money toward saving up for travel.
5. Plan your purchases. At the beginning of each month, I usually sit down and make a list of all the things I’ve been wanting. That could be anything from fancy chocolate, to a new bike, to bully sticks for my dog. Once I’ve got my list of wants, I rank them in order of what I want the most and jot down the cost of each item. I make a plan to purchase my top-ranked items that month, while leaving a little extra for small impulse purchases or grabbing a cup of coffee out. I’ve found that I enjoy my want money much more when I plan rather than just buying something whenever the urge hits until my money is gone.
6. Shop around. With want money, it can be tempting to just buy on a whim because you do have the freedom to spend it however you want. But if you compare prices as you would with any other purchase, you can stretch your fun money further. For example, when personal finance blogger Crystal Stemberger from Budgeting in the Fun Stuff decided she had to have two weird garden gnomes, she checked prices and waited until she found a great deal. She recommends “holding off on splurges” until the price is right and writes that she enjoys her lawn ornaments even more because she got such a good deal.
And finally: Don’t judge yourself or your significant other on want-money purchases. Mad money is all about letting loose and having fun.
Credit Card Hiccups I Ran Into Traveling Abroad
I just got returned from a trip to Germany. As I wrote a couple months ago, my plans to get a prepaid card to take with me were thwarted — so I planned on using cash for everyday expenses and a card for the bigger stuff (and emergencies) if necessary. Germany is, for the most part, still a cash-based society, so my boyfriend (and traveling companion) and I were prepared to live nearly plastic-free for a week.
Overall, it was smooth sailing — and spending. We had plenty of money for beer while there and for chocolate to take home. We did, however, run into a few relatively tiny card-related snags:
Kiosks at train stations: Because we were spending nearly a week in Berlin, we opted for a seven-day transit pass, which gave us unlimited access to the city’s mass-transit system. Because we were trying to save our precious cash, I intended to buy our passes (26 euros each) with a credit card.
When I got to the underground station near our hostel, however, I found that the kiosk accepted only chip-and-PIN cards, the type of bank card used throughout Europe. It wanted nothing to do with my U.S.-issued magnetic-stripe card. The station was one of the underground system’s smaller ones, so there was no manned ticket booth. Plus, while I had enough cash on me, the kiosk accepted nothing above a 10 euro bill. I had nothing smaller than a 20 euro bill. So I walked the half mile back to the hostel and asked for change at the front desk.
I’m not the only traveler to run into this issue. Jesse Emspak wrote about a similar occurrence in Amsterdam for Discovery News. He learned, as I did, that the Visa and MasterCard logos on the side of a machine don’t always mean your Visa or MasterCard is welcome.
It’s not easy to use credit cards at hostels: We pre-paid our longest (six-night) hostel stay in Berlin. But we stayed in two other hostels for one night each. To conserve our cash, we decided to try using my credit card to pay for our accommodations. The first hostel, in a small town, did not take credit cards, which is common in smaller establishments, according to The New York Times’ Frugal Traveler blog. At the second hostel (where we stayed at the end of our trip), credit cards were welcome — in exchange for a 5 euro fee. We were low on cash by that point, so we surrendered the 5 euros.
Lack of ATMs: My bank partners with Deutsche Bank, meaning I get free ATM withdrawals from any of that bank’s ATMs. We carefully mapped out all of the bank’s locations in the cities we’d be visiting. After finding a Deutsche Bank ATM without a hitch in the center of the first small town we visited, we figured finding others in the two larger cities we’d be in would be no problem. My boyfriend suggested withdrawing extra money at that first ATM we found, but I was uncomfortable with carrying too much cash. That backfired.
We did not see a single Deutsche Bank ATM during the rest of the trip, until, ironically, we reached the airport to go home. Turns out, those Deutsche Bank locations we’d mapped out were bank locations — and not all banks have ATMs. We managed to find one with ATMs (after walking nearly a mile out of our way), only to get there after 5 p.m. The ATMs were locked inside the building.
With our vacation time limited, we decided hunting for free ATMs wasn’t the best use of our time. So we decided to flex our frugal muscles instead and rationed our remaining funds. In a real emergency, we could have pulled out money from one of the many ATMs owned by other banks. Those ATMs, however, would cost 1 percent of the amount withdrawn, a $5 out-of-network fee charged by my bank and a fee of 3 to 5 euros from the ATM itself. I found that cost a bit hard to justify.
During our last two days, we did run low on cash. Luckily, our hostel offered free breakfast and dinner — a welcome surprise that left the staff wondering why we were so excited about spaghetti. We ended our trip with 15 euros to spare.
Fortunately, none of these problems derailed our vacation. We were lucky we didn’t encounter any major, vacation-ruining problems, such as getting caught with no cash and having our cards stolen. If you’re planning on leaving the country with your card, check out this advice on traveling with plastic from around the blogosphere:
Money Under 30 warns about several inconveniences and risks the come with using cards overseas — from being charged extra to exceeding your credit limit.
20s Money points out some of the advantages of taking a card abroad.
Life then Finance lists some of the fees that come with swiping your card in foreign lands.
Nomadic Matt has some tips and tricks that will save you money (or even earn you money) while traveling, from playing with the exchange rate to hunting down free ATMs.
When it’s OK to Splurge
When you’re trying to stick to a strict budget, a splurge can seem like a bad idea. But is it? Not always.
In the middle of a big push to get out of debt, I recently bought a $500 Vitamix blender. I don’t normally drop that much cash on kitchen gadgets — in fact, I’m usually very frugal. My husband and I share an old Corolla, I get most of my books from the library, and I still wear a jacket I bought at a thrift store 10 years ago.
But the blender? I didn’t regret that purchase at all. Why? Well, for several reasons:
- It wasn’t an impulse purchase. I had wanted a high-powered blender for years, and I had done research, reading online customer reviews and comparing models and features. I also had planned to make sure the purchase fit into my budget.
- It serves a bigger purpose. The blender doesn’t just make yummy food — it helps me live a healthier lifestyle. Now I can put a handful of kale in my morning smoothie or whip up healthy veggie soups in minutes. I consider the purchase an investment in my health.
- I get a lot of use out of it. I use my blender every day — and sometimes multiple times a day. It’s not something that sits in the closet and gets plugged in once a year. When I know I’ll use something daily, I tend to think of how much it will cost me on a daily basis, or per use, rather than just looking at the sticker price.
So how do you know when to splurge and when to hold back and save? Here are three questions to ask:
1) How long will my purchase last me? The blog Personal Finance Advice recommends splurging on certain items you’d expect to last a long time, including clothing and tools. These are the certain types of purchases where quality really matters. In some cases, you could actually save money in the long run by spending more initially. For example, a $150 pair of well-made shoes might last you years while you could spend twice as much on lots of cheap footwear in the same amount of time.
2) How much happiness will I get from this? It’s good to think about how much pleasure you’ll get from your purchase before you plunk down the cash for it. If you think it through, you might find that a few smaller — and cheaper — splurges actually bring more enjoyment than one big one, according to money management site LearnVest.
3) Can I afford it? It’s important to plan for a splurge so it doesn’t bust your budget and leave you with regret. You definitely don’t want to come up short on rent money because you bought a fancy grill on a whim. After all, a grill is no good if money is so tight you can’t even afford to buy burgers.
So, what’s the best way to splurge within your budget? Earmark part of your discretionary cash each month for fun and enjoyable purchases, LearnVest recommends. For bigger purchases, save a bit from several months’ allotted “fun” money.
If you follow these tips, you should be able to fit some indulgences into your budget without feeling bad or breaking the bank.
6 Ways Technology is Changing Cards
Although credit cards aren’t morphing as fast as, say, mobile phones, they’ve come a long way since the merchant cards businesses used to offer customers a century ago. And, thanks to security concerns and mobile technology, those changes might accelerate.
Here are six ways that technology is changing how credit cards look — and how you might use them.
1. More advanced security features
Because of the threat of identity theft, security is a big concern with credit cards — and credit card makers have decided to use the best of technology to fight thieves. For example, in 2012, MasterCard in Singapore introduced a card with an LCD display and numeric keypad meant to help secure purchases made by card holders. This feature requires an authentication code for every purchase. With a uniquely generated authentication code, identity thieves will now need more than just the numbers on the card to make unauthorized purchases.
A less sophisticated but more prevalent security feature is called the CCV or “credit card verification” value. You’ve no doubt been asked for the three- or four-digit number on the back of your card. This prevents scammers from using it when all they have is the number on the front.
2. Mobile payment apps
Using a mobile payment system instead of your actual credit card is a product of combined technologies that allow you to use your phone, instead of your card, to make purchases.
To start, you link a payment card to the app. After that, the apps (which include Google Wallet, Isis and Square Wallet) function in different ways. Some rely on near field communication (NFC) technology, which allows your phone to communicate wirelessly with the payment terminal. Others require you to “check in” to a business to temporarily synch your phone with the store’s payment system. Others allow you to generate a QR code or a barcode on your phone’s screen, which the store’s employees can then scan.
3. Unembossed credit cards
You may have noticed many of today’s credit cards have a different look. Manufacturers have embraced the unembossed look to offer better security and service to their clients. This means no more raised numbers and letters on your card. Aside from increasing protection against identity thieves (you can’t make a manual impression of the card), this technology also results in more efficient service. Instead of waiting for days to get your card, you can get it right after completing your application. MasterCard and Visa are two examples of manufacturers that now use the flat card system.
4. Chip-and-PIN smart cards
Although rare in the United States, chip-and-PIN payment card technology is commonplace in Europe. Chip-and-PIN cards use embedded chips as opposed to magnetic stripes. You don’t swipe your card to pay; instead, you insert it into a slot and need to enter a personal identification number. The cards are also tougher for thieves to clone than magnetic stripe cards are. Some “hybrid” cards feature both magnetic stripe technology and the modern embedded chips.
Terminals accepting chip-and-PIN cards are still rare in the U.S. — but the credit card networks are pushing merchants to upgrade in the name of payment security. In 2012, Visa, MasterCard and American Express began offering merchants incentives to do so.
5. Faster ways to pay
PayPass and payWave are technologies used by MasterCard and Visa, respectively, that can be used when buying items that cost less than $100. The technology can be embedded in cards and even key chains. All that you need to do is tap or wave your card over the terminal and you’re done. You don’t need to enter a PIN or attach your signature. That’s why the technology is often described as “tap and go.”
6. Credit cards go social
Credit card issuers are starting to embrace social media in interesting ways. For example, American Express offers card members special deals and savings if they sync their card with Twitter. AmEx has also launched a free app that allows card members to send and receive money via Facebook. Other card networks and issuers offer customer service via Facebook and Twitter and use social media to break news to their followers about deals and giveaways.
These are just some of the more popular technologies integrated into credit cards. As credit card issuers and app developers continue to think up more ideas for making credit card life easier, you are bound to see more in the coming years.
Guest blogger Rob Berger is the founder of the popular personal finance blog, the Dough Roller. Founded in 2007, the Dough Roller covers all aspects of personal finance, including credit, debt, investing, real estate and insurance. Rob is also a contributor at U.S. News, MSN Money, and Business Insider.
You can find him on Twitter, Facebook and Google+.
What Dieting Can Teach You about Budgeting
I’ve been trying to lose a few pounds, so I’ve recently started tracking calories for the first time ever. Yes, really. In the past, I was drawn to those diets that advertise no calorie counting — even if I had to eat grapefruit or cabbage soup all day long, at least I didn’t have to quantify everything I put in my mouth. But it turns out calorie counting is pretty easy.
Now that I’ve started tracking what I eat, I’ve discovered a simple truth: Dieting is very similar to budgeting. Here are some ways that your knowledge and experience with managing money can help you lose weight, or vice versa:
1) Daily attention pays off – If you’re trying to keep your spending or your weight in check, it helps to monitor your actions on a daily basis. After you’ve made sane spending (or healthy eating) a habit, you might be able to cut back to checking in once a week or so to make sure you’re still on track. Before that, though, paying close attention is key. That’s because if you mess up for one day, it’s relatively easy to fix your mistake. If you veer off course for a whole week or month, you’ve got a bigger problem.
2) Tracking tools can really help – When it comes to finances and food, clarity is crucial. That means knowing how much you’re spending on what, and how much you’re really eating. For money, online tools such as Mint.com can really help, though I use a spreadsheet. For food, I use MyFitnessPal.com to track my calories and exercise. It’s like having an online dashboard for my body, and it helps avoid the vagueness that can lead to weight gain — and going broke: “I think I ate one serving of chocolate, maybe.” Or, “Oh, all of those shirts were on sale.” GeniusKick.com has a list of seven money-tracking tools. WomenandWeight.com offers a list of the best online calorie- and fitness-tracking sites.
3) A splurge is OK, if you plan for it – There are many ways to splurge, both money-wise and food-wise, without derailing your progress. I allow myself a certain amount of “want” money each month. I make a list of the things I want most, then prioritize. I always leave extra for little splurges, such as a latte. With a diet, planning is important, too. If I know I’m going out to a restaurant one day, I’ll keep my other meals light and look up calorie counts ahead of time. MyDollarPlan.com has tips on how to splurge while staying on a budget. And Shape.com offers a guide to how to indulge while still losing weight.
4) You have to make it a lifestyle – If you feel deprived, it’s not going to work. Restricting yourself too much or thinking of a change as temporary can lead to the starve-then-binge cycle. Instead, it’s important to figure out how you can manage to live within your means (or a reasonable calorie count) and not feel miserable. The answer might be different for different people, so you have to find what works for you. Daily Worth offers a do-it-yourself financial planning guide, and The Mayo Clinic offers tips on how to integrate healthy eating and weight loss into your lifestyle.
If you apply the same simple principles to money and weight management, you could end up in a position many would envy: fit and rich.
Did your Parents Talk to You Enough about Money?
Do you wish your parents had talked to you more about money? Kids today feel the same way.
A March 2013 T. Rowe Price survey asked kids between the ages of 8 and 14 which money topics they wish their parents talked more about. Bank accounts and credit cards topped the list, with 34 percent of kids wishing their parents were more open about these topics. Money management was a close second at 29 percent.
I must have been lucky. My parents were pretty hands-on when it came to molding my personal finance education. While I may not have been educated about those two topics by the time I was 14 (the survey’s cut-off age), I learned about both from my parents before I left high school.
I got my credit education when I was 18, when my dad generously co-signed a credit card for me. He taught me how to use it — and how not to use it. He explained that the card had a credit limit, and that I needed to check online (or call my bank) regularly to see how close I was to it. He also emphasized that, whenever I charged something, I was to make sure that there was enough in my checking account at the end of the month to pay it off. In other words, the credit card was a tool for building good credit — not an excuse to spend more. I admit I haven’t always been perfect when it comes to thinking ahead before swiping. But when I did load up my card for the occasional road trip, I felt a “What would Dad think?” pang of guilt — and my credit slip-ups have been minor and few.
I learned about banks and money management even earlier — this time from my mom. When I got my first job at 16, my mom asked me what I was going to do with my paychecks.
“Cash them?” I ventured. That’s what my friends did.
“We’re going to the bank tomorrow,” my mom responded.
We found a bank that passed on my way home from work and opened a checking account. Then we made a plan. Every payday, I’d stop at the bank, hand the teller my paycheck and get no more than $50 (the amount we calculated would be enough for lunch a few times a week and a reasonable amount of fun during the weekends) back in cash. The rest would remain in the bank until I needed it.
With Mother’s Day in mind, there’s another interesting finding in the survey: Kids tend to approach Mom (59 percent) — rather than Dad (38 percent) — with questions about money. Why the difference? The kids surveyed said Mom was more likely to be in charge of family finances than Dad.
Whichever parent kids approach for money advice, it’s important that parent knows what to say. Luckily, the personal finance blogosphere has plenty of tips for parents who aren’t sure how to become good money role models:
Make uncomfortable discussions fun: Do you find it awkward talking about money? Having a serious, sit-down talk with your kids might be tough, then. Melissa Batai from the personal finance blog GoGirl Finance suggests breaking out the board games. Monopoly and Life both have money-management elements and can help you segue into conversations about why it’s important to have money for emergencies — and why it’s important to save up for the big purchases that could help you win the game.
Go to the bank: In a guest post on the blog Money Saving Mom, blogger and author Grace Pamer recommends setting kids up with a bank account as early as third or fourth grade. Because banks don’t provide the visual reward that a full piggybank does, it’s vital for parents to get kids accustomed to and comfortable with financial institutions.
Use training wheels when it comes to introducing plastic: Jason, founder of the blog Frugal Dad, has an aged-based lesson plan for teaching kids about money. In it, he recommends easing kids into plastic by getting them a debit card by the time they’re 16. This establishes the connection between plastic and the “real” money that resides in the bank account –without forcing parents to tie their credit to their children’s via a co-signing or authorized user arrangement.
Make them save: When teens get their first jobs, setting money aside may not be their first instinct. Even teens who start working in high school often begin their adult lives with no savings. Justin, founder of the blog The Frugal Path suggests charging your teens a small amount of “rent” once they’ve gotten their first jobs but are still living under your roof. Save that money on their behalf. Then give it to them when they leave home. Forcing teens to live on less than they earn and then presenting them with all that money when they really need it will, hopefully, reinforce the value of saving.
Which valuable money lessons did your parents teach you? And which ones do you wish they’d taught you?