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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?
Cash Only vs. Credit Only: Which Saves You More Money?
For those looking to save money, some personal finance experts recommend a strict cash-only spending strategy, sometimes referred to as an “envelope system.” Others extol the virtues of credit cards — used responsibly of course.
So, which is better? I’ve used both. When my husband was in grad school, at the height of the recession, we used the envelope system. Now, we’re experimenting with putting all of our expenses on a rewards card to get airline miles. I’ve learned that each method has its pros and cons:
Cash Only (aka the envelope system)
I have really good memories of the few years we spent using the envelope system. This method of managing money involves creating a budget, taking cash out of the bank and dividing it into envelopes for each expense category. For example, if you’ve allotted $100 a week for food, you’d put that much cash in an envelope labeled “groceries.” You might have another envelope for toiletries and yet another for clothes. Here’s what I liked about this system:
- You can’t overspend. You’re forced to live within your means, and this provides peace of mind. You don’t wake up at 3 a.m. wondering if you forgot to log a debit card purchase and got an overdraft fee. You can’t spend money you don’t have.
- You’re forced to get creative. You can’t just throw money at a problem. Say you forgot a friend’s birthday. Instead of feeling like you have to shell out $50 you don’t have to grab a gift card, you’ll have to brainstorm. Maybe you already have all the ingredients to bake the perfect birthday cake.
- Money is more tangible. Being vague about money (“Oh, I think I have about $500 in my checking account.”) will get you in trouble every time. The envelope system doesn’t allow you to be iffy. You count and handle your money every time you part with it. You can see exactly how much is left.
And here are a few minuses:
- You might feel awkward. When we used this system, I felt uncomfortably old school as I pulled a crumpled envelope out of my purse and counted out pennies while someone clutching a credit card waited behind me in the checkout line.
- It lacks flexibility. You get paid tomorrow but want to splurge on a nice evening with your significant other tonight? Sorry! You’ll have to dig for spare change and hope you find enough coins to buy a $3 bottle of red from Aldi. The flipside: you’ll be really thrilled when you do — maybe happier than if you just plunked down your credit card for a nice bottle of Bordeaux.
- It doesn’t work for everything. There are just some purchases where you must use plastic. For example, when you order plane tickets or rent a car.
If you’re interested in trying the envelope system, WiseBread.com has a good guide to getting started.
The credit-only system
Here are the pros of the credit-only system:
- Extreme convenience. It’s so easy to just pull out plastic and swipe. There are no bills to be counted and, as long as you’re not near your credit limit, no wondering if you have enough money on you.
- You can build up rewards. It’s nice to know that you’re building up cash back or airline miles every time you make a routine purchase. It gives even the worst expenses — think paying the plumber to unstop your toilet — a silver lining.
- You feel more affluent and secure. OK, this is both a plus and a minus. I definitely feel richer when I swipe a card. On the other hand, that’s exactly what can get consumers into trouble and lead to overspending.
With that in mind, here are the minuses of living a credit-only life:
- Record keeping can be a hassle. With the envelope system, you just open an envelope and count the cash. Simple. With credit, you’re spending money you should pay off at the end of the month, and it’s essential to keep track and record purchases while making sure you have enough money in the bank to cover your bill at the end of the month.
- It can lead to debt. When you pay with plastic, you’re essentially spending your money in advance. It takes vigilance to make sure you spend only what you can pay off in full.
The upshot: The credit-only system can be good for consumers who are already on very solid ground financially. As Get Rich Slowly points out, you should think about using rewards cards for your expenses only if you have a good credit score and no high-interest debt.
Can You Have a Social Life if you Don’t Spend?
With a trip abroad just a few weeks away (and my pricey new hobby), it’s extra important for me to save all I can. The trip in particular is making me acutely aware of all the little leaks in my bank account — every drink I buy in the next few weeks is one less beer I’ll be able to buy in Germany. So I’ve declared a spending freeze on all non-essentials.
The problem is when you live in a city known for its excellent food and fun nightlife, most socialization revolves around enjoying it. And once you’re out and about, dinner easily turns into coffee and dessert, which turns into a night on the town, which turns into brunch plans for the next day.
Lucky for me, the personal finance blogosphere is full of advice for those who want to avoid spending without avoiding their friends. Here’s the best advice I’ve found — and some that I’ve tried.
Be honest. The blog Financial Highway emphasizes that those who truly care about you will understand if you say that you’re on a strict budget — even if you have to repeat yourself a few times. Krystal Yee, a blogger at Give Me Back My Five Bucks, points out that your friends have probably been in your situation as well — and will probably happily suggest cheap, or free, activities.
Because my strict spending freeze is only temporary, I’m not directly informing people that my money is on lockdown. Instead, I’m much more likely to ….
Propose another activity. You can only turn down your friends so many times before they start getting concerned — or stop calling altogether. So proposing an activity within your means can keep both your budget and friendships intact. Can’t afford dinner? Make plans for (just one) after-dinner drink, personal finance site Wise Bread recommends. Yee suggests offering to host gatherings to avoid, say, watching a much-anticipated game at a pub or bar. If friends want to collaborate on the food and beverages, all the better.
This week, I managed to avoid an outing to a cafe for coffee and ice cream by telling a friend I had a ton of tea and hot chocolate at my apartment and asking her to “help me get rid of it.” We spent a few hours catching up without spending a dime. My boyfriend and I have also been hosting weekly viewing parties for a show a bunch of our friends love. That way, I get to see several people at once without the pressure to “buy a round.”
Prepare. I make every effort to prepare meals ahead of time. It’s a lot easier to say “no” to a dinner invitation when you’ve got some chimichurri (that you spent an hour making) all ready to smother the meat you’ve already defrosted. An empty fridge can make it too tempting to grab your debit card and head to a restaurant. Mint has some great tips on planning and pre-preparing meals.
Distract yourself. Green Panda Tree House, a personal finance blog aimed at 20-somethings, suggests using something you really want to distract yourself from things you kind of want at the moment. If you’re focused on a big reward, small sacrifices become effortless.
The other week, I placed a guide book and some maps of the city I’ll be visiting on my coffee table. Last weekend, I had just texted a friend, “Sorry, staying in tonight,” after receiving an invite for pub trivia (one of my favorite activities). I was feeling a bit lonely, so I picked up the guide book and started paging through. I soon found a ton of activities that would cost me the same amount as a pitcher of beer and an appetizer at trivia and, suddenly, loneliness was replaced with excitement.
Once I’m back from my trip, I’ll let up a bit. But this spending lockdown has taught me some good habits I hope to continue. While I’ll probably say “yes” to trivia night, I hope to continue preparing meals in advance — and maybe even getting so good at cooking that I won’t miss meals out as much.
Should you Use an Inheritance to Pay off Debt?
Two weeks ago, we were staring down a $57,000-plus student loan. We had a plan to put most of our extra money toward this whopper of a debt to wipe it out over the next few years. But it was going to be a long haul.
Today, we are debt free. This unexpected turn in our debt repayment journey came via an inheritance we got from my husband’s grandma. As the blog Frugal Dad points out, there’s often a lot of emotion wrapped up in getting an inheritance because you’ve just lost a loved one. It’s not always easy to decide what to do with it, especially when your decision-making skills are clouded by sadness, guilt or other emotions.
So, how do you know if you should use an inheritance to pay off your debt? For us, it was an easy decision: The loan had been a burden for years with a staggering 9 percent interest rate. That meant we were paying Sallie Mae more than $350 per month in interest alone. It was very hard to dig out of this debt — and suddenly we had the chance to erase it.
If you’re considering paying off debt with an inheritance, here are some factors to consider:
1) How did you get into debt in the first place? As Frugal Dad points out, if you got into debt by, say, going on shopping sprees with your credit cards, paying off your current debt without changing your ways isn’t going to help much.
2) Do you have an emergency fund in place? Not everyone gets into debt by buying one — or 100 — pairs of Manolo Blahniks. For many people, it’s that car repair they didn’t plan on or a kid getting sick. If you don’t have an emergency fund, it would be wise to create one first, then look at paying off debt.
3) Would it be smart to meet with a financial adviser? If you’re not sure what’s the best use of your money, it’s probably a good move to meet with a fee-only financial adviser, Consumer Reports recommends. You can find an adviser who works only for fees paid by clients — no commissions from financial services companies for selling you products — by visiting the website of the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors, an association of fee-only advisers.
4) Should you wait a little while? As personal finance writer Craig Guillot points out on his blog Some Stuff About Money, many people make rash decisions about inheritance money. Like winning the lottery, it’s easy to make big mistakes when a large, unexpected sum of money is involved. There’s nothing to lose by taking some time to think through all of your options and crunch the numbers. If you go this route, consider taking this advice from Consumer Reports: Put the money in a separate savings account and not your main checking account, so that it’s not too easy to spend.
How to Afford an Expensive Hobby
Frugality often takes center stage on this site, and we’ve provided an array of articles that encourage readers — especially those with debt — to constantly carve the excess from their budgets.
But what if you have an expensive hobby — something you enjoy that’s worth spending extra on? Running marathons, riding horses and tinkering with old cars cost money – and unless you’re wealthy, paying for your passion will often involve making room not only in your life, but in your budget.
That’s what I’ve been doing lately. After my doctor lectured me (again) on my sedentary lifestyle (I edit for a living and make excuses to avoid the gym in my spare time), I decided to train in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. I attended one free introductory session, and I was sold. It’s difficult and exhausting, but it held my interest in a way that no other physical activity has.
But training does not come cheap. I want to train at least twice a week for 12 months, which will cost me roughly $1,300 over the next year.
Cramming this into my budget is extra challenging because my financial adviser has me on an aggressive saving regimen. The idea is to take advantage of these last several years before I have a house and the need for a new car, and save like crazy while I still can. I’ve seen the savings progress I’ve made, and I don’t want to compromise that.
So, last weekend I took a good look at my latest bank statements with the intention to make $1,300 worth of room over the next year for my new hobby. Three of my biggest non-essential expenses were the easiest to cut:
My storage unit
I was paying $35 a month to store stuff, mostly books, that I haven’t looked at in two years. So I cleaned out the storage unit, donated a bunch of stuff from around my apartment to make room for it and told the storage company we were through. That will save me $420 this year. Plus I earned $57 selling the books at Half Price Books.
A few months ago, my boyfriend and I decided to get cable to take advantage of a really good promotion. We each now pay $30 a month. We have agreed to cut the cord as soon as the show we are hooked on ends its season in May. This move will save me $330 over the next year.
My parents live a plane ride away, and I always visit during the summer for our family reunion. Tickets to where they live usually cost around $300. I have lots of rewards points for my airline of choice sitting around (more than enough for a round trip). But because I usually fly home on weekends during the summer, redeeming them is nearly impossible. So I booked my ticket this week (instead of waiting until the last minute) and opted for an early morning flight on a convoluted route to get a rewards seat — and saved $307 dollars.
With three painless cuts, I’m saving just over $1,000. Not bad, but still not enough. So I’m also limiting myself to one meal out at a restaurant per week (I’ve been eating out about three times a week over the past three months, according to my bank statements). I’ve now got enough frozen meat, vegetables and brown rice stocked up to last me months, and my training will probably go better if I’m eating healthier, anyway.
Looking to take up an expensive hobby? Here’s some advice from the blogosphere:
Try before buying: If you’re interested in something that requires pricey equipment, become an expert before opening your wallet, Eyes on the Dollar recommends. If possible, rent equipment (or buy used equipment) to find out what works best for you before buying new stuff.
If you’re passionate about something, make it happen: In a guest blog on Man Vs. Debt, the site’s community manager, Jan Otto, estimates she’s spent $4,000 on tae kwon do over the years. If your income doesn’t stretch quite far enough, Otto recommends a side hustle like selling unneeded items online, or offering your services as a Web designer or tutor.
Try to find budget-friendly alternatives: You don’t need to sacrifice the activities you enjoy if you can find more cost-effective ways of doing them, according to Enemy of Debt. Share equipment with a friend and split the cost. Or scour eBay or yard sales for less-expensive supplies.
Say “no” if you can’t afford it: If you have debt, you can’t afford a pricey hobby, according to Aryn of the blog Sound Money Matters, whose expensive pastime of choice is stained glass crafting. Even when you’re out of debt, she recommends brown-bagging your lunch, canceling the cable (you won’t have time for it if you’re truly concentrating on your hobby) and pooling supplies with friends to make room in your budget.
Tone it down: Find out what you like most about your hobby and stick to that. For example, according to Trent from The Simple Dollar, you might cut out the competitive aspect. He blogs about shelling out a lot of money on competitions for the card game Magic: The Gathering. Once he stopped competing and started playing only socially, it was no longer necessary to spend money on new cards and accommodations for competitions.
Even if I have to divert a couple hundred dollars from my savings in the end, I think it will be worth it. I’ll be doing something I enjoy that will motivate me to become more physically — and financially — fit.
Forget Cash-Only: We Just Went Plastic-Only
My husband and I recently made a big change in the way we handle our finances: We’re now using an airline rewards card for almost all our monthly expenses.
We used to pay bills right from our bank account via online banking and paid cash for almost everything else. Making the switch to credit was a tough decision, and we’re still not sure it’s the right one.
On one hand, I’ve always envied cardholders who rack up airline miles by simply cycling all of their regular expenses through a card and paying the bill in full each month. It seems like the savvy thing to do: There’s free money out there, so why not take it? Also, I love to dream about all the travel experiences we’ll get to have — from watching tango in Argentina to going on a safari in Zimbabwe — with free plane tickets.
Now, back to reality: I’m a personal finance reporter, and I’ve interviewed many experts on the psychology of money. I know that multiple studies show consumers tend to spend more when they pay with plastic than when they pay cash. Why? For one, a study by researchers at the University of Kansas and the University of South Carolina, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, shows that consumers who pay with cash tend to think more about the cost of an item, while those who pay with credit focus on the benefits of the product they’re purchasing. So, if you’re buying a sweater with cash, you’re probably thinking, “Wow, $75? Is this sweater really worth it?” Pull out your card, and you’re thinking about how great it will look on you.
Plus, as this blog from FreeMoneyFinance.com points out:
- Money spent via a credit card doesn’t feel as real as cash in your pocket. Instead of losing your money at the moment you buy something, you know you won’t part with it until you pay your bill. So, it can be less painful to use credit.
- Credit cards make it easier to spend money, even if you don’t have it in your pocket. If you go to a restaurant with $100 cash, you know you can’t spend a penny more — and you have to factor the tip and tax into that, too. You’ll be doing calculations in your head as you decide whether to order an appetizer or a second drink, rather than just handing over your card.
So, would it be better — though much less exciting — to simply continue with our old system and save up for trips? I don’t know. After all, everyone wants to think that they’ll be the one to beat the system, right?
I have to admit, I already feel a little bit of a pull to spend more. If we find that we are overspending with plastic, we might try using a hybrid system in the future. We could use the card to pay only for items and services we’d absolutely need anyway — vet care, flights, toilet paper, appliances, that sort of thing — and use cash for things such as clothing and grocery shopping, where it’s easy to blur the line between need and want.
But, for now, it sure is fun to imagine flying around the world for free.
How Much Do Status Symbols Cost You?
I didn’t get a smartphone until just over a year ago. This meant I was walking around in 2012 with a phone that flipped open and could be used for nothing except phone calls and text messages (of limited length). Yet I paid less than $30 a month for the thing, which was good enough for me — until it wasn’t.
My little yellow and silver phone, which came free with the cellphone contract I signed in 2006, increasingly became an object of ridicule. Then I lost it in an airport in early 2012. And if this doesn’t tell you how undesirable my phone was: Someone turned it into the lost and found. I made a joke to the airport security guy about how I almost wished it had stayed missing so that I wouldn’t have to feel guilty about upgrading.
“I haven’t had a phone like this since high school,” the airport employee said, laughing. “I gave it to my grandma, like, three years ago.”
When my own father (who raised me to cling to outdated technology for the sake of frugality), got a smartphone, I decided it was time. My old phone worked just fine and cost me less than half of what my contract costs now, but I was embarrassed to take it out of my purse, was convinced others were judging me for it and was sick of the modern-day isolation that comes from hanging out with friends who are constantly whipping out their phones to do important things.
In other words, I gave into my desire for a status symbol.
Turns out, smartphones are one of the top modern status symbols, according to Quidco, a cash-back and voucher site in the UK. Its March 2013 survey also revealed tablet computers, huge TVs, swanky gym memberships, dog walkers, hot tubs and a certain handbag I’d never heard of that costs $1,500 are the hottest items and services purchased, not out of necessity, but to impress others.
New technology is particularly good at getting people to part with their money, according to this March 2012 South University article. While many purchase decisions are fueled by advertising, those who purchase new technology are more influenced by wanting to fit in with their social groups. In the article, Paul Boag, founder of Web design company Headscape, admitted his own decision to get a Mac was motivated by the desire to be like those he admired.
“Emulation is a big part of the equation,” he said. “Technology is a way to aspire to the status of others or associate oneself with a particular group. It is also a way to impress others.”
If you can afford it, purchasing status symbols isn’t a problem. Yet, according to research that appeared in the Journal of Experimental Psychology in 2010, status symbols can often get those who can’t afford them to take their eyes off their financial pictures. That’s because the acquisition of status symbols is related in disturbing ways to your self-esteem. The research found that when participants got negative feedback, they were more willing to buy goods that conveyed status. And it wasn’t the cheap fixes they were looking to purchase, but those who felt that their self-worth was being attacked specifically sought out expensive, status-building items.
I’m starting to understand why that airport employee’s jibe made me head straight for the store.
Have you ever splurged on new technology, even when an old gadget was working fine? How do you fight the impulse to buy a status symbol?
Here are some blogs from others who have struggled with the issue:
Saving Advice lists 10 “lifestyle investments” to avoid.
Free Money Finance describes how overwhelming that “gotta-have-it” feeling can be.
Sustain, Create and Flow explains how a frugal lifestyle itself can be a status symbol.
Squawkfox expresses annoyance at the constant push to upgrade.
Being Frugal warns about the danger of tying your worth to the things you own.