Does the Personal Finance Industry Talk Down to Women?
Do women get short shrifted when it comes to their money management skills?
That may just be the case. According to a February 2013 survey conducted by the nonprofit American Consumer Credit Counseling, “nearly 80 percent of women in relationships bear the responsibility of managing household finances” — often without any help from their significant others.
But women still get a bad rap when it comes to money management, and it seems that the personal finance industry is happy to play along. In her recently released book, “Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry,” Helaine Olen documents the personal finance industry’s dim view of women’s personal money management skills.
According to Olen, even the women in the personal finance industry are doubtful about their fellow females’ personal money management skills. In her book, she describes how Joan Cleveland, Prudential Life Insurance’s vice president of business development, presented results of Prudential’s annual survey on women and money at a press conference in New York.
“Given the complexity of the financial products that are available to women,” Cleveland told the crowd. “… they really need to be encouraged to seek out that financial advice from a professional.”
Even respected financial advisers reinforce old, inaccurate stereotypes that women are intimidated by financial matters, too emotional about financial decision-making and simply unable to handle financial risk as well as their male counterparts.
In her best-selling book “Women and Money,” personal finance guru Suze Orman poses the following question: “Why is it that women, who are so competent in all other areas of their lives, cannot find the same competence when it comes to matters of money?”
Unfortunately, women are playing against a stacked financial deck. Women, Olen writes in her book, tend to earn less than men. They also need to make that smaller income last longer because they live, on average, about seven years longer than men. Then there’s the societal expectation that women will care for children and elderly family members, which costs them 11 years of work and $325,000 over the course of their lives, according to Wells Fargo numbers Olen cites in her book.
Adding insult to injury, being a woman may cost more, too. According to a 2010 Consumer Reports investigation, women are charged 30 percent to 50 percent more for the female versions of everyday items such as shaving cream, haircuts and even pain relievers. In addition to getting charged more for little things, women are more likely to be charged more for the big things, too, such as homes and car loans, according to Consumer Federation of America.
So why isn’t the financial services industry addressing the very real challenges women face? Perhaps there’s simply money to be made by perpetuating these stereotypes. If financial professionals can reinforce the myth of women’s financial incompetence, women would just pay more often for their services, right?
Women, however, have started to resent their treatment by financial professionals in recent years. In fact, a 2009 survey of women by the Boston Consulting Group showed 70 percent of women had complained about inadequate treatment from their financial professionals, citing “being talked to like an infant” as one of their loudest complaints.
“The financial services industry presents itself as our savior,” Olen recently told Salon.com. “But by doing that, it has to confirm our cultural bias that we are alone responsible for our financial fates … They tell us we are women, we are so strong because we do so much more around the home and work than men, but yet we are financial illiterates who have no clue.”
The bottom line is that women are far more financially adept than the financial services industry gives them credit for but continue to be treated as incapable of managing their own financial futures.
So, we’d like to pose the following questions:
- What can be done to turn the tide in the financial industry services industry for women?
- For women seeking money management advice, have you had to deal with any condescending or patronizing financial services professionals in the past?
- For married women, who handles the financial decision-making, yourself or your spouse?
- Are you more comfortable making financial management decisions on your own, with a spouse/partner or with a money management professional?
- What are you doing now to proactively manage your financial future?
Looking forward to your comments.
This blog is a guest contribution from Bill Hazelton, managing director of www.CreditCardAssist.com.
CreditCardAssist is a credit card comparison site that offers advice and tips on balance transfers, cash back rewards programs and all things credit-related.
You can also find Bill on Google+, Twitter and Facebook.
Don’t leave your wallet home just yet — mobile payments have a ways to go
“Ma’am, I don’t know what that is, and nobody has asked me that question before,” the cashier at my favorite local sandwich shop told me. “We take cash or card.”
That was the response I got after asking if I could pay for my sandwich using Square Wallet, a mobile payment app. The deli was on my app’s list of local merchants accepting Square Wallet and, the moment I parked my car, I got an alert welcoming me to the establishment and welcoming me to use the app (I’d configured the app to engage automatically when I was near the restaurant). And yet, when I tried to pay, it was a no-go.
Mobile payments, which allow you to sync a payment card to the app and pay with your smartphone, have been one of the most buzzed-about developments in the payments industry the past couple years. The big contenders (Square, PayPal, Isis and Google Wallet) may differ slightly, but their advertised message is the same: Leave your wallet at home.
The apps have a lot of ground to cover to make that a reality, however. For one thing, it remains to be seen whether consumers are willing to turn their phones into wallets. A March 2013 Federal Reserve survey found that while half of smartphone users had used their phones for mobile banking in the past 12 months, just 6 percent had used their phones to make a point-of-sale payment. Overall, less than a fourth of consumers (22 percent) said they’d be interested in giving mobile payments a try, and 36 percent said they found it more convenient to pay via other methods, such as cash and plastic.
Then there’s the question of whether enough businesses will allow customers to use their phones as a payment method. If early adopters are getting rebuffed by cashiers, the technology could stall. To find out how easy it would be to use mobile payments in the wild, I took the technology for a spin this week. Because I’m an iPhone user, Google Wallet and the heavily-advertised Isis were out (they require near field communication, a wireless technology enabled only on select Android devices). That left me with PayPal and Square.
Late last year, PayPal partnered with software company ERPLY to let PayPal users use their phones to pay at the register with funds in their PayPal accounts. Customers use their phones to check in when they enter a business that uses the technology. Their profile and photo pop up on the cash register’s screen, and customers simply say their name at checkout to complete the transaction, no swiping necessary.
I already have a PayPal account — and a balance of $25 in it — so I was eager to use the app. But I hit a dead end almost immediately. There are only a few businesses (a salon, a rug store and a nutrition store) near me that use the service — and none sold things I wanted to buy.
Square Wallet also uses the check-in concept — when you enter a store, you can open a tab and give your name at the register to check out. You can also use the more streamlined “hands free” option to enable certain businesses to open your tab automatically when you’re within 100 meters. That lets you walk in, order and pay with your name without digging for your phone or pressing buttons.
The first place I tried was the deli where I confused the poor cashier. I called the next day and spoke with a manager about my experience, and she explained that the restaurant had taken the initial steps to use Square (which is why my app was picking it up), but hadn’t integrated it with their payments system.
“Not many people ask us to use it,” she told me. “We’re hoping to have everything hooked up in the future.”
My second stop was Starbucks, which struck a highly publicized deal with Square last summer. Starbucks isn’t using the hands-free checkout system yet. You have to pull up the app on your phone, push the “pay here” button and show the resulting QR code to the cashier for scanning. Given the publicity surrounding Square’s partnership with Starbucks, I figured the process would be smooth. What actually happened was this:
Me: Hi, can I pay with Square here?
Barista: Wait, pay with what?
He called a coworker over.
“She’s got this app on her phone called ‘Squared,’ ” he explained. “Do we do that?”
“I don’t know,” said the coworker. “But we can try.”
We all huddled around my phone. I generated the QR code. The barista picked up a scanner from beside the register and took aim.
“Hey, it worked!” he said. “That’s pretty cool. You said it was called Square?”
I still wanted to find a place that let me use the hands-free feature, so I headed over to a local ice cream shop that popped up in Square’s locator. It was here that I got the authentic Square experience.
“Hi,” I said as I walked in. “Can I use Square here?”
“Are you Kristin?” the cashier asked, turning the iPad they were using as a register toward me. There was my picture.
I asked if many customers are using Square. The cashier told me it happens every once in a while, but not often.
“It’s weird though,” she admitted. “It picks up on your phone when it’s nearby, so when people who have the app are at the bar next door, their faces pop up on our screen. It’s funny how you know they’re nearby and know their names.”
When mobile payments work the way they’re supposed to, they’re convenient and fun. However, I’m not totally sold on the hands-free automatic check-ins. What’s to prevent a cashier from putting someone else’s order under my tab if I happen to be next door? Square’s chief operating officer addressed that concern in this New York Times blog and pointed that the same thing can happen if you have an open bar tab and the bartender charges the wrong card. Still, I think I’ll disable the hands-free option and check in manually at each business in the future, instead of letting the app automatically open a tab in my name when I’m close by.
My other concern about mobile payments: They may be a little too quick and painless. Studies show that paying with cash helps you make more judicious decisions when shopping. If you’ve ever been shocked at the total on your bar tab at the end of the night, you know how easy it is to spend more if you don’t have to reach for your wallet for every purchase.
For now, though, I’m keeping my debit card synced with Square. I like to leave my wallet at home when I go jogging, and I’d like the option of grabbing an ice cream.
Here are some useful blogs and articles about mobile payments — and the experiences of others who have put them to the test:
Fast Company tried out Square at various Starbucks and confused a slew of employees.
Defend your Dollars has some advice for protecting your personal information while using mobile payments.
The Big Ideas Blog breaks down the technologies behind different mobile payment platforms.
The Lookout Blog lists some mobile payment app safety tips.
Gadchick gave Isis a try and had mixed success.
Prepaid Cards for Travel are Pricey, Hard to Come By
I’m taking a trip to Germany later this year, and that has me thinking: What’s the best way to spend money over there? Using my debit or credit card entails foreign transaction fees. And I don’t exactly fancy carrying around enough cash to finance the whole trip.
Last time I was in Germany (when I was younger and much, much less wise), I used my debit card to withdraw cash at ATMs whenever I ran out. When I got back home, an account statement full of nasty ATM fees awaited me. A logical solution for this trip, I figured, would be a prepaid card. Unlike cash, you have some recourse if it gets stolen — just report the theft to the card provider to shut down the card and thwart the thief (who would need a PIN to get the funds anyway). Plus, a prepaid card wouldn’t be tied to my bank account, helping me lessen my risk of identity fraud. Finally, the budgeting angle appealed to me. I’d have only the money on the card and no more — with, of course, the option to reload if absolutely necessary, for emergencies (or good German beer).
The prepaid options for Americans traveling abroad, however, aren’t exactly without costs and inconveniences. In fact, I’ve concluded they’re more trouble than they’re worth. Here are some of the options I looked into. If you make it all the way to the end of this blog, I’ll share the plan of action I decided on.
Prepaid cards for travelers
1. MasterCard Cash Passport
The good: At first blush, this card was a shoo-in, and it’s the first result if you run a search for “prepaid card for travelers.” You can load the card in foreign currency (including the euro), meaning you lock in the exchange rate on the day you load the card. Because you’re doing all your spending in euros, you avoid foreign transaction fees. Cash Passport also provides 24-hour global assistance, in case your card is lost or stolen.
Even better, there’s a chip-and-PIN version of the card, meaning it uses the security technology that’s becoming more common in European card readers. While you can usually still use a U.S. card with a magnetic stripe in Europe, you may have to explain it to the cashier. In my experience, cashiers have shaken their heads and handed my funny-looking card back to me, especially in off-the-beaten path locations.
There are no fees to load the card and no card purchase fees, either — only an ATM fee of €1.75. The issuers make money by offering a less favorable exchange rate — just as currency exchange places at the airports do. If I were to load $500 onto the card, I’d get €351 euros. I’d get €389 if I picked up cash from my bank before leaving.
In other words, I’d be paying $38 for the privilege of the Cash Passport. Ultimately, I decided I’d be willing to pay the price, for the added security and for the convenience of not having to worry about foreign transaction fees.
The bad: I can’t seem to get my hands on this card. Although you can order online via the U.K. site, the U.S. site instructs you to go to a participating bank or Travelex location. Problem is, the bank that issued the card (Suburban Bank) just discontinued it. And, although there’s a Travelex location near me, Travelex has temporarily discontinued the card as well. The rep I spoke with said they were hoping to offer it again by June — and I’m traveling in May, so that’s cutting it close.
2. Visa Travel Money
The good: This card comes with some travel insurance protections, including lost luggage cover for up to $1,000 if your baggage gets stolen. It also provides 24-hour emergency services or everything from replacing the card, to making emergency travel arrangements, to finding a local doctor. You can reload the card via phone or online from anywhere. As an added perk, you get 90-day purchase protection, which covers you if the goods you bought get damaged or stolen.
You can get a card by ordering online or using the website to find a location that sells them. If you’re doing the latter, though, be sure to call ahead. While the website indicated that my local supermarket chain offers them, none of the five locations I called had them in stock. Three of those locations had never heard of the card.
The bad: This card is fee-heavy. Fees vary slightly, depending on where you purchase the card, but, at worst, expect to pay about $5 to get the card, a $3 for foreign ATM withdrawals, a $6 monthly maintenance fee, a 3 percent foreign transaction fee (because the card can be loaded only with U.S. currency) and re-loading fees (which vary, based on the amount loaded).
3. Other banks’ travel cards
I called up my banks to ask if they had prepaid cards that could be used abroad. One of them did. Reloading the card from abroad wouldn’t exactly be convenient however, as the only options are direct deposit or a visit to a branch (the bank doesn’t exist overseas). That means I’d have set up a direct deposit and schedule it for while I’m away — or predict exactly how much I need in advance and hope I don’t run out of funds.
The fees are pretty hefty, too and nearly identical to those on the Visa Travel Money card. I’d have pay to get the card, pay per month, pay for ATM withdrawals, pay for customer service calls and pay for each transaction.
My game plan
Disappointed about the prepaid card offers, I called a family member who lived in Germany last year, and asked for advice. She pointed out that, while most German merchants are getting increasingly better about accepting plastic, many shops, small restaurants and tourist attractions still take only cash. So why would I be willing to pay so much to get a prepaid card that may not even be useable?
I also had a chat with the bank that issued my debit card. If I use the ATMs at the German bank it partners with, I’ll be charged no fees. That bank has ATMs all over the cities I’m visiting. If I can’t find one, I’ll have to eat a $5 fee plus 1 percent of the withdrawn amount (and any fees assessed by the bank that owns the ATM).
Because my travel buddy and I have prepaid for our accommodations (our biggest expense), the only money we’ll need to carry is for meals and entertainment.
So our solution is a simple one: We will get enough cash in advance to cover the first half of our trip (which is 9 days long). Then, we will find an ATM (hopefully a free one) and make one withdrawal halfway through the trip. I’ll also store a credit card in the locker we’ll be renting at our hostel, in case of an emergency.
I’m hoping some of you globetrotters can chime in with advice. Have you had any luck with prepaid cards for travelers? Any other tips for spending abroad?
And now, whether you’re trying to save money while traveling or staying home, here’s some inspiration from our favorite personal finance blogs of the week:
Three Thrifty Guys list off nine common ways people waste their tax refunds.
Grayson from Debt Roundup shares the best money lesson his parents ever taught him.
Frugal Rules has some tips for handling your money while traveling abroad.
Cash Cow Couple breaks down the cost of their inexpensive but fun honeymoon.
Money Soldiers offers some advice about what to do if your partner is in debt.
Money Crush suggests 11 ways to save on transportation costs.
Store Loyalty Programs — Worth it or Not?
Do you ever find the credit cards in your wallet getting lost among all of those store loyalty cards you signed up for?
If you’re like me, you probably carry around way too many of these cards. In fact, a January 2013 survey by Edgell Knowledge Network showed that the average U.S. household belongs to a whopping 18 store loyalty programs.
I belong to fewer than 10, but that still feels like too many. I signed up for many of the programs, including the ones from CVS and Rite Aid, because I thought it would help me save a few dollars. But some of the programs have just been a hassle. For example, at CVS I often forget to pull out my card. And when I do get “Extra Care Bucks,” coupons on my receipt, they tend to get lost in my purse and I forget to use them before they expire.
Nonetheless some of the programs work well for me. For example, I have a Pet Supermarket card that gets me a coupon for a free bag of dog food (a $20 value) every few months. I shop there all the time because it’s the only local place that sells the pet foods I prefer to buy. And I always remember to use my card because the store employees remind me every single time.
So, how do you decide if you should sign up or say “no thanks” next time a cashier offers you a loyalty card? Here are some things to consider:
- What do you have to do? MSN Money advises consumers to think about how much time and effort they have to put into a store loyalty program. Remember that it takes time to keep track of all the cards, sort through terms and conditions and redeem your rewards. Is it worth it?
- Will you end up spending more? Part of the aim behind store loyalty programs is to get consumers to spend more. If you find yourself buying more or buying things you wouldn’t otherwise have purchased, you might want to rethink your participation, according to YourLifeforLess.com. Spending $10 to save $1 doesn’t make sense. For me, that’s why the pet food program works so well: It’s something I’d buy anyway.
- What do you actually get? According to the research by Edgell Knowledge Network, 81 percent of consumers enrolled in loyalty programs don’t know the benefits. So, it’s a good idea to read through the terms and conditions, find out exactly how the program works and see what kind of benefits you’d get.
- How does it make you feel? Do you get overwhelmed by having so much plastic and digging around every time you want to use a card? Or by having to use a smartphone app to keep track of all of your loyalty programs sans plastic, as Digitwirl.com recommends? Do you forget to cash in your rewards, then get annoyed at yourself later? If that’s the case, it might just make sense to streamline your life and concentrate on saving money in other ways.
Young People Saying “No thanks” to Credit
A couple weeks ago, I was talking with a friend about his apartment hunt.
“So many places do credit checks now,” he said, lamenting the fact that he’d probably have to offer several months’ rent up front to get around it, as he has a very thin credit history.
The personal finance website editor in me kicked in, and I suggested he get a credit card — maybe a secured card, if he couldn’t get a regular one. That way, he’d have a credit history by the next time he needed a new place.
“But I don’t want to have to go into debt and pay interest,” he argued.
I explained he wouldn’t have to; he could avoid debt and interest entirely by charging a few items a month and then paying off the balance before the due date.
“Yeah, well, it’s the temptation, mostly,” he admitted. “I don’t want to end up like my parents.”
My friend is far from alone in his attitude toward credit. According to this March 18, 2013, Bloomberg article, many young people see credit only as a liability — not as a useful tool that can help their financial futures. Spooked by the recession (and, possibly, their parents’ debt mistakes), young people are avoiding plastic, as well as other forms of credit, such as mortgages.
The article cites this February 2013 Pew Research report, which tracked the credit behaviors of those under 35. Unlike their older counterparts, the under-35 crowd’s use of personal loans, mortgages, vehicle loans and credit cards has decreased since 2001 — with the biggest drop occurring after the recession that began in 2007.
The only type of credit young people are using more frequently are student loans — as of 2010, according to the Pew report, they were four times as likely as the over-35 crowd to carry student loan debt. Timely student loan payments are a good thing when it comes to credit history, the Bloomberg article points out. However, if student loans are the only type of credit being used, they’re not likely to help much: Student loans often mean big debt balances, and, without timely payments on, say, a credit card account, lenders will still likely say, “No.”
What this all boils down to is a generation that traditional credit reporting can’t get a read on. That could shut younger people out of owning homes and, as my friend found out, make it harder to get an apartment. While no access to credit is inconvenient for young people, it could have an even greater impact beyond their own lives: Increased home ownership and other big purchases could help fuel an economic comeback, while growing numbers of credit-free consumers could stall economic progress.
As a member of the under-35 crowd, I can understand that fear of debt and credit. Luckily, my dad was willing to act as co-signer on a credit card account in my name when I turned 18. I make purchases on that account every month and pay them off early — and, over 10 years, I’ve created a healthy credit history that I’m grateful for. It’s helped me land an apartment at a time when I had no income and decreased the security deposits I’ve had to pay. There have been many times over the years that I’ve said a silent “thank you” to my father and the credit gods.
I never did convince my friend to get a credit card — and I’d never try to strong-arm someone into getting a financial product they’re not comfortable with. Yet I’m troubled by my peers’ credit avoidance. I’d like to hear some feedback from those of you who live credit-free. Tell me in the comments why living without credit works for you. Has it ever held you back from getting something you’ve wanted?
Whatever your financial values are, our weekly blog roundup is sure to have something that inspires you. Here are our favorite blog posts of the week:
Holly from Club Thrifty explains why she could never be an “extreme” cheapskate.
One Smart Dollar asks if loans among family members are worth it.
Making Sense of Cents explains why those who make more often spend more, rather than save more.
Jana from Daily Money Shot has decided to go on a spending freeze.
Master the Art of Saving demonstrates how you can use bi-weekly paychecks to get ahead on your bills.
Justin from The Frugal Path wonders if he and his wife can afford to have a baby.
The Best Personal Finance Advice I’ve Ever Received
I’ve been a personal finance junkie since I got my first job after college. At first, I scoured books and websites for money advice because I was bad at the basics, like paying my bills on time and saving. I got better at managing my money, but kept reading to find new tips and tricks.
Over the years, a few big pieces of advice have stuck with me and changed the way I handle my finances. Here are some of my all-time favorite bits of personal finance wisdom:
1. Automate it. This is a classic piece of money management advice. I first read about the idea of automating finances years ago in David Bach’s book “The Automatic Millionaire.” In it, he recommends automating everything from your bill payments to your emergency fund savings. Automating is such a simple idea, but it saved my finances and my credit score. I used to loathe paying my bills and would put it off, meaning I got zapped with late fees and risked those bills going into collections and hurting my credit score. Now, my bills are always paid on time and saving is easy.
2. Balance your money. The idea of the “balanced money formula,” from the book “All Your Worth” by Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi, was life-changing for me. According to the formula, you should aim to spend 50 percent of your money on must-haves (rent, food, electricity, etc.), 30 percent on wants (which include items like cable TV, non-necessary groceries like ice cream and even clothes you don’t absolutely need) and 20 percent on savings. The authors say that following these guidelines will help bring harmony to your financial life, and I’ve definitely found that to be the case. In our case, we were spending too much on “wants” that we thought of as needs, which made it hard to save as much as we should.
3. Focus on earning rather than scrimping. Time is limited, and we all have only a certain number of hours per week to spend thinking about and managing our finances. I find frugality to be kind of fun, so my natural inclination is to use this time to find recipes for cheap meals, cut coupons or learn how to make my own dish soap. But some posts on the blog I Will Teach You to Be Reach made me realize this might not be the best use of my extra time.
What if instead of spending three hours a week cutting coupons, I spent that time earning more money? Instead of saving $15 a week or $60 a month, I could earn maybe $150 a week or an extra $600 a month. If I put that extra money toward my mortgage, I could cut 20 years and more than $60,000 in interest off the loan. I’m self-employed, so it was easier for me to adjust my income than it might be for some, but some people could ask for overtime at work or find a way to earn income on the side. For example, I have a friend who earns several hundred dollars a month pet-sitting for neighbors.
4. Spend according to your values. I love this blog post on Sustainable Personal Finance about how, ideally, your spending should reflect your values. I’m not necessarily talking about giving to charity, though that might be part of it, but about spending money on the things that are most important to you and not spending on things that aren’t.
When I reviewed our budget last summer, I realized we were spending quite a bit on things we didn’t really care about. One was gas for our car: We were spending more than $100 a month, or $1,200 a year, for my husband to drive to work and for both of us to run multiple errands a week. We realized we could cut that expenditure quite a bit if my husband started riding his bike to work, which he was wanting to do anyway, and if we combined errands and made more purchases online with free shipping. That would free up more cash to spend on healthy eating — fresh fruits and veggies are really important to both of us, but we’d been skimping in this area to try to save money.
5. Enjoy life now. When you’re trying to get out of debt or save for a big goal, it can be easy to fall into a life-will-be-great-when sort of mindset. But, as this post from the blog Zen Habits reminded me, it’s possible, and important, to figure out how to enjoy life now — no matter what your money situation. Personal finance advice often focuses on saving for the future. But as blogger Lego Babauta points out, it’s equally important to “find ways to enjoy life completely, utterly, maximally … that don’t cost your future very much.”
Are Personal Finance Experts Too Preoccupied with Lattes?
When I graduated from college and began my job search, money was tight. A relative suggested a personal finance book he liked by a famous money guru, and I picked it up from the library. One of the first chapters was about “easy” ways to save money. Among the suggestions:
- Stop buying lattes.
- Pack a lunch instead of eating at restaurants.
- Wait an extra month between visits to the hair salon.
- Get rid of your cable TV service.
Considering I didn’t drink coffee, was subsisting on powdered soup and peanut butter, hadn’t gotten a haircut in well over a year and didn’t even own a TV, let’s just say none of this advice spoke to me.
Such personal finance advice has become known by critics as the “blame the latte” movement. The idea behind it is simple: Cut out small luxuries, invest that money and end up with tens of thousands of extra dollars years down the line. The infamous Starbucks latte became shorthand for these meaningless luxuries, with experts from Suze Orman to David Bach inviting their audiences to use its cost as a starting point for calculating the money they were wasting.
As the recent economic downturn progressed, however, this line of thinking started getting some backlash. Some called it misleading. Felix Salmon, writing for Reuters, called the line of thinking “personal-finance snake oil,” calling into question whether foregoing the daily latte would actually yield the huge investment returns financial gurus were promising. Dan Caplinger, writing for AOL’s DailyFinance argued that fretting over small expenses takes consumers’ minds off their big financial picture — and makes them think they’re making good choices while, in fact, they’re just spinning their wheels.
The biggest critics of the “blame the latte” movement, however, are those that argue it doesn’t do anything for those who need personal finance help the most — those whose finances were ravaged in the recession. As the personal finance blog BudgetTracker points out, there are many families who have already cut back as much as they can. Lattes aren’t even an option for them. Author Helaine Olen, whose book, “Pound Foolish,” provides a scathing review of the personal finance industry, has called latte-related advice downright condescending to those trying to decide between medical bills and rent, not between “grande” and “venti.” In her promotion of the book, she’s accused popular personal finance gurus of inviting consumers to blame themselves for their predicaments — and then profiting off that self-blame.
I won’t say that there’s no place for “blame the latte” advice. For those who have disposable income and are looking to plug financial leaks, daily $5 habits are a great place to start. It’s been about seven years since I checked that book out of the library, and except for one more brief stint as a student, I’ve been gainfully employed since then. And I’ll admit, there have been times when the “blame the latte” advice fits my lifestyle.
It’s not necessarily lattes I’m buying. For me, it’s usually meals out. Sometimes it’s pricier, “gourmet,” versions of my grocery staples. Personal finance apps (like Mint), which separate purchases by category, make it easy to see pricey habits forming. If I notice that my food spending is surpassing the previous month’s, I set ground rules — only one meal out per week for the rest of the month, for example. In other words, I do buy the occasional “latte,” but cut back when it starts to cut into the money I can put into savings every month. So, I suppose I am following the “blame the latte” advice because there are often lattes in my life that need to be cut out.
Yet it’s also important to recognize that it’s not an option for many. Need proof? Follow Olen’s advice and play the online game Spent, which puts you in the shoes of an unemployed head of a household trying to make it through one month. I said “no” to every frivolous purchase (and even some not-so-frivolous ones), and I was still reaching for the payday loans options near the end of the month.
Whether you’re trying to cut out frivolous purchases, or just trying to stay afloat financially, here’s some personal finance inspiration from around the blogosphere:
Boomer & Echo provide some tips for overcoming financial inertia.
The College Investor shares some of the secrets of those who manage to become millionaires.
Beating Broke has some advice for paying out of pocket after a car accident.
Digging Out from Our Mess just got blindsided with car repair bills.
Find Me Frugal(er) analyzes the moral dilemma of paying the minimum on your student loans until they’re forgiven.
One Frugal Girl writes about putting financial worries in perspective.
Is Couponing Worth the Effort?
When my husband and I first started trying to get out of debt, I decided to try couponing. At the time, it seemed like an easy way to save a few bucks.
I signed up to get deal alerts from several websites, such as Couponaholic and The Krazy Coupon Lady, and starting clipping and printing coupons.
But I quickly realized couponing wasn’t paying off for me. Sure, I saved $7 to $15 or soon each trip to the grocery store, but I was spending several hours a week reading blogs and looking for coupons. That meant I was getting a return of maybe $3 or $4 an hour. Sometimes, online coupons would fail to print, so I’d invest time for nothing.
Many personal finance bloggers have come to similar conclusions about the downside of couponing. Here are some things to consider:
- Couponing makes less sense for healthy eaters. As Trent at The Simple Dollar points out, manufacturers tend to offer coupons for highly processed foods, not fresh fruits and veggies. Often these packaged foods also are crazy expensive for what you get. For example, a few months ago, I was seeing a lot of coupons for Smuckers Uncrustables, which are basically very expensive pre-made PB&J sandwiches. Compare that to the cost of taking a few minutes to make your own.
- The generic item might be cheaper. Another great point by The Simple Dollar: Generic items often are even cheaper than the brand-name item purchased with a coupon. If you’re open to generic — and, really, it’s often just as good — you can save more without the hassle or time suck of finding coupons.
- You might end up spending more. As this post at Wise Bread points out, manufacturers offer coupons to get you hooked on their products. Also, you might buy a product you otherwise wouldn’t have purchased because you have a coupon for it. This can leave you thinking you saved money when really you spent more than you would have without the coupon.
However, there are times when I still do use coupons. Usually this is when I can get a big return for a small-time investment. For example:
- Online shopping. I shop online quite a bit because it saves me time and gas money. When I do, I always Google “coupon code” followed by the name of the retailer. Often, I find a coupon code for free shipping or 10 percent to 20 percent off, which ends up saving me $10, $20 or even more for a time investment of just a minute or two.
- Large purchases. I’ve signed up at places like OfficeMax and Bed, Bath & Beyond to get coupons sent to me in the mail. I get coupons for maybe 20 percent off or $10 off a $50 purchase. For no effort, I get substantial discounts on things I’d buy anyway. When I’m making a really large purchase, such as an appliance, I search online for the best deal and then look for coupon codes. Some retailers will allow you to purchase online and pick up your item at the store. It makes more sense to put in 15 minutes on something that will save you $20 than it does on something that will save you $1.
- Stocking up. Even though we eat lots of fresh produce and not a lot of stuff that comes in packages, there are a few expensive packaged products we use regularly and go through quickly. These include LaCroix flavored water, Silk almond milk, Celestial Seasonings teas and Starbucks whole bean coffee. I usually watch for buy-one-get-one-free sales on these items at my local grocery store, then I stock up for substantial savings. For example, buying 10 bags of Starbucks coffee when they’re on sale for $3 off saves me $30. Before I head to the store, I do a quick search to see if I can find printable coupons for any of these items to save even more.
All in all, I think anyone who uses coupons should keep track of how much time they spend and how much they save to decide whether it’s worth the effort. In many cases, it might make more sense to spend that time making extra money by working overtime or starting a side business.
Why Speed-Reading Your Bills Can Cost You
This month’s electric bill gave me quite a shock. It was $268 — for a one-bedroom apartment!
My eyes darted to the “usage” chart that appears on the left side of the bill. No problem there — our electric use for February was our lowest yet, beating our November 2012 record. My eyes darted to the right side of the bill, where the bill is broken down. There, among all the random $6 and $8 charges the city tacks on for drainage service and “street service” (whatever that is) was a $200 “deposit.” There was also a $0.90 “late payment fee.”
I called our service provider and was told that the deposit was charged upon change in residence (we’d just moved) to “customers with a history of late payment.”
Turns out, all our payments between September 2012 and February 2013 had been flagged as late, even though the withdrawal dates from my checking account prove otherwise. I would have noticed there was a problem if I’d looked carefully at the itemized bill every month and seen the late payment fees (which ranged between $0.10 and $0.90). You’d think I would have noticed, given that I pay the bill manually each month, instead of relying on automatic payments. But I had only been checking our electric use, scanning the bold number at the bottom of the bill and making the payment. It wasn’t until the $200 charge made me jump out of my chair that I took a closer look.
The energy company is looking into the issue, and I’m waiting on resolution. In the meantime, I’m wondering what else I’m not noticing — and what it’s costing me. Even small billing errors can add up over time. Me Vs. Debt, a blog that tracks the blogger’s (Amanda’s) journey out of $20,000 in debt, chronicles a similar encounter with credit card billing errors. Despite making no new purchases on a balance transfer card, the higher purchase APR was being applied to small amounts of the balance. Because the resulting finance charges were so small, they were barely noticeable — but, given time, the cost would have ballooned.
Meanwhile, the anonymous blogger behind iHeartBudgets (a blog that focuses on the fun side of budgeting) has a guide on billing errors, which includes all the errors his family has found — and how much catching those errors has saved them. Examples include early credit card payments mysteriously posting after the due date; grocery coupons that didn’t ring up correctly; mysterious items added to restaurant bills; nonsense charges added to hotel bills; and improperly processed returns. The grand total saved by watching bills like a hawk? iHeartBudgets estimates that it’s been $3,000 over the course of a year.
That’s motivation enough to take a few extra seconds scanning my bills.
If you’re also trying to be more mindful of where your money’s going, check out our roundup of the most interesting personal finance blogs of the week.
Frugal Rules offers some tips for easier tax filing.
Stupid Cents walks you through the process of creating your first budget.
Ready for Zero lists 10 common mental barriers to paying off debt.
Mr. Money Mustache attempts an experiment — wasting money for once.
Steadfast Finances outlines the first steps everyone must take on the road to riches.
Lauren of L Bee and the Money Tree explains why she does not coupon.
How to Stay Motivated When Paying Off Debt Becomes a Slog
Paying down debt is kind of like losing weight or anything else that requires hard work and a change in habits. It’s easy to get really motivated at first, then lose steam once the initial excitement wears off.
For example, I was really focused when my husband and I started our debt repayment push last summer. I spent hours scouring personal finance blogs for debt repayment tips. I combed through our bank statements looking for extras to cut. I found new ways to save — from making my own natural skin care products, to turning up our thermostat, to using ceiling fans to stay cool.
We put every spare cent into debt repayment and paid down more than $12,000 in the first six months. Crossing off small debts when they were paid off was very motivating and helped keep us on track – just as proponents of the snowball method say it will. Soon, though, we were left with one huge debt that wasn’t going to be eliminated any time soon: my husband’s $50,000-plus student loan.
So, right now, debt repayment feels like a slog. The fun of creating a plan is in the past, but the end is a long way off. We continue to make progress, and we’re still committed, but we haven’t been quite as strict as we were in the beginning, and I know we need to find some ways to stay motivated. If you’re in a similar situation, here are a few tips:
- Do fun stuff while staying frugal. It’s easy to deprive yourself for a short period of time, but it might not be practical for the long haul. CoupleMoney.com recommends continuing to take vacations and enjoy fun nights out — just try to use half-price deals or go to free events to keep entertainment spending in check.
- Celebrate in increments. The husband-wife blogger team behind NotMadeofMoney.com recommends setting milestones along your debt payment journey. (Since we have just one big debt left, this makes sense for us. Each $10,000 increment will be a huge achievement and will make the debt look and feel that much smaller. We plan to treat ourselves to a nice dinner out each time we knock another $10,000 off our total.
- Make a graph. Finance blogger Kacie of Sense to Save, guest blogging at Money Saving Mom, recommends creating a visual depiction of your debt. I love this idea, and it reminds me of another tip I once read, which was to divide your debt into chunks and create a graph, with each square representing, say, $100. If you make a payment of $300, you color in three squares. That gives you an easy, quick way to see how far you’ve come and how far you have left to go. I definitely plan to use this tip, and I’ll put the graph on the fridge where we can see it daily.
- Think about life after debt. We recently sat down and talked about everything we plan to do when we’re out of debt. When we first started our debt repayment plan, we had very specific reasons for wanting to be out of debt. Maybe you also have a big goal — such as buying a house, going on a dream vacation or sending your kid to college. Whatever your motivation, now is the time to think about what life will be like when the money that’s now going to pay creditors can be used to make your life better.