RISMEDIA, January 11, 2011—(MCT)—Only occasionally does financial success or failure hinge on a single event: receiving a huge inheritance or going broke because you suffered from an expensive medical problem. More often, prosperity and its lack are born of habits, the seemingly small money decisions we make daily.
Over the years, we’ve interviewed many of the top personal finance gurus, including Suze Orman, Dave Ramsey, David Bach, Clark Howard, Jean Chatzky and others. We’ve asked for spending tips from experts on such diverse topics as buying razor blades for your face and snow tires for your car. And we’ve talked to scores of academics who study why we consumers make the spending choices we do.
Over those hundreds of hours of talking about people and money, themes emerge. We’ll call them the seven habits of highly successful spenders, borrowing shamelessly from a best-selling book’s title. These bits of money wisdom might just help you start 2011 on the right financial foot.
1. Care about spending. Money success has just two components: earning and spending. Earning money—from paychecks, investments or running your own business—is more fun to talk about, but the truth is, you can’t outearn dumb spending. Look at all the millionaire celebrities, sports stars and lottery winners who end up broke.
To use a sports metaphor, earning is like offense, with all the exciting home runs, touchdowns and slam dunks. Controlling household spending is like a team’s defense, duller by comparison. But ask any sports fan which matters more for winning championships. It’s defense, in sports and money management.
And while Ben Franklin said, “A penny saved is a penny earned,” he was vastly underestimating the value of not spending. That’s because income taxes didn’t exist in Franklin’s day. Today, a dollar earned is worth maybe 75 cents or less, after all the taxes and other deductions. But make the effort to save a buck, and the entire 100 cents is yours.
2. Sweat the small (recurring) stuff. You’ll often hear, “It’s not worth my time to clip a 50-cent coupon!” That’s hard to argue with. But it’s also misleading, because nobody advocates clipping a single 50-cent coupon. Supermarket shopping ninjas clip coupons regularly, match them to store sales and stockpile items they use. They can save about 50% on their entire shopping bill.
That still might not sound impressive until you apply that savings to how much an average family of four might spend annually at the supermarket: about $10,000 a year on food, cleaning supplies and personal care products, according to the most recent numbers from the U.S. Consumer Expenditure Survey. Saving half that, or $5,000, every year starts to sound like real money.
3. Shop it. Fundamental to almost every spending decision is this: Prices on the same products and services often vary, sometimes wildly. If you don’t compare prices, you’re deciding to be powerless as a consumer. That’s especially true today, when it’s so quick and easy to compare prices online.
4. Get fit. Among categories of household spending, three continue to reveal themselves as prime targets for easy, painless cost-cutting. They are food, insurance and telecommunications, or fit. They are recurring expenses for which prices vary widely in competitive marketplaces. Be liberal in defining those categories. For example, food includes eating at home, dining out and work lunches. Insurance includes car and home insurance and buying extended warranties. Telecommunications might include your wireless phone plan, your Internet and TV service.
5. Know thyself. People are different. Money advice that resonates with one person rings hollow with another. But basic, tried-and-true money advice is valuable, so you must figure out how to apply it to your life.
For example, if you’re a born spender who needs to save money, you need to put savings programs on autopilot. Contribute to a 401k at work or set up direct debits from your checking account to a savings or investment account. That gets the money out of your hands before you can spend it. And avoid temptation by staying out of the mall, canceling store catalogs and unsubscribing to retail e-mail. Ultimately, the idea isn’t to change your money personality but to thrive with the one you have.
6. Keep your eye on the prize. We’re bombarded with marketing all day long: online, TV, radio, billboards, magazines. That means we have to continually tell ourselves “no” to spending temptations right in front of us. That takes a lot of discipline. It’s easier if you have specific reasons to say “no.” Those reasons are financial goals. They not only include such goals as saving for retirement or a kid’s college tuition, they also can include a vacation in the tropics, a down payment on a house or a kitchen remodel.
It’s said that to see what’s truly important to a person, look at their calendar and their checkbook. Are you spending time and money the way you truly want to? If not, you need some goal setting.
7. Know there’s no free lunch. Academic studies show that the idea of getting something “free” sparks an intense excitement in the human brain. But few things are truly free.
You pay for “free” financial advice from brokers in the form of commissions and other fees baked into your investment returns. Your “free” cash-back credit card rewards might be costing you. Researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago recently concluded that such cards lead to overspending and debt, dwarfing any cash-back rewards.
And keep in mind the quip that’s often true for “free” online services that have your personal information: “If you’re not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.”
These seven habits aren’t the be-all and end-all of money management. Rather, they might be starting points toward a successful 2011 for you and your wallet.
(c) 2011, Chicago Tribune.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.