Thursday, December 15, 2005

Do You Really Need those Christmas Lights?

I went Christmas shopping yesterday after work--it lasted about twenty minutes. I wandered around a few specialty shops in Knoxville looking for some gifts for my sisters. Is it my imagination or is everything really expensive? Maybe I'm just a cheapskate but $118.00 for a plain dumb t-shirt is a lot to me. Multiply this by twenty or thirty gifts and I could fund an IRA (or a SEP in my case) for the year. That is what I would rather do. I have never understood why people spend so much on gifts or luxury items and then complain that they have to work two jobs, have no retirement or are forced to suck up to a boss they hate. I have never done that--nor would most people if they didn't buy items that they can't afford. This overspending seems to be a lifelong problem for many Americans.

I always laugh when I read articles such as this that describes why young people are in debt. The cause--rising college costs and easy access to credit cards they say. Uh, could it possibly have something to do with making $42,000 a year and spending $25,000 on your wedding? I realize this is not an expensive wedding but if you are in debt and crying about leading a "poor lifestyle" at the age of 29, it seems like you would pay off your debts first and have a tasteful but inexpensive wedding.

Now, of course, once you are married, you have to outdo the neighbors on the decorations every Christmas. The same people who will tell you that they are too broke to live the "American dream" are able to part with up to $4500.00 for a professional decorator at Christmas. And then, there are the elderly who tell you they are broke and living on a fixed budget yet are getting in on the Christmas action:

``A good percentage of our customers are elderly,'' said Clint Marsh, who is licensed and insured to hang the lights. ``You're helping people out who are afraid to get up on a ladder and do it themselves -- or are unable.''
Still, others concede that for some, the motivation might be to keep up with -- or perhaps even outdo -- the Joneses.
Each year, U.S. households spend $50 to $60 more on holiday decorations than they did the year before, with many blowing more than $8,000 on pulsating lights, mechanical reindeer and inflatable Santas, said Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group in Charleston, S.C.

At this spending rate, it is no wonder so many boomers feel that they have not saved enough for retirement.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


So true. I was lucky to not have a credit card in school. When I overspent on lobster dinners 3 nights a week as a student, and then had no money for food,
at least I was unable to run up debt!

That taught me a lesson that I have managed to keep.

Thing is, how can this lesson be taught to the next generation?

10:07 AM, December 16, 2005  
Blogger Helen said...


I think part of the problem is that young people are so used to living the good life that mom and dad gave them that they don't want that lifestyle going down once they are on their own. The problem is that mom and dad were living on a lot higher income and junior is now on his/her own at some point--hopefully by 30--but without his or her parent's higher income. Perhaps the lesson for parents--don't treat your kids so well that they never want to leave home. It is our job to teach kids about budgeting and money while young and then get them to independence without thinking the world owes them for being the star they were at home.

10:15 AM, December 16, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was lucky enough to have my parents be able to pay for college with money they and my grandparents had saved over the years for that purpose. The only debt I had coming out of school was about $1,000 in credit card. Which isn't too bad. I've spent some on it for travel this year, and the balance is still about $1,000, but I should have it paid off by the end of Q1 2006.

I work with another young gal who graduated in 2004 like I did, and just got married. Her wedding? $5000, and she did most of it herself. Even at my entry-level salary level, which is just over $30,000 gross, I can afford to contribute 6% to my 401(k), live on my own, have a little extra savings for cushion, and buy basically what I want within reason. Once I have the credit card debt paid off that'll be easier, as I'm tossing a couple hundred a month into paying that off. Anyway, point is, if you're not a complete idiot it's easy to do okay.

11:17 AM, December 16, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree that "living in the style to which one has become accustomed" is one way for kids to get in trouble later.

In my case my family was comfortable but at the same time made certain economies. Once I was outside that environment I think I just went hog wild
my freshman year as contrast to what I (wrongly) percieved as pointless scrimping.

I am now quite happy pretending to be a miser, that is, I get enjoyment out of finding ways to make do with less, and spending less. It is more of a challange than spending more, which takes no thought at all.

So I guess I have become just like my parents!


11:26 AM, December 16, 2005  
Blogger Helen said...


Sounds like you have good financial sense--so many people do not. As you say, if you are not a complete idiot, you can usually manage your money pretty well. I live on less than half of what I make, pay the rest in taxes and save the rest--and pretty much have whatever I need. Most people can do this if they make any type of decent salary.

11:28 AM, December 16, 2005  
Blogger Greg Kuperberg said...

It sure is easy to save money, if someone in your house has job security and family health coverage. You don't even have to skip luxuries; you can just claim that you would if you had to.

12:12 PM, December 16, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My husband and I started out with nothing - literally... some old broken furniture that people gave us and a college debt to pay back with interest... plus a child. So it wasnt' until my youngest child was hitting his teen years that we actually had an income to buy "stuff". My kids knew that they couldn't have everything they wanted (didn't stop them from asking... but we talked to them about money and why we couldn't buy things like the latest computers, etc).

When my daughter was in college - I didn't allow her to get a credit card until she was in her last semester. And then she was only allowed to make about 2 actual purchases on it to keep it active until she graduated and got a job. No credit card... no credit card debt... but it's easier to get a card while in school than waiting until after graduation. My son only did one semester in school before joining the Army. He only has a debit card - no credit card. Right now his plans are to never get a loan that he has to pay interest on... yeah, he's still young. *grin* But at least he's got the right idea.

I have no problem with people spending money that they have available as extra... but too many people don't know how to do without. I had a hairdresser once who was telling me about how her husband's car was in dire need of brakes (to the point of it being dangerous to drive!) and her furnace wasn't working... it was the end of October in Chicago... and she didn't have the money to fix either one of these things. This was directly after she was telling me about her up coming trip to Acapulco, Mexico! I said - maybe you better skip the trip and get these things taken care of... She said - "oh I can't do that! I MUST have my vacation!" I didn't say anything else, I also didn't tell her that I hadn't had a vaction in about 8 years - other than a trip to see the parents... because we couldn't afford it with the kids! I also didn't go back to her - I just couldn't listen to that kind of whining when I knew that all she had to do was economize and she could do the necessary things to make her life run smoothly. She didn't want to do that... so her whining was simply annoying!

1:06 PM, December 16, 2005  
Blogger Justina said...

family bonding has no price..tehe. Just Kidding! <3 you.

1:26 PM, December 16, 2005  
Blogger Justina said...


1:41 PM, December 16, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It has been my observation that most people who are heavily in debt as well as many of the truly poor have some destructive behavior(s) they are feeding, the maintenance of which comes before everything else. That is the reason I scoff at the idea of eliminating poverty. If you give such people ANY type of material assistance, they'll just spend more on their indulgences and remain broke.

We once had some neighbors who were always broke. Daddy was a doctor and made big $. Outwardly, they lived well, yet they had to select which bills to pay each month and often the wife didn't have even $20 in her purse. They ended up filling for bankruptcy, getting divorced, and they're both still broke. The wife keeps in touch with my wife and she is in her 50's, hasn't a dime saved for retirement, and owes the IRS thousands that she doesn't have because nothing was withheld from her alimony and she didn't allow for it. There's got to be a "secret" in there somewhere.

For me, cutting back or eliminating the excesses of my youth - boozing, smoking, etc. - and developing a financial plan at a young age has had a bigger effect on my financial well-being than any raise or high-saleried job that I could ever have hoped for. I've never made over $50K/yr but at 55 I am debt-free, own a nice house, nice cars, lots of (actually too much) nice stuff, the kids are raised, the grandkid's education is being provided for, and I have an adequate nest egg for retirement.

To most people who struggle financially, the answer is "more money." I don't believe that is true. (After all, Mike Tyson had a high paying job, didn't he?) The answer is to wisely manage what you have, which is WORK. It takes effort to put a financial windfall in the bank instead of throwing a party or buying a fancy car. It takes effort to find a good deal on a major purchase instead of buying the first thing you find. It takes disipline to set aside something on a regular basis. All this effort can pay off big in the end. It's never too late to start.

2:18 PM, December 16, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I think part of the problem is that young people are so used to living the good life that mom and dad gave them that they don't want that lifestyle going down once they are on their own."

You're so right. My husband's baby sister is so like this. Born when mom and dad were middle-aged and could afford lots of stuff. Now she's barely 27 and after getting a $20,000 wedding out of mom and dad she and hubby had to have a brand-new 2-story house (with 2 mortgages on it) in new subdivision, a whole houseful of new furniture, new deck, sod, window treatments, one kid and another on the way. And at Christmas time we're all expected to be very generous with them because "they don't have much money." Well, whose fault is that?

I did our small but lovely wedding on $1100, including wedding bands. I love yard sales and coupon-clipping, and when Christmas comes I literally can think of nothing to put on my list--I don't want that much. My two sisters-in-law think I'm an outrageous cheapskate but we know when we'll be able to retire--they don't.

3:20 PM, December 16, 2005  
Blogger Greg Kuperberg said...

I can't stand yard sales or coupon-clipping. They are a great way to miss the forest for the trees in your finances. Undoubtedly some coupon-clippers are logically frugal, but lot of people clip coupons all day and still go broke from big-ticket expenses.

The expenses that really matter are: the house, cars, health care, vacations, hired help, and restaurants. If all of those are well under control, you can throw away the coupons. In fact, if coupons lead you to buy fewer groceries and eat more at restaurants, you should throw them away.

There are also some structural sources of financial trouble that are not directly expenses themselves: Quixotic home businesses, credit card debt, cavalier money sharing with relatives. Here too, it's not about coupons.

3:52 PM, December 16, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Four words:

Parenting (as you mentioned, Helen)

The topic is money management or, in a broader sense, personal resource management. In the absence of quality parenting in this area (which I submit is rare), children are more or less left on their own to form bad habits, egged on by relentless consumer marketing. And without an instilled sense of personal responsibility and discipline, any lessons learned early are unlikely to be practiced.

In my perfect world, there would be a required high school course or two dealing with this and other aspects of the world young people are about to enter. I can think of some interesting exercises involving the indiscriminate use of credit, for example, and the harsh consequences thereof.

The results wouldn't be perfect, but maybe some value could be realized. Living in a thriving capitalist society can have a downside.

4:11 PM, December 16, 2005  
Blogger Helen said...


Saving on small things can actually be a benefit in the long run--try reading The Millionaire Next Door. Yes, people can go for broke on a house, car etc. but you can save a lot of money by saving each week with coupons, not buying starbucks coffee etc. I am with you and do not clip coupons much but I know family members who do and save a great deal.

auld pharte,

I think a course would be wise--I had two--one in sixth grade where my health teacher, Mr.Claxton, taught us how to budget and feed a family of four and again in eighth grade when Mr. Baum taught our class the value of saving and compound interest. I never forgot these classes and used them throughout my life.

4:31 PM, December 16, 2005  
Blogger reader_iam said...

I think this is sufficiently OT, regarding the issue of early credit cards and concomitant debt issues (I went through that when I was younger. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.)

Anyway, one of the "oddball" items I have set aside for the day I finally put together a scrapbook of my kindergartner's life so far is, of all things his very first "pre-approved" credit-card junkmail solicitation. This was just a couple of months or so ago.

You can imagine that I just about fell over laughing, it was so weird. I assume it has to do with either a frequent flyer program or some such, though it wasn't specifically one of the airline cards, per se. And while he shares a first name with his dad, both of his two middle names are different, and he strictly goes by the first of those, including mag subscriptions, FF programs, and so forth. So it can't just be a simple piggyback on his dad's (superior) credit.

Here's the thing. Once I stopped laughing, and even though I did squirrel away the letter for the scrapbook, the incident actually really began to bother me.

What if, say, this had been 10 years' hence? What if he opened something like that, replied, got approved and issued a card (heaven forbid), and then started spending away? I'd like to think he wouldn't do that, or, if he did, he would be responsible, but who knows, really, what a teen might do? And is that really the point, anyway?

Think of all the implications ...

5:45 PM, December 16, 2005  
Blogger Gina said...

This is a great topic , I have seen folks loose their homes , they get into spending more than what they make , then they seem not to be able to keep their head above water , one such person was my sister , she works making about 40 grand a year , but her hsband works 6 months and goes to europe to visit his folks the other half , they both spend as if they have an endless supply of money , we were hoping they might have learned something , but still they seem to be getting into the same dilema .

7:20 PM, December 16, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Saving on small things can help a lot. I used to eat lunch out every day at work, but I finally wised up and realized that $8 a day with 22 business days in the month was real, tangible cash. I can buy an entire week's worth of lunch fixings to make at home for less than $8, and it's probably better for me. Never underestimate the power of small, marginal savings. They add up.

That said, I agree that coupons are usually a waste to clip: the grocery has noncoupon specials, and a whole book at the front...flip through it before you start shopping, don't waste the time on cutting them at home.

10:17 PM, December 16, 2005  
Blogger Assistant Village Idiot said...

I think it is actually good for people to be poor for some period of their lives, as it can teach both wisdom and compassion. Extended periods of poverty are an awful lot for a personality to bear and remain gentle (though some do, I know), but a short period is not a tragedy.

12:35 AM, December 17, 2005  
Blogger Greg Kuperberg said...

I have not bought The Millionaire Next Door, but I can freely browse and search it at Amazon. Somehow I don't think that I need its advice. My wife and I know how to save money.

On the other hand the tone and message of this book, at least in the excerpts that I read, is extremely irritating. It is a smug and preachy book whose main message is that a million dollars in savings goes hand in hand with strength of character. It doesn't say anywhere that clipping coupons will make you a millionaire. All it says, in one spot, is that "the wives" of millionaires clip coupons as a moral badge of frugality. (I note that they did not imagine in this passage that millionaires might have husbands rather than wives.)

In my view, this message is a crock. Strength of character is not completely wrong, but it is beside the point. The real basis for saving money is sound mathematical judgment. You can be an indulgent pig at the mall or at Amazon and still come out ahead, if you have a good grasp of your major expenses. You don't have to economize on every tiny little thing, or otherwise be above sin.

It is also a self-serving thesis for the millionaires themselves. If you learn that someone is a millionaire, it could be because he worked hard and saved money all his life. Or it could be because he is a creep who cheated his business partners. Wealth does not prove strength of character.

For that matter, the introduction to this book and even its title hide the elephant in the room. It casually lumps together the millionaires who live next door with the centimillionaires who don't live next door. The latter are very different people from the former — you will never become one of them just by putting away salary.

2:29 AM, December 17, 2005  
Blogger Eric said...

Speaking of books, there's a book which is getting excellent reviews called "The Guerrilla Guide to Mastering Student Loan Debt: Everything You Should Know About Negotiating the Right Loan for You, Paying it Off, Protecting Your Financial Future" by Anne Stockwell.

Excellent post, and I've long wondered why there's always a push to stop so-called "payday lending" as a form of exploitation that "hurts the poor." Yet the debts incurred by middle class children which haunt them for life tend to earn them a lot less sympathy. And "payday loans" are dischargeable in bankruptcy, while student loans (being non-dischargable) have become a modern version of indentured servitude.

What am I missing? Should I be more sympathetic to the gullible poor than gullible middle class kids? If so, why?

9:48 AM, December 17, 2005  
Blogger Helen said...

Hey Eric,

Thanks for the heads up on the book--I will have to take a look at it on Amazon. I agree with you---I never understand why one is supposed to be more empathetic to the poor--some of the mistakes they make are just really dumb as are some of the mistakes that the middle class or even the rich make at times. We cannot protect all people from themselves--much as the government would like to try.

10:01 AM, December 17, 2005  
Blogger Greg Kuperberg said...

Eric: What you are missing is that your student loan is a government subsidy, not "indentured servitude". If you truly are middle class, then you have the money to pay it back. You don't have a real case for sympathy if you choose not to. Complaining that it's "indentured servitude" is beyond gullible; it's outright hypocritical.

11:47 AM, December 17, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The best money advice that I've come across is a very simple ratio dividing income into three parts. Non-discretionary expenses should be 50% of income, long-term saving should be 20% of income, and 30% should go to discretionary spending. It's from a book called All Your Worth by Elizabeth Warren.

4:05 PM, December 18, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The expenses that really matter are: the house, cars, health care, vacations, hired help, and restaurants. If all of those are well under control, you can throw away the coupons. In fact, if coupons lead you to buy fewer groceries and eat more at restaurants, you should throw them away."

Hey Greg--you're right about the big-ticket stuff. But it's not that coupon-clipping and such tricks make millionaires, but it all tends to go along with the type of mindset that looks for the most efficient ways to use resources, both in the big things and the small things.

And yeah, you can easily spend more by using manufacturer's coupons IF you don't know how to do it right. You don't just use them willy-nilly but you save the the good ones up (collecting as many duplicates as you can) and combine them with loss-leader sales, BOGO offers, store coupons, and often even rebates. And then our store doubles them up to .40. It keeps my grocery bill for five people at $300 or less per month--works for me.

And with two small kids, eating at restaurants is a rare event, anyway. So are vacations. And credit card debt is not allowed in our house. The maximum goes into the retirement accounts every year come hell or high water. So yeah, we could throw away the coupons, but I still enjoy the game.

4:44 PM, December 18, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love comment streams like this where everyone can discuss how great they are. A house that has appreciated 1000% since it was purchased in 1972 and medical benefits provided through a union negotiation can go a long way towards proving to yourself that you have always been thrifty. Go ahead and try to buy one of those appreciated houses while paying for insurance on the open market.

Anecdotal stories about $25,000 weddings and high credit card debt abound. These kids today I swear. They are just like the kids from 1970 and 1950. Starting out in life is expensive and young people incur debt, this isn’t a problem. The problem is when people enter into their 40’s and 50’s and still haven’t learned to save.

9:51 AM, December 19, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

greg said: "The expenses that really matter are: the house, cars, health care, vacations, hired help, and restaurants."

Don't forget a big item to add to that: private schools.

10:13 AM, December 19, 2005  
Blogger Serket said...

I took an accounting class in college and the professor told us a story about credit cards. When she was a teenager her mother let her get a credit card and told her that she could ONLY pay back the minimum amounts for about three months. The professor said since that time she has never paid interest on credit cards.

My parents are bad with money and they waste thousands of dollars each year on cigarettes and credit card interest. Ironically, they seem to have taught me how to manage money correctly. Plus I've always been fascinated with numbers. I had an immersion baptism when I was 8 and several family members gave me money. I took that money and started a savings account, which I still have today. My great-grandmother gave me a silver dollar and I still have it. I try to collect all pre-1980 coins that I come across.

I am 23 and have never had a credit card. However, someday I plan to get one and use it as an investment tool; using the benefits and paying off the bill every month. My parents gave me less than $1000 for all of my college (I don't know the exact amount). I used grants, loans, and I worked during my first year and final year. I have bachelors degrees in Finance and Economics. Though, I haven't found a job in the field yet, I think the investment knowledge I gained will be very helpful. I opened a high yield savings account in 2006.

6:07 PM, January 19, 2007  
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