Monday, November 16

The American way: Spend your way to savings

Okay, I have accepted that not everyone can be perfectly frugal. (I certainly can't.) I get that the average American isn't going to be as successful at pinching pennies as the average personal finance blogger. It's unrealistic to expect that kind of thing.

But then I see something like the little blip on CBS News called Money Talks, where Kelli Grant from talks about small ways to save. And, boy, were they small.

Grant offers tidbits like:

  • Use bookstore loyalty programs. For example, Barnes & Noble's free membership can save up to 30% on books.
  • Itunes isn't the only game in town. Programs like DownloadShopper can help you find the cheapest site to get a digital song.
  • Veni, venti, Visa. Get a Starbucks credit card and get 3% cash back when you reload your Starbucks reward account. (One percent on other purchases.) Plus you get free syrup/milk options and free refills on brewed coffee.

It's taking all of my self-control not to rant for an entire post about the idea of saving money by getting a credit card at Starbucks. Also, look... I'm not a coffee drinker so I'm clueless, I accept that. But why would free refills on brewed coffee be an attractive way to save money? Isn't that still more expensive than buying Starbucks beans and brewing from home?

And the books thing: Exactly how many new hardbacks will you be buying while working your way out of debt? I'm just curious. Call me old-fashioned, but I do this weird thing: I go to a government building and rent books for free. But, hey, if you dislike enjoying the fruits of taxpayer money, there are also stores that sell used books. (Think of them as certified pre-owned.)

Just out of curiosity, though, I checkout Barnes & Noble's membership. It claims to give 40% off hardcover bestsellers, 20% off adult hardcovers, and 10% on "almost everything else" (emphasis added) for a mere $25 a year. In looking around the website, though, I noticed the books all seemed to have a cheap, "online" price. The hardback bestsellers I saw were generally discounted about 30% from the list price. The members' prices were generally discounted another 10% or so, which I'm guessing is where you get that 40% savings mentioned on the membership page. In case you haven't done the math by now, that means you would need to spend about $250 on books in order to make up that initial $25 membership fee.

Let me point out here, I agree with the basic premise of the piece, which was called Saving on Life's Little Luxuries. (The actual Smart Money article is called Splurging on a Budget; You can Do It.) I think it's smart to remind people that frugality doesn't mean complete deprivation. Nor does it mean immediate and total immersion into money-saving mode. It's something that does need to be approached in small increments.

And it's not like I expect these kind of basic pieces to cover new ground for people like us. The average reader of these things isn't the average reader of PF blogs. So I try to keep my temper -- and keep from rolling my eyes too much -- when listening to these snippets of advice. What may seem banal or trite to many of us could easily be helpful to a neophyte.

Even with all that, this piece disappointed me. More than that, really. It pissed me off.

What bugs me isn't the obvious stuff that Grant left out -- and she left out plenty. Like that you could just listen to the radio and wait to buy music until your money situation is better. (Certainly you wouldn't want to break the law by using sites like Lime Wire. That would be wrong... cough, cough.) Or that you can do most manicure/pedicare/waxing stuff at home. Failing that, perhaps you could just try a beauty school, where the cost is often quite small for such indulgences.

No, it's not all the information was was MIA. That part is actually understandable: Articles have character or word counts. Even more importantly, Grant was probably told what tone to take, which is to say, what kind of audience to write for.

And that, actually is my problem: Her audience. Grant is writing about frugality for people who honestly believe they shouldn't have to do any of the hard work implicit in frugal living. She's essentially writing an article about avoiding sacrifice, but she's gearing the whole piece toward people who want to give up so little that they might as well just be waiting for their fairy godmothers to show up and wave a wand.

Look, I get it. No one wants to cut out the fun stuff. And I agree with some points in the article that remind us not to go cold turkey. I think it's a mistake to cut out every single unnecessary expense, unless that's the only way you can avoid bankruptcy/homelessness/going without food. In that vein, you'll never find me trying to get between the average person and his coffee. It's like getting between a bear and its cub -- except you don't have the safety of being able to play dead!

But there is a line that shouldn't be crossed, when it comes to articles about budgeting. I believe this one crosses it. Grant's piece flies clear past that boundary when it suggests that, when you're cash-strapped -- it's still okay to buy enough books to need a paid membership. Or that it's financially prudent to acquire another credit card in order to save money on specialty coffee.

This piece and others like it are part of an irritating new wave of frugality articles. They are hell-bent on assuring this nation that little to no sacrifice is required to save money, that you can change your life without making any major life changes.

Of course, part of the problem is there is a huge audience for this kind of writing. We want to believe it because it's a lot more palatable than the truth. Heck, we've wanted to hear this stuff all along. That's why get-rich-quick schemes worked -- at least, for the person who sold you the secrets.

Americans got this deep into financial trouble because they wanted to believe -- and so people were happy to be paid to tell them -- that they could have everything. Money didn't require work, and that conspicuous consumption was cool -- and the funds to pay it all would show up down the road. The major theme of it all is simple: No hard work or hard choices are necessary to get things to go your way.

So now most Americans consider the concept of a budget to be completely foreign. And they're still waiting for that old message to kick back in. They're still hoping someone will tell them that things will get better without much effort or sacrifice on their part. Which is pretty much what these sorts of articles feed into.

It's a perfect niche for articles like Grant's. Sure, the piece could tell Americans the cold, hard truth: Getting back to a good financial base will be hard work and will probably require some sacrifices. But where's the market for that? It's a lot easier to pretty up the facts. Heck, Grant's article manages to imply that, not only can you keep spending and acquiring, you can do it and consider yourself budget conscious!

Look, I understand -- and agree with -- the idea that people shouldn't tackle frugality all at once. But can we please differentiate that from what's going on in this article? There's the advice to gradually immerse yourself into a frugal life for a sustainable change to a budget-conscious, financially intelligent lifestyle. On the other hand, there's this article, which tells people that they can keep spending on things they don't really need, with no obvious end to the behavior. It's irresponsible.

You don't give someone a gastric bypass and then tell him that the occasional milkshake will be okay. First, you get him used to the idea of parceling out food in small amounts and eating more healthy items. Then you discuss, further down the road, small ways to indulge once in awhile. Even then, he'll mostly be satisfying his sweet tooth with fruit. He needs a complete overhaul in how and what he eats.

Americans aren't much different. We're in a situation, now, where we've proven we can't stick to diets and other, less drastic alternatives. So now we're considering the big stuff -- and that can't (nor should it) be simple. It has to be supplemented with major life changes.

We need to relearn how to consume in a sensible, sustainable manner. What we don't need is a a so-called expert telling us that, after the operation, we'll be able to have whatever we want. It sounds great; I'm sure we all would love to hear it.

Instead, we need to hear the truth. And that is that we've lost sight of what is healthy for us, what is smart for our long-term future. Until we're ready to hear that, no real change can be made.


Anonymous Shevy said...

Isn't it very much like the American obsession with the perfect diet? How to lose 5, 10, 20 pounds or more and never feel deprived, never have to work hard at it or do anything out of the ordinary? This is just the financial version of the same thing.

BTW, I do have the perfect new diet. It's called the H1N1 Diet and I've proven that you can lose at least 5 pounds in 1 week without having to count calories or exercise! If I can just publish it fast enough I'll probably make a fortune! LOL

November 16, 2009 at 10:12 AM

Blogger Abigail said...

Ah, but Shevy, I think the severe discomfort of any flu is more than most Americans could handle. But yes, once again finances and food are just so parallel that even those without the flu want to vomit.

November 16, 2009 at 1:52 PM

Anonymous frugal zeitgeist said...

I guess doing something is better than doing nothing, but in a dire financial situation, using store loyalty cards to save money on shopping for books is like putting a bandaid on an amputation.

November 16, 2009 at 4:20 PM

Blogger Mrs. Modern Tightwad said...

I don't think I could've said it better than fz. I think people are so tired of talk about surviving the recession, cutting back, etc. that they're looking for things that make them feel like they're being frugal or making smart decisions, without actually doing anything productive. It's rather frustrating to see. I was at Target a couple weeks ago picking up cheap apple juice and yogurt and saw someone buying two LCD TVs that were on sale. I seriously doubt two TVs in their house went out simultaneously, but I guess taking advantage of a good deal is smart...sorta.

November 19, 2009 at 9:37 PM

Blogger Abigail said...

Hmm, I don't know why both of these comments didn't show up in my inbox until yesterday, Nov 19th.

But I do think FZ has put it as pithily as it can get. You feel better that you've done something. Meanwhile, you're still hemorrhaging badly, and you won't survive long.

As for 2 LCD TVs, Mrs. MT, I just don't think you understand. Because, see, if you can't get a really CRISP picture of all the commercials -- in more than one room in your home -- then you won't know what to spend your money on next!

But, yeah, seriously... I got a little queasy reading that.

November 20, 2009 at 1:34 PM


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