ROI for Life

How often do you examine the return on your investment of time and money? A dear friend once spent 3 hours in the waiting room of an auto shop to save $15 on an oil change. When I asked, she refused to sit quietly in the corner for an hour in exchange for $5. That’s an inefficient exchange of time for money.

Last week, a close relative spent $2000 repairing a car that’s worth about $500…after buying the replacement car. That’s a poor exchange of money for value.

Why do people make decisions like that? They seldom take a look at the values being traded. My friend knew she would have to work to replace the money she wouldn’t have saved, but didn’t think about the time she could never get back. My relative was emotionally fixated on the sunk costs of the repairs she had already put into the older car and couldn’t bear the thought of losing that “investment”. Neither was an example of rational decision-making, but rather a case of allowing emotions to rule.[Continue Reading…]

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Budget Lesson, Part 1

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Over the next few weeks, I will be going over my budget in detail.

The first section is income, but that’s straightforward.¬† A line for each income source, bi-weekly, monthly and annual totals.¬† Simple.

Before we start, a word on the organization.  There are five columns:

  • Category – This is the description of the line item.
  • Cost – How much do you pay for this item?
  • Time – What is the frequency of the payment?¬† Valid values are ‘m’, ‘q’, ‘y’, ‘w’ for ‘Monthly’, ‘Quarterly’, ‘Yearly’ and ‘Weekly’.
  • Monthly – Cost and Time are combined to calculate the monthly expense, to make it possibly to budget.¬† If this is $100, I need to set aside a C-Note each and every month to make the payment when it comes due.
  • Yearly – This column is mostly informative.¬† It’s helpful to see this in comparison to my annual pay.

The first section I am actually going to address is discretionary spending.

  • Groceries/Dining¬†¬† ¬†$475.00 – We don’t budget heavily for groceries, which would be a surprise if you saw me.¬† At the smallest I have ever been, fit, I was never small.¬† We shop smart, buy in bulk when it makes sense, and rarely eat out.¬† We also keep cooked rice and beans in containers in the refrigerator as a cheap and healthy way to stretch almost everything we eat.
  • Discretionary¬†¬† ¬†$250.00 – This gets used for household items, like toilet paper and soap.¬† It also get used for the odd book or movie, or to cover the gaps between the other categories and reality.
  • Baby stuff¬†¬† ¬†$60.00 – We have two children in diapers.¬† ‘Nuff said.¬† This category does get progressively smaller as the baby items are outgrown and the children get potty-trained.
  • Gas/oil¬†¬† ¬†$200.00 – Gas and auto-maintenance.¬† This is actually higher than monthly costs, allowing us to set some aside for larger maintenance issues.
  • Clothes¬†¬† ¬†$15.00 – All of our dressers are overflowing, so this is strictly replacement cost for the time being.¬† Our kids wear a lot of hand-me-downs.
  • Blow Money¬†¬† ¬†$50.00 – Occasionally, habitual shoppers need to shop.¬† If they don’t do it on-budget, they will do it off-budget and kill the whole idea.

Initially, we used a “virtual envelope” system.¬† We had a spreadsheet and every time something was spent in this category, we entered the amount and stopped when the category was spent.¬†¬† Didn’t work.¬† We are going on a pure, cash-only system as of the first of the year.¬† No money, no spendy.

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Hypocrisy

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Sometimes people make choices for a variety of reasons entirely outside of my knowledge and understanding.  Yet somehow, I still manage to be dismissive and occasionally derogatory.

What I have come to realize is that there are numerous reasons for making apparent bad decisions.   It is easy, though often not correct, to dismiss these supposed mistakes as character flaws, without taking the time to fully understand the decision-making process.

For example, I am usually quick to point out the folly of gadgets.¬† Odd, that, for a gadget geek.¬† So many gadgets are merely ego purchases, bought because the are “cool”.¬† Obviously a waste of money.¬†¬† A smartphone serves no practical purpose for an average person, right? What if that person’s life is so difficult to manage that a calendar sync including both spouses and multiple calendars will allow a family to make sure every kid gets to every activity on time?¬† Or he has a side business that is easier to manage with ubiquitous email?¬† Or even a strong urge to limit the number of items carried every day?¬† A phone/mp3 player is fewer gadgets than separate appliances.

Another example is a close friend who started running several months ago, to be met with questions of why somebody would run without being chased.¬† It’s easier to play on the internet or ride a bike, right?¬† And the special running shoes?¬† Silly.¬† Except running is cheaper than biking and running shoes beat knee surgery any day.¬†¬† Running on the street is more effective than a treadmill, since you can’t step off after running two miles away from your house.

So here I sit, a runner with a crackberry and plate full of crow.

“Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins.”¬† Indeed.

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Naked Money

In our house, the bills don’t get hidden. I’ve never tried to hide our finances from our children. I believe doing that is part of the reason I reached adulthood with no brakes. Growing up, finances were almost entirely invisible.¬† Now, I believe is financial transparency.

Now, as a father, I balance the checkbook and pay bills on the laptop in the living room where my children can see me. They see the stack of bills and they watch me balance the checkbook. We discuss how much things cost and how we can cut expenses while the bills are being paid.  Even the toddlers know Daddy is doing something important.

My ten-year-old son knows what sales tax is and where to find it on a receipt. He knows what property taxes are and how much they are in our neighborhood. He knows roughly what percentage of a paycheck gets withheld. I work to make my son financially aware. My girls are too young to understand the concept of money, but they will be receiving a thorough financial education as soon as they are able to grasp the concepts.

The hard part is explaining to my son how we screwed up our finances. I’ve shown him my paycheck and discussed our debt. I have explained to him that we were making much less money when we accumulated our doom debt, while maintaining a higher standard of living.¬† Now, when we go to the store, he doesn’t even ask if he can borrow money until we get to his bank account.¬† He has learned to dislike debt in almost all forms.¬† I’m fairly proud that my kid voluntarily practices delayed gratification.

What he doesn’t quite grasp is the idea of living within your means, even if your means are limited.¬†¬† “But, Dad, what if you don’t have much money?¬† Then you have to borrow money for nice things, right?”¬† I’m not sure how to break him of that.¬† Delayed gratification is an understandable concept for him, but the difference between wants and needs seems to be missing. ¬† Any ideas?

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