Thursday, October 29, 2009

Can you do without ... a college education?

Making frugal, smart choices isn't just about the little things. Major life decisions should be approached with the same care and thought, if not more, as a monthly grocery budgeting plan.

For many, especially those of us who grew up lower-middle class, a college education will be the most expensive purchase of our lifetimes.

Do you really need it? The answer is, as always, depends on what you value.

College opens up the opportunity to work jobs that would not otherwise be accessible. College opens up the opportunity to make money. College can saddle a person with a debt equal to many years of their yearly income. College is asking a person to commit their personal and financial futures to what they think they want to do for the rest of their lives at that exact moment. All of these statements are true.

As mentioned in the post about debt earlier this week, the average college graduate will make about $1.5 million more than their high-school graduate counterparts during the course of their lifetime. But that's a good example of a bad statistic.

Not all college degrees are alike.

Advanced, professional degrees in the fields of medicine, law and engineering make up the vast majority of those extra wages. Take them out, and the college vs. no college numbers even up considerably. Some degrees actually have less earnings potential than your average HS grad.

Three Amigos

Three friends are graduating high school and have to decide what they want to do with their lives: Tom, Dick, and Harry. None of them are the high achievers who are going off to big-time schools in prestigious fields on scholarships.

Tom is enamored with the college experience. He's got good grades and has been able to get into his state's flagship public university, but has no scholarships. He's not sure what he wants in a career.

Dick wants to be a teacher. In order to save some money, he's going to start at a small community college for two years and then decide where he wants to transfer.

Harry isn't particularly interested in school, but he likes working and he's good with money. He goes to work for a landscaping business.

A few years later....

Tom switched majors once and graduated with a degree in sociology after five years. He got some basic state aid grants and borrowed on student loans to make up the rest, including his living expenses on-campus. He has $80,000 in student-loan debt and will be making $30,000/year as a social worker. He has no assets or savings. He will be making the minimum payments on his student loans for 25 years, and with interest he will end up paying $150,000 for his college education. He's started saving for retirement five years later, and he will already have to work five extra years to pay off those student loans.

Dick worked part-time to off-set the price of community college, and then went to a small state school with a reputation for its decent education program and an affordable tuition rate (huzzah Eastern Illinois University!). Dick finished in four years and had only $6,000 in student loan debt, and will be making $30,000/year as a teacher now, living his dream.

Harry worked hard lived frugally and saved 30% of his income for four years in a bank account with a two-percent interest rate (not much, but he's pretty cautious). He's been promoted to field supervisor at work, making $30,000 year. He has $25,000 in savings already and no debt at all. He doesn't love his job, but he has money and time to pursue some fun hobbies. With his savings, he's looking at putting the down payment on a modest house and starting a small side business that he hopes could grow. He's at least five years, probably more, closer to retirement than either Tom or Dick.

Yes, these are contrived examples, but it shows how much our college choices can affect our future down here in the ordinary bachelor degrees.

So what factors should you consider?

How much help will you be getting to pay for college?
If you have scholarships or your parents can help pay for it, college begins to make a lot more financial sense.

Where do you want to go to school?
If you would be happy living at home and going to a community college for two years, college will be significantly more affordable than it will be for someone who wants to get away from it all and go to school across the country.

Do you want to work to live, or live to work?
Having a dream job, doing what you love, is very important to some people. For many others, they just want to punch a clock from 9 to 5 and live their lives on evenings and weekends.

Are you entrepreneurial?
Are you willing and able to put time, effort and risk into your own business, or do you just want to cash a paycheck working for someone else?

Do you know what you want to major in, and can you trust yourself to be a good student?
Prolonging college by switching majors (or just not being focused enough) is just throwing money away, and in most cases it's throwing a lot of money away.

Have you crunched the numbers?
Make a spreadsheet. Calculate the cost of college and the increased salary you might be getting vs. the money you could be saving and the interest it would be compounding. But this is important: Be realistic with your numbers. Don't just assume the best-case scenario. The same is true for deciding how in-demand your major will be when you graduate.

In the end, like all simplicity decisions, it's about understanding what's best for you after you've thought the decision through. Only you know what is really best for you and your life.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A 5000 percent return on investment

There's a lot of money to be saved in the kitchen, and money equals freedom. Little luxuries that aren't needed or appreciated add up quickly and rob us of our wealth.

The little guy seen in the picture to the left is the most efficient money-saving tool in my entire kitchen. What is he? A cheese slicer.

All throughout the supermarket, there are companies willing to charge you a lot for simple tasks. My wife likes to eat lunchmeat sandwiches, but only with good cheese. I'm a Kraft singles kind of guy, so it always irked me to be paying $4 or $5 for a package of 12 pieces of swiss or Colby Jack.

The cheese slicer caught my eye one day in the store. It was just hanging there on a little rack of cheap utensils, each $1. It dawned on me to check the price of block cheese. Sure enough, blocks of cheese are generally about 1/3rd the price of sliced cheese. This is the exact same cheese of the exact same quality, but these companies are charging you three times as much for the convenience of having it pre-sliced. Crazy!

The cheap slicer works amazingly well. The slices come out even a little thicker than pre-sliced cheese, which I like. It's easy to clean. And the big blocks of cheese can be useful in other recipes as well.

Monthly savings: around $4, but can vary wildly depending on cheese usage in diet. That works out to $50/year for a $1 investment. The stock market should be so lucky.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

What is debt?

Debt is a tool.

Let's get this out of the way now. Yes, debt is a tool. It's a vital tool for society. Businesses need it, for certain, and entrepreneurship is the backbone of our society.

Individuals can use debt wisely as well. A student from a poor background can use student loans to attend a college program that opens up the door to earnings that are many times what he would make otherwise. Taking on a reasonable mortgage can mean building equity with your monthly housing expenses rather than spending it on rent that you'll never see again.

Now that we got that out of the way ...

Debt is a dangerous tool

Debt isn't a hammer, where the worst you can do is smash your thumb pretty good. Nor is debt a kitchen appliance, where you'd probably have to put your mind to it to really hurt yourself.

Debt is a power tool. It's a raging chainsaw that can and will do you grievous damage with ordinary use, if that use is not careful and does not follow all of the carefully planned safety guideliens.

You wouldn't walk into a building store, buy a chainsaw, assume you know how to use it, and begin applying it to every problem in your everyday life. Don't do it with debt either.

Debt is indentured servitude

Debt is nothing but the promise to pay money later. And most of us only get money through work, whether it be for an employer or for ourselves. So when you borrow money, you are promising to work a certain amount for that money in the future. And it adds up fast.

The average American household has about $18,500 in debt and makes about $50,000 a year in income. Even before taxes, that debt represents a pledge to work, on average, about 775 hours of work, almost 20 weeks.

The average American household has promised to work for 20 weeks of their future in exchange for money they've already spent, in exchange for nothing new. They will add nothing to their lives or their pocketbooks for that work, they will be working for nothing.

Debt is choosing to pay more

Imagine walking into the grocery store and seeing all the price tags have changed. Eggs are now marked "$1.29 per dozen or $1.89 per dozen." You reach for the milk, and it says "$2.19 per gallon, or $3.29 per gallon." You reach the register and the cashier rings you up. "That will be $149.53, or $215.88. Which would you prefer?"

It seems nonsensical, but people buying consumer items with debt choose the more expensive option every single day. Debt is nothing more than the promise to pay more later than you would have to pay now if you had the money.

The most common way we fool ourselves is that debt usually involves payment. You don't borrow $100 and know that you have to pay $120 in six months. You borrow $100 and promise to pay $20 each month for the next six months. The more complicated the math, the easier it is to not think about the reality of how much you are truly paying.

On a web forum I read, a poster was asking for the advice of which of two cars to choose: A used car with a loan payment of $250 a month for three years, or a new car with a payment of $600 per month for six years. Ignoring the fact that the poster can't really afford either, there was a psychological reason for choosing to think about the cars in those terms. $250 vs. $300 is just $50 per month. It makes them seem as if there was little difference in price. The reality is that the second car would cost $9,000 more. $9,000 seems like a lot of money, $50 does not.

Debt is not necessary, it is a choice

We do have bankruptcy laws for a reason. People who find themselves in dire straits due to, say, unexpected medical bills have a way to discharge them without having their lives and livelihoods ruined. There are no more debtors' prisons.

But otherwise, nobody needs debt. We choose debt. We choose student loans rather than working in high school and college to save up for a small state school. We choose car loans instead of doing without a car until we can afford a cheaper one.

I'm not saying the choice isn't easy. Besides peer pressure, we have an increasingly skilled and complex marketing complex in this country all designed at whipping us up into a consumer frenzy. But it's still a choice.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Can you do without... cable TV?

We're going to pick some low-hanging fruit here.

Cable TV has always been a bit of a luxury. Growing up, my sister and I could sort of tell when things were going well financially and when they weren't, just by whether we had cable.

But with the world of entertainment choices right at our fingertips these days, it's becoming an even more marginal choice.

How much does it really cost?

"There's 70 channels and nothing on!" We've all heard that sentiment expressed at some point.

Paying for TV channels is entertainment. There's nothing wrong with spending money on entertainment. But are you getting the best bang for your buck?

First, consider what percentage of your budget should be going to entertainment. That should come after shelter (rent or mortgage), food, debt repayment, transportation, utilities, and even basic savings. For most families, what's left for entertainment is going be somewhere between 5 and 10% of their budget. How much of that is cable eating up? Would you rather go to an extra movie or two each month? Have a nice meal out?

Can you afford it at all?

Almost half of Americans still live paycheck-to-paycheck. Cutting out cable TV is an oft-cited way of beginning to save.

Take a savings account with an initial balance of $1 and a meager 1% interest rate. Depositing $50 each month into it would yield the following balances at the end of each year:

Year Balance
1 $603.77
2 $1,212.59
3 $1,827.53
4 $2,448.65
5 $3,076.00

A couple years without cable and you're well on your way to basic savings.

What are some alternative?

Cable TV has always been the grab-bag of entertainment. You pay for a lot of stuff you don't want. There's been some movement toward forcing companies to offer channels a-la-carte, but it doesn't seem to be getting anywhere. Why not focus your entertainment dollar a little more on what you truly find entertaining?

1) Free, over-the-air TV

This got a little trickier with the transition to digital broadcasting, but it's still a perfectly legit alternative for people who just want to watch a little TV and keep up on the news.

2) Free, online alternatives is the most famous. It's a place where you can keep up with most popular TV shows and some interesting blasts from the past. You can watch episodes of currently running shows at your leisure, and you can plow through entire seasons of older shows as you see fit.

3) Paid online subscriptions
For sports fans, giving up cable can be difficult. If you just have to have a broad array of sports on-hand at any time, then maybe giving up cable isn't for you. But if you are a big fan of one sport, there's often a good option online for you. and each have excellent online subscription services for watching games, and you get a much broader set of choices of what to watch.

4) Mail-based subscriptions , I must admit, I thought would be a flash-in-the-pan. But it's growing in popularity quickly. It's a subscription service which mails you DVDs from your selections of a broad choice of movies and TV shows. You keep each selection as long as you like, then when you mail it back, they send you another choice from your list. Plans range in price depending on how many DVDs you can have out at a time, as low as $8.99. Subscription also gives you access to their growing "on-demand" service to watch shows and movies via the internet.

5) Go without TV.
Never mind, this is probably crazy talk. I'll move along...

Why you might not want to do without it?

1) You can afford it. If there's plenty of room in the budget and you are saving well, there's no need to give up something you really enjoy.

2) You are under a contract that would involve significant termination fees if you cancelled.

3) TV really is your best and primary source of entertainment. If you just really enjoy watching a lot of television, that's okay too. The best thing about being an adult is you get to prioritize according to what *you* like.

4) If you get it bundled with internet and/or phone service and it's not going to save you money to drop it. Some people get a package deal where it's virtually the same cost, or even more, to have just one of these services as it would be to get two.

As always, it's a personal decision. But it needs to be just that, a decision, and not just a knee-jerk assumption that you have to have cable. Think it out, consider what you can afford and whether it's a strong use of your money.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Time is more precious than money.

It's not (just) about the money ...

We live in a futuristic paradise of plentiful food, amazing technology, cheap housing, advanced education and shorter workweeks than any other century.

And yet so many people are almost never happy. Why? Because they don't really think through what they do with their time. Time is finite, it is precious and it is irrevocable. You can't bank it and spend it later.

A certain amount of time must be spent sleeping, and for most of us working is a must-do, too. By the time you include basic household chores, there isn't much time for anything else. So what should you be doing with the rest of your time?

What you want to do with it.

That's not as easy as it sounds. Imagine if you decided you wanted to cook something and just started grabbing whatever ingredients were in front of you. That'd be a lot easier than following a recipe carefully, but the result wouldn't be nearly as good. The same goes with our time.

What do most of us do when we've run out of things we have to do? We "veg out." Idle website clicking, idle TV watching. There's nothing wrong with TV watching, but it should be reserved for something you really want to see.

Have you ever sat down and thought about what you enjoy doing with your time? Here are three things I enjoy doing that I never did until I finally made a point to just do them:

1) Learning to cook. I started with a simple, delicious homemade bread recipe, and now my arsenal is pretty large, including a wicked made-from-scratch pizza that is cheap and fantastic.

2) Joining a curling league.

3) Blogging

None of those things are as easy as plopping in front of a TV. Cooking means making a commitment to shop for ingredients, and once you've started you are committed to a certain amount of time without turning back. I had to plan my workweek around getting Tuesdays off for curling. But I enjoy those activities a lot more than I do getting worked up over whatever stupid thing the cable "news" channels are trying to convince me of.

Make a log of your time. What do you spend it on each week? What are the optional activities you get the least enjoyment out of, and how much time do you spend on them? What activity would you enjoy more that could replace those least-valuable hours?

Your time is your most valuable asset. Don't waste it.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Can you do without ... extra cell-phone minutes?

(note: This is intended to be the first in an on-going series for this blog, asking people to think about whether they can do without something. The answer will be different for everyone, it may well be that you can't. And that's okay. But consider it).

Even after a year of being one of those annoying frugality acolytes, it still shocks me how much waste I can find in my budget.

I've been eyeing the cell phone on the budget for months. I hate spending $100/month, when we could get a landline for $30. My wife insists that it's important to her, and I can respect that, but it nagged at me.

Its been many years since my wife and I got a cell-phone plan. At the time, I'd heard some horror stories about overusage charges. I also am loathe to appear cheap and always try to avoid buying the least expensive option. So I ended up signing us up for a much larger usage plan than we actually needed. How much larger?

I went over a year's worth of bills today online, and we'd never used 1/3rd of the minutes we were paying for, or even 1/5th of the text messages.

I also found out that I had the option of slimming down to a much smaller plan in exchange for extending the contract, which doesn't bother me because we've had the same plan for so long and I like the company and service.

Total savings: $40/month.

Multiply that by the number of months since we got the cell phone, and you arrive at a number that is awfully close to equal to three paychecks. I spent six weeks of work just paying the phone company for something I never once used!

Bottom line: If someone like me, who is a budget nerd, can find $500/year still there for the taking with just a few minutes effort, how much can someone who has never really thought about it find? Could you give yourself a $1,000/year "raise" by lowering expenses that much without losing anything? $5,000? You'll never know until you look.

Most cell-phone plans are complicated, and that's intentional. They want to scare you into buying more than you need. But given that most plans come with free nights and weekends standard, as well as calls to people using the same company, it'd be hard to use up a lot of minutes for most ordinary users. If you use the phone a lot for business purposes during the day, it might be a different story.

But if you just don't feel comfortable planning it out at the startup, don't be afraid to go over your bills and check out how much you are actually using. That should be the true test. The only caveat is to be careful: Overage charges really can be awful. Don't go overboard and cost yourself more money in the long run.

Friday, October 16, 2009

How low can you go?

How much is it possible to live on? And live comfortably?

I'm not asking anyone to live on a bulk rice and tapwater diet. But I do think we need to understand the difference between a need and a luxury.

How does this life sound for a single person:

Efficiency apartment in Champaign, Illinois. This is a small college town of about 210,000 people (including some adjacent, contiguous towns). By big-city standards that's tiny, but by my standards that's huge (I grew up in tiny farm towns with four-digit populations). Especially because it's a college town, there's plenty to do.

Cost: $250/month

Basic utilities: $100/month (I'm probably going a bit high here)

Landline phone: $50/month

Food: $200/month. (This one always trips people up. Trust me, you can eat *better* cooking at home with cheap, simple ingredients than eating that nasty fast-food garbage. It's cheaper and healthier).

Let's say you already have a bicycle for transportation and a laptop for entertainment (there's plenty of free wi-fi in a college town). You've now got a very decent life going for $600/month. You could be making twice that and saving the difference on minimum wage alone. Add a second person to the equation and a one-bedroom apartment, and you add maybe $400 to the cost and a minimum of $1200 in earnings potential.

That's the basic. Start from there. Add whatever luxuries you can afford until you get to your life. But only add what you can truly afford.

What's the payoff?

I've put a lot of thought into this. Right now, my mandatory expenses budget for my family (me, my wife, my newborn baby) is around $25,000/year. Most people would gasp at the thought of living on a mere $25k (and I fully admit that living in a cheap, rural area helps). But it can be done, and it's not even that tight of a budget.

This also includes $6,500 of minimum payments on a couple of debts that we thoroughly regret.

We've given up some things. We almost never eat out, we no longer have a TV or cable, we don't go on vacations that don't include trips to see (and stay with) family. But we haven't given up anything that we really miss. We live in a very small apartment. We have some extravagances, too, such as a high-speed internet connection and a rather pricey cell-phone plan.

But what do we get in a return for those losses? Peace of mind!

Less than two months after we restarted our lives in the minimalist fashion (not entirely by choice, another story for another time), we joined that select group of Americans that do *not* live paycheck to paycheck. The first time we realized we could go to the grocery store whenever we felt like, not just the day after payday, my wife cried with joy. I almost did a little dance the first time the car broke down and I realized I didn't have to call any family members to beg for money.

We both come from poor backgrounds, which isn't fun, but also helps us keep our goals in perspective. The idea of owning a home, any home, is one of our biggest dreams. I frequently daydream about the day I'll walk into a used car lot and pay cash for a cheap used car when my current one dies. As mentioned above, just being able to buy groceries is a relief.

It's worth it.

It all starts with a budget

For years, I didn't have a budget. My wife and I just bought what we felt we needed to buy with whatever money we had. For a while it sort of worked. Sometimes we'd run out before we got to some basics like "pay utilities." And we'd get further and further behind, frustrated and confused. Weren't we good people? Didn't we try not to be too extravagant?

The end result was a disaster that I may go into in more detail at a later date. Short version: It will be a long time before anyone ever offers us any sort of credit, or even a checking account, again.

Now we have a budget, and it does pretty well for us. We don't make any more money than we did before, but it goes a long way. The screenshot is above.


Welcome to my site on minimalism!

What is minimalism, you say? Minimalism is deciding what's really important to you in life and not wasting your time, money or energy on anything else.

Imagine if you were rebuilding your life from the ground up. No commitments, no habits, no monthly bills. What would you keep? What would you not really need?

Mostly, this is about money. We live in a wasteful country, where we are among the most prosperous in the world yet are constantly deep in debt and high on stress. Why? Because we rarely consider the value of our money. We just keep buying stuff that catches our eye or that other people have, until we run out of money.

Let's change that, shall we?