Couponrific photo courtesy of expert couponers
Julie & Heidi from West Linn & Gillette, USA
This morning at the gym, I was perusing AARP magazine (I read it for the articles! Really!), when I came across a piece by Jeff Yeager, the self-proclaimed Ultimate Cheapskate. Now, Mr. Yeager offered some great advice to the readers on ways to reduce spending. But I still found myself getting annoyed with his article, as I often do with articles dealing with frugality, in that some of his advice will not work in anything resembling the real world. So, even though I myself have been guilty of writing these kinds of frugality articles, I have decided to share with you the frugal tips that drive me most crazy:
1. Drive less. Okay, I am a committed environmentalist, a runner, and one who truly enjoys running what errands I can on foot. However, this advice is completely insane for most people.
First of all, without driving, getting my son to school would be next to impossible, considering he can't walk that far and the main drag that his school is on is not exactly bicycle friendly.
Secondly, unless you work at a job wherein it's okay to arrive sweaty and gross, riding a bike or walking to work is really not that feasible. It's also not necessarily safe. When we moved to Lafayette, J was thrilled to be about a mile from work because it meant he could finally bike to work. Except he can't, because even though it's only a mile away, it's a mile of heavy traffic with no bike lanes. We all like J very much here at Chez Mensch, and we'd prefer he didn't get clipped by a semi on his way to work.
Third, walking, riding a bike, or even taking public transportation really increases the amount of time you need to spend commuting. I personally already feel as though my days are not getting their allotted 24 hours, let alone adding to my regular travel time.
Finally, my big problem with this advice is that very few people will see any kind of real change in their finances by driving less unless they actually give up a car. I admire those people who are able to do this, but that's just not feasible for the majority of Americans. We live in a car-centric society. Even if you run errands once a week on foot, you're not really going to notice a huge difference in your wallet.
What I'd prefer to see: Articles giving very specific advice on how to improve mileage and maintenance on cars, as well as specific ideas for how to start car pools. It's not enough just to tell us to drive less. Give us ideas of how to do it, or, barring that, give us ideas on how to make driving less expensive.
2. The Latte Factor. This one annoys me so much I've already written about it here and here. This idea was coined by David Bach, who showed that small expenses add up. Specifically, he claims that if you buy a $5 latte five days a week for 50 weeks of the year, you're wasting $1250.
He's not wrong about that--it's just missing the point. Yes, spending a little money on something every day will add up to big bucks over time. But the sort of people who are actually reading frugality advice have already given up their small daily luxuries. I've never seen anyone who spends $5 every day on a cup of coffee also clip coupons, give up their car, and hang out their laundry rather than use a dryer. People who are spending money every day on a small luxury are probably also spending money regularly on big luxuries, which are a heck of a lot easier to cut out than the small ones.
Also, it's incredibly frustrating to click on a link that says "try this one tip to save $1000 per year!" and find that it's just another incarnation of the Latte factor. We get it, okay! Small amounts add up.
What I'd prefer to see: More behavioral economics-based ideas on how to make saving easier. It's hard to think of small amounts as being worth much of anything. In fact, studies have shown that we are more likely to spend four $5 bills rather than one $20. So it can be very difficult to rewire our thinking to make the small amounts worth saving. I'd love to see some concrete suggestions for doing just that. It's a heck of a lot more helpful than just saying "stop buying expensive coffee and bank that money instead!"
3. Downsize. Now, I am absolutely a proponent of small home living. Our first house was only 1180 square feet, and our current home is only slightly larger at 1600 square feet. And that's just fine by me. Less house means less for me to clean (poorly), less to heat and cool, and fewer rooms where I could lose a two-year-old who is running away from the prospect of a bath.
But let's say you already live in a 4500 square foot house and you're having trouble making ends meet. Does telling you to sell the house and downsize really help at all, especially in this housing market? Add to that the fact that moving is not free, even if you have a friend with a pickup truck and a free weekend, and this advice becomes basically useless. Downsizing is not something that is going to reduce immediate costs.
What I'd prefer to see: People who bought more house than they can afford need specific advice on ways they can cut expenses. For example, I never see anyone advising McMansion owners to shut off parts of their homes, just like impoverished gentry used to do with the old homestead in the early 20th century. Making what you own more affordable is going to be much more helpful than saying "Sorry, you should have bought a smaller house!"
4. Buy a car that gets better gas mileage. This one really gets under my skin, because it's become such a holy grail among car buyers that they completely ignore every other aspect of car ownership. Yes, excellent mileage is a great goal, but if you have to spend $20,000 in order to improve the price at the gas pump, something is seriously wrong. Also, driving a Prius like a jerk (that is, lots of starts and stops, heavy on the brake, lots of wide open throttle) is going to be worse for the environment/your wallet than driving a Ford Fusion responsibly.
What I'd prefer to see: Real suggestions about good quality cars that are inexpensive to buy and maintain. You can find this information on car blogs, so I see it because my husband has an intravenous Jalopnik feed, but you don't see such information among money folks. Instead, you get throwaway advice like "buy a car with good gas mileage." Also, better advice on how to drive in order to (responsibly) maximize gas mileage would be truly helpful.
I'm just as guilty as the next finance writer for suggesting glib one-sentence advice for improving finances. The problem is that so much of what we write is of the Top 10 list variety, and there really is only so much you can say in that short a space. But once you've gotten far enough into frugality that you are regularly reading frugal tips, then most of this glibness is completely useless.
What tips do you hate reading over and over again?