Several months ago, I wrote about frugal tips that annoy the heck out of me. Apparently, I'm not the only one who gets irritated with stupid advice, as I had many many people read and comment on that post.
I thought I'd follow up with more financial advice and frugal tips that make very little sense and what I'd rather see in their place:
1. Coulda Shoulda Woulda Advice. I recently read this quick blog post on Bankrate.com detailing 10 different common retirement derailers, from low interest rates and market declines to supporting adult children and grandchildren and making bad investments. I don't want to pick on Bankrate here, since I generally love their information, but the post simply reported what those derailers are, as determined by an Ameriprise Financial study, and then reported what those who have been derailed wished that they had done differently.
And that's where I get annoyed.
I get that this article will probably be read by those individuals (like myself) who still have the time to avoid the derailing and act in the way that those polled wished they had. But that's hardly helpful for those poor schmoes out there who saw their nest egg lose $117,000 in value and have no idea what to do about it. Yes, hindsight may be 20/20, but for heaven's sake, what now?
I want to make it clear that I have ALWAYS hated this kind of "advice." As a student, when I would be struggling to finish a project the night before it was due and wishing I had a time machine, hearing from a well-meaning individual the words "well, you should have started earlier" could be enough to send me into an apoplectic rage. (I might even pull out the big guns on the "advice-giver" by lifting a single eyebrow in a way that could stop a charging rhinoceros in its tracks--a trick that I used to great effect as a teacher). Frankly, if you don't have anything more useful to say than "boy, were you stupid back in the past in a way that affects you now," then stay out of it. Really.
What I'd Prefer to See: Specific advice geared towards various age groups on how to deal with these sorts of bad choices. Yes, it's nice to know what those who are in a bind wished they had done differently, but without an action plan with specific advice, just telling me that people who are facing a major retirement shortfall wished they started saving earlier and wished they'd worked harder to understand investments is tantamount to saying "Yeah, just don't be stupid." It's not that helpful. Tell me ways to save more now and resources for gaining better understanding of investments.
And for those who have already "been stupid," for the love of all that is beautiful, please give some advice. Telling them "coulda shoulda woulda" just leaves them hanging AND beating themselves up for something that it is impossible to change.
2. Move to a cheaper area of the country. The Mensch family is living proof that living someplace inexpensive can make an enormous difference in your life. We moved from Columbus, Ohio, which was not an extravagant city to live in the first place, to Lafayette, IN, where prices seem to have been stuck in the 1980s. The reason for that difference in cost of living is simple--unlike New York, Chicago, DC, or even Columbus, not many people choose to relocate to Lafayette. (And in some cases, the people who are born here get out of town as quickly as possible.)
I like it here very much. It's a great place to raise LO and Thing 2, but I can tell you that it would not have been my first, second, or 17th choice in places settle down. I'm here because of J's job, and it's a lucky coincidence that we live in an inexpensive small town in an inexpensive area of the country. It allows me to work from home at a career I love and have the flexibility to be LO's (and eventually Thing 2's) primary caregiver. Things just aligned that way, and I'm very grateful for it.
But often, you will see throwaway advice about moving to a cheaper area of the country--as if it's that easy. This advice doesn't take into account your family and social support structure, your (and your spouse's) job prospects, your hobbies and preferences, the cost of moving, etc. It looks at the choice of where to live as a simple financial transaction, when it is so much more complicated than that.
There's nothing revolutionary about advising people to move to a place that's less expensive. Yes, we're aware that there are places that cost less to live. Unless the frugal advice-giver can also explain how to uproot your entire life, including living within walking distance of your elementary school librarian and being able to visit your Grandpa in the nursing home on a weekly basis, this advice is a non-starter.
What I'd Prefer to See: Tips for making your money go farther in expensive areas of the country. Granted, there are plenty of articles out there that offer tips on couponing, dollar stretching (ahem), and otherwise making do with less money, but providing this advice instead of simply tossing off the "move someplace cheaper!" line would help keep people from completely ignoring the advice altogether.
3. Time is Money. I remember three years ago, watching "America's Cheapest" (and most ironically named) family, the Economides, on The Today Show, talking about their new (at the time) book. This family is apparently able to feed a family of seven in Phoenix, Arizona on $350 a month. They do this by cutting coupons, scouring sales, double checking unit prices, and buying nearly expired meat. When Matt Lauer said that all that work sounds exhausting, Mrs. America's Cheapest Family responded that time is money. Anyone not spending that kind of time on feeding their family was going to be spending more money than the Economides.
Yes, I suppose that's true. And I certainly think it's a worthy goal to spend less on food and necessities and to minimize waste.
Time is not just money. Time is also your life. And time is the only commodity that you can NEVER get more of, while it's always possible to earn more money. If you're devoting hours upon hours to your quest for reducing expenses, I certainly hope that you're getting more from it than just the cost savings. Because if you're trading your time for money in such a way and you're getting nothing else out of it, it might make more sense to take on more work or get an additional job.
Clearly, the Economides enjoy living this lifestyle. Money saving is a kind of game to them, and that's great. But there are plenty of frugal individuals (and I am one of them) who would rather spend the extra money on groceries in order to have more time to play with my kid and read and work, etc, etc.
What I'd Prefer to See: Advice on picking your battles.
Money saving tips are not all created equal. For me, cutting coupons and cherry-picking sales at grocery stores is not worth the time. Before kids, when taking seven hours to do all my grocery shopping was not a big deal, it was worth it, but only because I got a little kick out of the savings. For someone who lives in an area with a higher cost of living, it may still make sense to do all that work to save money, even if you don't enjoy it. But forcing yourself through that work when you don't particularly want to spare the time, and you do not enjoy the game of it, is a good way to wonder why you're wasting a precious commodity that you could be savoring.
There are other ways to save money and stretch a budget that might not be as onerous. When giving advice on how to save money, I'd love to see multiple tips--along the lines of, "if you've got the time, try grocery shopping like the Economides. If you don't, start doing all of your shopping at lower-cost stores like Aldi. Here are great recipes that cost little to make. Try buying meat in bulk, etc."
We need to remember that saving money shouldn't be the only thing you're looking to do when you live frugally. You should be looking to live the life you want, not the cheapest life you can get away with.
Any other annoying tips that I've missed? What else do you wish people would either stop advising or at least clarify?