When Smart Personal Finance Habits Become Just Stupid

When Smart Personal Finance Habits Become Just Stupid

When you start getting your finances in order, it's exciting. You see the basic concepts and rules of personal finance in action, and, after a while, they start to pay off. This makes it easy to become a personal finance devotee. But even the best financial advice can become counterproductive.

Sometimes we try to use these rules when they don't make much sense. Here are a few instances when otherwise smart personal finance concepts become kind of silly.

When We Do Frugality Wrong

People often confuse frugality with being cheap. Here's the difference: frugality is about being resourceful; being cheap is about saving money at all costs. But because frugality is mostly about being resourceful with your money, it can often lead to being cheap.

And basic frugal clichés don't help: spend less than you earn, a penny saved, and a hundred others you've heard before. These cliches may be true, but they're not always helpful, and they can get a little out of control.

Most commonly, we take it too far when we choose affordability over quality. As our own Alan Henry put it, we live in a culture of commodities. Everything is cheap, disposable, and easily replaceable. Over time, this backfires. You spend more on several cheap, replaceable pairs of boots than you would a single, pricier pair of quality boots.

Of course, not everyone has the luxury to choose quality over affordability, but we're talking about the scenario in which one does. It took me a long time to learn this lesson, because I couldn't fathom spending more than $20 on a pair of boots, $25 for a set of pots and pans, and so on. As a result, I replaced my junk frequently and often. I thought I was being money smart, but I was actually being pretty wasteful. It's usually more frugal to pay for quality.

On the other hand, this advice can be taken too far, too. You can use the "quality over crap" argument to justify a pricey but unnecessary purchase.

So while saving money can be taken too far, so can the argument for spending it. The happy middle ground is to buy quality when it makes sense and when it's in your budget.

When We Overthink Every Purchase

Conscious spending has become a bit of a buzzword in the personal finance world, and that's a great thing. It's all about being a little more aware of your spending habits so you don't buy crap you don't need. Most of us buy a lot of crap we don't need.

But taken too far, this can lead to a lot of wasted time and effort. It's important to give every purchase some thought. But time is more important than money, and sometimes I spend a ridiculous amount of time making very frivolous spending decisions. I recently spent months deciding whether or not to pay my insurance premium in full. Yes, it would be great to not worry about it each month and get a small discount. But I let another smart-turned-stupid financial move get in the way: compound interest. I asked myself:

  • Is this like giving my insurance company an interest-free loan?
  • How much could I earn saving this money instead?
  • Does the discount make it worthwhile?

I actually did the maths on all of this and the numbers were so negligible, I felt like an idiot. It really didn't make much of a difference one way or another, so after an embarrassing amount of time deliberating, I decided to pay the premium and stop overthinking this decision.

When I'm shopping, I do the same thing. I see a great deal on some socks, and I spend way too much time and mental bandwidth deciding whether or not to buy them. And while it's smart to be deliberate about spending, it's dumb to waste too much time thinking about socks. To make the most of my time and money, I came up with a rule for helping me with indecision: let's call it the "10/10 rule".

If I'm truly stuck and can't decide whether or not to buy something, and it's $US10 or less, I stop deliberating and buy it. And if I spend more than 10 minutes thinking about it, it goes back on the shelf. It's not fool-proof, but it helps me avoid overspending without wasting my time.

When We Spend to Earn

There's some truth to the cliché, you've got to spend money to make money. For example, investments have an upfront cost, but, ideally, they pay off over time, making that cost worthwhile. Problem is, we often convince ourselves frivolous purchases are investments. A fancy $1000 suit is not an "investment" just because you wear it to job interviews.

And then there's rewards spending. Specifically, credit card rewards. People who earn them love them, and with good reason: you can score free travel or cash by using your credit card for everyday purchases, then paying it in full each month. To be fair, this isn't exactly a pillar of personal finance, but financially savvy people are great at taking advantage of rewards and budgeting with them.

But credit card rewards shouldn't dictate your financial habits.

A while back, I wrote about switching to a "cash only" strategy over at Get Rich Slowly. My restaurant spending was getting out of hand, and paying with cash made a huge difference in getting it under control. A few readers pointed out I was missing out on lost credit card rewards. And recently, when I suggested revisiting the cash method to my fiance, he asked, "but what about our credit card rewards?"

Here's the thing: Sticking to my budget is more important than the $US4 I might earn each month in rewards.

I earn about 1.5 per cent cash back, which is pretty average for a rewards card. I love credit card rewards, but not to the point that they dictate my financial habits, especially at a measly 1 per cent. They're a bonus, not a budgeting tool.

Personal finance isn't black-and-white. What works for some might not work as well for others. That's what makes it personal. While basic concepts like interest, mindful spending, and frugality should influence your finances, there are a lot of other factors to consider in making the best money decisions for yourself.


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