Money: getting/spending/saving it

By Caitlin Kelly

IMG_20151212_090151434_HDR

One of my pleasures is enjoying culture — and yes, it costs money!

A friend recently saw an ATM receipt that left her gobsmacked — $139,000 — in the hands of a young woman, maybe in her 20s.

My friend is a single mother who works in a creative field, frustrated that she has yet to hit the level of income she craves, deeply envious of the stranger with so much more than she.

I get it — when I found out that a friend of ours, someone our age, earns $500,000 a year, I was stunned.

IMG_20150909_121335101_HDR
The level of poverty in the U.S. is deeply shocking — given the astonishing wealth here

My husband and I are both working full-time freelance, with a mortgage that won’t be finished for another five years unless, somehow, we make a lot more money and can pay it off sooner.

What’s currently killing our ability to save — or enjoy much beyond basics — is $1,800 month in health insurance costs; his, heavily subsidized by his former employer as a retiree while they soak me the full price.

Yes, there is cheaper insurance, but it all comes with huge deductibles and co-pays.

The getting and spending, (and saving and investing, ideally), of money is often a lifelong challenge for all but the very wealthy.

But it comes down to basic economics: if you’re always broke, you’re under-earning or living beyond your means.

If you’re mired in poverty — with little education and/or weak job skills, multiple dependents and/or health issues — it can feel, and be, almost impossible to climb out.

And I know far too many women, of any age, who remain somehow terrified of money — especially when asking for it or more of it, (i.e. negotiating an initial salary, asking for raises/bonuses/commissions/better freelance rates), and handling their finances confidently and intelligently.

As if, for some reason, we don’t deserve it.

IMG_20150106_134932581_HDR

It does mean taking charge.

It does (gulp) carry consequences, no matter how much action (or inaction) you choose.

I once attended an information session at the U.S. firm where I keep my retirement money.

It was laughable.

As in laughably bad, full of jargon and weird, arcane advice possibly of value to people with millions to manage — or waste.

Not me!

Selfishly, as a journalist, I get paid to learn, and, in writing about personal finance for the Times and Reuters and others, have learned (and taught readers!) a lot about handling money.

I also read the financial pages of two newspapers daily and read several business magazines to keep abreast of what’s happening in the domestic and global economy.

If you don’t know the word fiduciary, learn it and make sure anyone going near your money professionally is one.

One of my favorite people, and bloggers, is writing candidly about getting smarter about money. I admire her for being forthright and questioning her decisions publicly.

People rarely do.

I urge anyone thinking about how to better handle their finances to read this fantastic book, (which I reviewed in The New York Times, and am now friends with its author), Pound Foolish. It’s not a how-to, but a smart and insightful overview of the personal finance world.

She also writes a smart and helpful advice column for Slate.

My other favorite money columnist is Michelle Singletary, with the Washington Post.

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT CAITLIN KELLY 2013.
Still there, since 1927, the Monte Vista Hotel in Flagstaff, Arizona — travel has always been a priority for me

Jose and I were were lucky to both have attended and graduated from college debt-free; he on full-ride scholarships, I attending Canada’s best university for $660 a year. (No, there’s no missing zero.) Neither of us attended (or needed) graduate or professional school.

Nor did we have children, saving us an estimated $200,000+ per child to raise.

Nor do we have dependent relatives.

My priorities have been travel and retirement.

But I admit it — it really did feel useless and annoying to keep putting money away year after year after year for what I hoped would one day help fund a retirement, denying myself so many purchases, (newer car, nicer clothes) and pleasures in order to do so — until that sum finally grew to six figures and I thought, with relief and pride: I did that!

And, yes, for many reasons, saving money is difficult for some people, and impossible for those who don’t earn enough to get past subsistence.

But it’s also urgent (and tedious!) to distinguish between wants and needs, between what everyone around you may boastfully own, often on credit, (new phone, new car, huge and lavish wedding, bigger house, etc.), and what fits your financial priorities.

Peer pressure to keep up — i.e. spending! — will kill you and your financial future.

It’s one reason I constantly urge women, especially, who earn less and live longer, to always, always ask for more — and to read this book that tells them how to do it.

Do you find handling money frightening or intimidating?

Any great tips to share?

Can you save more than $5.09/day? You’d better start!

By Caitlin Kelly

If you want to scare the shit out of almost any American — those who don’t have a defined-benefit pension guaranteed to them — which knocks out most workers, ask them how much money they have saved for their retirement.

retirement
retirement (Photo credit: 401(K) 2013)

The median figure, among those aged 55 to 64, (i.e. an age group, traditionally, potentially planning/hoping to retire within a decade or less), is a mere $63,100.

The median among all Americans is a staggeringly low $10,890, (minus the value of a home and/or vehicle.)

When New York Times writer Jeff Sommer recently wrote that $1 million wouldn’t do much, more than 600 readers weighed in with comments, prompting him to tackle the subject again the following week.

My math works like this — if, when (if) you graduate from college at 22 and start working immediately, you begin saving $5.09 every day, some $36.00 every week, or $144 every month, every year without a break — and with no accrued or compound interest from investing that money — you’d end up with the $63,100 median figure.

Surely we can do better?

For some people, right now, saving $5.09 every day, all seven days of every week, is impossible. Their living costs cannot be trimmed in any way, and/or their wages are too low.

Many fresh graduates, and older workers, are unable to find paid work in this economy. They are stalled, frustrated, broke, angry. Some carry enormous debt burdens of homes underwater or student loans they cannot discharge through bankruptcy. Some people are very ill, or have very ill family members for whom they must add the cost of care and the time it takes — i.e. unpaid labor — to do this as well.

But…for the rest of you, snap that wallet shut!

The culture that most Americans live in is one that continues to glorify and fetishize spending lots of cash, (or credit, mostly), acquiring tons of shit that’s new and shiny and cooler than everyone else’s — whether an Ipad or Ipod, phone, car, house, vacation, clothing, whatever. You can blow easily thousands of dollars on a freaking baby stroller, if that somehow seems essential to you.

Television and social media and the internet bring very rich peoples’ lives into our own. We can press our greasy little noses against the impenetrable glass wall of their luxuries and whine: “Why not me?”

You can go broke even trying to keep up.

saving and spending
saving and spending (Photo credit: 401(K) 2013)

I’ve been lucky. I grew up in Canada, a nation that still chooses — with much higher rates of taxation — to heavily subsidize college education. My annual tuition, from 1975 to 1979, (yes, really) was $660 a year. I was able to put myself through university and graduate debt-free.

I’ve also been able, since my second year of university, to sell my writing, photography, editing and translating skills to others — and had the developed skills, delivered on or before deadline every time, to make them want more of my work.

I’ve been fortunate, since the age of 22, to be able to share housing on four occasions, which helped cut my living costs in two expensive places — suburban New York and Toronto.

I’ve been grateful for good health, so I have never lost months or years to debilitating illness(es) and treatments that would have prevented me from working.

But that’s one side of the ledger — the getting side.

I’m also cheap as hell, when necessary, and it was necessary for years on end, especially when single paying $500 a month for health insurance, and facing three recessions in my industry.

I’ve chosen to stay in a one-bedroom apartment for 25 years. Would I prefer a second or third bedroom or bathroom? A backyard and fireplace and verandah? Hell, yes. But did I want to assume a much larger mortgage payment and longer repayment term? No. Nor the stress of fearing potential homelessness. Ever.

I’ve been saving 15 to 25 percent of my income every single year for years.

Our ironing board recently broke. I paid $4.30 at our local thrift shop for another one. Score!

When my income bottomed out to a terrifying degree in 2007 to 2009, I took a part-time retail job ($11/hour no commission) and bought my clothes and shoes from consignment shops.

Until my ex-husband moved in, I had no television. Until my second husband moved in — when I was in my early 40s — I did not have cable or a cellphone ($200/month saved right there.) I drove a used, paid-for car, as we still do.

A friend of mine runs her own company, an investment fund, literally managing millions of other people’s money. She drives a Mini Cooper, not a Mercedes or Lexus or Range Rover, the vehicle people expect.

“That’s how I got a million dollars,” she says, with a knowing smile.

We plan to be mortgage-free by 65. We have no children. We will have multiple income streams, one of which is our savings. Adding to them is a non-negotiable part of our life, as automatic, necessary (and boring!) as brushing our teeth.

Here’s an interesting, helpful and smart post from Dailyworth.com about how to face up to the reality that we all need to save (more!) money and invest it as wisely as possible.

Are you saving for retirement?

If not, why not?

If not, how do you plan to pay for your living costs in your 70s, 80s and beyond? (People insist they will keep working. Find me the employer willing to hire a 75-year-old.)

How to manage your money

There are so many people eager to tell us how to do it.

But how many of them are right?

I recently recently reviewed a terrific new book, by a fellow New York writer, Helaine Olen, called “Pound Foolish: The Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry” for The New York Times; here’s my full review.

She’s largely scathing of the Big Names who make a shitload of money telling us what to do with our own — (my finger slipped and typed “yelling.” That, too!)

English: CNBC’s “Mad Money with Jim Cramer” ca...
English: CNBC’s “Mad Money with Jim Cramer” came to Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Oct. 19, 2010 to broadcast in front of a live audience as part of the show’s “Back to School Tour.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

People like Jim Cramer, Suze Orman and Robert Kiyosaki.

In 2012, I wrote a personal finance column for five months, every week, aimed at Canadian readers. I learned that every personal finance author seems to have a different opinion:

Love ETFs! Hate ETFs! Bank six months’ savings! No, three! Mutual funds are great! No, never!

Personal finance is deeply personal, affected by family, culture, education, understanding, (two very different things!), greed, fear, hope, comfort, wishful thinking. And the larger economy. In the 1980s, I earned 18 percent on my Canada Savings Bonds. Not today!

At 19, I was handling my money alone. Like every other, it’s a skill best acquired through practice. I was living alone, earning income as a freelance writer and photographer, putting myself through university and living on a stipend of $350/month in Toronto, where my rent, for a tiny studio apartment in a lousy neighborhood, was $160 a month. That left me $190/month — or $2,280 for the year for everything else: dentist, haircuts, clothing/shoes, laundry, food, phone, answering service.

Oh, and tuition and books; University of Toronto then (mid-1970s) cost $660 a year.

My parents never helped me out financially — beyond the cost of my small, cheap first wedding. And no chance to go home and live free or cheaply for a while after the age of 19.

Mutual Funds for Dummies ... U.S. Funds at War...
Mutual Funds for Dummies … U.S. Funds at War — Too simple? (Monday, June 4, 2012) …item 3.. Music to Help Study and Work – 26:39 minutes … (Photo credit: marsmet545)

Here are some of the many factors affecting our ability to earn, save and invest, in bold:

One reason we’ve been able to save a decent sum for retirement is having no children, an estimated annual cost, per child, of $10,000.

I chose a profession, journalism and publishing, that often pays crap. I did expect to have a steady income, and a staff job making $60-80-100,000 a year throughout my 30s, 40s and beyond. But my first New York magazine job, in 1990, paid $40,000 — $5,000 less than I’d earned at a  Montreal newspaper in 1988.

(Thank God for my pre-nuptial agreement, and alimony, both of which gave me time to get back on my feet and find a well-paid staff job.)

Yet three recessions since 1989 — with 24,000 journalists fired in 2008 — and ongoing upheaval in my industry have put paid to any notion of a steady, high income.

Once you’re earning beyond your basic needs, (and learn to keep your overhead low,) save like crazy and invest thoughtfully to keep your nest egg growing, no matter how slowly or how small.

Luckily, Jose’s staff newspaper job is steady, union-protected and a kind of work that does not damage his health or strength. Unlike many Americans, we’re extremely lucky he has a company pension to look forward to. He has also been responsible enough to make a will and designate me the beneficiary of all savings to protect me financially if he dies before I do. (I did this for him as well.) If you have assets, and dependents, protect them!

Do you play the CPW game? Cost per wearing? Better quality clothes and shoes, even pre-owned and repaired, typically last longer than cheap crap you have to keep replacing. (And earning more money to pay for!)

I bought an apartment in June 1989, a one-bedroom. I’m still here. I certainly didn’t plan that, and fear I’ll never live in a house. I’d kill for a fireplace and backyard! But that real estate decision, (a long term mortgage with a decent rate, and low maintenance costs) allowed me to do good work I enjoy, even freelance, living alone, and allowed me to save 15-20 percent of my income every year, even when it was laughably low.

Read this life-changing book, and decide what is truly worth most to you — owning even more/bigger/newer stuff or enjoying free time. You can’t ever buy more time!

We drive a used, paid-off car, with no plans to replace it any time soon. (See: low overhead.)

Managing your money intelligently and attentively is a wearying life-long game of Whack-a-Mole. Just when you think things are going smoothly, boom! The car or house needs a costly repair or your kid needs braces or you lose your job — or all three happen at once.

Here are a few tradeoffs that work for me:

I don’t write a lot of checks to charity — but donate my time and skills to several volunteer boards and organizations instead.

I chose not to continue my formal education beyond a B.A. — but I attended Canada’s top university and, ongoing, read widely, attend conferences and network assiduously to stay current in my industry. Until or unless I know the ROI on an advanced degree, I won’t assume any educational debt.

We drive a battered old car — but it takes us safely, affordably and comfortably 10 hours north to Canada to visit family and friends.

We live in a smaller space than I’d prefer, with no second bedroom for my office or a bed for guests — but it allows us the extra cash to travel, save and entertain.

Managing your money means making choices, every single day. It means determining what matters most to you, and examining — truthfully — why that choice matters right now more than anything. (Designer labels, a trip to Paris, a new pair of skis, a second bedroom, a fourth child, grad school….)

Do you manage your money well?

Where did you learn those skills?

Personal Finance
Personal Finance (Photo credit: 401(K) 2013)

Related articles