Thursday, December 24, 2009

I'm Having a Semi-Stressed Christmas, How About You?

First of all, I was baptized and raised as a Christian, so I call it Christmas and always will think of it as Christmas. It’s not “the holidays” to me. It’s the season for Christmas lights and Christmas decorations and a Christmas tree and even some Christmas carols. Including “Adeste Fideles.” That’s my personal heritage.

However, more and more, Christmas is simply a time of year when I try to do the minimum that is socially acceptable, and bag the rest of it. Our family situation is that none of us gives gifts anymore. Lack of vast amounts of money to waste, lack of lots of young children who hope for presents, and also, lack of false pride. I am proud to say that my family members (and friends) don’t try to front with each other, or pressure each other into a spiral of unwise spending. Some of us give a gift or two informally, but these are all modest (under $15) and casually delivered at random moments. A book, a calendar, that sort of thing. There is no more presents-under-the-tree ceremony. I’ll miss it. I was the last holdout, for years carefully shopping and then going into orgies of wrapping. But no more. I didn’t buy any gift wrap in 2009 and I’ve got plenty left from prior years. Only there’s nothing to wrap. It’s over, and I’m not fighting reality.

My major stress originates with the traditional holiday baking. I’m still baking cookies and pies and tarts (yes, of course I make all these from scratch). But it’s a struggle against reality. Everybody I know is dieting or else does not want to eat officially unhealthy foods (white flour, white and brown sugar, real butter). So who is there left to bake for? And as for ingredients, I’ve tried whole wheat flour in several incarnations and it makes a lousy cookie. I’ve experimented with cutting sugar and fats, replacing them with nothing or with applesauce or whatever, and that produces a lousy brownie with the heft of a chiffon cake. (Never heard of a chiffon cake? Too bad you missed the 1950s. They had desserts then. With frosting.) And there is the hassle of replacing sugar with supposedly safe substitutes only to discover that there isn’t a substitute that someone on the Web isn’t claiming is toxic. And don’t get me started on baking with substitutes for wheat flour. There’s not much joy left in this traditional Christmas endeavor except the physical pleasure of handling the ingredients and making something edible out of them. Which no one wants to eat. In the next few years, I may finally stop baking entirely.

But even though I am not buying Christmas presents, and the baking is tailing off, I am still spending money regardless of my cash flow, and that of course causes stress. I bought a new lawn tractor this week. My 20-year-old Craftsman tractor was pronounced dead at last. So now I have a new one. Brakes that work! An engine that doesn’t smoke! A mower deck that doesn’t drag on the ground! This winter will be fun. I use the tractor all season to haul wood, so that’s why I bought it now.

Unfortunately, a lawn tractor is expensive. Start at $1,000 and go up, way up. I didn’t. Go up, that is. My John Deere dreams are fated to remain fantasies, I fear. I went for low-end practical and no frills. And yet another credit card balance transfer in my future again, I expect. This is not my ideal way of paying for major purchases, but in this economy, considering my cash flow (and those still locked-up CDs I won’t be able to and am not willing to touch for months) it is practical. What I find humorous about it this time around is that Sears was not offering a six-month or one-year payment plan as they often do, and which their employees told me is offered through Citibank. So when I get the bill and I balance transfer this to one of my credit cards, Citibank won’t be in the running. (Because it would be in effect a Citi-to-Citi transfer, and they don’t allow them.) Citi’s rivals will get my balance transfer fee. It would have been smarter for Citibank to offer that six-month deal directly through Sears, but huge corporations aren’t very flexible even when there is an easy profit to be made. They are massive and I am not, and they won’t make any adjustments for me.

That’s why I am content to work this system in my favor as I can, and will feel no sadness or guilt when our government finally, years from now, allows Citibank and its ilk to die. Or Sears goes the way of other classic American corporations. Compare them to ocean liners if you will. Eventually too big to move with agility. Hard to slow down or turn around. A dying breed, or rather, a product that was once cutting edge and now is merely specialized (cruise ships, oil tankers, and container ships). Even though I still do use credit, I can see our mammoth credit systems coming to a natural end of their cycle and with it their ruthless hegemony over us. What comes next I can’t guess. But something will, and I won’t shed a single tear when it happens.

I’m much more likely to sigh over not baking apple pies anymore.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Money Rehab Spa

Wouldn't it be great? You'd sign up for a stay at the money rehab spa, and trainers would teach you how to deal with your money. All aspects. You'd get lessons on making your paycheck last. Lessons on not letting your cash drain away on frivolous daily extras. Lessons on how to properly use ATMs so you still have the rent money by the end of the month.

They'd bring in experts to explain exactly how behavioral psychologists play on your feelings to get you to buy bigger houses, cars, and wardrobes than you need. Fashion professionals would let you in on the secrets behind making your clothes look "so last year." Electronics nerds would teach you how not to get suckered into constantly upgrading your equipment.

And then you'd role play so you'd gain the confidence to go shopping for the things you need without getting ambushed by tempting marketing tricks. You'd also practice telling relatives that you won’t attend their ruinously expensive destination weddings, as well as turning down other social occasions designed to part you from a huge chunk of your money, like rent parties or showers where you pay for everything. You'd get tips on how to politely say no to your best friend's network marketing sales pitch or wonderful stock market tip--without wrecking the friendship. As a bonus, you'd be coached to negotiate buying a car and getting a fair price.

After a long day of learning all the dos and don'ts about your money, you'd relax in the evening secure in the knowledge that no bill collectors would call, no shifty friends or relatives would press you to loan them money, and you would be totally safe from any retail marketing ploys. Heaven!

The next day, you'd get up and do more of the same, until it becomes second nature to save your money, spend it wisely, and resist pressures by others to part with it foolishly. It all sounds so wonderful.

And nonexistent, alas. We don’t have money rehab spas. But we should. If you would like to be in control of your finances instead of feeling confused, helpless, or under attack, you can create your own personal version of a money rehab spa. Start by determining a time frame between one week and one month. Experts say it takes a few weeks to learn a new habit. Internet challenges often run for a month, and you might want to find some online buddies to whom you can report your successes and insights during your home rehab spa stay. Or get them to join you. Or you could start a journal or blog. You probably won’t have the luxury of getting away from your usual work or family responsibilities, but you can decide that all of your slender spare time for two weeks or even a month will go to your money rehab.

Next, outline your rehab program and gather your supporting materials. Because I am a reader and a writer, naturally I am going to suggest that you borrow a stack of books on personal finance from your local library or your friends. Then there are the television and radio programs that address personal finance issues. Record a batch. If you are lucky enough to have some regular programming on this topic, consider writing it into your rehab plan: “Saturday night, watch Suze Orman,” for instance, or “Monday night, watch Hoarders.” If crashing the Internet looking for frugal websites and money tips sounds more appealing, then put that on the agenda instead. Not every resource you collect for your money rehab will speak to you. Some will be disappointing, or concentrate on people whose circumstances are too different. That’s why it’s best to stockpile more than you can get through in the time you have set aside. If a resource annoys you, you can drop it and go on to the next.

Then you begin. Even if you only have one hour in a day to spare for your money rehab, put that hour to studying personal finance in whatever medium works best for you. Vary them. Read a chapter of a book in the morning, grab a few minutes of a television show late in the evening, and snatch some Internet time at lunch. If you can catch a few more minutes to listen or read during the day, so much the better.

Advice is not one-size-fits-all (the late great Erma Bombeck said that was the biggest lie ever invented). As you review the many excellent attempts to teach you about personal finance, slowly but surely you will gain a sense of what changes might fit your specific circumstances. There is no one right way to run your own personal economy. But there is a general direction in which you want to head, and that direction is financial control. This does not mean that you will never have any money worries; life happens. But you will have gained valuable knowledge and tools to help you chart your own course through the often confusing mishmash that is the American financial system.

Sadly, your self-made money rehab spa won’t have mud baths and massages. Even so, you will emerge from your self-made spa experience invigorated, better able to cope, and with luck, on the road to shaking your addiction to random spending. And that’s what rehab is all about, isn’t it? Breaking addictions and showing people a better way to live.

Spa time, anyone?