Monday, May 17, 2010

Penny Pinching or Profligacy?

I don’t want to constantly rag on the NY Times or the Washington Post, but they are two of the nation’s most widely read and influential newspapers. (Even though printed newspapers are a dying breed, they still are read by many people, especially online.) Here’s yet another article about personal finance, whose headline says one thing but whose body says another. Since headline writers are a different group from reporters or columnists (although I suppose with newspapers collapsing, those jobs might be collapsing, too), the writer of this article on personal finance probably is not at fault for the misdirection of its title. The headline says, “Penny-Pinching Is Fine, but It Won’t Save the Profligate,” but the article by Alina Tugend mostly talks about small economies and how little difference they make in our financial bottom line. Nothing about the profligate as a group.

Yet the profligate in our society are the leaders whom we follow into hell. They’re the ones who started installing home theaters in their houses, so we all had to have them, too. Now they’ve got “outdoor rooms” instead of decks or patios, so vast numbers of us think we have to somehow take the indoors (no bugs) outdoors (bugs). No way. About the only advantage I can see to fancy outdoor cooking setups is that they appear to be mostly used by husbands. Which might mean that the wives don’t have to spend the whole party inside anymore. Or not, because who makes potato salad on a barbecue?

Tugend interviewed a couple of experts and cobbled together a mishmash of advice. Although the experts talked about making big money-saving choices, she focused more on smaller changes, the less painful cuts, if you will. Then she trotted out the old cliché about eating out less making a huge difference, as if it’s a major revelation. I’ve got news for her and for America: Grandma isn’t in the kitchen anymore, and neither is Mom. Constant eating out (or taking out, or ordering in) is now a common way of life for most Americans, so we might as well move on to the next item where we can be penny pinchers. Only in the case of dire financial crisis will we change this new paradigm. Tugend may be eating out a little less, but she’s still eating out. The handwriting has long been on the wall for the rest of America. Every crossroads has as many pizza places as it has gas stations. Don’t expect this to change.

What about the other big item one of her experts cites? Don’t carry a cellphone? Even Tugend knows this is ridiculous. More and more people are giving up landlines in favor of cellphones. It makes sense if you don’t know where you’ll be living next year because you’ve lost your job and may lose your home. At least your phone number won’t change when you’re living in the shelter. Why doesn’t Tugend challenge her expert and engage in a dialogue about the unrealistic expectations inherent in such advice? Because this is an article about penny pinching, I guess, and a sad little waste of space it is. I’m still waiting to hear about the profligate.

Why skim the surface of a tough issue? That's my real objection to this kind of article. Oh, it satisfies all the rules we learned in journalism school in our reporting classes. But it only touches the highlights, and it fools us, by dipping into the reporter's personal choices, into thinking that the message has significance. It doesn't, because it's a mixed message that blandly ignores our realities.

Perhaps I should check out a selection of some dumb online articles on personal finance, instead of ragging on the poor old NYTimes and its hardworking reporter who at least called two experts before she wrote this article. I should give equal opportunity to the banality of the web. I promise I will in future.

1 comment: said...

I thought she was going somewhere with not buying more house then you can afford. Not. Did you know I have seen an add for a TV show on how to design a outdoor room almost every day. Why do I need a room outside? And all this for only a few K. Like a few thousand bucks is nothing.