Big Spenders

I’m surrounded by big spenders at family gatherings.

My siblings, their spouses/partners, my uncles and cousins all seem to spend at least every dime they make. The thing is, these aren’t poor people struggling to get by. The poorest among them brings in probably around $65k/year, and the others are well into the six figures. So they all have two or three refrigerators. – One for the kitchen, one for freezing meats and vegetables in the basement and one in the garage just full of beer and soda. They all have cars no more than 2 years old. They have houses with unused rooms filled with unused furniture.

When I’m with people one on one I’ll often bring up the topic of personal finance and investing. So I know that none of these people have any savings what-so-ever. They’re barely into their 30′s so they think they don’t need to plan for retirement yet.

I think they used to all just think I didn’t earn much income and was a struggling student or something. So they would rag on me and tell me where I can get a good deal on a much shinier car to replace my 10 year old sedan. “They’re offering 0% interest for the next six weeks, you should go! It would only be like $300/month, even you could swing that.”

Then, over the past six months or so, word has gotten out that I paid cash for a house. And that I’m fixing to do it again a few times over in the next year. Yet I still drive the old sedan around. They’re realizing their apparent financial superiority has been merely that; apparent.

Now, when I’m in ear shot, I’ll hear things like, “I play hard, but I work hard!” or, “What’s the point of earning it if you’re not going to spend it???” and “You only live once!” I think they are feeling a bit guilty about their behavior and my mere presence is bringing it out. They know that TV they bought over a year ago that they’re still making payments on has lost its novelty. They know they should be putting some money away, at least for a typical retirement when they’re 67. They know they ought to be saving something. The fact that no one else is doing it though makes it easier for them to slide as well. They’ll all be on that sinking ship together at least.

I think, if they were honest, their platitudes would sound more like: “I know I should save some money for a rainy day, but damn that car’s shiny!” Or, “I’ve already resigned myself to working for the next 40 years, I may as well buy some crap that at least makes me happy for a few weeks.” Or, “We’re actually in a contest to see who can spend the most on their daily transportation, I just got a little closer to the winner’s circle.”

I’ve said my piece many times over the years. When someone mentions they’re thinking about getting a new car, I explain the vast cost savings in getting something at least slightly used that gets good mileage. And if not, I explain the advantages of saving up and paying cash rather than paying all those finance charges. I’ve suggested to my brother when he was buying his house that, as a single guy, he didn’t really need 4 bedrooms and to consider the cost of heating all those empty rooms through a New England winter. I’ve recommended to everyone, without much success, that they at least make use of tax-advantaged retirement accounts. After a while of that I just started to get eye-rolls. – Or anticipatory glances when someone brought up some financial topic. Realizing I’m just blowing into the wind, now I just say, “You guys know what I’m going to say. You know it makes sense. But it’s your money; your future, do what you want with it.”

My parents are no better. They make a good income and they do a good job of spending it. They make 3 to 5 Caribbean trips every year. I don’t think they’ve ever not had a car payment. The two of them live in a 6 bedroom house. They order exotic meats through the mail. My dad gambles. They carry way too much insurance. Luckily, my father has a good public pension coming to him in a few years, so they actually can afford to be that indulgent and wasteful. But I’m afraid it has set a poor example for my siblings who won’t have the luxury of a guaranteed pension.

After they’ve spent the money I never offer regrets. I’m a good sport about it. I compliment the cars and houses. They show me how cool their new in-dash GPS is, I point out how I love having GPS in my car too (after I installed an in-dash system myself I bought second hand on ebay). “Yeah, but this one’s factory installed, look how sleek it is.” Well, not sure if it’s worth spending over a 1/2 year’s income on a car to get it, but it does look sleek, I’ll admit.

I’m afraid I can’t say I’m above looking forward to a year or two from now when I’m graduated, my rental business is solidified, and I’ve finally had some time to restore an old sports car to use as my primary vehicle, complete with a custom car computer. In other words, when I’ll have the time to make my home built stuff better for my purposes than anything you could buy anywhere. And my time won’t be for lease but for my own use, exclusively.

So much for their platitude of, “You only live once.” I agree, brother! But if you believe it too, why are you planning on spending 50hrs/week for 40 years of your one life working in a job you complain about? You buy things you don’t need and barely use, then you need to scrape together money after your 50 hour weeks to buy the next thing. You only live once. You get 70 to 90 years if you’re lucky. Do you really want to spend 40 of them like that? In a perpetual pursuit of novelty and one-upsmanship? You only live once! One quick burst of a handful of decades within a 14 billion year-old universe that will gobble up your extra rooms and shiny cars and turn them into nothing more than a black hole. You only live once and all you have are your senses, your experience, revelations of beauty and love. The sleek dashboards will barely be remembered. You get 90 years out of 14 billion. Each hour is precious. Any price you could sell them for would not be high enough.

I suppose I’d be naive to think they’d see my success and contentment as something to congratulate and emulate. After realizing I’ve succeeded in being able to not work I’m sure they’ll simply be egging me on to get back to it, “Why not get 5 more houses? Then you’ll REALLY be rich!”

Because, brother! I’m already rich.

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  1. m741
    Posted August 2, 2011 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

    Good post – it’s shocking to me that people like this exist. I guess I’m probably surrounded by them, too, but personal finances don’t come up too often for me. Though judging by the amount the average American saves, the vast majority of people must fall into the ‘entranced with shiny stuff’ category.

  2. JohnnyH
    Posted August 3, 2011 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    Great post… I too am looking forward to restoring a classic car some day. What model are you looking at?

    I’m looking at something 1967-1969, with a low weight that I can force to get hopefully 25 mpg.

  3. Posted August 4, 2011 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    very well said.

    there are many powerful forces in our society dedicated to pursuading the masses they need/deserve the shiny things and going into debt for the privilage is rational.

    swimming against this tide ain;t always easy. most people, when I comment that I’ve never had a car payment, think I’m pulling their leg. the concept is just too foreign to what they’ve been taught…

  4. Matt
    Posted August 4, 2011 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    Yeah, I’ve never understood people’s fascination with sleek new plastic. Or that new car smell.

  5. Posted August 6, 2011 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    @johnnyh I’ll probably just research a few makes/models that are good for electric conversions, then keep my eyes open on classifieds and ebay for a few months and take the first car that’s the best deal. I’d like a 2 seat roadster, maybe do an all electric conversion over a winter and throw in a range-extending gas or diesel generator on board burning home-grown alcohol or vegetable oil. Can’t wait for projects like that!

  6. Posted November 28, 2011 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    Great article! What you wrote touches on a lot of bases relating to instant gratification and lifestyle inflation but it all goes back to not thinking! People don’t have a philosophy in life to fall back on and they just go with the flow and imitate what’s around them!