Overcoming financial illiteracy
Published: Wednesday, December 10, 2008 - 12:04pm
On TV, in the radio, and online, news about the recession constantly alerts us to our declining state of affairs. Because the majority of things in life will be affected by this economic downturn, we will have to personally cut back on spending, regardless if it is from our college educations or merely from that weekly can of Coke.
It cannot be denied that America is a consumption-fueled culture. We are obsessed with stuff and addicted to things. Whether they can afford it or not, people buy. And buy. And buy.
And continue to buy until they are drowned in credit.
It may be the splurges in life: a brand new Lexus for the family, a move out of the city and into the suburbs, or a diamond ring for that 50th anniversary. While many can scarcely afford these things, basic cars and homes are necessities in our modern culture.
Therefore, to cut back on spending and to simultaneously announce we are good people who care about the environment, we should decide to buy a hybrid Prius instead of that Lamborghini.
All right. Congratulations, Mr. CEO, but many of us cannot afford to even think about the Lamborghini or the Porsche, or whichever model you were planning to buy before the recession came along and took away half of your bonus.
The credit crisis we are currently embroiled in is not only fueled by unwise or misled large purchases. Of course, the subprime mortgage problem is about houses, but to rack up a suffocating credit card bill, one doesn't need to buy a home a week. Small things add up, and wise decisions must be made daily.
For the vast majority of Americans — most of us at Uni included — we must strive to cut back on the little things in life. We need to ask ourselves if we really need another pretty iPod, that new pair of jeans, that cup of coffee at the overpriced café known as Starbucks, or that recently released chip for our third Nintendo DS.
However, self-restriction is no mere skill that can be taught in a class; one must adopt it and morph it into a personal habit, much like hygiene. A dentist might be able to show a child how to hold his toothbrush, but she cannot be there with him every night to remind him to floss.
In that similar vein, I can lecture here all I want and you can still return to your chips-from-the-vending-machine-before-English routine. If you take my words to heart, on the other hand, you will feel refreshed knowing that you have saved 75 cents every day, $3.75 every week, $132 every school year, and $660 during your Uni career.
Feedthepig.org is a Web site created by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants to provide small spending tips one can use on a daily basis. Despite the frightening appearance of the piggy bank man, I found their "Financial Literacy" videos queer, yet enlightening. Here is an example:
We recently partook in the viewing of a documentary in 19th Century Novel class that dealt partially with spending. Dubbed "30 Days: Minimum Wage," it featured Morgan Spurlock (director of "Super Size Me") and his fiancée, Alex, attempting to survive 30 days in minimum-wage conditions and on minimum-wage salaries.
I do commend them for bringing attention to the difficulty of a minimum-wage life. However, at the risk of spoiling the ending, it must be revealed that they failed miserably to keep themselves out of debt.
While the main financial problem appeared to be Alex's bladder infection and lack of health insurance, I noted several points along the way where they (especially Spurlock) could have spent their money more wisely. I feel as if this undermined their message slightly.
First of all, Spurlock appeared to be drinking Fiji bottled water on his construction job. I find this both financially and environmentally extravagant. Even if the bottles of water were not the pricey Fiji, it would have been much more economical to purchase a $1 water bottle and fill it with tap water every day.
We see more evidence of his upper-middle class habits dying hard during a trip to the movie theater. Despite the fact that they ventured to the cheap showing of $1 per person, he insisted on buying drinks. It may be true that he selected a medium instead of a large soda for himself, but it cannot be denied that movie theater concessions are drastically overpriced. If they are pinching to the extent that Alex is walking to work instead of riding the bus, the sodas were superfluous. (I confess to sneaking in my own water at those times when I do venture to the cinema.)
Perhaps this comes off as very stingy. That may be true, but it appears that my upbringing has disciplined me to think twice, thrice, or a hundred times before making any purchase. For instance, my little brother played with all my hand-me-down toys (yes, even the Barbies, whom he promptly dismembered).
Wait one second! Shouldn't we be trying to spend more? Isn't that what the government wants us to do, with its stimulus packages and hints that we should be splurging to revive the economy?
Putting more money into the market now might temporarily solve our economic slump, but it can never eliminate the underlying consumer culture that is causing all these problems. We must change our way of life. Without credit and debt, economic growth might be slower, but we'd have a much more stable system upon which future generations can thrive. As it is, we are set up to pay for our parents' extravagance.