I think the two things that drive me nuts about personal finance advice are the focus on cutting out “luxuries” like lattes and avocado sandwiches, and the bizarre preoccupation with the spending habits of immature celebrities.
Almost no one is going broke because of avocados. And yeah, sometimes younger people spend too much on shoes or whatever. That can be a problem, but it’s the sort of problem that doesn’t usually last.
Here are the four spending mistakes that actually sink people. These are the mistakes that have serious, long-term consequences. If you need to get your spending in line, you probably should focus on one or all of these areas.
Mistake number one: Where you live.
Until you become a financial adviser, you just can’t imagine how a couple can be making four-hundred thousand dollars a year…and they’re living paycheck to paycheck. Drowning in debt.
How did they pull this off? They are making at least ten times what’s necessary to live a reasonable life, and they can’t save. They are constantly stressed about money.
It’s the house. They bought something somewhere that they absolutely can’t afford, and now they’re screwed.
Because it’s more than just the monthly payments. In high cost of living areas, everything costs too much.
No matter how many avocado sandwiches you deprive yourself of, it won’t make a difference if the rent is too high. When people need to cut their spending, where they live is nearly always the first target.
Mistake number two: Addictions.
Drugs and gambling, mostly, although alcohol can be an insidious killer. And among the poor, cigarettes really add up. I don’t have much to say here, because addictions aren’t usually effectively tackled through personal finance.
But I will say this. It’s a hell of a lot harder to quit than it is to never start. I thank God every day that I never started smoking.
(It’s also a lot easier to be a non-smoker than it is to quit smoking. Do with that comment what you will.)
Mistake number three: Private schools.
This one is so shockingly common that it has become just about the first question I ask any young couple that comes into my office. If they have school aged kids, are those kids attending public schools? If they do not have school aged kids, are the parents OK with sending their children to a public school?
If the parents say yes, I breathe a massive sigh of relief. I can literally say that every single couple I’ve ever seen that sent their kids to public schools and state colleges had no difficulty at all saving enough for retirement.
Part of this is because I live in Seattle, and yes, things are a little weird out here. But part of it is because of how expensive college has become. Parents who aren’t interested in splurging on private schools are usually also uninterested in paying for expensive out-of-state tuition. And that has a huge effect on retirement planning.
And speaking of spending too much on the kids…
Mistake number four: “Taking care of” adult kids or clingy elderly parents.
Now let’s be clear. Some of my clients really have kids with special needs. Some of my clients also have elderly parents in assisted living facilities. I certainly do not want them reading this and thinking I’m criticizing them! Sometimes you really do have to take care of your family members who cannot do for themselves.
But I also never will forget the woman who profusely thanked me, many times over the years, for exactly one, single piece of advice I gave her:
“You need to say no to your daughter.”
That was it. That was the entirety of my financial advice to her, and it changed her life.
This is one of those situations where details are unnecessary. If this applies to you, you know it.
Say no to your son. Say no to your daughter. Say no to your abusive Dad. Say no to your deadbeat Mom.
And enjoy your lattes. They aren’t bankrupting you.