Confessions of a Gadget Junkie

Ah, April Fool’s Day. Such a special day at Get Rich Slowly. Every year, I share a story of my own foolishness with money. And there are so many stories to choose from! Stories like The $1500 Frisbee and How to Turn $500 Into $7 the Hard Way. This year’s story is about my love for computers.

When I graduated from college and went to work for the family box company, I had no concept of setting financial goals or saving for the future. I spent each paycheck as it came in — and more. I liked the idea, though, of investing my money. In my naive little mind, I imagined that the stock market made people rich.

So, when my cousin Nick — who is five years older than I am — took the time to explain what he was doing with his money, I did my best to listen. (I didn’t listen well, though, and didn’t really understand what he was saying.)

Nick told me about mutual funds, pools of stocks and bonds that made it easy for small investors to own a lot of companies at once. He told me that he was investing his money with a company called Invesco, buying funds of medical stocks and technology stocks. “I’ll do that, too,” I said.

Investing made stupid
This was back in 1992. I had the beginnings of a credit-card problem (about $12,000 in debt), no savings, and was making $30,000 a year. I was also spending more than I earned. To find the initial contribution to my mutual funds I had to — no joke — take a cash advance on my credit cards. It never even occurred to the 23-year-old J.D. that he was paying roughly 20% to chase uncertain returns in the stock market. This just seemed like the thing to do.

I sent in my $1,000 initial deposit, and then signed up for $50 automatic monthly contributions.

Sometime soon after, my Apple Macintosh SE died. I can’t remember why, but I know that I was convinced I needed a computer, so I did the only thing I could. Because my credit cards were maxed out, I cashed out my mutual funds to get the cash I needed to buy a Macintosh Classic II. (Kris contributed half of the funds, which she simply pulled from her ample savings.)

Looking back, I weep at how stupid I was. But there was plenty more to come.

How not to spend a windfall
My father died on 21 July 1995, ten days shy of his fiftieth birthday. When he died, he left each of his sons $5,000 in life insurance and 10% of the box factory.

By this time, my credit-card debt had grown to just over $20,000. If I’d been smart, I would have taken the life-insurance proceeds and used them to immediately pay off $5,000 in debt. But I wasn’t smart. I’m sure you can guess what I did.

I used $1,000 to pay off debt (and patted myself on the back for it), but took the rest to purchase a Macintosh Performa 640CD DOS-compatible personal computer. The machine was awesome. And expensive. And because it ran both Windows and Mac OS, that meant I spent twice as much money on computer programs.

My father had gone to a lot of trouble to set aside a bit of life insurance for us (he didn’t obtain the policy until after he discovered he had cancer). He wanted to give each of us a little boost so that we wouldn’t make the same mistakes he had. It was a nice idea, but it didn’t work.

Cash is king
I could go on and on, of course. For instance, after I’d cut up my credit cards in order to avoid new debt, I still found a way to buy a new computer on credit. I applied for a consumer loan directly from Apple, which gladly gave me the rope to hang myself. In 2003, I borrowed $3,000 to buy a brand new Power Macintosh G5 tower.

But eventually, as I started my financial turnaround, I learned to resist the lure of the money-saving gadget. In fact, when Apple first released the iPhone, I was in full debt repayment mode. As much as I wanted one, I resisted. It wasn’t until I’d paid off the last of my consumer debt that I finally gave in. But when I bought the phone, I paid cash.

Now, of course, the Apple iPad is just days away from launch. And yes, I’ve ordered one to be delivered to my door on Saturday morning. Is this just as stupid as all of my other tech purchases? Perhaps. But there’s one key difference. This time, instead of cashing out my mutual funds or using a windfall to fund my purchase, I’m using money I’ve put in my savings account for this very purpose.

It may be that I’m paying a penalty for being an early adopter, but one thing’s for certain: Because I no longer finance these sorts of purchases on credit, there’s no compounding on my stupidity. What I pay is what I pay. Now if only I could learn to be satisfied with last year’s model…

Okay, it’s your turn. I know I’m not the only April fool out there. Tell us about the stupid things you’ve done with money. What’d it cost you. What’d you learn? How you turn things around?

Drama in real life: Foreclosure!

Most of the time, the talk about the housing bubble and the credit crisis and the faltering U.S. economy seem rather abstract to me, as if people were discussing a problem in Canada or Mexico. Or Norway. I’ve spent the past four years focused on my own financial situation, ignoring the outside world. The national economy often seems remote from my own personal economy.

But there are millions of average people who have been affected by this country’s fiscal woes. My little brother, Tony, is one of those average people. He’s in dire financial straits.

In 2004, Tony bought a house in Portland for $415,000. In 2006, he got a new job in central Oregon, so he moved his family to Bend. He put the Portland house on the market. He intended to rent a place in Bend until his existing home sold, but then he found a house he liked. He applied for a loan and was approved. He bought the house.

The house in Portland never sold.

For the past two years, Tony has been making $5200 in mortgage payments every month. Or, lately, not making the payments. He ran out of money long ago. Tony agreed to let me interview him yesterday in order to share his story with GRS readers.

Note: Tony knows he made some poor choices, and he blames himself for his current problems. He’s candid that he should have been paying more attention to his finances. But looking back to 2006, he doesn’t understand why the bank approved him for the mortgage on the Bend house before the one in Portland sold. It seems like the bank was betting on that sale, too.

J.D.: How are things going?

Tony: What do you mean? They’re not going very well. The house in Bend was foreclosed on yesterday. The one in Portland is for sale again.

J.D.: You weren’t able to sell the house over there, huh?

Tony: No. Plus we consulted with a lawyer, and he said we should just give it back because of the tax ramifications.

J.D.: I don’t understand.

Tony: Well, it would be a short sale. To give you an idea, we put the house up for sale at $299,000, and we paid $380,000 for it. So what you do is you do a short sale — the mortgage company has to agree to it — but the government considers the difference as money that was given to you. It’s taxable income.

J.D.: When did you buy the house in Bend?

Tony: It cost $380,000 in September 2006.

J.D.: And how much was the mortgage?

Tony: Roughly $2400 a month. There were two mortgages.

J.D.: When the bank forecloses on it, what happens?

Tony: We’ve been out of the house for a while. We’re living with my wife’s parents. From what my lawyer says, there’s nothing the bank can do to us. They’ll essentially just take the house and then auction it off at the courthouse steps. There’s no other ramifications to me. There are several houses that are being foreclosed on in our neighborhood. One that went to foreclosure and was auctioned off sold for $230,000.

J.D.: Was it the same kind of house that would have gone for $380,000 in 2006?

Tony: Yeah. It’s the exact same house as ours except it has a two-car garage and ours was a three-car garage.

J.D.: Holy cats. That’s like a 40% drop in two years!

Tony: I know.

Note: In 2006, Bend had one of the hottest real-estate markets in the country. Now it’s fallen on hard times. Again, most of Tony’s problems come from the fact that he gambled by not selling his first house before buying a second one. Back then, this didn’t seem like it would be a problem.

J.D.: You wouldn’t have been in such a bad situation except you haven’t been able to sell your Portland house, right?

Tony: Yes.

J.D.: And how much did you buy that house for?

Tony: We bought it for $415,000 at the end of 2004. We still owe the bank $367,000. We’re paying $2800 a month.

J.D.: And you tried to put it on the market when you moved to Bend, right?

Tony: Well, on the advice of our Realtor, we put it on the market for $585,000, because that’s what she said that it would go for.

J.D.: And that was in the summer of 2006?

Tony: Yes. Then after the house had been on the market for a month, we got an offer at $500,000.

J.D.: And you turned that down?

Tony: It was turned down but not by me. The Realtor got it as a verbal offer and said that she told them “no” because she could get more for it. She informed us that they had made a verbal offer a week after they made it. Then last September we almost had it sold at $480,000 but the deal fell through because it was based on whether or not the couple sold their house. Guess what didn’t happen?

J.D. And that’s when you started renting the house. [For the past year, Tony has been renting the house to a friend, trying to defray some of the mortgage expense.] What do you have it on the market for now?

Tony: We have it on the market for $499,000. We just put it on the market last weekend, but we already have somebody interested in it.

J.D.: If that sells, does it get you out of your bind?

Tony: It helps, but it doesn’t necessarily get us out of the bind. Some of that money would go to the Realtor. Plus we owe money to other people. [Tony borrowed money from various family members.] And then there are our normal bills, which are behind. So even if we sell, it doesn’t solve the problem, but it does help.

Note: You know how the power of compound interest can help you save? Well, it works in reverse too. People in credit card debt understand that. Tony’s learning that the damage from mistakes can compound, too. What started as a small problem — needing to sell the Portland house — has mushroomed out of control. Things just keep getting worse…

J.D.: A couple months ago, you mentioned that you’re doing some sort of consumer credit counseling or something. How does that work?

Tony: Not very well. It’s not a debt consolidation place, but it kind of is. These guys are for profit. They piss me off. They told me they settled a Bank of America account for me, but I keep getting letters from Bank of America saying the account is not settled. So this place drafts money out of my account every month to pay the people we owe — it’s kind of forced savings, in a sense — but I won’t let them draft any more until they give me written proof that they’ve settled with Bank of America.

You know, this is my own frickin’ fault for not paying attention to exactly what was going on. I want to repay everyone because it’s my debt, but at the same time, it’s so frickin’ huge, I don’t know how I’ll ever do that.

J.D.: Why do you think you got in debt? Do you think it’s because of the house? Or do you think it’s other stuff?

Tony: There are several reasons that got us into debt. The first time we put the house on the market in Portland, we used credit cards to fix it up. We put a fence on it and that sort of stuff. The move here probably cost us $8,000. The idea was when we the house sold, that’d be paid back right away. The house never sold. Then we got ourselves into a situation where we had double mortgages.

J.D.: Oh yeah. What was the mortgage on the Portland house?

Tony: $2800. You do the math there. So, we had double mortgages, and we’re doing whatever we can to pay them both, praying that the house in Portland will sell. So we borrow from people. Slowly but surely, the amount we can beg, borrow, or steal keeps dwindling. I finally said, “This is is not going to work. We’ve got to do something different.”

J.D.: Were you having problems with debt before?

Tony: Before we moved from Portland? No. We were actually okay. We were financially okay. Did we have credit card debt? Yeah. Was it manageable? Yeah. Could we make all our monthly payments? Yes. Did we have extra spending money after we made our monthly payments? Yes. We weren’t paying off our debt extremely fast, but we weren’t building debt. You know what I mean?

J.D.: To me, you guys typify all the problems that are going on with the economy at large. You guys are the ones we know most being affected by it. Do you pay attention to the economic news at all?

Tony: Hell yeah — every day!

J.D.: What do you think about it?

Tony: I was just talking about this with my wife the other day. I don’t know if it’s because of what I’ve been going through or what, but my personal opinion is that we’re not looking at a recession. We’re looking at a depression.

J.D.: And what’s going to happen for you guys if there is a depression?

Tony: To be honest with you, I have no clue. I’m scared.

My heart aches for my little brother. Obviously, Tony is not a “victim” — I don’t think he’d claim to be — but he is one very real part of the ongoing credit crisis. To me, he’s the average American. He wasn’t pro-active. He was eager to have a new house, so he bought one before the old house sold. He didn’t have anything in savings, so he took a risk by financing his move on credit. Now, along with many others, he’s paying the price. I just hope he comes through this okay. Photo by respres.

Now and Then: How My Current Financial Situation Compares with a Decade Ago

I spent the 1990s addicted to credit cards. I was mired in debt.

Recently while cleaning the garage, I unearthed a box full of old receipts and bank statements. I spent a couple hours sifting through them, aghast at my former spending habits. It was like peering into the life of a stranger.

Addicted to debt
The oldest documents I have are from April 1994, less than three years after I graduated from college. Already I had $9,550.13 in credit card debt. (I also owed more than $5,000 on my 1992 Geo Storm.) Fifteen months later, in July of 1995, my credit card debt topped out at $19,965.74.

During this time, on a take-home pay of about $1,400/month (after taxes), I was deficit spending by nearly $700/month! I spent 50% more than I earned. I bought books and comic books and VHS tapes and videogames. I did not invest. I did not save.

[I spent a lot of money on books an comics]

How much of that stuff do I still have today? On a quick stroll the house, I found a handful of science fiction books I bought in those years. That’s it. Basically, I spent $25/day on nothing. I was an idiot.

From 1995 to 1998, my spending fluctuated. I’d dig myself a couple thousand dollars out of debt, and then fall back into the hole. It was as if I was compelled to use all of the available credit on my accounts. I can remember calling the banks’ toll-free numbers to find out which card had enough room for me to buy new comics. As I said, I was an idiot.

[$11.32 in credit available]

I also used every possible penny in my checking account. (I didn’t have a savings account.) A lot of times, I used more than every penny:

[I bounced checks all the time]

Running to stand still
During the time I was addicted to credit, I knew that I had a problem. I’m a smart guy. I understood the math. But my deficit spending wasn’t a math issue — it was a product of subtle emotional and psychological problems that I had to work through before I could get my spending under control.

One day, out of desperation, I cut up my credit cards. A local bank was promoting home equity loans, so I took one out and used the proceeds to pay off all my credit card balances. From the middle of 1998 to the middle of 2007, I did not use a personal credit card.

But getting rid of credit cards only provided temporary stabilization. I still lived paycheck-to-paycheck, spending every penny I earned. And I still had $20,000 in debt — only now it was in the form of a home loan. Eventually I discovered other ways to take on consumer debt. I financed a new car. I took out a loan for a computer. I borrowed from family. By 2004, my debts totaled over $35,000. Then, at last, I began to turn things around.

Addicted to saving
It took more than three years of focused intensity to become debt-free, but eventually I did take control of my finances. Since then, the financial inertia has helped me to save more.

During my quest to eliminate debt, I developed a positive cash flow of over $1,000/month. That continues to this day, which means I’ve managed to save $5,000 in my emergency fund, $1,000 in my Mini Cooper account, and an extra $500 designated for a future vacation. Plus, I’ve begun to save for retirement.

All of this feels great, of course, but sometimes I worry that I’m in danger of developing a different sort of unhealthy relationship with money. I’m addicted to saving. I feel like I’m perilously close to becoming a miser. It might be time to actually budget for fun.

Taking the first steps
How can you dig out of debt and begin to build wealth? First, recognize that it will take time. You won’t change your habits overnight. At first you’ll need to take baby steps, and even then you’ll fall on your face at times. Get back up and keep trying. Eventually you’ll move beyond baby steps; you’ll find that you can confidently make huge financial strides. Here’s some advice based on my own experience:

  • Set goals. The road to wealth is paved with goals. I spent like a fool when I was younger because I didn’t know what I was doing with my life. Find a purpose.
  • Stop using credit. You may not be able to do this immediately, but make it a priority. The longer you continue to add debt, the longer it will take to get rid of it.
  • Establish an emergency fund. Set aside some cash in savings as cheap insurance against life’s nasty surprises.
  • Practice frugality. Look for ways to curb your spending. Shop smart. Focus on quality and value.
  •  
  • Reduce recurring monthly expenses. Monthly subscriptions — to magazines, to web sites, to cable television — are like a cancer. Cut as much as you can.
  • Get out of debt. Find an approach that works for you, and begin to chip away at the deficit. Use the debt snowflake principle to make gradual progress.
  • Increase your income. Ask for a raise, or make money from your hobbies. Consider selling things you no longer want or need.
  • Try not to get frustrated. Don’t let your situation get you down. Don’t focus on the big picture. Do keep your eyes on your goal, but concentrate on taking small steps. Do the best you can at this moment. If you know you have problems in certain areas, work to improve them. Don’t expect to become perfect overnight.

The key is to get started. Looking back, I wish I had found the courage to begin digging out of debt in 1994. Instead, it took me ten years and tens of thousands of dollars to find the guts.

[I was paying interest rates as high as 18%]

This article is part of the MBN Group Writing Project for May. Here are stories from other participants:

 

 

What about you? How do your finances compare with a decade ago? Has your situation improved? What was your turning point? What was the most valuable strategy you found along the way?

The Negative Saving Rate and the Age of Easy Credit

My generation doesn’t know how to be thrifty,” writes Eve Conant in the current issue of Newsweek. She describes how her grandfather — who fled his native Ukraine during World War II — would store plastic bags filled with leftover bread crusts in the closet of his new home in California, a house he bought with $13,000 cash. “He couldn’t shake old habits,” Conant writes. “Or were they old virtues?”

Now, many decades after Arkady’s arrival, I also have plastic bags in my closet. But they’re filled with nice clothes I’m giving away because my wardrobe is too full. The biggest life issue facing me when I open my closet door is whether to put on an Ann Taylor jacket or a Gap sweater. As talk of recession and belt-tightening makes headlines, I wonder where and how I lost my grandfather’s sense of thrift.

These sentiments aren’t exactly new. For decades — centuries, even — people have complained that younger generations haven’t inherited the financial wisdom of their elders. During the 1750s, Benjamin Franklin bemoaned the lack of money skills among the American colonists. But these warnings took on greater urgency with the dawn of the age of easy credit. In the introduction to Ain’t We Got Fun?, Barbara Solomon writes:

Prior to the 1920s the public had held generally negative attitudes toward credit purchasing. Young people were warned against burdening themselves with a lifetime of debt and were made fearful of losing their possessions should they fail to make payments on time. In the Twenties all that was turned around.

Advertisers promised an acquisitive public that it needed no money down and could get liberal terms. Millions of ready buyers were convinced that there was no need to deprive themselves of the magnificent new appliances and machines of this age of progress. In 1927 six billion dollars’ worth of goods (about 15 percent of all sales) were bought on installment plans. And the factories kept on producing more merchandise.

The general sense of prosperity, coupled with the disillusionment of wartime idealism, became the basis of a new theme that dominated the age. The mass of Americans believed that they had an inalienable right to the good life and particularly to “a good time”. And a good time they determined to have.

Never before had a generation set out to be so self-consciously different from their forebears.

What had been one of American history’s recurring motifs now became a primary theme. Attitudes toward money, debt, and credit actually did begin to change. During the next several decades, the use of credit lost its stigma; it became an accepted — even celebrated — way of life.

In Conant’s Newsweek article (which I recommend highly), the author worries that this lifestyle of debt has made her generation ill-equipped to handle financial hardship. “How often do the words ‘frugal’ or ‘thrifty’ come up in conversation, especially as a compliment?” she wonders. From her story:

“People in their 30s haven’t really experienced a significant or long recessionary period,” says consumer behaviorist Larry Compeau of Clarkson University. “I am concerned that they won’t be able to respond quickly enough to mitigate what may be the damage ahead. Not only do people under 40 save less, but they have less to save.

My worry is not that we’re saving less, it’s that we’re no longer saving at all. The personal saving rate in the United States has been declining for years. In the 1970s and early 1980s, it frequently climbed above ten percent. More recently, it has hovered around zero. But the general trend is downward. Americans are not saving.

 

The personal saving rate began to drop in the mid-1980s. A 2002 publication [PDF] from the Federal Reserve Board of San Francisco notes three possible causes:

  • The “wealth effect”: When people become richer (or perceive themselves to become richer), they spend more.
  • Americans have become more productive and are, in general, earning higher wages. If they believe these increased incomes are likely to continue, they’re willing to spend more because they believe they’ll have money in the future.
  • Easy access to credit. Though the first major credit card was created in 1958, and use grew in the sixties and seventies, credit cards didn’t play a prominent role in American life until the 1980s.

Though the Federal Reserve Board believes consumer credit plays some part in the low saving rate, it isn’t considered a primary factor. I’m not convinced. The total level of consumer credit outstanding has waxed even as the saving rate has waned. I realize that correlation does not imply causation, but I’d love to see more information about how the following graph relates to the first:


From what I understand, this does not include debt secured by real estate.

 

What does all this mean? Does it matter to you and me? Is the subprime debacle related to personal saving at all? Could the stock market collapse? Will the credit industry implode? And what happens if the worst comes to pass?

I don’t know.

The financial picture seems bleak. Even the most optimistic believe we’re in for a couple years of rough times financially. The pessimistic are whispering we could be heading for an economic collapse to rival the Great Depression. In either case, prudence would indicate that it’s time to buckle down.

For myself, I will continue following the tenets of the “get rich slowly” philosophy. I’m going to stick to the basics. I’ve shed my non-mortgage debt, and I don’t intend to take on any more. I will continue to save. I’ll stick with the frugality that has served me well over the past three years. I will live below my means. If my friends ask my advice, I’ll recommend that they do the same.

Now is not the time for $2,500 plasma televisions. Nor is it yet time to store bread in the closet. But it is time to stop spending and to begin saving. Just like our grandparents did.

Note: Please see the comments for some important clarifications of these economic notions. For example, real-life economist JerichoHill writes: “The Personal Saving Rate is a very poor metric. Most folks save via IRA and 401K. So we should look at that savings rate, which is the National Saving Rate. The NSR shows the same disturbing downward trend, but is the more proper metric to use, in my opinion.”

 

This doesn’t change my primary point — that a return to frugality and thrift is the best way to cope with financial hard times.