Americans’ 10 Biggest Wastes of Money
By Chris Pummer
When it comes to blowing money, we Americans have no peers. We are the world champions of frivolous spending and we have the record level of personal debt to
How profligate are we? New Jersey dental-school student Steven Toth posted a mystery item on eBay last year under the title “The Biggest Waste of Money” and got a high bid of $136 from the last of 36 bidders — for a piece of paper on which he scribbled that phrase.
Of course, it’s not really the impulse buys — the bread or ice cream maker gathering dust in the garage — that set us back terribly. It’s our unnecessary, big-dollar and habitual purchases that undermine our financial well-being.
A lucky few among us will earn and invest our way to riches. For the rest of us, the path to wealth comes not in how much we make, but how much we don’t spend. Here’s a look at what I consider 10 of Americans’ biggest wastes of money:
Extravagant weddings: Americans now spend an average of $30,000 on getting married and the more affluent often shell out six figures. Lost in the concern over appearances is the fact it’s having all your near-and-dears together, celebrating your future as husband and wife that makes a wedding so memorable. You need not sacrifice your retirement savings to create those memories. How many parents-of-the-bride have wanted to smack themselves silly – and still may be paying off huge credit-card balances — for dropping major coin on marriages that ended all too soon? Sadly, there’s a 50-50 chance that what people spend on a wedding will be the biggest waste of money in their lives.
“Premium” coffee-to-go: It’s okay to treat yourself occasionally to take-out coffee; it certainly tastes better than most home or office brew. But twentysomethings buy $3 java drinks like it’s just milk money — and then complain Social Security won’t be there for them. How’s this for a shocker: The $750 in annual net pay a $3-a-day, work-week coffee habit consumes would yield almost $300,000 in an IRA growing 8% annually over 40 years. Better yet, break your caffeine addiction altogether.
Expensive option packages on new cars: Thanks to all-too-easy credit, our average-priced new car now sells for almost $30,000. Our sudden, intense longing for tripped-out wheels is driving that spike. How many of us buy the $3,000 option package just to get a global positioning system (GPS), when we once made do quite well with road maps and pulling into a gas station for directions when we were lost? Word to the wise: Instead of blowing six grand on options, buy the base model of a better car or truck. After a few thousand miles behind the wheel, you’ll be glad you did – especially come resale time.
Sports memorabilia: This market for the celebrity struck may be the greatest separator of fools and their money ever. One can only hope the saps who pay $700 for a baseball signed by disgraced steroid abuser Barry Bonds come to their senses. You may covet the signature of your favorite player, but keep in mind these souvenirs often are whipped off for $300 a pop by athletes getting paid $1,000-an-hour to attend a card show.
Cigarettes: Sure, it’s an obvious one, but when are we as a species going to evolve beyond this disgusting suicidal habit? We puffed away $88 billion worth of tobacco products in the U.S. last year, and people in New York City now fork out $7 for a pack of smokes. Don’t delude yourself into thinking you’re a smart spender just because you buy your smokes by the carton.
Impulse Internet buys: Americans took a long while to embrace online shopping. But now that we have, boy are we running up a tab. We spent $143 billion online last year, of which $61 billion went to travel spending. You may think you’re getting an amazing deal on travel sites and shopping search engines – with free shipping and no tax! But if you put that entire tab on your credit card, you could be paying the bill for years at a high interest rate. The Internet and its promise of unlimited choice and great deals could prove as big a wrecker of individuals’ personal finances as 24-hour access to cash via ATMs.
Gambling: U.S. casino interests pulled a shrewd one getting the financial media to embrace their ruse of calling their industry “gaming” to sanitize its image. Their new wallet-pocketing method: Slot machines that no longer take coins, only bills discharged as electronic vouchers to insert in the next machine. That way you don’t see your losses as real money, just like the $25 chips in blackjack. Sure, we all have a right to throw away our hard-earned dough. But next time you walk into one of those $2 billion Vegas casinos, just remember, it wasn’t built with cash but with loans that, odds are, you’re going to help the owners pay off.
Fuel-inefficient vehicles: In the mid-1980s, we all questioned the sanity of people still driving gas guzzlers – and now most of us are spending $40 to $60 a pop filling up our own. The average 22 MPG for U.S. vehicles is unchanged for 20 years because we let Big Oil and automakers seduce us with cheaper gas and more powerful engines. It took Japanese automaker Toyota to give us our first great leap forward in the hybrid Prius and now it is about to overtake General Motors as the world’s biggest automaker. We can’t keep siphoning nasty subterranean ooze and combusting it into the atmosphere without a serious day of reckoning coming. The biggest and most necessary waste of money in human history may be what the world has to spend to stop global warming.
Fast Food: Fast food may seem cheap and convenient in the short run. But our fast-food addiction has turned us into a nation of beach balls with feet — where all too many of us face life-threatening conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. A serious illness is a major cause of bankruptcy among individuals. Bad enough that we’re leaving future generations with
a crushing national debt and melting polar ice caps, we’re also to blame for a childhood obesity epidemic. Eat at home. Whatever you throw together, guaranteed it’s healthier than fast food — and cheaper for your family in the long run.
Christmas shopping: It’s not what we blow on holiday gifts — $450 billion last year — but how thoughtlessly we spend much of that sum that’s become a colossal waste. We hastily buy random items online and resort to impersonal gift cards when stuck for ideas. We worry about some perceived obligation to spend a certain amount, rather than putting thought into selecting a present that could bring real joy.
The Ultimate Impact
So what does all this profligate spending add up to? Drained savings accounts, maxed-out credit cards and ever-present monetary anxiety. When the Declaration’s framers extended us the right to the pursuit of happiness, they didn’t have two-pack-a-day habits, doubling-down a blackjack bet or impressing business associates with our daughter’s lavish wedding in mind. Before you squander your money on one of these 10 huge wastes of money, think about how saving that money might provide a better route to long-term happiness and financial security