EDITOR'S DESK: Identify money's holes and don't go with the flow

Published: Thursday, April 17, 2014 at 03:05 PM.

April is National Financial Literacy Month, and we appreciate Edward Jones financial adviser Yvonne Shanklin and CCB Community Bank President Derek Lott for sharing what North Okaloosa residents should be doing, if they aren’t already, to save wisely.

Initially, we asked our Facebook fans about which financial matters concern them, hoping our experts could offer more targeted answers. No one replied, but it’s understandable. Money is a personal subject, and we respect that North Okaloosa residents may not delve into those matters as freely as Suze Orman guests do each week on CNBC.

Still, that means “the non-expert,” one perspective I’d hoped to see in our National Financial Literacy Month feature, is missing. So I’ll do the honors.

Money’s hole

Something Shanklin said, about how we must identify financial "holes" — that is, unnecessary expenses — resonated. I saw a webinar a few years ago in which the narrator said, “Remember this: Money has a hole in it.”

Back then, I thought of all the furniture and other items purchased for three apartments over several years. Things I broke and threw away, and all the not-cheap wall hangings that drifted out of style and, in hindsight, seemed like poor decisions.

There had to be a way to buy quality items, not to mention live comfortably, contently and without breaking the bank.

Setting expectations

From that point onward, I refused to be swindled out of a hard-earned dollar.

After setting that expectation, it was time to put the plan into action.

That meant cutting — big time. It was easy; I just remembered how things were at a previous workplace. There, you got a few pens, a notebook and… well… that was pretty much it for the month. Seriously, the bathroom had one roll of toilet paper, and more rolls were provided from a locked closet as needed.

You could put staples and paperclips on your expense report but there were no Post-Its. (However, in lieu of them were notepads made from the backs of used fax cover sheets.) And there were no extras. Heck, the petty cash maximum per month was $20. 

In fairness, other than computers and cameras, pens and notebooks were all you needed to do the job. The streamlined operation was justified, and that business manager was brilliant.

My supervisor at the time said, “There are a lot of things you’ll learn here that will carry you through life — such as dealing with different personality types and mastering money management.”

She was right.

It’s illuminating and empowering once you realize you can get by with much less.

Home-cooked meals

At work, lean mindedness meant shifting responsibilities to cut out middlemen (that’s just a fancy word for me doing parts of everyone else’s job, which wasn't efficient), training associates to edit their own video, creating templates, automating production tasks and using a stopwatch to time everything, including seconds I spent on idle chit-chat.

It worked, and I successfully turned a 50-hour job into a 40-hour one.

The concepts naturally crossed over to the household budget. Why buy junk food like pizza and burgers when you could decompress from work by slowing down to cook, enjoy an elegant meal on a nice dish, and save on groceries?

In 2006, my average grocery receipt was $70 and food barely lasted a week. And doing the single-guy thing where you peel plastic wrappers off TV dinners, nuke ’em and pour a glass of Coke grew unpleasant as I matured.

I started going lean, and a funny thing happened. Cutting grocery costs meant eating healthier and enhancing the dining experience. 

In 2014, it’s closer to $30 per grocery receipt, and whole wheat linguine, along with fresh and canned fruits and vegetables — I call them standards — last much, much longer. There’s always something waiting to be cooked or prepared. There’s no stress about pulling over at a fast food restaurant or ordering a pizza.

It’s comforting to know that everything I need is in one place, and pouring a glass of pinot grigio to pair with that pasta carbonara almost makes you feel like you’re at a restaurant.

But that was just part one.

Thrifting

Just a month ago, I discovered the Dollar Tree on North Ferdon Boulevard.

Whoa.

Deodorant for $1. Four rolls of toilet paper for $1. Three-liter cola product for $1. Rice crackers? Yup, $1.

That’s what I call beating the system. (Except for the cola part. I prefer water or wine, avoiding caffeine addiction when possible, but how can you pass up 3-liter cola every now and then?)

It’s become a hobby to stop by that store every week, grab household essentials and fight the beaming smile that wants to break through as the cashier announces the price for so many items. (Especially if it’s a group of items I know would cost $16 at another store and they’re just $6.)

Then there’s Exodos Ministries Thrift Store. (I went here, for the first time, right before covering the Triple B Festival; our news team has written about the establishment’s cause, to fund a Christian men’s substance abuse rehabilitation program, and that was even more reason to see its organizers in action.)

I met hometown angels whose families join in long, all-volunteered hours, and quickly realized this was a great place to enjoy good conversation, network and search for treasures.

I have a trained eye for quality products, and last week happened to catch a quartz wall clock with Roman numerals, a glossy black metal case and a glass lens — perfect for my bedroom, which has all black furniture.

This was a confident purchase, but afterward I got on the smart phone, searched for the same clock and learned this like-new time-teller was a London import worth 10 times the purchase price. 

That's beating the system!

Now, let’s be clear: this doesn’t mean thrift for everything, although that’s not a bad idea. It’s all about balance and purpose, I believe.

For instance, I felt passionately about supporting local businesses, and deliberately bought a number of items from the Crestview Badcock and Jazzi Rae’s Discount Furniture and Gifts when I moved here nearly two years ago.

Then again, I might buy an otherwise plain picture frame from a discount store and paint it for a unique look that matches my surroundings. (I gave that royal treatment to two keepsake frames housing portions of a "Happy Boss Day" card that our news team surprised me with last year.)

Doing it yourself, or DIY, is a great way to save money, beat the system and feel great about it.

Budgeting

One of Shanklin’s suggestions is to plan a monthly budget. It’s great advice for those who require more restraint. So far, I’ve been OK winging it, though that's not for everyone. Still, these guidelines seem to work well:

●Put gas in the car $20 or $30 at a time. (Why say goodbye to $40 or $50 if driving carries over to next week and could come from another paycheck?)

●Spend just $30 for groceries, whether that’s once or twice a week. (OK, that limitation's much easier for single people.)

●Eat out just once a week unless it’s a special business or networking opportunity. Otherwise, prepare everything yourself.

●Put the rest toward bills, savings and the smallest percentage toward entertainment, wardrobe and splurging

That’s my plan, but every situation is different.

Thankfully, we have the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences office right here in Crestview, and programs like Okaloosa Saves, which are possible thanks to people like retiring Extension agent Elaine Courtney, who care so much for their communities to impart these valuable life skills. 

Challenges

Now for a reality check: Spending the least on entertainment and extras means sacrifice. For instance, a friend really wanted me to attend a concert in New Orleans this month. Well, the ticket cost $100 and I would have enjoyed hanging out with the group, but not if that meant paying so much for a singer I wasn't crazy about. I voted with my wallet. Had it been a different singer, the answer easily could have been affirmative. No big deal. We made other plans.

It’s about not going with the flow.

And ladies, it also may mean re-framing your thinking. Do you really need this season’s latest dress? Or does the house’s décor really need to change seasonally? Or if it does, does it all have to come from Ethan Allen? What about a good ol’ do-it-yourself project?

And couples, remember: The diamond ring pretty much only became a tradition for engagements because of a 1940s DeBeers campaign. Get one if it fits the budget, but guys should not feel burdened to buy something they can’t afford. Love is love and its true test is if it can survive peer pressure and changing trends.

Compromise

None of this means you live an isolated life.

For instance, I’m frugal but still footed all expenses for a dear friend who spent Saturday with me. We enjoyed View From the Stage’s “The Miracle Worker," ate at Song’s Cafe afterward and went on an ice cream run before heading back to my place.

She paid not a cent, but investing in her seemed like the right thing to do since she came all the way from Mobile just to see me and experience Crestview. And gas ain’t cheap.

So this doesn’t mean you're cheap or uncharitable, or that chivalry is dead. (Although I do have more thoughts on that topic for another time.) It just means that it’s good to vote with our wallets and ignore those songs on the radio that suggest cashing a paycheck, blowing the full amount at the bar and not giving a darn.

It means flat-out ignoring consumerist culture and making purchasing decisions that make sense based on your needs, wants and household budget. 

That works for me, but you have to do what’s right for you.

What's your view? Email News Bulletin Editor Thomas Boni, tboni@crestviewbulletin.com, or tweet him, @cnbeditor.

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