I read a lot and I think about money a lot. So, naturally, I read a lot about money.
I’ve read all the experts. I’m well-versed in the Debt Snowball and the Latte Factor and the 50/20/30 rule.
And I think many of them are unrealistic.
We could argue about expected return or how much you should save in an emergency fund, but the biggest thing that most advisers don’t take into account?
Take just one example: weddings. I have attended approximately 50 weddings in the past ten years, most of them taking place before my own in 2010. Twice, we’ve had two weddings on the same day. In 2007 alone, we attended fourteen. I was a groomsman in six of them, my wife was a bridesmaid in three more. There was tux renting, dress buying, hair, makeup, and a host of other expenses.
We were 27. I worked for a non-profit. She was a teacher. There’s no budget or spreadsheet wizardry that can account for those costs without some type of borrowing.
They weren’t overly fancy and wildly expensive weddings, either. Some were quite nice, but others were in the basement of a VFW or on a farm. For one, we helped set up the night before and the open bar was a keg in the corner next to a tub of ice with a couple of bottles of wine in it, all drinks served in plastic cups. But even attending a modest wedding puts a dent in a budget. There is the gift itself (a few hundred dollars in cash). Then there’s the dry cleaning of my suit and her dress. Then there’s travel. One was in Baltimore. Another in D.C. Yet another in Harrisburg. A few in New York. One in Florida. That means tolls and hotels. Once, we saved money by staying at her parents’ house the night before the wedding, only to discover that we had left our outfits at home, hanging up next to the door so we wouldn’t forget them. Thus, the next morning we had to go shopping.
I’m sure most financial experts would suggest that I should have declined those invitations. All of them. I should have written, “I regret to inform you that I will not be attending your wedding because I’m trying to stick to my budget and between my mortgage, IRA contributions, and student loan payments, I just don’t have anything left for the two of you. Best wishes!”
I could have done that, but to what end? What kind of life would I have? This is the kind of thinking that turns you into Sam Hinkie, where all emotion is removed and you’re left thinking of experiences in terms of a P&L statement. What is the point of making and saving money if not to enjoy it?
I was lucky to have a wide circle of friends and being invited to those weddings was a treat and a privilege. I still talk to most of those people. Many came to my going away party, four years later, when they were under no societal obligation or social pressure to do so. These days, we get together at the birthday parties of our children. We’re still close.
Plus, they reciprocated for me. That isn’t the reason you do it, but it is a nice byproduct. Seven of us went to Montreal for my bachelor party. After our wedding, my wife and I took a lot of the money we had been given and we went to Italy for two weeks. We could have buried it in a mutual fund or paid down debt or used it as a down payment for a bigger house, but we weren’t ready to move yet. We were newlyweds that knew we wanted to start a family in the coming years and weren’t guaranteed that we’d ever have a chance to go again. On our first date, we both said that if we could visit anywhere in the world, we’d go to Italy. So we went.
After all, the purpose of life is to live, not just accumulate.
What do all these crises have in common?
They all cost money.
There’s a money crisis in America. It’s just the way it is. We are in a country and an era where families struggle to make ends meet on two incomes and an entire generation is falling behind. Is it any wonder why a maniac who is screaming that he’ll “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” is resonating with much of the 99%, many of whom think they remember a time when it was easier?
I’ve written before about my fears that I won’t have enough money to retire. The more I read, the more it seems that I’m falling short. I’m about to turn 36 and, by all accounts, I’m not on track to be comfortable:
a 30-year-old today will need $2 million to retire—accounting for inflation, that would have the same purchasing power as about $750,000 of today’s dollars.
Part of the reason I’m behind? I worked for a couple of institutions that didn’t offer retirement matching, but did offer tuition assistance. So I stayed there. Why would I do that? Well, I needed an MBA to get ahead in my career so that I could get a better job so to that I could make more money so that I could pay off my undergrad student loans and put money away for retirement.
I also liquidated retirement funds for a down payment on a home. If you’ve ever read a personal finance book or blog, you know that this is seen as equivalent to doing what the Joker did to the mob’s money in The Dark Knight.
But I wanted a bigger house, closer to family and my office, and there was no other way I was going to be able to afford it.
In the spring of 2013, I finally accomplished something I had been working towards for years: I snagged a job at a Fortune 100 company (something that would have been impossible without the MBA, by the way).
It was located in northern New Jersey and we we were living in Philadelphia, but it was a job I couldn’t seem to land at home and, besides, we had been discussing moving north for some time. It would put us closer to her family, my sister, and only a bit farther from my parents.
We did all of the things financial experts preach. We put money away. We made improvements to our house. We went five years without any car payments. I drove a car smaller than my cubicle 150 miles per day for a year-and-a-half. I bought that car in 2004 for $7,000 and I’m still driving it to this day.
But a dollar can only stretch so far.
When we were house hunting, we limited our visits to homes with property taxes that were no higher than $12,000. If that sounds high, welcome to the Garden State:
Property tax burdens in New Jersey run the gamut, averaging more than $11,000 in some counties in northern New Jersey to just below $4,000 in counties down south.
No tax bill, measured as a countywide average, topped $11,000 in 2014. But two of the 21 counties, Bergen and Essex, crossed that threshold last year.
Remember Chris Rock’s joke about his neighbors – Eddie Murphy, Mary J. Blige, Jay-Z…and a dentist? They all live in Bergen County.
I live in Essex County.
This is the cost of living in the shadow of New York City, in a state with a government that has a history of corruption.
What does an $11,000 tax bill do to your mortgage? It tacks on an additional $917 per month. And since those are taxes, it never goes away. If you’re retired and your house is paid off, you’re still shelling out nearly a grand per month. When Dave Ramsey and Suze Orman shake their fists and stamp their feet about debt, they scream about car payments and mocha frappuccinos, but property taxes are scarcely mentioned.
I’m sure an expert would tell me that I should’ve stayed in my small house in Philly. After all, the mortgage and taxes were low and it didn’t cost much to heat. But it was also small. And it didn’t have a yard. The park across the street had been turned into condos. I’d have to pay for daycare. And then private school. And who would my kid(s) play with? They would grow up far away from family, in a neighborhood that was improving, but still had some lingering issues. I didn’t want to raise a family there, so I moved to a house on a hill and my money goes to property taxes, towards a school that still has art and music and other programs.
When I was 25, the choice between living in the suburbs and the city was a no-brainer. Ten years later, it was still a no-brainer, but the choice was the opposite.
I work with a 50-year-old that has $700,000 in his 401(k). But I stopped talking to him about personal stuff because any time something involving money comes up, he suggests I just ask my parents. That’s what he does. He was stunned that we had to pay for our home ourselves.
No wonder he’s been able to save. When mommy and daddy help you with your bills, it’s easy to stack up money and let compounding interest do its thing.
For the rest of us, we have to pay for housing, taxes, cars, insurance, food, WiFi, cell phone, student loans, and extras, while also putting aside enough for an emergency fund…and vacation…and retirement. How much can realistically be left?
Most financial experts would say that I don’t need to pay for WiFi, but I’ve had to work from home at all hours of the day and night, even in a snowstorm. Most financial experts would say that I don’t need a car, but there is literally no public transportation that is within five miles of my office. Most financial experts would say that every dollar should be accounted for and that every spare dollar should go to either saving or paying down debt. No exceptions! There is no room for human error or – dare I even suggest it – fun.
It may give you a tighter balance sheet, but it will also give you a bleaker life. Because fun costs. And if you’re so focused on the numbers your life will begin to feel like debtors’ prison. Years will go by with you avoiding anything that may not fit in your budget, leaving a life that looks great on paper, but only on paper.
Should you drown in debt because you can’t be bothered to use your stove as anything other than a table where you put pizza boxes? Of course not. But how will you feel if you skip weddings and parties for forty years to have a $12 million nest egg only to die of a stress-induced heart attack the day before you retire?
There needs to be a balance, but that doesn’t neatly fit into a soundbite or radio show, so most experts refuse to acknowledge any shade of grey. There’s only black and white. Assets and liabilities. Savings and debt.
That’s why I love Kristin Wong. She is the rare financial guru that not only admits to when she stumbles in her budget, but that she has a fudge category for other, unforeseen things that come up each month.
Because that’s where life happens – in the “Other” file.
Otherwise, what’s the point?
Christopher Pierznik is the author of eight books, all of which can be purchased in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, and many more. He has been quoted on Buzzfeed and Deadspin. Subscribe to his monthly reading review newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.