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The Myths that Keep Americans in the Hole
by Marc Eisenson
The $5 Trillion Question
      Outstanding consumer debt now hovers right around the $5 trillion mark. That's $5,000,000,000,000.00. How did we, heirs to a thrift ethic that goes back centuries, get in so far over our collective heads?

      Slowly ... and often insidiously ... we've been persuaded to spend, spend, spend our way to the good life, even if it meant going deeper and deeper into debt. This year alone, advertisers will spend more than $172 billion luring us to malls, car showrooms, supermarkets ... you name it.

      Their message is clear: buy now, buy more, pay later! Now that later has arrived, more and more people worry that they'll never get their heads above water. In one survey, living paycheck to paycheck was the biggest concern of almost two-thirds of working women. In another, over 80% thought that most of us buy far more than we need.

      It's no wonder, since we're almost constantly surrounded by promotions that are carefully, systematically, and scientifically produced to part us from our hard-earned bucks. First there are the 6,000 or so commercials that the TV networks air every week. That's in addition to all the print ads and billboards we see every day, wherever we go. And who can forget the 100th Olympics? Who sponsored the official toilet paper of the games? I missed that one.

      What's worse, marketers are making it ever easier to shop and spend right from the comfort of our living rooms, via the boob tube and those 13.2 billion catalogues that are mailed out every year. While home shopping can be a convenience ... and even a money saver ... much of what's promoted is stuff we just don't need.

      Infomercials for everything from psychic friends to pasta makers pop up day and night on the tube, while devoted, sometimes addicted fans of the home shopping channels are cajoled with live testimonials -- Betty from Baton Rouge is proud to tell us how thrilled she is with her $118.44 ribbed motif stampato bracelet. Meanwhile, the friendly host warns, "This bargain won't last long!"

      As for the Internet, this latest way to get our attention at home ... and at work, too ... is just beginning to be commercially exploited. You ain't seen nothing, yet!

      Madison Avenue, while the most obvious culprit, is not the only one. Americans also fall victim to myths perpetuated by powerful institutions like banks, that make a bundle by collecting interest on that $5 trillion we owe. Last year, the credit card industry alone raked in $41.5 billion in interest charges. They're not talking pocket change.

      And finally, there are the tales we tell ourselves to feel okay about spending too much. All told, we're constantly exposed to a powerful combo of myths that keep Americans in the hole.

You are what you wear ... spend ... own.
      Whether you're 14 or 42, you're reminded day in and day out that success is having the most ... and the "way coolest" stuff on the block.

      By the time kids graduate from high school, they will have watched more than half a million TV commercials, listened to an uncounted number of radio rantings, and seen who knows how many print ads and billboards. Before the recent push to keep kids from smoking, it was clear that six-year olds were as familiar with Joe Camel, the cigarette mascot, as they were with Mickey Mouse -- and good old Joe isn't on TV.

      While watching "Power Rangers" and "Animaniacs," kids barely in grade school are bombarded with commercial after commercial for junky snacks and gimmicky toys that are "totally cool," the adjective that seems most prevalent in these pitches.

      Once they've reached their teens, the approach gets a little more sophisticated. Think MTV, where lots of fast paced, computer-generated images convince hip viewers that the jeans or sneakers being advertised will make them even hipper.

      Again and again, us older folks are told to buy this product or that to look younger, sexier ... or at least to smell better. Heard often enough, these messages sink in and have been known to echo in our egos when that first gray hair or wrinkle emerges. Whether it's moisturizing creams, hair replacement systems, or exercise equipment to tone the abs we never knew we had, the message is clear: You have to keep on spending to look your best.

Myth: If you care enough ... you'll go into hock.
      Nothing typifies this love cost more than the De Beer's ads touting "a diamond is forever." How much should you spend on a rock to celebrate your engagement? "Two months' salary," they advise. "Spend less and the relatives will talk. Spend more, and they'll rave."

      "Think romance. And don't compromise," the ad continues. "This is one of life's most important occasions. You want a diamond as unique as your love." I say, think cubic zirconia if you must show the world your intentions.

      Then there's the wedding itself. Is a dream wedding worth over $16,000 on average? Not in my eyes.

      A less lavish wedding, and the happy couple might have enough for a down payment on a house ... or their parents could have a more comfortable retirement. The same holds for life's other special events, be it a vacation or a loved one's funeral. Love is in the heart and mind of the beholder ... not in the wallet.

      Besieged by advertising hype, Americans also blow a bigger bundle than they can afford on presents for Christmas, birthdays, and all the made-up holidays like Valentine's Day, Mother's Day, and Father's Day. (I call them "Hallmark holidays," in honor of the $6.3 billion that the greeting card industry gets out of us, year after year.)

      In short, as one home shopping pitchman put it during a glitzy jewelry segment, buy it "if you want her to love you even more." My thought? Take over some chore your mate hates, and say a more than occasional "I Love You."

Myth: Buying a home is a great investment.
      Not for the 4 million families whose castles were foreclosed over the last 10 years ... or for all the folks who bought homes in the late '80s and lost a bundle when they sold them in the '90s. Too many of us suffer from home worship, and end up slaving away to support our castles.

      Houses are in fact very expensive to own, especially when you consider closing costs, mortgage interest, property taxes, insurance, and all the maintenance required through the years. To actually make money off the eventual sale of a house, you have to factor in all these costs. In fact, sometimes it's better to rent ... especially if you live in an area where home values are depreciating. (And who knows where that'll be next?)

      While owning a house isn't always the financial boon it's cracked up to be, the mortgage on it can be turned into a GREAT investment. Among the myths that make me the maddest are the ones that keep homeowners from reaping the savings that pre-paying on mortgages can bring. What? You're not? You're throwing your money away and every month is costing you hundreds of dollars!

Myth: "Don't leave home without it."
      "Master the moment." "It's everywhere you want to be." And it's put Americans in the hole to the tune of about $450 billion, just on the plastic in their pockets, all because we say two little words: "Charge it."

      Credit cards are a great convenience, if you use them to pay for things you can afford and would have bought anyway. Too many of us, though, use them as a license to spend impulsively. And we pay a heavy price in hefty interest charges. Charges that could roll on for decades. Here are just a few of the ways credit card issuers whisper in our ears to spend more than we can afford:

      The lower the required payment, the greater the debt will be. For example, say you're carrying the typical $3,800 credit card balance at the typical 17%. If you have MPS, you could pay anywhere from $3,222 to $8,390 in interest, depending on the percent of the balance you have to send in every month.

Myth: It's better to buy a new car.
      I don't think so. New cars come factory equipped with staggering depreciation. A shiny new roadster will lose 15-20% of its value the first year. Most will depreciate another 10-30% over the next 2 years. With the average car now costing $20,000, that's a lot of money out the window, just for the privilege of being the first to turn that key!

      And automakers have an even bigger money-loser for you: leasing. Those low monthly car payments flashing across the screen are awfully seductive. But all too often, people sign on the dotted line without realizing the true cost. They don't negotiate the lease price, and they don't sit down to figure out the total cost of the car. And they seem to forget that after paying for the car's heaviest depreciation years, they'll have to give it back and start over again. (For "What to Do When the Lease Bug Bites," see The Pocket Change Investor, Issue #13.)

      No matter how you buy your buggy, be sure to factor in taxes and insurance (both of which are, by the way, higher on new cars than on the recycled ones).

      A well-maintained used car can provide years of reliable transport, at a price you probably can afford ... without going into debt for over $18,000 (today's average car loan). Unfortunately, it's a little tougher these days to get great deals on used cars, since more folks are wising up to their value. But for the scoop on buying a used car, see The Pocket Change Investor, issue #17.

Myth: The national debt is Washington's problem.
      The same buy now, pay later approach that's been embraced by so many Americans has created our crushing Federal deficit and humongous national debt. More than 38 cents of every personal tax dollar is currently earmarked to pay interest on the national debt, which means that almost 40% of what we pay in taxes does us no good at all.

      That's outrageous, and should be everyone's concern. The fact that it's not, makes it easier for our august elected officials to keep passing the buck, to the point where every family's share of the national debt is now a whopping $78,900. Do you want to put that on Mastercard, Visa ... or your progeny?

Myth: Bankruptcy wipes the slate clean.
      Years of overspending have a price, and for about a million people every year, that price is bankruptcy. Many who take this step hope it'll give them a new beginning ... a "clean slate," so to speak.

      While bankruptcy may get people off the hook with creditors, it leaves an indelible mark on credit reports for up to 10 years. We've talked to many folks who have been through bankruptcy and are now finding it tough to rebuild their credit. And when they can get credit, they invariably must pay a higher rate of interest and/or put up more collateral.       But if you recognize these myths for the bill of goods they are, solvency, not bankruptcy, will be your lot in life. May your good sense prevail over the multitude of misleading messages that continuously come your way!

The Pocket Change Investor
The Secrets to Getting Ahead -- Even If You Have a Pile of Credit Card Bills, Hefty Mortgage Payments,
Loans Out on a Clunker or Two, & a Bad Case of the "I'm Tired of Living Payday to Payday" Blues.

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"There are lots of newsletters operated by one or two people working on a shoestring budget. One of the most successful -- and my favorite -- is The Pocket Change Investor, the brainchild of consumer advocate Marc Eisenson, who began publishing it simply because he hated the thought of people wasting their hard-earned money or of not using their money wisely."
-- Jeanie Blake, "The People Helper"
New Orleans Times-Picayune

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Reprinted from The Pocket Change Investor, Issue #17
© 1997, Marc Eisenson & Nancy Castleman
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