Friday, December 16, 2016
Frugal Tip Takedown: The Ludicrous "Fun On A Budget" Tips from Hot (Broke) Messes
There are a lot of personal finance self-help guides on the market. It's easy to understand why: managing money is something everyone needs to know to do, but it's not taught in school. Different teachers, different ways of explaining, and different methods and strategies will be helpful to different people. Plus, it's a good way to make a quick buck. Your target audience is, by definition, people who are not good with money!
I have read some really great personal finance books over the years. Books that are inspiring and genuinely helpful. You can find my top picks on my Resources Page and in my recent post, What personal finance book should I read?
Most personal finance books are pretty same-y, and pretty "meh." They'll have a chapter which explains how to budget. A chapter which explains how 401(k)s work. They'll tell you that it's important to invest, but not really get too deep into exactly how to do it because they're afraid people will be mad if they follow the advice and don't make money, or because they don't have a coherent strategy themselves. There are a ton of these types of books, and I don't have much to say about them, except "yawn."
Some books are gloriously terrible. These books are also worthy of mention, if only how for counterproductive and/or poorly thought out and/or insane their advice is.
Hot (Broke) Messes: How To Have Your Latte and Drink It Too by Nancy Trejos (2009) is one of those books. Despite its "how-to" title, it's really much less a self-help guide and more of a confessional about how much the author spends. It's at once self-deprecating and humblebraggy: I'm so bad for spending so much on glamorous trips, designer clothes, and fancy dinners and drinks hobnobbing with the elite! While that content is eye-rolly, I was most alarmed/amused by the actual tips for how to live a more frugal lifestyle. I could have guessed that they would be useless, but I didn't realize that each one would be unique, special snowflake of wrongness.
The worst is a list of tips for how to have fun on a budget. Even given the limited scope (it's aimed at affluent 20s and 30s young professionals in Washington, D.C. in 2009, who are already spending a considerable amount on drinks, drinking, and entertainment every night of the week, and who want to cut back, but not that much), it's a spectacular failure. Let's go through the tips one by one. These come from chapter 10, "The Price of Fun."
"When you hit a bar, buy two drinks instead of four."
And away we go! Setting the bar of "normal" at four drinks per bar visit accomplishes so many things here. It establishes itself as completely useless for people who already typically order three or fewer drinks. It also alienates those people, and makes them question "Am I subnormal? Should I be ordering more drinks?" -- thus having the opposite of its intended effect and effectively becoming the Joneses to keep up with! Plus, it allows the author to be lazy. It's just ludicrously easy to come up with a cheaper version. "Instead of eating 1,000 hot dogs a day, try cutting back to 400-500!"
I'm not saying you're a freak if you do order 4 drinks per bar visit. More power to you if that's your favorite indulgence. And there are definitely things that I do to excess, even if it's not drinking. I eat out a lot, and I buy too many clothes. There are definitely things I could cut back 50% on. Cutting back by 50% on (whatever your vice is) actually is a good way to make a big reduction while still keeping the general scaffolding of your lifestyle intact. I read a similar tip in a dieting book: if you don't want to totally change your diet, try just cutting each portion in half. If you usually eat two slices of pizza and a large Coke for lunch, and you do nothing else but change it to one slice of pizza and a small Coke, you will still lose weight, without making a big, mentally taxing structural change to your eating habits.
But I think it places a lot of work on the reader to draw that general lesson out of a specific tip about drinks at the bar. Most people are not going to sit and think, "Well, I don't drink so much that it's a huge line item in my budget, but how can I force this to apply to my life?" I feel like most people are just going to be like "I don't order that many drinks NEXT"
"Go to a matinee instead of an evening showing of a movie, or wait for it to come out on DVD. If you have cable, you can get plenty of great movies On Demand for less than a movie ticket. If you've got premium channels, you can order the movies being shown that month for free."
Now, this one is actually the opposite of what I would advise, which is pretty impressive! I say cut cable, and just go to the movies more often.
Sure, going to the movies is expensive, but how many movies are you going to see that it adds up to more than premium cable? Last time I checked, premium cable was about $130 per month. You'd have to go to the movies about ten times a month. Maybe more if you go to matinee showings. Are there ten movies you even want to see out each month?
Even if you figure it comes out about even, I still say choose the movies. At least then each movie is "opt in." Maybe you sometimes go to more movies and sometimes go to less. As long as the average is 10 or less, you're doing great. If you suddenly have a tight month, you can just go to fewer movies. If there's a month where no good movies come out (coughJanuarycough), or you're just too busy to see movies, you automatically save money without trying. Whereas with cable, it's a contract, so you have to pay the same every single month, even if you don't use it. I always want to err on the side of doing things on a case-by-case basis instead of getting into a contract.
I have several other quibbles with this tip, starting with the wording "for free." Ordering movies from your premium cable package isn't "free"; you are paying for the premium cable package! It's not "free" if you're paying monthly for the privilege, it's just included or pre-paid. And, I'm no cable expert, but I am 95% certain that the movies you can see On Demand or on premium channels aren't actually the most current blockbusters out in theaters, and never have been. Cinemas tend to fight competition pretty hard, since timing is about the only advantage they have. I just checked, and the movies currently on Starz and stuff are all from several months ago. So if the reason you are going to the movies is to see all the latest things and be able to talk around the water cooler about them, this isn't going to help you. And if the reason you go to the movies is because it's a fun, exciting experience that gets you out of your house, this isn't going to help you. And if the reason you see movies is social, a pretext to spend time with friends or go on dates, this isn't going to help you.
When you try to persuade someone to switch from an expensive experience they enjoy to a replacement for frugal reasons, you should make sure (a) the new experience is actually satisfying whatever they enjoyed about the old experience, and (b) the new experience is actually cheaper. Don't just persuade people to do something that is worse because worse is probably cheaper. It isn't always! Sometimes worse is just worse!
"Be picky about the concerts you go to. Now, there are some bands that you will simply have to see live if they show up in your town. For me, a U2 or Radiohead concert it nonnegotiable. But others, you can probably do without."
Some of these raise more questions than they answer. Was this author really just going to concerts all the time for bands she didn't even like?
My wife, the Frugal Croissant, was most offended by the word "non-negotiable" here. "Everything is negotiable," she insisted. "Otherwise you're not even trying."
"You can eat at nice restaurants, but do it only on special occasions or a few times a month."
Another lazy variant on the general "do the same thing you usually do, but cut back on the amount" framework.
"Rather than meeting a friend for dinner, eat at home and meet for a drink or coffee."
Actually, I agree with this one. STOP THE PRESSES!
"If you do have dinner with a friend at a restaurant, share two appetizers and one entree. If you're like me, you can't finish an entire dish by yourself."
Again I have to question the math. I am pretty sure it is not usually cheaper to order two appetizers than one entree. I'm just thinking of the restaurant I ate at most recently, where scallion pancakes and golden triangles were both $6.95. (We went with the scallion pancakes. Yum.) My entree, ginger scallion tofu, was $13.95. And the entree was definitely way more than the twice the food of one appetizer. So, "spend the same amount of money for less food," is this tip.
I guess if you are already ordering both appetizers and entrees, and then just not eating half the food in your entree, and you refuse to take home leftovers due to embarrassment (which the author does, according to another part of this book), then this is a good tip. But that's a pretty specific scenario.
"Become a regular at some nightspots and get to know the bartenders and/or owners. They'll usually slip you a free drink or give you a discount."
This. This is the crown jewel in the insanity that is this list. In what world does becoming a regular at a nightspot save you money? By the time you are such a regular that the staff recognize you, you have already spent so much! That's why they give you free stuff; to thank you for having spent so much money there already, and to lock in your loyalty so you'll continue coming even more. Trust me, they wouldn't do this kind of thing if it weren't profitable to them! The house always wins
Under what circumstances does this tip even begin to save you money? Again, I'm forced to backwards-construct the author's life based on the things she thinks will lower its expenses. She makes such odd assumptions. The only way this could even theoretically work is if you are constantly going out, and always to different places. If go out a lot but it's usually to the same couple of places, this is already what you're doing. And if you don't go out all that often, this tip is telling you to go out more, which is definitely not going to save you any money! They're never going to give you enough free stuff to offset the cost of even a single visit, let alone the number it would take to elevate you from "occasional customer" to "Norm!"
"Spend to save" tips are always suspect, but at least they sometimes do make some mathematical sense. If you buy a bulk vat of olive oil at Costco, you can save a few cents per ounce and use that oil for months. But going to the bar doesn't work that way. You can't amortize the cost over time ("if I go to the bar 20 times in a row in February, I won't have to go the rest of the year!"). And the "regular" discount is far from assured. You're aiming at a chance the staff will come to know you, and a chance they will throw you some kind of token thanks for it.
Even if you do get some kind of bonus for being a regular, I can tell you that "saving money" is not the way it works psychologically. You don't use that bonus to offset something you otherwise would have bought. You just get an extra thing. Source: my own experience of being a regular, which is limited to a fruit stand outside my building when I worked in New York. I went out to buy 3 bananas for a dollar every afternoon at 4:00 PM. The banana man got to know me and occasionally would throw in an extra banana. What did I do? Save it, go back the next day and only buy two bananas? No, you better believe I ate that extra banana!
"Entertain at home, and ask your friends to bring dishes or drinks."
Okay this one is fine.