As someone who is constantly working on improving my cash flow and trying not to waste money, I can't help but like the idea behind the Motley Fool's four-week Fiscal Fitness challenge. It has a monthly series of articles by writers Dayana Yochim and Ellen Bowman, promising that they will "cut costs in the major areas of spending."
They're focusing on "workaday expenses (like that cable TV bill and the Incredible Disappearing ATM Withdrawal), big-ticket items (like travel, insurance premiums), irritating budget busters (groceries, gas) and finance-related fees (fund costs, brokerage charges)."
This week, they're focusing on workaday expenses. They think they've figured out how to save $419.50 in less than an hour.
OK, I thought. I'll bite. Let's try it. And so I read this week's article.
Step One. "Get a grip on your cash flow in 5 minutes flat." The writers suggest signing up for the free online money-tracking service Mint.com, which they point out is a Motley Fool partner. It is a great site, though I can't really use Mint.com very well any longer. Ever since my bank changed its security parameters, where I type in my user name, and then I have to look at a photo and type in a word, and then another screen comes up, and I have to give my blood type (or maybe I'm imagining that) and then later, I type in my actual password... well, Mint.com's not been working out for me. So on this point, I'm sunk.
Step Two. "Leave the plastic at home and save $153." The writers have calculated that the average household would save $153 a month by paying for groceries with cash instead of a credit or debit card. I have no doubt that they're right. My wife and I should probably pay for groceries in cash. It's pretty easy to make some impulse buys when you know that you have the relative safety of your entire checking account at your disposal. On the other hand, sometimes you do see things that you're out of (like garbage bags) that weren't on your list before, and so having that plastic can come in handy. But I won't quibble with this. I'll try to remember to pay with cash next time, but am I being a curmudgeon to point out that in this quest to save me $419.50 in an hour, it's actually going to take me a month before I see $153 of this savings?
Step Three. "Stop overpaying Uncle Sam and add $200 a month to your take-home pay." The writers note that 75% of Americans overpaid their taxes last year by an average of $2,400 -- or $200 a month. You'll get it back after April 15, but there's no interest on that. They have a good point, and I'm sure some people should look at what they're paying. In my case, I pay estimated taxes as a freelance writer, and I'm lucky to be caught up. In fact, their admonishment reminds me that I need to pay some more taxes very soon, so if anything, I'm out $419.50. But let's look at their last step.
Step Four. "Slash your cable bill by $10 to $50 a month." The writers suggest calling and negotiating a better rate with your cable bill, and that is wonderful advice that's worked very well for me in the past. Not this time, however. When I called, my cable operator pointed out that I'm a few weeks behind on my bill, and that I should cough up the rest. Then we can talk. I'm starting to lose a lot of money reading this article. I can hardly wait to check out the next step.
Step Five. "Dial down your debt and save $198." The writers point out that if you have a $6,000 balance with a credit card that has a 19% APR that you'd like to pay off in one year, negotiating a rate reduction to 12% will save you $198 in interest, which comes to $16.50 a month. So "if you have credit card debt at double-digit interest rates," say Yochim and Bowman, "and you've got a decent record of on-time payments with your lender," then you need to talk to your credit card issuers. A lot of ifs in there, too many for me to have any hope of bringing anything down. Yeah, for a lot of people, all I can say is, um, good luck on that one.
But, as usual from The Motley Fool, this is all very good advice and a fun experiment. I don't mean to sound like I think otherwise. I do think the odds of most people actually being able to save $419.50 in under hour based on this advice is rather slim, and certainly there will be people like me where the size of some of the tips won't fit all. But can you follow the advice and save something? Almost certainly, although I think I came out owing $612, and saving any sort of money...? As the credit card ads say--priceless.
Geoff Williams is a freelance journalist and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale).
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