Want to Save? Give up the Big Things!

My wife — the NPR addict — pointed me to a Marketplace commentary by
Amelia Tyagi. Tyagi says not to focus on small expenses, but to focus on big expenses. You can listen to the piece in RealAudio format from the NPR website, or read this transcript:

Clip those coupons. Shift to that cheap, scratchy toilet paper. And whatever you do, don't buy any more lattes at Starbucks.

You've heard it before. Some famous financial advisor, shaking his finger and telling you how all you have to do is save $5 a week and all your financial problems will disappear. Before you know it, you will be debt free, investment rich, and lighting cigars with Donald Trump.

Yeah, right. The bottom line is, the little stuff really doesn't add up. Unless you live to be 500 years old, saving five bucks a week is not going to pay for a retirement home in Tahiti.

The real advice is that the big things add up. The fact is, one-third of Americans live in a house they can't really afford. Even more of us drive a car we can't afford. Fifty percent of us aren't saving a single dollar for retirement, let alone the 10% of our salaries that most experts recommend. So clipping a few coupons isn't going to build that nest egg.

If cutting the lattes isn't going to fund a comfy retirement, why do we hear that old advice so much? Because it is easy. It is easier to pack a brown bag lunch than to sell your car. It is easier to give your husband a haircut at home than to move to a smaller apartment. And it is easier to boil your own beans than to sell your house.

But of course, just because it's easy, doesn't mean it's right.

So the next time some expert shakes a finger at you for enjoying a lunch at an upscale restaurant, go ahead and roll your eyes.

Just try not to roll your eyes when it's time to make the real money decisions.

Tyagi's advice on big expenses is great. Some people spend so much time sweating the small stuff that they miss the big stuff. They're penny wise and pound foolish, negating their daily scrimping and saving through stupid financial choices that burden them for years. (My wife told me yesterday of a co-worker who wants to sell his Ford Expedition, which he bought new last summer. The problem? He owes $43,000 on it but can only get $23,000 in trade-in. Ouch.)

But I don't like Tyagi's advice on the little stuff.

Her Marketplace piece is basically a condensed version of passages from her book All Your Worth: The Ultimate Lifetime Money Plan. Here's a paragraph directly from the book's first chapter — compare it to her opening sentences above:

We are […] not going to say that if you'll just shift to generic toilet paper and put $5 a week in the bank, all your problems will instantly disappear. A few pennies here and a few pennies there, and the next thing you know, you will be debt-free, investment-rich, and lighting cigars with Donald Trump. Nope, we're not selling that brand of snake oil.

The problem is: neither is anyone else. In Tyagi's revised version of that paragraph, she makes a direct swipe at David Bach's latte factor. What has she got against Bach? And what has she got against saving money? Yes, many people — including myself — advise you to exercise frugality, and warn you of the danger of small expenses, but nobody's claiming that these are quick paths to wealth. They're tools in a toolbox. When used in conjunction with other techniques, they can help you establish sound financial habits.

It turns out that Tyagi doesn't have anything against saving money on the little things. In fact, she believes that some people need to cut the little expenses, which she terms Wants. She recommends a budget structured thusly: 50% of after-tax money spent on Needs, 30% on Wants, and 20% on Savings. She says that if any of these are out of balance, you're not financially healthy. (Note that this is a refinement of the Andrew Tobias three-step budget.)

I'm reading All Your Worth for a future review here, and I like it (in fact, I love parts of it), but I don't like the way Tyagi presented her condensed version on Marketplace.

Sure, give up the big things, but pay attention to the small stuff, too.

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