Managing money smartly is the goal

June 29, 2008|By Humberto Cruz | Humberto Cruz,Tribune Media Services

Americans are getting advice on pocketbook issues from many people these days, including financial planners, credit counselors, consumer advocates and representatives for financial literacy groups.

Most of the advice is good and well-intentioned. But I fear the approach is misguided and potentially dangerous.

Here is some of the most common advice we hear over and over:

Get a handle on your spending by writing down every penny you spend over the next month. Then review where your money went and make conscious decisions on where to cut back if necessary.

Build an emergency fund to cover at least three to six months of living expenses, or more if you believe your job is at risk.

For those not yet retired, make regular contributions to a retirement plan even if you can't afford to put in the maximum allowed.

Once you've set up an emergency fund and are saving regularly, decide how much you can spend on nonessential items, including the latest electronic gadgets and toys.

Resist the temptation to use your credit cards for purchases you couldn't afford otherwise.

If you have credit card debt, stop or at least reduce nonessential expenditures. Pay off your outstanding balance as fast as you can, starting with the card that charges the highest interest rate.

Don't waste gas. Combine driving trips. Keep your car tuned up and your tires properly inflated. Do not speed and avoid jack-rabbit starts and stops.

Clip coupons and use them for items you would buy anyway.

Get rid of clutter. Hold a rummage sale or online auction to sell items you no longer need. Donate the rest to charity, possibly getting a tax deduction if you itemize.

So what's wrong with this advice? There is nothing wrong with it. These are all things we should be doing all the time. But most of them are being presented as ways to manage our money during difficult economic times.

Which raises the question: When the good times return, is it OK to go back to spending more than we make, running up credit card debt and generally wasting our money (and in the case of gas, our resources)?

I hope not, but it will be a tough battle.

"The most powerful messages that individuals receive each day are to spend and, if need be, to borrow to do so," Dallas Salisbury, president of the Employee Benefit Research Institute and chairman of the American Savings Education Council, testified recently before a congressional committee on financial literacy and education.

The mortgage crisis, Salisbury said, "is a direct result of our society having been so dedicated to borrowing and spending and growth that it made it possible for people to borrow well beyond what we now know was advisable."

So let's make savings, thrift and smart money management our goal. I urge all readers to get a copy of Money Tips for All Ages, a free 16-page guide chock-full of practical advice published by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. The guide can be read or printed online at, or ordered by calling the Federal Citizen Information Center toll-free at 888-878-3256 and asking for publication number 640R (there is a $2 service fee for phone orders).

Humberto Cruz is a columnist for Tribune Media Services.

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