The Expatriated Consumer

Imagining life without debt. Working to make it reality.

Archive for May, 2008

American Workaholics

Posted by Max Finkle on May 30, 2008

Some time ago I was enjoying a pint at a local watering hole and I happened to meet a couple of Englishmen. I must confess that I truly enjoy listening to the English accent, as being American it’s a rarity to hear it. Conversation took many a turn with cordial discussions of the recent weather, impassioned intercourse about local breweries, vociferous communion regarding recent politics, and inquisitions of occupation. All was cordial and agreeable until the latter subject came up. That was when one of them stated, “You Americans love to work. I don’t understand it. Every American I know just loves working.

That statement was cause for pause. “Americans love to work?” I repeated aghast. What a confounding prospect I thought. Surely this was an opportunity to enlighten them that that generalization was inaccurate. Then I proceeded to reintroduce myself as an American who doesn’t like to work. I was then asked how many hours I work a week. “Well, this week I worked about 60.”

“See! You love to work! At home we work our forty hours and are done with it for the week. Why work more than you have to?”

“Well, I have bills to pay. I make crummy wages, and have to work the extra to make ends meet.” was my reply. “I certainly don’t work so much because I enjoy it!”

That conversation has stuck with me for many years, because it enlightened me to my plight as an indebted American. I’ve had similar interactions with a gentleman from France who had as much disdain for my workaholic reputation I did for his slothful thirty-two hour work week, I dated a Polish woman who echoed the same sentiments, and have been told the same by others of various nationalities.

Growing up on a farm that good ol’ Yankee work ethic was instilled in me at a young age. It’s all I’ve ever known. I grew up working hard because that was what I had to do, them thar’ cows gotta be milked… As I’ve gotten older, I continue to work hard because I still have to, although for other reasons. I don’t have my stepfather standing over me, strap in hand, to motivate me, but another oppressive figure: that of “The Man.” I’m in a quagmire of debt, and to keep a roof over my head and food on the table, I’m obligated to continue working at the same job that I’m not entirely happy with, and again looking for additional work to make ends meet, all because I’ve extended myself beyond my means.

I dream of walking away from it all, in fact I’ve dreamed that for many years. Always I find reasons why I can’t. I have too much debt. I have to pay the rent. I have to buy food. I have to make the car payment… and the list goes on. Recently, my excuse has been that my family costs me so much. Then I sit and steam over the bills, and can’t figure out why my wife had to spend so much this month on this and that.

I’ve come to realize that I love my life, but I hate my lifestyle. I’m in the process of re-evaluating what is important to me, and I’m talking with my wife about what we can do to make those changes that we need to so that we can start truly enjoying our lives. To begin with, she’s going to start working again, and I am looking at finding additional work to supplement our income. Blogging is one of the ideas I thought I could try.

In addition, I’m reading “Your Money or Your Life” and beginning the trek towards Financial Independence. My goal is to prove those Englishmen wrong, and prove to them that not all Americans love to work. And to prove to myself that I can eventually work less and still feel fulfilled.

Posted in lifestyle | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Cat & Mouse Game…

Posted by Max Finkle on May 29, 2008

I just recently began blogging as a way to chronicle my trials and tribulations in my quest to become debt-free. I’m in the infancy of both my blogging and my commitment to my new lifestyle, and honestly never considered that someone else would actually read my blog… Truthfully, I started with a free WordPress blog, so I could cut my chops and learn a thing or two before I considered paying for a host and all that jazz.

So imagine my surprise when I checked in the other day to discover that I had two comments left on one of my posts! I actually caught someone’s attention. Imagine my further surprise when I discovered that both of them were involved in business & marketing!

I pondered why this would be so. I never considered the idea that a marketer would want to follow someone who’s blog title indicates that buying just isn’t his thing. I want to consume less, not more. Then it occurred to me. They want to know what I’m thinking. By reading my work, they don’t have to scratch their heads and wonder. I’m laying it out for them. I’ve made myself easy pickin’s…

As much as I intend to rant and rave at the marketing industry over the life of this blog, marketers can delve into the brains of like-minded folks by reading my work. They want to know what makes me tick, so they can work that into their planning, and figure out how to successfully market to me. Living in this society makes it impossible to avoid consumerism and marketing, so despite my best efforts, I am still confronted with it, and have to adjust to it.

After reading a substantial amount about marketing plans such as the CVS coupon game, I realized that marketers have our number, in those of us dedicated to buying more for less. They’ve figured out how to get their products into our homes by giving us what we want: cheaper costs. Oh, they make us work for it, like making us clip coupons and leaf through sale fliers; playing coupon games can take hours, and I only do it now because I want to practice and perfect so I won’t always spend so much time on it. Then we hop online and broadcast to our friends about how well we did with the latest sales! Bloggers post photos of the products they got cheap, and discuss how they stock up on said items so they never run out of them by following the sales and shrewdly compounding the savings by utilizing store coupons and sales and cash back offers and rebates. (Sorry about the run-on sentence!) I know that when I do particularly well on a shopping trip (read: got lots for cheap!) I get home and brag to the wife. She doesn’t really care how much I spent as long as we got what we need. But, there is a tremendous amount of pride, and satisfaction believing I got a great bargain, and I like to brag. If only the Joneses next door would listen to me, I’d get a lot more satisfaction!

It’s a win-win situation, I guess. The frugal take home more for their dollar, the marketers win because they get their products sold, and they get free advertising as well, what with all those bloggers flaunting their loot in photos along with their posts. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there. KNOW YOUR ENEMY!

At least one of commenters indicated that he subscribed to my feed, and after taking a gander at his work, I’m subscribing to his. Not only can I learn a thing or two about marketing, but they offer some good advice on other subjects as well. Perhaps I’ll stumble on some good advice about how to market my blog, while learning how to defend myself against their onslaught!

Posted in marketing | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

The housing slump on four wheels…

Posted by Max Finkle on May 28, 2008

Big news today, in the local paper, that the current housing slump is having an effect on new car purchases. Lenders have begun to clamp down on financing for vehicles, much the same way they had previously for homes. They’re taking a more strict approach in approving loans, and they are doing what they should have been doing all along and granting loans only to those who can truly afford it.

I’m wishing that was the case a year ago when I financed my minivan. The honest truth is that we can’t afford it now. We couldn’t afford it then. $400 a month in payments for transportation, not including insurance on a new vehicle. The reasoning behind the purchase seemed solid at the time, as we had a new baby, and we couldn’t fit the infant car seat in either of the cars we had at the time. The move was made simply for the safety of our family. Can’t count the dollars in that decision…

At any rate, we decided to upgrade. Presidents Day sales abounded, and there was incredible rebate offers, and price cuts. Our $30,000 van was purchased for $23,000 at 6.99% financing with no money down. The nice financing officer at the dealership crunched the numbers with me, and everything looked hunky-dory. Honestly, our budget still hasn’t recovered.

What the article really brought to mind was that I’ve always held to the idea that you drive your car into the ground. After pounding the daylights out of my first car, as a new 18 year old driver, I bought my first brand new car. I drove it for 12 years. When people asked me why I continued to drive it, I reasoned that it was cheaper to repair it than it was to have a monthly payment. There was a little inconvenience involved, but maybe three times a year I’d have to get something fixed, and since it was in the shop, I had regular maintenance done as well, such as oil changes and tire rotations, so it really wasn’t in the shop anymore than a new car would’ve been if it was being maintained properly. The bill was just a little bigger.

The time to trade a car in is when either your budget is healthy enough to absorb the additional cost, preferably as a cash transaction, or when the cost of maintaining the car exceeds the value of the car. The threshold I adhere to is if it costs me more than $100 a month to keep it on the road, it’s time to seek an alternative.

If you need to buy a car, consider a couple of things:

– Safety. Who cares what your driving if you’re taking your life in your hands when you get behind the wheel? What are the crash test ratings on the vehicle? Take a look at recall notices for the vehicle you’re considering at sites like http://www.servicebeacon.com/ . Read up on consumer ratings, and check out Kelly Blue Book to really get the low-down on any vehicle your considering.

– What are you using it for? If it’s going to be your family vehicle, and you’ve got 4 children, a Honda Civic hatchback isn’t going to cut the mustard. On the otherhand, if you’re simply using it to commute to work, there really isn’t much better out there in terms of value for the dollar, gas mileage and reliability. I don’t know anyone who REALLY needs a 4X4 SUV to commute back and forth to the office, except to make a statement to coworkers maybe.

– Consider buying used. Buying new is neat, but that’s all it is. It’s bragging rights. Search out alternatives in the used market. Late model used cars on the market can be had for a fraction of the cost of new, and while there are risks involved, such as poor maintenance history, or unreported accidents, new cars have their problems, too. When the time comes, I will be looking harder at the used car market.

– How much can you afford? Remember to calculate the cost of insurance payments in addition to the car payment if you must finance. Other costs that need to be considered are title and tax, inspection, & regular maintenance such as oil changes and tires. Tires are a biggee, because lots of cars have fancy rims and sporty (read: expensive!) tires. Can you reasonably afford to replace a flat in the event that something goes wrong? Some tires sell for upwards of $200+, and rims can sell for over $300 apiece. I know $500 just for parts, then the labor for mounting and balancing and alignment makes me take pause. God forbid, if that same pothole that tore a hole in your tire and damaged your rim, also ripped out your exhaust system, can you shell out the additional $700 for that repair? If you can’t afford to maintain it, you can’t afford the vehicle.

– Gas mileage. What’s the MPG in the type of driving you do most? Sure, the payments may be lower on one car, but if it gets 10 mpg less than a more expensive alternative, do the calculations to determine what’s best for your wallet. This alludes to another thing to consider:

– The potential resale value. In the current climate of higher gas prices, dealers are becoming more reluctant to take gas-guzzlers for trade-in because they’re expecting the market to take a dive and they don’t want to be stuck with them. Despite the fact that the plan is to drive your car into the ground, one man’s garbage is another man’s treasure, and you want to maximize the return on your investment. Take a gander at Kelly Blue Book for an idea of what vehicles are selling for. That can give you a realistic basis for the potential resale value in your vehicle.

– Save yourself the $20 bucks and skip the CarFax report. I know a couple of autobody repairmen and know that accident damage is often fixed without the insurance company’s knowledge, and there is no official record of the damage to the vehicle. CarFax merely datamines public access databases, and if the data ain’t in there, you don’t find out about it.

The bottom line is that you need to cover your bases when you buy a vehicle. Know your budget restrictions, consider your needs, and take the time to evaluate your situation to make the most of it. And avoid trying to keep up with the Joneses.

Posted in shopping | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

120 MPH!!!

Posted by Max Finkle on May 17, 2008

A question in Click & Clack, the automotive Q & A syndication column, caught my attention this morning. A seven year old wrote in to ask why his parents’ car speedometer went up to 120 mph, when they can only legally drive at maximum 65 mph.

Ray, one of the columnists stated it was a good question. I’m inclined to agree. The answer was simple. Marketing. Auto manufacturers are savvy enough not to encourage people to break the law, so they don’t advertise their cars as having the ability to go that fast.

They promote horsepower, sporty looks, aerodynamics, and even brand of engine. The easiest way to validate all that advertising is simply to drop a speedometer in the car that displays a large number, since no one can really test the limits of the equipment for themselves. Speed is equated with power, so a buyer just has to look at the speedometer to know that car’s got power! They don’t need to drive it, it’s right there, printed on the dashboard display. It’s called advertising by implication.

Now, I grew up on a farm. I’ve driven tractors that couldn’t top 15 mph on a downhill slope, if you were pushing it along, to boot. I guarantee that tractor had more power than any truck advertised on t.v. If they were trying to sell true power, they’d be selling tractors, but they’re trying to sell speed – because as we all know life is fast, and you gotta keep up. Not to mention the glamour, and the girls! (Or guys!)

So go ahead, smell that new car smell they sprayed in the car yesterday (yes, it’s actually a scent), Ooh & Ahh over the look and style, admire the power, but look at the finer details, too. Take a look at estimated mileage per gallon in the type of driving you normally do. Consider the cost of replacing those expensive low profile tires, and even the cost of insuring such an impressive vehicle. How much are your payments going to be, and how much interest over the life of the loan are you going to pay? What’s the resale value of the vehicle going to be after you drive it off the lot?

Evaluate everything related to the car purchase. Make sure it’s as good as it seems. Negotiate for free floor mats and mud flaps. I twisted them for 3 years worth of oil changes, a free lifetime warrantee on tires and a couple of other things. Sounds great until I moved 1500 miles away and no other dealer will honor all the side deals I got. So much for value added bonuses on my purchase. My move whittled away a considerable portion of my purchase savings because I was banking on saving money over the life of the vehicle on maintenance, it wasn’t money in my pocket right now, or taken off the sticker price. It was marketing genius. They hedged their bets that I wouldn’t be able to utilize all the freebies I had negotiated, and they made out in the end.

I’m paying about $5,400 in interest alone on my minivan purchase, which is about 20% of the total amount we financed at 6.99% annually. I would have saved arguably an additional $1000 over the life of the vehicle in maintenance had I stayed put, but that’s money that flew out the window somewhere between Tennessee and Texas. Sounded good at the time, I guess. Now I’m not so sure. I’m sure if we hunted around a bit more, we could have found something a bit more modest used & saved an arm and a leg.

Posted in marketing | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Failing to succeed

Posted by Max Finkle on May 15, 2008

Failure. (Shudder…) It’s the mighty obstacle one needs to overcome to succeed. For instance, my desire to start this blog. I’m afraid I’ll fail at it. I’m afraid of the idea of failure. I’ve put off writing posts, and made excuses for why I can’t succeed, simply because of the mere possibility that this whole thing could fail. Then I wasted my efforts, right?

Whenever I start thinking of failure, it brings to mind one of my dad’s favorite stories about a friend who owns a local store. Mel, we’ll call him, opened a successful store in a leased space many moons ago. Opportunity knocked, a chunk of land became available in just the right spot, so he pounced. After buying the land, he applied to a local bank for a loan to start construction. So certain was he that he’d get approved, he hired contractors to get started and they broke ground. After a couple of days they had the rough framing work completed, and at 5pm on the promised day the nice loan officer called to inform Mel that the bank would not be able to finance him.

Mel promptly hung up the phone, went into the bathroom and vomited. He had tens of thousands of dollars in construction under way, with no way to pay for it. I’m not sure what I would have done from there, but he decided to ply other financial institutions for a loan the next day. He successfully secured financing that very day. Construction continued and his store went on to become one of the most successful businesses in town and has made him quite wealthy in the meantime. A bump in the road was not going to be enough to make him quit his dream of being a successful entrepreneur.

Mel got his start selling a trailer load of Persian rugs off the back of a truck, started a couple of other businesses and got involved in real estate. Most of those ventures never paid off, and he shuttered them. But he never gave up. He never let his fear of failure stop him from succeeding.

I remember being in school a few years ago and having panic attacks about failure. “What if this doesn’t work? What if I don’t get the grades to stay in the program? What if I finish the program and can’t pass the licensing exam? How am I going to get a decent job? How am I going to get ahead?” At times I was virtually paralyzed by fear, unable to make the next move to continue my studies.

Finally, my mom stopped me and said, “So what if you fail? You’ll try something else and keep trying until you find something you succeed at. Most people don’t succeed the first time they try something. If you fail, at least you tried.”

As it turned out, I succeeded. When the workload at school got more difficult, I doubled my efforts to complete the work, and studied that much harder to understand the material. I still battled the fear of failure, and it was a furious battle, but I perceviered.

Try to keep in mind that success is right around the corner. We don’t know which one, but we gotta keep peeking around each one that we encounter until we find it! That sentiment applies to everything we face in life, from finishing school, to starting a business, to the more mundane such as learning to cook or type, or start a blog, and even to achieving financial independence.

Posted in personal development | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »