Weird is Good
It starts in grade school, that desire to fit in and be "normal." We want to do what our friends are doing, and our parents say, "If your friends jumped off a cliff, would you follow?"
Unfortunately, many of our peers are jumping – into a pit of debt. The average American carried over $6,000 of credit card debt at the end of 2019, and according to CNBC, 51% of people with credit card debt have increased their balances since March 2020. Auto and student loans are up too, and Experian reports that mortgage debt has seen record growth.
A 2017 Pew Research study found that 54% of Americans spend more than they earn every month. While the personal savings rate increased in 2020 as people were forced to stay at home, a surge in spending is expected once people are vaccinated and COVID-related restrictions are lifted.
These aren't the people you want to follow.
When the Joneses spend more than they earn and save less than they need, keeping up with them is a terrible idea.
There's good reason to ignore media influences and other people's choices so you can focus on what's really important to you. "You absolutely have to stop worrying about what other people think and do," writes Trent Hamm, founder of The Simple Dollar. "If you want to improve your financial state, there's almost nothing... more important than this."
The following behaviors are often taken for granted. All of them are potentially expensive. Before you blindly follow along, you might want to examine your motives, consider alternatives, and make informed, conscious decisions.
8 "Normal" Behaviors to Reconsider
1. Owning a luxury vehicle.
Unless you live in a city with excellent public transit, owning a car might be necessary. But according to MarketWatch.com, the average price for a new car in January 2021 was $40,857. Since most new cars depreciate 35% in the first three years, you could buy that vehicle for $26,557 slightly used.
But even if you want a new car, you don't have to spend $40,000. There are many excellent cars that cost far less, including the 2021 version of my current vehicle, which sells for just over $19,000. Even if you can afford to buy an expensive car, driving something more moderate makes a strong statement about your values.
Every month you keep a paid-off car puts hundreds of dollars in your pocket. At some point an old vehicle costs more to maintain, but until then, you can save a lot of money before you have to buy its replacement.
2. Carrying credit card debt.
In 2011, my husband and I owed more than $12,000 on credit cards. According to the American Bankers Association, 55% of Americans carry a credit card balance for more than two years. This compounds interest charges as well.
The solution is simple in theory but more difficult in practice: Don't charge anything you can't afford to pay off this month. Build an emergency fund so that you can pay for unexpected expenses without using credit.
3. Eating out.
My husband and I love eating out, and we're not alone. In 2018, the restaurant guide Zagat found that the average American family ate out 5.9 times per week. We spend more on restaurant food than on groceries.
Be weird. Come up with some simple make-at-home meals. When you do go out, consider sharing an entrée with your dining partner (saving money and calories), and skip dessert.
4. Hosting a lavish wedding.
Couples today are waiting longer to marry, and there's enormous pressure to create a gala occasion that will be envied and talked about for years to come. The average American couple spends well over $35,000, according to The Knot, and that doesn't include the honeymoon!
Now, a wedding deserves a party, and it's wonderful to have your family and friends there to celebrate with you. But there are plenty of ways to trim the cost of a wedding while still having a beautiful, memorable event.
A large majority of Americans own smart phones, and according to a 2019 Forbes survey the average person kept her phone for 33 months before upgrading. But as with a car payment, each additional month you're able to squeeze out of your phone is money you can save or otherwise use. I'm still quite happy with my iPhone 6s, which is over five years old.
6. Going to college.
I value education, and I'm grateful for mine. I have a Bachelor of Music degree with a minor in English, and I earned a California teaching credential.
But I went to my state university and graduated with no debt. CNBC reports that today's students borrow an average of $37,172 by the time they earn a degree. And while a degree may enable you to earn more money during your lifetime, the New York Federal Reserve reports that 44% of college graduates in their 20's are stuck in low-wage jobs.
If you're committed to a profession that requires a degree, college may be a good investment. But don't assume you must go to four (or more) years of college because someone told you it's the path to success. A two-year degree in dental hygiene, physical therapy assisting, or web development, or an apprenticeship as a plumber, welder, or electrician could lead to a great career and a good salary.
By the way, I didn't pursue a teaching career (though I homeschooled my children). I wound up working as an executive assistant, using skills I first learned in high school.
7. Owning a big house.
I'm certainly not against buying a home. However, there's a pervasive notion that you should "buy as much home as you can afford." Certainly, bankers and realtors will pressure you to do so, and TV shows like Fixer Upper and Property Brothers encourage you to strain your budget to acquire your "dream home."
A larger, fancier home requires a bigger down payment and has higher property taxes and insurance costs. The larger loan accumulates more interest. The home costs more to heat and cool and to furnish, decorate, and maintain.
It's a much better idea to buy only as much home as you need and can reasonably afford.
8. Equating spending with love.
Whether we're shopping for Christmas, planning a child's birthday party, or celebrating an anniversary, social pressure tempts us to overspend.
Consider the "rule" that you should spend two months' salary on an engagement ring. By convincing people that the size of a diamond equaled the measure of love and commitment (not to mention the economic success of the man who bought it), the custom of buying such a ring was created.
Marketers want us to believe that extravagant gifts demonstrate love, yet most of the people we care about crave our time and attention. These priceless gifts can't be found in any store.
All of these things are nice to have, of course, which is why people pay for them even if they can't really afford to. But as minimalists, let's be intentional about our choices. Our purchases should serve our goals and reflect our values. Even if you are in a financial position to easily afford all of these things, you might find more fulfillment in other ways such as extreme generosity or taking a pay cut in order to give more of your time and energy to a cause you care about.
If you want to be "normal," then just go along for the ride as so many others do. But being "normal" may put you in a precarious position. It might be smarter, and make you happier, to be weird.
Simple Money: Achieve Financial Peace and Abundance with Minimalism.*
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