Monday, July 27, 2009

Thanks to the Everyday Cheapskate

Mary Hunt publicity photoFor a long time, I've been meaning to write about Mary Hunt's "Everyday Cheapskate" column, which runs daily in the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. Hunt reached an over-spending crisis in her own life 27 years ago, which led her to reform. Since then her family has lived within its means, although it took them 13 years to pay off $100,000 of debt.

She's aware that the term "cheapskate" has negative connotations, but this is what she means by it (quoting the Who Are You Calling Cheapskate? page of her website). A cheapskate:

  • Does not spend more money that he/she earns, no matter how desperate or tempting the situation might appear.
  • Has a spirit of generosity, regularly sharing money, time, and other resources with people in need.
  • Lives honestly and ethically, regardless of the temptation to do otherwise in order to get a better deal.
  • Saves at least 10 percent of all income.
  • Does not buy compulsively but makes intelligent and well-thought-out choices.
  • Lives within a financial plan that includes a margin to allow for fun and spontaneity.
Hunt's column sometimes features suggestions from readers -- things like how to reuse dryer sheets or other Heloise-like items that I skim past -- but at other times it contains information you won't find anywhere else.

Today's column is one of those, and what finally got me to write about the Everyday Cheapskate. She explains the recent Credit CARD Act passed by Congress -- the one that will do some good stuff to protect consumers from predatory credit card companies. The Act also includes protections for college students, who have been a prime target for the purveyors of credit cards -- free pizza and other giveaways "just" for filling out an application. (And we wonder why young people graduate from college with a mountain of debt.)

Hunt points out, though, that this requirement could have the unintended consequence of wrecking the credit of students' parents instead, because it requires students to have their credit cards co-signed by their parents. Co-signing means parents will be fully responsible for their adult child's debt.

Hunt writes, "May I make a recommendation? Do not co-sign.... What's your alternative as a parent? Teach your kids the ins and outs of living a cash lifestyle. Get out the envelopes to teach the simplest of all budgeting systems."

And my favorite quote:
Don't get suckered into co-signing in an effort to help your child build credit. Students don't need big credit scores to get jobs or move into dorms. What each of them needs is a clean credit file that shows an absence of irresponsibility.
Amen to that. (I'll never forget a letter to the editor that ran in the Minnesota Daily about 15 years ago, in which the writer claimed that the most important thing a student could do while in college was build good credit. Huh? Guess that education thing wasn't so important after all.)

An earlier Everyday Cheapskate column I've been saving in the filing cabinet since October 2008 was titled "What Do You Need to Be Truly Happy?" In it, Hunt described research that shows greater wealth -- beyond basic needs -- does not result in more happiness. She went on to write,
A recent gathering of friends stirred up a thought-provoking conversation. One person suggested we have a confusion of terms. When people say they want happiness, what they're really looking for is contentment -- that feeling of satisfaction that does not go away once the carpet is a few months old, the car has lost its "newness" or the holidays are over.

He went on to suggest happiness is the result of a "happening," and when the event is over, the happiness goes away. The contentment we seek comes with satisfaction and fulfillment that are not tied to specific events but rather based upon things that do not change, such as warm family relationships, connecting to God and expressions of sincere gratitude.
Tom Vanderbilt wrote about this in his book Traffic. The things we acquire to make ourselves happy, such as a new, bigger house farther out in the surburbs, "provide...a boost to...quality of life. But gradually, the rosy glow fades." This fading is called "hedonic adaptation" by psychologists. Bigger and better becomes the new normal.

And the things that could actually make us happier -- connecting with friends and family, volunteering for a cause we believe in, making something with our own hands, even going to church if that's your thing -- generally take time away from activities that make money.

Thanks to Mary Hunt for sharing her years of experience with downsizing and conscious living. She has given the word cheapskate a new meaning.

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