Growing up, it often felt like other kids were doing fun stuff I wasn’t allowed to – whether they were getting treats from the ice cream truck, the latest pair of Nikes, a ride on the go-karts, or the chance to climb something exciting (and definitely dangerous). Any protests to my parents were, of course, met with the old saying: “If everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you?”
That well-worn adage is still relevant in adulthood, because it’s exactly what many of our peers are doing financially: jumping headlong into a chasm of debt. And even though we know better, it can be really tempting to follow them overboard.
After all, on some level, there’s still some of that adolescent kid inside each of us who’s just desperate to fit in and be normal. But “normal” in America often means “in debt.” The average American carried $6,375 in credit card debt in 2017, and nearly half (43%) of Americans have carried a credit card balance for two years or more — paying a heavy price in interest as a result. Total credit card debt in America now tops $1 trillion, an all-time high. The same can be said for auto loans and student loans, too.
At the same time, a survey by Pew Research found that only 46% of Americans earn as much or more than they spend each month; more than half of us are living beyond our means. That’s one reason the average personal savings rate in the U.S. — the percent of disposable income we save for emergencies, retirement, and other financial goals — was just 2.8% in April. Financial advisors recommend a savings rate of 10% or more for a comfortable retirement, a target we used to hit regularly from the 1950s to the early 1990s.
When the Joneses are paying more in credit card interest than they’re saving toward retirement, keeping up with them is a terrible idea.
This is why there’s so much power in ignoring media influences and what other people are doing and focusing on what’s really important to you. “You absolutely have to stop worrying about what other people think,” Trent said when writing on this topic last month. “If you want to improve your financial state, there’s almost nothing you can do that’s more important than this.”
Instead, Trent continued, “Recenter your life around what you think and what you value, not what the people around you think or value. Live your life and make your financial choices in accordance to what you care about, not what the people around you care about.”
This is easier said than done in the age of Instagram (and it’s one reason avoiding social media can save you money). But we all have finite time, money, and energy, and what we spend those limited resources on should ideally align with our own values, not someone else’s.
Here are eight behaviors that are all but taken for granted in American culture — all of which are potentially expensive. Before you blindly follow the presumed cultural custom, it’s worth at least giving each some thought and deciding whether it’s truly a priority of yours – or just something everyone else seems to be doing.
Some or all of these might be really important to you, things you feel are well worth the money — and that’s fine! At least you’ll have come to that decision mindfully.
But if you’re able to ignore the societal pressures — from ads, media, family, and friends — pushing you toward even one or two of these tropes, you stand to save money. And before too long, the Joneses will be wondering how to keep up with you.
The Nice Car
Unless you live in a city with good public transit, owning a vehicle is just about required in American life. But owning a nice vehicle is not. You certainly need a reliable way to get to work, go grocery shopping, and bring the kids to practice. Anything more than that, though, is a want — a luxury we’ve managed to convince ourselves is more like a need.
The average sales price of a new car was $35,265 in March, according to Kelly Blue Book. To finance that small fortune, the average new car payment hit an all-time high of $523 a month in early 2018, according to Experian, and the average length of a new car loan is 69 months. If sitting in traffic makes you feel trapped, consider that financing the average new car will cost you $17 a day, every day, for nearly six years (even before gas, insurance, and maintenance).
The average new car depreciates 35% in its first three years – which means you should be able to get that $35,000 car or truck for $22,275 slightly used. The average age of a car on the road today is over 11 years old — for every new model, there’s a 20-year-old beater still chugging along — so a three-year-old vehicle still has plenty of life in it.
But even if you want to buy a new car — and believe me, after driving a string of junkers in my 20s, I’m with you — you needn’t be held captive to a crushing car payment. Toyota makes great, reliable cars in the $18,000 to $25,000 range, as do Honda, Ford, and Hyundai. All-wheel drive Subarus like the Outback and Forester — which get great marks from Consumer Reports — start at around $25,000; we bought our smaller Impreza hatchback new for a hair under $20,000 in 2014, and we love it.
And we’re going to drive that thing long after the roughly $300 monthly car payment disappears. Every month you can hang onto a paid-off car amounts to hundreds of dollars in your pocket. Yes, at some point, an old and battered vehicle can cost almost that much in monthly repairs. But until then, try to squeeze every last mile out of it before you give in and buy a replacement.
- Savings: $12,500
Carrying a Credit Card Balance
As mentioned earlier, 43% of Americans report having a credit card balance they’ve carried for two years or more. (I’ve been there myself, swamped in five-figure credit card debt.) We preach the advantages of credit card rewards, but “revolvers” — cardholders who carry a balance — are one of the reasons credit card companies can afford to pay those lucrative rewards.
The average American consumer has 3.1 credit cards with a total balance of $6,354, 2.5 store credit cards, with another $1,841 on those. With the average credit card APR at 16.75% as of early June, according to CreditCards.com, a consumer who takes two years to pay off those balances — without adding to them along the way — would pay $1,505 just in interest.
The solution, of course, is simple in theory, but more difficult in practice: Don’t charge anything you can’t afford to pay off this month. Build up an emergency fund so that, even if you do need to put a car repair or new furnace on credit, you can pay it off that month and avoid interest.
- Savings: $1,505
Equating Spending With Love
Whether it’s buying Christmas gifts for everyone we know or celebrating anniversaries with an expensive piece of jewelry, it’s easy to feel pressured to spend more money than you can afford on loved ones.
The prime example of this is the pervasive notion that one should spend two (or even three) months’ salary on a diamond engagement ring. It’s one of those long-held rules of thumb you hear tossed around everywhere, like changing your oil every 3,000 miles. But just like the oil change “rule,” it’s utter nonsense, devised by a marketing department — the result of a brilliant mid-century ad campaign designed to sell more diamonds when nobody really needed them.
As Rohin Dhar explains for Priceonomics, Americans buy diamond rings as part of the engagement process because an ad man named Gerold M. Lauck, hired in 1938 by De Beers, told us to — as a status symbol. Within three years, Dhar says, “despite the Great Depression, diamond sales in the US increased 55%. Twenty years later, an entire generation believed that an expensive diamond ring was a necessary step in the marriage process.”
De Beers continued its relentless marketing efforts through the 20th century — all while keeping a stranglehold on the global diamond supply to inflate prices — eventually suggesting that a man should spend a month’s salary on a diamond engagement ring. “It worked so well that De Beers arbitrarily decided to increase the suggestion to two months’ salary,” Dhar writes. “That’s why you think that you need to spend two month’s salary on a ring – because the suppliers of the product said so.”
Dhar continues: “The next time you look at a diamond, consider this. Nearly every American marriage begins with a diamond because a bunch of rich white men in the 1940s convinced everyone that its size determines your self worth. They created this convention – that unless a man purchases (an intrinsically useless) diamond, his life is a failure – while sitting in a room, racking their brains on how to sell diamonds that no one wanted.”
Thankfully, millennials are increasingly immune to this decades-old marketing ploy: About four in 10 older millennials surveyed by The Cashlorette in 2016 said they would spend one month’s salary or less on an engagement ring. And while American newlyweds spent an average of $5,764 on an engagement ring in 2017, that’s actually down from $6,163 the year before.
Still, even five grand — one month’s salary for someone earning $60,000 a year — is an awful lot of money. And that’s just one ring. For some couples, it doesn’t stop after courtship: birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries can escalate into an arms race of lavishness. Who can prove their love with the more extravagant gift?
It’s not just romantic relationships, either. We love our kids, families, and friends so much that we spend close to $1,000 each year on holiday gifts. But the truth is, while throwing money at the people we love feels good, what they usually want most of all is just our time and attention.
All that’s to say: An engagement ring – or any gift – is merely a symbol of your love. It’s not the love itself. And there are a lot of less expensive, more heartfelt ways to express that love. (For example, here are some ideas for more affordable engagement rings, all under $2,000.)
- Savings: $3,000 or more
The Big Wedding
Talk about outside pressure: Planning a wedding can be a stressful endeavor, fraught with family politics and heightened emotions. Plus, from photography to flowers, everything costs more once the word “wedding” is tacked on.
American couples spent an average of $33,391 on their weddings in 2017, according to The Knot, not including the honeymoon. And that’s actually down slightly from years past, as millennials embrace less formal (and less expensive) reception settings. That’s a huge chunk of change.
Now, I’m not suggesting anything drastic like eloping (though it would save you a ton of money) or disinviting Aunt Cheryl. Having all your friends and family in one place to celebrate your love story is one of the greatest feelings in the world. It deserves a big party.
But that feeling doesn’t have to cost 33 grand. There are plenty of ways to trim the cost of a wedding while still ensuring everyone has a great time. In fact, our own Drew Housman and his wife were able to throw a 140-person wedding for under $3,000 last year.
You’ll be doing your friends a favor, too: Between gifts, bridal party duties, and bachelor and bachelorette parties, young adults can also expect to shell out up to $20,000 or more attending their friends’ weddings. There’s no shame in toning things down to focus on the most important elements: friends, family, food, and the love of your life.
- Savings: $10,000 or more
The Big House
Homeownership is a big part of the American dream, and I’m not about to advocate against it. Certainly, owning a home isn’t for everyone — particularly if you’re not prepared to stay at one address for at least five years. But the fact remains that homeownership has been one of the most reliable wealth builders for America’s middle class.
However, there’s a pervasive notion — especially in the low-interest rate environment of the past decade — that you should “buy as much home as you can afford.” TV shows that glamorize and oversimplify the home buying and remodeling processes have created what realtors call an “HGTV effect,” where buyers’ expectations are out of whack with their budgets. And homeowners who have managed to build up equity are constantly tempted to cash it in to match the remodels on Fixer Upper.
A better idea? Buy only as much home as you need and can reasonably afford – or even less. A larger, more expensive home not only costs more upfront — it costs more to heat and cool. It costs more in property taxes, and homeowners insurance. It costs more to furnish and decorate additional rooms and living space – and that extra space encourages the mindless accumulation of “stuff.” And while trendy finishes like quartz counters are no doubt appealing, don’t overlook a modest home just because it’s not your dream house. You can always upgrade later as your budget permits.
The median list price of a U.S. home was $146 per square foot in May, according to Zillow. So scaling back from a 2,000-square-foot home to 1,600 square feet could save you $58,4000, all else being equal. And that’s just on the purchase price; everything from insurance to maintenance to mortgage interest to HOA fees (typically based on square footage) will likely be lower, too.
- Savings: $58,400 or more
There’s no doubt: Going out to eat or ordering take-out is delicious and convenient. And it’s also the new normal in America, where, in 2016, we spent more on restaurants than on groceries for the first time ever.
Zagat found that Americans eat out an average of 5.9 times a week — 4.9 of which are for lunch or dinner. The same survey found that diners pay an average of $36 per person for dinner out.
You can see where this is going: If that average diner eats out four times a week instead of five, skipping just one $36 dinner per week, that’s $1,872 in a year.
- Savings: $1,872 a year
The Upgrade Cycle
Better than three quarters of Americans now own a smartphone, and we tend to hang onto them for an average of 22.7 months — not quite two years. That’s actually longer than in years past, but most phones can last a lot longer than that.
I’m not saying you have to go through life with a flip phone — although some people do, and they seem to like the freedom of being untethered. But as with car payments, every additional month or year you’re able to squeeze out of your old smartphone is one in which you can put that money into savings instead. With the sales price of a new smartphone averaging $363 worldwide, and a new iPhone, Galaxy, or Pixel topping $800, the savings can add up.
- Savings: $363 or more
Assuming You Need to Go to College
Like homeownership, this is another institution I’m hesitant to advocate against. A college degree is still worth close to a million dollars in additional lifetime wages, making it a great investment for a lot of people.
However, that’s only if you get a degree. Students who leave school without graduating fare no better than those with just a high-school diploma — and often end up far worse off, bogged down by crushing student loans with nothing to show for them.
Seven out of 10 college students now take out loans, and they graduate with an average debt of $37,172. If you’re committed to pursuing a professional career that requires a bachelor’s degree — and a lot of good jobs do — that’s a pretty good investment.
But don’t just assume you need to go to college because that’s what you’ve heard you should do, or because it’s what most of your classmates are doing. And parents, don’t assume that your kid needs a college degree to be successful. There are many high-paying careers that require just a certificate program or associate’s degree; others even start off with apprenticeships that pay you to learn on the job.
- Savings: $37,172 interest
I won’t lie, a lot of these are nice things to have in your life – that’s why people pay for them even if they can’t afford them. Just be mindful about your motivations: Are you buying a bigger house to impress other people, or because that extra space and expense is truly in service of your goals and your values?
If you want to be a normal American, then by all means, go along for the ride. Just remember that being normal in this country is an increasingly precarious proposition.