Are you better off now than you were four years ago?
Though the recession and the hardships that followed mean many Americans can’t answer that question with a simple “yes” or “no,” personal finance guru Eric Tyson suggests it might be more to your benefit to ask yourself a slightly different question: What can you do now to ensure you are better off in four years, no matter who gets elected?
“Does it matter who gets elected president?” asks Tyson, author of “Personal Finance For Dummies®, 7th Edition.” “Absolutely. But regardless of who is elected and no matter what your current economic situation may be, what’s most important for you and your family is knowing how to make sound financial decisions for now and the future.”
To improve your financial outlook during the next four years, read on for a few of Tyson’s tried and true personal finance tips, continued from the previous nine tips published last week.
Avoid brand names. Be suspicious of companies that spend gobs on image-oriented advertising. Branding is often used to charge premium prices. Meanwhile, blind taste tests have demonstrated that consumers can’t readily discern quality differences between high- and low-cost brands with many products.
“Question the importance of the name and image of the products,” says Tyson. “Companies spend a lot of money creating and cultivating an image, which has no impact on how their products taste or perform. This is especially important to keep in mind when you’re grocery shopping. Most of the time the ingredients are the same in store-brand products as in the brand-name products (and may even be made by the same company). You don’t need to shell out money to pay for the name.”
Look for ways to save around the house. Look for ways to save on energy costs. Adding insulation and weather-stripping, installing water-saving devices, and reducing use of electrical appliances can pay for themselves in short order. Many utility companies will even do a free energy review or audit of your home and suggest money-saving ideas. If it’s time to replace an appliance, investigate energy efficiency before you buy appliances or even a new home.
“Get the whole family in on the effort to make your home more energy efficient,” suggests Tyson. “Have a contest to see who can remember to turn off the lights or other electronics most often or who can reduce how much water they use daily.”
Keep an eye on car costs. By doing basic maintenance such as oil changes, you can add years to the life of your car and get better gas mileage. What’s more, if you’re accustomed to buying a new car every few years, it’s time to change that mindset.
Don’t go on vacations you can’t afford. Going to the beach for a week or to Disney World is not an entitlement. These kinds of vacations are very expensive. If you can’t afford them, you can’t afford them. The truth is, says Tyson, there are plenty of activities you can do near home that are just as fun as going away somewhere—at a fraction of the cost.
You can take a week off and explore your own city: There may be zoos, museums, gemstone mines, historic sites, and so forth that you haven’t visited in years (or ever). You can go hiking or camping in a local wilderness spot. Or visit relatives you rarely see who have an unfamiliar lifestyle—if you’re a “city mouse” family, spend a few days on the farm with Great Aunt Bertha.
Get creative about family activities. When you focus on spending lots of quality time with friends and family, you won’t feel the need to fill the void in your life with costly distractions.
“Instead of thinking about life in terms of what things cost, start thinking about it in terms of time,” says Tyson. “Often, all those unnecessary things we buy for ourselves and our kids are simply distractions from the people we love. They send the message that it’s necessary to spend a lot of money in order to have a good time. It’s not, of course. The best things in life—friends, family, quiet evenings at home just being together—really are free. Sometimes it’s good to be reminded of that.”
Raise frugal kids. Make no mistake, kids are expensive. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates it will cost nearly a quarter of a million dollars to raise a child born in 2010 (and that’s not counting college). But whatever you do, don’t add to that price tag by spoiling kids, says Tyson.
“They don’t need the latest technology, expensive summer camps, pricey clothing, lavish parties, and so forth,” he insists. “When you keep these things to a minimum, not only will you save money but you’ll raise non-materialistic kids with good values and well-developed financial management skills of their own.
“When it comes to your finances, steady wins the race, no matter who is president,” says Tyson. “Ultimately, you determine your financial situation based on the decisions you make for yourself. Always keep that in mind as you plan your weekly, monthly and yearly budgets.”