Looking at Your Expenses with New Eyes
A lot of people think that banks have high security, but the most fortified brick-and-mortar institution in my town is the local Comcast office. This is where you have to go to drop off broken cable boxes or pay your bill if it's late and you don't want your service turned off. The clerks work behind a thick shield of bullet-proof glass, and there are two-sided, bullet-proof boxes at every station for transferring equipment. Surveillance cameras are placed in the corners of the room, and a large poster by the door makes it easy to estimate your height as you leave the building with that bag of loot.
One day, after a couple of visits, I finally asked why there was so much security. I was told that the office takes in ridiculous amounts of cash each day. Enough to make it a more attractive target than many gas stations and convenience stores. Why so much? Well, to understand that, you have to spend some time waiting in line. If you watch carefully, at least fifty percent of the people in line ahead of you will be there for two purposes. One, to pay their overdue cable bill in cash, and two, to argue with the clerk about some aspect of the bill that they find unfair. For this reason, it's a good idea to go to there when you're in the mood for people-watching, as opposed to running late for something important.
Cable television isn't a life necessity. There's no bullet proof glass (as far as I know) at the local supermarket where you can pay your heating bill in cash at the last minute. But apparently people are willing to spend their last dollar on cable. As a case in point, last time I was at the Comcast office, dropping off a spare second cable box that no one was using anymore, a gentleman in front of me in line went to the window and offered to pay $150 in cash on his past due account, which was $495. That brought his balance down to $345. He then asked what his charges would be for his next bill. “You have $345 outstanding,” the clerk said.
“No, I just want to know what the new charges will be on the next bill,” he answered
“One hundred ninety-five,” she told him. He nodded, put away his receipt, and left.
This seems incredible to me. Obviously he can't afford $195/month for cable, or he wouldn't be so far behind on his charges. What kind of service even costs that much? Is there a cable package that cleans your house and polishes your silver while you watch? And he couldn't even pay the equivalent of one month's charges after running up a $500 tab. He paid just enough to keep the cable turned on for another month, but anyone with eyes could see this was a terrible financial choice he was making.
I'm not real comfortable making judgments on other people when I don't know the whole story, so I got to thinking. What are my blind spots? What do I maybe spend $200/month on that others would consider excessive? Chances are my overall family budget is greater than his, and includes luxuries that he would find excessive. Maybe he would think my pets are a waste of money. Maybe he would disapprove of my habit of driving decent cars and eating organic foods. Maybe he would frown on my SUV. (A lot of people would, but you try taking two mastiffs on vacation in a Toyota hatchback.) The truth is, if someone were standing behind me, watching me make all of my purchases, I would probably squirm a bit.
So, for me, there are two take-home lessons here. One is that entertainment in the form of cable television is very important to some people, to the point that they will take the last of their grocery money to the local Comcast office at the end of the month, instead of using it on groceries. We should all respect a force of nature this powerful. Second, that managing your money is always subject to personal priorities, and those priorities vary between individuals. Maybe the mythical $4 latte is really worth $4 to someone who really treasures that Starbucks run each morning. Maybe it is the one thing keeping him sane. The real question is do we know what our priorities are and how much they are costing us? What would our choices look like if they were examined with fresh eyes?