Looking at Your Expenses with New Eyes

by Catherine Shaffer on 18 February 2009 34 comments
Photo: Stickwithjosh



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.

 

ind 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?

 

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Guest's picture
Guest

This is interesting and thought provoking. My mother (a teacher) works in a very low-income, urban school district. No matter how poor the families are, almost all of them have big TVs and satellite or cable. We've discussed this at length, and her thought is that the TV is really the only form of recreation or leisure for most of these families. They don't travel. At all. Not even to Lake Michigan which is only a 30 minute drive away. They definitely don't engage in outdoor recreation or partake in activities such as golf, hiking, exercise classes, or other pursuits. TV is one of the few ways they get to kick back. So it is a priority.

Philip Brewer's picture

I learned this when I wrote my first article on "unnecessary" expenses.  There is no expense so obviously unnecessary that there aren't people out there who will defend it.  (And more--who will suggest that going without it is not only uncivilized, but very possibly child abuse.)  Contrariwise, there is no expense so fundamental to living a safe, healthy, and comfortable life that you can suggest that it is necessary without drawing someone who will point out that a billion people in poor countries get by without it.

All the more reason that it's good to look at your lifestyle both ways.  Your actual needs (the stuff you'll die without) are so basic that just about no one (in a rich country) makes any payment that isn't at least partially going to cover wants as well as actual needs.  That doesn't mean you shouldn't buy that stuff; it just means that you need to be thoughtful about which of your wants make the cut-off and which ones don't.

Guest's picture
Guest

Good topic. I've been teased mercilessly for my habit of stopping at Starbucks every morning and buying a grande latte (at $4.28, by the way). But you know what? It's a luxury that I enjoy, and I include that $25 per week in my budget and plan accordingly. If I want it and I can afford it, then what's the problem? I don't care if others think it's a waste of money; it's not a waste to me.

Now, if I couldn't afford it (such as the guy with the huge cable bill), that's another story, but your point is valid -- you can't know someone else's situation, so it's best to try not to judge.

Guest's picture
sororitysheep

Mastiffs! <3! My family had a hugely huge dog up until a year ago, and I loved the poor thing but good god feeding her was massively expensive.

Very interesting article but it unfortunately makes me realise that my (technically) unnecessary expense is beer and netflix. I don't have cable, internet access in my crapartment, a car, pets, and I rarely buy... well, anything anymore. But when I get home from work, nothing makes me happier than watching a random movie and having a beer.

Myscha Theriault's picture

First of all Catherine, thoughtful piece. Second, I am thrilled you made the point about the SUV. We drive one. Believe me, we made serious research and test efforts at going smaller. Even though our older dog passed away, we still have a black lab. And even when we go on overnights where my husband (the only one tall enough with long enough arms) puts on the car carrier, we are hard pressed to have a ton of extra room after even a couple of shopping stops.

We're not talking frivolous shopping here. Boards and bricks for closet shelving, bulk groceries and even drop off stops to donate at the thrift store. And we pack light. Usually just a small backpack and day pack each in addition to our laptops. The dog has her saddle bags where we stuff everything she'll need. Putting everything but day packs (I often turn mine into my purse when we go for an overnight just to cut down on that too.) up top and having the seat put down in back for the dog doesn't leave a whole lot of room. We have a sectioned tote with emergency supplies, but we've sure tried the minimalist approach there as well.

While we don't live as remotely as we used to for sure, we certainly have a drive to get to some things even in the greater Tampa area. The fact is, if you have even the tiniest of families, don't live in walking distance of everything or in a city where nearly everything can be delivered, have even minimal DIY needs (believe me, we're not Mr. and Mrs. Fix It, by any means) or occasionally camp for affordable getaways it's seriously difficult to go with a tiny vehicle. We went as small as we felt we could and still ended up with what most would consider a mid-sized SUV.

Jeep Liberties might not be everyone's idea of eco friendly, but I'd guess that many people who might want to pass judgement on that don't take the pains we do to make the Earth friendly choice in other areas. Also, since we both work at home and my husband goes to school full time online, we leave the house maybe once or twice a week. Even then, it's for a close and quick errand, and we make sure we have three of them to do before we leave the driveway. When it's more than that or further, it's a major planned event. The last time we filled the gas tank my husband estimated it had been at least six weeks since we did so, and even then we still had half a tank or so when we topped off the first time.

Two mastiffs? Kudos on including them on your vacation. The traveling with dogs thing takes planning and serious compromise. In my case, it also takes two  (my husband as total leash support) as my dog can and has pulled me over and drug me in front of a semi truck at a gas stop. Not my idea of a good time. But that's another pet hack story . . .

It'll be interesting to see how the discussion on this unfolds.

Guest's picture
Jimmy37

I love the lengths you've gone through to convince us how eco-friendly you are in those areas you want to be. Do you ask yourself "Can I do more?" or do you say "Enough is enough?" I hope you don't judge others who don't choose your eco-path, if they choose any at all, because they've said "Enough is enough", if they've thought about it at all ;)

Xin Lu's picture
Xin Lu

I think another reason Comcast has so much security is that it is  really a horrible company.

Guest's picture
Guest

This is a great article. It actually kind of made me feel a little better about my "cable habit." I am currently a full time student with a full time job. I don't actually spend a great deal of time watching tv, but I do have a DVR, and I record all of my favorite shows and movies for when I actually have some time to sit down and watch. My cable bill, which also includes internet (internet that I need for school), runs about $150.00 a month. I chose this one real luxury for several reasons: 1. I only have student loan debt, most of which is not accumulating interest. I am saving as I go in the hopes that I will be able to pay of a significant amount of the debt when it comes due. 2. When I do have time to watch tv, I love it. It's that simple. 3. I live with my two brothers, and we all work to keep the bills down, so even though I am the only one paying for this bill (because they say that they can live without it). All of my other expenses are ridiculously low.

Still... I sometimes can't believe I am paying so much for something so useless.

Guest's picture
Anubis

You are not going to get your money's worth out of comcast, particularly from their internet service. it's highway robbery.

Hack the heck out of them. None more deserving.

Guest's picture
claire7676

I am a coffee addict, espresso in particular, and the lovely Starbucks espresso coffees in super particular. I am so much of a fan, that I have a Starbucks Visa card; it automatically gives you 1% of your statement balance in credit at Starbucks.

Anyway, as much as I love my $4 lattes, I cut that completely out of my budget two years ago when I got engaged & knew we needed to save money for the wedding. Now that we don't need to save for a wedding, our priorities have shifted and I am still forgoing the lattes for bigger goals (getting out of debt).

But, for anyone that made the sacrifice of not buying $4 lattes, let me tell you...one of our wedding gifts was a Tassimo hot beverage maker and, although it's not straight from Starbucks, it's not bad!!

Catherine Shaffer's picture

Xin: OMG I completely agree. Being held hostage here as I have no other choices for television other than Comcast. (No channels over the air.) TV on the internet is ALMOST there. Hanging on...

Myscha: Yes, my husband and I have the same thing going on. "But we really need it," plus "We only drive it a couple times a week."

Vive la Starbucks!

 

Catherine Shaffer

Wise Bread Contributor 

Guest's picture
Messenger

This seems to fall into utility theory and how people evaluate the satisfaction they get from their expenditures. I'm never sure if it is a matter of uncaring, poor forethought, or truly skewed priorities that lead people to spend money so irresponsibly. Reading this has led me to think more about how I have a utility function and how I should be spending money on my Frugal blog. I think I can find 3 days worth of content out of this.

Guest's picture
Stacey2007

No tv as child abuse - that got a laugh out of me! But I stopped laughing when I realized that many people seriously think that is true.

We haven't had cable for 2 years now, first because we couldn't afford it and now because we're just too busy. But around here the going rate for cable/internet/phone is about $150, so I sure hope that guy was getting a combo deal. I know quite a few people that spend $150 for entertainment and another $150 for cell phones.

I'd rather enjoy that $300, rather than spend it on entertainment, and stick with my $15 prepay cell phone. But that's just my preferance - and if you can afford the luxury of $300 cable, ect., so be it. If you can't afford it, you need to seriously examine your priorities.

Guest's picture
Guest

Want to know something funny??

Almost all Iraqis in the Baghdad area have cell phones and satellite tv. They may not have the necessities of life, but from my experience, they expect others to provide this for them. Case and point: the local government installed stop lights in one of my areas, but they don't have any power to them. You can bet that, come election time, they were saying "vote for me! You know I'll do things for you because of the new stop lights I got installed!"

And yet people will still empty their sewage in the streets and don't have a decent electricity grid. . . They (we coalition forces) spend millions to build water plants that don't have electricity.

yes, you read that right.

Guest's picture

You had some interesting observations there. I totally agree, some people value cable, and TV in general, more than things that others like us consider basic necessities. While we may find that ridiculous, who are we to judge other peoples' priorities? Like you were saying, I too am guilty of spending too much on things that others might find excessive.

Guest's picture
Jimmy37

I find it inexcusable that people make all kinds of excuses ;) to defend their indefensible choices other than to say "I WANT IT", especially when it destroys them. Cable and cellphones instead of food? It's bad enough when people start gambling.

We have 5 needs - food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and transportation. Notice that entertainment is not in the list. We all make choices as to how much we want to spend on our needs. You chose to support 2 large dogs, which influences your other choices. Anyone could ask why 2 dogs, and not 1. Why a large dog and not a smaller dog, etc, etc.

Guest's picture
lucille

Some people still can't fathom the idea that we don't have a landline or a house phone. The only person who does not have a cell phone is the youngest whom is never left home alone so we have no use for a landline.

We had one again for a while but it was a constant barrage of telemarketers that I turned it off again after the introductory rate was over.

Too many businesses still try to use your home phone as an account number or method to look up your account.

For some people a landline is a required expense. Yet I can not fathom the cost of a premium cable package. Our low-mid range one is obnoxiously expensive enough.

Guest's picture
Anna

Agreed with above posters, Comcast is "the man." It's the only internet provider around where we live so we have to go with it (grr), but we've long since discontinued our cable. It was rough at first, but now, we wouldn't have it any other way! Any shows we care about, are posted online and we have the 3-at-a-time Netflix. Life is good!

Guest's picture

Comcast is the devil, they have the most worthless customer service staff on the face of the earth and are incapable of human decency. Other than that tidbit of hatred, it is a strange place to people watch, and if you had been there the last time I was in their office you would have gotten more than you had bargained for.

Guest's picture
Guest

HA! I was JUST at my local Comcast office two days ago, and noticed the REALLY thick glass, and how I had to put my old digital box in a door area that only the employee could open when it was time.....

I thought it was all very strange, but then I remembered what town I was in, and thought it must be because of that.

So hearing that all the offices are that way is WEIRD!!!!!!

Wow. And I was wondering why my cable/internet bill was so high!

Seriously? Do people actually rob these places???

(I didn't read any other comments yet...I just thought it was funny that I JUST was there the other day, and this article showed up.)

Just another obsurdity of the human race, I guess...

Guest's picture
Guest

The reason these people are going to the office to pay their cable bill before it's turned off, is probably because a good number of them already HAVE their food and heat and other neccessities.

WELFARE, FOOD STAMPS, WIC, ETC........

You can't pay the cable will with those, so ya gotta take the rest of your cash, after getting your 2 inch nail tips filled in, and go waste your UNbusy day, paying the bill.

THAT'S WHY!!!!

Guest's picture
MidSouth Mouth

If we must trade stereotypes, how about criticizing khaki-wearing, ever-anxious, suburban cubicle-gerbils whose own class position makes the reality of the cash payments such exotica? As a child of people who collected some of the above scant social benefits, I caution you that you have missed an opportunity to see the way that cable/tv/entertainment media are the "circuses" to accompany the begrudgingly given "bread".

Guest's picture

Nice post Catherine

I agree we all have indulgences, however when we can't afford those indulgences(like in the case of the cable customer) it's time to stop.

Also I don't think the indulgences should come at the expense of what we really value in life.

When you die, do you want to be known as someone who loved lattes?

-Nate

Guest's picture

It's all about addiction and lack of priorities . . . sad.

Guest's picture
AJ

Good article. I agree that to some people, a $4 latte is worth it or a $200 cable bill.

The key I beleive is that its ok to have your "thing" be it a latte or cable, etc. However, I do believe that to live on a successful budget and get out of debt, it is difficult to do all of those things at once.

I prefer to choose my 1 or 2 things I enjoy and everything else is a want and not a need.

Guest's picture
Autumn

I may forward this article to my husband. After receiving some really terrible customer service from Comcast, we began looking at Verizon for TV and Internet. Unfortunately, we'd not only be spending more right now, but spending a LOT more a year from now, when the introductory rates go up.

We need Internet -- we use it every single day, and we both do freelance work that relies on high-speed Internet access.

We do watch TV, but we only seem to resort to cable shows when nothing else is on regular TV. By making a one-time investment in digital converters for the TVs that we have, we can still enjoy the shows we regularly watch, without having to pay for super-expensive cable television that we only watch when nothing better is on (time that could be better spent elsewhere.)

Right now it's a question of whether or not he considers it a worthwhile luxury.

Guest's picture
Cheap Yankee

If you are subscribing to premium cable to get high-def, you -should- be able to get free digital HDTV on 18+ channels or more if you invest in an antennae array. If you're in range of a station, you'll get better HD service free off the airwaves than you will off cable or satellite because over the airwaves is how digital HD is meant to be received.

Go to www.antennaweb.org/aw/Welcome.aspx, click on the "choose an antenna" link, fill out your street address and zip code, and the website will tell you which stations you should be able to receive for free and what kind of antenna array you will need to invest in to reliably receive them. It's a nonprofit organization, so they won't try to sell you anything (beware of copycat sights!).

In an outlying area such as ours where service is sketchy, you'll need to invest in a specialized antennae, a rotating motor so you can aim the antennae at whatever station you want, a roof-mount post with guy supports, and an antennae power-booster. It's going to cost us $650 (the cost of 10 months of Comcast) and then we'll be getting 36 channels for free. Before we ordered everything, we first experimented with an old roof-mount antenna, a cheapo power booster, and hubby standing on a ladder at roof-level manually aiming the antenna as I yelled up to make sure we really could get reception. We're waiting for better weather to put up our permanent antenna (not smart to work on an icy roof!) and tell Comcast to take their $65/month "basic cable" and stick it.

Because of the cable TV monopoly, it's nearly impossible to hire someone to install the right equipment for you, but it's not that hard if you do your research first and are remotely handy. Just make sure you do your research before you buy so you get what you expect.

Guest's picture
Jim

The Comcast office here doesn't have any noticeable security. But then its in a suburb with relatively low crime rates.

The $200 bill could be explained if they have bundled service including cable TV, telephone and internet service. That could easily hit $200 level. I'd assume they offer all that most places.

I don't really see anything that explains why you'd think people are paying their cable bill before buying groceries.

Jim

Guest's picture
Peter T

I also believe that one reason for the high security and the thick glass is the abysmal customer service by Comcast. It can make people very angry. We, for example, are happy to have not to deal with THEM anymore. Google for Comcast AND hammer or "Mona Shaw" and enjoy.

Guest's picture
Lala

I haven't had cable in over 15 years, and I don't miss it one bit.

When I got married, my husband came from the TV junkie background, and I told him that he could get cable, but he had to arrange for the installation and cost and keep up with it.

He decided to wait, and now he's been cable free for over 7 years.

We have basic channels, a large dvd collection and don't miss the inflated bill. We have more free time to do things together - play board games, read, etc because we're not obsessed with the latest new shows.

We also have high speed internet, (my one big indulgence) but I negotiated with the service and kept our intro rate (going on 3 years) - $12 a month for high speed WiFi. :)

Guest's picture
Guest

Forget $4 lattes and $200/month cable.

How much is the mortgage/taxes/insurance on your house?

If you are like a couple I know who were 30% underwater on their $475,000 starter home, letting it go into foreclosure and renting freed up several thousand a month in cash flow.

And moving from 2 (or more) new car payments to used cars or bus passes saves several hundred a month.

Guest's picture
acutter

Just wanted to pass on this new site called BillShrink.com that takes what you already spend money on and finds new plans/ways to save money immediately - even with the same provider. I use ATT for my mobile phone and staying with ATT they found a plan that saves me like $600 a year. It's incredible considering how much time I'd spent at the ATT store. Check them out - they don't have cable right now but I hope they do in the future.

Guest's picture
Guest

honestly i think cable in my city sucks! so maybe once or twice there's a good movie on tv but I had cable just for ONE tv show! It wasn't worth it. I can easily watch the show on the company's website for free. The same movies keep playing over and over again. I mean wtf? I have all these channels and nothing is new or interesting! I'm a very open person to: history, all movies that are interesting and have a good plot, art, etc... Nothing really impressed me. The cable company here is a monopoly since 3 out of 4 (excluding myself) tenants on my floor have other channels except me why? because when I called the company they said "Your area doesn't qualify for Direct Tv"

Guest's picture

It's very Interesting article. I am always on a look for such a good & useful resource on web.