The Slow Bleed: Plugging Your Financial Leaks
Financial woes can come quickly from big events like a foreclosure, loss of a job, or health problems. These misfortunes, though painful, make a certain amount of sense. Clearly A caused B and led to C — however just or unjust A, B, or C may seem. But at other times, our finances suffer death by a thousand cuts. Harder to pinpoint, we can’t make ends meet or get ahead. We work, pay our bills, and live modest lives. (See also: Emergency Plan: Better Than an Emergency Fund)
Still, something is amiss. Somewhere in the complex system of our financial lives, resources are being drained dollar by dollar. If your otherwise healthy relationship with money still leaves you coming up short, maybe you have a secret financial slow-bleed. Here are six of the most common causes.
1. Interest on Consumer Debt
Interest is more like a gusher than a slow bleed. I mention it only because paying interest is so accepted and expected that we often don’t realize how much it can drain our wealth. Paying interest on everything from cars to cheeseburgers is insidious, and if left unchecked, it saps our resources and demands more and more of our budgets. What are you paying interest on? Were they wants or needs? Are the items appreciating in value, or depreciating?
2. Service Charges and Late Fees
We live in a world that’s bent on collecting your nickels and dimes. It happens when we pay a bill over the phone and incur a convenience fee, when we return a DVD and pay a late fee, when we need to speak to a customer service representative and get charged a service fee, or when we bounce a check and have to cover an overdraft fee. Unnecessary fees bleed our cash and though some are unavoidable, others aren’t. Defend your dimes and dollars and wage war on all fees that are within your control.
3. Lazy Money
Interest lost is income lost. Take a look at your savings accounts, and your 401(k) and IRA investments. Do you know what your average rate of return is? Is your money working as hard for you as you worked for it? Being mindful of your personal comfort level with risk, explore ways to boost the return on your money.
Consumers have more power than they realize, and there are ways to score better deals on cable, cell phone plans, and other services if you’re courageous enough to push the envelope a little. Make a few calls to your service providers and let them know you’re shopping around for a better deal. You’ll be surprised how quickly those air-tight contracts get a bit more breathing room.
5. Membership Dues
Unused health club memberships are the monthly equivalent to using an exercise bike as a coat rack. We join a gym (usually around January 1 of any given year) with the best of intentions. Then we start the long journey of forking over $60 a month until we come to our senses and somehow manage to wriggle out of the contract. Do you have a membership that you’re paying for and don’t use? Add up how much it’s costing you per year (include interest if you don’t pay off your credit card every month). Explore selling your membership, renegotiating your dues, or paying a penalty to get out of the contract.
6. Hyper-Insurance and High Insurance Deductibles
Ignore this section if you’re accident prone or driving a brand-new Ferrari. Otherwise, consider this — as a product, insurance was originally designed to save folks from financial hardship and ruin. But over the past 15-20 years we’ve begun insuring our coffee makers, cell phones, and TVs. I call this phenomenon “hyper-insurance.” Granted, I’m not intimately aware of your financial situation, but I doubt that a TV tragedy is going to land you on the streets. Why are we insuring every electronic bauble we own? Is the risk/expense ratio really that compelling?
Similarly, folks are deathly afraid of the high-deductible auto insurance policy. We gladly pay more for low deductible policies and effectively buy insurance on our insurance. I know accidents can happen at any time, but take a realistic look at your driving record and accident history. Could you bump up the deductible and still be solvent in the unlikely event of a fender-bender? If so, it might be worth upping the deductible and lowering your monthly insurance bill.
When we focus our attention on the tiny leaks in our financial lives, we acknowledge one important truth — little things add up. Fees, dues, usurious interest rates, silly insurance products — they’re all born in a boardroom and survive only by our willingness to pay. Let’s agree to plug the leaks, bandage the slow-bleed, and save some serious cash.
Have you identified leaks in your budget? What did you do to plug them?