A complete waste of money

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Let’s do more on the theme of “America Saves” week.

Kate Kashman had a wonderful post last month on “Ten Things I’ve Bought That Were A Complete Waste of Money”. That sparked a great discussion in our house on where we’ve wasted our money over the years.

Our own list was surprisingly difficult to put together. One reason might be that spouse and I don’t spend money very quickly. We tend to discuss major purchases for a long time. Even something under $100 might merit a prolonged bargain hunt at shopping websites, Goodwill, and yard sales. If you only spent $5 on a used kitchen utensil and then realize that you don’t enjoy cooking that way in the first place, then you’re not going to buy the newer, high-quality, more expensive utensil. We particularly avoid recurring expenses because we know how quickly those can impact a budget. A one-time $100 experiment is a much better use of our money than a $5/month fee that we never reconsider.

On the other hand we might be fooling ourselves with post-purchase rationalization. Behavioral finance is full of pitfalls, and this one helps you convince yourself that you really didn’t waste your money after all. Somehow you managed to “find value” in the experience, even if the only value is that you’re not going to spend money on it anymore!

You’ll notice a distinct low-tech theme here. Spouse and I are not Luddites or minimalists, but we sure hate taking care of things and losing them out of our pockets. For example, we skipped the entire PDA tech phase of the 1990s because Day-Timers and index cards worked well enough for us (and because we didn’t have to worry about accidentally dropping them overboard). We still do that today, mainly out of habit. If a new tool doesn’t immediately make a big improvement in our lives, then we’ll quickly focus on its negatives and go back to our old way of business until the next generation of technology comes along.

Another theme is retirement. Many essential tools make people more productive in the office (and way too reachable out of the office). Yet if you’re retired and don’t need a workplace tool, would you spend that money for the convenience of having it at home? This is especially true for things that cost $100/month mainly because they’re business equipment, not yet a consumer commodity.

Here’s the list:
1. New vehicles. I haven’t bought new in over 30 years, and with what I know now I still kinda regret that one. We saved money in the ’90s with classified ads and library research, and now the Internet has reduced the “information cost” of buying a used car to almost nothing. We’ve saved literally tens of thousands of dollars over the years by buying used. I also enjoy the used-car hunt far more than the hassle of the dealership dance.

I know there are advantages to buying new, but I just don’t think they’re worth the cost. My spouse and I have always felt that a vehicle is a transportation commodity, not driving entertainment or a collectible. (We don’t even wash our cars.) I understand the other pros & cons and I agree that today’s process of buying a new vehicle is much better too. I recognize this is a contentious topic, so let me move on to the rest of the list while you start drafting your comments!

2. FuturaStone. Spouse and I are home-improvement junkies, and this material displays incredibly well at home shows. However it’s just not durable. Its epoxy resin breaks down in sunshine, it collects dirt & critters in its crevices, and the small rocks keep breaking off. When we bought our dream house in 2000, its sidewalks and lanai and driveway (and even the garage floor) were covered with it. It looked great for a couple of years, but when it was only 10 years old it began cracking and spalling. Sharp rocks would get stuck in doorways or poke your bare feet. The repair cost was 20% of installation, and we could see that we’d need to do it again in five years. Unfortunately it was even harder to remove than to repair, taking a three-man crew over two days with air hammers. We kept the garage material because it doesn’t get any sun, but it’s still a pain to clean.

3. Pool slides. We rented a home in the 1990s with a backyard pool. Our daughter was three years old. We found a pool slide at a garage sale for $100. How hard could this be? We soon found out why it was so “cheap”. Connecting its water stream required an expensive sump pump or a long run of tubing, but a 50-foot garden hose temporarily solved that problem. The next challenge was drilling into the concrete deck to anchor the mounting bolts. But then our young one decided that it was too high and too scary, and she wasn’t interested. We moved her Little Tykes plastic play gym next to the pool and she was thrilled with its three-foot slide. Later on we discovered how dangerous pool slides really are, although most of the injuries involve adult beverages and landlord liability.

4. E-readers. The jury’s still out on this one, but our Nook ($80 used from Craigslist) hasn’t changed our lives. Looks great, works fine, lighter than books & magazines, don’t care. Maybe I’ll be more interested when I can “e-borrow” the latest bestsellers from my public library for 99 cents/week. I’m glad that we bought it for the experiment but it just hasn’t caught on yet. I’m going to bring it on one more trip instead of packing my usual five pounds of throwaway magazines, and maybe that’ll force me to use it.

5. Cell phones. (My friends are smirking already. They thought this would top our list.) The biggest issue is emotional: when we had them on active duty we were way too reachable 24/7 for all sorts of work-related “crises”, and even a decade into retirement I still get grumpy just keeping track of one. (I also carried one last year when I was taking care of my Dad in the hospital. The phone was an essential tool for that duty, but there’s another bad memory.) I find them useless for phone calls and too expensive for their other alleged features. My fellow presbyopic geezers appreciate the difficulty of using them without reading glasses (yes, I know about the Jitterbug). It’s also disheartening that modern cell-phone etiquette apparently frees a few of us from having to be on time and to make firm commitments.

Don’t get me wrong– cell phones are indispensable workplace tools and our college student lives with her smartphone. It’s worth every penny for those situations. We carry a prepaid one for travel because pay phones (remember “phone booths”?) are almost gone. (We only buy minutes just enough to keep the subscription active.) I understand cell phones, but I don’t value them. I just don’t care to live my retirement like that, and so far I don’t have to. I’ll try again when mobile wallets mean that I can carry a phone instead of a wallet.

6. Newspapers & magazines. Yeah, I know, kinda ironic coming from the guy who won’t even carry a cell phone or an e-reader. We still get our “lifetime” subscription to U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings (until they can’t sell enough ads to support it) and our alumni magazine (which will stop printing within five years). Family Handyman is only $15/year, too, but even their articles are repetitive– or maybe our home-improvement skills have grown beyond their teachings.

The rest of this list is pretty quick:

7. Low-voltage outdoor lights. (The kind that require buried electrical cord.) Solar-powered yard lights have finally solved that problem.

8. Wrapping paper. Re-gift your re-useable gift bags.  Tape ’em shut if your recipient can’t resist peeking. The gift bags, not the recipients.

9. Holiday cards, birthday cards, special event cards. Notice how Facebook has almost killed the “annual family update” letter? Notice how the card companies are desperately adding sound chips and other gimmicks to their paper products? What’s next, miniature computer screens to “watch” the greeting? E-mailing an e-card is so much more flexible, and so much cheaper.

10. Mailing boxes & envelopes. I re-use envelopes (with tape or glue), and we haven’t bought new envelopes in over two decades. (Yes, adhesives are cheaper and many business envelopes are resealable.) The post office actually charges you more for not using their free priority-mail flat-rate boxes, which you can have delivered to your door for free. Now that you can do it all online, I go months without visiting the post office.

There may be some debate whether all of those items belong on a top-ten list, so let me offer a bonus substitute: cable TV. I’m apathetic about the “TV” part, but the “cable” model is a waste of money. The franchise’s subscription package is subsidizing content that nobody would pay for on its own. We spend over $60/month for convenient access to HGTV and a couple other shows, and we never watch the rest. Everything else (that we’re paying for) is free over the air, streamed over the Internet, or on a library DVD. Spouse actually gets quite a bit of use out of the programming that she cares about, but the rest is unwatched and wasted. Cable TV still has residual value, but that’s shrinking as more content moves online.  As soon as I can replicate our viewing preferences for less than $60/month, our cable company is history.

So what’s been a complete waste of your money?

Related articles:
“America Saves” week
Frugal living is not deprivation

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WHAT I DO: I help you reach financial independence. For free. I retired in 2002 after 20 years in the Navy's submarine force. I wrote "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" to share the stories of over 50 other financially independent servicemembers, veterans, and families. All of my writing revenue is donated to military-friendly charities.

7 Comments
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  6. Reply
    Deserat March 1, 2012 at 2:03 PM

    hehe – awesome list – hmm, we lived in Germany with cheaper cell phones – I had the simple SIM chip buy minutes as you needed it…and didn’t turn it on except for when traveling. Now, we have smartphones – I turn it off, too, but husband wants it….so he pays for it 🙂

    Cars – I’ve bought new and used – if you can find a good used car, it is a much better deal as a car is a depreciating asset.

    Holiday cards – I enjoy sending out Christmas cards…it gives me a chance to say hi to many people as well it is a sort of diary for me – weird, I know. But, I like it and frankly that’s all I do for Christmas – no presents. Don’t do birthday cards except for husband and we don’t do any other cards (Hallmark holiday). I don’t wrap anything – waste of time and paper.

    Newspapers, subscriptions – I only have a yearly online subscription to WSJ and it’s a business expense. All other mags are from organizations that I belong to that I have a life membership and they send a mag…

    I held out on the e-reader – was given a Kindle for my promotion – I now check out books from the US Army Europe library for the Kindle – uhhh – I LOVE that. I am addicted – however, I do still read regular paper books and still take them with me.

    • Reply
      Doug Nordman March 1, 2012 at 5:29 PM

      Thanks, Deserat!

      I’ll turn our phone on for travel, but I haven’t needed the data yet…

      I’m going to have to start looking at our library’s e-lending services.

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