How Scouting Taught Me To Be A Smart Shopper

26 03 2008

While I was at my parent’s house over Easter, I was looking through some of my old stuff when I found a stack of Merit Badge books from Scouts.  Sitting perfectly on the top of the stack was the book for Personal Management, a merit badge designed to teach teens about managing time and money.

The book is filled with very good information on everything from budgeting, to living on your own and debt management, but I’d like to focus in on the section titled: Being a Smart Shopper.  (Keep in mind that as I go through and quote this that it was written in 1996 for teenage boys, but the lessons transcend age and date.)

 Suppose you have your eye on a really special skateboard.  How much does it cost? (Don’t forget to include the cost of protective gear if you don’t already own such items.)  You count your money and discover that you don’t have enough.  What do you do?  You Might:  

  • Shop around.  Maybe another store or a catalog has the identical skateboard at a cheaper price.  A telephone can make comparison shopping easy.  Call at least three stores.
  • Earn or save more money until you have enough to buy the skateboard.
  • Wait for a sale.  A store clerk might tell you if the skateboard will go on sale soon.
  • Look for discount coupons.  These can be found in newspapers, coupon books, or the mail.

What if you still don’t have enough money to buy the skateboard, or you decide you don’t want to spend that much money, even if it is on sale?  You have other choices.  Shoppers can’t always buy exactly what they want.  Sometimes they must compromise.  Thats part of being a good money manager – knowing when to say no to yourself. 

 Wow.  I’d say those last few sentences are something everyone needs to remember!  Mary and I are in this situation with our house right now.  We really want hardwood floors in our living room, but we know that we just don’t have the money for it.  We are forcing ourselves to say no, and it’s hard because we need want them.  It is very hard to say no to yourself, and it takes a great deal of self control, especially when (once you get older) it’s so easy to put a purchase on the credit card.  Luckily for Mary and I, we are able to hold each other accountable and it really helps.  

The Scouts are essentially saying, if you can’t afford something you have a few options: shop around, save more, wait for a sale, and look for coupons.  Very smart advice for anyone.  It also reminds us all to consider all of the costs we will encounter for this item, like having extra money for protective gear for the skateboard.

The passage goes on to recommend that you buy a less expensive skateboard with a different paint job, buy a used skateboard, check classified ads, and it even brings up building your own skateboard (which sounds fun and easy to me!)

The book then offers a checklist for smart shopping some of which are (my commentary in parentheses):

  • Be wary of advertising…(Always!)
  • Before buying a product, talk to…others who may already use [it]…  (Also seek reviews from consumer reports or on the internet)
  • Try before you buy/demo
  • Consider quality.  Price isn’t everything… Why buy something, even at a low price, if it falls apart quickly or doesn’t work properly.  (I am obsessed with quality products, if there is a difference in quality and price, I will buy the one that has better quality)
  • Consider Service. (I’m usually willing to pay more for something if I know that the service behind it will be worth it.  For instance, I’ll pay a bit more for something at Costco in order to get their service and extended warranty)
  • Don’t Impulse buy.
  • If there’s a problem, take a product back right away (be sure to keep your receipt).  Don’t toss the item aside and feel sorry for yourself….Most stores…[will]…probably fix the item or give you a new one.  (I am terrible at actually returning items to stores.  It always seems like too much of a hassle.  But I’m going to make a point to return a broken glass bowl we got as a wedding present (in June) this week.  We have the receipt.  I hope they take it back!)

It’s not always easy to be a smart shopper.  Most people, myself included, aren’t good at the waiting part.  We impulse buy, it’s what advertisers and marketers try to train us to do, but we need to always remember to stop and ask ourselves if we need the item, or if we just want it.  We also need to ask more important questions… Can I afford this?  How long with this take me to pay off?  How long will it take me to save for this?  Those are the types of questions that should be going through everyone’s head when they see something they want to impulse buy.

Writing this has been very beneficial for me today, because Mary and I did our Tax return yesterday and when I saw the amount we will be getting back I got very excited.  I even caught myself drooling over Mac mini’s online today.  But I slowly moved my mouse up to the corner of the screen and closed the window, because even though a Mac mini is on my list of things I want and need (yes I do need a new computer), I want to achieve other Goals first.  Most of our Tax return will hopefully be going directly into savings to help us achieve higher goals.





The Curse of a Jack-of-All-Trades

5 03 2008

I’ve always been a jack-of-all-trades, never afraid trying to do something on my own, and always watching and learning how to do things.  I can’t help it, was raised this way. 

From a young age I pushed a toy lawn mower behind my dad as he mowed the lawn, in elementary school I spent afternoons with my grandfather who taught me about woodworking and tools as we built (yet never finished) a rocking chair, in junior high I hung out with carpenters and contractors everyday after school as they remodeled both my grandparents and my parents houses.  I was an early adopter of HGTV, yet This Old House remains my favorite home improvement show.  In high school I, like most teens, was infatuated with cars, and as a result I can, and have done just about everything on a car, short of body work.  Through all of this, I learned and did even more as I became an Eagle Scout.  I watched, I learned, I did.

I loved these aspects of my childhood, and these aspects built a foundation for me to know how to do an extreme variety of things, and as much as I love (and Mary loves) this about me, it’s a curse.

I constantly have internal struggles as three aspects of my life make it nearly impossible for me to make a decision on any variety of things.  These three things that alone are great, seem to deeply conflict each other.

  1. I’m a DIY type of guy, born and raised, for the sake of being constructive, and seeing a finished product that I created, saving money is just a bonus.
  2. I’m Frugal.
  3. I’m a perfectionist.

As the saying goes, “jack of all trades, master of none.”  I’m a perfectionist that can’t do any of the things I love to do perfectly, yet I hate the concept of paying someone when I can do it myself, but since I know how things should be done (even though I can’t do them perfectly) I monitor to make sure things are being done right.  As Fat Bastard in would say “It’s a vicious cycle.”

This internal struggle is one of the major reasons that Mary and I decided to build a new house instead of buying an older home and having projects.  We’d rather move into a house already done the way we want it than have to live with imperfect DIY project after project.

JD at Get Rich Slowly, posted an interview with Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich.  I have not read the book, but in the interview the concept of a “low information diet” is brought up.  Tim explains that the people who excel with this type of lifestyle don’t overload on information.  Instead they outsource what they can, and don’t feel the need to stay caught up.  Tim calls them “selectively ignorant,” not really knowing more than they need to.  In other words, they are the opposite of me.

I am going to try being selectively ignorant because in many aspects of my life I feel that because I know how something is done, I should do it myself.  As a result I have a handful of half finished projects, and quite a few that would look much better if I would have paid someone else to do it.

What it comes down to is focusing on the things that you truly thrive in.  If you can focus on these things, and outsource/outchore the rest to others, in theory you’ll be doing quite well in your career and in your life.  This concept is one that was first brought to my attention in the book Strengthsfinder 2.0, which has the reader take a personality test and then tells you the 5 things that you thrive in, and what type of people to surround yourself with in order to be most successful.  It is a great test/book and I highly recommend it, as it was the first publication that I read which focused on strengths and not weaknesses.

I have to begin accepting that just because I can do something myself, it doesn’t mean I should. I am excited that I won’t have any large or highly visible projects once we move, and I’m looking forward to being able to focus more on what I’m good at (like looking towards the future, advising, and teamwork), and getting better at a select few things I truly enjoy but am not great at (like writing). 





TV…It’s A Trap!

11 02 2008

As I watched the Super Bowl the other week, I was reminded how much I hate commercials. I have Tivo, and so I usually fast forward through commercials, but it was the Super Bowl, you are supposed to watch for the commercials.  Anyway, I really haven’t been watching TV much in the past months due to the writers strike but now that it is over, while most Americans are leaping in joy over this announcement, I’m upset. Why, you might ask? Because I’m over it, I’ve kicked the habit. All of “my shows” were taken off the air due to the strike, and as a result I feel free.   

In my pre-Tivo days I was a true slave to the TV, I would schedule my evenings around shows, and diligently watch the entire program. I wanted things that were advertised to me during the 8-20 minutes of commercials per show, I needed those items, and I would spend my money to buy them. Then one day, I impulse bought a Tivo with Lifetime Subscription, and I thought it would change my life. No more would I be a slave to timeslots and advertisements, I would watch my shows when I wanted to, and I wouldn’t have to worry about missing a show due to class (or occasionally missing a class due to a show). I would be free at last!   

Too bad that didn’t work out the way I wanted it to, my life didn’t change. Instead, I became a slave to the Tivo, and ended up watching more TV as a result. Wouldn’t you? The average 30 minute show has 8 minutes of commercials, so you could watch 2 shows in the amount of time it used to take me to watch one and a half. I could stay up a little later and watch 4 programs in the time it used to take me to watch 3!   

Soon I was staying up just so I could find time to watch all of the shows I needed to watch. It didn’t matter if I had never seen them, if it was a Tivo recommendation I’d need to watch it to see if I liked it. Of course I usually would enjoy it and would add yet another show to my season pass list. With Tivo, I would watch 1.5 to 2 hours of TV a day, but because of the strike I cut down my viewing to about 30 minutes before bed.

With that time not wasted, I’ve been reading, writing, and running; all things that I feel have enriched my life. Even more importantly, I am not being advertised to nearly as much as I was. I no-longer am forced to view targeted pop-ups during a show or convenient and overly blatant product placement (after all, every Office fanatic needs a Dwight bobble head doll).  But over all, giving up TV hasn’t been too hard.  It’s been much easier since all of my friends and coworkers aren’t talking about the shows the day after, because they simply aren’t on.   

I’m upset about the strike ending because everything I had grown to love, and now hate, will be back for me to learn to love again. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss Jim’s witty antics toward Dwight, but I’m going full force in trying to not watch TV.  Ok, I will watch The Office…and Heroes, but I want to maintain these things that have enriched my life and not fall back into my old ways.   

When we move Mary and I have decided that we will only have local channels, and we will hopefully keep it that way for many years to come. This will definitely help us out from a financial standpoint, because instead of spending $60+ a month on cable, we will be able to save that money.  Plus it will give us more time in the day for more important things, like each other, keeping fit, and working to achieve our goals.   

The bottom line is that being frugal isn’t about just finding ways to save money, it’s about finding ways to save time too.  This fits the bill for both!