Get Your Money’s Worth

Thinking of making a big purchase soon?  How can you get the best deal and have a great time, simultaneously?  Today we’ll explore a few best practices for buying big ticket items like a car or a new appliance, to ensure that your dollars work as hard for you as you worked to earn them!  🙂

Honda Magna

Use Your Own Money

The first step to any big purchase is saving up the money!  Obvious as this sounds, it is a rather uncommon practice today.  Many retailers make big money selling financing, and therefore market it heavily.  They don’t usually have a tough sell either, since by nature we tend to want the nice things now, and patience isn’t usually too fun!  But if you will slow down and consider it, I think you’ll realize that by nature debt reduces your options and inhibits your freedom.  There’s a reason that it feels so good to pay cash for things, and this is what wise and wealthy people do.  In fact, it’s habits like these that typically made the wealthy wealthy in the first place!  For more on that, check out “The Millionaire Next Door,” a great, fact-based book that will likely surprise you in more ways than one!

Narrow the Field

Once you’ve saved the money, your next step will be to determine what models and features are available to you in that price range.  If you’re looking at a car, for example, you can use resources like Craigslist and kbb.com to identify particular year/model/mileage combinations that are in the right range.

Taste and Sample!

Now comes the fun part—go looking!  Seek out at least three stores or individuals offering the model or models that you’re looking at.  Try out the features, and hone down your short list of models to the one you like best.  As you begin to settle on the particular item that’s best for you, take note of any optional features or upgrades.  In many cases, buying a higher-end model with extra features can offer more long-term value, but this is very dependent on what you’re buying.  (A quick aside, I’ve become convinced over the years that spending a little extra on leather seats for a vehicle is money very well spent!  Particularly if you have kids…  🙂

Fit and Price

After looking at the model you like at a few places, you’ll start to have a feel for what a good deal is.  Resist the urge to get in a hurry and instead remain calm as you seek for the ideal fit.  Once you’ve found a good price on your item, let the owner or salesman know that you’re thinking this item is a good fit.  I used to think that feigning disinterest in an item was a good way to get the seller to come down on price, but have learned from experience that this doesn’t work.  Instead, make the sales process into two steps.  First, decide if the item meets your needs/desires.  Once you’re convinced it does, let the seller know, but then go right into the price negotiation.  So, you might say something like, “This electric stove seems to be just what we’re looking for.  The price, however, does seem a little high.  How flexible are you on that figure?”  This is a useful tactic because it lets the seller know that there’s only one thing stopping you from buying the item:  price.

Have Fun and Be Creative

Now for the next fun part—price ping pong!  Let the seller make an offer, then counter with a lower one, have a good time (without insulting anyone).  Somewhere along the line, you’ll want to pull out your envelope of cash and start rifling through it.  I don’t care who you are—a stack of hundreds makes your eyes get bigger and your heart beat faster, and you can use this method to stir the seller into accepting a lower price.  If you’re starting to get close, a fun way to end the negotiation goes something like this:  “I’ll tell you what, I’ve got $4,700 right here.  Say the word and it’s yours.”

Sometimes, your man won’t be willing to come down as far as you’d like.  Don’t fall in love with a particular item and keep your walking away power—there are plenty other deals out there for you.  Or, if the price is still a bit higher that you’d like, but the particular item seems worth the extra, it’s ok to pay a little more than absolute bottom dollar.  Just have fun, keep your head, and enjoy the process!

Controlling the Little Kid Inside

Any time you turn on the TV, open a magazine, or walk down the street, you’ll find a plethora of advertisements for incredible products that you can’t live without.  While many of these products may well be amazing, if you lose control of yourself and let the little kid inside take over, you can end up with a home filled with some cool stuff and retirement and savings accounts filled only with IOUs.  Perhaps worse than that, you’ll find that your resources were unintentionally spent on things you value little, and those priorities that you want to value highly go wanting.  Today we’ll dive into the topic of prudent spending and offer a few suggestions on how to enjoy some of the nicer things in life now, while preserving your future and tempering buying with wisdom.

I Need a New One!

One of the starkest examples I’m aware of that illustrates this danger dramatically is the following story.  A man owns an older car that he had purchased years ago and maintained well.  One day, as he’s tuning through presets on his car’s radio, one of the buttons pops off.  “Well, I can get by with only four presets,” he thinks.  No big deal. A few days later, while setting his coffee cup in its usual place, he hears a loud “Crunch!” as the well-worn plastic cup holder finally gives way.  A week after that, he notices that his brakes start squeaking, and then grinding.

“That’s it, he exclaims, “I’m getting a new car!”  And off he goes to trade his $2,000 car in for a $15,000 brand new one, for which he’ll take out a loan.  Normally our man would know better than to do such a thing, since he’d read the TotalThriver post on the value of saving for large purchases.  But, he let that information drift far from his mind in this moment of weakness since, even though he didn’t have the money saved up yet, he HAD to do this because it was an “emergency.”

Upselling Yourself

Before we’re too hard on our reckless friend, we should recognize how easy it is to let yourself begin down this road, and then justify a higher and higher purchase price, ignoring the fact that you don’t have the money for any of this.  Our man did have a real problem.  His car radio, cup holder, and brakes all needed to be repaired.  Let’s even imagine that in this case, the total repair bill would have been high enough that putting such a large sum into an old car wouldn’t have been wise.  In this case, what our friend should have done was sold the car as-is.  Perhaps it would only bring $1500 because of the defects that he left unrepaired.  But here’s where our man went awry:  He thought to himself, (as we have all done one time or another), “well, since I’m getting another car anyway, I might as well get a nicer one while I’m at it…”  Though this isn’t necessarily a terrible sentiment, problems come when things go too far out of proportion.

A more prudent decision for our friend to would have been to spend $800 or so from his savings account to put with the $1500 that he received from the sale of the old car in order to purchase a $2300 vehicle.  Notice that this is an upgrade from the car he had before, and should definitely include functioning cup holders, a radio, and brakes.  Though a $2300 car isn’t as fun to drive as a $15,000 one, our man would have solved his problem while staying out of debt, thereby preserving his options.  By avoiding entering into a loan agreement, he will have more of his income available to replenish his emergency fund, and then begin his car savings fund.

I’ll Bet You Like Options

This brings us to the more pleasant side of the coin—enjoying the good things in life in a prudent way.  According to the revised plan outlined above, our friend is on the path toward a better car, without the risk and bondage of the debt that came with the “new car today option.” As he saves the money month by month, he can evaluate how important a premium car is to him.  He lives, as most of us do, with some limit on his available cash.  Because we have these limits, we must decide which things are most important to us, and conversely, which areas we will tolerate a lower-quality product.  What we often don’t realize is that when we sign up for a $15,000 loan on a new car, we’ve just locked ourselves into a high-quality vehicle and low-quality everything else—potentially even very important things like a future home, retirement savings, kids college, and many other aspects of our lifestyle.

The point is that by having the cash saved up, you have multiple options.  You can think about what areas you desire a quality product, and what areas you’ll tolerate something lesser.  Perhaps you want a really nice car and don’t care about eating at restaurants or buying expensive gifts for others.  Or perhaps you don’t mind driving an old car but you’ve got to have a new iPad and an unlimited data package.  For you ThirveFit members, perhaps your priority is high-quality weight equipment, supplements, and nutritional products, and you’ll put up with a five-year-old computer and TV without complaint.  Whatever your combination is, the important thing is that you find out who you are—what’s important to you—and then make sure to limit your big purchases in lower-priority areas.  Though this sounds obvious when put this way, it is so easy to find ourselves “ponying-up” for a great ______, (car, tv, washing machine, computer) when we can’t really afford it, and then later regretting having so much money tied up in that item.  The point isn’t that you can’t have nice things; it’s that we all must be vigilant to resist the “kid in the candy store” mentality ruling our every purchase.  We are wise to remember that money saved on a purchase today is money we’ll have available for those things we truly value.*

*Incidentally, this could be another purchase, or something even more valuable like giving to others or supporting spreading the Gospel.  But we’ll save that topic for another day!  🙂

Invest or Save

In today’s post, we’ll explore the important distinction between saving and investing — two terms that, though often erroneously used interchangeably, must be treated in distinctly different ways on your path toward a thriving life.

Be Prepared for the Unexpected

Saving ought to be done first — and for a specific purpose.  As we’ve discussed previously, one of the first milestones you need to hit as you pursue the thriving life is to save a full emergency fund of 3-6 months of expenses.  The emergency fund is not an investment; rather, it exists to protect you from the unexpected expenses that will most certainly come your way.

Damage car

Great places to keep an emergency fund include savings accounts and money market accounts (fnbodirect.com is a great place to get started).  Though the interest you’ll typically earn on such accounts is quite low, they provide a few important benefits that you need for emergency savings.  First, your principle is protected.  This means that your value won’t go down in times of economic recession.  This is important because oftentimes unexpected drains on your cash will come during times of economic hardship nationwide.  With your savings in an account at a bank or in a money market account, you can rest assured that the $10k that you put in will be there when you need it.

Make Your Money Make Money

On the other hand, an investment ought to involve significant growth.  While a savings account is earning less than one percent, a good investment should earn in the neighborhood of ten percent.  But here’s the catch: that 10% rarely comes linearly.  Unlike a savings account which will return 0.5% per year, every year, an investment may earn 5% one year, 30% the next, and -15% the year after that.  The returns are a function of the market you’re invested in (e.g., the stock market or the housing market), so you never know how the investment will do in a given year.  But, you can look at history to draw reasonable conclusions at what the investment should do long term.

Exhibit A

Take for example a mutual fund we’re quite fond of here at totalthriver.com:  Fidelity Contrafund.  This fund is primarily comprised of stocks of large U.S. companies such as Google, McDonald’s, and Coca-Cola.  The following chart shows the return for each of the last four years:

2008 2009 2010 2011
19.78 -37.16 29.23 16.93

As you can see, 2010 was a great year for this investment, and 2009 was a lousy one.  Of course if you knew that ahead of time you could make a killing!  But since none of us have such knowledge of the future, we must simply follow the averages.  This fund in particular has averaged 15% per year over the past 3 years, and 8% per year over the past 15 years.

Time Horizon is Important

Because even good investments like this one can fluctuate violently, most financial experts only recommend investing when you plan to leave the money alone for five years or more.  Generally, this is a long enough period to ride out the turbulent ups and downs of the market, and give yourself a high probability of making money with your investment.  For short-term savings (e.g. for a newer car or living room set), you’re usually better off to take the guaranteed 0.5% of your money market than risk losing 20% of your money should the market take a bad turn one year.

Make It Happen

In closing, it’s very important to recognize the difference between saving and investing.  As you make progress toward your financial goals, you’ll need to be very intentional with which of the two you’re doing.  Will you be using the money in the next two years?  Open a money market.  Will you be leaving the money alone for the next five years?  An account with scottrade.com or a visit to your local financial advisor (see the “investing ELP” section at DaveRamsey.com) are great places to start.  And as always, be sure to check back at TotalThriver for help along the way!