Is It Worth It?
by Gary Foreman
Angry voices fill the room. He thinks that she's a fanatic. She thinks that he's unwilling to give just a little bit to save some money. The cause of the argument is a light bulb. So who's right? Is this a battle worth fighting?
Here in Florida our electric runs about eight cents per kilowatt hour (kwh). If you'd like to know your rate just check your last bill. On most they'll tell you the rate. But if they don't, the simplest and most accurate way to figure it is to take the total bill (including taxes, fees, etc.) and divide by the number of kilowatt hours used. Somewhere on the bill you'll find your usage.
What does it all mean? A kwh is one thousand (kilo) watts used for a period of one hour. That costs eight cents. So a 100 watt light bulb is one tenth of a kilo watt or eight tenths of a cent per hour. You could leave that light on 12 1/2 hours and spend a dime.
Does that mean that our frugal friend was wrong? Should we not worry about wasting money? Goodness, no! But, perhaps you don't want to get into a major fight with your spouse just because they leave a lamp on. You might spend more in aspirin than you save in electricity!
A little research will show that most of the electricity is used to run large motors or generate heat. The motors are compressors in your air conditioner and the refrigerator. You'll find the heating elements in your stove, dryer and hot water heater. So if you want to save money on electricity, you'll get a much greater return by concentrating your efforts on these appliance.
Let's take another example: paper towels. The recent ad flier had eight rolls of a name brand at our local drug store for $5. According to the label each roll has 64 sheets. So you're getting 512 sheets for just a shade under one cent each. My wife used to laugh because some members of my family will tear a paper towel in half if the job didn't require a whole one. She said it drove her crazy. I looked at it as matching the tools to the job at hand.
So who's wrong? Just like in many marital spats, no one is wrong. Sure, it's silly to waste money. No matter how small the amount. On the other hand, you don't want to give yourself a stroke over something that's worth a nickel. Which leads us to our next question. Where do you find savings?
And the answer is to look for areas where you spend money but don't get a lot in return for it. For instance, interest on credit card debt. According to the U.S. Commerce Department consumer debt is now over $3 trillion. That means that we're paying somewhere in the area of $300 million a year in interest.
What are we getting for all that the money? Well, we don't have to wait to make our purchase. We haven't avoided paying for it. But because we use credit to buy we often end up paying 40% more for the privilege of taking it home earlier.
So any time that we can delay a purchase we save big time. It's really like buying something at wholesale prices. That's the type of saving that can add up quickly. For instance, you might be tempted to buy a new VCR. After all, it's on sale for 15% off. But if you just put it on your card and pay the minimum each month you'll be adding 40% to the cost. You're actually paying 25% over retail. Some bargain!
Cars are another fine example. Suppose that you just made your last car payment. The temptation is great to check out the new models. But if you're willing to hold on to the old one for just one more year, you'll save between $200 and $300 per month. Even after repairs you'll save a couple thousand dollars in that year.
Also look to areas where you have discretionary expenses. That means areas where you have some level of control over what you spend. Food is a wonderful area for savings. The typical family is going to spend between 10 and 15% of their after tax income on food. And it's possible for most families to cut that by 2 or 3%. That's a lot of nickels!
Finally, look for less expensive alternatives. Sometimes you don't have to buy something to use it. Before you go shopping ask yourself if you could borrow or rent whatever you need. Maybe you a slightly used version would get the job done. You get the idea. A few minutes of thought could make a big difference in your net worth.
Naturally you want to fight waste wherever you find it. That's true whether we're talking about pennies or thousands of dollars. But let's pay attention to a lesson that tactical strategists have known for centuries. Don't spend resources in a battle that's not worth winning.
Naturally you want to save small amounts of money if it's effortless to do so. But if you're going to get into a battle with your spouse make sure it's about something important.
You might get them to turn off the lamp by wearing them down. But you've probably also convinced them that you're a fanatic. And that won't make it any easier when you want to convince them to drive the old car for another year.
Debt is preventing me from taking a vacation this year or the vacation I'd like to take this year! Tell us: Yes, debt is affecting my vacation plans! or No, we're going exactly where we want to go but we'd love to learn make our trip as inexpensive as possible!
Gary Foreman is a former financial planner and purchasing manager who founded The Dollar Stretcher.com website and newsletters in 1996. He's been featured in MSN Money, Yahoo Finance, Fox Business, The Nightly Business Report, US News Money and CreditCards.com. Gary shares his philosophy of money here. You can follow Gary on Twitter or visit Gary Foreman on Google+. Gary is also available for audio, video or print interviews. For more info see his media page.
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