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Thursday, February 02, 2006 | Sometimes I think about checking out of this life.
Not life on earth, mind you. But the life of a 30-something person living in a fear-based American city like San Diego, where it is possible to have four different kinds of insurance and still feel underinsured. In America, the stress of making and saving enough money is compounded by the angst of exotic diseases (is that a bird??) and hot real estate markets.
I’d exchange it for something simpler – the kind of place where people work just enough to live richly. And I don’t mean monetary riches, but the riches of good health, good food and time to share with family and friends.
OK, I’ll shut up now about my corny, Utopian society, but not because my dream is dead. I’m just certain that if I don’t stop here readers will be writing to tell me how much I don’t understand about economics and productivity and great American capitalism. I understand those things – I studied economics in college too. I just wish there was a way to make life here a little simpler because I know I’m not the only one of my friends who’s stressed out by the demands of life here.
I’ll list a few: taxes (paperwork), homeowner’s insurance (paperwork), 401(k) funds (paperwork), living wills (paperwork), dentist appointments (paperwork), car maintenance (paperwork), passports (paperwork), the DMV (paperwork and long lines), anxiously monitoring the equity in your home (no paperwork but lots of pensive newspaper reading), life insurance (paperwork, appointments and medical exams), keeping track of lumps under your skin (no paperwork but lots of worry and some appointments), stepping on a scale (stress), fire-safe boxes for important documents (paperwork inside), emergency kits for your home and all cars (trips to Target), refinancing (paperwork), updating resumes (more and more paperwork).
And this is all on top of working for a living and taking care of all those mundane tasks like grocery shopping, scrubbing toilets and eating. If I made a list of the big, important paperwork-laden things my husband and I really need to do and should have done long ago, it might seriously stress me out.
Is it any wonder so many Americans procrastinate on these chores until a crisis, or spend themselves into insurmountable debt to numb the pain? According to a report last week from the Commerce Department, Americans saved a negative 0.5 percent of their after-tax income last year. That means they spent all of their paychecks and dipped into savings to cover expenses.
I think I may have personally tipped those scales downward.
When I became self-employed last year, I joined the ranks of those dipping into savings to finance a new business instead of parking my money in long-term investments, which, at 33, I have yet to do.
So, in the heat of my annual New Year’s resolution to get all this under control, I’ve come into some advice that might actually work: keep it simple. More specifically: “Smart and Simple Financial Strategies for Busy People.”
In her latest book, personal finance author Jane Bryant Quinn says regular people are fully equipped to understand finances, but they just aren’t that interested in trying so they do nothing.
Hey, that’s me too.
Turns out, says Quinn, that it is possible to simplify finances if not life. Quinn takes aim at people like me who can never seem to get retirement plans started despite ample opportunity and a full understanding of how great/necessary/fabulous these plans are. Her solution is to automate everything and then keep your hands to yourself so you don’t have to worry about asset allocation (meaning no switching it up just because your cubicle buddy tipped you on a hot sector).
That sounds fine by me. I don’t want to touch the stuff the first time around. In case you’ve forgotten, I just want to live in a sunny beach cottage eating melons all day with my loved ones. Unfortunately, if I ever want to do that here I’m going to have to get it together.
My expertise in personal finance is the kind that comes from stumbling through life’s obstacles. But Quinn actually makes some of these ideas sound like they’re not a major pain. One is starting a Target Retirement Fund, which uses a preset retirement year – say, 2035 – to automatically diversify your investments over time so you’re more aggressive in youth and conservative with age. I just might sign up.
But then, this is certainly not my first book on personal finance. I own and have actually read Personal Finance for Dummies, Mortgages for Dummies and David Bach’s Smart Couples Finish Rich. I’ve charted expenses, calculated my latte factor, and divvied money into “dream baskets,” “security blankets” and every other kind of money-saving gimmick there is.
Can Quinn’s system of automatic bill payment and automatic savings finally set me on the straight and narrow?
We’ll see. All I know is that online banking makes it just as easy to transfer money out of savings as it does to save in the first place.
So I can save 15 percent of my income all year, but that doesn’t help me if I transfer the money back out.
Catherine MacRae Hockmuth is a freelance writer in Chula Vista. E-mail her at