I have a soft spot for books on frugality, so when I spotted America’s Cheapest Family on the new releases shelf at my local bookstore, I had to read it. Are there a lot of good ideas inside for how to reduce your financial footprint, or is it a bunch of self-promotion and hot air? This week, I’m going to dig into this book and find out whether it’s worth your time.
Chapter 11: Vacations – Getting Away Without Debt Regret
According to the American Express Leisure Travel Index, the average American family will spend $2,962 on their summer vacation, including airfare, lodging, and other expenses. That’s a lot of dough, and one that doesn’t have to be nearly that big (unless you’re splurging on international travel). The most obvious way to save that cash is by vacationing at home (by doing a large project instead of traveling) or near home (camping in a state or national park near you). If you’re going on a bigger trip, don’t just rely on what’s in the guides: call ahead and make sure things match up with what you read – and also ask about any discounts you can get.
Best tip in the chapter: If you’re on a long road trip and want to stop for snacks, hit a grocery store instead of a gas station. My parents used to do this when we were on road trip vacations. Not only can you select a lot better treats, it’s a lot cheaper, too.
Chapter 12: Kids and Money – Teaching Kids About Money Isn’t Kid Stuff
This chapter basically boils down to giving your children clear and specific responsibilities and only giving them an allowance if they meet those specific responsibilities. They put some additional detail into the plan, but it basically just boils down to that. Basically, it comes down to having them earn an allowance rather than just getting one, but you should also give them opportunities to earn more for doing more.
Best tip in the chapter: Don’t just give your kids a full allowance. Do some “withholdings” from it that go into long-term savings and so forth. This is something that would have made a lot of sense to me as a child if my parents had done it.
Chapter 13: Savings and Investments – It’s More Than Just Money in the Bank
Thankfully, this chapter is almost entirely devoted to one vital concept: start an emergency fund now, not later. This basically means that you should open up a savings account and start putting at least a small percentage of your paycheck in there right off the top, so that when emergencies happen, you’re not caught in a sticky financial situation where you have to dig yourself into more debt to take care of it.
Best tip in the chapter: “Life is more than the money you have in the bank, the cars you drive, and the houses you own. When you come to your last days, your investment portfolio won’t matter nearly as much as the relationships into which you’ve invested your time.” That pretty much nails it when it comes to money.
Chapter 14: Attitudes – Thinking Differently Can Change Everything
This chapter basically focuses on the frugal attitude, that the little things often make all the difference. I have a friend who is an investment banker and makes almost twice the salary I do. I spent most of a day with him and I was almost appalled at how much money he spent without thinking about it. I took some mental notes, added them up, and multiplied them by 365, and you know what I discovered? After all the lattes and sodas and thrice-weekly massages and exorbitant text messaging costs, he’s burning almost $25K a year on day-to-day unnecessary junk. That means that at the end of the day (and also considering where we each live), I’m doing substantially better than him. The point of the story? Frugality isn’t a bunch of little actions that are boring, it’s a life-affirming philosophy.
Best tip in the chapter: Don’t throw something out unless you’ve really used it all you can. If you truly don’t want it, get some value out of it by selling it or donating it for a tax break. Otherwise, you’re just wasting money for no reason.
Chapter 15: The Final Payoff
The book ends with some compelling arguments about how frugality is good for non-financial reasons: it saves time, improves relationships, sets a good example for children, helps build the economy, and is good for the environment. It’s a good way to finish off this interesting book.
Best tip in the chapter: When people aren’t thrifty, they overspend, default on their payments, and go broke. In 2005, bankruptcies cost the American public at least $200 billion. Where did that money come from? Higher payments on everything, especially loans and home mortgages. If significantly fewer people went bankrupt, lenders would be more willing to compete and drive prices lower. Thus, your thriftiness actually helps everybody with lower prices – indirectly, of course.
America’s Cheapest Family is the seventeenth of fifty-two books in The Simple Dollar’s series 52 Personal Finance Books in 52 Weeks.