Status Symbols Or Con Jobs; Do You Know The Difference?
If you want to keep yourself out of serious debt (before you get into it), make sure you know the difference between a "status symbol" and a con job. After seeing endless examples of media hype of all sorts of products, be they homes, cars or anything else, I'm firmly convinced there are no status symbols. It never ceases to amaze me that so many people buy things they don't need – and obviously couldn't afford to begin with – on credit, only to end up having to sell those possessions or declare bankruptcy several years later.
Let's look at the guy on the commercial for an online bank (LendingTree.com, I think) who's driving around in circles on his tractor saying, "I'm in debt up to my eyeballs. Someone please help me!" It shouldn't take a genius to see that if this man had planned a lot more carefully, not to mention spent a lot more wisely, that whole mess would have been avoided. Unfortunately, many consumers fall into the trap of "keeping up with the Joneses," spurred on by advertising from retailers, builders, or car dealers whose only interest at heart is their own. They don't seem to realize that once they fall in, it's very difficult to climb back out. And the retailers who pushed them to spend are going to be the first to demand their money or take back the item they sold if the consumer can't pay up.
Everyone has his or her own idea of what a supposed 'status symbol' is. From the articles I've read and the television programs I've seen, though, the biggest con jobs fall into the following five categories: homes, cars, clothes and jewelry, electronics, and vacations. We'll take a good look at each one.
"McMansions" - These are the "mini-mansions" you see going up all over the country, or certainly all over my state of Virginia. The smaller, more modest and affordable homes, what I call the "George Bailey homes" of our parents' generation, are rapidly disappearing. In their place, we are seeing the larger, far more ostentatious and unaffordable mini-palaces for the rich being built by developers who can only be described as "Potters." You know the story "It's A Wonderful Life," don't you? Good, then I don't have to explain further. If not, you'll have to buy or rent the video, assuming the stores haven't cleared out their Christmas inventory by now.
If you've never seen a "McMansion," however, they're not too hard to spot. Actually, you'd have to be vision-impaired or totally blind not to have seen them. Take a look at any new housing development that's being built in your area, and odds are each home is a "McMansion." They usually start at the "bargain" price of $250,000 or more, and only go up from there.
What's your financial picture like now? The only way you know for certain is to take a hard look at the salary you and your spouse are making if you're both working, add up the amounts of your monthly expenses of rent, utilities, food, clothing and transportation, and see how much is left. If there's not much to get by with for the rest of the month, investing in a "McMansion" would be a disastrous mistake. If you really want to trade up to a house, look for one that is smaller and adequate for your needs. If you don't have children now and don't plan or want to have them, a more modest three-bedroom ranch would probably be all the home you need. This kind of home would suit just as well if you and your spouse are "empty nesters," whose children have all begun life on their own. How much space do you actually require?
"To Die For" Cars - No matter how hard dealers and manufacturers try to convince us, there's no real need for some of these high-end flash mobiles. You know what I'm talking about. The Hummers, the Jaguars, the Mercedes, etc. that are more for show than anything else, and which cost as much, if not more, than a down payment on a home. Of course, for those who are independently wealthy and can afford these high-end luxuries, go for it. If, however, you are like most of us who are not in the top financial stratosphere, then you need to understand the difference between what you want and what you can afford.
Personally, I'd much rather drive a two- or three-year-old used car (not further back than 2001 is my preference) and pay cash or check for the whole amount up front than get slammed with a high lease expense every month. But we don't always have that option, especially if our old cars happen to break down for the final time, and there's no choice but to purchase a different car. Should that ever happen, however, would it not be better to buy a less expensive car with lower lease payments every month? Just as there's the term "house poor," the term "auto poor" could just as easily apply. I'd much rather be out having fun rather than being forced to sit home every night or weekend because my car payments were eating up all my fun money.
"Must Have" Designer Clothes & Jewelry - It's been said repeatedly, by several financial experts: "If it's on your ass, it's not an assET." Truer words were never spoken, on this subject, anyway. Of course, that could be expended to include your arms (those Rolex watches cost almost as much as a used car if not more), your feet, your fingers, and the list goes on. Clothes are a basic necessity for survival, but you don't have to purchase them at the high-end department stores, using their high-fee debt cards to look your best. Luckily for folks like me who have to be more careful of our spending, there are wonderful places called "discount stores." Retail chains like Target, Kmart, Sears, Ross, Marshall's and T.J. Maxx provide the perfect alternative for all who enjoy looking good for a fraction of what the expensive department stores are charging for the same items. Odds are, no one's going to be looking at your clothing label to check if it's "the real thing." Who cares, anyway?
As for jewelry, I've never been able to tell the difference between a $20,000 diamond ring and a $200 cubic zirconia that looks almost the same. Unless your friends are professional jewelers, I doubt they can tell either. So if you have a tight budget after paying the regular monthly expenses of rent or mortgage, utilities, food, clothing and transportation, why would you even want to go into debt to pay for a piece of jewelry that you don't even need?
"Top of the Line" Electronics - Okay, can someone tell me why the Plasma television, which runs at approximately $2500 to $3000 the last time I checked, is so much "better" than my 27-inch color, cable compatible, high resolution television set that I bought at Best Buy for roughly $500? Call me clueless, but the only difference I see is that it's a little bigger and longer, can be mounted on the wall, and folks can pretend they're at the movies. Hardly worth adding a huge debt load for, in my opinion. For what you pay for the Plasma, you could pay for a less expensive set in almost every room of the house. Not to mention buying or renting more movies to watch. I only used the Plasma TV as an example. There are plenty of con jobs dressed up as 'status symbols' in the category of electronics, and as far as I know, no laws exist that force you to buy them.
"Fantasy Island" Vacations - Remember that show in the 1980's, with the little man who kept yelling "Da plane, da plane?" It was a hoot. People would come from all over the world to fulfill whatever their secret fantasy was, at a price tag in the thousands of dollars. Some of the real-life travel packages being advertised by airlines and cruise lines may run pretty close when you count in all the extras. Again, if you can easily afford these luxuries without going into serious debt, then bon voyage. But if the only way you can afford them is go into debt, you could be paying for the fantasy trip many years later.
There are so many ways you can take your spouse or your family on a nice vacation without going into hock to do so. Look at what is being offered in your area; there may be more available than you think. There are plenty of internet travel websites like Expedia.com and Hotels.com, that can offer you vacation spots and hotel stays that are much lower than the high-end cruises or tour packages. The only thing that matters on a vacation is that you and your spouse or family enjoyed yourselves at the place you vacationed, not how much you spent.
So the next time you're tempted by one of the 'status symbol' retailers to make a huge purchase on credit that you can afford only in your wildest dreams, just remember whose bottom line you'd be contributing to. Hint: It isn't yours.