Friday, December 02, 2005

In reading various articles about Christmas shopping, I've stumbled across these three statistics:
  1. Most Americans plan to spend an average of $780 on presents.
  2. Most Americans are still paying off Christmas debt in July.
  3. The average American income is around $44,000.
Now, I've read How To Lie With Statistics, and I know to raise an eyebrow when numbers conflict with common sense. But if you read between the lines, you'll see the reflection of a major problem facing American finance: most people don't even realize how much they spend, and they end up living hip-deep in credit card debt.

If you want an idea how ubiquitous credit cards have become, consider that it has become cliché for child psychologists to advise parents that using cash in front of their children will teach kids about the value of money. A child doesn't understand the significance of a credit card, but he can watch Mommy counting bills from her wallet and handing them to a cashier. It's hardly paranoid to speculate that, today, that's something many children may not see.

We live in a society littered with credit cards and mortgages, where large fractions of every paycheck go toward things that have already been bought. House and car loans have been around forever; but today people are buying clothes, computers, purses, televisions, jewelry that they can't afford until next week. Perpetual debt has become the de facto standard; and as a result, personal savings have hit their lowest levels since the Great Depression.

Congress recently tightened the reins on bankruptcy filings, which is rather like throwing out the medication without curing the disease. The problem is now going to get worse, a lot worse, before it gets better. It may not be cheery, but it's something worth considering during this holiday season. You can put yourself on your Christmas list with three important gifts:
  1. Destroy your credit cards.
  2. Pay attention to what you spend.
  3. Save a little every week.
I've said before, and I'll say again now: I firmly believe that every American can become a millionaire. All it takes is discipline over time. That's not to say we can all become Donald Trump; the fact is, a million dollars doesn't stretch as far as it used to. As a nest egg broken over thirty years of retirement, it barely yields $30,000 annually, and that value shrinks with each passing year of inflation. But the point is, a dollar invested while you're 21 will be worth plenty more when you're 65; and frankly, even if you just stick the money inside your mattress, it's easier to push a broom or flip hamburgers to earn a buck at 21 than it is at 65.

I don't claim to be able to predict the future, but I can definitely read a forecast -- and it is going to get worse, a lot worse, before it gets better. Take my advice. Inoculate yourself.


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