Saving, spending wisely is an investment

Michelle Singletary
Columnist November 5, 2011

My pastor recently made a statement that pretty much sums up the financial difficulty many people find themselves in.

“Most people don’t have a money problem,” he said. “They have a management problem.”

Michelle Singletary writes the nationally syndicated personal finance column, “The Color of Money.” View Archive

Every month, Discover Financial Services takes the pulse of consumer spending. The company polls 500 consumers daily and 8,200 monthly to get snapshots of consumer confidence and spending intentions. In its latest findings, 55 percent of consumers felt that their personal finances were getting worse. That was two points lower than the September survey. Forty-two percent said they would have no money left over after they paid their bills, also down two points from September.

Even accounting for the difficulty that people are having because of a bad economy, many folks would still be having financial trouble because they don’t save or spend wisely. The fact is it takes time, effort and persistence to be financially prudent.

It also takes access to good and unbiased information. So for this month’s Color of Money Book Club, I’m recommending “Clark Howard’s Living Large in Lean Times: 250-Plus Ways to Buy Smarter, Spend Smarter and Save Money” (Avery, $18). Howard hosts both a nationally syndicated radio program and a television show on HLN. In 1993, he founded a consumer action center, which is staffed with volunteers who answer consumer questions.


Clark Howard's “Living Large in Lean Times”. (Clark Howard's Living Large in Lean Times)

I’ve known Howard for some time and have subbed for him on his radio show. I admire his passion for educating consumers, and how he does it without making people feel stupid.

I think every household should have a book such as the one Howard has written. You can read it straight through, but it’s more likely you might just pick it up to find the chapter on whatever financial issue you are facing at the moment.

In the first chapter, to jump-start your savings, Howard provides 25 quick tips to save money. To seasoned penny-pinchers, many of the tips in this chapter will seem obvious (raise the deductible on your insurance, switch to a cheap no-contract cellphone provider, buy extra copies of a Sunday newspaper to get more coupons). But there are some tips you may not have heard about.

If you don’t want to give up your landline phone but want to get the cheapest rate possible, ask for the no-frills service, where bills typically run between $7 and $18. Howard notes that you’ll have to call and ask for the “state-regulated tariff rate.”

“If the representative you speak to feigns ignorance, ask to be transferred to a supervisor and make your request,” he writes.

Howard tests a lot of consumer products and when he does he buys the item. “I don’t accept any freebies from manufacturers or carriers at all, because I want you to know I’m unbought and unbossed,” he writes.

The book is broken down into 13 chapters covering consumer issues from cars, computers and health care to homes, insurance and travel. Within the book, you’ll also find two features, “Clark’s Greatest Hits” and “A Clark Favorite.” Howard considers the greatest hits the bedrock of his money-saving philosophy. I like his favorites category. These are tips for super cheapskates like me.

“I have always been cheap, which I define as being willing to accept lower quality for a lower price,” Howard writes. “But sometimes, my cheap tendencies have come back to bite me.”

Howard has found a way to make one disposable razor blade last a year. But he’s also willing to admit when his frugality goes awry. Like me, Howard hates to pay for parking. Unlike me, he parks in questionable areas, a money-saving tactic that has resulted in a few smashed car windows.

I found the chapter on “Clark’s Graveyard” interesting. It’s a list of Web sites and services that Howard has featured over the years but that didn’t make it in the marketplace. HM Vehicles Freeway is on the list. The company sold the Freeway, a three-wheeled car that ran on a 12-horsepower Tecumseh engine and got 100 miles to the gallon. It had no reverse gear.

If you’re looking for a good basic guide to help navigate common consumer issues, this book will serve you well.

I’ll be hosting a live online discussion about “Clark Howard’s Living Large in Lean Times” at noon Eastern on Dec. 1 at washingtonpost.com/conversations. Howard will be joining me to answer your questions.

Every month, I randomly select readers to receive a copy of the featured book, which is donated by the publisher. For a chance to win a copy of Howard’s book, send an e-mail to colorofmoney@washpost.com with your name and address.

Readers may write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Or e-mail: singletarym@washpost.com. Personal responses may not be possible. Please also note comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

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