Sunday, 23 July 2017

Weekly Column: So What The Hell is a Fidget Spinner?

So what the hell is a fidget spinner?

If you have kids, or even if you don’t, you may have heard of “fidget spinners” that are all the rage right now. Consisting of a ball bearing and some metal weights, these are the next popular gadgets for kids to yearn for.

Remember Pok√©mon? For those older folks, maybe hula hoops are a better comparison. Basically, it’s a toy just cheap enough to make it into almost every household, and leave those without one feeling alienated and alone. Isn’t childhood fun?

On one hand, many parents saw that fidget spinners range in price from seven to $16, heaved a sigh of relief that they don’t cost more, and just bought the darn things. But, on the other hand, the supposed low cost is part of what’s frustrating. They must cost very little to make but are priced just at the cusp of what most people would refuse to pay.

You might say, why is there always an old curmudgeon complaining about the cost of things? Let your kids be kids, buy them the toys, give them a fun childhood!

Old curmudgeon or not, some of us can’t help but look beyond childhood at the implications fads like these have on our kids.

For starters, it’s small and easily lost. Nothing grates on a frugal parent like spending $15 on something that might not see 24 hours of play. Depending on how many kids you have—because who expects their kids to share anything nowadays—you may be looking at a lot more money spent and potentially lost on the playground. This is especially true if they are treated as disposable and more are bought as others get lost or wrecked.

There’s no conclusive research proving these gadgets do anything to improve concentration—it’s hard to imagine how they aren’t considered a distraction. This makes them a gimmick, pure and simple. They’ve been marketed as a “learning device” when indeed they are not. In that sense, they’ve infiltrated our schools and homes using misinformation.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, trendy toys like fidget spinners give rise to a number of emotional hang-ups for kids and parents alike. Were you deprived of similar “cool” toys when you were young? If so, does this make you more or less likely to buy in to the fad? Does your child feel left out, less popular, or picked on because they don’t have what everyone else is playing with?
Because, really, all any of us wants is to feel like we belong. And your child may be begging you for a fidget spinner (or any other toy) not necessarily because they want the item but simply because they don’t want to stand out as being different or, in their minds, less than.

Choose to buy the fidget spinner, if that fits your financial situation. It’s true that they are cheap and seem to provide hours of entertainment, even if some of us can’t wrap our heads around the pastime. But don’t make these types of purchases thoughtlessly. 

Consider the labour and cost that goes into manufacturing them overseas. Consider that mindless spending and the acquisition of whatever is popular teaches your child to put impulse before common sense. We don’t know what economy they will face as adults. Is it wise to let these learning opportunities pass them by?

It’s not that we shouldn’t indulge children with occasional treats and surprises. Not even old curmudgeons want to rob kids of joyful childhood memories. But use this as an opportunity to have thoughtful conversations about spending.

Do you want it based on its own features, or mostly because everyone else has one? Are you willing to do extra chores in order to earn the money to buy it yourself? Do you promise to share your spinner with the kids that don’t have one, knowing as you do how it felt to be left out of the pack?

Frugal people don’t mean to bust your chops over every trivial purchase you might make for yourself or your kids. But we know that we’re making mortgage payments with the money that accumulates when you resist these petty fads.

We can’t help but have the vague sense that kids and adults alike often learn more from deprivation than from reward. Wanting and not getting builds character and encourages empathy, while constant gratification breeds only an appetite for more, and more.

Whether you buy the spinners or not, the next fad is just around the corner. Setting a precedent with your kids that every purchase, no matter how small and meaningless it seems, will be discussed and evaluated and saved for gives you more traction when they later expect a phone, a car, or their education to be handed to them.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Weekly Column; You're (not) Richer Than You Think

You’re (not) richer than you think

 At the height of the oil boom, it seemed like the money would never run out. Companies were competing for capable, experienced workers with higher wages, better benefits, truck and living allowances, and a variety of performance bonuses. 

This money flooded the community in a housing boom that created demand for tradespeople, building materials, and accommodations for employees.

As we saw locally, this created a bustling economy characterized by new businesses, new neighbourhoods and a flood of people moving to the area to share in the wealth. Back then, rather than wondering how to save and invest, the question on our minds was what to spend on next.

Much of the spending that was commonplace a few years ago seems extravagant by today’s standards—or by any standards—illustrated by all the sleds, quads, bikes, boats, and campers that were financed for occasional weekend use, never mind the after-market accessories on the jacked up, chipped, loud trucks. And once you’ve pimped out your vehicle, your own appearance and that of your family must keep up with brand name clothing and toys of their own.

It was a full-time job, just spending that money and keeping up with the trends and purchases of those in your social circle. The shame of it all is how much of that money was spent on things that depreciate or have no lasting value at all, beyond the immediate gratification of having them.

The bank is not your mom

When most of us go to the bank for a loan, we have the feeling that they won’t give us the money if we can’t afford it. But that logic forgets that banks profit from the loan interest no matter what misery we go through to pay it. Unfortunately, looking out for our own financial security is our job, not the bank’s.

Banks and credit card companies hand out credit limits and lines of credit like they are candy at a parade. Being offered it doesn’t mean you should accept it, though, and having it doesn’t mean you should use it.

Consider this: in 1977, Canadians made 118 million purchases on 8.2 million Visa or MasterCards. As of 2015, there were 68 million such cards in Canada, making 3.9 billion purchases. 

Obviously, our spending habits have changed, there are more of us, and the culture is different. But an astonishing 44% of Canadians can’t afford to pay off their credit card purchases in full every month and carry an average balance of $3954.00 (The Walrus, May 17, 2017). In less than 40 years, Canadians have gone from using credit cards for possible emergency use to overspending on them daily.

Additionally, the banks and credit card companies entice us with Airmiles and rewards programs that convince us we are “earning” as we spend. But when you spend to the point of being unable to repay, you have earned yourself a deep hole that is difficult to get out of. No amount of free travel or groceries will help you with the interest payments when you can’t cover your bills.

Have more than you show, say less than you know

For many, the oil boom gave an opportunity to enter the housing market, travel, and accumulate property. The explosive nature of such a thriving economy had a downside, though, which has become clear with some time and distance.

The seemingly never-ending jobs and confidence in the patch lulled us into a false sense of security, and encouraged us to spend like there was no tomorrow. It became easier and easier to be talked into the higher priced sale, no matter what you initially intended to buy, until things crashed and many people found themselves living a super-sized life on a happy meal income.

The past few years have taught us some hard lessons. No matter the overtime, job perks, bonuses or allowances that your work provides you, it’s paramount that your lifestyle be afforded on your actual wage alone. Should those extras disappear, as we saw over the last few years, there’s no way to cover the payments and extravagances that add up over and above that basic wage. Lines of credit come due. Banks and credit card companies want their money and they will come to get it.

We’ve all heard the stories of people that had $10,000/month payments when they were laid off from their oil patch jobs. It’s hard to imagine the gut-wrenching experience those people went through. It’s also hard to imagine that banks continued to lend money and allowed those situations to arise.

You are not richer than you think, even if the bank tells you so. Living within your means and planning for the unforeseen is the discerning choice that comes with age and experience.