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.

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