How Money Gets Wasted

Last week the Baltimore Sun ran a list in picture gallery form of "Money Wasters to Avoid." It got picked up by the often amusing Consumerist, which Family Feudwas then noticed by the WSJ’s The Wallet, which is where my jaded mouse  found it. And now I am going to write about it too.

To be fair, this particular bit of sound in the blogosphere echo chamber hasn’t much substance and likely wasn’t intended to be taken very seriously. I imagine a few summer interns brainstorming a list of things people waste money on, rounding up some stock photos, and then poof, it’s internet content.

But if I limited myself to commenting on things that truly deserve comment this blog wouldn’t be much fun to write.

The thirteen wasters of money are: the lottery, books, eating out, pets, DVD rentals, ATM fees, cigarettes, coffee breaks, bottled water, designer clothing, car washes, speeding, and bars.

If you are scratching your head over books, you are not alone. It’s what The Consumerist picked up on and linked to a blog that discussed the very small controversy that ensued from the Sun’s betrayal of fellow tree-killing media.

Sure, there are public libraries, and you can usually wait to buy popular titles in paperback, but in the grand scheme of things a hardcover book habit is hardly a lifestyle destroyer. I know there are people who buy books and don’t actually read them, but for those of us who do, it’s one of the more cost-effective forms of entertainment.

The same is true of DVD rentals. Renting them is a lot cheaper than buying them or seeing the movie in the theatre. It’s even pretty competitive with cable TV, assuming it was used as a substitute not a supplement. And what would be a non-money wasting form of entertainment? Talking to your family? Sitting on the front porch watching the cars go by?

The rest of the list is what you would expect to find on a Family Feud survey. ("We asked a hundred people to name something people waste money on….") My problem with this is not that people don’t waste money on the things on the list. It’s just that they are all so trivial. They are exactly what would first occur to a person asked to name something people waste money on, not where the real money that gets wasted in America goes.

Take the lottery, for example. In 2007 Americans spent an astonishingly wasteful $21 billion on lottery tickets. (Never mind that some of that was won back in prizes or that what wasn’t lowered the tax burden.) $21 billion is a lot of money. But on a per capita basis that works out to a little less than $6 a month. That may be a pointless waste, but it’s not likely to endanger a person’s retirement plan.

Cigarettes and bars are probably the closest things to a common cause of real money problems on the list, and then only for serious users. If you are doing more than a pack a day or more than a few drinks a night then not only are you spending thousands of dollars a year on this vice, but you’re buying yourself health problems that will cost you serious money later on in life.

Where does money really get wasted? I think it is on things that we need but pay too much for. Houses. Cars. Insurance. And on things that ought to be minor luxuries but that we allow ourselves to inflate into major ones. Vacations. Weddings. None of these things are on the Sun’s list.

I think, and this is not a particularly scientific judgment, that most money in America is wasted not by buying things we should do without, but by buying too much of things that are not inherently wasteful. We need shelter, but we don’t need to buy quite so large a house in quite such a nice area. And we need wheels, but that old car now in the driveway is perfectly adequate.


  • By TJR, August 5, 2009 @ 12:28 pm

    One more post to prove the author has a firm grip on common sense. Perhaps this is because his profession gets judged by results, not drama (in the blogosphere) they generate.

  • By Moneymonk, August 5, 2009 @ 12:34 pm

    I don’t see books as a money waster, most enhances your mind. A book can actually be an investment unlike lottery, coffee or cigarettes

  • By ryan, August 5, 2009 @ 1:13 pm

    I agree wholeheartedly; I was going to comment with “mortgages and cars” and then was angry that you beat me to the punch.

    Re: the lottery, the per capita figure is misleading, because I don’t think it’s an expense that’s evenly distributed throughout society.

    It’s actually a regressive tax that penalizes people for having goofed off during Math class.

  • By Neil, August 5, 2009 @ 1:53 pm

    Oh, I have many books that I consider to be a waste of money. Conveniently, these were pretty much all purchased with other people’s money – either poorly thought out gifts, or useless textbooks that got slapped on the expense account.

  • By My Journey, August 5, 2009 @ 2:20 pm

    Car Washes? How often can one get their car washed? At MOST once a week at 10 bucks a pop? I don’t think $500 is pushing people into poverty

  • By Kosmo @ The Casual Observer, August 5, 2009 @ 2:24 pm

    I buy most of my hardcover books on any more. After a month or so, the price drops through the floor. I wasn’t gettig a chance to read them right away, anyway.

  • By gpr, August 5, 2009 @ 2:38 pm

    Good thing they didn’t qualify books as meaning “personal finance books.” Then our Curmudgeon would’ve been all conflicted.

  • By gpr, August 5, 2009 @ 2:47 pm

    I worked for a video game company, many years ago. My boss had a theory that people were actually really good at doing a mental calculation on the value they were getting from entertainment, even though it was mostly subconscious.

    A movie cost $7, or $3.50 an hour. That was the base cost for entertainment.

    A paperback book cost $12, or $2 an hour. Good value.
    Cable cost $50, or about 50 cents an hour. Fantastic value.

    A video game cost $50, and if the kid thought he’d get more than 20 hours out of it, it was a good value. Most were poor values.

    It was hard to believe that Americans would do this type of calculation, but it seemed to bear out.

    Later on, I worked with a group of lower income people. They — almost to a person — spent what I thought was a huge amount on cable TV. But I think they were getting great value.

  • By Frank, August 5, 2009 @ 2:55 pm

    Did you even read The Sun’s slideshow, or just copy and paste the titles? It says buying DVDs is wasteful when DVD rentals (netflix, redbox) are so cheap.

  • By Jim, August 5, 2009 @ 3:24 pm

    Much more is spent & lost in casino gambling than lottery tickets. People wagered around $170B in Nevada casinos in 2006. Plus theres countless other casinos around the nation nowadays.

    Pretty much all of the money “wastes” are luxuries that people enjoy to some degree. One persons waste of money is anothers favorite past time.

  • By Jim, August 5, 2009 @ 3:27 pm

    The article appears to have mislabeled the item on DVD rentals. The title is “DVD Rentals” so that would mean that renting is a “waste” to avoid. But the description is talking about Netflix or Redbox as better options spending $20 on something you only watch once which is certainly meant to be about “DVD Purchases”.

  • By Mark Arsenal, August 5, 2009 @ 3:49 pm

    Agree on your points on Books and DVDs – by and large these forms of entertainment will substitute for more expensive forms, and might actually get families to spend more time together.

    RE: Cash washes: why on Oerth do people get their cars washed? I have had my jolly 1993 Olds clunker for ever and have not washed it this century. I don’t see the necessity. If you live in the Southwest and it thus never gets rained on, you probably shouldn’t be wasting the water anyway – even in an eco-friendly car wash place.

    @Jim: the big difference between Lottery and Casinos is that casinos are populated much more prevalently by people who can afford to gamble, whilst Lotteries are a way for the rich to push their tax burden off onto the lower class who buy the vast majority of Lottery tickets.

  • By Mike Piper, August 5, 2009 @ 3:53 pm

    “Where does money really get wasted?”

    It’s what I always harp on, but I’d add mutual fund expenses to your list. Kenneth French estimated that we spend $100 billion each year in an effort to beat ourselves. That’s more than 4x the amount spent on lottery tickets. :)

  • By Ivy, August 5, 2009 @ 5:17 pm

    My top list items (some of which are already on the list):

    * Housing
    * Cars
    * Healthcare (along several lines, including institutionalized waste and personal waste from lack of preventative care)
    * College education — I’m not saying a degree is a waste (in terms of future earnings), I’m saying that parents and kids waste a terrible amount during college including on-campus housing, new textbooks, not taking advantage of Jr. or community college for basic classes, and attending a more expensive private university that doesn’t provide an equivalent boost in post-degree income
    * Fees (from mutual fund to banking)
    * Fashion (I’m amazed at what some of those shoes cost!)

    The difference is that their list includes things that people can easily change to feel good about their frugality.

  • By bex, August 5, 2009 @ 6:31 pm

    I kind of like the “Your Money Or Your Life” approach. Just figure out how much you spend on what… this should be easy if you do everything with credit cards. Then… take a good look at what you could spend less on, and still enjoy life as much.

    My top tips that won’t affect lifestyle (much):

    * East out less; have friends over more often. Its cheaper and more fun (unless you’re a curmudgeon)
    * Shop around to reduce monthly fees: banks, insurance, mutual funds
    * Skip cell phone contracts: get pre-paid phones
    * Skip cable TV: use NetFlix and Hulu
    * Buy a car that’s cheap to maintain (fuel efficient, reliable)
    * Keep that car for 10 years
    * Buy a “reasonable” house: 2 – 2.5 times your annual salary
    * Make your home fuel efficient
    * Check Consumer Reports quality and price ratings before you buy durable goods
    * Eat healthy and exercise (reduces medical expenses)
    * Plan your meals: buy what’s cheap, and waste less

  • By Jim, August 5, 2009 @ 7:26 pm

    “@Jim: the big difference between Lottery and Casinos is that casinos are populated much more prevalently by people who can afford to gamble, whilst Lotteries are a way for the rich to push their tax burden off onto the lower class who buy the vast majority of Lottery tickets.”

    Its true that lottery players are lower income and casino gamblers are higher income. But they are both forms of gambling that people chose to participate in based on their own free will. Rich people are not forcing poor people to buy power ball tickets any more than poor people are forcing rich people to fly to Vegas and put $50 on red.

  • By Kosmo @ The Casual Observer, August 6, 2009 @ 10:01 am

    I’m personally a big fan of lotteries. Is it a regressive tax? Yeah. But as Jim points out, it’s completely voluntary.

    My wife gets into phases where she likes to buy a couple of tickets a week … I think we’re getting to the end of the current phase, so we should be OK for several months :)

  • By dawn, August 6, 2009 @ 10:14 am

    I think the idea behind the original story was that any one of these purchases can be costly when someone gets obsessive about it.

    I remember growing up in a neighborhood where many of the guys were obsessive about detailing their cars and keeping them perfectly clean and waxed. If you do that every weekend, i suppose it starts to add up in costs, just like the oft-quoted daily latte habit.

    Everything in moderation. A reasonable balance is the best way to go. I doubt many of us could give up our pets or our DVDs. (Books, I must admit, are very costly given that most people read them once and then they sit on a shelf collecting dust for years.)

    Here’s my own take on the cost of those nickel-and-dime nuisance fees we all know and love.

  • By Flexo, August 6, 2009 @ 11:06 am

    Yes! There is always a lot of discussion and debate about the “little things” that waste money that add up over time while ignoring the huge mistakes you can make that can have the same or worse effect as a lifetime of lattes — in one instant, with one decision.

  • By Rob Bennett, August 6, 2009 @ 11:06 am

    I view time waste as a bigger problem than direct money waste (there’s a sense in which time waste becomes money waste because time is money). So television would be at the top of my list.

    And books can be bad time-wasters too if you don’t choose them carefully.


  • By Rick Francis, August 6, 2009 @ 12:09 pm

    I’m surprised that no one mentioned credit card interest! Or the ultimate rip off- pay day loans.

    -Rick Francis

  • By mwarden, August 6, 2009 @ 2:47 pm

    “But on a per capita basis that works out to a little less than $6 a month.”

    That’s some questionable math, Frank. It would seem to assume that everyone plays the lottery. It would be interesting to see what percentage of people play at least once a month. I am guessing it is less than 50%.

  • By Kosmo @ The Casual Observer, August 7, 2009 @ 10:49 am

    Dawn said “(Books, I must admit, are very costly given that most people read them once and then they sit on a shelf collecting dust for years.)”

    At my workplace, we have a reading library, where co-workers can share books with each other. We have 4-5 very active contributors, and a few people who borrow more than they share (which is perfectly fine).

    We have 100+ books, as well some audio books.

    So we’ve managed to stretch the money a bit further (additionally, quite a few of the book were used). Also, I do tend to re-read quite a few books (particularly my Lawrence Block books), and many of them (forensics books, in particular) I refer to fairly often.

    An alternate way of looking at books as expensive because they sit on shelves is that they are simply a souvenir of an experience – much like a ticket stub to a concert – with the bonus that you can share the experience with others for free. It’s not the physical book that has the value – it’s the experience of reading it.

  • By kitty, August 8, 2009 @ 5:41 pm

    Car wash? One time that I tried to wash a car myself, it cost me my $100+ winter coat. This way almost 20 years ago, so $100 then is more than now. OK, I should’ve worn something simple, but still sometimes trying to save money on little things ends up costing big things.

    @Rick Francis – so true. This is what people with consumer debt waste money on. A whole lot more than a movie once in a while. Dave Ramsey’s method is another money waster since people end up paying more in interest.

    What is a waste for one person is not necessarily a waste for another person. I happen to like opera, and I live about an Northern Westchester, about an hour North from Manhattan, so I can go to the Met. I like nice tickets too. One trip last year was $200 (including gas and parking). The other time I won their $25 ticket raffle (it’s free, so it’s not like lottery). I’d imagine a lot of people would consider it’s waste; I don’t. Whether something is worth the money or not is individual.

    Really, it’s all very simple. Some people can afford these little things as well as larger ones. Other people can’t. People who are in debt, should cut everywhere they can – large items first, then small items. Those who are doing OK, can do whatever they want as long as they spend less than what they earn.

  • By Mike, August 8, 2009 @ 7:40 pm

    Yeah, the lottery gets a bad rap. It’s usually considered one of the top three money wasters, but a lot of that money goes towards good causes.

    If only I had 10% of the money I’ve wasted on stuff I didn’t really need… like beer.

  • By business, August 13, 2009 @ 5:33 pm

    I agree with Jim: “One persons waste of money is anothers favorite past time.” I ‘waste’ my money on soda but that’s what keeps me going throughout the day. I do, however, have to fully agree with the wastefulness of the lottery. I have started to get into it recently and just seem to constantly lose. The odds just aren’t good enough.

  • By Richard, March 26, 2010 @ 9:23 am

    We had been wasting $85 per month on Comcast Cable when we decided that the next time it went up even one cent we’d drop to basic service. In March, 2010, we made a guess that it would go up so we downgraded to basic for about $15 per month. Sure enough, we got a letter 3/25 that they were raising what had been our old rate by $3 per month. We were thrilled to have beat them to the punch.

    I’m an attorney for a boutique private bank. I’ve seen the habits of people who are worth millions and have learned from talking to them how they got there. They got there by not wasting a dime, foregoing short term pleasures for long term gain, by investing instead of spending. You can never make money by spending it.

    Over a lifetime, you don’t lose $1 million by misplacing it. You lose it $50 at a time, buying things you don’t need and will throw away. Or by paying Comcast for worthless programs peppered with commercials and reruns of the same films. Cancel or downgrade cable today and invest the money in your retirement plan. You can bet that’s where Roberts and the other Comcast executives put the money they drain from you each month.

    Good Luck. Change your habits today and don’t wake up one day at age 50 or 60, having earned a lot of money, with nothing to show for it but old Comcast bills and a bunch of receipts from restaurants and bar rooms.

  • By cashsmart, December 15, 2010 @ 6:34 pm

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