Does your family maintain a written budget of its income and outgo? After all, it's something the financial experts - beginning with Mom and Dad - have been badgering us about ever since we got our first allowance.
Budgeting, the gurus insist, ranks right up there with "eat your vegetables" and "put the toilet seat down."Well, here's the good news about budgeting: We don't have to feel guilty about not doing it anymore because a new study of consumer habits by Key Bank, released Wednesday, reveals that hardly anyone keeps a formal budget these days, even those who describe themselves as "frugal" and "highly responsible."
Many people kept budgets when they were young, says the Key study, but most figure out pretty quickly what their monthly costs are, have little or no control over "surprise" expenses, and budgeting becomes about as relevant as the magazines in a dentist's office.
"Accounting for one's spending typically is an exercise in hindsight," sniffs the Key study.
Called "Key Listens '98," the study was not the usual quick-and-dirty telemarketing survey. Key hired two anthropologists (you know, the folks who study human behavior) who sat down with 52 people randomly selected from neighborhoods in 13 metro areas and talked to them for up to two hours about their "financial lives."
Here are some of the highlights of those in-depth interviews:
- Contrary to conventional wisdom, saving money for their children's college educations doesn't seem to be a high priority. Parents believe the chips will fall as they may and the kids will get loans and/or jobs to pay their way. This contrasts with the popular view of parents wringing their hands over how to send Johnny or Jenny to Harvard.
- To many people, retirement is intangible. Some never intend to stop working even though they may change jobs. Given the uncertain status of their health and future employment, some believe anticipating a certain style of retirement is futile.
- High income is no guarantee of an early or comfortable retirement. Many high-earners don't save and invest as well as many with more moderate incomes. (Just think of those financial magazine articles with headlines declaring, "How I Went Bankrupt On $100,000 a Year.")
- The study found that before age 40, most people are "massively indifferent" to financial anxieties, such as caring for aging parents, financing retirement or just hanging on to their jobs, but when the mid-life crisis hits they begin to focus sharply on those issues. Surprisingly, many told Key Bank they worry about having enough money to pay their own funeral expenses.
- Major life events such as death of a spouse, divorce, serious medical problems or loss of a job can impact a family's or individual's well being so negatively that they never fully recover.
- People are getting smarter about using credit cards. A growing number say they pay off their cards each month.
- When it comes to debt, Key Bank found three basic types of people: Type A, who cannot bear to pay interest or be in debt. Type B, who don't mind debt as long as they think the loan is being put to good use and they are realizing a net profit on the time value of money. Type C, who have no notion of the time value of money and for whom interest is never an issue, only the principal. (The time value of money derives from $1 today being worth more than $1 next year. It works most dramatically in periods of high inflation.)
- An appalling number of investment decisions are made by accident or on impulse, often by a telemarketing cold call.
- Small business owners tend to be growth averse, overly wary of expansion of any kind. Their inclination is to maximize their return on capital, their labor force and sales already in place.