I’m sure it wouldn’t be much of a surprise that America spends more money on consumer goods than any other country — and most of it is junk. In general, there are three basic categories of junk that we waste our money on: the unimportant, the unnecessary and the unhealthy. Each can be enticing in its own way, but they can also act as a leech that slowly sucks the life out of your family's financial security.
Unimportant junk is anything that doesn’t contribute to your family's goals. It’s easy to judge someone based on how they spend their money, but it’s important to remember that each of us has different passions and goals. The challenge is being able to distinguish between what is important to you and what is just a trivial distraction.
My dad, for example, is an avid golfer, so he puts a good amount of money into his passion and has nicer clubs. As for me, I’m content with the hand-me-down clubs that have been around longer than I have. For me, having a nice set of clubs would be a waste. I, on the other hand, am passionate about traveling and will save wherever I can to take another trip.
“To each his own,” goes the old adage. What is really important is that you establish what “your own” is and recognize the things that are keeping you from getting there. Do you and your spouse have financial goals? Are they prioritized and focused on what's most important to you? When you have a vision of what you want to achieve, the unimportant things are much easier to leave by the wayside.
As human beings, there are certain tangible things we can’t live without — food, water, and shelter. But, as technology continues to advance and our addiction to convenience grows, it’s easy to add other things to that list. In a recent study, Mint.com listed the three modern “must-haves” based on surveys — cell phones, high-speed Internet and Facebook.
Many things, although they are nice to have, are not quite as necessary as we sometimes rationalize. This isn’t a call for living a minimalistic lifestyle, but there may come a day when you realize you’ve spent thousands of dollars over the years on something you could have easily lived without.
This can be especially difficult when dealing with teenagers. They are constantly bombarded with advertisements and peer pressure to have things that are unnecessary "just because it's cool." Take the time to talk about the "why" rather than just saying no. Talk to them about budgeting and what the family would miss out on if you spent all your money on these things.
According to another Mint.com study on whether Americans are becoming more health-conscious, Americans spent $20.9 billion more on fast food in 2013 than they did in 2009. We also eat more than two-thirds of the world’s ice cream. What would happen if Americans took all the money they spent on fast food, processed junk food and soda and put it toward the fight to end world hunger? It’s definitely an unrealistic proposal, but one that should give us cause to reflect on our habits.
Do your body and your wallet a favor. Make yourself breakfast in the morning. Pack your lunch. Spend a little extra time making yourself dinner. Cut back on soda and drink more water. Involve your children in this as well to teach them healthy eating habits. They may thank you later when they learn that making their own food is cheaper and more fulfilling than eating out all the time. When you compare the convenience and short-term benefit of the unhealthy junk you buy with the long-term effects on your health and your wallet, it’s easier to make the decision to reduce your junk food consumption.
As you take a look at what you spend your money on, you will most likely find things that fall under one of these three categories of junk. Whether or not you make any changes is up to you, but the first step in making a change is awareness. Take the time to review your goals and what you are passionate about, and if any of these things are holding you or your family back, take the time and steps to change.
Ben lives with his wife, Kilee, and dog, Paisley, in Arkansas. He has a passion for personal finance, sports, and learning. Ben recently started a blog at www.wealthgospel.com where you can find more of his opinions on personal finance. His life goals are to write about personal finance all day and start a non-profit organization to help others become self-reliant and to find their true potential. On any given day, you could find him eating homemade salsa, picking blackberries, or staying up until 3 a.m. to finish a book.