You think you've got a leaky wallet? You're not alone. Uncle Sam makes it easy for us to track our income. (Gee, thanks.) But when it comes to monitoring the flow of after-tax, "disposable" dollars, we're on our own. Sometimes we score. Sometimes we flounder. We followed a family during some of the money-burning activities of daily life, and we asked a financial planner to take a look - and to distill 10 lessons all consumers can use.
To understand Howard and Kathy Powell's life, just take a ride with them in their minivan.
Today they're rolling down a quiet street in Attleboro, Mass., a town near the Rhode Island border. Five-year-old Spenser squeals in the back seat as ants crawl out of sticky soda cans he's watching over. (He keeps the money when the cans are recycled.)
Next, he torments his sister Kelcee, making her seat fall back while Kathy (in the middle of a discussion about gas prices) periodically whips around and shouts "Spense, you settle down!" She then orders him to stop thwacking his sister on the head.
All this to the tune of the Back Street Boys.
The chaos is typical of many families. The Powells are an American family to the core, from Kelcee's impromptu Britney Spears concerts in the living room to her gymnastics classes on Thursdays. And being an American family means spending money. Lots of it.
It's shelled out at Fuzziwig's Candy Factory, peeled off for braided hair and fake tattoos at a summer street fair, and dumped into IRAs. But still, like millions of Americans, the Powells can't figure out where it goes.
"I was always complaining, 'Where is my money going?' " says Kathy, a chatty, high-energy mom who recently finished a two-term reign as president of the local Parent Teacher Organization.
So she bought "Debt-Proof Living" (Broadman & Holman, 1999), about streamlining finances. She also subscribes to Cheapskate Monthly, an online newsletter that suggests people keep track of their expenses for three months.
What she found stunned her.
Between buying orange juice and bagels in the morning, and trips to Burger King after gymnastics, she was spending more than $300 a month on fast food. She got into an expensive regime without realizing it. (see tip 1).
"It freaked me out. It was just constant," she says, digging into a Wendy's lunch and keeping an eye on Spenser who has been putting ice cubes down Kelcee's shirt. "It was just constant."
Constant expenditure is a given in the Powell house. The biggest hit used to be childcare. But when it became clear that they were paying $13,300 a year for child care a few years back, Kathy went from working 35 hours a week to a fraction of that so she could watch the kids. Still, during the school year, they pay about $100 a week for after-school care (tip 2).
That's a tiny fraction of what it costs to raise a child. According to US government figures, parents making more than $56,000 annually will spend an estimated $160,000 raising a child born in 1999 to the age of 17.
With statistics like these looming over the Powells, Kathy is "always trying to find a way to cut corners," she says.
Her job definitely helps out. A life-long love of retail - and employee discounts at the mall where she works - keeps her happily employed at an Eddie Bauer outlet store two days a week. She recently bought a queen-size duvet at the mall for $12. Original price: $199 (tip 3).
"That's why I keep this job," she says. She also has two other jobs for extra income: Two days a week she works as an office manager for $15 an hour, and dog walking brings in $60 a week. The extra income isn't spent frivolously.
"I fund day care, incidentals, haircuts, clothing, birthday presents, gymnastics, piano [lessons]. Howard takes care of the IRA, investments, and that type of stuff."
While Kathy brings in about $6,000 a year from her three jobs, Howard, a cameraman at a Boston television station, makes about $70,000 a year. Some of his income comes from freelance film work, which pays, on average, about $35 an hour.
But when it comes to who runs the day-to-day finances, Kathy is queen (tip 4).
"He has no clue how much it costs to run this house," she says of Howard, grinning slyly.
What helps Kathy run the house is her meticulous, almost militant, organization. She works from three color-coded day planners (all in her perfect penmanship). "I have to be organized," she says, "I'm running three [extra] lives here."
At any given time, she's on top of everything at once: mixing instant mashed potatoes for Spenser (he won't eat regular), reciting for Howard, the names of everyone who called that day, and helping the babysitter get settled.
After organization, Kathy's next-best asset is finding creative ways to save money, she says.
Her cellphone costs a flat rate of $27 a month. To keep up with the news, she also has a chip that goes in the back that displays Fox News headlines. The family's regular phone bill, however, is loaded with charges and averages $120 a month (tip 5).
"This is ridiculous," says Kathy. "Our phone bill is almost as high as the oil bill to heat the house." She did lock in an oil rate ($1.24 per gallon), since New England oil prices are expected to spike this winter.
She also cuts corners when shopping. The Powells stopped using a Web-based home-delivery grocery service in 1998 when the kids got older and she had time to shop.
She is now a member of "Market Day," a program at Kelcee's school where parents order groceries and 10 percent of proceeds go to the school. The food is picked up at the school each month. At the end of the last school year, she was spending $75 a month on meat, stocking up on individually packaged hamburgers and hot dogs for summer cookouts. "I haven't bought meat in a grocery store in about a year," she says.
She also spends $100 every two weeks on milk, eggs, and other food items. All told, about $500 a month goes toward groceries - about $21 less than the US average for a family of four.
Even working at Eddie Bauer helps with the grocery bill. Employees there pitch unwanted coupons into a bin for the taking. But she's steamed about certain couponing tactics used by manufacturers, especially the "must buy two" coupons. "I used to save $20 a week," she says, "but now it's gone down to about $10.
"If I'm not going to use it right away, I won't buy it." Kathy says (tip 6).
Her penny-pinching attitude, however, sometimes gives way to impulse shopping.
When she went into the store recently to "get just a few things," she ended up spending $75. "It was stuff that we needed, she explains. "We had used the last of the pancake syrup."
One reason she sniffs out bargains so well: She once worked as a secret shopper, pricing products and services throughout New England. Her bosses would send her on as many as five shopping trips per week. The job, however, did have its traps. They "put me into stores and I'd start charging," she says. While she made $1,000 to $1,300 per month (when you include the 35 cents per mile she got to travel from store to store), she still ran up huge credit-card bills.
It taught her something about credit cards. "They were a hazard," she says. So now she and Howard each have one credit card (tip 7, page 20). Hers is for emergencies only, but Howard has built up a credit-card debt of more than $3,000.
Another big Powell expense involves birthday parties. Kelcee went to five in May and several this summer. Most parents, says Kathy, spend between $10 to $15 for each present. To cut costs, Kathy spent $125 on a variety of books from a school book club and now picks out age-appropriate books.
And then there's Christmas. Kathy says she spends about $1,000 a year on holiday gifts, a figure that could be much higher if she hadn't agreed with some family members not to exchange gifts.
Lessons and sports are another major expense. Fees for Kelcee's gymnastics ($72 every eight weeks), piano lessons ($18 for half an hour) and soccer ($75), coupled with Spenser's inline-skating class and soccer ($95), add up fast.
"Spense is my money trap," says Kathy, adding that he is always clamoring for something. During a recent trip to Target, she had to haul him out of the store over her head because he was wailing over a toy jet she wouldn't buy him.
"I would have let you get [the jet]," Kathy told him at the time, "but you pitched a fit."
Yet most of the time, Kathy has a soft spot for Spenser and rarely turns down his begging. In fact, her resolve often melts. "Spenser will ask me 'can I get an ice cream?' [and I'll think], yeah, I kinda want one, too," she says.
Today, though, the only thing she wants is her paycheck and to buy sandals for Spenser. That means heading back over to the outlet mall.
But before the shoe store, the call of the sweet tooth has to be answered at Fuzziwig's.
"No, that's $2. You're not getting a piece of candy for $2," Kathy warns her son (tip 8).
Spenser considers a slushy or an "exploding" bar, but opts for crystallized sugar on a stick, which eventually ends up abandoned on the floor of the minivan.
Both kids get an allowance of about $5 a week (low compared with one recent poll), or 50 cents a chore. But Kathy rarely pays them in full, she says, because they never finish their chores.
Kathy foots the Fuzziwig's bill today: $8.17 (with a 10 percent discount since she works at the outlet mall).
Next stop, the shoe store. After much squirming by Spenser, a pair of sandals is chosen - $19.95 on sale, marked down from $49.95. More stuff is bought, too. Hair barrettes ($9.45) for Kelcee, who promises to pay her mother back, and lunch at Wendy's ($8) (tip 9).
In addition to the treats Kelcee and Spenser receive during the week, they also each get $5 to $10 a week to spend at a community market near home.
It's a classic street fair that smells of strawberry shortcake and fried dough. Banjo players and a rock-climbing wall are all part of the scene. But for the Powell kids, it's a prime opportunity to "go and buy junk," says Kathy.
But while Kathy melts to the pleading Spenser, Howard is tougher when shopping with the kids.
"He buys us nothing because he never spends money," says Spenser.
Howard, in response, says the street fair sells junk. "We end up having so much of this stuff laying around the house."
It's also the kind of spending that erodes savings for life's monster buys, like cars and refrigerators (tip 10).
Howard knows this. But, he admits, "sometimes they break me down and I end up buying."
Just another of the holes their money disappears into every month.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society