How we're funny about our money

When you open a new bar of soap, do you meld the remnants of the old bar with the new one? After eating at a restaurant with friends, do you split the tab equally, or divvy it up according to who ate what? When it comes to banking, do you share your PIN with your spouse?

Bernice Kanner spent 1-1/2 years asking the public just these sorts of questions. She hoped to sketch Americans' quirks, convictions, habits, and dreams - about everything that involves money. The result: her new book, "Are You Normal about Money?"

A longtime columnist who covered the advertising world, Ms. Kanner wrote the original "Are You Normal?" five years ago and uncovered a fascination among much of the public with how their behaviors stack up against everyone else's.

While researching for that book, she found "people were willing to tell me things about most of the personal aspects of their lives - their sex habits, for instance - but not their money. It's the last taboo."

She spoke with the Monitor about her book.

Why it's interesting:

"[The book] reinforced my feelings about how totally fascinated people are by money. It's not just because we're investing it.... I think [money has] become the lifestyle story.

"In the beginning of the book, I talked about how some people call it the root of all evil. It's the root of everything, good and evil.

"When you ask somebody who should pay on a date - that's titillating stuff. Or how do you split? Have you lost a friend because you insist on splitting the check?

"What is it that it gets to in us? I don't know, but it's something that touches buttons."

Some surprising findings:

"I was very surprised by a lot of things, like the fact that we all believe people would rather spend money than earn it, and yet more people enjoy earning money than spending it - also by the bizarre things people would do for money.

"One quarter [of people polled] would tell the secret of a very close friend for $3,000. Friendship is worth so little?

"I found the fact that there were many, many more spendthrifts than frugal-minded people surprising, because I've always thought of frugality as a cornerstone [in America]. Isn't this country based on Puritanism?"

What she hoped to create:

"This wasn't meant to be a roadmap.... It was really meant to introduce the idea that these are peculiarities about people.

"Seventy-seven percent [of people] will definitely buy good seats at a stadium rather than [buy cheap seats and] scoot up, for instance, when we do all these other cheap things [such as reusing tinfoil]. The dichotomies are so amazing.

"I'm in an investment club. Nobody there will vote to sell a winner. And yet three times as many people [as not] will take the money and run.

"It's also funny. You know that expression, 'If it's my money it's not funny'? That has haunted me my whole life. Why isn't it funny? Money is this great thing that you never would ... make fun of. I don't know that I've seen another funny money book.

"It's not just a joke, because there's a lot of serious stuff here, but I don't know that life has to be quite so Sturm und Drang."

On comparing money quirks:

"It's almost an inevitable kind of thing that happens.

"To realize that the things you thought were particularly 'sick' about yourself [are not just unique to you], then there's some comfort.

"[It helps me with] some things that I feel less secure about.

"My parents died, and my dad did not leave my sister and me the same amount of money. My sister needed it more, he thought.

"The fact that 25 percent of people felt that way actually made me feel a little bit better, that it wasn't personal.

"In other ways I'm delighted that I'm not 'normal.' I didn't want to say that normal was [necessarily] good."

On Americans being money-savvy

"[They're] not in the slightest bit. Nineteen percent are in debt so deep they [may] never get out.

"People need counselors to tell them to pay down their credit-card debt?

"It staggers me that people haven't come to grips with this. And yet I know people who get 12 cents and they spend 13....

"[Still], 49 percent of people pay off a credit card the day that [the bill] arrives."

Scrimp and splurge: spare the soap, spoil the dog

If you arrange the bills in your wallet by denomination, you're not alone. Ever wonder where you stand, compared with your fellow Americans, in terms of your fiscal habits? Consider these revelations from Bernice Kanner's book "Are You Normal About Money?" (Bloomberg).

Ms. Kanner polled thousands of people via Bloomberg's website, and discovered the following:

It's better to earn than to burn.

More people enjoy making money than spending it (40 percent to 22 percent).

You bought what?

Ninety-three percent say that even with elaborate preparation, they usually buy more than they intended to buy when they left the house.

Pooches are people, too.

Ninety percent of pet owners buy a holiday gift for their animals.

Who paid for your first car?

Sixty-four percent of moms and 71 percent of dads say they'll chip in for their child's first car.

Drive today, retire later.

Fifteen percent have tapped their retirement savings in the past three years to buy a car.

Delegating drapery decisions:

Some 15.6 percent of those surveyed have paid for an interior decorator at some point. (Of those, 22 percent say they never would again.)

Bargain-hunter habits:

Forty percent of respondents haunt tag sales. Seven percent usually pay the posted price, but 14.2 percent always haggle for a better deal.

Please pass the sour milk.

Forty-five percent would toss out items of food with an expired "freshness" date, but almost as many (39 percent) say they'd eat it anyway if it weren't obviously rotten.

Evian or Brand X? Answer: both!

One in 10 admit to pouring the contents from a generic bottle into the costlier name-brand container.

Next fad: reusable tinfoil underwear?

Fifty-seven percent reuse wrapping paper, and 44 percent reuse tinfoil. Forty-two percent admit they cut corners on things other people can't see - wearing torn underwear, for example.

So what if I leave the light on? I'll make it up in soap!

Twenty-four percent try to meld the remnants of the old soap bar into a new one.

Line up, Messrs Washington, Lincoln, Hamilton, and Jackson.

Seventy-two percent store their bills in order of denomination in their wallets, with singles leading up to higher denominations. Northerners and baby boomers are considerably more likely than Southerners to stow paper money randomly.

What exactly is an 'Enron'?

Two out of 3 mutual-fund owners couldn't name one company in which their funds are invested.

No comparing paychecks at home:

Three out of 10 husbands and wives had no clue what their spouses make. Only 26 percent of moms and 19 percent of dads said they knew how much their kids earn.

How much would it take?

Nine percent of those polled would need a windfall of more than $10 million to significantly change their lives, while an extra $100,000 would change things for one-third.

Dollars and dating:

Fifty-four percent believe the man should always pay on a date. But 31 percent believe couples should go Dutch, and 13 percent say that if the woman earns more, she should pay.

Gifts don't always keep giving.

How much of a $10 million gift would you give to charity? Twenty-seven percent say they wouldn't give a dime, while 21 percent would donate half, 28 percent would donate $50,000, and 21 percent would give $1 million.

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