How About Some Financial Health Insurance?

June 27 is is #FinHealthMatters Day for 2017.  You can join the movement to show what #finhealth means to you.  To me, it simply means being able to continue living within my means.

Almost half the adults in the country struggle to have enough income to pay their expenses, and unfortunately, there are really only two ways to deal with that problem:

  1. Raise your income.
  2. Lower your expenses.

A great first step it to simply set up a budget and follow it for a few months so you discover what your income and expenses really are, and then look for ways to stop any leaks.

There is an endless supply of online articles about lowering your expenses, but most of them focus on little things like eating out less or reducing cable or phone expenses.

While every little bit helps, I’ve got one suggestion that has worked for me that has a much larger impact: the last time I bought a new car was 1975 (when I bought a brand-new Plymouth Duster for about $2,400).  Ever since then I’ve simply bought cars that tended to be a few years old, usually paid cash for them, and driven them until the wheels were ready to fall off.  I’ve only driven six or seven different cards in over 40 years, and the last few were simply cars Bevie was replacing with something newer.  The strangest car I drove in that period was a hearse, and I wasn’t entirely sad to watch it towed away when its break linings went bad.

What’s the longest period you ever when without a car payment?  Wasn’t your budget easier to manage during that time?  Think of how much money you could save over a lifetime if you stretched that out.

The average car now costs over $33,000, almost $4,000 more than I paid for my first house.  The really bad news is that the average car loan is now approaching 72 months.While the average interest rate is below 4%, consumers with FICO credit scores less than 620 pay rates of 9% to 14%,

While the average car loan interest rate is below 4%, consumers with FICO credit scores less than 620 can pay rates of 9% to 14%, putting even more stress on their budget.

The largest debts people have are typically housing, student loans, and car loans.  Perhaps instead of reading a few articles on ten ways to save money in your budget, you should spend a little more time looking for ways to get the last piece of that trio under control.

With a more entertaining story about cars, here’s Johnny Cash singing about another way to get a car.

A Different Kind of Billion Dollar Idea

From time to time I post a billion dollar idea that merely requires the application of non-trivial resources.  Today I want to report on an idea somebody else had and suggest that you help them reach a goal.

Helping people stuck in poverty is a challenge we can’t easily overcome, but in 2005 a new non-profit group was founded that enables anybody to help.  Kiva makes small loans (from under $1,000 to just a few thousand dollars) to entrepreneurs who need money to start or expand their business.  While most of the loans seem to be targeted to third world countries, there are even some loans made in the United States.

Kiva takes money from donors (like me!) and lends it out to various recipients in over 80 different countries.  Kiva does not make all the loans directly themselves, but they also support a large number of other organizations that they have vetted and worked with successfully (similar to the way Second Harvest supplies food to other food banks that actually distribute the food).

Over 97% of the loans made through Kiva have been repaid, an exceptionally high rate for small businesses.  To reduce possible exposure for individual investors, Kiva usually only applies a fixed amount of $25 to a specific loan (you can loan more than that to a specific individual or group, but I’ve never tried to do that).  Thus, to fund a loan for $1,000, Kiva puts $25 loans together from a group of about 40 individuals.  Details about the loan process are shown here.

All the loans have been investigated and approved before Kiva lists them on their website.  You can easily browse the loans that are awaiting full funding.  For each loan, Kiva shows some useful details:

  • a picture of the person or group asking for a loan
  • what the loan will be used for
  • the amount that has been pledged so far
  • the remaining amount that Kiva needs to complete the loan
  • if available, how much of your donation will be matched

You can search for loans using a large number of categories, including retailers, agriculture, water and sanitation, men or women, groups, single parents, and you can even search loans that are closest to being fully funded.

Note that I refer to the amounts you put up as donations.  In actuality, you are making loans, not donations, and most of the money will probably be returned as the borrower uses the money to enhance their livelihood.  You get an email every time one of your loans gets a repayment. No interest is charged the borrower or paid to you, but seriously, when was the last time a bank paid you any appreciable amount of interest on the money you left in your checking and savings accounts?  Once the loan is repaid you can certainly have Kiva pay it back to you, but it’s a lot easier to simply leave it with Kiva and lend it to somebody else.  Seriously, the people asking for money to buy goods or supplies or tools will make much better use of that $25 than any of us would.

My first exposure to Kiva came about when one of my sister-in-laws made a Kiva loan in my name at Christmas one year.  I’ve continued making loans as the funds are returned to my account, and from time to time I’ve added another $25.  It’s really painless for me and can be life-changing for the people who get loans from Kiva.  I’ve made hundreds of dollars in loans over the years without ever having to come up with that much money.

When making loans there are some administrative costs, but 100% of the money you lend goes directly to the recipient you choose: Kiva does not allow any of that money to go to any administrative fees.  While Kiva “suggests” an additional donation to help defray Kiva’s expenses, you never have to do that to make a loan; donations made specifically to support Kiva’s expenses eventually cover those costs.

Rather than link to a song today, I want to link to a special page from Kiva: the total loan amount Kiva has made is about to roll over to a billion dollars #1BillioninChange.  Here’s the total today; take your lunch to work for a few days, or skip a movie or two, and simply take advantage of the link on their page to make the world a little better place.

Adam West, Forever Batman

The first time I remember seeing Adam West acting was -not- in Batman!  Oh, sure, he had numerous appearances in TV Western shows and a pair of appearances on Perry Mason (was he the surprise killer?).  He also appeared for the entire third season of The Detectives in 1961-62, but I not only didn’t see the show when it was new, I don’t even remember watching the reruns later on.  There was a pair of appearances on Petticoat Junction, but the character he played then vanished without a trace.

No, the first time I was Adam West in something memorable was a Three Stooges movie!  During the thirties, forties, and early-to-mid fifties the Stooges shot an incredible 190 short films.  Television was looking for material to air during the day and running the shorts on local kids shows anchored by a local announcer rapidly built up a new generation of fans in the late fifties.  After re-re-re-doing their lineup (we got Curly Joe), the Stooges made a series of six films beginning in 1959.  The last of the films was made in 1965, and it included Adam West playing a

The last of the films was made in 1965, and it included Adam West playing a tenderfoot lawyer coming to the West to stop a gang of outlaws who were intent on slaughtering buffalo.  The Three Stooges did their best to “help” with the quest, but the reason I remember the film so vividly was something different: the outlaws.  In a brilliant move that was probably designed to drive promotion for the film in large markets, the outlaws were played by the men who hosted the local Three Stooges television shows.  For those of us in the greater metropolitan New York area, that meant that Officer Joe Bolton was in the movie.  He wasn’t a real officer, and maybe more an announcer than an actor, but playing an outlaw in a Three Stooges movie was easily within his talents.  While I don’t remember much about Adam West’s performance in the film, I can still picture what he looked like in his dude clothing.

Of course, everything changed for Mr. West on January 12, 1966, when the first episode of the Batman television show aired.  It’s difficult to explain the impact that episode had.  The next day the main topic of conversation in school was the Batman show: the Bif-Bop-Bam cartoon balloons, the costumes, the gadgets, the colors, and most important of all, the cliff-hanger ending for the episode!  For a generation that had grown up not watching serials in the movie theaters, a cliffhanger ending was something new and exciting.

Well, exciting for a year or so, and then the crowd moved on the other television shows.  Adam West was typecast for years, and it was several decades before he built a second career courtesy of Robot Chicken and Family Guy and other voice over work.  Thanks to the growth of modern comic fandom (or whatever name the historians eventually assign to our subculture) Adam West will be remembered fondly as one of our favorite actors.

Here’s the single for Neal Hefti’s theme song for the Batman television show.

Nobody Wants Your Stuff — Or Most of Your Comics or Cards

It’s the 1950s or the 1960s or maybe even most of the 1970s.  You’re getting married, and even before you send out wedding invitations (in envelopes, mailed with stamps) you have to trot down to the mall and register.  For China.  You have to struggle to pick out a set of China with a pattern you can stand to look at for the next fifty years.  And it has to include small pieces of China that any of your friends can probably afford to buy you as presents.

Probably doesn’t sound familiar to most of us anymore.  I can’t remember any of our four kids picking out china, or silverware, or silver trays and tea servings, or any of the wedding gifts that covered the tables at weddings in our past.  Oh, sure, people can still go to Wal-Mart and set up a wedding registry, but a quick look at the online listings show that the most common gifts are beddings, cookware sets, and complete place settings, not individual pieces of expensive china.  What happened?

Maybe we all just came to our senses and stopped trying to impress folks whose opinions never really mattered to us after all.  Instead of shelling out untold riches for plates that you’re afraid to damage, you can simply go to Kmart and pick up a box with plates and dishes for four or six people for $50 or so and eat off the plates with no concern for the plates’ well-being.

Or better yet, you can hit the garage sales or estate sales and pick up complete sets of the China that the last generation spent years collecting, one piece at a time.  There’s lots of that for sale at bargain prices because nobody wants it anymore.  Not their kids, or their cousins, or anybody.  Gone are the days of having a display cabinet full of expensive plates and bowls because we no longer have the need to “entertain” guests, we simply invite them over, set up a buffet of quick, easy food like pizza and wings and chips and dip, and stack some paper plates at the end of the table.  Sounds like progress to me.

This is symptomatic of a paradigm shift that is taking place.  In the past, perhaps because of memories of the depression in the 1930s and early 1940s when most people had nothing, the greatest generation and the younger Baby Boomers grew up accumulating stuff.  It probably started with functional stuff like furniture and kitchenware and clothing (and shoes!)  Later it expanded into collections of useless but art-like stuff like coins and postage stamps and records.  During World War II there were paper drives to create the recyclable pulp that could be used to support the war effort, and millions of magazines and comic books were destroyed nearly every week.  It wasn’t until the war ended that people started collecting and keeping books and comics and magazines.  As George Carlin observed, we then had to build bigger and bigger homes to put all our accumulating stuff into.

What was considered collectible expanded and we got Barbie and Hummel figurines and the Franklin Mint and sports cards and “antiques” and Cabbage Patch dolls and Beenie Babies and pogs and non-sports cards and video games and early personal computers and it seemed like it would never end and then it ended.  Now the kids that have grown up with a phone attached to themselves 24/7/365 collect and quickly discard pictures and memes and posts and videos and can easily find pictures of anything so why bother collecting things when they only take up space?

The sports card market is simply gone.  We used to buy the cards and read and memorize stats for our favorite players, but now that information and pictures and even videos are readily available online, so why bother having physical cards?

Every week we get calls at the store asking if we buy things.  We don’t get enough calls about selling us comics, but most of the comics people want to sell us are from the early nineties.  There are so many copies of those comics that there are no customers left who want to buy those comics.  Anybody who simply wants to read older comics can do so very cheaply online.  While older comic readers are still attached to their physical comics, the next generation of physical comic book readers doesn’t seem to exist.  Instead, they have Comixology (a division of Amazon) supplying them unlimited access to every Marvel comic more than six months old for less than $10 a month.  Perhaps if we had tablets that were 15 inches wide and 12 inches high that could reproduce a double-page spread you could hold in your lap it would replace the physical comics nicely.  Oh, wait, they do exist, they just still cost too much and aren’t quite bright enough.  Okay, maybe we’ll get those electronic comic book readers Real Soon Now.

If you search online for a bit, you’ll find a lot of confused posts by Boomers who have inherited a house from their parents that is full of a ton of stuff they are now stuck with.  One of the growth industries of the next decades will be people who can swoop in and turn all that stuff into cash.  The hard part of that industry will be knowing what prices all the stuff will actually fetch, not how much it is all “worth” based on price guides.  The only true price guide for anything anymore is completed auctions on eBay.

We also get calls quite often from people who want to sell us books, and magazines, and autographed items, and an endless stream of collectibles, but I’m sure we don’t have customers who want to buy those things, either.  Which leaves me wondering about selling back issues of comics.

In the past two weeks, we bought boxes and boxes of Magic: The Gathering cards from three or four customers who were simply trying to get rid of them.  I spent time looking through all the cards before giving the customers the bad news about how little they were worth.  I even chased a few customers away and told them to sell their shoebox full of cards at a garage sale for $10 to $20 because nobody plays with hardly any older common and uncommon cards.  I have stacks of rare cards left that won’t sell at $1 each, although my regulars did just about cover my cost buying a handful of rares and a few stacks of twenty-five cent cards.  We didn’t buy any of the Pokemon or Yu-Gi-Oh cards people brought in since cards from those games are even more difficult to sell.

Over 90% of our comic book sales are comics that came out in the past ten days.  After that, new comics simply gather dust until I box them up and put them away under a table.  We can sell some back issues for a dollar, but books marked $2 or $3 tend to stay around a very long time, even though price guides insist those comics are worth $6 or more…of course, the price guides don’t list any comics for less than cover price, proving how inaccurate the sole remaining price guide (Overstreet) really is.  There is still enormous heat on key issues, but non-key issues only sell when they are in extremely high grade or dirt cheap.  Perhaps comic books are now little more than a modern version of tulip madness, with silver age comics selling for high prices to people who buy them simply because they are convinced that they are a good investment because someday somebody will pay even more money for their treasures.  This can be summed up by the bigger fool theory:

I may be a fool to pay this much for a comic book, but somewhere there’s a bigger fool who will pay me even more.

Action Comics #1 and Detective Comics #27 may sell for over a million dollars, but it’s unlikely any comic from the New 52 will ever again sell for more than a few dollars…and most of them are already worth about 25 cents each at shows…and discounts are available for quantity purchases!

It’s okay to collect things that make you happy, just be sure you’re paying cash and not borrowing the money.  Here’s a warning along those lines from Traffic.