John D. Spooner is an investment adviser, author and novelist. His most recent book is No One Ever Told Us That: Money and Life Lessons for Young Adults. Here, he responds to queries from advice seekers of all ages. Send your conundrums to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I don’t drink. It’s not that I can’t or have had a problem with alcohol, but I just don’t drink. I never have; I just don’t like it. My issue is, everywhere I go, people push it on me, and when I decline their offers, they make assumptions about me. No, I am not an alcoholic. No, it’s not because of religion. Not only that, but whenever we go out as a group and split the bill, I am the one who drank Coke all night, but they’ve been downing $18 martinis. I don’t want to seem petty, but after a while the bar tab is way more than I want to pay. Help! Well, this is a two-pronged question. Of course it’s fine not to be a drinker, and it sounds like you’re definitely not acting “holier than thou” about your preferences. Most people are uncomfortable when friends act differently than they do. It holds a mirror up to them; maybe they should clean up their booze habits a little, and your abstaining bothers them a bit. Human nature.
As far as the bar tab is concerned, one of my pet peeves has always been people who, when they’re out to dinner with friends, will say, “Well, I had the chicken and you had the steak, so my tab is $6 less than yours…” This kind of nitpicking is annoying, cheap and a reflection of people who will probably never “get it” in a social sense. These situations have a way of evening out eventually, and you can order a special dessert or a side that no one else chooses. Call it the cost of keeping friends, a cheap cost in the long run.
No matter how many friends gather, split the check evenly. There are too many hassles in life. Make it easy. It’s a no-brainer.
I’m on the board of a summer community on the Cape. Turnover in ownership is pretty rapid; people come in, people go out. Sometimes it seems out of control. There’s lots of action on the beach at night among the younger generation, high school and some college kids, too. They drink beer, smoke dope and make noise. If we call the cops, the kids mouth off, and the parents circle the wagons and defend the kids. How do we keep things from getting out of control? Welcome to the wonderful world of parents wanting to be buddies, not parents. I hear this story in many forms, particularly from California and the Northeast. Civility seems to be disappearing in society, and the entitlement gene is one of the downsides of achieving the American Dream.
Do you know the “broken windows theory” in big cities? Basically, the idea is that when youth spray graffiti all over buildings and smash windows in rundown areas, the destruction feeds on itself, and with no order or discipline, society can fall apart. Bill Bratton, the Boston-born New York City police commissioner, believed that if you repaired windows and wiped out graffiti and prosecuted small crimes, order would be better preserved and overall crime would diminish. And crime rates did decline dramatically during his tenure.
In my view, the same holds true wherever you live and work. It’s time for parents to be adults, setting limits with penalties for bad behavior. Not everyone loves us; not everyone buys our acts. Young adults living at home or just back from school for vacation are going to be contemptuous of you anyway. It’s OK to be the bad guys and let them know you’re in charge.
I’ve been anti-authority all of my life—in school, in the military, in a lot of my writing. But I’ve learned to pay attention to history and the decline and fall of institutions and countries that let discipline and order fade away. Be brave enough to be an adult.
I have a good and steady job. But I also have a mortgage and a car loan and credit card debt. Which should I focus on paying off first? The mortgage interest rate is pretty low, as is the car loan. The credit card is at 17 percent, but the balance is only $2,000. So my question is: Which one should I throw extra payments to? Or should I try to send a little extra money every month to each? Or should I send a little extra to the mortgage and car loan when I can? I know the interest on the mortgage is deductible, so maybe I should let that be and just pay my monthly mortgage with no extra? Or should I just make the monthly payments and send the extra cash to a savings account? Well, this is a typical American problem these days. If you had a student loan too, you’d hit the quadfecta. Debt can be a killer of course, and it’s no joke; “paycheck to paycheck” is something I hear from too many people in our society.
In your case, it seems you have a good job. So focus: Interest rates are nearly the lowest in our history, and in my opinion, they will stay low for an extended period. So do not put money against your mortgage. Concentrate on paying down credit card debt first. And if you can eventually pay off credit cards each month, do it. The rates are obscene in our current environment.
I would put two-thirds of your monthly surplus toward the card side. The remaining one-third I would use to build up your net worth, which means investing in one stock that you believe will survive and grow in the future. Have an element in your financial life that can increase your net worth over time. You can better afford to service debt if you increase the value of your investments. Pick a company that you actually know, because you use their products or services. Even if you buy it in small amounts over the long term, you’ll be glad you did it.
Be creative, not conventional about money matters.