The way we file taxes has got to be the least-efficient way possible. Every year, millions of Americans dig through a year’s worth of receipts, year-end statements, and their memories to assemble millions of stacks of paperwork that are processed by hand by an army of IRS employees and contractors.
This is ridiculous, and I’m not even talking about how complicated the tax code is.
We all assume that having things is the same thing as having wealth. You see someone driving a Mercedes, and assume he or she is wealthy. More often than not, it just means that person has a huge loan payment to make each month. Cash flow is not the same thing as wealth. Wealth means having assets — money in the bank, valuable investments, and things unencumbered by loans. If you owe money on all your things, you just have liabilities.
You can have a lot of things and still own nothing. Like the founder of Michigan Brewing Co., who just filed bankruptcy and listed $3,236 in assets and more than $8,200,000 in liabilities.
Very few people are truly wealthy. You cannot judge a book by its cover, and you cannot judge wealth by the number of things someone has. (via Daniel Gershburg)
It turns out that less-expensive products aren’t always cheaper in the long run, as we found out when comparing a $529 Nexus One to a $199 (on contract) iPhone. The up-front cost is never as important as the ongoing cost.
This holds true even when comparing a $1,200 espresso machine to a $120 one.
Refund anticipation loans are very similar to payday loans; they are short-term, high-interest loans made in anticipation of future income — your tax refund, in this case. And they are a bad deal.
The best interest rate you can expect from a refund anticipation loan is around 36% APR. That is two or three times the rate someone with decent credit can expect to get from a credit card. But APRs of 100% or more are still common. That means if you paid the loan back in one year, you would actually pay back twice the amount you borrowed.
In other words, the math doesn’t make sense. It is much better to just wait for the check from the IRS.
While buying gifts this year, I found myself in the monument to consumerism, the Mall of America. To get my bearing, I did a lap to see if I could find what I wanted: a pair of shoes and an insulated travel mug for my wife. Although there were dozens of stores at which I could have bought my gifts, I only walked into two: Williams-Sonoma and Clarks.
That’s because I did not want to stand in front of a wall of insulated tumblers with no indication of which will do the best job. I just wanted a good tumbler, and I didn’t want to have to think too much about it. Williams-Sonoma only carries high-quality stuff, and as it turned out, they only carried one travel mug in two sizes. It’s awesome, and my wife loves it.
On the one hand, this is awesome. Making deposits using the camera on your iPhone or Android phone is way more convenient than going to a branch — especially if you don’t have a branch nearby. On the other hand, practically every other bank in the country has been doing this for something like five years, and Wells Fargo’s mobile app is one of the worst I have used.
Arithmetically, it makes the most sense to pay down your highest-interest debts first. But psychologically, it helps to feel like you are making progress. I linked to a calculator for using the “snowball” debt reduction method before, but I’ve never really discussed how to use the snowball method. Here’s how it works.
“If someone makes you a loan that’s illegal, either because they don’t have a license or they violate usury laws, you’re not under any obligation to pay it back,” said Norman Googel, an assistant attorney general in West Virginia.
Payday lending traditionally happens in seedy storefronts, often in low-income neighborhoods and around military bases. Not any more! Eager to get in on the next big subprime lending bubble before it bursts, big banks are brushing up on their loan shark chops and opening payday lending divisions.
So what’s the problem, here? Well, payday loans from banks typically carry annual interest rates as high as 365%. That means if you took out a $10 loan, it would cost $46.50 to pay it back. It doesn’t feel so bad because payday loans are supposed to be short-terms loans, but the typical payday loan customer uses payday loans often enough that he or she is actually paying that kind of interest.
Banks are especially interested because they tend to hold the payday loan customer’s deposits, as well. Payday loan customers wind up paying more in overdraft fees, and are more likely to lose their bank accounts. In short, it’s bad news for consumers.
The Center for Responsible Lending is watching this trend, and has more information about big bank payday lending.