You know the self-help classic Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff? Someday that sage lesson will sink in. When it comes to the big-picture issues in personal finance, I’m calm and good at taking my own advice. But the small stuff? I’m capable of a lathering up into a full-on freakout over minor financial mishaps, some of which are completely out of my control.
I’m sharing these with you in the hope that by laying them out on the page, I will be able to see how unimportant they are, and when they happen in the future, I will deal with them in a relaxed, grown-up fashion. Okay, not likely. If you’re willing to admit to being even half as dumb as I am, I’d love to hear about your own out-of-proportion financial freakouts in the comments. Insanity loves company.
1. Forgetting to use a coupon
The other day, I went shopping. My wife had clipped a $1 off toothpaste coupon to the shopping list. I had the shopping list in my hand throughout the trip, and as I put the toothpaste into my basket, it gave me a warm, fuzzy, $1-off feeling. Then when I got to the checkout, I forgot to present the coupon. They’re not going to put me on that Extreme Couponing show any time soon, since apparently I’m incapable of entry-level couponing.
That’s $1 gone from my life forever. I didn’t realize the oversight until I got home. Then I debated whether to walk back to the store to see if they’d credit me the dollar. But then I’d have to admit that I’m the kind of person who would walk half a mile for a dollar. But hey, I’d get some exercise.
See what I mean? Lather.
2. Leaving cash in the U-scan machine
At the same supermarket, they have these self-checkout machines called U-scan. I use them all the time. Thanks to this innovation, I’ve memorized a whole bunch of produce SKUs. If I ever apply for a job as a checker, I’ll be sure to put this on my resume, except that all the checker jobs are being replaced by self-checkout machines.
If you use your debit card at the U-scan, you can get cash back, just like at the regular checkout line. The cash is dispensed from the machine like an ATM. A buzzer sounds, and a voice says, “Don’t forget to pick up your cash from the dispenser.” I have forgotten to pick up my cash from the dispenser plenty of times. Once I called the supermarket to ask, “Did anybody turn in some cash?” Sure, now it’s funny.
I should not be allowed to use these machines, ever. Possibly I should not be allowed to leave the house.
3. Forgetting to enter a receipt
My wife and I use Quicken to keep track of our checking account balance. Yes, we also use Mint, but we like to know our up-to-the-minute balance, including debit transactions that haven’t shown up on online banking yet.
It’s satisfying to know that the amount in Quicken is the exact amount of money we have available to spend. Except when someone forgets to enter a receipt, and it turns out we’re $20 poorer than we thought. Usually, it goes something like this: I accuse my wife of forgetting to enter a receipt. Then it turns out I was the one who forgot to enter the receipt—probably the receipt from the supermarket trip where I failed to present the toothpaste coupon and left money behind in the U-scan.
4. Underpaying quarterly taxes
Because I’m self-employed, I have to withhold my own income taxes and send them in four times a year using form 1040-ES. (Actually, you can do it online.) Because I don’t know exactly how much I’m going to make in the year ahead, I take a guess based on last year’s taxes.
If I underpay, however, it means I have to cut The Man a check at tax time. (Not a penalty, just extra taxes owed.) If someone came to me complaining about this situation, I would say, “That’s good! It means the government loaned you some money at zero interest.” It’s true. So why can’t I convince myself?
5. Watching the stock market go up
Say you came to me and said, “Matthew, I’m planning to retire in about 25 years. Should I be concerned about day-to-day fluctuations in the stock market?” I would say: not at all. You’re investing for the long term. Put aside money automatically every month, invest in low-cost index funds, and don’t even look at your balance except when it’s time to rebalance. Short-term market swings are just noise.
Sounds like good advice. My wife and I set up an automatic investment plan to transfer money to our Roth IRAs near the beginning of each month. For the first couple of days of each month, I check the stock market. If it’s going up, I get annoyed, because the stuff I’m about to buy is getting more expensive. Do I make any changes based on the direction of the market? Nope. So why do I even look?
Maybe I could program my browser to block Google Finance. And hire some goons to keep me out of the supermarket.
Matthew Amster-Burton is a personal finance columnist at Mint.com. Find him on Twitter @Mint_Mamster.