O'Connor: Dandelions, recurring bills won't pull selves

Brian J. O'Connor
Detroit News Finance Editor

Summer may — and I have to emphasize may, since I live in Michigan — finally be here. Sure, there were frost warnings just a day ago, trying to wipe out the delicate first shoots of the newly planted garden, but that's nothing that can't be fixed with a really long extension cord and an electric blanket.

Soon, of course, we at the Funny Money house will be enjoying nature's warm-weather bounty, and by that I mean dandelions, chickweed and crabgrass. As for my lawn, thanks for asking, it does extremely well as long you mean stubbornly resistant clumps of rogue fescue threatening to overrun the flower beds. But for that big, wide expanse between the road and front door where the grass is supposed to grow? Eh, not so much.

Which means weeding, the absolutely required systematic culling of those things that are useless, destructive and wasteful and, no, I'm not talking the House of Representatives. One of life's painful truths is the concept of entropy — that all order tends to disorder. Think of it this way: If you sort a jar into one layer of white marbles and one layer of black marbles, it looks great — for a while. But over time, as you add marbles of both colors, remove others and jostle or shake the jar, they'll get all mixed up. Or just consider the concept of dadbods.

Weed out your spending

The same thing happens in your finances. One bill grows, another is eliminated, or some sleazy scam artist crams a sneaky charge onto your phone bill, such as Sprint and Verizon copped to last week when they consented to repay $120 million to customers to resolve charges brought by state attorneys general, the Federal Communications Commission and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that the cellphone providers added unwanted third-party charges to our bills. For, of course, a 30 percent to 40 percent slice of the action.

But most of what you'll need to weed out of your monthly spending won't be the fault of some big corporations, but your own inattention. So pull out any monthly bill or credit card statement and give it a scan. Oh, look, here's a recurring monthly $5 charge for an email add-on I thought would organize the unsorted 9,873 emails in my account, but used just once. And here's an $8 per month fee for an online transcription service I used once, then forgot to cancel. It might have even given me the first 30 days free, and I intended to cancel after that but, of course, didn't.

Add it up and that's $156 a year, or one really nice dinner out with Mrs. Funny Money. Or a good pair of shoes, new fishing gear or anything else that I might actually want and use, instead of frittering away the money on unused services.

Dandelions ain't gonna pull themselves

The reason this nickle-and-diming erodes your budget is that it's automatically charged to a credit card or bank account each month, where busy people can easily overlook it. Or the charge represents some momentary good intention — losing 30 pounds through an online diet program, or learning home blacksmithing for fun and profit. Canceling that stuff is like admitting you're going to be overweight forever, or never know the joy of hand-crafting your own wrought-iron briefcase. So we tell ourselves, nah, we'll start using that next week. Or we think the hassle of canceling the charge will be so aggravating that we put off wrangling with a web site or 800 number to end it.

But, like an overgrown garden, those dandelions ain't gonna pull themselves, and opting out usually is a lot easier than you think. And if your good intentions crop up again, go to the library and get a diet book and eat salads, or just remember that your wife will never allow you to install a forge in the rec room.

So, take one bill at a time and check it over, looking for what you can reduce or eliminate every month. As for me, I see a fine crop of turf coming up around the house, even if it all is concentrated between the cracks in the concrete. If we don't get another frost to wipe it out, I'll have to break down and mow the driveway.

Brian O'Connor is author of the award-winning book, "The $1,000 Challenge: How One Family Slashed Its Budget Without Moving Under a Bridge or Living on Government Cheese."


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Twitter: @BrianOCTweet