Among advice-givers who talk about smart spending, Clark Howard is perhaps the dean. Howard relays encyclopedic knowledge of money and consumer issues on his national radio call-in show and on television's HLN, formerly CNN Headline News. Howard gets into the nitty-gritty of everyday spending — an area on which most finance experts don't dare to tread. Howard's breadth of knowledge is featured in his new book — his ninth — Clark Howard's Living Large in Lean Times. Here's a sampling of his advice topics from the book.
Vehicle buying is the No. 1 spending weakness for today's consumer, Howard said. "People buy cars on emotion," he said. "They buy in a day, and they're stuck with consequences for four to seven years." Most consumers do car-shopping backward, he said. They go shopping for a car and then figure out how to pay for it. He suggests first thinking about how much you'll spend, doing some research with Consumer Reports and getting prequalified for a loan before you ever step foot on a dealer lot and become susceptible to new-car fever. "I'd like to get people to separate themselves from their emotional side and first come up with a realistic price target," he said. "They need to turn the order on its head and make it a methodical process."
He recommends never financing for more than 42 months. If you can't afford that, you should buy a cheaper car, he says. He mentions carsdirect.com and zag.com as places to get price quotes for vehicles without going through the "grind" negotiations at a dealership.
Howard likes the idea of cutting your land-line phone service and using cellphones, especially cheaper no-contract cellphones. He says he recently switched from a big wireless phone company to Straight Talk, Walmart's wireless service that offers unlimited calling, texting and data for $45 per month. Some other major carriers charge well over $100 per month for those services and would not include unlimited data. Straight Talk service piggybacks on the calling networks of existing wireless carriers.
Howard regularly urges people to think twice about doing business with what he calls "giant, monster megabanks." Instead he likes small banks and especially consumer-friendly credit unions, known for lower borrowing rates and superior customer service. The potential trade-off is convenience. Credit unions don't have their own extensive branch and ATM networks. Websites such as creditunion.coop and www.findacreditunion.com can help you find a credit union you qualify for.
Skip extended warranties that are offered on so many appliances and electronics today because they are too expensive for what they cover. Many credit card companies will extend the manufacturer warranty for free if you use their card for the purchase, he notes. An exception to his rule on warranties is for cars. Howard said he is neutral on car warranties for people who could not afford a large auto-repair bill. But be sure to buy the warranty from the manufacturer, not a third party, he said.
Some of Howard's advice doesn't jibe with that of other money experts. An example is his unveiled hatred for debit cards. Some people like them because debit cards help consumers avoid the hefty finance charges of credit cards. But Howard regularly calls debit cards "piece-of-trash fake Visa and fake MasterCards," referring to the types of debit cards that feature credit card logos and can be used with a signature. The reason is security, he said. A thief who steals your debit card can empty your bank account, and you might have to fight with your bank to get money back. With credit cards, you simply report the fraud and get a new card. For those who don't like credit cards, cash still works great, he said.