One of the most laughable things I've ever read about personal finance was a magazine feature written by an author advising readers how to save money. Besides the usual and obvious tips -- brown-bag your lunch, use coupons, don't drive too fast -- was the admonition not to flush your toilet more than once a day. To think this person charges for advice like this.
Cost-cutting is quickly becoming an obsession as the economy struggles, housing prices soften (or stop going up) and people start realizing how much debt they have.
For the last 20 years media and advertisers have treated us to no end of get-rich-quick schemes -- from tech stocks to real estate flipping to gathering up your gold heirlooms and selling them for cash. Now you can't go far without tripping on some media treatment of getting out of debt or making your dollars stretch further.
What you don't get, and never have, is actually the most common-sense advice, which I always give to people who are worried about their cash flow: don't just spend less. Make more, work harder.
This basic concept rarely crosses people's minds, and I find that baffling. When we were young and wanted our own money, we got a paper route. Later, we'd flip burgers and get summer jobs.
Somehow, when we're older and working as teachers or civil servants or bookkeepers, the idea of taking on a second job or creating one is not even on the radar.
Yes, life is full and time is scarce. But if you're working 37.5 hours a week as most people are these days, what's an extra 10 hours that can put a few more bucks in your pocket -- especially when the alternative is crimping your lifestyle? That's just no fun and hard to do.
I know a couple of teachers who work as a waitress and a bank teller on weekends. But for a lot of people, a second job is embarrassing, demeaning, beneath them. Much better to be technically insolvent with huge credit card bills.
That's just dumb.
But if getting that second job is just too much for you for whatever reason, how about creating your own? Start a business. It's not that hard and many small enterprises don't need any money to start -- just sweat and time.
"Find a need and fill it" is the entrepreneur's creed. The vast majority of us, if we're looking, can identify needs we can fill. A friend of mine started a website to allow local golf courses to automate their tee times. I often eat lunch at a tiny soup stand started by a librarian who loved to cook (it's a full-time job now).
Tutoring is another easy one. Teaching English is easy and there's plenty of demand for it.
If getting a second job or creating your own are either not appealing or for whatever reason impossible, how about becoming good at something you can do yourself, alone? Extreme example: My friend's brother, a student, plays poker at casinos and online to make extra coin. I wouldn't recommend that, but how about learning to invest in the stock market (or in antiques, or some specialized niche if you really feel ambitious)? Lots to learn, but it can pay off.
And if that's too daunting, I guarantee you can save yourself a lot more money by learning about personal finance and cutting down on your mutual fund and bank fees and getting a better cellphone plan. The more complicated a service, the easier it is to overcharge, and I guarantee you'll save a lot of money by taking a hard look and a harder stand with your providers. Cellphone operators earn 40 per cent profit margins. They shouldn't in a competitive industry, but they get away with it by deliberately making it hard to understand the way they charge you. Ditto banks, and especially mutual fund firms. Those three services alone could save you thousands a year depending on your situation.
Hard work will benefit you a lot more than not flushing.
Fabrice Taylor is an award-winning financial journalist and analyst and author of the President's Club Investment Letter. Email him at: