Friday, January 21, 2011

Distractions can be hard on your finances

I can easily get distracted when I’m at home with our four young children. The level of my distraction is well illustrated by the story of the missing cheese. Recently while making dinner, I somehow misplaced a two-pound brick of cheddar cheese (yes, two pounds). Try as I might, I couldn’t find it anywhere. After much fuming, I finally gave up, imagining that I’d unearth a moldy mass of cheese months later.

I eventually found the cheese (in our large chest freezer, thankfully), but the experience reminds me of the dangers of not paying attention to what I’m doing. When the cheese “disappeared,” I’m reasonably certain I was multi-tasking – probably talking on the phone or tending to a child – and I wasn’t in tune with the task at hand.

It’s humorous that I lost (and then found) a block of cheese, but it isn’t so funny when I find myself losing money because I’m preoccupied. While at the drugstore recently to pick up teething medicine for my fussy 1-year-old, I grabbed what I needed and headed to the register. I laid out my purchases and handed over my debit card, signed my receipt and lugged my now-sleeping daughter to our van. It wasn’t until later that I realized I’d been overcharged by $8.

Had I been paying closer attention, I would have saved myself the hassle of having to return to the store for a refund. And while $8 isn’t what I’d consider a lot of money, I don’t want to be cavalier about losing any amount of cash. If I’m not looking out for my best interests, no one else will. This is true whether I’m overcharged a few bucks at the pharmacy or thousands of dollars on a major purchase.

Paying close attention to the details of your financial transactions is the only way to ensure that someone hasn’t made a mistake or isn’t trying to take advantage of you. This can sometimes mean taking on tasks that you may find mundane, or even unpleasant. You may not be in the habit of balancing your checking account, for example, relying instead on the online details of your account. Nevertheless, if you’re not taking the time to reconcile your account, it’s easy to let mistakes or errors go unrecognized.

This is true for other kinds of financial business you conduct, too. When we received a $25 bill for a well-child visit, my husband believed that our insurance should have covered the service. He dug out and read the policy to be sure, then called our insurance company to dispute the charge. If he hadn’t been familiar with the particulars of our insurance coverage, and done the work of reading the specifics, we could have unnecessarily spent $25.

It might take some practice, but you can train yourself to pay closer attention. The next time you’re in a retail store, make a mental list of prices and keep a loose running total as you shop. Before you leave the store, review your receipt for accuracy. If you’re taking advantage of an advertised sale, bring along the sale flyer so you can verify the price if there’s any dispute. When you receive your credit card statements this month, look at all the charges carefully and take note of the interest rate you’re paying (nearly a third of cardholders don’t know their interest rate).

Avoiding distractions could add up to a lot of “found” money. If, by paying closer attention, you saved yourself even $50 or a $100 this year, just imagine how much you’d enjoy some extra cash in your wallet.

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