Earlier today, Naked With Cash participant Anonymous S offered his latest financial update. He noted in June how after moving into a new apartment, he increased his credit card spending to pay for new household furnishings. He’s been calling this spending an “investment.” Our Certified Financial Planner, Roger Wohlner, offered the same feedback I would have given: calling expenditures “investments” can set a dangerous precedent and affects the way you view your finances.
The words you choose when describing yourself or your actions communicate how you think of yourself or your actions. For example, someone who refers to a problem as a habit rather than addiction when it is in fact an addition could be masking the severity of a problem.
There’s nothing wrong with what Anonymous S did last month. He spent more than he had on hand to furnish his apartment, accepting the cost of interest in return for furnishing the apartment immediately instead of waiting over the course of the next few months. Through his actions, he also indicated he was not willing to satisfy with inferior furnishings that he might have been able to find for less money.
As long as you weigh the consequences of using credit cards to supplement your income and using them isn’t part of an unhealthy pattern, I see little problem in taking advantage of the credit afforded to you. Others may see this differently, and might criticize the use of credit cards in any situation, or in any situation that doesn’t involve being able to pay off the balance in full each month. I’m more of a realist, and I can accept that although credit cards come with a cost, it’s a cost that can be avoided or taken into account. I can also accept that different households have different needs and priorities, and that households in healthy financial situations can handle the occasional interest charge if the trade-off is simplifying life for a short period of time.
It’s not the use of a credit card that worries me in this case, it’s the use of the word investment. Any particular word can have more than one meaning, and dictionaries don’t do a good job of describing the subtle differences between the inferences or senses of a word. To a financial planner, the word investment might have a specific meaning that is tied to a trade of money for some sort of asset that is expected to increase in value, with the idea that some day, that asset can be divested or liquidated, and the investor can walk away with more money than he or she started with. And the word investment might also imply there is some level of risk involved.
But when used by non-professionals, a broader definition might apply. An investment could be anything purchased of value or the process of purchasing anything of value. This is so broad that practically anything can be considered an investment. When I was working at a non-profit organization in my early twenties, I needed to earn extra money using whatever time I had left to myself after 80-hour weeks plus long commutes. I “invested” in a new computer to replace the one I had for nearly five years. In those intermediate five years, the World Wide Web had become mainstream and I needed a new machine to keep up with the latest technological needs for web development. I had no money, but I considered the new computer an investment in my future.
When it comes to building human capital, education is a large part of increasing the worth of your abilities, from specific job-related skills to cognitive flexibility, to yourself and to others. I consider the expense of a college degree as an investment because of the increase in lifetime earning potential that college graduates have over those without degrees. It’s an investment that’s expected to pay off in some form over the course of one’s life, even though recent economic troubles like unemployment make that difficult to see in immediate terms.
I can see how Anonymous S feels vindicated in calling household expenses investments. I know I’d probably be in a similar situation when I decide to buy a house. I wouldn’t want to leave the house empty for too long, and the furniture I could move from my apartment might do only a partial job in furnishing the house, and that’s even if I wanted to keep the same furnishings. With a new house, I’d want to quickly set my living space up to be exactly what I’ve pictured, and if I were unable to save up for the furniture in advance in addition to all the other expenses that come with purchasing a house, I would consider credit cards a valid option if I knew I’d be able to afford the expenses over a short period of time. I would only use credit cards if I didn’t think I wouldn’t be able to control my spending.
But I’d probably stop short of calling the purchases investments. I can see how spending $5,000 plus interest today might decrease my need to spend $5,000 in three months, but unless what I plan to buy is some sort of collectible item that has the possibility of increasing in value, it wouldn’t be an investment to me. And to call an expense an investment might do nothing more than to make me feel better about parting with the money. Personally, I have no need to fool myself into thinking something potentially harmful — spending more than I’ve saved — is potentially positive. For those that do try to present purchases to the world as investments might be setting themselves up for ignoring other negative aspects of their financial condition, and I believe that’s why Roger Wohlner, the CFP who comments each month on the financial progress of Naked With Cash participant Anonymous S, is not fond of the terminology choice.
You can use word choice to affect how you think about your situation. This can turn something that should be negative into a positive feeling or vice versa. Word choice can save you or it can prevent you from achieving your goals. In politics, this process is called “spin.” In marketing, the process is called “marketing.” In some cases, when word choice is used to intentionally deceive others, it’s called “lying.”
When you say that buying a new 72-inch television when your 42-inch will do and you don’t have the money is “investing in your happiness,” it’s just a way of hiding the fact you know it’s a bad financial decision.
Have you ever lied to yourself about the quality of your financial decisions by changing the words you use to describe that decision?