I'm a nonreligious person. Not that this matters much in the context of personal finance, but it does reveal a little about my personality, my desires, and the things I allow to drive my way of thinking.
Specifically, I loathe dogma. Not the movie Dogma, which is actually pretty funny, but dogma in general. "Because it is" or "because it always has been" or "because that's how it's supposed to be" are not valid reasons for doing anything. Period. Make each decision with an eye on history and common thought, but with the bulk of your decision coming from an informed logical thought process.
I began to think about this when I saw a question about a car purchase asked on a popular investing message board:
I'm going to buy a new Honda within a couple of weeks. I have the total money for the car sitting in a Vanguard money market. I can get 2.9% financing for 3 years or 4.9% financing for 5 years. Is there any reason why I shouldn't do the 3-year 2.9% financing. My after tax return from the money market account (about 3.5%) is greater than what money markets are returning. In addition, it's nice to have that extra money liquid for a few years. The basic question: if a loan makes me come out ahead, should I use the loan offer or pay cash?
I was not the least bit surprised to see two suggestions in response, each stated and seconded at least once by the board regulars (paraphrased):
- Your mistake is buying a new car. You'll do better financially if you buy a 1- or 2-year old car.
- It's always better to pay cash when you have the option.
The truth in the matter is that #1 is usually true but not always, and #2 is false even more frequently.
First let's talk about #1, because I have purchased a new Honda in recent years, and also because, well, I labeled it #1. Some vehicles hold their value far, far better than others, to the point where the first-year depreciation is not very dramatic. Specifically I'm talking about Hondas and Toyotas here, which have proven over time to be reliable vehicles that are inexpensive to maintain. Their residual value is so good, in fact, that shopping for used Hondas and Toyotas can be very, very frustrating. We feel, as consumers, that in addition to a year's wear and tear, we ought to get a price break on a used car because, well, it's not brand new. And in fact, we are completely right when we're talking about most cars. But these days, there is very little premium to be had when buying a used Honda or Toyota. If it's a "certified used" vehicle, in fact, sometimes the used car is more expensive than a new one because there's an extended warranty built in. This has happened over time due to market pressures, to the point that many shoppers have concluded that buying new may be the more sound decision. I know my new Pilot, which I bought under invoice, was cheaper than any used Pilot I had found with under 30,000 miles. So while it is good advice to pay attention to used cars and what they may offer financially, to say that you are always doing better by buying used is not a statement based in logic or fact, but instead is one based on dogma.
Response #2 is fraught with even more problems because there is a clear, quantitative message that the loan is a better financial decision. A simple read will tell you that the original poster's cash works harder for him in his money market fund than it would if he sunk it into the vehicle. Not only that, but using the cheap loan allows him to keep more cash on hand for the life of the loan, effectively extending his emergency fund and giving him a more liquid overall financial picture. For the life of the loan, he will have the option to pay it off if that becomes the more sound choice based on prevailing money market rates. But he will also have the option of maintaining the payments for as long as he finds it to be to his advantage. Refusing the loan and paying cash closes off this second option unnecessarily, and will make him more cash-poor in the short term and less wealthy in the long term. So why, why, why, do so many people seem to say "buy with cash regardless?" DOGMA! another infuriating example of a failure to think because one thinks the answer lies within their tried and true dogma.
I could give a hundred more examples of misleading dogma in the personal finance area alone, and the problem infests our entire way of being in all other areas as well. Challenge conventional wisdom, peer pressure, and your own beliefs. Only by doing this will you truly make the smartest decisions in your life. Reliance on dogma can lead to poor decision making and, more importantly, a more feeble mind due to inactivity.