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Barbara Whelehan writes Boomer Bucks for

Sweat the small (and big) stuff

Americans are constantly barraged by advertising messages that tell us how we can be beautiful, successful and happy. Attaining these goals the way Madison Avenue would have us do it invariably requires us to part with cash.

To project the image of success, we must buy a luxury sedan -- never mind the burdensome monthly payments that go on for several years. To be beautiful, we must dial an 800 number and order an advanced anti-aging cream that will dissolve 10 years from our faces in a week. Yeah, right. To be cool, we must get the latest fashion colors in major appliances. Huh?!

We can resist these imperatives. But if we act on them, we find that the bloom of happiness associated with a purchase withers after a few days or weeks. It sometimes takes a lifetime to learn that money can't buy things that bring lasting fulfillment.

Every day we face choices that could cost us or save us a lot of money, even on a small scale when projected over time. Let's examine the trade-offs of buying cheaper versus more-expensive products and services that we regularly use, as well as how much we can earn on the difference if we invest it in a tax-deferred retirement account.

Consumer choices
This exercise focuses on only three categories in which consumers must make decisions, but the list of possibilities is endless.
The trade-offs of modern life
1.Personal services:
The choices
The payoff

2.Major appliances:
The choices
The payoff

3.Dining out:
The choices
The payoff

1. Personal services
The choices: To be well-groomed is essential. Most of us need haircuts every four to six weeks. Do we need to get manicures? That's debatable.

Men can go into barbershops or unisex salons and spend $12 or less on a haircut. But women can easily spend much more.

My friend Jeanette saves money by cutting her own hair, but this is a rather extreme measure. I don't recommend it, and I tried to tell her that she really should go to a professional hairstylist. Brutal honesty characterizes our friendship. She in turn has told me that I really need to wear more makeup.

But what you spend on a haircut can vary dramatically from one establishment to another. I go to one of these chains -- the Hair Cuttery -- that charge only $13 for a haircut, $5 extra for a blow dry. I confess that I walk out of there looking like a wet rat most of the time and go home and blow dry my own hair, though lately I've been indulging in the full treatment.

Next: " ... you're taking yourself to the cleaners, as they say."
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