Hanging with the money crowd
Call it peer pressure, but meeting the right people can help you spend and save wisely. From Money Magazine's Jean Chatzky
(Money Magazine) -- One of the summer's biggest stories carried the headline "Weight Gain Is Contagious!" Sensational? Sure, but based on some pretty good science.
The report, originally published in the New England Journal of Medicine, emerged from a landmark study that has followed a social network of more than 12,000 people since 1971. The researchers have enough data to know which subjects are friends, neighbors, relatives or co-workers.
That's how they were able to see that when one person packs on or takes off the pounds, his or her close associates - whether they live around the corner or on the opposite coast - are likely to do the same.
The link makes a lot of sense, says Karen Miller-Kovach, the chief scientist at Weight Watchers.
"Social networks determine social norms and social behavior," she says. "What's acceptable, what's not acceptable. I expect we'll see a lot of parallels in other fields."
Money among them. Academics and other researchers who have dipped a toe into the networking pool are finding that if you're surrounded by people who save and invest, you're likely to do the same. And if your pals spend like crazy, well, you're in trouble.
"It's really a question of how other people's values affect your values," says Duke University sociologist Lisa Keister, author of Getting Rich: America's New Rich and How They Got That Way.
"The people around you affect how you approach education, family, consumption, when you get married and where you go to school. Those things affect wealth," she theorizes.
So how do you make the network effect work for you?
Hang with the smart kids
Pamela York Klainer, a senior adviser and wealth manager at Forte Capital in Rochester, N.Y., works with people who have a variety of money problems. Some have money but aren't comfortable handling it. Others burn through too much too quickly.
Before "social networking" became a buzz phrase, she told her clients to "find people who have the money behaviors you want to learn and start hanging out with them." She suggests, for example, joining an investment club.
The corollary is to be careful around folks who'll reinforce your bad tendencies. No one's suggesting that you start dumping friends and family members who spend too much. But it makes sense to avoid going clothes shopping with them.
"It's like going with alcoholics to a bar," says money therapist Olivia Mellan, author of Money Harmony. "You'll be sucked into the group's norm."
The MySpace/Facebook model has spawned sites that promote online networking as a financial tool: Users talk one another through challenges like getting out of debt, spending less than they make and building a nest egg.
Wesabe, launched in November 2006, has tens of thousands of users, and Geezeo, which went live in May, has a couple of thousand. Both sites, free to users, not only aggregate your personal-finance information and allow you to easily track your spending but offer a virtual shoulder to support you.
David Knight of Greer, S.C. started using Wesabe because "we were trying to make it through my wife's maternity leave without breaking the bank."
He adds, "Everyone out there trying to do the same thing as we were shared tips, and Wesabe automatically delivered the relevant ones to me."
Knight credits the site with pushing him to open a 529 college savings plan once his wife returned to work.
Start your own network
Katie Dunsworth-Reiach and her four girlfriends, all in their twenties and early thirties, worked hard, played harder (dinners out for birthdays plus a $50 gift were the norm) and at the end of the year had nothing to show for it.
Spurred by the Debt Diet (for which I was a coach) on The Oprah Winfrey Show, the five Vancouver residents started getting together on a weekly basis, revealing how much debt they had, how much they earned, how much they wanted to save and what they wanted to do with that money (one wanted to pay for her own wedding, another to rebuild financially after a divorce).
They made big changes. Two got rid of their cars. Two moved in together. They all started shopping for clothes in one another's closets and stretching out time between haircuts. A year later, they've cut $35,000 in debt and added $30,000 in savings.
"Working as a group has given us the support and accountability to stick with it," says Dunsworth-Reiach. "It's like a diet - you may get motivated for a short period, but within a month you're back to your old ways. Our meetings have changed the way we think about money."
Teach your children
Skidmore College economist Ngina Chiteji found that the social network known as the family has a big impact on stock-ownership rates.
"We looked at all the factors that you would think might influence stock ownership - income, education, marital status, wealth," she explains.
When she and a colleague controlled for them, they found that kids of stockholding parents were nearly twice as likely to own stocks as those whose parents didn't own them.
Chiteji thinks that it's not the transfer of shares or dollars that turns a child into an investor; it's the transfer of knowledge about how the market works and how to navigate it.