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With Technology, Out-Budgeting The Baby Boomers

Mobile apps are one mechanism helping the tech-savvy to manage their finances. (iStockphoto.com)

Morning Edition asked me to do a story about how technology has shaped generational shifts in financial literacy. I didn't want to do it, for reasons that will become clear shortly. But first, let's take the case of Sarah Marczynski and her father, Robert. Sarah, 23, graduated from the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, last week.

"I think about the time that I started to get money, either through baby-sitting or a job or whatever," she says, "maybe that was the first time that I realized that the way that my parents handled money — or certain aspects — was not the best way."

"Ouch!" her father interrupts.

"I know — sorry, Dad."

Robert Marczynski, 55, of Memphis, calls himself typical of the baby boomer generation.

"My wife and I are products of the '70s, '80s and '90s," he says. "Money was flowing and times were good. You were able to get your house, and leverage your house again — all these nice things you wanted to do. And carry three or four credit cards with you and ... "

Get yourself up to your ears in debt, basically.

"We tell her [about] the pitfalls of credit, and we can point to ourselves and say, 'We're good examples. Don't do this,' " he says.

So Sarah Marczynski is the opposite of careless. After overdrawing her account during her sophomore year, she swore off the cards. She carries cash for her discretionary spending — but that doesn't mean she's low-tech. Paper money she can see is part of her strategy to keep track of everything she spends — on the spreadsheet she always has pulled up on her laptop.

"Since I've started using it, I feel a little better," she says. "I know where my money's going. If I ever get into a hole, I know how I got there."

"Sarah, I'd like to get a copy of that template," her father says.

He's speaking a little tongue-in-cheek — he has budgeting software, too. Because along with technological advances in spending have come technological advances in tracking how much you spend.

Looking At What You Spend

Daniel Roth, editor of Fortune.com, says it has become much easier than ever before to track what you're spending and how much money you have. For example, you don't have to wait until the end of the month before you get your statement — you can see it right away by logging on to the credit card's website. People have alerts on their mobile phones to let them know when they're about to overdraw ... and this is where, in my reporting, I started to kind of freak.

This is why I didn't want to do this story — I personally don't have a budget. Like a lot of people, I am terrified of budgeting sites like Mint.com — sites like the ones Sarah uses. I don't even know what Mint.com is.

"It is a dashboard into your financial life," Roth says. But I don't want to look that closely at how I spend money, because I'm scared.

I'm more in the Robert Marczynski camp — he has some sympathy for those of us who want to run and hide from budgeting software. Where his daughter uses technology to get up close to what she spends, he can distance himself with automatic payments — for magazine subscriptions, cable and the like — that just get automatically debited from checking. All of the technology in the world can't force you to actually look at how you spend.

"[You] have to make sure that you're disciplined enough to take a look at your account online to see what's there," Robert Marczynski says, "how much you've taken out that day — particularly when it's coming time for an automatic payment."

Life Sans Banks

But of course, many people live outside the banking system entirely.

Denise Early runs a check cashing place in Washington, D.C. She says a lot of her customers aren't computer literate — online banking isn't an option for them. Or they just don't trust the banks.

"They don't even want to keep their money in the bank," she says. "They'd rather come in here, cash their check, pay all their bills, see exactly where their money is going. And whatever they have left, they might have it at home, in a drawer somewhere."

It's not like everyone in the check cashing spot is older. Early acts as a sort of financial adviser for the young people who come in.

"I always advise them, 'Open a bank account. Establish a credit line,' " she says. "Some of them do it."

Paying as you go is no guarantee that you'll stay out of debt. If you do lose track of your payments and get into debt, maybe you'll end up like Robert Marczynski — who, at least, has Sarah.

"We count her as one of our accomplishments," he says.

"You did a great job," she replies — seriously, this time.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

All this week, MORNING EDITION is looking at the financial literacy of young people in our series Money Counts. For many people, technology has helped shape their relationship to spending. Earlier generations relied on checkbooks and then credit cards, and now young people are using online tools to track their money. NPR's Zoe Chace looks at the shifts in how we pay our bills.

ZOE CHACE: Kids these days, so careless with their money. Sarah Marczynski just graduated from college last week.

Ms. SARAH MARCZYNSKI: I think about the time that I started to get money, either through baby-sitting or a job or whatever, maybe that was probably the first time that I realized that the way that my parents handled money was probably not the best way or certain aspects of it weren't the best...

Mr. ROBERT MARCZYNSKI: Ouch, ouch.

Ms. MARCZYNSKI: I know. Sorry, Dad.

CHACE: All right. Maybe that's not how it is anymore. Many baby boomers, when they were kids, were careless with their money and grew up to rue their mistakes. Sarah Marczynski's dad can tell you about it.

Mr. MARCZYNSKI: You know, we tell her the pitfalls of credit and we can point to ourselves and say we're good examples. You know, don't do this.

CHACE: Robert Marczynski is 55 years old.

Mr. MARCZYNSKI: My wife and I are products of the '70s, '80s and '90s. Money was flowing and times were good and you were able to get your house and leverage that house against all these nice things you wanted to do and carry three or four credit cards with you and...

CHACE: And end up up to your ears in debt.

Mr. MARCZYNSKI: And that's all our friends that are our age.

CHACE: So, his kid is the opposite of careless. After overdrawing her account sophomore year, she swore off the cards. She carries cash - you know, paper money? But that doesn't mean she's low-tech. Cash is part of her strategy to keep track of everything she spends - on the spreadsheet she's always got pulled up on her laptop.

Ms. MARCZYNSKI: Since I've started using it, I feel a little better about where - I know where my money's going and I know how - if I ever get into a hole, or if there's some problem with it, I know how I got there.

Mr. MARCZYNSKI: Sarah, I'd like to get a copy of that template.

CHACE: With technological advances in spending have come technological advances in tracking how much you spend.

Mr. DANIEL ROTH (Managing Editor, Fortune Digital): I think it has become much easier to actually track what you're spending and how little you might have than it ever was before.

CHACE: Daniel Roth is managing of the magazine Fortune Digital. He says, for example, you don't have to wait till the end of the month before you get your statement.

Mr. ROTH: You can see your statement right away by logging onto the credit card company's website.

CHACE: Sorry, I have to stop for a second. I don't really know what I'm talking about. Like a lot of people, I am terrified of budgeting sites like Mint.com -sites like Sarah uses. I don't even know what Mint.com is.

Mr. ROTH: It is a dashboard into your financial life. And...

CHACE: OK, OK, OK. I don't want to know.

Look, in order to use these tech tools, you have to be brave - a brave nerd, like Sarah Marczynski.

It sounds like you have to you really, you really game it out. I mean you're like a real planner.

Ms. MARCZYNSKI: Yeah, yeah. Oh my gosh. I'm a nerd in that...

Mr. MARCZYNSKI: That's an understatement.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHACE: Robert Marczynski has a little more sympathy for those of us who want to run and hide from budgeting software. Where his daughter uses technology to get up close to what she spends, he can distance himself with automatic payments -you know, the magazine subscriptions, the cable - that just get automatically debited from checking. All the technology in the world can't force you to look at how much you spend.

Mr. MARCZYNSKI: We got to make sure that we are disciplined enough to go take a look at your account online to see what's there and how much you've taken out that day, particularly when it's coming time for an automatic payment.

CHACE: But there are many people who are living outside the banking system entirely.

Denise Early runs a check cashing place in Washington, D.C. She says a lot of her customers aren't computer literate - online banking isn't an option for them. Or they just don't trust the banks.

Ms. DENISE EARLY: They don't even want to keep their money in the bank. So they'd rather come in here, cash their check, pay all their bills, they see exactly where their money is going, and whatever they have left, they might have it at home, in a drawer somewhere.

CHACE: But if you do lose track of your payments and get into debt, maybe you'll end up like Robert Marczynski, who at least has Sarah.

Mr. MARCZYNSKI: We did a good job.

Ms. MARCZYNSKI: Yeah, you did super good.

Mr. MARCZYNSKI: We count her as one of our accomplishments.

CHACE: Zoe Chace, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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