4 Sweet Money Lessons Straight From the Toaster

Personal Finance
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By Richard Rosso

Learn more about Richard on NerdWallet’s Ask an Advisor

Pop-Tarts almost killed me.

The foundation of Mom’s parenting philosophy was the use of food to pacify me. Pop-Tarts, either hot from the toaster or “raw,” as I called them, straight out of the box, were my favorite. My reward for good behavior was delectable, grape and occasionally iced.

Three boxes a week for seven years. Do the math. No wonder I have a permanent roll of fat around my belly.

The iconic Kellogg’s toaster happiness is turning 51 with no signs that its 32-year streak of increasing annual sales is in danger. And my ability to discover money messages in unusual places continues as well.

Money lessons arise like the fruity-sweet smoke of a hot toaster with a pastry left in just a little too long.

Here are four that will help you add a healthy balance (pun intended) to your financial health.

1. Finances don’t need to be so serious all the time

It’s OK when money is sweet and replete with empty calories — in moderation. For example, I buy a scratch-off lottery ticket on occasion just for fun. The odds of winning are not a factor in my decision. The thrill and anticipation of the remote chance of winning is worth $2. The ROF (return on fantasy) is a bargain. Pop-Tarts and other sweet foods were considered a staple in my childhood household. That’s not a good idea. It’s OK to splurge; I encourage it as long as spending limits are established and monitored.

2. Patience has rewards

Did you know Kellogg’s was sued for damages after a Pop Tart caught fire in a toaster? Boxes now carry a warning about fire risk in a toaster. Those things can get hot. As a kid, most of the time I wouldn’t wait and forged right ahead — I’d take a piping-hot mouthful of fruit filling without worrying about the repercussions.

The length of time people hold onto stocks has been falling rapidly since the 1960s and now stands at roughly six months. Investing, especially in stocks, is a long-term discipline. If your holding period is three years or less, then you’re not investing, you’re gambling. Prepare to be burned. Work with a professional to understand your underlying motivations for investing and try to match your life goals or benchmarks with the appropriate financial vehicles. You’re more apt to enjoy the cool sweetness of being a successful — or at least a levelheaded — steward of money.

3. Variety isn’t diversification

Pop-Tarts come in 25 flavors. Over the years, Kellogg’s has experimented with different shapes, offbeat themes (like Ice-Cream Shoppe flavors), even a Pop Tart variety that was split down the middle with two separate flavors in one pastry. Most of those variations lasted only a couple of years. The original flavors like grape, strawberry and brown sugar-cinnamon have endured.

The financial services industry is, for the most part, a “popped-up” marketing machine, full of air and seeking to create products that promise diversification but often fail to do so. Costly hedge funds, and inverse products that promise protection in down markets, are not necessary to achieve diversification or enhanced returns. If you’re seeking true diversification from stocks, consider guaranteed investments like U.S. Treasury securities and cash, which are part of a lean and levelheaded diversified portfolio.

4. Icing is fun, but it’s not everything

The first frosted Pop-Tarts debuted in 1967 when Kellogg’s discovered that icing could withstand the heat of a toaster. The foundational concept of this legendary confection remains basic: sweet filling surrounded by a plain, pre-baked, flaky pastry crust. Yet the simple brilliance of a Pop Tart has endured for decades.

When managing finances, the least complicated rules are still worth following. Saving at least 10% of your income annually, monitoring spending, keeping credit card and other unsecured debt levels to a minimum, establishing an emergency cash reserve and investing to reach longer-term goals — these never go out of style or lose appeal.

Sure, it’s fine to add a sweet kick to money basics. For example, taking calculated risks like investing a portion of your assets in emerging-markets stocks and bonds, placing money in sectors or asset classes that have recently underperformed, and investing in learning new skills to increase your value in the workplace can top your basics off nicely.

As with Pop-Tarts or any sweet treats, moderation is important. It’s the same with your money behavior. You shouldn’t pursue either extreme deprivation or all-out splurging.

Wealth is built in moderation.

I blacked out from eating three boxes of Pop-Tarts during a 1970s Saturday morning cartoon block. I’m not proud of that experience, but I am wiser for it.

Just like the advertising campaign claims they’re “crazy good,” so can you be by following the lessons straight from a beloved toaster pastry.