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I Bank at McDonalds: Confessions of a Personal Finance Writer

(Graphic: Helen Jane Hearn/

People assume that I’m good with money because I write about it. I’m better than most. I’ve managed to keep my housing costs below-market in one of America’s most expensive cities for the past two decades. I dutifully sock away 15 percent of my salary (amplified by that oh-so-nice company match) in a retirement plan. I’ve paid off my loans for grad school as well as a car.

But I do make questionable financial decisions.

Here are four of my deepest, darkest money secrets.

1. I bank at McDonald’s. I know where every McDonald’s is within a 20-block radius from my office. And it’s not for the Big Macs, Filet-O-Fish or French Fries. While I rarely (maybe one out of every 100 visits) consume any food at Mickey Dees, aside from the occasional black-and-white shake, it’s where I get cold, hard cash. That’s because I bank at a credit union which has limited brick-and-mortar locations. But the credit union’s banking network allows you to use ATMs at any New York City McDonald’s, surcharge-free.

If I need a lot of cash for a trip, I end up monopolizing the ATM for a chunk of time, because you can only withdraw in $200 or $300 increments, depending on the McDonald’s location. Let’s just say the folks standing behind me in line are not lovin’ it.

2. I keep a credit card balance (occasionally). Yes, it’s true. I have ignored every personal finance rule on the planet and lived beyond my means at times, using credit cards to pay for high-ticket items such as surgery for my son, plane tickets and, ugh, groceries. I leaned on plastic to keep me afloat after my husband and I got divorced. I’m not proud of it.

But here’s the thing. When I do use a credit card, I treat it like a bridge loan. I pay it back in a timely fashion. I’m currently 100-percent debt-free, and I’m trying my hardest to stay that way.

3. I’ve lent money to loved ones. I’ve also played the role of money lender to people I love who have dodgy finances. For example, I co-signed one person’s student loan and helped another purchase a car. I almost took a loan from my retirement plan to bail out someone who was in very serious financial trouble. All of these actions go against the basic tenets of financial planning, particularly since these moves could damage my credit history if the borrowers fail to live up to their financial promises.

But my credit score, I’m proud to say, is exemplary.

4. I never, ever bring lunch to work. Yes, you can save money by bringing lunch from home. According to a calculator from, I could save $112 per month — or a total $6,191 over the course of four years — by bringing a bagged lunch to work 16 times per month.

That’s a nice chunk of change. But here’s the rub: Bagged lunches sound really depressing to me. I hate leftovers. I never know what I want to eat for lunch until it’s lunchtime. And did I mention that I despise schlepping things? Living in New York City, I’m constantly bogged down by bags. If you’ve ever had a yogurt explode in your purse or a leaky container of pasta with pesto seep onto your iPad, despite all necessary packing precautions, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Live large. Go out to lunch.

Got any financial secrets of your own? Share them right here in the comments.


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