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Jeter 3,000: Lucky Fan Blew 3 Money Basics

Here we go again.

Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees finally collected career-hit number 3,000 by ripping a ball into the left-field stands for a home run. The lucky young man who retrieved the valuable ball...gave it back, becoming the latest star-crossed fan to fall financial victim to mental accounting.

Writing for TIME a dozen years ago, I noted that the young man who caught Mark McGwire's record-breaking 62nd home-run ball of the 1998 season lost an estimated $1 million when he dutifully handed the ball back to the St. Louis Cardinals. The Jeter ball was probably worth less -- $250,000 by one estimate. But the kid who caught it, 23-year-old Christian Lopez, still owes tens of thousands in student loans. He's giving away a quarter mil?

And let's not forget that this is the Yankees, a rich team that is all about the money. The Yankees charge so much for seats and a hot dog that ordinary people would have to mortgage their house for a few tickets and a good time near the dugout. Lopez made a grand, expensive gesture to an organization that only makes such gestures itself when backed into a corner. It was a mistake on many levels.

In case you are wondering, fans have the right to keep any ball hit in the stands. It says so right on the ticket. When Lopez grabbed the Jeter home run ball, he was $250,000 richer. Yet he gave it away in a blink. Here's what he said: "Mr. Jeter deserved it. Yeah, money is cool and all, but I'm only 23 years old. I have a lot of time to make that. His accomplishment is a milestone."

I applaud the young man's sense of propriety. Money isn't everything. Experiences can be far more valuable. And he did receive some cool stuff from the Yankees in return (for which he can expect a tax bill!). Still, remind me to check in on him in 25 years. If he is like the vast majority of Americans he won't have anything close to $250,000 in the bank. He just doesn't know that yet. Lopez' act illustrates a common mind-set that leads many of us into costly errors in daily money matters. Here are his missteps and what you can learn from them:

  • Buying on Impulse We all do it on occasion. But impulse buys are almost always a bad deal. Sleep on those decisions, and you'll probably not spend the money. Credit cards compound the problem by making impulse buys less painful. Lopez' mistake was giving away his valuable baseball the day he caught it. He could have taken it home and thought about it. If he still decided to give the ball away, Jeter would have been just as grateful. You lose nothing by taking the time to think about your spending decision.
  • Hewing to the Crowd There's comfort in doing what others think you should do. To some degree, Lopez must have felt pressure to do the "right" thing and return the ball. Yet the people making him feel that way had no skin in the game. He should not have allowed external pressures to influence him. You may feel pressure to lease an expensive car or spend money in some other way to keep up with your neighbors and friends. That is a ticket to suffocating indebtedness.
  • Easy Come, Easy Go In their book, Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes, Gary Belsky and Thomas Gilovich discuss mental accounting: the penchant for placing different values on money obtained in different ways. We tend to spend more frivolously or risk "found" money (a bonus or gift) than money earned through hard work. In casinos, some folks blithely fritter away their gains reasoning that they're playing with the house's money. Yet all dollars spend the same. Lopez gave big bucks to a millionaire, but it didn't feel that way because he had put the home run ball in the "found money" category, where it was easy to spend, gamble or give away. "It's important that you learn to view all money equally," write Belsky and Gilovich. "The more time you have to think of money as savings -- hard earned or otherwise -- the less likely you'll be to spend it recklessly."
Photo courtesy Flickr User sf9067
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