How personal finance is changing in the US

I am writing this in Los Angeles where I've been attending the premiere of the film Think and Grow Rich: The Legacy, which explains Napoleon Hill's famous success principles, and features cameo appearances by people such as me whose lives have been transformed after reading the book Think and Grow Rich.

The launch of the film was timed to coincide with the 80th anniversary of Hill's book, which was released in 1937. It has since sold over 100 million copies and is still widely regarded as the best personal success book ever written. Film distribution is currently being negotiated, but I expect it will be available in Australia in the new year.

In Australia, we tend to get the impression that the United States is a dangerous country amid a sea of troubles, but the reality is different: this is the world's biggest economy and it is booming. The freeways of Los Angeles are busier than ever, the restaurants and shopping malls are packed, and everywhere we went felt extremely safe.

We were surprised by the virtual invisibility of President Donald Trump. Anybody who has arrived at Los Angeles International Airport will remember the huge photo of the President of the day that usually welcomes all arrivals. Currently there is just a huge empty space where the photo normally hangs. Why? Nobody could offer an explanation.

When I tried to discuss politics with friends from both sides of politics nobody really wanted to talk much. The Republicans reckon Trump is doing a reasonable job despite being under constant attack from a hostile media, and the Democrats are taking the "I told you so" line. Most Americans I encountered were far more interested in football and baseball. We were surprised by all the bumper stickers supporting Bernie Sanders for President in 2020.

Two big changes are the growing dominance of cashless transactions and Uber. Apart from needing a few dollars in cash to tip hotel staff, I got by with my 28 Degrees MasterCard, which is still giving the best exchange rates. The Americans will accept a card for any amount - none of those ridiculous minimum amounts that some businesses foist on us in Australia.

Uber cars are everywhere, and the fares are so cheap they have become the most practical form of transport in most cities. But to use Uber you need a mobile phone connected to the internet, which can be a problem for travellers. Luckily, Telstra have come to the party in spades. Their international travel pass costs just $10 a day and includes all phone calls and text messages. Data of 100 megabytes is also included, but if you exceed that amount $10 buys you an additional 500 megabytes, which is good for 30 days. And, on days when you don't use your phone no fees are charged. Believe me, it's a comforting feeling to have a fully operational phone 24/7 and to know it's only costing $10 a day.

Tips are a fact of life in America, where the basic hourly rate is less than $10, and two weeks' annual holidays are the norm. But as the years pass, the standard tip has gone from 15 per cent to 20 per cent, with some places even adding another 4 per cent for health insurance. It does make dining out expensive, but American portions are so huge a couple can eat reasonably cheaply by ordering courses to share. The restaurants have no problem with this, and you will not go away hungry.

The US dollar strengthened as the days passed, making our spending more expensive, but I took solace in the knowledge that 30 per cent of my superannuation is invested in international managed funds heavily exposed to the US dollar. It was the perfect hedge.

Noel Whittaker is the author of Making Money Made Simple and numerous other books on personal finance. His advice is general in nature and readers should seek their own professional advice before making any financial decisions. Email:

This story How personal finance is changing in the US first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.