This is not a post on how to get rich. If I knew that, I wouldn’t tell you anyway, I would be too busy swimming in my coins like Scrooge McDuck.
It is, however a post on spending money – something that isn’t hard to do or know about. My thoughts here are how to optimize spending in order to live a more enriching life. This sounds like something only a person with a lot of money would say, but I can remember a time not so long ago when I had $200 to my name and thousands more in debt, and I still believed these three rules that I will share with you. In fact, it’s possible that these rules might be the reason I even got out of debt. Then again, maybe they aren’t, but they certainly have helped me to change my perception on money and spending. As I grow older, I realize that money is not the most precious commodity, and neither is McDuck’s gold. The most precious commodity available to us is time.
In the beginning, we spend all of our time trying to earn money. But later, once we have some money, we should spend it freely in order to earn time.
I read this idea about the value of time somewhere and it has stuck with me. I’m paraphrasing, but the concept is explained like this: If you have any excess money, then you are obligated to use it in order to invest in the most precious commodity: time, because the intrinsic value of time is exponentially higher than that of money.
This is my overarching concept for prioritizing spending, and so with that foundation now laid, here are my three rules on how to make spending decisions.
My Simple Spending Rules:
- Always evaluate purchases as a trade-off for time or other benefits.
- Always view purchases as “total cost” rather than “immediate cost.”
- The value and costs of experiences are never weighted the same as the cost of physical things.
DISCLAIMER: This is a long post. You can stop here or you can choose to keep reading and learn more. I suggest you keep reading. Maybe, just maybe, it will someday save you a lot of money, time, or stress.
Plastic Water Bottles
When I opened the back door of my car today I noticed over a dozen empty plastic water bottles on the floor of the back seat. I have a habit of finishing a bottle of water and tossing it in the back seat rather than finding a garbage.
When I saw this pile of empty bottles, one thought came to mind: What a waste! Water is so cheap. Why don’t I fill up a bottle at home rather than wasting money on buying cases of water at the grocery store?
I wasn’t wrong for thinking this. Yes, in a country where clean water is available everywhere and practically for free, why would a person spend 20 cents or $2 on a bottle of water? It is financial ignorance at it’s finest, right?
But I was wrong for thinking this. Because this thought is one that applied to me years ago, but it doesn’t apply today. And this thought comes from surface-level decision making, not strategic life design. If you keep reading, I’ll explain more.
Amazon Prime is Worth Way More than $99
A couple of months ago I finally bit the bullet and signed up for Amazon Prime. Before that moment, I was holding on, thinking about how $99 just wasn’t worth the free shipping when I can simply buy things in-store and pay no shipping at all.
In that time since signing up, I have ordered over 30 items on Prime. The items arrive within 1-2 days and I simply open my front door, walk two steps, and grab the package. The convenience of buying is easy, but it’s not just convenience at play here – it’s time.
As I have written about before, I am a chronic list-maker, probably a function of my “Type A Personality” (a term I hate and question often, but regardless, a stereotype worth using here). The benefit to being a list maker is efficiency and organization. I always get done what needs to get done. The problem with being a list maker is that the lists become a looming agenda of anxiety that seem important although they really are not. This manifests itself in grocery lists and household item lists. My “Target List” in my iPhone notes becomes something I “need to get done today,” even though I really don’t. But that’s what lists do – the items constantly beckon to be crossed off.
It is these lists that cause me to spend an hour and a half driving to Target, walking
through aisles, waiting in check-out lanes, and dealing with rude people. It is these lists that consume my free time, the time that could be spent doing more important things, like reading or writing, being with my friends and family, or working to make more money. And this is the realization that Amazon Prime has brought
And this is the realization that Amazon Prime has brought me, because over the last few months I have voided my shopping lists; and instead, when I think of an item I need, I open the Amazon app and order it immediately. Then, one or two days later it’s on my door step. There is no stress of a “to do” list. There is no mental consumption of these tasks. There is no traffic, no check-out lines, no rude people in the parking lot. There is only the thought of a need and then the moving on with life.
In the last few months I have saved at least three trips to Target and at least three trips to the grocery store. If each trip takes on average one hour to complete, then I have saved six hours at least already. This comes out to $16.50 per hour saved. ($99 / 6 hours).
I am assuming that most people reading this post probably earn near or more than $16.50 per hour at work. With simple math, and assuming that you can work whenever you desire, then you can see how simply working six hours would pay for Amazon Prime and then it would save you a ton of time to focus on more important things in life.
Or maybe you aren’t paid hourly, so this simple math doesn’t apply as easily. You are a salaried employee who wouldn’t earn the extra income by working more. For you I would ask two key questions:
The first is: Are there other ways to make money (more than $16.50/hour) that you could be exploring such as:
- Side business: Are there other ways to make money that you could be exploring? This could be starting a business, writing a book, driving Uber, or a million other things.
- Career: How could you spend extra time outside of your 40 hours to be better at work, get ahead, develop your craft, etc. that would end up bringing raises or bonuses in the future? For instance, if you spent an extra 6 hours per month for a year at your work, could that lead to a $5,000 pay raise at the end of the year? If so, then your time is worth $69.44 per hour ($5,000 divided by 72 hours).
The second question is: what is the value of your time when it is spent doing what you love or being proactive rather than reactive?
- For example, when you go to your mom’s house for dinner, what is the value of that? $16.50 per hour? Or is it closer to $100 per hour, or more? (The answer is, “it’s priceless, Mom, I love you.”)
- Taking this further, what is the value of going for a jog and clearing your head and doing some real thinking? Instead of spending your time at the grocery store or at Home Depot, maybe you choose to think during your time saved. Those thoughts lead to less stress and more happiness. What is the value of that? $200 per hour, or more?
- One step further, what would the value be for spending time reading or journaling or meeting with people smarter than you? Would you have an epiphany for a business idea or possibly meet someone who you could start a business with or work for? What is the value of that? It could be $500 per hour or even more! The sky is the limit here.
Guidelines for Spending
With all of these questions and this realization, I have developed certain rules for my personal finance. I don’t use them 100% of the time, but I do think about them often and let them guide me in deciding how to spend money. I stated these rules earlier, but here they are in more depth:
My Simple Spending Rules Again:
- Always review purchases as a trade off for time or other benefits:
- If I can earn more money per hour than this “thing” would cost, then I need to pay for it and spend that time doing more important things. (Amazon Prime example)
- If there are things to do that have a higher value than this thing costs in time, then I should pay the money and spend that time doing what I want to do. (Dinner with Mom example)
- Always view purchases as “total cost” rather than “immediate cost.”
- The cost/value of experiences are not weighted the same as the cost of items/things.
- ie: $1 spent on items = $3 spent on experiences
These rules help guide me but they don’t always apply. For instance, some people really enjoy going to Target. Maybe that is their alone time. Well then to this person I would say that maybe Amazon Prime is a waste of money.
This is the same decision making that helped me decide to finally start Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. The cost per month seemed far too expensive at first glance. With the other monthly costs I was already paying for, I couldn’t justify the additional hits to my budget. But as I discussed with my wife, she applied the same thinking to my simple rules above, “Chris, if it will make you happier or less stressed or healthier or more successful in any way, than it is worth the money.” This was the push I needed – to stop evaluating the cost as a simple number and start evaluating the cost as value related to time and opportunity.
In addition, I also looked at the total cost, rather than the immediate cost by evaluating the cost of the jiu jitsu school membership X 12 months X 2 years, for example. I figured if I loved it I would at least join for this duration. When I looked at the total cost for two years, the number was big, but it was tiny in comparison to all of the possible benefits that my wife had listed. Exchanging $2,000, for instance, for being happier? Heck, I think we would all pay much more. (I wrote about this more in my post: Why I Started Brazilian Jiu Jitsu).
This rule, looking at total cost, has also brought me to spending more on certain items, and less on others. For instance, I can look at a pair of dress shoes as “cost per wear,” or “cost per year” rather than “cost per purchase.” In the past, I have tried to save money on buying a cheaper pair of black dress shoes for work. I shopped deals and eventually landed on a pair for $70. Well, a year later, thanks to the Minnesota snow and salt and that $70 pair needed to be replaced. Whereas when I have spent $150 on a pair of nice dress shoes, that pair has lasted three years, rather than one. So in this case:
$70 pair of shoes = $70 per year
$150 pair of shoes = $50 per year
See the difference? It’s not enough to simply look at the immediate cost. You must look at overall cost. Another example is when I had car issues a few months ago. Based on the error reading and a quick validation from an auto mechanic, I knew that a crankshaft time sensor in my GMC was faulty and needed to be replaced. I sat in the parking lot of the mechanic trying to make the decision on if I should fix this myself or instead hire it out to the mechanic. The mechanic wanted $450 with parts and service. While I sat in the parking lot, I did a quick search. I watched a YouTube video that showed how to do it in 15 minutes and found the parts from a manufacturer that would only cost about $40. But I had to make a decision, and I asked myself these questions: What if it’s not that easy? What if I get a defective part or I break something while taking the bad piece out? What else can I be doing during that time?
The clock was ticking. I had to make a decision. I turned to rules #1 and #2 in order to make the decision. After all, what if it’s not as easy as the YouTube video showed? What if I get a defective part from the manufacturer, or a break something taking the bad piece out? What if the manufacturer takes days or weeks to ship it to me? What if I replace the part successfully, but my car still malfunctions? All of these questions led me to evaluate the costs not as $40 vs. $450, but like this instead:
+$400 in time (8 hours X $50/hour, an estimate of my time and what it’s worth)
+$300 in frustration (the cost I would pay to make the problem go away if I ran into problems)
+ $300 in the chance of unknown issues (the cost if I break something while fixing it, or create a new problem or miss out on doing something better with my time)
= TOTAL of $1,040
Hire it Out:
$450 to auto mechanic
– $350 for my perceived peace of mind and convenience
= TOTAL of $100
I realize that this is subjective, but it is how I apply my rules for spending and it has enhanced my life greatly. It is important to look at the overall costs and weigh them against time and other valued factors, rather than simply looking at immediate price.
I was ecstatic when the mechanic fixed my car in just a few hours and it has ran smoothly ever since. Money well spent.
Back to shoes…
My Favorite Shoes Were Found in the Trash
I have a pair of shoes that I love. Not the $150 black leather shoes I mentioned before, but instead a pair of tan suede shoes that I found in the trash. Let me explain more.
I was visiting my parents about a year ago when they were preparing to move from the house in which they had lived for over ten years. While packing, they had built a large pile of “goodwill and garbage” in the corner of the garage, and out of curiosity I started looking through it, partially interested in seeing what they were discarding, and partially to see if I could find any hidden gems. After all, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. And find a gem I did! My dad was throwing away a pair of shoes that he had worn for a couple of years, but had recently begun hurting his feet. They were stained with dirt and salt and had hundreds of miles put on them already. They were far from new but watch what happened next.
I tried the shoes on and …. immediately heard a chorus of angels singing and a beam of light came down from the sky parting the clouds and illuminating the shoes. They fit perfectly and looked decent too. I literally danced around the garage, flashing my new find to my siblings. I even jumped and did a heal-clicker like Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain. My brother and sister thought I was being ridiculous, and I was.
But over the last year, I have worn these shoes more than any other pair in my closet (thanks, Dad!). This is surprising for me personally, because I am somewhat addicted to buying sneakers and shoes from stores like Nike and Cole Haan, I have a closet full of “new” shoes that I have spent plenty on, and I’m constantly fighting the urge to buy more.
The point is this: if you believe money is the goal then you will miss the gold. Let me explain.
Many of us spend our lives dreaming of winning the lottery or becoming a millionaire. We picture in our heads the luxuries that would ensue and the freedom it would bring. But it is not the actual money we dream of, it is the ability to make decisions without money as a factor. For instance, if you have a billion dollars, then taking a vacation to Europe is an easy decision with no sacrifice at all. Money is not a factor here. It is not the actual number in the bank account you dream of, it is the freedom of making decisions based on the number in a bank account. And so I argue that money is not the actual goal. The goal, or “gold,” is in making decisions that are not based on money.
This explains why I love these shoes. They were literally trash, ready to be tossed into a pile with other garbage like empty milk cartons and left-over food scraps. But to me, they were gold for one reason, and it wasn’t because they were free. The reason I love these shoes is because they have no relevance to my personal finances. Conversely, when I wear a new pair of Cole Haans or a fresh pair of Nikes, they say something about my bank account. They say “I have enough money to buy these,” whether I intend them to say that or not. But when I wear a pair of hand-me-down, trash-destined shoes that I stole out of my dad’s garage, then to me they say literally nothing. Nothing about me or my bank account or my spending or anything! I wear them because I like them and I make that decision each time with ZERO thought or influence of money. This is the ultimate gold – making decisions without thinking about money, and this is why I love these shoes. Yes, they were free, but the monetary cost of shoes is not my concern, it is the freedom of choice.
How can you apply this to other areas? Maybe you don’t have parents who have good trash laying around. And maybe the cost of shoes really is your concern. Have no fear, there is still a lesson here, and it is simple: There is immediate and long-term happiness in finding opportunities to make decisions that are not based on money.
Such opportunities could come through meticulous budgeting, such as packing a lunch every day rather than eating out. Doing so would build savings and the act of eating your packed lunch would for a time seem like a sacrifice, but over time you would be able to eat out at restaurants completely guilt free.
Another example is understanding the value of experiences vs. things. When you realize that experiences have a higher value than things, you can experience happiness by making the decision to go on vacation or go to a concert without thinking about the cost. Which leads me to my last point on my rules for spending.
(PS – here’s the shoes if you want to see a better picture: Original Penguin Merle Chukka Boot from DSW)
I Never Regret Spending on Experiences
To say “never regret” seems bold, but it’s not. This also doesn’t mean that I haven’t spent way too much on experiences, because I definitely have, and my finances have suffered as a result. I’ve spent thousands on vacations when I really didn’t have the money. That was a financial mistake, but I still have zero regrets.
Looking back at every experience I have spent money on, I have never thought back and wished I could take it back. And when I say “experiences,” I am mostly referring to events that are spent with the people I love. These events are things like concerts, vacations, dinners out, rock climbing, sky diving, cooking classes, escape rooms, sporting events, and more. These events are always shared with special people and they always enhance life.
As I stated earlier, the value of a dollar is worth more when spent on experiences than it is when spent on physical items. For example, when I spent $800 on a TV for my house, it redeemed a value of approximately $800. But when I spent $800 on flights to San Francisco for my wife and me, this was worth something closer to $10,000 (or more) in terms of the value it meant to us. (I talked more about this trip in my post: Have a Plan for Your Life… And Sometimes Even Stick to It).
Similarly, when I spent money on tickets to Hamilton recently, I expected buyer’s remorse. The tickets were far outside of our budget, and I bought them more-or-less on a whim. Terrible spending habits, right? Wrong. We haven’t even gone to the play yet, and already the value of these tickets have surmounted the cost through feelings of excitement and through conversations that my wife and I have shared about the event.
Again, I have never had regret for spending on experiences. That doesn’t mean it’s OK to break your budget and take on debt to go travel the world. Instead, it means that you should limit spending on items so that you have more money to spend on experiences later, such as travel the world.
See my past post on how having something to look forward to helps with happiness or my other post on the Hamilton Musical.
This post is not an instructional on how to get rich. I don’t even know the answer to that so I could never write about it. My thoughts here are about how to spend for happiness and life optimization. How to change your perceived value of money and how to eliminate previous biases and beliefs about cost, expenses, and budgets. This means “wasting money” on water bottles because they are convenient, if that is important to you. It also means spending money to save time and it means evaluating cost on a broader scale then just the immediate transaction. Finally, it means realizing that not all dollars are spent equally, and that spending on experiences will always trump spending on material items.
My hope is that you take at least one of these rules and apply them to your life and as a result you experience some improvement to your life. These rules, if applied correctly, can change the way you perceive time, relationships, and life. They can curb materialism, enhance experiences, and help to create memories. Most importantly, these rules can help you enjoy life and help create more margin. Because when your life comes to an end, you probably will never say, “I wish I had more money.” Instead, you might possibly say, “I wish I had more time,” or rather, “I wish I had made the most of my time.” I am confident that applying these rules will help remove these regrets and enhance your life.