Friday, September 11, 2015

spending optimization

I'm open with anyone who asks (or spends enough time around me that they can't avoid hearing my talking) about valuing money as a tool.  I invest it so it grows large enough to fund my life in the future, so that working for someone else becomes a choice rather than a necessity.  The people I've interacted with (mostly online) who have similar visions are thoughtful about spending by necessity.  If you have aggressive investment goals, you can't be spending all your money on other things.  You need to buy (lots of) investments and put your money to work!  Many embrace the concept of frugality and thrift, but I've never felt comfortable doing the same.

We just returned from a 9-day trip to Croatia (7 of them sailing on a catamaran with friends).  In total, for the two of us, the trip cost $2,908.81.  That's much less than one could spend for an amazing trip like that, but there ain't nothing thrifty or small about that number (and that's our third, though most expensive, international trip this year).  I don't want to be a fraud and pretend like I don't spend lots of money on things I don't technically need but make my life happier.  I also don't see any inherent value in not spending money - it's yours to be used, whether to fulfill a short-term want or need, invest for your future, or be consumed through housing, travel, and the like.  I'm all about spending optimization, not minimization.

I don't budget at all, but I do track every single expense.  Given a minute to pull up a spreadsheet, I could list off what we've spent on everything (and I likely will, at the end of the year).  I have a sense for what we typically spend, but never a budget.  I've given a lot of thought to what I want, and setting myself up to be able to travel for months at a time, or devote time to a child, or live in new places, or work for myself, or work for little money, or everything else I might desire, is really important.  That requires a big chunk of investments to draw on for maximum freedom and flexibility in choices.  There are lots of little frivolities that, upon consideration,  don't fill me with the same happiness that having complete autonomy does.  Or make me as happy as going to ballets, skiing, traveling, and visiting friends and family (which are all things I choose to spend money on).

My training in economics and my concerted efforts to be more rational about money have left me very comfortable with the concept of opportunity cost and comparison of value.  As I've said before, I naturally tend to spend money - I want to buy everything when I enter a Target or Costco or Staples or dollar store.  There's a reason I don't go into stores for fun - it would be real expensive, and I would ultimately be sad dealing with the clutter I'd brought into my life.  But spending money isn't inherently bad (unless you're spending money you don't have) or good - some things that cost money can bring tremendous joy or comfort, and abstaining doesn't make you better or even richer.  Having lots of money but no purpose or community doesn't sound like a rich life to me.

I admire the thrifty - to be thrifty, you have to be nonconformist and willing to buck trends.  To not spend (as much) money on cars or clothes requires comfort with looking different or not doing what's 'normal'.  To be thrifty, you need to be creative - understanding your unmet needs and finding a solution by using what you have, rather than buying something someone else created, is awesome.  (And better for the environment.)  When internal confidence dictates your choices (rather than fear or reverence of externals standards), and you're thoughtful and creativity in determining and meeting your needs, the conditions are perfect for investing lots of money and building wealth (and thus freedom) at a tremendous speed!  To me that final step is what's valuable - purchasing something that will pay dividends (literally and figuratively) in life is a smart decision worth celebrating.  Not spending money?  I think that only has inherent value if you do something meaningful with that money you didn't spend.

I hate budgeting because I don't think there's a constant optimal amount to spend every month, and budgeting artificially sets a limit and will cause stress or annoyance if you exceed the limit.  If you spend all your money (or more than you make) consistently, then you need to budget (because reality).  But if you make enough and have enough self-control, optimizing rather than minimizing spending is the way to go, for me.  So as much as I dislike budgeting, I appreciate (and swear by) tracking.  If you don't know how and how much you spend, your ability to maximize your happiness or course correct to align spending with values is limited.  For me, it's not stressful to consider every purchase and the value it'll bring to me (but it would be stressful to go over an artificial budget) - for others, using a budget is the less stressful way to meet goals.  Reading Gretchen Rubin's work on habit formation has left me with a deeper appreciation for how different methods work for different people.  And that the same method will work tremendously for one and disastrously for another.

I don't work well with artificial limits (because I feel drawn to argue about them or break them), but an all-or-nothing technique can work wonders for me given my personal limitations.  So I don't budget, but I reason out and think through non-necessary purchases because that's fun for me.  And I don't go into stores for fun (because not buying takes a lot of effort, and my will-power is limited).  When abstaining isn't an option (like with chocolate), I tend to limit the quantity.  I usually buy one small chocolate bar weekly (that I proceed to eat in one day).  When you know what triggers discomfort or irrational behavior in you, you can build a system that works with or avoids them.  I think this is especially important with finances because money triggers intense emotions in all of us, but in different ways, which is why personal finances are so individual despite the math being universal.

Life's all about finding the most reasonable way to meet the goals you have with the constraints life deals you.  (Hmmm ... that kinda sounds like budgeting.)  Do you think there is value is frugality and not spending, or budgeting?  More importantly, what saving or investing techniques have you adopted to enable you to succeed and grow wealthy?  What are your financial triggers (or what doesn't bother you like it does most people)?


  1. I really like that you talk about your weaknesses when it comes to spending as I also suffer from impulse buying (and eating all the chocolate)! I agree that spending is good when it is meaningful and also within your means.

    1. I'm definitely not perfect and don't have any issues sharing about that. :)

      It's funny because we all have our areas where impulse control is hard, and others where we have no problems in that area. It's always so easy to judge when someone's impulse management issues don't line up with ours as far as the spending category (clothes, electronics, eating out, etc). Happens to me a lot because some of the things my peers seem like they can't help spending on, I have no problem ignoring/resisting.

  2. I'm in the no budget, pro-tracking camp as well. We have large swings in spending (moving every year, new jobs, vacations) that make setting a monthly budget unrealistic and artificial. Tracking is nice because you can see how much you spend in aggregate and catch mistakes (fees you can negotiate, refunds not given, ect).
    For me, it's important that spending aligns with my values. I have no appreciation for cars and would get absolutely no pleasure in having an expensive car. I am perfectly happy with a car 25 yr old car that (most-of-the-time) gets me from A to B. I’ve never regretted money spend on travel, visiting friends, theater (though I try to find discounted tix), and celebratory dinners with friends/family.
    Lately, I’ve been very focused on the money I spend on my appearance (which has been more than usual because of interviews) …. Society puts a lot of pressure on women to look a certain way and that is considered the professional standard. For years, I’ve tried to spend just the right of money and time on my appearance. Spend too much and you look snobby, spend too little and you look unkempt. How come nobody cares if a man gets manicures? Or wears the same shoes to multiple meetings? Think about it… maintaining this ridiculous standard probably costs me thousands of dollars over the course of my lifetime in purchases/services. More if I ever go into a client facing role. This is completely against my values (feminism, sense of fairness) and I don't know why I do it … something that’s been on my mind lately.

    1. Ah, the woman tax. :(

      I don't have much to say that's useful since I've been known to do stuff like wear pajama jeans to work and not give (enough of) a shit about how I look. You should check out Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth - I remember it having a big impact on me when I read it. I can think of techniques to manage the costs of the tax, but I haven't figured out how to avoid the tax altogether and still be part of society and gainfully employed in a professional role.