Friday, August 06, 2004

Money to Burn
I am cheap. OK, you all knew that already. Cheapness is neither virtuous nor sinful; it is just a habit of not spending money that may be good (as when it causes me to forgo unnecessary expenditures and remain solvent) or bad (as when it tempts me to avoid paying my own fair share).

Thriftiness, on the other hand, is a virtue. In essence, it is the practice of getting maximum value and enjoyment out of your money. Because bankruptcy is no fun, it requires ensuring that money first goes to paying bills and meeting the necessities of life. Next, it would require some level of preparation for the future, appropriate to one's means and future plans. (DOB runs into people making six figures who can't find money to plan for the future. There's something warped there.) After that, thriftiness just means spending less money on things that aren't important to you, so that you can spend more money on things that are.

Part of this whole equation is realizing that time is money, too. Thus, thriftiness may involve spending less money so that you need to spend less time earning money and can spend more time on things that are more important or more fun. Or it might involve spending less money so that you can have a job you enjoy more that pays less.

Thus, there are few particular behaviors or lifestyles that are necessarily thrifty or not. A thrifty person might live on a farm in the middle of nowhere, accessorized with things scrounged from dumpsters and collapsing barns, or they might live in a downtown apartment and spend a thousand dollars on shoes a month. The issue is whether they are living within their means and spending their money on the things that matter to them.

The trouble is, most people don't stop to think about what's important to them and make sure their money is maximized in that direction. Suppose you spend $5 more on lunch and/or coffee every day than you would spend by making these items yourself. (Ha, Marsha, you knew I'd bring it up, didn't you?) Over the course of a year, that's going to be about $1500. Is the taste and convenience of the purchased lunch or coffee worth that much more to you than the house payments/vacation days/donation to your favorite cause that the money could instead be used for? If so, go eat your lunch in peace. (On the other hand, it takes DOB and me less than 5 minutes to pack up leftovers for his lunch. That makes lunch packing an activity worth about $60 an hour--tax free.)

Everybody has to spend at least some money on food, shelter, and clothing. After that, their priorities are going to differ wildly. There will be things that they'd have to be flat broke to give up (for me, internet service would be one); things they'll spend money on as soon as they have any extra (a bigger house on acreage); things they'd spend money on if they had plenty of extra (attending live performances); and things they wouldn't spend money on if you paid them to (convenience food--beans and rice from scratch are healthier for millionaires, too). The important thing is not what order your secondary priorities are in, but whether you spend in that order.

The only action that defies thriftiness across the board is waste, which is simply putting something that still has some use out of reach of any use. No matter how rich I was, I would turn out lights in empty rooms (or maybe set up a snazzy system of automatic sensors ;-) ). If a wealthy person can afford to buy a new outfit for every day they're alive, that's not necessarily wasteful--as long as they dispose of the old ones in a way that lets someone else make good use of them. Even blatant overspending--buying for $150 something that could easily be purchased for $20, say--is not in itself wasteful. At least the money is going to someone engaged in some sort of productive activity.

Other "thrifty" activities may be thrifty or not, depending on your circumstances. Right now, garage saling is a thrifty activity for me because I live in a neighborhood with lots of garage sales, and I can get a lot of the things I need right now (children's clothes and toys, household furnishings) at them. Before this year I didn't have those factors and I had never shopped at a garage sale. On the other hand, in the past I have driven very decrepit cars because I had my dad and brother to do a fair amount of the work on them. Now I live on the other side of the country, and DOB and I don't have the space or skills to do the work ourselves, so that's no longer a thrifty strategy.

I'm cheap, and I can't help it. I work on being thrifty--which for me usually means being willing to spend money on the things that really do matter to me, and when necessary accepting the tradeoff of spending more money to save time and energy.

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