Today I was scrolling through Craig’s List. Because I’m an idiot. Just kidding. I was scrolling through because it’s sort of my hobby to scroll through. BUT, just because there are awesome deals to be had in every corner or Craig’s List doesn’t mean they are necessarily awesome for me at a particular time.
Case in point. This week we are ahead on our budget by a few hundred bucks. So we have a couple hundred bucks to spend, right? Well, not really. For one thing, when I log in to the health insurance web site, I can see $140 of bills coming down the pike (the Explanation of Benefits is sitting there, but we haven’t yet received the bill). Furthermore, we’re getting a quote Wednesday morning for some maintenance that needs to be done to the furnace. We don’t know what that will cost.
We have a crummy Ikea bureau in our bedroom. Two drawers can only be opened by the right pull, else the front pops off. Wouldn’t you know, Craig’s List has a solution that I absolutely love. An antique. Gorgeous. Well-made. Matches our beautiful bed. It’s been sitting on Craig’s List for 8 days, and is only 20 minutes from our house, just two towns over.
Ain’t she a beaut? The sales post explains that the family is downsizing. They bought the bureau at a “certified” antique store in Maine in 2012 for $2,800. They’re”heartbroken” that they have to sell. They’re asking $600.
At this point I’ve bought a few bureaus from Craig’s List. This puppy is right up my alley. It’s in beautiful shape and I love it. $600 is more than I’m willing to pay. But $400 – I would love to offer these folks $400. After 8 days on the market, they’re probably getting a little antsy to sell it. And there’s no harm in putting in an offer, right? It’s such a great deal. Passing it up would be plain dumb. Right? It’s arbitrage – their loss is my gain!
Here’s the problem: it’s not in my budget today. I haven’t been setting aside money for a piece of furniture. I didn’t anticipate this cost. Do I have enough money to buy this? Yup. But is it a smart choice today? Nope. Damnit.
I’m about $250 “ahead” of my budget for the week. The “week” ends Thursday. But this “ahead” mindset has gotten me in to trouble before. Between now and Thursday, I’ll need gas. I’ll make a quick trip to the grocery store. We have that furnace appointment Wednesday morning. I’m not actually “ahead” until I hit the end of the week, you know?
I want this bureau. It kills me not to make an offer. I can justify it in so many ways. An opportunity like this might not ever come up again! I might end up paying more for a less perfect bureau down the road! $400 will not derail our long-term financial goals! I deserve nice things, I work hard and I hardly ever “treat” myself (not true, actually, but for the sake of arguing with myself, it’s a strong thought, haha).
So why not buy it? I can “afford” it.
Well, it’s not in the budget this week. Or this month. My husband and I talked about what was important to us this month, and “beautiful antique bureau” did not come up.
What did come up? A new pair of dress shoes for my husband. He’s worn the same pair to work each day for 5 years, and had them re-soled twice. He thought it was time for a new pair. $185.
What else? The furnace. We know there’s an issue, and we need heat. So we’ll get it fixed. Not sure how much that will be. It’s such an un-sexy way to spend money… but sexier than a mid-winter problem, that’s for sure.
The property taxes. We got the quarterly bill two weeks ago. It wasn’t due for a month and a half, but we figured we’d go ahead and pay it so that we weren’t dealing with it December 1st. That was $1,019.
Some plants for the backyard. We bought a few plants marked down for the end of the season last weekend (“no guarantee” the salesman helpfully repeated a few times). We’ve got an uggo back fence situation that I’d like to camouflage. End-of-season plant discounts are a couple magnitudes less expensive than a new fence. That “took care” of another $130.
And Salem. Every October we go to Salem. So yesterday we spent the day with a nephew walking around and window shopping. Gas, Dunkin Donuts, burgers for lunch – another $50.
Even though I want a new bureau in general, I didn’t want it enough at the beginning of the month to figure out a way to work it into our budget. So that means – no bureau 🙁 I don’t want to be making $400 impulse buys.
I think that’s the trouble – we want it in general, we happen across an amazing “deal,” and we justify a purchase to ourselves, but not to our bank accounts. That’s the wrong way to go about things.
If something is important enough to justify a purchase, make that decision ahead of time. Determine what you want to spend. Then set aside the money, over whatever course of time. Then find something that fits the budget you’ve ear marked for that purchase. Too often, I get the order of operations mixed up, and it bites me in the end.
The other big trick is to stay off Craig’s List when I don’t have a Craig’s List budget set aside.
The soda stream. The break-even point on an $84 soda stream is a lot of frigging soda water. Another amazing marketing success story!
The Apple Smart Watch. Not only are they ugly and expensive, every single person I’ve ever seen wearing one has an iPhone not more than a few inches away. Talk about redundancy. Again, marketing – Apple has convinced these people they “need” the watch.
Diamond rings.Diamonds are all marketing, ladies. There is a glut of diamonds, which is carefully controlled by the diamond cartels in order to artificially inflate the price. Spending $15,000 on a diamond is no kind of insurance policy for a marriage. Being nice to each other is a much higher level of security, and it is free.
Platinum wedding bands. Some of the men don’t like to be left out of the wedding spending frenzy, and they feel that because the man’s band is so much less money than the lady’s ring(s), it’s not such a big deal. Well platinum dulls like crazy, and scratches, and generally looks plain awful after a few months. I don’t understand why jewelers are so quick to tell you that it is the only metal that doesn’t “lose weight.” It looks like shit. Platinum is more marketing genius. My husband’s wedding band was $20, from Amazon. 4.5-star rated by 335 smart customers. He gets compliments on it all the time. It doesn’t make him love me any less.
My friends and coworkers love to talk about how certain things are and aren’t “worth it.”
This phrase always makes me roll my eyes. It’s typically used as a justification to spend more money.
It’s fine to spend more money on things you’ve decided are important. However, there’s a second part of the equation; not everything can be important! If you want to spend more on one thing, you consequently need to spend less on a different thing. Or nothing at all.
Here’s a friend’s recent facebook post:
This post generated 36 comments, plus ample sub-comment discussion. TONS of well-meaning suggestions. Everything from, “eat less meat” to “raise your own chickens and start a vegetable garden” to “buy a percentage of a cow and a chest freezer” to “eat more chicken thighs and less expensive cuts” to “I saw some folks on TV get 100% of her food from the grocery store dumpster for free” (ok, ok, that was one of my suggestions).
The poster – a lovely woman! – went on to explain that her family’s diet is strictly paleo. Cutting down on meat was not an option she was willing to consider. She also nixed dumpster diving. Snob!
So herein lies the problem: my girlfriend has declared that an expensive, meat-based diet, made even more expensive with organic, grass-fed ingredients, is “worth it” to her. It is a priority. That’s all well and good so long as she can afford it by cutting costs in different areas. If she can’t afford it, and stick to her family’s budget, it’s no longer “worth it.” It’s nuts!
Through this post, she’s trying to figure out how to have her cake and eat it too. It’s like saying, “I only fly first class, and drive luxury cars, and live in a mansion, and eat at the best restaurants” and then complaining that you’re having trouble affording first class.
We can’t declare every single thing we want “worth it.” It doesn’t work.
Scrolling back through the comments on this post – Costco! meal planning! boxed wine! home-made cleaning supplies! – it strikes me that not one person suggested cutting back in a different area of the family’s spending to accommodate their diet preferences.
I have another girlfriend who gets her hair cut and colored every 8 weeks to the tune of $250 (including tip). She was unemployed and living off her 401(k) for nearly a year (frankly, this was a choice – there was plenty of temporary, seasonal, and part-time work she could have picked up, had she wanted it). When she moaned about depleting her 401(k) and I suggested she cut out the salon visits, she was horrified. Her hair was “worth it.”
Another friend is looking for a way to cut back generally on spending. I suggested he start bringing lunch to work. He explained to me that bringing his lunches would only save him a few thousand dollars a year. He needed to start saving much larger amounts. The hassle of a brown bag lunch just wasn’t “worth it.”
I think the problem is that my friend group is a high-earning, professionally successful bunch. We get married later, buy homes later, have kids later – and for a period of several years in our 20’s, we got used to “having it all.” I certainly got used to it! I had a great income for a single person with very few expenses. If I wanted something, I bought it!
But then as I got older, and started planning for the future, and added a mortgage and health costs, and home expenses to the mix, I had to redefine what was “worth it.”
Now when I say things are “worth it,” there’s a new meaning. Usually I’m justifying that things are worth a sacrifice. Sometimes a big sacrifice, sometimes one that is hardly noticeable.
Our family’s $30/month Republic Wireless bill; is it an iPhone? Nope! But the plan is “worth it” to me. Socking money away for retirement – worth it! Trading in cable for Hulu – worth it! Brown bag lunches – worth it! $65 hotel rooms on vacation – worth it!
Small adjustments in day-to-day, week-to-week, and month-to-month behaviors which facilitate the Big Picture goals – worth it.
Holy smoke! $10-$30/person is solidly in the restaurant price range for me. For that kind of money (and no leftovers) it’s crazy to cook your own meal, nevermind do the clean up.
Ads for these companies are proliferating your newsfeed because the mark up is sick. These companies are brilliant. They’re making money hand over fist. They’ve figured out a way to charge restaurant prices for less food than you’d get in a restaurant, minus the restaurant overhead and labor. The marketing genius cannot be ignored! It is somehow so convincing that the customers rave about it, and say, “Thank you!”
The claim: Planning a meal is stressful.
I started cooking a few years back (by “cooking,” I mean that I transitioned from heating up pre-made boxed meals to starting with whole foods and spices and creating dishes). At whatever point I run out of food, I make a list of the meals I want to make for the next several days, then I check the cupboards, list the missing meal components, and head to the grocery store. The whole process takes maybe 35 minutes. It’s not stressful. Sometimes I make grilled cheese. Sometimes we have pancakes for dinner. Work-week breakfasts and lunches are made ahead of time. We heat leftovers a few nights each week. It’s not stressful.
The claim: There’s no food waste.
I don’t even understand the selling point here, but it is Hello Fresh’s #2 marketing point on the homepage of their website.
For me, you cook for the meal, sure. But you ALSO cook for several meals in the future at the same time. I have never, in my life, cooked a dish with two four-ounce portions of protein. I buy protein by the pound. If I bake salmon Sunday night (rub lightly with olive oil, sprinkle on Badia Red Fish Seasoning, pop in the oven for 25 minutes at 350 degrees) — you’d better believe I’m eating salmon for 3 more meals over the next several days. (Have I mentioned my coworkers love me?) Even when I go to a restaurant and spend $15 on an entree, there’s at least two meals there. At least.
Spending time cooking for a single meal is time well wasted.
The claim: the food is fresher.
I end up in the grocery store several times a week. This is another one that doesn’t make me want to buy these ingredients. My food is always fresh. And I have trouble thinking that food that is shipped in individual packages across the country by FedEx or UPS (that then sits by your front door for several hours) is more fresh than food
shipped directly to grocery stores in refrigerated trailer trucks.
But see what Blue Apron does here? It’s not claiming that the food is more fresh. It’s claiming that the “specialty ingredients” are more fresh than in the supermarket. Mmmm-hmmm.
With the proliferation of specialty grocery stores, spice stores, olive oil and vinegar stores, cheese stores, and internet grocery shopping (for when you can’t find coconut aminos) it’s just not difficult to get a fresh specialty ingredient, when your recipe happens to call for one.
The claim: More variety.
This one also doesn’t do it for me. For one thing, when I cook a new dish it always takes me longer than cooking a dish I’ve cooked before. I venture outside my normal twenty or so dishes when I have time. Also, grocery stores are great with seasonal food these days. Blue Apron, Plated, Hello Fresh – the websites all make a big deal about “seasonal” ingredients and recipes. Frankly it’s nearly impossible not to be “seasonal” these days. Grocery stores are *on it*.
The claim: Learn to cook like a pro.
Our society is obsessed with food and cooking. There are dozens of cooking magazines. Movie stars publish gorgeous cook books. There are thousands of cooking blogs. We sit on the couch and watch cooking competitions. “Celebrity Chef” is an occupation. We watch Guy Fieri eat greasy diner food. We spend tens of thousands of dollars renovating our kitchens (granite and stainless!). We spend tons of money going out to eat at restaurants.
And we don’t cook! We just watch and say, “wow.”
Somewhere along the line, we started thinking of cooking as difficult. Lunchables hit the market in 1988, and all of a sudden, making a kid a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch became work. Frozen dinners. Boxed pizza. Now you can buy a Bertolli pasta meal (“for 1 to 2”) in the freezer section for $7. Pasta is stupid cheap! You can get a pound of it, plus a jar of chunky sauce, for well under $3.
We really, really, really forgot how to cook. We became obsessed with cooking, as if it’s some exotic act, and lost our damn minds in the process when we stopped cooking. Blue Apron offers how-to videos. But the meals they offer, they don’t require blow torches or double boiling or poaching an egg – they require you to chop parsley. Not sure how to chop parsley? Blue Apron can help you with that.
Lemme tell you something – buying your meals from these companies will not teach you to cook “like a pro.” All it will do is teach you how to saute 8 brussel sprouts and a handful of snap peas, mince garlic, and sprinkle salt and pepper on your finished dish. These are the cooking basics. Chopping parsley is not mysterious. It is self explanatory.
My husband and I have been talking about how to make money lately. The answer is to take something simple and basic, and make it several times more expensive. Walking. Why walk, when you can walk on a treadmill? Cooking. Most cooking is relatively simple. Going to the grocery store is simple. These companies have found ways to jack up the cost of at-home cooking through fancy marketing and packaging. Amazing. Truly amazing.
I’ve decided on a Weapons Theme for the holiday season.
I’m buying the little nieces and nephews little pocket knives, and the older ones folding utility tools.
So far, I bought the two utility knives. The pocket knives are on order with a generous “friends and family” discount from a store-owning family friend. I’m considering a digital New York Times subscription for my husband. A mind weapon? Sort of?
I start buying Christmas presents in September. I buy in dribs and drabs as the weekly budget allows. I add ideas to my Amazon wishlist throughout the year, so I’m never in a “hm, what should I buy?” situation.
Our entire Christmas present spend comes to $600 – $700. This is an absurd amount because in addition to getting the kiddo presents, there is an adult exchange and group gift that comes to $400. It’s something that I would rather skip, but my husband feels strongly about our participation. The man doesn’t ask for much. So we fork up the money each year. The other $200 – $300 is gifts for the kids (10 nieces and nephews), my parents, and my sister and brother-in-law. There’s no required dollar amount tied to these gifts, luckily.
It’s a lot of money. It’s an annual expense that I count in our list of annual expenses (i.e. car insurance, $1000; home insurance, $1000; life insurance, $1000; property taxes, $4,100) and I budget for it each year. That amount of money would be very difficult to tackle all at once. By spreading out the pain, Christmas can be about days off with family, food, and wine. Gnawing stress about the January credit card bill is avoided.