Note: This is a guest post by Russell Graves, who writes about his computer, electrical, and other projects at Syonyk’s Project Blog. We thought this edited version of his essay, about his motivations to buy less and repair more, deserved to be seen.
“And I want my Spuddies. I love those things… ‘cuz with a Spuddy, enough just isn’t enough!”Over the Hedge
What does the concept of “enough” look like to you? How has this changed throughout your life? Do you think about it when making decisions about how to spend your money?
Culturally, we’re really bad at the concept of “enough.” Things we think we need are like Spuddies. Enough just isn’t enough. But it’s worse than that. Advertising, for years, has worked to convince you of this lie. But modern, internet-based advertising doesn’t just know your general demographic group or general desires. It knows you and what you respond to, so it’s super duper hyper-optimized to get you to spend money.
As long as you’ve still got money in your bank account, you’re clearly holding out and could spend more, couldn’t you? Heck, even if you don’t have money, take on some debt, go buy something!
I suggest that a better understanding and implementation of the concept of “enough” in modern lives will save an awful lot of money (and therefore stress). There is, in fact, such a thing as “enough!”
What Is “Enough?”
Another way of looking at “enough” is the law of diminishing returns, applied to your life. Initially, if you apply resources to some problem, you get predictable returns—the more resources you apply, the more returns you get. This could be food, a car, an internet connection, a laptop—the more you spend, the more you get. But, at some point, for each additional unit of resource you spend, the additional value you receive starts to decrease.
An internet connection is a lot more useful than no internet connection. A 25Mbit internet connection is a lot more useful than a 1.5Mbit connection (a T1 line, for those Weird Al fans out there. A 500Mbit connection? Certainly nice. But outside a handful of edge cases, a gigabit connection just doesn’t make a big difference. Been there, used that, couldn’t notice the difference.
The trick, as always, is being able to figure out the “knee point,” where the value received for additional investment starts to drop off. This applies to purchases as well as replacements—if some device still does everything you want it to do, there’s usually no good reason to replace it.
What Do You Need?
Marketers quite literally make their living trying to convince people to buy what the marketers want them to want (or, better, to “need” what they didn’t even know existed). It’s an impressive little sleight of hand that can cost you an awful lot of money over a lifetime. This particular trick has been extensively refined over the past century, and is now an elegantly refined art of extracting money from consumers.
The way out of this crafty maze is to figure out what you actually need, then figure out what will accomplish that goal for a reasonable cost (over a useful period of time).
Part of the reason I’ve been experimenting with weird little desktop computers (the Raspberry Pi 3B+ being the most relevant point of discussion) is to see what I can make them do. I grew up when 100MHz was blazingly fast, 32 megabytes of RAM was huge, and if your phone lines could support a 56k modem… rocket speed! It seems silly to me how much computer people assume you need to use the internet. The Raspberry Pi desktops have done a great job demonstrating that you don’t need that much, if you’re a bit clever.
I can do about 90% of what I want to do on the internet with a low-power ARM processor and 1GB of RAM, suitably configured. Going to the Jetson Nano or Raspberry Pi 4, with USB 3 and 4GB of RAM? I can do 95-99% of what I want to do on the internet.
Quit Test Driving!
Have you ever realized just how easy it is to get a test drive in a brand new car? If you have a valid driver’s license, you can usually go test drive just about anything you want, no matter what you show up in. Why? Because dealers know that the best way to get you to consider a new car (or motorcycle) is to compare, side by side, your current vehicle (which may have a few miles, a few creaks, and some dirt) to a brand new, shiny, fresh-off-the-truck vehicle. It’s different—and, clearly, different is better!
This is another way motivated sellers turn wants into needs. It took me a while to learn this lesson. Fortunately, I learned it before I had a lot of money to lose. I used to test drive cars and motorcycles on a regular basis. All it accomplished was a nagging discontent when I got back to my existing rides. They worked perfectly fine, but lacked the new/different feel!
Perhaps your weakness isn’t test driving stuff, though. Maybe it’s looking up reviews of the New Gizmo. It’s 25% faster in FooMark. It’s got 30% more terablips. And, why, you can trade your old gizmo in for a credit!
But none of these benchmarks answer the important question: Will it do what you need, any better than what you have now? Just because it’s faster in benchmarks doesn’t mean you’ll notice it for the things you use it for.
Thinking in Monthly Payments? You’re Doomed and Don’t Know It.
“Hey, Robert Reader! This is Gary Goodguy down at your local dealership, and we’ve got a ton of demand for high quality used [your car’s year] [your car’s model]-s right now! Come on down for a free appraisal – we can probably get you into a new car for the same monthly payment or less!”
If you’ve ever owned a halfway modern car, you’ve almost certainly gotten these in the mail, or on your voicemail. Is there really such a strong demand for your particular car? No. Does it get people into a dealership thinking about a new car for the same monthly payment? Apparently, or they wouldn’t do it. Are salespeople entertained when I ask what they can do to match my $0 monthly payment? Definitely not.
Think about the framing implied in those advertisements, though: “Of course you’ll always have a car payment. Why keep driving that few year old clunker when for the same amount of money a month, you could be driving a new car?” They can even roll your negative equity into the new loan! Just keep paying!
I’ve met people who quite literally expected they’d always have a car payment. Their car replacement timeline was simply, “When we don’t have a car payment, we buy a car to replace whatever the oldest one is.” The attitude was that if they didn’t have a car payment, they’d spend that money on other monthly payments, and then they might not have the money for a car payment down the road. Scary stuff!
You see the same sort of surrender-thinking with the proliferation of subscription services: Netflix, Spotify, YouTube Premium, and, of course, Disney+/Hulu. It’s entirely possible to consider each of their costs reasonable, but you should always expand the math to annual or decade costs when you’re thinking about monthly payments. They add up, sometimes even when you’re not using them, because it’s just a little drip. Drips add up! Consider this when you’re subscribing: are those one or two shows I watch worth $156 per year, or $1,560 over this decade?
Some companies are insanely attuned to how this math works out, offering ludicrous goodies to get you through the door. They know you’ll end up with monthly payments at some point, because people avoid stepping through the (deliberately difficult) cancellation process for $10/month. I’m looking at you, Sirius XM. Just don’t get started, and you won’t have to mark a calendar or wait on hold.
The Incredible Benefits of Being a Late Adopter & The Perils of Hedonic Adaptation
You can’t miss what you haven’t experienced – and this is true across the range of nearly everything. If you’re careful, this can be extended into an approach to life and technology that neatly saves you an awful lot of money.
I was, for a tech guy, insanely late to the SSD game. I knew about them, I knew the benefits, I had serious geek lust for the FusionIO drive (I was a grad student in 2008 and sorting an awful lot of data). And I held off, because I knew that as soon as one of my systems had a blisteringly fast SSD, everything else would suddenly feel slow in comparison.
So I held off, and waited until I was able to score a couple used SSDs at what I considered a reasonable price—then upgraded everything at once. It was awesome, and it was both far cheaper, and far less frustrating, than updating one system after another would have been.
I apply the same sort of logic to vehicles. I can’t miss what I haven’t experienced, and my lack of test driving helps a ton here. I’ve actually never driven anything with advanced driver assist systems, so I’m happy to not know what I’m missing. I still think anti-lock brakes and traction control are pretty neat (though the Urals have neither, and I’m pretty sure my truck is rear-axle-only ABS).
It’s very, very hard to “go back” in terms of features on anything you use regularly. If you’ve gotten used to heated seats, think about going to a vehicle that doesn’t have them. If you can’t imagine life without three cameras (or five, or… how many does a modern iPhone have?), consider going back to a single camera. In almost every case, “new features” are a one-way ratcheting function.
Fix It, Felix!
Finally, I know I go on about repair on this blog, and there’s a reason. Learning to fix stuff is one of the best skills you can develop for your personal finances!
I’ve worked on my own cars rather extensively over the years. I never really considered it extensive at the time, but I’ve rebuilt a rotary engine and done just about everything else you can with a car. I didn’t grow up really working on cars beyond the basics of changing the oil, but I just didn’t like walking and I couldn’t afford to pay a shop. So I bought some manuals, learned from some friends, and grew from there.
Not a current photo.
Most people don’t fix stuff (or, to be slightly kinder, haven’t learned and don’t have a huge interest in learning). I don’t understand that point of view, but I’ll happily take advantage of my skills and either fix things for people, or buy broken things cheaply and fix them for our family. It’s a value I’m really hoping to pass on down to our kids: almost anything can be fixed!
Along with that, buying something used and keeping it working teaches you the real value of an item. If you use it a ton and it fails, well, then you’ll be comfortable spending the money on a newer one.
This inherently implies one ought to buy things that are repairable. I’ll point to a certain popular wireless ear-stick as an example of the sort of unrepairable thing I try to avoid. I’m not OK with paying $150 for things that appear to last roughly three years before being e-waste, when I can use perfectly good headphones that last far longer. I’ve got a decade-old set of Sennheisers that are still going strong!
It also implies one ought to consider service life and parts availability when buying something. I use an older-but-still-supported iPhone 6S as a mobile device. Parts are easy to come by, they’re actually quite well-built these days, and the phones are built so the common failures (screen and battery) can be easily repaired. The iPhone 6S is going on 4.5 years of software support and updates. Not even flagship Nexus/Pixel Android devices get that!
There’s Always an Opportunity Cost
I’ll talk about this in another post, but we are, as a culture, extremely bad at thinking through the opportunity costs of doing something. Especially in the technology space, the common attitude is, “If there’s any benefit, it’s worth doing!” The new phone has a better camera, or a faster data connection (if you’re standing on the right part of the right street corner in the right city, with the right 5G add-ons to your data plan), or something else you can use to convince yourself.
But what are the costs? Sometimes, it’s a monetary cost, but sometimes it comes in the form of distractions – modern social media, on a modern smartphone, is deadly to the ability to “deep work.” Sometimes it’s security. I doubt the people who installed an internet-connected fish tank at a casino expected it to be a key element in hacking the casino’s network, but it must have been hard to avoid the temptation of … remote fish management?
Maybe it’s just the time spent ensuring all the various “things” talk to one another and stay talking (and stay updated, and signed in), then figuring out how to turn the lights off next time Comcast has a nation-wide outage.
But there’s always an opportunity cost—we’re just bad at thinking it through. Or, in some cases, we don’t even know what they are early in a technology’s lifecycle. These are the perks of being a late adopter.
The Defaults are Wrong
My main point here is that for far too many people, “the defaults are wrong.” We’ve got a society in which a depressing amount of what people “know” about credit cards and credit ratings is wrong, biased in the way that’s most useful to the credit card companies. There’s a ton of focus on “building credit”—taking out loans and paying them, so you can get bigger and bigger loans, for giant houses, new cars that cost more than some houses, the latest and greatest phones, etc.
I was in Seattle for a while, and this positive feedback spiral was on full display, just walking the streets or hearing conversations. Insanely expensive houses, insanely expensive cars, people who were trapped in their jobs to pay for it, and paying other people to do things like mow their lawns, because they didn’t have time. It was a weird, expensive place that, obviously, we didn’t stay in. Nobody even did basic repairs themselves—phone batteries, laptop power jacks, lawn care, simple auto maintenance. It was bizarre to me, having spent a long time fixing my own equipment.
So think through it. Don’t just do something, stick to the default, because everyone else does it. Decide if you value that thing or action enough to spend the time and money on it. And, if you do, see if you can find ways to obtain it for less.
Done right, you can shake free an awful lot of time and money in life, useful for things other than propping up companies that mostly invent new ways for you to buy things, over and over.
I assure you: “enough” is a real thing. And it’s a very, very useful thing to think through across your life!