Saturday, January 22, 2011

Thrift week, day six: Sloth

And so we come at last to sloth, the sin that gave me the idea for this whole series in the first place. What inspired it was this comment from my friend Laura on my "Canventory" entry, in which she commented on the absurdity of buying pre-peeled onions for $2.49 apiece when a whole bag of plain white or yellow onions costs much less than that. She thought the people buying these must be "ignorant" about onions, but I suggested that perhaps they were just too lazy to peel an onion themselves (or perhaps too lazy to do the math and figure out just how much extra they're paying someone to peel that onion for them). And I pointed out that there are all sorts of other convenience foods that basically charge you a premium for the right to be lazy, some of them healthful (e.g., pre-washed salad greens) and some not (e.g., Tater Tots). And of course, the ultimate example of this is the complete meal prepared by someone else in a restaurant—for which, as I pointed out in yesterday's entry, you'll pay 2.5 to 4 times as much (not counting the tip) as you would to make the identical meal at home.

Of course, the ways in which laziness can cost you money aren't limited to food. Any time you pay someone to do a job you could do yourself—cleaning your house, painting your living room, changing the oil in your car—you're likely to pay a lot more for it than you would by doing the same job yourself. (Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. If it's a job that requires special skills you don't have, you'll quite likely spend less overall by hiring someone to do it right the first time then by tackling it yourself and making a mess that you'll have to pay someone else to clean up.)

Laziness can also cost you money when it leads you to put off a job that you do intend to do yourself—later. To take an example that we heard on "Car Talk" this morning, if you put off going to the gas station until the fuel gauge is on empty, you risk running out of gas and having to a) trek to the gas station to pick up a can, or b) make an embarrassing call to the auto club for help. (Assuming you've paid your auto club dues, this shouldn't cost you any extra money, but it will cost you plenty in lost time and lost dignity.) Or, to take an example inspired by yesterday's mail, which contained several tax forms: if you put off doing your taxes until the last minute, you risk missing the deadline and having to pay a penalty. And if you put off doing regular maintenance on your car, you could end up paying a lot more to fix some crucial part than you would have paid to replace a much smaller part.

Of course, the most obvious example of losing money through sloth is being unwilling to work to earn a living. Benjamin Franklin, in whose honor Thrift Week is observed, was particularly fond of pointing out the perils of idleness:
Remember that time is money. He that can earn ten shillings a day by his labor, and goes abroad or sits idle one-half that day, though he spend but sixpence during his diversion or idleness, ought not to reckon that the only expense; he has really spent, or rather thrown away, five shillings besides.
But on this point I don't entirely agree with old Ben. Suppose I have an assignment to complete that will pay me $600. Say that if I work at a nice, easy pace, it will take me six days to get the job done. I'll make only $100 a day, but I'll also have plenty of time to do other things: run errands, cook meals, get some exercise, visit with friends, and just relax. Say, by contrast, that if I absolutely knock myself out, I can get the job done in four days. I'll make $150 a day, but my house will be a mess, I'll be short on sleep, and the stress will have me constantly on the verge of tears. When I compare those two options, I have to conclude that to me, the extra $50 a day isn't worth it. And that's one reason I care so much about being frugal in the first place: because the less money I spend, the less I need to worry about how much I make. Through frugality, I can buy myself a luxury that only the wealthiest can normally enjoy: the freedom to work no more than I want to. Paradoxically, the harder I work at pinching my pennies, the less I have to worry about money.
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