Monday, June 2, 2014

The 45-minute rule

Recently, the Live Like a Mensch blog ran an article on how to decide whether the stuff you own is really worth keeping. In it, the blogger cited another article she'd seen at a site called Money After Graduation, which claimed that there is no need to own anything unless you use it for at least 45 minutes every day. I looked at that sentence, and my mind absolutely boggled. Forty-five minutes a day? The blogger concedes that it doesn't have to be 45 minutes every day; it could be, for instance, 5.25 hours per week or 11 days per year. But she maintains that unless your usage averages out to 45 minutes per day, "it's probably cheaper to borrow or rent it."

I started thinking about the things I use every day. The first one that came to mind was my toaster oven, which I use every morning to make breakfast. But this only takes about two minutes, so according to this blogger, I don't use the toaster oven enough to justify owning it. Well, okay, but what exactly would she recommend I should do instead? Rent a toaster? How could that possibly be cheaper than owning a secondhand toaster oven we inherited from Brian's granddad? Does she think I should make my toast on a toasting fork, the way we do when the power goes out? That would be a lot more work, but it probably still wouldn't take more than 5 minutes—so I guess by her argument, I just shouldn't eat toast. If it doesn't take 45 minutes per day to do, it's not worth doing.

The same thinking applies to most of the things I use every day. My microwave? I use that twice a day, for my cocoa in the morning and for my popcorn in the afternoon, but still, that's comes to less than 6 minutes per day total. Not good enough! Out with it! What about my toothbrush? I use that for two minutes every morning and two minutes every evening. Well under 45 minutes, so it must not be worth owning. In fact, under her guidelines, pretty much my entire bathroom would have to go, since I don't spend 45 minutes a day bathing or washing my hands or sitting on the toilet—even though I do all these things every day, most of them multiple times per day. But no matter. Less than 45 minutes of daily use = not worth owning.

Then there are the things we use for 45 minutes on some days, but not every day. Brian's bike, for instance. On the days he bikes to work, it takes him 25 minutes each way, so that meets the 45-minute rule—but he doesn't bike to work on weekends, or when it's raining, or when the temperature is below freezing. So, apparently, the bike that I made such a convincing argument for in last Friday's post is just a waste of space. And then there's our charcoal grill. We got it for free (picked up from a neighbor who was dumping it) and we use it at least a couple of times each month in the summer, but we can't use it every day even in the summer, and we can't use it at all in the winter. So, sorry, no summer grilling pleasures for us.

I could probably go on like this all day, but I think by now I've given more than enough examples to make my point: the 45-minute rule is rubbish. Completely useless. But the point it's trying in its crude way to address is still a valid one: many, if not most of us, have stuff in our homes that we seldom, if ever, use. So exactly how much use does an item need to get to make it worth owning?

The first question to consider is, what's the downside of owning any item? In most cases, there are two: money and space. Most things you can own cost money to buy, and some also cost money to own, whether you're using them or not. A car, for example, even if it's only driven 100 miles every year, costs money to insure and to keep in drivable condition so that it'll be ready to go on the rare occasions that you need it. And most things you can own take up space: anywhere from a square inch for a bottle of nail polish to a whole room for a pool table. So to be worth owning, an item has to earn its keep in both money and space.

This leads to one conclusion right away: the rules for items you already own are different from the rules for new purchases. When you're deciding whether to buy something, you have to consider both cost and space, but when you're deciding whether to keep your existing belongings or get rid of them, space is the only factor.

For buying decisions, I think the crucial question to ask is, "Will I get my money's worth out of this?" For small purchases, like a $2 thrift-shop shirt, it's easy to justify the expense even if you only expect to use the item half a dozen times. By contrast, if you're thinking about buying something really big, like a car, it's clearly worth it only if you're going to drive it on a regular basis. The 45-minute rule, in fact, is probably appropriate in this case, because cars are one of the few items you can realistically choose to rent rather than buy for occasional use. If you just want something to take on road trips two or three times a year, renting a car for 25 bucks a day is sure to work out cheaper than dropping 15 grand (plus insurance, plus maintenance) on a new one. So I guess the 45-minute rule does have some use, after all: it's helpful for deciding whether to rent or own.

For deciding whether to keep what you already own, a couple of the comments on the Money After Graduation post proposed a guideline called the 6-month rule: if you haven't used an item in the last 6 months and don't expect to use it in the next 6 months, you don't really need it. This definitely seems like a more useful rule of thumb than the 45-minute rule, especially for things like special-occasion clothing. For most clothing, the 11-day variant of the 45-minute rule works pretty well: if it doesn't get worn at least 11 days a year, it isn't worth the closet space. But special occasions are, by definition, special. They don't tend to happen 11 days per year, but when one does come up, you need to dress for it, and it's much easier to do that if you have one special item set aside in your wardrobe for that purpose. Brian certainly doesn't wear a suit 11 days every year, but the one suit he owns has been to every wedding, funeral, graduation, job interview, and other formal occasion he has attended in the past 15 years. It's definitely earned its keep.

I would argue, though, that even the 6-month rule needs an exception: any item that's designated for emergencies. These, I maintain, are worth having even if they never get used. For instance, we have a fire extinguisher in our kitchen, as well as a small one in the trunk of our car. We bought them both in the full hope and expectation that we'd never actually need to use them—but in the unlikely event that we do need one, we'll need it right away. Waiting for an actual fire before going out and buying one is not a reasonable strategy.

And if you're using it for 45 minutes every day, something is definitely wrong.
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