Thursday, September 25, 2014

Solving problems without money

In her latest "Live Like a Mensch" blog post, Emily Birkin muses on a saying her mother's relatives often used when she was growing up: "A problem that can be solved with money isn't really a problem." As she understood it, this meant that "money was fungible"—meaning that one dollar is exactly equivalent to another—and so "it was always possible to earn more money and replenish the stores."

This seems, on the face of it, like a startling thing to say. I suspect a large majority of Americans would be very surprised to hear that their money problems aren't really problems. And indeed, Birkin acknowledges that only "economically privileged" families would be likely to use this saying, since "You can only view money as no big deal if you’ve never really gone without it." Nonetheless, she maintains that for those who have a high enough degree of "money competence," it really is true that lack of money needn't ever pose an insurmountable barrier. To those who have the skill, she claims, getting more money is a "straightforward" problem that can always be overcome: "I can always earn more money, rearrange my budget, change my priorities, or save up." Lack of "time, infrastructure, talent, or support," by contrast, makes a problem much more complicated to solve.

At this point, I realized that what she was saying wasn't really that lack of money isn't a problem at all: it's that it's a problem she already knows how to solve. It's like the old joke about how a mathematician boils a pot of water: if she comes into the kitchen and finds a pot of water on the table, she moves it to the stove and then lights the stove. However, if the next time she comes into the kitchen she finds the pot of water on the floor, then she just moves it to the table, because now she's reduced the problem to one she's already solved. In the same way, if Emily Birkin can reduce a problem to a simple question of money, then she knows the problem is solvable.

However, I think this way of thinking has its drawbacks, as well. If you view problems involving money as non-problems, or at least easily solvable problems, then it can become too easy to jump to the conclusion that money is the best solution to any problem. And indeed, for most problems, spending money is the easiest and most obvious solution. But in many cases, there may also be another solution that doesn't involve spending money—which you'll never find if you simply take the shortcut of reducing the problem to the already-solved one of using money. Here are a few examples just off the top of my head:
Problem: You've received a last-minute invitation to the theater, and you don't have a thing to wear. (Confession: I stole this example from Christine Lavin.)
Easy/obvious solution: Run out to the store and buy something black and formal—and hope you don't hate it when you catch your reflection during intermission.
Cheap/creative solution: Go through your closet and try to figure out if your existing clothes could work if combined differently or accessorized differently. Or borrow something from a friend. Or go casual, and pretend you're just being rebellious. 
Problem: Like Brian, you find it uncomfortable to sit at a desk all day long, and you want a setup that will allow you to switch back and forth between sitting and standing.
Easy/obvious solution: Spend $335 on a convertible desk and spend a whole morning setting it up in your office and dismantling your old desk. And then live with the fact that your new desk has far less space to work on and clashes with everything else in the office.
Cheap/creative solution: Spend $10 on a Lack table from IKEA and set that on top of the desk when you want to stand. (If this proves a bit too tall to be ideal, as it did for one of Brian's coworkers who tried it, get Brian to build you a little step stool out of scrap wood to stand on when you want to use the desk in standing position. Or just saw the ends off the legs of the Lack to make it lower.) 
Problem: Like Emily Birkin herself, you have a greyhound who really, really loves his "deluxe Cadillac of a dog bed." During the day, rather than joining the family downstairs, he will stay upstairs to lie on it—and then cry because he isn't with his people.
Easy/obvious solution: Spend another $150 to get him a second bed for downstairs.
Cheap/creative solution: Make him a cheaper bed out of a folded comforter to sleep on downstairs. Or, if he refuses to use it (as their greyhound did), just drag the dog bed downstairs every morning and back upstairs every night.
In every case, if you simply take the most easy and obvious approach, you'll solve the problem all right, but you'll also spend money that you didn't really need to spend. This creates problems of its own, because every dollar you spend has to be earned, and earning money requires time and energy that you then can't devote to other things. Countless financial writers have written about this work-spend treadmill and its many negative impacts on your life. Working more hours to earn more money to buy more stuff, they point out, takes time away from friends, family, and pursuits that are a lot more fulfilling than earning and spending; it can lead to exhaustion and a host of stress-related illnesses; and it ultimately isn't fulfilling, because once you get used to a certain level of luxury, there's no longer any particular pleasure in it—so you have to keep raising the stakes, which means more spending, more earning, and more stress.

Probably the best-known attack on this way of life is Your Money or Your Life, by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin. Birkin herself, as I've noted before, is a major fan of this book, and she actually cites it in explaining why she chose not to spend money on a second doggie bed: since you have to trade your "life energy" for money, and "For everything you choose to buy, there is either something else that you cannot buy, or there is more life energy you have to expend in order to earn more money." Thus, she says, "I try to spend money on things that matter to me, because the money flowing through my life is finite." Which seems to directly contradict the idea that "A problem that can be solved with money isn't really a problem," because getting more money is a problem: it's the problem of what else you will have to give up in order to get that money. Thus, it always makes sense to look first for a solution that doesn't require money, particularly one that addresses the problem by simply putting a bit more thought into it. This kind of creative problem-solving is fun and satisfying, so it actually enhances your life energy, rather than consuming it. And, as an additional plus, solutions that don't require spending money are often better for the environment as well, which is the whole basis for the idea of ecofrugality.

In fact, now that I think about it, nearly everything I've ever written about on this blog could be considered an example of substituting creativity and/or effort for money in one way or another. Paging through my "greatest hits," I see that readers have responded positively to posts on:
  • budget decor, or the ways in which people have used creativity to refinish whole rooms on a very low budget;
  • thrift-store shopping, which lets you stretch your clothing dollars by thinking outside the big box store;
  • our DIY patio project, in which we got the pavers from Freecycle (an unconventional source), shopped around for stone and gravel (putting a little more effort into finding the best deal), and did all the work ourselves (substituting the sweat of our brows for money spent on contractors);
  • ConsumerSearch, a site that helps you get the best value for your shopping dollar with just a few minutes of work;
  • our groundhog fence, another DIY project that lets us coexist peacefully with our resident furballs; and
  • choosing a ground cover for our front yard, so we won't have to invest time and money into maintaining the conventional lush, green lawn.
So I think that, for frugal-minded folks, the saying "A problem that can be solved with money isn't really a problem" tells only half the story, and not even the most important half. A more useful version would be, "Just because a problem can be solved with money doesn't mean it should be." Defaulting to a solution that requires money is a good way to use up your supply of it, making it harder to solve future problems in the same way. By contrast, if your default problem-solving mode is to look first for a solution that doesn't use money, you're a lot more likely to have a good supply of money when you actually need it. And, because you'll be in the habit of thinking creatively, you're also a lot more likely to be able to come up with ways to get the money if you don't have it—for instance, by making cuts in other areas of your budget.

In other words, if you always follow the second piece of advice (which comes down to "Don't spend money if you don't have to"), then the first one (which comes down to "You can always get money if you need it"), is a lot more likely to be true.
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