Wednesday, May 23, 2012

My 10 Least Frugal Decisions

It occurred to me, as I reread my most recent post, that a lot of what I write about on this blog could come across as just bragging about how frugal and/or green we are. That isn't my intent, of course; I just want to sing the praises of the ecofrugal lifestyle, and the examples taken from my own life are often the ones I have most ready to hand. But I do realize that I can be at risk of drifting into tooting-my-own-horn territory.

So just to show that I'm only human, this post is going to be all about the least frugal things I can remember doing in my life. I'll explain what each non-frugal choice was, why I chose it at the time, and whether I would make the same choice again. In chronological order, my least frugal choices have been:

1. Getting an expensive education. This one's a little complicated, because it wasn't my own money that I was throwing around, but my parents'. And naturally, this means that the decision itself was, to some extent, theirs as well. If they had said candidly to me that money was indeed an object and that the family budget wouldn't stretch to cover the tuition at the pricey private college of my choice, I most likely would have opted for the one that offered me a scholarship, and I would most likely have managed to get a perfectly decent education there. But my parents didn't do this; they urged me to pick the school I'd be happiest with and not to consider the costs. For them, saving up the money to put me and my sister through school was the chief object of their own frugal lifestyle, and it's thanks to their years of thrift while I was growing up that I was able to spend four years at Haverford and graduate without the millstone of student debt that hung around the necks of so many of my contemporaries. And since the intervening years have showed that the money they spent on my education, and my sister's after me, has not left them at all financially burdened in their golden years, I would make this decision again with no regrets. Thanks, Mom and Dad!

2. Choosing my college major without regard to earning potential. Here, again, I was influenced my my folks' advice. They encouraged me to pursue what interested me most, on the theory that (a) your four years in college are a unique and irreplaceable experience, and you should spend them on what you most enjoy, and (b) when you do get out of school, it's better to be qualified for a low-paying job doing something you love than a high-paying job that has nothing else to recommend it. So that's how I ended up majoring in the terribly lucrative field of English literature. :-J Would I do it again? Well, maybe. I did have classes in other subjects that I also found interesting, such as poli sci and Constitutional law, and pursuing one of those fields might have set me on a career path that could be intellectually and financially rewarding at the same time. But to be honest, much as I enjoyed those particular courses, I don't think any subject ever really evoked the same passion for me as the English language and its literature. So I would probably make this un-frugal choice again—but I would temper it by taking more steps during my college years to gain useful work experience that could help me find a job related to my chosen field, rather than just temping during the summers.

3. Making my first car a new one. There was never a real question about whether I would get a car after college, since I was living with my parents (thanks again, Mom and Dad!) and there's no public transportation to speak of where they live. However, I would probably have opted for a no-frills beater that I could pay for out of my modest savings if not for the generosity of my grandmother, who offered to buy me a car as a graduation gift. (I mean, wow.) As it turned out, she actually bought me most of a car as a gift, since there was a $10,000 limit on how much she could give me without having to pay gift tax, so I ended up borrowing the rest from my folks—the only car loan I've ever had in my life. Could I have, instead, bought a reliable used car with the cash? Probably, but I think Grandma would have been unhappy with that decision, since her intent was to buy me a new one. And as it turned out, the new car I bought (my beloved Geo Prizm) served me well for 10 years until I finally sold it because I was then working from home (see #9 below) and could no longer justify paying the insurance on a second car that was almost never driven. If I had it to do over, I might try at least looking for a late-model used car that would have been within the $10,000 limit and would still allow Grandma to feel like she'd given me an almost-new car—but I can't really say I regret owning my Little Red. (Thanks, Grandma, wherever you are.)

4. Living in Princeton for seven years. Now we're starting to get into the real extravagances. The town where I grew up was, as I said, not accessible by public transportation, and there wasn't much of anything to do within walking distance, either. If you wanted to go out and have fun, you could either drive down to the mall, or you could go to Princeton, where there were a wide variety of shops and eateries, a movie theater, and the lovely Princeton campus (with all its ongoing events, from football games to a cappella sings), all within walking distance. So from my earliest childhood, my dream was to one day live right in Princeton (or another town like it) and not have to get in my car to go have fun. And since, due to lack of advance career planning on my part (see #2 above) I ended up moving back in with my folks and eventually (after six months) finding a job in their area, it was natural for me to gravitate toward Princeton as the place I wanted to settle. It took me another six months of searching to find a (shared) apartment there that I could afford on my meager starting salary, and I almost certainly could have left home sooner if I'd been willing to settle for living in an apartment complex somewhere in the suburban wilderness—but I didn't really see the point of getting out faster if the place I was getting into wasn't where I wanted to be. So I ended up waiting patiently until I was able to find a reasonably priced apartment, which I followed up over the years with a reasonably priced house-share (good price, but crazy roommates) and finally, a reasonably priced little one-bedroom apartment of my very own (technically an "efficiency," since the basement wasn't supposed to count as living space, but that never stopped me from using it as such). It's certainly true that I could have spent less of my income on housing, and added a lot more to my savings, if I had spent those seven years living in the middle of nowhere and relying on my cute little new car to get me around. But they wouldn't have been seven happy years—and ultimately, what good is having more money if it doesn't make you happy? So nope, no regrets there.

5. Not keeping myself on a tight budget during my single years. Don't get me wrong, I always lived within my income (no mean feat when you're trying to live in Princeton on a starting salary). I wasn't what you'd call extravagant; I couldn't afford to be. I didn't buy designer clothes or eat out on a regular basis. But I also didn't really keep a leash on my spending when it came to small indulgences: cafe mochas at the local coffeehouses, the occasional restaurant lunch, books, CDs and tapes (remember tapes?), or pieces of clothing and jewelry that I didn't really need (though I still have some of them, so maybe they were pretty wise purchases). I did practically all my shopping at the Whole Earth Center, buying bread at $4 a loaf and cheese at $5 a pound, without really weighing the costs and benefits of the organic goodies as compared to conventional versions. And when I became involved with a guy who was, well, let's just say not as careful with his money as I was, there were more dinners out as well, and concerts, and movies. If I had it to do over again, I think I'd still allow myself some of these expenses, but I'd have put more limits on them, making a proper budget and allowing myself a certain amount for groceries, for restaurant meals, clothing, music and books and so on—and a certain amount that I had to set aside in savings before anything else. If I'd done that, I imagine I could have ended my single years with quite a bit more in the bank than I did.

6. Taking a trip to Europe. This one was toward the end of my relationship with the aforementioned inappropriate guy. He had originally planned a trip to Scotland with his best friend, and when his best friend couldn't go, he accepted me as a substitute (that should have been a warning, right?). This was the most expensive trip I've ever taken with my own money—in fact, I think it was the largest single expense I've ever had in my life, aside from houses, cars, and computers (and some of the computers were cheaper). Scotland was lovely and we saw lots of interesting places, but given that he dumped me pretty much immediately after we got back, I can't really think of it as money well spent.

7. Commuting to work by train. During the years that I was living in my own little apartment (see #4 above), I got in the habit of going to work on the "Dinky"—a little one-car light-rail train that connects  Princeton with Princeton Junction, from which you can get to the rest of the world. This certainly wasn't a frugal decision, given that I already owned my little car (see #3 above) and the gas for my short daily commute would have cost considerably less than the $2.50 per day it cost at the time for the Dinky. My rationale for it was that a twenty-minute walk followed by a five-minute train ride (and a five-minute walk at the end) was more enjoyable than a twenty-minute car ride across Route 1, it was better for the environment, and it helped me work a little exercise into my daily routine. All of which was certainly true—but was it enough to justify the cost? Well...probably not. Most likely, what I should have done was to reserve the train commute as a treat for those particularly nice days when it was a pity to be cooped up in a car, and get my daily walk in after work instead. (I could have sold the car instead, I suppose, but I still needed it on rainy days, and to get to my parents' house and other places beyond reach of mass transit.) However, once I moved up to the New Brunswick area with my then-boyfriend (see #8 below), I think the benefits of the train commute became great enough to outweigh the costs, compared with the much longer commute I would have had to make by car in the much more unpleasant traffic on Route 1. (At that point, it would have made more sense to sell my car instead, since we had a second one in the household to get us to all those other places. I did eventually come to this conclusion, but not until I'd left the office life altogether—see #9 below.)

8. Getting involved in a long-distance relationship. When I first met the man who is now my husband, he lived on the other side of the country. We didn't start "seeing" each other immediately, as I was then involved with the aforementioned inappropriate guy, but when our friendship did blossom into romance, we still weren't so much "seeing" each other as spending a lot of time on the phone. The only way we could get any actual time together was to hop on a plane, so tickets to and from California soon became one of the major items in my budget and his. Given the way the relationship worked out in the end, I obviously can't regret embarking on it—but I do still wish I'd had the sense to break up with Mr. Inappropriate sooner and become involved with Mr. Appropriate straight away. If we'd begun seeing each other before he left grad school, not only could we have had more years together, but he might have been able to do his post-doc somewhere on the East Coast, and the years of our courtship wouldn't have been as costly.

9. Quitting my full-time job. Shortly after Mr. Appropriate and I became engaged, I got the news that the company where I'd worked since college was going to be packing up and moving from its train-accessible digs in Princeton Junction to a new location in Hightstown. This meant that commuting by train would no longer be an option, and the commute by car would be even longer and nastier than it had been before—and the new office itself had some additional drawbacks, like a stricter dress code and no kitchen area. This was the last in a string of small vexations that I'd begun having with the job ever since the company, which started out as an independent development house, had been sold to a big publishing giant. Pretty much the first move our new owners made was to sack 20 percent of the employees—and I remember that at the time I almost regretted surviving this round of layoffs, since I thought I might be happier as a freelancer anyway. Still, I probably wouldn't have had the courage to leave when I did if the announcement about the move to Hightstown hadn't come right on the heels of my own engagement. Knowing that I'd soon be married to Brian, and able to get heath insurance through his employer, removed the last serious barrier to taking the plunge. In the eight years since, the freelance life has proved to have its ups and downs; my earnings are uneven, usually seeming to alternate between fat years and lean ones, and of course whatever income I do make takes an extra hit from self-employment tax. But there are many rewards as well: the ability to work exactly what hours I want, to go to a doctor's appointment in the middle of the day without needing to notify anyone beforehand, to take vacation days whenever I want, and to work in my pajamas if I feel like it. (I might be doing it right now, for all you know—who's to say? :-)) And since Brian's salary alone is enough to pay the bills (just about), all my freelance income is pretty much gravy anyway. So as far as the freelance life goes, regrets I've had a few, but then again, too few to mention.

10. Keeping a pet. Technically, the thousand bucks a year (roughly) that we spend on food, supplies and medical care for our cat is just money thrown down the drain, since we gain no practical benefits from keeping her. On the contrary, she's just one more complication in our lives: we have to tend to her every day, and we can't go away for a vacation without finding someone to look after her. But without our kitty, who would keep me company around the house while I'm working at home alone all day? Who would keep us from sleeping late in the morning by meowing outside the bedroom door until we get up? Who would welcome us home after a weekend away with first a hiss to indicate her displeasure at behind left alone and then a series of head-butts and purrs to show that's she's willing to forgive us? Nope, you just can't put a price on that. In terms of value for money, having a cat is a total no-brainer for us. (Now, having a dog, on the other hand, that's a trickier question—which is why we're still on the fence about it after five years in this house.)

So there you have it folks: proof that I sometimes do un-frugal things like anyone else—and moreover, that in many cases, I actually think the un-frugal choice is the right one to make. After all, that's what frugality is really for: not wasting money on the things that don't matter to you so that you'll always have it to spend on the things that do. Which, in my case, include cats, trains, relationships, and a rewarding career—but not European vacations with inappropriate men.
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