The picture above might be a bit extreme, but I think a lot of useful nuggets can be ascertained by re-examining the college experience. No, not THAT college experience! But the other aspect of college life that was perfected so well – having a good time, while still being cheap about it.
They say that college is the best 4 years of your life. I didn’t think so at the time, but after some years, I do reflect back and start to appreciate all the good times more. As soon as I do, I realize that all this fun happened in spite of me not having a dime to my name! It’s funny, when you don’t have something, or many somethings, you always seem to find ways to improvise, and get by.
Sadly, once I started collecting a paycheck, I lost this mindset completely. No longer did I do things for myself, or even use my brain to try and come up with ideas. Instead, I took the path of least resistance – I paid someone else to do the task for me. Once I started working, this became the norm. My expectations for things also shot up with my paycheck. Whereas I use to make do eating top ramen, totino’s pizzas, the dollar menu at fast food joints, etc., I now expected much higher quality food. Public transportation was now frowned upon, and I bought into the hype of wanting a flashy ride.
I’ve since learned that the human capacity for wants and desires are endless; it knows no bounds. Instead, we have to force ourselves to come back down to earth a little bit, and realize that we don’t have to spend our entire paychecks to have a good time and high quality of life. On the other hand, since we are now collecting a paycheck, we also shouldn’t have to “suffer” as much as we did in college. The compromise is finding the happy medium.
Here are some ideas on how to recapture that thrifty college mentality without sacrificing much (if any) in utility:
It’s just a meal:
Whenever I go out to eat with friends or co-workers, I usually suggest eateries that give you the most food for the lowest prices. In college, this meant sticking to places where you could get a satiating meal for under $10. I now try to apply this same exact rule when eating out.
For instance, if I had the pick of where to each lunch, I would insist on eating at places like: Chipotle, In-N-Out Burger, or Panera Bread. At Chiptole, I can get a burrito, chips and drink for under $10. The meal is tasty, filling, and doesn’t put a dent in my wallet.
Get your money’s worth
If my companions insists on eating at more expensive restaurants, I simply make do as best I can and try and order something cheaper on the menu. Of course there are times this may be inappropriate, but ‘downgrade’ whenever you can. I usually give the excuse that I’m just not feeling particularly hungry. Or, that I have a big meal coming up later that day. While I do that, I’ll let the others order the Surf and Turf meal + drinks for over $60. I’ll subsist on the steak sandwich + water for $15. While others may end up spending 300% more than me, I’m almost certain we will both be hungry again, later, at exactly the same time. Does the Surf and Turf meal really taste 300% better than the steak sandwich? You decide.
Flash vs Substance:
Some people have the incessant desire to jazz up their lifestyle soon after they enter the workforce. An easy way to do this is to purchase a motorbike. I’ve ridden motorcycles before, and do find them to be extremely fun and cool. But I’m simply not willing to put in the sizable sum needed to purchase one. Not to mention the costs of: clothing, gear, continued maintenance, regular fueling, registration, insurance, etc. Further, if you already own a car, this added expense is hard to justify. Here is a crude example, but a basic, conservative rundown of the initial ownership costs:
$3000 Used bike
A better alternative would be to invest in a top-quality bicycle. $1500 for a state-of-the-art road bike might seem like a lot (especially compared to a motorcycle), but the return on utility is much greater. You never have to worry about fuel, and you should be able to easily ride it for the next 20 years or so. When it comes to selecting a road bike, it’s worth it to spend more upfront to ensure you are buying quality that will last. Biking is good for the environment, your health, and maintenance costs are low. If you live close enough to your work, you can also save on commute by choosing to ride instead of drive. This will allow the bicycle to pay for itself in no time.
The other bike
Smart enough phone:
I’m a big fan of Apple and its products. The iphone 4 was probably the best phone I ever used. However, it’s hard to justify the monthly data plan rate. Adding a data plan would increase my monthly cell phone bill by at least $40-$60. When I think back to my time in college, I remember a time when smart phones were in their infancy, and nobody I knew had one. Back then, all that mattered was finding a phone that had: reliable service, good sound quality, color, camera, and text messaging. In 2006-2007, I would have described the above as the perfect phone. I didn’t need a smart phone then, and I probably don’t need one now.
The original “cutting edge”
Return on fun:
Hobbies are a personal choice and everyone’s preference for fun is different. But consider the following – when investing in a long term hobby, try and select ones that provide the the most bang for the buck.
For example, becoming a home theater enthusiast will not come cheaply. Getting started alone will require the following purchases: big screen, projector, receiver, speakers, blu-ray player + discs, etc. This type of equipment is, unfortunately, prone to becoming obsolete (think VHS and laserdisc). As such, new devices will have to be purchased in the future in order to keep up with the latest and greatest. Also, the old devices will have not fetch much on the open market, as yesterday’s technology tends to only depreciate in value. Furthermore, if you want to build a library of movies, this means continually having to purchase new titles that can cost as much as $30 a disc.
In college, I knew a lot of people who played music for fun. This is a fantastic example of finding a hobby that has a high return on entertainment cost, per-hour. There are literally billions of songs you can choose to learn, mastery typically requires tens of thousands of hours of practice (you’ll continually be challenged), and it provides an outlet to be creative.
Whether you choose to play piano, guitar, violin, etc., take comfort in knowing that you typically only need to invest in the gear once. Also, brand-name, vintage gear typically carries with it high resale value. If you choose wisely, you may even be able to profit in the future (should you choose to sell). In that case, the gear purchased can really be seen as an investment. A high-quality guitar and amplifier will typically set you back $2000. If you commit yourself to playing 2 hours a day, everyday, for the next 20 years, the cost / hour on the initial $2000, comes out to be less than 14 cents an hour.
The above examples provide simple solutions to help save money. By giving up on the more expensive luxury items in life, one can instead turn to cheaper alternatives that bring just as much satisfaction. In fact, it may even be argued that a sacrifice isn’t being made, since nothing is really being given up.
A new job, or salary increase has a way of distorting our thinking into believing that we must increase our expenditures to offset the pay raise. If we give in to external influences, we are likely to fall victim to this trap. On the contrary, if we tap in and reconnect with our thrifty, college-self, we will be better positioned to making the smart decision. Early financial independence can be achieved without forcing one to compromise. Wow, I’m glad I learned something in college, after all.