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It’s Your Hard-earned Money! It’s Not Easy Money!

I have a very good friend who had problems controlling his spending. Anything that caught his interest, he would buy. He would end up buying things which he would never use… mostly because he had purchased something else which he thought would be better. But then he ended up not using that at all or much because it just wasn’t good or something else was better. And so on.

A couple years ago, he expressed interest in learning how to be frugal like me. I replied that I didn’t think he wanted to be as frugal as me because I was using him to learn how not to be so frugal with myself. I didn’t have a problem spending on family and close friends, but couldn’t bring myself to spend much on me. My friend definitely didn’t have a problem spending on himself. I concluded that between our two extremes of spendthrift and frugality, there was a healthy middle ground.

My first suggestion was to apply some discipline to his habit of what to me was impulse buying. First, he should ask himself if the item was something he just wanted or if it was something he really needed? Second, once he determines that he needs it, he should take time to research which brand/option was the best bang-for-the-buck. As a simple rule of thumb, I suggested waiting a day before buying. Waiting a day would allow time for research and, more importantly, for the feelings of “want” to fade and for a more practical mindset to come into play. I was hopeful that this would naturally limit his purchases to well-researched products which are what he needs or really, really wants.

The “really, really wants” is the exception to the frugality rule and the lesson I picked up from my friend. I learned that it was okay to treat myself to things that I don’t necessarily need, but just want. And that I should treat myself as a reward for achieving a goal, doing good work, etc. Since then, I have “forced” myself to buy an expensive present that I don’t really need, but just want, for my birthday each year.

Since then, my friend has improved tremendously (for math heads, we are talking an order of magnitude improvement) in reducing his spending habits. However, he was still spending more than he wanted to. During a recent conversation, we realized that his relationship with money was different from mine’s. While I treated the majority of my money as hard-earned, he treated the majority of his money as easy. So while I was keeping a tight fist around my bills, he was holding his up to the wind with open palms.

The hints were there through the years but I had missed them. Even when I finally realized it, I had to talk to my friend a bit to make it clear. During this recent conversation, my friend was contemplating an expensive software purchase, say $500, which he had researched and believed he needed. The cost was prohibitive though and then, from my point of view, he attempted to reduce the impact of the cost. To do so, he indicated that he had gotten a rebate check of $100 and that he had returned some items to the store for $200… so that made the software just $200 ($500 – $100 – $200). That is a steal and he should totally buy it.

While I did agree that he should buy the software because he needed it, I was thinking “What the heck? The software costs $500, not $200!” After a few back and forth, my friend indicated that he treated money which he didn’t expect (income tax returns, rebates, product returns to stores, cash gifts, etc.) as “free” or “easy” money. This easy money then is used to offset the cost of any purchase that occurs after getting the easy money.

My reply was along the lines of “What? That’s your damn hard-earned money. It’s not easy and it’s definitely not free.” With the exception of the cash gift from others, the rest were his hard-earned money. The income tax return is part of his salary which he loaned interest-free to the government. The rebate is a return of the extra money which came from him in the first place. The money he got back from returning products to stores is his own precious money. My friend pointed out that I seem to keep track of the origin of the money (if it is originally my money, I will remember); whereas, he didn’t track the origin at all. So for my friend, any money which he received which didn’t come directly from a salary check was easy money. And the problem was that spending easy money was well, pretty easy.

I am not sure whether the above will help my friend control his spending more. My friend assures me that it is a huge revelation for him and that he is looking at his past purchases with a new viewpoint and understanding. My friend suggested that I write a blog about the realization above to help others who might benefit. My first thought was that there couldn’t be many others with the same money issues as him, but then another friend called.

She wanted my opinion on whether she should refinance her mortgage. She was afraid that if she refinance to a lower interest rate, her mortgage tax deduction would be smaller. I am like, “Say what? You want to pay more so you can deduct more on your income tax form?” That’s like offering to give someone more money so they will give you a little bit more back. Or more concretely, if I give you $10, you will give me $1 back. So if I give you $20, you will give me $2 back. Gee, what a great deal! I better give you $200, then I will get $20 back. That’s easy money!

I’m being silly and dramatic. My conversations weren’t as bad as that. But it gave me extra incentive to write this blog. Please, everyone, it’s your hard-earned money that you are spending!


  1. Grace

    hahaha this made me laugh.

    Your friend is the one propping up our consumer-centric economy.

  2. Chanh

    I just read “Your Money or Your Life” by Vicki Robin, Joe Dominquez, and Monique Tilford. I would recommend this book to anyone who wishes to get a handle on money. This book articulated the principles behind the blog above and how I manage my money. The most important premise in this book is that money is equal to your life energy so it behooves you to:

    1. Figure out realistically (your pay minus expenses) how much money an hour of your life energy buys.
    2. Track your money to the penny/dollar so you can know where your life energy is going.
    3. Determine what is important to you so you can change to spend more money (life energy) on those things that are most import to you (life purpose).

    For example, if you calculate that an hour of your life energy earns effectively $6 (after tax and work expenses), you would hesitate to buy a Starbucks frappucino ($5) because you may decide that you would rather invest that hour of life energy elsewhere, like a class to acquire a new skill so you can increase what an hour of your life energy earns. Focusing on the above three steps would naturally cause you to stop wasting money on things (like your 40th pair of shoes), saving more, and then investing wisely in areas of your life that are important to you.

    I have been doing most of the steps, suggested by this book, instinctively. I realized early on that money represented a precious and significant investment of my time and energy, so I didn’t want to waste it frivolously. I did track my expenses diligently so that I was aware of where my time/energy went and could adjust accordingly.

    While this book and its methodology may not be for everyone (some may find that tracking expenses is too bothersome), there is enough content there that I’m sure it would still be worthwhile to read.

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