Jul 30, 2016

On spending money freely

Lately, I've been living as though money were no object. Anything that I want, I buy. Because I have a strong minimalist tendency, I actually don't want to purchase very many objects, but I've purchased any object I've wanted. Regarding experiences I am more maximalist – I want to live an interesting life, and many interesting experiences can be bought.

For example, last night I went to my hometown's hippest speakeasy (you know it's hip because the entrance is an unmarked door in the side of a post-industrial building and the interior is a dimly lit space full of dark wood, leather, and bottles of alcohol with exotic labels). At the speakeasy, I ordered a $10 cocktail. On one view, I spent $10 on a drink. On another view, I spent $10 on a package of experiences: the slight excitement of entering a curated space, the bartender moving a cocktail shaker so fast that you lose sight of his hands, the powerfully bitter taste of the establishment's Manhattan #2, the smell of expensive soap on your hands after washing them in the well-maintained bathroom, learning that raw egg whites become meringue-like when added to a drink & shaken, and on and on.

On the $10-for-a-drink view, the purchase can't be justified. I earn enough and have sufficiently few commitments that $10 isn't a critical amount of money for me, but the $10 I spent could have been donated or saved. I have medium-term goals of 1) helping others by donating charitably and 2) achieving financial independence – neither of which is furthered by purchasing a $10 cocktail.

But on the $10-for-a-package-of-experiences view, the purchase makes more sense. Not only did $10 let me access a set of otherwise inaccessible experiences, but paying the money made me more appreciative and aware. There is a great deal of beauty and wonder in the world, and most of the time I walk past without noticing any of it. In addition to purchasing the external object or experience, paying money for something buys mental space for enjoying it. The purchase quiets the ever-calculating part of my mind that is solely interested in making sure I get my money's worth and get ahead. This is the part that drives me past so much everyday beauty with my head down, and money is a language it understands. (I am reminded of a passage in Deep Work where Newport purchases a fine leather-bound journal to serve as his schedule and daily time tracker, just so that he will take the endeavor more seriously).

When I was younger, I was disdainful of the upper middle-class lifestyle I observed in many adults. I thought the luxury cars, the expensive dinners, the fine clothes were all so wasteful, that the people pursuing these things were lost, seeking happiness in a self-sabotaging way. That critique still resonates with me, but now that I'm making decent money, the upper middle-class lifestyle is starting to make more sense. For one, many luxury purchases exchange money for time, which is a good trade if you are making a lot of money and find yourself very time-constrained. Further, making expensive purchases can validate the experience, quieting the calculating voice. It's okay to take your time and appreciate the moment, you paid for it, you should at least try to enjoy it.

Obviously it would be better to find enjoyment in the moment without having to pay for the privilege, but it is a long road to that place. I'm still working towards that, but in the meantime I am happy to discover this framing of luxury purchases. It is a hack, but it works, and I assess things on whether they deliver.

I don't plan to indefinitely keep spending so freely. It grates on my stingy disposition and runs counter to my medium-term goals. But in the short-term I don't feel guilty about it, so I'm enjoying it while it's here.

[rereads: 4, edits: phrasing and style tweaks, more phrasing tweaks after a later reading, rearranged clauses of the "package of experiences" sentences, added link to "How much do I need to retire early?" post]