The “Util” and How It Can Help You Save

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As a personal finance blogger who’s never set foot in an economics classroom, I’m pretty oblivious when it comes to the more academic side of spending. All I see are the spending habits of people around me, ranging from the soon-to-be early retirees to the people who still love shiny stuff. One night, our new roommate “M” was telling me about a new car he intended to buy, and he dropped a term I’d never heard of before.

“I’d drive it lots and get lots of satisfaction out of it, so it’s totally worth it for the utils,” he said.

“The yoo-what?”

“The utils!”

Confused, I plunked myself down in front of Google, typing in “yutil” like an idiot.

“Uh, ‘util’. Like ‘utility’, dude.”

I figured it out eventually. After some struggling, it led me to this:

“The util has no concrete numerical value like an inch or a centimeter. Instead, it’s an arbitrary and subjective – yet convenient – way to assign value to consumer choices and to measure the consumer utility of one choice against another.”

Still confused, I read further.

“Here’s an example. Assume you to the supermarket with $100 to spend, along with a phantom 100 utils – representing 100% of the happiness you expect to garner from all the purchases you make. Two-thirds of your money is spent on necessities – bread, milk, produce and other food staples. Although 67% of the money budgeted for purchases is spent on necessities, the number of utils assigned to those purchases – arbitrarily and subjectively – may only be 40. The remaining 33% of your money is spent on chocolate, ice cream, frozen pizza, soda pop and other unnecessary items. But the utils assigned to these purchases total 60.”

I finally understood.

“Hunh, I should probably mention this on my blog,” I said.

“Do it.”

So here we are.

*****

I once tried to justify my PlayStation habit, and it went pretty terribly. At “$7.50/man-hour” for entertainment that included paying for my roommates’ playtime, it was the worst investment I’d ever made. It was bad enough I was investing in screen time; I was blowing thousands on something that didn’t add concrete value to my life. This was – and I realize this now – an awful investment to buy a shitty amount of utils. I know this because it wasn’t even making me particularly happy. I was paying for bragging rights.

Compare that to now. My main hobby now is cooking, and I’m getting quite good at it. For the price of one fancy restaurant entrée, I can whip up dinner for four, and learn cooking skills that will serve me for a lifetime. $30 spent at the grocery store results in a shitload of utils. It gives me pleasure and purpose, I get to entertain guests for a night, and I’m learning. But wait, here’s the real kicker…

Money invested is now my favourite source of utils.

Utils are about spending money to buy overall life satisfaction. Therefore, it’s worth thinking about every purchase in terms of how many utils it gives you. You buy a $20 sweater you know you’re gonna wear 100 times, and that’s 20¢ per wear. Pretty decent. You pay $200 for tickets to “The Book of Mormon” and you get two hours of entertainment that you can’t really access again. With my values, that’s a poor buy for utils. (It may be different for you if you love, lovelove musicals.) When I thought about this more, I realized “buying money” gave me more joy, security, freedom, peace of mind, value, and deep contentment than literally anything else. Pouring money into my TFSA every month is a delight. Investing it and watching it grow is far better. I used to buy video games to fill a virtual progress bar. Now, I choose better utils: I get them from money that will allow me to live the life I want, regardless of what happens in the future.

Investing money may not be your favourite source of utils though. All I ask is you think about the usage of the item you intend to buy. Will that impulse buy Pickle Rick hoodie be hilarious a year from now, or are you gonna wear it just 15 times? Is that beer you’re gonna chug in five minutes worth $9.26? How many utils is an iPhone compared to a flip phone? How many utils is junk food compared to a simple, well-balanced lunch? Will you use that meat smoker weekly, or will it live in your storage room? Will an $18,000 car really give you more utils than a $6,000 car?

We all measure satisfaction differently, but the efficiency with which we use things can be objective. For me, I “buy” money and investments I can use forever. Embrace the util, even if it is a nebulous concept. Anything that gets you thinking about how you spend is good.

Will you use your new purchase enough? Will it make you happier than the money itself? Does it retain value? All this brings us back to the util. It helps you make better choices.

What thing, in your life, gives you the most utils? Tell us in the comments, and share us on Facebook.

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Are You Paying For Bragging Rights?

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Looking back on my 20s, I wish I hadn’t cared about oneupmanship. I wish I hadn’t spent thousands on PlayStation media so I’d have a higher trophy count than my friends. I wish I hadn’t bought and drank so many terrible beers just to boost my numbers on Untappd. I wish I cared less about what people thought of me, and actually started working on me. For most of my life, I’d been paying for bragging rights. Maybe you have too.

Companies thrive on this sort of thing, but you didn’t need me to tell you that. Almost every luxury good is a sort of stab at oneupmanship. The newer car, the shinier gadget, the cooler features, and the status symbols of the world all conspire to take money out of our wallets. On one level, it might be keeping up with the Joneses (which we already know is bad), but if we’re being completely honest, sometimes we buy things to grasp at better social standing or to make others jealous. I’m guilty as charged. I used to buy $300 shoes, $900 dinners for my friends, and $250 bottles of wine – always in misguided attempts to seem better than I was. Now, I struggle with debt… and it’s all my fault.

Things are better now. Since starting this blog, the only status symbol I care about is my net worth. My shoes are now $20. My dinners are now meatloaf and beans. Bottles of wine only show up when I get them free from work. I just organized a bachelor party and ixnayed the limo for a cab. The PlayStations got sold off or gifted. I often take the bus. Somehow, in spite of all this voluntary deprivation, I’m happier for it! A weird thing happens when you become frugal: Where I once was only able to afford one pair of shoes, I could now afford 15. The more frugal you are, the more wealthy you feel because you suddenly have so much buying power! It’s a weird paradox, but it’s one worth believing in. Don’t ever spend money to impress people. People don’t give a shit anyways.

If you’re gonna spend money on oneupmanship, one-up yourself. Invest in your goals. Build up a bigger nest egg than you ever thought possible. Learn new skills. Better yourself, but not so you can compare yourself to others. Comparison is the thief of joy, even when you’re on top. Can you imagine how stressful that is? Always striving to maintain a false sense of superiority through spending money? FUCK. THAT.

No one’s better than anybody else. If you truly believe a $30,000 watch or a shiny car is the only thing making you a better person, we’ve gotta have a talk. Even if a glowing beacon above your head broadcast “I SPENT $30,000 ON A WATCH” 24/7, that’s not a great message to send. You don’t seem rich and impressive. You seem desperate.

Stop bragging. Start saving.

Get rich.

Use It Or Lose It, or How To Save The World With The Crap In Your Storage Room

If every American dove into their storage room and unearthed $100, can you imagine what that $33 billion could do?

The US is home to 327 million Americans, and a staggering $33 billion in unused tech just sitting around. That means every US citizen essentially has a $100 doorstop somewhere in their home. Statistically speaking, if you’re young and male like me, that number’s bound to be much higher. I easily have thousands in tech either unused or underutilized, and I came to the realization that value could do a lot of good in the world, and for my pocketbook. Never being one to sit still on such epiphanies, I began a slow and steady purge. This is the story of how raiding my storage room helped make the world a better place.

Looking at my power bill meant my PlayStations had to go. I sold off my PS4s and conjured up nearly $700 out of past excess. I then looked up my city’s community Facebook page and essentially posted, “Free PS3s to the right person!” I ended up saving a kid’s birthday party – he wanted a video game party, and his PS3 had died a week before – and I also gave one to a small family. At this point, I was also sitting on some unused games. This took care of itself as someone broke into my car and stole them. I also discovered almost 10 external hard drives. In my early days as a photographer, 1TB and 1.5TB hard drives were as big as you could get them. Now that I’ve upgraded to 8TB hard drives, this was like mining for diamonds in my garage. I sold them all for cheap, and made about $500. I made money, and my friends saved money. These are the win-win situations I live for. There’s even two TVs I barely use, and I’m already thinking of ways to unload them! Then, there’s my heaps of camera gear! I’m not ready to give away $3,000 cameras yet, but I do lend my gear to anyone who asks nicely. As long as I’m not using it, what’s mine is yours. A local photographer who’s a friend-of-a-friend wanted to borrow a lens last weekend. No problem! In fact, years ago, I even donated a fleet of film cameras to hobbyists. One made its way to a photography school, and some are now toys in the hands of creative professionals. I even let my roommate borrow my car when I’m not using it! As soon as I let go of the idea of ownership, my unused crap started enriching people’s lives, my bank account, and the world at large!

Buying and receiving secondhand objects isn’t just about saving money either. It’s also about saving the environment. This Swedish study puts some numbers to it – 12.5M tonnes of CO₂ saved per year?!? – but what’s even more staggering is how small their sample size was. They only looked at five “major marketplaces” in Europe. Craigslist is saving heaps too! All I know is raiding my storage closet did good for the world. Even getting those games stolen out of my car meant that poor dude didn’t steal from someone else. What $100 doorstops do you have in your closet?

*****

While writing an early draft of this article, I found out the 50mm f/1.8 I was essentially using as a camera body cap finally made its way to Windsor, ON. I hadn’t used it in months, and it’s now gone to an enthusiastic amateur. I’m pretty ruthless now with what stays and what goes.

If something has a use, I make sure it’s used, even if it’s not by me. If something no longer benefits me, but will benefit someone else simply by being in a different place, I consider that a net win.

If every American dove into their storage room and unearthed $100, can you imagine what that $33 billion could do?

Money and Convenience Are Basically The Same Thing

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Hot pot is glorious. Somewhere, deep in my childhood memories, I have vague recollections of bubbling broth, delicately rolled sheets of meat, odd dipping sauces, and questionable food safety, and it somehow became one of my favourite ways to enjoy a meal. Looking now to recreate it – which I did this past weekend with spectacular results – I’d found myself standing in the veggie aisle of an Asian supermarket. In small packages, there were cremini, enoki, shiitake, and white button mushrooms, but there was also a “hot pot mix”, cleverly portioned out to be exactly what I needed. In a moment of weakness, I ignored the $8.98 price tag and put them in my basket. Given a choice between “I could buy the individual packages and get more mushrooms for the same price” and being a bad chef, I became a bad chef. I chose convenience over money. After all, like everyone else, I may as well pay for convenience… right?

This got me thinking though. When you get right down to it, that’s all we ever pay for. You buy a car to avoid walking multiple kilometres to work every day. You buy a computer to avoid doing all your scheduling, task managing, and socializing via pen and paper. You buy meat so you don’t have to raise chickens or gut a deer. Perhaps, if all you want is to live a wealthier life, it may be as easy as letting in some inconvenience!

I know this is certainly true for me. I eat takeout and $8.98 mushrooms more than I care to admit, and I still haven’t ventured into brewing my own beer. We’ve also talked about not owning things if you can help it, but I still have so much crap, I have to give/throw stuff away regularly. Suddenly, I wanted to know what an inconvenient lifestyle looked like, based on my daily expenses.

Wake up.
Brew my own coffee.
Make myself a sandwich for work.
Bike to work.
Drink tap water.
Eat the sandwich on my break.
Bike home.
Make a quick dinner.
Drink a homebrew.
Read articles online.
Go to bed.

This is, of course, regular daily living for countless people and the joie de vivre of many a Mustachian. I decided to go ahead and define my barriers to success.

I would need to buy a coffeemaker.
I would need to make more time for grocery shopping.
I would need to buy another trike (because the last one was stolen).
I would need to purchase equipment for homebrewing, and I don’t have a passion for it.

That’s it! At this point, I found it genuinely weird I’d have to buy things to make my life more inconvenient on my terms, but as it’s such a simple fix, it may be worth investigating. The coffeemaker, for instance, could be a great investment. Coffee currently costs $0.55 at the local 7-Eleven, but coffee at home is more like $0.08. It seems pretty insignificant, but a year of coffee at home instead of 7-Eleven java saves me $171.55, enough for many coffeemakers! Now, I just wish I liked homebrewing…

The obvious takeaway is introducing inconvenience means more money in our pockets. Getting back on a trike would save me from $60 tanks every month for an extra $720/year. Add car maintenance – my last bill was $715 – then add the coffee, and I just pulled $1,500+ out of my ass by slightly inconveniencing myself!

Try doing a similar exercise to the one above, and ask yourself, “How inconvenient can I make my life?” It shouldn’t be too scary at all. Determine your barriers to success, and figure out how much money you’d save. I’m not telling you to dumpster dive or use toilet paper stolen from library bathrooms, but think about it this way: With virtually every consumable, you can either choose to walk away with Money or Convenience.

How rich do you want to be?

Pleasure-Purpose-Purchase, or Should I Buy This?

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“[H]appiness is experiences of pleasure and purpose over time.”
– Paul Dolan

Now that we know happiness can be quantified in numbers – (Read this first.) – I suddenly realized this was a massive breakthrough. In our last post, we applied a pleasure and purpose metric to activities to figure out how happy they were making us, but we missed the obvious: What if we applied the same pleasure and purpose metric to purchases? We’re a personal finance blog after all. It’d be stupid to not talk about money.

Anyway, I adopted this scoring system for any purchase over $10 I was considering. The first number is the pleasure I can expect from my purchase rated from 1-10, the second number is its anticipated purposefulness from 1-10, and the third bit is whether or not I bought it. Score anything you’ve recently wanted to buy accordingly! Recent pleasure-purpose-purchase scores for me have been stuff like:

Allergy medication: 4-9-Y
4-pack of rare beer: 7-5-Y
New Fitbit wristband: 6-2-N
All-you-can-eat sushi dinner: 7-4-Y
New audiobook: 6-3-N

In order for me to say yes to a purchase, my pleasure and purpose scores must add up to at least 10 out of 20. Otherwise, I put it back on the shelf. (For you, your score may be different. You might have something be 2-4-Y after mentally justifying it, and you might even set your purchase threshold at 8 out of 20 or lower.) Even now, this is stopping me from making purchases that won’t make me significantly happier. Look at what else I’ve been saying no to:

New 4K 55” TV: 6-2-N ($400)
Profoto A1 camera flash: 3-6-N ($1,000)
6-pack of craft beer I’ve tried before: 5-3-N ($15)
Food mill: 5-4-N ($45)

These are all things I want, but after scoring them all, I realized the money was better saved and invested. Besides, I already had a 50” TV and old flashes, which is why I ranked purpose relatively low. Let’s say I would’ve bought all that stuff this month were it not for the P-P-P score. I would’ve spent $1,460. Invested using the 10X rule, that’d be $14,600 by retirement in one month alone!

Can applying this scoring system to your discretionary spending save you tens of thousands of dollars? I think it will. Think about this and score your next few purchases, then comment below with your findings.

In the meantime, I’m gonna have some of that 7-5-Y beer. Mmm, unnecessary luxury…

Moving is Always an Opportunity

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“K” was moving out. My roommate and I took him in for a month while he was looking for a new place, and he literally lived in our storage closet for all of February. He never had much furniture, but that was a good thing. It meant he was more mobile. When he found a new place though, certain amenities were lacking, like tables and a couch. Luckily, I knew tons of people looking to declutter and downsize. I always see people moving as an opportunity now. After reading this, you will too.

I embrace minimalism, and I think my constant nagging to my family is paying off. My mom’s finally clearing out my dad’s belongings – he died in 2014 – and my grandmother is moving to a smaller place after my grandfather’s death last year. Long story short, lots of stuff needed to go. Selling our furniture was definitely a possibility, but I stepped in and chose to help a friend instead of capitalizing on the situation. “K” eventually got a couch and a dining set from my grandmother, and a side table from my mom. This made my inner minimalist very happy. Not only was my family regaining their space, but “K” was keeping more money in his pocket and only took what he needed. Nothing was wasted, and no one blew too much on a junk removal company. It was win-win all around. Moving is an endless source of living space recalibration, even when it’s not -US- doing the moving. When a friend moves, maybe it’s time to look around our living space and throw our shit away based on what they need. Regular generosity is pretty kickass already, but generosity that streamlines our lives and improves our living space? Fucking amazing.

I often find I can get stuff from people when they move too. Maybe their old couch won’t fit, or they just got a bigger bedroom and are replacing their queen with a king. A more enterprising mind can make thousands off these transactions. To a family pressed for time, speedy junk removal is a luxury and people really don’t care where their stuff ends up. Take it. Old mattress in good shape? $150 on Craigslist. Old 32” TV? $100. Old home theatre speakers? $200. If you’re willing to put in the time when ANYONE moves, you can either cash in or streamline your living situation. You’ll always look like the good guy too, since you’re either helping get rid of stuff or giving it away. WHY DOES NO ONE DO THIS.

I personally choose NOT to make money on people’s moves though. It’s much more rewarding for me to send people off with great stuff for free. As my mom decluttered, I gave away a mattress last month. I’ve got a free table up for grabs now. Besides, remember you don’t own anything. If you’re not using it regularly, isn’t it just selfish and stupid to store it underutilized in your home? If more people listened, NO ONE WOULD NEED TO BUY FURNITURE AGAIN. Instead, people blow thousands on tables and chairs, then pay hundreds 10 years later for 1-800-GOT-JUNK to haul it all away. Don’t be like them.

Embrace a community where people share Stuff as needed. Give away your Stuff when you’re not using it. If someone is getting rid of Stuff, take it or sell it. It’s not hard, guys. When people move, take it as an opportunity to improve your life. Maybe that way, we’d all be a little happier and minimalism will become the norm. That’s the kind of world I want to live in. Heck, it might even save the environment.

(FYI, that table is still up for grabs. Ping me on Facebook.)

Gift What You’ve Got

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I’m not buying a single Christmas present this year, yet I’m gifting more generously than ever before. How, you ask? Well, this year, instead of spending the entire holiday season fighting through shoppers and maxing out every credit card I own, I’m only gifting stuff I already have. Does that make me cheap? Probably, but here’s what that looks like. You might find yourself doing the same.

In previous years, my first instinct would’ve been to hit the mall and get everyone PlayStations and Fitbits. Even this year, I was tempted. I saw a Fitbit Flex for $60 and thought my friend would like one. When I considered all the stuff I already had at home though, I decided buying more crap wasn’t the answer. I knew reckless generosity did more harm than good, shiny stuff was stupid, and minimalism was key to a happy life. I went cheap this year, and it was easy. I started with the gently-used stuff I didn’t need anymore…

I dealt myself out of the wine world earlier this year, so I now had an excellent 8-bottle microcellar I wasn’t using. At the moment, it’s just plugged in, sucking up power while cellaring absolutely nothing. That was first on my gift list. Next was a deep fryer I’d only used once. I’d bought it for my ex, but she didn’t take it when she moved out. That went on the list too. My next decision was a tougher one. As I was cleaning my bedroom, I noticed the display of film cameras I hadn’t touched in over a year. As much as I loved them, I saw them gathering dust and immediately resolved to find them a better home. It made no sense to hoard them when they could be out in the wild making art, so I packed them up and started giving them away. One went to a film producer friend. One went to a photography colleague. One is going to a school. One is going to a fellow arts nerd. I literally felt lighter after I made my decision. I was putting value back into the world, and I was reclaiming my space. What an easy win. A copy of “Rework” I have is going to the owner of the liquor store I work at. An old CD player I don’t use is getting gifted to a mom who likes to put audiobooks on for her 4-year-old son. Every PS3 game I’m done with is getting redistributed to people who will actually play them. And so on, and so on. It’s not like I’m giving away garbage either. Even used, the microcellar would’ve been $100 on Craigslist, the CD player would’ve been $30, the cameras would’ve been $50 each, the book would’ve been $20, the deep fryer is at least $75, and the PS3 games would’ve been $10 each! Gifting stuff you don’t use anymore is just the smart thing to do!

Even stuff you consider trash can be repurposed as gifts. At my place, we have WAY more glassware than any person could logically need. Oversized wine glasses, awkward pint glasses, novelty shot glasses, etc. A friend suggested filling them with cheap candy and tying on a bow. Instant stocking stuffers. You can even make stuff! My coworker is painting rocks for her Christmas gifts. One of my friends is knitting something for me. There’s no end to what you can do once you decide to NOT spend money for the holidays. You might even end up gifting something more meaningful!

If you still have people on your shopping list, lock up your wallet and take a hard look around your home. You may find the perfect gift without setting foot outside. Besides, it’s cold out there. Maybe you can even do some snowflaking with the money you save!

Merry Christmas, everyone! I’m off to Seattle for the holidays. See you in 2017.