This one question will help you to be happier with your spending decisions, from identifying where you can save money to making peace with big splurges that break out of your usual frugal patterns.
As many of you know, the Money Habit household welcomed an extra member a few months ago. Money Habit Jr. is a pretty awesome addition to the family. What is less awesome are the expenses associated with taking care of a newborn. Everywhere you turn there is another product being marketed to us sleep-deprived parents.
As a couple who likes to focus on value and utility, we we’ve been very leery of spending much on the baby. We carefully and deliberately planned out each purchase during my pregnancy. But after the baby came, new purchases seemed to crop up every day, and we have had very little time to make thoughtful decisions about each one of them. I had begun to feel like we were just throwing our hard-earned cash into a dark, endless money pit. I vented just this to my father one afternoon. It was so difficult to make all these decisions. It was hard to tell what was worth it and what was frivolous. Should we get the upgraded glass bottles over the plastic ones? Nanny over daycare? These purchases could easily add up to thousands of dollars. We needed a way to make smart decisions fast.
He asked me a very good question that helped me frame each purchase effectively.
Would you rather have the problem or would you rather have an expense?
Problem or Expense?
Here’s a great example. Having a baby is a ton of work throughout the day. If you’re not taking care of the kid, you’re often trying to squeeze in a shower, a snack, or some much-needed sleep yourself. Housework tends to get pushed to the wayside. So as a new parent, would you rather deal with the problem of which of you sleep-deprived adults is going to get the clothes laundered and the dishes cleaned so you have something to eat off, or would you rather have the expense of a house cleaner for the first few months?
It was a clear yes to the housekeeper for me.
Here’s another on the other end of the spectrum. There’s a special machine for mixing formula quickly called the Baby Brezza which has fantastic reviews. It retails for $180 and several of the moms I’ve spoken with have recommended it. Would you rather have the problem of mixing the formula by hand yourself or the expense of this machine?
This problem felt so miniscule to me that I’d classify it more as an inconvenience than a problem, and I’d rather have this inconvenience over another expense. That’s $180 back in my pocket, and I’ll swirl or shake my own formula bottles each time. It will be good exercise for my arms since I have so little time to hit the gym.
Thousands and Thousands of Dollars
This question is perhaps even more effective on the larger scale. I find that I have significant angst when pulling the trigger on big-ticket purchases.
When I was working and single, I wanted to take the problems associated with a tiny walk-up apartment in order to save $15k+ a year. I had to figure out how to get groceries up five flights of stairs. I had to figure out when I’d hit the laundromat since the unit didn’t have a laundry machine. These sucked up my time and were often frustrating – I distinctly remember being at Trader Joe’s and eyeing a cool miso soup broth. I had put two cartons in my cart but wheeled them around with a nagging feeling in the back of my head. These things were liquid, which meant they were heavy. Was it worth buying them and lugging them down into the subway, through a 10 minute walk, and up five flights of stairs? I put them back, saddened that my living conditions were putting a damper on my life. But I was willing to take that tradeoff.
Fast forward to this year.
I’ve got a kiddo who needs around the clock care and that had meant Mr. Money Habit and I were seriously deprived of sleep. Money Habit Jr. would wake every 3 hours to eat. Mr. Money Habit and I had naively assumed that meant we would be sleeping in 3 hour chunks with the baby. But what that really meant was 30 minutes of eating, 10 minutes of burping and diaper changing, 10-15 minutes to soothe him back to sleep, and 10-30 minutes to try and fall back asleep yourself. By the time you’d decompressed enough to get some shuteye, you’d have only an hour and a half or so before you had to repeat the cycle. This isn’t an issue if you’re doing it for just a few days, but a marathon of interrupted sleep was leading to headaches, mood swings, and an inability to concentrate and get other important things done. I was dazedly relaying this to a friend who asked if we’d considered hiring someone to watch the baby at night.
That sounded like some crazy, rich person luxury. I dismissed it completely and moved onto other topics. A couple days later, the notion was back in my head. And as I asked other friends, I found that a few folks – not many – had done something similar. More commonly, we found that couples we knew mimicked this support with unpaid family help; the mother-in-law might take the baby for the weekend or take over night duty once or twice a week. We don’t have family living in the area so that was not an option for us.
As our sleep deprivation worsened, the idea of paying for a night nurse was beginning to look appealing. Still, I couldn’t get over the guilt of how much money this service would cost. A night nurse would cost anywhere from $85 to $220 a night, depending on the kind of nurse your hired and the length of the stay.
As I looked at it through the lens of this question, though, the answer became clear. Did I want the problem of how to fit enough hours of sleep in for myself and my husband, or did I want an astronomical (but hopefully temporary) expense?
There are very few things I feel like I must have. Sleep is one of them. My husband felt the same.
This Problem or The Problem of Making More Money?
I still felt uneasy about the hiring of a night nurse. And as I was thinking about the issue, I came up with a variant of the question above: Would you rather have the problem or figure out how to make enough money to pay to solve the problem?
As I reflected on it, I would rather get sleep during those rock first couple of months and find a way to make several thousand dollars to pay for the expense. Finding a way to earn that money wouldn’t be easy, but I already had a few ways to generate a few thousand extra dollars like moving my money and the income I generate from the blog. I vastly preferred trying to tackle that problem than trying to deal with the problems created by the lack of sleep. I did not like the sobbing, frustrated mess I had become.
We did end up hiring a night nurse. And it has benefited us tremendously.
Given that we all have different values, there’s no one right way to spend money. Asking whether you’d prefer to have a problem or an expense is a way of uncovering what your values are and thus what decision is right for you.
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