Life is Not About Your Preferences

crying kid

Not my kid, but close enough.

My 3-year-old regularly has a melt-down if I give him the wrong color of plastic plate. “Pink is not my favorite, I need a blue one!” he’ll cry. It doesn’t matter that no blue plates are clean. He thinks he’s entitled exclusively to his favorites, all the time. He wants only his favorite foods, clothes, and TV shows. Of course we are trying to teach him “you get what you get and you don’t throw a fit,” i.e., not everything has to be your favorite. Life is not about your preferences.

Unfortunately, even as adults we fall prey to the “favorite” fallacy, or thinking that life is largely about discovering and securing our preferences. I’ve talked to countless people who explain that they can’t save money because they don’t prefer to bag their own groceries, or don’t want to work with bone-in chicken, or don’t like driving an older car that might require inconvenient repairs. They prefer to wear clothes that are in style. They don’t prefer eating beans over steak. They don’t like buying used furniture. They don’t enjoy shopping at thrift stores. Actually I’ve never met anyone who said they don’t like thrift stores, because thrift stores are awesome.

I have plenty of preferences myself, and I’m sure I don’t even realize how much I cater to them. But when it comes to saving money, I try to set aside my favorites and be content with less expensive options. Why? Because I prefer financial flexibility to debt. I prefer investing money to spending it on new clothes and iThings. I prefer to give away money instead of spending it all on things I don’t need. I prefer being able to take [expensive] opportunities that come along, like traveling on mission trips when we’re invited. I love staying home with my young children, even though that means having less income.

It’s okay to have preferences, and it’s okay to spend money on some of those preferences. But when you have a reason why you can’t save money in ten different ways because you don’t like this or that, maybe it’s time to think about the big picture. Do you prefer to shop at the Big Store more than you want to get out of debt? Do you prefer to drive a new car more than you prefer to save for the future? Do you want to eat at restaurants more than you want to give to church or charity? Maybe the opportunity cost of your preferences is something as big as retiring 5-10 years sooner, pursuing your dream career, or being really generous. People tend to think these “little” expenses don’t make a difference on their overall financial situation. But money cut from “little” costs, if invested, will grow exponentially, and that’s a power we underestimate while our money is enslaved to our preferences.

I’m sure the iStuff culture and foodie trends aren’t helping the preference obsession. My son thinks he should be able to request each individual song he wants rather than listening to the radio or an entire album. When you’re two it’s kind of cute that you want everything to be your favorite. But by age three the preference-obsession is decidedly not cute anymore, as any parent will testify. So if you’re reading this blog you have officially timed out of being allowed to live according to the favorite mentality. To be honest, I have preference problems, too, which become embarrassingly evident when SuperWalmart doesn’t have the exact version of an item I want. In times like those, I remind myself that the last thing I need is to procure a gourmet food taste or fancy product habit. Surely something less specific will suffice.

To set aside our favorites, we are fighting our underlying assumptions and attitudes we’ve absorbed from marketing messages and the 3-year-old inside us all. It’s tough for my son to just take the pink plate, and it’s tough for me to cook homemade food every night instead of getting take-out or frozen meals. But if cooking at home can contribute to saving, giving, and gaining flexibility, then it’s worth it.

The take-away? You don’t have to give up all your preferences, but decide what’s really worth it. I still don’t like ranch dressing and feel compelled to say this anytime that disgusting substance is mentioned. No one is saying you have to start listening to country music or that I have to start eating ranch. Just stop using your preferences as an excuse for not saving money.  We tend to think getting what we want will make us happy. Newsflash: it doesn’t! If I let my son have the blue plate, then he’ll start whining that the peanut butter sandwich on the blue plate isn’t his favorite. It’s an endless cycle if we give in, and the same applies to your finances. More convenience, comfort, and consumer goods won’t make you happier.

Instead of feeling deprived when you stop catering to a preference, focus on your favorite financial outcome that your small sacrifice will help you achieve. Is your goal to get out of debt? To give or save more? To travel or volunteer?  Letting go of preferences will help you become more flexible in every way—from daily situations to your finances. Remember the big picture of what you prefer your life to be about and let this control your spending, rather than letting your spending control your life options. That’s what financial flexibility is all about.

What money saving strategy have you avoided because of your preferences? What is your favorite financial goal?

32 Responses to “Life is Not About Your Preferences”

  1. Ben Luthi says :

    I’m usually pretty good about prioritizing the way I spend/save my money to focus on needs rather than wants, but sometimes I get tired of it and go crazy haha

  2. Mrs SSC says :

    This is a great perspective – and having a 3yo, I can totally relate. But it is so true. And I can see how I justify some of my splurges because they are my preference. My real preference is to save money to spend more time with my kids – and I need to remember that!

    And I love your phrase “iStuff culture” that is a perfect descriptor!

  3. Elroy says :

    I listened to a podcast and the guy was talking about time. Everyone always says, I don’t have time for that. What they are really saying is, all my time is already allocated. And so it is with just about anything. It’s about prioritizing. I value a blue plate over a clean one. Or, I value a big vacation over saving that money. The last one, I do.

    My biggest motivating goal is to get my investable assets to $1MM.

  4. Paula says :

    Thanks Kallie For writing these blogs. I have been spending a lot less and remembering the bigger picture.

  5. Froogal Stoodent says :

    Great advice, as always! Learning to be content in all circumstances–while refusing to be complacent–is a delicate skill; one that requires us to work on it constantly!

  6. Frank says :

    At the moment my financial goal is getting out of debt. My parents were nice enough to pay off my student loan debt for me, but then, fool that I am, I managed to rack up almost $1k of consumer credit card debt. I’ve been working to pay it down for a couple months now, but my bibliophilic book addiction has been getting in the way. I finally decided to cut out everything except necessities until I get my card paid off, then literally freeze it. I’m starting to use the library again and focusing on reading what I have. The only exceptions will be getting an Americano once a week when I visit with an old friend, and a little something for breakfast at the farmers’ market I go to every weekend. This article by Mr Money Mustache was a massive wakeup call for me:

    http://www.mrmoneymustache.com/2012/04/18/news-flash-your-debt-is-an-emergency/

  7. FullTimeFinance says :

    There’s an old saying,” you can have anything you want, just not everything you want”. Simply put you can fill your preference for a few things, but they better be the most important things. You can’t fill your preference for everything.

    • Kalie says :

      So true–you have to figure out what you want in the big areas, and make choices in the smaller stuff from there.

  8. Amanda says :

    On a regular basis, I have to remind myself that cooking saves so much money over convenience foods, take out or restaurants. I don’t always like to cook, but I do like thinking about our financial goals – and if cooking will help us get there sooner, it’s worth it!

    • Kalie says :

      Great example, Amanda. Cooking dinner almost every day is not my favorite, either. But it’s well worth the savings!

  9. Brian says :

    I agree with Amanda. After a long day at work, and a busy evening schedule, take-out can be the easy choice, but I remind myself cooking at home saves money and is a better choice for us in the long run.

    • Kalie says :

      Yep, it’s especially hard in between busy days and evenings, but you easily save $20+ every day you cook at home!

  10. Melanie says :

    “Actually I’ve never met anyone who said they don’t like thrift stores, because thrift stores are awesome.” I would so agree! 😀 Good read!

  11. Fruclassity (Ruth) says :

    “To set aside our favorites, we are fighting … attitudes we’ve absorbed from marketing messages.” So true. I really was influenced by the whole “because you’re worth it” marketing message. If I spent a lot on a pair of jeans, it meant I was confident and that I valued myself. What a load!

    • Kalie says :

      That’s really insightful–thanks for sharing the messages you’ve believed. We all do, it’s just a matter of when we recognize them, and what we do with that information. I heard a podcast by the Canadian preacher Bruxy Cavey about how marketing shifted from “you need” to “you deserve” because “you need” suggests we were somehow lacking, which can be offensive in affluent cultures. It’s been almost ten years now, but I think it was this teaching: http://www.themeetinghouse.com/pageid/1715/money-can-buy-happiness-4690

  12. Bethany says :

    This whole post is how I feel when people complain about how broke they are.

    Our family spends (comparatively) a lot of money on travel and eating out. But we’re not broke, and we’re frugal in a lot of other ways. People want to have extra money like we do, but they don’t want to be frugal like us. If someone complains about being broke and I suggest spending less, almost 100% of the time all I get back is excuses. “I don’t have time” “I have a job” “I have kids” “we prefer ____”.

    Super frustrating!!!

    But ultimately you’re right. People want Starbucks or organic grapes or bleach-free diapers MORE than they want to buy a house. Or pay off debt. Or invest. I have to remind myself of that when I start getting agitated with people and their complaints/excuses.

    • Kalie says :

      Yes, I think it helps to recognize preference in ourselves and others, even when others don’t necessarily see it yet. It does irk me when people use “I can’t afford” as an excuse when they really a. don’t want to, or b. have spend a lot of money elsewhere.

  13. Frugal Millennial says :

    YES!!! I know so many people who complain about being in debt and “never being able to get ahead”, but these same people aren’t willing to make any sacrifices. No one NEEDS to drive a new car or go shopping all the time.

  14. Dave (Married With Money) says :

    This post makes me chuckle, in a good way. To me, I always like reading the basics and the philosophical and psychological posts about WHY we have the relationship with our finances that we do. It’s fascinating, and the way you framed this up is simultaneously hilarious (my brother has a three year old daughter, so much the same as your son I’m sure) and also reaffirming that some decisions I’ve made are in fact with merit.

    Still, there are certainly places where I express unnecessary favoritism toward something that probably costs money. Maybe I’ll go through a period of time in the next month or so over-analyzing everything in an effort to at least be more aware of the decisions I’m making and their impact!

    • Kalie says :

      It’s hard to see our own blind spots, for sure. I think that’s why it’s helpful to read and talk about it, and get some fresh perspective now and them.

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