Life is Not About Your Preferences
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 like 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 money-saving, 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 going to India this summer to teach women’s conferences. 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 retirement and kids’ college? 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?