The other day, Sarah and I were coming home from visiting some friends in another state. Typically on a road trip, we plan ahead a little and pack sandwiches and beverages for a meal on the road or in a park or something because it’s really inexpensive and filling and easy to do on the road. This time, however, we were empty-handed and also trying to hurry to get home, so we didn’t have the time to stop at a grocery store and get items for sandwiches and assemble them.
So, when we stopped for gas, we were right next to a fast food restaurant, so we drove right over into that parking lot and got into the drive-thru. It was a Taco Bell.
As I looked at the menu, just before we were about to order, I found myself wondering what kind of value I was getting here. What am I exchanging my hard earned money for?
Obviously, I’m hungry and I’m a little thirsty, too, and I’m pinched for time. Those are needs.
I wouldn’t mind something tasty that meets my cravings. Ideally, it’s easy to clean up if we’re eating in the car. Those are wants.
But what I’m not initially considering are other factors.
I want to have something healthy. I want to feel full enough so that I’m not hungry until after we’re home, but at the same time I don’t want to overstuff myself with calories. I want something that’s likely to be prepared in a sanitary fashion so I don’t get sick.
For all of that, I want to spend very little money.
Is any of that really addressed by that fast food menu?
To keep the cost low, a good approach is to order water as my beverage. That will quench my thirst better than pretty much anything else.
What can I eat that’s healthy and relatively inexpensive on this menu? I wasn’t sure, so I fired off a quick Google search and ended up ordering a bean burrito with some extra sauce packets. Total cost for me? Less than $2.
It checked off a lot of boxes. It was (comparatively) healthy. It sated my hunger. It tasted reasonably good. The water took care of my thirst. It kept the cost low.
The thing is, if I hadn’t thought through what I really wanted out of that meal, I would likely have spent between $5 and $10 on food that would have been a lot less healthy. It was that process of stepping back and asking what value I’m really getting that changed my order.
I got far more value out of my $1.50 bean burrito and my glass of water than I would have from $8 in food and beverages that I could have ordered. Both sate my hunger and thirst and both tasted reasonably good, but one was far less expensive, easier to clean up, and healthier.
The thing is, a surprising amount of the money we spend is on things that have extremely fleeting value, whereas the things that provide real value are usually much less expensive.
For example, a bowl of oatmeal and a hard boiled egg fills me up in the morning and is healthy and reasonably tasty for a fraction of a dollar. On the other hand, I could have two breakfast burritos, which would also fill me up and be perhaps even a little more tasty (a fleeting thing), but it would overload me on calories and cost a lot more.
Another: I could go buy some board game that seems amazing, costing me $40 or so, or I could play a game that’s already on my shelf. Sure, the new game would give me a burst of fun in the short term as I enjoy unpacking a game and reading the rules, but soon it becomes just another option on my shelf, of which I have many. One more option doesn’t make a great game night, so why add one more at a cost of $40?
The key in all of the stories is the straightforward question of what value am I really getting out of this expense? What is it that I’m getting in addition to what I already have, or what the least expensive option is?
Then, consider just that additional value in comparison to what you already have. Is what you’re getting beyond a single dollar menu item and a cup of water worth the extra $5? Is the new addition to your media collection worth the price compared to the value you can get from just watching what you already have access to?
What value are you really getting? And is it worth it to you?
The thing is, this is a great question to ask whenever you’re making a purchase, but the real power comes from making this your default approach. For me, I think it is my default approach in most situations, but not always. The more my normal routine is shaken up, the more likely it is that I don’t think in these terms.
So, how does one make it their default? How did I make it my default way of thinking in most situations, and how do I continue to move in that direction?
First of all, I think through these kinds of ordinary decisions in my spare time. I’ll literally walk through spending decisions like these in my mind when I’m waiting for my kids after soccer practice or taking a shower or driving somewhere. When they get really sticky, I’ll write about these kinds of decisions in my journal and work through the details with care.
I work through recently-made decisions and figure out if I made the right choice or not. I work through decisions that I know are coming up in my life.
The more you do this kind of critical thinking of your own choices, the more likely it is that you’ll end up making a great choice when similar choices appear in the future.
I don’t restrict this process to just spending decisions. Rather, I use it to try to improve all of the decisions I make and actions I take in life. It’s a really powerful process for self-improvement.
Second, I know what my values are and refine those values fairly often. This often overlaps with the above thinking process. If there’s something that I feel like I shouldn’t care so much about or that I should care about more, it’s usually because there’s some underlying value that I can feel but I don’t really understand. Digging around and rooting out that value and really understanding it makes it easier to make good decisions in everyday life.
For example, one of my big recent projects has been finding low cost and healthy foods, figuring out how to prepare them in a way that I really enjoy and then finding ways to get as many of them as possible in my diet. Oatmeal is a prime example – how can I make that as appealing to me as possible so that I’m cool with eating it most mornings?
I know that I value eating healthy, more than I used to when I was younger. I also value eating inexpensively. Yet, I don’t really like a plain bowl of oatmeal, which checks both of those boxes. Why not? What’s missing in that equation? Obviously, I value food having some protein content and being at least somewhat palatable to me, so how do I make oatmeal palatable enough so that I’ll eat it frequently? Pairing it with a hardboiled egg works, as does adding some fruit to it and letting it soak overnight in almond milk, which still adds up to a breakfast less than $1.
Finally, I experiment constantly until I find something that seems unequivocally good. After I make a choice, I’ll look back on it and ask myself whether it was an unquestionable win. If I can’t honestly say that it was, then I know the decision has room for improvement and that new approaches are worth trying.
That means I go back to the drawing board. Is there a more cost-efficient way of doing this? Is there a healthier way to eat that’s still satisfying? Did I get what I wanted out of this purchase? Did I have a good social interaction? Did I make a good professional move?
I try to come up with a better way of approaching things until I feel very happy with the results, and then I try to hammer that down as my “default” way of handling that type of situation and move on to other things.
In the end, I am of the belief that a well considered life is a better life, and that’s how I express it. The time and effort you spend sharpening your axe is time and effort that almost always pays for itself, provided you keep testing the axe and actually use it when it’s sufficiently sharp.
Always consider what value you’re getting out of a particular situation and whether the money, time, health, and effort you’re spending beyond the minimum to cover your needs is actually worth what you’re giving up by using that money, time, health, and effort in that way.
What value are you really getting?