A few days ago, I was leafing through my journal for 2015 and thinking about some of the best things that I did during the year.
It was easy to identify some of the great moments. I fondly remember our family camping trip to Wisconsin. I will never forget how ecstatic I was to watch my daughter finally recovering from her illnesses and surgery in the fall, a process that took months. I remember a road trip that I got to take with one of my closest friends near the end of November.
However, when I really started thinking about the best memories of the year, I started remembering some other things, too.
I remembered a day that my family spent at a state park with some friends, where we had lunch and went exploring with another family. People laughed and got their feet wet and one person even fell in a stream and got soaked.
I remembered a gorgeous summer day at a community festival where we ran into some friends we hadn’t seen in a very long time and wound up camped out under a tree catching up on things as our children played together.
I remembered a few of the best community board game nights that I attended, where I had the chance to have fun, think, and laugh for hours in the company of friends old and new.
I remembered countless moments at home with my family, mostly doing simple things. I remembered playing board games with them and marveling at my daughter’s constantly powerful intuition about whether to take a risk or not. I remembered practicing with my oldest son so that he could be a better soccer goalie, kicking balls into the net over and over again as he tried to stop them until there were actually patterns worn into the grass.
Those things all brought me lasting joy and happiness. They were all things that I remembered almost a year later.
What was interesting, though, is what I didn’t remember. I didn’t have a single memory of burning time while twiddling on my smartphone. I didn’t have a single memory of playing electronic games of any kind. I had one single memory of a television show I watched and I could recall only one movie that I saw with any fondness. (In fact, the only other solitary hobby or entertainment that I had memories of at all was of my feelings after reading a few books and after completing some online courses, which kind of amounted to similar things.)
Those things just filled up time. They didn’t bring me any lasting joy or happiness.
All of these things led me to an interesting conclusion from the last year: when I engaged in things with other people, I was more likely to do something that was memorable and likely to bring me joy than if I just did something alone.
This is an interesting revelation for me because I’m a pretty strong introvert. Given a choice between a social situation or a solitary situation, my natural intuition is to choose the solitary one. I’m much more comfortable spending my free time playing a computer game by myself or reading a book.
Yet, with the exception of a few memories of learning new things, almost all of my great memories from the year revolve around spending time with other people. They involve social situations.
The Money Connection
This might seem like an interesting revelation to some of you, but it doesn’t seem on the surface to have much of a connection to money at all. How does this help a person’s finances?
First of all, let’s step back and look at the good memories from the year.
The first one was a camping trip to Wisconsin. A car camping trip is a pretty inexpensive family vacation, yet I recalled it fondly. Why? It was time spent with my family doing fun things together.
The second one was my daughter’s recovery from her health crisis in the fall of this year. Probably my best single memory of the year was when she went trick-or-treating on Halloween, because that was the first “normal” kid thing she’d been healthy enough to do in two months. Again, it was a low-cost event, as she had a very simple costume on and just wandered through the neighborhood.
The third one was a road trip with a friend, where we split the cost of gas along the way. Having him a long simultaneously made it memorable and also made it much less expensive.
The fourth one was a day at a state park where we ate a picnic lunch and enjoyed the free resources there.
The fifth one also involved a family picnic lunch while out and about at that community festival. The biggest expense I can recall from that day was my wife buying a woven rug from a vendor.
The sixth one involved a free community game night where I mostly played other people’s games. Quite often, the people at those games collectively order food, making it cheap for everyone involved.
The last set of memories all occurred at home and none of them really involved buying anything or paying for any experiences. They just involved spending time together.
The things I didn’t remember? A lot of them involved expenses. I didn’t remember any of the meals we had eaten out for the entire year. I didn’t remember any of the computer games I’d bought and played with. I didn’t remember hardly any of the television programs (from a cable subscription) or movies (from theater trips or DVD/Bluray rentals or purchases) that I watched.
This whole realization has brought me to a few interesting conclusions about how I spend my money and how that connects to my social choices.
Thought #1 – When I Do Things with Others, Those Things Tend To Be Relatively Cheap
When I look at the social activities that I actually remember from the past year, most of them are actually relatively inexpensive things. Those memories tend to revolve much more around the people and the actual experience than the specific thing that we’re doing and when I look a little closer, I realize that the thing we’re doing is pretty inexpensive, too.
I think there are two key reasons for this.
First, in a group setting, we can share resources. Carpooling is a great example of this. So are pot luck dinners. So are community board game nights. If you’re in a group environment where everyone contributes a little, the cost per person drops significantly.
In a group setting, we can provide the entertainment for each other. Conversation is a big part of this, but there are all kinds of free group activities that provide entertainment for all – games, sports, crafting, and so on. Conversation isn’t something you can pull off alone and many low-cost games and sports and other activities don’t work solo, either.
Part of this, of course, has to do with the social activities I choose to do, something I’ll address a bit further on in the article, but there’s no denying that many, many social activities are free, low cost, or have some financial benefit from doing them as a group.
There’s another benefit to social experiences as well – collective thought and shared experiences can save money, too. I’m constantly getting tips and ideas from my friends about better ways to do things, ways to spend less money, and so forth. If you pay attention, other people are a constant source of good ideas for how to do things better yourself.
Another benefit is that you’re establishing relationships with other people in the community that can be very useful later on. We have close friends nearby that are also parents, so there have been times when we have watched each others’ children for free. I’ve had friends come over to help us move.
Thought #2 – When I Do Things Alone, Those Things Tend To Be Relatively Expensive
On the other hand, the activities that I do by myself generally have some kind of significant cost to them. After all, solo activities require something in addition to yourself to pull off and that something else has some kind of cost, whether it’s money or time or energy.
I boil this down to two key elements.
First, in a solo setting, I either have to entertain myself or find/buy sources of entertainment. Sure, I can entertain myself with nothing else for a while, but I’ll probably at least need a little equipment for that. Eventually, I’ll likely end up buying sources of entertainment, whether it’s a cable subscription or buying a movie or a video game or something else. That’s a real expense, one that doesn’t have to exist if you have someone else to entertain you. Conversation is free, after all.
In a solo setting, I have to procure my own resources. If I go on a trip by myself, I have to pay for the gas entirely by myself. If I go with others, we can split the costs. If I have interest in playing five games and I’m doing it solo (say it’s computer games), I have to buy them all. If I have interest in playing five games and I’m in a community game group, I might have to buy one of them. There’s no need to even talk about things like food – cooperating is just a huge money saver there. Sharing resources saves a ton of money.
Thought #3 – Being an Introvert Pushes Me Toward Doing Things Alone, But Those Things Aren’t Often Memorable
I enjoy doing solitaire activities, but part of that is for the sake of those things being solitaire. Sometimes, I find social situations to be a bit stressful and tiring because, like many introverted people, I often don’t know what I should be saying and I burn a lot of mental energy trying to figure out what I should be saying or doing. (Extroverts seem to come by this completely naturally.) That energy cost and stress is often a big reason why I end up choosing solo activities when I could be doing something social.
The thing is, many of the things I choose to do when I’m by myself simply aren’t memorable. I find reading challenging books and learning things to be fairly memorable. I also find the outcomes of some of the solitaire things that I do to be memorable, meaning that I enjoy things like homebrewing and organizing game components, but it’s the experience of sharing that beer or going to homebrewers meetings or playing those games with friends that ends up being fun. Aside from that, almost everything else I do solo amounts to burning time.
It’s that sense of “burning time” that I find to be problematic. I view “burning time” as doing something that I mildly enjoy but that I will forget about not long after I do it and I’ll never think about it again. To me, “burning time” is about the worst possible way to spend my time. It’s forgettable, it’s only mildly entertaining, and it doesn’t build into anything better.
I found these thoughts to be really interesting, so I spent some time talking them over with Sarah and with a couple of my other closest friends. One of my friends made a very good point, which I’ll share here.
“A lot of people who do things with friends go out with them and that’s never cheap. Going out for a day of shopping or going to dinner or a movie or a club costs a lot of money. Other people also encourage you to spend more by talking about stuff they want and encouraging your own wants.”
That’s absolutely true, but many of those things are things I could choose to do if I were going solo, too. I could go to a club by myself, but if I drove there solo, it’s still more expensive than a carload of us going there together. Dinner and a movie might be the same price, but rather than buying a drink for myself at the movie I’d probably split one with my wife if we went together, and that makes it cheaper. I could go shopping by myself for a day if I wanted to and the transportation costs would be entirely on me rather than being split up.
The real issue that’s being discussed here is whether or not social pressures encourage us to choose more expensive activities than we might do on our own.
The other half of the equation is whether or not social experiences encourage us to have more expensive tastes. In that case, I think it has a lot to do with who you hang out with. I have friends that certainly have expensive tastes and if I hang out with them a lot, I become more tempted to spend money. On the other hand, most of my friends have very modest tastes and when I spend time around them, living inexpensively feels much more normal. It’s true – you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with, as Jim Rohn once said.
So, what are the take home messages in all of this?
First, in my experience, doing things with others is less expensive than doing things alone. The biggest reason for this is leverage – a larger group can often reduce shared costs – and when you add into that the ability for people to entertain others through conversation and other means, it becomes clear that social situations can save significant money. Furthermore, social activities come with the ability to build relationships, which can contribute value to your life.
Second, in my experience, doing things with others has a higher likelihood of being a memorable and worthwhile experience. This is due to the fact that not only are you doing something interesting that you likely enjoy, but you’re sharing it with other people who can also be a part of that memory. There are more elements present to create something that actually sticks with you.
Third, even knowing this, my natural inclination is to choose the solo activity. I’m not alone in this – it’s called being an introvert.
So, how does an introvert move more in the direction of more social activities to enjoy the benefits (financial and otherwise) that they provide? Over the last few years, I’ve really been striving to do this and here’s what I’ve learned.
First, keep your home in neat enough shape so that you don’t mind people stopping by or inviting them over at a moment’s notice. This allows you to use your home as a social meeting point, which means that you’re going to spend a lot less money when doing something social. Even if you decide to go out, having a neat enough home for guests at least leaves that option open.
Thus, for me, housecleaning becomes a bit of a frugal endeavor. If I know the living room and dining room and kitchen are clean, I don’t hesitate to invite people over. If things are a mess… I hesitate, which means that I’m simultaneously less likely to do something social and also more likely, if I do something, to do it outside of the home. Both are potentially more expensive, for the reasons described above.
Second, when you’re bored and considering a solitary activity, either choose one that’s genuinely fulfilling, do something social, or get some rest. For example, in my own solitaire free time, I’m choosing more and more to either read a book or do some preparatory stuff for something that might be social later on, like learning a board game or making homebrewed beer. I find those things fulfilling, either personally or because they lead to a fulfilling social activity. On the other hand, I could choose to find a social activity of some kind by calling or texting a friend and seeing if I can arrange something or doing something with my own family. Admittedly, this is hard for me, as I’m an introvert and prefer to be alone by default.
If those things sound too “tiring,” then the best option is to simply go to bed. I’ve learned over the years that time spent in a half-awake state doing something like watching television does a complete disservice to the following day. You’re depriving yourself of sleep that will make tomorrow easier to handle and not doing anything of any lasting value along the way. Plus, you’re burning energy – the television is on, the lights are on, and those things gobble the juice.
Third, choose to interact socially with people who share at least some of your own values. That doesn’t mean it’s a good option to surround yourself solely with like-minded people – in fact, I consider that a bad thing. What I mean by that is that it’s a good idea to seek out friends who aren’t as interested in filling their social time with expensive activities. If hanging out with a person means regularly paying an entry fee at an event or going to an expensive restaurant or playing golf, then that friendship is financially expensive for you and probably reinforces ideas about spending money that you don’t need. Along those same lines, friends who mostly want to talk about buying things and having more possessions, then those people are going to reinforce an expensive lifestyle for you, while the reverse is also true – frugal friends encourage your frugality.
The key thing to remember is that being social comes with a lot of subtle benefits that can help you financially. If you’re an introvert, actively working to come out of that shell a little more and interacting with people who share frugal values with you will do nothing but help.