Updated on 02.24.16

The Financial Trap of Buying Your Way Out of Life’s Little Challenges

Trent Hamm

It's easy but expensive to pay someone else to solve your problems. Challenge yourself to take care of things on your own for a month.

A few weeks ago, someone close to me was driving home from work when suddenly one of their tires blew out. At that point, this person had some options. They could try to change the tire themselves and drive on their spare tire for a while. They could call a friend. Or they could call a roadside repair service. (It was a reasonably cold day, but not so cold that one couldn’t stand outside for a while, so the weather wasn’t an issue.)

In this situation, my friend ended up choosing to call a roadside repair service. The service ended up costing about $100 and the total wait time was about an hour or so. Even worse than that, the tow truck pulled into a tire shop that my friend didn’t normally do business with, where they were able to charge quite a bit for the tires.

Now, let’s compare that to what would have happened if the person had simply tried to change the tire to the spare. Even if you assume that it would have taken the person an hour to change the tire, that’s still $100 saved, and I’m willing to bet that almost anyone who spent some time studying their owner’s manual a bit could change to a spare tire in much less than an hour.

Of course, changing a spare tire is inconvenient. You have to get down on the ground, put the jack in place, jack it up, remove all of the nuts from the tire, pull the tire off, put the spare on, put the nuts back on, jack the car back down, and remove the jack. This is, of course, after pulling out all the gear from the compartment in your car.

You’ll have to move around a lot. You’ll probably get your clothes a little dirty, especially if you don’t have a blanket to spread on the ground. And, yes, it’s just plain not fun. Playing Candy Crush Saga on your phone or reading Facebook or reading a book while sitting in your car is, for many people, more fun than changing a tire.

It’s because of those latter factors that many people simply call for roadside assistance in a situation like this. Changing a car tire is inconvenient, and avoiding that inconvenience is something that many people will give a lot of money and even some time to avoid. It’s a lot more pleasant to sit in the car and play with your smartphone while waiting for a tow than to be outside changing a flat tire, after all.

Changing a tire is just one example, though. Over and over again in modern life, we choose to throw money and, often, time at situations to avoid having to do anything challenging ourselves. The toilet’s leaking? Call a plumber. The light fixture doesn’t work? Call a handyman. Don’t feel like making supper? Call for delivery.

Those things seem easier to us because it doesn’t require much effort or any sort of skill to call for food delivery or to call a handyman or to call a plumber or to call a tow truck. We choose to let someone else do the labor.

Yet, it doesn’t really save us much time. We have to wait around for the repairman or the delivery. Often, we have to clean up the mess after the repair is done or the food is delivered. Often, that adds up to more time than if we had done it ourselves. Sure, you can spend some of that time doing something that doesn’t require much focus (because you’re going to be interrupted), but the total amount of time waiting around for the help and cleaning up after the help often exceeds the time spent simply doing it ourselves.

Even worse, we’ve usually spent a lot more money than if we had done it ourselves. The roadside assistance bill in the case above was just over $100. I’ve seen plumbing bills that were enormous, and even bills for simple electrical jobs were surprisingly large.

Yet another problem is that every time we pay someone else to do something simple for us, our skills atrophy even more. We become less able to do these things for ourselves, little step by little step. If you call someone to come and change your tire for you, you extend the time it’s been since the last time you changed a tire and your skill becomes even rustier. This leads to an even greater “need” to call for help because our personal skill at handling such tasks has become even worse over time. In other words, we become “addicted” to just paying others for services that don’t really save us much time at all. It just keeps draining your money over time.

All of this adds up to a pretty painful recipe for people who want to get ahead financially. They pay someone to come in and provide a service for them, yet the service doesn’t really save them any time. The time that appears to be “saved” can’t really be devoted to anything useful or fulfilling because you’re waiting for a service. This service that’s provided is usually quite expensive, so people end up shelling out good money for a service they could have done themselves that didn’t really save them much time, either, if it saved any at all.

The solution to all of this is a pretty simple one. Declare the next thirty days to be a “doing it for myself” challenge.

The rules of such a challenge are simple. Whenever you’re faced with a challenge for which you might call someone for help, make a sincere attempt to do it yourself first. Look for instructions for how to do it on your phone or your computer, then give it a shot. If you need some tools, don’t hesitate to borrow some from a neighbor, though having a basic toolkit around the house is a good place to start.

If you’re hungry, make yourself a meal from what you have on hand instead of ordering delivery or getting takeout or going to a restaurant. If you have a plumbing problem with a toilet, take off the top and dive into fixing it yourself. If you have a flat tire, pull out the jack and the spare and the iron and get to it.

This serves a lot of purposes.

One, if you complete the task yourself, it’s going to be far cheaper than calling someone in. Making a meal at home is almost always cheaper than having someone make it for you. Changing your own tire is going to be far cheaper than calling a tow truck or for roadside assistance. Fixing your own toilet is going to be far cheaper than bringing in a plumber.

Two, if you manage to pull off a task yourself, you become more confident about doing it again in the future. You see for yourself that you can take on these kinds of tasks. It becomes a lot less scary to tackle those kinds of challenges.

Three, you become more skilled at taking on those challenges, meaning that the results will be better and the time and effort invested will be lower in the future. The first time you make scrambled eggs, it seems like an arduous task. The tenth time? It’s pretty easy – you can do it quickly and with little concentration. Why? You’ve built up a skill for making scrambled eggs. The exact same phenomenon holds true for almost any life skill one might take on.

Finally, the more varied your skill set, the more value you have in social and professional situations. Even if you’re not employed as a car repairperson, the person that can jump in and help change a boss’s flat tire is going to seem more useful at work than the person who just stands around helplessly. (I have personally witnessed this very phenomenon, as a “jack of all trades” employee became more and more valuable at work.) Even if you’re not a plumber, the friend that can stop in and fix a leaky toilet is going to become a closer and more valued friend. Those little differences slowly add up over time, making a surprisingly large difference in your social and professional life.

The question, then, is up to you. Are you ready to take on a challenge like this one? Are you ready to put aside costly services that don’t really save much time and cause your skills to rust, all out of a perception of convenience?

Then step up to the plate and start doing more things yourself. Make your own dinner. Fix your own plumbing. Change your own tire. Repair your own light switch. Replace that hinge. Install that weather stripping.

Every single time you step up, you save money. You also make it easier to do those kinds of things again in the future, which makes doing them even more efficient and saves even more money.

Step up to the challenge today. Start taking things into your own hands. Build your skills and push away the fears and apprehensions. Best of all, keep that money in your pocket, right where it belongs.

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