About once a week, early in the morning, my father stops by a convenience station. He goes inside, gives the clerk behind the counter about fifty dollars, and walks out with a small paper bag in hand. He gets in the car, reaches into the bag, and pulls out a small package, which he unwraps. He pulls from that package a small little item, which he then sets on fire and watches it burn. Then, later, he burns another one and another, until that paper bag is empty.
My father has been an avid smoker for almost fifty years. If you figure that he smokes two packs of cigarettes a day (he smokes a bit more than this, actually) for fifty years, and that instead of smoking he would have invested the cost of those packs into the stock market with a 10% annual return, he would have made (are you ready for this?) $2.6 million dollars on the stock market. This doesn’t include any additional health costs (luckily, my father has avoided cancer so far and has been very healthy his whole life due to vigorous activity all the time).
And instead he watched it all burn away.
I don’t begrudge my father the habit. We’ve talked about it. He knows how ridiculously unhealthy it is. Yet he still drives to the convenience store and buys the cigarettes each week. Most of that money comes from his side hobbies – he’s an excellent fisherman and sells his catches to others, for example, and he’s also very good at repairing devices of all kinds, even electronic ones. So I can’t complain that he’s wasting his Social Security income or his pension, because the cost of these cigarettes don’t come out of that.
But I still imagine what my parents could do with an extra $2,500 a year or so. They talk about taking a trip to Mexico, along the coast, and visiting several resort towns, but the money never quite adds up for them to do it. They’ve also talked about building a tiny little two bedroom retirement home along the Mississippi River – they have a little piece of land there, just big enough for a little house with a big deck and a place to dock a boat. It won’t happen.
It all comes down to choices in the end. Every time you choose to fill a short-term longing, you give up a piece of a long term dream. If you habitually smoke or drink or take drugs, you lose a bit of that great future each time you make that choice. If you’re investing, but at the same time you splurge on such a habit, each little puff or drink that you take is eating away at your potential returns. And for what? What are you left with?
Every time I watch my father smoke, I close my eyes and imagine that they could be on a beach together somewhere, and it makes me sad wondering what could have been if they had made different choices.