Does Earning More Trump Frugality?

Milton writes in with a good question, worthy of discussion:

I don’t see why I should spend fifteen minutes making a batch of homemade laundry detergent just to save a few bucks when I could spend that fifteen minutes building my career. Most “frugality tips” seem like a waste of time.

Let’s say you have a spare hour on a weekend afternoon. You could either utilize it doing things that save you money – like the aforementioned laundry detergent – or you could do something that improves your career – like touching base with clients, getting in touch with old coworkers, or building an online presence for yourself.

Obviously, if you have something where you can directly earn more after tax than you could by doing a frugal project, you should jump on board. If you have more work than you can handle and can bill $150 an hour for it, hiring a maid for $25 an hour makes sense to me.

But very few of us are in that situation – it’s not our reality. Instead, we’re hoping for that situation, and we believe that if we invest our time into career development, we can get there. And that’s true, over the long term, but how much of an impact does that one hour have on a many-year-long transformation.

It’s a “bird in the hand versus two in the bush” situation. The bird in the hand – frugality – earns you a known, relatively small amount. The two birds in the bush – career building – earns you an unknown but potentially larger amount.

Which way is better? I think there’s a different answer for each person, actually. For some people, the bird in the hand is better – if you have a career that isn’t helped by such networking, for example. For others, building your presence might be more valuable than a frugality task.

Some food for thought:

Focus on “bang for the buck” frugality. Installing a programmable thermostat takes about an hour and can save you about $200 a year (assuming you don’t work at home). This type of thing seems like a complete no-brainer. Do you really believe you’ll recoup several hundred dollars in an hour’s worth of networking or reading? A bird in the hand is always worth two in the bush.

Other “big bang” frugality tasks: air sealing your home, making a quadruple batch of a meal and freezing the extra three batches (saves time as much as money), making meal plans (halves your grocery bill for about ten minutes’ effort), selling your rarely-used car, and downgrading to smaller living quarters.

Know your hourly rates. I think this is a very powerful way to compare the value of different activities. How much financial return do you expect from an hour of networking and presence building? $20? $50? Spend some time thinking about that question. When you come to a conclusion, knock 20% off of that rate – taxes will eat that much – and use that number to compare it to frugal tasks.

So, for example, let’s say I’ve decided an hour of network building is worth $25 to my future income. I knock off 20% or so, kicking it down to $20. Then, if I know of a money-saving task that earns me more than $20 for that hour, I jump on it. I’ll install a programmable thermostat instead of writing a blog post, for example.

Look at other values. It may simply be that you enjoy building your career. The time spent building an online presence may bring you an intrinsic joy that money-saving tasks don’t bring.

If that’s the case, be honest with yourself about it. It’s not just about earning money, it’s about personal enjoyment, and you’re accepting that the return is less (or possibly nonexistent) because you enjoy doing it. That’s great, but it doesn’t mean that the frugal task has any less value.

Here’s an example. One of my cousins is a meticulous housekeeper, to the point of being obsessive. Yet she enjoys it. She’d far rather be doing that than engaging in other activities. Sure, it serves as great maintenance on her home, but it doesn’t put much financial value in her pocket. What it does do is make her feel good when she sees her sparkling clean house. She often chooses that for a Saturday afternoon instead of networking within her career.

On the other hand, you might enjoy that networking more – it provides more personal value for you. An afternoon spent building an online presence is more valuable to you than scrubbing every nook and cranny of your home. If that’s the case, go for it!

As long as you’re subscribing to the overall principle of spending less than you earn – and either way you choose, you’re not spending much money here – either choice is healthy because it expands on your existing non-financial values. Frugality or career-building both trump idleness.

Multitasking. If you’re still unsure, there’s nothing that says you can’t do both. Get a hands-free calling solution (a speakerphone or a headset) and do a mentally uninvolved frugality task while talking to a client or a contact. Make laundry detergent while touching base with someone. Make a quadruple batch of a meal and freeze the other three while chatting up a client.

I do this all the time. I’ll do laundry while writing a post. I’ll read emails while on a walk (seriously, on my handheld) – in fact, I’ve considered rigging up some kind of standing desk with a very slow treadmill under it. I’ll toss something up on Twitter while I’m grilling.

In the end, it’s all about value – and value means more than just dollars.

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