Lincoln’s Axe and Frugality

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” – Abraham Lincoln

I love this quote from Abraham Lincoln. It’s such a clear analogy about the value of preparation. Cutting down a tree is hard work, and it is much, much harder if you’re using a dull axe – your strokes are far less efficient and you’re likely to become worn out well before the job is done. You’re much better off getting the axe nice and sharp before you head out to chop down that tree.

This same phenomenon is true with almost everything one might do in life – hard things are made easier if you properly prepare for them.

In my early professional career, I used to keep this quote as a printout in my cubicle (and, later, my office) where I worked as a programmer. I found that I was almost always better off spending lots of time preparing for tasks so that when the time came to actually perform, I was very efficient and accurate at the task at hand.

That meant doing things like learning about the nature of the data I handled and what it actually meant, learning about software development techniques and new languages, documenting operating procedures, and writing lots of software libraries and functions that I could use later. In short, I spent a lot of my time sharpening the figurative axe.

The truth is that we’re faced with this choice all the time in modern life. Do we get started right away, or do we invest some time in advance to make that task go more smoothly and efficiently? Often, that prep time doesn’t feel like we’re doing anything – we can feel like we’re making no progress on the task at hand. Yet, preparation often drastically reduces the amount of time and energy and money we have to invest in a task.

This pops up frequently even in frugality. With frugality, much like everything else in life, sharpening the axe is usually the right choice.

Here are five clear examples of frugal tasks where “sharpening the axe” and doing some prep work ahead of time will save you a ton of money and often end up making the task so much more efficient that you don’t actually lose any time overall, either.

Sharpening the axe while getting groceries: Before I ever go to the grocery store, I’ve written down a meal plan for the next several days (usually planned with help from the grocery store sale flyer) and I’ve assembled a grocery list from that meal plan so that I’m sure to be getting the things I need for those meals and not buying extra things.

This makes the actual time at the grocery store buying groceries incredibly efficient. I have a list in hand that already includes a lot of sale items. It also includes all of the things I actually need and doesn’t include anything extra. When I’m at the store, I can just fly through the aisles following just that list and I’m automatically grabbing things that are on sale. I can buzz right through a store with that list and the total bill at the checkout is usually very agreeable.

Sharpening the axe while deciding where to shop: Spending time shopping at several different local grocers to figure out which one offers the best prices overall for the things you buy can take some time, but once you’ve done that, you can settle in with a regular grocery store and feel confident that the prices on the shelves are very competitive and that you’ve chosen a store with a good efficient location for your needs.

This takes some time, sure, but the time spent getting regular groceries at several stores and then saving the receipts for comparison, then comparing those receipts to determine which store saves you on the things you buy most often is an incredibly efficient use of your time. It allows you to figure out the best store for your grocery shopping needs, and then you can just automatically shop there with confidence going forward and you’ll simply spend less money on groceries by default.

Sharpening the axe while shopping for a car: Rather than going to a car dealer and getting “sold” on a particular car, the “sharpening the axe” approach involves doing some research to figure out exactly what you want before you ever set foot on a dealer’s lot. This involves sitting down and considering what exactly you want out of a car, then turning to trusted publications like Consumer Reports to identify makes and models that match your needs.

For example, you might have this vague notion that you want a “family vehicle,” but with some thought, you might realize that you want a “reliable late model used van,” and then you turn to Consumer Reports to find that the most reliable used vans in the three- to six-year-old timeframe you’re looking at are Toyota Siennas and Honda Odysseys, so then you can go shopping for those specific models in those specific years.

Once you know what models you’re looking for, you can canvas the websites of lots of dealerships before ever going there, and you can also check other services like Craigslist and eBay Auto to potentially buy your vehicle directly from a seller. You can get a sense as to what you should pay for such a vehicle by researching blue book prices and have all of that information ready before you ever set foot on the lot. That way, you’re not wasting time looking at models that don’t match your needs and you’re not going to spend a lot of time negotiating, either. The car buying process becomes much faster and you get the car you want at the price you want.

Sharpening the axe while buying insurance: If you have insurance needs or simply want a better rate than you’re currently getting, the time invested in figuring out what insurance features you need before you ever shop around, and then taking that information to several insurers to get quotes, can seem like a lot of effort. But if you do this, you’re likely to get an insurance package that’s much more in line with what you actually need for the best possible price. You can also research specific insurers to see how friendly and available they are for customer support and claims.

Sharpening the axe while making meals in advance: This is a wonderful example of how preparation in advance can make a huge difference on a busy night. Simply make a bunch of meals in advance that freeze well, and pop them in the freezer. Do it on a day where you’re not particularly busy so that you can devote the time to making several casseroles or batches of soup.

Then, when you’re actually trying to thread the needle on a busy evening, you can just pull a meal straight from the freezer and pop it in the oven with no prep time at all, enabling you to have a quick and inexpensive but delicious home-cooked meal for your family, even on the busiest of nights.

You can use this same philosophy for some of the more time-intensive meal prep tasks for the week ahead. If you’re going to need beans for Tuesday’s dinner, cook them on Sunday and save them in a container in the fridge so that the meal prep on Tuesday is far more efficient. Chop tons of onions and peppers when you have them in abundance and store them in one-cup quantities in freezer bags so you can just dump them right into a skillet as needed. Meal preparation offers countless opportunities for preparing pieces in advance so that the actual task isn’t overwhelming.

The core principle behind all of these ideas is this: Any time you can spend a little bit of time and effort up front to clarify exactly what you want and what the most efficient approach is to get it will save you a ton of money and the time and effort will usually be recouped, too.

You can almost never go wrong by investing downtime in preparing for a task that you know is coming up. It’s a far better use of your time than just spending that time on idle distractions like looking at your phone or channel surfing. You’ll save time when you need it most and quite a lot of money by using your downtime to “sharpen the axe” for more cost-effective and time-effective behavior later.

Good luck.

More by Trent Hamm:

Trent Hamm

Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.