On Money and Personal Challenges

As I write this, I’m sitting alone in a hotel room. My daughter had a five hour surgery this morning (and early afternoon) that comes with some significant risk and significant pain and will require at least one follow-up procedure. I’m staying at a hotel near the hospital, as my wife is the one parent that’s allowed to actually stay overnight in the room. They’re both resting, with my daughter already asleep for the night and my wife on her way to that state. My two sons are two hours away, staying with a grandparent. I could barely sleep last night and today was an incredibly long day, as one could imagine. I feel tired and kind of numb. In fact, the single reason I’m not in bed yet is that I’m waiting for a phone call.

So, instead, I entered today’s expenses into You Need a Budget from the receipts stuffed into my pocket.

I found a couple of receipts for cups of coffee from the coffee kiosk in the hospital. There was a receipt from the bookstore in the hospital, as well as receipts for two different meals. There was another receipt from the gift shop in the hospital, too, which was for a Mylar balloon of my daughter’s favorite character to cheer her up a bit, as she’s a bit down in the dumps after her surgery. There’s also the receipt for this night at the hotel.

It seems like small stuff – ordinary expenses that a family might have in a situation like this – but it added up to $200 just like that.

Now, obviously, we have an emergency fund that just takes care of this in the blink of an eye. These expenses won’t have any real impact on our financial plans. We have a “perpetually funded” emergency fund, meaning that we put money in there automatically each week and never stop. If we ever decide we have “more than enough” in the emergency fund, we’ll just move some of it to another account. So, these expenses aren’t going to have any significant impact on us.

However, this experience with my daughter’s surgery is perhaps a perfect example of why an emergency fund is great. We only scheduled this surgery eight days before it actually occurred, so it pretty clearly falls under the “emergency” umbrella. If we did not have an emergency fund, we would pretty much be relying on credit today… and tomorrow… and the day after, and we would be facing a fat credit card bill at the end of this.

This kind of situation could happen to anyone. It could happen to your daughter, your son, your spouse, or even you. You wake up one day thinking everything is fine, have a medical appointment to check on some minor nagging issue, and a week later you’re in the hospital recovering from a surgery or from some other intense treatment.

(We’re not even going to talk about health insurance here, but suffice it to say that without decent health insurance, this situation would be a true nightmare.)

Of course, anyone who has read The Simple Dollar for a while knows that my mind is a frugal one. I like to look at every little expense and ask myself whether it was really a worthwhile one.

Were the three cups of coffee from the coffee kiosks worth it today? My wife bought each of them, as she’s the coffee drinker in our family, and I don’t begrudge those cups of coffee one bit. If they helped her deal with today’s challenge, then they were worthwhile.

The receipt from the bookstore was for a book to pass some of the hours while my daughter was in surgery. This was mostly due to emergency packing in which reading material was left behind. This $7 probably wasn’t perfectly useful, but understandable.

The purchased meals were for cheap cafeteria food. It was inexpensive but edible meals just a few floors down from where my daughter was having surgery.

The Mylar balloon was the first thing that made my little girl smile after her surgery. It was $4. If there’s one purchase I don’t begrudge today, it was this one.

I’m staying at a discount hotel. It is amazing that I even got this hotel room as there’s a big college football game here on Saturday morning and it seems as though the entire city is booked for the next few days. The room is old but (thankfully) clean. My other option would have been to sleep in the car, which wasn’t happening.

In other words, none of the expenses were very silly. I probably could have cut about $20 worth of purchases without any real problem, but those expenses weren’t wasteful or thoughtless. The other $180 were expenses that would have been pretty challenging to skip – no food or shelter for someone.

Overall, I’m pretty happy with things. But there’s still one big issue hanging over everything.

Right now, within about a quarter mile of my hotel, there’s a book store, an electronics store, a homebrew supply store, and a gaming store. Those stores are pretty much checklists of my various hobbies. Those stores sum up my temptations.

This evening just screams “retail therapy” to me. It is really tempting to go over to one of those stores, wander the aisles, talk to some of the customers and the person working there, and pick up something to read or something to enjoy related to that hobby.

The whole purpose of such an excursion would be to just forget about all of this for a while, to make me forget about today for just a little bit and get lost in one of my hobbies instead.

So, what am I going to do when I finish up with this article?

I’m going to watch a series of Youtube videos on homebrewing, then watch another series on game design. I’m going to roll through them while I’m relaxing in bed in my pajamas as I wind down a little bit. Then, I’m going to read this book until I feel really sleepy. All of that should take an hour or so.

In that same hour, I could walk over to one of those stores, chat with some people, spend some money, and be similarly distracted. But why? At the end of the day, the whole goal is to just ease my mind for a while. This way, I do it for free.

In the end, today has clearly revealed a few things to me.

First, the old instincts I had for spending money are almost entirely dead. If this situation had happened several years ago, I would have likely eaten lunch at one of the restaurants near the hospital instead of in the cafeteria to have a “better” lunch, one that would cost more. I would have spent a lot more than $4 on things to brighten my daughter’s room (stuff that she would largely have ignored anyway). I would have almost assuredly gone to some of the nearby stores and bought some things. I’d also likely be staying at the Marriott down the block, even if the room cost a mint.

I didn’t do any of that. Why? My instincts are different. Going out for lunch seemed silly to me when I could just eat at the hospital, because in either case my mind was on my little girl on the operating table. I wouldn’t have enjoyed any lunch today. Anything beyond that single balloon for my daughter’s room would have been totally unnecessary and utterly forgotten. I didn’t need or even really want anything at those hobby stores (I’m sure I could have found something that I vaguely wanted if I tried.). This hotel is clean and has wi-fi so I really don’t have any use for anything more. My instinctive reaction to spending situations is just totally different than it once was, and those instincts are a big part of why I’m in much better financial shape than before.

Second, I’m slowly learning to handle stress differently, too. I used to handle stress by eating, and that’s a costly habit in many different ways. Today, I didn’t really do that at all. I mostly handled it by walking around and reading. In a previous life, I would have eaten a huge lunch; instead, I probably ate less than my father did (I ate lunch with him, as my parents came to the hospital during my daughter’s surgery.) I’m also replacing pure retail therapy with other things, finding a moment’s distraction in things that are free rather than things that cost money.

The final thing, and perhaps the most important thing, is that the best thing I can do for my daughter is not spend money recklessly right now – or ever. If my goal is truly to help her recover, then spending money on meals or on retail therapy or on a big hotel room doesn’t help her in the least.

What helps her is having parents that are in control of their money and in control of their emotions and in control of how they handle stress. Parents that she can rely on in every way. I’m glad that I can provide that for her.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.