You Can’t Buy What You Want To Be

Almost everyone has an idealized picture of who they’d like to be. It’s a picture that they measure up to in some ways and fall short of in others, and thus it becomes part of a personal dream to find ways to measure up in those areas that are lacking.

I have personal goals and entrepreneurial goals and hobby goals, all of which lead me to being the person I want to be. I want to change some aspects of who I am. I want to build a business or two. I want to become more involved in my hobbies. Those elements all contribute to that picture of who I want to be.

The thing is, in each case, it looks very tempting to just spend money as a shortcut to get to that destination that I want. I can see where I am. I can see where I want to be. And spending money looks like a tempting shortcut across that chasm.

It’s an illusion, though. The path from where I’m at now to where I want to be has a cost, but that cost is almost always time and effort, not money. You can’t buy who you want to be.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about from each of those areas in my life – personal goals, entrepreneurship goals, and hobby goals.

A Personal Example: My Health Journey

As I’ve mentioned on here many times, my health goal for the next year or two is to get back into the best shape of my life, similar to the shape I was in when I was in college. Doing that requires a lot of cardio, some strength training, and some weight loss.

The path to getting there is pretty clear. I need to eat less and I need to be smarter about what I do eat, and I also need to exercise.

However, there are a lot of products that pledge to make that path easier for me. I can buy Fitbits, DVDs, gym memberships, athletic shoes, athletic clothes, and so on. I can buy meal replacements and dieting books and dietary supplements.

All of those things carry a supposed promise of making this journey easier in some way, but in the end it still comes down to my choice. Am I going to put fewer things on my plate? Are those things going to be healthier things? Am I going to consistently exercise?

Buying all of that stuff – the Fitbits and the gym memberships and the meal replacements – doesn’t make me any healthier. What makes me healthier is smart choices at meal time and when I’m tempted to snack. What makes me healthier is the decision to get some exercise each day.

You can’t buy those decisions. You have to make them yourself.

An Entrepreneurship Example: Building a YouTube Channel

I’ve also mentioned that I have a really great idea for a YouTube channel, one that I’ve fleshed out quite a bit. I am fairly sure that I have the basis for a solid little side business here.

But how do I get started?

I could easily start throwing money at this. Money buys cameras, microphones, editing software, lighting tools, animation help, and so on. It could all easily turn into a black hole of money where I accumulate a lot of tools that supposedly help me make better videos.

The truth, though, is that this does not build any kind of successful YouTube channel. It’s just a bunch of stuff.

The recipe for making this work involves simply making compelling videos with the tools that I already have. I can upgrade the equipment later if I need to, but none of that matters if I’m not making well-considered videos that people enjoy. If I’m not making the videos, then all of that stuff does nothing except take up space.

I need to make videos, not buy stuff.

A Hobby Example: Homebrewing

Making beer at home is one of my favorite hobbies. I’ve spent many a weekend brewing up a new batch of beer with my homebrewing equipment.

The thing is, I could make the whole process a little more efficient by buying some equipment. I could dump money into kettles and racks and books and magazines and ingredients and bottles and propane burners and fermenting tanks and mash tuns… the list goes on and on and on.

Here’s the thing, though: I can still make an infinite variety of homebrewed beers using the equipment I already have, and those items would just save me a minute or two on a process that I already enjoy. While it would be fun to have some of those things, they don’t replace or even significantly enhance my enjoyment of actually brewing.

The joy comes from standing in the kitchen and smelling the boiling wort. The joy comes from piecing together recipes from notes in arcane corners of the internet. The joy comes from popping the top of the first bottle of a new batch and hearing that whoosh of carbonation and trying that first taste.

That’s the joy of homebrewing, and it doesn’t come from thousands of dollars in equipment and materials.

The List Goes On and On and On and…

This phenomenon of spending money as some kind of shortcut to the person you want to be shows up again and again and again in all aspects of life.

It shows up in almost every hobby. It shows up in almost every area of self-improvement. It shows up in almost every personal interest.

Again and again, we’re told that, in order to get to where we want to be in some aspect of life, we just have to open our wallet.

And it’s all a trick to make money for someone else.

Do, Don’t Buy

Here’s the truth: If you want to become the person you want to be in some aspect of your life, what matters is what you do with your time and energy, not the things you buy with your money. You can’t buy your way into being the person you want to be. You can only put in time and effort to get there and those are things you can’t buy.

Buying all of the exercise gear in the world isn’t going to get me into better shape. What will? Making healthier meals, eating less, and exercising with my own body weight and maybe a piece or two of very simple gear (like a jump rope).

Buying all of the video-making gear in the world isn’t going to help me build a successful Youtube channel. What will? Making thoughtful videos, posting them, and promoting them to interested people – things for which I already have the needed equipment.

Buying all of the homebrewing gear in the world isn’t going to help me become a better homebrewer. What will? Making more batches with the equipment that I have, paying attention to details, and trying new things – and, again, the basic equipment I have does those things like a champ.

The common thread here is doing, not buying, and that truth stretches across almost every single way in which we want to improve ourselves or grow in some specific area of our lives. (Yes, there are exceptions, but they’re actually pretty rare.)

Money and Time

Of course, there’s one big impediment in the way for most of us: time. The reality is that I simply don’t have time to do all of the things I like to do. So I have to choose.

On a typical weekday, it is really hard to find enough spare time outside of my normal work and being a father and a husband to take on things like starting a YouTube channel and writing a book and getting some exercise and doing anything about my various hobbies. The hours simply don’t add up at this point in my life.

Yet I want to feel like I’m still moving forward on those dreams. Even though I don’t have any time to devote to, say, building that YouTube channel or to becoming a better homebrewer, I want to feel like I’m getting better and I’m progressing along that path.

To me, that’s where buying things becomes really tempting. Even though I might not have time to engage with homebrewing as much as I’d like, I do have the time to spend 15 minutes online looking for a mash tun and then clicking the “buy” button. Doing that gives me the feeling of somehow moving forward in my homebrewing hobby even though I’m not spending time on it because I feel like I don’t have that time.

Here’s the thing, though: It’s not a real substitute. It’s a fake substitute.

Buying that homebrewing equipment will give me this little burst of a feeling that I’m somehow really making progress in my hobby, but what do I really have to show for it? I don’t know how to homebrew any better than before. I can’t claim to have made any different styles of beer. I don’t have any new batches in my fermenting bottle.

In short, I haven’t really done anything related to that particular interest other than spend money, and now I have a piece of unused equipment that’s basically just taking up space.

That same exact phenomenon is true with almost every hobby, almost every personal interest, almost every entrepreneural dream, almost every route of self-improvement in my life.

Buying all of the exercise DVDs in the world is not a substitute for actual exercise.

Buying all of the health supplements in the world is not a substitute for a good diet.

Buying all of the cameras and video equipment in the world is not a substitute for actually making videos.

Buying all of the board games in the world is not a substitute for actually playing games.

Buying all of the homebrewing equipment in the world is not a substitute for actually brewing my own beer.

The thing is, you can do all of those things with very, very little equipment. It just requires time. In the end, it’s time that is the truly valuable thing.

Finding Time

So how do you find time to improve yourself and become the person you want to be if you’ve got very little time already and throwing money at the problem doesn’t work? Here’s what I’ve figured out in my own life.

First of all, you need to accept that you might need to step back in some areas of life. If your time is full and you still feel very drawn to add other things to your life, then that means that you may be committed to things that you don’t feel as drawn to.

Sometimes you can check out of those commitments, like stepping back from a volunteer gig. Sometimes you can’t, like being a parent. In other cases, you can find ways to be more efficient, like using better time management (I use the Getting Things Done method for this). The point is to compress or discard things where it’s appropriate and makes sense.

Second, you’re probably wasting more time than you think. Do you sometimes lose half an hour or an hour just watching a television show? Do you sometimes lose an hour surfing around meaningless websites? Do you just stare out the window during your commute? Don’t waste that time.

Yes, sometimes I get distracted during the day, but I do my best to minimize that distraction. If I’m getting distracted with my current task, I move on to something else. I’ll go to a distraction-free place and brainstorm or I’ll go for a jog while listening to an audiobook.

When I’m in the car, I listen to a thoughtful audiobook or podcast, or else I think through a life situation and see if there wasn’t a better way I could have done things, which often leads to ideas I can use in other parts of my life.

I’m not perfect, but whenever I can find ways to stop wasting time, I find that I have more time for the other areas in my life.

Finally, if I’m tired, I go to bed rather than sitting on the couch in a daze. I get very frustrated with myself if I sit in a chair in the evening and fall asleep. I would be so much better off if I just went to bed when I was tired.

Ideally, I try to get eight hours of sleep in a night. Most nights, I get about seven. I try very, very, very hard to not get any less than that because, if I do, the next day or even the next couple of days are full of mental distractions and poor focus. I simply don’t get anything done.

Buying Time

Given all of this, it seems to bring up another pretty tantalizing question. Does it make sense to spend money to effectively buy time?

We already do this, in fact. If you own a washing machine, you’re spending money to effectively buy time because that’s a very obvious time saver. If you’ve ever paid for child care, you’re spending money to effectively buy time.

But there are many, many more examples of this, too.

For example, let’s say there was a laundry service that did all of your laundry and delivered it to your door, clean and folded. For the time it takes to do it yourself, they would charge about $10 an hour of your effort. Would you do this?

What about a meal preparation and delivery service that offered similar prices? I can prepare a pretty decent meal for my family in about half an hour, but if someone could prepare and deliver a very similar meal for just a few dollars more than what the ingredients cost me, I’d consider it.

Here’s the point: If time is the crucial ingredient in becoming the person that you want to be, then it is the one thing that actually makes sense to buy. Those services can make sense if they come at the right price.

However, they only make sense if you do something valuable enough with that time to make up for the price you’re paying. If I pay someone to make a meal for my family and it costs $10 more than just buying the ingredients and spending 30 minutes to do it myself, I need to be doing something with that 30 minutes to make it worth the $10. If I’m not doing that, then that $10 is wasted. If I pay someone to do my laundry at a rate of $10 per hour of my effort that’s saved, I better be doing something useful with that time or else that’s $10 that’s completely wasted.

That’s why buying time is something I do occasionally, but I’m very careful with it. It’s so easy to have such efforts turn into a waste of money. If you spend money to save yourself time and then spend that time watching SportsCenter, then it wasn’t a very effective use of that money because you just paid money to watch an episode of SportsCenter.

Final Thoughts

So, what’s the take home message from all of this? I think there are three points.

First of all, buying stuff doesn’t improve you as a person; only doing things can achieve that. When you spend money on something that you long to spend more time on, you’re just performing an act of substitution that doesn’t actually help you improve on or participate in that thing that you desire. It’s just a weak substitute, one that feels a bit fulfilling in the short term but, if anything, makes the feeling of longing worse.

Second, if you want to improve some dimension of your life, you have to find time for it, first and foremost. There are a lot of ways to do that – better time management, stepping back from activities, being mindful of and avoiding time wasting, and so on. This may even involve taking a step backwards in some dimension of your life that you now consider less important, as long as you’re not walking away from a genuine responsibility.

Finally, if you’re going to spend money to buy time, be very careful as it’s often overpriced and you can be very prone to wasting that time you just bought. While some time savers are really efficient, those ones tend to become standard components of life (like a washing machine). It’s the things that aren’t a standard component of life, like a laundry service or a food delivery service, that can sometimes be really overpriced if you’re not careful. Even worse – we often tend to waste the time that we save. If you buy a delivery meal and then just sit in a daze during the time you’re waiting for the food, you might as well have made the meal yourself and saved yourself $20.

In the end, it’s a simple truth: You can’t simply buy the person you want to be. You have to put in time and effort to become that person, and if you don’t find some way to free up that time and energy, it’s not going to happen. You can buy thousands of dollars in equipment and gear, but if you don’t use it, you’re never going to improve. On the other hand, you can improve yourself quite a lot without spending hardly any money at all as long as you can spend time and energy.

That’s because, in the end, it’s the time and energy that matter. The things you buy? They’re really pretty secondary and they’re often not a very good use of your money.

Good luck.

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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.