Over the last few years, one of the biggest principles I’ve found in personal finance – and in any flavor of self-improvement – is that the perfect is always the enemy of the good. If you set yourself up so that the only acceptable result is perfection, you’re setting up a house of cards for yourself. Things are going to inevitably collapse. You will fail if perfection is your only possible outcome.
I once thought that the principle of dangerous perfection (as I like to call it) only really applied to setting goals. If you set a goal that could only be achieved by perfect or near-perfect outcomes, that goal was going to be a failure, and that a much better approach to goal setting is to focus on somewhat improving your performance each day. Thus, by focusing on my daily performance, I would gradually get better and better and better outcomes and thus achieve most reasonable goals that way. I don’t expect all perfect days, but I do expect “good enough” performances most days, performances that are noticeably better than how I used to do things.
That type of success by little positive steps and of tolerating little setbacks works incredibly well for me. It’s an implicit understanding that little improvements work incredibly well over time, like drops wearing down a rock, and that if I shoot for “good enough” most days – meeting a daily goal that’s a realistic improvement over how I used to do things – I’m going to have better outcomes.
What I’ve come to realize recently is that “good enough” pops up over and over again in good personal finance and good life habits. This was illustrated really clearly for me in a recent article in The Atlantic by Olga Khazan, entitled The Power of “Good Enough”.
In that article, Khazan makes a great case for a different type of “good enough,” one not associated at all with setting goals. She does this by looking back at the work of Barry Schwartz, who published a book about 10 years ago called The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. In that book, Schwartz makes the argument that, when faced with an abundance of choices, we add a ton of stress to our lives by trying to find the “perfect” choice instead of finding the “good enough” choice. Khazan followed up with Schwartz to find out if his advice still holds true. A few good quotes:
If you ever aren’t sure if you attended the very best party or bought the very best computer, just settle for “good enough.” People who do this are called “satisficers,” and they’re consistently happier, he’s found, than are “maximizers,” people who feel that they must choose the very best possible option. Maximizers earn more, Schwartz has found, but they’re also less satisfied with their jobs. In fact, they’re more likely to be clinically depressed in general.
As people have contact with items of high quality, they begin to suffer from “the curse of discernment.” The lower quality items that used to be perfectly acceptable are no longer good enough. The hedonic zero point keeps rising, and expectations and aspirations rise with it. As a result, the rising quality of experience is met with rising expectations, and people are just running in place. As long as expectations keep pace with realizations, people may live better, but they won’t feel better about how they live.
Whenever you need a new laptop, call up one of your maximizer friends and say, “What laptop did you buy?” And you buy that laptop. Is it going to be the perfect laptop for you? Probably not. Is it going to be a good enough laptop for you? Absolutely. It takes you five minutes to make a decision instead of five weeks and it’s a “good enough” decision.
In a Q&A session on Reddit last year, Schwartz said people can generalize this concept by arbitrarily limiting the number of choices they’ll consider—five colleges, not 25—and “decide that all you need is a good enough X, not the best X,” he said. “‘Good enough’ is almost always good enough.” It’s helpful information to keep in mind right after, say, the debut of a dizzying array of shiny, new iterations of a popular consumer tech product.
It can be hard, in our culture, to force yourself to settle for “good enough.” But when it comes to happiness and satisfaction, “good enough” isn’t just good—it’s perfect.
So, let’s unpack this a little bit.
First of all, seeking out the “perfect” option in a universe where we have tons and tons of options at our disposal for almost every choice is almost always a poor move. It almost always leads to analysis paralysis – we invest way too much time in a decision – and we’re almost always left feeling that the choice we made wasn’t really the perfect one after all. In other words, even though we might have made a truly excellent choice, it’s still tinged with negative feelings because we suspect that it wasn’t truly the perfect one.
A much better approach, then, is to seek out the “good enough” option. The idea isn’t that you’re finding the perfect thing, but finding one that’s merely “good enough” – it takes care of your need quite well without investing tons of effort into digging through mountains of choices.
This intersects incredibly well with living a financially sensible life. Often, the “good enough” option is just a low cost option that takes care of what you need – for example, a store brand bottle of hand soap. It’s “good enough” – it gets your hands clean and it doesn’t cost very much. The “good enough” principle steers me right toward store brands for many everyday items, unless the store brand demonstrates that it’s not “good enough.”
Is the store brand “the best”? Usually, no. Is it “good enough”? Absolutely. I pick it up and don’t think twice about it, and I’m rewarded with less headache when buying almost all household supplies and many food staples. I almost always save money, too.
What if the store brand turns out to not meet my expectations? Yep, it happens sometimes. For example, I generally don’t like store brand garbage bags, as they often seem to rip out right in the middle of my kitchen floor. In those cases, I turn to Consumer Reports. I just look up their top-rated “best buy” for that type of product and start buying that instead. I don’t worry about the latest and greatest unless, for some reason, the product I already buy isn’t meeting my needs somehow, which almost never happens.
Another example is pens. I’ve had cheap pens blow up on me far too often, so now I just buy boxes of Uniball pens, which I can get for about $0.50 a pop. They were recommended by a friend as a really good reliable pen. Are there better pens? I’m sure there are. Is it “good enough” for my use? Absolutely. So, I just buy them.
(Another nice advantage of this strategy is that it makes flipping through coupon sections really easy. I just flip through and see if I see a coupon for one of the handful of things I buy that aren’t store brands, and if I do, I’ll snag that coupon because it’s as good as money and I’ll put it in my wallet. If not, I don’t clip anything.)
What about bigger purchases? You can find the “good enough” option by simply throwing out the question of what your friends use to your social network, collecting the positive answers, and picking up the lowest cost option that matches what you need. I have used this exact technique to find things like the North Face backpack that I currently use as a “portable office,” for example.
Is that cheapest recommended item from friends “the best”? Usually, no. Is it “good enough”? Absolutely. I can just buy it by default without really thinking twice about it, and I’m rewarded with less headache and less time invested in the choice. I usually save money, too – sometimes, a lot of money.
What’s the consistent theme here? When I buy the “good enough” item, I almost always save a ton of time and a ton of decision making. The funny part is, I’m usually happy with the product, too. It does what I want it to do, and I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about whether or not that item really is “the best” or not. Honestly, I don’t even really care if it’s “the best.” I just care if it’s “good enough” and it has a good price on it.
I reduce the time invested in the decision. I reduce cognitive load, saving my focus for other important things. I save money. I’m also almost always happier with the outcome, too.
That’s the power of “good enough.” Do I buy the best coffee? No, but what I buy is good enough – I really like my morning coffee. Do I buy the best toothpaste? Probably not, but no one in my family has cavities with any regularity. Do I buy the best laptop when I need a replacement? No, but I have one that does everything I need it to do.
In each and every case, I didn’t have to spend much time on research, I didn’t have to think a lot about the purchase, and I’m pretty happy with what I have. If I did research it extensively, I’d wind up less happy about my decision after having spent a ton of time on it and probably spending more money on it. Would that product be “better”? Probably… but would it be that much better, considering I already have something that’s “good enough”? Probably not.
When considering your buying decisions going forward, consider simply shooting for “good enough.” It’ll get the job done, save you a lot of thinking, save you some time, save you a little money, and you’ll probably be happier with the outcome to boot. If that’s not a frugal victory, I don’t know what is!