Updated on 07.10.07

Why My Father Takes Out A Lighter And Burns $200 Each Month

Trent Hamm

About once a week, early in the morning, my father stops by a convenience station. He goes inside, gives the clerk behind the counter about fifty dollars, and walks out with a small paper bag in hand. He gets in the car, reaches into the bag, and pulls out a small package, which he unwraps. He pulls from that package a small little item, which he then sets on fire and watches it burn. Then, later, he burns another one and another, until that paper bag is empty.

My father has been an avid smoker for almost fifty years. If you figure that he smokes two packs of cigarettes a day (he smokes a bit more than this, actually) for fifty years, and that instead of smoking he would have invested the cost of those packs into the stock market with a 10% annual return, he would have made (are you ready for this?) $2.6 million dollars on the stock market. This doesn’t include any additional health costs (luckily, my father has avoided cancer so far and has been very healthy his whole life due to vigorous activity all the time).

And instead he watched it all burn away.

I don’t begrudge my father the habit. We’ve talked about it. He knows how ridiculously unhealthy it is. Yet he still drives to the convenience store and buys the cigarettes each week. Most of that money comes from his side hobbies – he’s an excellent fisherman and sells his catches to others, for example, and he’s also very good at repairing devices of all kinds, even electronic ones. So I can’t complain that he’s wasting his Social Security income or his pension, because the cost of these cigarettes don’t come out of that.

But I still imagine what my parents could do with an extra $2,500 a year or so. They talk about taking a trip to Mexico, along the coast, and visiting several resort towns, but the money never quite adds up for them to do it. They’ve also talked about building a tiny little two bedroom retirement home along the Mississippi River – they have a little piece of land there, just big enough for a little house with a big deck and a place to dock a boat. It won’t happen.

It all comes down to choices in the end. Every time you choose to fill a short-term longing, you give up a piece of a long term dream. If you habitually smoke or drink or take drugs, you lose a bit of that great future each time you make that choice. If you’re investing, but at the same time you splurge on such a habit, each little puff or drink that you take is eating away at your potential returns. And for what? What are you left with?

Every time I watch my father smoke, I close my eyes and imagine that they could be on a beach together somewhere, and it makes me sad wondering what could have been if they had made different choices.

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  1. Rick says:

    I don’t smoke. I never will, and I can’t stand the smell of cigarette smoke. But I think this principle applies in a general sense. To repeat what you said: Every time you choose to fill a short-term longing, you give up a piece of a long term dream.

    For me, it’s going out to eat. I’m pretty frugal, and I don’t often go out to eat, but I do like to hang out with friends. I grimace every time a friend asks me to go out to eat, since I know that I should save my money rather than spending 15 bucks on a dinner. Now, there’s arguably nothing wrong with smoking (if you understand the risks), and there’s nothing wrong with going out to eat. But the costs sure do add up.

    It’s all about trying to find the right balance between short-term pleasure and long-term goals. And what about that time you ate out on February 25, 2005? Do you remember it? Was it of lasting importance? Probably not. Short term pleasure is very quickly forgotten.

  2. Wow, that is excellent analysis. There needs to be more publicity for these findings so it adds another element to stop people from smoking. We see all the ads about health reasons and tobacco industry greed so perhaps if someone was to see that their smoking habit would cost them cold hard cash in the form of millions as well, they would think twice. Excellent post.

  3. Lucas says:

    I get your point, and it’s a perfectly valid one with which I agree. The other side of the coin, however, is how much your father’s enjoyment of his life decrease if he were to stop smoking.

    My father has smoked for my entire life. Like yours, he’s well aware of the health risks, and he has tried to stop many times. Each time he tries, he makes life miserable for himself, my mother, his coworkers and everyone else around him. When he’s trying to quit, his temper is short, he doesn’t concentrate very well, and he’s generally grumpy and unpleasant to be around. Of course, if he’d never started smoking in the first place, then this wouldn’t be a problem.

    For some people, the tradeoffs that come with abandoning some “short term pleasures” in favor of long term just aren’t worth it.

  4. Morgan says:

    As one who just Quit smoking, I can sure relate to wasted money. The smoking money is now used in a better way. But on a small side note. There is a fine balance between living and enjoying the present and preparing for the future. Unfortunately, we never know if our last breath was just that, our last breath. Somewhere there is a balance for each person. I’d hate to deny myself something my whole life in the hope that I live long enough to indulge later. Likewise, continual wasteful spending is damaging too. It’s good to be frugal and prepare for old age, but as the old saying often goes, the biggest regrets are for things we did not do, as opposed to things we did. So please, indulge yourself and enjoy the present every once in awhile. It might very well be your last memory.

  5. Rich G. says:

    As an smoker (ex-smoker now, but only by 2 years and some) the statistics of smoking never phased me. People would say it all the time. “If you spent that money on a boat instead it’d be a yacht by now.” or some other such…

    My answer was always the same. “You do things that you don’t need to do too so leave me alone. I don’t nag you about your soda/fast-food/non-cheap car/non-cheap house so you don’t get to nag me about my smoking based on money.” Telling someone how to spend their recreational spending is tacky and ineffective. Yes. Smoking is expensive, and moreso every day, but when I was smoking having someone lecture me about how to spend my money just irritated me.

    Granted… them trying to get between me and my addiction irritated me regardless of the reason, but in many cases even smoking I was more frugal than the ppl lecturing me were.

    Finally I quit because I was tired of being a slave to the things, and how that quit stuck when the others didn’t is beyond me. I credit grace as having a hand in it, but I’m so glad to have that monkey off my back.

    I don’t have the extra $3/day though. You’d think I’d be tripping over piles of money in the corner from quitting, but I’m not. Initially I ate the money along with everything else lol.

  6. Dave says:

    I don’t think cigarettes cost the same 50 years ago as they do today.

  7. Tricia says:

    Trent – how did you calculate the 2.6 million figure? Could be useful when talking to teens about instant gratification.

  8. I hate smoking. My grandfather died earlier this year at 76 from his 2-3 pack/day habit. He couldn’t ever give it up. Sure your dad is healthy now, my grandfather had a very fast decline into death.

    To be honest the cost is a bad thing but it’s worse to shorten your life and time with your family and loved ones. I can only imagine what else he could have done if he had more time with us. He’ll never see my children, never have another grandchild wed. He won’t see his youngest daughter give birth in October. So many intangible, priceless things won’t be here to see. Something he burned away.

  9. Engineer says:

    2.6 Million Dollars???? I don’t think so. Drug out my spreadsheet and found that you had done what all too often is done when preaching the power of compounding — assuming that contributions (or expenses in this case) remain level.

    Maybe your father spend $2500 on cigarettes last year. But 50 years ago, he didn’t spend that much. Let’s not forget about inflation.

    Not to defend smoking. Whatever cigarettes cost, they’re too much. Along the other costs, burned clothes, carpet, and furniture. And lungs.

  10. Jimbo the Great says:

    Without getting caught up in nit-picking your numbers I would like to agree. I smoked for eight years before finally seeing the light. When I think of the money I wasted on that filthy habit I get really upset with myself. Unfortunatly when I quit I didn’t budget the extra money and just wasted it like I was still smoking. In fact my spending got worse because I had a built in excuse. Hopefully your dad will give quitting another try. In my profession I see hundreds of people a year swear off smoking years after it would have made a difference. Even if he can’t quit I hope he continues dodging the bullet.

    Jimbo the Great

  11. Brip Blap says:

    Really, that’s a heartbreaking story, and it could be applied to anything – gambling, drinking, drugs, day trading… everyone struggles with their bad habits, and overcoming it is really tough. Even the lack of things can be an expensive bad habit (lack of exercise, lack of spending discipline). I sure hope your dad sees the light, and he’ll need plenty of support from his family for that, too, so good luck to you, too.

  12. Benjamin says:

    “Not to defend smoking. Whatever cigarettes cost, they’re too much. Along the other costs, burned clothes, carpet, and furniture. And lungs.”

    Quick lets blame cigarettes… because people clearly don’t have free will anymore. If you simply want to smoke, more power to you. If you want to spend that same money on drinking, going out, paper plates, or freakin dog food then go right ahead, but don’t be blaming cigarettes for the short comings in one’s character.

    When cigarettes have done nothing wrong, why is it that so many people willingly jump on the ‘blame xxx for existing’ band wagon, rather than the ‘blame society for allowing personal choice’ band wagon?

    And please, don’t take it the wrong way, if anyone has lost someone through smoking then you have my sympathy. My father smokes and I’m just waiting for the day he gets diagnosed…

  13. Brip Blap says:

    And sorry to tack on another comment, but be glad he doesn’t live in New York, too. I don’t know exactly but I think cigarettes are $7+ per pack up here… at least the city had the sense to put a tremendous tax burden on smokers here to subsidize their own future health care needs (plus scare some people off of it).

  14. John Wesley says:

    Great post. You’ve hit the nail on the head. Every choice boils down to satisfying a present urge vs. saving for the future.

  15. Smoke is such a waste of money (and of health!). My father does the same thing. Imagine, he wastes 5K after tax earning on smokes every year. Since he is 56 and started at the age of 15, that’s 41 years of savings… I don’t even have the courage to calculate how much it comes at! He could have probably retire by now!

  16. js says:

    Your father is lucky. My uncle died in his early 60s from a failed lung transplant. Smoked all his life. He waited a long time to get that lung transplant too. Yea, we’re all going to go from something sometime, but the guy never even reached retirement age. His older sister outlived him.

  17. Donna says:

    Trent — I would disagree with your numbers but agree with your psychology. It’s all about choice. Unfortunately, some people fail to see that they have choices; that is, of course, itself a choice.

  18. Wendy says:

    Great analogy and it does apply to everything (not just cigs) to be fair– I have friends that pay much more on a weekly basis eating junk food during the lunch hour, when in all reality they’d be better off (physically and financially) throwing a sandwich in a paper bag and carrying a thermos.

  19. Teri Pittman says:

    My mother smoked most of her life. Tried to quit several times and the most successful time was when her front teeth were knocked out in an accident. She still eventually started smoking again. It’s not just psychological. There’s an element that’s very close to addiction.

  20. !wanda says:

    Teri, it is addiction. Nicotine makes you feel alert and stimulated because it stimulates some of your body’s neurotransmitter receptors, mimicking the action of one of your body’s own neurotransmitters. Chronic nicotine exposure alters the way your brain cells respond to nicotine and the neurotransmitter that your body makes. Your brain gets used to and adjusts to having the nicotine around. When you remove the nicotine, your body is suddenly out of whack again- it’s similar to me taking a non-smoking person and removing a good portion of their neurotransmitters. Your body needs time to return to its pre-addicted state.

  21. !wanda says:

    Post continued:
    During the process of withdrawing from nicotine, you feel bad and really want to start smoking again to alleviate those feelings. The process of entirely returning to the pre-addicted state can take a long time.

    In addition, smoking alters the neurotransmitter balance in your brain’s reward centers, increasing the level of pleasurable neurotransmitters there. Because of this, your brain “learns” in a very strong and direct way that “smoking is pleasurable.” All these factors mean that smoking is very hard to quit.

    It’s not the same, but I quit coffee about a year ago, largely to save money, and also went through a drug withdrawal process. Acutely, I had an under-the-table migraine for a straight week. In the long run, it took me about 6-8 *months* before I wouldn’t have cravings after smelling coffee or walking past a coffee shop. Nicotine is far more addictive than caffeine, so I can understand how difficult it would be for someone to quit smoking.

  22. Bill says:

    My father-in-law smoked from age 15 to 80. In January 2007, he was buying cigarettes early in the morning at a quick shop type store. He started driving out of the parking lot and thought there was a problem with the transmission so he floored it and he went racing out into the street, across the street and hit a cement wall at about 25 mph. He passed out, was taken to the hospital and never returned home. The accident caused the process but the smoking was what killed him. He told me every day after that, that he regretted smoking and he should have listened to his wife who fussed at him constantly to stop. It’s a painful process to watch because he pretty much had his wits about him to the end, he just couldn’t breath.

  23. Brendan says:

    Trent, I love your blog. I am nowhere near as frugal as you are, but I hope to some day adopt some of your good habits with finance. I feel I must share my personal story. Most of the posters here don’t seem to recognize the fact that the cost of smoking can’t be quantified. Especially with respect to someone that has been doing it for over half of their life. My mother smoked for about 37 years before she got lung cancer. She had a grapefruit sized tumor in her lung that doctors were able to shrink down a few times, but she went through physical hell to only get 3 more years after her diagnosis. She died at the age of 59. She won’t see my children, and won’t be able to enjoy a long life. I have no idea how much she spent on smoking, but the cost of her life far outweighs any cost in terms of money. I hope somehow you can convince your dad to quit. Unfortunately it may already be too late, but if he quits before he gets cancer he has a better chance of living long into his 80s or even 90s. It’s very important that he quits, unfortunately even if you try everything you may not be able to get through to him. I was never able to get my mother to quit and she paid for it literally with her life. That is a cost that is never worth it. He’d honestly be better off paying 70 bucks a box (or whatever it costs) for nicotine gum for the rest of his years. At least he’ll have a higher chance of survival.

  24. Debbie says:

    My grandfather quit smoking cold turkey at the age of 80 and lived to the ripe old age of 93. Never give up hope. Keep pushing him and praying for him.

  25. I hate smoking. My father died (cancer) because he has been smoking 20-30 cigarettes every day.

    I will attend in every anti-smoking initiative available. Just give me a target!

  26. Susan says:

    My parents both smoked from their teens and never showed much interest in quitting (despite lots of nagging from us kids) until my dad had to confront the financial cost of it. He was laid off about 15 years ago and became the household’s main grocery shopper. Seeing the price of those boxes of cigarettes every week plus the need to trim expenses while he looked for another job was all the motivation he needed. He quit cold turkey and never looked back. Mom finished the cigarettes in the house and then she quit too. She’s said she had some cravings to start up again but since my dad stuck with it she did too.

    I’m so thankfully that my dad’s basic frugality won out over his nicotine addiction. Especially this week as we just learned that MIL, also a life long smoker, has lung cancer.

  27. fakename says:

    As long as denying yourself self-destructive short-term pleasures is not taken to extremes then self-control is a good thing.

    Tobacco smoking (or marijuana or booze) is damaging to the body but if some one want to indulge in them every now and them that is ok.

    Like blowing money on a comic book or movie or concert. Imagine the ‘waste’ of seeing a concert every week and what that money if saved would have totaled. But the pleasure provided might be worth it for some.

    Your father may enjoy the mental break he takes when smoking and for him that may make all the costs (health, social, and money) worthwhile.

    Still, of all the short-term pleasures tobacco use has to be one of the most costly.

  28. peachy says:

    The monetary savings from quitting smoking are huge. My mother refused to marry a man who smoked so my father dutifully quit his disgusting habit. Guess what? Within 6 months, he had enough money saved, just from quitting smoking, to take her to Cuba.

  29. Bill says:

    You have my sympathies.

    My dad is just like yours, but a little older, so I doubt he’ll see another decade.

    Ironically, we were so happy when mom quit smoking, cold turkey, in her 40s.

    Until she was diagnosed with dementia only a few years later, which lasted about a decade until her recent death

    Damage to a certain brain structure apparently kills the desire to smoke.

  30. Heidi says:

    This is off topic. But why don’t you, as a son, send them on a trip to Mexico? Instead of watching your father smoke and asking why he spends the money on cigaretts, you actually can do something to make them happy.

  31. Kit says:

    Good post. I smoked for 31 years and am now 3 weeks smoke free thanks to Chantix (blocks the neurotransmitters that make you crave nicotine). My primary goal is health but putting my smoke money into savings is a close second. An extra $2500 to $3000 in my savings every year is a thought that thrills me!

  32. Looking at things in terms of the long-run dollar really open our eyes!

    Heidi: That’s a rather brash remark to make. Trent seems to speak highly of his family and your comment (being that I am also a family-oriented man)is offensive.

  33. Amy says:

    Yes, smoking kills. This is bad. But it’s also pleasurable. If you’ve never smoked, it’s hard to comprehend this, but it is.

    I think personal finance writers generally have a tendency to undervalue simple, daily pleasures (like morning coffee and the newspaper, or dinner out with friends) in comparison to Really Big pleasures like vacations, retirement, or home ownership.

    I don’t mean to defend smoking here – there are health risks, you should quit, you could die, etc. etc. But I do think that those daily pleasures are important. Your father’s smoking is absolutely not the same thing as burning two hundred dollar bills a month.

    If I died tomorrow, I’m sure I would be busier regretting missing trip to Italy I still don’t have the money to take than remembering last Tuesday’s dinner at the Cuban place with friends, or my morning pot of tea. But while things like building close friendships and maintaining a cheerful attitude are hard to quantify and check off a to-do list of life goals, they’re still really important, and often sustained by those little daily habits that eat up your money.

  34. Matt says:

    Actually Heidi’s comment is not that brash. She’s just suggesting another way of looking at the situation, and maybe putting emotion into action.

    The perception of smoking today is very negative. Whatever your reasons for it, health, morality, whatever.. it might help to remember that smoking was not only not seen as negative in the past, it was seen as positive. It was considered positive and “healthful”. Propaganda or not, that was the perception. Watch some TV shows from the 50s and everyone is smoking and drinking on TV.

    Similarly, when did investing become mainstream for the common citizen? Remember pensions? Where are those today? Why not judge someone who worked through the 60s and pity them for relying on a pension?

    Again the perception then was much different and yes, while there was a stock market then, it wasn’t as easy as opening an account online with a brokerage and transferring money electronically from your high-interest savings account.

    My point is that it’s incorrect (and incredibly self-righteous) to look at things from 50 years ago and judge them under today’s microscope and assume that you wouldn’t make the same decisions or very similar ones.

    In light of those things, Heidi’s comment is not at all offensive. If anything it’s a good reminder to consider that in 40 years, this situation may repeat itself, but instead of being the one doing the pitying, you may be the one being pitied. She’s simply saying that instead of pitying him with judgement, pity him with positive actions.

    Which one of us can say that we don’t choose what we think is best for ourselves on a daily basis? We ALL think we do. In 40 years do you want to be reminded of your “failures” when someone inspects YOU under the microscope of 2050?

  35. Tordr says:

    The smoke here in Northern Europe is approaching $1 pr. cigarette (mostly due to low dollar), and on trips abroad I can buy it for as low as $0,10. To be nasty to smokers and to show them how stupid their habit is, I have bought cigarettes abroad. Then at home I have twice sat in front of smokers and destroyed cigarettes. Now for if I destroy 10 it is like tearing up $1. For them it is like tearing up $10 and they are almost going nuts when I do it (for fear of my life I have only done it twice).

    Their horror in their face at me tearing up the smoke is well worth the 1 dollar, but if given the pack they would have smoked it up in a day with no second thought although it is worth $10 for them. That just shows you how stupid their habit is.
    (But on the other hand I pay $8 for an ordinary beer when I go out so that is stupid of me, I even get an hangover as a bonus if I drink enough of them)

  36. Michelle says:

    I agree with Matt. The money you can save is great and real, but we can’t judge habits of 50 years ago.There are things we know we should do less of or more of, but we may not realize how bad it is at the time we are doing it. It may be likely 50 years from now (actually sooner) our grandchildren will count how much money and health we lost on each McDonalds hamburger, each minute we spend on our cell phones, each itune song we purchased and now our hearing is damaged because of listening too loud.

  37. maxconfus says:

    that was terrible number analysis. costs have not remained level for the past 50 years. you should know this. none the less the principal of regularly saving small amounts of money for long enough periods to build wealth stands firmly once again.

  38. Elaine says:

    I wish I had quit sooner. I would probably be debt free by now if I had put the money I spent on cigarettes toward credit card payments.

  39. Pete says:

    I’m not saying this just to be contrarian, but perhaps your father values the immediate benefits of smoking more than the hypothetical benefits of an extra $2400 per year.

  40. DM says:

    I quit smoking a few months ago, and the extra money in my pocket’s OK, I guess, but there’s a bigger issue here: Money is for spending. Smoking, gambling, all the other “frivolous” things mentioned here add up to a quality-of-life issue for many people. If playing blackjack brings joy to someone’s life, and they can afford it without compromising their obligations and family, then why not? How many of your readers have cable television? That’s a good $50 a month they could be saving. And as far as health risks, I submit that sitting on the couch watching TV might be as damaging long-term as smoking. Point is, spend money on the things you enjoy. Live your life. Enjoy yourself.

  41. Penny Saved says:

    You may be right about the cell phones – they haven’t been around long enough to know if they are dangerous. But hamburgers is probably a different story. Cigarettes have no tangible benefit at all – you smoke them and they’re gone. They don’t fill a hunger or quench a thirst. It’s not any better than lighting up paper money and smoking it ( though I wouldn’t recommend that either ). At least with the burgers, they satisfy your hunger – though taste buds are a different story.

  42. Captain says:

    If that’s what he truely likes to do….don’t worry about it. smoking is just another hobby. it’s bad for you but some people do really enjoy it.

    the stock market is great, but do also think of the people who lost everything overnight.

  43. krisk says:

    You didn’t factor in the very real-very high- costs of increased medical care that long term smokers inevitably need.

  44. Chessiq says:

    I was looking at an application for life insurance. I had to check of whether I smoke or not. It appears that smoking affects your insurability. I will assume that it will affect the premium you get. If that’s the case, then that’s another cost to smoking.

  45. Tristan says:

    I was a smoker for many years. Just like your father I knew it was bad for me but couldn’t stop. Nothing worked. I knew I would die a smoker. I heard about the book Easy way to Stop Smoking by Allen Carr. I read it, put it aside for six months then read it two more times. The last time something clicked in my brain and I never smoked again. I hardly had any withdrawal symptoms. Gosh! I can’t believe I just said that but it’s true. Maybe you could get that book for your father. It’s never too late.

  46. Joe says:

    Great post Trent! My Dad did the same thing.

  47. Jon says:

    I agree with Tristan about the Allen Carr book. It works if you are ready to quit. I quit August 20 of last year (after smoking for 10 years) and it really was easy.

  48. Rosie says:

    C’mon! I just quit smoking three months ago; the new law here in Minnesota to ban smoking pretty much everywhere and a little pill called “Chantix” helped me to do it. But I still miss it. Months later. Every day. Of course it’s easier than it was the first month or two, but STILL. Give the guy a break! Sure: he might not get to Mexico, but if those cigarettes “spark” a little bit of joy in his everyday normal life, why not let him have it and get off your sad pedastal? I only quit b/c I was sick of being taxed and segragated by “the majority”.

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