While I was digging out of debt, I cut back on my comic book habit. I’d been spending a mind-boggling $250 every month on comics — most of which I bought in the form of hard-bound compilations — but for a few of years, I slashed that to less than $50 a month. I also cut my book spending from $100 per month to $50 per month.

In other words, I made trade-offs. I decided repaying my debt was more important, so I put off buying books and comics until later.

Here’s the thing: Every purchase is a trade-off. Maybe it’s more obvious with discretionary expenses, such as books and gym memberships and cable television. But you’re making trade-offs even when you buy the things you need. When you buy food for your family, you’re giving up other things you might really want, like new furniture or a car repair. And if you choose to go into debt, you’re trading your future income in order to have the things you want today.

When you spend money on one thing, you’re choosing not to spend it on another. This is a key tenet of the Get Rich Slowly philosophy: You can have anything you want, but you can’t have everything you want. When spending, we have to make choices.

Sometimes these choices are conscious, as when I decided to pay off debt instead of spending my money on comics. Often, though, the decisions are quiet and subtle. At times, you’re not even aware you’re making them. You don’t realize you’ve made a trade-off until after the fact.

Note: In economics terms, these trade-offs are opportunity costs. When you choose to spend on one thing instead of another, the opportunity cost consists of the benefits you could have received by spending on something else.

This not that
My brother is doing the couch to 5k training program this summer in an attempt to lose weight and get fit. He’s also watching his diet. One of his tools is a clever book that compares common junk-food indulgences to healthy foods using photographs. For instance, one photo might show a plate with a pack of Twinkies next to a plate stacked with six cups of carrots.

The message here is simple: Whether you choose two Twinkies or six cups of carrots, you’re still consuming 300 calories. But one choice is substantially healthier and more filling. If you choose the Twinkies, you’re also choosing not to eat the carrots. But if you choose the healthy carrots, you’re giving up the pleasure that the Twinkies (presumably) would bring. It’s a trade-off. There’s an opportunity cost for either choice.

I think it’d be fun to create a similar book built around personal finance. Some possible comparisons:

  • A Hummer H2 SUV vs. 50 bicycles.
  • A case of bottled water vs. a pool filled with tap water.
  • A single DVD vs. a one-month stack of Netflix DVDs.
  • A new shirt from REI vs. ten used shirts from Goodwill.
  • A dish of restaurant pasta vs. a vat of pasta prepared at home.

The point of an exercise like this isn’t to guilt people into change. It’s to make them aware of the opportunity costs associated with their choices, to point out the trade-offs, both conscious and unconscious.

Tangent

This reminds me of a conversation I had once with my cousin. I was complaining that fitness was one of my top priorities, but I couldn’t seem to get healthy. “That’s because fitness isn’t a priority for you, J.D.” Nick said.

“What do you mean?” I asked. “Yes it is.”

“No, it’s not,” he said. “Your priorities are the things you do, not the things you say you’ll do.

I argued at the time, but looking back, Nick was right. Saying that something is a priority doesn’t make it so. We demonstrate in our daily lives the things that actually matter to us. To quote Will Durant (not Aristotle): “We are what we repeatedly do.”

Opportunity costs in practice
Since paying off my debt in 2007, I’ve relaxed my spending. I’m buying more books and comics and other things I enjoy. That was fine for a while, but now there’s a problem. I want to travel. A lot. And soon. In order to do this, I need to free up cashflow from somewhere. Can you guess the most likely source? That’s right: my discretionary spending.

Over the past couple of months, my comics spending has dropped close to zero. (Close to zero. I’m still buying a few digital comics on my iPad.) I’ve decided that travel is more important, so I’m putting my comics habit on hold again. I’ve also cut my book spending and the number of meals I’m eating out. In order to travel, I’m making sacrifices to other parts of my budget.

This marks only the second time I’ve consciously made big changes to my spending. (The first was when I got out of debt.) The changes ought to be painful, but they aren’t. In fact, they’re kind of liberating. I like channeling my money toward a goal. It gives me a sense of purpose.

What about you? Are you aware of the trade-offs you make with your purchases? Do you ever think in terms of opportunity costs? What sorts of sacrifices have you been willing to make to pursue larger financial goals?

This article is about Advanced, Choices, Planning, Psychology