Learning to use money as a tool

It’s pretty clear by now that I have a different relationship with money than when I started Get Rich Slowly. I’m by no means perfect with the stuff, but I’ve become firmly entrenched in the camp that sees money as a tool. (I used to see it only as a means to instant gratification.)

Here’s a tiny example.

Taking a page out of Trent’s book, Kris has been on a crock pot kick lately. This morning she tried a new swiss steak recipe. “Can you do me a favor?” she asked before leaving for work. “Can you make some mashed potatoes to go with dinner?”

“Of course!” I said. I make awesome mashed potatoes.

Well, as the day progressed, I became less enthused about the whole potato mashing process. As you might guess, it had something to do with The Book. Though I finished the manuscript last Friday, that’s not the end of the work. In fact, I’ve been buried in editing ever since.

This morning, I started editing the chapter on housing. I expected it take only four hours. Instead, it took seven. Next I rushed to start editing the chapter on taxes and insurance, but discovered it’s packed with problems that need to be fixed. I turned instead to the chapter on debt. More problems.

“I don’t have time to mash potatoes,” I thought. “I have to edit.”

And though I know this sounds strange, it was then that I had an epiphany. All these months and years, I’ve written about the notion of Money as a Tool, and I’ve sort of understood it intellectually. But it wasn’t until this moment that I actually knew what the concept meant: It meant I was stopping by the supermarket to pick up some mashed potatoes!

Money as a Tool

It’s difficult to describe the relationship I used to have with money. It seemed like the ultimate objective. It was what I wanted. Yet I didn’t do anything to earn or save the stuff. Instead, I’d spend it without thinking. When I spent more than I could afford to buy comics and videogames, I got a little thrill. It felt like I was somehow cheating the system.

I know now that the only one I was cheating was me. It took me years to pay off the debt I racked up by “cheating”. Now I really do see money as a tool. Monetary wealth isn’t the goal. Happiness is the goal. Doing the things that make life meaningful for me — reading, writing, spending time with friends — is the goal. Money is useful because it can help me do these things. Used wisely:

  • Money buys time. I think we all understand this abstractly. Sometimes, as in the silly case of my mashed potatoes, money almost literally buys time, but it’s usually more subtle than this. When I think of my retirement savings, I think that every dollar buys me a certain amount of future time with which I can do as I wish.
  • Money helps you meet your goals. It helps you do the things that need to get done. To use another example from my book-writing process, I’ve paid to buy books and journal articles to support my research. As I begin to focus on fitness, there’s no question that money helps me better pursue my objectives. If I don’t spend on Stuff and nonsense, I can use money to pursue my priorities.
  • Money makes life easier. This one’s obvious I suppose, but you can use money to take away some of the drudgery in life. You own a car so you don’t have to walk or ride the bus. You might pay the neighbor kid to mow the lawn. Or, in my case, I rent office space so I can have a “fortress of solitude” in which to write.

For me, the transition from using money for instant gratification to using it for bigger purposes has been a slow one. It took a long time to even realize how stupid I was being. After I became financially self-aware, it took a few years more to break my old habits, though I finally seem to be gaining some degree of self-control. (As I mentioned last week, I haven’t used money to buy anything on impulse yet in 2010. That amazes me.)

And I’ve reached a place in my life where I can buy mashed potatoes from the grocery store and not feel an ounce of guilt because I know I’m practicing conscious spending.

$8 Per Hour

Normally, I think of supermarket mashed potatoes as a sort of rip-off. For $3.99, you get a pound-and-a-half of mediocre spuds. For four bucks, I could make twenty pounds of home-made mashed potatoes that taste much, much better. But was that $3.99 a rip-off today? Hell no! It was a bargain. That $3.99 bought me an extra 30 minutes to work on Your Money: The Missing Manual. To me, that’s cheap.

Of course, there’s just one problem: I didn’t actually use that 30 minutes to work on The Book. I used it to write this blog post instead. Ah well. Sometimes the things you build with your tools don’t turn out the way you’d planned…

Postscript: Kris and I have eaten dinner now. Her verdict? “These mashed potatoes are tasty,” she told me. (For the record, I was unimpressed.)

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