Paying for What You Could Get Free

Each month I pay about $400 to reach personal goals. These are goals that won't make me money, and they certainly aren't saving me money, but nonetheless, they are important to me.

That's a lot of money to spend on hobbies and recreation, especially considering that I could probably make headway on my goals on my own — for free.

For example, there's my yoga practice. I've been through yoga teacher training and a few advanced trainings, and have racked up more hours in a studio than I care to tally. I can certainly save money and practice at home. Sure, I'd miss that sense of community, but once upon a time, that's not what yoga was about.

Another example? Last month I started working with an Italian tutor to prepare for an upcoming trip. I took Italian in college, and I did pretty well speaking to Italians when I went to Italy five years ago. I could go through my materials and review on my own. I could make vocabulary flashcards or buy a software program. I could start reading my book of short stories in Italian and pick it up as I struggle through the text. But instead I Googled Italian tutors in my area and arranged for a weekly lesson.

It begs the question: Why do I choose to pay for things I'm relatively qualified enough to learn on my own? Shouldn't I make the extra effort and save money, so I can get rich a little less slowly?

Why pay for what could be had for free
In the personal finance blogosphere, there seems to be more time and energy devoted to how to save money, such as how to save money on groceries or how to lower your auto insurance premiums. But there are a lot of time when it makes sense to spend money. J.D. recently talked about outsourcing his yard work because he'd rather be writing (which also provides income). The best $20 you'll ever spend is taking a mentor or expert out to lunch. And I've found that the best way to reach many of my personal goals, even the ones that are purely for pleasure, is by paying someone to hold me accountable.

Too many times I've started working toward a goal and didn't stick with it. Before I quit my job, I was continually making progress growing my business, only to slack off for a few weeks. When I signed up for one-on-one coaching, however, I had a real, live person who would hold me accountable. I didn't want to let this person down (even though, in truth, slacking off was letting myself down). Each week we'd set mini-goals, and I now had a task list and a deadline. If I didn't accomplish my tasks, I would have to explain why to my business coach.

The second reason that it pays to pay for accountability is that a teacher, coach, or mentor can help you look at a situation or problem in a different light. For example, my Italian tutor has devised little tricks to remember the difference between words and phrases that sound similar, but mean two different things. Rather than memorizing words on flashcards, I get a broader view of how the language works. It's incredible how much more quickly you can advance with a teacher than you can on your own.

Finally, I'm paying for motivation. Sure, I love Italian, but when I'm around other people who love it, their motivation rubs off and I'm excited about silly things like doing my homework and memorizing how to conjugate irregular verbs. When I've tried studying Italian on my own, at some point my excitement wanes and I fall out of the habit of making time to learn. Meeting with my tutor once a week recharges my enthusiasm.

Investments come in all shapes and sizes
When I was working to pay off debt, I didn't want to spend money on anything that wasn't a necessity. I wanted to be debt-free so badly that I didn't want to pay for a gym membership or language lessons or anything that I could do “for free.” And that probably made sense for someone in the first stage of the personal finance journey. I was paying off credit cards and auto loans, and I also was trying to find a balance between spending and saving.

But there are times when it's a good thing to spend money, especially once you're in the third stage of personal finance. You've mastered the fundamentals, your debts are paid, so what now? Are investing, self-education, entrepreneurship, or philanthropy in the cards? Self-improvement and investing can mean many different things, such as starting a business, a pricey Crossfit membership, or learning how to order gelato in Italian.

Whatever your goals, be willing to invest your time and money — it's not wasteful spending if there's a positive result.

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SB(One Cent At A Time)
SB(One Cent At A Time)
9 years ago

Whatever stage of personal finance you are in, before you indulge in self improvement spending(to learn or to not to learn) make sure that you are not going in to debt trap again.

Do indulge in something new to improve self, April I with you. At the same time, there are various avenues to learn things for free or cheap. Community colleges are one great example.

Always budget and figure out how much your self improvement is going to cost you and how you’ll recover that cost.

Carla
Carla
9 years ago

Community colleges are not “cheap”. I decided to take classes to work my way up to eventually earning a bachelor’s degree and its $79/credit – NOT cheap. JC may be cheaper than other options, but that doesn’t mean it’s financially accessible.

Amanda
Amanda
9 years ago
Reply to  Carla

Assuming April is paying $150 a MONTH for her Italian tutor $78 seems cheap!

Carla
Carla
9 years ago
Reply to  Amanda

$78 times 3 or 4 credits. It adds up, but point taken.

Anonymous
Anonymous
9 years ago
Reply to  Amanda

$76 per credit is peanuts compared with what you would pay at a private school or even a state university.I guess it all depends on your definition of “cheap”. If you don’t have the $76 then it is too expensive for you. However, community college is one of the best education deals around – especially if you are looking to pickup skills for the ever-changing workplace.

Carla
Carla
9 years ago
Reply to  Amanda

I do understand that JC is cheap(er) than private and state schools, but that doesn’t mean its accessible for everyone. $300 for one full class (not including books and other related expenses) is still a stretch for some people.

Reuth
Reuth
9 years ago
Reply to  Carla

“Cheap” is relative. I teach at a college where room and board runs $50K a year. Comparatively speaking, $79/credit is a steal. Local community colleges run $130 – $225 per credit. When you consider that most courses here are 3 credits, that adds up. But when you consider that your $79 and the other $79 classes are combining to move you up the financial ladder…then it’s cheap IMO. There are always ways of paying for college, and if you’re in a situation where $79/credit is not feasible, then you probably qualify for grants, workstudy programs, and other means of financial… Read more »

SB(One Cent At A Time)
SB(One Cent At A Time)
9 years ago
Reply to  Reuth

exactly, even if you pay $150 for education, if it can bring $500 in increased earning, then go for it, even if you need to borrow that $150 on credit card.

STRONGside
STRONGside
9 years ago

Investing in yourself is an investment that will pay off many times over in the course of your lifetime. I agree, that a professional will help you see a problem or a task in a different light, and can lend their wealth of experience to your teaching. Having this instruction is much more valuable than simply learning data and knowledge.

BIGSeth
BIGSeth
9 years ago

Best part of this article was right at the start.

“Each month I pay about $400 to reach personal goals. These are goals that won’t make me money, and they certainly aren’t saving me money, but nonetheless, they are important to me.”

Paying, better yet budgetting, money solely for personal goals is a great concept and one that should be explored more.

Thanks,

Seth

Chris P
Chris P
9 years ago

These are the exact reasons that I pay a lot more for my CrossFit gym. I liken it to a good cult! I feel guilty when I don’t go! I have other members who I’m friends with and they will call me out if I don’t attend for a while! Plus, even though I pay more, I get FANTASTIC results. I have adjusted my lifestyle to make going to this CrossFit gym a priority. So what if I don’t go out to the bars or out to eat as much. This lets me hit my target goals!

techsupported
techsupported
9 years ago
Reply to  Chris P

I agree completely. I always say that I am willing to (1) invest in myself as I think I might be worth it, and (2) I’m all about success, so I am willing to invest more to ensure that I achieve my goals. Yes, you can pay $19 a month for the local crappy gym and sit on the treadmill for a hour reading your magazine , or you can go to Crossfit or pretty much any boot camp program and be knocking out 50 pushups within a few months. So, for my friend who went the $19 route, she… Read more »

Max From Liquid
Max From Liquid
9 years ago

You rock, April! Yes, you can do things yourself, but sometimes people who do it for a living are going to be much better at it and you’ll be better off. I received a patent on a budgeting system three years ago; someone told me I could apply to the patent office by myself. True, and now that I’ve spent in the five figures to obtain my patent, I’m forever grateful that I did. I told that person I if I needed brain surgery (and I might after the patent experience,) I wouldn’t perform THAT on my own. It works… Read more »

Miser+Mom
Miser+Mom
9 years ago

The other angle of paying experts (that is, the angle from the expert’s point of view) is that we’re paying real people. When I pay for my boys’ drum lessons — something they could get for “free” from school, although not quite as intensively — I’m helping to support someone who lives in my community. Ditto for when I hired a friend of mine to come give us “Family Dance Lessons”. We cleared out the garage and invited neighbors, and once a week we all learned Swing. I felt good knowing that my money was going to a person who… Read more »

Kristen
Kristen
9 years ago
Reply to  Miser+Mom

I want to super-like this comment. The vision of all of you dancing in your garage together warms my heart!

Jenn
Jenn
9 years ago

April,

I love it! You’re right on the money on this. As long as you’re not putting yourself back into the hole by investing in the things you love, go for it! You only do this once right? Thanks for a positive article!

leaf (the indolent cook)
leaf (the indolent cook)
9 years ago

Learning something with other people and learning by yourself is so very different, so I don’t really see it as paying for what you can get for free. You’re getting a different experience. You get more practical, hands-on help from people who are good at the subject. You are likely to be more motivated, and may enjoy the sense of community in the group. There are some things I am happy studying on my own and some things where I prefer to go to classes. This is definitely a case of do what works for you, if you can afford… Read more »

Beth
Beth
9 years ago

Totally agree. I took photography classes at the local college instead of learning myself and using the internet as inspiration. However, I learned as much from my fellow classmates as I did from my teacher as we had group critiques and shared techniques in the dark room. And, I hate to say it, but I also had a transcript at the end to show an employer I had the skill set. This fall I’m thinking of taking trying yoga or pilates. I want someone to show me the proper technique and make sure I’m doing the exercises correctly before I… Read more »

Laura+Vanderkam
Laura+Vanderkam
9 years ago

Once your basic needs are met, money is there to be used. And investing in your career, your health, and your social network are often the best investments you can make. I always cringe when personal finance literature tells people to cancel the gym membership. Because paying for the consequences of ill health later on will be a *lot* more expensive.

Amanda
Amanda
9 years ago

Isn’t canceling the gym membership usually recommended for people who are ready to take the 1st step and get out of debt? If you can get out of debt in a couple of years walking for free seems reasonable. For me I cut EVERYTHING I possibly could to get out of debt quick.

Maybe your example is different for someone with $100k student loans rather than $20k personal cc debt.

Adam
Adam
9 years ago

People who use the gym regularly (say 3 or more times a week) would probably cut almost everything else before they cut their gym, because they know the benefits of having it for their mood and health and appearance.

That said, so many gym memberships go unused on the idea that I’ll go “someday” and in that case, the advice given to cancel it is solid. Those people who never use their membership and are in financial trouble should try to get into shape by eating better and free exersize like walking.

Beth
Beth
9 years ago
Reply to  Adam

I think the advice that you shouldn’t buy something expecting to change your habits counts here 🙂 I need to work on getting regular exercise (time and health are my issues) so I’m trying to get into the habit of making time and using it before contemplating a YMCA membership. (I swim, and no other gym in my area offers a pool!)

fetu
fetu
9 years ago
Reply to  Beth

I am a senior who likes to go to the pool for water aerobics. When I first started doing it, about 10 years ago, it was only $3 a class and I went at least 2 times a week. After it went up to $5 a class I decided that $10 a week to exercise was beyond my budget so I just bought a yearly pool pass for $15 instead. However I just do all those water aerobics moves I learnt on my own now….up and down the pool and am commited to going at least once a week for… Read more »

Milly
Milly
9 years ago

I am in the same boat. I want to brush up languages I studied 30 years ago, and doing it on my own is not working. So I am going to try out the senior audit program at our local university. There is something about being accountable to others that helps a lot.

On the other hand, I find myself attending the yoga class less. Partly because it’s harder to get out of the house in the evenings, but partly because I feel the need to start the habit of practicing more at home more consistently.

Lisa
Lisa
9 years ago

This is a great article. I like to find a balance of things I’m learning from others, and things I’m pursuing on my own. For example, I pay for dance lessons, but I’m studying permaculture farming/gardening principles on my own through books from the library and online articles. I think the processes of learning on your own versus learning within a community of others are very different, but both are necessary for me to feel that I have a rich life.

Jeffrey Trull
Jeffrey Trull
9 years ago

I hear people wanting things for free all the time in the online/blogging world. I think it’s great that there’s so much free stuff out there now, but there’s something to be said for paying for certain things. Sometimes “free” leads to inferior quality or something that’s less helpful than it could be. I think that there’s a lot of great free stuff, but expecting everything to be free is unrealistic and detrimental.

Leah
Leah
9 years ago
Reply to  Jeffrey Trull

as a flipside to the things for free, sometimes not as many folks will come to something offered for free. I’ve worked at several nature centers, and we find that we have better turnout when a hike costs $3-5 (free for members) than when we offer free hikes. Of course, we also make sure we have a good talk ready, we limit the size of the hike, and we put on the A game. I think people really do notice and respond.

Frances
Frances
9 years ago

Something to think of here is barter, as well…I have a personal trainer and a dietitian to help me get back into shape after babies and years of nursing, which was not happening on my own. I trade art with the dietitian; my trainer needs cash. So I’m getting a great personalized program for less cash-money than if I had to pay them both out of my pocket. I’m not done paying down debt but the money I spend on my trainer (better workout, and we have great conversations) is absolutely worth it anyway. I don’t think the debt needs… Read more »

lawyerette
lawyerette
9 years ago

I am almost always for paying someone a fair price to perform a service, and would rather do that than buy Stuff any day of the week.

And totally in agreement with spending money on self. I’ve said this before, but there is a line between frugal and cheap. I think even if one is in debt, you have to spend some money on yourself sometimes, for good reason. The debt free tomorrow may never come.

Cassie
Cassie
9 years ago

April, Great post. Because we can do something ourselves (cut the grass, study Italian) does not mean we have to. As a financial coach, I charge people to do what they could do for themselves, but as you point out, we often come out ahead paying for some accountability and motivation to do the hard but necessary things.

krantcents
krantcents
9 years ago

Improving your skills are important! I would probably opt for free before I would spend money for it though. There are times when free is not as good though such as learning a language.

Dr. Jason Cabler (@DrCabler)
Dr. Jason Cabler (@DrCabler)
9 years ago

Sometimes a monetary investment doesn’t have a monetary return. Sometimes the return is education, less work or stress, peace of mind, or physical health. Whatever the return is, it should uplift you and put your life in a better state rather than being a drag on your life such as debt. Anything you invest in should keep you moving forward and upward in your life.

Melissa
Melissa
9 years ago

This is opposite of most personal finance mottos, but you know what? Sometimes my time is just worth more to me than the cost to take on a project myself. For instance, a while back I paid someone to clean up my balcony for me, which had gotten pretty grungy over the winter. Yes, I could have done it myself and yes, it would have only taken a few hours, but I had just started a new job and was still tying up loose ends at my old one, and I didn’t have a lot of free time. It was… Read more »

olga
olga
9 years ago

Agree! Once all the financial immediate obligations are met (no debt, retirement plans maxed out, kids college plans on the go, healthy food on the table, body is covered with clothes for your liking/necessity…) – go spend on LIFE that brings you more life! It is your choice! I hired a personal trainer for the summer (even though belong to the gym and always exercise) – amazing difference in results. And I am considered very determined! I also sign up for races to keep my running at higher level yet enjoyable. Motivation is a tricky thing, and each of us… Read more »

Beth
Beth
9 years ago
Reply to  olga

That’s a pretty big “if” 🙁

My question is where do you draw the line? I always feel like I should be doing more — more money for retirement, more money for emergency fund, more money for a down payment, etc. We get so many mixed messages from PF blogs — try to find balance versus you’re never saving enough (unless you’re a high earner or independently wealthy).

At the rate I’m going, I’m going to be a very boring person by the time I reach retirement!

Jaime B
Jaime B
9 years ago
Reply to  Beth

lol Sometimes I feel the same way. I’m single and when I think about setting up an online dating profile, I often think the same thing. I’ve cut a lot of things in favor of saving more, so now I feel less interesting. I think what this means is that I just haven’t taken enough time to evaluate my priorities and put numbers to them. It’s up to each of us to draw the lines in the sand about how much and how fast. This is about your income, your obligations (debt, down payment, retirement, etc) and also your temperament.… Read more »

Leah
Leah
9 years ago
Reply to  Jaime B

I’d say that you should use the money you might use for an online dating site and instead use that to join a group or learn a skill that will expand your social circle. That way, you’re meeting new folks and improving yourself. If you still want to sign up for a dating site, I recommend okcupid. That’s how my husband and I met (we both love to hike and noticed that in each others’ profiles). It’s a free site and actually well done. I prefer it to the other pay sites my friends would use.

Beth
Beth
9 years ago
Reply to  Jaime B

@Jaime — me too! I hate online dating because I hate marketing myself. I lead a very simple lifestyle to save money, but people seem to think I should be living out an episode of Sex and the City. It really isn’t sexy to like to cook, knit and read and not to travel the world and shop!

@ Leah — I like that idea 🙂 I’m going to give it a try. (And you’ve given me the perfect defense when my family starts in on me again…)

Jaime+B
Jaime+B
9 years ago
Reply to  Jaime B

@ Leah – absolutely!

Most of my friends are married or otherwise partnered and many have kids. So it’s difficult to start new activities with them, since their schedules are much more structured than mine. However, I’ve used meetup.com off and on for years to try new activities with other people. I don’t mind online dating, but I would much prefer to meet someone f2f doing something we both like. 🙂

Thanks so much for the encouragement. 🙂

@ Beth – exactly!

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
9 years ago

I think deep down your decision was not so much about self-discipline. It was about real learning vs. memorization, and naturally your motivation levels will differ enormously between those activities. What you are paying for in a tutor is familiarity with a native Italian speaker– a role that you are ontologically impaired fill yourself. You could try talking to the mirror for an hour every day, but somehow I don’t think it would work… It’s not the lessons or pedagogical methods that make the tutor unique, it’s the interaction in Italian. Human interaction is key to language learning. There are… Read more »

Tanya
Tanya
9 years ago

“And I’ve found that the best way to reach many of my personal goals, even the ones that are purely for pleasure, is by paying someone to hold me accountable.” That is incredibly valuable thing to know about yourself; we all need accountability. And paying for accountability is worth it. Having someone else there to help motivate you and keep you on track is a valuable key to making sure you reach your goals at all. Yes, you need to keep your budget on track and not overspend, but spending carefully to keep you focused on what you value is… Read more »

Claire
Claire
9 years ago

I agree with this article & the comments are right on. I do have to bring up one point though: if you think you would like to accomplish a goal (i.e. learn a new language) but can’t seem to get the initiative to do it yourself, it’s worth asking if this was really your goal all along or did you pick up this goal either because it sounded good or is actually someone else’s goal for you? I’d suggest writing down your personal to-do list that are only things that you want to do just because you want to, and… Read more »

Aimee
Aimee
9 years ago

I think thoughtful spending is important! You do a cost/benefit analysis and decide that your money *and time* are better spent paying a person to help you do something – there’s nothing wrong with that. I’ve encountered this in my crafting habits. There are times I’ve really wanted a knitting pattern, but I knew that I could reverse engineer it myself and save the money. (For example, a 2×2 ribbed sock is not worth paying $5 for.) However, when I realized that I *could* figure pattern X out, but it would take days – or weeks – it became a… Read more »

Melanie
Melanie
9 years ago

I really enjoyed this article…Why pay for what I could get for free? I could work out at my house for free (Using fitness DVD’s from the library/cable) but would I actually stick to that strategy? Probably Not. When I did have a gym membership, I was going 3 times a week and feeling really good about it. I was more motivated to go. I was more dedicated to go and I was able to eat more of the foods that I want to eat because I was exercising more. I even had more energy! When I became a mom,… Read more »

alysa@impulsesave.com
9 years ago

Great article! Claire makes a great point – there also needs to be some prioritization to determine what gets or deserves your spending money on it. Health is a great example; another would be preparation for exams like the GRE, MCAT, LSAT, or GMAT. You can prepare by yourself or with friends by purchasing books and taking practice exams – but sometimes, classes can help if you can afford them. If your furthering your education is a priority, then those types of classes may be a worthy investment. Maybe it means cutting down on something else: but knowing not only… Read more »

Erin
Erin
9 years ago

I just signed up for Spanish lessons and a yoga class at the local community college. I’m planning a trip to Central America next year and need to brush up on my Spanish a bit. I need to practice my speaking and listening skills and can’t do this on my own. The yoga classes will, hopefully, help me relax until I make my escape from the 9-5!

These classes cost almost $200, which is a pretty penny for me. However, they are both worth what I will take away from them. I can’t wait to get started next month!

Jaime+B
Jaime+B
9 years ago

Due gusti per favore! 😉

Just about the only Italian I picked up while in Italy a few years ago. And, of course, “grazi”.

Squirrelers
Squirrelers
9 years ago

By trying to cut back on all expenses, people can be very shortsighted. There are great opportunities for personal and professional growth that do cost some money, but the investment will pay off in spades. Best to keep an open mind and consider strategic spending, rather than be penny wise and pound foolish!

Also, it can also be wise to pay others to do certain repairs or work on the home or car, as opposed to DIY. Have to consider your time and true ability to do the same quality work as someone who specializes.

PawPrint
PawPrint
9 years ago
Reply to  Squirrelers

I agree. I’ve recently cut down my personal training from every week to twice a month because I need to build the emergency fund back up. I didn’t want to eliminate the personal training because it keeps me fit and strong at 58. Luckily, I have enough motivation to keep working on my own, but I look forward to being able to start going weekly by next year.

Jeena
Jeena
9 years ago

I was reviewing my personal budget recently and I had the same questions. There are things that I pay for that aren’t “necessary” expenses but it makes my life easier, brings happiness, or makes me more productive. It’s tough to weight those intangible things. I’d be interested in hearing other people’s views on how they decide what to spend disposable income on. Maybe like a 3 part test.

Hank
Hank
9 years ago

Like all things in life, there is a cost benefit calculation that must be made. How much do we want something and how much joy or utility is it going to actually bring us. I pay someone to teach me how to play the guitar even though I can learn for free on YouTube and elsewhere. But, I have also find that I spend money for my online business that is just throwing my money away. The hard part is finding the balance between the two.

Nancy
Nancy
9 years ago

There are 3 steps I usually take when I want to learn a new skill. First I google the subject and look for info or instructional videos online. Second, if I’m still interested and want to learn more I’ll purchase a book or kit. Lastly, if I’m still interested I’ll go ahead and pay for a class or workshop. I love learning and I would really love to increase the amount of $ spent on personal development however, now that I have kids I have their stuff to pay for too (piano, gymnastics) so there isn’t as much $ to… Read more »

Anne
Anne
9 years ago

Very interesting. But to play devil’s advocate – do we ever use this logic to allow us to spend where our money is not best used. Or in areas where we could get what we want without depleting our bank accounts? While studying Italian at home isn’t working, do you need to pay a tutor? (Not that I want to put your tutor out of work!) I’m not against paying for things you want. Bit often we think we have to pay for something for it to be valuable. Do you want to pay for something you can get in… Read more »

Tom
Tom
9 years ago

Totally agree that investments come in all shapes and sizes. Case in point, taking a mentor out to lunch.

almost+there
almost+there
9 years ago

I sometimes like to do things instead of paying an expert. I have plenty of time to do it and feel a sense of accomplishment when I am done. Having spoken japanese fluently as a child and wondering what there was on youtube I found Ken Tanaka and his “How to speak fluent Japanese without (hardly) saying a word” are pretty funny to say the least:)

bob+bolesic
bob+bolesic
9 years ago

Well-weritten April! I feel like your article points out what many others miss: the point of being money-conscious isn’t to end up doing everything yourself so as to spend zero dollars… It’s to reach a balance that contributes to YOUR life happiness. Making my own shampoo and saving $3 every month brings me, personally, no satisfaction. Lifting weights does. Your examples bring you some happiness. IMO that’s the point of money once you have passed the survival level of income, to facilitate YOUR desires.

Sean
Sean
9 years ago

This is a great post. Throughout graduate school there were a few instances when I contracted out for work that I could have done on my own, but the time I would have lost mattered more (hence hiring assistants to do data entry, for example). For some projects, the extra time maters more.

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