I went out for drinks with a friend the other night. She dragged me out even though it was a Tuesday and I was tired, had stuff in the morning; all the usual excuses. But in retrospect it was a great idea: we enjoyed an insightful one on one conversation, ate delicious discounted shrimp tacos, and ran into several other acquaintances at The Fat Fish, a local hip gastrobar like any other – waitresses in tight dresses, underlit tables, music videos on the TVs, etc.
We also paid $27 for the opportunity, most of which was taken up by our shared $15 margarita.
Was the night really worth $27 to me, or to us? No. It was about a night out with a friend – a priceless experience. The bar tab and the margarita were simply a means to that end. But we could easily have had 98% of the same experience on a much tighter budget had we stuck to water and planned out our taco consumption. Then I could have spent that money on something more important to me than alcohol. (transportation, necessary food, there are plenty of options)
When I mentioned this line of thought to her, she said that this was why she was so happy to have income in the form of a steady paycheck. (she’s working part time at a consulting company) I quote:
“Yeah, it’s shocking at first, but then I remember that I have 8 hours of work tomorrow making money, so I know I can afford it.”
Now wait a minute. This is the trap of consumer culture. Counterculture has all sorts of clever quotes about this, like “You buy a car to get to work, to pay for the mortgage, which you took out in order to be close to work, which you’re only doing in order to be able to afford the car and the house.” Similarly, is it truly a good thing to have 8 hours of work waiting for you tomorrow?
I’d be fine with ditching the margarita if that meant I could skip the 8 hours of work as well (assuming this is drudge work I’m not enjoying). Spending on trivial night-out fare like the above ‘because work lets me’ is a dangerous thought process. Then you get used to regular nights out, which keeps you dependent on the paycheck, which leads to a vicious cycle.
Now, if you like your work, and you like your margaritas, then nothing in this equation is alarming. But for me, the margaritas are not THAT important – it’s the friendly conversation that is. Margaritas are widely seen as requisite accomplices to the above, but they are not necessary.
The whole ordeal reminds me of Ramit Sethi from I Will Teach You To Be Rich. He’s a finance guru who scoffs at the others of his ilk who exhort you to stop buying frivolities like daily $4 lattes, or margaritas out with friends. Ramit says “Buy the damn latte! It’s important to you!”
He says this is the difference between frugal and cheap. A cheap person cares about the cost. A frugal person cares about value. For a frugal person, the margaritas and lattes from above can be legitimate parts of your personal budget, as long as you plan for them in advance. He says to instead focus on ‘big wins’ – the things that take up big chunks of your expenses (like debt or mortgages). Get rid of those, and spend on what matter to you.
Under this philosophy, my friends’ margarita purchases are completely validated. But my own are not – as I say, the margarita is not important to me; it’s the camaraderie. Thus the valid purchases for me would be anything which facilitates such an interaction, but nothing more. I’m not cheap, just frugal (or so I like to think).
The problem is that the only way anybody socializes these days is over food or drinks. I can’t waltz into the Fat Fish and order nothing but water – the waitress would hate me. So I have to pay for the former to get the latter (maybe not with a 15$ margarita, but its gotta be something). Why does socializing have to come with a price tag?
It’s because we have all this disposable income we want to use. There’s a difference between capitalism and consumerism in my mind – either you buy goods you need or buy ones you want. There’s no such thing as disposable income – it’s all just income, and whether you use it on a drink or to pay for you bed is up to you.