Paying for Services When There’s a Free Alternative

Sites around the web, including this one, are always pushing free or DIY alternatives to lots of things.  And, in most cases, I think that they (and I) am right.  There are so many things that we pay other people to do that we can just as easily do ourselves.  Just about a year and a half ago, I built my own deck.  It wasn’t necessarily easy, and it certainly wasn’t quicker than hiring someone to do it for me, but boy did it save me some money.

I truly believe that there is little that you and I cannot do ourselves.  With a quick search on Youtube for the DIY project, and a few quick web searches, we can have some pretty detailed instructions on how to do anything.  Well, OK.  Probably not something like brain surgery.  There’s probably a bit more of a skill/knowledge gap there. But, certainly, most everything else.

Occasionally, I find a service that I decide I’d rather outsource to someone else.  Oil Changes are an excellent example.  Can I change my own oil?  Absolutely.  But, for $30, I get someone else to do it for me.  I don’t have to mess around with getting the filter loose, disposing of the waste oil, and I certainly don’t have to crawl around under the car doing it.  For me, it’s well worth the $20 or so difference to have someone else do it.  That’s more of a choice of convenience. Meaning, for me, that it is just more convenient to have someone else do it and save me the time and effort.

There are, however, some services that have less to do with convenience, and more to do with some other factors.

Paying for Services when there are Free AlternativesSaving Time

In the case of my DIY deck, I could have saved a whole lot of time by having someone else do it for me.  For a professional with a crew of a couple of guys, it probably would have only taken 3-4 days.  Maybe less.  It took me several weeks.  Obviously, it saved me a lot of money to do it myself, but if I had been crunched for time, it would have made a lot of sense to factor the time it would save into my choice.  I had the time, so it wasn’t that big of a deal.  (note: I say that now.  At the end of the project, I was seriously wondering why I did it myself)  The choice to have someone else change my oil isn’t weighted so heavily on saving time, but that is a factor.  I can have someone else do the work, and all I have to do is drop the car off.

Motivational

I think this is one that many people discount too often.  In many of those cases, people choose to do something themselves strictly to save themselves some money and then fail at it.  In my case, I’ve tried, for many years, to control my weight.  I used to be an athlete, so I’ve always thought that I had the tools to lose the weight myself.  I’d start by finding some calorie counter that was free and start tracking calories.  But, what inevitably happens is that I forget to count for a day or two and then it stretches to a couple of weeks.  If I had lost any weight, it goes right back on.  Sometimes, paying for a service that has free or DIY alternatives can be motivational.  You’re paying for it, so you better get the most out of it.  I recently joined Weight Watchers Online and that factor has helped a lot.  There are other factors, but you better believe that the fact that I’m paying for the service is playing into it as well and keeping me working at it.

Hate/Fear

How could I write this post without adding this factor.  There are just some things that you hate to do.  For one reason or another, you just hate doing them.  To you, not doing that task is worth the money to have someone else do.  Maybe it’s mowing the lawn.  Maybe it’s changing the oil in your car.  Maybe it’s losing weight.  Wait, maybe not that one.  But, how cool would that be! For me, I tend to avoid major electrical work.  There’s just something about the possibility of electrocuting myself that I don’t like…  Another would be doing anything very high off the ground.  Can’t do it.

Impossible

As much as I (and you), would like to think that there isn’t anything outside of our realm of possibility, we always seem to find something that we just aren’t capable of doing.  While I truly believe that you can learn to do many of the things that you think are impossible, I recognize that sometimes there are things that are physically impossible.  It doesn’t happen very often, but it does happen.

Saving money by doing things ourselves is a good trait to have.  It helps us keep our budgets from overrunning. It keeps us learning new things.  It gives us a sense of self worth by developing new skills and knowledge.  But, sometimes, there are other factors at work and we make the choice to have someone else do the work for us.  Maybe the cost difference isn’t worth the time you’d put into it.  Maybe the extra time you’d spend on it isn’t worth the savings.  Or, maybe you need some monetary motivation.  Whatever it is, we develop our own factors that go into the decision, and make a choice over whether to do something ourselves, or to hire someone to do it for us.

What are your factors in deciding whether you DIY or not?

Do You Really Need that Stuff? Think Twice Before You Spend

Americans love their stuff.  We can’t get enough of the latest doodad, the latest hot new product on the market.

We love stuff so much, research has been conducted on our behavior.  According to Boston.com, a team of archealogists spent 4 years studying 32 middle class Los Angeles families for their new book, Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century.  What they found was fascinating and depressing.

According to the study, ” The rise of Costco and similar stores has prompted so much stockpiling — you never know when you’ll need 600 Dixie cups or a 50-pound bag of sugar — that three out of four garages are too full to hold cars” (Boston.com).  And it’s not just the parents.  “The study found kids’ stuff everywhere, crowding out their parents’ possessions to such an extent that even home offices and studies (more than half of the 32 households had rooms dedicated to work or schoolwork) were crammed with toys and other child-related objects” (UCLA Magazine).

All the while, many Americans are swimming in credit card debt, which may be a direct result of the need to have more and more stuff, even as the stuff leads to less life satisfaction.  In fact, stuff creates stress for many people.

If you feel the need to buy more stuff, keep these things in mind:

The More Stuff You Have, the Less Satisfaction You Have

Do you really need all that stuff?We often think that if we get the latest and greatest item, we’ll be happier or life will be easier, but that isn’t often the case.  In fact, having less stuff leads to all sort of important changes.  If you have less stuff, you can live in a smaller space.  Live in a smaller space, and you pay less for rent or your mortgage, and utilities are also less expensive.  You may need to work less to afford your lifestyle, and instead have more time to enjoy life, which brings greater happiness.

The New York Times states, ” New studies of consumption and happiness show, for instance, that people are happier when they spend money on experiences instead of material objects, when they relish what they plan to buy long before they buy it, and when they stop trying to outdo the Joneses.”

Tammy Strobel, the blogger behind Rowdy Kittens, downsized her life, and now she and her spouse live in a tiny house with minimal possessions.  Because of this lifestyle change, she was able to quit her job and support herself and her spouse when he was in school on just $24,000 a year that she made as a freelancer according to The New York Times.

Your Stuff Is Worth Nothing

Besides considering the improved life satisfaction you will have without more stuff, there is another important reason to curb your consumption of stuff.

While stuff can cost you dearly in out of pocket expense, once you have it, making any money off of it, should you choose to downsize your life, is very difficult.  Yes, you can sell your stuff on Craigslist or Ebay or have a garage sale, but in general, you only recoup 10% or less on the original purchase price.  How is that for depressing?

Just visit a garage sale in the summer and see the huge spread of stuff to be sold.  How much money does all of that stuff represent?  That is money that is just gone, never to be recouped.

If you want to improve your life and your financial situation, just stop buying stuff.   You’ll be amazed how much better you feel when you have less stuff in your life to manage.

Source image credit:My Dad’s a Hoarder, By Simon Scarfe, on Flickr

Living on What We Earn: A Learning Process

For the last three years, my husband and I have had a very low income, well under the median income level of the average American family.  This was a result of my decision to launch a freelance writing career and my husband finishing his Ph.D.

We live in the suburbs of Chicago, so living expenses aren’t low.  Simply put, we couldn’t live on what we earned the last three years, which is why we incurred credit card and student loan debt and went through our $12,000 emergency fund.

Things Should Be Looking Up, But. . .

Now, however, the tide is changing, and our income is increasing.  My husband has a post-doc position, and my freelance business is growing.

We now are almost at the median income level of the American family in 2009, which was $60,088 according to the U.S. Census Bureau.  While this should afford us some comfort financially, it doesn’t because we are still cleaning up the financial mess from the past.

Preet Banerjee, author of the website, Where Does All My Money Go, in a recent speaking engagement, classified the ability to incur debt as the bank allowing you to borrow money from your future self.  As he says, “One day you will be your future self, and you won’t be happy.”

This is where we are at.  Three years ago when we took on student loan debt and credit card debt, we were borrowing from our future selves.  The selves we are now, and as Banerjee says, we aren’t happy.

Avoiding Mistakes of the Past

My husband and I both feel that we are in an important phase of our financial life.  If we can get through this period of paying down debt and growing our income without incurring any more debt, we should be in a comfortable financial position a few years from now, ideally debt free and with an even greater income.

However, that means a few more years of struggling now.

For instance, we are facing $2,000 in car repairs, and we just don’t have the money now.  A few years ago we would have put the expense on our credit card, but we refuse to go that route anymore.  Instead, we are scrimping and saving for the repairs, and meanwhile, I’m trying to walk rather than drive to buy us more time until we need to make the repairs.

I find it a bit humorous that credit card use allows people to fool themselves into thinking they have more money than they do.

Using credit cards now would help us float through for another year or so until our income increases greatly, but we won’t do that again.  We are living on what we earn and paying down debt even though it isn’t a comfortable process.  We are done borrowing from our future selves.

Banerjee puts it succinctly when he says, ” Think of borrowing money today as negotiating a pay cut with your future self.”  He also asks, “How much money do you want to pay to spend your earnings earlier?” i.e. pay interest on borrowed money?

Our answer is clear.  We aren’t going to negotiate any pay cuts with our future selves.  We are struggling now, so our future selves can have a more comfortable life.