Here I am, back on the keyboard again after a week in the Pacific Northwest. I was there to meet a small group of friends for our annual festival of snowboarding, feasting, and recreational alcohol and drug use known as the Safety Pirates trip. As usual, it was plenty of fun and the highlight of the trip might have been getting the chance to meet about 100 Seattle-area MMM and Northwest Edible readers at a pub shortly after landing.
Although the snowboarding trip is an annual tradition, this year I decided to try something different: spending as much money as I could, as freely as possible. While this may sound like a bizarre goal to most people, for me it would be a challenging experiment. My default nature is to optimize every monetary transaction so that I come out of it with the best fun-to-cash ratio I can manage. I’ve done this for most of my life, so it’s not a sacrifice or struggle, just a pleasant and automatic habit.
To set the stage for maximum spending, I had to prepare my mind in advance. I collected about $700 in cash, through a combination of selling some things on Craigslist and withdrawing some recent construction earnings from a very fun local project. As illogical as it may seem, I find it easier to spend cash frivolously than to use a credit card, because there is no monthly statement and annual total to remind me of what I bought. These seven $100 bills became the raw material for the big-spending experiment*.
On the day of the trip, the frivolity began in earnest. Instead of taking the $12.00 bus to the airport (which takes 2 hours and requires a transfer) or arranging a lift, I drove the car. I parked it at a shuttle-parking lot that costs $50.00 per week.
Upon landing in Seattle, I proceeded to the Elliott Bay Brewing Company, where Erica and I had decided to host the meetup. Earlier in the planning, she had suggested a meeting room in a public library, but I suggested the pub since beer is an excellent companion when a large group of people is meeting for the first time. But to make the event more flashy and expensive, I offered to put the first 10 MMM cyclists who showed up, on my bar tab. Plus I covered beer and dinner for myself and the three other Safety Pirates, despite the fact that we already had snacks in the rental car. Including tax and tip, $140 was extravagantly spent here. Then I went to the bar and bought two growlers of fancy beer to go for another $24.
After dinner, we hit the local Safeway. The original plan was to stock up for the trip at Costco, but poor planning meant that we were shopping after the discount store was closed. “No Problem!”, I said, “We’ll just spend more for the convenience of getting groceries at the ripoff Safeway!”. That grocery run cost us $208 for food that would have been only $100 at Costco.
In the past, I have let the other Pirates buy their own liquor supplies while I get a separate ‘stash, since I can only handle about three drinks per night while they enjoy several times more. This time, I just happily joined the pool, not even bothering to calculate the results. Yeehaw!
Later that night, we wheeled up to Bellingham and then East to our rental house near Mount Baker. We had made a point of renting a very sweet luxury house built in 2006 with vaulted ceilings, fireplace, hot-tub, and all the amenities. No arguments here.
Great days of snowboarding were had, and the $49.00 lift tickets were a relative bargain. After each day, we hit the small pubs in Glacier, WA for additional drinks and food, duplicating what we had at the luxury rental house nearby. On the third day, the weather turned to a rainy fog blizzard, but I did not worry for one second that I only survived three runs before retreating to the lodge, soaking wet from top to bottom.
We found more things to buy on the way back – fish and chips in Bellingham, a few more beers with an MMM reader in North Seattle, an amazing meal (including $15.00 trays of oysters) at Chinook’s restaurant right on Salmon Bay, more treats at Nok Nok bar downtown, and pricey parking at the luxurious Airport Hilton Doubletree hotel that night.
The next day, the Pirates caught early flights, so Adm Karpinsk was left with a day to pass before a 7:25PM departure. And there were still a couple of those hundreds left in my wallet. So I took the light rail downtown and met the ladies who write Northwest Edible and Dogs or Dollars for a tour of Seattle’s Pike Place Market and a huge brunch at the ritzy Etta’s restaurant. The server described an entree with salmon cakes, eggs, and various herbed-glazed-smoked chef adjective stuff on the side. It sounded delicious and expensive, so of course I ordered it, while also offering to pay for everyone else. We all ordered coffees instead of water and had a grand time, talking and drinking coffee for over an hour.
At last, it was time to put the crown jewel upon my week of excessive spending. The waiter brought the dessert menu. Now, Adm Karpinsk never orders dessert – it reduces your health while simultaneously adding unnecessary cost to your tab. Restaurant Dessert menus are Hedonic Adaptation distilled to its essence. So of course, this time I took the advice of my new friends and ordered the dessert . I picked the fabulously expensive Coconut Pie at $12.00 per slice** (after tax and tip) because it was apparently “to die for”. Failing to persuade my table mates to share the bounty, I ate the whole thing myself.
Eventually the brunch date ended and I found my way back to the airport light rail, with a full tummy and mostly-empty wallet. I thought about the week of stimulation as I nodded off in the plane, marveling at the thought that “most high-income people live this way every week, not just for one week out of a lifetime”.
I returned home at midnight, fell asleep and woke up the next morning to a smother of cheek kisses from my little boy. We spent the entire day together, playing, building, biking, digging in the sand at the park, playing video games, reading books, and eventually tucking him into bed. We had missed each other more than either of us had expected. I fell asleep that night with big exciting plans for resuming my paused life in Colorado.
So what did I learn from my experiment? As a seasoned non-spender, did a deliberate bump-up in spending on experiences make me any happier? The answer seems to be a qualified “No”.
I’ll always remember that week, because it was so different from what I normally do. I enjoyed the chance to be generous to other people, and especially enjoyed the chance to spend quality time with new friends in general. But the extra spending I did on myself was a pretty hollow thrill. I got to say “yum-yum!” a few times, then gained a few pounds of fat due to eating and drinking so much more than usual. Woohoo. And that first week of big spending would have been the best one – I was king for a day, and all subsequent weeks of big spending would dull down and become normal.
So was my $1000 experiment a waste? Is spending money on experiences like this a waste in general? The word has strong negative connotations, and I don’t mean to suggest that the precious time I spent with old and new friends could ever be considered a waste. But I still used the word in the article title, and I did so for a reason.
At the end of the day, the best you can do with your time is to maximize your overall happiness. Happiness comes from having “enough” of what you need – food, shelter, personal relationships, learning, free time, growth, fun. But you don’t get more happiness when you push any of these parameters beyond “enough”. That pushing effort is best invested in broadening to additional parameters rather than extending individual ones to extremes.
As a 38-year-old who has had time in retirement to tweak these factors for at least seven years, I’m already almost ridiculously happy by default. I already have more than enough of most things: travel, luxury, food and beer among them. So it makes sense that spending more money on exactly those things would not increase happiness. And thus, in my situation the extra spending was a “waste” in the sense that it did not make me even happier.
Spending more time with good friends, on the other hand, is something I don’t do enough. So taking time out to meet new people is far from being a waste.
The bottom line, as it always is in Adm Karpinsk articles, is getting enough of everything good in life, while keeping enough of your money to allow some degree of financial independence – because of the high place of “freedom to do as you please” in the hierarchy of things that make you happy. Since I no longer need to accumulate money, I can ignore the money part. But as it turns out, it doesn’t take much money to maximize happiness anyway.
The lesson? Don’t buy the coconut cream pie until after you are retired.
* Combining the $700 cash with the $200 plane ticket and some other fees paid in advance yields the $1000 headline for this article. Total spending was a bit higher including accomodations, but I tried to estimate the amount that was spent beyond the bare efficient minimum for a one-week social trip if I had stayed with friends and eaten home-cooked meals.
** This fact amazed even Mrs. Money Mustache. Her response was “What!? I hope that was the only thing you ordered for brunch!”