Min-Max Your Life

A hundred million dollars in New York and twenty-two fish-hooks on the border of the Arctic Circle represent the same financial supremacy.
—Mark Twain

I hosted Thanksgiving in my home for the first time this year. In a rather pleasant reversal of roles, my mother assisted me in the kitchen as I prepared the feast. She spoke admiringly of my All-Clad roaster, my Le Creuset enameled cast iron pans, and my Gunter Wilhelm knives, among other things. She seemed far less impressed when the time came to set the table, though, as I pulled out the mismatched plates and silverware I had bought at Goodwill in 1998, and glasses from Dollar Tree. What’s behind this apparent contradiction?

A Real Life Lesson from Video Games

The term “min-maxing” is most commonly used nowadays by video game enthusiasts. No, I’m not going to suggest you take up World of Warcraft, but a common strategy used in such games can be useful in real life as well.

Stated simply, a min-maxer tries to get the best results possible by putting maximum resources or effort into what’s most important, while investing as little as possible into things that don’t really matter. Given limited “points” to spend on his abilities, a min-maxing wizard will maximize his knowledge and intelligence, while making little to no effort to improve his strength. A min-maxing warrior will do just the opposite. It’s a common strategy in gaming, because it makes the most efficient use of limited resources.

Uncommon Sense

This idea may seem obvious, but few people apply it to their spending habits. Most middle-class people buy middling quality across the board. If a middle-class couple decides they need some pots and pans, for example, they’ll head over to Target or Bed Bath & Beyond, peruse the 3 or 4 sets of reasonable looking non-stick pans there, and most likely choose the mid-priced one. They’ll do the same when shopping for their “regular” dishes (they probably got their “fancy” dishes as a wedding present, and never use them). When the non-stick coating on those middling quality pans wears out in 3 or 4 years, they’ll replace them in the exact same way. They’ll follow roughly the same strategy for everything from cars to tubes of toothpaste.

Let’s think back on my Thanksgiving feast. I have a great love of cooking, and I do it every day. So when it comes to cooking gear, I buy the best. It’s all about the food for me, though. I couldn’t possibly care less about fancy china, silverware, or glasses. So while I have no regrets for paying upwards of $200 for my enameled cast iron Dutch oven, which brings me joy every time I use it, I can’t fathom paying more than fifty cents for a plate, and then only if one of my current ones breaks.

That’s why I have thrift store dishes and Dollar Tree glasses, but the same pots and pans as my friend who owns a major construction company and is worth $100 million or so. The funniest part of this is, I spend less money than our hypothetical couple in both cases. My “expensive” pots and pans will end up costing me far less in the long run, because I fully expect every one of them to outlive me, while those nonstick pans will likely need to be replaced every few years. The replacement costs adds up, especially when you factor inflation into the picture.

The next time you choose to buy something, whatever it may be, don’t just follow your regular habits and shop on autopilot. Put some thought into each purchase, and see if there may be an opportunity to min-max. There almost always is.

What to Maximize

Are you going to use this item every day? Can you truly and honestly tell the difference between the best version and cheaper options, and if so, will it really make a difference in your life? If so, then don’t hesitate to buy the best. Seek out goods of the highest quality that will last you a lifetime, and then take care of them. (In fact, a good way to tell if you truly are feeding your passion is if maintaining your tools is a pleasure rather than just a chore.) If woodworking is your passion, go ahead and pay more for the DeWalt router. If you spend hours every day playing the acoustic guitar, then by all means buy a Taylor.

It’s critical, however, that you be honest with yourself. Is woodworking truly your passion, or is it just an occasional hobby that you might well abandon after a few months? If it’s the latter, think twice about purchasing tools at all. See if you can find a tool lending library, or borrow them from a friend instead.

Also, be sure you really can appreciate the difference. For example, if you’re a cooking enthusiast, you might shell out a few hundred dollars for an excellent set of knives. Chances are, though, that you won’t truly appreciate the difference between these and the several-thousand dollar set a professional chef would use (and spend many hours maintaining).

Get it Used, if You Can

Even if you decide to get the best, there’s no need to be in a rush about it. Have some patience, and see if you can can find it used. Getting the best used is like minimizing and maximizing at the same time. Chances are you’ll pay less than for a new mid-range model, for something that will last longer and bring you more pleasure. It’s a big win.

If you’re truly ambitious, you can even pick up broken items at thrift stores, or sites like eBay or Craigslist, and fix them. I’ve done this with everything from furniture to appliances and electronics, including my dryer and stove. Sites like PartSelect have parts and repair guides available for all kinds of things. Apart from saving cash, it can be a fun hobby, and chances are you’ll find that you get much more satisfaction from using things you’ve rescued and repaired yourself. They just feel more yours, somehow.

What to Minimize

One place to think long and hard about minimizing is things you only do occasionally. For example, I love scuba diving, but I only go about once or twice a year. When I first got into the hobby, I followed the standard script and bought a bunch of decent-quality gear. This was, in a word, stupid. I’d have been far better off renting than storing a bunch of scuba gear in my closet for the other 51 weeks of the year.

Another great opportunity to minimize is with everyday consumables. Can you really tell the difference between different brands of dish soap? I sincerely doubt it. How about laundry detergent? I doubt that as well. So why on earth would you ever consider paying a penny more than $1 for either, when Dollar Tree carries both?

Trust me, LA’s Totally Awesome detergent will get your clothes every bit as clean as Tide, which costs over 1000% more per load (not a typo). A few switches like that can free up a lot of room in your grocery budget for more healthy and delicious organic veggies, and I’ll bet you can tell the difference when you buy those.

Ultimately, if you can’t justify maximizing it, chances are you should minimize — or better yet, don’t buy it at all.

Give it a Try

Min-maxing will let you eat like a prince on a peasant’s budget. What does it matter if it’s off a pauper’s plate?

26 Comments

  1. Excellent post! Quality pays off for years on everday items like you said. I have had the same knife set for years and it was not cheap… money, time and effort saved in the long run!

  2. davidson

    Great advice I must say but either said than done. I think you need to practice and be patient to become good at the min-max thing. The outcome in the long run will be worth the effort though. I need to incorporate your ideas into my financial life more.

  3. Hayley

    Interesting concept! I like the idea. I also have my All-Clad and Le Creusets for cooking because I love it. But hey, to keep your mom off your back you can buy a decent set of tableware at Pottery Barn or even Crate and Barrel for pretty cheap! But then again there are things moms will never understand. Like having an $80 pepper mill and also buying Kirkland toilet paper :)

    • Sean Owen

      Hey, Kirkland stuff is awesome! Just about everything they make is excellent quality. I’ve had my Kirkland signature suitcase for over 10 years now, and I had a bottle of Kirkland signature wine (!) with dinner tonight. It was a lovely Pinot.

  4. fubek

    I’ve done this intuitively for all of my life – spend the money on quality for stuff that is important and don’t spend anything on the rest. E.g., I have a small 16yr old car. It’s reliable and takes me from A to B. That is all that interests me about cars. On the other hand, I have a knack for bicicle touring. I spent >$5000 on my current one and love every bit of it. It’s hand-made/welded for my body. It’ll last me at least 20 years. With this strategy, I managed to save so much more than my peer group that I am financially independent at 40yrs old. That adds to my quality of sleep.

    • Sean Owen

      Nice. It took me a little longer to figure it out, personally, so my hat’s off to you.

  5. Dee

    Thanks for expressing and explaining this concept and giving it a name. The tricky part truly is in knowing whether a higher qualify item will last longer or otherwise be worthwhile if you’ve never tried it before. For example, I grew up with 180 thread count (read: run of the mill, buy ‘em at K-Mart) sheets. They last for many years and seem to do the job just fine. I don’t think it ever would have occurred to me to try anything else. But I had a partner who thought investing in higher-end sheets would be worthwhile and — wow! — did I ever feel the difference. They will probably last much longer too. My current partner likes flannel sheets, though, so I may never even wind up wearing out the high-end sheets I’ve invested in (we generally rotate between his favourites and my favourites). For some items, like furniture, I find a good indicator of whether a higher price is worthwhile is the re-sale value of an item. I recently bought a pine bedroom set used and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if I am able to re-sell it for a similar price to what I paid for it should I ever cease to want it or need it.

    • Sean Owen

      I really should have mentioned linens and mattresses on the list of things to maximize. You spend 1/3 of your life sleeping, after all, and the health benefits of a good night’s sleep are second to none.

      I love my 1000 thread count sheets and down comforter – both are almost 10 years old. Of course I bought them ridiculously cheap from Marshalls – buying quality doesn’t mean you must pay a ton.

  6. pachipres

    I really enjoyed this article. How do you find pots to last you a lifetime? We do alot of cooking in our home and our Lagastino only last about 5-7 years.

    • Sean Owen

      Cast iron essentially lasts forever if you take good care of it. My grandmother used her big cast iron skillet for 50+ years. My mom has it now. It’s inexpensive as well, and very versatile.

      Enameled cast iron, which is my personal favorite, is a bit more fragile, but will also last essentially forever if you use wooden utensils and don’t drop it or bang it against anything. I use a set of vintage Descoware from the ’60s that I picked up at Goodwill, believe it or not (filled out with some more recent Le Creuset pieces).

  7. This one is an eye opener for me, Sean.

    I’ve often read about the value of buying quality and I agree with it. Far better, for me anyway, to own fewer and better things. Yet….

    ….I am also drawn to buying what’s cheapest at times. For those things, that worked too.

    You’ve provided the framework to see this as complimentary rather than contradictory behavior. Thanks!

  8. Sreenath PG

    Fantastic article! This beautifully written article reminds me how much important is the application of common sense while shopping. Being a frequent shopper myself, I never cared for such little things which if applied to your spending habits, could save you lots of money. Anywise, I’m going to use the art of Min-Maxing in my daily life from now on wards. Thank you so much for the wonderful article, it inspired me a lot.

  9. FreeUrChains

    Interesting how in every generation, this knowledge of High Quality is lessened, only a few peasants/consumers know of these concepts today.

    Take a look at Rome – Medieval culture, and notice the Cast Iron Pots for making Stew that would last decades. The Tree Cut in Half Mills that use Stream water, Logs, Heavy Chains and Big Gears, to help build Log Houses. Iron ingots to Gold ingots used for Shields, Armor, Weapons, Jewerly, System parts, Forges, Etc.

    All High Quality that could be used for Centuries to Millenia, and could still be in use today!
    Granted a Plastic Gatorade 24oz Sports Bottle is cool (Free from trash bin or $3 at your Gas Station)for water transport versus a japanese hand carved Gourd Canteen(6,000 Yen, $40), or is it?

    I will take a ($200k+) 1890 Katanna over your ($2-$200) 2012 Knife anyday.

  10. Tails

    Great post. I’ve been thinking about this for some time after reading ERE/MMM. The concept can even be enhanced by carefully researching whether the item that is important to you is even worth purchasing. For example, trading a dozen cheap knives for a dozen quality ones is a waste if one learns that a chef’s knife and a paring knife can be used for most tasks. You mentioned that you have a set of cast iron cookware. Could you realistically get by with fewer pieces?

    This would result in greater savings. In other words, the actual expenditure is the same, over 30 years, if one trades 20 regular pots for 5 cast iron pieces. The beauty is when one realizes that he only needs two.

    The progression seems to be:
    –Standard: buy as much of everything as one has cash on hand, necessarily resulting in mostly sub-optimal purchases due to limited funds
    –Smart: buy as much of the best as one has cash on hand, still resulting in no cash after all purchases
    –ERE/MMM: minimize needs through education/self-sufficiency/sharing, only then buy the best

  11. Geo

    Great post!
    I think the same could be said of clothes! I will pay ANYTHING for clothing, since I buy it so infrequently but use it EVERY day. If you take care of your clothing they’ll last forever. I own a few pairs of $100 shoes and many designer shirts, jeans, etc… but, of course, I buy perhaps 1-2 pieces of clothing every 6 months. In fact, the purchases I regret aren’t the expensive ones, but instead the few mid-priced ones which sit unused in my closet until I eventually donate them to charity…

  12. Gerard

    Maybe I should apply this principle to my skill set, which would take me in a different direction than (say) MMM or Jacob ERE. Those guys have learned to do a whole bunch of things around the house, for example, so that they don’t need to call a plumber. And I sort of wish I was like them. On the other hand, I have only one toilet. How much do I really need to know? How many tools would it take to apply that knowledge? Maybe I’m better off spending time on the things I do well (my job, cooking, gardening) and settling for bare near-competency in the others.
    Or maybe I need a neighbour with plumbing skills…

  13. Bill

    Love the blog. Completely agree with everything you said with one exception.

    Highly doubtful you or anyone else for that matter can tell the difference between organic and nonorganic produce.

    Perhaps though you’ll notice 20 years down the road when you’re cancer free. Be careful though, if it hasn’t been substantiated, its very easy to wind up paying more out of fear for just about anything.

  14. JA

    Actually, Tide does clean better than most other detergents, and Tide Cold Water, which has been rated #1 or near it by CR, saves a ton of energy (surprisingly, heating laundry water consumes more energy than drying).

    The thing is that if you work in an office your clothes don’t get really dirty. You can use cheap detergent for routine washing and Tide Cold Water for really dirty items.

    • Lydia

      I was going to make the same comment. CR has reviewed laundry detergents, and the best detergents clean clothes vastly better. So in saving money buying cheap – but less effective – detergent you may end up spending money needlessly replacing the high-quality clothing you bought to avoid replacing cheap clothing. :)

      • Sean Owen

        Fair enough – I personally don’t notice a difference, even when I get down and dirty in the garden. Then again, I tend to wear darker colors, so maybe that’s the reason.

        If it makes a big difference for you, no worries – switch it over to the max column! The real point is to be conscious about it and not buy on autopilot. Your comment shows you’re plainly thinking it through, which is perfect.

  15. Renee Carmer

    I really enoyed this article How do you find pots to last you a lifetime? We do alot of cooking in our home an out lasagna only last about 5-7 years.

    • Sean Owen

      Cast iron – it’s pretty much impossible to wear it out if you take reasonable care of it.

  16. Interesting concept, I’ve always done the same basic thing myself but never had a name for the practice. For any tools (kitchen tools included) I ask myself if it’s the first or last time I will have to buy it, and if I can say yes to both it’s probably the right one for me.

  17. I can’t just imagine that there are lessons we can get from video games

  18. Allison

    Tried switching to the cheapo $1 laundry detergent…had a chemical contact dermatitis that lasted for weeks. Now I’m too scared to buy anything other than the super expensive sensitive skin hypoallergenic kind. Haha.

  19. Slinky

    This was very well put, and I liked that you pointed out that “the best” doesn’t have to equal new.

    I particularly like to apply this to trying new things. I think you should stick with borrow, rent, cheap as possible whenever you try something new. If you have to buy, get the most basic thing that meets your needs. Because really, you wouldn’t try something if you didn’t think you might like it, but we all try plenty of things we end up not really liking or maybe we even like doing but just never find the time for. So don’t spend on new stuff until it finds a place in your life. Then max it out and buy the most you think you will need. Although I do find middle of the road acceptable if the price is really good. And by that I mean, you could sell it for more than you paid later on when you want to upgrade.

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  1. By Min-Max Your Life | Rockstar Finance on September 26, 2013 at 8:18 pm

    [...] “A min-maxer tries to get the best results possible by putting maximum resources or effort into what’s most important, while investing as little as possible into things that don’t really matter.” – Renewable Wealth [...]

  2. [...] Min-Max Your Life @ Renewable Wealth [...]

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