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