Empty Decks and Misguided Frugality

Empty DeckI started my new job this week, but between gigs, I was unemployed for about two weeks. It was truly a glorious time. I got to spend all day with the wife and baby. I love going on walks with the baby, both in the stroller and carrying her. I like explaining trees, sidewalks, grass, birds, clouds, and a million other things that you won’t see indoors. The mental stimuli is good for her brain. She likes to reach and grab for leaves, and she laughs when gusts of wind hit her face. Just being outdoors tends to wear her out and within an hour and she will drop her head onto my shoulder. It’s good for me, too, as I like the exercise and fresh air.

It felt amazing. Walking around on weekdays with the family. It felt like stolen time. Who agreed that the standard 8-5 work day has to coincide with the best hours in the day? By the time folks started filtering into their driveways around 6 pm, the best weather was behind us. These slaves show up just as the sun starts drifting behind the rooftops and warm breezes gave way to cool stillness. How could all these people totally miss out on these beautiful days? I felt bad for them. But, only until I realized that that is exactly the life I’d be going back in not too distant future.

The Last Man On Earth?

Over the two weeks, I probably walked the baby around a half-dozen times—the weather cooperated. We would walk during the afternoons and early evenings, when the spring days were at their warmest. I like looking at other people’s homes, patios, decks and landscaping to get ideas on what we could do for our own home. I noticed a lot of people in our neighborhood have really nice decks. We live in a nice suburban planned community and I must have seen two hundred nice decks and patios. Complete with high-end grills, beautiful furniture, custom masonry, and never-wear TREX decking—definitely very nice stuff ($30k here, $30k there). However, one thing was noticeably absent from each and every one of these decks….people.

Of course, Eric, there’s nobody actually around to enjoy the fruits of their labor, to relax on their deck with a beer, some music, a hot grill, and kids in the yard—those tranquil moments are reserved for Memorial Day, July 4th, and the occasional Saturday evening. Even when we would venture out in the weekday evenings, though, I still never saw anyone on their deck. I’m guessing “relax on deck” just isn’t a high-numbered priority for the few waking hours available after a hard day’s work. That is really unfortunate.

Two Men and Their Grills

All the credit card offers and whatnot that built up at our abandoned Virginia mailbox had been accumulating to the point absurdity. Being out of the workplace, I didn’t have a handy document shredder available to me. I had originally put all of this stuff in a plastic bag in our entry way, intending on bringing it to the office when I started my new job. I realized, though, that I didn’t want to ask on my first day:

“Hey there. I’m Eric. I’m looking forward to working with you.”

“Nice to meet you, Eric. What’s that you’ve got there?”

“Oh, this plastic grocery bag I’ve been carrying around all morning?….Yeah, about that. Any chance you have a document shredder nearby so I can unload this massive amount of personal mail?”

So, like any resourceful person, I instead burned each piece one-by-one in our charcoal grill. It was therapeutic. I saw one of my neighbors not too far away, and walked over to his lawn. He was grilling food, rather than mail, and we got to talking about where I’ve been for the past year, lawn care, kids, cable & internet, money, and I’m pretty sure at some point we got on a tangent about the unrest in the middle east.

Anyhow, he was gracious enough to invite me over for some of what he was cooking up. I took him up on it and brought the baby over for some good conversation. We got into the topic of money and careers, and I mentioned my intent on some very early retirement. That (barring some terrible economic collapse) I’ll be retiring in 2019 at the age of 34. They were pretty stunned by this, given that we have one kid and are hopefully going on to four (God willing). And, that we would accomplish this on just my income. They asked me how I was going to do this, and I gave them a brief overview on the virtues of dividend growth investing, tax avoidance, side hustling, and optimizing expenses (basically the tenets of my big plan). I told them, though, that the most important thing is expenses. That nothing has as dramatic of an effect on financial independence than reducing expenses. The man’s wife then said, “I feel like we already don’t spend anything.” I didn’t say anything at the time—this was their house after all—but I saw a big issue with this statement.

Misguided Frugality

In my short conversation and observations both outside and inside with this family, I tallied up the following:

“Lawn Guy” – $100/mo (conservative estimate)
1GB Internet and Premium Cable – $220/mo
Home Security – $30/mo
Second Gym Membership – $50/mo (We have a gym in our community center that we pay for already)

So, here’s $400/mo that is structured into their lives that seems unnecessary. Over 10 years at 8% interest this adds up to about $75,000. And, obviously, this doesn’t include the many things I cannot see. But, I would guess (given the precedence) they are overpaying or overbuying on cell phone plans, home/car insurance, energy efficiency, and transportation. Finally, I saw a product that might be the peak of consumerism, a “Brushed Nickle Electronic Salt & Pepper Grinder with LED Lights.” Really?

This is not meant to be a mandate on their lifestyle, they can obviously afford to live this way (we could not), so more power to them. But, I thought it was startling that they believed they thought, by their own admission, that they “don’t’ spend anything.”

The Solution?

I can understand why they feel they don’t spend anything. Most of their expenses are of the “structured” variety. They aren’t going to the store every month and buying their HBO subscription or gym membership. You sign up once and it kills your soul every month into perpetuity. Newton’s law of inertia tells you that you’ll just keep on spending along this path because it is difficult to change (how long does it take to cancel Comcast, three hours on hold?).

Our family isn’t immune to this. We are slowly but fervently trying to claw our way out of a lot of structured expenses. Our luxury cars (and associated property taxes and insurance) kill us every month. We ended our cable, have subletted our Manhattan apartment, are energy-efficientizing our home, and switched to RingPlus phone plans. These changes took time, money and effort, but they’ll be worth it. Over the next few months, our expenses will drop from ~$9k/mo to ~$5.5k/mo. After our cars are downsized and we continue to improve in other areas, that will fall by another $500-$1,000.

Expense reduction and optimization isn’t about avoiding the daily Starbucks or always flying out on a Tuesday. Those things help, for sure, but you need to look at expenses the same way you look at saving (a penny saved is a penny earned, right?). Most financial gurus, and me, advise people to “making saving automatic” and to create streams of passive income. Expenses are no different. “Remove/reduce automatic expenses,” meaning, cut out those expenses that hit you like a punch in a dark room. Take the action today to create streams of “passive expense optimization.” I shop around for car and home insurance every time I renew (six months or annually). I recently paid a $320 early termination fee for DirecTV, but that will save me over $2,000 over the rest of our contract. I bought a dozen LED lights today for our kitchen and hallways—a $120 expense that will save $120/yr for a decade or more.

You don’t need to do it all today, but every month take a look at your expenses and identify those that, like I said, hit you automatically, where there is no point-of-sale. That’s where you can cut some serious fat and create great wealth over time.

Eric

21 Comments

  1. The empty deck phenomenon is so true! I like the “passive expense optimization” idea. I’ve been calling it “mindless austerity” for personal finance. Cut those auto expenses you don’t need, and find ways to save on those you do. We also use this for every day products like diapers, wipes, cleaning supplies, and toilet paper using Amazon and Target subscription discount programs. This way we get a discount and don’t have to go shopping, which cuts out a lot of opportunity for impulse spending.

    • Mindless Austerity! I like that. It’s exactly what it is. Making a choice at every point-of-sale to be frugal would be way too hard for me. Far easier, and more impactful, is just auto-piloting the whole process with one decision at the outset. Thanks so much for stopping by!

  2. Great article. I have the same “empty deck” observation when I go past a marina or airport. Hundreds of boats and planes sitting there depreciating and not being used. I have always thought about the tremendous waste in money and lost “personal enjoyment quotient” going on every day of sunny weather.

    • Oh Man, Walter, that’s so true! I didn’t even think about it, but boats especially. The allure is certainly there, but I wonder what the “per use” cost of those boats are. I’d much rather have a paddleboat with the time to use it than a yacht that sits idle. Thanks for the insight and for stopping by and commenting.

      Eric

  3. If you weren’t in a different state, I’d think you were talking to some of my co-workers. It’s like you pointed out, recurring structured charges just become accepted as “needed bills.” Most people don’t try to reduce bills, but rather accept, “Man, living nowadays is expensive!” I got fed up with our alarm fee, and called to complain and I got the monthly charge cut in half.
    We cut out unnecessary things and have gotten our household mostly streamlined. The things that we know are not streamlined are at least recognized. We accept some as “ok for now” and we know they’ll get trimmed in the future when we hit our FIRE date and set that into motion. Being vigilant about mindless spending and waste really pays off in the long run.

    • Mr. SSC,
      Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I hear you, and in fact, I just wrote a post today about the very concept of the impact of recurring expenses. I hope you might read it.

      It really is crazy how expenses are so often taken as a given. When I watch Suze Orman’s “Can I Afford It,” people always say, “I Make $8,000 a month, My expenses at $7,400 a month, can I buy a car?” She’ll answer yes or no, but she’ll completely ignore the $7,400–like this amount is some ordained value and cannot be touched. Very annoying.

      Well, thanks for reading. I’ve been to your blog many times, you write good stuff.

      Eric

  4. “Finally, I saw a product that might be the peak of consumerism, a “Brushed Nickle Electronic Salt & Pepper Grinder with LED Lights.” Really?”

    Haha, we actually have one of these (but in stainless steel). They are awesome! The light is however only useful when you dining with candle light. We got it as a gift though, I would not have paid the money to have one.

    Good article, liked it. We took 10 weeks of combined parental leave, it was great and I recognize that feeling of freedom and enjoyment of the day. That is what triggered our goal of FIRE.

    Cheers, Mr. FSF

    • Getting a wake-up call via parental leave is as good as any other way of realizing how much life we’re missing being at a job all day.

      And about the Salt & Pepper Grinder, I suppose if it was a gift it’s a different story–it’s still a classic “Skymall” item, though.

      Thanks for commenting.

      Eric

  5. Great realization!

    Unfortunately I was one of those ’empty deckers’ though I’m trying to remedy that. Years before setting our early retirement goals I bought our home with a gorgeous desert view, in-ground pool and gas fire-pit. The perfect backyard (complete overkill)! Family and friends have commented how it’s just a like resort. And they’re more right then they know since I only used it occasionally (like I would going to a resort).

    Now that our plans involve moving northward in a few years and simplifying radically I am using the space every second I get. I have it. I will use it and enjoy it while I can. Future plan: only own and have what I truly enjoy EVERY DAY.

    • Absolutely! There’s nothing wrong with nice things, as long as those are things you care about. Good luck on your life simplification, it’s a long journey for us.

  6. Great observations! I notice that in my neighborhood too, its very interesting to see all this money allocated to enjoying the outdoors in your own backyard but how many people actually enjoy the space they spent thousands creating?

    • To answer your question, “very few.” It happened again these past two nights. On Wednesday, I took the baby out for a 90-minute walk–glorious 72 degree evening. Not a soul on their decks. Two men were in their yards, and another couple I saw walking their dogs, but that’s pathetically few for the two hundred or so houses we passed. I’m sure there are worthwhile things to do inside, but c’mon, it’s daylight!

      Eric

  7. Such a good point and observation about the empty decks! People get wrapped up in a cycle of slaving away to pay for fancy things and then they have no time to enjoy those things! Once we’re finally clear of snow here in Minnesota, I’ll be putting my gazebo up for the summer and you’ll find me out there plenty! Writing and reading while the dog plays in the yard.

  8. Great post. Automatic spending is a hidden danger if your trying to cut your expenses. We still keep cable (I love college sports) and I find a house cleaner money well spent. However those are expenses I’ve put real thought into. We’ve cut any similar items that weren’t providing real value in our lives.

    • We still use a house cleaner. It used to be every month, but since we got on this early retirement trip, we’ve scaled it back to about twice a year. It fees good to get a deep cleaning every once in a while.

      Nothing wrong with spending money (even on cable), so long as it’s deliberate and conscientious.

      Eric

  9. Great points, a lot of these structured or fixed monthly expenses are why people’s monthly expenses are so high. It’s definitely possible to cut down on some of these items.

    • Absolutely, and it’s not just the fact that they’re monthly, but that they’re so passive. People pay them without thinking, which means they’re not critical of the cost and value they’re getting.

      Eric

  10. I’m looking at every expense we have and trying to figure out how to lower our expenses. Our biggest culprit is eating out and purchases at grocery stores….so basically food. I don’t know how to lower it. I think the biggest challenge I have is my husband. He’s pretty good, but he knows we have a healthy income, so he doesn’t think about every purchase. Plus, he doesn’t really pay attention to the numbers. I’m slowly educating him, he’s stopped buying energy drinks at a gas station…well it’s down to once a week. Instead he is making coffee at home. And he’s finally dropped his gym membership that he never went to. Or worse when he did, it’s 30 minutes away, so gym + gas + wear on car.

    For our next policy, I have decided to lower our car insurance from full coverage to liability, I’m also going to look at increasing deductible from $500 to $1000. I’m going to look at home insurance too, to see if increasing deductible, decreases annual premium. This next half of the year is going to be reviewing our expenses and really tightening the belt because we are not saving as much money as we used to.

  11. This is so true especially here in my area. So many folks go to work to earn a salary to buy nice stuff that they hardly use because their working most days. I have a family member who works her but off to have a new car every four years, a nice home, an awesome grill and etc. I asked her when is she going to have a get together and break in the new grill and her reply is I don’t know been busy working. Heck we hardly see her cause she is so busy paying for this stuff. This is not the way to live life. I for one live a simple life and save for my future. We have given up many things others believe to be necessities. Stuff like cable TV, we buy used cars with cash, and etc. This allows us to save and cash flow school for my wife. And you know what were spending time with each other, working less and enjoying our family and friends more.
    Michael Mota @ NTPNW recently posted…Teach your kids how to handle finances as soon as possible!My Profile

    • Michael,
      Thanks so much for the thoughtful comment and the great story. As a society, I fully believe that we are trained to need. We’ve replaced “want” with “need” in so many areas of our lives. If you tell somebody about dropping cable TV, doing a bit of walking or biking, changing phone plans, or similar, that tends to be viewed as “extreme.” I suppose cord-cutting is getting a bit more mainstream, which is great, but so many other things are seen as necessities which are really just frivolities.

      Eric

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