How Do You Justify Your Spending?

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Ohana Nords just finished a three-week family vacation in Bangkok. As spending goes, it was the most frivolous blowout we’ve enjoyed in decades. When we roamed the city we saw vignettes of incredible luxury, scrappy entrepreneurialism, and abject poverty. It was a very interesting mirror that reflected our own attitudes toward using money or hoarding it– and the value we get from our spending.

My spouse and I have enjoyed financial independence for over a decade, and it’s worked out very well.  We should enjoy these types of vacations more often.  We know that we could build a huge collection of material luxuries. If we wanted more exotic experiences then we could afford a world cruise. However, our frugal habits were set early in our adult lives, and we keep “relapsing” to that behavior.

For example, submarine duty taught me how to live in a small tube with over a hundred of my closest friends. I slept in a three-person upper bunk on a 28″x72″ Naugahyde-covered foam pad, and the overhead was too low to sit up. I had storage space for about two seabags to last a 90-day patrol. I had to take care of my things or learn to live without them, because if they broke we might still be months away from a portcall.

My spouse spent the first three years of her Navy career in 1980s Spain and the Azores. Her apartment was warmed with a portable butane heater and an electric blanket. Water pressure was unreliable yet the Azores rain squalls frequently flooded out her apartment. Electric power regularly failed, so she stocked candles & flashlights and used a windup alarm clock to wake up for duty on time.

Our lives occasionally crossed the line from frugality to deprivation. However, we were busy learning how to do our jobs and didn’t have much free time, we had lots of friends to share our fun, and we were saving money. Life was good.

Today our adult daughter smirks at those sea stories. She thinks that when we parents were young we walked to school barefoot in the snow all year long (uphill both ways) and we were poorer than Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen. But we actually grew up in typical 1960s families with relative affluence. We graduated from a service academy to begin our adult lives with small car loans, ensign starter kits, and steady paychecks. We had great times with our friends & shipmates, we traveled all over Europe, and we have many fond memories of those first duty stations. However, our standard of living definitely took a big dip during those early career years, and we formed frugal habits that are surprisingly hard to change.

We still seem to need a purpose for our spending. Even our trip to Bangkok had a mission. For over 20 years the Navy helped us travel the world for free, but it was almost always for a reason. It was frequently in cramped military fuselages on webbed seats, and a charter flight on a civilian aircraft felt like getting away with a minor felony. Today we have the entertainment budget to go anywhere but we still find it psychologically hard to just hop on a plane for fun. We still feel as if we should be leading training or attending a conference and working for our liberty. In Bangkok we were running an offsite retreat: we enjoyed a few final weeks of quality family time before our daughter starts her own Navy career. We joked about showing her how to do safe overseas liberty without getting ripped off– and she put up with that for three weeks.

Our frugal habits reflect our mental attitudes. These attitudes aren’t simply a fear of losing our wealth and enduring our elder years on cat food. We know that we have “enough”. Instead, we feel the burden of stewardship and we try to squeeze the most out of every nickel that we spend. We still have a difficult time spending money unless we feel that we’ve earned the privilege. When we give ourselves permission to spend, the experience or the possession still seems way overblown compared to our memories of how we used to live.

Even today, both of us still pick up spare change off the sidewalk. (My spouse spent two years at one command doing daily runway FOD walkdowns. 30 years later, she can still spot a coin on the sidewalk at 10 paces.) Like Bill Gates stooping for a $100 bill, we’re wasting our time picking up pennies– but it pains us even more to just leave them lying there. The free money gives us a tiny high from the little jolt of endorphins.

In Bangkok, we continued this habit with quarter-baht coins. (The Thai economy must be doing very well– after a decade of Bangkok trips, this is the first time we regularly found money.) A quarter-baht coin is worth about 0.75 cents at today’s exchange rates, so we were working even harder for less. However, a quarter-baht coin goes a lot further in Bangkok than a penny goes in America.

I know that 100 baht buys me more street food than I can eat in one meal, so I felt extravagant by spending 350 baht for a restaurant buffet. But again I’m deciding between spending $3 versus $11 for a vacation experience… probably a waste of financial effort in America, let alone in Bangkok.

When we started our military careers, we were frugal by occupation and necessity. Today it’s a choice, yet we still live a green lifestyle and can’t stand to waste resources. We get a huge sense of satisfaction from our DIY handyman skills.

During one meal in Bangkok, the hotel restaurant had a problem with their buffet equipment. We watched a cluster of kitchen staff and waiters struggle with it. The maître d’ got involved, and then an exec was summoned. Eventually, a maintenance guy in coveralls and gear belt showed up, tweaked a few things with his tools, and all was well again. As the crowd dispersed, I realized that the person I really identified with wasn’t the service staff or the management or the leadership– it was the guy in coveralls who could fix things. I bet he has a really cool workshop, too.

In our luxurious Sukhumvit serviced apartment, we realized that big-city high-rise living in a rented air-conditioned box is not for us. We enjoy owning a home that blends with the environment, where we can feel closer to nature. We like ground-floor lanai doors that open to a yard full of wildlife. We like composting and vermiposting and fruit trees and flower gardens. We enjoy having solar water heating and a photovoltaic array to make our electricity. We like living lightly without wasting energy or water.

These days our guilty pleasure is hiring a housecleaner to do the dusting and vacuuming that we despise, but we even make ourselves work for that indulgence. While the house is being cleaned we’re tackling a home-improvement project or fixing a car or pruning & mowing the yard. We have the assets to do whatever we want, but we still feel compelled to earn it. Housecleaning may be a luxury, but we use that time to do the jobs which cost a lot more than cleaning a house. We’re working at least as hard as the housecleaner.

Our feelings about lifestyle and spending came to a head in Bangkok when we met a couple of other American visitors for drinks. They own a business and they’ve been financially independent for years. We proposed meeting at a local coffee shop, and they suggested the opulent lanai bar of a five-star hotel. We took the Skytrain and walked to the lobby, while they had a car & driver.

Along the way we passed a street vendor selling fresh-squeezed fruit juice for 20 baht. The hotel bar’s mango smoothie was 350 baht(!), and their featured drink was the bartender’s performance art in an insulated glass with dry ice. We wore walking shorts & t-shirts, while the other couple was dressed for a formal dinner. We chatted about everything we’d seen and done, while they described the thousands of dollars of fine art and silks that they’d bought for their luxury home. After our farewells, we dined on 100-baht street food on the walk back to our apartment. They spent hours (and tens of thousands of baht) on a multi-course meal in the hotel dining room.

We all had a good time in our own ways, but their life is not for us. We each have more than enough wealth to live the way we want for the rest of our lives, and we all enjoyed ourselves with our activities and purchases. My spouse and I could learn to be more comfortable with spending money. However, we seem to have aligned our spending with our values, and we enjoy the small challenges of living a frugal, green life.

What about you? Do you feel comfortable spending money? How do you align your spending with your values?

Related articles:
Lifestyles In Retirement: Bangkok
Lifestyles in early retirement: long-term travel
How many years does it take to reach financial independence?
Frugal living is not deprivation
Frugality after financial independence
Do you really need $2M to retire?!?
Do you have affluenza?
Book review: “All The Money In The World”
During retirement: take small financial steps (part 2 of 2)
Retirement finances: what will I spend?
Extreme home improvement: DIY photovoltaic array
Save money by fixing your own plumbing
Lessons learned from DIY home improvement
DIY home maintenance



WHAT I DO: I help you reach financial independence. For free. I retired in 2002 after 20 years in the Navy's submarine force. I wrote "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" to share the stories of over 50 other financially independent servicemembers, veterans, and families. All of my writing revenue is donated to military-friendly charities.

10 Comments
  1. Nords,

    Every time I read your columns, I smile. Your writing embodies quietly and lightly enjoying retirement and financial independence with a deep acceptance of your roots and experiences. Thank you for your thoughts.

    aj_yooper

  2. Doug,

    I fully understand where you are coming from in this post. Two years ago, I agreed to go on a safari with a girlfriend (our respective husbands are not interested). My lifestyle and views about money have changed significantly since then and now I think of everything I can do with $10K as opposed to living in the lap of 5-star luxury for a few weeks. I am still going on the trip this coming summer, and will enjoy it fully – it should be amazing, but I know that this will be the last trip I take that requires such a budget for a mere 2-week stint.

    For my husband and I, $10K now represents at least 5 vacations for the two of us! Airfare is always the biggest chunk of our travel expenses. When on site, we live like the folks of the region and are most certainly not the “touristy” types. We find we learn more about culture and associated customs and have more genuine experiences (pleasant surprises are the best).

    Thailand is definitely on our list. I appreciated the opportunity to live vicariously through you…for the time being.

  3. Excellent post, Doug. Interestingly, my husband and I are there, too. We just did a week long skit trip to Whistler, Canada, the first week of January. We did it after New Years and Christmas to save money and avoid the crowds. After we tallied the expenses, we realized it was one of our more expensive trips we’ve taken and decided it didn’t have the value of some of the more cheaper yet interesting experience trips we’ve taken in the past. We like hiking, skiing and exploring different countries and cultures, but we prefer it with backpacks and Motel-6 or one step above hotels. We think we shouldn’t be in the room much anyhow – a good bed and shower is the all we really need.

    Our few cruises have been with inside cabins and our own ground excursions….have saved up to 75-90% on those offered by the cruise company. BUT, we really live for the port days…weird. And, we don’t buy the drink packages, no gambling, and try to win the little games they have for prizes (sweatshirts and other swag).

    With regard to home lifestyle expenses…well, we have solar electricity as well – doesn’t cover all of our costs, but definitely puts a big dent in it. We’ve got a small raised garden for tomatoes, pepper and squash, three mini-citrus trees and low maintenance yard….love it. We don’t eat out much, cook at home and really are looking for value when eating out – i.e. great tasting food for a good price. Clothes – we love Sierra Trading Post…and their 75% off sales – plus those clothes are our style – outdoor or workout or casual. Even my ski clothes were uber cheap. My price level for most things is *very* low…..and most times I am able to get what I want for the price I was willing to pay – just need patience and a willingness to defer the gratification. Even with our hobbies, I don’t buy anything without a coupon or sale.

    And yet, if one were to look at our net worth they would wonder why we do it. It’s habit by now and yes, the thrill of the hunt of a bargain or personal satisfaction fixing something myself make it all worthwhile. It’s the mental disposition that got us here – it’s ingrained and hard to let go. And I believe that in order to stay where we are we need to keep the same habits and activities. Why change what has worked for us and has historically worked for most in this position?

    • Thanks, Deserat!

      We seem to have tapped into a common sentiment: even after reaching financial independence, there’s no reason to change the habits which led to that success. And once you retire, you have even more time & flexibility to practice those habits.

  4. Nords,

    I admire the time you have for reflection stepping back and really analyzing things from different angles. After reading your post several times I began to think about how I view money. It is really kind of strange when I step back and think about it. For me it tends to lose meaning when I have more than I need. However not having it makes me nervous. I would like to think that I try to squeeze every ounce of benefit from every dollar spent but in reality I don’t even come close. I am FI and just going along for now doing what I want to do how I want to do it.

    Take for example shelter. Some of the best times of my life were when CINC house and I were just starting out. We had little but made do in our 1 bedroom apt. Rent was less than I will spend on a weekend in the summer out with the family. Quality of lodging today is far more than it was then and I remember those days fondly. However sometimes to think about going back to those days I say to myself I could if I had too but am not interested at this time. Last weekend we were out looking at homes. Reason? To be closer to the kids school. I can make that happen for another $250K above the equity in my home but to think about building a new house with all the BS that comes with it makes me sick. CINC house came to the same realization a couple of days ago when she was out looking at resale homes. We are just not interested and will continue to gripe about the drive back and forth for the next few years. The value is not there.

    This past Christmas I took the family on cruise. Not a very good time to go as it was 7 times more expensive Christmas week than the week before or after however I was working around school break and the kids are growing up fast. While I was conscious of what I was spending I really did not try and curtail it. First time I have done that. And while I averaged $1K per day I must admit I had several thoughts of am I getting greater marginal satisfaction than when I spend much less on vacation. My answer was inconclusive. I still would rather fly Southwest, check in online 24 hrs earlier so I get a decent place in line vs shelling out the money for an Economy plus seat on United. And to think about purchasing business class seating for leisure I am not there yet. Of course Space A would be my preference anytime I can get it as I know what I am getting end of story. In fact I buy gift cards with one of my credit cards so I can get the FF miles so I don’t have to pay full fare on tickets. I figure I fly one way with an Avg cost of $50 using this method. Irrational or Rational? Depends I guess.

    Cars? Can afford new ones but the ones we have with over 125K and 200K miles fit us fine. I dread the purchase of another one due to the hassle factor.
    While I do like the occasional Martini at the 5 star Hotel lounge I really enjoy the beer from the Red Solo Cup. Not much of a handy man as my comparative advantage is in other areas piling up green waste. And I don’t even know why I am doing that.

    We are still not at a place in life to where we can take lengthy trips however once kiddos are launched I foresee extended travel to different parts of the world. As for accommodations I guess time will tell. We are taking a trial run this spring renting a place in AZ for a month. Going to watch more baseball games than I care too and enjoy the family then bike week.

    • Good to hear from you, Ben! One day you’ll have more of that reflection time too– especially during spring in Arizona.

      Our frugal habits seem to be a way to reassure ourselves that we’ll always have “enough”.

  5. Doug,
    I see a lot of my wife and I, also dual military couples, in the way you described you and your wife’s values when it comes to wealth and money. I also think that once you get used to living within your means and sometimes an existence bordering on deprivation, any extravagance seems like a wasteful use of good money that can be allocated towards something more sensible. We are quite deliberate when having to spend money for fairly large purchases and often times talked ourselves out of the purchase, reasoning that it wasn’t a need and we can still make do with what we have. I initially thought about purchasing a new Corvette upon my retirement from the Army (thinking I deserved it after lusting for one ever since I was a single man)…only to talk myself out of it as not being practical despite having the means to pay for it in cash.

    This reminds me of the 7 characteristics of the wealthy (especially the first three) according to the book “The Millionaire Next Door” (Stanley and Danko):
    – Live well below their means
    – Allocate time, energy, and money efficiently
    – Believe financial independence is more important than displaying high social status (“big hat, no cattle”)
    – Parents did not provide “economic outpatient care”
    – Adult children are economically self-sufficient
    – Proficient at targeting market opportunities
    – Chose the right occupation

    Now that we have achieved financial independence, we are slowly considering and accepting some splurges in our lives (mainly trips or new experiences, instead of possessions) and hope to feel more comfortable with it moving forward.

    Thanks for making me realize that we are not alone in our “frugal” and sensible ways, despite our financial independence.

    Comment? Question? What's on your mind?