As I was furiously scribbling numbers (more on that later), I had occasion to consider the extreme cost of most vices. We all have one. People who claim not to are lying (or annoyingly perfect and who wants to hang out with those people?).
When live frugally, you quickly learn that almost any hack will add up quickly. Whether you save money by reusing Ziploc bags or simply buy an answering machine and nix the voice mail, the savings accumulate with surprising speed.
The thing about bad habits, though, is that they add up quickly in the negative column. Perhaps you enjoy a beer or two after a hard day at the office. Or go out to lunch semi-weekly with coworkers. Maybe you’re at the movies each weekend to see the latest flick. We all have habits that cost us.
And who’s to say that it’s a bad thing? A smart frugalist is one who knows that a small indulgence or two keeps us sane the rest of the time. So, while you ruthlessly slash your expenses, it’s always a good idea to set aside a little money for fun.
So, what’s the difference between a habit/indulgence and a vice?
Perspective, for one. My satellite TV has certainly struck some as unnecessary. But, then, most of those people are very healthy. That means they have more active social lives, because they can reliably leave the house. They can turn off the TV and go for hikes or other outdoorsy things that rapidly fatigue me. They are happy to curl up with a book after work or over the weekend. But they forget that I’ve got 8-12 hours to fill every single day. Oh, except for weekends. Then I have 12-16 hours. Considering I can rarely be out and about for more than 2-3 hours at a time (on a good day), that’s too much reading, even for me. And I’m rarely without a book for more than a day or two.
But that’s not enough of a distinction. We’ve talked in the past about needs versus luxuries. (And the in-between luxureeds.)
So how is an indulgence different from a vice? Well, for me, it’s about choice. You can choose to indulge in a weekly chocolate bar or a night out with friends. But if you consistently go over budget, or if a large amount of your money goes to one specific habit, you have to at least ask yourself whether it’s a vice. A high-end gym membership, for example, could drain the coffers, but it’d be a stretch to consider it a vice. Indulgence, sure. Unnecessary, probably. But not a vice.
All that (finally) brings me around to my own example: Tim’s smoking. It got worse toward the end of our time in Seattle. Even before the move preparations began, he was going over his 5-a-day goal. A lot of it had to do with having a smoking buddy.
Rather than have a solitary cigarette and then come back to the apartment, Tim scheduled his smokes with the friend. Then they could sit around and shoot the breeze — while polluting the breeze. (Guess you don’t have to wonder where I stand on the smoking issue.)
It wasn’t much better while we visited his friends and family. He could smoke in the house, and most of his friends smoked. When we got here, though, I had hoped he could refocus on quitting. We agreed that 7 was a better place to start than 5, given the uptick in his nicotine habit.
Then Tim made friends here in the complex. And how did he make friends? Why, being out smoking, of course! You can imagine how thrilled I was about that.
Don’t get me wrong: The main guy, Joe, is very cool. But he’s also a smoker. So he and Tim smoke socially. And now that we have a patio, Tim has taken to sitting outside to smoke, while still watching TV. (A habit I’ve been trying to persuade him to knock the hell off.)
The point of all this is that I’m very distressed by Tim’s smoking level. That 7 a day? He’s hit it once. To be fair, he was under the mark with only 6. But I should add he was up for a whopping 7.5 hours. (Insomnia had kept him up the night before.)
So, what’s a gal to do? I’ve tried asking nicely. I’ve tried using logic. I’ve gone the less pleasant routes of lecturing, yelling and even guilt, since I worry a lot about his health. (Let’s not forget he has very severe asthma.)
And before you start in on me, I know none of that will really work until Tim wants to quit. Which he does, intermittently. The thing about someone with severe ADD… Some of his convictions only last until he’s distracted.
The newest plan was for him to mark down each cigarette he smokes. And each one over 7, he’s started marking in red — his idea. That’s been going on for 4 or 5 days now. Each day he’s hit 12 or more. This morning I woke up and saw 15 tick marks. And just got angry.
I’ve tried every conceivable means to get him to focus on quitting. But as soon as he wants one, it’s uncontrollable. (Yes, I’m also trying to get him to take his Adderall regularly, which should help with some of the impulse-control issues.) And in case you’re wondering why I can’t just let it be… Well, there’s the health thing. His family has a history of cancer to begin with. Plus he has very severe asthma. Two excellent reasons right there. And those are the ones that tend to worry me.
But this is a frugality blog and, let’s be honest, I’m something of a miser. Combine that with being a staunch non-smoker and you can imagine how painful it is for me to see $6-7 dings on our bank account, each one for a pack of cigarettes. We couldn’t really afford it back in Seattle. And now that we have to pay off the move, it’s even more urgent that he find a way to quit.
So I thought maybe I should remind him of that. Remind him that every cigarette he has is expensive. It’s money down the drain (or, at least, down his lungs). Nothing else has worked. Why not try appealing to his newfound sense of thrift? I sat down and wrote out the cost of 15 cigarettes and slipped it under the cellophane of his pack.
Even based on a carton from Sam’s Club, the numbers are pretty sickening: $4.45 a day, $31.13 a week, $133.43 a month, and a whopping $1623.34 a year. Yet another way that cigarettes make me want to throw up.
I accidentally woke him up while trying to find the pack of cigarettes, and he was not terribly thrilled about the idea. Can’t say as I blame him, but I figure visual reinforcement is one of the only ways to go right now. We had a small argument, mainly consisting of him telling me to just do whatever. I did, and then stomped back out here.
Then I remembered that he’s not the only one with a vice. I have an unhealthy (literally) love of junk food. It’s not good for me on a few counts, but especially because I am hypoglycemic. Nothing sends your blood sugar levels rollercoastering like some high fructose corn syrup. Not to mention the fact that I would be a lot healthier — and have more energy — if I shed 20 lbs.
So I did my own math. It was harder to quantify. I go through phases of specific items, and there are weeks when I don’t buy much at all. (Okay, they’re rare but they do happen!) Still, I went ahead and threw in the number of $10 per week. And I wrote out my own list, and clipped it to the freezer: “$1.43 a day, $10 a week, $42 a month, $521.43 a year; realistically? probably $800+ a year!!!!”
It’s sobering, to be sure. Even if the real amount is “just” $500… That means there was an extra $1,500 that could have gone to debt over the last 3 years. To spend so much on something that hurts my body… It’s incredible. It’s embarrassing. And, at least, it gives me a slightly better insight to Tim’s situation.
That said, he still needs to quit. I just need to be there, along with him, paring down my own excesses. I don’t want the cost of our vices to remain yet another roadblock to debt reduction.