Adding Via Subtraction (Crazy Math)

People usually think of using money to buy happiness, but what about using it to subtract the negativity in your life?

Recently we purchased a king size bed. For reasons that are lost to me now, I resisted the upgrade. It probably had to do with costing too much money or “why should we replace a perfectly good queen size mattress”, etc. Obviously I was wrong. This thing is a game changer.

More importantly, it reminded me how effective it can be using dollars to subtract the negatives in your life rather than spending dollars to add positive things. In fact, I’d say that’s the single greatest use of money and a guaranteed happiness return: use money to remove something you don’t like. Instantly, things get better and your happiness increases.

Let me explain.

I don’t own a yacht. Never once in my life have I walked through a day complaining because of a lack of a yacht. The same could be true for countless other things. Would it be cool to fly a drone around and make incredible videos from a camera hovering high above the buildings? Absolutely, but again – I didn’t skip to work today thinking my life lacked purpose and meaning because I didn’t have a drone.

Yet, I make this mistake all the time. I think that some new addition to my life will bring additional happiness. In a few rare occasions this is true. I own a few things that give me great pleasure. Most of the time the happiness associated with these purchases fade over time. It’s the inevitable hedonic adaptation at play. What is new and shiny today soon becomes old and familiar. If you get on the hedonic treadmill, there are no amount of things that can bring you happiness because you always want more.

I doubt this is a huge insight to many of you. We all have experiences of buying things, being happy for a bit, and then quickly returning to our initial level of happiness. If you’re reading this blog, at the very least you’re questioning your spending anyway and wondering if there’s a better use for your money.

But I’m not sure as many people think about using money to subtract things from your life. This is particularly awesome when you remove items, tasks or chores that cause negative feelings. For example, I hate cleaning bathrooms. Of course I could do it myself and save even more money, but no amount of saving money is going to make me enjoy the process. The solution is obviously to hire someone to clean the house. For a relatively small amount of money, we completely remove a chore that brings us no pleasure and we’ve never once argued about who should clean the bathroom.

Getting back to the mattress purchase, somehow I failed to realize (for years probably) that there were some negative things about the queen mattress. I did wake up pretty often thinking I could have slept better. After all, the mattress was over 10 years old and had probably served its useful life. I’m not sure this happened every day but now that it no longer happens at all, it’s pretty clear that the cost of the mattress hardly compares to the fact that I no longer think about the mattress (except for writing this post of course).

The whole experience got me thinking about other ways to use money to remove negatives. Of course you have to be careful here, as removing a negative isn’t the same as paying extra for convenience.

The basic test is this: it’s convenient that at the push of a button I can order any type of food at any time of day and have it delivered to me. But if I didn’t do that, I wouldn’t walk around thinking that my life sucked.

Getting a new mattress isn’t convenient. It’s simply paying extra money for something of quality that replaces a previous negative experience.

I’m pretty convinced that the most efficient use of a dollar is to spend it removing something negative from your life, rather than trying to add something positive. Eventually you’ll run out of negative things to remove. At that point, you’ve reached near optimal spending as dollars spent chasing additional happiness will only get you so far before you quickly adapt and need new stuff to replace the old stuff.

Joshua Holt is a former private equity M&A lawyer and the creator of Biglaw Investor. Josh couldn’t find a place where lawyers were talking about money, so he created it himself. He convinces the student loan refinancing companies to give you cashback bonuses for refinancing your student loans and looks forward to you discovering how easy it is to track your net worth with a free tool like Empower.

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    Sixteen thoughts on Adding Via Subtraction (Crazy Math)

    1. Nice post. I think buying a new computer or phone when it gets slow is a good example. The amount of time you save with a fast computer versus an old, slow
      computer is worth the extra cost, especially given how much time we spend on the computer. Even something as simple as adding extra RAM to an existing computer can make a huge difference.

      1. That is a good example, although I maybe I especially think so because my 5-year old desktop is starting to show some signs of aging. It’s true though that having the right tool makes any job incredibly easier and is often worth the cost (again, by removing a negative).

        1. I Am dealing w a slow computer these days and it is exhausting…soon enough it will be replaced.

          Have a house cleaner but just fired the lawn mower person bc I kind of like doing that.

    2. I LOVED this. This thought process is something I follow often. I don’t like spend excess amounts of money on anything, but if it adds value, frees up time or generally just makes me happy – I’ll do it. The above example is a good one and similar to your mattress example. I recently purchased a new laptop. I got a Microsoft Surface Pro 4. I hadn’t purchased a new computer since 2008 and I was tired of how slow it was and how little space was left. I was constantly waiting on it or deleting old files so I can add new ones. It was a pain.

      So I purchased a new laptop. I ended up getting a refurbished one in a bundle that ended up saving about $500 off the price of a new one and I’m 100% happy with the purchase because it’s so easy to lug around and use.

      1. It’s funny how often a tech purchase makes a real difference in your quality of life. While there are some people that upgrade every cycle, there are others that wait 4, 5 or even 10 years to buy a new computer. For something that you use every day, it strikes me as one of the most efficient uses of a dollar.

    3. We forget, because it’s not obvious, that all these little annoyances sap away our willpower. It’s invisible but it happens and when it does, we don’t even know it. At the end of the day, after all of these things pile up, we can’t point to any one particular thing but our quality of life diminishes. When you can spend a little bit of money to remove some headaches, it’s amazing how much better life is.

      1. Wise words Jim. And you’re right that it doesn’t even have to cost a lot of money. The tricky part is identifying those particular things that sap our quality of life.

    4. Oil changes and brake replacements

      I’ve always done oil changes myself. I’ve also always changed the brakes myself.

      It’s easy and I know how to do it.

      But it takes time and it’s annoying to fit it into my day or weekend.

      I’ve recently started paying for oil changes and brake replacements and I then use that time to read or work on something else I really want to while the mechanic takes care of things.

      I always thought I was being wise but I must say I really enjoy not having to deal with that anymore 🙂

      1. Back when I used to own a car, I occasionally changed the oil myself. It was one of the things I was first to outsource. I wouldn’t even know if I could do it nowadays – presumably cars have changed so much that it’s hard for an individual to do! Sounds like you’ve come up with a pretty great way to remove a negative.

        1. Yeah man. Cars have changed a ton! Even changing the oil on my truck (2001) is different than my wife’s 2009.

          Anything from 2017 has changed massively.

          I love this removing negative idea though. I need to think about what else I might can remove 🙂

    5. We’ve hated our kitchen for the past 4+ years in our house… It didn’t have enough storage, the counters and backsplash was from the 80s, it was to small and didn’t flow well. For people who cook constantly this was a huge negative. We remodeled our kitchen and solved all of our problems and we are extremely happy with the purchase and will continue to be for the duration of our time in the house (which now seems to be indefinitely compared to what we were planning with the old kitchen)

      1. That makes sense – why move houses after you’ve spent the time and effort to fix up the kitchen! Sounds like you’ve got a good thing going. It goes to show that sometimes a situation that might seem 100% bad isn’t all that bad – it just needs one or two tweaks to make a big difference (in your case, a new kitchen).

    6. Sometimes it’s just as good to fix the things you have and that can be a case of removing the bad.

      Example: We’ve had a small pop-up travel trailer for about a decade and there have been some problems with it and things needing fixing. It had led me to start looking at craigslist and start thinking about upgrading to something different now that i “have more money” and our family is growing.

      Instead, we ended up spending about $250 to fox the things that were wrong with it and all of a sudden, it’s great to use again. Spending $250 to remove the annoying things saved me from the impulse purchase of $15,000 to get a trailer that didn’t have those “problems”. The irony is that the new trailer would have broke also!

    7. I like this framing. When my wife and I were both working we had a cleaning service, and it was the best $100 we spent for the week. When our time was scarce, removing the several hours it would take to clean the house was a huge positive. When more time opened up, we got rid of the service, as it was now much less painful of a process.

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