When you are building your life, you have a lot of decisions to make. What jobs to apply for, where to live, who to marry. Some of these decisions are big and obvious, and whether they are fun or stressful, we are pretty conscious of making them.
Others are smaller and more subtle. White or wheat. Boxers or briefs. One day we choose to splurge and drink a soda for lunch. And suddenly it is years later and we barely realize we now drink soda with lunch every day. Our original choice wasn’t “I’m going to drink a soda every day with lunch for the next 15 years until I get diabetes.” But once the choice was made the first time, our bodies and brains and patterns adjust and it just became a habit.
The average person is going to have to make a lot of choices in an average day. And making choices takes mental energy. Whether it is conscious or unconscious, I think it is normal to minimize that daily effort, which is why what was originally a one-time choice becomes a habit. It is easier to do the same thing we did yesterday, freeing up that mental energy for something else.
The word habit generally gets a bad rap, as we think about “bad habits” people have – smoking or biting your nails or being that guy who is always 15 minutes late to everything. But there are good habits too. For example, when I’m at work I take the stairs up to the 5th floor rather than wait for an elevator. Unless someone is there that I have to explain my actions to (I often joke that I’m just too lazy to wait for the elevator to arrive), I don’t even think about it. I just head to the stairwell. My first week there I made that choice and now it isn’t something I think about, I just do it.
But because habit formation isn’t always so conscious, it can be a good idea to examine your habits every so often. Or, to put it another way, to be aware of what things we are prioritizing in our lives.
When I tell people I’m getting ready to quit my job and go travel the world for an indeterminate number of months, I often get a slack-jawed, stunned look. Co-workers know I make basically the same money they are, and many can’t comprehend how I can afford it. But the answer is simple: Priority.
Years ago, I decided travel was my priority. Every month, I put money away for travel. With a little effort, it doesn’t take that long to set aside enough to travel. We spent six months traveling from Mexico down to Peru, and including airfare and scuba diving and language school and nine border crossings and flights over the Nazca Lines and hiking through Tikal and Machu Picchu and everything we spent $13,000 total for two people. Here in DC that amount would barely cover my rent for that time period.
Other people prioritize different things. Years ago, they decided to stop in to a Starbucks. Now they have a daily $5 habit. Years ago they decided they didn’t want to bring lunch to work that day, so now they have a daily $12 lunch habit. Years ago they decided they wanted to go to a restaurant for dinner, and now they have a weekly habit that can run into hundreds of dollars, especially if they also habitually order a drink or two every time they eat a meal.
I’m not a big drinker, but recently we flirted with the idea of learning about wine. It just seemed so fancy and sophisticated, and we thought we would enjoy discovering how to pair wines with food, learning about “tannins” and “dryness” and developing our palates to appreciate a good wine from an ordinary one. But then we realized – and fortunately quite quickly – that wine is a VERY EXPENSIVE HABIT. Not only were we reluctant to increase the frequency that we might enjoy a glass in the first place, but to be a connoisseur means teaching yourself to appreciate not the $5 bottle, but the $15 bottle, and then the $35 bottle, and then the $300 bottle. Why would I want to do that to myself? I’m currently very happy with the occasional $7 bottle from Costco. And frankly I don’t really want to learn all the reasons why that bottle I’m totally happy with is actually so very mediocre, and why something more expensive is “better”. Wine can be enjoyable, but it is not a priority for me, and I realized I don’t really want to make it one. So maybe I’m not going to be fancy or sophisticated, but I’ll soothe the disappointment with a foot massage on the beach when I get to Thailand.
No, really. I’m totally getting a foot massage on the beach. That is an indulgent priority I can live with.
In case you’d appreciate a more concrete example, let’s talk more about that Starbucks habit. Most of the people I know that drink coffee don’t do it on an occasional basis. Whether the decision was conscious or not, they’ve conditioned their bodies to need that coffee on a daily basis, if not multiple times during the day. Without it they can’t function. They’ve learned to enjoy it too, but the fact that their bodies now demand it makes it something they can’t just skip to save a few bucks here and there. They are slaves to the coffee bean, or, worse, a coffee bean conglomerate.
Let’s keep our example simple, but let’s say our coffee drinking friend is spending, say, $5 each workday, so $25 a week. To many, that $25 doesn’t seem like much, considering that it tastes good, wakes them up in the morning, and is, I assume, an enjoyable ritual. But doing the math, would it surprise you that $25 a week, minus your two weeks of vacation, is $1250 a year?
And since coffee isn’t a yearly habit, but more a life-long one, over twenty years that is $25,000 of future earnings you are dedicating just to a beverage. And that’s not including inflation or your penchant for that more expensive half-caff venti iced caramel macchiato that you don’t have every day but often enough to require an extra workout to burn it off.
But it gets worse. Rather than just having that extra coffee money sitting in your mattress, let’s say that instead you put chose to put that $25 a week into a Roth IRA. You were smart and got a nice low-fee index fund and just let the money ride. Wanna guess how much that coffee habit is costing you now? Assuming a mediocre average return of 5% (historically the average is closer to 8%), if you were saving that money, in 20 years you wouldn’t have $25K, you would have $41,332.44. If you started that habit at age 25, by age 65 you would have saved $150,999.72.
Let that sink in. One hundred and fifty thousand dollars exchanged for coffee. Is that a trade-off you are really willing to make?
How much money do you make a year? If you make $50K a year, then breaking that coffee habit at 25 means you could retire THREE YEARS earlier. Do you really like coffee so much that you are willing to work three full additional years solely to fund the habit?
Look, we all need indulgences. I’m not saying you shouldn’t spend some of your money on things other people might find frivolous if it is really making you happy.
And yes, I’m simplifying the math here somewhat to make a point. (Though to be fair I’m being fairly conservative with that 5%.)
But my guess is that most people who drink coffee are not thinking about it like this. Nor are people who eat out, or drink wine, or who go to the movies twice a week, or any of the other things we spend money on without thinking about it. $5 a day doesn’t seem like much, but over time it adds up. Is that really the habit you want to have in your life? Does the pleasure you get from that behavior really align with the goals you’ve set for yourself? Or is it just something you do because you’ve always done it?
You don’t have to resign your life to a casual decision you made years ago. I didn’t consider these things at 25, and I wish I had. I don’t think most of us do. We live in a society that thinks of us primarily as consumers, with advertising bombarding us from all directions, all the time. It takes effort to fight that kind of direct assault. Because whether or not we are paying attention, the people trying to sell us that cup of coffee are VERY AWARE of what they are doing, and how they are doing it.
Warning: don’t read this example and think, “I don’t drink coffee, so this idea doesn’t really apply to me.” It does. I am talking to you. Substitute coffee with beer. Or soda. Or cable TV. Shoes. Books you buy that you could’ve gotten from the library. Gas money for driving the one mile to the grocery store that you could’ve walked to. I am talking to all of us.
I want all of us to be more deliberate in our choices in life. It isn’t really that hard, we just have to step out of the matrix long enough to see our lives as they really are, and to make our own choices for what we really want, not what society tells us we should want. I’ve tried to do this, and I really think my life is better for it.
What about you? Have you considered what your priorities in life are? Do your habits match up, or are they holding you back? Tell me about it in the comments below!
P.S. I have no idea if a half-caff venti iced caramel macchiato is a real thing or not. But it seems like something someone in a movie or commercial might say, so I’m guessing I’m not too far off.