Ways Frugality Increases Productivity

by Ben_West 4mo25th Jun 201917 comments

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I occasionally hear arguments like:

There are lots of ways that one can spend money to gain more time (and therefore presumably be more effective): buying taxis instead of walking, getting takeout instead of cooking, renting an apartment closer to your workplace, etc. Therefore, even if you are perfectly altruistic and ignore the impact that spending more on yourself might have on your personal happiness, you should spend a large amount on yourself.[1]

This seems reasonable – there are ways to spend money to gain time – but I rarely hear the opposite argument, even though the opposite argument also seems reasonable.

Some ways in which being frugal makes you more productive:

  1. Low cost of living enables you to be more flexible: when I started my company, I went without an income for about two years, and it only took a few months of savings to build up that two-year runway. If I had a higher standard of living (e.g. because my apartment was close to work) I would have needed to plan much further in advance or take out a loan or something similar.
  2. It’s much easier to keep your nights and weekends free if your entertainment budget is zero. Many of the greatest opportunities I’ve had in my life came through something like my boss coming to me and saying “our senior engineer just quit right before the deadline, so even though you are too junior for this to normally be your responsibility, can you work through the weekend to get this done?” If I had had regular, significant weekend plans, I would’ve turned those down and accomplished much less.
  3. A lot of what distracts me from work is the opportunity cost of what I could do in my free time. Many people use distraction blockers during their work hours to keep them focused by preventing them from using “fun” things during work hours, and it’s fairly common for people to e.g. travel to an isolated cabin in the woods when they really want to focus. Living frugally is kind of like (metaphorically) living in an isolated cabin in the woods.
    1. Of course, cost and distracting-ness aren’t always correlated: social media is very distracting, despite being free.

I’m a little hesitant to publish this because I don’t think most people should prioritize frugality. I also agree that there are many legitimate ways in which spending money can make you more productive, and that we should take advantage of those. And I don’t think we should shame people for spending money on themselves, nor should we expect people to ignore their own happiness.

But it does seem like the “spending money to save time is effective” meme sometimes morphs into “spending money on yourself is effective”, which seems rather dubious to me.

Footnotes

1. I mostly hear this argument verbally. I'm not sure if there is a canonical written version of it; Critch's post might be the closest: http://acritch.com/pledging/

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