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You Spend How Much? Clearly, You Lack Imagination.


A friend of ours once wondered out loud if people who claim they “have no need or desire to spend more than $50K or $100K a year or whatever” are a) lying, b) easily contented or c) unimaginative.”

Naturally, I took offense, as all three options are criticisms and, at the very least, there ought to be d) another option, but none was given.

This friend of ours may be familiar to you. His name is Dr. Jim Dahle, and he posted this leading question in his White Coat Investor Forum several years ago. You can see my responses in the old thread, but I felt this was a topic revisiting.

I contend that those who live a life they love on a relatively modest budget are the most imaginative. It’s the high spenders who typically take the more expensive path, the convenient path of least resistance, that are more likely to be lacking in imagination.




Hypothesis: Low Spenders Lack Imagination


For the purposes of this discussion, consider a low spender to be someone spending $50,000 to $100,000 a year in 2016 dollars, which is when the question was first posed. After updating for inflation, that’s the same as spending about $62,000 to $124,000 in 2022.

“Lacking imagination” was only one of three options given, but “easily contented” is basically synonymous, and “lying” is an odd accusation, although I can imagine lying to oneself about contentedness could be a coping mechanism when one realizes that they’ll never achieve a higher standard of living.


Supporting Argument: Fun Stuff Costs Money

Dr. Dahle thinks that people who spend less than $124,000 or whatever are unable to come up with something that they’d like to do or have that would cost more. For example, he was planning a heli-skiing trip at the time that was going to cost about $1,000 a day. Can’t they think of something like that to splurge on?

Similarly, luxury automobiles cost money, as do great homes in top school districts. Who wouldn’t want these things if they could afford them?


Opposing Argument: Fun Can Be Had Without Spending Top Dollar

You can’t really replicate every aspect of heli-skiing without spending the money to do it, although, with a little imagination and research, you may find a location, outfitter, or time of year that allows you to heli-ski at a lower price point.

I would also posit that one can take a heli-skiing trip very year on a $124,000 budget. You’d still have something close to $120,000 to spend after accounting for the trip.

What is it that you like most about heli-skiing? Is it the helicopter rides? Probabably not, but one can take a helicopter sightseeing ride for under $500 in some pretty amazing places.

If it’s skiing in fresh powder that floats your boat, you can be first in line at your favorite ski resort after a good overnight snow. No, it’s not the same experience, but it can be had for hundreds of dollars rather than thousands.

With a little imagination, you may not fully duplicate the experience or thing that costs beaucoup bucks, but you might be able to approximate the most desirable aspect of the costly endeavor or object.

Taking the luxury automobile example, if you wouldn’t be devastated to own a model released a few years earlier, you might save a lot of money buying used versus new. If the car of your dreams is known to maintain or even appreciate in value, shop wisely and be open to cashing in when an opportunity to sell at a profit or at least break even presents itself.

A home can also be viewed as an investment. The carrying costs are quite high, but so are the benefits, i.e. a place to live. If you can find an available home priced below market value, your odds of coming out ahead increase. Again, this may take some effort or creativity (or dare I say imagination), but those efforts may be rewarded.

You know what doesn’t take much imagination? Buying whatever vehicle you want at sticker price from the dealer without taking into account the car’s potential to maintain its value or better. Nor does relying on realtors to present you with homes they think will check off every box on your wish list.


Hypothesis: High Spenders Lack Imagination


I’m not sure what exactly constitutes a high spender, but let’s say it’s some combination of spending well over $124,000 a year and a relatively low savings rate. A high savings rate would indicate that the person can’t imagine anything better to do with the money than save it for later.


Supporting Argument: Spending Money is Easy

I honestly don’t see how spending money takes much imagination. It’s about the easiest thing to do, and billions of dollars are spent by marketers every year to nudge you into spending more on an endless array of goods and services.

You don’t need an imagination to figure out ways to spend money. Turn on the TV, play a podcast, or drive down the freeway, and you’ll be inundated with an abundance of ways to part with your hard-earned cash.

All you really need in order to spend money is money. Actually, you don’t even need that. With a credit card, you can spend borrowed money!

If you were forced to spend an insane amount of money in a short period of time, a la Brewster’s Millions, some creativity may be in order. Spending as much or more than a physician typically earns doesn’t require any imagination at all.

What does take some ingenuity? Finding a way to take an amazing vacation using credit card points. Planning your travels around incredible airfare. Using your connections and asking the right questions to get a good deal on a car or home that wasn’t publicly listed for sale. That’s using your imagination.


Opposing Argument: The More Imaginative Things Cost the Most

I don’t imagine I’ll ever climb Mount Everest. It’s not because of the cost, which can be upwards of $50,000, but rather the fact that I don’t like to be that cold, air-hungry, and generally uncomfortable for any length of time, let alone weeks on end.

I could, however, imagine taking a world cruise someday. Royal Caribbean’s Ultimate World Cruise also costs more than $50,000 per person for the 274-day itinerary.

Paying for these things doesn’t require imagination, but freeing up your time to allow for them certainly does. How does one do that? Essentially, you must live below your means long enough to save for both the cost of the trip and to make up for the lost income from taking time away from work if you’re going to do these things prior to retirement.

That’s obviously much easier to do if your baseline spending is low enough to allow for a substantial savings rate. You’re setting aside money, not for a lack of imagination, but because you’ve got an active one.



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My Experience as a “Low Spender”


When I actually tracked my spending back in 2016 to 2018, I found that we were spending in the neighborhood of $60,000 to $70,000 a year. That was with paid-off homes, no student loan debt, and not counting charitable giving, which we do primarily with a separate donor advised fund.

When I calculated our post-retirement budget a few years ago, I figured $80,000 a year would cut it. Add the increased inflation of the last year or two, and we might be spending closer to $100,000, but I still think that qualifies us as relatively low-spending according to Dr. Dahle’s figures.

I’m not lying about our contentedness or spending. I could pass an audit based on our bank and credit card statements, and I love the life we’ve carved out for ourselves.

I wouldn’t necessarily say that I’m easily contented. I can be rather particular about certain things, and I don’t automatically go for the cheapest option. I do believe that having expensive tastes can be a handicap, as your perceived needs can get in the way of might otherwise be a good time, but it’s reasonable to be picky in some ways as long as you don’t always have to have the best of everything.

I clearly feel that I’m not lacking in imagination. My family and I are about to embark on our third “trip of a lifetime” in 2022 alone, with each of them lasting longer than a month and allowing us to explore the histories and cultures of several different countries.

Why do we spend what some perceive to be so little? Truthfully, we could more than double our annual spending while abiding by a 4% safe withdrawal rate, yet we choose not to.

I like to feel that I’m being a good steward of the money we’ve got, and to me, that means not spending it in a way that would feel frivolous.

I like a good value, and I want money to do good things, both for my family and me, but also for others. I’ve never personally owned a luxury car, but the money we’ve donated to causes we believe in could have filled a garage with Bentleys and Beamers. That’s simply a value choice that we’ve made.



Who’s Lacking in Imagination?


If you’re a big spender who pays little attention to the cost of things, buying what you want when you want it, I think you’re the one lacking in imagination.*

Clicking the “Buy Now” button on Amazon doesn’t take a lick of originality. Defaulting to taking an Uber or Lyft to get around when there’s strong public transportation or plenty of time to walk is the easy way out. Consistently ordering from a restaurant menu doesn’t take half the imagination of meal planning cooking for yourself, but it does cost more and usually results in meals that are less healthy.

Saving money and spending with intention, and thereby opening up more possibilities by hastening the time to obtaining true financial freedom, is what takes some imagination.

Consider how life-changing it would be to make work truly optional, and use your robust imagination to envision what your future could hold.



*I’ll note that this does not apply to Dr. Dahle, even if he did ask the question that prompted this post. He definitely considers the cost of things, is a good steward of money, donating generously, and is not lacking for imagination. 


Has your imagination led you to spending more? Or spending less? What’s the most imaginative thing you would splurge on if money were truly no object?


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12 thoughts on “You Spend How Much? Clearly, You Lack Imagination.”

  1. I enjoyed the unplanned point-counterpoint between PoF and WCI. I would like to see more of these.

    I tend to align more with the WCI in my practice, but I truly admire PoF for how much enjoyment he gets per dollar spent. Both are living well, living within their means, and are good personal finance role models for young physicians.

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  3. To be fair, I’m not sure you would qualify as a low spender anymore. Building a million dollar lake house means you are not spending $100,000 a year. Perhaps technically the year after you buy it (since you wont be paying a mortgage presumably), but there is something off with identifying as a low spender when it comes with a luxury home…..at least without throwing in an asterisk to be clear that you are not living a $60,000-$80,000 lifestyle anymore.

    Of course, nothing wrong with a wonderful paid off home, I just feel that it becomes a bit disingenuous to continue to say that you a low spender. I guess it turns out that with some extra money, you do actually want to spend more?

    • Note that I surrounded “low spender” with quotation marks. We definitely spend more than the average household, and while this house is being built, we’re spending big bucks, but we’ll have home equity to show for it.

      I may go back to tracking spending in 2024 to see where we’re truly at once we’ve gotten settled in our new home. I can’t say for sure where we’ll be or what inflation will have done to our purchasing power, but I’m fairly confident we’ll still be spending less than the equivalent of $100,000 in 2016 dollars ($124,000 today).

      We’ve always been in this odd place where we spend more than the average American family but quite a bit less than most of our physician peers. We look like spendthrifts to many, but cheapskates to others.


  4. I do not find “easily contented” to be a criticism. It is a wonderful way to live. It means that you are content most of the time. What is wrong with that?

    Like Kb, the things I enjoy are cheap or free. I have no interest in skiing, let alone suffering a noisy and bumpy helicopter ride to get there. For me, a perfect vacation day starts with a good long workout, at home or at a gym near where I am staying. Then a good shower. Some cold water until I am hydrated. The rest of the day could be walking, biking or hiking. But to be a good vacation day it would need to include several hours quietly reading.
    I would far rather spend a vacation afternoon in a quiet library than take a helicopter up a mountain.

    It is not just that I am happy with my 10 year old non-luxury car. I would rather have my car than a brand new Bentley. If somehow I came into possession of a Bentley I would sell it and keep my car.

    I view this like going to a restaurant. I do not walk in with the goal of spending as much money as my credit limit will permit. I enter looking to buy the amount of food and specific dishes that I want to eat. If the waiter were to tell me that I could buy 5 steaks, 4 lobsters and one each of the chicken entrees, I would reply that what I WANTED was the salad I ordered. Simply being expensive does not make something desirable.

    I can IMAGINE flying to Switzerland, driving a Bentley to the helipad and being deposited at the top of a ski run. I just want not to DO any of that. Since there are libraries where I live, I have no need to travel outside the state, let alone outside the country, to get to one.

  5. Interesting quote relevant to this discussion in a tweet from Morgan Housel today:

    “The thing that is least perceived about wealth is that all pleasure in money ends at the point where economy becomes unnecessary. The man who can buy anything he covets, without any consultation with his banker, values nothing that he buys.” – William Dawson

  6. That Tierra Del Fuego cruise I’m looking at is $3K a person, so $18K for my family of 6. Plus airfare and the other stuff we’d do on that trip.

    Or we could just stay home and watch Netflix and go skiing and hang out with friends.

    Which one requires more imagination? Only you can decide. Who says you can’t go on the “trip of a lifetime” every month?

  7. I bought a flower subscription service for the next year for my wife today. It cost about $800. I didn’t even know that sort of thing existed yesterday. Waste of money? Absolutely. Can I afford it? Absolutely. Will it make her happier? I think so.

    We squeezed in a trip to the former Yugoslavia earlier this month. It’s cheap to do slow travel and home school your kids on the way. But if you’re leaving the kids behind, you’ve got to fast travel if you want to do it at all. Our babysitters aren’t going to stay for a month and our kids can’t miss that much school. And fast travel is expensive. It’s all hotels instead of monthly rental AirBNBs. Your airfare is spread out over fewer days. Almost every meal is in restaurants because, well, that’s kind of the point of the trip. You hire guides rather than doing all the research to be the guide yourself. Costs money but saves you time that you can now spend either on another trip, helping others, earning money, or with your kids. Maybe the slow traveler went on the “trip of a lifetime.” Meanwhile, I went on three. Which is better? Dunno, but I can tell you which one costs more money.

    Heli-skiing can’t be replicated by resort skiing and taking a flightseeing tour. It’s just not the same thing. A better comparison would be taking all of the good parts of 5 days of backcountry skiing and wedging them all into a single day.

    Want to go wakesurfing? You’ll need a boat, that’s not cheap. Floating on an innertube at the local lake is not the same thing.

    Want to go rafting for a week in the wilderness? You’re going to need to spend thousands to either rent or buy a set-up to do that. You’ll need to pay someone $400 just to shuttle your car to the end or spend a day before and after doing the shuttle yourself.

    Want to go to space? That’ll be $250K please. More if you want to orbit.

    How about trekking Bhutan? Or cruising Tierra Del Fuego. Or putting your kid into comp soccer? Or summer camp in the Adirondacks? It’s funny that I can have just as much fun with an afternoon of free disc golf as doing a bike tour around Zagreb. So maybe I am easily contented.

    Spending well takes time and effort. That can mean both being a careful steward of your dollars as well as seeking out experiences and products that would bring or others happiness.

    How do you know you wouldn’t like skydiving, or a bike tour of Spanish wineries, or owning a Ferrari if you’ve never done it? My imagination runs wild at times. I like the Hunter Thompson quote:

    “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!”

    And an Everest climb is over $100K these days by the way. Don’t ask why I know.

    I think at this point it would be pretty hard to go back to spending $50K a year. My life would look dramatically different if we were to do that. Now don’t get me wrong, we’re not spending a bazillion dollars. Last year it was $207K. But you can do a whole lot more on $207K than you can on $50K. And if you have a bunch of payments (and taxes and charity) you may want a lot more than that.

    At any rate, good post.

  8. Interesting take, and I agree, you can let your imagination run whether you have $100 or $100,000 to spend! This reminds me of that teacher’s experiment where he told his students to turn $10 into $50 or something like that.

    Spending money is one of the easiest things to do in life, so I can see how it takes less imagination. Those who are frugal must be creative. Though I have seen some pretty incredible non profits started by wealthy people, solving issues like the plastic crises in very creative ways.

  9. Great post! Concur wholeheartedly. I really hate wasting money and get genuine joy out of getting true value and quality for $$s spent, whether it is on investments, things, experiences, gifts, or charitable donations. Mindless spending without considering whether there are better/more valuable options available for the same $$s seems like the definition of no imagination and a good description of a life NOT well-lived.

    In a similar vein I got a vicarious thrill out of your Sunday post on the value you obtained on your recent ski swap purchases 😉

  10. If not imagination, certainly lacking empathy. Coming up with increasingly frivolous spending just to spend seems pretty awful when there are so many creative ways to make other people’s lives better (example: Hank and John Green building a hospital in Sierra Leone).

    I mean, this kind of “people who are good stewards of money are just inferior beings” thinking is what causes pitchforks at the castle gates, and at the least argues for higher tax rates on the rich.

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  12. A brilliant essay! We get more pleasure from our wise and considered purchases than we would ever receive from “just spending it” at a level we are able.

  13. I would absolutely agree with the comments here. I personally enjoy being thoughtful about each purchase I make and enjoying it to its maximal potential-which usually does not allow for spending on top of spending on top of spending. Perhaps more importantly, my favorite things to do are cycling, hiking, reading, writing, gardening-none of which require large amounts of money. And while I do love to travel, I find staying in B&B’s, gites or the like, where I can meet fellow travelers, is the kind of travel I love-sharing stories over a meal or a drink or a coffee. While these activities could cost a lot, they usually don’t but leave a lasting impact.


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