The Comfort Principle: Spend Money Where You Spend Your Time

One of Lifehacker’s main tasks is to help you save money. But once you’ve saved money, where should you spend it in order to maximise your happiness? To answer that, just look at what you spend your day doing, proportionally, and allocate money accordingly. I’m going to call it the comfort principle.

I’ll use myself as an example to illustrate exactly what the comfort principle is. I work at home, and thus average at least 10 hours a day in one chair in front of the computer. Subtract eight hours from the day for sleeping means I’m spending 10 out of 16 hours, or 62 per cent of my waking day, in this chair. That’s a pretty large percentage of my time.

Now I apply the comfort principle. Would I rather spend 62 per cent of my time either “making do” with a mediocre chair and powering through in relative misery, or would I rather spend it in comfort? The higher the percentage of your day you spend in a task, the easier the question becomes. Thus, of course I would rather spend 62 per cent of my time comfortably rather than suffering back pain. The decision becomes more straightforward when framed in this way.

But even so, talking in percentages is abstract, and humans have an easier time thinking in pure numbers than we do in abstract terms. So let’s get some actual numbers.

10 hours/day * 5 days/week * 52 weeks/year = 2600 hours a year that you’re sitting on that chair. (You’ll have some weeks off for holidays, but you’ll also probably be working late, or working weekends, so let’s just say it evens out.)

Say the typical mediocre Officeworks chair costs $100, and a really good chair — a spine-conforming, back-supporting, muscle-relaxing specimen — costs $800. If you spread your $700 over the course of 2600 hours, that comes out to about 25 cents an hour. Would you pay 25 cents an hour to be comfortable? My guess is yes. The numbers look even better when you realise you won’t switch chairs every year. Even at five years — which is short for a quality chair — you’re down to 5 cents per hour.

I can then examine other things I do throughout the day, like the computer (which works out to be about the same as that chair), or a smartphone (1-2 hours), or a mattress (8+ hours), and adjust accordingly. If my computer takes 10 seconds to open an app and I can shave it down to two by swapping in an SSD, that’s a worthwhile purchase when you factor in frustration and time saved. If my computer locks up frequently because I don’t have enough RAM or if it’s just too slow, it’s in my own interest to upgrade or get a new computer. If I can get through my day with as little aggravation, frustration and discomfort as possible, I’ll be much more relaxed, which benefits myself and the people around me. And preventing stress is much better than having to spend money later on to alleviate stress.

How this applies to you

If you don’t work at home, you probably won’t have as easy a time finding items that you use for a majority of your day, but you still can. Start by making a list of what you do all day, then evaluating what equipment you need to do those tasks. For example, here’s a generic list:

  • 8 hours: (Work) Office chair, computer, office desk, monitor
  • 2 hours: (Commute) Car, car stuff
  • 1 hour: (Cooking) Kitchen utensils
  • 3 hours: (Living room recreation) TV, video games, music
  • 1 hour: (Reading) Kindle/iPad
  • 1 hour: (Exercise) Running, treadmill, elliptical

You might not be able to convince your manager that you need an expensive chair, but you may have more luck getting them to splurge for an ergonomic keyboard and mouse, or a better monitor. And even if they don’t, the comfort principle dictates that you should suck it up and spend this money yourself, because you’re going to be much happier for it. (Just make sure that everyone knows these items are yours and refrains from stealing them.)

The comfort principle applies to your leisure time as well. Getting nice gardening equipment if you like to spend an hour unwinding after work in your backyard, or better running shoes/clothes if you exercise every day, or a nicer bike for your weekends or commuting will make the time spent more enjoyable. If you or your family likes to cook daily, imagine how much easier — or stress free-the process would be if all your tools were good.

Those of you with a long commute in a horrible car may not want to go all the way into getting a brand new car, but you can at least get some better back support, a more capable sound system, a navigation system or some way to make those hours of your day less miserable. If you’re going to be spending two hours a day confined in a single place, why not spend a little and use that time listening to audiobooks, which can be entertaining as well as informative.

If you’ve got any sort of back pain or if you’re not satisfied with your mattress, you should get a good one immediately. Not only do you spend a third of every single day on that thing, the aftereffects of a good or bad night’s sleep affects the other two thirds dramatically. This will be money well spent.

Many of us already have been using our disposable income to comfort ourselves, but we might not be doing this in the most optimal manner. Instead of dumping money into, a jet-ski you only use four weekends a year, investing in things you use every single day can make you happier in the long run, even if they’re not as flashy a purchase. It’s easy to get into the habit of retail therapy for items we use very infrequently to make ourselves feel better, but it’s not often that we consider how much these purchases will improve our day-to-day existences. (And if you really must have a jet-ski, think about renting instead of buying.)

We also need to keep the concept of “good enough” in mind, because you’ll eventually reach the point of diminishing returns. There might be a big difference between a $500 computer and a $1000 computer, but you’ll notice much less of one between a $1500 and $2000 computer. And if you already have a car that’s been made in the last five years, there probably won’t be much you need to upgrade to, seeing as you can do incremental updates on your stereo system or GPS navigation.

Of course, if money’s tight, the comfort principle probably doesn’t apply. If you’re finding yourself trying to save money by curbing excess spending, you probably don’t have the freedom to pick up luxury items like a nice chair or a better smartphone.

By evaluating and making a list of what it is you do all day and then applying the comfort principle, you can make sure your dollars are going to the areas in your life that have the highest impact on your happiness.

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