Is It Silly to Pay Retail to Protect the Value of Your Time?

by Kevin on November 4, 2009


Using this lamp I am going to explain two things:

  • why having a home maintenance category in your budget is a key to your financial success
  • how paying retail on small items makes sense

This is a photo of my former night stand lamp.

It is really an office lamp. I mean, look at the shade. That is a hand-me-down from my Dad’s office ages ago. I took it to college and it has somehow survived to this point.

But it worked, and we only really needed one lamp in the bedroom anyways. So we kept it and used it.

That is until this past weekend. Over the past several weeks the lamp had started to give us problems. The knob used to turn it on started to come loose and you had to maneuver it while clicking the lamp on to keep the electricity flowing to it. Eventually I could find the right spot and we had light, but there were times when it took a good 10-15 seconds to get the lamp to work. Very frustrating.

It was time to fork over some money for a new lamp or two.

Using a Home Maintenance Category

Here’s the beauty of saving up for problems before they occur: you don’t panic when things need replacing. Each month we set a little bit of money aside for home and vehicle maintenance. They are separate categories in the budget. When something breaks we dip into the maintenance fund and fix what needs fixing.

No panic. No wringing our hands. It’s fixed and we move on.

Now a night stand lamp may not seem like that big a deal to most of you. And you’re right — our home maintenance fund is really there so when the air conditioner breaks or something major like that. But we can still dip into it as we see fit to replace things around the house.

This concept is key to your financial success. If you don’t have money saved up for emergencies or specific home problems you will find yourself digging into other meaningful categories to pay the bill, or worse, you’ll put it on a credit card. Simply planning ahead by setting money aside each month can save you hundreds of dollars of pain and interest.

Value Your Time

This past Saturday we decided to divide and conquer our to-do list. My wife would do the grocery shopping, go to the library, and find some lamps for the bedroom. I was left to clean (as best to my meager cleaning abilities) our house.

In the midst of vacuuming she called me with a question.

I’m in Target. I’ve been to TJ Maxx, Ross, and the other discount stores. I couldn’t find two of the same lamp. Target has two lamps, but including shades they will be $80 or so. Is that too much?

$80 for lamps seemed like a lot of money to me. I mean, they’re lamps. They just sit there and provide light.

But I know my wife really well and I know she would have found a deal out there if there was one to be found. (No, we didn’t check Craigslist and negotiate to a great deal. Not this time. We wanted new lamps.)

The value of time started to kick in here. She had been gone all morning and had visited several stores. This seemed to be the best deal she could find. I told her to go ahead and buy them, get them home, and if for some reason I found them unbearably ugly (likelihood: 1%) then we could take them back the next day.

Paying Retail Price Can Make Sense

Sometimes paying retail makes sense. When you are dealing with small items that likelihood of a significant discount is small. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to search for hours in hope of finding that item that is $10 less. You’ve just spent several hours for a $10 discount. Do the math. You’re not making much money per hour for your efforts.

At some point you have to ask yourself What is my time worth to me? That is something for you to determine; I can’t tell you. But I think we can all agree that if you spend four hours looking for a $10 discount ($2.50/hour) that your time is definitely worth more than that.

Compare paying retail on big purchases. That doesn’t make sense. If you are buying a car worth thousands of dollars you can surely get the seller to knock off a few hundred dollars. There’s more wiggle room because the car is worth more money. Same thing with homes and appliances. Larger items equal larger potential discounts.

You can also cut costs with your monthly bills like your cell phone and cable TV. I’ve written in the past about cutting monthly costs by asking for a discount, and how I saved $175 per year on my satellite TV.

You can’t say the same for buying a blender. I’m all for researching to make sure you don’t get a poor quality blender.

But at the end of the day just buy the blender and move on with your life!

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November 8, 2009 at 12:42 am


JoeTaxpayer November 4, 2009 at 11:24 am

You’ve addressed the dark side of frugality, when one can’t separate the value of their time with potential savings to be gained and thereby waste (too much) time for the return. Tough balance for many people.
A $5 coupon about to expire – I need to shred it and not waste the hour round trip to the store I’d otherwise pass on the way elsewhere, but after the expiration date. Just an example.

Kevin November 9, 2009 at 10:26 pm

Good point with the coupon. I’ve definitely felt that pain…

brooklynchick November 5, 2009 at 7:51 am

Good call. You made an effort to be thrifty, but at the end of the day, your time is almost always more precious than your money.

Kevin November 9, 2009 at 10:27 pm

Almost always. Almost. There are exceptions to every rule, but running around town to save a dollar just doesn’t make sense!

Kate Kashman November 5, 2009 at 8:04 am

I’m often guilty of this – I once spent months shopping for new sheets to save a couple of dollars and find exactly the perfect sheets. (Of course, I also managed to wring a few more months of life out of the old ones.) Could have gotten a second job with all that time!

There is a balance, and that balance is different for each person. As long as you are being thoughtful about it, then your choice is the right choice.

Kevin November 9, 2009 at 10:29 pm

What a great example. Of course not every hour can be converted into income, but again you have to focus on savings versus time.

Ken November 6, 2009 at 7:42 am

Having an emergency fund is JOB ONE if someone wants to start progress out of debt. It’s so simple yet so many try to get by without one. Sad.

Golfing Girl November 6, 2009 at 1:34 pm

You must not have a Kirkland’s near you (can’t remember what state you live in). They have beautiful home furnishings for rock bottom prices (a large selection of lamps as well). Knowing where to shop for certain items (e.g., lamps) saves you time and money when the need arises. Also, not being afraid to hit the Family Dollar/Dollar General type stores occasionally is important so you’ll know what types of items they carry and if they can pass quality expectations (of course not all, but some will).
For instance I found a great $19 lamp for our study at Kirkland’s (could have gotten matching if needed) and then later needed a small table to place between the chairs in my office and knew I’d seen one the perfect size at a Family Dollar for $15. Worked perfectly!
For me, there are certain items that can pass a much lower bar for quality I’m willing to accept, such as a table that will simply hold a drink or padfolio for a coworker who visits, or a lamp that will look nice and turn on.

Kevin November 9, 2009 at 10:30 pm

I don’t think we have a Kirkland’s around here, but I’m familiar with the store. Good points in terms of balancing quality, use, and price. For this purchase we wanted quality lamps that would last a long time. But for other things we might just simply get the generic. Depends on the item.

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