When Free Isn’t Free

While attending a recent family graduation party, conversation (as it almost always does) gravitated to fishing and hunting.  Having grown up enjoying such outdoor pursuits, it really is a way of life for me.  My wife on the other hand – not so much.  In our bantering over the subject, I tried my best to convince her (still working on that) that fishing and hunting are actually a good deal, especially since they bring home free food.

I have to admit that, after a slight pause, we all laughed at that.

If you have been to the grocery store lately, you know how the cost of food, raw meatparticularly meat, continues to go up.  The idea of free meat is certainly enticing unless you are one who chooses to completely go without.  We as humans also tend to be very good at logically justifying something we feel emotional about.  As is the case with my ‘free meat’ argument, these justifications don’t always make much sense when we truly, objectively evaluate them.

Let’s take a look at my “free” venison.  We actually hunt Butte County which is a solid 6-hour drive from home.  Too long to commute, our trip then includes 3 nights of hotel.  Even though hotel rooms in Sturgis are considerably cheaper in November than August, it’s still around $70 per night.  Then there is the gas we use while actually hunting, meals while out there, thank you gifts for those that let us hunt, and other miscellaneous expenses.  That doesn’t include the cost of the license, rifle, and ammunition.  Were I to actually do the math (emotions tell me I really don’t want to do that), my venison would end up more expensive than any cut of meat in the grocery store.

Granted, there is a lot more I enjoy about our hunting trip than just the resulting meat.  But that is still a sobering realization to come to.  If, however, we want to be effective in our budgeting, we have to consider the true cost of the things we do and the items we purchase.

Another good example is the purchase of a pet.  Even if you were to end up with a cheap (or free) kitten off the farm, it will most likely not be a cheap pet.  There is food, kitty litter, toys, a collar, veterinarian visits, and who knows what else.  There really is no such thing as a free pet once life starts to happen.

So, what is the “good deal” in your life?

Is it that cheap car you only paid $500 dollars for?  How much did you have to put into it to get it running?  How much are you spending on repairs and extra oil to keep it running?  How much worse is the gas mileage than other cars?

Perhaps your “good deal” is a hobby like my photography.  Sure, the camera and first lens were given to me for free.  But the next lens I want is going to be over $400.  Even printing my photos at the local photo shop (better printing, not the local big box) will run me about $8 for an 8×10, plus a frame to put it in.  That could end up being $30 or more per photo hanging on my wall.  And isn’t seeing and showing your photos the point of the hobby?

garden produceMaybe your “good deal” is growing vegetables in your garden.  After all, fresh organic vegetables aren’t cheap.  But then there is the tiller you either rent or buy to work the soil, the seed to plant, the water that you use to keep the plants alive, the fertilizer for nutrients (even manure will probably cost you), and then whatever you need to process and store your produce.  This is also a good example to include the value of your time.  Gardens tend to take time and time is money.  Not exactly free produce anymore.

Fear not.  I’m not telling you that you shouldn’t do any of these things or any other “good deals” you may have found.  I certainly do not plan to give up our family hunting tradition.  And my time with my photography is too therapeutic for me to give up.  All I’m encouraging is that you are aware and honest with yourself about the true cost of what you do.

For the sake of successful budgeting, track ALL of your expenses.  This should be done with every expense, but especially with those areas you claim to be a “good deal”.  Just be aware of how much they are really costing you.  If you are shocked or concerned about the true cost, maybe it’s time to look at other options that really are better deals.  Perhaps, if there are other benefits as is the case with my hunting (recreation, family time and tradition, etc.), it is worth keeping what is not really such a good deal.  But at least we now know the true cost and can plan accordingly.

During a recent class, I had a client that laughed at the ridiculous amount of money his coworkers spent on smoking.  At a pack of cigarettes per day, they were each shelling out an amount he thought was ridiculous.  “And they don’t even notice how much they’re spending!”  But then we looked at his spending.  By giving it 30 seconds of attention, he quickly realized he was actually spending twice as much as his coworkers, but he was spending it on energy drinks.  Considering the hard time he had given his coworkers about their wasteful spending, this was a humbling moment for him.

It’s all about awareness.

In all honesty, you can track your expenses and put a budget together on your own.  While the concept is a fairly easy, straight forward one, actually getting it done can be a little more difficult for some.  If you would like help working through your expenses and putting a budget together, the counselors at the Center for Financial Resources would be happy to help.  We don’t tell people where they should or should not spend money.  We just help with the awareness and some accountability.  The real work is yours to do but you don’t have to be alone in accomplishing your goals.

written by Breck Miller
images courtesy freedigitalphotos.net

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