I have earned a lot of money in my life. But I have never had an extravagant life. I don't own a house. I've never bought a new car. I've never bought a new piece of living room furniture, and I do not own a single piece of real jewelry. What I have spent money on was always intended to help me with my career. That was so I know that I can always earn money doing something I love.
I leased a BMW when it was clear that that mattered when it came to making deals in LA. I hired a stylist when I realized my clothes were holding me back in NYC. In Madison I have tons of household help so my kids don't have a crazy schedule because of my work schedule.
I am convinced that frugality is a key quality for a successful career. Here is why frugality helps your career:
1. Spending money is generally a distraction.
We know this. That people use it as therapy. People use it to fill holes they perceive in their lives. But the psychic energy it takes to spend money actually distracts us from what matters to us. Pay Pal reports that people wish their significant other would spend less money on Valentine's Day. This encapsulates the whole problem to me.
2. Spending money is a vehicle for overcommitting.
The biggest example of this is graduate school. The people who do best in a bad economy are those who are flexible about the types of jobs they can take and the types of careers they can move into, according to Philip Oreopoulos, professor of economics at University of Toronto. This flexibility is specifically limited if you go to graduate school — you commit two, three, four years to a given career whether or not it's going to pan out for you in the long run. And you commit to paying back school loans, which means you need to take a job that earns enough to pay those loans.
3. Spending money limits possibilities.
If you invest in an expensive bicycle because you're going to do triathlons then you limit your ability to take off more time from work to actually train for the triathlon. In most cases, renting a house is better for you than buying one: If you buy a house, you cannot easily downsize, you cannot as easily relocate, and you end up limiting your earning power. (That link is to my brother’s blog. This is dinner table conversation in my family.)
4. Entrepreneurship is a safety net if you’re frugal in your home life.
Careers today are unstable, and while companies used to provide safety nets for employees, today we have to create our own safety nets. The best way to do that is with entrepreneurship. But starting your own company is nearly impossible if you have high income requirements. Startups don't provide high incomes at the beginning.
As I write this, I think about my friends who spend a lot more money than I do. I have friends with really nice houses, friends who take super fun vacations, and I have friends who would not be caught dead in the clothes I wear to work (for example, plastic rain boots because I don't want to pay for snow boots.)
My friends would say there's a compromise: You don’t need to invest everything in your career. You don't need to give up all the creature comforts of life. You can still have a good situation with both.
Maybe it's my obsessive nature. I'm willing to make extreme tradeoffs. I wrote earlier about wanting to be an expert. About how it takes a singular, daily focus. And I think I have had that with writing. But in order to do it, I have given up a lot. I'm not sure if that's right.
Do we hear about Mozart playing kickball? I know, there wasn't kickball. But if there had been, he wouldn't have played it. Because you give up stuff.
So I guess what I'm saying is that being an expert in something requires frugality. It's not just a spending frugality. It's a focus frugality. It's the recognition that spending money is actually a distraction from the passion at hand. So the less you spend, the less you're distracted.