The cost of being cool

This is a guest post by Robert, who lives in Calgary and worked as a financial adviser before retiring at age 35. He is married, has three kids and has returned to school with the goal of eventually living and working overseas.

I have a friend who just decided to go on a diet. To be frank, I noticed that he’s quite a bit heavier than when we were teens, but I wouldn’t have said anything. It turns out that his wife wouldn’t say anything either, and it wasn’t until they had a family portrait that he noticed his size. I was curious how he felt it happened and what he’s going to do about it.

I was surprised to learn that he buys his lunch every day. In his mind, none of the cool people at work bring a bag lunch. Instead, they buy their lunch and eat together. In order to fit in, my friend also buys his lunch. I assume that the portions are very large (and of questionable nutrition). I expect it also costs a fair amount to buy lunch every work day. It all adds up. But it’s normal in most offices for workers to buy their lunch.

And that’s the trouble. My friend’s wife explained that she had noticed him putting on weight, but wouldn’t say anything until he noticed it himself. When they talked about it, she suggested that he pack a lunch from home. In his perspective, only losers bring brown bag lunches. All the cool people eat out. I guess it gives him an opportunity to spend more time with people that he enjoys and admires.

What’s the cost of being cool? For him, it’s costing him money and health. But the real question, in my mind, is whether or not there’s another way to get the same benefit at a lower cost. As an example, if I need to buy a DVD player, I can choose between buying a good quality one, a lower quality one, or a second-hand one. Each has a certain cost, and the decision I make will depend on how much I value quality and newness. But I personally find that buying second-hand usually results in better quality for the money spent.

In the same way, my friend might be able to find a way to still get the benefits he wants: spending time with people he likes and eating good food, by finding other solutions. He might suggest they all get take out and eat together at the office instead of in a restaurant. Or they might eat at a food court, where they have the choice between buying or packing their lunch. He might buy the coolest retro lunchbox ever, so he can bring his lunch and still be cool. Or he might eat out, but only buy appetizers to reduce the cost and his consumption. Or he might decide to only eat out 2 or 3 times a week instead of five.

There are any number of valid reasons that people spend money. But sometimes something happens that makes the cost seem unacceptable. For my friend, it was realizing the cost to his health. When have you decided that something was no longer worth the cost? What changes did you decide to make? Was it easy to change, or was it a struggle?


6 thoughts on “The cost of being cool”

  1. When I went to college the first time in the late ’80s, I realised I had to really watch my money pretty much for the first time in my life, and the first to go was buying coffee on arrival at school. I bought a thermal cup (this was 1988 and they were still fairly new. Eco-recycling everything was cool and the coffee bar was promoting “save 10 cents if you bring your own coffee mug”.) Then I realised that if I brought my own coffee it tasted a whole lot better than anything I could buy. Saving $2 per cup per day didn’t amount to much — it’s pocket change. But multiplying it out 2X+ per day, 5X per week, 50X per year, became an astronomical sum by the end of the year — *just* for coffee. Now of course it’s far worse, the cost of several coffees or drinks/water and a morning muffin, plus lunch, plus an afternoon snack, easily $20, $25 or $30 per day.

    I’m an inveterate brown-bagger even now. If I travel to Toronto for the day to buy supplies I still bring at least snacks if I’m meeting a friend for lunch (which they often buy), if not a lunch. I have a water cooler at home because the water out here is literally filthy, chewy and black, and I refill my own water bottles to carry with me.

    If people look down on me for that, so be it. If I care that much what people might think of me for bringing my own coffee/water/lunch, then I have far greater problems to deal with besides getting fat(ter) or more broke.

  2. A limited amount of money from parents during school that barely covered food was motivation for me, so that wasn’t an issue. But I feel there are similar feelings associated with owning personal vehicles, especially as it relates to finding others interested in a relationship =P

    I think a major component tying lunches and vehicle ownership/use to each other are expectations adapted from others, be it from specific people or the surrounding culture in general. I never talk about how I value things with people I don’t know well because it aggravates them to hear that, relative to what I find I value *on my own* without pressure, I’m very well-off.

    Some argue that feeling a “need” for things that are, in my mind, quite optional, is a result of great marketing and being surrounded by people with poor self-control and a lack of education about finance. While I won’t argue against it, I would suggest emphasizing the personal choices and ask people about how they feel about *specific* tradeoffs can slowly change behavior.

  3. I’ve always struggled with the “lunch-out” thing. So many of my friends and previous coworkers eat out each and every day. It’s expensive, and it’s a good way to pack on unwanted weight. It’s easy to spend $10 on lunch x 24 work days per month = $240…in lunches. That’s a lot! At least I think it’s become more and more cool to be frugal, which should lead to less peer pressure over this sort of thing. This here’s the post-Recession era: wretched excess ain’t as cool as it used to be 🙂

  4. I really enjoy reading your stories and insights. Thank you for sharing, and I look forward to seeing more people add to the conversation.

  5. In your friend’s mind, only cool people probably retire at 65 too. Non cool people get to retire MUCH earlier.
    A similar situation happened to me where I worked in an office that banned microwaves so I was not able heat my lunch. Out of a desire for eating hot food, I would go to the local food court to get lunch everyday. The pounds started packing and I kept spending above my means. There were other factors as well that kept me spending a lot every month such as driving to work instead of walking.
    Once I cut eating out and driving, I soon came back to my normal weight, started feeling healthier and started saving. Most people I work with bring in their own lunch. This includes several of our directors too. I find that people (myself included) are more judgmental of people who spend above their means in order to fit in.

  6. A lot of people at my workplace buy their lunch in the cafeteria and then eat together. I just heat up my lunch and bring it downstairs to eat with them. Just because you don’t buy lunch doesn’t mean you can’t be social.

    Once in a while, I’ll splurge and buy food, but the food isn’t *that* good. 🙂

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