Why I Wasted an Hour of My Life to Save $3.60

Want to hear about a stupid money mistake that I made last week? Read on to find out why you should value your time and how you can determine the value.
Want to hear about a stupid money mistake that I made last week? Read on to find out why you should value your time and how you can determine the value.

I’d like to tell you about a stupid money mistake I made last week.

I’ll share why it was so dumb … and how you can do the opposite.

Let’s go:

During the past three months, I’ve been overseeing the renovations on one of my six rental property units.

We’re ripping everything out of the unit — including the floors, walls, countertops, cabinets, plumbing — and re-imaging the dwelling.

At the end of the project, this apartment will be more space-efficient, more energy-efficient, and gleaming with high-end finishes.

Justifiably, the rent on this apartment will skyrocket 60 percent.

The “rental range” for a one-bedroom apartment in this neighborhood runs from $600 to $1,300 per month, depending on the quality.

Previously, this unit has rented for $700 per month, near the bottom of that range. Post-renovation, we’ll start listing it at $1,125, near the top of the range.

At any rate, managing a renovation – as my longtime readers know – is a ton of work. No matter how much of the manual labor I outsource to the contractors, I still need to make decisions like:

  • How can we configure a 70-square-foot kitchen in the most efficient layout?
  • Where can we find space to plumb an in-unit washer/dryer?
  • Should we rip out this load-bearing wall?

You can outsource the execution, but as the owner, you’re still responsible for making high-level decisions.

And because of this, you must fiercely protect that precious space inside your brain.

Humans have limited mental bandwidth, and – as the owner of your mind – your job is to resist the temptation to get stuck in the weeds. Keep your mental space free, so that you can focus on the decisions that make the biggest splash.

Getting wrapped up in the small picture is a terrible use of your time and talent.

And that leads me to my folly.

You see, I made a mistake when I ordered the kitchen cabinets. (No, that’s not the mistake I’m talking about. We’ll get there soon.)

I accidentally forgot to order one of the cabinets – an oversight which has resulted in a prominent blank space on the kitchen wall. Oops!

No problem, right? I’ll just order another one.

So I called the mom-and-pop discount store where I buy my factory-outlet cabinets (for a price that’s far cheaper than Home Depot or Lowes). I spoke directly with the owner, and asked if I could order one 30×30 Ginger Maple wall cabinet.

“Roman-arch front and concealed hinge,” I specified. These cabinets will match.

The owner quoted a price of $120, and I was about to read my credit card information over the phone when she said these irresistible words:

“We offer a three percent discount if you pay in cash.”

Ding ding ding!! Who can resist a deal?!

“I’ll be right there,” I blurted out. I hung up the phone, grabbed my car keys and some cash, and flung myself out the door.

I was 10 minutes deep into the drive when the “sale” adrenaline wore off and I began to think with a cool head.

“Hold on,” I thought. “I’m driving … 20 minutes there, and 20 minutes back. Plus I’ll spend another 20 minutes in-store. This 3 percent discount is going to cost an hour of my time.”

“And three percent of $120 equals …. $3.60.”

“Holy freakin’ moly, I’m wasting an hour of my life to save $3.60.”

**(Here’s the point where I would have slapped myself on the forehead, if I wasn’t behind-the-wheel.)**

Then, just to add insult to injury, I realized that after paying for gasoline, I’d break-even anyway.


My mistake? I made an emotional, knee-jerk decision.

I heard the word “discount” and immediately reacted – without taking a breath and thinking logically through the process. I allowed emotion to block my ability to perform basic math.

In this instance, my consequences were negligible  – I only lost one hour of my life.

But how many people make this type of error on a massive scale?

How many times do we let ourselves get so wrapped up in emotion that we make stupid choices with our time and money, because we’re not thinking rationally?

  • “You can’t put a price on education!”
  • “Homes are a “good investment,” so I can dump any amount of money into upgrading my place — without conducting a single shred of analysis — and convince myself that it’ll raise the resale value!”
  • “Let’s stand in line on Black Friday, in the freezing cold, for 5 hours, so that we can save $50 off a plasma TV. (Because our time is only worth $10 per hour, and because a plasma TV is a basic human necessity, no matter how broke we are.)”
  • “When you travel, you can live and work at various places “for free” – in exchange for 8 hours per day of back-breaking unpaid labor. Yay free stuff!!”

Humans are emotional creatures. We’re not always logical — especially when it comes to our careers, homes, investments and income.

That little fact-of-life is a barrier that keeps many people from optimizing their precious time and energy.

So if you want to master your money, quit making knee-jerk reactions.

Learn which words trigger emotional responses, such as:

  • Save
  • Sale
  • Discount
  • Clearance
  • Free
  • Investor
  • Returns
  • Stocks plummeted
  • Recession
  • Hot stock

And when you hear one of those trigger words: Pause.


Crunch some basic numbers.

Think with a cool head.

And remember what your time is worth.


  1. says

    The “home is an investment” one is my pet peeve. They buy a home, then the value drops, then they say it’s impossible to make money in real estate. And don’t get me started on the women’s magazines that say things like “a good pair of black pants is a great investment”.

    The work exchange thing is one that I could understand, though. It can be tough to find good employment abroad and a work-to-stay exchange can often be the only way for some people to travel.

    • says

      @Deia — Oh, I had forgotten about that “These great black pants are an investment!” line that women’s magazines love to exclaim! Good ‘ol “investment” clothing. As if.

      I have absolutely zero objection to people working abroad, in exchange for food/shelter as their compensation. I’ve done it myself. My pet peeve is when they claim that the food/shelter is “free.” It’s not free — they’ve earned it.

  2. says

    Great example and a concept that’s lost on we frugal minded sometimes. I have tinkered around with the idea of just valuing my time at some rate, but I find that’s a bit of a variable, too. If I’m doing something I hate to save money, my time is expensive, you know?

  3. says

    This really reminds me of when people drive 10 miles to save 1 cents a gallon on petrol.

    Its important to think about cost/revenue per hour. Whilst $3.60 per hour isn’t great, we need to compare it against an alternative.

    If you could genuinely earn more than $3.60 in that exact hour by performing an alternative task, then good ahead and perform the alternative task.

    If not, your comparison is $3.60 vs $0.00. In that case, you need to determine how much “your time” doing what you would be doing is worth. If you are just going to sit around and watch TV, then any profit on the discount is probably worthwhile.

    • says

      @moneystepper — Ah, here’s I wrote a post about that question.

      Your ability to perform real, productive work is limited to X hours per week. And your need to effectively unwind (by exercising, sleeping, spending time with family and friends) is an important piece of your productivity and critical to leading a fulfilling life. So even though you’re “earning $0” while you exercise and sleep, it’s still productive time.

  4. says

    The first time I ever thought about “savings” like this was when I got a parking ticket and they gave me the option of coming to court to fight it. At first I really thought I should go (after all, I could get it overturned) but then started thinking about the other costs I would incur by doing so. I’d have to take 5+ hours off from work, drive into a far away city, probably pay for parking out there, etc…. I’d come out ahead if I just paid the ticket! I’m so thankful I was able to convince myself that it wasn’t worth it, even if the ticket was overturned!

    • says

      @Ashley — I’ve been though this same thought process about a parking ticket. After you account for the hassle and time that you’d have to endure in order to fight the ticket — it’s often more rational to pay. Our mental bandwidth is limited; save it for the most important things.

  5. says

    Great post. I love the way you brought it all together. Good luck on the renovation.

    Other thought. Even though you could pay cash isn’t it easier to keep track of your business expenses if you keep your purchases on your credit card?

    • says

      @Romeo — Great question. I have to pay for the renovation in multiple ways (my contractor only accepts checks, for example, and I get a few hundred dollars in savings if I pay cash for the carpet installation), so I’ve developed a system for tracking expenses: Throw every receipt in an envelope, scan all the contents, and send the file to a VA in the Philippines, who enters the information into a spreadsheet.

  6. says

    Great point. I think it’s too easy to get caught up in things like that and not stop to think about what it’s costing you in time to get that discount or whatever. So what did you do? Did you make it all the way there and pay cash or did you turn around?

    • says

      @Dee — Yep, at that point, I was halfway there already, so I decided to just keep on truckin’, knowing all the while that I was wasting my time. (Though I was thinking about how this will make an interesting blog post).

      • says

        The things we do for a interesting blog post! I just stumbled into your site and since I started “couponing” a couple weeks ago and have had really negative experiences, I thought this post might be along those lines. Great post. Can’t wait to explore more of your blog.

  7. says

    Ya, I’m a sucker for a sale. I had that discussion with some friends who own a store recently. They said that my shopping habits, as I described them, are a-typical though.
    If you were buying the whole set of cabinets at once, the 3% would likely have been worth the hour of your time.
    Alas, live and learn, and good for you realizing it so quickly!

  8. says


    Plus your time and fuel you lost your points on your Credit Card. I use my (no fee) Capital One Card for EVERYTHING (it gets paid-off every month of coarse). The travel reimbursement is great. We did a “free” Snowbording trip to Killington, VT last year.


  9. says

    I insist on paying contractors by credit card now. I have no problem paying the extra 3% for the service. I get 2% back from my credit card provider (venture capital one-great card). The reason is the protection it offers and like Romeo pointed out, tracking expenses. I have been burned so many times by contractors by paying with cash or check. The credit company offers great protection and was also able to get me a $400 dispute settled in my favor last year. Well worth the fee in my opinion. Just think of it as insurance.

    • says

      @Geoff — I’m a huge fan of credit cards for many reasons, one of which is their awesome dispute-resolution services. I’ve saved hundreds of dollars by filing a dispute with my credit card issuer, when a merchant sells a product that’s shoddy and refuses to refund/exchange. I agree: It’s cheap insurance. :-)

      • says

        I forgot to mention the Capital One card gives me double miles so really is 2% back, so the net cost is really only 1%. There are no black out dates, you can use any airlines. It’s also good for hotels, rental cars, and any purchases as hotels or restaurants at hotels. We fly quite a bit any always get “free” tickets. I pay off every month and have never given them one penny in interest! I bet we’ve gotten $5000 in flights for free.

  10. says

    It’s definetly easier figuring this out after the fact. It goes against your this is not a “frugal” “save money” blog, so I’m glad you brought it up as a blunder in your world, when in other world’s this is a “How I saved $3.60, just by paying with Cash!!!” article.

    I’m curious what your threshold is for saving money though? 3% on $120 is small but is 3% on $1200 or is the number $12,000 worth that drive and time spent?

    • says

      @Steven — My threshold is: “Would I pay someone else $15/hr to perform this task?”

      If I’m not willing to hire an assistant to perform the task, then I shouldn’t spend my time doing it myself. Instead, I can put my time to much more productive/fulfilling use (earning money, exercising, being with family).

  11. says

    Reminds me of the time we chose to install IKEA cabinets ourselves instead of having custom cabinets installed. It was suppose to save us $600 but after taking 3 weeks to finish it (when my husband wasn’t traveling for work) we ended up having to make an additional mortgage payment (over $600).

    • says

      @Tiffany — The #1 warning that I tell people who want to buy a rental property and DIY the work: Calculate the amount of time it’ll take you to make the renovations. Then compare that to the income that you’ll lose by keeping the unit vacant. Sometimes, DIY is the more expensive route.

      For example:
      If it takes you 6 months to renovate (working weekends), and the rent is $600/mo, you lose $3,600 in revenue.
      If a contractor can renovate in 1 month (working full-time), and he charges $2,000, you pay $600 in lost revenue + $2,000 to the contractor = $2,600.

      So you save $1,000 (plus hundreds of hours) by hiring someone else to do the job.

      It sounds like you’ve already learned this, Tiffany. (I wrote out that example for the benefit of other readers who haven’t had this experience).

      And while I’m sorry to hear about the lost month of rent, I’m glad that you’ve now acquired an important lesson that will help you throughout the rest of your investing life. That’s a fantastic silver lining. I’ve done many similar things — I’ve “paid” thousands to learn lessons the hard way. But that’s life. And I can share those lessons on the blog, helping others.

  12. says

    I really agree with you on those. Most of us, myself included, could make stupid decisions in an instant and waste valuable time in the process. So, I will surely apply what you said in the last part of the article which is to pause, breathe, and think before I do something stupid again. Great article by the way!

  13. says

    20% also sounds like a lot, but when you apply it to the original price it might not be. We’re just wired to think, “Oooh, 20%! That’s a great deal!” before doing the math!

  14. says

    Ouch – that stinks. 3% sounds great, but not for an hour of your time.

    Oh well, it could have been worse and you actually could have lost money by making the trek over there. That sort of thing has happened to me more than I’d care to admit. We truly are emotional creatures :-)

  15. says

    Right there with you!

    We’ve all done it, so don’t feel so bad about it.

    I consider myself lucky since I was exposed to this fully early by my grandmother who would drive forever to save a tiny amount of money.

    I love a good discount, but I value my time greatly and always take that into account for any money savings opportunities.

  16. says

    Thankfully I am too lazy to have this happen too often, BUT I know Amazon has gotten more than necessary from me over time thanks to that same laziness. I sometimes find amazing deals on what we need. And I sometimes will pay an extra $3 just so it’s delivered to my front door. Overall, I value stress-free more than actual cash and that works as long as I don’t try to buy the world. Oh, and I do put my lazy to the side for any purchases over $50. Appliances, cars, and homes will get my deal-driven brain to work out…

  17. says

    I agree that the $3.60 was probably not worth it but sometimes you need to go through the exercise so that it stays a habit. At that point the number is arbitrary. I think way too often people skip coupons or skip trying to get a discount or save money, and justify with the ‘Ah, but it’s only $3.60’ rationale. Which might be fine, but if they get in the habit of not going after that $3.60, they might just miss the opportunity down the line when the savings is substantial enough to make a real impact.

    So, I guess you could look at the $3.60 as practice :)

  18. says

    It’s a fine balance we have to maintain in life, driving a 1/2 hour away to save 3 dollars is definitely a money mistake. If the purchase was a couple thousand and you saved 3%, then it might be worth it. I agree take time to clear thoughts and analyze the decision. Good Post.

  19. says

    Actually you did lose money when you count the couple gallons of gas you burned going there and back. Great story though. You are in good company…we all make these mistakes! :)

    • says

      @David — I mention that in the story: I figure I burned about one gallon, so I broke even. I lost an hour of my time, though. 😛 But it reinforced an important lesson … and made for a fun blog post!

  20. says

    Hey, great blog and I LOVE this post! I point this one out to my father on a regular basis. I even go so far as to pay a little bit more by going to stores that don’t annoy the ever loving crap out of me.

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