“No” is the new “Yes”

This is a post about passion, dreams, painting–and economics.

Yes, economics. Specifically, the economic concept of opportunity costs.

As Investopedia defines it, an opportunity cost is, “The cost of an alternative that must be forgone in order to pursue a certain action. Put another way, the benefits you could have received by taking an alternative action.”

In other words, if two roads diverge in a wood and I can only be one traveler, whatever cool thing that lies down the road I don’t take is the opportunity cost of going down the road I do take.

When it comes to making/renovating a home, there are opportunity costs in every decision we make. A recent case in point:

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We spent much of last summer painting the exterior of our house. Correction:  We spent much of it painting the front and back of our house. We did not get to the two short sides.

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Last summer, we did not want to pay what it would have cost us to have someone else paint the house (several thousand dollars). We are educators. We don’t work at our jobs during the summer. We figured we have more time than money, and it would be a good investment of our resources to paint it ourselves.

The opportunity costs of that decision were far more than we anticipated. If I’d been clued into the whole idea of opportunity costs back then, we might have made a different choice. But I wasn’t, and we didn’t.

What did our decision last summer cost us? The list would include all of these:

  • Strained relationships (with each other and with our kids)
  • Books we didn’t read
  • Restorative time in our hammocks
  • Afternoons at the river
  • Leisurely dinners
  • Long walks
  • Conversations about things other than the house
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The paint roller thrown across the back lawn at a low point last summer.

Of course, there are things we gained, too. And, if we’d had some kind of emergency that required the money we saved by doing it ourselves, I’m sure we’d think the decision we made was the right one. It might have been. We can’t really know, even in hindsight. (That’s the maddening thing about trying to calculate opportunity costs.)

We’re really pleased with how our paint job turned out, and seeing how we’ve transformed the curb appeal of our home gives us a lot of pleasure. Knowing that we’ve done it ourselves is very satisfying.

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(Still gotta get to that mailbox project…always something.)

However, this summer, we aren’t painting the other two sides of the house. We’re hiring that job out.

One side is very high up. We don’t have the equipment to get up there, and even if we did, I just don’t want Cane that far above the ground. It would take us many days of hours of labor to get both sides done, and it will take the person we’re hiring one day.

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Our frugality in other areas makes it possible for us to make this choice–which has given us much more than a paint job. We’ve made good progress on several other house projects, and we’ve also had time for restorative sleep, other work, a drive-in movie, a design field trip, regular exercise, a day on the lake, good food, movies, walks, long talks with friends, and more.

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We’ve had time to stop and smell the lily pads this summer.

In a recent post on Slow Your Home, Vanessa Salas asks if one can own luxury items (she longs for a Birken bag) and still be a minimalist–and the answer, of course, is yes:

“The point (of minimalism) is to remove all the extraneous stuff so that you can have the space – literally and figuratively – to focus all of your energy on the things that you value the most.”

We do lots of DIY and thrifting and penny-pinching because that creates space that allows us to do what we value most–which, I think, it what eyeing decisions through the lens of opportunity costs is all about.

Paying someone to do a job that needs doing, but that we don’t derive any other kind of value from (not much fun or creativity for us in putting paint on a huge wall) does not violate our ideas about frugality and the value of doing what we can for ourselves. In the case of our exterior paint job, finishing it ourselves has other costs that we simply don’t want to pay. And we’re grateful to have the ability to make that choice.

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Figuring out how to paint the fireplace? Now that kind of painting was fun! (Reveal to come soon…)

It is this kind of thinking, too, that’s behind our decision not to renew our contract with Purple Clover, the new site we were almost-peeing-our-pants excited about writing for just a few months ago.

While the idea of getting paid to do something (writing) that we do here just for love and kicks was pretty great, we’ve discovered that it’s a whole different thing to write for someone else for money. I sorta already knew that, but I thought that the kinds of things we were going to be writing about would make it a good experience for us.

It hasn’t been bad, but it’s taken us away from the some kinds of things we want to do both here and in other areas of our life. I hated the weekly Monday morning deadline that cast shadows over every weekend. It’s been manageable during the summer, but I knew that it wouldn’t be once we returned to school/work in the fall.

A piece of writing that really helped me get clear on the right next step is Naomi Dunford’s 7 Reasons I Decided Not to Become a Prostitute, a smart and funny piece on the pitfalls of taking something you love doing for free/fun and turning it into a business or a job for someone else. 

The biggest thing we’ve learned this summer is that we aren’t very interested in writing for others. If we are going to do that, it’s got to be a perfect fit with who we are and what we want to be about. Purple Clover isn’t that (much as we wanted it to be). We love writing for you and for us right here, in this online space. If we’d kept the Purple Clover gig, we would’ve made some money, sure–but the opportunity cost of that choice would be some other things we want to do here.

That’s a price we don’t want to pay. We’ve realized that doing what we do here just for the enjoyment of it is reason enough to do it. Making space in our lives for this blog is our version of Salas’s Birken bag, and we think everyone should make room in their life for a few meaningful luxuries. Writing is not my livelihood, which means that I get to choose the luxury of writing only things I’m passionate about.

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We want a creative life abundant as our driveway garden.

Calculating opportunity costs is not easy. No matter which roads we choose in any arena of our lives, we will always feel the rub of opportunities we’ve lost or have been unable to take. Yes, I’d love to write a post a day here and build this into a bigger blog –but I’d have to give up my day job (and a bunch of things it gives me) to do that. Our day jobs are the source of the total freedom we have here. In calculating opportunity costs, I choose fewer posts, a smaller blog, greater economic security, and greater creative freedom.

Every time we say “no” to one thing, we are saying “yes” to something else, whether we’re making decisions about which projects to do or how to do them. Seems to us that the trick to renovating a home or a life well is to be clear about what we are–and aren’t–choosing.

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One afternoon this week I said “no” to working on the family room so that I could say “yes” to an afternoon read/nap in the tree fort.

 How about you?

What kinds of choices have you made? How do you calculate opportunity costs? Is this a concept that’s helpful in making decisions for you? Your comments are a huge reason we love writing here. Hope you’ll share your thoughts with us.

(Sharing this post with the William Morris Project at Pancakes and French Fries.)