Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Sinkholes and Wellsprings

Only three weeks are left (as far as anyone knows) in Steph's pregnancy, which means it is almost time for us to double our "fun" by adding Evey to the family Bahr and giving Allie the little sister she so sorely needs. This means that, with already-scant free time for Steph and I becoming even rarer and more precious, I have to reevaluate how we invest money and time with an eye toward maximizing the value of our time with each other and our "family time" with the girls. This is an integral part of our ongoing "decluttering" effort, and today's post focuses on evaluating "things" by cost and time investment and seeing how they compare.

First, it helps to set some parameters. I grew up as a classic nerd, so I spent a lot of teenage time playing Dungeons & Dragons. Pen-and-paper role-playing games are a perfect example of an indulgence for people who have plenty of time to waste and a severely limited money supply. Adult indulgences, like tropical vacations, thrill sports, and Vegas weekends, are the opposite, and are perfect for people who have plenty of money to waste and a severely limited time supply. As you might expect, "the truth" for most of us lies somewhere between those extremes. There are differences, however, in the time and money equations for those of us who are single, those of us who are "spoken for" but childless, and those of us with children. Today, I am sharing a look at our time-money value exercise. As you read, see if you agree with whether I have accurately forecast a sinkhole, or its opposite, a wellspring. In the comments, feel free to share your own time-money value analyses.

1. Video games
I enjoy video games tremendously. I grew up with video games, and video games grew up with me. I saved the Princess in castle 8-4; I recovered the Triforce; I outfought both M. Bison and Mike Tyson; I destroyed the Space Pirates; I built a Megalopolis; I defeated the Dragonlord. But these days, playing a "story" video game just isn't happening. The time simply isn't there. When we were robbed in August, in addition to taking our Xbox 360 and Wii, they took an entire shelf of video games I had never found time to complete: Legend of Zelda Twilight Princess; Super Mario Galaxy; Metroid Prime 3; Halo 3; Lego Star Wars Complete; and on and on. We did seem to get good use out of video games that are either "arcade-ish," party/group-oriented, or both. Accordingly, when it came time to rebuy with the insurance money, we chose only to replace the Xbox 360 (partly because it is a Netflix device) and to replace Rock Band 2 and the Xbox Live Arcade titles. As for the rest? Sinkholes.

2. Movies
Here's the thing: unless we go to the movie on our own (with friends, etc, and not with each other), we have to either "use up" a babysitting favor or take the baby with us. Those favors are as good as gold, so we don't like wasting them on a movie unless it's a really, really highly-anticipated flick. Taking the baby to the movie is pointless because you really won't get to watch the movie. You'll be stuck tending the kid. The only way to really enjoy movies once you're a parent is to bring them home. Spending money going to the movies, then, is a sinkhole.

3. Music
I love music and enjoy playing in bands, but the time commitment varies heavily, sometimes crossing the line of unfeasible. With the right band project, it's a wellspring, more than overcoming the cost of equipment and time. With the wrong one, "sinkhole" is an understatement. Unfortunately, it's hard to know which kind of project you're in until you've already invested a lot of time and work, so I think I'm going to be mostly avoiding these for a while.

4. Card games
Magic: the Gathering has been very good to me, serving as a source of income from time to time in addition to being the most fun tabletop game I have encountered. As such, I have been able to play at relatively low cost. The time investment has continued to bother me, however, and with the arrival of Evey, cards might be the latest casualty of the value equation. I already got out of the Star Wars CCG because of lack of time, despite enjoying the local player community. I have passed up chances to buy into other games heavily. Even now, I'm clearing out a Lord of the Rings TCG collection for a friend, and I look at the cards and think, "This seems like it might be really fun! I could buy out this collection and play!" But then I realize it's just a non-starter. I have nobody to play against. (Steph isn't into the TCG hobby.) As it is, I'm lucky to play Magic once a month. I miss playing Netrunner, the best "bluffing" CCG ever made, but it plays best as a sealed-deck game and it's too hard to get product anymore for it. Much as I hate to face the reality of it, card games are in fact becoming sinkholes. Once I finish selling off some collections I'm working on, this will become even more pronounced. I think some small investment in the game can be a wellspring, though, so I am seeking that balance. Something where I have decks built and ready to go, without having too much value sunk into them and thus "money clogging the closet."

5. Computer time
Obviously none of us are going to "quit the internet," least of all me. This will be something I keep my eye on, though. It's probably possible to scale back on sites one surfs and just spend less time overall on it. If were one of those who play World of Warcraft, I think it would be very clearly a sinkhole. I can't figure out what it is that keeps people addicted to that game now that they know it's just an item grind. I mean, isn't that kind of like work?

6. Books
Books are undeniably a wellspring. They don't cost much, and they can sit on a shelf for years and still be perfectly functional when you pull them down to read. I am enjoying a re-read of Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time series in anticipation of the 12th book, The Gathering Storm, that comes out October 27th. I hadn't read so much as a page of that series in four years, but it's working out fine now. While the reality of having Allie and Evey might reduce the total time and money Steph and I put into books, this is unlikely to be a long-term reduction.

7. Television
Television was once clearly a sinkhole for me. I had no interest in watching the networks' prime-time skits so they could sell advertising time, and if I really wanted to watch a sporting event, well, there's a reason they call 'em "sports bars." This value equation has been entirely flipped on its head. Television has now gone from sinkhole to wellspring for us, all because of the dynamics of taking care of children. A TV can function unattended, and a TV can entertain anyone in the family. Allie loves to watch The Wiggles and Baby Einstein either on DVDs or through the Xbox 360 Netflix instant queue. Steph and I can finally pick and choose interesting shows to queue up on the DVR, in addition to watching movies via Netflix. When you have children, you spend a lot of weekend time at home -- all the better to have the TV showing football games while you clean house or have company over. Accordingly, I used the insurance payout money from the video games we didn't replace, added in some card sales income, and bought two things: a subscription to DirecTV service with the NFL Sunday Ticket, and a new Samsung LED TV. So far, both are delivering an intense and fun experience at an acceptable cost. Even when the football season is over, both will continue to be useful just about every single day. That is what you hope for in a wellspring -- something that more than pulls its weight in the time-money equation.

Not much else has changed. There is no reason to look at a time-money value equation for household goods or sundries, and it goes without saying that the top priority for money needs to be aggressively attacking debt if you have any. But once you get past those steps, you have some decisions to make. You can get more out of your free time, as Steph and I hope we will, by discarding sinkholes and seeking wellsprings.

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