“You only get a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity so many times.”
“Every man is entitled to make a darn fool of himself at least once in a lifetime.”
After I graduated from West Point and finished with my officer basic training course, I was stationed in Germany. While I spent a little over 40% of my time there deployed to Bosnia, I did try my hardest to squeeze every ounce of pleasure out of the remaining 60%. I tried to go somewhere every weekend that I could, and spent countless dinners in German restaurants as well as consumed countless German beers in countless German bars.
There was one problem. I was a young Army officer, and I wasn’t exactly being paid top dollar.
As I explained in “Do You Need to Save Money in Your Twenties?” I was living on more than I was earning. In fact, the deployments were a welcome (almost) opportunity for me to get caught back up with my financial situation, because there was nothing to spend money on, and, not only was I receiving a stipend for being in a hostile fire zone, but I was getting my pay tax-free.
I knew I was living beyond my means and counting on deployments much like Clark Griswold counted on the annual company bonus to pay for his pool installation in Christmas Vacation (#aff).
But, did I stop?
Of course not!
Every time I’d look at a credit card bill or have to whip out the credit card because I’d run out of money for the month, I’d think to myself:
Self, we have to stop this nonsense.
Hearing the threat of dialing back the exorbitant lifestyle, Monkey Brain went into full panic mode.
Monkey Brain: “NEVER GET A CHANCE TO LIVE IN…WHATEVER THIS COUNTRY NAMED…AGAIN! CAN PAY LATER WHEN CORPORATE SLAVE IN CUBICLE FARM.”
Me: “Oof. Sounds terrible! Better order another hefeweizen!”
So, instead of dialing back my lifestyle and reining in my spending, I told myself that I’d never have another chance to live in Germany, so I should whoop it up while I could.
There were two problems with this approach to life (besides the glaringly obvious one that expenses were greater than income).
Why “You’ll Never be Able to [WHATEVER] Again” is a Terrible Justification for Almost Anything
Most of our lives are a series of firsts and onlys. I’ve been to Reykjavík, Iceland in the middle of December. I’ll almost certainly never do that again. Parents will only have one chance to see the birth of their firstborn child. You get the point.
However, aside from experiences that are physically impossible to replicate, such as the birth of your firstborn child, just because you haven’t or won’t experience something again doesn’t mean that you couldn’t. You may not choose to do so again, but that is not the same as never being able to do so.
Yet, when we’re faced with a decision, particularly regarding an experience and going beyond our means to have that experience, we pull out the kissing cousin to YOLO and exclaim “we’ll never be in [Bora Bora/Walla Walla/Our Next Door Neighbor’s Kitchen] again, so we may as well [rent that yacht for the next six months/buy the caviar that was hand-picked and delivered on foot by a team of Sherpas/rent the Goodyear blimp so that we can get a bird’s eye view of the Super Bowl]!” thereby, giving ourselves justification to whip out the credit card and spend well beyond what we’d planned to do.
But, we’re simply using “we’ll never be here again” as a justification to create future regret, when the reality is that, if you really want to do so, and you plan properly, and you save and invest wisely, you can have that experience again. I used the justification of never living in Germany again to blow money nearly every weekend that I was there. Yet, eight years later, I was touring Germany (you can listen to a podcast describing my experiences at The Amateur Traveler).
The second problem with using “we’ll never…” as a justification is that if you do it once, Monkey Brain will learn that he can do it again. Each time you’re faced with temptation to go beyond your means, he’ll trot out the timeworn and proven justification. Since you’ll have already said yes once, it’ll be much, much, much easier to do so the second, third, and four hundred and fifty seventh times. You can’t tell Monkey Brain “just this once.”
Instead, you get on the hedonic treadmill. More and more occasions get the “special” tag, and you have to come up with bigger and bigger experiences to get that same level of satisfaction that you did the first time.
So, next time you’re tempted to be extravagant beyond what you’d planned for and feel like using the phrase “we’ll never [WHATEVER] again, so let’s make this special,” remember:
Monkey Brain is probably lying to you.