There Are Times When Saving a Dollar Isn’t Worth It

Nothing helps you recover from knee surgery like a dog.

“A lot of people have great ideas, but nothing in the world is cheaper than a good idea with no action.”

I have always been on the search for a way to save a dollar. When I was in high school, I’d drive an hour to go to the only consignment store in our county to purchase Guess jeans (did I just date myself?) for $10. I was the type of person who would walk through the grocery store and only eat samples just to get a free meal. When my wife and I were first married, we had many meals of Chicken Voila! I don’t put an exclamation point there because it was so exciting. That was the name of the brand: Chicken Voila!

Even though we can now afford to loosen up the purse strings and live a little, I oftentimes just can’t shake that frugal feeling. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; there’s no point in spending money needlessly on things which don’t really matter to me. However, there are times when it makes sense to actually spend a little money on something because going the cheap or free route winds up costing so much more in the long run.

I’ll share an example of a very stupid money decision I recently made.

Four months ago, I injured my knee running with my dog. My primary care physician told me that he would need a MRI to see what had truly happened with my knee and how badly I’d injured it. We’d recently had to get an MRI for my wife and I knew that the co-payment for a MRI was $340.00. Being mentally cheap, I figured I’d be better off going to the VA hospital to get a MRI, since it would be free for me given my disabled veteran status.

It took 51 days for me to get my MRI. The VA hospital was supposed to mail my results to my primary care physician within 5 business days. The MRI CD never arrived. So, I had to go to the VA hospital, fill out a form, and then wait another week to get another copy of the MRI, which I then picked up and hand-carried to my doctor. As a result, I had to wait another 20 days between getting my MRI and actually having my doctor looking at the results.

14 days later, I was being wheeled out of surgery and into the recovery room.

When my wife had her MRI, through a private hospital, it took less than a week from the time her primary care physician saw her and ordered the MRI until the results were ready.

Because I was being cheap, I needlessly extended my discomfort and pain by 9 weeks. All to save $340, which we had already set aside for medical expenses, since we budget for irregular expenses.

Did we do anything with that $340? No. It still sits in our side account, earmarked for medical expenses which might arise in the future.

For those of you who are curious about how much arthroscopic knee surgery in Fort Worth, Texas costs, I’ll run down the numbers. We have an excellent healthcare insurance policy provided by my wife’s employer, so your mileage may vary. I’ll include the MRI cost, since most of you don’t qualify for the free MRI from the VA, and, if I had it to do over again, I’d have gone with a private provider.

  • Initial doctor’s visit: $20 co-pay
  • Naproxen prescription: $10 co-pay
  • Follow-up doctor’s visit: $20 co-pay
  • MRI: $340 co-pay
  • Doctor’s visit: $20 co-pay
  • Pre-surgery consultation: $20 co-pay
  • Surgery: $150 co-pay (it would have cost $5,885.50 rack rate)
  • Vicodin prescription (wasted, as I never used or needed it): $10 co-pay
  • 4 ice bags for ice pump: $10
  • Total out of pocket cost for surgery and recovery: $580.00

From what I recall of my wife’s MRI, the rack rate cost was about $3,000. So, if we had a high deductible healthcare plan, we would have probably already hit our deductible for the year.

As it was, we spent $240, since I traded 9 weeks of discomfort to save $340.

That was not a wise financial move. $340 is well worth 9 weeks of comfort. For those of you playing along, that’s $37.78 per week, or $5.40 per day. That’s a cheap price for being able to walk normally.

Don’t make the same “dollar saving” mistake I did. I was only looking at dollars and cents. I wasn’t looking at the entire picture. Granted, I didn’t realize how glacially slow the VA system was, but once I went through the process and saw that it would take over a month just to get an appointment, I should have, at that point, made a decision to pony up the cash and get a MRI at a private care provider. Instead, I let Monkey Brain tether me to the sunk cost fallacy, even though it was a sunk cost of time. I’d already put in a lot of effort to get the procedure scheduled, and I didn’t want to put in more time (and then money) to change the path.

Time is a precious and finite commodity. There are appropriate tradeoffs of time for money, where you do things for yourself rather than spending money to have them done because you can save the money.

Nine weeks for $340 isn’t one of those.

This is the entire purpose of earning an income, saving money, investing it, being wise, and creating additional, and hopefully passive, streams of income – so you can make these tradeoffs. It’s a lesson to remember. You can work hard to get “there” and get to a point where you’re not having to scrimp and save for every last penny. However, once you do get there, don’t forget that you’ve actually made it and adjust your lifestyle (and your spending habits accordingly). That’s not to say that you should jack up the hedonic treadmill to the top speed, but, rather…

It’s OK to spend money when you have it.

Have you ever tried to save money only to regret the decision later? Tell us about your experiences in the comments below!

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Jason Hull was the co-founder of Broadtree Partners, a firm that acquires $1-5MM EBITDA companies. He also was the co-founder of open source search consultancy OpenSource Connections, a premier Solr and ElasticSearch firm. He and his wife FIREd (financial independence retire early) at 46 and 45, respectively. He has a BS from the United States Military Academy at West Point and a MBA from the University of Virginia Darden Graduate School of Business. He held a CFP certification from 2015 - 2021. You can read more about him in the About Page. If you live in Johnson County, Texas or the surrounding areas, he and his wife are cash buyers of Johnson County, Texas houses.

6 thoughts on “There Are Times When Saving a Dollar Isn’t Worth It

  1. “Ouch”! Heal fast.

    It would never have occurred to me to pay out-of-pocket for an MRI when the wait was “only” a month. I’d also be tempted to give the VA a few more chances before I decided to stop visiting them.

    I’ve had the same difficulty unclamping my fingers from my wallet. When frugality skills work so well for so long, there’s no incentive to change our behavior. I need to reassure myself that I can always clamp back down again if I have to, and I don’t think I’ll have to worry about developing a sense of entitlement…

    I guess the good news is that you didn’t need the Vicodin. But should the financial accounting include the street value of the leftover medications?

    1. Nords, you’re going to try to turn me into Jesse Pinkman, aren’t you? 🙂

      I have a theory (that I just developed) about turning off the frugality switch and then turning it back on. One of the ways we deal with ego depletion is simply avoiding having to make decisions. We’d rather not be faced with temptation at all than to have to say no. If I can’t walk away from the mall without the 183″ flat screen TV, then I simply don’t go to the mall rather than building up the mental muscles to strengthen my reserves of willpower.

      Thus, while, in avoiding temptation, we have succeeded in LBYM, we don’t truly know how we’d react under fire. You can practice on the field all you like, but you can never replicate gametime conditions. The only way to know how you’ll react in a match is to play in one. So, for those of us who have engaged in temptation avoidance as a counter to ego depletion, we’re afraid to loosen up the purse strings and live a little closer to the edge because we’re afraid of that slippery slope.

      With regards to waiting a month and giving the VA more chances, I had some noteworthy restrictions on my lifestyle after my injury. While the surgery, in toto wasn’t that big of a deal, I couldn’t do things I enjoyed like long walks with the dog, hikes, and anything athletic beyond sitting underneath the benchpress or lat machine. My utility loss was much higher than the utility I place on the $340 I should have spent to get the MRI done privately.

      If it’s routine work like a physical or vaccinations, I’d probably give the VA another chance (assuming they can figure out how to integrate their EHR system with private health providers), but when it involves quality of life issues, there’s no chance I’d go down that road again. I’d rather (gulp!) work longer if it came down to that fine of a margin.

  2. That’s crazy! My wife needs a couple of MRIs a year, and we avoid the hospital due to pricing. We do have a dedicated MRI lab in town though that is around 1/3 the price, and are very good with service.

    I wish hospitals were required to post pricing on all lab/diagnostic work, so people could shop around, and make a choice that fits their situation. They are one of the only industries that doesn’t do it.

    1. They don’t post the information because then you’d confuse what you’d have to pay with what insurance pays, and you wouldn’t go…except for people who are in your situation. You can always call around and shop for the best deal. Offer to pay for the procedure up front and in cash and see if you can get a discount.

      The MRI isn’t bad, but, my goodness, sitting there for 30-45 minutes with nothing to do but look at the ceiling while the loud, whirring machine makes noise. I felt like I was in the Stephen King story “The Jaunt.”

  3. It would have been one of my signature moves as well. Recently I have had the choice between getting free physicals in France (which I did on my last trip) or see someone immediately in Guatemala. I did it for non urgent dental work I could have had done in France too but would have had to book appointments weeks in advance and hope nothing goes wrong, if a follow up visit was needed it would have been 2 weeks later and impossible to attend. Paying for convenience is often worth it when you can afford it.

    1. It’s not like care in Guatemala is expensive! 🙂

      I think that we all reach a point in our lives where we swap our mindset from trading time for money (working longer hours, clipping coupons, being ultra DIYers) to the opposite – we trade money for time. Of course, you have to earn that right to be able to trade money for time; if you have no money, then you can’t trade it for convenience. Yes, I just said in twice as many words what you so pithily pointed out:

      Paying for convenience is often worth it when you can afford it.

      If people who aren’t at the “can afford it” stage would simply think in terms of reaching that point as quickly as possible, they could probably get Monkey Brain to play along. Monkey Brain doesn’t like work. So, do things which get you to the point of giving you the choice to purchase convenience as quickly as possible, and Monkey Brain can kick back in his hammock and eat bananas. Everyone wins.

      It’s why I really enjoy the premise of your website. You get it. Financial independence = freedom. It can also mean, when you choose it, convenience.

      Sometimes, though, once you’ve reached that point, you have to stop and remember that you’re there and that you can buy convenience.

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