When it comes to money, traditional advice prizes activity. We are told to work hard, proactively budget, and to constantly seek better ways to save and earn. We are encouraged to continually optimize and maximize. However, I have found myself wondering lately if there is also a place for laziness in personal finance.
For instance, we know that with investing the best thing to do is to just set it up, automate it, then effectively forget about it except for an annual portfolio rebalance. Are there other areas where the best thing to do is to just not worry about it? We’ve had some luck with a few experiences lately that make me think there might be something to this whole “laziness” thing.
The Couch Upgrade
When Mr. Steward and I moved into our new house, we furnished it almost entirely with furniture left by two of my great-grandmothers who passed away. Granny loved reproduction Victorian furniture. We were grateful to have furniture at all. That is how this sofa came to live at the end of our large open-concept kitchen and sitting room for over two years:
While I don’t hate the lines, this mauve couch is definitely not to my taste. It throws off the cozy quality of our room. But its unique, structured shape meant that I could not find a slipcover cheaper than just replacing the couch, and even used couches are more expensive than I wanted to pay. There’s also the real risk of bedbugs in our town, which I was not ready to deal with. So, despite my cursory scans of Craigslist for a replacement, the pink couch remained.
That is, until a couple of weeks ago, when a friend who is decorating his new condo asked if anyone wanted his old Ikea couch, free as long as we came to get it. The couch has problems. A couple of the cushions are stained in the corners, and apparently some of the supports beneath are broken. I honestly can’t tell the latter from sitting on it, though. Stains are, in some ways, a plus for us now, since we have small children in our home. Its slouchy style and cream color perfectly fit with our room’s aesthetic, especially piled with bright throw pillows.
By just chilling and making do with what we had for two years, we managed to get a couch that perfectly fits our needs, for free, from someone who was as eager to have it gone as I am the pink couch. Win-win.
The Sale of Mr. Steward’s Sable
We bought a minivan from my grandfather back in June. When we bought it, we had roughly three weeks left on Mr. Steward’s insurance to get his car sold. And then… we just didn’t. His Sable sat in front of our house for a couple of months without even a “for sale” sign on it.
I refused to get involved in the sale process. I was five months pregnant and dealing with the haggling and creep-factor of Craigslist was not for me at that moment, especially when it was Mr. Steward’s car. I looked up the Kelley Blue Book value, told Mr. Steward what I thought we should minimally get from it ($1500), and left it in his hands.
Completely unknown to me, Mr. Steward was considering donating the car. He heard a story in his men’s group at church of how a thousand dollar car, donated to a young man by an older gentleman, changed the man’s life by allowing him to find consistent employment again. Mr. Steward had been praying about whether that was something he should do instead of selling it. Then he came home to this sticky note on our door:
Mr. Steward called the gentleman, feeling skeptical but figuring it couldn’t hurt. It turns out, he was a seminary student who lived around our neighborhood. He had a wife and a large, young family. He was looking for a beater to drive back and forth to his school in the city so his wife could keep their nicer truck at home to use with the kids. In the course of discussion, we also discovered his wife’s family was from around the same area that Mr. Steward is from in Chicago.
We ended up selling them the car for $1000, less than what I thought we should get if we really intended to maximize our profit from the sale, but more than we would have gotten if Mr. Steward had donated it. And, of course, that was certainly more than we were getting letting it molder on our front curb.
Moreover, we feel really good about the sale. From what we could tell, $1000 is really all the family had to put towards the car. Could that have been a lie? Were we taken in by an elaborate ploy to get our sale price lowered? Sure, but we’re not worried about it. We’d rather feel that we took the chance and tried to help someone in need than be paranoid. That is especially true since we had done literally nothing to try to sell the car. We had a problem removed from our hands in a fashion that felt like a “God-thing.” All I did was renew the insurance for a test drive.
So Can Laziness Pay?
We had two financial situations resolve themselves without us lifting a finger to make it happen. There’s something fun and memorable about watching a problem fix itself in a way that feels like fate, serendipity, or what-have-you. I feel happier with the outcome in such situations. Thus it seems that there is a case for laziness. Still, laziness seems to work best under a couple of conditions:
The situation is low-stakes to start. I found the pink couch ugly and mildly annoying, but it’s not as if we had literally nowhere to sit. With the car, we were not so strapped for cash that it was imperative that we get it sold.
There is no time pressure. In the case of the pink couch, we could have simply kept it forever if we never found a better option. The car would eventually have needed maintenance if we hadn’t sold it, but that time horizon was still a few months away.
And there lies the crux of the laziness conundrum. There’s no way anyone should leave high-stakes or urgent money situations to chance. Those situations should indeed be proactively managed precisely because they are the things that get our attention and weigh heavily on us. There is no reason to put up with annoyance or worries about the financial things that matter most to us (like retirement!) Moreover, there’s a satisfaction, different from feeling lucky but equally good, in watching one’s intentional plans come to fruition.
Still, I wonder if it might be worthwhile to try to leave a little room for chance when it comes to the marginal concerns of our lives. I’ve found myself in many situations where trying to be proactive but only sort-of caring brought a lot of headache, and not necessarily any greater outcome than if I had just left it alone. It makes me wonder if there are more situations that would result in me being delighted by the outcome if I would let them be instead of trying to fix them.
Do you think it might be worthwhile to try to pursue greater “laziness” in personal finance? How would you decide when to be proactive and when to let things play out?