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The Twenty Dollar Swim

Gratuitous mid-lake selfie from yet another day of nearly-zero-dollar “motor”boating, earlier this week.

It was mid July, and I had just finished a sweaty run on the trails which criscross my older sister’s farm in Canada. I was overheated and heading straight for their swimming pool when she saw me walking across the lawn.

“Oh yeah, please do use the pool! You’ll help get my cost per use down because it’s still way up there in crazy territory”, she joked.

Moments like these are why I love being part of this family. The self-deprecating Spock-like humour where we can make fun of our own flaws and indulgences, while simultaneously enjoying them just as much.

But it also sparked an interesting conversation, because I knew they had been running this pool since the early 2000s, raised their two now-adult water loving boys in the house, and hosted gatherings for family and friends throughout every summer. And it wasn’t an exorbitant pool. Surely this was one of the more affordable indulgences, right?

“Has the cost per swim really been that high?”, I asked.

“Every jump into that pool has cost almost twenty bucks, if you average it out.” she replied.

“Wow, how could that be true?!” I mused.

So I did some rough calculations like those you see in the box below, which you can totally skip right over* if you just want the final answer.

The pool originally cost $30,000

But that money could have been invested instead, which would have compounded at 7% for these 18 years.

$30k compounded at 7% (30×1.07^18) is an amazing $101,300!

Electricity at 10 kwh/day x $0.20 at for 100 days per season is $200 per season or $3600 total
Chlorine and other chemicals: $600 per season add to $10,800
Maintenance like vacuums, nets, a new liner: $800 per season $14,400

We’re already at $130,000

Not even counting the hundreds of hours that went into scooping out bugs, spiders, mice, and even raccoons, and potentially higher home insurance premiums and water bills (in my region a 25,000 gallon pool costs $125 in water to fill – once!)

And how many swims were enjoyed in the pool? If every family member swam every day for every season, you’d still only end up at 18 years x 100 days x 4 people = 7200 swims.

$130 grand divided by 7200 is $18.oo


.

So the final number is about 18 bucks per person per swim, just as my sister claimed.

Looking forward to a refreshing dip with Mom and Dad and the kids? That’s $72 bucks that you ended up burning, by the time all the chips fell.

I know this is a strange way to think about a swimming pool. But this is a Mr. Money Mustache article, and this site is all about different ways to think about your life decisions.

Most people just say something like, “Well, we’ve already got it so we might as well enjoy it, right?”

The problem is that they also apply this to other purchases, even those they haven’t made yet. The richer our tastes become, the more likely we are to buy ourselves little upgrades “just because it would be nice”, or “just in case”,  or because Joe Jones next door or a magazine article mentioned the idea.

“Okay Mr. Money Mustache, What Are You Taking Away From Me This Time?”

Don’t worry, I’m not necessarily going to strip you of your dreams of that swimming pool, or anything else. But I do want you to start thinking about these costs in a much more visceral and explicit way, so you can really make sure you are not fooling yourself. For example, let’s step through a few more common blunders:

  • “We had a great time visiting the Smiths in their ski house last weekend – LET’S GET ONE OURSELVES!” – sure, as long as you are ready to devote your financial life to the activity and the activity is worth $890.00 per night you actually spend there. But if this number sounds like anything other than chump change, you and your friends might want to just share an Airbnb for your ski weekends, or even better, take up local mountain biking instead of far-away skiing.
  • “I like these two houses equally, but one of them has a much bigger yard which is better for Junior to play in. They’re the same price and the bigger yard is just ten miles down the road!” – okay, but make sure that Junior’s time in the extra yard space is worth $150 per hour.
  • “I’m thinking of springing for the $9000 long-range battery in my upcoming Tesla Model 3 order” – this one strikes straight at my own heart, because I crave a long range Model 3 myself. But even for a serious roadtripper, this works out to $125 per hour of charging time that you manage to avoid. Aren’t you willing to take a few minutes occasionally to walk around and admire your beautiful car if you get paid $125 per hour after tax for it? If you are, standard range will do.
  • “I live in an area with snowy winters, so I need all-wheel-drive” since we already learned that all-wheel-drive does not make you safer, the only time it actually helps you is when it prevents you from being stuck. But this could work out to between $50 and $500 per time the AWD actually gets you out of a bind. Aren’t you willing to shovel your driveway a bit more thoroughly (or work from home on the worst days) for $500 a pop?
  • “We’d love to have an extra bedroom as a way of accommodating Grandma’s Annual Visit” Sure, but if you spend $30,000 extra on a slightly larger house and use that guest room 20 nights per year, it’s about $70 per night that you use it. 
  • “I live in Chicago and we just love to spend weekends on the Boat.” Even if you go all-in and give up all your weekend activities on the land to maximize your time down at the marina, those nights in that little wedge-shaped cabin bed will average out to about $500 per night. Or more if you opt for a bigger boat or more time with the motor on.
  • “We love to explore and be free for a few months each year, so we’re getting an RV and towing the car…” But a three month, 15,000 mile RV trip works out to about $200 per night that you sleep in that vehicle – why not pick up a fairly new Prius and a good tent and hit the road, and treat yourself to beautiful rental accommodation whenever you want it along the way?

We could go on and on with these examples, but the real thing to understand is that making commitments usually comes with a bigger cost than you expect. There are a shitload of dollars at stake, but also a substantial portion of your focus and mental energy which will go into furnishing, maintaining, insuring, and cleaning these pleasant weekend distractions.

“But How Can I do It Better While Keeping My Life Fun?”

As a Mustachian, you have way more options open to you than you realize. But to take advantage of them, you need to stop doing what other people are doing, and live differently.

At the most frugal level, you can just cut yourself off cold turkey. From now on, just start doing all leisure within biking distance of home, and preparing all of your own food – no exceptions. You can still organize and host parties, however.

If you’re in a stressful debt situation right now and want to be out of it, you should just do this right now as a mental reset and watch the incredible results on your wealth. Most people who hit this reset button end up between $20,000 and $100,000 further ahead within just the first year, with many happy stories to share about it, so if you’re in need of a quick life boost, do this instead of dilly-dallying around with my rich person suggestions below.

But if you’re a debt free person with higher income and just want to accelerate your path to financial freedom, you can still dabble in the spendier life and keep up with your peers, by simply shuffling the luxury deck a little bit differently. A few principles that can still cut your budget by 75%:

  • Prioritize the healthy stuff first: It’s the weekend and you are ready to celebrate. But first, what’s on your to-do list? Are you fully caught up on your workouts, grocery shopping, and various nonsense with the incoming mail? If not, budget a full day for that rather than packing up the car for a road trip. How’s your yard looking? Have you fixed that door that doesn’t latch correctly? Well, look at that, your whole weekend is booked after all and you’ll feel better for it.
  • Muscle over Motor: If you like being on the slopes, learn to mountain bike. If you like being on the water, try a big, cushy sea kayak complete with cupholders for your sunrise coffee or sunset beer. Invite your fit and funloving friends and start exploring waterways everywhere. Or if you want a night out on the town, choose somewhere close and grab your bike rather than somewhere far and looking for your car keys or your Uber app.
  • Rent Instead of Buying: With Airbnb or even plain old hotels, you can still have weekend getaways when you truly deserve and can afford them, and yet the cost per use is much lower. The numbers will still look big, and that’s a good thing because you will be reminded that it is always expensive to leave your already-perfectly-good-home and go out to do even fancier things. When you’re living large, it’s best to joyfully acknowledge it rather than pretending it’s normal.
  • Make Special Arrangements: If you like cottages, make yourself useful to a friend who owns a cottage, by always being the one to bring the food or the wine, or donating your time to help with the maintenance or renovations. I helped build a cottage for my inlaws in Canada a few years back, and have enjoyed the fruits of our combined labor ever since – at no cost to the MMM family. Similarly, if you like boats, volunteer as part of the crew on a real yacht. If you like houses, specialize in building or renovating them, or hosting paying guests in the unused portions. If you like cars, become a car expert rather than just a car consumer.

The Final Word:

If you’re already eating and sleeping well, chances are that you already have all the basic ingredients for a happy life.  So as you go on to start adding some spices to the dish as all of us do, just be sure you look at the price tag. The advantage you’ll gain will last a lifetime.

 


Epilogue: Just this year, after her boys had grown up and flown from the nest and all the fun had been had, they filled in the pool and are in the process of replacing it with trees and other natural landscaping instead. A bold move that few people would be rational enough to take – live long and prosper, Sister.

Extra Credit: Here are a few of the cost-per-use calculations I made for this article. Share some of your own in the comments!

Mountain house: $24,000 per year mortgage and/or capital cost, furnishings, utilities and maintenance divided by 30 nights per year. Plus $90 in car costs per roundtrip drive for a weekend.

Bigger yard: 1 hour per week of activities that really could not have been done in a smaller yard or an outdoor park, compared to 100 miles of extra driving ($50) and 3.5 hours of your time ($100) spent doing that driving.

Tesla Battery Upgrade: The only time you use the longer range is on roadtrips over 230 miles. If you do a 600-mile trip once every month, you have to make two extra 30-minute charging stops per month. Figure the $9000 battery costs you about $1500 in extra capital cost and depreciation per year, or $125 per month. However, if you are a Tesla fan like me and you want the company to make more profit to continue their mission, you may still opt for the extra options since you have nothing better to do with that money anyway.

All wheel drive car: if the car costs $5000 more up-front plus an extra $200 per year in fuel and maintenance, you could estimate it as about $500 per year more expensive to own. Then, how many times do you truly get stuck in a front-wheel drive car with really good dedicated snow tires on winter rims? (because snow tires always come before buying AWD!)

Grandma’s bedroom: a $30k more expensive house might consume about 2% of that extra cost in maintenance and taxes annually ($300), plus 5% annually in financing/capital costs ($1800), for a total of $2100 per year. Strangely enough, this extra bedroom works out to be one of the cheaper indulgences in this list, especially if you can use that room as an office too, or rent it out occasionally.

Boat: It costs about $15,000 per year to own, dock, store, transport, maintain, depreciate, and fuel a 26-foot motorboat with a little sleeper cabin in the front. If you spend each of the sixteen weekends of Chicago’s warm seasons exclusively in the boat, you’ve still done only about 32 days there, which yields the surprisingly high cost of almost $500 per night.

RV: Even a relatively small $50,000 RV depreciates about $0.50 per mile and burns fuel and oil and tires at another fifty cents. And that’s before you even pay for supplies, maintenance and nightly parking fees! Large RV travel is even dumber, financially speaking – note that the fanciest tour-bus-sized RVs you see cost about $500,000! The physics are simply against you if you are trying to travel in your own personal rolling building. Although stationary living in a not-too-expensive RV or trailer can be a highly Mustachian choice.

* I let you skip that one just so you would keep reading and see my point. But now that you see it, hopefully you also see that you do need to look at the numbers in life and figure this stuff for yourself, because it’s a way bigger deal than you might think!

 

  • TP September 18, 2018, 8:01 am

    Hmm, we all look down on “fuzzy math” when it attempts to justify an expensive purchase. You know what I’m saying: “It’s only a few more dollars per month.” is one example.
    This math is just as “fuzzy” as that type of justification — it just goes in the other direction.
    This per-swim math assumes that the homeowner would’ve invested the 30K … assumes that the money would’ve been allowed to grow — wouldn’t have been pulled out to pay off the house or buy a new car. Assuming the best-case situation isn’t a hard-and-fast rule.

    Reply
  • Max Schneider October 1, 2018, 8:18 am

    Sure, renting something occassionally (when you really want/need it) is often cheaper than owning it.

    BUT: Would you REALLY rent it if you thought you needed it or would you balk at the sticker price and find another solution / do something else instead?

    Renting a boat is surely cheaper than owning one but the sticker price is usually shockingly high. Would you still take that sailing trip? That ski vacation? If it’s your boat/house you might aswell because the marginal cost is negligible – if the sticker shock of renting in high season hits you you may not go at all, even if it would totally make sense.

    Reply
    • Mr Normal Mustache October 1, 2018, 11:03 am

      Isn’t that like saying “if you rent it, you understand the per-use cost, so buy it so that you hide your financial insanity within an automatic monthly payment!”

      Basically, I think you’re arguing in favor of making a worse financial choice, so that you feel less guilt about living an extravagant lifestyle.

      Instead, I think we want to do the exact opposite – pay the full price of our choices, up front, so that we aren’t trying to lie to ourselves about our habits. When we’re honest about our financial priorities, we can actually be in control of our lives instead of just following consumerist inertia. And sometimes, you want to do something extravagant, and that’s ok – but isn’t it better to decide that deliberately than try to trick yourself into believing you’re being frugal when you aren’t?

      Reply
  • Fred Meissner October 5, 2018, 4:28 am

    I got tired of paying for expensive lift tickets at ski mountains, so I’ve switched over to backcountry skiing or “touring”. Depending on where you live, there are more trails to explore, it’s awesome exercise, and you appreciate the downhills even more. Plus, you get to bring your dog!

    Reply
  • Greg Wostrel October 8, 2018, 1:09 pm

    Wonderful post, as always. Its so important to be reminded about the long-term implications of our (financial) actions.
    But, I’ll offer a “special case” scenario regarding the pool.

    My wife and I moved to central Florida last year after both kids finished (very pricey) college and moved on with their significant others into their own homes and careers. We sold the CT house and moved south.
    We just bought a 1600sf 3/2 house with a 35’x18′ concrete in-ground pool. The house cost only a few thousand more than comparable non-pool houses in the town. June, July, August, and September get very humid, quite hot and the sun is blazing. ALL part of the reasons for moving.

    We are in that pool several times EVERY day. We keep the AC (when its running) at 80F or so and just jump in the pool when we’re feeling a little warm. Or jump in to cool off after a hot humid run, or after yoga, or a bike ride, or cool/rinse off after being at the beach. Its also her therapy when she returns home after a 12 hour shift as an Emergency Room RN.

    The pool transforms our home into a spa-like resort. Plus our maintenance time/costs are way below what everyone is reporting. The town allows for a single complete pool fill at a greatly reduced rate each year, I spend possibly two hours a week between skimming, testing, adjusting, and cleaning. Its simple and easy.

    Yes, we spend more money and time HAVING a pool than not. We also aren’t able to use the money spent for other things (like investing), but, odd as it may sound, I think the pool helps us to keep focused on getting to work and keeping the money coming in so that we get out of debt and start inching closer to independence.

    So, along with the mustachian calculations, its important to also consider the lifestyle implications.

    Reply
  • T on FIRE October 21, 2018, 4:10 pm

    Wow. I’ve been telling my husband I want a pool. He’s been agreeing that it’s a good idea. Not anymore. I think what REALLY got me is what I could do instead with “pool money”, i.e. invest it and make tons more! UGH. I’m sad. But also happy that I’m now thinking about the cost per swim vs. just plowing ahead to mega-debt land. The good news is, our city has 2 indoor pools and multiple (totally free) outdoor pools when the weather is warm! I think maybe I also need to befriend a pool owner…thanks for helping me see this from a different perspective.

    Reply
  • Karen Munyon February 18, 2019, 11:26 pm

    We have inground pool, a million channels on stupid TV, A million computers,A million spent on stuff and still money going everywhere—-so sad. Can’t get off this roller coaster of money spender spouse and kids. So now,I looking at nose jobs and mommy make overs. And expensive kids camps —-where they are with age groups peers. I wish we had a better look. At money stuff. But sanity and eating out not cooking and sanity of health by having own pool and not gym membership of 100 bucks and own gym equipment 2000. And heating and vibrating couch and 3 vehicles-we can’t stop. —sad —and I and spouse grew up poor.

    Reply
  • stephanie March 19, 2019, 5:55 am

    So, I get kind of obsessed with cost per use- about many things, however, I just calculated how much it costs to snuggle my pooch and its about 10 cents per snuggle/use currently lol. Worth it!!

    This article really helped me realize what I am willing to pay for the luxuries in my life.

    Reply
  • Marie April 9, 2019, 6:32 pm

    I’m curious to know what the cost of a natural pond is? Out in the country acerage has a lower purchase price and installing a natural pond that feeds trees and wildlife is probably less expensive then a pristine pool.

    Reply
  • Carmencita.c February 12, 2020, 11:35 pm

    I just saw watched this ridiculous celebrity exchange and immediately thought of this article and wanted to share. Kim and Kanye doing a “design quiz” as part of their LA home tour for Architectural Digest (groan I know):

    Kanye: when was the last time you used our pool?
    Kim: I have never used our pool actually
    Kanye: What?!
    Kim: Yeah, can you believe that? But, I love our pool.

    https://www.instagram.com/stories/highlights/17878848727513718/

    Reply
  • Derek June 30, 2020, 5:03 pm

    this is awesome MMM. Your thinking helps a lot, I personally kind of think like this but having these calculations and currently reading the millionaire next door is emphasizing these thoughts. I hope to meet you one day when I move to CO

    Reply
  • Married to a Swabian July 3, 2020, 5:44 am

    I’m a lifelong swimmer and it’s a great sport: awesome for cardio, strength and low impact. Plus, lots of folks swim well into their eighties! Until the pandemic, I had a non-mustachian health club membership at over $65/mo. Ouch! But they have a great pool that provides lap swim all day long and no kids. Based on this post, I would calculate my cost per swim…which for the year leading up to Covid was around $3, since I was in the pool 5 days per week.
    Now, however, I’ve cancelled my membership (facility still closed anyway due to Covid) and found a great small lake that is clean and doesn’t allow boats! Perfect for fitness swimming. I invested in a wetsuit to extend the outdoor swimming season here in MI, which will probably go through Oct. after that, Virus Situation permitting, there’s a community pool that is only lightly used and costs just $10/month. Yay. ;) Well, off to the lake now!

    Reply

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