The Mental Health Trade-Off: When Spending More Money Might Be The Right ChoiceChia-Li Chien, Ph.D., CFP®, PMP®, CPBC
by Chia-Li Chien, Ph.D., CFP®, PMP®, CPBC, Aug 21, 2021
Individuals rarely make financial decisions based on numbers alone. Financially successful people examine costs and savings regularly to inform their choices, but ultimately the numbers are only one part of the picture. I have an example from my own life where I have chosen to spend more money because the benefit to my mental health outweighs the cost.
In 2014, I was involved in a fatal car accident. This was a traumatic event that continues to cause me stress when I drive, especially when I am meeting the demands of a busy work schedule. My main sources of work-related transportation are Lyft, Uber, and taxis. My husband, TC, has rightly pointed out that it is cheaper to own and drive a car compared to using ride-shared services. I agree with him 100%, but that does not mean that I will change my behavior.
Transportation is a necessary living expense, which is especially costly for us because we live in both North Carolina and California. TC complains about the expense of the car rental between the Los Angeles airport and our California home. He would like to buy a new Chevrolet® Spark in California to avoid paying that cost. TC is right on the money and quite logical about wanting to own a small car to save money, and owning assets is a great way to hedge against inflation in housing and transportation. But the point he is missing is that I choose not to drive. As a certified financial planner, you might assume that I always make decisions based on financial benefits. But I understand that there are trade-offs, and I am not willing to give in on this point because I also need to protect my emotional well-being.
If we were to own a Chevrolet® Spark in California, I would need to drive to the airport to pick up TC when he flies in, which is an hour trip with no traffic. When I fly into California and he is still back in North Carolina, I need to pick up the car at the long-term parking and drive home. In TC’s mind, these drives should not be stressful, but I used to drive home from the airport on business trips after exhausting work and travel and, as people who have driven in Los Angeles might understand, it is a stressful drive for many people. For me, it is compounded by my past trauma. Below I will walk through the two types of prudence related to the decision facing TC and me, then examine the trade-offs.
TC spends an average of 6% of our after-tax income on ground transportation annually. The transportation expenses include the auto loan, gasoline, insurance, and maintenance. During the pandemic in 2020, I spent less than 2% of our after-tax income on ground transportation, but that year was an outlier. Under normal circumstances, I estimate that I also spend an average of 6% of our after-tax income on ground transportation through ride-sharing. TC is looking only at the rental car expense savings, but he is not factoring in the entire cost of owning a car.
Mental health prudence
To protect myself from stress and anxiety, using ride-share services and taxis makes the most sense. The stress I feel about getting to and from the airport or work is almost debilitating, especially when I am stuck in traffic or having trouble finding a parking space. A further benefit to protecting my mental health is that reduced stress helps me be more productive to do other things in life. I am better able to focus on my work projects and enjoy personal activities that keep me well-balanced.
Considering the trade-off
I am not against those who make decisions based on the financial benefits alone, like my wonderful husband. In most areas, we are in complete agreement. We max out retirement savings at work annually, and we conserve our spending regularly. We are not in the top U.S. income level bracket (U.S. Census Bureau, 2019). We live a simple life, choosing to spend only what we need. We also choose to save for the future and conserve our consumption. We’ve been prudent with our money for three decades together. And because we are financially conservative in these other areas, we have enough to afford to take mental prudence into account.
I choose to remind myself of two factors, other than mathematical savings, that tip the scales toward ride-sharing. The first is that money is a tool to help us get things accomplished in life, and strong mental health helps me to achieve my larger goals. The second is that TC brings up the issue only when he comes to our home in California, which is only four times a year. The stress of the conversation is minimal compared to the stress of driving.
Strike a healthy balance
Everyone faces financial decisions that are influenced by factors beyond mathematical prudence. There is no right or wrong about what is “enough,” but it is important to consider decisions holistically and analyze the trade-offs. A word of caution: it is important not to rationalize destructive behaviors by claiming prudence when you have not given the issue careful consideration. We can all exercise prudence, whether it is based on mathematics or mental health. When in doubt, stop and consult with a financial planner, therapist, coach, or counselor before you damage your financial or mental well-being.
U.S. Census Bureau. (2019). 2019 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates. Retrieved from U.S. Census Bureau: https://data.census.gov/cedsci/table?q=United%20States&g=0100000US&tid=ACSST1Y2019.S1901&hidePreview=true