Petty cash


Here’s the word of the day: money.

OK, that’s a big topic. So we’ll take a little slice from the small end of it. And here, when it comes to personal finance, there seem to be two competing schools of thought over small expenditures. Me, I don’t have any answers, but I’m always good for some beach chair commiseration as we ponder the questions.

Anyway, one school of thought, which is the laidback outlook, says that you shouldn’t worry about expenditures under $10. If you want it, buy it.

The arguments in favor of this approach probably overlap each other a bit, but with that in mind, I’ll mention a few.

One advantage of the laidback technique is that it’s easy. It therefore frees up your attention for bigger issues.

Another element is that life is more pleasant when you indulge the little pleasures as they cross your path. After all, life is short, and, worse yet, it’s uncertain, so we should gather our rosebuds while we may.

And yet another point here, one that has some scientific juice in behavioral economics, is that if you over-exert your willpower by denying yourself the little things that you want, you’ll eventually fatigue that willpower. In this vulnerable state, you run the risk of getting snared by a big thing. So, if you refuse yourself the pleasure of the little things, so the theory goes, you might wind up buying a shiny red sports car on impulse.

Now we’ll entertain the opposite school of thought. We can call this the penny-pinching viewpoint. And, indeed, pennies do add up to dollars, and dollars do add up to thousands of dollars, and so on.

Frugality is a virtue of long standing in both eastern and western cultures. Ben Franklin, for example, is credited with the observation, “A penny saved is a penny earned.” If that Yankee practicality doesn’t float your boat, then we can go way back, as in 2,500 years back, to the famous Chinese “Dao De Jing,” which lists “frugality” as one of the three treasures of the sage.

Even the simplest bean counting sure speaks for itself on this note. If your wallet seeps just $10 a day, that’s $300 a month, and, well, now we’re talking real money. It sure adds up fast; that’s the scary thing.

Anyway, such is my summary of these two concepts. The $10 threshold I mentioned is an old one. If you want to account for inflation you could easily justify $20 to provide contemporary equivalence. But what matters more than the dollar amount is the whole idea of either worrying about or not worrying about small expenditures, however you choose to define them.

Me, I’m in the laidback camp, probably owing to innate laziness. I just don’t want to invest my scant brainpower in agonizing over small expenditures.

Furthermore, many of my jobs have involved utterly uncertain travel schedules, which is a stressful enough way to live, so I was never tempted to compound the stress by fretting over expenditures. If there’s one thing I’ve learned when traveling, it’s to make things easy on myself. That way, I can conserve my patience and my energy for my actual work duties.

If my wallet is a bit leaky on the road, I’ll admit it’s not much tighter in an office. For example, during the times I’ve been pinned down to a desk job, I’ve never been able to resist going out with the pals for lunch instead of brown-bagging it. Saipan, in particular, is a high-noon paradise, since many restaurants make a workday lunch too enjoyable to pass up.

Before I get a stern finger-wagging aimed at me, I’ll gently offer a reminder that I’m merely talking about personal walking-around cash, not heavy budgeting issues, and not corporate financial management.

So the fact remains that we all have a threshold at which we’ll invest emotional energy in a contemplated expenditure, and it’s something we deal with, consciously or not, every single day. And so the distinction between petty cash, and being petty about cash, is one we have to decide for ourselves.

Ed Stephens Jr. | Special to the Saipan Tribune
Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at His column runs every Friday.

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