There’s a Buddhist story of a young monk who approached a well-known master and asked to study under him. The old master replied, “Yes, for $500” (or some such number). For three months, the young monk studied and practiced hard, but he felt angry with the master. Finally, he confronted the sage and said “This is ridiculous, you don’t charge anyone else!” The sage then agreed to let him study for free.
But after another few months, the master called in the apprentice. “You have stopped learning, your practice is sloppy. What do you think?” After reflecting, the monk realized, “Perhaps I don’t value it now that I’m not trying to get my money’s worth.”
It’s a dilemma for the frugal. This can work for us or it can work against us. On the one hand, it’s great to find deals (CVS anyone?) or free activities.
There’s a lot we can enjoy without having to pay much or anything. My husband and I love taking walks. We’ve enjoyed some free DC museums and plan to visit more. And there’s the bonus of not worrying about opportunity costs. That is, if it rains on the day we planned to do something, we don’t have to sweat it because we didn’t buy tickets. And we don’t feel the pressure to get our money’s worth out of the experience, so we can just relax and enjoy.
On the flip side, while cheap/free is sometimes better because while we didn’t have to pay for it, we might also collect meaningless clutter and waste it. For example, buying lots of junk at a yardsale because it’s so cheap. Or using CVS bonuses to get free things we’ll never use. Or we might not stick with a free concert series because we can’t bring ourselves to get off the sofa, even though we’d enjoy the experience.
It can be counterproductive when it pressures us to inaction or stresses us unduly, but the desire to get our money’s worth is a great motivator for doing things which feel hard after a while. In the story, the monk studied diligently even if he was grumpy. He learned a lot. When he stopped having the motivator of money at stake, he didn’t have a reason to persevere.
The moral of the story isn’t that we have to pay for everything. Instead, it’s that we should remember not to undervalue the free and cheap things in life.