There’s a principle in medical science that’s most often cited as “the dose makes the poison.” Let’s talk about one example.
There’s a drug that’s a central nervous system stimulant, it’s massively addictive both physically and mentally and, when ingested, can cause aggression, heart palpitations, nausea, vomiting, disassociative and delusional behavior, even death.
Wow, what a horrible substance! Surely we must band together to ban this drug for the good of mankind!
Except, that will be kind of hard, and I will fight you over it. Because the substance we’re talking about is caffeine. And those effects only happen when ingesting massive doses. At least double what I ingest when work is buying me nitro cold brew. (Kidding. More like 1000x.)
Now, let’s talk about another substance. This one is an effective treatment for such serious illnesses as bronchopulmonary dysplasia and apnea in premature babies, it protects against Parkinson’s disease, and it can safely enhance athletic performance and improve mental alertness.
Is my narrative device too obvious here? Because we’re still talking about caffeine. And the point is:
Something can be harmless, harmful or even beneficial, and what’s good or bad is not the thing itself, but the dose.
“All things are poison, and nothing is without poison, the dosage alone makes it so a thing is not a poison.” — Paracelsus
(And for you non-science, literature nerds, Hamlet said something similar: “For there’s nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Looking out for you guys, too. #litnerdsunite)
The notion of the dose making the poison is the principle behind toxicology, and recognition that it matters whether we’re talking about a little bit or a lot of something. And it turns out that we can apply the exact same principle to money – and to all of life.
Money Isn’t Good or Bad
Some of the happiest people I’ve ever known were those who were shortest on money. And some of the absolute worst, most miserable, least grounded ones were those with the most. We’re all here because we’re attempting to save more of our money than most people do, but I’ve learned this harsh truth time and time again:
Having more money doesn’t make a person any happier. Just as often, it can do exactly the opposite.
I’ve also learned that having plenty of money doesn’t make a person any kinder, smarter, more generous, more forgiving, more trusting or even possessing of better taste. And having little to no money doesn’t mean a person isn’t those things.
So money isn’t itself good or bad. It’s a tool, just like any chemical or pharmaceutical, and the dose matters.
Going All In, All at Once
This interesting thing happens when many people discover the idea of financial independence or early retirement: I call it the deep end effect.
We might first dip a toe in, then perhaps try out the shallows. But it’s such a powerful idea, that most of us end up beelining straight for the deep end. Which means: no playing around where we can safely touch the bottom, focusing just on how fun the water is. Instead: total commitment, foregoing the safety of the shallow end in favor of the big rewards of braving the deep end.
And lots of things encourage us: the loudest voices cheering us on from the side, shouting, “You’re good! You don’t need the lifesaver!” even if we struggle to keep our heads above water. Our own overwhelming desire for the glory. Our own pride, not wanting to admit that maybe we should have stayed in the shallow end a bit longer.
This is a thinly veiled metaphor for the addictive feeling of seeing our numbers go up quickly, the pressure that many of our FI blogs put on people to save at an extremely and perhaps unachievably high rate, and the goal of achieving the “perfection” of a fully optimized budget with no fat left to trim.
The deep end effect is going straight from nothing to the big dose. And it’s intoxicating, because we’re not used to it. Good intoxicating at first, but if we don’t moderate ourselves at some point, we quickly see the dark side of the dose.
Holding Back to Finish
If you have a headache, you don’t automatically reach for 12 aspirins. You take two, and if those don’t work, you maybe take two more. And for good reason: taking 12 aspirin is super bad for you. Well going straight to the deep end in your own finances could be bad for you, too.
The comments section of this blog, and my email inbox, are littered with people sharing their very personal stories of doing too much too quickly to save for early retirement, or of asking for tips in how they can possibly sustain their pace over the course of many years. And my answer is always the same: slow down.
My friend Maggie hates the marathon metaphor, but it’s apt here: If you want to finish the marathon, you don’t go out at a sprint. You go a lot more slowly than you could sustain for a short distance, and you pace yourself. You moderate. As everyone who has finished a marathon knows, a lot of the game is actually slowing yourself down so you never get going too fast. It’s hard sometimes, because you know you could run faster at that moment, but holding back is the key to finishing.
“Holding back is the key to finishing.”
It’s the same with all the stuff that surrounds money – frugality, savings rates, spending on “wants.” There’s external pressure and the pressure we put on ourselves to keep getting closer to perfect, but perfect isn’t sustainable.
The Dose Makes the Poison with Money Behaviors, Too
The personal finance community is as guilty as anyone of creating these idealized models of what life should look like, and creating our own enemy symbols.
Anyone who still pays for cable TV is an idiot, obviously, and really, if you even still have a TV at all, you’re probably doing it wrong. If you bought something from Amazon on Prime Day, you’re a mindless consumer robot. And if you haven’t given away half your stuff already, then you might as well just light your money on fire. Don’t even get me started on those lattes, which are a one-way ticket to financial hell.
A few weeks ago I wrote about those cooking boxes you can get delivered, and based on the responses, those are definitely next up on the list of “Public Enemy No. 1 for Money-Smart People.” (My caution against them was that they could make us lazy and rob us of an opportunity to learn and grow – but also acknowledged that we all need some convenience, and if that’s your convenience of choice, then great. Oh, and I’m opposed to the amount of garbage they generate – that’s a legit problem.)
But any of those spending choices – just like literally anything you could choose to spend your money on – should never be seen as about the choice or behavior itself, but about the dose.
Someone who pays for convenience sometimes isn’t lazy or stupid. You do not get more karma points for being a perfect specimen of frugality. St. Peter doesn’t greet you more warmly when you reach the pearly gates just because you eschewed cable and cooking boxes and the latest iPhone.
The Problem with Purity
Much has been written about all the pressure that young people today feel because of social media. Instagram hashtags like #eatclean make those who occasionally indulge in a burger feel like gluttons, and we see this play out in the rise of orthorexia (obsession with healthy eating that becomes an eating disorder). The only way to eat “correctly” is to make sure everything that crosses your lips is Instagram-worthy.
Except, that’s just false. Nutritional science is still incredibly nascent and inherently flawed because no one remembers everything they ate over the long term, so dietary behaviors can’t be studied with anything like scientific accuracy. Movies like What the Health purport to tell us “the right way” to eat, but they cherry pick the data to tell a compelling (and ideologically driven) story.
So pressure to be perfect around eating, to do it “correctly,” is based on a false idea of “correct,” because we don’t actually know what that is. We think that red meat and saturated fat are bad, but your risk of most diseases only goes up if you eat them often, not if you eat them at all. Eating them occasionally, in moderation, may not actually have any impact on your health whatsoever. So we collectively believe that the best thing we can do for ourselves is to eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, and to minimize the obvious junk, but we’re still feeling around in the dark on the rest. See the recent redemption of cholesterol from Public Health Enemy to eh-probably-NBD.
Mr. ONL’s doctor told him that the fact that he smoked in his younger days actually likely protected him and delayed the onset of his autoimmune disease. So we know cigarettes are bad as a habit, but apparently they might sometimes have the opposite effect.* The dose makes the poison. (*Please do not start smoking. The risk on that is too high to make any possible and theoretical upside worth it. Plus: So expensive!)
Focusing on the Dose, Not the Thing Itself
As much as any of us may try to tell the full, authentic story of our money lives here, there’s bound to be some editing and curation that happens. I do my best to be transparent here (without sharing our numbers, of course), but I’m positive that the Ms. ONL version of me is a lot smarter, nicer and cooler than real life me. That is just the nature of human storytelling. But it matters because I know that my sharing our money story – while inspiring to some – is increasing the volume of the chorus shouting, “This is how it’s done. Anything else is failure.”
Related post: Reconciling Our Online Selves and Real Life
It makes me sad when I see a blogger or tweeter write something like, “My goal was to save X amount this month, but I only saved 90 percent of that, so I give myself an F.” Like, what?! You saved a whole bunch of money, and you consider that a fail? This is crazy talk, people.
Focusing on the thing, not the dose, makes things black and white, when virtually nothing in life is actually either/or. Saving 100 percent of a goal is success, so anything less than that is failure. The latte factor is this big problem, so paying for a latte ever means being financially irresponsible and failing. Resorting to convenience products costs more than DIYing everything, which makes us less than. How about instead, we quit this toxic thinking?
A latte costs, what, four bucks? There is nothing wrong with spending four dollars unless you have less than that. There’s even nothing wrong with buying that latte often if doing so isn’t derailing your financial goals, and that’s something you choose to spend your money on mindfully. I’ve been guilty of posting pics of lattes with the faux-confession of “Look how naughty I’m being.” I will stop this, because it only reinforces this notion that a latte is a sin, when it’s not. It’s just a thing. The problem is buying them every day without thinking, regardless of whether they bring us real joy or happiness, and even then, they are only possibly a problem in relation to our context at that point in time.
For years, I was super careful to have only a half cup of coffee once each morning, because I’m a terrible sleeper and didn’t want to do anything to make sleep even more challenging for me. And in those years, if I had a full cup as an exception one day, I really felt that caffeine. I’d be jittery and talk too fast, and feel like everyone could tell that I was jacked up. However, in these last few years of work, I’ve relaxed my coffee rules just to be able to get through the long travel and work days, and I now have at least a full strong cup of coffee each day, but some days have two or three, often of high octane nitro while traveling. And if I add another cup to the mix now? Nothing. I’d have to get five servings deep to feel the jitters or to start talking like the Micro Machines man.
The dose matters – and so does the context.
I could buy, with my own money, a latte every day right now, and it would not affect my savings rate in any meaningful way. Because in my current context, that’s a drop in the bucket. That hasn’t always been true for me — I had my years of just scraping by, of accruing debt to buy essentials, of paying off that debt — but that’s where we are right now. For someone else, a latte every day or not could be the difference between getting ahead or falling behind. But the latte itself isn’t the problem, it’s the merely a symbol of larger money habits like mindless spending which, when viewed out of context, makes an easy target to hold up as This Thing That’s Wrong With Us.
The Power of Radical Moderation
If it’s not obvious, I think anyone who truly loves lattes should buy the damn latte, at least every once in a while. Whatever it is that you truly love should always be accounted for in your budget.
If you entirely give up something you truly love, you’re doing this wrong.
This desire to optimize our spending and achieve high rates of saving makes total sense because all of this is so exciting and motivating, but for many of us, perfect isn’t sustainable, if it’s even achievable to begin with. So let’s not even try to achieve it, because that way lies unhappiness. Rather let’s embrace the radical part of radical moderation, and be dogged in insisting on not being perfect, on making room in our journey for whatever is most meaningful to us that might not be easy to represent on a spreadsheet or in numerical form.
Instead of focusing on some thing or set of things as either good or bad, let’s focus on the dose, especially when it comes to:
Frugality and Spending — Instead of aiming for perfection and the banishment of all of the things raised up as symbols of Evil Waste, focus on what’s easy to give up in your context vs. what’s truly important to you. We gave up cable and most restaurant spending painlessly, but still spend a relative ton on travel for concerts, because we value that above most things. If we gave that up, our pace would only increase a tiny amount, but we’d feel that loss deeply. But, just because we love music, it doesn’t mean we have to go to every concert we’d like to see. That would be too high a dose, and would absolutely slow us way down. Concerts and the travel surrounding them aren’t themselves bad, and it’s up to us to calibrate the dose to find the balance, in our context, between getting to keep doing the thing we love without spending too much on it. You could apply this example to anything that brings you disproportionate joy, whatever that might be.
Saving — We have seen in our own journey how addictive it can be to focus on saving as fast as we possibly can, pushing that rate ever higher, and on making ourselves miserable in the process. It’s why last year was so hard — we saved too much, too fast, and we didn’t take enough care of ourselves along the way by actually taking time to relax or using our vacation days. It’s why we’ve actually slowed down our savings rate a tiny bit this year, because last year’s dose was too high for us. We decided this is our last hurrah with big disposable income, and so we’ve done a few things that we can’t easily do again, like take a ski trip to Japan this past winter and buy a few things that won’t be in the budget once we quit working. We couldn’t even tell you what our savings rate is this year, and we probably won’t ever calculate it, because the rate itself isn’t important. We don’t grade ourselves on a pass/fail system any longer, either. What matters is that we aren’t letting the journey to our big goal make us unhappy or unhealthy anymore.
What’s Your Moderation Story?
Have you embraced radical moderation? If not, what’s one thing you could loosen your belt on to increase your happiness or to make your journey more sustainable? If you have embraced it, what helped you get there? Anyone care to confess to having taken too extreme an approach — focusing on the thing, not the dose — and being forced to slow down? Want to stick up for spending money on something that you often see vilified in the media or on blogs? We’d love to hear from you in the comments!
Don't miss a thing! Sign up for the eNewsletter.
Subscribe to get extra content 3 or 4 times a year, with tons of behind-the-scenes info that never appears on the blog.
Categories: we've learned