$100 to Spend, or a Day of Retirement? Think in Days, Not Dollars, to Speed Your Progress

I’m a huge believer that achieving early retirement or financial independence doesn’t require going to extreme lengths. I think if lattes truly bring you joy, if they’re the best part of your day, then go ahead and drop that $4 at Starbucks every morning. If dining at exquisite haute cuisine restaurants is what lets your heart sing, then keep room in your budget for the occasional meal splurge. If we save so much so quickly that we subtract all the joy from our lives, what is financial independence really worth? Wouldn’t we rather all arrive at our destination in good spirits, having lived a worthwhile life in the meantime?

There will always be people like my friend Liz, Mrs. Frugalwoods, who derive joy from frugality itself. (Even she makes room for the occasional luxury, though.) But that doesn’t mean you have to derive your joy the same way to be able to do something similar.

What matters is less what you spend your money on, and more that you have a clear understanding of the value of your money — either to provide joy today or to provide for your long-term security. 

So that’s what we’re tackling today: how to make sure that you have a clear grasp on your money’s value, the price of your future life, and the trade-off that every expenditure or savings deposit represents.

$100 to spend, or a day or retirement? Think in days, not dollars, to speed your progress! // Create a money-time equivalency to simplify your spending decisions and make it easier to say yes to what you truly value, but ruthlessly cut out spending that doesn't add true value to your life.

My Dollar Value Wake-Up Call

Has anyone else had this experience, or being super aware of the price of everything while growing up, or early in your career when you’re earning very little, but then over time, as your income increases, realizing that you’ve lost touch with the price of something in particular? For me, it was a gallon of gas. In high school, I knew the price within pennies. I didn’t drive in college or for the first couple years of my career. But then when I bought my trusty 2004 Honda Civic (which we still drive and love), I knew the price of gas again for a few years. Until one day, my dad asked what gas cost in our area. And I realized, I have no idea. I mean, I had some idea, like maybe it was $3-something? But that question rattled me, and made me realize, I am disconnected from the value of my money.

I’d love to say that that gas price wake-up call was what kicked off my financial journey, but that was after I’d already paid off my debt and started to save in a more concerted way. I thought I was evolved on money, and maybe even a little part of me thought it was a sign that I’d arrived that I could fill up my tank without even thinking about the price.

Whether or not you’ve ever actually lost touch with the price of something, the almost inevitable nature of lifestyle inflation in the absence of any conscious checks on it shows that it’s all too easy to forget, one way or another, what a dollar is worth.

And that’s a problem if our goal involves anything other than spending all our money.

What Does a Day of Retirement Cost?

Have you ever done the math to calculate out what a day of your retired life will cost? A ballpark estimate is fine, and the simple version is to take your annual budget and divide by 365 so you account for everything. Ours is a little north of this figure, given the high cost of living in our mountain town (it’s the non-spending culture that makes it cheaper for us than the city we left, not the actual cost of things, which is still absurdly high), but let’s just pick a number that’s close enough: $100.

For $100, we can live a full day of retirement and not be reliant on a job or an earned income.

The number itself is less important than what it does for you: It assigns a value trade-off to every expenditure you might choose to make. 

Put another way: It creates a direct equivalence between your money and your time.

Without knowing that price tag for a day of the life you’d rather be living, it’s hard to equate one spending decision with its potential future impact. But with a price assigned, the choice you’re making is much clearer.

Putting Spending in Context of the Time It Represents

In the foundational financial independence text Your Money or Your Life, Vicki Robin talks about money as a representation of our life force, and asks us to think of every dollar we possess in terms of the hours of our life it took to earn it. But I’d like to propose something slightly different:

Instead of thinking of a dollar as how long it took you to earn it, think about it as how much time it can buy back in the future. 

So while I might earn multiple hundreds of dollars a day currently, making a $100 gizmo worth a small fraction of a day and easy to justify spending on, what I’m actually trading to possess it is a full day of retirement. Making that shift from equating money with the time it buys back, not the time it took to earn, gives us an incredibly powerful, motivating measurement against which to judge all possible purchases.

Now when that thing you’d wanted to buy goes on sale for $100, you have an apples-to-apples comparison. Do I want this thing, or would I rather save the money and buy a day or retirement (or one day less of work)? 

While the $4-a-day latte habit might itself not seem like a big deal in the scheme of things, especially if you’re a high earner, when you know the price of a day without work, you have a much easier, value-based decision to make: Would I rather have my beloved daily latte this month, or an extra day of retirement? 

And those restaurant splurges? Same deal. Which is worth more? A life-changing meal at a noteworthy restaurant, or a day or two or three of living on your own terms? Apply the same thinking to whatever it is that especially brings you joy.

Thinking in Days, Not Dollars

Ever since we put our early retirement plan together, I’ve been following this approach, using $100 as my close-enough number to decide what expenditures are worth it, and shifting my pricing to think in days instead of money. That art class sounds cool, but it’s not worth a day. Pass. Those new hiking boots look super comfy, but worth two days? I think not. 

This value assignment isn’t just a way to say no to spending, though. It’s about making it as easy as possible to be crystal clear about what you truly value and to be ruthless about cutting what you don’t. 

Thinking in days instead of dollars helps me make peace with big ticket purchases, too. The new cell phone I’ll need to buy before work takes away my iPhone? That’ll cost me three or four days, but that’s worth it to me because I use my phone for so many different things that I’ll keep doing after we leave our careers. The standing desk that I spent three days on? One hundred percent worth it for the improvement in my back and hip pain already. And just today we happily dropped 10 days on ski passes for this coming season, because we’d see no point in retiring early if we couldn’t ski all the time. (Our first midweek passes ever! Sayonara, weekend crowds!)

Plenty of things are worth trading days for, but the vast majority of potential purchase are not. 

As always, what matters most is what makes your life better and lets you enjoy yourself both on the journey and after you’ve reached your destination. And only you can assign that value for yourself.

Let’s Talk Dollars and Days!

Got a lost-track-of-the-value-of-a-dollar story you care to share with all of us here? I won’t judge you. ;-) (Don’t even ask me the price of so many things — I have no idea!) Any revelations about the cost of a day of retirement and what that equals in your spending? Any other tricks you have for equating a possible purchase to something concrete that keeps you motivated and accountable to your goals? Have you given yourself permission to splurge on anything lately because you wanted to add value to your life today and not wait until retirement? Let’s dig into all this meaty stuff in the comments!

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62 thoughts on “$100 to Spend, or a Day of Retirement? Think in Days, Not Dollars, to Speed Your Progress

  1. When I was still working, I was the only one in the office that thought in terms of hours of my life to purchase something. I was also the only one that retired early. I tried to talk with folks about how to view spending but no willing students were in the crowd. I’m grateful every day that I don’t have to spend my life energy earning money to buy things to impress others.

    1. This is something I wonder about, too — if there are any closet FIRErs I work with and don’t know it. ;-) Once we give our news next month, it will be soooo interesting to see if people ask us questions or not. I’ve gone back and forth on whether I think they will.

    2. In terms of hours is a wonderful concept, and also in terms of “days of retirement”. Good work, Goldfinch! Learning to value my money is what drove me to ride my bike to work. As a college student (graduating this December), I realized that when I drove down to work/class I was basically spending the equivalent of 1 hours pay to be there. Realizing this made me transition to a bike, and now I enjoy riding much more than driving. It is amazing what a change of perspective, even a small one, can do to make a large difference!

  2. Two things: it’s interesting to see the amount of money saved in a month means less than the market swings. I can save as much as I want, but that doesn’t do diddly for me if the market goes down. Second thing, coincidentally enough I saved almost $100 a day for 900 days to hit my first $100k. It sounds hard to do but is actually easier than I thought with my 401k on automatic withdrawal.

    1. The market swing thing is interesting, because it’s for sure true after you cross a certain investment threshold. But it’s also a slippery slope from thinking “the markets have more control than I do” to “well, then it doesn’t matter how much I spend”… you’re probably not susceptible to that type of thinking, but I for sure am! ;-)

  3. I really like this concept and it’s something I’ll think about going forward.

    I lost touch with the value of money as soon as I made enough to buy whatever groceries I wanted. I stopped keeping track of the total because I knew I could afford whatever the amount came out to be. Now I know how much the cost is before I even go shopping to ensure I stay within my (loose) budget.

    As a side note, I probably couldn’t tell you how much a gallon of gas is but that’s only because the price changes so frequently!

    1. I bet you know *ballpark* how much gas costs, though. And yeah, with groceries, I lost the forest for the trees for a while. I knew what each individual item should cost, but I would buy as much as I wanted of as many things as I wanted, so long as the unit price met the requirement. So there were MANY trips where the bill was much higher than it should have been. You’re not remotely alone on this!

  4. In a Master’s class I was taking, where the average student was in their 30s, we went over elastic vs. inelastic demand; the professor asked the class “If the price of gas doubled tomorrow, how many of you would still drive the same amount?” I was shocked when most of the hands shot up. Money’s always been on my mind more than the average bear, and the cost of anything doubling would give me pause…

    …so when we were essentially told “$5k and your dog will *probably* not die, and by the way, you have, like, half an hour to make a decision” a few years ago, it was a little hard to process (fyi — bloat SUCKS). The one thing that made the decision easy was thinking of the $$ in terms of time. We turned money into X weeks of savings in our minds, and Fluffster is still obnoxiously happy to this day, having made a picture perfect recovery.

    1. My macroecon 101 did not cover elastic vs. inelastic demand, but that makes intuitive sense. I’ve learned from talking to a lot of folks over time that gas prices really are tough on people because most people truly can’t (or at least believe they can’t) drive less. They have to get to work, and they need to do things like go buy groceries. So they feel stuck paying whatever it costs. (This is why we need to invest more in mass transit and biking infrastructure, so that people will see a more viable alternative — I know I’m preaching to the choir.) ;-)

      And yeah, I don’t blame you for spending that money on a member of the family, albeit a four-legged one. It wasn’t quite as bad as $5K, but when one of our last dogs had a breathing emergency, it was not a question of whether we’d spend it.

    2. A similar way of thinking is to think about ‘buying’ a day off forever, which in your model at $100 a day expenses would be a day off forever for every $2500 saved (using 4%rule but you could use a multiplier suited to your risk aversion).

      It’s a nifty way of tracking your progress to FI while giving you a way of visualising the impact of your spending/saving choices on a fairly accessible level, although you could go further and work it out to the hour if you’re better motivated considering smaller amounts – whatever level of granularity you’re happy with…

      1. I definitely think that works for bigger increments! Though for more day-to-day expenses, that feels just as abstract to me, which is why I like the $100 bar. (And I’m a big fan of what I call the rule of 300, which is the same thing you’re talking about, but monthly — 25 x 12 months — so for every $1 you can cut out of your monthly spending, that’s $300 you don’t have to save for later.) ;-)

  5. When I first started working, I made anywhere between $8.05 – $8.50, and it was really easy to be cautious with my money because even a fast food lunch could eat up most of an hour of work. Now that I make considerably more than that, $8 doesn’t seem like so much, but it should. The larger income just means I have that much more to pay attention to and save.

    We just spent 4.5 days out truck camping in the middle of nowhere and paid for nothing but the gas to get there and the food to eat while on the trip. We can “afford” more expensive trips, but they wouldn’t give us any more value than the mostly free one.

    1. I don’t think it’s critical that you track every single dollar as you once did — I honestly think part of the happiness that a certain base level income buys is not having to dedicate that much brain space to counties pennies — but it’s for sure important to stay in touch with what your money’s worth. It sounds like you’re doing that, though, with your camping approach! Sounds sooooo fun! :-D

        1. Amen to that! Losing track of spending is how most people wake up one day and realize their lifestyle now costs many multiples of what it used to cost. Womp womp.

  6. Ooh, I love this idea! It’s amazing how versatile thinking about things in terms of life force representation can be. One of the things I think about each month is my $100/month gym membership because it does make me feel slightly guilty-that’s a lot of money when I don’t HAVE to spend it to get exercise (but ugh, running)! But there are plenty of reasons to justify it when I look beyond the numbers behind the dollar sign, and this is yet another way of thinking about it. Is my health worth a day of retirement a month? Yeah, absolutely!

    Off to vote!

    1. Seriously! The life force connection is so HUGE, regardless of whether you think about it in terms of earning or spending. And anytime you need moral support for that that gym membership, let me know. I’ll be happy to give you a peptalk about the value of health, and how most people underspend on it! ;-)

  7. Great idea. How do you get all these ideas and write such great posts? You need to share the secret. :p

    I’ve nominated you for blog of the year, the blog has grown so much this past year. Totally awesome.

    1. Thanks so much, my friend! :-D And the only secret I know is to try to write a lot — that’s when I have the most ideas (including a few hundred at this point that I’ve never written). That’s part of why I’ve stopped aspiring to pre-load posts, because when I don’t write twice a week, the ideas slow down. ;-)

  8. I know you’re trying to make a simple point but you’re ignoring compound interest and inflation. $100 will grow many times over by the time one reaches retirement but the power of your $100 will be somewhat less at that time.

    1. The math, inflation and compound interest are built in. $100 invested in today’s dollars instead of spent frivolously will grow to provide equal or greater spending power in the future. ;-)

  9. Just FYI–I normally get an email answering me to your post and I didn’t get one today. Not sure if that’s on my end or yours but just in case wanted to let you know.

    1. Thanks for flagging that, Tracy! I didn’t get it either, so will raise with WordPress. Appreciate you letting me know it wasn’t just me. :-)

  10. I had a similar experience where once we paid off debt (pre-mortgage), my income was increasing and I had moments of “oh, I can afford that”. Suddenly, I realized that without specific goals like the debt payoff, I was wasting quite a bit of money. Its an every evolving process, but I am constantly working to keep myself goal oriented and mindful of my purchases, from the $1000s to the $0.01s.

    1. I guarantee you’re not alone in having that experience! Especially after tackling debt, it’s something of a relief to be able to be a bit more free wheeling with money. What matters is that you got back to a place of having a handle on things. :-)

  11. Oh dear! I am so far away from retirement that I don’t even know this figure for sure but based on what I’m currently aiming for, a whole day’s worth about £60. I just blew over that amount on a day out, a really good day out. I’m not quite sure if it was worth a retired day. Good technique.

    1. Beating yourself up about past thinking doesn’t help at all. :-) If this idea sticks with you beyond today, then use it if it’s helpful. ;-)

  12. This is very similar to a concept in Rich Dad, Poor Dad (one of the few of any value). I think Kiyosaki framed it as how many days of financial freedom do you have saved? I think it may have been tied to thinking about whether you buying an asset or a liability when you are spending money.

  13. I am the odd duck here and have commented before about my situation, but thought it worth a mention that I’m in almost the exact opposite position. After making choices for 30+ years to buy financial freedom, we “arrived”. Not lavishly, mind you, but with enough to satisfy our fairly modest wants/needs to a ripe old age and have some wiggle room in the plan for bumps in the road. Hubby is retired, and I joined him for a bit, but I returned to full time employment a few months ago solely so that we can have good health insurance. I’m “preexisting” and we can’t even see medicare in the distance yet. So I’m earning a salary we don’t need and that ultimately does absolutely nothing to move me closer to what I really want —
    freedom from full time employment. Forgoing the lattes and saving more at this point buys me nothing that I want. But the job itself comes with insurance peace of mind that I’ve been very grateful for the last few months, and thank God it also has some flexibility. But it’s a weird place to be, and I waver between feeling sad/rudderless about it, and finding joy where I can in the day to day. I’m also spending a bit more liberally than is my natural inclination. Hubby had some surgery this morning that we were not expecting (yay good insurance!), and I talked with the surgeon afterwards. He asked how my hubby had retired early, and shared that he is also retiring soon…just as soon as he reaches medicare age. I wonder if perhaps there are more of us health insurance captives than anyone knows.

    1. I suspect there are a LOT of Medicare captives. Are you guys in a position where you could move? Asking just because the health landscape now varies dramatically state to state. (https://ournextlife.com/2017/05/31/rank-state-health-care/) Or are you in good enough health that you could shift to a bronze plan for a few years to save money but also let you leave work, and treat it essentially as catastrophic coverage? It makes me crazy to hear stories like yours (I’m sure I said the same thing the last time!), of people who are otherwise fully FI having to work just for health care. I think I remember you saying you were above the subsidy limits for the ACA (though that also varies by state — in some states it’s 400% of federal poverty, not 250% like in non-expansion states — so you can earn quite a bit in some places and still get reduced premiums), so that at least suggests you have a sizeable cushion to weather large health care expenses, but I don’t blame you for being discouraged by the whole system! <3

      1. We are definitely starting to scan the health insurance landscape in other states, and much appreciate your post recognizing that as a huge factor. We are in TX, which is great for employment, but not likely to be kind to those in the individual health insurance market unless it is mandated federally. I am a Type 1 diabetic, so I am expensive on an ongoing basis just for the insulin, supplies, and technology needed to maintain life and health. Most doctors and hospitals in our area do not take “Obamacare”, so regardless of what I can get on the exchange, it’s not worth much in terms of access to good care. TX also has a lousy history with state run high risk pools of the past….total nightmare from what I have learned. We have a very large number factored into our plan for insurance. But I simply cannot buy coverage that good docs and hospitals take unless I’m on an employer sponsored plan. I have aging parents here locally, and we have deep roots in the area. But looking to move elsewhere is definitely an option that has to be on the table for us. And until the landscape changes or we find a way, we will use the income from my job to loosen the purse strings a bit.

        1. I feel for you guys big time. It’s so frustrating that health care and health insurance differ so dramatically state to state, not to mention between cities and rural areas, etc. But it’s good you’re being realistic and willing to consider moving at some point, if it comes to that. (Let’s hope it doesn’t!)

  14. I only recently became divorced from the value of money (age 70). I no longer balance my checkbook every week or every day. Once a month seems fine to me now. I can estimate our spending pretty accurately and know we have enough money coming in each month to cover regular expenditures and some extras. The only things that can throw our budget out of balance are health care related. In the last 2 months…husband had root canal surgery and new bridge, I had cataract surgery and new glasses. Car needed work that totalled over 1000.00. Bills were paid off without stress. Barring a devastating earthquake or health issue, I think we are poised to enjoy our debt free retirement.

    1. So wonderful that you feel confident in being able to enjoy your retirement without all that added money stress! Hurray! I love hearing, too, that your spending and balancing are basically on autopilot, medical bills notwithstanding (ugh) — that’s the sign of a solid system. :-)

  15. That’s a great way to think about the value of money.

    I recently excused myself from eventually spending $100,000 (with compounding, 1 million dollars) on eating out – alone for myself – for the next 30 years. Food is my hobby and I can’t eat fried chicken wings when I’m 80 with bad teeth and bad health. So food is not something I’m willing to give up. Otherwise I find great joy in frugality too, just like the Frugalwoods :)

    1. Thanks, Lily! :-) I LOVE that you have a category of spending that’s important to you and that you allow yourself guilt-free. That’s so important!

  16. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer the original line of thinking, to wit: your $600-dollar iPhone, which should last you, say, 3 years, requires income of $200/year, which at a nice conservative 3% costs about $7,000 to obtain. Divide by your weekly income, and see how many weeks of labor a lifetime’s supply of iPhones will set you back. It takes a couple seconds in your head or on the (iPhone) calculator, but in my world a $100+ outlay deserves at least that much thought.

    1. I think that’s a totally fine way to look at it if you’re looking only at perpetual expenses, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about expenses NOW, while still earning, and it sure as hell doesn’t take me earning $7,000 to buy an iPhone now. ;-) Your point is a good one about recurring expenses in the drawdown phase, if someone was really planning to drop $600 on a phone every two years (I’m sure not!). But I also think that way of framing any possible expenditure while still earning and accumulating is really just a way to say no to every expense, or at least to subject it to an overly high standard, and that’s how you guilt yourself into not spending money on things or experiences that truly would add value to your life. What matters is that YOU have a system works for you, and if this is yours and it doesn’t impose too much guilt, great! I’ll stick to the $100 metric. ;-)

      1. It is a fairly stringent standard, to be sure, but it’s borne of the opinion that every expense is perpetual expense: if, for example, your $1,000 ski passes add value to your lives (and I’m totally on board that boat!) this year, then it’s reasonable to expect that you’ll have the same expense every year (or at some predictable recurrence). Likewise, phones, refrigerators, and life-changing meals are all things that you’ll want to buy repeatedly (at intervals determined by the robustness of the item and its value to you). So even in the accumulation stage, when you are getting acclimated to your lifestyle, I think it wise to ask if you should become accustomed to certain expenses…because you will want those to continue, and you’ll have to save for them. No matter which way the answer goes, it provides a measure of clarity.

        Everybody gets to think of a system that works for themselves…mine is just what I find to be most consistent with my goals.

  17. This is such a great idea! I’m usually pretty good with assessing the true value of my purchases but occasionally I get a little too “spendy”. Thinking about it in terms of retirement days lost will help to reel it back in for me.

    I too went through a phase where I lost touch of the value of money. I was in a job a few years back that paid me a healthy 6 figure income. While I did save some money I also spent it too. Like, a lot of it. When I changed to my current job I took a significant reduction in income in the initial couple of years. Seeing a much smaller balance in my bank account was my wake-up call! If only I had the same savings rate back in those 6 figure days as I do now…

    Oh, and I voted for you in multiple categories:)

    1. You rock, Robin. Thanks! :-D You’re definitely not alone in having lost touch with the value of money, but what matters is that you’re back in touch with it now. I feel you 100% on wishing you’d saved more earlier, but gotta look forward! ;-)

  18. I can’t believe you actually used a number! We can almost kinda figure out what your yearly budget is now! Muahahahaha! :)

    I also nominated you for a bunch of stuff. I thought about just filling the whole ballot with your blog, but then figured they might chuck the ballot if I did that. LOL! You guys are truly the only blog I read with any consistency now and I still look forward to your posts every week. I hope you win!

    1. Hahahaha. (Of course it’s not even the real number.) ;-) And thanks for the nominations, the kind words, and the ongoing support! It means so much! :-D xo

  19. This is a really interesting way to look at things. I’ve never tried looking at expenses in terms of number of days worked to buy them but maybe I will try it and see how it works. I am sure it will make me even more frugal.

  20. I love this concept but am having a hard time putting it into practice because I’m not entirely sure what figure to use. With the rule on 72 and a 3% inflation rate my expenses today would double in 24 years and double again in 48. Something worth a $100 day of freedom today may not be worth $400 of old age freedom (or higher because, health care). But that $100 invested today instead would be worth way more than $400 in old age and oh no, I’ve gone cross eyed (in Austin Powers voice).

    1. I understand wanting to go down the math rabbit hole on this one, but it’s really just meant to be a short-hand estimate to give yourself a way to equate time with money. And $100 might be nowhere near what your actual per-day cost is, but just having some figure that represents approximately some length of time in the near term is all you need, just to help you weigh possible purchases against their time trade-off. Don’t overthink it. ;-) (Said with love, because boy do I understand!) :-D

      1. One more rabbit hole item: That $100 might be a day’s expenses in retirement (ignoring inflation and investment returns), but it brings retirement a lot less than one day closer.

        The problem is that if you currently save $50/day (after taxes and expenses), then it costs you $150 (plus inflation, investment returns…) to bring retirement one day closer since you need to cover both foregoing a day’s savings and paying a day’s expenses.

        For someone who saves 10% of income, that’s a minor difference, but many early retirees save quite a lot.

  21. When I spend on something, frugal or splurge, I like to think in terms of level of happiness (although it’s a bit hard to measure), which I guess you measure it in days. I think we could all retire at any figure, it’s just a matter of how well you want to retire. Seems to me that one must really hate their job a lot or have very little faith in the future to think about retirement everyday.There are certain things that if we don’t spend when we are younger, we will not have the chance to spend when we are older. Out of employment and need more money? Find something new to do. My2cents.

    1. I’m sure there are *some* folks who think about retirement every day because they hate their jobs, but for most of us on this path, it’s not about whether or not we like what we’re doing now, it’s that we have something else we’d rather be doing more. I both love my job and have tons of faith in the future. ;-) But I don’t love it so much that I’m not ready to move on!

  22. I love this framing! I have less than a year of days saved in my retirement accounts so far, but I still love this framing. Days are so much easier to intuit than decades.

    1. Glad this resonates with you! I always need to put money into tangible terms, which has been one of the strangest things about accumulating a net worth that feels abstract and fake. ;-) So the days analogy works for me, and I’m glad it works for you!

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