The most famous scene in the Oscar-winning film No Country For Old Men involves a simple coin flip. And you know how much I love coin flips.
[The following is a movie plot spoiler, but let’s be honest…it’s a 15-year-old movie. I’m not spoiling that much.]
The scene involves the movie’s murderous antagonist, Anton, entering a gas station. After an incredibly tense conversation, Anton implores the gas station owner to call a coin flip—heads or tails—asking, “What’s the most you’ve ever lost on a coin toss?”
The owner complains, “Well, we need to know what we’re calling it for here. I didn’t put nothin’ up. Look, I need to know what I stand to win.”
And Anton replies, “Everything. You stand to win everything. Call it.”
As movie viewers, we realize that Anton plans to assassinate this poor man upon losing the coin flip. The man will lose everything.
Here’s the scene. Don’t worry, it’s not graphic.
Anton thinks that life is everything. Then again, he seems to treat others’ lives with sharp nihilistic disdain. Interesting. We’ll come back to this idea.
The seeds for this article were planted last week I read this entertaining and existential article where Jack Raines wrote:
“In the grand scheme of things, there are two seemingly-contradictory truths: everything matters, and nothing matters.“Jack Raines
On one hand, we’re nothing but lucky cosmic stardust. We happened to get bolted with a zap called “life.” We’re a longshot to even exist.
And how do we spend our precious lucky lives? We run around fretting about our coworkers’ opinions, our lawn care regimen, or whether Johnny’s soccer coach is fairly adjudicating playing time. We care so much. But after 80-ish years, you’re gone. Stardust to stardust. And all your caring doesn’t change that end state.
In that light, nothing you do is important. Nothing matters.
But we can flip that script. This life is the only thing we’ve got.
Since life is so finite, our time so limited, our opportunity so fleeting…then everything matters! To waste such a limited resource is to pay the ultimate opportunity cost.
Jack Raines then expands on his idea to talk about risk-taking.
- If nothing matters, why not take a big risk? What’s the worst that could happen?
- And if everything matters, why live a single minute you might later regret?
I agree with Jack. And going a step further, I’m convinced the nothing/everything framework is also the best lens for filtering spending decisions.
“But It Only Costs…”
The book Your Money or Your Life is famous for its “life energy” analogy.
Money is something you trade your life energy for. You sell your time for money. It doesn’t matter that Ned over there sells his time for a hundred dollars and you sell yours for twenty dollars an hour. Ned’s money is irrelevant to you. The only real asset you have is your time. The hours of your life.
That steak dinner? It didn’t cost $49. It cost you part of your life. Same for your shoes and Johnny’s soccer league and your grass fertilizer. Everything you buy costs you your life.
So the concept of “but it only costs...” doesn’t register with me.
Only?! It only cost me $49? My mind flits back to that weird shadow realm scene in Avengers: Infinity War…
When you buy something, it costs a lot. You’re spending the only thing you’ve got: your time.
That’s why I try to adopt a bimodal spending mindset. I spend money on activities I’m most passionate about. That is, those activities where I want to spend my life.
I have no qualms saying no to spending that I find stupid. I also say no when time is allocated stupidly. Just say no, I say, to dumb uses of your life energy.
But if nothing matters, then what, exactly, are you saving up your resources for? When you die, you’re gone. Your money doesn’t matter. You can’t take it with you. In other words: you’ve got to spend it on something.
The frugal saver’s mindset flinches at spending $2 on a convenience store Gatorade. I get it. I really do. I could invest that $2, wait four decades, and turn it into $31 for when I’m 72 years old. Okaaaaaay. But the presence or absence of $31 at age 72 doesn’t matter. You can’t take it with you.
So if you’re parched, buy the Gatorade.
I realize the Gatorade’s pleasure will be fleeting. All of life is fleeting. If you can’t smell the roses, sip the Gatorade, take a scuba lesson…then what’s this all about?
Save money, spend money. It all matters and none of it matters. You shouldn’t take either of these extremes as gospel. Instead, moderate between the two.
“Never go to excess, but let moderation be your guide.”Cicero
Yes, we’re back where we started. But no, I don’t think this was a waste of time. While today’s two ideas oppose one another, I think we can (and should) make our spending decisions with both ideas in mind.
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote,
The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.F. Scott Fitzgerald
Treat money as the resource that represents everything you have in life. It’s your life energy, materialized. Spend wisely. But also treat money as if none of this matters. Because you can’t take it with you.
Some things matter. Some things don’t. And sometimes life is just the flip of a coin.