Money Basics

For Folks with no Free Time

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I’m going to take you on a little roundabout today. The premise is simple: if you’ve got no free time, then you’ve got to optimize what time you have to get the most done. And I promise, I’ll end up with some useful personal finance ideas for you. But first, I have to tell you about my friend, Shel.

Shel is full of creative ideas. Always thinking, always searching, the epitome of curiosity. I think it’s a really, really cool way to think. Now, only a few of Shel’s ideas are good ideas. That’s normal. Many of history’s most influential creatives (Beethoven, Shakespeare, Edison) were chock full of terrible ideas. But among all the terrible ideas were small nuggets of gold. They produced a sufficient quantity of ideas such that quality ideas eventually appeared.

While creating bad ideas is perfectly normal, there is a problem worth discussing. Shel tends to chase his ideas–including all the bad ones–down rabbit holes, spending precious mental energy and time on the never-to-be-realized minutiae of bad ideas. What do I mean?

Shel’s (Too) Deep Thoughts: Don’t sweat the tiny details

Here’s an example:

“I want to start a business that sells sea shells to people in a midwest city. They don’t have ocean shores there, you see? Shel Sells Sea Shells, LLC. So Midwesterners who want sea shells would order sea shells from me.

“But then I began to read and study.  Iowa has a tax that will affect the shipping fee, for customers returning the sea shells to me. If I had a deal…buy a dozen, get the 13th shell free…then this tax law could ruin the company. So I need to figure out how to solve that difficulty.”

Deep breath.

So, Shel, you spent time researching the mollusk-FedEx industrial complex in Des Moines? It applies only to returns, and only if there was a “free” deal in the original purchase? This is the kind of analysis that doesn’t work for someone with no free time.

Shel has too much time…

To my dear reader: what do you think? I hope you’re screaming to yourselves…




Answering questions is a usually a good thing. But the key, you see, is identifying the best questions to answer. That’s where Shel hits a wall. If you’re not careful, you can waste a lot of time answering bad questions. Wanna see?

  • Why is course almost the same word as source?
  • How many hairs are on Tom Cruise’s feet?
  • What would the prize be for a limbo contest on the Moon?

I, like you, want to know more about Tom Cruise. But that doesn’t make it a good question. If we’re to maximize the little free time that we have, then we’ve can only answer good questions.

Focus on the best ideas

Answering bad questions makes your brain feel productive, but it’s not a worthwhile pursuit. And that’s the end of the article. Or, it could be. I think this point is important enough that it can stand on its own merits. If you’ve got no free time, then don’t waste time on bad questions. But!…there’s a parallel in personal finance.

Spending energy on improving your personal finance is a good thing. But the key, you see, is identifying the best improvements to chase.

Some people pick up every coin they see. Over the course of a year, they’ll pick up $5 or $10 or $20 in change. Not bad!

Some people only shop at thrift stores. They save 80% or more on clothes, home goods, and little knick-knacks. Each year, they save a few hundred bucks. That’s better!

But some people focus only on the big three: transportation, housing, and food. They only buy economically efficient vehicles, but prefer public transit or bicycles. They look for roommates, or for minimalist living arrangements. No McMansions. And then they reduce their grocery bills and dining out costs, looking for deals or prepping weeks’ worth of meals at once. By chasing these big three, one can easily save thousands of dollars every year. That’s great!

The Pareto Principle: no free time might be ok

The Pareto principle states, for a given event, that 80% of the outcomes are often created by 20% of the causes. In other words, if you only have 15 minutes a week to think about personal finance, you better identify the most important 20% of the causes! Or put simply, ignore the pennies on the ground; you can do better! If you focus on identifying the best opportunities to affect your personal finance, you can profoundly improve your life without wasting time. The problem of “no free time” is minimized, because you’re focused on the biggest ideas.

Not sure where to start? Think about the “big three” that I call out above: housing, transportation, and food. Or, feel free to reach out to me!

If you’re wondering where this idea came from, I suggest checking out the Best Books. Depending on where you are in your career and financial journey, there are some wonderful reads there.

And, as always, thanks for reading the Best Interest blog.

-Jesse Cramer  

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About Jesse Cramer

I’m Jesse. I’m an engineer, a new owner of an old home, and an avid reader/writer. If you’d like to comment, ask a question, or simply say hi, leave me a message here, on Twitter (@BestInterest_JC) or on Reddit (u/BestInterestDotBlog). Many of my posts have been directly influenced by my readers. It’s the most fun part of writing this blog. And as always, thanks for reading the Best Interest.
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