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How much should I spend on self-improvement?

A lot of spending on self-improvement is based on wishful thinking -- and it becomes a big waste of money.

By MSN Money Partner Mar 7, 2011 12:43PM

This post comes from J.D. Roth at partner blog Get Rich Slowly.


Ah, it's good to be home and finally getting back into something of a routine. As part of that routine, I've been reading hundreds of e-mails, including quite a few reader questions -- like this one from Annie. She writes:

I'm 25, and starting to take personal finance seriously. I'm in graduate school, and am very fortunate to have an educational trust that allows me to do this without loans. Knowing how lucky I am, I live well below the means the trust could provide, hold an intense part-time job, and am working toward a career that will (hopefully) make sure my kids are given the same gift I was -- the freedom to get the finest education they can manage without major debt.
Between my job and my trust, I have a good deal left over every month. I know I should do something productive with this money, but right now I'm mostly spending it on other stuff.
For example:
  • I'm using some of the extra money for a CBT therapist.
  • I bought myself a ticket to a museum gala I've always wanted to attend.
  • I've decided to buy myself a massage once a month.
I don't spend a lot on clothes or waxing or anything like that, because I'd rather do other things. I rarely go out to eat. I don't have a car. I live in an unfashionable part of my city. I have no debt, and I save about $400 every month.
I think I'm doing OK, but I'm spending so much on "self-improvement." Heck, right now I'm also looking at brushing up on Spanish and taking an econ class (for fun!). Plus, I'm thinking about going back to the personal trainer I had for a while to jump-start my physical fitness.
Here's my big question: How much do people spend on "self-improvement" and cultural stuff? How much becomes indulgent? Will I end up regretting all of this later? Does all this dabbling make me a trustifarian dilettante?

Leaving aside Annie's awesome financial situation (cue Napoleon Dynamite voice: "Lucky!" -- I wish I could have been a trustifarian dilettante), I want to address her main question: How much should a person spend on self-improvement?

I've wondered the same thing. It's no secret that I'm something of a personal-development junkie. I love reading about self-improvement. More than that, I love putting what I read into practice. (Heck, there's even been a self-improvement category at Get Rich Slowly since Day One!)


Still, I recognize that there's a lot of useless information out there. Plus, people like me are inclined to spend on self-help material … and then never act on it. (I may have read tons of books on self-improvement, but I've only acted on a handful.)


Is it OK to spend on self-improvement? Absolutely. But you have to be smart about it. I give myself a little more leeway for self-help spending -- but not too much. It's as easy to spend foolishly here as anywhere else.

Here are a few rules I've made for myself to be certain I'm paying for actual personal development and not for pipe dreams:

  • Focus on one thing at a time. I know from experience that it's tempting to tackle a lot of self-improvement at once. This is a recipe for disaster. The more I try to change at once, the less I change at all -- and the more I spend. Instead, I've learned to limit my ambitions. Just as I pursue only one resolution every new year, I try to improve just one or two aspects of my life at a time. Otherwise, I end up spending a lot of money to do nothing.
  • Pursue your goals. I want to do everything. I want to speak 15 languages, play a dozen sports, fly an airplane, and sail a boat. But some of these things are just daydreams. Why do I want to fly an airplane? Instead, it makes more sense to spend my time and money on improving things that help me meet my goals. Since I want to travel, for example, I really should learn a language or two. And because I want to lose weight, it's great to spend on a gym. But as much as it appeals to me, there's no point in paying for woodworking classes or power tools. Sure, I'd love to make my own furniture, but that doesn't really mesh with my long-term plans.
  • If you don't use it, stop paying for it. A lot of spending on self-improvement is based on wishful thinking. We sign up for a gym, promising that we'll go every day. Then we only go once, but we keep paying. This is foolish. Know yourself. Signing up for a gym won't make you fit. Paying for a computer class won't teach you programming. You still have to put in the time and effort. If you see you're not doing this, ditch them. (And don't worry about sunk costs.)

Also, it's important not to delude yourself. In general, a massage is not a self-improvement expense; it's a luxury. There's nothing wrong with indulging in luxuries now and then, but don't pretend they're something they're not. (I got my first massage two or three years ago because my doctor prescribed it as part of my physical therapy -- I had a running injury -- but subsequent massages are luxuries, pure and simple. If only there weren't a massage therapist in the office next door.)


But, to get back to Annie's question: How much do you spend on self-improvement and cultural activities? I'm not sure what's normal, and I'm curious to hear what readers have to say. (I suspect answers will vary widely.) Kris and I don't spend a whole lot on cultural stuff (except for when we travel), but I probably spend a few hundred dollars a year on self-improvement: books, classes, computer programs, and so on.


What about you? Do you pay for personal development? What sorts of things do you buy? How much do you spend? Which costs are worth it, and which are not? What rules have you developed to be sure you're not wasting your money? What advice can you give Annie about deciding which expenses are worthwhile?


More from Get Rich Slowly and MSN Money:

Aug 13, 2011 11:06AM

J.D.: As a massage therapist, I have to weigh in on the comment that 'massage is a luxury'.  While it can be use as an indulgence, it also saves many people from unnecessary surgeries, mitigates depression, lowers blood pressure and enhances immunity.  (Please visit The Touch Research Institute's web site.)  As a therapeutic practitioner I see, day in and day out, how powerful massage therapy is:  clients choose (on their own, not from my suggestion) to cancel surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome or low back pain.  Mysterious pains that they have treated with pharmaceuticals for years go away.  Postpartum depression lifts.  Even if none of that applies, I know a massage- friendly cardiologist who says:  "It's not the high cholesterol that will kill you, it's the every day stress!"  Massage is a very underrated wellness tool with NO negative side affects.  That being said, it's important to find the right therapist if you are looking for results-oriented therapy.  J.D., are you feeling a little guilty about visiting next door? Is he/she keeping your IT bands in check from all that running? ;)  I like your article, and I get what you're saying about choices, but I had to offer the perspective that taking care of yourself is a valid expenditure!

P.S. Why don't you say alcohol or going to the movies is a luxury? OK, enough pontificating.  I'm a self-improvement junkie.  There should be a 12-step group so I could improve on my improving.  I think of self-improvement more as life-enhancement because it gives me pleasure.  I like the feeling of tapping my potential.  I'm going to estimate I spend $500 a year on a mix of media, seminars, etc.  I don't have a budget for it which I know I should.  I always learn something about myself even if it's not the concept that's being espoused.  I get value from the experience, even if it's just a bridge for conversation.  I'm 47 so I'm at a place of choosing more carefully than when I was in my 20s.  I would be wary of anything that costs $1000 to 'taste.'  For example, seminars that promise radical life change in a weekend.  Not gonna happen.  I like the advice for exploring what you're really interested in and letting some things slide.  If learning something really 'calls' you, it will keep calling you year after year.  For example, I've wanted to learn to play the drums my whole life so I finally started taking lessons this summer.  I found a great teacher who charges $20 per 30 min lesson.  I don't have to commit to a series of lessons -- he's very laid back.  All I have to invest in is a set of sticks and a practice pad ($30)  I get to do something that is fun, takes my mind off my troubles and helps me hear old music a new way(!) So lots of value there!   Listen to your gut and make informed choices and you'll be fine.  My only concern would be how you find the time for Spanish and Econ and grad school? Enough cognition already!  If you just need a trainer to jumpstart you, then decide up front to limit the number of sessions.  I've been there and although I loved my trainer, it was hard to stop (I was using inherited money) and I really was just too lazy to work out on my own (I knew what to do).  It's crazy easy to throw money around when you didn't earn it!  Will you regret doing/not doing something?  Ask yourself:  1. Do I need to do this while I'm young?  Trust me, you want to do physically demanding stuff while you're young (rock climbing, learning to surf) Pushing 50, I now have the money for it but I'm heavier and am distracted by the thought of breaking a hip. 2.  Is this event/concert/etc. a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity?  If yes, Go.

Mar 7, 2011 6:03PM

As you are still a student, Annie, tailoring your classes to the hottest skills in your field is mandatory. You can find this information out in trade publications or networking groups in your field. Focus on these skills. This sounds disappointing but you should have the skills to get a survival job until you land the desired job in your field. I suggest office or bank teller work as both start around $11-12 an hour. MS Office plus decent 10-key and typing are essential in these jobs and many others. (MS Office is free to download for 30 days from the MS site. You can get the study book free from your library. You can get a $10 typing tutor program at Best Buy or Target.) This can be the job you don't put on your long-term resume if you wish if you are working in a field with a snooty attitude like computer programming, engineering or another creative field.


I say, get to know your local entertainment options. The universities, free day at the museums, festivals, blue jeans concerts nights, gallery openings, coupons for sporting events (check the front desk of restaurants and convenience stores), and community theater offer very nice recreational and social activities. Keep in touch with friends in these avenues to avoid spending too much. Browsing the stores is fine but I recommend leaving your wallet in the car.


The best personal enrichment activities are involvement in one professional organization and one social service or social cause organization. Both look good on a resume. Don't spread yourself too thin and don't take on a whole bunch of projects when you don't have the time, money or transportation. A lot of organizations will totally overwhelm a newcomer with projects due to personal burnout of the founding or more senior members. You end up looking bad in the wrong environment if you let anyone down. Offering to help out with cleanup after an event offers you a great opportunity to shadow the decision makers and gets you a lot of appreciation as a good sport because no one wants to be a cleanup person.


For the post-college crowd, do you like your career or job? If not, get to know what training options are available in your area by taking a class before you sign up for a whole new degree and find out the program is weak. Volunteer in that field as the United Way web sites offer a huge library of opportunities to check out a new field. Try a volunteer vacation. Attend a professional group in that field and talk to the members.


Personal enrichment absolutely requires keeping your career skills up to date for what is required to be cutting edge in your field. Having a can-do attitude can mean taking home the software and a practice book with consent of your management and working through it on your own time.


I do pay for a gym membership. I have used the personal trainer which is free for the first 4 sessions. If you will use this 3 times a week, I think it pays for itself. If the facility includes all the classes, sporting facilities, pools/hot tub, cardio and weights, I think it is a good deal if you don't live in an apartment complex with these amenities.

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