Recently, someone posed a question at a group dinner:
What is the best $100 purchase you ever made?
Damn, I thought, that’s a great fucking question…
Items started popping into my head rapid fire. But amidst the stream of $100 purchases I’d amassed over the years — nice shoes, cool t-shirts, snazzy accessories, and an ever-evolving assortment of tech gadgets — not a single one of them stood out as having real, lasting value.
The real game-changers, I realized, the items that provided value beyond my wildest expectations, were investments.
Investments into someone, something, or some idea in the future.
Warren Buffett famously says that his single best investment wasn’t a stock that earned him millions of dollars, but rather a public speaking course by Dale Carnegie. The lessons he learned from that one course paid dividends he’d use for the rest of his career.
“That $100 course gave me the most important degree I have. It’s certainly had the biggest impact in terms of my subsequent success.”
A purchase is something bought with the intent to consume it. An investment, on the other hand, produces dividends — in the form of wealth, health, quality of life, or self-improvement — often of far greater value than you expected.
This question forced me to recognize that the real lasting buys of our lifetime won’t be random purchases subject to the winds of trend or fashion, but entities that appreciate over time.
In the end, most things matter very, very little. Some things are a loss to gain.
The expensive watch you always thought was unattainable seemed like it was valuable to you, but then you attained it and you realized, “Oh, this is not valuable, this is just difficult to get.”
Chris Williamson calls this the Difficulty Value Conflation —
Just because something is difficult to obtain, doesn’t mean it’s valuable.
Non-valuable but difficult things get slipped into our desires without us noticing. When we see someone toting the hottest new handbag or showing off their 3,000-square-foot home our envy tricks us into thinking it’s valuable. But really, it’s just perceived as valuable because it’s difficult to obtain. If you shell out your last paycheck to buy that handbag will you still value it with the same fondness in ten years?
That’s why this question is so intriguing.
The monetary amount isn’t important. We can use $100 as a proxy for virtue, value, alignment, or integrity.
That’s not to say your answer can’t be a piece of artwork that inspires you or a custom bracelet with a meaningful quote. It’s about what’s important to you. Most of the things we buy are meant to impress other people. The excitement of an expensive outfit quickly fades after the initial onslaught of compliments from your peers.
In the end, if an item doesn’t provide lasting value to you, it’s not an investment, it’s a bandage of temporary fulfillment.
“We spend money that we do not have, on things we do not need, to impress people who do not care.” — Will Smith
As I thought about my answer, the only things that came to mind were things that were risky or unknown at the time. The moments and experiences that provided lasting meaning were the ones in which I took a leap of faith. The valuable buys were the $20 website domain that got me to start blogging, the triathlon entry fee that compelled me to forge a disciplined exercise routine, and the drinks I bought on my first date with my now-wife.
All of those things could have been a waste. I could have hated running or gotten injured training, I could have never written a single blog post, and I could have wasted $100 on a bad date. But living with fear stops us from taking risks, and if you don’t go out on the branch, you’re never going to get the best fruit.
No investment is without risks, and no opportunity is guaranteed. It’s betting on yourself that ultimately provides the most value in the long term. Betting on yourself is the best investment you can make.
That isn’t to say we should force ourselves down a rabbit hole of constant self-improvement and shun all material wants. Rather, we can use this question as a filter the next time we feel compelled to buy something. Pause and ask yourself why you want to buy this thing in the first place.
This question may also encourage you to re-evaluate experiences you may usually turn down. Maybe it’s accepting an invite to a Broadway show you‘d normally say no to, or taking an experimental cooking class (even though you hate cooking) to learn how to make your boyfriend’s favorite pasta dish. Push yourself into unfamiliar environments. Those experiences may introduce you to a unique hobby, a favorite song, or a new friend.
So ask yourself, what is the best $100 purchase you’ve made recently?