The $20 umbrella, and spending mindfully

It has been a dreary week here on the East Coast – raining just about every one of the past 168 hours. Yet somehow, I forgot to pack my umbrella when I took the train to Washington DC yesterday. I walked to my hotel from Union Station during a lull in the rain, but after getting situated and finishing up some work, I saw that it was really starting to come down.

What to do? I could have stayed in my hotel room, but I wanted to use my spare hour to go for a walk on the National Mall. I knew that would be enjoyable. And so I wound up in that most overpriced of all places on the planet, the hotel gift shop, looking at a $20 umbrella.

On some level, this situation really annoyed me. I have at least half a dozen umbrellas at home, many of which cost less than $20. But then I started questioning my annoyance. For starters, why was I mad about a mildly overpriced umbrella, when the rate on my hotel room probably would have gone up or down by $20 depending on the day I booked it?  I also realized that spending $20 on an umbrella would buy me an hour of exercise in a pretty place — something I enjoy. Indeed, I would probably enjoy that hour more than I’d enjoy, say, a $20 shirt. Because I had an umbrella, I would also probably walk to my event, rather than take a cab, so there were those costs to keep in mind too.

So I bought the umbrella, and wound up over in the botanical garden on the mall, enjoying the smells of the herb exhibit, and the wild mix of colors that early fall always brings. Did I do the right thing? I imagine so, but this is the kind of issue I’m pondering as I start to write my new book on money. We all have funny issues with our cash, like my reluctance to pay $20 for an umbrella when I didn’t call 10 hotels trying to negotiate a $20 cheaper rate. I’m curious if others have noticed these tendencies, and if you have any (small) money dilemmas that have made you think about why we spend the way we do.

5 thoughts on “The $20 umbrella, and spending mindfully

  1. Wow, this is a very thought-provoking post. I know I often obsess over some costs–which eats up a lot of time–but then mindlessly spend on other items. So, for instance, my son wants to be Buzz Lightyear for Halloween. There are a million websites selling this costume. I spent at least a half-hour (probably longer) sorting through them to figure out which was cheapest (not easy to do as most sites don’t disclose their shipping fees up front). So, I saved somewhere in the $5-10 range. Maybe. But I doubt it was worth the time. I don’t clip coupons because I don’t think that’s worth it–so why do I tend to do this with online shopping?

    On the other hand, I have been meaning to compare rates on car & house insurance forever. This investment of time–maybe a couple of hours, max–could potentially net me hundreds or thousands of dollars if I find a better deal. But I never get around to it, even though that would be well worth my time.

    I like Ramit’s ideas over at, one of which is that instead of worrying about the money you spend on lattes (or whatever), go for the big savings that will really make a difference. Cut out those needless expenses (lilke overpaying on insurance, or credit cards, or whatever) & focus on what’s important to you. Similar to your principles on time in 168 Hours, actually.

  2. For some of those marginal purchases, I look at the cost in hours after time and childcare. As a writer with a nanny in New York, suppose your childcare/preschool/housekeeping/household employee costs are $50,000/yr and your marginal tax rate is 50% on $120,000 in income. (Suppose your husband’s income both covers other expenses and puts you in a high marginal tax bracket. You can do the calculation differently by taking housing/groceries/other necessary expenses out of your income and giving yourself a lower tax bracket.)

    After taxes and childcare, you make $10,000 (excluding a possible $5000 childcare tax deduction) If you work 2000 hours/yr, this umbrella cost 4 hours of your time after taxes and childcare.

  3. LOL! I suspect you can probably save money by never paying LESS than $20 for an umbrella, since those $5 black ones everybody buys from bodegas when they get caught without one inevitably a) self-destruct after only a couple outings b) get lost or forgotten or overlooked because they’re black and invisible once you put them down on the floor somewhere c) get picked up and walked off with by other people because they’re identical to and indistinguishable from all the other $5 black umbrellas everybody else has too. Really these should be viewed as disposable!

    On the other hand, if you pay more for a sturdier umbrella with a distinctive color or pattern, then a) it will last longer b) you’ll be less likely to lose it yourself because it will be easier to spot in dark corners c) other people will be less likely to walk off with it because it won’t look exactly like all the other umbrellas out there.

    However, more expensive and sturdier are unfortunately not synonymous. My only umbrella to survive that crazy windstorm this spring (I think I went through three umbrellas in one day, and they were all higher-end artsy ones from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The New Yorker, etc.) was actually my smallest Totes umbrella, which I’d bought at Staples because I could see that it was NOT constructed like the ones that self-destruct. The shaft is much thicker, tapered, and telescopes instead of being in two skinny, wobbly sections like the kind that fall apart. The ribs are thicker than average too, and there’s an overall higher ratio of metal to plastic than in most umbrellas. Not surprisingly, it’s significantly heavier than similarly sized umbrellas that are flimsier, but it’s still compact enough to fit easily inside a purse–in part because the handle is flat, not round, so the whole umbrella rolls up to be more flat than round. I can’t believe how long it’s lasted, given that it’s the umbrella I use most because it’s so portable I’m much more inclined to take it with me just in case on iffy days than I would be if it were larger. I’ve never had an umbrella that lasted long enough for the velcro that holds it closed to give out before the ribs snap or the threads unravel! If you travel a lot, I’d recommend getting an extra one of these to leave in your suitcase at all times so you’ll never be without one on the road.

  4. I agree, Nancy.
    I agonize over the time vs, money dilemma all the time. I used to go to 3 different supermarkets to save a few dollars. This took time to scour all the circulars and make lists, in addition to going to the stores (with a toddler in tow). Now I look at one circular, go to one store and plan to start ordering the food online, to give myself more time with my family.
    I have only begun to understand the value of spending time the way I want to, and look forward to trading some of my money for the time I can have to enjoy life.

    1. Denise: I am with you on this one. I think we have a systematic bias against using money to buy time, because we don’t think of the opportunity costs. Or else we worry that we’re being taken advantage of, or missing out on a bargain somewhere. Yes, we probably are. But so what?

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