On Paying Oneself First

The expression “pay yourself first” is one very frequently put forth in personal finance circles. In practice, this often involves automatically rerouting some amount of money into a separate savings or investment account whenever a paycheck comes in. Besides the mathematical benefits (compounding; to some extent, risk mitigation via cost averaging if one’s investing), I can see how the approach could be useful psychologically (in that it reflects a shift in one’s mindset concerning money, as well as a conscious prioritization of savings and capital growth). I’ve personally been following this, though I’ve been investing the money into a portfolio of equity trusts and index funds (I’d recommend having an emergency pot to sustain a few months’ expenses first, though).

I see no reason why this can’t be generalized beyond money, though, especially since we do have to manage far more important scarce resources. In particular, I’m looking at time. I’ve received feedback that I tend to slant towards being outcome-oriented, and this does mean that if an important project is lagging but I see a way to recover, I’ll tend to vigorously pursue it – it’s thus not too difficult for me to end up spending 70 or even more hours a week on said project (or even 90-plus, as I did in second year at Imperial). I’ve learned that this is unsustainable, but for me it’s still not the easiest decision to drop something (to the point where a friend commended me for actually using some of my leave during the industrial placement!).

If we look at time in the same way, we get 24 hours a day, or 168 a week; things like sleep are of course important, but I tend to see them more as bills or taxes that need to be paid (not paying them tends to lead to interest!). So paying myself first would involve reserving some time for something else; I’d propose personal learning and development as a good candidate for this.

This is perhaps unsurprising; I suspect that if I polled people as to what “investing in oneself” entails, many answers concerning education would be forthcoming. Like bonds and equities (hopefully), developing one’s skills can lead to future payoffs. I do tend to partition this time into roughly three different domains:

  1. Technical development – e.g. paper reading, programming contests, code katas. These are likely to feed back in to my software engineering work. I’d probably consider these similar to equity income mutual funds; they (ideally) grow in value reasonably steadily and generate nice payoffs along the way too.
  2. General professional development – e.g. writing, finance, tax. Useful for both software engineering work (from what I can recall, I’ve written a lot of docs) and also for managing my own professional matters. Again, these are generally useful; perhaps they have smaller immediate payoffs than technical development, though I tend to think of them as also very important in the long run. Perhaps these would be more similar to a growth-focused fund then? Or even BRK-B (or BRK-A; we’ll get to that but I don’t have a quarter of a million quite yet!)
  3. Random development – singing, photography, etc. These are generally quite fun (I do also enjoy software engineering, writing and finance, but they like all other domains tend to have diminishing marginal returns), and might suddenly explode into usefulness or value given the right conditions. Perhaps these are like emerging market equity funds that are focused on a specific country. There’s certainly a fair bit of variance, but the returns can sometimes be impressive. (If one wishes to take the metaphor even further, deeply out of the money options could be more accurate; they certainly add a bit of fun to a portfolio, too! That said, I have no direct experience with option trading.)

Of course, money and finances are an important thing to manage, and I believe that paying oneself first is a good strategy there. However, it does feel to me that time is even more important. My admittedly equity-heavy portfolio lost around 6 percent during the US election jitters, and this is a portfolio which I’ve built up over the course of about a year and a half now – yet I didn’t feel much (I was expecting a further fall post-Trump win, though in the end the markets rallied). I’m the kind of person who can get annoyed if I find that a day was wasted – let’s not even get started on my reaction to 6% of 18 months (just over a month; 32.87 days). Of course, we have to be careful about jumping to conclusions about what constitutes waste or loss, but I think the point that I find loss of time more painful than loss of money (at least at a small-percentage scale) still holds.

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