The Megalixir Problem

Image by tatu234 from Pixabay

In the Final Fantasy role playing game series, the Megalixir is usually one of the most powerful healing items in the game, typically restoring all characters’ health and magic points to maximum. The name stems from mega- (one million, but more contemporarily extreme or powerful) and elixir. Most of the time, Megalixirs are also special in that they are not easily obtainable; they are not directly purchaseable for the common in-game currency, and must either be found, obtained (rarely!) from enemy monsters or specifically traded for. When I played the games, these items would often end up sitting around in my inventory unused; I’d maybe use one or two when fighting the final boss or bonus boss, but there would still usually be many left over once the game was 100% completed. There’s always a fear that what’s to come might be even more difficult and necessitate the use of a Megalixir.

On the other hand, when I was in university I used to participate in mobile gaming offers on so-called “offer walls” as a side hustle. Game companies would advertise their mobile game and pay some amount of money to make some defined progress in their game (in exchange for generating usage statistics that would be useful e.g. in the App Store). These played out quite differently; many of these apps were free to play, but had a form of premium currency – players could accumulate some in the game, though they could obtain much more by making in-app purchases. Since the ending point was well known (e.g. complete level 20), I would aggressively burn the premium currency with the goal of reaching the required level with as little slack as possible; most likely if I was playing the game for the long haul I’d not be as relaxed there.

The Megalixir is of course a metaphor for a resource that is high-impact, somewhat scarce and difficult to replace. Whether it is a slug of equities or cash, some nice clothes, a premium bottle of wine or even a stash of airline miles, I find that my first instinct is usually to conserve rather than use them. So the equities are aggressively reinvested, the clothes stay in the cupboard until there’s a really special occasion, the wine remains undrunk and the flights untaken. However, I think a lesson I’ve learned this year especially through the COVID-19 restrictions was that I should be more generous with these resources (and this means being more willing to use them); retaining a Megalixir is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for using it in the future. Of course, one can attempt to make more sophisticated expected-value calculations: that’s the basis for safe withdrawal rates in retirement, for example. These calculations are fairly involve and incur some overhead, though, and thus while it makes sense to plan one’s retirement, it may not be productive agonising over smaller resources. I’m reminded of several instances over the years where I’ve spent hours researching and ruminating over a 10 pound decision. To take the metaphor further, the Megalixirs, while hard to come by, are generally not strictly limited.

The inspiration for this post came up from a video that found its way onto my YouTube playlist this week – that being one for Charlie Puth’s Dangerously. I remember first listening to this song in late 2016 when flying back to Singapore for a Palantir deployment, on Singapore Airlines, and neither having been back nor being able to reasonably return and work from there has been fairly draining. I normally go back every 4 months, while it’s been 11 since the last time I was there. Although I didn’t pay for the flight at the time, it did make me think about travelling, and how I’d be willing to pay up for premium economy (or possibly even business, if it’s cheap) when international travel restrictions loosen.

In general, there has been a shift in my finances and planning in this direction since March or so when COVID-19 began to impact my life in the UK. At least as far as personal finance is concerned, I have quite a strong inherent bias towards delayed gratification, so overcoming that feels strange. It still does feel awkward, unfortunately (and indeed frugality and being critical of one’s purchases is usually a strength).

Some of this is, to go with the Megalixir analogy, actually along the lines of supporting my physical and mental health in a more challenging environment, and I would say my work and personal environment has definitely become more challenging this year (though not purely due to COVID reasons). It’s worth noting here that challenging doesn’t mean bad; for example, I’d say my work environment is several times more challenging than it was in 2016 because the scope of my responsibilities has grown, though this expanded scope also has the potential to be considerably more rewarding. This manifests in terms of better quality food – premium apples and fresh fish, for example. I remember that as a first year in university I facetiously derided the “three for 10 quid” deals on meat and fish in Sainsbury’s, M&S or Waitrose – now I’m actually using these offers quite frequently. The mental aspect of this is probably more damaging to the bottom line, as I do indulge in a little retail therapy.

In spite of this, this year’s saving rate is quite high, because income has held steady while expenditure has not risen dramatically. I’m fortunate that my income flows haven’t really been affected yet, and because of the DPO actually grew. Although I intend to re-work my spending patterns, that’s not readily feasible yet. There’s no point in using a Megalixir when the monsters are very weak; if your HP is say 9900 out of 9999 and a regular potion heals 100 HP, you should just use the regular potion. Most of the stuff I find interesting or purchase as part of said retail therapy turns out to be quite inexpensive, and my tastes in food are simple so there’s really only a limited amount of bottom line damage that can happen here. Hopefully as holidays and international travel start to come back online next year, there’ll actually be opportunities to chase where one of these can be legitimately deployed.

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