A weekend with my spendypants friends

Monday was a holiday here in Japan, and I spent the weekend with a bunch of friends. The 4 families involved found an airbnb house to rent close to the beach, and spent three days there.

It was an interesting experiment to see how we all handle everyday life and finances. Having to agree on what kind of budget we had for the house was fairly easy. Food was a completely different matter.

Setting aside the differences in taste (one family had kids who would not eat meat sauce with their pasta, and who did not eat the “crust” of the “bread” they sell here), there were also differences in meal habits that, from our frugal perspective, led to the cost of groceries skyrocketing. In order of importance:

  1. Alcohol
  2. Restaurants
  3. Baby Food
  4. Bottled water
  5. Cherry Tomatoes

I need to elaborate on these things.

The biggest expense of the weekend (besides the cost of the airbnb) was alcohol. My friends are still in a mindset that a good weekend with friends means drinking alcohol. It has to be “high quality” (understand: “expensive”), and in massive quantities (understand: “student party”). Even though they showed some restraint, a lot was spent on alcohol, and some of them tried to have that cost divided evenly across all families, for the sake of “simplicity”. Given that my wife doesn’t drink, and I do, but much, much less than my friends, we disagreed. Things ended up roughly our way, although I think I paid for a”full” share of alcohol even though I drank maybe 20% of what the others did.

Another thing we agreed to do early in the preparation process for that weekend was to cook a few times ourselves, rather than going out to restaurants every day. We felt it would be easier with a bunch of kids, rather than finding restaurants in Japan that could accommodate 16 people. It worked out ok, but one guy in particular seemed very unhappy about this. He had joined the weekend with the intention of doing absolutely no cooking at all, and did not want to get involved in anything related to it. To the point that he ultimately refused to eat the food we had prepared. I’m still not sure why, although I do suspect it was his excuse to not help at all with the preparation or washing the dishes afterwards. I don’t think I’ve seen him in the kitchen at all for the whole weekend, except to fetch beer from the fridge.

Ultimately we still did go a lot to restaurants (none of us wanted to cook *all* meals for a group of 16 people), and here too I could see that my friends showed no restraint. While my wife and I were carefully selecting items that had reasonable prices, ordering just one plate for our two older kids whom we know would not finish a full plate each, everybody else ordered twice as much food as they needed, lots of alcohol, and so on and so forth. I think it makes sense to enjoy yourself while you’re on a vacation, and I’m not blaming my friends for having a good time. But I felt that my wife and I were showing some restraint that the others did not. We ended up paying 30% less than our friends (despite being the largest family), once it was agreed to not “split the bill evenly, for the sake of simplicity”. Yes, that argument showed up a lot throughout the weekend.

One family had a baby with them (we did too). And, while we had planned to bring our own food for the baby as well as cook some basic stuff on site, the other family stated they would buy lots of prepared food for the baby. Their baby accounted for 10% of the overall (non alcohol) food cost for the weekend, while representing 2% of the total ingested quantity. It felt crazy to me. That cost was split among all families as I didn’t have the heart to protest.

Other expensive food choices included 2 kilos of cherry tomatoes “because my kids love it” as well as 10 gallons of bottled water because “that’s the only water we can drink”. Baby food, cherry tomatoes, and bottled water accounted for one third of all our food expenses, excluding alcohol and restaurants. I’m still speechless (and really, don’t get me started on bottled water, although I might have an article on the topic one day if I really get angry).

I understand that people have principles/rules to eat some specific things, but I felt that for a weekend, these principles could be forgotten in the name of simplicity. I guess that argument only goes one way.

We all had loads of fun over the weekend, and, in the big scheme of things, it wasn’t that expensive for anyone involved. But the lack of effort of most of my friends to reduce their expenses gave me a window into their financial lives. Their attitude with money and consumption is exactly the one I had less than 5 years ago. The problem is not with splurging for a weekend of course, but this was an extension of their daily handling of these matters. The same way that my attempts to reduce costs left and right was an extension of my own attitude. I’m not pretending my attitude was better than theirs, by the way: I have not broken friendships over the weekend, but I was probably too obsessed with costs for my own good, and received a few salty comments from my friends. It’s worth noting that our frugal habits allowed my wife and I to negotiate a 20% discount off the airbnb, which practically paid for all the groceries. You’re welcome.

As we discussed many things late into the night (expensive glass of whisky in one hand for my friends, beer for me), I also got confirmation that my friends are “late in the game” when it comes to investments. I’d say they stand roughly where I was 10 years ago.This is a bigger problem than just a 10 years delay, because we all make much more money than we did 10 years ago. It’s one thing to save nothing when you’re single, in your first job, and making “smallish” income. It’s another thing when you have a large salary, a family, and lifestyle inflation already settled. Going back to being frugal is going to take much more work for them now than it did for me 5 years ago.

One of them admitted having saved nothing yet, at age 40. He has a kid who goes to an expensive school for expats, and his wife is technically unemployed. His salary is in the low six figures. He is convinced that his latest job offer for an expat role in Europe will finally be his chance to double his income and start saving. I on the other hand, want to assume they will start spending even more than ever: he’s already picturing a great new car, living in a super fancy city dozens of miles away from his job because “his wife deserves it”, sending his kid to some private school, etc…

We discussed investments. None of them have a plan. They kept mentioning friend X or Y who “made it big” with a risky bet on FX, or reached “gold” level at his bank which let them invest their money in a special fund where the fee was “only a few percents”. I tried to explain none of this was a sane approach and they sounded remotely interested, but I assume that just like me, they’ll have to figure it out by themselves (and not hear it from me) for it to really resonate.

In the end, we had a great weekend, sadly I’m convinced that none of these friends will join me in the “early retirement” joy of renting an airbnb “close to the beach” on a weekday, anytime soon.

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