Three Ways to Think About “Is It Worth It?”

In life, there are certain nonnegotiables we simply must have. Think food, water and shelter for starters. Nobody will ask, “Is it worth it to eat?” It’s just something you do to stay alive.

But deciding what to eat? That’s a different question.

Will I eat the bologna or prosciutto? Drink tap water or bottled? And anything discretionary — anything that has even the slightest element of choice in it — invariably deals with a question we find ourselves asking all the time.

“Is it worth it?”

I recently talked about this question with Adam Ketcheson. He is the vice president for marketing at Arc’teryx, a manufacturer of very high-quality equipment for skiing, backpacking, climbing and hiking. The company’s gear is internationally renowned for its performance, durability, design and craftsmanship.

Arc’teryx products also tend to be more expensive than rival equipment, often by a significant margin.

Recently, Mr. Ketcheson was heli-skiing in British Columbia with a group of executives. When they learned that he worked at Arc’teryx, one turned to him and said, “Man, I love your gear, but is it really better than all the other brands?”

The answer was: “Yes. Of course. One hundred percent yes.”

But the next question his fellow skier asked was the one we’re talking about today: “O.K., maybe it’s better. But is it worth it?”

This is a question Mr. Ketcheson gets a lot about Arc’teryx’s products, and his answer is always the same. “I don’t know,” he says. “The question is, is it worth it to you?”

Alas, there is no objective answer to that question. Mr. Ketcheson can say an Arc’teryx rain shell is objectively better because it outperforms other shells in testing. But whether it is worth it to you has no definitive answer. It’s a matter of opinion.

This question is one that we often want someone else to answer for us, but in the end, we have to answer it for ourselves. There is no right or wrong answer, just one that does or does not work for you personally.

That said, simply because no one can answer the question for you doesn’t mean that there are not clever ways to think about it. In particular, I’ve noticed three functional relationships that seem to help in identifying whether something is worth it or not: utility, enjoyment and cost.

Utility Last year, I wrote about a $5,000 road bike that I bought. The purchase seemed absolutely crazy at the time, but I did a little mental math and realized that if the bike lasted even twice as long as some comparable models, it would be worth buying. In fact, it has lasted far more than twice as long, and I’ve never looked back. So it was worth it because of how much use I got out of it.

Enjoyment If you do not enjoy something, it’s not going to be worth it. If the choice is between a cheap can of sardines or some wild-caught Alaskan salmon, regardless of the price, if you don’t eat it, neither one was worth it. If you happen to be partial to lox, you would most likely find the salmon to be completely worth it. The sardines, on the other hand, may find their way to the back of some cupboard and never be used. They may have been less expensive, but if you don’t enjoy them, they won’t be worth it.

Cost It’s not always the most expensive stuff that’s worth it (because of how, or how much, you use or enjoy it). It could just be the stuff that you have found incredibly valuable.

For example, I have this ice cream scooper that I absolutely love. It cost me under $10, I’ve had it for years, and every time I take it out I get this big smile on my face because it cost me so little. Sure, I enjoy it and use it, but what makes it memorable to me is that it feels like a steal.

Things like these are the secret little gems of the “worth it” world — the things that cost you almost nothing but give you a tremendous amount of utility, or enjoyment.

If you get a ton of use out of something, you enjoy it every time you use it and it costs a relatively small amount, it’s going to be “worth it.” That’s a no-brainer. That’s the ice cream scooper.

But many decisions are not so obvious, particularly those in which the cost is high. And that’s when these three functional relationships can help.

In the end, however, your answer is the only one that will count. And the next time you are about to ask someone else, “Is it worth it?” don’t.

Instead, ask yourself.

This commentary originally appeared May 9 on HuffingtonPost.com

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© 2016, The BAM ALLIANCE

Carl Richards, CFP®

Carl Richards is the creator of the weekly Sketch Guy column in The New York Times and is a columnist for Morningstar Advisor. Carl has also been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Financial Planning, Marketplace Money, The Leonard Lopate Show, Oprah.com and Forbes.com. His simple but meaningful sketches served as the foundation for his first book, "The Behavior Gap: Simple Ways to Stop Doing Dumb Things with Money."

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