How to justify spending three grand over four days

Bodyboarder and Santa Monica Pier
A bodyboarding daughter in Santa Monica

I sat at my desk in Denver on a recent October night faced with a question: does it make sense to spend three grand over four days?

On the surface, it made no sense, given that we as a family generally run a slight but very real financial budget deficit. Plus it’s soccer season, and my 13-year-old daughter would miss a game. So there would be nonfinancial costs also.

But then my figure-skating 16-year-old daughter ended up with a bad back just in time for regionals, the big qualifying skating competition for which she more or less trains all year (finish among the top few at regionals, go to sectionals; do the same at sectionals and you go to nationals; finish among the top three or four at nationals and you go to world’s (or, in Olympic years, the Olympics awaits), where the Russians will destroy you anyway. 

Regionals coincided with Denver Public Schools’ fall break, which involves a couple of days off. When a daughter has regionals and one’s wife is accompanying that daughter to Colorado Springs for the event, you’re not getting away and you’re fine with that. But suddenly, we had four days open, and the opportunity cost of going away had shrunken into a missed youth soccer game.

I was not keenly interested in spending a bunch of dough on a spontaneous fall-break trip. At first I considered more local options – maybe Pagosa Springs, in whose hot pools we had intended to hang out to break up a long return drive from Phoenix the prior Thanksgiving. But we had rolled in late, and the next morning it had been 14 degrees out. Steamboat? Aspen? Cold at both, and no snow yet. Then the idea: Yellowstone!

Ocean Boulevard at Santa Monica Pier
Ocean Boulevard at Santa Monica Pier

I’ve always wanted to take the family there but have had no desire to drive 10 hours and then fight through high-season summer crowds. This would be a possibility.

I’d been to Yellowstone as part of a NASA Astrobiology Institute workshop back in 2006. I was covering science and the environment for the Boulder Daily Camera at the time – back when a small paper could afford such a luxurious beat (Boulder is home to the University  of Colorado and major NIST and NOAA federal research labs, not to mention the National Center for Atmospheric Research, so there was a lot to cover even without getting into water, wildfire and most importantly prairie dog issues). 

Scientists are interested in Yellowstone for many reasons. It’s a case study in how reintroducing wolves can restore ecological balance. They’re interested in the caldera itself, a supervolcano that could put Denver under a couple of feet of ash while presenting humanity with a civilization-threatening catastrophe, when it blows again (it’s due). They’re interested in it also because they have discovered hydrogen-eating microbes living in 160-degree water in the Park’s bubbling pools – not to mention the various cyanobacteria and other microscopic critters that make Grand Prismatic Spring and other water hazards of the granddaddy of U.S. national parks so beautiful. Those microbes could well be descendants of the planet’s first living creatures, and perhaps also examples of how life got rolling elsewhere.

This had been a fantastic and memorable experience for me. In addition to superb organization from CU-LASP’s Emily Cobabe Amman, participants included minds such as David Des Marais and Steve D’Hondt, among others. Walking around or observing whatever it was we were observing, I could blurt out questions as random as what causes what color in the water to the chemical composition of the rock at Yellowstone Falls to what kind of tree is that. The answers came quickly and accurately.  

A slackliner at Santa Monica's Muscle Beach
A slackliner at Santa Monica’s Muscle Beach

Flights to either Bozeman or Jackson were in the $350 range; there would be a rental car; we would stay in motels. It would be probably two grand, all told. A lot, but what the hell. 

I was on the cusp of booking when my wife suggested checking the weather – given our last-minute planning, we were within the 10-day forecast range. 

The 10-day forecast wasn’t straight-up ugly, but it gave us pause. Highs in the low thirties sort of thing. Maybe snow. 

Two grand to freeze. I could hear teenage girls whinging already. 

Now at this point, a spontaneous-vacation planner has two main options. One is to say, OK, you gave it a look. Stay home or do a day trip or two. Get some work done. (There is always work to do.)

Two is to accept that you’ve embarked down the road of travel planning, so you might as well look for an alternative.

We considered New Orleans and Austin, both which seemed reasonable and both of which are interesting. Then I wondered: what about LA?

I found lots of flights from Denver and prices to LAX in the $170 range. This was good. Plus the weather looked fabulous. But where in LA? A very good friend does occasional business in Santa Monica. A few Expedia clicks and I stood before a click of far greater consequence: four flights and four nights at the Shore Hotel a stone’s throw away from Santa Monica Pier. Cost: $2,300.

I rubbed my temples and thought it through. My wife was enthusiastic. I had never been to the coast there – my only Los Angeles experience had been on a family trip in the early 1980s, when I was younger than my kids. We had focused on Hollywood and Anaheim and such. This would be more of a coastal thing. The accommodations involved a four-star hotel lacking any possibility to prepare food for oneself. Yes, Expedia was running some sort of bundling deal, but it was still one helluva lot, and it was solid two stars above my accustomed milieu. It didn’t take many clicks in a different Chome window to see that everything close to the water was comparably priced. You pay for location, and in LA, you also pay not to spend your vacation in traffic driving from cheaper places inland. Santa Monica is one of the priciest places to live in this great land of ours. I was thinking: This is going to be three grand.

Three grand! 

On the Santa Monica Muscle Beach swings
On the Santa Monica Muscle Beach swings

I stared at the screen in the converted dining room that is my office (my desk is a lovely cherrywood dining room table turned sideways and jammed against the windows, bought with gifted money from my maternal grandmother) and squinted at the $2,300 number as if doing so would make it smaller. How do you justify such a thing knowing you can’t really afford it, at least in the way I calculate being able to afford nonessentials: that is, can you swing it out of surplus earnings over some reasonable number of future months?

The answer here was a clear no (see finances, above). Adding to the negative side of the ledger was my 13-year-old choosing precisely this evening to be a complete whackjob hellian, which is apparently in the early-teen female job description (for boys, my impression is, the equivalent contractual obligation reads, “when not absorbed in your gaming device, be a reckless idiot”).

Then I remembered Dan Ariely.

He is a Duke psychologist famous for his studies of and popular writings on happiness. A year ago, he tweeted this:

We should invest more in our experiences rather than our stuff. Experiences stay, stuff gets lost. Happy Halloween!

Turns out there’s a long history of thinking and research on this front, and there are caveats. If you’re poor, stuff can be a better investment. Experiences can suck, or they can be repetitive, ushering in the experiential equivalent of diminishing marginal returns – called hedonistic adaptation. Plus I wasn’t going to buy anything worth three grand anyway, despite being, at age 50, square in the demographic in which you buy expensive shit for yourself – sports cars, second homes, boats, stupid watches, whatever.

But I’m a writer (see “finances” above) and am financially not 50 and will never be. I will be transitioning straight from youthful penny-pinching into my current middle-aged penny pinching to what will certainly be geriatric penny-pinching.

Venice Beach skateboard park
At the Venice Beach skateboard park

Then I remembered: the mountain bike. I briefly and not-seriously considered upgrading from a Kona Dawg mountain bike I’d bought used on Craigslist for $550 in 2011. I thought for a long time that the bike was a 2007 model, but more recent research hints at it being four years older.

This bike predates the generational revolution that occurred in mountain-bike design over the past seven-eight years. All mountain bikes look roughly the same now because there’s a particular, somewhat curvilinear approach that everyone agrees is right.

My bike is not designed like this. It is angular, blocky, and rather heavy. It’s got 26-inch wheels, which among serious mountain bikers is total anathema. For a good while, 29-inch wheels, a.k.a. twenty-niners, were the thing. Now for average-size riders, 27.5-inch wheels (27.5ers?) are the thing.

Which is not all that different from a 26-inch wheel, really. (Perhaps you 27.5er riders can feel some difference from that extra 4.71 inches of circumference when rolling over technical crap. If so, you should put a pea under your mattress and see if your sleep is disrupted.)

Furthermore, I mountain bike like three times a year. Most recently, I was in Moab, where this aging Dawg of mine hammered down the Whole Enchilada and up and down Slick Rock and Navajo Rocks – nasty rides that actual mountain bikers describe as “epic.” It’s done Fruita tours with no problem. I don’t race, so I don’t care if I’m somewhat behind. Plus I ride with Leadville 100 MTB and Mount Evans Hill Climb types. They would be waiting for me regardless, so the Dawg’s weight is irrelevant as long as it doesn’t slow me down so much that my aggressive-riding pals decline to invite me anymore. 

The Shore Hotel pool and ocean beyond
The Shore Hotel pool and ocean beyond

So I had spent $175 on new tires, grips, and a seat-post dropper (which required a shim because my seat post’s diameter is nonstandard now) and am ready for the next trip in however many months. I therefore did not spend three grand on a mountain bike. I could, with some rationalizing, apply this nonexpenditure to a forthcoming travel expenditure.

Plus there was this: last year I’d taken my daughters, sans wife, who had to work, to Washington D.C. to see the sights and be where bad domestic and geopolitical decisions are made. We had stayed in a garden-level studio apartment near DuPont Circle where, because the futon couch lacked sufficient slats, I had slept on the futon mattress with my head not far from the dishwasher, which I leaned not to run before bed. We had a great time. 

The girls won’t be teens for long, won’t be in the house for long (the elder is a junior). In an act that felt more spontaneous than it was, I clicked the Pay Now button. This Santa Monica trip would be a good one.

And guess what? It was.

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