Leaving 'Bougie' — Learning to Love The Base Model

I’ve been pondering and exploring an idea lately that’s somewhat new to me. I’ve traditionally been a pretty bougie person — maybe not always on the latest-and-greatest update cycle, but someone that definitely chooses the upper-level trim packages or accessories etc. I’ve always personally considered it more like investing than bougieness, but maybe that doesn’t quite stack up when I chose the $16 movie tickets because it’s the bigger screen with the recliner chairs… I digress. I’ve generally been someone that buys the ‘more expensive’ version of things. The not-base-model.

I’m not sure exactly why, but that’s been changing in me. Trust me, there are still a lot of things I still feel bougie about — it’s not a fast transition — but I’m starting to embrace the ‘base model’ / frugal style in almost a competitive way. To put that into the context of a few examples, I’ll start with my computer. For the last ten years I’ve been a MacBook Pro person. Like, a MacBook Pro with a couple of the upgraded components. A couple I personally bought, a couple from various employers, but the game’s the same — a powerhouse machine with upgraded parts to handle any job. Why? Because I’m a Developer™️. I write code — harnessing the direct power of my brain to convert mere thoughts into zeros and ones, the most advanced of all computer users that obviously warrants the most advanced of all computers! (/sarcasm). Yeah, there’s a weird combination of bougie-ness and status going on in that mindset — neither of which is healthy. I think a big portion of this base-model-mentality / frugality could be described as functionality pragmatism — which is essentially just taking a step back (a really big step back in my case) and asking yourself:

How powerful/fancy of a thing do you need in order to accomplish the tasks you actually need this thing for?

In other words, if I take a big enough step back such that I exit my own status mindset / bougie-ness (or think of myself as someone else I’d give advice to), how fancy of a thing would I really need to just accomplish the tasks I plan to do with it, not worrying about ‘what I might use it for’ or ‘what I might need in the future’?

Well the answer when it comes to a development machine is certainly not a suped-up MacBook Pro. At least not for the development I do! I’m a Rails and JAMstack developer! I run a database in the background and the most hardcore / resource-intense process I run on any given day is a webpack compile or yarn install. Computationally speaking, that’s not hard. I’m not spending hours a day editing and exporting 4k/8k video, I’m not compiling massive iOS apps in Xcode, and I’m not gaming. Reality-check: I don’t actually need a suped-up Mac.

Is that hard for me to say still? A little bit. I think there’s still some lingering “I’m a dev so I should have a powerful machine” mindset — it’s hard to admit that even as someone that builds software, I don’t actually need a ton of computational power for it. I’d wager that most devs don’t, really. (Don’t @ me.)

Anyway, all that to say that I recently replaced my laptop with a base model M1 MacBook Air. Now, truth be told, I think we’re all getting a little spoiled with the M1 chip. It’s truly, seriously, unbelievable. I’m stunned by it. This machine runs faster than any of the suped-up Intel MacBooks I’ve ever owned, zero exceptions. And not having any sort of active cooling / fan is definitely a feature I’m enjoying. It’s a solid-state monster! But still, I specifically chose to not upgrade any of the components of the machine. It’s a bone-stock $900 MacBook Air (price currently on Amazon) — the cheapest laptop that Apple currently makes. I wanted to push myself further in this new mindset and find the intersection of “I really don’t need any extra horsepower” (pragmatism) and “How much value / utility / functionality can I get out of a pure base model?” (functionality) or maybe “How much can I maximize the value-to-equity ratio?”

And to some degree, I think that’s the crux of my new mindset. I know I’m a competitive person by nature (especially with myself), but I think I’m enjoying this new side of me because I’ve already gamified it. For any given topic, item, thing, or area of life, just how pragmatic can I get about my usage and how much can I maximize my value-to-equity ratio in that pragmatism? Those are the two ‘big questions’ I ought to answer in any purchase scenario.

When it comes to development, the M1 MacBook Air is a brilliant answer to both of those questions. My usage isn’t actually all that resource-intense and the base model includes TONS of power at an incredible investment level. On both sides of the equation it’s a big win. (Can you tell I like it?)

Another realm where I’m finding myself digging into this paradigm is cars. I currently own a 2013 Volkswagen Jetta. I bought it when it had 30k miles on it in 2016 and I’ve loved it since. It’s not flashy — it’s got plenty of bumps and bruises, and even though it’s a manual transmission it’s not exactly a performance vehicle. That said, I sometimes entertain the thought of trading it in or getting some kind of new vehicle altogether. The Tesla Model 3 has tons of benefits. The Ford Maverick is really neat and has a super approachable price-tag. Heck, even RAM’s 1500 with the EcoDiesel v3 has a lot of wins over the Jetta by far!

Every time I consider some of those other vehicles, I keep going back to the same two questions: how pragmatic can I get about my usage of a vehicle, and how much can I maximize my value-to-equity ratio in that pragmatism?

Let’s get pragmatic. Regarding vehicle usage, most of the miles I drive are around-town. I do love going for longer drives and definitely take a good number of road trips per year, but day-to-day we’re mostly talking about city-MPG and gas isn’t exactly cheap. Functionality-wise, I do just fine with a sedan. I’d love to own a truck (especially since I grew up with them) and there are occasional (once/twice a year) situations when having a truck bed is super handy, but then the Jetta actually has a hitch on the back that’s capable of towing U-Haul’s smaller trailers without any issue. More than once I’ve rented a tiny utility trailer (which is maybe $20 for a couple-day rental?) and moved things around town just as efficiently as a truck-bed would.

Seriously, it works great

So, pragmatically speaking, I don’t really have functionality needs that the Jetta can’t cover. And it gets pretty good mileage (mid-20’s city / low 30’s highway).

Unfortunately the picture only gets worse when taking equity and value into consideration. The Jetta is fully paid off and only has 100k miles on it. To me that means at least 100k more of life left in it! That’s a lot of value (in the personal utility sense)! But furthermore, it’s a paid off car and I own it. If you think of having a car loan as a process for buying ownership over time (a little bit per month), I already own this car. For no ‘extra’ money, the Jetta is mine.

If I were to trade it in for a Tesla, Maverick, or 1500 EcoDeisel, there would certainly be ‘extra’ money required. Either up-front (direct equity investment) or as some kind of car loan (a car payment, ugh). So changing vehicles is inevitably going to be a negative on the equity front. It is what it is.

Basically when I consider trading in my car in the context of the two ‘big questions’ above, we’re talking about adding a lot of equity without any real benefit in functionality (the Jetta already does all the things I need it to). That’s a terrible deal!

Yes, a Tesla looks really cool and would be fun to drive (0 to 60 is a fun gimmick). Yes, the Maverick has an approachable price-tag and would scratch my itch to have an actual truck. And yes, the 1500 EcoD is both a (very) ‘real truck’ AND a diesel (something else I love). So I do feel the superficial and/or status-related attractions to those vehicles. But the numbers are just so unbalanced that it doesn’t work. I’ll be keeping my Jetta 😉.

Now, all of that said, I’ll be the first to note that my ‘two big questions’ are much, much harder for me to answer in cases where I am heavily swayed by the superficial nature of the thing. Be it because the thing looks cool, has some status, or has some ‘magic’ to it (the old “one of a kind” / ‘irreplaceable’ trope). Unfortunately, this tends to be the case in all three of my primary hobbies (cycling, electric guitar, photography). I tend to think that the very-high-end bikes/guitars/cameras all look really neat, do have a sense of magic to using them, and carry a status in owning them. Uh-oh. Let me re-assess my camera as an example.

Back in April I decided that I wanted a camera that I could travel with (while leaving my phone behind) — something small, portable, with a nice large sensor, etc. so I bought a new Fujifilm X100V. Was that the most pragmatic and/or best choice? Probably not. Had I taken the time to ask myself the two big questions before making a purchase, I probably would’ve gone a different direction. It’s actually not the smallest camera I could’ve gotten (it doesn’t fit in my pocket), the V model is the newest and has upgrades that are probably marginal (e.g. I could’ve gotten an older model for cheaper), I could’ve bought a used unit (also cheaper), etc, etc.

From what I recall, my original goal was just to have a decent camera that could capture moments in place of my phone since I didn’t want to take my phone with me anymore. I really didn’t need anything nearly as nice as the X100V functionality-wise. But… my passion for photography began to sway me toward the superficial side of things. Does the X100V look really cool? Oh yeah. Do I think that the camera itself inspires me to get out and take pictures (has a ‘magic’ to it)? Definitely. Do I appreciate all 26 of those megapixels even though I don’t realistically need them? Yes! Can I admit that there may be some kind of ‘status’ associated with carrying around a beautiful (old-school-looking) silver Fujifilm camera? Yeah. I mean come on.. this thing is so cool!

The trickiest part of this process is the justifications we make in our minds. Ultimately I was out to purchase a camera! I just chose one where the equity-to-value ratio wasn’t as good as it could be. I could’ve bought a used X100F (prior generation) or a smaller camera altogether and likely have been just fine (less equity, same realistic value). Would it have the same ‘magic’ to it? Would it also inspire me to take pictures the way the X100V does? That’s a hard question to answer.

Something having ‘magic’ is entirely subjective to the human experience… but I tend to think that we either find something to be ‘magical’ (in the creative world) when it’s either a) brand new and shiny and we’re finding the euphoria of using it for the first few times, or b) fully broken-in — not quite ‘old’ — but well-used and very familiar, having been used long enough to have become so traversed and road-worn that it has its own ‘character’.

So a brand-new camera like the X100V obviously fits the bill for creating ‘magic’ via a (and will hopefully be around long enough to gracefully transition into b), but it’s hard to say if another camera would have the same effect in me. And even if it didn’t, is the ‘magic’ actually worth the additional cost? Another hard question.

Either way, the X100V is not the ‘base model’ of cameras. It’s a very, very nice camera, yes, but I could’ve accomplished my actual needs with less.

The point of these examples is to illustrate that I’m still a work in-progress. And frankly, like many things in the human experience, there probably isn’t an ‘end’. There are some things where the ‘magic’, status, look, or otherwise superficial nature of that thing will likely sway me to buy it. After all, if we looked at everything in life with pure pragmatism, we probably wouldn’t have much joy… but hopefully this mindset shift and pair of questions to help determine what we really need will at least provide me with the opportunity to find magic in the less.

I experience a ‘magic’ when using the M1 MacBook Air — it’s the unique combination of knowing that it’s the cheapest base-model available but it still does everything I need it to. I experience that same kind of ‘magic’ when putting more and more miles on the Jetta — a fairly ‘base model’ vehicle that does everything I need it to! Maybe this is just the ‘frugality magic’ but I’m looking forward to experiencing it more. Perhaps the secret is to not be captured by the ‘newness’ euphoria of a new object (a above), but rather to allow yourself to be captured by the magic found in pushing ‘base models’ to their full capability and extent.

Oh, and aside from being a neat feeling, it’s also better on the bank 😉.

Header Photo / Banner by: me!

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