The problem with YOLO

Old Arrow Sign

I’m in Vegas this week.

Everyone has a strong reaction to that phrase, and it’s quite revealing about them. Sometimes it’s, “Ugh, Vegas, what a hellhole“, but more often it’s “Awesome! What kind of craziness are you gonna get up to? Are you drinking yet? How much money have you lost on the slots?

Ahem. For reference, this is where I am right now:

Sunrise Coffee

But I do love spectacle, so I enjoy going to Vegas. I could spend every evening wandering around some part of the city, from the surreality of the Strip to the more human-scaled downtown. (If there are are other areas in Vegas that are conducive to walking don’t hate us, please let me know.)

But by far the most interesting part of being in Vegas, for me, is the people watching. People from all walks of life come to Vegas, young and old, couples, families, single groups, locals, people from all over the world.

Last night, while wandering through a casino, I saw three middle aged men act like they were 19:

Dude, you want to play some Pai Gow?
Pai Gow!?
Pai Gow!!
<Rough bro hug>

Two feet to their right, I saw another middle aged man absentmindedly throw down a wad of $100 bills on a craps table. Not a small wad either.

If I can sum up people’s outward experience of Las Vegas, it would be one thing: the expression of YOLO.

Which is both refreshing and dangerous.


In case you didn’t hear, YOLO stands for You Only Live Once. (Or, You Oughta Look Out, as The Lonely Island would have it.) It can translate into a number of different behaviors, but in effect it seems to mean something akin to this millennium’s version of Carpe Diem.

I have no special objection to Carpe Diem or YOLO. Our lives are short, our opportunities pass quickly, and adding some level of urgency to our lives would allow us to achieve that much more.

But even still, it doesn’t mean that our lives are over. And it turns out that there are big differences in how we operate based on this distinction.

Our lives are not over

Back to Vegas. It’s not exactly shocking news that people blow incredible amounts of money here. Sometimes, it almost seems like excess is the whole point. All you can eat buffets or $50? Check. $20 cocktails? Check. Ziplining over the street for $40? Check. And that’s before we get to the gambling tables.

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Flamingo Hotel
Just another boring night on the town

Now, I’ve learned to try to not profile people. We all know that people who try to act wealthy are most likely not wealthy. Maybe people are cashflowing their trips.

But it’s hard to escape the conclusion that a lot of people from all walks of life are coming to Vegas with YOLO on their minds, spending whatever they want, and not thinking about the consequences.

Unfortunately, the phrase “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” doesn’t apply to credit card bills.

Our lives are short

If you know for a fact that your life is about to end, do you really need to keep saving for the future? Maybe you can cash out your 401(k) in a blaze of glory. (Maybe not, but you know what I mean.)

On the other hand, just realizing that life is short doesn’t mean that you should cash out your 401(k). You don’t want to get to the future and find that your past you was a selfish jerk.

I want you to go climb Everest if that’s what you want. But do I want you to quit your job, sell all of your possessions, and buy a one-way ticket to Nepal? No way.

And that’s the problem: YOLO has a tomorrow. And you inhabit that tomorrow. How are you going to feel about the person who went YOLO, had a great weekend, and now you’re paying the bill?

We need a little YOLO

There’s something so refreshing and salutary about not caring about so much, even if just for a weekend. I get it. We care so deeply, we strive so hard, that we need a vacation from that exertion and effort. I’m not saying we shouldn’t let go.

Instead, I’m saying that we plan to let go. Let’s put some walls and boundaries around our letting go, and anything inside those boundaries is fair game.

Want to get down on a rooftop bar with $20 cocktails? Great! Make a plan with how many cocktails you think you’re going to want, and put away some money toward it. Bring cash with you (and no cards) and you can spend without worry, since you know you won’t be able to overdo it.

Want to hit the tables? Again, give yourself a plan and a maximum, and keep the plastic away so that you can go overboard only within your limitations.

Might it be slightly less exciting and debaucherous? Maybe a bit. But let’s not forget that while the present can be pleasurable, the future lasts much longer. You want to be able to enjoy that too.

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Now if you’ll pardon my quick ending here, I’m off to go check out that zipline.

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