Why it may be worth spending more for simplicity


(Meta-note: 100th post!)

I was having dinner with a friend recently, and at one point we started reeling off the “obvious” pithy financial wisdom we knew. Things like “spend less than you make” “invest in index funds” “avoid fees,” etc. At one point, she also continued, “pay your car insurance up front.”

Ahh. Umm. Right. Of course.

I then had to admit, embarrassingly, that this was something I didn’t do. An admission that led to some soul-searching on what things truly cost, and why it’s not always just about money.

Car-ma police

The situation is thus: Many car insurance plans (though this practice isn’t limited to car insurance) will allow you to pay each month or, alternately, every six months (or even every year). When summed over the course of the year, the prices of these plans are not equivalent: the pay-per-month plan is usually slightly more expensive than the pay-per-year option.

In my particular case, the pay-per-year option is $90 more than a year’s worth of pay-per-month payments. And because I opted to choose this latter option, I am willingly paying $90 more than I have to.

But wait! There’s another calculation at work here.

How to pay a yearly bill each month

I determine my budget on a monthly basis (and recommend you do as well). A giant bill that comes every six months or a year would dwarf my ability to pay it. (If you don’t see this, imagine a month where your expenses would suddenly be reduced by hundreds of dollars. It would never work.)

Now I could just save up the money in my account for the six months or a year, and then I’d have the money when the huge bill came due. But then the issue becomes that my level of account float would necessarily change each month. A fluctuating float value seems like it has the potential for complicating an already complicated situation.

If this is confusing, here’s a example that shows why:

With a standing float value of $1000, and $1200 yearly bill, you would have $100 extra dollars of float in your account each month. So in month #2 your float would be $1100, month #3 $1200, all the way to month #11 where you would have $2100, and then month #12 when your bill would be due, you’d be back down to $1000. And this is before you’ve taken bills or expenses into account. See? I’m confused just writing this.

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One possibility is that I could “pay myself” each month, but into another fund (like an online savings account). Then my float value would remain the same, but I’d still have the money for my giant bill when it came due. Now this seems like the most promising option, but it still suffers from the complexity factor: I would need to manage another account, and have to set up and manage both incremental deposits and a periodic large withdrawal. This seems like a lot to manage.

The point here is to compare the extra money you would have to pay with the complexity you would introduce by working around it. For me, the time/energy cost of setting up and managing a separate sinking fund for my car insurance payments is greater than the money I save by paying my insurance in advance. In other words, I pay $90 a year ($7.50 a month) for the privilege of not having to manage a separate fund. $7.50 a month for simplicity.

The balance may tip

Now, what if the difference wasn’t $90 for the year, but $900? Then you’re darn tootin’ that I’d be setting up a separate account. That’s worth the extra complexity to me. But right now, the difference isn’t worth it.

I admit that I’m still a bit embarrassed to say that I am technically paying more money for something when I don’t have to. And I’m reevaluating this, just like I periodically do with all my bills.

But it’s not always merely a decision of “how much” versus “how much per month.” It also includes “how much work” and even “how much complexity.”

As for what to do when you encounter a situation like this in your life? It is usually best to choose the option that costs the least amount of money over the long term. But don’t always discount the option that allows for more simplicity.

Or am I just copping out here?

But enough about me, do you spend more money to simplify?


  1. Nicole

    I pay mine up front! It is actually every 6 months for me; they don’t have a yearly option. But it is cheaper than monthly. Not sure how much, but I never considered paying more for the convenience option. I don’t have a monthly budget or anything though. I just really feel it in March and Aug when I have to fork over 400/500 (or whatever exactly it is)! Even so, I always assumed for financially savvy people (unlike myself) this was a no-brainer type thing. Interesting to read an alternate view. 🙂

    • Mike

      Yikes, I would totally feel 400-500 dollars too!

      With that setup, I’d totally recommend a sinking fund. Even if you put $75 a month in a cookie jar, that would take care of it. If you’re able to handle that huge wallop every six months, then you’ll be fine with six mini-payments.

  2. cd

    I always have the padding to pay it all at once, so it’s not a big deal to me. I get where you’re coming from with managing your float though. But to me it’s simpler than paying every year rather than every month.

    I had a small school loan with a lower interest rate than my main one (it was about a 10th the size of my larger loan), and I decided to pay off the lower rate first just so I had one bill to pay instead of two. I’ll end up paying off my car much sooner than my school loans too. The car loan is much smaller but also has a much lower interest rate. It means I’m paying more in the long term but I think it’s worth it for the simplicity.

    • Mike

      Of course, the debt snowball!

      I didn’t put that together with this idea until you mentioned it. The debt snowball (paying smallest debts first regardless of interest rate) is a great example of how sometimes paying a little more for something makes sense. Though in that case, it’s even more than simplicity: it’s the feeling of accomplishment (checking a loan off your list). And also, for most, the “extra” amount paid over the long run is truly minimal, so I’m right there with you on that.

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