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The One Purchase That Pays You Back

Daily Stoic Emails

We’ve talked before about the importance of living below your means. About cultivating a selling habit rather than a buying habit. About the trap of extravagance and how acquiring more and more makes us vulnerable, putting us constantly on guard, until, as one of Seneca’s most powerful metaphors puts it: the slave owner is owned by their slaves. The scene of Marcus Aurelius selling off imperial treasures rather than live in debt is a powerful one. 

But does this mean that a Stoic is stingy and frugal about everything? Some take it that way, but that’s probably the incorrect view. Instead, a Stoic should think both about eliminating needless expenses as well as spending liberally on the things that matter. The problem most people have is that they never decide what’s really important and what’s not, so they spend and skimp blindly. 

The question becomes: what should we spend extravagantly on? Obviously this depends on who you are and what your priorities are, but the finance guru Ramit Sethi does have one rule that it is pretty universal, one that is easy to imagine Seneca nodding in agreement with. It’s called Ramit’s Book-Buying Rule: “If you’re ‘thinking about’ buying a book, just buy it. Don’t waste 5 secs debating. Even 1 idea makes it worth it.” 

Books, as the great writer and book lover Petrarch once said, are the only purchase that pays you back:

Gold, silver, jewels, purple garments, houses built of marble, groomed estates, pious paintings, caparisoned steeds, and other things of this kind offer a mutable and superficial pleasure; books give delight to the very marrow of one’s bones. They speak to us, consult with us, and join with us in a living and intense intimacy.

At the core of Stoicism is the love of wisdom. Cicero and Cato took great joys in their libraries. It is unlikely that Marcus Aurelius sold off his books when he was balancing the empire’s books. Epictetus, for all his simple living, belies his book-buying habit with how easily he quotes literature and history in his lectures. If there was one indulgence the Stoics were inclined to tolerate, books are at the top of the list. Education is too. 

If you want to learn and improve and grow, you have to be willing to invest in yourself. You have to be willing to acquire. Books and courses and access to information—these are part of the one buying habit you shouldn’t think twice about. In fact, it’s the one thing for which we should mercilessly cut the rest of our spending to facilitate. Because wisdom always pays for itself in the long run. It always pays you back.

P.S. This was originally sent on June 17, 2020. Sign up today for the Daily Stoic’s email and get our popular free 7-day course on Stoicism.