Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Hundred Dollar Blog Post - Revisiting the Forty Dollar Sandwich

On the subject of Home Economics, everybody has strong opinions. And those who are interested in such things, are obsessive about it, they focus in on it with laser vision to the exclusion of all else, sometimes.

So when I mentioned that I calculated the time (including planning, shopping, washing up, etc) it would take me to pack a sandwich for lunch, and that came out to about $40 in value in writing time -- people objected. My point was about value of the writing time, but they focused in on the sandwich. It couldn't possibly really cost $40. No, never, no way, no how. I must have done the math wrong. I must have ignored some other cost or something.


I did not tell you how I calculated it because that wasn't the point. It didn't have to be a sandwich. It could be a blog post. A game of checkers. The point was valuing your work. To whit:

1.) If you set your success bar at $150 per year average per 60-65k novel as a baseline. That's a very low bar. Depending on your price, that's 4-6 sales a month. You may not make that much (especially not at first) but it's a fair gauge.

2.) If you see your book as investment capital, rather than the source of a quick buck, then, using the figures above, that novel is worth the equivalent of $5000 in conservative investment properties.

And that means 500 finished words is worth $40.

Your mileage may vary. Strike that: your mileage WILL vary. Duh. That's the nature of the game. However, it's not like we're talking major variables here. The length of your own average book, the price you charge for it. But the value numbers there are the key ones. For an indie published book to make $150 a year really is a nice low goal -- and that's really what all the math depends on.

So... if 500 finished words is worth $40, then anything you do in place of writing and editing those 500 finished words is taking at least $40 (or whatever number you came up with) of your time. It doesn't matter if you are a slow writer or a fast writer -- you have to do your math from this point. It might take you five hours to produce 500 finished words, or it might take you a half hour.

It also doesn't matter what that other thing you choose to do with that time: You might be making a sandwich, you might be playing Angry Birds. You might be writing a blog post, like this one.

Whatever you do instead of writing 500 words of polished prose, whatever it is, is worth $40 of writing time.

This is just a measure of how much it costs you, that's all. It's not a value judgment on your lifestyle. We took a day trip to Zingerman's today and had what could be considered (by this math) a $171 sandwich. And it all only matters if you want to make a living at writing. If you don't want to make a living at writing, then nothing about any of this applies to you. Don't worry about it.

There are other ways of looking at the value of your time, and of your writing. I'm just trying to give you one more tool to help you figure it out. But you have to do your own math.

In the meantime.....

There are some of you still itching about the sandwich -- so the rest of this post isn't about relative value of business or anything. It's just about lunch, culture and time, and time. I'm hoping to answer the question:

How Can It Take An Hour To Make a Freaking Sandwich?

Sandwiches have contexts. Every person has different needs and resources. I told you that packing a lunch costs me an hour or so of my time, and it's much more cost effective to buy a lunch most of the time.

What I didn't say is that this is true regardless of whether I bother with the writing time thing. Honestly, I wasn't lying, exaggerating or overlooking things. I was just giving you the reality of my life.

Look, if you have to make lunch for four kids and a husband every morning, then, sure, economy of scale will make one more packed lunch virtually free. It simply would not take enough more time to worry about. And I'm sure it's such an ingrained part of your life, that you really honestly can't understand how it could possibly be any trouble at all for anybody. You just throw some fillings between two slices of bread and toss it in a baggie. How hard is that?

But if you don't have the filling, the bread or the baggie on hand, it's a whole different ball game.  It's like Japanese housewife telling it's really quick and easy -- "Not trouble at all!" -- to make a fancy "charaben" bento box lunch for your kids every day.

Just look how quick and easy it is!  Here listen to Francis, the Talking Japanese Poodle, narrate how to do it, in a 6 minute segment from his wonderful YouTube cooking show "Cooking With Dog."

Okay, big irony/confession time: the lunch made here would actually be EASIER for me to make than your average American sandwich lunch. I have the ingredients, skills, tools and experience to throw together something like this pretty fast.

Listen, I'm single. I don't eat catfood, so shopping for my "kids" doesn't give me any economy of scale with shopping for myself. The household humans each take care of their own food issues.

And I'm not a sandwich person.

(Which may sound funny coming from a person who once tried to arrange for a helicopter to fly down to Zingerman's to pick up a pastrami on rye once. But that's a Zingerman's sandwich.)

And I don't eat sandwiches at home. I don't particularly like them, and I don't have those ingredients in my pantry. When I do eat sandwiches, I like really good bread (which I seldom eat, so I don't have it in the house -- I have to buy it specially for that meal.) I don't keep chips or deli pickles around.

So I might make a bento box or Chinese bao or something -- but that's going to take a long time too, and I'd rather do it for dinner.

And besides.....

I live in a depressed, working class city with a diverse ethnic population. Why should I make something at an inconvenient time, when it may even cost me less to get somebody else to do it for me? Seriously. Bao at the Chinese grocery? Two bucks. Three if I call ahead to the dim sum place and get a whole order of them. And I don't have to plan ahead, or worry about whether I'll feel like a stale refrigerated one the next day. I can say, "hey, I think I feel like bao today."

Falafel sandwich for two bucks. A burrito for one. A dog and chips from the vendor. Arby's. MacDonalds. A $5 gyro meal. Heck, if I really don't want to think about it when I'm too brain-dead in the morning, I can splurge by calling Jimmy Johns. They'll deliver lunch right to the office for the whole crew in freakishly fast time, for only $7 each or so.

I may not want to do that every day, but if it allows me the mindspace to write even 50 more finished words, it's definitely worth it financially.

Now, not everybody has the options I do.

I'm not telling YOU to drive out of your way to find some falafel house which may or may not be overpriced or any good ( and may not even be open during your morning commute). I'm saying that I've got a falafel house that isn't out of my way, and it's super good, super cheap and really filling. And yes, because I work afternoons and evenings, they're open.

I didn't overlook anything, I didn't calculate wrong. I've been doing this for half a century. Trust me, I've tried all the options, and my stunningly wonderful day job income is blow 20k, and for most of my life much lower, so I have had to manage. It's not that I'm rich, or careless.

It's just that I'm not you.

And you're not me. You've got to find your own falafel sandwich equivalents in life.

The whole point was not to tell you whether a balogna sandwich (or a bunny-shaped apple slice) is worth it or not. The point is to give you one more tool with which you can measure the relative value of your writing time.

This may come off a little annoyed and snarky -- so I want to add: please, feel free to discuss the relative merits of all of this in the comments. Just keep in mind that we're all different. Nobody's wrong about their own life.

See you in the funny papers.


Ryan King said...

It's just like with writing. There's no wrong way to write. There is only your way, the way that works for you. It sounds like you've found your way a while back when it comes to managing your time. I'm surprised to hear that so many voiced their opposition about the sandwich example.

The Daring Novelist said...

Well, I used the word "many" as an alternative for "some" I suppose. It wasn't like a complete fire storm.

But I always figure that if there are people who misunderstood and spoke up about it, the may be people who misunderstood and didn't speak up.

Plus, like you say, this is what writing is like too, and it doesn't hurt to remind people of how the whole "YMMV" works.

(And it was a good excuse to post a video of Cooking With Dog.)

Mark Asher said...

Guess it depends on the kind of sandwich you make. I made a turkey sandwich today -- cheap turkey, cheap bread, mayo and nothing else -- in maybe 60 seconds.

Did I love it? No, but I waited until I had been hungry for awhile and at that point it was satisfying.

And it was cheap. I'm sure it was no more than $0.30 - $0.40 or so.

Anyway, I think the food analogy is a bad one since we all have to eat. The better analogy is choosing to play checkers or write. I can't choose to not eat and last very long. I can choose to always skip checkers in favor of writing.

Tracy McCusker said...

The food analogy is great.

This reminds of how I treat dinner. No matter how simple the recipe (say, pasta & a basil tomato sauce), dinner will always equal an hour to an hour and a half of prep, cooking, eating, clearing the table cleaning. I'm always cooking for two, and on evenings when simple fare just ain't going to cut it, dinner can spiral out to take up to 3 hours.

Usually I love it. I enjoy unwinding after a long day. Cooking can throw me into a zen-like state, except with knives and celery.

Some days, however, I know that time needs to be spent on projects. Not because there is a pressing deadline but because I am in the zone. Creative alacrity isn't a thing to be squandered. 2 or 3 hours of inspired creative time could leapfrog me ahead on a project by a week. If I were billing myself like a client, that could easily be 90-100 dollars worth of work.

Even though eating out isn't particular cheap in LA (and we're living on cobbled-together income at the moment), we'll throw 20 or 30 bucks down for the two of us grab something quick & close.

The Daring Novelist said...

Tracy, yeah, exactly:

That's the "leverage" that I was talking about to Mark. Food can be incredibly relaxing and enjoyable, and if it is, you leverage that pleasure time with the 'must eat' time.

But there are also times when you pull out the peanut butter and spread it on some crackers while eating at the counter and editing your manuscript.

And being frugal can also be a pleasurable activity. Not saying you shouldn't indulge in the lifestyle of your choice.

The question is _what gives you writing time, and mindspace for writing?_ Because those are extremely valuable commodities in your life.

And maybe that's the thing to remember most: mindspace. If you have to think about something (like shopping for ingredients for lunch) that's where the real gain or loss can be. If you already have a habit, you don't have to think, and that's good.

The problem comes in when you try to acquire a new habit -- that will always cost you some. Is the return worth it?

The Daring Novelist said...

I expressed some frustration in my response to Mark, so I deleted it, and am reposting the response.

Mark --

I did pound my head against the desk for a moment after reading your response. It seemed like you missed my point -- but maybe not.

Here's the thing: you have created a lifestyle that allows you to do that mindless sandwich making. You have the turkey in your fridge. You have the bread in your cupboard. You know from experience that you'll eat up the whole loaf or package before it goes bad. You don't have to think about it. It's just there, and even that 60 seconds it takes to make that sandwich can probably be used to think about whever story you're currently working on.

But to get to that point, you're leveraging a lifestyle you've created for that purpose -- the choices you made a long time ago, the habits you've acquired, the tastes you've acquired, the way you shop, the way you think. It's only effortless because _you made_ it effortless.

That's good. You've done exactly what my posts are advocating: create a lifestyle where you don't waste time trying to save money.

And even more important than time is _mindspace_. You've created a lunch you don't have to think about.

Here's the thing, for me to make a lunch like that, I have to think about it. I have to shop to get those ingredients for it. Those ingredients do not come in small packages which I will eat up, so I have to take into consideration that I will throw away a good portion of them.

The point of all this is that you have to weigh your habits and mindspace and time. Things that the world tells that you must do to save money, may cost you more in time and productivity than saves you in cash.

You have to question that. However you are the only one who can say whether something really saves you time or not.

I'm not saying what you should or should not do -- I'm just telling you to look more closely at what makes it possible for you to do it.

Patrice Fitzgerald said...

Great post; great blog! I got here via Passive Guy.

I put my bread in the fridge (and in the freezer before that) and have some deli ham that I go through in 3 sandwiches... love to put a little cheese on top and warm it in the micro. I enjoy having the same thing pretty often. So this works for me.

But the time I WASTE on the Internetz... oy. You've really made me think.

Thanks for all this!

The Daring Novelist said...

Exactly, It's about valuing time.

I think what I was trying to get across, and failing, is that saving time is more important than saving a little money. That may involve making a sandwich rather than skipping one -- it depends on what you have in your pantry.