Save or Splurge? A Designer's Dilemma

It's no secret that designers often have expensive taste. There's nothing inherently wrong with this as long as you have plenty of funds to support your lifestyle. For many, there will be times when cash is tight, especially early in a designer's career. How's one to know when it makes sense to spend and when it's better to save? Do you think you know the answer?


Most students tend to be short on money in college. I know that was the case for me when attending CCS where I earned my bachelors degree in Product Design. As a freelancer, I’ve experienced times when cash is low and at other times, it’s abundant. Smart spending is important as you travel the path of self-improvement. If you’re in debt, self-employed or don’t have a financial safety net smart spending is crucial.

Talking about money isn’t the most glamorous subject, but I think it’s worth addressing. Knowing when to spend and when to splurge should make the decision-making process easier. Also, it should remove stress often felt when spending lots of cash.

Sage Advice

I need to credit Ramit Sethi’s for his sound financial advice. His book, I Will Teach You To Be Rich is the best personal finance book written to the layperson who doesn’t know a ton of financial lingo. It’s primary audience is the twenty-somethings who have little experience in wealth management. The principals apply to people of all ages and net worths and it’s written in a sarcastic tone that I found relatable. In my opinion, schools should make all students to read it their Senior year in high school. Yes, it's that good.

So, before we continue, open up an Amazon browser tab and buy yourself a copy. You should buy two copies, because you’ll want to give one away to somebody you care about. Alright, back to the article.

Save or splurge?

A designer isn’t hard-pressed to explain why some well-designed products cost so much money. With ease, we justify an expensive pair of jeans or shoes, a good pair of headphones, a pen that makes beautiful lines or an office chair that costs more than a used car. Not all good design is and needs to be expensive. Designers are often good at justifying the extra cost often associated with a good design. All designers need to be somewhat adept at marketing, otherwise their work will never sell!

I’m all for spending enormously on things I love, but as Ramit says, “Cut spending mercilessly on things you don’t love.”. His simple mantra goes something like this; focus on a couple big wins a year, not hundreds of tiny wins. Why force yourself to give up ordering a latte every other day, to save $465 a year, especially if a morning latte makes you feel amazing?

You’re better off enjoying lattes and cutting costs on rent, car payments, insurance and utilities. Finding deals on the largest purchases you make every year will save you thousands.

For students, freelancers or self-employed designers, I can find gray areas. Focusing on big wins is a great rule of thumb and starting point, but there are a few other things to consider. You can justify all school-related expenses, but when should you seek a bargain and when should you splurge? Here are a few questions I ask myself when it comes to deciding if an expense makes sense or not.

Will it earn me money?

I laugh when people say things like, “I’m going to invest in buying a nice car.”, or “I’m investing in a nice pair of shoes.” Investing is spending money on something now that will later earn you more. If you can't sell it for a profit, or recoup your costs, it's not an investment, it's an expense. Before spending lots of dollars, consider whether it's an expense or an investment.

Direct money-makers

An expense can turn into an investment if you don't lose money on it. For instance, if it earns you money. There are two ways an expense can lead to you earning more money. Direct and indirect earnings. The first one is easier to understand and see, the second one is a bit more subjective and ambiguous.

Just because something depreciates, it doesn’t mean it’s a bad buy. Say you're a pizza delivery person who lives in a rural environment. Maybe you decline 15% of your requests for delivery because your vehicle is not reliable off-road.

Example scenario: work vehicle

Here's a simplified example. Assume buying a truck with 4 wheel drive and better clearance allows you to accept 100% of your delivery requests. Maybe that truck cost you an extra $6,000, but a 15% revenue increase might mean $4,000 per year. After 4 years, you’ll have earned an extra $10,000 thanks to your truck. Your business will likely have increased since people now know you can deliver to more places.

Businesses look at long-term gains. Large corporations argue over pennies when it comes to pricing. With large-volume sales, pennies can make a big difference. A two-cent increase on a product that sells 50 million units a year, for five years results in an extra $5 million.

If you're a freelancer, you should also look at long-term gains. A computer that cost $6,000 may seem absurd to some. But without the capabilities of my computer, I’d not be able to perform the 3d modeling and rendering work I do for my clients. One reason clients I have choose to work with me is because I work fast. Owning the right tools allow me to work to my full potential, not limiting my output. When I work fast, my value-per-hour goes up and so can my rates.

Some direct money makers:

  • Equipment
  • Computers
  • Technology
  • Vehicle
  • Tools
  • Indirect money-makers

There are likely fewer examples of indirect money-makers than direct, but here are a few to consider.

A comfortable office or computer chair. Herman Miller has produced some of the most comfortable and popular task chairs in the world. Their top-of-the-line model of the Embody chair will set you back about $2,000 after shipping and taxes.

This past year, I needed to buy a comfortable computer chair. The chair I was using caused my back and neck and rear hurt so much, I was miserable when having to work long days. I didn’t have the cash to throw at a crazy-expensive chair, so I went to Staples. I tested their chairs and left with a cheap office chair that set me back $195.00.

I’ve been 98% happy with it. It's ugly, but I get out of it all the functionality I currently need. It’s allowed me to sit and work for long periods of time, improved my health and mood, and to me, that’s an excellent indirect money maker. As a result I've been able to work longer and faster.

Example scenario: your work area

You office-dwellers may not have as much freedom compared to those who work from home, but consider your work space. Your environment impacts your mood and mental game as you work. Inspiration is something designers talk a lot about.

How would you feel having a decent computer sitting on a hard, cold, folding chair, at a cheap card table, in a white room with nothing else? Work would be possible, yes. Yet an inspiring workspace will allow you to relax, enjoy being where you are and thus help you earn more money.

If you’re unhappy and have reasons to avoid working anywhere, you’re less likely to sit down and do the work. A comfortable office is a great indirect money maker.

Some indirect money makers:

  • Advertising
  • Health insurance
  • Office furniture
  • Ergonomic seating
  • Lighting
  • Professional clothing

Save or splurge?

Some expenses lead to you earning more. Others are less-direct and it's good to consider the value you will get from spending money. The more your lifestyle will improve as a result of an expense, the more I encourage you to spend the money.

Designers, I recommend ignoring the fashionable, name-brand labels that will set you back. Spend money on the tools that will improve your work and workflow. Invest in your education and skills since that's what you get hired for.