When you stop and think about it, there is no such thing as saving, is there?

In broad currency there are two major meanings of the word. One meaning is to rescue and protect, as when you save your friend's life or when you rescue a cat stranded on a tree. The other meaning is to set aside for later use. In a sense this is related to the first definition. When you save you are protecting from immediate use whatever it is that you are setting aside for future use. Since you are not putting away the saving to protect it from ever using it but merely postponing its use, saving in the second sense is only a deferred use, a suspended appropriation.

In the world of merchandizing, the word saving is generally misappropriated to serve as a saving grace for profit making. An advert proclaims that you will save 40% on an article. The logic is, if it can be called one, you will pay only $60 for something that is priced $100, and you are saving $40. But if the merchant makes a profit even at 60% of the list price, you would have actually overspent rather than saved $40 when you bought the article at full price, especially it happens to be an item you don't really need now or even later.

As it often happens, a consumer lured by the advertisement will buy an article on sale that she or he doesn't really need. In the guise of saving, then, you are squandering. Worse still, the merchant's ploy is to bring customers into the store and get them to buy those items that are not placed on sale. Sale items are baits. So you end up spending much more than you should have or needed to while thinking, misguidedly, that you were saving because you went shopping at the store which had a sale of items you wanted or, rather, thought you wanted. Impulse shopping is a valuable tool of profit making.

One does not have to be gullible to fall into this trap. Many customers know the trick. But they still go and spend and believe they saved as though they made an earning. I am no easy victim but I do falter, too, once in a while. The word saving is a powerful psychological bait that graces eager merchants.

Products go on sale when the merchant has an inventory of articles out of fashion or duds that failed to sell. If you didn't mind being a year or two behind in fashion, you are lucky. You might even happen to like a product from last year than the more recent version, as I often do; then, you can easily protect yourself from overspending by paying less.

You don't necessarily save money by spending on items on sale. It is more plausible that you save when you put your money in saving. This exercise, however, is also suspect. What we do when we put money in the bank is setting up priorities. We refrain from spending on one thing in order to spend it on another at a later date. We save in order to spend later -- for a car, a house, a vacation, or whatever. In the meantime, in exchange for protecting the money from theft or loss, we allow the bank to make a profit on it by lending to others. Saving benefits bankers.

So, however you look at it, there is no benefit of earning in saving unless you count the meager interest the bank pays. If you are spending you are not saving and if you are saving you are saving only to spend later. Either way, there is really no saving, only spending. Then, when you are spending, you may be spending justifiably because you are currently in need of the articles you are purchasing, or, alternatively, you may be spending unwisely, unreasonably, or unjustifiably by acquiring what you don't really need right now.

If saving money is spending in disguise, how about saving labor? In all labor saving inventions from the Antiquity to the present, the idea is to substitute human effort by mechanical advantage so that for a given output a part of the input is accomplished by the mechanism. What happens with the labor thereby saved? Is it love's labor lost? It is not banked to be withdrawn for later use; but it is not lost. As elementary physics teaches us, an inclined plane makes pushing easier but we cover a greater distance that lifting the load straight up.

In modern labor saving mechanisms, whatever appears to be saved in human labor is paid in other forms of energy -- gas, gasoline, or electricity for the most part. We achieve efficiency; but what is gained by mechanical efficiency is not labor but time. We can get to our destination in a fraction of time if we drive a car instead of walking; we finish laundry more quickly by doing it in a washing machine than by hand; power tools do their job more quickly and reduce labor grease in exchange for a larger eletric bill and unwanted noise. But like labor we cannot set aside the time saved for future use. At best it's a short-term saving, like allowing us to set aside extra time to do something else or just sit and relax.

Still, everyone likes to save time. We say we have better things to do. Everyone always has better things to do. But the value of the time saved depends on how we use it. Sometimes the time we did not save might have been more valuable. We forget that by driving to places we forfeit the pleasure of walking and its benefit to the well-being of the body as well as the spirit. Let us not forget either that by walking instead of driving, we will have "saved" the money that would otherwise have gone into the automotive fuel and maintenance and create other needs like time and energy for jogging, and time, energy, and money for the gym to make up for the exercises lost which walking would have provided free-of-charge. Riding an escalator may be easier; but walking up the stairs is better for your heart better and sometimes even quicker. Hand tools are slower than power tools but craftspersons know well the special pleasure of making things by hand -- the slow-good way -- caressing the material, coaxing the tools, and whetting the skill.

A car, of course, can transport us a distance that is not easily achieved by foot. We cannot function in modern industrialized society without machines. But many of our daily tasks that seem inane -- a waste of time -- allow us to reflect, ponder, and contemplate more effectively and more profoundly while doing these tasks precisely because they are inane and require little thinking to perform them, like sweeping, washing, weeding, and painting walls. Zen monks know that. But I believe further that we do better thinking while doing something else rather than sitting down to think exclusively. In today's mechanized world, we have more time to spare than we did a century ago, and yet, paradoxically, we don't seem to have enough time to ruminate and think. The computer is a marvel; we can no longer without it. But it makes more work and, so, requires us more time to work on it, and fails to allow us more free time to do serious thinking.

Nothing comes free in this world. So, the saying goes. Or, in my way of expressing it, everything is only as free as the proverbial free gift, which is neither free nor truly given (forcibly paid for by the unwitting recipient), a marvelous tautology.

Saving may be a simple idea to most people. I find it ever puzzling. Saving time is no less confounding than saving money. We never really save anything. Or, nothing is saved in saving.


T. Kaori Kitao, 08.08.04

see also
Waste and Squander

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