Illustration by Dave van Patten

Try Thinking of Your Money as Toilet Paper

Another day, another money metaphor

If money metaphors grew on trees, we’d all have at least… a little bit of money. The world is decently littered with advice on not just what to do or not do with your money, but also how to think about money itself. Change your metaphor, the thinking goes, and maybe you can change your spending. Money as time. Money as freedom. Think of money in nonlinear terms. How about as a tool, not a mindset? Perhaps money should be thought of as a renewable fuel. Or here’s a new one: Think of your money as toilet paper.

That’s the suggestion over at FINANCE YO SELF, where we’re told that money, much like other pieces of paper such as college degrees, marriage certificates, deeds, and yes, toilet paper, can mean everything or nothing, depending on how we choose to value it. Matt writes:

“Comparing money to toilet paper might be silly. But think for a second about how you feel when a roll of toilet paper runs out, or if the roll was out before you entered the bathroom and you’re too late in finding out. It’s probably the same anxiety you feel when you see your bank account hit zero, or your card is declined at the register due to insufficient funds. In both cases you might have to call someone you trust to bring you more paper, no questions asked.”

While those panicky emotions are, indeed, similar, it’s not exactly a perfect analogy. Though prevention is good common sense in both situations (don’t blaze through the toilet paper), the simple fact is that squandering toilet paper will always be easier to recover from than squandering money. Wiping your ass in a pinch is far simpler than un-bouncing a check.

The more useful point here is the resourceful mindset he’s advancing. “You could use the whole roll of toilet paper in one sitting,” he explains. “It’s right there, you can see how much there is. But if you’re smart, you use what you need, and save the rest for later.” This much is clear — be frugal, no matter how much money you’ve got.

While frugality is at the heart of nearly every money metaphor, it isn’t the first time someone has suggested that we employ a toilet-paper scarcity mindset to think about our cash flow. Comedian-turned-financial planner Peter Dunn told Inc. in June this year that he encourages his clients to think of money this way, too.

“When you’re in a restroom and there’s a full roll of toilet paper, you’ll use as much as you want,” Dunn said. “You’ll go five-ply, six-ply, you’ll make necklaces, you’ll toss it around. You don’t care because there’s a full roll of TP and you cannot run out in that transaction. But when you look over and see cardboard, your behavior shifts.”

While I don’t personally know anyone past toddler age who gets quite that creative with bountiful TP, this is really about maintaining the same resourcefulness when you’re flush as you do when you’re broke. “People make their worst decisions on payday,” Dunn explained at Inc. “And they make their best decisions the day before they get paid. So understanding that and taking advantage of how we think about money is what leads to success; not making more money.”

Money metaphors are so seductive because they simplify what we all know to be a complex, often emotional issue. Money as toilet paper sounds great, but most of us have long lost the sense of our money as a tangible, tactile object. Swiping plastic and ubiquitous digital wallets make avoiding your bank balance easier than ever (this is why many advisers, notably Dave Ramsey, still peddle a cash envelope system to curb spending).

But money metaphors become troubling when they overlook how difficult it is to shift habits. Studies show that financial behavior is deeply ingrained, likely because it’s linked back to your most formative familial relationships. Financial behaviors are learned in early childhood from watching parents manage money, and a study this year out of Oklahoma State University found that high-risk financial behavior in men in particular is linked to negative childhood relationships with their mothers. Most financial advice can make it seem easy to change horses midstream, but if it were so easy to shift behavior, money probably wouldn’t be one of the most-cited causes of divorce.

That’s not to suggest we shouldn’t keep striving toward sticky ideas that help us approach complex issues more easily. The point of all this abstaining for later is to get you to build a pile of cash you can retire on, something most of us agree is not only worthwhile but critical. Consensus is that it takes at least $1 million, though some advisers suggest that’s a lot closer to $3 million nowadays.

That’s reason enough to rethink your financial picture, but unless you can wipe your ass with $100 bills, getting there is still going to take a lot more than a tidy analogy.