Sometimes, Not Buying a New Piece of Gear Is the Best Investment of All

Sometimes, Not Buying a New Piece of Gear Is the Best Investment of All

After a series of articles detailing when and what to buy, today, I’d like to have a look at the other side of that equation.

As part of this weekly column, I spend a lot of time talking about gear and what is or is not worth you spending your hard-earned money on. I don’t particularly like talking about gear, but it’s part of the job. The reason why I don’t like talking about gear is twofold. One, I don’t like talking about gear, because it inevitably makes me start thinking about gear, and suddenly, I’m fighting back a seemingly insurmountable urge to empty my bank account on any piece of technology insight. I also don’t like talking about gear, because, as I’ve said multiple times in past articles, while a certain amount of gear is a necessity for the profession, we tend to put way too much emphasis on what we are shooting with and far too little on what and how we choose to shoot in the first place. In fact, one of the most valuable skills I acquired in the process of going from photo hobbyist to working professional is not how to be smart when spending money, but how to be smart in knowing how not to spend money.

Developing a savings plan or at least a methodical approach to managing cash flow can be a different experience for different people. Just like no two photographers are the same in how they approach lighting a scene, no two individuals are the same when it comes to their relationship to money and their own individual willpower. I, for instance, have a bit of a compulsive personality. This helps me because once I set a rule for myself, I can remain incredibly disciplined to the point that it drives my friends nuts. I have a very strict diet, for example, and the number of times I’ve had to explain to friends why, “no, I won’t eat just one piece of cake,” is endless. My OCD helps me because I am obsessed with not breaking that rule. I’m also obsessed because I know that if I do break that rule, even once, that the damn will break and my obsession will work in the opposite way. I will suddenly find it impossible not to eat cake, and more cake, and more cake. Other people can drift in and out of vices and get themselves easily back on track. I know myself well enough to know that I don’t really have that option. Only you know what’s the best approach for you. But figuring out my personal tendencies and forming set spending rules that work with those tendencies has been the key to me professionally.  

Ironically, my somewhat individually tailored saving techniques started not because I wanted to save, but because I wanted to spend. In the early years of learning photography, I was finally ready to move up from speedlights to big strobes. I trained my eye on a particular Profoto kit on B&H and convinced myself that this was the one that would take me to the next level. In retrospect, that kit did take me to the next level. Not because the gear itself made me a better photographer overnight, but rather because I spent my 10,000 hours with that kit over the next several years teaching myself the concepts of lighting and developing my skills. But, at the time I was shopping for it, all I knew was that no matter how much I might learn with it, there was no way I could afford it.

Luckily, at that time, I was still working a day job. So, I knew there would be money coming in. Not much money, mind you. My day job sucked both subjectively and numerically. But, I did know there would be a small but specific amount of money hitting my bank account on a weekly basis. And, determined to get that kit, I set into motion a plan to pull a percentage of that money every week and put it into a savings account for the lighting kit. This, of course, meant cutting back in other areas. My life didn’t consist of much other than going to work and coming straight home. Any extra extravagances or fancy dinners out were long in the rearview window. This was also the time when I codified my habit of paying for everything with physical cash. Credit card balances are really good at increasing faster than I realize. So, in those months of saving, I made a point to visit the ATM for everything I needed and only spend cash. This simple process did two things. One, going to the ATM is a pain in the butt, and it made me think twice whether or not I really wanted to buy something enough in the first place to make the extra trip. Two, it obviously prevented me from going into debt, because I could only spend the money I already had in hand. Even if I did have to use my credit card, I would send the cash immediately after the purchase to the bank, so that, when my statement did arrive, the balance would already be at zero.

Now, no doubt there are smarter financial planners than me that would suggest that debt spending is the way to go or point out any other of the hundred holes in my plan. I make no claims of being a financial planner. I was just a guy needing to find a way to have my bank balance start going in the right direction. And this small bit of discipline worked for me. I was able to eventually save up for the kit, made the purchase, and the rest is history.

“But, you started the essay talking about how not to spend on gear, then you go on a rant about buying a lighting kit,” you might be saying. And, you’re right. But that kit was just the start. Because this more disciplined approach to saving is what eventually led to my next and far more important savings goal. If I could save up enough for that lighting kit, why not take it a step further? Why not save up enough money to finally junk the crappy day job altogether? Why not save up to start my business?

This, as you can imagine, took significantly longer. But following much the same approach, I was able to put away a little bit with each check, not to spend on gear, but to get me closer to my dream. It wasn’t all smooth sailing. Every time I thought I was getting ahead in my spending, something would come along, from a car breaking down to a pipe bursting and put me right back at zero again. But, I stuck to it. And, little by little, I made gains. At the slow pace I was going, I might still be saving up today had I not also been finding ways to develop my skill and build my portfolio at the same time. That development, fortunately, led to bigger and bigger jobs. When those paydays came in, rather than running out and buying new gear, I would toss that into the savings fund instead. It didn’t take weeks. It took years. But eventually, I was able to save up enough of a nest egg that I was able to leave my cubicle and take a shot at my dream.

Now, it should be said that the nest egg was just enough to get started. It gave me enough security that I knew I wouldn’t starve during the first year while I was trying to get the business going. But, there was always a very real possibility that the money would run out before I could get a foothold. That’s where all the hard work on the business side came in. But that’s a story for another article. I could also write an entire article about how this dedication to savings has become all the more important since the arrival of the pandemic that shall go unnamed. But, again, a story for another day.

The moral of today’s story is simply that sometimes it makes more sense to put your effort into saving money rather than spending it. Take a look at your long-term goals. If your goal is simply to have the best camera, then, by all means, shop away. But, if your goal is to be in business, might that money be better spent on marketing or studio space? If your goal is to be a better photographer, might that money be better spent on training or on doing test shoots to get better?

I was listening to a podcast recently. I can’t remember which. And the person speaking made a really good observation. He pointed out that one really good way to help curtail your spending is to ask yourself two simple questions. First, how much time did you spend on YouTube this week, or on Fstoppers, or somewhere else, looking at photo gear, pricing out packages, comparing camera models, and reading reviews? Okay, now how much time did you spend cold-calling clients, sending out promos, or creating marketing material to help grow your business? If you spent more time looking at gear than you did reaching out to clients, there’s a very good chance that you’ve got things a little out of balance.

If you want to be a professional, it means that you are in business to make money, not to spend it. As the first part of this essay points out, there is certainly time to spend on the latest and greatest gear. But ultimately, those investments should simply be a means to an end rather than being the ultimate goal in and of themselves. I will certainly do my best to help you make the right decision when it comes time to upgrade to a new piece of equipment. But, in the meantime, sometimes, it can be just as much fun to invest your time into getting better rather than investing your money in gear. Knowledge has no shelf life. Spend wisely. Save even wiser. Build the foundation to make your dream come true.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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