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Posted: April 29, 2013

Use it or lose it?

We should incentivize savings instead

David Sneed

If you’ve ever wondered why government budgets get so big, it’s really very simple. In fact, once you hear this you’ll wonder why we don’t just have a jar of fives on the national hall table.

In the Marines, Christmas comes in late September. That particular month ends the government’s fiscal year, and any unspent money is deducted from next year’s budget. “If you didn’t use it, you must not need it.”

Marines know this and spend like it’s Bangkok shore leave after a six-month cruise. The point of the Corps-wide spending frenzy is to get more money (or ammunition, or pencils) next year, not less.

For lowly grunts like me, it amounted to a day of Rambo-fantasy fulfillment. We rode to the range with truckloads, literally truckloads, of ammunition, under orders to remain until it was gone. You can imagine the joy that day would bring. Anything you’ve ever seen in a movie – or wished you could see in a movie – we did it. Hip-firing machine guns, chucking hand grenades at trash cans, attempting to fell trees with a shoulder launched rocket.

It was also a gigantic waste of money; but the system encouraged it. Governmental organizations that want more money next year (and that includes all of them) know they have to use up everything they got this year.

So Marines have a shoot-a-thon, the DMV gets new office chairs, the police get new radios, and the fire department gets new nozzles. As far as I know, all agencies operate with similar rules, and spending to avoid losing next year is standard operating procedure.

The purchases are sometimes called necessities, or lifesaving apparatus, or training - but that’s just rationalization. For the most part, they’re bought only because the money must be spent.

I believe we can stop this type of waste if we incentivize saving.

My solution is this: Change the rules to automatically give the normal budget increase to everyone, regardless of the prior year’s spending. And divvy up some of last year’s savings (say 10 percent of unspent money) among all the members of that department.

(Would you rather have a $500 bonus, or an ergonomic pencil sharpener?)

Or give promotions and medals to the leaders who spend less than their budget. Have a special dinner with the governor or president for those who save taxpayer money. Have departments compete to see which does more with less, the thriftiest getting a weekend holiday or something.

Sometimes I watch an old movie where a bureaucrat tells an underling “We have to make sure the taxpayer gets their money’s worth.” Do they still say that? My hat is off to those who do.

As it stands, there is no reason not to spend like it’s a Wal-Mart gift card from Grandma. That’s why we end up paying for $800,000 GSA parties in Las Vegas and buying new police tasers that shoot one foot farther than the new tasers we got last year. And it’s why I got to spend a day and a half firing every last round we had in the armory.

I’d like to hear your apolitical idea for spending less. Maybe someone in charge will read it.

David Sneed is the owner of Alpine Fence Company,and the author of" Everyone Has A Boss– The Two Hour Guide to Being the Most Valuable Employee at Any Company." As a Marine, father, employee and boss, David has learned how to help others succeed. He teaches the benefits of a strong work ethic to entry and mid-level employees. Contact him at

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Readers Respond

Here's a crazy idea. What about returning the money to the taxpayers since it's our money? I feel most of the problem lies in the fact their the government forgets where the money comes from. If they realize that it's coming directly out of their pockets as a citizen, maybe they'll think twice about just spending it for spending's sake. At the same time, we also need to fix the whole concept of use it or loose it. It is just an asinine concept that smacks of fiscal recklessness. If you need the money - great. If you don't, save it for a rainy day. By Jeff P on 2013 04 29
Thank you for bringing this to light. I've always thought it was absurd, I guess normal people would since we don't operate that way. My idea is to disband the huge gov departments that are in charge of what the State already does - such as Education, Agriculture and the like. Take the overall budget, divide by 50 or number of residents, or whatever the criteria is and infuse the State and let the citizens to put the money to use. The cost of the building, the people, the training, the admin - gets wasted in D.C. They basically oversee while the States are the boots on the ground - getting the job done. Phase out the infusion of cash over 5 years to cement the savings into the national budget. By H Sanchez on 2013 04 29
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