How Much Does Smoking Really Cost You?

May 12, 2016

All of those public service announcements, cheesy after-school specials, and other ads aimed at pleading with kids not to ever start smoking cigarettes are completely accurate —because once you start, you’re hooked.

Ask any smoker and they'll tell you they wish they never started. What most don’t tell you, and what I will be completely honest in telling you, is that while quitting is tough (really tough) part of the reason smokers don’t quit is because they enjoy it, especially at the beginning. Yes, smoking is kind of great… until it’s not.

I first started smoking in freshman year of college. Like most stupid things teenagers do, it was because of a girl. She was cool and I wanted to spend more time with her. She liked me enough to tell me not to start smoking, but one night I caved and lit up. After that, there was no turning back.

What started as a small habit, just a couple a day, quickly became half a pack. Then pretty soon it was a pack a day or maybe more. I smoked for seven years after that.

Here’s the thing that they really don’t get across: quitting is actually pretty easy. It’s staying quit that’s almost impossible. The reason why I finally quit was really simple. I quit smoking because it was too expensive.

I’d like to pause my Tolkien-esque journey through the smoky Mordor of tobacco to break down how much I spent on cigarettes over those seven years. Back then, cigarettes were actually a lot cheaper than they are now. The price varied, of course, but let’s say it was a conservative $3/pack in year one and the price went up $0.25/pack each year after that. In year one, when I was only smoking half a pack a day, I spent $547.50 on cigarettes.

After the first year, I was up to a pack a day and the price kept going up. All told, before I quit the first time, I had already spent just over $9,000. Looking back on it, I can’t believe how much money that is. I’ve been saving in my 401(k) every month for almost three years now, and I only have about half that.

The reason I was able to wrap my head around quitting because my bank balance was constantly running low near the end of the month. I was having a hard time making sure I could do relatively “unimportant” things like eat, pay my rent, and or pay bills. Somehow, despite being on the verge of financial collapse, I always seemed to have money for cigarettes.

Then I started doing the math. What should have been obvious from a point of view of my health, well-being, and generally not smelling like an ash tray, started to become clear. I decided to quit.

Here’s the thing: I didn’t even completely stop smoking after that. Two years later, in the midst of a stressful period in my life, I started back up. By that time, cigarettes were a whopping $5 per pack, and it was another $1,800 down the drain. Then finally, after eight total years and nearly $10,000 spent on cigarettes, I quit for good.

Now is the part of the essay on quitting smoking when the author tells you about how that was the end of spending money on smoking. The point where they right the ship, and the budget gets balanced. Right?

No, I’m sorry. I wish I could say it was.

Unfortunately, I had to spend another $100 on smoking cessation aids. If I had been slightly smarter at the time, I might have taken advantage of a program funded by the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment (CDPHE) called the Colorado QuitLine. This program offers free support and even free nicotine patches to those who participate. The patches didn’t work for me, but nicotine lozenges—which are absolutely disgusting, with a taste reminiscent of what you might expect from sucking on a piece of chalk you found in the garbage—did eventually get me to a point where I could kick the habit. If you’re a smoker or ex-smoker who wants to see how much you can or have saved by quitting, check out this calculator on CDPHE’s tobacco site.

And that’s it, right? Sorry, no. The tobacco money drain doesn’t even end there, folks! For some, there’s so much more. According to information provided by CDPHE, the average family pays $753 in health care costs related to tobacco. That’s just one family’s share of Colorado’s share ($1.89 billion—no, that’s not a typo, billion with a “b”) of roughly $170 billion every single year in the United States.

So yes, smoking is kind of great… until you can’t afford it. This isn’t about shaming you into quitting. This isn’t a cheesy anti-smoking plea. But knowing the real cost of smoking can help you make an informed decision about your health—both physical and financial.

Are you a smoker who successfully quit? How did you do it? Share your story in the comments.