I understand that spending money and buying things doesn’t lead to greater overall happiness. Yet I keep wanting THINGS. The number of times a THING pops into my head that I think I want to spend money on is frankly a little overwhelming. And, a quick little tour through July’s spending reveals about $1900 spent on things that can only be described as discretionary and not frugal. Don’t make me tell you what they are… I’m too embarrassed. OH ALL RIGHT, I’ll tell you a few. They are all home goods. A new mattress, sheets, comforter and pillows (a holdover expense from our pre-Greener Pasture$ decision to replace our creaky old queen-sized bed with a king sized bed frame, which required getting king sized mattress, sheets and blankets to fit); ceiling fans for a couple of bedrooms in our house; a deposit on professional photos of our newborn daughter.
So, as you can see, although our discretionary spending is trending downward overall, July was not a good month — we spent $9,755, which, annualized, would be $117,059 — WORSE than our 2016 average. Sigh. We’re still wont to spend big bucks on some things, and that tendency is keeping us from hitting our (ambitious, but not insane) goal of reaching an $80,000/year spending level. If we were to subtract out July’s discretionary-and-not-frugal expenses, we would have been at about a $94,000/year spending level in July instead of $117,000. That’s still shy of our goal, but would be a big improvement.
So. How to stop wanting things?? To get ideas on how to diminish material desires, I’ve been reading. I just finished Juliet Schor’s The Overspent American, and have placed a library hold on what seems to be the financial independence bible, Your Money or Your Life. And I’ve been poking around other blogs for inspiration — success stories to keep me going (MMM led me to a couple of lawyers on the financial independence train — here and here), and other people’s musings on this stubborn issue of desire.
Here’s what I learned from Professor Schor:
Schor’s premise is that people’s perceived need to spend depends on their reference point for what the good life looks like. In the past, this meant keeping up with the Joneses — the other people in your own geographic neighborhood. But, in our modern world, she says, our reference point has shifted — with TV and the Internet, we now have more upscale people than our immediate neighbors to whom we can compare ourselves. The Overspent American was published in 1996, so the data is a little stale, but I assume Americans’ basic spending/savings attitudes have not changed much since then — if anything, they’ve probably gotten worse. Lifestyles of the rich and famous (who we can easily keep up with on social media) and fictional TV families with big houses, multiple cars, and fancy electronics raise the bar for what we subconsciously aspire to, materially. Beautiful, picture perfect homes on Pinterest, or in catalogues, or as staged on every retail website; fashion blogs; tech blogs touting the newest, fastest, most cutting-edge devices; targeted ads that know just what kinds of things you love to spend money on…. the list goes on. Whatever you’re into, you can easily ogle the next desirable items online, fueling that desire ad infinitum.
Schor addresses Americans’ well-documented, astoundingly low savings rate as compared with other countries, and suggests that our school system fails students by not teaching personal finance and savings. By the time we get through a typical American education, Schor suggests, we’re well taught to enter what she calls the see-want-borrow-buy cycle. Especially disturbing to me, as a liberal arts-educated JD-holder, Schor’s research reveals that the more education a person has, the more entrenched this see-want-borrow-buy mentality is! ARGH!
(Artwork by Shepard Fairey)
Here I thought I was getting a fancy education to afford myself the most options in life. Apparently, though in theory the education does afford me more options, I was unwittingly training myself to gravitate towards the most work-heavy, consumption-intensive lifestyle possible. Boo!
Schor also offers two alternatives to the overspent lifestyle — downshifting and simple living. Downshifters are people who voluntarily make a life change that entails making less money, while those who choose voluntary simplicity learn to want less. Schor describes the difference like this:
“Downshifters have experienced a change in which time and quality of life became relatively more important than money. They would prefer more of both, but forced to choose, they make a lifestyle change that increases their time and reduces their earnings. Simple-livers, by contrast, transcend that trade-off. They find a (low) level of sufficiency income, beyond which spending more is no longer positive. Indeed, it may well be negative, because it creates ‘clutter,’ stuff that needs taking care of, harms the environment, or alienates them from their peer group. Less is more not only because it allows them freedom, but also because less just becomes more.”
Now THIS is what I’m talking about. This would all be so much easier if you just didn’t want things, right? If you could adopt or learn this simple living mindset, frugality would feel natural and sustainable, rather than like a constant, penny-pinching, self-depriving struggle. As I’ve said before, my goal is to make lifestyle changes that are sustainable and can become permanent. I don’t want this to be like the latest trendy diet — briefly adopted but quickly abandoned because it feels too much like work and deprivation.
So? How do you actually DO that? How do you learn not to have so many (and constantly escalating) material desires?
I think the answer is you have to re-train yourself, and that retraining takes time. The first step, as with any change, is realizing you have a problem. The next step is looking — really, honestly looking — at each desire as it pops up, and analyzing it before acting on it. I propose several questions you can ask to strip away some of the external forces that might be causing you to want a certain thing:
- “Why do I want this?”
- “Am I trying to impress someone with this purchase?”
- “Am I trying to emulate something else I’ve seen with this purchase?”
These questions should identify desires caused by effective marketing or social striving rather than any true want or need.
The next set of questions address the item’s ability to bring lasting pleasure:
- “How long will I enjoy this purchase for?”
- “Will I use it regularly?”
- “Will it lose its luster once I have it?”
- “Will it complicate or simplify my life?”
Eventually, with practice, these questions should become easier to answer; the desires created by external forces (ads and subconscious attempts to emulate the rich and famous) should become obvious and, perhaps, will stop cropping up so often. The remaining things you choose to spend money on should be useful and joy-inducing.
Aspects of purchasing our new bed, mentioned above, illustrate how these questions work in action. Before we got the bed, we were sleeping on a bedframe that had been through several moves and was relentlessly creaky, a boxspring that we got on Craigslist (and was also creaky), and a mattress that, despite regular rotating, had worn out and become uncomfortable. The bed was also very high up, so when our son was in it I constantly worried he would climb over the edge, not realizing how high up he was; when I was pregnant, I could not easily get in and out of the bed myself.
Our new bed solves all of these problems — it does not creak, it does not require a boxspring, it is a comfortable height to get in and out of, and the mattress is extremely comfy. At my husband’s urging, we even got new pillows. Every single night when I get into bed, I feel elated. The bed passes the both sets of questions with flying colors:
“Why do I want this? Am I trying to impress someone with this purchase? Am I trying to emulate something else I’ve seen with this purchase?” — NO! I want it because it’s a functional item.
“How long will I enjoy this purchase for?” — probably a pretty long time, at least 10 years.
“Will I use it regularly?” — Yes, every day!
“Will it lose its luster once I have it?” — So far, so good — I feel happy about it every day.
“Will it complicate or simplify my life?” — It certainly does not complicate my life — I traded an annoying, creaky, uncomfortable item for a great one. This creates no additional clutter in my life since I’m replacing one item with another. It somewhat simplifies my life because it removes a worry I had about my son’s safety.
However. In buying new bedding, we confronted some spending desires driven by the pernicious forces mentioned above — upscaling and aggressive marketing. We needed to buy new bedding, since our queen-sized items were not big enough for our king-sized bed. We did online research; we were seduced by sexy marketing and I got big ideas on Pinterest about how to make our bedroom look like something out of a magazine.
We beat these desires back, but it took considerable internal struggle. We wound up buying sheets from Target and on sale from West Elm (because we had a store credit to use there); we bought a comforter and duvet cover from Ikea which is super comfortable and looks awesome. I didn’t spend several hundred dollars on throw pillows after realizing that, while they would have made my bed look like something out of a magazine, they also failed several of the above questions:
“Am I trying to impress someone with this purchase? Am I trying to emulate something else I’ve seen with this purchase?” — YES! I literally was looking on Pinterest and comparing my life to other people’s!
“Will it complicate or simplify my life?” — Buying a bunch of throw pillows would definitely complicate my life. I have slept in beds with a lot of throw pillows. I don’t use them for sleeping… I use them for throwing… on the ground… so that I can be comfortable in the bed!
So there you have it! I’m planning to work with these questions and see whether, over time, the desire for things begins to subside, making this journey feel fulfilling and sustainable, instead of like a painful struggle.