About a week ago, I answered a question from Ashley that’s really stuck in my head since then. Here’s the question and answer:
Growing up, I was not pretty spoiled, materially speaking, and was never taught to manage money. This led to bad spending habits in adulthood, and a divorce caused me to have to settle with my credit card companies because my debt was huge. I have always been one of those people that will buy something on impulse, and shopping has always cheered me up when I am down.
Recently, my fiance lost his job, and I am a grad student whose only income is as a teaching assistant, so we are really in a horrible place where it’s not possible to even pay our necessities, let alone “splurge” at all. We are both looking for full time jobs now, but are not having much luck.
I am so miserable right now. I miss being able to eat out, or buy something for myself now and then. I don’t know how to be happy like this, and I’m not sure how I can really work on accepting it. I also don’t want to live irresponsibly anymore either, because I know the importance of saving and being debt free now… so I really don’t want to return to that way of life even when I’m able to. Do you have any tips on accepting (and enjoying) this type of lifestyle?
For me, the biggest switch in getting away from materialism was to start focusing on what I had rather than what I didn’t have.
For example, I used to really lament not being able to eat out all the time with Sarah. After a while, though, I began to realize that the good part of that was that I got to eat with Sarah. Eating out was a treat, but it wasn’t the part of the equation I really valued.
I have a roof over my head. I have a wonderful wife and a wonderful family. I can keep food on the table. I have the things that are really important to me.
You can either look at your life as a cup half full or a cup half empty.
Two additional readers wrote to me after reading my answer to this question, pushing me to dig further into the issue. The more I thought about it, the more I realized there was a lot more to say.
Our Hierarchy of Needs
Many of us are familiar with the work of psychologist Abraham Maslow. Maslow argued that human beings have a hierarchy of needs, meaning that we can only worry about certain things if we have more fundamental things well secured.
Underlying everything are our basic physiological needs – breathing, food, water, sleep, excretion, and so on. What functions do we need to undergo to maintain life?
Once those needs are met, we then worry about security: security of our body, security of our resources and money, security of our career, morality, and so on. Are the things we value safe?
If our security needs are met, we worry about things like friendship, family, and intimacy – love and belonging.
If love and belonging are secure, we worry then about esteem – self-esteem, confidence, respect of others, respect by others, and achievements. Above those is self-actualization – morality, creativity, spontaneity, and so on.
Hierarchy of Needs Gone Haywire
What I see in Ashley’s question and in the experiences of an awful lot of people (myself included) is a confusion as to that hierarchy.
We’re often convinced, either by fooling ourselves or being fooled by others, that some things are more of a basic need than others or that some of our basic areas are well-covered.
Let’s look at some examples of this.
For a long time, my finances were in a mess, but I often refused to look at the mess. I’d look at things like my income level and the material items I had and I could easily tell myself that my finances were in good shape.
Doing this would “patch up” a very worrisome hole in my life, lulling me into a false sense of security and leading me to think instead about matters of esteem. Because I had this issue “covered,” I would then think about matters of esteem and how I appeared to others and what short-term enjoyable thing I could be doing.
Advertisements and marketing often seeks to mix up our needs by slipping matters of esteem and self-actualization with deeper needs: security, love and belonging, and even physiological. Ads try to tie products to sex, to danger, and to other basic responses so that you tie that product to something very fundamental, increasing the urgency for that product.
This spreads to mass media, including the news. So often, news reports are written based on the PR releases of various companies. These news reports copy the misrepresentation of our needs from the public relations of companies that profit from that misrepresentation of our needs.
Lack of critical thinking about others
Ever heard the phrase “the grass is greener on the other side of the fence”? It is very easy for us to look at the things and the situations others have and desire that situation. We see the positives (a nice car, lots of possessions) and not the negatives (a tense job, sleepless nights, lots of debt).
In other words, we don’t recognize that the choices made by others have costs that affect deeper levels of need. Instead, we see only the benefits which reside at a higher level of need. We don’t see the sacrifice of the basics to have the non-essential things.
Lack of self-analysis
With all of these mixed messages, it’s no wonder that we get our hierarchy of needs confused. The best way to really put things back in their place is to spend time thinking about your life in a critical fashion. What’s really important to you? What’s not really important?
Many people never take the time to do this. I can certainly say that I didn’t do it for a long time, and I can see through the behaviors of others that they’re skipping out on self-analysis, too.
If you take home any action from this article, it’s that time spent evaluating your life and your beliefs has tremendous value. It can get your hierarchy of needs in order, and the more ordered your hierarchy of needs, the easier it is to keep your spending in check and be happy with the things you have in life.
Lack of self-appreciation
A final element that I see in this is that many people – again, myself included – fall into the trap of not really appreciating the bounty of things they have in their lives.
Virtually everyone reading this has many, many things going for them. You have enough life security to spend time reading an article on the internet. You have people that love you. You almost assuredly have a roof over your head. You have a skill set that enables you to earn money in some way. You have a number of possessions that you deeply enjoy. You have access to many, many free avenues of entertainment and personal growth (heck, just start at your local library).
Your life has incredible bounty and abundance. The desire you have for the material item of the moment is insignificant compared to the mountain of opportunity and abundance you have every second of every day. You already have so much – don’t overlook it out of a secondary desire for even more.