Updated on 08.26.14

The Spending That Makes You Happy

Trent Hamm

I love buying a new book. To me, a book represents many hours of getting lost in a story or learning about something new. It’s a portal to another place and having a number of books just waiting to be read when I have time for them makes me happy.

I also love opening, learning, and playing board games. I love reading the rules, punching out the tokens, and playing games with my friends. Our game nights are most fun when they feature a mix of old and new games.

Spending on those things – as well as on occasional things like a cup of coffee at the local coffee shop – bring me a lot of personal joy. I would be very upset if our budget tightened to the point where I couldn’t enjoy these things.

For a long time, I mentally tied the idea of frugality to cutting back on those things I cared so deeply about. It made me very negative toward the idea of frugality, to the point that I basically avoided it for the first five years or so of my professional life.

When I thought about cutting back on spending, I didn’t think about buying dishwasher soap in bulk or making a meal at home or installing energy efficient light bulbs. I thought about losing the pleasure of buying a new book or two. I thought about losing the pleasure of a craft beer on a warm summer weekend. I thought about losing the things I really enjoyed in life.

Frankly, I thought it sounded pretty terrible. It was the last thing I wanted to do.

Here’s the reality, though. Frugality does not mean giving that stuff up. It simply means cutting back on the things that I care less about so that I can afford the things that I do care about.

I don’t have any sort of emotional tie to the type of light bulb that’s illuminating my office. I just care that my office is lit, so I’ll buy the most cost-efficient bulbs that I can. That’s frugality.

My biggest joy from eating comes from eating with people I care about, so I’ll make meals at home when I eat with my family and with friends and eat really cheap when eating by myself. I still get wonderful meals with the people I care about. That’s frugality.

While I still enjoy buying a new book – and I still do on a regular basis – I realize now that my true joy comes from getting lost in a book, so I use the local libraries quite heavily. I love having an unread book on my bedside table. It doesn’t matter much whether it’s my own book or one from the library. That’s frugality.

If a spending choice makes you feel utterly miserable, then you’re not practicing frugality. You’re practicing some form of self-punishment. Frugality doesn’t mean going ultra-minimalist. It doesn’t mean becoming a possession-free stoic monk.

Frugality means that you cut back hard on the things you don’t care about so that you have money for the things that you do care about. It means buying generic baking soda and installing energy efficient light bulbs so that you can afford to go out for a nice dinner every once in a while and also save for retirement. It means making a slow cooker meal for dinner and shopping at consignment stores for your family’s clothes so that you can afford to contribute to your son’s 529 account and also enjoy a round of golf on a beautiful weekend. It means having potluck dinners instead of going out on the town so that you can pay off your credit cards and still enjoy a vacation next summer.

Frugality doesn’t mean losing the stuff you care about. The problem with making comparisons like the ones I made above is that I’ll inevitably mention giving up something someone really cares about and that person will think the idea of frugality sounds like misery.

Here’s the thing: I’m talking about giving up something unimportant to me. This may or may not be something that’s unimportant to you.

I generally sort expenses in my life into two groups. One group consists of things that bring me significant or lasting joy – the “important and joyful” group. The other group is everything else. When I write sentences like the ones above, I’m mentioning cutting back on things in my own “everything else” group so that I can afford things from the group that bring me joy.

You’re going to sort the elements of your life a little differently than I do – and that’s fine. Just keep in mind that frugality is about cutting back on the “everything else” group so that you can afford the “important and joyful” group, no matter how you sort things.

Frugality means casting a critical eye on every dollar you spend and asking yourself whether that spending is really bringing you joy – or whether you could find joy elsewhere, cheaper. My own sorting of things that are “important and joyful” and “everything else” changes over time. Sometimes, it’s due to my own changing interests and goals. At other times, it’s due to discovering new ways to enjoy my passions, such as my migration from buying books to checking them out from the library.

I usually discover these changes by keeping a careful eye on every dollar spent. Usually, I begin to realize that some things I buy simply aren’t bringing me as much joy as they once did, so I’ll cut back. Occasionally, I’ll notice new interests rising, too.

Budgeting is the key, as always. When you track your expenses and match them to your budget, it’s easy to see these things happening.

Frugality doesn’t mean denying yourself everything. On the contrary, it actually protects a reasonable amount of joyful spending. In our budget, Sarah and I each allot ourselves a certain amount to spend as we please. Within that amount, there are no restrictions. If I want to buy a game or Sarah wants to buy books, we can.

We carve out that spending allowance by cutting back on other, less important areas. That’s how frugality works.

Because we know that money is accounted for, we don’t feel guilty spending it. There’s no remorse later on. It’s simply a perk of living frugally.

Frugality means realizing that sometimes an occasional treat brings you far more pleasure than a daily treat. I get far more joy out of a monthly visit to a coffee shop than I get out of a daily visit. It took me a long time to figure that out.

I used to visit a coffee shop each day. It didn’t take long for it to become completely routine. I stopped getting much pleasure at all from that coffee. It was just a normal part of my day – not special in any way.

When I stopped that routine, I noticed that the next time I visited a coffee shop a month or two later, the experience was great. I deeply enjoyed my cup of coffee. I really enjoyed the environment and the experience.

Now, I actually feel anticipation when I’ve penciled in a stop at a coffee shop. I spend about one morning a month working at a coffee shop in our area, just for a change of pace, and it’s a wonderful experience, with unique aromas and taste and sights and noises and people. It’s not ordinary any more, it’s special – and that makes the cup of coffee worth a lot more.

Frugality doesn’t mean giving up those little pleasures. I can still enjoy coffee whenever I want. We have some good coffee in the cupboard and a coffee grinder and a good coffee pot. What I’ve learned, though, is that when I drink coffee every day, the pleasure just vanishes. It becomes ordinary. And if it’s ordinary, why not just drink water?

I fill my money and my time with the ordinary so that when I occasionally have those treats, I can get pleasure from the anticipation, the experience itself, and the aftermath. It becomes much more special without costing any more at all.

Frugality means trying new approaches in every avenue of your spending. One of the interesting things I realized about my heavy spending days is that much of my spending was very routine-oriented. I stopped at bookstores two or three times a week and always bought two or three books. It was like clockwork.

Frugality doesn’t mean repeating the same old routines. Frugality means upsetting routines. It means trying new things. It means figuring out if a new experience is something that brings me joy. It means spreading out pleasures and making them irregular. It means experiencing life in a whole new way.

You do not have to give up the spending that makes you happy in order to be “frugal.” Being frugal means that you do have the resources to spend money in a joyful way because you’ve cut back on the ordinary and you’ve figured out how to spend a dollar to bring yourself a lot of joy.

For me, that’s a pretty happy way to live.

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