Escaping the Mundane

Charlie writes in (this is an excerpt, because the full story is quite long):

What I finally realized is that I usually buy stuff because it makes me feel like this is all worth it for a while, that all the work I’m doing isn’t just going to feed Uncle Sam and to keep a roof over my head and cheap food on the table. But then I get the bills and I feel even worse than I did before.

The ups and downs of buying stuff (up) and then seeing the new wear off and facing the bills (down) is a rollercoaster, but at least it’s better than the mundane shuffle through life of just paying the mortgage and going to the grocery store and going to work over and over and over again. A completely frugal life is the most mundane thing I can imagine.

I think you’re going about this from completely the wrong perspective, Charlie.

First of all, frugality is not about giving up the things that bring you joy in life. It’s about figuring out what actually does bring you joy in life and accentuating that, then cutting back sharply on the things that don’t matter as much to you.

For example, if you don’t watch much television, a frugal decision would be to get rid of your cable box and just use the over-the-air signals – or, perhaps, selling your television off entirely.

A key part of that statement – perhaps the key part – is the if you don’t watch much television part. If you do enjoy television and you watch it multiple hours per day, then you shouldn’t cut back on it. You might, however, find that you don’t watch your premium channels much, so you might get a cheaper package – or you might not.

Another example: if you’re not home during the day, why would you bother to heat or cool your house during those hours? Get a programmable thermostat, install it, and set it to turn off your air conditioning or furnace during the hours where you’re not at home. Why? Because for virtually everyone on earth, keeping their home at a perfect temperature when no one is there is not a key value in their lives.

There are some things I don’t hesitate to spend money on. I will buy expensive cheeses and other ingredients for great home-cooked meals. I don’t skip on kitchen implements – I get stuff that will last forever. I don’t mind buying a book that I know I’ll re-read in the future. I’m currently shopping for a piano and I will happily pay the right price for the right piano.

Aside from that, though, I unabashedly cut corners. I make my own laundry detergent because, frankly, buying Tide doesn’t improve my quality of life. We use cloth diapers for our baby. I use vinegar to mop the floor. We have a single television in our house and it’s an old CRT television that has a discolored screen on one side of it. This stuff isn’t really important to me at all – so why would I spend anything more than the minimum on it?

Hand in hand with that is big, long-term goals. My wife and I have some large, long-term goals that are deeply fulfilling to both of us. Foremost among them is our long-talked-about home in the country, with trees around and a small barn in the back. We both want this deeply.

I have a picture that currently serves as my desktop wallpaper on my main computer I use for work. It depicts nothing more than a nice-looking farmhouse-style home surrounded on two sides by trees, with a red barn off to the left. It has a long driveway leading up to it and on the driveway, you can see a child running towards the cameraperson. That’s exactly what I’d like to have. (I’d happily shre the photo, but I think I’d get into copyright trouble if I did.)

I know that every time I choose not to have something that’s important to me, I take one step in that very long journey towards that dream we share. I look at that photo sometimes as I’m checking account balances and I feel very warm inside knowing that all of my little choices are slowly adding up to something we’ve both wanted for a very long time.

That feels good. That feels really good.

The combination of these two factors is that frugality enables me to reach for the big things I want out of life without giving up the little things that genuinely matter. The drawback? I’m not buying products that aren’t important to me.

Some drawback.