Kelly wrote in with an interesting message via Facebook:
I’ve been reading your articles and trying to follow your advice. My problem is that I just don’t find being “frugal” very pleasurable. Whenever I try to think of something to do, I always end up thinking “nope, not that” over and over again because the ideas always involve spending money. I feel like I end up doing my eleventh choice because the first ten were excluded because they weren’t cheap and I end up just thinking about the ten things I’d rather be doing and I feel miserable.
The word that stood out to me in her message was pleasurable, and that took me down an interesting train of thought.
For me, at least, there’s a big difference between “pleasure” and “joy,” and understanding the difference between the two is absolutely key for understanding what I get out of frugality and financial responsibility.
For starters, pleasure is a short-term feeling. It’s all about the enjoyment of that moment, how it provides an experience that feels good to us in some way. The problem is that pleasure doesn’t really last. Every good feeling begins to feel less good over time, so you seek out something different.
Some people find it by digging deeper and appreciating that same pleasure on a different level. I think of a person who gets really deep into the nuance of a hobby, like a chess grandmaster or a photographer with a bunch of equipment. They derive pleasure by digging deeper into something.
Other people seek out variations on that pleasure, or seek out a new one. They’ll go out to a different place or they’ll try a different hobby.
Still others just take that pleasure as part of their routine and repeat it until it becomes absolutely ordinary and doesn’t actually provide any real pleasure at all. Think of people who go to the same coffee shop or the same bar every single day.
On the other hand, I see joy as being a long-term feeling. Joy comes about as a result of minimizing and eliminating negatives in life so that you’re left with positives, or by establishing routines that raise your life happiness.
For example, you might make your life more joyful by reducing your stress level. You might make your life more joyful by taking a long walk each day. You might make your life more joyful by building a strong and wide social network. You might make your life more joyful by eliminating negative people from your life. You get the idea.
I find that when I minimize and control the negatives in my life, it’s a lot easier to appreciate all of the lasting positives that remain, and that brings about that sense of joy.
It turns out that these two ideas are thoroughly expressed in two philosophical concepts: hedonism and stoicism. So, to get started, let’s walk through the basics of each idea.
Hedonism is a school of thought that argues that pleasure is the primary or most important intrinsic good. In very simple terms, a hedonist strives to maximize net pleasure (pleasure minus pain).
In other words, hedonism describes situations where you’re focused on maximizing your pleasure, especially your immediate pleasure. You’re focused on what activity right now can give you the maximum difference between the pleasure and the pain that you feel.
I would say that for most of the first half of the 2000s, I lived a hedonistic lifestyle. While I gave some vague thoughts to the idea of working hard for the future, I mostly just focused on doing things to maximize my enjoyment of the right now. I worked hard, but it was at a job that I deeply enjoyed. I spent a lot of money. I ate out at a ton of expensive restaurants. I went to bars with coworkers and professional colleagues quite often. I bought endless piles of things for my hobbies.
And I didn’t worry about the long term impact of those choices at all.
Basically, in each moment, I tried to maximize the distance between my pleasure and my pain. My solution for my frustrations in life was to bury them in short-term pleasure. I would “live for the weekend.” I’d drown my worries in a good meal or a new gadget or a new DVD.
Eventually, I discovered a real problem with this strategy… but first, let’s talk about stoicism.
Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century BC. The Stoics taught that destructive emotions resulted from errors in judgment, and that a sage, or person of “moral and intellectual perfection”, would not suffer such emotions.
Stoicism teaches the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions; the philosophy holds that becoming a clear and unbiased thinker allows one to understand the universal reason (logos).
In other words, stoicism is the idea that by having more control over your emotions and also by making better judgment calls in life’s situations, your life will be better.
I would describe my current life and personal finance philosophy as being some modern form of stoicism. Some of the core principles of my life line up strongly with the ideas of stoicism.
So, what exactly do I mean by that? How does my life today line up well with the stoicism philosophy?
For starters, I value a strong appreciation of what I already have. I have a wonderful wife. I have three amazing children. I have a nice home. I have great, flexible work to earn an income. I have a lot of hobbies that I deeply enjoy. The sun is shining. The weather is warm. I can feel a gentle breeze coming through the window. I can hear birds chirping outside. I have all of this and so much more in my life.
This appreciation did not come immediately, nor did it come naturally. I cultivated it over time. One of the best tools I found for cultivating this sense was by keeping a “gratitude journal.” Each day, I made an effort to list at least five things that I was grateful for about the day that passed. Over time, I began to naturally perceive more appreciation and gratitude for all of the simple things I had in my life, and it built on itself.
Another useful factor for me has been focusing on dealing with negative emotions. Negative emotions almost always drive me to making financial and personal mistakes. Virtually nothing good comes from negative emotions.
So, I’ve spent a lot of time and effort learning how to control them and learning how to parse through them at a later time and figure out why I had that negative response. This doesn’t mean I don’t have “bad days,” but that I know how to deal with them better.
I’ve also learned that getting rid of life’s negatives is well worth putting in a lot of hard work. If there’s something in your life that makes you feel sad or upset, then it’s worth putting in a lot of work to fix that problem (assuming, of course, that it is actually fixable).
I’ve had relationships that were difficult in my life over the years, bringing me a lot of personal upset and disruption. It was well worth it to go through the painful process of changing or ending those relationships. There were major aspects of my previous career that made me deeply unhappy in the last year or two that I was involved with it. I worked my tail off to find a better career path. Then there’s the financial picture, which I’ll describe below.
A final factor is that I’ve learned to focus only on the things that I can actually change or control. It is really easy to get frustrated by things you cannot control and then use that frustration as an excuse to fail at the things that you can control.
There are a lot of “big picture” aspects of my life that I simply cannot change. I can’t suddenly create hearing in my left ear or vision in my right eye (yes, I’m deaf in one ear and (basically) blind in one eye). I can’t suddenly have a functional thyroid (I have lacked thyroid function since birth). I can’t suddenly have great balance. I can’t suddenly be the perfect extrovert (though I can somewhat mimic it with a lot of focus). It’s just not me.
Instead, I focus on the things that I can control and change. I can control and change how much time I spend with my children and with my wife. I can control and change how much focus I put into my work. I can control and change how I spend my free time. I can control and change how much exercise I get and what I eat.
‘Modern’ Stoicism and Personal Finance
It’s probably not too hard to see some of the relationship between the idea of “modern stoicism” and personal finance, but the connections between the two are actually quite numerous. Let’s take a walk through the four principles I mentioned above and see how they connect directly to your money.
Build an Appreciation for What You Have
People often compare themselves to the people around them, especially those they consider as being wealthier or having more opportunities than themselves. You see a person with a big, beautiful, amazing house and you want wat they have. You see a person with a gorgeous car and you want what they have. You see a person with the latest cell phone in their pocket or an amazing television in their home and you want what they have.
But ask yourself this. Does the home you already have meet your needs? Does it provide adequate space for you to sleep and prepare food and relax? Do you have the ability to get from point A to point B easily? Do you have the ability to contact people when you need to? Are you already able to entertain yourself at home?
If you’re answering “yes,” then you don’t need any of that extra stuff. It doesn’t help you to do anything significant that you can’t already do.
Instead, look at the many, many things that you do already have. Your health. The many great people in your life. The many smells, flavors, and sensations that the world gives you. The ability to be entertained and enlightened. The feeling of a great laugh. The home that you have. The list of blessings in your life is practically endless.
When you start adopting that perspective, it starts to make less and less sense to spend money chasing more and more and more things in your life. You already have more things available in your life than you will ever have the adequate time to appreciate and explore. Why throw your hard-earned money after more of them?
Learn How to Deal with Negative Emotions
Sometimes, I view hedonism as a switch of sorts, one triggered by negative emotions. Like most people, I do not like experiencing negative emotions – fear, pain, uncertainty, stress, disappointment, anger. It doesn’t leave me feeling good in either the short term or the long term.
When I feel the brunt of negative emotions on me, I want to make them go away, and the easiest way to do that is to toss on a healthy dose of pleasure – pure hedonism. That easy route usually ends up costing money, too, as I’ll do things like go out for an expensive dinner or buy something that I desire.
Hedonism does leave you feeling good in the short term, but unless you keep it up constantly, that burst of pleasure goes away and you’re left with the same old negative emotions except, now, they’re usually worse. I’m in worse financial shape than before because I didn’t address the finances and in fact made them worse. I’m likely also in worse shape with my relationships, too, and with other aspects of my life.
So, two things can happen from there. You can enter into a downward spiral loop where you continue pressing the hedonism button to maximize pleasure in the short term, or you can back off and start dealing with the sources of those negative emotions.
I found, over time, that the five “whys” was almost always a great approach to dealing with negative emotions. Whenever I noticed that I was having a negative response to anything – in other words, I felt fear, pain, uncertainty, stress, disappointment, anger, sadness, or something similar – I’d ask myself why. Then, when I’d formulate an answer, I’d ask myself why about that answer. I’d repeat that step again and again and again. Almost always, by the fifth “why,” I had either found or was pretty close to the core problem.
Put in the Hard Work to Eliminate Negatives
Of course, that core problem wasn’t always an easy thing to address. Usually, I’d discover that the core problem was something painful and difficult to deal with in my life that forced me to change a relationship or make a challenging alteration to my own behavior.
Addressing a core problem is almost always very hard work. However, it’s always incredibly rewarding, and you find that negative emotions in your life just melt away like hot butter.
So, what’s the connection to personal finance? I found that, time and time again, my financial state was contributing to a ton of negative emotions in my life. It made me feel stressed. It made me feel worried. It made me very temperamental. It made me very restless.
For me, at least, the best first step for dealing with those negative emotions was to start getting out of debt. I cut back sharply on my spending, got my bills up to date, built up an emergency fund, and started plowing through my debts as quickly as I could. As they started receding, I could start to feel the stress lifting in my life. I put effort into building more income streams, too, which added to the sense of financial security.
I also started working a lot harder to maintain and build a good relationship with my wife and with my children. Since I spend a lot of time with them each day, the stronger my relationship is with them, the better my daily life will be.
Whenever a negative problem comes up in my life, I do my best to deal with it as directly as I can, because I’ve learned that the convenient response to life’s problems is hedonism, and hedonism, while it is a very nice quick fix to make the problems go away for a bit, usually ends up making the problems of life even worse in the long run.
Focus Only on What You Can Control
One of the most frustrating parts about financial success is that so many of life’s events are simply outside of our control and, in one moment, they can wipe out so much forward progress.
A job loss can eat through savings and investments like Pac Man in a fresh maze. A severe illness in the family can do the same thing. A difficult or negative boss can put a stop to your career advancement at your job. An unexpected death can change everything.
You can’t control those things. However, they certainly can trigger negative emotions in your life if you allow them to do so.
However, you shouldn’t worry for a second about the things you can control. Instead, focus on the things you can control.
You can’t control when your car will fail. However, you can reduce the odds of it by keeping up with the auto maintenance schedule and you can reduce the impact on your life by having an emergency fund. You can work on those things right now.
You can’t control when you might lose your job or when you might stumble into a very difficult work situation. However, you can make it easier to rebound by having a strong professional network, an up-to-date resume, a list of successful projects, and a fresh and relevant skill set. You can also make things easier by having a strong side gig, whether it’s freelancing work or something based entirely on a separate passion of your own. You can work on those things right now.
You can’t control when you or your spouse might become ill. However, you can make it easier to survive by having an emergency fund, by conserving sick leave at work, and by making sure you have adequate health care coverage. You can work on those right now.
There are many things in life that you can’t control, but there are things you can do to make your life much more resilient to them. Not only do those steps leave you feeling better, with less worry and stress, they make a world of difference when one of those things you can’t control pops up.
Stoicism is an ancient philosophical idea, but it actually holds up quite well today in terms of smart modern personal finance, career, and life choices. Rather than giving into the temptation of endless pleasures while problems stack up in our lives, a much better approach is to put those difficulties to rest while learning the root causes of the negative emotions in our lives as well as a steady appreciation and gratitude for the countless boons we all have.
The end result of those choices is a steady and lasting joy that comes from the great things we already have and isn’t depleted by the things outside of our control. That’s the greatest victory of all.