One of the biggest struggles I had to overcome to live a more frugal life was getting jealous of the things other people were doing, particularly my friends. I’d see a coworker with a new car and I’d feel a twinge of jealousy. I’d visit a good friend and they’d talk endlessly about their trip to Thailand and I’d drive home feeling bitter about my life and my life choices. I’d see someone in the neighborhood with a much nicer phone than I had and jealousy would twist at me.
Those negative feelings might not have been rational or sensible, but they were most certainly real. They ate at me for years, leaving me often questioning my financial decisions even as I stuck to my financial path.
Eventually, I figured out how to deal with those feelings in a sensible way.
Here are 10 strategies that really helped me process those feelings of bitterness and jealousy when it comes to being more frugal.
10 strategies for overcoming bitterness and jealousy when you’re living frugally
1. Ask yourself if spending money would improve your life
This is a fundamental question I ask myself whenever I feel a strong desire to have something or a nudge of jealousy about something someone else has. I simply step back and ask myself what I would really have to sacrifice to have this thing.
For example, let’s say I’m desiring a new car. If I were to buy some fancy, expensive car rather than the more modest cars we usually buy, I’d be spending tens of thousands of dollars. Where does that money come from? It likely takes away from my retirement savings. Right now, I’m on pace to retire early, so swiping tens of thousands of dollars from my early retirement money so that I can have a shiny car would add at least a year to my working life.
There is no car on Earth that is worth a year of freedom from working for money. That’s just not a trade I am interested in. I want the freedom to choose what I do with my days without the pressure of having to earn money, and I want that far more than I want that car.
This strategy works really well if you’ve spent the time to really consider what you want out of life and started actually putting your money toward achieving it. You then begin to see those things you’re jealous of under a stark “either/or” lens — either you have this thing you’re desiring in this moment, or you have the thing you want most in the world as soon as possible.
What about smaller things, where it’s harder to see the impact on your big goals? With smaller things, it’s usually pretty easy to see how that item would actually not bring very much positive value into my life. I already have plenty of things to entertain and occupy me, so how much value is yet another thing really bringing into my life? The truth is, it won’t bring much. I love board games and I love playing them, but yet another board game brings limited value when I already have shelves full of them. The same is true of books — I love reading, but what value does yet another book bring when I already have shelves of unread books and access to a library full of thousands more that I haven’t read?
2. Share what you make rather than what you buy
One aspect of this sense of bitterness or jealousy is that you can sometimes feel like you have nothing to talk about in social situations. Everyone else is sharing pictures of their trip or their new car or talking about their new gadget… and you don’t have much to say.
For me, one useful counterbalance to that is to discover valuable things in my own life, from the way I do things, and share them with friends. They might share pictures of something they bought, but I’ll share pictures of something I made. They might talk about something expensive they did, but I’ll talk about something amazing I got for free.
Make things. Do things. That gives you things to talk about. That way, you have something to share in conversation and something to take pride in.
3. Find meaningful, low-cost hobbies that you can dive into
When I decided to take a more frugal direction with my life, it meant that I had to take a careful look at the hobbies and other activities I filled my free time with. While I enjoyed all of them, there were clearly some that were quite expensive — golfing, and going out for drinks regularly. When I looked at the monthly cost of those things, it was painful.
My first solution was to just drop those new activities, but I found that it just left some big gaps in my life that were getting filled with idle behavior. I watched more television. I played more mediocre video games. I felt like my life was empty, because it was empty.
The key is to identify when your life feels empty, and when it does, actively start seeking out meaningful low-cost things to do that fill that time into which you can dive deeply.
I read a lot, go on hikes, make fermented foods, brew craft beer and play tabletop games. Those things are all low-cost hobbies that I deeply enjoy and that I dive very deeply into at times.
Having those things in my life makes my life feel less empty. It also gives me something to talk about with my friends, many of whom share at least one of those interests with me. I have friends that are avid readers that I can talk about books with. I have friends who are avid hikers and backpackers and we can talk about that. I have friends who are homebrewers and who love making fermented foods. I have friends who love playing tabletop games. I have friends who are gardeners. Most of my friends fall into multiple categories.
Having that source of connection with my friends erodes a lot of the sense of jealously I might have for the cool things that they do because I have lots of cool things that I’m doing to share as well.
4. Discover low-cost, small things that are meaningful to you
It’s not just about having big hobbies, either. I find that whenever I am feeling negative emotions about myself or others, having some small pick-me-ups in my life, particularly meaningful ones with little cost, really helps.
I have a pretty large repertoire of them, actually. Here are some things I do whenever I feel negative about something and it’s bothering me:
- Go on a walk.
- Eat a snack that I like, preferably one I’ve made myself (like pickles or a little bowl of sauerkraut).
- Go to some forested place and go on a hike.
- Block off an hour just to read something interesting.
- Meditate on my breathing for 10 minutes.
- Solve a Rubik’s cube – I find it super soothing.
- Turn on some music.
- Do a chore around the house that’s been bothering me.
- Practice my taekwondo basic movements.
- Play a solitaire board or card game.
- Dance with Sarah.
- Practice juggling.
All of those things cost nothing or almost nothing. All of those things can be quickly done at almost any given moment. All of those things bump my mood in a positive direction and make me momentarily lose those feelings of bitterness or jealousy.
Often, by simply replacing that negative feeling with something better in the moment, the sting of that negative feeling fades. It’s why people engage in retail therapy. For me, this is kind of like retail therapy, except without spending money.
5. Find some pursuit in your life that’s greater than yourself
I’m an introvert. I enjoy doing things alone. However, I’ve learned over the years that when I spend too much time doing things that are just solely about me, I end up feeling worse about myself. Spending time alone is a good way for me to recharge for a while, but if I don’t get engaged in something bigger than myself sometimes, I feel like I’m missing out.
I find that sense of “greater than yourself” in a number of things. I find it in trying to find spiritual answers — prayer, reading holy books, listening to sermons, listening to talks and reflection.
However, I tend to find it most strongly when I simply do things for others with no expectation of anything in return. Volunteer work is an obvious example of this — I particularly enjoy helping with the local food pantry or, weirdly, doing boring administrative tasks for charities — but it also spreads into moments when I know I’m putting together an article for The Simple Dollar that I am certain will help someone. It also comes through in small moments, like when I make a batch of cookies for someone or make a jar of pickles that’s exactly in line with a new friend’s tastes so I can give him a couple of jars.
That sense of doing something that connects me with something larger than myself, whether in a spiritual sense or in a “helping other people with nothing really in it for me” sense, contributes incredibly strongly to a sense of having a good, full life. Making such things a constant part of my life goes a long way toward permanently erasing the sense of bitterness or jealousy about what my friends and family might have.
6. Cultivate a grateful attitude for the things you have
Often, feelings of jealousy and bitterness come from a sense that the things in your life pale in comparison to the things that others have in their life. I find that such feelings are rarely true. Almost everyone has a lot of things in their life that are well worth deep appreciation, and simply being aware of those things can go a long way toward sating feelings of bitterness and jealousy.
For me, the most effective way of doing this is to simply list, by hand, five things in the past day that happened and I’m really grateful for. I write in a journal each day as a way to clear my head, and I do this at the start of each daily entry.
Usually, these are small things. I’ll write something like “Sarah made a really delicious supper last night,” “I had a delightful craft beer while sitting on the deck in the warm evening sun” or “I played a wonderful game with my kids.” I try to pull things from the last day that I haven’t written about in the last week or two, just to avoid repeating the same stuff.
I find that this simple practice becomes a reminder of how rich, varied and bountiful my life really is, and simply knowing that in a deeper way makes me feel less jealous and bitter about things that I don’t have.
7. Adopt a “planting an orchard” approach to your life
What do I mean by “planting an orchard”?
One of the quotes that has inspired me the most over the last decade or so is a statement attributed to the theologian Martin Luther: “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”
There are several layers of meaning in there, but let’s just look at two pieces of it.
First of all, he’s talking about the act of “planting his apple tree.” What does he mean by that? He’s referring to doing something today that will bear fruit long in the future — years from now.
For example, if I spend some real quality time with my daughter, doing something she cares about and having a meaningful conversation with her, and I do that pretty much every day for a while, we’re going to build a deep, strong relationship that will last. That relationship might not pay off today or tomorrow, but there will come times in both of our lives where that relationship will be of vital importance, and that effort I put in today will be what makes that relationship strong when it needs to be. I’m planting an apple seed today so that I have that apple tree later.
That’s easy to understand, but why would Luther still want to plant a seed if he’s never going to see the fruit from it? There are lots of reasons, two of which are really powerful to me. One, many of the seeds I plant will grow and bear fruit without me, providing fruit and shade to others. Two, and perhaps even more relevant to what Luther is saying, the act of planting a seed is in itself valuable and meaningful.
That act of spending meaningful focused time with my daughter is great in the sense that it is building a strong long-term relationship with her, but it’s also valuable in the moment. It feels good to connect with her right now, and knowing that it is another brick in the foundation of our relationship is even better.
I find that when I fill a lot of my time with planting seeds like this — doing things that I know will pay dividends later on — I tend to feel really good about my life, regardless of what others may have. The act of planting that seed feels great, and when I know that many of the seeds will sprout and bloom and make my life and the lives of people I care about wonderful later, that’s another level of feeling good. I have a hard time feeling jealous or bitter about much of anything when I am busy planting an orchard.
Plant lots of seeds. Appreciate both the act of planting them and the knowledge of the fruit that some of those seeds will bear.
8. Spend less time on social media
If there’s ever a place that will evoke feelings of jealousy about the lives of others and bitterness about your own situation, it’s social media. Spend less time there. You’ll be glad you did.
Rather than treating social media as your news source that you need to refresh constantly to get the latest, ask yourself this question: what actionable thing am I hoping to get out of looking at social media? If you want to get ahold of a specific person, it can be useful, but aside from that, what is it really providing you that’s actionable and valuable in your life? The truth is that it provides very little.
What about purely as entertainment? The thing is, worthwhile entertainment doesn’t leave us feeling angry or feeling negative about ourselves and others.
What about as a news source? Virtually everything you see on social media is unsourced or poorly sourced. It mostly consists of people’s opinions and highly selective facts that originate from imagination or from questionable people.
Spend less time there. You’ll find that a lot of negative feelings — bitterness, jealousy, loneliness, anger — just start to drift out of your life.
9. When someone is excited about something and telling you about it, appreciate their excitement
What do you do if a friend is really excited and joyful about something they did, but hearing about it just makes you feel jealous? How do you handle it?
In those situations, focus less on the thing they’re telling you about and more on the joy of your friend. Your friend is happy, so be happy for them. Focus on the simple fact that they’re in a good place, and don’t worry about where you are or what you have.
Don’t try to imagine yourself doing whatever they’re doing or having whatever they’re having. Instead, think of the things they’ve done for you in the past, the connections you’ve shared, and the depth of that relationship. Focus on them, not you.
Whenever I find this hard, I just remind myself that I am really glad that this person is so happy. I find it is really hard to be bitter when I recognize happiness in others, and if I let myself be drawn into it, I feel pretty good, too. There’s no room for jealousy or bitterness in that moment.
10. Don’t expect perfection, just expect a little better than before
I’m willing to bet that if you try these things, you’ll still find yourself feeling jealous or bitter sometimes. I know I do.
The thing to remember is that no one is perfect. There is no perfect strategy for defeating all of our human failings. Rather, there are just strategies for making things a little better than before, and then a little better than that, then a little better than that.
There is no perfect life, but there’s certainly a better life. There’s no life without negative feelings sometimes, but there’s certainly a life with fewer negative feelings and perhaps a few more good feelings in their place.