Depriving Yourself Doesn’t Work

Connie writes in:

I am sick and tired of having to live a miserable life in order to save for retirement and to pay down debts. Every single day I am just saying NO NO NO to the life I want to be living. So sick of it.

This was actually just one paragraph in the middle of a long email, where Connie was mostly venting her frustrations about the financial challenges in her life, but this paragraph really stuck out at me and stuck with me.

It’s pretty obvious that Connie is feeling massively frustrated here, and for most of us, it’s a feeling that we can sympathize with. When you’re working hard toward your financial goals, it really can feel like an endless road of personal deprivation. You’re going without stuff that you really really want and it feels miserable.

Guess what? If you feel that way, you’re doing it wrong, and you’re probably headed toward failure.

It can be a painful pill to swallow, but it’s true. If you spend a lot of your time feeling miserable and deprived of things you really really want, it’s a matter of time before you simply abandon the goal. If you feel that way, in fact, your goal has already failed. Humans are short-term people, and if all of your short-term feelings and desires are pointed in a particular direction so strongly that it actually feels miserable to walk against the grain, you’re going to start walking toward the grain pretty quickly.

Why is this happening, though? Connie, like a lot of people, is feeling the pain of a direct conflict between their short-term desires and their long-term plans. As much as it hurts, over the long term, those short-term desires are going to win out.

The only way to beat this situation is to find ways to redirect or eliminate those short-term desires. As long as you’re focused on stuff that you really, really want that are in opposition to your bigger goal, you’re going to feel miserable and eventually you’re going to crack, so the solution is to directly take on those desires.

Saying “I won’t let myself have this thing that I really, really want” will eventually lead straight to failure. There’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it.

What’s the solution? The solution is to alter those desires. You are not defined by the things that you want. You are not defined by your desire for things. You do not have to have those things, either.

When you feel miserable because your big goal is keeping you away from the things that you want, try these steps. The whole purpose of these strategies is to simply alter the desire itself by making you look at it from different angles. A desire is often like a flawed diamond; it looks amazing from one angle, but if you look at it from lots of angles, it doesn’t look nearly as good any more.

First of all, ask yourself why you want it — five times. Why do you want this thing? Whatever your answer to that is, ask yourself why you feel that way. Then, why do you feel that way? Do this twice more and what you’ll usually find is that you’ve cut down to something deep in your life that’s driving that external desire.

That deep internal thing is the thing you need to address. For me, it often comes down to a sense that I don’t have time for whatever passion is driving me to want to spend money. The best solution for me there is to simply box off some time for that hobby. Rather than buying something, I spend a Saturday afternoon actually doing something.

The vast majority of the time, my desire to buy a particular item flips quickly into excitement and anticipation for that upcoming session doing something that I love, which I was able to uncover using the “five whys.”

Another way to tackle a strong desire is to list several bad things about the thing that’s desired. What’s wrong with that thing that I desire? What are the flaws? What’s just as good – or better – among the things that I already have?

Critique that thing that you desire. Intentionally look for the flaws in it. Recognize that it’s not this amazing thing that you’re envisioning in your head when the desire is strong – because it really isn’t.

I find that simply delaying the thing I desire – saying that I can have it in five days or 10 days or 30 days – is often a good strategy. It causes the desire to just fall away, at least in the short term. In my mind, I know that it’s fine for me to have it if I just wait for a little while.

The interesting phenomenon here is that when the big day arrives, I often find that I don’t even want the thing in question any more. The big wave of desire has passed and my rational mind is now running the show again. Usually, what’s happened is that in the interim I’ve run through most of the other strategies in this article, whether consciously or unconsciously, and I’ve actually killed off the desire (or significantly reduced it).

Another great desire-killing strategy is to ask myself what else I could be doing with the money or the time invested in the desire. For example, if I want to spend $500 on some device for the kitchen, what else could I do with that $500? I could feed my family for two weeks. I could buy about 15 new board games (at least). I could retire a week or two earlier than I otherwise planned.

This is a trick related to the idea of opportunity cost, which simply means that whenever you invest your resources in one thing, you have the theoretical cost of not being able to invest your resources into anything else. When you start realizing the opportunity cost of each purchase, it can sometimes begin to feel like a shame to lock your money down into your particular desire where there are so many useful and wonderful additional options.

A final desire killer that I like to use is to simply spend a lot of my free time engaging in something I’m passionate about that’s radically different than the source of my desire. If I want a particular hobby item, I engage in other hobbies. If I want food, I just keep myself as busy as possible and away from the kitchen. If I want a new car, I enjoy myself at home doing things that don’t require travel and keep me out of the car.

What this does is that it makes me realize how wonderful and multi-layered and multi-dimensional my life is and that my happiness and sadness isn’t just dependent on one particular factor. I have lots of interests and hobbies and areas in my life and when I look into those other areas and away from the things that I desire, the desire often fades away.

What happens when you implement these strategies? Almost without fail, the desires start to slip away. At first, they’re still present – they just don’t seem quite as urgent as they once did. As time goes on, though, they seem less and less and less important and worthwhile. Often, you’ll begin to see other things as being more important than that desire.

Before long, you will scarcely even remember that desire most of the time. It will completely drift away, leaving behind at most a gentle hint of desiring something.

I should know – I do these things almost every time I really want something. The vast majority of the time, that desire just fades away over a handful of days. I find that, before long, I don’t even want it any more.

What’s interesting is that learning this about myself – that my desires melt away like that – makes my desires seem a lot less intense. I recognize them for what they are. They’re largely just fleeting things, things that seem so important and so real and so vital while I’m focusing on them, but things that just drift away like smoke when I look at them from a different angle or turn my attention elsewhere.

For me, the best tool for success with overcoming desires isn’t to find ways to resist those desires, but to find ways to make that desire melt away in the first place. That way, there’s no desire to overcome. There’s no need to walk against the grain. There’s no desire holding you back from the success you dream of and deserve.

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Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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