Finding the Right Side of the Fine Line Between Contentment and Deprivation

One of the main principles of frugality that I live by is what I call the “principle of contentment.” It’s the idea that the best state to be in is one in which I am satisfied and content with my life and that happiness naturally occurs in that state.

I am content when I know that my bills are paid, that my financial future is in good shape, that I’m happy with my work, that I have good relationships with the people around me, and that I always have engaging stuff with which to be spending my time.

The catch, of course, is that there’s a difference between contentment and happiness. Happiness is a fleeting state – it’s not one that we’re constantly in. It feels great to be happy and it’s something well worth having in your life, but it’s not something that’s a permanent state to be in.

Instead, I strive for contentment. Contentment is a state in which happiness often bubbles up on its own. Contentment is about creating the conditions for happiness to naturally occur without having to chase it down.

For example, having a low-stress life doesn’t directly bring happiness. However, happiness is a state that’s more likely to occur if you have a low-stress life. You’re more likely to simply have happy moments if you’re not burdened by stress.

Here’s the catch: when I focus on steps that are all about building a life of contentment, such as finding financial stability, not spending money on things that don’t matter, building lots of good relationships, and so on, it doesn’t sound like fun on the surface.

Those things aren’t what we think of as “happy” or “fun.”

Here’s the way I like to think about it. Building a content life is like preparing the soil for an amazing garden. It’s all about making and adding compost, turning the soil regularly, removing rocks from the soil, and making it ready for planting. Once you have the soil ready – in other words, you have a content life – it becomes really easy to grow tons of amazing fruits and vegetables and flowers in that soil. In other words, having a bumper crop of happiness and fun becomes easy once you have contentment in your life.

So, what’s the problem?

The problem comes when you’re preparing the soil but you’re hungering for all of those fresh vegetables and fruits now. You don’t have them yet because the soil isn’t ready yet, but your mind is flashing full of thoughts about how your life feels so deprived right now, how you don’t have this thing or that thing that you want, and so on.

It’s easy to feel that way sometimes, particularly when you’re just starting down the path to building a life of contentment. It takes time to build a financial foundation that you can rely on. It takes time to build really strong personal relationships that continuously bear fruit. Those things don’t come easily or automatically, but we want the rewards from them quickly.

The truth is, we often take a shortcut. We turn away from tending that soil for a while and instead buy that fruit. We take the shortcut.

We buy something that’s going to give us a burst of pleasure right now, at the expense of tending to our soil. We’ll go on a trip or buy an unnecessary entertainment item or go out for an expensive but quickly forgotten meal.

Those things do bring happiness, but what you find is that the happiness fades. Happiness always fades – it is never a permanent state.

The problem, of course, is that if you’re buying happiness instead of letting it naturally grow from the soil in your life, you’re shortchanging the soil.

When you spend money to chase that short-term burst of happiness, you’re taking away from that bedrock of financial security. When you turn away from a friend in need to go do something fun, you’re taking away from that bedrock of strong relationships. It goes on and on like that.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a balance between having a content life and enjoying the fruits of the life you’ve built. The problem is when you start using the bedrock of your life in order to have more and more and more fruits, until you have little or no foundation to rely on.

This brings us back to the person struggling with frugality and the challenges of building a content life. The truth is that the long journey to financial independence and a content life can definitely contain difficult spots where a sense of deprivation is strong and intense.

You can feel like you’re on an endless journey and that there is no joy in it. “I’m wasting my life – it’s joyless and without fun!” the voice in your head will whisper. “I’m depriving myself of the fun that others are having, and for what?”

In those moments, your eyes are focused solely on the fruit, not on the health of the soil. Your eyes are focused on the results, not the process. It can feel like deprivation. It can be hard.

So here’s the question: where’s the balance? How do you get past those moments where you’re on the road to contentment and financial stability but you feel deprived?

I’ve been there, believe me. Here are four things I’ve learned that actually work and help keep me on the right path.

Problem #1: Buying things that aren’t strictly needs often comes down to trying to fill a void in your life. You have a sense that there’s something missing, so you spend money in order to try to fill in that hole. In the short term, it works; in the long term, it doesn’t.

I’ll give you a very clear example from my own life.

I sometimes buy books. These aren’t books that I’m using for reference, and I have an abundance of books to read for entertainment on my shelf and a ton more at the library. What am I buying a book for? When I step back and honestly look at it, I’m buying that book to fill a void in my life. I value reading, and on some level, I don’t feel that I put enough time or energy toward it, and I also want some sort of physical item to point at that demonstrates my love of reading – a shelf full of books really puts that on display.

The thing is, none of those things really fulfills the value that reading brings into my life. On some level, I’ll buy into the idea that buying this book will fill the void I feel when I feel like I’m not reading enough, or that I want to feel educated, or that I want to signal a particular virtue to others (I’ll get back to that).

The way to solve it? If I feel like I want to go buy a book, what I really need to do is find a few hours to actually read more. I don’t need more stuff. What I need is time to read.

That same phenomenon holds true again and again. If I’m buying things that I might do with my kids, what I’m really telling myself is that I need to spend more time and energy with them. If I’m buying cooking tools, what I’m really telling myself is that I need to spend more time in the kitchen.

Notice a theme here? I tend to splurge when I feel deprived, but that sense of deprivation often comes from poor use of time and energy, not actual deprivation.

What it means is that I haven’t yet found my truly content life, but that my attempt at taking a shortcut by buying something to “fix” things is a mistake, too.

Solution #1: When you feel a sense of deprivation on your road to a better life, look first at how you’re spending your time and energy rather than spending money. Often, a sense of deprivation comes not from not having stuff, but from the fact that you’re using your time and energy in a way that doesn’t match up with your values. Figure that problem out first.

Problem #2: Companies everywhere want to exploit that feeling of deprivation and void-filling. I’m not talking about just advertisements, though that’s part of the equation. I’m talking about news media that sensationalizes everything to ridiculous levels so that people feel constantly on edge (which makes them prone to poor decision making, often as a result of the ads that immediately follow such intense coverage). I’m talking about reality television shows that paint an extremely distorted picture of “real life.” I’m talking about websites that orient themselves around lauding the latest and greatest thing that you must have (which happens to constantly change to the next latest and greatest thing that you must have).

All of that stuff – all of it – angles toward one thing: making you feel as though there is something wrong, something missing from your life, and that there is often some way to spend money that will fill it.

When people are agitated or fearful, people make poor decisions. When they’re shown exorbitant lifestyles, they tend to want some aspects of those lifestyles. When they’re told about how great this new thing is, they want this new thing.

This doesn’t make people bad – it’s simple human nature.

The thing is, we can choose not to put ourselves in situations where the worst elements of our nature are tested and allowed to lead. We don’t have to tune in to those things. We don’t have to read those things. We can choose other ways to invest our energy and time.

In fact, maybe if we take some of the energy and time that we devote to the things that put us on edge and make us desire things and instead devote it to actually filling the voids we feel in our lives, we might find a whole lot more contentment.

Solution #2: Cut back on your media intake that isn’t truly informing you and helping you grow. Watch less television and spend less time online. Instead, spend more time on the areas of your life where you feel a void. Turn off the television and go enjoy a hobby. Turn off the phone and do something you feel like you’ve been neglecting. You’ll find that your internal needle quickly begins to slide away from deprivation and toward contentment.

Problem #3: You want something, but you don’t know quite what it is that you want. This is a feeling that all of us have at some time or another. We want something … different … in our life, but we don’t know quite what it is. We have a void of some kind – we can feel it – but we don’t really know what that void is or how to fill it.

Often, people start throwing things at the problem in an attempt to stumble upon a solution. They’ll buy things that others seem to enjoy to see if it brings the joy that they’re seeking… and that rarely works. You’ll often see this depicted in books, movies, and television as a midlife crisis, for example, but we all do it to some extent sometimes.

This problem tends to come out of a lack of self-assessment. Often, we simply don’t sit down and devote the time needed to think through our goals, figure out what we want out of life, and figure out the path we need to take to get there. In the back of our minds, we may have some of it figured out, which is why we have this sense of a void. We know we’re not going in the direction we want to go, but we haven’t fought about it long enough to articulate it.

The solution here, then, is obvious: do some self-assessment. Think about your goals and what you want out of the future. Simply saying that is easy. Doing it is much harder. I could go on and on listing a ton of different techniques I’ve tried for doing this, but my one solution here is the one that’s worked the best for me.

Solution #3: Create a clear picture of your life in the future – specifically, five years from now. Assuming that things turn out reasonably well for you, what would you like your life to look like in five years? Assume that no major negative setbacks occur and that you’re reasonably successful at the things you try. What kind of life do you have?

Write down that life in detail. Where do you live? What kind of job do you have? Who do you spend your time with? What do you spend your time doing? What have you achieved? Imagine you’re standing five years in the future. What changed between then and now?

When you figure out that picture, and that big list of things that have changed, then you have a nice list of things to devote your time and energy to. Focus on the things on that list. Don’t waste your time and energy on things that aren’t on that list. If you still feel a void, reassess your five year picture.

Problem #4: You buy things to show you have a certain value, but buying things rarely signals any sort of virtue to others, and when it does, it’s rarely the virtue you want to signal. One of the reasons that people buy things is to demonstrate a particular value to the world and to the people around them. They buy a nice house and a nice car at least in part to show that they are successful. They buy a shelf full of books at least in part to show that they are well read.

Doubt it? Ask yourself why people post pictures of their trips and their possessions and their expensive dinners to social media, if not to signal such things. Look at my great life. Look at my things. Look at my experiences.

Here’s the thing: almost no one actually cares. Some people in your life might be happy that you’re having an experience that you seem to be enjoying. A few others might be a bit envious, but that feeling is about them, not about you. Most will just ignore it.

This is called the “spotlight effect.” Here’s a nice summary:

The spotlight effect is the phenomenon in which people tend to believe they are being noticed more than they really are. Being that one is constantly in the center of one’s own world, an accurate evaluation of how much one is noticed by others has shown to be uncommon. The reason behind the spotlight effect comes from the innate tendency to forget that although one is the center of one’s own world, one is not the center of everyone else’s. This tendency is especially prominent when one does something atypical.

Research has empirically shown that such drastic over-estimation of one’s effect on others is widely common. Many professionals in social psychology encourage people to be conscious of the spotlight effect and to allow this phenomenon to moderate the extent to which one believes one is in a social spotlight.

For some further reading on the subject, Have You Fallen Prey to the “Spotlight Effect?” by Amie Gordon in Psychology Today is a great place to start.

The truth is, other people rarely think very much at all about what you’re doing, what you’re wearing, the stuff you have, or anything else about you. We tend to drastically overestimate how much other people think about us. You are probably the only person really aware of what car you drove today. You are probably the only person that cares at all about the state of your makeup or what gadgets you have. When people come to your house, you’re still probably the only person that cares about what books are on your bookshelf – or if there even is one. Sure, they might glance, but it’s not a burning interest for them and it’s not something that almost anyone is going to deeply judge you by.

Solution #4: Be the change you want to see in the world. Don’t buy some emblem of it. Rather than seeking out things that indicate to others what you care about, focus instead on actually doing and working toward the things you care about. If you care about reading, read books that are of interest to you. If it’s convenient, put them on a shelf in your front room. Don’t buy a cell phone because it will impress others; buy one because it achieves what you need from it. If you want a life full of laughter, be willing to make fun of yourself and have some good jokes on the ready; don’t put up a wall decoration telling people to laugh.

If you have some aspect of yourself that you want others to know about, embody it through your actions, not your stuff. People generally won’t notice or remember your stuff. If they do remember anything, they’ll remember how you positively (or negatively) impacted the lives of others, and your cell phone or your haircut won’t have any impact on their lives.

In the end, there’s one truth I hold above all others: if you feel like something is amiss in your own life, buying things won’t fix it, nor will relying on others. What will fill that void is your own effort: time, energy, and reflection. Stuff won’t fix it. Spending money won’t fix it.

The road to a better life takes time to build. It can sometimes feel like deprivation, and that’s okay. It’s often a clue as to what you need to be working on in your life. Cultivating the foundation of your life takes time, just like cultivating great soil in your garden. It’s a journey that you won’t finish tomorrow, and giving into a sense of deprivation or of emptiness with a quick-fix solution will make it take even longer.

Instead, use those senses of deprivation to help you figure out what’s really missing in your life and work to fill it. Yes, it’s not easy. Yes, it will take time.

When you find real contentment, though, happiness will grow naturally, and you won’t have to spend a dime.

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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