Updated on 09.29.15

How to Find Luxury in a Financially Responsible Life

Trent Hamm
cooking with Le Creuset pot

Allow yourself certain luxuries that you’ll use all the time — like a Le Creuset cast iron pot, if you like to cook — but not so many that they’re no longer special. Photo: lilszeto

Being financially responsible in the modern world comes with a particular set of challenges. One of them is the fact that we are, as a society, inundated with luxury options. We have experiences and items available to us in such a breadth and depth that have never existed before in the history of the world.

From high-end cell phones to beautiful clothes, from incredible food and drink to an infinite variety of amazing items from an infinite list of specialty stores online and off, from easily accessible travel to every corner of the world to spacious automobiles with every feature under the sun, our society offers luxurious options that blow away even those available just a few decades ago.

And, regardless of how financially strong-willed you are, at least some of those luxury options are incredibly tempting.

I’m no different. There are expensive items and experiences that I want quite a bit, from a library/game room in our next home and a trip to New Zealand to a really sweet laptop computer and a completely redone home brewing setup. All of those luxury items – and many more – are quite tempting.

Our family has a healthy income. Don’t we deserve a few luxuries?

But there’s a big problem with luxury items: they quickly begin to seem normal, and when they do, your life just became more expensive. How many of you survived just fine without cell phones 10 or 15 years ago? I know I certainly did, but now it’s a luxury I can scarcely imagine living without. The same goes for high-speed Internet access. For many people, things like cable television or a new (or new-ish) car falls into the same category – luxuries you’ve become completely accustomed to, to the point where you won’t do without them.

At the same time, there’s the need to save money. Financial success doesn’t come without saving and it doesn’t come without making hard choices about what to spend money on.

So how do you balance all of this? How do you enjoy some “luxury” in your life without emptying your wallet? Here are six strategies I use to balance that out.

Strategy #1: Give Yourself Blocks of Truly Free Time

I’m part of the “sandwich generation,” which means that I simultaneously have young children at home as well as aging parents. I want to be a good parent, a good husband, and a good son. I have a career that requires a lot of time and energy and quite a few community responsibilities, too. We’re homeowners and that means that there’s time devoted to keeping up the house.

That means that free time is sometimes pretty scarce. There are days where it feels like even a little free time is a wistful dream.

For me, there are few things more luxurious than a block of unscheduled time where I can just do whatever I want. Free time – time where I can just tinker with my hobbies, curl up with a good book, hang out with some of my friends, or something else like that – is truly the top luxury in my life.

I usually do this by walling off one or two Saturdays each month so that there are no scheduled activities whatsoever. I don’t have any professional responsibilities, any community responsibilities, or any family responsibilities. I can just do whatever I want.

Those days are amazing. They are, without a doubt, the biggest luxury in my life. I do things like brewing a new batch of home brewed beer or curling up with a book or doing something completely off the wall like making a programmable Christmas light system so that the lights move in time with music.

I look forward to those free days. I think about them in advance, plan things that I want to do, and I actually feel more incentive to take care of things in advance so that I truly feel as though I have free time without any responsibilities pushing back on me.

How can you do this for yourself? Just declare one or two days a month to be a “stay-cation” where you turn off your responsibilities and do whatever you want. Write it down on the calendar. Take care of things early so that you don’t feel pressured by other responsibilities. Plan some fun things that you want to do.

That free day will be one of the most luxurious things you give yourself – and it doesn’t cost a dime.

Strategy #2: Give Yourself a Monthly Allowance

One aspect of our family budget that’s a little different than others is that we have a small line item both for Sarah and myself that gives us each an amount of money that we can spend on whatever we want.

If I want to use that money to buy a book, that’s great. If I want to use it to buy some fancy item for my home brewing setup, that’s fine, too. If I want to buy some unnecessary hobby item, that’s also wonderful. I use that money for one (or, rarely, two) trips to game conventions each year with friends as well.

If Sarah wants to have a pedicure, that’s great – it just comes out of her free money. If she wants a book, that’s great, too. If she wants a bar of gourmet chocolate or a beautiful new dress, it’s up to her. Whatever she might want, she can buy. She also uses that money to finance an annual short trip with her sisters.

The key thing is that, each month, that spending is capped by our monthly allowance. Within that amount, we can each do whatever we please – but only within that amount.

This works well with our financial goals because everything is already budgeted. Both of us know that we’re still saving plenty even with that luxury spending, so there’s no guilt associated with it. It’s not keeping us from attaining any of our financial goals.

I often “expand” my hobby money – because that’s usually what it is for me, hobby money – by “flipping” hobby items. For example, I might buy an item for $30 related to my hobby and then be able to sell it for $60 later. I use that money as an addition to my hobby spending. I also sometimes sell off gear from hobbies that I’m no longer interested in.

In the end, I’m left with resources to enjoy a few luxuries of my personal choosing, but those resources come with the extra bit of confidence that spending that money or that time isn’t damaging our financial plans in any way. We’ve made our financial plans around them.

Strategy #3: Give Yourself Rare Experiences Instead of Stuff

When I think back on the most interesting and wonderful moments in my life, very few of them have to do with stuff. Instead, they either have to do with experiences or they’re associated with some kind of personal achievement.

I look back on things like the completion of big projects or the end of a long hike or making it up to a viewpoint that others often don’t make it to. I look back on things like serving food to the homeless and the conversations I’ve had with people in very different life situations. Those experiences became a part of me and really changed me.

Very few of those life-altering experiences cost money. They did require some time, but often not an enormous amount all at once – it was usually split up among several days. I can often find those powerful experiences fairly close to home, although I tend to have them much more often when I’m on unfamiliar ground.

Unfamiliar ground really is the key to exceptional experiences. You just need to put yourself in a situation where you’re going to see and experience things that are outside of the realm of your normal daily life, whether it’s scenic vistas, interactions with people, new activities, or something else.

Instead of filling your spare time or vacation time with expensive trips, try instead to fill that time with activities and experiences that will stick with you and help you to understand the world better. Skip the tourist destination and instead choose an experience closer to you that pushes you in a new direction.

The greatest luxury of all is a greater understanding and appreciation of the world and the beauty that it contains.

Strategy #4: Own Luxurious Items Only as Replacements for Items You Use Frequently

We own two Le Creuset enameled cast iron pots. We use them for all kinds of cooking, from pastas and rice and soups to casseroles and desserts and beans. These enameled cast iron pots also have a list price around the $300 mark. Apiece. Yes, for kitchen pots.

I have a Global chef’s knife that cost more than $100. I use it for chopping and slicing all kinds of foods in the kitchen.

Sarah and I both have smartphones with MSRPs in the hundreds. We both use our smartphones several times a day (at least) for contacting each other, family, and friends.

Those are luxury items, without question. They’re all expensive items for which there are definitely lower-cost equivalents and even good “bang for the buck” equivalents that would be a lot less expensive.

However, these are items we use literally every single day. We used their predecessors every single day as well. Because of that heavy use, we really understood the limitations of the predecessors of these items and we really appreciate the advantages of these items.

They’re reliable. They do their jobs incredibly well. Sure, they’re expensive luxury items, but we get the opportunity to appreciate that luxury every single day.

Compare that to buying a luxury item that you don’t use nearly as often. There’s no need to buy the “luxury” version of an item that you don’t use or rely on every single day. Instead, for those things, focus on things that are merely the best “bang for the buck.”

Another thing worth noticing is that these were all replacements for low-cost versions of the items. We didn’t dive right into the luxury versions of those items. We bought a low-cost version first and figured out whether it was an item that we would use regularly.

For example, I went through a phase where I tried to teach myself the guitar. I could have dropped a lot of money on a new guitar, but instead I asked for a very low-cost one as a gift. It was perfect for learning, as I didn’t really have the appreciation that would be required to really get value out of a high-end guitar. Of course, I eventually realized that I would never be a good guitarist, mostly due to the size of my fingers (I simply can’t hit the right strings consistently because my fingers are really large). So, it turned out to be good that I didn’t invest in an expensive guitar.

If it had turned out that I loved playing the guitar and played it every day, then upgrading to a luxury guitar wouldn’t have been a big deal. I would have only “lost” the cost of a cheap guitar (and I could have still used it or passed it to another family member or even sold it). On the other hand, if I had jumped straight to a luxury guitar, it would be sitting there unused. I would have had to take a healthy loss to sell it in a used state, too.

If you want to buy luxury, buy luxury versions of items you already use all the time. You’ll cut down on your total luxury purchases.

Strategy #5: Own Luxurious Items Only Within Tight Constraints

It is often tempting to fill one’s life with luxury items. For example, one might want to have luxurious items all throughout the kitchen, in the bedroom, and in the bathroom, and also own a luxury car.

The problem with that is that the more luxury items you have, the less appreciation you have for each one. If you have tons of luxury items around your home, it makes your luxury car seem less special by comparison.

A much better approach is to have a “luxury sanctuary” in your life, one area where you can truly enjoy and appreciate the luxury.

For me, my “luxury sanctuary” is my game room (which doubles as part of my home office). In there, I have a ton of board games, RPG books and supplies, and miniatures, accumulated over many years of collecting. I truly enjoy spending time in there, and I also enjoy taking things out of there and enjoying them with family and friends. I get pleasure from playing games, painting miniatures, designing adventures for my friends and children, and so on.

Maybe for you, your car might serve as your “luxury sanctuary.” For others, perhaps it’s the kitchen, or maybe it’s a living room with a big television and a satellite dish and speakers. Maybe it’s your bedroom, with beautiful decor and a comfortable bed and sitting chair.

Choose that one specific area of your life and don’t feel bad about making it luxurious. However, at the same time, recognize that the fact that this one particular area is so luxurious means that you truly appreciate it more. It is your “sanctuary,” a place where you go to feel special.

Strategy #6: Keep the Less Important Parts of Your Life Decidedly Non-Luxurious

The flip side of having that kind of “luxury sanctuary” is that it implies that the rest of your life isn’t so luxurious – and that’s a good thing.

Filling the rest of your life with inexpensive items, “bang for your buck” purchases, generic supplies and so on has several huge benefits for the luxuries in your life.

For one, it means that you can afford those luxuries while also being able to save for the future. Frugality in most areas of your life subsidizes those other areas quite well, at least in my experience. It’s why I often chase the bottom dollar in many areas of my life.

For another, the “normal” areas of your life make the occasional “luxury” parts feel like an oasis in a desert. The luxury really does feel special when it isn’t part of a continuous luxurious pattern, where it ceases to feel special if it’s nonstop. It’s much like how a person in a desert appreciates an oasis, while a person living on top of a large aquifer might not appreciate the abundance of water.

Here’s another way to think of it. I am strongly frugal in most areas of my life so that I can afford to have some luxuries in the remaining areas. We use an old washing machine and dryer and use a lot of generic supplies so that we can have things like our smartphones.

We don’t expect luxury in every part of our life, or even in most parts. Our luxuries are relatively rare.

However, because those luxuries are rare, we can easily afford the specific areas where we do have luxury, plus we appreciate those luxuries more. At the same time, we’re able to continue to move forward toward our big financial goals.

Final Thoughts

Sarah and I do not live a life of luxury. We have a few luxurious elements in our life, but most of our life is decidedly ordinary.

We pick and choose our luxuries carefully, restraining them to the areas we care about most, and in the other areas, we accept and even relish frugality because we realize that being cheap in those other areas makes it possible to enjoy a few of the luxuries we care most about without damaging our savings plans and goals.

Some of our best luxuries, however, are non-financial ones. They take the form of free time – a day or two at home where we don’t have to do anything at all – or in the form of special experiences that really alter our lives, like an amazing meal or a personal achievement or a long hike to a beautiful lookout.

It is because those luxuries aren’t constants in our lives that we’re able to appreciate them so much. When luxury becomes “normal,” all you have is a normal life that costs more than it did without the luxury. Nothing seems special. Nothing seems better than the norm any more because it all is the norm.

Spread out your luxuries. Be choosy with them. Fill the rest of your life with frugality. You’ll appreciate the luxuries even more than before and you’ll find your financial goals are still quite attainable.

Good luck.

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