The title of this article is a quote from Henry David Thoreau, one that came rushing into my mind yesterday as I looked at Amazon’s sales during “Prime Day.”
For those of you unaware, yesterday Amazon had a giant sale that they called “Prime Day.” The sale was available to customers who used their Amazon Prime two-day shipping service (which comes with some other benefits as well).
There were literally tens of thousands of items on sale and I spent some time in the morning browsing through all of those sales. I had a bit of store credit and I was looking for discounted items that matched up well with the things I know my children would be asking for at Christmastime.
There was so much stuff. Page after page after page of toys and electronics and books and on and on and on.
After some careful searching and lots of browsing, I did actually manage to find two items that we were specifically looking for to give as gifts during the holidays (yep, holiday shopping in July), but I didn’t find them until I had literally looked at thousands of items.
But did I buy anything for myself?
I saw many things that I could want and several things that I somewhat wanted on a pretty superficial level. I thought to myself more than once that a particular item would be kind of neat to own, and there was one item in particular (a pressure cooker) that I looked at for quite a long time.
But, in the end, I bought nothing for myself. Instead, I closed my web browser and went on about my day.
I then went to the library, pulled a bunch of personal finance books off of the shelves, sat down at a table, and did some reading and note-taking. After that, I wandered around the library for a while, checking out two travel guides and three other books that seemed interesting from the various displays.
I went for a walk around the downtown area of Ames, Iowa after my library visit. I stopped in to say hello to an old friend that operates a store in that area and also admired a lot of the art that’s all over the place in that area.
I spent about an hour and a half reading two different books, one of which was freshly checked out from the library.
I ate a great family dinner with my children, which included a great conversation about the Apollo missions and why we don’t do things like that any more.
I spent some time with my oldest son, helping him work through a fix for a problem he was having. Afterwards, he sat next to me on the couch for a while as I read a book, as I mentioned above.
I played a board game late in the evening with a few good friends. I actually won using a really different strategy than anyone had used before in the game, leaving us wondering after the game whether or not we would all approach it differently in the future and spurring on a lot of discussion about the game and our future board game sessions together.
I spent about 20 minutes in bed cuddled right next to my wife as we talked about our day together and about all the plans we had for the near future. We laughed a bunch of times about a multitude of things going on in our lives.
Here’s the truth: My life is rich without the things I saw at the Prime Day sale. I have a great family. I have great friends. I have a lot of interests that are sated by the things I already have, like my own book collection combined with the books from the library and my own board game collection combined with the collections of my friends that they bring whenever we play. I have supplies sitting around for several other hobbies that I dabble in at best, with my mind often wishing I had more time for those things, not more stuff. I spend less than I earn by a long shot and am using that extra money to open the door to retiring 10 or 15 years earlier than the average retirement age.
So, ask yourself this: Why on earth would I ever sacrifice the stability of this situation in order to buy more stuff that I don’t really want?
Yes, there are a lot of things that I want in a very flimsy way. I always want some tasty food or a “classy” dining experience. There are always books I want to read or board games I want to try out or other items related to hobbies and interests of mine. There are things that will pop into my mind as a sudden desire whenever I walk around shops or browse a “Prime Day” sale.
But those wants are really, really flimsy when I look closely at them. Most of them are forgotten once that initial moment of desire is over with.
A few wants stick around, sure, and I don’t have any problem fulfilling them. I don’t feel guilty about buying a copy of a board game that I’ve played, considered for a long time, and spent my money on knowing that I’ll play it a bunch of time with my friends or enjoying in some other fashion (I actually kind of enjoy late night solo play of complex wargames or simulation games). I don’t feel guilty about buying a book that I’ll continually refer to, like a really great cookbook.
But those wants are truly few and far between. Most of the rest of the things that I want are just transient things, things I’ll forget about in a day or two.
If I consistently spend my money on those things, I’ll lose other things that are much more important to me.
I’ll lose my track toward retiring when I’m 50 or 52 or so. Right now, that looks like a very strong possibility for both Sarah and myself. Our plan upon retiring is to spend several months visiting pretty much every single national park in the lower 48 states on a giant road trip.
I’ll lose the ability to consider opportunities for my children almost purely on the basis of whether it is a net benefit for their life, which is something we have the freedom to do right now. We’re selective about things, but our children get to participate in a lot of enriching things.
I’ll start stressing out about money again. For years, I really haven’t worried about money at all, and our natural behavior (and our automatic savings plans) have meant that we keep spending less than we earn by a healthy measure. The more momentary wants that I give into, the more money stress will start creeping back into my life.
I’ll slowly become less and less happy with what I already have, as my focus turns more and more toward acquiring new things. Rather than wandering around my house and feeling as though the things I have are full of possibilities, I’ll feel like all of the possibilities are outside of my possession and that I need to throw money at them to chase them. Those little wants will grow up like weeds in my mind, overshadowing the things that I already have.
That’s a very stiff price to pay for getting into a habit of fulfilling little fleeting desires. So, I just don’t bother with those desires. I let them float out there and, eventually, almost all of them just fade away, leaving me with a life that I truly love.
So, yes, I saw some things that I wanted during that Prime Day sale. The honest truth, though? While I can remember wanting some things, the only specific thing I can actually remember wanting was that pressure cooker. Maybe that want will stick around for a while longer, or maybe I’ll forget about that one in a day or two – who knows.
The rest of them? They’ve vanished.
Knowing that now, wouldn’t it have been utterly foolish for me to spend my money on those things? I can’t even remember them, just a day later. In a few days, after the future holiday gifts for my children arrive and are hidden away in our gift hiding spot, I’ll barely remember the sale itself.
Life delivers many, many opportunities to experience these kinds of little transient desires, desires that just fade away within an hour or a day. Once upon a time, I used to strive to fulfill those wants all the time. I’d stroll through the store with a Starbucks cup in my hand. I’d fill my cart with all kinds of impulse buys. I’d buy a bottle of Gatorade every day at the convenience store down the street.
Today, I don’t do any of that, and my life isn’t any worse for the loss. On the other hand, it’s better because I didn’t spend that money; now I spend far less than I earn and have the freedom not only to save for a very bright future, but also the freedom to spend money when I need to on the fairly rare real wants and the things that actually matter to me.
“I make myself rich by making my wants few.”
Thoreau really nailed it.