Updated on 09.22.14

Enjoying the Lifestyle You Have

Trent Hamm

About a week ago, I answered a question from Ashley that’s really stuck in my head since then. Here’s the question and answer:

Growing up, I was not pretty spoiled, materially speaking, and was never taught to manage money. This led to bad spending habits in adulthood, and a divorce caused me to have to settle with my credit card companies because my debt was huge. I have always been one of those people that will buy something on impulse, and shopping has always cheered me up when I am down.

Recently, my fiance lost his job, and I am a grad student whose only income is as a teaching assistant, so we are really in a horrible place where it’s not possible to even pay our necessities, let alone “splurge” at all. We are both looking for full time jobs now, but are not having much luck.

I am so miserable right now. I miss being able to eat out, or buy something for myself now and then. I don’t know how to be happy like this, and I’m not sure how I can really work on accepting it. I also don’t want to live irresponsibly anymore either, because I know the importance of saving and being debt free now… so I really don’t want to return to that way of life even when I’m able to. Do you have any tips on accepting (and enjoying) this type of lifestyle?
– Ashley

For me, the biggest switch in getting away from materialism was to start focusing on what I had rather than what I didn’t have.

For example, I used to really lament not being able to eat out all the time with Sarah. After a while, though, I began to realize that the good part of that was that I got to eat with Sarah. Eating out was a treat, but it wasn’t the part of the equation I really valued.

I have a roof over my head. I have a wonderful wife and a wonderful family. I can keep food on the table. I have the things that are really important to me.

You can either look at your life as a cup half full or a cup half empty.

Two additional readers wrote to me after reading my answer to this question, pushing me to dig further into the issue. The more I thought about it, the more I realized there was a lot more to say.

Our Hierarchy of Needs

Many of us are familiar with the work of psychologist Abraham Maslow. Maslow argued that human beings have a hierarchy of needs, meaning that we can only worry about certain things if we have more fundamental things well secured.

Underlying everything are our basic physiological needs – breathing, food, water, sleep, excretion, and so on. What functions do we need to undergo to maintain life?

Once those needs are met, we then worry about security: security of our body, security of our resources and money, security of our career, morality, and so on. Are the things we value safe?

If our security needs are met, we worry about things like friendship, family, and intimacy – love and belonging.

If love and belonging are secure, we worry then about esteem – self-esteem, confidence, respect of others, respect by others, and achievements. Above those is self-actualization – morality, creativity, spontaneity, and so on.

Hierarchy of Needs Gone Haywire

What I see in Ashley’s question and in the experiences of an awful lot of people (myself included) is a confusion as to that hierarchy.

We’re often convinced, either by fooling ourselves or being fooled by others, that some things are more of a basic need than others or that some of our basic areas are well-covered.

Let’s look at some examples of this.

Fooling yourself

For a long time, my finances were in a mess, but I often refused to look at the mess. I’d look at things like my income level and the material items I had and I could easily tell myself that my finances were in good shape.

Doing this would “patch up” a very worrisome hole in my life, lulling me into a false sense of security and leading me to think instead about matters of esteem. Because I had this issue “covered,” I would then think about matters of esteem and how I appeared to others and what short-term enjoyable thing I could be doing.

Being fooled

Advertisements and marketing often seeks to mix up our needs by slipping matters of esteem and self-actualization with deeper needs: security, love and belonging, and even physiological. Ads try to tie products to sex, to danger, and to other basic responses so that you tie that product to something very fundamental, increasing the urgency for that product.

This spreads to mass media, including the news. So often, news reports are written based on the PR releases of various companies. These news reports copy the misrepresentation of our needs from the public relations of companies that profit from that misrepresentation of our needs.

Lack of critical thinking about others

Ever heard the phrase “the grass is greener on the other side of the fence”? It is very easy for us to look at the things and the situations others have and desire that situation. We see the positives (a nice car, lots of possessions) and not the negatives (a tense job, sleepless nights, lots of debt).

In other words, we don’t recognize that the choices made by others have costs that affect deeper levels of need. Instead, we see only the benefits which reside at a higher level of need. We don’t see the sacrifice of the basics to have the non-essential things.

Lack of self-analysis

With all of these mixed messages, it’s no wonder that we get our hierarchy of needs confused. The best way to really put things back in their place is to spend time thinking about your life in a critical fashion. What’s really important to you? What’s not really important?

Many people never take the time to do this. I can certainly say that I didn’t do it for a long time, and I can see through the behaviors of others that they’re skipping out on self-analysis, too.

If you take home any action from this article, it’s that time spent evaluating your life and your beliefs has tremendous value. It can get your hierarchy of needs in order, and the more ordered your hierarchy of needs, the easier it is to keep your spending in check and be happy with the things you have in life.

Lack of self-appreciation

A final element that I see in this is that many people – again, myself included – fall into the trap of not really appreciating the bounty of things they have in their lives.

Virtually everyone reading this has many, many things going for them. You have enough life security to spend time reading an article on the internet. You have people that love you. You almost assuredly have a roof over your head. You have a skill set that enables you to earn money in some way. You have a number of possessions that you deeply enjoy. You have access to many, many free avenues of entertainment and personal growth (heck, just start at your local library).

Your life has incredible bounty and abundance. The desire you have for the material item of the moment is insignificant compared to the mountain of opportunity and abundance you have every second of every day. You already have so much – don’t overlook it out of a secondary desire for even more.

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  1. Allie says:

    Why the constant assumption that everyone else must be undergoing a “sacrifice of the basics to have the non-essential things” – especially when part of the crux of this argument is that “we don’t see the sacrifice”? Maybe, sometimes, there’s nothing to see. One CAN have the basics well-covered, and still have enough to have non-essential things without having to make a sacrifice of the basics (just, perhaps, a sacrifice of other non-essential things).

  2. Steven says:

    More than anything, we just need to KNOW WHO WE ARE. I think a lot of people don’t know what that means, and are therefore easily influenced or manipulated.

    Once a person knows who they are and where their priorities lie, it’s not so easy for them to be influenced by media or advertising. The grass doesn’t look greener on the other side of the fence because once you know who you are, you’re not looking at others to compare yourself against.

    I don’t think a lack of “critical thinking about others” has much to do with things, at least not once you’ve discovered who you are as a person. Once you have realized who you are, there is no need to compare yourself to others, or the image of others.

    You are able to just be happy for others in their success instead of “critcally thinking” about them by trying to convince yourself that there must be some underlying negative aspect of their lives that you aren’t able to see. You won’t care because it’s not important. You can be happy for them instead of fantasizing about some short-coming in their lives in order to make yourself feel better about your own.

    Love yourself first. Be who you are at a very basic and fundamental level, and everything else will fall into place.

  3. valleycat1 says:

    Part of maturing is learning to accept the reality of your life as it is. It sounds as if Ashley’s in a temporary hard spot (as she’s in grad school, so one assumes eventually she’ll get a decent job of some sort). One way to learn to accept a really tight budget is to make a game of finding free activities or a challenge out of how little you can spend in a week. Go to a free park for a picnic; find out when local public attractions have free admission days; borrow a friend’s dog for a romp; see how many meals you can create from what’s already in the pantry; break out those games languishing in the back of the closet, or whatever. Yes, it rankles sometimes, but when it does, take a deep breath & as Trent advises, look at what you DO have that’s of value to you (your health, you’re in grad school, you obviously have access to a computer & the internet full of entertainment & info, & there is a light at the end of the tunnel when you finish school, etc.)

  4. Heidi says:

    I love that you just posted this as my 5 year old daughter and I just had a conversation about hierarchy of needs after her two cousins came to visit, each with an ipad. She said
    she really wanted an ipad, and I took it as an opportunity to talk about needs vs wants, but mostly that the relationships that you have in your life are much more valuable than anything you could buy. No matter how much I am able to give her, there will always be someone with more. The irony is, despite the many toys and games we have around, we often play with cardboard boxes and paper and crayons! I hope this lesson sticks with her!

  5. Kelly says:

    I agree with valleycat about Ashley’s situation. I think she needs to find a way to replace the fun of eating out, or buying something whenever she wants it. There are so many fun things in life that don’t cost any money at all. For example, she could start a book club with friends and get the book from the library, or host a game night with friends and everyone can pitch in with snacks. Also, she could host a clothes swap party- I haven’t actually been to one myself but I know a lot of people have parties where everyone brings the clothes they don’t really want anymore and swap them so everyone gets new clothes for free. She could start training for a race with a friend, read food blogs for healthy and cheap cooking ideas, watch free episodes of tv shows online etc etc. You just have to get a little creative :)

  6. Pat S. says:

    Its tough to downgrade your lifestyle like that.

    The big thing for anyone in Ashley’s situation is to make smart substitutions and creative splurges. Kelly has some great ideas above. It’s actually amazing what you can do when you get creative.

    Another idea. A lot of the joy in eating out is being able to focus on the company of friends and loved ones rather than preparing the meal and the cleanup. Why not host a dinner party?

    A couple of points about Maslow’s heirarchy:

    At the upper end of Maslow’s pyramid is the quest for self actualization.

    I think that for many of us in America, our basic needs are met so we seek out higher levels of fulfillment. For many of us, unfortunately, this means material possessions and spending. I’m not saying this is the case for Ashley, but we live in a materialistic society in which we are indoctrinated daily into a culture of more spending.

    When we quit associating spending with happiness, we’ve made the real first step in the higher levels of Maslow’s pyramid and can begin to find fulfillment in the little things.

  7. Joanna says:

    One thing Ashley can do later in life is teach her own children about needs vs. wants, delayed gratification & how money comes to be (e.g. you have to work for it). It sounds like she had a charmed childhood, materially speaking, which has now made things more difficult for her when I’m sure her parents only wanted to make her life less difficult for her. Perhaps knowing that her own child will be less likely to face that emotional challenge will help her get a sense of usefulness out of her current difficulties.

    Also, though I understand commenters’ reactions to Trent’s admittedly frequent comparison to others, I do think it can be a fair statement. I recall a time that a friend was lamenting another friend’s seeming financial comfort/wealth as evidenced by 2nd friend’s material goods. Come to find out, years down the road, friend #2 was in over her head w/ debt and only later (like maybe a decade later) “grew into her lifestyle”. IMO, had friend #1 realized that friend #2 was in so much debt, it would have refocused friend #1 on things she could control & getting her own financial house in order even though it meant she’d have to sacrifice some goodies.

  8. New Reader says:

    I spent many years as a very broke graduate student with an equally broke graduate student husband. It wasn’t easy, but we eeked out an enjoyable quality of life on low-cost riches, like hiking in the woods, cooking fun meals at home, and getting together with friends to play games, bbq, or watch dvd’s. These are still some of my favorite things to do, even though I’m out of graduate school and gainfully employed now. Oh, and sometimes we’d have “reverse shopping” day, where we would make the rounds of selling used books, clothing, and cd’s, and come home with less stuff and more money! It still felt like a retail experience, and it was sort of like a game.

  9. slf says:

    I was self-actualized….

    but then I got hungry.

  10. Julie says:


    Yet again….Trent is using an example. I didn’t see Trent use the word “everyone” anywhere in his post. Why must you “always” assume that he is lumping “everyone” into a certain category just because he making observations that are quite often true.

  11. Holly says:

    It has taken months but I just came to this realization.
    I lost my job the beginning of Aug, the day after my 92 y/o Dad’s first of 4 hospital admissions and 4 stints in rehab. He is currently in rehab.

    The freedom of NOT having a job has allowed me to spend more time w/him and look into places where he might be able to live w/assistance. He cannot live w/me because of all my stairs.

    I am able to cover my basic bills (utilities, food, internet, gasoline, auto maintenance, health care & Rx…..) on a small pension from my late husband. It is 1/2 of my former take home. I am going into savings for BIG bills like real estate taxes & auto/home insurance. That is about 10k/year more but I am ok since I have a BIG EF.

    Do I miss being able to buy clothes/shoes whenever, get mani/pedi when I want, eating out? Turning up the heat when I want? Sure, but that is NOT a priority in my life right now.

    If I had not lost my job I would likely have had to take Family Medical Leave anyway and would be in EXACTLY the same financial position.

  12. deRuiter says:

    “…spot (as she’s in grad school, so one assumes eventually she’ll get a decent job of some sort)…..” Well, one HOPES she will get decent paying job in her field. But today, it’s also possible that she will graduate with humongous student loan debt (lucky for the rest of us they are not dischargeable by bankruptcy) and not get a good job as current real unemployment is 10%, underemployment bounces that figure up to almost 20%, and many jobs for which grad school prepares a person in the “social work” fields do not pay particularly well. It’s important to learn from Kelly #5’s excellent suggestions as more and more people, thanks to our current government giving more each month in handouts to the non productive than it takes in in taxes from the workers, get used to a reduced lifestyle, financially speaking. See Drudge report today for article that gvt. handouts now exceed gvt. income, scary. Great way to “transfer the wealth.”

  13. Leisureguy says:

    Though it’s not discussed in the message or the post, one big issue in the situation described is (or at least was for me) fear. Being out of work, on income, and looking for a job—call it “worry” if you want, but fear is more accurate, and it can be paralyzing.

    When my job loss happened, I had been worrying more or less constantly—not able to sleep well, at least—that our office would be moved abruptly so that I would have a long commute through bad traffic. I worried about that more or less constantly, and then the office was abruptly closed altogether: no job at all, and I never made once that commute that so worried me. As I said at the time, it was if I was all worried about what socks to wear to the big party, and then I was not asked: worried about the wrong thing.

    So when I lost my job, and my worry engine started up with worrying about that I would starve and become homeless and all, I decided that I would shut down that engine until I missed two meals in a row for lack of food. In the meantime, rather than worry, I would think about constructive steps to take.

    I never even missed one meal, and that resolution did shut down a lot of worrying. When the worry would begin, I would think, “Wait: have I missed a meal yet? No? Then forget about that.”

  14. Micki says:

    I do recall years ago, when I lived with a boyfriend who had a decent job, and his frustration that he could not satisfy his every material whim instantly, and how ‘unfair’ he thought this was.

    He especially tried to ‘keep up’ with his boss, a man who made more money, had a wife with a great job, and they had their own side business. I remember explaining to him there was no way we could keep up, and his fury that we ‘work hard’ and ‘deserve to live well’.

    Fast forward 15 years….The boss went to jail, for embezzlement (even he couldn’t keep up with all of his wants!) and my EX-boyfriend is still satisfying his immediate wants, in his mid-40s, and as a result is sued by a creditor once a year or so. He lives in a house in need of some maintenence he is always putting off, and he confided that he ‘stopped givng to that stupid 401k years ago’.

    In short, he (and others from his circle like him) are a mess, but look great from the outside, throwing money around like it is an easily renewable resource.

    It helps me pull back and realize that yeah, my life might look a little boring from the outside….I love to read, garden, sit in the sunshine, walk my dogs, and other free or nearly free activities. Yet my bills are paid, I have money in my 401k and Roth (not as much as I’d like, but I am getting there) and when I had a recent emergency, I had an emergency fund I could tap. Of course, now I am rebuilding it nearly from scratch, but that is what it was for!!

    Sometimes, when in the grip of a burning ‘want’, remembering this story helps me step back and put into perspective what happens when you let your wants take over.

  15. littlepitcher says:

    @12-Currently, less than half of the adult US population is employed. MSM, night before last, spotlighted a McDonalds with over 1000 applications for four job openings.
    @14Micki-A boss is not a role model, just a corporate culture icon. I have had several bosses who ended up in jail for one reason or another, and recently discovered that my current boss has a nasty habit of stealing from his current or past employees, with the help of several relatives working in government. I’m out of savings accounts and into non-interest-bearing hole in the ground, but have no work options available in this economy. All employees should recognize that work is a game, points are scored for productivity, relationships, and fit, but that the game can turn ugly at any time.

  16. Earth MaMa Jo says:

    I only learned about the Heirarchy of Needs in the last 10 years, and it made a direct impact on how I look at a lot of things. My husband and I know a couple (w/2 kids) who, it became apparent, put the level of “Esteem” as their first priority. Their finances are in a shambles, they barely hang onto their jobs, their home life and relationships with family are almost non-existent – all this for the sake of having their names in the school’s newletters, their picture in the paper for various things, and more. They THRIVE on attention and getting recognized – and now, they are at a point where they realize that NONE of that has helped them with their basic needs. They have such a need to be “famous”, but they aren’t famous at all – just among their close circle of acquaintances. They’ve lead a life where they’ve been doormats to others and organizations in town – but they keep waiting for some pay-off…and it’s not coming. Their oldest started college last fall, and they thought that all their “friends” and these organizations would help pay for the college expenses by showering them with money, and it hasn’t happened. Just the other day, the woman was on the phone at work saying to someone “I drove your daughter to/from school every day for 13 years, isn’t that worth something to you?”. I guess she didn’t like the answer she got, because when she got off the phone she went into the bathroom and cried for a 1/2 hour.

    I learned a long time ago that if you’re going to help someone out, and you have no agreement for what you’ll get in return – then you probably won’t get anything except the self-satisfaction that you helped someone out – and you should expect no more than that. To think that they volunteered to do so many things for so many years that somehow they are owed money now for it – I think they were really misguided. They have scrapbooks of all their news articles and photos and such – but that doesn’t help them with their other needs – needs they are just now starting to pay attention to. It’s very sad.

  17. Earth MaMa Jo says:

    In response to #14 Micki: I know a lot of people like that right now, who are still living as if it’s the Dot Com Boom. Some can still maintain that lifestyle, but a lot of them are starting to hit a slippery slope. They are so wrapped up in their affluent appearance (which was a smoke & mirror performance for a lot of them) that they won’t even take the steps to help themselves. They think what’s happening to them (foreclosures, repossessions, job losses, etc.) is something “someone” is doing to them (victim) and not because of an economic downturn or that it was all a charade to begin with.

    One boy we know, whose parents are on the edge of losing everything, was so excited that his parents bought him a new guitar. But then he said that he was upset that they only thing to eat in their house was ketchup. I made him a sandwich and gave him some fruit “for the road”. I suggested he take that new guitar, go downtown, and play on the sidewalk for money (he’s 20, not a little boy). He said his parents won’t let him, he prefers to wait for a record company to discover him through his YouTube videos.

  18. Micki says:

    @ Earth MaMa Jo

    LOL, you sound like the kind of person I would love to toss back a box of wine with and spend the evening getting all psudeo-psychological. :)

    That ‘boy’ of 20 is part of my 2nd biggest pet peeve…Kids who are so spoiled/overprotected that they cannot function in the real world, and suffer from inflated entitlement. No doubt the parents will not let him play for change because they think ‘Precious’ might be abducted.

  19. Kate says:

    concerning the ‘boy of 20’: I wonder how many kids are not allowed to grow up financially because their parents are shielding income through them, i.e. parents put things in a child’s name to lower the parent’s tax burden. In my eyes, it is virtually impossible to not step in financially to help a struggling young adult when they are helping you financially. Yet, it is often getting into situations and getting out of them on one’s own that changes perceptions/ideas.

  20. SLCCOM says:

    Then there are the parents who are stealing from their kids via identity theft….

  21. Kate says:

    so true, SLCCOM, and apparently it happens more than we think. Sad…

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