Living Lean Without Being an Outcast

It’s not exactly a secret that the “spend less than you earn” strategy is a little different than how the average American lives their lives. As I’ve quoted many times on The Simple Dollar, 76% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. Simply by adopting a “spend less than you earn” mindset and sticking with it for even a little while, you put yourself in that 24% minority that doesn’t live paycheck to paycheck.

Here’s another way of looking at it. 65% of Americans have a net worth of less than $100,000. With only a year or two of truly “spending less than you earn” on the average American’s income, most people can get over that threshold.

Clearly, mainstream American society isn’t geared toward saving money. Instead, much of mainstream American society focuses on and lauds spending every dime that you have on a wide variety of consumer goods. Gadgets, premium brands, expensive cars, big houses, fine clothing – the list goes on and on and on.

This presents a pretty big conflict for people who are working toward financial independence. If popular culture is geared toward these types of expenses – many of which financially independent people aren’t spending their money on – then it’s pretty easy to begin feeling like an outcast.

I know this is true for me. When I visit a news site like CNN, I usually browse the front page and find myself completely disinterested on most of what I find there. A large chunk of the articles are centered around buying stuff that I don’t really want or following sources of entertainment that I don’t care about. That’s just one example upon many.

It often feels as if popular culture is pushing me in the opposite direction of financial independence.

So what can I do about it? I don’t want to withdraw from popular culture and live like a hermit. I value being culturally aware – if nothing else, it provides a good way to connect with other people.

Here are six strategies for balancing a lifestyle aimed toward financial independence with a popular culture that seems to be headed the other way.

Be Selective About Your News Sources – But Don’t Withdraw

If I’m going to spend the time to read a news article, I want to walk away from it with at least one piece of information that challenges or changes what I already thought about an issue. If an article just reinforces my opinions and ideas without bringing anything new to the table, then it wasn’t worth my time to watch or read it.

In other words, I want to maximize what I understand about the world in the minimum amount of time. I want every article I read to inform me and to force me to re-think my ideas, but I don’t want to spend a lot of time browsing articles that just fill my mind with junk.

For my day-to-day news, I usually read The Week, The Atlantic, and BBC World News to keep up on what’s happening right now. I also get a lot of value out of opinion pieces from everywhere on the political spectrum, especially people who provide their sources.

I tend to avoid articles that just talk about the latest products because, frankly, I don’t care. I’ll research a new product independently when I have the need for it.

If a news or opinion article hasn’t made you think and ask yourself whether your ideas are right in a while, you need to find new things to read.

Why is this valuable? If I can understand a number of different viewpoints on the big issues of the day, not only do I understand the issue far better, I can have good non-confrontational discussions with anyone on just about anything. Even better, very little of that effort leads to me wanting to buy stuff, so I’m not really motivated to open my wallet.

Think About Why You Want Things

All of us have material desires. I’ve not exactly been shy about my personal passion for books and for tabletop games – and there are some gadgets that I want, too.

Here’s the question, though. Why do I want those things? Why do I want a new board game when there are plenty on my shelves that we haven’t played many times? Why do I want a new book when there are ones I haven’t read already on the shelf? Why not just hit the library?

Why do I want the higher-priced version of something when a lesser-priced one will likely fill my needs? Why do I want this item at all?

Whenever I spend money on something, I feel I owe it to myself to answer those questions before I buy it. This doesn’t stop me from fulfilling my desires. It just ensures that when I do spend money on something, I’m actually buying something that I genuinely want that won’t just sit there unused for a long time.

In terms of staying in touch with society, this thought process is actually really useful. It gives me what I need to articulate what I actually find interesting and compelling about things, which makes for more interesting conversation.

When You Have a Desire, Write It Down First

Another strategy I use for enjoying things without necessarily opening my wallet is to keep a list of those things. When I see something interesting that I want, rather than opening my wallet, I simply write it down so that I can think about it later. I review the list every few weeks and delete things that I realize I no longer want.

This list is useful in a few ways. One, it allows me to take some sort of action related to that desire, which often sates it. Two, it also provides an “out” for that purchase in a social situation. Finally, it gives you a venue for reviewing that item in the future.

Purchases are often impulsive, driven by whatever ideas happen to float to the top of your head. Writing it down pushes that decision off into the future, making the decision less impulsive.

Fill Your Time With Media-Free Activities

It’s simple. Spend less of your leisure time on activities that involve advertising, product placement, or encouragement to buy new things. Spend more of your leisure time on activities that don’t do these things.

For example, you might spend less time reading magazines, watching television, surfing websites, and reading articles about products, and spend more time actually participating in your hobbies, going to social events, reading books, and watching films or commercial-free programs.

Avoiding media-rich activities reduces the opportunity for advertisements, product placement, or PR-heavy “news” articles to insert desires into your head.

This doesn’t mean you should completely avoid these things. Instead, just gently shift your time in a direction away from media-rich activities and toward media-free activities.

Don’t Be Afraid to Not Know the Latest

For a long time, I thought it made a lot of sense to be the person that knew the latest news. I put a great deal of value in being the information provider in conversations. This required me to spend significant time reading news sources of all kinds, which (unsurprisingly) also lifted my desire to spend money on things.

Over time, I’ve learned that it’s okay – in fact, it’s often good – to be the information receiver in conversations. Instead of being the person who provides more information, I’m often happy being the person that receives more information.

For starters, it allows me to easily reduce my time spent browsing the “news” without damaging any social tools. It also gives me a great opportunity to allow someone else to talk and show off their knowledge in conversation. I don’t have to be the person “showing off.”

Find Friends Who Engage in Media-Free Discussions and Activities

The biggest difference between the circle of friends I had ten years ago and the circle of friends I have now is what our conversations cover.

Ten years ago, many of our conversations covered products. We talked about clothes. We talked about the latest devices we each had. We talked about going out to restaurants. A lot of our conversations were about the process of buying things or the products themselves.

Today, most of my social conversations are about other things. Often, we talk about books that we’ve all read, usually involving jokes about the library’s reservation queue. We often talk about the projects we’re each working on (for instance, our most recent game night was dominated by discussion of repairing a water heater). We also talk about ideas – the ins and outs of each side of the abortion issue, for example. (We’re able to talk about things like that because we understand that we’re all trying to understand the issue better.)

I never walk away from time with my friends thinking that I need to buy something or that I need to somehow catch up in terms of the stuff I have or the experiences I have. I might walk away thinking I should look up a topic or learn how to fix something or check out a book from the library, but I never feel like I need to buy stuff.

How do you find friends like this? The most useful technique I’ve found is to attend low-cost events that are focused on a hobby you’re passionate about. People who congregate around hobby participation rather than spending money will tend to be people that you can build great friendships with.

Final Thoughts

It only takes a few tweaks to one’s relationship with media and one’s connections with friends to significantly alter the internal desires one has for buying things. You don’t have to completely withdraw from culture or society in order to live a financially responsible lifestyle. You just need to be a bit mindful of your purchases, your friends, and where you get your information. Good luck!

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