When Everything You Want – or Want to Do – Is Expensive

James wrote in with an interesting question:

If you had enough money to buy whatever you want, what would you do with it? Would you still be frugal?

For a while, I started making a list of things that I’d like to have that I can’t justify based on price.

I’d love to go on some international trips with my family – ideally, I’d like to visit an area or two on each continent in the next several years as they grew up.

I’d consider buying or building a home in the country with some timber behind it, because I grew up in such an area and one of the greatest joys of my childhood was wandering in the woods… and it was my wife’s childhood joy, too. I’d like to have a big barn/workshop.

There are some smaller items, too. I’d love to have a good electric pasta maker and a few other odds and ends.

In the end, though, I don’t want these things – at least not enough to spend the money on them. I prefer the other things I can do with that money, such as retiring early and the security that comes with having some savings. Those things, to me, are more valuable than the things and experiences I might buy.

However, I didn’t always feel this way – and I know that many others don’t feel that way, either.

Many people have big dreams filled with things they want to buy or experience, and often that longing can be a negative disruption to life. If you’re at a point where you feel like the only things you want are too expensive to afford, it can stick you in a pretty negative spiral, one that often ends with some financially destructive behavior.

I bumped up against credit limits quite often during my early professional days, and doing so filled me with negative emotions. What right did that bank have to tell me what I could or could not buy?

I often dreamed of really expensive things, like a huge house to live in and a brand new car to drive. I longed for those things and that longing – and the realization of my growing inability to have them – put me in a bit of a downward spiral regarding my life.

It’s not surprising that this happens to people (myself included), for several reasons.

We’re naturally wired to want things we don’t have. This is particularly true when we’re young, but it persists throughout life. We want things and experiences and relationships that we don’t already have. The hot new thing is desirable. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. “I wish that I had Jessie’s girl.” It’s a common theme in the experience of most people – we often want what we do not have.

Often, we don’t have the resources to have those things. The reason that we often accumulate those wants is that we simply don’t have the resources needed to add those things to our life. We don’t have the money, or the time, or the social skills, or the charisma, or whatever it would take to have that thing that we want. Money is often the real limiting factor, but not always.

Constantly sitting around with unrequited desire is pretty unpleasant. When you want something and you can’t have it, it’s not a joyful thing. The more your mind centers on the things that you want and cannot have, the more of a damper that it puts on your mood and your personal happiness. All of us have longed for something out of reach, and most of us know that the more we allow our minds to rest on those out of reach things, the less happy we are.

The experience of shopping and the anticipation of buying brings a certain level of joy. This provides a strange counterbalance to the unhappiness of unrequited desire. Once we’ve decided that, yes, we can afford this, that unhappiness flips right around and we start really enjoying the process that leads up to fulfilling a desire. Most of us enjoy shopping for something we really want – it’s the reason “retail therapy” is a thing – and the anticipation of deciding what to get and finding it at the right price can be really enjoyable, too. Anticipation is pleasurable.

However, the actual act of purchasing can be disappointing. I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve purchased something and really been excited about it and then I’ve taken it home, used it once, and felt a strong twinge of sadness or disappointment. That negative feeling sometimes grows when I realize the expense of the item and the fact that the money can no longer be used for other things.

Objects wear out their welcome. Some call it “habituation.” Economists might call it “declining marginal utility.” The phenomenon is the same – things wear out over time. They either truly wear out, meaning they literally become less usable, or we simply grow used to them and tired of them, such as when a person wants to redecorate a room full of perfectly good items.

Together, these factors paint a difficult picture. We often find ourselves longing for things that we cannot afford. Even when we do acquire those things, there can be a hint of regret when we do. What’s the solution to all of this? How does one find contentment and even happiness when our desires run contrary to a healthy long term picture?

I’ve only really found one solution to the problem of having everything you want being out of reach.

The Best Solution I’ve Found – Inexpensive Experiences with Social Threads

Simply put, I consciously seek out low cost experiences that I can share with people in some way. That’s it. I constantly seek out these kinds of events and experiences, repeating ones that I really enjoyed and moving on to new things to replace ones that didn’t click.

Let’s break this down.

I seek out experiences. In other words, when I have free time, I consciously seek out things to do, even if it’s not something that initially seems exciting to me. If I don’t know of anything I’ve done before that seems exciting, I seek out something new to try.

The truth is that 99% of the time, this leads me to actively engaging in a hobby or something that I’ve done before. I pick up a book and read it. I play a board game. I head to the kitchen and cook something. This isn’t always true – sometimes I do want to do something different – but usually I end up going back to an experience I’ve loved many times before.

The twist, of course, is that I engage in a variation on that experience. I cook a new dish. I read a new book. I play a new game with the same people or a familiar game with new people.

The advantage of an experience is that it requires me to be doing something, and that means my focus is no longer on my desires but instead on the thing I happen to be doing. It cuts desires off at the roots and keeps them from growing into vines that will entangle my happiness.

Ideally, the experiences I choose are active ones, either in a physical sense or a mental sense (or both). I’m either up and about doing something, or I’m doing something sedentary that engages my mind (like reading a challenging book).

I seek out low cost experiences. My biggest filter for those experiences is that they simply have to be low cost. That really doesn’t restrict a lot of experiences – the biggest common thing that it sweeps off the table is shopping. Most of the things I might want to do in a given moment are low cost or free, and that gives me a wide variety of options.

Even as I sit here, I can think of a bunch of low-cost things I’d enjoy doing. I could make an interesting dinner. I could read a book. I could go to the park and go on a trail walk. I could work on mastering how to solve a Rubik’s puzzle (which is the big shared hobby/fad in our house right now). I could work on my taekwondo forms. I could work on an ongoing art project. I could play a solo board game. And those are just things I can do entirely by myself; when I consider others, even more options open up.

The key is to consider all of the things you might want to do, filter it a little by eliminating expensive options, and then choosing one of them. Even if it’s something simple.

I seek out low cost experiences with social threads. The real clincher here, though, is incorporating social threads into this decision making process. Almost every time, even the most mundane experiences are made memorable and enjoyable with social elements mixed in.

Want to go on a hike? Call a friend and see if they can go with you.

Want to make a meal? Call a friend and turn it into a meal prep and dinner party, or make it together with your family.

Want to watch a movie? Call a friend and have a movie night together tonight.

Don’t think your friend are always available for such serendipity? Plan ahead for some of it. Make a plan to do some of these things. That way, you get the pleasure of anticipation, too.

What about purely solo things reading? Even reading can be social, as much of what I read has a social context with what I read, whether I’m in a book club, reading a book recommended by a friend so we can talk about it, learning something that will be of use, or something I can directly apply in social situations. Even when I read things solely for personal pleasure or enrichment, I like having more books that I can comment on or share with others when I’m finished.

There are definitely times when I like to be alone to socially “unwind,” but I find that too much solo time often results in that spiral of unrequited desires that ends up causing me to spend more money than I should on stuff I don’t really need.

In the end, I get far more joy out of doing a relatively mundane thing with a friend or loved one than I ever do out of spending a bunch of money on something.

Getting Started

So, how do you incorporate this easily into your own life?

For me, the trick is to constantly push myself to try out and discover new low-cost things to do, ideally with a friend or a family member. I’m always asking friends to teach me their hobbies or to do something fairly ordinary together because I know that a lot of the magic happens in that shared experience. Even when I’m alone, I’m often trying to do things that I know I’ll be able to talk about and share with my friends later on.

One way to get started is to consciously commit to trying out one new low cost thing each week, ideally with a friend. Set aside a block of time to do this. As time passes, keep a big list of ideas of things you might like to try doing. Maybe you’d like to go on a hike. Maybe you’d like to read a philosophy book. Maybe you’d like to go to a free concert. Maybe you’d like to try out disc golf down at the park. Maybe you’d like to try out a hobby your friend dearly loves that you’ve never tried. Maybe you’d like to get involved for a season in the community theater. Just keep your eyes open for things to do that are low cost and are just simply new to you.

A key part here is to not pre-judge the things you learn about. Don’t decide that something will be un-fun. Give it a sincere try. If nothing else, you will know first hand what it’s really all about and can decide based on your own experience whether it’s something you want to dive into more often.

It is through this exact thing that I have added a ton of low cost things to my repertoire. I love things like disc golf, hunting in the woods for mushrooms, soccer, origami, chess, solving Rubik’s-style puzzles, and many other things. Every single one of them is something I enjoy not just as a solo activity, but usually as a social one, and even when I do enjoy them solo, they end up producing things I can talk about and share socially. I would likely have not tried some of these things completely on my own.

If you’re nervous about suggesting things like this, simply ask a friend to teach you their favorite hobby or ask someone else if there’s anything that they’ve always wanted to try that wasn’t too expensive, and just go along with it. Go for the ride and decide afterwards if this is something you’re into or not. If nothing else, it will be a shared experience you have with a friend.

If you’re alone, just dive into things you haven’t tried before and enjoy the experience. It will give you something to share socially in the future (or even to share right away, if you wish).

So, consciously select something low cost to do, even if it’s not something you’re excited about, and try to do it with a friend if possible. If you can’t do it socially, file the experience away in your back pocket as a social thing you can reference in the future, whether it’s a good or a bad experience.

You’ll find that if you do this consciously over time, you’ll find that you build up some strong social connections and have a great deal of fun without spending a lot of money. Even things that you wouldn’t normally enjoy becomes pleasurable because of the social aspect and the fact that it becomes an experience you can reflect on and share in the future.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.