Splurges, Habits, and Projection

I recently wrote about the “connection” between quality of life and consumer spending, concluding that it’s financially healthy to derive a sense of quality of life from things that aren’t consumer purchases. The post generated a lot of discussion (well over a hundred comments), with many readers seeing both sides of the coin – that it’s great to derive joy from non-consumer sources, but that one shouldn’t be fraught with guilt from making a consumer choice.

I strongly agree with this sentiment, actually. When I do make a consumer purchase, particularly over the last year, I very rarely feel guilty about it in any way. Almost always, the purchase is a net positive, and I walk away glad that I spent the money.

Recently, for example, I went ahead and purchased a portable GPS unit for my wife and I to use. We had been using a GPS program on her cell phone, but the service had a small monthly fee (which we didn’t like at all), a tiny screen, and some serious functionality issues. After our most recent road trip in which we used the GPS phone functionality successfully twice (saving us some money and a potential diaper clean-up in a new car) and failing once (resulting in our son almost wetting himself as we searched for a bathroom while I cursed the awful interface), we decided that we should just cancel her GPS service and get a dedicated unit. I did the research, found a perfect one that fit our needs, tried it out at a local electronics store, and picked it up at a great price. We’re very happy with the purchase.

A few years ago, I would purchase some sort of electronics item or media every week, often in multiples. These purchases would give me a quick blip of joy, but in the end, the items would wind up in a big pile along with a lot of other items that I didn’t have adequate time to enjoy. The net result of this was an empty bank account and a decisive lack of happiness – in fact, I wound up selling most of those items used in order to pay down the debt without having enjoyed them much at all.

Another example: as I’m writing this, I’m sitting in a coffee shop. About two mornings a month, I take my laptop to a local coffee shop that I adore, pick up a tasty morning treat and a cup of coffee, and sit here in this pleasant environment writing for a few hours. I enjoy it. It feels like a real perk to me and I leave feeling as though my time and money were well spent.

Several years ago, I made a daily stop at a coffee shop for breakfast. I’d sit in there each and every morning, drop $7 on a breakfast sandwich, a cup of coffee, and a paper, and read it without much real joy. It was my routine. It wasn’t joyful – it was just the way I started my day.

With the GPS unit and the irregular coffee shop visits, I get a lot of joy out of the situation. I can see that the expense fulfills me in some way. Since I do it so irregularly, it not only seems special, it retains that positive feeling over time, lifting me up. The irregularity is also a benefit in that it doesn’t add up to an expensive routine – I keep money in my pocket.

Back in the day, with the regular electronics and media purchases and the daily coffee shop visits, I would be spending a lot of money in a way that wasn’t special or particularly enjoyable at all. The coffee shop visits and media purchases were part of the routine of my life – a routine that, when I stepped back and actually thought about what I was doing, wasn’t in line with what I really wanted from my life at all. Even worse, the routine was expensive – it drained a large, regular amount from my checking account every month, like clockwork.

A splurge is healthy every once in a while. It’s an irregular expense – not one that you spend money on every day or even every week. It also fills you with joy when you do it – and you still feel happy about it a day later. In short, you derive quality of life from that purchase.

A habit is never healthy. When an experience (particularly one tied to spending) becomes routine and normal, it should either fulfill a basic need in a simple way or it should be reconsidered. If it doesn’t add genuine value to your life – or if there’s a cheaper option that could add the same value – then you shouldn’t be spending your hard-earned money on it.

The difficulty for many people is that splurges become habits without the person realizing it. Their happy memories of when the coffee shop was a splurge keeps them defending the habit that it has become.

I was very guilty of this. I remember how I used to think about buying new electronics and media purchases. I would think back to the huge treat that it was when I would save up enough money to buy a video game when I was young – and the many hours of happiness I would have playing through it and defeating the game. The memory of that good feeling was often enough to get me to the checkout lane with a new game or a new gadget, without me realizing that I wasn’t actually getting joy from the purchase itself, but from the memory.

I experienced a similar phenomenon with the coffee shop. I’d stop there, step in the door, and the smell of the beans would take me back to some wonderful evenings with college friends in coffee shops. I’d buy the coffee, a sandwich, and a paper, and sit down with them, still coasting on that initial burst of good feelings brought on by the smell. Yet, when I finished up, all I was left with was a memory, one that I could easily trigger myself by smelling coffee beans in a completely different environment. My belly would be filled just as easily with a banana and a cup of tea at work – and that wouldn’t cost anything at all. I was paying $7 a day essentially for the privilege to smell the smells and savor a memory for a bit.

Change came when I realized that I was paying money for my own memories, not for a new joyful experience. My spending habits really revolved around recreating memories and events that I had enjoyed in the past. I wasn’t paying for something I enjoyed in the moment – I was paying to extend the moment. In the end, though, that left both my wallet and my heart empty. The real happiness comes from within – and it doesn’t cost anything.

Take some time and really look at the things you spend money on regularly. Are these things really bringing you happiness – or are they tired routines centered around something you can’t really recapture? You might be shocked to realize how many of your spending choices are really dictated not by your true wants and needs, but by the wants and needs you’ve projected onto those purchases.

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