During two of the years I was in college, I had enough scholarships to provide me with a small living stipend if I lived off-campus in an apartment, so that was a personal challenge that I took on. I lived dirt cheap during those years, pulling out every trick in the book of frugality. I went to pretty much any meeting or club on campus that provided free food. I walked to campus and back, even in blizzards, because it afforded me exercise and I didn’t have to pay for the bus.
One vivid thing I remember is stopping at a Wendy’s once every two weeks or so for a hamburger. This wasn’t a regular treat, mind you, but something I planned ahead for. I knew I could afford it about twice a month and, at that time, my favorite food on earth was a big cheeseburger. I vividly remember going in there one day when it was really cold, ordering a cheeseburger and a cup of water and using a coupon for free fries, and sitting at a table eating it slowly, staring out the window, trying to convince myself to study but actually just enjoying the moment.
The entirety of my worldly possessions fit into a single storage tub, with my study materials fitting in an additional backpack. All of my clothes, my toiletries, the sleeping bag I slept in, my pillow – everything could fit into a tub, to be tossed in the back of a car.
The funny part is that, looking back, those were the most free years of my life. I had a loose schedule of classes to attend, a job where I mostly just sat at a desk and studied for those classes and got paid for it, and the rest of my time was completely free.
I used it to read books, explore ideas, go on hikes, participate in clubs, try out different hobbies, volunteer for different causes, try different religious experiences, and on and on and on.
I didn’t have a house to clean, aside from the small space where I laid my head. I didn’t have possessions to maintain. I didn’t have a demanding job to hold down. I didn’t have a car to keep running. I didn’t have any of those things.
Let’s roll forward just a few years from there. I lived in an apartment with my wife. I had tons of possessions, many of them being the latest and greatest things. I had the newest cell phone. I had a gorgeous wardrobe. I had a car to keep running.
Those things were expensive, and in order to keep them running, I had to have a job that paid well. That job came with stress. It came with extra hours. It came with interrupted weekends. It came with worry. It came with evenings where I came home with all of my energy depleted, wanting nothing more than to just veg out for a couple of hours and go to bed, but the apartment needed cleaning and the bills needed to be paid and the baby needed to be fed and held and so on…
Which life was better? After a while, I came to the conclusion that I was actually happier in college when I had almost nothing than when I was a professional with tons of nice things.
The thing is, there’s a battle going on between freedom and affluence in all of our lives. As a general rule, the more expensive your lifestyle is, the longer you (or someone very close to you) have to work and the more intense your job experience becomes.
So, there’s this battle going on between freedom and affluence. Once you have a very small amount of money – enough to ensure that you have clothes on your back and food on your belly – everything else becomes a choice. Do you want freedom, or do you want affluence?
Obviously, this isn’t a strictly either-or choice. Instead, it is something of a gradient. If you choose a low pressure job that doesn’t require too much of you mentally and you can just walk away from at the end of your shift, you’re enjoying a higher degree of freedom than someone who is constantly glued to their cell phone or has to work insane hours. You have lots of free time and low responsibility. For that, you sacrifice some affluence – you have to make harder choices about how you spend your money and you probably can’t have a really nice house or the latest of everything.
On the flip side, if you choose a high pressure job, you’re taking on a more stressful situation that will eat up more of your time and a lot more of your thinking. You’ll likely be charged with lots of extra work that spreads far outside of a 40 hour week, and thoughts of work will be on your mind a lot. You’ll also probably have to train a lot in the form of getting an education in order to have that job. However, you’ll have far less financial worry – you’ll be able to have a nice car, a nice house, and nice stuff.
The trick is to find a balance between the two that you’re happy with. That’s easier said than done. Here are some observations and strategies I’ve come up with in trying to find this balance in my own life.
Scaling Back on Affluence Is Harder Than It Seems
Once you’ve become accustomed to certain elements of an affluent life, it becomes quite hard to scale back on that affluence. You have this strong sense that you’re depriving yourself of something, and that sense of deprivation can be very negative and very strong.
The idea that you would give up your morning coffee run? That sounds miserable! The idea that you would give up spending so much on your favorite hobby? The idea that you would choose to live in a smaller and less furnished house than you’re used to or could maximally afford? The idea that you would drive a much older car than you’re used to or could afford?
Those things can seem very difficult. That’s because affluence is a very hard thing to walk away from once you’ve become used to it.
If you live in a nice house, it can feel awful to have to move into a smaller or less well furnished house. If you drive newer cars, it can feel awful to drive an old car. The list goes on and on, even down to simple things like buying store brands instead of a familiar name brand. It can feel wrong and cheap and bad.
Those feelings bring about a lot of resistance to scaling back and cutting down on your affluence. However, if it’s freedom you desire – freedom in terms of career, in terms of time, in terms of energy – one of the best routes to get there is to really cut back on affluence. Here are some techniques for doing that.
First, be critical of all of your purchases. Ask yourself if you really need this item, or if it’s really fulfilling a meaningful want in your life. If you’re still sure of it, ask yourself whether you couldn’t just try a less expensive alternative. Why not try something that costs less? Get in the habit of thinking about all of your purchases with those kinds of questions.
Second, start small with your scale backs so you don’t feel deprived and can see that it’s no big deal on a small scale first. One great way to do that is to start trying out store brands on household products. Try the store brand version of things that you normally buy name brand versions of and see how they work for you. Most of them will work fine; a few of them won’t. For the ones that don’t, just try a few different lower cost brands until you find ones that work. During that process, you’ll see that cutting back doesn’t have to be incredibly painful, and you can start scaling up.
Finally, if you start scaling back and feel deprived, ask yourself why you feel that way and really dig into it. Don’t just give into a feeling. Instead, stop and think about that feeling. Why do you feel that way? Keep digging into that until you come to an answer, and then reflect on healthier ways to answer that question.
The truth is that self-reflection is usually the best tool to use to solve almost any life problem that we have. Remember that you can’t directly change the world. You can only directly change yourself.
Scaling Up on Affluence Is Easy When Your Income Goes Up
This is often called “lifestyle inflation,” and at first it seems like a good thing. You get to enjoy many more experiences. You get to have higher quality items. That’s good, right?
The problem isn’t in those new experiences and items. The problem is in getting used to those new experiences and items, because once you do, you run into the previous problem – it becomes hard to let go of them.
Furthermore, lifestyle inflation is expensive. It means that you’re using more and more of your salary for your basic lifestyle. That has two consequences. One, you have less money to save for the future because the “gap” between your income and your spending is smaller, which means that your future options (i.e., your personal freedom) is becoming smaller. Two, when you become used to that lifestyle and it becomes harder to quit, you are tied to jobs of a certain salary level, which means that you have to deal with the stress and constant demands of many positions at that level.
In short, lifestyle inflation comes at the cost of personal freedom. Because of that cost, which often isn’t directly seen in the moment, one owes it to themselves to be very careful when it comes to scaling up their affluence. Here are some strategies to think about.
One, consider buying a smaller “starter home” instead of jumping into a very expensive home. A smaller “starter home” will have a far smaller mortgage, smaller maintenance costs, smaller insurance costs, smaller heating and cooling costs, and are much less likely to have homeowners association fees. Consider a similar approach for your automobiles, sticking with late model used cars rather than buying new ones.
Two, splurges are fine, but avoid making them routine. There’s nothing wrong with a spontaneous splurge, but when you start repeating that splurge, not only does it become expected and standard and thus less interesting and exciting, it also establishes a recurring expense.
Three, buy long lasting and reliable upgrades for things you have rather than buying more things. You’re far better off simply replacing things with better things rather than buying more and more things. Upgrade your wardrobe slowly with long-lasting well made garments rather than just buying tons of clothes at once, for example.
Finally, choose hobbies that aren’t based around consumption. Hobbies often become an avenue for lifestyle inflation simply because so many of them are open-ended in terms of spending. There’s always a new game to buy, a new book to buy, a new movie to see, and so on. Try to choose hobbies that aren’t based around buying things or consuming things. Instead, focus on hobbies that are about achieving things or building things or improving yourself. Consider hobbies like hiking, learning, volunteering, cooking, writing, and so on. If you do choose a hobby that points toward consumption, make a conscious effort to orient it toward doing things rather than buying or accumulating things. If you must collect, collect things that are free or nearly free to acquire – rocks, photos, and so on.
Contentment Is Key to Appreciating a Low-Affluence Life
For me, one of the most valuable tools in this battle is finding contentment. To think of it another way, I simply mean that I try to seek out a “glass half full” perspective on my life, to be joyful in the things and opportunities I have now instead of obsessing over the things I do not have.
Here are some of the techniques that really seem to work (at least for me) to build a more contented life.
Spend some time each day thinking about the good things you have in your life. I like to formally write down a list of five of those things each day, because the act of putting pen to paper makes those thoughts a lot more concrete. I just list five or so things I have in my life right now that I really appreciate – things like the people around me or some positive internal feeling or a particular joy I’ve had in the last day that didn’t come from buying anything new.
As suggested above, focus on hobbies that are about doing, not about acquiring. The best hobbies result in a list of things you’ve actually done, not a list of things you have. Ideally, the things you’ve done don’t require an admittance fee. I like keeping a list of trails I’ve hiked, books from the library I’ve read, board games I’ve played, and so on. When I center my hobbies around those lists, I feel pretty content.
When you find yourself with a feeling of desire or a negative feeling about others, stop and address it rather than acting on it. Dig into why you feel that way, and whether or not that feeling really makes any sense. Often, such feelings end up really pointing back to some dissatisfaction that you have with your own life.
If you have a dissatisfaction with your own life, work to truly change it – don’t buy things to put a temporary bandage on it. Buying something new doesn’t fix life dissatisfaction. Reflection and working at self-improvement fixes that. If you’ve reflected on a negative feeling and realize that it boils down to some sort of unhappiness with yourself – how you use time, how you lose control of emotions, how you’re unhappy with your weight or fitness – work to improve those things. Make fixing that your central goal for a while and learn how to address that problem. Buying things won’t fix it, and it will actually lead you further from contentment.
It’s Okay to Sacrifice Both Now to Have Both Later
Some of you might be wondering about things like early retirement or financial independence. If you do that, aren’t you choosing a path that’s both low affluence and low freedom for quite a while?
There’s some truth to this, absolutely. Financial independence requires a significant “gap” – meaning the difference between one’s income and one’s spending. In other words, you need to earn a healthy amount and keep your income as low as possible while doing it.
How do you do this? There are a number of things to remember.
First, financial independence / early retirement / stable retirement is a state of enormous personal freedom and is a worthwhile goal. You’re shooting for a state where you no longer have to work for a living at all. That’s a state with enormous personal freedom. It is a bright light at the end of your journey. It’s an amazing mountain to be climbing.
Thus, having a strong goal like that makes difficult choices today somewhat easier. It’s easier to commit to a very spartan lifestyle if you know you’re aiming for something big, that there is a strong overall purpose behind your choices. It’s like going through a train tunnel with an enormous bright light at the end – you just focus on the light and keep going. That’s quite different than sticking to low affluence and a difficult career without a goal.
Finally, you’re typically choosing to do this when you’re strongest in life. A person making choices like this is often in the prime of their lives, when they’re more able to strap difficulties on their back and carry them. They’re choosing to take on burdens now so they won’t have to carry them later on. I know that I’m definitely willing to take on challenges now so I don’t have to face them later.
Minimalism May Not Be Perfect for Everyone, But It Can Provide Some Useful Strategies and Lessons
It’s easy to think of the opposite of affluence as being minimalism, but that’s not necessarily a perfect match. Minimalism is simply striving to live with a minimal number of things. Minimalism is its own aesthetic and it can be quite expensive on its own, although it often has a lot of low-cost elements to it.
Minimalism is worth mentioning here because, although it may not be a perfect fit as an opposite to affluence, there are a lot of things that can be learned from it.
A big lesson is that each thing you own has its own value and deserves its own attention and consideration. If you own two books, those books are meaningful to you and are going to be carefully chosen. If you own two hundred, an individual volume holds little meaning – it’s just another thing among many things. Minimalism encourages you to appreciate each thing you own, and that’s a very powerful way to combat affluence and a growing number of possessions. If you add another possession, each thing you own receives less attention and care, reducing the value you get from it.
Another thing to note from minimalism is that the fewer possessions you have, the less time and effort you spend on maintenance and cleaning and the more time you actually spend doing things. One of the disadvantages of having a lot of stuff is that it needs to be organized and cleaned and cared for. It becomes very difficult to move, for example, and reorganization becomes an overwhelming task. The fewer things you actually own, the more time you have to enjoy life.
The way to win the battle between affluence and freedom is to simply be thoughtful and appreciate what you have rather than lamenting the things you don’t. When negative feelings come around and you find yourself wanting things you do not have, reflect on those feelings and see if they’re merely reflective of something you want to change about yourself, then focus on making that meaningful change instead.
In our busy lives, this type of perspective is easier said than done. Then again, why are our lives so busy in the first place? Are we chasing freedom or are we chasing affluence? That’s up to you to decide.