When I was a college student, I lived for about a year with a few other people in a shared apartment. None of us had much money at all, so we basically packed as many people in there as we could get away with to make the rent cheap.
For me, that meant that the only times I was really at home was to eat, to bathe, and to sleep (with maybe a few late-night conversations with my roommates thrown in here or there). I mostly hung out at the library on campus, went to classes, went to my job, and went to a lot of student organization meetings (they were great – I got to meet a lot of people and they often had free food).
My diet was really simple. I’d usually eat oatmeal or generic cereal for breakfast almost every morning, a sack lunch with a sandwich and a few vegetables for lunch, and ramen with some sort of cheap protein tossed in (usually cooked chicken breast) for dinner almost every night.
Each day, though, on my ride home, I’d walk (or bike) right by a Burger King. It was a well-maintained Burger King and it usually smelled really good to this hungry college boy.
So, once a week, I’d put aside $5, go in there, order a Whopper with cheese, an order of fries, and a soft drink. I’d sit down and just slowly savor that meal. It would sometimes take me almost an hour to eat it, as I’d take small bites of the burger and try to enjoy every morsel of it. I’d usually grab a newspaper from the rack in the restaurant or I’d pull a book I was reading for pleasure out of my bag and just lose myself in the reading, with no worries about classes or homework or anything else.
It was unhealthy, sure, but as a twenty year old guy in the late 1990s, I really didn’t care. It was just something to savor.
I usually did it on Thursday nights, because Fridays were usually pretty easy schedule-wise for me. I usually just had a class or two and no work hours, so that Thursday night Whopper usually signified the start of something like the “weekend” for me.
It was such a little, simple thing, but somehow it meant so much.
That little $5 expense was often the highlight of my week. I would start looking forward to it on Tuesday, because Tuesdays and Wednesdays and Thursdays were always jammed to the gills with studying, classes, activities, and organization meetings. By the time I left campus on Thursday evening, I was almost giddy with excitement at my upcoming treat.
It gave me a breath of freedom and control over my life that I didn’t really have elsewhere. Everything else felt “locked in” – I spent my money on boxes of ramen and cheap chicken breasts and oatmeal and a few school supplies and textbooks and rent and utilities. I spent most of my time in the lab where I worked, in classes, at the library, or at club meetings.
It reminded me of the past. Weirdly, those burgers reminded me of home. More than anything, they reminded me of times spent with my parents when we visited my great-grandmother, as my parents would offer to take her out anywhere she wanted to go, and she’d invariably ask to go to Burger King and order a giant sandwich. She’d eat about a third of it, take the rest home, and keep it in her fridge, eating it over the next day or two.
It made me think of the future. I would often think to myself that I would soon have the freedom to eat whatever I wanted whenever I wanted… but not yet. That freedom was just up around the bend, but I knew I had things I needed to complete first. I needed to graduate. I needed to find a “real” job. Those things were yet to come, but this little taste helped with my patience.
It was great. It was just what I needed at the time in so many ways.
Today, I often wonder where that sense of feeling deeply rewarded by a small thing has gone. Don’t get me wrong, I deeply enjoy my life and the choices I make. Sarah and I are careful with our money, but we do have some freedom to spend as we wish. I have a lot of activities in my life that I enjoy, too.
Part of the pleasure of that Whopper treat was that it stretched my budget. It really was something that I could just barely afford at that time. It was my one real splurge on any sort of regular basis and it provided a narrow sense of having some control and choice.
If I were to replicate that experience now and buy something that stretched my finances in a similar way, I’d be disgusted with myself. I have no justifiable reason to spend that kind of money on anything without some real planning and discussions with Sarah, certainly not anything as relatively useless as a sandwich.
Still, as I reflect back on the parable of the Whopper, I can see a few things that are very useful for me today.
First, small things really can bring serious joy. I don’t need to spend a ton of cash to have something deeply enjoyable. Many of the things I really enjoy in life are free, like going geocaching with my children. Many other things I enjoy are very inexpensive, like filling up a notebook with my thoughts. While those things don’t include the huge amount of anticipation that my Thursday night Whoppers once brought, they do bring me a lot of personal joy.
On the flip side of that idea, expensive things don’t really bring me proportionate joy. There are some expensive items that might be fun, but they don’t really bring me that much more joy than many cheap or free items. I would not get three times as much pleasure out of a new Lexus SUV than I would get out of a late model used Honda SUV, for example.
Second, smaller items make it easier to take chances on new things. I’ve always wanted to learn how to play the banjo, for example, and although an old, somewhat beat-up banjo might not sound quite as pretty as a brand new one, they’re both quite playable, plus that old one is much more likely to fit in my budget. It’s easier to take a chance and splurge when the price is low.
Finally, the long-term consequences of a choice mean more than they used to. When I think about all of those Whoppers I consumed, I remember the enjoyment I had, but I shudder at the long-term health consequences of it. When I think about buying lots of stuff, I also think about the need to store all of it and actually give each item some devoted time to actually appreciate it.
In the end, what does that all add up to?
I still appreciate the little treats more than the big ones, all told. With a big treat, I usually end up worrying much more about the cost and I don’t get that much more pleasure from the item itself. In the end, a $5 treat adds up to more than a $100 one.
I appreciate experiences. Stuff just sits there and gathers dust. Experiences change you and live on in your memories. Stuff eventually breaks down or fills up your closet or gets sold. Experiences live on inside of you.
Little pleasures become dull if you pile them up. They’re much more enjoyable if you don’t fill your life with an endless stream of pleasure. It’s really hard to have a “special” day when you make every day “special” with an endless stream of treats.
Little pleasures grow when you spread them out. On the other hand, if you add gaps of “ordinary” between your treats, they become special. Instead of going to the coffee shop every day (where it’s an ordinary thing), go once a week or even less often. It begins to seem like much more of a treat when you do that and the pleasure seems much greater.
Whatever big treats you desire in your life, ask yourself whether those treats are really worth it. Does the value that such a treat, whatever it might be, add enough to your life to be worth it? Does the $100 treat add twenty times as much joy as a five dollar treat?
Similarly, ask yourself whether you can space out the smaller (but not free) treats so that they gain a bit of that “special” veneer again.
You’ll be glad you did.