The People and the Things You See Shape Your Choices and Finances

Earlier today, I had an exchange on Facebook with a friend (and fan of The Simple Dollar) named Jeremy about a great little article (with lots of pictures) entitled Off the Grid but Still Online.

The article focuses on people who are living lifestyles that, by pretty much anyone’s measure, are outside of what would be considered mainstream American life. These people don’t have consistent electricity in their home – if they even have a home. They often use very alternative means to acquire things we consider to basically be a given in modern life, everything from running water and Internet access to electricity and transportation.

For most of us, living in a significantly different way than we live right now would just feel wrong. Can you imagine living in a treehouse, for instance? What about living on a boat docked two miles off the coast, with only a small rowboat to get you back and forth? When I think about a life like that, I can appreciate a few aspects, sure, but overall it does not feel “worth it” to me.

But what exactly do I mean when I decide that it wouldn’t be “worth it”?

That’s the exact issue that my friend Jeremy and I discussed for a while. There’s apparently some line between the life that most of the people in my life and I choose to live and the life that these people and many others choose to live. What is that line, and why does it seem so costly to cross it?

I think much of it has to do with the life that we choose to live every single day.

Every day, we’re surrounded by examples of people living approximately in the same way that we do. Obviously, our immediate family members share our lifestyle. Many of our truly close friends share something of a similar lifestyle, too. Most of our coworkers also share at least a large handful of similar lifestyle features.

We’re also surrounded by culture, both popular and otherwise. Most media sources are actually guides on how to live, for better or for worse, and that becomes even stronger when we’re selective about the media we watch. The people we see in our neighborhoods are also subtle guides on how to live.

The easy route through life is to just allow those guides to show us how to live. In many ways, we just unconsciously emulate the things we see around us. We emulate our friends, our family members, and the things we see in our lives. We emulate the things we see on television and the things we read about in magazines and books. On some level, we understand these things are showing us how people live and we incorporate them into our minds.

Now, let’s back off for a second. Imagine you’re a park ranger and you spend an awful lot of your time at ranger stations deep in a national park. Most of your interaction with other people comes from those who are healthy, independent, and self-reliant enough to hike deep into national parks. Most of your entertainment comes in the form of books, of which you choose things like Walden or other nonfiction books about the world. You spend a lot of time in nature due to your job.

Now, imagine that person leaves the ranger station and moves into a nearby city. That person is going to feel some… disconnect between how they’ve lived for a while and how everyone else lives. Will that person start to fall into patterns of modern life? Or will they continue a lot of the patterns of their ranger life?

It depends heavily on who that ranger surrounds him- or herself with, as well as the entertainment that ranger engages in.

Does that ranger spend a lot of time with other rangers and engage in hobbies like gardening and permaculture? Or does that ranger seek out friends in the non-ranger community in the town and enjoy things like cable television? Does that ranger visit websites based on outdoor and natural interests? Or does that ranger start reading TMZ?

To put it bluntly, does that ranger start inflating his lifestyle to match what he or she sees in life? Or does that ranger see other things in life and stick with a low-cost lifestyle?

In either case, that ranger will be living a lifestyle that seems normal. According to the people in that ranger’s life and the media sources that ranger sees, he or she could live a very minimalist life and feel normal or live an affluent life and feel normal. At the same time, that ranger might feel that those living differently are the ones living a strange life.

So, let’s flip that around onto us.

The lifestyle you define as “normal” is likely an average of the people you see in your life – your close family, your close friends, and the coworkers and clients you interact with the most. Similarly, you likely see lifestyles on television and print as either similar to yours and thus fairly “normal,” meaning you try to emulate parts of them, or very different than yours, meaning that you gawk.

There’s some threshold of differences between our life and someone else’s life that makes them seem very different than ourselves and not something to be emulated, but something to observe and respond to in a wide variety of ways. If someone is similar to us, we feel okay about borrowing clever ideas from their life, but if they’re too different, we just reject the whole thing as “different” and “not for us.” Think about this in your own life – you’ll see that it’s pretty true most of the time.

Interesting observations, of course, but how does that help us with our financial future?

The answer is simple. If you want to be a more frugal and financially responsible person, surround yourself with more frugal people and absorb media resources that reflect those values more.

You can start by simply spending more time with the people in your life who aren’t big spenders. Who are the people who don’t overspend on their clothes and their cars that you know, not because they can’t, but because they don’t choose to? Spend more time with those people and maybe a little less time with others.

Then, be more selective about the things you read and the things you watch on television and the websites you visit. Look for things that show the type of person you want to become. Look for books and websites that talk in positive terms about attributes that you’d like to have, like frugality. You’re already doing that to some extent by reading The Simple Dollar, but there are many other websites and books out there along those lines.

Dig into hobbies and the communities around those hobbies that don’t involve spending a lot of money or hobbies that can even earn a little money. Go to community events that aren’t oriented around spending money instead of going to places and events that are all about spending. A prime example: stop going to stores for mostly social reasons and find other things to do with your friends.

At home, turn off the television and do other things. Television isn’t strictly bad, but there’s an awful lot of stuff on television that seems to mostly encourage spending more money on more stuff. Find hobbies that get you off the couch and doing other things, particularly things that don’t involve purchasing more stuff.

What’s happening is that you’re gradually shifting your sense of what “normal” is in life. Your idea of a “normal” person becomes someone who owns less stuff and who owns more reliable and well-used things than shiny new things. Your idea of a “normal” person is someone who spends some of their time engaging in hobbies that don’t cost money and might even earn money. Your idea of a “normal” person is a person who watches less television and has other interests and other things to talk about. And, as a result, your idea of a “normal” person is someone who doesn’t spend all of their money and actually saves some.

Even more interesting, your sense of the lifestyles that are “weird” shifts, too. Remember, people with lives similar to yours seem normal, whereas lives that are more different from you seem weird. However, when you shift your own lifestyle, some lifestyles that used to seem normal begin to seem weird and some that once seemed weird now seem normal.

I’ve noticed this myself. I know a few people I used to think were quite normal who did things like replace their car every year and always dressed in designer clothes. Now? That seems pretty strange to me. On the other hand, I knew a guy who drove a Honda Civic around town and had a massive garden. He seemed weird to me a decade ago, and now he seems fairly normal. The only thing that changed was my own changing view, and that change was largely a result of me making changes to my own life over time.

Many of the people in that article about living off the grid┬ástill seem strange to me, but a few of them verge on seeming normal. They all seem like they would be interesting to hang out with and learn from. Several years ago, I might have just identified all of them as “weird” and not even viewed them as someone I could learn from.

It’s actually pretty easy, in the end. If you want to be more financially responsible and frugal, surround yourself with financially responsible and frugal people and ideas. Over time, you’ll find that the more extreme spending you see in your life moves from seeming normal to seeming weird, and the more extreme frugality you see moves from seeming weird to seeming normal.

The world didn’t change. You did. And you changed in a way that will create a great financial future for you and your family.

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