Updated on 10.04.07

Your Money or Your Life: The Beginning of a New Road Map for Money

Trent Hamm

YMOYLThis is the fourth part of The Simple Dollar Book Club reading of Your Money or Your Life. Want to know more?

The middle portion of the first chapter focuses on the “fulfillment curve,” which basically refers to the idea that once you reach a certain level of luxury in your life, anything beyond that level is merely diminishing returns.

I believe pretty strongly in this phenomenon. Let’s say, for instance, that I decide to buy a new game for my Nintendo Wii. I find three in the store that seem interesting. Almost always, I am far better off just buying one of them than buying all three, and the reason has nothing to do with money.

If I just buy a single game, I take it home and just deeply enjoy that single game, playing through it and discovering the nooks and crannies within. However, if I took home all three games, I’d end up playing games for the same amount of time that I would otherwise and not enjoy each individual game as much.

One of the deep problems of consumerism is that the average American tends toward buying more. They would rather have more stuff that, per item, they have less time to enjoy than less stuff that, per item, they have more time to enjoy.

This is connected directly with the clutter problem, also discussed here. This tendency to buy extra luxury items gradually fills a home with lots of clutter – unnecessary stuff that just sits there taking up space when the money invested could be used to help build a more fulfilling life.

Clutter doesn’t end there, though. Anything simply wasted in your life is clutter, from unused time spent just wandering aimlessly around a store or sitting and staring blankly at a television (why not take a nap, at the very least?). Perhaps your emotional life is filled with clutter, as you spend time and money trying to continue relationships that no longer fulfill you.

Can you think of sources of clutter in your life? Almost always, identifying sources of clutter and then scaling them back until you hit that sweet spot on your fulfillment curve is worthwhile. This is just the beginning, though – finding the real root causes of that need for clutter and treating that cause is transformative.

Tomorrow, we’ll finish up the first chapter, focusing on the section “Step 1: Making Peace With The Past.” That section is on pages 29 through 39 in my paperback version of the book.

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  1. Christine says:

    In regard to clutter, I do have a problem even though I don’t purchase high priced stuff. When I’m at the second-hand bookstore and see a favorite book on the block, I feel a compulsion to rescue it and give it a good home. It used to be a kind of relief when the basement flooded and I could just get rid of stuff without guilt! There really is more serenity when surfaces and floors are cleared.

  2. I really like this section and the discussion of clutter really hits home. It’s something I have tried to address recently, but I still have a long way to go. It’s funny how I’m becoming attuned to it now. I’ll walk into a room and start to notice things, things sitting on a shelf perhaps, things that have been there for years but now they stand out in my mind and I can’t ignore how unnecessary these things are. I need to simplify!

    Your Wii games example is spot on. It’s so easy to fill our homes with lots of media and distractions when we could easily get by with one or two ‘toys’ that we truly enjoy. Something else for me to work on…

  3. rhbee says:

    I prefer to think of my life as filled not cluttered. But then self-delusion is a major human characteristic. Meanwhile, since I’ve started this book I’ve been looking meaningfully at my record/book/cd/writing file collection again. And just today I pulled open the bottom drawer of my file cabinet and began pulling out all my old writing notebooks. The thing is that I have already gone through this process several times and what puzzles me is that somehow I still find things that I can’t let go and others that I can’t figure out why I still have them. It could mean that one day’s clutter is another day’s goldmine. It could be that priorities change. Whatever the reason, after several sort throughs this stuff is still here.

    Used to be I didn’t have this problem. At the end of each work year, I threw everything out. I liked the challenge of starting fresh. Maybe that’s why I laughed at the initial episode of “Life” on NBC the other night. The main character, having been released from jail after 12 years and given $50 million to compensate for it, is driving his new sports car. As he shifts smoothly and accelerates up the road, he repeats sotto voce the mantra, I am not attached to this car. I remember feeling that way. Anyway, at the end of the episode, he shrugs calmly as he hears his friend back a tractor up and over the front of the car.

  4. Nadine says:

    A show on Style network that I often find myself watching is “Clean House”. The show’s subjects are usually people who have accumulated so much clutter that the mess has them completely overwhelmed. Although, these are drastic cases, I sure that we all can identify to some degree. I think that the secret is to be more thoughtful in making purchases. Most of us work very hard for our money, and it is a shame to waste it on junk that ends up in the back of a closet. I am trying to live by this philosophy, but I am not always as successful as I would like to be.

  5. lorax says:

    More nit-picking:

    The upside-down U “enough” graph is a somewhat weak part of the book. The graph uses satisfaction as the y axis and money as the x axis. At the top of the graph is “enough.”

    But it’s not money that’s the problem, its something like money/time_to_acquire – cost_of_money. So one person’s capacity to make money can get them more, without compromising quality of life.

    And money doesn’t just buy stuff. It buys health care. It buys access. It can get you an iPhone instead of freebe mp3 player, a TracFone, and an organizer. That’s less clutter!

    On the other hand, I do think many people want too much JUNK(Unfortunately called gazingus pins in the book). Simplify.

  6. Daisy says:

    I agree about clutter and the idea of always buying more. It’s not always an American thing anymore though.

    After reading this part, I also realized just how much clutter I keep. There are piles beside my computer, on different chairs, on the floor, on my tables, in my cabinets… Everywhere, in short. And yes, I occasionally waste my time.

    This part of the book really opened my eyes to how much I need to change.

  7. sunny says:

    After reading this today, I found myself guilty of stocking up on sale items! I always rationalize that its a good deal, that we live 20 miles from shopping and we don’t want to run out, that there might be a hurricane, bird flu, the apocalypse and we might need whatever it is to survive.

  8. !wanda says:

    The book says that satisfaction vs. money is an upside-down U? Shouldn’t it be a sigmoid? I’ve seen many graphs in psychology class relating “value” (or, I guess, “happiness”) to “number of whatever,” with each additional “whatever” giving you a diminishing amount of “value;” these are all sigmoids. I mean, the derivative of a sigmoid is an upside-down U, but- well, actually, I don’t know what the derivative of happiness is. If the upside-down U comes from some equation where the “cost” of clutter is subtracted from the sigmoid “happiness vs. # of whatever” curve, I doubt it’s that simple for everything.

    Beyond the mathematics, I doubt that there’s a single point called “enough.” I’m happy with my small salary and debt-free life, but if someone gave me ten billion dollars, I would use it, and it would make me happier. However, in real life there are always time-money-happiness tradeoffs, so the only thing we can do is make choices that maximize your expected lifetime happiness. I wouldn’t call this point “enough”; I would call it “my happiness maximum.”

  9. Steve says:

    “What is this life if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare”

    There’s something to be said for aimless wandering ;). Life is a transient experience (relative to the time spent as inanimate matter) and filling it up with “useful” things to do isn’t what I call living.

  10. Louise says:

    I am very much anti clutter. I regularly go through my posessions to see if there is anything I am not using and find it a new home. Instead of buying cds, dvds etc I will borrow them from the library. Odds are by the time I have listened or watched them a few times I will have had most of the enjoyment and can decide whether this is something I would use if I did buy it. Most of the time the answer is no. Most of my books are bought from thrift shops, read a couple of times and then swapped with friends, before making their way back to the thrift shop. I only keep reference and work books, along with some much loved old favourites.

    The majority of people spend time watching tv when they don’t even like the show because they haven’t thought ahead of other things to do that might be more enjoyable as well as productive. For me, about 2 hours a week is spent maintaining a very large and fairly self sustaining veggie garden and fruit trees which provides me with all of my vegetables and probably half of my fruit. One weekend was all it took to set it up and apart from the 2 hours a week, I would probably put in a full day 2-3 times a year with the changing seasons. This is far more enjoyable than tv, and if you have a family it is a great way of getting the kids out into the fresh air and a wonderful way of connecting with nature. It’s just a matter of planning. Many people would find the idea of starting a large veggie garden daunting, but if you do some forward planning and look at no dig gardens, you’ll find it’s fairly easy and inexpensive if done in stages.

    Many people will see my comments and think I am a cheapskate who skimps on things and never goes out. However, by not buying a lot of consumer goods I can actually go out more than I would otherwise. 6 new cd’s at $30AU (the cost of a new release in Australia) is $180. That’s the cost of a really good hotel room for two. Voila, a large percentage of the cost of a weekend away just because I borrowed the cd’s from the library. Or a really good meal for two at an upmarket restaurant.

    In general people don’t think about what else they could do with their time or money and even if they have a large income they find that most of the time they can’t account for where it went and don’t know if it gave them pleasure or not. For instance what would give you more pleasure? $10 spent on a monthly magazine, or the same money spent on coffee and cake with a friend? 2 hours spent watching a movie rerun or 2 hours spent playing Monopoly with your kids?

    Before spending either your time or money ask yourself – how much actual pleasure or benefit does this give me? Could I do something else with this amount of time or money that would give me more pleasure or benefit? Think of time and money as being commodities that you can use to buy experiences and memories rather than just things. Chances are you’ll remember a weekend away for years to come, long after the 6 cds have ceased to mean anything to you.

  11. vh says:

    …chortle!… The idea that time diddled away in watching the television or in other wasteful nonactivities is “clutter” might extend to, ohhh, say sitting around reading blogs.

    Dunno about the rest of the world, but I don’t have it in me to spend every living, breathing moment engaged in something constructive. If I did, I suppose when I woke up at 4:30 this morning I would have been hustling business (or at least cleaning house) instead of insomniacally cruising the internet.

    Now thatcha mention it, guess I’d better get up and make the bed and vacuum the dog hair off the floor before the plumber gets here at 7. Dog hair: is that clutter?

  12. d. a. says:

    I get what @vh and @Steve are saying: not all time “wasted” by just sitting and daydreaming is “clutter”. But what I think the book is getting at is time spent zombie-like – doing things without thinking whether or not this is something you really enjoy doing – is the actual clutter. For example, I love to sprawl out and relax on the couch in the afternoon, listening to the birds outside and watching the ceiling fan going round & round. It recharges me. On the other hand, sitting and watching tv because other folks are doing so in the lunch room… meh. There are picnic benches under shade trees outside where I’d enjoy my time much better, if I’d just remember they’re there!

  13. vh says:

    Yes, I would agree with d.a. that TV tiime is basic clutter. But on the other hand, that only applies to me; i’d hesitate to be judgmental about the value other people attach to watching television. It may be that a couple hours in front of a few mindless programs has the same recharging effect as relaxing on the sofa and listening to the birds sing. And it some people don’t just sit there agog letting whatever drivel that comes out wash over them–it is possible to be selective, and in fact there are some pretty good programs out there.

    Personally, I find TV not only wasteful but subtly stressful. That is, the content in general is so violent and so exploitive that even though I recognize it’s fantasy, an hour or so in front of the tube leaves me feeling vaguely disturbed. The nastiness that’s pumped into my consciousness adds to the overall stress load of everyday urban life. Strangely, I sleep a lot better at night when I do something other than sit in front of the television.

    In a way, that’s also analogous to clutter: just having to stumble around junk and stacks of paper–and having to figure out what to do with it!–adds to the daily stress load.

  14. Avlor says:

    Wah! Clutter! I’ve been dealing with this in my house this year. But I’ve been finding its not just with my things or time. There’s also the desire to “collect” hobbies. I want to try everything. (With new hobbies comes the stuff to do said hobbies.) This is my big weakness. Something I’ve been working on. (And trying to deal with the UFOs – Un-Finished Objects.)

    The other day I noticed the level of luxury phenomenon. I had been happily spinning yarn for a shawl. (Yes I’m crazy and I like to spin my yarn.) But I had just been to an annual show to stock up a bit on stuff to spin. When I got home, I noticed I wanted to spin the new wool instead of finish the project I was working on. I did spin a bit of the new stuff just to see. But I decided I would enjoy the current project or it’ll be wasted and stuffed in a closet. I thought about why I had liked the project originally. The wool and yak is SOOOO soft and I like the heathered grey color. I thought about the finished project and snuggling into the shawl when it’s done. I found that trying to appreciate what I have helped tame the desire to start on the next project before finishing the current one.

  15. Kris says:

    Lorax said:
    “(Unfortunately called gazingus pins in the book)”


    I really liked their points about clutter. Ultimately, the vast majority of it is useless, and we end up substituting things for experiences.

    For y’all in the discussion, is this exclusively an American thing? What think you?

  16. guinness416 says:

    No. Based on other places I’ve lived, the accumulation of “stuff” is an Irish thing, a Canadian thing, and a Dutch thing too. But those people (well, except Canadians) work a whole lot less and too some extent credit is harder to come by.

  17. rhbee says:

    I can’t speak for other countries but check out most American garages and you’ll see them stacked to the gills with gazingus.

    By the way, I checked the definition of that word and it apparently means a diseased cow. But I realized as I was looking it up that it is the pronunciation that makes it awkward. As soon as I saw it in a sentence, I realized the accent should be on the second syllable as in gaZINGus and remembered my Dad used the term all the time when he wanted me to move myself out of his way. As in get your gazINGus out of here. Sort of a fake cuss word.

    By the way, thanks for cluttering up my mind with this info. Though I think, as I write this, that this may be another way our lives are cluttered. Information. Way too much information.

  18. abbie says:

    I’m getting in late on the discussion, but oh well.

    The best statement of the book so far (for me): “A car, for example, is a luxury that 92 percent of the world’s population never enjoys.” It was in the Fulfillment Curve section (p.23).

    I often forget how privileged most of us are, regardless of our level of income. We are DINKs with just one car (that gets good gas mileage) on purpose, to make us appreciate it.

  19. Jennifer says:

    Getting rid of clutter is an on going problem in my house. I do it often, but the “stuff” keeps flowing into our house and lives (especially gifts!). It is an ongoing thing to fight. And I definitely would rather have the cash back for 90% of what I own. It does make you stop and think before you buy more.

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