The False Choices That Steal Our Future
I’ve been reflecting quite a bit lately on the various facets of my life that go against the grain. In many ways, I disagree with the fundamental notions of what our culture says ‘the good life’ is all about. Whether it’s my disavowal of the theory that all new parents want (and should buy) only brand-new baby things, or my negation of the pressures society levies on women to pay for manufactured appearances, I’m just not buying it.
As Mr. Frugalwoods and I continue on our extreme frugality journey to early retirement (at age 33 to a homestead in the woods), I find myself increasingly perplexed at the lifestyle lauded by our dominant consumer culture. And I think it all boils down to choice.
Choice: The Ultimate Luxury
In the hierarchy of luxuries, Mr. FW and I prioritize choice of our life circumstances above just about everything else. Choice is the ultimate luxury we have as humans and many people elect to place choice of their stuff over choice of their circumstances. We’ve flipped this approach on its head.
For us, surrendering choice over, for example, the brand of stroller we’ll use for Babywoods in favor of taking the first free one that comes our way is a fabulous trade-off for the amount of money we save. Sacrificing our ability to choose the precise color, size, or design of our material goods is just fine with us. The money we’ve saved over the years by utilizing hand-me-downs and buying used is nothing short of substantial. Each instance is a reflection of our decision to save our money towards what we consider the highest order choice: choosing how we want to live our lives every day.
Having a plethora of options to choose from in purchasing is, in many ways, a burden in and of itself. Mr. FW and I save a lot of time by circumventing the consumer selection dilemma–we don’t have to labor over comparing 15 different infant swings, we just take the one we find at a garage sale. We’ve liberated ourselves from the hassle of weighing the needlessly plentiful choices for everything from dental floss to t-shirts. I, for one, am thankful we’ve abdicated this mental burden. And in fact, I’m not the only one who feels this way–people far smarter than me have purported that “choice has paralyzed rather than freed us, leaving us dissatisfied instead of happy.”
If you’re extremely rich, you can choose to have everything you want. Conversely, if you’re desperately poor, you likely won’t have many options at all. But for the vast majority of us hanging out somewhere in the middle, we have far more financial choices than we realize.
The choice isn’t BMW or Mercedes–the choice is to not own a car at all (or to drive a 19-year-old Frugalwoods-mobile). The choice isn’t Ann Taylor or Bloomingdale’s—the choice is not to buy new clothes and instead wear something you already own. The choice isn’t cable or Netflix–the choice is to repudiate both in favor of creating your own entertainment.
Marketers want us to believe they’re offering choices of ‘the good life’ and that we need only purchase them to attain happiness. But the real choice is to turn our backs on the consumption machine and instead walk in our own direction. There’s a pervasive illusion in our culture that enfranchised, fulfilled people buy whatever they want, whenever they want it. This harkens to the idea that our self-worth and base pleasures stem from owning things. But I don’t think that’s true at all.
Rather, I think genuine happiness stems from doing what you want with the people you love and not hewing to the arbitrary standards established by corporations. There’s no freedom in buying a new wardrobe every season–that’s merely toeing the line of lifelong consumption.
Spending money in order to pacify ourselves because we’re dissatisfied with our jobs, our relationships, or our appearances is spending that only serves to derail us from attaining meaningful goals and that robs us of our future. It’s spending that does nothing to address the root of our discontentment.
A core tenet of effective frugality is embracing fewer options and choices where your stuff is concerned. The more you require a wide variety of perfect items to choose from, the more money you’ll spend. And this isn’t about deprivation–it’s about strategic purchasing and, more often than not, no purchasing at all.
One Right Way? Methinks Not
We’re all taught that there’s essentially one path through life: go to school, get a job, work hard, spend the money you make because you deserve it, continue working, retire at 65. And for many folks, this is the path they’re comfortable with, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
But contrary to popular belief, there isn’t just one right way to live, or one road to serenity. Our attainment of happiness as humans necessarily derives from our unique circumstances, personalities, and preferences.
To impose this one-size-fits-all consumer happiness model on everyone is a surefire recipe for disappointment. It doesn’t make Mr. FW or me happy and I think it doesn’t make a lot of other folks happy either. The key is to instead discover your passion and then find a way to make that your full-time vocation.
This non-traditional route is one of conscious frugality, concentrated earnings at the beginning of one’s career, and conspicuous non-consumption. It’s the trajectory of the frugal weirdo, of the person working towards early retirement, of the financially independent, and of all of us self-actualized anti-establishmentarians.
An Anti-Establishment Personality: Required For Financial Independence?
Mr. FW and I don’t like being told what to do–a central aspect of our personalities. Our parents will attest that this instinct began early in us both and that we could be stubborn, crafty little kids. We’re both streaked through with fierce independence and we like to make our own decisions. It’s part of the reason why we prefer to insource just about everything–we’d honestly rather do it ourselves than have someone else mess it up (and pay them for the privilege).
As you might’ve guessed, this trait chafes tremendously with our 9-5 white collar office jobs. We’re both dutiful, conscientious employees, but the inherent top-down corporate structure runs contrary to our very nature. I often feel that as soon as I arrive at the office, all of my creativity, energy, ideas, and life force drain out. For 8 hours a day, I follow directions from my boss, I issue directives to my team, and I churn out the products I’m required to (ironically 90% of my job is writing, but it’s entirely devoid of my personal voice and style–there’s no room for that in corporate communications). Hence, liberating ourselves from the constraints of a life dictated by others is the utmost aspiration for us.
I tend to think that fierce independence, anti-establishment convictions, and the fact that we don’t care what people think of us are all necessary–and perhaps required–components of our path to retirement at age 33. What we’re doing is counter-culture and just plain odd.
Plenty of people think we’re nutso frugal weirdos (oh if they only knew the depths of our true weirdo-ness…) and don’t understand how we can characterize our lives as joyfully and luxuriously frugal. But we don’t care. Haters gonna hate. And we’re going to continue on in our vein of not hating, not judging, and instead doing what we’ve determined is best for us.
Who Defines Our Needs?
While neither of us is terribly interested in money as an abstract concept or in the accumulation of great wealth, we’re both quite keen on what our money can do for us and in the life it can enable. Our economy perpetuates a fiction that it’s impossible for the average American family to save more than 10% a year and that we should all keep working in order to keep buying “necessities.”
Yet somehow Mr. FW and I manage to save north of 70% per year. How? When Mr. FW and I examined those typical “necessities,” we discovered that the vast majority of them–new clothes, new cars, meals out, coffees out, dry cleaning, haircuts, dog grooming, gourmet grocery store foods, cable, luxury vacations, manicures, car washes, central air conditioning–are completely unnecessary for us.
The myth of choice is that buying lots of stuff means you’re exerting your free will, but in reality, you’re just turning your money over to someone else. We don’t like to use our money or our time in methods prescribed by an outside entity.
Marketing creates needs for us that we don’t actually have. Once Mr. FW and I peeled away the premise that bolsters typical spending, we discovered there’s very little we need to buy on a regular basis. Most of these standard line items are based around ideas of keeping up with the Joneses, adhering to our own personal metrics of perfection, paying people to do things for us, and the flawed logic that material goods are what comprise a successful, worthwhile existence. And maybe they do for some people. But it’s important to arrive at that conclusion after considering if these purchases truly are rewarding and necessary and not simply ingrained in our psyches as “needs” by clever marketing and lifelong assumptions.
Mr. FW and I determined that what we need to feel gratified isn’t any of this stuff–it’s freedom over how we live our lives. For many folks, this sounds like a bizarre pipe dream that only the very rich or very lucky can attain. But it’s entirely feasible. I firmly believe it’s a privileged stance to pursue financial independence and I’m cognizant of the many advantages Mr. FW and I had growing up and continue to appreciate. At the same time, I think financial independence is within reach for far more people than the slim minority of us pursuing it.
Finding Your Bliss
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to life and there is no magic balm we can buy to ameliorate our problems. When we slough off the assumption of working jobs we don’t like in order to buy things we don’t need, we’re able to free our minds and imagine an alternative course. Learning what edifies our souls, brings us lasting joy, and enables us to project positivity into the world is the only answer to our problems. And I’m pretty sure it’s not sold in stores.