The Joy That Comes When Less Is Enough
Welcome to any new folks joining us for the first time after our feature in Forbes yesterday. We’re delighted you’re here and we hope you’ll frugal on with us. Feel free to say hi in the comments!
Ours is a culture of excess. The relentless barrage from the media tells us that our happiness is dependent upon our ability to consume and conform.
There’s no glamour in doing without. We’re consistently told there are ways we can improve our lives and that we should enter a perpetual arms race of purchasing in order to demonstrate success and worth.
Contentment isn’t part of the equation. Achieving a sense of ‘enough‘ isn’t feasible since there’s a continual manufactured need for more, better, newer. But far from this commonly accepted mode of stuff-acquisition, I think the rarity of something’s occurrence serves to enhance its enjoyment.
Happiness Is Relative
As humans, we calibrate ourselves to the state we’re in and although we all have the capacity to experience pleasure, our ability to fully appreciate it becomes deadened by routine exposure. Money can be traded for neat stuff. That’s fine and we all do it. But when we always trade money for neat stuff, it’s easy for neat to become normal and for us to require even more neat stuff in order to attain the same level of thrill that our initial purchase wrought. For example, what starts as a once-a-week latte treat can escalate to a daily caffeine fix that we feel we deserve and must have.
This harkens to the concept of hedonic adaption–the idea that by constantly giving ourselves rewards or exposure to happiness, we reduce the overall effectiveness of these positive events. Related is the idea of abundance denial, whereby we negate the importance or value of wonderful things in our lives. For example, we look at our refrigerator full of food and declare we have nothing to eat and should order take-out. We can all construct a reality in which we’re deprived. I could look down at the hand-me-down clothes I’m wearing right now and feel that I’m somehow underprivileged when in reality, I’m far more fortunate than most people in the world.
Rarity As A Good Thing?
I don’t experience rarity as a negative; rather, it’s a means to calibrate my internal pleasure metrics. With incessant shots of consumer-driven short-term pleasures, our expectations creep up. We begin to assume we’re eternally owed a treat or a surprise. Frequent stimulation of our pleasure centers through food, going out, or new clothes permanently dulls our ability to recognize and appreciate the state of contentment.
This past weekend, Mr. Frugalwoods and I spent a delightful few days in Burlington, Vermont. Our expenses were covered in full since Mr. FW was attending a work conference and I was a tag-along spouse. He received a daily allowance to spend on food, which was ample enough to cover our meals and coffees out on the town. Being frugal weirdos who essentially never eat out, we seized this opportunity to sample delicious restaurant meals all weekend. We dined on pub food, Indian food, sandwich food, Italian food, brunch food, Thai food, and coffee after coffee. In short, we lived it up.
I actually wrote this post while sipping a divine café au lait in an art gallery/bike storage facility(?)/coffee shop (in other words, my kinda place). Although we don’t eat out regularly, we know good food when we taste it and we relish the flavors a restaurant is able to provide. However, Mr. FW sagely pointed out over a scrumptious lunch of spinach feta garbanzo bean salad with Vermont cheddar and smoked turkey sandwiches that our enjoyment of these meals would’ve been dampened if we ate out all the time.
We likely would’ve found something wanting with the food, complained about the service, and otherwise experienced less of a high with our weekend of decadence. But as it was, since eating out is so very novel for us, we got a kick out of every minute. We savored each morsel and raved about each meal. Were they the very best meals ever? Probably not, but the key is that they were for us. The rarity of our eating out augmented the dose of pleasure we received from every bite.
Frugality Breeds Contentment
Our lifestyle of extreme frugality simplifies our existence and decreases our reliance on the ephemeral consumer euphoria that most people consider rote. It’s through this simplicity that we experience greater, more meaningful long-term contentment.
We’re remarkably charmed by our comfortable daily routines. Waking up together, taking Frugal Hound out for her morning walk, and then settling in at our kitchen table for a leisurely breakfast of $0.10 oats and Costco coffee is our ideal morning–and it’s what we do every single day. Our plan to retire early in a few short years, at age 33, to a homestead in the woods of Vermont will further solidify this creation of our optimal life.
We’ve permanently built contentment and a sense of enough into our lives. We don’t crave brunches out because we’re consistently at peace with our mode of living. When we do eat brunch out (as we did last weekend), we marvel at its novelty and differentiation from our norm. But it doesn’t supplant what we consider our key to lasting gratification–straightforward frugality and an understanding of what we truly want out of life.
Road Bump Opiates
The easiest way to assuage pain, compensate for an aggravating day at the office, or cure boredom is to buy something. I won’t deny that. There are plenty of afternoons at work where I find myself thinking “ugh, I’m so frustrated, maybe I’ll just go buy a muffin to make this day pass more quickly.” Fortunately, I manage to stop myself with the realization that a muffin can’t make my afternoon any better–in fact, it’ll end up irking me further. I’ll have spent money and consumed calories I don’t need. Then I’ll feel sluggish from the sugar and disappointed in myself.
While the cost of a muffin is relatively negligible, it’s a perfect example of what I like to call “road bump opiates.” In my mind, a road bump opiate is anything that clouds our ability to reach our true goals.
A road bump opiate is something we buy that’ll make our lives easier in the short-term, but that’ll ultimately detract from what we’re trying to accomplish. That muffin would serve as a double road bump opiate for me–it would thwart both my healthy eating regimen as well as my financial goals.
Where road bump opiates really gain traction and derail us is when they’re substantially larger than a muffin. Cars, houses, boats–things of that sort. They amp our adrenalin, animate us, and we want to have them… now! But if we stop to question why we want them, we might discover that we’re hoping they’ll fix a problem they were never designed to ameliorate.
Let’s take the classic American example of the car. What is a car’s intended function? To transport humans when other modes of transit (biking, walking, public) aren’t accessible or practical. Owning a car is something Mr. FW and I enjoy. We have no intention of ever going carless (been there, done that, don’t need to try it again). But we don’t expect our car to execute any role other than transportation.
We like our car because it takes us to the grocery store and Costco with ease, it provides a means to escape the city and hike, and it gives us the freedom to go anywhere we want. In short, we value our 19-year-old Frugalwoods-mobile because as as car, she performs her intended purpose. We don’t use our car as a stand-in for status, beauty, or to demonstrate success (though she is pretty rocking with all of her rust stains, dents, and blemishes). Those are not the duties a car is supposed to offer, yet many people employ their cars as such and pay handsomely for the privilege.
When we try to force material goods to serve as stand-ins for human emotions, we inevitably find ourselves sorely disappointed. A car can’t love you or bring you real friends or make you powerful or attract a partner of any merit. But it’s ridiculously easy to walk into a dealership, sign a lease (the horror!), and drive away. It’s far more challenging to concentrate on the root of what’s troubling us.
The Joy Wrought By Our Dishwasher
Mr. Frugalwoods confessed to me the other day that he gets a rush of excitement every time he loads the dishwasher. I smiled because I love my husband and adore that he both cooks dinner and cleans up the kitchen. I wondered briefly if he might have a new dishwasher fetish we’d have to contend with, but he quickly explained himself. You see, we haven’t always had a dishwasher.
We lived without one in our first apartment and hence, washed every dish by hand. This wasn’t a massive hardship and we didn’t really mind. But, when we bought our house complete with a dishwasher, our eyes were opened to the glory that is mechanized kitchen clean-up.
Since we lived without one, we’re able to genuinely appreciate and revel in the wonder of this household appliance. Conversely, if we’d always had a dishwasher and never experienced the glee of hand washing every fork we used, we’d probably be somehow dissatisfied with our dishwasher since it’s not top of the line or particularly stellar in any respect.
After Mr. FW explained his dishwasher philosophy, I realized I feel the exact same way about our washer and dryer, which are located in our basement. In the city, it’s not terribly common to have in-house laundry facilities and we lived without them in our early apartments. We’d trek to the laundromat every week and shell out quarters to watch our clothes spin around in communal machines.
Now, I just pop downstairs anytime I want to run a load and then, I have the extreme luxury of hanging our clothes to dry on the lines we’ve installed in the basement. I’m thankful when I do the laundry now because it’s nearly effortless, accessible, and most of all, because I know exactly how difficult it is to make that weekly laundromat sojourn. When you’ve had to do without something, you recognize and appreciate the satisfaction its presence brings to your life.
Fighting The False Need
Our consumer culture inculcates the message that we can’t be happy if we’re without. That we can’t experience joy if we’re lacking in any of the million products vended to us on a daily basis. But more often than not, these products fill false needs, created by marketers to convince us of our shortcomings. From beauty products, which are sold on the premise that there’s something wrong with how we look naturally, to baby supplies, which are marketed to new parents primarily on the basis of fear, to the countless items touted as “treat yo’self” balms. None of this stuff creates fulfillment or enduring bliss.
All this spending circumvents the authentic question of what we want out of life. These purchases eat around the edges of our lives and pull us inter ever-deeper and more intractable webs of consumption. The more we buy, the more we perceive we need.
Our culture espouses continual consumption as the answer to all ills. But in reality, it only serves to chain us to the consumer carousel of endless buying. Conversely, if we allow ourselves to step outside of this buying-focused mindset, we can start to address the actual stuff of life. How are we fulfilled? Where are we happiest? When are we appeased?
For Mr. FW and me, achieving financial independence is about achieving the life we were meant to live, not the life we have to live. Through frugality, we all have the option to pursue a passion outside the norm and chart a non-traditional path that brings us internal satisfaction. When we remove ourselves from the “shoulds” of consumer culture, we open our minds to the possibilities of what we want to do with our lives, not what we want to buy.