“I’ve had a tough day, so I’ll treat myself to take-out tonight… just this once.” We’ve all been there, we’ve all said this, and we all know it’s never just this once. The “treat yourself” mentality that’s so prevalent right now is all about impermanent balms to soothe our overall frustration or discontent with the trajectory of our lives. The idea that we’ll transform our core happiness by indulging ourselves with new shoes or a fancy meal out is patently false (it even sounds ridiculous when I write it!).
Treat yourself stymies our financial goals with continual hits of capitalism that prevent us from achieving a lasting joy in our lives.
I’ll Never Get There
I think the concept of treat yourself underlies the belief–or insecurity–that we’ll never realize our deeply held dreams. And if we’re never going to reach our actual aspirations, then why not buy a bunch of random stuff to make ourselves feel better in the short term?
I used to fall victim to this notion more often than I’d like to admit. It felt like the ambitions Mr. Frugalwoods and I had were so distant and gigantic that we’d never save enough money to accomplish them. And so, the temptation to live it up in the moment became a problem for us, mostly in the form of take-out and restaurant meals (sidenote: what is it about food that’s so tempting and budget-derailing??? or is that just me?).
This mentality can play out across all financial decisions from the daily latte to the very home we live in. If we perceive, for example, that we’ll never save enough for a downpayment on a house, we might be apt to rent a fancy, expensive apartment as opposed to making do with a cheaper place that’d enable us to sock away cash every month. And in this way, our fears become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
There’s nothing wrong with loving life as it currently is and enjoying the journey to an eventual dream. Indeed, this is an important element of avoiding perpetual consumption. But the danger is when the journey becomes all that there is. The danger is when we start to experience life as one interminable slog after another–an incessant displeasure with our daily routine, pepped up only by the occasional treat.
We all have the capacity to be more than that, to transcend merely surviving and instead go about the business of truly living. The balance is to find peace in the present moment, while remaining focused on larger ends. And I don’t think this mindset stops once we attain goals, it’s more of an ongoing commitment to self-improvement.
Saving for the future isn’t easy. It requires that we tamp down the wheedling “I want it NOW!” voice that invariably crops up. But more important than ignoring this voice, it’s about re-training ourselves so that we’re not plagued by incessant consumer desires.
And the media isn’t our friend in this endeavor–advertisers want nothing more than for all of us to continually treat ourselves with junk we don’t need. So much air time is devoted to the myth that euphoria is at the other end of a sales transaction. And sure, it does feel good to buy stuff–there’s a rush of excitement over bringing something new into our lives, but it’s an ephemeral joy that isn’t grounded in anything meaningful.
It’s Never Just This Once
One of the most insidious aspects of the treat yourself mindset is that it’s never just a one-time thing and, we slowly begin to need more and more over time. As we acclimate to the jolts of pleasure we derive from one purchase, we develop an immunity. Thus the next time, we require two purchases to render that same positive response. Much like taking medication when we don’t legitimately need it, buying things we don’t need serves to feed an addiction.
This hedonic adaptation is what keeps us consuming and, ultimately, what ensures we’re never content with what we do have. The universal truth is that there will always be more. We will never be the richest, or the best dressed, or drive the snazziest car because there’s always another level of opulence to crave. Greed is insidious and once we step on that consumer carousel, it’s nearly impossible to disembark. Conversely, when we acknowledge that we have enough, we can be at peace.
Nothing is more fulfilling than relishing what you already have and reveling in gratitude for what we’ve been given. I’m never happier than when I do this. And I have to remind myself to feel this way–it’s a conscious decision I make to step back and express thanks for everything I have in life. But when I do, I’m overcome with serenity. And all I did was recognize what I already have! The mind is a powerful partner is our financial and life journeys–if we allow it to guide us towards insight and reflection, it’s incredible how much gratification we can generate on our own.
Treat Yourself: The Downfall Of A Generation?
Did our grandparents treat themselves? They most certainly did not. Treat yourself, in my observation, is a uniquely modern convention stemming from a culture that praises excess. While people have surely always wasted their money, the options for doing so are now astronomically greater. The preponderance of shops and gadgets and restaurants and coffee shops and bars is positively overwhelming to the modern consumer. There seems to be no shortage of innovation in ways for us to spend our money. Look no further than the preposterous app economy convenience products, which foster the idea that with the click of a button, your problems are solved!
Take Blue Apron, for example, which purports to save you money by enabling you to cook at home. So you sign up for a ludicrously high membership price and they deliver all of the ingredients for a meal to your doorstep. And somehow we’re lulled into thinking this will save us money. In the olden days, folks looked on the internet for a free recipe, made a list of those ingredients on their smartphone, went to the grocery store, purchased these very same ingredients, and created these very same meals for a fraction of the cost. I mean seriously, it’s not like you even have to go check a cookbook out from the library anymore.
Then there’s these absurd box-a-month deals that deliver a box of random junk to you 12 times a year. This is literally buying for the sake of buying. You don’t need these things–you don’t even know what these things are!
It’s a fascinating–and alarming–societal development that the availability of immediate treats is now higher than ever. I imagine it’s correlated with the fact that, by and large, people have more disposable income. And instead of saving those extra funds for a longterm gain (like a home, or a paid-off car, or financial independence), the norm is to spend that money on treating ourselves. But my question is, to what end? What do you get after 30 years of treat yourself? You’re still paying down your student loans, you’re still renting an apartment you can barely afford, you still have a car payment, and you hope that you might be able to perhaps eek out retirement at age 65.
Finding Purpose In This Landscape Of Consumption
I’m not saying that extreme frugality is for everyone–it’s most certainly not. And I’m not saying that early retirement should be everyone’s objective–it most certainly shouldn’t. But what I am saying is that we, as a society, are spending ourselves into oblivion. We’re valuing the accrual of stuff and fleeting pleasures above all else. The inextricable link we’re making between buying and happiness is a terrifying connection. Where is fulfillment in all of this? Where is community-minded support, sharing, and bartering? Where is self-enfranchisement if all we do is spend money? If I could pick one touchstone to demonstrate pop culture’s utter misunderstanding of how life works, it would be the concept of treat yourself.
Carving out a life that’s not beholden to spending money is challenging in this prevailing ethos, but it’s not impossible. Treat yourself is a failure to plan for the longterm, and moreover, a failure to see hope in the longterm. But it’s not a depressing topic, rather it’s a wake-up call for us all that we should strive to live in discord with this ideology and instead, be people of enduring passion and purpose. Consuming does not constitute a hobby or a skill, our material possessions do not define who we are, and we are all capable of focusing our energies on productive, meaningful outlets. We can all create instead of consume.