Seven years ago, Mr. Frugalwoods and I moved to Washington, DC so that I could go to grad school (while working full-time) and Mr. FW could advance in his career. For the previous three years, we’d lived below ground in a sunlight-challenged basement apartment in Cambridge, MA. We were ready to upgrade. Our underground existence made us feel deprived and we thought we deserved something better. We wanted to be above ground, we wanted more than one bedroom, and we were ready to spend on it.
In an ill-advised financial move–one I shudder at today–we decided to rent an entire townhouse on Capitol Hill. True, it was a good deal for the amount of space we got, but did we actually need that much square footage for two people? No, we most certainly did not.
We stretched our budget in order to get the luxury we craved: natural sunlight, two bedrooms, and quite a gorgeous home. And we did love living there the two years we spent in DC, but it was a classic example of completely unnecessary, entirely too expensive, and wholly unwise lifestyle inflation.
We could’ve saved heaps of money had we instead chosen a more reasonably-priced smaller apartment. However, we allowed ourselves to be lured into thinking we deserved such a nice townhouse. That we’d worked hard and should reward ourselves. It is so easy to fall victim to this predilection because it’s the example we’re inundated with. This mentality is piped into our televisions and radios (admittedly both of these are actually streaming over the internet… ) and newspapers and–perhaps more relevant–our Facebook feeds: everyone else has something better, so we should too!
A Caveat On Privilege
Before we delve into everything that’s wrong with our consumer-obsessed culture, permit me a disclaimer. Research has proven that there’s a threshold of income a person needs in order to be happy. A person requires enough money to meet their basic needs: a safe home, adequate nutritious food, reliable transportation, health care, etc. Without these prerequisites, it is difficult–though not impossible–to achieve higher order aspirations such as self-actualization.
For people in poverty struggling to meet such basic needs, the below treatment of consumer culture would come as an insensitive affront, which is certainly not my intention. Rather, understand the below through the lens of plenty that most of us are fortunate enough to enjoy. It is with the full knowledge that not everyone has these essentials that we proceed.
It’s also true that Mr. FW and I are profoundly privileged. Sure, we worked hard and made some good financial decisions, but we also got lucky. I never want to lose sight of the privilege that’s inherent to my elective frugality versus the challenges inherent to required frugality.
If you’re interested in reading more of my thoughts on privilege and its role in financial independence, you might enjoy:
- The Privilege Of Pursuing Financial Independence
- Starting The Thanksgiving Season With Gratitude
- Striving For Compassion In A World Of Judgement
- Why I Won’t Judge Your Spending
And now, back to today’s topic…
Are We Deprived Or Are We Fortunate?
We all have the power to construct a reality in which we’re deprived or in which we’re surrounded by great abundance–not by changing anything about our physical surroundings, or our material wealth, but by changing our perception. A number of different metrics calculate that we in the Western world currently live in one of the great eras of prosperity. There are certainly individual experiences to the contrary, but on the whole, we are in a profoundly privileged epoch.
And yet, many of us find that we’re trapped in cycles of unhappiness. Whether we’re endlessly comparing ourselves to others, or striving for perfection, or consumed with worry over what people might think of us–we set ourselves up for discontent. It’s what author Gregg Easterbrook terms “abundance denial,” which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: we’re awash in plenty yet we perceive that our lives are inadequate. We trick ourselves into believing that we are, in fact, deprived. And that belief leads us to spend and consume in a vain effort to fill a void that we’ve fabricated.
Why Ignoring Advertisements Will Make You Happier
What I’ve found–and plenty of research backs this up–is that our materialistic society militates against happiness. The very framework of a consumer culture necessitates that we constantly want more and that we’re never content with what we have.
Marketers are forever dangling the latest and greatest for us to crave. Without this persistent feedback that we are somehow lacking, we might do something crazy like go three years without buying any clothes. The ratio of things we buy out of sheer need versus the things we buy because we want them is radically weighted towards the latter. That’s how our economy works. If we all bought only what we needed, we’d all be financially independent frugal weirdos.
In addition to the drain on our money, this constant desire–I’d even say greed–for what we don’t have makes us perennially unhappy and unable to experience satiation. Research demonstrates that more choices don’t make us happier–yet that’s what we’ve come to expect in stores and online: endless options for everything from toothpaste to trucks. The notion of rarity as a good thing is all but absent.
When we step on this consumer carousel–and accept the belief that buying yields happiness–we sign up for a lifetime of spending, of wanting, and ultimately, of feeling deprived. Conversely, when we acknowledge that we have ‘enough,’ we can experience peace. Enough food, enough clothing, enough handbags, enough decorative candles, enough shoes, enough greyhound costumes, enough.
It All Comes Back To… Lifestyle Inflation
The end result of all this striving–and being told over and over again that what we have is not enough–is lifestyle inflation from the inside out. When we choose–and it is very much a choice–to see the world through the lens of what we don’t have, we’re setting ourselves up for deep disappointment.
Because there will always be something we don’t own: a newer car, a bigger house, prettier clothes, people who are in better shape, people with better hair, people with less ridiculous-looking dogs. Furthermore, the more we buy, the more we perceive we need and the more we require in order to attain the same level of pleasure–that’s the insidious hedonic treadmill at work.
There’s literally no end to the number of material goods and lifestyles we can lust after. And it’s not just marketing and advertisements–social media wields this same power. It can make our otherwise perfectly fine life feel bland, anemic, and subpar. Why aren’t we on vacation in Hawaii? Why aren’t our kids perfectly dressed? Why isn’t our home breathtakingly Instagram-able!?!
To an extent, jealousy is useful. I used to be jealous of people who wrote for a living, which motivated me to get myself organized and make it happen. But too much jealousy poisons us. It makes us bitter and spiteful. It clouds our ability to see how much good we have in our own lives.
I wrote the other week about finding contentment with a less than perfect home and then last week about owning less than perfect stuff and today, it’s about finding that same peace with a life that’s less than perfect. Because try as we might, and spend as we might, our lives will never be perfect.
Gratitude, Not Greed
I’m sitting at my dining room table right now, which you all well know was $75 on Craigslist (chairs included) and I’m wearing my black “house” pants, which have so many holes they’re about to cross over into the rag bin. Mr. Frugalwoods and Babywoods are reading a hand-me-down book together in our worn leather armchair, another Craigslist artifact, and the floor is strewn with second-hand baby toys.
I could nitpick everything that’s wrong in this tableau–or–I could express gratitude. That choice is entirely within my power. Now, there are numerous elements of privilege that have contributed to my life, for which I’m grateful, but that doesn’t change the fact that I need to consciously choose gratitude over greed.
It’s also a question of how I define myself. Is it through the stuff I own? Or through the stuff I do? I used to do the former, I now try to do the latter. We live in a culture where we can purchase an identity. We can plaster ourselves in brand names and thereby announce to the world our wealth (through the car we drive), or our intelligence (through the laptop we use), or our hipness (through the brands we wear), or our sophistication (through the paper coffee cups we drink from). When we choose this route, we’re enrolling in a lifelong quest for belonging. For meaning. For the ability to prove ourselves. And, as a result, for lifelong purchasing.
Long Term Goals = Gratification
What do you get from a lifetime of always giving in to short term pleasures and never delaying gratification?
Very likely, you get: no savings, quite a bit of debt, and a failure to realize any significant long term goals. Yet this is precisely the myopic pursuit marketing encourages us to follow: treat yourself, indulge your senses, and buy, buy, buy whatever you like!
Frugality, on the other hand, is not about hewing to the path of a miser. Or depriving yourself of every worldly pleasure. Rather, it’s about creating an aim for yourself that’s larger than simply swinging from one credit card transaction to the next. Don’t let instant gratification kill your ability to realize a monumental, long term dream. And don’t spend your way out of the life you’d like to be living.