Going to Portland, Maine for three days to celebrate our ninth wedding anniversary last month was transcendentally idyllic. Mr. Frugalwoods and I strolled the streets hand in hand, popped into funky shops, and hopped from one culinary delight to the next (you know, beer, coffee, beer, coffee… ). My in-laws watched Babywoods and Frugal Hound for us, which meant we were completely removed from our typical daily responsibilities.
Usually while on vacation, I unpack our suitcase and hang everything up in the hotel closet (always requesting more than the two hangers they provide… ), fold socks in a drawer, and arrange our toiletries by size like so many toy soldiers on the bathroom counter. But this time? I did none of that. We lived like unrepentant bohemians, pulling clothes at random from a disheveled suitcase, munching on cheddar popcorn and Reese’s Pieces peanut butter cups I made us buy before getting to the hotel. And it was divine perfection.
The reason we found this trip so refreshing is that it represented a rare–and therefore, unique–experience for us. And the rarity of something’s occurrence serves to enhance its enjoyment.
Over-saturation, Over-stimulation And Why It Makes Us Unhappy
Repeated exposure to stimulants deadens our ability to derive pleasure from them. These stimulants range from shopping for stuff we don’t need to sugar to dining out. Anything designed to deliver jolts of dopamine and excitement are best if used sparingly.
Take sugar for example. I used to need–nay, require–three packets of Splenda in my coffee every single morning. Try not to gag. Over the years, I’d increased my taste for faux sugar to a near-ridiculous level. I’d acclimated myself to higher and higher levels of need for that saccharine influx and I came to crave it and depend upon it. It’s not like three packets of Splenda make coffee taste good, it’s that I’d become accustomed to it and so I dumped them in every morning on total autopilot.
After embarking on our extreme frugality journey, I was suddenly awakened to a slew of behaviors that I performed ritualistically without much consideration for whether: a) they were good for me; b) I needed them; c) I actually derived any true, lasting pleasure from them. I was a consumer automaton, ritualistically buying new clothes every season, automatically getting a latte if I happened to walk past a coffee shop, dumping a ludicrous amount of ersatz sugar into my coffee mug.
My awakening to frugality started as a focus on areas where I was spending loads of unnecessary money, but it evolved into an awakening of how I use my time writ large and what activities comprise my life. It became–and endures as–a wholesale transformation of how I live. I realized that three packets of Splenda every morning was expensive, probably unhealthy (what’s in that stuff, anyway???), and only served to deaden my tastebuds by repeated overdosing of sweetness. So I scaled back. I reduced my intake to 2.5 packets, then 2, then 1, and finally, I stopped using it altogether.
I was alarmed by coffee’s natural bitterness at first, but I gradually grew to appreciate this natural flavor and enjoy my cup with just a splash of cream. By constantly over-saturating my senses with Splenda, I’d eliminated my body’s ability to appreciate small amounts of sugar. I also used to be a major soda drinker (apparently I had a beverage problem… ) and consumed at least one Coke Zero per day. I was totally reliant on it to get me through an afternoon.
Frugality, again, was my prompt for giving it up because buying flats of soda at the grocery store is freaking expensive! Now, I drink plain seltzer water (made unbelievably cheap by our hacked Sodastream system) with no sugar or flavors and I’m perfectly content. Back in my hedonistic Coke Zero/Splenda days of decadence, plain sparkling water tasted like dirt. Actual dirt. But now, on the rare occasions I do have a sip of soda, I can barely tolerate the overpowering fake sweetness.
The More We Buy, The More We Think We Need
Spending money works in precisely the same way and impacts the same pleasure centers in our brains. We humans have the remarkable ability to acclimate ourselves to almost any level of comfort or deprivation. We can all craft a reality in which we’re deprived or in which we’re surrounded by abundance (with caveats for privilege and the understanding that not everyone enjoys the basic necessities of shelter, food, and safety required for this exercise). Abundance denial is exactly what it sounds like: a failure–or inability–to appreciate our blessings.
The more we treat ourselves–with Splenda, soda, or designer handbags–the more we’ll need in order to achieve our baseline level of happiness. If buying one pair of shoes per month makes us happy, wouldn’t we be even happier with two pairs per month? What about three or four? Hedonic adaptation is the concept that we become accustomed to whatever treats we provide for ourselves and we then need larger and larger doses.
When we sign-up for our culture’s materialistic consumer carousel, we’re signing up for a lifetime of spending money. There is always more to buy, more to crave, and more to convince ourselves we “need.” There is no path to lasting happiness through excessive consumption because you’ll never reach a point of enough. You’ll never look around your home and experience the gratitude of wanting what you already have; rather, you’ll look around your home and constantly identify more things you can buy. Marketing is designed to continually create these false needs for us and to continually convince us that we are lacking and deprived and uncool if we don’t consume at the level that’s advertised to us.
“But buying things makes me happy!” you might be thinking. And you’re right, it does make you happy, but only for a brief period of time. That’s the key–the adrenaline and pleasure of making a purchase fades quite quickly and leaves you casting about for something else to buy. There’s a deeper, more permanent happiness to be had when you stop this cycle and instead start to focus your energies on people, activities, and experiences that are meaningful to you.
It’s also true that you’ll have more time. I often hear the complaint that frugality takes too much time, but I find it’s quite the opposite: frugality takes far less time and frees up your physical and mental energy for fulfilling pursuits. Imagine for a moment if you didn’t have to run a million errands this week: no dry cleaners, no haircuts, no manicures, no dog groomer, no shopping (other than for groceries)… that’s what my weeks are like. I’ve created time and space for myself by ceasing to participate in the consumer carousel.
Rarity As A Virtue
When we instead acknowledge that we do, in fact, have enough, we surrender to a default position of gratitude. We look around our house–that very same house–and think “I am so grateful to have a couch for my kids to snuggle on. I am so thankful we have a roof that doesn’t leak.” We no longer notice the stains on the couch and the scuffs on our furniture or our non-trendy-looking appliances. Instead, we see all of these things as benefits in our lives and evidence of how fortunate we are to have running water and electricity and the ability to safely cook inside our home–all things that many people in the world so desperately need.
If Mr. Frugalwoods and I went on little vacations every single month, I am willing to bet that we wouldn’t enjoy them as much as we did our rare Portland getaway. Since this trip was such an anomaly for us, we were able to delight in every aspect of it. We don’t eat out very often (usually once per month) and so the novelty of dining out for every meal for several days was positively revelatory.
Our thrill at novelty isn’t stymied by overexposure. In this way, we not only save money, we also enjoy a lifestyle in which we appreciate treats in a reverent, almost awe-filled way. Rarity is what yields this capacity for unbridled enjoyment. And the great thing is, anyone can create this space for rarity in their lives. Mr. FW and I used to eat out at least once every single week and it wasn’t until we stopped doing that and started treating restaurant meals as rare exceptions to our routine that we began to truly appreciate them in full.
We can acclimate ourselves to the expectation of dining out weekly; or, we can calibrate our lives to delight in such a treat on an infrequent basis. We’ve also smoothed out our happiness curve by creating a lifestyle in which we’re consistently content. We’ve eliminated many of the thrill and expense-related spikes from our lives–gifts, constant dining out, treating ourselves–which has instead enabled us to experience greater, lasting happiness on a regular, daily basis.
Why Our Consumer Culture Militates Against Happiness
Happy people don’t buy as much stuff. Happy people don’t seek to fill voids in their lives through purchasing things they don’t need. Happy people know that material goods aren’t stand-ins for human emotions. Happy people are aware that their happiness stems from how they use their time, their impact on the world, the experiences they have, the people they surround themselves with, and the daily routine they follow. Happiness has nothing to do with spending money. But marketing fights against this reality in an effort to convince us to fill manufactured needs.
Research has proven that more choices make us less happy, and yet, everywhere we turn, we’re inundated with an endless ream of choices–everything from toothpaste to cars pours in on us in an inexorable deluge of options. This prolific ability to choose is marketed to us as liberation, but I (and research backs me up here) find it an exhausting, defeating proposition. And so? I allow my frugality to cure the paralysis by analysis that starts to creep over me as I face a wall of material choices. I disengage from the consumer machine, I say no, I realize I don’t need it after all, I buy the cheapest option (works with stuff like toothpaste), or I buy it used (works with stuff like cars). By reducing the number of choices I face on a daily basis, I liberate my time as well as my brain–so much energy can be funneled into making the decision of what to buy. For me? I’d rather funnel that time and effort into something meaningful, something tangible.
Our culture writ large doesn’t encourage temperance or restraint. Frugality is viewed as miserly and boring. But in reality, it’s the golden ticket that delivers us off the hedonic treadmill and out of the “you never have enough” mentality and away from the buy-your-way-to-happiness prompts that we’re all old enough to know are empty, false promises.
Frugality is not about depriving yourself, it’s about reconstructing your worldview so that you need less, want less, and spend less in order to achieve a higher level of happiness. Spending is a vicious cycle of always feeling that happiness is out of your reach whereas frugality engenders a virtuous cycle of knowing that what you have is indeed enough.