After I started reading personal finance blogs, I started wondering why I never embarked on a rampant spending spree. Lots of people seem to have a story that goes something like this:
I bought wholeheartedly into the “yuppie” lifestyle … we had a gorgeous dining table, but it was stacked full of credit card bills.
– Trent Hamm, The Simple Dollar
I thought about Trent’s “gorgeous dining table” last night as I ate dinner on a table that cost $12.99 from Ikea’s discount section. My pots and pans are a hand-me-down from a friend on active duty in the Army. My couch was a freebie from a neighbor who moved away.
Hmm. My home screams “college student,” but I graduated 7 years ago. And I share the space with my boyfriend, who finished his engineering degree 10 years ago. We could easily afford “nicer” stuff. Why don’t we buy it?
As I mulled over this question, I realized I’ve cultivated a few habits that — as an unintended side effect — prevent me from developing those “wants” that lead to lifestyle inflation.
Habit #1: I Don’t Own a Television
I know, it’s cliche to be one of those anti-TV hipsters, so let me clarify: I love television. I love The Simpsons, The Colbert Report, and yes — I love The Hills, that show about beautiful rich girls living lavishly in Los Angeles.
But too much TV can lead you to compare your lives with the people on-screen. Why don’t I wear designer clothes like Carrie Bradshaw or live in a mansion in Bel-Air?
Our minds tend to see fictional TV characters as role models. These characters don’t need to be “wealthy” to create unrealistic expectations. Look at the cast on Friends, who were far from rich. Their apartment was designed to feel cozy and normal, complete with cooky neighbors and the occasional leak.
Yet no one could afford such a spacious apartment in lower Manhattan on a waitresses’ tips or a sous chef’s wages. Manhattanites, am I wrong?
My avoidance of the screen extends to movies as well. Watch too many flicks featuring a Range Rover driving suburban family with granite countertops, and you’ll start thinking this is “normal.” This is part of being an “adult.”
By the way, I’m not going to harp about advertising or reality television. Those two genres get picked on enough, so I’ll avoid repeating the chorus.
Habit #2: I Take Pride in My Home
From the way I described my apartment, you might imagine it’s a slummy little dump filled with empty beer cans and stale bread.
Not so. (At least, not usually). I take pride in the home, but I don’t equate “pride” with “expensive stuff.” I sweep the floors. I scrub the counters. I painted the walls sunshine yellow. I grow tomatoes and basil on the balcony and, weather permitting, I open the windows to let in fresh air. I even splurged on a $40 painting I bought on a trip to South America that looks gorgeous against our sunny yellow walls.
Despite having a small apartment with no guest room, friends are always dropping by. In part this is because I’m in a great location, but in part it’s because the apartment exudes an upbeat, welcoming vibe. The collection of free furniture dotting the space adds to its eclectic, fun feel.
Habit #3: I Take Pride in My Appearance
The same goes for my looks: I buy clothes that look good, not clothes that are on sale. But here’s a secret: you don’t need many clothes, especially if you love the ones you have.
Last week I wore the same dress to dinner with the same friend on Thursday night and Saturday night. Hey, if it looks good, why not wear it again? My dinner companion didn’t even notice.
But don’t take my word for it — Stella Brennan, a then-31-year-old sales representative from Wisconsin, decided to wear just six articles of clothing continuously for a month. No one noticed — not even her husband.
Her conclusion — “I don’t need all of these clothes” — merited its own article in the New York Times.
Habit #4: I Surround Myself With Frugal Friends
Don’t misinterpret that — I don’t pick my friends based on their spending habits. But I seem to attract people into my life who don’t spend lavishly. Some friends are trying to climb out of debt. Some are graduate students. Some work just enough to “cash up” for their next overseas adventure. Some are single moms. Some are struggling artists, some work in the nonprofit sector and some had a baby immediately after grad school.
The common trait? None of them throw around a lot of disposable cash. Sure, we all go out to dinner together on the weekends — but not one of my friends drives a fancy car.
It’s natural to want to keep up with the Joneses. Instead of fighting human nature, why not make sure the Joneses are frugal, too?
Habit #5: I Have Big Dreams
It’s easy to spend money when you’re bored. Money can endlessly entertain you: shopping, fancy restaurants, buying and installing a Playstation — there’s no limit to ways you can spend money to fill your spare time.
But I have big dreams — or rather, big goals — and I fill my time by pursuing them. These goals have changed over the years: lose 15 pounds, write a fiction novel, learn Italian. The common thread is that all these goals are extremely time-consuming and none of them cost much money.
Let’s say I spend $200 on software that helps me learn Italian, and I use that software 10 hours per week for 8 months. The amount of money I’ve invested compared to the amount of time I’ve used it is a far better value than if I spent money on short-term entertainment to fill my boredom.
The same goes for losing 15 pounds. Let’s say I join a gym for $35 a month. I go there 3 times a week for 1.5 hours at a time. This means I’m at the gym for 18 to 24 hours per month for a value of $35. This is a tiny time-to-money exchange compared to how much I’d spend to entertain myself by going out for drinks for just one night.
More importantly, when I’m not at the gym or writing a novel, I’m thinking about my goals. My focus is on things I want to achieve — not things I want to buy.
I could sit around all day writing about time-to-money exchanges, but here’s the real reason that most goals (other than a desire to climb Mt. Everest) can help you save money: your energy gets directed towards that goal, not towards entertaining yourself through spending and consumption.