Wednesday, July 28, 2010
Piece of Advice #59: Opt out of consumerism
Stuff won't make you happy.
Yes, spending money can be fun. It can be an entertaining way to while away the hours or give yourself a momentary boost, but outside of the temporary buying high, it will not add anything to your contentment in life.
Additionally, the little upgrades we all crave - the newer car, the bigger house, the better wardrobe - will not affect your happiness either, because human beings tend toward dissatisfaction, a trait advertising manipulates to amazing effect. Let's say you want a new purse, and you do the smart thing and save your money over time and buy it when you can afford it. You will have that initial excitement of the purchase and the satisfied feeling of having something of value, but in a week or two, after you've carried it around with you and slammed it in your car door or spilled a drink on it - or your friend gets an even nicer one - it'll just be another something you own, and you will find that your real happiness has not changed a bit. Because we are or aren't happy - independently of what we own.
My ancestry is, in significant part, Scottish and Dutch, so thriftiness comes naturally to me. I think about what I'm buying and whether or not it will end up in a closet a year from now, and in the Goodwill bin in two. I buy used if possible. I never go to the mall. I do have a weakness for two things: books and fabric. The extraneous book and fabric stashes in my basement will testify, however, that they have not made me any happier when I gave into temptation and splurged. I now have piles of books and fabric I feel I must read or use because I spent good money to own them.
You can make yourself unhappy by comparing your stuff to the better stuff others have, so it's best to not go there. Also realize that you don't know how financially healthy your conspicuously consumptive friends are. All that glitters is not gold. It's better to live in a small house you can afford and be able to sleep at night than to be drowning in debt to impress your friends and neighbors.
Recently I reminded myself of the above advice. One of my little daydreams is to someday own an older farmhouse with a little land. Something charming with a porch swing and a barn and garden space. My sister found a house like this nearby where she lives, and we drove out to see it. It was lovely. The house was a brick Victorian surrounded by mature walnut trees and neatly trimmed lawn. There was a garden and a tire swing and a big red barn. It reminded me of my grandparents' house and, oh, I could see myself there puttering around the lawn, putting in a flower garden in summer and adding a log to the woodstove in winter. It had a pantry I'd kill for. I made up a whole little story about the life I could live there and how great it would be. Then we did the math, and even given dropping home prices, it was still out of our reach without a sudden inheritance. I had to take out a figurative eraser and rub out the little story I'd mentally written. The end.
But, you know, the thing is, no matter how great that story was, it was still just a story. The things that irritate me about my house now - the toy clutter, the dirty dishes, the dog hair, the stuff that breaks and needs repair - would all be present at my new house. The background image would be different, and the joys and annoyances would change a bit, but my overall happiness is dependent on me - on whether I can be satisfied and grateful with what I have now. And I can. So I don't need a new house.
Our society runs on product consumption, and the messages thrown at you say you will be happier, thinner, richer, sexier, if you buy, buy, buy - but if you skip the retail therapy and opt out of keeping up with the Joneses, you might find you are just as happy. Your finances will be easier to manage as well.