On Frugal Aesthetics
Full disclosure: I’m not trained in aesthetics or art. I haven’t taken an art class since it was required in 8th grade, when I considered it divine intervention that I broke my right arm the same week a portrait was assigned. In fact, I spent my school days finding ways to avoid drawing animals or people, and outsourcing artistic tasks to my highly talented sister for payouts as high as $1.
We hear all the time that money can’t buy happiness. But let’s all face it: a nice new piece of clothing can provide some satisfaction as often as every time you wear it. So it’s fair to admit that some purchases do bring us a measure of happiness.
I could leave my walls blank (I did for a long time, actually). I could have kept the ugly kitchen our home came with. Neil could have not commissioned an artist friend to paint us a lovely piece, customized to match our living room and style. I could just wear burlap sacks, or t-shirts from the ’90s, since I’m better stocked on those.
I’ve already preached that Life is not about your preferences. You don’t always have to get your favorite. Everything doesn’t have to be perfect. But everything doesn’t have to be ugly, either! Mostly, we try not too care too much about everything in our house matching, or being new, or our favorite style. But at some point, the not-caring aesthetic starts to become ascetic, and that’s not where we want to live.
My remodeled kitchen (DIY, thanks to Neil & his brothers) makes me happy every day. The green walls and bright paintings remind me of spring all winter. Good art is beautiful. Good design is beautiful. Nice clothes are beautiful. I don’t know enough about art to know exactly why, but these things inherently add pleasure to every day life. Appreciating beauty is part of what makes us human. Even the sometimes stoic Mr. Money Mustache acknowledges the appeal of attractive design.
We don’t need new couches, clothing, cars, homes as often as advertisers suggest, but it’s perfectly appropriate to recognize the pleasure we derive from “unnecessary” aesthetics found in these items. And sometimes, that means we’ll spend money for this.
Ascetics avoid all indulgence and pleasure, while aesthetics place a high value on the pleasure of art and beauty. We’re naturally too pragmatic to view aestheticism as our highest value, but we recognize its place in fostering human happiness. And its capacity to lure us into purchases we didn’t plan for.
Pretending to be poor might sound ascetic, but the rest of the line goes: “to gain great wealth.” We practice some money-saving strategies that sound weird or extreme to some. Camping, raising chickens, and eating lots of peanut butter (I like it!) come to mind. But rest assured: we live in relative luxury, or what we like to think of classic, not extreme frugality.
We’ve harnessed the power of aesthetics in areas we care about, and dismissed it in those we don’t. I don’t care mind wearing layers of wool around the house, but I do retain some sense of personal style when I dress to go out. I don’t see the need for a matching bedroom set, since I don’t notice such details when I’m asleep. But I’m grateful on a daily basis that Neil remodeled the kitchen before we moved in. And refurnished and decorated the living room while I was in India.
Acknowledging our aesthetic bent helps us avoid unhealthy extremes. For example, we wouldn’t go into debt for matching furniture, home repair, or even a car. We can wait for our favorites while prioritizing other financial goals. But we also don’t want to deny ourselves simple pleasures that are within reason. Doing so could turn into a backward materialism if we seek to avoid any form that goes beyond function. Or it could backfire and lead to overspending if we become fed up and feel deprived. Contentment goes a lot further in building motivation than unnecessary restrictions can.
Keep aesthetics in perspective by opening an old photo album. The design fads of yesteryear often appear tacky in retrospect. The silhouettes that seem essential now will be outdated soon enough. Maybe the trendy look or cutting edge technology you’re drooling over today will be old news by the time you save up for the purchase. Maybe that’s a good thing.
Harness your aesthetic sense by noticing which belongings bring you happiness. Cultivate contentment by taking the time to be grateful for those things. Next time you’re drawn to buy something because it’s pretty, consider whether it’ll have the effect you desire. Buying a gorgeous new dress you’ll wear once a year won’t provide the same satisfaction as “investing” in artwork, a garden, or even the perfect pair of every day shoes. But each person’s aesthetic tastes and values are unique. Let you, not advertisers, be the judge of what will bring a little joy into your days.
1 Timothy 6:17 sums up the tension between not living for material things, but enjoying what we do have: “Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy.”
Do you tend to be more ascetic or aesthetic? What areas are worth spending on aesthetics for you?