Inflate Your Usefulness, Not Your Lifestyle

Lifestyle inflation is a popular personal finance metaphor for the phenomenon of expenses endlessly rising to match (or surpass) income. It captures the predicament of the 37% of Americans living in one of the world’s richest countries who claim to be too broke to save. And it describes what those pretending to poor want to avoid. Bloated spending not only causes financial problems, it also makes people less useful. It ties up time and money so that it all has to be spent on lifestyle maintenance, leaving less room for meaningful pursuits like family, friends, and volunteering. Plus, when life is centered on convenience and acquisition, people miss out on the satisfaction of becoming handy, resourceful, and helpful.

But those of us who don’t inflate our lifestyle also face potential danger. Have you ever thought about what you are inflating instead? We need to invest in something we can put stock in, and I don’t mean the stock market. If all you inflate is your bank or retirement account, you’re missing out. Saving and investing are worthy, responsible steps that we preach. But we all know there’s more to life than money. Most people think this “more” is freedom: from the 9 to 5, having to worry about money, or keeping up with the Joneses. Freedom is depicted as early retirement, working for yourself, traveling-hacking, or otherwise finding happiness outside materialism.

These are all appealing replacements to lifestyle inflation. But will they pay the dividends of a joyful and productive life? It’s easy to place false hope in the financial freedom or frugal ecstasy so often promised. A growing body of research documents the correlation between increased wealth and decreased interpersonal skills, emotional health, and happiness:

  • Lonely At The Top, by Thomas Joiner, documents the tragic pattern of men achieving success and wealth, only to find themselves without companionship.
  • In the Boston Globe article “Why It Matters That Our Politicians Are Rich” Britt Peterson reports, “Rich people have a harder time connecting with others, showing less empathy to the extent of dehumanizing those who are different from them. They are less charitable and generous. They are less likely to help someone in trouble.”
  • Richard Ryan’s report in The Annual Review of Psychology (2001) found that a focus on financial and material goals correlated to a lower sense of well-being and found money is not a reliable predictor of happiness.
  • Madeline Levine’s The Price of Privilege states the “newly identified at-risk group is preteens and teens from affluent, well-educated families.” These privileged kids are more likely to suffer from depression and other emotional ill health.

Yikes! There is a real gravity toward these scary outcomes for the wealthy. Pursuing wealth for different reasons doesn’t make us immune. Let’s heed these warnings and not let the journey to so-called freedom make us slaves to side hustles and financial goals. We want to remain flexible while increasing our financial flexibility, and the key lies in what we’re inflating along the way.

To us pretending to be poor is about inflating our usefulness at the same time we invest for future needs. Our financial journey isn’t just about us, or even our family.  If we get to “retire” early, that’s just icing on the cake, because we’re using our time and money to build a good life NOW. And the good life is not just about geeking out over spreadsheets, net worth, and shopping at ALDI. It’s not just about finding happiness in frugal hacks and free pleasures. The good life is about helping others.

The outcome of inflating your usefulness isn’t to leave yourself destitute, but to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share,  storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed” (1 Timothy 6:18, 19). So how can deflating your lifestyle inflate your usefulness?

  1. Work to live, don’t live to work. A good work ethic is important, but working constantly while ignoring family, friends, faith, and those in need is not a balanced or healthy life. If you’re hustling for the proverbial dangled carrot, maybe it’s time to free yourself from the rat race, not necessarily by retiring early, but by deflating your usefulness so you don’t need that carrot.
  2. Get useful by DIYing. Some people feel excited when they find the next new product that will make their life easier. Don’t get me wrong, I love my microwave and dishwasher. But others seek accomplishment in spending less, and this often results in becoming more useful. For example, I love Indian food, but I don’t love spending money at restaurants. So I’m learning to make Indian food. Neil enjoys riding his bike because it’s free exercise and saves on transportation costs. For both of us these money-saving measures are enjoyable in part because we feel accomplished after a challenge.
  3. Share the usefulness. Now that you have amassed helpful DIY skills, you can help other people. When someone need helps with a broken car or house, you can help. When someone loves Indian food, you can cook. You are saving other people money, perhaps teaching them useful skills, and feeling satisfied by widening your sphere of usefulness. Even if you don’t have amazing skills, simply by making time to help others you will find a world of needs to meet. Volunteering for an after school program, the high school group at church, to help a friend move, or to babysit are all ways we’ve found to be useful. Other ideas include volunteering at a nursing home or hospice center, Habitat for HumanityBig Brothers Big Sisters, English tutoring for refugees, mentoring teens in prison, or taking a short-term missions trip. (I’m going to India this summer!)
  4. It is better to give than to receive. Freeing up money to give to charitable or faith-based causes is hugely rewarding, and, need I mention, helpful! For example, donating to disaster relief in Nepal would expand your usefulness to a global scale. Yes, you have to do a little research to make sure an organization is trustworthy. But there are lots of reputable places and you can check them out on charitywatch.org or ministrywatch.org. Or visit a local food bank, after school program, or homeless shelter and check it out yourself.
  5. Be a good friend. The research on sad, rich Americans should be sobering. Thankfully the antidote is simple and free: have friends. Caring about other people and sharing life together can keep you grounded and balanced throughout your financial journey. You’ll avoid ending up lonely at the top, and you’re bound to be useful if you’re a good friend.

Titus 3:14 describes usefulness well: “Our people must learn to do good by meeting the urgent needs of others; then they will not be unproductive.”

What DIY success are you most proud of? What have you learned from sharing your time or money with others? 

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33 Responses to “Inflate Your Usefulness, Not Your Lifestyle”

  1. Kate says :

    I love DIY! And also I believe that it’s better to give than to receive.

  2. Abigail says :

    Unfortunately, I’m not as good at DIY as I’d like. Chronic fatigue makes it difficult to get around to things, and that affects how long I’m willing to try to fix something myself. I still try.

    Same thing with volunteering. I just don’t have the extra energy for it. But I do really need to figure out some charitable donations to make. Once we pay for Tim’s $25,000 oral surgery, anyway.

    • Kalie says :

      I guess the bigger picture is living with a purpose instead of living for money or stuff. That looks differently depending on your situation.

  3. Kurt says :

    I think research shows that wealth and income, after a surprisingly low level, do not boost happiness or satisfaction with life. Still, most seem desperately to pursue money as if their very lives depended on padding their bank accounts. Maybe the root challenges is our addiction to acquisition–the hunger for more seems insatiable for many. Sad that many simply never realize how easy it is to feel satisfied and build a very high quality life.

    • Kalie says :

      Yes, there is a lot of research showing that more wealth doesn’t make people happier. You’re so right that materialism is another type of addiction, and one which we’re all prone to and often goes unchallenged in our culture. Contentment is the key to finding joy in any financial situation. We “pretend to be poor” compared to the mainstream but in fact lead a luxurious lifestyle from a global or historical perspective.

  4. Jen Atkinson says :

    My circle of friends usually calls these skills “post-zombie-apocalypse life skills.”

    • Kalie says :

      That’s so funny. Our friends always joke they’ll come to our house in case of the apocalypse. Unfortunately I’m not sure we’re quite that useful yet!

  5. Tyler says :

    Great article, I read financial article after article and though yes living on less and saving is very important if you have no goal in mind then it’s useless. First thing you need to do is decide what type of life you want, what’s important and what isn’t, then figure out how to get there. But don’t stay so focused on the destination that you don’t enjoy the journey.

  6. Hannah says :

    This is an incredible article about valuing human connection and worshipping God rather than just trying to amass huge wealth. I love your perspective.

  7. DC YoungAdultMoney says :

    “Be a good friend” is great advice. The janitor at my work has a bag that says “it’s better to have friends than money.” It’s really stuck with me. I feel like I’ve had a lot less capacity the past 2 years to invest in friendships, mainly because I’m in debt, trying to move up in my career, trying to pursue my MBA, etc. I tell myself it’s a season but it really would be nice to have more balance.

    • Kalie says :

      It’s certainly hard to make and maintain friendships once the career and family phase of life begins. I don’t know that I’ll ever feel balanced about it, but trying to integrate helps. Like being friends with the parents of your children’s friends, or those you go to work, school, or church with. Since you’re already together, this makes it a little easier time-wise.

  8. ZJ Thorne says :

    Helping others now and not as a promise to the future is so important. Great post; thanks for writing it.

  9. tim says :

    Kalie,

    Have you checked out https://www.thelifeyoucansave.org/ to see which charities give the best bang for your buck?

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