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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 Humanity, Big 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!)
- 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.
- 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?
How to Pursue Happiness
Happiness has been a hot topic this summer in the personal finance blogosphere. Mr. Money Moustache, Frugalwoods, Our Next Life, and ThinkSaveRetire have all shared their philosophy of happiness recently.
It’s great that the money people are taking on transcendent topics. There’s more to life than money, as we all agree. Keeping our happiness in view helps us balance and direct our financial goals within the bigger picture of life.
But before we embrace any philosophical belief, we must scrutinize its underlying assumptions. I’m all for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” but I want to do it right. The foundational presuppositions of the “primarily pursue happiness” viewpoint include:
- We know what will make us happy.
- What makes us happy is good for us.
- Happiness can be pursued directly.
Do We Know What Will Make Us Happy?
Before making happiness our life’s goal, we’d want to be confident that we can predict what will make us happy. Plenty of research suggests we can’t do so reliably. A couple good TED talks on the topic:
- Getting what we want doesn’t make people any happier than not getting what they want.
- Happiness isn’t linked to circumstances.
And surely we’ve all experienced a failure to forecast what will satisfy. For example, I never wanted to marry. Then I tied the knot at age 20 and have been happily married for 10 years. People think a career in business will make them happy only to return to school for a teaching degree a few years later. And we’ve all made fun purchases, thinking the object or experience will make us happy, only to look to the next purchase all too soon.
Is What Makes Us Happy Good For Us?
It’s easy to think of examples of unhealthy things that make people feel happy, but there are plenty of legal, good pastimes, possessions, or traits that make us happy for a while, but don’t deliver in the long run. Hollywood is littered with successful, beautiful, wealthy people whose utter unhappiness is tragically on display, and we’ve all known plenty of cases close to home, too.
- People who have traits others believe comprise happiness—wealth, smarts, beauty, talent—actually report lower happiness levels than their average counterparts.
- Olympic gymnastics gold medalist Shawn Johnson described how disappointing her Olympic experience was.
- Quarterback Tom Brady reported feeling completely empty despite his hugely successful football career, massive wealth, and supermodel wife.
- Dave Chappell ran away to South Africa after making $50 million by age 32, and stated “It seems the higher up I go, the less happy I am.”
- Sigmund Freud declared that the “pursuit of happiness is a doomed quest.”
- The author of Ecclesiastes recorded the results of his search for happiness. He tried women, wine, work, wealth, and education. His conclusion? “Thus I considered all my activities which my hands had done and the labor which I had exerted, and behold all was vanity and striving after the wind and there was no profit under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 2:11).
We want to find the perfect cocktail of financial stability, hobbies, friends, productivity, and creativity to make us happy. But what if it can’t? We are prone to imbalance and to wanting “too much of a good thing.” Even more subtly dangerous is wanting too much from a good thing.
Conversely, is what makes us unhappy bad for us? It all depends. Of course unhealthy pursuits and relationships are toxic, but periods of suffering are often viewed as the most redemptive or life-changing within a few years. An American Sociological Association study showed childless couples are happier than those with children. Of course! Raising kids is HARD! While I often feel unhappy when I’m being nagged, woken up, or pooped on, I am so happy that I have children. I’ve grown a lot already and the whole experience is very humbling and amazing.
Can Happiness Be Pursued Directly?
The reason our plans for happiness tend to evade us is that happiness can’t be pursued directly. It’s kind of like falling in love: you can’t force it. You can take some steps that are within your power; that’s fine and good. I’m not saying we should abandon everything that gives us cheer to wear sackcloth and ashes. Happiness and wanting to be happy aren’t wrong. Enjoying hobbies, experiences, and material provisions is awesome. “God has given us every good thing to enjoy.”
We all know you can’t buy happiness. Turns out you can’t chase it, either. TED talks by psychologists Dan Gilbert and Nancie Etcoff explore why happiness can’t be pursued directly. C.S. Lewis makes a wonderful case for this principle in Surprised by Joy. He searched for happiness his whole life, only to discover that you can’t find it. It finds you, often when you’re least expecting it.
So what are we supposed to do? I believe happiness comes from:
Above the sun. If everything under the sun is ultimately meaningless and unable to deliver true, enduring happiness, we need to look to a transcendent source. This is what surprised Lewis: a lifetime of searching for a feeling state left him unfulfilled. Meeting the Author of Joy brought an unexpected joy that rose above circumstance and emotion.
Be happy with what you have. “It’s not getting what you want, it’s wanting what you got” Sheryl Crow sang, and the apostle Paul agrees: “If we have food and covering, let us be content” (1 Timothy 6:8). Research concurs that, once a reasonable standard of living is secured, additional income doesn’t increase happiness. The principle of diminishing returns often applies to other areas like success or leisure time. The true secret to financial freedom isn’t reaching financial independence, or early retirement. It’s contentment.
Having a purpose. What brings real fulfillment and contentment is knowing our lives mean something. You may be ecstatic for a short time, but that doesn’t impact your overall life much in the long run. When I think back to my life just twelve short years ago, I scarcely remember my emotional state. What I do remember is my purpose at that time. And this is also what we remember about others, whether our grandparents or modern or historic heroes.
Making others happy. I’ve framed this many ways—Inflate Your Usefulness, Not Your Lifestyle, Inflate Someone Else’s Lifestyle Instead of Your Own, and Real Worth vs. Net Worth to name a few. I’m almost sorry to beat this drum again! But according to my experience, others’ research, and the wisdom of Jesus, it really is better to give than to receive.
Bringing others joy lies at the heart of having a purpose. If it’s all about me, I’m just chasing a moving target, a carrot tied to a stick. While getting happiness can’t be our primary reason for caring about others, it’s a likely side effect. And if directly pursuing my own bliss is ineffective, I might as well brighten other people’s lives.
Now, after all that philosophy, go enjoy this feel-good dance video.
What do you believe makes people happy?
Inflate Someone Else’s Lifestyle Instead of Your Own
Did you know almost half the world’s population lives on less than $2.50/day?
A huge portion of the world lives in abject poverty. For example, recent droughts in India have increased prostitution, child labor, and the incidence of child brides because people simply don’t have enough resources to provide for their children. Many Dalits “don’t exist” on paper and thus do not have reliable access to government assistance.
Did you know that for $1/day, you can change the life of a child in poverty? For many people in developed nations, $1/day is an amount you’d barely even miss. That can’t even buy you a coffee. It’s about one Chipotle burrito per week. Whatever $1 means in your budget, if you can spare it, I encourage you to consider adding a real worth investment to your portfolio.
Why not inflate someone else’s lifestyle instead of your own? After all, $1 per day can’t inflate your lifestyle noticeably. Investing $1 per day isn’t going significantly alter your retirement plans. But it could radically alter the trajectory of someone else’s life, while also inflating your usefulness.
It could be the difference between infanticide and life. Between starvation and nutrition. Between ignorance and education. Between being sold as a child bride or prostitute, and having a wholesome childhood. Between a family being broken up or staying whole. Between untapped potential and opportunity.
There are so many great charitable causes out there, but child sponsorship is something near to my heart because children are often innocent victims of forces much greater than themselves. They have not chosen their way into bad circumstances. They are completely powerless to improve their situation.
Yes, some organizations take donations that do not actually benefit the children they claim to help. Corruption and fraud exist and that means donors have to exercise caution. That’s why we started our research with personal recommendations from friends who have visited the organizations we donate to, and eventually visited one of our sponsored children.
Let’s cover some common questions and concerns.
Does this conflict with parents from providing for their children?
The organizations we give to practice holistic efforts to help entire communities. Therefore, the parents often have access to vocational training, education, employment opportunities, and micro loans. While we can’t vouch for every possible scenario, the efforts of the organizations we’ve chosen to support include helping parents as well.
Also, many children who benefit from sponsorship are orphans. And since the quality and reach of orphan care varies quite a bit across countries, we are happy to help “orphans and widows” which James 1:27 describes as “true religion.”
How do you know the money is going to benefit the children?
During our international mission trips, Neil and I separately witnessed the huge gulf between sponsored children and street kids. Our sponsored children live in very simple but safe homes. They attend school rather than begging or trying to sell things on the street. They receive sufficient food and clothing, as well as an education. They often receive help with career training, higher education, and even marriage if they do not have a family to help with this.
We personally met the “house parents,” school teachers, program directors, and even the president of one organization we sponsor a child through. I also was able to meet our child’s mother, who spent almost our whole time together saying “very thank you.” It was incredibly humbling; you can read more about it here.
There are many good organizations that do child sponsorship and poverty relief, but I can’t vouch for them personally as I can for India Gospel League. I’ve personally seen the work of IGL and find the organization to be highly efficient, effective, and holistic. Friends of mine visited Compassion International’s work in one country (Ethiopia) and found their ministry to be worth supporting. I’ve also heard great things about World Relief.
Would you consider inflating someone else’s lifestyle through child sponsorship? This cause hits even closer to home now that I have children of my own. I can’t imagine being in a position where I couldn’t provide for them; it’s too heart-breaking to even think about. Yet many parents across the world find themselves in this situation, often due to forces outside their control.
Please don’t let fear of corruption hold you back from helping the needy. Do a little research. Check out a charity rating website like Charity Navigator. Ask friends if they could recommend an organization, or even volunteer with or visit a group to learn more. If you prefer to help domestically, go for it! Or if you want to help adults, consider supporting a microloan program, vocational education, or refugee needs.
Inflating some else’s lifestyle is a real worth investment that will have a solid return, and it’s very rewarding to know you can change someone’s life, even if you may never meet the person. It truly is “more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).
Any questions or recommendations? Have you ever sponsored a child or microloan?
Have You Planned For Your Funeral?
We recently attended a memorial service for an elderly friend in our church. But he wasn’t a typical elderly churchgoer. More than half the people in our church are under 25. I’m an “oldie” at 30! Aside from his wife, Howard was the only regular member over age 70. But he wasn’t just a “member.” He was the grandfather of our whole community.
Since his death, no one can stop talking about him and his impact in their life. Many, including us, weren’t even particularly close to him. But our interactions with him are so memorable. He was warm and wise, humorous and humble. Always so interested in the other person, and always had something interesting and encouraging to say. He knew Greek and Hebrew, studied the Bible voraciously, and also taught water color painting, played the piano, and sang. He probably had many other talents and accomplishments that I don’t know about, because he didn’t talk about himself much.
Before his death, he let his family know that in lieu of a funeral he wanted his friends to have a BYOB dance party.
I don’t know anything about his finances. He was a social worker and was retired by the time I met him. He certainly understood the Secret to Financial Freedom and inflated his usefulness instead of his lifestyle. However he handled his money, his memorial service left me aspiring to leave a legacy like Howard’s.
The point of all this money stuff is so we can actually live. Howard lived a full life up until the day he fell unconscious. He had a degenerative muscle disease during his adult life, but he saved his energy for serving others. The day before his collapse, he went over to a friend’s house and grilled steak for the family. During an recent week-long church trip he volunteered to give an in-depth Bible teaching for those who weren’t able to go on the trip.
His life was the epitome of real worth.
We can talk Vanguard vs. Betterment all day. We can talk Roth vs. Traditional all day. We can talk Minimalism vs. Pragmatism, Classic vs. Extreme Frugality, Budgeting vs. Tracking all day and night long.
These are all helpful philosophies, tools, and practices—if we keep them in their proper place. They are servants, not masters. They are the pieces, not the purpose. You could get all the financial stuff right and leave an outrageous inheritance, but if your family hates you, it’s worth less than nothing. Worst investment ever.
It’s also often said that on your death bed, you won’t wish you worked more hours or drove a nicer car. That’s a true and lovely sentiment, but what are we supposed to do with it? How do we live today wisely and well while also planning for the future?
I believe the answer lies in diversifying your life’s portfolio, leaving both real and net worth behind. The net worth could be easily consumed within a short period of time. Real worth is something that can last much longer, even for eternity.
Howard’s passing made me realize I don’t want to be moderate about my real worth legacy. I want to leave my kids a modest amount of money (maybe), and a host of friends celebrating a life that changed theirs. I want my family to have a hard time finding a venue big enough for my memorial service. I want a sea of youth 50 years my junior dancing at my final going away party. I want people deciding to turn back to God as they contemplate how I reflected the love of Jesus.
In reality, these are the details are Howard’s legacy. Mine will be different. But I certainly want it to reflect the spirit of his: that countless people felt deeply loved and drawn to Jesus by him.
I’m nowhere near having built such a legacy. And I know my legacy-building can’t be about me. That’s the irony—if I want this all for my own glory then it should never happen. That’s not how love works: “We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters.” Real worth isn’t about what I’m doing, it’s about how that helps someone else.
Howard planned for his funeral every day, with kind and encouraging words and thoughtful acts of service. By sharing about God’s love with grocery baggers, and teaching New Testament Greek classes to punks like me. By faithfully praying for hundreds of people each week, and making dinner for his friends. He will be greatly missed this side of Paradise, but his legacy is thriving.
Are you planning for your funeral?
Real Worth vs. Net Worth
“What am I worth?”
This is the most vital question about our lives. And while tracking one’s net worth is a helpful financial tool, we all know that a number can’t summarize a human’s value.
Of course, most people don’t view increasing net worth as their ultimate life goal. There is, however, a very real temptation to become overly focused on a quantifiable value. While seeking to avoid materialism, consumerism, or debt, we could become slaves instead to the mistaken master of net worth. The antidote to an undue emphasis is to ensure we’re establishing real worth, or substantial impact in our world. In simpler terms–be helpful.
What Is Real Worth?
Real worth is given to us. We believe our true worth comes from God. If God loves us, then we are more valuable than we can comprehend. Whether or not you share this belief, we all sense that human life is precious and priceless.
Real worth means substance and capability. Real worth and net worth are not antithetical. Worthwhile contributions happen through our day jobs as we perform useful services in the world. And if you are working hard, being productive, and avoiding the uselessness of over-consumption, your net worth will likely increase, even if it’s slowed slightly by other types of real worth investments. Building skills, relationships, and community service are all examples of real worth growth.
Real worth impacts people. As a natural response to inherent value, we believe in investing time and money to try to improve other people’s lives. Jesus put it this way: “Freely you have received; freely give” (Matthew 10:8). We’ve framed the idea of real worth as increasing your usefulness instead of your lifestyle. Additionally, it’s worth increasing your usefulness even if at times it’s at the expense of your net worth.
Real worth is helpful to anyone. Increasing your real worth could look like so many things. It could be volunteering, charitable giving, or spending time with friends. It could be getting involved in your church or practicing your faith in another way. It might look like mentoring youth or babysitting for a friend. It could be some type of activism that will make the world better for others. In fact, we believe it’s important to be useful in the local and global community, as well as within your family.
Trading Net Worth for Real Worth
We’ve made a number of decisions that have stunted our net worth growth, and I don’t regret any of them. For example, staying at home with our children has slowed our net worth for now, yet it’s 100% worth it to us.
Another decision that’s decreased our net worth while increasing our real worth (usefulness) is that we’ve always donated a minimum percentage of our income. We have in no way arrived as the generous people we hope to be, but this is a concrete example of investing resources away from our net worth. Though I also believe generosity can make us richer, even financially.
We’ve also foregone side-hustling in favor of volunteering and in the wake of having children. We’ve spent money—sometimes a lot—on travel, vacations, and retreats. We pay a weekly babysitter so that we can participate in our home church group. We’ve attended hundreds of social events like showers, weddings, birthday parties, and other outings. None of this has helped our net worth, but these relationships have added so much to our lives.
So next time you find yourself considering how to improve your net worth, take a moment to consider how you might also increase your real worth. Sometimes the two work beautifully in tandem, but don’t be surprised if at other times you have to make a trade-off.
Some of the material in the post was inspired by a Bible teaching. Check out the podcast here.
How have you found it worthwhile to build “real worth?” Have you ever faced a clear choice between building real & net worth?
Do Less, Be More
As expected, January has been replete with inspiring lists of habits or resolutions to improve one’s life. But about a quarter of the way through a list of 50 Habits for Better Living, I quickly deflate from inspired to defeated. Despite how reasonable and valuable any of these suggestions might be, no one can do them all. And no one should.
It’s easy to walk away from January’s motivational posts thinking you just need some new habits to finally become a successful person. But let’s be honest. This advice isn’t humanly possible. If you added all these tips together, you’d need about 6 hours extra hours a day. One recent post suggested we: cut caffeine, get up 30 minutes early, and sleep at least 7 hours a night, while also spending more time reading, meditating, exercising, decluttering your entire home, adding income streams, relaxing?!, and 40 other ideas, all while limiting our to-do lists to 3 items per day. This article made many great points and unselfish suggestions, but….does anyone see the mathematical difficulty here? It doesn’t add up.
The real problem isn’t even whether it’s possible. Maybe some super-humans out there are rocking all 50 ideas. For the rest of us, we’re probably left overwhelmed and less focused than before.
This year I suggest we all focus less on what we should do, and more on who you want to become. I propose giving more attention to others-improvement than self-improvement.
For example, I’ve been itching to write this post for over a week, I’ve just finally gotten this far, and my son is begging me to play with him, at Duplo-creation gunpoint (see, not having toy guns doesn’t preclude shooting games). Though I don’t negotiate with terrorists, I do need to take my own advice, sacrifice my desire to post more often, and go be more Mom.
Goals Roll Out of Roles
Why do you want to do more? In First Things First, Stephen Covey suggests starting with a vision statement for yourself or your family, then defining your 7 main roles. Mine currently are: wife, mom, friend, home church leader, blogger, daughter, sister. I can tell you right now I’m not being a very good sister.
Out of your roles roll your goals. Covey suggests setting weekly goals pertaining to each role. I’ve never seen “talk to your siblings more often” on a list post, but I need to prioritize it, even though it will in some ways detract from my productivity–I have four sibs!
I also know that waking up earlier and going to bed earlier would have a negative impact on my marriage and some friendships, as well. If I got up at 5 am after hosting till 11 am and being up with my teething toddler once or twice, I am going to be a pathetic mess by dinnertime, and basically useless thereafter. That means I’d be less of the wife and mom I want to be as a result of putting doing before being.
I have set a “blogger” goal to read two books about the history of work. I’m not calling us to forsake all enrichment or activity, but to do more from a place of knowing who you want to become, and why.
“But you gotta make time for yourself.”
Yeah, I know. I “make time for myself” all the time, by studying the Bible, listening to podcasts, writing this blog, sometimes reading, enjoying friendships, and dating my spouse. I’m an introvert who could probably use a little more alone time, but I also chose to have two children and stay at home with them, so I’m going to weather this season of life with less-than-ideal portions of solitude.
I actually spent high school indulging my inner introvert, holed up in my room reading and writing, or practicing music and the solo sport of gymnastics. I even spent every spare moment of school with my nose in a book and rarely spent time with my “friends” outside of lunch period. And I was miserable.
Only since deciding to spend my life serving others have I found true joy and happiness. Trust me, I’m still super selfish in many ways, but to the degree that I’ve allowed my focus to shift to others, I’ve found great contentment. Of course my high school extremes were misguided, but any type of lifestyle devoted above all to one’s own interests, pursuits, and improvement is fundamentally off-track. We are social beings, designed to feel loved when we sacrificially love others. (This of course is distinct from enabling others or abandoning all self-care.) For this reason’ we’ve set out to inflate our usefulness in the world, instead of inflating our lifestyle.
Bottom line: what we do results from who we are, and not the other way around. Behavior change doesn’t last long unless it’s coming from changed thinking and motives. This is why New Year’s resolutions don’t usually stick unless we’re already internally motivated to keep them. New habits can be awesome and the reinforcement of repeated behavior can help you persist, but external change alone won’t make us the better person we all want to be.
In a blogosphere crowded with Type A over-achievers, we probably need to encourage one another to do less and be more. To relax. To slow down. To date your spouse. To play with our kids. To laugh and cry with friends. Listening to podcasts on 2x speed is a nifty idea but when coupled with 49 other to-dos and the frenetic pace of life so common today, it might be winding us all up for a meltdown. I’m the speed-read-on-the-treadmill type. I should know.
So next time you read a motivating self-improvement post about how to do more, first take a moment to consider who you want to be. Then act only upon those suggestions that serve your vision for being more.
Have you experienced the principle that deep change comes from within? What roles do you want to grow in this year?
Is Minimalism the New Materialism?
A new movement toward minimalism is emerging. People are building tiny homes, skipping Black Friday, turning their hangers around, and holding all their possessions in their hands to determine which items bring them joy. People are selling, donating, and trashing the not-joy stuff. And we are picking it out of the trash.
Reclaiming Our Basement
The Pretend to Be Poor household hasn’t been impervious to all the Joy of Less Junk hype. We’ve been wanting to increase our basement’s usefulness by creating a guest room with a bed my mom gave us. Our summer free time was consumed with a massive home repair and my India trip, so the project got delayed. But when we had to turn down a friend looking for a temporary place to stay due to our basement’s disarray, we knew we should prioritize the project.
Thus we embarked on our mission to 1.) increase usefulness while 2.) decluttering. My husband finally tackled several boxes of God Knows What that have been collecting dust since we got married almost 10 years ago. While untangling his fourth box full of cables and cords, he admitted he has a problem.
“I had no idea it was this bad,” he said, extricating a SuperNintendo controller from 100 yards of Ethernet cable. We do not own a SuperNintendo. Or a football field. He was allowed to keep one pager and a walkman in his box of ’90s artifacts. It all comes of marrying an electrical engineer, I suppose. At least he keeps a tidy budget spreadsheet.
After devoting several 1-hour increments to rearranging furniture, divesting ourselves of antiquated electronics, and unwinding furlongs of cords, we were riding a decluttering high. We felt very pleased with our progress and proud of the more useful, open space in our home. I started showing it off to unfortunate guests, who probably thought, “Um, still lots of cords.”
For my friends who did not have the awesome privilege of witnessing firsthand the 10% less cords, my decluttering high led me to brag about how much stuff we got rid of (3 old computers!), and how I even got Neil to undertake the cords. I probably made more than one wife jealous over that one. Sorry.
And then I realized—I’m obsessing about stuff. And that’s materialism. My de-owning high was almost identical to the thrill of consumerism. A new purchase feels exciting and important at first. You want to show it off and tell people about it and what a great deal it was, and why it was the perfect choice. You might even make someone jealous. And if you have too much stuff, all your friends are probably thinking, those look just like the boots you already have.
When Minimalism Turns Materialistic
I’m glad we got more organized, found stuff to donate and sell, made our basement more usable. I’m glad many Americans seem to be replacing insatiable materialism with a more contented minimalism. But I have to confess from experience that an inordinate focus on minimizing, at least in the short term, can end up being rather materialistic. We’re most at risk of minimalism going wrong when we absorb its practical pointers without embracing the philosophy of simplicity behind it.
Let me qualify such an irreverent proposition. I’m a bit of a minimalist at heart. When I was a kid I used to go through the old crayons to find all the colors I needed before the beginning of school, rather than asking my mom to buy new ones. I used to build tiny homes with my LEGOs. I used to say that when I had kids, I’d give them one teddy bear and a library card, because that’s all you really need. (Read here why I still believe the library is a secret weapon to a less-clutter home.)
But then I married a cord-hoarder, bought a house, had two kids, and didn’t have time to keep my possessions streamlined. Our frugal reputation must precede us, because we’re constantly being offered whatever others are jettisoning. I am extremely grateful to be part of a community of friends and family that shares goods. And to be fair to my cord-loving lover, I’ll confess I’m over-stocked on books, clothing, and kid’s toys. But at some point recently I shifted my default response to Free from “Sure!” to “Thanks, but no thanks. I have enough stuff!” If it’s something I currently need or want, or will need in the near future, I’ll gladly accept. But I’m trying to pass on more than I receive now.
There certainly are lots of benefits to owning less, including:
- Less to clean up.
- Less to store and maintain.
- Less to lose.
- Makes stuff you need easier to find.
- Better-behaved children (according to Super Nanny).
- More creative children (according to our moms).
- More useful space (i.e. guest room!)
- Looks nicer—I love uncluttered space.
- Allows unused items to be used by someone else–and may generate income if sold.
- Helps set a limit on lifestyle—you realize you don’t need to keep buying stuff. And you don’t need a bigger home or more storage space.
- Helps you enjoy and value the possessions you actually use.
- Reduces decision fatigue/simplifies everyday life.
Clearly it’s better not to be drowning in jetsam. But isn’t there a danger of minimalists’ thoughts being equally consumed with Not Stuff as the materialist is with Stuff? Just as a person with an under-eating disorder may have a view of food that is as unhealthy as a gluttonous person. I believe many minimalists avoid extremes and are focused on living the good life, but sometimes people glean nothing more than a reverse materialism from a more transcendent message. Minimalism gone wrong can be a life equally centered on material possessions, and this is what I’m calling us all to avoid.
A Pragmatist’s Solution
So for prospective minimalist converts, the de-owning process might involve a whole lot of thinking and dealing with stuff. I suppose that’s fine, but if I’m forced to choose between sorting through my junk or doing activities in line with my larger goals in life—like spending quality time with a friend, studying for a Bible teaching, or playing LEGOs with my kids—the junk can wait. Isn’t that what junk drawers are for?
People have proposed asking yourself “Would I keep this if I was moving in two weeks?” to determine which possessions you really need. If I’m choosing to spend time organizing a particular area of my home, this hypothetical is super helpful. But sometimes I can barely get the dishes done, and since I’m not moving in two weeks, I don’t need to angst over my unread copy of 17th Century Verse or a basement box of old video games.
It amuses me that some of my friends view me as a minimalist, while others are almost appalled at how much I own. It’s all relative, and if we’re honest, we all struggle against materialism in one form or another. I strive not to be a minimalist or a materialist, but hope to be a pragmatist. I’ll gladly own more stuff if it serves my over-arching purposes, such as hosting, being generous, occupying my kids so I don’t have to entertain them 24/7, making my life easier to a point (can you say microwave?), or if it may save me money in the long run. For example, I’m hanging on to my professional wardrobe in hopes that it’s not too ill-fighting or outdated when I return to the workforce in a future life when my kids are in school.
So what’s the practical take-away?
Declutter for a purpose–making better use of your space, selling or donating unused items, or making your life and home way more functional. (How about donating money you get from selling old stuff?)
Don’t declutter to keep up with the minimalists or strive for a magazine-perfect home. You have better things to do with your time. Focus on your bigger purpose, rather than Stuff or Not Stuff.
Release the guilt about those shoes that only match one dress, or that box of old wedding cards in your basement. If you have time and want to tackle it, by all means do. Provided you wouldn’t qualify to be on Hoarders, your possessions of questionable usefulness probably aren’t hurting anything. With excessive cord and cable collections as a notable exception, since they are almost certainly driving your wife crazy.
Have you ever found yourself consumed by minimalism? Do you have other tips for striking a healthy balance?
What Seeing Real Poverty Showed Me About Pretending to Be Poor
A few weeks ago I shared my Thoughts From India and Lessons Learned In India (my first guest post). But as my henna fades, I’m afraid my convictions from my trip will, too. One insight I desperately want to remember is how seeing real poverty left me more motivated than ever to “pretend to be poor” in order to share more resources. Witnessing wide economic disparities firsthand was a poignant reminder that I’m just pretending; our lifestyle is truly luxurious by global standards. It was also a good reminder of why I’m pretending, and an encouragement to continue, so I can help those who aren’t just pretending.
By pretending to be poor, I mean living below our means so that we can have extra to give and save. We would never claim to actually be poor or deprived in any sense, and we’re quite content with our lifestyle. Our tongue-in-cheek title comes from a proverb and one of our main goals goals of financial flexibility is to help the destitute. In fact, I believe generosity can be a more effective motivator for wise financial habits than early retirement, financial independence, or even debt payoff. (Read why in the post Get Rich With Generosity.)
I didn’t visit the streets of Calcutta, but I saw one of the world’s largest slums, the massive encampment spanning the outskirts of the Mumbai airport grounds, described in Behind the Beautiful Forevers. I was comfortably bubbled behind the airplane window and can’t imagine what it would’ve been like to walk through its paths, but the sea of blue tarps that is home to one million people left an impression.
On our way to visit a village church we drove through narrow dirt alleys crowded by small, low-roofed homes. These are the real tiny homes, without the high-tech innovations to make them comfortable.
At a children’s home, I met hoards of kids whose parents can’t afford to take care of them. They are well cared for in the homes, but they still live in conditions we’d consider sub-par for our children—twelve to a room in bunks, with a small cubby for their personal belongings.
Another team from our church visited a remote village that our church sponsors. Before the sponsorship program began, they had so little food that at times meals would consist of starchy water leftover from cooking.
In the streets, beggars, often with small children, knocked on our van’s windows. You want to help but you don’t know if they are being exploited, or if a small handout would do much good anyway. And you certainly can’t help everyone in this situation.
We all know this level of disparity exists, and you don’t have to travel the globe to see it. A few years ago I volunteered at an inner city after school program where many of the elementary-aged kids went home to empty houses and no dinner. But in everyday life we are largely sheltered from these extreme conditions. We don’t have time in our busy schedules to enter into the mess we know exists. So instead we simply feel sad when it comes up in conversation.
Evoking guilt is the furthest goal from my mind. I believe contemplating inequity and doing something about it can inspire us to resist our culture’s tide of lifestyle inflation like nothing else. As we deflate our lifestyle we aim to inflate our usefulness, in part by helping others. I wrote about how to Get Rich With Generosity & have experienced that giving away money is one of the best ways to become more disciplined with money. However, it’s not really about getting rich or poor, and certainly not about inflating my ego instead of my lifestyle.
Before my trip, I’d occasionally receive a letter from a charity we donate to, outlining a need and requesting additional funds. For the most part I viewed these letters as annoying. “I’m already giving what I want to give to this group,” I’d think and trash the letter without even reading it.
I just received a letter from the organization I traveled with, explaining their fundraising needs for a special training conference. Now that I’ve seen their ministry firsthand, I understand why supporting the conference is so important. Many of the pastors live on a very small stipend, provided by their own congregation after two years of outside sponsorship, and may lack basics such as electricity, shoes, or access to transportation. Far from an annoyance, this letter became a welcome opportunity to practice noblisse oblige and participate in God’s work across the world.
I can’t respond to every letter by sending money, but I’m now equipped to make better decisions about these requests. I have a whole new schema for the realities in developing areas. More than ever I see sharing with others as a way of striving toward equality: “Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality” (2 Corinthians 8:13).
No one can eliminate poverty, but we can help improve the life of one person. Or maybe two or three or ten. I encourage you to consider sponsoring a child in poverty. Many charities have a program for child sponsorship because the need is vast, as is the potential for impact. If you’re looking for a trustworthy group, I witnessed India Gospel League in action this summer, and friends of mine highly recommended Compassion International after seeing their work firsthand. Both are doing balanced, legitimate, cost-effective, holistic ministry to truly impoverished people.
Do you think helping others can be a financial motivator?
Extend Your Emergency Fund with Skills (and Friends)
I’ve alluded to a $10,000 home repair Neil accomplished this summer. Here’s his account of the project, why it was worth DIYing, and what he learned from the experience.
One early winter afternoon I was putting some items under my deck, where I store many outdoor items, such as my wheelbarrow and chicken tractor, when I noticed a bit of brown dust escaping the yellow siding of my house. That’s strange, I thought as I lifted the siding a bit to investigate. That’s funny the house should have sheathing on it, but it doesn’t. Hmmm, I should be able to see the insulation but I can’t. Let me just reach my hand here and feel around a bit. Here’s a stud, let’s just grab a hold of that and… a feeling of dread washed over me. The stud completely crumbled in my hand. I had a serious problem. A house-about-to-fall-down, crazy-expensive-to-fix type of problem.
Luckily, my brother is a remodeling contractor and he was willing to come check it out right away. Because Frugal Friends Don’t Let Friends… handle major home repairs alone. We decided that wall failure was not imminent, but should addressed as soon as the weather broke. Once spring was in full swing, my brother and I picked a weekend to get started. We first had to cut away the deck about 3 feet away from the wall. This included decking and joists, which is a bit of a job in itself. Then we had to get a good view of how bad the problem was. It was bad. Here’s a pic.
It appeared that the deck was built attached to the house with its wood penetrating the siding. Water collected on the deck and leaked into the house, moistening the sheathing and studs. Carpenter ants detected the weakened wood and took up residence in it. In retrospect, the room that this wall contained had more than a normal amount of ants. Growing up we always had ants so I didn’t think much of it. Well, those bastards ate an entire wall of my house! It was ugly. The header was gone. The studs were demolished. We even had to build an interior temporary safety wall to hold up the house while we removed all the bad wood. It’s hard to exaggerate how extensive the damage was.
We re-built the deck with a different design so that it is separate from the house, and put in a new supporting beam. I’d say with deck removal, temporary wall construction, demolition, reconstructing the new wall, re-insulating, re-sheathing, re-siding, re-painting, re-building the deck, and finally re-staining, this easily would have been $8k to $10k to hire out. I spent $1200, total. Sure, it took me a number of weekends during the spring and summer. I had to inconvenience myself, my family, and especially my brother to get the job done. But it was worth it. There wasn’t even a question that I would be tackling this job DIY.
The moral of the story is that one can extend their emergency fund a looooong way with a few friends, a few skills, and bit of bravado. It would have been easier to give in and hire a contractor. That would have been acceptable considering how extensive the project was. However, the job wouldn’t have been completed to my exact specifications and I wouldn’t have bonded with my brother over it. Since we DIY so much, my son doesn’t have a category for someone else working on the house. He was very excited to be involved with the work by watching and “helping.” As soon as I discovered the damage he grabbed his hard hat and announced excitedly to his mom that we had some construction to do!
Best of all, my emergency fund didn’t even know there was an emergency. Since it took a while to complete the job, I cash flowed the $1200. One could argue that my time would have been better spent elsewhere. I beg to differ. From a purely financial sense, let’s say I spent 80 hours of my own time and my brother 40. Even at the low end of the value estimate, that’s $66 dollars an hour. (If my brother is reading this, the check is in the mail ;)) I don’t know what kind of side hustle you got, but I bet it’s not pulling in $66 to $83 an hour. Plus, I have even more confidence to handle jobs on our house, and to handle a similar situation at a friend’s house if necessary.
I certainly increased my usefulness through the project, which is an unexpected advantage of frugal living. I learned new skills like sill sealing, high quality caulking, the intricacies of framing, and how to build decks that don’t rot (this free resource was extremely helpful). With only half a deck all summer, we practiced the principles that everything doesn’t have to be perfect and Life is Not About Your Preferences. It’s also a prime example of the hidden costs (and headaches) of home ownership.
So extend your emergency fund with friends, skills, and bravado. Good luck!
What’s the biggest DIY project you’ve tackled? What skills did you learn?
Open the Door to a Lifetime of Vacation Savings
Camping is sometimes called “pretending to be poor,” so it’s no surprise we love to camp. Spending time in nature with family or friends makes for an inexpensive and highly fulfilling vacation. Yet many otherwise frugal people haven’t tapped into the incredible on-going savings of camping. So we hereby issue the Pretend to Be Poor Camping Challenge: give camping a try! Spend at least one day & night camping, in order to open the door to a lifetime of frugal, fun vacations. And if you’re thinking “you couldn’t pay me enough to go camping,” you have to read on about all the proven personal and family benefits that pricier vacations fail to deliver.
A word of encouragement to non-campers: I never camped while growing up. I first ventured into the hobby as an indoorsy college student with no camping skills, came to love the experience, and have camped 3-4 times a year ever since. We even camped for a week with a two-year-old and barely-four-month-old, and had a blast. (Read about this crazy adventure in “Camping with Kids” on my mom blog.) If I can learn to like camping, so can you! And there are so many benefits for you, your relationships, and your children (if you have them).
Inexpensive vacation. Camping is, of course, supremely frugal if done right. For example, we camp in Florida during spring break and spend $107 for the site for the week. We couldn’t get a hotel there for one night at that price! We camp in a tent, have used the same camping gear for over ten years, and only upgraded to a larger tent because of our growing family. With the simple investment in a camp stove (about $50 new), you can shop at a discount grocery store and cook all your meals easily that way. Or cook exclusively on the fire. Read more about our $500 week-long camping vacation here.
Don’t have camping gear? There are many ways to come by it cheaply, and you don’t need a fancy camper, RV, or lots of accessories to have a good trip. Our family camping gear includes a tent, propane stove, air mattress (now that we’re “old”), sleeping bags, cheap camp chairs, and basic cooking implements. If you’re not ready to invest a lot in supplies, ask to borrow gear from a friend or family member. Check garage sales, Craigslist, and thrift stores for used items. You probably already have things like flashlights, bug spray, pots & pans, and old blankets in your home. On long trips we buy wood from Craiglist while there.
A sense of accomplishment. Chillin’ in nature is also rife with intangible benefits like the deep bonding between campers, the soul-rest of time in nature, and the fulfillment of learning skills or mastering challenges. Learning to pitch a tent, build a fire, and keep your children alive while pitching a tent and building a fire, all inflate one’s sense of usefulness. While camping may not be as easy as lounging poolside, it combines leisure and accomplishment in a most delightful way.
Closer families. Nothing has brought us closer as a family than the zany challenge of camping with two little kids. I know we wouldn’t feel the same sense of satisfaction returning from a resort vacation or Disney World. More than anecdotal evidence supports my closer-family camping hypothesis. Camping has been identified as a the number one predictor of family cohesiveness. It correlates with families who like each other, still spend time together even when the children are adults, and have close relationships. Camping has also been linked to better grades for school children. Ready to book a camp site yet?
It’s no surprise that camping is good for kids since every family member has to contribute. (Okay, maybe not the four-month-old.) Kids learn skills like how to build a fire, roast a hot dog, hike, fish, swim, and identify plants and animals. They’re also forced to play without high-tech toys or entertainment and develop adaptability. Many campgrounds offer free activities for kids, like scavenger hunts, nature walks, concerts, or dances.
If you’ve ever stayed in a hotel with young children, you might imagine the advantages of camping. The kids can run around outside during the day instead of being contained to a hotel in between sight-seeing. The germ content of dirt concerns me far less than whatever lurks in hotel carpet and bedspreads. I was worried about our kids being able to sleep in a tent, but all the exercise and fresh air wears them out & they sleep great, as many camp moms will testify. I can’t emphasize how happy our kids are while camping, even as infants. Our son loves talking about past trips and cries when daddy goes backpacking without him!
Let go of your standards. Camping forces us to let go of our often arbitrary rules for “civilized” life. I relish leaving behind the Internet and make-up bag for a weekend or even a week. I may have peed places other than the toilet, showered once all week, cursed in front of my toddler (about needing a shower), let the kids go barefoot all day, and helped my kid poop over a tree root. And Neil may have rinsed a poopy toddler sans swim diaper in the ocean. It’s all part of the fun if you can laugh about it.
Choose your challenge. The continuum of camping options allows campers to “choose their own adventure.” From wilderness backpacking to “glamping,” pick your desired mixture of leisure vs. challenge. Pitch a tent in your backyard if you need to ease in. Our city maintains a campground less than two miles from our home, which is perfect for short trips that don’t require much planning. Check out whether your local parks have camp sites available. Or camp to save on lodging near your next sight-seeing destination. Whatever you decide, just be sure to look up at the stars, enjoy good conversation around the fire, and don’t forget the s’mores.
What do you like about camping? Or what are your hang-ups?