One of the best things that happened to me was that the economy went into the tank.
Before economic times got tough, I enjoyed all that life, easy loans, and low-interest rates had to offer. And this was a natural state for most people I am acquainted with. After all, people naturally want to improve their circumstances, enjoy the best life has to offer, and “shoot the moon” when possible.
Without balance and moderation, though, we have no limits to our wants. That’s what happened to me when times were good.
Some of my friends (and my wife, for that matter) have fewer desires than others. They have spent years developing an attitude of frugality and restraint. It’s not that they lack ambition or even money, they are simply wise.
I, however, had to learn it all the hard way.
It was only when the economy went south that I faced the fact that I was riddled in debt, and I wanted freedom. I have learned that true “freedom” comes with imposing (healthy) restraints on myself. That means delaying gratification, settling for less, and even doing without — behaviors I did not have when I lived my life with credit.
Restraint is not easy in our consumerist society. Our media glamorizes the material lifestyle; advertisers are all over the place, and even our neighbors are living high, even though they may be one paycheck from the edge. I was like that, too.
We can overcome this. I finally did. It begins with our mindset.
If you are constantly battling the urge to spend, here are a couple of steps that may help hold you back:
1. Realize that it is in our genes to feel dissatisfied with our circumstances. As Alexander Green explains in his book Beyond Wealth:
An early human who was content with what he had — who spent his days lazing on the African savannah admiring the clouds and thinking “Ahh, life is good” — was far less likely to survive and reproduce than his neighbor who spent every waking hour trying to gain some advantage.
2. Think back to a large purchase you made. Did you originally want it badly, only to find out after you bought it that you didn’t appreciate it that much? Think about how that purchase didn’t quite do it for you. Why will it be any different this time? The psychology of desire is an important thing to try to understand in ourselves.
3. Stop giving a crap what anyone thinks about you. Stop caring about the Joneses. Life isn’t a competition for social status (besides, there will always be someone else who has it “better”, anyway). Quit the game, even if your friends are still playing it, and you will quickly stop caring what others think of you. Do work you love, even if it doesn’t pay as much. Stop collecting “stuff”, and start creating incredible memories.
4. Appreciate what you have and stop focusing on what you want. This took me some time, and I still battle with it. But the thought of losing my wife, my kids, my health — as dark as that sounds, it always “brings me back”.
5. Stop daydreaming about living the life someone else is living.
Sound easy? It only took me 40 years to figure out, and I still have ways to go.
We have been programmed by our culture to want everything, spend unconditionally, and consume ruthlessly to keep up with the Joneses. At the end of the day, however, our reactions and actions are our own. We can make the choice to defy consumerism and balance our lifestyle to live simply and happily.
It’s worth a shot, right?