We spend money we don’t have, to buy things we don’t need,
to impress people we don’t like.
I recently read an article about the "100 Item Club." Members of this club agree to only own a total of 100 items. In this case, an "item" means things like a spoon, cup, plate, toothbrush, belt, shirt, etc. It is not clear if a pair of shoes or socks is one item or two, but in the strictest definition, I assume you would have to count each sock or shoe separately. At first, I thought the concept of limiting yourself to this degree was crazy. But, as I considered it further, there is a simplicity and discipline that is appealing.
We all need to learn how to keep our lifestyles in check. Our marketing and sales driven culture is based on creating unnecessary dissatisfaction and desire. Before watching a television ad, you may have no idea that you "need" a pick-up truck or that you will be able to go out with a beautiful woman if you just drink a particular kind of beer. Advertisements play to particular fears, like having body odor or bad breath, or running out of money in old age. Many are focused on sexuality and being appealing to others. All promise to solve your problems (sometimes real, most often created) if you just buy a particular item or service. People get sucked into the spending cycle—buying something to make them feel better about themselves, getting initial pleasure and then a let down, and then buying something else that ultimately disappoints.
There are several ways to break the cycle. First, you have to differentiate wants from needs. You may want something, but do you really need it? More stuff leads to more hassles. One of the worst purchases I ever made was a waterskiing boat. When I left Disney, I promised to buy my children, who were then teenagers, a boat. After nine years in the Navy, I had had enough of boats to last me for my lifetime. But, I felt a little guilty that they would no longer be able to have Disney experiences (although Hilton stays were a great replacement!). The boat added major complexity to our lives, with trailering, maintenance, storage, insurance, fueling, cleaning, etc. It seemed like every time we planned a lake day, the boat didn't work. It was an expensive burden.
As I thought about it, most new items that we buy are like the boat. We get the latest electronic gadget, then have to spend time figuring out how to make it work. If it is a computer, we have to do constant software upgrades or download new anti-virus software. Smartphones can be useful, but can also be a time sink and take away from personal interactions. The pleasure vs. stress trade-off is often out of whack, and your "wants" become encumbrances.
Second, if you do need it, think about buying it used. Marketers will tell you one of the most enticing words to put into an advertisement is "New." People assume new is better and more desirable. Yet, there is often nothing wrong with "used." I own a BMW and talked to one of their technicians while waiting on my car. I asked him about the most reliable cars, and he said the best strategy is to buy a car that is a few years old. He said, "It's crazy that owners trade in their cars when they are three years old. That is just when all the bugs have been fixed. BMW is constantly upgrading the software in their vehicles, and the early years are when you have the most upgrades." He recommended buying a pre-owned car that was a few years old, both for the value and the lowest maintenance requirements.
Third, don't automatically buy a bigger house when your income increases. You should actually also consider renting rather than buying. We have lived in the same home for over 20 years. We have been very tempted to trade up to a larger home or one on a lake. But, we have also been very thankful as we have watched friends become "house poor" or even lose their homes when the economy and home prices turned down. By living in the same home for a long period, we have withstood real estate market changes and kept our taxes low. With that said, we should have considered renting rather than purchasing our home. Most studies show you should never buy a home unless you are certain to live in it for more than seven years, or you will lose money when compared to renting. As I look back, there is no question that we should have rented our homes instead of buying in the first decade of our marriage. Nancy and I moved 11 times in our first 13 years. We purchased two homes during that time. When we moved to England, we had to find someone to live in our home in Cleveland. Had we rented, we would have lived in larger homes, simplified our lives significantly, and been better off financially.
If you want to dampen your inclination toward a materialistic lifestyle, work in a homeless shelter or, better yet, travel to a third world country and see how the rest of the world's population lives. Most Americans have two homes, and don't even realize it. An American family adopted a boy who lived in a slum in South America. When they got to their home, the boy put his few belongings in the garage, and started to set up his bed there. His adoptive parents asked him what he was doing, and he said he was putting his things in their "home." They explained to him that this was the garage, and then opened the door to his home. "So, all Americans have two homes?" he asked, with an amazed look on his face. We don't often think about having two homes, but to most people in other countries, the idea of storing your cars in an enclosed, covered space is extravagant.
Keeping your lifestyle in check provides simplicity, freedom from debt, an ability to give more to help others, and a fabulous example for your children—all part of a surpassing life.
Before making any purchase, ask:
· Do I really need this, or am I being manipulated to buy it?
· Will this make my life simpler or more complex?
· Should I buy it used?
· Should I rent rather than buy?
Don't buy a bigger house just because you can afford it.
Financial freedom and a simpler, easier life.