There are two ways of being happy: We may either diminish our wants or augment our means- either will do- the result is the same. But if you are wise, you will do both at the same time; and if you are very wise you will do both in such a way as to augment the general happiness of society.
Wants and Needs
One big reason my life is so relatively inexpensive in comparison to my peers is I resist upgrading things. I’m not particularly skilled with money, nor extremely frugal, but taking the advice of Big Ben, I’ve diminished my wants while augmenting my means.
I read a lot of financial independence blogs. It is rather fashionable to publish annual spending when you blog about money, and while I spend more than many of the financial independence bloggers out there, I spend much less than people with a similar income to me. The only reason I am able to work part-time and ponder retirement in my 40’s is because I have created a large gradient between my income and spending. I have uncoupled the two.
The vast majority don’t do this. For most of us, spending is highly correlated with income. For every $1000 in additional income, there is $1000 (or more) in additional spending. I take a different approach. When an extra $1000 or $10,000 shows up in my life I do…nothing. There are many reasons for this, but one of the biggest factors is that I have made my life ‘upgrade proof’. There are simply not more material items that I can buy or upgrade that will make me any happier than the freedom I gain by not doing so.
The Upgrade Culture
Almost every business model out there is premised on the assumption that humans want something new or better. The way a company sells something to you is by either creating a completely new product, or designing a ‘superior’ product that is an ‘upgrade’ to an existing good or service. Since there are only so many new things we can create, much of our consumption is upgrading the perfectly good things we already have.
Modern advertising creates tension and the feeling that we are not complete without their product. It capitalizes on primitive emotions and the almost universal human fear of missing out on something. If you can ignore this nonsense, or at least turn down the noise, you will automatically become a super saver and be free in no time.
When I walk through my house, nearly everything could be upgraded. My television is over 10 years old and it doesn’t have ultra-super-sexy-extreme-high-definition™ or whatever the ‘best’ is these days (but it still looks great). All of the furniture is the same stuff we had when we originally furnished the house (and amazingly they all still do the jobs they were designed to do). I still have my commuter bike from college that is over 20 years old (although I do have several other newer bikes as well). I’ve had my old Merrell hiking sandals for over a decade and seem unable to wear them out. Most of my electronic devices are near the end of their functional lifespan, the exceptions being my phone and a DVD player I had to replace because it would no longer play the newest disks.
My tablet is so old I’m sure any day it will stop running newer aps. My vacuum cleaner is held together by duct tape and hope (my next ‘big’ purchase will be its replacement by the way)*. Maybe my clothes are a little out of style (although I try and buy basic things that are style resistant, and Happy Philosophers create their own style anyways). We don’t throw away our towels or rugs because we don’t like the color anymore; we replace stuff when it wears out or have a high desire for an upgrade that we just can’t ignore.
This is in contrast to most people I know. A good friend of mine (with a much smaller income) just has to have a new car every three years or so (because he likes them). I keep my cars for about 15 years. Another guy I know upgrades all of his iDevices when the new model comes out (because they are better of course). Who could possibly stand to take a picture on a 10 megapixel camera when a 12 megapixel is available? The thought almost makes me want to delete my Instagram account with all those substandard pictures on it. I know people who change their furniture constantly even though it’s much nicer than mine. I could go on and on.
Now, all snarkiness aside, there is nothing wrong with doing any of this if it makes someone happy, but I’m quite sure it does not make them as happy as their freedom would. I know this because they tell me. New cars, better iPhones and designer furniture every three years are a prison, albeit a very comfortable one that takes great pictures.
This is also not to say I don’t have nice stuff, but nothing in my house is the ‘best’. Most of it is optimized for maximum marginal utility. I could afford to upgrade it all tomorrow if I wanted. But I don’t. Upgrading just doesn’t interest me all that much, and this is because I can see the true cost. Remember, every time we upgrade, we trade a bit more of our freedom and life energy.
Perpetual Upgrading is Voluntary Slavery
When people find themselves in the higher income brackets, upgrading separates the rich from the poor, the slaves from the free. When you unshackle yourself from the need to continuously upgrade your stuff you raise a big middle finger to all the forces in society that want to keep you a slave. Happy slaves make the best citizens. They keep working until they die (or close to it). They keep the gears of commerce turning without giving a thought as to why they are doing it.
Living paycheck to paycheck is slavery regardless of your income. If you want to be free it is necessary to earn more, spend less, and save the difference. You then invest this excess into something that provides a stream of income to sustain your freedom.
How to Proceed
So how does one disengage from the trap of upgrading? How do I upgrade smarter? Let’s dump the philosophy for a moment and get real. Here are some tactical weapons, in no particular order, that you can apply on the battlefield. Do these things and you will have more money (freedom) in your bank account.
- Avoid all advertising. Advertising is evil. It is psychological warfare. Stop watching television. Use an ad blocker on the internet. Get rid of junk mail that comes to your mailbox.
- Don’t go into stores. Unless you have a legitimate reason to be there, get the Hell out. Stores are psychological weapons designed to take your money. Take a list with you and stick to it. Shopping is not a hobby. If you shop for entertainment you are doing something wrong. Get better hobbies.
- Never browse for anything online. Amazon sure is convenient, but it is not your friend. Browse long enough and you will find something you need to upgrade.
- Don’t throw anything away. Force yourself to sell, donate, repair, etc. It takes a lot of energy to get rid of your stuff when you can’t just pitch it in a trashcan. Forcing yourself to repurpose your stuff will make you think twice before bringing more crap into your life.
- Never, ever, EVER rent a storage unit unless you are becoming homeless. If you have a home, you don’t need more storage, you need less stuff. If you are like most people, 90% of your stuff is completely useless to you. I guess this doesn’t really help with upgrading, but it will keep extra unnecessary things out of your life.
- Use stuff until it breaks beyond reasonable repair or simply becomes nonfunctional (ie. your phone will no longer run on your cell phone network). The quality of your material things is not correlated with the quality of your life beyond a very low level of cost.
- When you think you need something, write it down. Revisit in 30 days. If you still really need it then consider getting it. Most of the stuff you will cross of the list and realize that what you had is good enough. Never buy something the same day unless you can consume it.
- Don’t hang around with people who think upgrading their stuff is important. Unless you are a high level Jedi master, the attitudes of people around you will influence your thoughts.
- Buy really good stuff the first time so it doesn’t even make sense to upgrade it. Research an item before you buy it. Average people buy on a whim. You know how I feel about average. I’ve regretted very few purchases I researched thoroughly. I’ve regretted many purchases I made quickly without much thought.
- Certain “upgrades” cost more than others (spouses, houses and cars come to mind). Upgrade the big stuff infrequently or never. I’m on my first spouse, second house and sixth car.
- Whenever you think about upgrading something, consider cleaning it instead. It’s amazing how nice a freshly washed, waxed and vacuumed car looks. My last new car lasted me 16 years using this method. Every time I wanted a new one I would just clean the one I already had. I rarely felt the need to upgrade afterwards.
- Have gratitude. Realize that whatever you have now, it is probably better than what most people in the world have.
- Calculate the life energy the upgrade will cost you. Everything you buy has a permanent opportunity cost associated with it that comes in the form of your time you have to trade for the money to buy it. Read Your Money or Your Life.
- Buy used. Craigslist, EBay, etc. has made the market for used goods efficient. A quality item should cost almost nothing, as most durable goods are fully depreciated by the time they show up for sale, meaning you can sell them back at a later date for roughly the same price you paid for it. Also, thrift stores have lots of really great clothes, some with the tags still on, that people have gotten rid of after minimal use.
- Make lateral replacements. When something breaks or needs to be replaced, buy a replacement that is the same quality. Often the base model of something today is better than the high end model of something from 15 years ago. I learned this buying my last car.
- Plan ahead. If you know your tires need replacing in 6 months you now have 6 months to research tires and wait for the ones you want to go on sale. Having to buy something immediately is usually more expensive.
I’m sure there are other tactics I’m missing. Please share your methods in the comments below.
*I finally broke down and replaced the vacuum cleaner…and it is awesome.