Your distinction between needs and wants determines the quality of your life. It may lead as far as the difference between mediocre and remarkable.
Needs are the essential or necessary things that support your well-being. On all levels.
Wants are of two kinds. The first kind are your long-term intents and deep desires.These are of significant importance but are not the subject of this post.
The second kind of wants are the momentary impulses to satisfy your greed for pleasure or status.They run on an instant gratification principle.
You can not only survive, but thrive on much less
We buy stuff because we want it. We buy more stuff because we want it. And then, we buy even more stuff. Soon, our lovely stuff becomes clutter.
Of course, many things are useful. They enrich our lives, add convenience, entertainment or fun (or at least a possibility for these), but overall they are not the most important things.
The truth, easily forgotten, is this. You can survive on much less than you currently do (unless you are very, very poor). Even more, you can finally thrive when you focus on your basic needs and make space for growth in your life.
You don’t need the many things you buy or use. These are your wants. Your instant reward for pleasure, worth or status.
For instance, if you have internet at home, you can perfectly cancel your TV subscription and follow the most important news only.
You can choose to drive a second-hand car or use public transport. Even better, you can commute by bike. In the end, the car is your means of transport and usually your liability.
You may stop buying sandwiches at work and prepare your own lunch at home. You may stop buying coffee and start drinking water and herbal teas instead. You may stop indulging in smoking or alcohol.
You may buy moderately-priced clothes instead of fancy designs.
You may rent a smaller apartment than you currently have.
Do you need to buy the latest ipad just because it is there? Surely, it is cool to play with the newest technology. It is fun. But, do you really need this? Unless your job depends on being up-to-date with the latest technology – let’s face it – a new gadget is your want.
Note: I am not advocating to cut your spending for the sake of saving money. It makes sense, of course, but concerning your finances, a more efficient strategy is is to earn additional money aside.
My point is different. Surviving on less is about essential needs and conscious practices that make space in your life, be it physical, mental or emotional, so that you can gain clarity and focus on what is the most important. It is also about the awareness behind the choices you make or impulses you follow.
Happiness and stuff
It is an illusion that the abundance of possessions will give you true happiness. Possessions have to be handled and maintained. They require attention, care, time, energy and money. They will make you either very busy to the point of exhaustion or make a mess of your life when you become a stuff collector. Happiness does not depend on how much you own to impress others, but actually on the quality of living in the now.
If we consider the feeling of happiness as the function of the amount of stuff you own we will observe a specific behavior, following the curse of dimensionality principle in statistical learning or rational decision taking. Initially, with the increase of possessions you become happier until you reach a point where the reverse trend begins. Then, the more you own and maintain, the less happy you become. Why? Because you have all the stuff or possessions you may want but hardly any time to enjoy them.
Surprisingly, this saturation point is not as high as you would imagine. Stuff multiplies super-fast and occupies any room it finds.
Why do we buy stuff?
We buy stuff because we blindly follow the instant gratification principle and/or we accept consumerism as the working model of reality.
Instant gratification vs delayed reward
Instant gratification is the satisfaction you gain from impulse behaviors. When something appeals to your senses, be it beautiful clothes, a fancy handbag, great climbing shoes or the newest smartphone, your natural response is to want it.
You see a delicious cake, you want it and you eat it. You feel like having the fifth cup of coffee. You want it and you drink it. You see the newest ipad. It is even thinner and slicker in the design than you imagined. You want it so you buy it.
Wanting a thing and wanting it badly now is the key characteristic of toddlers and preschoolers. It is the time window, between one and four, where the emotional-cognitive brain is being hugely developed. The verbal-intellectual brain (neocortex) will begin a fast development only around the age of four.
Children at the preschooler age are emotionally very expressive, going from a perfect laughter to a total frustration in a split of a second. There are battles of wills, stubbornness and tantrums about the things they want to have now or their way. They are learning to experience and handle their emotions. They have not yet developed a time perspective, not even mentioning any reasoning ability (to be developed much later). Emotions are in the moment and they need to be expressed excessively.
Any conclusions from this?
It is possible to teach preschoolers simple ways of waiting before you turn your attention to them. Similarly, it is possible for us to practice patience. Persistence and ability to delay gratification are the antidote for getting out of debt and taking care of own financial future. They are a must-have qualities of conscious people: happy, fulfilled and successful.
Concerning the aspect of delayed gratification, the most famous experiment is perhaps the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment studying the impulsiveness of four- and six-year old children at a nursery. The kids were offered either a single marshmallow or two marshmallows if they would wait for some time. The experimenter told the children that he had to leave for a while. The children could choose to eat the marshmallow immediately, but if they waited for him to come back before eating it, they could eat two marshmallows instead.
Some children ate the marshmallow immediately, but many attempted to wait for the extra reward. Of those, one third was rewarded with the second marshmallow. Not surprisingly, age was a major determinant.
The same children were tested 10 years later and while entering the adulthood. The ones who ate the marshmallow immediately were compared to the ones who were able to delay gratification. The later group described more competent adolescents who also scored better academically. An additional study in 2011 shows that such characteristics remain for life. See the article here.
In short, the conclusion from these and related articles is this. Instant gratification is related to people who tend to be stubborn, impulsive, easily overwhelmed, prone to stress and jealousy with a low self-image. On the contrary, delayed gratification is associated with people who are assertive, self-disciplined, dependable, eager to learn, able to cope with disappointment and frustration and more competent academically.
If you want to apply delayed gratification to your life, learn how to practice patience and self-discipline.
We have subscribed to the consumerism-based reality where consumption of goods is the central theme. It is a concept in which our worth or value is reflected by what we consume. The idea has repeatedly been broadcasted in media and by various companies and corporations for a long time. As a result, we have come to believe that it is what we buy and have that reflects who we are.
The philosophy is narcissistic in the sense that the primate emotional self is put on pedestal to be worshiped or satisfied. We buy things to feel good, to express ourselves or our personalities, to show off or reflect our importance, or to seek approval from others. We buy for pleasure, acceptance or status. We buy to belong. We buy to keep up with the peers, colleagues, friends, family and so on. We buy to look better than the neighbors. How pathetic is this!
It is quite common that women will go shopping when they are emotionally low, depressed or frustrated. New clothes, shoes or bags will often cheer them up. We have come to celebrate our life by spending money on goods. This is however unsustainable, as on average, at least in the USA and the UK, we spend much more than what we are making.
What do you really need?
Spend some time on this question.
What do you really need?
Your answers should relate to things that contribute to your long-term health, emotional and mental well-being and success. Begin to question anything you want to buy that cost more than, say, 25 GBP / EUR / dollars.
Think about your recent impulse purchases. Think about what happened in the moment of buying the thing and just before it. What was the trigger behind the purchase? How did you feel at that moment? What did you think at that time? How did you justify the purchase to yourself?
Identify the triggers in your mind and simply pre-program the desired action that should happen instead.
Find a way to distract yourself from buying or avoid the trigger from arising in the first place. Know your touch buttons and simply have a procedure in operation that saves them from pressing.
Play the scene in your head and choose a strategy that leads to non-buying.
You are ready for the next time.
A very short guide to buying stuff
- Repeat this mantra multiple times a day for a month: “Owning more stuff wastes my time and energy, creates hassle and takes me off track. I only buy what I need”.
- Pause before you buy small things. Are they really your need?
- If there is something above 50 GBP/EUR/dollars that you want to buy (different than your regular food or expenses), wait before your purchase. Wait a week for small things. Wait a month or more for big things. Do you really, really need them?
- Pay cash.
- Invest the money you have not spent. Begin building your wealth: health, education or skills, relationships or assets.
In a month you will start to see the results.
A great book on consumerism is Spent by Geoffrey Miller. Read it and you will learn new things.
Photo credit Fe Langdon, available under Creative Commons on Flickr.