Do you ask what the proper limit is to wealth? It is first to have what is necessary, and second, to have what is enough.Seneca, Letter II.
I spent a lot of time last year writing about spending. I tracked my spending religiously, and I still do. And I focused a lot on the numbers; the outcome over the process, if you will. So when I didn’t achieve my original goals, I adjusted the target. Three times. And then I still didn’t quite meet it.
And no matter how you slice it, when we focus on the goal over the process, it stings when we don’t reach our goals. It’s uninspiring and de-motivating, to say the least.
The Peril of the ‘Numbers Game’
Just today, for example, I had a great work out at the gym. Considering a recent increase in back and general joint pain, I was actively thinking to myself how good and strong I was feeling.
Shortly after my workout, I stepped on the scale – one of the remaining pieces of empirical data I track regarding health and diet – and found that I was about as heavy as I have been in a while.
We chase wealth like we chase health, wanting to reach a certain number rather than feel a certain way. And all too often we sacrifice a joyful life in exchange for this benchmark. We worry about how things will be when we get there, rather than learn how to live and love along the way.
What good is it to be 150 pounds if it means you’re 20 pounds underweight and therefore weak and ill? And what good is it to have a large, fancy home full of things if there isn’t a soul within it that cares for you or those things?
I spent $27,991 in the first 6 months of 2019, about a quarter of that on my truck. By my own standards, a total failure so far. No matter how much I am able to save in the last half of the year, there’s just no way to make up that kind of lost ground, and I am bound to miss my annual spending goal of $24,000 CAD by at least $9,000 or so.
But what if there is another way to look at it? What if I could change my perspective, and thus, my mind about spending?
I must consider that during this time I’ve built my home and continue to do so, and that I got a little unlucky and made a few reckless decisions regarding my truck this year, but I’ve learned my lesson. I’ve also paid down credit card debt and reduced regular spending on storage and more. What’s more, is that unless more highly unexpected large expenses pop up in the coming months, I am on track to spend less than $7,300 in the last 6 months of the year, a sign that I am refining my operating budget and finding ways to avoid spending on (at least some) superfluous things. In fact, apart from the superfluous things, I am on track to spend just $20,000 CAD in 2019. This is actually $4,000 under my spending goal.
But what is superfluous these days? What do we actually need to survive? To be happy? One approach to answering these questions would be to go traveling or backpacking. Go cook over a fire and sleep under the stars. It’s a wonderful way to cut out the bullshit and determine what is truly necessary and useful in this world.
Elemental, Necessary, Useful and Superfluous (Useless)
Henry David Thoreau wrote that material items fall into one of four categories: elemental, necessary, useful and superfluous (or useless). Elemental things are of course required for survival, such as water and air, whereas necessary items may include shelter. A tool or useful item, such as a car, book or knife, is something that intensifies the power to act. And a superfluous thing exists only for the admiration of others, or one’s self, such as a designer handbag. He believed that most things in the world fell into the ‘useful’ category.
As Seneca wrote, “it is the superfluous things, for which men sweat. The superfluous things that wear our Toga’s threadbare. That force us to grow old in camp; that dash us upon foreign shores.”
What is necessary to you? And even useful? And how much of what you are chasing is superfluous? We are always the root of our own problems, one way or another. These days, we need money to live. It has been well documented that money can buy you happiness, but only up until a certain point. So are we wasting away at a job that is killing us simply to obtain superfluous things that we’ve convinced ourselves – consciously or not – are necessary things?
The superfluous will not sustain us. There’s no doubt that it will bring us pleasure, especially while it continues to wear its shine. But when that shine wears off and we find ourselves back in our office grasping for meaning from the next shiny thing our paycheque can possibly obtain us, it becomes clear that the superfluous is not what will bring us real, lasting joy.
Joy is not equal to Pleasure
Because joy, in contrast with pleasure, is a lasting and sustainable state of being. It comes from a place of learning or struggle over time. The enjoyment of the fruits of that labor encourages more learning and struggle. There is joy in finding wisdom, or in learning new skills and finding places to apply them that bring us meaning, or in saving money and investing it in something we believe in.
Note that nowhere in this very intuitive description of what brings us joy is there any mention of excessive riches, or superfluous items. Money, beyond its place in the modern world as a tool to help us obtain the elemental and necessary, is not itself a necessary ingredient of joy.
However, what is present in this recipe for joy is the acquirement and mastery of skills. And these skills themselves can bring us more financial independence, in that we can save money by avoiding outsourcing tasks that may arise in our lives in the future for which we now have the skills to tackle, and also by charging others for these new skills if we so require or desire.
If you know that you can live well and happy on $30,000/year, why work twice as long saving for a retirement where you assume you will spend $60,000/year instead if you’re already generating $35,000/year?
In the United States, the speed of acquiring and discarding products accelerated before the crash of 2008. Consumers knew relatively little about where purchases came from and the ecological impact of their production, use and disposal.
But, especially now, many people do care, and want to lighten the footprint of their spending. Perhaps surprisingly, the route to lower impact does not require putting on a loin cloth. Consumers are passionate about consuming, and deliberate in the creation of a plentiful life. They don’t have to be less materialist – as the standard definition would have it – but more so, for it is only when we take the materiality of the world seriously that we can appreciate and preserve the resources on which our spending depends. True materialism is environmentally-aware consumption.
Joy, a Recipe
So here’s the recipe: recognize what is necessary and forget about the rest (at least for now). Find ways to obtain skills that would allow you to meet at least some of these needs without needing to exchange money for them, and, voila!, you’re even further on your way to financial independence. Take pleasure in investing ethically and consuming responsibly, and learn to recognize the folly of unchecked consumption and growth for growth’s sake. Focus on what you have, or what you are creating, rather than on what you perceive to be lacking.
There’s a lot of ways to go about things. Working more to pay for more is one, but typically leads us to being distracted by the things that surround us. This also results in little free time for enjoyment and meaningful reflection.
Instead, we must spend and consume more sustainably now so that there will be something left to consume in the future. And maybe this does mean less economic growth in the future than in the past. But as we should have learned in 2008, it is better to back off slowly on the reigns than to run full tilt off the cliff ahead. It will seem even more foolish when considering all the road signs posted for many miles leading to the cliff.
Perhaps we will have been too busy texting to see them.
It is clear to you, I’m sure…that no man can live a happy life, or even a supportable life without the study of wisdom. You know, also, that a happy life is reached when our wisdom is brought to completion. But that life is at least endurable even when our wisdom has only begun. Away then with it all excuses like “I have not enough, when I have gained the desired amount, then I shall devote myself to philosophy.”
And yet this idea which you are putting off and placing second to other interests should be secured first of all. Therefore one should not seek to lay up riches first. One may attain through philosophy, however, even without money for your journey, it is indeed so.
After you have come to possess all other things shall you then wish to possess wisdom also? Is philosophy to be the last requisite of life? A sort of supplement?
Nay, your plan should be this: be a philosopher now. Whether you have anything or not, for if you have anything, how do you know that you have not too much already? But if you have nothing, seek understanding first, before anything else.
But you say, “I shall lack the necessities of life”. In the first place, you cannot lack them, because nature demands but little, and the wise man suits his needs to nature. His means of existence are meager and scanty. He will make the best of them, without being anxious or worried about anything more than the bare necessities.Seneca, Letter XVI.