Myth: Stuff = Happiness

The other night, I was reading Get Rich Slowly, one of my favorite finance blogs. I would like to lift a few of his comments from this fantastic post that illustrate why I LOVE personal finance, and what is truly important in our financial lives.


To lift a quote from Get Rich Slowly:

To me, life was all about the Stuff. I had hundreds of CDs and thousands of books. I had a TV, a stereo, a house, and a car. I wanted more. Sparky had none of these, but he had something I did not. Sparky had freedom. His frugal lifestyle allowed him to save and invest…

For some reason, I could not see the connection between Sparky’s thrifty lifestyle and his financial success. I could not see the connection between my own profligate ways and my mounting debt. I was blind.

What is freedom? I think the idea can mean different things to different people, so I guess a better question would be: What does freedom truly mean to you? To me, freedom means that I can do as I wish. There is nothing (besides natural law) holding me down or constraining my actions. Nothing preventing me from fulfilling my every desire. Financial freedom is relief from servitude and slavery. I structure and manage my finances so carefully because I know that I am a slave, and I wish to someday find my freedom.

But slavery ended over 100 years ago, didn’t it? No, it didn’t. One kind of slavery did end after the Civil War, the kind we associate with cruelty, cotton plantations, and the Underground Railroad. But there is another form of slavery that has, rather than being stamped out, has been promoted, endorsed, and even celebrated in this country. The slavery I speak of is financial slavery, and it is a rapidly growing problem.

Think about it. Do you ever feel like your “stuff” owns you, rather than the other way around? Ever wake up in the morning wishing that you could just hit the snooze button and forget about work? What prevents you from doing so? Isn’t that what you would like to do on those mornings? I know I have those mornings. I don’t hit the snooze button for one very simple reason: I need money. I have rent to pay, groceries to buy, high-speed internet to pay for, burgers to buy, a car to fill up with gas. In short, my “stuff” is dictating my actions. I am going to work, (quite against my natural inclination) because my “stuff” demands it. So who, then, is truly in charge of your life? If you can’t take a day off because the car payment is coming due, then who is in charge of your life? Is it you? The bank? The car? Debt and excess are slavery, plain and simple.

I have structured my finances in such a way as to allow the maximum amount of freedom. I could switch to part-time work if I wanted to. I would certainly enjoy the extra free hours. I would have to sacrifice some other things to do so, though. Maybe the internet would have to go (a terrible thought!!), maybe we would have to eat ramen noodles and macaroni and cheese every day. But we could survive. We could pay our rent, keep the car filled with fuel, pay utilities, etc. The reason I could do such a thing is because I have limited the powers of my financial slave-masters. My rent is low. I have no car payment. I have no credit card debt. By stripping would-be financial obligations of their power, I have empowered myself. To a degree, at least. I would still need to work to get money, regardless of what I want. So I am not totally free, yet.

Since I only need a part-time salary to maintain my lifestyle, why do I work full-time? It’s simple. I CHOOSE to work full time because I want to get rid of all the forces that restrict my freedom. By spending significantly less than I earn, I am building my financial power. One day, that power will be enough to set me completely free. One day, I will have a home that has no payment on it, and investments that work for me to earn the income I need for my daily upkeep. When my money is working for me, rather than me for it, then I will be totally free, and I can use my time as I wish, and not as my creditors demand. That’s my financial dream. I want the right to CHOOSE to work how I want, when I want, as much as I want, for any pay (including $0). If I want to go on a vacation, I will need no one’s permission to go. I will just pack up and go. If I want to sleep in, then I will. If I wish to rise early, then I will. To be the master of my own time, to use it as I wish, oh what a joy that will be.

One of my favorite quotes, to sum up:

Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work and driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for – in order to get to the job you need to pay for the clothes and the car, and the house you leave vacant all day so you can afford to live in it.

Ellen Goodman


Money is not Wealth

From Get Rich Slowly:

Please, my friends, always remember that true wealth has nothing to do with money. True wealth is built from friends and family, from experiences and relationships — it is derived from a life filled with meaning. Without these things, money means nothing.

To this I would add that “stuff” means nothing. It doesn’t matter how shiny and new your car is. It doesn’t matter how dented and “economical” your car is either. It doesn’t matter how expensive of a gift you give. It doesn’t matter when your home was built, how big the yard is, how nice the granite countertops look. These things are not the source of happiness. Happiness comes from “friends and family, from experiences and relationships – it is derived from a life with meaning” and a life of freedom. Own your own life. Take control. Tell the advertisers that you don’t care that the Jones’ drive a better car, have a bigger house, throw bigger birthday parties. Tell the credit card companies that you will not be their slave and tell the banks that you will no longer work for them. Tell the Jones’ to join you on your way out of slavery and into freedom. As one who is living the frugal and “uncool” lifestyle, I can tell you that it is worth it. The greatest rewards are the furthest away, but the rewards of peace of mind and, yes, even freedom, that you will find the first day and onward make the small sacrifice worth it all by themselves.

Posted on 21 Jan 2009