People often measure their life by how much stuff they have. In America, we’ve had a high consumption lifestyle driven by heavy marketing, big corporations, and keeping up with the Joneses. But humans have been dealing with the problems of “stuff” for millennia – it’s not a new problem. Here’s a collection of wisdom that discusses the problems of stuff to help argue for keeping less of it, and freeing yourself from it.
Henry David Thoreau’s Walden
Henry David Thoreau was a philosopher, poet, naturalist, and a few other things, who was best known for his book Walden. As he described in that book, Thoreau parked himself in the woods of Walden pond, built his own shelter, and dedicated this time to living simply to the greatest extent possible – a desire to “live free and uncommitted.” He did this as part of an experiment and it ended up as a guide to a simplified lifestyle. Early in Walden, he explains that having excess possessions requires additional labor (and money) to buy them but also adds worry and constrains us to protecting these possessions.
This is a fundamentally IMPORTANT idea. These possessions, that we work so hard to acquire, traps us into a prison, adds stress, and wastes mental energy that could be used for other more productive activities. Often these possessions are also forcing some of us to work, in order to maintain these possessions. The neighbor down the street who bought that brand new Mercedes is working tirelessly to keep up with those payments. Thoreau makes it clear that if you compare having a lot of things to wanting less things, the optimal way to live is to want less things. Trying to live with more luxury is going to reduce your quality of life instead of improving it.
Instead of working, buying things to fill his house and cluttering his home, he focused his time on spending it on leisure, reading, writing, and working with his hands. All he needed was the cabin he built himself (with the bare minimum of materials), some books, the ability to live off the land, and an occasional trip to the town to trade goods for some necessities.
Buddhism and Attachment
Most people think of Buddhism as a religion, with temples, services, as well as some supernatural beliefs. However, the original teachings by Buddha isn’t a religion, and can be thought of as a guide for better living, clarity of thought, wisdom, and kindness. It is another pragmatic philosophy, to me very similar to a softer version of Stoicism. The Buddha was originally a prince in India who left a lavish lifestyle to become an ascetic. He was overwhelmed by the sight of poverty outside of his palace and decided to make a change, and started begging for alms in the street.
Once he became a teacher, his principles and philosophy spread like wildfire. His teachings often focus on suffering, and one of the causes of suffering is “attachment.” It’s similar to Thoreau and the Stoics, our focus on wanting things puts us in a prison. We are tied down to these objects (and desires).
“Attachment to your appetites – whether you deprive or indulge them – can lead to slavery, but satisfying the needs of daily life is not wrong. Indeed, to keep a body in good health is a duty, for otherwise the mind will not stay strong and clear.”“A man who gives way to pleasure will be swept away by craving and his thoughts will make him suffer, like waves.”
These desires are human nature, and in fact, are typical of all animals. Have you seen your dog look at you at the dinner table while you eat? He is craving your dinner, often even though he just ate. Your dog seems to be suffering, and to him, he is suffering because he has no way to control his desires. We are able to control our desires, because we are human and have this amazing prefrontal cortex in the brain, that can plan and conduct rational thought. We can reason what we are feeling and understand that these attachments and desires may not be in our best interest.
The Stoics, the philosophy founded in ancient Athens which I wrote about in Aging gracefully – what I’ve learned from the Stoics, also believed in a form of non-attachment. The Stoics believe that the value of something shouldn’t be projected onto things dependent on the outside world. Those objects can disappear at any time, and could cause you to be upset.
Seneca advised to set aside some time every month to practice poverty. consume a small amount of food and wear some old clothes, and don’t sleep in your bed. is this the worst condition you can exist in? This practice sets you up to prepare yourself to live in more difficult times.
“It is in times of security that the spirit should be preparing itself for difficult times; while fortune is bestowing favors on it is then is the time for it to be strengthened against her rebuffs.”– Seneca
Both the Stoics and Buddhists had similar beliefs overall. Naseem Taleb, the famous author of the Black Swan, Fooled by Randomness, and Antifragile famously wrote that “a Stoic is a Buddhist with attitude, one who says F*** you to fate.”
The Millionaire Next Door
In Dr. Thomas Stanley’s bestselling book, The Millionaire Next Door, the author describes that wealth is a result of a “lifestyle of hard work, perseverance, planning, and, most of all, self-discipline.” To accomplish this, individuals who tend to achieve the status of Millionaire, do the following:
1. They live well below their means.2. They allocate their time, energy, and money efficiently, in ways conducive to building wealth.3. They believe that financial independence is more important than displaying high social status.4. Their parents did not provide economic outpatient care.5. Their adult children are economically self-sufficient.6. They are proficient in targeting market opportunities.7. They chose the right occupation.
#1 is key – you must live well below your means. It’s not so much your realized income that determines your wealth – this doesn’t matter so much. It’s how much you already have that matters more. A high consumption lifestyle that deteriorates your savings and lowers your overall net worth WILL DESTROY YOUR MEANS OF ACQUIRING OR MAINTAINING WEALTH. You will have less money to invest, and you will also end up having to waste money on maintaining your high consumption lifestyle.
Economic Outpatient Care (EOC – #4 above) is another problem that can plague parents and retirees. Often we give gifts to our children that can be used to prop up a certain lifestyle for our children. He gives these gifts a unique, hospital-like name – Economic Outpatient Care. These gifts are not in our best interests of our kids. Dr. Stanley argues that these gifts can damage our children’s initiative and productivity. These gifts become habit forming and are expected throughout their lives. They weaken our children who may then be more likely to be underachievers because they haven’t yet figured out how to work hard and innovate to generate high incomes themselves. “The more dollars adult children receive, the fewer dollars they accumulate, while those who are given fewer dollars accumulate more.This is a statistically proven relationship. Yet many parents still think that their wealth can automatically transform their children into economically productive adults. They are wrong. Discipline and initiative can’t be purchased like automobiles or clothing off a rack”
Mr. Money Mustache
Mr. Money Mustache (I know, this is a funny name) retired young and his income prior to retirement wasn’t abnormally high. He learned frugality at a young age, and his parents didn’t buy much stuff. He learned to save an incredible amount while he was working and was spending only 25% of his disposable income, while others were spending 90% of their disposable income. The savings compound rapidly and you should be able to build wealth if you follow this discipline.
Mr. Money Mustache also makes a great argument that their is a higher cause for being frugal than just saving more money – IT’S GOOD FOR THE PLANET. Going to WalMart and buying some newly manufactured items is not so great for mother nature. You’re wasting energy, consuming metals, producing plastics, and polluting the earth for every new car that you’re purchasing. Instead of consuming, Mr. Money Mustache argues for spending your time focusing on your long-term happiness and health. Spend time with your family, read books, play your guitar, take a hike, and cook for yourself.
OK, having nice things is nice. But these things aren’t you and you’ll still be around if you take these things away. You don’t need this stuff. They are doing more harm to you then you know. Take a trip to the nearest Goodwill store and give some of it away. When you go to a store, think very carefully before you buy something. Do you really need it? Are you willing to suffer more because of these things that you really don’t need?