Alright, let’s get into this topic, as it is one I have written about in the past a few times. I like the idea that things could be done differently by a lot of people, and better results would occur. By this I mean none of us are not obligated to follow the masses, fall for the marketing, buy into the hype, or end up on the hedonic treadmill like so many others do.
Let me break it down for you, as this is the pattern that life follows for most people:
–In high school, you are worried about what everyone thinks of you, of the clothes you wear, if you have a car or not, and for some, what kind of car.
–In college, you carry these same concerns with you, and add to them things like being able to party til dawn, drink as much as everyone else, skip class and still get good grades.
–You enter the working world, making decent money for the first time in your young adult life. You make yourself broke despite having more money than ever before by following the herd to the next milestones of “society”. These include getting a cool apartment in a cool part of town, leasing a new car because you “deserve it”, and going out every Friday and Saturday night with your friends. You add credit card debt on top of student loan debt, and despite landing a $50K a year job right out of college, you don’t have any money in your pocket.
–You meet someone, get married and plan a life together. You move from that apartment to a house, one bigger than you need. If you add kids in the mix, you may be moving again soon, to a bigger home with more rooms than you need. You need to move into the right school district, paying more for that zip code. The neighbors bought a new car recently, and now you think you need one as well.
This goes on ad nauseum for the first 40 or 50 years of your life, until one day you finally decide: screw it…I want off the treadmill. The goal line is always moving when you look at life in this manner. There is always someone with more, newer, bigger, better, etc. of something. You cannot and SHOULD NOT live a life of comparison against everyone else, and make this your measuring stick for happiness or social standing.
The idea that you can keep up with everyone on your street used to be plenty to keep people living beyond their means, but now you can see the whole world via social media. You see the highlight reel of life people put together to broadcast to the masses as a representation of their life, and in many cases it is a flat out lie. We’ve all heard the stories of people leaning against a Ferrari for a selfie, despite the fact the that this car does not belong to them. This is destructive behavior, and too many people think acquiring more stuff will make them happy. IT WON’T. The novelty of a new car will wear off after about 60-90 days, but you’re left with another 78 months of car payments. THAT is the reality of trying to live on the hedonic treadmill.
According to the Fool.com website, the average American has over $5,200 in credit card debt. This may not sound outrageous, but when you are paying over 15% interest on this balance every month, it adds up quickly. It is money draining out of your bank account. Despite higher income earners having the opportunity for more credit card debt, it is the middle class income earners that average the highest balances on their credit cards. They are living beyond their means, trying to look like they occupy space in the upper class, but in reality do not. Many people are in debt up to their eyeballs when you add up a mortgage payment, a car payment or two, cell phone, internet gas, insurance, entertainment money, etc. etc. Despite earning a decent salary, every penny of it is spent, and then some. This is a recipe for financial serfdom and most likely a deep seated unhappiness that is hard to put a finger on just why you never seem to be very happy in life.
Once you can break free of this mindset, you are on your way to finding happiness and satisfaction in life. NOW, you are ready to live. At some point you will likely discover that it is not the material things that make you happy, it is the other things in life that hold more value overall. Time spent with family and friends, experiences versus possessions, a morning hike to watch the sunrise, these are the things that once you learn to appreciate will supersede any material item you own. You’ll see that by having a house that has extra rooms in it, you will buy things to fill these rooms. You will continue to accumulate things, spending money on items that you don’t need, much of it due to some sort of implied social contract of “this is how it is done”. No Thanks.
In my opinion, if you want to set yourself up for a life of happiness and contentment, you need to leapfrog to the mindset that you’ll likely have by 40 or 50 anyway. At least minimize or ideally skip over the crap of your 20’s and 30’s, save yourself the financial impact of trying to keep up with everyone around you. Learn to be happy with what you have, and then work towards paying cash for things that you want. Don’t buy a bunch of stuff on credit cards just because you can swallow the monthly payments. You need to be investing as early as possible in life, benefitting from the magic that is compound interest. You need to understand that the things you own end up owning you in a way. Perfect example: I got an Uber ride home from the airport from a guy in a Tesla. His car payment was over $800 a month, so he drives for Uber on weekends to help pay for it. Think about that…he is running up the miles on his car, and taking hours out of his weekends, simply so he can be seen driving a Tesla. Flat. Out. Stupid.
If you develop any sense at all as you go through life, this is one of the conclusions you will arrive at somewhere down the line, so why not start it as soon as possible? Think of the money you’d save by doing this. If you can keep your credit card(s) free and clear, your credit score will go up, allowing you to pay less when you do buy a car or a house. You are helping your own cause in the grand scheme of things, so next time someone looks a little sideways at the car you roll up in, remind them that yours is paid for, is theirs? It is easy to fall victim to feeling bad about not having certain things you think you want, but your life is fine without whatever that is. Don’t get sucked into the same crap that the masses do. Next time you see someone with a Supreme t-shirt or a pair of Balenciaga shoes on, laugh to yourself, knowing that they are probably a victim of the culture’s grip.
I would highly recommend watching the documentary Minimalism; it is well done and talks about this exact mindset. The two main characters in this documentary are life-long friends who both grew up in humble beginnings. Because of this, they strove to work hard, earn a lot, and buy everything they never had as kids. They “made it” by cultural standards, having nice cars, a closet full of designer clothes, cool condos in the hip part of the city. But neither was happy, and THAT is the real goal of life. Lots of people think you’re better off crying in a Ferrari then smiling in a Toyota, but I firmly disagree. I am doing a fishing trip next month with my Dad, my cousin and a very close friend, and this experience will have a lifetime of value for me. I could have bought a new toy of sorts, or even put that money towards a new vehicle, but that is not how I roll. My 2009 Highlander is getting around just fine, and in fact this is the vehicle we are taking on the trip. We’ll cover about 2500 miles in ten days, and the memories will last me a lifetime. It may be the last time my Dad can make a trip like this, and there is no amount of money that can buy that kind of thing back later on.
If you really want to win in the game of life, you need to break out of the mainstream mindset and do things differently. Live for experiences instead of possessions. Play the long game by investing early and not spending money on things that are disposable and transitory. Align yourself with a partner who thinks and feels the same way, and you will not just double but likely triple your resolve when it comes to these things. Set financial goals and be sure to meet them. Get a safety net of cash established early on, and keep adding to it. Ideally you’d have a minimum of six months salary in the bank in case you ever lost your job or, I don’t know, another pandemic shuts the world down again for a period of time. Money doesn’t buy happiness, but it does by peace of mind and security in tough times. It can give you breathing room to find a new job, take a pay cut if needed, etc. If you live beyond your means you cannot accomplish this. After what we all have been through in 2020 and 2021, doesn’t this seem like a much better plan for your life? It may not be quite as much fun as the alternative, but is temporary pleasure worth risking losing everything because of a job loss or an economic down turn?
Prepare for the worst and pray for better, that is my advice. Have things on hand that you’d need in a crisis, have money on hand and in the bank, and you’ll sleep better at night. You don’t need to be the center of attention because of your new car or your cool shoes, these are vapid and shallow flashes of ego gratification at best. At worst, they are robbing you of financial peace and security in the near future. Shoot for a big smile in your Toyota instead of running up the miles on your Tesla every weekend driving for Uber so you can afford that car. Start weeding things out you don’t need, sell as much as you can to recoup the money you wasted acquiring those unnecessary things in the first place. You will feel a weight lifted off of your shoulders as soon as you do.