There’s something unsettling about money to spend. I’m not referring to the money we need to cover our essentials like food, rent, clothing or even the odd coffee or dvd hire. I’m talking about amounts above and beyond our needs. I believe it’s called ‘discretionary income’.
After a decade or so of having absolutely none due to being in that financial vacuum known as motherhood and studentdom, I had fantasised about how joyful the experience of having left over money at the end of each pay check would be. With money in my pocket, I envisioned a life made easier. Surely, more money would mean more happiness?
And to a point, it did. Having finally emerged from my decade of lack, I graduated with a professional qualification and a salary to match. Over the last twelve months I’ve been in a position to compare and contrast the experience of only just managing to make ends meet to having a discretionary income that I was free to do with as I pleased. Despite my predictions of increased happiness and growing joy, the experience has left me unsettled and somewhat frayed.
I won’t argue that having enough money to comfortably cover all of your expenses, buy the odd unneeded but much wanted item or saving for a holiday or a rainy day does not bring a feeling of satisfaction and achievement. It does. After years of relying on my partner or Centrelink or in emergency situations, my very generous mother, the ability to self-support is a wonderful and necessary thing. I would not give it up for anything.
But it’s what we do with the rest of our money that makes me uneasy. And for most of us working full time professional jobs in Australia, no matter how much we may whine about lack of money, there is enough left after paying for our essentials and not so essentials to do with as we please.
I should mention here that my professional qualification is in Social Work, and you’d be right to infer that as a Social Worker, I tend to have a healthy interest in lofty ideals like social justice, equality and the right for all people to live a dignified life. I read books about world poverty, I listen to Radio National and I prefer to buy Christmas gifts from Oxfam than from major department stores.
I know that my values and beliefs have played a major role in my feelings about how I spend my money, but even so, consumerism is a slippery slope that the most committed anti-shoppers amongst us can gradually find ourselves sailing down. After twelve months of having money left over, I can attest to how difficult it is to resist the temptations of a society which not only encourages us to spend, but informs us that it’s our duty to keep buying up big if we are to keep our economy buzzing along in the right direction.
It’s been both amusing and alarming to chart my relationship with abundance over the course of the last twelve months. By doing so, I’ve gained some life changing insights into my relationship with money that I think are worth sharing.
I spent the first two months of my new improved pay scale replacing and repairing all those items that I had neglected over the past decade. I fixed the washing machine. I rented a new television. I threw out all my underwear with holes and bought replacements. I serviced my car and took my daughter shopping. I subscribed to two magazines, visited the dentist and bought a home water filter system.
This felt good. Who doesn’t feel better in underpants without holes in them? I did all this, but I still had money left over each fortnight. The next couple of months I upgraded my mobile phone, bought new clothes and started saving for an overseas holiday. And I still had money left over. I began to take notice of the junk mail catalogues and to look in the shops that I had previously walked right past. I noticed lots of pretty things and started telling myself that I could have it if I wanted it. After all, I’d worked for it.
So I bought some more new clothes. As a jigsaw puzzle lover, I had previously bought or been gifted one or two puzzles a year. Now I could buy one as soon as I finished one, turning the area under my bed into a used jigsaw puzzle graveyard. Whilst I did not overcommit my funds or wantonly purchase big items I had no real use for, I did considerably grow the amount of ‘stuff’ that came through my door.
About eight months into my newfound financial freedom, I began to feel a sense of unease. I couldn’t really articulate why, but something felt wrong about the situation. I don’t think I was really ready to address why I was feeling uneasy at this point, but I did decide to engage a financial planner to try and make some smart decisions about my money.
This turned out to be an excellent idea and helped me to feel that I was in control of my money and not the other way round. Plans were made and mostly stuck to. My holiday savings were growing nicely and I made a small investment. Still my unease did not go away. I wondered why working for my money and then being able to spend it on stuff I wanted, did not really make me feel any better.
Sitting down to yet another new jigsaw, I realised that there was something about abundance that had reduced the quality my experiences. My one or two puzzles a year were always so enjoyed – treasured even. Now that I could do as many as I liked, I found I liked each one just a little less. On the rare occasions I had been able to afford a new item of clothing, I had worn it feeling like a queen. Now that I had several new clothes, I did not savour the experience of putting on a new dress in quite the same way. I got less satisfaction out of my five new pairs of underwear than I did from the one new pair I had previously been able to buy.
And worryingly, I felt that anytime I left the house I was unconsciously in a state of ‘scanning’ for possible purchases. Window-shopping had been replaced by purchasing and I felt that in the process, I had lost something more valuable than money itself.
This shouldn’t have surprised me as I have many books about happiness and what contributes to it and what doesn’t. I know that rampant consumerism does not increase personal happiness and that there is more joy to be had in giving than in receiving. I know that the cycle of ‘work, buy, work’ does not bring lasting rewards.
Further, I know that in a world full of real poverty, the kind that kills through lack of access to basic nutrition and clean drinking water that growing my ‘stuff’ is both unethical and amoral. As the end of the first year of my financial abundance draws to a close, I think it was perhaps this knowledge that began to rise to the surface, nagging me that I was in danger of entering into a bargain with the economy that would neither make me feel good about myself nor do anything to address the bigger picture.
It was around this time that I had considered a change in my employment that would see me embark on another period of study. Looking down the barrel of a three or four year PhD meant certain reduction in my financial situation. What would it be like to have less again? Surprisingly, I found that considering the idea did not put me off, but rather excited me.
I want to point out that it’s important for me to ensure that I am financially independent and able to provide for my daughter and that I had no intention of taking on further study if it meant that either of these things were in jeopardy. I found that I could consider studying and still have enough for what I need. I would not however, have enough for what I want. And that’s really the crux of the matter.
The difference between need and want has become so blurred, that many of us have no idea what it is. I’m suggesting that we would all benefit from spending some time deciding what for us is a reasonable need and what is just a passing want. I walk around the shops and I see that we are all out of control. Like five years olds demanding that our parents buy us some piece of plastic that we will cherish for thirty seconds and then forget about, we seem to think that a moments fleeting (and costly) satisfaction is worth more than the pursuit of more lasting joys.
I don’t know if we’re all trying to fill up voids in our lives, use new shoes as band-aides for some internal pain or whether we are just so apathetic about our world that we really don’t care much. Whatever the reason, I personally can’t do it anymore.
Driven by the need to make change, I’ve drawn up a list of all the things I ‘need’, and I’ve given myself plenty of leeway, going beyond the absolute necessities like shelter and food, to include those items that enrich my experience of living. Books are on my list and so are movies. They bring me joy and promote learning. I’ve also included paying for a hobby, as it connects me with my community and helps me to exercise and de-stress. I’ve even budgeted for coffee, as I’m sure those amongst you who are caffeine fans will concur, that for the minimal cost of a coffee, much pleasure can be had!
However, I have decided that buying five coffees a week is my limit and that I really don’t need jumbo sized ones. My point is that by examining the differences between what I want and what I need, I’m not depriving myself. I’m just limiting myself to those experiences that I believe allow me to enjoy myself without becoming lost on the ‘purchase til I perish’ treadmill.
Everybody’s list of what they need will be different. Some people may be able to strip it right back to the essentials and to these people, I bow deeply. To those of you who would argue that you need those new shoes each month or can’t do without that monthly trip to the solarium or nail salon, I would suggest that you can and you should and here’s why.
To begin with, once you address what you really need and stop buying the things that you think you need but actually you don’t, you will find that your relationship to what you have changes. After deciding on my course of action, I have spent the last month ‘not buying it’. The result has been that I absolutely savour those five cups of coffee each week in a way that I never did when I let myself have as many as I want.
I’m in no way worse off from by my reduction in purchasing. On the contrary, I feel better. Even so, resisting hasn’t always been easy and it’s been fascinating to watch the withdrawal symptoms. I’ve had lots of thoughts pop into my head to rationalise why it would be okay to have that sixth cup of coffee this week, or why I really should have put buying a Bollywood Film magazine on my ‘need’ list, but so far I’ve managed to stop myself.
The way I’ve done this is by recalling the following fact that I read recently in a book. In 2007, 10 million children under the age of five died of poverty related diseases and that one such death can be prevented at a cost of around $200 US dollars (Singer 2009). Which brings me to my second argument for why you should get off the shopping merry go round. If you reduce the spending of your discretionary income, you’ll have money left over to make a very real difference with.
If at this point you’re still reading this, having not been turned off by the thought that you can’t possibly give up your trips to the nail salon, I’m hoping that you are at least open to the idea that we have an ethical responsibility to ensure that in a world where nobody needs to die because of poverty – that nobody does.
My own experience has been a powerful one and I’m grateful that I was able to learn from it before being sucked into a lifetime of spending and the discontent that accompanies such a journey. I know that there will be times that I will fall short of my intentions and find myself walking out of a shop holding a brand new purchase and wondering what just happened. It’s hard to ignore the constant advertising and to combat the desires that seem to arise uninvited.
On reflection, I realise that it was not enough for me to know that I should resist the temptation of consumerism and instead use my excess to contribute to solutions for the problems that really matter. Apart from a few donations to persistent charities over the last year, I did not give significantly. It wasn’t until I realised that my personal sense of enjoyment and satisfaction was being eroded by my ability to buy plenty that I began to look for another way.
It has taken a selfish motivation to spur me on to change. I don’t want a wardrobe full of clothes when one or two new items a year bring me more joy. I don’t want a jigsaw puzzle graveyard under my bed when a couple of puzzles a year are more fun. I don’t want to have my every excursion plagued with an undercurrent of latent hunting that sees me scanning for objects of desire. I don’t want a lifetime of working-spending-working that does little more than invite a mountain of stuff into my house that buries me and my values until all that’s left is a memory of someone who once dreamed bigger dreams. That is not a life well lived.
What I’m saying is of course nothing new. Encouragingly, of late there’s been growing discussion on how the path to abundance in the West has come at a cost. That we are somehow ‘less’ as a result of the experience of having more than we could possibly need. My year has shown me that this is true and I know that I must turn away before I get hooked.
I invite everyone to take a moment to consider what life could be like if it was lived more simply. To wonder what it is that allows us to keep purchasing when we know that we could use that money instead to contribute to saving a life. What sort of mechanisms do we employ to remain ignorant and uncaring? What does distancing ourselves from the realities of global suffering cost us as individuals? If we are faced with the choice of having an expensive hair cut or saving a child’s life, who amongst us would not save the life if we knew we could?
Then why don’t we? How do we justify being part of the problem and not part of the solution? These are hard questions to ask ourselves, but to ignore them makes us in some way less human than we are capable of being.
I leave behind my well paid job and enter into a period of less income knowing that it’s okay to have less money, if what you have instead is worth more than all of the riches in the world.