Are You Content with What You Have?

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We all (including myself) get caught up in the idea that more money will mean more happiness.  But as one of my personal finance gurus, J.D. Roth, points out, ”When we focus on monetary goals, we run the risk of becoming trapped on the “hedonic treadmill” (also known as lifestyle inflation), working harder and harder to make more and more money.”

This materialistic cycle does not lead to true happiness.

Can’t Money Buy a Little Happiness?

Sure, more money can make us happier.  More money can mean less worry about finances, more freedom to do what we love, or more time with friends and family.

As Enrico and I continue on our path to creating financial security, I am seeing what Roth means when he says that money is a powerful tool.  If you know how to use it and you are intentional about the way you use it, it can be used to build great things.  ”But if you’re not careful,” Roth says, “if you don’t have a plan, the life you construct with your money can be a tenuous thing — even dangerous.”

I don’t think I’ll ever get to the point where the attachment to money begins to break down what I feel is most important in life — relationships, finding meaning, making a contribution to the world.  However, who am I to be immune?   Money (like power) is also like a drug:  dangerous if not controlled and used in the right way.

How Money is Related to Well-Being

Roth, who experienced his own personal transformation as he went from indebted to millionaire, thanks to the success of his website Get Rich Slowly, says most of us would be better off focusing on being happy, rather than rich.

Here are some lessons he has learned along the way — principles that are also based on research — and that resonate with me too:

  • People who set their goals around relationships or personal fulfillment tend to be happier than those whose goals are built around money and more Stuff.
  • Saving too much and depriving yourself in the process can make you unhappy. Be reasonable with your savings and treat yourself along the way.
  • Experiences, rather than things, incite more intense emotion that lasts longer.
  • Advertising raises our expectations about what we should have, which makes us more unhappy if we don’t have those things.

What Do You Need To Be Content?

To me, the hardest lesson he mentions is this one:

“True happiness comes when you learn to be content with what you have.”

My late mother-in-law embodied this philosophy. She adored her apartment — the same, 70s-decor two-bedroom she’d had since she married 40 years ago. She relished her daily routine and the familiarity of her neighborhood. She loved the basics in life: cooking and eating, children and family, church and friends.

Her neighbor once remarked, almost irritated, “You talk about your apartment as if it were a palace or something.” And she replied, “Because to me, it is a palace!”

Always Striving for More

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Most of the time, I’m comfortable with my perfectionism and the high standards that drive me to continually better my life, my house, my parenting, my writing.  However, sometimes the constant striving just wears me out.  Sometimes I long to be more like Enrico’s mom: content with what she had.

J. D. Roth says that the key to finding this happiness-inducing attitude is to figure out what is Enough.

In many ways I have found this enough:  I’m fine about my ten-year-old banged-up used car, I’m OK with one or two pairs of shoes that I wear all the time, and I don’t care that my washer and dryer were in style in 1982 — they work like tanks.  Most parents can identify with how priorities change when children arrive.  Fashion out, function in.

Yet it’s not like I’m coasting.  I always seem to find other areas of my life to improve.  Whether it’s my website design, my writing career, or our basement.  Most of the time I enjoy the process of creating and refining to get things just the way I want them.  I think it’s when I set unrealistic goals that don’t take advantage of my strengths or take on more than I can handle that I make myself unhappy.

In Order to Add, Try Taking Something Away

When nothing seems to be going forward or you’re at an impasse, Matthew E. May for The New York Times says try cutting something out.  It is very difficult for many people (like me) to give up on an idea, a dream, or a commitment.  But giving up — taking away what does not fit, or deciding not to do something — takes as much discipline as persisting.

May, who is author of The Laws of Subtraction: 6 Simple Rules for Winning in the Age of Excess Everything, discovered a snippet of ancient Chinese philosophy  that changed his thinking:

“To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, subtract things every day.”

Sometimes the key to our problems — or to creating a great life — is not adding more.  It’s editing out.

As you know, I’m already seeing that the key to being organized is getting rid of things, not buying more bins or creating more space.  Here are some other ways I see how subtracting has improved my life.

Not long ago, I narrowly avoided a very expensive kitchen renovation.  What started as an effort to improve the flow quickly dominoed into an entire make-over where every single surface and appliance was being re-designed.  When I came to my senses and decided to cancel the renovation and simply repair the 1970s range which had inspired the cascade of change, I felt a huge sense of relief.  A year later, I could not be happier with my choice.  My funky country-industrial kitchen has grown on me, and really, the most important thing?  It works.

Even more recently, I gave up my ambition to try to turn my blog into a money-making enterprise.  Turning down opportunities that were poorly paid and that I didn’t find meaningful greatly improved the quality of our life and has allowed me to save more money than I was making.

I also reduced the posting frequency on Frugal Mama.  Instead of three, we publish one article per week, and I hardly spend any time on social media anymore.  Yet I was surprised, and grateful, to find that readership continues to grow.

The principle of subtraction applies to big successful corporations, May points out:

Steve Jobs revolutionized the world’s concept of a cellphone by removing the physical keyboard from the iPhone. Instagram, acquired last year by Facebook, grew quickly once its first version, called Burbn, was stripped of many of its features and reworked to focus on one thing: photos.

Maybe ‘Enough’ is Behind You, Not Ahead

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Finding your Enough and what works best for you can require painful decisions.  It may mean cutting out something that you’ve spent tons of time or money on.  Maybe it means giving up a cherished dream.  Sometimes, for me, it has meant letting go of a certain image I have of myself (or that I want other people to have of me).

To find Enough, Roth says, you must set goals. You must figure out what matters to you.  What makes your life meaningful. It can take years, and it may involve lots of turns and twists in the road.  We will be tempted, we will get off track, life will throw us curveballs, we will try new things, re-evaluate, and have regrets.

It’s all worth it, because trying to make choices that line up with our priorities — living a life that feels true to our values — is one of our best shots at happiness.

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27 comments

  • Sara Tetreault February 27, 2013, 4:59 pm

    There’s something to wanting what you already have.
    Thanks, Amy. Love your style. :)

    Reply
  • Sharon February 23, 2013, 5:02 pm

    I love this title. A friend and I always have this discussion. Are you content? Will you ever be content? Years ago, before I became a stay-at-home mom, our finances were plentiful. However, now it is more of a struggle. I thought being out of the workforce and spending time with the children would mark content. However, I now believe content lies within the person, and has nothing to do with material things or work success because truthfully, I don’t know if anyone if ever content enough when it comes to that. I now find joy in family and friends….just good times.

    Reply
    • Amy February 24, 2013, 2:10 pm

      Hi Sharon,

      I agree that happiness is a somewhat hard emotion to come by — or at least hang onto. Once we get or achieve one thing, we always seem to be seeking the next. Maybe fulfilling or satisfying or meaningful are more realistic states to strive for.

      Good to hear your thoughts,
      Amy

      Reply
  • Terri B. February 22, 2013, 10:30 am

    This is so true! You don’t know how many clients I’ve told when they complain about money, that they can easily cut down on expenditures and have savings, if they cut out some of the ridiculous things that they spend money on.
    Terri B.´s last post ..Disputing Charges from the IRS

    Reply
    • Amy February 24, 2013, 2:13 pm

      Hi Terri,

      Sometimes we don’t realize all the things we spend on. My husband and I have been tracking our spending for 12 years, and it helps us see if we are spending on extras (and if we can or want to cut those out) or if it’s just basic cost of living.

      Amy

      Reply
  • Jen @ Jen Spends February 21, 2013, 9:41 pm

    I feel like I would be hypocritical to say that I’ve found my “enough”, since I’ve been spending like a crazy woman preparing for the baby. But, in general, I do feel like I’ve settled into a good place and I’m quite happy compared to where I was a few years ago. I do have goals that I hope to accomplish, but I think for the most part they are more realistic than in the past, and I don’t feel fear or stress that I won’t reach them.

    Like you, I have scaled back on blogging quite a bit. I decided to leave a mommy blogger’s forum I belonged to, I no longer obsess over stats and self-promotion, and I basically write when I feel like it. My blog is doing as well as ever.

    And I just have to say, thank goodness for my good friends and family who every once in a while (often when I’m feeling pressure to change something about myself) remind me why they like me just the way I am!

    Reply
    • Amy February 24, 2013, 2:16 pm

      Hi Jen,

      Your honesty is refreshing, and it’s nice to hear from someone else who has scaled back on blogging and has not suffered from it — in fact, benefited.

      It’s so sweet to hear about your friends and family. We all need those people in our lives, the ones who have known us for a long time and love us just for who we are.

      Take care of yourself and rest before the baby comes!
      Amy

      Reply
  • Miss Britt February 21, 2013, 1:42 pm

    I was right – this is good. :)

    Reply
    • Amy February 21, 2013, 8:39 pm

      Phew! Glad I didn’t let you down, Britt.

      Take care,
      Amy

      Reply
  • Melissa February 21, 2013, 9:28 am

    What a gorgeous and meaningful article. Bravo!

    Reply
    • Amy February 21, 2013, 10:03 am

      Thank you for reading, Melissa!

      Reply
  • Juanita February 20, 2013, 11:58 pm

    I love what you are doing….continuing a successful blog while truly balancing things, setting a wonderful example creating and riding the realities of life while succeeding…..such a “new” concept in our culture…Keep it up!

    Reply
    • Amy February 21, 2013, 10:02 am

      Thanks, Juanita. I am kind-of amazed at how pulling back has not negatively affected my blog. It’s nice to know that more-more-more is not always the answer.

      Take care,
      Amy

      Reply
  • Daisy February 20, 2013, 10:52 pm

    I had a conversation with my husband recently about a young man he works with who is borrowing huge amounts of money to buy a fancy car. He admitted that a large part of why he wanted the car was to fit the image he had of himself. My husband and I thought he would be a lot happier if he could be content with something he could afford.

    Reply
    • Amy February 21, 2013, 10:01 am

      Hi Daisy,

      Thanks for this little story. I think we all can get caught up in a certain persona that we want to live up to, but sometimes it’s not really good for us. It takes a lot of courage to recognize that, and change.

      Amy

      Reply
  • Kathryn February 20, 2013, 10:46 pm

    Thank you for this, Amy. I’ve pinned this to my important insights page. It makes me think of my overflowing and stress-inducing basement. I just need to “subtract”!

    Reply
    • Amy February 21, 2013, 9:59 am

      Hi Kathryn,

      Yes, I think basements could be called guilt pits. It’s so easy to just throw stuff down there, but then we feel so bad for not using it, not organizing it, not dealing with it, not finding a new home for it — or for having bought it in the first place.

      Sometimes less space is more, right?

      Amy

      Reply
      • Kathryn February 21, 2013, 10:36 pm

        Ha! I love it: “guilt pit.” That’s what I’ll say to may kids now….go clean the guilt pit! I think I should even make a banner for the top of the stairs leading down. Thanks again for a great article. :)

        Reply
  • Barbra February 20, 2013, 9:59 pm

    I totally sided us with your wisdom above; both Godly and freeing in the concept of not having things own ‘we’. Simplicity and Godly contentment will only lead us to a peaceful place…….a wonderful article for certain; thank you.

    Reply
    • Amy February 21, 2013, 9:57 am

      Thank you, Barbra.

      Reply
  • Alison @ L is for Latte February 20, 2013, 3:20 pm

    Love this part. –>”You must figure out what matters to you. What makes your life meaningful. It can take years, and it may involve lots of turns and twists in the road. We will be tempted, we will get off track, life will throw us curveballs, we will try new things, re-evaluate, and have regrets.”

    Too often we think something “isn’t working” when we hit a bump in the road. Thanks for the reminder that mistakes happen, that perfection isn’t the goal, and that getting sidetracked doesn’t mean we’ve failed.

    Reply
    • Amy February 21, 2013, 9:57 am

      Of course, Alison. Having regrets is a normal part of living. Just like they say: If you aren’t making mistakes, then you aren’t trying hard enough.

      Reply
  • M January 10, 2010, 7:43 pm

    As the owner of a great big umpteen-roomed house, sometimes I yearn to just just caccoon in a little bitty one where I can eat, sleep, paint, read all in one room–something like Georgia O’Keefe created for herself at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. Maybe I would be more productive.
    M

    Reply
  • Amy January 9, 2010, 6:46 pm

    What a nice comment, e.

    So interesting the story about the lotto winner.

    And yes, you can’t get much better than children laughing. I like your mental photograph technique.

    I agree, a happy family is bliss.

    Reply
  • e. January 9, 2010, 12:44 pm

    Amy, this is such a good and timely post. How true it is that happiness does not reside in things but in relationships and things we gain from them. A PBS special this week (The Emotional Life) had a segment on happiness where reports showed that money was not the answer; a lotto winner talked of still having to “work” at being happy. The report claimed that the happiest people were those with close and positive relationships in their lives. For me, laughter goes a long way…. Sometimes I think my kids are the funniest on the planet and I’m glad. Their shining laughing faces are the only things I need to make me truly happy. When I see this I take a deep breath, form a snapshot of the moment in my mind, and tell myself “this is it!”

    Thanks for the post.
    best
    e.

    Reply
  • Meagan Francis January 7, 2010, 10:38 pm

    I love this post! Off to check out the blogs you’ve referenced here-good stuff.

    Reply

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