Be a Miser

April 30, 2008

Consumerism is a killer. It’s so heavily ingrained in us that it can be hard to think in terms other than consumption, but I think it’s important to try.

Money is an Instrument

Pinch Pennies

The first important thing to realize is that money is not an end, it’s a means. Money has negligible intrinsic value. You could sell a dollar bill for a couple pennies as some of kind of recycled scrap cloth. You might be able to find a couple uses for a 3.5×2 inch plastic card. Basically, they aren’t worth accumulating in and of themselves.

This may seem obvious to you, O enlightened one, but there are people who live their whole lives without the faintest clue that money is not a valid motivator.

In a capitalistic society, money is an instrument used to open options. It’s used to achieve goals, and to accumulate things that do have intrinsic value.

If your goal in life is to get rich, you have missed the fucking clue train, and bought into the scam that is our consumerist society. There’s nothing inherently wrong with having money, but it’s only purpose is to get other things, so the question is, what are the other things that you want?

Most people would answer that they want to be able to relax, or they want a happy life.

Happiness is Constant

I’ll let you in on a secret. If you want to relax, take the next greyhound to some beach on the gulf of Mexico, and start playing piano in a bar by the ocean. You will have a life of relaxation and happiness, and you won’t have to sell your soul to get money before doing it.

Maybe you don’t like the beach. Become a monk in your favorite religion.

If you don’t believe that you will be just as happy without money as with it, then take a look at this:

Income increases almost exponentially, while happiness stays constant

This is a graph I got from the University of Michigan. The blue line shows income increasing at an almost exponential rate over this century. The red line shows happiness staying almost constant. If money made you happy, the red line would climb right along with the blue line: as people got more money, they would also be happier. There is virtually no relationship between happiness and money, so get that out of your mind forever.

Astute readers will realize at this point that there is a caveat. It is this: if you have bought into the system of consumerism, and you make less than a certain threshold (the number varies by region, but just call it middle class), then you are less likely to be happy. If you are on the work treadmill, making less than a comfortable living, you are driving yourself nuts, and you aren’t as happy as you might be. The two options for you are: jump to the middle class, or opt out of this system entirely.

Jumping to the middle class is easy. If you want to do that, just read this blog superficially, follow some of the advice, and land a job that puts you in the middle class.

Opting out is just that: don’t define success as accumulating money, and don’t make yourself beholden to the system for anything.

You don’t even want that crap!

Junk everywhere!

How do you keep out from under the system? You choose to not purchase things. You choose to not buy things on credit, you choose to invest what resources you do have into stores of wealth that will ensure you can feed yourself and your children, and you don’t worry about the rest. It means getting couches at garage sales and loving them. It means playing board games instead of getting a high definition plasma screen.

I had a coworker at Acme, who bought the system. He made his little income, and spent all of his allowance every month. He had a custom ticky tacky home in suburbia, a couple of nice cars, bought the latest gadgets, and politely accepted his 4% per year cost of living increase. If he lost his job, his whole life would end, because he’s up to his eye balls in bills and the only way he can pay them is by working at Acme.

When I went to work for Acme, on the other hand, I was set. I had a couple of alternate streams of income that could practically support me on their own. I had purchased a run down house in the inner city that I fixed up and increased the value of by 100% since I bought it a year ago (a move I made because rent is blackhole of wasted cash, whereas home ownership is a good store of value). I had a shitty car that I bought with cash. I had hand-me-down everything, and I didn’t mind one little bit. I have disposable income coming out of my ears, and it’s not because I make so much I don’t know what to do with it. It’s because I am conscious about the purchases I make, and those I choose not to make.

I don’t need the latest gadgets. I use a computer for around 10 hours a day for various things. You’d think that’d be a good candidate to splurge on. You’d be surprised that I always wait as long as I possibly can to buy a new one, and I always get whatever $2,000 cash can buy me at that time, never more. I needed a PDA a while back. I bought an old cheap one for $20 on Ebay.

Of course I think those gadgets are neat, and it’d be awesome to have a home theatre system, but how can I justify it to the old man on his death bed, when I could be spending that money to make people’s lives genuinely better?

That’s why you should be a miser. Don’t spend money on crap that will only serve to give you an endorphin rush. Spend carefully on truly useful things, or things that will genuinely improve your quality of life. Like roses – go buy your sweetheart some roses right now, that will make your life better, I promise.

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2 Responses to “Be a Miser”

  1. Banana Republic shopper Says:

    OK, ok. I’m not going to buy any more Victoria’s Secret stuff. But I’m glad I can still buy flowers…

  2. John Astor Says:

    Don’t you think your argument is somewhat disjointed, in that you argue against consumerism, yet you quickly retreat to a point that money in and of itself is worthless, unless it’s used to buy things? All material things have no intrinsic value, yet most have psychological value in the markets in which they are traded. Yes, I agree, on the consumer facing side of markets, many of these material things have no value to a well adjusted person.

    What I thought was missing most from this post was that you completely overlooked the value of money to “make things happen.” Invest in new businesses, give people meaningful work, solve problems. The only reason I accumulate money is because it’s a relatively stable asset class which holds its value to use later in the above mentioned way.


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