A couple of weeks ago, I came across a YouTube video by Erin Janus. I never heard of Miss Janus. Apparently she’s a vegan, and she cares deeply about animals and the planet. But that’s not the point of this post. The point of this post is that I find her views on materialism quite compelling. If you have 10 minutes to kill, check out this video. I’ve watched it a couple of times, and I still shake my head in disbelief whenever it gets to the Oprah part.
Were those people in Oprah’s audience pathetic or what?
One could certainly argue that Miss Janus is a bit overwrought. And the contrasting images of unfathomable wealth and heartbreaking poverty is a bit manipulative. But Miss Janus’s essential message is spot on. We are obsessed with things, and this obsession is not serving us well.
Case in point. My cousin and her husband recently relocated to Wake Forest, North Carolina. Since they are both experienced pharmacists, they both got jobs pretty quickly. Their household income is in the $250-$275 range.
With that kind of money, they should be on easy street. But they’re not. Why? Well, rather than buy a normal home, they went out and bought a $400K McMansion. In light of their household income, of course, a $400K home isn’t terribly out of whack. But here’s the rub. My cousin works in a sketchy part of Raleigh. She’s actually gone to the restroom and found people shooting up in there. When Mrs. Groovy and I stopped by the Dunkin’ Donuts next to her pharmacy one morning, we saw a SWAT team emerge from a van and launch a tactical assault on the neighboring motel. So it’s not a lovely area. And by all rights my cousin should have quit the first time a crackhead stumbled out of the restroom. But she can’t quit. They need her salary to help pay the mortgage and all the other bills they have (they’re still cleaning up a financial mess up in New York). So she’ll just have to deal with the addicts and the SWAT teams until she finds a pharmacy gig in a safer area.
It’s so senseless. My parents bought a beautiful three-bedroom townhouse in Wake Forest for $175K. Had my cousin and her husband done that, my cousin could have quit her pharmacy gig in crackville. They would have been able to handle their bills on one pharmacy salary. But no. They NEEDED that McMansion. How could two adults and two children possibly live in a house under 3,500 square feet?
Living Modestly Is Not a Sacrifice
When Mrs. Groovy and I were in New York, we lived in a one-bedroom condo (600 square feet). And because I snored like the devil, I slept on the couch in the living room. I know, I know. That’s too much information. No one wants to know our sleeping arrangements. But trust me, I’m only telling you this to make a point. When we moved to Charlotte, we bought a two-bedroom condo (950 square feet). And I was in freakin’ heaven. I had a bed to sleep in! Having an additional 1,000 or 2,000 square feet of house wouldn’t have made me any happier. I know this because two years after moving to Charlotte, we sold our condo and bought a 2,000 square foot house. And those additional 1,000 square feet didn’t ramp up my happiness quotient. In fact, it actually took it down a notch. That’s because I now have an additional 1,000 square feet of house to clean.
In America, we believe that modest living is a sacrifice. And that’s laughably wrong. I’ve seen it with housing, and I’ve seen it with other big-ticket items as well. Take automobiles. I currently drive a 2004 Camary. Would my life be any better if I had a spanking-new BMW? I doubt it, especially when you consider how often I drive. Since I work from home, and only use my car a handful of times for errands, I’m in my car for about an hour each week. And I’m going to be significantly more happy if I have a $40,000 hunk of metal depreciating in my garage for 167 hours every week rather than a $4,000 hunk of metal? It seems rather far-fetched.
But, hey, maybe Miss Janus and I are wrong. What works for us may not work for you. Your happiness may be strongly associated with the quantity and quality of your stuff. You may need more stuff to be happy. To find out if that’s the case, I propose a challenge. Whenever you decide to buy something, try being half-normal. In other words, don’t buy what the typical American buys. Buy half of it.
Here’s how the challenge works. In the table below, you will see what a normal purchase looks like for a lot of common items. You will also see what a half-normal purchase looks like. To be half-normal when it comes to buying a car, for instance, you would have to buy a car that cost less than $16,780. If you were in the market for a pair of sneakers, you would have to keep your sneaker expenditure under $83 to be half-normal. You get the idea. Find out what the typical American pays for something and only pay half that price or less.
|Average Home Size||2,690 Square Feet||1,345 Square Feet|
|Average Cost of a New Car||$33,560||$16,780|
|Average Yearly Tuition at a Private College||$32,405||$16,203|
|Average Wedding Cost||$26,444||$13,222|
|Vizio 50-Inch Television||$400||$200|
|Nike Air Jordan 3||$165||$83|
|Average Monthly Cable Bill||$99||$45|
|Average Monthly Cell Phone Bill||$73||$37|
Okay, once you have made a half-normal purchase, sit back and reflect on your happiness. Are you any worse off? Do you feel shame driving a car that costs less than $16K? Are you embarrassed by your $30 Skechers? How is the state of your happiness one month after the purchase? How is it six months after the purchase?
My guess is that being half-normal will not make you any less happy. In fact, my guess is that being half-normal will actually make you happier. How so? Well, for starters, your quality of life won’t be degraded. A $16K car works just as well as a $33K car. You’ll also have more money to save or invest. And, finally, you’ll also realize that Madison Avenue has sold you a bill of goods. Your happiness is not predicated on more and more stuff. Materialism is a lie. And once you realize this, you’ll have more control over your finances and your life—and that will surely elevate your happiness quotient.
Twenty-six thousand for a wedding? A four-hour party? Really, America? The best wedding I’ve ever been to was at a VFW hall. It featured a high-school kid spinning vinyl records, a buffet of comfort food, and a keg of beer. I doubt it cost $2,000.
I just don’t get our compulsion to overspend. I have a friend who spent over $10,000 on his daughter’s communion party. And then there’s my cousin and her husband. These are the sweetest people I know. They should be loving life. They make twice as much as Mrs. Groovy and I make, for heaven’s sake! But their life is filled with never-ending chaos and drama. And it’s all because they’ve been sucked into the ravenous maw of the materialism trap.
Sigh. Meh. Mierda.
Okay, groovy freedomists, that’s all I got. Please be half-normal. And please have a glorious weekend.
P.S. Mrs. Groovy does a mean pantomime of the SWAT team emerging from the van, in slow motion. Maybe we’ll do a video of it one day.