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Consuming beyond need

"He who buys what he does not need steals from himself." Swedish Proverb.

When I came across this quote on a popular blog, it struck a chord and I wanted to assess whether it was true for me.

This self reflection process revealed four experiences that have had the most profound impact in shaping my beliefs around consumption: my initial view of 'enough', observing the habits of two mentors, packing for business travel and preparing for life with significantly less money.

My initial view of 'enough'

I grew up believing I didn't have enough. In the affluent town I was raised, I was hyper-aware of the fact that I was on the lower end of the socio-economic scale. I had so many memories of my friends getting enjoyment out of owning things that I would never have.

These experiences had a profound impact on the decades to follow. I spent years pushing myself beyond my limits professionally in pursuit of the lifestyles of those in the community I was raised. There was something inside of me that believed I would finally have enough when I reached a certain level of wealth. However, that feeling never went away despite exceeding the lifestyle I had worked so diligently to achieve.

I have come to realize that this was a 'story' I had told myself to externalize my innate feeling of lacking. I now understand that I would have grown up with the same feeling regardless of the scenario (e.g. being the richest kid in the poorest community). It was much easier for me to rationalize the feeling than to do the internal work to see where it was coming from. Rather than looking inward and experiencing gratitude for having enough, I went through years of looking outward for evidence to explain why I never felt satisfied.

Observing the habits of two mentors

I had two mentors as a young adult that deeply shaped my views of consumption. Both were highly successful and earned more than enough to treat themselves, and their families, to a luxurious standard of living. I had the experience of seeing the inside of their closets, which has had a huge impact on me.

The first mentor had everything you could desire from luxury cars and watches to an awe-inspiring home with a tennis court and olympic pool. He loved nice clothes. In fact, he had several closets filled to the brim with them. Rifling through the closets, you could find beautiful clothes in all colors and for any occasion imaginable. He told me once that he regrettably was unable to buy any more clothes because he had run out of closets to store them.

The second mentor owned very little by comparison. In fact, many of the things he owned would not be considered luxurious by most. When it came to clothes, they were all stored in a single small closet that had a lot of empty space. He strongly believed in owning the minimum amount of clothing to meet his needs. The things he had were all the best of whatever it was that he wanted (e.g. tailored suits and luxury shoes). Accumulation was prevented with a simple system; all new acquisitions were made intentionally and directly replaced an item that had worn out.

Two very different views of consumption from two highly successful men. My journey has been defined by the struggle between a deep internal desire for more and an intellectual desire for less. In truthful self-reflection we must acknowledge that our actions define us, even when they are at odds with our thoughts and beliefs. Based on my actions, it was clear that the unspoken desire for more reigned supreme for years, even if I never admitted it to myself.

Packing for business travel

I've been fortunate to have traveled across the globe, which included a period of years where my job put me on the road as much as I was home.

Being a frequent traveller, I had a strong desire to reduce, or remove, as many of the inherent inconveniences of travel as possible. At the top of my list was checking baggage, which included several hassles such as waiting at the carousels, worrying about whether my bag would arrive with me and having to recheck bags when clearing international customs. I resolved to take action and developed a detailed packing list that allowed me to fit everything I needed into a single carry on.

Surprisingly, the implementation of this method had a number of positive, and unexpected, consequences. For instance, packing and unpacking (which actually happens four times on a trip -- 2x at home and 2x in the hotel) was greatly simplified. Cutting down on what I brought dramatically reduced the time of each step. Additionally, knowing exactly what I had allowed me to completely shed the ever-present feeling that I had forgotten something.

Most significantly, it helped me to see how little I actually needed to live comfortably on a trip, even one that involved bringing professional clothes and shoes. Interestingly, I continued to feel that I needed more when I was at home, despite this proof that I didn't.

Preparing for life with significantly less money

When I decided to take the leap to pursue my passion without any immediate promise of income, the biggest fear was money. How were my family and I going to live without my healthy salary? To prepare for my departure, my wife and I took several months to review our spending and cut back on expenses to live solely on her income.

While there were some luxuries that were painful to lose, this process has been surprisingly easy. In many ways, it has simplified our lives as there are less things to worry about and less bills to pay.

Feeling empowered by the reduced spending, I felt an overwhelming desire to purge everything that I owned that I didn't need. I went through each and every cabinet, box and drawer in our home over a couple of weeks. After I was done, I felt physically and emotionally lighter. It was remarkably satisfying to know everything I owned and the reason why I owned it.

Reflecting on the things that were cut out revealed a couple of common categories:

  • Just in case: There were a number of things I had kept "just in case" I needed them. For instance, I had a chandelier from my last home, just in case it would look nice in a future home. I had multiple sets of headphones just in case all the others ones broke. I never used them and likely never would.

  • Convenience: This was my biggest category of things I was able to cut back on. I had a career that required a significant amount of my time and energy. In order to accommodate the demands of my job, I had a number of expenses that were not necessary if I had more time. This included food delivery, a house cleaner and two gym memberships to have more class options. I worked to earn more money and had to spend more money to allow me to work harder -- a vicious wheel.

Surprisingly, luxury items were untouched during this process. I was truly willing to purge anything that didn't have a defined purpose or give me joy. I've learned that the luxury items I own generally meet these criteria better than anything else. Firstly, they tend to last a long time, reducing the need to replace them often (e.g. my wallet is 10+ years old). They tend to signify an important milestone that I am reminded of when I use them (e.g. my watch reminds me of becoming a father). Lastly, they tend to be purchased intentionally to satisfy a need or desire that matters greatly to me (e.g. my office chair signifies the importance of work).

Is the proverb true for me?

Absolutely. Not only does purchasing something I don't need steal freedom (money = freedom) from both my current and future selves, it also steals:

  • Time: In addition to the time invested in earning the money in the first place, I have been surprised to see just how much time I had been spending in the research, acquisition and maintenance of things I didn't realize that I didn't need.

  • Peace: Like packing light for a business trip, the feeling of knowing exactly what I have and making a conscious effort to only acquire what I need greatly reduces my stress and anxiety. I've reduced the time spent looking for problems that need to be solved. After all, when we're looking for problems, we will always find them.

Personally, this proverb is about more than just buying material goods, it deals with consuming anything I don't need. For example, I was a heavy smoker for about 15 years, which stole my money, health and self-respect. Intellectually, I knew I didn't need cigarettes, yet there was a powerful internal force that told me I did. None of the many attempts to quit were successful until I released the desire to smoke. A magical question here is "would I rather be able to smoke as much as I wanted without any negative consequences or lose the desire to smoke?" The answer to this question was fairly obvious as soon as I became aware of it.

A similar question for spending is "would I rather have enough money to buy anything I want, or desire only what I need?" For many, the answer is a bit more nebulous. However, for me the answer is clear, as this self reflection process demonstrated that spending on what I don't need has a similar impact as giving into any other vice that compels me to consume what I don't need.

I'm hopeful this process will help in dealing with future temptations to consume beyond need.


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