I like to think that life can be divided into roughly three different spheres: material, psychological, and social. Inside these spheres, there are certain core elements central to our ability to be productive and happy. In a previous post on frugality, I mentioned deliberately and consciously allocating my money towards things I care about and away from those less meaningful, so that the profit from this arbitrage can make it’s way into my brokerage account. Today, let’s discuss the material sphere.
Everyone agrees that we all need the same basic material goods to survive: a roof over our heads, clothing, food and the like. Most people will agree that we also need some non-necessities (otherwise known as luxuries) in order to be happy. Luxuries will be discussed later in a post on the core psychological aspects of life. Even with luxuries taken out of the discussion, disagreements about about how many goods you should buy, what kind of goods you should buy, and on and on. Minimalists argue that we should all be buying less of everything, because less is the secret to happiness. Spendthrifts (or consumerists) argue the opposite, that we should just buy whatever makes us happy. And we should buy as much as possible, too. So then who’s right?
I have no desire to get into the above described debate, as I think both both minimalists and consumerists are wrong. They’re wrong because they force the argument to extremes. I’m not a big fan of extremes. The correct approach lies somewhere in the middle. Figuring out how much money should be directed towards a given need requires a bit of forethought.
Consider the following aspects of all material goods:
1. Material goods cost money - I don’t deny that there are some serious deal obsessed bargain hunters (or professional moochers) out there who can get plenty of things for free. But for the rest of us mere mortals, we have to actually part with our hard earned money in order to buy things. Since you work hard for your money (it didn’t just drop from heaven), you owe it to yourself to put some thought into each of your purchases. If you aren’t willing to think about it, you probably shouldn’t be buying it.
2. Material goods serve a specific function(s) - If you are going to buy something, you are buying it because it serves some kind of a purpose. Maybe it chops vegetables or allows you to surf the internet. Or maybe you only own it to keep up with the Joneses next door. Whatever your reason for buying it, it is very unlikely that you purchased it just because it was there. Try to avoid keeping up with the Joneses, because the fact is that they always win. Also avoid buying cheap things just because they’re cheap. More than likely, you’re buying crappy products. Focus on quality above all else.
3. Material goods advertise our status to the world - Unlike some people who prefer to remain naive, I readily admit that social standing and status are important. You will be judged based on your status. And you will be judged harshly. People will decide whether to be friends with you, date you, help you fix a tire, or even just talk to you based on your status. The quickest way to communicate your status to people (and really the only way that most people give a crap about) is to advertise it via your material possessions. You may be the most interesting conversationalist in the world, but if you look like you just stepped out of a trailer park, nobody will ever know.
You can never truly win the status game, but you can come out ahead. Whether you like it or not, you are in the game. You can opt out, and be predictably ostracized (if you’re really introverted, maybe you’re cool with this), or you can try to come out ahead while minimizing your expenses if you focus on answering the following. Who are you trying to impress? The opposite sex? Business partners? Your boss? Clients? If you had to pick one thing to invest in to impress them, what would it be? For most people, in most situations, the number one status indicated is how you carry yourself and how you look. Focus on getting in shape and buying some nice clothes first, then you can decide how much effort you want to put into updating the rest of your potential status symbols.
4. Material goods affect our perception of ourselves - Just as material goods advertise our status to the world, they also affect our perception of ourselves. You will feel better about yourself if you live in a rich neighborhood, you by an expensive car, or wear nice clothes. Interestingly, the influence of material goods on your self-perception is largely based on what you own compared to what those around you own, rather than actual value of what you bought. For example, you’re going to feel better about owning a rich house in a middle class neighborhood rather than owning a averagely-rich house in a rich neighborhood.
5. Buying stuff offers a short-term boost of happiness - Believe it or not, when you buy something, you feel good. Unfortunately, that feeling doesn’t last very long, but it is very real. It’s better to focus on friendships, relationships, and experiences (easier said than done), since those provide larger and more long-term boosts to your happiness than whipping out your credit card.
Now go take a mental inventory of everything that you own
For most people living relatively normal lifestyles have the following obvious list of needs. Unfortunately, most people didn’t put much though into their purchases and spent money on lots things that aren’t really providing them with any value.
- Cell phone/communication
These are the core material aspects of your life. Otherwise known as “needs”. As mentioned earlier, wants will be covered in a later article. As such, each of these deserves special consideration as you decide how much of your hard earned capital to invest in it. Below is my take on each one.
I currently rent a one bedroom ‘luxury’ apartment. It’s very nice for it’s size and if I keep it clean and decorate it nicely, it actually looks pretty good. It’s close to where I work, so that I don’t have to commute very far.
The downside is that since I’ve chosen to pump substantially less money into housing than my peers, who rent or own in much, much, nicer areas, I run the risk of being perceived negatively. Given, that I haven’t lived here that long yet, it’s too early to say just how my housing choice will affect my peer’s perception of me.
The clothes make the man, or woman. That old saying remains 100% true. I used to dress poorly, and I can tell you from experience that there is a difference in how people treat you. Dress like a professional and people will start treating you as such.
Clothes can get expensive if you chase designer labels and trends. I avoid that by going with classic styles. I shop for clothes meticulously. If I don’t think that something looks good on me, I don’t get it.
One final note on clothing, your clothes will look better on you, the better you look. So make a commitment to being healthy, eating right, and getting in shape.
Most of us don’t need a car, but we do need transportation. Unfortunately biking and public transportation are often off the table options for most of us, which brings us back to cars.
This is probably the one area that I fail miserably in. I drive a very old, but very reliable car. Unfortunately, it’s so old that I’m kind of embarrassed by it.
The reality is that in today’s world having ready access to a computer is essential. My approach is to buy a good computer, even if it costs a bit more than a basic model, and then use it until it it reaches functional obsolescence. Then repeat. I do this because I tend to use computers for far more than just the basic functions, so paying extra for additional power and capabilities makes sense for me.
Like computers, cell phones are luxuries that are rapidly becoming necessities in the modern world. At a minimum get a dumb-phone with a keyboard that will let you make phone calls and send texts. Low end smart-phones are becoming more and more prevalent.
But what about high end phones? You can get those too, but I consider them to be a rip off unless you are always on the go or have a job (or some other life circumstance) that makes the added functionality critical.
I love food. I’ll probably write an entire post dedicated to food one day. But for now, let’s leave it at this – pay the extra money to eat healthy. Not crazy organic, vegan, gluten free, whatever – just healthy. Eat out less, cut out processed foods. And learn how to cook. Your body will thank you in the long run.
Readers: What do you think are the core material aspects of your life? Why? How do you determine how much money to spend on each one?