Making the most of your guilty pleasures
I've been trying to come up with a way to articulate the mental shift from being not-frugal to being frugal. It's not really about wanting to spend less, and it's certainly not about making do with less. A lot of it is about figuring out what you really want, but saying that sweeps a lot of hard thinking under the rug.
It's generally useless to tell people that they should want less stuff--your wants are what they are, not what you decide they ought to be. And yet, many people have made the mental shift I'm talking about. I've seen it described as maximizing your joy-to-stuff ratio.
So, I've been wracking my brain for some clever advice on how to do that. I haven't had much success, but I think I've come up with one thing I do that may help other people: Make the most of your guilty pleasures.
There used to be lots of stuff I wanted. I wanted audiophile audio equipment; I wanted a sports car; I wanted video game consoles and games to play on them; I wanted books in vast profusion; I wanted a really good camera; I always wanted a new computer; I wanted an electric guitar and an acoustic guitar; I wanted good backpacking gear; I wanted a GPS unit and a hundred other cool gadgets; I wanted fine art, good beer, and the complete works of L.L. Zamenhof.
Over the years I got many of these things and got over wanting many of the others. Nowadays I can browse a bookstore and leave with nothing but a list of books to get at the library. When I walk or bicycle or take the bus, I feel no envy for the poor guys stuck in their cars, and I can admire a friend's new car (and even praise it out loud) while I'm thinking, "I'm so much happier with my wife's 17-year-old Honda Civic than I would be buying one of these."
And yet, there are still things I want. Most catalogs I can move straight from the mailbox to the recycling bin, but a few are snares for me. There's one in particular that I can't put down. You've probably seen it. It's office supply porn. I want that stuff. All of it.
I own four good fountain pens, plus a couple of cheap ones. I own innumerable notebooks, large and small, with all sorts of paper for writing and drawing. I have at least eight bottles of ink within reach right now. And yet, when that catalog comes, I can't resist paging through it, thinking, "You know, I I could use one of those, and it's beautiful!"
So, here's my one clever idea: Take delight in the stuff you've already got. When the urge strikes to buy a new fountain pen, I instead get out one of the fountain pens I own and write something with it. In rediscovering the joy in it, I remind myself that I really don't need another one. Starting to do that was a key step in raising my own joy-to-stuff ratio.
Five suggestions for making this work:
Pick a pleasure that speaks to you. There's no point in deciding to make reading the classics your guilty pleasure if you'd much rather be reading romance novels, or playing golf.
Pick a pleasure that's reasonably frugal. If your guilty pleasure were yacht racing, it wouldn't be much help in the frugality department.
Pick a pleasure that involves doing something over having something. Playing a music instrument is a better choice than collecting musical instruments.
Pick a pleasure where the related stuff lasts a long time. Making a guilty pleasure of cooking would be better than making one of eating out at expensive restaurants.
Pick a pleasure that's enduring. It does no good if your pleasure this week is snorkeling and then next week it's sky diving and the week after that it's oil painting.
The deeper goal is to figure out what really matters to you--to get away from the "consumer culture" idea that what makes you happy is acquiring stuff. If you can take pleasure in the stuff you've already got, then you don't need more stuff. And if you can't take pleasure in the stuff you've already got, then more stuff isn't likely to help. Making the most of your guilty pleasures is a tactic for finding your way to that realization.