On Choosing and Defending Your Luxuries

By Philip Brewer on 14 May 2009 (Updated 6 August 2012) 21 comments

Spend any time reading personal finance blogs and you'll come across a particular kind of equal-and-opposite post: lists of luxuries. Half the posts will advocate giving up a few specific luxuries to live more cheaply. The other half have titles like "Three things I won't give up" or "Five luxuries that are worth the money." Both kinds of articles miss the point of luxuries — they're indefensible (and I mean that in a good way).

This came up when I was being interviewed by a reporter from the local paper who was doing a feature on me and my writing for Wise Bread. She asked "What do you do without," in order to live cheaply? I was quickly able to tell her a couple of things — we only have one car, we live in a small apartment instead of a house — but then I got stuck. I really don't think of myself as doing without. Rather, I've given a lot of thought to exactly what I want and have arranged my life so that I get all of it. (See also: Choosing a Luxury Eccentricity)

It was kind of embarrassing. I'm sure she thought it was an easy question, but I was simply at a loss. After a minute, though, I thought of another way to approach the question. I could tell her all about the luxuries that we don't go without. People could then assume that we had all the necessities plus our short list of luxuries — and know that we "went without" whatever it was that wasn't on the list.

The first things I came up with — NetFlix subscription and fitness center membership — I immediately spotted as classics from lists other people had made of the "things you can do without," and at the same time also classics from the lists of "luxuries I think are worth the money." (Other classics of both kinds of list: cable subscriptions and fancy coffee drinks.)

It goes without saying that you don't need any particular luxury — it's kind of the defining characteristic of a luxury. You could go so far as to go through your budget and line out every non-necessity. It's worth noting, though (and it kind of goes to my point here), that it's a lot easier to do that to someone else's budget than to do it to your own.

That's why you see articles of this sort. It's easy to tell other people to go without stuff. (Especially stuff that you've decided to go without!) And, at the same time, people feel a certain impulse to defend their own luxuries.

I don't want to dis articles of this kind too strongly, because they do provide a useful service, as long as you don't pay much attention to the specifics: They model the correct way to think about the issue.

It's a worthwhile exercise to go through your budget as if it were the budget of someone else — someone who's short on money and whom you don't really like very much. What would you mark out if that guy had to cut his spending by 20% (or 50%)?

What would that guy say when you suggested that he could get by with orange juice from concentrate and store-brand coffee, that his kids didn't really need Tai Kwon Do lessons, that he could get by with one less car, move to a cheaper apartment, and cancel his vacation?

Well, what could he say? He'd say that he really liked the premium orange juice and all that other stuff. Does that cut any ice with you? You knew that to begin with — that's what a luxury is.

So, then, how do you defend your luxuries? Easy: You defend them to yourself, not to some other guy. You defend them by figuring out how much you can afford and only buying that much. You defend them by making tradeoffs between having things now and having more and better things later. Most important, you defend them by thinking deeply about what you really want and figuring out that you can happily leave all that other stuff out of your budget.

If you do it right, you may find yourself in my situation: Someone will ask you what you give up to live so cheaply, and nothing will come to mind.

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Guest's picture
Rosa

I keep trying to tell people exactly this point: we get everything we need, and most everything we want - we just had to prioritize. Now I'm going to just point them to your post.

I remember, growing up, how we knew my dad has lost his job or things were otherwise tight: my mom switched to generic orange juice. And then as soon as things looked up, she'd go back to the brand she preferred.

When I tell that story to people, they just gape. Orange juice? That's like a dime difference, how is that a luxury? Well, the dimes went to other priorities (like good dental care, and our college funds) so we always knew which things they thought were important, and which they thought were "extras". And name-brand orange juice was an "extra".

Guest's picture

And I don't see myself as downsizing my apartment from a 1 bd to a studio as giving up any luxury at all, no matter what people say.

We just don't need the space.

Or spending only $12.50/month on utilities. We're just naturally frugal people and we just don't turn on the light until it's required.

On the flip side, we spend about $600/month total in groceries because we know eating organic stuff is a luxury.

Guest's picture
Kathryn

I think it's important to continually remind yourself to focus on your own priorities and not worry about how they compare to other people around you. As an example, one of the luxuries that is "worth it" to me is riding horses, which costs me a few hundred a month. I can't allow myself to be jealous of neighbors who can afford to shop at Whole Foods, or who can afford to buy big-screen TVs or new furniture, or go on vacations that don't involve driving to g'ma and g'pas. We could afford any of those things easily if we rearranged our spending, but they're just not priorities for us.

Guest's picture

Like you, I have everything I want. People never believe that, however. They think I am suffering. I always say, "If I wanted that, I would have it." But they don't believe me.

Guest's picture

That is an interesting line of thought. Like you, I would have a hard time answering what I have given up. I'm sure I could rattle off all kinds of things that I don't have that others would view as luxuries, but I really don't want them. If I truly want something, I try my best to make room for it.

Guest's picture
SimpleLife

I see it as a matter of the things that I dealt away with rather than what I do without. It is liberating not living in a fantasy world where a Frappuccino is a necessary luxury.
We live in a 1br apt, we only have one car, we conserve energy and resources, reuse/recycle, eat organic on a budget (for example, my parents have a large garden and I help them with that), prepare most of our meals and regular use items (like yogurt, soap, household cleaners, etc.)-- and I actually feel that my "standard of living" have improved since all these changes have become the norm.
My husband is able to work part-time, and I'm a freelancer, so we get to have a lot of time to go out play tennis (public court!), walk around downtown (we live in a downtown area so one car isn't an issue), go to the beach, and just enjoy life. I guess if I had to pick a luxury, then I would pick all of the extra time that I now have.
When we both worked full-time jobs, had a 2k sq. ft house, 2 cars, and all the etc's, having extra time for ourselves was a luxury we couldn't afford. Ironic, huh?

Guest's picture
J.

The problem is that most people spend unconsciously, so they don't even get the full pleasure from their luxuries. They're not giving more than a ho-hum thought to whether they love premium orange juice enough to pay more for it than frozen. They're wooed by advertizing, or by some vague memory of having liked this brand in the past.

That's why those "list" articles -- and frugality articles in general -- are a useful mental exercise. It's useful to ask the question: how much pleasure does Netflix (or whatever) bring to our family? Is it worth the money? If we gave it up, what could we do instead?

If we ask these questions, maybe we can really get our full measure of pleasure for the luxuries we decide to keep.

As I buy organic, free-range eggs, I always point out to my children how much better they taste, how high they are in essential fatty acids, how it's kinder to the chickens. Because I'm buying consciously, I get the full pleasure from my purchase.

Guest's picture
Olivia

I used to determine that a candy bar was worth it if the money needed to pay for it fit on top. (So I never bought a Chunky.) It's always a tradeoff. Five years ago we went to Italy as a family. We stayed at modest places and had only one really nice restaurant meal. But it was grand, well worth the eight years of scrimping to pay for it. We saw brazen Italian pigeons at the Uffizzi cafe, elephants at the Rome zoo, ate tons of pizza and gelati, met wonderfully kind people, experienced a crazy Roman cab ride (the guy was speeding, talking on a cell phone in one hand, passing on the right on the curb-what a way to wake up from jet lag), almost got pickpocketed, stayed in the mountains with the windows open and no mosquitoes. Ahh. Definately a luxury and totally indefensible.

Guest's picture
lulu

I pick and choose what I want and as long as I stay within my budget it is okay with me regardless of what others think.

I am one of the bloggers who will not give up cable because even though I use Hulu, some of the shows are not available (at least I have not found them yet.)

I also will not give up my expensive face lotion because I have seen the effects of store brand items on my skin and I prefer to spend the money there.

I have given up using the brand name milk because it tastes the same as store brand milk and has the same nutrients. I just pick and choose what I want to sacrifice so I can splurge on the things I want. I do not feel deprived in any way because I enjoy the splurges so much more than I feel any sense of 'loss' from the sacrifices.

Fred Lee's picture
Fred Lee

I've found life is much simpler when you are content with your own decisions and stop beating yourself up over convincing everyone around you that what you're doing is right. There's something nice about being comfortable in your own skin.

Guest's picture
Lucille

Some of the questioning of other people's purchases is constructive. It is easier for someone else to criticize an expense but it can make you stop and think about it. Do you really enjoy that thing or service? Is it work carving out a place in your budget for it?

We went through this whole exercise last year and found there were some things we were spending money on that we just really didn't get a significant meaningful value out of.

Stopping for coffee multiple times a day didn't really serve a benefit. We found that the right mix of machines, beans and some practice resulted is better espresso at home than Starbucks (what is nearby). So instead we save it for going out for coffee when we are near one of the good coffee places and consider it an indulgence.

Really my whole mindset around what I see as an indulgence or what is important has drastically changed. There are so many things I quit doing or buying that I simply do not miss.

Guest's picture
GTrant

Philip,

I like your articles because they're so simple yet so deep. I always get a "Duh! Why didn't I think of it that way?" feeling when I read them. Thanks for this one again! To sum it up I guess "One's luxury is another's neccessity".

Guest's picture
Slinky

This article is spot on. It's all about conscience spending. I think it doesn't matter how you spend your money, even if you blow it all the second you have it, as long as you've REALLY thought about it and decided that it's what you want to do and it's the best use of your money. Most people don't do that though. They buy something because it seems like a good idea.

Guest's picture
Jim

I think the first key step is identifying that much of what we spend money on is a 'want' rather than a 'need'. That bit seems to be something a lot of people have problems with that. Once you can really split out what is just 'want' it should be a simple exericse of prioritizing based on your own desires and spending what money you have to spare on the things you 'want' most.

Philip Brewer's picture

@Jim:

You're right, but you have to be careful when you try to distinguish between needs and wants.

I suggest that, in a rich country, you could probably satisfy all your real needs (in the sense of enough food, clothing, and shelter that you won't die) for free.  (After all, poor people in poor countries get by with no more shelter than a cardboard box and no more food than someone in America could scavenge out of just about any dumpster.) 

There are even people who live like that.  (Most are mentally ill or have some sort of serious emotional problem.  A few people do so to make a political statement about poverty or about our economic system.  Others do so to live in accordance with a religious belief that says that God will provide or that poverty is a virtue.)

My main point, though, is to be sure that you realize that virtually every dollar that you spend--including your rent and your grocery bill--is going partially to satisfy wants.

Guest's picture
J.

There are even people who live like that.

Yes, but they have a short life expectancy, so they don't live like that for long (usually). Malnutrition and infectious diseases are major problems for homeless people, and others on the very edge. So you might upgrade your definition of "necessity" to include sufficient nutrition and minimal health care to reach average life expectancy.

I agree that those things, if not free, would be very cheap to acquire in our society for most of those unencumbered by mental illness, chronic medical conditions, addiction, or other serious problems.

Guest's picture
J.

....and of course we are talking about young- to middle-aged adults here. It becomes more difficult to define (and meet) needs for children and the elderly, as well as others with special needs.

It's true that many of those living in tents in underdeveloped countries are children, but the mortality rates are so appallingly high (especially for infants), that I don't think we can say that their needs are met in even the most basic sense.

My needs as the parent of 2 small children would include such things essential to their emotional development as a modicum of stability and security. Needs would also include things essential to their safety, such as an apartment without peeling lead paint. It's pretty hard for families of small children to meet those needs for free.

Guest's picture

Personal choice is important in frugal living purchases . . .

I believe in a less, but better approach:

Another Look: What If We Had Less, But Better? http://divorceddadfrugaldad.com/2009/01/22/another-look-what-if-we-had-l...
Simple Living—What if You Had Less, But Better? http://divorceddadfrugaldad.com/2008/10/21/simple-livingwhat-if-you-had-...

Guest's picture
Guest

I wish people would stop with the whole "big screen TVs" meme. LG makes a 44 inch rear projection TV for under $200 on Amazon. What this whole debate boils down to is "I spend wisely, everyone else spends foolishly."

Guest's picture
Valerie

"If you do it right, you may find yourself in my situation: Someone will ask you what you give up to live so cheaply, and nothing will come to mind." I love that line. It's so true. I feel like I have it all.
My daughter recently asked for a gift card to a second hand store for her b'day. It's a really large thrift store, but still a thrift store. I knew at that moment that she was "choosing" our lifestyle too.
As far as my chosen luxury, it's preformed hamburger patties. :-)

Philip Brewer's picture

@ Valerie:

See--there's a prefect example.  I've got no problem making my own hamburger patties.  I worked as a cook for a while and got quite good at making the patties exactly the weight the boss wanted.  (He'd yell at us for not weighing them, and then he'd weigh them and they'd be exactly right.)  Why would I pay someone to do something I can do myself in 20 seconds?

On the other hand, we buy exotic flour to put in our bread, when it would be cheaper to just use whole wheat.  But we like to have a bit of this or that in each loaf, and for each loaf to be a little different.

It's where a market economy wins--you can pay for your luxuries and I can pay for mine and we both feel like we've gotten exactly what we wanted.