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.

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Guest's picture

I too have an office supply fetish. Shopping for school supplies was always the high light of my year, and when I see the blank notebooks with the witty quotes on the cover, or the journals I think "Wow...if I bought that, Id give up writing in my Live Journal." Then I realize how much paper I save by keeping my journal electronic.

I'm glad I'm not the only one who enjoys the Office Max catalog :)

Guest's picture

You made me laugh with the "office supply porn"! You couldn't have put it better. I have more problems resisting impulse purchases in Staples than in any clothing store.

Guest's picture

I am tired of lugging the catalogs to recycling, and want to save trees so I call to get removed from mailing lists of any catalog that I don't want to study. Trying to get removed from Dell's list last week was exasperating because I had to go through India. After half an hour in which I explained what a house number meant, tried to explain "or current occupant," and that my town (central to Silicon Valley) was a city name and spelled it multiple times, I was exhausted. Before I started the conversation I was considering looking on the Dell Web site if I ever wanted to buy one again. Afterwards, I remembered my last experience with this company when the computer arrived DOA, and it took me a week of talking with people who didn't have the computer nor the manual before I got any action, and that was prompted by telling them I had a better idea than opening my computer one more time and fishing around in it--I was going to call my credit card company and have them handle its return.

Companies should make it easy to stop receiving their catalogs. I develop negative feelings when unsolicited ones come too often.

Philip Brewer's picture

Yes, office supplies are my nemesis. There ought to be a support group.

@CB: I've seen lots of descriptions of how to get off catalog mailing lists, but I've never made an effort. I think I always expected that it would turn out just as you describe.

I should, though--for the trees if nothing else. Google gave me this link, which seems to have a pretty comprehensive summary:

Guest's picture

I think, as schoolkids, we became conditioned to associate them with a new year full of new possibilities. Still as an adult, I think getting new notebooks, pens, etc., gives me an opportunity to redefine myself and get a fresh start on things. Of course it doesn't really work that way, but the pull for me is as powerful as I think and addiction must be to some.

Guest's picture

You're absolutely right about making the most of what we already have. I love finding things that I'd forgotten I owned (like calligraphy pens!)

I make pottery as a hobby, and I like to make little stamps from cubes of clay, each with original designs. It's the kind of frugal "thing" that makes me happy. One, because I was responsible for creating it. Two, it doesn't cost much to create more, and three, there are so many tucked in little drawers, I use 4-5 favorites at a time, and months later rediscover those I had forgotten.

Guest's picture

Not buying books and getting them from the library instead only works in countries with a library system that actually acquires new books, rather than just dusting off the ones they've had for decades and decades. By the time you're 20, you've read them all at least once, then what? Thank the gods for internet book companies that enable one to enrich your mind through books even in the back parts of the world.

Philip Brewer's picture

Oh, I still buy books. But I rarely pick up books on impulse at the bookstore. I identify books that I'm interested in from many sources and then think about them. I might decide to buy it new, wait until I can buy it used, or borrow it from someone. Whether or not there's a copy at the library is one factor in the decision.

Whether or not a town has a really good library is one factor I use in deciding if it's a place I want to live, too.

Guest's picture

Books are often the source of the most genuine joy and pretty intense frustration of my life. Too many waiting to be read, too little space to keep them all, too expensive to buy every single one I love.

Some of my solutions:
Second-hand stores (now those you'll find anywhere in the world), online second-hand sources (most of them will ship for reasonable prices all over the world, like, alibris, halfpricebooks, even amazon sellers), where you can get books for free, provided you're willing to part with your own too (I'm still new there, and my first book did cost me a bit much to SEND, but I had fun thinking it would end up in Singapour - but that's a different story).

Love your blog, Philip - good material

Guest's picture

that so nice and true

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