The Many Reasons to Make Do with Less


Why would someone choose to have less than they could? Lots of reasons. There are as many ways to live large as there are people who refuse to think small. Over the time I've been writing for Wise Bread, I've expanded my list of reasons by quite a bit.

One thing that I liked about Wise Bread right from the start is that it's about living large, and very much not about depriving yourself. The connection isn't always obvious, though, so I thought I'd run down my list. Making do with less helps you live large by letting you:

1) Focus on what's important (by putting less resources into stuff that matters less). This is at the core of how I've chosen to live my life. I have less of what I don't much care about so that I can have more of what I really want. Because my needs are really quite modest, I'm able to do exactly what I want with my life (be a full-time writer) without having to deprive myself. Like most people, there are a lot of things I want--but there isn't much that I want more than living the life I've chosen.

2) Focus on what's important (because the other stuff is a distraction). This resonates for me, too. Everything I buy is not only another thing I have to pay for--it's also another thing I have to find a place for, put away and get out again, use enough to justify the purchase, insure, keep clean and in good repair, worry about getting lost or stolen or broken, and then eventually dispose of.

3) Learn the truth about yourself. Some time back I talked about finding joy in temporary frugality. I compared it to a backpacking trip. Partially it's a means to an end: The less you carry, the further you can go and the longer you can stay. But it's also educational. Some of the things you thought you needed turn out not to be as important as you'd imagined. Giving things up temporarily is occasionally a step toward realizing that you're happier without them.

4) Live more gently on the planet. You've no doubt seen a dozen carbon-footprint calculators. Some people try to use less and waste less simply because they don't want to take more than their share. This resonates with me as well.

5) Obey the commandments of your faith. Many religions make rituals out of having less in the form of fasting and charity. There are a lot of reasons for this. It can change your perspective on what's important, strengthen bonds within the community, and serve as a form of solidarity with others who have less.

I'd like to finish with one reason that's not on the list: To have more later. It's not on the list because, although it does sort of work, this particular motivation often seems to lead to crazy-stupid behavior. It's true that, if you spend your twenties, thirties and forties scrimping and saving, you can probably spend your fifties, sixties, and seventies doing whatever you want--but that makes no sense. Much better, I think, to spend your youth doing whatever you want, constrained only to the extent that you're not committing your future along with your present--i.e. don't run up debts that you'll be paying for years.

It makes good sense to spend less than you earn and save money--it adds to your freedom in the same way that going into debt reduces your freedom. It also makes sense to have a gradually rising standard of living--it's the natural order of things if for no other reason than that as you accumulate durable items they go on improving your life and as your skills grow your value as a worker increases. But to go beyond that--to live in voluntary penury now with the idea that you'll be able to live high on the hog when you're old--is weird, and in my experience doesn't lead to a good end.

There are lots of other reasons to choose to spend less, own less, and use less as ways to live large, even without this one.

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Guest's picture

I always love your posts, and this one encapsulates the reasons for that. All your points resonate with me as well, and help remind my why (and how) to choose how to live rather than have my life chosen for me by ambient culture.

Guest's picture

Does it really make sense and is it naturally right and good "to have a gradually rising standard of living"?

I'm not so certain.
If I am happy with how I am living now, is there a need, or even a good reason, to increase my standard of living, which, in turn, requires more money to sustain? It's easy to make the argument that if I'm making more money I should be able to spend a little bit more to have nicer stuff and do cooler things. But I'm not certain that's the best way to live.

I've read and heard stories of many people who rather than allowing their standard of living to increase as their income increases, instead increase their charitable giving. That's very appealing to me. That's partly because I have a number of friends who are involved in Christian ministry (and more who are headed that way) and are required to raise their own support. I believe in what they're doing and love them and want to be a part of the work. And by keeping my standard of living relatively constant (it has creeped up a bit as my income has increased), I'm able to support these men and women. And, to me, that's a better way to live. Not everyone may agree.

Philip Brewer's picture


It's a good enough question that I actually wrote a post on exactly that topic:  Should your standard of living rise?  Among other things, I say:

Most people let their standard of living drift up as their income rises, without really giving it much thought.  I suggest being more deliberate about it than that.

Guest's picture

Learn the truth about yourself.
So very important. So little realized.

Thanks for this life-affirming post.

Guest's picture

That is a very positive way to view things. We could all learn a lot by living a bit below our means. I feel like I am contributing to my physical health and spiritual growth by the way I have chosen to live or should I say, had to live due to having unsteady income for many what seemed like long and grueling months. I drive a vespa, I live in a small two-bedroom apartment that is very inexpensive, I try to volunteer when I can, and the list goes on. Had I not lost everything I owned twice over I feel that I would not have learned these valuable lessons. When you have less you are truly free.

Guest's picture

Financial Wellness is my business. Life is a matter of balance.
As in nature, we want that God created formula to work in our finances as well. Having too much of a good thing is costly.
We are all capable but are we willing? Living life abundantly is all about giving. If you have nothing to give then love your brother. And if you have something to give then be your brother's keeper. Taking care of each other is our God given privilege. It is the answer to our health care woes, both physical and financial.

Guest's picture

I often think that by getting rid of the "little stuff", that is the things we chase after because we think we're supposed to, it advances the small list of things we find to be really compelling.

If we can get rid of as many of the little things as possible, that frees us up to focus on what we truly find joy in.

Now when I say "little things", they may not be so little. It may mean giving up a status car in favor of a beater, so that you have more money for international travel. It may mean selling a house in the suburbs and renting one in an apartment complex so that you can do extended mission work overseas.

The problem comes in when we have serious dreams, but still think we can carry all of the baggage of the suburban lifestyle along with those dreams. The lifestyle, in that case, is only holding you back from doing what you really want.

Excellent post Philip!

Guest's picture

As I get older (I'm about to turn 35) I'm really enjoying the gradually increasing standard of living. As you get older, you have more responsibilities and probably more needs. I've got a four year old and old back injuries.

*camping gear - In the past I'd slept on the ground, then later in a crappy sleeping bag, then a nice sleeping bag, now we have those little puffy mats - my functionality on waking up is about the same but my back needs the comfort, these days.

*work - in the past, if I got too broke I could take random awful jobs and work long days if I needed to. Now I have more family responsibilities and less stamina, so I am happy not to have to do that.

*spending money - last weekend we were in Chicago. In the past, if I got separated from my friends or walked too far in heels and my feet hurt, I'd have to walk back anyway. Now I have an extra $20 for a cab if I get in that situation, not just $4 stuffed into my bra in case I need to take the bus.

*travel - I have taken multi-day train rides and slept in my seat because it was cheaper. I have taken long bike trips and sletp in the ditch. Again, as I get older, creakier, and have less stamina I *really* value being able to take a hot shower, get sleeper-car tickets, and stay in a hotel if my couch-hopping plans fall through.

Of course, if you start out with a pretty high standard of living you don't necessarily need it to edge upward...but the rise is pretty satisfying anyway.

Guest's picture

Awareness is all, once more. We do spend on what is important TO us. Other stuff, I see as a revolving door. My son is packing for Europe and he's taking a number of things that will be left behind--books (always appreciated in hostels), some clothing, towels, etc. I buy those things in thrift stores and then pass them to the next person.

Guest's picture

I can afirm every reason you listed & agree with you on the one you did not. I came to much of this realization not by choice but by disability. I never was much to waste stuff or hog resources, but I sure could accumulate a bunch of stuff! Having stuff is hard work & often expensive. Most everything not being actively used deteriorates quickly.

Guest's picture

Phillip, you need to write a book (seriously). Another great post.

Guest's picture
Amy K.

Philip, as always, an excellent post.

Rosa, I love (and live) your examples of a higher standard of living. Thank you for illustrating so well a restrained, but appreciable, increased standard of living over the years.

Guest's picture

Agreed, "5) Obey the commandments of your faith. Many religions make rituals out of having less in the form of fasting and charity. There are a lot of reasons for this. It can change your perspective on what's important, strengthen bonds within the community, and serve as a form of solidarity with others who have less." Also, thou shalt not covet thy neighbors material things (paraphrasing here) and that is a commandment I struggle with personally. Our American society is much more materialistic than we care to admit.

Guest's picture
Seo Guru

This is easier said than done. I mean, it happened to me before when I was just starting to have a life. I just got a low wage job but with a high percentage of getting a promotion. I told myself I can save some money when my salary reaches this amount. It did and had my promotion five times along with increases in salary tenfold from my entry salary. Did I get to save? No, as you go up the ladder of the corporate world, you change peers. From the ranks to management, your expenses also increase as well as your needs. Now I learned my lesson and live the life I want to live not the other way around.

Guest's picture

I have only one reason that I use to make myself happy with less cost. Make your life simple to be happy. The more complicated you make your life, the more it gets lavish and cost you more. The simpler your life is, the less problem you have and the least cost on your life. I don’t consider that frugality but just making my life simpler to be happy.