When I was a graduate student, my monthly ritual on the Friday after payday was to go to Target, restock my household necessities, and then treat myself to a few items from the dollar section or home goods section. After Target, I’d probably go out to eat and then go home and watch Gilmore Girls. (Thrilling, I know.) A decade later, I can see that my monthly treat-yo-self sessions just added to cheap clutter in my home, and that they were also a waste of money. However, I also completely empathize with my 2006 self. In 2006, I was making $20,000 a year and I had just gotten out of a really bad relationship. I was working 60+ hours a week on a fruitless research project, and I didn’t even have weekends off, let alone actual vacation time. The light at the end of the tunnel, my PhD, was at least 3 years down the line. If I were to travel back in time and tell 2006 me, “stop wasting money on stupid stuff! If you can save $100 every month, you’ll be able to afford a trip to (a place that is not your laboratory) at the end of the year!” I think 2006 me would have laughed and laughed and laughed and then probably cried.
Sure, 2006 me was in a little bit of credit card debt and really, really needed a new computer for her research. Yes, 2006 me had to call her mom and ask for a couple of hundred dollars so she could afford to eat when she traveled to a research conference. And, yep, 2006 me was sleeping on an air mattress on the floor because she could not afford a new bed for a few months after her ex moved out. These situations illuminate that 2006 me definitely could have done better with what little money she did have. But 2006 me was just barely holding her head above water, and giving serious thought to her budgetary situation wasn’t very high on her list of priorities.
When Treat-Yo-Self is All You Got
Of course, we have all heard about the “latte factor” time and time again. For some, it’s not coffee stops, but rather app purchases, books, trinkets, lunches out, clothes – the list goes on. There are so many little things we can spend our money on that don’t actually add happiness to our lives. And these things can certainly add up to big dollars over the years, and hamper our larger financial goals. But looking back at my life ten years ago, I feel like these small indulgences were one of the few things that enabled me to deal with the insane levels of bullshit I was experiencing. For better or for worse, shopping helped me cope.
When I was a kid – shopping was something my mother and I did on a Saturday afternoon, and even then I seriously enjoyed the hunt for an awesome clearance rack deal. As an adult, it was an extremely low stress activity that removed me from reality for a short period of time. The day after the aforementioned relationship ended, I was sitting on my friend’s driveway, bawling my eyes out, when she suggested we head to the mall in an attempt to take my mind off of things. (Admittedly, I did need a smaller pair of pants after months of stress-induced weight loss.) Could I have found the same release in running, or yoga? It’s possible, but my emotional health was in such a state that getting out of bed was challenging enough, let alone having enough motivation at the end of the day to lace up my sneakers. I have so few good memories of my first few years of grad school, but I do remember the anticipation of my monthly trip to Target, and the small glimmer of joy I would feel walking up and down the aisles. On a rare Saturday off, I’d head to the Big City and wander a shopping mall or the gourmet grocery store by myself. For whatever reason, shopping was among a handful of activities that I actually looked forward to, and it helped me retain some sense of normalcy in an otherwise turbulent year.
What Happens When the Tunnel Is Endless?
I knew that my time making $20,000 would be fairly limited – at least I hoped so! But making under $25,000 a year is the reality for almost 25% of US Households. I’m guessing many of those households will not see their incomes increase rapidly over the course of 3 years, as mine did as I transitioned from graduate student to post-doc to permanent employee. And while my parents didn’t pay for any of my education, they did provide me with a financial safety net, which prevented me from slipping further into debt during my most difficult months. While it’s true that I lived paycheck-to-paycheck for five years, I’ve never been without that security. As much as I should have been thinking about how shopping affected my bottom line, I didn’t have to obsess over every dollar I spent. I was still far above the poverty line for a household of one and I never had to worry about making rent or having food to eat. It may have felt like I was treading water – but in reality, I knew how to swim, had a life vest on, and the shore wasn’t all that far away.
So this period of my life is what I think about every time someone tries to shame (actual) poor people for buying “junk” food with their EBT card. Or for having a refrigerator or a cell phone. I think about it every time I feel like judging a family member or friend for spending money in a way that doesn’t align with my personal priorities. I mean, why do people spend money? Sometimes we need things – food, clothing, shelter, toilet paper. But sometimes (even though minimalism tells us we shouldn’t), we buy things because they make us happy.
I think most of us who are on this FI/RE journey have had some realization that the pursuit of “stuff” isn’t going to make us happy in the long term or help us build a lasting legacy. But the point is, we’ve already had that revelation. It’s really easy to say “I don’t need to buy this junk!” when you already have a ton of junk. It’s easy to eschew the trappings of modern life when you’ve had an opportunity to be burdened by them. It’s easy to rid your house of clutter and excess when you know you could afford to replace something you decide you need later on. It’s easy to abandon shopping as a hobby when you have the means to engage in hobbies that require time, gear, and transportation options. Pursuing minimalism and financial independence can be challenging for anyone at any stage in life, but I think it’s unhelpful to scold other people for spending money on things we now judge as “frivolous.”
Finding New Avenues for Happiness
I recognize for some, shopping can become a serious addiction. And it’s true that the majority of us still probably buy way, way too much junk and produce huge amounts of waste as a result. My shopping hobby was an old habit that I found comforting during a difficult period of my life. Keeping my indulgences small meant I didn’t assume massive credit card debt pursuing my hobby. It obviously didn’t help me save money, either, but at least I grew out of this habit before it got to be very expensive. As my income has grown over the years, I’ve certainly been susceptible to lifestyle creep and hedonic adaptation. Thankfully, after stumbling into the personal finance community, I have been able to gain the self-awareness to realize that the pursuit of possessions doesn’t align with my long-term goals.
That doesn’t mean I’m immune to buying stuff – I think few of us are as disciplined as Mr. Money Mustache or The Frugalwoods. But I’m getting better. I’m still a sucker for a good clearance deal, but I try to make sure that I’m buying clothes or home items to replace something that’s worn out. I still do a fair amount of “window shopping” because my parents enjoy perusing a junk shop or a used bookstore, and it’s an enjoyable way to spend a Saturday afternoon in the winter months. What has changed is that now I can go to a flea market or a craft fair or an estate sale and be extremely discerning about the stuff I choose to bring into my home. I have a few things I loosely collect, and I’m always on the hunt for unique pieces at incredible prices. I rarely find them, so I feel ok walking away from the more ordinary or overpriced junk.
So, back to 2006. I moved on, I started healing, I kinda-sorta got my shit together, and I was able to claw my way out of the black hole of situational depression. Once my ex left, I was able to shed a lot his weird ideas about money (another post for another time), and start developing my own goals for my finances – for the first time in my adult life. I had the emotional energy to pursue more fulfilling hobbies, and my research project started working. Most significantly, I found a new group of friends who loved canoeing. Canoeing was another activity I had loved as a kid, but I didn’t have the means (boat) or transportation (car that can carry a boat) to enjoy it as an adult. Suddenly I found myself with friends that had canoes to spare, and all I had to do was chip in for beer, sandwiches, and gas. Suddenly I had more to look forward to than wandering the aisles of Target by myself – and, as it turns out, that was what I really needed.