The Great Enabler

It’s 1:31AM on a Wednesday. You’re covered in Cheeto dust, eyes a-glaze from binge-watching your last 6 recorded episodes of TLC’s My Overweight Neighbor. Just as you’re about to (finally) shut off the TV in favor of a past-due bedtime, the opening lines of an infomercial hook you:

Friends, have I got a deal for you! I’m going to let you in on a little secret that will allow you to worry less and enjoy more. To never again struggle to make ends meet. To achieve a degree of economic and – heck – overall freedom that you never thought possible. To be…happier.

So much for bedtime. Your 9AM pre-meeting meeting is gonna be a snoozer anyway.

The greasy-haired, headset-adorned presenter is me. Maybe it’s not 1:31AM on a Wednesday, but here I am holding the microphone. And you’ll never guess what… I don’t even want anything from you. I’m going to give away this secret for free (!) because, well, you’ll understand…

Intro premise: so much of what we conceive of as freedom is really tantamount to financial freedom. “Man, if I won the lottery, I would spend the rest of my days slathering myself in peanut butter and jumping in the bouncy castle in the back yard of my mansion, which itself is actually a mansion-sized bouncy castle.” Or, “man, when I retire, the house will be paid off and I’ll be able to travel the world, just like I’ve always dreamed of. I can’t wait for wage slavery to be a thing of the past.”

This sort of thinking and dreaming accompanies a simple reality: we all need money to pay for things. If we earn or have saved more money to pay for things, we are more free (like the lottery winner or the comfortable retiree). Here, because we all love math, let’s consider this possible representation of the idea:

Economic Freedom = Money Available – Money Required

But if freedom increases in proportion to the difference between money available and money required, then we can see quite obviously that focusing solely on the first of those ignores fully half of the elements that drive the freedom in question.

Our little infomercial’s big secret, then, is this: stop and consider the matter of your economic ‘needs’ (i.e. money required) through the lens of economic freedom. If, say, the only thing keeping you tied to a miserable livelihood is the last 500-square-feet worth of house that’s tacked onto your mortgage, would you consider a smaller living space in exchange for a broader range of range of employment options (some of which might bring you joy)? Whatever your answer, it is undeniably true that in a world of money as a finite resource, we may – especially in the short run – have more control over our money requirements than we do our money supply.

The operative philosophy here is known as minimalism and it isn’t just focused on the economic benefits of a less financially constrained life. Sure, simple math dictates that lower expenses are likely to result in greater financial freedom, but some of the less obvious byproducts of such an approach may end up being just as liberating.

Take, for instance, that gleaming new car you just saw an ad for. You’ve been on the fence about whether or not you need a new vehicle yet, and this car is a little more extravagant than what you were hoping for, but you’ve always wanted to drive an Audi and you make decent money, so you spring for the car… Six months later, it’s no longer the “gleaming new car” you’ve had your eye on for a while; it’s just…your car. But now, oh look, that BMW sure is slick, isn’t it? Maybe in a couple of years…

Lather, rinse, repeat.

The hedonistic nature of consumerism (to which – you guessed it – minimalism is the antithesis) has some fairly obvious financial consequences: if your mortgage and car loan and wardrobe expense grow in step with your income, you’re not doing much to achieve the economic freedom we all so desire. But you’re also not doing much for whatever portion of your mental/emotional capacity is tied up in pursuit of the “perfect car for me”, or the compulsive need to own the latest in fashion, or the newest gadget, or…you get it.

I stumbled across this realization quite by accident. I’ve previously owned a relatively expensive car (with its weighty monthly payment) and now own a modest but reliable second-hand vehicle. I made that step ‘backward’ for economic reasons – to wit, without it and others like it, my current venture would not have been possible – but wound up amazed at its unintended consequences. Guess how much time and energy I spend even glancing with intrigue at other vehicles I see on the road? Zero. Guess how badly I can’t wait for some prespecified point in the future when I can move onto something newer and shinier? Not at all.

Who knew? There’s a very real psychological freedom that comes with a deliberate letting-go of the need to consume at the limit of your means. And this doesn’t just go for cars, by the way. You could apply the same framework to really anything for which you expend not just the money, but also the energy of consumption.

Of course, cars may be a genuine passion for you. Or clothing. Or antique sewing machines. And if that’s the case, then you may legitimately feel like you’re missing something by letting go the consumption of those things. But if these things aren’t actually passions for you – in which case the joy they offer is ephemeral – then I would wager that you won’t miss them that much, once you choose to abstain from their pursuit. (A pursuit which typically includes a lot of mental window-shopping, before and after the actual purchase.)

I haven’t spent much time here on the link between a deliberately more modest standard of living and the freedom it affords in the pursuit of – oh, I don’t know – maybe starting a blog and pursuing a livelihood that means more to you. That economic link is easy to identify, and is maybe one that you’re willing to explore in your mind. But in that sort of reflection (what would having fewer expenses enable?), I think people often reach a dead end because we tend to hold dear the notion that our expenses are non-negotiable:

“I mean, if I look at my monthly outlays, well…I need a place to live, so I can’t get rid of that expense. I need a car to get around, so there goes that. The kids need money set aside for their education, the maid service is too valuable to cancel and I’m sure as heck not going to sit at home and never go out to a restaurant… I guess maybe I could switch cable providers and save $25 per month for a half-year.”

To the defiant consumer, I say this: you’ve got no one to convince but yourself. That said, I would suggest that for all but the most financially marginalized, our financial encumbrances are – to a certain extent – matters of choice. You do not need 2,000 square feet to live in; you choose it. You do not need the 17” alloy wheels and navigation package; you choose it. You do not need to allot $1,000 per month to restaurant outings; you choose it. (The more modest your means, the less wiggle room you have in your choices – I’m not arguing that.)

Lest you think I’m suggesting to you that the things I just listed are bad choices, let me be clear: I’m not. I’m simply pointing out that they are choices, period. And as with all matters of choice, they come with consequences in the form of something called ‘opportunity cost’. (Choose Jamaica as your vacation destination and you’re saddled with the opportunity cost of not going to the Bahamas, and so on.) As obvious as this stuff sounds, I bring it up because it’s my suspicion that we don’t always consider our economic constraints as a matter of choice in the presence of scarce resources. Somehow, the need to own the latest in home-theatre technology and the experience of marching every day into an unfulfilling job are construed as two separate constraints, rather than as nuanced and intertwined elements of a big optimization problem (that problem being how best to allocate scarce resources for maximal satisfaction).

Indeed, so-called ‘minimalism’ (a convenient word used to refer to more thoughtful consumption) has the ability to enable so much. Think about it. And Google the term sometime; there are a ton of resources out there to more properly introduce you to the concept and its infinitely varied manifestations.

Alas, my friends, I have no doubt that you will take the secret you’ve learned here and turn it into a wealth of deep fulfillment…

For the first time in infomercial history, I have rented a programming slot only to give away something for free. I’d charge you a price commensurate with the undeniable value of my wares but, ah, who am I kidding? I’d just end up spending it on a third bouncy castle.


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