Sometimes Less Really Is More

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Is there something you're dying to have but can't afford? For the answer to be no, you don't have to be wealthy.

On Sunday we went to lunch with my life partner’s mother and her longtime companion. The most exciting part of the meal was the very large black bear that ran around in a field behind the restaurant until employees chased it away. The most interesting part was what his mom said about flowers.

She’d gone to a local nursery and was so taken by the blooms that she bought more than she needed. In fact, it had been a long time since she bought anything she didn’t specifically need.

“It was nice to want something,” she said. “I haven’t wanted anything in a long time.”

That’s not because she’s clinically depressed or too impoverished to dream. It’s because she’s satisfied.

I don’t know his mom (whom I’ll call “Maggie” to protect her privacy) very well yet, but she appears to be one of the happiest people I’ve ever met. Retired for decades and divorced for longer than that, her frugality made a rich life possible.

Not wealthy-rich, but experience-rich. She seems to have friends everywhere she goes, she’s traveled fairly extensively, and she keeps busy with swimming, auditing university classes, attending lectures, and meeting with a group of fellow plein air painters.  

Years ago an acquaintance tried to dragoon her into a multilevel marketing scheme. Maggie said no thanks. The friend persisted along the lines of, “But the money you could make! Isn’t there something you’re dying to have but can’t afford?”

Maggie’s immediate answer: “No, not really.”

I’m getting closer to that state all the time, and it feels perfectly wonderful. I have everything I need and some of what I want. How many people get to say that, and to mean it?

I’m no minimalist

To be clear: I don’t aspire to live sackcloth-clad in an empty room. But when it comes to both decor and couture I’m built for comfort, not for speed. The house that LP and I share is fairly plain, and heaven knows I’m not much for self-adornment.

We’re definitely willing to spend on what matters to us: family and friends, charitable and religious causes, the arts.

We have our splurges, some shared and some not: travel, beer-making supplies, movies, lunches out, the occasional pound of pepper bacon from Mr. Prime Beef. And just like Maggie, we bought more bedding plants — both flower and vegetable — than we’d planned. (What can I say? It was a long winter.)

Yet we frugal-hack our dollars to the utmost. The farther that money stretches, the more personal goals we can reach. For example, we must plan our own retirements and we’d both like to leave something for our families. (I have a life insurance policy but I’d also like to leave more than that.)

One of the most effective frugal hacks we’ve found? Don’t buy anything you see the instant you see it. In fact, don’t buy anything until you’ve thought it over and then looked for ways to get the best possible price (discounted gift cards, thrift stores, price comparison websites, yard sales, Amazon gift cards I get free from Swagbucks).  

Not buying has another benefit: less clutter. We’re both trying to get rid of things, in part because we don’t want to leave a lot of stuff for our kids to have to clear out and in part because we both find a pared-down home quite calming.

Frugal-hacking the wants

Here’s how Maggie keeps the clutter down: Anytime she brings a new possession home, two current ones have to go. I admire that kind of resolve.

Again, it’s not that I don’t want things. Certain items will never go away: mementos from friends, an art clock made by an artist friend, small treasures from my daughter’s childhood.

Some of the things I want are gleefully ephemeral. For example, tonight I’ll attend a midnight showing of “Now You See Me” with a friend, and will utterly enjoy the Diet Coke and kettle corn that have become two more of my personal indulgences.

But I frugal-hack those wants just as I do my needs. One of those discounted gift cards will pay for both ticket and treats. I’ll be using a soft drink cup that initially costs $7 but can be refilled all year long for $3 a pop (as it were).

This week’s email coupon from Cinemark is for a free small popcorn with the purchase of a large drink (i.e., the $3 one). I’ll upgrade to a large, which comes with a free refill, by paying the $1.75 difference. Then I’ll dump the popcorn in a plastic bag and immediately get the free refill for my companion; she’s driving so she shouldn’t pay for snacks.

Popcorn and Diet Coke are neither nutritious nor necessary. But I want them, I’ve budgeted for them and I’m going to get them. Even faux minimalists like to cut loose now and then. It’s very satisfying.

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Stacy Johnson

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