On Spending Less, Earning More

Sunday, June 14, 2015

I’ve been thinking lately about Ignatius J. Reilly, the generally repulsive yet oddly compelling protagonist of John Kennedy Toole’s great comic novel A Confederacy of Dunces.

I thought of him often over the winter, because one of the pairs of pants that I ended up wearing a lot was this pair of brown “loose fit” Gap cordurouys that had wide legs and very large, deep pockets. The word that came to mind when I put them on was “capacious.” I kept thinking of the introductory description of Ignatius on the first page of the book, when he’s waiting for his mother at the D.H. Holmes department store — “The voluminous tweed trousers were durable and permitted unusually free locomotion. Their pleats and nooks contained pockets of warm, stale air that soothed Ignatius.”

That’s what I felt like when I wore those pants. Soothing pleats and nooks, with unusually free locomotion.

Lately I’ve been thinking about Ignatius when it comes to reading things on the internet.

I think I may have mentioned previously that I don’t make a habit of reading good, useful information on the internet. Instead I tend to latch on to some thing that annoys me, something I read and pull my hair out and say, “Gaah!!! No! What are you thinking?!?!”

Like Ignatius, who liked to go to the movies so he could throw popcorn at the screen and complain loudly about everything that offended him about modern life (which was most everything). That is me.

I’ve realized that I don’t like reading blogs by people who have everything figured out — “here, look at how great my life is, look at how smart and successful I am.” Those feel boring and pointless to me.

I like a little bit of angst in my blogs. But it’s hard to find the right amount of angst — a little bit can feel real and useful but too much quickly becomes tiresome. But sometimes I’ll find one with just the right amount and it flips me into hate-reading mode. Which then sucks me down a rabbit hole of guilty pleasure. It’s like reading Valley of the Dolls, it’s so bad I can’t put it down.

And I’d gone months and months without any internet obsessions at all but I recently came across an intriguing lifestyle/personal finance blog that I’ve been reading and pulling my hair out over and which has helped crystallize some of my thoughts about personal finance and happiness and life in general.

(And note that I’m leaving off the object of my hate-reading, because it doesn’t seem nice to tell the internet that you hate-read someone who is trying to write a serious blog. So here I’ll just talk about what I’ve learned.)

The PF blogging world has basically two camps in their approach to advising people how to get ahead: those who focus on spending less and those who focus on earning more. Of course most bloggers acknowledge that both strategies play a role, but usually they come down on the side of one or the other as being more important.

The people who focus on earning more tend to be dismissive of the people who focus on spending less — they think you just can’t make very much progress by cutting back on spending, there’s just not enough to work with, and it’s silly to put energy into saving small amounts of money here and there. They think the only way to really get ahead is to make more money.

And on some level, I agree with that — if your income is very low or if your fixed expenses are very high, your options can be constrained.

On the other hand, people usually have more control over how they spend their money than they do over how they make it. So in that sense focusing on spending less can be better because it’s something you can do right now, that doesn’t depend on the actions of people over whom you have no control.

But until getting sucked into reading this blog, written by someone who managed to save over $300,000 in less than 10 years, starting with around $10K and a starting salary of $25K, I hadn’t really thought through the fact that there’s another important difference between getting ahead by making more or getting ahead by spending less.

I’ve realized in reading about someone who has been very successful in achieving financial goals by making more money that there is a huge nonfinancial element to focusing on spending.

If you follow the Your Money or Your Life model and reduce expenditures by tracking and analyzing your spending, you are by way of this process clarifying your values — you are thinking about what you care about, and whether or not the money you spend is being used to support things you care about. You reduce spending on the things you don’t care about and you end up spending much less without any decrease in your overall quality of life.

The process helps you figure out what you actually need and allows you to be happy on much less than you ever could have imagined, and much less than most people spend. It’s like you enter a parallel universe where you always have enough. It’s magical.

If instead you focus on making more, you’re not able to figure out how much is “enough” because you’re not really thinking about that, you can always use more, and more is always better. So there’s no end. (Or maybe you do think about what’s enough but it’s a really huge number — $10 million or something like that.)

Also focusing on making more requires you to keep on keeping on in the economic stew of modern life — as my friend Ann likes to say, you have to stay in the puddin’.

You have to constantly be networking, working on job skills, dealing with bosses and clients. You need to move up the ladder in your office, or find a new job, or take on side gigs.

You need to hustle.

There’s nothing wrong with that, and certainly that approach is the best way to increase your income. But it’s not necessarily the best way to improve your quality of life.

No matter how much money you make or save or spend — or don’t make or save or spend — at some point you have to figure out what makes you happy. The process of making more money generally does not help you figure this out. So you can make a lot more money than you used to while being no happier at all.

I feel like the YMOYL approach almost has an element of therapy to it.

It’s very structured — track what you spend, think about it, figure out how to spend less; track what you save, think about it, figure out how to make more. By focusing on these specific things, you are figuring out what you need and what you don’t need.

By needing less, you are able to let go of things, and in doing that, you gain freedom.

People in your life can’t control you with strings-attached gifts. Employers don’t have the same leverage because you can walk away at any time. Your life overall is less stressful if what you need to be happy is easily within your capacity to generate — if what you need to be happy is as much as you can possibly make by working as hard as you can all the time, you are always going to be behind the eight ball. Your life will always be stressful.

Making more money involves thinking about other people — bosses, clients, customers. Spending less money involves thinking about you (and possibly the people directly connected to you — spouse, children, other relatives).

Spending less allows you to disengage from many things that can cause anxiety — it lets you stop worrying about how what you are buying compares to what other people are buying, or what it says about you or what other people think about you. (Worrying about what other people think about you seems to be a major source of anxiety for many people.)

I truly believe that focusing on what you care about, what you want, what you value, can help get you out of that mindset. It can help free you.

Spending less gets you to this place where you are in control of your life, and where your world feels manageable.

It is the key to happiness.

Or one of them, at least.

(And while on the subject of being happy, I read The Happiness Project while on my trip and I may write about that at some point. I liked it.)

Go forth and be happy. And stay cool if you can.

11 Responses to “On Spending Less, Earning More”

  1. Joy Says:

    On the subject of blogs with just enough angst, check out Penelope Trunk’s blog. She has Asperger’s and is very real with what she says. I love your blog. Always interesting, but never inundating me with “I have to post or I’ll lose my readers!” daily crap. Thank you. :)

  2. Kathleen Hendriks Says:

    I couldn’t agree more. I recently lost my job, and I’m 56 years old, a single mom and SoCalif.homeowner with a mortgage, high taxes, car and credit card payments, and a teenager going off to college this Summer! Of course I initially panicked and have been focused on applying for new positions, however, just as you say, the situation has brought me to a place where I’m also looking inward and realizing that I can save an incredible amount of money just by being careful with gasoline and food expenditures, can consider selling used furniture, clothing, shoes or purses that I bought in a more devil-may-care time of my life, and that I will most likely make over $600 of monthly income just by renting out my son’s room (most likely to a college student attending a nearby private university). While I’m still not certain how much any of this will add to my overall happiness, I also feel that there is a deep-seated truth in what you say about not finding lasting happiness with material things or in believing others will think better of you for what you drive. I drive a nice new SUV that I bought with a 50% downpayment using a bonus I’d received that year (2011), but along with the lower car payments (because of the large downpayment and I refinanced a year ago to reduce them) comes more expensive insurance because it’s a luxury car (that costs more to repair), so I may not sell it right away, but if I remain unemployed for more than 3-4 months, I will strongly consider selling it for a more economical car used car. In any case, This whole endeavor is forcing me to look at how I will need to eventually transition my living expenses to the level of what they will need to be in retirement. I need to be much more selective on what I purchase for clothing, shoes, and household goods going forward, once I’m re-employed. I’ll need to go through my things, including china and serving dishes I rarely if ever use, and see if I can sell them to someone who would cherish them more than I do. I will definitely benefit from freeing myself up from jettisoning some of this clutter and excess. And I will utilize my creativity to cook from scratch and learn to make more economical meals that are still healthy and varied. It’s about reflecting on what you do have now versus what you will have (or are constantly chasing after and having to work intensely hard for). And while I’m stressed for the time being with replacing my income, I know when that’s accomplished I’ll be a much better steward of my finances and will also have stretched my faith in God for guiding me through this challenge. Thanks for your blog, I always enjoy reading it and may even go back to your $1 a day eating project!

  3. lessisenough Says:

    @Kathleen Hendrick —

    Thank you for your nice comment, I’m sorry about your job situation and good luck figuring things out. It’s good that you can see already that you have a lot to work with. The people who struggle the most are the ones who think everything is too important to make changes with — car, television, travel, food. They think it’s all essential.

    I have a friend whose husband lost his job, she went back to teaching for a while but now they are making a living renting out rooms in their house on Air B&B and taking care of dogs. They have a small mortgage and their kids are done with college, so I think they’re not feeling too much immediate pressure over their finances.

    They had a German med student, who my friend said was very good looking, renting out their attic, and she was taking care of a couple of very sweet dogs. She said, “I’m doing all of these things that improve my quality of life, and I’m getting paid for it!” She was laughing about it.

    So it is good to know that it’s possible — that you can do things to make money that also make your life better. I think it’s just a matter of finding what they are.

  4. lessisenough Says:

    @Joy —

    I have to say that I was mildly obsessed with Penelope Trunk for a little while because I just couldn’t figure her out. I was like is she for real, or is this some kind of bizarre metafiction literary thing? I thought it was so strange.

    So I read it for a while but then I felt like she was just completely over the top, I felt like all her posts had to talk about how she was abused and what a mess her life was. And it got to be too much for me.

    It seemed like her blog became the only thing she did, and I’ve realized that I lose interest in blogs when people start doing it for a living. I want people to do something with their life other than blogging. Spending your whole life blogging seems to me like a dumb thing to do.

    And I definitely do not feel any pressure to post every day, but sometimes when I go for a long time without posting I do start to feel bad about it. Usually that means I’m busy or tired; I go through these phases where I don’t have anything to say and nothing is of any interest to me. And then one day my brain wakes up and things are interesting again. So I start writing again.

    And that is just how it goes.

  5. Marcia Says:

    So now I am wondering what blog it is? I am always looking for more to read, but I read (and write) only sporadically. Probably because I am busy living my life.

    I tend to fall in the “spend less” category also, because I feel like I have more control over that. I also would like to “earn more”. What I’ve learned, however, over the last few years – is that it’s often difficult. I am a middle-aged (mid-40’s) mother of 2, engineer. My industry, and company, is mostly men. When I hit about the age of 42 is when I hit the “glass ceiling”.

    It’s incredibly maddening and frustrating to get outright blocked from upward mobility due to being female. And it really only takes *one* bad boss to do it. Some of it is quiet and insidious. Sometimes they don’t realize they are doing it. It gets worse when you see less deserving people get promoted because they are the right sex, race, and brown nose.

    But I cannot control that. The hard work, the projects, the endless hours and being on top of things, have gotten me nowhere. Oh, I’m still employed when others were laid off, but I haven’t had a raise in years. What I *can* control is reducing expenses so my paycheck is not needed. And instead of working late to “prove my worth” (which got me nowhere), I leave early/ on time to pick up my boys, go home, cook dinner, blow bubbles, play chess…

    I personally found the “earning more” track to be stressful with a poor outcome. And even last year I applied for a new job, interviewed (took 3 days off work to do so – one to write up a 45 minute technical presentation for the job, a day to practice it, because my husband was out of town and I couldn’t practice on the weekend, and a full day interview.) So, I used up 3 precious days of vacation time…and I didn’t get the job (and they never filled the position, because they didn’t know what they wanted).

    Well, forget that. If I’m taking 3 days off, I want to be with my kids!

  6. lessisenough Says:

    Fully agreed on the frustrations of working hard and seeing less deserving people get promotions and raises. I just talked to a friend about a mutual friend who wanted more support at her job, didn’t get it, so she quit, and then they split the job in two and are hiring two people to replace her. I saw that happen all the time at one of the places I worked, the people who worked hard and never complained just got more dumped on them. Then those people would leave and the company would spend money hiring new people that they never would have spent on the person who was there. So frustrating!


  7. I think I missed this post the first time through. I totally agree on the YMOYL as therapy– we even have a post about it! (Is there anything PF we don’t have a post on already?) https://nicoleandmaggie.wordpress.com/2010/07/18/pre-tenure-angst/

    The blogs of people who have it all together don’t bother me (though some get repetitive and boring… hopefully not ours!) so much as the ones where people keep going in the same unproductive spirals (there are two that I have leechblocked right now because my schadenfreude has no self-control).

  8. lessisenough Says:

    @nicoleandmaggie

    Yeah, I have enough of people who make the same mistakes over and over again in my real life (though less of that than I used to, I’ve limited interaction with people who make me crazy).

    And yes, the blogs from people who have it altogether get repetitive and boring, but you write about enough different topics, and there’s enough input from other people in the comments, that it remains interesting. I don’t like reading blogs (like MMM and Pioneer Woman), where only comments from people who agree with the blogger are allowed. Who wants to read 100 comments that say “yes, totally agree, you are great!”

    That’s actually one of the things I liked best about Get Rich Slowly when it was a real blog — I thought there were a lot of interesting viewpoints in the comments, some people would agree and some would disagree, but people had interesting things to add and the discussions there were often more interesting than the original post. And also the Pioneer Woman hater sites, the whole fun was in the comments.

    I feel like the people who have it all together generally don’t encourage discussion or dissent in their comments. Afford Anythng in fact told a commenter who questioned one of her posts (on rent vs. buy) to go get his own blog.

    Channeling Julia & Avis, all I can say to that is Well.

  9. lessisenough Says:

    @nicoleandmaggie

    Also thanks for linking to your YMOYL post, that is my favorite summary of the book — I’ve sent that link to numerous people who I’ve wanted to introduce the book because I think it’s just the right take on it. It’s a strange book, and you really have to be in the right place for it, otherwise you’ll think it’s dumb and unrealistic. I think your post is a really good overview.


  10. When we tell people to get their own blogs, it’s generally because we want to hear more, not less from them!

    We do cut misogynists off. And occasionally I will get really irritated when someone wants me to teach them an entire semester of public finance because that’s part of their mansplaining why whatever libertarian policy is correct. Oh, and we have a post somewhere of things that make us snippy more generally, like accusing people of lying. So we, like Scalzi, do have a mallet. But generally we want more conversation not less.

    GRS did used to have a great comment section, and JD used to be really good encouraging discussion.


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