A Sonos player, to me, is a box made of magic. It’s something I would have dreamed up in sixth grade for an essay about the future. “I want speakers all around my house that can play any song ever recorded, sometimes different songs in different rooms, all at the same time, and I want to control them remotely without having to point at them. I’d like to control them with a glass screen I can just touch, but that’s probably not realistic even for the future.”
Unlike most technology items in my house - including the laptop I’m typing on – my Sonos speakers just work. Out of the box, I had them running in about ten minutes. Since then I’ve never had to unplug or reboot them to get them working. They integrate applications like Pandora and Spotify seamlessly in ways that make intuitive sense. The button on top of each one can start and stop my music on a dime – there’s no lag.
But while I’m cheap, these speakers were not. I paid $500 for the big one and $300 for a smaller satellite speaker. That’s a lot of scratch for me. But I’ve never felt like I wasted my money. Every time I kick off a song from my chair, adjusting the volume for each room, I smile a contented smile. As much as any object can, my Sonos speakers make me happy.
Personal finance writers are fond of telling us that this isn’t possible. I have been guilty of this myself. We are constantly trying to prod consumers to spend less of their money -- and save more -- by telling them that spending money will not make them any happier. If we’re writing a fancier version of the article, we’ll go on to cite studies showing that higher incomes do not correlate with more happiness past a certain threshold, which hovers around $70,000.
Some of the extreme frugality blogs I read go further, contending that there is zero connection between money and happiness as long as you have food to eat and a roof over your head.
Is it true? Who's right? Is the joy I get from my speakers a false feeling? Or is it just fleeting? Can things -- mere stuff -- really bring us lasting happiness?
The median income in America hovers around $55,000, meaning that if even the studies are correct, more than half of the country could earn a bit more money and successfully ‘buy happiness’ with it.
But even if everyone earned over the magical $70,000 threshold, I’d disagree with most personal finance writers on this subject. I think ‘stuff’ can make us happy, within reason. We’re too quick to be scolds, telling readers that their financial problems stem from their love of shopping, which we then assert is not bringing them joy. If you were to believe personal finance books, we’re all going bankrupt because we’re buying too many pairs of slacks. In reality it’s much more likely that low wages, student loans, or medical bills are to blame for a bad balance sheet.
That said, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Most of us could stand to be more mindful about our spending. If certain products truly can bring us joy, most don’t. We buy them out of blind habit or based on peer pressure. We should all be working to cut down on these more mindless purchases.
In my opinion, becoming a mindful spender requires two steps:
- You need to find some time to quiet your mind down and ponder what purchases in your life truly make you happy. Let’s call this ‘money meditation.’ I try to do this whenever I find the Amazon.com boxes coming in the door with a little too much frequency. I scan my shelves for books I’ve never read and never will, and identify kitchen gadgets that get used once every three years.
- You need to get into a mental space where you don’t care what others think. This is not easy, but it is necessary. You cannot spend mindfully if you care about keeping up appearances.
When I started having kids, I knew I needed to make my money stretch further, so doing a little “money meditating” with my wife was very helpful. We realized early on that neither of us cared about fancy new cars. To us, cars are just metal boxes made to safely get us between two points. But prior to these conversations, we’d been replacing our cars every few years. Why? It’s hard to say. I guess because we’d never really thought about it, and it’s what everyone else does.
This was just one example, but it was a breakthrough for us. The difference between buying new-ish cars every three years and buying used cars every seven years measures in the thousands of dollars per year. That’s a lot of wasted money for something that doesn’t make us happy. Putting that extra cash in our pockets leaves plenty of room for Sonos speakers.
When you buy a new car because they are your obsession -- and have been since you were a little boy watching your dad work under the hood of his old Chevy -- that’s mindful, if excessive spending. If you buy a truck or SUV because everyone else in your neighborhood owns one, that’s mindless spending. There are a bajillion better things to spend your dollars on.
This is where #2 comes in. Our kids will be going to school in a few years. This means that we have to be okay driving a beat up sedan to pick them up while everyone else in our fancy town idles in front of the school in luxury SUV’s. Will it bother our kids? Probably not at first, but maybe as they get older they’ll start to care. I’m not sure how we’ll handle it, but here’s what we won’t do: go buy a brand new car to fit in.
None of this works unless you allow yourself to be different without apology. If you feel intense embarrassment at being the only adult in the room without a $600 coat, you’re doomed to let others set your financial agenda.
What surprises me most after ten-ish years of adulthood is how few people can separate mindful and mindless spending. The societal wants – the “keeping up with the Joneses” urge we hear about so much – mask themselves very easily as true wants, and it takes real introspection to pull them apart.
But pull them apart we must, because otherwise we risk proving true everything the personal finance writers are saying about us: that our daily lattes keep wealth just out of our reach; that all of our financial problems could be solved if we could just stay out of the mall.
That our spending isn’t making us happy.
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