Saving hard can hurt, but you can turn it into a psychically sustainable experience by aligning your budget with your values.
True, if you have the values of a Russian Oligarch or the cast of The Only Way Is Essex, then this prescription is not going to work.
But if like 95% of the human race you know that bling is not the bedrock of true happiness, then you stand half a chance.
Frugality is the fastest route to our financial goals for most of us. Yet many who are not natural savers think that cutting back is impossible, or will be the end of life as they know it.
Not so. You can make huge savings by experimenting with lifestyle shifts that enable you to live a fulfilling life for less.
In such a scenario, disposable income is laser-focussed upon the areas of life that really matter to you. All frippery is cut. The cash you save is diverted to meeting your financial goals without daunting sacrifices.
Once your budget is harnessed to your well-being, it can perform a new and vital function. It becomes a beacon that guides your quality of life. Overspending becomes a warning signal that you’re losing sight of what really matters, and financial discipline becomes a way of staying true to yourself.
Discovering what your values are in this context is a personal journey that requires reflection. In the Accumulator household, all spending is viewed through the following lens:
- We spend on the essentials.
- We spend on things we really enjoy.
- We spend on things that really make a difference.
- We don’t spend on things just because we want them.
I want so many things! A fancy new TV, a new bathroom, a faster car, a fine dining experience every night.
I can chase all this ephemera to the point of financial ruin or else I can recognise that none of it moves the happiness needle very far, or for very long, or provides anything like the mental nourishment of a long walk in the countryside with the promise of a pub or teashop at the end of it.
Saving in line with your values does not rely on entirely rejecting all status symbols and the consumerist components of your identity. It’s not about living in the boondocks and eating berries for supper (although it can be).
Everyone has their must-have items that are central to their idea of themselves. The plan is to strip those back to an essential core.
For example, I need quality work clothes. It’s important to my sense of self-confidence that I feel that I look the part when operating in a politically charged office space. So I splash out on brands that make me feel good when I buy, and I wince when I drop curry down my front.
But the time is coming when I think I can challenge my lavish expenditure in this arena. Recently someone complimented me on my shirt. It’s years old, from Burtons, and was only pressed into emergency service due to a laundry crisis.
Perhaps all that other fancy stuff isn’t needed at all? Perhaps I’m a victim of the spotlight effect (our innate tendency to overestimate how much others notice us) and no-one else gives a stuff about my nice threads?
Happiness replacement therapy
Once you begin to challenge your notions of what you need to live the good life, you can turn the drudgery of budgeting into a game that replaces the expensive with the inexpensive but similarly fulfilling.
You can apply Money Saving Expert’s downshift challenge to your entire lifestyle.
- I used to race go-karts at the weekend. Now I play football. This substitute is just as much fun but the difference is I’m not burning fistfuls of cash in exchange for the memories.
- Challenge everything you do. Confront especially ritual behaviours that have remained unquestioned for years. There’s a good chance that diminishing returns have long since eroded most of the gratification you once got.
- If you’re wedded to expensive experiences, try halving the frequency and see whether the novelty value boosts your pleasure meter upwards.
- Challenge all your spending that’s for show. If you’re up against the implacable Jones’, then narrow down the number of arenas you feel you must compete in. Win the important battles, don’t try to win every battle.
- Keep a spreadsheet if you need to and rate the alternatives. Just how much fun was that foreign holiday in comparison to a staycation?
Too far, too fast
A word of warning: Don’t try to change too much at once.
Saving is like dieting, only you’re trying to put pounds on. Take a crash course and the pace of change will almost certainly break your resolve.
By taking it slowly, Ms Accumulator and I have managed to up our savings every year – even in the face of inflation and a period of stagnant wages. I’m like a corporate hatchet-man: constantly cutting costs by trying cut-price alternatives.
I still get doubts. At low moments it’s easy to think that the savings being squirreled away are denying me fun I might otherwise be having today. But mostly that’s because consumer society is so strong. It’s constantly trying to put me in a psychic headlock, bullying me into thinking that an iPad is a cure for feeling down.
Regular reflection upon and discussion of our true values are necessary counter-measures to materialistic pressures. This strategy can make a big difference to your saving while maintaining your quality of life.
But first you have to work out the difference between what makes you happy, and what you’re told makes you happy.
Take it steady,