Recent conversations with a number of my equally financially-strained friends have gotten me thinking about something I hate to dwell on or be swayed by – money. A short 40 years ago, the spending patterns and perceived “necessities” of the average family were drastically different from those of today’s typical American family unit. When social security legislation and food stamps were originally introduced in the 1960s, food constituted about one-third of the average family’s expenditures. Today our income goes toward a much wider array of services and products that we conceptualize as essential. Food is merely just one of the needs we have to spend money to satisfy, on top of shelter and clothing. However we now add to the mix cell phones, internet service, technology devices, high-cost transportation, insurance of all sorts, sanitary products, and a whole host of other items we can’t imagine living without.
I’m also a victim of this strange 21st century mindset that the things we want are actually the things we need. Though it is not essential to our survival to have an internet connection, most of our lives would be so drastically changed by the lack thereof that we classify this as a fundamental need. The same goes for cell phones. When it comes to clothing, no longer can we simply buy a few suits to meet the expectations of our employers. There are a variety of occasions for which we feel compelled to outfit ourselves differently. So I have clothes for bed, the gym, work, hiking, spending time with friends, business casual events, formal affairs, weddings, business meetings, and everything in between. Do we really need such varied and extensive wardrobes? No. But does having one make our life easier, even better? Maybe. The problem is that, once we start, it can become hard to stifle the urge to spend more, to consume endlessly. We have all these clothes for all these occasions, but also (ladies at least) need the appropriate undergarments, footwear, and accessories to go along, to make us look put-together, or to embody the image that we feel we need to personify. Sometimes our reasons are purely social or self-indulgent, though there are more fundamental ramifications when it comes to looking good for job interviews, career enhancement, and other functions that directly correlate to one’s livelihood and source of income.
Then there’s the myth that women need to pile on makeup. To spend thousands of dollars annually on creams, powders, lipsticks, eye shadows, polishes, perfumes, lotions, sprays, and who knows how many other products to get the right look. I’m not trying to knock my female friends who are partial to makeup. For some, it’s truly a form of artistic expression and for others, as with certain styles of dress, it is important to achieve a polished look for the workplace. At the same time, we’re fed the misinformation that we should be consuming these products the same way we need to consume groceries, clothes, and sanitary goods – that makeup is as essential for the modern woman as vitamins and minerals. If you’ve got the money and it makes you feel good, I don’t want to stand in your way of indulging in makeup and the joy, confidence, and fun it can bring. At the same time, I don’t want young girls to be brought up thinking of cosmetics as an essential need. I don’t think that you need to own them to be successful or happy or employed. I’m living proof of this fact. No, I don’t have an established career or even a full time job but I’m holding down two part time ones as well as attending school and I don’t own a lick of makeup (unless you consider chapstick to be a cosmetic).
Some of my most liberal-thinking and beautiful friends still subscribe to the belief that they need to cover their faces with at least a little bit of makeup to face the world, and it pains me to witness this. For one thing, I consider it a waste of money. Makeup is more a nuisance and an annoyance than a source of happiness for me, so why would I spend my money on it? I firmly believe that I am a more confident person expressly because I don’t hide behind a layer of powders and creams, and I wish that more women felt this way. Though I have never been an extremely confident person, I find myself taking strength from things other than my physical appearance to grow my confidence. But while my physical attributes are factoring less into my sense of self, my increased confidence causes me to feel more physically beautiful. I deeply hope that future women and girls can experience this sense of beauty and confidence that, cliche as it sounds, comes first and foremost from within.
But my rant on makeup is merely a tangential example of a consumer product we are fed to believe is an essential and a source of happiness. Cosmetics also serve as a pretty solid example of how we’re throwing our money away on things that are unnecessary and sometimes even a crutch. In these tough economic times, people are trying to save, to spend less, and to prioritize their expenditures. I’m not here to say that doing so is easy. I feel as though I’ve grown skilled at managing my very limited income, but I also don’t yet have a family to support or a mortgage to pay off (and for this I am very thankful).
Still I don’t spend on much beyond the true essentials, and I’m a happy person. The fact that I don’t always buy new clothes, get every movie I want on DVD, or treat myself to expensive dinners despite my passion for good food has no negative impact on the quality of my life. In fact, when I deny myself some of the things I want, it ultimately can serve to make me even happier. Rather than buying new movies, I indulge in quality classic film on basic cable (which cost me nothing beyond the cable bill I’m already paying anyway). And shopping in thrift stores is an environmentally- and wallet-friendly alternative that also can prove a lot more fun than mall shopping. I find things in Goodwills, Salvation Armies, and boutique thrift shops that are affordable and diverse, from unbelievable, one-of-a-kind pieces to basics that originally came off the same shelves as products from the mall, but are now a bit cheaper and in need of a new home. Eating at home provides opportunities for experimenting with new foods and recipes, making for fun experiences both in the preparation and consumption of dinner. I try to think creatively to make the most of my low-cost life and to find the small joys that come with my money-saving ways. And I feel like I’ve been pretty successful at that.
Though I don’t advocate hoarding all your money to better enjoy your life, I do encourage you to think about how you spend the money you work hard to bring home. Maybe it could be better spent on experiences and building memories than on consumer goods that prove to be limited sources of joy and entertainment. Maybe it could be better saved than spent on a new lipstick – and maybe your sense of confidence would even perk up a bit with that one too. Rather than drastically alter your lifestyle or your bank account, I simply hope that you think outside the box when it comes to what you consider essential expenditures, and do your best to find more fundamental sources of joy and entertainment. I am no expert on happiness but I can speak from personal experience when I say that deciding to spend less can actually bestow more joy in the end. I don’t need fancy technology or advanced special effects to be entertained or hundreds of dollars worth of cosmetics to feel good about myself, but rather some good old-fashioned company and absolutely free conversation.