Want less, spend less – wealth is relative to desire

It's when we are satisfied with what we have, that we become rich.

We are concerned about the economy. We worry about the stock market, investments, and retirement. We hesitate to open bank statements. We are told: It will get better. It will get worse. It will rebound.

How do we cope? We have to make do with less. Lots of articles offer advice: Eat at home. Take the bus. Rearrange, don't redecorate.

At the heart are these questions: What can you live without? Can we be happy with less? Can we do it when the American way seems to be distilled lately to all about believing that we need and deserve more?

What I keep thinking about is what it was like when I really did have less.

In my 20s I lived in Washington, D.C., and made $13,000. I had an apartment and a car. I packed my lunch and saved up to go out for dinner. Was I really as happy as I remember? Yes. Most of us probably were. The reason isn't complicated.

We wanted less.

I was proud to be paying rent. I wanted to drive instead of take the bus so making the car payment for my used 1971 VW Beetle was great. I bought clothes on sale or at consignment stores, and when friends moved they passed along furniture they didn't want.

But over time, through reading and traveling and meeting people, I learned about nicer cars and better clothes. I bought into the status symbol they stood for. I began to want a real couch and a newer car and I began to fantasize about someday buying a house. Later my hopes included owning a Subaru and – I laugh to remember this – I thought I'd have the perfect wardrobe when I could buy one (yeah, one) really good purse.

Today, four houses later and many closets filled with shoes and purses, I can feel deprived simply by thinking about making my car last a couple more years. Everything I have now is nicer than what I had at 25, but it's easy to feel poor. Why? Because I have seen – and imagined – better.

Wealth is relative to desire.

Every time we yearn for something we can't afford, we become poor – regardless of our resources. It's when we are satisfied with what we have, that we become rich. The hard part is understanding that and adjusting accordingly.

We know there are nicer things and we see people who have them. For this you can blame television and magazines.

Through them, we can see easily what others buy and own and wear. Every new thing whispers its promise of happiness then gradually slides into the background of everyday life. Then we notice that someone else has a different or nicer thing. And we suddenly need it, too. This isn't the same as ambition or reaching for a goal; it's more about tweaking how we think about what we want.

This is why many of us recall feeling better when we were younger. We felt as if we had enough because we hadn't yet begun to compare ourselves with others. We didn't expect that we should have a lot more. It's our expectations that trip us up. We substitute one material desire for another, convinced each time that the next whatever will make us happy. And we then seek out that happiness through spending money.

But what we need is less desire, not more money. There are two ways to make a man richer, writer-philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau reasoned: Give him more money or curb his desires.

The solution this year: Expect less and want less. Perhaps the way to sort a real desire from just wanting is to wait a few weeks and see if the want changes. Or maybe to listen carefully to the dialogue inside. Is the inner voice saying "I like this" ... or "They will be impressed"?

Diane Cameron is a freelance writer living in Guilderland, N.Y.

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