E07: Content to live with less
This is a podcast transcript. If you would like to listen to the show in full, please find it on our podcasts page here.
If you want financial freedom and the peace that comes with it, you might have to learn to be content with less. We’ll dive into my philosophy on finances and how and why I choose to live below my means. In times of lean and times of plenty, we live abundantly because we never overstretch ourselves.
In this episode:
The crazy cost of living around here
My philosophy on contentment
How contentment ties into finances
My childhood of frugality
How my husband and I live below our means and why
Links mentioned in this episode:
This episode is a bit of story time, which I love, but that also means it’s a little long! It is a story about how I came to live below my means even when I didn’t have to, in a part of the country where many people don’t, and why I’m so thankful we do. We have total financial peace and it’s a beautiful and freeing thing. Around here, in the Seattle area, it is very uncommon to live this way. In the suburb where we bought our first home, the median home price is currently 1.1 million dollars. You heard me right...over 1 MILLION DOLLARS for a NORMAL house. It’s unbelievable. It was recently named the wealthiest small town in America or something like that, because of a high median household income. Most people who live there work in tech as Seattle has become a second Silicon Valley in recent years. The streets are filled with Teslas and Porsche Cayenne SUVs (someone will slaughter me for mispronouncing Porsche but I don’t care). Children go to expensive preschools and we are home to what was - and maybe it still is - the wealthiest public high school in the country. You get the picture. It’s privileged. I used to think that people who live like this didn’t struggle as much financially. That, if they bought a million dollar home, that meant they could afford it. Surely no one would take out a mortgage that large if they couldn’t afford it! Such a cute, naive thing to think. Then I became a real estate agent and saw well-paid people struggling to make ends meet because of the house, the vacations, the cars, the debt, and the lifestyle that was closing in around them. I had clients tell me that they needed a 4 car garage because they were busting out of their 3 car garage. I’d ask why. Do they even have 4 cars? Usually they didn’t. They had just expanded their lifestyle so much that they had acquired toys and equipment and junk that needed to be stored. And that pile of expensive junk just expanded as they went from house to house, paying to move things they use once a year or less. Meanwhile, they were stretched financially maintaining the lifestyle they thought they needed to have.
People think it’s normal to be in debt. And it is normal...but that’s not the right lens through which to consider how to run your life. It’s normal, but it’s not beneficial. I can think of countless other examples of normal things that aren’t good for you like. It’s normal to have a very sedentary lifestyle, it’s normal to stare at screens all day, it’s normal to have high stress and anxiety, and so on.
I’m convinced things like debt come down to a problem of contentment.
The key to contentment and therefore to being financially free - because I do believe the way we spend our money reflects our levels of contentment - is focusing on what you need and making sure everything you spend your money on serves you and has a clearly defined purpose. Whenever I feel myself pulled by the desire to have more than I need, I remember what a couple wise old dead people have said.
Socrates said, “He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.” He understood that contentment comes from adjusting your state of mind, not your state of living.
I read a book called The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment by a Puritan preacher named Jeremiah Burroughs, who died in 1646. Doesn’t that sound like fun reading? I’ll give you the Clif’s notes. Contentment is a quiet, inward, gracious, pleased frame of spirit in all conditions and situations. A contented person submits to God’s will and does not wait for better circumstances in order to make good choices in his life. He does the best he can with whatever he has, in whatever condition he is in, at any time. Another principle that Jeremiah Burroughs espouses is that contentment lies in subtraction, not in addition. Rather than adding things and desirable circumstances to reach contentment, subtract your desires to make them equal to your circumstances. Adding things and better circumstances to your life will give you a temporary bump in happiness before you go back to being exactly who you are. Think of when you’ve gotten something you really wanted - maybe a nice car or clothing or a great dinner out. How long were you happy for? Do you still have the same problems now as you did before?
While imprisoned in Rome, the apostle Paul wrote:
“Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need.” – Philippians 4:11-12
If you are content in every circumstance, then contentment is not circumstantial at all. You will learn to adapt to a different standard of living, to not look to things to bring you happiness, and to put yourself in a position to have financial freedom.
It seems to be common in our culture to have a gap between what we actually need and what we think we need. Consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If you haven’t heard of this, you can Google it or head to podcast transcripts on my website, youruncommonlife.com, and check out an image and link I’ve shared there.
It’s a pyramid wherein needs lower down must be satisfied before moving up. On the bottom are basic needs - food, warmth, and water. Warmth being clothes and shelter. Safety or security is a little higher but still a basic need. Further up are psychological needs like intimacy and relationships and at the top are things like self actualization and achieving your potential. According to Maslow, you can’t move up in the pyramid to higher forms of happiness until you’ve fulfilled your basic needs. Furthermore, the needs on the bottom of the pyramid are deficiency needs, meaning we are most motivated to pursue them when they are deficient.
Therein lies our modern dilemma. We have redefined what “basic needs” look like far beyond what we actually need so we regularly feel deficient when we aren’t. We actually spend our lives pursuing those basic needs of warmth and shelter as we constantly chase better homes, home improvement, and more clothes. So when you try to have more than you need, you prevent yourself from moving up Maslow’s hierarchy and prevent yourself from feeling satisfied, rarely adding to your happiness. Instead you just add stuff. Stuff that costs money and needs to be maintained, cleaned, and updated.
Seeing people around me stay dissatisfied as they pursue more and more stuff that they think they need, staying stuck in the bottom of the pyramid, has made me very thankful for choices I had made years ago to stay out of debt and live below my means. My life has problems, but at least I can manage financial problems by managing my lifestyle. It started with how my parents managed their finances, which was a clear foundation for how I manage my finances today. Maybe as you hear about my childhood, you’ll think of some ways you can be frugal with how you raise your children. Or maybe you’ll think it’s an extreme story and that I’m truly crazy - who knows?!
I started out in life being content with what I had. I think most kids do before they’re exposed to other people and start to compare lives. My mom did an excellent job making my dad’s blue collar salary stretch. They owned their own home, were never late on bills, were never in debt, and gave us a comfortable and stable life. We weren’t in poverty but technically we were a low income family. I was the youngest of four and had three older brothers. My clothes were used or hand-me-downs from my brothers. I think we started getting new shoes and small things here and there from PayLess and outlet stores when I was in middle school.
Even birthdays were tightly managed. My parents always had a $20 limit for gifts even when they could have afforded more. We got to choose our birthday dinner and eat on the special plate. For the party, we could have cake. Like, only cake. That was always enough for me as a kid. I didn’t know other people were having more food and activities until I got older. Then, I started begging my mom for more at my parties - like more food and money to go bowling. In hindsight, I feel selfish for doing that.
My parents also spent $20 on each of us for Christmas. We knew this and were careful not to ask for things that cost more than that. In addition we were given $5 to go to the Dollar store and pick out a $1 gift for each of our five family members. That was actually a really fun tradition. We’d spend what felt like hours - it was probably only like, an hour, but you know how everything feels bigger and longer as a kid - at a dollar store that sold everything from kitchen utensils to jewelry and meticulously poured over our gift options until we found the perfect one for each person. If we saw each other in an aisle, we would hide our basket while sneaking a peak at theirs. Did they get me snack cakes? A toy? Afterward, we would stop by the pet store next door and look at the puppies - free entertainment. This was a normal tradition in our family. It was frugal, but fun.
We ate restaurant food once a month and it was as follows: pizza from someplace that had coupons one month and Old Country Buffet the next month. And back and forth. Old Country Buffet was a spectacle. Four skinny kids acting like they’d never eaten before loading their plates with fried shrimp and soft serve ice cream. It was amazing to us, though. I remember trying to sneak cookies out in our pants. Other than that, we ate whatever meals my mom meticulously planned a week or two in advance.
Sodas were called “pops” because my mom was born in Chicago and we were allowed one can of pop a week. If we wanted more, we paid $.40, because that’s what they cost. When we went to grandma’s or an event with free drinks, we’d each take as many pops as we could and put them in our clothes. Then we’d stash them somewhere in our room. My brother had maybe 40 cans in one of his dresser drawers at one point. That’s a small business right there. If he can undercut mom by $.15 a can, then he’s in business.
We weren’t allowed much sugar so I learned to bake at a very early age to satisfy my sweet tooth. When I wanted to turn my skills into a business and sell cookies and brownies during our annual yard sale, my mom charged me for the ingredients at cost and deducted them from my gross earnings, which taught me about profits and the value of a dollar. I still appreciate that lesson. Plus I like to think I’m a decent baker now!
We were never paid for chores - chores are just what children did in our house, with the exception of mowing the lawn. I think we made a couple dollars doing that. Because the lawn only needed mowing once a week we’d fight over who got to mow the lawn that week. I never knew we could make more money until our next door neighbor started paying us $20 to mow his lawn. That was so much money to us! That’s how much we got for Christmas!
I have way more examples and stories from that time but, the long and short of it is that, I was very pleased with that life and I learned a lot about frugality that I take with me as an adult. My parents made our lives seem full without a lot of money. My mom did a great job of being transparent with how she was managing money and that’s why I grew up very aware of what things cost and what to spend money on.
The important thing to take away about my childhood is that, though it might not have looked abundant to an outsider, we were never lacking. We were content to have a stable home in exchange for less stuff. We still made memories with less. We still had fun with less. And it taught us valuable life lessons.
I’m glad I learned the value of a dollar early to protect me from being enticed by debt. I knew the main reason my parents could afford to take care of us was because they avoided debt.
Though I was never enticed by debt, I did make a few mistakes in college that led me to debt and taught me to fear it. I knew that I shouldn’t open a credit card, but I still I did. At Macy’s. I believe I bought a pair of shoes on it in order to get a small percentage off. I can’t remember the pair of shoes - I’m sure they were fabulous - but I’m also sure they weren’t worth the $500 that the debt ballooned into when I fell into hard times and couldn’t afford the payment. Then, I had to take out a small loan from the bank to pay for school when I lost my scholarships one quarter due to bad grades. That $2000 loan haunted me for a year too long as well, and prevented me from pursuing other opportunities as I was quite literally tied down by my debt. I’m aware that most people came out of college with much more debt than I did so I won’t pretend like my situation was bad or special. But it was enough of a brush with the grip of debt to teach me to avoid it like the plague in the future.
A big part of avoiding debt after then was convincing myself I didn’t really need things that other people had. Honestly, this was when I first realized that I had to live a little uncommonly in order to be satisfied.
Between college and marriage, I was always working multiple jobs and living in dirt cheap rentals to ensure that I never had to decide between paying bills and buying food again. And I mean dirt cheap. I’d rent a room in a 5 bedroom house for $300 a month and work two jobs. One time I was a catering manager by day, and a janitor by night. You have to do what you have to do. I had what I needed and even a little more than I needed. I don’t regret working a lot during this period at all. I would regret going into debt to afford a lifestyle I don’t need though.
Fast forward to marriage and I was blessed to find someone similarly frugal and hardworking. It probably helps that I met him living in one of those dirt cheap rentals! Apparently, in a previous shared rental, he had actually made his roommates shut off heat during the winter to save money. Ok, there’s frugal, and then there’s Ebenezer Scrooge.
Together we made intentional choices to be content with less so that we could enjoy a more abundant and peaceful life. The key to being financially free is focusing on what you need and making sure everything you spend your money on serves you and has a clearly defined purpose. It started with the wedding. We got married on a Friday morning instead of paying weekend or evening rates, knowing that the people who really mattered would still come. Family members arranged flowers I bought from the grocery store, ran music I bought from iTunes, and set up handmade decor. I intended to go without a wedding cake but someone generously gifted us one. We spent less than $5,000 on the whole event. The wedding is one day. Marriages are forever. It’s just like my inexpensive birthday parties as a kid. You have to have the right perspective to set yourself up for an abundant future.
It’s not that we’ve never struggled at all in our marriage - we have just figured out what matters and what we really need. He and I actually started out with very little money. I was unemployed and he was lowest on the totem pole at his company. At one point it was apparent we needed cash and fast so I sold everything I had of value and made $1000 in a week. We’ve lived on very little and we’ve lived with more than we need but our contentment has never been contingent on any of it. We both know that we’d survive on less and that perspective has kept us in check financially. I’d make do with no vehicles tomorrow if we were in a bind and had to sell both of our cars. They deliver groceries now. We’d be ok for a while. Because contentment isn’t circumstantial. It isn’t based on where I live or how I live. It’s something inside of me.
So, how do we live below our means as a single income family in one of the most expensive places to live in America? Before I get into that, I will say that my lifestyle isn’t for everyone and I know that. Some people value certain expenditures more than I do and have different needs than I do and I totally understand that. I’m very aware that I’m supremely blessed to be married to someone who shares my thinking and who worked really hard to teach himself a marketable skill that pays decently. We’re not rich, but we aren’t struggling. I’m also very aware that there are times where, no matter what you do, you will still be living paycheck to paycheck. I’ve been there too. Trust me. That’s why I live the way I do now, to avoid having to struggle like that again. I do hope that something in here will give you ideas for the future or resources that might be helpful. I’m just sharing what we do to have financial peace in the hopes that someone out there gets an idea that helps them, too.
And maybe you’re like us. Maybe you’re not struggling. Maybe you do have everything you need. But maybe you feel tied to your job. You feel like you simply can’t quit or can’t change careers without sacrificing your lifestyle or what you have. If that’s you, this is for you, too. No one should feel like they’re a slave to their jobs or a slave to their careers. That’s probably not your purpose in life.
Here’s some general advice: Don’t think about the lifestyle you want to have. Instead think about the kind of person and family you want to be and the home you want to create. Then map your needs around that. I want to be a peaceful person and I want people to feel at ease and at peace in my home. In order to be at peace, I need to not be worried about debt. I’d rather drive a 20 year old car that burns oil and go back to work than be in any kind of debt.
Which brings us to the most key part of our single income lifestyle: debt. We don’t believe in debt. This is pretty uncommon in America. Most people are in debt. But I’ve never met a credit card that has a good enough reward to offset the debilitating effects that debt can have. A trip to Disneyland isn’t worth being in debt. I may be able to afford payments now but I don’t know if we’ll lose our jobs next month and suddenly be saddled with debt we can’t afford. No thanks. We don’t have car payments or student debt. We each briefly considered grad school and then decided against it because we couldn’t justify debt not knowing that we’d make much more money in the end. Our mortgage is the only debt we do carry and we’re ok with it because homes are an appreciable asset so a mortgage is an investment. What’s crazy is that I did have student loans that I paid off in 2012 because my husband said we could only get married after I paid off my student debt. I only had $7,000 to begin with but man, suddenly I found a way to pay it off very quickly! In hindsight I can’t believe I married someone who gave me an ultimatum.
Regarding unforeseen debt...I understand that sometimes crazy things happen in life, like medical emergencies that even the best planning can’t safeguard against. My heart goes out to you if that’s you. But the debt I’m talking about is the debt we choose to take on like car loans, shopping and student loans - yes, taking on a student loan is a choice. You may feel like it’s a choice you have to make but it is a choice you make, nonetheless.
Dave Ramsey is the guru of all things money management and debt. I highly recommend his course Financial Peace University. I will link to his website in my podcast transcripts on my website youruncommonlife.com. This is a resource for everyone listening, regardless of your financial situation. Dave Ramsey will help you save money, invest, and get out of debt for good. Even if you’re not in debt, he has great information on building up a reserve of savings, investing, and more. He emphasizes that you can save and invest at ANY income and has a methodical way of showing you show. I won’t be able to convince you to stay out of debt as well as he will so please, check him out.
Now let’s discuss the biggest thing most of us spend our money on: housing. Most of us have more than we technically need, since needs are measured very basically in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. All you need is warmth, safety, security. We add to those needs and push ourselves further away from contentment. Have you ever heard married couples reminiscing about how much fun they had early in marriage when they lived in some crappy hellhole of an apartment? This is because they didn’t really need more than the basics to be content. But as we expand our idea of what we need, we become discontent when we realize we are deficient in fulfilling those lofty needs.
After marriage, we spent two years shacking up with roommates and then renting a very tiny and cheap apartment. But when we bought our first home, it was very important to me that we not be house poor. Remember the average home where we lived is $1.1 million dollars. It would be very easy to overextend ourselves in the housing department. So we bought the least expensive single family home we could find in the city we wanted to live in. It was actually $60,000 less than we could have afforded. We have never lived in a home that costs more than we can afford on one of our incomes. We live in our second home now - we’ve sold the first one - but both times we made sure we qualified for a mortgage on only one of our incomes. If we couldn’t have afforded it, we would have moved somewhere cheaper or not purchased a home at all.
This single income lifestyle has given us peace of mind and flexibility in our careers. We never wanted to feel like slaves to our jobs to the extent that we couldn’t survive for a little while without one of them. We wanted me to be free to be a stay-at-home mom if I wanted to be. It also safeguards us against unanticipated job loss. It did mean that we had to adjust our expectations of what we really needed in a home. Not only was our first home pretty small, but we also had a reduced standard of living compared to most people. This doesn’t mean we went without - we still have a full, abundant life. But we manage the way we approach expenses big and small by scrutinizing them through a different lens.
Reducing our standard of living so that we could live off of one income has had a huge influence on my freedom, peace, and mental health. At multiple points throughout our marriage, my husband has encouraged me to quit my jobs even though I’ve been a high earner. If you listen to Episode 2 of this show, you hear this whole story. There were times that I really needed to not work for my mental health. After my miscarriage two years ago, I was drowning and needed time to heal myself physically and emotionally. Work was pulling me under and I’m not sure I ever would have recovered fully had I not been able to take a few months off of work. I’m so thankful we set ourselves up so that I could do that. If we were deep in debt or struggling to pay our mortgage, I couldn’t have and honestly don’t know where I’d be today.
It’s easier to reduce your standard of living, and therefore your expenses, when you start to consider what you really need and get very intentional when you buy things. I find that discontentment starts with placing things you “want” into the “need” category. Remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? I try to check my needs often. From dinners out to vacations and shopping, we usually spend very little. Usually, before I make purchases, I simply ask myself, “Do I really need this?” And usually the answer is “no.” I definitely have what I need. It’s good to be reminded of that but it doesn’t mean that I can’t buy things I want, as long as they serve me well. Some follow up questions I ask are “What purpose will this thing serve for me? How important is that purpose to me?” Everything you own should have a purpose and serve you. I can’t claim to have come up with this philosophy on my own. I love Allie Cassazza from The Purpose Show and her philosophy of minimalism. Essentially, everything you own should serve you. If you’re serving it - maintaining it, cleaning it, storing it, etc, and it is not serving you very well, it’s time to get rid of it. You can preempt the need to get rid of things and purge your house by sincerely asking yourself that question when you’re shopping: “What purpose will this thing serve for me?” You will find that you start to buy less and less stuff. It’s easy to live below your means when you aren’t confused about the difference between need and want. I’m not saying never buy nice things. I have certain things I spend money on like basic makeup and skin care because I want to preserve my skin. I also don’t tightly restrict spending on food and drink because I love to entertain and nurture people when they come to my home. I have a lot of clothes and shoes, though I buy them used or on clearance and rarely spend more than $40 on any single item.
There are many things I just don’t spend much on because I can get the service I need for far less money. Almost everything I own was purchased used. From furniture to clothes to dishes and appliances, you can find almost everything you need used on Facebook marketplace, OfferUp, Craigslist, or your local thrift store. There’s no shame in getting used things.
Cars are a great example of this. There are over 100 million car loans in the US spread across our 122 million households. So, on average, approximately 5 out of every 6 households have car loan debt. We all know cars are a rapidly depreciating asset! We only buy used cars in cash. Until last year, my newest car was a 2006 Toyota Camry. Now it’s a 2016 Mazda SUV, which was the most money I’ve spent on anything aside from my home! For the first few years of our marriage, we each drove mid-90s beater cars until they broke down or were stolen. We were quite content then and are quite content now. I can actually justify owning a more reliable and safe car now that I have a baby. The SUV serves a purpose because it has great traction on ice and is easy to get a baby in and out of. But I didn’t need a brand new car or a huge one. I just needed one that served a basic purpose. And had we not been able to pay for it in cash, we would have saved up and waited instead of getting a loan.
When it comes to home furnishings, we’re pretty frugal, too. The most I’ve ever spent on a single piece of furniture is a couch I got off of Craigslist for $300 six years ago. Much of what I own was free on local Facebook groups. I don’t buy anything trendy. Instead I buy things that are solid and will last. It would easily cost $30,000-$40,000 to furnish my home in a trendy style. If I start in one room, I’ll just want to do more. So I just don’t even let myself go down that route because I know it won’t improve my life if I do so and I’ll still be discontent when I look at the parts of my house that aren’t quite as nice as the other parts of my house. I will regularly buy cheaper things like throw pillows or plants to freshen up a room for minimal money. And, if I can make something or do it myself without too much time investment, I will. I saved thousands by learning how to tile and doing the backsplash and floor in my old kitchen and have made various things from throw pillows to curtains.
Now, home decor and furnishings is an area where I struggle with contentment. I tend to always wish I had more in a way that stirs up negative feelings. Discontentment is the root of several other issues like jealousy and frustration and I don’t want any part of it. So I have to actively avoid situations that cause discontent with my home furnishings. For example, I find that, the more time I spend on social media, the more I want a pretty matching bedroom set with fluffy white linens. Or whitewashed…everything. Seriously, why is everything white nowadays? The more I expose myself to other people on social media, especially the non-normal influencer type people, I become less content with my mismatched, but effective furniture that serves me just fine. You see, contentment is a quiet, internal state of mind but it’s easily affected by external factors. We carry contentment inside of us but our context can push us up and down the spectrum. If I want to stay content, I have to manage what I expose my mind to. Lately I have been actively avoiding things that stir up jealousy. I’ve been unfollowing accounts that aren’t very beneficial and make me feel badly about myself. I hide stories and articles about things I don’t need. I feel no shame in unfriending or unfollowing people. You have to do what’s good for you and not feel guilty about it. It also helps if I play a “would you rather” game with money. Meaning, I ask myself questions like “What would I rather do with the money? If that beautiful living room set up is $3,000, wouldn’t I rather have a vacation or save for a greenhouse instead?”
These are just a few examples of how we’ve reduced our standard of living so we can have financial peace. I feel like living this way has given us great freedom. But remember, the foundation of this isn’t just the external purchase we do or don’t make. It’s contentment. Remember what Socrates said: “He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.” Look internally and to God for contentment first. You won’t find it in a bigger house, a remodel, more things, a better car, or anything else. Fulfill your basic needs, keep them basic, and live a fuller, richer life.
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