Shopping is the Great American pastime.  And why not?  It’s fun to get new things, imagine how our lives could be different, and feel the power that comes from spending our money how we want to.

I think another – maybe not so great – pastime is the companionship we feel with others when complaining about spending money.

That’s right, we love to spend money and complain about spending it.  These “complaints” are usually about things we have to buy – housing, groceries, gas, and iPhones with data plans.

I’m not saying that there aren’t people out there struggling or that the basic cost of living is so high in some places paying rent is nearly impossible – stagnant wages, a shift to more part time work and independent contracting, and rising costs of things like healthcare and education can easily cancel out easier and cheaper access to things like food, energy, and information.  But for the rest of us (basically those making near and above the Median Household Income) I think a small change in mindset could go a long way.

When Luxury Becomes Necessary and Everything is a Utility

Obviously compared to 50 years ago a lot of the things we deem “necessary” were very much luxuries (think washers and dryers and TV’s).  The thing is, I don’t think we’re necessarily happier even though our lives are far more convenient and pampered.

In a roundabout way I’m saying that a lot of the things we view as needs (which we get less satisfaction from spending money on) are actually luxuries or things we should want to spend money on.  Which one makes you happier, buying that new TV you want or paying the cable bill for said TV?

My favorite example of this is spending on restaurants.  Food is one of our basic human needs, so it makes sense to spend money to fulfill that need, right?  Sure you can still enjoy and want food but for most people today I take it that eating is for the most part not a planned out, pleasurable event.  Instead it’s something that has to get done, so we spend 20 minutes in the drive thru in the morning because we need our breakfast and coffee and then eat out for lunch and then get take out for dinner – all the while pissed off that the lines or too long or that things are too expensive.  I mean, everybody needs to eat, and that’s what restaurants are for!

Except that at one time going out to a restaurant to eat was, for most people, a treat.  A rare occurrence, a special occasion, something out of the ordinary.  The magic of being able to tell someone nearly any kind of food and have it brought to you 15 minutes later has been replaced with disappointment and frustration that restaurants run out of things, orders get messed up, that you’re late for work because the line at Starbucks was so long, and that you don’t think you’re getting what you’re paying for.

Walking into a restaurant we’re already miffed because we’re spending money on a “need” – we’d rather spend it on stuff we want or not have to work our crappy jobs to “afford food” – so the experience is already destined to be disappointing.  You can take the above example and apply it to nearly anything that was once an awe-inspiring and magical concept and is now a dull, routine expenditure.

 I Want What I Want

Once you realize that approaching everything as just a need or a utility creates frustration, disappointment, and unhappiness, you can try the following exercise:

Rephrase a need (like a bill or regular expense) as a want.

I’m not saying someone making $24,000 a year who gets slapped with $10,000 in medical expenses needs to change their mindset and see that bill as a want.  I’m saying that if you make anything around the median U.S. income and feel the need to complain about the cost of things like gas or food, reframing that expense as a want will

  • cause you to question why you’re really spending that money
  • prompt you to find other ways to get what you want

I’m also willing to bet that you’re more hesitant to spend money without thinking on wants than needs.  Needs are easily justifiable, even if they are actually wants in disguise.  New clothes (but they’re for work!), a new car (because my current one is getting old), and a $1000 a month food bill (I need to eat!) can be rationalized as necessities.  A two week vacation to Europe, however, seems extravagant.

A Simple Formula

Summed up, all of this can be applied by doing the following:

Next time you spend money, whether you “want to” or “need to”, say this to yourself:

I want to spend money on (item, expense, bill) because I want to be able to (action, feeling, benefit of item, expense, bill).

An example:  I want to spend money on gas for my car because I like being able to drive myself instead of walking, biking, or taking the bus.

I’ve been reframing my own expenses like this for a couple weeks now.  Not only has it made me more aware of what I deem necessary but it’s also added another step to the process of spending money.  As most people who track their expenses will tell you, adding steps to the spending process helps make them more aware of the fact that they’re spending money.

Image by Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net