Making change: Buying into a better life by not spending

Rachel Sauer, features writer

Three weeks after graduating college, I moved to Fort Smith, Ark., where I’d gotten a job at the daily newspaper.

I made $8.25 an hour, for a total of $17,160 per year.

I wasn’t poor, far from it, but I didn’t have a lot of spare cash, especially since I had to begin repaying my student loans almost immediately.

So, I economized. At that time, Taco Bell bean burritos were 69 cents, so I ate a lot of those (the drive-through window guy occasionally would give me one for free; I think he felt sorry for me). I haunted the clearance bin at the back of Harvest Foods. I made a couple of skirts that I cut from clothes I already had (and with extreme self-congratulation awaited a Laura Ingalls Wilder Honorary Medal of Achievement).

I just didn’t spend money, much, and still life was pretty awesome.

Which is what I thought about during these past three months of not spending money on unnecessary things: Life does not, in fact, get better the more I spend on it.

Sure, there’s been stuff I’ve wanted to buy since January — some of it I really wanted — but I told myself no and the world did not crash to a tragic end. My heart was not eternally robbed of all happiness. I merely didn’t buy something for which I felt fleeting desire. No big deal.

And that brings up another point: I’ve always thought I’d make a lousy Buddhist. I understand, at least a little, the notion that the root of human suffering is desire and ignorance. But a part of me has always felt that desire is an essential element of what makes me human. I don’t regret it.

However, it’s easy to see how wanting things can make a person completely bonkers. Believe me, I know. I’ve watched every episode of “Hoarding: Buried Alive.”

So, going into this three-month challenge of not spending money on unnecessary things, one of my goals was to become better at discerning my needs from my wants. And I think I have. And my needs are few.

I didn’t need the new album from a band I like, I wanted it. I didn’t need to use my 50-percent-off coupon at Jo-Ann, I wanted to. I didn’t need the little cotton peasant shoes like the ones I used to buy at the grocery store in China, I wanted them (because they were red; I mean, come on, so cute).

But I didn’t buy them. Not once. I was aided in my goal by lifelong stubbornness that borders on belligerence.

The funny thing is, once I told myself no, I managed to stop thinking about it. Other times, when I’m not in a spending freeze, I sometimes think and obsess about a thing until I just give in and buy it. This time, desire sort of drifted away.

I didn’t feel bad, I didn’t rue what I wasn’t buying. In fact, I became more aware of all the stuff in my house that I could easily let go, that I wouldn’t miss, that I don’t need, that’s weighing me down.

This is not to say that I’m chucking it all and taking a seat under the Bodhi Tree. I’ll still buy stuff, even some of it that I merely want. But hopefully it’ll be with a little more thought, a little more awareness that the nickels and dimes I’m piddling away could add up to something awesome.

A trip to Malaysia, perhaps, or one of the pricey Taco Bell menu items. Maybe a Nacho Bell Grande.


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