On Golden Handcuffs and Other Gilded Cages

The other day I was having a conversation with a friend of mine, who in a previous life had been an incredibly well paid employee of a financial institution. She recalled how even though she had made good money, the money was never enough. When you're making a lot of money, and all your friends are making a lot of money, you start to lead a lifestyle that then requires a lot of money. As a result, even though my friend was earning well, she was also in debt, and lived with the constant stress of needing to make more money.

I sympathized with my friend. Although I never worked in finance, I understood exactly what she had gone through. When I moved to LA, I lived in an apartment in an inexpensive part of town with a roommate, but I made no money and so I spent a lot of time worrying about money. Six years later, I was earning a decent salary, but I also lived in a nice one bedroom apartment, had a car payment, and had gotten used to going out to nice restaurants and taking decent vacations. I spent money on kitchen utensils I never used simply because I wanted all the things in my kitchen to match. So though I had a decent job, I lived paycheck to paycheck.

And then, about two years ago, I suddenly became aware of the environmental costs of my consumption. I realized how my buying new kitchen utensils just because could have an adverse impact on people living across the planet from me. And so, I decided to forgo buying new things for a year.

And though it had been incredibly hard to say no to buying things when I was simply trying to be frugal, now it was incredibly easy. Because now, this wasn't about me and my petty finances anymore. It was about the planet, our consumeristic society, and about social justice. Whereas before, I would be able to justify my kitchen purchases (I work so hard. I deserve this. I worked overtime last week. I have a credit card.) now no justifications were available.

And so, I started to live in a way that seemed ethical, and at the same time, the money started to pile up in my savings account. My monthly credit card bills were halved. I started to contribute more money to my 401(k). I paid off my credit cards.

With the money saved, I realized, I had more freedom. I was no longer tied to my job for survival ... instead I started to contemplate returning to university. Although it would be expensive, I realized that by living simply, I could afford to go back and get my masters, something I had always dreamed of doing.

The same month that my not-buying experiment ended, I packed up my LA life and moved to another continent to return to graduate school. I now live in a tiny student dorm room with kitchen utensils that don't match at all. And yet, I am blissfully happy.

Because I learnt that having stuff does not buy my happiness. But being able to live within my means, and do what I'm passionate about?

There's simply nothing better.