I don’t think about money the way I used to.
I used to think money was more important than just about everything else in life. So I sacrificed to make money, and then I sacrificed more to make more, and then I sacrificed even more to make even more, working too many hours, forsaking my health, forsaking the people closest to me, forsaking everything important in pursuit of the almighty dollar.
The more things I forsook, the more important the money became. Something was missing.
“I’m dizzy from the shopping mall
I searched for joy, but I bought it all
It doesn’t help the hunger pains
and a thirst I’d have to drown first to ever satiate”
—John Mayer, “Something’s Missing”
I made good money—nay, great money—during my days in the corporate arena, but the problem was I spent even better money. And that was a serious source of dissatisfaction in my life, one that would haunt me for most of my twenties.
When I was nineteen, I worked six or seven days a week, and I earned more than $50,000 a year, which for a degree-less poor kid from Dayton, Ohio, that’s a lot of money—more money than my mother ever earned. The problem was that when I was earning 50 grand, I was spending 65; and then when I was earning 65, I was spending 80. Eventually, I’d worked my way up the corporate ladder, working 362 days a year (literally), and I was earning a six-figure salary. That sounds great, but I was still spending more than I was bringing home, and that equation never balances.
So instead of bringing home a great salary, I brought home debt, anxiety, and overwhelming amounts of discontent. My love and hatred of money (love of spending it, hatred of never having enough) was, in fact, my largest source of discontent.
Call me stupid. Go ahead, you should. I was stupid. I wasn’t stupid just because I was wasting my income, though—I was far more stupid because of the value I gave to money. I told myself I was a number, there was a dollar sign on my head, I could be bought. I told others they could take my time and my freedom in exchange for green pieces of paper with dead slave owners’ faces printed on them.
That changed when I stopped giving such importance to money. I need money to pay rent, to put food on the table, to put gas in the car, to pay for health insurance—but I needn’t struggle to earn money to buy crap I don’t need.
Minimalism has allowed me to get rid of life’s excess so I can focus on what’s essential. And now, at 31, I make less money than my ignorant nineteen-year-old self, and yet I’m not in debt, I’m not struggling, and most important, I’m happy.
Now, before I spend money, I ask myself one question: Is this worth my freedom?
Is this coffee worth $2 of my freedom?
Is this shirt worth $30 of my freedom?
Is this car worth $20,000 of my freedom?
In other words, am I going to get more value from the thing I’m about to purchase, or am I going to get more value from my freedom?
Don’t you think it’s a question worth asking yourself?
These days I know every dollar I spend adds immense value to my life. There is a roof over my head at night, the books or the music I purchase bring me joy, the few clothes I own keep me warm, the experiences I share with others at a movie or a concert add value to my life and theirs, and a cup of tea with my best friend becomes far more significant than a trip to the mall ever could.
I no longer waste my money, and thus it’s far less important to pursue it endlessly.
Read this essay and 150 others in our new book, Essential.