Living Small is the New Living Large

The toughest competition I’ve ever had to deal with was The Joneses. I had never met them, but I always knew that they had the newer car, bigger house, and even their dog could do more tricks than my dog. No matter what I did, they were always getting ahead of me.

During a recession, it’s necessary, if not fashionable, to be frugal. Eventually, the boom will be back, and those Joneses will be flaunting their new found wealth at your doorstep again. Often, I get questions about how I managed to get out of $40,000 in debt after the first dot com bust. The getting out of debt part had not much to do with the bust, but more to do with the bubble.

This is how I dealt with the temptation to spend at the height of the bubble.

1) I hung out at the mall for fun.
I know that sounds crazy counter-intuitive, but I went straight to the lion’s den. I walked, walked and walked, and bought virtually nothing. Sure, the temptation was crazy strong, but after a while, I got used to it and a sort of numbness came over the desire to buy. Even now, more than 5 years later, the mall seems filled with overpriced things I don’t really need.

2) Used is a beautiful four-letter word.
I do have a weakness for cars — those beautiful, shiny, fun beasts of consumerism. Solution: I became good friends with Craigslist. There are remarkable treasures to be found in the For Sale By Owner Used car market. But then again, there are plenty of overpriced and oversized and overly loaded cars there as well. In 2004, I swallowed my own objections and purchased a sedan with 80,000 miles for $8,000. It was outdated, had scratch marks on the bumper and in a color we never imagined owning. But it was safe, reliable and actually quite comfortable. I was always a “new car” guy, but that used car showed me the virtues of buying less than I “needed”. I haven’t bought a new car since — or paid more than $15,000 for a car (while the average new car now costs $28,400). We still buy used whenever we can and sell our stuff on the used market whenever we can.

3) I ignored raises.
Sure, I got them, but I didn’t let it change my life. In other words, I didn’t grow into my salary. Of all of the things that I did, this little tactic was absolutely the most powerful force. When I was making $35,000 a year, I used to be able to save (or pay down the debt) to the tune of about $2,500 a year. I felt fortunate enough to be able to do that. It meant not buying the new car or that new gadget, while everyone else seemed to do so. But when my income grew to $40,000, that meant I almost tripled the amount of money I saved. In other words, I could get out of debt in 1/3 the time (or grow my savings 3 times faster). As I paid off my debts, we felt our spending power increase even though we were not actually spending any more money — purely because we had less credit card or car payments to make.

The alternative is pretty typical of the pains associated with the boom and bust. As people’s income grows, we end up spending it. That means we establish new spending patterns and establish a “new normal”. When the hard times come, we must cut back, resulting in painful changes to behavior and lifestyle.

To this day, my wife and I firmly believe in Living Small. Living Small (capital L, capital S) means not just spending less than you earn, but resisting the urge to spend more just as your income grows. Instead, find a sustainable spending level and stick with it. This is what allowed us to handle sizable drops in our income.

I know during a recession, it seems like you’ll never be able to save money, but when the day comes when you can start to do so, remember how to Live Small. It’ll help you to Live Large later.

Posted on March 5, 2010, in Personal. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I seem to remember we had a conversation long ago about how we were still living paycheck to paycheck despite raises… Though I guess if you’re counting paying off debt faster as part of your living expenses it makes sense.

    It also reminds me of something that I learned in Bible study back in the day: when you’re blessed with excess, increase your standard of giving, not your standard of living. That’s something I’ve kind of forgotten since the recession started…

    BTW, I might be stopping by Seattle in May.

  2. Wait a minute… I’m not the Joneses, am I? I believe my car is still newer (and faster) than yours even though it’s a whopping 6 years old now. :P

    It IS darn good to finally be free of those car and piggyback HELOC payments though.

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