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The Advantage of Choosing the Harder Thing

I heard on the radio the other day that 37% of people making $200,000 a year live paycheck to paycheck. I think they were trying to increase pity for people, like we all need to make way more money just to get by. But I didn’t get that message. All I heard was “people waste a lot of money,” and it saddens me that we are so pathetic. According to the World Bank, nearly half of the world lives on less than $5.50 per day. 

Sure, things in the US cost more than in some countries, but I can tell you for a fact that it is possible to raise a family of four on much less than $200,000 a year. It involves making sacrifices, but it is not an unhappy life. 

Now there are probably a few people making $200,000 a year that need that much money because there is debt to repay, severe medical bills, or getting the education that is the right fit for your family. But for the vast majority of people making $200,000 a year, or $100,000 a year, or $50,000 per year, the problem is simply that we want too much or we lack self control. If we can fix that desire, that consumerism, we can solve more than just the problem of living paycheck to paycheck.

What else can we solve? Bad reactions to setbacks, fights between spouses, general unhappiness, distraction from getting into Heaven… Is that enough for you?

If you deprive yourself of many things that you could have—would like to have—you build up not only a tolerance for a life that is a little tougher but also a much greater appreciation for the little things. A couple examples:

If you get used to cold showers, not only are you much less of a wimp when the hot water runs out compared to others, but you tend to take shorter showers. When you finally do take a warm shower, you realize how special it is to have that privilege.

If you only eat out once or twice a month, even a mediocre restaurant meal can bring more pleasure to you than to someone that eats out all the time. This is a triple bonus: by eating out less often, you: 1) save money by cooking at home, 2) save even more money by going to less impressive restaurants, since now it takes less money to impress your taste buds when you do go out, and 3) deepen your appreciation for the food that someone else has prepared for you, since this is no longer a regular experience for you. 

A study in Forbes magazine put eating out as five times more expensive than cooking at home. And families usually spend half of their food budget eating out. If you are living paycheck to paycheck, this is certainly a problem.

There was another story in the news about two millionaire brothers , who still lived without electricity. As the brothers explained, “Well, what do we need that for? We didn’t have it for thirty30 years, so why start now?” These men are living below their means. They could have electricity, but voluntarily reject it. You and I would think that was crazy because we use electricity for everything. And that is the point. We have never gotten used to not having it, but it is possible to live without it. The majority of human existence throughout history managed to do just that. 

Think about how much time people waste with their cell phones on useless, mindless applications. I have never used TikTok, I don’t know where to find it, and I am not interested in finding it, because I would probably like it a lot. And I would probably waste too much time using it if I got started. We condition ourselves to a way of life, and then we cannot easily stop and go back to where we started from.

Naturally, people get used to the things around them, and they will need more and more of it to get the same satisfaction. This works for both good things (you need to run further distances as you get in better shape to feel like it is a good workout) and bad things (overdoses happen because drug users need more and more to get the same feeling). Make this tendency work for you: incentivize and strengthen yourself, and refuse to get caught up in a snowballing consumerism.

The other day, I saw a cool-looking soccer ball for $5. It would have been fun to have right around World Cup time this winter, I thought. And then it occurred to me that I already had plenty of soccer balls at home. I didn’t buy the ball. I didn’t think about it again until a few days later when I was cleaning up the garage and saw a really nice-looking soccer ball I already own. I am glad I didn’t buy the new one. Later, I found something else that I bought a year ago and never used. Then I saw another thing as well…. And then I remembered that I should listen to my own advice more often. 

You can condition yourself to anything. So, think long and hard before you decide if you are going to condition yourself to a certain lifestyle until eventually you are stuck living paycheck to paycheck. And are less happy for it. And argue about money with your family. And distract yourself from Heaven. 

About the Author

Dan Sushinsky

College Counselor, AP Economics, AP Spanish
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