Thursday, February 24, 2011

Frugal Living and Simple Living

We live in complicated times. Technology is progressing at tremendous rates and the world we live in is becoming all the more complex on account of it. I think those two statements are so commonly accepted that they're almost not worth mentioning. We've all heard such statements before and all we have to do is look around us and see that it's true.

Such complexity certainly has brought about it's conveniences and made certain tasks easier to accomplish. For example, in the past, someone who decided to simplify their life and live more frugally would not have a lot of the useful resources available today. In the past when you cleaned your home and decided to get rid of stuff you considered clutter but figured others might find useful, you'd resort to a yard sale or use word-of-mouth amongst friends to give away your stuff for free. These days, if you want to generate extra income, you'd forgo the yard sale and post your unneeded items on Ebay or Craigslist. If like many frugal minded people, you have things you don't think would sell but just can't bear to throw them away, you no longer have to ask around and see who wants them. Now you can offer them on Freecyle and anybody interested will gladly come pick up your unwanted goods. These services made it less difficult to reach much more potentially interested people, with much less effort, than it took before the internet era. When technology has clearly practical uses, the complexity it adds to the world is seen as an addition of valuable options and useful tools. It serves the kind of role I personally believe it should.

Pardon my inner Luddite, but although I see the benefits of technological advances, I also see their drawbacks. The increasingly complex world that technology has created is littered with massive amounts of distraction that can be difficult to filter out. I know everyone is guilty of signing on to Facebook and passing time when they are supposed to be working on something of importance. There are plenty of times where I initially plan on checking my bank account online and two hours later, realize I spent my time posting on my favorite forum or reading album reviews and never once checked my account balances. Although the internet has provided a means for the average user to access information on any given topic, it's used much more for entertainment than to increase productivity. I'm sure the amount of hours that are spent by people on video games, Facebook, forums, Twitter and YouTube eclipses the amount of time spent creating useful documents, reading fascinating articles or learning about something new and practical.

So how does one deal with distraction and still use technology for it's beneficial purposes? Well, like anything else, you learn to weed out the unimportant and devote more energy to that which truly matters. The way we deal with multiple options presented to us is by choosing those which we deem worth pursuing and focusing on them. When trying to increase productivity, we do the same with technology. If you're a college student and you have a major paper due in a couple of hours, you know not to spend your limited time on your favorite sports forum. Since you must complete your paper, you avoid distractions and put all your focus and energy into doing so. If you're signing online briefly to check your email, you decide to do so and move on with your day instead of clicking some advertisers link and deciding you feel like browsing new cookware for awhile. This ability to streamline is what separates the people who use the internet only for productive purposes (Are these people real?) and the people who spend three hours or more a day online but somehow never seem to learn anything practical to use within their lives (I know that guy).

"So Mr. I can't stay focused online so I resort to calling the internet a mess of distractions, how does any of this relate to frugal living?"

Well the key idea I was illustrating is the need to filter out distraction and focus on what is helpful in the face of complexity. I used technology because I think we all know what it's like to waste time on the internet. On top of this, in this day and age, the amount of time we spend online makes up a significant portion of our day. In our present era, I'm sure everyone has at point or another had to find a way to avoid distraction online and focus on a relevant task at hand. It's a necessary method of dealing with a complicated world and it is the same kind of thinking that thoroughly drives frugal living, and it's older cousin of sorts, simple living. Those who practice simple living do so as a means of focusing on that which they feel is important. They give up a lot of what they feel is unnecessary and try and stick to the essentials. By owning less and wanting less, they achieve a freedom they couldn't have without doing so and are free to do that which they find a valuable use of time. It is an effective means of dealing with complexity. To make the technology analogy complete, simple living would be like choosing only to use the internet for purposes that you care about as opposed to using the internet mindlessly when you could be doing something better.

Frugal living is founded upon a similar mentality concerning the way we use our money. In this increasingly complex world, alongside technology, the amount of goods one can spend money on has drastically increased. No longer is the bulk of someone's income spent on necessities. Though I concede that there are people out there in poverty who spend their entire incomes on food and shelter, I still insist that a large group of people with extra income exists. The majority of people have some kind of steady, disposable income which can be spent without much consequence. Once your monthly bills are covered and you are sitting on an extra one hundred to one thousand dollars (I'm attempting to span economic classes here) you have the choice to do as you wish with this surplus income. Or at least you think you do. With so many options presented to us for using this surplus, it becomes exceptionally difficult to focus on a valuable use of money and avoid the distracting temptations. The advertising industry has succeeded in this department to the point where they have messed with people's ability to distinguish between what is essential and what is simply a commodity. Frugal living looks at this situation and attempts to regain a sense of focus amidst the distraction of unnecessary spending. It's taking a minute to think about that extra pair of shoes before purchasing them and wondering whether you need them or are about to purchase them because some subtle message has been planted in your mind about their worth. It's about protesting a trendy bar's insistence that you can only have a good time there and should be paying four dollars a beer by deciding to go to the hole in the wall down the street with some friends and enjoy dollar drafts instead. It's about looking at a thirty five dollar item and acknowledging that it took you five hours at work (Assuming you're paid Florida's minimum wage) to produce the income necessary to purchase that item. Frugal living is about awareness and focus. It's the antonym of impulse buys.

I've found that a lot of the frugal living blogs that I visit also contain articles about simplifying your life. I've seen articles about how to clean out your closet and catalog your clothes to avoid overspending on clothing. There have been articles written about how to stay on task when cleaning your home or working on a project. There is clearly a kind of reverence towards a streamlined life amongst these blogs. It could be because showing discipline and wisdom in one area of your life is bound to appear in other areas. I know for one, I love the feeling a get when I walk into a clean house. There is a certain kind of peacefulness that I never seem to experience in a house littered with junk. I've experienced a similar feeling when I look at my account balances before I pick up my next paycheck, and find there is actually money left. I feel like I'm in control and focused for once and get a real sense of pride and satisfaction with that feeling. It is during these moments that I feel that I have successfully navigated through this complex world and arrived where I intended to go instead of being somehow led to the country of "Brokeland" once more. I hope as I continue to learn more about living frugally, I experience such moments more frequently.

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