Living Simply and Happily

Nov 25, 2013 by

university of illinois logoMy Dad recently gave me three large binders of correspondence and other documents he’s saved chronicling my life from about age 18 on. Reading through this stuff is at once amusing, embarrassing, mind-boggling, and sometimes astonishing. I’ve gotten through the first binder, which covers my 6-1/2 years in college, a year of job searching that followed, and the first few years after I found work in a Maryland suburb of D.C. Through all the messages in binder #1 a thread consistently winds: I was poor!

I Never Had Any Money

I believe I was approaching age 30 before I felt financially comfortable. My money challenges weren’t due to laziness. I took a part-time job in a grocery store at age 16 and worked steadily thereafter. My first three years of undergraduate education I did not take on paid employment during the school year because my chemical engineering curriculum alone was more than I could handle. I worked full-time in the summers, and took a 15-hour per week job during my senior year. In graduate school, I worked both as a teaching assistant and part-time in a pizza joint (still one of my favorite jobs ever).

All of the money I earned would go toward school tuition and living expenses. There would never be enough, so my Dad would make up the deficit. I hated writing (I was too poor to phone long distance) Dad and asking for money, but I had little choice. To make the case I wasn’t living extravagantly, I’d send him my budget. For example, I came across this budget for my junior year in college, 1977-78 (pre-email, if you can imagine such a time).

my college budget

Living on $212 Per Month!

Those are my Dad’s notes around my figures. He was likely trying to work my needs into managing his own budget! Can you believe I lived on $212 a month, even in those ancient times? (Can you believe my printing looks like a 3rd grader’s?) $15 per week for food? My rent was fairly low because I shared a small apartment with three roommates. The $10 per week recreation covered pool & beer, the only non-necessities on which I spent money.

Here’s another description of my budget, an excerpt from a letter to my Dad. At this point I had one roommate and was starting a 2-year MBA program. (I went straight from undergrad to graduate school.) My expenses had jumped to $225 per month!

my 1980 budget

During grad school I earned enough making pizza three evenings a week and teaching an undergrad course to support myself. At the time of this writing, I hadn’t yet found the pizza job, hence the monthly deficit I cited. The “bike” I refer to selling was a Honda 360cc motorcycle, which I’d perhaps stupidly purchased with a student loan because I lived far off campus my final undergrad semester. (And I liked motorcycles. :-)) I’d decided to liquidate it, I’m sure mainly because I could not reconcile owning an unneeded motorcycle while asking my Dad for financial support. I’m amused to read my assessment that I’d be “well off” after I got the proceeds from selling the motorcycle and received a, no doubt very modest, tax refund.

Though my Dad never complained, I did not feel good about relying on him for support. To reduce my reliance, I also took out a total of $15,000 in student loans—not much by today’s standards, but a considerable sum at the time. And when I at last got a job post-college, besides these student loans, I owed my Mom $4,000 and my girlfriend $1,500. I had no money, no savings, at all.

Happy Times

I’m a bit shocked reading today the somewhat pained money parts of this correspondence with my Dad. Over the eight or so years covered in binder #1, I do not recollect feeling deprived or uncomfortably poor. In fact, just the opposite: I loved my lifestyle. Those were very happy years for me. I owned almost nothing and spent little except on school, food, housing, and modest utilities. And pool. I didn’t want or need anything else. My life was simple, and I liked it that way. I never fantasized about owning more material goods or aspired to a life of luxury.

That my living expenses today are higher by quite a lot is of course in large part due to 35 years of inflation. But now I also co-own a house and all the stuff in it, a car, a lawnmower, a MacBook Air, $200 per month in telecom expenses, etc, etc.

Yes, our monthly telecom expenses today roughly equal my entire living expenses in 1980. Wow.

Am I happier because of what I own today or the financial progress I’ve made? I wouldn’t say so. Sure, there’s satisfaction and security in having mostly made good choices so that we can now live in a beautiful part of the world and not have to worry too much about money. And I wouldn’t want to go back to the student lifestyle that felt like a perfect fit for me at the time. On the other hand, being reminded of the details of those days reinforces in my mind that my happiness has always inextricably been tied to one core ethic: simplicity.

Does Stuff Make You Happy?

How about you? If you’re happier now than you were at poorer times in your life, do you attribute that change to being better off financially and the stuff you’ve bought? Or have you noticed that your happiness is mostly dependent on non-financial, non-material factors?

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