It’s a truism that how we spend our money reflects what we value. But as Americans steeped in a consumer culture, sometimes we’re guided more by television ads than by what we feel is most important in life.
In an interview, popular personal finance blogger Ruth Soukup and author of the new book “Living Well, Spending Less: 12 Secrets of the Good Life suggests how we can build up our bank accounts by learning what truly satisfies us.
Q: A lot of people hear the words ‘spending less’ in this culture and they think of deprivation. And yet you’re juxtaposing that with living well. How can you do both at the same time?
Soukup: I don’t think that the two are mutually exclusive. A lot of what the book is about is this journey of discovering what it means to live a good life and what a good life really looks like. I always had this idea that a good life was this celebrity life that we see on TV with big houses and beautiful wardrobes and all the trappings of everything that our consumer culture really tells us is what we need to be happy. The constant message is that what we have is not enough and that if want to have a great life, you need to have all these things.
And I had really, really bought into that. I was spending so much and my husband and I were fighting about money. Then I found that when I did try to get control over my finances, there was a definite change in my heart. I realized that what I thought I wanted wasn’t the thing that was going to fill me up.
Q: You put yourself on a budget. What’s the most important lessons you learned in that process?
Soukup: Actually probably the most surprising thing is that when you do set up a budget and know where your money is going, your money goes so much farther and you don’t feel like you’re missing out as much as you fear you will….Maybe you have two incomes, or one pretty decent income, and so you’re not as quite as careful as you should be or you could be. You fritter money away on a trip to Target here, a trip to Costco there or Starbucks in the morning…Whatever it is, those little things really start to add up. We don’t realize it because we think ‘I make good money, I can afford this and why should I have to deprive myself?’
And yet when we’re more intentional about our money and start setting up a budget and really thinking about it, we realize that, first of all,we’re not depriving ourselves because we weren’t even thinking about what we were spending the money on in the first place. …That was probably for me the most exciting thing –how much wealthier I felt with the same amount of income as soon as I started really paying attention to where it was going.
Q: How about those times when you really want something and your better judgment is telling you not to spend the money. How do you talk yourself through those moments?
Soukup: For me, the most important solution has just been to stay away from the influences that make me want things…. It’s when you start to watch television or read magazines or the catalogues that come in the mail, that you find yourself wanting other things. And so I just throw catalogues away as soon as they come to my door because I don’t want to look at them. And I avoid going to the malls and we just watch Netflix where we don’t have to watch commercials and be bombarded by this message that what you have isn’t enough. I find turning off the message really helps. I have so much more contentment in my life.
Q: In your book you share the story of how you became so fed up with asking your daughters [ages 5 and 8] to pick up their rooms that you just took their toys away. And then something unexpected happened.
Soukup: Well, you know I think that every mom reaches some point where you tell your kids ‘If you don’t clean up your room, I’m going to take your toys away’… I felt like we were just constantly cleaning up and I could never get a handle on the mess in their rooms because they have so many toys and they wouldn’t pick them up . Finally one day I said ‘You know what, girls? Let’s just take it all away.’ And so we went in there and I got some big boxes and they just sort of helped me put everything in the boxes and we got everything packed away.
Q: They actually helped you and they didn’t scream and cry?
Soukup: It was really interesting because I expected that they would be so contrite, and that it would be this game changer for our family where suddenly they would realize like “We will clean up, we want our stuff back.” And it was a huge turning point for our family, but for the complete opposite reason. They didn’t say any of that. They didn’t miss their stuff and they didn’t want it back. They were actually much happier not having their lives filled up with all of these things.
Q: That’s an unusual reaction for kids, don’t you think?
Soukup: No, actually I know other parents who have done the same thing and have reported the same reaction and that their kids are happier with less stuff. It’s much less overwhelming for kids. I think that we kind of project this need on our kids to have just more and more and more and they don’t necessarily want that themselves.
Q: You also talk in your book about the importance of cleaning your house. How does this relate to the concept of living well while spending less?
Soukup: For me I think the biggest reason for having a clean house is that, when my house is clean, I like being at home. And when I’m at home enjoying what I already have and my family and my time at home, I’m not out spending money. And you know the truth was that I already had what I needed at home and when I started becoming much more intentional about keeping my house clean every single day — I just liked being home more. Also when your house is messy, you can’t find stuff and you have to buy more stuff because you can find the stuff that you already have.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about how people can refocus their priorities. If you had to pick three things for people to do what would they be?
Soukup: Well, the first one for me as as a Christian was to just pray more. There was a really important shift that had to happen in my heart and all the practical tips in the world will not make a difference if your heart is still desiring all of these stuff. For people who aren’t Christians, I think that maybe you have to dig deep and find something inside of you that’s bigger than all the stuff you think you need out there. For me, that was God.
Step number two, I would say is setting goals. I’m a big, big, big believer in written goals. I sit down every single day and make my daily goals that are going to get me to my weekly goals, that are going to get me to my monthly goals, that are going to get me to my yearly goals. But I think the trick is really taking the time to write them down because as soon as they’re down on paper, it makes them real. And once they’re real…. then you start to see the change happen.
And then I would say that probably the third step would be to start telling your money where to go. Take the time time to sit down and plan your monthly budget. Especially when your finances feel a little out of control, you want to turn away and not look at it and pretend that that problem doesn’t exist and just keep doing what you’re doing. But things will never change if you don’t pay attention to them.
Q:. So what’s the most important message that you want to give our readers about living well while spending less?
Soukup: I think the most important message for me is that the good life is not at all what we think it is. That’s my number one secret. As Americans, we live in a culture that is constantly telling us that what we have isn’t enough because who we are isn’t enough. Once we get to re-frame that and look at our lives from a completely different perspective, we realize that what we have and who we are is already enough.
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