Monday, July 2, 2012

Learning to Want, Part II

In Part I, described how in my early thirties I had reached a tough spot in my life. No, I wasn't homeless or destitute, but the easy trajectory of my charmed existence was headed in the wrong direction. My debt load had become excessive and my weight was at an all-time high.

Looking at my family for guidance wasn't very helpful.My parents and my brother were in the same boat. Most of my friends were, too. I didn't have any role models for success. Even my friends who earned significantly more than me were fretting about their finances. The few people I knew who were lean were eating the same crap that I did. There wasn't a template for me to follow to break out of the cycle that I felt trapped in.

This wasn't what I wanted my life to be like. I didn't want to spend the rest of my days struggling to make ends meet while my health slowly declined. I had to figure my way out of it, and the first part of the process was to figure out how I had gotten into it. I had a few tough lessons to learn and the first one was this:

I was living the life I felt I deserved, rather than the one I had earned.

This wasn't an easy lesson but it was an unavoidable truth. I was spending more money than I could earn and I was eating more food than I could burn. I had become one of the out-of-control consumers I was criticizing so many years ago. I had fallen prey to the consumer culture that surrounded me. Even though I was relatively disciplined in some ways, I used that as a rationalization to overindulge in others.

I didn't spend much money on clothes so I felt justified buying a new high end computer every year. As an IT worker, it was easy to give myself the green light on that as it was vaguely work related even though I rarely used it for work. I practiced restraint eating meals during the week but on Friday nights, I would order a large pizza and eat the whole thing on my own. I felt I had earned the indulgence by being good. Many years later, I crunched the numbers on what I was eating and realized that I was barely undereating during the week and overcompensating on the weekends. By far.

Those are just two examples that were easy to identify when I took a step back to evaluate my consumption patterns. It all seems so obvious in retrospect, but it seemed so reasonable at the time. My lifestyle was no more extravagant than the people who surrounded me. I deserved to live it up in little ways just like everyone else did. But just like everyone else, I was getting buried in debt and watching my waistline expand. Then it was time to learn the second tough lesson:

In spite of all that consumption, I still wasn't content with what I had.

That was an even more difficult lesson to learn. It was actually quite depressing to think that I had wasted so much with so little to show for it, but it gave me the one bit of insight I needed to start shifting my thinking. My contentment was not related to obtaining what I wanted. It was such a counter-intuitive concept but I couldn't deny it. Years of chasing more money and consuming more than I earned wasn't working. At one point, I even tried to rationalize the behavior as a motivator to keep earning more. The assumption was that eventually, I would earn enough to consume with wild abandon but I had to stop fooling myself. It wasn't working and I had to finally pay attention to the phrase I had uttered so many years ago:

"If you learn to want what you have, you'll already have what you want."

In the next part of the series, I'll detail some of the specific methods I found useful to unravel my consumption driven lifestyle and learned to find contentment.


  1. I love this series so far and I hope it is only part II of a many part series.

    If you're comfortable sharing more specific details about your former life compared to your current life, I'd be really interested in hearing more concretely how you've changed things, for example, your previous income vs. spendings compared to your current income and spendings.

    1. Thanks so much for the feedback. I have at least 2 or 3 more parts brewing as I arrange my thoughts and I'll start sharing specific methods I adopted in the next one.

      I wasn't planning on disclosing exact figures in terms of income and expenditure because it turned out to be mostly irrelevant (and I'll explain why), but I'll pay extra attention to providing concrete details about the methods I implemented to dig myself out of the hole financially.