This post is from staff writer April Dykman.

I used to be guilty of spending money on the life I thought I lived, rather than the life I was actually living. To illustrate what I mean, consider the following past expenditures:

  • Snowboarding apparel, for my first and only snowboarding trip to date.
  • Evening dresses from Bluefly.com. Yes, they were purchased at a big discount, but I had nowhere to wear them!
  • A mountain bike. I was so dedicated to riding, for about three months.

Last week I read an article on the Psychology Today blog titled “What You Do Every Day Matters More Than What You Do Once In a While.” Written by Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, the main point of the article is that people are happiest when they make decisions based on their daily life, not the life they lead every once in awhile. From the article:

In his fascinating book, House Lust, Daniel McGinn notes that market researchers use the term maximum-use imperative to describe the fact that people will often buy something to accommodate a use that they need only rarely…Along the same lines, I’ve noticed that when making decisions, I tend to give too much thought to what I do once in a while and not enough weight to what I do every day. For example, I wear running shoes 29 days out of 30 days a month, yet I have three pairs of black flats and only one pair of running shoes.

Maximum-use imperative doesn’t just affect happiness, though, it also affects your bottom line.

Buying for someone else’s life
It struck me that spending money on the things I used to do once in awhile was a large part of why I wasn’t saving money, or at least spending on the things that really mattered, and yes, that led to a lot of unhappiness.

For example, as mentioned earlier, I used to buy clothing for someone else’s lifestyle. I had clothes for snowboarding, cocktail parties, and mountain biking. I had several winter coats and countless pairs of gloves, and I live in Texas. Who knows how much I spent over the years, buying new apparel every time a new hobby interested me or picking up a little black dress without so much as an event on my calendar? Not only was the money wasted, but it also chipped away at my happiness. I had a closet full of clothes and nothing to actually wear. I also had to look at the result of my spending habits every morning when I got dressed, which only made me feel bad.

Then one day I’d had enough. I started cleaning out my closet and pared it down so much that my husband and I now use the same small closet — a huge accomplishment if you knew me 10 years ago! (If you’re interested, you can read more on my process and how I’ve maintained a streamlined wardrobe in a previous GRS post.) I’m not perfect in this regard, but I do ask myself if I’ll really wear something before I buy it, and I walk away more often than not, which surprisingly feels pretty good.

House rich, lifestyle poor
Another example of maximum-use imperative is the person who buys too much house so he can host the entire family during the holidays. This isn’t far-fetched; I know more than one person who has done it. It’s a lovely sentiment to want your entire family under one roof, and a gracious thing to offer to host them, but if you’re a family of three and you buy enough house to accommodate 15-plus people, that’s a huge expense you’ll pay all because of a few days during the holiday season. The mortgage payments will be higher, not to mention taxes, interest, insurance, utilities, and then the time (or money) spent to clean a larger house.

Instead, if you think about your family’s daily needs and go with a smaller house, you’ll have more options, which might include the following:

  • Moving somewhere more central (paying for location instead of square footage)
  • Paying off your mortgage faster
  • Buying a smaller house and using the extra money to travel
  • Saving the money you’d spend on a larger house for long-term goals, retirement, and other investments

On a day-to-day basis, one of those options will probably make you much happier. Then, during those few days of the year when family is in town, you can find a way to make things work. Better to structure your life and your spending around the other 362 days of the year.

Invest in your real life
I just returned from a trip to Italy and Spain, and I was tempted more than once by a great sweater or scarf that I saw in a shop window. One of my travel companions said, “You’re here, just get it so you won’t think about it later.” I thought about it for a second, and then I remembered that I have more than enough sweaters and scarves and decided I’d rather spend the money on tickets to a museum or a round of churros and chocolate, or maybe just save it toward the next trip.

As Rubin writes, “…we’re happiest when our decisions most closely match our natures and our values,” and that’s definitely applicable to our spending decisions. Instead of spending money on the things you use once in awhile, ask yourself how often you’ll need something before you buy it. Then invest in your day-to-day life, not your fantasy life.

133 Comments