A lot has been made of the minimalist lifestyle on personal finance blogs. Some readers love it; some think it sounds like a miserable existence. But rather than focus on how much or how little we possess as a measure of our degree of minimalism, it seems more important to get to the underlying question: How does your happiness relate to the things you own (or don't own)?
The Yoga Sutras, a foundational yoga text, outlines a set of moral codes. One code is the concept of aparigraha, which has been translated as “not grasping,” “non-possessiveness,” “non-hoarding,” and “non-attachment.”
This concept is particularly applicable to personal finance. Think about what you believe will make you happy — status, a higher salary, relationships, possessions. Can you enjoy these things, or are are you constantly in fear of losing them?
Non-attachment isn't about living an extreme, minimalist lifestyle. Non-attachment is letting go of the belief that your happiness depends on holding onto things you think you own. For example, you buy a brand new Mini Cooper, but you worry obsessively that the paint job will be scratched. Or maybe you hoard a lot of Stuff, expending energy with upkeep and cleaning. When the initial pleasure of ownership passes, you put the things in boxes and fill up attic space or rent a storage unit. You don't want to look at it anymore, but you can't let go of it, either.
That's a lot of energy that goes into worrying, protecting, and spending. Your Stuff starts to own you. Attachment and possessiveness can extend beyond material possessions, too. Most of us know someone who tried to hold on so tightly to their partner that the relationship crumbled. We've all seen celebrities who cling to their youth through plastic surgery, the result being anything but youthful.
The idea is not to give up all of your possessions; rather, it is about letting go of the clinging and fear of loss. Because nothing in life is permanent, clinging and fear of loss only cause us to suffer. Focusing on Stuff that can be easily damaged or lost will ensure continual stress and worry until we let go of the attachment.
The other extreme
Going to the other extreme — miserliness and self-denial — is just another form of imbalance. If you try to excessively control your money and obsess about every penny, you aren't much better off than the person who spends with abandon to improve their social status. Both people are consumed by thoughts of money. Neither is free.
There are people who simply enjoy shopping, but aren't particularly attached to the things they buy. If their spending is in line with their budget, these people are probably more balanced than the obsessive misers. We should enjoy our lives and the opportunities that money affords us, and when we can enjoy these things without attachment, we find that we need less because we are not constantly trying to fill a void.
Observing your attachments
Think about what you hold onto in your life. Aparigraha is about more than material possessions, but material possessions are a good place to start.
Do you have to buy something when you go shopping with friends, even if it's not something you really want? Do you have to have a new outfit for every social occasion? Is there anything you collect for the sake of owning it rather than for the enjoyment? Do you worry about what others think of you based on the car, house, or clothes you own? What would happen if you lost these things?
We all have attachments to something in our lives. And that's okay. We're human, and we have egos. Just notice your attachments, and try not to judge them too much.
Once you've observed your attachments, the next step is to think about what you really need, then taking only that. When you know that you buy more magazines each month than you can possibly read, the next time one tempts you, ask yourself if there will be a real benefit from owning it. If the answer is no, let it go.
Cultivating non-attachment usually begins as consciously letting go of our attachments to Stuff, though there are any number of things we can hold onto in our lives. As we begin loosening our grip, we find that eventually we don't feel a need to reach out for external validation because we already feel fulfilled within ourselves.
Giving — the opposite of attachment
Giving doesn't necessarily mean donating money, though it is a nice gesture. You can give time by volunteering or simply by being a good listener to a friend. You can hold the door for someone, or let them into your lane on the highway. You can give the benefit of your knowledge by tutoring or by helping someone who is struggling to learn something new. These small acts make life more pleasant and remind you of the good things in your life. You can be happy for those who are more fortunate when you feel that your own life is abundant.
Few of us take the time to observe how we react in situations that involve money. Have you ever observed your own habits? What did you learn from it? What are other ways to cultivate non-attachment?
Author: April Dykman
As a freelance writer, editor, and blogger, April Dykman specialized in personal finance, real estate, and entrepreneurship topics. Her work has been featured on MSNBC, Fox Business, Forbes, MoneyBuilder, Yahoo! Finance, Lifehacker, and The Consumerist. Now she does direct response copywriting but, in her free time, April is a wannabe chef, a diehard Italophile, and a recovering yogi.