Accumulation and Attachment: Finding Balance

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)?

Non-attachment
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.

Cultivating non-attachment
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?

More about...Psychology

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Four Pillars
Four Pillars
10 years ago

Very interesting post. In the past I’ve certainly collected things for the sake of collecting – Cds, movies for example. I don’t really have that problem anymore since I don’t buy much Stuff at all.

I do have the problem of maybe not spending enough – I have some hockey equipment for example that could use some upgrading but “still works”. I really need to bite the bullet and spend some money in that area.

Beth
Beth
10 years ago

“You can be happy for those who are more fortunate when you feel that your own life is abundant.”

I especially like this line because the post notes that abundance is more a state of mind than status or possessions. Envy is often a motivating factor for people, but I think we’re happier if we’re intrinsically motivated to do things.

Will
Will
10 years ago

Let me start by saying that I’ve read GRS and other PF blogs for a while (but only started really commenting recently) and I think this is one of the best posts I’ve read. To be fair, I do enjoy the theoretical/philosophical side of PF as much if not more than the practical side. I always had a sort of negative reaction when a lot of the PF blogs would tout minimalism, but I never really could put a finger on it. You nailed it perfectly. As for me personally, I (as I’m sure a lot of people do) have… Read more »

Andrea
Andrea
10 years ago

I try to rethink why I am holding on to some things. I recently got rid of souvenirs from a trip from 30 years ago. It was an important trip- life changing perhaps- but I realized that these souvenirs I had (not on view) would serve a better purpose elsewhere(or at least to someone else who seemed to want these things). I have no problem giving away clothing or most books. My problem is my husband who can’t give anything away- we have loads of old VHS tapes he doesn’t ever touch, record albums(originally he told me once they were… Read more »

BW
BW
10 years ago

Some of us cheapskates have attachement issues with our bank account banlance. When I recently got a a pretty big check as a gift for my birthday, the wife asked what I would do with the money. My response: “put it in the bank and horde it until I die”. I was joking, sort of.

Becky
Becky
10 years ago

This is easily one of the best posts I’ve ever read on this site… I’ve been a long time reader, and enjoy most posts here, but this one really stood out to me. Thanks!

Tyler Tervooren
Tyler Tervooren
10 years ago

I’m really glad you touched on the giving aspect of attachment. Finding abundance by giving to those less fortunate can be an extremely empowering and life affirming activity.

Be it time, money, or things, seeing the good that we can do by letting go of things we don’t need can really change a person’s perception.

Do it once and see how much easier it is to let go the next time.

rachel
rachel
10 years ago

I really like this – One of the things I love best about GRS is that the issue is constantly addressed the money and PF is so much more than just “bad head choices” – most of our spending decisions are emotional (attachment-based – be it to the objects themselves or the “idea” of ourselves that owning them projects…)
Great article, April!

Shane
Shane
10 years ago

I think detachment from the man-made complications in life will bring true happiness. And as April mentioned, it’s not that we have to become extreme minimalists. We just need to detach ourselves from the dependency of material possessions. Personally, I enjoy not having distractions such as television. I find that I am happiest when I’m productive, and I’m working towards a lifestyle that can suit that. Similar to Will, I have a beat up truck and car, which I love to death. It feels great knowing cosmetic damage can happen and I don’t need to worry. Why put that extra… Read more »

KC
KC
10 years ago

I clean out my garage and storage spaces periodically and think “why was I holding on to this?” At some point some things held value in my life. I was recently going through some boxes my parents brought me from my child hood. It had all my baseball card collectors magazines and other things I viewed as important. I kept a few things, like programs from Braves baseball and Carolina basketball games, but most of it went in the recycling – not sure why I wanted to keep a baseball card price guide from 1985 – LOL! But the other… Read more »

ami | 40daystochange
ami | 40daystochange
10 years ago

I liked the message of this post April. There are plenty – could it be too many? – financial blogs that might tell you the STEPS to reach financial independence or to get your financial house in order. But your piece gives a sense of how to be happy about the process and perhaps shift one’s internal standard for success.

I obsess over having too much stuff, especially kid stuff! (can you say piles of toe-damaging toys?) We are trying to encourage the kids to accept experiences rather than stuff, we’ll see how it goes.

Jessica
Jessica
10 years ago

I really love your blog and the principles you teach. Keep it coming!

Theory
Theory
10 years ago

@KC#10 “These people didn’t look like they had dressy jobs.”

How so?

Jennifer
Jennifer
10 years ago

This was a great post, thanks. I am in the process of decluttering and am trying to keep only items that we actually use and love. We don’t have tons of stuff, but we do have a lot that we just don’t use or love and that really needs to go. It’s so much nicer seeing a closet less full, but fully functional than a closet stuffed full but hardly ever used.

HaloBlu
HaloBlu
10 years ago

Such wisdom! I just discovered this blog, and it’s the best blend of financial and life advice I’ve seen so far. Great post, great blog.

Jason B
Jason B
10 years ago

This week, while I was on vacation, my roommate called about a leak. He didn’t track it down and thought it had mostly stopped… but it didn’t the next day, my other roommate found the leak and turned off the pump. So… 12 hours of running water in my basement! Most of the damage was in the stacks and stacks of cardboard boxes sitting around. Many were the boxes things were shipped in, including some huge boxes for living room speakers and folding chairs. Some of the boxes were the retail packages I couldn’t let go of. (Sometimes I’d use… Read more »

Rob Bennett
Rob Bennett
10 years ago

Giving of one’s self is a liberating act. It gets the selfish craziness out of your head. It opens you up to possibilities that you otherwise would not have considered. Often that leads to great financial wealth over time. It’s paradoxical. But much of life is paradoxical. Why does just looking at an ocean make us so happy? Why do we feel best after a hard day of work? Why do you feel a stronger sexual attraction to your spouse after an argument is resolved than you felt before the argument began? Logic is not the answer to everything. There’s… Read more »

David C
David C
10 years ago

Great post. My wife is a master declutterer and she is finally rubbing off on me. I have dug into a lot of the things that I thought that I held dear, only to wonder why I was so attached. A lot of things have been given away to someone who could really use it or who would enjoy it. I feel a lot more liberated not having to worry about these things anymore. I am not finished cleaning up yet, but my decades of being a packrat are behind me. I do feel as though a burden has been… Read more »

cathleen
cathleen
10 years ago

I’m 45 now and so I have a financial history that I like to periodically take out, dust off and learn from. My father died suddenly when I was 21. A large insurance check came soon after and I can still clearly remember the mixture of relief, sadness and anger that the check represented for me. I felt like an orphan at 21 (because you’ve not only lost the deceased parent but the other one in many ways; they are never the same again either) I turned to spending to numb the grief (I knew that’s what I was doing… Read more »

Dustin | Engaged Marriage
Dustin | Engaged Marriage
10 years ago

I like stuff. There’s no doubt about it, and I don’t try to inherently change this fact. But I can control it, and we have done so successfully enough to become debt-free (except the house) and enjoy a reasonable lifestyle. That said, I do not have a heavy attachment to our “things” and I think this comes from the clear priorites we have set in our household and our lives. My wife and I know and are both fully aware and fully supportive of our common priorities. God first, our marriage second, our kids third, our other family fourth, then… Read more »

John DeFlumeri
John DeFlumeri
10 years ago

That picture walking on eggs, says it all so easily.

chacha1
chacha1
10 years ago

Excellent post and thoughtful comments. The questions at the end are important. As a longtime yoga practitioner, mindfulness is an essential part of my day and I do try to observe my actions and reactions. It’s very helpful to use this practice as it does tend to make our true values clear, and identify the habits we really need to change to be true to those values. I am gradually conquering attachment but like some others above, am attached to a spouse who is not as far along the path. To be frank, he’s not even ON the path! So… Read more »

Sheila
Sheila
10 years ago

A relative bought a new car, and it’s so difficult for me to ride with him. The first thing he said was “don’t slam the door!” Now, I’m not sure what “slamming the door” means. So I shut it quietly, and of course it didn’t shut so I had to shut it harder–took me three times to get it shut correctly. He got a tiny scratch on the car and had to immediately have it buffed out. He parks away from other cars, keeps it obsessively clean (IMHO), and has totally sucked the joy out of having a new car… Read more »

Ronna
Ronna
10 years ago

I know we normally don’t talk religion on Get Rich Slowly, but everything in this post covered all the topics included in the pastor’s homily at my local church last Sunday. Just sayin’… he said that material possessions are not necessarily bad, it is simply the attachment you have to them that is dangerous.

alice
alice
10 years ago

I really wonder about the demonization of “Stuff” and of those who “obsess” about their Stuff. What do the people who aren’t interested in Stuff do? I can think of little that I do in my life, with the exception of walking around my neighborhood, that doesn’t require some sort of accoutrement (and the neighbors prefer that I be clothed). In order to repair my garage and house, I need tools. This keeps my property in good repair. In order to go canoeing, I need a canoe. This keeps me from getting wet. If I needed nice clothes for my… Read more »

valerie
valerie
10 years ago

great insights here April!

I just forwarded this to some friends who i think will understand.

Beth
Beth
10 years ago

@Sheila — my parents used to always joke that the first thing a new car owner should do is give it a little dent or a scratch so they can just relax and enjoy the car. (They bought very few of their cars new).

It’s a lot less stressful when you don’t expect things to be perfect, and you can enjoy the quirks 🙂 I think that’s why I like used items so much — my furniture came with a few dings!

elisabeth
elisabeth
10 years ago

Just yesterday I got an unexpected and pretty large bill — and for a few hours I was really obsessing about the check I was going to have to write. But, I really worked at talking to myself about the reality that I have the money and spending it wasn’t going to materially change my life, just the balance in one bank account. In the end, I’m OK about this expense, partly because I can afford it, but also because I’m getting better at non-attachment to all of my possessions — including cash!

Oleg Mokhov
Oleg Mokhov
10 years ago

Hey April, The most effective way to live is life maximization. This includes possessions and personal finance. You analyze what’s important to you in your life. You break them down into categories. Then, you maximize your resources–time, energy, finances–into them while ruthlessly ignoring the rest. Hence the term life maximization. By doing this, you don’t have to self-deny anything. You can fully enjoy what you love, but do it without guilt and with minimalism. You have less accumulated stuff and activities in your life (minimalism), so you free up resources to maximize what you love (enjoyment without guilt). Nice article… Read more »

Foxie || CarsxGirl
Foxie || CarsxGirl
10 years ago

“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.” This bit really speaks to me, because there was a time not too long ago where I did this… I was obsessive and fawned over every penny and shoveled it all into a savings account and heaven forbade I spent any of it. Thankfully, I woke up and realized that I was hoarding money that I could spend, not the money that needed to be saved. So I found out… Read more »

brooklyn money
brooklyn money
10 years ago

This was a smart post. This is why I don’t buy as my old boss used to call them, “nice things” — as in your mom yelling at you “this is why we can’t have nice things” when you were young and spilled your grape juice on the carpet.

I made an exception once and bought a $300 suede skirt which i have only worn a handful of times as I’ve lived in fear of somehow injuring it.

Patty - Why Not Start Now?
Patty - Why Not Start Now?
10 years ago

What a great post. One of the best descriptions I’ve read on non-attachment. I try to cultivate it by asking myself, “what am I holding on to that no longer serves my values, my life, my growth.” It works for both inner and outer non-attachment, but it’s definitely a lifelong journey. And when I start to find myself being pulled into the drama of attachment, I try to tell myself, “just let it go.”

Jeff
Jeff
10 years ago

“You buy furniture. You tell yourself, this is the last sofa I will ever need in my life. Buy the sofa, then for a couple years you’re satisfied that no matter what goes wrong, at least you’ve got your sofa issue handled. Then the right set of dishes. Then the perfect bed. The drapes. The rug. Then you’re trapped in your lovely nest, and the things you used to own, now they own you.” ~Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club, Chapter 5

Vicfrom ATL
Vicfrom ATL
10 years ago

Excellent post. It is amazing to find real Wisdom in Eastern texts such as Bhagavad Gita as It is, Upanishads etc. My life has changed soo much and I only feel happier. Just an incident related to your post. I sold my E class, a jewel that I bought brand new few yrs ago (paid cash, wasn’t a financial issue). The buyer asked me how I felt parting with it. I had to make up something..like I’m sad (usual emotion). But I was so relieved after it got sold, much happier in Mazda 3. I can mention so many related… Read more »

Rex Huston
Rex Huston
10 years ago

Daniel Bernoulli had a theory that the utility resulting from any small increase in wealth will be inversely proportionate to the quantity of goods previously possessed. I am a big believer in this. There is an equilibrium between having too little and being overwhelmed by stuff. I think that some minimalists take it to far to the point that they are unhappy.

-Rex

Gina
Gina
10 years ago

Thanks for this post! I really appreciate it especially after some recent posts here and elsewhere that seem to push minimalism (and frugality) for its own sake. I agree with the above poster — the name of the game is really LIFE MAXIMIZATION. Thus it is that I can choose to spend on certain things, and not spend elsewhere. It reminds me that as great as debt free and a healthy bank balance are, neither of them define ME. Any more than my possessions do. If I choose to spend money and accept that my bank balance will be lower… Read more »

Cara
Cara
10 years ago

This is an excellent post! I love the focus on optimizing your money and noting that it is possible to hoard money and take frugality too far in the other direction (I’ve experienced this). Thank you for reminding us that balance is the most important thing!

Doug Armey
Doug Armey
10 years ago

Great post! Get’s to the core of the issue of too much accumulation. The older I get the more I realize more possessions don’t bring happiness. And often they create their own bondage because you need to protect, fix, store, clean them, etc. As has been said here the issue isn’t about the possessions but understanding what is important in your life to make you happy and fulfilled. In other words truly wealthy. Your point about giving is right on. When we give to others, who have less than us, it sets us free from the tyranny of our possessions.… Read more »

bethh
bethh
10 years ago

I moved to a new city when I was 26, and got a relatively crappy first job in my new city. I didn’t have a car, and I’ll never forget how generous my boss was with his Mercedes – he’d regularly let me use it (unasked!) when he was out of town for the weekends. Not only did his generosity keep a good employee longer than I should have stayed (it wasn’t nearly challenging enough for me), but it also taught me how to be giving and generous with my own possessions. The only thing I really won’t share is… Read more »

Clf
Clf
10 years ago

When I feel extremely satisfied and grateful for everything in the money way, and don’t feel lack for anything – THAT’S when more money and abundance comes rolling in – it’s really weird.

It’s like the universe is saying, “well…you seem to be handling what you have very well, so I think you can handle some more”.

Joshua
Joshua
10 years ago

Wow, what a great post, April! I think you hit the nail on the head with the balance I’m struggling to find. I have really enjoyed all your posts (good choice J.D.) but this one was exceptional!

chacha1
chacha1
10 years ago

@Alice, maintaining your stuff isn’t the same as obsessing about stuff. I expect comments in this regard are largely tongue-in-cheek. Obv, we are all here reading about PF etc., so we’re not holed up at home fondling our treasures (I hope! LOL), so none of us is actually, literally obsessing about our stuff! I may be mistaken, but the point I took was that of maximizing the enjoyment/value inherent in our stuff, and not accumulating stuff for its own sake. If something has value, then it’s not Stuff, it’s a tool or a pleasure. The minimalist/frugalist ethos just asks us… Read more »

fairy dust
fairy dust
10 years ago

Andrea (#4), I think we are married to the same guy…

Manisha Thakor
Manisha Thakor
10 years ago

GREAT, great post, April. Very thought-provoking. When I was right out of college I overheard a women in a cafe say that she wanted to be the exact same person even if her house burned down and she lost all her possessions. Over twenty years later, that concept is still with me… To me, your life is maximized when all things in it serve to increase, or at least maintain, your happiness levels. What those “things” are will very widely from person to person, but that framework has helped me decide when to say “Enough Stuff” and to create financial… Read more »

Rosa Eugosa
Rosa Eugosa
10 years ago

@Beth #27 – funny, I had heard that, and when I bought my great new little Saturn (even greater now that it’s still running 14 years later), the salesman noted that it had a slight imperfection in the hood. It wasd one of those things where you had to put you head on the roof, tilt a certain angle, squint, and then maybe you could see it. I told him no, I would gladly keep the imperfection, since it would save me the trouble of wacking my new car with a hammer! He thought I was a nut. And the… Read more »

David/Yourfinances101
David/Yourfinances101
10 years ago

The benefits of giving to me, are endless. Besides the financail end (tax deductions) it is just a “feel good” kind of thing.

It shouldn’t be underestimated

Sara
Sara
10 years ago

Oh wow, this is great. You absolutely nailed it! Its right on.

Its been a while in the making but finally my family and I are on the way to a simple home. Good quality wood furniture, good healthy food, nice music and good books. These are what rock our world! But they dont make it turn, WE DO. Our family.

Loving the blog, just found it today.

What a gift.

ImJuniperNow
ImJuniperNow
10 years ago

I recently discovered a way to wean myself from clothes and things that I don’t need/don’t use: I ask myself when was the last time I wore/used/looked at it. I tell myself that the local charity thrift shop could use the money it would bring if they sold it. I add that some person out there would really enjoy this item. Last, I put these things in my car in bags, allow myself to ride around with them in the back seat for a few days, then on donation day if I haven’t even thought about them (which I don’t)… Read more »

Charity
Charity
10 years ago

I really appreciate how this blogger addresses the psychological aspect of personal finance. So often I read JD’s advice and agree with it but have no idea how I can get my mind in the place where I can follow it. April’s approach is a wonderful balance.

jeannelli
jeannelli
10 years ago

You’ve struck an emotional nerve I’m sure.I’m a professional organizer and my approach does the choice rgd.’ things support your life in a healthy way.The non- attachment philosphy is right-on.When the financial and material no longer control us we find freedom to enjoy our life.I do empathize I come from a family of collectors.
Thanks for all the insight!

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