How to live a rich life — on a budget

A bon vivant is a person who lives well — someone who enjoys the best things in life, especially with regard to food and drink. The stereotypical bon vivant is someone who can afford the best (or has generous friends), but that's not the only way. You can be a bon vivant on a budget.

What is “the best” anyway? Your own tastes play the biggest role, but the tastes of family and friends have a strong influence. To a lesser extent, so do the tastes of opinion leaders, celebrities, experts, and others — even fictional characters. Because of this, appreciating the finer things in life makes you vulnerable to serious “keeping up with the Joneses” issues.

There are a lot of ways to fight this.

Have Confidence

The best way to enjoy life — the principle tool of anyone who wants to live large on a small budget — is to have the courage to rely on your own sense of style. Figure out what matters to you — and then live that way regardless of what others do.

A willingness to ignore “the Joneses” and go your own way is such a powerful tool that it's tempting treat that it as a magic wand: Just decide that what you like best is Two-Buck Chuck and take-out from from the dollar menu and your problems are solved.

There are several problems with this, the biggest being that you're probably lying to yourself about what you really think is the best. Of course, for any particular item the cheapest choice may well be the best (I happen to think a $49 digital watch is a lot better than a $5000 Rolex), but often the truth will be that deep down you think some other option is better.

Another problem with stubbornly relying on your own sense of style is that you're yanking yourself out of the conversation about what's best.

“The best” is more than just preferences. It's also a social construct. It's a discussion — or rather, many discussions. Those discussions take place in families, between friends, within and among social groups, on the pages of books and on the screens of TV shows, movies, and even video games. (Perhaps more than any place else, they take place in TV commercials. Did you see the one where the men attending the “wine and cheese” party use fake hollowed-out blocks of cheese to smuggle in their beer?)

A bon vivant has confidence in her own sense of style, but she also has the confidence to make use of this swirl of cultural implications both to inform her choices and to express herself.

Seek Knowledge

To my mind, the key characteristic of a bon vivant is having an educated opinion about what is “the best.” The bon vivant doesn't simply rely on some authority to dictate what's best (and certainly doesn't assume that whatever's most expensive is best). The bon vivant makes up his own mind. However, he also knows that he's participating in the discussion — which is something that he can use to his advantage:

  • The bon vivant learns the history and vocabulary of whatever field he's interested in so that he can be a full participant in the discussion.
  • The bon vivant makes use of expert opinion — it's a lot cheaper to read reviews of 100 wines than to buy them.
  • The bon vivant, because he takes appreciating the finer things seriously, can be the opinion leader that his friends and family look too–even when he makes frugal choices.

Having knowledge lets you make informed choices. But even more important than the knowledge that you already have is engaging in the process of seeking more.

Have Patience

Another key tool for the frugal bon vivant is patience. Some people seem to be in a hurry to choose what's best and acquire it. This is insane behavior. Both choosing and enjoying are part of the discussion. And, like any discussion, much of the pleasure is in the lingering.

Enjoyment always happens in the moment. A simple meal prepared with fresh ingredients is every bit as enjoyable as a gourmet feast. And of course, good company can make any meal a pleasure.

These principles apply far beyond the world of food and drink — books, tools, shoes, gadgets — every field has its own communities of experts, opinion leaders, and all the people engaged with them in the conversation about what's best. For some things, you simply want to make a practical choice. For others, you want to choose the best. In the case where choosing the best matters, you probably want to join the conversation.

Enjoy the Conversation

For the bon vivant, it's all about the conversation. And, as mentioned above, there are a lot of advantages to being in the conversation. You still need the confidence to trust in your own preferences — in fact, you probably need more confidence — but as part of the conversation you're able to influence other people. (There are few things that will boost your confidence in your own taste more than convincing your social group that your choice is better than some more expensive choice.)

Part of enjoying things — an important part, if you ask me — is appreciating them. It's all well and good to say, “I don't know art, but I know what I like,” but the fact is that knowledge of art (or food or drink — or desk chairs, for that matter) can contribute a great deal to appreciation — and appreciation to enjoyment. This is the payoff for learning a bit of the history and vocabulary of all the best things in life.

Engage with others in your search for the best things in life. Take your time. Trust yourself. This is the path of the bon vivant.

For more tips on how to live a rich life, check out Wise Bread's new book 10,001 Ways to Live Large on a Small Budget. The book includes guest contributions from Get Rich Slowly, Zen Habits, The Simple Dollar, Digerati Life, and the Frugal Duchess. If you buy the book today, you get a $15 Ebates bonus and a chance to win a Flip Cam.

Photos by Ricardo Martins.

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