Have you ever deliberately deprived yourself of something to increase your appreciation of it?
I have. And if you find you’re taking things for granted, you should give it a try too.
My Introduction To Deliberate Deprivation
Although this is an ancient concept, I was first introduced to it in my early 20’s through my frugal bible.
Yes, it was while reading The Tightwad Gazette many years ago. In one of the (many) stories in the book, Amy Dacyzyn talks about how she keeps her kids appreciative of small treats.
Amy and her family went to the mall for a rare trip, to pick up a gift for one of their six children. While there, they needed to distract the kids, so everyone got a small ice cream cone. She was extremely proud of the fact that her kids found this to be a fun and exciting treat.
In the article, she goes on to talk about how they find it so special because it’s an infrequent treat. If they went for ice cream all the time, soon the small cones wouldn’t be a big treat anymore. Instead, she would need to get them larger cones, then ones with sprinkles, then banana splits for the same impact. Eventually, they wouldn’t appreciate those banana splits either, meaning they might need to get one of those 12-scoop mega sundaes. OK, I added that last part.
If her kids started to get bored of the small cones, she wouldn’t trade up to the larger and fancier ones to keep them happy. She would decrease the frequency of the small cones so they would appreciate them more.
Hedonistic Adaptation And You
Amy was describing the principle of hedonistic adaptation. Believe it or not, regardless of the good and bad things that happen, you will quickly return to a baseline level of happiness. So those large, fancy ice creams bring you just as much happiness as the small ones did.
The principle is much, much older than ice cream and malls. From The Living Philosopher:
“Seneca, our non-resident voice of Roman Stoicism, pointed out that an insurmountable glitch with making pleasure your goal was that it wears out quickly and leaves a person wanting more of the unfulfilling stuff. As Keats said in “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” better to have non-realized pleasure because “All human breathing passion” leaves “a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d, / A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.”
Take a moment to reflect – what did you used to believe would make you happy? A house, a new car, a certain job, a promotion, getting married, having kids? Now think back to the time when you didn’t have that thing – were you really less happy?
I can see this in practice in my own life. Back when I was in my early 20’s, married with one son and living in a condo, we weren’t less happy than we are now. Our bills were manageable on our incomes, low as they were at the time, and we enjoyed life just as much as in the house we live in now.
Did buying the house make us happier? We’ve lived here for twelve years, and frankly take it for granted most of the time. I don’t appreciate having garages for the cars, a porch, and a lovely backyard – none of which I had in my early 20’s. This is just the way we live. Those things don’t make me any happier than not having them made me unhappy.
This phenomenon can lead to you chasing the next happiness high, by getting a better car, a nicer house, or that next promotion. But guess what? After the temporary happiness boost, you’ll return right back to your baseline.
So what if you didn’t chase that next happiness boost? Instead, take actions to increase your appreciation of what you already have.
How? Read on.
First, Reflect for Gratitude
This advice boils down to using your rational brain to overcome your emotional brain.
When was the last time you set aside ten minutes to reflect on how grateful you are, for the things you have today that you only used to dream about?
For most of us, the answer is “never”.
It’s a simple but powerful exercise to break you out of taking everything for granted. All you do is sit down and think deliberately about what you have now that you take for granted. This is particularly effective when you practice it in relation to an area of your life that you’re contemplating upgrading.
I’ll give you an example from my own life. My house (that I’ve lived in for twelve years, remember) has a two car garage. The condo I used to live in back when I first moved out had a one car garage, and zero storage space. It was fine when I first moved in and lived on my own, but once I was married and we had a kid, it started to get cramped. The garage became the de-facto storage space, slowly but surely filling with our extra stuff. We had to park out in the driveway, which meant our cars were covered with snow and freezing cold in the winter, and hot as heck in the summer.
We spent many early mornings and evenings scraping ice off the car, running the heat, or running the AC to try and make it bearable.
When we went house shopping, one of our criteria was a two car garage. Plus, enough storage space to never need to use the garage again. We got that with this house – it has a two car garage and a full unfinished basement.
For the first year or so, we were extremely grateful for the garage. Sure, the car was still cold in the winter and hot in the summer, but it was no where near as bad as when it was outside! There were no more early mornings scraping ice of the car and running the defroster. But after the first year, the appreciation began to fade, and this just became the way things were.
To really reflect on this, I would set aside some time to really think about it. I would think back to the specific memories of scraping off ice from the car in the freezing cold. To coming home and being unable to put the car in the garage because of the baby stuff. Having to run the A.C. with the windows open to cool the car down enough for the little ones.
Then I think about what things are like now, and how much I appreciate them. On a snowy day, we can get in the car without standing out in the snow cleaning it off. On a hot day, we can get in the car and not immediately fry on the seats. We don’t have to trek through snow, rain, and humidity to just get to the car.
So if I were thinking that we needed a bigger, fancier garage, I would first do this deliberate practice to increase my appreciation of what I already have.
My challenge for you this week – set aside ten minutes to do this same exercise, but with something in your own life that has meaning to you.
Then, Practice Deliberate Deprivation
Have you ever cut something out of your life temporarily? Maybe you went on a fast, cut out sugar, stopped drinking coffee, or cut cable. You likely noticed that once you had that item again, whatever it was, you appreciated it a million times more than before.
It’s easy to take our daily routines for granted. Shake up your routine and you’ll increase your appreciation.
I use this concept frequently on budget items that are getting out of control. For an example, you can check out my Q2 goals recap. In it, I noticed that in Q2 we spent waaaay too much eating out. We were eating out about once a week, which is about what most people do, but I frankly don’t like so much of our budget going to food outside the home. Also, I’ve noticed that when we eat out so often, we frankly don’t appreciate it very much. So not only are we spending more, but we’re getting less enjoyment for our money. It’s expensive for five people, including a teen who pays adult prices, to eat out.
The remedy? Cut eating out entirely for a while. This month, we’ve cut eating out from the budget EXCEPT for our vacation. Next month, and the one after, it will also be gone. After that, we’ll add it back in, but only about once a month or so.
Camping is a perfect reset, which is what got me thinking about this topic in the first place. If you’re feeling like you’re taking things for granted, there’s nothing like spending a week or so in a tent to make you fond of indoor plumbing, electricity, and air conditioning. When we get home, everything that was ordinary when we left feels more special. Our beds are more comfortable, we appreciate the roof (and how it keeps out rain!), and our kitchen might as well be a gourmet one.
Where Else Can You Apply This?
Think of all the different ways you can apply this to your financial life:
- Thinking you need a new smartphone? Take a smartphone break instead. Put it away for a week or two, and you’ll have a new sense of appreciation for your old phone.
- Spending too much on things you don’t need? Embark on a “no spend month”, where you spend only on your bills and food. Nothing else.
- Want to upgrade your cable package? Get rid of cable for a while instead. Not only will you appreciate it more when you hook up again (if you do – we’ve been cable free for almost a decade now), but you’ll probably get a cheaper price to boot.
- Spending too much on air conditioning? Turn it off for a bit, or at least turn the temperature way up. Everyone will appreciate when you turn it back on, even if the temperature is a degree or two higher than it was before.
- Kids think they need the latest game system? Take away their current one for a while. They’ll appreciate it a lot more. (Kidding) (sort of)
Honestly, you can apply this to more than just personal finance, and saving money. If you’re eating too much sugar, or processed foods, try cutting them out for a while to reset your taste buds. Getting bored of the shows on your streaming service, and spending too much time consuming content? Don’t watch it for a month.
I bet you have some other great ideas – let me and others know your suggestions in the comments.
Re-Introduce Thoughtfully – No Binging
One of the issues people run into with diets, or going scorched earth on their budget, is the rebound effect. That’s where you’ve cut something out, only to “fall off the wagon” and binge on the forbidden item.
There’s no need to binge here, though. This process is a deliberate choice meant to help you increase your appreciation of something you’re taking for granted. You have a time limit, and you’re planning to re-introduce the thing you’re temporarily avoiding.
The key to not binging is to keep in mind your goal as you re-introduce something. As you watch that TV show/have that meal out/eat that piece of cake/use your smartphone again/whatever it is, take the time to really appreciate it. Think about how much you enjoy it, and keep that enjoyment top of mind over the next few weeks and months.
And if you find yourself slipping into a routine again, and taking it for granted, maybe it’s time to take another break.
Remember That Your Deprivation Is Someone’s Everyday
As a final note, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that what you consider deprivation could be someone elses normal. My eating out issue, for example, wouldn’t have been something I would have seen as “deprivation” back in my early 20’s. Instead, it was normal for a newly married, young, broke set of parents. Frankly I would have thought anyone who characterized too much eating out as a problem, was someone who has problems I want to have.
This exercise is, of course, depriving yourself on purpose of something that’s part of your normal. Personal finance is personal, and the normal of a two-income doctor couple will be very different than the normal of a young family living on a factory workers salary.
As always, I’m all about respecting others no matter what their particular journey is. This exercise can work in any area you want to change in your life, no matter what part of the financial journey you’re in, and no matter what your income is. It’s all about helping you to not take everyday things for granted.
Will You Take The Appreciation Challenge?
Let me know in the comments, and on Twitter or Instagram, if you’ll be joining in the appreciation challenge. What item that you take for granted today will you focus on appreciating more? And how will you do it? Let me know!
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