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Living Well, Spending Less
12 Secrets of the Good Life
By Ruth Soukup
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2014 Ruth Soukup
All rights reserved.
The Good Life Is Not What We Think It Is
Not life, but good life, is to be chiefly valued. Socrates, quoted by Plato in Crito
"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasure in heaven ... For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."
To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
There I sat, a little girl tucked away in my secret hiding place—a hidden crawl space nestled behind the closet of one of the many but rarely used guest rooms in our sprawling 1930s colonial. No one bothered me there, and in that hideaway I spent countless hours in my own world of make-believe, losing myself in the elaborate game I'd made up of creating my dream house.
It was a meticulous, time-consuming process. I'd start by picking out the biggest, most ostentatious mansion for sale in the real estate section of my father's latest copy of Architectural Digest—the one with the formal English garden in front and the cliff overlooking the ocean in back, available for the bargain price of only $17 million. I'd then take a sheet of graph paper snatched from my dad's desk drawer and carefully sketch out my dream version of what I thought the floor plan should look like.
I was always careful to include such "basic" necessities as an indoor pool, a basketball court, and a game room. My perfect house always included at least ten bedrooms, with a fireplace, sitting room, and cavernous spa-like bathroom in each. There were at least two gourmet kitchens (you never know when you might need an extra), a dining room that seated forty, a university-sized library filled with books from floor to ceiling, and every other far-fetched amenity my eleven-year-old imagination—inspired mostly by the Barbie Dreamhouse and too much time spent watching Life-styles of the Rich and Famous—could conjure up.
When the floor plan was finally complete—and it always took hours to get the blueprint just right—I'd decorate. I'd pull out the thick stack of department store catalogs I had pilfered from the recycle pile and spend countless more hours methodically picking out furniture, linens, and accessories for every single room, right down to the china dishes in the cabinets, the fluffy towels in the bathroom, and the classy shoes in the closet.
As I'd shop the catalogs, I'd picture my adorable, well-dressed children and my kind, handsome, and wildly successful husband. I'd envision our enchanted, problem-free existence, the happy times we'd spend enjoying our luxurious home.
However, when I had finally exhausted every catalog and filled every imaginary room with as much expensive "stuff" as I could possibly find, I was never left with a feeling of accomplishment, despite all the time and effort I had exerted. On the contrary, the letdown was intense. I filled and filled and filled, but it always left me empty. And so I would start over with a new house and a new floor plan, ensuring countless more hours of wanting and dreaming and filling, knowing that this time—finally—I would get it right.
In my dream house, life was perfect. In my dream house, I was happy.
Or so I thought.
What I didn't know then was that even at that tender age I was developing a dangerous habit. I had already begun equating possessions with happiness. I had already started believing that a Good Life was dependent on what I had. At eleven years old I was convinced that if I could just get the right stuff, my life would be complete. Full. Happy. Satisfied.
This destructive pattern would set the tone for much of my adult life and nearly destroy my marriage. Of course, I didn't learn just how destructive that way of thinking truly was until much, much later.
The Grown-Up Dream House
After so many years of merely dreaming about it, I was more than ready for the chance to be all grown-up, and to remodel and decorate my real dream house, albeit on a slightly smaller scale.
Finally the day came, though admittedly not under the happiest of circumstances. In 2004, our home was severely damaged by Hurricane Charley. Afterward, my husband, Chuck, and I decided to make some major renovations beyond just the necessary repairs from the hurricane damage. Chuck—the financial rock of our family—insisted on paying cash. After using insurance money to fix the broken roof and windows, we began saving to remodel the inside.
While I (not so) patiently waited, I collected ideas. Once again, I'd spend hours drooling over magazines and catalogs, tearing out pictures of all the things I liked, all the things I knew I wouldn't be able to live without, all the things I knew would make me happy.
Just like I planned as a little girl, in my grown-up dream house life would be perfect.
After what seemed like forever, the big moment finally arrived, and our much-anticipated remodeling project began. There were fresh coats of paint and new walls, a library of my very own, custom cabinetry with pullout shelves, granite countertops, new hardwood and real stone floors, gorgeous new curtains and rugs and furniture and accessories. But then, before we knew it, the projects were done and the money we had set aside was completely gone.
Except I couldn't stop.
Just like in my childhood game, the letdown was almost more than I could bear. We had spent all this time and money and energy creating the perfect house that I'd always dreamed of, and yet still my life was far from perfect. I still felt unfulfilled. Unsatisfied. Discontent. I still craved more.
And so? I kept shopping. Bored and restless, I'd head to Target or Pottery Barn or Williams-Sonoma searching for something else to fill the void. Over and over I'd fall in love with one trinket or another: the perfect bright-colored throw pillow, shiny picture frame, or earthy coffee mug, or yet another time-saving, semi-automatic floor mop.
The truth is that I had always shopped a bit too much, but this was different. My heart would begin to pound and I'd feel a rush of adrenaline as I placed it in my cart, knowing—just knowing—that this was it! This was the item that would change my life, make me ecstatic and bring bliss, perfection, and contentment. This would finally leave me satisfied.
The rush was replaced with dread and regret as I'd walk through the front door, arms once again filled with shopping bags,and see the look—a mixture of anger, disappointment, and even a little fear—on Chuck's face. "Just stop! "he would scream. "It's enough! We don't need it. You can't do this anymore!"
I couldn't bring myself to admit he might be right, even though deep down I knew I had a problem. I couldn't find a way to make him understand that what I wanted more than anything was to be full. So instead I crammed our house full of things. Not surprisingly, the battles got uglier and angrier, until one day we both finally decided we'd had enough. Something had to give.
More Is Never Enough
This idea that more stuff will make us happy was not unique to my situation. On the contrary, this message is constantly reinforced at every turn in our consumer-driven society. There is an underlying whisper in every television commercial, every billboard, every magazine spread that taunts us, tempts us, and sucks us in:
If your house looks like this, you'll be satisfied.
If you drive this car, you'll be successful.
If you use this makeup, you'll be beautiful.
If you wear these clothes, you'll be enviable.
If you use this tablet, you'll be organized.
If you eat this food, you'll be skinny.
If your child has this toy, he'll be content.
This will be the thing that changes your life.
This will be the thing that fills you up.
We see the ads, read the magazines and blogs, and even spend hours poring over stunningly perfect images on Pin-terest. We see the glamorous, extravagant lives of celebrities and reality stars glorified and immortalized in weekly magazines and on television.
We listen to the whispers as we watch everyone around us filling their lives with more things, prettier things, better things than what we currently have. We want bigger houses, better cars, newer phones, more accessories and clothing and shoes and toys and gadgets and whatever else we decide will usher in the Good Life.
But it never ever does. The whispers are a lie. Lean in, friends, because I have something to tell you: The Good Life is not what we think it is.
You see, stuff in and of itself is not evil. We all need a place to live, clothes to wear, and food to eat. I think it is okay—even natural—to want our home and clothing to look nice, reflecting our personalities and sense of style. Money and possessions on their own are not necessarily harmful or destructive. However, the pursuit of them can be.
Over and over,the Bible warns against this phenomenon:
"Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions." LUKE 12:15
Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, "Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you." HEBREWS 13:5
"No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money." LUKE 16:13
I used to think these verses applied only to those who were actually wealthy. In my mind, I was off the hook. Too bad for those rich people, I thought to myself. They are out of luck. It didn't occur to me that the Bible wasn't warning them; it was warning me. Because while I may not have been rich, I wanted to live like I was. I wanted the best of everything, and even if I couldn't afford the best of everything, I certainly wished I could.
In 1 Timothy 6:9–10 (ESV), Paul writes, "Those who desire to get rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs" (emphasis mine).
It is not the wealth—or the stuff—that kills us; it is the wanting, the longing, the absolutely insatiable desire for wealth, possessions, power, and status that eventually take over our hearts and minds, leaving room for little else. Whether or not we can afford it is totally irrelevant. What matters is the desire of our heart. Regardless of the never-quite-enough message society wants to give us, a life consumed by always wanting more is not the Good Life.
In Search of the Good Life
Desperate times call for desperate measures. After our remodel, as my spending spiraled totally out of control, my husband and I were literally on the brink of divorce. Exhausted by all the fighting and truly willing to do anything to save my marriage, I agreed to try something new. We established separate bank accounts and a strict budget, and I agreed to what was essentially an allowance from my husband. I would get a set amount of money each month to be used for groceries, clothing, and household items, and when it was gone, it was gone. I had no choice but to stop spending.
That is, I had no choice but to stop spending as much.
Panicked by the thought of giving up what had become an unstoppable need to buy things, I quickly realized I could make my budget stretch much further by saving on food. I learned how to use coupons and was able to cut my monthly grocery bill from $1,000 a month to about $200, leaving me an extra $800 to spend each month on all the stuff, on all the pretty things I still thought I needed.
I then began looking for ways to stretch my budget dollars even further, combing the clearance racks for killer deals and taking advantage of Amazon lightning deals several times a day.
I channeled my newfound passion for using coupons, saving money, and finding great deals into a blog I called Living Well Spending Less. My original tagline for the blog was "The adventure of finding style and luxury on a budget," and the first line of my introduction read, "I like nice things. My husband hates the price tag."
My goal was simply to stretch my budget so I could buy all the things I wanted. There was no higher noble purpose. On the contrary, to me it was just simple math: the less I spent on food, the more I could spend on shoes (and on everything else). There was still so much I wanted, so many pretty things out there just waiting for me to take them home. I began shopping for more bargains and became an expert at finding incredible deals on groceries, clothing, and other household goods, but I was still shopping, still buying, still trying to fill that void.
From a financial standpoint, being forced to stick to a strict allowance made a huge difference for our family bud- get. At the very least, I was no longer sinking us with my spending. But I was still drowning us in things we didn't need.
Eventually, though, as I continued to write about saving money and sought to be a better homemaker, all this stuff I was bringing in started to feel oppressive. Despite the deep discounts, the great "deals, "I was drowning in things I didn't need, or even want. And yet I wasn't quite sure how to stop wanting it either.
I began to crave and to seek a different sort of life for myself and for my family, one that wasn't defined by what we had but by who we are. I began a new quest for the Good Life.
Not Just about the Money
The insatiable desire for more is a disease that permeates every fiber of our being. Overconsumption and unchecked indulgence in anything—whether it is food, alcohol, drugs, or possessions—will eventually destroy us. Overspending and a desire to have more are addictions like any others, but ones that must be tempered in order for us to survive. We must learn to control our love of money, or it will control us.
Developing the discipline to control your spending, to consume less, to stick to a budget, and to save for the future is a habit that can't help but spill over into every other aspect of your life. Likewise, you can't live a truly productive, con- tented, and joy-filled life while your finances are in complete disarray. A Good Life and financial stability go hand in hand.
It doesn't matter if we are just barely squeaking by or we have more than we know what to do with, though most of us fall somewhere between those two extremes. Discovering the Good Life is not just about learning to spend less, but about actually changing the desires of our heart, shifting our priorities from wanting and hoping for the best of everything in this world to deeply longing to store up a different kind of treasure.
Remember those words of Paul: "But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many sense-less and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs."
Excerpted from Living Well, Spending Less by Ruth Soukup. Copyright © 2014 Ruth Soukup. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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