How To Un-Love Stuff

On how my wife’s financial clarity helped me build a new perspective on money and freedom. Plus: the scientific answer to why new stuff doesn’t make us happier for long. A primer on how to emotionally unhook from belongings you love while connecting to loved ones.

For years I didn’t drive or own a car. Didn’t even want to drive. Then in my late 20’s I started driving and, frankly, life got a lot better. Lot’s more work opportunities, didn’t have to carry groceries in a backpack on my bicycle. No more waiting in the snow for a bus that never comes.

It was great.

Then a couple of years ago, my wife got her license and since we worked very different schedules in different parts of the city, we bought a second car. This was great. Super convenient, very flexible. She could pick up our son from daycare or I could pick him up, whatever worked!

Sure, we had two car payments to make every month and sure, insurance isn’t cheap, but it was entirely worth it. Me and this two car lifestyle were like Bert and Ernie, peanut butter and chocolate, Jeff Ament and Mike McCready.

I was aware of the fact that in a fairly short period of time, I had gone from having no car to having two cars and I noted my own growing inability to imagine not having a car. What a huge shift in my mentality! 

That is called the “hedonic treadmill”. We acquire more and more things and, in doing so, forget that we were perfectly ok before all the stuff. Just as you don’t move forward on a treadmill, you don’t gain happiness on the hedonic treadmill: after a while you take the stuff for granted and feel basically the same levels of happiness as you did before.

I was aware of my place on the treadmill, but also firmly resolved to do nothing about it!

And then about two months ago my wife told me that I needed to sell my car. I simply didn’t need my car anymore, she said, because I don’t commute to work any longer.

I acknowledged that this was, on the surface, a reasonable suggestion. It made sense, I agreed, that she would think I don’t need a car any more. Not having the insurance and car payments would be wonderful. Absolutely. But I had my counter arguments.

In fact, I did not like the idea of selling my car. Not one little bit. Like a lot of people, I associate “cars” with “freedom” and “life not sucking”. And, besides, my car was exactly that: MINE.

Mine, mine, mine!

So I tried to rationalize the expense of the second car. I tried to convince my wife (and myself) that it continued to be a good investment. I said that we simply wouldn’t be able to sell it for what it is worth. I explained that though I don’t commute to work any longer, I will still be attending work related meetings, professional development, and etc. 

When I couldn’t argue my way into keeping my car, I imagined turning devious. I seriously considered simply putting the car on Kijiji without any sort of promotion and letting it sink lower and lower on the page. That way my car would technically be for sale without my having to actually sell it. I imagined letting my wife think I was following her advice while also keeping my car. 

But that would be devious and immature (not right); It would put my wife on edge (unfair), and, ultimately, would leave me with a vehicle that I don’t use all that much (unwise). 

Ultimately, doing anything but the right thing would lead to emotional, relational, and, yes, financial losses. Or, as the brilliant Lauren Hill sang,

If you don’t change then the rains soon come
– Lauren Hill

The best thing to do was to completely embrace selling my car. To not just do it begrudgingly, but to do it with joi de vivre and esprit de corps – with gusto and team-mindedness. 

After all, I am entirely responsible for what I choose to focus my mind and emotional energy on. (Unless a leopard is chasing me, then it’s best to just think, “leopard!!!”) I knew I could choose to feel unhappy and trapped or I could choose to feel joyous and free.  

So, I tuned into all of the good reasons to sell the car. I embraced my wife’s good ideas and added some of my own:

  1. It would be a good way to step off of the hedonic treadmill. My stuff is not the boss of me!
  2. Without car payments to make, I can save up for a good bike (and/or a very fine Tesla).

On that: in a couple of years Tesla will be selling electric cars, with long range, at a reasonable price. So, car-wise, I can always get right back on the hedonic treadmill when that happens! There will never be a shortage of ways for me to waste my hard earned income! 

So here I am, 4,009 lbs lighter. Feeling good for the money we just put in the bank account. 

And more than that, I’m grateful for the fact that I’m married to such a down-to-earth person. She was wise to encourage me to sell the car and she was steady in fending off my rationalizations.  

And just like when you get off the treadmill and just walk, I am guessing that I will probably get used to not having my own car exactly as fast as I got used to having it. 

Post Script:

If you happen to be selling a large-frame mountain bike (or a Tesla) at a reasonable price, I’m in the market!

 


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