Getting Started #2 – The Higher Cause

By Mr. Money Mustache

The Realist thinks he has me pegged. He’s right about the 1999 REI Bookpacker Plus backpack, but in his calm by-the-numbers approach he is missing a lot of the reasons frugality is great.. no, not just great.. it’s the only non-ridiculous lifestyle for the thinking person. And this is because for many of the happily frugal, there is a higher cause beyond just money.

There are many reasons why the act of going to a store and Buying Yourself A New Manufactured Product should hurt a little bit. And while we’re all still going to do it, it should be done carefully and after some thought, and after considering the alternatives.

One big reason is The Earth. Many of us feel some sort of love for our planet and a desire to preserve as much as possible of its healthy ecosystem for the rest of our fellow plants and animals to enjoy. Maybe even our children. Well, unfortunately, buying products and preserving the Earth are at great odds with each other. You’re not helping the Earth by buying a Toyota Prius. You just caused the burning of 1500 gallons of fuel and the mining of about eleven thousand pounds of Earth herself, just to produce a car of that size.. before you even buy its first tank of gas. Eating meat, building a new house, and lots of other fun activities are equally destructive. Assignment: Watch a few of the great documentaries like Fast Food Nation and Food Inc., and An Inconvenient Truth.. then you might build up the appropriate level of guilty awareness to take the innocence out of shopping.

But then, you get to cheer up again. Mr. Money Mustache has got the solution for you. As luck would have it, not buying things is not only the solution for saving our planet, it is also the solution to your financial problems!

“But what about being happy?”, you ask.  “I am buying these products to make me happy. Won’t my happiness level drop if I stop buying them?”

Great question! That brings us to the next Big Reason Frugality is Great: it actually makes you happier, and there’s science to back it up.

OK. As logical people we probably agree that our main goal in life is to be happy. But what does happiness mean? At the lowest level, it means that something in your body is releasing the right chemicals that wash through your bloodstream and make your brain interpret the situation as “good times”. What triggers these chemicals? Usually, things that we evolved to think are good for us – eating rich foods, having various pleasant experiences with potential mates, enjoying social status among our peers, and doing satisfying tasks like nesting, building, creating things. It’s easy to understand how these things contributed to our survival in the past, so our brains evolved to reward us when we do them.

Shopping satisfies some of the later things in that list – you might get social status by having the latest trendy type of shoes, or you might trigger your nesting reward center by buying super cute shelving and accessories to organize your closet.  It’s a valid form of happiness, except it comes with the cost of taking away your freedom (money), which makes you have to worry more in the future – and in most cases, the short reward causes a longer period of suffering, so you’re not coming out ahead.

So what is the alternative?

What if you were to write down the top ten activities that make you happy and are good for your long-term happiness and health, then start spending most of your time doing those things? You would probably find that most of them are not expensive, and that they take so much time you don’t have time for the expensive ones.

For example, for me the list would have things like:
- have breakfast with my family every day
- have some playing, learning, reading time with my son every day
- read 1 new book per week for myself
- practice guitar at least 1 hour per week
- work out with weights and ride bikes 3 times per week
- family hike or other outing 2 times per week
- try cooking a new semi-fancy recipe for the family or friends once per week

Wow, wholesome but fun stuff there.. and it already adds up to more than the amount of time I have available!
Like most people, I still have material cravings. And my unconscious mind is automatically trying to rationalize each one even as my conscious mind resists. For example, right now I have inexplicable desires to buy
- a new computer with a gigantic 30″ monitor (for creative pursuits like music-making and blogging)
- an Apple iPad (for the educational games for kids, and around-the-house convenience for us adults)
- a few new high-end tools to add to my already-complete tool set(because I’m a professional carpenter these days… I shouldn’t have to compromise by using any of remaining amateur-grade Ryobi tools even though they still work.. should I?)
- a $200 Zojirushi bread machine (to replace the rattly $10 garage one I use that still works fine)

But I just acknowledge the desires and put the research time needed for those purchases at the bottom of my to-do list. If I get everything else on the list done, I’m allowed to buy those things. Meanwhile I can feel good about leading my existing simple life because the Earth doesn’t want me to buy extra things anyway. See? There is a higher cause.

Welcome New Readers! Take a look around. Feeling Hardcore? Start at the first article and read your way through using the links at the bottom of each article. Casual Sampler? Browse the complete list of all posts since the beginning of time. Hope to see you around here more often. ~ Love, Mr. Money Mustache

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31 Responses to “Getting Started #2 – The Higher Cause”

  1. Tim May 26, 2011 at 10:15 am #

    MMM,

    I came over to your website from ERE, and like what I see. Sorry to post a reply to such an old entry, but better late than never. And, I’m going to stir the pot, so maybe it will be worth it, if people are still coming back to read older posts.

    I like frugality for money’s sake, not the environment’s sake. I know that part of the purpose of this blog is to bring opinion into the discussion, so here’s my part of the opinion…

    Taking the 11,000 pounds of Earth per Prius as a fact (I don’t know where the number came from, but I won’t argue that point), we can do a little math. I’ve read that the mass of the Earth is 1.3165 X 10^25. The Earth is therefore able to support the creation of approximately 1,197,000,000,000,000,000,000 Priuses (is the plural just Prius…?).

    If each existing person bought 4 Prius during his lifetime (a possible average between high American consumption with low 3rd world consumption – there’s no research on my part to this number), this could sustain for 43.4 billion generations of people.

    This equates to 1.3 trillion years. Since the universe herself is 13 billion years old, this conveniently translates to 100 universes. We have 100 universes worth of cars in the Earth. Therefore, the making of one car has an infinitesimally small impact on Her. Unfortunately, that chap buying the last car will have very little real estate to utilize… And I think we’ll be long gone due to asteroid or Zombie Apocalypse before we get to that point.

    Of course, this doesn’t factor in all the other products we buy and use. It’s just still so tiny whichever way you cut it. It’s for that reason that I don’t use the environment as justification for my frugality.

    And, gasp, I’m not even a Republican (just wanted to get that out before any replies to this post).

    This is supposed to be a thought provoking blog. So any replies to my comment (negative and positive) are appreciated and welcomed. Especially if I did my math logically wrong. Or just to tell me that I’m a selfish bastard.

    • MMM May 26, 2011 at 4:51 pm #

      Hey Tim, thanks for the very thought-provoking response. It really deserves its own article, since I think your line of reasoning is quite common. Also, all of these old posts seem to be receiving more views and comments all the time so I’m sure people will see what we’re writing right now.

      I enjoyed your comparisons to the mass of the earth. That’s exactly the type of math I like to see when people are making their points. You would be completely right if the issue with buying manufactured products was just using up chunks of rock.

      But it’s not – and you need to talk to a few more scientists, my friend. Or at least soak up a few books and documentaries on the way ecosystems work.

      Although you and I still see healthy lawns and smiling children here in the clean streets of the rich world, the truth of the matter is we have already fucked up an enormous portion of our planet just with the amount of consumption we’ve already done. The planet’s ability to support life is already significantly reduced, and even just continuing at the current level of consumption would render it completely uninhabitable in just a few generations rather than a trillion years as you suggest. The ability to support life is measured in things like species biodiversity, pollution, absorption of carbon dioxide relative to production levels, availability of fertile topsoil and the availability of fresh water in aquifers and on the surface.

      Even I am being selfish here, because I am mostly proposing that humans keep the planet in a state that is amenable to human life. If we destroy most of our population, the planet and its other lifeforms will of course adapt to a new equilibrium, but dammit, I want my children and grandchildren, and yours too, to be able to play in the mountain streams and live in a world that is relatively peaceful rather than engaged in a massive world war caused by the displacement of 2 billion people whose homes were flooded by the rising sea levels.

      To cure the problem, one scientific study I read suggested the entire rich world needs to stabilize on consuming about about 75% less of almost everything than the current US national average. I’m already doing this, and it’s pretty fun. So I’m trying to convince other people to try it too.

      Luckily, making these changes also makes you rich, which is also much more fun than not being rich!

      • Elizabeth April 8, 2013 at 9:13 pm #

        This comment is WAY late to the party, but I’m chiming in, because:

        While there are lots of green lawns and green cars in the US, here in China, we BREATHE the pollution created by the stuff that goes into making the stuff you use. And millions here work overtime in factories under generally crap conditions (supporting their families in the countryside) so you can afford to shop at the Gap – or almost anywhere – in the world today.

        MMM has shot to the top of my favorite blog list because A. I need to get better with what I do with my $ but also because B. he’s got an awareness of the impact the stuff we use has on the lives of the people who make it.

        • Ian January 11, 2014 at 5:23 pm #

          Just like to add that I agree with Elizabeth that I appreciate this blog is taking into consideration the impact of over consumption and it’s not just about buying cheaper crap at Walmart.

          Just found this blog now and working my way through the posts. Extra kudo points for mentioning eating meat as a point to consider when talking about saving money and reducing the impact on the earth.

  2. Jay Dugger September 9, 2011 at 5:33 am #

    I’ll agree with Mr. May’s comment. I think you gain more readers and teach more people by emphasizing efficiency and frugality than by wandering off-topic in the kind of higher power appeal you made in this post. You might find it compelling, and perhaps many other readers do too. It will annoy or alienate others, esp. those who’ve long enough memories to recall very similar arguments made in the previous century.

    Please focus your writing on frugality and finances. You have more to say, and more useful things to say on those topics than what you wrote in this post.

    • MMM September 9, 2011 at 9:13 am #

      Bwahahaha!! You are obviously new to Mr. Money Mustache, Mr. Jay Dugger, so I will let this one slide and even allow your naive comment to appear for the enjoyment of other readers.

      I appreciate your clear sentence structure and grammar, but Holy Shit, you’ve totally misunderstood this blog if you think I’m going to stop preaching about all sorts of nice moral and philosophical stuff whenever I feel like it! Mr. Money Mustache doesn’t change his style in order to gain the largest possible audience. He doesn’t stop swearing or calling people Bitches just because some people find those words scary! Otherwise this would be the Mr. Sellout Sideburns blog. People who write blogs do it because they like writing.

      As a technical note for future readers: If you don’t want your web browser to display content you disagree with, you can try typing different URLs into your address bar. This will be much more effective than using the comments feature to attempt to try to change the blogger himself ;-)

      • m741 September 13, 2011 at 8:35 pm #

        Awesome!

      • buzz September 21, 2011 at 7:56 pm #

        Subscribed.

        I hope you stay loyal to this philosophy.

      • pondy October 14, 2011 at 2:00 pm #

        Should be senor sellout sideburns?

      • MsTree October 14, 2011 at 6:52 pm #

        I ditto Awesome!

      • Dan L. May 18, 2012 at 2:20 pm #

        Best reply I’ve ever seen to a “you should completely change your blog’s MO” comment.

      • Mr. Meager Mustache March 2, 2013 at 8:39 am #

        I just found the blog last weekend and made my way through 30 or so posts before deciding to start from the beginning. Your blog kicks ass and so does your reasoning.

      • Elena June 17, 2013 at 11:43 am #

        “If you don’t want your web browser to display content you disagree with, you can try typing different URLs into your address bar.”

        That has got to be one of the single-most awesome responses to a complainypaints I have ever read! Way to go, Mr. Money!

      • Moonwaves October 2, 2013 at 8:57 am #

        I’ve only just found your website via a reference by Fiona (Declutterer) to doing something mustachian. I read it twice before I had to google because although I like to think I’m pretty good at English, I just couldn’t figure out what the hell mustachian was (I was wondering if it was some kind of a Greek or other classical myth reference and feeling terribly uneducated). Just catching up from the beginning now and only a few posts in I already have to stop and say hooray!
        “People who write blogs do it because they like writing.” This made me smile because it’s just the way the world should be. It just really, really is. So thanks for that. Looking forward to catching up on the rest of your writing, whether I agree with all the rest of what you say or not. :)

    • KittyWrestler June 18, 2012 at 3:37 pm #

      wow, this is probably the worst comment I have seen on this site (Well, I am digging through all old MMM posts so I got a long way to go still).
      But ,please.. the whole point of practicing an efficient way to live is to reduce waste.. Use minimal resources to produce the greatest life satisfaction… All researches have pointed out that hapiness does not link to material possesions. Actually it has negative effects on human being when they have too much crap in life..
      This actually has been my top 3 post so far.. I love it, love it, love it!!!

      Just for the fun of it, I want to do MMM’s excerise by listing out my most favorite things to do. So it will keep me on track and probably inprove my current state of life:

      1. Spent my time playing and teaching my kids, whether it’s drawing, or making stuff out of playdoh.. or playground trips.

      2. Have home made dinners at home with my whole family (well, just 4 of us. LOL) every night.

      3. Able to chansaw some baddies on XBOX Live playing Gears 3 Horde mode with my buddies once a week. or maybe twice a month at least.

      4. Chill with my husband or dumpster diving at vintage or used goods store finding and restoring mid century furniture and goodies.

      5. Sit in the backyard, read a book. or do nothing.Or have friends over for gathering.

      6. Volunteer and learn the non profit business so I know how to give to the ones in need.

      7. Hike with family and friends around Colorado front range or spend some time deep in the mountains.

      8. Travel around to see families or some interesting spots on the planet.
      (this is the only category that takes a little bit more money)

      9.. Painting

      10. Pick up a musical instrument or just listen to music.

      And you are right. Most of these activities don’t cost much at all. If I get to do all these everyday, man…. I am gonna be the happiest person on the planet!

  3. Richard October 12, 2011 at 1:26 pm #

    Really? Eating meat? C’mon. Eating anything you didn’t grow will cost you money and damage the earth, unless you know for sure that it was grown without fuel, and organically / sustainably.

    • MMM October 12, 2011 at 4:03 pm #

      Yeah, but it’s a matter of degree. Producing a standard supermarket steak uses up much more grain, fossil fuel, water, etc., than getting those same calories from a nice vegetarian dish. I like it, but it’s an indulgence I think about, make sure I have fun while doing it, and don’t do too often — just like driving my car.

      • Uncephalized June 7, 2012 at 4:02 pm #

        Sorry to comment on such an old post, but locally-sourced pastured/grass-fed meat and animal products are better for you and don’t damage the Earth when they are pastured conscientiously. Proper grazing practices actually improve the ecological health and diversity of grasslands–grazing animals are an integral and necessary part of this kind of environment. Plus grazers can be raised in many areas that are marginal or nonproductive for crop farming. So the real issue IMO is to support raising animals naturally, and buy quality rather than quantity when making your meat choices. :-)

        • BobTX May 22, 2013 at 9:48 pm #

          I’m actually an ecologist, who researches/specializes in the impact of human land-use activities, so I thought I would chime in on this. I apologize in advance if this gets a little long:

          “locally-sourced pastured/grass-fed meat and animal products are better for you and don’t damage the Earth when they are pastured conscientiously”
          -This is only true (with caveats) in a very limited context – only a very few underlying ecosystems are adapted for grazing pressure like even “conscientious” cattle raising could look like.

          “Proper grazing practices actually improve the ecological health and diversity of grasslands–grazing animals are an integral and necessary part of this kind of environment.”
          -Which shows you already pretty much know what I’m saying above. In short, yes, in a few regions of grassland that used to have buffalo herds and have not yet been wiped clean for corn etc., low-intensity beef production might have some place. However, this is really only a very small slice of the land used for grazing. Most of the time, cattle production of any type dramatically alters the underlying ecosystem to the point it is unrecognizable compared to what was there previously. Right now, beef production is causing great swaths of the Amazon to be cleared, clearing/homogenization of environments all over America, displacement of native grazing animals all over Africa, occupies tons of land already lost to any sort of native ecosystem in Europe, etc.

          “Plus grazers can be raised in many areas that are marginal or nonproductive for crop farming.”
          -Might be marginal for corn, but not so much for the huge list of native species and food webs already present in such places that such grazing on merely “marginal” land will displace. Seriously, cattle production comes in, and large portions of most native animals go into precipitous decline. I’ve studied it in exactly the type of situation I think you are referring to in TX.

          “So the real issue IMO is to support raising animals naturally, and buy quality rather than quantity when making your meat choices.”
          -This ecologist just can’t agree when we’re currently rapidly replacing natural environments world-wide to meet the rising demand for beef (and other meats). I would excitedly agree with you if the human population was much, much smaller (it would still take screwing up some regions of what could be natural habitat, but at least we could meet the needs of most people eating some beef etc. without using up too much land). Right now though, just the beef/meat habits of the developed world are way past sustainable on one earth – just imagine if we continue to add to the portion of humanity that can consume even close to what a “responsible conscious” westerner probably thinks is alright.

  4. Teen Geek October 26, 2011 at 8:51 am #

    What are your thoughts on buying digital or educational products?

    I am major geek/techy and for the last few years I have been learning programming and website design, but as a teen I sometimes feel like some parts of my education are limited by not having money to spend. Between books, educational videos, training sessions, etc… there are a lot of products that I would like to buy not because it would be a “new shiny toy” but because I want to continue learning and developing my skills. I understand that some books are available at the library and that there are a lot of free resources online, but overall I believe that the quality ends up better and the coverage more complete in the higher priced products.

    Would succumbing to those sorts of desires completely defy all ideas of Mustachian Badassity or would they be more acceptable? I really am enjoying this blog and I would love to know your opinion on this.

    • MMM October 26, 2011 at 10:18 am #

      Nice question! I feel that investing in your own education is almost always a great idea. It’s still good to do it consciously, to get the most for your money, especially since you can learn almost everything for free with the help of the Internet (sometimes even YouTube), and the library. But formal education and books and software are still great things and they should pay off in the long run too. You are particularly lucky, since there seems to be a continuing long bright future for techies out there.

  5. Paul Wylie December 9, 2011 at 9:04 pm #

    I keep a 30 day cool off list on my phone. If I want it – but dont need it, and its more than £5, It goes on the list. Few of the things on the list ever get bought.

    • KittyWrestler June 18, 2012 at 3:42 pm #

      That’s a brilliant approach mate!
      I have been practicing a “I didn’t get it” list on my phone these days.
      Anything I wanted to buy but fought the urge to buy, I list the item name and cost on my phone. By the end of month, I added up all the things I didn’t buy and throw the money at mortgage..
      last month, I had more than $500 entry in my list.. pretty sad.. but exciting as well!!

  6. Tim September 28, 2012 at 8:18 am #

    My top ten most favorite things to do:
    1. Spend time with my kids!!!
    2. Karate – $3,760 per year for the kids and I (once you pay for 2 family members the rest get in for free) – 2 times a week with one week off every quarter equals 96 times a year – times three (2 children and myself) is 288 times a year – this equals 13.05555.. Per class.
    3. Skiing – expensive with the kids (my gear is older than MMM backpack) but it’s something I think has greater value than just a day on the hill.
    4. Bike riding with and without the kids.
    5. NFL football games. I buy 2 season tickets and try to sell one for enough to cover the cost of both. I have done great in the last couple seasons I have even come out ahead.
    6. Reading MMM and MDA blogs. I’m new to MMM but I love what I see.
    7. Hiking with and without the kids
    8. Cooking new recipes.
    9. Hanging out in my back yard and read or just stare into space.
    10. Trying to figure out ways to save money and still do numbers 2 and 3. I actually do enjoy crunching numbers. For example I know I will have my credit card debt ($37,581.55) paid off in 27 months or less depending on profitability bonuses. 27 is assuming that I will get no bonuses in the next 9 quarters.

    Number 10 is probably closer to the top of the list. Maybe even number 2. I spend hours in front of my excel spreadsheet.

    Number 2 I actually go 4 to 5 times a week. To fill the time I’m not with my children. Stupid ex-wife, I want to retire early and live the good life to piss her off…..don’t get me wrong that’s just one of many reasons.

    • Everett October 25, 2013 at 3:55 pm #

      Tim, you obviously like crunching the numbers (shit, you have your karate costs calculated to the 1/100000 of a cent; yes the FI crowd will tell you that margins matter, but you aren’t amazon, you can just call those karate classes thirteen bucks. If the nickels matter, add them in). My point is that I used to be just like you, constantly watching the numbers and calculating wealth and returns for varying interest rates, etc. The opportunity cost of spending all that time running numbers was huge. Just sign up with Mint or a dozen other websites like it, put it on autopilot and spend more time doing what you enjoy. The real key is to figure out a way to get PAID doing what you enjoy. Ever think about joining the ski patrol? The difficulty of qualifying will very with location, but once you are on, you can ski ANYWHERE for FREE. Or work out a deal with the karate studio and teach some beginner classes. Sell beer at the stadium and take in those NFL games free (granted, you will miss all but the 4th quarter) but the key is to turn your expenses in to income. You need to know where your money is going and have a plan, but after that, don’t spend too much watching the numbers. I wasted a lot of time doing that, and time is a finite resource.

  7. subramanyam October 15, 2012 at 8:27 pm #

    Nice to see Americans talk of reducing waste. Your portion sizes, homes, cars, are all much more than what you really ‘need’. Sad to say but the big pharma, big auto, big food, big Money, ….have mad the ordinary person a slave. Get away from your media and you will have a great life. Waste less, want less….

  8. Kyrie Robinson February 12, 2013 at 1:55 am #

    Bread machine?? How about a bedpan & catheter to go with that.

    Get “artisan bread in 5 min per day” from the library. No fancy equipment required. My goal this year was to teach myself to make bread – I mean, how can I call myself a human being much less a cook if I can’t make BREAD? This book is terrific – you will love it.

    Sell the bread machine on Craigslist.

  9. Ivan July 4, 2013 at 3:12 pm #

    Finally, a frugalist with a higher cause!

    I find that being frugal SEEMS hard at the beginning, but it’s actually very easy once you get into the habit (and you get all the financial rewards that comes with it). I used to think that being frugal means you have to cut this and give up that. But in reality, you’re not really cutting anything. Instead, you’re merely making a trade.

    Take the example of using transit to get to work instead of driving. On one hand, you’re giving up some convenience and privacy by sharing your ride with others during the rush hour. But in return, you save money, reduce pollution, and virtually eliminate the stress you would have gotten from road rage.

    For some people, this trade works. For others, perhaps not so much. That’s fine, as long as the person is making a conscious decision with their money.

    I think this blog is cool in that Mr. MMM tries to teach people that there is another way. We don’t have to buy into the consumerist mentality if we choose not to. More importantly, as Mr. MMM tries to teach us, we shouldn’t blindly follow whatever the mass media tells us to do without first thinking for ourselves what it is that we want.

  10. Garrett October 17, 2013 at 8:44 am #

    It looks like my comment didn’t get posted for some reason. I’ll try again. I’m curious if you apply your ethics to your investing, as well. Do you, for instance, buy stock in oil companies or weapon manufacturers or companies that use sweatshop labor (Nike) or companies that profit off of child slaves (Nestle)?

    Or are you only ethical when it’s convenient to be?

    • Mr. Money Mustache October 17, 2013 at 8:57 am #

      A frequently asked question indeed.

      I do buy the whole index which means owning all stocks. Not because I agree with every business practice of every company, but because I can more efficiently do good if I apply my time in more direct activities (fir example promoting energy efficiency or philanthropy), instead of watching over every board meeting of every company. Thanks for the reminder, I’ve never written an article about this specifically and it could bring out some good discussion.

      • Garrett October 17, 2013 at 7:59 pm #

        Couldn’t you engage in what you term “direct activities” *and* not contribute to horrifically unethical companies? You might have a tough time making a lot of money (which is merely a social construct with no intrinsic value anyway) by avoiding those stocks, but I figure ethics should trump personal profit.

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