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Cure Yourself of Tiny Details Exaggeration Syndrome

gecko_lighterIn my ongoing and painstaking research on what separates Wealthy Mustachians who feel life is full of abundance, from Consumer Suckas who can’t seem to get ahead because of life’s many expenses, I notice many patterns.  Certain behavioral habits tend to make people wealthier, and others provide a grinding pull towards the gutter. Complainypants disease, an obsession with convenience, and short-termitis are obviously bad things, while optimism, putting Muscle over Motor and training your figurative Frugality Muscle are of course good.

One of the stranger patterns that I’ve noticed ever since reaching adulthood, is the tendency of humans to zoom in on increasingly irrelevant details as their material wealth increases.  Despite their advantaged position, people seem to become unaware of the wide variety of conditions in the world and their own ability as a human to deal with them. The results are both tragic and amusing.

At first I thought this was a unique characteristic of US residents, since I saw the first examples after moving in with some roommates in Boulder, Colorado.

“You know, I never thought I’d be able to live way out here in the suburbs after living downtown for so long”, said 24-year-old Meredith, “but I guess you have to make some changes when you get older”.

I was confused, because Boulder has no suburbs – the entire town is only 7 miles long in its largest dimension and we were having this conversation 2.4 miles from the center. After living near Toronto, I thought “suburbs” were something you drove 45 minutes down a 16-lane highway to reach. Thus, I thought of Boulder as a perfect little speck of a town, with every area equivalent to every other one.

As it turned out, a discerning culture had evolved to pick apart the different areas of Boulder, arbitrarily deciding that houses on Mapleton avenue were worth millions of dollars more than ones out on 55th. Nobody noticed that they all had the same mountain views or sunny climate or fine culture.

The same effect is evident in Ottawa, Canada, where some extended family live in an old hilltop neighborhood. If you trim your trees just right and peer through, you can see a few miles across the river to some low hills on the other side. In a flat city with no other views or topography, this is apparently a feature to die for, and people are now bidding a million dollars for even the oldest houses so they can scrape them off and build $10M mansions and bask in the view.

And yet it’s about 5 miles from downtown, twice the distance of my old “suburban” Boulder place. The incomes of nearby jobs are no higher, but property taxes are. The climate is punishing for most of the year. There are no mountains. When taking a broader perspective, this area should be priced pretty affordably, but again the local human population has zoomed in on its own tiny world and started consumer bidding wars for the best of the nearby scraps.

Once you are aware of this pattern, you start see it everywhere. Fashion enthusiasts bid furiously for clothes of a certain style or brand. Car shoppers pay thousands more per year for a perceived difference in style, increase in size to carry around unnecessary items, or even for “crash safety“, a concept they likely don’t even understand beyond what they’ve picked up through auto marketing campaigns. Audio enthusiasts write pages about the vast difference between two amplifiers with identical specifications, and wine enthusiasts sniff and snoot about the more expensive wines. TV News watchers get angry and put stickers which protest socialism and high gas prices on the back of their V8-powered commuter pickup trucks, unaware that both of  the politicians competing for their country’s presidency represent only slightly different shades of the most unfettered capitalism and cheapest gasoline in the world.

Even here on my current winter trip to Hawai’i, there seems to be a “bad side” of every island, where the singing birds and perfect climate are deemed not quite as appealing, the texture of the beach sand is not quite right, or the neighbors aren’t as rich as we are (often expressed politely as “bad schools”). The result is dramatic and can be measured in the millions.

All of these people are missing the bigger picture, to their own detriment. Almost everybody is. So how do we exploit this loophole to make ourselves wealthier?

The answer, of course, is to watch out for signs of Tiny Details Exaggeration Syndrome in your own behavior, and punch yourself in the face any time it pops up. Ask yourself, “how does this decision I’m making look in the context of all of human conditions in the world right now, and throughout the many thousands of years of human history?” Is there really a big difference between the fancy neighborhood and the normal one now? Between home-brewed espressos or Starbucks? Or even between choosing the 2001 car and the 2013 one?

The answer you’ll come up with is that everything is a tiny detail, and even your biggest spending decisions are really between two shades of a very close bright happy green. So enjoy them, and by all means enjoy a bit of your great wealth as you make these choices, just to remind yourself that it is there. But since everything is such an arbitrary choice anyway, why not make the choices at a level you can actually afford, if you’re not already doing so? Once cured of TDES, you can pretty much write your own ticket, living on almost any percentage of your income that you choose.

With the right percentage, you can get all your time back for your own use.. and Time is one of the few things in life that is not such a tiny detail.

  • SP January 4, 2013, 12:27 am

    MMM, I just wanted to post and say that I started at your first post and just reached the end! Admittedly, I skimmed some of the articles that didn’t interest me as much. But, I quite enjoyed it. My favorite post is one you linked in this article: “The Shockingly Simple Math Behind Early Retirement”. I expect to save about 55% this year (including mortgage principal). My calculations show I should be able to achieve FI by 40, which is 12 years from now. Hopefully sooner with some Badassity (frugality and salary increases). I work from home full time and agree that most people’s vehicle choice and commuting distance is ridiculous, especially here in suburbia. If I may make a request: post more reader case studies! Those are great!

    Reply
  • Gerard March 27, 2013, 6:25 am

    I just read an article called “Why I don’t relate to Mr. Money Mustache” in which the guy “needed” to live in an expensive suburb, drive a big car/suv, home school (thus one income), and surf the web from his phone. His take-home message: MMM’s message couldn’t work for him. Well, yes…

    Reply
    • Mr. Money Mustache March 27, 2013, 8:43 am

      Oh yeah, I’ve been meaning to address that post, since the guy wrote it in response to a Twitter challenge from me. I felt that he actually WAS fairly Mustachian in general, but he was zooming in on the details of what he wasn’t willing to change as a reason for incompatibility.

      Reply
  • kirsty September 11, 2013, 6:07 pm

    i have heard people say so many times how they wished they could live in a bigger or better house to which i reply “Why? make the most of the house you’ve got and enjoy it” After all it doesn’t matter how much money you’ve got you can still only sit in one room at a time!

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  • Raging Ranter May 12, 2014, 5:06 pm

    The Ottawa neighbourhood of which you speak is Rockcliffe, right? Just drove through the actual neighbourhood last night for the first time since moving to Ottawa 9 years ago (not counting drives down the Rockcliffe Parkway, which actually skirts Rockcliffe to the north). It’s nice, and certainly has charm and character that newer developments in suburbs lack, but I wouldn’t pay a premium to live there.

    Reply
  • Jeff May 17, 2014, 5:49 am

    This is very illuminating. I can now see it in my own behavior with expensive acoustic guitars – wasting time evaluating and fretting over small details in materials and bling that dont matter – it is a waste of time and money.

    thanks!

    Reply
  • Kush Sharma May 20, 2014, 7:55 am

    I think this syndrome goes hand in hand with the amount of happiness a person is experiencing. The more the happiness, the higher the fear of losing it, and hence, the more severe the degree of this syndrome. When we are in situations where we have nothing to lose, we suddenly become more risk oriented because the fear of losing happiness is not there.

    So the key would be to trying to get rid of this fear when things go for us. Prudence is fine, but over protecting happiness can actually backfire and lead to the situation that you describe in the article.

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  • A August 9, 2014, 5:24 am

    Detail exaggeration has also struck me many times as the worst source of overspending.
    My parents in law used the road safety argument to justify the purchase of an SUV to drive to their
    600.000$ cabin, whilst complaining about social differences in the world. I wonder how many
    LIVES could be saved by reallocating the extra 80.000$ to families that are about to die from starvation.
    But we spend, because we deserve it.

    Reply
  • Rula December 29, 2014, 12:04 pm

    Very insightful article, and interesting comments. It really comes down to the human condition which is supposedly nature’s doing right? I believe one commentator suggested that MMM’s approach is a rebellion against nature itself (I tend to agree with this), to which MMM responded that it was probably less of an evolutionary misstep than a cultural misstep:

    “human culture is powerful enough to override some pretty strong bits of normal human nature, as we’ve seen with bizarre and occasionally tragic results throughout history”

    I’ve often gotten into conversations with people about WHY it is that we have evolved this way…constantly consuming, ever greedy, never satisfied for long with what we have, depressed, self pitying, always looking to the ‘next’ thing for happiness.

    Happiness is never HERE, never NOW – it’s always “if” and “when” which is actually a non existent time. There is only Now, ever. Still, for the thinking being the present moment always seems uncomfortable, always full of underlying unease and anxiety…and we’re always trying to leave this moment in search for a ‘better moment’ in some future which doesn’t exist. But strangely enough when that future comes it will again be NOW haha

    In any case, when I ask “why are we this way” people either don’t care to have the discussion, or they give all their opinions and end with, “well, that’s human nature, nothing you can do about it.” I wonder how many of us have actually TRIED to do anything about it? But it’s safer to say that it’s human nature because then you don’t have to actually DO anything. You can continue indulging in your misery, and misery loves to indulge in itself.

    Thought needs to believe itself in order to ensure its own survival as the self identifying and self imposing “me”. Am I the things I believe I am or believe I own or believe I can do when eventually nature is casually going to strip this “me” I so feverishly believe in out of every single one of those ‘things’ whether body, mind, property, degree, position, fame, title, family or whatever else…what is death after all? Isn’t it losing one’s identity? DEATH is really the requirement for LIFE. Isn’t it?

    As Tolle once said, the ego is concerned with its own survival and as such it maintains that, “if this moment is perfectly fine then what is there to do??” Hahaha Isn’t it strange that one can’t simply BE here without fidgeting, without wanting to do or BE something more, something ‘better’ than what one IS? I believe it was Pascal who said that “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” This speaks so loudly.

    Maybe the problem is that the human eye (which is really just identification with a thought) makes all that is new into something old. Even the most beautiful mountain view becomes boring after crossing it 1000 times. But why? My friend once worked for a woman who used to have all of her expensive paintings re-arranged once a month knowing that her eyes couldn’t appreciate them as they once did if they remained in the same position month after month. So instead of changing HER POSITION, she changed the position of the paintings hahaha (and at a high cost I might add). So strange.

    But I see this same unfortunate behavior in myself, every day. No thought of change will ever make me change. Only ACTION will make me change. MMM is Acting, not thinking of acting.

    I do have a (rhetorical) question. If you brought a human being from the slums of India (for example) and brought him to a beautiful house and clothed him with beautiful clothes and introduced him to the so called ‘good life’, he would find himself utterly grateful and would ask for nothing more and would still be satisfied with much less right? But my question is, how long would this perspective last before he would forget his old life, get bored with what IS, and want MORE from this so called new one?

    Great article.

    Reply
  • J.Lee March 26, 2015, 9:52 am

    “Comparison is the thief of joy”- T.Roosevelt

    Only when we begin to compare is a superlative drawn. Without better and best, good is the greatest.

    Reply
  • Step37 February 20, 2016, 11:20 am

    I have been devouring this FANTASTIC blog since finding it in Dec. 2015. It has already spurred many improvements and, most important, has made me realize that retirement is much closer than I’d thought (doing enough things right, despite some very un-mustachian decisions/behaviours along the way). Like many others, I just wish I’d discovered the blog sooner! Retirement at age 44, in a couple of years, sounds pretty good to me.

    Thanks, MMM, for this incredible resource and the community it’s created. I generally avoid reading the comments sections of anything, but make a point of reading the ones on this blog. The vast majority are intelligent and helpful, and I especially enjoy the civilized, humorous way that you smack down the ones that aren’t. It’s an art!

    I’m looking forward to completing my NY resolution of catching up through 2015 (and reading the new articles as they’re published, thankfully at a slower pace than the older ones!!).

    Reply
  • Four March 3, 2016, 10:25 am

    My favorite example of this is Apple products:
    I got a Toshiba laptop that is *lighter* than the MacBook Air has several times the memory and is several times more powerful for HALF the price (for models from the same year). The only metric on which the Toshiba suffers is a very slight decrease in screen resolution, not visible to the naked eye.
    And yet, people remain obsessed with their Macs.

    Reply
  • EarningAndLearning May 26, 2017, 10:52 pm

    Woo hoo finished 2012!

    Cutting my expenses big time, tracking my “No Spend Days” (17 last month, will do 18 this month). Tracking all my spending in a spreadsheet, updating it every time I spend something, which is very effective at getting me to spend VERY carefully! Got a power bar for the TV and Apple TV so no more phantom power while they idle in standby mode. Unplug my modems nightly, keeping lights off a lot! Cancelled Spotify & Netflix subscriptions. Getting iTunes gift cards with credit card points so my movies and music are “free.” Cut phone plan cost in half. Walking & biking more, gas expense way down. Looking for a new job within walking distance of my home. Aiming to pay down my mortgage in just under 5 years. Grocery spending continues to drop, and is a fun ongoing project.

    I love the wonderful ideas on this blog & all the comments from an amazing community! Looking forward to working my way through all the 2013 articles next!

    Reply
  • CrownPointDude November 6, 2017, 9:33 am

    Excellent post that I keep referring back to. I agree with nearly every one of your examples. One I differ with slightly, and that is the example of the roommate who wasn’t as happy being in Boulder out around 55th. Having lived in Boulder, I sort of a agree with her. There is something about being within a few blocks of where everything is going such that one frequently gets out and walks there, whether it’s for groceries or grabbing a beer or a meal. Once one is far enough away that it’s no longer quickly walkable, it seems to create what I’ve heard called a “passive barrier.” It seems to keep you at home more…think commuting to your college campus rather than being there….

    Nonetheless, great post. :)

    Reply
  • Tom April 23, 2018, 7:06 pm

    This is everywhere.

    Yesterday I needed to buy a casserole dish – I went down to Kmart and picked one up for for $9.
    Out of interest I had a look at what a similar casserole dish would cost from le creuset. For an identical specification ceramic dish it was $499! Now that le creuset probably is a better dish. But how much better? I’ll keep my $490 thanks.

    Reply

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