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How to Be Happy on a Low Income

be happy on a low income

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It’s easy to think that the rich life is the happier life, but it’s sometimes easier to be happy on a low income. Fact of the matter is, opulence can be an impediment to happiness.

For instance, my friends still talk about a certain buffet to this day – raw oysters, fresh shrimp, smoked salmon, caviar, fresh carved prime rib. And all sorts of other foods that were delicious (and expensive). Beautiful ambiance.  It was cheaper than what we thought they could charge, but it wasn’t so cheap that we suspected something.

It was great but it was also all a bit too much. It was fun mixed with guilt, and the guilt subtracted a lot from the fun.

Excess is Tiring

Once, my ex used his points to upgrade us to first class on the Acela and I thought, wow, this is WAY TOO NICE. In the timeless words of Wayne’s World: we were not worthy.

When experiencing luxury, I start to wonder, am I really enjoying this as much as I should? Is this actually fun? Is this worth the price? Am I worth the price? Do I fit in?

Here’s this amazing experience and instead of savoring it, I start to feel guilty about not being as happy as I think I should be. And that guilt takes away part of the joy.

How to Have It All And Still Be Unhappy

Having a perfect life isn’t exactly what it’s cracked up to be. More and more of my friends have confided in me that, though they have the great job, the perfect spouse, adorable children, and beautiful house, they aren’t happy.

Having it all serves as a warning signal.

It’s terrifying to realize you have everything you ever wanted. Because then you have to ask yourself if you’re happy, and you know you SHOULD be.

The “should” makes your perfect life a little bit less perfect. And though you’ve spent decades chasing your dream, you find that you still have a lot more chasing to do. In fact, you might spend your entire life chasing.

Happiness is Correlated with Money, but It’s Not Guaranteed

True, the stress of not having money impedes your happiness. But this doesn’t mean that the more money you have, the happier you are and vice-versa. The relationship between money and happiness is positive, but it’s weak. That means that happiness tends to remain stable despite income growth. If you find happiness when you’re on a low income, it’s likely that you’ll stay happy when you make more, but you won’t be that much happier. If you’re unhappy on a low income, you might be a little bit less unhappy with more, but maybe you won’t.  

What this tells us is that we have to focus on happiness apart from money. And it gives us some hope that we can find happiness even on a low income. 

Living Well on a Tight Budget

I grew up in a middle class family of five on the East Coast. That meant we had some pretty boring vacations, because we would go to where we could drive. That meant vacations in Kitty Hawk, NC, Pigeon Forge, TN, and Dayton, OH. Yep, we went to Dayton, Ohio on vacation and we don’t have any relatives there. My parents thought it would be nice to visit. (We also drove by Gary, Indiana, but we didn’t stick around. We’re lame but not crazy.)

There’s nothing wrong with these places. (I grew up in a small town in New Jersey – I don’t judge). But they’re nothing to brag about. In today’s world, if a place isn’t Instagrammable, does it even exist?

I never disliked these vacations though. In fact, I look back at them fondly. Because when the experience is so uncool, it takes the pressure off. Your expectations are so low that even when you’re mildly amused, it’s like a jet rocket of happiness. And if you’re disappointed, that’s ok too. When your circumstances are less than perfect, you are finally free to feel however you are meant to feel. You can complain a little, sure. You can make fun of yourself and your ridiculous family vacations to Pigeon Forge.

You can also enjoy it.

Joy From Simple Living

The best part of enjoying the weird, bizarre-o vacations is that you know that if you can enjoy yourself in the simplest of situations, you can enjoy yourself anywhere.

The awesome place or the exhilarating situation becomes less of a focus. Instead, you can focus on yourself or on family or friends. You don’t have the pressure to have the most photogenic or admired life ever. It’s nice to realize that your life is too lame to be on social media. And when your life is something that isn’t worth bragging about, then your life becomes a little more private and precious. You’re not living the life for “likes” anymore – you’re living the life for you.

I like to practice this idea of, well I guess I could call it “being lame,” but also having a “bare bones” lifestyle. I don’t have a problem with lifestyle inflation. Except for rent, I spend on par with my lifestyle from 13 years ago, when I made a fifth of what I earned as an attorney. Even so, sometimes it still all seems excessive. Sometimes I still wonder if I’m enjoying all of this (and by “this” I mean life) enough. I realize all the blessings I have – good food and drink, nice vacations, a nice home – and I want to ensure that I can still be grateful without any of these things.

Why Money Can’t Buy You Happiness

The joy of happiness on a low income is that you don’t have to pretend that everything is great. You can live a not-so-Instagrammable lifestyle, and somehow it’s still amazing and wonderful. Because you’re alive and you’re appreciative and you realize that all the luxuries and excess are fun – but they’re not what your life is about.

What this means is that sometimes I’ll have beans and rice (but if you season it well, it’s delicious). I’ll have ramen (actually I love ramen, so this is more of a treat than a restriction). I can wander around my city on a staycation. Spend the day organizing my stationery closet or mending my clothes. Play Solitaire with my mom or listen to my dad’s dad jokes. Attend free events around my area (super easy to do in DC).

I’ll use what I have. If you can derive joy and a feeling of wealth from free lame things, that’s real guiltless joy. And that’s real savings.

Why Money Won’t Make You Happy

I am not trying to make light of poverty or going without. Many people are struggling during the pandemic. It’s stressful to worry about money and the future of your family.

But I’d like to point out that having money means you can throw money around trying to find what makes you happy and fulfilled. Yet when people think about what makes them happy, the things they value the most don’t cost much or any money.

Expectations cause most of our suffering. Honestly, I’ve been miserable at brunch, while drinking on the beach, and traveling in Europe. We get that amazing trip and expect to feel as amazing as the models in the promotional material. It’s a letdown when we don’t. I’ve also been extremely happy playing board games, cleaning my apartment, and sometimes even working.

Right now, expectations are all off. If you can find happiness, even for a moment, when the world is falling around you, you know it’s real. And if you feel bad or sad during this time, you don’t have to feel guilty. It’s ok to feel your full range of emotions right now, and that can be liberating.

How to Be Happy With Less

I lived abroad for a year. It was exciting to travel and be free of responsibilities. But towards the end of it, I remember I wanted to set up roots and be tied down somewhere. Here I was, young and free and living out other peoples’ dream. But what I yearned for was the mundane – getting up and seeing the same things and people every morning.

I felt guilty about my boring desire to build a routine. But it’s totally ok to prefer the mundane over the exciting. Sometimes we can appreciate the small, cheap things more than the large, expensive ones. We just have to learn to accept our own preferences no matter how uncool they may seem.

If you don’t determine for yourself when you have enough, some retailer will. Rather than thinking of having very little as a problem, you can also think of it as an opportunity. You can define your idea of “enough” without being distracted by the excess.

Conclusion- How to Be Happy On a Low Income

I originally thought of this idea of being happy with less at the end of Ramadan. I think the tradition of fasting for a month is so beautiful – as a reminder of those who do without.

Being happy on a low income is all about appreciating what you have, because you know you have enough.

The best part in knowing you can be happy on less is that you know you have the freedom to choose if you’re happy or not – and you choose yes.

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