Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Necessities versus luxuries

About a week ago, the Live Like a Mensch blog ran a post arguing that the secret to living below your means is to lower your standards. The basic argument was that it's much easier to meet all your needs if you simply redefine certain necessities as luxuries. One example she gave from her own life was the 20-year-old Volvo that her husband drives despite the merciless teasing of friends and coworkers. For them, having a safe and reliable car is a necessity; having a car that looks good, or one that was built in this century, would be a luxury. She then invited her readers to name some things that they'd determined to be wants rather than needs, regardless of what others may think.

Interestingly, a similar question had been posed that same week in my Tip Hero newsletter: "What 'Necessity' Do You Think Is a Waste of Money?" Readers' responses included new clothes, coffeehouse brews, makeup, bottled water, paper towels, and high-end cell phones. It particularly interested me to see how the definition of a necessity differed from person to person. Some, for instance, declared a cell phone to be  a luxury rather than a necessity, while others said that a landline phone was a luxury because they can use their cell (or VOIP) for everything. One reader declared central air conditioning a luxury, while readers who lived in South Carolina and Texas insisted that air conditioning was a necessity for them.

All this got me thinking, as I often have before, about where the line between luxuries and necessities lies in my own life. I suspect that many of the things I consider luxuries would be necessities for many of my peers, yet some of the things that are necessities for me might be luxuries for others. For example:
  • High-speed Internet is a necessity; I've tried working from home without it, and it literally wasn't feasible. Cable TV, by contrast, is a luxury—especially since we already have high-speed Internet, which gives us access to nearly as rich a field of entertainment choices.
  • A landline phone is a necessity; a cell phone is a luxury. This, again, is because of my job. It's essential  to me to have a reliable connection in my home, which is also my workplace, but it's not important—or even desirable—to be reachable everywhere I go. For someone with a different job, one that required them to be on the road a lot, the cell phone might be a necessity and the landline a luxury.
  • Central heating in my home is a necessity; air conditioning is a luxury. (An air conditioner in my car, by contrast, I consider a necessity—not so much for cooling as for defogging the windows. Around here, heat is unpleasant but not usually dangerous, while windows you can't see through can be deadly.)
  • Hot and cold running water is a necessity. Separate sinks in the bathroom are a luxury.
  • A dishwasher is a luxury. A microwave oven is a necessity.
  • Having all the meats we purchase be free-range/humanely raised is a necessity, though it isn't a necessity to eat very much of them. Convenience foods of all kinds are luxuries. (Well, maybe not breakfast cereal.)
None of this is meant as an argument that the only things worth spending money on are necessities. On the contrary, for me the main point of frugality is that it frees up money to spend on things that are important to you, and that category is bound to include some luxuries along with the necessities. As Rose Schneiderman observed back in 1911, "The worker must have bread, but she must also have roses." We all need to feed our souls, as well as our bodies. The meaning of frugality is not, and never should be, to do without roses; it's to provide both bread and roses in as inexpensive and sustainable a way as possible. Homemade Golden Egg Bread, for instance, at about 85 cents a loaf, and roses cut from our very own backyard rosebush for free.
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