Jun 30, 2018
My husband Joey and I run a nonprofit, and we pay ourselves what we would make if the world’s wealth was entirely equally distributed. Often when people hear this they think that we live like austere monks, eating nothing but rice and beans, drinking only water, and working until we drop from exhaustion. However, we actually live a very comfortable lifestyle. I think one reason for this is that we have thought strategically about how to have fun on a budget. We’ve learned a lot from this experience and in this blog post I’ll explain more about how we do a lot with a little.
I hope that those who are interested can use this as a guide, thus freeing their money for more donations or taking a lower nonprofit salary. Of course, this is not a universal guide, and some people might not be in a position to do this (see more here). This is just for people who want to have a more frugal lifestyle and still enjoy their weekends.
I’ll start off by explaining the broad principles of maximizing fun per dollar with limited resources, then I’ll give some concrete examples.
First of all, break down your interests. “Fun” is too broad of a term. There are many different sorts, and some people prefer some more than others. For example, you might be an extrovert, at which point figuring out ways to have fun that are social will be more important than if you’re an introvert. Common goals people want their fun to fulfill are novelty, socializing, being in a different environment, being outdoors, gaining mastery, physical pleasure, and relaxing.
Once you’ve identified your interests, brainstorm ways to achieve them. Ideally, make a spreadsheet with a row for each idea, and add as many rows as you can. If you spend less than 30 minutes working on this, you’re doing it wrong. Often the best ideas will come after you’ve been stumped for 5 minutes straight. Keep going. Set a timer.
Then do the most EA thing ever - write up expected costs in one column and expected fun-hours in another column. Make a fourth column explaining how many hours of fun you get per dollar, and sort by that. Et voila! You now have massive nerd points and you’ll be having more cost-effective fun than ever.
The systematic nature of this method isn’t its only important feature; another is the fact that it forces you to be creative and think about your more fundamental goals. Often people default to the status quo way to achieve their ends, and this leads to massive inefficiencies. For instance, if somebody has a yearning for a pet, they’ll often just go and adopt one. However, there are alternative options that get a lot of the same benefit for less cost, both time- and money-wise. You could foster pets, which, while free, is also helping cause more happiness in the world (if a dog isn’t a utility monster, I don’t know what is). You could ask your neighbors if they’d be interested in free dog-walking. You could volunteer at a local pet shelter. In short, creativity isn’t just for artists. It makes almost every other area of your life better.
A side note - remember to maximize your different interests separately. If you only figure out good fun-per-dollar activities for vegging out, you’ll often start getting niggling feelings of boredom and meaninglessness. Make sure to take care of novelty and other drives as well.
The second broad principle is to lower your big costs and not worry about the small ones. When I go grocery shopping I do not pay much attention to price. However, when I was looking for a place to rent, I was patient and looked for a good deal. At the moment I live in the most expensive city in Canada, and yet my rent is very reasonable due to this one-time restraint and strategicness. Another big cost is a car. If at all possible, choose a place to live with good public transit and live close to a hub. Metros are particularly good for getting places faster. Likewise, live close to your work. This minimizes transit costs and also leads to the third principle: minimize time spent on drudgery.
You can spend money on pursuing fun, but an equally good way to make your life more enjoyable is to pay to avoid boredom and pain. For example, pay for grocery delivery. It saves you a ton of time, and unless you enjoy the process of shopping, it will free up your time for much more enjoyable activities.
So, those are the broad principles. Let’s get into some concrete examples:
I’m going to end on a more advanced note that can’t be summarized well in point form. One of the most powerful, but also most difficult, ways to have fun cost-effectively is to expand the number of things you find enjoyable. I do this with meditation and gratitude, but I’ve heard of people having success with CBT as well.
Happiness comes from external and internal factors, and if you can control the internal factors, this costs no money and can last a lifetime. However, it’s tricky and subtle and I’ve seen some people have far more success with it than others. I’ll give it my best go here though within the limitations of a blog post.
Meditation has a lot of evidence in its favor, and in my own personal experience (I’ve been tracking my happiness and habits for over four years now), has made an enormous difference. Meditating first thing in the morning makes you more resilient to potential stressors throughout the day, and can change your baseline of happiness, such that, if nothing in particular is happening, you are at a higher level than you would be without it. I highly recommend accompanying your practice with reading or classes. Since meditation is fundamentally hard to teach (you can’t see what’s going on in somebody’s brain and correct it as a teacher), play around with different teaching resources. Some might click with you way better than others. I recommend Joy on Demand (written by a programmer and Google employee, so more rationality focused) and The Mind Illuminated (much more technical and straightforward compared to more woo-y alternatives). However, your mileage may vary. Play around with it.
Gratitude, or, more broadly, savoring, is another very potent method to enjoy more things. I say a gratitude list before bed every night after brushing my teeth, to chain together habits. I also finish my meditation each morning by listing 3 things I appreciate about my job. Additionally, it can help to, instead of comparing yourself to people who are doing better than you, compare yourself to those who are worse off. When I think about the global poor and how their lives compare to mine, I feel extremely lucky and wealthy, and a great side benefit is I feel more motivated about my job at the same time. I often feel richer than friends earning ten times my income feel.
Cognitive behavioral therapy can also be a great tool, especially for getting rid of more negative thoughts. You can also proactively practice re-framing events in ways that make you enjoy them more.
I’ll finish with a more philosophical approach to frugal fun. Far from feeling limited by my income, I have found, like many others, that practicing minimalism makes me feel free. I feel that since what I need to feel happy is so small, I can do anything I want. If I wanted to work on a very controversial charity idea, I would only need to fundraise a small amount. If anything goes wrong in my life financially, it doesn’t take much to rebuild. A lot of anxiety is relieved when you don’t need much. Living simply doesn’t mean living austerely. It can mean living more purposefully and with greater peace.