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How Shunning Materialism Dramatically Improved My Life

By Marty Nemko

I told the new car salesman, “I want the vinyl top and power windows.” It may have been the only time in history when a car salesman tried to discourage a customer from buying options. He responded, “Do you really need those?” I said, “Don’t worry. I can afford it.”

Although I was just 19 years old, I had already made enough money to buy a fully loaded Dodge Charger (fire-engine red) for cash. I could especially afford it because I was a frequent shoplifter: If a store item seemed too expensive, I changed the price tag or slipped into the dressing room and donned the item under my clothes.

I was driven to make money. While in college, I played keyboard at four weddings or bar-mitzvahs every weekend. I probably should be in the Guinness Book of Records for the most times playing The Bunny Hop. So what if I had zero social life in college? I was making money. Every weeknight, I drove a taxicab in New York City until midnight. So what if I was risking life and limb? So what if my GPA dropped because I was driving instead of studying? I was making money and so could buy virtually whatever I wanted: Fancy stereo? No problem. Six weeks in Europe? It wouldn’t make a dent.

Yet those purchases did little to make me a contented person. Sure, right after buying something, I felt happy, but that lasted no longer than the joy a heroin addict derives from shooting up. And I needed ever larger doses to get shopper’s high; the hedonic treadmill kept moving faster and faster. Meanwhile, what I had to do to earn the money to stay high was not rewarding: Spending 50 hours a week driving a cab and playing the Hokey-Pokey reduced my quality of life far more than any benefit I derived from the stuff I thereby could buy.

Honestly, I don’t know what changed me. I don’t recall a moment of epiphany, but some years later, I found myself feeling that the path to a life well-led demanded my getting off the hedonic treadmill.

Today, I couldn’t be more different. I wear WalMart clothes. I drove my last car, a $7,900 Toyota, for 22 years and 273,000 miles, and would still be driving it if my wife hadn’t insisted that she was embarrassed to be in that car, whereupon I bought another basic Toyota. My vacations are usually a short drive to a place such as Monterey (California,) in which we stay at a friend’s condo, hang out on the beach with our dog, and eat at the low-cost locals’ favorites.

My nonmaterialistic lifestyle has yielded me an enormous benefit: freedom. If I had stayed on the materialistic path, I might have felt compelled to pursue some lucrative but spiritually empty 70-hour-a-week career. (Bond trader, anyone?) And after a day of that, I’d likely have crawled home with little desire to do anything but drink wine, watch TV, and crawl into bed so I could handle the next day’s inanities.

Being nonmaterialistic has given me the freedom to do what I want: To pursue a career without regard to how much it pays, but rather, based on how much benefit to the world it yields and how much satisfaction it brings to me. As a career counselor and writer, my income is modest, but it doesn’t matter. I love my work and am able to take enough time to pursue the avocations I equally love (all of which cost little): acting, directing, playing the piano, taking hikes with my wife and dog, breeding roses, and, writing for publications I like but which don't pay, for example, the Mensa Bulletin.

America is built on the premise that consumption is key to contentment. At least for me, it’s the opposite.

500+ of Marty Nemko’s published writings are free at

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