How Shunning Materialism Dramatically Improved My Life
By Marty NemkoI 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.
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