Annie Raser-Rowland and Adam Grubb have written a book that's been described as a “good-natured not pious, humane not self-righteous . . . guide to ethical living that makes the impossible possible.” We wholeheartedly agree! The Art of Frugal Hedonism: A Guide to Spending Less While Enjoying Everything More has practical tips designed to help you target the habits necessary for living frugally and joyfully. Below is an excerpt.
We humans have embarrassingly fickle brains. And tongues. And ears and eyes and noses. Avoid sugar for a week, and suddenly the juicy explosion of a ripe peach is transformed into the most gorgeous ambrosia your taste buds could imagine. Don’t watch TV for a month, and disappearing into a book soon becomes the most captivating escapism conceivable.
‘Recalibrate’ is an incredibly useful word for the Frugal Hedonist, particularly because all of us have at one time or another experienced shifts in what we perceive as pleasurable.
Maybe it was that time that you had a dodgy stomach and had to live on dry crackers for far too many days, then couldn’t believe how good a bowl of minestrone tasted afterwards (and found yourself happily eating more simply for a while to follow…?).
Maybe it was that time that the power went out for several hours, and then the lights seemed too bright and the stereo seemed too loud when they came back on (and you decided to only leave one lamp switched on for the rest of the evening…?).
The element of restriction in such scenarios undoubtedly boosts their ‘reset-effect.’ Adopting a consumption rhythm of lean-lavish-lean certainly intensifies pleasure. But it is not restriction that lies at the heart of this effect. It is contrast. And there is no reason why the activities that provide that contrast can’t be enjoyable in themselves.
Think of that time you went for an amazing walk up a mountain, and the sandwich you ate when you reached the top struck you as the most satisfying thing you had ever eaten.
An icy cold beer with a friend tastes about four times as good after a gratifyingly sweaty day of working in the garden together. Watching a cheesy sitcom might seem dreary if you do it all the time, but after an engrossing stint going hard at some complex mental work, it can seem like wonderful primary-coloured surrealism.
"Bathing regularly with hot water and soap can feel like a task as much as a luxurious experience, yet after six days of making exhilarating dashes into a chilly river while camping, that shower takes on the status of a steamy Shangri-La."
Bathing regularly with hot water and soap can feel like a task as much as a luxurious experience, yet after six days of making exhilarating dashes into a chilly river while camping, that shower takes on the status of a steamy Shangri-La. Once we notice how easily such effects can occur, it only follows that we might think of exploiting them by design rather than by accident.
What a brilliant little mechanism this is! You could experiment with recalibrating what counts as a treat or outing. Pretend you’re on wartime rations, and eat only the humblest of home cooking for a week—you’ll want to plan your meals and maybe do an initial shop for ingredients. Then make a date to go out for ice cream during this period. That excursion is magically transformed into an enormous treat! You put on your best summer ensemble to do it, and linger over every lick, drawing the whole event out for as long as possible.
We can also press reset on our expectation buttons. If you expect to buy takeaway for your midday meal everyday, you may be calibrated to feel lunch is only worth looking forward to if it comes from a shop. Expect instead to always bring a packed lunch, and you’ll gradually forget about greasy displays in the shop windows, and will look forward to tucking into your roast-dinner leftovers lunchbox enormously.
Exploiting this generous agility of your body and mind is exactly what Frugal Hedonists do on a life-long basis. Just as the dedicated debauchee is renowned for seeking out increasingly depraved experiences to satisfy an ever more demanding appetite, frequently making frugal choices furnishes us with a more sensitive pleasure palate.
The basic blueprint for modern first-world living is normalized hyper-abundance and hyper-stimulation, punctuated by desperate attempts at escape when the fallout becomes too distressing. These attempts usually take the form of bouts of restraint (like diets), or of collapse (like illness, or ‘lie-by-a-pool-for-two-weeks-getting-drunk’ holidays).
"The basic blueprint for modern first-world living is normalized hyper-abundance and hyper-stimulation, punctuated by desperate attempts at escape when the fallout becomes too distressing."
Frugal Hedonism inverts this pattern by normalizing an elegant sufficiency of consumption, and then artfully dotting it with intensely relished abundance. It takes advantage of the different flavours of different modes of being, and sets them against each other to extract more enjoyment from each.
Obviously, the suggestions we’ve made so far are for quite small-fry recalibrations (although you may be surprised by the ripple effects). If you’re hungry for something grander, why not try recalibrating your fundamental concept of ‘middle’? You could kick off with a little learning binge about people who deliberately live at extremes of the low-spending spectrum, such as those who travel without money, or eat ‘freegan’ style.
Perhaps watch some documentaries that look at the lifestyles and resource-use expectations of your average modern shanty-town dweller. Delve into the lives of some icons of history, whose definitions of convenience and comfort were inevitably more forgiving than those of their modern counterparts. Look at some of the stuff that kids get excited about and question whether your capacity for noticing the ‘impressive’ in things has become blinkered with age.
Making these kinds of mental forays now and again can be an invigorating reality check, and a refreshing counter balance to whatever exposure you’re getting to jaded middle class lifestyle standards.
Truly hardwiring your frugal recalibration doesn’t happen overnight. Sure, your body is spectacularly nimble in its adaptability. Your mouth only needs a few days off from additive-inflated fast food flavours to find a tomato and basil salad lip-smackingly delectable. Your muscles grow strong and tenacious enough to dig in a garden for hours after only a few weeks of practice.
But you will likely find that your mental habituation to specific behaviours and expectations is a little more stubborn. … Be patient, and gloat over every little increase in your capacity for pleasure that your recalibrations score for you along the way. Embrace the spirit of self-experimentation!