Adding the Zest, Avoiding the Rest

If you have any money left over after purchasing all the things you absolutely, positively must have, spend it on stuff you love but don't need. Just be careful: If you fail to do this consciously, you'll get wishy-washy with discretionary spending, blowing your $700,000 (or whatever) on things from altogether useless category 4.

One of my favorite cartoons captures this fabulously: In it, a bald, ascetic Zen monk asks his fellow ascetic, "Do you ever wish you had some stuff?" People who don't consciously renounce unneeded, unloved purchases end up getting, you know, stuff. Often, piles of mediocre, creeping stuff that actually decreases their quality of life.

You can avoid this by making conscious love-don't-need purchases. These choices put the zest into life. The very first thing I bought this way—back when I was an impoverished student—was a philodendron for my new, tiny, airless office. I paid $2.98 for the plant, then panicked and skipped a meal to compensate. That was just nerves: A $3 splurge did fit into my budget, and that cheerful emerald life-form brightened my mood each time I reached my office after a slog through the dark, freezing Cambridge winter (at the time, I didn't need a car, so I spent years investing in galoshes before investing in wheels).

These days my love-but-don't-need treats include things like coffee shop drinks that cost more than donated plasma. Yes, I know I could home-brew for less. Some friends of mine bought an espresso machine they adore so much they accepted it as a third party in their marriage. I purchased a similar machine, aiming to save money. Now I pass it on my way out to buy ludicrously overpriced mochaspressomacchiaticcinos.

So...once more, with feeling: Getting the maximum amount of joy in your life depends on listening to your true self, not fads, crazes, sales pitches, or the Joneses. Today vast numbers of smart people are pursuing chunks of your $700,000 (or whatever that number is in 2010 dollars). They may lead you into all sorts of less-than-ideal financial decisions—and not just overspending. They may convince you to focus solely on maximizing your 401(k) to the exclusion of all else. But real value isn't about bank balances; it's about fulfillment, gusto, delight. Whether you're sitting on $700,000 or $7, invest it wisely. Bargain for your true needs, celebrate your true loves, and watch your life's true net worth start climbing.

Martha Beck is the author of six books, including Steering by Starlight (Rodale).

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