Sunday, December 28, 2008, was a black day. I needed advice from a real person regarding my iPod. My younger son needed software for his iPod. My wife had returns to make at Old Navy and The Gap. My older son needed something to do. Thus the stars were aligned for a family trip to the mall.
As a general rule, I hate shopping malls. I also hate crowds, parking lots, food courts, roaming bands of teens and missing a Sunday afternoon of productivity, relaxation, or both, at home. My wife and I share this aversion to shopping malls and we find every reason imaginable to avoid them. Nevertheless, our needs were pressing so we ventured out.
Our experience at the mall was mixed, at best. On the one hand, it took me a long, long time to find a parking space and the mall itself was packed. I tried to view that as a good sign that our economy was stronger than the news media currently portray. I also tried not to let the experience cause me any undue stress. Sadly, I failed at that and soon found myself both stressed out and miserable.
Never one to miss out on an opportunity to self-assess, I soon realized that as my stress increased, my impulse to spend money unnecessarily increased proportionately. Even more interestingly, when my young son made a purchase, I found that my stress level decreased. Whether that was because we had spent money or because we were leaving the mall, I cannot tell. Be that as it may, that is what happened.
This past Sunday was the complete opposite of my Sunday at the mall. In contrast, today, I spent in the relative tranquility of an empty home. The television stayed off and I enjoyed the quiet background music of my digital classical musical collection. I read (books that I need to read for a test that I shall be taking). I prepped everything that we would be having for dinner. I did the laundry. I went for a walk. It was a completely meditative day and one without stress.
Of course, I spent no money and I had no urge to do so. In my meditations, I realized – perhaps recognized would be a better term – that the more tense I feel, the more likely I am to spend money. Whether the expenditure offers release or validation, I do not know, but I have demonstrated a marked tendency to spend money when I am most tense and to preserve my frugal ways when I am most relaxed.
Meditation and other forms of silent reflection thus seem to be my surest path towards truly enlightened spending. When I look back over the years, the years when I have had the least amount of spending money have been the years that I recall as being the most relaxed of my life.
The summer of 1988, after graduating from college, but before I had found a job. The summer of ’91, when I worked for nearly minimum wage for a law school professor. I did not have cash so I did not feel the need to spend it or the pressure to spend it. I would wander for hours in the woods near my home, pausing sometimes for what may have been minutes or even hours, just to listen to the sounds of nature. These past few months without a job sitting in my living room with the windows open, listening to the birds outside my home and enjoying the gentle breezes or going outside for a walk.
Whatever my current station in life, if I take the time to think and to relax, I know I will spend less than when I get caught up in the hustle and bustle of daily life. Now, even when I am busy, I still force myself to take breaks before my stress level rises to the point where I need to pursue immediately gratification (usually by spending). If my pulse rate quickens, I will go to a quiet place and just think and listen for even a few minutes, just to set my keel even. And it works. The more time I spent in quiet contemplation, the less I spend.
Do you take time out to relax each day? Do you meditate or do yoga? Do you ride a bicycle or run or pursue other athletic activities that give you time with your thoughts? Have you ever considered the fiscal therapy that reflection offers?