I thought I would throw this out there because sometimes I think about it.
This article will be most beneficial to those that are just about to enter the world of work.
Once you leave school and start work it seems as though life is very focused towards accumulating “stuff”: furniture, crockery, cutlery, electronics (TVs, phones, iPads), so on and so forth. The list is pretty endless because by the time you have everything, you’re already tired of the initial purchases so you start wanting replacements.
Even where an item still works, you simply want something newer, a better model or just more! It’s exhausting. You think it will make you happier but really, you’re just happy because you have what everyone else around you has. If they had nothing you also be semi-content with nothing.
If you go to your village your don’t find them complaining about the lack of a fridge and a TV, they just want the luxury of three square meals a day.
How much faster could you get yourself out of the rat race if you shunned the insatiable quest for “stuff” for proper wealth accumulation?
Imagine this world:
You get a well-paying job but instead of getting the best car you can afford you get a very basic yet functional car. Better still, you walk or cycle to work most of the time.
In your free time you don’t waste money on alcohol and keeping up with the neighbours’ kitchen and living room. Instead, you purchase a few good quality items when you can afford them – no more. You spend a little more to buy durable items because you don’t want to keep replacing them.
All excess money is saved so you can buy your own house; your very own piece of real estate.
When you eventually own your home you don’t waste money cramming each and every corner and surface with things you can ill afford. Instead, you go for a minimalist, stylish look.
You also don’t buy gadgets just because everyone has them. You own a small 12-inch TV screen and peoples’ negative and sarcastic comments do nothing to faze you. You know when the time is right you will get a large TV – if you want one. You would rather have less today for more tomorrow.
This is actually my ideal life; it’s the life I used to live. I still had a black and white phone screen when friends who earned less than half of what I did were on the newest smartphones.
I aspire toward minimalism and that aspiration helped me save A LOT of money. I liked myself when I was more of a minimalist than I am now. People laughed at my tiny TV and I didn’t care – then, after a certain point I started spending too. Although I only ever spend money that I actually have I think I spend far too liberally and yet, owning more doesn’t make me any happier than owning less did.
If anything, it makes me less happy because I could be using that same money to clear my mortgage.
My reasoning is, you only live once and I after eight years of being abstemious I should allow myself a little fun.
Ultimately, however, I promise you that if you make the conscious decision to live the minimalist life you will be no less happy than you currently are. You might even be more happy as you see you bank balance kaboom!
“Too many people spend money they haven't earned to buy things they don't want to impress people they don't like.” Will Smith
Are we as Malawians too short-termistic and lacking in vision?
Many of us have been brought up to believe that the only or main reason anyone would pursue something is because it makes money. Not only should that thing make money, it needs to make money from day one.
If you tell your friends about a project you’re working on one of the very first questions you’re guaranteed to receive is, "So, how does that make money?" or "How much money are you making?" That is all people want to know.
Yet, if we look at the development of Western nations we see that a great part of their success can be attributed to people that pursued non-monetary passions. People like Einstein, Mendeleev, Newton and other scientists weren't hoping to make money, they enjoyed science and achieving scientific results was adequate compensation for them.
Even today there are a cornucopia of people in the West who will tell you they are not that interested in money they are only interested in whatever their passion is and if it produces money, great; if not, it's not a problem.
As a whole, we Malawians seem to only value education to the extent that it increases our income, beyond that, there is little intrinsic interest in the education itself. This is probably what will keep us poor.
"If it don't make money, it don't make sense," so the African American rap song goes – this line explains many people’s sentiments to the letter.
If you hear someone is furthering their education in some way you want to know how much more they will be paid with that extra piece of paper.
Perhaps this is a natural corollary of us being so poor for so long. We’ve been one of the ten poorest countries in the world for the longest time. Our mortality rate has also been very high, especially when death from AIDS was so rampant. Living for today could naturally result from those circumstances.
However, today, life expectancies are improving and knowledge is so easily available. So many young people are becoming something with nothing; for instance, our very own William Kamkwamba was a laughing stock when he was trying to create energy from wind power but look at him today – he’s spoken at the TED conference and his story has been widely read and told on international TV. Could he have envisioned that his interest in creating wind power would take him so far, never!
For many people there's a multi-year lag before their passion leads to a business. Yet others continue to pursue a hobby that will never make money but they enjoy it anyway.
A good number of us now have access to a cornucopia of information via the internet but for the most part we aren’t taking advantage of it; we’re still not seeing people forming clubs and societies to pursue a common interest.
People seem to get married, have kids, go to work and have no productive pursuits outside of that. Our men go to bars to watch sports and have a drink; the women go to weddings, baby showers and bridal showers.
If this is how we live our lives what hope does Malawi have? We can complain about the Malawian economy as much as we like but change starts from the individual. Do you represent the change you want to see in Malawi?
If you want to do something but fear you’ll be embarrassed if it fails, don’t be – just go for it.
“You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” Mahatma Gandhi
Everyone likes to win, everyone likes to be the best and to look their best, this is why many endeavour to "keep up with the Joneses".
How often have you looked at an object that your friend has - a handbag, a dress or even a house and wished you had the same? For some, it happens almost every day. It's a real problem.
This quest to keep up with and look better than our neighbours can be positive or negative.
If it drives you to work harder and to focus on bettering yourself, it's a positive
If it causes you to find a sugar-daddy or to go for other people's husbands then it is a negative.
For the most part we don't know what our neighbours have had to go through to purchase the things that they have. We don't know how many sleepless nights they have had to suffer nor do we know how much debt they are in.
The Cost of Keeping Up With The Joneses
I believe it's better to spend the first years of your working life accumulating wealth rather than accumulating possessions that fall in value from day one. Invest in decent clothes for work but beyond that you might achieve more over the course of your life if you put all your money and effort towards developing an asset base.
Small amounts of money quickly add up. This week you buy a lipstick on a whim, the next week a pair of shoes, the week after a dress. However, if you chose to save this money instead you could soon have enough to grow maize, rear animals for sale or invest in a machine to start a business.
How Do You Fight The Urge To Keep Up With The Joneses?
It can be a very hard urge to fight especially in a country where people know and refer to others by their number plate. However, here's what you could do:
1) Think about what you are working towards instead
It might take you 18 months to save $1,500. You can either choose to save that $1,500 to invest in a machine that produces a monthly profit of, say, $300 per month; or you can spend it. If you spend it, you have nothing to look forward to. If you save the money you'll have the pleasure of being a business owner and you'll make the money back within 5 months once you get the machine.
Not only that, if the machine lasts two years you'll make $7,200 that you would not have made otherwise. This is the trade-off between enjoying life now versus saving and enjoying life a lot more later. What do you prefer?
2) Find a way to derive enjoyment from something other than looking good and having all the nicest things.
This is one of the best things to do because once you get to a stage where you derive fulfilment from a hobby that doesn't cost you anything, you're onto a money-saving, asset-building, envy-free future.
3) Stop caring about what other people think.
I've once heard it said that if everyone threw their problems onto a pile you would quickly pick your own problems back up again. Next time you’re admiring something that someone else has remember this fact; if you saw their problems you’d be much less envious of their situation.
"Keeping up with the Joneses was a full-time job with my mother and father. It was not until many years later when I lived alone that I realised how much cheaper it was to drag the Joneses down to my level." Quentin Crisp
Are you an impulsive shopper?
If so, instead of buying what you want immediately, use these tried and tested strategies to tackle your impulse to buy.
1. Sleep on it.
Just because you enter a shop it doesn't mean you have to buy something. I feel that guilt sometimes but I really shouldn't and neither should you. You don't owe the shopkeeper anything for simply walking into their shop. You don't need to show them that you have firepower in your purse. So what if they think you're a broke window-shopper? That's their problem.
There is no shame in looking at items, even trying them on and then saying, "I need to think about whether I want to buy this or not." Or perhaps, "I need to consult my husband before I buy this" and my personal favourite, "I might be back, thanks".
It's especially hard to leave the shop without buying when the shop manager or someone else that works in the shop has been looking at you like, "She's not going to buy anyway!" Instinctively you want to show them that you can and you will! I have felt this emotion myself so I know how strong it is but my advice is, fight it. The money is yours and you should not hand it over to someone else so easily.
2. Don't go to the shops
Some people find it extremely hard to resist the urge to buy. The solution to this is simple, don't go into the shop in the first place, especially if you feel a strong obligation to buy. There are some shops where you simply find it hard to control yourself and these are the ones you need to avoid the most.
If you get sudden urges to go to your favourite restaurant, distract yourself by cooking something for yourself. Learn how to make that dish that you like. If you can get your husband or boyfriend to stay at home and cook together, you might find that you prefer couple-cooking over eating in a restaurant.
3. Change friends
You know the ones I am talking about. Every time you are with them they want to go and eat in an expensive restaurant or to have drinks at a pricey bar. They think sitting at home and chatting is boring. You don't have the money for these lavish expenditures but they expect you to pitch in anyway.
Friends like these will not help you build your asset base at all. If you can't dump them, diversify. Find friends whose idea of a good time is watching a film at home, baking or going to church.
Peer pressure is a major influence on how you spend money. If you want to progress, find friends that respect the fact that you are conservative with your money and that you don't want to go out and spend on a whim.
"Too many people spend money they haven't earned, to buy things they don't want, to impress people they don't like." Will Smith
For 2 years until early 2014 I wrote a weekly personal finance and business column for Malawi's leading media house, The Times Group. The target is middle-class, working African women.
This is a reproduction of the articles that appeared in the weekend edition of Malawi News.