Nomad Spending: Optimizing for Time

Nomad Spending - Consumerism

We sold everything we owned for pragmatic reasons: we didn’t have anywhere to store it, we wouldn’t need it on the road, and we needed the money. We didn’t expect our spending habits to change just because we sold everything, but they did. Through nomad spending we realized what the president of Uruguay, José Mujica, says in this video: you do not spend money to buy things. You spend an even more precious and unrenewable resource: your time–hours of your life spent working.

Knowing this, really knowing it, do you spend differently? We do. We have to because we have only as much time (to be together, to explore, to learn skills and make things that we choose to make), as the money we’ve saved up. To part with that money is a somber decision.

Selling everything was…there are so many blasé analogies so let’s just go crazy: the colonic cleanse of spending habits, the ipecac of poison purchases, the very rehab of consumption addiction. We’ll always be addicts, but we’re in recovery. These are some of the ways we’ve started to optimize our lives for time rather than for things. 


4 Nomad Spending Habits: Optimizing for Time and Meaning

1. The Love It Test

I’m not going to preach about the difference between need and want. You’re an adult. Moreover, I think the distinction tends toward the unrealistic. Show me a man who buys only what he needs to survive, and I’ll show you a flagellant whose self-suppression bubbles up elsewhere in his life, in likely disturbing ways. Though there’s a lot to be said for training yourself over time to want the things that are good for you, in the short term this test is a realistic way to determine whether I’ll be glad in six months that I bought the thing I’m thinking about buying now.

  1. do I need it/love it enough to carry it around on my back every day?
  2. do I need it/love it enough to sacrifice an hour, day, or week of my reserve freedom?
  3. will the thrill of buying it wear off and leave me fiending again soon?

Question 1 is a hard requirement for a nomad but a good thought exercise for a non-nomad, especially when it comes to those little impulse buys at the checkout counter.

Question 2 puts an item’s price into perspective. David and I literally decide with every purchase if we’re willing to shorten our time, and by how much. For non-nomads, the perspective is the ratio between how much you love the item and how much you hate what you have to do to pay for it.

It’s looking at a purchase in terms of $ you make/hr: is this pot, or shirt, these 15 songs, or this $18 burger worth X time reworking a document for a boss, screwing caps onto toothpaste tubes, or convincing yourself not to go ape shit on your incompetent coworker? Yes? Cool. No? Leave the time in the bank.

Time and money are commodities with an inverse relationship; you need to spend one to have the other. And traveling cheap makes you realize that time is more valuable than money.–Brook Silva-Braga

Questions 1 and 3 get at the next way selling everything has helped us to be healthier spenders, which is to start to cut out emotional purchases like the psychological junk food they are.


2. Identifying the Emotional Buy

You’ve heard the phrase “retail therapy.”  You’ve also heard “eating your feelings,” and “drinking away your problems.” Therapy implies ongoing healing, but I think Macklemore is closer when he calls it popping tags. I don’t care what you buy, I’m not judging. I just realized that whenever I bought something to make myself feel better, I was doing myself a disservice by not addressing the real reason I was unhappy.

Fiending Because You’re Happy

The Feeling: An excitement in my gut. I love the bazaar so much that I want to buy something,  Buying something feels like it will cement and perpetuate this experience, though I could write about it and take pictures to cement it just as well.
The Reason: Addicts don’t just fiend when we’re unhappy. We want to reward ourselves and increase the happiness with the object of our addiction.
The Solution: I recognize the feeling, and in doing so gain power over it to continue enjoying the moment knowing that I don’t really want that purse for itself. OR, I let myself buy something small as a souvenir for someone else. 

Fiending Because You’re Sad

Traditional “retail therapy.” I had a bad day at work, I’m bored by my work, I haven’t treated myself in a while, the list goes on.

The Feeling: Emptiness. I want to fill myself up and alter my mood.
The Reason: I’m accustomed to self-medication. I’m constantly working on this but I’m not sure I’ll ever be done. I’m happiest when I can “treat” myself with a hot cup of tea, or a workout, and feel truly indulgent, but I’m not always that zen.
The Solution: Becoming nomadic has become a big part of this. I love my job, and feel full, busy, and happy much more often than bored and empty.

Now that I have to get rid of something every time I want to buy something new because I have only so much room in my bag, there are a lot of times I have to walk away from shiny objects. I manage to walk away when I’m able to acknowledge that I want to buy something because I’m either in a sad or happy mood.

Let’s say I’m at a crazy night bazaar, and everything is colorful and vibrant. The vendors are selling things I’ve never seen before and mouth-watering smells emanate from every direction. The bazaar is filled with life, and I love it. I want to buy something, because how awesome is a handheld sewing machine that looks like a stapler, and how insanely bright are those hand woven scarves? I’m Happiness Jonesing.

I still need comfort, and want to treat myself. It’s hard to adjust to a new culture and all the scary things that go along with it: frequent feelings of embarrassment and of being out of place, not knowing the rules, looking stupid, all of these things make me reach out for an emotional teddy bear. I’m Sadness Jonesing.

Other replacements for retail therapy have been: allowing myself to spend as much time as I want browsing, looking at beautiful things without connecting that enjoyment to a need to buy them. AKA, window shopping, and treating myself to experiences or small things that don’t  increase my weight load, like a coffee or an ice cream.


3. Stair Step it Down

If you’ve ever given up something bad for you, you know that it’s not only doable but that it gets easier with time. You’ve made a habit of not doing the bad thing, and habits are powerful.

For me, spending less feels like not drinking. It was strange at first but with time, I got used to it. The strategy that works for me is to replace harmful addictions with less harmful ones until I’m at the bottom of the stairs.

When I confronted my alcoholism, sobriety had to be life-or-death. I wasn’t going to risk it by asking anything else of myself. After I quit drinking I smoked a ton and drank my bodyweight in coffee and diet coke every day.

Nine months later, my habits and thought patterns had changed. I’d formed new, non-drinking habits. The cravings still came, but I’d built a track record of getting past them.

My belief in my own track record gave me the confidence to quit smoking. My diet coke consumption naturally diminished as I grew less reliant on crutches.

nomad spending - Ashanti bag

I loved this company in South Africa for the bright weaves it made, but I ended up getting rid it. Another bag was the last thing we needed.

I used plenty of crutches. We spent $100 in nicotine lozenges every month, and if we couldn’t have afforded that, I would have had no problem gaining 20 pounds and working it off later.

Four months later, we are now doing a budget experiment that limits excessive spending, because we’ve been happier  as we’ve purchased fewer but more meaningful things. And on. And on. And on. The key for us has been to focus on one thing until the habit is formed, and give ourselves a ton of leeway in the meantime.

I have no plans to give up coffee. I see no point in quitting things just for the sake of quitting.  My little staircase of quits has opened onto a landing I’m happy with: I’m healthy enough, stable enough, and happy enough to do what I want in life, and that’s enough.


4. Life, Trash, or Decoration?

One night when I was 22, David and I sat on the couch and tripped molly. As we contemplated a screensaver and sucked on Tootsie Pops, my gaze wandered to a battered cabinet near the window, on which sat a beautiful magenta guzmania flower and an empty beer can. It occurred to me that every object on earth was either life, trash, or decoration.

Tangible things that we create to make our lives easier, more comfortable, more colorful, are decorations. There’s nothing wrong with them, but it helps me to remember that even the most beautiful decoration will eventually become trash.

spend like a nomadA woodworker can make and sell beautiful tables, and I can buy them. The value of the table to me is temporary. I love looking at it, and I may even create happy memories with it: family dinners, a baby’s first bite of solid food, board games, can all be had at this table. Even so, the table is eventually trash. I cannot confuse the table with the intangible memories I’ve used it to make. The memories stay with me; the table housed them only temporarily.

Several people have said to us, “It must be hard to sell all of your things.” It’s not. At all. We boxed up a few keepsakes that we will enjoy looking at again, but I’ve not missed anything. I’m too busy creating experiences with my family and striving to do good work.

To the carpenter, the table is a vessel of his creative striving. It is a trophy of his achievement, but it is not the achievement itself. Once the table is finished, the carpenter moves on to work on another table.  It is the intangible progression of skill that drives the carpenter, and the process of creating beauty that drives the carpenter.

Plants are life, but memories can also be life. If I have to spend some money to do something amazing, like visit Iguazu Falls and remember forever after how wild the spray felt in my face, I’ll do it. If I have to spend money on a cheeseburger, I’ll do it.

Wait! Tricked you! A cheeseburger? I couldn’t remember the last time I had a cheeseburger, so last night we indulged in a heart-stoppingly good meal at an “expensive” “American style” diner. It will probably be the last cheeseburger I have for six months. Most nights, we eat cheap and simple food. If you’ve had a cheeseburger recently, how good did it taste? Did it taste like Persian kittens were pouring warm melted chocolate into your soul? As a nomad, I cut out an arbitrary $20 of cheeseburgers a month so that I could spend $5 on one cheeseburger that made my eyes roll back into my head. That is life at its most glorious.

There are a few more ways nomad spending has improved our lives, but you’ve been polite enough as it is. See you next time.


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