The Power of Contentment

Warning: This is an excessively deep post that could cause a life-altering amount of self-reflection. Read at your own risk.

A reader recently wrote to me and asked for some advice on breaking her addiction to spending without turning to food. As an overweight blogger myself, I’m not sure I’m qualified to help with the food issue, but because I am trying to slim down, and because I’ve learned the hard way how to unplug from overspending, I thought I would share my answer here. Not to minimize what can be very real addictions to both shopping and eating, I have found a common remedy that can best be summed up in one word – contentment.

Contentment is a powerful ally

Websters defines contentment as “happiness with one’s situation in life. In my own words, contentment means to be thoroughly satisfied with your current place. In terms of material possessions, you are satisfied with your belongings and can think of nothing that causes you to drool over catalogs or showrooms. It is natural to have wants, but if you are truly content they should be few.

I do not honestly believe most people turn to addictive shopping because they really want more possessions. I think most shop-a-holics shop to mask some other emotion. They are trying to replace some void in their lives with stuff. Maybe it is the housewife of an inattentive husband who shops to show herself the love she wished he did. Maybe it is an insecure guy who buys an expensive car because he doesn’t think anyone would have interest in just him. Maybe it is a parent who buys their kids tons of toys to compensate for working 60 hours a week. The point is, stuffing ourselves with food, or things, is a symptom of some other problem.

Does this mean skinny people can’t have debt?

No, in fact many people with good looking exteriors are deeply in debt because they have substituted one vice for another. This is why many people gain weight after they give up smoking. They replace cigarettes with food. Excessive dieters often binge on food, just like excessively cheap people occasionally binge on expensive stuff. When we go too far in one extreme direction or the other, it usually takes a binge to bring us back to center, where we should have been all along.

One of my favorite sayings is, “Sure, the grass is greener on the other side, but the water bill is higher, too.” And yes, I coined that phrase (unless someone else can claim it). What it means is that while things may appear to be rosy on the outside, behind the scenes people are paying for their shiny exteriors. We all have at least one neighbor who buys a new car every two years, just installed a swimming pool, and takes exotic vacations every six months. We wonder to ourselves how in the world they can afford it. They probably can’t!

The secret to finding contentment

Listen to the little voice inside your head the next time you think you really want something. Ask yourself the following questions before you reach to swipe your credit card:

  • Do I already have a comparable item that meets my needs?
  • Is this something that will improve my quality of life?
  • Is this something that will improve the quality of life of those around me?
  • Am I willing to give up x hours of life energy at work to pay for this item?
  • Am I purchasing this item because my best friend has one?
  • Did I only start wanting this product after seeing an advertisement for it?

Based on your answers to the above questions you probably now have a better idea of whether or not your purchase is a need or a want. If it is a want you now have a better understanding of why you really want it, and can make a rational decision to buy it or not. Ultimately, it is possible to control both spending and eating if you are content with where you are in life. Be happy with what you have, not unhappy with what you don’t have. Find happiness in non-material items like your children, or your profession, or the nature that surrounds you.

Image credit: ahisgett

Additional Thoughts on Contentment:
The Incredible Power of Contentment
Why the Minimalist Lifestyle Appeals to Me


  1. This is SUCH a great post. I’ve definitely noticed a tendency in myself to replace one overindulgence and/or bad habit with another. I quit smoking and started overeating. I stopped overeating and started overspending. I stopped overspending and started overexercising. Such a hard cycle to break!

  2. I’m enchanted by your blog, and your insights. This is a great post, and it is deep. I’ve been trying to work on managing my money better (I’ve always been frugal, but my income is so tight that I’ve really not been able to save for more than 4-5 at a time before something happens to wipe it out!), and I’m also trying to lose weight.

    I sometimes feel that I leave a life of such restriction (financially), that when I do come across money, I want to use it to splurge, to “improve” my quality of life with some new clothes, or new bedsheets, or books. And then a few months later, my bank account is empty and I have those things and they don’t really make me feel any better about myself.

    Of course, the key would be to solving those feelings of inadequacy in myself. I think, from a social perspective, that we encourage these feelings of inadequacy in one another – through advertising, on one hand, but also in our standardized expectations of what a person “should” be. The perfect, pretty, organized, insightful, and clever woman. The strong, gentle, handsome, intelligent man. And throughout our lives we’re judged by our families and friends, and then we even have corporations throwing messages at us — we need to lose weight or get another degree, we need this hot new electronic toy to be admired by all the other dads.

    The spendthrift, and the binging, whether it be on food or toys, are definitely signs of trying to fill that impossible void. So that even when you try to fill it up without those gazingus pens (I’m certain you know YMOYL), you’re told again and again how inadequate you are, and the void just seems to grow deeper.

    My apologies for babbling, you’ve inspired a bit of thought.

  3. Great post! It’s very true that you can easily subsitute one vice for another. I wrote about this today too. I find that the more aware I am about my finances and the things that really bring me contentment, the less I feel I need to spend!

  4. I also like the grass/water saying. 🙂

    One thing I do when I find myself desiring new stuff is to remember all the things I own and don’t use. I’m pretty good at convincing myself that this will be another one of them. Then I take it a step further and make a mental suggestion that I use one of those other things instead.

  5. If I want something, I wait or I buy the cheapest version possible to try it out. Most of my spending is upgrading the cheap stuff that I find I’m actually using.

  6. Thank you once again for another insightful post!

    I am always learning to value the things that are impossible to purchase. Contentment is one of those things.

    If you can’t throw money at it, it becomes something special. Any jerk with money can throw it around. It takes real character and fortitude to transcend materialism.

  7. I am embarrassed to admit it, but I was the person who wrote in with that question. It brings me much comfort to see that I am not alone. My major concern is how much regret I feel for years past when I didn’t respect my money. I use to live for the day and didn’t give one thought about the future. I was the typical thank God it’s Friday, oh God it’s Monday, living paycheck to paycheck. I have been in financial recovery for quite sometime but sometimes I get the blues thinking if only, or if I knew then what I know now. When I get in these slumps it makes me very angry & depressed. This is why I have to stay in touch with others who are in financial recovery too. It gives me courage & hope. I never want to go back to the vicious cycle I was in. As Frugaldad wrote in a previous post, I stay away from the malls as much as possible. The malls to me are what a bar or Bevmo/Liquor Barn or Liquor stores are to an alcoholic. Not Good!

    Thank you all for listening.

  8. Hi there,
    Whoa this is a deep post but it does pose some great topics!

    Ok so here is the thing. Its totally true what you said about the addiction thing. People aren’t overweight because they are hungry .. they eat because for that moment that they are eating, it helps them forget a certain emotion.

    I think people that have really mastered their lives actually have the same addictions but they fill these needs in a way that serves them.

    They figure out how to control their emotions.

    Contentment. Hmmmmm. I think its an interesting point because … i guess contentment can go along with boredom if you are not careful.

    Yes we should be happy with our lives at the moment. We should be grateful where we are. But i think that there always needs to be a place of where we are and where we want to be.

    I think happiness is be grateful with what you have while still striving for what you want.

    Life isnt about standing in one place and one time. its all about the journey. Its all about movement and growing. Its all about the challenge.

    Thats what really gives us the passion for life!

    Young Investor

  9. I also have been looking to reduce my spending, and have started to realize the effects of having too much “stuff” both financially, and in terms of the feeling of drowning in your possessions. I really resent though, the pressure that seems to be placed on us to spend, spend, spend. In the US we are getting this tax rebate because we are supposed to spend it to stimulate the economy. I don’t know anyone that is planning to spend it on anything other than debt or gas.

  10. Great post! It really does drive home the many problems that people have today to be content. There’s so much materialism, and I hate to say it, but I can see it in my family and in my children. We teach our children values, but when they’re surrounded at school and media with the constant push for spending and acquiring things, it’s hard to get the values through.

    When my husband and I were first married, we didn’t have a lot in the way of material things, so we grew dependent on credit cards to get us through. Years later, after numerous debts and a bankruptcy, we’ve dealt with being without those dependencies. In fact, we enjoy not having any credit cards or personal loans. The only bills we have are a truck note and mortgage, aside from the perpetual monthly payments for phone and electric and insurance.

    Even so, it’s a battle to stay content when it seems many around us are always buying new things or taking vacations.
    I try to look at our future goals and work toward our security and trust that our needs will be met, and focus on the real sources of contentment, my faith and my family.