“Money creates needs or encourages their multiplication.” – Edwin Lefevre
The Washing Machine Paradox
My paternal grandmother, Ann Amelia Chamberlain Esplin, was born on January 12, 1896 in the small Southern Utah town of Orderville. She would live to be 82 years old, dying on June 10, 1978. This meant that “Annie” was born in the horse and buggy era but lived to fly on jet planes and see men walk on the moon.
In the spring of 1973, at the age of 77, Annie was reminiscing about some of the amazing changes she had seen. Of all the fabulous technologies introduced during her lifetime she felt that the washing machine had the biggest impact on her personally.
Before washing machines clothing had to be washed by hand. This entailed almost a full day of hard physical labor. The clothes had to be scrubbed using a washing board, rinsed, rung out by hand, hung out to dry, ironed, and folded. She said they even used to boil all their whites as part of this strenuous process.
The first washing machine she recalls was one in which the tub was turned manually using a hand crank. This made things a little easier, but not much. Describing the wonders of modern washers and dryers she exclaimed almost incredulously, “Now, I can do a washing without any effort at all.”
The only thing that prevented wash day from being even more difficult was that before washing machines most people only had two or three outfits, and they only washed their clothes once a week. Even so washing was a dreadful chore and my grandma was forever grateful for the technology that made it so much easier.
And yet, even something as wonderful as a washing machine has unintended consequences. Boston College sociology professor Juliet Schor reports in her book, The Overworked American, that people today spend more time doing laundry than my grandmother did, although the work is definitely easier.
Assuming Schor is right, how is this possible? The reason is that our expectations about how many clothes we need and what constitutes “clean” have changed dramatically. Where once two or three outfits were sufficient we now have many times more clothes than that. In fact, we often wear two or three outfits in a single day.
And instead of washing clothes once a week we now think we need to wash them every single time we wear them. Where once clean clothes were a treat, and new clothes a luxury, many of us now consider both of them necessities.
I am not suggesting we go back to washing our clothes by hand. My grandmother would come back and haunt me if I advised that. I am not even suggesting we only have two or three outfits and wash them only once a week, although most of us have more clothes than we need and wash them more often than necessary.
I am suggesting we notice how easily abundance changes expectations and turns wants into needs. Just as washing machines created the need to do more wash, money creates the need to spend more money.
Abundance, if we allow it, multiplies needs and becomes an obstacle to appreciation. The remedy, according to the book Happy Money, is to prevent wants from becoming needs by practicing the second principle of smarter spending and making them treats instead.
Charlie and Augustus
Charlie Bucket is the hero of the classic children’s book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Ronald Dahl. Charlie loves chocolate but his family is poor and can only afford to buy him a single chocolate bar once a year, on his birthday.
Charlie would look forward to this treat all year, and when his birthday finally came he would “treasure it as though it were a bar of solid gold.” He would spend days just looking at the treat until he would finally “peel back a tiny bit of paper wrapping at one corner to expose a tiny bit of chocolate, and then he would take a tiny nibble, just enough to allow the lovely sweet taste to spread out slowly over his tongue. The next day he would take another tiny nibble, and so on…” Using this method Charlie would make his chocolate bar last over a month.
I don’t think Charlie would have had much trouble passing the marshmallow test. He had definitely learned how to delay gratification.
Augustus Gloop, in contrast, had access to an unlimited supply of chocolate and he took full advantage of it. Augustus had no self-control and was constantly indulging himself. This eventually led to his demise in the river of chocolate inside Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Because it was such a treat for him Charlie clearly got more pleasure out of chocolate than Augustus, who could eat it whenever he wanted.
In an interesting study conducted by Elizabeth Dunn and reported in Happy Money students at a university were invited to a chocolate tasting, after which they rated how much they enjoyed the chocolate. The students were then all invited to come back a week later to taste more chocolate. However, some of them were told to avoid chocolate during the ensuing week while others were sent home with a two-pound bag and told to eat as much as they wanted.
The outcome of the second chocolate tasting were predictable. The students who had been gorging themselves on chocolate all week didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as those who had been on a chocolate fast. In just a week the researchers had created an entire room full of Charlie Buckets and Augustus Gloops. This is actually great news for chocolate lovers. It means you only have to avoid chocolate for a week for it to be a treat again, and not the year that Charlie Bucket was forced to wait between chocolate bars.
Businesses have long known the secret that creating scarcity increases both enjoyment and demand. This is why McDonalds only releases their McRib for a limited time each year and Disney keeps classic movies locked up in the “Disney Vault” for years at a time while demand builds for their limited-time releases. You can use a similar tactic to increase your enjoyment of the things you love. Taking a cue from Disney, perhaps each of us needs our own personal “Make-It-a-Treat Vault.”
The disease is abundance. The symptoms are decreased joy in spite of increased spending. Dunn and Norton in Happy Money describe it like this:
“At the same time that money increases our happiness by giving us access to all kinds of wonderful things, knowing we have access to wonderful things undermines our happiness by reducing our tendency to appreciate life’s small joys.”
If you are a sufferer physician and author Bernie Siegel prescribes a remedy. Siegel writes, “I’ve done the research and I hate to tell you but everybody dies – lovers, joggers, vegetarians and non-smokers. I’m telling you this so that some of you who jog at 5 a.m. and eat vegetables will occasionally sleep late and have an ice cream cone.”
Of course, to those who sleep till noon and eat ice cream every day the good doctor’s advice would be to cut back on these pleasures and likewise enjoy them only occasionally. Neither strict self-denial nor decadent self-indulgence is the answer. The key to getting more pleasure out of your spending is to go ahead and indulge in the things you love, but not too frequently. Make it a treat!
Note: This is the third in a series of posts inspired by the book Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending by Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton. The series will consist of an introduction and a post about each of the book’s five principles of smarter spending.