A satisfied life.

thOn Sunday we went to lunch with DF’s mother and her longtime companion. The most exciting part of the meal was the very large black bear that ran around in a field behind the restaurant until employees chased it away. The most interesting part was what his mother said about flowers.

She’d gone to a local nursery and was so taken by the blooms that she bought more than she needed. In fact, it’s been a long time since she bought anything she didn’t specifically need.

“It was nice to want something,” she said. “I haven’t wanted anything in a long time.”

That’s not because she’s clinically depressed or too impoverished to dream. It’s because she’s satisfied.

I don’t know his mom (whom I’ll call “Maggie” to protect her privacy) very well, but she appears to be one of the happiest people I’ve ever met. Retired for decades and divorced for longer than that, her frugality made a rich life possible.

Not wealthy-rich, but experience-rich. She seems to have friends everywhere she goes, she’s traveled fairly extensively, and she keeps busy with swimming, auditing university classes, attending lectures and meeting with a group of fellow plein air painters.  

Years ago an acquaintance tried to dragoon her into a multi-level marketing scheme. Maggie said no thanks. The friend persisted along the lines of, “But the money you could make! Isn’t there something you’re dying to have but can’t afford?”

Maggie’s immediate answer: “No, not really.”

I’m getting closer to that state all the time, and it feels perfectly wonderful. I have everything I need and some of what I want. How many people get to say that, and to mean it?

I’m no minimalist

To be clear: I don’t aspire to live sackcloth-clad in an empty room. But when it comes to both décor and couture I’m built for comfort, not for speed. The house that DF and I share is fairly plain, and heaven knows I’m not much for self-adornment.

We’re definitely willing to spend on what matters to us: family and friends, charitable and religious causes, the arts.

We have our splurges, some shared and some not: travel, beer-making supplies, movies, lunches out, the occasional pound of pepper bacon from Mr. Prime Beef. And just like Maggie, we bought more bedding plants — both flower and vegetable — than we’d planned. (What can I say? It was a long winter.)

Yet we frugal-hack our dollars to the utmost. The farther that money stretches, the more personal goals we can reach. For example, we must plan our own retirements and we’d both like to leave something for our families. (I’ve got a life insurance policy but I’d also like to leave more than that.)

One of the most effective frugal hacks we’ve found? Don’t buy everything you see the instant you see it. In fact, don’t buy anything until you’ve thought it over and then looked for ways to get the best possible price (discounted gift cards, thrift stores, price comparison websites, yard sales, Amazon gift cards I get free from Swagbucks).  

Not-buying has another benefit, too: less clutter. We’re both trying to get rid of things, in part because we don’t leave a lot of stuff for our kids to have to clear out and in part because we both find a pared-down home quite calming.

Frugal-hacking the wants

Here’s how Maggie keeps the clutter down: Any time she brings a new possession home, two current ones have to go. I admire that kind of resolve.

Again, it’s not that I don’t want things. Certain items will never go away: mementos from friends, an art clock made by my artist friend Rebecca Lyon, a garish pink vase my daughter scored from the “free” box at a yard sale when she was very young. (I use the vase to store the coins I find all year long.)  

Some of the things I want are cheerfully ephemeral. For example, tonight I’ll attend a midnight showing of “Now You See Me” with a friend, and will utterly enjoy the Diet Coke and kettle corn that have become two more of my personal indulgences.

But I frugal-hack those wants just as I do my needs. One of those discounted gift cards will pay for both ticket and treats. I’ll be using a soft drink cup that initially costs $7 but can be refilled all year long for $3 a pop (as it were). This week’s e-mail coupon from Cinemark is for a free small popcorn with the purchase of a large drink (i.e., the $3 one). I’ll upgrade to a large, which comes with a free refill, by paying the $1.75 difference. Then I’ll dump the popcorn in a plastic bag and immediately get the free refill for my companion; she’s driving so she shouldn’t pay for snacks.

Popcorn and Diet Coke are neither nutritious nor necessary. But I want them, I’ve budgeted for them and I’m going to get them. See, even faux minimalists like to cut loose now and then. It’s very satisfying.

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  1. jestjack

    What a sweet gal Maggie seems to be…reminds me of my G-mother. Though “monetarily challenged”, she kept busy, loved gardening and hated waste. This gal was an avid gardener growing orange trees from seed in pots from produce she bought at Safeway. I also witnessed her grow a pineapple in a pot from the top of a pineapple that she ate. She was always up beat, seemed content and gracious. I once told her …”your a master gardner”…To which she responded …”no I’m just optimistic”… It seems like so many times in life …attitude is everything…

    • Donna Freedman

      Attitude can change a very difficult situation into one over which you have some leeway. Dick Gregory lived in abject poverty as a child. His mother would say, “We ain’t poor — we’re just broke.” Poor was forever; broke could be changed.
      Maggie seems truly content. Except for wanting more money to help those near and dear (plus some I’ve never met), I’m pretty content myself. What a gift that is.

  2. Samantha

    A great article. Although I will warn you, I don’t think the (free) small popcorn comes with a refill. I think only the large tubs do. (Same with drinks.)

    • Debbie E.

      “This week’s e-mail coupon from Cinemark is for a free small popcorn with the purchase of a large drink (i.e., the $3 one). I’ll upgrade to a large, which comes with a free refill, by paying the $1.75 difference.” Fortunately Donna’s read the fine print 🙂

      • Donna Freedman

        Actually my friend Linda B. read the fine print and told me about it. Bless her heart. 🙂

    • Donna Freedman

      The small doesn’t, but if I pay $1.75 to upgrade to a large popcorn it comes with a free refill. So I did.

  3. Loved reading this. My recent “want it” purchase was a colorful pinwheel that I bought at the dollar store. Sometimes a buck can buy you happiness.

  4. Katherine

    Being satisfied with what you have may be America’s biggest challenge. All too often we get caught up when the “wants” far out weighs the “needs” and we all end up with far more things that we don’t really need or use.

    Since my resolution to rid my home of 365 things in 365 days has already garnered over 1,000 items tossed, recycled, donated or gifted — it just goes to show that we all can be caught up in the concept of “more”. My “more” is now more space, more time and less effort to clean, move, find storage for or maintain.

    When I look back at all that we have cleared out and are finally beginning to see a difference, it’s humbling. We have admitted to ourselves that we ARE happier with less stuff to clean and store. Our buying habits have changed upon this realization. We are making more of an effort to eat everything and use everything that we buy — more than we ever have before. We are satisfied!!! We are healthy, our kids are healthy and we are enjoying our life.

    Just knowing that we are healthy, happy, well fed, sheltered and have a vision and plan for our future is a peace of mind that no amount of money can provide.

    Enjoy the movies, enjoy the Diet Coke and enjoy knowing that you control your destiny and not the other way around!

    Stay frugal, my friends.

    • Donna Freedman

      Less stuff = less stuff to have to dust!
      Thanks for sharing your peace of mind.

    • Katherine, I love your approach and will make it my goal for 2014! I already throw out one item for every new one coming into the house, i.e. shoes or t-shirts, but your way is even better! Less truly is more.

  5. Still striving to settle in with my son and family. It has been a process and I find myself still passing ‘stuff’ on so others are blessed. Happy day I found your blog. Thank you!

    • Donna Freedman

      Knowing that you have enough to pass some of it along really does feel like a blessing. It helps us be grateful for enough.

  6. Sounds like a wonderful life and something to strive for.

    • Donna Freedman

      We’re getting there, pal. One step (and the occasional aggravation) at a time.

  7. connie


  8. You sound like a minimalist to me! To most people, minimalism is about focusing on the truly important things in life (family, friends, experiences, community) not wearing sackcloth.

  9. It really is garish. So vary garish. Which makes me laugh when I thought lo those many years ago that I was buying you something so fancy and elegant.

    I guess that’s one reason it holds sentimental value: childish naivete, which is a polite way of saying terrible taste.


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