Is Materialism Blocking Your Career Change?

by Rachel Collis

Sarah was unhappy in her current job. She didn’t seem to achieve anything meaningful through her work. She often felt frustrated and dissatisfied. She didn’t quite know what she wanted to do next but she knew that she wanted things to be different.

She dreamed of starting a business, or enrolling in a university course.

As her coach, I wanted to know how much flexibility she had to make some bold career moves. So I asked her how she would fund the change.

She smiled and told me that she had some savings. She looked almost apologetic as she said, ‘I am really careful with money. I always have been.’

As she spoke, my heart lifted. I knew that it was going to be so much easier for her to transition into joyful and meaningful work.

Thrift – using resources efficiently and wisely – is one of the neglected skills of career change.

Frugality can lead to freedom. As you get better and better at living on less, more options open up. You are no longer caught in a trap where you have to stick with a job you hate, in order to maintain a lifestyle that doesn’t serve you.

‘…debt will always be the abattoir of creative dreams’ Elizabeth Gilbert 

But if frugality is such an important skill, why is it so rare?  Is it possible to change our spending habits and become thrifty?

Why aren’t we thrifty?

We tend to assume that humans are naturally insatiable consumers.  We see plenty of evidence for this in the demand for more and more stuff. It seems like it is inevitable.

But this behaviour of endless consumption is actually something we have been trained to do.

Sharon Beder, a researcher at Wollongong University, Australia writes:

‘The desire to consume is often portrayed as a natural human characteristic that cannot be changed. However it is clear that populations have been manipulated into being avaricious consumers. What people really want, more than the multitude of goods on offer, is status and history has shown that the determinants of status can change. If we want to live in an ecologically sustainable society, then we need to award status to those who are happy with a basic level of comfort rather than those who accumulate possessions. If, as a community, we admired wisdom above wealth and compassion and cooperation above competition, we would be well on the way to undermining the motivation to consume.’ Sharon Beder, ‘Consumerism – an Historical Perspective’, Pacific Ecologist 9, Spring 2004, pp. 42-48.

In the 1920’s factories became more efficient and production started to increase. The natural response to this rise in production was for people to work fewer hours. An employee could have the same standard of living, working four days a week, and a three day weekend looked good! However, this isn’t how things turned out. An extensive and longstanding campaign convinced people that instead of more leisure, they needed more stuff:

‘the desire to consume did not come naturally, it had to be learned: “People had to move away from habits of strict thrift toward habits of ready spending.”[Clapp, 1996] ’ Beder

Governments and corporations put a lot of effort into training us to be consumers. This wasn’t with evil intent. Businesses were acting from simple self-interest. They wanted to sell what they produced. Governments wanted the economy to grow and for that to happen, they needed people to consume more and more.

This determined campaign to make us think that spending was a good idea, worked well, perhaps too well. It might be time to push in the opposite direction.

What if we decided to make thrift a virtue?

I want to suggest that we pivot and start to see thrift as a virtue. To see thrift as providing freedom and choice; even a measure of security.

If I practice thrift, I don’t need to earn as much money. I can then choose to focus on work that I find fulfilling, even if it doesn’t pay well.  Or I can choose to spend more time with the people I love and less time working. Or I can continue to work hard for a few years, pay extra on my mortgage and save some money… and then change careers.

If you are considering a career change, thrift can make things so much easier.

What are the first steps in becoming more frugal?

Become more aware and curious about your own spending

Without even realising it, we have internalised some ideas that deeply influence our spending. Once we become mindful of this, we have more choice.

When you are about to spend money, pause and be curious about the underlying reasons for your choice. Your mind might give you very sensible reasons for spending money but dig deeper, what is really going on for you?

It might be:

I deserve it!

Other people will think I am…successful or attractive or smart or cool…

If I don’t spend money on x …other people might think I am unsuccessful or poor or mean

I want to feel …successful, attractive etc.…

I am feeling sad, anxious or bored and this will make me feel better

I don’t want my kids to miss out

I don’t want to miss out

I am tired and I can’t be bothered cooking

I want to be a good Dad/Mum/Partner/Friend and this is what a good Dad/Mum/Partner/Friend does

Take a mindful, self compassionate and deeply curious stance. If you stop and notice your thoughts, what do you discover? Once you see the programming, it has less power. You start to take control of your consumption.

Set Yourself Some Simple Rules

You can also support yourself in making wise choices by setting some simple rules.

You might decide:

  • Not to buy any new clothes for a year
  • To limit take-out meals to once a month
  • To make a realistic budget, so you know how much discretionary spending you can have each week and still save money
  • To set up a regular direct debit into a savings account or to pay off a debt
  • To value time with your loved ones over spending money on your loved ones
  • To shift from consuming to making
  • To avoid shopping centres, where you know you will be tempted to buy something you don’t really need

Take some time to consider, what rules would help you to make wiser choices in your own spending?

In making these rules, however, don’t mistake thrift for being cheap:

‘Cheap people are psychologically pained from spending money, and therefore are willing to sacrifice their well-being to save a buck. Frugal people, on the other hand, take pleasure is using money wisely. They’re more likely to deploy their money to pursue meaningful goals.’ Scott Sonenshein

You might also make some rules about your exposure to the media.

Manage your exposure to media

Research shows that exposure to media, leads to more materialistic values (Tim Kasser).

If you are planning a career change, it isn’t possible to avoid media completely but you can become much more mindful and intentional about what you are exposed to.

Some types of media tend to trigger more materialistic cravings than others: home make over shows; reality shows about the rich; Facebook posts from friends who seem to live in a perfect home and go on perfect holidays. This type of ‘entertainment’ doesn’t support thrift!

After you watch something or read something, notice how you feel. If there is a sense of ‘I want…’; ‘I need,,,’ or ‘I am not good enough because I don’t have…’ then it may be worth avoiding those triggers.

In addition to avoiding triggers to consume, I have also found that I need repeated support to encourage me to make frugal choices. I easily slip back into spending money on things I don’t really need. So I also subscribe to blogs that support me in becoming more frugal and living more simply:

Be More with Less

Becoming Minimalist

Frugal Woods

Our permaculture life – Morag Gamble

Choosing Freedom

In the end, a choice to live frugally, is a choice that moves you towards freedom.

I am working on:

  • Becoming more mindful of the impact of cultural messages on my spending
  • Choosing to take joy in using resources efficiently and with wisdom i.e. becoming thrifty
  • Increasing what I create and decreasing what I consume.

I hope you can join me and as a result have more flexibility and choice in your career.

Career Change