Don’t be misled by the title, my husband and I are by no means minimalists – as anyone who has helped us move can attest – but we have learned a lot about contentment in the past several years. At first it was because we simply didn’t have much discretionary income. Living on one salary – under $40,000 a year with only $3,000 to our name and an $800+ rent check due each month – put enough fear into us (mostly because my parents graciously cosigned so we could get that $800+/month apartment) that we knew we had to live lean. What this translated to – eventually – was a deeper understanding of what was important to us and how to live content. Below is a condensed version of some of the lessons we learned and how we got there.

Lessons in how to “live large” on a budget

  1. Comparison is a contentment killer. I know it’s been trumpeted in news reports and on social media *ironic*, but seriously; comparing how you live against your friends’ real or imagined lives (think Insta-perfect) can definitely leave you grumbling. The antidote to comparison is gratitude. Rather than thinking how unfair it was that our best friends were making $20,000+ a year more than we were, we could focus on being grateful that we had a home that had enough room for an office and a guest bedroom. Instead of grousing about how other people had cars that were less than a decade and a half old, we could choose to give thanks for two vehicles that (mostly) reliably got us where we needed to go. This didn’t come naturally and it’s still a fight to make these positive thoughts our daily soundtrack, but we’ve definitely learned a lot.
  2. “Delayed gratification” is the best hard thing we’ve done. We learned this lesson in a variety of ways – some retrospective and some we are still learning. Learning how to say “no” to what we want now for something better later is one of the essences of maturity. Living in the present has its benefits, but we’ve learned it needs to be tempered with the wisdom of thinking forward. For us, this has manifested in our financial lives in a constant series of small choices: not buying drinks at dinner and being content with water; not buying any clothing items this week or next week so that we have enough to put toward that new pair of dress shoes my husband is going to need for work; saving up for a car and buying used so that we can pay cash and forego the monthly payments. Saying “no” is hard, but we’ve learned that it’s so worth it. This attitude is one of the main reasons we only started out with $43,000 in debt and all of that in loans for school.

  3. Values are our compass and communication means we’re on the same road. Before we ever got married, we talked about what was important to us to make sure we were aligned in those areas. Identifying and prioritizing our values together has taught us how to stay on the same page so that we can make a greater impact. For example, being generous, regardless of our income, is very important to us, so even from the beginning, we have earmarked 10% of our monthly income to go toward charitable giving with the goal of increasing that percentage (not just the total) as our income increases. In addition to the 10%, we also work together to make sure we are investing in others’ lives both financially and with our time. We know that relationships are ultimately valuable, while all material possessions, cash included, is undependable and could disappear at any moment.

  4. Perspective is everything. Both my husband and I have traveled overseas and have had the privilege of serving alongside nationals in developing countries. This reminds us that whether we were living on $36,000 or $90,000 a year, we are still in the top 1% income bracket globally. While cost of living is an important consideration and incomes in different parts of the world can’t be directly compared, we try to be careful never to say that we don’t have money or we’re “poor” because that is simply not true. First and foremost, we are rich in all the ways that really matter: we love and are loved, we have everything we truly need and enough to give to others as well, we have purpose and meaning, and we are eternally secure. And financially, we know that if we “live like no one else now, we can live like no one else later” (thanks Dave!).

It’s not as hard to focus on the things we do have instead of what we don’t and say “no” to now, when we actively prioritize our values and remember that the “crazy” choices we’re making will afford us opportunities to invest deeply in the people and things we care about. That’s what it really means to “live large” after all.