Living a less material life

My pastor shared this article by Ian Tan recently, and it got us thinking. This is a topic close to the hubs’ heart, having written a guest post on contentment on this blog 2 years ago. I thought it was a very real piece of sharing by Ian Tan, and it triggered some reflections which are interspersed amongst excerpts from his post (quoted paras).


Insatiable wants

I have a good job, and I can pay the bills more easily than in my previous job. But somehow the world shrinks when you hear about the mega-rich and what they can do with their bank accounts.

How many people are working their butts off to drive this guy’s monthly income? Why don’t schools teach our children to aspire to be landlords instead of scientists, engineers, lawyers and doctors? Aren’t soul-less landlords  part of the reason why Singapore is getting so expensive to live in?

I suppose this just reflects the human condition. We are never satisfied, even though what we have is more than enough for our needs, and much more than what 70% of the world’s population has.  When we think of others, we tend to think of those who are ‘doing better’ than us, who have a nicer home, larger car, more luxurious holidays… and then we feel upset with the ‘little’ that we have, even though it is plenty already.

Even if we get that promotion, buy that posh private home, fancier car… we start to feel that it’s still not enough, and we are still yearning for more. That is the fundamental insatiable nature of man.  Studies have also shown how irrational it can be. When someone is given a sudden unexpected gift of $100, he is happy only until he realises that another person was given $200. Then he becomes more dissatisfied in comparison to the person who got $10, but who didn’t know of anyone else who received any gift.

The lesson I draw from that, is to surround yourself as far as possible with people who have decided to live simply, with people who do not flood their Instagram feed incessantly with their latest acquisitions, exorbitantly-priced food or luxury bags and shoes.


Overseas holidays

In December, I took two weeks of annual leave and spent the fortnight at home with the kids. When I returned to work, some people would ask me how I spent my leave and which beautiful country did I visit.

When I said “I stayed at home”, they would look shocked and asked why I didn’t bring my kids overseas to enjoy their holidays.

“But I didn’t plan for a trip. And it’s such a hassle.”

“Oh, but your kids would love going to XXX or YYY country! Why waste your holiday at home?”

I know times are different today, and I didn’t actually go onto an airplane until I was 16 years old. But since then, I’ve traveled quite a fair bit for work and play, and I still prefer to just laze around at home for Christmas after a long year of work.

Why are people insisting that I live my life like them? Is it a must to travel overseas every year? Am I less of a person if I do not bring my kids for an overseas vacation? Does society dictate how we should spend our holidays to make it a fulfilling one?

This made me reflect, because I am in the habit of asking people about their plans for their next vacation, since it’s usually a happy topic. Given the amount of stress Singaporeans have, most folks would say they live for vacations. But it is true that taking leave and spending it at home is not a ‘waste’, and could certainly be more restful than many holidays that are so jam packed with activities and travelling that we feel that we need another holiday to recover from the holiday.

I do love travelling; guess the point here is just that not all school holidays need to be marked by overseas travel, which is a mindset shift for me.


Purchasing with money we don’t have

But what disturbed me very much, were the people (on Carousell) who had no cash but still wanted to buy things, even if they were used goods.

One guy asked “Can you wait three months? I have no cash now.”

Another asked “Can you provide instalments?”

What a far cry from the people who were ultra-rich like the China landlord. These buyers wanted things they really couldn’t afford, nor did they really know what saving money meant.

My late mother was a single-parent and drummed into me the importance of saving as much as I could. I didn’t have to suffer the experience of living hand-to-mouth as a child because of her ability to save money, and I don’t wish my children to live a life without sufficient cash flow.

If I can’t afford something, I don’t buy it. In fact, I don’t even try it – which is why I have never test-driven anything more expensive than a Toyota Altis. I don’t really want to know what a luxury car feels like, nor do I want to pay for one.

I thought: What is it about society that drives people to live like that, wanting what they cannot afford? It’s the consumerism, the materialism isn’t it? This poison reaches so deep into our lives. It’s not just these Carousell users, but people who desire overpriced condos when a HDB flat will do, or people who spend hundreds of thousands paying for a car that won’t last them more than 10 years in Singapore. 

Yes, I realise that it is very easy to yearn for the nice things that others have. But when we look at our current situation, simple as it is, we actually realise that we already have plenty, and all that we truly need, and more.

I suppose each family decides on the kind of home they would like to live in at present, based on their financial situation and their philosophy on life.

There is nothing wrong with being wealthy, or with living in a nice big house. Guess the poison is really when one starts to hanker after something one really can’t afford, or is living on borrowed money just to look good and keep up appearances, which is simply that, a mere appearance.


Seeking contentment

I suppose ultimately, it is a matter of contentment, and whether we can ignore the constant advertising, the media images portraying the ‘good life’, which might not be all that blissful. For what really determines whether one is satisfied, is not stuff that can be seen.

I suppose a lot of it also depends on whether one believes that this life is the be all and end all. If it is, then truly what we can accumulate here and now, what we can amount to in our careers, is truly important and worth pursuing at all cost. Because that’s all there is to our existence.

But if this life is not the end, and it’s just the imperfect prelude to an eternity where belongings don’t matter, then the way we live our lives here should be radically different. I have a long way to go myself, and it does seem like a struggle to swim against the tide.  The vast majority of our society seems to be heading in one direction, and if so many people are doing it, it seems like it can’t be wrong, can it?

But deep down inside, I know it isn’t.  There’s a better direction, there are better ways of stewarding the money that we earn, and there’s a better eternity to await. The here and now, is but a breath, in the vast expanse of forever, and I will not spend myself, chasing after the wind.



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  2 comments for “Living a less material life

  1. February 17, 2015 at 9:42 am

    Live simply so that others can simply live… I think it’s ok to splurge once in a while to enjoy some finer things in life, but to spend money that we don’t have on something we don’t really need to impress people that don’t matter (because those that do won’t care about how much money we have!), well that’s just plain silly.
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