The Joy of Scarcity

Post written by Leo Babauta.

Often we think of having very little as a hardship.

It’s bad to be poor, right? It’s not easy struggling with low wages, with debt, with scarcity.

And while all that is true, it’s also not true.

There can be joy in getting rid of things, in living with less, in freeing yourself of debt and possessions. It’s all in your mindset.

I grew up poor, and it wasn’t long ago that I was struggling with an income that was too low to meet my mounting bills and debt payments. One of the worst times of my life, actually.

But as I worked to eliminate my debt, I learned to live with less. And I learned that it can be a wonderful thing.

Struggle is hard, no matter how you paint it. But living in scarcity doesn’t have to be struggle. That’s completely up to you.

Reducing Debt

When my wife and kids and I began reducing our debt, more than five years ago, it was a scary time. We were overloaded with bills, over our heads in debt, and it was one of the most stressful things we’d ever faced.

So we cut back on spending, which meant learning a whole new way of living. Zap … we got rid of the cable TV, magazine subscriptions, mocha coffees, regular outings to the movie theaters and restaurants and the mall, and more. We changed our entire lives.

And yet, while we could have thought of this as sacrifice, in truth, we learned to enjoy it. We were living with less, but we were happier.

We were happier because we saw this as an opportunity to reconnect with each other, doing things that were cheap or free. We took the kids outside more, and played with them. Playing kickball and soccer and tag … these things cost nothing. We dusted off board games and decks of cards, played charades, and had a blast. We visited family and friends more.

We cooked at home and had better meals than ever, got healthier, enjoyed eating together.

It wasn’t all roses and cream, but there were many, many positive things that came out of this scarcity. When you are forced to cut back, you can moan, or you can find joy. We chose the path that made us happiest.

And once we were out of debt, that was one of the most liberating things ever. So we reached an amazing destination, but the journey was just as wondrous.

Reducing Clutter

Clutter is another scary thing for a lot of people. Just facing the piles of clutter in your home can be overwhelming. In truth, clutter is a mountain of procrastination … putting off decisions and fears and emotional issues and shopping addictions and more. Facing those fears and issues is too much for most of us.

I faced them, and learned that when you deal with these fears and emotions, even a little at a time, it is freeing. You feel clean and spare, not just because you’re burdened with fewer possessions, but because you’re burdened with less emotional baggage that you’re hiding in the back of your mind.

Reducing our clutter meant tough choices, it meant a lot of discussion about what we wanted and why we really need things, it meant learning a whole host of new habits.

But it also meant getting rid of things that were weighing us down, that we didn’t need but that were still costing us time and energy and mental cycles. We learned to love a spare-looking room, and the amazing feeling of sitting or lying around in a room that was clean and uncluttered.

Living with fewer possessions can be a pure joy that is unmatched by anything you can buy.

Less Food

Losing 70 lbs. has been a journey of exploring my relationship with food. In days of fatness, I ate because everyone else was eating, I ate because I was bored or stressed out and needed the comfort of food, I ate because I didn’t want to confront my health issues, I ate because it was one of the only ways I knew of finding pleasure.

Now I know that less food can also be a joy. Eating simple foods, rather than fast foods or convenient foods or sweet or fatty or fried foods, can be a joy.

I’ve learned the simple pleasures of drinking a cup of unsweetened tea made from whole tea leaves. I’ve learned the deliciousness that comes from eating a single fresh fig, half a handful of berries, a few raw almonds. When you stop putting so much sugar and sauces on things, you learn their real beauty. When you stop killing animals and learn to appreciate the natural taste of plants, you feel incredible and alive.

I now skip breakfast so I can remember what it’s like to feel a little hungry — something I never did when I was fat. I eat two meals a day because it’s easier to prepare, and I like a little scarcity in my life. I eat what I want, but I find that I enjoy the simple foods more than ever now.

Fewer Choices

We think we want a lot of choices, but really we want freedom. There’s a difference, and the overwhelming number of choices in our lives these days leads to confusion, paralysis, and unhappiness.

Scarcity choices can be seen as a bad thing, but I see it as liberating. I’m not saying we should have no choices, but fewer is better.

Try narrowing down your choices, in as many ways as you dare. Watch fewer TV shows by picking just three you watch every week. Pick just one book and read that until you’re done. Have a to-do list that’s only three items long each day. Make a weekly menu that only has two or three meals you cook in big batches, and eat those all week. You might worry that you’re making the wrong choices — you’re not. There are no wrong choices, there’s only the fear of making the wrong choices.

I find limiting my choices to be an opportunity to let go of the worries about making the wrong choices, and to focus on enjoying the choices I do make. As I’ve explored scarcity, I’ve been left with this one truth: every path I take is perfect.