The Mindset of Doing More With Less

by Katy on November 2, 2009 · 38 comments

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Last Sunday’s Parade Magazine featured an article titled, “How The Economic Crisis Changed Us.” I was expecting a narrative piece, but it was mostly a series of very interesting statistics, such as:

“Many Americans have made significant financial adjustments in their daily lives. Eighty percent say that they’ve been “forced to do more with less,” 73% have had to make unexpected changes, and 19% have sought some form of government assistance. Necessity has led 27% of respondents to pursue extra work. “

I find the idea that 80% are “forced to do more with less” to be a very interesting oxymoron. It’s not doing less with less, but doing more. Which in theory should be a positive. But not if it’s forced.

I am fully aware how easy it is for me to find satisfaction and joy in crafting a life with less, but it’s mostly because that decision is my own. It’s an entirely different state of mind to “do more with less” when it’s forced upon you because of events and circumstances that are out of your control. (Job loss, divorce, medical bills, etc.)

A prime example of this dichotomy can be found in our dinner from last night. I cooked a wonderfully satisfying meal of lentil soup with biscuits which did not engender any feelings of deprivation. However, if I had chosen to prepare this meal because the money wasn’t there for our normal meal or even a dinner out, that satisfaction would have been replaced by resentment and other negative emotions.

I want to do more with less, therefore that action is satisfying and empowering. I am in control of the circumstances of my family’s life. We don’t have much spare money floating around after the bills are paid, but that doesn’t affect our quality of life.

  • When I’m raking my yard, I’m not upset that I can’t afford a landscaping service. I happy that I have a yard to rake.
  • When I’m preparing dinner, I’m not resentful that we can’t eat in restaurants all the time. I’m happy that my family will eat simple healthy meals.
  • When I browsing the racks at Goodwill, I’m not wishing I were at Nordstrom.
  • When I get together with my friends, I’m not sad about the lack of a fancy girls’ nights out. I perfectly satisfied with a walk through the neighborhood and an occasional cup of coffee in a local cafe.
  • When I spend all day cleaning my house I’m not annoyed that friends have cleaning services while I spend countless mind-numbing hours keeping my house in order. Oh wait a minute — I do wish the cleaning service fairy would sprinkle her pixie dust on my house. Seriously though, I could never spend the money hiring this job out when that money could be so much better spent, or better yet not even earned.

This issue of doing more with less is not a simple mindset to change. Two people can have the exact same income in the exact same situation and one person can feel deprived while the other feels rich. There is no easy solution to help people appreciate what they have, rather than what they don’t. Culture, family background and individual personality all play a role.

Do you work hard to appreciate what you have, or does it come naturally? Please share your thoughts inthe comments section below.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

Frugalista November 2, 2009 at 2:29 pm

Sometimes the worst thing about a situation may be the best thing for you. When I color my hair at home, I don’t leave my bathroom sink vexed. I am pleased. I can’t say I always felt that way at a salon.


WilliamB November 2, 2009 at 2:46 pm

I’m a big fan of the cleaning service fairy. I’d far rather work another hour or two than clean my house. The hard part is finding a service that doesn’t make you feel wonder if the owners make the workers sleep in a shipping container with a single bucket as a latrine.

I also enjoy that I’m helping employ others, which I think is much better than just giving temporary support.


Karen November 2, 2009 at 2:52 pm

I’m with WilliamB. I would gladly give up many other things, to have our cleaning person come once every other week and do the major cleaning (bathrooms, floors, etc). With two little kids, I can BARELY manage to keep up with dishes and laundry. So, getting to the heavy duty stuff isn’t going to happen. I also don’t have to buy much in the way of cleaning products.

However, I make choices based on what I WANT to do and not HAVE to do. I definitely can see myself being resentful when HAVING to do something that I don’t WANT to do. Luckily, that doesn’t come too often.


erika November 2, 2009 at 3:13 pm

that so hits the nail on the head for me… since our income dropped i have felt deprived… and yet, we still have so much, still pay our bills, still have fun but in cheaper ways. and yet it bothers me… i need to get over feeling sorry for myself. why do i feel so entitled? something for me think about… thanks.


Jinger November 2, 2009 at 4:14 pm

Kudos on this post, Katy! I love turning it around and do it all the time. When I hear about the travels my friends take, I remind myself that I live in one of the coolest cities in the country…a nature preserve in my back yard, gorgeous scenery, vibrant music and arts scene, and so much to do that is absolutely FREE. I feel so grateful to have ended up in Austin.

Being frugal isn’t about deprivation…rather, it’s Living Large on Little!


Amelia November 2, 2009 at 5:59 pm

This is exactly what I have to try to explain to people about being vegan. Everyone assumes that I feel deprived (because they would) but I CHOSE to give up animal products, nobody forced me to. Good post, I think more people need to consider how they feel about the amount they have and the more that they feel they ‘need’ to be happy.


elinor November 2, 2009 at 7:47 pm

As a wise professor once said “There’s no cure for the wants.”

No cure, but inch by inch we can curb our wants.



flsquared November 2, 2009 at 8:27 pm

Fantastic post! I totally, totally agree. My family just moved to Manhattan and you would be amazed at the number of couples earning $300k+ who feel poor. We don’t earn even close to that and we just feel blessed to be here. We are enjoying the city and all it has to offer without spending a dime. It’s all in the attitude.


Karen November 2, 2009 at 8:40 pm

I am grateful that I love the Goodwill lifestyle, or I might wander into resentfulness. Our income has been iffy for the last two years, and it was never that great to begin with. I was already stretching our dollars before our income dropped. For me, life has rarely been about stuff but about being free to work less in order to more important things. I no longer feel I have that choice, in our situation. It is also hard to feel much sense of control when you could lose your healthcare at any time. So I have mixed feeling on the topic of being forced vs choosing.

I have never had a housecleaner, nor do I think I ever would want one, yet it’s true that those who can afford to have one are providing a job for someone. It’s all in one’s attitude, and some days it’s easier to deal with the lack of security. I try to focus on what we have: great families, wonderful kids and of course a sense of humor!


Karen November 2, 2009 at 8:42 pm

Um, that was supposed to read “to DO more important things”…and mixed “feelingS”. I think I need the editing fairy more than a cleaning fairy tonight!


kim November 2, 2009 at 9:02 pm

Ok I love this part:

“that money could be so much better spent, or better yet not even earned.”

That is my goal. I am 35, I am not interested in working for corporate America until I’m 65. I am not sure I want to work for it until I’m 40!


Bad Hippie November 3, 2009 at 3:31 am

When I had my son at 19, I had $50 to my name and lived with my parents. Since then, I’ve always thought that any other situation was an improvement! Even when I was laid off two years ago, I found a way to support my family through freelance writing and substitute teaching. Now that I’m back in the land of the employed, I feel very happy with what I have and fortunate that my employer is still matching my 401K contributions and providing very, very reasonable medical, dental, and vision coverage. And I’m happy to skip cleaning services or name-brand clothes/products in order to save up for my son’s soccer camps and my participation on an indoor soccer team. For us, those are important things. Weekly trips to the movies or fancy hair cuts are not.

When a woman is more concerned about her cleats and saves up for some chic underarmour (to match her soccer jersey ), she’s definitely made a choice about what matters!


Wendy November 3, 2009 at 4:03 am

I work hard at it but it is becoming easier with time, as good habits develop. It’s true it is entirely about perspective. I was just thinking this the other day as I cleaned my kitchen with inexpensive white vinegar thinking that there are some people who will spend as much as $16 monthly for Clorox Wipes to sanitize their kitchens & bathrooms. I should know, I was one of these people several years back.

Thanks Katy for another inspiring post!



Linda November 3, 2009 at 5:24 am

I loved this post! The glass is definately half full!
I don’t feel deprived when we don’t go out to dinner, when I buy clothes at yard sales/thrift shops, or when I fix something instead of buying a replacement. I feel it is good for my wallet but also good for the environment. I have friends who think I am just “cheap” for hanging out my laundry. I do it not to save money, but to save electricity. Less electricity, less impact on the environment. I have had my double ovens fixed 2 times over the past 19 years instead of buying new. It saves money but it also keeps the ovens out of the landfill.


Jeanne November 3, 2009 at 5:39 am

My husband and I have chosen a life of frugality so that we are beholden to no one; we don’t have to accept projects we don’t like just to make a buck (we are both freelancers). I never feel deprived. I find that a gratitude list – looking around and saying to myself or aloud, “Thank you for my home, thank you for my health, thank, you for – ” and just start saying things brightens ANY day. I don’t miss all the stuff I never bought. Most of the time, the urge to shop was just a passing fancy. When I truly DO want something, I wait and see if I can find it less expensive; and if not, I do buy it. I don’t feel deprived, and I have personal freedom thanks to living a quiet, frugal life.


Shannon November 3, 2009 at 5:55 am

I don’t really know what I would do with my time if I had a landscaper, housekeeper, cook, etc. I actually like cooking with my children, teaching them the responsibilities involved in caring for a home, and the whole family working in the yard and garden together. To me it really beats the typical lifestyle of filling every moment with running the kids to manufactured activities, going to the mall, stopping for fast food, inventing “wow” family outings and buying stuff for fun. I’m always just glad for all that I have, which is a lot!


Nancy from Mass November 3, 2009 at 6:30 am

I am fortunate that I have always been frugal, even when our income was comfortably in the 6 figures. It comes even more into play since my hubby was laid off 53 weeks ago now. There is no way we could survive if we lived like other people I know. I feel fortunate that I know how to cook healthy, tasty meals on a shoestring (most my son states during and after that “you could sell this it’s so good”), I have a yard to garden in, I work for a food company (so I get samples periodically) and I have a family that doesn’t really want anything but having fun together. I wouldn’t want anyone to come in and clean my house…although…it would be nice to have someone clean the bathtub/shower…a job hubby and I hate doing! :)You have to be happy with what you have because if not, nothing else will make you truly happy. All that matters is at the end of the day, you had someone important to share it with (quote courtesy of Tongue in Cheek).


magdalena November 3, 2009 at 6:31 am

The joy of simple gratitude! Yet even Christians, who made gratitude a virtue, fail at it a lot. Having just been through an extended period of deprivation due to “all of the above”, we are extremely grateful for a warm, beautiful house, loving support, food (!), and just this weekend, a new pair of shoes, slippers and bathrobe from a rummage sale (yes, new, with tags new.) I do not miss the “wants” at all; the feeling of deprivation that others have, I don’t. I like cooking from scratch, I like yardwork and housework. But I also agree that hiring someone to do some of it some of the time can be a luxurious necessity, or it might not get done at all. Neighborhood kids will rake leaves and their parents may be willing to work for a couple of hours trimming the hedge; you’ve helped a family earn some needed money then. It’s not like hiring a high-priced lawn service to come weekly with the weed-terminator. Same with getting a local, self-employed person to clean twice a month – you’ve given that person some independent income, and maybe saved your own back if you can’t carry that vacuum upstairs safely. As for home-baking, farmers’ markets often have scads of bakers, and for those who don’t bake, there’s a source of inexpensive treats.

Frugal is as frugal does! Sometimes simple generosity can bestow simple gratitude in someone else, a point to remember in these lean days.


magdalena November 3, 2009 at 6:32 am

Yes, my goal is to go to bed tired from working hard, not from nervous exhaustion.


charlie aka oldboyscout2 November 3, 2009 at 7:21 am

great thoughts and actions….


Cate November 3, 2009 at 8:08 am

I’d never thought about it as never even earning the money in the first place–that’s a great way to look at it!


Lisa November 3, 2009 at 8:12 am

I enjoy my life despite poverty. Monthly disability checks have paid our bills for the past ten years. I feel more able and accomplished than I ever did while I was working. That I can create such rich experiences…often from thin air…is so fulfilling!


AJ in AZ November 3, 2009 at 11:15 am

When my stepson was in high school, a friend of his asked us at dinner, “If you don’t have TV, how do you know what you need to buy?” We all laughed and laughed, not meaning to be rude but from the idea that you need TV and other people to tell you what you need to buy.
If you can’t figure it out for yourself, you don’t need it.


Alison November 3, 2009 at 11:46 am

I truly appreciate the positive, joyful attitude Katy and others have toward non-consumerism. I choose it for myself but haven’t found a wide support network in my community. This blog and the readers’ comments are a great source of support for me. Thank you all!


thenonconsumeradvocate November 3, 2009 at 12:16 pm


That reminds me of a “Friends” episode when the character “Joey” learning that someone had no TV asked her:

“What do you point your furniture at?”

We have TV, but not in our living room.

Katy Wolk-Stanley
The Non-Consumer Advocate


Betsy Talbot November 3, 2009 at 1:43 pm

I think the feeling of deprivation comes from people who were doing “less” with the “more” they had before. I know I’ve been guilty of not appreciating some of the bounty in my life, and when it is taken away it is a hard adjustment.

One of my favorite quotes is that “it is better to want what you have than have what you want.” Practicing gratitude instead of focusing on what you don’t have is a powerful way to bring your situation into focus, whether you are saving money voluntarily or not.


WilliamB November 3, 2009 at 2:10 pm

“If you don’t have TV, how do you know what you need to buy?”
Oh, ouch! Well, the kid is halfway to realizing one problem with TV.

And to answer Katy’s original question: I find I have a bit of trouble with the word “grateful.” One is grateful for things one is given as opposed to things one has earned. So:

I am *grateful* for the things that are unearned: that my hard work paid off because it doesn’t always, that I haven’t had a long run of bad luck that would undermine my planning, that I had parents who gave me a great start.

I am *happy* that work hard, that I plan well, that I make good choices, that I took advantage of the benefits in the above paragraph.


Ms. Clear November 3, 2009 at 3:11 pm

I’m a cheerful person and I’m married to a cheerful person, so mostly we have a good attitude about having to do more with less.

It’s definitely a “have to” for us though. We have to be extremely careful with the money we make.

Even though I’m basically cheerful and realize that many do with far less, it still does anger me that in our society, I have to pay 17.3% of my gross pay for health insurance and that my hubby worked really hard for a graduate degree, but still faces rocky employment prospects. There is a strong element of unfairness in American society and I’m also dedicated to changes that I think will make society more fair.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t be cheerful and grateful for what I do have. This post was very thought provoking. I wouldn’t want to see the “you must always be cheerful no matter how you’re being screwed” line, which it out there, but I don’t think this post falls into that category.


Carla November 3, 2009 at 3:54 pm

I have to quote the Apostle Paul in Philippians 4. “I have learned in whatsoever state I am to be content.” Paul was in prison in Rome when he wrote these words, yet somehow he was not unhappy. This is a secret which Madison Avenue would NOT have us learn. I should not measure the quality of my life by the toys I can buy or the services I can procure, but by my enjoyment of the sunrise, the wind in the trees and the smile on my husband’s face — most of all by my relationship with my Lord. These are life’s real treasures.


Butts November 3, 2009 at 4:38 pm

I started keeping a gratitude journal recently and it is amazing how truly blessed I feel after just a few months. I think the really great thing is that all those little things I thought I needed to be happy, when I am happy you really don’t need any of them. I am so rich, although we make less than the national average. I have a wonderful family, a comfortable home and great friends and so much more. Richness comes from recognizing what you have and appreciating it. Not from wanting more, more, more.


Bad Hippie November 4, 2009 at 3:59 am

When my son was little, I was always very honest about what we could afford and what was out of range for us. My parents thought that was too much for a little kid to handle, but he was always very good about it and it cut down on tantrums when shopping. Now, he’s a pretty laid-back kid when it comes to “stuff.” Sure, he’s attracted to shiny cell phones and computers, but he realizes that if wants fancy stuff he has to work for it. And work he does – he’s done lawn maintenance for relatives and neighbors since he was 8 years old and has reffed soccer since he was 13.

And since he’s a soccer goalie (and goalies need goalie gear), I struck a deal with him a few years ago. I would pay up to a certain amount for cleats, gloves, or jerseys – but if he wanted something fancier than the basic gear, he’d have to pay the difference. This has done two things – 1) it has made him consider his purchases carefully and 2) it has taught him to take care of his stuff since he is now aware of what it costs.

I realize that doesn’t make him a non-consumer, but I’m glad that he understands the value of a work and doesn’t view me simply as a bank. And, ultimately, it makes him happier with what he has and not jealous of his peers because he’s had the satisfaction of earning what he owns.


Nancy from Mass November 4, 2009 at 8:02 am

Bad Hippie:

My sister did the same with with my niece when she was 7. My niece wanted to take horse riding lessons but my sister couldn’t afford them. She told her that she would pay the first one, but my niece would have to use birthday money or ask to work a little on the farm to earn her lessons. She asked the stable owners if she could work out a deal and they said if she cleaned out one stall every saturday, she could take lessons for free. Fast forward 13 years and she owns 3 horses and works her butt off in college and provides for her horses. (the first horse she bought for $100 from the owner who was retiring and moving, the second was a woman whos’ daughter no longer wanted to ride and she bought it for a dollar, the third was a rescue horse that latched onto her other 2 and the spca decided they couldn’t split the 3 apart, so they gave it to her) She also worked extra jobs, saved birthday/christmas money and bought all her tackle/gear herself. I’m doing my best to raise my own son this way.


WilliamB November 4, 2009 at 9:48 am

Rereading this post and comment again, I realized something. We don’t always have to do more with less. We can do less with less, too. Sometimes doing more is good, sometimes doing less is good.


Bad Hippie November 4, 2009 at 11:32 am

Wow, Nancy! And horses are expensive. I did something similar when I was a kid – swapped lessons for mucking out the stalls. But I’ve never gone as far as owning a horse. I have a stable of cats, and they are expensive enough. I’m glad other folks think this is a good lesson to teach kids – my son’s dad (my ex) thinks I’m kind of nuts.


Maniacal Mommy November 5, 2009 at 7:27 pm

We gave up alot five years ago so I could stay home and raise the kids. The economy thing just hasn’t hit us as hard because we were accustomed to being frugal, thrifty, whatever. Dinners out? What’s that? Only for our anniversary or maybe a birthday.

We don’t feel deprived. I can cook as well as any restaurant (almost). My kids don’t get the snack cakes they covet at the store, but I do know how to make brownies for them. Ditto for the pudding and Jello cups. Why pay for packaging? They are old enough to understand the reduce, reuse, recycle mantra (thank you, Jack Johnson!).

Our old farmhouse is small, and needs some renovating. But it is ours, and we forgive the small closets and no mudroom because we can afford the payments. It is cheaper than renting, and we have an acre to garden and raise our chickens. We are slowly getting it updated, without going into debt.

It is definitely best to be grateful for what you have, rather than constantly focusing on what you don’t have.


Kristina November 10, 2009 at 6:24 pm

Very good post. Some years ago I bought myself a bright red wallet to remind myself to be grateful for the cash inside it, and to stop using a credit card. I read somewhere that gratitude is one of the most profound religious emotions, giving us a fulfillment from which we can be generous toward others. The deeper I go in this direction, the more hilarious the ads are, as so many of us actually need so much less than the ads would have us think. I am still using that red wallet 30 years later even if I am still working to define the want/need line on some kinds of things.


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