I recently read a short book entitled “Life Nomadic.” It was written by a programmer who one day he realized that living in Austin Texas wasn’t that cool. He put up a Craigslist ad telling people to come to his house and take all his belongings. Shortly thereafter he flew out of the country and began a life hopping from continent to continent working from his laptop.
This story fascinated me and my cofounders. The idea of living entirely out of a small backpack and sculpting the very texture of one’s life struck us as equal parts satisfying and empowering. This got me thinking: the biggest hurdle between me and a life like that was the fact that I owned too much stuff.
America Wants You to Own, not Rent
In his 2007 essay “Stuff,” Paul Graham explains that too many people in America gain too much from having you buy stuff. The result is that you will be pressured to buy things all the time. It takes a particularly strong individual to both notice and then resist the call of companies, some of which have spent hundreds of years perfecting their sales pitch.
These companies, and the people in them, make more money from you if you rent than if you own, which I believe is why ownership is prized: to own is to obtain something of value for less than you would pay with the corresponding financing plan. American middle class life is largely based on imitation of the rich, and one way to imitate the rich is to get good stuff for less than advertised. This is why I suspect that ownership is a quintessential aspect of American middle class life.
However, I’d like to challenge the conventional wisdom that it’s somehow better to own. I believe that for young, mobile, educated people, it makes more sense to avoid ownership wherever possible. I was taught to believe that a mortgage payment is superior to a rent check and that a monthly car payment is more noble than a similar-sized lease. In a strict economic sense my parents and grandparents didn’t lie to me: I will end up paying more to rent than own. But they overlooked the high cost of actually owning things.
Ownership Makes You Less Happy
There are substantial non-monetary advantages to not owning stuff that directly impact happiness. There are obvious situations in which owning belongings becomes a hindrance. Moving, for example, is harder if you own 2 tons of stuff and easier if you were just renting the same quantity. But it’s the more insidious costs of ownership that creep up on otherwise rational people and decrease their happiness.
Owning a pet can be a delight, but it is also a burden. When my girlfriend visits she has to get a cat sitter and she worries when she can’t get a hold of them.
Owning a large house gives you more personal space and makes day-to-day living more pleasurable. At the same time, bigger houses cost more to upkeep, they take more time to keep clean, and perhaps most dangerously: they allow you to accumulate stuff without noticing. My Uncle has a huge suburban home that is so full of stuff he can’t park his cars in the garage.
Speaking of which, having a car is convenient (and sometimes necessary), but is a monetary black hole and a source of stress if it’s having problems. My old Subaru got me from A to B but probably raised my blood pressure by more than the mileage as I worried about what would go wrong next.
Finally, owning very nice things makes using them less pleasurable because you have to be extra careful not to damage them (as Paul Graham says in his essay “Nothing owns you like fragile stuff”).
In short, ownership dampens your happiness and burdens you psychologically. Being able to leave your home and not worry about a pet adds to your happiness. Keeping your housing costs low and not accidentally accumulating stuff allows you to spend time and money on things that matter more. Riding the bus frees you from mechanic’s fees and being worried about “that squeaking sound the car makes when starting up.” And avoiding very nice things allows you to avoid the “good china” problem where you don’t want to use something for fear of damaging it.
So Question Ownership: Rent
Owning lots of things makes you less free and less happy, but renting is more expensive, so why do I advocate it? Simple: if you are young, frugal, and employed (something I’m well aware doesn’t describe everyone), you can almost certainly afford to pay a premium to avoid the stress of owning stuff. And at no other time in your life will renting improve your lifestyle more. So comparatively, the renting premium is a pittance. When you are young and don’t have a family, the extra freedom you can derive from not owning tons of stuff enables you to go to Europe for 3 weeks on a whim, quit your job and pursue your passion, invest all your energy into learning a skill, or build/strengthen relationships. Surely these things are worth an extra few hundred a month for a few years.
There is definitely a time and place for ownership. I just don’t believe it’s anywhere near as early in life as we Americans introduce it.
So I challenge you: do a cost-benefit analysis and see if you absolutely need that extra vehicle. Run the numbers to see if that smaller apartment in downtown wouldn’t help you reduce your pile of stuff. Look for a furnished apartment instead of hauling everything with you. Take small leaps at first, and maybe someday you too can be a happy globetrotter with only a backpack and an online freelance job of your own making.
I completely agree…