a modest manifesto

There are two ways to be wealthy. The first is conventional wisdom: acquire more. But why do we conveniently ignore the alternative route — crave less?

As a doe-eyed boy, I dreamt of reaching unfathomable wealth and worshipped those who did. Today, I no longer concern myself with becoming “rich” within its American paradigm. It’s all thanks to the knowledge that no matter how much money you have, you can’t escape the hedonistic treadmill* unless you find a source of happiness that isn’t directly conditional on having lots of money. My own catalysts of joy are 1:1 conversations with friends and strangers at local teashops, dayhikes in areas where the water and greenery collide, and literature that makes me ponder for days on end. What’s yours?

My personal philosophy, hereby pretentiously titled “manifesto,” fuses zen Buddhism, minimalism, anti-consumerism, anti-materialism… basically, ideas that are at odds with the fundamental architecture of capitalism. But it is also not a rally against capitalism, because I do align with neoliberalism and appreciate its (relatively) successful track record compared to other political systems. Consider it a more microcosmic and spiritual rendition of “humanity-centered” capitalism that’s been all the rage these days (thanks Andrew).

*hedonistic treadmill: tendency of a person to remain at a relatively stable level of happiness despite a change in fortune or the achievement of major goals

Key Observation 1: Around 90% of physical things you buy do not bring you sustainable happiness.

Key Observation 2: Physical clutter in your house is actively toxic for your well-being, creativity, and sense of calm (all of which are in short supply these days).

I had a conversation with a friend who used to collect designer bags with fervor. She has since then turned to a more modest lifestyle, opting for far less expensive handbags without esoteric European names attached to them. Here’s what she had to say:

“If I were to compare the moment I got a Goyard bag into my hands and the moment where I thrifted this current one, maybe the Goyard gave me a bigger spark of joy. But two, three weeks later, they all feel the same to me.”

The same, except now she’s saving $500 or more for every time she buys a bag. Which translates to around 10–15 hours of corporate labor, assuming you’re working full time as a graduate from UC Berkeley.

I visit a lot of different houses as a tutor and a somewhat social human being. In the vast majority of them, I can find at least 10 items that serve absolutely zero purpose in less than 10 minutes. I elicit all sorts of responses, like absolute shock (“I still had that?!”), desperate pleas (“yeah but I might need it in 10 years!”), and legitimate ignorance (“I don’t even know what that is”).

It’s important to acknowledge that there’s a difference (but a frequent overlap) in buying too much and owning too much. The former is retail therapy. The latter is hoarding. Both are bad for your headspace, the environment, and the collective humanity. Fortunately, you can address both at the same time.

Other noteworthy points:

  1. Studies show that there is little to no increase in “happiness” after you hit $70,000 in salary. To be fair, happiness is a nebulous term and this figure is probably closer to 6-figs in cities like San Francisco. Still, the point is that when you hit “X” salary, you won’t feel content and you’ll keep wanting to go higher (hence: the hedonistic “treadmill” that spins over and over).
  2. Your career and productivity aren’t indicators of your worth as a being. This is a rally against careerist attitudes so widespread across my alma mater (Cal) and elsewhere, especially among Asian-Americans. I find it unpalatable to see people in jobs that make them miserable just because it pays a certain amount, or even worse, those who try to encompass their identity entirely around their career (unless their career has a direct, positive impact on human society, in which case, all the kudos are due.)

Actionable solutions you can enact starting today:

  1. Shop for only what you need, and be razor-focused with your intentions. I like to do this by creating a shopping list at least 48 hours before I actually go out to shop. I minimize the list wherever possible and only buy what is on that list. I’ll also speed-walk around the store to avoid temptations (looking at you, Target).
  2. Divide your post-tax salary into a hourly wage and start looking at prices in the currency of time. If you’re earning $100K and working 40 hours, that’s around $40 after tax. Is that flimsy polyester dress that doesn’t fit good on you really worth an hour you spent on a meeting where you wanted to claw your ears out?
  3. Create a one-in, two-out system. For shopping aficionados, quitting it cold-turkey will be infeasible. That is why I have a system where if I want to buy an item, I will sell or donate 2 items of a similar kind. This works best with clothes and books. eBay and Poshmark are both excellent places to sell your used clothes for decent profit, and it’s easy to get started. And it goes without saying, finding them new homes is always better than filling up our landfill.
  4. Mark the next 3 Sundays on your calendar as “Marie Kondo Day.” If Christopher Columbus gets a day, so should our ever-wise queen. Divide your house into 3 (e.g. living room + kitchen, bedrooms + bathrooms, garage + attic) and allocate each day to declutter each part. As a general rule of thumb, discard anything that you 1) haven’t used in the past year, 2) won’t need in the next 90 days, and 3) don’t receive marginal joy from anymore.
  5. Be especially objective when parting with sentimental items. Gifting has been a steady part of human culture, but that pair of garden clippers your cousin-thrice-removed got you for Christmas 3 years ago? Realize that the value of the gifts are carried in the intention behind them and not necessarily the object itself. Tip: take a photo of your sentimental items, and make sure they find a good home elsewhere.
  6. Keep a streamlined investment strategy for your newly-saved cash. With all the money you save from not buying shit, you should start putting it into guaranteed investments. I highly recommend Betterment, a robo-advisor that automatically invests for you. Don’t let that money wallow in a savings account earning you a measly 0.02% APY.
  7. Like I said above, find sources of happiness and fulfillment that do not hinge on having large sums of money. Whenever you get the urge to buy something, develop a Pavlovian response to do this instead. Reading, making loose-leaf tea, calling a friend, going for an aimless walk out in nature, hitting up a cafe or lounge… guaranteed to make you happier than any plastic-laden tchotchke.
  8. Unfollow so-called “influencers” on social media. Often, they use the guise of selling experiences to actually sell you more products, which puts us back at the square one that is materialism.
  9. Read “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” by Marie Kondo and “Goodbye, Things” by Fumio Sasaki. Also, I recommend engaging in articles and books about zen Buddhism and stoicism even if you are of a different faith or of none (start with this blog). The two schools of thought perfectly outline why simplicity is the key to a meaningful, well-lived life.

Immediate and tangible benefits:

  1. You save more money and foster a healthy, non-dependent relationship. It is no longer in relentless pursuit of your attention.
  2. If consumerism has been a large part of your life, removing it will make you feel barren. If you fill the empty space with what brings you genuine fulfillment, you will become the person you strived towards all your life.
  3. You train yourself to become a discerning buyer. The items you buy will be of progressively higher quality, because you know not to bring shit that doesn’t spark joy into your house in the first place.
  4. Your house is now wholly capable of looking like the catalogue of a Scandinavian furniture store.
  5. You enjoy greater mental headspace to focus on activities that overflow with intrinsic meaning to you, without needing extrinsic validation of green paper.
  6. You discover new sources of joy and revisit old ones.
  7. You feel physically lighter alongside your house. You have room to breathe, grow, and dance to the heartbeat of your soul.
  8. Your mind is now a reservoir after a night’s downpour. You can share your well of mindfulness with friends, family, and strangers and focus on building deeper relationships you have longed for after a slew of superficial encounters. The petrichor feels crisp against your skin after a long, chaotic season.

Extremely valid questions:

  1. Does the no-clutter philosophy mean I shouldn’t go to Costco or Sam’s Club? I see this advice floating around to prevent hoarding. There’s no problem with buying mass quantities at a discounted price for items that you know you will definitely use. Just don’t be tempted to buy a 16-pack of frozen lasagna after sample-hopping on an empty stomach (guilty).
  2. If I can’t buy things for my [insert loved one here]’s birthday, what should I do? Buy them an experience (even better if it is a shared activity that involves you!) Exhibit A: My friend recently gifted me a ramen-making class from Airbnb and it was hands down the best present I have received in my 23 years of life.
  3. Is spending money on “experiences” instead of physical things really that much better? Sure, we can and do produce harmful emissions with certain experiences, liking hopping on a plane to a remote island. But it isn’t comparable to the footprint involved in producing tons of items (+ emissions) that are transported multiple times (+ emissions) will probably be used once or twice before being thrown away in a landfill (+ emissions) or in our oceans (+ dead baby turtles). Just make sure to follow the cardinal rule of “Leave No Trace” wherever you go. Furthermore, by encouraging experience-based currencies, we empower more people to make a living through their talents and return to our roots as artisans and creators (Airbnb Experiences are superb examples of this.)
  4. Don’t certain people can thrive better in maximalism/chaos/etc? Nope. I don’t buy this one bit. Show me one person who can complete their assignment better with 40 different loose paper strewn across their table compared to a clean, organized one.
  5. Isn’t consumerism is a necessary part of economic growth? If our world is propped up on the backs of indentured servants in 3rd-world countries producing toxic plastics and cheap fabrics for the short-lived pleasures of the Western world, we are truly fucked. Time to start defining consumerism in different ways (i.e. focus on sustainable production and experience-based currencies).

Backstory

One of the most marked shifts I have noticed in myself over the past few years is my tumultuous relationship with money and its means of production (i.e. corporatism). I still remember tutoring an average of 25 hours a week back when I was attending community college. I rejoiced when I received my first salary, a crisp check for “thirty-five dollars” made out to none other than yours truly. I still remember the exuberance my body radiated as I drove to the nearest Chase bank and made a deposit into the ATM’s famished mouth.

I come from a solidly middle-class Korean family as a “1.5th” generation, which placed us somewhere on the lower end when converted to American metrics. Up until I graduated high school, we never really struggled with making ends meet. The roles of my parents swapped with mine, where I was the one preaching frugality while they reassured me everything was alright. Turns out, my dad (a self-made entrepreneur in the truest sense of the word) had to close his long-standing venture due to economic circumstances a week after I left high school. His savings quickly ran out, and I had to supplement, then eventually take over, paying the rent of our lovely suburban townhouse. Fortunately, my tutoring business quickly flourished, and more importantly, I reached the pinnacle of any career where I was energized by the output of my pupils, rather than the by-product (paychecks). So I didn’t complain too much, although I confess I had shameful outbursts at my dad for “forcing his son to be the breadwinner” whenever I logged into my bank account and saw $2,150 taken out every 4th of the month.

During my time at Cal, I vacillated between two extremes: forgetting about money and holding onto it with latched claws. I didn’t blink an eye at dropping $30 for an ostentatious meal with friends, but gladly spent 30 minutes looking for free parking just so I could save a few bucks. When it became difficult to sustain rent payments among other life expenses, I foraged a path into college consulting, where I enjoy greater flexibility and profits. Still, in those hours spent poring over application essays for someone I had little connection to, rather than fully enjoying the proverbial “college experience,” I experienced spikes of anger and thoughts of “the world is unfair.” The sentiment was aggravated by the ubiquity of social media, where highlight reels are the main currency and glimpses into tropical vacations and $60 ceviches mask the millennial desperation to escape the rat race that has consummated our lives.

Now, with a stable full-time career and near-total devotion to minimalism, I am slowly redefining how I tango with the benjamins. And if anyone asks the question, “if money wasn’t an issue, what would you be?” I would answer, without trepidation, as follows: “someone who preaches this manifesto to others and Marie Kondo’s the shit (pun vaguely intended) out of their homes after.”

Or, to be more pragmatic: my dream job is to open an artisanal teashop in Hayes Valley. It won’t earn much money nor earn me Linkedin clout, but the venue will maximize two pleasures I hold dear to my heart: free-flowing tea and endless conversations, both lighthearted and soul-searching.

Afterword

If you made it to here, congratulations and a big thank you! I am actively looking for dialogues (or debates, if you’re the argumentative type) on this content and my overarching ethos on life. I welcome all comments, inquiries, cross-examinations, and further insights from you.

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