The integrity of enoughness
notes from a 6-week spending ban
Wild Letters is a weekly newsletter about self-exploration and building a right-fit life. Thank you for being here with me!
About two weeks into my recent six-week spending ban I became obsessed with the idea of whitening my teeth.
I have never used any kind of teeth whitener before, and yet all of the sudden I was absolutely convinced that doing so was a life-changing necessity. A need, not a want. It was as if I woke up one morning consumed with the belief that without whiter teeth I would just never be happy again.
For days afterward, the slight staining on my teeth was the only thing I could think about. I’d catch myself staring longingly at the listing for Crest White Strips on Amazon, finger hovering over the “buy now” button while doing all the mental gymnastics required to somehow justify this purchase to myself.
Your spending ban does not include toiletries, I’d whisper. You are totally allowed to buy this! You deserve to buy this! Think how much better you will feel once you have whiter teeth!
A few times I even got as far as adding the white strips to my cart, but then I’d slam the laptop shut before actually making the purchase, hands held up in the air like I’d been caught in the midst of trying to commit some kind of crime.
When the six weeks ended without me giving into the siren song of the white strips I felt relieved, but I also felt exhausted and confused. I didn’t even want them anymore, now that the spending ban was lifted. So why had I spent literal hours of my one precious life agonizing over it? What did I think those white strips, or even just the temporary rush of spending money on them, was actually going to give me?
In the summer of 2017 I went on a solo trip to England, my first time back since I lived there with my parents from ages 8-14.
The morning after I arrived I took the train down to my old neighborhood, and as I walked through the quiet streets and past my former private school what hit me even more intensely than the nostalgia was how absurdly wealthy the area was.
I mean, I knew my parents used to have money—their loss of it and subsequent bankruptcy has been a defining inflection point in all of our lives—but until I walked around my childhood neighborhood as an adult I didn’t realize just how much money they must have had.
Standing near the steps of the apartment building on which I’d had my first kiss, a quick google search on my phone told me that those same apartments I grew up in were now being sold for over £2,000,000.
Two million pounds!
I burst out laughing right there on the sidewalk, and I kept laughing and laughing until small tears leaked down from the corners of my eyes. Two million pounds! Two million pounds!! What the actual fuck.
I often think about the aftermath of my parents filing for bankruptcy, which happened during my freshman year of high school, and when I do I am reminded of all the ways my family fell apart when the money was gone. It surprises me that this bankruptcy did not make me want to earn as much money as possible, and in fact the opposite happened: for the next decade and a half I only felt safe when my needs and desires were very small, when everything I owned could fit in my car.
If I do not need much then I do not have much to lose — this was the underpinning of my financial belief system until I was almost 30 years old. I slept on air mattresses instead of buying furniture, I rented the cheap illegal fifth “bedroom” in a four bedroom apartment, I paid very close attention to every price tag at the grocery store. I found ways to get other people (read: men) to pay for things (drinks, meals). How much money was enough for me in my 20s? However little I could manage to live on while still paying off my student loans.
And so it was a lightning bolt shock to my system when at the age of 28 I married someone who was a much higher earner than me. I had been self-employed for a few years by then, keeping my costs low, finding ways to make it all work, and here was a person whose corporate health insurance was so fancy that it even included dental. Dental! I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been to a dentist.
When we married, the emotional whiplash that came from such a swift change in my financial circumstances felt exactly the same as when my parents lost their money, only this time the class shift happened in reverse. Childhood: lots of money! Then: no money! Now: lots of money again! This was disorienting. The dental insurance was great, but did I really need all of this money? Hadn’t I now surpassed “enough” and moved into the realm of “too much?” Or: Is our feeling of enoughness always dependent on what we currently have access to? I couldn’t make sense of it, of how much money was enough to survive, how much was enough to thrive, and how much was just wealth hoarding.
I have been thinking about all of those questions for the past 10 years—the decade in which I got married and then divorced, adding yet another loop to my financial rollercoaster. Childhood: lots of money! Then: no money! Marriage: lots of money! Then, after divorce: some money, but much less than before.
And so again: how much money is enough?
Okay, the spending ban.
It started with a list: 10 things from an average day/week that make me feel most content and satisfied, in no particular order.
Talking and laughing with Gent
Getting into a flow with writing
Good conversations with friends
Eating delicious food
Researching something I’m super interested in
Playing and cuddling with Mona
Facilitating fun online groups
I found it easy to make the list (I really do know what makes me feel good!) but what did surprise me was seeing so clearly that the ten things that make me feel most fulfilled do not cost much. So what, then, had I been spending my money on? And how would it feel if for the next six weeks I just… stopped?
Perhaps the deeper motivation for the spending ban came from the fact that I have spent a not insignificant amount of time this year (and in the past few years) thinking about the end of the world.
Does that sound dramatic? Or, in a time of accelerating climate collapse and deadly pandemics and late stage racialized capitalism and unsustainable housing costs and unsustainable everything costs (and and and), does this actually seem like a total rational thing to be thinking about? I honestly can’t tell anymore.
The “what is going to happen to the world” thing often manifests, for me, as a question of how much money will be enough to care for myself and my loved ones through an uncertain future.
I knew a six-week spending ban wouldn’t allow me to definitively figure any of that out—and, honestly, I don’t believe it would ever be possible to accurately do that kind of ‘how much money is enough to make us all okay’ calculation in a country with such cruel healthcare costs, no real social safety net, and a relentless prioritization of profit over people. I also know that the question itself is flawed (how much money do I need?), in that it keeps me stuck in the kind of panicked, non-imaginative, scarcity-minded individualistic thinking that allows capitalism to thrive—and yet because it’s a question I couldn’t stop thinking about I did hope to partially alleviate the stress of it by doing a deep dive into my own financial situation.
But how could I do that kind of deep dive if I didn’t stop spending for a while? Not spending was what I felt I needed to gain a clearer understanding of what my current life costs were. Even more than the numbers, though, I wanted a chance to be more honest with myself about which of those costs represented a true need (versus a want), and then of those wants I was most curious which of them were actually making me feel good versus which of them I continued to spend money on because such spending had become habitual. Maybe that habitual spending would be better off as savings for the future?
For example: a monthly massage membership, which I have had since last summer. I do not need monthly massages. I feel better in my body when I get them, sure, but do I feel $129 better, plus tip?
Even more confusingly: this calculator tells me that if I were to invest that $129 per month for the next 30 years instead, and if the annual return on my investment is 7% (a historically realistic average in the stock market), I would wind up with $157,376.
Do I want a monthly massage more than I want $157,376 in 30 years?
What will the world even be like in 30 years?
And how is it ethical to invest that $129 a month for my future self when there are so many folks who need that money right now?
These kinds of questions break my brain.
You’ll notice that the tagline of today’s newsletter is “notes from a 6-week spending ban” and not “lessons learned from a 6-week spending ban” or “conclusions from a 6-week spending ban” because I honestly do not feel like I walked away from the past six weeks with any concrete lessons or conclusions—except that maybe I should find something better to do than obsess over the whiteness of my teeth in the bathroom mirror? For fucks sake.
Sincerely though, I do not feel like I have a solid answer to the question of “how much money is enough?” Especially not when I think of my favorite definition of abundance, which I heard in a conversation between Toi Smith and Renee Barreto where they describe true abundance as “shared enoughness.”
Because that’s the heart of it, right? Enough is only really enough if everyone can have it, and this vision of enoughness feels like a kind of crucial integrity to me, a right-sizing that can apply to so many things: enough money, enough food, enough clothing, enough friendships.
Friendships. Surprisingly, my spending ban nudged me to think about enoughness across all areas of my life, especially in regard to my relationships. This was helpful because when I first moved here, to this town where the only two people I knew were my partner and his father, I was afraid that I would never be able to make friends. How does one make friends as an adult, particularly an adult who works at home alone, doesn’t have kids, isn’t religious, doesn’t play team sports, and isn’t really a “joiner” of groups or clubs?
I have lived here for a year now and I still do not have any friends in this particular town. I do have friends in the greater Massachusetts area though, who live 45 minutes, 60 minutes, 2-ish hours away. That is too far, I used to moan. But the spending ban gave me the space to ask: is it really?
My exploration of enoughness helped me see that, actually, I do not want to have plans every single day, or even the majority of days. That fantasy of what friendship looks like (what I tell myself it “should” look like) does not match up with my desired reality. Brunch-y BFF sitcoms have fucked me up, I think? That portrayal of one core group of friends that is all over each other all of the time, all up in each other’s daily business, always together, I honestly do not want that.
What I want is to have in-person plans with someone who is not my partner once or twice a week. That, for me, is enough.
And so these friends that live 45 minutes, 60 minutes, 2-ish hours away, I can easily see each of them once a month, and that is enough. Right now, in my current life that also includes a puppy and a beautiful web of long-distance beloveds, social plans once or twice a week feels satisfying to me. So maybe I can stop berating myself for “not having more friends” yet?
I have enough friends; I feel loved; that is enough.
And yet enoughness is also ever-changing, isn’t it? What feels like enough (of anything) in one season of life might be too much or not enough in the next season. So maybe what I want is to instead let go of the drive to “figure it out,” the fantasy that I will arrive at one clear answer that will somehow magically be true for me forever.
I will never not be on an exploration of enoughness. What if that is exactly right?