Forget the wisdom of crowds. What do I want? Buying what I want has saved me a lot of money.
Crowds create group wisdom. Like minds gather, share similar thoughts, and build community from their mutual interests. At a minimum they preach to the choir, mimicking each other and repeating those first common thoughts. Their song becomes a chorus constantly repeated, without stanzas. Their canon is concrete and industriously protected. Most groups do more. They build on their common knowledge, returning to their base tenets, but realizing that differences within the group can be used to ratchet up the average as others learn. That’s how universities operate. Though the learning process is voluntary, testing the students recalls the preached choir because everyone gets measured to a canonical standard. For me the most fun comes from freer crowds that have passion in common, but that aren’t very worried about the details. Ideas freely flow, and may never be recorded or remembered, but a precious few may embody genius. The group may not last long though because the members may find themselves chasing an idea and forming a new group.
Groups teach and support, but groups can also exert phenomenal peer pressure. Fashion decrees desires. The fashion community tests many ideas within its ranks and then decides what the general public should want. I was heartened a couple of years ago when men’s shorts were in style to the point that they were included in formal tuxedoes. I wear shorts often, very often. But I’m not trying to set a trend, or make a statement. I’ve had long pants bind at the knee, pull at the waistband, and pinch my back. Long pants have thrown out my back. Shorts are healthier. I even get more vitamin D. Seeing a tuxedo with shorts brought a chuckle. I applauded the exploration of innovation, and acknowledged the possibility that the trend might survive, but I was sure that their motivation was far removed from mine.
The fashion industry, advertisers, politicians, and many ideological institutions evangelize. The more people that embrace their point of view, the more power they embody or the more money comes their way.
Conformity is also comforting. We are social creatures. The social aspect asks for at least some commonality. In the words of one of my favorite authors, “Shared pain is lessened; shared joy is increased . . .” – Spider Robinson.
I was raised in a conventional neighborhood. Get a job. Go to church. Get married. Wear a tie. Root for the home teams. Collectively those acts define a comfort zone.
Now I live in an unconventional community. The neighborhood of houses is conventional, but my community of friends is built from unconventional free-thinkers, people who are artistic even if they aren’t artists. Their comfort requires stepping out of their comfort zones on a regular basis. Most can only do that because they know there is a community of similar spirits they can return to when it is time to recuperate and share stories.
“If everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you?” – my mom, ironically one of the great proponents of fitting in.
About the time I went to college I started applying her advice to many aspects of my life. College professors may protect a canon, but college students create a marvelous rebellion against authority and convention. By the end of my first pass through college I’d decided to abandon television and cold beer. I preferred books and warm Guinness. Regular church services were replaced with personal explorations of religious and philosophical texts. A few years later I replaced watching spectator sports with moving my own body by hiking and skiing. Bicycling and running stretched back to my high school days, and they gained prominence until I was running marathons and riding double centuries.
After graduation I entered that bastion of convention, corporate America in the name of Boeing. Suits and ties were the norm, but not for young engineers who worked more with computers than people. I’d moved to the Seattle area, back when it was closer to its pragmatic Scandinavian roots. Lifestyles were judged more on function than form. Hats replaced umbrellas. Hiking boots replaced leather loafers. My beard fit in. I wore business casual before it had a name.
The consequence of accidentally stepping out of convention was that my lifestyle was much more affordable. Instead of buying the things that everyone was supposed to buy, I was spending money on what I wanted. Because I was defining my personal style I was defining my personal fashion. My fashion doesn’t change on a whim. Money invested in clothes, equipment, or lessons meant less money spent chasing yet another whim or fashion. A bicycle may cost a thousand dollars, but it lasted years and cost far less and was healthier than buying season tickets every year.
Frugal living is conscious living, and while that can sound like a lot of work, eventually it eliminates eternally wasting effort chasing the crowd. With practice, that effort becomes expertise and ease.
Learning and understanding what I want has not been easy. I won’t trivialize the task. It has taken me decades to untangle what I want from what I was taught to want. Public media act as a constant pressure pushing in a direction that has no regard for the way I want to head. I’m still understanding my relationship with snack foods and beverages. Sometimes I make my own potato chips. Sometimes I like a bag of Tim’s Cascades. Mine are cheaper. His are crunchier.
Financial advice shouldn’t be given or taken frivolously. That’s one of the reasons it is federally regulated. Everyone’s situation is different and generalized statements are guaranteed to eventually fail for someone. But one piece of advice is powerful and pervasive. Understand your own wants and needs. No one can do it for you. One of the most powerful financial tools doesn’t cost anything except your time, no matter what the group thinks.