learning to spend again – consuming more intentionally this time

With a regular income now, and only so many years to use it in, it is time to review one of the Horsemen of personal finance from the other side, consumption and lifestyle. It’s an opportunity to think about it properly this time and consume intentionally – to spend on what matters to me and furthers my values, rather than the admen’s. This is a big difference to how I spent money up to 2009 – that was the classic slow lifestyle inflation of moving from a student through escalating jobs. That sort of lifestyle inflation is unthinking, and while I generally avoided consumer debt which is the #1 win against the black tide of advertising making consumers spend badly, I didn’t always get value. Some was bought for the promise that it would make things better and easier. Some of it didn’t because of the Diderot effect, and some of it was sheer being suckered.

As proof of how much of this wasn’t necessary, in the seven years I have not lived a life of abject poverty or the Rowntree Foundation’s inability to take part in society – most of the stuff I had seven years ago is still in service and works well enough, and is not shockingly low-quality compared to modern offerings. One 20-year old piece of consumer spending that did give me great value that failed in service over that time was my Naim power amplifier for my hi-fi, already secondhand when I bought it, which developed a shorted turn in the transformer. I missed that, but anything else that broke I lived happily without. Some of this is because digitalisation means the world is getting a little bit more virtual and less physical, but much of it was simply because I didn’t give a damn, once you have freedom you can be more creative or just go do something else instead.

It’s hard to get perspective as one gradually inflates lifestyle to match income, but I have had a long break from consumerism – for seven years the answer to how much to spend on Wants was ‘as little as possible so I can save’. So it’s like starting anew, but with the wisdom of hindsight from the previous experience. Not all consumption is bad – the consumer society didn’t get where it is today by never offering value. What I want to win from the hiatus is the discrimination to spend well, to get value on my terms rather than other people’s. So it still means a ruthless avoidance of advertising in its many forms, and I still don’t have time or inclination to watch TV 😉

One of the I’m going to do with my return to a regular income is to enjoy some of the interests and hobbies I used to do before I made the decision to get out ASAP. Some of these I simply put on hold because they cost money to pursue on needed travel I didn’t want to spend money on, some of them I quite because I didn’t have the energy. All of these fall into interests; they are firmly in the Wants category and not in the Needs. So canning Wants when I Needed to retire early was an entirely rational thing to do.

Sadly the rational thing to do isn’t always the right thing to do. In hindsight maybe I should have got that amplifier fixed and saved a grand or two less, because I missed decent sound, the sound systems I have with my computer and in the bedroom are okay but nowhere near as clear. I know everybody else uses Spotify and good for y’all but I like being able to listen on speakers and it not all blending to mush. So I should have pushed the boat out here, but the other interests etc, well, the time was better spent on learning and honing my art. When I was working and short of time it was always about the next great thing and gizmo that was going to turn me into a great photographer/recordist/birdwatcher/writer/whatever. In the long lean years I discovered that I was usually the weakest link, and learning to use the stuff I already had and more about my targets, to learn about what I was interested in and just damn well slow down and listen and observe FFS was often the secret sauce I was missing.

One of the conclusions I have come to is that any sort of pastime I do in future needs to definitely not be primarily stuff-consumptive, it needs to involve some sort of challenge, or creative expression. I don’t necessarily have to have an audience, but I do want to be changed by the experience, have some element of mastery. So that’s no to the beach, anything that ends in -collecting, yes to things that involve some sort of art and craft, or reward for effort. So of course the first thing I go and do to celebrate is purely consumptive, but in experience

The Swan hotel in Lavenham
The Swan hotel in Lavenham

I stayed a couple of days the Swan at Lavenham with Mrs Ermine for a short break. Apparently much used by London types up for a weekend, from Mrs Ermine’s chat with the spa staff. I drank coffee and spent time in the peaceful courtyard reflecting, reading and listening to the birds.

the courtyard
the courtyard at the Swan in Lavenham

The Londoners clearly know a thing or two about demanding high standards for the grub, because it was excellent on both nights in at atmospheric half-timbered hall. I then had got Mrs Ermine a couple of hours of owl flying experience with Lavenham Falconry. She’s mad on owls, and you get to see them close

Barn owl
Barn owl

though personally I’d say getting up this close to this great big lump was too close for my liking.

Steve the proprietor with Bonnie the owl
Steve the proprietor with Bonnie the owl. That’s one big owl IMO…

I ducked every time this one came close 😉

Inside the Guildhall
Inside the Guildhall

Lavenham is a nice part of Suffolk and the Guildhall was worth a gander (does a very decent afternoon tea and cakes too). I was taken by the mummified cat, there to ward of evil spirits coming down the chimney, a common feature of mediaeval Suffolk buildings – there’s one hanging from the ceiling in the tiny bar of the Nutshell in Bury St Edmunds too.


The NT have a nice feature that you aren’t hit by the grisly sight from the off, he’s respectfully covered in some cloth, but the temptation to peek is too strong…


The village itself is all wild jaunty angles of the ancient half-timbering in many places.


A couple of weeks later we stayed three days at a dedicated spa, because this is something that Mrs Ermine really enjoys, and we went to Norfolk for a couple of days. Some of this I have to pack in in a short while because it so happens this is a better time of the year for her to be able to get away from the farm for a bit because of the vagaries of the growing season. While I have the time and now the money, she finds it harder to go away for more than a few days, which favours the fast and furious sort of decadence rather than slowly ambling along on a journey of discovery which I will be able to do on my own.

a requiem for The Firm’s sports and leisure association

One of the things I will mess around with again is amateur radio, despite the fact that the Internet happened between when I was a youth and now and has pretty much destroyed the whole point. But it’s an excuse to climb some of Britain’s hills[ref]most things radio work better with more height, which is the relevance of hills[/ref] and make contacts and gawp at the scenery, a little bit of the experience and being changed by the challenge. Now when I joined The Firm, as a joint full of electronics engineers pushing the boundaries at times there was a very active amateur radio society. I never did much with it then because you need time. So many recreational interests are like that, you need time in the field to get any good.

POTUS with a Blackberry - in Nov 2014 WTF?
POTUS with a Blackberry – in Nov 2014 WTF?

And time is something we don’t have while working, and it got less with the always-on way work drifted after 2000 as mobile phones poisoned the work/life balance after the Crackberry (who remembers that from 2004, eh?). Time is not just the total number of non-work waking hours, it’s also about how many contiguous days of them them you can string together.

I joined The Firm in the late 1980s as a twenty-something pup. In a research lab you are surrounded by clever people and there is always something more to learn, but The Firm was more than a workplace, it was a community, albeit a somewhat strange community. It was intellectually biased and technical/electronics engineering biased. Let’s face it, at times there were issues of personal hygiene in some places where guys spend too much time thinking, I actually switched job t at one time because I couldn’t stand the hum in the office from one fellow, though he was brilliant at what he did. And the girls in the town did get to know that while the odds were good (engineering facilities tend to be very male-biased) the goods were odd…

But for all that it was still a community, and a vibrant community in that the social and leisure association had a dizzying array of clubs and societies, on all sorts of things. I used to borrow records then CDs from the music club, I spent lunchtime for a few weeks trying to learn Japanese. With a deep loathing of sports and particularly team sports that started in schooldays and persists to this day I was never going to see the point of half the clubs, but it was good to know they were there.

In browsing on the Web I saw traces of The Firm’s radio society, but it’s a pale reflection of its former self, last significant news from 2009. I looked at the website of the umbrella leisure and social society and there’s a whiff of tumbleweed around there too, of the 19 clubs all are sports apart from the radio society, photography, angling, sailing and golf. There were three times as many when I was there, and it’s only been four years… Not only that but the link to the radio society goes to a lapsed domain. I still clearly remember the all hands meeting when a head of department said ‘although we are closing many of the labs we aren’t turning this place into a jobbing shop’ and while I subconsciously picked up that he was lying because I remember the oddness of the statement and shiftiness still now.  I failed to consciously pick this up, nor to take the corrective action which would have been easier to do from 2000 that it would have been ten years later. Oh well.

It’s all a sort of creepy independent verification that this particular outpost of The Firm is a pale reflection of its former self. It’s also a signal of a wider malaise, where form is prized over function, which seems to weaken physical communities. I was talking to a bunch of people at the Aldeburgh Food and Drink Festival. They’ve been going round schools showing kids how to grow stuff to eat and all good things like that, but they were now getting stonewalled as schools cut out everything that doesn’t go into pumping up something called SAT scores. These are primary schools, by the way. And people used to bitch about the eleven plus FFS, but now we measure the little tykes twice in primary school, comparative to each other. Well, I suppose you have the groom the youngsters for the ghastly world of performance management at work, though it seems a little bit tough to do that at primary school. School is a larger part of a child’s world now than it used to be, with parents working and commuting long hours. You’d have thought eliminating the broader education of how they fit into society and where their food comes from for example, in favour of the misery of metrics draining the meaning out of life is a regressive move. But fortunately this is not my problem, though it looks like a rum way to run a school to me. My primary school, in the 1960s urban wasteland of inner London, found a way to take us ankle-biters out to see nature. And still get some of us to pass the eleven plus despite the shocking digression into the sordid realms of General Knowledge.

I’m reading Nicholas Carr’s The Glass Cage, where automation is leading us, and he seems to make a cogent case that our thought processes are becoming shallower, that the hive-mind or the Big G will fix things for us. I mean hell, Amazon will sell you a gizmo[ref]Amazon Echo is not yet available in the UK at the time of writing[/ref] that we used to know as a bug. For the convenience of ordering pizza you livestream everything said in your house to Amazon for their computing hardware to parse and answer your questions. They will of course, so not parse everything else you say to use in evidence against you feed into their algorithms so they can upsell you more consumer shit that you will have to spend more hours of your life earning money to pay for. George Orwell was absolutely wrong, we will buy the telescreens ourselves and demand to be heard, doubleplusfeelgood social media indeed.

Something else I learned is that while I take information in from the Web, I don’t gain deep understanding, compared to learning the same thing from books. Indeed, I’d also challenge the assumption that learning ability inherently decays with age. I was trying the understand the craft of designing aerials, and I spent way too much time on the Web, getting conflicting opinions. Then I pulled out a textbook that I had bought as a teenager. I had passed the radio test as a way to try and expand my application to Imperial College, though we didn’t have personal statements in the late 1970s there was some sort of CV and it helped to add bits to it. I had never understood that chapter, because I didn’t have the ability to imagine the electric and magnetic fields travelling through space. It was much easier to grasp this time, though I am 35 years older. By rights the younger me should have had no trouble, but it was the older me that made the grade, and turned some of the learning into action. Of course perhaps that is because I am a Physics degree and thirty years worth of experience later. But it is an interesting insight into knowledge learned from the Web can easily be, to pinch the words of Lord Kelvin “of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind”.

That’s not to knock the big G, after all in a fast moving world often you don’t have time to go deep, you simply need some sort of heuristic rough guess right now. But it was an interesting insight in how all too often the Web tells me how but not why. Somehow that doesn’t seem to be improving my understanding of the world, though it an get a specific thing done. I am not sure that the answer to this conundrum is to spend more money on Freedom to ice this chatter, as opposed to learning to switch it off more, but that is much easier for a retiree I guess than if you’re working, so maybe Freedom is onto something!

It’s one of the odd things about the cornucopia of information and stuff that we have around us – to use it well we must still know ourselves better, to know what do we want, how to gauge value and how to qualify the opportunity cost of doing one option of buying something, because every road travelled is a bifurcation with the road that was not taken. I once navigated that path by the need to avoid running out of money each month. I now want to navigate it more intentionally. It was necessary for me to escape the rat race that was freedom from. Living and consuming intentionally is part of the freedom to, not the freedom from. It’s inherently more pathless. I will no doubt spend money on crap in the future, what I want to avoid is doing it more than once, through deliberation, reflection and knowing myself. The only increase in spending I’ve done so far is these trips out with Mrs Ermine, because I have time enough to work out what I want where it doesn’t involve other people. I will change things slowly, only a few things at a time, because living intentionally can’t be rushed.


23 thoughts on “learning to spend again – consuming more intentionally this time”

  1. Never heard of the Diderot Effect. An easy one to succumb to – one of the big drivers behind lifestyle inflation? I cut back on my Wants a while back, after changing career and the resultant decrease in salary. As my salary has gone back up I haven’t got back on the Wants. Or, at least, they’ve changed.

    You mention time being a big factor in recreational interests – couldn’t agree more. I got a ‘proper’ camera after christmas and it has been a constant battle with time to learn how to use it. I learnt more during a two week holiday than I did in the prior 3 months. Now time needs to be dedicated to learning about processing and cleaning up the images. I’m loving it, but man oh man would I like a bit more time.

    “While the odds were good, the goods were odd.” *Steals phrase*

    Is amateur radio an expensive pursuit? Or just expensive on time?

    That’s a big f*cking owl. I would be terrified by it.


  2. The Diderot effect seems to be built in by design to many things. I have an iPod – it is perfectly serviceable and provides music while camping fine. But it doesn’t run the latest major iOS, so very few modern apps run on it – and it’s only three years old!

    Amateur radio is a bit like photography, it’s as expensive as you want it to be, but the skill is in the person behind the camera/radio. Entry is about £30 as the Chinese have driven costs down. Its can serve me to get me out and see more of the rugged parts of this beautiful country because there are awards for wider geographical coverage. I’ve had a tendency to favour the same places at times – palces with prehistoric stones etc and I want to break out into the wilds of Scotland and some of those Welsh mountains…

    > *Steals phrase*

    I already did – from here 😉

    > That’s a big f*cking owl. I would be terrified by it.

    Was a Eurasian Eagle owl, Mrs Ermine tells me. I was too busy being scared to listen up as to what it was, the reptile brain filed it under “serious incoming fire” most of the time! She let this lump land on her arm…


  3. Funny, I was just thinking along the same lines this morning. What hobbies did I enjoy as a lad and which should I restart? Model making? Hillwalking? Photography? Cycling? Maybe it’s the time of the year as the evenings lengthen out and sitting reading books or idly surfing the web seems less of a good use of time. I also “know” that spending money on experiences is much more satisfying than doing so on materialist stuff, and I then I struggle to think of what “experiences” I want to experience! Travel? My mental jury is out on that one because I tend to think that these days it’s just too much hassle for the cost. As you often say Ermine,seeking contentment from “out there” is pointless, it’s trying to find the things that trigger contentment from within that’s key.


    1. It’s a tough one,isn’t it – I’m just going to play around and see what works for me. Though hillwalking and cycling as all good from a general keeping fit POV, and wit the former you get to see more of this lovely country.

      With you on the increasing aggravation of travel, particularly by air. I am leaning more towards the slow travel/camping angle, because I have the time, it’s cheaper and there’s at least some element of the being transformed by the experience aspect, rather than pure sightseeing. Being changed and or learning new things is what I want of leisure now. I have great fellow feeling for people who want to decompress from working on a city break, but it’s not me.


  4. The Internet is similar to our own mind, just a tool. Uncontrolled, the mind’s a chaotic wall of thoughts & ideas, controlled though, you can shut it down when unneeded, by living consciously in the moment & only using it when you’ve a genuine need, like to work out a real problem.

    The Net’s an information tower of Babel, so best used only when you’ve a clearly defined mission. When totally focused though, you’ve more knowledge at your fingertips with it than anyone’s had in history to date & so can learn faster than ever before. Mastering knowledge, even for the sake of pleasure alone is a form of wealth and an incredibly liberating endeavor …..so all-in-all, the Net can be a thing of beauty & a massive boost to achieving FI.


    1. I love the metaphor – and yes, perhaps the Internet is a reflection of the mind within, although coloured by commerce compared to the early mid-nineties. And indeed of the mind as a source of babble too – mastery seems to be king in handling both.


  5. Agreed – it’s hugely a matter of learning to be disciplined with these things. When aware that the advertising industry, channeling all corporate interests are trying to bend the net mainly to their ends, you can counteract it. Like you I use adblockers & don’t watch TV, but also just don’t see adverts I can’t control – like on billboards. I learned to subconsciously ‘look away’ in the same way you instinctively flinch from bright sunlight straight into your eyes.

    You have to have known the difference to believe how much less stress you have once you carry out this practice on autopilot….. & of course that makes you feel happier or at least more peaceful 🙂

    The Net & modern life’s here to stay, but we can still teach discipline/control.


  6. you should buy yourself an rtlsdr for 5 quid and download gnuradio. I reckon that could keep you occupied for many an evening..


    1. Funny you should say that – I have plans for one with a RPi 2 which is a lot of tech in a small, low power and above all noise-free box!


      1. I passed the RAE when I was in the lower 6th at school, in 1981. Absolutely the most exciting and memorable amateur radio event of my life was when I was 17, with a second hand transceiver and a 5 element yagi, working OY9JD in the Faroe Islands from my bedroom at my parents’ house in Norfolk, with 2.5 watts of SSB on 2 metres (via tropospheric ducting). I couldn’t even afford a mains power supply, so I was running on batteries, and I couldn’t afford an antenna rotator so I had to lean out of the window to turn the Yagi. I’ve worked all continents since then with much more complex and expensive equipment and interesting data modes, but it’s that one contact that sticks out. Which just goes to show, I suppose…

        I’ve recently bought an RTLSDR, but really only for airband so far. It was a bit of a fiddle getting it to work with Linux software, but it’s loads of fun. Overloads when aircraft are within a few miles, but it hears things at 35,000 feet out to about 200 miles with a homemade dipole in the loft. Highly recommended.


      2. Nice work that! I’m drawn to SOTA or perhaps WAB – getting out and getting in some hillwalking and seeing more of Britain. But I’m almost total noob status even with a 25 year old ticket. I was too poor to do anything much with my RAE pass in ’78…


      3. @Ho-hum > What is WAB if not “xxx-collecting”?

        Fair cop. All the xxx-collecting hobbies from childhood were collecting stuff, but I guess experience-collecting is a thing too, be it tourism or contacts or computer game scores.


  7. I have a 1st generation Nexus 7 from 2012. Can’t be upgraded to the latest Android release. Rather than get a newer one I just bagged it. Switched to an even older netbook given me by a neighbor.
    I installed a cheap solid state drive, put on a modern Linux O/S and now have a much better gadget to take with me if I go on holiday, or down to the local wifi spots.
    Would you call that anti-Diderot? Guess not as there was a bit of conspicuous consumption involved with the SSD.


    1. At least you could swap that part. Repurposing, maybe? No chance with Apple. I’m tempted to run a SSD on this seven-year old laptop. OTOH I’m sitting in the sun on a campsite listening to the evening birds and thinking of going to the pub later so it’s still boots in an acceptable, if not stupendous time. SSDs seem the way to go, it’s amazing how the price has fallen!


      1. The SSD I got runs about 35 GBP and made a huge difference in an Atom netbook. The old hard drive got recycled as a separate unconnected backup unit for my docs and photos in case the cryptolocker monster comes calling. Unlikely but you never know.


  8. I’m not nearly as bright as I suppose I should be and often times feel swamped and overwhelmed by all the amazing things I could learn. You nailed it though when you wrote how the web instructs but seldom explains, deep learning I find loves the analogue but only occasionally flirts with digital.

    “Know thyself” seems to be something I have learned from your post and with that I will be working harder to grasp, intentionality sounds good to me 🙂



    1. Interesting with deep learning – of course it’s possible that this is me because I learned to learn with analogue media.

      Know thyself is much much older than me – from ancient Greece’s Delphic Oracle but sage advice still today, since it is one of the keys to mastery


  9. Nice article (again).

    Maybe it’s a special case but I gained a deep understanding of statistics and data science from the web, by following an online course run by Coursera. Text books, and I did buy one along the way, were no substitute for the huge amount of searchable information available online, the online forums and all the free open source libraries.

    I’m with you on challenging the assumption that learning ability inherently decays with age – I did a computer science degree at Birkbeck 10 years ago, learned to surf (badly) five years ago and took the data science course last year. (and I’m guessing I’m a couple of years older than you).


    1. I guess it depends on the topic – shows the value do using a course structure rather than just the big G perhaps. How people learn varies hugely. Mrs Ermine can learn from audiobooks, whereas I can’t assimilate information that way because of the low data rate and inability to scan back a few sentences and modulate reading speed with how hard I’m finding it.

      I certainly find learning things that involve synthesis of different areas of knowledge seems easier now that it was when I was younger. Though Monevator pointed us to the cautionary tale that I may actually have less cognition and simply think I have more 😉


  10. One more voice in the defence of collecting : maintaing my collection of old computers ( oldest dates from 1968, some are unique ) in a running condition surely challenges those gray cells between the ears…


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