December 1, 2021

Nothing Satisfies the Person Who Is Not Satisfied With a Little

About 2,500 years ago, the Greek philosopher, Epicurus, expressed a truism that I find remains absolutely accurate today if given a qualifier: "a person who always wants more is never satisfied with whatever he has at this moment." 

From a material standpoint, he is correct. The mindset that says there is never enough money, or possessions, or power, or....whatever, is what drives many of us forward. It is the power behind the desire to upgrade our home, get a bigger car or truck, buy the biggest TV screen available. The children need to go to an Ivy League school. This urge to never be satisfied is what drives our economy.

While my family never really played that "more is better" game, we wanted the best for our kids. We bought an Apple computer soon after they became available so the two girls could learn about a new world that beginning to open up. We weren't above subtly mentioning we had spent Christmas in Maui, creating lifetime memories.

We just never got caught up in the "impress the Joneses" lifestyle. A purchase fulfilled a need for us, not to dazzle someone else. Frankly, since Betty and I decided very early on to live well beneath our means, we could not have afforded to play that game anyway. Even so, we were part of the materially-driven culture; it surrounded us every moment of every day.

Importantly, I have found that retirement has the potential to disrupt that mindset. Because so many parts of your life change when you leave the world of regular paychecks, it is the perfect time to reassess your relationship with material possessions, desires, and what drives you in your life.

If my experience is at all normal, pulling away from that incessant pressure to buy, to upgrade, to remodel parts of the house simply because you have become bored with the color, or the layout, or appliances, lessens the longer you are away from employment.

Quite often, when you start to spend more time at home, doing some freshening and repair work does occur. You notice that the wallpaper is starting to peel a bit. That huge sectional sofa was great when all the kids lived at home now dominates the room for no particular reason. You sense that the 15-year-old dryer seems to take forever to dry a load. The drafty back windows are hard to ignore when the snow starts to fly. Being in the same space heightens your attention to those things in your living environment that need some TLC.

When you find yourself replacing, upgrading, or adding to your possessions because you are bored or restless, you have to stop and think through the decision. Each new possession or change to your home comes with two costs: the original purchase price and the maintenance/upkeep expenses. Even if that means nothing more than dusting, vacuuming, or occasional repairs, these are events that tap into your energy and time, two parts of your life that may be better spent in something productive, creative, or simply restful. The fewer excess possessions, the more time can be spent on you and your interests.

In one sense, the Covid mess of the past 21+ months has had a potentially positive side effect. Like many of us, you spent many hours streaming movies, shows, and documentaries on your TV or laptop. Except for a few exceptions, most streaming channels are commercial-free. That means you have avoided hundreds (maybe thousands) of hours of commercials on television. The first time you go back to a movie theater, you are thrust headlong into the consumer world: the first 10-12 minutes before the previews are packed with attempts to motivate you to buy something. Covid has meant you weren't in a reclining seat absorbing all that stimulation to purchase.

Malls, shopping centers, even individual stores are designed to trigger a "buy me" impulse. Companies spend millions each year to know what impulse products should go at the front of a store or on those displays at the end of an aisle. Packages are researched continuously to test what color, box size, and wording are most persuasive. If you aren't in those stores, all that emotional stimulus doesn't make its way into your consumer's brain. 

I have been fascinated with the (partial) idea of minimalism. Like many things, some people take a simple idea and go overboard: all your belongings in one suitcase, one plate, one cup, and one saucer. To me, minimalism is more a mindset than a physical representation. To me, thinking before making a purchase, any purchase beyond a bag of fries or a new t-shirt to replace one ruined by paint thinner, is how my minimalistic mind works.

We will spend money on a 10 day trip to Kauai without a second thought: a business purpose, seeing new friends, and taking our first break since Covid destroyed so many plans made that expense worthwhile. Memories and taking care of our mental health made that money well spent.

What if  I suddenly decide I'd like a VR headset. I will research the various products available and understand I'd have to spend hundreds on the headpiece and various games and simulations.

I am going to close the Amazon page until I can think through that purchase. Resisting the urge to just click has to become a learned response.

Each of us maximizes our contentment in different ways. Unless a purchase or decision jeopardizes someone's fiscal, physical, or mental well-being, none of us can judge another. If we can control our own impulses and decision-making, our chances of having a satisfying retirement are greatly enhanced. 

The qualifier I mentioned at the beginning of this post is if the quote is about a person who is not satisfied with a little creativity, an OK marriage or serious relationship, time with an enjoyed hobby, or time spent with family. In those cases wanting more is to be encouraged. That type of pursuit should not be stopped when there is more to learn, more to paint, more friends to enjoy. That is a positive part of being a human being. Fulfilling all we can be should remain a neverending quest.


  1. Very insightful post, Bob. You hit so many of the things that I too see as important in life. Yvonne and I lived below our means on purpose. I grew up with very humble means, so all purchases were deeply thought out even after I had the means to do otherwise. Saving for retirement was not necessarily a focused thing, but saving in general was. That has given me so many options now.

    One thing we should never think we have enough of us learning. Learn something new every day and your life will be more joyful. Never stop questioning things that you once took for granted. That also makes for a fulfilling life.

    1. At one point, with a wife and two young children, I lost my job just after moving to a new city. Obviously it was a stressful time. But, since Betty and I were already used to spending less than we made, that period wasn't quite as scary as it might have been.

      I remember a lot of mac and cheese and grilled cheese sandwiches. We didn't go near a shopping mall for over a year. When we finally felt financially able to go shopping again, I remember it as being not that big a deal. We had been forced to learn contentment with what we had. It was an important lesson.

  2. We were caught up in "Jonesing" the first 7y we were married. And there we stood on the edge of bankruptcy. (Never take all your financial advice from people who look like they are living the good life unless you've asked how much debt they in-laws.) We hunkered down for years paying off everything and once we did we became...

    Mindful spenders. We really considered anything we were looking at. Most of all, we saved first! Every pay increase went into 401k or 403b until we maxed them out. 30 years later I retired at 58 and couldn't be happier. If we really want something, we can write a check. I thoroughly enjoyed writing a check for my car 6y ago.

    We learned that less is more. :-) I'm so grateful we learned this at 27y. Father-in-law is still working fulltime at age 81.

    1. I got married at 27 and was in a career that did not pay beginners very well. We were not in a position to play the "Jones" game until at least a decade later. By then, we had been committed to a less is more approach for so long, we were never tempted to play the game. Like you, we pumped all the extra income into investments and savings.

      It has worked out very well for over 45 years together.

  3. Bob,

    I am reminded of another Greek philosopher, Socrates who, upon wandering through the Athens marketplace observed: "there are so many things in this world that I do not want."

    Rick in Oregon

  4. I do think I did more boredom shopping when I was working and particularly when I was traveling endlessly for work and found myself in some city for the evening with nothing to do.

    Shopping used to be fun, but now I just find it annoying to have to go out and look for something. Especially since I often go to a couple/few stories, can't find what I want, and then end up ordering it online anyway. I hate to say it, but Bezos has changed everything. And the pandemic ramped that up.

    Another thought: I always wondered why my elderly family and friends didn't have "new stuff" and now I know. There is just nothing wrong with the "stuff" we have in most cases. I like a new piece of clothing as well as the next person, but I just don't need much anymore. That said, when I die you will not find a drawer of unworn clothing like my grandma had -- just waiting for something else to wear out enough to need replacement. LOL. Those Depression folks were thrifty!

    1. I wholeheartedly admit to keeping every t-shirt I've ever "won", been gifted or purchased for a specific event. I'll never need another one (I'm just 60y). Hubster has done the same. I will admit that in the last few years we've worn out several so it CAN happen ;-) My sister says I wear them around the house well beyond the "use by" date. 🤣🤣

    2. I also find it hard to part with T-shirts. I have several from a 1992 trip to Maui when our kids were quite young. Amazingly, they can still be worn outside the house! Yesterday the high temperature hit 86 degrees...T-shirt season lasts a long, long time in the desert.

      I find shopping in stores a non-starter. My size, the preferred colors, or style are rarely in stock. On-line is easy, no more expensive, and returns are simple.

  5. Bob, I'd like to offer an alternative theory to your belief that acquiring possessions may be related to a certain mindset. While I definitely believe that's true to a certain extent, I'm wondering how much of an impact our personalities themselves have on our purchasing habits. Here's why I bring it up . . . Alan and I have always been "buy and hold" kind of people whether in reference to investments or material goods. While I do tweak our investments once or twice a year, it's basically to keep our asset allocation steady. I'm never drawn to the next new stock or fund. I don't need to chase returns. Whether we're in a bull or bear market doesn't matter much because we're invested in a strategy that both Alan and I are comfortable with. It continues to work for us and we feel no need to change it.

    As for material possessions, neither one of us likes to shop and neither one of us feels the need to own the newest tech gadget or the trendiest clothing. The truck he drives has 90,000 miles on it; my Tahoe is coming up on 116,000. They both run well and are in good condition. We see no need to buy anything new at this point. We're not reluctant to spend money but, when we do, it's typically on items of higher quality that we've researched well and chosen knowing they'll last a long time. (We had our first boat for 20 years, our second one for 15 so far and we actually drove one of our cars to the junkyard at 212,000 miles.) Our bedroom and dining room sets date back to when we moved to our new house 40 years ago and our kitchen, now ripe for renovation, has the original cabinets and harvest gold Formica countertops. I'm sure some of your readers would be flabbergasted, but I've just never felt the need to change out something I already have and love. (Alan is feeling pretty smug and secure in his husband status at 42 years and counting.)

    Both Alan's parents and mine were always frugal, but I think our lack of interest in upgrading our material possessions comes more from simple satisfaction with what we have than from the need to save our pennies. I never feel the need to rearrange the furniture, swap our summer curtains for winter ones or change our home's color scheme except on rare occasions. Yet, I'm sure there are people who live for those things and enjoy every single one of them as often as possible. I don't need change for the sake of change, but I wonder if some people actually do. I truly believe that our attitude toward new things is a reflection of our personalities. And I'm even wondering if introversion and extroversion play some part in it.

    1. You have some valid points. My older sister has painted her interior twice in the 11 years she's had her post-widowhood home. She is renovating the kitchen and bathroom this month. She does like new clothes each year.

      She can afford all of this just fine. We can too, but like you, it doesn't matter to us. We did replace counters 20-25 years ago. The formica looked dirty all the time and I couldn't get it to look clean.
      We last painted the interior 27 years ago when we replaced the carpet. That carpet is bad and really does need to be replaced however, we have a sunken living room and before we do the flooring one last time, I want that room raised even so as we age in place, we eliminate the fall risk. Try to get a contractor over for such a small job ;-( Clothes? I could care less frankly.

      I am an extrovert as is my sister. So we're opposites on this. I'm not convinced it is an intr/extro driver. Would be interesting to hear more from folks on this.

    2. Okay, so probably not an introversion/extroversion thing. I do believe it's a component of our personality though. Elle, your previous comment about t-shirts made me smile. A couple of years ago I passed down a 70's era souvenir tee from Virginia Beach to our young adult daughter. I wasn't thinking of it as "vintage," but she did and she loves it.

    3. Great discussion points. I would add that one's mindset is part of their personality. But, I don't see a direct correlation between being an introvert and not acquiring things.

      I could argue that an introvert might be more likely to do house renovations or add possessions since they are more likely to spend more time at home.

      My guess where someone stands on the possesion-satisfaction scale is a combination of how they were raised, a strong sense of self, and a long range plan for their life.

      Like all factors that make each of us unique, it is important to be self-aware while resisting the pressures of society and the culture.