Briefcase Study: How Low Can You Go?

In Articles, Articles: Kansas City Office, Articles: Salt Lake City Office, Briefcase Studies, SLC Spring 2022, Spring 2022 by Scott Dougan

Reduced Stress Through Rehearsed Austerity 

A recent client review meeting reminded me that money can be stressful. This is a statement so obvious that it seems silly to write it out, but there it is. It can stress me out, and I’ll bet you feel it from time-to-time as well. While I won’t suggest that money’s emotional and intellectual burdens can be tamed fully, there is an exercise that I’ve found to be helpful in putting money’s stressful power into perspective. I like to call it ‘rehearsed austerity,’ which is admittedly a fancy name for a simple exercise.   

Rehearsed austerity works like this: take out a piece of paper and write out every expense you have. Include every fixed expense, like the mortgage and other required monthly payments, in one category, and variable expenses, like clothing and food, in another category. Don’t stop until every item you spend money on is listed. Once you’re confident you have every expense accounted for, ask yourself this question: “If I lose my primary source of income, what expenses could I get rid of?” Or said another way, “How little could I live on if the worst case scenario occurs?” Start eliminating expenses from your list until the bare bones lifestyle costs are those that remain.

When we go through this exercise, a few things become clearer. First, most of us could eliminate a LOT of expenses if truly necessary, allowing us to survive on MUCH less than we thought possible. Second, most of us will realize that we’re living far from a basic subsistence lifestyle. This means we have far more than we need, which can lead to a renewed sense of gratitude. Finally – and this is important – we may begin to question why we have much of this stuff in our lives to begin with. After all, if we could survive on much less than we have now, and we’re finding ourselves stressed out about money, then why are we choosing to carry around the stuff and the stress at all? 

When we take the time to rehearse austerity in this way, we give ourselves the perspective needed to take back control of our financial lives. We discover that we’re feeling stressed because of the choices we’ve made that got us here. Since stress develops from feeling a lack of control, taking back control has the immediate benefit of reducing stress. 

Most of us will likely choose to continue living our life in a similar fashion than we have been; it’s the reminder that we’re living this way because we want to, not because we have to that brings peace. 

The next time you’re feeling stressed about money, consider rehearsing austerity. That way, if you’re ever forced to cut back, you’ll know that you’ve already journeyed there in practice and it’s going to be just fine, maybe even better than fine. Maybe a dose of austerity creates the space you need to think about other things for a while, the things money cannot buy.