The difference between a high standard of living and a high quality of life

On three different occasions in the past month I’ve overheard people say something like, “I’m having a hard time keeping up with expenses”, “I’m working hard to maintain my standard of living” and “I’m trying to cut back.” This usually means cutting cable or not buying a name brand detergent. Little stuff that might add up, but it’s nothing much. Seemingly “drastic” changes are outside the American psyche. It’s all about maintaing your standard of living, often at the expense of your quality of life. Granted, if you’re completely unemployed, that’s different. But I’m talking about the squeeze we all feel from ever higher prices.

I’ve been there, too, and I’ve gone pretty far in my frugal ways over the years. If you haven’t already noticed, I really hate spending money.

It’s obvious to me through all this that there is a strong difference between having a high standard of living and having a high quality of life, and very few people ever think about how each fits into their life and whether they’re achieving it or not.

Ideally, we’d all have both, but very few of us do, or at least not the extent we think we deserve.

For most Americans, having a high standard of living means you have good food and water available to you and at your disposal. It means you have a spacious and furnished house in the “good part” of town with cable TV and high speed Internet. It means that when you want or need something, you go get in your car in the garage and go out and buy it and you don’t just look at the lowest priced item. This usually means you buy a nice car, “nice” meaning “late model year”. You probably have entertainment at your disposal, like movies, books and TV shows. There’s gray area here for sure; things like yachts and butlers may factor in at the high end, but I’m talking about the average here. And we know what that means: your car doesn’t make funny noises all the time or have big rust spots, you don’t eat Ramen noodles or boxed dinners, etc.

Having a high standard of living usually comes attached with some strings, though. For most people, this means you pay for things on credit, you have a car loan, you might have a mortgage, etc. In other words, you have lots of stuff and very little of it is actually yours. You’re only ever one medical problem away from losing it all.

On the flip side, there’s having a high quality of life. This is the emotional touchy-feely stuff that actually matters, but no one seems to have a handle on. It means you feel loved, you’re able to go to bed at night feeling like you accomplished something and you can wake up knowing what you need to do and you do it. It means enjoying your work, it means not feeling tired or grouchy or sloth-like all the time for no good reason. It means you’re in good health mentally, physically and financially. It means when a bill comes, you pay it and move on like it was just part of the day. It means when the water heater explodes, you can get it replaced and not feel anxiety. It means you have hobbies you enjoy and you take pride in what you do. It means you feel content and in control.

They’re rarely any strings attached to having a high quality of life. For the most part, with exception of companionship and love, all of that is very much in a person’s control. You can look for hobbies, you can change jobs, you can get your health in order assuming you’re not battling a cancer, etc.

What’s overlooked is that you can’t have a high quality of life until you get your standard of living under control first.

Most people go through life and say to themselves, “Once I have X, I will be ok.” No, no you will not. It’s the new American Rat Race. You won’t win. The only way to win is to not play that game. How many people go to work and do a job they hate, all so they can afford the car and the stuff they say they need and want? How much sense does it make to drive to work to pay for a car, for instance, just so you can have a car to get to work? Do people realize what this means? “I have to have a nice car so I can get to work to earn the money to pay for the car I use to get to work.” Or, “I have to go to work to make money to pay for the hobbies I like, but never have time for because I’m always at work and too tired to do anything when I get home.”

For a long time I thought I had to have a new car, the best clothes, all the latest gadgets. I don’t anymore and I’m better off for it. I think I’ve hit a level of maturity, that at the risk of sounding like a pompous ass, that most people much older than me have not.

If I could go back in time to talk to my 15 year old self with what I know now, I’d tell me:

  • Don’t ever worry about your credit score, because it’s just a number assigned by banks to help them make money off you.
  • Don’t ever spend a dime on school you can’t pay out of pocket unless you’re going into a highly specialized field, like law or medicine.
  • Don’t ever take out student loans; the payoff isn’t always that great and isn’t guaranteed.
  • Academic inflation will keep happening, whether you have a degree or not. For most subjects, learn to teach yourself and then do good work that gets noticed.
  • Don’t ever buy a new car; they depreciate too quickly and you lose too much money.
  • Don’t ever buy a car that costs more than $10,000 — and pay for at least half of it in cash at the time you buy it.
  • If you can, don’t even buy a car. For most college students, urban dwellers and single people, you probably don’t need one anyway.
  • Make time for exercise, and find a sport or activity you love, because it’ll make you feel a lot better about yourself.
  • Don’t ever eat processed food; have you ever seen someone eating a Big Mac that said, “I’m really glad I ate that.”? You’ll feel and be better off if you eat well.
  • Always do just the things you’re comfortable with. I know people say you should “break out of your shell”, but you don’t have to try everything to know whether you’ll like it or not. I’ve never been hit by a train, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t like it if I were.
  • Be very careful about who you lose your virginity to; you’ll only ever lose it once and you’ll remember that moment forever.
  • If you think you can’t handle a credit card, don’t get a credit card.
  • Never take a job just because it’s a job. No one ever had a good time working at a fast food joint. If you’re young and don’t have anything to lose anyway, share space with friends and do what your heart really wants to do. Think and figure out a way to make a living out of that.
  • Don’t feel guilty about pushing people out of your life; sometimes it’s for the best.
  • Stop being so naive and dumb; read the news and read as many books as you can. It’s the only way to develop a sharp mind, and you don’t have to get a degree in everything just to learn about something.
  • Writing is a more important skill than math, so devote your efforts accordingly. Sorry math people, but most people just plain write and communicate more than they do general math.
  • Don’t be swayed by marketing and what other people do “just because”. Remove yourself from a situation and make a decision based on what’s best for you in the long run.
  • Just because you’re young doesn’t mean you have to get something pierced, tattooed or dyed. Ask that 70 year old guy with an ugly ink blot on his arm what he thinks of that 50 year old tattoo today.

When you start doing what actually makes sense, and realizing that sometimes it’s okay to work harder or devote time to one thing and not another, you can actually achieve a high quality of life without having a necessarily high standard of living. Luckily for me, I’ve done most of the things I mentioned above, either by sheer will or just plain dumb luck.

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Justin has been around the Internet long enough to remember when people started saying “content is king”.

He has worked for some of Indiana’s largest companies, state government, taught college-level courses, and about 1.1M people see his work every year.

You’ll probably see him around Indianapolis on a bicycle.

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