Learned Afflictions

Learned Afflictions

My boys are 3 and 5. We live in Florida. We spend a lot of time at the beach, at the playground, out in the sun.

Never once have either of my boys complained about not having sunglasses. Never once have they even asked for sunglasses, other than wanting to steal them off me or my wife because they though it was funny.

I, on the other hand, feel like my eyes are burning out of their sockets whenever I’m out in the sun without sunglasses for more than a couple of minutes. I need my sunglasses. It’s the only way I can survive these harsh Florida summers. (Cue the tiny violin.)

I used to be just like my boys, happily playing outside without even considering that my eyes might need shade. But over the years I’ve learned that I need sunglasses. Without them, life is a chore.

This is what I’ve come to call a learned affliction. It’s something that isn’t naturally a problem, but that becomes a problem through years of setting expectations and forming habits.

We all have learned afflictions in every area of our lives. Some of them may even be preventing you from reaching the financial success and stability you crave.

What do you need?

I used to “need” cable. The thought of not being able to turn on ESPN at any given moment, of not being able to watch my favorite basketball team play every single night, was too much to bear.

I apparently still “need” a toaster oven. Ours broke a few weeks ago and I immediately got on Amazon and ordered a new one. I honestly didn’t even really think about not ordering it. All I could see was the pain I would feel from not having one.

Cable deprivation is feeling I was born with. Neither was the need for a toaster oven. They are both learned afflictions. And they both cost money to indulge.

The toaster oven was a relatively small cost. We bought a replacement for $30 and it will probably last at least a couple of years.

Cable was a slightly bigger cost. We used to spend $60 per month, or $720 per year, on DirectTV.

Other learned afflictions are more expensive.

The affliction of having to prepare meals yourself often costs people thousands of dollars per year. The affliction of renting a place to live often causes people to rush into buying a more expensive house. The affliction of having a car that’s a few years old causes people to buy the newest model, with a new loan to boot.

We are all spending money all of the time in order to avoid afflictions that aren’t real afflictions. They are simply things we’ve learned to feel inconvenienced by through years of conditioning. And in most cases, we could just as easily condition ourselves out of the affliction.

My wife and I cut cable a few years ago and you know what? Life has been just fine.

I’m sure that if I simply hadn’t bought a new toaster oven, I would have formed some new habits and been perfectly happy.

This isn’t to say that no one should have cable or own a toaster oven, or that everyone should cook all of their own meals and drive 1998 Honda Civics.

There’s no judgment here. There is no right or wrong.

This is simply to say that it’s worth being aware of the things you’re paying for and, more importantly, WHY you’re paying for them.

I’ve personally benefited almost every time I’ve forced myself to live without something I thought I needed, especially when doing so resulted in me spending less money.

Because in just about every case, I found that I really didn’t need it. Or at least I didn’t need as much of it. I was perfectly happy with less, and by not spending money on my learned affliction I had more money to put towards the things that truly matter.

And in the few cases where I really did miss whatever it was I was living with out, I knew that I had found something that actually mattered, something that was worth spending money on.

Minimizing your learned afflictions

I challenge you to think about the learned afflictions in your life. What are you spending money to avoid? What can you not imagine doing without?

Take one at a time and challenge yourself to go without it for a defined period of time. How does it feel? Do you still miss it after a week? After a month? After a year?

My guess is that you’ll find ways to save money without affecting the quality of your life. Money that can be put towards other things that really are important to you.

My other guess is that you’ll be happier without those things in your life. Happiness = reality – expectations, and learned afflictions are really just expectations that have to be met.

The fewer learned afflictions you have, the easier it is for your reality to surpass your expectations.

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13 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own
  • jlcollinsnh June 27, 2017

    Last year I had cataract surgery and, in the process, my distance vision was corrected. Other than for reading, my need for glasses went away.

    The glasses I had worn daily had “transition lens,” the ones that darken into sunglasses in the sun. The net effect — I was never without sunglasses.

    As I was healing from the surgery and following the guidelines, they mentioned that I need not worry about exposure to sunlight. This surprised me and I would guess it would surprise most folks. That’s likely why they mentioned it.

    Now that I don’t have sunglasses “built in,” I find I rarely bother with them. Walking into direct sunlight or off-the-water/snow glare is unpleasant and I do squint more, but it is telling that I don’t feel the need to keep sunglasses with me.

    Sometimes, afflictions can be unlearned. Even if by accident. 😉

    • Matt Becker June 27, 2017

      I’m glad to hear your eyes are doing better Jim! And it’s nice to know that even an old(er) dog can learn new tricks 🙂

  • Karl June 27, 2017

    “I’ve personally benefited almost every time I’ve forced myself to live without something I thought I needed”

    I love this idea. Many of the things we think are necessities are really just luxuries.

  • Tiffany June 29, 2017

    My biggest challenge on this issue is about my kids’ “expected well-being”. I will go out to buy things such as vegetables, fruits and make a big deal about their all-around comprehensive balanced diet. It did not balance my bank accounts – overtime, I realize that I don’t need to check off all the nutrition checklist so they can enjoy a wholesome meal. It is a mental struggle to say the least – our self-expectation of certain things should be certain ways derive from how we think – to change how we act, we have to first change how we think.
    Thanks for this reminder!!

    • Matt Becker June 30, 2017

      It’s definitely tricky trying to find this balance when it comes to kids. On the one hand, you want the best for them at any cost. On the other hand, there are limits to what you can afford, and even if you could afford everything it wouldn’t be a good idea to give them everything. It’s not always easy to draw the line between what is good/necessary and what is too much.

  • Aimee June 29, 2017

    This is so magnificently true with all of the things women are told we “need”. Manicures, waxing, eyebrow threading, hair dye, anti-wrinkle cream, make up, hair serum, ever-changing fashion, magazines to tell us what else we “need”…

    • Matt Becker June 30, 2017

      The marketing is non-stop! I find myself feeling the same way in a lot of areas, whether it’s wanting new tools/technology for my business or a smartphone that takes better pictures. There’s always something “better” out there if you’re willing to believe it.

  • lyn June 29, 2017

    Kudos to this post for pointing out the “problem”. I think learned afflictions aren’t bad, they are formed in the process of searching for excellence. Like when we taste a better plum variety, the sour one taste bad. As a society, we learn to overcome learned afflictions to make life better. But I agree that if it cost us financial stress, it’s probably not a good affliction to learn. FI comes first before lifestyle.

    • Matt Becker June 30, 2017

      I think some are good and some are bad, and there are of course varying degrees of consequence. The plum example is a pretty good one. Of course there’s nothing wrong with preferring a tastier plum. But what if you get to the point of being so picky with food that you’re throwing away a significant amount because it doesn’t meet your standards? That can be wasteful in more ways than just to your bottom line.

      I certainly don’t think we all need to learn to be happy with just the bare essentials needed for survival. I’m certainly not anywhere near that kind of existence! But I also think that a lot of things we do because we think we need them in order to be happy, don’t actually make us any happier.

  • BMG June 30, 2017

    This was a very timely article for me Matt. My wife and I have cut the cord and are starting to look for other ways to cut our “learned afflictions”. I just started using the “clarity” app to show me what recurring expenses I can cut. Love it.

    I agree with the other commenters – learned afflictions are a huge problem for many people, especially us Moms and Dads. And most people don’t know how to divorce themselves from those problems. And it’s only going to get bigger as I can already see my kids thinking that they “need” things that they absolutely do not. (They are 7, 5, and 3).

    • Matt Becker July 1, 2017

      Hmm, never heard of Clarity before. I’ll have to check it out.

      One of my strategies for dealing with the “need” issue with my kids is to give an allowance that covers a lot of those “needs” that are really “wants”. We also say no to plenty of things, but with the allowance we can also put the onus back on them by saying yes, if they have the money saved up for it. Hopefully it helps them learn some of what goes into having a limited amount of money and needing to decide how to portion it out.

      • BMG July 3, 2017

        I agree with your sentiments about an allowance. One of the strategies we are working on right now is trying to find ways for our children to “earn” their allowance. So if they help us bring in the groceries, feed the dog, clean their room, etc. than they get a dollar or something.

        I don’t think they completely understand the value of a dollar yet – (our 7 year old is getting there), but they will soon enough.

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