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Teaching your Kids: Learn to Be Happy With Less Stuff

The key to saving that $400 a month like Kate did in the last lesson is learning to be happy without constantly having more stuff. And in a wealthy, Western culture, that might seem an impossible task. That explains why it took several trips to a less wealthy place for Ami Desai to really get it.

Ami was born in New York, a first-generation natural-born American citizen. Her parents were born in India and immigrated to the United States after getting married. During her first few years of life, Ami spent half the year living in New York and half the year in her aunt and uncle's home in Bombay, visiting family. Even after she started going to school, Ami and her mother traveled to Bombay for a few weeks every year or two until Ami graduated from high school.

The home her aunt and uncle lived in wasn't just the home they lived in at the time. It was the home her mother and uncle had grown up in, and the one her grandmother had grown up in, and her great-grandmother had grown up in. But if you're picturing a fancy suburban estate the family-owned, think again. It was a two-bedroom apartment they'd been renting for generations.

In addition to the two small bedrooms, it had an eating area with a simple table and a cabinet against the wall for dishes and a kitchen about five feet by five feet with a refrigerator, sink, and pot burner. And there was one bathroom with a sink and a hole in the ground for a toilet. By Western standards, it would be considered severely impoverished. But by local standards, it was quite normal.

Ami fondly remembers visiting Bombay. During those visits, that simple two-bedroom apartment housed six people: her aunt and uncle, mother, grandmother, sister, and Ami. During the day, she would go shopping with her mother and buy all sorts of exotic things with their Western-size bank accounts.

Well, at the end of one season's visit, Ami recalls her uncle vividly feeling some pressure to give her a gift before she left to go home. Then he gave her, with some fanfare, a tiny gold-plated clock. "I remember they were so excited and proud to give it to me. But I also remember feeling guilty taking it. I knew they didn't have much money. And we had so much." But that wasn't the only reason Ami felt awkward accepting this gift. The other reason was that while they clearly wanted to be generous, she realized they probably thought what Ami needed to be happy was a gift. In short, they thought that for her to be happy, she needed more stuff.

That's when it dawned on her, still at a young age, that more stuff wasn't necessary for happiness. And she didn't have to look far to see examples. Her aunt and uncle, and grandmother living there were very happy people, and they had next to nothing. So she started watching how they spent their time and noticed some differences.

"In the U.S.," she said, "what seemed to make people happy was buying a new TV or some other material possession. But my aunt and uncle seemed so happy just going to the market to buy their daily food or picking up a visitor at the train station. When we got home, my grandma would cook the most wonderful meal for us. Then we would all go out and play together.

Friends and family were always stopping by to visit. And we'd have tea and biscuits and talk with each of them every time. Back home in New York, you'd need an invitation before showing up at someone's house to visit. It would be rude to do otherwise. But in Bombay, it happened every day because you had dozens of friends who lived in the same building. We were never by ourselves and never bored. It was like an adventure every day."

How did that trip affect Ami's perceptions of money and material possessions? She explains, "I remember being upset just before leaving for that Bombay trip because my mom wouldn't buy me the Keds sneakers with the blue dot that was all the rage at school. But by the time I got home, somehow it didn't seem all that important. The cheaper pair she got me at Walmart suddenly seemed just fine."

Now, not everyone can afford the time and expense of a trip halfway around the world to learn the lesson Ami learned in Bombay. But you can start by sharing her story with your young person. Then talk about ways to spend your time that doesn't involve buying lots of stuff. Here are some questions to get you started.

  1. How does your home compare to the one Ami's family rented in Bombay?

  2. If having a fancy home isn't what they needed to be happy, what do you think did make them happy?

  3. How would you feel if you found out that your friends and family thought what you needed to be happy were a constant supply of gifts and other material possessions? Would you agree or disagree with that assessment? Would you be proud of it?

  4. What makes you happy?

  5. What are the few basic material possessions you think you would absolutely need to be happy?

Okay, in the final lesson, you'll hear about a boy who couldn't wait to open up his Christmas presents, but who dearly wishes that he hadn't.

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Written by

Paul Andrew Smith