Self-indulgence, self-denial, self-care

By Caitlin Kelly


Which of these best describes your default choice?

I know a few people who immediately choose the first, justifying their expenditures — sometimes far beyond their budget or means — with “I deserve it” and “I work hard” or “It’s only X$/euros/pounds.”

I watch those people from a distance, warily.

Not spending money can be a monumental challenge for some. Or not over-eating or drinking or smoking.

Maybe my perspective is a result of my unlikely and stringent childhood, shuttling between a strict girls-only boarding school and more permissive but still-regimented girls-only summer camps.

The former offered very little comfort, softness or emotional respite, only a large, shared dark green wicker basket of cookies every afternoon and the chance to watch television in the common room for a few hours one evening a week.

So I’ve always been suspicious, sometimes even disdainful, of people who constantly insist on pampering and spoiling themselves, having seen too much of it in adults who should have been more aware of, and attentive to, their responsibilities.

I do enjoy many pleasures — good food and wine, travel, music, a lovely home — but I can also wear myself out battling internally over how often and how much is too much.

I sometimes find it hard to just be nice to myself.



And, as someone who works alone at home, with no boss or colleagues, no performance reviews except winning repeat business from my clients, it’s all up to me to find and complete enough work to earn my living.

That means no dicking around — I don’t even sit on our comfy sofa until my workday is done, daytime television only tuned to CNN or BBC in the case of huge breaking news.

Self-care, a word I find odd although I heartily endorse its spirit, can be difficult for people who’ve been raised to be stoic and uncomplaining. It can feel like self-indulgence when it’s really just putting gas back into your depleted physical, emotional and spiritual tank.

It’s also deeply unAmerican, (a nation founded by Puritans), to take time off, to slow down, to actually take and enjoy vacations.

It’s so much easier, in an economy driven by consumer spending, to just buy stuff, more stuff, better stuff and newer stuff — which (funny thing!) also takes no time away from remaining “productive”.

It does very little to produce happiness.

And not being perpetually busy here is often seen as evidence of stupidity or laziness — not a smart decision to rest and re-charge.

My six weeks off, unimaginable to some, (and yes, a huge investment), was a great gift to myself.

Many could see it as self-indulgence, and maybe it was!

But here’s the thing….

The money that funded it only resulted from years of self-denial, saving hard, whether an unexpected windfall, (a massive copyright settlement in Canada that won me and many journalism colleagues five-figure sums), or my own income.


Americans also continue to have frighteningly low rates of savings, for a variety of reasons: health insurance and post-secondary education — hardly luxuries! –— are now big-ticket items, for one.

Low and stagnant wages are another problem.

But if you’re making enough to surpass basic needs, you have to save. And that often means — ideally for a while anyway — doing fewer fun, cool, tempting things, like buying the latest tech toys or phone or putting a vacation or wedding or new something on credit cards.

I’ve also been fasting, (800 cals/day, 2 days per week) since April 2016 and it’s helped me to lose weight; I’ve blogged about it here.

No one wants to go through life forever feeling deprived. But, I’ve seen, if you can stick it out and be patient, results do accrue.

37 thoughts on “Self-indulgence, self-denial, self-care

  1. Pingback: Self-indulgence. Self-denial. Self-care. – The Militant Negroβ„’

  2. I also struggle with finding the right balance between self care and self denial. I think I inherited this from my mother who was widowed with three young children at the age of 30. She struggled to make ends meet and I grew up very conscious of not wasting money on frivolous things. One day I suddenly realised that all of these small deprivations had not really resulted in any great payoff for me. In other words I wasn’t significantly better off at the end of the year, so I began to spend money on small luxuries, mainly flowers, books and wine (all the important things) and as a result I do feel happier with life generally.

    1. Good for you!

      Yes…my mother, (who had $$$ but was v tight with it and ended up needing every penny for nursing home care) made me very uncomfortable when I splurged…and taught me to save hard.

      I’ve always spent on fresh flowers (even $20 a week is not a ton of $$$ given the pleasure they provide) and good food. There’s just no point endlessly depriving oneself of even smaller, simple joys.

      Thanks for sharing!

  3. Oh, the balance. It’s a tightrope, isn’t it? I find, the older I get, the less I need. And it seems to be working. I am far happier than most of my wealthier friends, who can’t seem to separate misery and excess from having enough. Good for you–and I know from what you’ve written about your childhood, those patterns are hard to overcome.

    1. Indeed!

      I’m always happier to enjoy an experience (travel, a meal, flowers) than own more STUFF, esp. since we have no one to inherit any of it later so who knows who (!?) will dispose of it…

      I see this around me; people with $$$$$$ who don’t seem thrilled with their affluence. Huh?

      Thanks…work in progress. πŸ™‚

      1. I actually seem to see people who get increasingly unhappy here as their bank accounts increase. I think unless you have a really firm handle on who you are and your place in the world, money tends to spoil.

      2. I think what happens is they’re suddenly comparing their wealth and status with others — and realizing they are relatively poor (!) compared to those with more. It’s nuts but possible. Then the race to keep up can intensify.

  4. As a mom of 5 with 9 beautiful grandchildren….I have found I rarely do any of the above. But recently retired I plan on doing a bit of all….to indulge in sleeping later (no more alarm) to deny myself the stress that was in my life before retirement and finally to care about what I want. I have a home business, a wonderful husband… is time to take care of us……

  5. i have had times in my life with no money, 2-3 jobs, school and a need to sleep occasionally. over the years, it has become much easier and i’m so grateful for that everyday. after lots of hard work and life experience, i now have a job i love, time off, and not a lot of money, but enough to pay my bills, save a little, and enjoy a few indulgences including travel and things that have meaning to me, it’s mostly about the experience though.

  6. Jan Jasper

    A fascinating post. A related subject – self-reliance – is interesting. I had a somewhat difficult childhood; my dad died when I was 6 and my mom was 28. She raised me and my brother in a fairly frugal manner. When I was a young adult, I got plenty of love – but no financial help from my mom, she was not in a position to send me $. As I age, I increasingly realize, surprisingly, how fortunate that was for me. I learned to make do and to be self-reliant. I know some families I’ve observed for 40 years and I see how their spoiled kids turn into 50- and 60- year olds with limited survival abilities, coming to their elderly retired parents asking for money they no longer have to spare. After being widowed 3 years ago, I am now seriously involved with a man with grown kids in their early 20s and I’m astonished to see how spoiled they are. It worries me what our “golden years” will be like, as a couple, if his adult kids don’t learn to do more for themselves. They seem to have never heard the word “no.” When he’s retired and on a fixed income, what will happen to them when he can no longer bail them out?

    1. Wow…thanks for this.

      I agree, being taught frugality early (however much it can be not much fun!) is a fantastic and essential lesson in order to get through life with independence and confidence. I inherited some money from my maternal grandmother at 19 and at 25, which was both exciting and terrifying — and my parents made clear, this is YOUR responsibility.

      No matter what I’ve faced, (sudden divorce, job loss, 3 recessions), I have never ONCE had the option to return “home” (hah!) nor to ask for a dime in a loan or gift. NEVER.

      So…yup. I know how to handle money and, as I said in this post, have very little patience for people who are spoiled and unable to fend for themselves as a result.

      I hope you and your partner can have some full and frank discussions about this — that’s a stressful scenario for sure.

      I know I’ll never inherit a penny from my mother, my in-laws are decades dead and my father…who knows? I count on nothing but myself and my husband.

  7. Well, I’m a full-fleged, self-confessed HEDONIST. Life is short, live it to the hilt is my motto. We could all die tomorrow.

    No, but seriously … you deserved every minute of your European vacation. You work hard, why not splash some of your hard-earned cash? It was the perfect birthday gift to yourself. If you don’t indulge and spoil yourself, who else is gonna do it???

    To be truthful, my daily existence is quite frugal. I live in a micro-apartment that I rent (I don’t own real estate). I don’t own a car. I walk to work or take the bus. I eat lunch in the staff cafeteria. I have the most basic of cell phones, a cheap model that cost me 39 euros. I don’t smoke, I try to eat simply. My latest indulgence was to eat an entire tub of amazing chocolate ice cream that I stumbled across while shopping at Picard two weeks ago.

    You write in your post – “Many could see it as self-indulgence, and maybe it was.”

    Who gives a crap what others think?

    1. I really admire your frugality — but like me, I know that you also really appreciate a good meal, stylish clothing and travel. πŸ™‚ One can’t be a monk ALL the time.

      I am working on not giving a damn, believe me.

      1. Oh, gosh, absolutely. I have expensive taste and enjoy fine things. But I don’t earn a high salary (well, not high enough I guess). So I even it out by living modestly day to day … This allows me my splurges and travel on the side. And it works well. I’m booked into the Hotel Flora for 4 nights over Xmas (I’ll take the night train to Venice.) And tomorrow I’m off to Holland for 4 nights (I bought a first-class train ticket months ago) then Brussels for 2 nights.

  8. saeforli

    It’s interesting. Although I can partake in financial indulgences I often indulge in things that consume time and distract me from my thoughts. This is a double edged sword as it’s a self-indulgence that may very well be directly denying me more enriching experiences. I rationale it as if I didn’t indulge in these things I would implode… It’s a hard cycle to break.

    I think it’s important to involve oneself in healthy practices. So, self-denial can be good if done in a healthy manner, self-care is healthy if it is not an obsessive way of treating yourself and disregarding others. Indulgence again, maybe, correct me if I’m wrong can be good if it is paired up with a healthy form self-denial….

    I guess, like others have said it’s about finding a balance. Thank you for your post. Food for thought.

    1. Thanks for weighing in….

      I think it’s very tempting and easy to substitute in quick hits of pleasure (which are enjoyable but not sustaining) for deeper moments or more consistent and memorable activities. My vacation was filled with memories I’ll cherish for years to come…which my daily social media hits, while fun, will not.

      Self-denial is essential when it comes to consumption of food, drink, money. It just is. But that can feel like deprivation (which it doesn’t have to be)…took me a while to figure that out. But if you remove one source of pleasure and comfort (ice cream, for example, filled with calories and sugar) — what will take its place that is healthy and makes you happy? For me it is NOT kale or green juices, but a spin class (i.e. healthy, social, fun.)

      I can tolerate saving $$$$ (and having to forego lots of pleasures) when I know I will be able to retire and to travel, because I set those, and stick to them, as priorities. It IS a choice because I’m not wealthy. People tend to resent having to make choices. Unless you’re rich, you do. πŸ™‚

  9. Me again. I just had a thought while reading your line – “I can tolerate saving $$$$$ when I know I will be able to retire and to travel …”

    Can I offer a word of advice? Travel now. Don’t wait till retirement. In fact, don’t put anything off till retirement. Do it ALL NOW. This year two people at the office died suddenly, both of cancer. And they had been planning to retire this year. They were unable to fulfil those retirement projects they had planned.

    I’m deliberately travelling now for the simple reason that when I retire my salary will be cut in half. Plus I have the energy, good legs and knees right now. Maybe in a few years I won’t. As the French say, “Profites-en!” Enjoy it now, take advantage of everything you have now.

    1. I neglected to add a comma!

      That should have read to retire, and to travel ….i.e. one is NOT at all dependent upon the other. We are not able to retire (sigh) for 5 more years — until we get Medicare and have killed the mortgage. Then we have more time and more income with which to enjoy it.

      But — hell, yes — I intend to finally travel more and more expensively now, as often as possible, and very aware that so many people are gone before they get to the places they hoped or planned to.

      Still on my list: Greece, Morocco, Japan, Mongolia, Chile/Argentina — each of which is at least a 3 week journey to enjoy it and see it with some leisure. So that’s a challenge to manage with 2 FT freelancers with no paid vacation time, i.e. we have to earn double for every day we don’t work. πŸ™‚

      1. Eh. Not my goal. The world is over-filled with “travel writers” as it is.

        When I travel, I go away and try to get OFF the phone and computer in order to be present for pure pleasure and to RELAX. I do come home with story ideas, and am able to sell some of them — like this one in the NYT right now — but that’s not what I want to do. I want to chill out and not work!

  10. I really enjoy reading your blog. You have great life/travel insights. I do have a question, what’s your recommendation on traveling with $$, i.e…cash vs credit card or ??. I’m planning a trip to Greece in Oct. and I’m looking for a way to travel smart. Thanks for you assistance.

  11. Properly taking stock of things on a regular basis helps, too. What do we need for an acceptable quality of life? what’s missing? what’s not necessary? makes it easier not to succumb to sudden splurges, and also to save because there’s always more of a plan. I recognise everything you say about self employment – we’re a household of two freelancers, so more precarious than some, but the trade off is that we can watch each other’s backs, make sure we aren’t just working ourselves to death and make sure we’re each meeting our needs. Teamwork in all things.

    1. So true!

      Like taking a life inventory…I love this idea, as it’s very intentional.

      Jose tends to be much better than I at upgrading things to improve our basic quality of daily life — new pots and pans (after 25 years!), new windows (after 25 years) and new air conditioners (after 17 years.) I am so cheap I tend to just use stuff forever….not that it’s nasty or broken, but spending four figures on anything terrifies me a bit (not the pots!)

      Teamwork is key. I help keep us on financial track as well. πŸ™‚

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