I remember when I was sitting in my cubicle at work, dreaming and lusting after a digital Leica M9. I imagined that after buying it, all of my life’s problems would be solved.
I imagined that the camera would inspire me to be more creative, brave, and inspired in my photography. I imagined how cool I would look in the streets with a Leica over my shoulder. I also imagined how much more people would “respect” or admire me, simply because I had a Leica.
The truth is, symbols and brands have a strong effect on our psychology. A brand is a symbol of trust, prestige, and quality.
We desire Leica cameras because we think of prestige, quality, and nostalgia. We desire BMW cars because we think of the “ultimate driving experience”, sexiness, and a symbol of success. We desire designer label clothes and objects, because it is a signal that we are rich, fashionable, or trendy.
The problem is that a lot of these desires cause us to go into massive debt. Since ancient times, being in debt has meant being in slavery. I just read a fantastic book titled Debt: The First 5000 Years, which is a fascinating look on the history of debt, credit, and money.
Going back to lusting after the Leica, I came up with all these crazy ways I could afford the $7,000 “investment”. I imagined eating cup noodles and ramen for a year, selling off all my possessions (including my car), or trying to get a raise at my job.
Desiring the camera made me miserable and ungrateful for the camera I already had at the time, a Canon 5D. I’m lucky enough that I didn’t go into massive debt buying the Leica on credit. Instead, I used a combination of depleting my savings, using my severance money after I got laid off, and borrowing money from my mom, which I paid her back for later.
Don’t get me wrong, the Leica was great. But like any good things in life, you sooner or later get used to it. Psychologists call this “hedonic adaptation” (no matter how much pleasure something brings you, you will always adjust to it).
Funny enough, I’ve also discovered that psychologically: we also adjust to things of lower quality. For example, I’ve been shooting exclusively with a Ricoh GR II digital camera the last few months, and even though it cost me only $600, it has brought me as much pleasure as a $7,000 camera.
In my personal life, I’ve also found that a $2 hamburger from “in and out” can bring my stomach nearly as much joy as a $100 meal (sometimes the burger brings me more joy, and often fills me up more).
I’ve also found that with traveling, my honeymoon trip to Mexico City (which was extremely affordable) brought me as much pleasure (actually more pleasure) than going to more expensive and exotic places like Venice.
Essentially what I’m trying to say is that you can be happy, regardless of how much money you have. It is all about enjoying the joy of small things, the joy of frugality, and being economical.
Realize that no matter how expensive a camera or lens you buy, you will sooner or later get used to it, then you will want another “upgrade” because that camera will no longer be “good enough”. My suggestion: simply buy an affordable, compact, and easy to use camera and settle with it and be satisfied. Because no matter what, there will always be a “better” camera out there. Happiness is all about being grateful for what you have, rather than accruing that new other thing.
Also when it comes to traveling, you don’t need to spend thousands of dollars to go to somewhere super crazy or exotic. Take local day trips just a few miles from your home. Or explore a new neighborhood in your city that you haven’t been to. I know a lot of Americans who dream of traveling to Paris and Rome, yet have never visited Chicago or New Orleans (arguably as exciting, if not more exciting).
Also as a rule of thumb, never buy a camera if it is going to cause you go to into debt. Buy it in cash (or with your credit card, if you can pay it off in full by the end of the month). This will prevent you from overshooting your actual budget and causing you to go into a miserable spiral of debt.
Furthermore, I have found in my experience money is always best invested in experiences, education, and social events. For example, use your money to travel, see the world, attend photography workshops, buy books, buy a beer for a photographer friend, or attend photography conventions or “meet ups”. Or use your money to print out more of your work, print books, make “zines”, or express yourself more creatively.
And lastly, be grateful for all the amazing things you have in your life. Be grateful for your loved ones, family friends, job, income, home, camera, lenses, and everything else you have. Even if you are struggling financially, remember you are still alive, and your camera is still infinitely more capable than any camera from even 10 years ago.
Avoid going into debt, and always invest in yourself creatively. Become the best photographer you possibly can, and enjoy the small pleasures of photography.
About the author: Eric Kim is an international street photographer who’s currently based out of Berkeley, California. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of his photography and writing on his website and blog. This article was also published here.