2.2.3.2: Is it better to own or to rent?
Most of the time, the desire to own things reflects a failure to see what’s valuable to us

Beware the ownership fallacy

Ownership is always tempting, but rarely inherently valuable

The onanism of owning

Personal-finance author and online-course-creator Ramit Sethi relates how, when he has people over to his apartment, learning that he rents rather than owns it, reactions pop from ‘oh, niiiiiice!’ to simply, ‘oh.’.
Try this. Hear yourself saying: ‘she’s done well for herself’. Listen to your intonation. Picture someone you might be saying this about. Now do the same but for ‘she’s doing well for herself.’ Notice any subtle changes in intonation, or in what you thought about the person you pictured?
Now imagine you’re out strolling along and catch sight of an especially good-looking house, car, or person. How likely are you to have just leapt to a dream of acquiring it?
In each of these situations, we jump to a judgment about a whole life – what to think about someone, or a fantasy version of ourselves – based on the scantest of information.
Ramit thinks about personal finance decisions professionally. And every one of his guests knows he’s loaded. So why do they exhibit knee-jerk disappointment in his life choice? If you’re like most people, you were less impressed with your imaginary ‘doing well’ person than your ‘done well’ one. [1] Why? Why, to quote Maria Nemeth in The Energy of Money, do we jump directly from the realm of Ideas (“Wouldn't it be great to have a sailboat!”) to the goal of buying a sailboat – without first seeing what specific Life's Intention having a sailboat fulfils.’[i]
Why do we so instinctively crave ownership of certain objects – even, as we saw earlier,[2] to the extent of ruining ‘experiences’ – when, were we to reflect on whether the acquisition of similar objects had made our lives, or the lives of those that own what we crave, sustainably better because of the acquisition?
This isn’t a clarion call for communism, or minimalism, or any other dogmatic approach to ownership. Ownership of certain objects can work exceptionally well. But anything that’s both so instinctive, and has such a terrible track record, should inspire us to stop and think, not simply accept and chug blindly along.
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‘Man has two aims,’ wrote Jung. ‘The first is the natural aim, the begetting of children and the business of protecting the brood; to this belongs the acquisition of money and social position. Only when this aim has been achieved does the new aim – “the cultural aim” – become feasible.’[ii] Recall[3] too the two functions of the storytelling that creates our sense of ‘self’ – the protective function and the progressive function.
Our problems arise not with acquisitions per se, but when we get led astray by the self-deceptive belief that price to the world is a sign of value to us, and hence that acquiring more is inherently beneficial… such that we forget the second aim, even when the first has been covered a hundred times over. We thus get stuck believing that acquisition is the answer to all our aims, as opposed to a very basic subset of them.
The ownership fallacy is the belief that there is an intrinsic benefit to owning something, over and above merely using it for a time. It engulfs potential-fulfilling opportunities in a conflagration of deceit.[4]
The ownership fallacy reflects several of the silly expressions of our screwy relationships with money that we’ve looked at already, including:
  • Appearing to be wealthy is better than being wealthy – We are wired to signal worth with waste, and must justifications of our sacrifices take the form of owning something.[5]
  • Your life choices have basically already been made – Wanting to own something indefinitely is a product of falling victim to the ‘end of history illusion’. If you believe that who you are today is who you will remain, you prioritise what you have over who you are becoming, thus overlooking the most obvious of facts that this is both depressing and deluded.[6]
  • Certainty is both real and can be bought – Acknowledging, on some level, that end of history is indeed illusory – that psychologically, narratively, we are not set in stone – that our lives are defined by impermanence, is the cause of existential anxiety.[7] When we fail to meet this reality with courage, we instead desperately scramble to create certainty by setting parts of our life in stone manually. By owning something, we believe we never have to think about that part of our life (and whether what we own continues to positively contribute to it) again, when what we’ve actually done is created the opportunity for further anxiety, by attaching ourselves to something that can be lost.[8]
There are plenty more subtler expressions too. The roots of our acquisitive tendencies run deep. That doesn’t make them any saner. It just makes them harder to both admit, and to remove.
Bertrand Russell ranked acquisitiveness – ‘the wish to possess as much as possible of goods, or the title to goods’ – among four insatiate human desires. He said it ‘is a motive which, I suppose, has its origin in a combination of fear with the desire for necessaries.’[iii] In the living of a life, a desire for necessaries has some crucial differences to a desire for superfluous crap, but unless it’s consciously challenged to make its case, a brain wired for acquisitiveness acknowledges no such differences.[9]
D.T. Suzuki wrote that: ‘The desire to possess is considered by Buddhism to be one of the worst passions mortals are apt to be obsessed with. What, in fact, causes so much misery in the world is due to a strong impulse of acquisitiveness.’[iv]
That acquisitiveness is inevitable and terrible does not mean that it can’t be controlled – we can learn not to succumb to it when it’s unhelpful to do so. We may squirm with discomforting resonance upon reading Siddhartha:
The world had caught him; pleasure, covetousness, idleness, and finally also the vice that he had always despised and scorned as the most foolish – acquisitiveness. Property, possessions and riches had also finally trapped him. They were no longer a game and a toy; they had become a chain and a burden.[v]
But we do not need to stay trapped when we hold the keys to our cages. We can learn to set ourselves free. We learn most easily from extremes. In human behaviour, obvious examples are joined to subtler ones by psychological threads, and what we may struggle to see in ourselves, we can instead see in others before tracing it back. In the case of acquiring things this means the people that can (monetarily) afford to do so.

What can we learn from the ‘really rich’?

When people that aren’t ‘really rich’ dream of being so,[10] it’s usually characterised by owning private versions of what are usually communal things (swimming pools, tennis courts, etc.) and travel – more of it, doing it ‘in style’ (i.e. more expensive hotels, legroom on flights, and brand-name destinations), and ‘owning’ the experience (i.e. choosing holiday homes over a bigger travelling budget).
My experiences inside a hundred heads of those that own what other people dream of doing so, are unified, however, not by greater happiness, but greater hassle. It is an anthology of the unravelling of unrealistic expectations, told in a hundred different ways.
Gone is the automatic camaraderie of the tennis club and in is the frustration of not getting as good, or getting as much use out of the private court as expected (not to mention the maintenance).
In Meaning in Life and Why it Matters, Susan Wolf points out that regardless of any direct ‘objective’ value, sports provide the opportunity for indirect value:
Even if basketball, removed or abstracted from its now established place in our culture, is not an objectively valuable activity in itself, it provides an opportunity for much that is of value. It provides an opportunity for the cultivation and exercise of skill and virtue, for the building of relationships, and for the communion that comes from enthusiasm for an immersion in a shared activity.[vi]
None of which is enhanced by ‘owning’ the activity. Yet because we blindly bound from knowing something is good to wanting to own it, we burn resources on ineffective attempts to meet inadequately understood needs.
The memories of magical afternoons with friends in one’s private Eden can soften the sting, of course, but the point of friendships is that the magic of such afternoons is entirely attributable to the human connections that render the circumstances irrelevant. If you need an absence of other people to make a picnic in a park enjoyable, the problem isn’t the other people. When judging whether the price of something is worth paying, it’s foolish to compare something to nothing rather than what would have happened otherwise.
It’s not that private versions of such things can’t be great, it’s that their reality isn’t as great as their expectations, and the benefit of the privacy is not extra joy, but a means of hiding from fears that, as always, are better faced.

How not to holiday

Amid these first-percent problems there is one hassle that always stands out: holiday homes. Every client I’ve ever known had a holiday home. Every one regretted it. Again, not because it was bad in isolation, but because it was bad in context. It was a bad life choice.[11] It is never holiday home versus nothing. It’s holiday home versus a million other opportunities. Where the choice concerns a life, if you break something down for analysis, never forget to put it back together again for judgment.
Those with holiday homes come to understand that holidays are better rented than owned. Where foresight dreams of less logistical rigmarole, really getting to know a place, and having something to show off to friends, hindsight would’ve preferred turning the one-off outlay into an annual holiday budget, the lack of a sunk-cost anchor weighing on every decision about where to explore next, not having to deal with maintenance, and remembering that it’s really not hard to have a fun time with friends on holiday… wherever you go.
Travel in general is primed for price-value deception. ‘Some men,’ wrote Bertrand Russell:
will travel through many countries, going always to the best hotels, eating exactly the same food as they would eat at home, meeting the same idle rich whom they would meet at home, conversing on the same topics upon which they converse at their own dinner-table. When they return, their only feeling is one of relief at having done with the boredom of expensive locomotion.[vii] [my emphasis]
‘Other men,’ he continues:
wherever they go see what is characteristic, make the acquaintance of people who typify the locality, observe whatever is of interest either historically or socially, eat the food of the country, learn its manners and its language, and come home with a new stock of pleasant thoughts for winter evenings. In all these different situations the man who has the zest for life has the advantage over the man who has none. Even unpleasant experiences have their uses to him. I am glad to have smelt a Chinese crowd and a Sicilian village, though I cannot pretend that my pleasure was very great at the moment.
Russell’s quote reminds me of a personal story. A few years ago, a friend was passing through London with her grandmother and her grandmother’s partner. They invited me to dinner at Heston Blumenthal’s gastronomically inventive outlet in the Mandarin Oriental, where they were staying. Wherever they were in the world, and being a wealthy retired couple, they were often somewhere that wasn’t home, grandmother and partner always stayed at the Mandarin Oriental.
To distract himself from the perplexities of the menu (which culminated in asking the waitress ‘do you have anything that’s like a hamburger?’) the partner was telling me how they’d just been on a cruise through Norway. Oblivious to Norway at the time having a higher per-capita GDP than ‘the greatest country in the world’ (a label he seemed incapable of mentioning the US without appending), he talked of his surprise to see such abundant evidence of modernity, as if he had been expecting nothing but wooden shacks and people riding on donkeys.
Different people get different things from travel, of course, though I’d argue that both holiday homes and travelling ‘in style’ misunderstand that what gives value to travel is not taking your tunnel-vision on a protected tour of other branches of your favoured hotels and boutiques… whatever the price tags say.
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On another occasion, I went to Hawaii to take part in an event. I was part of a group of a dozen people. Nine had come from North America, one from Australia, one from Zimbabwe, and me, from the UK. None of us knew each other beforehand.
The other 11 chose to stay in the five-star, flamingos-in-the-front-garden, $500-a-night Westin. I opted for the $20-a-night, backpacking-bums-in-the-bar hostel, pretending to be one of the cool kids.
One afternoon, the hostel bundled a bunch of us into a van for a hike to a waterfall. An intense and occasionally scary scramble through thick forest and sliding down slippery banks culminated in a spectacular secluded swimming hole. Cost of admission: whatever you felt like tipping the driver. One assumes that anything more official would never have got health-and-safety sign-off.
A few of the 11 had been tempted by a Westin-organised waterfall hike. On an unadventurous trail, to a crowded destination, and for $200 a head. I’m not claiming one is better than the other – that’s a subjective judgment. But deeming the latter better because of the price tag is clearly insane. Yet in many subtler – and therefore more dangerous – ways, we all make such judgments all the time. Especially when it comes to travel, time with friends, and other experiences where the value, as we saw with ‘How not to buy experiences’ in the previous chapter, not only isn’t correlated with the price, but whose value can be eroded by trying to turn it into something material. Do the owners of football clubs get more out of the club than the fans?
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As Derek Sivers’s third piece of advice for anyone wanting to ‘stop being rich and happy’ goes: ‘Buy, not rent. Why rent a house, a castle, a boat, or a car when you can buy? It’s not about the thing, it’s about identity. This shows who you are now.’[viii] If being a house works better for you than being a human, do it. If not, don’t.
‘The more we associate experience with cash value,’ wrote Ralf Potts in Vagabonding – a book about how to do long-term travel, regardless of budget, ‘the more we think that money is what we need to live. And the more we associate money with life, the more we convince ourselves that we're too poor to buy our freedom.’
Both actually rich and aspirant rich greatly desire being rich to be different. Sacrifices need to be worth it. What’s the point of a finding yourself in a special set of circumstances if you don’t feel sufficiently special because of it? Likeable things must be more likeable when they cost more. More expensive must be better. Once, this was satisfied to some extent with certain holiday destinations or brand-name goods being off-limits to all but the most rarefied societal strata. This is no longer true, so we’ve had to invent stuff that’s not in any way better but is more expensive. The misperceived ‘value’ persists: not because you can have something, but because others can’t.

The relevance of renting

Most things are better rented than owned. Remove the unthinking link between seeing a shiny pretty thing and setting your sights on owning it and you remove a huge drag on your ability to turn your resources into a Good Life.
Humans are a work in progress. We may believe we’re chasing ‘contentment’ of some form, but it is the process (including appropriate rests en route) that is the prize. We want to flow, not stagnate. Yet by striving to own permanence in an impermanent world, we sell our souls to stagnation. A healthy relationship with money is, in the majority of instances, better realised and reflected through renting.
Act as if you’re renting everything, including the stuff you own. Music, films, clothes… we’re burdened by stuff that no longer serves a purpose beyond cluttering our closets and our minds (occasionally with seriously expensive knock-on effects, like buying a bigger house to home not us, but shit we never use). The ‘endowment effect’ turns the sheer act of owning stuff (even simply believing we own it) into making us value it more, despite no change in how well the stuff serves us.. This is not helpful. When you view stuff primarily as whether it is serving you or not, the ownership fallacy relinquishes its hold over your decision-making, and you focus on an object’s value rather than its price.
Viewed through a wider lens, we don’t even own what we think we do. For example, for most people, the most expensive thing they ‘own’ – their home – is owned, in part, by a bank. Moreover, ultimately everything is rented, on account of your inevitable death.
Taking this further, those living the best lives have learnt to apply the same concept to their thoughts. Given that we’re all ignorant about basically everything, thoughts are definitely better rented than owned. Just as showing off stuff can blind you to the things that most reliably make you shine from within, broadcasting a thought – or even the characteristic of being a thinker, say – can stop you from living the very open-mindedness you are wearing. We show-off only our insecurities. And whereas being a bit too attached to some old DVDs may make a minor mess of a shelf and a mind, being too attached to opinions messes up the world.

You can’t own insight

Those at all familiar with Buddhism will recognise the connection with the proverbial raft that, once it has got you across the river, needn’t be carried up the hill the other side. Thich Nhat Hanh also makes the useful distinction between a notion and an insight:
Say we strike a match to get a flame. As soon as the flame manifests, it begins to consume the match. The notion of impermanence is like the match, and the insight of impermanence is like the flame. As the flame manifests, it consumes the match, which we don’t need anymore. What we need is the flame, not the match. We’re making use of the notion of impermanence to get the insight of impermanence.[ix]
Ownership is an unhelpful attachment to an unhelpful pattern of mental wiring. Even the notion of ‘owning v renting’ can become unhelpfully ‘owned’; it is the insight it provides that we really want: the acute consciousness of applying the notion to each money decision can be let go once we’ve rewired ourselves.
To see things as rented rather than owned, to focus on their value, not their price, is liberating. It frees us from the chains with which we shackle ourselves rather than face the fear of an inescapably uncertain future.
To return to Thich Nhat Hanh: ‘Thanks to impermanence, everything is possible.’[x] When we own only truly valuable things, based on their subjective function or beauty, and not their objective price tag (including ‘bargains’) we embolden our story, not burden our stores. We pass with a smile through a snapshot on the journey of who we are becoming, rather than showcase an insecure substituting of stuff for character.

The only thing we don’t want to own is the only thing we should

The most important thing to own is responsibility, yet it’s the main thing we run from
Financial journalist Jason Zweig recounts a story of a million-dollar parking spot. He questions ‘whether the right term is “ethically dumb” or “ethically dead” not to be bothered by this.’ ‘Money,’ he continues, ‘should be more valuable to people than that.‘[xi]
It’s a problem not only for the parker…
If you need to pay a million dollars to park your car, something’s wrong with you. You’re living in the wrong place, you’re not thinking about the virtues of walking around the corner to where a parking spot costs you $500 a month, and something is dangerously wrong in your mindset.
…but also for the world: ‘It says something disturbing about society as a whole that somebody would be willing to take $1m and light it on fire that way.’`96
Zweig’s assertion that ‘If you have a million dollars to burn, and the best thing you can think of to do with it is to use it to have a place to put your car, something is just disturbingly wrong with you’ recalls my earlier assertion that:
If we viewed expenditures through an absolute, rather than a relative lens – if we questioned (especially with the big stuff) if the choice we were making were the single finest use of the money we were making it with, we’d soon start to focus a lot more on what actually mattered.[12]
I like to believe the majority agree with Zweig. But the mindset in question wasn’t created by having $1 million to burn. It was expressed by it. The history of fascist movements shows that all the worst expressions of inhumanity start small, before gradually sucking in millions of people who were once adamant it could never happen to them.
The madness displayed by a million-dollar parking spot is an expression of something that lives, to some extent, in all of us. We just lack the funding to express it in such obvious ways. We should be alert for the less-obvious ones. Part of examining our lives is to use the extreme examples as instructive spotlights: what do we do that’s just as silly, only less magnified by money?
We each have a responsibility to be aware of these trade-offs. And that responsibility increases with power (whether that power comes from money, time, knowledge, intellectual capacity, one’s network, etc.) This is not welcome news for most people, especially those that have hoarded money precisely to avoid the responsibility of their spending decisions. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a real effect on the Goodness of a life. It’s the source of the underlying niggle every rich person feels when they’re aware, consciously or otherwise, that they’re not making the most of their money. They often acknowledge the niggle, but they rarely admit the cause.
All expenditure is inescapably ethical. Because it’s always a trade-off that expresses a choice of how we want the world to be. Renting is preferable to owning because it better reflects this responsibility. But this responsibility also highlights the one thing that is better owned. We should own what we don’t want to change. And while our circumstances are inevitably always changing, our deepest values – the ones that underlie our spending decisions – are far less variable. It is these that we should ‘own’: that we should use to determine prices, not be determined by them.

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[1] Either version of the phrase is of course a terrible indictment of our wiring. See Trigger #17: Done well for themselves. Outside of the relatively ugly scoring hot dates, to say ‘done well for themselves’ or ‘doing well for themselves’ is to say ‘they own expensive stuff’ or ‘they have a high salary’. We use such wafer-thin euphemisms, because despite being one of the first things we think about rich people, the last thing society dictates we should say… though even then the temptation to squeeze it out still proves overwhelming for many.
[2] Part 2, Section 2.1.2, ‘How not to buy experiences’
[4] The ownership fallacy is also a part of the larger ‘arrival fallacy’ that gets its own section in the next chapter.
[5] Recall Part 1, Section 2.1, ‘The conspicuous consumption con’
[6] Recall Part 1, Section 1.2, ‘Who or what is your ‘self’?’
[7] Recall Part 1, Section 4.2, ‘Is success for sale?: The difference between anxiety and fear’
[8] See also Stephen Batchelor, Alone With Others: ‘Though a person is by nature acquisitive, the very act of acquisition is a source of anxiety, since whatever is acquired can at any moment, and in a hundred different ways, be lost.’
[9] The other three insatiate desires are: rivalry (‘a great many men will cheerfully face impoverishment if they can thereby secure complete ruin for their rivals’); vanity (‘ “Look at me” is one of the most fundamental desires of the human heart. It can take innumerable forms, from buffoonery to the pursuit of posthumous fame’); and love of power, which Russell considered important enough to write a whole book about.
[10] Recall Part 2, Section 1.1: by most reasonable measures, far, far, more people are rich than believe they are.
[11] Of course, holiday homes are not inherently awful decisions. They may well work for some. But they don’t work for nearly as many as believe they will.
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[i] Maria Nemeth, The Energy of Money
[ii] Carl Jung, Two Essays on Analytical Psychology
[iii] Bertrand Russell, 1950 Nobel acceptance speech
[iv] D.T. Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism
[v] Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha
[vi] Susan Wolf, Meaning in Life and Why it Matters
[vii] Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness
[viii] Derek Sivers, interviewed on The Knowledge Project podcast https://fs.blog/knowledge-project/derek-sivers/
[ix] Thich Nhat Hanh, The Art of Living
[x] Thich Nhat Hanh, The Art of Living
[xi] Jason Zweig, interviewed on The Knowledge Project podcast https://fs.blog/knowledge-project/jason-zweig. Also written in the world before NFTs.
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