7 “Necessities” I’ve Realized I Don’t Need Since Moving To Europe

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Last week, I read an article here on TFD about things American spend on that one European woman can’t understand. As an American from a suburban town in Maryland who has been living in Europe (first France, now Spain) for going on four years now, I have to admit that I found myself nodding along at nearly everything written in Gia’s article, but I also understood the scores of frustrated comments from Americans underneath. I know, first of all, that not all Americans live in the way the “McMansion suburbans” do, and that it can feel frustrating to be painted with that brush. But the truth is that a lot of us do live this way, and are raised to not question many of the things we consider necessary to our daily lives, and spending.

I am someone who was raised not in a McMansion, per se, but definitely in a green-lawned suburb where the pantry overflowed with pre-packaged foods to grab in our rush out the door, and bottles of water to drink whenever we were thirsty. I lived in central air that was freezing in summer, whether at work or school or the office, and I drove pretty much everywhere (including to the gym, where I would sit on a stationary bike). When I moved into my apartment in my medium-sized city, takeout was a frequent reality, and so was meeting at bars instead of at people’s houses. All of these things in Gia’s article rang true to me, and I know they were common if not universal for most of the people I know in America.

Now, I know that these things can feel like an unfair accusation if you didn’t live this way, but I also think it’s unfair to not accept and admit that many if not most Americans live this way (at least middle to upper-middle class ones), and that we could stand to cut back on some of the things we think we “need.” Part of our financial problems as a society stem from the fact that we don’t often question our way of life, or realize just how much of what we deem a necessity are actually luxuries. (For example, many people pointed out how AC is obligatory in America because it’s so much hotter than Europe, but first of all, where I live in Spain is just as hot as most of America in the summer, and that mentality is also dismissive of the many countries directly South of America where the weather is much hotter year-round and AC is still not universal. It’s all about mentality.)

And for me, the mentality really changed when I started living in Europe and confronting my lifestyle. There are a lot of things that I realized I no longer need, and it’s been amazing for my finances and my overall happiness to let go of them (or treat them as the luxuries they actually are). To give the American view of the debate, and hopefully inspire you to question some of the things that are taking up your budget, here are my 7 biggest things that I no longer need in Europe:

1. Everyday “professional” makeup.

When I lived in America, like many women, I felt a pressure every day to look like the best version of myself, which in my mind translated to “made-up and perfect.” I wasn’t necessarily on the Instagram contouring-level of flawless, but I was definitely someone who did the full routine every day (foundation, mascara, bronzer, lipstick, eyeshadow, etc etc), and felt like I couldn’t be taken seriously or really feel beautiful if I didn’t. When I first moved to Europe, it took me a while to get used to the idea of being a more natural version of myself, and to pare down my morning routine to something more manageable. Now, I consider the times I put on foundation and bronzer and eyeliner to be special occasions. My daily routine is just a little mascara, a little lipstick, and out the door. And I feel so much more comfortable in my skin, and and my overall “glow” is a million times better. Instead of just feeling beautiful when I’m dolled up and ugly when I’m not, I feel like myself at all times: imperfect but lovely, which is the beauty standard I have found most of Europe embraces.

2. Air conditioning.

This one has already been discussed at length, obviously, but here’s the bottom line: I live in Spain, it gets hot as hell, and I still get along just fine without AC. I promise you that I don’t melt, I don’t get heat stroke, and I am very much used to the feeling of being hot in the summer. The thing is, once you accept that that is what summer feels like, you come to embrace it in its own way and don’t mind it the way you used to. My summers are no longer a desperate search for AC, because I consider the feeling of “summer warmness” to be normal.

3. Meat with every meal.

Like many Americans, I used to think that meat was the “center” of my meal around which the rest of the dish would turn. I looked at it as not just my primary source of protein, but the focus of recipes and something that had to be included with nearly every lunch and dinner (and weekend breakfasts, because who doesn’t love sausage and bacon?). But now I have shifted my eating focus to a more balanced diet that’s much more focused on vegetables, grains, and starches as the vast majority of the meal, and meat as a more treasured treat. I’m by no means a vegetarian or vegan (I frequently eat eggs and dairy, much more so than meat), but I would say I eat meat with about four meals a week now, total. This means I buy much higher-quality meat, and eat it in smaller quantities. I look forward to the times I stop by the butcher to grab whatever looks good that day, and make myself a special dinner with it. It’s much better for my waistline, and my wallet.

4. “Recipe-based” shopping. 

This is probably cliché at this point, but living here has gotten me into cooking in a way I never was in America. The biggest shift for me has been thinking in terms of ingredients, and not in terms of finished foods. I look at my cabinet and see what I have components for, and I go to the grocery store or market and look for the items on sale that I can get a ton of use out of in different recipes. When in America, I would either go for more prepared foods, or I would look up a recipe and shop specifically for that recipe, and often throw out the rest of the ingredients after a week or so because I had no clue what to do with them and wasn’t thinking in terms of the ingredients themselves. Now that I have switched to a from-scratch way of thinking, I treat my kitchen as something to be emptied and refilled, and recipes that I specifically go out of my way to buy everything for to be a more rare thing, like going to a restaurant.

5. Cable.

I can’t believe how long I went paying for cable that I almost never used. At one point, I had like 700 channels, which just seems completely insane to me now. I know it may sound pretentious to be the person who “doesn’t watch TV” now, but it’s true that not having something to aimlessly flip through whenever I’m bored means I really look forward to the few things I do watch, and I find myself doing many more leisure activities that aren’t TV.

6. A car.

Before you get on me: I don’t live in the center of a city, and my most common form of transport is a bus, both of which I easily could have done when back in suburban Maryland. But when I was there, the solution of “car to get everywhere” was just the obvious one, and I thought it would be weird or sad to actually take the bus or bike everywhere. Now, I generally do a combination of the two, depending on the weather. This means that I save an enormous amount of money every month on the expenses of owning a car, and I also have cut out my gym membership budget because my exercise comes from biking and walking a ton every day. And again, while I do live in a suburb adjacent to a city, I don’t live in the city itself. I’m not coming from a place that is impossible to recreate for most Americans. It’s just a question of mentality, and priorities. Yes, it would be occasionally more convenient to own a car, and some people in my neighborhood drive to work in the city every day, but I choose not to for financial, environmental, and health reasons. It’s completely a choice, but it’s one I didn’t consider making until I moved here.

7. A future house.

Probably the biggest mental shift for me has gone from seeing a “house with a yard in the suburbs” as the ultimate goal of adult property ownership/living situation, to a wasteful thing. First of all, lawns are bad for the environment and commutes are bad for mental health. But beyond that, a house is more space than I need, and I am more than happy living in my current situation, which is a duplex with a little garden. (It’s why I moved to this outskirt in the first place.) But living here, I’ve realized that the trade-off of not having all the space or property I don’t use means that I’m a quick jaunt from museums, culture, and the vibrancy of a city, I don’t have a crazy commute, I’m not taking up more space than I need, and I’m making the most of everything I have. Ultimately, my goal is to buy a space similar to the one I have now (two-bedroom duplex with a garden), and if I ever expand to a bigger family in the future, I may upgrade to a three-bedroom max. But my goal is to always have just what I need, and to especially not create a huge commute in my life for work simply to have a giant green patch of land I claim as my own. It may be the American way for everyone I grew up with, but it’s not the way for me anymore.

Jessica is a 20-something living in Spain. She is taking a two-month hiatus from Instagram, which is very good for the soul.

Image via Pexels

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  • Nom

    I’m not trying to be contrarian here, but simply point out my different experience than the writer of this article, which I thought was quite good.

    I have a lot of issues with being able to fall asleep and one of the biggest ones is temperature. I absolutely cannot sleep in the summer without AC (assuming a warm summer climate, of course). I didn’t have AC in my house growing up in Virginia (warm/humid summers) until I was about 14 (so I wasn’t used to AC before that) and I hardly was ever able to sleep in the summer. AC was a magical addition to my life and I can guarantee you that I will never go back to no AC in the summer (assuming, again, a warm summer climate). I have only had window units as an adult and generally only keep them on when I’m sleeping.

    I also think that recipe-based shopping isn’t universally a bad thing (not that I think you were saying it was). Perhaps I’m just not a creative cook, and that’s certainly something I’ve been trying to work on personally and financially, but, personally, I throw out a lot more food if I buy what’s on sale or what I think of as a “staple” (such as eggs which I end up never using). I only started using all my food until I started meal planning and shopping to a recipe rather than a vague idea of what I might cook. That being said, I definitely don’t buy ingredients specific to a recipe if I don’t have a plan to use all of it. I either substitute for another ingredient, leave it out, or don’t make that recipe at all. Recipe-based shopping has definitely been a money-saver for me but you certainly have to be smart about it.

    • I’m with you on the AC – I also grew up in Virginia, and after the previous article, I actually went to Wikipedia to compare climate data between DC and Sevilla, Spain (chosen because it was the southernmost city on Wikipedia’s map of Spain that wasn’t on the water).

      Sevilla’s daily highs are 5-10 degrees higher than DC’s, but the daily lows are slightly lower. So, first of all, it’s hotter here at night period, albeit only by a couple of degrees. More importantly, Sevilla’s relative humidity is more than 20% lower than DC’s in the summer. So just as a comparison of what that means, here’s a handy heat index calculator. On an averagely unpleasant July 90 degree day, if Sevilla has its typical 44% humidity, it feels like 93 degrees outside. But here in DC, with our typical 67% humidity? It feels like 104. We get a whopping 11 degrees increase due to all the water in the air.

      The hotter it is the more humidity makes a difference, so it’s less drastic at night when it’s cooler. But this is still a BIG difference in relative temperature.

      • Winterlight

        This. Having lived through DC summers with an unreliable AC which finally died in August, just as temperatures soared into the 100s for days on end with 90% humidity, I need AC. This does not make me a spoiled American, it makes me someone with health issues who would and has suffered from not being in AC.

    • Chic Noir

      Young lady you totaaly made this article about you.

      Why?

  • em

    This article is 100% more effective than the previous article, because it is from the perspective of an American living abroad. (The previous article would have also been more useful if it was from an expat in the US, but I digress.) Thanks for pointing out the “recipe shopping” problem – this is a huge vice of mine! I’d love more deets on how to change my mindset on that.

    • RW

      I’ve undergone the same shift since moving to France 5 years ago. My advice would be to buy seasonal, fresh vegetables and try to start learning about different ways each can be prepared and what flavors go well together. Buy a small quantity at first, so you don’t waste, of whatever is in season and looks good to you. Then once you get home, have a look at recipes to see what you can make or find inspiration to make up your own recipe. 🙂

  • Anon

    I wish we had some real stats on all of this. (Anyone in the crowd want to write an article giving some real data on these trends?) What percentage of Americans own homes? What percentage live in the suburbs? What percentage have any form of public transit available? What percentage of Americans have AC or a gym membership or a car? What percentage lives in mobile homes or apartments where front lawns aren’t a thing? What percentage of people are even middle class? In the absence of those statistics all we have are generalizations about how Americans live vs. how Europeans live that are mostly reflections of a given person’s bubble, which is likely to be a middle class one if they can afford to go to Europe at all.

    I mean, I could write an article about how growing up the closest grocery store was 7 miles away on a road with steep hills, blind turns, and no bike lane. The nearest form of public transit was a train station 40 minutes away by car. Is that representative of the American experience? No idea. But I also bet the writer doesn’t really know how representative the middle class indulgences she cites are either.

    Take gym membership, which gets thrown around as a peculiarly American thing. 16% of Americans belong to a gym. That’s it. Why do we talk about it, as if it’s an expenditure that reflects something about our national character when 84% of the country doesn’t participate? Some of the things mentioned probably are genuine reflections of real American trends, some of them are probably cultural aspirational models, and some are probably just traits common to a particular socioeconomic bracket that get blown up into huge generalizations. In the absence of numbers to verify any of those trends, though, it’s all just speculation.

  • Stacy

    I do not understand what the two authors’ issues are with air conditioning. Two articles have now mentioned it but I fail to understand why people who like it cannot use without being judged or vice versa.

    I’ve lived on both continents at various points and I don’t think it’s fair to stereotype all American people. I know plenty of Americans who don’t live like this and who don’t spend their free time hating Europeans. Similarly I know plenty of Europeans who don’t spend their free time writing condescending and classist articles about how they’re better than Americans.

    So can we just stop the judgemental articles and accept that people around the world are *different* and view things differently?

    • Ashley

      It’s interesting to me that you read this author as being judgmental. In the previous article, I 100% agree that her tone was pretty self-righteous. But in this article, I felt that the tone was much more self-reflective. I think that the point of the article is that it’ll do us all good to take a look at the choices that we make to ensure that we’re making them because we agree with the action and not just because they’re the default option. Whether you see AC as a necessity because you live in a humid climate (summers in the drained swamps of Ohio are stupid with humidity and I understand what a difference AC can make) or whether you live in a drier climate where a fan will often suffice isn’t the point. It’s being aware of the choices you make on the day-to-day. I took her examples to be illustrations where she found the choice she was making weren’t reflective of what she ultimately found to be her values but not instructions on what each of us should remove from our daily lives.

  • George Town

    Kudos to the author for her simplified lifestyle choices. https://twentysomethinglawyer.wordpress.com/2016/05/08/the-millenial-urban-poor/

  • Maggie

    Love this! Your lifestyle sounds delightful, and it makes me want to go back and live in Europe again! (not that it’s not possible to live in a similar way in North America). I think it’s so important to question our own ways of life and learn about others order to find what works for best for us as individuals, financially, emotionally, and physically.

  • Jack

    I love Number 1. I’ve slowly been transitioning to not wearing makeup and it’s incredibly liberating. It used to be that if I skipped eyeliner, my coworkers would ask “Are you sick? Are you tired?” and I’m like “No, this is just my face!!” and it really got me thinking. I’ll still usually do my eyebrows and a bit of mascara, but only if I feel like it, not because I feel obligated to.

  • GemNoelle

    I really enjoyed both this and the original article. I think American’s have a lot to learn from Europeans about how to enjoy life without necessarily spending lots of money. I am sure there are a lot of overlap readers between TFD and Refinary29’s Money Diary series, but for those of you who have not seen it, I found today’s Money Diary, set in Rome, a nice illustration of the difference between the American and European way of life: http://www.refinery29.com/money-diary-rome-translator

    • Summer

      This was great, thanks for the link! The Italians really do know how to live.

  • HK4

    Just because something is a Want instead of a Need doesn’t mean that it’s a waste of money. I don’t know many people who would label AC as a “necessity,” but it’s a comfort item that significantly improves the lives of a lot of people. Some people can get by without it, and good for you, but a lot of people, myself included, don’t like to be perpetually sweaty for several months out of the year. If I lived without AC, I would have to change my sheets after literally every single time I slept in them (if I was even able to sleep at all), and probably my clothes multiple times a day, for the entire summer. Maybe it makes me a lazy spoiled American, but I’d rather pay $100 +/- a month to not be constantly uncomfortable.

  • stephforeigncountry

    As a Canadian who’s been living in the UK for over 6 years, I can agree with all of this! These little changes are part of the reason I was attracted to the European lifestyle to begin with. #1 and #7 are the ones I identify most with, even though I hadn’t even consciously thought about them until you mentioned them!
    Ultimately, this all comes down to a difference in opinion. I often tease my British friends by saying that all the European settlers came over to “restart and do it right” with city planning, lifestyles, diet, etc. but in reality, both sides can learn so much from each other.

  • VF

    Love this! Agree with all your points 100%! I’d love to move to Europe or any other country one day but need to move my ass to do it and it’s hard with a toddler. (Though, nowadays I know plenty of people who live abroad with children. I’m just making excuses). I hate suburban MD. I hate traffic and commuting in the DC area. Would love to walk or bike more. I agree that commuting is bad for mental health. I get road rage quite a bit in this area.

    I think it’s healthy to examine diff lifestyles and perspectives from other cultures. Do all these points necessarily represent the whole middle class in the US? Who knows, but I don’t know why Americans should get offended and think you r saying they r spoiled because they need AC. To each their own.

    I think It’s good to reflect once in a while and examine our lifestyles. No harm in that. No need to get offended… I do agree as someone who is in the “suburban middle class” you do accumulate a lot of unwanted stuff…I’m also sure u don’t use a dryer in Spain? Another money sucker!

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