Hello, friends. I have returned from France and recovered from jetlag. (I’m not good with jetlag.) Later this week, I’ll publish an article about how much my cousin Duane and I spent during our ten-day drive across Normandy and Brittany, but today I want to share one small epiphany I had on the trip.

J.D. geeking it up with Proust stuff

I am a Proust nerd so was happy to stumble upon Combray

Midway through our excursion, we heeded a recommendation from a GRS reader and stayed the night at the Royal Abbey of Our Lady of Fontevraud, a former monastery founded in 1101. Although many old buildings remain (and guests are free to explore them), the site is no longer an abbey. It’s a fancy upscale hotel and a Michelin-star restaurant.

Duane and I typically prefer to stay in simple rooms when we travel. We don’t need fancy. For us, a hotel is a place to sleep, not a place to be pampered. Our aim is to spend less than €100 per night (or €50 per person). We do make exceptions, though. (On this trip, we also paid extra to stay the night on Mont Saint Michel.)

In this case, we thought the hotel was nice and modern, but at $193.57 for the one night, we wouldn’t do it again. That’s way too expensive for us. And the restaurant was even more expensive.

Duane would have been perfectly happy eating crepes or galettes (which are savory crepes) at a regular restaurant in the nearby village, but I’ve always wanted to eat in a Michelin-star restaurant, and this seemed like a perfect opportunity. I mean: It was right there in the same building as our hotel.

“I’ll pay tonight,” I told him. “Ignore the prices. I’m making a deliberate decision to do this. You just enjoy the meal. Don’t worry about the cost.”

We did enjoy the meal. It was a fixed menu at a fixed price, although we could add options. (Duane added mushrooms and I added a cheese plate.) The food was fun and fancy. Here for instance, is the pea soup with “bread”:

Fancy soup at a Michelin-star restaurant

Pea soup with “bread” as a first course

In the end, I spent $267.41 for our meal. That’s the most I’ve ever paid for a meal in my life. But was it the best meal of my life? No. It was good — don’t get me wrong — and I loved experiencing how a superstar kitchen combines flavors, but this wasn’t even in the top twenty meals I’ve ever eaten. There are several restaurants here in Portland that I’d prefer to dine at, and they cost much less.

But I don’t mean to grouse about how little enjoyment we got for the money we spent. Just the opposite, in fact.

When we reached our hotel room after a long day of driving, I needed to freshen up before dinner. I went to the bathroom to wash my face. “Wow,” I thought as I scrubbed down, “this soap smells amazing. I love it.” This is a strange thing for me to think. I’ve never had positive feelings for soap before in my fifty years on this Earth.

When I’d finished, Duane took his turn in the bathroom. “Did you smell that soap?” he asked when he was done. “It smells like wood and smoke and spice. It’s fantastic.”

“I thought same thing!” I said. “I’d buy some. Maybe we can find it when we get to Paris.”

“We sound like a couple of gay men,” Duane said and we both laughed. (He can get away with jokes like that because he is a gay man.) We forgot about the soap and went to dinner.

In the morning, as we were checking out, we noticed that the soap was for sale in the hotel lobby. On a hunch, I googled the manufacturer. Sure enough: The soap was produced by a small company only three kilometers away.

“Let’s go buy some soap,” I said. We hopped in our rented Peugot 208 and made the short jaunt to the soap factory, Martin de Candre.

Sidenote: We knew nothing about the Peugot 208 before we picked it up at the rental company. Turns out, it’s an awesome little car. France is filled with awesome little cars. Unfortunately, none of them are available in the U.S. because the car manufacturers don’t think they’ll sell well. Americans like big trucks and SUVs. This makes me sad. I’d gladly purchase a Peugot 208 as my next vehicle.

We spent about half an hour looking at (and smelling) the different soaps. A friendly French woman answered our questions and taught us how to better get a sense of each soap’s scent. (“You need to step out of the shop,” she said, “and let the soap get warm in the sun. Then you’ll know how it really smells.”)

In the end, Duane spent €20 on soap. I spent €40. We both believe it’s money well spent.

Fancy soap in rural France

Fancy soaps for sale in rural France

“I can’t believe I just made a side trip to buy soap,” I said as we resumed our journey toward Amboise. “But I feel like this is a small thing that will improve my quality of life. Kim and I currently use watered-down liquid soap from a dispenser. I don’t like it. Now when I come in from working in the yard, I’ll actually enjoy washing my hands. It sounds stupid, I know, but it’s real. Plus, it’ll remind me of France and this trip with you.”

“It doesn’t sound stupid,” Duane said. “There are lots of small things that make life better. I don’t think we pay enough attention to them. Sometimes you can get big pleasure from small things. More pleasure than from big things, in fact.”

“Do you really think so?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said. “Think of your brother Jeff. He likes gourmet coffee. I’m happy with a cup of coffee from McDonald’s but he’s not. Every morning, he gets a lot of joy from a fancy cup of coffee. For me, I enjoy having a clean car or a clean house — especially since I don’t clean either one very often. I’ll bet you can think of all sorts of similar examples.”

As we drove, I thought more about the pleasure we get from small things. Duane is right. There are certain tiny actions and objects that make my life better. Here are some simple examples:

  • I like using everyday items I’ve purchased while traveling: band-aids, jackets, t-shirts, underwear, etc. I like being reminded of my trips.
  • I wear two cheap turtle necklaces. I bought one for ten bucks in Hawaii. I bought the other for two or three bucks in Ecuador. I love them.
  • Like many people, I have a favorite mug. I also have a favorite whisky glass. Each probably cost less than ten bucks, but they make me happy whenever I use them.
  • Kim and I own several pieces of art produced by family and friends. None of these was expensive. (Some were given to us free.) We enjoy having the constant reminder of their creativity.
  • One of the reasons I enjoy gardening is that every year these inexpensive plants bring my pleasure in a variety of ways: pretty flowers, tasty fruit and vegetables for meals I prepare.
  • Most of all, I love to walk. It costs me nothing but gives me so much. I like being outside. I like exercising. I like the time for meditation.

It occurred to me that these are examples of conscious spending in action. When we identify small, inexpensive items and behaviors that make us disproportionately happy, spending on them allows us to get more bang for our buck. This also what Marie Kondo means when she talks about only keeping possessions that “spark joy”.

I’m unlikely to ever again in my life be so enthusiastic about soap. But I’m glad that Duane and I allowed ourselves to make a small side trip to buy this stuff. Now that I’m home and have the soap in the bathroom, it really is a small thing that gives me big pleasure. (Fortunately, Kim likes the smell of the woodsy soap too.)

25 Replies to “Big pleasure from small things”

  1. Sequentialkady says:

    An important part of being frugal is knowing how, when, and why to choose to splurge on items.

    For example, I’m picky about the pens I write with. I mostly use fountain pens, but when it comes to a “clicky”, I will gladly pay more for a Signo 207 or a Zebra Sarasa. I longhand out a lot of ideas, and have a smooth, skip free no-nonsense pen that just glides across the paper makes a huge difference.

    Same goes with paper. Yes, products made by Rodia, Apica, and Kokuyo cost more, but the paper is nicer and that makes a difference at the end of the day.

    I’d probably splurge on a few bars of that soap, too! The joy it brings is worth the few extra cents it costs per use.

  2. Caitlyn says:

    Fontevraud is like my dream hotel, says this medieval history nerd. Indeed, to each their own!

  3. gawuge says:

    Got a link to the soap maker?

  4. Jason B says:

    Great article. Of course, deciding which areas to focus your spending on can be tricky. Most people wouldn’t think to invest in upping their soap game. I think you can expand the idea to how you spend your time as well.

  5. Martize Smith says:

    Yes I look forward to seeing that link to the soap maker as well. I hope you enjoy your trip and safe travels. What would be your advice on how often should a person allow themselves to spend on the inexpensive items in out individual lives?

  6. Judy says:

    Glad to hear you had a great time with Duane and took pleasure in the soap. My one must have splurge is soft toilet paper – we used newspapers in the loo when I was growing up. I now have a comfortable life and am very frugal, but for some reason, the one thing that reminds of how fortunate I am is good quality toilet paper.

  7. El Nerdo says:

    How many courses??

    I just wanna know xD

    • J.D. Roth says:

      Haha. For you, Nerdo, here are three more photos:

      The menu for the evening (and the entire month, apparently)

      The pretty asparagus with smoked fish

      Duane and his pot of mushrooms

      It looks like the menu had seven courses, all of which were small (some were tiny). My added cheese course was the biggest course of the evening.

      • El Nerdo says:

        Merci monsieur.

        Super-curious, I must ask…

        Did they tell you anything significant about the pea soup? “Rituel.” Was that a monk’s meal, reinterpreted?

        And what was the pause fontevriste? Boozing up like la pause normande?

        And you ate… oak? Or does that mean acorns? (Chêne). Wait… an oak mushroom??

        Now please tell us about the wine cuz I’m making l’addition in my head, and I see you had some.

        That looks like quite the gastronomic excursion, but yes, perhaps a bit… monastic, for the price?

        I am a hungry animal (and I’m going to hell for it, lol). Gimme some moules frites any day… xD

  8. J.D. Roth says:

    For the curious, the soap maker is called Martin de Candre. The soap that Duane and I liked so much is the honey soap. I bought some of that plus a couple of other woodsy scents.

    • El Nerdo says:

      That’s like… Sure, honey soap, but I used to work at the hippy store and the description of the smell… For a budget version of some of those scents, try an olive soap. Not castile but… something greener. There’s one with a mildly embarrassing name I won’t say out loud…. K.M.F… (Not K.M.R.I.A., Joyce fans.)

      • chelsea says:

        So where are you getting your olive oil soap? I used Kiss My Face for over 20 years but they’re reorganizing, and it’s been discontinued. Everything I saw online was full of chemicals and not actually olive oil. I’m using wonderfully smelling locally made soap right now (yea!) but it’s not quite as smooth on my skin. Habits…

        • El Nerdo says:

          Oh, I don’t buy olive soap. We used to sell it at the place I worked when I was in college. Yes, that is the brand, and the smell is unmistakable. Very good.

          I’ve continued to see it over the years and I didn’t know it was discontinued though. A pity. Still appears online.

          Another vote for the import/resell business idea I guess.

          • chelsea says:

            Darn, was hoping you had a good source.

            You can still find Kiss My Face online but check out the new prices — $40-50 for three small bars! Does anyone buy the leftover stock at that point?

    • El Nerdo says:

      Alternatively, one could perhaps make a little money importing/reselling this soap here as a “muse” (maybe?).

      I can’t help thinking about money on this blog…

  9. Allison L says:

    Sounds like it was a great trip! So did you eat at the famous omelette restaurant at Mont St. Michel? One of my favorite memories of living in Europe for 3 years was paying $140 for two omelettes and a bottle of water at that restaurant (my husband and I misread the menu and didn’t understand the pricing). We spent more on that meal than we did hotel for 3 nights!

  10. Dave @ Accidental FIRE says:

    Nice dude. I’ve been to France a lot but never made it to Mont Saint Michel, it looks so amazing.

    And wow, the soup looks pretty but what, maybe 4 scoops worth? That’s why I’m not a foodie and don’t go to expensive restaurants. To me they’re like Apple computers, style over substance. 🙂 But I’m sure it was fun!

  11. Joe says:

    Mmm… I need to get your list of Portland restaurants. We enjoy having a fancy meal once in a while, but we haven’t gone to a fancy place in a long time.
    I think you’re right about the little things in life. You need to prioritize and figure out what’s important for you. I’m usually not too picky and don’t have too many favorite things. My headphone is good, though. I use it every day.
    My wife would love those soaps.

  12. Sheila says:

    We bought some wonderful liquid soap at the Burren Perfumery when we were in Ireland, and I bought some goat milk soap that I love. I’m sure my mid-60s face looks more like mid-40s after using that soap (ha ha!). Having eaten in a couple of restaurants that have “fancy” menus, I realize I don’t like pea foam and teeny stuffed mushrooms I’ve never heard of. Walking vacations (and walking in general) are my favorite. We just got back from walking a stretch of the Cotswold Way and last fall did a short Lake District walk. Looking forward to doing some walks in France.

    • Melissa says:

      Thanks for the info on the Burren Perfumery Sheila. Your comment on the younger looking skin caught my attention. 😉 Im checking out their website now and it looks fantastic!

  13. Belinda says:

    For some reason this article made me think of the Reddit Group “Buy It For Life”


    This was a good blog post and I enjoyed reading about the soap. Small things do bring us pleasure. Like a fan in my bedroom at night blowing a cool breeze, which I love. It’s the simple things in life that bring joy.

  14. Anne says:

    We’re retired, and financially fine. We live in a small house in a not particularly fashionable city. We do like to eat out but usually at chains that we like.

    But, oh, get us on a vacation and we buy all the experiences that catch our eye. We are going with our ten year old granddaughter to Hawaii in a couple of weeks and we’ll pay for a swim with the dolphins, a helicopter ride and an expensive luau. Things I hope she’ll never forget.

    There will, of course, be lots of swimming and ice cream cone eating.

    • Sharon P says:

      We did the same on our one and only trip to Hawaii. We spent a lot of money but the experiences are for life!

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