Stored food tends to expand to fill the space available. Then it tends to exceed that space. My clients tend to have food stored on their countertops and stacked on the floor. That's because the available cabinets, cupboards, and shelves are already full. Many of my people also have extra food stacked up in the garage. When the kitchen is the heart of the home, it's a beautiful thing, with family and guests laughing and gathering around bounteous meals. When the kitchen is more of a vortex of spoilage and confusion, it helps to take another look.
One night, I was making a casserole. I needed a can of tomato paste. I reached into the cabinet, pulled out a can, and started to open it. As soon as the can opener cut into the top, the tomato paste started spurting out. Um, that's not good. It kept squirting out and making a little tomato paste fountain. I checked the expiration date, and it had expired three years earlier. I about died of embarrassment. Evidently I don't cook with tomato paste as often as I thought I did... The risk of botulism is far greater than the cost of a fifty cent can of tomato paste, so I threw it out.
Then I checked the rest of the cans in that cupboard.
Then I started pulling everything out of the cabinets.
Then I started asking myself a lot of questions about meal planning, grocery shopping, kitchen storage, and our food budget.
It's human nature to store food and plan for harsh winters. That's also why we have a hard-wired craving for sugar and fat. We intend to survive famine conditions that may never appear during our lifetimes. The results of this drive for survival may be... somewhat... unintentional.
I think we should respect our anxiety and urge to preserve food. We should do it with care and consideration. Having a full pantry of expired, spoiled food is worse than having nothing, because you can make yourself and your family sick, and you can also lull yourself into a false sense of security. It's like making a Potemkin village out of cans. Illusion in the face of crisis is the last thing we want. When our concern is emergency survival, we need to be firmly footed on a basis of reality.
This is a problem that needs a system.
There are two ways to go about it, as there are with everything: bottom-up and top-down. Bottom-up means looking around at what you have right now and asking, What do I do with this stuff? How do I get more storage? Top-down means starting with the system requirement and asking, What do I need? What do I have to change to make the situation match requirements? In most cases, that means getting rid of a bunch of stuff. Back to the drawing board!
Most kitchens are full of stuff that would be more or less useless during a genuine crisis. One kitchen that comes to mind had 55 cans of green beans. Green beans are great and all, but they're 31 calories per cup. That means they're better as a weight-loss food than as a high-energy survival food. A kitchen full of stuff like tortilla chips, cookies, cases of soda, and jars of spices will look reassuringly full, but it's not full of nourishment. What we want is a certain number of dinners.
How much food do you need to have on hand? Start with the number of people and multiply by how many days you want to be prepared. Most households make 3-4 trips to the grocery store every week. If that's the habit in your household, it means you could free up a lot of time by planning meals by the week. It also means that due to the lack of a system, you may only have enough complete meals for a day or two. Consider that most grocery stores have enough food supplies for the neighborhood for three typical days, days when people are not frantically trying to stock up on emergency supplies they could have bought the month before.
The first thing you should eat if the power goes out is the contents of your refrigerator. The goal is to eat anything before it spoils. Next would be the contents of the freezer, which may stay cold enough for slightly longer. Only then do we concern ourselves with the cupboards.
Let's say the power is off in your neighborhood. You don't know it yet, but it's going to take a week before emergency crews get it running again. You have leftovers and sandwich fixings in the fridge, and you eat that the first day. Then let's say the freezer stays cold enough for one more day, and you feed your family lunch and dinner out of that, finishing by power-slamming a pint of melted ice cream. That means you need enough for five days' worth of meals from the dry goods in your cupboards.
If you think about it, that's not really very much food. Even if you have six kids and a cat, you can probably fit five days' worth of meals in one ordinary kitchen cabinet.
What we do with our natural, innate urges to accumulate and store food is to gather it on auto-pilot. We see stuff on sale, or we get ahold of some great coupons, and we throw it all in the cart. Multiplied on a national scale, this is part of why 40% of the food we produce gets wasted. If what's true on average is true for us, that implies that we're wasting 40% of our grocery money on stuff that we don't use or need.
(As a side note, it's funny to me that most people are perfectly willing to throw away wilted, scary produce or moldy dinner leftovers month after month, but will eat stale cookies or freezer-burned ice cream any old time).
When I found the secret tomato paste fountain in my kitchen, I committed to cook up and eat all the stuff from my cabinets before buying more. It took months. Not days, but months. More interesting than that, I'm 41 and I've never gone a day in my life when the grocery store was closed for an emergency. My power has never been out for more than about two hours. I still believe in emergency preparedness, of course, and part of that means being more aware of the shelf life of my food supplies.
When we confront our anxiety and dread about scarcity, disaster, and worst-case scenarios, there are actions we can take. Having a sensible pantry system is one of those actions. It's helpful and smart to take some of that worried energy and use it to develop skills and strategic plans. An emergency plan! Pediatric first aid and CPR skills! Planning and packing a Go Bag! Learning where and how to shut off the gas and water valves at your house! Supplies are often an emotional substitute for skills. Greater knowledge, competence, and preparedness are much more comforting than any amount of cans of green beans.
Seven in ten Americans don't have a thousands dollars in savings. I keep seeing this figure in various personal finance articles. The way the poll was structured, it makes it hard to tell: did all of these people seriously not have $1000 to their name, or did they just not keep it specifically in a savings account? Either way, it's a question that is definitely worth exploring.
$1000 sounds like a fortune when you're broke and in debt. In an era when prices are what they are, it's actually attainable in a fairly short time period. A time will come when you will keep an extra $1000 in the bottom of your checking account and almost never give it a second thought.
$1000 is important because there is always going to be an "emergency" need for quick cash, and almost all people are going to go $1000 into debt by putting those expenses on their credit cards instead. That means you're paying interest on top of that grand, and over time, it will cost you significantly more.
Money isn't the money you think it is. Meaning, it hits you in several ways.
Your real hourly income. Take what you earn after taxes and other deductions. Then remove anything you spend purely because of that job, such as gas for your commute, bridge tolls, or clothing you wouldn't wear as a retiree. Like, you know, pants. Then divide by the true number of hours dedicated to your job, including your commute and breaks. The first time I did this, my real hourly wage was like $3.75. When you spend a dollar, you're spending a certain amount of life energy, as detailed in the book Your Money or Your Life.
Sales tax. Whatever you bought costs slightly more than you thought, especially if you pay for a disposable shopping bag.
Interest, fines, and fees. Add in the interest on your credit card, any late charges, foreign transaction fees, etc.
The price of your time spent shopping or handling transactions like booking tickets.
Price per square foot of the place you are storing stuff, whether your home or a storage unit.
Cost of fuel or shipping to transport items. Include parking fees and your trash bill for all that packaging.
To summarize, we carry a lot of maintenance expenses for both earning and spending money, and we don't generally connect them to the personal infrastructure of our working or shopping behaviors.
Okay, back to the $1000, a figure I will be repeating over and over again until it becomes a subliminal fixation in your mind.
$1000 can be carved out of daily expenses over a short timeframe, almost instantaneously for some people. Some methods are simple, others are radical and dramatic. $1000 can also be gained by selling items, or earned through a combination of side hustles or a job upgrade. Diving the amount into smaller chunks could mean we're trying to cut $300 from our expenses, sell $300 worth of stuff we don't need as much as we need emergency savings, $300 in income from side gigs, and that leaves just $100 we could try to get from a raise, bonus, promotion, or new and improved day job.
If you are serious about getting your finances in order and you have a storage unit or cable TV, your problem is solved. Get rid of them. That $1000 emergency savings buffer will magically appear within a few months. Ah, but I know nobody engages in that kind of tomfoolery but me. Why other people choose to spend their vacation money on television and a room of stuff they never use is beyond me, but hey. To each his own.
As an alternative, it's also pretty straightforward to cut $300 in utility bills, food, liquor, dining out, beauty treatments, and entertainment for most people. It turns out that people in every quintile of income distribution spend the same percentage of their income on entertainment! (If you're already so broke that you never spend extra money on those things, focus on getting training for a better job. You have internet access or you wouldn't be reading this, so your situation isn't hopeless). You might not be able to cut $300 in one month, but surely you can do it in six.
How do you come up with $300 from selling your stuff? It depends on what you have. Sometimes it can be done in one shot, by selling a game system or a redundant piece of electronics or a large piece of furniture. Many people who are renting a storage unit can get it by selling off everything in the unit, which is a double whammy because it also eliminates that expense. Used books and (possibly) textbooks. Collectibles. Musical instruments that aren't getting played. Fashionable clothes and accessories can go to a consignment shop. Items with the tags still on can sometimes still be returned. Coin jars can be cashed in, and so can gift cards. A lot of our consumer debt tends to come from buying stuff we couldn't really afford, which then fills up our homes. We can reverse this tide by selling some of it off and using the proceeds to build financial security.
How do you earn $300 in side hustles? Get thirty people to pay you ten bucks. Or get ten people to pay you thirty bucks. Or, get one person to pay you $300 or more. It depends on what you know how to do and how useful you are. I used to charge $10 to clean a bathroom when I was a college student, and if I needed ten bucks that bad, I always found a taker. If you have virtually no skills, you can still convince people to pay you small amounts of money for menial tasks like clearing junk or dog poop out of their yard or pet-sitting over the weekend. Once you make yourself available for odd jobs, word will get out, and people will sometimes approach you with offers you wouldn't have thought of. You don't have to do it forever; the goal is just to build up that $1000 savings cushion.
How do you round out that $1000 by earning an extra $100 at your day job? Even a ten-cent raise will achieve this over time. Honestly, though, if you're broke, it's time to think about a real career. What could you put up with doing for several years that would pay considerably better than what you earn now? After I graduated from college, I earned double the money doing what I considered the same type of work. The degree paid for itself in the first year. The more I've been paid, the easier the work has been and the less hard I have felt I had to work. We tend to talk ourselves out of the best ideas, having long lists of reasons why certain things won't work for us. All we need is one thing that WILL work and one reason TO do it.
A sneaky way to get that $1000 in savings together is to avoid ways of generating emergency expenses. For instance, don't get a speeding ticket or a DUI. Don't procrastinate on dental care. Don't put off repairs, especially car repairs or plumbing problems. A lot of crisis situations are the aftereffects of minor annoyances that were left to fester. This tends to happen when we're broke and feeling like we "can't afford" maintenance expenses. We never have time to do it right the first time, and we never have the money either.
Those of us known as "savers" may or may not have $1000 in a "savings account." We may keep it in checking. We may have it in a fireproof safe in the office. We may keep it in a money market account. We may be generating so much passive income from rentals, dividends, royalties, etc that we wouldn't bat an eye over a sudden $1000 expense. We may have many times that amount in our portfolios or retirement accounts. Sadly, though, the majority of us probably don't even realize that most of those savings vehicles exist. Broke we may be, but when we keep telling ourselves the story of broke-ness, it's hard to break free and stop being broke. An extra $1000 is a great place to start.
This story might sound familiar. A broken-hearted Australian man puts his entire life up for sale on eBay. Do you remember? I saw it in the news when it was going on. What an amazing idea! I knew as soon as I saw it that I had to read A Life Sold: What Ever Happened to That Guy Who Sold His Whole Life... on eBay?. Spoiler alert: Ian Usher went out and did what most of us don't even dare to dream, which was to make a "bucket list" and then go out and try to accomplish all his goals.
One of the most interesting things about this book is that Usher shares the whole picture, not just the cute-selfie parts. He can't stop thinking about his ex. He's sad and lonely sometimes, even as he makes tons of new friends. Some of his goals don't work out. He gets lost, swindled, injured, stuck in bad weather, and disappointed in various ways. Somehow, it all serves to make his achievements more remarkable. Almost everything that can go wrong does go wrong, and yet, he still pulls off some truly amazing goals. At the outset, he's in his mid-forties, and it is instructive to compare his plans with other people we might know in that age group.
It's also very interesting that Usher made the money to fund his travels and outrageous goals by working a dangerous, physically demanding job with specialized training, selling his house, and spending years saving money at an unusually high rate. Three out of three of those actions are actions that average people are not willing to take.
What I can't stop thinking about is the highly personal nature of the 100 goals. I read through the list, and I had done ten of them myself, including riding on a dog sled. Pretty good goals! But most of the others I would not be brave enough to do. It's a very Australian list, full of derring-do and physical challenges. This makes the book rather special. It's impossible not to start wondering what 100 items you would put on your own list, while clearly seeing that someone else's list is too idiosyncratic and personal to just... copy. It also raises questions of why certain goals that might seem obvious to someone else weren't on Usher's list. Why go to six continents when you could also go to Antarctica, for instance? Why isn't that goal on the list? Well, because it just wasn't, that's why. We're all fully entitled to have our own crazy quests and wild dreams.
A lesson from the book is that goals aren't fun when they feel like checking something off a list. They must be personally meaningful, or what's the point? The magic comes with the feeling that "I can't believe I'm finally getting a chance to do this!" The world could certainly use more of this. What would happen if more people realized that the only things holding them back from living their wildest dreams were their personal possessions and uninspiring jobs?
Decisions are decisions because the answer isn't obvious. For instance, I'm wearing my shoes and pants because my husband's shoes and pants don't fit me. I'm going to eat my lunch instead of your lunch. I'm going to walk on the floor and not the ceiling, although I wouldn't rule that one out. Non-decisions. Most things are not decisions, and they shouldn't be. Decisions are to be avoided whenever possible. The best way to do this is by using strategy.
A strong case can be made that strategy is the single biggest difference between successful people and everyone else. It's the difference between a professional and a student. Most of us have to fight a strong desire to be an "A student" and be perfect, which means we're trying to follow someone else's rules and figure out what is expected of us. Strategic thinkers instead create their own rules and figure out how to get the world to meet their expectations. Like, I am still trying to figure out why I can't buy potato chips at the baseball stadium, or, for that matter, why I can't get kale chips at the movie theater.
Let's do some examples of decisions vs. strategy.
Getting dressed. Decisions are what happens when your closet is full to bursting, you feel like you never have anything to wear, there's stuff that doesn't go with any other stuff, a lot of things don't fit right now, and there are shoes that never get worn. Strategy is what happens when you plan outfits either at the store, or before you even go shopping, and only own clothes you love to wear. My house was built in 1939, a time when average people looked great, and my four-foot closet rod matches with the idea that most people in the Thirties only had nine outfits.
Eating. Decisions are what happens when you're already hungry and have no idea what to make, but nothing in your kitchen looks good and there's stuff spoiling in the fridge that cost you hard-earned money. Decisions also happen when you're staring at a menu and overwhelmed by FoMO. Strategy is what happens when you plan meals by the week, write your grocery list off that meal plan, and have a system for using up leftovers.
Dating. Decisions are what happens when you're emotionally conflicted about a relationship with someone with whom you are probably incompatible. Strategy is what happens when you decide on your deal breakers and only get involved after finding out what someone is really like. The most important feature of a new romance is to find out whether this person is emotionally available and interested in monogamy, and it's an eternal mystery why so many people skip this vital bit of research!
Shopping. Decisions are what happens when you are in a store looking at things that maybe you didn't even know existed. Strategy is what happens when you plan ahead of time to buy only what you can afford, that you need, that you can maintain, when you know where you're going to put it.
These things all tend to have a multiplier effect on mental bandwidth. Burn through your mental energy on a decision like what to eat or what to wear, and there won't be much left when the next decision point comes up. Make decisions while under emotional strain, like when you're in a bad relationship or hating your job, and it's that much harder to "make good choices."
"Make good choices" is kinda useless as far as advice goes. What if what I want isn't even on offer? What if all the choices presented to me are bad options? Thinking of menus again, sometimes we're just in the wrong 'restaurant' in life, with fifty things we don't want and not a one that we do. Time to get up and create a different situation.
Strategizing is really the reason to make resolutions at the New Year. Once a year is probably the longest we should ever wait to do strategic planning for our lives. What do we want out of life and how are we going to get it? It's much simpler than most people realize; in fact, average people will make strong arguments that strategic planning is impossible and give all the reasons why they aren't allowed to do it. Well, it is allowed and we can generally do whatever we want. Here are some ideas.
Relocate to the part of the world where you want to live. Moving from a cloudy, wet, cold climate to a sunny, dry, hot climate is probably the single best decision I ever made, while the reverse might be true for someone else. Other solid reasons to choose where to live include career options and proximity to loved ones.
Choose a career. Most of us just sort of stumble into a job, which we then hate and dread, and only look for something else when we get laid off. Choose something and figure out how to get the credentials to do it. Relocate if necessary - another vital strategic step that most people reject.
Figure out what energy level you want. Default option for almost everyone is burned out, chronically exhausted, moody, irritable, overweight, and sedentary. These are not coincidences. Moods can be managed, and the keys to that are sleep, hydration, food intake, and substances like caffeine and alcohol.
Plan your personal environment. How do you want your living space to feel and look? How do you want your life to function? Mornings are a big indicator: Do you start your day exhausted, frantic, and running late? If so, that shows how strategy can help. Figure out where to put your most important stuff like keys and glasses, get your outfit and meals ready the night before, and set a bedtime alarm. When you've got a handle on that, start getting rid of all your extra stuff. Don't let a bunch of old junk cause you to keep losing track of your important stuff or be late all the time.
Strategy is about where you want to be and what you want. Decisions are about what to do with what's in front of you right now. Sometimes the answer is that you don't want anything out of the available options! There may be nothing left for you at your current place of employment, in the neighborhood where you live, or in the stuff in your house. Pretend it doesn't exist. In a parallel universe, where you suddenly found yourself bare naked and starting over from zero, what would you do? What life would you build from scratch? It's always possible to create something new based on your vision for yourself.
I lost 35 pounds and kept it off. There are people out there who find this more impressive and interesting than if I told them I'd won a Pulitzer. There are also a lot of people who become spitting mad when the topic of weight loss comes up. Body image is a minefield. That's not an inappropriate metaphor because plenty of people die due to their poor body image. Of course, far more people die due to poor lifestyle choices, which they won't examine due to their fury over the cultural conversation about body image. I'm out of the game. I do what I want. I do what I want in all situations. I work for myself, and I work toward my own goals. If you don't like the way I look, deal with it. The way I look is none of your business, just as the way you look is none of my business. Now that that's settled, let's proceed.
Obesity is an American thing. I've been to nine countries on four continents so far, and the more I travel, the more it stands out. In everywhere except the US, you get half the amount of food for twice the price as what we get here. Overeating and eating "food" that isn't really food is affordable for everyone here. In fact, when you're poor, junk food is the default. It takes strong determination, networking, and a lot of knowledge to eat well on a low income. Come to think of it, that's a good topic for another day. Things I Wish I Knew Could be Done With Food Stamps.
Weight loss is different for men in our culture than it is for women. A higher percentage of American men are overweight, 70 percent of males compared to 58 percent of females. That's partly due to a masculine gender norm that BIG is good. My husband says that men don't want to wear a size Small anything, much less an Extra-Small or, heaven forfend, an XXS. He and I both went to school during a time when all the money went to boys' athletics, and girls were deliberately excluded. Athletes in many sports routinely manipulate their physiques, trading tips on how to gain or lose weight on a deadline. The goals are always to get the qualifications to play and to perform well, not appearance. When men and boys are shamed about their bodies, it's usually about being small or about their head or body hair. Many men joke casually about their midriffs. My husband's doctor patted him on the belly and said, "You could lose some weight." I would be stone-cold astonished to hear of a doctor doing that to a female patient. Nobody tells men who want to lose weight to "be careful." We think the attempt to lose weight is okay for men, but that it will drive women insane.
I've overheard two conversations in which the person was outraged that a doctor told them they were obese. One was a man and the other was a woman. The man could easily have lost 50 pounds; the woman could easily have lost 100. Both parties were surrounded by friends who expressed shock and anger. "How dare he!" "You're not fat!" This was clearly a topic of intense interest to everyone who heard it. From my perspective, this is what a train wreck looks like. I go to the doctor to get an informed, educated, professional opinion. If I have a broken bone, I need to know and I need to get it treated right away. If I have an infection, I want antibiotics. I don't get offended that the doctor insulted my bone for not looking right, or treated me contemptuously by claiming that I'm contagious. My health is not a matter of body image. If a licensed physician were to tell me that I met an internationally recognized clinical standard for anything, I would pay close attention. I would ask what to do next. I would follow up. I would research it on my own time to make sure I was taking maximum effective action. To me, ignoring medical consensus on obesity is precisely the same as being anti-vaxx. It's part of the Death of Expertise. I have no qualifications or credentials other than a history degree, so I can't reasonably see myself as an authority. I'm good at research, but that's it. I'm always looking for new medical journal articles and nutrition and fitness paradigm shifts, but I'm not going to try to debunk consensus. Especially not if it works for me.
I finally decided to try being the "healthy weight for my height" out of curiosity. I knew the number and I had forcefully rejected it in the past. I am 5'4" and the healthy weight for my height is 120 pounds, according to multiple sources. I thought that sounded sickeningly thin. My mental image of myself at that weight was garish and alarming. I thought I would look like the proverbial stick insect. I understood, though, that the statistics I was looking at were based on hundreds of millions of people. I also knew that I'm quite capable of gaining a pound a day, and that weight gain if necessary would not be a problem for me. If I hit 120 pounds and felt wrong, I would be back in my comfort zone within days. What I discovered was that I felt better than I ever had in my life, and that I looked perfectly ordinary. I am the exact same height and weight as Betty Grable, and I've never heard of anyone accusing her of anorexia or body dysmorphia. I'm not thin, I'm vintage!
I went on a diet. It worked. "Diets don't work" when you're committed to your default lifestyle. If you eat bagels, you're going to go back to eating bagels after your diet is over, and you're going to gain the weight back. Remember, I labeled this post as 'contrarian.' After losing a hundred pounds between us, my husband and I talk amongst ourselves about Fat People Food. There are entire aisles in grocery stores that we never go down. There are entire restaurant chains where we won't eat a single item, because ewww. There is almost nothing in the Standard American Diet that either of us will eat. Dairy products, for one. Cheese consumption in the US has more than tripled since 1970. Question that. It matches up pretty well with the upward national trend in body weight. As a general rule, I don't eat anything I could buy at a gas station. I don't eat fast food, I don't eat in the car unless I absolutely have to, I don't drink anything carbonated, I don't drink alcohol or coffee, I don't eat any artificial sweeteners, and I don't eat out of vending machines.
I live to eat. I love to cook. If I feel like it, I'll eat half a bag of tater tots, or two slices of pie, or a bag of candy - and that happens maybe once a year. I'll eat with my hands. I'll talk with my mouth full. I lick my fingers. My niece told me off once. "Don't lick your hands, Aunt Jessica, or you'll get germs!" I have few compunctions about what I eat, when, where, or who's watching. That's because I know what I'm doing. I behave in a way that is consistent with what I want out of life. I have learned that being the "correct" size makes my life easier. I don't feel better. I feel AMAZING. I feel sometimes like a wild gazelle that wants to run toward the horizon and never stop. My body is an amazing gift. I like how I look and I like how I feel. Most people who are about to turn 42 can't say that. Not only can I climb a rope, I can still sit on the floor and stand up again without holding onto anything.
I have battled chronic illness. That wasn't motivating for me in terms of physical change. I just believed that it was fate, that I was stuck that way, and that it might be unfortunate, but it was my lot in life. I wanted no part of anyone's advice. My doctor said nothing I could do would affect my thyroid disease and textbooks said that fibromyalgia made me exercise-intolerant. I only started having success at feeling better purely by accident. It took years of stumbling across things that worked before I truly believed that I had power over my conditions. When I have talked to other ill people about fibromyalgia, or thyroid nodules, or migraine, they are not interested, any more than people are interested in hearing that I lost weight by eating massive amounts of cruciferous vegetables. Information is not motivation.
I have no trouble maintaining my physique because I'm internally convinced that it's the best way for me to live. I've tried the alternatives. I've been poor and rich, and I like rich better. I've been obese, overweight, average, and athletic, and I like athletic the best. I didn't want to turn into an old lady and never know what it was like to feel strong. I'm too stubborn to let public opinion hold me back. I'm not "supposed" to wear a size zero or to claim that diets work. It's cruel or something. Not as cruel as Type II diabetes, heart disease, stroke, or Alzheimer's. I'm not a young girl anymore. I built my self-esteem on grit and self-respect. I'm entitled to do with my body whatever I darn well please. Until you can demonstrate that you're fitter, stronger, faster, more agile, and more energetic than I am, you can reserve your criticism quota for some other annoying thing I'm doing. I lost weight and it works for me.
I just sold my elliptical. Man, I loved that thing. I tried out at least half a dozen different models before settling on it, the one with the stride that felt most natural to me. I put more miles on it than I have on some of my shoes! It was hard to say goodbye, but I made the decision. It had to go.
BUT IT'S WORTH SOMETHING!
Stuff is worth its use to us. If it's not being used, it has no value. In many cases, it has LESS than no value. Most stuff costs us money, time, and convenience to keep. It gets in the way, gathers dust, and ties us down in ways we don't even realize. I've moved so many times that I see physical possessions as a liability. The elliptical I loved so much is something I really shouldn't have bought at all. I knew that going in, so I already had an exit strategy before I went shopping.
Exit strategy - how you're going to get out of a situation, whether it's a job, neighborhood, relationship, or anything that won't last forever, whether that's good, bad, or neutral.
Why did I buy a 300-pound piece of exercise equipment?
I knew with absolute certitude that I would use it. I have a long track record of self-discipline with working out. In fact, sometimes self-discipline means I don't allow myself to work out, because I'm tapering or nursing an injury.
Compared to a monthly gym membership, the cost would eventually be fully amortized.
I bought it used, and it cost significantly less than a new model.
I had the space for it, in our oddly shaped, disproportionately large living room. It would also fit easily through the sliding glass back door. (But then we moved, and it would only fit in the garage).
I lost 25 pounds on that elliptical. I did part of my marathon training on it. There were a lot of late nights when I used it out in the garage, rather than make my husband nervous by running around the neighborhood.
Okay. These are reasons the item was valuable to me. It sounds like a list of compelling arguments to keep the thing. The way I look at it, this is actually a list of reasons why I derived full value from its use. I used it up, in the same way I would use up an apple or a pair of socks. The only difference is that it still retains value that can be used by someone else.
How much was losing 25 pounds worth to me? That would have been full value.
How much was running a marathon worth to me? That would have been full value.
How much was it worth to me not to pay a gym membership for three years? More than the cost.
According to my calculations, I've gotten more than triple the sticker price out of this machine.
More importantly, though, I consider the cost of ownership. There are several reasons why it would now cost me money to keep.
It's obsolete. The model has been discontinued. It's huge and bulky and heavy and it lacks many of the features of new models. New models do more for a lower price. Thus, if I waited another couple of years, I might never be able to find a buyer.
It might have cost me money to dispose of it. Not only might we have had to pay a dump fee, we would have had to rent a vehicle big enough to haul it off, or pay someone else to do it.
If we kept it and took it with us to our new place the next time we moved, we would either have to rent a bigger van just to make room for the elliptical, or make two trips. It was bigger than a couch.
Moving it had elements of risk. Either we moved it ourselves and risked an injury, or we would have had to pay someone else to risk the injuries. That would be sad and awful and also a legal liability.
Our new place wouldn't have enough room to keep it. It would be really, really dumb to rent a bigger place specifically to accommodate a depreciating asset. How many thousands of dollars would that be?
The default answer when most people consider getting rid of something involves cognitive bias. We value our own stuff much more highly than we would value the same item if it belonged to someone else. We also tend to drive away opportunities because we refuse to let go unless our mental price is met, even if that price has no basis in reality. This is how we get stuck. We stay rooted in one spot, missing out on who knows how many opportunities, until we finally decide we're ready to let go, and then find that we missed the peak sales window. Our treasures have turned into old junk.
Eventually you can't even give it away.
I used to have an elliptical. I had some great times on it, and it's a good memory. But my life changed, and it was time to let it go. It would have cost me so much to keep it that I would have paid someone to take it away. I got so much value out of it that I could have given it away for free. It would have been expensive to keep, but I managed to sell it! The purchaser rented a van to haul it away, and for that plus the bidding price, he could have bought a new model. I believe I sold my used old elliptical for as much as the market would bear.
Two of the most expensive mistakes you can make are made by the majority of people every single day. One is to pay a higher mortgage or rent because you have so much stuff that you need extra rooms. Calculate the price per square foot of your place and then ask yourself why you're in debt and can't afford to go on vacation. The second, and far more expensive mistake, is to stay nailed down in one area when you could have a more interesting and better paid job by relocating. There is also the factor of a long commute time. Many people choose to live farther from their place of employment so they can have a bigger house or yard, which they can then never enjoy because they are always on the freeway. We live in a tiny house because it means my husband can walk to work. This is so awesome that we'd live in a studio apartment if we had to.
Stuff versus lifestyle. That's really what it comes down to. There is no piece of equipment so excellent that it would be worth needing a bigger house, having a longer commute, losing our geographic mobility, or eating into our travel fund. I wouldn't drag around something that big any more than I would strap a boat anchor to my back. Nothing is worth as much as our freedom and peace of mind.
I bought $20 worth of Thin Mints from some Girl Scouts. It's true. I did it, even though I was a Camp Fire Girl. Then I ate an entire box of the chocolatey minty wafer cookies in a week. I'm not ashamed! It's more than just a cookie; it's a charitable and educational event. Right?? That's why, ounce for ounce, they cost a lot more than store-bought cookies, and a mega-lot more than homemade cookies. I have to remind myself that I'm not literally eating money, I'm only metaphorically eating money.
The first time I successfully lost a bunch of weight, it was because I was flat freaking broke. I mean, so broke I had to go to the Laundromat and ask people if they could spare some lint so at least I would have something in my pocket. My major goal at that time of my life was to convert money into food as quickly as I could. The connection between the two goes a lot farther for me than the realization that so many foods are coin-shaped. (Pizzas, donuts, potato chips, burgers, most cookies, banana slices, OMG MIND BLOWN)
When I was in college, my stated goal was to get a job that paid well enough that I could eat every meal in a restaurant. I basically did that when we were on our honeymoon, and that is why this is no longer a goal for me. I can gain a full clothing size in under two weeks. I've done it at least twice. If there was a TV show about me, it would be called 'Biggest Gainer.' I can basically look at a picture menu and gain three pounds. I sometimes wish I were ten inches taller, so I could eat more, although if that actually worked I'd be a redwood tree by now. The result of my love affair with cookies and restaurant food has been a cost of thousands of dollars in fitness equipment, gym memberships, race fees, gym clothes, running shoes, and a stint with a personal trainer, not to mention the various health issues.
When we're trying to get out of debt and move toward financial stability, much less financial freedom, we can't ignore the issue of what we spend on food. There is an extremely interesting relationship between food and finance that is very reflective of our attitudes toward scarcity and abundance.
I am in a place of financial comfort now where I can afford basically any food I want, anywhere, at any time. I could pick up my phone and have a wide range of steamy goodness at my front door within twenty minutes. What has been instructive to me is that I no longer eat the vast majority of 'comfort foods' I used to love. I lost interest. I used to stand at the vending machine in my office longer than most people stand in front of the Mona Lisa when they visit the Louvre. The beautiful mystery that is food packaging! I calculated recently that I spent at least $300 a year on vending machine snacks at a time when I really could have used that money for other things, like a new winter coat. I also could have had triple the calories for the same price by buying healthier foods at the grocery store, or I could have acknowledged my habits and gotten the same snacks in bulk at Costco. At the time, I was framing this habit as a not-habit, as a one-time splurge multiplied many times, as a "treat."
A "treat" is a band-aid on a disappointing life.
My real issues were an unfulfilling job, an unsuitable relationship, a conflicted relationship with my body image and physical health, an objectionable commute, and a climate that almost never suited me. No bag of vending machine snacks or pro-social cookies was going to help with that.
Health food is expensive. Well, yes and no. I will never stop pointing out that a bunch of organic kale costs the same as a modestly-sized bag of chips from the convenience store. A five-pound bag of potatoes costs the same as a Big Mac. At least some of the cost of healthier groceries can easily be offset by changing our purchasing habits. Vending machines and convenience stores are expensive! I've been to the discount grocery store, the one where they have half-off frozen foods, and discovered that it's still significantly cheaper to buy bulk goods and cook from scratch. That process can feel like such a depressing, exhausted, onerous chore from a position of scarcity, though! Cooking in a tiny, scuzzy, outdated kitchen with dubious pot handles, dull knives, and poor lighting. Bleah. There's a reason why upscale homes always have ginormous foofoo kitchens.
When I was poor, I hated to cook. I was tired, I worked on my feet a lot, I commuted on the bus, and when I got home I was wiped out. I didn't understand the connection between my dietary habits, my energy level, and my quality of sleep. Now that I have nice pans, a vast spice cabinet, and a dishwasher, I love cooking. We can our own produce, soup stock, jam, and pickles. It's really weird that I have probably triple the energy as a middle-aged person than I did in my twenties. This is definitely linked to the optimism that comes with prosperity. I suspect this works both ways, although I can't go back in time to prove it.
It helps to reframe the way we think about treats. Is it really a treat if I feel physically icky the next day, like when I overdo it at a buffet restaurant? Is it really a treat if I've been trying to get off medication? Is it really a treat if I feel like my weight is out of control and I hate the way I look and feel? THIS IS NOT ME is not a treat kind of a feeling. Does what I've been doing lately fit with my vision of Future Me in a thriving career and a super-awesome personal environment? Are my habits leading toward greater abundance and fun, or am I trading my future for momentary pleasure? Would I feed my pets the way I feed myself?
That one tends to stop me in my tracks. I would never let my beautiful fluff-babies eat the amount of sugar that I do. If someone tried to feed my parrot a cookie, I would slap it right out of their hand. Meanwhile [crams stack of cookies in mouth].
What would a happy person do? There is this idea that impulsive decisions and living for the now are the happier choice, but only young people really believe this. Once we pass the age of thirty, we start to feel it more. Yeah, I used to love to party and stay up late, but then I got tired. Domestic contentment is an abiding form of happiness, one that is reliable. When you can be happy on an average day at home, in full acceptance of your current situation, then you've won the game. Part of this domestic happiness includes financial stability and part of it includes the elusive sensation of "loving the skin you're in." It's much easier to appreciate these feelings when you've attained them after years of not feeling either. Believe that these feelings of peace and satisfaction truly exist and that they are possible.
Possibility thinking works for any age or situation in life, and Lynne Martin proves it. She and her husband decided, at age 70, to become senior nomads. Home Sweet Anywhere is the story of how they got rid of all their stuff, sold their house, and used the money to travel the world. Anyone who is thinking of serious travel will get a lot out of this book.
A 2,000-square-foot house full of a lifetime's accumulation of antiques, family heirlooms, books, and photo albums. Just at the point when most people decide they are old and nestle into their recliners, the Martins realized they wanted to travel more and got rid of it all. Their house sold within a day of putting it on the market, and inspiration turned into action at a much faster pace than they had anticipated. BOOM! Nomads!
The rest of the book describes their travels to various countries in replicable detail. How did they decide where to go? How did they get there? Where did they sleep? How did they figure out what to pack? Where did they buy groceries? Was it dangerous? Any avid traveler will take notes on the meticulous details about air conditioning, locks, light switches, and all that stuff they never tell you in the brochures. Come "home" for a month or so every year and batch all your medical appointments, swap things out of storage, and visit family all at once. I learned a lot from Home Sweet Anywhere, and it's changed the way I think about our travel strategies.
One decision follows another, and it can lead to some interesting circumstances. Immediately after the Martins decided to sell their house and travel the world, they found a buyer, and they were off. They hadn't been on the road all that long before an opportunity came to pitch an article about this alternative retirement plan. That turned into a book proposal, which obviously turned into a book. If you commit to living the bigger life, anything can happen.
Martin has a saying to "postpone nothing." This is sage advice, and it's emphasized in shocking manner right at the end. No spoilers! If I were ever to get a tattoo, the one thing I will postpone, this saying is a good candidate.
I am so intrigued with this book that I had to find out more. Where are they now? According to their blog, the Martins traveled for about five years, then came back to California to build a house that they will rent out when they're on the road. Right now they are RVing. I'm a generation younger, and their life is a lot more interesting than mine! I am looking forward to the sequel.
Quit. Drop the idea. Let it go. Forget about it. Let yourself off the hook. Stop yourself. In many cases, deciding not to do something will get you a lot farther than the things you decide TO do. Decision means "to cut away," and cutting away anything that is not relevant to your current or future life will free up your time, energy, and focus. Quit today. Just don't do it.
Look at your to-do list and remove everything you can possibly get away with.
Break up with anyone you need to break up with.
Throw away or give away everything you don't need or want.
Give yourself permission to end one phase of life and begin another.
I quit folding athletic socks. Life is too short. They fit in the drawer and they don't need to be wrinkle-free. Nobody at the gym cares what our socks look like. No clothes need to be folded unless it is necessary to look pressed at work. Folding helps things fit better in their drawers, but it's less work to get rid of half of your clothes than it is to fold laundry that doesn't need folding. Buy more laundry baskets.
I broke up with my trainer. I had used up all of the sessions in my introductory package, and the rates go up significantly after that. (Note to marketers: This is exactly backward). He spent half of our last session pressuring me into scheduling another package. That made it a lot easier to say goodbye. When I switched from seeing him as "professional trainer" to "loser boyfriend who won't let go," the decision made itself. It's not you, it's me. I'm sure you'll find someone. Byeee. This may not work for everyone, but for me, when I ask myself how I would handle a situation if I were dating it, suddenly the choice becomes much clearer. I'm not married to any given stylist, store, restaurant, dentist, rental house, neighborhood, climate, book, craft project, couch, or anything else. I only have two ring fingers and only one wedding ring.
I threw away my baby photos. Well, technically I scanned them first. I looked through them and thought, Why do I even have these? I kept the scans because I have the storage space and because it's conceivable that I might want to look at them in my eighties. But I couldn't think of a single reason I would ever want physical copies of my baby pictures. I also got rid of my high school yearbooks and all evidence of my first marriage. I'm not completely heartless; I still have all the shoes I wore in all my foot races. But I have gotten rid of partially completed cross-stitch projects, sweaters, pottery, poems, drawings, wood shop projects, and who knows what else. It's helpful only to be sentimentally attached to living beings.
What about phases of life? Our culture could use more rites of passage. Once we get a driver's license and a job, the only two milestones left are parenthood and retirement. Awful lot of big gaps in there. When I turned 40, I decided I was going to quit caring what other people think and just do what I want all the time. It's awesome. I wish I'd realized I could do this sooner, like when I was 15. (Fortunately, almost everything I want to do is a good idea, like being a good citizen and making a good living). I'm officially a crone now! Who says? I say. Thinking of our lives in terms of phases, stages, and decades can be really helpful, as we start paying more attention to things like retirement planning and dental care. I want to reach my last day with all my own teeth and enough money to pay for my own funeral. If that sounds morbid, better start planning more awesomeness into the life you have now while you're relatively young!
Just don't do it. Don't waste your life. Don't finish boring books. Don't finish projects just because Past You thought you would want to do them. Don't save recipe clippings unless there's one in the stack that you know you're going to make tonight. Don't hang onto things you think you might need. Don't make plans based around your worries. The only things you really need are somewhere to sleep, somewhere to sit, a way to make dinner, a go bag, and something to wear to work. The only things really worth hanging onto aren't things at all; they're relationships and your personal values.
When I was doing my annual December stuff purge, I found a couple of photos of a former friend. The friendship ended badly. I looked at the pictures, had a flash of regret, and then remembered how much of that friendship was based on illusions and false expectations. I shrugged and burned the photos. Be free, old friend. Maybe one day our paths will cross again, or maybe not. You were here for a brief while, and so was I, and then our roads diverged. We don't owe each other anything. The same is true for our old illusions about what career or education we once thought we wanted, houses or vehicles or stuff we bought that we thought we wanted, hobbies or books or fantasies we thought we would be into. We're allowed to get older and lose interest or change our minds. We're allowed to change our plans and goals whenever we want, especially after we find out more than we knew the day we formed the goal. We celebrate weddings by tying a bunch of old cans or shoes to the bumper of the get-away car, and we can do the same with any new phase of life. Take all the old junk we can find and use it for party decorations. Have a bonfire to mark a new milestone in your life.
Don't do it. Don't do anything half-heartedly. Don't keep things unless they rate five out of five stars in your life. Spend your time with the people you love the most, doing the things that make you feel alive, surrounded by the few personal objects that serve those ends. Let the rest go.
As I write this, over 180,000 people have been evacuated from the path of the crumbling Orville Dam. We lived near there just a few years ago. Whenever something like this happens, I pause and reevaluate how well prepared my household is in case of disaster. It's a civic duty. At minimum, we should avoid adding to the workload of first responders. Stay out of their way and don't create extra problems. Ideally, we should be self-sufficient and able to take care of ourselves. Under the right circumstances it would be good to be able to pitch in and help others. There are a lot of homebound people out there who could use an extra hand. Nobody left behind. A thirty-foot wall of water is a clear villain against which we can all unite.
This is the purpose of being organized. It means you have your head on straight and you can survive an emergency. It truly doesn't matter how color-coordinated your spices are and whether you've alphabetized your socks yet. When crisis strikes you need to be able to get out the door.
My people are fantastic about worrying. They have a comprehensive anxiety plan, a worry and concern and stress for every situation. What they're not so fantastic about is forming realistic strategies. I have read run-on paragraphs about all the material objects a person genuinely believes she can rescue in the event of disaster. Like, you really think you can save forty photo albums when your house is on fire? Emergency responders die due to harebrained ideas like this. Take this moment to pause, breathe in, and accept that only living beings can and should be evacuated.
Not a bunch of bric-a-brac.
Stuff is just stuff. No object should ever be rated above a human being, and probably not above an animal either. Get yourself out, get your children out, get your pets out, and check on your neighbors. Then you're done.
I talked to a woman once who had to negotiate to bypass a police barricade to get to her house during a wildfire. She could see the flames from her driveway. She was trying to talk to her husband on her cellphone while loading her frantic, terrified dogs into the Jeep. Trying to decide which papers to go after. It took only about a minute to realize that she had barely enough time to flee for their lives. Papers can be replaced, people can't. She was in and out in five minutes, no papers, but at least she had the dogs. That is the appropriate response. Ellen Ripley took the cat when she was fleeing the Alien, but she didn't try to bring a photo album or her childhood teddy bear. Be like Ripley.
All that being said, a dam is a metaphor. A dam is a physical structure, a bulwark against certain types of disaster. It controls floods. You can use physical objects to protect against certain types of disaster, also. What I have in mind is a Go Bag. This is something you can set up in twenty minutes and inspect for five minutes every month. When the time comes, you can grab your Go Bag and... GO.
You need to have an emergency plan for everyone in your household. Where do you meet? Where do you meet if that place is flooded or on fire? What's your fallback plan if cell phones aren't getting through and you can't communicate? If you've ever been separated in a casino or at the mall, you have a tiny taste of what this could be like. TALK IT OUT. Do not procrastinate on an emergency plan. You can procrastinate on alphabetizing your socks or going to the gym, but don't [censored] around with your disaster planning.
My Go Bag includes a Sharpie marker, some index cards, and masking tape. This is so I can leave messages at and near the house if need be. One of the things I check when I get my monthly 'emergency kit inspection' reminder is that this Sharpie has fresh ink.
I have a sheaf of backup documents in case my ID gets lost. Page of emergency contact phone numbers, because I haven't memorized one since the early Nineties. Color copies of my passport, driver's license, health insurance, AAA card, advance health care directive, and the 800-number to call in case it's time to donate my body to science. Copy of our marriage license. It took me 15 minutes to figure out what I needed, and about 60 cents to make photocopies of it at the public library.
What else is in there? Old, faded casual clothes that I don't care if I lose. (Two t-shirts, a pair of shorts, a pair of jeans, a zippered sweatshirt, old sneakers, socks, bras, and underwear). My travel shower kit. Sun block. Hand sanitizer. First aid kit on top. A little cash in small bills. Spare ATM card. Solar charger and adapter for my phone. Three water bottles, one with a built-in filter, two that I keep filled and freshen up every couple of weeks. It would be super annoying and disappointing if someone took this bag, but there's nothing in there I couldn't live without. Or... Hmm.
My husband's Go Bag is his work backpack. Change of shoes, some cash in small bills, a snack. Photocopies of the same relevant documents that I have. His actual wallet, phone, and glasses.
There's a third bag that we call the Pet Bag. It has some styptic gel with a topical anesthetic in case one of them gets hurt. (Works on people too). It has their nail trimmers. It has at least four days' worth of kibble for each of them. They can both eat what we eat, but it seems expedient to have food for them that humans wouldn't really want. Extra water bottle. The Pet Bag has small food and water bowls, and poo bags. This bag goes with us on road trips and we are in and out of it all the time. They wear their ID; he has a rabies tag on his collar and she has a closed ring leg band.
This is the scenario: I'm on foot, with my Go Bag on my back, the Pet Bag slung over one shoulder, a leash in one hand and a parrot carrier in the other. The bags weigh in at 19 pounds, nearly half my full expedition pack weight. I'm walking about one mile an hour. WHERE would I put a photo album or any other sentimental objects? Balanced on my head? Floating in the air in my thought bubble?
(Answer: I've already scanned them and saved them in cloud storage).
The main goal of the Go Bag is to get us to an emergency shelter. Hopefully we will never be in that situation; hopefully, if we do have to evacuate, we can use passable roads and go to our Plan A backup destination, which is not in our geographical region. Evacuations happen, though. My husband had to leave town after the Northridge Earthquake. We've known other people who had to evacuate due to wildfire, flood, and landslide. In my family tree are people who had to live in Golden Gate Park after the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco. It happens. We want to be around afterward and live to tell the tale.
I feel it would be unfair not to mention this topic, so: Cardio. If someone screams RUN FOR YOUR LIVES! I pray that you can. A mudslide does not care about body shaming. A thirty-foot wall of floodwater does not care about body shaming. A wildfire coming up your street does not care about body shaming. Reality is judging you. Disaster is not a respecter of persons. Know how fast you can run and how much you can carry. If you can't do it for yourself, do it for your kids, and if you don't have kids, do it for your pets. If you can't do it for any of those reasons, do it for the exhausted emergency responders.
Don't say nobody told you. You've been told.
We do our best to cope when the world gets weird. We try to keep disaster at bay, just as we try to dam the floodwaters. It's unfair and inconvenient, but it happens. Stuff goes wrong. Usually it does it in the middle of the night, when we're barefoot and disoriented. Preparing for the worst is morbid and depressing, but not nearly as much as the alternatives. Let it serve as a memento mori, the purpose of which is to remind us to make the most of today. Say "I love you" while we can. Appreciate what we have while we still have it. If we're fortunate, we'll never need our emergency preparations, and we can wink at ourselves and laugh a little at how silly we've been.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.