Most couples bicker about money. My hubby and I were bickering about someone else’s money.
I was reading him a story about a woman who got engaged, only to discover that her fiancé has two million dollars in a trust fund, property, and various other stuff. This would make an absolutely fantastic romance novel, am I right? Or maybe a movie on Lifetime, except that the pivot in the third act would involve the guy turning out to be a sociopath or something.
This wasn’t a movie or a novel, though; it was real life.
She falls in love with a man she thinks is broke. They date for a couple of years. Then she gradually finds out the truth, that he is financially independent and only has to work doing stuff that he thinks is interesting. He works at a brewery, earning $30,000 a year to brew beer.
My hubby and I commented back and forth on the story. We’re focusing on attaining our own financial independence right now, and we’ve been reading a lot about other couples who have done it. How do they spend their time? What if one goes FI and the other has to keep working for several more years? How do they split their expenses? Do they travel? Where do they spend money that we would not, and what cost-cutting measures do they take that we wouldn’t? Details like that help to make the fantasy feel more possible, which of course it is, unless you try to live the Standard American Lifestyle of hyperconsumption and debt.
I expressed my annoyance at the story, which involved the woman earning the majority of their household income while the millionaire husband works at the brewery. Their only savings is the proceeds from his trust fund. My husband’s position was that this is fine, because they both pay their share. My position was total annoyance, for two reasons, and this is why we started bickering.
We both got more and more insistent on our positions, before suddenly realizing that what should have been idle chatter was turning into a debate with a bit of an edge.
“I wouldn’t marry that guy, even though he is a millionaire.”
“Because that’s a boring job!”
“You wouldn’t marry him unless he had an interesting job?”
“No, of course not!”
It wasn’t until I rehashed my thoughts the next day that I realized I really meant it. Not only would I not want to be married to a guy with a boring job; I also hate beer. It’s not just that I wouldn’t want to listen to endless “inside baseball” details about brewing, most of which I have probably already heard. I’d have to smell it. I grew up around Portland, a brewery town, and I find the smell of hops absolutely revolting.
We came back to the topic a day later, after we’d both thought about it some more. Wasn’t it snobby of me to look down on a guy because of his job? I didn’t think so, and I explained, after of course reminding my husband that part of why I love him is that he is so brilliant at what he does.
It’s not that his job makes him who he is. On the contrary. He has the job he does because of the types of interests that he has. I’m sure he was an interesting person before he got his first aerospace engineering job, before he built his first robot, before he went on his first international business trip. What’s so fascinating about the man I married is that he chose this career while wearing a hard hat, sitting on a stump, and taking a lunch break from his job as a logger.
It’s not about the money. If it were, I’d probably have a romantic obsession about marrying a millionaire slacker. A fiancé with two million dollars?? *gasp* *clutch the pearls* Mah MAY-UN!
I’d rather date a poor dude with a passionate interest in life than a rich guy who bored me. I’d rather go hang out at the duck pond with a broke guy than sit across a five-star restaurant table with someone who had nothing to talk about. I know, because I’ve done both.
Before my current husband, I mostly dated broke students and guys who were learning to write software at night, rejecting more “established” guys who just chugged along at their day jobs. For me, what’s compelling is when a man is in love with his vocation, when there’s something that he finds absolutely captivating. I’ve always chosen my loves based on their passions, not their incomes. I’d do it over again, too.
If I weren’t already married to the most fascinating guy I know:
I’d date a gopher on a movie set who had eight roommates, if that was his way of learning how to make a film.
I’d date a Lyft driver, if he was building a startup.
I’d date a barista, if he was designing an app.
I’d date a bookstore clerk, if he did open-mic poetry.
The guys I wouldn’t date? First off, anyone who was rude to waiters, refused to tip, wouldn’t clean up after himself, didn’t know how to cook, didn’t vote, or didn’t read books in general. I wouldn’t date a stoner, a gamer, or a social drinker. I have plenty of idiosyncratic expectations, but earned income and wealth aren’t really part of them.
The thing about financial security is that it allows you to make more of your own decisions according to your own values. I’ll never feel trapped in a relationship because I can afford to leave, if I need to, and also because I study martial arts. I’m where I am because I want to be, not because I’m afraid to do anything else. I would never feel that I should date one guy instead of another, just because of the lifestyle he could pay for. I would never date a millionaire slacker, because the very idea bores me.
What an exciting and inspiring book! Yuval Abramovitz turned a website into a Kickstarter project. In that sense, it’s a proof of concept known as The List: Shout Your Dreams Out Loud to Make Them Come True. It works.
Anyone who is an accomplished achiever of goals will tell you that it’s straightforward and simple. Figure out what you want, make it specific, give it a deadline, and tell people about it so that they can help you bring it into reality. Ah, but if goal-setting is so simple, why do so many people try it and fail? This is one of the strengths of The List. Abramovitz has taught this material as a workshop to thousands of people, as well as sharing it with anonymous commenters on the web, and as a result he’s heard every possible objection, criticism, and complaint. For those who tend to be their own naysayers, these chapters should be really helpful.
The author credits his recovery from paralysis as a teenager to the inspiration he derived from creating lists of goals for himself. I find it very hard to believe that anyone who knows he spent two years stuck in a wheelchair would still troll Abramovitz about the power of goals, but heck, who knows what motivates trolls anyway.
Does the manifesting part of shouting your dreams out loud really help them to come true? I say YES, and the reason is my little parrot, Noelle. I took a course once in which one of the exercises was to go to the front of the room and share your “outrageous dream” with the class. I went last because I had no idea what I was going to share. I was deep in grief over the death of a pet I’d had for a decade. When I got up there, a shy person stricken with stage fright, I blurted out that my outrageous dream was “to find somebirdie to call my own.” I explained about the parrot-shaped hole in my heart. “I have an idea,” called out a woman in the back. A couple of phone calls later, somehow, this sweet little fluffball came to live with me. The course hadn’t even finished yet. Now we’ve been together for ten years and she’s the little gray love of my life.
I already published my list of goals for 2018, like I do every year on this blog, but The List got me so worked up that I made another one! I made a list, like the book suggests, of ten goals I want to accomplish in the next two years.
The book itself is a well-designed workbook full of cute illustrations. There are places to fill in your own lists; for instance, I started with the list of “Silly Things I Would Like to Do.” There are also some provocative journal prompts and ideas for general self-improvement, like when the author uses his lists to inspire him to get mad less often. The List offers suggestions for how to reconcile with family members, set boundaries, deal with naysayers, restructure goals to make them achievable, and lots more. If you have an outrageous dream, or even a minor dream, sit down with The List and start planning it today.
“SO WHAT ON EARTH IS STOPPING US FROM SHOUTING OUT OUR DREAMS FROM THE ROOFTOPS?”
“We enjoy whining! In fact, it’s one of our favorite practices.”
The last time I had the flu as a single person, I spent a lot of time lying there, contemplating my life choices. Too sick to drive to the store, all I had was whatever was in my fridge. I had nobody to bring me a glass of water or go to the pharmacy, much less anyone to fuss over me or stroke my fevered cheek. Much as I value my independence, there’s a line between freedom and foolish isolation. Thus, when my husband and I recently went through the flu together, I found some small measure of comfort.
I also felt guilty that he got it from me.
Our nine-year wedding anniversary is this year, and in the twelve years we’ve been together, I don’t think we’ve ever been ill at the same time. In all those years, my hubby has called in sick maybe three times that I know of. It’s weird that it took us this long. I was watching a video on my phone, I started laughing, and that laugh suddenly turned into a deep, hacking cough. Uh oh. Three days later, my man came in the door from work, I took one look at him, and I knew.
Every symptom he had, I had just gone through three days before. This is an easy, basic lesson in empathy. When he coughed all night, I literally knew just exactly how it felt. When he lost his appetite, yep, I knew what he meant. I’d been so shaky I had to crawl on the floor to get a drink of water, with chills and fever that brought me to tears, and I didn’t need him to tell me how bad he felt. I felt it too.
I lost three pounds in a week. He lost six.
We were lucky. During the three days I was sick and he wasn’t, he was able to go to the pharmacy and the grocery store and do the laundry. We were stocked up enough to hold us over. Then I started feeling better when he was in the worst of it. We also have reverse biorhythms, where he feels relatively better early in the morning and declines the rest of the day, and I feel worst when I first wake up, perking up late at night.
We made each other soup and tea. We opened pill bottles for each other. We traded off walking the dog and taking out the trash. Somehow, we even got clean sheets onto the bed a couple of times.
The day we both felt well enough to clean the apartment felt like a huge victory. We would each do a chore and then lie down for an hour before doing something else. By dinnertime, we had vacuumed, cleaned the bathroom, and done all the laundry. It felt like medaling in the Olympics!
At one point, he turned to me and said, “If I had to be sick with somebody, I’m glad it was you.” Aww! I said I think that might be the most romantic thing he’s ever said to me.
When I was single, I set up a huge boundary. What’s In It For Me? After my early divorce, I wanted to just do everything myself. I was determined to live alone, go on my own vacations, plan my own retirement, and eventually buy my own house. I didn’t want to be vulnerable to another person, disappointed by another person, annoyed or frustrated by another person. I had a lot of tests and hurdles for any man who was determined enough to get through those barriers.
Being married does require a certain amount of vulnerability. Your spouse is the roommate you can’t kick out, the new family member you see the most often, the business partner whose financial choices affect all your accounts. Ah, but your spouse is also your ally, your friend, and, at times, even your nurse. When this person you’ve chosen to share your life shows up at your lowest moment, carrying a box of tissues or a bottle of cough syrup, you wonder why you ever thought you could make it alone.
The truth is, I always knew I had it in me to be the giver in the relationship. Giver of flu germs, apparently... That’s why I was so protective of my liberty. I didn’t want to open myself up to a taker and start to feel resentment toward him. It never really occurred to me that I would marry another giver, someone who would always go above and beyond, someone who would want to take care of me the way I would take care of him.
It’s scary to think of ourselves on the march into old age, and how the seasonal flu could wipe us out, even after we got the flu shot. (Quite certain this was a different strain). The thought of Elderly Us coughing in bed, side by side, is sobering, but it also elicits a certain tenderness. Oh, you poor man, I would never want you to go through that alone.
Now that we’re over the worst flu of our lifetimes so far, we’re moving a little slowly. We’re both feeling a fresh wave of gratitude toward one another, relief that we made it, and appreciation of what are really the simplest pleasures in life. Being able to breathe! Standing up! Walking into the kitchen and back! Cooking and eating a real dinner! Wearing pants! It’s a beautiful springtime, and how sweet to spend it with the one person you know will always be at your side, no matter what.
I set my first PR this year, completely by accident. (That means ‘personal record,’ which I didn’t know when I first started running). I hadn’t been training. It’s worse than that. Not only had I not done anything special to train for my race, I hadn’t even been running all year! I went out literally once in 2018, a few days before my trip, to see if I could even cover an 8k distance. My big worry wasn’t speed, it was embarrassing myself by having to walk what used to be my easy day workout.
I was a non-athlete until I turned 35. Last picked for every team. One of the smallest, slowest, weakest, least coordinated kids in every group. The idea of physical exertion filled me with dread. I’m not competitive by nature, either, which is why I never earned any ribbons or trophies. Even if I’d had the unfathomable desire to pick up a sport, I wouldn’t have had any idea how to train for it or improve my performance. I think I would have felt attacked by the very concept. Can’t I just run?
I learned to love running, but I had to quit when I overtrained for my marathon and sustained an ankle injury. Two MRIs, months of ice baths and physical therapy, no real improvement, finally they just cut me off. I fell out of the habit. I still identified as “a runner” even though I no longer had a running behavior.
I paid for a race. In my experience, deadlines are very motivating, and so are cash deposits. I have never once missed a race I’ve paid to enter. I convinced my brothers to sign up with me, including my brother’s girlfriend, who is training for her sixth marathon. Pressure on.
My family knows I’ve been out of commission. It’s not like I would have been disinherited for not running, or like they would have driven off without me if I fell behind and had to walk the last mile or two. I had only my own pride hanging in the balance.
I kept meaning to train, to get out there and start running at least five or ten miles a week. It didn’t sound like a big deal. The dog would have loved it. I just... did other things instead.
What I did was to sign up for martial arts lessons. I’m still so tired after workouts that I often go home after class and sleep for two hours. All these great plans I had to “jog home from the gym” never materialized.
This is where my accidental running improvement apparently kicked in.
Distance runners who do nothing but run tend to develop predictable issues. We’re comparatively weak in the quadriceps and glutes, which would be the front of the thighs and those famously flat runner’s butts. The reason my trainer gave for my persistent ankle problems was hip instability. I also trained to muscle failure in my left hip flexor, and if you’ve never experienced muscle failure, it’s when you send an order to a body part and it refuses to obey. I couldn’t even lift my foot over the one-inch threshold into my parents’ shower. I had to pick up my thigh with my hands and lift my own leg up. For all the thousands of miles I had run, all I really had to show for it was lean legs and sweaty shorts.
Martial arts training is the exact opposite of distance running in many ways. For starters, we warm up with HIIT workouts, which is high-intensity interval training. It’s anaerobic instead of aerobic. We use body weight resistance to build strength. I wasn’t getting the endorphin rush that I get from cardio workouts; in fact, I would just feel trudgingly, bag-draggingly tired afterward. I was slowly but surely adding muscle mass. Kickboxing works the muscle groups that are neglected in the running habit. Hundreds of training kicks were building my hip flexors, my glutes, my quads. Instead of racking up the miles, I was building new super-legs.
Something weird happened. I was running for the bus one morning. There’s a park next to my apartment that has a fairly steep uphill climb, but it’s the shortest route to the closest bus stop. Suddenly it felt like I wasn’t running, I was just a human-shaped streak cruising up the sidewalk. I know I’ve never sprinted so fast in all my life. It was effortless. I didn’t even feel like I was doing anything, just magically moving along the pavement. I didn’t even lose my breath.
Then something else weird happened. My husband and I were going to the movies, and there are some steep staircases where we’ve always made a game of racing each other to the top. He has always beaten me, probably because he has over forty years of sports training in the bag. This time, I floated up two steps at a time and made it to the top before he was halfway up. Huh? How did that even happen? I felt like a video game character. It was almost too confusing to gloat.
I ran my 8k race with one single five-mile training run behind me in the previous three months. I ran with my brother. The last time I had run this particular race was six years earlier, at a time when I ran several days a week and thought about little else. Somehow, in spite of the intervening years, the ankle injury, and the total lack of training, I shaved over four minutes off my time.
This is my argument in favor of cross-training. I still love running, and I still get an incredible analgesic response from distance runs. Nothing will get you high, help you sleep, improve your mood, and help to overcome chronic pain and fatigue like a long cardio workout. Ah, but the almost instant improvement I saw in my running performance from HIIT training and kickboxing has me convinced. Run less and train more at something else. Maybe it’s dancing, maybe it’s weight training, maybe it’s martial arts like I’ve been doing. Avoid overuse injuries (and try shiatsu massage if that’s an issue). Explore something that fills in the gaps, builds muscle mass, and has an anaerobic component. Then sign up for a race and see what it does for your running time.
The thought of introducing myself to potential new clients by leaving a business card on their door was something I smacked down almost as soon as it entered my mind. As obvious as these homes are to me, it’s equally obvious that their inhabitants would be horrified that anyone could guess how they live from the street. The entire point of hoarding is emotional insulation, to create a barrier that blocks this secret world from the outside.
Doesn’t work, though. Like it or not, we’re stuck participating in this world. People can see us. Worse yet, they’d help us if we’d let them in.
That would be defeating the purpose, because isolation is the purpose as well as the cause.
What is it that I can see from the street? What makes “one of mine” stand out?
The windows are always covered, even on the brightest summer day. Curtains, blinds, sheets, blankets, cardboard, car window shades, even a sheet of plywood in one case. You can tell that it’s been this way for a long time because often objects are visible, either between the covers and the glass, or pressing the curtains into weird shapes. DON’T LOOK IN.
The front door is obscured in some way. Maybe there are a bunch of boxes stacked out there, or bags of recycling, or dead potted plants. Anything that might have said, “Welcome Friend” is noticeable in its absence. DON’T COME INSIDE.
Usually there’s a large amount of visible clutter outside. You can see it in the side yard, or poking over the back fence, or strewn in the yard or driveway. We used to have a neighbor across the street who kept dozens of rubber storage tubs stacked up in front of the garage door. When this happens outside an American-standard suburban ranch house, it says one or both of two things. 1. The inside of the house is already full and/or 2. Nobody is helping to take care of things here. DON’T OFFER.
Of course I’ve been allowed inside dozens of cluttered homes in the course of my work. I’ve worked with extreme hoarding and squalor. What you see on the hoarding shows on TV? That’s about five times more common than I think people realize. There are also a LOT of people living with a level of clutter not too far above that point. Sure, a lot of my people are overwhelmed by chronic disorganization, and they can quickly “get organized” once they’re taught what to do. I think the majority are having more trouble managing their emotions than they are their stuff.
The Anger House is the most common. This is what happens when nobody has ever worked out the power dynamics of who does what. People snap at each other every day. Who ate it? Who left it there? Who took it? Where is it? Whose turn is it? The kitchen looks like a bomb hit it because the thought of washing everyone else’s dishes touches off a radioactive cloud of resentment, grudges, quarrels, and previous fights. Doing laundry or cleaning the bathroom are battle-worthy premises, usually not worth the effort. In the Anger House, someone is often shouting first thing in the morning, before work or school have even started. Every single task is politically charged; you can’t pick up a sock without making some kind of statement.
The Sorrow House is usually a scene of mourning. Hoarding is almost always triggered by a death in the family, and sometimes a series. If there are grief boxes of the possessions of the departed, that will virtually always touch it off. The first time I saw this in action, the adult daughter had filled her entire living room, dining room, and kitchen four feet high with boxes of her deceased parents’ housewares. There was a narrow path from room to room, and she had saved herself one of three sofa cushions. (The other two? Boxes!). She would come home, weave through the box barricade, and nestle into that one available soft spot, where she had sat for several years. I can’t help but think of how deeply saddened her parents would have been, to think that this was the life she chose. Parents like to think our kids will do better than we did, that they’ll have better lives than ours, and certainly we want our kids to go on to live many happy years after we leave this world. It’s a conversation we should be having while all parties are still among the living. Our culture’s distinct lack of burial rites and formal mourning rituals leads us to these bizarre, unhelpful states of limbo. For lack of a cenotaph, we’ll pay thousands of dollars for storage units we’ll never visit, so we never have to face the sorrow of throwing away our parents’ old pot holders and dish towels.
A Sorrow House is often the result of a restructured family. Maybe divorce or separation, maybe an empty nest from whence the grown children have flown. Living alone and rattling around a big old empty house? It IS sad! I just really wish more people would shrug it off and choose to live like the Golden Girls, finding a way to be relatively cheerful with roommates rather than lonely with a television.
Maybe I should use the term ‘anxiety’ instead, but maybe it’s helpful to call things by their names and label the Fear House for what it is. Because a Fear House doesn’t feel scary to the occupant, it feels safe. In the Fear House, it just feels safer not to venture outside to take out the trash right now, or return those purchases, or run those errands. In the Fear House, there are always a million and five reasons to delay going out the door and just stay home a few more minutes. It always feels better to do the coping mechanism than to do anything else.
I teach that we should evaluate our homes by the use we get out of the space. Home should feel welcoming, a place of peace, warmth, safety, and hospitality. Kitchens for cooking, dining tables for meals, beds for sleeping, desks for creative projects. We can also go through and evaluate what emotions rise up in different areas. What parts of the home are evidence of unresolved power struggles? Unprocessed grief? Loneliness? Anxiety, stress, or boredom? What would it look and feel like if it were instead to be a happy, cheerful, joyous home?
We sold our car over a year ago. We still don’t have one. We’re an upper-middle-class, middle-aged married couple. Supposedly a car (or two or three) demonstrates our social status. Conspicuous consumption is supposed to advertise our relative wealth. Since we prefer actual wealth to the perception of it, we don’t particularly care. What do we have to prove? No matter what car you drive, you still have to look for parking just like everyone else and get stuck in traffic just like everyone else. Or, if you go car-free, you can skip both. Avoiding the conspicuous consumption trap of automobile ownership is a subversive, fun way to broadcast conspicuous leisure!
As a quick note, we had a VW Jetta TDI that was recalled due to the emissions scandal. We took the buyback offer. Due to our low mileage, we got a big check that meant we had essentially been driving it for free for two years. It was a great little car. We don’t really miss it, though; for the last year we owned it, we’d have to take it through the car wash every time we drove. I work at home and my husband walked to work, so we really only ever took it to the movies every couple of weeks. We were car-free in most ways, except for the payments and the insurance and all the other expenses.
Cars are EXTREMELY EXPENSIVE as a proposition. Between the payments, the insurance, gas, oil changes, parking, bridge tolls, and maintenance, it was running us $700 a month. Cars are also socially expensive. Take a look around at all the single-occupant vehicles and ask, is this really the most efficient way to run things? Take a look around at all the pavement, the parking lots and roads and viaducts, and ask, is this really the best use of our space?
Let’s go back to that $700. We could certainly have qualified for a loan for a more expensive vehicle, or leased one at a higher bracket still. But why? Unless you’re absolutely in love with the physical experience of driving, it’s a little silly. I in fact loathe driving and find it to be THE least pleasant adult activity. I’d literally rather scrub a toilet, do taxes, or take a load of trash to the dump. Driving sucks! Neither of us are particularly impressed with the aesthetics of automotive design, either, and if we were, we could just go to the car show every week, or put up some car posters or something.
So we bought a practical compact car. Great. Fine. It was still $700 a month.
IRA contributions for one person under age 50 are currently, as of 2018, $5500 a year. That works out to $458.33 per month. Two people, since we’re a married couple? That’s $11,000 a year, or $916.66 per month. ($12,000 if one of you is over 50 and $13,000 if you both are). By not owning a car, we were able to redirect that money to fully fund one of our IRAs and half of the other.
Oh, hey, I just remembered. A lot of couples have two cars! Crazy, right? One for each of you! Why not have a house for each of you, too?? Two refrigerators and two ovens! And YOU get a car and YOU get a car...
Add up all of the expenses for both of your vehicles over year and compare that total to the $11,000 to $13,000 that would go into your IRAs each year. If you already fully fund your IRAs as well as making car payments, awesome! Good for you! Celebrate by skimming through some vacation packages and comparing those prices instead.
I want to tell you that five grand can buy a really excellent three-week vacation for two.
Not owning a car. Isn’t that extreme? It depends on how you define ‘extreme.’ I’d say it’s extreme to carry credit card debt and pay 16% interest on it. I’d say it’s extreme to “buy” a $30,000 car that depreciates the moment you drive it out of the dealership, and then make payments on it for five years or more. I’d say it’s extreme to age one year every year and not have solid plans for how you’re going to support Future You in your old age.
It’s truly not a big deal. My husband rides the bus to work, and he has a little folding bicycle that he uses between stops, because the bike rack is often full by the time he gets on the bus. His work pays for his monthly bus pass. He’s able to use that pass every day, even if we’re going to the movie theater or something. I work at home, and I walk to my gym, so I only generate transportation expenses when I go into the city once or twice a week.
Instead of driving on Southern California freeways, we can sit back and relax. Play games, read the news, read books, take catnaps, chat with other passengers, generate all sorts of wacky stories, and even get in a few steps on the pedometer.
But how do we do our errands???
We’re within walking distance of the post office, a UPS store, a hair salon, two pharmacies, two dry cleaners, a pet food store, the public library, several boutique gyms, a couple of restaurants, and the veterinarian. For everything else, there’s online delivery, which again is cheaper than car ownership just for the sake of a couple dozen errands per year.
There’s a grocery store a quarter-mile from our apartment. When we lived in a house, the nearest grocery store was about a third of a mile. The house before that had a store directly behind our back yard. They’re everywhere! We’ve also ordered grocery delivery and found that it was pretty reliable. Without that $700 monthly carrying cost of a vehicle, there’s a lot more latitude for tipping delivery drivers.
We sometimes use a ride-share service, like when we go to the airport, or when we’ve left the movie theater and it’s forty minutes until the next bus. The occasional $15 fare for two people is nowhere near as expensive as car ownership. Like paying for deliveries, ride-sharing is a way for us to contribute to the economy. I like the idea of jobs with no dress code, where drivers can choose their own schedules and play the music of their choice.
We’ve rented a car once since we sold our car. We also rented a moving van, but we would have done that anyway because our mattress wouldn’t fit in a car. We always planned that we would rent a car about once a month for running errands, but in practice it hasn’t happened. We just haven’t needed it.
When we first returned our Jetta to the VW dealership, my hubby was a little nervous. I didn’t learn to drive until I was 29, so I didn’t really care, but this was the first time he hadn’t had his own car since he was 16. He used to talk quite a bit about buying a motorcycle, or getting a new car, and I would remind him that we could take a Lyft to the dealership that very night if he so pleased. No call for anxiety. We wanted to test out being car-free for a year, using that time to move more quickly toward our goal of financial independence. That year is now up.
Now that we’ve done it, we’re most likely never going back. I won’t say “never” because innovation is happening quickly, and who knows what game-changers might hit the market in the next decade or two? For me, a car-free life is about the same as it ever was. For my formerly freeway-commuting husband, it’s a whole new world. He now sees car ownership as an unnecessary, extravagant expense. Car-free and carefree!
I wish there were a better euphemism to use for translating the Swedish word döstädning than the phrase “death cleaning.” Okay, that may be the most metal thing of all time, but it may cast an unfairly gloomy pall over what is really a very charming and sweet book. Maybe let’s call it... life sifting. Then let’s move on and talk about how this is just the best book, one that deserves worldwide success.
The author, artist Margareta Magnusson, claims to be “somewhere between eighty and one hundred.” She put together The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning while sorting her own belongings. She did the same process after the deaths of her mother, her husband, and her mother-in-law, among others, and she points out that this work usually falls to the women in the family. She says: “I have death cleaned so many times for others, I’ll be damned if someone else has to death clean after me.” One of the reasons for doing this work ourselves, Magnusson says, is to prevent fights between family members. For instance, rather than have her five kids quarrel over an heirloom bracelet, she sold it! In my work, it is more common than not for my adult clients to have siblings, aunts, uncles, and sometimes parents or kids who have not been on speaking terms in years over some piece of jewelry or furniture. If death cleaning can prevent these stupid materialistic arguments and keep families together, that is reason enough to do it.
The other reason is that as far as I can tell, the majority of bereavements result in grief clutter that is still hanging around, years or decades later. Almost every storage unit I’ve encountered in my practice includes boxes of the ordinary domestic wares of a relative who has passed on. Often, the boxes are stacked up in the adult child’s home. There has never yet been a time when anyone has been “ready” to process and clear this type of grief clutter. I know of one home with three generations’ worth. Clearly our culture is in need of some new mourning rituals and traditions. Swedish death cleaning, why not?
My beloved mother-in-law did this process after her fifth lymphoma diagnosis. She spent the last months of her life systematically sorting through all her things. She had a lifetime’s worth of wacky costumes, hats, costume jewelry, and stuffed animals, including all sorts of prizes and joke gifts from her different clubs. She invited her friends to visit, one by one, and had them choose things that spoke to them. She sorted through every shelf and closet. When she was done, she taught her husband how to cook all of his favorite recipes. I believe this methodical clearing work helped my mother-in-law to make her peace, while also pacing those inevitable goodbye visits that might otherwise have been overwhelming. She wasn’t Swedish, but that process is reflected in this book, which even closes with some bonus recipes.
The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning is a light-hearted, breezy take on a situation that could really use it, viz. mortality. The author’s illustrations add just the right note of whimsy. Read it, share it, bring it to book club, and give out copies to everyone in your family. Then let’s all push up our sleeves and get started.
Saying that you hate smalltalk is like saying you’re terrible with names or that you don’t like standing in line. Hello and welcome to the human race! These are universal conditions. The point of smalltalk is that it’s not supposed to stay small; it’s temporary. Those who resent it are misreading how it’s supposed to work. Smalltalk is a ritual formula, just like summoning an elevator or opening a door. Whether you choose to use it to exit the conversation, express kind regard for someone, transition to more interesting topics, or actually make friends, that’s all up to you. The feeling of hating smalltalk is a clear sign of a lifetime of missed opportunities.
One of the things that people claim to hate about smalltalk is that it’s boring. What is funny about this is that most of us probably talk about totally vapid, boring things with our friends, families, and coworkers every single day. We just don’t mind because we know these people, and ordinary, routinely boring conversations are necessary to getting life done. What really bothers us is the feeling of being forced to talk to strangers, people we don’t already know, people who are unfamiliar. If we already knew them, we would of course talk about the weather or how their day was going.
The other funny thing about thinking that smalltalk is boring is that it’s a virtual guarantee the other person feels the exact same way about talking to US!
I’m a very shy person. I still have vivid memories of my first day of first grade, when I stood on the playground and watched groups of other kids laughing and chatting together. I ran into the school building early, found my classroom, and burst into tears. My teacher, Mrs. Lundgren, asked me what was wrong. “I don’t have any friends!” I wailed. “I’ll be your friend,” she said, and she was. That conversation probably doomed me to my fate as teacher’s pet, socially awkward and lonely. As an adult, though, it has given me empathy for fellow shy people.
I’ve chosen to see it as my duty to help other shy people to feel less uncomfortable at parties and social gatherings. Introverts feel better talking to only one person at a time, and it’s not hard to cut away from a larger group to have a more private conversation in a corner. This also helps me to feel like I have a mission.
One way to get out of the social duty of smalltalk, of course, is to help out. Help clean up, help with the food, help introduce people to one another. Whatever else people have to say about you, at least then they can say that you’re useful.
Rather than try to escape it, what if we just lean in to it? What if we see smalltalk as the opportunity that it is?
Some of the most fascinating people walk among us, masquerading as normal folk. The only way we’re going to find out is if we get to know them, and that starts with smalltalk.
This is something I’ve learned from Toastmasters. Beginners who join a public speaking club often don’t realize the tremendous power of their own personal stories. We’re trained to give evaluations, which is part of the process, and this tends to build one of the strongest smalltalk skills of all. This skill is to cultivate genuine curiosity.
Each person I meet has something I don’t have and knows something I do not know. The thing that they have is a unique and irreplaceable story. The thing I don’t know is how to see the world from their perspective. Almost all the time, they also know something else I don’t know, and they’ll share it with me for free. The title of a book or a movie or a podcast, the name of a new musician or a restaurant or a travel destination, a recipe, a clever way to do something. When I avoid smalltalk, I lose out on all of these fabulous gifts. My world is smaller and blander and grayer. I’m missing the point of the party and the point of living, living fully and well.
These are some of the ordinary-looking people I’ve met, at gatherings or while traveling or waiting in line for the restroom:
The woman who met Muhammad Ali and whose dad ran with the mob
The man who grew up taming parrots and wild animals in the Central American jungle
The woman who walked across a bed of coals
The man who took a class from one of my favorite writers
The woman who built one of my favorite apps
The man who woke up to find an elk staring at him through his tent door
The woman who rode an ostrich
The man who was a back-up astronaut
Lots more, so many more! All of these people are going about, living their lives, carrying around all of these mega-fascinating stories that feel unremarkable to them. Sometimes they sit back, surprised, to say that they’d never realized something before or that they’d never told this story to anyone else. Sometimes a story can be a double gift, a gift for you as the listener and also a gift to the teller, who never knew what a gem he had, who never saw her story as valuable or interesting before you came along.
This is boilerplate, entry-level advice that everyone has heard a thousand times, but it’s still true: join a club. When you choose something that interests you, everyone else there has that interest in common. A formal structure to meetings and gatherings also helps the time to pass. You can interact with people in short bursts and you aren’t left with a lot of dead air to fill. You get practice talking to people who want the same thing you do, which is to hang out. Social skills are skills, which means they can be learned. It also means they’re valuable and useful, just like other skills.
Clicking with someone you’ve never met before often takes serendipity, intuition, and luck. There’s emotional intelligence involved, a certain amount of cold reading and guesswork about what sort of person this is. The main thing is that it’s possible to escape the horrid feeling of self-conscious shyness by thinking instead about other people. When I think about myself, I feel awkward; when I think about others, I feel open and curious. How are they feeling? What are they like? What is interesting to them? How would they get along with my other friends?
I enjoy smalltalk because it helps me know how to start. Just like dogs wag their tails at each other, smalltalk gives us a signal we can use to show that we’re friendly. It’s possible to get it out of the way in only one or two sentences. A greeting, and then a question or a statement that has the power to open the door to new friendships, new opportunities, new stories, and new ways of seeing the world.
There should totally be “lady size” burritos. It always amazes me that every person gets the same size portion in a restaurant, even people like my husband and myself. He’s ten inches taller than me and weighs twice as much as I do. In what universe would we eat the exact same size of meal?
Same thing with little kids. People are always hovering over them and telling them to finish what’s on their plate, even when they effectively have an adult-size pile of food. Maybe part of why kids will always prioritize snacks and treats is that they come in child sizes?
I’m 5’4” and I have a small build. I usually find that if I try to eat an entire restaurant meal, I’m in physical pain afterward, like a manatee that’s about to go into labor. I will feel ill and too lethargic to do much of anything. Meanwhile, Future Me is already opening the fridge and sadly looking for leftovers that aren’t there. There are several ways that I deal with the absurdity of 21st-century foodways, and one of them is to package up half the meal for the next day’s lunch. Another is simply to make small changes to my order. This is a lot easier than it sounds.
My hubby and I don’t eat out that often, partly because it makes it too hard to keep our weight under control, partly because we’re trying to become financially independent, and partly because... we don’t have a car. The only place within walking distance of us that we like is a local build-your-own burrito bar. (Not the national chain that’s renowned for putting people in the hospital with food poisoning! I wouldn’t touch their doorknob). The fact that we really only have one option we like is another help, because really, how often are you going to pay to eat the same meal at the same place?
The foil-wrapped imitation submarine in the photo is my hubby’s choice, a classic bean burrito. He asks for no rice in his. Just: “No rice, thanks.” The tortilla is plenty.
Mine is a “bowl.” I do like rice, but when they start mine, I just lean over and say “Just half the rice, please.” They give me one ladle instead of two, and it’s just right. Slightly less effort, slightly cheaper for the restaurant. Nobody cares. This way I get the amount of food that I want and I don’t have to throw any of it away.
I’ve tried saving half my Mexican food for lunch the next day, but it’s never really very good. The lettuce gets all wilted. Almost all of my meal is vegetables, because that’s how I roll, and also because I can eat a big meal in one sitting without feeling like I’m going to explode.
What’s in there? Lettuce, red cabbage, grilled onions and peppers, corn, jicama, mango, tofu, guacamole, mild salsa, cilantro, and of course the black beans and brown rice. SO GOOD.
I know what my hubby has under that foil because I keep his regular order on a note in my phone. Flour tortilla, pinto beans, grilled onion, salsa, lettuce, pico de gallo, and cilantro.
What’s most important here is what’s missing, or, where about two-thirds of our calories would have come from ten years ago.
When we were both obese, that amount of food seemed normal. It WAS normal, because everyone at every table around us was eating the same amount.
It also felt normal to feel bloated and sluggish after the meal, too full to do anything but lie around and watch TV.
Most people go out to eat because it’s fun. It’s fun! We like sitting around a table, laughing and talking and enjoying a delicious meal. It’s fun to choose from a menu, it’s fun to get appetizers and desserts and specialty drinks. It’s most fun of all to get up and leave the cleanup to someone else! What isn’t always as fun is making the connections, like we did, to our credit card debt and to our energy level and to our size. There’s also a connection between me wearing a white shirt and us choosing a restaurant with tomato sauce, but that’s for a different day. What we’ve found is that we can keep the fun parts of dining out - the laugher and conversation and the atmosphere - while dropping the bogus parts, like the debt and the tight pants. Just a few tweaks in what and how we order and we’re there.
We still order French fries occasionally. It’s rare, though, and by quantity we eat significantly more broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, chard, and kale. We also skip the fries when we know they’re mediocre, just like onion rings are either awesome or horrible.
We never, ever, never ever never ever never ever order soda. Not anymore.
If we get dessert we usually split something.
Sometimes we split an entree and add a salad or side. When we do this, we tip the same as we would if we had ordered two entrees. This keeps the staff glad to see us when we go back.
Personally, I almost never order a soup, because restaurant soup is usually way too salty.
Neither of us eats any dairy whatsoever. No sour cream, no cheese, no whipped cream, nada. I haven’t touched it in over 20 years, and my husband quit when he started Weight Watchers and realized that even one ounce of cheese used up a huge amount of points. (He then memorized the list of “zero point” foods and gamed the system, or, lost weight and kept it off).
We try to stick to only one starch, either bread OR rice OR pasta OR potatoes OR a tortilla. It feels like combining two or more at the same meal leads straight to a major nap attack.
We almost never eat waffles, pancakes, muffins, or scones. I don’t like croissants or bagels and I can’t think of the last time I’ve seen my hubby eat either of those.
We go out to brunch maybe once a year. If we do, it definitely serves as two meals and we’re only eating dinner afterward.
On vacation, we’ve also started having just two meals. Sleep in, eat a late breakfast, and then eat an early dinner. Alternately, drink tea for breakfast followed by a proper lunch and a late dinner.
All of this might sound like a list of personal preferences. What could be more boring than that? The reason it’s relevant is that we’ve lost a hundred pounds between us. We started paying attention to what we eat and taking notes on how we felt afterward. Not just that night, but the next morning, and the next month. This is how we’re still able to feel like we’re indulging ourselves, without feeling punished afterward.
I’ll always say that we can get more mileage out of taking a foot off the brake than we can in pressing harder on the gas. Whatever annoys you the most, wherever you find your biggest pain point, work on reducing or eliminating it. That’s how you get to Easy World. For some reason, taxes seem to be high on the list of universal annoyances. It doesn’t have to feel that way.
There are two reasons that taxes seem to bother people: the fact that we have to pay them, and the effort involved in doing the work. I’ll offer some perspective on both.
If it weren’t taxes, it would be something else. In Ancient Rome, people were expected to personally maintain the pavement of the road in front of their house. As far as I’m concerned, paying taxes is a sweat-free, comparatively easy and low-maintenance way to participate in an advanced society.
Oh, you want to argue about that? Big hair, don’t care.
What I’m talking about here is *my* perspective. From where I sit, I simply don’t give a care about taxes. The only times I’ve cared are the two occasions when I was erroneously assessed taxes for income that I didn’t actually earn. I would enjoy writing checks that large if I had the earnings to match! I found that the IRS has terrific customer service, and I wouldn’t necessarily mind if I ever had to talk to them on the phone again.
We pay more in taxes now than I used to earn. A LOT more. If it keeps going at this rate, which I hope it does, then we’ll eventually pay more in taxes than I earned at my highest-grossing day job. I look forward to the day when I have a ten million dollar tax bill. Come at me! C’monnnn, taxes!
Big money equals big money problems. Only, it doesn’t have to be a problem.
I choose to see all my bills, including my tax bill, as manifestations of abundance. My rent would make you cry, but dolphins are my near neighbors. On the other hand, I don’t have a car payment because I don’t have a car, and my utility bills are small because I live in a studio apartment. On yet another hand, my phone bill is atrocious because I have a billionaire phone.
That tickles me. It tickles me that I have the same phone I would buy as a billionaire. It also tickles me that we do our taxes at the beginning of every spring, again just like billionaires.
I could choose to continue to let money bother me and stress me out. I used to. I used to cry myself to sleep at night, thinking there was no way out and it would always be that bad. I cried the first time I did my own taxes. I misread the tax tables and thought I was paying on my gross, rather than taxable income. I called my mom, sobbing because I “owed” thousands of dollars I didn’t have. “That can’t be right,” she said, and because she is an accountant she offered to look over my work. Imagine my surprise and delight when it turned out, forty-five minutes later, that I was actually getting... a refund! That’s the feeling of lightness and joy that we can all feel when we think about money.
Money is nothing more nor less than a convenient way of storing and transferring energy.
I cried when I was in debt. It was dreadful. Then I determined that I would be debt-free before I pass from this world, and if I did nothing else, at least I’d be able to pay for my own funeral. (Shortcut: I am a whole-body donor and those expenses are included). I put my head down and hustled. I checked my accounts every day, I focused, I earned side income every chance I got, I read library books and worked on domestic contentment, and I got free. I sawed the shackle of consumer debt off my ankle. Now the other side, the student loan side, is nearly free as well. Soon I’ll walk tall, walking the walk of perfect financial freedom. That’s something we all can have, with a little focus.
Part of why taxes are easy for us is that our lives are unencumbered. We don’t owe back taxes; neither my husband nor I ever have. We don’t own a house. The complications mostly come from me and my weird ways of earning money, from royalties and dividends rather than a salary. We take the standard deduction because we don’t have enough reasons to itemize. We just get the software, and my hubby spends not quite an hour clicking through. We have our refunds direct-deposited and we’ve usually already put them in our IRAs before our friends have even bothered filing.
If you need and want to Get Organized with your taxes, set it up now so that you can make it easier for yourself for next year.
How would it feel if you loved money and you found that every financial process in your life was hilarious and simple? What if doing taxes made you want to do a happy dance? What if doing your taxes made you want to rush down the sidewalk, skipping, flinging flower petals in the air and hugging the mail carrier?
Or what if, you know, what if it just wasn’t all that hard?
Today is the day. Today is the day that you can transform your feelings about taxes. If you so choose, you can dial up a different emotional reaction. What is it going to be? Easy, I hope.
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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.