How do you afford your rock and roll lifestyle? More to the point, how does everyone in your social media feed afford theirs?
How do you know they actually even CAN?
I can spin two different narratives about my lifestyle. If I enjoyed having my picture taken, which I don’t, I could fill Instagram with pictures of myself hanging out in the hot tub in a bikini, grinning under palm trees, working out in our brand-new gym with a view of the sun setting redly over the sea, and whale-watching while walking our “purebred” dog.
The other version involves pictures of our 1970’s-era studio apartment, the one with the popcorn ceiling and shag carpet and the loud young family upstairs. It involves pictures of us carrying eight loads of laundry a week to another building and up and down two flights of stairs. It involves our poor, elderly dog and a lot of extremely graphic photos of the days when he isn’t feeling well.
The truth is that there are always multiple versions you can tell about anyone’s life. It depends on how that person chooses to shape the story. Some people have no idea how fortunate they are, others like to pretend they are even more so, and some prefer to cast themselves as woebegone scapegoats no matter the facts.
It all gets so much easier when you quit comparing yourself to others and simply ask how you feel about how your own life is going. Do your values match your behavior and your choices?
My husband and I made a series of executive decisions about our lifestyle, starting before we even got married. Starting, in fact, before we even started dating in the first place! We first connected as friends and lunch buddies because we were both struggling financially. By the time we hugged for the first time, we already knew all about each other’s money lives. We were coaching each other through strategic decisions very early on.
He tied me to a chair and fed me takeout Chinese food while forcing me to apply for better jobs, more than once. I browbeat him into increasing his 401(k) contribution and going back to his family lawyer about his custody arrangements. We weren’t “in a relationship” yet.
That background of friendship and financial transparency made it easier when we started making joint decisions. We learned to communicate and trade off leadership and advocate for our ideas.
He pitched that we move in together and get married. I pitched that we consider relocating for his career if the right opportunity came up. He pitched moving within walking distance of his work. I pitched getting rid of the car entirely. He pitched moving to the beach. I pitched becoming financially independent. Et cetera.
Over the - OH MY GOSH - it’ll be TEN YEARS of marriage this year - twelve years we’ve been together, we’ve gradually and steadily built our financial net worth and expanded our careers while downsizing our material life. Overall it’s one upgrade after another, but to be fair, there are tradeoffs. There are always tradeoffs. We consider them, and sometimes we vote them down, and other times we shrug and move forward.
Upgrade: We live a quarter mile from the beach!
Tradeoff: and drunk tourists wander past our front door singing at 2:30 AM.
Upgrade: We have a pool and a hot tub!
Tradeoff: and upstairs neighbors.
Upgrade: We don’t have to spend the weekend mowing the lawn or taking care of the yard.
Tradeoff: but we do have to haul all our dirty clothes to a laundry room.
Upgrade: We live a few yards from a gorgeous, brand-new gym.
Tradeoff: and we have to share it with 400 other people, most of whom have... habits.
Upgrade: We save 40% of our income.
Tradeoff: and we don’t have a car.
Upgrade: We don’t have a mortgage!
Tradeoff: or any equity.
Upgrade: We are both members of an upscale kickboxing gym.
Tradeoff: (and we get punched in the face) and we don’t have pay cable.
Upgrade: Our student loans are all paid off.
Tradeoff: (and we’re middle-aged) and we don’t order pizza delivery or drink alcohol.
What we’ve done is to prioritize our lifestyle in ways that other people don’t. We both decided that the worst parts of our life were 1. Financial pressure and 2. My husband’s daily freeway commute to work. So we got rid of them.
We traded 3/4 of our physical space and 80% of our stuff (even our really, really cool stuff like swords and an antique sewing machine, his hockey gear and my yarn collection, and almost all our books) to move to the beach and not have a commute.
We traded what most people consider a default, totally normal lifestyle of watching cable TV, ordering delivery food, going out, and shopping at Target for the so-not-sexy choice of putting our retirement first.
It means we cook at home instead of hitting the drive-thru. (In what, a go-kart?) It means we sit around talking instead of watching shows or playing around on a game system. It means I don’t get manicures or color my hair, and he doesn’t watch pay-per-view hockey or go out to lunch at work.
It also means we can go buck wild on vacation, four-star all the way!
There are lots and lots of different ways to be frugal, and none of them are wrong. What’s wrong is tossing and turning at night because your money worries are eating you alive. What’s wrong is killing a relationship because two people can’t communicate, can’t work as a team, and can’t stop fighting about where the money goes. I mean, not morally wrong, just... not great.
At the New Year, my husband and I sat down and did our annual review and set our intentions, like we have as long as we’ve been together. (My pitch). We made some baller choices and some smaller choices. I upgraded my computer and he’s shopping for a motorcycle for his birthday. We also agreed to do meal prep. The cost of the motorbike has derived from not owning a car for two years; it’s already paid for even though he hasn’t picked it out yet. My new iMac was, quite frankly, a lot less than the cost of a year’s worth of salon visits, manicures, makeup, fake eyelashes, handbags, and shoes I can’t walk in. In a 612-square-foot studio apartment, I don’t have anywhere to put half those things in the first place.
The meal prep will save us the cost of our next Vegas weekend, no problem.
We can make two cases for our lifestyle, the tightwad version and the high-end envy extraction version. Neither version is even remotely true without the other half. All we do is to pull back and take the strategic view on a regular basis. We do it at the New Year, we do it at our weekly status meetings over breakfast, and we do it every time a choice point comes up like a call from a professional corporate headhunter. We trade off one financial priority for another, upgrading all the way.
Coming right up is a fresh start, a brand new year. This is a tested and well-researched method that really works for a lot of people who want to crush their goals. Unfortunately, beginners tend to choose great goals but match them with the wrong methods. Then they blame themselves and their lack of “motivation” or “willpower” or “passion,” the unholy trinity of the fixed mindset. Please don’t let that happen to you. Don’t get suckered by cheap marketing tactics or lame magazine articles. Especially one thing: Don’t join that gym!
Don’t get me wrong, either. I am a total gym rat - or at least, I am now. Like many people, though, I’ve wasted hundreds of dollars on gym memberships I didn’t use, DVDs and VHS tapes I didn’t watch, fitness books I didn’t read, and equipment that sat around until it got dusty. Please learn from the ghost of what used to be my nice flat green American dollars. Don’t join that gym! (Or buy that DVD or that book or that gigundous vat of indigestible protein powder).
Let me go back to what I said earlier about the unholy trinity of motivation, willpower, and passion. Those things don’t exist, not like you think they do. Unless your excitement at eating hot breadsticks, your ability and determination to stay up past midnight binge-watching entire seasons of TV shows, or your fervent desire to own a hundred pairs of hurty shoes qualify. You only feel those feelings toward things that are already familiar to you, that you already love so much that you’ll build your entire life around them. The confusion here is that it’s impossible to feel that kind of drive around the unfamiliar.
That comes with time. It does, but only after you’ve gone completely through the beginning stages of uncertainty, distaste, embarrassment, and feeling like you don’t belong. Being a beginner at anything feels gross and annoying. That’s why the better you get at other stuff, like dipping mozzarella sticks, the bigger the gap is between where you are now and novice level at anything else.
This is important, okay? Because there are two ways you can go with your curiosity about the fit life and your willingness to make a physical transformation. One harnesses the cute habits you already have, and the other instead uses your proven ability to learn to get into other stuff that is completely unlike going to the gym. If you do choose to join a gym, a basic and inexpensive commodity gym, make sure you have the right reinforcements first. (The schedule, the daily fourth meal, the entertainment options, the triple-quadruple backups for when your schedule changes or you’re not in the mood).
When I say not to join a gym, what I’m talking about are the cheap gyms with room for a hundred people. The pricing structure of those gyms depends on the majority of people paying and not showing up. It’s a rip-off! They know full well that at least 80% of their customers will waste money, feel hopeless, and blame themselves. They’re selling false hope just like a liquor store sells booze in paper sacks down on Skid Row. Physical transformation absolutely is possible - people are doing it every day, every hour, right this minute. For it to happen at a standard cheapie gym, though, takes education that novices simply don’t have.
What you want, if you really want results and you know you can’t get them at home, is a highly specific gym. Most people truly will not work out alone in their garage or bedroom or living room, with just a book or a training plan. Nothing personal! Just ask yourself for a moment, what else in your life do you do that you learned entirely alone, at home by yourself? Even gaming you probably learned at the side of a friend or sibling. Most things that you do, you probably learned in some more formal manner, from your schooling to your job to driving a car. You can use that framework when you commit to train. Think of it as “training” in the same way you would at your job. You know how to learn, you know how to follow a class schedule, you know how to respect a teacher, and you know how to go from “zero knowledge” to “some knowledge.” Right?
The first “gym” I joined was a ballroom dancing school. I adored it. It cost me $200 a month that I really couldn’t afford, but I found a way. I basically lived there. I almost never missed a class. Now I can say I’m a “competent social dancer.” They clear the floor for us when we dance at holiday parties and weddings. I haven’t paid for ballroom dance classes in many years, but then, I don’t need them. I kept the ability and moved on to something else for training purposes.
Right now I’m enrolled in a martial arts school. It costs four times as much as the cheapie gym membership I used to have. Unlike that cheap commodity gym, though, I can credit my martial arts gym for making me the fittest I’ve ever been. It has also brought me a passion I’ve never known, which is my newfound obsession with knife fighting. (Doesn’t knife fighting make any other gym seem positively comfortable and relaxing? Thought so. That’s why I said it).
My expensive boutique gym still costs less than pay cable. Since I don’t have cable TV, I’m spending less money than most people, I have all the time I need to train, and I can also walk around at night without feeling all that nervous. I truly can’t imagine giving up my gym just to sit around watching TV five hours a night. Ugh, why?
Pay more, if you’re going to join a gym. Make a serious commitment. Show up and be awkward for a few weeks. If you hang around long enough to get your money’s worth, you’ll start making friends. Everyone will know your name. Not only will you finally get the transformation you always wanted, but you can transform your social life, too. It could wind up being one of the most fun and interesting things you’ve ever done.
Don’t join that generic gym. If you’re going to bother at all, shift some things around and join the specific gym, the one that focuses on something that really speaks to you.
There are two ways to take the urgency out of shopping with swirly eyes. One is to cut off the part of you that wants to buy things. The other is to replace it with the feeling that you can have whatever you want, whenever you want it, and that most things aren’t really worth bringing home because they don’t meet your standards. One can lead to either contentment or an intensified scarcity mentality. The other can lead to either mad materialism or placid abundance. This is what I mean when I say you can buy with your eye.
As a young person, I learned to have a certain amount of contempt for people with more consumer power than I had. I thought the fashions and hairstyles looked stupid. I thought the advertisements were annoying. It was a sour grapes problem. I’ve never worn Crocs or Ugg boots, I didn’t have a Tamagotchi or a Beanie Baby or a My Little Pony, yet I was still highly aware of the brands and the majority of their product lines. I might even have been more materialistic in the sense of envy and thwarted desire than the trendsetters who owned those things.
One day in my early thirties, I saw an IKEA catalog for the first time. This was not a store that existed in my previous region, and I had no idea what kind of place it was. I leafed through the pages, because I kinda enjoy scoffing at extremely expensive design collections. Two thousand dollars for a coffee table?! That kind of thing.
Suddenly I realized that for the first time in my life, I could afford to buy something I wanted that would make my life easier.
Thus began a five-year love affair with IKEA furniture. I would pick up a piece a few times a year and spend the evening assembling it. Again, a new experience: not just being able to afford something, but being able to choose something that matched my other stuff.
At a certain point, I felt like my apartment was ‘done’ and that I had everything I needed. Most of the stuff in the store did not suit my tastes and I didn’t have room for more. I felt pretty darn satisfied to have a dining table with matching chairs, a couch with no stains on it. That’s the level of emotion I want to have after I spend money on a consumer object. I use it all the time and it meets my needs.
Why would I buy something I didn’t use? Why would I buy something I didn’t need? Especially, why would I buy something if I didn’t like it?
Why would I buy anything at all when I could just be at home, enjoying my couch and reading a book?
This is the feeling that goes along with a debt-free life. Having the financial means to buy something IF you need or want it takes away that inner drive, unless you are somehow stimulated by the recreational aspects of shopping, which not everyone is. It means circling around looking for parking, it means waiting in line, it means getting there and finding out that location is out of stock on the item you wanted, it means foot-long receipts and yet more plastic bags, it means crying kids, it means a lot of hassle. How do people forget all the hassle and keep lining up for more?
I know people are doing it for the thrill and not for the object because all my clients have unopened shopping bags, still full of items with the tags still on. Sometimes these bags are three years old or more.
I also know that some of the people doing it aren’t even buying things for themselves. They’re buying gifts for others. Often they buy random objects without a specific person in mind, or multiples of the same item, and then they’re tasked with figuring out who might not ‘object’ to such a gift. This is one of the main sources of the unopened gift bags that I keep finding. Anonymous gifts bought for anonymous people, unwanted, unneeded, cluttering up everyone’s homes forevermore. Shopping for the sake of shopping.
What if we just bought with a thought? Mentally considered the object and then left it there? Walked away, knowing it will still be available if we change our minds and buy it later?
I have a gift in mind for my dad when he retires. I’m not buying it yet. I’m not sure which specific store or which color, but I’ll know it when I see it. When the time comes. When the time comes, in fact, I’ll probably wind up buying a nicer one than I would buy today, because a nicer one will be available and because I’ll have been saving for it for a few years. There’s no hurry. This is why I would never consider buying an anonymous gift and keeping it in a closet in case I ‘need’ a gift.
If I don’t know someone well enough to know exactly the kind of thing they’d love to have, then we aren’t on gift-exchange terms. If some extreme situation came up, I would donate to a charity in their name. Boring, sure, but at least it would be more useful than a gift card that never got cashed or an anonymous gift that sat in the bag.
There are, of course, things I choose for myself. I don’t buy them, either. I might think, oh, I like those earrings, and then realize I’m not wearing earrings that day because I only put them on a few times a year. Oh, I love that painting - and it’s too large a format to physically fit in my living room. Oh, I love that bedspread, and I already have a bedspread. I don’t have anywhere to store an extra one and I still love the one that’s on my bed right now. I can feel a brief attachment to something beautiful, something I really like, and acknowledge it and let it pass.
In the moment I buy with my eye, I own that object. It becomes a part of the fantasy me that floats in a castle in the sky, one with infinite closets and an unlimited floor plan. I have no interest in mopping that castle in the sky, and that’s why I don’t live there. In the sky castle, I can dance around in a hundred wedding gowns, because in reality I have no interest in ever planning another wedding. Fantasy Me can wear chunky bracelets and liquid eyeliner, because Reality Me knows better. Reality Me is really good at translating the moment’s impulse into practical terms. Just because I think it’s pretty for ninety seconds does not mean I really actually want to wear or use such a thing.
What I like better than the myriad things is the financial power to ignore them. I’d rather brag that we save 40% of our income than boast about where I bought this or that.
The other thing about buying with your eye is that you can imagine yourself buying much more expensive things. You can walk through a gallery or a store outside your price range, and you can still mentally shop there. This helps build that denial muscle, that refusal to waste a dollar here or five dollars there on poorly-made disposable junk that will fall apart a year later.
Learn to buy with your eye. It will save money, save time, and result in less housework. In the end, you’ll have more fun and the few things you do buy will delight you more than you realized they could.
As a longtime frugalite, I use a lot of techniques to keep my spending aligned with my future plans. It often amazes me to shop with friends who have swirly eyes. Most people don’t seem to have many defenses against the onslaughts of consumer culture. As a result, debt is rampant, retirement plans go unfunded, and financial anxiety stalks the earth. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can control our behaviors and our emotional reactions. Let’s look at some ways to slow down a shopping habit.
Avoid stores. This sounds dumb, or impossible, but really it’s key to the whole enterprise. Just do other stuff instead. Go to the park one day a week, go to the public library one day, do your laundry and clean house one day, catch up on email and phone calls one day, go to bed super-early one night a week, do some bulk cooking one night, and have a card party one night. All of a sudden, your free time is full of interesting things to do every night of the week. Shopping becomes a necessary annoyance that requires shuffling your schedule around.
Don’t buy anything until you’ve used everything else you’ve bought at least once. This might also sound dumb. However, every single one of my clutter clients has had a problem with shopping bags and gift bags that were never opened. There also tends to be a problem with unworn clothes in the closet that still have their tags. How much value can you possibly be getting out of buying things if you don’t use them?
Don’t order anything if you are waiting for other items to show up. This not only slows down your shopping, but it also helps to keep track of orders that may be lost or incorrect.
Don’t go to the store if you’re waiting on a package, either. Except for the grocery store.
Don’t keep a “pantry.” Food hoarding tends to happen on accident, because it’s technologically possible and affordable. People in the past could not go out and buy fifty cans of green beans on sale. They had to grow them, preserve them, and then eat them during the winter, when not much other food was available. Accumulating a lot of food packages leads inevitably to food waste, because it’s impossible to keep track of expiration dates. That’s where the brown sludge in most people’s vegetable crispers comes from.
Take an inventory of everything you own. Haha, mostly kidding! Nobody does this, but maybe we should. Pausing to examine and analyze all of your possessions will shed a light on what you buy and why you buy it. Nothing better to do, therefore wandering around looking for excuses to buy things, therefore unused items with ‘sale’ stickers on them. Tons of ‘beauty’ products, self-image problems. Tons of clothes, indecisive. Tons of books, procrastinator. Not saying anything here is true, mind you! I don’t know your life. Just guessing.
Balance your bank statements. This is another thing that many people don’t do, and it’s part of how we get into trouble with debt. If you haven’t done it in a few years, it can certainly fill up several days or weeks. If you’ve never done it at all, you can wander down to your local bank branch and ask one of the tellers to help you.
Deep clean your house. This is an opportunity to, among other things, realize how many duplicate gallons of cleansers have been reproducing under your sink. Of course it will also reveal how many weeks of food supplies are filling your cabinets, how many weeks of complete wardrobe changes are filling your closets, how many months of entertainment options are stacked up on your shelves, and all that sort of thing. Maybe during the process, you can get a sense of what it will take for you to feel the domestic comforts and tranquility you have been lacking.
Change sizes. When you’re in size transition, it’s really challenging to guess what you’re going to be wearing three months from now. I had been hanging onto my size 8s for many years, only to blip past that size in only a couple of weeks on my way to my goal weight. Now I only have one size in my closet, instead of six sizes.
Get into the metrics. Nothing will slow down your shopping quite as much as having a strong financial goal. Just like most people won’t eat a whole pizza an hour before Thanksgiving dinner, it’s possible to use the desire for a big purchase like a vacation or a motorcycle to put some restraints on your recreational shopping.
Use a time limit when shopping in stores that you find irresistible or problematic. For instance, I categorically do not “go shopping” for clothes as a pastime. I hate it and I find it deeply annoying and frustrating. I will set out to buy a specific item, like a pair of boots or a cardigan, with a 20-minute time limit. The way I do this is to have my husband buy movie tickets, and then get to the mall just a little early. Often, I can’t find anything tolerable in the store I’ve chosen, and we go to our show without my purchasing anything. Twenty minutes is enough time to try on a pair of shoes in two sizes, or to try on three or four sweaters.
Try on everything you buy and inspect it carefully. I typically try on five or six items for every one that I buy. I’m not just looking at the label for the care instructions, I’m also inspecting the garment for quality. Are the seams well sewn? Are all the buttons present and accounted for? Are there any spots, stains, or threadbare spots? I can fix most of that stuff, but it isn’t worth my time in most cases.
Only buy items that rate a four or five out of five. This is part of a personal rating system. For instance, I wear a size 7.5 shoe, and I learned through stupid experience that I can’t wear a size 5 shoe, even if I can somehow cram my foot inside it. Those shoes should have rated a one out of five for not fitting, no matter what they look like. Clothes should fit well today, look attractive, go with at least three other items, and work for your climate.
What if you had only one of everything? One frying pan, one place setting, one pair of jeans? What parts of your life would be easier? (Dishes yes, laundry...maybe?).
Ultimately, anyone who is into recreational shopping might be better off becoming a stylist, designer, or personal shopper for others. Earn money and build a career off something that might otherwise become a constant source of debt. Remind yourself of what you want out of your life. Is your life’s purpose and meaning really to buy things, eat things, stare at screens, and poke your phone? Maybe? Guaranteed, there are more interesting things to be doing with your time than shopping, if you’ll give yourself enough time to discover what they are. With the money you save, you can put yourself through school, start a business, or make all sorts of other dreams come true.
Every now and then it pays to pull back and take a look at how things are working. Sometimes, circumstances do that for you. A problem crops up and demands your attention, providing the opportunity to ask, “Is this even worth my time?” Such a problem has cropped up with my Amazon Prime membership.
Now, don’t get me wrong. My problem was “resolved.” I wrote to customer service and, as promised, I had a response within twelve hours. That’s terrific. I also got a full refund, which, great. There are two problems here, though:
What this means is that I’m left with a net negative.
When I explain the problem, it should also be apparent why I’m also left with concerns about Amazon as a service provider.
I didn’t receive a package. It was one of four items that I ordered on the same day. Back in the good ol’ days, you’d get a box with all your stuff in it, making a bulk order feel like a birthday surprise. It was worth waiting an extra few days just for the fun factor. Now they all show up separately, in crazy-absurd amounts of packaging, often through different delivery services. Even the tiniest, most trivial items have to be tracked separately, which is complicated by the fact that one might show up the next day while its companion shows up ten days later. I once waited three months for a $3 item before giving up and asking for a refund. I’d go out and buy these small incidentals from local businesses if I had any idea where to find them.
Not receiving a package? No big deal. Not really. The problem was that when I checked my order status, the item showed it had been delivered. Uh oh. Doorstep package theft is a chronic problem in my neighborhood, with Nextdoor posts about this trend every single day. Many of my neighbors even post photos or video from their security systems, or news clippings when thieves are apprehended. Did someone take my little $8 item?
Nope. Along with the order status showing that my package was delivered, there was a photo. A blurry photo of a package in front of a door. “Proof” that someone put my package in a spot where, if I opened my front door, I’d be sure to stumble on it. Proof!
The trouble was, it wasn’t my door!
I’m an historian, not a private investigator, journalist, nor photographer for that matter. Still, we agree on certain standards of documentation. Let’s discuss.
A picture of my own actual door indicates a few discrepancies.
The problem here is a perverse incentive. A harried driver who is tired of searching for an address can simply toss down the package in front of any old random door, snap a blurry picture of the doormat, and leave. Customer service instructions tell the customer to wait 36 hours, search the bushes, and ask neighbors if maybe they got the package by mistake. They don’t say what to do if the driver is falsifying documentation.
We’ve had issues with package delivery before. In one case, the driver wanted a two-minute discussion with me about how hard my address was to find and whether he actually had the right place. I pointed at the street number on our door twice, while trying not to cough on him, since I was home with a bad cold. Look, I’m sorry about your trouble, yet it seems that we get packages and mail here all the time. Why can some drivers find our place while others can’t?
This isn’t a flippant question. How do package delivery services resolve the frustrating, complicated problem of irregular street addresses, apartment complexes, office parks, and other densely packed delivery units? Clearly there must be a more efficient way to do this.
That’s a job for commerce to solve, not me. My job is to fund it through my purchases, not to do that labor on my own time.
I’ve already constricted the types of things I will buy through Amazon. I don’t buy clothes through them any more, after several experiences of the color or fabric looking nothing like the photo. It’s also hard to guess at fit, and not worth my time to carry returns to UPS. I don’t buy shoes, either, after a brand-new pair of sandals exploded two blocks from my house. I don’t buy hard copies of books, after several occasions when poorly packaged books showed up with minor tears or dents. I also don’t buy ebooks, since I read them on my iPhone but can’t buy them directly through the Kindle app. We don’t buy fragile items after the day we got some smashed crockery, packed loose in the box with no padding. We don’t buy anything liquid, after two occasions when shampoo or body wash showed up sticky, leaking fluid, and missing 20% of the contents. In one case, it completely soaked through the box and the box itself basically melted. We still buy pet food, even after the time when another item in the padding-free box tore open a bag of parrot kibble.
Basically it’s started to be a crapshoot. We order something for which we have a fairly urgent need, and when it shows up, sometimes it’s ruined. We get our money back - and of course we shouldn’t expect anything less than that - but we don’t get the thing we needed. We realize we would have been better off shopping for it locally, where we could inspect it and carry it ourselves.
My “job” description as shadow labor for Amazon includes:
Breaking down boxes and hauling packing material to another building and down two flights of stairs, where our trash goes
For all of this, I’m now paying an additional twenty percent for my annual membership.
I don’t mind paying more for value. I’ll pay enough that packers can take their time and choose appropriate packaging, or at least enough that my order arrives intact. I’ll pay enough that drivers get training and support, or at least enough that they care if my package shows up at the right home. How much do I have to pay to get the same level of quality that was standard five years ago?
How much will it take for me to decide that it’s worth paying for shipping and taking my orders elsewhere?
Make two columns. On the right-hand side, write the things you enjoy the most. In my case, that would be sleeping in, hanging around in my pajamas reading and playing with my phone, playing board games with my family, and cooking and eating legendary meals. Now, in the left-hand column, write the things you find most annoying. In my case, again, those would be driving in traffic, looking for parking, waiting in line, being accosted by aggressive kiosk salespeople, going outside in cold and wet weather, having to smell a mix of strong perfumes, and leaf blowers. All but one of those are included in the typical Black Friday shopping trip. By a bizarre coincidence, I can avoid them AND indulge in my favorite things AT THE SAME TIME just by staying home!
That’s what I’m going to do, and I’m not going to stop there. I’ve already begun my annual shopping sabbatical, and it will continue until the New Year.
There are a lot of reasons for this, and I keep adding more to my list every year. My sabbatical keeps getting longer and longer as well.
One, I despise feeling pressured to shop or spend money or buy things. I find it rude. No, you’re not going to tell me how to spend my time. No, you’re not going to tell me what colors I’ll be wearing for the next few months. No, you’re not going to succeed by using peer pressure to make me act or dress or eat or spend in a certain way. Cretins.
Two, I loathe Christmas music with every fiber of my being. I can’t even begin to say how much it drives me up the wall. Every year, stores start playing it earlier and earlier, and every year, as soon as I notice, I shrug and write off that store until January. I always ask, and they always say the directive comes down from corporate. I’ve tweeted or emailed Starbucks and Barnes & Noble about this, and Whole Foods is next. SCHTAAAAAAAPPP!
WHY should a one-day holiday (or give it twelve per tradition) be “celebrated” for two months or more every year? Why? If you want to do it at home, go right on ahead. Festoon your entire house in tinsel, wear green and red stripes, play carols on your headphones every single day, knock yourself out. But do you really need every inch of public space to do it as well?
Ahem. Back to my list.
Three, I work with clutter and chronic disorganization, and it just breaks my heart that this time of year always sets my people back so much. On one hand, they have all the stress and anxiety of upending their finances to try to buy appropriate gifts for everyone on their list. Compulsive accumulators have a lot of trouble setting boundaries around this behavior, and this season pushes all their buttons like nothing else. Also, they find themselves paralyzed by the thought of letting go of gifts, even if they were totally anonymous and unsuitable. I always find unopened gift bags among the unopened shopping bags. Everything will still be in the wrapper with all the tags still on, often three or four years later. We passed what should have been Peak Holiday Madness at least a decade ago and it doesn’t get any easier for my crowd.
Four, my family usually eats Thanksgiving dinner on Friday instead of Thursday. Like many families, at least one person works on the holiday and we’ve done it this way since the Eighties. What, we’re going to skip one of our few chances to play Scrabble together just to fight traffic in the rain? Just to save a hundred bucks? My family Thanksgiving Friday is worth a lot more than a hundred dollars to me.
Five, my husband and I have financial goals, and for a variety of reasons, doing a bunch of shopping and exchanging a lot of gifts does not fit in with them. We live in a studio apartment, so where are we going to put a bunch of extra stuff? We’ve also done pretty well with saving 40% of our income and trying to get ahead on our retirement strategy. No amount of sales or coupons is going to take priority over our carefully agreed-upon plans.
Six, it’s just a good idea to build breaks into the schedule. That should be every day, every week, and of course every year. I like to take a couple of weeks and sort through our entire place to take inventory. Every drawer, every cupboard, every closet, every pocket. What do we have, and why? Do we need to fix or replace anything? Is there anything we actually do need? (Earlier this year, one of our sets of sheets basically disintegrated after five years of heavy use). We go through our account statements and compare our plans to our actuals, meaning we want to make sure the reality of our spending matches what we wanted it to be. This is how we get better at financial forecasting every year, how we’re able to save so much, and how we’re able to plan great vacations. An extra $25 a week translates to a nice chunk of change in the annual vacation envelope!
Seven, my position is that New Year’s Eve is the best holiday of the year. My favorite day is New Year’s Day, when my entire home is clean and organized, all my loops are closed from the previous year, and I have a fresh start for a fresh year. December is my precious planning period, the time I use to think and daydream and envision how I can make the biggest splash with my one and only lifetime.
Rather than finishing off the year in a frenzy of shopping, driving, parking, waiting in line, cooking, cleaning, gift-wrapping, hosting, eating, and spending, I prefer something else. Winter is traditionally a time to wind down, get more sleep, and prepare for the year ahead. Of course I’ll still visit people, and do some holiday cooking, and of course I’ll always do my annual cleaning rituals. But I refuse to have my holiday and family time dictated by advertisers and major corporate brands.
Dating a broke guy is a highly underrated strategy for romance. The state of broke-ness is usually temporary, part of a life transition that will be much improved when the situation is resolved. It’s an opportunity to find out a lot about someone’s character. If you like him when he’s broke and going through a rough time, you’ll probably like him even more when things are back to normal. There are numerous other advantages. Maybe you’re dating a broke guy right now, and you haven’t even realized what a lucky time this is.
Being broke is not in itself a desirable trait. It can be the result of some bad things, and sometimes the result of bad choices. Say, if someone embezzled money from work and got caught, or is deep in addiction to gambling or whatever. Then it depends completely on this person’s commitment to inner work. If someone is suffering as a result of harmful behavior, won’t admit it, won’t accept accountability, and refuses to change, well then... Money isn’t the problem.
Think of these types of problems whenever your crush is going through a tough time. It can help you both to keep your perspective.
Being broke might be the result of positive change, too. For instance, anyone in school is probably poor as heck. Starting a business, remodeling a house, or having small children are also positive changes that tend to impact the wallet. Maybe this guy is a big dreamer who plans ahead and works hard. Maybe he’s willing to make smart sacrifices in the short term for big gains later on. This is the ideal scenario. Meeting someone at this stage of life is like finding a major bargain on sale. Jump up and grab it while you can.
Sometimes someone is broke due to temporary difficulty, like divorce or short-term disability. This can involve a lot of stress and emotional pain. The hidden gift in this kind of situation is that you get the chance to see this man at his lowest ebb. If you still like him when he’s at his worst, then everything will be so much better when he gets his feet under him again. The added value here is that he can learn to trust your friendship and loyalty when he needs you the most. He’ll be more open with you in easier times.
Being broke can also be a mutual decision. I write about this quite a bit, as my hubby and I are midway through a temporary downsizing move into a studio apartment. We save 40% of our income, something it would be really hard to do in a typical suburban house with one or two vehicles. Two adults and two pets in a 612-square-foot apartment with one closet and no bedroom door! Acting broke when you are not in fact actually broke is very different. We know we have insurance and savings and investments and an income stream. We have paradoxically more options. We can knock ourselves out on vacation. Other luxuries become accessible. As an example, I just bought a set of thousand-thread-count sheets on closeout for $45. We’ve been wallowing in them in a way we never would, just by spending an extra $10,000 a year in rent on a more normal-sized residence.
In my twenties, I pretty much only dated broke guys because that is the natural state of people in their twenties. I was impressed if my date showed up in a car that he owned, even if he had to start it with a screwdriver. I was impressed if my date lived on his own, even if he had four roommates. My friends and I spent a lot of time in those days doing free and fun stuff that people in their thirties and older usually stop doing altogether. Sitting on the floor playing cards or board games for hours, lip-syncing and dancing to songs on the radio, peeling oranges and talking the day away, going on picnics, wandering the bookstore. All we had in those days was time. Now we all have money but we never have the time for those endless afternoons of leisure anymore.
A broke guy will do things to impress his new girlfriend that a financially prosperous guy might never think to try. An hour-long massage? Check. Breakfast in bed? Anything for you. Mix tapes? Mmhmm. If you like him and you’re good to him, a broke guy won’t believe his incredible luck in meeting someone like you. A guy with money and a career may be complacent, or simply too busy to give you much thought.
Single men often complain that women only care about money, that we’ll always go for the guy with the better job or the nicer car. I honestly think that is false. From my perspective, what’s important in an adult person is a feeling of drive, purpose, and engagement. In SOMETHING. Usually that happens to be a career. Ideally, our work is the biggest contribution we can make with our energy and focus. If that happens to generate cash flow, fantastic. Often the process of discovering that outlet and earning the appropriate credentials includes a brief period of financial strain. This is why it can be so much fun to date a student, someone who will eat a sandwich on a park bench with you while genuinely engaging in lengthy discussions about anything and everything. Interesting people don’t always have any money and having money in itself is usually not very interesting.
I happened to meet my husband at a time when we both were at a low financial ebb. It was a bonding experience, the exact thing that made us friends. We used to sit around on our lunch break at work talking about all our money problems. One day we looked up and realized that everyone we knew assumed we were dating. Why was that?? Hmm. Now that I think about it, it’s probably because MARRIED people spend a lot of time sitting around and talking about money problems! Becoming friends when we didn’t have any money helped us to trust each other and listen to each other’s advice. It also gave us plenty of free things to do for fun. That’s why we’re able to save so much money together without feeling dissatisfied and frustrated.
Something important I would really like to say about money is that it’s simply a form of energy, a metric for tracking how we are doing in certain areas of life. There’s absolutely no reason to rely on a man for prosperity or financial comforts. Go after them and get them for yourself. Maybe your broke guy is simply not an ambitious person. Maybe he’ll be delighted to cheer you on and give you emotional support while you chase your own dreams of success. Maybe you earn all the income and he meets you in other ways. Looking at financial partnership in this way would probably resolve a lot of quarrels and create a lot of dazzlingly successful marriages. Choose your romances based on how much you like each other and how well you get along, and let the money part be more or less irrelevant.
The Index Card is an idea that needs to catch on. Helaine Olen and Harold Pollack believe that personal finance should be simple enough to explain on an index card. The same could or should be true about other things, like parenting, nutrition, fitness, or staying married. Why? Because when these things seem complicated and difficult to understand, they set us up for pain and heartbreak. When they seem simple and approachable, we’re able to handle them well, and life is so much easier. Let’s see how we can use this index card method to simplify our finances.
The authors of The Index Card are highly skeptical of the finance industry. They lead with the example of a man who asked how to invest a chunk of money, and every professional he spoke to gave him completely different advice. (Would that have been true of a series of car mechanics or construction contractors?) How is an average person supposed to make sense out of that?
The authors met because Helaine wrote a book about the finance industry, and Harold asked to interview her for his blog. His family had serious financial issues to overcome after his wife’s disabled brother came to live with them. Thus, The Index Card is based on both industry knowledge and practical personal experience.
According to the book, and validating our suspicions, most people have money problems. A third of households have a bill turned over to collections every year. Almost half of Americans keep a balance on their credit cards. The majority of retirees leave the workforce earlier than they planned. Most people aren’t set up to handle an emergency. Certainly a bit more financial knowledge would be helpful in this area that so many find stressful, confusing, and disappointing.
The Index Card points out that older generations may have claimed to have stronger values about frugality and money management, when in reality they had virtually no access to credit. The financial industry of their time bore almost no resemblance to what exists today. We’re able to get into all new kinds of financial trouble. This book has straightforward advice on navigating investment products and interviewing financial advisors. It also has some basic advice on saving money on food and various other services.
Personally, I follow some of the advice on this legendary index card, but not all of it. For instance, it says to save 20% of your income, and my husband and I save 40%. There are people in the FIRE community who save significantly more; a lot of couples both work full-time and bank one entire income plus part of the other. I’ll admit as well that I own several individual securities, that it has worked quite well for me so far, that I have occasionally beat the market, and that I broke even in 2008. Listen to Olen and Pollack, though; most people don’t have the time or inclination to do the amount of research that I did. Also, the game ain’t over yet. I may be crying in my tea by the time I officially retire.
We feel as if we are falling behind because, frankly, we are, often through no fault of our own.
If we all need to be wary of the financial services industry, and yet we also need to be proactive about our finances, what do we do?
Don’t count on working forever.
Information is not motivation, and common knowledge is not common action. Basically this means that we know everything we need to know in order to get started, but it isn’t enough. No matter what it is that we’d like to do, for some reason, we aren’t doing it. Maybe we just aren’t juiced up enough about the benefits of change. Maybe we’re unsure about how getting the goal will change our relationships. Probably it’s different for every person and every situation. One thing that seems to be working for me is the contrary approach of imagining the worst version of something. How is what I’m doing as bad as it could be, and how could it be worse?
Let’s say I’m thinking about my car. I don’t actually own a car right now, so this is purely a figment of my imagination. The worst version of “my car” would be: unsafe, unreliable, smelly, dirty, filled with trash, and expensive. I’m picturing something that’s burning oil, with a black smoky cloud pouring out from behind me. The brakes are failing! The “check engine” light constantly flickers on and off. The body is rusting out, I have a broken tail light, one of the side windows is broken and replaced with cardboard and tape, and the passenger door lock doesn’t work. The interior smells like spoiled milk, the floors are covered with wrappers and food crumbs of every color, and there’s a suspicious stain on the seat. It gets 16 miles to the gallon and I’m still making payments. The glove compartment is so full of unpaid parking tickets that it won’t close.
Want me to swing by and pick you up?
Honestly, thinking about this “worst version” of a car makes me feel really smug about walking everywhere. I pulled that description from actual vehicles in which I have ridden. I could make this worst version slightly worse, although less realistic, by adding more broken windows or engine problems. At the point at which it is no longer operational, it stops being a “vehicle” and transitions to “junk.” Perhaps junk that is more valuable than other junk, like a broken and obsolete washing machine, but junk it still is.
This worst version method can be applied to other things.
Worst job: Underpaid, no benefits, unethical business practices, mean and domineering boss, unsafe working conditions, long commute, rude customers, no path to advancement, no social contribution
Worst relationship: Dishonest, dysfunctional; partner is contemptuous, hypercritical, and unpredictably disappears or cuts communication for no obvious reason. Can I say that if it’s violent then it isn’t a relationship, it’s a slow-motion crime?
Worst desk: Can’t work there, just looking at it stresses me out, covered with clutter, uncomfortable to sit there, poor lighting, not enough power outlets, other people dump their stuff on it
Worst shoes: Give me blisters, wearing them for more than an hour makes me walk with a limp, only match one outfit (or zero)
Worst lunch: Diet Coke and a bag of microwave popcorn
Worst cat: Actually an opossum
There are two benefits to using the worst version method. First, when things are bad, it can help to get at least a weak chuckle by imagining how they could be worse. Second, it can draw attention to ways we’ve been tolerating the intolerable. That perspective can be the jolt that we need to get moving, to take action and set limits.
Worst neighbor: Accidentally shot out our living room window, their dog got loose and attacked our dog
Worst landlord: Lived next door, had chronic domestic disputes
What do we do with this information? OKAY, TIME TO MOVE
Complaining is of very limited use. Its purpose should be to clarify our true desires. If not this, then what?
I had a silverware sorter in chrome. I thought it looked great. Then one day, one of the wires came loose and I managed to ram it under my fingernail. Bled everywhere. TIME TO GO! We shouldn’t be assaulted by our own stuff.
When we’re clear and certain about what we find unacceptable, we can rule it out. Nothing that makes us bleed, et cetera. It’s that response of OH HECK NO that abruptly puts a stop to ruts and habitual behavior that doesn’t serve us.
If not this, then what?
Ask that again and again.
If not this job, or one just like it, then what? How would we define a “good” boss or a “reasonable” commute?
If not this relationship, then what? Taking some time to be alone for a while, that might be good. What does “good communication” sound like? What does “functional” feel like?
If not this financial problem, then what? What will it take to reach a place of peace and clarity here?
If not this persistent physical annoyance, then what? What do we want for our bodies? Agility, symmetry, high energy, supple muscles, speed, power, strength, clear skin, a strong immune system? What specifically?
If not this room, then where? What would a dream office/bedroom/kitchen/living room look like? How would it feel to inhabit this space?
Most of all, what is the worst version of myself? When am I at my lowest? Selfish, inconsiderate, bored, envious, whiny, unproductive, not contributing or doing anything interesting, too much unstructured time, out of physical balance, no direction or purpose, making life difficult for other people, stuck and unhappy. What else?
Let’s not be our worst selves. Let’s not live the worst version of our lives, okay? If we’re ever going to make the world a better place, we’ll do it by always looking up to at least a slightly higher standard.
Scarcity mindset actively blocks financial security in a lot of ways. This is something I have worked on with all of my clients, without fail, although they are all over the map when it comes to actual income, career, wealth, education, age, gender, and family background. It makes perfect sense to me. Chronic disorganization exists in a feedback loop with stress and financial problems. This is part of how and why financial anxiety feeds on itself.
When I start a job with a new client, especially during home visits, I explain what to expect. I lay out the rules, which are that I’m there to sort and help make decisions, but that I’ll never throw anything away, not even the tiniest scrap of paper. That’s the client’s job. I also say that a couple of the side benefits are finding unexpected money, and weight loss. They react to the latter with surprise and curiosity, but to the former with firm conviction. Will I lose weight? Neat! Will I find money? HA, not likely. I know it will happen, though, because it always happens. The more insistent the client is that if they had any missing money, they would certainly have found it by now, the more likely there is to be some.
A root cause of this problem is learned helplessness. In response to stress, my people resort to pessimism and hopeless certainty. OH WELL, they think, HERE WE GO AGAIN. They also think THIS ALWAYS HAPPENS. They tend to retreat and isolate themselves, rather than reach out to anyone, ask for advice or help, do research, brainstorm multiple new approaches, find innovative ways to get around the problem or raise money, or especially to take any kind of action. This is why they can get hit with an unexpected expense and somehow forget that they have uncashed checks sitting on their desk, or nice green cash dollars in a pocket.
More obviously, my people will receive cash, checks, refunds, and gift cards... and set them down somewhere. They will go on to stack random stuff on top of that money, burying it under junk mail, flyers, and newspapers. (What the more frantic type of broke person will do is clutch that check or cash as tightly as possible and sprint directly to the bank, beating on the window if that branch is closed).
One of the most visible indicators of my people is that they leave coins strewn all over the place. There will be coins on the dashboard and floor of their vehicle. There will be coins shaking loose in the bottom of their numerous plastic grocery bags. There will be coins on the kitchen counter, on the bathroom sink, on the nightstand and dresser, on bookshelves, on the desk and on top of the microwave and TV. There will be coins in the windowsill. Usually there will be coins on the carpet as well. Coins, coins, coins. One penny at a time, it doesn’t seem like much, but I have a one-cup jar with over ninety dollars in it, all from pennies and other coins I’ve found in the street since 2005. Coins are cash, too.
There are other indicators of lack of focus and awareness around money. It’s not just common, it is UNIVERSAL that my people will find uncashed checks after they have expired. Sometimes I am able to convince them to contact the sender to have the check reissued. (Sometimes it doesn’t work, but usually it does). More commonly, they dig their heels in and refuse, feeling actively affronted that someone might suggest they are entitled to their own earnings.
The links between chronic disorganization, stress, anxiety, and financial problems become more clearly defined and easily recognizable.
My people, as a rule, do NOT trust electronic banking. They may sometimes accept direct deposit, if it’s required by Social Security or if someone very nice helped them to set it up. Usually, though, they’ll hold out until their dying breath because they are afraid of fraud and bank errors. Automatic payments are another story. If receiving money in an instant is scary, then having it withdrawn is among their worst nightmares. From my perspective, my people’s insistence on paper-based, snail-mail banking makes their organization problems an order of magnitude more difficult.
Snowdrifts of papers, sealed envelopes, unopened bank statements, and a total lack of filing system contribute to the impossible conundrum of finding all those lost checks and gift cards. Nobody, but nobody, can find anything if there are more than about ten sheets of paper on a surface.
Distrust of electronic banking is one thing. My people also resist setting up automatic transfers or payments because they have a justifiable fear of being overdrawn. Banks are not helpful here, as they have been known to deliberately process deposits and payments in a way to generate the maximum fees. Being one day or one dollar off in your calculations can potentially result in hundreds of dollars of overdraft or over-limit fees. Been there, done that, sold the t-shirt at the consignment shop to try to pay my overdraft.
Behind this same fear is tolerance of a system in which every payment is due on a different date. This is what broke people do when we’re afraid we’ll have to pay several bills on the same day, a day when our accounts are empty. At least having stuff due on different dates means we have more time to come up with the money? Here we are seeing the way that financial anxiety shortens our timeframe and erodes our ability to plan into the future. We don’t even notice that we’re, say, 10% over limit every month, or that our income and expenses are really pretty predictable. We just build up a sense of dread and learn to sputter along that way.
Looking back at my own broke days, back before e-banking and before we could withdraw cash at the grocery store without an ATM fee, I was maybe $25 from peace of mind. I needed only a very small buffer at the bottom of my bank account. It could have been quite literally the identical $25 from one year to the next. If I’d understood that, I would easily have raised that money and left it there, and it would be there today (which, now, it is). At the time, I constantly felt the danger of being overdrawn, of having to put groceries back, of having insufficient funds or having my card declined. It was real, yet also an illusion, realistic, yet also unnecessary.
I can identify my people on sight, or even from part of a photo. Papers everywhere, unopened shopping bags, lots and lots of STUFF of every description, coins here and there, and a general lack of ease or prosperity. I recognize it because I work with it and because I also used to live that life.
On the other side, it really is easy. I’ve had all my payments automatically deposited for, what? Fifteen or twenty years now? I’ve never once had a problem with a deposit. Not once. My husband and I also pay all our bills electronically. If the service provider doesn’t have automatic billing, then we set it up with our bank. We get our statements electronically. It takes about one minute to pay the few bills that require our attention. The result is that we’re never late, we never pay extra fees, and we both have credit scores over 800. This makes us eligible for lower interest rates, reward programs, upgrades, and the ability to set up new accounts without paying a deposit. In other words, the more you have, the more you get. Unfair it may be, but games have rules, and I was broke long enough that I’m not exactly going to fight off free goodies.
Financial anxiety feeds on itself. Disorganization leads to more disorganization, as entropy takes over. Anxiety and disorganization eat away at mental bandwidth, replacing focus and concentration with stress and emotional flooding. It goes from bad to worse. The same person with the same finances, though, can use mental clarity to create order from chaos. It’s possible to dig out, find those lost checks and cash and gift cards, sell off extra stuff, lower your expenses, renegotiate contracts, increase your income, and one day, look back at what has become just one sad chapter in a longer, more interesting story.
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.
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