I found this book originally under the title The YOLO Budget. Jason Vitug reminds us that living a life of meaning and purpose involves money. This perspective might help to make financial education more appealing, especially for Millennials, whose economic reality is different than that of previous generations. What’s true for them is true for all of us: We’ve lived through the financial meltdown of 2008, we need to plan further in advance for longer lifespans and longer retirements, we’re overwhelmed with information overload, and we’re learning that experiences are more fulfilling than material things. It’s time to adjust our attitude toward money.
Why aren’t people able to apply simple financial advice to their own lives?
It starts with awareness. Vitug gives the example of a man who claimed to check his bank balance every day, yet believed, incorrectly, that he wasn’t paying any fees on his account. Another man claimed that he knew exactly where his money was going, but admitted that he didn’t actually track his expenses. Another said he was “on a budget” but turned out not to have one in place. Specific terminology can mask vagueness. It’s possible to have a high degree of certainty without it being based on reality. This can be amplified by being organized, in the sense of paying bills online, checking account balances, and other activities without any real strategy behind the efficiency.
Why don’t people like budgets? Vitug says they can be reminders of past mistakes, that they can reveal there isn’t enough money for current spending habits, and that ultimately people feel that they aren’t necessary. I would have guessed (based on my own life) that the main reasons might be feeling too busy, not being all that great at math, and feeling annoyed at the “preachy” aspects that make budgeting feel similar to dieting. The difference is that Vitug actually traveled around and talked to people about their emotional connections with money, so his work is based on data, not guesswork or intuition.
Vitug saved $35,000 and took two years off to backpack around the world. The realizations and habit changes that paid for his trip are what inspired him to try to help others fund their own dreams. A big part of this comes from challenging people’s perceptions of their situation and whether they are really fulfilled by their choices. We can make emotional choices that make us happier when we are more aware of what it is that we really want. After all, You Only Live Once, and if you do it right, once is enough.
Here are some key questions from the many in the book:
We should prioritize spending on things that contribute to our quality of life and help us progress toward our goals.
Our electric bill was $292.77. I don’t mean that was our bill for a month, a cold and rainy winter month. I mean that was our cumulative electric bill over twelve months. It averages out to $24.40 per month. I’ve included the amounts at the bottom of the post for reference.
Why is our power bill so low?
Some of it depends, no doubt, on our region and the fact that we signed up for an alternative energy provider. We live at the beach in Southern California, where the temperature is the same most of the year.
Mostly, though, it’s because we live in a tiny home and we don’t do much that draws power.
We live in a 612-square-foot studio apartment. It has one external door and a standard sliding glass door in the same wall.
This apartment isn’t great in terms of energy efficiency. If you stand next to the slider on cold nights, you can feel the temperature drop close to the glass.
On the other hand, we have only five light fixtures: two in the kitchen, two in the bathroom, and one in the closet. Usually only two of them are turned on.
We have one refrigerator and no chest freezer.
We do not have a washer or dryer. We have to take our clothes to the laundry room in another building.
We almost never watch TV. If we do, it’s generally a single episode of a 30- or 60-minute show.
We also rarely have a desktop computer turned on.
Our main power draws are charging our phones and my tablet, using the microwave and a countertop dishwasher, running an air filter, and charging the Roomba. I also use a flat iron and sometimes a hair dryer. I play the radio for my parrot during the day if we’re not home.
For most people, their biggest power draw is heating and air conditioning. We don’t have an air conditioner, or anywhere to install one. It’s fair to say that our power bill would be higher if we lived in a different climate, and it’s also fair to say that we moved here on purpose. We were willing to drastically downsize and we now live in a quarter of the space that we had when we first got married. A QUARTER!
Our entire studio apartment is approximately the size of the master bedroom in our old place. Or the garage. In fact I think it’s a little smaller than our first, double car garage.
We’re able to live in a space this small because we got rid of almost everything we owned. I’m sure it’s more than 80%.
A workbench, power tools, the lawnmower, the ladder, virtually everything that we used to store in the garage - gone.
Almost all our appliances, a couch and chairs and two dining tables - gone.
Almost all our books and three bookshelves - gone.
Look, we don’t miss it. A lot of that stuff was inexpensive, worn out, or carried over from our respective first marriages. When we eventually move back into a slightly larger place, we can afford to upgrade with all the money we’ve saved.
We spent some time visualizing and crunching numbers, and we downsized gradually over five moves, but we did it with strong intention. It’s no accident that our power bill is so low. In fact, it’s part of an overall plan and a concerted effort.
We saved 48% of our net income in 2018.
We did it by living in a tiny space, not owning a car, and prioritizing retirement savings over everything else.
While saving that much of our income, we also went on vacation three times. That’s part of WHY we live so cheaply, because we’d rather spend money splurging on vacation than by dribbling it away on things like a higher monthly electric bill, cable television, or snack foods.
Here are some ways we keep our electric bill low, other than simply living in a tiny little apartment:
We use lap blankets when it’s cold. Feels snuggly rather than the futile effort to turn up the heat in the room.
We use a heated mattress pad. Also feels very cozy and is more effective than heating the air in the room.
We wear socks inside, and I go so far as to wear a sweater, sometimes two. I’m one of those people who never feels warm enough, and I’d rather bundle up than, again, blast the heater.
We strategically open and close the sliding glass door in summer, planning when to let in cooler air or shut out hotter air. We’re also strategic about where to put the fan. (Helps to have an engineer around sometimes!).
A few weeks a year, it feels either intolerably hot or annoyingly cold here. We remind ourselves that it’s temporary and it’s worth it to be a little sweaty or grab an extra blanket. The alternative would be to move to a place that actually has air conditioning or more than a one-foot-square wall heater. We could do that, but right now we’d rather save money.
Save money and lots of it!
Other couples fight about money. We sit around talking smugly about our high savings rate. During times when we’re taking the bus rather than driving, or wrapping ourselves in blankets because our apartment is cold, we’re bonding through shared adversity. It’s easier for us to make strategic decisions about our cash flow because we’ve shown that we’re both willing to make sacrifices for our mutual benefit.
It’s even easier when we use the money we would have spent on heating a standard suburban ranch house to go on vacation instead.
If you’re curious about our electricity provider, here’s a referral link: https://www.arcadiapower.com/jessica9228
And yes, if you use this referral link, I personally benefit from it.
January 22, 2019 $33.44
December 24, 2018 $30.60
November 20, 2018 $15.72
October 17, 2018 $5.00
September 18, 2018 $23.48
August 20, 2018 $24.76
July 23, 2018 $25.08
June 20, 2018 $25.51
May 21, 2018 $17.51
April 24, 2018 $5.00
March 26, 2018 $41.01
$6.71 (split billing because we moved to another unit in the same complex)
February 20, 2018 $38.95
Almost nobody is making it financially. The trouble is, you only see it in the statistics, because people would rather show you their embarrassing skin rash than admit that they’re struggling. They’d rather say how much they weigh than how big their debt is. This makes it hard to figure out what to do. Where are the positive examples? We trade tips on clipping coupons or cutting minor expenses. That type of small-time frugality is like bailing out a leaky boat.
Better to go back to shore and repair the boat, right?
Or maybe get a different boat. Maybe a smaller boat, just for a while.
Sometimes the radical approach is the easiest, best, and fastest. The reason it’s the radical approach instead of the obvious approach is that a radical approach always sounds like madness to the majority. Average people are comfortable doing average things and getting average results. That’s fine when all you want is, say, an average pizza or an average night at the movies. It’s a disaster when the average isn’t really working for anybody.
It’s also a disaster when the negative effects don’t really start showing up for thirty years. Like sun-damaged skin, a crack in a building’s foundation, or heart disease. Or a failure to plan for retirement.
There are so, so many reasons why people would rather stay in a terrible situation than make a change. Sunk cost fallacy. Lack of better ideas. Pushback and naysaying from other people. Disbelief in the consequences, just thinking, “Everything is fine, that will never happen to me.” Annoyance with the preachy, holier-than-thou know-it-all who is suggesting a certain course of action.
Quit smoking, wear sunscreen, save money, lose weight, blah blah blah. Buzz off.
This is why I don’t care anymore about stating my clear opinion and outing myself as a contrarian. People will either listen or they won’t. It’s not my business whether people agree with me or not. It’s not my responsibility if other people would rather do things their own way. I owe it to those who are looking for a better (or at least different) way to share my perspective.
My perspective on frugality is that it’s a sad waste of time to nitpick over pennies when the real issue is tens of thousands of dollars.
Clip coupons rather than move somewhere less expensive. Shop at thrift stores rather than push for a better-paying job. Pack your lunch rather than analyze your finances and run up a balance sheet.
(I do shop at thrift stores and make my own lunch, due to preference, without letting that distract me from higher-impact strategic choices).
It’s good for your basic self-esteem to be able to say, “I’m doing so much better than I was.” That’s self-compassion and it’s vital to any lifestyle upgrade project, whether that’s prioritizing sleep, making physical space to do your art, or releasing debt.
It’s also a guaranteed way to continue to have a perpetual problem.
Personally, I don’t want an A+ grade for tolerating an intolerable situation. I don’t want high marks for working hard. I want to FIX IT and make the bad problem go away entirely.
I don’t want to learn to patiently accept myself for where I am. I want to go somewhere else!
If I spend 101% of my income, I’ll go into debt and that debt will grow.
If I start paying attention and being careful, and I cut back so that I’m only spending 90% of my income, it still might not be enough to pay off the debt I already have. I may feel deprived and vigilant and stressed out, while continuing to fall deeper into debt. That’s how the debt machine works. It takes everything you have at a faster and faster rate. The machine puts numbers over human lives. It’s like an evil robot and it doesn’t care about you or how hard you work.
There are two things about debt. 1. Understand where it came from and 2. Get rid of it as quickly as possible, by any means necessary, before it eats you alive like a cranky crocodile with a bad tooth.
We’re back to my “leaky boat” analogy. If you’re bailing water out of a leaky little boat, and a cranky crocodile comes along, well, you’re hosed.
Debt is closely related to scarcity mindset. In scarcity mindset, everything feels hopeless. Nothing ever feels like enough. Deprivation, deprivation, deprivation. The focus is on how hard things are, how the struggle will never end, how I feel powerless, and how I need little treats to keep going.
Abundance mindset is about gratitude, how even when things are rough, they could certainly be worse. Abundance is about noticing every single last thing that’s going right and enjoying the little things. There is plenty and there will always be plenty more: Friends, hugs, laughter, strategic planning, music, nature and its solace, talent, creativity, love, learning experiences, and infinite second chances.
It’s abundance mentality that allows two people to live in a tiny studio apartment and not own a car, while feeling comparatively wealthy and powerful and still having a good time. That’s my husband and me, saving 40% of our income and laughing about it. Eating lentil soup, proudly, because wow, that was a great soup! Knowing we have the power and ability to move and expand our baseline luxuries, while also knowing that we could be doing that, feeling dissatisfied and jaded, and losing all our financial leverage.
Strategic thinking and abundance mindset are what can allow someone to start over with nothing, and quickly bounce back. Scarcity mindset is what causes wealthy celebrities to squander multi-million dollar fortunes and wind up divorced, addicted, and trapped in lengthy legal battles. Try to guess which celebrity, because that story is a familiar pattern and it’s applied to dozens of people over the last century.
If vast wealth isn’t enough for them, who’s to say it would be enough for anyone else?
Don’t scrimp and save. Don’t count pennies or clip coupons. Figure out what major, drastic changes you can make to get rid of your debts as quickly as possible. Get it over with. Let your burning determination push you through. Make an epic story about it. Just please don’t hunch over with a little paper cup, trying to bail the sea out of a rowboat. If you have to, abandon ship and swim for shore.
I thought it was easy and obvious. I saw my manager at work and I knew I could do a better job than she did. I was eighteen and quite sure my inevitable promotion would soon be announced. Since I was the smartest person in the room, it was just a matter of time.
Time taught me otherwise. Even if I hadn’t been clueless and arrogant as a teenager, a temp in my first office job, I wouldn’t have been promoted because I had no track record. Simple as that. There was a long list of other issues I would have to overcome, none of which were obvious to me at the time, but the main one was that I couldn’t point to a timeline of accomplishments.
What I learned in many years of temping was how many different ways there are for an organization to be dysfunctional. I learned how many different ways there are for a manager to be a team’s biggest obstacle to success. I learned how to discourage employees and create a toxic culture. I worked in companies of all sizes in various industries. I worked for nonprofits, in government, and in industry. I worked for bosses I adored and admired, and I worked for bosses who made me break out in hives.
I learned what a rarity it is to have a job with a great boss in a great company.
People quit bosses, not jobs, and it will probably always be this way. The basic assumption in the workplace is that employees are lazy thieves who have to be watched and goaded. The performance review process is in place to protect the organization from liability in case it has to fire someone for cause, such as gross incompetence or insubordination.
It would be nice if more resources were put into developing leadership and communication abilities in management, if more emphasis were placed on encouraging positive qualities throughout the team. Another way of saying that is, lead with the carrot, not with the stick. Or find out if the team even likes carrots; maybe they’d rather have a pickle.
What if you had a nice boss who liked you and wanted to pull you forward? What if you had a nice boss who always wanted to hear your ideas? What if that nice boss then helped you develop those ideas and bring them to top management, making sure you got the credit?
What would that do for the company?
Considering all of that, is the company where you work a place that you believe is deserving of your maximum contribution?
Do you really want to get promoted at all? Or are you looking for a way to deal with your feelings of resentment and dissatisfaction?
Recognizing when things are bad in your organization is a strong leadership trait. It’s only one among many, though, so you’ll need to work on it.
I spent twenty years volunteering in an organization that I finally realized was deeply dysfunctional. I understood that my contributions never would be recognized or rewarded. After a crisis that I felt was badly mishandled, I left without a second glance. Nobody asked me to come back.
I found a new home in another organization, where I was asked to take a leadership role within just months, and invited to promote up a level twice in two years.
What changed? It wasn’t me. From my perspective, I continued to do what I have always done. I simply quit a good position in a bad organization and took up a good position in a good organization.
What are traits that will hold someone back from a promotion? There are many, and the people who have them tend not to realize that they’ll have to make major changes before they can move forward. That’ll be true no matter where they go.
Bad traits: Rejecting the fundamental values and vision of the organization, but staying. Failing to understand why leadership makes the decisions it does. Working at cross purposes with leadership, with managers, and with other team members. Lack of follow-through. (Once is enough to put someone on the Unreliable list). Disregarding the flow of communication by skipping meetings, ignoring announcements, failing to return calls and correspondence, not reading email, and interrupting or being disruptive. Complaining without offering solutions. Criticizing others without supporting others. Demonstrating greater loyalty to something else besides the mission, such as a hobby or politics. Making the organization, management, or teammates look bad. Generally being a pain in the neck.
Neutral traits: Not being interested in leadership. Not particularly wanting to advance. Not having time, due to caretaking responsibilities, continuing education, or other situational issues.
What does it take to get promoted?
Fitting in with the culture, for good or ill
Making your boss look good, even if you disrespect that person or disagree with their methods
Working above and beyond your remit
Effectively being regarded as already doing higher-level work (beware: a toxic company will simply let you do extra work without compensation, forever)
Earning the loyalty and support of your peers, sometimes (and watch out, because if your boss likes you and your peers don’t, they’ll frag you)
Demonstrating that you understand the organization’s vision and mission
Making it obvious why promoting you will improve the bottom line and solve problems that are important to the organization
Asking for the promotion and making the case why it should be yours.
Looking back at the twenty-five years I have spent in the working world, I understand that there were so many things that held me back. First, I never chose a single, extremely specific thing that I wanted to do. Second, I did not look like an A player in terms of wardrobe and hairstyle. Third, my health issues made me unreliable, despite my overall dedication and work ethic. I corrected all of those issues and shifted my allegiance to a worthwhile organization.
At that point, it was just a matter of time.
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.
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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