Life Admin is a wonderfully clarifying book about where the heck all our time goes. In my case, it’s blocking spam phone calls and unsubscribing from email to which I never subscribed in the first place. Elizabeth Emens gives us a new framework for discussing how we divide work in our personal, business, social, and academic lives. Reading this book should cause a lot of heads to pop up amid a chorus of voices calling, “Same!”
What is life admin? Some people call it ‘administrivia.’ Emens provides a Venn diagram showing how it overlaps with chores and childcare. We’re talking about things like managing schedules, making appointments, filling out forms, handling finances and insurance paperwork, planning parties and travel, and knowing where everything is. For some reason, almost all of this work seems to be invisible, and thus people task each other with it all the time.
I don’t think I’ve gone a single day in the last fifteen years without at least one person emailing, texting, calling, DMing, or asking me in person to research something they could have Googled all by themselves. (In less time!) Send me a link, plan my trip, give me a recommendation, be my uncompensated accountability coach. They don’t even realize that just asking me these questions impacts my mental bandwidth as a writer, nor could they have any idea that they rank among dozens who see me as their private unpaid secretary in this sense. To the endless list of life admin I might add ‘making decisions.’ Almost everyone on Earth wants to outsource this to someone, anyone else.
Life Admin is the armor we need to start fending off these demands, to start making this work more visible and valued. I’m considering making a keyboard shortcut for my phone that says “I will do this for you if you first donate $5 to charity:water” and see how many people (probably 100%) snippily write back “never mind.”
Most people probably have a bigger issue with negotiating life admin at home than they do between friends. Emens gives reasons for this, for instance that a landlord might only contact one roommate about repairs even if there are four adults living in the house. A lot of the division of life admin is accidental and arbitrary. It can also be hard to categorize, or to tally up the work when it consists of a variety of dozens of recurring tasks that might take one minute or might take all week.
The fact that life admin involves a lot more than the distribution of household chores has always been clear in my marriage, because I was an administrative assistant when I met my husband. We talk about it in terms of ‘mental bandwidth’ and we formally negotiate it during our weekly status meeting. He books airline tickets and hotel rooms while I plan our activities on the trip. He pays most of the bills, sorts the mail, and does the taxes, while I’m the one who deals with maintenance people. He does most of the repair jobs while I handle most of the mending and weird stains. He does the grocery shopping, I do the laundry. Over our decade of marriage, we’ve passed some of these jobs back and forth. The responsibilities seem to morph and fluctuate as we relocate or change schedules. The pressure valve is for one of us to say, “Will you do X while I’m doing Y, or would you rather switch?” (Cook dinner while I do laundry, etc). It’s entirely possible to negotiate life admin respectfully without it turning into a huge deal.
This is one of the great strengths of Life Admin. Emens offers categories of “admin personalities” and ways that each might have a useful strategy for reducing life admin. For instance, rebelling might benefit others in the workplace by restructuring or eliminating bogus tasks. The book also offers ways of reframing life admin by making it pleasurable or seeing it as a way to, say, choose a mate, give better gifts, or get better service. One of the best and coolest of these ideas is to have an “Admin Study Hall” and sit in a group with other people for company while getting some of this stuff done.
Life Admin is the kind of book, like Gemma Hartley’s Fed Up, that has the potential to really stir the pot. It’s so important to be clean and clear in our negotiations and power dynamics, though. Bringing these issues to light is the first step in fairness and happier relationships, whether personal or business.
Having a hundred admin tasks that each take one minute feels heavier than having a single admin task that takes a hundred minutes.
Who has time for admin-redistribution admin?
...many people seem to assume that the topic of life admin is of interest mainly, or only, to women.
What I would do to figure it out is the same thing you would do to figure it out yourself.
There was a baby shower. I had nothing to do with it. My husband chose the gifts, ordered them, and picked up a package of diapers on the way. He went to the baby shower and he played shower games. By all accounts, he had fun.
This story might be shocking to some, which is why I share it. The way I was brought up, doing everything related to this baby shower would absolutely be my responsibility. I’M THE WOMAN. Right?
Not only would I have done all the shower gift stuff, but I might have hosted it, probably would have helped plan it, and most likely would have baked cupcakes or a pound cake. I also might have been on the hook for making a handmade gift, cooking for the new mommy, visiting her in the hospital, and offering free babysitting on demand.
I used to do that stuff. I’ve crocheted blankets and baby booties and knit caps and poseable toys for various babies. I’ve visited plenty of new babies in the hospital.
This time was different, and I’ll tell you why.
My only contribution in the preparation for this baby shower was to answer my husband’s question about what to wear. He was planning to go in a t-shirt, which probably would have been fine. I pointed out that this would be a major photo opportunity for the family baby album, and he changed into a polo shirt.
When he came home, he told me that the family all dressed up, and the work colleagues all wore casual clothes. He would have been fine either way.
It was fine, either way.
If I’d gone, if I hadn’t been sick, I would have known how to behave myself. I would have congratulated the mother-to-be and learned everyone’s names. I would have put myself to work helping arrange the food table and I would have stayed at the end to help clean up. The women of the family probably would have felt obligated to try to shoo me off and do it all themselves. There’s always that tension between “hosts do it all for the guest” and “guests shouldn’t wear out their welcome” that makes me want to be in the kitchen both as hostess and as guest. A dumb double-standard, isn’t it?
One day robots will do it all and we can kick back and have another cupcake.
I’m a little bummed that I missed the party. The weather was nice and it certainly sounded more fun than passing out sweatily in bed with my mouth open.
There’ll be another party, though. The baby will have a first birthday, or a baptism, or something. There will be a company picnic in the summer. I’ll meet the baby and hold the baby and smooch the baby. I’ll hand the baby back to New Mommy, a woman I like just fine and whom I also respect as both a shy person and an introvert.
There’s no pressure here, not unless I look for it.
I’ve gone to so many baby showers, and they’re bittersweet for me. Time and again, when I place my carefully wrapped gift and card on the table, it’s a goodbye gift. The baby shower is the last time I ever see the new mom. Even though we were friends before, her entry into motherhood is the last time she’ll call me, or return my calls, or write back to my emails. She won’t come to parties.
One of these friends? The next time I saw her, the incoming baby had a baby of her own on the way. There were five additional kids I’d never met, didn’t even know their names. I hadn’t seen a photo and I hadn’t been invited to any of their baby showers. I would have gone, I would have brought gifts. I would have sent graduation gifts, too, as the little ones grew up.
There’s no pressure here, not on my end. Just a willingness to have been there.
I’ve tried taking my mom friends out. I hear a lot about how desperate new parents are to get a break, to have an adult conversation, to remember that they have interests beyond Pat the Bunny. (Not that I have any issues with Pat the Bunny, personally). I’ll pick up the check and say, Here is your opportunity to talk about anything you like. Your thesis, the book you’d like to write, new research in your field... I’ll even read up on it if you want. Somehow the conversation keeps reverting to diaper rash. I don’t mind. It just feels like an opportunity lost.
Parenthood is like going through a security checkpoint or an airlock. You go through, and you’re on the other side, and everyone else is still over there were you used to be. Only the people on your side of the airlock understand what it’s like.
The same is true of other transitions, of course. Students talk the same way about finals week and ex-convicts talk the same way about prison. It’s not that other people haven’t literally been there or cognitively can’t imagine what it’s like. They simply are *not* currently there. Their emotional reality is different.
That’s why I’m perfectly content to let my husband manage the shower gifts for his work colleagues. It isn’t the first time. I’m not a part of the inner circle, and I don’t need to put social pressure or emotional labor on this particular lady. I’m a plus-one, if that, and I’m sure that suits everyone just fine.
If there’s one thing I don’t understand, it’s why people keep eating something even after they realize that it always makes them ill. Total. Mystery.
I was talking to someone earlier who claims that she receives Tums as gifts and keeps backup supplies at the homes of friends and family. Why? Because she keeps eating pizza with red wine and it always makes her sick.
Never in my life have I eaten that as a meal???
Why would you eat something over and over again if you knew it made you feel horrible?
It’s a luxury, in a way, but we’ll get to that.
I used to have this thing with salt-water taffy. Every time I would go to the beach, I would get super excited about the presence of salt-water taffy. I would go into a candy store and spend twenty minutes picking out a bunch of flavors to try. Then I would eat a bunch of it and make myself completely ill.
It took about twenty years to realize that I actually don’t even like salt-water taffy!
I realized that I have a major weakness for things that come in varieties, or especially in rainbow colors. It’s like it sends my brain into freak mode and all I can think is ONE OF EACH. Doesn’t matter what it is, beads, socks, fishing lures, things I don’t even want. Whoa there, I think now, look out, rainbow alert!
I used to get a tub of something like gumdrops or jelly beans that came in multiple colors. I would sort them by color. If I ate one, I “had” to then eat one of each color, which was a real problem if there were disproportionate amounts.
Total productivity killer right there.
Now I only do that on Halloween. Just go on a major candy bender and watch horror films all day. That tends to get it out of my system. I always wake up the next day with the horrible feeling of “Halloween mouth” and vow not to do it again for 364 days.
I have no self-control around certain things, rainbow-colored objects being just one of those categories. I recognize this. Because of this known tendency, I find it easier to simply not buy certain things rather than try to monitor myself or rein myself in.
Anything I want is available 24/7 and I can probably get it delivered. I can always change my mind later.
I have to take the urgency out of the decision. I don’t like the idea that an inanimate object can just push my buttons and make me behave contrary to my best interests.
This is much easier to do once I make the connection between a certain thing and a certain negative result. For instance, lanolin makes me break out in huge itchy welts. It’s not that common an ingredient and it’s pretty easy to avoid. There’s nothing about it that makes me weep with longing. Lanolin = BYE FOREVER. No hearts broken.
It would be a lot harder if I found out I had a sensitivity to, say, onions and garlic. A couple of friends of mine have gotten that as a diagnosis, and, I confess, I would struggle mightily with it. I’d be like, is there a surgery for this? If onions and garlic made me sick, though, I’m sure I’d just be glad I finally knew the answer and had constructive action I could take.
Apparently not everyone feels this way.
I heard the story of a woman who suffered from migraine about twenty days a month. My lifetime record for a migraine is four days, and that was bad enough! If I were in that woman’s situation, I would sign up for every study under the sun and I’d see as many doctors from as many disciplines as I could find. Whatever it takes.
In this woman’s case, she wound up quitting alcohol, caffeine, and sugar. She hasn’t had a migraine in three years.
The way it was expressed to me, “she had to give up alcohol, caffeine, and sugar.”
I said, “It sounds like what she really gave up was headaches!”
Myself, I don’t drink alcohol at all and I hate coffee. I would struggle for a while with the sugar thing, although it would tend to save me from my rainbow candy problem. But the first time I ate dessert followed by a migraine, I would draw a big skull and crossbones on that day in my calendar. NO MORE.
I know so, so many people who suffer from their favorite foods but continue to torture themselves with them. A man with a diagnosed dairy allergy who eats a large bowl of vanilla ice cream every night. A woman diagnosed with celiac disease who keeps eating wheat bread. Funny, you don’t hear about this behavior pattern in people with a true food allergy to, say, shellfish or peanuts. We won’t do it if it will kill us or make our throats swell closed, but we will if “all it does” is give us severe nausea or incapacitating headaches.
I have some guesses about why people persist in eating food that makes them ill.
I was pretty happy the day I realized I didn’t have to drink alcohol unless I wanted to, which I don’t. It’s gross to me and I suspect I don’t react to it the way other people do. Other people are often frustrated by this and will persist in offering me drinks, I think because they’re embarrassed to draw attention to how much they consume in a day. They also tend to get very distressed when they realize there won’t be wine at dinner, because waiting a couple hours is too hard? Because carrying mini bottles in your purse is a step too far? This is an example of how something that is an issue for one person won’t be for someone else. This is why we have to make our own rules and decide for ourselves whether eating or drinking something is a good plan.
If you feel like you need permission, I hereby grant you permission by the power vested in me. You have the power, the right, and the privilege to refuse to eat anything that makes you ill. If someone tries to pressure you into eating something that you really don’t want, either it’s all in your head or that person is not your friend. Why would they care? More for them, right?
We’re lucky to be able to pick and choose what we do or don’t eat. We’re lucky that we have the natural intelligence and discernment to know the difference between what is good for us and what is basically poison for us. We’re lucky that we can still be friends with people even if we eat or drink different things. We’re lucky to be able to reject food that is really a frenemy, not a friend. Because it’s the people around us that matter, not their opinion on what we do or don’t eat.
I met an interesting character the other day. We struck up a conversation while waiting at a stoplight. By the time we had crossed the street and walked through the park, we had managed to interview each other and exchange some interesting ideas.
Living on the pier is a crossroads of humanity. There’s a constant flow of families, dog walkers, transients, drunks and drug users, tourists, musicians, joggers, skateboarders, cyclists, young couples, barefoot surfers in wetsuits, students on field trips, retirees, and also a few neighbors. It’s busy here. It’s also not unusual to bump into someone who is at leisure at 2:00 on a weekday afternoon.
Wealthy people look different. It’s basically impossible to fake that posture, haircut, skincare regimen, wardrobe, and aura of prosperity, just like it would be pretty challenging to fake the hard-worn look of someone who has spent years sleeping rough.
I’ve learned this through having lived in many different neighborhoods over the years. I don’t particularly prefer to live among the wealthy. They spend a lot of time talking about things that bore me senseless, like where they bought stuff, what their yapper dog is up to these days, and how “good help is so hard to find.”
They also can’t usually relate to why my husband and I live in a studio apartment and don’t have a car.
That’s what made this conversation so interesting. We discovered we were both strangers in a strange land.
It basically went like this:
“What a gorgeous place”
“Another day in paradise”
“I’m new in town”
“Were you here for the butterfly migration?”
Blah blah blah
“I live on a sailboat”
“Oh, are you a nomad?”
“I don’t know what I am, what’s that?”
“There are a lot of people who are financially independent, who travel around the world, it’s a thing”
“Are you one of them?”
That’s when we started comparing strategies and a few numbers. “What’s your efficiency?” he asked. By that I understood that he meant what we call “the nut” or monthly overhead.
“You should live on a sailboat,” he said. It costs him $1600 a month to stay at the marina (right next to our apartment complex) and apparently it comes with access to a gym and a steam room and stuff.
He went over what it took to manage such a feat, how he learned to sail various types of boats, starting with the very smallest size and working his way up in complexity.
I asked how old he was when he learned to sail, and he said he started about ten years ago, which both did and didn’t answer my question. I gather that he was at least in his thirties when he suddenly decided, Hey, I should learn to sail. That somehow turned into, Hey, I should live on a boat, sail from Canada to San Diego, and figure out where I want to settle down. Or not.
I have my own opinions about all this, of course. I’m not a strong swimmer and I can only really manage myself in a canoe or a kayak. I have read quite a lot of nautical adventures, though, and that’s why I asked a few more questions.
“What do you do in the winter? What about when it storms?”
“I haven’t done this over the winter yet,” he admitted. Ugh.
I told him I wanted to go to sea as a child, that my fantasy was to become a “cabin boy” and that I was very disappointed to learn that wasn’t a job anymore. At least, I was disappointed when I was nine. As a middle-aged woman, going through a tropical storm in a sailboat of any size sounds pretty darn dreadful.
There are other factors, too. I don’t know this man’s story, or why he’s suddenly free to sail down the length of North America alone. Was he married before? Does he have kids? Is he retired? Is he actually F.I. or is he burning through cash reserves while he bounces back from divorce, getting fired, or losing a lawsuit? Who knows?
Me, I live with a man, a dog, and a parrot. Noelle would probably love being on a sailboat and smooching kids at the marina, shaking out her nice red tail feathers. Our frail, ill, elderly dog would not enjoy himself at all. Could my husband and I deal with sharing a tiny ship cabin, a tiny ship stove, a tiny ship heater, and of course the tiny ship’s head, with the shower spraying on the toilet? Eh, maybe, maybe not.
We actually are the type of married couple who could probably do well while living on a sailboat. We’re already minimalists. We’re good at what we call Pack-Fu, or the art of fitting objects carefully into a tight space. We’ve spent weeks backpacking and sharing a tent together. We’re both handy with tools and we have the kind of discipline that is needed to stay on top of leaks and mildew. We do, of course, also love money and the saving thereof. Paying an “efficiency” of $1600 a month sounds pretty great!
It sounds great until we factor in the part about buying a small, used seafaring vessel. “It’s like an RV,” I say to this sailor/retiree I’ve just met, and he agrees. In my mind, that means it’s high maintenance, hungry for repairs, expensive to fuel, and hard to park. You’re stuck with it, like it or not, and it can be hard to find a buyer when you realize it isn’t your dream of an easy, relaxing retirement after all.
What a great fantasy, though! If you don’t like your neighbors, you can simply sail away. Sail away from thoughts of trouble, sail south when storm clouds gather at the horizon. Sail away toward... toward what, exactly?
Secrets to getting things done:
Nobody likes to be micro-managed, and it should be obvious why. The time that the micro-manager spends leaning over someone’s shoulder is time that they could be doing something at a much higher level.
Example: a top-level manager literally leaning over my shoulder and watching me update page number formatting on a document while paying me overtime and making me miss the gym. If anyone had bothered to delegate the task to me days or weeks earlier, it would have taken me ten minutes and never hit this person’s radar. Instead, the company winds up paying this taskmaster to do nothing more than annoy me. How much does this guy make per minute, and why is he wasting his time on this?
That happened fifteen years ago and it still annoys me.
Asking someone to do some something specific is a task. That’s true whether it’s your employee, your kid, your roommate, your romantic partner, or yourself. I tried asking my dog to bring me some tea but honestly he’s not very good at that kind of thing.
CLEAN YOUR ROOM
STOP THAT BARKING
LEARN TO DRIVE, LOSER
Asking someone to do a task is always going to generate a power struggle. If this person (or animal) had any desire to do that task, they would have done it already without your input. They probably have a violent desire to NEVER do that task, and they’ll fight it with every last fiber of their being. Just like my clients do when I suggest that maybe they consider possibly letting go of some of their expired food.
Try it another way, maybe?
Reframing a task as “a problem” or “a situation” is completely different. I’ll offer some examples.
Sitting on my porch, I want to charge my phone and my tablet. There are no electric outlets outside like there have been in previous places we’ve lived. I don’t want to leave the door open for an extension cord because we have a mosquito problem. What am I going to do?
Use a back-up battery
Do only non-electronic things outside
Charge one device at a time inside, and go back and forth retrieving them
Install a power outlet outdoors
Ask my husband to apply his engineering expertise to my problem
My husband and I have a running joke, dating back to our backpacking trip to Iceland. It goes like this: “YOU’RE the man, FIX THIS!” The truth is that if I asked him to do something very specific, like “save me from this hornet,” I know he would drop everything and rush to my aid. In the case of the missing power outlet, I don’t know what to ask for. If I had a solution, I most likely would have done it myself. I’m not going to TASK my husband, I’m going to ASK my husband.
What I mean by this is that I’m going to pose the problem to him and see what he would do. I believe that he will find a different way to solve the problem, something I would not have thought of, and I believe this because he’s done it a thousand times. Part of why we got married is that we have a lot of non-overlapping skills. Rather than berate him for not being good at the same things I am, I praise him for being good at all the things that I am not.
The vocal tones and facial expressions involved in asking someone for their opinion and advice are extremely different than those of someone who is demanding that someone else complete a task.
I tell my husband how much I love working on the porch. I point out what a beautiful day it is and how happy our pets are, dozing in the sun. I say I wish I had a way to charge my devices. I suggest digging out the dog door insert and setting it up so I can run a cord through the dog door.
Approximately four minutes later, he pops up with an extension cord. He rocks the screen door up slightly on its little roller wheels and slides the extension cord under it, then settles it back in position.
I’m so happy I surprise myself by bursting into tears, which completely freaks him out. I then have to explain exactly how much this means to me. I’ll be able to work outdoors all day, all spring and summer long! His solution to my problem is the ergonomic equivalent of adding an entire room to our apartment, a very nice one.
He nods and shrugs and goes back to reading his robotics textbook.
Another example: I want to celebrate my brother’s fortieth birthday. I task him with telling me when he is going to have his party so I can buy my plane tickets. This does not work. Back to the drawing board. I ask our other brother to talk to him. This does work, because they have different planning styles, but it does not result in firm plans.
I change the task to an ask. I tell my brother that he deserves to do something fun and special for his birthday. He says he is fun and special every day. I ask if he would be willing to cooperate with a surprise party, if we plan something for him and just tell him what to wear and what to pack. He’s fine with that. I figured he would be. Then I ask our other brother to help with something mutually fun and weather-appropriate. We work out in about 20 minutes what I couldn’t make happen in three months by tasking someone.
Notice the difference between “MAKE PLANS AND TELL ME ASAP” and “How can we make your birthday something fun and special?”
It’s just like the difference between “STOP NAPPING AND GET YOUR TOOLS” and “Can you help me make this area into a lifestyle upgrade?”
I’ve found this method really useful in motivating volunteers, also. Rather than ask people to do something specific, explain what it is that you’re trying to do. Every single time, without fail, people will step up with better, quicker, and easier ways to get stuff done. Often they’ll enlist other people you didn’t even know and get them to help. Sometimes they’ll point out that the job has already been done and share materials with you. This is why telling people what to do is pointless: your way is probably the worst way!
There are lots of ways to solve persistent problems if you “ask, don’t task.”
Get your kids to clean up: Plan a party or game night and say you want to make it special. Rather than nagging everyone to pick up after themselves, set a timer, put on some music, and race to “get ready.” What does “get ready” mean? More than you thought, probably! My mom used to do this and I would do extra stuff like making hand-drawn place cards. I still associate parties and housework.
Get your partner to help with yard work: Find out their vision for their ultimate dream yard and get them talking about it. Hammock for napping? Yard parties? Climbing roses? Wood-fired hot tub? Vegetable garden? Home roller coaster? Walk them out to the yard and stand there together while they get rolling.
What’s going on here is a shared vision that is communicated clearly. If other people dislike your vision, they will reject it, and they will fight you til the bitter end. If nobody is on board with your vision, why is that? Are you willing to do the work yourself if you have to? Have you given thought to other approaches? Are you simply in the habit of feeling stressed out, resentful, and irritated?
What would it take to turn the energy around this from “WHY WILL NOBODY DO MY BIDDING” to “hey, you know what would be fun?”
Ask, don’t task, and see if you can find out.
We saved 48% of our income last year.
What that means, specifically, is that 48% of our net base salary went into our retirement accounts. Net = after taxes and any other non-retirement withholdings. Base salary = the amount in the employment contract.
This does not include money that went toward paying down debt. For example, I finally managed to pay off my student loan.
How is this possible?
I’m going to write a somewhat abstract post because I don’t want to just baldly state our actual income. Some people do that, but *shrug* I’m not going to. The point is to focus on STRATEGY for those who will find it helpful.
Posting actual numbers, Money Diary style, tends to draw doubters and naysayers. That’s not my audience. Big hair, don’t care.
How is it possible to save half your income?
Two ways: offense and defense.
My husband taught me this. I’m an extremely hardcore full austerity frugalite. I play D. I can casually do a Buy Nothing Month and barely notice, because I’ll just spend the time reading library books and journaling. I’ll cheerfully serve up lentil soup, darn my socks for a third time, and dilute my laundry detergent to 80%. The trouble with this scrimping method is that you can only get your expenses down to zero dollars and zero cents. There’s a finite limit to how much you can save by playing defense.
I married a strategic thinker. He plays O. There is an infinite amount of money that someone can earn. There is no top level to how much you can escalate your income. In his mind, it’s a lot easier to find a way to EARN ten thousand dollars than it is to SAVE ten thousand dollars. That’s why he quit his job as a logger to go back to school and become an aerospace engineer.
We’ve learned to respect each other’s mutual styles and use them to work together. He appreciates my sincere desire to cooperate toward financial independence and stay on plan. I appreciate his ludicrous ability to read textbooks for fun, design things that go to space, and accrue patents. We take turns suggesting lifestyle pivots and talking each other through the pitch.
That’s how we’ve wound up in this bizarre, outlier situation of banking half our income.
Step One: Cooperate and tell the truth about your life. We have a breakfast meeting every single week where we talk about our finances, among other things. We’re able to do this without blame and recrimination because we share the goals of early retirement and excellent vacations. We’re allies. Wealthy celebrities go bankrupt and get expensively divorced all the time because they don’t know how to work as a team, and this is why cooperation comes first.
Step Two: Focus on career direction and earning potential. We’ve relocated for jobs four times in our ten-year marriage. We don’t have a mortgage but we both work at our dream job. The goals here should be, how do we do the most fascinating possible thing all day while mentoring younger people and also making it rain money?
Step Three: Lifestyle design. The tricky part.
The most valuable parts of anyone’s lifestyle are usually outside the cash dimension. Love and friendship. Self-expression. Connection to the natural world. Developing a personal philosophy. Sleep quality, cooking skills, having a home filled with laughter and conversation. Put a price on any of that.
We build our feeling of home and being entertained around the intangibles, and that’s what makes it relatively easy for us to chop expenses.
Okay, seriously though, how do we save half our income?
We live in a studio apartment close enough for my husband to take the bus to work. I work at home.
We got rid of our car two years ago because all they do is eat money 90% of the time.
We cook at home, only going out to eat maybe once a week because we’re really too busy. We’ve only had pizza delivery ONCE in our entire thirteen-year relationship, and it wasn’t very good either.
We don’t drink alcohol or indulge in any other recreational substances such as pay cable.
We don’t “shop” as an activity, and that’s no sacrifice, because we both hate wandering around in stores. Also, we live in a 612-square-foot studio, so where would we put anything?
Our default weekday is to work all day, go to kickboxing class together, bike home, shower, eat dinner, hang out with our pets for a while, and go to bed.
Base salary. See above. We’ve prioritized earnings over our own lifestyle throughout our marriage. That has meant moving away from family and friends over and over again. It has also meant getting rid of at least 80% of our possessions and living in a quarter of the space we had as newlyweds, because we’re nomads now.
Overtime earnings. Many jobs don’t have this as an option, and not everyone is in a position to take advantage of it. My family’s perspective is that working overtime helps take the pressure off of all the colleagues with young families or other caretaking responsibilities. Take one for the team, ka-CHING.
Bonuses. My husband has this terrible habit of winning awards at work. Unfortunately he might also wind up making money off his patents at some point, too. It’s dreadful.
Non-cash perquisites. One feature of frequent business travel is that it racks up a lot of points and miles. Another is that a lot of passthrough expenses go through our credit cards, building up yet more points and miles. We typically don’t have to “pay” for plane tickets, hotel rooms, or rental cars anymore.
Side hustle money. Everything we make on the side goes toward things like electronics upgrades, vacation, or vet bills. It used to go toward debt payments. There’s something highly motivating about thinking, “I’m going to earn myself a brand new Mac” or “this will buy our dog another year” as opposed to abstract numerals with a dollar sign in front.
The treats: Part of why our lifestyle works for us is that we’re both motivated by the same major goals, one of which is financial independence and the other of which is travel. We splurge on vacation, as well as a few other things: Our phones, robotics textbooks, spoiling our pets, hanging out at Starbucks, and going to our boutique gym. Since we save half our income, we feel entitled to indulge ourselves in the ways that matter to us, as opposed to things that don’t, such as owning two vehicles, eating snacks and drive-thru food, watching cable TV, or living in an average-size house.
We moved into a studio apartment so we could get a year ahead on our retirement savings, instead of a year behind. (Scrambling to pay 2015’s IRA contribution in spring of 2016, whereas now we’re already saving for 2020 in 2019). It worked! Saving crazy amounts of money has been fun for us and it’s helped us to build a stronger marriage. The stress of debt is so, so much harder than the stress of sharing a tiny living space and basically living like college students.
Married men are more attractive, let’s face it. The reason for that is that they’ve spent years in a relationship with someone, and it’s taught them a lot about communication, compromise, and contentment. Marriage is a specialized education. The marriage partner of someone else has been customized over time to fit with that specific person, like an old boot. Better to get your own! There are, though, candidates who will make better or worse marriage partners.
Take the advice of a happily married woman. Recognizing the undervalued man will give you a better shot at a better marriage.
(A heteronormative, monogamous marriage, anyway, for whatever that’s worth).
There are plenty of single and discouraged people in the world. Some of them are still processing whatever happened in their last relationship, and they’re not really emotionally available yet. Others are super busy, or they have a weird schedule, and they like it that way because it gives them a reason to not get back out there. Others are ready and can’t figure out why they aren’t meeting anyone. There are yet others who believe they aren’t desirable, and they’ve quit trying.
All of these are potentially going to make an excellent partner for someone, maybe even in a short period of time!
One of the best things you can offer to anyone - a friend, a colleague, your seat mate on a plane, a kid, a new date - one of the best things you can offer is validation of their good qualities. People often don’t recognize when they’re good at something. We’ve all been taught to beat up on ourselves. Some of us are, at least temporarily, cast down by life. It often takes the kind insights of another person to change our perspective. If you can do this for anyone, you can do it for a gentleman, and that’s part of your strategy for finding and claiming an undervalued man.
Encourage everything you’d like to see more of.
This is generally going to be the opposite of whatever their ex did.
Relationships are killed by neglect and coldness. They can also be killed by constant criticism, and that’s more common than it should be. This is part of what keeps people in dissatisfying relationships - they start believing their bad press and buying into their disappointed partner’s negative views. Ah, but the things that annoyed that person might not bother you at all. They might be perks!
Someone else might have undervalued your man due to his taste in music, how he cuts his hair, his clothes, his food preferences, his job, his friends, his height, his family, whether he likes the radio on/off at night, or the fact that he does/doesn’t want kids one day. I once broke up with a guy partly because he chewed gum in the shower. If that doesn’t bother you, well, he might be available today...
Spouses are like siblings, which is to say that anyone you live with is a roommate. If you meet someone inconsiderate, they’re not giving you much to work with. No matter how attractive they are or how much money they have, it’s hard to live with a slob. A clean freak might not be that much better of a choice, though; do you really want a man nagging after you about streaks on the mirror or asking you to iron your socks? Consideration is not the same thing as housework.
The quality you’re looking for is whether you can relax with this person.
Does he make you smile? Does he seek to please you? Does he remember your likes and dislikes, is he willing to let you choose the movie or the radio station or the restaurant at least sometimes?
If this man is fun and easygoing, he probably has a history with a couple of exes. How does he talk about them? Who is the villain in his stories? If it’s always HER, be suspicious.
Does he listen to you attentively when you tell a story? Not when you vent, when you tell a story. Does he remember the names of your friends, family, and coworkers? Does he remember details from one week to the next?
Does he basically seem to find you interesting? Does he like you?
(Look around and start noticing how many couples seem not to like each other. It’s a lot).
Something you can do with an undervalued man is to read The Five Love Languages with him. Men really like this book. It may be the first time in their lives that someone has recognized their attempts to show affection and caring toward someone. That book gives them permission to be doting and giving in the ways that work for them, and actually get a little credit. More of what works, less of what doesn’t work.
Personally, I am very touched by acts of service, and let me tell you, there is something great about a man who prefers to show affection that way. My husband is constantly making me smoothies, fixing my sunglasses, doing my bike maintenance, and remembering not to put my sweaters through the dryer. Did he do that kind of thing for his ex-wife? I have no idea, I sort of doubt it, but they were younger then and I don’t think she was an “acts of service” person. My hubby and I reciprocate for each other because we’re on the same wavelength. I’ve probably disappointed more than one “gifts” man over the years, neither giving nor appreciating that sort of thing in the way he would want.
After my divorce, I made a checklist of what I wanted in a man, the way we do. I put a lot of stuff on it that turned out to be irrelevant to what actually makes me happy. I thought I wanted a man who could beat me at Scrabble, when hey, I have my brother for that! I thought I wanted a poet/musician/artsy type when hey, I have myself for that! It never occurred to me to want an older engineer with a kid. What I got was a kind, generous, reliable man who was much smarter and funnier (and a better cook and dancer) than I thought possible.
What ought to be on our checklists are personal qualities and behaviors. We have a tendency to typecast a romantic male lead, when what we’re really searching for is someone who can create a certain type and color of romantic bubble with us. We’re looking for something that can really only be made with one other specific individual. We’re more likely to get that irreplaceable bit of magic with someone who may have been overlooked by others. That’s how we lay claim to someone who will be delighted to be our perfect fit.
I’m a Questioner. The day I found that out, so many things clicked into place for me. Like many of my kind, I learned about something new (the Rubin Tendencies), and it took hold of me and I started thinking about it (and talking about it) constantly. I dragged my Upholder husband along with me. After a few years of this, we probably have our own parallel universe based around someone else’s original idea.
[If you follow Gretchen Rubin, my husband and I are the exact opposite of Gretchen and Jamie. I’m an upholdery Questioner like him and my husband is a questiony Upholder like her].
I’d like to share a little perspective on what romance is like from the perspective of a Questioner.
For starters, let me share that my first husband was undoubtedly a fellow Questioner. We drove each other crazy, divorced after three years, and we haven’t seen or spoken to each other in, what, fifteen years? I have plenty of Questioner friends, but I don’t think I could ever be romantically involved with one again. Writing someone off based on a random character trait is exactly the kind of thing one of us would do.
As a Questioner, I am constantly revising my personal philosophy, engaging with various books and viewpoints and trends, and then shaking them off once I’ve finished exploring them. Books are my first love, my own creative work is my second, and maybe I’ll fit you somewhere onto the list if you’ve caught my attention.
It’s not you I’m evaluating so much as your perspective, your thoughts and opinions, or your ability to hold your own in our discussions.
I’m not wrong here, annoying as it might be. It’s my life and it’s up to me who captivates me or sparks my interest. I can’t just make myself love or like someone.
This is, I think, part of what drives Obligers crazy about Questioners.
Obligers will give their undying loyalty and affection out quite freely. Then they are hurt when those incredibly special feelings are not automatically reciprocated. Why can’t you love me the way I love you?? It takes another Obliger to do that, though.
You can’t buy someone else’s love, affection, and loyalty just by choosing them. It’s not quid pro quo.
What’s funny about this whole thing is that Obligers often find Questioners irresistible. I’ve been the unrequited crush for several Obligers over the years. Then they want to know, why can’t I fall for them, after all the times they cooked for me/baked me vegan chocolate chip cookies/followed me around/did me favors/bought me presents?
Do you really want me to answer that?
I know an Obliger woman who is constantly annoyed that nobody at work will eat her lovingly prepared homemade baked goods. She keeps doing it even after being rejected for years on end. (NB: they’re not rejecting her, they just aren’t into eating snacks at work, and she refuses to accept that, which is neither loving nor generous).
We’re all amazing for our own reasons. Upholders are amazing for their reliability and principles. Obligers are amazing for their incredible devotion. Rebels are amazing for their iconoclasm and willingness to take a stand over anything at any time.
Questioners? We’re the ones you all come to for recommendations. What should we eat for dinner? Which movie should we see? What are we reading next? Where should we go for vacation? Bangs or no bangs?
I kind of feel like my family thinks I’m full of [it], with the sole exceptions of restaurant recommendations and recipes. I’ll take them somewhere, and they’re still eating there ten years later.
I get asked for recommendations for book clubs that I’m not even in.
Advice is the main way my friends relate to me, and it makes perfect sense from my perspective!
Just asked my husband what he thinks about all this. What makes Questioners attractive? The first thing he said was “ideation.”
“In romance?” Honestly this was the last thing I would have expected him to say.
“We tend to re-evaluate what we do constantly. Are the things we’re doing still working for us? If they’re not, change it!”
What he’s talking about is our annual review process and our weekly status meetings. What, do other couples not do this? Next you’re going to tell me that you don’t even have a formal grievance procedure.
Also, I take dictation on my tablet keyboard while my husband is talking to me. Quite often.
It’s probably not surprising that an engineer would find a Questioner woman attractive.
Upholders run well together. They approve of each other’s methods. I went on vacation once with my husband, mother-in-law, and stepdaughter, all of whom are early-rising Upholders. Their modular suitcases fit perfectly in a row in the back of the vehicle. They each woke up promptly at 5:59 AM every day. They cheerfully got to venues half an hour before they opened and sat obediently in the chilly parking lot. Guess who made all the travel plans, mapped out all the attractions, chose all the restaurants, accommodated everyone’s food preferences, and was extremely tired the whole trip?
Pop culture is tough on my kind. We’re the Steve Urkels and the Hermione Grangers and the Sheldon Coopers. Find an irritating character in a movie or TV show, and guess what? It’s probably someone with strong Questioner traits. I get it, I actually do; I’ve been made to via decades of social exclusion. It’s tougher on a female. We’re supposed to be Obligers and we’re sometimes allowed to be Upholders. We’re not supposed to make other people uncomfortable by analyzing the status quo.
If you can appreciate us, though, we make for pretty interesting friends and fun romantic partners. In my marriage, I’m the one who plans the vacations. I introduced my husband to Indian, Vietnamese, Lebanese, Ethiopian, Afghani, and Korean cuisine, and if I remember right I also taught him to eat with chopsticks. I got him into public speaking and kickboxing and taught him ballroom dancing. I’m the one who suggests and plans our backpacking trips, even though he’s much more experienced and has better wilderness survival skills. If he had married anyone else, he probably would have spent all those years watching TV with his perfectly adequate, perfectly ordinary wife, as they both lived in the same house, worked the same jobs, and ate the same meals, year after year. He never would have known what he was missing.
If you have the great good fortune to win the love of a Questioner, here’s what you do. Whenever we annoy you, put your rebuttal in the form of a question. Are you sure you’re right? What if everyone thought that way? Cite your sources, and will you forward them to me? Make sure we spend plenty of time with our Questioner friends, send us out on fact-finding missions, and keep us well stocked with blank journals (electronic or otherwise). It’s a heavy burden to be the sole sounding board of a busy Questioner, so make sure you spread that around. In return we’ll keep your life interesting, if only you can keep up with us.
She stopped by to pick up some moving boxes. About thirty seconds later, she launched into her story, and twenty minutes later, she was still talking. My husband came out to find out what was going on.
“She just joined the divorce club,” I said, and he laughed and joined in.
When a breakup is hot and fresh, it’s the only thing someone can talk about. My husband was still in that state when I met him. Still actively consulting lawyers about the custody schedule and who got holidays and weekends. I got it, but only because my own divorce had been pretty brutal. Seven years later, I didn’t really think about it that often.
After enough time has gone by, you’re genuinely thrilled not to be with that person anymore.
It takes quite a while to realize that, though! This is why it’s so helpful to do your divorce burn book.
You write it down as evidence, because these thoughts tend to pop up late at night or at random times, and if you’re still not over your ex, it’s easy to wave them away. If you write them down in a big list, or even a big thick notebook, then you start to see how many pages are filling up. The act of writing inspires yet more writing, more memories, more evidence that the two of you weren’t meant to be.
What goes in the divorce burn book?
Every mean thing he ever said
Every nasty facial expression he ever made, not just at you but at anyone
Every stupid argument you ever had, especially the ones where you were right
All his bad habits
Anything about his personal taste that you didn’t like: dumb music, ratty old shirts, gross meal concoctions, anything.
Go deep. Go wide. Go shallow. Get as petty as you need to. You really want to make this burn book smolder and smoke.
The time he claimed that David Lee Roth wrote the original “California Girls.” The time he put a tablespoon of sugar in his scrambled eggs. The disturbing road rage incident. The time he rolled his eyes at you.
What you’re doing is lancing the boil. You’re exorcising the demon. You’re getting rid of any lingering feelings of attachment you had for this person. You’re making sure you don’t take him back, or anything else dumb like that. Whatever reason you broke up, if you ever get back together, breaking up is then a new part of your history. If it happens twice, then it’s a pattern. It’s just one more thing to fight about.
The goal here is to learn the lessons that you can from this relationship, and then start fresh with someone else. You should be better at communicating after every relationship, and that should help you attract someone else who is also better at communicating than your ex. You won’t have the same issues. (Your ex gets a chance to start fresh, too, not that you care!).
Part of why you won’t have the same issues is that you are older and more mature now than you were when you met your ex. Probably so is your new love. The fights that people have at thirty are not the same fights that they have at twenty.
(By the time you get to forty, hopefully you’ve got your preferences figured out and you don’t really have to fight much at all).
The other thing is, of course, that you need to be clear about your dealbreakers and your non-starters. If something drives you crazy, it will drive you crazy in every relationship, no matter who is doing it. You need to make sure you don’t accidentally snare someone who has the dealbreaker, and then fall for him.
Some friends were trying to convince me to date a guy once, the brother of one friend. “Oh, I didn’t even know he likes me,” I said, truthfully. This guy and I had zero in common other than that we are both mammals. “I don’t date smokers,” I said. Mic drop. What? What do you mean you don’t date smokers? “Cigarette smoke gives me nosebleeds,” I replied. How are people not clear on the idea that you are entitled to your own personal tastes? That you would simply not be able to fall in love with someone whose behavior grossed you out?
There are plenty of people who believe you should always give everyone “a chance.” Maybe you’ll fall in love so deeply that it won’t matter.
THIS IS B.S.
First of all, there are over seven billion people in this world. We don’t have time to give everyone a chance!
Whatever people think “falling in love” means, if it ends in cohabitation then behavior matters. Anything that annoys you will annoy you much more often if it happens while you live together, go to restaurants, go on road trips, or do anything together. We’re not talking about a pretty iridescent heart-shaped soap bubble. We’re talking ROOMMATES. Roommates who share a bank account.
Oh, while we’re on the topic, you can go ahead and add an appendix to your burn book. Start with the breakup section, and then you can add a section for roommates, maybe another one for houseguests, and if you’re ambitious, one for annoying coworkers or customers. Let it be a comprehensive list of everything that ever annoyed you.
Sometimes, as time goes by and it stings a little less, you can look over past events and past quarrels and realize that maybe you had your own part to play. When that starts to feel true, then you’re ready for the second phase of breakup recovery. That’s the “My Part in This” section.
What was it that made this obnoxious person attractive to you? Why did you like him? Why did you put up with him for so long? Was there anything you wish you had known? Red flags that you didn’t notice at the time, but now you know you would?
Was there anything you might have done or said that you would maybe do differently next time?
It does help to feel like you know more and that you have better standards after a breakup. People say there are “two sides to every story” (which is not very imaginative; isn’t there at least one side for every person living, plus anyone from the past and everyone from the future?). The truth is, though, that not everyone is equally self-aware or accountable for their behavior. Not everyone is trying equally hard. Not everyone is at the same stage in life. It’s fair to expect that your partner is there for you, reaching out toward you and equally committed to being a good partner.
The divorce burn book is a way of calibrating your expectations. When you’re clear about what you don’t want, it helps you to be more appreciative when you meet someone who might not normally be your type. As long as they don’t have any of your dealbreakers, maybe it’s worth giving them another look.
Maybe you can both become better people together, better together than you were alone.
He used to tease me. “You should marry a rich guy like me; that would solve all your problems.”
“Marriage CAUSED all my problems,” I retorted. I meant it, too.
(I also knew he wasn’t rich. That was part of the joke).
Why would I ever want to get married again? I was free! Free to sleep in the middle of the bed! Free from listening to someone else snore all night! Free to sleep in knee socks or a stocking cap or pink footie pajamas.
I was free! Free to see whatever movie I wanted, sit anywhere in the theater, even my favorite seat in the very front row. I was free to wear whatever color or whatever perfume I wanted, cut my hair however I fancied, choose whatever I wanted for dinner.
I was free! I didn’t have to ride herd on anyone, try to convince anyone else to go to the dentist, wear proper trousers to their boss’s wedding, or not quit their job to work for a startup in their friend’s basement.
Free bird, free from criticism or nagging or badgering. Free from expectations. Free from the double bind of either tolerating a bad roommate’s bad habits or cleaning up after them myself.
Free from the liabilities, the debts, the nasty secrets and surprises that come out when one person’s dark side meets another’s.
Why on Earth would I ever want to get married again?
Contrarians attract. He went on making the same joke from time to time.
“You should go out... blah blah blah... guy like me blah blah blah.”
“You should BE so lucky,” I scoffed.
“You should be so lucky, to have a girlfriend like me.”
I meant it, too. I knew how great it was to live alone. I also knew what a great girlfriend I was on general principle. Almost everyone I ever dated dropped hints about marrying me at some point. I was thirty and I knew full well how much I brought to the table.
Objectively I was a catch. No kids, no cats, great credit, I made my own money, planned my own retirement, followed a budget, and kept a clean house.
More to the point, I was at home with myself. I liked my life. I had my own goals and plans and I didn’t need anyone else to come along and mess them up.
It had nothing to do with what I had to offer as a girlfriend, or a wife for that matter. It had everything to do with whether I wanted or needed a partner.
Boyfriends are trouble in a lot of ways. Sometimes they want to come over when you want to sleep. Sometimes they want to talk when you want to read. Sometimes they want to call you when you want to go to a movie, or the bookstore, or knitting group, or your book club. They think they have a say in your male friendships or your travel plans or, sometimes, what you wear even when they’re not there.
Who needs it?
I had boyfriends. I had boyfriends who wanted to keep dating other people. I had boyfriends who wanted me to clean their apartment, do their mending, cook their meals, give them back rubs, pick them up at the airport, make their travel plans, and pick out their clothes. Dude, I’m not your mom. Or your secretary.
Not that I wouldn’t do those things! I did all of them at one time or another. Over time I became more protective of my energy and my time, understanding that almost anyone would take advantage of my kindness and my giving nature. Not everyone deserves it.
You should be so lucky. You should be so lucky, to have a girlfriend like me.
Eventually he talked me into it. He thought there could be more, and he convinced me that it would be worth finding out.
“I’ve seen your nice side,” he said. “No you haven’t!” I said, shocked that he would think that. All he got was my generic nice, not my personal nice.
He wooed me. He knew just what to do. He cleaned his entire house until the floor gleamed and everything smelled like lemon. He even washed the windows. He cooked me a meal from scratch, including mashed potatoes and biscuits and pie. He bought me a wrench. He made friends with my parrot.
He had something to prove. I didn’t.
He brought me around to his way of thinking. Maybe there could be more between us?
There was, there was. He let me sleep until noon and made me waffles. He did my taxes while I was on vacation. (He still does the taxes). In so many ways, he sought out ways to make my life easier.
That helped. More importantly, it showed he was paying attention. He got me. He got what I was about and he understood how I made decisions. He knew what would be important enough to me to matter.
I’ve made it worth his while, of course. I take loyalty to my mate extremely seriously. I’m his sounding board and chief cheerleader. I make his daily life easier in a thousand small ways, many of which he may not even realize, just as he does mine.
There probably isn’t anyone else I would have married. Anyone else anywhere in the world. I might not even have dated again; honestly, I probably set too high a bar. He cleared it, though. He rose to my expectations - and beyond - because he appreciated the challenge.
I could have done it differently.
I could have pined after some unattainable, aloof and emotionally unavailable character who would have broken my heart without noticing.
I could have gone for volatility, breaking up and getting back together with someone over and over until everyone lost count.
I could have whipped through dozens of dates, looking for something that wasn’t there.
None of that attracted me, though, because I knew who I was. I was a great girlfriend. Or, I would be for the right person, if it was worth my while. Mostly I was just fine by myself.
You should be so lucky.
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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