One of the Uber Frugal Month Challenge homework prompts from Mrs. Frugalwoods is to evaluate the little ways we “treat” ourselves and eliminate that spending entirely. She wisely describe how these little expenditures can easily add up to whole years of your working life if you’re aiming for early retirement.
For myself, one of the key aspects to my financial journey this time around is really taking a look at my behaviors and habits in the context of my emotional history. Starting this blog coincided with realizing I need to write out my thought processes to better understand my impulses, and to hold myself accountable. The concept of little purchases adding up to giant gaping debt holes is something I’ve thought about a lot in the past five months.
Rewind my life ten or so years…. yep, that’s right, we’re talking VHS now…. waiting, waiting….
Katscratch circa 2004 finds herself a newly single mama, living in a bitty one-bedroom apartment with her kiddo and two cats, a first month / last month / security deposit expenditure that broke her bank account (literally, the security deposit check bounced the first time through) while she waited for 401(k) loan funds of $1200 to clear (Kat shouldn’t ever do the math on what that $1200 would have earned by now, just sayin’), no credit card debt yet but no assets either, and maybe a bag of rice in the refrigerator.
Kat was in survival mode. The first few months after moving were especially tricky as she relearned monthly billing amounts for utilities including a prepaid flip phone for $10/month and a bus pass to get to work. Her only credit card was a department store card, and there were more than a few occasions where she took her kiddo to that store to buy “food” at their coffee shop on days there was no cash: juice (20% juice 80% junk), rice krispie bars, cookies, muffins….not ideal, but edible. She was emotionally wrung out and probably depressed, and didn’t really think past the day to day for quite some time.
It took several months, but she figured out her expenses and was able to keep everything on track and live within her means. Once she had a little left over each month, she saved all her pocket change and used it every other Saturday to spend at the coffee shop with her kiddo, reading books, drawing pictures, playing games, and drinking a macchiato (for her) and hot chocolate (for him). These days would etch themselves into her DNA: the feel of the hand-hewn wood table tops with their shiny poly coating, the warmth of the sunshine on her left side, the tickle of the hint of foam on her coffee, the happy humsinging of a child with a fresh drawing paper and a pencil. They were absolute magic to Kat, these afternoons in total luxury, sipping coffee and having time to just be with her son.
2004 Kat had a lot of luck and privilege on her side: she was reasonably educated, had an okay job with the ability to purchase health coverage, lived in an area with a robust public transportation system, had a healthy child, and had existing clothing/toys/personal items from her previous life. By the numbers however, Kat was living in poverty, and those Saturdays made her feel Real. Those macchiato purchases made her feel not-broke. Spending half a day with a book and her kiddo made her feel like someday she’d actually get Past This phase of her life.
And she did!
Let’s fast forward back to the present day… ok…. ok…. wait, not quite to today, but about a year ago, before I found my frugal inner warrior.
Before-Uber-Frugal-Kat thought she was doing alright managing her money. She once again had no credit card debt, had no problem paying her small mortgage and associated house expenses, and had a job that paid a living wage. She picked up coffee at the neighborhood shop on the weekends, chatting with the locals. She ate the giant cafeteria breakfast on big work days where she’d be on her feet for 8 hours without taking a break. Every once in a while she walked to the corner store to buy a pint of sale ice cream, just because she could. She and her son still loved going to the coffee shop, but in between those weeks they’d go to brunch at their favorite breakfast cafe.
Then Kat replaced her car a year before she’d planned, and took out financing. It was still well within her budget – she thought. Within six months, she had two major dental procedures and her son had emergency surgery with a slew of associated doctor’s appointments. Tightening up a bit, she simply cut down on eating brunches out and started meal planning. After all, she didn’t eat dinners out all the time or shop for clothes, so she was sure her budget would be back to Savings Mode in no time. No problem!
But it was a problem.
I was still “treating” myself to small items that were completely unnecessary: coffee out at least once a week, a new lip balm here and there, cafeteria meals whenever I “forgot” to make my lunch. The problem wasn’t so much that I was still spending on these things, but that they had become habits instead of treats!
I always thought of lifestyle inflation being represented by New Stuff. New late model car, new TV, new clothes…. I didn’t have any of that, so I actually believed I wasn’t a keeping-up type. But over just a few years, the small purchase that used to make my very soul sing to the stars in gratitude became routine. ALL those little things were just little things to me now! I thought so flippantly about these types of purchases, I just lumped them in with other budget categories — they didn’t even stand out, it was so ingrained in my spending behavior.
Even though I could technically “afford” these expenditures as part of my monthly spending budget (until last summer when I dug a debt hole), my relationship with money wasn’t serving me well. I didn’t value the things I’d once revered. Instead of savoring the very rare treats, I’d tricked myself into complacency, not just with spending on the little stuff, but with the idea of having debt.
As I’ve said before, my mindset toward my finances has changed drastically in the past few months. Regardless of where I am on my path to financial freedom, I don’t want to mindlessly consume my way through life!
I know now, too, that I work better on an all-or-nothing challenge when it comes to competing with myself. It took a long time for me to realize that those little things made a really big difference to my monthly bottom line – it wasn’t really noticeable when I cut down, but cutting out entirely? Yep, that I noticed. It is not an option to spend money on something I thought was trivial six months ago. Those spends don’t serve my Future Self financially, and they really don’t serve my present self emotionally.
Until the start of Uber Frugal January, I often drank a glass of wine with dinner. I looked forward to it daily, but it had certainly become part of my nightly routine. A habit. Nothing special, good or bad, just something I did regularly.
I’ve substituted tea to help with the winter chills and maintain the sipping-beverage ritual, but now it is truly a ritual. I heat the water in a little pot on my stove until it just starts to bubble and then pour over the tea in the teapot my mom searched through catalogs for and sent me one year for my birthday. I think of her every single time I use this glass pot because it’s so representative of her thoughtfulness in gift-giving. Once it’s steeped I pour it into a china teacup from a set I inherited from my grandmother. I take notice of the sound the base of the cup makes as it greets the saucer. I almost always marvel for a second that I’m drinking tea from the same cup my grandmother drank tea from over fifty years ago. I usually let the steam warm my face before I take my first sip, and there are some nights like tonight that I feel my eyes tear up while I’m thinking about how connected I am to my past: my motherhood, my daughterhood, my habits, my choices, are all part of the millions of moments that brought me right here.
Now this is a treat.