When We Make Spending Choices We Don’t Like

I currently read a fairly narrow span of subjects when it comes to blogs – personal finance of course – followed by simple living, home improvement, and homesteading sites.

At least once a month I come across a statement in various posts along the lines of, “We were lazy so we ordered takeout,” or “Too lazy to mow and now the weeds are taking over!”

my city – from a rooftop where I totally spent $4 on kombucha

 

The concept of “laziness” in relation to spending choices especially bothers me. Using that term implies an inherent slothfulness towards money in the moment the choice was made. I believe, however, that it also creates a cycle of guilt. Say that we logically hold the belief that we should cook our own dinner instead of ordering in, to further our financial goals. One night we get home late, tired and overly hungry, trip on the cat because he’s hungry too, stub our toe on that same dang corner cabinet, and we recognize that preparing dinner is going to be more of a chore than our current mindset wants to tolerate. So we order Thai food.

We order Thai food, and there’s a little voice in our head that reminds us we don’t want to spend all our money on takeout. Then there’s another little voice that chimes in reminding us we are accountable to an audience and we’ll have to admit we spent money on takeout. Before long there’s a whole chorus admonishing us for a simple choice made in a simple moment where our wants didn’t align with our goals.

Three days later when we’re writing and tallying up our spending for the week, we pen the seemingly innocuous phrase, “We were lazy so we ordered takeout,” and have reinforced to ourselves that we made a “bad” choice.

I believe it’s time we stop labeling our spending decisions as “good” or “bad” — especially to ourselves. 

To me this dichotomy just reinforces the “treat” mentality many of us fight so hard to overcome. Assigning emotional value to spending choices is also how many of us got into debt situations in the first place! Making ourselves feel guilty just adds to the pile of subconscious beliefs we have about our ability to manage our finances well.

If we take the emotion away from how we frame our decisions, choices become yes or no questions. “Does this spending fit the clearly defined goals I’ve outlined for my financial future?” 

this guy wants you to stop making yourself feel badly about money

If the answer is yes, great!

If the answer is no, it gives us an opportunity to examine our spending habits and the stories we’ve unknowingly told ourselves about why we spend. In the takeout example, perhaps we’ve just started cooking at home recently and it’s not yet enjoyable or quick. Or maybe we’re really struggling with meal prep for busy days and the idea of yet another warmed up frozen meal is not appetizing. Or it could be as simple as we’ve really, really been craving authentic Thai food from that place down the street where we spent so many great nights last summer with friends. None of these possibilities are “good” or “bad” scenarios, right? They just are. Understanding which one is the reason we chose to order Thai can help us in the future, if we can look at it objectively.

If we identify that cooking is slow and tedious, or we’re just struggling with foods being routine, we can look at changing prep time to include music, slicing and measuring portions of veggies and fruits ahead of time so all we have to do is dump ingredients together (I’ve been known to premeasure even things like cheese days ahead because I am still slow!), and trying one new recipe a week that looks plain fun. If we realize that we have had a hankering for Thai because we associate it with easy companionship and good conversations, maybe we can plan to invite friends over and make a crock pot curry next time.

The key is reframing our decisions to encourage an empowered mindset. If I thought about my cafeteria breakfast purchase this morning as a bad decision (yes, I totally did just this morning spend $8 on eggs and potatoes!), I’ve now reinforced the guilt cycle internally. Next time I get home late I’ll tell myself “Oh I’ll just make breakfast in the morning,” and when it doesn’t happen again I’ll be thinking, “Ugh! See, I still can’t get this right!” I had a little twinge at the $8 price tag, for sure, but I know by now that if I chastise myself internally over this, I’ll be more likely to do the same next time. Now instead of being able to shake off this one purchase as an aberration in the giant picture of my financial wizardry, it’s becoming a pattern associated with negative emotions. Feeling badly almost never leads to success in big endeavors.

So what the heck do we tell ourselves, then? Instead of being annoyed with my purchase this morning, I realize it’s simply a choice that I don’t like. I can clearly identify the variables that led up to this decision: I worked late last night and thought I’d prep my food this morning; I sure did sleep hard and didn’t get up on time; I forgot to boil eggs in my water for making coffee while I was showering (I thought I was a genius the first time I did that); I remembered I don’t have any bananas because I’m having an internal conflict about the ethics of buying bananas; and I hit the door with just coffee in hand. Did I berate myself all the way to work? Nope. I had a good chuckle about the very obvious outcome to my lack of preparation and the grand assumption that I could suddenly be expected to function before 5am when I don’t on any other day. I know I’m still committed to my finance journey, and I won’t allow a blip here and there to keep me from making forward progress. 

If I start noticing a pattern, then yes, it’s time to revisit my goals and make sure they still match my values. Because every spending choice at its core boils down to that yes or no question, regardless of what caused us to spend in the past.

It helps, too, to remind ourselves of how awesome we are for being on this journey at all. I know that I’m a pretty amazing human woman that has the ability to choose how my money is spent — just think about that! That is power! Most of us are in a position right now to have the privilege to choose where our money goes! Even for those of us that are choosing to fulfill minimum payments that stretch our budgets incredibly thin, we are choosing to move forward. That’s incredible!

If you soon find yourself disappointed in an impulse buy, take a moment to stop and examine the feeling, then send it on its merry way. “Thanks, guilt, for showing  up so I can look at this situation from a different perspective.”

“Does this spending choice align with my financial goals and my personal values?”

Happy Friday, finance friends!

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The Importance of Feeling Abundant Without Money

Every summer I scale back my digital use to reconnect with sunshine, with nature, and most importantly with myself. Winter is often a time of deep reflection for me, and often leads to good changes in my habits, like starting to document my journey with finances here. While I didn’t anticipate that it would be difficult for me to maintain a writing schedule once summer hit, it’s been surprisingly insightful to put my ideas into practice without the daily support system I’d created for myself by reading the fantastic finance blogging community.

 

By far the biggest shift in beginning to achieve my finance goals has been changing my mental and emotional relationship to money. I’ve never been a typical consumer in the sense of clothes, shoes, or electronics, but I’ve certainly spent years of my adult life frivolously throwing cash at food, at music (primarily concerts that often meant more food and beverage spending), at experiences with my kiddo that I know now could have been done practically for free if I’d researched a bit more.

I thought I felt good about myself that I didn’t “want” the clothes and shoes that a lot of my friends enjoyed buying, but the truth is that I felt I “couldn’t afford” to buy unnecessary things and therefore I was a bit self-righteous in not desiring those things. Then I turned around and easily justified to myself the spending on lunches out with friends, coffee treats on payday, music shows where friends’ bands were playing, science museum passes, cheap seat movie tickets, and car rentals to drive to a far suburb where a friend was a theatre production designer for free admission to musicals that my son loved. I’m sure I spent a lot more on those choices than I ever would have on my style of clothing and shoes!

 

The difference now is that I’m not looking at my strict budget and feeling that I can’t purchase something — I’m looking at all the things I DO have and feeling grateful for my home, my pets, the appliances that make daily life easier, my car, my bicycle, and the fact I have a job that allows me the money for all of these things. It’s a choice not to “treat” myself to something that’s not really a treat, because I know that that $4 coffee isn’t worth losing sight of my goals. The choice not to treat myself with that $4 coffee is now self-rewarding, because I deeply love the ritual of making my own cup in the morning and sipping it while waking up slowly.

 

I’ve seen a lot of advice over the years regarding gratitude, such as ending your day with noting things for which you are grateful. I’ve been doing something similar for a few months, but I start my day in gratitude and thanks. Right as I wake up, I write (ok scribble, this is pre-caffeine and lacking glasses) something I am truly grateful for right that moment. Usually it’s my elderly dog snuggled up with me, but today it was the realization that it was only Sunday and I could read for a few hours instead of jumping up to go to work (this doesn’t happen very often, but what a GIFT that calendar-mis-awareness is!!). When I first started this practice, I was writing more along the lines of setting an intention for the day. I’ve found, however, that feeling thankful for what is already present in my life first thing has been even more profound. I don’t need to choose a specific intention, because everything I want is already present. This doesn’t mean all my debt is magically gone and I can retire tomorrow, rather, it does mean that right now I already have the tools and the drive to make that happen.

 

And so do you! Wherever you are in your financial journey, the fact you’re on the internet reading, researching, or making connections with folks in the finance blog world means you already have taken steps to move in the right direction for you. You already have everything you need to start that journey. I’ve realized that I have everything I need and more, and the pull of spending has rapidly lessened the more abundant I feel.

Have an abundantly frugal week, friends 🙂

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Things I’ve Learned From Giving Myself a “Bye” Month

Just a week into April it became very clear that my social calendar was much fuller than anticipated – and much fuller than I am used to, as an introvert who’s become quite fond of staying home and not spending any money.

city sunset

I decided the first weekend, after the 30 Days of Biking Kickoff Ride, that I was still fully committed to Saying Yes to opportunities for connecting with people. This would mean allowing spending for things like a pizza meal out with my kiddo, one of his favorite visiting-home traditions, as well as giving myself some flexibility in food and drink spending during social outings.

I also picked up a lot of extra call shifts during April, including two full weekends, and although we take off-premise call and don’t always work overnight or during the weekends, there often is disruption to my normal evening routine and sleep schedule when I have a string of call days. This is precisely what happened, and I found myself catching the respiratory bug that’s been prevalent in this area (when I haven’t been ill in several years). On top of fighting illness, I ended up working a difficult overnight case the third week that threw my entire routine out the window for several days until I caught up on sleep.

A year ago, these variables would certainly have led to a month of abandoned financial goals and cash flying out of my pockets willy-nilly, beers flowing and pizzas consumed at a remarkable rate, take-out to make up for not sleeping and being ill, “treating” myself (which is never a treat!) here and there throughout the month to make up for the lack of preparedness.

 

In terms of my overall routines, it’s quite clear that I didn’t make time for writing here, which correlates to less “making time” for other previously-established habits such as tracking spending, prepping all my meals for the week, and rising early to savor a cup of coffee.

 

So how far off the rails did my finance train end up?

With one exception, I stayed within the amounts I’d loosely budgeted for the month, and these amounts were still lower than I was spending a year ago. I am no longer surprised how fast a $10 tab here and there throughout the week add up – and boy do they add up fast! – and I was able to keep track of the running total, instead of giving up and ignoring the numbers for a few weeks like I’ve done in the past.

My glaring incident of mindless spending occurred on Record Store Day. My son, his girlfriend and I joined our bike shop for a bicycle tour of different record stores around the cities. They all had events such as food trucks or live music, and for most of the day we spent nothing, having brought our own snacks and drinks. One record store, however, was my old stomping grounds and where I used to spend a very large chunk of monthly disposable funds. Without even thinking about it, I purchased two records! I had a vague sense of, “This event is so great for promoting small businesses,” and -poof- there went $40!

The big takeaway for me, however, isn’t that I spent a large amount (considering my previous six months) on something absolutely not needed, but that I was able to acknowledge that it happened and move right on. I didn’t experience the shock-and-guilt feelings that I would have a year ago, and experienced often for a few years before that.

 

I’m also very pleased that I’ve seemed to kick the “treat” mentality completely out of my life — there were almost NO emotions attached to my spending for the month! Reviewing my calendar and matching up the outflow is very interesting from a habit and data collection standpoint, but that’s it. I cannot remember a single time in my adult life where I’ve been able to look at spending without judging myself in some tiny way. This is huge!

Overall, the lessons I learned from a month of spending with abandonment are worth more to me and my understanding of my own journey than the dollar amount I could have saved. I feel I’m in a much healthier space because of it. I’m actually in a better position to move forward financially, because of the insights I discovered, but also socially and emotionally – I gained friendships and have made a couple of special connections with people that I would have avoided in the name of “Sticking to the Plan” prior to April. Taking chances is sometimes worth far more than the risk 🙂

plum in bloom!

 

And it’s finally Spring! I’m looking forward to fresh salads and a lot more time in the sunshine riding my bike and playing with my pup 🙂

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Why I’m Not Drinking This St. Patrick’s Day

Don’t get me wrong; I drink alcohol. My body and my taste buds really, really enjoy whiskey and even better a bit of scotch.  But in my quest to pay off all my non-mortgage debt then save like a frugal fiend, I’ve discovered spending habits that weren’t so obvious at first.

Holidays used to be a great excuse to get a foofoo latte, or eat out with friends, or generally just let mindfulness go out the window when it came to spending (or eating!).

This year I realized that with my kiddo away for school (so past the green eggs and pancakes stage), and with me being not one whiff of Irish, there is no real reason for me to celebrate a holiday that for me has mostly been an excuse to eat, drink booze and laugh with friends.

I know if I go out tonight I’ll end up drinking a beverage that I don’t really need, eating an appetizer that won’t taste as great as I remember from a couple years ago, and staying up later than my body likes. But more importantly, I’ll be spending money that does nothing to serve my goal of financial independence, and in light of the blatant booziness of this holiday in my city, does nothing to further my goal of Saying Yes to deepening my relationships.

My overall goal for winning at my finances is really to simplify my life – it’s simple to stay home and avoid the manic city crowds. It’s simple to acknowledge that my body has aged enough to appreciate good sleep. It’s simple to be cheered by social media photos of friends out for the night while I’m curled up with the dog and a good book.

I do secretly wish I hadn’t decided to not restock my whiskey collection, but the subtle longing and subsequent denial will be good for me 🙂

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The Importance of Telling Yourself a Great Story

We’ve all read articles about the importance of positive thinking, and a lot of us have probably read articles outlining how to stop the negative thought-cycles that can exacerbate apathy or depression.

 

 

When I was not-so-recently divorced and worried about my future, I remember reading advice along the lines of Think Happy and Happiness Will Follow, and thinking that those people obviously never had to feed their kiddo cheese tortillas for three days straight because there wasn’t anything else until payday, or ride a bike for an hour just to get to the bus stop because the car broke down again, or lay awake at night wondering if life would ever get back to “normal”.

It’s easy to see now that my emotional health was not the best during that time — but an important lesson from that period in my life was that my brain literally did not see a way out of that fog. I could tell myself a thousand times that I could get through this, but it didn’t seem real.

 

It’s the same for me and finances. 

It took me years to pay off my former debt. Years of feeling deprived, even though I was still spending on lots of little unnecessary things that felt needed at the time. Years of feeling inadequate as an adult and mom for not having it all together. Self-induced guilt that, if I could have only retrained my thinking, would have been better served in figuring out strategies for spending less. And so forth.

I knew logically that my mindset wasn’t working in my favor, but my next tactic of looking for external inspiration led me to grand stories of 20-somethings paying off tens of thousands of dollars in mere months by cutting out cable, selling some shoes, and dropping the bar tab from the weekly spend. That didn’t help 😉

Somehow I never stumbled on the well-loved references like Your Money or Your Life, or the Tightwad Gazette, or The Millionaire Next Door. I was relying on my not-seemingly-spendy-but-secretly-very-spendy peer group of mamas for my financial outlook, and their purchasing decisions were definitely based on form over function. I didn’t buy into the hype with my wallet, because I didn’t have the money, but it should have occurred to me that I could find equally healthy food choices at the corner store (instead of the spendy co-op) or I could bring my own coffee and snacks to the playground (how many hundreds of dollars did I spend on “necessary” coffees and pastries?).

I kept trucking along, my habits and social groups reinforcing the idea that I just didn’t make enough money for the lifestyle I “needed”.

Eventually I changed jobs, and was now surrounded by stereotypical middle-class Americans – two mortgages, new cars, vacation to the tropics or Mexico at least once per winter, new phones every year, season tickets to sporting events, and new clothing every season. It helped that I am more interested in camping and hiking over watching sports or TV, so I avoided the culture creep when my income started rising.

By summer of 2015 I was finally in a position to see my way out of the chronic debt cycle. It was the first time in maybe ten years that I felt like I was on the right path. In fact, I was feeling pretty darn smug. I’d saved cash for a car, but after weeks of shopping and hating the entire process, I financed part of my current vehicle. During that process, I refinanced my mortgage through the same credit union, for a slightly higher monthly payment but slashing a huge amount of interest by the final payment.

Then in a span of months, I had dental surgery and other dental procedures, and my son had a series of urgent medical appointments leading to urgent surgery. We kept our vacation plans and by simply not paying attention, I racked up enough debt to nauseate myself when I finally faced the bill.

Once again, I found myself in negativity-land, berating myself for getting into a deeper hole than I’d ever been. I took a second job that worked around my odd hours, and contemplated selling my car and using Car2Go on the days I took call.

I spent a few months slogging along, until I stumbled across a blog that talked about living frugally as a choice, in order to save a large enough portion of income to be able to retire early.

For some reason, this clicked. Instead of telling myself that would be impossible in my situation, I had the sudden thought, “I could hike almost every day if I did that!”  Instead of wishing that were me, I found myself thinking in terms of the actions being taken. I’d found my quest — and as anyone who’s read any story of a grand quest knows, it has to be BIG. And hard. And glorious when you reach the goal.

My whole mindset shifted — it had never occurred to me, in my few years of making a modest but livable salary, that I could choose to live as frugally as I had in the lean years. I could choose to ride my bike to work instead of drive – and realized it was not only fun, but way less stressful than driving in traffic! I could choose to eat the same thing every day, and save money, with the wonderful side effect of not worrying what was for dinner. I could choose to love the clothes I already owned, and suddenly I stopped noticing clothing ads, freeing up that subconscious slot for something more meaningful to my life.

I’m choosing to be someone working toward financial freedom. Always before, I would wish I had the money savvy of “those people” but never really saw myself as anything other than slowly paying off debt. I’d never stopped to envision the why of being financially free, so when I stumbled across an example of people living a life very close to my ideal, it just made sense.

Last night when I was tempted to stop by the store on the way home, “just for eggs”, I reminded myself that I’m now a savvy menu planner that shops on Saturdays, and I’d be just fine for one day without eggs. I saved myself the effort of not buying anything else (oh look goat cheese is on sale, and oh hey I haven’t had Pringles in ages and ages), and my oatmeal was just fine this morning.

I tell myself I’ll be financially independent in ten years, because it sounds AWESOME. I tell other people sometimes too. According to calculators, I am off by about, oh, only 73 years 😉 but when I started documenting my progress a couple months ago I had almost 90 years to go — so I’m already narrowing the gap in a rapid fashion!

Telling myself that I’m a frugal goddess has resulted in me being happy with my choices. I don’t feel deprived, I feel like life is so much simpler and easier now without all those spending decisions cluttering up my mind. 

 

This is working in other areas of my life, too — I told myself a year ago that I could be a cyclist like my son. I bought a bike, got a little practice on city trails, then we rode our bikes from Pittsburgh to Washington D.C. and I loved every moment.

I told myself I am a cyclist, and then I told myself that even though I’m an introvert, I’m awesome, and I joined a monthly group ride. I’m definitely the slowest rider in the group, but luckily these rides are at exactly my pace and they’re all about the love of biking and meeting kind souls.

I told myself it’s perfectly okay not to want to date people right now, because I’m having too much fun creating my amazing life, and it’s become so much easier getting to know folks without that awkward social pressure — or spending money needlessly, ha!

 

I can’t create a formula for how to get from the point of mild depression and an inability to see a grand life, to finding the joy in the journey, because we all have different experiences that lend a subconscious hand in our thoughts and habits. I simply stumbled on an internal road map unlocking a whole new section of my world I hadn’t previously imagined, and I’m so glad I did.

I’d never been one to make long-term goals, even though I know it’s a key component of attaining success in many realms. Even at work I found it pointless to make serious 5- and 10-year plans (since my position is static, aside from continuing education). I do sometimes wonder, however, if I would have taken a moment (in likely disbelief) to really consider the answer to “What Is My Ideal Week?” ten years ago if my attitudes and habits would have started to shift earlier.

What is the best story you’ve told yourself about yourself? Take a moment to let it sink in that you already are that fantastic!

 

 

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Raising Consumer Savvy Kids

For those of you with young children, think back over the media aimed at families that you’ve seen in the past week. Television, magazines, ads placed next to your Facebook feed, and so forth.

How many ads can you recall promote a product for children? Toys, clothing, vitamins, sports equipment….

How many ads or even plain images can you recall promote just being a kid? Running, jumping, making up stories, dancing to no music, making swords out of sticks, singing nursery rhymes?

There’s an overwhelming message in our society that children’s culture is consumer culture.

 

Somewhere in the timeline of families becoming more child-centered and the advent of family social time being focused on watching a television show together, companies started researching marketing tactics that hooked consumers at an earlier age. Companies like Disney have spent huge sums of money finding ways to create “cradle to grave” brand loyalty. Studies show that infants as young as 6 months can recognize brand logos, and splashing a nursery with corporate characters just reinforces those connections in developing brains.

Food with cartoon characters featured on the packaging is placed at a child’s eye level, and before we know it, a toddler has to have a Frozen dress and lunchbox and listens to the soundtrack in the car and eats Frozen-themed chicken nuggets and gets Frozen toys in the drive-through. As busy parents we think we are making choices for our kids, but in reality the corporations behind child marketing are making the choice for us if we are mindless consumers ourselves.

 

The first step in minimizing the effect of childhood marketing is to minimize the exposure. 

 

In 2011, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, 90% of parents said their children under 2 watched some form of electronic media one to two hours per day.  At the time the academy recommended no screen time for children under two years of age. Even with the AAP’s recommendation changing in 2016 to allow for families’ habits changing over the years, multiple studies show that sleep patterns and language development are disrupted in children who do have media exposure before age two.

When I was pregnant with my son (nearly 20 years ago) I found myself reading numerous journal and research articles in the neuroscience section of my university library, specifically on then-current studies of infant brain development and the importance of free play and parent interaction.

For me and my son’s father it was easy to choose not to let our baby watch TV – even without my readings and our pediatrician’s recommendation, in our new parent bliss we didn’t want or need our baby in front of a screen. We wanted to play with him, read to him, and cuddle and bathe and sleep. Sure, we recorded new episodes of X-Files to watch on the rare night we weren’t exhausted and the baby was sleeping, and we loved movies, but we were also active, outdoorsy types and were living in a town where it was easy to find like-minded people and things to do.

We mostly had second-hand clothing and selected items that were free of logos or characters. We limited toys and asked that gifts from grandparents were books, or free-building Lego sets when age appropriate. We cooked at home and made baby food by mashing up what we were eating.

For us, then, limiting exposure was the easy part. Or so I smugly thought. I vividly remember a day driving with my baby strapped in his rear-facing car seat, and seeing his little arm excitedly pointing out the window. “Do you see an airplane?” “Unh, unh!” “A car?” “Unh!” What in the world was he looking at?? And then it dawned on me: “Are you pointing at that yellow sign?” “Gai!” (which meant “yes” in his made-up language). He was pointing at the sign of a place he had never been to, never seen a commercial for, and never heard a word about: McDonald’s. Even though we were positive he didn’t actually recognize the logo, he responded to it just as enthusiastically as if we’d gone there the day before.

From that point on we became much more proactive with our anti-consumer endeavors. It was no longer good enough to keep our kiddo in our little bubble until he was walking and speaking actual English instead of a mishmash of sign and his own language, because he already understood way more about the world around him that we’d expected.

Like many issues we as parents face with our children, it’s important to talk. Repeatedly. At different ages and throughout our children’s lives. 

We started calling out various marketing ploys we saw wherever we went. At the grocery store, “See that toy display on the end of the shelf? See how easy it is for you to reach the toys? That’s because the store wants you to like that toy.” “But I do like that toy!” “And we can visit it next time we come here to get food.”

Then, a couple of years later, “See that toy display on the end of the shelf? The store wants you to think that you need that toy.” “But what if I do need that toy?” “Do you have a toy at home?” “Yes!” “Then you want that toy, you don’t need it, and that’s okay, we’ll visit this toy the next time we come here to get food.”

Then, a couple of years later, “See that toy display on the end of the shelf? You know how the store wants you to like that toy so you will buy it? Let’s try to find how many other places you can find that same character in the store. How many times does this store try to make you buy that toy?”

Then, a couple of years later, “See that toy display? Remember when you were little and really wanted that toy? Would you still play with it today?”

kiddo riding no-handed while I’m naturally envisioning him falling into the river to the left

 

It’s also important to talk about the different types of messages used in marketing – and not just marketing directed at kids. 

It’s simple to spot toy product placement, but messages about what we as humans need in order to be happy is force fed all of us every day. Any media we exposed our son to we did very deliberately and talked through the entire thing – every radio commercial, every videotaped children’s movie, even books.

We talked about how these things made us feel. We talked about what the intent might be (of the author, or the commercial writer, or the movie character that just said something worth discussing). We talked about the things our family valued (always being able to talk to each other, honesty, being kind, being true to ourselves and standing up for what we believe is right). We talked about how the message in whatever we were passively interacting with fit into our family’s idea of a healthy world.

The first time I realized that all my ramblings did in fact have meaning to our son, we were once again driving, listening to the radio, when suddenly after a truck commercial a little voice announced, “Oh MAN! That one GOT me! That GM vehicle really got me! I really want a GM vehicle now!”

 

Realize that it’s not just messages about stuff that reinforce the idea we need to buy in to a certain way of living to be happy.

Here’s where you might think I’m a nut, and as with all things parenting, take the pieces that work for your family and leave the rest 🙂

As a toddler my son loved purple and glitter, loved trucks and construction equipment, loved his toenails painted like his friends, loved playing with sticks as if they were swords, and loved his weekly dance class. Every week I overheard other moms speaking in hushed horror that they’d never let their son wear nail polish and a sparkly shirt. Sometimes other kids would ask if he was a girl, and he’d cheerfully say, “Nope, I like this shirt when I dance, it’s fun!”

When we went clothes shopping, we talked about how the stores decide what is for boys and what is for girls when it comes to t-shirt colors. I remember more than once uttering, “Target is trying to tell you girls don’t like football and boys don’t like purple. I think that should be your decision about your body.”

We also discussed that most families didn’t think the same way as we did, so other kids might say “boy” colors or “girl” colors, and that’s okay for them if that is what makes them feel happy. Because these were concepts we’d talked about for years, our kiddo had no problem being confident in his choices and explaining them to anyone who asked. His wardrobe changed quite a bit over the years, but his ability to find his own way without worrying about what society expected of him remained steady.

 

Don’t get me wrong, our son was still a material-driven kid — he’s collected things over the years from Legos to Hot Wheel cars to Yu-Gi-Oh playing cards to video games to computer parts to bicycles, in roughly that order. But he can tell me exactly why he chose to let every single one of those items into his life. He also has no trouble letting those things leave his life once he’s moved on (um… I’m the one that still has a tote full of cars and Yu-Gi-Oh cards, and I hope he never outgrows his Legos!).

 

It’s not just what we buy, but why that makes us mindless spenders. 

I readily admit my parenting experiment was conducted with just one child, but our choices as parents have hopefully helped shaped a discerning consumer. I’m sure he’ll have things happen in his life that shape his relationship with money, just as we all do. I’m hopeful that being able to identify his impulses and how they are affected by his surroundings will be a solid enough foundation to avoid the mindless spending traps so many of us have spent years trying to reverse.

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When Treats Become Tricks

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.

pouring water for tea-making

Rewind my life ten or so years…. yep, that’s right, we’re talking VHS now…. waiting, waiting….

Ok. Play.

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.

Yogi tea sayings make bagged tea worth using

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.

Royal Derby of England, c. 1933

Now this is a treat. 

 

Happy weekend, all. 

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Starting From Scratch

….again.

You see, I’ve been down the debt payoff road before.  I even briefly followed Build Wealth Boulevard.  But a year of higher than usual bills, a bunch of impulsive purchases, and a few months of not tracking my spending sent me back to In the Hole Neighborhood.

I started this post just before New Years’ but I wasn’t yet sure that I was ready to admit my mistakes here.  I’d made a commitment to moving forward, and was feeling great about it, and didn’t want to dwell too much and derail my emotional wins.

Running toward Financial Independence! Or a cookie.

The last time I paid off debt I was actually discouraged by most of the blogs I found. It seemed that everyone was in their early 20’s, unmarried and without children, and had hundreds of dollars worth of shopping for clothing, shoes, meals out, and high-priced cable TV packages to cut out monthly. None of those things matched my life. On the other side was increasing income – every successful blogger seemed to have a slew of profitable side hustles. I considered side hustles or getting a second job, but as a single mom I greatly resented the time I already spent away from my kiddo. Even though it meant I’d be in debt longer, I chose not to work more hours than I already did. I slogged away month after month after month, paying the little extra I could a little bit at a time.  I still read a fair number of articles and blogs, to educate myself, but finding a story that resonated with me didn’t happen very often.

But it wasn’t my circumstances that caused me to get into debt, and it wasn’t my circumstances that caused me to get into debt again. It was my mindset.  

In the past year or so, I’ve learned to truly appreciate the blessings that I have.  I’m finally at a point I’m not just comfortable in my own skin, I feel amazing — even though I’m fluffier in the midsection than I’ve ever been and I’m at an age where there’s a never ending battle against chin hair 😉 I find myself in absolute awe of the world around me almost daily – a slice of moon hanging in the sky won’t ever fail to make me happy.

Look at that moon!

I can’t explain exactly when this happened — when I realized I am happy with myself and my life. A few years ago, I would’ve said I was happy and grateful, but I can feel it now.

How does this affect my finances? As I said in my last post, I consider my Past Self’s choices to be stepping stones to where I am today. Yeah, I made some big financial blunders, but I also know now that I have the ability to correct my mistakes. This time around, just like last time, I’m looking toward research and reading for external motivation, but my view has been widened and for some unknown reason, the stories that continued past debt repayment to financial independence and early retirement do resonate in a way that other stories hadn’t. I found a name for the goal that had been hidden in my heart the whole time — I now can envision a life after my hourly wage.

On paper, it will take years, maybe close to two decades, to reach that goal. A few years ago I wouldn’t have even dreamed of financial independence, because it would have seemed impossible — and this was when I had no debt!

But now I have something to work toward, instead of just working away at my debt. It makes a big difference.  

In the past two months, I’ve cut out most unnecessary spending like coffee away from home, music shows, and occasional meals out. I cut my auto insurance by 55% by switching companies. I decreased my already cheap cell phone bill and compared it to landline prices – it’s cheaper to stick with the cell phone. I cancelled Netflix. I started biking to work and on cold days drove only to the train station instead of all the way to work. I decided to keep biking in winter. I made all my own food. I drank wine only on weekends.

These were all relatively small things that a few years ago I probably thought wouldn’t make a difference. I probably thought somewhere deep in my brain that I “deserved” coffee out and Netflix. I definitely thought that the money spent on shows was worthwhile, even though I haven’t missed it at all. I now love meal planning, even though I’m still not very good at it. I love going to bed early and getting up early to make coffee and really savor my mornings. I love riding a bike!

So….starting from scratch.  Where exactly is my scratch, these days?

Here’s my starting point for 2017:

 

My monthly payment minimums are currently almost $1000. The last time I paid off all my debt I was struggling with $300/month payments! But I can do it.

And hey, after an automatic payment to my student loans yesterday, I’m already 0.5% of the way there!

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Saying Yes and a Challenge for the New Year

I’ve never been one to make a list of resolutions at the end of each year, but I do like to embrace the the time from the solstice through the calendar new year as a fresh start and a time to reflect.  My new commitment to writing here to keep myself accountable, however, has led to being quite enthused about setting finance goals for 2017.  After tracking my spending for a year, and really looking closely the past few months, I feel like I finally have a handle on the good and the bad of my money habits.

The Frugalwoods’ Uber Frugal Month challenge came at the perfect time for me — and did all the prep work that I’d been musing over for several weeks, by outlining specific steps to identify goals and set plans.  My first step is to figure out why I’m doing all of this in the first place (aside from paying off debt!).

 

My biggest reason to aim for financial independence and at least partial retirement in the next 10-15 years is to have more time for all the things I love to do.  Right now I spend approximately 46-52 hours per week related to my job when I’m not on call, and in the winter I find it difficult to do more than laze about reading and drinking tea on my days off from work.   I am passionate about the work I do, but if I were part time I’d be more likely to be equally passionate about house projects, gardening and canning, bicycling, and scheduling time with my family and friends more than twice a year when our calendars miraculously align.

I would like to be financially independent so that I can visit loved ones without agonizing over my budget.  Most of my family lives across the country from me, as do many of my friends.  While I don’t anticipate ever being a person who jumps on a last-minute flight to attend a birthday party in another state without having planned ahead, I would like the flexibility to make planned visits happen more frequently.  My parents’ age is also a motivation for me to attain financial independence, as I would want to be there if anything were to happen that required assistance from myself or my brother.  Right now this would mean taking a formal leave from my job, which would be unpaid after I used up the paid time off hours I bank each year.

Now that I’ve identified for myself the longterm goals to inform my choices, it’s time to break down specifics for the challenge.  From the Frugalwoods’ goal setting prompts:

Why am I participating in this challenge?

I’m hoping to better define my frugality muscles.  I’m hoping that my cutbacks in the past couple of months lead to new ideas and habits of frugality that I haven’t yet discovered.  The challenge itself is aligned with goals I wanted to focus on anyway, but the camaraderie will be a huge boost.  The motivation of following along with Mrs. Frugalwoods’ emails and with other participants will be great fun!

 

What do I hope to achieve?

Finding new savings in my monthly budget will help me pay off a larger chunk of debt, and may lead to ongoing savings.  I’m anticipating the challenge will provide continued enthusiasm for my financial and personal goals.  Admittedly I’m still in the honeymoon phase of frugality, but starting the year with a fresh mindset and a concrete outline will certainly help.

While my longterm life goals were touched on above,

What are my ten year goals?

I am a person who has always resented having to articulate a 5- or 10-year plan.  It’s not at all a surprise, then, that I’ve floundered about for 15 years with minimal growth in my retirement savings.  Based on my current spending needs, in ten years I would like to be fully financially independent but will at least be close (15 years is my outside goal based on several calculators).  I think being flexible and able to adapt to sudden life changes is essential to emotional peace, but unless something radical happens, this is a very concrete and attainable goal.

In ten years I would like to have the choice to retire, depending on healthcare options for my ongoing medication needs (primarily allergy and asthma related).

In ten years I would like be able to perform most of my home’s routine maintenance and repair projects myself.

What about my current lifestyle might prevent reaching these goals and what can I do about it?

Not saving enough!  I am committed to sticking to an aggressive savings plan and feel that flexing my frugality will become easier as new habits are formed.

I also don’t wish to let my newfound frugality focus negatively impact my relationships.  So far my close friends are very supportive, but this has the potential to backfire if I allow money to become an excuse for not participating in events.

I’m going to focus on saying Yes more, to social opportunities with my friends and family.  This sounds counterintuitive to spending less, but I’ve never been a social butterfly and it’s too easy for me to turn down a loud cafe when I have delicious coffee at home.  The tipping point for me was being invited by my son and his friends to the mall before Thanksgiving…. I declined, then realized I’d just passed up an increasingly rare chance to spend time with young adults I truly love having in my life.  I made a commitment to myself to say Yes in those circumstances, even when it means I’ll end up spending more money than I would on my own.

Say Yes….

Aside from being a really great Elliott Smith song, Say Yes will be my undercurrent for the coming year.  I find it so much easier to embrace changes in my own habits when I can frame them in terms of what I gain rather than what I lose.  For example, starting in October I committed to creating an early-rising morning ritual, getting up at 4:30am and leaving to bike to work around 5:30am.  I’ve tried this many times in the past, but the only time I was able to make rising before I had to a habit was when I worked out at the gym before work with my carpool partner.  This time, instead of dragging myself out of my warm bed and resenting how dark my windows were and how tired I was, I started thinking about looking forward to making a cup of coffee, that I would get to enjoy while sitting with the cat rather than sipped at stoplights.  I take the time to absolutely savor that cup, noticing the warmth in my hands, the steam rising, and my favorite morning smell of roasted coffee beans.

I’ve started rephrasing the stories I tell myself.  Instead of thinking “Ugh I wish I didn’t have to work so early tomorrow,” I have actually written down, “I am looking forward to my morning coffee and the quiet of predawn, and I will awake refreshed and rested!”  I’m telling myself Yes, and after 20-odd years of struggling to get up in time, I’ve embraced and now love the quiet meditation on my day that starts me off in a peaceful, pleasant mindframe.

Several years ago when I had to do a restriction-based food trial, I found that looking at the foods I could eat was vastly more useful than thinking about the things I couldn’t.  Because of seeing those six weeks as a learning opportunity rather than one of deprivation, I greatly improved my cooking skills as well as my health.  Now I find myself saying Yes to choosing to feel healthy and whole rather than saying ok to the frequent cookies and candy in the break room, and it has gotten easier every time.

Other ways I am saying Yes include enjoyment in sitting down with my notebook and my favorite cooking websites to outline my meals for the workweek; saying HeckYeah to invitations to go bicycling even when it’s icy and cold outside; taking transit through the middle of my bike commute to keep my lungs happy in the winter air; and saying Yes, I have enough and I am grateful for the things I have.

I’m looking forward to starting the Uber Frugal Month challenge!  Later this week I’ll outline the specific tactics I have planned.

Are you joining?  Is January a time for you to “reset” or do you update goals throughout the year?

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Why Does Santa Only Bring Presents to Rich Kids?

This was a question my preschooler asked from the backseat after we’d volunteered decorating Christmas baskets to hold donations.

He wasn’t asking for himself, even though he would get one present from his parents and another few from his grandparents.  As a non-churchgoing family we chose to limit presents from the beginning and focus on the spiritual parts of the winter season that, to me, are magical and grounding even though we don’t belong to a church.

When he was very young, it was obvious my kiddo was quite literal in his interpretation of how the world worked (he is now an engineering student so our instincts were right!).  If we visited the mall he turned away from people dressed as cartoon characters; they weren’t real and he didn’t like their giant heads.

I can’t remember exactly how we landed on the idea of not introducing Santa as a gift-giver, but it definitely made sense to us.  I grew up with Santa, and have delightful memories of ripping off paper to see what he brought.  As new parents, however, we didn’t want the holiday to be about Stuff.  We included Santa in our Christmas stories, but he was just that, a story of one way that Christmas is celebrated in our wonderful diverse world.

We chose to live in the middle of a city that is both racially and economically diverse, and took advantage of our location to explore different cultures whenever possible.  We didn’t have a lot of money but helping those in our community has always been important to our family, so we volunteered for organizations that allowed young children to participate.

One of the earliest volunteering opportunities we had was decorating holiday baskets to hold donated items that would be delivered to clients.  After a couple of years we started adopting a basket, which was especially fun as we could “match” with someone who had a cat and a child, just like us.  We shopped from a list of hoped for items, most of which were necessities but the organization always requested people list items just for fun as well.

The first year we adopted a basket, my son was delighted to get our list assignment, and he had many questions over the following days.

“Are we going to Target?  I think we should go to Target.  Do you think this boy would like Hot Wheel cars?  Is it ok to give him a Hot Wheel car that I really like? What if we get more presents that what it says, will he have to give one to someone else?”

“What’s a crock pot?”

“What if our presents don’t fit in the holiday box?”

“Do you think his cat likes crinkly balls too?  Will his cat be sad that he doesn’t get very many presents?”

“Mom…. I think it’s more funner to get presents for my boy because I know he will be happy.”

“Mom?  If my boy’s family doesn’t have money to buy him presents, because the dad is sick, what if they don’t have money for the doctor?”

“A boy at my school said he is getting a lot of presents from Santa.  If Santa is real, how come he brings presents to kids with money?  If I believe in Santa will he bring me presents, and I can give them to kids with no money?”

“Do you think my boy believes in Santa?  I hope he likes Hot Wheel cars.”

 

Now, as an adult, my son has admitted that he’s glad we never lied to him about Santa (he definitely wasn’t gonna buy into the Easter Bunny!), and he and his friends are still the most empathetic, grounded, generous group of young adults I’ve ever known.

I truly believe that children are born connected to the wider world, the soul of humanity, and the spirit of the Earth, regardless of their spiritual/religious traditions.  Once they’re old enough to recognize differences, they are naturally incredibly generous.  It’s our parenting and our culture that slowly retrain the ability to identify with someone that isn’t like us in some way.  Gift-giving should be about making a connection with a fellow human.  Sometimes this means you see a coffee cup on vacation in the tropics that you know your friend will love (because there’s a very real looking ceramic roach in the bottom and she is terrified of bugs but will still think it’s hilarious) (ok so I was the recipient and I didn’t think it was funny at first but it’s pretty dang funny); sometimes this means you spend hours reading every birthday card in the store to find just the right words (my mom does this and we absolutely treasure the cards); sometimes this means you buy every kitchen item on a gift-basket list and then also the CD and sweater even though it’s more than you spend on the rest of your family; sometimes it means you give a boy a Hot Wheel car he didn’t ask for because cars are your favorite, most loved thing in the world and you want to share.

Santa, therefore, has no place in my giving traditions.  He’s too busy running a toy-building empire, flinging toys from the list into his sleigh, and eating a bazillion cookies to offset the caloric requirement of climbing in and out of chimneys all night across the world to know anything more than whether someone is Naughty or Nice.

I do acknowledge the pure magic of Santa.  I remember most of my presents from Santa better than those from my parents in my younger years.  But even more than gift-delivering, I find the usage of Santa as a behavioral bribe utterly abhorrent, for many reasons.  It’s bad enough that we tend to overindulge our consumerist cravings, but now in a season that is full of anxious, stressed adults; loads of sugar; and a lot more driving to and fro than usual, we make exclamations like, “If you keep fighting with your sister, Santa won’t bring you any presents!”  And even worse, to my mind, is using the recent Elf on a Shelf to make the threat and remove ourselves even further from empathy (as a coworker recently showed a group of us; I was appalled but everyone else thought it was genius.  It did cleverly rhyme, I’ll give her that).

To me, these actions not only fly in the face of my anti-consumerist leanings, but miss the point of celebrating at all.  Gift-giving should make you pause to reflect on the things you see are important to another person, and given in love.  During the winter holidays, gift-giving should be from the heart of your spiritual tradition while being respectful of the recipient’s.  Gift-giving should never be a contest and should never be about the Gift — but about the act of Giving.  Of thinking about what matters.  Of thinking about the people, because the connection in our mere humanity matters.

 

Santa hats on pets, however, I wholeheartedly support.  And Elf is required viewing in my home at minimum once per Christmas break!

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