Let’s imagine for a moment, dear readers, that I invited you over to my house for a barbecue.
And let’s imagine that when you went into my bedroom to throw your purse on the bed, you took a peek at my bedside reading. You’d see a copy of Spookand my friend Rachel’s new book. You might see some ubiquitous lady magazines and one of those weird round lip balm things. You’d exit my bedroom believing that I was a lover of non-fiction who happened to have dry lips.
What you wouldn’t see is the pile of books that I hid under the bed:
Two months ago, I found myself at a run down coffee shop on a college campus, picking at an over-sized muffin and working on a pretty good anxiety stomachache.
I was there to meet with a financial adviser. I anticipated a terrifying, math-y, money-based conversation that would somehow make me feel both poor and stupid. (Like most people in the world, I prefer to feel not-poor and passably intelligent.)
My advisor turned out to be a lovely, helpful, totally normal human who used normal human words to explain complex subjects. I did not, however, expect her to be a source of Buddha-like insight.
As we were poring over my savings and retirement plan, she turned to a multi-colored graph and said “So there are basically three approaches to saving. You can work more. You can save more. Or you can want less.”
And then the skies cracked open and a choir of angels tootling on reasonably priced horns announced a personal paradigm shift.
I am not unfamiliar with the minimalist movement. I love a good capsule wardrobe. I know how to make do and mend. I don’t have a tv blahblahblah. I’ve lapped up a million magazine articles and life coach-written blog posts about the importance of less. But there was something thrilling about hearing this from a numbers-based, decidedly non-woo woo financial professional.
She was simply relating a numbers-based reality. I could stop working and spend more time by the water if I adjusted my vision for the future. I could have an apartment on the water in Minnesota before I could have a house on the ocean in California.
Now, I’m not saying we should collectively ‘aim lower.’ I’m not saying that we should all take mediocre jobs or date boring humans who don’t light our fires. I’m not saying you should stop wanting a vacation home in Italy BECA– USE I ALSO REALLY WANT A VACATION HOME IN ITALY.
But what if we took a look at the things that we believe we want and really, actively considered them? Are they goals that we set for ourselves? Or are they wishes that seeped into our brains via women’s magazines and billboards? Do we really want a fancy car or are we just enamored of our friend’s 2015 Audi?
What would our lives and futures look like if we gave ourselves permission to want a little less? To not quite strive so hard? To make a conscious decision to shift our focus?
I’ve given myself permission to want less. If you want it, here’s yours.
I’d love to hear about your relationship with wanting, striving, consuming. Have you spent a lot of time considering your goals and dreams? Have you ever found yourself chasing a dream that’s too big for you or not really yours to begin with?
P.S. Did you know I have a (free) private Facebook group dedicated solely to the topics of money and happiness? And the stuff we talk about has helped members change jobs, save thousands of dollars, and fight less with their partners? Join us!
A traveler friend once told me that she breaks down the best moments of her trips into monetary units.
That amazing, three-hour lunch under the Spanish moss with your best friends cost more than the $150 restaurant bill. It’s the four-hour, $400 flight that brought you to Savannah and the hour of faffing around at the car rental place. It’s the 30 minutes of Googling to find this gorgeous, hole-in-the-wall bistro and the $50 dress you bought for this trip.
Using her calculations that meal actually cost me $350 and two days of my life.
I’m sure I audibly gasped when I ran the numbers on some of my favorite memories. $550 for that time I hand-fed the sassy alpaca! $375 dollars for the afternoon Alex and I played board games in the park and ate hipster ice cream! $400 for real, actual tacos in Mexico, consumed on paper plates while sitting in plastic chairs on the side of the road.
Even if my friend’s idea was more budget-based than inspirational, it had a surprisingly centering effect on me. Because I have this ridiculous, terrible habit of rushing through happiness.
I’m standing on the parade route at Dollywood, watching one of my favorite celebrities wave glamorously, and as soon as she’s past, I’m wondering where we parked. It’s the last day of a perfect cabin weekend with friends and instead of pouring myself another mimosa on the deck, I’m thinking about weekend traffic and looking for my phone charger.
Why is it so hard to sit in our happiness? Why is it so difficult to say “Be happy in this moment, this moment is your life” … and then stay in the moment? Am I the only one who recites that mantra and then immediately starts thinking about what I’ll make for dinner?
If this sounds familiar, let’s make a pact.
Let’s learn to sit in our happiness (even if it makes us a little uncomfortable.)
Let’s honor all the hard work and time and money that went into any given moment of transcendent joy. For every joy and laughter-filled dinner party, there are hours of menu planning, cooking, and clean up. For every triumphant finish-line-crossing, there are months of training and sweat and compromise.
As of 2014, 70% of American college graduates have school debt. The average graduate is $33,000 in debt by the time they collect their diploma. After undergrad and graduate school, my school debt was around $50,000 – even with a little help from my parents, scholarships, and working while I was in school.
Just like everyone, I hatedhatedhated those monthly payments. I’d fantasize about how different life would be when I had an extra $350 a month with which to buy cheese and brightly colored skinny jeans.
So in the last two years, I committed to paying off those horrible loans ahead of time. The ‘tricks’ I used are hardly tricks. They’re fairly obvious, relatively well-known budgeting methods, but combined they work like magic. If you’re trying to pay down debt – school or otherwise – these will help.
1. Pay as much as you can (but not so much that you hate your life)
I know it’s incredibly tempting to lower those monthly payments when you find your dream apartment and it’s $200 a month above your budget. I totally, totally get it. But before you lower you payments, I’d encourage you to check out a loan amortization calculator.
The longer you take to pay off debt, the more money you’re giving your lenders.
Paying off $40,000 at 4% over 20 years = $58,174
Paying off $40,000 at 4% over 15 years = $53,258
That’s almost $5,000! And your monthly payment would only go up by $50! Which is, like, one Target impulse buy and one fancy cocktail, right?
Drastic? Yes. An awesome adventure that will help you save money like whoa? Also yes.
I spent the 25th and 26th years of my life chasing kindergartners around a classroom in Nei Li, Taiwan and stuffing my face with stinky tofu. With a 10% tax rate, a great exchange rate, and a very low cost of living, I was able to save $1,000 a month without even trying! I ate out a lot (like dan bing for breakfast most days), lived in a nice apartment, and even flew home and vacationed in The Philippines, all while wiring home a grand every month.
3. When you travel, do it cheaply
I’ve nearly perfected the art of cheap travel (all my tips are here) and I’ve snuck in tons of trips while still paying down my loans every month. Travel can be surprisingly affordable if you use Airbnb or stay with friends, stick to public transport, visit cheap places (or expensive places in the off-season) and cook your own meals.
I think it’s really important to continue to live a life you actually, you know, enjoy while sticking to your budget. I call it “putting my money where my happy is.” When I make time and space for the activities that bring me joy I’m less likely to self-medicate via expensive boots.
4. Buy a used car – with cash if possible
My car is not particularly sexy or impressive. It is, however, reliable, cheap to repair, and not so fancy that anyone wants to steal it. More importantly? I bought it with cash.
Or more accurately, I put it on my credit card to get a bunch of miles and then immediately paid it off. I’ve never had a car payment! Sure, sometimes I get jealous of my friends’ heated seats and climate control but then I realize that I am not my car.
And even if I was, I’d be little and zippy which really wouldn’t be the end of the world.
5. Buy just about everything secondhand
True Story: I furnished my entire apartment (from nothing!) for about $700. Yes, even including that cute couch. Nearly everything I own came from a thrift store, Craigslist, or the Ikea as-is section. And I’d like to believe that’s not painfully obvious!
Pro tip: if you’re looking for something specific on Craigslist (“midcentury dresser St. Paul”) but you always see the postings too late, use IFTTT to send you Craigslist alerts.
6. Learn to cook
We all know eating out is expensive and unhealthy. Yes? Yes. Cooking at home is more fun, more healthy, and a jillion times cheaper than eating out. I’ve been obsessed with this cookbook lately and if you want to get really frugal, check out the Good And Cheap cookbook. It teaches you how to eat well on $4 a day!
Also (and this probably goes without saying) drinking is ridiculously expensive. Did you know that cocktails made with bottom self liquor have a 1,026% (!!!) markup? Let’s pre-game at home, shall we?
7. Cut the cable and land line
But I’m sure you already knew this, right? That’s what Hulu, Netflix, and Skype are for.
8. Use your library
For books, sure! But also magazines, cds, dvds and events. The public libraries here in the Twin Cities are always hosting movie nights, readings, and other events. All completely free!
9. Plan for a cheaper social life
It’s hard to be the friend who’s sticking to a budget when everyone else is chugging $13 cocktails and being all “Oh, let’s just split the bill three ways” when you had a Diet Coke.
One of the best ways to deal with this is to take initiative during the planning stages. When friends are talking about getting brunch, be the one to suggest the place with the $5 breakfast. When your friend wants to see a movie with you, suggest a cheap matinee or the second run theater. It’s easier to steer the initial decision than change someone’s mind.
10. Honor the ‘immediate yes’
Living on a budget means living with less. But how, pray tell, does one live with less and not come to hate their life? I’ve made peace with less by honoring the ‘immediate yes.’ The ‘immediate yes’ is that gut reaction you have when you see a dress/necklace/piece of art from the across the room, stop your conversation and drift towards it. Your vision practically narrows and you’re pretty sure you can hear the Hallelujah chorus.
When you experience this, you should probably buy that thing. Even if it’s expensive. If it doesn’t make you feel this way, maybe you should leave it on the shelf.
(It’s my experience that when you wait for the ‘immediate yes’ you buy a lot less but you’re much, much happier with what you buy.)
When you’re paying off tens of thousands of dollars over decades it’s really easy to feel like you’re Sisyphus in ballet flats. Snowballing your debts doesn’t make a huge difference financially but it does make a big difference psychologically.
When you Snowball your debts you make minimum payments on all of the debts except the smallest one, attacking that one debt with a vengeance. Once you’ve paid off that first, small debt run around your apartment yelling “High five, self!” and then get to work Snowballing the next smallest debt.
Have you paid off significant debt? If you have, share your best tips in the comments – we’d love to hear them!
Edited to add: As with any conversation about finances, I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge my privilege in this situation. I’m white. I grew up in a two-income household with parents who encouraged and (slightly) financially supported my education.
If you’ve read Nickel and Dimed or this blog post, you know that it’s actually very hard to save money when you’re really, truly broke. I want to acknowledge that these tips are for those of us fortunate enough to have cable and the occasional fancy cocktail – people who do, in fact, have a bit of money to spare.
On more than one occasion, a well-meaning friend has told me to “let my hair down” or “loosen up” or “stop with the lists already.”
And while I appreciate their concern* I’m pretty happy with my life, thankyouverymuch.
I’m happy with my life because I carefully, conscientiously made it awesome.
Like, on purpose. With lists and journals and stuff.
How to live your life on purpose (or at least how I do it)
1. I think about how I want to feel + do things that make me feel that way
Like pretty much every other woman on the internet, I’m a big fan of The Desire Map, Danielle LaPorte’s method for happiness and fulfillment. She encourages those of us who are addicted to our to-do lists and quantifiable goals (“$75K a year with a corner office”) to instead pinpoint a few core desired feelings and then do things that will create those feelings.
So instead of a 15-item to-do list, I think of three things I can do today that will make me feel proud (call my grandma, fix that wobbly chair, go to the gym) and two things I can do today that will make me feel psychologically lean (cancel the Netflix subscription I never use, clean out my junk drawer.)
2. I stopped doing things or hanging out with people who make me feel bad
I’ve never been particularly inclined towards ‘frenemies’ or self-destructive behavior, but I’ve certainly had my share of embarrassment-inducing friends and activities that I did out of obligation or a desire to be The Type Of Person Who Can Make A Souffle.
You know what? People who drag you down and activities that suck you dry are a waste of your time and energy. And who has time for that? Approximately no one.
3. I schedule time to try new things + do things that I love
Yes, I realize it’s not particularly sexy to scrawl ‘1 fun thing’ onto my Every Damn Day list, but if I don’t make Fun Things a priority? I’ll end the day feeling productive and accomplished …. and sort of bored and hateful.
Really, filling my life with things I love is an extremely conscious effort. It’s a daily struggle not to fall down internet hole after internet hole.
4. I plan my social + work life around my introverted nature
Did you know I’m the friendliest, chattiest introvert you’ll ever meet? I’ll introduce myself to strangers, I’m happy to attend events where I know no one, and I can make friends with your throw pillow.
After three hours of social interaction, the light inside me turns off and I need to sit somewhere quiet, by myself. It took me years to realize this about myself – I wasn’t just ‘tired’ or ‘in a weird mood.’ I’m introverted.
Now that I know that, I try to make plans accordingly. I’m not really interested in more than two social obligations a day and if I’m in a big group of people for a long time? I’ll invent some sort of ‘errand’ I ‘need’ to run and then hustle off all by my lonesome for a bit.
How do you live your life on purpose? What’s one thing you could do to add a little intention to your daily life?
*Not really. Mostly I just feel judged and slightly annoyed.
Do you guys have Switzerland-sized bank accounts? Are you always complaining about the extra money that’s stuffed in your pockets, creating unflattering bulges? Do you think “Where can I go that serves $17 cocktails? I can’t think of enough places that overcharge for their drinks!”
No? Weird. Me neither.
Regardless of your income, it’s always fun to enjoy the cheaper things in life, isn’t it?
22 free* things to do when you’re broke
* or very cheap
1. Ride a bike/scooter/motorcycle
Autumn was made for bike rides along the river, filling your basket with goodies from the farmers market. Or with puppies. If you have a friend with a scooter or motorcycle, ask for a ride. Bonus points for taking it on windy roads!
2. Afternoon movie matinee
Because every movie is better if it costs $4.
3. Tuck notes of encouragement into library books
Find the books about business development and leave a note that says “Your business idea is great!” Find the diet books and leave a note that says “You’re gorgeous just the way you are.”
4. Have a picnic (indoors if necessary)
Food tastes better when it’s eaten outside, on a blanket, in the company of ants. Or in the arboretum. Pack up your favorite nibbles and head somewhere lovely and green – here are some great ideas for easy, delicious picnic food.
5. Host a potluck and games night
If you want to have some friends over, but can’t afford footing the bill for a fancy dinner, invite everyone to bring a dish, pull out your favorite old board games and play a few rounds of Trivial Pursuit. Or, really, Girl Talk.
Invite your favorite ladies to your place, bringing over the clothes and accessories that they’re no longer feeling to trade with each other. Borrow a few full length mirrors, put on some RuPaul, throw together some cheap appetizers and you’ve got a super cheap, really fun party.
7. Take a public transportation adventure
I have extolled the virtues of bus adventures before, but let’s belabor the point a bit, shall we? Buy a full-day pass on your city’s bus or train line, pack a lunch and your camera and head out to explore the city. Bonus points for getting off at the same time as that looker in the plaid jacket.
Improve your karma, meet cool people and do something fun? That’s a win/win/win, y’all! You’ll obviously get the most out of a volunteer opportunity that corresponds to your interests, so I’d give volunteermatch.org a try. I searched ‘writing’ and found 667 volunteer opportunities!
Why pay $7 for the latest Vogue when you can peruse it for free at your library? Check out DVDs, language-learning CDs and Twilight (in the event that you refuse to spend money on that delicious foolishness).
11. Go to an open mic night
Whether you favor a poetry slam, comedy or some tender-hearted singer/songwriters, there’s certainly an open mic night in your city that caters to your whims. Sure, you’ll see some stinkers, but you might also spot the next Lily Allen! Here’s a collection of all the open mic nights in the Twin Cities.
I looooove karaoke. Largely because I’m (erroneously) convinced that I can rock ‘Heart of Glass’ like no other. If you’re too shy to take part, at least you can be entertained by the group of ladies yelling out ‘I Will Survive’ or the fifteen dudes who are going to sing that song about having friends in low places. Here are 10 karaoke songs for bad singers.
13. Engage in a covert, fitting room photo shoot
Dress up in your most impressive outfit and hit up those crazy expensive boutiques where you can’t even afford the socks. Pull a few great outfits off the racks, try them on in those over sized fitting rooms and document the whole thing on your digital camera. This girl has some fantastic photos from doing just that! If you can’t own the clothes, at least you can remember how you look in them.
14. Airport people watching
I’ve spent an abnormal amount of time in airports over the last few years and watching tearful, joyful reunions never, ever gets old.
15. Beauty school spa day
If you’re not afraid to let a supervised student work on you, you can get crazy, crazy cheap salon services. The Aveda Institute in Minneapolis offers $13 haircuts that include a wash, dry, head massage and makeup! For less than the cost of an entree at Applebys!
16. Real estate open houses
Barring marriage to a professional athlete, I will never be able to afford a home in the neighborhood where I currently rent an apartment. But! That doesn’t mean that I can’t stop in at the real estate open houses, check how the other 5% lives and eat a lot of free cookies.
17. Utilize some sidewalk chalk
My nine-year old neighbor is always doing this – drawing and labeling robots and, oddly, sprinklers. Draw a hop scotch on the sidewalk in front of your favorite coffee shop and see how many people will hop through it.
18. Photo scavenger hunt
It’s a great way to spend a weekend afternoon and an even better way to bond with a kid you’re getting to know! Here’s a list to get you started.
19. Attend a cultural events
No, not the opera. Does your city have a large immigrant or refugee community? Check out their events calender and you could find yourself at an awesome Day of the Dead party or an “Auspicious Wrist Tying Ceremony” like I attended a few years ago.