Monday, March 31, 2008

Why I Write About Money

Money is an odd topic. It is something that touches and impacts all of us, but is still viewed as the purview of 'professionals' - brokers, economists, accountants, financial planners and so on.

Those folks provide valuable services, but money is something we're all qualified to talk about, write about, and have opinions about. We all use it - most of us daily.

I write about money because it's had a profound impact on my life - both the having of it and the not having of it. It's not that I'm so interested in money per se - having money is nice, not having it is scary, but it doesn't buy you happiness, no matter how much you try. It's that I'm fascinated by the physical and emotional impacts of money on myself and the world around me.

When I was 18, my parents told me I needed to either go to school full time or work and pay rent. I never learned much about money at home as a child. My father was a compulsive spender, My mom and stepparent never talked about it, but I knew they didn't have much.

So I started out with the idea that money would always be in short supply, and that I should spend what I had. While I wish my parents had taught me about how to handle money responsibly, what I did with my knowledge, or lack thereof, is entirely my responsibility. Still, I took their inadvertent lessons to heart. And having grown up with little in a relatively affluent area, I felt my distinction as a 'have not' amongst the 'haves' pretty deeply.

I saw money as a means to the list of things I wanted to buy. I was ecstatic at the preapproved credit cards that had started arriving. And since I had difficulty with school (unbeknownst to me I struggled not with lack of discipline, but with attention deficit disorder) despite being fairly intelligent, I weighed all the options and went to work.

But making 7 bucks an hour at a grocery store isn't exactly inspiring. I headed into the military, and left my credit card bills to rot.

After a few years, I was in a debt-spend cycle, with, of course, completely trashed credit. I had a corporate job by that time, but never made much. And then a few things conspired that really changed my life, and I realized I had to get my financial house in order.

I picked up a copy of "The Complete Tightwad Gazette" by Amy Dacyczyn, and read it cover to cover. I'd seen a review of her books, and I was curious.  It was literally one of the best decisions I'd ever made.  I slashed my spending in a number of areas, learned to love beans and rice, and watched my debt go down, and my credit rating and my savings go up.

I became quite interested in personal finance, and resolved to learn everything I could about it.  I read everything I could get my hands on - books, message boards, websites - everything.
But I never learned to stop wanting, or to stop feeling like I was a 'have not'.  And so when things went badly, as they sometimes did, I would spend.  

Finally, a few years ago I met my husband.  He had debt, I had little savings, and we had dreams.  And I somehow finally got it - there would always be temptation, and a long list of things I wanted.  I will never not be a spender by nature.  So I would have to learn to work around it.

Once again, out came all my personal finance books.  And this time, I meant to take it to heart, to really learn, and learn I did.  In just over 3 years, we paid off over $24,000.00 in student loan and other debt, paid for a good-sized chunk of our wedding and honeymoon in cash (we received the rest from our families), and began saving for a down payment on a house.  We bought that house in March of 2007, and not only did we have a large chunk of money to put down on it, but we had saved closing costs and funds to renovate and furnish it.

In short, I learned what it really meant to set and achieve goals.  I think, in the past, I had set goals that were either unrealistic or I simply couldn't visualize them coming true.  But once I started achieving goals, once we started hitting those targets, the success bred more success.
Some of that was me changing jobs to increase our income.  But much of it was simply deciding that I was finally going to be in control of my relationship with my money.   And that if I was in control of my money, I was a have, not a have not, no matter how big or small my bank balance was.  It's a profound mental shift.

Today we have a lot more goals to acheive.  Downshifting, kids, retirement, travel, and much more.  And I still love to go shopping.  And I still sometimes would love immediate gratification.   But I have learned it is so much better to wait and get what you really want - those things that make your life truly better, than to just get a new sweater.  

And because I have made this shift, and spent much time talking with others who are struggling with the same things I have, I think I'm very qualified to write about money.  I don't have a degree in it, and I'll never hang out a shingle as anything other than what I am - someone who knows what it is to be at the financial edge, ready to fall off, and then to step back from the cliff.  
Money is hard.  Sometimes it flows through my life with abundance.  Sometimes it does not.  But it is always a presence there.  It isn't what makes me happy.  But much like the blood in my veins, money is the liquid currency of daily living.  It pays for the roof over our heads, it allows us to achieve our dreams, along with covering the basic necessities.

I'm not a professional.  Except that I am.  "Mon metier et mon art c'est vivre" wrote the french essayist Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, in the 16th century court of Henry III.  My trade and my art is living.  Like de Montaigne, I write about what I know.  What I think.  What I feel to be true.

We are all professionals at life, as much so as anyone else who has ever lived. We do it every day.  Some of us attended the school of hard knocks to learn a lesson.  I learned mine well.
I am qualified to write about money.  I know it - how it can hurt, how it can help, what it can and cannot do.  

I am a student of it.  And I am also a teacher.  My trade and my art is living.  And I am good at it.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

How Does My Garden Grow....Week 1

Now that gardening season is almost upon us, I've decided to start chronicling our first year of gardening in our new home.

I'm convinced that gardening not only doesn't have to cost a fortune, but can be an actual money saver, and so this year is the first part of a multi-year experiment to prove my point. The reason for multiple years? Garden equipment - tools, etc - can be expensive up front. The perk though, is that things can be reused over and over. A good rake might cost $25, but over the 20 years it lasts, that's only $1.25 a year.

And so on.

Because we want an extensive garden, that, along with our CSA subscription will provide us all our fresh fruits and vegetables for the summer, along with enough to preserve for fall and winter, we spent about $80 on seeds.  

Is that a lot?  Sure.  But there's two reasons that it's worth it.  One, they are all open-pollinated, or heirloom seeds.  That means that unlike hybrid seeds, the seeds can be saved and will grow into the same plant as the parent.  We're not seed saving this year, but expect to in future years.
Two, aside from  the onion family, very few seeds actually lose the capability to germinate after just a year.  As a matter of fact, many actually increase germination.  I have a good friend still planting from 7 year old seed packets.  So these seeds were a multi-year investment.

Right now our seedlings are planted in the basement.  A few years ago I purchased seed starting kits from Burpee for about $20 each.   Each holds 50 seedlings, until they get large enough to transplant.  I plant some fussy plants, such as cucumbers, directly into peat pots.  I'm still using packs of them from the dollar store I bought years ago.    

Our grow lights are nothing fancy.  One is a $17.99 bulb lamp from Home Depot that we bought about 4 years ago, the other is the recycled top to an old stick lamp that still worked, but had broken at the base.  My brilliant and creative engineer husband rigged it to a wood post over the seedling beds.

Our seedlings have thrived using this ultra-cheap greenhouse.  Next year we may invest in larger grow lights, but for this year, we've done great.  We have about 100 seedlings growing.  

What did we plant?  What we want to eat, of course. Pumpkins, beans, leeks, several kinds of lettuce, peppers, 7 kinds of tomatoes, cucumbers, pak choy, mustard greens, broccoli, herbs, cabbage, acorn squash, and so on.  

In addition, we spent about another $72 on fruit trees, strawberry plants, blackberry bushes, sweet and fingerling potato sets, and garlic, which will arrive this fall for planting.  It would have been more, but a gift certificate offset the costs.  I am looking forward to apples, apricots and cold-hardy cherries from our own trees in a couple of years.  Over time, we hope to add more apple trees, peaches, and perhaps some pears.

Lastly, we spent about $8 on a 50-lb bag of potting soil.

Every weekday morning I quickly run down to the basement and turn on the grow lights over a small table re-purposed for use with the garden project.  I check to make sure everything has water, and I leave them be.  At night, we again check the water situation - peat pots dry out especially quickly - and turn off the lights.  If something needs transplanting to a larger container,  I'll quickly do that.  I have learned it's important to stay on top of transplanting from the seed starting kits, as each type of plant has a different rate of growth, and the faster-growing plants will quickly block the light for the slower-growing plants.

On the weekends, I spend a bit more time.  I transplant the seeds that need space into larger containers - mostly old plastic plant containers I've scavenged or reused over the years.  I try to plant a few more things each week - this week, I added some late tomatoes, more pickling cucumbers, and some oak leaf lettuce.  I'm not terribly scientific about when I plant things, but I do make myself aware of the general preferences and growth rates of the plants.  

Some things, like carrots, parsnips and green beans, along with some herbs, will get directly sown into the ground when the weather grows warmer.  I started some wax beans early this year to see if I could get early beans, but even if I don't, it's fine.

Last year, we cleared space and planted asparagus, which takes 3 years to bear.  We also got a few raspberry bushes in, which I hope have survived the winter.  This year, we need a much larger garden space.  We've decided to put in raised beds, using Mel Bartholemew's Square Foot Gardening method.  Instead of spending money on prefab beds, or making ours from wood, we've decided to use some of the stone and rock on our property to build the beds.  We'll see how this low-cost experiment works out.

We're making several big long-term investments this year.  The first is a compost bin. For about $100, we'll get a black plastic bin from Gardener's Supply Company.  We could build one from wood pallets, but we like the look and low profile of the black one, not to mention that heat retention in the black plastic will speed up our composting process.  This should also reduce our trash quite a bit.

Another investment is a freezer.  In order to preserve the quantity of food we intend to, as well as purchase locally raised chicken and turkey in bulk, a freezer is needed.  We expect to spend about $500 late in the summer on this.

In addition, we'll spend about $200 on soil and mulch.  Grass clippings and shredded newspaper or hay make great mulch for the vegetable garden, but we use tree mulch for the flower gardens.  We've been lucky, a mature perennial garden was in place when we moved in.

I expect all these things - except the mulch- to last many years.

I already own a pressure canner and canning jars that have seen much use over the years.  The canner was a gift more than 10 years ago, and I've been saving canning jars for years.  Several brands of store bought pasta sauce, along with some store bought salsas, come in canning jars that can be saved.  Also, jars are cheap in bulk at places like Big Lots, or Ocean State Job Lot.  

Canning jars can be reused, year after year.  Only new lids are needed.  More on canning and preserving later in the season.

So far this year, our total spent on the garden is $160, and less than an hour a week of time.  I expect that to rise to about $1000 for the total season, including all the items listed above, including the possible need for fencing to prevent the deer and rabbits from eating our salads instead of us.

But that $1000 will amortize over many years.  Our compost bin should last at least 15 years, the freezer, 20.  Same with fencing.  So these are not annual costs, these are investments.  Once we've made them, we don't have to make them again.

Will our garden ever get cheap?  I think so, and I am placing my bets on year three.  We'll see.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

5 More Things You Can Do To Save Money

Last week I wrote about 5 small things anyone can do that will save them money. Here's a few more moneysavers that I've employed over the years. They are simple, they are quick, and they feel really good in the wallet area.

From now on, Thursdays will be money tip day. If you have some, submit them in the comments each week and I'll add them as the weeks go by.

1. Make Coffee At Home
For those of you who like to spend, here's an indulgence - go get a good coffee pot. We have a Cuisinart 14 cup model, and it is great. Good coffee pots* brew the coffee at higher temperatures than the cheaper ones, which makes for better coffee. One of the main reasons that the coffee from Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks tastes good is the heat at which they brew.

With a daily cup costing anywhere from $1.00 to $5.00, you could save some serious bucks over the course of a few years. We buy organic shade grown coffee for about $11 a pound. We spend about $16-$18 a month....and still save.

*I still think a good percolator is the best coffee pot EVER, but I've yet to convert my husband to perco-worship.

2. Walk or Bike Somewhere
First of all, walking is just plain good for you. And with rising gas prices, it can't hurt to plan an errand a week - even if it's just walking the kids to the playground - on foot. The world would be a better place if we weren't all isolated in our cars with the windows rolled up all the time.

3. Have Someone Over for a Meal
Here's an idea - instead of going out, cook for your friends or family. Invite them over, sit around the table, and talk. The focus here is on the friend, not the restaurant, movie, etc.

4. Hang Some Clothes Up To Dry
I love my dryer. But as part of our push to spend less and be more environmentally friendly, we're investing next month in a couple of drying racks for our basement laundry area. I hope to cut our dryer use (and hence the resulting gas bill) by 20% next month.

5. Cook Multiple Meals At Once
On Sundays lately, I've been making not only dinner for that night, but a pot of soup, casserole or other item for Monday. It means that at least one night a week, all we have to do is reheat. It's nice because Monday's tend to be tiring and busy, so there's little incentive to get take out. It also reduces how much total stove/oven energy we use, as I multitask and cook both meals at one time.

If you want to carry this further, look into Once-A-Month-Cooking programs. We don't currently have the freezer space or time to go this approach, but it can work well for busy families.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Defending Your Life

This month's Mother Earth News came in the mail.  For those of you who aren't familiar with Mother, and interested in sustainable living,  it is a magazine well worth the subscription.  

The problem is, I sometimes find myself feeling kind of down after I read my copy, which arrives six times a year.  See, while I want to downshift, live sustainably, and eat locally, I don't always quite cut it.  I picked a pretty 'American traditional' lifestyle - we live in a high cost of living area, we have a large mortgage as a result, we both work full time, and we even finance our cars - although we're working towards the goal that the next one is the last one that isn't paid for in cash.

So all the articles about the folks who built their home for $412.17 and live on $5k a year make me feel kinda guilty.  Especially when my husband and I are contemplating yet another new furniture purchase.

Add to that the fact that my sister lives - and writes about - the sustainable living life quite admirably, I sometimes want to crawl under our lovely cherry sleigh bed and hide.  
I feel guilty.  There, I said it.  I have judged myself and found myself less than ideal.  Wanting, even. 

See, I want to be that person.  Kinda.  I'd love to be all ascetic and clutter-free.  I'd like to turn up my nose at the bedding section of HomeGoods, instead of thinking "Oooh, those sheets would be perrrrfect.  Oooh, and those..."

Yeah.  But the sheer fact of the matter is that I'm not.  Well, I am - but I'm also the person who wants everything to be perfect.  My house, my clothes, you name it.  These two sides of myself have long warred - dirt manicures vs. spa days.  What side wins depends on the day, and how far away from a store I am.  I want to live sustainably, but with those really cute end tables I saw.

I often see this internal conflict as a very negative thing.  I want the sensible me to win.  
But both sensible me and indulgent me are part of who I am, and I think I need to learn to live with both - within reason.

My sensible wants-to-be-a-farmer side drives me to make really good decisions.  We stayed renters long after most of our friends had jumped into homeownership so that we could save a large downpayment.  We save quite a bit for retirement.  We pay cash for most purchases, and when we use a credit card, we pay it off in full when the statement comes.  We keep cars for 10 years. We don't ever plan on cashing out our equity.  We bought a home we could happily stay in for a long time, and one well within our means.  We DIY instead of hiring out.

My indulgent side is one of the reasons we've gone on some great trips.  It's why we have such a wonderful home that we enjoy.  It's what allows my clothes and appearance to be professional at work, which in turn has allowed me (along with work ethic and some talent at my job) to turn my career into a lucrative one.

I think I need to do a better job of letting both sides of me have their say.  Wanting nice things isn't a bad  thing.  It's pretty human.  And I'm not sure I'd want to live in that $412 cabin anyway - I'm a fan of central heating, running water, and adequate medical care when I need it.

And yet, while the two sides can be more symbiotic than they sometimes are, I do view the internal conflict as a flag that something is out of balance.  If I start feeling guilty when I open my copy of Mother, I know it's time to scale back and focus on the seedlings in my basement, and our long-term goals.  If I start wanting too much, I chuck the catalogs in the recycle bin and go for a walk.   

Sometimes it works, sometimes I end up at the shoe store.  As we achieve more and more of our goals, the wants do go down.  And sometimes the wants are worth looking at, like when we began to notice our 12-year old mattress has two human-shaped divots in it, and begin to contemplate a new bed.  

While I admire those who have reached frugal zen, I'm not there yet.  And I guess that's okay with me.  I'll keep working on it.  

I highly recommend checking out Mother at  It's worth every penny.  

Saturday, March 22, 2008

When It's All Just Too Damn Much

I haven't been blogging much lately - work craziness along with what seems like an endless to-do list outside of work has been bogging me down.  I ran out of steam - literally.  After 9 weeks of working crazy hours into the nights and weekends, quite a bit related to our fertility treatments, and various other things such as trying to keep up with errands, trying to spend the last of our healthcare FSA money, taxes (I have a schedule C business, so it takes some time on the tax front), and so on - I had nothing left.  For anyone, for anything.

On top of it all, we've been working on our 10 year plan, as well as plans for the house for this year.  So I've been forecasting our budget for the next few years to see what our progress towards our goals both in the short and long term will look like.

A few hours with the budget can make me a little depressed.   Not because we don't have enough - we do.  We want for nothing.  But our goals are aggressive, and plentiful.  It can be overwhelming to determine what to focus on.  

When I reach the point that my coping mechanism is overflowing, I typically just shut down and take a day to myself one weekend.  Relax, nap, cook, write.  But this time, even that wasn't working - my to-do list for the quiet days just kept growing, and my stress level, along with my ability to get a restful night of sleep because of the stress, just kept me spinning a few thousand RPMs too high.  And then I started getting sick for the third time this winter - enough was enough.

I've been here before.  When I was young and in debt, and barely making ends meet, I spent much of my time feeling like this.  

So this time, I had to take action.  I had a deadline reprieve at work which allowed me to slow down my schedule.  I still have some aggressive schedules ahead of me, but not quite so drastic as before.  

Knowing what you need to be at your best is tough.  For me, it's a healthy diet, exercise, and time at home with my spouse, as well as time with family and friends.  It's also important to me to eliminate chaos and clutter - I feel better when the house is clean and the stacks of stuff aren't breeding in the corners.

So I started tackling each of the things that make me feel better.  I went to the gym, and I ran and lifted weights.  Getting myself back into the routine feels nothing if not good. 

I cooked.  A bunch.  I made a menu plan, I packed lunches, and I filled in the holes in our freezer and pantry.

I reconnected with my husband over some lovely meals and a few bottles of wine (not all at the same sitting).  Just hanging out and talking makes us feel better.

I started cleaning.  Piles of laundry got put away, junk mail shredded, the 'to be ironed' pile steadily decreased, and I even tackled a couple of the last 15 or so boxes of things that have been hanging around waiting to be unpacked since we moved.

I planted my seedlings.  Watching them grow, watering them, transplanting them, plotting the garden - it makes me feel connected to my home and the earth.  This will be our first true garden at our new home, since last year we only managed to plant some asparagus and a few raspberry bushes.  I cannot wait.  

And then I spent time with the most important people in my life  - parents, siblings and their spouses, and my 7 nieces and nephews.  Especially the nieces and nephews.  When my two-year old nephew looks up at me over the picture he is coloring and says 'I love you.  I do.' , while gazing at me as though nothing else could be as significant to him as that (and having the green chalk to color with), it is more important than any goal I could set.  

Oddly, as a result, our goals started feeling less overwhelming.  I started feeling more financially in balance.  I know that sounds odd - that by cleaning the house, running some errands, exercising, planting some seeds and spending some time hanging out with my nephews and nieces it made our financial situation better.  I went back through the budget and 'found' some options.  I counted my blessings.

Getting me focused on the important stuff  did make our financial picture a happier one - or at least it made my perception of it better.  I feel renewed, refreshed and up to a challenge of meeting our goals over the next few years.  

When I feel in balance, all the other parts of my life, including the money part, feel balance.  When I feel out of balance, my finances feel it too.  I spend mindlessly.  I go over budget.  I get frustrated easily.

We all get out of balance sometimes. You decide to look your debt full in the face, and then get overwhelmed by how long it will take to dig out, and wish you had never looked.  You focus on work or something else to the exclusion of all the other important things for a little too long. It happens. 

When it does, recognize it, and take some steps to make yourself feel better.  Get up and go for a walk on the beach at sunrise.  Have your spouse watch the kids so that you can go get a cup of coffee - all alone - for an hour.  Go for a run.  Make some brownies.

Whatever it is, do it for yourself.   You are worth it.

And so am I.  Now excuse me, I have a nap to take.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

5 Things You Can Do This Week to Save Money

1. Spend a few hours in the kitchen

In just over an hour I can prep/chop salad ingredients for my lunch salads all week, make clam chowder and popovers for dinner, and make my husband's sandwich for tomorrow.   It's a small investment of time with a large payoff.  We'll have leftover soup for tomorrow, lunches for the whole week, and will have saved ourselves well over $50 eating in for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

2. Plan a menu

Ideally this should be done before #1.  If you go through your pantry, freezer and grocery list, and figure out what you are going to eat for lunch and dinner from now through next Saturday, then there will be a significantly lower likelihood that you will get take out, or spend money eating out.  Eating out isn't a bad thing in moderation, but it can be a budget killer.

3. Track your spending

Every penny out, for the whole week.  Most of us spend mindlessly from time to time - even those of us who are hardened budget users.  Looking at the numbers periodically often serves as a nice dose of cold hard reality - one that will help you keep that debit card in your pocket.

4. Make do with something you have

The insidious convenience of a store on every corner is that when we need something - to eat, to accomplish a project, or to wear - we can just run out and get it.  The next time you find yourself thinking "I need to just run out and get....", don't.  Instead, find something you already have that will work just as well.  Out of picture hooks?  Try a nail.  Polish your shoes instead of buying new ones.  Switch up an outfit instead of getting a new one.  Just because you always wear the red shirt with a particular pair of pants doesn't mean you can't change it up now and again.

5. Turn off the TV and do something else

Study after study correlates our spending to our TV watching.  The more you watch, the more you spend.  So turn off the TV and darn some socks, go for a walk, learn to bake bread, or iron a shirt instead of sending it to the drycleaner.  Even better, read a book.  You'll spend less, get something on your to-do list done (even if it's just the fresh air and exercise you get from walking) and maybe sort out some of the things on your mental back burner.  

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

No Man Is An Island

One of the things that I've been contemplating lately is exactly how much I owe to the society around me. I'm not talking about taxes or charitable contributions, although that's part of it.

But the thing that I'm trying to weigh and quantify these days is at what points do I choose something that is not optimal for me personally, but better for the world around me, vs. when I choose something that benefits me and mine exclusively.

Overall, I think that society, and I do include myself in that group, has become more selfish. We want our big SUVs even though they are environmentally disastrous. We agree in theory that heavily packaged goods are bad for the environment, but fail to see the link between a refusal to purchase an item and a company making a change. We acknowledge that we could make a change, but our comfort levels often make us reluctant, if not resentful, of having to change.

In short, we want what we want, when we want it.

There's a reason for our behavior. Most of us are extraordinarily busy. We have a lot of financial obligations. We want things to be convenient, and we don't have time to seek out what we need. So we pay for convenience without a careful assessment of the broader cost.

I'm hardly damning society - I often find myself making choices that work for me in the short term, while paying a cost in the long term.

Take environmental costs. I get the non-organic hamburger because oh-for-heavens-sake-I-don't-feel-like-going-to-yet-another-store. Planning menus around local food and what's in season is harder than picking a recipe and then buying all the ingredients, and sometimes I just want simple for dinner - simple in thought as well as action. Finding a drycleaner that uses nontoxic cleaning products means I have to do research and possibly drive further to run errands on weekends. In short, there's a tradeoff for everything. Convenience, or the right thing?

The same is true for economic decisions. Target is certainly cheaper, but it might put a local store out of business. Despite that, it is convenient - they have everything right there, instead of having to go to 5 places to get everything I need. But I recognize that 5 small local business owners probably benefit my local economy far more in the long term.

The list of things that have negative economic and social impact but are great for time and convenience is endless. A stopoff at McDonalds is very quick, cheap and convenient, but makes me complicit to the revolting practices employed in large-scale factory farming, the deliberate depression of pricing for independent cattle ranchers by the big conglomerates, it causes me to create more waste, it encourages the safety issues of the largely immigrant and poor meatpackers, and it supports the chemical augmentation of our food supply in the name of taste and convenience.

I oppose all those things, so I avoid McDonalds, and instead cook at home, or try to patronize local restaurants, rather than large chains.

As I've become a more educated and informed consumer, I've realized that there are many habits and purchases that don't fit with my belief system. If I believe that large scale factory farming practices are reprehensible, I need to vote with my time and my wallet, by seeking out local and organic alternatives. If I believe that sustainable energy is better for the environment and for the world as a whole, I need to start thinking about how to implement it locally, for myself.

But the challenge is the convenience factor. I only have so much time, and it is precious to me. And the list of things I want to change is immense. It's overwhelming and daunting.

So I've come to the conclusion that the best option I have is to address the best -for-all-of-us vs. works-for-me dilemmas one at a time. One or two things a month, no more. And that is a trade off that I'm living with, but as I address more and more purchases and decisions, I hope that the number of trade-offs will shrink.

So what do we, as people, owe the world around us? I think thought, careful consideration, and the knowledge that someone, somewhere, may pay a price for our choice. Often that someone may be poor and powerless. At the same time, there is only so many choices and changes that one person can absorb in a given period of time.

I am still struggling with balance on this issue.

But this I know is true:
"All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated...As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come: so this bell calls us all: but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness....No man is an island, entire of itself...any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." John Donne

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Can You Be Too Financially Conservative?

I had an interesting debate with a friend this evening.  Apparently, I have been deemed extremely financially conservative.

What's ironic is that this discussion came after a day of my husband and I hitting the outlets, eating out, and retiring to the bed and breakfast where we are spending the weekend up in the mountains.  

All paid for in cash, of course.

I have a healthy appreciation for spending.  I like to shop - always have, always will.  But I also have a loathing of debt, and believe that retirement and other savings are critical to not only our well being, but the well being of society at large.  It worries my husband and I both that the consumer economy is a giant house of cards, and that most people don't save a dime.  
And because money and personal finance is a topic of immense interest to me, many of my conversations have a financial aspect to them.  I often see the world through a lens of money.

Some of that comes from growing up with very little.  Real economic security was scarce, although I never went hungry or cold.  Once I was out on my own, I tried to buy security in the clothes I wore, and the accessories I carried.  I wanted nothing more than to be perceived as a 'have' rather than a 'have not'.  This cost me in ways both financial and spiritual.  I ruined my credit quite young, and spent years playing bill roulette every month.  

Once I finally dug myself out of the economic hole I had made for myself, I became fascinated by the emotions that surround people's relationships with money.  I had learned that much of my spending was driven by my feelings - of inadequacy, of insecurity, of desire to fit in, a desire to be one of the successful, rather than the failure I often believed myself to be.

Over many years, I learned that not only was I not a failure, but I had learned some great lessons about how to have a healthier relationship with the money that flows through my life. Some of it stays, much of it leaves, and the flow varies - sometimes there is much, sometimes not so much.  But I - for the most part - feel in control.  That control was hard won.  

Whether you pretend it isn't important, see it only as a tool, or budget obsessively, money has a profound impact on your life.  I spent years reading books, participating in message boards, and talking about people and money.  When my husband suggests something, my immediate question is 'How much does it cost'.  The answer to that question will often drive whether I choose to like something or not.  If I can't afford it, I don't want it.  

But now I am learning when to make things not about money.  Some decisions in life are purely about other things.  And sometimes my money focus seeps into places where it doesn't belong.  And so while, for me, money is a component of everything, I know it isn't always the right thing to say so.  Some things just aren't about the money.   So when friends ask suggest a restaurant, I try to check myself from saying 'that's expensive' and instead say 'how about this one instead, it looks good'.  

I don't think I am extremely financially conservative.  If you take a look at our balance sheet, it proves that out.  But my words, and my perceptions of how I and others spend money proves to me that while I maintain physical control of our money, I don't always have emotional control of what it means to me.  Just because I'm not stuffing our money in a mattress doesn't mean I've resolved all my emotions around things financial.  I'm still working through all the things money means to me.  

I don't want to be that 'extremely financially conservative' person.  I want to be the person who just happens to have a healthy bank balance, writes great cover letters,  adores mini-golf, reading,  fajitas and dim sum, and makes a mean lasagna.  

I'll never lose my interest in money, and I won't apologize for the lens through that I see the world through.  It's the thing that captivates my attention, drives me to write, and has created a number of relationships for me.  But it also can be too much of a good thing, which isn't a good thing at all.

You can be too financially conservative.  Or at least too financially focused.  And it has nothing at all to do with your bank balance.