“Beware of little expenses. A small leak will sink a big ship.” -Benjamin Franklin
Early in my time in Portland (before we hit our debt payment plan hard), I was exploring different ways to maintain quality of life, while living clean and healthy with less waste. Our little cottage is fully furnished but didn’t have much in the way of cleaning supplies. Since we were living out of our car for most of 2010, we didn’t have things like big bottles of shampoo or detergent sitting around, and were determined not to mindlessly clutter up our shelves with big plastic bottles full of chemicals. ((This was the time I discovered the wonders of Dr. Bronner’s, a nature-friendly soap that can be used for everything from doing laundry to personal hygiene. It’s kind of spendy when you first get the bottle, but a refill only costs about $3.))
One of the ideas that has been the most useful to me over the past year is a simple guideline: use only half. Whether it’s toothpaste or laundry soap or a sheet of paper, if you use half of something, you won’t need to refill or replace it as soon. You have doubled its value and shelf life. The easiest is with dryer sheets. I just take kitchen shears and cut all of the sheets in half or thirds and the results are just as fine, maybe better. There are certainly variations on this, and sometimes using half the recommended amount is not enough (start with half and then add to that amount a little until you reach desired end result). I was surprised at how many things in life, such as the daily dollop of shampoo, that I had defaulted into using as much as DOUBLE the recommended amount.
I don’t remember where I picked up this simple guideline; it was probably someplace like mnmalist.com – but I have thoroughly enjoyed working that principle into the fabric of my life as we worked out our debt snowball and our struggle with materialism/consumerism in the past year.
It’s less about money and more about philosophy and habit.
Try using only half. It’s just a little thing but it can change your relationship with substances forever.
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I need to introduce you to the monkeys; from a debt-repayment standpoint, May is looking like a bad month.
First, a small indulgence: I signed up for a class with some local artists ($65) then I received an unexpected doctor’s bill ($320 – they charge for making you pee in a cup?), our car needed some work done ($1,300) and finally… I bought a small piece of original art from Therese Murdza ($110). Yikes. It almost sounds like a series of bad draws from the Chance pile in the game of Monopoly.
Car maintenance is to be expected – we figure have put about $1,500-$2,000 into Giorgio for the past few years with occasional misbehavior from rotors, glowplugs, belts, and the like. Overall I continue to be quite happy with my 2003 diesel-powered VW golf and wouldn’t willingly trade it for a newer model vehicle. I never did understand why people lease cars.
But… what’s up with doctors these days booking their appointment calendars and unable to take new patients? Don’t even get me started on the doctor’s bill. It’s been years since I have had a general practitioner. When I was sick for three weeks this past March, as a new patient I was unable to schedule an appointment with anyone local. I had to spend time in Urgent Care (= emergency room, kind of) twice within one week because they were the only people who would accept me. Urgent Care was completely inadequate, so the next thing I did from my sickbed was research doctors and schedule health appointments over the next couple of months so that I can at least get an appointment next time I am in need. Anyway, my advice for you when you go see your doctor: if they ask you “should we do that test right now?” or “do you want to take care of that today?” say NO and run far away, because they will bill you for things they know your insurance won’t cover.
Finally, the art. I wouldn’t have signed up for the workshop if I knew the car repairs awaited, but I was still thrilled to pick up a small watercolor from Therese at her first solo art gallery show this past weekend, despite the fact that I knew it was not in the budget. This was a case of willful rebellion, and I don’t regret it.
Luckily we have been paying more than our monthly allotment so we’re ahead of the game. I’m still sad that we are put back by unexpected expenses this month.
There’s no question that we’re paying off a load of debt every month. It’s obvious that many of our peers, regardless of current job situation, are plugging away on minimum payments every month, headed for a ten- or twenty-year payoff date. Some do this while leasing new (“reliable!”) cars, gaining mortgages on big houses, and enjoying luxuries like vacations, eating/drinking out, and new electronics. (Caveat: I was a music major, so my friends from college who pursued the arts as a career are often literally hand to mouth, a situation I do not envy).
We’re big believers in the money management principles set forth in the Dave Ramsey / Total Money Makeover plan, known as the “Baby Steps.” After putting aside an emergency fund, you move toward paying off all of your debts smallest to largest in what’s known as a debt snowball, building psychological and financial momentum moving toward freeing up your money for investments, building wealth, and a lifestyle of extreme generosity.
Within a marriage, to work a generalization, one partner is often a spender (the “free spirit”) and the other is often a saver/numbers person (the “nerd”). Opposites attract, right? (This old clip gives a pretty succinct explanation.) It’s probably obvious to most people that I am the free spirit in this marriage, often buying things for all kinds of reasons… it will solve my problems, it will be fun, it will make a nice gift, it’s a good deal, it will come in handy, I will totally do that project when I have time. I discovered that I even buy things to prove to myself that I am “not poor.” As I started to think deeply into my motivations, the revelations started to make me blush. My relationship with money is rooted in feeling like there’s never enough DESPITE MY MIDDLE CLASS UPBRINGING, and is tied into a deep fear I cannot yet name. I suspect that having signed on for huge student loans I didn’t understand as one of my first independent adult choices fuels many lingering feelings of anger and frustration.
As we move through this year making intentional choices to live on less and eliminate extra expenses, I do not find myself less content than when I was ignorantly buying whatever I wanted in previous years. I’m focusing a lot of my energy on finding creative solutions when I want something, and learning to defer large purchases in order to Make Do with Less, or Old, or Borrowed. There is deep satisfaction in finding a good solution to a problem without having thrown money at the issue (an old habit I’d like to eradicate from my system).
When we talk with people about our project, I often find myself sharing a few bullet points:
- We stopped buying things we don’t need.
- We spend less on things we do need.
- We spend more on certain things we value (locally sourced goods).
- We carefully audit our entertainment options. Eating and drinking out is rare, as is spending money to do “fun” things. (Plenty to do in Portland for free!).
- Ali makes me a sandwich every morning for lunch.
- We use the library more. And public transportation [Ali]. Shared resources are wonderful.
- We rent a fully furnished, small home. Without the need to fill space with furniture, and no place to store extra things, there is little motivation for aimless shopping trips. (This is a surprisingly helpful factor.) Also: no repair/maintenance costs and all utilities included is a huge point of savings.
- I got a job. Our income is up, with a second steady paycheck to help supplement our debt snowball.
I’d like to talk more about Day Job versus Self Employment later. And Bringing Lunch. And Public Transportation. They all deserve their own little posts.
Final point for today: if you followed the link above, you may have noticed that the last baby step is to give generously. If the end point of the lifestyle was piles of wealth, I would not be on board with the program. Instead, the end point is the word “GIVE.” I love hearing Dave speak about this topic, because he gets almost giddy encouraging people to get rich and give it all away. I am excited and look forward to months in the near future when we have freed up funds to give more away in support of people doing Good in the world.
My hypothesis – we think about money too much, but we don’t talk about money often or honestly enough.
There seems to be a great deal of baggage automatically bundled with financial topics. From what I can see most people experience extreme, negative emotions – shame, greed, and and scarcity mentality – when they consider their financial situation. It’s easy to think about money too much. So why don’t people talk about it more?
We discovered, since starting this journey to financial freedom, that sharing our financial goals seems to give others permission to share their own story. A chorus of me too resonates any time we talk about the huge size of our debt or the fact that we’re keen to be rid of this burden. And a chorus of Instead, you should… comes from many who have walked the path before and found a way they consider successful. It’s fascinating from every angle – socially, psychologically, spiritually.
Thinking back to my ignorant younger years, I wish I had honest and thought-provoking conversations about money when I was in college. If only I had been able to realize how little I understood at the time, you bet your boots I would have gone right out and gotten some education to mind that gap – and certainly would have thought twice about those convenient sign-on-the-dotted-line educational loans. Boy, life would be different if I had understood how to make dollars mind their own business at an earlier age. But I digress.
I came here to share this – local Portland artist Jill Bliss recently blogged about a fantastic resource – a book called “Your Money or Your Life.” I’m so honored that she linked to our little blog from her post! Upon her recommendation, Ali went out and got the book from the library and has been enjoying it since.
Also, awhile back I came across a really cool post on one of those crazy-popular blogs called SimpleMom. This post talks very openly and honestly about money – and the comments are great! Let’s Talk Money at SimpleMom.
January was a tough month. After holding out for so long I finally hit a wall– after my little happy hour breakdown halfway through the month…. downhill from there. Suddenly, it seems like I should “just this once” indulge in things – whether at the grocery store adding a few too many luxury items to the cart, or sliding into a booth at Burgerville that one lunch hour when I was really hungry. It strikes me that this is a really basic principal of frugality at work — that when you try to deny everything, your willpower breaks down and the flood lets loose. (Reader Micah also pointed this out on the 1/15 post).
Being prepared with food is the best way for me to avoid extra expense incurred by eating out. Ali is my personal chef and gets lunches ready every morning, I’m thankful for that. I also try to keep some packets of cashews or almonds, along with fruit snacks in the car for emergency blood sugar situations. Having a plan for dinner – something in the slow cooker or an idea of what I’m craving that day – also helps avoid thinking too much about eating on the way home. I don’t WANT to think about food so much, and I’ve never had a problem with food aside from needing to make sure to regulate blood sugar. But this longing for what I’m not supposed to have goes deep – a little bit of the ol’ “forbidden fruit” mentality? Definitely a little of “awakening the dragon” and a little bit of boredom (beans in a crock pot only stay exciting for so long).
What should I do about this food issue? I have been thinking about food a lot lately. I think the denial of eating out in some way triggers a little bit of survival instinct (scarcity mentality), which is a tiny bit ridiculous since our fridge and cabinets are full. I have thought about giving myself one day a week to eat a moderate lunch out… I may try this for February and see if I can curb some of the appetite for luxury and convenience – or maybe that will make the longing worse. We also have a gift certificate for a really excellent restaurant a client gave me as a thank you for doing some family portraits, so I am looking forward to the opportunity to use that.
Any other suggestions? I am fascinated to explore these new and unexpected issues — the psychology behind desire, contentment and longing, and reaching for a big goal that necessitates lifestyle shift. The goal is abundance mentality in all areas of life.
There’s so much I want to write on this site every single week, but since picking up the day job to help us work off our $70k in school debt, I have been limited on time and energy.
The grocery shopping conundrum: local, or inexpensive? You can’t have both.
Ali and I love the idea of spending a little bit more to get local, fresh goods that taste better and support local businesses. Luckily, Portland has a wonderful farmers’ market system for much of the year that makes it easy and convenient to find a market close to your home or daily route. But… what to do in these winter months when the markets are on hiatus and local produce is limited to tubers and beans? We like and have a membership at our closest co-op, a tiny but mighty little store on Alberta Street we frequent for bulk foods, greens, and quick refills that fall outside of our big shopping trips. It certainly costs more to shop in a place like this, and I try to avoid buying any non-food items (toiletries, paper goods, etc.) here due to the huge markup.
But then you get into the other issue — the places where I know I can get paper products or the toiletries we like for a good price — such as Tom’s of Maine, Dr. Bronner’s, or Burt’s Bees… well, traveling outside of Portland to get to a Target isn’t exactly helping the local economy in any way. And me going into Target isn’t exactly encouraging toward staying on track with spending…. AND THEN there’s the whole issue of all the “natural” brands selling out to bigger companies, who use the good reputation of the little guys to make themselves look better.
Back to the point of writing this blog post. Ali and I have patched together a reasonably satisfying mix of shopping at our little co-op for small weekly trips, and stocking up at a big employee-owned warehouse store WinCo on the edges of town every 10 days or so. In doing so, I’ve been able to purchase enough food for daily lunches and dinners, with enough variety to avoid the felt need of eating out because we’re bored or lazy. Wintertime cravings for warm comfort food translates into soups and warm stew dishes with the slow cooker, which means dinner is almost ready when I walk in the door after work. IT’S GREAT!
We’re curious: how do you handle the local versus inexpensive conundrum in your house?
This afternoon I was driving home from the Saturday errands and realized I was ravenously hungry. I’m one of those people who stops functioning when my blood sugar is low, so I NEED TO EAT when I feel hungry. As I drove out of the WinCo parking lot I noticed a Sonic next door. Before going on our “budget diet”, I would have pulled right up to the little order station and gotten hooked up with some tots and lime-cherry soda to tide me over until I got home. The hugeness of our financial goal means eating out is not really an option. [Ed. note: I just realized how gross fast food tater tots and soda are for a messed up metabolism! What was I thinking?!] And then… THEN I saw a Burgerville — a highly-regarded local chain that features locally sourced “slow” fast food and a seasonal menu in some ways similar to the relationship Californians have to In-N-Out. I was so tempted to pull over and try their food after hearing friends rave about it – and I was SOOO HUNGRY I could have easily justified it. Then I thought about Dave Ramsey and how he always counsels people trying to get out of debt “shouldn’t see the inside of a restaurant… unless [you’re] working there”
This story has an up-side. I had a little victory when I realized I could take some bread and hummus that I had just purchased fair and square with our grocery budget and make a nice and MUCH HEALTHIER snack for the 25 minute drive back home. Food budget victory! I would have never even thought about that before we put this budget into place and started heavily concentrating on ways to quickly eliminate our debt. Constantly treating yourself to small indulgences can become the equivalent of “death by paper cuts” in the financial world.
While we’re talking about food vignettes and in the spirit of transparency I should also admit that I had a food-related failure this week as well. There was one day this past week when I didn’t take my lunch break until 3:30pm and had to go back for the last 30 minutes of the day anyway. I was innocently going by the local library to pick up a book when I noticed that there was a McMenamins next door. I found myself heading inside to take advantage of happy hour at the bar — I ordered a beer and an appetizer. It was ‘only’ $7 with tip but it felt like a total rebellion because I was spending money for food I didn’t need to buy, and also because I was drinking a beer and then going back to work. A little like a decadent Mad Men-esque triple-martini lunch. Obviously I didn’t drink enough to even get tipsy or I would NOT be admitting this to the internet. I am sad that we are now $7 further away from meeting our $70k goal.
So there are my food stories of the week. Is this the equivalent of tweeting what I ate for breakfast? Or is it relevant enough to be interesting?