Friday, July 14, 2006

What a girl wants, what a girl needs…

…whatever makes me happy and sets you free…oh. Sorry. Hi. Ahem. Song was on the radio, and uh…never mind. What I was actually thinking about was knowing what you actually want, as opposed to what you think you want.

There are a lot of people out there who make their living by making us want things we don’t need or even want. “Find a need and fill it” has really become “create a need and fill it”, hasn’t it? From television ads to magazine glossies, they’re constantly hitting us with products we had NO IDEA we needed so badly. How could I have left the house without a tri-tone eyeliner on? Or staggered through life without an iPod? Hey, check out those Volvos, they’re safety engineered and you know what I could go for right now? A Sonic burger!

They make what we already have seem dull and old. I don’t think this is really any different from times gone by, but it does seem to me that our reactions to them have changed.

My mother would say things like, “Well, the new microwaves are nice, but this one cooks just fine.” She had the same washer and dryer for seventeen years, if I’m doing the math correctly; we never replaced things that weren’t broken.

Just because something was new didn’t make it a need. And it seems to me that we’ve lost that, a little bit. We don’t pick and choose from among our options, we just rush around like a bunch of dogs chasing squirrels, barking and drooling over everything from iTunes to sushi.

And then we sit back and fret because we can’t pay our bills, and we aren’t saving for retirement even though we know we ought to be and now I’m worried that I’ll never own a house and how come I’m not happy? Geez, maybe I’d better go buy a different pair of shoes to walk in for a while…

We stepped off that particular fun house ride a few years ago. We did it first out of sheer necessity – we were so deep in debt we could barely breathe and desperately needed to do something. Four seconds from bankruptcy.

But after it ceased to be a necessity, we never really got back into that groove. We’d learned something about ourselves: we need very little to be happy in our day to day life. We don’t need new cars, or antique furniture, or vacations or new clothes.

We’re on track for early retirement, even with having four kids underfoot and copious amounts of time off for me to have the babies and get them through those early months of life.

We can do it because we have a very clear list of what we need, what we really want, and what’s kinda cool – and we budget for them in that order. First the retirement and college fund savings; then, with what we have left, we do Everything Else.

It really doesn’t bother me to wear last year’s sandals or give a vacation I can’t afford a miss; I’ve got everything I need, and because I’ve thought about things carefully I don’t really feel all that abused because I didn’t get to go on a vacation. I didn’t want it as much as I wanted something else.

And for bonus points: I know it.

A lot of people who teach budgeting skip this step, and I think it’s a huge mistake. They’ll come up with averages and look at your current spending and say, “No no no, you shouldn’t be spending $X on groceries! For a family your size, you should be spending $Y! And what’s this for haircuts? Dear me, at your income level you shouldn’t be spending that much!”

Budgets are a very intimate thing. Very individual. Unique to each person and household. Averages are all well and good, but they only go so far. You have to live your life, and have joy in it.

And I really think that knowing what makes you happiest is the way to do it. We can’t possibly chase after all the things that are available to us. There isn’t enough money in the world to have it all. It breeds jealousy and malcontent.

When you can sit back and say, “Yes, but ring tones are about third from last on my list of stuff I can’t live without, and I’d rather be sunning myself on a Spanish beach next summer!”…it’s hard to describe how much peace it gives you. I can let all kinds of groovy things go, simply by calling to mind what it is I really want.

A new minivan…or shaving three years off my total years to retirement…hmm…

You know, old cars are neat. You get used to them. They’re like family…

If you feel like your spending is out of control and yet, somehow, you never have enough, give this a try. Just sit down and think about all the things you want to have, to do, and to be. Don’t worry about how likely they are. Just write them down. They can be Big and Important, or frivolous. It doesn’t matter – it’s about you, and what kinds of things you love and cherish.

Take a break from it, maybe a day or two, then come back and look at it again. Tweak it. This one isn’t really something I want, I forgot these two things…

Then you can start asking yourself which of these things you want the most. It isn’t carved in stone, so don’t be afraid. It’s going to shift and change with you. What seems incredibly important today might not seem so big a deal in a few weeks or years. Just give yourself an idea.

Once you’ve got that, you can start making your budget accordingly. If you want to retire early, you’re going to want to put a large part of your current income aside for that. If you want a new car, you’ll want to start putting money aside for that. If you want a fancy vacation, you might want to reconsider spending $1,200 a month on clothing, and so on.

It’s much easier to walk right on past the store window when you can say to yourself, “I’m doing this for Spain! Viva Espana!!!”

And viva libertad, while you’re at it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent advice.