Monday, March 01, 2010

Money Monday: March 1, 2010

I’ve been hearing two words uttered an awful lot these last few weeks: Frugal fatigue.

People (I hear) are getting awful darned tired of this whole “frugal” thing.

Small wonder, really. For one thing, most people didn’t wake up one morning and suddenly say to themselves, Gracious, you know what I want to do? I want to start living within my means! I want to start watching all my pennies! I want to start living frugally!

Most of the folks driven into the loving arms of the frugal lifestyle in the last couple years were whipped into it by the scourges of unemployment, slashed credit lines and, if and when they were fortunate enough to find work again, reduced pay.

Not many of us want to be forced to do anything; I certainly know that whenever I’m forced to do something, I’m pretty pissy about it – and resent it, and drag my feet on it, and whine and occasionally plant my feet firmly and flat-out refuse to do it.

Even if it’s good for me. Even if I know it’s good for me.

When we first started living below our means all those years ago, we weren’t too happy about it. We spent a lot of time thinking about what we’d buy as soon as this pesky debt-thing was over. Before we got serious about our issues, we were pretty into the instant gratification thing – it was really hard to see something cool and walk away from it. It was hard to eat at home when there was a party always happening at the pub; especially considering that I could burn water back in those days.

But, we had a very tight budget, because we were very serious about making the shortest work possible of our debt reduction. It was, in fact, a complete unsustainable budget – something I didn’t understand in those days, because as is typical for me I completely forgot that we are human beings.

With, you know, emotions and some junk like that.

The budget we had contained precisely zero in mad money. No allowance for movies, or a drive through the country, let alone a weekend getaway. It was all business, all the time.

Aaaaaand it didn’t work out too very well.

We’d do really well for a few weeks, or even a couple months – and then we would do something so extravagantly stupid that we’d undo all the hard work of those preceding weeks.

Then we’d beat up on ourselves and make anti-doing-that-again vows and blame each other and start all over.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Finally, one morning after the weekend before, while I was banging my head on my desk wondering why, why, why are we such a pair of loser-nitwit-moron-idiots, it dawned on me what was happening: The severe austerity of the lifestyle inflicted on us by the All Important Budget was too much for us. We just couldn’t go that long without getting a little something for ourselves. The pressure would build and build and build until suddenly, BANG!

It got released, usually in a single spasm of absolute irresponsibility…because I never allowed for the fact that humans need more than food, water and shelter.

When you’re talking about a day in, day out, week after week, month after month, continual process…human needs start to expand. We have creative needs, emotional needs, needs for beauty and entertainment and community.

Many of those things can be gotten without spending money. It doesn’t cost anything to sit on a park bench and talk to a friend. The library can feed my story-habit for no cash outlay on my part, and a brisk walk in the sunshine does more for my black moods than a fistful of pills.

But when it comes to the things that tend to rouse our passions and engage our emotions, well, they frequently have price tags dangling from them. My knitting involves tools, from patterns to yarns, that are going to cost cash money. My husband’s love of music results in a constant stream of envelopes containing sheet music. A quilter is going to need fabric; a painter will need brushes and canvas and paint.

Money is a numbers game, sure, and is therefore subject to rather logical rules that make few allowances for mushy stuff like “feelings.” I may feel that 2 + 2 ought to equal something other than four for my convenience just this once, but math is kind of inflexible on these things.

When it comes to finances, it’s all about math…except that finances are what enable our very human, and therefore very emotional and feelings-laden, lives.

When we’re settling in for a long financial haul, I really feel it’s important to remember that we are not machines. We are not able to just go and go and go, endlessly, without a pause to refresh. There comes a point where a want does become a need…even if it isn’t something that is physically required to keep our body alive.

It’s a good idea, therefore, is to anticipate those emotionally-charged moments, to plan for them…and to then be able to enjoy them joyfully when they arrive.

And to head off major disasters by letting off a little steam at regular intervals along the way. A date night once a month, or a new book, or a new outfit.

Note the ‘or’ statement there. Not “all of the above.” Not “every little thing my heart desires.”

Choose wisely, and carefully, with a keen eye for value and always keeping in mind what the reality of your financial situation is. You don’t want to throw away your future or wreck your chances at success; that would lead to happy feeling gone, which is the exact opposite of what we’re trying to get to here.

But do set aside some money each month in your budget for “fun,” and then ask yourself what things make you feel the most alive, what captures your heart and mind, what makes you sit up straight and go, “Ooooooh!”?

That’s where this money should go, to that one thing that makes you feel really, really good.

Extreme budgets are all well and good for short-term fixes, to maybe clamp down on arterial bleeds and get yourself back in the black again after disaster has struck. And obviously, I’m big on controlling your spending whenever you can.

But when it comes to the longer haul, when you settle in to chip away at a mountain of debt or stockpile a nest egg to get you through a long retirement, I truly feel that by giving yourself the gift of carefully feeding your emotional / creative passions along the way, without letting them run away with you and drag you down into a morass of regret by putting those rational limits on them, you can help yourself meet your long-term goals.

You can overcome frugal fatigue, without having to fall back into spendthrift ways.


Steph B said...

I love your posts about money management. They're always thoughtful, well-timed (that part kind of freaks me out) and most of all, realistic. If I'm understanding this post correctly, the crucial word is "balance", which is generally the toughest thing to achieve. We're working on it though, and thanks to you, I have a much better attitude about the whole subject than I did a couple years ago. Thank you.

Ms. Packrat said...

I've been being frugal for so long that the folks hitting it for the first time and whining after a few months of no lattes just kills me. OTOH, my grandmother, who frugalled through the Depression and WW2, always said "scrimp on the necessities and splurge on some luxuries" which is, I think, your point. You have to have some reminders that you're doing this for a reason that's a little more emotionally connected than a bill statement. Glad to hear Stitches West had a good market. The market at the Stitches South was pretty mingy with some of the grumpiest vendors I have ever met. In the end, i only bought one thing from a non-local vendor because the out of town vendors were so grumpy.

PipneyJane said...

Well put, Tama. I have lost count of the "frugal fatigue" articles I've read recently (and each time, I've wanted to shake the author and yell "You're missing the point!").

- Pam

PS: My word verification is "caterhy". Anyone for a puss-cat?

Rena said...

Dang you're good. I've been wondering why I feel the urge to buy something lately, when I don't need anything at all. But I just blew too much money on a book and then felt guilty as hell. It's a book I REALLY wanted (Jung's "Red Book." So beautiful)and when I found it on sale I snatched it up. After I read this, I don't feel as guilty (just a little). It's okay to indulge a little. I guess the trick is not going crazy. I don't need a new car or a trip every few months, but if I want to get my hair done or buy a special book, why not?

Nancy FP in Ferndale said...

Thank you for your words of wisdom. I keep getting the budget thingie wrong, not allowing for ANY extras, and then blowing the budget with a MUST HAVE, that I really didn't HAVE to have. Your words put the frugal living mode in perspective.