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Conveniencing Ourselves to Death

This weekend Neil had a man cold. And a rusted out brake line. This didn’t make for a very fun weekend for him. Spending an afternoon under a rusty, 15-year-old car tracing brake lines instead of watching sports (what sport season is it? I have no idea) is a sacrifice. However, we might be sacrificing much more if we value convenience too much.

How much do you spend on conveniences each year?

Add up those Keurig pods.

The paper towels, napkins, plates, and cups for parties.

The baby wipes. And boogie wipes. And make-up removal wipes. And disposable diapers.

How about single-serving snacks, like granola bars, yogurt cups, chips, etc.?

Now add in frozen meals, prepared foods, fast food, and take-out.

And subscription services like Netflix or Kindle Unlimited.

Do you pay someone to mow your lawn? Clean your home? Wash your car? Fix your car?

How much might you pay to have a new car so it “won’t break”?

What does your convenient technology run you? Your data plan? Your eReader? Your computing needs? Your FitBit?

 

If anyone is still calculating, you’re a better person than me. I admit I spend a countless amount on conveniences each year.

To be clear, I am NOT saying there is anything wrong with buying any of the items or services mentioned above. I choose to buy many of those items regularly or occasionally. But let’s just all be honest about the fact that we spend a lot to avoid inconvenience.

Now, it’s absolutely glorious that I can throw my clothes into a washing machine and have them come out clean. No hauling them down a creek. No heating up buckets of wash water over a woodstove. I also love my microwave, my Kitchenaid mixer, my laptop, my cell phone, my dishwasher, and toilet paper. The list could go on, but the point is, we have to the draw the line somewhere.

I draw the line after toilet paper and washing machines.

I draw the line before Keurigs and a new car.

But that’s just me. Where will you draw your line? I can’t tell you where that line is, but I can tell you need to draw it somewhere.

This ain’t Little House on the Prairie, but it ain’t Downton Abbey, either. You gotta do stuff for yourself sometimes,

There is a reason we aren’t all still growing our own wheat, grinding it into flour, and making bread. There’s a reason I don’t have any sheep in my yard to make clothes out of. Industrialization is awesome.

There’s a good reason modern conveniences have become standard in homes. They free up time for people to pursue innovative careers and hobbies. They improve our quality of life, without a doubt. But at some point, if I’m too busy or lazy to do basic human tasks like cook food, clean, or fix things, maybe I need to re-evaluate.

Perhaps your life is filled with conveniences because it’s over-filled with commitments, hobbies, or entertainment. Maybe you’re spending more money than you’d like on conveniences because you haven’t taken control of your time. Learning to say no is crucial.

So is accepting that avoiding inconvenience is impossible, anyway. Things will break. Plans will fall through. You will get sick. There’s no way around some suffering in this life, but making it our purpose to avoid inconvenience means we won’t have the endurance needed when the inevitable comes.

The High Price of Convenience—It’s About More Than Money

Ultimately, the price of convenience items can be much higher than meets the eye. For example, we all know eating restaurant food or prepackaged foods is less nutritious than most home-cooked meals. We also know that being glued to technology can inhibit our relationships, health, attention and reasoning skills, and productivity in the real world.

Letting machines do everything for us isn’t great for our physical health, either. Most of already work sedentary jobs, now referred to as the smoking of our generation. Add to that the fact that we drive everywhere rather than walking or biking, and pay others to do our housework, yardwork, and car repairs, and we can easily end up couch potatoes with catheters a la Mr. Money Moustache ‘s article “Is It Convenient? Would I Enjoy It? Wrong Question.” (or Idiocracy). 

Unfortunately, kids are also spending way too much time on screens. As a parent, I can see why. It’s so much easier to turn on Youtube than to get everyone into their clothes, shoes, and coats to go play outside. But kids and grownups alike are much better off when we move our bodies and spend time outdoors.

Paying for convenience can also rob of us of the satisfaction of a job well done, learning new skills, and challenging ourselves. When I attempt a new recipe, I feel accomplished and satisfied while I eat the work of my hands. Neil still speaks proudly of the time he replaced the head gasket on his 1990 Dodge Shadow (my brother still drives it—it’s older than him!).

Many convenience items also represent a high environmental cost. Keirig is the ultimate example—the inventor claims he now regrets creating such a wasteful product. Maybe that’s just because he sold it for a meager $50,000 before it got hot!  Don’t feel too bad if you own one of these nifty contraptions. We’re all guilty. Think of all the paper products we consume, the handy pre-moistened cleaning wipes, food packaging, flash fashion, not to mention the amount of technological waste we create with constant upgrades…it all adds up to a lot resources depleted to create it, and a lot of junk sitting in landfills when we’re done with it.

Last but not least is the financial opportunity cost of what we spend on convenience. Perhaps a few minutes here and there could add up to a small fortune when we consider what our savings could earn if invested over time. Just reducing restaurant eating and prepackaged foods alone could free up hundreds of dollars each month.

I love convenience. It’s hard to put a price on it, but we all need to draw the line somewhere. Otherwise the price could be your health, your sense of satisfaction, your productivity, your family, your money, and your world.

What conveniences are worth it to you? Where do you draw the line? What other non-financial tolls might conveniences take on us?

“Please Un-entitle Me”

Writing a letter to my parents. What should I say?

Dear Mom & Dad,

I know you want what is best for me. You want to read to me as much as possible, take me on as many cool adventures as you can, and help me become the most successful, well-rounded individual I can be.

I know you want to race against the clock to find freedom before I’m too old to want to hang out with you. Before I’m too big to think you’re cool. Or maybe that’s not an option, but you want to make sure you’re as involved as possible. I think it’s pretty cool that you want that.

I know you want to teach me to work hard, to be resourceful and creative. You want me to learn things they don’t teach at school, like entrepreneurship and investing and how to DIY anything. And I’m sure I’ll thank you later for that.

You are saving for my college because you don’t want me to be stuck with the same debt you graduated with. You’re priming my resume by funding any extracurricular I choose. Okay, you drew the line at ice hockey. But you’re doing all you can to make sure I get good grades and good test scores, in hopes of stretching the college fund a little further.

Even if you didn’t have the money to do all this, it’d still be tempting to over-praise, over-purchase, and be overly-involved for me. I can make my own lunch and do my own laundry, okay?

You love me and you’re doing all you can for me. But please, watch out. As one of the wealthiest kids on the planet, I am at high risk for entitlement. In fact, it’s already happening. Between the participation prizes, the endless affirmation, the constant access to my grades, and all the attention you’re encouraged to give me, it’s almost inevitable.

I know, you’re frugal. You’ve told me no countless times when it comes to spending. You’ve taught me that money comes from hard work, and not to fritter it away. You didn’t do the epic themed birthday parties or annual Disney vacations or buy me designer clothing.

But you’ve also shown me that money is a Big Deal. Without it we couldn’t do all the awesome trips and adventures. Without it you’d have to be at work more, rather than with me. Which I love, but…

Please un-entitle me.

Let me manage my own schoolwork, forget my gym shoes, and not make the varsity team.

Take me to serve a meal at the homeless shelter. Encourage me to volunteer at the food bank. Have me visit handicapped adults.  Show me how good I have it, and that I am not the center of the world. Nor the center of your world.

I can’t be the center of your world. That’s too much pressure. I could never live up.

Model to me that success is not what matters most in life—at least if success means promotions or net worth growth. Show me how to succeed at truly loving other people. Teach me that money should facilitate that end.

Teach me how to be a good friend. One who is loyal and sacrificial. One who can help in practical ways, but emotionally as well. Raise me in community.

Don’t just teach me frugality, or how to earn a lot of money. Teach me how to give generously.

Don’t just teach me how to sell, teach me how to care. I need to see people not as obstacles or tools, but with compassion and empathy.

Don’t just teach me how to be happy, teach me how to be content. Every problem I’ve ever encountered has been so first-world, I have little tolerance for suffering. Don’t be afraid to let me suffer a little. Let me fail.

Don’t just teach me how to be polite, teach me gratitude. Not just the pleasantries of saying please and thank you, but a deep attitude of realizing I deserve very little, and have very much.

You can read me all the books, take me to all the countries, play all the sports with me, and still miss the most important part of me: my heart.

It would be such a shame if you tried so hard to raise a productive, well-rounded human, and I still turned out self-centered and entitled. The odds are against you. The culture unwittingly supports this most dangerous outcome.

But you know how to go against the tide. You don’t like to fit the mold. You wouldn’t be where you are if you didn’t have a counter-cultural streak. I know you can do it. Please un-entitle me.

Love,

Your kid

How have you combated entitlement in your family? 

 

For more on fighting entitlement, please see my friend’s blog, Entitlement Monster, and the book The Me, Me, Me Epidemic.

 

Just Pretending

If you grew up in the 90s, “poser” was the ultimate insult. Posing meant faking, pretending to be something you weren’t. I don’t want to be a poser.

So all pretending aside, let me be clear: I live in a 1400 sq ft home and own two cars, a dishwasher, a Kitchenaid mixer, and more computers and televisions than I care to admit. Actually, it’s hard to tally the latter when married to an engineer with lots of Projects. Though he just did some major decluttering–yay!

But back to my point: I am rich. Filthy rich, by any standard outside the time & space in which I live.

Lucky, fortunate, blessed, spoiled…you name it, I’ll claim it. I am the global 1%.

When I say pretend to be poor, I don’t mean it literally. Not even a little literally. I think the fact that it’s the title of a web page should give that away. (Think computer, Internet, leisure time when I’m not scavenging for my next meal or side hustling to pay the electric.)

I’d never want to insult the truly poor, or equate my truly lavish lifestyle with an impoverished one. So I’m just putting it out there, loud and clear, that I know I’m rich. And I believe wealth is a huge responsibility that should be used to help others.

In my mind, pretending to be poor represents the only attractive alternative to pretending to be rich. I suppose there’s a third option of breaking even, but that’s hard to pull off with precision and undesirable since it means you have nothing to share or save for the future.

So that leaves only two feasible options: live on more than you make, or live on less. And if you choose to live on less, why not live on a lot less, if possible? That could free up so many resources–both time and money–for doing what really matters.

The 1.74 trillion dollars in American consumer debt (credit & auto) indicates a startling pattern of living on more than you make, i.e. pretending to be rich.

By “pretend” I also hope to evoke not taking yourself too seriously. Sure, we’re trying to live on less, but we’re not claiming to be the most hardcore frugal freaks out there. I buy crazy indulgences like chocolate, alcohol, makeup, and pants without holes in them regularly. I break stuff, lose stuff, and buy stuff that doesn’t work out not infrequently. And each year we burn syrup, lose a chicken, and leave some garden tomatoes on the vine too long, all without causing our family financial duress.

We are not the most wealthy, successful, organized, creative, or generous people out there. We are not the best at life. We’re okay with faking it will we make it, and that’s very much what I mean by pretending.

The truth is, we’re all posers on some level. Now it’s been termed Impostor Syndrome; we’re all  a bit insecure as we strive to become something we’re not yet. The important question isn’t whether you’re pretending, but what will you pretend to be? 

I’ll strive to live on less, so I can be more useful.

I’ll strive to give more, to help those who have less.

I’ll “pretend to be poor” because I don’t want to pretend to be rich.

I’ll “pretend to be poor” so I can build wealth. Wealth that can help others become “rich in every way.”

Do you ever feel like a “poser”? What are you striving for this year? 

The Danger of Christmas

meeting-santa

I love Christmas, but I’m also afraid of it.

I’m afraid our kids will feel entitled by all the gifts they receive. I’m afraid they will lose sight of the true meaning of Jesus’ birth. I fear it will reinforce their tendency to believe life’s all about them. I’m concerned they’ll turn into greedy over-consumers.

We’re committed to not over-doing the gifts, but we do enjoy making Christmas morning magical for our kids. Surely that will look different as they grow up, but at their ages, this doesn’t cost a lot.

We’re grateful to have relatives who are generous but reasonable (not over-gifters). But even one or two reasonable presents from a number of relatives, plus “Santa,” adds up to a fair amount of stuff. (I do see the toys as a resource to survive the long winter months ahead!)

I’m also tempted to fill the precious days off of school and work with fun holiday activities. There are more special events than we can possibly attend, plus simple pleasures like sledding, baking cookies, and watching Christmas movies. I want to be sure that helping others is prioritized in the midst of seasonal entertainment, and that will mean passing on some fun activities, even if they’re free.

We want to celebrate Christmas with special treats, gifts, and family activities. We also want our kids to learn generosity, empathy, and service. Here’s how we’re trying to combat the greedy, entitled, all-about-me mentality that kids (and all of us, if we’re honest) are naturally prone to.

“It is better to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:35)

We first introduced this verse to my son when he was three. He replied, “That’s not true,” and refused to memorize it. We didn’t force the issue. Two years later he’s voluntarily quoting it (sometimes to his sister) and trying to understand it. He asked if getting presents on Christmas morning is bad. I explained that both giving and receiving are good and fun, but giving is special because it helps others and can bring them happiness.

To involve our kids in giving, I encourage them to buy or make something for each other and their dad. With their closest friends they might swap toys they already have or chip in toward a small gift.

“If you help the poor, you are lending to the Lord—and he will repay you!” (Proverbs 19:17)

Our kids live a strange existence in which all their needs are abundantly met. Without scaring them, we try to explain that not everyone lives this way. Some kids don’t get toys for Christmas; others don’t have enough food or even clean water. (Compassion International’s Explorer magazine was helpful for this.) We can’t solve all those problems, but we can share some of what we have with others. We use Dave Ramsey’s suggestion for give, save, and spend jars, and set a deadline this week for choosing a charitable destination for their money.

This year I also took my son to help out with a “Christmas with Dignity” store through a local ministry in a low-income neighborhood that’s home to many refugee families. The children work throughout the year to earn digital “dollars” by attending after school tutoring, completing homework, and participating in programs. With these funds they can shop at a Christmas store featuring a large variety of new, donated items. We volunteered with the set-up, which involved carrying lots of items down lots of stairs.

The store featured toys, but also many practical household items ranging from coffee makers to diapers to toilet paper. Friends who volunteer at the store noted how many of these items the kids choose over the toys.

Once we got through the explanations and he got to carry stuff around he got increasingly excited. He talked about the kids choosing from the different items. He was also bragging about how strong his muscles were getting from all the hard work. Maybe he still thinks it’s all about him (& his muscles), but I was grateful he had a chance to help others in some way. He left in an exceptionally good mood because he got to experience firsthand the joy of giving rather than receiving.

“Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress…”(James 1:27)

A friend suggested that the kids from our church visit nursing home residents and hand out cookies. Yesterday we did just that. Yes, visiting people you don’t know feels awkward. And children aged three to eight are hardly stellar conversationalists. But I think the cookies, smiles, and a few rounds of “Jingle Bells” went a long way toward brightening the residents’ day, and showing our kids that they’re not the center of universe.

The book The Me, Me, Me Epidemic  includes some more great ideas for involved kids in both planned and random acts of service.

I don’t share these experiences because I have it all figured out, but because I don’t. My kids are more entitled and self-centered than I want them to be. So am I. The path to financial success is fraught with danger for the soul, unless we take care to share, help the poor, and care for those often forgotten by society. 

I’d love to hear more ideas for promoting a giving attitude in kids at Christmas.What are some practical ways you’ve tried to teach generosity and service, especially during the holidays? How have you seen your children’s attitude toward giving change over the years? Or perhaps you remember how your own perspective changed?

The Personal Finance Topic No One Talks About

Image result for scrooge jumping into money pool

Copyright Disney

There is one word that is noticeably absent from personal finance content. I’m sure someone’s written about it, but I can’t remember reading a post on it in the two years I’ve been blogging. We hear the buzzwords repeatedly: side hustling, decluttering,  values-based spending, travel hacking, card churning, zero sum budgeting, and more. But what about the real root that gets so many of us into trouble when it comes to money?

I mentioned it in “5 Money Euphemisms to Avoid.” Interestingly, it was the one term that no one commented on. It’s almost a dirty word. Yet it’s something we’re all prone to.

Greed.

I hardly expect greed will ever become a buzzword. It can’t be good for SEO. But I think it’s important to broach this taboo that can seriously stymie our financial progress, or limit our happiness even if we are swimming in money.

Admitting the Scrooge in All of Us

The Greek philosophers’  concept for greed was pleonexia, an over-desire. Inordinate desire. A wish or drive out of proportion with what the thing can deliver. An unhealthy appetite. We think that car purchase, sleek device, or rising stocks will make us happy, but these things disappoint. It’s not because those things are inherently wrong, but because we’re wrong for placing our trust in them. Can so much metal, silicon, or stock value change our well-being for the long-term? That’s simply asking too much of too little.

I’m a naturally frugal person, but greed still finds its way into my heart regularly. Sometimes I wish for a more beautiful home even though we have a nice place with more space than we need. Sometimes I dream of new clothes or furniture even though what I have is perfectly passable. Sometimes I desire more savings although we’re filthy rich by global standards. And I know my generous, thrifty husband at times longs to own more land, a nicer car, or a bigger nest egg.

Sometimes yearning for more is a healthy impetus to work hard and live wisely. I’m not talking about such a contented quest to do the next step well. Greed is by definition discontent. Let explore a few examples.

My kids always want more. They have more toys than they have time to play with, but they want everything they see in the store. I know that’s “how kids are.” But isn’t “how kids are” a glimpse into raw human nature?

Credit card debt is often the result of greed, though there can be other factors. I can have something I can’t afford, and I can have it now.

Or take car loans. Unfortunately, they’ve been normalized to the point that people cannot see this. Taking a car loan is saying, I want a nicer car than I can purchase in cash. So I’m just going to get it. For an alternative approach, check out How I Spent $8000 on Cars in 17 Years of Commuting.

Mortgages a.k.a. death pledges are a bit different, since homes are an appreciating asset. Still, it’s all too easy to get greedy with the mortgage, especially when you’re offered loans much bigger than you need or can comfortably afford. Surely the housing market crash of 2008 demonstrated how pervasive greed can be in this arena. During our house hunt we almost purchased a home which would’ve made things tight. It all looked fine on paper but in retrospect I’m glad we went with something less expensive.

Greed is also the stuff Black Friday is made of. Again, there’s nothing wrong with Black Friday, and I know lots of people purchase only gifts or items they’ve planned for. But Black Friday would not be nearly as lucrative if it were not fueled by both consumer and corporate greed.

Responding to Greed

Greed could be for more savings, more travel, more experiences, perhaps even for more “freedom.” Again, it’s not the object of desire that’s a problem. It’s our attitude toward that thing. This attitude is uniquely hard to decipher in a society where greed has become normalized, institutionalized, and celebrated at nearly every level.

Where’s the line between normal desire and greed? That may look different for everyone, but it certainly crosses the line when we start acting on it, practically putting our faith in those things which cannot ultimately deliver.

It’s okay to admit you fall prey to greed. It may just be in your thoughts, or it may limit itself to insignificant purchases that don’t do much harm. It may be a gray area, but it’s there. And I think we’d experience more freedom from it if we could just admit it.

I know it’s scary, but think about the possibility of greed next time you:

  1. Think about charging something you can’t afford.
  2. Consider taking a car loan.
  3. Spend on “wants” while living in debt.
  4. Put off giving until you’re “comfortable” or “better off.”
  5. Check your investments constantly.

We can guard ourselves against acting on greed with the following measures:

  1. Giving consistently and sacrificially.
  2. Setting a budget and sticking to it.
  3. Paying off debt as quickly as reasonable.
  4. Avoiding new consumer debt.

Anyone brave enough to admit how greed affects you? What do you do to combat it? If I’ve missed any good posts on greed, please share them!

Maximize Your Minimalism

Fall visit to a local farm.

To minimize or not to minimize? That’s not really the question. The crux lies in why you’re minimizing.

Like frugality, simple living, or values-based spending, minimalism must be viewed as a tool in order to be effective. Owning less stuff is hardly a worthy life direction. Getting rid of clutter cannot make your life meaningful. Meaning makes life meaningful.

Meaning means you’re doing something significant on this planet. Something worthwhile. It means having a purpose. But figuring out your purpose is whole lot harder than cleaning out your closet, and I suspect this is why many more articles are written on the latter.

I won’t pretend I can tell you what your purpose should be, though you can check out some overarching principles in the post “How to Pursue Happiness” (hint: pursue purpose instead). I will share that our purpose is very much related to living out our Christian faith. This means we value involvement in our church, hospitality, and poverty relief.

Let me illustrate how your purpose might shape how you practice minimalism. If you want to be a minimalist so you can be generous, maybe you won’t be the type of minimalist who spends $300 on the perfect bag to end all bags. You’ll keep your three bags, while spending minimally in order to help the poor.

If you are the type of minimalist who has downsized forever, you probably need to buy that $300 bag because you don’t have room for three bags. And you’ll save much more than $300 by downsizing.

But if you’re the minimalist who highly values hospitality, you may not downsize. And you’ll keep more furniture and more toys or kitchen appliances or linens. But you’ll avoid adding unneeded stuff to make room for more people.

If you’re the minimalist who loves to DIY, you’ll have more tools. If you’re the minimalist with lots of kids, you’ll have more stuff than the minimalist without a large family. Okay, enough examples?

It’s been said plenty of times that minimalism looks different for everyone. But it doesn’t look different randomly. It should be different for a purpose. Linking your choices to your bigger picture will free you to own your choices about what to own and spend.

I largely curtailed recreational shopping when I read Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger at age 18. Suddenly browsing clearance racks at the mall for clothes I didn’t need seemed absurd. Helping people in poverty became part of my purpose, which changed my spending and owning habits forever. I’m certainly not the most generous person, but having a deeper motivation helped me change my consumption habits for the long haul.

Once you determine that purpose, start asking if the things in your home fit that purpose. I don’t care whether my possessions bring me joy. I don’t think the point of possessions is to evoke emotions. They are there to serve my purposes. My kitchen’s contents allow me to produce many healthy, homemade meals each week. They also help me to host and feed many guests throughout the week. My dishes hardly enrapture me, but they sure are useful.

I can tell you one possession that does not give me joy: the giant Rubbermaid tub of hand-me-down Legos. There’s stepping on Legos. Seeing my basement covered in Legos. Telling kids to clean up the Legos. Helping the kids clean up the Legos. But I could never get rid of the Legos. They’ve helped make our house a place where kids want to come. They’ve served as a way for me to bond with my son. And they foster my kids’ creativity and development. They may be annoying, but those little pieces of plastic serve my purposes so well.

The framework of purpose helps us use minimalism as a tool for a greater good, rather than falling into materialistic minimalism. After all, it is purpose, not possessions, that truly brings us joy.

How has your purpose influenced your consumption choices?

The Unexpected Benefits of Marrying Young

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I met my husband the second day of college, two weeks after my 17th birthday. Fast forward three years and it was obvious we were heading toward marriage.

When he suggested tying the knot before commencement, I was surprised and a bit resistant. That’s simply not the typical order of operations. But I warmed up to the idea and happily married when I had one semester left, and he had three.

We had very little money and even less income during the early months of our marriage, yet our youthful union turned out to have unexpected financial benefits.

Phase 1: Both in school

During our first few months, I was student teaching and not earning income. Neil worked about eight hours per week at his internship, for a monthly net income of around $1000. We were also paying for private health insurance until one of us got a job with benefits. We lived off of his income, with a bit of help from our pooled premarital savings and wedding money.

Phase 2: Kalie graduates

During the first summer, Neil interned full time, I worked as a nanny, and we were both relieved that I landed a teaching job for fall. The back-up plan was for me to work as a substitute teacher. At the beginning of his senior year, Neil accepted a full-time position with his company upon graduation.

During the following year, Neil worked fewer hours per week than he’d ever worked during college. His grades had always been solid, but they improved since he was finally able to focus more on his coursework. Though he already had a job, finishing a rigorous five-year program with a GPA hike was encouraging.

It’s no secret that first-year teachers don’t make much. We had a lot more money than the year before, but decided to live like college students as much as possible, for as long as possible. Getting married while still in school set our standards of living fairly low. Sharing a quiet one-bedroom apartment felt luxurious compared to the many roommates we’d rented with previously. Our rent was less than the combined amount we’d been paying for rundown houses in a pricey college town. I even convinced Neil to pack a lunch instead of buying Taco Bell near campus.

For many couples, marriage marks the beginning of being a “real adult,” so to speak. That’s when it’s time to buy that first home where you’ll start your life together. Then you remodel and decorate the home to make the space yours. Perhaps you purchase a new car or two.

We didn’t have any money for these “adult” steps, so we embraced the simple lifestyle that worked just fine throughout college. We bought used furniture, accepted hand-me-downs, and shopped at the same discount grocery store we knew and loved from our student days. For entertainment we walked our new city, and invited friends over.

Phase 3: Neil graduates

Once Neil graduated, our income increased, but our lifestyle increased only slightly. We splurged on a trip to Europe we saved for that first year. We took road trips, went out with friends, and I got a membership to the gym within walking distance. While lifestyle creep is all but inevitable,measuring your spending against your college-day budget can provide welcome perspective on wants vs. needs.

Unexpected Benefits

Simple living. If we had waited longer to marry, I imagine we would have spent more on our wedding  rather than keeping it simple. We also would have set up our home differently, probably opting for a larger apartment or buying a home much sooner than we did. Perhaps we wouldn’t have been willing to live in our friends’ basement. Spending wasn’t really an option, so we kept a simple lifestyle and largely stuck with it, even after our income increased. From the beginning we made a habit of giving money to our church, missions work, and poverty relief. Establishing this from day one has helped us practice generosity consistently.

Working as a team. Getting married so young made it easy to combine not just our finances, but our dreams. Travel, giving, and volunteer ministry were values we shared. We also began operating as a financial team. Neil was better at seeking financial education by reading about personal finance. I was better at budgeting and keeping our living expenses low. We each taught the other our fortes, rather than attacking each other about our weak areas.

We grew up financially together. Neil’s interest in personal finance certainly paid off. We learned about topics like investing, insurance, and mortgages together. Every choice we made was researched and discussed until we could agree on a course of action. Though we’ve certainly had differences of opinion, our basic financial philosophy was formed in a process we were both very much a part of. This blog is one outcome of this financial formation.

Transition to parenthood. Our early days taught us to live on one income, which prepared us for allowing me to stay at home with our young children. We agreed this was our plan before we got married, and six years later we had a seamless transition. I’d already left my full-time job for freelance writing, which I continued part-time until our second child was born. We also put the student loans behind us and purchased a home we could afford on one income.

The timing of our wedding was unconventional, but I’ve never regretted it. What’s best for each couple is different. Just don’t assume you have to follow the “normal” timeline of life events. I wouldn’t recommend marrying before you can support yourselves, but that may be easier than you think if you avoid drastic lifestyle changes.

Have you ever deviated from the norm when it comes to life events? What would you say to someone who wants to get married while in college?

Can You Tell the Difference Between Want vs. Need?

What is the purpose of money? Nothing will clarify your budget, streamline your spending, or motivate your savings more than your answer to that question. I believe the purpose of money is to provide for needs and wants, for myself and others, now and in the future. Today, let’s break down that first part—providing for wants and needs.

Which brings me to a confession. I may be a personal finance blogger, but I can’t tell the difference between wants and needs. It’s Economics 101, yet I fail miserably. I suspect I’m not alone.

Financial advice assumes we’re all able to distinguish between the two. Yet if we actually could, we’d need a lot less financial advice. Of course we all know that food, shelter, and clothing are necessary. We could reasonably add health insurance to the list since it’s required by law. After that things get a bit fuzzy.

For example, are our two vehicles wants or needs? Neil’s work is 11 miles away—bikeable in theory, but it doesn’t work out in reality. Our second car is not necessary since I don’t drive to work, but considering our suburb, climate, and family size we would be quite limited without it.

We’re completely settled on having two cars. Point is—it’s pretty hard to distinguish between wants and needs in a culture where the standard of living is really quite high, life isn’t simple, and we are constantly bombarded with suggestions that we “need” a lot of things to lead a normal life. Like in these ads we made fun of.

According to these definitions, we spend most of our money on wants instead of needs (recent expenses included):

Needs Wants
Food 2nd car insurance, gas, maintenance
Clothing Preschool tuition
House & utilities Cell phones?
Health insurance Any restaurants
1st car (insurance, gas, maintenance) Any hobby costs (gardening supplies, bike gear)
Cell phones? Toys
Books
Home goods (guest room sheets, curtains)
Vacations
Ministry expenses (retreats, babysitters, hosting)
Dates and family outings

How could I possibly say I’m living simply when I spend most of my money on wants?

You could argue that some of the wants are needs. Maybe I needed spare sheets for the guest room. Who knows?

And then how do you draw the line within categories of “need”?  For example, we buy ice cream to have at home. We don’t need to eat ice cream, ever. So food is a need, but ice cream is not. Since we don’t eat at a subsistence level, some of our grocery spending should fall under “want,” not “need.”

Do we need the Internet? Essentially, yes. But in terms of actual survival, of course not. Do we need hobbies? Technically no, but life would be rather sad without them.

Under my definition of money’s purposes, wants are absolutely allowed. So the point here isn’t to seek and destroy the wants, and live in caves. Or to feel guilty if we live in homes instead of caves. Challenging our very conception of “need” can do a world of good, though. Here’s how:

  1. Get perspective. We are so rich. So blessed. Most of us are reading blog posts on our personal computers with high-speed internet in warm, dry buildings with full bellies. Having our needs met is hardly a question on our radar, and that’s something to be sooo thankful for. Keep gratitude on your radar instead. Any notion of extreme frugality flies out the window when we look at the world around us where half the population lives on $2 a day.
  2. Get critical. Cultural norms and masterful marketing convince us that we need more everything! Better everything! Newer everything! I am in no way immune. Here’s a silly but real example. Do I need to own a clutch purse and nude heels in order to attend weddings? Or is it fine to feign fashion cluelessness and show up with flip flops and a cross-body purse, as I did this summer?
  3. Get creative. People don’t challenge anything in the budget that’s deemed a need. But if you can bring that global perspective to bear, you’ll start to squint out your blind spots. For us it was pricey date nights, outings with friends, and travel. We didn’t give up these areas entirely—they’re too closely related to our values. We did find creative ways to cut back when we peeled away their privileged status as “needs.”
  4. Get generous. Others are in real need. Acknowledging our decadent, want-filled lifestyle isn’t meant to make us feel guilty. Instead, it makes us feel wealthy and ready to share. Getting perspective on our relative affluence prompts us to inflate someone else’s lifestyle instead of our own.

I questioned my definition of “need” and found it wanting. I still can’t tell the difference, but it sure seems luxurious to classify more things as wants than needs. And I feel the need to help those without such luxury more than ever.

Do you hard time distinguishing between wants and needs? What’s a “need” that you’ve challenged?

In Praise of Old Technology

pakman

Want to know what I got for my birthday (that I pretended not to have)? A pair of Spectron 4 sunglasses to protect my Irish eyes, and the Sega Genesis Aladdin game.

Talk about partying like it’s 1999!

“I didn’t know you play video games,” my mother-in-law commented.

I don’t. But back in the day I used to play Aladdin. It was the only video game I ever beat. Neil had the game too, and we reminisced about it after showing our kids the movie Aladdin for the first time. On VHS.

Yes, we own a VHS player. And our TVs are CRTs.

There’s also the tape player in my car.  My mom’s given me a host of children’s stories on tape. And mix tapes featuring Simon and Garfunkle, Neil Diamond, and the like. Which is awesome since the oldies station is now playing 80s music.

My laptop is coming up on its 9th birthday. It doesn’t shut, which mostly defeats the purpose, but it works.

My phone also testifies to the past. It’s decidedly dumb. Yet its charge lasts a whole day (my old one lasted nearly a week!). And it doesn’t tempt me to stare at Twitter all day.

You guys, I write down directions when I drive to a new place. It’s crazy.

I do own a broken iPod nano! It works as long as it’s plugged in to a power source.

I don’t collect vinyl. I don’t think it’s virtuous to stay behind the times. I’m sure I’ll have to forsake my nearly obsolete technology soon. I just don’t like buying new stuff when my old stuff still works. And in some ways, the old technology works better. My childhood audio tapes are still intact, but my iPod’s power button is stuck and doesn’t work. Audio tapes = 25 years old. iPod = six years old.

If you don’t have children you might not know that Disney obnoxiously “locks” their movies in a “vault” to artificially create scarcity. Then they release one every so often and sell it for whatever they want because demand is high.

VHS tapes go for 60 cents at the thrift store near us. That’s less than one day of library fines on an overdue DVD! There are plenty of familiar titles to choose from. They also don’t get scratched, and they’re cartoons, so who cares whether they’re in HD?

Neil kept the Nintendo he bought in high school, and his Sega Genesis. When my dad moved out of state, he gave us his Bally Arcade system, Atari, and games. We don’t play a lot of video games and we definitely won’t let our kids waste too much of their lives in front of a screen. But playing them together makes a good family night activity every now and then. And they are much simpler and less over-simulating than newer games. Pacman is perfect for a five-year-old.

When my last phone broke, I got a new one on Craigslist the same day. For $10. And it won’t start malfunctioning when Apple stops supporting older versions of the iPhone.

And I already told you about That Time I Invented the Kindle…and Why I Still Don’t Have One.

It’s important to stay technologically literate and we consider having a TV and some video games part of being hospitable. Neil is an electrical engineer–he loves electronic technology sooo much and waited sooo patiently for his work to pay for a smart phone.

Yes, we love technology. We’re just not ready to pitch perfectly fun and functional media, even if it is outdated and takes up a bit more space than the digital counterparts.

Does anyone else own outdated technology or media? What benefits do you see?

The Problem with Simple Living

 akron sunset

Filling water balloons really gives a person time to reflect. Life has been feeling complicated, and I’ve been feeling guilty about that.

After all, scores of articles suggest that life would be more manageable if I just simplified it.  Their short, percussive paragraphs try to soothe the soul. They inspire me to clean out my kitchen junk drawer, because if I had less junk in there, my life would definitely be better. Zombie-like, I close the tab and start throwing away broken pens in a passionate quest to regain control.

Next I’m told to attack my closet with a vengeance. If I get rid of perfectly good clothing and replace it with sustainably-made tees, I will muster enough dormant brainpower to invent the next Facebook. Or at least appear on Shark Tank.

According to these sources, it’s not just my belongings that need to be simplified. My schedule is also a disaster. If I stopped hanging out with anyone who brings me down, I’d be a lot better off. If I just said “no” to all the stuff other people want me to do, I could say yes to what I truly want. I will find peace.

I beg to differ.

What Does Simple Living Mean?

Simple living used to be a euphemism for resisting over-consumption. Living on less certainly makes life easier. Cutting the stuff we don’t care about, like pedicures and elaborate birthday parties and toddler tee-ball, saves so much time and money. “Simple living” in this sense allows us to be a one-income family and do volunteer ministry.

Recently, the terms simplicity and minimalism seem to encompass all of life—your time, experiences, relationships, possessions, work—everything. I agree with so much of this thinking. Cultural trends to over-schedule kids in lots of extracurriculars, stay hyper-productive at all times, or work crazy hours to pay for crazy stuff are bogus and need to be challenged.

But why do I leave the simplicity articles feeling frustrated by my not-so-simple life?

The problem with “simple living” is that…

Life isn’t simple.

Having a family is complicated. Sometimes I’d like to have a less hectic calendar with more flexible days. We are not “overscheduled” in the traditional sense. Our 5-year-old has taken one structured class, ever–swim lessons. He hasn’t been to a day of school in his entire life (no, I’m NOT homeschooling).

So how’d our schedule get so complicated? Well, there’s the part where we lead a home church and various small groups. There’s the part where I oversee the children’s ministry for our church. And there’s the part where my husband wants to make as many fun memories as a family while our kids are still young enough to like us. I wouldn’t trade these for all the simplicity in the world.

When life feels convoluted, I have to remember that I’m married. I have children. And these people have opinions and preferences that I must take into consideration. There’s nothing simple about that.

Relationships are complicated. Having friends brings so much joy, but it’s also complicated. Weeping with those who weep and rejoicing with those who rejoice doesn’t simplify my feelings or my schedule. I’m far from a perfect friend, daughter, or sister. But I do devote time, energy, thought, prayer, and emotion to the people in my life.

Living in a broken world is complicated. If simple living means finding what makes you happy and filling your life with that, people will starve. Humans will be sold into slavery. Orphans will go homeless. I don’t imagine we will end these horrors entirely. But simple living shouldn’t mean ignoring the immense need all around so we can be more comfortable. Rather, helping those in need should motivate us to free up time and money, not for our own peace and enjoyment, but for the sake of others. We can all be activists for at least one cause.

Find Purpose, Not Balance

In light of the world we live in, we don’t need to “find balance” or “live simply.” We need to live on purpose, and that is going to feel both complicated and imbalanced at times.

Of course we need to take care of ourselves to avoid burn-out. We need to relax, refresh, and reflect on a regular basis. We very much need to recognize our limitations and accommodate those.

I’ve fallen into the trap of thinking my life would be calmer if I could find the perfect ratio of activities and downtime. Or figure out when to say yes and when to say no. Seeking a rational schedule is fine, but expecting my life to feel straightforward is irrational.

I’ve been striving for simplicity in the superficial areas: my calendar, my spending, and my junk drawer. What I really need is simplicity of purpose. And I already have that. We hope to inflate others’ lifestyles instead of our own. I know many other minimalist/simplicity movement people are doing the same, but I hope the purpose doesn’t get lost in the practical when it comes to applying their advice.

Does life feel complicated? What cause are you passionate about?