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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

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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?

5 Money Euphemisms to Avoid

“I’m going to invest in a good pair of running shoes.”

“My neighbors just bought another car–their lifestyle inflation is getting out of hand.”

“I’m sorry, but I just can’t afford that outing to the lake.”

“We paid an extra $270 for the privileged traveler passes, but we have a kid so it’s worth it.”

“I know we could be saving more. I really need to look at our budget.”

Can you spot the money euphemisms in the statements above? (Don’t worry, I’ve said them all too.) Language powerfully molds the way we think about the world, often in subtle ways we might not realize.  With each of those phrases, there’s a proper meaning that compactly expresses so much about reality. There’s also a potential euphemism that puts us in danger of believing lies that will keep us from our financial goals.

Let’s take a look at each one.

1. “I’ve already gone through three pairs of cheap running shoes this year. It’s time to invest in something better.”

Newsflash: investments are meant to make moneyLet’s not confuse investing with spending.

Yes, I agree it is time to purchase some shoes that will last. They may be an investment in your health or sanity. But your stinky, sweaty, swiftly depreciating shoes are not a financial investment.

Here is the proper way to use the term: “I’m going to invest in Vanguard index funds.” Go you! “I’m going to invest in a rental property.” Good luck! “I’m going to invest in these stupid knickknacks that sell for four times my cost on eBay.” We’ll take it!

2. “I really fell into lifestyle inflation last year when I bought that boat.”

Forgive my frankness, but how much of what we deem “lifestyle inflation” is really just plain greed?

We’re all greedy at times. We all want more of something, whether it’s fun toys in the garage, gorgeous clothes in the closet, or money in our portfolio. It’s when we continually spend more than we make (exempting those in poverty) that we are allow greed to drive our lifestyle

Lifestyle inflation, or even materialism or consumerism, sounds a whole lot nicer than raw greed. But the first step to change is admitting you have a problem. Lifestyle inflation sounds like a minor indiscretion. Oops! Greed sounds like an ugly, deep-seated issue I’ll have to unravel through introspection, sacrifice, and accountability.

I recognize greed is not the only contributing factor to living beyond your income. There are societal pressures, keeping up with the Jones, falling prey to slick marketing, and soothing unhappiness or insecurities with spending. Look at the whole picture, but don’t rule out the possibility of old-fashioned avarice.

3. “I’m sorry, I can’t afford to go camping. Or pay a sitter. Or help the poor.”

Sometimes I’m tempted to say we can’t afford something when really, I just don’t want to spend my money that way. Or when I just don’t want to do that thing period.

Other times, we “can’t afford” something because we already spent the money in other ways.  In that case, it’s not a problem of affordability. It’s a matter of choices. You are 100% entitled to make these choices with your money. But let’s stop using “can’t afford” euphemistically. In the name of honesty, I’m trying to replace “I can’t afford” with the truth.

Telling the truth doesn’t mean you have to be tacky and say, “I think it’s stupid you expect your friends to spend $40 each to celebrate your birthday.” A simple “No thanks” is often sufficient. You might also say, “I already spent my fun money for the month.” Or find a less expensive way of participating, like pre-gaming a restaurant outing.

Of course, there are things I truly can’t afford. Ditto for you. That would be the right time to say “I can’t afford…”

4. “We spend $50 at a restaurant once a month, but it’s worth it to get a date without the kids.”

Direct quote from yours truly. I’ve deconstructed and repented of this statement already, but I hear and read people all the time justifying their extra expenses by saying “it’s so worth it.” “Best money we ever spent.” “It’s invaluable to us.” “Worth every penny.”

This sentiment calls to mind the Mastercard commercials of the late 90s/early 2000s. They’d show a family on vacation and narrate: “Airline tickets, $800. Beach toys, $15. Condo on the beach: $1000. Your children’s memories? Priceless.”

It’s safe to assume that if you made the purchase, you thought it was worth it. So let’s not feel the need to justify every expense this way. And try not to care whether others agree about it being worth it. It’s your money, not theirs.

Let’s also be aware of the opportunity cost of our spending preferences. That’s how you truly ascertain what your money’s worth.

5. “I wish we could pay off debt faster. I should really look at our budget.”

Instead of looking at your hypothesis of what you’ll spend in the future, why not look at exactly how much you spent in the past?

Take three months of real data. This is called tracking, and it’s the other side of the budgeting coin. It’s reactive—you can’t change the past. But it can help you assess what to cut in order to meet your goals. Use tools from Personal Capital, Mint, or your bank’s online tools to track and visually depict your spending.

Runners up include “I got this half-off on clearance and saved $20!” and the word “mortgage” (hint: it literally means “death pledge”).

I’m sure to inadvertently use all these again since they’ve taken on colloquial meanings. Still, it’s good to strive for thinking accurately and speaking honestly about money.

Which of these have you used before? Can you think of any other money euphemisms? Please share!

How to Pursue Happiness

What is the good life?

What is the good life?

Happiness has been a hot topic this summer in the personal finance blogosphere. Mr. Money Moustache, Frugalwoods, Our Next Life, and ThinkSaveRetire have all shared their philosophy of happiness recently.

It’s great that the money people are taking on transcendent topics. There’s more to life than money, as we all agree. Keeping our happiness in view helps us balance and direct our financial goals within the bigger picture of life.

But before we embrace any philosophical belief, we must scrutinize its underlying assumptions. I’m all for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” but I want to do it right. The foundational presuppositions of the “primarily pursue happiness” viewpoint include:

  1. We know what will make us happy.
  2. What makes us happy is good for us.
  3. Happiness can be pursued directly.

Do We Know What Will Make Us Happy?

Before making happiness our life’s goal, we’d want to be confident that we can predict what will make us happy. Plenty of research suggests we can’t do so reliably. A couple good TED talks on the topic:

And surely we’ve all experienced a failure to forecast what will satisfy. For example, I never wanted to marry. Then I tied the knot at age 20 and have been happily married for 10 years. People think a career in business will make them happy only to return to school for a teaching degree a few years later. And we’ve all made fun purchases, thinking the object or experience will make us happy, only to look to the next purchase all too soon.

Is What Makes Us Happy Good For Us?

It’s easy to think of examples of unhealthy things that make people feel happy, but there are plenty of legal, good pastimes, possessions, or traits that make us happy for a while, but don’t deliver in the long run. Hollywood is littered with successful, beautiful, wealthy people whose utter unhappiness is tragically on display, and we’ve all known plenty of cases close to home, too.

  • People who have traits others believe comprise happiness—wealth, smarts, beauty, talent—actually report lower happiness levels than their average counterparts.
  • Olympic gymnastics gold medalist Shawn Johnson described how disappointing her Olympic experience was.
  • Quarterback Tom Brady reported feeling completely empty despite his hugely successful football career, massive wealth, and supermodel wife.
  • Dave Chappell ran away to South Africa after making $50 million by age 32, and stated “It seems the higher up I go, the less happy I am.”
  • Sigmund Freud declared that the “pursuit of happiness is a doomed quest.”
  • The author of Ecclesiastes recorded the results of his search for happiness. He tried women, wine, work, wealth, and education. His conclusion? “Thus I considered all my activities which my hands had done and the labor which I had exerted, and behold all was vanity and striving after the wind and there was no profit under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 2:11).

We want to find the perfect cocktail of financial stability, hobbies, friends, productivity, and creativity to make us happy. But what if it can’t? We are prone to imbalance and to wanting “too much of a good thing.” Even more subtly dangerous is wanting too much from a good thing.

Conversely, is what makes us unhappy bad for us? It all depends. Of course unhealthy pursuits and relationships are toxic, but periods of suffering are often viewed as the most redemptive or life-changing within a few years. An American Sociological Association study showed childless couples are happier than those with children. Of course! Raising kids is HARD! While I often feel unhappy when I’m being nagged, woken up, or pooped on, I am so happy that I have children. I’ve grown a lot already and the whole experience is very humbling and amazing.

Can Happiness Be Pursued Directly?

The reason our plans for happiness tend to evade us is that happiness can’t be pursued directly. It’s kind of like falling in love: you can’t force it. You can take some steps that are within your power; that’s fine and good. I’m not saying we should abandon everything that gives us cheer to wear sackcloth and ashes. Happiness and wanting to be happy aren’t wrong. Enjoying hobbies, experiences, and material provisions is awesome. “God has given us every good thing to enjoy.”

We all know you can’t buy happiness. Turns out you can’t chase it, either. TED talks by psychologists Dan Gilbert and Nancie Etcoff explore why happiness can’t be pursued directly. C.S. Lewis makes a wonderful case for this principle in Surprised by Joy. He searched for happiness his whole life, only to discover that you can’t find it. It finds you, often when you’re least expecting it.

So what are we supposed to do? I believe happiness comes from:

Above the sun. If everything under the sun is ultimately meaningless and unable to deliver true, enduring happiness, we need to look to a transcendent source. This is what surprised Lewis: a lifetime of searching for a feeling state left him unfulfilled. Meeting the Author of Joy brought an unexpected joy that rose above circumstance and emotion.

Be happy with what you have“It’s not getting what you want, it’s wanting what you got” Sheryl Crow sang, and the apostle Paul agrees: “If we have food and covering, let us be content” (1 Timothy 6:8). Research concurs that, once a reasonable standard of living is secured, additional income doesn’t increase happiness. The principle of diminishing returns often applies to other areas like success or leisure time. The true secret to financial freedom isn’t reaching financial independence, or early retirement. It’s contentment.

Having a purpose. What brings real fulfillment and contentment is knowing our lives mean something. You may be ecstatic for a short time, but that doesn’t impact your overall life much in the long run. When I think back to my life just twelve short years ago, I scarcely remember my emotional state. What I do remember is my purpose at that time. And this is also what we remember about others, whether our grandparents or modern or historic heroes.

Making others happy. I’ve framed this many ways—Inflate Your Usefulness, Not Your Lifestyle, Inflate Someone Else’s Lifestyle Instead of Your Own, and Real Worth vs. Net Worth to name a few.  I’m almost sorry to beat this drum again! But according to my experience, others’ research, and the wisdom of Jesus, it really is better to give than to receive.

Bringing others joy lies at the heart of having a purpose. If it’s all about me, I’m just chasing a moving target, a carrot tied to a stick. While getting happiness can’t be our primary reason for caring about others, it’s a likely side effect. And if directly pursuing my own bliss is ineffective, I might as well brighten other people’s lives.

Now, after all that philosophy, go enjoy this feel-good dance video.

What do you believe makes people happy?