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Extreme vs. Classic Frugality

Gandhi: my idea of extreme frugality.

Low-expense living is trending under the guise of “extreme frugality.” But I call BS on this terminology.

I have no desire to pass judgment on others’ spending since everyone’s situation and values are different. Not many conversations are less pleasant than the who’s-more-frugal pissing match. And the media is probably more to blame for this misnomer than the families it features, who are just trying to live reasonably.

But when did eating at home become classified as “extreme frugality?” Is a year-long clothes-buying ban, perhaps following ten years of over-shopping, actually extreme? Does hanging clothes to dry make you a frugal rockstar?

Again, I’m NOT saying people with a certain habits or possessions aren’t frugal enough. My beef isn’t with anyone’s lifestyle, but with attaching the term extreme to what is nothing more than simple, reasonable, classic thrift. Yes, resisting lifestyle inflation is counter-cultural. But as some of the richest people on earth, can we all agree that most of us are not leading extremely frugal lives?

“Extreme” is Actually Classic

We prefer to view our lifestyle as nothing more than classic frugality–with plenty of luxuries in the mix. Let’s consult historical context to clarify terms. In recent history, we find the advent of modern personal finance/early retirement blogs beginning with Early Retirement Extreme and then Mr. Money Mustache. (For some reason, my 2008 “How to Be Cheap” blog series didn’t make it as big.) MMM has made it very clear that, while his family of three lives on only $25,000 per year, they are not claiming to practice extreme frugality. Their lifestyle is just “slightly less ridiculous than average,” to use his self-description. Laurie at the Frugal Farmer also wrote about this topic in her post When Frugality Was Normal.

Rewind a bit further, and we find ourselves practicing the same money-saving habits our grandparents did, while living in a larger home and owning more cars. For example, Neil’s grandparents grew old in the same small bungalow where they raised five children while owning one car. You’d better believe they hung clothes to dry, cooked from scratch, and bought only what they needed. They didn’t need to employ gimmicks to control their spending. Their whole 95 years on this planet have been a shopping ban.

If we want to talk about extremes, let’s talk about people like Mother Theresa or GandhiDo you think Gandhi was making cash envelopes for “Rice” and “Dhotis”? When he died he owned about ten possessions, including his iconic spectacles. Now that’s extreme.

I’m all for shopping bans or cash envelopes. I just can’t get on board with calling them extreme. To me, extreme frugality means something more like living out of a van, or one-bedroom apartment with multiple kids, dumpster diving for food, and keeping your heat at 50 degrees.

Classic frugality means something more like:

I’m not trying to debate about who does which frugal practice. I’m just saying, this type of frugality is what we’re into, and we don’t view at as extreme. It’s simply reasonable. After all, owning a car or two, living in a multiple-room home, and eating three full meals a day makes us quite spendy by global measures.

“Classic” Is More Motivating

The only “extreme” we’re surrounded by is extreme over-consumption. So I suppose our thrift is a marked difference compared to the insanity of going out to lunch every day, building brand-new 4,000 sq. ft homes, and leasing cars for $500/month. But just because a sizable segment of our population has gone completely crazy with their spending, doesn’t mean we’re living an equally far-out alternative. We’re just enjoying a more lavish version of past generations’ simplicity, and keeping that in perspective is intriguing, contentment-building, and motivating, all at once.

Surely viewing a slightly deflated lifestyle as “extreme” suggests it’s formidable or unreasonable to maintain. If we could embrace simple living as just a thrifty throwback to normal, we may find it much more manageable. And I’m all for sensible views that will fuel our financial flexibility over the long haul.

If our site title seems to suggest we think we’re doing something extreme, allow me to clarify: it’s all relative. We see “pretending to be poor” not as literal, or meant to demean those who are truly struggling to get by. Rather, it’s the only viable alternative we see to be pretending to rich. Either you’ll live on more than you make, or less. And only living on less will allow us to invest both in our future, and in the lives of those in need. We are very much “Just Pretending“and that keeps us going way more than if we thought we were doing something difficult and extreme.

Do you agree with this distinction between classic and extreme frugality? Can you see any other drawbacks to using this misnomer?

Why Financial Flexibility is the Next Best Thing to Financial Independence

I’ve been quiet on the blog because I’ve been uninspired, feeling like I have very little to say about money that I haven’t already said. And I’ve been preoccupied with lots of other things that, to be honest, have made personal finance seem like a trite and irrelevant topic. Of course, I can only say that because we’ve achieved a good measure of financial flexibility. And so I guess that means personal finance is very relevant—what a blessing and privilege not to be worrying about money in the midst of so much else going on.

What’s been going on? Our closest friends and neighbors moved. I got pregnant, and that of course comes with symptoms, appointments, and preparations.  My family of origin is going through some challenges. We’re busy with regular life–work, kids, volunteer ministry, continuing ed, etc.  Plus our bathroom remodeling goal has gone from “probably should” to “high priority” after we discovered the subfloor was water damaged.

Financial flexibility is an accounting term that describes “a company’s ability to react to unexpected expenses and investment opportunities.” We find this concept useful for personal finance as well. What options would open up if you could live on half your current income? How easily could you weather a job loss or unexpected illness? Could you say “yes” to travel, moving, or giving opportunities that come along? In other words, can you touch your financial toes?

Financial flexibility has afforded us the privilege of not thinking much about money during this less than low-key season. We can complete a DIY (with help) bathroom remodel without going into debt. I’ve been able to take care of myself instead of stressing about side hustling to make our financial plans work. We can weather the extra expenses of adding to our family. And our systems of auto-withdrawal for giving and investing can mostly steer our financial goals during a time when we’re not devoting much thought to money.

Our deeply ingrained “frugal” habits also allow us to just continue on autopilot. I suppose it would be easy to start ordering more take-out, shopping for stress relief, or spending more on conveniences or entertainment for our kids. We’ve certainly increased our expenses a bit to accommodate our growing family, but overall our lifestyle remains similar in the day-to-day. And it’s not through some super-human effort, but the sheer power of habit.

We’re far from financial independence–and totally content with that. We’ll get there when we get there, and we won’t sacrifice our values or purpose for it at all. I’ll be home with the little ones, Neil will be turning down work that would take him away from family and friends too much, and we’ll continue devoting nights and weekends to fellowship and volunteering rather than paid side gigs.

We’ll also keep spending on giving, hosting, date nights, and travel.

We will happily “sacrifice” what we don’t deem worthwhile uses of our money: car payments, eating out frequently, gym memberships, new furniture, or the latest fashions.

Everyone’s got their things that they’re willing to spend on, and those they aren’t. Our are just examples. The key is trying to sort out what’s really worth it to you, and limiting that list. Because everything doesn’t have to be your favorite.

If you’re still nowhere near FI, take heart: financial flexibility is a continuum you can make constant progress along. And as you do, you’ll experience real, growing benefits even while you’re still very tied to the day job. Our decisions have become less and less influenced by money, and increasingly tied to our values and purpose. We can say yes more and more. Another mission trip to India? Sure. Another baby? Yes. Home upgrades as needed? Fine. Sponsor another child in need? Absolutely.

And that feels like freedom in many ways.

What the next step along your financial flexibility continuum? What benefits have you experienced from growing financially?

“We Hate Money,” or, We’re Having Another Kid

It’s true, the PTBP household is expecting another member by the end of June! While having another child was anything but a financial decision, we couldn’t help but think through the financial implications. It’s just how our brains work. And it seemed the most relevant aspect to share here. So here’s the breakdown, including thoughts on kid-raising costs, college funds, resume gaps, and when to upgrade to a bigger home or car.

The Quarter Million Dollar Baby?

The average cost to raise a child is widely reported to be $250,000. If that strikes horror in your heart, rest assured. Oh wait, I have no idea how much it costs to raise a kid. My oldest is only 6.

There’s the cost of prenatal care and delivery, which we estimate will run us about $3000 this time.

Speaking of insurance, paying for a family plan vs. a couple is a big hike in premiums. But—it’s a flat fee after that, so get your money’s worth by having more! #ifonly And of course, kids get sick and that costs something, too.

Young-mommy bloggers will tell you how very little kids costs. Indeed, we spent very little on the first five years of child-rearing. Hand-me-downs abounded, and gifts and buying used items filled in the gaps. We found plenty of fun, free activities via the library, metro parks, playgrounds, etc.

Then we paid for preschool: $1200 for a year. Hand-me-downs slowed and we spent a bit more on clothes and shoes for our oldest. We also spend more on food now, because guess what—at some point they actually start eating.

Then there are the birthday parties kids get invited to. And school supplies, fundraisers, and donations for class parties. And sports and swim lessons, and don’t do that stuff year-round. We also pay for the occasional family attraction or event, especially on vacations.

The Income Question

Another big financial factor is that each kid sets the clock back on me returning to the paid workforce by 5-6 years. We decided before having kids that I would stay home with the kids till they’re in school full time. Part-time working from home worked well until #2 came along. Clearly having a huge resume gap is not going to do me any favors, but for us that’s not a determining factor. And I know how incredibly blessed we are to be in that position.

Bigger house?

I’ve heard of families in similar size homes upgrading to make way for baby #3, and I can understand why, but it’s certainly not necessary in our case. In lieu of a larger house, we purchased a used wooden bunk bed ($160) to clear a room for the nursery. I’m glad the kids get the experience of sharing a room, anyway. I could see someday wanting more space as the kids (and their friends) get bigger, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.

Bigger car?

Since getting pregnant, I’ve fielded a LOT of questions about when we’ll get a minivan.  Answer: we’ll get a larger vehicle when we need one. Our family car is a 2003 Ford Taurus Wagon. It fits three car or booster seats in the second row, so in my book, we’re golden. But the wagon isn’t going to last forever, or maybe we’ll need more seats for driving the kids’ friends. We’ll see what becomes a problem first, and the next car will definitely need to have third row seating.

What About College?

I’ve heard more than one family say they’ll limit family size due to the cost of college. I understand how very real of a consideration college costs are for families these days. How much/whether to help with kids’ college is a controversial, personal decision.

Our stance is: we will save and we want to help, but we aren’t promising to pay for all of it, either. There are more and more ways of getting college credit without paying top dollar, and we very much expect our kids to explore these options. By offering substantial help, but not a massive sum, we hope to motivate them to make responsible choices, while offering an advantage as they get their start in the real world.

Another approach some people seem to take is resume-loading. Parents will pay for private tutoring, music lessons, year-round sports, and other extracurriculars, all with the hope of their kids getting significant scholarships. I wish there was a way to do the math on this. If you invested (in a college fund) all the money you spent on those tutors, activities, and experiences for your kids that you hope will lead to a scholarship, who would come out ahead? I’m placing my bets on the average growth of regular contributions. And this doesn’t require nearly as much running around.

The Bottom Line

Bottom line, we’re not making family choices based on money. On the one hand, that’s an incredibly privileged position to be in. On the other hand, there is perspective as well as privilege involved. Kids do cost money—don’t let those toddler mom bloggers fool you. But my guess is they don’t have to cost a quarter million each (barring unusual circumstances). We don’t feel the need to buy a bigger house, a larger car (yet), or the greatest possessions and experiences for our kids. We also don’t need to pay for the most  extracurriculars, or float the full cost of college. And this is very freeing, both for our current stress level, and our ability to make family size choices based on other values.

What factors determined your family size? What are some other financial considerations parents face these days?

Personal Finance Isn’t Math

Have you ever seen someone run down the numbers on a personal finance issue and the math is 100% behind their point, but there’s no way you’d ever follow their advice? I know I have. How about a few examples?

Recently, I read an article on why parents should view childcare as an investment, not an expense. From a mathematical perspective, it’s a great point. Sure, childcare might eat a large portion of one parent’s salary for 5-10 years, but that cost will come to an end, and you’ll have 5-10 years more experience and salary growth in your field, plus no resume gap. Those who write off paying for childcare as “not worth it” will significantly reduce their lifetime earnings by stunting their career as well as forgoing income during their time at home.

I applaud the math, but nowhere does this author consider that some families view raising young children as a real job worthy of full-time attention. And that the reduced lifetime earnings are considered no problem compared with the privilege of being able to raise their kids full time. The math is unequivocal: women should return to work after maternity leave. The numbers are something to consider. But so is the personal side of personal finance, which in this example is about our relationship with the little humans we bring into this world.

Take another hot personal finance debate: should you pay off your mortgage early or invest extra income? Mathematically, you’re likely on average to grow your wealth at a rate of 7-8% compounding interest in the stock market. Over 30 years that can mean tens of thousands more in investments, depending on your property value. Meanwhile, paying down debt only saves you around 4% in interest these days.

However, some people prefer the feeling of freedom and flexibility that comes with being debt free. Others find it ethically preferable to repay their debts as soon as they are able to. Notice, emotions, values, and ethics have little to do with math. They have nothing to do with profitability. But these aren’t small factors for many.

Or how about an example I personally can’t comprehend: buying a new car. Everyone knows purchasing a brand new vehicle means major instant depreciation, yet lots of people do it every day. To them the feelings of peace of mind, safety, or convenience that comes with a new car and a warranty outweigh the thousands they’re losing in the transaction.

If we only look at the math, we can easily become a Scrooge. But if we only consider our emotions, we’ll probably end up broke.

So what does it mean that personal finance is not math? It means you need to look at the math, but also at your feelings and values. Most of us tend to make decisions more logically/mathematically or more emotionally/values-based. Know thyself: which one to you tend toward? Temper it by analyzing the other factors at play.

If you tend to choose based on numbers, consider the human side. Who will be affected by your choice? What might be the long-term implications of those effects? What are you feelings and values about the question at hand? What might you regret later?

If you tend to make choices more on feelings, values, or simply what those around you are doing, run the numbers. Do the math. Use online calculators—there are plenty for almost every personal finance question you could ask. Write down your feelings, your pros and cons, and try to analyze the a bit more objectively with the math in view.

As you read personal finance advice, ask yourself: is this argument more based on objective or subjective arguments? Is it more math or emotion/values? What would the other “side” add to the debate? This is important to think about both for those articles we agree with wholeheartedly, and those we disagree with.

If you are ever asked for personal finance advice, consider where the person is coming from. What is their real hang up? Maybe they aren’t asking you to solve a math problem.

I suspect that more of us don’t look at the math enough, but those who are all about the math tend to gain prominent voices in the personal finance community. We’d all be better off if we acknowledged and considered both in our decisions surrounding money. Try to be a voice of both in real life and online discussions about this wily thing we call personal finance that involves math, but isn’t synonymous with it.

Which side do you tend toward? How do you integrate both factors into your financial decisions?

Handling Holiday Stress

It’s December. Here come the articles encouraging us to relax, simplify, and just enjoy the holidays. We all need these reminders to slow down, remember what we’re celebrating, and take joy in the people we love. At the same time, this advice can come off as yet another stressor, leaving us wondering, What’s wrong with me? Why am I not relaxing and enjoying this enough? Why do I feel sad or overwhelmed?

Sip a cocktail, laugh, and don’t worry about observing any of the trappings and traditions of Christmas, one article advised.

My reality as I read it? Chugging coffee, crying tears of exhaustion, and spending every precious free moment prepping for the holidays.

The truth is, holidays involve family, family involves love, and love involves sacrifice. If any food is eaten at your gathering, someone had to prepare it. If any gifts are exchanged, someone had to shop and wrap. If the setting is festive, someone had to clean and decorate.

It’s not that we should center our holidays around living up to others’ expectations or striving for a magazine-spread Christmas. I believe that holiday shopping, cooking, baking, and decorating can all be done in a spirit of joy. But for many people–those with kids, extended family, or those opening their home to people without a home base—it’s just not as simple as sipping a hot toddy and shrugging off tradition.

That doesn’t mean Christmas has to be complicated. In the past few years, we’ve found new ways to simplify. We’ve shaved our Christmas day stops down from four to one or two. We attend fewer Christmas parties. We host a small low-key fireside gathering rather than an epic get together. Our decorations are beloved but minimal. Some years we hang Christmas lights on the house. Other years we don’t. Our shopping list (and pile to put away) has shrunken as we’ve asked our families to do gift exchanges. I’ve whittled my baking list down to two or three favorites. I wear the same few outfits to every party and family function, year after year.

This year we’re even taking a weekend in the busy season to get away as a family and just hang out, hike, and play together.

Every year, I’m excited for the festivities leading up to Christmas. I look forward to buying gifts, putting up the tree, and our little family traditions like visiting a Christmas tree farm, looking at Christmas lights, and ice skating.

And every year, at some point I find myself exhausted, stressed, and feeling too busy. The “slow down and simply” philosophy would have me think I’m doing something wrong if the year’s biggest holiday, the most wonderful time of the year leaves me feeling anything but wonderful.

But then the feeling passes as I take time to reflect on Jesus’ sacrifice as the reason we celebrate. I’m sure it didn’t feel great for him to leave perfect fellowship with His father and become a human baby, subject to all the suffering of this earth.

And then I know it’s not wrong to feel stressed and overwhelmed sometimes in the midst of a joyous but hectic season. It’s okay for sacrifice to feel hard; that’s what makes it sacrifice. After a sacrifice, you know the difficulty was worth it. If it’s not, it’s time to cut that activity or obligation.

So don’t stress about feeling stressed this year. Cut what you need to cut. Talk to someone if you’re truly down. But don’t shy away from the sacrifice that comes with making Christmas a beautiful time for others.

How do you handle holiday stress? What ways have you found to simplify?

Money over Meaning?

What do you believe is most important? Becoming very well off financially, or developing a meaningful philosophy of life?

Come on, now. Be honest. You are reading a personal finance blog.

A similar question has been posed to college freshman via the American Freshman Survey, a survey that has queried 15 million students over the last 50 years. Students are asked to rate life goals with varying degrees of important. In 2016, those rating “becoming very well off financially” as important rose to a high of 82%, compared with 47% rating “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” as important.¹

The priorities received equal ratings around 1978, and since then, money has quickly outpaced meaning. GenX and Millennials were similar in their ratings of importance for each of these goals. Since 2008, the percentage of college freshman rating becoming very well off as important is on the rise. Clearly the recession didn’t shift people back toward meaning over money, as some thought it would.

But it isn’t hard to imagine why. Those born after 1995, labeled iGen by lead generational researcher Jean M. Twenge in her book of the same name, came of age in a time of economic uncertainty. Surveys show their attitudes to be less idealistic and entitled when it comes to work, school, and income than Millennials were before them. Instead, they report attitudes that are more pragmatic: they believe they need to earn a high income just to make ends meet. Contrary to common perception, fewer young people today report a goal of becoming entrepreneurs compared with young people of past generations. To a group raised in the height of the safety craze as well as a recession, entrepreneurship may sound too risky.

What to make of all of this? Certainly money and meaning aren’t mutually exclusive, but they can become excluded on a practical level. Though I hadn’t thought of it in exactly those terms, I suppose I started this blog trying with the goal of integrating the two, or at least holding both in the balance.

Placing less value on meaning can lead to some scary trends, such as less volunteering and charitable giving. Indeed, both these social practices are on the decline among Millennials and iGen. Yes, you read that right: despite all the hype about Millennials being more socially active, they only report favorable attitudes toward volunteering and charitable giving. Self-reporting in the American General Social Survey show less engagement than previous generations at the same age.

Concern with money over meaning is also contributing to what former Stanford dean Julie Lythcott-Haims calls “the college admissions arms race.” In her book How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, she laments the extreme competitiveness surrounding elite college admissions, which is viewed by many as the only path toward a financially stable life.

The problem both Lythcott-Haims and Twenge report, from their vantage point as academic faculty, is that college students are no longer there because they care. Past generations viewed college as a great privilege, an opportunity to learn and explore; now it’s simply a means to end.

Just some whiny college profs? Maybe. But what will it mean for our society if young people, usually the most passionate dreamers, are cynical or indifferent? What will it mean for charities, non-profits, and the people and causes they serve? What will it mean for professions high in meaning and relatively low in salary? I’m thinking teaching, social work, and the arts, to name a few.

Perhaps some will conclude there need not be a distinction between meaning and money. That frugality can be a way of life so all-encompassing it constitutes a controlling value. I’m no philosopher, but I think this goes too far.

Certainly we can value meaning while also making a decent living and handling money prudently. This may look differently for each person, but some principles stand out:

  1. Live on less than you make. Depending on your situation, this may mean you need to make more, or spend less. As a culture (species?) we tend to assume we need more, but a hard look at our spending may reveal otherwise.
  2. Prepare for a lifestyle in congruity with your chosen profession. When enrolled in the college of education, I had no dreams of ever living large. I figured my faith and my library card would get me through life.
  3. Do absolutely everything you can to keep your school debt in proportion with your earning potential. While in high school, use Post Secondary Education Option, AP or dual enrollment courses, and retake those standardized tests at least once for a shot at raising your score. Then apply for scholarships, re-apply each year, get a part-time job, and consider taking some courses at a community college to reduce tuition costs. And please choose a reasonably priced university.
  4. Start giving as soon as you graduate (or even before). Don’t wait till you’re making the big bucks to make regular charitable donations. Start early and small, and increase with each raise so it just feels like a natural part of your financial plan. Regular givers report this is the most fun they have with their money.
  5. Make time for people. Long hours or side hustles can be profitable for a season, but if you don’t have time for family and friends, you may be placing money over meaning in a way that compromises your mental health. If you need to, make relationships a calendar item. Schedule a family night, date nights with your spouse and children, and time with your friends, as well.
  6. If you’re working toward FIRE, what’s your goal? Doing more of what you love? Or more of what makes a difference in the world? Meaning is perhaps never more important than in such a potent position as early retirement.

Do you think it’s naive to value meaning over money? What are some ways you keep both in balance?

¹All research from the following:

Lythcott-Haims, J. (2015) How to Raise an Adult. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company.

Twenge, J.M. (2006) Generation MeNew York, NY: Atria Books.

Twenge, J.M. (2017) iGen. New York, NY: Atria Books.

Inflate Your Usefulness, Not Your Lifestyle

Lifestyle inflation is a popular personal finance metaphor for the phenomenon of expenses endlessly rising to match (or surpass) income. It captures the predicament of the 37% of Americans living in one of the world’s richest countries who claim to be too broke to save. And it describes what those pretending to poor want to avoid. Bloated spending not only causes financial problems, it also makes people less useful. It ties up time and money so that it all has to be spent on lifestyle maintenance, leaving less room for meaningful pursuits like family, friends, and volunteering. Plus, when life is centered on convenience and acquisition, people miss out on the satisfaction of becoming handy, resourceful, and helpful.

But those of us who don’t inflate our lifestyle also face potential danger. Have you ever thought about what you are inflating instead? We need to invest in something we can put stock in, and I don’t mean the stock market. If all you inflate is your bank or retirement account, you’re missing out. Saving and investing are worthy, responsible steps that we preach. But we all know there’s more to life than money. Most people think this “more” is freedom: from the 9 to 5, having to worry about money, or keeping up with the Joneses. Freedom is depicted as early retirement, working for yourself, traveling-hacking, or otherwise finding happiness outside materialism.

These are all appealing replacements to lifestyle inflation. But will they pay the dividends of a joyful and productive life? It’s easy to place false hope in the financial freedom or frugal ecstasy so often promised. A growing body of research documents the correlation between increased wealth and decreased interpersonal skills, emotional health, and happiness:

  • Lonely At The Top, by Thomas Joiner, documents the tragic pattern of men achieving success and wealth, only to find themselves without companionship.
  • In the Boston Globe article “Why It Matters That Our Politicians Are Rich” Britt Peterson reports, “Rich people have a harder time connecting with others, showing less empathy to the extent of dehumanizing those who are different from them. They are less charitable and generous. They are less likely to help someone in trouble.”
  • Richard Ryan’s report in The Annual Review of Psychology (2001) found that a focus on financial and material goals correlated to a lower sense of well-being and found money is not a reliable predictor of happiness.
  • Madeline Levine’s The Price of Privilege states the “newly identified at-risk group is preteens and teens from affluent, well-educated families.” These privileged kids are more likely to suffer from depression and other emotional ill health.

Yikes! There is a real gravity toward these scary outcomes for the wealthy. Pursuing wealth for different reasons doesn’t make us immune. Let’s heed these warnings and not let the journey to so-called freedom make us slaves to side hustles and financial goals. We want to remain flexible while increasing our financial flexibility, and the key lies in what we’re inflating along the way.

To us pretending to be poor is about inflating our usefulness at the same time we invest for future needs. Our financial journey isn’t just about us, or even our family.  If we get to “retire” early, that’s just icing on the cake, because we’re using our time and money to build a good life NOW. And the good life is not just about geeking out over spreadsheets, net worth, and shopping at ALDI. It’s not just about finding happiness in frugal hacks and free pleasures. The good life is about helping others.

The outcome of inflating your usefulness isn’t to leave yourself destitute, but to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share,  storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed” (1 Timothy 6:18, 19). So how can deflating your lifestyle inflate your usefulness?

  1. Work to live, don’t live to work. A good work ethic is important, but working constantly while ignoring family, friends, faith, and those in need is not a balanced or healthy life. If you’re hustling for the proverbial dangled carrot, maybe it’s time to free yourself from the rat race, not necessarily by retiring early, but by deflating your usefulness so you don’t need that carrot.
  2. Get useful by DIYing. Some people feel excited when they find the next new product that will make their life easier. Don’t get me wrong, I love my microwave and dishwasher. But others seek accomplishment in spending less, and this often results in becoming more useful. For example, I love Indian food, but I don’t love spending money at restaurants. So I’m learning to make Indian food. Neil enjoys riding his bike because it’s free exercise and saves on transportation costs. For both of us these money-saving measures are enjoyable in part because we feel accomplished after a challenge.
  3. Share the usefulness. Now that you have amassed helpful DIY skills, you can help other people. When someone need helps with a broken car or house, you can help. When someone loves Indian food, you can cook. You are saving other people money, perhaps teaching them useful skills, and feeling satisfied by widening your sphere of usefulness. Even if you don’t have amazing skills, simply by making time to help others you will find a world of needs to meet. Volunteering for an after school program, the high school group at church, to help a friend move, or to babysit are all ways we’ve found to be useful. Other ideas include volunteering at a nursing home or hospice center, Habitat for HumanityBig Brothers Big Sisters, English tutoring for refugees, mentoring teens in prison, or taking a short-term missions trip. (I’m going to India this summer!)
  4. It is better to give than to receive. Freeing up money to give to charitable or faith-based causes is hugely rewarding, and, need I mention, helpful! For example, donating to disaster relief in Nepal would expand your usefulness to a global scale. Yes, you have to do a little research to make sure an organization is trustworthy. But there are lots of reputable places and you can check them out on charitywatch.org or ministrywatch.org. Or visit a local food bank, after school program, or homeless shelter and check it out yourself.
  5. Be a good friend. The research on sad, rich Americans should be sobering. Thankfully the antidote is simple and free: have friends. Caring about other people and sharing life together can keep you grounded and balanced throughout your financial journey. You’ll avoid ending up lonely at the top, and you’re bound to be useful if you’re a good friend.

Titus 3:14 describes usefulness well: “Our people must learn to do good by meeting the urgent needs of others; then they will not be unproductive.”

What DIY success are you most proud of? What have you learned from sharing your time or money with others? 

Financial Seasons and the Fallacy of “Extreme Frugality”

When I hear people write or talk about “extreme frugality,” I cringe for a couple of reasons. First, because we’re wealthy compared with over 99% of the world. Secondly, because you can only maintain “extreme” frugality for so long.

For example, we put up to half our income toward a financial goal for 5 years. We cooked all almost all our food at home, drove old cars, and did very little to update our home during this time. We did bare minimum shopping for clothing, and almost everything was purchased secondhand. Gifts for our children were modest and often used. The kids wore mostly hand-me-downs. Some might say we were “extremely” frugal in this time, though I never viewed it this way because we always had everything we needed, purchased what we really wanted, and maintained habits like giving, vacationing, and hosting.

Since meeting that goal and sending our first child off to school, spending has increased in comparison with the previous 5 years. We bought clothes and shoes to replace those that had worn out. We decorated our home (a little). I bought my kids clothing for the first time, since the hand-me-down chain slowed down around school age. We spent on preschool, then soccer. Quite a few items in our home had seen better days, so we replaced them.

There were “luxury” items, too. Neil got invited back to India. We went to see a professional musical. We bought our 6-year-old a birthday gift that was new rather than used for the first time–the amazing Lego Boost. Neil got me a laptop for Christmas.

I’m sure you get the picture. We limited our spending quite a bit for about five years, and then we let up because things were worn out, and we were just ready to loosen the belt a bit.

We all go through financial seasons. There is a time for saving, and a time for spending. Yes, we always need to do both. But there are seasons when one takes precedence over the other, and that’s normal.

Unfortunately, many frugality articles don’t make this seem normal, at least at a glance. When bloggers publish monthly expense reports that highlight extremely low spending, it makes it seem like they will be able to live off that amount forever. They won’t. And you won’t, either.

Maybe you’ll attend–or be in–lots of weddings or have the opportunity to travel. Maybe you or someone in your family will experience health problems. Maybe ants will eat your house. Maybe you’ll need to replace a vehicle sooner than you’d expected. Maybe you’ll need to move. Maybe you’ll have a baby. In other words, maybe life will happen and it will be expensive.

We all pass through different financial seasons in life, and a snapshot like a monthly expense report can’t convey that complexity. You may be in a different season than others, so take expense reports (or real-life spending comparisons) as information, or inspiration, but don’t take them too much to heart. You’re looking at a moment in someone else’s life, a little bit like those cheery Facebook photos that reflect only the happiest, most envy-worthy moments.

I believe in the power of frugality in making financial progress, hence our site name. But I also know that frugality has its limits, and “extreme frugality” is not only an oxymoron by the time it appears on a web page, it’s also not as sustainable as people sometimes sell it as. Live reasonably, work toward your goals, and be generous. Always keep money in perspective: “Make sure that your character is free from the love of money, being content with what you have” (Hebrews 13:5).

What financial seasons have you experienced? Was it hard to go from a saving season to a spending season? 

Personal Finance When You’re Sad

Sometimes when you’re sad, you just don’t care. You don’t care about money. You don’t care about work. You don’t care about blogging.

I’m sad, and I’m finding it hard to care about those things. I’m not depressed. I still care about the important stuff: my family, my faith, my friends. But I am finding it awfully hard to care about anything related to personal finance. It just doesn’t even seem relevant, because no amount of money can fix what I’m sad about.

I haven’t suffered a tragedy. I can’t even imagine being the victim of the recent hurricanes or terrorist attacks, nor am I coping with the death of a loved one. But being sad does have me thinking about ways of coping when you’re sad, and how that affects people’s money.

And it’s making me feel completely unqualified to sit here and tell people what to do with their money. Or even how to think about their money. Because I’m thinking of all the sad people out there, and how completely inane and irrelevant financial advice must sound to them. So today, instead of asking you to change how you think about or handle money, I’m just going to ask you to try to understand other people.

Sometimes sad people spend. That comforting take-out, new outfit, or sleek tablet can take away the sting, at least for a little while. Us bloggers virtually lecture people on how that feeling won’t last, but sometimes when you’re sad enough, you’ll take what fleeting pleasure you can get.

Sometimes sad people treat others. It feels good to make someone else happy, so they’ll buy a round, or treat people to lunch. They’ll buy gifts, even extravagant ones. I have a philosophy of generosity that tends to focus on those in “greatest need” in my view. But maybe sometimes the giver is actually the one most in need. And they just need to give however they want to.

Sometimes sad people don’t think about the future, because it feels too sad. They don’t care how much their 401k will grow if they invest 15% of their income each month. They don’t care when they’ll retire, or get out of debt, or save for their goals. Thinking too far ahead is too overwhelming, too hopeless.

Sometimes people get way too sad and lose their motivation at work. It’s a catch-22, because going to work and contributing to society helps you feel better, but getting that train moving just seems insurmountable.

I’m sure others cope by throwing themselves ever more into their work, goals, or financial improvement. And that can be good or bad, or more likely, both at once.

How is feeling down affecting my finances? To be honest, it’s not. The coping mechanisms I mentioned above just don’t happen to appeal to me. And I’m in a privileged position where my financial state is impervious to my feelings. I don’t take that for granted.

For me, I’m just too sad to write about money. All I can give you this week is a post about people. Because they’re what actually matter. Try to understand them. Try to care about them, and show them you care. If they’re sad, don’t tell them how to manage their money. Don’t tell them to stop spending or start saving or bust out a godforsaken investment calculator on them.

Sometimes when people are sad, an act of love goes so much further than advice. Buy them coffee or lunch or a gift, to give that little glimpse of enjoyment. Or let them buy you coffee or lunch or a gift, so they can feel that spark of joy that giving brings. Spend some time with them. Maybe it’ll light the fire to care about work again. Maybe, just maybe, that spark will light the fire to care about the future.

How do you handle personal finance differently when you’re sad? What have you found most helpful in those times? 

The Perils of Personal Finance Blogging

When I started a personal finance blog, I had no idea what I was getting into. I knew I wanted to help people with personal finance. I liked to write and had a knack for frugality. I wanted to bring a spiritual, biblical perspective to personal finance topics.

I also knew that the personal finance blogosphere was pretty crowded, and that good bloggers comment on other people’s blogs.

What I didn’t realize was just how time-consuming and thought-consuming blogging could be. For a while it felt like I spent hours fussing over each post, proof-reading, trying to find the perfect words, image, and points to convey my message. And reading and commenting on others’ blogs was fun but overwhelming. I could spend all my free time on it and still barely scratch the surface of what was out there.

While I never set out to “build a successful blog,” more people started reading and commenting. As the daily views rose, so too did my concern with growth. Could this month exceed last months’ views? It was a peripheral but persistent thought. Plus lots of other bloggers write about blogging. How was their blog growing? What income was it earning? Should I pursue the freelance writing opportunities blogging can open the door to?

Career is also a natural topic for personal finance bloggers to cover. Here I was, someone who never put career first, and left paid work entirely after the birth of our second child. Even with PF bloggers communicating respect for SAHMs, I felt like a failure. Why hadn’t I taken my career more seriously (I knew the answer)? What was I going to do when my kids are in school? Would I have any decent career options left to me after years out of the work force?

Still years away from the point when we decided I’d go back to work, I found myself worrying about work. It took time and prayer to convince myself that my season at home was not the time to fret about work. I kept praying Galatians 6:14 “that my interest in the world would die, and the world’s interest in me would die.”

I’m not blaming other blogs for my worries. My brain naturally hangs onto what I read, mulls it over, and makes a case for or against adopting a philosophy or advice. This has led to some of my most popular posts, as well as personal angst. Because sometimes I inadvertently hang onto others’ messages even after I decide they’re not for me.

I knew something had to change. So I chose to stop reading posts about blogging. I chose to stop reading posts about side hustling. I chose to stop reading bloggers whom I simply couldn’t relate to, or who came off overly dogmatic. The hordes of childless twenty-somethings attempting lifestyle topics sounds a little passe to a sometimes-cynical mother. As I stopped steeping my mind in personal finance articles, I found myself increasingly at peace with my season in life. And my blog.

At the beginning of the year, I decided to read only my favorite blogs, and then only when I have time. I decided I could repost old posts if I didn’t have time to write. It often feels like this site is one week away from extinction. Will I have a topic? Will anyone care? Part of the struggle was I no longer knew who my audience was. Or rather, I had two different audiences simultaneously in mind: the people I knew IRL, and the people (mostly bloggers) who comment here.

So with the turn of the year I also decided to write primarily what would be helpful to people I know. Most PF bloggers don’t actually need more financial advice.

There are other dangers with personal finance blogs: taking major financial advice from non-professionals, getting obsessed with money or a certain lifestyle, looking at only one side of an issue, or getting caught up in the comparison game. For the most part, those just didn’t happen to be my struggle.

Do you want to know what happened when I stopped spending so much time thinking and writing about personal finance?

My readership stats went down. And I didn’t care.

I got fewer comments. And I didn’t mind.

I enjoyed the blogs I did read more. It no longer felt like an obligation, but a pastime.

I stopped worrying about work and focused more on my kids.

I read books instead of blogs posts. Lots more books than I had been reading. Books about parenting, marriage, ministry, and spiritual growth. Books with full, complete arguments instead of 500-word ones. And even fiction!

I grew more confident in our financial choices, including the fact that we keep our plans and goals flexible in order to follow God’s plans.

I’ll never have the most successful or profitable blog—and that’s fine with me. I didn’t set out for that, I got a little lost along the way, and I’m glad I found my way back to my purpose.

What topics would be most helpful to ya’ll readers? What do you tend to be more interested in—“how” posts or “why” posts?