Tag Archive | contentment

Extreme vs. Classic 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?

The Secret to Financial Freedom

What is the secret to true financial freedom?

I already said I don’t believe in financial freedom/independence. Most people define financial freedom as never having to worry about money again, living off investment income instead of work. For many the secret to achieving this means earning more; for a few it means living on less. For most it requires 40+ years of toil and fading faith in Social Security. But according to the Bible’s ancient insight the only real financial freedom comes from contentment.

Take it from a first-century Roman prisoner who wrote about financial freedom. I’ve visited the Mamertine prison and it’s just a dank, dark hole in the ground. So for the apostle Paul to write about contentment from there is shocking. He said, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:11b-13).

Paul describes real financial freedom as being content whether you are rich or poor, whether you have too much or not enough. So often we think the key to curbing our spending is a new detailed budget, a cash envelope system, or more self-discipline. Any of these approaches could help, but we have to be operating from a basic position of contentment rather than feeling deprived. Otherwise we’ll feel self-pity because we’re constantly denying ourselves of good things. Contemporary marketing has done much to catalyze this false belief the human heart is already predisposed to.

If you’ve started implementing some of the practical ideas on this blog maybe you’re starting to feel deprived. Or maybe it doesn’t seem to make a big difference since skipping Starbucks isn’t paying dividends just yet. But feelings of self-pity, denial, or deprivation don’t make for good long-term motivation. Maybe you’ve experienced this with dieting. When it comes to money, marketing teaches that when you feel bad about yourself, you should buy something. “Treat yourself! You deserve it!” is the message of modern advertising, a marked change from “you need this” or “this will improve your life” techniques of yesteryear. The latter messages are now considered insulting to today’s consumer who is supposed to have achieved a fulfilled and happy life through materialism already.

When people today talk about financial freedom they mean you don’t need to earn money ever again. But countless celebrity stories have proven there’s never enough money to make you happy—because money isn’t what brings real satisfaction. Fulfillment in the richest sense come from following God by loving others. Because Paul was serving others even in prison, he could honestly say he was content, regardless of his financial circumstances. True financial freedom is trusting God to meet your needs, material or otherwise, as you work hard as a good manager of His resources.

Should we be content to stay in our current financial and work situation all our lives? By contentment I don’t mean complacent. The same author addressed this question in his historical context: “Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men” (1 Corinthians 6:21, 23, emphasis added). No, the Bible does not support slavery, but we can’t get into that right now.

Today, we could apply this to employees. If your current work situation works, don’t worry about it. If work feels like soul-sucking slavery to The Man (and you don’t just have a bad attitude), then why not “become free”? Free means flexing that financial flexibility. Why not put yourself in a position where you can be content with lower expenses so you can consider doing work you’re more passionate about, or even just hate slightly less?

The average American sees 5 gazillion ads per day and this is a huge challenge to contentment. But you already know the secret–that material things will never make us truly happy and we need a lot less than we think we do. It’s actually quite fun to “pretend to be poor.” It’s fun to fix things up instead of buying new ones, which will probably crap out sooner because new stuff is poorly made. It’s fun to rock old clothes that you’ve kept so long they are finally back in style, and brag about how you’ve had them since high school. It’s fun to drive an older car and perform the lost art of cranking windows. “Pretending to be poor” is a whole lot more fun than pretending to be rich, with all the heartache and bank-ache that comes with debt.

A friend described the perspective change from deprivation to contentment this way: “I walk into Target and think, ‘I can have anything I want. I could buy whatever I wanted.’ And then I realize I don’t want any of that crap. Thinking this way takes the power [of discontentment] away.” Part of fostering this attitude is realizing how little value “that crap” adds to your life. The principle of diminishing returns is acutely applicable to material possessions. While our lifestyle is far from ascetic, it’s slightly less extravagant than average. This actually makes us more content and useful, as well as more flexible.

So what could you do with this flexibility? How about:

  • Get out of debt.
  • Have one parent stay at home with young children.
  • Work for a church or non-profit for half your current salary.
  • Volunteer full time to help those in need.
  • Take your children on a short-term mission trip.
  • Become a missionary.
  • Substantially fund causes you care about.
  • Choose a job based on your priorities rather than just the paycheck.

How do you combat the feelings of self-denial that come with spending less? What do you think of our definition of financial freedom?

How to Pursue Happiness

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?

On Frugal Aesthetics

My cheery kitchen--which has never been this clean again.

My cheery kitchen, which has never been this clean again.

Full disclosure: I’m not trained in aesthetics or art. I haven’t taken an art class since it was required in 8th grade, when I considered it divine intervention that I broke my right arm the same week a portrait was assigned. In fact, I spent my school days finding ways to avoid drawing animals or people, and outsourcing artistic tasks to my highly talented sister for payouts as high as $1.

We hear all the time that money can’t buy happiness. But let’s all face it: a nice new piece of clothing can provide some satisfaction as often as every time you wear it. So it’s fair to admit that some purchases do bring us a measure of happiness.

I could leave my walls blank (I did for a long time, actually). I could have kept the ugly kitchen our home came with. Neil could have not commissioned an artist friend to paint us a lovely piece, customized to match our living room and style. I could just wear burlap sacks, or t-shirts from the ’90s, since I’m better stocked on those.

I’ve already preached that Life is not about your preferences. You don’t always have to get your favorite. Everything doesn’t have to be perfect. But everything doesn’t have to be ugly, either!  Mostly, we try not too care too much about everything in our house matching, or being new, or our favorite style. But at some point, the not-caring aesthetic starts to become ascetic, and that’s not where we want to live.

The "before" kitchen.

The Before kitchen pushed us over the “not caring” edge.

My remodeled kitchen (DIY, thanks to Neil & his brothers) makes me happy every day. The green walls and bright paintings remind me of spring all winter. Good art is beautiful. Good design is beautiful. Nice clothes are beautiful. I don’t know enough about art to know exactly why, but these things inherently add pleasure to every day life. Appreciating beauty is part of what makes us human. Even the sometimes stoic Mr. Money Mustache acknowledges the appeal of attractive design.

We don’t need new couches, clothing, cars, homes as often as advertisers suggest, but it’s perfectly appropriate to recognize the pleasure we derive from “unnecessary” aesthetics found in these items. And sometimes, that means we’ll spend money for this.

Ascetics avoid all indulgence and pleasure, while aesthetics place a high value on the pleasure of art and beauty. We’re naturally too pragmatic to view aestheticism as our highest value, but we recognize its place in fostering human happiness. And its capacity to lure us into purchases we didn’t plan for.

Pretending to be poor might sound ascetic, but the rest of the line goes: “to gain great wealth.” We practice some money-saving strategies that sound weird or extreme to some. Camping, raising chickens, and eating lots of peanut butter (I like it!) come to mind. But rest assured: we live in relative luxury, or what we like to think of classic, not extreme frugality.

We’ve harnessed the power of aesthetics in areas we care about, and dismissed it in those we don’t. I don’t care mind wearing layers of wool around the house, but I do retain some sense of personal style when I dress to go out. I don’t see the need for a matching bedroom set, since I don’t notice such details when I’m asleep. But I’m grateful on a daily basis that Neil remodeled the kitchen before we moved in. And refurnished and decorated the living room while I was in India.

Acknowledging our aesthetic bent helps us avoid unhealthy extremes. For example, we wouldn’t go into debt for matching furniture, home repair, or even a car. We can wait for our favorites while prioritizing other financial goals. But we also don’t want to deny ourselves simple pleasures that are within reason. Doing so could turn into a backward materialism if we seek to avoid any form that goes beyond function. Or it could backfire and lead to overspending if we become fed up and feel deprived. Contentment goes a lot further in building motivation than unnecessary restrictions can.

Keep aesthetics in perspective by opening an old photo album. The design fads of yesteryear often appear tacky in retrospect. The silhouettes that seem essential now will be outdated soon enough. Maybe the trendy look or cutting edge technology you’re drooling over today will be old news by the time you save up for the purchase. Maybe that’s a good thing.

Harness your aesthetic sense by noticing which belongings bring you happiness. Cultivate contentment by taking the time to be grateful for those things. Next time you’re drawn to buy something because it’s pretty, consider whether it’ll have the effect you desire. Buying a gorgeous new dress you’ll wear once a year won’t provide the same satisfaction as “investing” in artwork, a garden, or even the perfect pair of every day shoes. But each person’s aesthetic tastes and values are unique. Let you, not advertisers, be the judge of what will bring a little joy into your days.

1 Timothy 6:17 sums up the tension between not living for material things, but enjoying what we do have: “Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy.”

Do you tend to be more ascetic or aesthetic? What areas are worth spending on aesthetics for you? 

Do Less, Be More

india sunset

As expected, January has been replete with inspiring lists of habits or resolutions to improve one’s life. But about a quarter of the way through a list of 50 Habits for Better Living, I quickly deflate from inspired to defeated. Despite how reasonable and valuable any of these suggestions might be, no one can do them all. And no one should.

It’s easy to walk away from January’s motivational posts thinking you just need some new habits to finally become a successful person. But let’s be honest. This advice isn’t humanly possible. If you added all these tips together, you’d need about 6 hours extra hours a day. One recent post suggested we: cut caffeine, get up 30 minutes early, and sleep at least 7 hours a night, while also spending more time reading, meditating, exercising, decluttering your entire home, adding income streams, relaxing?!, and 40 other ideas, all while limiting our to-do lists to 3 items per day. This article made many great points and unselfish suggestions, but….does anyone see the mathematical difficulty here? It doesn’t add up.

The real problem isn’t even whether it’s possible. Maybe some super-humans out there are rocking all 50 ideas. For the rest of us, we’re probably left overwhelmed and less focused than before.

This year I suggest we all focus less on what we should do, and more on who you want to become. I propose giving more attention to others-improvement than self-improvement.

For example, I’ve been itching to write this post for over a week, I’ve just finally gotten this far, and my son is begging me to play with him, at Duplo-creation gunpoint (see, not having toy guns doesn’t preclude shooting games). Though I don’t negotiate with terrorists, I do need to take my own advice, sacrifice my desire to post more often, and go be more Mom.

Goals Roll Out of Roles

Why do you want to do more? In First Things First, Stephen Covey suggests starting with a vision statement for yourself or your family, then defining your 7 main roles. Mine currently are: wife, mom, friend, home church leader, blogger, daughter, sister. I can tell you right now I’m not being a very good sister.

Out of your roles roll your goals. Covey suggests setting weekly goals pertaining to each role. I’ve never seen “talk to your siblings more often” on a list post, but I need to prioritize it, even though it will in some ways detract from my productivity–I have four sibs!

I also know that waking up earlier and going to bed earlier would have a negative impact on my marriage and some friendships, as well. If I got up at 5 am after hosting till 11 am and being up with my teething toddler once or twice, I am going to be a pathetic mess by dinnertime, and basically useless thereafter. That means I’d be less of the wife and mom I want to be as a result of putting doing before being.

I have set a “blogger” goal to read two books about the history of work. I’m not calling us to forsake all enrichment or activity, but to do more from a place of knowing who you want to become, and why.

“But you gotta make time for yourself.”

Yeah, I know. I “make time for myself” all the time, by studying the Bible, listening to podcasts, writing this blog, sometimes reading, enjoying friendships, and dating my spouse. I’m an introvert who could probably use a little more alone time, but I also chose to have two children and stay at home with them, so I’m going to weather this season of life with less-than-ideal portions of solitude.

I actually spent high school indulging my inner introvert, holed up in my room reading and writing, or practicing music and the solo sport of gymnastics. I even spent every spare moment of school with my nose in a book and rarely spent time with my “friends” outside of lunch period. And I was miserable.

Only since deciding to spend my life serving others have I found true joy and happiness. Trust me, I’m still super selfish in many ways, but to the degree that I’ve allowed my focus to shift to others, I’ve found great contentment. Of course my high school extremes were misguided, but any type of lifestyle devoted above all to one’s own interests, pursuits, and improvement is fundamentally off-track. We are social beings, designed to feel loved when we sacrificially love others. (This of course is distinct from enabling others or abandoning all self-care.) For this reason’ we’ve set out to inflate our usefulness in the world, instead of inflating our lifestyle.

Inside Out

Bottom line: what we do results from who we are, and not the other way around. Behavior change doesn’t last long unless it’s coming from changed thinking and motives. This is why New Year’s resolutions don’t usually stick unless we’re already internally motivated to keep them. New habits can be awesome and the reinforcement of repeated behavior can help you persist, but external change alone won’t make us the better person we all want to be.

In a blogosphere crowded with Type A over-achievers, we probably need to encourage one another to do less and be more. To relax. To slow down. To date your spouse. To play with our kids. To laugh and cry with friends. Listening to podcasts on 2x speed is a nifty idea but when coupled with 49 other to-dos and the frenetic pace of life so common today, it might be winding us all up for a meltdown. I’m the speed-read-on-the-treadmill type. I should know.

So next time you read a motivating self-improvement post about how to do more, first take a moment to consider who you want to be. Then act only upon those suggestions that serve your vision for being more.

Have you experienced the principle that deep change comes from within? What roles do you want to grow in this year?

Happy Birthday to Pretend to Be Poor

It’s been one year since we launched this site and I’m itching to reflect, so here goes.

Back in 2008 I wrote a blog series called “How to Be Cheap,” by which I meant how to be frugal, not how to be a miser. I did nothing to promote the site and it was read by just a couple of friends and my grandmother (who is still my most faithful fan). I also worked the material into an e-book-type document called “Seditious Christianity” which explored a philosophy of simple living and generous giving from a biblical angle. I was about 22, knew very little about making or investing money, and thus never tried to publish it, but I emailed it to friends who were requesting help with personal finance.

One friend agreed with my assessment about publication, but a few years later started encouraging me to write a blog on the subject. Neil concurred. By this time I had an energetic two-year-old and a baby who wasn’t sleeping well. I was barely surviving. Blogging sounded like a nice idea for someone else’s life, but not mine.

As baby’s first birthday approached, I was slightly less sleep-deprived and decided I needed something more intellectually stimulating than read Goodnight Moon for the thousandth time (literally). Neil thought of the site name from Proverbs 13:7 and set up the back end. I drafted ten posts and we went live within moments of the turn of 2015. It was the first time I’d made it till midnight on New Year’s Eve in several years. (The time and date stamps on our early posts are inaccurate.)

Here are our first two posts in which we established the basis of our message:

Now that you know how the site was conceived, I want reveal the rather raw lessons I’ve learned from my first year of real blogging.

My True Value

I like to be the best at what I do. But in a blogosphere crowded with fellow over-achievers who are in fact much better at writing, or blogging, or social media, or making money, or investing money, or giving away money, I’m learning to be content with doing my best and being happy for others’ success.

Reading other blogs, as well as some books, has challenged and motivated my thinking and actions when it comes to all things personal finance. I love thinking through different philosophies about money (or just about anything). Hearing other viewpoints has helped Neil and me tweak and solidify our financial plans and dreams.

It’s also been a bit hard, as a stay-at-home mom, to read so much about “side hustling,” increasing net worth, or growing successful blogs, because when my second child was born I quit even my PT work-from-home job to fully focus on the kids. I’ve never regretted this and don’t believe I ever will. The time with them is precious, and my focusing on the home also allows my husband and me to each spend approximately 10-15 hours a week in volunteer leadership ministry. (BTW, that’s why you won’t see us write much about side-hustling. We’re too busy “working” for free.)

I embrace my current choices, but there is something about opting out of making money that can be a bit challenging to one’s identity. Especially when you read about money every day! Our ability to earn income isn’t what makes us valuable as humans. We all know this, but it’s a truth to be wrestled with when that capacity is stripped away, whether by choice or circumstance.

An Imperfect Over-achiever

While I haven’t built the biggest blog, I’ve been surprised and thrilled to grow our readership, receive many engaging comments, hear real-life friends mention content that’s helped them, and be featured on other sites ranging from Rockstar Finance, Lifehacker, Frugal Rules, and The Globe and Mail, to the weekly link-shares of blogs both big and small. I didn’t even know what Rockstar Finance was the first time we were featured, and we’re honored to be on their list of Best Savings Blogs and Best New Money Blogs. We’re also truly  grateful for each time a reader has shared a link, commented, or simply read a post.

Here our first post to be featured on Rockstar Finance: The Secret to Financial Freedom

Here’s the piece that got on Lifehacker: Inflate Your Usefulness, Not Your Lifestyle

My biggest blogging challenge hasn’t been what I expected. I thought the PF scene would be replete with critics looking to debate against our sometimes-alternative philosophy. Turns out it’s actually full of friendly, encouraging people who are also questioning mainstream assumptions.

And it turns out my problem doesn’t have anything to do with others, but with taking my value from what I do. Whether it’s making money, writing a blog, or making a delicious homemade dinner, it’s all bonus when added to an already-full life. I’ve always strained for perfection. The obvious verdict is I’m not perfect. So while I enjoy all the positive feedback and engagement we receive, I’m also happy for the opportunity to continue learning to rest in my true value, which is not found in net worth or page views or subscribers, but in being a child of God.

Here are some of my other favorite posts:

Thanks for reading and being part of our adventure!

Any fellow over-achievers tracking with me? What has a new venture taught you?

The Best Black Friday Deal Is Freedom

Fall visit to a local farm.

Fall visit to a local farm.

As Thanksgiving approaches each year, I find myself contemplating America’s beginnings. We all know there are some serious social problems with this nation’s roots—I’m not going to get into that today. But why did so many choose to immigrate here?

Freedom & opportunity.

Religious freedom, economic freedom, political freedom, social freedom, and the freedom to take new opportunities.

Certainly America hasn’t always come through on these promises. But I find it more than a little ironic that here we all are, a 240 years later, discussing financial freedom as if it were a novel concept.

When did the American Dream turn into an over-sized house and two over-sized cars, for over-worked, over-whelmed, (sometimes over-sized,) in-debt rich people? That doesn’t sound like freedom to me. In fact, the Proverbs aptly proclaim that “the borrower is slave to the lender.” American’s $11.85 trillion dollars worth of personal debt is the very antithesis of the original dream. (Of that total, $890.9 billion is credit card debt.)

farmer boy

Check out this Financial Freedom Manifesto, delivered over a century ago to an audience of two, and recorded in the final chapter of the classic children’s book Farmer Boy. The main character, Almanzo, was offered an apprenticeship by the wagon-maker. This would have secured his financial future, but at a price the title farmer boy is unwilling to take:

“You’d have to depend on other folks, son, in town. Everything you got, you’d get from other folks. A farmer depends on himself, and the land and the weather. If you’re a farmer, you raise what you eat, you raise what you wear, and you keep warm with wood out of your own timber. You work hard, but you work as you please, and no man can tell you to go or come. You’ll be free and independent son, on a farm.”

As I read this to our four-year-old, I couldn’t help but think of the Financial Independence/Early Retirement movement. Farmer or not, people are longing for a long-gone freedom and are paying off debt, becoming self-employed, or “retiring” early to reclaim it.

My husband, an engineer by day and wannabe-farmer by evening, certainly resonates with some of this sentiment. As a diehard Little House fan, I hardly have grounds to disagree. But we both noticed the statement suggests the myth of the overly independent American. The apostle Paul improves upon Wilder’s description in his own Financial Freedom Manifesto:

“I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:11-13)

The True Secret to Financial Freedom is contentment. And what’s the secret to contentment? According to Paul earlier in the chapter, it’s gratitude and—not total independence–but dependence on the One who can meet our needs despite any circumstance:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. (Philippians 4:6).

Secular sources are discovering this same truth. Just yesterday this New York Times piece highlighted research that demonstrates choosing to act grateful makes people feel happier.

So as we approach this Thanksgiving, let us reflect on the original American Dream, which was about freedom and opportunity rather than excess and consumerism. I’m not sure how the meaning of the holiday morphed from being thankful for survival to Black Friday hype, but let’s take a moment this year to be content with the food and covering that we have (1 Timothy 6:8). Let us thank the One who has entrusted us with these good gifts (James 1:17) and the many advantages we enjoy. After all, if you’re reading this weblog, you’ve most likely won the lottery of life.

Let us find the freedom that comes from contentment, discarding the nightmare of greedy materialism and the chase for an elusive “enough.” Here’s how I plan to celebrate the freedom of gratitude this Thanksgiving. I invite you to do the same:

Write down what you’re grateful for this week. Next time I catch myself comparing, complaining, or grumpy, I’ll look back on my Thankful List and–you guessed it–be thankful.

food drive 2

Give to the needy. One way to give thanks is to acknowledge how much we’ve been given and then to share. This year, my four-year-old son initiated a food drive “for hungry people.” I’ve been humbled by his reminder that not everyone has enough, and it’s worth working hard in part to have something to share (Ephesians 4:28). He’s been enduring “boring” chores like vacuuming and putting away silverware in order to earn money to buy food for the drive. Of course, there are many ways to give to the needy this holiday season, but I encourage you to volunteer time, money, food, talent, or whatever you have to give someone else a reason to give thanks.

Tell someone you love how much they mean to you. Too often we equate “thank you” with a pleasantry, and our expression of gratitude never goes beyond a polite recitation. Whether in person, on the phone, or in a hand-written note, find a way to dig deeper than a ritual and surprise someone with thankfulness that is specific, personal, and heartfelt.

Looks like we’ve all got our work cut out for us! I’ll let you get to your thanks-giving.

What are some other ways to keep the meaning of Thanksgiving in focus? Why do you think the “American Dream” shifted over time?

Make Your Spouse More Useful by Leaving the Country!

While I was in India for two weeks, I fully expected my family to throw frugality to the wind and dine on fast food at an alarming frequency. I also braced myself to return to a very messy house. (To be fair, this assumption was based on empirical data.) Instead, my hard-working husband saved us mad cash while improving our home through his DIY and negotiating skills.

I didn’t have time to make & freeze meals, so I left him with a couple pounds of thawed chicken, a box of Mac & Cheese, and some microwavable bags of broccoli (which were untouched), and a folder with fast food coupons and gift cards.  Had I returned to a home strewn with Taco Bell cups and dirty diapers, I could not have complained. After all, I enjoyed two weeks without cooking, cleaning, or laundry, while experiencing another culture with friends. But there was nothing to complain about.

Here’s the run-down of what he accomplished in my absence:

  • Re-built our deck, thus finishing a huge DIY home repair. Savings = $6,000.
  • Negotiated a 50% discount on professional treatment to prevent future damage. Savings = $350.
  • Fixed a coolant leak on his 13-year-old Ford. Savings = $100.
  • Replaced all the living room furniture for $300. Savings compared to buying new = $1000.
  • Canned 12 jars of homemade salsa from his garden. Savings = $36.
  • Made our son a birthday cake. Savings = $20.
  • Moved his behemoth (trash find) desk out of the office to make way for a guest or rental bedroom. Savings = TBD.
  • Discovered a more efficient way to hang-dry clothes. (In case you didn’t notice, this means he did laundry! And hung the laundry to dry!) Savings = time.

Grand total = $7,506.

I should leave more often!

The real take-away is that pretending to be poor can make your spouse a more useful person. Oh, and that applies to you, too! Rather than arguing over who spends more money on their hobbies or clothing, we strive to work together as a frugal team. We’re both interested in inflating our usefulness rather than our lifestyle. We haven’t always been on the same page about our frugal lifestyle. But we’ve hashed out our pecuniary values together over time. Last summer we found ourselves on vacation, sipping wine in a hot tub, talking the dirty details of Roth IRAs and early mortgage payoff. If this sounds boring, think of it as dreaming together. If you could do anything you want, without money as a major obstacle, what would it be? Now pray and plan about how to get there. We call this financial flexibility. (Read here why financial independence is not our dream.)

I must mention the invaluable help of our friends and family while I was gone. My mom watched the kids for the whole first work week, and Neil’s professional remodeler brother helped vastly with our home repair. We also had the help of his sister and several of our friends who babysat, cooked, and cleaned during the second week. I can’t thank our gracious helpers enough. It was frugal friends synergy at its finest.

The home repair deserves its own post. Regarding the living room furniture, two free couches, a free TV stand, and a Craigslist HD CRT comprised our living room furniture before I left. The couches did not match AT ALL. They were very comfortable but also very stained (thanks, babies). One of them was literally disintegrating. The kids were picking off the faux-leather finish and dispersing it throughout the house. And you know how some people sort of mindlessly fiddle with things while they’re talking? Sometimes there’d be a pile of pleather crumbs in the built-in (read: hideous) cup holders after certain guests left. The other sofa had issues too dark to mention. I was and am sworn to secrecy.

To say the least, I’d been feeling embarrassed by our furniture but used it as an exercise in the principle that Life is Not About Your Preferences. And our hand-me-down TV stand, though good quality, felt too large for our small living room. Neil scored two couches that not only match each other, but also the rest of our open floor plan decor, on a local Facebook buy-sell-trade page. He replaced the TV stand with a low-profile modern (free) one that’d been collecting dust in our basement. One of our biggest fights over the last five years was over couches–there’s an example of us fighting over frugality–but I’d made up my mind that couches are not worth fighting about. I guess the moral of the story is, if you shut up and leave the country, maybe your SO will replace the furniture. Oh wait, I mean be content, everything doesn’t have to be your favorite, and free & broken furniture is the best. 🙂

How has frugal living made your spouse more useful?


Waste Less, Want Less

Okay, Pretenders: open your refrigerator and—if you have the stomach for it—find all the expired, old, and rotting food it contains. I’m sure your parents pulled the starving kid in other country card enough for a lifetime. But this might hit closer to home: perhaps you can’t buy something you want or give more generously because you’re wasting hundreds of dollars each month on things you throw away or don’t really need.

One of my favorite adages, which I quote frequently to the chagrin of my family, is Ben Franklin’s pithy “waste not, want not.” And it goes way beyond letting some leftovers go bad. Americans have strayed ironically far from this founding father’s wisdom. In the U.S. we are wasters by default; we think nothing of throwing away 251 million tons of trash annually. That’s 4.3 pounds of garbage per person per day, not including recycled or composted material.

This issue of waste is central to our financial problems. Just think about why so many personal finance bloggers and readers are engineers. My (engineer) husband says it’s because engineering is all about reducing waste by figuring out how to do more with less. And that’s very much what being thrifty is about, too. It’s like getting the best deal, all the time, on everything, so you can do what you want with your money (i.e. financial flexibility).

According to a recent TIME article “America’s Clutter Problem” by Josh Sanburn, “Americans have more possessions than any society in history.” For example, the U.S. is home to 3% of the world’s children, but buys 40% of the world’s toys. The equilibrium between population and possessions is similarly off when it comes to food, clothing, electronics, petrol, or just about any consumable you could imagine. We have more buying power than most, but also waste A LOT of everything.

We throw out TVs, not because they are broken, but because they aren’t big enough and flat enough. We throw away clothes not because they are completely worn but because they aren’t stylish enough—according to arbitrary standards we’ll laugh at in a few years. We throw away food not because it’s contaminated but because we forgot to eat it. I’m guilty, too, but it’s outlandish to waste like we do.

I’ve been reading Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder to my son and it’s astonishing how little the family wastes. They save the ashes from their stove all winter, and combine them with animal fat saved for months to make soap. They save rags to braid into rugs, or to trade for new dishes from the tin peddler. When a July frost threatens to kill the corn, every family member spends hours outside in the middle of the night, splashing water on 3 acres of corn plants to save them.

And sometimes I’m too lazy to sew a button back on a shirt.

I doubt any of us can go from producing 4.3 pounds of garbage per day to zero. But certainly we could waste less, and subsequently, want less. Wasting less means spending less by using what you already have. This in turns leaves you with more money to give, save, and invest as you seek financial flexibility. So what can you waste less of? Some of the top resources we waste are:

  1. Food. Make a menu, shop with a list, and keep perishable foods in a visible place. Put leftovers in clear containers. Pack them for lunch instead of going out to eat.
  2. Energy. Turning off the lights, setting back the thermostat, keeping the AC off, hanging clothes to dry…simple steps like these can save you hundreds each month on gas and electric bills.
  3. Gas (petrol). We don’t do anything extreme to limit our driving, but try to bike or carpool when we can to reduce fuel costs. Plus it’s more fun to bike or ride with a friend.
  4. Electronics. We simply don’t need to upgrade computers, TVs, or phones every year (or several years). The global impact of our wasted technology is huge and takes the biggest toll on the most impoverished.
  5. Money. Spending money on products or services you don’t need or get real happiness from is a waste. Maybe you waste on recreational shopping, an outrageous cell phone bill, a bad life insurance policy, frequent restaurant dining, or cable TV that you don’t have time to watch. Decide what is really worth your money and what spending has simply become a habit. Tackle one area at a time; a few minutes’ hassle could save a lot over time.

While any one act of wasting less may not save a ton of money, the habit of reducing waste, along with the attitude of being content with what you have goes a long way toward meeting financial goals. Wasting less turns the tide from always wanting more to actually building wealth.

What could you waste less on? What goal will you put your “waste less” savings toward?