The first two weeks of 2017 were rather bananas for me, with a big work deadline looming and everyone demanding my time after they returned from the holidays. Thankfully, that’s in the past, and the three day holiday weekend offered an opportunity to refresh, regroup, and finally put away the Christmas decorations. So, how’s my Uber-Frugal Month going? Not bad!
Grocery Shopping: We have had alternating expensive and cheap weeks. The first and third weekends were more expensive, with the 2nd weekend being just $23 spent at Aldi. We’re not doing amazingly well, but we are trying new recipes and wasting very little food. I have probably been driving up the costs a bit by buying more convenience/snacky food, but all of those carb-filled delights propelled me through a long couple of weeks at work. The busy-ness of the past few weeks is not my typical situation, and usually I am able to take the time to cut up a grapefruit or apple and have something healthier (and cheaper).
Cooking: I wasn’t totally confident in my abilities to handle an eating out ban coupled with a rather insane amount of work-related stress, but it hasn’t been too bad, and planning our meals in advance has actually made things easier. I’ve been making large batches of soup on the weekends and eating that for lunches (and a few dinners) all week. With my work deadline, there were several 10-14 hour days happening in the last two weeks. It was so nice to come home, shove some homemade food in my face, and head back to work, as opposed to worrying about grabbing fast food or going to a restaurant. Having portable and pre-batched meals all week at work was also a time saver.
Eating Out: Our eating out ban didn’t really feel like a slog until the last weekend. Late last week, I caved and bought some french fries at the student union, and this weekend we ate at a restaurant while we were out with some friends. (Thankfully, it was half price menu!) All in all, we’re still looking at about $14 in eating out spending, for the both of us, for the last two weeks.
Shopping: Last weekend we did stock up on a lot of household items (ziploc bags, TP, kleenex, allergy drugs) at the warehouse store and Target. (And maybe a few bulk snack items. Ahem.) I did buy one “stupid”/unnecessary thing at Target, but I waited a full week to buy it after first seeing it, and I’m using it now and enjoy it. Avoiding the the temptations of internet sales was much easier when I was buried in work – now I have more time to click on those seasonal clearance emails and find some more stuff that I absolutely do not need. Nothing has been overwhelmingly tempting, and I think I threw out a $20 REI coupon this weekend (REI clearance is my frugal achilles heel).
Entertainment: We don’t typically spend a lot of money here, and that trend continued. A good friend invited me to go see Hidden Figures with on opening weekend, and I jumped at the opportunity. As a woman in the sciences, I have been looking forward to this movie for a long time, and I was happy to support its success with my money. We also spent a small amount on a community trivia night. Each team can bring their own food and beverages, so it turns the event into a festive, picnic-like atmosphere. There is a modest entry fee for each person, and that money is used to fund community initiatives. Another thing we’re happy to support, especially since we got to bring our own dinner and have a home-cooked meal and some camaraderie.
Decluttering and Weight Loss: My usual January goals include cleaning up around the house and focusing on healthier choices after a busy and indulgent holiday season. In my part of the country, January is a great time to putter around the house and purge closets and cabinets. Crappy weather this weekend meant there was zero temptation to drive to city to go shopping. I’ve been continuing to find goodies for my local Buy Nothing group, and purged about a dozen cookbooks and a few other books last weekend. While putting away the Christmas decor, I purged a few more things from those boxes as well. I don’t have a real decluttering goal, like the MinsGame, but I do have a bit of renewed motivation since we’re still thinking about moving. Eliminating (almost) all eating out, coupled with a Dry January, has also helped me shed just around 4 lbs. And that’s even with the first few weeks of the year being VERY sedentary and stressful and involving a fair amount of junk food.
My Goals for the Second Half of Uber Frugal Month:
- Make my remaining 2016 Roth IRA contribution
- Look into opening a 529 (for my sibling’s baby)
- Finish my taxes if all the forms become available
- Plan some travel for later this spring
- Focus on healthier and more frugal snacks at work
- Look into alternative cell phone providers
- Look into retrofitting my SodaStream with a paintball CO2 canister for cheaper & less frequent refills
- Tally our spending totals for UFM and report them here!
Are you doing a challenge this month?
I had the Uber-Frugal Month talk with Mr. G over the Christmas weekend. We’d already contemplated doing another month of not eating out, but I set the parameters for this month as “no buying stupid stuff and no eating out.”
To mentally prepare myself for a month of renewed austerity (and to jumpstart a more frugal year), I thought I’d work through Mrs. Frugalwoods UFM questionnaire and preparatory steps that were outlined for her readers in the Uber Frugal Month planning post.
1. Why are you participating in this Challenge? What do you hope to achieve?
I’m approaching this UFM with two goals: to save money (which I will throw into my emergency savings account), and to establish a “baseline” for household expenditures (to have a better idea of how much money I actually need for 12 months of emergency savings). Mr. G hasn’t articulated his goals yet, but hopefully he’ll figure them out by the end of January! (We’re not married and our finances aren’t fully combined.)
What are your longterm life goals? Where do you want to be in 10 years?
We don’t yet have a clear idea or timeline of what early retirement looks like for us. Part of it comes down to understanding how frugal we can be without driving ourselves crazy or feeling miserable. Part of it is figuring out how much we’d like to travel while we still have jobs, how much we want to travel in retirement, and if we want to have a “home base” in retirement. There are also big questions about what healthcare looks like for early retirees (especially 10 years from now) and what the next 10 years means for both of our careers. Regardless, I think we can establish some interim goals like paying down our next house in a rapid fashion, saving for a rental property, making sure we understand various investment vehicles, planning for long-term charitable giving, and starting to plan for post-retirement housing and healthcare.
What about your current lifestyle might prevent those goals from coming to fruition and what can you do about it?
Currently, we don’t live particularly extravagant lifestyles, and neither of us has consumer or education debt. (Mr. G has a small amount of auto debt and he carries the mortgage.) We both have the tendency to waste a lot of money on eating out. On the “stuff” side of things, I love clearance sales and craft supplies, and Mr. G has a propensity to order random stuff from Amazon. Trimming any of these spending categories will result in significantly more money to funnel towards our larger goals.
Review Last Month’s Spending & Categorize Expenses
I’ve been tracking my spending with Mint since 2009, so I have lots of data on my monthly habits and my wise and not-so-wise spending choices over the years, with all of it fairly well-categorized. After reading Gwen’s 2016 wrap-up post the other day, I was curious about my “big picture” habits such as how much my spending has fluctuated year over year. I was delighted to learn that my average monthly spending has dropped by about 1/3 from my “baller years” of 2012-2014. (Admittedly, my “baller years” were not actually that baller, but I was buying a lot more stupid stuff during that time.) The graph to the right is my spending from the last eight Decembers, and there are three distinct phases – the end of graduate school plus my post doc years (lower earning, lower spending), my “baller years” that encompassed the first few years of my career (higher earning, higher spending), and my frugal phase (higher earning, lower spending). I’m hoping next year’s spending will be even lower!
In December 2016, we spent almost $700 on food & alcohol (ouch!) but that included a number of food/beer gifts and probably about $200 in ingredients for my annual holiday baking extravaganza. (I bake A LOT of cookies for gifts – over 1,000 cookies plus 3-4 kinds of candy. I anticipate this as an annual expenditure and save for it accordingly.) In a normal month where we eat out 2-3x a week, the amount is probably closer to $500 for two people. Still not great, but there it is. In addition to Christmas gifts, I also bought a new winter coat and a few clothing items on super sale. My current goal is to save 50% of my take-home pay, which I obviously missed this month. It was an expensive month, to be sure, but it was still 1/3 less spending than the average December during my “baller years” – which lets me know how far I have already come.
What Can We Eliminate or Substitute?
Our UFM will completely eliminate eating out. We eat out too much during the holidays, because the kitchen is occupied with my baking extravaganza, our schedules weird, we have friends in town, and we’re probably traveling at some point. For me, January also means eliminating alcohol. As far as substitutions go, I’m going to try to incorporate more regular trips to Aldi and see how that affects our grocery budget. (I like Aldi, but I don’t shop there enough to feel comfortable with where items are located and what items we like.) January will probably involve a continued effort to eat down the stuff in our freezer, which will further reduce our grocery bill.
I’ve been on and off the Diet Coke train many times throughout adulthood, and right now I am chugging Diet Coke with wild abandon. With my work project deadline in mid-January, I’m not sure how much I want to disrupt my caffeine intake! ? I promise I’ll give it a stab in the second half of the month, with the recommissioning of my Soda Stream and shifting my beverage focus back towards hot+iced tea.
I’m also eliminating clothing spending. I don’t anticipate needing anything, so I’ll consider it a (minimum) one month clothes-buying ban. Mr. G has promised to “not buy stupid stuff on Amazon,” which is the bulk of his unplanned spending.
We don’t spend a lot on entertainment. We pay for Netflix and Amazon Prime for in-home entertainment. We check out Kindle e-books from the library, and I have a large cache of craft supplies. We go to the county park with the dog on the weekends (or biking or canoeing in warmer weather). Other entertainment usually consists of game nights with friends, college sporting events (usually gifted from a friend with season tickets), a free lecture or event at the university or library, a very occasional trip to the movie theatre, or a local band with a modest ticket price or cover charge. Although we don’t have a $0 entertainment budget, we also don’t spend extravagantly on concerts, music festivals, traveling broadway shows, etc.
We also don’t spend money on a lot of “typical” items or services. We don’t have cable, long commutes, Starbucks habits, super expensive hobbies, gym memberships, lawn care or snow service, doggie daycare, and I spend very little on personal grooming (no manicures, no makeup, and I wear my hair long and don’t color it).
Reduce Discretionary Spending & Insource
As mentioned above, our discretionary spending reductions will focus on food (both of us), clothing (me), and random internet purchases (Mr. G). However, there are a few other monthly expenditures I’d like to think about. The first one is my cell phone plan. I’m currently with a national carrier, and I know my bill could be cheaper. Mr. G has been on Google Fi for a little over a year, and his cell phone service in our area has been ok but not great. My service with Verizon is pretty rock solid, especially in rural and remote areas. I’m a little hesitant to give it up since I often travel through “the middle of nowhere,” sometimes by myself, and sometimes in winter. So I’m going to look into some of their pay-as-you-go plans, especially now that my phone is out of contract.
Another monthly expense that we have is a cleaning service. We insource a lot of home and vehicle maintenance tasks, but neither of us loves cleaning (Mr. G loathes it, in fact), and we lead busy lives. Having a cleaning service prevents so much relationship strife, and I feel so fortunate that we’re able to afford it. It’s also a $140 monthly expense that seems very frivolous at times. It’s staying, for now, but I’m open to looking at less expensive options.
Examine Habits & Plan Ahead
I consider this post my planning ahead, for the most part! Right now, I feel like we will not need to plan ahead for eliminating discretionary clothing & internet purchases. We might buy some plane tickets in January, but we have travel funds available outside of our monthly spending. (I realize vacation spending is spending, but it’s not part of our monthly spending baseline.)
The one thing we will have to plan for is food shopping & preparation. Meal planning is so, so critical to our UFM success. We typically do very well with cooking dinner when we have a plan and have ingredients. Most weeknight meals focus on getting food on the table as quickly as possible, especially if there is a meeting or activity that night. (It’s usually my meeting or activity, I’ll be honest.) Soups and chilis are great meals that are super delicious a day or two later. Another tradition I’m hoping to bring back is homemade pizza on Friday nights – it’s easy to plan for and makes Friday nights a little more fun if you’re not eating out. I also hope to try a few new things with my pressure cooker.
No buying stuff this month! But if it comes down to it, we’ll try Craigslist, our town’s Buy Nothing Group or thrift stores first. And I hope to continue contributing to the Buy Nothing Group throughout the month!
Banish Excuses & Consider Major Lifestyle Changes
Eating out is a huge excuse for us. The prospect of not eating out for a really long time (like a year) feels like it would be a major lifestyle change. Significantly slashing our grocery budget feels like it could be a lifestyle change, but it could also mean just being more aggressive with price comparisons, and not really having to change our diets significantly.
I’ve contemplated getting rid of my car, but I decided it’s staying for now. (Especially since I’m traveling to see family more often.) It’s cold now where we live, but I’ll continue biking and walking as much as possible when it’s not totally awful outside.
To be honest, the biggest excuse I have right now is keeping the cleaning service. Mr. G is fabulous in so many ways, but helping with cleaning is not one of them. Is significantly less relationship stress worth $1680 a year? Possibly. Is it necessary? No, and we could absolutely eliminate this expense if we find ourselves in an emergency budget scenario.
Spending we’re focusing on in January: food (oh, the food), alcohol, non-essential clothing & internet purchases.
Spending we’re investigating: less expensive cell phone plan and cleaning service.
Spending I’m not worried about, but will categorize & analyze: entertainment expenditures, discretionary service spending (aside from the cleaning service), utility spending (Mr. G pays these – I pay a flat rent – but I’m curious how much it varies).
What are you doing to save more money in 2017?
Although Christmas has come and gone and this advice won’t be much use to you this year, I wanted to reflect on what I consider our family’s first real success at a “gift-lite” Christmas. I wasn’t able to muster the courage to go completely no-spend this holiday season, but it seems I was able to shift my family’s impulse to buy stuff specifically for the reason of “having something to unwrap” on Christmas morning.
Like all family dynamics that involve a change in the status quo, there is always the uncomfortable conversation to be had ahead of time. My mom usually starts bugging me for a Christmas list sometime in mid-November. As a lady in her mid-30’s with a small house overflowing with stuff, there is absolutely nothing I need. The exercise of drafting a Christmas list usually results in me surfing various gift guides or my extremely random Amazon wishlist (filled with odds and ends that I had considered buying throughout the year). Last year, I asked for, and received, a stack of trendy adult coloring books – most of which remain untouched after a year. (I love them and find them to be relaxing, but I don’t really sit down and work on them by myself.)
This year, our extended family’s priorities have shifted with a new baby in the mix, so that was enough of a change in the status quo to push things a little further. I didn’t necessarily lay down an ultimatum, but I told my mom at Thanksgiving that my holiday gifting would focus on stocking stuffers and consumable items – I’d buy something if it seemed cool, but I wasn’t going to go out of my way to dream up things to get them for Christmas. We also planned on giving a cash gift to my sibling to help cover medical debt from the birth of the baby. My mom said she didn’t want to “devolve into exchanging gift cards” and I agreed. Our conversation was vague enough that I didn’t completely know what to expect on Christmas morning, but judging from the lack of “I need Christmas ideas” text messages during the month of December, I was fairly certain I was heard.
Giving and Receiving-Lite
My shopping throughout December focused on consumables, local items, handmade items and a few homemade items made by me. This was a conscious decision, and in line with my goal to stay above the fray with my holiday shopping. I picked up a few pieces of glassware and a bottle of specialty brew from a local brewery. When we were at a craft fair, I picked up a pound of coffee from a local roaster. I DIY’d one gift and bought another handmade item from an artist friend. As usual, I gifted some really nice socks, and my favorite brand is made in the USA with a lifetime guarantee. Aside from a few other small items and a few more fancy beers, that was about it! My December has been stressful and busy, and the ability to spend less time shopping was a huge blessing. The only time I stepped foot in a mall this Christmas season was for Mr. G to buy himself a new winter coat, and I think I only went to Target twice. Although I ordered a few things online (the aforementioned socks and some speciality cookie ingredients) there wasn’t a package sitting on the stoop every day as has been the case in Decembers past.
Christmas morning was a pretty low key. The baby is still too little to understand gifts or toys, and most of the baby stuff skewed on the practical side. Mr. G and I walked away with a few gift cards, some consumables (fancy beers+specialty foods), and I got a few crafting books from my mom. For once, we came home with less stuff than we brought! A resounding success.
A Twinge of Sadness?
As I shared with Revanche on Twitter, I did have the smallest twinge of sadness upon seeing the cool stuff that my friends had gotten for Christmas. I think whenever you commit to a lifestyle change, it’s normal to feel some nostalgia for the way things used to be. If you’ve recently adopted a paleo lifestyle, I’m the friend clogging your social media feeds with pictures of Christmas cookies all December long. For me, a person who is taking a stab at a more minimalist lifestyle, there was a small sigh of resignation after surfing Facebook on Christmas morning. The tiniest sigh, but I’ll admit there was one.
In reality, I know I could afford most of those things, but that’s not my priority right now. In reality, I know that just like the adult coloring books, a lot of that stuff would find its way into a closet only to be white elephant gifted or donated to charity years later. Coming to terms with the realities of being an adult can suck, for sure, but it can also be very freeing to shed societal norms and “responsibilities” that are no longer meaningful.
The Blessing of Time
As I mentioned above, the true blessing in simplifying my family’s Christmas was time. It gave me more time to focus on a big, looming work project and to bake Christmas cookies for friends and family. I had a little more time just to hang out and stare at my Christmas tree. It gave my mom and sibling more time to focus on the new baby. (And less stress over the idea of hauling the baby to the mall at Christmas time.) It gave Mr. G more time to help me out around the house throughout December. It took less time for me to sift through all of our new stuff and find a place for it in our home. With a financial gift to my sibling, I think we spent about the same as in recent years, but it still felt SO MUCH SIMPLER.
Gift giving is hard and there are so many weird American perceptions about the presents under your tree representing the prosperity of your family. I know things will not be as straightforward as the new baby gets older, and this may not be as easy to accomplish in your family. But to me, this year, having a simplified Christmas was a huge priority. If simplifying your life in 2017 is also a priority, give it a try next year!
Have your holiday priorities changed in recent years?
Anyone who’s ever lost weight knows that the “maintenance” phase is the hardest part. Getting out of debt and pursuing life-long frugality is no different. Just as dieting is not deferred eating, frugality is not deferred spending. I read posts all of the time from folks who have managed to chip away at some of their debt, only to find themselves maxing out their credit cards again or having to deal with a life emergency without an adequate emergency fund. (I’m not judging – it’s a hard slog for so many people.) Although I’ve ridden the weight loss roller coaster for much of my life, I have managed to stay relatively fit and trim in the debt department. There have been a few times in my life where I gained a little extra debt fluff due to poor spending choices, emergencies, or large but necessary purchases. But I’ve always been successful at paying down my debts in a timely fashion. I’ve also been incredibly lucky in that I’ve been able to hold down jobs for the entirety of my adult life, lucky enough to receive a little parental support when I needed it most, and I haven’t faced spending emergencies that amounted to more than a few thousand dollars. I have been diligent and cautious, but I have also been very lucky.
Truth be told, my financial success story is super boring. I have had full-time employment since I graduated from college. Thanks to scholarships and assistantships, I managed to escape nine years of higher education with a only a small amount of student loan and credit card debt. Although I’ve had brief periods of slightly higher spending since I got a “real job,” my average monthly spending is only a few hundred dollars a month more than when I was a teaching assistant making $20,000 a year. As a spender, I’ve never really yo-yo dieted, and I’ve never had to live on a subsistence budget in order to pay down my debt. Although I got extremely lucky in the student loan department, I’ve also never lived so extravagantly than reeling in my lifestyle felt like a huge sacrifice. What’s my point? Well, when your life is already reasonably frugal and you don’t have any debt emergencies hanging over your head, it makes it very challenging to say to yourself, “I need to do better.”
An Uncertain Time
Rather than optimism for the future, what is currently driving me to save more aggressively is endless ennui and crushing anxiety. Some people are feeling very optimistic about the next 4-8 years, but I’m not one of them. Mr. G works in manufacturing, but in the renewable energy sector. I work in higher education, and rely on federal science funding. I also work with a number of research groups that receive funding from the DOE – funding that is at serious risk under the new administration. I work with dozens of international students who face uncertainty about the J1 Visa program, in addition to heightened concerns about their personal safety in a country that is increasingly embracing isolationist and white nationalist attitudes. I’m scared, to say the least. I also have big existential concerns about what the civil rights landscape will look like in 4 years, what automation means for the future of the economy, and what climate changes means for the future of our planet. Ya know, the usual Monday morning worries.
Add to this our seemingly more trivial but as yet unresolved House Question. Just this week, The House Question presented us with a whole new set of uncertainties that may mean another several months (or years) of indecisiveness. So, dear reader, we are stuck. We are stuck, stuck, stuck in a land of anxiety, indecision and inaction. But, as I joked on Twitter last month, the plus side of being paralyzed by indecision is that you never spend any money – no houses, furniture, renovations or vacations. So, for better or worse, my anxiety is now fueling my “why.” I’ve decided to channel my angst into a self-imposed spending austerity that will fund our future goals (or future unemployment), assuming we are finally able to make some decisions in the next year (or the next administration decides to purge all scientists who disagree with their agenda).
Preparing For Something
Sorry if I sound a bit like an alarmist crazy person in that last section, but the fact of the matter is that I currently feel like an alarmist crazy person. Talking to my friends in academia or federal agencies or national labs just makes me feel more unsettled. So, the first step in my paralysis-induced self-austerity is to increase my cash emergency fund. My really boring goal for 2017 is to have about 12 months of emergency savings at current monthly spending rate.
Since I’m now debt-free, I am able to throw any windfalls, side hustle cash, or tax returns towards my 12-month emergency fund. I’m already about 1/3 of the way there with what was my original 3-4 month e-fund. Once I am finished, my next goals will be to fund a bigger down payment for our next house, or to open a taxable investment account.
Working Towards Clarity
I have a lot of unresolvable questions floating around in my head right now and, unfortunately, the only thing that will bring clarity to many of these questions is time. So, we wait. I’ve also entered “FI maintenance mode,” which feels very uninspiring. On Twitter I mentioned how when I initially discovered FI, I decided that it would be the next “hobby” I would throw myself into. But just like the running thing and the weight loss thing and the many hobbies that came before it, pursuing FI has started to get boring and feel like a slog. I am no longer invigorated by the blog posts of my fellow frugal weirdos, and I don’t have a clear idea of our FI timeline or goals. What is the point of living a frugal lifestyle if I’m having any fun? How is it fulfilling to save for a future that seems so uncertain?
My post-election Season of Ennui is preventing me from achieving any clarity on my “big picture” goals, since optimism and emotional fortitude are not particularly abundant in my life right now. The House Question has too many variables for the time being, and I don’t have the emotional energy to cope with the big picture. So, for now, my answer to my anxiety is to hunker down and save.
Assuming I am being rather alarmist about the next few years, I still think it is a reasonable goal to pursue an über frugal year. If we buy a new house this year – great! My self-imposed austerity just means a bigger down payment or more money for improvements. If shit hits the fan – not great, but at least we’ll be (more) prepared. My decision-making abilities are stuck in neutral at the moment, but that doesn’t mean our path won’t clearer a few months from now. Once we’re finally able to make some decisions, we’ll have the added advantage of having a little more cash on hand to fund them.
When I saw the Frugalwoods post last week about embarking together on an über-frugal January, I was initially inspired to participate and then completely terrified about what I was throwing myself into. I’ve also done Drynuary for the last three or four years, and combining an über-frugal month with a dry month sounded a really terrible idea. (It doesn’t help that I have a stressful work project that doesn’t end until mid-January, and stress eating fast food IS MY JAM.) But I want to do it. I already don’t feel like buying much these days, and I could definitely be eating out less and drinking less alcohol. At the very least, it seems I am determined to get my least-favorite month of the year out of the way so my usual least favorite month, February, feels like a cakewalk in comparison.
For me, 2017 seems foreboding at best and catastrophic at worst. I’m going to save as much as I can, and do as much good as I can. I’m going to try to seek clarity and make decisions. I’m going to keep doing science, and be a safe harbor for my students who are facing persecution. I’m going to speak out against injustices and try not to get arrested. Ya know, the usual hopes and dreams for a new year.
Are you anxious about 2017? How are you coping?
First, let me get it out of the way – in case you want to boycott me as well – as a Millennial woman with a doctoral degree in the sciences who works at a university, it’s probably unsurprising that I did not vote for our president-elect. I’m hardly alone in pondering the consequences of this election – I have questions on everything from how will this affect my friends’ healthcare plans to how to counter the wave of hate crimes and intimidation in my own community to whether or not Congressional Republicans will slash federal research funding, which I rely on for my work. This isn’t a post about the election so much as it is about how everyone is responding to it, particularly with their shopping habits. More specifically, as a fans of frugality and mindful spending, how can we approach being consumers when seemingly every dollar is politicized?
If you’re on social media, it seems like there is a new company to boycott every day, with both sides occasionally boycotting the same business at different times for different reasons. For example, several years ago Target was on the receiving end of a great deal of backlash after it was discovered that they donated to an anti-gay rights candidate in Minnesota. More recently, Target has spurned boycotts from several other groups, due to their support of bathroom access for transgender individuals. Chick-Fil-A has been a long-time boycott favorite for their financial backing of anti-LGBT causes, and although their support ceased and their stance changed way back in 2012, they are still boycotted by a great number of individuals who aren’t aware of that (or don’t care). Since the election, I’ve seen lengthy lists of companies to boycott, since at some point someone from that company allegedly supported or “normalized” President-Elect Trump. Last week, I saw a huge push for Trump supporters to buy New Balance shoes (some styles are made in the USA) after the CEO praised Trump’s opposition to the TPP, immediately followed by a wave of anti-New Balance sentiments and shoe-burnings after some white nationalist leaders announced it would be their movement’s footwear of choice. On the flip side, Penzey’s Spices came out vehemently against Trump and is facing both a backlash from Trump supporters and a wave of support from anti-Trump individuals. It’s dizzying, to say the least.
Vote With Your Dollars
There has always been a push for consumers to “vote with their dollars,” whether that be supporting American manufacturing, local businesses, or companies that outwardly support a living wage or environmental causes. These are admirable goals, but it’s damn near impossible to make certain that every single purchase aligns with some set of pre-determined values that you have established for yourself. Even if you’re Berkeley’s most adept car-free, dumpster-diving fruitarian, your lifestyle probably depends on fossil fuels and low-paid workers in some capacity.
Buying local is great – but I can’t get a locally grown bell pepper in the Midwest for 9 months out of the year, and no non-chain businesses in my town are going to sell me a new TV. And in a small-ish town like mine, I’ve probably bought stuff from local businesses where the owners supported a political candidate that I opposed. But does that really matter? Should it always matter? At the end of the day, should I buy something from Amazon (who’s labor practices among its programmers and warehouse workers are shady, at best), or would I rather buy from a local merchant with opposing political views, who still supports local charities and town festivals? To me, the answer is pretty obvious.
That being said, there are places in my community where I purposefully don’t shop, because I don’t agree with their business practices or political stances. I’m certainly not alone, but I don’t make a big deal out of it on social media, and I try not to be petty. For example, I won’t shop at a pet store that gets puppies from commercial breeders, and I don’t shop at Hobby Lobby because of their vocal opposition to covering contraception for their employees. Thankfully, I have other local options where I don’t mind spending my money. Some people don’t care about these issues, and some people do care but shop there anyways because they feel the alternatives are not as good. Regardless, I’m not going to judge you for your craft store choices. (Although I may judge you for some of your purchases, because Hobby Lobby is tacky crap central. ? )
Don’t Vote At All
There is, of course, the other admirable goal of rarely (or never) buying anything at all. Maybe you are pursuing this track because it will help you reach other goals such as paying off debt or saving for retirement, or maybe you’ve decided to become a minimalist. As the Frugalwoods recently wrote, not buying things has the added advantage of freeing you from having to make a ton of decisions about a purchase, especially when your actual goal is to buy as little new stuff as possible. It’s truly a blessing to receive a hand-me-down or find a piece of curb furniture that fulfills a need in your life. Although the item may not be perfect, it’s probably good enough, and it was free. By seeking out free and used items, there’s a lot less concern to be had over whether or not spending money on that item aligns with your broader moral imperative.
Bartering and Sharing
We all probably have micro sharing economies amongst our families or groups of friends – baby stuff handed down over the years, pet sitting exchanged for pet sitting, baby sitting for baby sitting, help with the harvest and you can take home some of the extra, help us move and we’ll feed you dinner. Although most of the things in my personal sharing economy tend to focus on services, there’s nothing stopping you from more actively bartering for goods and services in your community, especially among really small local vendors like vegetable farmers or craftspeople. My only gripe with bartering is that when people attempt to barter with me for hand-knit items, they severely underestimate the time and materials costs associated with their request. So, my advice here is to approach bartering from a place of curiosity and humility, and be willing to adjust your trade accordingly.
Outside of my group of friends, there are other ways to be engaged with the sharing economy in my community. Our local Buy Nothing Group is just getting off the ground, and one thing I didn’t realize before I joined was that it’s not just a platform for giving away free stuff. The group also encourages its members to build lending libraries for tools, books, speciality kitchen gear, etc. Borrowing from your neighbors is a great way to support your goal of not buying stuff, while at the same time building community (assuming you return the item in good condition!).
Be Mindful, Be Realistic
My frugal friends definitely tend to be more mindful about their purchases – not just how much they’re spending, but if they really need the item, how the item is sourced or grown, and if the item is built to last. And that’s great, but it’s obviously maddening to think about the moral implications of every dollar you spend. I’m not in favor of petty boycotts against every company to ever say something nice about our President-Elect, but I’m also not in favor of spending a bunch of money at a company because they said something I agree with. I’ll buy things when I need them, and I’ll do the research if I really care about what it means to spend $5 on anti-Trump cinnamon or $150 on anti-TPP shoes. Do I need shoes? Do I need cinnamon? What if I already have a preferred cinnamon vendor who has not voiced an opinion about the election? Can’t a woman just buy her damn cinnamon and get on with her Christmas baking in peace?
So my goal for this holiday season is to do my research when it matters, but also to stay a little above the fray. I plan on making gifts when possible, and purchasing a few items from companies and local businesses that I trust and respect. I plan on giving experience gifts and donations to local groups that are doing good in my community. I can’t afford organic butter for all of my cookies, but I’ll try to buy fair-trade chocolate whenever possible. I’m sticking with my apolitical cinnamon vendor (a local spice shop), because they have good cinnamon, and they’re nice. Maybe these things seem trivial, but it’s all a part of my goal to spend my money mindfully year-round.
The past few months, Mr. Green and I have been making a conscious effort to eat out less, and, more specifically, eat down our pantry and freezer. It’s not quite as restrictive as our Not Eating Out in November challenge, but we’ve been diligently chipping away at the quarter of a cow stashed in our freezer and the dry goods in our cupboard. We even managed to make it through the Labor Day holiday weekend only eating out once. Small victories!
This got me thinking about other “pantries” we have in our homes. Those of us who are uncommitted minimalists probably hoard things to some extent – whether it be food, office supplies (free conference pens, anyone?), craft supplies, clothes, etc. (Not “Hoarders” level hoarding, but you know what I mean.) Sometimes our closets absolutely need a good decluttering, because they are full of stuff we don’t use and will likely never use. However, there’s a lot of stuff I’d feel very wasteful donating and probably doesn’t have a whole lot of resale value if I tried to liquidate it. So my goal for the fall has been to identify those stashes and be more conscious about using them instead of buying new stuff.
What are my other pantries?
Yarn – I’m a knitter, and I often (or, at least, used to) buy random yarn with no intended project. For years, yarn has been one of the few souvenirs I allowed myself to bring home from traveling. (The others being cool t-shirts and refrigerator magnets, which I also have a problem hoarding. Am I sensing a trend?) Being in my 30’s means eeerrrrbody having a baby, and so I decided to try and make baby gifts using supplies from my “yarn pantry” as much as possible. So far, so good, and I even found a few more projects that I think will use up half skeins of yarn from other projects.
Shoes – Last weekend I gave my closet a good once-over and found a few pairs of shoes that I liked, but weren’t getting a lot of wear. I’m sure I still have too many shoes (although not as many as Penny once had), but I’ve managed to cull most of the cheapie, uncomfortable, and never-worn pairs over the years. Instead of donating the pairs I rediscovered over the weekend, I took them downstairs to the shoe rack by the door so they’d make their way into a more regular rotation.
Clothes – Same goes for clothes. I think every time I clean out my closet I find a few pieces that got shoved to the back of the closet that I am able to re-incorporate into regular wear. A lot of frugality/minimalism bloggers will encourage you to “shop your closet” instead of buying new stuff when your wardrobe is starting to feel a bit stale. (I even learned from Leigh about an app that helps you organize and sort the pieces in your wardrobe.) And for the stuff that is nice but I don’t envision ever wearing again, I’m going to list those pieces on Poshmark in the near future.
Bar soap – This is a bit of a weird one! A few years ago, some friends started making soap as a hobby, and we purchased a few bars and received several other bars as thank-you gifts for dogsitting or what have you. The only problem was that we didn’t really use bar soap! So a dozen bars of handmade soap sat in our closet for about a year. I didn’t really want to get rid of the soap, but we also didn’t have a soap dish to set it in. I finally picked up a soap dish and now we are slowly making our way through our soap stash.
Kindle books – I’m sure I’m not the only person guilty of buying a few Kindle books here and there, especially when a popular title goes on sale for $1.99 or less. As much as I love library books (and library e-books!), I can be a slow and easily distracted reader, and it takes me longer than the library’s 2 week e-book lending period to get through a book. This has lead me to occasionally indulge in those Kindle deals when I see them come across blogs or social media. As summer has waned in the last few weeks, I’ve tried to dig into some of those impulse purchases while enjoying the backyard hammock.
There’s a lot of other stuff I need to cull more extensively this winter. The first things on my list are cookbooks – I know there’s a few recipes in most cookbooks that I love and can be ported to my Paprika recipe app, and the physical cookbook can be passed along to a friend, donated or sold. (I almost exclusively use Paprika on iPad or phone while cooking in the kitchen, as opposed to a physical cookbook on the counter.)
Cull – Organize – Use
The key to this type of decluttering is to make it so your stuff is easily accessible so you will actually use it. How many times have you bought a new thing because you couldn’t find the thing you were looking for, the thing was broken or damaged, or the thing was not accessible?
For example, Mr. Green was convinced we were “out of ground beef” a couple of weeks ago, and bought a package at the store, even though we got 50 lbs+ of ground beef with our 1/4 cow purchase this spring. In reality, all of our ground beef was all at the bottom of the deep freeze. Since then I’ve gone back and rearranged everything so the more frequently used cuts of meat are near the top and sides of the freezer.
I think this type of decluttering is easier than KonMari or other more aggressive methods, because you don’t have to get rid of stuff you kind of like or think will probably be useful in the future. Not everyone can afford to throw out everything that “doesn’t bring them joy,” because it could be financially challenging to replace those items should they be needed in the future. On the whole, this method feels much less wasteful. It helps you combine lots of odds and ends, evaluate what you have and what you need, and brings those forgotten items to the front of your brain so you can be more conscious about using them. I think, especially if you are prone to a little hoarding, coming face to face with exactly how much of a particular item you have in your home makes it much easier to avoid buying more of that thing in the future.
My steps for LittleGreenMari:
- Combine items so you can actually see how much of each item you have. All of the pens in one drawer, all of the cleaning supplies in one closet, all of the winter gloves/hats in one basket, combine multiple half-full jars of spices or bottles of soap or what have you. My most recent cleaning of the junk drawer turned up 5 rolls of Scotch tape – those will be handy at Christmas time! Just be careful when combining cleaning supplies and DON’T combine bleach and ammonia products because you can generate toxic chloramine fumes.
- Cull stuff that’s not worth keeping or totally used up. Dead pens, ill fitting shoes, expired pantry items. You probably know what you’re “hoarding” in your household.
- Organize the stuff you want to keep so that it’s easily accessible. One of my tasks here was buying a soap dish. Another task was reorganizing my wrapping/shipping supplies – I neatly folded all of the gift bags and saved pieces of tissue paper and put them in one container.
- Make a conscious effort to use your pantries instead of buying new stuff. Plan projects or gifts with your freshly organized craft supplies, plan meals around the pantry items you want to use up, plan an outfit that coordinates with the shoes you want to wear more often.
Looking for more inspiration? There’s a Facebook group, A Make Do and Mend Life, that I have found to be full of useful information and inspiration for creatively using, repairing, and repurposing things that are already in your home. (It’s mostly British ladies, but I think it makes it even more delightful.)
What are your pantries and how do you plan on using them?
We have a love-hate relationship with our house. Mr. Green purchased our current house about 10 years ago, and I moved in 5 years after that. We’ve done a TON of work to the place, and we’ve also both culled our possessions to make our small space seem not so small. Despite all of our decluttering, it still has very limited storage, a small kitchen, a mostly unused dining room that gathers clutter from whatever project currently holds my attention, a garage with a dirt floor that is actually more of a shed, and a creepy basement that predates the first World War. But we also live in an amazing neighborhood, in (really) close proximity to my work (and reasonably close proximity to Mr. Green’s), and we have an incredible backyard that is lovely for hammock-ing, grilling, fetch, and gardening.
The other thing I love about our house, and something that has become more important lately, is that it’s extremely affordable. Living here for the last five years has allowed me to accelerate my debt repayment, and I’m currently living debt-free (since I’m not technically on the mortgage). It has also allowed me to accelerate my retirement savings, and play catch-up after 7 years spent in graduate school and a post-doc.
There’s obviously a lot to love about our current house – the location, the yard, the mortgage payment. But our house is still over 100 years old, and there’s a lot more money that could and should be spent to make it livable for us in the long term. So lately, we’ve been thinking about moving – but I want to make sure we’re moving for the right reasons, and that our future house fits into our larger goals.
Are We Moving Because of Our Stuff?
I’ve dabbled in minimalism – in the sense that I now recognize the potential power of stuff – and I want to make sure that I don’t let stuff and the expense of accumulating it rule my life. I go through my closet on the regular, and my occasional fits of decluttering make Mr. Green sigh deeply and contemplate his choice of a life partner. I’m a regular donator to local thrift stores and I’ve contributed several items to our local Buy Nothing Group. That being said, I don’t have a capsule wardrobe, I haven’t Konmaried, and we’re not moving to a tiny house. I have a lot of hobbies, we both have a lot of books, and I don’t have an office/studio space where I can organize all of my projects into IKEA cubby furniture. While I’ve slowly stepped away from shopping as a hobby, I haven’t gone so far as to have a self-imposed shopping ban, and our remaining hobbies aren’t immune from the further accumulation of stuff. It’s a process, and my moderated approach to minimalism probably isn’t super inspirational, considering those who have truly embraced minimalism! 😉
(Aside: I once googled “Konmari light” and it turned up a post I thought was helpful!)
Mr. Green and I had a conversation recently about our (still very nebulous) retirement plans, and I brought up my ongoing desire to spend some time living out of a camper van and traveling around North America. He mentioned this lifestyle would require that I considerably downsize my hobbies. And I’m totally ok with that! Our current lifestyle and location facilitate a lot of my existing hobbies – we have land to grow veggies (I have a substantial food preservation hobby), I have places to store yarn (knitting), we have lots of bookshelves, and enough space to store our kayaks and camping gear. When future me is driving around in my hypothetical camper van, I think I’d be content with a few small knitting projects (that I can mail off to the recipients when finished), my Kindle, and and a minimal kitchen. I could do it. Probably.
We’re Moving Because of Our Stuff
Ok so FINE, we are moving because of our stuff. But I think it’s ok as long as stuff is not the only reason we’re moving. We’re also moving because we’d like a newer house with fewer maintenance issues, a second bathroom, a better space for entertaining, and a better arrangement of rooms and storage. And minimalism isn’t just about ditching your stuff – it’s about owning stuff that you enjoy using, use often, and ultimately adds meaning and richness to your life. For example, I would love to bicycle to work more often in the winter months, but sometimes it’s impossible to open our garage in the winter because the door is frozen to the ground. We also love to road bike in the summer, but having higher end gear means we don’t like to store it in our damp dirt floor garage. There’s also stuff that we just don’t feel great about storing in our basement because it’s difficult to access and kind of dank.
There’s definitely more stuff we could get rid of and ways we could reimagine our current space. But repurposing the dining room as an office space, for example, means we can’t really have guests over for dinner in the winter months. Using the entire guest bedroom for a studio space means we can’t ever host friends or family for overnight stays. And, as much as we try to imagine where we’d put a second bathroom in our current house, it’s probably not in the cards without a major and ill-advised cash outlay.
So in this post-Konmari world, I think it’s ok to say: we like having stuff! And we like hosting friends and relatives at our home. There’s an extremely broad spectrum of lifestyle choices when it comes to stuff – from hoarder, to a family with a two-car garage packed to the gills with stuff, to living a right-sized life, to living in a tiny house, and all the way down to radical minimalism. And one thing’s for sure – we’re not looking at 3000 sq ft houses for just the two of us. We’ve made it work in under 1000 square feet for five years now, but we are both feeling like the way our current space is configured isn’t working for us anymore.
The Camper Van(?) Dream is a Ways Off
Although we plan to retire early-ish, we’re still in the beginning stages of crystallizing our goals, plans, and finances for that stage in our lives. We plan on staying in this community for at least the next five years, if not longer, and we’d love to have a space that works well for our lives in the near-term. So I’m saying it out loud to the Universe: we want a space to entertain, we want a space to host guests, we want space to store our hobby stuff (within reason), and we don’t want to live in a 100 year old house anymore. We want an enjoyable outdoor space, a second bathroom, and a kitchen that can contain all of our cooking adventures. Ideally, we’d like somewhere that’s still bikeable to my workplace, and walkable to parks and other amenities.
Of course, we can have it all – for a price – and that’s where we need to be prudent. Moving forward, it’s vital that we are being completely honest with ourselves about our house needs and financial priorities before making this huge decision. I fully recognize that housing choice is one of the biggest factors in determining our ability to save aggressively and meet that early retirement goal. We’d love to have a house that we could easily pay off in 10 years or less. We’d love to still be able to travel and save aggressively. A better house doesn’t necessarily mean bigger, and we’d like to continue living our half-normal life, just with a more functional layout.
Whenever I question whether my hypothetical home budget is too high, I use a bank’s affordability calculator.
And lol for days.
— Desirae Odjick (@half_banked) August 31, 2016
I had to laugh when I saw that tweet from Half Banked today – I, too, have plugged our numbers into mortgage calculators on Zillow and elsewhere, and gotten “you can afford $X house” values that tend towards the absurd. The calculators are taking the “housing costs can be 30% of your income” rule way, WAY too seriously and completely ignoring any other financial goals we may have. (The bank actually told us that they are allowed to lend up to 35% payment to income ratio. YIKES. The monthly expenses for an absolute top of our budget house on a 15 year mortgage ended up something like a 20% ratio.) So, run your own numbers. Calculate what you’ll be paying in interest if you take out a 30-year loan on a house near the upper estimate of that insane affordability calculator. Tabulate what you spend on food, debt repayment, and necessities and you want to save for retirement, travel, education, or other goals and work back from there. Think about how amazing it would be to be without a house payment when you’re 45 (or younger!) as opposed to 60.
(Are you listening to me, self? Don’t buy too much house. It’s not the most important thing right now!)
Mr. Green and I went to the bank last week, and, on a whim, we had our first house showing last night. The house ticked off a lot of boxes, but it was far from perfect. I’m glad to get that first showing out of the way, and every future showing or open house narrows down our vision for our future home. After a Twitter conversation with with a few fine folks last week, I decided I’m willing to wait for perfect, or as close to it as possible. Our current house is fine for now, and we’d like to stay in the next house for a while. Reading about other’s experiences with home buying has also empowered me to be critical and smart about the process.
Unfortunately, the housing market in our community is moving quite fast at the moment, especially in the price range where we’d like to be. But we’ve reached a point where window shopping on Zillow isn’t going to cut it anymore, because a lot of the very best properties are under contract within hours or days of hitting the market. So we need to be informed and know what we want – but we also need to be ready to make an offer on short notice when the time comes.
Have you ever bought a house in a tight market?
As I mentioned on my food post, I’ve been tracking my finances for going on seven years now. This time period encompasses the last vestiges of graduate school, my post-doc and the first five years of my career. So I have tons of historical data on how I’ve chosen to spend my money in wise and not-so-wise ways over the better part of a decade. Looking at how much I’ve earned over the last seven years is sometimes depressing, and it’s easy to regret not saving more as soon as I started my “real job.” However, I had debts to pay off and seven years of pent up desire to spend money on stuff and traveling. I bought a car, I went to Europe, and I contributed to fixing up Mr. Green’s house. I’m sure I also bought a lot of stuff I didn’t need, but here we are.
Little By Little
After having my little green revelation a little over a year ago, I started paying a lot more attention to my spending. Yes, I had “paid attention” before when I would look at the monthly dollar amount for restaurant spending or craft supplies or clothes shopping and cringe and say “oops” and close the Mint tab. I figured as long as I didn’t stoop to the “5 days until payday and I have $10 in checking and need groceries” scenario of my graduate school days, I was doing ok. But a year ago I started to consciously dial down those spending numbers instead of just saying, “I need to do better.” I upped my savings little by little each month, hiding money from myself by increasing my pre-tax retirement deductions. I started to plan for a taxable investment account so (part of) my cash savings could start doing a little more work. When I found out I was going to be an aunt, I started putting away a little money each month that could eventually fund a 529 account. And then, in June, as my birthday gift to myself, I paid off my car and started this blog.
The Case For Cold Turkey
Some will argue that your debt is an emergency and needs to be dealt with as swiftly as possible. In retrospect, I certainly agree that I could and should have paid off my debt much faster. I’m fortunate that my debts were fairly small potatoes compared to many, but I’m sure I would be horrified by the amount of money I’ve lost to credit card and student loan interest payments over the years. My student loan was under $5000, and the minimum payment was so laughably small that I paid well over that amount from the get-go. By the time I bought a car, I was at least cognizant of the expense of interest payments, and did all I could to secure a low rate. I did the math to know how much interest I would save by paying extra each month and making additional payments when I had windfalls like a tax refund or a side hustle check. Although I’m currently debt-free, I anticipate I will be responsible for a mortgage payment in the near future. I plan on being totally honest with myself when estimating how much I can afford each month on a 10 or 15 year loan, and work towards throwing extra money at it whenever possible.
Setting a Savings Goal
My eyes were opened to the power of frugality last spring when I stumbled upon a comment from The Frugalwoods while looking for financial inspiration on another blog. When I first learned of their savings rate, an astonishing 71%+ of their take-home pay (after maxing out their 401k’s), it seemed absolutely unattainable. But the perfect is the enemy of the good, and I set what I felt was an ambitious goal of saving 50% of my take-home pay after maxing out my 403b.* July was the first time I was able to contribute $18,000/12 to my voluntary 403b, and the first time in 4 years without a car payment. July would be my new normal.
To get to my current level of savings, it took over a year’s worth of effort in being more conscious with my spending and experimenting with my savings levels. Before that, it meant seven years of at least being aware of my spending levels and striving to stay out of consumer debt, even if I wasn’t always on a tight budget. Prior to last spring, I had been routinely canceling subscriptions I didn’t use or enjoy and eliminating other fluff from my monthly spending. The first six months of this year were spent throwing extra payments at my car’s principal and analyzing my spending elsewhere. So I did have to work at it, but my spending changes were so incremental that it didn’t lead to me “feeling” a vast difference in my life as a consumer. Plus, as my priorities changed, I no longer felt the need to be a part of that consumer culture as I once did.
Despite all that, when I logged in to Personal Capital last week to glance at my finances, I was surprised to see my spending for July was exactly where I wanted it to be. It had worked. July didn’t feel particularly frugal in terms of the quality of my lifestyle. I did re-commit myself to bringing my lunch more often after ‘fessing up to my food spending a few weeks ago. However, I also bought some clothes and several overpriced beers at a “free” outdoor festival. I didn’t have an uber frugal month, but my ambitiously high savings goal – one I thought should “hurt” a little bit – actually felt, uh, fine?
(*Two caveats here: I can actually contribute more than $18,000 a year to my 403b, because my mandatory 5% pre-tax contribution does not count towards the maximum $18,000 pre-tax voluntary contribution. The other caveat is that I don’t count my “rent” as spending, since it actually goes into a joint savings account with Mr. Green and is used for home repairs and other things. So it gets counted as savings, and when it is spent it is counted as spending. So I guess you could say it’s similar to some PF bloggers counting their mortgage payments or other debt payments differently from consumer spending.)
Where Do I Go From Here?
Part of the power of frugality is that every time we make an expense obsolete, that frees up hundreds, if not thousands of dollars over the course of a year. I already have plans to switch to a low-cost cell phone carrier in the next few months and eliminate a few more monthly expenditures that have been nagging at my freshly frugal self.
I’ve (perhaps wrongly) told myself that I don’t have to keep up the maximum voluntary contribution to my 403b for the rest of my working life. I know I should, but it still feels like a negotiable budgetary item in my mind. I’d love to travel more, and I had been telling myself I’d contribute more to my travel fund once my car was paid off. Depending on what Mr. Green and I decide to do about our housing situation, I may choose to temporarily re-route some of that money to contribute to a larger down payment. I’m assuming our wedding will be reasonably frugal, but our friends love food, and we’d love to feed them well. But what if I didn’t have to reduce that contribution? What if I could find another couple hundred dollars in my budget to bolster our down payment or wedding or travel fund? What if eliminating a few of those nagging luxuries actually ended up being fine?
It took me over a year of consciously changing my spending habits to get where I am today: saving 50% of my take-home pay, after contributing the maximum pre-tax amounts to my retirement vehicles. I know I have the ability to keep chipping away at my monthly expenses without feeling like I’m depriving myself. I’m excited to see where I’ll be six months from now, and whether or not I can funnel more money towards my other savings goals without feeling the need to dial back my retirement savings. We meet with the bank this week to discuss our next mortgage, so we’ll see how I’m feeling after that!
When I was a graduate student, my monthly ritual on the Friday after payday was to go to Target, restock my household necessities, and then treat myself to a few items from the dollar section or home goods section. After Target, I’d probably go out to eat and then go home and watch Gilmore Girls. (Thrilling, I know.) A decade later, I can see that my monthly treat-yo-self sessions just added to cheap clutter in my home, and that they were also a waste of money. However, I also completely empathize with my 2006 self. In 2006, I was making $20,000 a year and I had just gotten out of a really bad relationship. I was working 60+ hours a week on a fruitless research project, and I didn’t even have weekends off, let alone actual vacation time. The light at the end of the tunnel, my PhD, was at least 3 years down the line. If I were to travel back in time and tell 2006 me, “stop wasting money on stupid stuff! If you can save $100 every month, you’ll be able to afford a trip to (a place that is not your laboratory) at the end of the year!” I think 2006 me would have laughed and laughed and laughed and then probably cried.
Sure, 2006 me was in a little bit of credit card debt and really, really needed a new computer for her research. Yes, 2006 me had to call her mom and ask for a couple of hundred dollars so she could afford to eat when she traveled to a research conference. And, yep, 2006 me was sleeping on an air mattress on the floor because she could not afford a new bed for a few months after her ex moved out. These situations illuminate that 2006 me definitely could have done better with what little money she did have. But 2006 me was just barely holding her head above water, and giving serious thought to her budgetary situation wasn’t very high on her list of priorities.
When Treat-Yo-Self is All You Got
Of course, we have all heard about the “latte factor” time and time again. For some, it’s not coffee stops, but rather app purchases, books, trinkets, lunches out, clothes – the list goes on. There are so many little things we can spend our money on that don’t actually add happiness to our lives. And these things can certainly add up to big dollars over the years, and hamper our larger financial goals. But looking back at my life ten years ago, I feel like these small indulgences were one of the few things that enabled me to deal with the insane levels of bullshit I was experiencing. For better or for worse, shopping helped me cope.
When I was a kid – shopping was something my mother and I did on a Saturday afternoon, and even then I seriously enjoyed the hunt for an awesome clearance rack deal. As an adult, it was an extremely low stress activity that removed me from reality for a short period of time. The day after the aforementioned relationship ended, I was sitting on my friend’s driveway, bawling my eyes out, when she suggested we head to the mall in an attempt to take my mind off of things. (Admittedly, I did need a smaller pair of pants after months of stress-induced weight loss.) Could I have found the same release in running, or yoga? It’s possible, but my emotional health was in such a state that getting out of bed was challenging enough, let alone having enough motivation at the end of the day to lace up my sneakers. I have so few good memories of my first few years of grad school, but I do remember the anticipation of my monthly trip to Target, and the small glimmer of joy I would feel walking up and down the aisles. On a rare Saturday off, I’d head to the Big City and wander a shopping mall or the gourmet grocery store by myself. For whatever reason, shopping was among a handful of activities that I actually looked forward to, and it helped me retain some sense of normalcy in an otherwise turbulent year.
What Happens When the Tunnel Is Endless?
I knew that my time making $20,000 would be fairly limited – at least I hoped so! But making under $25,000 a year is the reality for almost 25% of US Households. I’m guessing many of those households will not see their incomes increase rapidly over the course of 3 years, as mine did as I transitioned from graduate student to post-doc to permanent employee. And while my parents didn’t pay for any of my education, they did provide me with a financial safety net, which prevented me from slipping further into debt during my most difficult months. While it’s true that I lived paycheck-to-paycheck for five years, I’ve never been without that security. As much as I should have been thinking about how shopping affected my bottom line, I didn’t have to obsess over every dollar I spent. I was still far above the poverty line for a household of one and I never had to worry about making rent or having food to eat. It may have felt like I was treading water – but in reality, I knew how to swim, had a life vest on, and the shore wasn’t all that far away.
So this period of my life is what I think about every time someone tries to shame (actual) poor people for buying “junk” food with their EBT card. Or for having a refrigerator or a cell phone. I think about it every time I feel like judging a family member or friend for spending money in a way that doesn’t align with my personal priorities. I mean, why do people spend money? Sometimes we need things – food, clothing, shelter, toilet paper. But sometimes (even though minimalism tells us we shouldn’t), we buy things because they make us happy.
I think most of us who are on this FI/RE journey have had some realization that the pursuit of “stuff” isn’t going to make us happy in the long term or help us build a lasting legacy. But the point is, we’ve already had that revelation. It’s really easy to say “I don’t need to buy this junk!” when you already have a ton of junk. It’s easy to eschew the trappings of modern life when you’ve had an opportunity to be burdened by them. It’s easy to rid your house of clutter and excess when you know you could afford to replace something you decide you need later on. It’s easy to abandon shopping as a hobby when you have the means to engage in hobbies that require time, gear, and transportation options. Pursuing minimalism and financial independence can be challenging for anyone at any stage in life, but I think it’s unhelpful to scold other people for spending money on things we now judge as “frivolous.”
Finding New Avenues for Happiness
I recognize for some, shopping can become a serious addiction. And it’s true that the majority of us still probably buy way, way too much junk and produce huge amounts of waste as a result. My shopping hobby was an old habit that I found comforting during a difficult period of my life. Keeping my indulgences small meant I didn’t assume massive credit card debt pursuing my hobby. It obviously didn’t help me save money, either, but at least I grew out of this habit before it got to be very expensive. As my income has grown over the years, I’ve certainly been susceptible to lifestyle creep and hedonic adaptation. Thankfully, after stumbling into the personal finance community, I have been able to gain the self-awareness to realize that the pursuit of possessions doesn’t align with my long-term goals.
That doesn’t mean I’m immune to buying stuff – I think few of us are as disciplined as Mr. Money Mustache or The Frugalwoods. But I’m getting better. I’m still a sucker for a good clearance deal, but I try to make sure that I’m buying clothes or home items to replace something that’s worn out. I still do a fair amount of “window shopping” because my parents enjoy perusing a junk shop or a used bookstore, and it’s an enjoyable way to spend a Saturday afternoon in the winter months. What has changed is that now I can go to a flea market or a craft fair or an estate sale and be extremely discerning about the stuff I choose to bring into my home. I have a few things I loosely collect, and I’m always on the hunt for unique pieces at incredible prices. I rarely find them, so I feel ok walking away from the more ordinary or overpriced junk.
So, back to 2006. I moved on, I started healing, I kinda-sorta got my shit together, and I was able to claw my way out of the black hole of situational depression. Once my ex left, I was able to shed a lot his weird ideas about money (another post for another time), and start developing my own goals for my finances – for the first time in my adult life. I had the emotional energy to pursue more fulfilling hobbies, and my research project started working. Most significantly, I found a new group of friends who loved canoeing. Canoeing was another activity I had loved as a kid, but I didn’t have the means (boat) or transportation (car that can carry a boat) to enjoy it as an adult. Suddenly I found myself with friends that had canoes to spare, and all I had to do was chip in for beer, sandwiches, and gas. Suddenly I had more to look forward to than wandering the aisles of Target by myself – and, as it turns out, that was what I really needed.
We took a totally indulgent vacation with friends last fall, ate a TON of delicious delights at our destination, and spent a corresponding amount of money on all that gourmet food and booze. Mr. Green and I were both feeling guilty about the general overconsumption on the trip, so I made a pitch- for one month after our trip, we would not eat out, at all.
I do enjoy eating out. But I don’t love it, and my city is not one of those amazing food meccas with a million food trucks and trendy eateries. I like eating out as much as the next person, but even I’ll admit that eating out sometimes gets really, really old. It can also get really expensive and be very unhealthy. But if you’re not prepared with a meal plan and efficient with grocery shopping, eating out can feel like the only option during a busy week.
Our Food Budget
We are fortunate to not have to obsess about our food spending – but we both know we spend too much, and we know that we probably should obsess, at least a little bit. I’ve been tracking my finances for almost seven years now, so I have a good handle on the ebb and flow of these spending categories, and food spending is one category where lifestyle inflation has definitely taken its toll. We are able to navigate the grocery store effectively, as we don’t spend a ton on prepared and convenience foods. We could do better in this category by shopping at the lower-cost grocery stores in our city (Aldi + a local chain known for good deals), but we land at the closest grocery store most often. Unfortunately, I don’t have the complete picture of our food spending as a couple since we’re not married and Mr. Green doesn’t track his spending. Although I don’t know actual numbers, I’d say Mr. Green pays for dining out more often than me (a remnant of my graduate student days), and I probably buy groceries more often (because I’m the more motivated meal planner). Looking at the past few months of my spending – I average about $450 a month in food spending, split fairly evenly between eating out and groceries. That’s NOT counting Mr. Green’s food spending, and although I don’t know that number, I’m guessing it’s in a similar range. That clocks us in around $800 a month in food spending between the two of us. Yikes! I know this could be much, MUCH better, which is the entire point of this challenge and this blog!
Our approach to the month was an almost zero-tolerance towards eating out – with the pre-approved exceptions of some planned catered lunches at work, donuts on Saturday morning, and weekend drinks at a bar or brewery. Take-out from the grocery store hot bar or other prepared food at a convenience store we still counted as eating out. We started the challenge on Election Day, and ended on Black Friday since we were planning on taking a day trip to a nearby city over the Thanksgiving weekend.
We chose November for a few reasons – it was after our vacation and we weren’t traveling for the remainder of the month, including not traveling anywhere for Thanksgiving. We both love to cook, so Thanksgiving was a fun opportunity to try new recipes (especially with no houseguests to impress) and a chance to stock our fridge with delicious, delicious leftovers. (Our most creative turkey leftover dish was turkey “carnitas” which was actually quite delicious.) We relied on leftovers so much throughout the month that we actually regretted not cooking a larger turkey!
Although some weeks we’re really good about meal planning, there’s often an element of procrastination, a busy Sunday afternoon (when we typically grocery shop), or a last minute menu change – you know the drill. For example, Mr. Green has already made two post-work grocery stops this week, because we didn’t really have a menu planned out when we went shopping this weekend. I know this contributes to impulse buys and probably bulks up our food spending by quite a bit. We tend to hand wave and say “it’s still better than eating out!” Which, while true, it’s also not as good as actually meal planning. Ahem. We are far from perfect!
The challenge wasn’t actually all that bad once we got into a groove. We’re good about meal planning Monday through Thursday, but the weekends can be any combination of friends hosting dinner, exploring neighboring communities and eating something while we’re there, meeting friends for dinner in town, etc. Navigating those social situations proved to be one of the larger challenges to overcome. (Dinners hosted by friends at their homes were allowed.)
Challenging Scenario #1 – Weekend lunches and learning to be homebodies. I actually think we’re better about cooking dinners on the weekends than we are about lunches. With lunch, we’re usually out and about running errands, and it’s nice to hit a lunch spot that isn’t convenient to our offices during the week. Lunch at home on the weekend felt a lot more like a weekday – nothing fun, and usually whatever leftovers we had on hand. With just the two of us at home, the challenge felt really lonely at times, and it made me feel like a huge homebody. Although this is good for the budget, it seems bad for the soul! We really had to try to find new ways to get out of the house that didn’t involve going out to eat. Although lunch at home on a Saturday felt lonely at first, we eventually got the hang of it and it actually made our weekends much more productive. After a while, the appeal of a quick lunch at home was obvious – it allowed you to pause your house project for a few moments, snarf a sandwich or some leftovers, and get back to your project without losing a lot of momentum.
Challenging Scenario #2 – Being out and about far from home. November in my part of the country isn’t usually very hospitable (it was ice raining on Thanksgiving night), so our winter adventures often involve breweries, antique shops, used book stores, etc. One Saturday afternoon, we were at a brewery about 20 minutes away from home and it was getting to be dinner time. Our friends were all getting sandwiches from a food truck parked at the brewery, but we stayed strong and made it back home for dinner despite a real desire to stay at the brewery with our friends. (To be honest, if we had liked this particular food truck more we would have crumbled, but it wasn’t one of our favorites.) Dinner on this night was an emergency frozen pizza – we needed something fast and greasy!
Challenging Scenario #3 – Out of lunch ideas. Towards the end of the month I was losing steam with my lunch plans. Mr. Green can eat PB&J day in and day out, but I definitely crave variety. One day when I was at home for lunch to let the dog out, nothing really sounded appealing, and the fridge contents were looking sparse. So, I settled on a fried egg on toast, which ended up being delicious and super satisfying.
What We Learned
This month ended up being great for so many reasons:
- Because I do track my spending, I bought all of the groceries for the month. I ended up spending about $430 for the month for both of us, or about half of our typical food spending amount, and that included a holiday dinner.
- We had basically zero food waste which is great for our budget and the environment!
- We reminded ourselves that sometimes you just need to get food in your belly and move on with your life. Not all meals need to be an event.
- No back and forth “what do you want for dinner”/”no what do YOU want for dinner” and then settling on a mediocre restaurant that is neither satisfying nor tasty.
- We made more of an effort to have friends over for dinner and we tried to make weekend dinners a little special.
- Emergency frozen pizzas are necessary.
- I lost about five pounds without really trying or counting calories!
- Even though Mr. Green doesn’t track his spending, he did notice how much lower his credit card bill was for the month! And obviously seeing this in my Mint restaurant spending category was very rewarding:
So Have We Kept It Up?
Going into December, I pledged that we should try to stick to two lunches and two dinners out per week (one each during the week and on the weekend). We are probably eating out for lunch more often on the weekends than we should be, but on the whole I’d say that we are sticking to the dinner plan. As far as weekday lunches go – well, as the weather gets nicer, I’m prone to wander away from my desk and find someplace with a patio for lunch. Habits. They are hard to break!
Now that I am several months removed from this experiment, I’m determined to try harder to reduce my food spending and make more meals at home, especially bringing my lunch from home. Part of this is because I have a clearer idea of my monthly savings goals than I did in November, but another big part is the substantial spare tire I am presently carrying around my midsection. I know I can accomplish both my savings and healthy eating/weight loss goals by applying what we learned last November to our day-to-day life. And now that my garden is kicking into high gear, I should have no more excuses!
Do you eat out too often? Have you considered a personal ban on eating out?