Before we talk about the right track for your finances, have I ever told you about the time that my appendix ruptured and I missed it? For over a year? Well, I told this story to my doctor friends and they all shrugged their shoulders and said, well, people’s bodies are so wonderfully different. That’s it. No wisdom. No explanation. Just that people are different.
I was reminded of this because every Friday at Mark’s Daily Apple, they run a success story. A few weeks ago, the success was a little controversial. The featured lady had plenty of smiling pictures, described her diet, and says she feels great. The problem – some people thought she wasn’t eating enough based on their own caloric estimates of her diet. You can’t have fewer than 1200 calories, they say.
Do others know your life better than you do?
This is an interesting criticism. Here’s this woman who has found this diet that works for her. She has tried it out and found that her energy and weight have greatly improved. She looks healthy. She doesn’t look underweight. And yet, internet strangers, who have probably never taken a nutrition course and have never met this woman, feel the need to question her lifestyle because they read somewhere on the Internet that 1200 calories is the minimum that any woman should eat.
Could it be that this woman doesn’t know how to take care of herself and is missing some huge impending problems? Sure, it’s possible. But should we give her the benefit of the doubt that maybe her body is different and that she knows what’s best for herself?
Probably. I mean, I certainly follow a strange diet that works for me. I told my doctor, like a good little patient and she said the same groundbreaking wisdom about nutrition I had heard on a podcast:
If it works for you, then it works.
People are different. What works for you might not work for me. And if it works for you, why should you stop doing it just because it doesn’t work for others? Why should you stop just because they’ve done some studies to say that it didn’t work for other people? If it works for you, maybe it just works, full stop. Maybe you don’t need to conduct a double blind study to prove its validity. It works in the only place it matters – in your life.
The same applies to personal finance.
How to get on the right track with your finances
Our budgets have different categories, different percentages. Savings rates differ. Our incomes are different. It’s easy to look at others and wonder how you’re doing comparatively. How do you know you’re on the right financial track?
Are you making acceptable progress toward your financial goals?
Does your plan make you feel calm about your finances?
Is your lifestyle sustainable and does it make you happy?
I think we sometimes fall into the trap from our school days – assuming that there is just one right answer. For our lives, the right answers are less clear cut.
Every person is unique and what works for you won’t necessarily work for anyone else. It can be easy to be swayed by experts that pressure you to do things their way or even family or friends who don’t understand your way. You don’t have to convince anyone that your way works for them. The question to ask yourself is whether your financial plan makes sense for you. Let’s never forget that personal finance is not about math, it’s about fitting the money plan to the person. Whatever plan works for you – in that it’s something that advances you to your goals while letting you live your life – is the right track for your finances.
A friend was telling me how he could get any drink he wanted for free at a certain Starbucks because of a deal with his company. He was telling me about how he chose his drink (yes, this was an incredibly long and boring conversation) and I interjected, you don’t drink coffee so why does any of this matter?
I know, he said, but it was free.
He would make an excellent personal finance blogger. =D
When I was younger, I tried to figure out everything I could get for free. But as you get older, you become a little warier about free stuff. Sometimes the furniture is free because it has bed bugs embedded in it. Sometimes the food is free because you’re getting a sales pitch. And sometimes it is a good product without strings attached but it is still too much of a hassle to pick it up or upkeep, or sometimes you just don’t want it.
Free only means it doesn’t cost money; it doesn’t mean it comes without any costs at all.
As I’ve aged, I’ve learned to appreciate the other costs in life. Costs in time, mental energy, space in my apartment, convenience. It makes sense that the more money I have, the less I use money as my only lens with which to view the costs of things, particularly as those other costs have become more precious.
If you have no money, then it may make sense to base your decisions on money. But I’m exceedingly wary of people who have money who base all their decisions solely on money. There are personal finance bloggers who make much more money than I do and who put up all these constraints on how they can spend their money. No vacations. The cheapest food.
I understand dipping one’s toes into austerity. I think it makes sense for everyone to go through no-spend months and to live like they were college students again. It’s important not to forget that feeling. But living your life based on what saves the most money – that’s cheap.
People think lifestyle inflation is the only thing you need to look out for but cheapness is also a pervasive and somewhat easy trap to fall into. What’s the problem, you may say. You’re saving money.
I mean the problem is you’re a jerk. How do you know you’re a jerk? Because you don’t have a code. Everyone needs to have a code. What do I mean by a code?
Imagine your parents assembled the perfect toolbox. They read up on Consumer Reports and spent their time figuring out what was needed for the best toolbox, and then got to work assembling the best hammers, screwdrivers, pliers, you name it. Then one day you ask for advice on a project and you learn that they have never used any of these tools. They don’t even know how to use them.
You ask to borrow a tool. They won’t give it to you. You ask, what are the tools for. Emergencies. The future. It makes them feel safer knowing they’re there. Even though they don’t use them. And then they leave you behind and amass more tools.
Money is a tool. If you have no projects, then why are you accumulating so many tools?
I’ve had former friends who invited people over for food and then told us how much the food they were providing would cost us (it was something like $10/person and they were serving us cabbage soup. I felt like I was getting fleeced. Also I don’t know when I had to agree to eat and pay for cabbage soup).
There are things that will cost money and you will have to decide what is more important to you. Your reputation. Your children. Your parents. Fun. Charity.
You have to set out the tenets you want to live by. Because if you don’t value anything at all, then why do you and how can you value money?
He grew up on the other side of the tracks, so to speak. I kept hedging that I didn’t grow up with the silver spoons of my colleagues, with private schools and summer homes. But it seemed discordant to make these comparisons to someone whose mom died of a drug overdose and whose dad worked in construction, a career he inherited.
In my mind, it was like Bill Gates insisting he wasn’t Warren Buffett.
I was a little embarrassed. It may not have been a silver spoon, but it was at least plastic and durable. Also, we had soup! By being steadily employed in white collar jobs and never buying things, my parents rose through the middle class ranks. And I was now a lawyer, making an income that put me in the top 10% of salaries, if not higher. If he was lower-income, I was higher-income. If he was poor, then I’d have to be rich, right?
It’s apparently not so simple. It’s such a subversive thought – believing you’re rich. There’s a lot of stigma associated with being considered wealthy, even in the personal finance blogosphere. I recently asked on Twitter whether it was off-putting for me to describe myself as “rich” and most seemed to suggest that it was. Some people would have been put off because I’m not “rich enough” to consider myself rich. Some others would have considered it bragging or tempting fate. Others have been bred to hate the rich, so they take it as an invitation for open season against me.
It was funny, because the tweet followed a lot of rabid discussion stating that earning multiple times the median income does not count as middle class. Ok, fine. I won’t call myself middle class – but I still can’t consider myself rich. I’m “upper middle class,” which I guess insulates me from associating myself with the middle and the rich. It could be the best of both worlds, even though mathematically it just doesn’t make sense. (For instance, if you subdivided incomes into five categories – poor, lower middle, middle, upper middle, and rich, I’d still be rich. The top 10% would still fit into that top 20%).
Why should it be a problem in personal finance to consider yourself rich? Well, it’s probably because the rich are now seen as punching bags. I remember reading a blogger sarcastically snarking about Taylor Swift talking about having a problem. Oh she’s rich and pretty and young so she doesn’t get to have a problem. She doesn’t get to complain. Sorry, rich people – you don’t get to have sadness or loneliness or stubbed toes.
Part of the disdain may come from the idea that the rich are associated with wasteful spending. We’re not lifestyles of the rich and famous – we’re lifestyles of the financially independent and the frugal.
Part of me wants to say that labeling myself as rich ignores my parents’ sacrifices and hard work, making it seem like we took a road to success lined with trust funds and limos. I’m sure, however, that my parents would be very gratified that they were able to provide for their kids. It’s a different generation – they unabashedly want to be rich. They see the rich as aspirational, as good and hard-working. I don’t know when the definitions got turned around.
I would think that of all blog communities, this one should realize that money doesn’t solve all your problems. And that money is nothing to be ashamed of. And that money is really a story that unites us more than it divides us. But once we start defining ourselves by our incomes, then it seems the claws start coming out.
There’s that joke that we define wealth as “a little bit more.”
We are all like dogs chasing their tails. But at least a tail is something tangible. We are always chasing something that we’ll never catch, and frankly when we catch it, we deny we’ve caught it. And I’m tired of the chase. I want to stop and just look around. My definition isn’t “a bit more.” My definition is “I’m fine right here.” Does that bother you? Why? I’m not selling anything. I’m just letting you know I’m not chasing. I already realize what enormous privilege I have and will continue to have. I realize I don’t need any more.
My current financial status is not indicative of my childhood or my future. It doesn’t make me a good person or a bad person. So here is my unvarnished truth.
When I budget my money, I think about aligning it to my values – not meeting my basic needs. I don’t check my bank accounts to see if I can afford something because I know I can. I rarely have to worry about money. That’s my definition of rich.
They say that women are always apologizing. Well, I’m not apologizing. To be polite, I can say I’m “upper middle class” but in my mind, I know I’m rich. And I’d rather just admit it.
That feeling when you see a low-income person with nicer stuff than you
My mother had heard that some kids at our church couldn’t afford new clothes. She asked me to help her pick out some clothes to give to them. This was the 90s so we went to the typical teenager stores of the time – Old Navy, Guess, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger.
When she gave them the clothes, I noticed that they discarded the Old Navy duds but were quite excited about the name-brand items. The name brand items weren’t better looking but they were emblazoned with the brand name (this was the 90s when that was the style). I thought this was peculiar because new clothes are new clothes. I proudly wore (and still wear) stuff from Walmart and would have been grateful for the gift.
Similarly, when I visited a child for whom I was performing pro bono services, I couldn’t help but notice that she was wearing a Helly Hansen coat. That coat was probably more expensive than the one I was wearing, as her attorney.
Something similar happened when I was talking to a woman I mentor at an event for our mentees. Nearby was a child of another mentee decked out in a shiny rose gold shirt with matching rose gold accessories, including cat ears, hair trinkets and shoes. I definitely never had such nice things when I was a kid, and I’m sure my parents earned at least quadruple the income that hers did.
Why the Rich Can Have Worse Stuff
When I was younger, I didn’t quite understand the dichotomy. When you don’t have anything shouldn’t you be grateful for anything? Why spend a lot on clothes, particularly children’s clothes, when you are worried about the rent, the electric, the car, etc.? Shouldn’t these families learn to be minimalist and frugal?
But sometime after seeing my mom donate those clothes, something clicked for me. Yes, I was wearing cheap hand-me-down clothes. But I also never had to worry about where I was sleeping for the night. I never had to worry about where my next meal would come from.
Most importantly, I never had to worry about someone accusing me of being poor.
My family wasn’t rich, in absolute terms or in comparison with the people in my middle-class public school, but we were safe – both in terms of living in a safe neighborhood but also in terms of social status. I could “afford” to wear cheap clothes because I had confidence that if someone even joked about me being poor, my classmates could vouch for my living in their neighborhood in a suitably sized house.
Why the Poor Have Nice Stuff
If I were poor, I’m sure being called poor would be absolutely terrifying. I wouldn’t have the self-confidence of a middle-income person. I wouldn’t have people who could vouch for the size of my house or the white collar-ness of my parents’ jobs. Because of this anxiety, I’m sure I would change my lifestyle so I would never fear being accused of being poor. I would wear nicer clothes, eat fancier meals, drive a nice car. I would do these things not because it made mathematical sense, but because, I would want to avoid anyone second-guessing my social class, and thus, subtly second-guessing my worth. (I’m not saying a person’s worth is dependent on their social class, or that it should be that way – I’m just saying that many people feel this way).
You try to keep up appearances to bolster your own self esteem. Maybe you can barely afford rent but no one needs to know that. The very last straw isn’t homelessness or even when others stop believing in you; the last straw is when you can’t believe in yourself. And if you can’t have the stable life, you can at least look the part, to others and to yourself.
This mindset isn’t only held by the poor. You can grow up at any income level and still have a chip on your shoulder. There are people who grew up far richer than me that might identify with it. But it’s a mindset that has got to be easier to overcome as a rich person than as a poor person. It’s a simple matter of looking around and being grateful for having the roof over your head. It’s much easier to be confident when you have some constants in your life.
Changing your Perspective About the Poor
When a rich person says that he could pull himself up by his bootstraps if he had a reduced income, he may be right. To be more specific, he is right that he may have the skills, health, education, connections and confidence that if he were put in a situation with low income, he could lift himself up by his very own bootstraps. He could visualize where he was before and say, well I got there once and I believe in myself to get there again. But the poor aren’t “rich people pretending to be poor.” The poor are the way they are.
When people point at the poor and say, why do you have the newest iPhone or the big SUV when I, as a rich person, have a flip phone and take the bus, this is part of the reason why. It’s not that the poor are secretly not poor. They very much are. In fact, they are acting in ways that very much show that they’re poor, though perhaps not monetarily. They are poor of mindset. And that can be harder to fix than a cash flow problem. They may very well not believe that they can get out of their situation so the thinking may go, I might as well have my fun now. You may not have hope, but at least you have an xBox.
When people say, the poor shouldn’t care what other people think, that’s a fallacy too. The rich don’t need to care what people think of them. The rich can insulate themselves from people they don’t want to have around; the poor cannot. The poor have to see social workers, teachers, school administrators, government workers, neighbors and family because they rely on all these people to survive. So the poor have more people judging them than the rich. Thus, the poor have more people they want to view them positively. In fact, the poor likely get a lot more bang for their buck by spending extravagantly on appearances.
Additionally, being rich drastically changes how you’re viewed even without spending any money. For instance, I can be frugal because I have so many indicators to show that I’m wealthy. When people come to visit, they don’t care that my furniture is secondhand Ikea because my apartment is in a neighborhood where the median home values are $1 million. They don’t notice the lack of TV, because I have a laptop laying around that costs over $1000. When I say I don’t have a car, the understanding is that I choose not to, not because I can’t – because everyone knows I’m a lawyer and I make bank.
Similarly, when I say my clothes are several years old, low-priced and sourced from ignoble locales like Payless and Walmart, it doesn’t affect others’ views of me because I’m young, thin, pretty and rich so my humble clothes seem more expensive when I wear them. Everything seems more expensive in my life because of me. It’s actually a waste for me to spend on more expensive things because I will get compliments whether my dress is from Target or Gucci. The purpose of expensive things is so people think you’re rich. If you’re already rich, you don’t need people to think anything of you. People will come to you if you’re rich. If you’re poor, you still need to prove yourself to get a job, friends, connections, business partners, etc.
The dirty secret to being frugal is not caring what people think. The secret to not caring what people think is being rich.
If you don’t have these indicators of wealth, it’s a lot less likely that being frugal seems like a worthy goal. Having the junky items I have just makes you look poor, and no one wants to look poor without secretly being rich.
Unless you are Chuck Norris (in which case, hi Mr. Norris!), you probably have some fears – whether it be violence, money, bugs, etc. Recently, I’ve read a number of articles and social media posts discussing how #allwomen live in constant fear of being attacked or killed by a man, and, because of this, women engage in many rituals aimed at minimizing the risk of being hurt by strangers. This is interesting to me for a number of reasons. One, I’m a woman and I don’t live in constant fear for my life. So I was surprised that all women, including women who don’t live in war-torn countries or gang-ridden areas, were living in a state of constant fear. Two, it’s interesting to me that all women are essentially my mother.
How Fear Robs You of Joy
My mother was and is irrationally afraid of many things and she tried to spread this fear to me. I couldn’t go to anyone’s house or to a dance or to a football game because it wasn’t safe. I couldn’t stay out after 10pm because it wasn’t safe. Rather than seeing this as love and care from my mother, I viewed it as a way of restricting my freedom and controlling me.
Despite the repercussions in my own life, I didn’t blame my mother for these fears. I know she held her fears honestly. If anything, I felt sad for her being afraid her whole life. You can’t be content and afraid. You can’t be joyful and afraid. Nearly all good emotions are mutually exclusive from fear. To me, that is quite an opportunity cost. Fear might protect you from some trouble, but at the cost of taking away all that is good in your life. And imagine, if #allwomen are like my mother – they are living in daily fear and robbing themselves of all joy.
*I’m not saying all women are afraid – but women are taught to be afraid all the time, as if it’s just good sense. In my opinion, it’s a way of controlling women – keeping them from doing certain things society frowns upon. Thus, after something bad happens, someone can say, well you shouldn’t drink – you need to stay constantly vigilant! Or, quit your job and stay at home where it’s safe, even though your significant other is the person statistically most likely to kill you. But I digress.
How Fear Robs You of Life
So many accomplishments in life require overcoming fear. If you’re busy worrying about getting killed in a freak accident, you’re not going to do anything more risky than ordering your groceries online and barricading yourself in your “safe” home.
You might say, well once you’ve been harassed, you’ll sing a different tune. But I have been harassed, at work and on the streets. I’ve been followed. I’ve gotten mysterious notes in the mail and phone calls from people I didn’t know had my number. I haven’t experienced the worst of it, for sure and it isn’t common in my life. In total, these were a few days of my life. I certainly don’t think back and regret not worrying on all those days I wasn’t harassed. I don’t think now that I should worry more. And even if there are more days of trouble than joy in your life- why waste those precious days of joy when nothing happened fearing that something would?
A lifetime of fear is still worth it to be safe, you may say. But being afraid is not the same as being safe – you can take precautions without being in fear and you can be afraid and act in ways that put you in danger. I think that the more prepared you are, the less you have to fear. And the more fearful you are, the more that preparation goes to waste. One should consider instead how to respond to the necessary fears in our lives in ways that are actually helpful. And because fear is such a detrimental factor in one’s life, it should be used judiciously, not without abandon.
Fear Gives You the Illusion of Safety While Placing You in Danger
Many times, fear encourages irrational responses. There are, unfortunately, a lot of women who will experience violence this year. The majority of the violence will be committed by men the victims knew (3:1 proportion). But no one is encouraging women to avoid all men at all times (and they shouldn’t encourage that – that would be crippling). In contrast, the lists that purport to guide women on how to protect themselves focus on strangers. And even those tips tend to be useless.
Women are often told to keep their keys in their hands to use as a weapon but in interviews with rapists, it proves ineffective because you have to be really close to the potential rapist to use them. More effective were large objects like umbrellas, that the potential rapist could see from a distance, and, having seen them, choose not to assault you. Also, most kidnappings occurred in the morning in parking lots – so the fear of being out at night seems less valid. The more you know.
The result is that women are taught to spend their lives in fear, but 1) they’re protecting themselves against events that are unlikely to happen; 2) their methods for protection are futile; 3) the constant feeling of fear may actually immunize women from recognizing when they should actually be afraid, or make them too exhausted to address them; and 4) the constant fear and worry hurt their lives. And yet, people keep saying that women need to stay in fear. Maybe women should be afraid because the actions they are taking aren’t protecting them from what they fear most.
How Fears Can Ruin Your Financial Life
Ok, so this was a very long introduction.
Suffice to say, I was thinking about fear and risk in terms of violence, and then I thought about fear and risk in terms of money. A lot of the fears that people have regarding money (the stock market or economy crashes, your job is outsourced, you’ll never advance in your career) are low-probability, but hey, they happen.
What’s worse though is the actions that people take to respond to these fears (i.e. staying out of the stock market, picking “safe” jobs, spending hundreds of thousands on grad school) are putting them in much more dangerous places. Yes, the stock market might crash but what will definitely happen is that inflation will swallow up your savings. Yes, maybe your job won’t be outsourced but instead, you definitely hate every day of work. Maybe you will stall out at a certain level in your career without a graduate degree but you will definitely have to deal with hundreds of dollars of debt to advance just a little bit further in your career.
Don’t Let Money Fears Control Your Life
There’s nothing wrong with fear. Fear can be a good messenger reminding us to be extra careful. But we should hear our fear and respond to it intelligently. Just because our lizard brain is programmed to say “Be afraid!” doesn’t mean you have to keep listening to your lizard brain when it says “Never go out at night! Sell all your stocks! Become a lawyer!”
Constantly being afraid, is a bad game plan. Stress makes us make bad decisions. Instead, we should be using our modern brains to come up with the best long-term plan even if it makes us a little afraid in the short-term. I’m not saying you can’t be afraid, or that you can get rid of your fears. Fear is a part of life, but you shouldn’t let your fear dictate, and thus ruin, your life.
In the end, it’s all about balancing your risk tolerance and your fears with what you want out of life. If you don’t lean heavily towards focusing on your own life, you could be consumed by your fears. I’m a pretty risk averse person but I’m trying to be more free. I think what we all really want, what we are all searching for, is freedom from fear. Imagine what you could do with your life if you weren’t always gigantically afraid!
What Could You Do with Your Money/Life if You Weren’t Gigantically Afraid?
There’s fear in everything. Nothing is certain. In my mind, it makes the most sense to move forward with what you want to do. It would be the worst of all worlds to not go after your dreams and still be afraid in the process. You’re going to be afraid anyway whether you pursue the gold medal or never try out for the Olympics. Why not at least try?
I remember a story I read in Carol Dweck’s Mindset where a man acknowledges that he had spent his whole life worried that something terrible would happen to his family. Then his family died in a car accident and he realized that the lifetime of worrying hadn’t helped prepare him for the event one iota. Instead, the fear robbed him of fully appreciating the joyful times that he had spent with his family.
I think about this story when people tell me I should be afraid.
In an article about an upcoming movie featuring gun-toting women with STEM degrees, the characters were described as “badass bitches.” I thought, if these women were baby-toting women with sociology degrees – would they also be called badass bitches?
The main difference is that the first group of women are breaking the stereotypes of what it means to be a woman. And while that’s unique, it doesn’t make those choices better or worse than the choices to engage in more traditionally feminine activities.
Women in male-dominated fields are not better.
It makes me sad when women doing traditionally male activities are exalted. And this isn’t jealousy from me not getting enough attention. I work in a field dominated by men. I love watching football and I love biking, traditionally male activities. I also wear dresses nearly every day, love to cook and entertain and love my nephews. I don’t think my stereotypically male activities make me better, cooler or more valuable than the stereotypically female activities. That would be denigrating things that a lot of women like and, in turn, denigrating women.
The point of getting women into certain male-dominated jobs isn’t because these jobs are better – it’s because they pay more. Of course, we now know that women face a boys’ club and sexual harassment and all sorts of other problems when competing for these positions.
We also know that if women start to take over a male dominated field, the pay collapses. It seems like women are being sold a house of cards. Work really hard in this career so you’ll get paid more, but it’ll be a difficult job where you’ll likely face a lot of sexism and harassment. When the sexism and harassment tide turns and it starts becoming easier for women to enter the field, the pay will drop.
It doesn’t make sense for women to chase male-dominated jobs. It reinforces the idea that male jobs are better, but the only reason we think they’re better is because they pay more and the only reason they pay more is because they’re male-dominated. Maybe you help a few women for a short term earn higher pay, but it would be far more fruitful in the long-term for people to respect typically female jobs.
Of course we should all support women who want to go into male-dominated fields if that’s what interests them. But it’s not inherently better for women to be in male-dominated fields.
Women in female-dominated fields are not better.
I’ve heard some women (annoying women I may add) stress that motherhood is the most important job anyone can have. Ok fine. You are entitled to your thoughts, annoying woman.
The problems with this belief are at least threefold. It’s other-ing to women who cannot or don’t want to have children or who are single. It’s other-ing to women who put their career first. It’s shaming for women who have to work and who have to hire outside help for raising their children.
There’s nothing wrong with not having children. I don’t have children and I’m fine. I know a lot of women who have fertility issues. Obviously women without children are not any less worthy of being mothers. They are excellent aunts and sisters and daughters. We need all of these roles. Being a mom isn’t the job that everyone can have or wants.
My mom stayed home for a few years when we were young but when she went back to work, her salary went to pay for our nanny. At no time did I think I was neglected by my mother or my father because I had a nanny. My parents still raised us. I will fight to the death anyone who would shame another mother for having a nanny or for having help in raising their kids.
My sister is a stay-at-home mom. That’s fine too. I will also fight to the death anyone who says that her staying at home is easy or useless. These are all perfectly good choices.
Sometimes I worry that feminism spends too much time exalting one group of women’s choices over another’s and that’s not what feminism should be about – it should be about helping every woman and man make the choices that are right for themselves. Let’s stop saying more women should do STEM or stay home or whatever. More women should be able to do whatever they want without judgment from others.
Don’t you hate it when you share something with a friend and instead of mindlessly complimenting it, and you, by extension, they offer completely valid criticism?
Me too. Please keep mindlessly complimenting this blog. Thank you very much. =D
So anyway, I was a little gaga over The Minimalists’ documentary, which I told my friend about. He texts back: “Lol I’m watching it. It’s funny.”
Um, it’s not funny. It’s deeply moving and profound, I say. So he says:
All these guys are doing is chasing happiness from a different angle.
I was initially taken aback because this wasn’t a clear compliment regarding either me or the film. But after my initial shock and irrational anger subsided, I realized that he wasn’t wrong (ugh! friends who aren’t wrong!). Though The Minimalists’ minimalism was a rejection of consumer culture, there isn’t as much difference between minimalism and consumerism as I had initially thought. Whereas consumerists may compete over who has the most or the nicest stuff, minimalists can compete over who has the least stuff.
And both of these competitions are, let’s face it, kinda stupid.
Defining yourself by how much stuff you own is weird (“Hello, my name is Lisa and I own 500 things”); equally weird is defining yourself by your lack of stuff (“Hello, my name is Lisa and I don’t own 500 things”). One person has a lightly packed backpack and the other has three overstuffed suitcases, but the kinds of things they pack are similar. If both people enjoy their respective luggage and both get to the same destination, then who’s to say one way is better than the other?
I think a similar line of thought applies to people who define themselves as “frugal.”
Dictionary.com defines being “frugal” as “not wasteful.” But “wasteful” is a subjective term. I see articles by bloggers bragging about their uber-frugal lifestyles and dismissing unnamed others for their perceived extravagance. Spending on designer clothing, going out for drinks with coworkers, having a nice house – these are seen as anti-frugal. Meanwhile, “frugal” people apparently shop at used clothing stores, avoid get-togethers that cost money and flaunt the modesty of their homes – so they can retire and travel the world. If that’s the only way to be frugal, then I’m not interested – because I love get-togethers, and I’m Asian, so you know there’ll definitely be food. =D
The purported difference between minimalists and consumerists is that minimalists think having nice stuff is wasteful, but spending money on experiences is not. But you’re not saving money choosing one route over the other – you’re just making different choices with the money you have. And I am uncertain why one set of choices is less “wasteful” than the other. If I save money on travel in order to have a nice house that I get to enjoy with my family and friends everyday, why is that not considered frugality?
There was an article awhile back on Iwillteachyoutoberich that reasoned that spending a lot doesn’t necessarily mean one is wasteful if the amount spent is conscious. One shouldn’t assume that spending on what others may perceive as frivolous is unwise if it’s meaningful to the person who spends it. And MixedUpMoney once proclaimed: we are all frugal.
I believe everyone is frugal (sorry I stole your idea MixedUpMoney!). I’ve never met a person who tries to be wasteful – who tries to pay more and get less, who finds loopholes to pay MORE in taxes, who trashes perfectly good stuff because they like the feel of plastic clogging the Earth’s landfills. Everyone tries to use their dollar to get the maximum good. After all, there are 83 million hits for “how to save money” on Google because everyone is looking for ways to save money and there are approximately 83 million different ways to be frugal.
Everyone is frugal. They just might not be frugal in your eyes, according to your values and judgments. Everyone is trying to obtain the right amount of “stuff” so that they can achieve their goals – but their number of items will be higher or lower than yours. It makes us all look stupid (and sad) if we are trying to out-frugal each other.
The idea of “frugal” v. “unfrugal,” minimalists v. stuff-ists, makes it seem like we have fundamentally different values than people who define themselves differently. Some may negotiate a deal on a luxury car, some may buy a cheaper model, some may lease and some may go car-free. You may have your biases about which one of these is the “frugal” option, but in the end, isn’t the type of car you drive less important than where you’re going?
Minimalism and frugality aren’t the destinations – they’re just different cars we drive as we figure out where we’re going.
In the new year, in a very divided country, we don’t need more reasons to be divisive. Of course, tips for saving money are always good and can be helpful. But there is no reason to put down some people’s choices or elevate others’. Personal finance is above all else, “personal.” We are all striving for the same things – happiness, security, love, meaning. Our decisions are different, our values are different, our stuff is different, but overall, we are very similar, more similar than we care to remember most of the time. To quote one of my favorite poems by Maya Angelou:
I note the obvious differences
between each sort and type,
but we are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.
We are more alike than we are unalike.
Faith, freedom, finances, even failure, and other F-words are useful from time to time. But I’m done with “frugal.” “Frugal” is used as a term to judge one set of personal finance choices as better or worse than others. I’d rather err on everyone having the freedom (best F-word) to finesse their finances to fit their own life. And we can all just fire (another good F-word) each other up along the way.
Wishing you all the happiness, security and love, stuff or no stuff, in the flipping fantastic new year.
I did something I thought I’d never do – which is brave Bath and Body Works during the holidays. The place is crazy. But they were having a(n equally) crazy candle sale and I will admit to being basic enough that I got quite excited.
After buying three candles, my mother realized that I had gotten a $10 off $30 coupon that I could use that day. She suggested, because I had spent $27 on candles already, that I return the candles and repurchase them and something else to use the coupon. Thus I would get all three candles plus something else, for less than what I had paid for just the three candles.
My first thought was that I didn’t want to do that because it seemed like a hassle. Additionally, it just seemed unethical. I wouldn’t have received the coupon if I hadn’t made the first purchase. That was not how the coupon was intended to be used. If it were, they would have given the coupon before the purchase.
Some people would say, Bath and Body Works is a big corporation and makes a ton of money, so it’s not the same as cheating a smaller company. But my ethics have nothing to do with who I’m dealing with and everything to do with how I conduct myself. If I treat nice people well and “bad” people poorly, that’s not so much a system of ethics so much as the path of least resistance. I don’t want to violate my own code of ethics for $10 or any amount of money.
I saw a personal finance blogger mention cheating a “bad” company by intentionally buying things to qualify for free shipping that he planned to return immediately. It’s not necessarily immoral, but the blogger had specifically justified his actions because the company was bad, and not because he thought his actions were ethical. It makes me wonder, who else will he try to cheat? Where are the boundaries to what he will do to save money? If he’s going to cheat for a small amount of money, what would he do with a large amount of money?
Personal finance is about money but it’s more than that. It’s about what you will do, how you will live, who you will become, in relation to how you treat your money. You become a certain kind of person when you treat money as your biggest goal, your idol. I never want to be the kind of person who does that. I will pay the money to live by my own code of ethics. I would rather have no candles at all.
Saving money is important, but there should be principles that are more important. What boundaries will you not cross to save money?
There was a famous antidrug PSA during the 1980s that showed a rat alone in a cage with two water bottles. One bottle was filled with pure water and the other was laced with cocaine. Unsurprisingly, the rat became addicted to the cocaine water. The ad ominously warned: “Nine out of ten laboratory rats will use it . . . and use it . . . and use it . . . until they are dead.”
But here’s the catch: These tests were done in isolation. Each rat was by itself, alone in a cage for a prolonged period of time. The experiment was repeated a second time, but the rats were now living together. This time, the rats mostly ignored the cocaine water. They didn’t like it, and no rats died.
Community and togetherness, it turns out, can often overpower the most self-destructive threats. Like many people, these rats were less interested in getting high than in escaping a profound sense of loneliness.
–Andrea Miller, Radical Acceptance
How many of our financial woes are due to an interest in escaping loneliness? Do you think a sense of community might help you spend less?
I had lunch at Popeye’s – 3 piece platter with 2 sides and a biscuit. I had one of those sugarbomb Starbucks Holiday drinks the other day. I also ate a cinnamon bun. I’ve been known to eat whole huge desserts without sharing. I’ve never counted calories and I hate dieting.
I hate salads.
Judging from what I just wrote, it would seem that I’m overweight and pretty gross. Well, maybe the latter but not the former.
How do I do this? Well, what I’ve listed above are all aberrations to my diet. 90% of my meals are home cooked. I limit my intake of caffeine, snacks, processed and deep fried foods. I also have a very calorie-restricted diet. So when I eat my decadent meal, it’s really an outlier to my normal lifestyle.
I look the way I do because of my normal lifestyle – not because of my outlier.
I think most people in America eat some sort of quasi-healthy dish most of the time and then they splurge. A quasi-healthy dish is like a store-bought salad, but as the Internet is quick to point out, restaurant salads aren’t necessarily healthy. So they feel all of the restriction but get none of the benefits. If they splurge, and the button pops off their pants, maybe the splurge was the tipping point, but it’s the everyday lifestyle that got them to the tipping point all along.
So people may see me eating unhealthily in one instance and think, “she must have really good genes. There’s no way I could do that.” But they’re seeing a snapshot. They have no idea what the whole story is.