The Joy of a Bare Bones Budget

the joy of a bare bones budget

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My friends still talk about the buffet to this day – raw oysters, fresh shrimp, smoked salmon, caviar, fresh carved prime rib. And all sorts of other foods that were delicious (and expensive). Beautiful ambiance.  It was cheaper than what we thought they could charge, but it wasn’t so cheap that we suspected something.

And it was all a bit too much.

When Being Cool Has a Downside

I have this same feeling whenever I do something obviously cool. Like getting free NFL or NHL tickets. Seeing an awesome concert. Going on vacation. Even traveling at all. I used to take the bus to New York, but now I only take the train (economy class). Once, my ex used his points to upgrade us to first class on the Acela and I thought, wow, this is WAY TOO NICE. In the timeless words of Wayne’s World: we are not worthy.

When the experience is way more luxurious than I am used to, I wonder if I’m deserving. I also start to wonder, am I really enjoying this as much as I should? And the weird thing is you feel a little guilty. Like here’s this amazing experience and you don’t know if you’re getting enough out of it. That guilt takes away part of the joy.

I imagine it’s the same if you had a perfect life. If you have the great job, the perfect spouse, adorable children, and beautiful house. I think you’d look around and think, ok this is as good as it gets. Am I enjoying it enough? Am I even happy? And then your perfect life is a little bit less perfect.

The Joy of Being Lame

I grew up in a middle class family of five on the East Coast. That meant that we couldn’t fly somewhere cool every summer. That meant we had some pretty boring vacations, because we would go to where we could drive. I mean Kitty Hawk, NC, Pigeon Forge, TN, Dayton, OH. Yep, we went to Dayton, Ohio on vacation and we don’t have any relatives there. My parents thought it would be nice to visit. (We also drove by Gary, Indiana, but we didn’t stick around.)

There’s nothing wrong with these places. (I grew up in a small town in New Jersey – I don’t judge). But they’re nothing to brag about.

I never disliked these vacations though. In fact, I look back at them fondly. Because the experience is so uncool, it takes the pressure off. Your expectations are so low that even when you’re mildly amused, it’s like a jet rocket of happiness. And if you’re disappointed, that’s ok too. When your circumstances are less than perfect, you are finally free to feel however you are meant to feel. You can complain a little sure. You can make fun of yourself and your ridiculous family vacations to Pigeon Forge.

You can also enjoy it.

And the best part of enjoying the weird, bizarre-o vacations is that you know that if you can enjoy yourself in the simplest of situations, you can enjoy yourself anywhere. The awesome place or the exhilirating situation becomes less a focus. You can focus on yourself or on family or friends. You don’t have the pressure to be having the best Instagrammable life ever. It’s nice to realize that your life is too lame to be on social media. Then your life becomes private and precious.

The Joy of a Bare Bones Budget

I like to practice this idea of, well I guess I could call it “being lame,” but also having a “bare bones” lifestyle. I don’t have a problem with lifestyle inflation – I spend roughly on par with my lifestyle from 13 years ago, when I made a fifth of what I do now. But even so, sometimes it still all seems excessive. Sometimes I still wonder if I’m enjoying this enough. I realize all the blessings I have – good food and drink, nice vacations – and I want to ensure that I can still be grateful without any of these things.

The beauty of a bare bones budget is that you don’t have to pretend that everything is great. You can live a not-so-great lifestyle, and somehow it’s still amazing and wonderful. Because you’re alive and you’re appreciative and you realize that all the luxuries and excess are fun – but they’re not what your life is about.

What this means is that sometimes I’ll have beans and rice (but if you season it well, it’s delicious). I’ll have ramen (actually I love ramen, so this is more of a treat). Wander around my city on a staycation. Spend the day organizing my apartment. Attend free events around my area (super easy to do in DC). I’ll use what I have. If you can derive joy and a feeling of wealth from free lame things, that’s real joy. And that’s real savings.

Conclusion

It’s fitting that I’m posting this at the end of Ramadan. I think the tradition of fasting for a month is so beautiful – as a reminder of those who do without. The joy of a bare bones budget is that you realize that you can appreciate what you have. The joy comes from knowing that you wouldn’t be any happier with more. The joy is that you can be happy with less. And the best part is that you know you have the freedom to choose if you’re happy or not – and you choose yes.

I Haven’t Bought Groceries This Year, but I Have Plenty to Eat

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While most people are resolving to spend their Januarys getting out and being more active, I have resolved to stay in as much as possible. I like to start my year by having a No-Buy January, including groceries. The last time I went shopping was December 30. To be fair, I did do a fair amount of shopping at the end of December. I spent $70 from Dec. 29-30 but most of that stuff was used for a party I threw. To be fairer, it’s only mid-January so I’ve only gone two weeks without going to the grocery store. This is my third week.

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Make These 5 Easy Items from Scratch to Save Mega Money

The philosophy that saves me the most in my grocery budget is to shop less. It saves money, but more importantly, it saves time.

If you buy processed, pre-made products, once you’ve finished them, you’re out of food. If you buy raw ingredients like flour, yeast, sugar, butter and salt, you can continue to make meals for weeks. For instance, if you want a nice loaf of bread, that can cost you $4 at the store. Once you’re done with that loaf, you have no more food. But if you buy $4 in flour and $4 in yeast, you can make 6 loaves of bread (and if you store the yeast in the freezer, you will never run out). In addition to the obvious cost savings, rather than making six grocery store runs, you only need to make one.

I’ve only picked items that are really easy and cheap to make. They require few ingredients, very little time, and no advanced techniques. The only equipment required is a blender, a slow cooker or a mixer. It’s easier to use a stand mixer for some of them – but they can all be made without one.

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Seven Strategies to Kill Your Excuses for Not Cooking at Home

It’s funny how New Year’s falls during one of the coldest and darkest parts of the year. How can you start exercising when it’s so cold and dark all you really want to do is curl up under your blankets in bed? But one resolution that does make more sense to start when it’s cold and dark is to cook at home more often because it means you get to stay at home when it’s cold! For instance, last week, the cold was so bone-chilling that I wanted to cancel my dinner plans at this hip new restaurant so I could go straight home and eat hot soup under a blanket.

But cooking at home seems like a lot of work, right? Not so. Use these tips to make cooking at home as easy or easier than ordering out .

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A Controversial Way To Save Money on Groceries

controversial way to save money on groceries

Back in the heyday of my student loan pay off blitz, I would sometimes, as people do, forget my lunch at home. Or forget to make one. Now, a periodic $10 is not a big deal when you’re paying off tens of thousands, right? Right. Logical. But the hunger and the deprivation were making me illogical. On many of those days, I skipped lunch. I was cutting back on everything, and I didn’t want stupid mistakes to derail me.

Since that time, I have reversed course into thinking, yeah a $10 lunch here or there will delay your loan payoff by a literal minute, if that. Health is more important.

Now I still believe health is more important than money but I may be revisiting the idea that skipping meals is a bad thing.

A New Diet Plan

What I had found when skipping lunch was that it was unbearable to work for about an hour.  After the pangs stopped, I wasn’t hungry.  I didn’t eat a giant dinner to compensate. I wasn’t irritable. The only effect was that I felt guilty for skipping a meal and treating my health so flippantly.

After reading about intermittent fasting in a few publications, I decided to take the plunge.  I’m starting a diet whereby I only eat one meal a day, typically dinner. 

I’m sure this sounds disordered. But there have seen some studies that show that intermittent fasting might actually lead people to live longer. And General Stanley McChrystal eats only one meal a day. He has a much more demanding exercise regiment and a much more stressful job than I do. Here’s a man who needs more calories and likely does not have an eating disorder. If he can survive, then surely I can too.

There doesn’t seem to make any rhyme or reason why we eat three meals in a day. Looking at our primitive ancestors, they ate whenever they could. They didn’t have set meals. If given an abundance of food, it would still make sense to eat only when hungry, rather than by habit.

I’m not going to starve, darlings.

No one dies from starvation from having one meal a day. Or at least, one big meal a day. And I can foresee a lot of benefits.

Benefit #1: It relieves stress

After we stopped that whole hunting and foraging for food thing, you would think procuring and planning meals would be a breeze now. When I think about planning 21 meals for myself, it seems like a lot to wrap my head around. Each meal has to be balanced in terms of nutrition and I have to figure out where I’m going to eat it and when I’m going to cook it. Then I actually have to shop for and cook it. By forgoing two meals a day, I can focus all my energies on shopping for, preparing and cleaning up one great meal.

 Benefit #2: Reduced environmental impact

I’ve heard a number of people say that the positive environmental impact would be huge if people would eat one meatless meal a week. Well, by cutting out 2 meals a day, you’re cutting out potentially 10 meaty meals. You get all the environmental impact with none of the work (figuring out vegetarian meals can be hard!). 

Benefit #3: Spartanism can be pleasurable

I’m a bit of a masochist. I’ve run 2 marathons. I never turn on my air conditioning. In the winter, I bike to work so long as it’s above freezing. In the summer, as long as it’s below boiling. I had listened to this podcast entitled “Your Climate Controlled Life is Killing You” and it really spoke to me. I really was getting tired of the comfort. There’s that line in that Goo Goo Dolls Song “You bleed just to know you’re alive” and while that sounds perfectly emo and high school, it does make me feel more alive to suffer a bit.

On my morning bike rides, I’ve learned to enjoy this incredibly empty feeling. It’s not hunger. It’s just ….being. You don’t always have to feel completely full. You don’t even need to feel sated. You can function perfectly fine without thinking about food at all – when there’s no food to be digested and when you’re not desirous of any food. It’s at these times when your mind might actually be clearest.

But honestly, I suffer for maybe 10 minutes when I’m hungry. And then the hunger pangs go away. That’s the only difference between eating one meal a day and three meals a day for me.

Benefit #4: Weight Loss

I’ve had this stubborn belly fat for some time now. From eating one meal a day, my stomach shrank. I lost 10 pounds. I looked better, had more energy. My body wasn’t spending all of its time digesting food. Furthermore, I didn’t have to kill myself going to the gym to burn off excess calories I never should have eaten. Now I understand why they say that losing weight is about changing your diet,not about exercise.

Benefit #5: Hunger Control

I was on a budget cross-country flight with a friend. We left at around 4pm and would arrive around 9pm our time. We didn’t realize that there wouldn’t be any food offered on such a long flight. She had brought some snacks and offered them to me, but I was fine. I had had lunch. She devoured all of them and was ravenous when we arrived. This reminded me that I’m used to taming my hunger by now.

I’ve also learned to appreciate hunger. It’s not a bad feeling. I’m not hangry. I get the feeling that my body is starting to figure out it’s hungry but I’m more than my feelings. I’m in control of the way I respond.

Benefit #6: The Controversial Way I Save Money on Groceries 

And we come to the headline of the post – of course this will save money! While it seems like you would eat all the same calories you would have in one day, just in one meal, I ended up eating a normal sized dinner. Plus I don’t buy snacks or any other foods for breakfast or lunch. I doubt you’ll cut 2/3 of your food budget, particularly since breakfast tends to be a pretty cheap meal. But it’s impossible not to save money. Even if you ate out for dinner every day – say $10 a meal –  you would only spend $70 on food for the week and never have to cook. That’s quite a low number for eating out, and you could get it much lower if you cooked.

You can easily cut half your grocery bill (by cutting 2/3 of your meals). You’ll find that you don’t need to buy very much food. Eventually you’ll cut down on food waste, because you won’t need to buy as much food. You won’t need to go to the grocery store as often, cutting down on spontaneous shopping. You will cut down on gym memberships because you don’t need to burn off as many calories. It becomes a virtuous cycle of saving.

In the end, it’s just an experiment I’m doing to see what works. If I’m hangry and irritable and my hair starts falling out, you best be believing that I’ll stop.

What about you? Have you ever tried intermittent fasting or some other crazy diet?