On Spending Less, Earning More

Sunday, June 14, 2015

I’ve been thinking lately about Ignatius J. Reilly, the generally repulsive yet oddly compelling protagonist of John Kennedy Toole’s great comic novel A Confederacy of Dunces.

I thought of him often over the winter, because one of the pairs of pants that I ended up wearing a lot was this pair of brown “loose fit” Gap cordurouys that had wide legs and very large, deep pockets. The word that came to mind when I put them on was “capacious.” I kept thinking of the introductory description of Ignatius on the first page of the book, when he’s waiting for his mother at the D.H. Holmes department store — “The voluminous tweed trousers were durable and permitted unusually free locomotion. Their pleats and nooks contained pockets of warm, stale air that soothed Ignatius.”

That’s what I felt like when I wore those pants. Soothing pleats and nooks, with unusually free locomotion.

Lately I’ve been thinking about Ignatius when it comes to reading things on the internet.

I think I may have mentioned previously that I don’t make a habit of reading good, useful information on the internet. Instead I tend to latch on to some thing that annoys me, something I read and pull my hair out and say, “Gaah!!! No! What are you thinking?!?!”

Like Ignatius, who liked to go to the movies so he could throw popcorn at the screen and complain loudly about everything that offended him about modern life (which was most everything). That is me.

I’ve realized that I don’t like reading blogs by people who have everything figured out — “here, look at how great my life is, look at how smart and successful I am.” Those feel boring and pointless to me.

I like a little bit of angst in my blogs. But it’s hard to find the right amount of angst — a little bit can feel real and useful but too much quickly becomes tiresome. But sometimes I’ll find one with just the right amount and it flips me into hate-reading mode. Which then sucks me down a rabbit hole of guilty pleasure. It’s like reading Valley of the Dolls, it’s so bad I can’t put it down.

And I’d gone months and months without any internet obsessions at all but I recently came across an intriguing lifestyle/personal finance blog that I’ve been reading and pulling my hair out over and which has helped crystallize some of my thoughts about personal finance and happiness and life in general.

(And note that I’m leaving off the object of my hate-reading, because it doesn’t seem nice to tell the internet that you hate-read someone who is trying to write a serious blog. So here I’ll just talk about what I’ve learned.)

The PF blogging world has basically two camps in their approach to advising people how to get ahead: those who focus on spending less and those who focus on earning more. Of course most bloggers acknowledge that both strategies play a role, but usually they come down on the side of one or the other as being more important.

The people who focus on earning more tend to be dismissive of the people who focus on spending less — they think you just can’t make very much progress by cutting back on spending, there’s just not enough to work with, and it’s silly to put energy into saving small amounts of money here and there. They think the only way to really get ahead is to make more money.

And on some level, I agree with that — if your income is very low or if your fixed expenses are very high, your options can be constrained.

On the other hand, people usually have more control over how they spend their money than they do over how they make it. So in that sense focusing on spending less can be better because it’s something you can do right now, that doesn’t depend on the actions of people over whom you have no control.

But until getting sucked into reading this blog, written by someone who managed to save over $300,000 in less than 10 years, starting with around $10K and a starting salary of $25K, I hadn’t really thought through the fact that there’s another important difference between getting ahead by making more or getting ahead by spending less.

I’ve realized in reading about someone who has been very successful in achieving financial goals by making more money that there is a huge nonfinancial element to focusing on spending.

If you follow the Your Money or Your Life model and reduce expenditures by tracking and analyzing your spending, you are by way of this process clarifying your values — you are thinking about what you care about, and whether or not the money you spend is being used to support things you care about. You reduce spending on the things you don’t care about and you end up spending much less without any decrease in your overall quality of life.

The process helps you figure out what you actually need and allows you to be happy on much less than you ever could have imagined, and much less than most people spend. It’s like you enter a parallel universe where you always have enough. It’s magical.

If instead you focus on making more, you’re not able to figure out how much is “enough” because you’re not really thinking about that, you can always use more, and more is always better. So there’s no end. (Or maybe you do think about what’s enough but it’s a really huge number — $10 million or something like that.)

Also focusing on making more requires you to keep on keeping on in the economic stew of modern life — as my friend Ann likes to say, you have to stay in the puddin’.

You have to constantly be networking, working on job skills, dealing with bosses and clients. You need to move up the ladder in your office, or find a new job, or take on side gigs.

You need to hustle.

There’s nothing wrong with that, and certainly that approach is the best way to increase your income. But it’s not necessarily the best way to improve your quality of life.

No matter how much money you make or save or spend — or don’t make or save or spend — at some point you have to figure out what makes you happy. The process of making more money generally does not help you figure this out. So you can make a lot more money than you used to while being no happier at all.

I feel like the YMOYL approach almost has an element of therapy to it.

It’s very structured — track what you spend, think about it, figure out how to spend less; track what you save, think about it, figure out how to make more. By focusing on these specific things, you are figuring out what you need and what you don’t need.

By needing less, you are able to let go of things, and in doing that, you gain freedom.

People in your life can’t control you with strings-attached gifts. Employers don’t have the same leverage because you can walk away at any time. Your life overall is less stressful if what you need to be happy is easily within your capacity to generate — if what you need to be happy is as much as you can possibly make by working as hard as you can all the time, you are always going to be behind the eight ball. Your life will always be stressful.

Making more money involves thinking about other people — bosses, clients, customers. Spending less money involves thinking about you (and possibly the people directly connected to you — spouse, children, other relatives).

Spending less allows you to disengage from many things that can cause anxiety — it lets you stop worrying about how what you are buying compares to what other people are buying, or what it says about you or what other people think about you. (Worrying about what other people think about you seems to be a major source of anxiety for many people.)

I truly believe that focusing on what you care about, what you want, what you value, can help get you out of that mindset. It can help free you.

Spending less gets you to this place where you are in control of your life, and where your world feels manageable.

It is the key to happiness.

Or one of them, at least.

(And while on the subject of being happy, I read The Happiness Project while on my trip and I may write about that at some point. I liked it.)

Go forth and be happy. And stay cool if you can.

Writer’s Block

Monday, May 25, 2015

SoundHorn_sm2

Wait, what should I do here?

 

Well I survived my year-long provisional existence, where every day lasted a month and the year was over in two weeks.

I had a nice visit with some new friends at the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Lane County Oregon, and got to spend a few days wandering around Portland.

All good.

And I had on my list of things to do before leaving “write blog post” but it didn’t happen, so that is still on the list.

And now I’m back but I have NOTHING TO SAY.

But in a desperate attempt to get this crossed off my list, I’m writing anyway.

My parents came to visit for my graduation, my mom said that it had been a while since I’d given them a new recipe. She said I was due. I said, “Hmm… I don’t have any new recipes because I haven’t cooked anything.”

I said here’s my recipe for the year: you can get a McChicken sandwich and a yogurt parfait for two dollars at McDonald’s. Cheapest meal around. You can’t even get food at a convenience store for that.

She was nonplussed by this bit of wisdom. Nor has anyone else I’ve shared it with been much impressed.

Go figure.

Nonetheless, I stand by it. This works especially well when you leave your house at 7:15 a.m. and return at 9 p.m. (or later) every day. There is a McDonald’s every half-mile in this country, and if you have two dollars ($2.15 if you’re in Durham, sales tax is 7.5%), you can stop thinking about what you might or could or should eat and just go get a chicken sandwich and yogurt parfait and be done with it. And no dishes either.

Problem solved.

The last new recipe I gave my parents was Marion Cunningham’s version of mahogany chicken. It meets all of my key recipe criteria: easy, cheap, good. And it makes good leftovers, all that yummy sauce. And if I ever manage to get back to cooking actual meals again, it will be one of the first things I make.

(For the record, I have moved past the McChicken sandwiches and on to scrambled eggs, but that’s as far as I’ve gotten. One step at a time.)

So this post won’t help my mom, she already has this recipe, but maybe someone else will like it.

Mahogany Chicken Legs with Fresh Ginger
from The Supper Book by Marion Cunningham

4 Tbsp peanut oil
8 chicken thighs and legs
1/3 cup peeled and sliced (1/4 inch thick) fresh ginger
1/3 cup soy sauce
1/3 cup sherry
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup sliced scallions [optional]
1/2 cup whole cilantro leaves [optional]
4 cups steamed long-grain white rice

Put the peanut oil in a deep skillet over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the chicken pieces, skin side down, and the ginger slices. Brown the chicken for 10 minutes, then turn over and brown for 5 more minutes. (It is important to use a deep skillet because the chicken tends to spatter while browning.) Reduce the heat if necessary to keep the chicken and ginger from burning. If the ginger slices brown too quickly, remove them to a paper towel and put them back in the skillet when you add the soy mixture.

Mix together the soy sauce, sherry, and sugar. Pour the soy mixture over the chicken, cover, and cook for about 2 minutes. Transfer to a serving dish and garnish with the scallions and cilantro leaves. Serve immediately with the rice.

The Provisional Existence

Thursday, April 23, 2015

“The unemployed worker, for example, is in a similar position. His existence has become provisional and in a certain sense he cannot live for the future or aim at a goal. Research work done on unemployed miners has shown that they suffer from a peculiar sort of deformed time — inner time — which is a result of their unemployed state. Prisoners, too, suffered from this strange “time-experience.” In camp, a small time unit, a day, for example, filled with hourly tortures and fatigue, appeared endless. A larger time unit, perhaps a week, seemed to pass very quickly. My comrades agreed when I said that in camp a day lasted longer than a week.”
Viktor E. Frankel, Man’s Search for Meaning

On Jobs

Thursday, March 26, 2015

I grew up reading the newspaper — and I am old enough to remember a time when there was not one but two newspapers a day, one delivered in the morning and one in the afternoon — and the printed newspaper remains my preferred source of news.

As far as I’m concerned, the printed newspaper is a superior product.

It shows up on your doorstep every day. It doesn’t have pop-up ads. It doesn’t keep track of which articles you read. It doesn’t require electricity. You can let it sit for three days and when you finally get around to it, you can see what you missed, the news it presents will still be the same.

And it also has additional uses as a physical product — you can use it as a packing material or worm bin bedding or to start a fire in your woodstove.

But the main reasons I like it are because (a) it is finite and (b) someone else has done the work of deciding what to include.

So that means I can review and read what interests me and skim the rest and be done. I’m not in danger of getting sucked into clicking on the next thing the next thing the next thing. I just read what’s there. And then I read the comics. And then I put it in the recycle bin.

Done.

Another benefit is that sometimes you come across things that you probably would not have seen if someone hadn’t put them in the newspaper for you.

In 2012, I was reading the paper and came across an article about a woman who had gone missing three years earlier and whose husband was trying to find her, or to find out any information about her disappearance. It was kind of a weird story.

The article reported that the husband said that his wife’s “preferred occupation is stripping.”

“She used to say she could drink, get her exercise in and work all at the same time,” he said. “She thought it was a very efficient use of her time.”

And I don’t know what it was about that, the story overall was strange and sad, but I just thought that quote was so funny.

I told my friend Ann about it and we have been laughing about it ever since. We’re like okay what is your stripper job — the thing you get paid for that also accomplishes other goals at the same time. It’s like the holy grail of job seeking.

The Stripper Job.

And there’s really no point to this post other than to send the idea of the stripper job out into the world, and to get the thankfully outdated snow picture off the top of the page.

Hope all is well with everyone in readerland.

School done in 34 days.

Snow Day

Thursday, February 26, 2015

SnowHats_all

Coneflowers wearing their snow hats

I don’t think this picture does justice to how amazing those coneflowers look with four inches of snow piled straight up on top them, like little men with stovepipe hats.

Buses not running, classes cancelled, exam postponed.

Julia in the Mail!

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

celebritychefs

So I’m at the post office a week or two ago to mail some things and pick up some stamps. Hearts and flowers are okay but usually they have better options too. I like to see what they have that’s interesting. I’m checking the board where they put up which stamps they have on hand, mostly seeing things that didn’t do much for me — Charton Heston, Wilt Chamberlain, Battle of New Orleans.

But then what catches the corner of my eye but Julia Child!

It’s the Celebrity Chef series!

Of course I had to get that.

I’m not so keen on the picture, though. I wish they had taken one from the early French Chef days, maybe the mallet-wielding one that’s on the cover of The French Chef cook book.

Très formidable.

She looks a bit bloated in this picture. I bet it wasn’t one of her favorites.

And the celebrity chefs stamp series reminded me of a story from 15 (or more) years ago, when I got a card in the mail from my friend Molly, and the stamp on it was Emily Post. And I’m like what in the world…? What stamp series is this? Advice mavens?

So I send a quick email and thank Molly for the card and ask about the stamp and she says that is so funny that I noticed that because she and her husband had just been having a conversation about how neurotic she was about stamps and how she refused to use boring flag stamps and Ari was like why do you bother with this, no one is going to notice anyway. And then like three hours later I emailed and asked about the stamp.

I responded, “Of course I would notice an Emily Post stamp. I was wondering if maybe it was the ‘Etiquette Series’ and I was going to run right out and get a few Miss Manners stamps, or possibly the ‘Advice Mavens Series’ where I could expect — in addition to Emily Post — Ann Landers, Heloise, Beth (from Ask Beth) and all my other newspaper friends.”

She said it was from a series on the 1920s, and she was holding onto the stock market crash stamp trying to decide who deserved that one.

I said I was a bit disappointed, but maybe the USPS just hadn’t thought of the Advice Mavens series yet.

And on that note, I will leave you with a great live version of this classic from John Prine

with these words to live by:

Unhappy, unhappy you have no complaint,
You are what you are and you ain’t what you ain’t.
So listen up buster and listen up good,
stop wishin’ for bad luck and knockin’ on wood.

Swap-O-Rama!

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

This post is for the NC locals (Durham, Raleigh, Chapel Hill and environs). Everyone else can just be jealous.

The Scrap Exchange is hosting a Swap-O-Rama Rama community clothing swap on Saturday, January 31 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Full details on what a Scrap Exchange Swap-O-Rama looks like can be found in a blog post I wrote for the Scrap Exchange in 2009.

I also wrote about it here, for Story Number Three in my ten days of Scrap Stories for my 2011 fundraiser.

Best event ever! Come out if you can.

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