Staying connected to other humans is a necessity. This is especially so for a working single mom with a taste for the blues. Yet the rules of the Financial Fast forbid dining out and spending money on entertainment.
Catching up with folks for free is harder than it seems. After dispensing with restaurants, shows, coffee shops, bars, karaoke, ice rinks, shopping, and all the other cold-weather activities out there, what’s left? Three weeks of January without seeing loved ones = emotional suicide (I tell myself). When schedules are tight and the nights are long, grabbing a bite out seems like the only option (I tell myself).
Is it any wonder so many Americans are looking up from the bottom of the financial pit, wondering how the hell to climb out? It’s sometimes the case that a person’s money struggles come on the heels of a single seismic life event. Most folks, however, work their way there one small seemingly inconsequential decision at a time. It’s possible to rationalize any expense, no matter how big, no matter how frivolous. Wants morph into needs, and the same old habits keep playing out.
The point of this fast is to figure out ways to stick to the rules, not ways to sneak around them. For those of us living close to the bone, the tradeoff between money and time is as near even as you can get. Make your own bread from scratch, and you’ll save about as much money as you could earn with the time spent elsewhere. Take on a little extra work, and the money ends up paying for the additional gas and childcare. It all comes out in the wash. How can a person really tend to these necessities on limited means — both financial and otherwise?
These 21 days lean towards the Save Money/Spend Time side of the equation. This is why it’s important to consider a broader definition of “spending habits.” A few extra minutes making lunch for work is important, but where else might resourcefulness and creativity be useful? After all, we all have certain essential activities that keep us thrumming. It may be dancing or sports, learning or art, travel or food — whatever it is, chances are, doing it the familiar way is too expensive. The problem is that self-discipline smacks of self-denial. When limits become suffocating, either the old ways return or the person inside wilts.
There has to be a third way.
For our little family, I believe there is. Inside this labyrinthine universe of Us, maintaining relationships is as essential as exercise, work, and a good night’s sleep. That said, our schedules stretch us so thin, friends feel like another “thing to do,” which is exactly why we have to keep them in the front of our minds. Community feeds us. We have to feed it in turn.
This weekend, we let the Financial Fast force ingenuity and forethought. Instead of going out on Saturday night, we extended a dinner invitation to my folks and a few family friends. We spent the day cleaning and making our little condo fancy with the baubles on hand. The meal was bare bones — dull, in fact — but no one seemed to care. My mother contributed pie and appetizers, and another guest brought a salad. Bug was crazy proud to host. All day and evening, he pitched it. As guests arrived, he donned an apron and took drink orders. Our little group was a warm light in the dead of winter.
It was work and it was exhausting, but also, it was so very simple.
And we managed it all on the grocery budget.
If not for the fast, we probably would have just gone to a movie. Or I might have plopped Bug in front of a DVD while I focused on one of the countless unfinished projects from work. Instead, Bug and I worked together to welcome friends into our home. We planned a menu, decorated, baked and tidied, and shared time with the people we care about. Here we are the next morning with a beautifully organized space, feeling connected and happy.
Maybe the trick is to take the long view. We have to dare to imagine the composition — career, home, relationships, art, and overall well-being — we most want for ourselves and our families. The question then becomes: What can we cultivate here and now with what we have on hand?
For these weeks as in the year ahead, a Saturday night can be exercise in frugality, but it doesn’t have to just be that. It can also be an opportunity for creativity and celebration, and a chance to build towards a life both balanced and vibrant.