Choices, Purpose, Things I Can

8. Things I Can Calculate: A Gift to Someday

Three weeks makes the difference. Twenty days of walking past the 7-11 with my own coffee has settled me into a habit of ignoring temptation. The devil and angel are no longer battling it out for my attention and my cash.

To consistently stop (or start) doing something for about a month seems to be what it takes to erase the pesky decision point and establish a new routine. This applies well beyond money. Take the stairs, stop playing brainless games on the phone, speak an affirmation, no sweets after 8pm. It’s not necessary to waste brain space considering the alternative. The new way is just The Way.

In two days, the financial fast ends. The exercise has worked wonders in our little family. Friends came for dinner one weekend and for board games another, giving us an excuse to pretty up our home instead of going out. On our quieter evenings, Bug and I read together and made art. The credit card bill has never been so low.

Tonight, with spending tamed for the time being, I dare to tackle the dreaded late winter chore: installing Turbo Tax.

Yep, this is Friday night in our rock-n-roll household.

At two hours past bedtime, Bug is still playing Minecraft on the couch. Meanwhile, the software whirs on my computer, masticating numbers and spitting out financial data with about as much compassion as a bathroom scale. I sip chamomile tea and brace myself for the blow.

Which turns out to be a sweet nothing.

For this odd, impossible moment, we have a clean bill of health.

The numbers have to spin and calculate two or three more times before I believe them. It doesn’t compute. It’s Tee’s year to name our boy both as a dependent and as a child care expense (tax code is a strange tongue for speaking human worth), so he’ll be absent from my return. This should mean I owe big money. I have to cut a sizable check each alternating year even though my salary is already stretched so thin, you can see the writing on the Goodwill tags.

This year, Turbo Tax tells me we may end up with an actual refund. Ten bucks or so, but still.

Event the slowest learners stumble into awareness eventually, so long as they keep plugging away. Five years into this single-parent deal, and I’m starting to figure a few things out.

Apparently, owning a condo means something other than crippling mortgage payments and neighbors reorganizing their anvils at 1:00 in the morning. It comes as a shock to exactly no one but me that mortgage interest is deductible. Sure, the bank makes off like a mob boss with a bag full of interest each month, but enduring the extortion means a smidgen of year-end relief in the form of a small credit back to moi.

Then we’re looking at the retirement account. This year, my income is higher than it’s ever been in my life (which isn’t saying much). I took on a few teaching gigs and an extra set of tasks at work, negotiating a temporary bump in pay. As December rolled around, I remembered it was Tee’s year to claim our boy, so I sent the paperwork to HR to take my entire salary for two pay periods and dumped it into pre-tax retirement. I came home and gritted my teeth as I wrote out a check with too many zeros and put it my traditional IRA.

This shell game wouldn’t have been possible without the few thousand liquid bucks chilling in my checking account. This is where the financial fast — and frugality in general — makes its mark. Forgo a takeout pizza here, a movie ticket there. . . In my non-child-claiming tax years, the spare change adds up and can land with a little weight in my retirement account. Thrift allows me to stockpile not only the upfront dollars but the deferred cash I would have had to pay in taxes on a higher income.

Sure, these scarily big deposits took a bite out of my checking account. But the pain paid off, quite literally. A lower income figure on my W-2 translated into a tax savings of nearly $2000. That’s a couple thousand bucks I don’t have to hand it over to the IRS. Instead, I stash it under my future self’s mattress. She’s breathing a bit easier now.

She even sends me a thank-you note.

With year-end paperwork all around, I slice open the statements for my personal IRA and my employer’s retirement plan. Another tilting moment finds me re-reading the numbers printed three and then four times. Added together, these accounts hold a measure of security that I hadn’t allowed myself to imagine. Not this year, not ever. My future self grins as I blink and turn it over in my hands.

This number — my number — is one that would make your average 41-year-old professional cringe, especially one with looming college costs and no spouse to share the pain. It’s a modest number at best. Hell, it’s not even a fixed number. 2014 was a good year for the stock market, and we all remember 2007 all too well. I won’t be kicking back anytime soon.

That said, now this:


This lovely, round, many-figured number, planted right at the spot I’d tilled with all my anxiety? It is a marvel. If I retire today, I might be able to live about three years on that little plot. But I don’t have to retire today. The number and I, we have time to expand, to compound.

This number didn’t just fall from the sky. It is a nourished by habits. It is miles of walking instead of driving, months of Friday nights at home making pizza with my son, yards of outdated fashion hanging in my closet. This number is planted in rich soil. It drinks intention. I get to keep feeding it with thrift and care, each watering a small gift to the someday me.

She is watching. She welcomes what grows here.

She is what grows here.

Friends, Home, Things I Can

4. Things I Can Organize: A Social Life on a Budget

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.



1. Things I Can Save: The Financial Fast

Beginning on Sunday, January 11, Michelle Singletary, a Washington Post columnist, charges her readers to commit to three weeks of scrupulous frugality.

The 2015 21-day Financial Fast is one simple Thing I Can.

The rules are easy (to list, if not to live): Spend only on essentials and do so in cash. In last weekend’s column, Singletary writes,

Here’s a list of what you can spend on during the fast: food (bought at the grocery store), medicine, essential personal hygiene products, items that may be required for your job, your regular household bills such as rent or a mortgage, car payments, utilities, gas and even your credit-card payments. This isn’t an all-inclusive list. The point is you continue to pay for the things you need and the bills you already have.

Here’s what you are not allowed to do during the fast: go to the movies, shop for clothes, buy lunch or coffee at work, pay for any restaurant or fast-food meals, spend on entertainment. The goal is to shut down all conspicuous consumption. You will temporarily stop spending on things you can do without.

I live pretty close to the bone as it is. It’s a breeze to walk away the metro parking fee, and schlepping a stack of provisions in Pyrex frees me up to run other errands on my lunch hour. Even so, I waste a few bucks a week on takeout meals, 7-11 coffee, and apps for my kid’s tablet. It seems like nothing when I’m just clicking an icon or dropping loose change on a counter. Of course, it doesn’t take advanced algebra to add up those nickels. From the back of the envelope here. . .

  • $1.50 for coffee @ 3 times a week = $4.50
  • $1.50 for bagel @ 2 times a week = $3.00
  • $10 lunch out @ 1 day a week = $10
  • $3.50 random snacks or apps @ 3 times a week = $10.50
  • $20 movie ticket, burger, or mini golf with kiddo @ 1 time a week = $20
  • $15 meal/drinks out with friends @ 1 time a week = $15

That’s upwards of $60 dropped on stuff Bug and I don’t need and isn’t good for us anyway. Maybe we’re not talking Monaco money, but it ain’t chump change. If we pack the snacks and go to the park, we’ve squirreled away $3000 a year. Compound the interest even at a modest 3% rate over the next decade, and we creep towards — get this — $40,000.

Can you imagine?

Switching to home-brewed coffee could cover a year of Bug’s tuition. It could increase the value of our home by paying for energy-efficient doors and windows. Or it could send me to a weekend writer’s conference while Bug attends a summer adventure camp.

Minor adjustments now contribute to smoother performance down the line. The Financial Fast doesn’t require going it alone. Singletary sends daily guidance and provides tools along the way. Committing to the fast is just step one. For me, step two is building an actual working budget.

Despite knowing better, I have failed to follow through on what should be a rudimentary household activity. I left my last comprehensive budget behind when I left New York and my marriage in 2010. My reasons are for avoiding the exercise are as coherent as they are bogus. As the daily tug-of-war between chocolate cake and running shoes proves, the drive to dodge wise choices is more powerful than anyone likes to admit. The truth is, I know better. Out of necessity, I built that first financial spreadsheet sometime in 2006. Living on $30,000 as a YMCA camp family with a new baby inspired rather creative approaches to austerity.

I learned then that making a budget and tracking spending can lift the fog of financial anxiety that hangs over anyone trying to support a family on limited means. The obfuscation of my actual circumstances, while presumably a defense mechanism against facing uncomfortable truths, exchanges short-term relief for long-term stress. This is about as poor a deal as most of my spending habits. I don’t need it anymore — the anxiety or the avoidance. As one Thing I Can do, this fast is a chance to shed unhelpful habits and claim a bright future for my family.

Interested? Go to the Washington Post’s Financial Fast site and take the plunge!