Frugality and freedom

I don’t make a lot of money.  I never have, and it’s quite possible that I never will.  Teaching is not exactly a lucrative career, and I strongly suspect that quality of life is a much greater thing than having a large bank account and having to do the work that often goes along with it.  As far as I’m concerned, this is fine by me.  Even if I’m not making a lot of money, I’ve developed a reasonable set of skills for living well on a relatively small amount of money (and even saving a bit, too).

Although I think this perception is shifting a little, I feel that sometimes living on a budget and being frugal aren’t seen in a positive light.  It’s all too easy to assume that living frugally is an exercise in frustration and deprivation, especially in a culture that is often focused on instant gratification.  I’d like to take the opposite perspective, and argue that frugality really is very freeing.  Imagine, if you will, not having to worry as much about a job loss, because you have a cushion to tide you over.  Being able to take a lower-paying job, if need be, because you’re already able to live on less than you make.  Not having to go into debt to cover an unexpected car repair.  Being able to save for bigger purchases.  Not having to panic when the credit card bill comes due.

Frugality is a form of freedom.  Sure, there are constraints.  At the very least it’s important to spend within our means, if not somewhat below them.  This can mean cutting back, especially if we’re used to more lavish spending.  But it also opens a lot of doors.  Being able to live on less money means that we may be able to choose to work fewer hours.  It makes it possible to spend money on the things that really matter.  It lets us function in the world without constantly worrying about money – either making it or spending it.  It means we can step away from debt and constantly knowing that we owe something.  It makes it easier to be generous with that which we do have, since we have a little extra.

For me, frugality is also about priorities.  Not spending on some things makes it possible to spend money where I’ll really enjoy it.  I don’t much like drinking, movies in the theater, or the latest electronics.  I don’t need a fancy place to live, and I do just fine without a car.  By not spending as much in these areas, I can afford to spend more on books, housewares, hobbies, and good food, all things that I really love and that feel worthwhile to me.

Jadeite

This does sometimes take practice and some planning, but there’s a lot of power in taking something on as a choice rather than because we have to.  Cutting back because it’s necessary often leads to resentment because things are out of our control and we have no choice in the matter.  No matter how good they are for us, things that we have no choice in don’t tend to feel good.  Canceling the cable, cutting back on eating out, or not going on vacation can feel terrible when they’re coming from a place of necessity.  But cutting back because we want to live within our means can be very empowering because we retain choice and with it control, and we may even have the option to do so gradually rather than all at once.  When the bike ride to work, vegetarian dinners, and weekend evenings at home are choices that we opt into, we’re likely to feel much better about them than if we feel forced.

Of course, frugality only goes so far and covers so much.  Not having enough money to cover basic expenses is a huge problem, and one that a lot of people seem to be facing these days.  Truly, the choice to cut back in order to be more frugal is not the same thing as having to manage day after day on insufficient resources, which bring it a whole host of additional problems and challenges.  But, for those who are in a position to cut back, or perhaps to cut back even further than they already have, I would suggest that now is a good time to take the steps.  Living frugally isn’t about self-deprivation or denial.  It’s about wise use of resources and spending in a way that makes sense and that prioritizes those things that we feel the most important.

One step back

Surprisingly, through a fair bit of the start of the year my new years resolutions were all going well, especially for someone who doesn’t really do resolutions.  I was keeping up with a good diet and new recipes, regular exercise on the awesomeness that is the bike trainer, and lots of time resting and reading.  My finances were in order and I was spending a good deal more time with friends.  Work was going well, with everything getting done when it was supposed to and, wonder of all wonders, I was feeling on top of things.  In short, it was really quite lovely.

Pad Thai

And then, around three weeks ago, the assignments started coming in, followed closely thereafter by reading week.  In the throes of grading and the sudden relief of a week off, I let things slip pretty badly health-wise.  My diet went to hell.  I was more pressed for time than usual and I not only ate more carbs, but more soda and sweets, too.  I let my indoor bike rides tapered off a little, and thanks to some frigid, windy, and very icy weather, I all but ceased walking much more than is required to get to the bus stop.  Consequently, I felt gross, my energy dropped, and I started to put the five pounds that I had lost back on.  That’s pretty much where I am right now – after a few steps forward, I’ve definitely taken one back.

To be completely fair, it’s not all bad.  All things considered, I still feel good – happy, calm, and productive.  I’m sleeping well, getting my wok done, and fitting in time for things like cooking, reading, and spending time with friends, all of which really help to relax me.  I’m feeling far, far better this semester than I did last. That said, it troubles me that some of my healthier habits are the first to go when push comes to shove.  Unfortunately, I’m now heading into the part of the semester that is consistently busy and I’d like to get back into a routine that I’m better able to maintain through the busier times.  Work starts up again next week after this brief respite from the teaching part of my job.  With it comes another round of grading plus the usual course preparation and a series of teaching related meetings.  Then, there are papers to write, books to read, and talks to give.

In an effort to better manage my health, I’m going to take the last few days of reading week and try to establish some new, revised habits that I hope will carry into the rest of the semester.  I’m going to try out a few healthy breakfasts and lunches that I can prepare in batches ahead of time and start getting in a daily green smoothie.  I’m going to be better about getting in a bike ride earlier in the day, before I’m too tired, and try to build some extra walking into my routine.  I’m going to try planning easy meals ahead of time to remove some of the decision making process from the end of the day when I’m already tired and decisioned-out.  And I’m going to cut out the extra sugar cold turkey and focus a lot more on snacking on fruits and veggies and drinking water and tea.  It’s not a groundbreaking plan by any means, but it’s a plan all the same as well as a reminder of what I need to be doing to better care for myself.  I’m hopeful that it will help to get me back on track for the latter half of the semester, and all that comes along with it.

Afternoon reading

Some days, you walk into the campus bookstore to have a small look around prior to your meeting, and you find not one, not two, not three, but four books that are highly relevant to both your current personal and academic interests in things like consumption and individual production.  And they all have read sale stickers on them.  And there’s a nearby sign proclaiming that all red sale stickers will be discounted by an additional 50 percent at the cash.  And so you leave with these:

New Books

All for less than you’d spend at the thrift store for the same books.  And, because you’re so excited about new books, you then proceed to talk about the admittedly minor experience in the second person for some unknown reason.

In any case, I guess I know what I’ll be reading this afternoon.  I’m off to make some tea and find a blanket…

Distilling

Although I know there’s just too much in this apartment for the space that we have I’ve been pretty slow to do much about it.  Recently, though, I’ve been feeling especially swamped by stuff and the urge to do something about it has been growing.  Now, with reading week upon me and my grading oh-so-close to done, I’m taking some time to sort through all the stuff and try to get this place into shape.

Historically, I’ve been a bit of a packrat.  I always have a lot of projects on the go and lots of ideas for things I’d like to do, which tends to mean that I keep a lot of stuff around for those afternoons when I suddenly want to knit a hat, pickle some cucumbers, and plant a miniature garden.  I’m also pretty good at accumulating things, which certainly doesn’t help.  Regular access to inexpensive secondhand goods has let me fill this place with all kinds of useful and interesting stuff, which I then hold on to.

On the up side, this means that this place is messy in the “way too many ideas and projects” sense, rather than the “ewwww gross and unclean” sense, which is hardly the worst thing in the world.  But I’d like it to get it to the point where it’s easier to clean, nicer for having people over, and just generally better meets our needs.  This isn’t the first time I’ve done this, and it probably won’t be the last.  I’ve called this process many things.  Decluttering.  Simplfying.  Purging.  Unstuffing.  But the term that I’ve recently found to resonate the most is distilling.  I’m trying to take all of these things that I’ve accumulated for one reason or another and get down to the essence of what I most want and need.  This means figuring out where I am, where I want to go, and what kind of things will be useful or helpful along the way.

I find that the biggest challenge is trying to get a sense of what kind of life I want to and expect to lead in the future and what things are worth keeping that work within this context.  Given my academic career and my interest in sustainable living and general preparedness, I often feel like I’m already dealing with two different lives, both of which appeal in different ways and come with their own sets of stuff.  Since I highly value both and would like to have them converge as much as possible,  there are as many reasons to hold onto the dress clothes, theory books, and external hard drives as there are to keep the gardening tools, canning kettle, and cookbooks.  Happily, there’s still stuff that doesn’t fall into either category that’s on its way out, so I don’t yet have to start making the hard decisions yet and can focus on the lower-pressure decision making around extra dishes, unread books, and impractical clothes

Sometimes things are slow – I’ll get rid of a few things a day, or ever a week.  But sometimes – like today – inspiration hits and they move more quickly, with me rushing around the apartment sorting, tidying, cleaning, and pitching things as quickly as I can (and usually running out of boxes and bags as I do).  The donation pile now includes a box of kitchen items, two bags of clothing, a small selection of books, the DVD player that hasn’t been used in years, and a dressmaker’s dummy that was broken when I bought it and spent six years in the corner doing little more than displaying a vintage coat, which isn’t exactly the best use of what space we have.

I’m one of those people for whom getting rid of stuff simply isn’t easy, much as I wish it were.  I feel silly even admitting that since it’s just stuff, after all, but it genuinely feels like everything has potential and there’s always something that could be done with pretty much any thing.  But…it turns out that the more I get rid of, the better I feel.  Not only is there more space in the apartment, but it feels like there’s more focus in my life as well, which makes getting rid of the pilled sweaters, too small jeans, unappealing books, duplicate cookware, and everything else that’s just taking up space feel even better.  There’s more room to move in here, and it feels like there’s more room to breathe, too.