Updated on 01.29.10

A Real Story about Priorities

Trent Hamm

Jill writes in:

I don’t earn much and am consequently unable to save much and what little I save is often wiped out by breakdowns (e.g. household stuff), minor illnesses and other emergencies. I am actually quite a frugal person, it’s just that my income is not much and tends to be irregular.

I am very troubled because I wish to save for a big purchase (about USD $3500) that would serve as a basis for a career change but I’m not sure if I have the ability/willpower to do it. I’ll calculated that I’ll take at least a year to do it and in the meantime I would have to be very,very careful with my money and not sink any $$ into my usual hobbies so life will be very dull. My hobbies all cost money e.g. ballet class

How do I deal with this tough waiting period of deprivation and no enjoyment? I do have some weaknessness eg kitchen equipment.I cook most of my meals and I can’t help think how life would be easier if I had a pressure cooker and so on so that I can cook things quickly after work.

Right now, I am considering putting my money in fixed deposits regularly with shorter and shorter maturation periods as I save to prevent myself from touching the money. Do you have any advice?

The problem right now isn’t that Jill doesn’t have enough money to achieve a goal. The problem is that Jill is chasing a lot of goals at once simultaneously and stretching herself too thin in the process.

In this email alone, Jill directly references three different significant life objectives: ballet class, upgrading kitchen equipment, and a career change. Jill also alludes that there are more beyond this in a couple of different places, and notes that each of these goals costs money.

The real issue is priorities. In Jill’s day to day life, she’s telling herself that she has a certain thing as a priority (saving for the career change item, which I’m guessing is a musical instrument), but in her actions, other things are priorities (ballet class, kitchen equipment upgrades, and so on).

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about life over the last three years, it’s this: the more things you try to set as a major priority in your life, the less successful you’ll be at any of these priorities.

For me, my only major priority is my family. Everything else is secondary to that, period. I recognize that in my day to day life, and filter most of my actions and choices through that lens. Is this something that benefits or improves my family or my relationship with members of my family in a direct way?

My other passions – reading, writing, cooking, playing games – take a back seat to this. Obviously, I’m quite happy when they overlap – cooking a dinner in the kitchen while my son and daughter are helping or playing yet another game of Sorry Sliders with my son – and I sometimes devote time to the interests on their own, but if there is any sort of conflict at all, I know exactly where my priority is.

I need to do this because my life – and your lives – deal with several things of which there is a limited quantity. There is only so much money that can easily be spent. There is only so much quality time. There is only so much personal energy. While we can possibly adjust these rules in the short term, in the long term they will balance out.

Jill, what’s your priority?

From this email, I can’t really tell what’s on top. Your mind seems to be leading with an intention to improve your career, but your heart is into the ballet classes and the kitchen improvements (and the other things you don’t mention).

The first thing you need to do is sit down and figure out what’s really important to you. What goal do you most want to fulfill? Is it that career change? Is it becoming a ballerina? Is it becoming a great at-home chef? Is it something else entirely?

There’s no right or wrong answer to this. We all have different talents, different skills, different desires, different resources, and different dreams.

Once you’ve figured out one or two central priorities for your life, focus on those and let the other ones fall back a bit. Let’s say you choose to focus on that career change idea and on ballet and let the other interests slide. That doesn’t mean you can’t cook at home – it just means that your extra time and energy and money shouldn’t be poured into it. You can still look for a pressure cooker, but look on Craigslist instead of Williams-Sonoma. Instead, spend your time and energy figuring out how to make that career change work and how to be the best you can be at ballet.

Here’s a tip: if the thought of focusing so heavily on something seems boring or unexciting to you, it might not be the right thing for you to be focusing on.

Once you figure out the central focus of your time and money and energy, frugal tactics are the fuel that will get you there. Cut everything else – all of those things that don’t really matter to you – to the bone. Snowflake – in other words, when you serendipitously come into money, channel that money towards your big goal.

Before you know it, you’ll find that your goals that you’ve focused on are suddenly coming well within reach – and that’s a happy place to be.

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  1. I was wondering if there is any way for Jill to earn a little more…a part-time side job or something like that. If she could manage to pull that off, she could put all the money from the part-time job towards the $3500 goal without having to be really, really strict with her other income.

  2. Amanda says:

    My suggestion would be to look into substitute teaching ballet (or maybe even find a full-time class to teach). That way she could keep up with her hobby AND get a little more money towards her other goal.

  3. Johanna says:

    It sounds to me like Jill cooks at home not because she’s so passionate about cooking, but because she’s gotta eat, and cooking at home is the most frugal way to do that. She says she wants the pressure cooker not because it’ll make her a great cook, but because it’ll help her get dinner on the table more quickly when she gets home from work, and that will make her life easier.

    But she doesn’t have a pressure cooker yet, so she (probably) doesn’t know for sure if it will really make her life that much easier or not. It could be that she’s making the pressure cooker out to be more than it actually is. It’s easy to get into the mindset where you think “If only I had a brand new XYZ, all my problems will be solved.” After all, advertisers train us to think that way. But then you get a brand new XYZ, and nine times out of ten you discover that it’s not really all that great after all. And you start coveting something else.

    Whether that’s what’s going on with Jill, I don’t know. But there are creative ways to get dinner on the table quickly without a pressure cooker. For example, she could cook each night for the *next* night’s dinner, and then when she gets home, dinner will be waiting for her. (I think that pretty much anything she would have cooked in the pressure cooker is the kind of dish that would be just as good the next day.) The solution is not always “more stuff.”

  4. chacha1 says:

    It’s hard to advise with such a sketchy outline, but if regular household “breakdowns” are creating “emergencies,” is there no-one else in the household who can do, or contribute to, any maintenance? Perhaps Jill could look into getting a roommate/housemate either in exchange for DIY home repair or for good old cash; or learn how to do home maintenance herself; or, maybe, move to a less unreliable residence.

    If regular “minor illnesses” are creating emergencies, then perhaps there are some larger lifestyle issues in play. Are the illnesses causing missed work? Is this why income is irregular?

    It’s very difficult for someone in a low-earning job to get ahead if they miss work a lot due to illness. Is the illness deriving from a chronic condition? Are there possible lifestyle changes that would result in better health? Too much missing information.

    Choosing a priority is important but may be secondary for Jill’s situation. I think she needs to look hard at why she has these recurring issues.

    Fast, good cooking at home doesn’t require any fancy equipment. A pressure cooker is a luxury (as are ballet classes). If the lack of money is causing Jill to feel she is “stuck,” then she needs to look at why she continues to (or wants to) spend on things that are not getting her “un-stuck.”

    Deciding where to put the savings is less important than solving the income insecurity at the bottom of the problem. Kristen and Amanda both had good suggestions there.

  5. Nicole says:

    Agreed– look into sources of additional income first. And pressure cookers aren’t all that unless you really must have lentils or beans quickly.

    I would really advice Jill to set down and write down all of these priorities and how long it will take to achieve them in different scenarios than the one she has already outlined. I don’t think she has too many priorities… it just depends on how much time she can spend focusing only on the one. A person can handle deprivation if it is only temporary. The time might be worth it for some things but not for others. Can she handle a full year without ballet, or can she do ballet one semester and skip another? How much time would that add to the savings?

    I also wonder what the 3.5K is buying. There may be a way to get it cheaper (educational scholarships), or it may not end up helping in the way she thinks (buying a knitting machine, for example, may not be worth the cost).

    I would also argue that in many cases educational loans are not bad debt and not worth starving to avoid. No sense in going overboard, but if it gets someone into a different earning bracket in a better career, then it may be worth the debt, especially at low interest rates.

  6. Amy says:

    If you ask me, it sounds like Jill has her priorities pretty well in order. Her two hobbies are providing her with a) food and b) exercise, both of which she would need anyway. This seems to me like a pretty efficient way to get entertainment to me.

    Honestly, Trent, I think your response here is way off base. Jill is asking how she can better endure giving up the couple of indulgences she has in an otherwise frugal life in order to save for a long-term goal, and your response doesn’t address that at all.

    Some more suggestions for her: many dance studios will provide free or reduced classes in exchange for work around the studio (bookkeeping, cleaning, etc.). Jill should ask if that’s an option (also, less time to sit around and feel deprived).

    So far as cooking goes, thrift stores are great places to pick up cooking supplies – something like a pressure cooker lasts forever, but many people buy them and then never use them. Also, Jill should consider if she can spend less on ingredients. Maybe she can make it a challenge to cook every meal for a month for under a certain dollar amount.

    When I was poor, I had a standing offer with all of my friends – if they bought the ingredients, I’d come over to their place, cook dinner and clean up. I’d generally eat 1-2 meals a week this way, plus spend time socializing for free.

    Also, given her savings goal and the timeframe, it seems like something like a garage sale could knock several months off the length of time she has to save, making the goal seem less daunting.

    Finally, I wonder if looking for some free replacement hobbies would help her. Perhaps exploring the public libary or joining a civic organization would help her pass the time better?

  7. Gretchen says:

    Trent, why do you think it’s a musical instrument?
    Why is the income irregular? Will the large purchase help with that? Will it help with the illness? Is she sick? Are the family members sick?

    I’ve also never seen a pressure cooker at the thrift store (well, I’ve never looked, either) but there always are crockpots and crockpots are great for quick meals on the table also. Or you could batch cook and freeze.

  8. Tizzle says:

    I agree with Amy @6 — I think the advice so far is not focused on Jill’s specific situation.

    A pressure cooker, even at Willisms Sonoma, is approx $200-300. I think part of the question here is how to save for something you really want that is 10X as expensive.

    I, too, make very little money (I’m in school) and often get caught up in the idea I can frugal myself more, if you will. Without proving my ‘frugal-cred’, I will say that I don’t spend much and over-analyze what I do. It’s really hard to save $100 when you know that’s going to be your only savings for 3 months.

    Jill thinks she can save $3500 in a year–that’s not bad. $300/month is a pretty rigid savings plan for someone with not a great deal of income. My advice might be to put the plans off by 6 months, stretch it just enough to not be quite so uncomfortable, but not so far that you never do it.

  9. Suzie says:

    While priorities are good, I can’t help but feel that a rich life involves having several different interests and groups of people – sometimes you DO deprive your family of your undivided attention to go spend time with other important friends, and sometimes you DO want to kick back and relax with something fun. Letting anything take over your life to the point where it overshadows anything else sounds… unhealthy.

  10. kristine says:

    Why the assumption the career purchase will be a instrument?

    The idea of volunteering to teach ballet, perhaps for a school, is a good one.

    Ditto the pressure cooker via goodwill. But how about a slow-cooker instead? These routinely show up on freecycle, or you can get one at a thrift store for next to nothing.

    I think it is important to develop some hobbies that are less expensive.

  11. Joan says:

    Trent: I think your post is very thoughtful and right on, and I believe the real issue is priorities, but she is asking for ideas and there are many thoughtful ideas also in the comments. This is the type of post addressing every day problems that I like to see in SD once in a while.
    Kudos: To everyone who sent thoughtful comments. I do not have Jill’s problem; however, I did get many good ideas from your posts.

  12. rkt88edmo says:

    Not sure why Jill thinks buying a pressure cooker is an obstacle. You can buy a Fagor for about $70, which seems like a goal that is well within her reach.

    The pressure cooker is also great because it opens up more avenues for saving time and money, almost like an “efficiency snowball” if you will.

    The pressure cooker (if used) should pay for itself in savings and time pretty quickly, and has a long life so it has a great return on investment.

    I also agree with turning the passions into income streams, of at least using them to reeduce the hobby co$t$.

    Can you help teach junior classes at the same studio or clean the studio for tuition credit? Even if you don’t get cash, you can cut your tuition/hobby costs quite a bit.

    Also – the letter seems to imply other hobbies that cost money. Honestly, if you don’t have excess, then maybe it is time for an evaluation of which hobbies you like most as well as which cost the most and make some choices. Are you willing to give up one or two to give you the saving edge to build an emergnecy fund?

  13. deRuiter says:

    Pressure cookders show up at yard sales all the time for $5. or less. make sure you get the pressure valve which fits on top of the lid on the spindle. Then go to the hardware store and get the gasket which will be shot on the used pressure cooker. Voila! $10. and you;ve got a great, solid pressure cooker. The next things is to get a job part time and save that money. Pizza delivery comes to mind, teaching ballet or exercvise classes, dog walking, anything to earn extra money.

  14. Lily says:

    Great topic. I’ve been there, Jill! More so when my kids were young. But know that they’re grown, hubby retired, I had to take a look at what’s really important and brings joy to my life. Of course, I’m probably much older than you (48) so my priorities are different.

    I discovered the love of motorcycle riding – but that’s an expensive habit. So during this winter when riding is less enjoyable, I’m saving all my pennies, and thanks to this lovely blog, I’m doing really, really, really well! I’ve got more in the bank now than when I had a full-time job making $80/hr. My husband has 2 retirements so we’re using them to sustain ourselves FRUGALLY and to stock up the cash to have enough for our summer motorcycle trips.

    If my husband and I had been frugal while I was working and making lots of $, we’d probably be “rich” today. But as they say, if you’re financially dysfunctional at $20K a year, you’ll probably be equally disfunctional at $200K a year. That was us. Now that we’re at a lower income level, we are becoming “functional” and I am looking at ways to improve our income so that when we do have it – watch out! We’ll be living well.

    And don’t forget to treat your health with #1 priority! So that you can enjoy the fruits of your labor when you’re my age and beyond ;)

    As always, Trent’s advice is sage. Figure out what is MOST important, and do what it takes to get there.

    Good luck, Jill

  15. Give up your hobbies that cost money till you have saved what you need to save. In the interim, try out some stuff that is free as your hobby. You might discover a new one

  16. Shevy says:

    As for the pressure cooker, my first hubby had one and I used it a bit but never found it particularly useful. On the other hand, everyone I’ve ever known who used a pressure cooker had at least one “food on the ceiling” story. Come to think of it, I haven’t known anyone who actually used one since the late 70s! A slow cooker is *much* more useful in my opinion. Pop stuff in there on your way out in the morning. Have dinner when you get home.

    More info would definitely be more helpful, or would allow us to be more helpful in our suggestions. We don’t know what age group Jill is in, what she wants to buy for $3,500 or what else she might then need to do in order to change careers, whether this change is to indulge a passion or just to earn big bucks while doing something she thinks she’ll be able to stand, etc.

    The various suggestions for the ballet classes are good, if she only takes one class per week. If she takes multiple classes, perhaps she could cut one class and just practise more of the basic things at home (I’m thinking of exercises she can do anywhere, rather than things that require access to a barre or large open spaces of hardwood!). While she may be able to get a kiddie class to teach at a community centre, she’s not likely to be hired as a serious teacher unless she has credentials (and it doesn’t sound like that’s the case). She won’t be getting much opportunity to dance while teaching, though.

    I don’t really think that David’s advice to give up her hobbies until she’s saved up the $3,500 is necessarily a good idea. What if the ballet is her only exercise or she’s at an age where taking a year’s break from dance would mean that her skills and flexibility would be compromised beyond her ability to recover to her previous level?

  17. Not to be a downer, but how long has she been taking Ballet?! I used to take it as a teen and I really do love it, but there’s no way in heck I would ever have been a ballerina. As someone else pointed-out, unless she’s got years of dance experience or credentials, she won’t be teaching anywhere. Frankly, I started to realize it was a waste of $$ since it was very expensive for adult classes and I would never “do” anything with it. I started taking Martial Arts and loved it! I’m a black belt and for awhile I was teaching. That’s something you can pick up at any age and far less selective. So Jill might want to consider something like that *if* she’s only doing the ballet for fun and not at least good enough to be an amateur dancer. Or, if she’s technical, maybe there’s an opportunity to provide computer support. My daughter takes lessons in exchange for website maintenance!

    I assume Trent edits the emails/letters he gets to some degree to keep space down. So there might have been some mention we didn’t see – or because she mentions lots of hobbies and taking ballet, he might be assuming she’s a creative type. But it could just as easily be an embroidery machine! Which would also fit the ‘creative’ label. :-)

    I’ve recently had to accept that a hobby I really enjoy does not mesh with my current lifestyle. I was already ‘out’ of it, but I kept planning to go back. That’s where I think Trent’s advice is spot-on. If she really thinks about what she’s trying to accomplish, it might be that some hobbies can go away, OR can be done more cheaply. Even if it’s something like scrapbooking – the whole idea is to keep memories. It’s not a contest to see who has the most indulgent pages with the most embellishments, is it?! ;-)

  18. matt says:

    Missing too much information but it sounds like she needs to do some soul searching and sort out her needs and wants. No matter all the good reasons to have a pressure cooker it will NEVER be a ‘need’ there is nothing you absolutely have to have it to make. Same thing for other various hobbies that may cost money. You dont really ‘need’ any of them. You need things like medicine to stay healthy, or shelter or food. Its easy to get into a habit of spending excess money on pursuing hobbies, or objects as a source of happiness. But I’ve found that always leaves one feeling empty in the end. You have to find the things in life that a truly soul satisfying, and work on them. Things like ballet lessons will always be there. Unless that is your source of income, why cant you give them up in the short term. Assuming from your writing style you are a younger person, you have 30 years or more ahead of you to pursue things like ballet, whats a year in the grand scheme of things, especially if it helps you improve your career and life, which will make it easier to pursue your hobbies.

  19. Rich A says:

    I agree that she needs to identify her priorities, and then focus on a course of action that best aligns with her priorities. Otherwise, if she doesn’t know where she’s going, any road will take her there.

  20. Jen says:

    I agree with #6 Amy. I think Trent missed the boat on this one. Jill was asking for suggestions on how to deal with the deprivation that comes from getting (to borrow phrase from Dave Ramsey) “gazelle intense” in pursuit of a goal. She’s already chosen her priority to be saving for her career improvement purchase. Because she’ll have basically no discretionary money to feed her hobbies, and a budget that tight can feel very bleak after a while. Other people have had a lot of good suggestions regarding the ballet classes.

    My best suggestion is to find small (very cheap or free) ways to indulge yourself so that you don’t feel so poor. For me, one of them is including really good whole bean coffee in the grocery budget. It’s a daily luxury and it costs me $0.50/day for 3 cups. Another is a $5 movie ticket, at the theater that gives you free popcorn on Tuesdays. DBF and I started a running contest to see who can find the cheapest activities for our weekly date night – we’re tied at FREE for the last 2 weeks (both including food), and we’re having a blast with it. I also give myself manicures and pedicures in pretty colors, and it feels really indulgent.

    FWIW, a pressure cooker will not be a big time saver. It takes at least as long to cook something basic in a pressure cooker as it does to cook a pot of pasta – about 30 minutes. There are a ton of ways to cook dinner in 30 minutes that don’t involve buying a semi-expensive piece of cookware.

  21. Rich says:

    Pressure cookers, crock pots, and other timesaving kitchen equipment are not uncommonly found at your local thrift store. You might have to wait a few months, but you save money by doing so. In fact, that’s pretty much a universal truth of money: the longer you are willing to wait for a purchase, the more likely you’ll get a good price on it.

  22. This is a great topic. I never imagined this being talked about but hey, priorities should come first! Actually, I got a lot of priorities right now. The problem comes when you do not know what to do first. So pick up simple things, start from scratch and eventually, you’ll end up finishing all of your tasks.

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