Frugality, Freedom, and Peace

A few days ago, my oldest son flushed the toilet on the main floor. When he did that, two things happened.

First, the chain attaching the lever to the flapper became disconnected and the chain fell straight down under the flapper, so when the tank emptied, the flapper didn’t fall back in place. In other words, this meant that the toilet kept running, trickling a steady stream of water into the tank.

Second, the toilet became blocked.

You can guess what happened next. The bowl of the toilet overflowed and water started pouring out on the floor. My son had already turned off the light and left the room at that point.

The main floor bathroom is directly above the laundry room in our basement, so the water found a crack or two to seep into and the water ran directly down into the laundry room, dripping and basically pouring from the ceiling in various places. The basement laundry room is all concrete, but there were many loads of clothes in there, both clean and dirty.

About twenty minutes after this – yep, twenty minutes – I came downstairs to make breakfast for the kids. As I walked over to the pantry, I suddenly noticed that my feet were wet.

The entire bathroom was flooded, with water starting to run out into the kitchen. This was mostly a very slow buildup because the water was coming out of the toilet just a little bit faster than it was pouring down into the laundry room.

I immediately ran over and turned off the water to the toilet and then assessed the damage. The water in the bathroom almost immediately receded, as it poured down into the laundry room, but the entire floor needed to be mopped and dried, the closet needed to be cleaned out, and a bunch of items were simply trashed.

The laundry room was a different story. Almost all of our laundry – probably ten loads worth of laundry – was drenched in toilet water. The excess water ran across the room and down into a grate, ruining a bunch of items along the way.

It wasn’t a complete disaster, but it was a pretty big mess, the kind of mess that no one really wants to see in their home. It meant quite a few hours of cleanup work.

Here’s the thing, though. Other than the initial shock and a bit of disheartened feelings about the amount of time cleanup would take, I didn’t get upset at all about the mess. There are two big reasons for that.

One, if there was any permanent damage to anything, we could afford to pay for it. We aren’t pushed up against the wall financially. We have money in the bank for emergencies like this. (Thankfully, nothing seems to be permanently damaged.)

Two, my career flexibility enabled me to be home to catch the disaster quickly. My career flexibility is the direct result of life choices in which other things besides pure income were prioritized. If I did not have that career flexibility, the water would have ran all day, likely flooded our whole kitchen and living room, and water likely would have also been in our basement family room, our daughter’s basement, our basement bathroom, and other spaces. Also, the flooring in many areas likely would have warped and ruined due to prolonged water exposure.

Our choices over the last several years, from being careful with our spending and buying used cars and spending way less than we earned to making entrepreneurial moves and bolstering our careers with further education without increasing our spending, have led us to a point where we have financial flexibility and time flexibility. It’s that very flexibility that turned something that could have been a giant disaster into something that could pretty easily be handled.

If we had not made those choices, we would have splurged on a lot of things. We probably would have traveled to different places, though we do have a summer vacation each year. We likely would have replaced our vehicles at a faster rate, though our current vehicles are still completely reliable. We would have eaten out more.

To afford that, we would have to be walking a tightrope, one where a bad event or a mistake causes us to fall into disaster. This would have been one of those disasters, where a large portion of our house would have required cleanup and the costs would have been tremendous, and if we were living paycheck-to-paycheck, that would be a very stressful situation, indeed.

Being frugal and financially responsible made what could have been a full blown five alarm family disaster into what amounted to a day of cleanup we could handle ourselves and a few days of consistently running loads of laundry. It saved us an incalculable amount of stress. It saved us an incalculable amount of time. It saved us a lot of money, too. It didn’t negatively impact either of our careers.

To me, that’s the big secret of frugality and being smart with your money: it takes away so much stress from your life. Life’s disasters are no longer apocalyptic. You don’t have to be afraid to check the mail. If you lose your job, it’s not the end of everything. You don’t have to stay in a job where you feel absolutely miserable. You can feel free to take some career risks. You feel healthier and more energetic (I’m not kidding). Retirement doesn’t seem like a comical impossibility.

Let’s spell out some of these benefits in detail.

Life’s disasters are no longer apocalyptic. That’s the take-home message of the story I shared at the start of this post. That situation would have been utterly disastrous if we weren’t in the financial and professional situation that we’re in, and that financial and professional situation is built on the back of being frugal and not spending every dime we bring in.

If an appliance breaks, you can roll with it. If your water heater starts making bad noises, you can shrug it off. If your oldest child breaks a toilet and causes flooding in two rooms, you can groan a bit about the cleanup time and that’s it.

That’s a big stress reducer. I don’t have to freak out about every little click or funny noise in my house. I don’t have to be reduced to tears if the washer gives out. It’s water under the bridge. I can deal with it calmly and move on with life.

You don’t have to be afraid to check the mail or answer the phone. If you’re living a little above your means and finding that it’s difficult to keep the bills paid, simple things like answering the phone or checking the mail can become fraught with worry.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Making sound financial choices throughout your life can eliminate the fear of bills, the fear of debt collectors, the fear of unexpected news. Almost everything begins to fall into the realm of things you can easily deal with.

Not being afraid to answer the mail or pick up the phone or open a particular envelope has such a positive impact on one’s stress level and life outlook.

If you lose your job, it’s not the end of everything. I know many, many people who work at jobs where they’re at least somewhat afraid of the dreaded pink slip. If that pink slip comes, then they’re in a world of hurt unless they immediately find a good replacement job.

That puts you in a situation where you’re hypersensitive at work. You’re afraid to rock the boat. You’re afraid to do anything at all that might draw any attention to yourself, whether it’s too little work or taking on a task on your own or anything like that. You second-guess yourself a lot more.

In short, you’re walking on a high wire with your career, without the safety net of having financial resources in the bank. Yes, almost everyone is walking a high wire with their career to some degree, but with a net in place, it’s much easier to focus on success than when you have to worry about maintaining perfect balance with every step.

You don’t have to stay in a job where you feel absolutely miserable. Another complicating career factor is job misery. Many people find themselves in a job where they feel trapped. They don’t feel as though they can easily find another job like theirs with similar pay, but their current job is filled with misery for any number of reasons: a horrible boss, horrible co-workers, questionable working conditions, and so on.

Because of the overriding fear of the pink slip, many people in these situations really can’t fight back against the negative aspects of the job, either. You’re putting your job at risk if you talk to people up the ladder about such workplace problems and if you don’t have a backup plan, that’s a risk that people often decide not to take.

So people suffer. A miserable job often pushes people to just walk through the paces of life with no real joy, as a significant portion of their working hours are spent in misery. That’s not living.

You can feel free to take some career risks. Even if you feel like your job is fairly secure and not too miserable, there’s still some significant additional risk in making a career move. You still don’t want to rock the boat too hard, so you’re not going to volunteer for an interesting challenge. You’re not going to push any issue at work very hard.

If you do that, of course, it becomes much harder to make a name for yourself at work. You’ll likely get a lot of “good” performance reviews, but it often takes “great” performance reviews if you want raises and performances, and you’re probably not getting to “great” without taking at least a few risks.

This means that living paycheck to paycheck can actually hamper your career growth, leaving you in a position where you’re not making as much money as you otherwise could.

Retirement doesn’t seem like a comical impossibility. Part of the nature of living paycheck to paycheck is that you’re putting very little, if anything, away for retirement. This means that a person’s retirement planning centers almost entirely around Social Security benefits, which is often not enough to make for a comfortable retirement for most people.

What’s the solution? The solution is to not retire. The solution is to keep on working until medical issues or frailty force you to stop working and then you struggle mightily for the remaining years of your life.

It’s a pretty painful future, but it’s a future that many have ahead of them. Rather than having a bright light at the end of the tunnel of their working years, there’s no end to the tunnel at all.

You feel healthier and more energetic. Almost everything I’ve mentioned above points to how living below your means is a stress reducer, but what impact does lowered stress have on your life? You feel healthier. You sleep better. You have more energy. You don’t feel “on edge” all of the time.

Those are tremendous benefits, ones that I feel almost every single minute of every day. I rarely get a cold. I rarely feel sick at all, to tell the truth. I feel energetic most days. I don’t feel overwhelmed by life very often, even though I’m juggling a lot of things. Unexpected events don’t bring me to a meltdown. My blood pressure is low.

I just feel better than I did when we were financially struggling. I used to get colds all the time; I haven’t had a cold in years. I used to wake up and absolutely dread getting out of bed, and when I did I felt devoid of energy; that’s just completely gone. I don’t feel burnt out in the evenings like I once did; I just hit a “cliff” at some point around 10 PM and I go from being very energetic, tackling problems all around the house, to going straight to bed. I don’t sit around in a half-awake state in the evenings. I have a really strong relationship with my kids and with my wife, where everyone communicates and feels good about one another.

I attribute all of that to low stress, and I attribute the low stress to having very few financial worries, and I attribute having very few financial worries to the frugality and smart spending choices that we’ve made. Frugality pays off.

All of these benefits might sound great, but they’re always followed by another question: isn’t living frugally just swapping one misery for another one? The assumption here is that, sure, living below one’s means might bring those benefits, but to get it, you have to go through the misery of giving up lots of life’s pleasures.

Frankly, that’s not true at all.

I do almost everything that I want to do, but the key thing here is “do.” I love books and reading, but that doesn’t mean I have to go buy tons of books all the time. I get books from the library, and I get joy from curling up with them. I love a good meal, but that doesn’t mean I go to restaurants all the time; I make most meals at home. I love board games and have a nice collection, but at this point, my joy comes from taking the time to actually play them rather than acquire them. I love going on hikes in state and national parks, but that’s extremely cheap. I don’t go without anything that I actually want.

At the same time, I don’t spend much money on the things that I’m not interested in. We buy a lot of store brands for most of our household supplies and staples. I often make my own laundry soap out of basic ingredients. Having a jug that says “Tide” on it has no value to me; all I care about are getting clothes clean. I drive a thirteen year old car that I bought off of Craigslist; I keep up with the maintenance and it gets me where I want to go, which is all I want from a car.

I have minor impulses and desires, but I don’t pay much attention to any of them because I recognize they won’t bring me any lasting joy. A shiny car might be fun for a while, but it quickly just becomes a more expensive way to get from here to there. An expensive trip might be fun, but I eventually return to everyday life and it’s not worth disrupting the low stress of everyday life for it. Even little things like a morning coffee simply don’t give me enough lasting value to be worth my money or time or attention. If it’s not going to bring me lasting joy, I don’t really bother with it.

So, what kind of basic steps can you take to get to this point?

First of all, start automating some savings. The first step is to simply build up an emergency fund, which is a wad of cash that you have in a savings account that you can tap in case of an emergency. Simply see if your bank can start transferring a small amount each week into your savings from your checking account. Try $10 or $20 a week to start with.

You likely won’t even notice that little amount, but what you will notice in a few months is that you have hundreds in savings. That money should just sit there until things are in crisis mode in your life, at which point that money will be a godsend. In fact, just knowing that money is there can be a powerful de-stressing agent.

Experiment gently with frugality. It’s not realistic to do a complete 180 with your spending habits. There are so many habits and routines and psychological barriers built into how we spend money that to make a radical switch and expect perfection and joy and no misery is just a mistake.

Instead, step into it slowly. Try making a few more meals at home. Swap out light bulbs for LEDs. Buy store brand items at the store instead of name brand items and see how they work. Make a meal plan and then make a grocery list from that meal plan. When you shop for a car, look for a late model used one from a reliable manufacturer first. When you shop for housing, look for a smaller house rather than a bigger one. Spend some time shopping around whenever you buy anything of significance or sign up for any service. Those changes aren’t going to drastically affect your day to day life, but they will show you the power of being frugal, and you’ll find that you’re emboldened to try more and more new things. Some of them won’t click, and that’s okay; don’t force yourself to stick with things that bring misery.

Start planning for big expenses you know are coming. Is a car replacement coming in the next few years? If so, start making a “car payment” now, except put that money in a savings account. When you actually do need to replace that car, you can use that money to either make a huge down payment or pay for the car entirely.

The same is true for almost any big expense you know is coming. Start paying for it now. Put cash into your savings, a bit at a time, and then when the expense does arrive, it’s not a crisis. You have the money.

If you follow that general plan and stick with it over the long haul (it’ll take a while for results to show), you’re going to find yourself in a much better place in almost every dimension of your life.

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