Springtime is incredibly busy around our home. Our children each participate in a spring sport of their choosing (if they want to). They’re also finishing out their school year, which means a number of school activities are on the docket. We usually have family members that come to visit at some point during the month. Sarah’s usually finishing out a teaching year and is also finishing out her masters program. I’m usually trying to get some extra work done so that I can slow down my work pace during the summer and do things like family day trips, family camping trips, and some other projects.
The pace of these months can feel overwhelming, and it’s during those months that I can often feel my focus shifting from a long-term focus to a very short-term one.
During other parts of the year, it’s easy to have a long-term focus. I can think about my day in terms of my long-term goals and initiatives. Sure, there are things that need to be done, but the days don’t all feel overstuffed. I can do things like make lots of meals in advance and freeze them or keep well ahead of household chores or do some long-term financial planning or actually plan out what we’re going to do to handle special events.
When things get busy, however, the focus gets shorter and shorter. Rather than looking at things through the lens of “how do I build a great life,” the focus shifts to “how can I survive this week” or “how can I get this to-do list (mostly) cleaned out today” or “how do I make sure I don’t forget these 15 things that need to be done today.”
Unsurprisingly, when your perspective changes to that sort of short-term viewpoint, the costs and benefits of many choices start to change, as well. Let’s walk through some of these shifts.
Things that reduce your time commitments right now begin to have a premium value. If you can do something that shaves fifteen or thirty minutes out of a tightly-scheduled evening, then it becomes very tempting when you don’t have much time to spare.
Long-term financial and personal goals seem less important because they’re not helping you get through today. Retirement seems a long way off when you’re staring at today’s to-do list and wondering how you can ever possibly get through all of this.
Long-term initiatives fall by the wayside because of the needs of the day. You might have been able to keep up with a resolution for a few months, but when things get chaotic, that long term focus gets kicked to the curb because other short-term demands are filling your space.
Most busy modern lives go through periods like this, and some are perpetually in this “emergency mode.” I’m very glad that our lives seem to calm down a lot in June and July, giving us a chance to “reset,” but sometimes these periods can extend on and on and on without a break.
This brings about one central question, one that’s at the heart of the financial struggles of many Americans: how does a person keep frugality and financial responsibility front and center when their life is so busy? When the realities of your life push you into a short-term perspective, how do you continue to make frugal choices?
It’s something that Sarah and I have struggled with for years. We do find it much easier to remain frugal during the lazy summer months and the quiet winter months. During the spring and the fall, though, things seem to gear up into a crazy level of busy-ness and it becomes so much easier to slip off of our financial track.
While we haven’t achieved perfection at fixing this, our goal is never perfection; our goal is simply to do better than we’ve done in the past. Here are nine strategies we use to keep our long-term financial bearings when things get crazy.
We do a ton of frugal prep work during lazy times. During the winter months, we make a lot of meals and store them in the freezer. Right now, our deep freezer is almost entirely full of prepared meals, though the stock is dwindling. Our pantry is well stocked, too, thanks to careful shopping and planning and buying during the winter lazy months. We have enough food on hand for tons and tons and tons of last-minute fast meals, where we need to get a meal on the table as soon as possible.
We also do a ton of bulk buying during the winter and summer months (remember, those are our “slower” months), so that those big trips to warehouse clubs happen during those times of the year. We buy large quantities of things like toilet paper and shampoo when we find them at the right price and we store them all over the house – in every bathroom, under the kitchen sink, and so on. Our goal with this is to ensure that whenever we need a household supply, we just look under the sink for a quick refill during the busy times and there’s always plenty in there.
We do a ton of gardening prep work in the late winter before things get crazy in the spring so that we can just drop plants in the ground as effortlessly as possible when the weather is right. I do all of our home and car maintenance during the slow times, and push all of the regular maintenance (things that need to be done fairly frequently) right up at the start of a busy period, so late March (for example) sees lots of oil changes and tire rotations and the like.
By pushing as much of our frugal efforts out of the busy times of the year, we manage to “coast” on those frugal efforts when things are much busier. We pull pre-made meals out of the freezer on busy nights. We just look under the sink for the toilet paper that’s magically there. We plop ready-to-go vegetables into the ground to start our garden with minimal time investment. This makes it much easier to stay frugal during the busiest times.
We plan each week together as a family with a great level of detail. Once a week or so, we’ll grab a free half hour when Sarah and I can sit down together and plan out the week. We’ll go through our personal calendars and the academic calendars for the kids and any sports schedules we might have and dump everything out onto a large whiteboard.
This whiteboard lists everything. It has meal plans. It has all scheduled non-professional commitments for everyone in the family (and even some professional ones, if they exist outside of the typical work day). All of this is listed day-by-day in a weeklong calendar.
Then, things like who’s responsible for what are settled. Who is taking our daughter to her goalie practice? Who is going to pick everyone up after the school picnic? Who’s going to get the library books returned? Generally, these are assigned with a “S” or a “T.”
We also use this time to assemble a full meal plan and a grocery list from that meal plan so that a grocery store visit, if needed, becomes really time-efficient and cost-efficient. If we’ve done things right with stocking the pantry, our grocery store visits mostly involve picking up perishable things like fresh produce and milk.
So, how does this help us stay frugal? Our family whiteboard is a form of “mind offloading,” meaning that by writing everything we could possibly need to remember about the week down on the whiteboard, we don’t have to hold that info in our heads. That means that remembering that our oldest son needs a water bottle for Tuesday isn’t something that actively needs to be remembered and stored in our heads.
Instead, we can focus on the task at hand more intensely and be more aware of when we’re making potential missteps. Our minds aren’t as cluttered with all of this stuff. We know what we’re each responsible for and we know who’s taking care of what. An organized mind and an organized life makes it easier to be consciously frugal.
We use “batching” of tasks to make things more efficient. As I mentioned above, one of our most powerful strategies for handling meals during busy times without relying on restaurants or delivery or takeout is to make meals in advance and freeze them. The most effective way of doing that is to prepare them in batches.
We’ll make, say, four pans of lasagna at once, eat one for dinner that night, and freeze the other three. This means that we only have to cook one large pot of lasagna noodles once rather than four smaller pots at four different times. This means that when we’re layering different ingredients in a pan of lasagna, we just have four pans spread out and we make four layers of sauce at once, then four layers of noodles at once, then four layers of spinach at once, and so on, one in each pan.
We try to apply this “batching” in other contexts, too. On weekends, we’ll do several loads of laundry at once, right in a line, and fold and organize clothes for the week for everyone all at once. Doing it this way means that it can all be done in one constant focused rotation of laundry over several hours (squeezing in a few other small tasks during the brief gaps while a load is still drying). We’ll often wait a day and a half before doing dishes, then do all of them at once in one big mass of emptying and refilling an entire dishwasher load (and then sometimes doing it again) rather than rinsing and partially filling and stopping. Whenever there is an opportunity to do a single task in a larger batch less frequently, we tend to do it that way when things are busy.
Why? Well, for one, it frees up time, but the secondary reason is that it saves a little money, too. It ensures that the washer loads and dishwasher loads and dryer loads that we run are full-sized loads, which are more energy efficient and more efficient with soap use, too. When we make meals in bulk, we can buy bulk-sized versions of things like pasta sauce or spinach or other key ingredients, which means the cost per pan goes down. Batching is almost always cheaper than spreading out the chores.
We move tasks to less intense parts of the week whenever possible. If there is any way possible to move tasks away from the most intense times to the less intense times during the week, we’ll take advantage of it. This often enables us to continue to make frugal choices even when time is really tight.
For example, we often rely on our slow cooker this time of the year. The advantage of the slow cooker is that it allows us to move a task – basic meal prep work and cooking – to a less busy time of the day – the morning before work and school rather than the evening. We cook a lot of meals in the slow cooker because of how it lets us move the work to another part of the day.
Often, we’ll fill up both of our vehicles with gas on Sunday, even if they’re not anywhere near empty. This saves us the issue of having to stop at a gas station in the middle of a busy evening later on in the week. It also gives us some more freedom to be selective about where we stop for gas, as I often buy gas at the warehouse club. I’ll also usually air up the tires in those vehicles every few weeks, again on a Sunday, because there’s less time intensity and proper air inflation reduces the chance of an accident and gently improves fuel efficiency.
This brings us to my next point…
We accept that some things will slip for the short term, like having a perfectly clean house. One of the tasks we definitely overlook during the busy parts of the week is having a perfectly clean house. It gets messy, especially near the latter part of the week. We accept that and move on with life.
During the week, I put more emphasis on being smart with my spending than having a perfectly clean house. If I have a choice between making a homemade supper (saves money) or getting a very good night of sleep (more productivity the next day, lower likelihood of illness) versus making sure the living room is picked up on a Thursday evening, I’m going to choose the homemade supper and the good night of sleep.
This is obviously heavily connected to the idea of moving some tasks to less intense times of the week. Housework is among those tasks. Cleaning the car? It’s something that can be moved. Getting back with people on non-urgent matters? It can wait. Anything that is “important but not urgent”? It can slip.
This carries directly forward into actual purchasing decisions…
We simply avoid buying decisions if at all possible. When things are busy, we simply punt as many purchasing decisions as possible down the road. Our spending on hobby-related items slows to a crawl. We generally don’t replace anything around the house unless it’s literally broken and we need to use it in the immediate future. Basically, if it’s a purchase that costs more than a few dollars and isn’t blindingly urgent and actually important, it can wait – and it does wait.
The goal with this policy is to give ourselves enough breathing room to make wise purchasing decisions. In general, purchasing decisions made under a significant time, focus, or energy crunch are not good purchasing decisions, so we kick them down the road if at all possible, to a time where we have much less of a crunch on our time, focus, and energy.
Not having a crunch on time and focus and energy means that we can devote more effort and rational thought to making sure that we actually need this item and that we’re adequately researching it and shopping around for it. We’re not just rushing into Target to buy the first thing we see that solves the problem, because doing that usually results in either spending too much or getting a lower quality item for the dollar than we should be buying, and sometimes the purchase is entirely unnecessary.
We try as hard as possible to avoid sacrificing sleep. What does this have to do with frugality? A rested mind is much better at focusing and much more able to resist temptation and make better choices in the moment. During busy stretches of life, having a rested mind often makes the difference between keeping up with all of your initiatives and letting some things fall through the cracks.
Yes, absolutely, this means that there are some things that simply don’t get done. As I mentioned above, we often skip light housework during busy stretches. We often delay laundry and other such chores. We also don’t “unwind” for periods in front of the television at night. Instead, we go to bed and shoot to get eight hours of sleep (or as close to it as possible).
I know that a day is going to be good when I rise naturally, without an alarm or a child waking me. That generally only happens if I go to bed relatively early and don’t spend the last hour or two of the day “vegging out” in an exhausted state. If I rise naturally like that, the day is usually full of focused thoughts and effective handling of life’s crazy requirements.
We lean on our friends and neighbors a little. Sometimes, our children will spend a few hours at our neighbors when things are at their most crazy, giving Sarah and I a chance to regroup. Sometimes, we’ll host a pure potluck social evening and have everyone bring items for dinner because it’s an extremely time- and money-efficient way to relax and unwind a bit with friends.
Sometimes, I’ll just flat-out ask friends for help. I’ll ask a friend to pick up some books on hold at the library. I’ll ask a neighbor to grab two items for me at the grocery store. I’ll ask someone I know if they can pick up our kids after their soccer practice.
I’m able to do this without worry or guilt because we do the same things for our friends and neighbors at other times in the year. We often watch the children of our neighbors. We often run short errands for friends or add their needs to our errand list. We’ll often prepare most of a potluck meal for busy friends so they can get a low-stress meal and some good social time in. We’ll loan tools to friends. We’ll help them with projects.
Because of that, we feel no qualms at all about asking for help when things are crunched for us. It’s far better than simply throwing money at little problems or adding even more to our busy schedules or stress levels.
We accept imperfection and understand that the perfect is the enemy of the good. Sometimes, we’re going to completely fail at these initiatives. Sometimes, we’re going to pull them off, but with some serious flaws. Sometimes, we’re going to simply spend money that we really don’t need to spend simply due to our lack of organization and focus and creativity.
That’s life. It doesn’t mean that these efforts are a waste.
The thing we always keep in mind with frugal efforts is that the perfect is the enemy of the good. If the only two acceptable results are perfection and failure, your life is going to involve infinite failure. The truth is that a result that’s not perfect but largely good is far better than not trying at all.
Even more than that, accepting that “good” is more than acceptable creates an interesting new motivation. For me, I’m often motivated not by seeking perfection, but doing just a little bit better than I did the day before. I want to be just “one step better” than I was yesterday. I don’t shoot for perfection, because I’ll just get frustrated with my inevitable failure to reach perfection.
At the end of the day, frugal success in busy times happens when I keep my head clear, spread out the tasks on my plate, take care of things during less busy times, and accept imperfection. If I keep those principles front and center, busy times don’t have to mean the end of frugal practices at home. Instead, it means that frugality becomes – and remains – foundational in all of your life choices.