Finding and Handling Your Money Boundaries

Everyone has boundaries. If you find yourself doing something that makes you bitter, it is time to reconsider. – Peter Singer, The Most Good You Can Do, p. 29

It’s going to happen at some point in your financial journey.

At some point, you’re going to try a frugal tactic or even read an article about a frugal tactic that just doesn’t sit well with you. The practice of doing it – or even the thought of doing it – feels very wrong, as though you’re abandoning a value that you hold dear or giving up some element of your life that’s very important to you.

This is a money boundary. A money boundary is simply a point where a financial tactic comes into contact with something connected to another strongly held value and the other value is simply more important to you.

Some people press through this anyway. They force themselves to take on this change that they’ve been told is very important and do everything they can to make it work for them. This strategy is akin to a cork in a champagne bottle – it’ll either hold things in place under pressure or it’ll erupt suddenly and violently.

Other people simply balk at this point. They start rejecting not only this individual tactic, but wide groups of tactics. They’ll read one tactic that they disagree with in an article or a book and decide that the whole article or book is inherently flawed and often spread that to everything the writer has ever done (believe me, I’ve received plenty of emails like this). They’ll try one frugality tactic that doesn’t really click with them and they’ll just abandon the wide array of tactics that are working well and rebound back to the way they used to do things.

I don’t think that either tactic is smart and that both will lead to outcomes you don’t want in your financial and personal life.

Instead, here’s my strategy for discovering and properly handling your financial boundaries so that you continue down the road to success even in the face of such boundaries.

Strategy #1 – Recognize a financial boundary when you see it
At the very start of this article, I offered up a quote from Peter Singer which I think fits very well here. “Everyone has boundaries. If you find yourself doing something that makes you bitter, it is time to reconsider.”

If you find yourself being unhappy or bitter about some change you’ve made in your life, then you’ve probably touched upon some kind of a boundary between different values that you hold dear, even if you don’t completely see that boundary yet. Your gut is a very strong guide for personal change, as it will tell you loud and clear when you’ve changed something that you probably shouldn’t be changing. Often, it’s that subconscious discomfort that’s a sign that you’re stepping over the edges of some kind of life boundary and trampling over some value that’s more important to you, even if you’re not really seeing it yet.

In general, a life change that’s worth making should make you, on the whole, happier with your life. That does not mean that all areas of your life become universally more joyful; most changes are a tradeoff where you sacrifice a little bit in one category to gain a lot in another category. A sense of bitterness and negativity comes in when some part of you begins to sense that the tradeoff isn’t actually that good, that you might actually be sacrificing more than you think or getting less than what you think in return for that change.

I’ll give you a concrete example from my own life. For several months, I was an extremely avid coupon clipper. I would go find old copies of the Sunday Des Moines Register (usually early in the morning on Monday) and harvest copies of the coupon flyers, then take them home and cut out tons and tons of coupons. I’d find more of them online, print them out, and clip them, too. I maintained a coupon binder, which was a repurposed photo album, and I kept all of those coupons carefully organized.

While I did enjoy those times when I could go to the grocery store and pay for $50 or $75 of my purchases with clipped coupons, I often had this sense in the back of my head that this wasn’t the best use of my time, a sense that grew and grew and grew over time. What I was hitting on was the fact that the time I was investing in couponing was taking away from other things that were more important to me, even figuring in the money I was saving with the effort.

I was easily spending several hours a week cutting out coupons, organizing them, and finding more coupons online, which was time that I wasn’t spending taking my son to the park or making meals or building up a side gig. All of those things were more important to me, but it wasn’t obvious for a while what was making me feel negative about the couponing, especially since it was saving me money.

It took a while for me to figure out that couponing – at least the way I was practicing it – was hitting upon a boundary in my life. I wasn’t using my time most effectively in terms of my values. Saving money was – and still is – quite important to me, as I view it as a path to personal security and personal freedom, but it’s not worth losing out on the freedom today to take my kids to the park or to have at least some time for hobbies and personal interests or even for things like building up successful side businesses. Those things are things that I value more than saving a relatively small amount of money every week or two on a grocery trip; the savings from couponing were not making up for what I was losing due to the invested time.

Strategy #2 – Don’t overreact; throwing the good strategies out with the bad is a poor solution
Whenever you recognize that you’ve hit a boundary, it can be very tempting to rebound strongly from it. Some people might do this by simply giving up on their progress, tossing out most of the good strategies they’ve been using that are actually effective on their own, and reverting to their old methods. Others might take a long list of strategies they’ve learned from one source and reject all of them because one of the strategies is something that they disagree with.

Both of those reactions are a big mistake. They can cause you to overlook and eliminate a lot of good strategies that actually fit your life while trying to undo a single bad strategy that doesn’t fit. That usually ends up causing more problems than you’re fixing.

Whenever you hear about a strategy that doesn’t seem to click for you, don’t throw out all of the strategies around it. Instead, isolate that one strategy and discard it. If you’re still in doubt, try to think about why that one strategy bothers you so much. What value is it conflicting against?

I’ll again look at that couponing strategy I mentioned above. My initial gut reaction was that couponing in itself was a giant waste of time, so I basically tossed out the whole concept. I stopped even looking at coupons and stopped clipping them at all. Instead, I moved to a much less time intensive strategy of buying store brands for most items, which was, on the whole, a strategy that saved almost as much money as couponing.

The problem was that, in doing so, I missed out on some very, very easy ways to save money. If I was somewhere reading the Sunday paper and they had a coupon section, I wouldn’t even bother to look at it. If a friend offered up a link for a $3 off coupon on something I normally bought, I wouldn’t even click on it.

I had adopted a new rule that all coupons were a waste of time and money, and that rule was nearly as flawed as the couponing strategy I once used.

The truth is that I overreacted in my cutbacks on coupons. The truth is that if worthwhile coupons find their way to me with minimal effort and time invested, I should clip and use sensible ones because they basically amount to cash.

Today, we have a coupon envelope on our fridge that we check whenever we’re assembling a meal plan or a grocery list from a store flyer. If we happen to need anything that matches a coupon, especially when it also matches the flyer, I put it in my wallet next to the card I usually use to pay for groceries. I toss out any coupons that I notice being expired. If an easy source of decent coupons falls on my lap, then I’ll add them to the envelope; otherwise, I won’t.

Why did I reach this “middle of the road” technique? The next strategy explains why.

Strategy #3 – Figure out what exactly the boundary is and what value it represents
So, you’ve identified a specific strategy that’s bothering you. Why is it bothering you? What exactly is causing you to discard that strategy (or, at least, why are you not happy with that strategy)?

There are a few reasons why this is really useful and important. First, it helps you figure out what in your life you view as more important than the strategy you’re discarding, which is really worthwhile in filtering other strategies that might cross the same line. Second, it might help you to quickly see that there are alternatives to your strategy that will fit the bill quite well and have much less of a drawback for you.

Let’s go back to my couponing strategy. As I mentioned, we now have a “coupon envelope” on our fridge that we toss in easily-acquired coupons, and we use them when we’re making a shopping list or a meal plan.

I arrived at this solution by asking myself why couponing bothered me so much. What I quickly realized is that it wasn’t the coupons themselves, but the time I was investing in couponing that really bothered me. I didn’t have any objections to taking a coupon into a store and using it to make my bill a little smaller; my problem came from the fact that in order to save a notable amount, I was investing a lot of time into it.

This meant, of course, that I had zero objection to easy-to-acquire coupons; it was the hard-to-acquire ones that were causing the problems. If I happened to find a coupon flyer and could leaf through it during complete spare time, or if a friend gave me a coupon, or if someone shared a great one on Facebook that I could print in about five seconds, I actually was glad to have that coupon. Mobile apps that just hand me coupons when I’m in the store are great, too, especially when they line up with what’s already in the cart.

My objection to couponing wasn’t couponing itself, but to time spent couponing. When that time was minimal, even if that meant the savings went down drastically, I didn’t mind it at all. In fact, I kind of liked taking a few coupons to the checkout and then finding that my bill dropped by $5 or $10.

This actually revealed something of a bigger truth for me: I don’t like frugal tactics that require a constant infusion of time to make them really work. I am strongly predisposed toward strategies that either require only one burst of time up front to cause regular savings (like installing a bunch of LED light bulbs in our house or installing weatherstripping) or else manage to also save time (or at least break even in terms of time) in the process (like making meals in bulk or using smarter driving practices on the road).

For some people, the time issue may be less important than it is for me. My parents, for example, have a lot of free time and they clip coupons far more than I do. They also do things like washing out freezer Ziploc bags, something that also falls into the “too much time for too little reward” trap for me.

It’s about what you value in your life and what the constraints are in your life, and everyone’s lives are different.

What do you do if you’re not sure about a strategy? Do you just skip it and go for only the obvious wins?

Strategy #4 – Use trial runs to figure out if your first impressions are wrong or not
Unless I am absolutely sure a strategy won’t work for me, I’m almost always willing to give that strategy a trial run of some kind. I usually find that the practice of trying a frugal strategy – or another life improvement strategy – usually reveals some kind of method for making my life better, even if it’s not the exact strategy that I started out trying.

Another advantage of committing to a thirty day challenge with a tactic you’re unsure about is that it gives you time to really refine it. Almost always, the first time you try doing something new, you flail and stumble around and just don’t do it all that well. I still remember the first time I chopped a green pepper on my own and almost cut off the tip of my thumb – I still have a little scar there. If you keep trying something, you will get better at it, and you’ll find that after a trial run you can really assess how useful a strategy is when you’re used to it, rather than judging it by your initial flailings.

I usually do this with a “thirty day challenge,” in which I commit to doing something a certain way for a month. I usually do two or three of these each month in various aspects of my life, and then at the end of the month, I spend a bit of time reflecting on that challenge to see if it added anything of value. For example, right now I’m in the midst of three different 30 day challenges, one centered around food intake, another centered around exercise, and a third centered around work and building income.

Let’s jump back to the couponing example we’ve been talking about throughout this post. When I realized that I had overreacted by rejecting all couponing, I decided to try a “thirty day challenge” where I tried out something pretty similar to our envelope strategy. My challenge was simple: keep a coupon envelope in which I save any coupons that I come into with no extra effort, then use that envelope whenever I write up a meal plan or a grocery list.

This thirty day challenge worked really well and I basically kept doing it. It takes almost no time and saves about $10 or so on a typical grocery store visit. I find coupons in old copies of newspapers lying around or when someone shares one on Facebook or when my parents give me any extras that they find, and I also use in-store apps like Cartwheel to find coupons that match up with my grocery list. Going through that challenge helped me to refine some very low-effort ways to get coupons – for example, I’ve found that if you see a Sunday newspaper that someone has abandoned on a table, there’s usually a coupon flyer in it and it takes about five seconds to grab that flyer. I’ll look through it for coupons when I happen to have a minute or two of downtime, like when I’m waiting for a microwave meal to finish or I’m watching a live television program with commercial breaks.

Strategy #5 – Focus on positives, not on negatives
In the end, money boundary issues always come down to comparisons. You’re comparing the merits of doing things one way versus the merits of doing things another way.

Usually, such comparisons wind up with a pros-and-cons list, where you list all of the pros of doing things a particular way versus all of the cons of doing things that way.

I’ve found that, when you’re comparing two or three ways of doing things, a much better approach is to simply list all of the “pros” of each option and see which one adds up to the best result. If one of them has an obvious negative, then that’s actually a “pro” for the other options.

I usually don’t strictly write down these lists of “pros” – though I do it sometimes for big decisions – but instead I do this as a mental exercise. It’s something to think about while driving somewhere or when you’re waiting at the dentist.

For example, with couponing, I simply compare the “pros” of three options: my old full couponing strategy, my much quicker envelope strategy, and just not bothering with coupons. Clearly, the “not bothering” has the best time advantage, but the quicker strategy shares most of it. The full couponing strategy saves the most money, but the quicker strategy shares some of it. The no-couponing strategy takes up the least space, but the quick coupon strategy only requires an envelope that’s attached to the fridge with a magnet. Basically, I quickly realized that the “quick” strategy had a pile of “pros” that wasn’t matched fully by the other strategies, so I stuck with it.

Strategy #6 – Give yourself time to reflect
Ideally, you want to reach a point where you can make these kinds of good choices very quickly, and that requires a very deep and strong understanding of what you value. That type of deep understanding itself takes time and reflection, so give yourself time to reflect.

I’ve found that, when I give myself time each and every day to reflect on my life and on any challenging choices I had to make that day and what my values actually are, my snap decisions in life become better and better and better. That reflection time is basically time spent sharpening an axe, to borrow from Abraham Lincoln’s famous quote.

Lincoln once said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” That’s exactly what time spent reflecting on your life is – it’s time spent sharpening the axe that is your decision-making process in life. That decision instinct is a tool that you use constantly every single day, so making that tool as sharp and accurate as you can possibly make it is bound to improve your life. Reflection is how you sharpen it.

Take some time each day to really think about the rough edges of your life. Think about the choices you made that are troubling you and ask yourself why you made them, and why you came up with that answer, and whether there was a better way to handle it. Think about situations that are coming up in your life and what the best way to handle those decisions are.

That type of thinking will sharpen your thinking, and sharp thinking will result in better decisions throughout each and every day, and better decisions throughout each and every day results in a better life.

Final Thoughts

Knowing your money boundaries – and the boundaries of other values in your life – makes it much easier to quickly figure out which money strategies will work best for you in your life. Not everyone has the same money boundaries, because not everyone has the same values and the same lifestyle restrictions. Strategies and tips that work well for some people might not work at all for others.

The best thing you can do is have a sharp understanding of what works and doesn’t work for you so that you can quickly take a list of tips and cut it down to the ones that are very likely to produce positive results in your life. That requires knowing your money boundaries quite well.

Good luck.

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Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.