The Battle Between Stress and Frugality

As I often do when I write an article, I start by making a list of all of the major points I want to cover, then making a few sub-points under each point. This is usually the outline of the whole article, from which I start writing paragraphs and adding relevant details and, often, anecdotes from my own life that illustrate the point (and, usually, served as the reason the post existed in the first place).

As I was outlining this particular article, I found myself exchanging a long series of text messages with my wife as we figured out the logistics of our week during a break at her workplace.

So, let’s review what’s going on.

My wife and I both work full time. I have a somewhat more flexible work schedule, but I do have to devote a lot of hours during the week to work; my wife’s schedule is more set in stone. Our children are in school full time.

Three members of our family are preparing to test for their black belts in tae kwon do later on in the fall. This means a lot of preparation, as the amount of material covered during black belt testing is extensive and covers four or so years of slow progression toward that level. This means a lot of evening practices.

My two oldest children are also in fall soccer leagues, which practice twice a week after school and have classes on weekends.

During the course of the next two months, we have two children celebrating birthdays, as well as two weddings to attend that will involve travel.

All of these things have logistics and scheduling challenges. Who’s going to get people from point A to point B? Does everyone have all of their gear? Is everything clean and ready to go?

This is in addition to the constant ongoing elements of family life – meal preparation, laundry, dishes, keeping the house in some semblance of shape, maintaining some semblance of friendships, and so on.

(There are a few additional issues I’m not even mentioning, to protect privacy of family members and friends.)

How do we logistically pull off all of these things? What meals will be prepared in the slow cooker (which means I’m probably stopping early in my work day to do the prep)? Who will drive people to the next town over for tae kwon do forms practice? Who will take care of the laundry? Who will take care of the dishes?

Juggling all of this stuff is really stressful. I’m worried about making sure we make it to everything. I’m worried abut forgetting something important. I’m worried about who gets priority when schedules overlap, and whether someone will be locked out of an activity they care about. I’m worried that our house is going to turn into a complete disaster pit of disorganization and uncleanliness.

Here’s the catch: I could make a healthy dose of this stress go away by throwing money at the problem.

There’s a laundry service in our town that will pick up a pile of laundry at your home, do it all, fold it all, and deliver it a day or two later.

There are many restaurants in the area that offer takeout or convenient dining or delivery.

There are many housecleaning services.

There are many lawn care services.

There are at least three people on my block that offer child care services and would happily take children to required practices if needed.

The temptation to simply whip out the checkbook or the credit card and use one or more of these services, solely for a respite from the stress, is incredibly tempting.

Rather than preparing a meal at home each night, I could simply grab food from the local Mexican restaurant one night, pick up sandwiches another night, order pizza another night…

… but that’s another $30 or $40 in expense compared to making the meals at home.

Rather than trying to juggle laundry, I could simply call up the laundry service and leave several baskets on my front step, then open my front door a day or two later to find freshly folded clothes ready to be quickly put into drawers…

… but that costs a lot of money. It’s somewhere around $10 per load, by my estimation.

Rather than trying to juggle the logistical challenge of taking three kids to three different places for three different events in a particular sequence, I could simply hire someone to handle it (or ask a friend to help, if they weren’t similarly overwhelmed)…

… but the fee of child care is at least $10 per hour around here, especially if you’re expecting a child to be taken somewhere and picked up.

Rather than trying to clean up the house each day so that it’s at least semi-presentable for guests in the areas where guests might go (and keep a door or two firmly closed because, frankly, there’s no time to deal with it), I could simply hire a housecleaner to come in and get things in great shape…

… but the housecleaning services around here, again, cost at least $10 an hour for bare-bones service, and that adds up fast.

To summarize all of this, I can easily throw some cash at our temporary problems to reduce short term stress. If I took, say, $200 and used it to cut out some of the stressful elements of our life in the next few weeks, it would definitely make things easier in many ways.

However, over the longer haul, that $200 contributes to stress. That money has to come from somewhere, and it comes from our long-term plans. While it might seem like a drop in the bucket, the reality is that it means that our savings for our future is actually lower in a real way.

This is the core problem with foregoing frugality in the short term to alleviate stress: if you can afford it right now, it becomes hard to directly see the cost of doing it.

We can afford that $200 right now and, yes, it would cut back on a bit of stress in the moment. That $200 expense really wouldn’t change anything in our daily life and, before long, that credit card would just be paid off.

Here’s the truth, though: that $200 came from somewhere and, very likely, it came from some kind of savings goal. It came from retirement, or from saving for a new vehicle, or from saving for a down payment.

I might not see this loss directly – in fact, I probably won’t.

Instead, what I’ll see indirectly is that I have to work a little more than I did before. I’ll have to spend just a little longer being uncertain about future plans. I have to deal with a particular flavor of background stress just a little longer.

So, what actually happens when I forego frugality to overcome a short term stress is that I end up paying back that stress over the long term, over a longer period of time.

Throwing that $200 at a stressor right now helps me deal with something over the next week or two, then it’s all over with. Life moves on. My family members do their tae kwon do belt tests. Soccer season winds down. That $200 disappears into the ether with no lasting impact.

However, putting that $200 aside for the future doesn’t really have much impact at all right now, but at some point down the road, it helps. That $200 reduces long term stress, but it does it just a little bit, though that reduction is stretched out over a very long period. It builds some return on that investment and helps me feel ready to retire just a little sooner, and helps me feel just a little less stressed out for retirement over the course of many, many years.

So, here are some takeaway practical lessons from all of this.

It makes a ton of financial sense to prepare for busy times when things aren’t so busy. During the lazy months of late summer, we knew that this busy period was coming, so we actually did the smart thing and prepared a little bit.

We cleaned out our pantry and organized it, so that meal prep is a lot easier than before.

We made some meals in advance and stored them in the freezer. We particularly worked on slow cooker meals that we could put in a single container, then just deposit into a slow cooker and turn it on low to cook for several hours with minimal effort (think stews). We also made some casseroles, like lasagnas and so on.

We got fully caught up on laundry so we could afford to get behind a little bit in the next few weeks.

So, if you see a really stressful time coming up, prepare for it. Get things done at home so that you can continue being frugal even when things get really stressful.

Clearly think about your priorities before you’re stuck in the heat of the moment, because “heat of the moment” decisions are almost always really stressful. Know what things take priority over other things so that when you’re stuck and having to make a difficult choice, that decision is already practically made for you.

You can figure this out in advance when stress isn’t bearing down on you. I often think about things like this when I’m in the shower or when I’m unloading the dishwasher or when I’m walking the dog. I think through future situations and try to figure out what the best way to resolve them would be.

I find that by thinking through these situations when I’m not stressed out, I tend to come to really sensible, rational conclusions about what to do. Better yet, I find that if I’ve thought these things through and have smart conclusions ready to go, they immediately pop into my head when things go bad and I’m able to just handle the situation well. I don’t have to freak out when deciding who to take to what first or what to do about a dinner gone bad. I have a plan, I know that plan, and I can just move forward on that plan.

A final tip: make those priorities clear as can be to everyone. I even go so far as to recite my priorities for a particular afternoon to the family so that they know what the priorities are. I’ll say, for example, that my primary goal this evening is to get everyone to black belt practice, and the next priority is to get everyone home for a family dinner together, and the next priority after that is to get people to soccer practices. If I’m in a situation where I have to choose, I just follow those priorities.

Learn some helpful “de-stressing” “power ups” and use them. One of the best strategies I’ve found recently for dealing with personal challenges comes from Jane McGonigal’s wonderful book SuperBetter: The Power of Living Gamefully. It’s an incredible read, one that I recommend for anyone who struggles with overcoming any kind of personal challenges, whether self-imposed or imposed by things outside your control.

One of the most powerful ideas I’ve peeled from that book is the idea of “power ups.” A “power up” is something you can quickly do in your life to create a positive feeling, one that makes you feel better and leaves you more in control of whatever kind of challenge you’re trying to overcome.

McGonigal recommends having a repertoire of power-ups you can tap so that there’s variety available and so that you don’t “wear out” one particular power up through repetition.

Based on McGonigal’s advice, I have a number of “power ups” that I rely on that helps a lot with stress and feeling overwhelmed. This is a huge step, because that sense of stress and feeling overwhelmed often convinces me to abandon frugal principles and throw money at a problem when that runs directly counter to my long-term life goals.

Here are a few of my favorite “power ups.”

+ I meditate for ten minutes by sitting in a chair or in my car and simply focusing on nothing but my breath, going in, going out, going in, going out, and bringing my focus back to it if my attention goes elsewhere.

+ I eat an orange. Oranges are my favorite fruits. I absolutely love the taste and texture. (You might want to just have your own favorite fruit on hand.)

+ I vigorously exercise for a few minutes. My favorite thing to do is to plank until I can’t do it any more, paired with some deep stretching. If I have ten or fifteen minutes, I like to hop on my bike and ride a few miles really quickly.

+ I watch the music video of one of my favorite uptempo songs. I’ll watch Ain’t No Man by The Avett Brothers, My Girls by Animal Collective, or 6 AM Jullandar Shere by Cornershop, or the theme from The Natural. I want something that wakes me up and makes me feel good and alive.

+ I drink a big glass of really cold water. It wakes me up and makes me feel good for a while.

+ I take a longer shower than usual and just enjoy the water running over me. Sometimes, I’ll sing a song.

I have lots of these kinds of “power ups,” but many of the others are really tailored to personal interests. I strongly encourage you to figure out some of your own “power ups” and use them to help you deal with stressful slices of life.

Postpone major financial decisions until the end of a stressful period. If you’re going through a period where stress is high in your life, you’re likely to not make good financial decisions, and big financial decisions add more stress, making everything even more challenging.

For example, if you’re forced to move unexpectedly, don’t immediately buy an expensive house. Move into an apartment, settle into the other life changes, let the stress subside a little, and then shop for a house.

We may be due to change vehicles soon, but our automobiles are in good enough shape to get through the next few months, so we’re simply avoiding that decision for now. We don’t need to add more stress to the equation and we also know that we don’t make good decisions when we’re stressed.

If a stressful period feels unending, find something to de-commit from because the reality is that you’re letting down all of your commitments when you’re overstressed. Over and over again, I have found that during periods of heavy stress, I simply don’t perform as well at my life commitments. I usually do “well enough,” meaning that I get through the situations without disaster, but I don’t perform well by any stretch of the imagination.

That period of subpar performance is usually buoyed by the fact that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, so the decline doesn’t last all that long and is counterbalanced by better efforts later on.

What if there is no light at the end of the tunnel, though? What if the period of heightened stress is set to continue for as long as you can see?

What that means is that you’re performing suboptimally in all areas of your life, without an end in sight. Rather than actually excelling at being a marital partner, at being a parent, at being a professional, at being a friend, you’re merely holding things together at best, and that’s not going to change.

If this describes you, you simply must step back from some commitments. You owe the key parts of your life more than the bare minimum. Whatever it is that you truly care about most deserves more of you than whatever scraps you can spare after everything else.

Look through your life, find some things that you can step back from, and start stepping back from them. This will lower your stress and it will improve your results in virtually every other aspect of your life. It’ll also make it far easier to make good spending choices in the moment.

In the war between stress and frugality, stress will eventually win out. It will erode through every good thing in your life, leaving you an empty and worn shell. It will take away your physical and mental health. It’ll take away your relationships. It’ll take away your reputation.

Don’t throw away the things you’ve worked for into the momentary pressures of stress. Instead, prepare for periods of stress in advance, recognize when those periods are ongoing and postpone key decisions, and if stress seems to be ongoing, look at making meaningful changes to your life.

Don’t simply throw money at the problem, because money won’t really solve the problem. It just postpones it.

Good luck.