Turning Fear into Joy

Fear drives me.

I fear feeling like I did in April 2006, when I realized that I wasn’t able to pay my bills any more.

I fear feeling like I did in November 2005, when I felt like I had to make a choice between my child and my career, and without the career I would be unable to support my child.

I fear returning to a state where I just view my own future as a complete unknown and hope that serendipity makes it all right for me.

I fear returning to a day where I’m so overconfident in my own abilities and traits that I feel I have no need to work on improving myself and instead whittle away the days.

Some might say that fear is a prison, but I look at it much differently.

It is much like the fear of a former prisoner who is now on the outside of the bars, knows what it felt like to be on the inside, and never wants to return.

In other words, it’s a fear counterbalanced with the joy of having a great deal of freedom. I know what I have now, and I don’t want to lose it. The fear I have of going backward and the joy I have from going forward combine together to keep me on a financially sustainable path.

Here are three different examples that illustrate what I’m talking about.

Groceries Not too long ago, I viewed grocery shopping as “that boring thing you did when you ran out of milk.” I’d go to the store without a list, buy some milk, buy a few other items impulsively, possibly buy a few prepackaged meals, and head out. Most of my meals came from restaurants, where I’d easily drop $10 for breakfast, another $10 for lunch, and another $20 for dinner a lot of days.

Today, I make a meal plan and a grocery list before I head out to the store. My average meal cost is $2, with more than half of my meals coming in below $1. Instead of driving to a restaurant, eating there, and coming home (burning a good two hours), I can have a good meal on the table in thirty minutes most of the time. My grocery bill is higher than before, but not much higher, and my restaurant bill is virtually gone. My food costs have halved over the past seven years and, as a family of five, we spend less on food per month now than we did when it was just my wife and myself after getting married.

Could I fall back on a routine of eating out for every meal? I probably could. Inside of me, though, I know it would be a huge mistake. Even more important, though, I would lose the joy I get from preparing my own meals (or enjoying those my wife has prepared). I wouldn’t get to have simple joys like giving my son a taste of the pasta sauce I’m making or shooing my daughter away from stealing an olive out of the kitchen. The joy of cooking would be lost in the process.

Hobbies For several years, I purchased a new video or computer game each week, on average. I played golf, which required a constant influx of equipment and green fees. We went to multiple movies a week and owned several hundred DVDs.

At some point, I began to realize that most of those hobbies, in the end, were just expensive ways to facilitate spending time with people I liked and cared about. Golf was fun, sure, but the reason to go was to spend time with people. Films were great, but they were often only great as a shared experience with my wife and with other moviegoers. Video games were tremendously fun, but quite often the icing on that cake was interacting with other video game fans.

You don’t need expensive stuff to interact with people. In fact, you really don’t need much stuff at all. Many evenings, I’ll just play a board game with my wife, often one that was given as a gift to me years ago. We can replay such a game hundreds of times, while even the best movie doesn’t stand up to such repetition. I’ll sit out on the deck with friends on a cool evening and realize that I don’t have to pay $75 to hang out with these people and enjoy the smell of dew and freshly cut grass.

An evening A great evening with my wife or with friends used to mean a night out on the town. It meant dinner at an expensive restaurant, often followed by a movie or a concert or something like that.

The problem, of course, is that those evenings eventually led to a credit card bill, a bill that would mean I’d spend quite a few evenings up at night with worry about how I was going to pay it back.

I began to realize that the easiest way to get rid of the fearful nights and keep what I loved about the other evenings was simple: it was all about the people. Rather than going out to an expensive restaurant, why not just have everyone over for a potluck dinner? The one part that matters – the people – are still constant. Rather than going out to a theater, why not just pick up a few sodas, pop some popcorn, and rent a movie from Redbox? Again, the part that matters – the people – are constant.

I was once in a desperate place. I’m now no longer in that place, but I never want to go back there. I’m in a much better place on the whole, and while there are perks of my old life that could always draw me back into poor spending habits or choices, I realize that I still have everything that really matters in my life.

And so much more.

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