Prepare to apply mental lubricant. Sometimes that’s what it takes to break free of mental ruts. (Tonight’s involves gin.) Part of changing perspectives is recognizing things that have been purposely neglected and suppressed. Occasionally, especially when circumstances change, it makes sense to consider changing priorities, spending habits, and accidentally ingrained habits. Several years ago I had switched from frugal by choice to frugal by necessity. I’m still frugal, but finances and possibilities have improved to where I can consider fixing or replacing things I’ve actively ignored. For decades, regardless of income or assets, I’ve played with another financial exercise. What do I want to buy, next?
When the answer to “What do I want to buy, next?” is commandeered by the basics for life: food, shelter, healthcare, etc. the list isn’t as entertaining. I continue to consider driving to the north of the island a luxury because I’m very aware of the cost of gas and my truck’s fuel efficiency. At times like that, a wish list includes having enough to eat, a place to sleep, reasonable health, and a way to get around. I know my perspective is changing because I’m thinking about things that are very useful, but not essential. Luxuries? Well, that’s a point of perspective, too. I bought a pack of new tee shirts a week or so ago and that feels luxurious. No more than the required number of holes. No frayed sleeves or collars. Soft, as if none of the fibers have been washed away.
This financial exercise started decades ago when I was in a tent waiting for a storm to pass. I’d read all of the books I’d packed. (Read any of my Twelve Month series books in the Cascade Mountains and notice that, when I run out of books, I pack up and head home.) Paper, pencil, and not enough light to read what I was writing were good conditions for something like a list. This was back when discretionary income exceeded almost all of my playful expenses. It was a nice place to be. And yet, even then, there were things I just hadn’t gotten around to buying. Some were simple curiosities, like a nicer set of pocket carabiners for a new key chain. Others were grandiose, like major voyages or home projects. There was, however, a long list of things to buy. After I thought I’d run out of ideas, I went back through the list and guessed at prices for each. So, I listed them all, just to see what the total would be. At least it would put lottery jackpots in perspective.
The list was easy to make, got very long, totaled to more than a minimum lottery jackpot, and woke me up in unexpected ways. Life was already good – and there was always something more to buy, use, or have. Then I saw something about how many things cost very little and were associated with little, daily annoyances: a broken watch band, a squirrelly computer mouse, sunglasses that weren’t quite right. Folks familiar with Pareto charts can appreciate what I did mentally and on paper. I marked off all of the items under some price point, looked at the total, and wondered what would be better: buying all of those potentially dozens of items or picking one item for the same total price that was much higher up the list. Sometimes, it was the one thing. Usually, it is the long list.
Adventurous but cautious, a chicken adventurer I am; which is why I took that list and didn’t buy those dozens of things. I’d buy one thing at a time, unless shipping costs suggested buying a few more things. I’d buy them, get them home, and use or properly store each one before I bought anything else. (Skis on sale in summer, and while I could hike onto a glacier to try them out, that would be a silly stunt.) Buying one thing at a time slows down the process, but actually using what I bought slowed things down enough that weeks or months might go by before I bought the next thing. By then, my priorities may have changed and something I thought was a need may have dropped right past want and down to inconsequential. I saved a lot of money by never getting around to buying some stuff.
Some point out that instead of ordering the list by price, list it by desire. That works too, but I found that two things I highly desired became roadblocks: early retirement, and significant philanthropy. That’s one way to reach those goals, by denying every other expense; but I’m not a fan of extremes. My wish list with prices lubricated many of those rough spots in my life. Besides, the exercise is voluntary, so I can step outside it and buy something pricey if I want to. Personal finance is personal, not just financial.
It has been several years since I’ve done the exercise. Now, spreadsheets make the sorting much easier. If I want to get quantitative about it, I can also use some of the analyses I’ve learned in various business management courses. The tools are there, but the mindset has shifted. That’s why a little mental lubrication is helpful. I need to break free of the habit of denial – without losing track of financial realities. My little seems like a lot, but it probably want make it far up the list. That would take a lot more.
Here are today’s results.
Oops. I did it again.
Before I even finished the list I took a walk, decided to run some errands, and bought three things that were refreshing cheap – especially because I started thinking about them. For less than $10 I bought an eraser, some post-it notes, and a box of envelopes. Seem trivial? Welcome to the world of people who don’t have enough to pay their bills. (ALAYCPYB)
Oh. Those things again.
Sure enough; every time I do this exercise some of the same things come up that can’t be bought: health, happiness, friends, freedom from fear, freedom from want, freedom of expression (which I think covers freedom of religion and freedom of speech), etc. Every time, I also leave them on the list. If I try to keep from letting them in, I find myself rebelling against my higher values.
Okay, some real results.
I could knock off 14 items for a total of under $1,000. My comfort number is less than that, but those 14 items include things that are good for business (shirts without holes in them, printer ink), emergency preparedness (a camping tent, solar shower), and simple things like a lens cap for my SLR. I can buy all of those things for less than one mortgage payment.
The biggies, again.
Like paying for retirement, there are several things on the list that aren’t easily waved away for the price of one month’s mortgage: new roof, new windows, new kitchen, new driveway, new vehicle, etc. Do you see the trend? Houses are expensive, even small ones like mine. They’re also a valuable asset, so some of those expenses are also investments, but that’s true for other things on the list like classes, tune-ups, doctor visits, etc.
I’ve already bought a few items, and will buy others. For now, I’m slowing down the process with another requirement. I’ll work through the list, one or a few items at a time, but only after I get paid, which is basically twice a month. As I said above, however, personal finance is personal, so I might just buy that backyard tent I’ve been thinking about. Backpacking tents are great, but they sacrifice a lot for the sake of weight and pack size. Backyard and camping tents can even let me stand up, in some. A nice alternative on hot summer nights, good emergency shelter (as long as I store it outside where I can get to it), and maybe a spare room for when guests arrive (and I can sleep outside in luxury.)
The mental lubrication helps, but it can also hurt. Be careful out there, and don’t buy anything until later. As silly as it sounds, shifting perspectives, even when it is for good reasons, sometimes needs a bit of assistance. Habits, especially survival habits, can be hard to break or set aside when they are no longer needed. Keep them in mind if the need or want arises, but also keep in mind that sometimes it pays to play with a new wish list for a new lifestyle.
PS Oh yeah, and I want hurricane matches, and a massage, and maybe a saner world where facts and logic rule. Ah, to dream of such luxuries.