Most of the frugal lifestyle changes we have made over the last ten years have come about slowly. We changed a few things after we had our first and second children, but the third child two years ago was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Not only did we have day care for three children, but all the chaos three children can bring.
This time last year we were managing health crises for all three children, had five horrible GI bugs in the span of three months, and despite neglecting our own well checks and dental visits, had almost no time off at work left. Something had to give, and that something was our belief that we couldn’t manage on one income and still meet the financial and educational goals we wanted to meet.
Frugal living has an unpleasant reputation because it brings to mind deprivation and want.
In reality, it is about prioritizing the needs of your future self over the wants of your present self. Five years ago, we could not have imagined needing to have one parent in the home. Our future selves are surely happy, though, that our past selves opted to cut cable, skip vacations, and maintain a tight grocery budget so we could prioritize payoff of our student loans and cars. Misfortune in an inevitable part of life, and that means we all have a future self who is going to have to live with a job layoff, emergency, serious illness, fire, or unexpected death.
Frugal living is not just focused on the big picture either. It is also focused on thinking carefully and mindfully about “just enough” in the now. We’ve all watched a kid at a birthday party bursting with enthusiasm when opening the first present become bored and uninterested halfway through a giant pile of gifts. I have seen it happen in my own kids.
The truth is after a certain amount of something, the pleasure we get from more of it falls sharply. Think of all the things we consume: clothes, shoes, electronic gadgets, books, music, restaurant food, toys. While we have basic human needs that must be met for food, clothing, shelter, health care, and comfort, past a certain point we are just piling crap on top of crap.
At the same time, we have emotional and physical needs that are being neglected. How many of you get three hours of outdoor time every day? Spend hours every day pleasantly interacting with family and/or friends? Share a meal together? How many hours of free play are your kids getting? How much time do you spend stopping and smelling the roses, in prayer or meditation?
Conversely, how much time do you spend on your commute? How many days go by where you only spend a few minutes outside of your house, car, or office? How much time do you and your family spend rushing from one place to another? How often do you take a vacation day for actual relaxation?
Our life before a year ago meant spending a morning rushed and stressed getting three kids ready for day care, even though I worked from home, followed by a workday with a lunch break at my desk for me and a lunch break running errands for my husband. We paid for a cleaning service because that meant even less time with the kids if we had to do it ourselves. We ate out several times a week. I would sometimes jump on the treadmill desk here and there during a lull in work, because neither of us had time or energy to exercise regularly. We were constantly sick from day care germs, and it was not helping our 1 year old with asthma. We had a monthly date night with a paid sitter at an expensive restaurant. We spent a lot more on Christmas, but I can’t even remember what we bought the kids. I got monthly pedicures and used a Groupon to get my hair cut and highlighted every two months.
This week is a pretty typical week for us now: I walked the preschooler back and forth to preschool three days this week, which is 4 miles total each day. We ambled along and looked at the trees and birds and rocks along the path instead of worrying about being late. I might put about 10-12 miles a week on our minivan tops. I walked on the treadmill 6 days and lifted weights three times. I stood at the bus stop with my son every morning and chatted with the neighbors, and was there every afternoon when he got off. I worked on Monday, and my kids were at the sitter, where they played with a half dozen other neighborhood kids and will spend all afternoon outside on a nice day instead of a scheduled 30 minutes twice a day. On my days off we spent most of every morning outside or at the YMCA’s indoor play area. We had an impromptu trip to the park. We ate healthy at home meals every day. We had homemade snickerdoodles and cinnamon rolls. We relaxed by watching movies (all from the library) and reading books (the digital library).
If I compare last year to this year, I can easily see the real deprivation. Though we had a lot of frugal habits, our time-deprived and stress-full lifestyle lead us to spend more to try and buy back that time and reduce the stress of finding dinner, cleaning the house, and to give ourselves some more “me-time”.
This past year of working only a few days a month and being carefully spendy on only those things that have enough wow factor and get us out experiencing things instead of sitting inside (amusement park passes, cheapie theater tickets, nature camp) has only driven home that our plan to minimize our wants, save as much as we can, pay off the mortgage, and retire early is the right path for us.
We may have given up cable, plans for a big house, expensive birthday parties, salon haircuts, pedicures, and the latest electronic gadgets, but I think our future selves are not going to miss them very much, not when we have the happy memories of endless summers.