Sunday, February 1

Are you a frugal fire fighter?

Not a thrifty version of a community hero (complete with dalmatian).

I'm talking about frugal fires. The unexpected costs that constantly threaten to upset the delicate balance of a fragile budget. For most of us on a tight budget, whether from low income or debt reduction, these are what keep us up at night.

It's these "fires" that we seem to spend our lives putting out. It's what can keep us from truly getting ahead, when we feel like we're merely ping-ponging from one crisis to another. It's disheartening and exhausting.

It may also be unavoidable.

I know, I know. This is supposed to be the part where I have some brilliantly simple frugal hack. Something that, built into your life, takes all of one minute a year and saves you a boatload of stress. But I'm just not sure that exists.

The fact is that you can't plan for everything. We all know that you can plan to the last penny. Then your kid will outgrow his sneakers. Or you develop some symptom or condition requiring medication. Or your last good pair of pants has a hole.

Some people may use emergency funds as their saving grace. Money in reserve definitely lessens the crisis down to more of an annoyance. But plans still have to be changed, money shift around and, later, replenished. Even a containable fire is still a fire.

When you're on a tight budget, you're far more susceptible to these random flares. They have a bigger impact, certainly, and they therefore consume more attention. And once your attention is focused on one area, others begin to slip.

This then creates the potential for crisis in these other areas, so we rush over to deal with them, allowing other sectors to start to go awry. We're like jugglers, always having to account for at least one more item than we have hands. One thing will always be in the air, threatening to plummet down.

It can be anything. You're so busy keeping the credit card payments timely, you bounce a check. You're so focused on not bouncing a check, you run up the credit card. You're so anxious to pay down the credit card, you forget to take care of irregular bills, like that doctor's visit.

However it starts, the end result tends to be the same: We blame ourselves. Not because we put too much on our plates, but instead that we can't handle it all. Whether we fall for the illusion that everyone else seems to have it together, or whether we're simply harder on ourselves than we are on others, we tend to place the blame squarely on our own shoulders.

I'm not advocating blaming your troubles on other people, or excusing bad financial judgment. But it seems like it would be a nice change of pace for many of us if, when faced with a mistake, we were able to say, "Well, I should have gotten this done. I probably would have under different circumstances. But this came at a bad time, when I had a lot of other things going on, and I am only human."

I've mentioned this before, but studies have shown that the human brain has a finite capacity for priorities. If you have more list items than you have list space, well things will be interesting for awhile. Things will get shuffled around, which means some will inevitably get lost during it.

But those of us who are on constant watch for emergencies, we tend not to be all that forgiving. We tend to expect more out ourselves than we do others. And when we inevitably can't perform to expectation, we make ourselves try harder next time. All this basically just creates a perpetual cycle of stress, self-recrimination and exhaustion.

Really, don't we have better things to do than to sit around criticizing ourselves? I know I do. I'm personally sick of never living up to my own expectations. Perhaps the first or second time, I could rationalize that I wasn't trying hard enough. But by now, really, I think my "failure" says more about the grading system than the person being graded.

I have this theory that everyone has an idealized self. Whether it's you a few pounds thinner or more organized or more frugal, deep down you see yourself as just a step or two away from perfection in some category.

For me, it tends to be two-fold: Weight and organization. I want to be thinner, and I doubt that needs explaining, though it's also for health reasons. But organization? I have far less in my energy tank than most people, but I still want to be quick and efficient. I'm still incredibly angry with myself when I fail to hit these marks.

Here's the real kicker, though: Knowing that I shouldn't procrastinate on a chore makes me more likely to procrastinate. Because I want so badly to be organized and to not be a procrastinater, I feel guilty about the slightest instinct toward putting things off. This causes stress, which makes me not want to deal with it. And it all becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Nowadays, I try to stop saying "I should" and start thinking about ways around what I will do. If I know I'm going to procrastinate, I plan for it. If I have a deadline, I plan to be done three to four days early. This gives me time to procrastinate, even though each time I try not to, and still come around to the "Just suck it up and get it done" mindset -- all without being late.

It's kind of miraculous, really: Once you take the stress out of the equation, things get easier. If you're not spending all your energy hating yourself for the way you are, you have an awful lot of it left over for actually getting something done.

And so I have to wonder how many of us frugal fire fighters are out there, blaming ourselves instead of trying to fix the problem? Sure that we can just try harder next time. Sure that the pattern isn't broken, we are.

What if we simply accept that life is unpredictable, things will be thrown our way, and we may or may not be able to handle it? What if we stopped making precise budgets, if it's likely that they'll keep being blown apart anyway? What if we stopped trying to anticipate every potential turn of events, since we're inevitably surprised by some new wrinkle anyway? What if, when things overwhelm us, we didn't blame ourselves, but rather accepted it as a consequence of being human?

Would that leave us more energy to deal with the next wave of "suprises"? Would we start to think of alternate ways to handle them?

Perhaps we would actually start to like ourselves more. Perhaps we could stop blaming ourselves for not being able to predict the unpredictable and contain the uncontainable. Perhaps we would actually give ourselves permission to be imperfect. Maybe, if we stopped reaching for perfection, we could be comfortable in who we are, rather than who we could be.

And now I'll leave you with a wonderful quote from Margaret Cho (though her tirade is about weight, I think it's pretty widely applicable to any kind of self-acceptance).

So from the age of 10, I became anorexic, and then bulimic, and then stayed that way for about twenty years, until one day I just said, Hey, what if this is it? What if this is just what I look like, and nothing I do changes that? So how much time would I save if I stopped taking that extra second every time I look in the mirror to call myself a big fat f---? How much time would I save if I just let myself walk by a plate-glass window without sucking in my gut and throwing back my shoulders? How much time would I save? And it turns out I save about 97 minutes a week. I can take a pottery class.


Blogger Shevy said...

Wow. Just wow. You so hit the nail on the head. I'm always juggling and fighting fires and every time I look in one direction something else catches me unaware. Usually something I could have predicted.

My only difference of opinion with this is that when I get overwhelmed I tend to stop doing certain things that help keep me afloat. I need *not* to let go of them and the way I read what you said you're giving me permission to do so.

If I'd fallen off a boat and was clinging to a flotation device would I let go of it just because I was trying to fire off a flare gun? Nope. But I can be trying to make sure I pay something by a certain date and then fail to do something useful like keep updating my passbook so I really know how much money I have in the bank (or how deep in overdraft I am). Then I miscalculate by a few bucks and POW!

I need to keep entering stuff into Excel and to keep updating my accounts *especially* when things get hectic or money gets tight or I have a bunch of things to pay. Because I think that would keep some of the other things from turning into fires at all.

But you're absolutely right on about the way I beat myself up. Gotta stop that.

Isn't the definition of insanity doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different outcome?

February 1, 2009 at 11:17 PM

Blogger Meg said...

I think I am constantly treading water economically because of "fires". We use the credit card for emergencies, so it seems that whenever we're about to be paid off, we have car trouble or something else breaks or some other emergency pops up.

I guess I should have a saving account for that stuff instead of using the card and paying interest.

Things are improving a bit overall though, because we are paying usually of our bills the day they arrive and NOT getting hit with late fees.

February 2, 2009 at 8:38 AM


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