Monday, August 10

Stress: Enemy of frugality

Stress may easily be the biggest impediment when you're trying your best to be frugal. Whether it's an impending move, deadlines at work, family problems or something else, you simply have a harder time maintaining the extra effort that is frugality.

We all respond to stress differently, but there are a few key ways that it affects most of us:


Stress often makes it hard to sleep. The list of things you have to do runs through your head over and over. Or perhaps you simply hyper-focus on the situation at hand. Either way, it can be hard to shut your brain off at night. This means being awake later and sleeping less. When you're not well rested, it's hard to function normally. Exhaustion makes it hard for you to think straight, let alone devise crafty ways to save money.


Even those who can sleep at night will find that stress takes extra energy. You tend to obsess about the situation or about all the things to get done. Other times, it's simply the tension in the air that is exhausting. Whatever the situation, you'll have less energy to put forth into regular endeavors. That includes frugality. You're more likely to cut corners and make use of convenience. Being too tired to cook means delivery food or eating out -- certainly more expensive than making something at home. A lack of energy also means you have less to spend on shopping around. You'll be tempted to just get everything at one grocery store, regardless of something being cheaper elsewhere.


When you're stressed, you're usually either cranky or on the verge of breaking down sobbing. Or both. That's not helped by the lack of sleep or the loss of energy -- neither of which lightens your usual workload. All this combines to make for ideal unfrugal conditions. You may snap at people, alienating those who would normally help you out or support your frugal efforts. Or you may simply feel overwhelmed, as though you're flailing desperately to keep your head above the proverbial water. In that situation, it's hard to muster a successful campaign to save money. Often, it's all you can do to keep yourself fed and clothed.

I think these are the big three when it comes to stress. They all hit pretty hard. And each one individually is enough to sink your normal frugal efforts. So what can you do?

Well, you have a few different options.


If you know that this stress is short-term -- say, planning a wedding or an annual large project at work -- you can talk to your doctor about sleep aids. Medications like Ambien and Lunesta can be taken for short amounts of time (as in 2 weeks) without becoming dependent on them for sleep.

You could also see how supplements might help your situation. For example, there's evidence that magnesium plays a large part in stress relief, especially in terms of sleeping. I've been taking a powder at night before bed. About 15 or so minutes later, I start to feel very... relaxed. Not dopey. Just... looser. As though the stress has drained out of my otherwise tensed muscles. By the time I hit the sheets, I'm just about ready to drift off. That's saying something. For most of my life, it's taken me at least half an hour (often significantly more) to wind down and shut my brain off enough to fall asleep.

If you're not into either of those options, consider some more basic options. Warm milk does the trick for some people. Most people's bodies respond well to a hot shower or bath. It relaxes the muscles and probably some other physiological things I don't know about. Simply think of the ideal conditions under which you've fallen asleep easily and seek to replicate them.


Obviously, if you sleep better, you'll have more energy. That's a given. But there are other ways to create more energy.

Eating better is one of the more obvious solutions. Junk food often makes you feel sluggish, and candy/ice cream will send you on a glycemic roller coaster that has you crashing every couple of hours. Try to add fruit into your diet to lessen sugar cravings. And, as always, try to combine protein with any sugar you eat so that your body will still have fuel when your blood sugar's spike trends downward. A favorite example here is peanut butter on an apple, but if you can't manage that, consider spreading some peanut butter on that piece of chocolate you're about to eat. Not quite ideal nutritionally, but still better than the sugar slump you'd otherwise find yourself in, since that often leads to more sugary foods.

Another long-time favorite is exercise. I know, I know, it sucks the first couple of times. There's nothing like trying to tell someone who feels exhausted and drained to go expend some energy. But we also all know that, counterintuitive though it may be, exercising does give you more energy.

When I know I need to exercise but am utterly devoid of energy, I have two methods that work for me. My first attempt is to schedule it into my day. Given the nature of my work, I find it's easiest to take my walk between 3 and 5 p.m. But that doesn't always work. Stress can sometimes make me feel like I have to go from one task to another with no breaks. When that happens, I try to utilize my stress to get me out of the house. As soon as I start feeling overwhelmed or frustrated, I take it as a sign to get my butt out the door and away from my usual environs. Taking a walk clears my head; the music often energizes me. Most importantly, I take energy that would have been consumed by stress and instead use it in a positive way to burn off some of that stress.

You should also, once again, consider supplements. Any physical or emotional stress can zap key nutrients from our bodies. Combine that with poor eating and you've got problems. Try to find time to schedule a doctor's appointment and get bloodwork done. That should tell you if you're missing anything important. If a doctor's visit is too much for you, start with a multivitamin.

Finally, consider being nice to yourself. I'm not talking candles and a bubble bath, though if that works for you then by all means turn on those faucets. I'm simply talking about easing up on the expectations you've set for yourself. Most people are stressed because they demand a lot of themselves. While, in theory, that leads to self-betterment, it can also lead to perpetual disappointment in oneself. That, in turn, can lead to more stress to make up for past "errors" or "laziness."

Instead, try to make things easier on yourself. For Tim and I, this often comes down to having convenience foods ready. If you crave pizza, stock up on frozen ones when there's a sale. At least then you're not spending $20-30 to eat badly. If you want to avoid the calories of pizza, fill your cupboards with cans of soup and other easy-to-prepare items. Or simply have something you can zap in the microwave: a favorite frozen dinner, hot dogs, whatever.

Also, learn to ask for help. This is probably the hardest thing to do. But stress is often the result of simply trying to do too much. If you're planning a wedding, try to assign a few tasks to others. Chances are, they're happy to help out on your big day. If work is consuming all your energy, explain that to partners and/or kids and ask them to, for the next month or so, do more around the house so that you can cross that off your list.


Chances are, if you take care of sleep and energy, you'll feel a lot more in control of your emotions. But not always.

If you find yourself still snapping at people or tearing up at socially awkward intervals, try to take yourself out of the situation. Take a bathroom break and calm down. Ask yourself why you reacted that way. Usually, you're not really angry at the person who instigated those emotions. At least, not in proportion to your outburst. Then, as embarrassing as it is, go apologize to the person and explain that you're stressed. Everyone's been there and will usually give you a free pass once if you say you're sorry.

If you can't seem to keep your emotions under control, you should consider some form of therapy. Whether you talk to your preacher, a counselor or simply someone you trust to have insight, it can help to get another viewpoint. People outside your situation tend to have a clearer view of things. You'll often find, to your dismay, you've created a lot of the restrictions that stress you out. You've decided you "can't" ask for help or for a longer deadline, without actually checking out that option. Or you just "know" that your family would think less of you if you couldn't make a fresh meal each night, keep the house clean, etc. Once again, your own expectations of yourself tend to be a lot higher than is reasonable. Another person can give you some perspective on that.

Have I left out any effects of stress? How do you best cope when the world seems to be breathing down your neck?


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