September 2008 - Posts - Workin' It
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Workin' It

"Workin' It" is the blog for working parents who are committed to the frugal lifestyle. This blog addresses some of the issues working families face in keeping their lifestyle frugal, including childcare, work expenses, and the constant trade off between time and cost. The author and her husband, both law school graduates, work full-time; the author has a law firm, and dear husband a property management business. They also have an eight month old. Despite all that we have on our plates, we're still committed to living life frugally.

September 2008 - Posts

  • Some things I cannot change, but til I try, I'll never know...

    For those of us of the Jewish faith, the high holy days are right here, and have brought with them, as they have for over 5,000 years, a tradition of self-evaluation, of looking at where we've been so that we can go into the new year with a clean heart and a clean soul, having taken responsibility and made amends for the hurts we've caused, and having prepared ourselves to do better in the year to be.

    This process, the facing of faults and turning from errors, is incredibly hopeful to me. The implicit implication is that, by facing yesterday, we can make a better tomorrow, but only if we own our own errors and forgive others for theirs. Doing so is not just something that can give us a better religious tomorrow, but a better tomorrow all around, be we Jews, atheists, Christians, Buddhists, or even atheist Jews. 

    That better tomorrow includes a better financial tomorrow. We can't move forward in an intelligent, deliberate way until we really understand where we've been and why. There's a reason that a significant percentage of otherwise bright, dedicated folks find themselves so deep in the hole within a year of filing bankruptcy: they haven't done the essential work of examining and understanding their past behavior, taking responsibility for it, making amends (including forgiving themselves!) and then moving forward, wiser and hopefully better. 

    Why don't we do it? It's a question I'm always asking, but I think it's an important question to ask. So many of us *know* how to do better, how to have a more fulfilling, prosperous, meaningful, happy life. So why do we live with guilt instead of seeking forgiveness, with debt instead of seeking responsibility, with fear instead of seeking knowledge, with stuff instead of meaning?

     The answer, as always: because it's hard. Once a year, Judaism requires that one face oneself once a year, warts and all, and grow. Becoming full adults, engaged in adult lives and seeking our own meaning in this world, requires staring at that warty visage on a regular basis and learning from what we see there, despite the pain and discomfort and even embarassment of doing so. 

     The days to come are called "The Days of Awe," and for good reason. It is truly awe-inspiring, this capacity each and everyone of us has to create a better self, in all of its facets, by knowing and owning all the ways ourselves have been less than ideal thus far. It's a thing of incredible hope and even joy. Despite all the sturm-und-drang around us, the nigh-apocalyptic economic news, and all the hurts I'm faced with having caused in this past year, I am overwhelmed with hope and joy knowing what incredible selves, incredible lives, and indeed an incredible world each of us can build, if we can face the pain and grow.

    L'shanah tova tikatevi v'taihatemi: may each of us be inscribed and sealed for a good year. 

  • Lookin' around here, you'd think, "Sure, she's got everything."

    Like most Americans, I'm surrounded by enormous piles of crap. In the immediate vicinity, there's a printer, an empty Coke can, a marker, eight hundred and sixty two thousand pencils, a binder catalogue (I'm a lawyer, we get stuff like that), a sippy cup...just way too much to list. I spent hard-earned money (and therefore time) on everything around me right now, but does it make me happy?

     Truth be told, not really. Stuff, I think, can't really make anyone happy once you have the needs met in an adequate fashion. Then you have to move up Maslow's hierarchy, and seek fulfillment in something more than the animal needs, which is really all stuff can fulfill. The human capacity--and need--is greater than a new couch or a million gigs of space. Happiness, for humans, comes from meaning.

    So why are Americans in particular so stuck on stuff? Why do we seek meaning at Walmart, as if we need only the proper accessories to step into Barbie's dream life?

    I think work is a large part of it. We need a job to survive. We need work to thrive. Not just time-filling and bill-paying, but engaging work that challenges us, that stretches us to the limit of our capacity and makes us feel a part of something larger. That old cliche about wanting to get out of bed in the morning? It's cliche because it's true; riches without meaning will never make a person happy, though it's a lot more comfortable than poverty without meaning. 

    Most folks know, in that deep, ineffable place where the self lives, that "stuff" will never make them happy, that they're capable of more than just meeting needs at an ever more sophisticated level. So why don't we? Why do we sublimate all of our ambitions into an Xbox, and spend the very money that could let us pursue a new path, the path that could lead to meaning, on shoes and belts that won't do the first thing to bring us closer to true happiness?

    For starters, the idea's just not out there all that much. Media, which is the main cultural intermediary, survives on advertiser money. Advertisers don't sell meaning; advertisers sell stuff. Ever seen a beer commercial with two social workers talking about the intangible rewards that make the paltry salary and grueling hours worth it? Nope, didn't think so. There's also the simple economic reality that there are a lot of incredibly unfulfilling jobs that companies need done, for the lowest cost possible. Companies exist to make the most profit possible, and that requires human labor, not human fulfillment. But it can't all be laid at the media's and the corporations' door, either. The other, probably bigger, part of the puzzle is much more personal and simple:

    Making a meaningful life is incredibly difficult.

    It involves knowing yourself, knowing your gifts and limitations, knowing your values, knowing your deepest desires. It requires deep, ardent commitment. Creating a life of meaning, a life that stretches a person daily and engages their gifts, is ultimately an incredibly personal journey that brooks neither the faint of heart nor those unwilling to sacrifice. But the truth is anyone can do it. Even while holding down a job, one can still engage in and commit to the work that will ultimately nourish and sustain the soul while the job sustains the body.

     For me, this is where frugality's true importance lies. Frugality is one of the most powerful tools we have to limit the control of our jobs, so that we may pursue our work. By practicing frugality, we lessen the amount of money we need to support our needs, freeing up time to pursue whatever makes our hearts pound with joy. Personally, frugality allows me to run my own practice, focusing on the clients whose cases most matter to me. Every dollar I don't need for "stuff" is time I can spend on what really matters. If you ask me, you can't find a better deal than that. 

  • Those who fail to plan...

    Should plan to fail.

     (Yes, I do love me some aphorisms. Thanks for noticing).

    I'm fairly sure I've seen this one on this site before, but I think it bears repeating. If we don't use our time and resources in a purposeful way, we fritter. Little bits of time get spent on projects that don't move our careers forward; a dollar here or there gets spent on gas station soda instead of reducing debt or increasing savings. The most powerful tool any of us has is in between our ears, and yet as a culture, we seem deeply opposed to actually using that tool for our betterment.

     Why? Part of it, of course, is that we're trained NOT to think. Critical thinking is anathema to Madison Avenue; how much hair dye or beer can you sell if people look at your ads and say, "How absurd! It's not like consuming that product will make me beautiful/sexier/wealthier/surrounded by awesome horses." For those who watch TV (so guilty), we're acculturated only a daily basis to be passive, accepting, uncritical consumers. 

    Of course, those clever cats at the financing companies are working on us too, making buying an ever easier (and therefore less thought-provoking) process. Now, instead of counting out cash or writing a check, we can swipe a card. Heck, you don't even have to swipe the thing anymore, you can just wave it at the machine, if the ads I see on TV are to be believed. Countless studies have shown that people spend substantially more if they use credit than cash, and I think it's the unreality of the payment mechanism that causes it.

    And then there's the broader culture of unthinking. Try talking about politics on a basis beyond party lines, or crazier yet, European or Asian or Middle Eastern politics. Read the Financial Times or the Economist. Get all passionate about books and start sharing it, dissecting Marquez or Allende with the passion most people reserve for lover. Heck, form your own opinions about Lost and stand by them. You could measure in milliseconds how long it takes people to stare as if you have two heads and a polka dot tail. Maybe it's never been cool, I'm too young to say for sure, but being intellectually engaged with the world is definitely not "cool" now.

    So who do we blame? At whom do we shake our fingers and say, "You did it! You caused me not to think, and as a result, I've wasted time and money digging myself into this hole!"

     Hate to tell you, babe, but there's no one to shake that finger at. If there's something wrong in your life, you've got only one choice. "Gifto to the mirror and look at yourself / and see what that man has to say." In the end, my life is MINE. And that means that the only person who's responsible for it is me. For all my successes, and also for all my failure, I bear the ultimate choice and the ultimate responsibility. Your life is yours, and Sally's life is Sally's. Personal responsibility, like intellectual engagement, is one of those things that's gone out of style, but really, it takes both to get us to the other side of the financial road. 

    I sure don't plan to fail. How about you?



  • "Shopping" is not a hobby!

    I sometimes muse to Hofpapa that, with certain notable exceptions (divorce and extreme medical situations spring to mind), that I don't understand what's so hard about living within one's means. It's a matter of math!

     Then I went to the mall...

    The background to this: I weedwhacked my own hair from shoulder-length to above my ears. It looked awful. A girlfriend needed a necklace for her sister's wedding, and was planning on going to the mall. Since there's a good little hairstylist in Macy's, I figured I'd tag along. We made a day of it, complete with over-priced, unhealthy (but oh-so-yummy) mall pizza.

     Since the last time I was in a mall was to by shoes for *my* wedding, lo those many years ago, I'd forgotten that shopping is indeed an American institution. Armies of people, men, women, boys, girls, and babies thronged our local mall. Bags piled upon bags of just...stuff. Gigantic cups of Starbucks. Bags of jelly beans from the little candy shop. At first, it didn't really phase me. "How nice," I thought, "other folks out having a special day."

     Later on, though, it occurred to me that this wasn't a special day for a lot of those folks. It's a normal Sunday. If the weekend isn't spent shopping at the mall, it's shopping at Walmart, going out to the movies, going out drinking and dancing, spending spending spending. It seems that we don't know how to have a good time unless we're out spending money.

     Admittedly, the Hofpapa and I are "boring," especially compared to other folks in their mid-twenties. We only rarely drink, we don't do the party thing, and I think I still looked good in tight red pants the last time I went dancing. Our downtime is pretty quiet: volunteering, writing, reading books, playing with the baby, having friends over or going to visit friends at their house, taking walks, going to the park, visiting with family, and just enjoying the people we love fill up our non-working hours. Shopping is something we do when we need something (because, yup, every time we go shopping, stuff jumps in the cart). Somehow, though, I don't think we're deprived. I'm even willing to wager that we're generally *happier* filling up our free time this way...the weekend never seems to disappear in a pile of crap we don't need. Instead, it usually ends full of good memories of time spent together. Isn't that a much better "hobby" than spending money you don't have on stuff you don't need?


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