Monday, January 17, 2011

Redefining need

Most of my friends know that I come from humble beginnings. We didn't have much when I was growing up, so I was trained in the fine art of penny pinching from a very early age. Despite the fact that my adult life has been far more prosperous (aside from those budget-crushing years immediately following my divorce), this history has led a few people to request tips for living on a tight budget. Unfortunately, those people don't generally like what I have to say about it, so it's maybe a little odd that I'm choosing to share my unpopular advice with the whole of the Internets. But being unemployed means that I'm spending a fair amount of time thinking budgets, and this is my blog, so there.

First, I need to clarify a few things. My budget is tight, but it's not unmanageable. Thanks to assistance from the state and from The Man, I have a roof over my head, food on my table, and clothes on my back. There are a lot of people getting by with a lot less than I have, so I don't mean to hold myself out as any sort of expert. And when I speak of a tight budget, I mean the kind of tight budget that means canceling cable, not the kind of tight budget that means basic needs aren't being met. This is an important distinction, because there's about to be a fair amount of "quitcher bitchin'," which would be entirely inappropriate were I speaking to people who are actually struggling to make ends meet. That's not who I'm talking to. I'm talking to the types of people who've specifically asked for my advice; people who've had to cut back, but whose basic needs are still being met; people like myself. Okay? Okay. Moving on.

If you're in a situation similar to mine, there's a very simple thing you can do to save money. Depending on your previous spending habits, it will either save you a lot or a little. How much money you need to save dictates how disciplined you need to be about it. Are you ready? Here's how you do it:

Stop buying stuff you don't need.

And done! That's it. No secret. Just don't buy shit you can't afford. There will be some things you want that you can't have. Get over it.

That's an annoying little piece of advice, isn't it? I say this to people who ask for my help, and they generally don't appreciate it. (Again, keep in mind I'm talking about a particular type of person in a particular type of financial situation. I would never say such a thing to someone who was having a hard time feeding her children.) But if you're "broke," you're going to have to do without some extras. That's all there is to it. The tricky thing is, we don't always recognize them as extras. If we've gotten into the habit of something (eating out, clothes shopping every weekend, regular manicures) it ceases to feel extra; it ceases to feel like the luxury it really is. But it is a luxury, and if you can't afford it, you can't afford it. It's a valid point, dammit! (But maybe I could stand to work on my delivery.)

Here's what I mean. We've all come to expect a certain standard of living; we've come to feel entitled to it. And in so doing, we get our needs all mixed up with our wants. We're all very accustomed to saying things like "I need a hair cut," or "I need a new pair of shoes to go with this dress," or "I need a new phone." But what we really mean is that we want these things. The difference is maybe subtle and The Man, who already accuses me of being pedantic, might use this as more proof of his claim. But I think if we change the way we talk about these things, we begin to change the way we think about them as well.

And this is the first step to living on a tight budget (for me, at least): getting my head right and redefining need. It doesn't mean that I cut out everything that isn't a matter of life or death (unless I'm really that broke). But it does mean that I reevaluate all the extras in my life, and figure out how many I need to part with. Organic produce? Stay. Cable TV? Go.

That's where my earlier advice comes in: stop buying what you don't need! Which, really, should be broken down into a few more steps to make a little more sense:

1. Stop feeling entitled to things you don't need. These things are extras, not inalienable rights.
2. Figure out what extras you can afford on top of your (real) needs.
3. Stop buying things you can't afford.

When people come to me for advice, this isn't what they want to hear. (I understand. When I come to me for advice, it's not always what I want to hear either.) Instead, it seems people expect me to have some magical way to help them have all the things they're accustomed to having... but on half the budget. Sadly, that's not how it works.

It's going to be uncomfortable. That's how it works. But changing your thinking in order to get your wants untangled from your needs is a really, really good first step. Once that's done, the practical advice (more on that later) is a whole lot easier to swallow.

Did that sound preachy? It did, didn't it? Sorry about that. It's not how I meant it. Not exactly. Unless you're that person trying to convince me that you need an iPhone. To you I say, "pffffft!" That's right: "Pffffft," I say. Take that.


T said...

Ah yes, I could have written this post myself! Agree. Agree!

Habits are difficult to change in the moment but then... sure enough, they become better habits.

Wretched Delilah said...

Ummmm. I got nothing except "AGREED!"

ChopperPapa said...

That's going to ruffle some peoples feathers because the truth hurts.....even if you're not in financial distress, stop buying crap you don't need.

We fail to realize that "if I only had that" then I'd be often if we ever do, its usually too late.

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