Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Tales from the Treadmill

My treadmill and I have an incredibly tumultuous relationship. It's very Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown-esque, you see. Sometimes we love deeply, other times we fight intensely. But, at the end of the day the fact remains that I need the treadmill in order to remain a sane, functioning member of this society. No, really: I am the most terrible, awful human beast woman you have ever met in your life when I have not had the opportunity to run. And I sometimes suspect my treadmill knows this. Which is probably why I despise it so much.

Our issues typically come to a head in the winter months, what with the fact that there is little sunlight remaining when I arrive home from work. That, and I do not have any interest whatsoever in waking up early during the week to run outdoors by myself. Mostly because I treasure my sleep, but also because I have a legitimate perceived fear of being kidnapped and murdered. Hey I live in a small rural town and I watch the news. So, I totally know how running alone in the middle of nowhere works when there are people who creepily drive unmarked vans.

But enough about my personal paranoia.

Our treadmill is located in the basement, which means that it really does not need to be terrible for any other reason than that. No one wants to hang out in the basement, except the dogs who spend most of their day down there in cages. They clearly didn't even have a say in the matter, either.

To make matters worse, I have been too lazy to call DirecTV the satellite signal is not working in the basement. So, when I run on the treadmill I'm just stare at the wall instead of watching a television program. Which I do, naturally. While listening to a Johnny Cash-Lady Gaga-Justin Beiber song mixture.

Whatever works, right?

Friday, January 13, 2012

Learning Self-Control. Sorta.

It is safe to say I'm not terrible with money. However, I have a serious problem with self control. There is just this thing that happens to me when I see something I want: I have to buy it. It's borderline obsessive, really. While it is necessary for me to dress professionally for my job, I would say that at this point in my life I have more than enough clothing options.

And shoe options.

And accessory options.

Options are good, but I recently realized I was spending more than necessary on items that were not, well, necessary. My closet is packed to the brim with stuff, y'all.

So, what's a gal to do?

Like everything else, dealing with money is all about tricking myself into having some semblance of self control. Because I have none when it comes to retail purchases. I am by no means bankrupting anyone, but I could stand to save more rather than spend more.

Here are some of the ways I'm working to fool myself into being thrifty:

1. Unsubscribing from e-mail lists for retail stores. Here's how this works: I sign up for the e-mail list. They give me free shipping, 20% off my first order, whatever. Then, they have me. They send me weekly e-mails, reminding me of sales and cute tops and oh look this thing you don't need is 30% off now! BUY IT. See, again with the self-control. I was on a lot of these lists. Every time an e-newsletter arrives, I unsubscribe. Out of sight, out of mind.

2. Using mint.com. This website is awesome: it's totally free, completely safe and it allows you to pull every single account that exists in your life together in one convenient location. I do mean everything too: car loans, mortgage, student loans, credit cards, bank accounts, investment accounts: they are all there. Plus, it shows you how you're spending your money, which is crucial for my self-control impaired self. Did you know that if you spend $30 here and then $50 there you soon spend $300 a month on clothing? Math is hard. Mint also lets me set a budget for categories as well, so I know when I have overspent for the month. Which makes me feel guilty about those 3 pairs of dress pants I bought last month.

3. Waiting a day. I realized something important about myself that is crucial to this situation: I want something right now. Or, yesterday. I can't be sure, things are hazy here. But, what I really want today is probably going to be a stupid idea tomorrow. Like, another pair of boots. Or, some black dress that is identical to the 343,000 I already own. I rarely sit on an idea before acting on a purchase---but I force myself to do it now. That dress really is a dumb idea and I don't buy it if I wait until tomorrow to revisit the idea.

4. Setting big & little goals. It's actually lot easier to save money when you are saving for something very specific. Maybe you want to buy a new car with cash. Perhaps it is your wish to go on a luxurious vacation next summer. Whatever it is, saving is much more fun when it's specific. We like to set really big goals and smaller monthly or yearly goals to keep things interesting. For example, we want to refinish our basement. We would be doing the work ourselves, which saves a lot of money. However, materials still cost money. That's our current "small" goal. Our big goal? To have our mortgage be the only major debt we have in 5 years. It's lofty, yes, but it's also very possible.

5. Making lifestyle changes. This, as you can imagine, is difficult. I like mineral makeup, salon hair products and other expensive things. I have come to realize that it is possible to have nice things without breaking the bank--it just takes some effort. These are some small changes that have really added up:
  • I am currently growing out my hair, which means I get fewer haircuts. I also went back to my natural color with the help of my hairdresser, then started dying and highlighting my hair at home using this product, which I love. I spend $15 every three months instead of $150.
  • We dropped our gym membership and bought a treadmill--which paid for itself in a year. Surprisingly, I find it's easier to stay motivated to exercise at home anyway. I also use a lot of exercise DVD's. When I get tired of a DVD, I sell it on half.com and buy a new one that is gently used.
  • We get the Sunday newspaper every week for the coupons. And er, the news. But mostly the coupons. I'm usually able to get multiple copies, which means multiple coupons.
  • We grocery shop based upon coupons & sales. I used to make fun of my husband for only buying something he wanted if it was on sale AND he had a coupon. But, it makes sense. Everything goes on sale eventually--and when it does you should buy it in bulk. A great example of this is cranberry juice. That stuff is crazy expensive, but we drink a lot of it. So, when it goes on sale we buy at least 12. The same goes for shampoo, hair products, toothpaste and whatever else you use. If it doesn't expire, you can just store it in a closet for later.  
6. Trick yourself into saving money for the future. When I got my first job out of college, the best advice I ever received was this: start saving for retirement right now. I was 22 and retirement was literally the very last thing on my mind, but I took the advice. We both work for organizations that require us to contribute to a state retirement account, but my husband and I both opened additional retirement accounts as well. Each year, we increase our contributions and in just six years time we already have impressive nest egg(s) that will only get better with time. The best part? Since we started saving right away, we never missed the money we contribute because it was never there for us spend in the first place.

7. Create an untouchable account. One of the greatest feelings in life is receiving a sizeable sum of money unexpectedly. It is wonderful to dream of all the things you could spend it on, but it's even better to pretend like it does not exist. If you were fine financially before that money then you will likely be fine without it, too. We were fortunate to be in this situation recently and after a day or two of thinking about it, we put it all into an investment account that we could not touch for one year. The stock market has smelled much like a moldy egg since then and we have failed to earn any money, but this was still a better idea than spending it on something else. We are planning to roll this account into a longer term account that we can contribute to each month to grow the money for use somewhere down the road. Or, for a rainy day. Either way works.

8. Pay extra when you can afford it. This is not realistic for everyone, but if you can afford it this is my advice: when you pay off one debt, use that money to pay down another debt that has the highest interest rate. We recently paid off my husband's truck, meaning we would have an extra $300-ish a month for other expenses. However, we are fine without that money, which we would spend on more dress pants who knows what if it sat idly in our bank account. Instead, we are adding the entire amount of his car payment toward my car payment instead. Not only will this help pay off my car sooner, but the extra money we pay goes toward the principle of the loan and means we pay less interest in the long run.

9. Pick up extra work. To make some extra cash, I regularly do freelance work on the evenings and weekends. I was able to find a position through Elance, a website dedicated to freelance jobs. I work with a company to write about 5 articles a day. It's perfect for me, because I love to write and it's not hard work. It also doesn't take much of my time, and it means I have some extra cash to spend however I choose. Whatever your talents are, use them to make some extra cash for splurging on the "extras" you like.

I am by no means a money expert, but I think saving money or being frugal is more about realizing your weaknesses and tricking yourself into avoiding those pitfalls so you can save money. I still have my moments, but I am beginning to realize there is nothing wrong with being frugal, even if you can afford to be spendy.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

My Life vs. Your Life

“Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma - which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of other's opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” - Steve Jobs

The world is an incredibly competitive place.

But, I am not telling you anything that you didn't already know for yourself. It seems like we are always competing with someone--anyone--for just about everything. Even the things that really don't mean much of anything. Like, the size of a television. Or, the label on a purse. The size or contents of a home.

Hell, we even compete with our stories about our dogs/children/spouses/in-laws/parents/whatever. We say our "this" is worse than your "that." Or, subtlety hint that a person is inferior because something they own isn't up to par in our eyes.

I think about this a lot, because I know that I'm often a participant in these types of conversations. By my very nature, I am a competitive person. Sometimes, things like this matter to me. But other times I realize that it's really all just a bunch of inconsequential nonsense. People compete with us without our knowledge, even. It often manifests itself in a nasty comment or look that sets us in some sort of unease. What did I do, we ask ourselves. Often, it really isn't about us--it's about them.

But I really and truly feel like it is all wrapped up in one concept that often creates chaos in our lives: expectations.

You know what I mean, don't you? It could be the expectations you have for yourself in some capacity: what you expect your position to be in life by a certain age; what you expect your spouse to be or do; or what you expect from others. Then, there are the expectations others have for us: what our parents want; what our spouse wants or what our friends expect from or for us.

These things are very tightly woven into our daily lives, often without us realizing they even exist. Sort of like land mines that are packed to the brim with very heavy emotions and painful shards of metal. It is natural for us and the people we surround ourselves with to expect things. However, those expectations sometimes turn into assumptions and they don't always provide a perfect fit as we grow emotionally.

We have options, of course. We can rebel. We can reject expectations, regardless of whether it hurts someone else or not. Or, we can go along with the song that has already been written for us, because it's really just easier that way. It's a much neater package when we simply go with the flow because we don't want to rock the boat.

But, this is your life. That sound? It's the beat of your heart, not anyone else's. And wasting any of those precious beats on a path that no longer makes you happy is no different than throwing them away entirely. You are allowed to change your own expectations. In fact, it's probably the best thing you could ever do for yourself.

When I look back on those moments in my own life where I was truly unhappy, it was also a time where I also felt a great sense of envy or anger because my life wasn't like someone else's life. Or, my current position was not what I had once imagined it to be. I find that truly understanding that my path is mine alone has changed my entire outlook on life---and what I want for myself. It doesn't matter that my 28 year-old counterparts have two or three children already. It really makes no difference that I may never give birth to a child; that is my path, not yours. And really? The acceptance of my own reality was what I was striving for all along, I was just too angry to see it.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012


Did you make a resolution for the new year?

I did not. Actually, it's safe to say that I rarely do.

You see, I have always found the idea of waiting to change until there is the chance for a "fresh start" somewhat...irritating. As in, I'll start my diet on Monday. Or, I'll workout regularly next year.

When I belonged to a gym (we dropped our membership a few years back & work out at home now) it never failed that the once moderately full gym was a zoo in the months of January and February. Filled with people who had resolved to exercise---and by St. Patrick's day the masses had diminished.

Why do we wait for what we perceive to be a fresh start to make a major change in our lives?

I believe that if there is something you truly do not like about yourself---something that bothers you, something you would rather not be or something you hate to do---you should change it right now. Not tomorrow. Why wait? Why push for something to change or some sort of grand experience to inspire you when the odds are not at all in your favor for success?

I'm not saying you shouldn't make resolutions or vow to do things differently. I'm not saying you are going to fail, either. What I'm saying, actually, is that you shouldn't waste your time waiting for Monday to start what you could be doing right now. Monday will come sooner than you think, and you'll be left feeling overwhelmed. Whether you want to eat healthier, lose weight or meet a goal of some kind, there is no better time than the exact moment you feel that whisper to change. Now.

That being said, it is nice to feel like you have the opportunity to make a fresh start. The year has only just begun and there's really no way you could begin to imagine what this new year has in store. You will probably be pleasantly surprised. Or, incredibly disappointed. You will be deliriously happy. You will probably cry. Or laugh. Or realize something important about yourself you didn't know in 2011. Those things are guarantees, actually.

For me, I wish only one thing for myself: to have the courage to always follow my heart. That was my prayer for 2011 and it's still my prayer for 2012. It's ambiguous, yes, but it makes me feel incredibly inspired. That's all I want, really--to feel inspired every day of my life to do what my heart is telling me to do. Following your heart isn't always easy, you know. I think about what that means every single time I make a decision: am I doing this because I feel obligated to do it, is this what others expect of me, or is this what my heart tells me is right?

In life, people are constantly making decisions for you. Telling you what you should do, or making you feel like you have to do something because it's what everyone else does. Making you feel obligated to say or do one thing over another because it's socially acceptable or right in their eyes. We get caught up in that idea of expectations---and it's a tricky game to play. Personally, I think you should try to do something once each day that makes someone else gasp audibly. You know, in that oh-good-sweet-Jesus-I-cannot-believe-she-did-that kind of way. It really makes you feel alive to not give two you-know-whats what anyone else thinks. In your own bad ass way. Without apologizing afterwards.

I will always think of 2011 as the year I finally found peace. Peace with myself, and with my current position in life. It was a long road, the one that lead up to 2011; and it did not start out that way. But it was worth every bump in the road and every heartbreak along the way; I was stronger in 2011 than I ever was in 2010. And I know with great certainty that I will only continue to get better in 2012. Not because of some list I wrote of all the things I want to do this year. Beacuse I made the choice to move on, learn from the past and never let it weigh me down ever again. That's what true freedom feels like.
It's your life. It's your year---do with it as you please. Take chances. Use every opportunity. And do the things your heart wants for you. And try the making people gasp thing. It's much more fun than you think.


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