Commandment #1: Bless the Inner Geek

Last summer, I developed my personal “commandments,” as part of an exercise in exploring my own values and guiding principles in life. I set an intention for 2019 to be a year of aligning my spending with my values, so I think it is past time for a deeper exploration of each commandment and how it plays out in my life. Today, I’ll explore what I mean by “Bless the Inner Geek.”

I am completely transparent about the fact that I have an Inner Geek.  I compulsively research all kinds of useless topics, tend to seek out every book written by an author that’s caught my fancy, and even enjoy some traditional hobbies of the self-proclaimed geek (e.g. role-playing games, light coding, Sudoku, Harry Potter).  It is an important part of being authentic to allow myself to feel the enthusiasm and passion for my bizarre interests without attempting to judge or limit this joy.  Here’s the secret, though:

EVERYONE has an Inner Geek (though many, especially teenagers and hipsters, try to deny it).

There is a little bit of geek in even the most mainstream, anti-intellectual, “cool” people in the universe.  How do I know this? I make a study of geekiness. Everyone has unwavering enthusiasm and unlimited energy for gaining esoteric knowledge about something.  This could be a passion for a hobby, a chosen profession, a commitment to a particular ethical belief, fan dedication to particular celebrities/sports teams/artists, or even particular to an individual’s own life (the impulse to geek out about our own children, personal ailments, or geneology attest to this). For many people, they find socially acceptable ways to channel the geek impulse–memorizing baseball statistics, redecorating homes, luxury cars or clothes, etc. While this is sometimes genuine, sometimes it is a mask for authentic Geeking.

For some reason I have yet to fathom, unbridled, childlike enthusiasm for anything is ridiculed in our society. People who let their Geek flag fly are labeled as “weird.” This is nonsense. Why can’t we express joy and passion for something off the beaten track? I try to be a safe haven for the Inner Geek because I believe that it is a path to a more authentic version of ourselves. My sister is the person who first recognized this power because she felt she could act in certain ways around me that she can’t around most other people (she’s REALLY “cool”). She appreciated our shared goofiness.

One of my great joys as a writing teacher was helping students find themselves in academia. I think this was part of my wholehearted commitment to the Inner Geek in us all. Once a student discovered that just about any subject can be given serious academic treatment–from NFL draft picking to hip hop music to devil worship (yes, I read great student essays on all of these topics)–they were free to find their authentic voices as writers. I believe my enjoyment of blogs is that they are a public display of the Inner Geek (or at least the blogs I enjoy most are).

So… I Bless the Inner Geek in us all! Do you have something you geek out about? The comments are a safe space to share (and I’ll appreciate it)!

Free Fun Family Update Jan 27 2019

Welcome to my Free Fun Family weekly Sunday update. You can read the first update, where I explain this series in more detail, here. Each week, I’ll recap some general goings on in our world and focus specifically on the topics I love to blog about the most. The “free” will review a money/frugality win, “fun” will review something enjoyable I did/accomplished, and “family” will report on family doings.

Free

I filed my taxes–hooray! We will get a small state return and a larger federal return, but I did better at predicting our taxes this year than last. However, this year I will be working two jobs for more of the year in 2019, so I upped my withholding on my second job to ensure I won’t owe taxes next year.

Our refund will allow me to complete our emergency fund and savings goals to put us in the position to be paying for the current month’s bills from last month’s income (instead of just throwing all of our money at the bills, including the credit card from last month, and then paying whatever is left over to debt). I’ve become convinced that just working with the credit card “float” is unacceptable, even if we pay it off every month. I want to live outside of paycheck to paycheck stress, even though I’m focused on paying off debt as quickly as possible.

Silly master chef, Min, strikes a ridiculous pose.

I started to feel a little down this week when I realized that the above goal, although absolutely what I needed to do financially, will mean that we can only pay a small amount towards the debt this month, even though we’ve had a very good month of low spending. This led to me feeling inadequate, which led to some spending not in line with my desire to spend only within my values. (I got a coffee out and fast food for a meal). However, noticing this feeling, acknowledging where it came from, and making a plan to break it (I set up another recurring donation to the Community Action Agency of Frederick that funds the local food bank, soup kitchen, and homeless shelter; my first was to the local public library). Reconnecting with my values was the fastest, surest way to stop a spending spree in its tracks!

Fun

This week has really flown by. Work and school and everything in a flurry of activity, but we still had lots of fun. One night, when J and H and I were snuggled in bed after reading, the children decided to pretend I was the child and they were the parents. This made us all laugh so much that Min, who was downstairs cleaning something, came running up to check if everyone was ok. We all collapsed in fits of hilarious, sweet giggling. This is the greatest stuff of life–all of it free!

Digging for fossils at a Nature Center birthday party.

The most fun we all had together out of the house was at a birthday party for J’s friend from school. It was held at a local park which had lots of great activities for the kids. The birthday boy chose the theme of prehistoric Earth, so the kids learned about dinosaurs and fossils. The parents brought some bagels and homemade treats, so it seemed quite frugal, too. We all had a great time!

Family

Getting better at puzzles, while her brother has taekwondo.

I’m noticing the creativity and talents of my children growing as much as their appetites and heights. I was lucky to be able to watch a musical theater dance class my daughter loves on Monday because of the holiday–she is so enthusiastic and expressive. J’s artwork project for school (the line drawing above) shows his creative side, even though he’s usually my little engineer. Children are who they are, and we are but witnesses to their delightful becoming.

Other

I didn’t get to the gym as much as I’d like in the second half of the week because I was having some weird heartburn and resulting insomnia. That seems to be mostly resolved now; I can’t wait to get back to some classes. I also signed up for a charity fitness challenge to support our local YMCA that I’m hoping will help me develop a habit of morning exercise again (feel free to sponsor me to encourage my daily mileage!).

The club I volunteer to coach at J’s school this week (a Destination Imagination group) hit a snafu as two of the other more consistent parent volunteers are facing some health issues. I had hoped to be more of a supporter-volunteer, but it looks like I’m becoming more of the leader as we head into competition season. It’s been a lot more stressful working as parent volunteer than it was leading groups when I was teaching. The good of this is that I’ve found even more I love about the community of parents and teachers at his school. The bad? Stress, of course. But it is one of his favorite things to do, and Grandma volunteers, too, so it’s wonderful family time.

Little scientist J at a Destination Imagination team meeting.

I hope you all have a wonderful week. We’ll check in again next Sunday. Have a lovely end of January!

Reading Roundup: January 2019

Today, I’m going to share with you my book recommendations from my recent reads. For frugal hobbies, it’s hard to beat reading. Public libraries enable access to a wide variety of reading material, including audiobooks–all for free! I read a wide variety of texts, so I try to feature a book that I enjoyed recently from each of four major categories: Adult Fiction, Adult Nonfiction, Frugality/Money, and Kid Read Aloud. You can read my first reading roundup here.

Adult Fiction: A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

Swedish author Fredrik Backman creates a distinctive portrait of a man (and his whole neighborhood!) who is inflexible, intolerant, cranky, rude, and curmudgeon-y, but who somehow turns out to be the greatest hero of all the books I’ve read in the last year or so. So much of this novel is a testament to what grief and depression can be, and how important it is to make connections with the people who occupy our worlds. Reading it made me a better human being.

Adult Nonfiction: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

This emotional epistle written by Ta-Nehisi Coates to his adolescent son attempting to explain the historical and ideological realities he will encounter (and has already encountered) as a black man in America. I had read a lot about this book, but was surprised and moved by its unapologetic intellectual and emotional rawness. Coates makes a great argument that the American Dream (and the notion of capitalism and civilization it entails) itself is both a delusion, and one that requires the exploitation of one (in this case black) or more peoples’ bodies. I will be thinking about Coates’s complex ideas for a long time. He doesn’t let any of us go without examining our own contributions to the white supremacy in America.

Frugality/Money: The Simple Path to Wealth by J.L. Collins

J.L. Collins has been blogging for awhile, so I looked forward to the publication of his book. Interestingly enough, like Coates, his work began from writing to his child (a daughter) and grew from there. Hands down, this is the best book about investment for the long term I have ever read. Collins explains simply and clearly why index funds are the best bet for most investors who are serious about financial freedom. Not a lot about debt other than “avoid it” which is brilliant advice I wish I’d remembered to follow. I enjoyed his style of writing and his philosophical approach.

Kid Read Aloud: The All-I’ll-Ever-Want-Christmas-Doll by Patricia McKissack, Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney

A beautiful story about sisterhood, set during the Great Depression. I love the voice of the first-person narrator and the wonderful, Christmas-warming, frugal-loving message. H adores the pictures and the doll, of course, but since reading it, she’s been playing with her brother more and more.

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. I only recommend services and products that I use.

Attitude of Gratitude: Small Steps

Sometimes, I am my own worst enemy.

When I’m tackling a big, difficult project, like getting out of debt, I feel down if I can’t accomplish my goal quickly (read: instantly). When I have a month (like this month) where I choose to prioritize other aspects of my finances (building an emergency fund, breaking the paycheck to paycheck cycle by getting a month ahead, being honest about including all of my debts, and switching bank accounts/credit cards), I forget that this might slow my progress on my debt repayment for a month. Then, when I realize I might only be able to pay off $200 this month, I feel upset about my lack of progress and want to just give up.

However, “only” paying off a small amount on the debt this month is AMAZING. We are not increasing our debt (as we were at this time last year), and we are even continuing to reduce the total amount of debt we have. The choices we’ve made to get on more solid footing with our day-to-day finances will allow for faster progress on the debt in future months.

Small steps lead to great distances, if you just keep going.

Today, I am so grateful to just keep going. Furthermore, January has been a revolutionary month for us in reducing our spending, creating purpose in our budget, and getting on the same page, financially, as a couple. Not making as much progress on debt is just one small piece of the picture.

All of my most significant progress has been made by making small changes to my habits and life, consistently, over time. I am always awed by the progress I can make through consistent movement, even if minor, in the right direction. This is an amazing truth about change.

I feel grateful for my small steps in pursuit of my larger goals.

Free Fun Family Update Jan 20 2019

Welcome to my Free Fun Family weekly Sunday update. You can read the first update, where I explain this series in more detail, here. Each week, I’ll recap some general goings on in our world and focus specifically on the topics I love to blog about the most. The “free” will review a money/frugality win, “fun” will review something enjoyable I did/accomplished, and “family” will report on family doings.

Free

I opened a new bank account (one that will pay 2.25% on the balance) and closed the old one (paying only 1.0%). This month, we’ve been trying to fix our emergency fund to where we’d like it to be during debt repayment, so I also took the time to reassess where we hold those funds. It’s all a bit crazy this month, since we are now having the main paycheck deposited straight into this new account and parceling out our bills more deliberately ahead, and changes to routine sometimes throw me for a loop. However, I feel quite confident than when the dust settles on our new financial routine, we’ll be in better shape than ever!

(Note, the bank account we opened was with SoFi, the company we used to get a personal loan for our roof. I have been impressed with the company’s model so far, and they offered existing customers early access to their new checking/savings blend account. If you are interested in checking out their personal loans or student loan consolidation, this referral link will give you a $100 welcome bonus; disclosure: I will also get a bonus for the referral.)

One more little bonus: Freecycle turned up something that has been on my “want to buy” list for about three months: a bread machine! We cleaned it up and made a lovely loaf of bread. Min has declared he loves and prefers when we make our own food at home (this was not always the case), so we have found one more way to decrease our dependence on commercial convenience foods–homemade bread. Plus, it was free!

Fun

Clearing off the cars, before another six inches!

Lots and lots of snow this week. My children discovered the joy of snowy walks around our neighborhood, throwing snowballs, sledding with Min, and drinking hot cocoa. Everything is more fun through the eyes of children–one of my favorite things about being a mom!

My mom treated me to lunch one day this week at a favorite downtown restaurant, which was my first time in January to dine out. We had a great time talking about books and plans and family. Mom is always the best.

Family

I’m starting to think Min secretly wants us to be the Partridge family (or the von Trapps, take your pick). While the snow has kept us inside a lot more than usual, he’s upped the daily music lessons. He uses YouTube to teach them guitar, piano, ukelele, and (of all things) bucket drumming. Lately, they’ve been learning this little ditty from the early 90s. It’s highly entertaining to everyone, even if a little tough on the ears.

Notice the drum repaired by old plastic containers from bulk nuts. We are that kind of frugal weirdo.

Other

I made it to three gym classes this week and got outside for two long walks. I’m hoping increase my physical activity to at least four gym sessions and two other long walks this week. This had been my typical activity until November, when life got busy with my work trip, house-guests, illnesses and the holidays. I remained active, but more maintenance than improvement. I would like to improve my fitness this year so that I can become an instructor for my favorite workout format. Right now, I feel like my stamina isn’t where I need it to be to lead classes consistently.

My workmates have been noticing how delicious my packed-from-home lunches are and have jokingly requested that I cook for them. I’m thinking I might surprise them soon with a crockpot stew for lunch one day. I think they would appreciate that. Maybe we can start a frugal lunch club? I would definitely love it!

Have a great Martin Luther King, Jr. day. Fun Fact, my e-mail signature at work is a quote from the great Dr. King: “The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate.”

2019 Financial Goal: Aligning My Spending with My Values

The single most positive result of my renewed practice of blogging has been my ability to reconnect with my core values. The combination of regular, reflective writing and public transparency motivates me to figure out what really matters to my life and hold myself accountable for those priorities.

Ah the irony of the commercially produced family “values” for sale at a home goods store.

My biggest financial goal for 2019 is to align my spending with my core values. I want to only make purchases and use companies/products that support my values.  This is not as easy as it first seems, especially since I am trying to get out of debt. I owe money to companies and banks I would not support if I were choosing companies based on ethical practices for the past purchase of goods and services that may not align with my values.

Additionally, our world and economic practices are globalized to the point that it is quite difficult to find ethically-sourced products. Let’s say I decide that Costco has positive labor practices and a service-oriented business model that I support enough to endorse with my spending, but what about the different brands of products they carry? I’m certain the smartphones carried by Costco and other companies are tainted by the cobalt child labor mining problem. I will need to purchase a replacement cell phone sometime in the next few years (months?); how will I approach this issue? Furthermore, ethical marketing is now a thing (as evidenced by “organic” packaged foods), making it even more difficult to distinguish real practice from marketing strategy.

Last year, I made a lot of progress toward living a life more aligned with my values. However, I do believe that taking more steps in the right direction will improve my mindful spending  Here is what I’m doing this year to achieve this goal:

  1. Do more work on clarifying what my values are. I mean, sure, I know what my values are, but sometimes it’s hard to weigh competing values.  For example, I want to be effective at my job because I am working to create empowering opportunities for students (a major core value of mine).  This article in Forbes suggests that what I wear impacts my effectiveness as a leader (I already knew this from years in the classroom in front of teenagers–the most judgmental and honest group about appearance you will ever meet).  While I appreciate flattering clothing and enjoy getting “dressed up” as any ex-theater-kid would, I’ve never been very interested in fashion or style.  How much should I care about the quality of my wardrobe at work in service to my job effectiveness? (Same questions for make-up, hair, nails, etc.)  This is not a trivial question.
  2. Give more to charitable organizations and people in need. I work for nonprofit organizations (education and mental health crisis). I volunteer my time to sponsor school groups and with projects I believe in. I help out friends and family with whatever I can. I’m a giving person. However, I’ve never given away much money. I’ve always fancied myself a “giving to charity” kind of rich person, but I excused myself from monetary giving because I thought of myself as not-rich. I recently read Love Your Life Not Theirs: 7 Money Habits for Living the Life You Want by Rachel Cruze (yes, Dave Ramsey‘s daughter who works for him), which I appreciated a great deal. The final habit she talks about was “Give a Little Until You Can Give A Lot” which was about the importance of generosity as an intentional financial habit. So, I looked at my charitable giving last year, and it was unimpressive (although way more than I had given in the previous five years combined… so….). I set a goal to double my giving this year, and I am already reaping the benefits. It’s so exciting and fun to decide to make a monthly donation to our public library, send a bit of money to a family in need, and contribute to a clothing drive through my work. It is such a JOY to send this money out into the world when every other aspect of my spending is about tight control and minimizing. It is changing my whole perspective on giving and helping me become the person I really am. (For more thoughts that influenced my current approach to giving, check out this great post at She Picks Up Pennies.)
  3. Reconsider Walmart (and Amazon). Look, there is a year-old Walmart that is the closest grocery store to my house and often has the lowest prices for goods. However, within a five-mile radius there are plenty of other options in my town, some of which have competitive prices for food. I know there are many, many great reasons to take my money elsewhere, but I have allowed convenience and the attractiveness of their low prices to override my ethical considerations. I will avoid shopping there whenever possible. (Note, I have some similar thoughts about Amazon, but it is even more ubiquitous than Walmart and I know less about the business practices that concern me; I need to do more research that I’ve been intentionally avoiding.)
  4. Do better at sourcing my food. We are expanding our backyard garden this year and want to grow more of our own food. Min’s been experimenting with kitchen scrap gardening, but we also will look into where our seeds and cuttings come from when we plant. In Frederick, we are so lucky to live near small family-owned farms, yet I often purchase produce from far away. I’ve chosen to purchase a Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) share from a farm about ten minutes from our house (Pleasant Hill Produce, if you wanted to know). We will continue to move more of our food purchases into local and sustainable sources.
  5. Reduce consumption (and waste). One way to reduce environmental impact and save money at the same time is to just stop buying things (kind of the idea behind environmental vegetarianism). I’m in the middle of a clothes, personal items, and technology shopping ban, but I am seeking to expand this idea into all purchases in my life. I am asking “do I really need this? will I use this? does it support my values?” for everything I buy–food, household goods, toys, etc. Then, I am attempting to use up all parts of what I purchase and bring into my home–from reusing the containers that hold my son’s deli meat for my homemade lunches to making broth from kitchen scraps to composting. When I do need something, I will obtain needed goods secondhand if possible. This might mean waiting a longer time for what I need and compromising on the exact models/brands, but I’m ok with that.
  6. Do the research. As I’ve mentioned, making ethical financial choices that are also frugal is difficult without becoming an off-the-grid hermit. Sometimes, I’ve not donated to charities because I can’t be bothered to figure out if it is a cause worth supporting. Other times, I’ve convinced myself that buying fast fashion really isn’t any worse than shopping at a thrift store. I am committing to reading at least one book each month that explores the complex ethical issues of consumer purchases in the U.S. because I’ve found that increasing my awareness of the harm in my daily actions strengthens my resolve to avoid harmful actions.
Let’s have our cake, but only if it fits into the life we want to live.

Spending-values alignment being a major financial goal for 2019, I will be including updates on my progress with my monthly Debt Elimination Updates. I will also be working on this project throughout the year, blogging about specific progress and intentional spending choices.

How do you ensure your money aligns with your values? I’d love to hear your advice as I embark on this journey!

Frugal Family Fun: Reading at Bedtime (or Anytime)

I love reading. I’ve always known that I wanted to raise my children to be readers. It’s a great frugal form of entertainment, and the most critical skill for success in school.  In my career as a high school English teacher, I have helped convert hundreds of reluctant, phone-addicted high schoolers into teens who voluntarily read novels. I’ve convinced students that Will Shakespeare was a pretty cool dude. Yet, when it came to my own children, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to equip them to view reading in the way that Harper Lee once described in To Kill a Mockingbird:

“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”

Luckily, I need not have feared.  Helping my kids become readers was easier and more enjoyable than I could have possibly imagined.  I come from an education background, so of course I advocate that families read to children early and often and model literacy.  Turns out, that actually works!

As a parent (who feels like she’s making it all up as she goes along…), I’ve also discovered that reading to your kids stops meltdowns in their tracks and provides instant family bonding.  Here are some specific ways to develop young children’s literacy:

  1. Make the time. Before I had kids, I was understanding about how hard it was as a parent to make time for reading. After all, I love reading, and I don’t always make the time to do it. Parents are even busier, right? Y’all–I timed it. Reading one of those little board books takes less than five (yes, FIVE) minutes. And often it’s the five minutes during which my child is most cooperative, loving, and attentive. No one screams. Everyone cuddles. Five minutes. It’s better than meditation–no lie. How do you not make time for that every, single day? If I hadn’t read to my kids, none of us would have made it past age two.  My worst nightmare is a bedtime without books. *shudder*
  2. Make books accessible.*  Studies show that being surrounded by books in childhood promotes literacy.  We own a lot of children’s books (way more than adult books, thanks to my decluttering efforts).  Most of them were gifts or hand-me-downs, but books are the main “toys” we have purchased for our children.  However, you don’t have to own books to surround your children with books.  Our local library lets patrons check out 75 items per library card.  Between the four of us, we could have 300 books at home for the kids if we wanted (we have yet to go over about 30 at once… but the point is we could).  Still, purchasing books for your kids are a worthwhile investment of funds.
  3. Make it a habit. Every time my kids beg for “one more poem” or to be allowed to choose one more picture book or read one more chapter in our novels, I feel like I’ve won the gold medal of parenting.  However, that joy comes from many, many times of being willing to read the same book over again, or pause and read whenever one of my children asks.  We treat nagging for books different than just about every other kind of nagging–we indulge it.
  4. Give kids choice and agency. Sometimes, I get lucky and my kids are interested in the books I enjoy reading, and we’ll have great fun with the works of Roald Dahl.  Other times, they want to read endless, technically-oriented volumes about trains (J) or the terribly-written picture book re-telling of Disney princess movies (H).  When the kids are interested in something (be it Kung-fu Panda, or space, or unicorns), we ask the librarians if there are any books about that topic (this has led to some interesting finds, like the children’s novel Stephen Hawking wrote with his daughter).
  5. Model reading books. I think many adults read more on screens (Kindle, smartphones, etc.) than they did just a few years ago.  However, children don’t know whether you are reading on your tablet or watching a video.  Be intentional about modeling your reading to your children.  Min had to get some Korean books so that the kids could see him reading on paper, not just on the screen.

Some other tips?  Teach letters and sounds, but not to the point that you are sacrificing story and fluency.  Readers read content, not phonics.  Don’t freak out if your kid who loves listening to you read doesn’t transition to reading independence right away.  It will happen eventually.

* Not every family can afford books.  I encourage using the library to fill in the gaps, but that’s not always enough.  While compiling this post, I did some research into charities that provide books to kids.  I elected to make a donation to Reach Out and Read, an highly rated organization that encourages literacy by integrating books into pediatric care.

Any other tips from parents out there? How do you foster a love of reading for your children at any age?

Free Fun Family Update Jan 13 2019

Welcome to my Free Fun Family weekly Sunday update. You can read the first update, where I explain this series in more detail, here. Each week, I’ll recap some general goings on in our world and focus specifically on the topics I love to blog about the most. The “free” will review a money/frugality win, “fun” will review something enjoyable I did/accomplished, and “family” will report on family doings.

Free

Putting together the pieces of our financial puzzle.

After reading Principal F.I.‘s post about his goals for 2019, I realized that I could have a 457 plan, along with my 403(b) plan.  The 457 is great because it has many of the same benefits of the traditional tax-sheltered 403(b), but without the age restriction.  Considering I plan to retire before 59 1/2, that’s great news!  I met with my plan administrator and opened my 457 on Wednesday.

We’re also doing very well with our uber frugal month for January. This leaves us on track to save enough money to pay upfront for our summer CSA (Community Supported Agriculture).  Hooray!

Fun

H began her musical theater class (a Christmas present) and went to a library story time this week.  J enjoyed working with Grandma, his Destination Imagination team manager (I volunteer as team manager for the middle school team at his school), to shop for supplies at Lowe’s and a hobby store (see photo).  Min and I danced at home in our socks on our anniversary  while J took terrible videos.  Min went over to a friend’s house to watch soccer and eat chicken.  We had an enjoyable, relaxing week.

Family

Last night it began snowing.  We expect to be snowed in all day today.  It’s been fun to play games and try different activities inside.  So far, baking pumpkin bread has been the favorite (because it is so delicious)!  I expect we’ll have more fun snow pictures for next week’s update if today continues as it has been.

Other

I am making progress on my goals.  I have not eaten out once in January.  I meditated all but one day this week and worked out three times and intentionally moved three other days this week (once was a long walk where I took the above picture).  I ate whole fruit most days and green with every lunch and dinner.  I’m keeping up with my blog and enjoying my new posting schedule (my high school alumni group even tweeted out one of my posts; I always thought I’d be recognized by them for my professional achievements, but hobby blogging works, too).

I am very lucky, feeling grateful and happy, surrounded by love.  I hope everyone has blessings and joy this January.  Happy Sunday!

 

The Value of Playing Mindgames with Yourself

Perhaps you noticed that the number at the top of our debt thermometer increased from $30,956 to $36,033.78 (or maybe you didn’t, but I bet you looked now!). No, I didn’t suddenly charge up another $5000 in credit card debt when I was playing the balance transfer game (again, super not recommended for novices who haven’t done the work on changing habits).

I’ve simply decided to let go of a mindgame I was playing with myself.

A mindgame is anything you do to help your brain retrain in the new, healthy habit as a rewards system to fight out the baser urge for the “reward” of the unhealthy habit your brain thinks it wants.  You’re tricking your brain into believing what’s good for you is what’s good for you until your brain understands it on a deep level.  I’m very familiar with how useful mindgames are in success with another long-term goal: weight loss.

Permanent weight loss is scientifically about good nutrition, moderation, and movement; knowledge is necessary to make changes, but knowledge alone isn’t what makes it happen.  To lose the 40+ lbs and keep it off for years, I had to make deeply personal and psychologically difficult behavioral changes.  However, to stay motivated during that long-term challenge, sometimes it helped to play mindgames. 

Korea, 2018 vs Korea, 2013

Mindgames work well when trying to accomplish a long term goal.  For example, Fitbit works to increase fitness because it is a mindgame.  In reality, getting 10,000 steps every day doesn’t really matter, but daily movement does.  Just knowing that I should “move more” though doesn’t actually result in me moving more.  Getting the little vibrating buzz that tells me I met my step goal did make me move more.  I would do bananas things to hit my step goal every day.  Did you know the wrist Fitbit doesn’t always count steps taken when pushing carts and strollers?  It doesn’t.  I’d go on a three mile walk with my baby and register a measly 500 steps.  While trying to build the habit of daily movement, I was determined to get my steps in, so you know what I did?  I would push strollers and grocery carts with only my non-Fitbit hand.  I tried wearing it on my ankle, but it didn’t keep as accurate count.  This is actually insane.  I’m getting the same movement whether it’s counted or not, but it helped my mental state to have it count.  Sidenote: Sorry to all the people I decidedly inconvenienced while trying to navigate a full grocery cart to my car using only one hand (try it sometime… bananas).  When my Fitbit finally bit it, I was exercising 3+ times a week, taking the stairs just about every time I could, incorporating daily movement, and going for long walks with the kids most days.  I no longer needed the game, I had the lifestyle.  I chose not to replace it (though I do miss it sometimes).

I also used Weight Watchers for a time; besides the weekly support group (which is a major part of the program’s success), I really think the program works because a lot of it is mindgames (you keep track of “points” instead of calories; some food, like fruits, vegetables, and lean protein is considered “free” food).  All of that is mindgames to reprogram your faulty rewards system in your brain that believes french fries and Diet Coke are what you need to feel better, when what you really need is a good night’s sleep and a walk outside. 

Mindgames really help keep up the motivation strong when your brain wants to revert to the easy fix.

Mindgames work well in the world of personal finance, too.  Many well-known commercial programs for money management help you play mindgames to get better with your money.  For example, Dave Ramsey recommends the debt snowball for the mental benefits over the more mathematically sound method of paying off highest interest rates; YNAB has fun, game-like “rules” like “give every dollar a job” and “age your money” that really are just about planning your money out in advance.  At the end of the day, how you get out of debt or learn to manage your money matters much less than which games you used to get there.  I will never judge someone who uses a gimmicky program (or even worse, the “wrong” gimmicky program) to accomplish a goal because I know why they work.  My mindgames work for me, but they are not superior to anyone else’s.  Heck, even Mr. Money Mustache, who generally eschews shortcuts like mindgames to accomplish goals, has made his celebrity through his colorful, borderline-offensive phrases that are a sort of mindgame to break that consumerist mindset he despises–here’s my bookmarked favorite I read whenever I need a punch in the face.

We like playing games; perhaps this will be a future Frugal Family Fun post!

Personal finance is about math and numbers, sure. Save more money, avoid debt, invest well, yadda, yadda, yadda.  However, money is also about our habits, values, and attitudes.  I’ve been a money nerd since I was a little kid, opened my first IRA with an index fund at age 19, and known to choose term life insurance over whole before I owned my own car.  Our debt is not the result of financial illiteracy.  Rather, it was the result of low income for several years that made us (ok, me) want to avoid a serious look at anything financial and developing several bad financial habits to avoid the bad feelings associated with our situation.  Changing the habits that got us into debt (spending more than we earned, not aligning our spending with our values, living paycheck to paycheck) were difficult, long-term goals.

Those of you who have been following our debt elimination project since last March know that in July 2018, just a few months into this project, we took out a personal loan to pay for our roof replacement. At the time, the setback would have felt too devastating to include in our total for consumer debt payoff.  It would have brought me right back to square zero.  With the pre-planned Korean trip, my little monkey brain might have given up and gone back to its old ways.

So I lumped the personal loan in with my graduate school debt (our next goal after consumer debt), and made my peace with it (I am tracking ALL of our debt through this, including the mortgage, to keep myself honest).  It was the mindgame I needed at the time to persevere.  I knew I was kind of just fooling myself, but I continued to make strides in the right direction, so it worked.

I’m ready to include it in our calculations now.  We have $12,000 of success behind us; I’m ready to be honest with myself (and this blog) about all of my consumer debt–even the stuff incurred after vowing to elminate ours (ouch!).  You’ll see it in my updates from now on.

What are your thoughts about mindgames? Are they useful crutches in service of a larger healthy project, or are they lies to be rejected in pursuit of purity? Let me know!

Nine Lessons Learned in Nine Years of Marriage

This is the first picture of Min and I after we were officially married in Seoul and registered at the U.S. Embassy, although we had the ceremony three days later. 

Tomorrow is our ninth wedding anniversary.  While we probably won’t do anything traditionally anniversary-ish (like get each other presents or go out to dinner), we will share stories with our children about how we met and what we did before we had them (that’s for another day on the blog).  We’ll spend time together.  This is what matters most to us.

With just a year shy of a decade of marriage experience, I would like to reflect on what has been one of the most profound experiences of personal growth as an adult. However, I also feel wildly unqualified to offer “advice” about marriage, so take all of these lessons for what they are: my own growth and reflection after nine years feeling happy and lucky to be married to Min for the vast majority of that time.

Look at those kids on their honeymoon in Cambodia, 2010.
  1. Marriage is not 50-50, it’s all-in. When I was young and single, I often heard my friends talk about their desire for partnership in a marriage. Women especially worried about becoming burdened with a greater responsibility for the domestic elements of their family life–cleaning, cooking, child-rearing. We would often say we wanted a marriage where chores, finances, and other joint endeavors were split “fifty-fifty,” the assumption being that equal contributions would result in equal status and thus, success in marital bliss. But marriage doesn’t work if each person isn’t giving everything they have to the partnership. That doesn’t mean work is 50-50, or even 70-30; it means 100-100. But sometimes, one of you can’t give the same as you did last week/month/year. If both of you are giving 100% of what you can in a safe, equitable partnership, the marriage will balance over time. (Note, this isn’t easy.)
  2. Assume the best about your partner’s intentions. This was a difficult one for me to learn–and when I hear complaints from others about their partner, it is the thing I wish I could teach them. It’s about trusting that your partner loves you. Believing that he didn’t leave the toilet seat up again (even though you have asked him to put it down a thousand times) to annoy you in the middle of the night. Believing that her inability to eat less junk food isn’t about her not loving you. Sometimes, it’s about intentionally choosing to ignore the critical comment directed your way because you trust your partner is giving 100% (see #1). It is an act of faith and entirely worth it.
  3. Notice the good things your partner does. One of my personal commandments is to “See the work.” In any relationship, but especially one as mundane and functional as a marriage can be, it is easy to overlook the things your partner does to support the function of the household. We tend to know how hard we are working, but underestimate the things our partner does for us. Recently, Min thanked me for taking care of the family finances, something I’ve handled since we moved back to the U.S. It warmed my little personal finance nerd heart. I try to thank him as often as I can when he prepares a meal, takes out the trash, or lets me take a nap.
  4. Learn to think long-term about your relationship. Time does not feel linear. It blows my mind every time I realize that there are more years between now and my high school graduation than there are between now and my children’s high school graduations. It makes no sense at all to me that my husband and I are not still the exact same people we were in the photos from our honeymoon. Marriages, like stock market investors, suffer when we feel too much like this current moment is forever and forget to think long-term. I’ve found that we need to regularly invest in our connection, but not be too thrown by the ups and downs of our lives and individual struggles.
  5. Remain curious about your partner. I find my husband’s thoughts about the world and our experiences fascinating. After a few years, it’s easy to think you know everything about your partner, and they know everything about you. Most of our best conversations, though, have stemmed from one of us asking the other about our thoughts on something in our ordinary lives. For example, until very recently, I didn’t know my husband had created a specific vision for raising the children. I know he’d been doing a great job with them as a full time parent, but I hadn’t realized how philosophically invested he was in their development, even though we talked about the kids all the time.
  6. Work on yourself. In stories and films, marriage is represented as either a) an eternal, static fact or b) the end result of a romance. The state of real-life marriage, however, is not static and by no means the end of anything. Being a good partner, taking care of yourself, meeting your needs outside of the marriage, and advocating well for your needs from the marriage are vital. I’m most grateful that I have a husband who cheers on the work I do to improve myself (such as when I went back to school or increased my exercise), and certainly that helps. But marriage is for adults only, so be an adult.
  7. Be kind and choose love. This isn’t easy to do. Let me tell you about the time I was working the worst job of my life, was pregnant and trying to find a better job, and I came home to my husband having quit (without notice) the only job he’d had since moving to the U.S. Oh, being kind and choosing love in that moment was hard. Actually, the only reason we lasted through that season was because we were legally bound and expecting a child. However, I am better now with #2 and #4 and recognize that Min wasn’t trying to make me lose my mind–he was refusing to be exploited any further by a petty, racist boss. I wish I could go back and choose to respond with kindness and love. I try to do so now.
  8. Tell positive stories about your relationship. It is no accident that we will be telling stories of our relationship to our children as part of our anniversary celebration. The stories we tell shape the way we view our lives and memories. I believe that what you say and write shapes how you think as much as it is the result of your thoughts. When I think of my mother and father’s relationship, I think of the way my dad talked about his proposal: “We were studying for finals and your mother kept pestering me, so I asked her to marry me so we could get back to work!” The reality was that the decision had been planned out (they were nearing graduation from college and it was during the Vietnam war, so there was a very real chance my dad could be drafted–he wasn’t) and a ring purchased in advance, but he made it sound like a low-key, funny anti-proposal. That was my dad.
  9. Let things go and think big-picture. Holding onto petty bitterness only hurts yourself. When Min first started doing the laundry, he washed a raw silk blouse of mine in the washing machine and dried a cashmere sweater in the drier. Of course, the clothes were ruined. I had a moment where I realized I could get mad at him about this, or I could let it go and have a husband who does the laundry. I chose the latter (because it’s way more important than any particular item of clothing). He is a caring, thoughtful man who does domestic chores (see #1), even if he doesn’t know how to do them the first time. I’m not complaining; I’m appreciating!
Still in love, after all these years. (from 2018)

That’s nine things. I learned more than that, and of course I have a lot more to learn, but I think that’s a pretty good reflection of the most important lessons from my own marriage experiences so far.

What have you learned about marriage? Any advice for us before we enter the double digit years? Let me know!

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