Living Frugally for Fun and Profit

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Today is my birthday. Happy birthday to me. I’ve spent a lot of this morning answering messages sent to me from friends, many of whom I have never met, wishing me all the best and congratulating me on my longevity. The former sentiment is welcome and comforting. The latter, well, it seems something that happened to me gradually and is only now becoming troublesome. I have enough faith and understanding of human nature to know that I’m wintering now. That is the season that is upon me. Spring will come, sooner or later, and someday I’ll start a new life that is beyond my imagination. I’ve learned patience, especially in the last half of my life. Living in Papua New Guinea is an experience that fosters patience in the wise. My spring will come.

Since this is the saddest birthday I have ever had, I’ll now do what is best for me. I’ll amuse myself with feeble attempts at humour while annoying you. This will be fun. Along the way, I’ll puzzle you with some images that are utterly unrelated to the subject matter.

Upon my return from Australia, I was immediately deluged with not-so-subtle clues that my life had changed dramatically. I found myself deep in debt. The circumstances leading up to this, some obvious, some not so, were many and complex. They are boring, so I’ll not put us all to sleep with the details. Of course, the financial situation was only one of many changes. I’ve learned to cope with most of these. Some can be fixed. Some can’t. Loneliness is the worst, but that can’t be helped. It’s difficult to explain to why one can feel lonely to the bones while surrounded by laughing friends. It seems unlikely. It is, however, profoundly real.

I must learn many new skills to enjoy this new life. I must accomplish many things to assure happiness. One thing which I can  do something about is money.

I made some mistakes at first. I talked too much. I’m a compulsive talker. I give too much away. I trust more than I ought and I take it for granted that others will be as interested and inquisitive about me as I am about them. I want to get under the skin, and sometimes that is unwelcome. I erred in giving the impression that I was broke and in dire financial stress. This is not the case. I’m better off than most of the people on this planet – much better off.

I’m not broke. I am just being careful. Throughout our lives, Eunie and I followed the “best financial advice”. Oh, what a mistake that was. It seems that most of those who formulate this advice are those who have already gotten theirs  and are looking to get their hand’s on some of yours.

The worst mistake, among many, which we made was to buy into consumerism and borrowing. It’s easy to talk about these twin evils today, since many of you have also been stung by these wasps. Thirty years ago, nobody would listen. We certainly weren’t.

I won’t go into the property fiasco in detail. It’s too boring. Let’s just say that nobody today is suggesting that it’s a good idea to buy old houses and rent them out, expecting them to provide a retirement income. You can imagine how that turned out. However, thirty-five years ago that was the “best financial advice”, at least from the person in whom we had placed trust.

What I will go into is the matter of debt. I often wonder what my world would be like today if I had resisted to ever buy anything for which I could not pay cash. Certainly there are many, many things which I would never have had. However, today I have none of those things. They’ve turned to dust or whatever happens to all those things I “needed” then and no longer even exist in my memories.

Okay, time for a picutre:

That’s my good buddy Monty Armstrong (whoops, I nearly typed Python) with his trusty Canon G11 camera. The water was nice and clear that day.

So, how does one avoid buying everything which catches the eye and immediately insinuates itself in your brain as a need? For me, it wasn’t easy. I spent most of my life learning to subdue the urge. The problem is that plastic makes to far too easy. We lived for many years without credit cards. We resisted the temptation for quite a while. However, I can remember going for a decade with monthly payments to Household Finance. I don’t care about all the money I spent on the stuff,  but I’d sure like to have the interest back!

Well, I digress. Let me get back on point. What is the difference between being a miser and living frugally?

Let’s have a look at the definition of a miser from the Princeton Word Search:

(n) miser (a stingy hoarder of money and possessions (often living miserably))

Hmmm. . . that doesn’t sound very pleasant. It doesn’t sound like a person you’d want to have as a friend, either. Who would buy you a beer? Would this person share a cab fare without counting every penny? I don’t think so. I knew a guy like that once. He owned a barber shop in a small town where we lived for a couple of years. We made the mistake of going on a holiday with him and his wife. He drove us crazy with his accounting. Oh, there was no problem if I said, “I’ll get that.” However, if I didn’t make the offer, then out came the notebook and pencil. Scratch, scratch, scratch – here’s your share. I had a pocket full of change clinking as I walked. I hate small change.

Well, that’s clearly not me. In the first place, I’m not stingy, never have been.  And I’m not miserable, at least as far as money goes. Those miseries I do have will subside. Money problems require a strategy. I have a strategy.

Okay, now let’s look at the definition of frugality:

Frugality is the practice of acquiring goods and services in a restrained manner, and resourcefully using already owned economic goods and services, to achieve a longer term goal.

That doesn’t sound nearly as bad.

Here’s monty again. He’s shooting a Prickly Sea Cucumber which you can see if you click to enlarge:

The part of the definition I want to bore you with is “to achieve a longer term goal”. Consumerism is definitely not about long term goals. Most of the junk we buy is designed  to be useless or undesirable within a matter of months or, at most, a few years. I don’t need more stuff.  I have a house full of it now which I am actively trying to unload. Things are not what I need. What I do need is a plan for life. One of the many goals within that plan is to be measurably better off in each year of my remaining life, at least for as long as possible. Since my income is declining and will continue to do so, baring some miracle, then the only way I can achieve this is by “acquiring goods and services in a restrained manner, and resourcefully using already owned economic goods and services”. Well, hey, that sounds reasonable to me!

Oh, I bet you haven’t seen one of these for a while:

It’s a marine snail. The brown thing blocking the entrance to the shell is doing just what’s it’s supposed to do – block the entrance. It is a common feature of most marine snails and many of the terrestrial species.

It seems astonishing to me that consumerism has been so successful at converting desire into need. Happiness today seems mostly to be packaged in that hateful clear plastic which defies all but the sharpest most dangerous object which comes to hand. I still break into a cold sweat when I enter an electronics or camera store. Oh, wow, I need  that! And that  and that too!  Out comes the plastic. At least I did until now. No more! I have a plan.

My plan is simple. I will never again purchase anything on impulse. I vow to give myself at least twenty-four hours as a cool-down period before making a purchase. I don’t care if it’s a great price on a camera that I’ve been craving or a cheap memory stick. If I can think about it for a day and I’ve asked myself if the purchase will really improve my quality of life sufficiently to justify the cost, then I might reach for the plastic. However, I will never do so if I know that I can’t pay off the amount before the next monthly billing cycle.

Snail wasn’t enough for you, eh? How about a Giant Clam (Tridacna maxima):The last thing I want to do now is to accumulate yet more stuff. I’m trying to get rid of about 90% of what I have. It’s excess baggage and I’d rather deal with it a bit at a time than have to sing the blues someday when I have to leave Madang and deal with a house full of items which have no place to gather dust any more.

But stuff isn’t the only concern. For example, there is the matter of diet. Here on MPBM I once mentioned eating steamed cabbage, pumpkin and beans. That should not be taken as an advertisement that I’ve become a miser. It happens that those are foods which I like. Having lost my sense of smell, I now find that simple fare appeals more strongly to my taste than rich foods. The fact that it’s cheaper to eat that way is, to my way of thinking, a bonus. I used to eat a lot of meat and cheese, foods which are expensive here. I’ve found that I now have little taste for cheese. My cholesterol level thanks me for that change. The meat which we get here never has appealed much to me. Frankly, I always found it a little smelly – not as fresh as I’d like it to be. So, why should I buy it now?

Here’s an Elephant Ear Sponge (Lanthella basta):
They also come in green and bright yellow.

I lost over five kilos while I was in Australia. I was looking just a little hollow. Since coming back I’ve gained it all back and then some. I now weigh more than I have in the last fifteen years. I’m getting plenty to eat. In fact, I’m going to have to cut back or get more exercise, probably both.

So, thinking now about my plan, just what is it? First, I’ll turn down no opportunity to increase my income. If it continues to decline in my present situation, I will eventually have to consider if another situation might be better suited to me. I’ll purchase nothing that is not necessary for my physical well being unless I am convinced that it will significantly contribute to my quality of life for a meaningful period of time. I will not go into debt again for anything. If I can’t pay for it in thirty days, I can’t afford it.

It’s that simple.

Here is the last shot of the day, a Blackblotch Lizardfish (Synodus jaculum):

Cute little fella, eh?

I’m not so insensitive to suggest that my plan is for others. It’s custom tailored to my situation. Realistically, most people in economically switched-on areas of the planet need credit to live what they perceive as a decent life. The nature of modern economic practice demands it. Who can pay cash for a house or a car, for that matter?

However, it’s interesting to dream up a little thought experiment to imagine how one might avoid the worst ills of spending money which one does not have. It seems to me that frugality, as a life-long plan, might work out pretty well. One might think of it as the middle road.

So, I’m not going to play the big spender when I’m out with friends, but I’m not going to be a miser, either. It’s the middle road for me.

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15 Responses to “Living Frugally for Fun and Profit”

  1. Lori Witham Says:

    Jan, I have two rules. One I’ve always done: don’t use my credit card for more then I can pay at the end of the month. Very rarely I have to break that rule. More so while traveling to USA.

    The second I’ve adopted later in life: don’t buy anything that doesn’t have a useful purpose. (Sounds like your rule.) Especially don’t buy any nic nacs, things that just collect dust. It has to have a good purpose.

  2. CarolBeth Says:

    Do you like fish? And, oh, by the way…

    HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!! I hope you have included something beautiful in your day!

    with love, CB

    PS. Beauty is a good purpose, and it doesn’t have to be expensive. Other than house & car, I try very hard not to use credit. One way I do this is to put a certain amount directly into savings each month. This allows me to pay up front for yearly things like insurance, which gets me a discount, and to have a little set by in case of emergencies of the appliance sort.

  3. Colin Huggins Says:

    Belated – well almost, Christmas best wishes and yes, happy birthday also. Yes, I agree with the two above me, I got rid of my lot years ago, now only have a DJ’s one for shopping which is rarely used and when I pay it off, probably a week after the purchase, the shop attendant looks at me in amazement! You know the silly statement – “Do you REALLY want to pay the whole amount?” – for this silly statement they are subjected to an ICY glare from me.

    I suppose this Christmas is rather sad for you, without your beloved, Eunice? I sympathise with you. I had this one alone also, couldn’t be bothered to fly to Sydney for a family party.
    Still the Rack of Pork Roast was great, the weather IS cool and raining – 23 days of rain so far for Brisbane – soon to be renamed “Quacksville”! The chardonnay was chilled and delicious, so I suppose I had a good FREE from grand nephews and nieces screaming their collective lungs out.
    Have a great year, mate, I will endeavour to follow your excellent posts on a more regular basis in 2011.


  4. kristy Says:

    Happy belated birthday and Merry Christmas as well!! Hope Christmas is tolerable and hopefully filled with memories of Christmases spent with Eunice and your family.
    Have been taking the camera and housing out daily for the last few days…starting to get the hang of it. Although I messed up some good shark photos with the flash that I was too flustered to remember to turn off…oh well! Now the hubby wants to use it the next time we dive, this will cause me stress! I have a hard time giving up my camera!

  5. ZydecoDoug Says:

    Merry Christmas, Jan! At least you have summer there now. Winter, even here in northeast Florida, has been solidly planted for a few weeks. Heck, as I write this, it’s 34 degrees outside. We’ve had below average temps for 22 of 25 days this December alone. We normally don’t get this kind of cold until January and February. It’s all relative, of course. My days in Madison, Wisconsin, were a bit different.

    I realize it’s only weather. But, it’s one of those things that are inevitable; one of those things over which we have no control.

    Life, I’ve learned over 51 years, is sort of like that, too. You have to roll with the punches. And, you, MadDog, have done that very well, regardless of your questioning that. You’ve lost, at least in the life we know, your soul mate and best friend.

    I lost a younger sister to cancer 12 years ago, so I, like many of your readers, know the pain and heartache of losing someone near and dear. Nothing will ever fill the void in your life that happened with Eunie’s passing. Rolling with the punches doesn’t mean “getting over it.” I guess it means coping, in one way or another.

    My simple-minded philosophy is, enjoy what life’s given you, even if some of it is in the past tense. You can’t look to the future without appreciating your past. I also know very well that it’s easier said than done.

    I realize that by the time you see this message, you will have spent a Christmas day without your dear wife. My thoughts are with you. In fact, I thought about Eunie a few days ago when I was decorating our Christmas tree. There’s one ornament, a smiling Santa on a surfboard, that my late sister gave me probably 20 years ago. She found it in the Christmas shop on Duval Street in Key West. She always knew I was a beach bum at heart. I think about all the good times I had with her every year when I take that ornament out of its bubble wrap. This year, I thought about my sister, Nancy, and I thought about your Eunie.


  6. MadDog Says:

    Thanks, Lori. I don’t plan on breaking the ‘end of the month’ rule unless it’s absolutely necessary. I also found out that I might get a much lower interest rate if I forgo the airline mileage feature of the card. The ‘useful purpose’ rule seems like something everybody should pay attention to. I have an incredible amount of stuff that is now collecting dust. I’m beginning to sell it all off.

  7. MadDog Says:

    CarolBeth, I like fish well enough, but strangely enough, a good fresh fish is very hard to find here.

    Instead of using credit cards, I’m going to try to save ahead for things that I need and then pull the money from savings. I have enough cushion to get me started. The hard part is disciplining myself to put the money back into savings instead of letting it lie somewhere that it might be more accessible.

  8. MadDog Says:

    Colin, I really wish I could get rid of my plastic, but it’s impossible to travel these days without it. Fortunately, I have enough in savings to cover the plastic before it starts to steal interest from me. I just have to make sure that I put an equal amount back into savings so that I don’t go broke.

    I stayed in for the holidays. I’m avoiding, for the time being, occasions where I’m sitting in a room full of friends and feeling like the loneliest person in the world. I’ll get over that, I know. I just need some time.

    I just had a call from Trevor who is in Sydney. It’s raining!

  9. MadDog Says:

    Kristy, I’m sure that you realised that it was only a matter of time until the husband took and interest and would want to “borrow” your G12. I’ll be interested to see how you’re doing.

  10. MadDog Says:

    Great comment, ZydecoDoug and a heart warming message, despite the sadness.

    Your comparison between life and the weather is both amusing and true. I think we have far less control over our lives than we believe. I believe that you are right about my situation. I am doing well, especially in comparison to what I imagine that I might be feeling now. Frankly, I’m a little surprised that I survived at all, considering my mood in the first month or two.

    I know that many of my current readers have suffered great loss at some time. I think that you are right. Much as I’d like to believe that someday I’ll “get over it”, I can’t see that happening. The pain will subside some, but I’ll never be finished with it. I’ll get relief and closure the day I die, not before. In the meantime, I have to find happiness wherever I can.

    I stayed away from any thoughts of Christmas. It was simply too much. Next year will be better.

  11. Nancy McDonald Says:

    Uncle Arnie, How about a memory. Lake in Indianapolis on the sailboat. Those where the best Sunday afternoons. And I rememeber you and Aunt Eunie telling Hans and I to get the cold cash. ( I am still keeping the secret of where it was.) Please tell me it brought you a smile and some warm memories. Love and a birthday and Christmas hug to you. Nancy

  12. MadDog Says:

    Oh, YEAH, Nancy. That did bring back the very pleasant memories. Thank you so much for that. I don’t keep the cash that cold any more. I hope your holidays were perfect. – Love, Uncle Arnie

  13. Ali Says:

    Hi Jan,
    You’re on the toughest adventure of your life I think? But it is an adventure and there will be rewards and good times again, that’s for sure!
    I hope your days are filled with sunshine from now on my friend….

    Here’s “Cheers and Love ” to MPBM and all who sail with her through the swiftly approaching year of 2011.
    May it bring kinder, happier and healthy times for us all!
    Ali xxx

  14. MadDog Says:

    Ali, we share different, but equally troubling situations in our lives at present. I have appreciated your many comments on MPBM and our private messages. My wish for you is the same as yours for me. I know that you face some hard times ahead and I pray that when they have passed you will get some nice warm rays also. I look forward to seeing you next year in Toogoolawah. My old knees might get some breeze, but I know that the friendship will be there regardless of the activities.

    A new year’s a comin’, Ali. Let’s get ready for it.

  15. Ali Says:

    Em Nau!