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.
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.
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!
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?
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.
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.