Saturday, December 3, 2011

Morphing into a merry miser

I wasn't always such a miser.  Two decades ago, I was a sort-of-normal, frugal consumer.  I shopped at the mall, but I hunted for good deals while I was there.  I went out for dinner once a week with friends, but -- while I marveled at one set of friends who gave up restaurants entirely so they could save for a home -- I myself didn't eat out a lot.  I bought my groceries at a real grocery store, but I tried to get generics whenever possible.  I'd read Joe Dominguez' Your Money or Your Life, so I tracked my spending, discovering that I spent way more than I'd intended on airport books, and less than I'd intended on socializing with friends.  I had a small home with a manageable mortgage, and no other debt.  You know, normal shopping and spending, with a whiff of financial restraint.

Then I got married.

My husband was a sort-of-normal, big-spending consumer.  I didn't realize the difference between our approaches until after we'd moved into the new home, blended our families, and obligated ourselves to several other large financial ventures.  We got into a bunch of debt quickly.

Step 1 to digging ourselves out of the hole was when we agreed that I should take over managing the money.  That didn't solve all the problems, but it solved two big ones quickly: it put the person who obsesses about record-keeping in-the-know, and it relieved the guy who doesn't want to think about details away from those pesky details.

Step 2 was to cut back on some big expenditures (put less money into retirement, mostly).  This slowed down the downward slide a lot, but it wasn't enough.  We kept bleeding out more money than we brought in, and the obligations we'd already made severely limited how much we could cut from our monthly budget.  Step 3 was for my husband to find a better-paying job.

Even with these three changes, though, it was clear we couldn't always make ends meet unless something else changed.  I began to go to the mall less often, ate out with friends less often, tried to convince my husband that generics were okay.

One day my husband brought me home a copy of Volume I of Amy Dacyzyn's Tightwad Gazette.  (He proudly pointed out he'd gotten it at a used book store for 25¢).  I devoured the book.  Then I read it again.  Then I went to the library and got the sequels.

A miser monster was born.

The changes in my life are too numerous to mention.  The biggest change, really, is how much fun I have.  Figuring out how to spend less money has scratched all sorts of itches I'd felt -- the environmental itch to use fewer resources, the bleeding-heart itch to support local farmers, the competitive itch to do better than last year, the creative itch to make something great out of whatever is in front of me, the dutiful itch I have to share the wealth with others. The biggest trick was figuring out how to do all that while having fun.

Not only have we made it through the worst of the bad-financial times (knock on wood), but I've turned all those early negative emotions of fear/resentment into what's almost really thrill-seeking.  That's what surprises me most -- I thought miserliness was deprivation, but it's really an outlet for creativity.  Even when the big bad debt is no longer knocking at our door, I'll be yard saling, mending, gardening, canning.  As Amy Dacyzyn says, "Even millionaires need to wash out their plastic bags (or hire someone to do it for them.)"  I've become a merry miser.  

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