More with Less

One of my strengths according to strengthsfinder is Learner. A Learner “will always be drawn to the process of learning. The process, more than the content or the result, is especially exciting for you.” This has played out in my life repeatedly. I have never met a topic that I haven’t wanted to learn more about. According to my goodreads profile, I have read 2820 books. That barely scratches the surface because I did not start keeping records until my early twenties.

This strength is both complimented and enabled by another one of my strengths: achiever. “No matter how much you may feel you deserve a day of rest, if the day passes without some form of achievement, no matter how small, you will feel dissatisfied.” I have a sometimes unhealthy obsession with goals and to do lists.

This means that I often find myself stretched in many similar but distinct directions through no one’s fault but my own. Most years I have not written out formal goals although I certainly had them. Recently though, I have written them out courtesy of my blog, any iteration. Sometimes the lists of goals even matched the year. In 2012 the list contained 12 items. The lure of my favorite number overpowered any sanity I may possess. I followed all the right advice, save limiting the number of goals. I made them S.M.A.R.T.: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time based. I tried to check-in every month. Those final days of each month flew by, full of last minute attempts to be able to check the item off my list.

I look back on those goals and can remember few. Those that I do remember, only vague generalities come to mind. For instance, I know that every year I had some sort of number of books I wanted to read that year. In the end, how effective were those goals?

The goals were accomplished but I sacrificed quality for quantity. I added stress to my life. I wanted to do it all. This led to disappointment over not accomplishing an enormous quantity instead of celebrating what I had achieved.

As evidence to my typical “go big or go home” mentality, I own a 160GB iPod classic which Apple no longer manufactures. That iPod is crammed with podcasts, yet another way I supplement my learning. A couple weeks ago, I started listening to The Minimalists podcast. I wasn’t sure if this podcast would be a keeper or not knowing that I do not agree 100% with their take on minimalism.

As I listened, it grew on me. I have been moving down this path towards minimalism for a while now and the podcast helped me start to understand things I knew already. As I have listened these past couple weeks, I have begun to contemplate what brings me joy? How can I create a life that values quality over quantity?

This also aligns with my belief in Christ, my calling as a child of God. He does not want us to be busy with the myriad distractions of life around us. His sole purpose for us is to find the greatest joy in Him, in making His name great.

After spending a significant portion of the words published on this blog in its short life on goals/intentions for the year, I plan to shift focus. One of the things mentioned on the podcast is that we as a culture have perverted the word priority. That word literally means “first thing.” Even though people talk about their “priorities,” such things cannot exist. By matter of default, if one thing is first, nothing else can share that spot only replace that which used to be the priority. I had too many “priorities.” Even if I had all the time in the world or even as much as a person in a “normal” job has, I cannot strive after reading and writing and running and teaching and photography at the same time. Something has to give.

Even now as I have come to this conclusion and put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, I feel the tug, the alure of all the goals. I want to do it all even though I know that I can’t. Some of the priorities may be able to work together. I wrote that sentence just now without irony. Now, I look back and the absurdity blares forth. I certainly am far from perfect.

I do not know what this will look like as the year progresses although I have an inclination that writing may win out as my passion priority while performing well in my chosen profession will also have a seat at the table.

How does this all connect to the title, “more with less?” My hope is that as I let goal of all the faux priorities, I will reclaim quality, more, with what remains. I also hope to learn to be truly content with what I have. Thus less is more.

Uber Frugal Month – A Recap

Although a few things unexpectedly cropped up, this month was a rousing success both in savings and goal terms. Im’ going to go line by line over everything I have spent this month. DOn’t worry, this list isn’t very long.

$396 – tithe. This is non-negotiable, the first thing that I do with my earnings, no matter what. I usually try to tithe at least 10%.
$100 – gift. I give this to my mom and stepdad each month to help them pay down debt. She has done so much for me over the years. It’s the least I can do.

Rent and Utilities
$300 – I am incredibly blessed in my living situation. My mom has told me many times that I do not have to pay rent because the rent from my two roommates covers the mortgage payment. I choose to pay rent though in the form of contributing to their debt repayment.
$63.46 – Verizon, cell phone bill. I have briefly looked at possible ways to lower my bill. I do not like how high this is. At the moment, it does not seem likely that i will be able to switch in the near future but I will keep looking.
$9 – pest control split three ways. I hate bugs; this is $9 well spent
$19.99 – Charter internet, split three ways. Unfortunately, Charter is the only Internet provider for my subdivision. We are stuck with the $60 monthly charge for this necessity.
$39.08 – Duke Energy, power bill split three ways. When this is my cost after the bill being split in three, I cringe. Winter and summer power bills do that to me.
$13.49 – water, split three ways. I worked really hard to lower our water bill this month by taking shorter showers, using just the amount of water I need to wash dishes and things like that.

Other Regular Monthly Expenses
$16.47 – gas for Siena, my car. I get gas each time I go out to Costco which is usually every other week. The prices are always cheaper. The first few years of my Costco membership I did not take advantage of this savings. I would have had to use my debit card. The cash back on my credit card was better than the savings per gallon. Then this past June Costco switched to Visa. My switch was a no brainer.
$115.94 – groceries. This is one of the lowest totals I have had for groceries. While I would love to keep it this low, there were a few times this month where I got into a food rut caused by not having excess around plus a lack of imagination on my part. Also, I have only one freezer meal left from my massive prep back in August before the start of the school year.
$12.71 – Netflix subscription. I am watching less TV than I used to but this subscription is used by several people in my family. I’ve thought about asking them to contribute but at $2-3 per month, it seems petty.

Regular Monthly Savings
$15.22 – car taxes. I started setting aside money each month to pay my yearly car taxes so that I would not be taken by surprise like I was the first year I had to pay for my “new” car.
$20.00 – Christmas. Since the process worked well with car taxes, I decided to start doing this for Christmas. Hopefully this year I will still be able to save in November and December 2017 unlike 2016.
$300 – At a bare minimum I devote $100 a month to each of my three savings funds: travel, house in cash and emergency.
$40 – Health Savings Account. I am currently transferring this on top of the $20 withdrawn pretax from each paycheck. At the next possible opportunity I will up my pretax contributions as well. When I first filled out the paperwork I was coming from a period of income uncertainty which played a significant factor.

Other Expenses
$9.53 – Starz add-on Amazon Prime subscription. This is the charge that I hate the most this month. I actually generated it at the end of last month when I wanted to show a portion of a movie to my students on the last day before Winter break. It was a movie I had shown to my students back when I taught Spanish. At that time I had a DVD copy but I assumed that I had gotten rid of it along with 95% of my other teaching materials when I left teaching back in 2011. I not only found the DVD during my minimalist purge a couple weeks ago, I also discovered that what I thought was a free trial was not actually because I had already used the free trial months ago.
$82.85 – This was my total for teaching related expenses, higher than I would like. Part of that was caused at the end of the month when I found myself participating in a new rewards system for some of my kids. I liked the idea that another teacher presented but had no idea that he planned to put it into place that very week. The other portion is for the prizes for the rewards system that I’ve had in place for a while. I want to figure out a cheaper way to get their prizes. Plus, three rewards systems (the school has one too) is too many. I need to work on this or I will go nuts trying to keep it straight.
$11.14 – new journal. Since writing is a priority to me, this was a mandatory expense. It just happened to fall in this month.
$45 – Performance Therapy. Once again, this charge is related to my goals for the year and is thus mandatory, for me.
$124.01 – new running shoes. They wear out and have to be replaced.

Additional Savings
$460.84 – It felt really good to transfer this money back to my travel savings account. I have categorized it as savings since it is going back into the savings account. Technically though, I am paying myself back for the money I “borrowed” from my account to cover expenses that cropped up (like needing to buy a new laptop) during the time I had no income.
$183.42 – I had hoped to be able to contribute more to my travel fund but what I was able to save brought my monthly savings rate to 40.91%. Definitely a success.

After breaking everything down, what did I learn from this month? DO I consider it a success? Short answer to the latter? Yes!

The biggest takeaway, one that I did not expect, was the realization that I am incredibly blessed. God has given me so much. Intentionality causes one to slow down and savor, to be thankful for everything that I do have. That to me is more valuable than any dollar amount saved.

Thoughts on Minimalism

Over the past several years I have been drifting – slowly at first but much more rapidly now – towards minimalism. Based on my family history, this is unusual. As a general rule, both sides of my family have collected and held onto large numbers of things.

Of itself, collections and keepsakes can be quite innocuous. The line between a well0curated collection and a horde of junk often appears blurry to the collector which potentially leads to hoarding. My great aunt crossed that line helped by an unhealthy sense of paranoia. She so feared identity theft that she held onto every item that held her name – from magazines to empty prescription bottles. At some point she moved out of her rent-controlled apartment and into the family home with her brother. She continued paying rent on the apartment though, unable or unwilling to part with anything. That job fell instead to my grandpa, mother and aunt.

These experiences led to a shared aversion for my mom and me. Neither of us wanted to leave such an onerous task to anyone who might come behind us. Periodically, usually on a day off, both of us go through the house filling large garbage bags with things to donate. Each time I continued to be surprised with how many bags I filled.

Each time I fought my own hoarding tendencies. My number one strength is context. According to gallup, creator of strengthsfinder, a person whose strength is context “look[s] back because that’s where the answers lie. You look back because that’s where the answers lie. You look back to understand the present.” (source) For me, this meant that I held on to everything that might possibly hold a memory in the event that some day I might look back on or use again. This made it difficult to get rid of things. Each time we packed up donations, I forced myself to take a second look at those maybes.

For example, I once held onto every piece of college writing or assessment that I received back with a grade. I also still had many of the rough drafts for those papers. While I no longer have any of them, I did not get rid of them all at once. The first time I went through the stack(s) I recycled all of my notes. Yes, I had saved my notes. The second time I recycled all papers except for any essays or term papers. The third time, just this last summer – nine years after I graduated from college – I recycled the remainder after first photographing the pages, a suitable compromise for my need for context.

This process began to accelarte a year and a half ago when I first discovered Frugalwoods and the previously unknown to me world of personal finance/minimalism/frugality blogs. Many different things started to come together for me. Unbeknownst to me, God started using what I was learning through these blogs and other events in my life to help me begin the process towards learning what truly made me happy.

This brings me to the inspiration for this post. As seems to be a tradition, the second week of January brought snow and unexpected time off. One of the things I crossed off my imaginary list of things to get to was finally watching The Minimalists documentary. I had originally planned to write a review and commentary of sorts but this entry has taken a different turn so I will save those observations for another post.

I came away from watching that documentary with a renewed desire to pare down my belongings, to figure out what truly matters. I spent several hours on January 10th combing through my belongings and asking myself the following questions. Does this bring me joy? Why do I have this? What purpose does this serve? Do I need this?

THe first thing I got rid of was the mason jar three-quarters full of the extra crossstitch thread that I clip off when I finish a thread. I can’t tell you why I first started “collecting” these bits of thread. It just started happening and kept happening. While watching the documentary that jar kept coming to my mind. I couldn’t think of a good reason for having it so it was the first thing to go.

By the time I finished I had filled a large black garbage bag of items to donate and another with recycling.
Blog Post Pic
That does not include anything I threw straight into the trashcan.

After I returned from dropping off the donation and the recycling, I returned home and looked at my room. It still looked like I have too much stuff. Who knows, maybe in six months or a year I will fill up another garbage bag of items to donate.

One thing I know for sure though, that bag will not contain items purchased between now and then. I want to become more intentional in every part of my life including my possessions. Every item needs a purpose. If it has none, I don’t need it. Life is a lot better lived unencumbered with things.