I've been thinking lately about saving money... but not in the way you might expect.
One of the blogs I follow recently posted this powerful post in which she basically explains why no matter how frugal you are and no matter how much money you save up, there's no guarantee it will always be enough. And you can't live your life in fear of debt. Being proud of how frugal you are and saving up more and more money makes you no better in God's eyes than the person who puts their worth in their possessions.
I really struggle with this because I alternate between fearing we won't have enough money to achieve our few big goals (adopting a large family, buying land, and building our own house) and trying to keep myself from getting too obsessive about how much money we're putting into savings each month.
Mint.com, much as I love it, has totally messed with my perceptions because it's all based on a budget. I try to set our budget as high as possible in each category so we can see the "worst-case scenario," so it's always telling me that we're going to barely save the $250 that is our monthly goal, plus there are always a few categories where we end up spending more than planned. It scolds me by turning a month's budget red if we make even a dollar less than I said we would. The majority of the time I spend on Mint makes me feel like I can barely manage our money.
Yet when I look at our "trends" on Mint over the last year, I see that when you compare how much we brought in to how much we spent, we saved an average of $1,000 a month. How is this possible???
And then I feel like I'm being too tight with our money, even though I know we're saving up for a reason.
Yesterday I went to a seminar at work on saving money because I figured I could pick up a few tips even if it was mostly stuff like "here's how to make a budget." I did end up with a handful of notes (like "Don't forget to add the Christmas gifts budget to Mint now") but the vast majority of it was stuff I consider basic baby steps, like "Try to curb impulse buying when you go to the mall" (have I even been to the mall in the past year?) and "See if you can cut back to basic cable if you're not watching all the premium channels" (we don't even watch TV).
The worst part was that I was sitting close to the front and the speaker apparently needed constant reassurement because she kept asking, "You know what I mean?" and then pouncing on me if I looked at all like I didn't know what she meant. She kept making generalizations about women and shopping, like, "Women, how many black pairs of shoes do we really need? You buy a pair and then find you've got one just like it at home, amiright?" and "We're just lazy, we'd rather go buy a new dress than look through our closet to see what we have." The last time I went clothes shopping was in January and that was because I'd gotten a bunch of Kohl's gift cards for Christmas. I rarely spend money on myself.
I know all the statistics about how most people don't have a budget and that it's really common for people to buy coffee every morning and go out to lunch every day. It's just that the concepts of having an emergency budget, saving for long-term goals, and paying off my credit card in full every month are so drilled into me that I have a tendency to assume that people spending that much extra money must have that much more money than me, and so I find myself wishing that I had those kinds of things to cut out of my spending so I could save even more money and reach our goals that much faster. Which is silly.
Wise Bread ran an article last fall about how when they'd asked readers what money advice they were sick of, many people said they were sick of being told how much money they'd save if they "cut out their daily latte." People who spend a lot of time reading about personal finance aren't often the type to have these kind of "daily sacrifices" they can make to bring their spending down. One great blog I read, The Non-Consumer Advocate, recently asked people to post their money-saving ideas, and these were much more geared toward people who have the basics down: tips about what to find at thrift stores, how to get things free in bad shape and fix them up, what kind of free entertainment to look for.
One of the comments on the Wise Bread article, though, has stayed with me. Here's part of it:
When we are first new to this save-money thing, it is exciting because there are lots of strategies to learn. But eventually we pretty much have learned what there is to learn that we can apply to our lives. We all want to continue to learn, so we come to sites like wisebread. But it is an unrealistic expectation that we will continue to find a wealth of completely new ideas at the same rate.This is hard for me as a person who wants to follow all the rules and get straight A's and explore every possible avenue. There is no point at which the Magic Money Fairy will come down and say, "Good job! You are now saving 100% of the money you could possibly be saving!" It's an area where I just have to say to myself, "I'm doing enough" and be satisfied with that. I've already made some decisions about where my boundaries are, what things I won't cut out and won't do -- like I rarely attempt to find coupons because 1) we get half our food from our CSA and 2) Mike never remembers to take them to the grocery store anyway. The effort it would take to find and use coupons isn't worth the few dollars a month it would save.
Frugality has limitations. That's just the reality. You can't save so much money that your cost of living is zero. There is a bottom limit that is a realistic standard of living. But even if you do everything possible, for some people it still will not be enough to make ends meet. There just is no magic.
This is an area where I need to "let go and let God." Maybe when we have five kids our current strategies won't be enough and we will have to become crazy coupon-clippers or something, but right now I feel like we're doing pretty damn good. I can't predict the future. It's possible we'll be completely fine and achieve all our goals and live long, happy lives in financial security. It's also possible that even if I found an extra $1,000 a month to put away, we'd get hit with something so big we'd end up in debt. There's no way to know. I can only do my best and trust God with the rest!