Pay Up: Self-Inflicted Penalties When We’re in Too Deep

If it weren’t for my frugal, old-fashioned Mom and her strong take on living within your means and paying for only what you can afford, I might’ve completely bought in to the narrative that surrounded me in the media, my community, and from my peers.

More = Happiness. Get more. If you can’t afford more, borrow money to get more.

As soon as I turned 18, my mailbox was flooded with offers of credit cards. Now that my son is 18, the same is happening to him. Everyone and anyone wants to loan him money, and the confusing, risky terms of the loans are explained in itsy-bitsy type on the lower half of the back page of the offer.

My Mom tried her hardest to get through to me, and in a lot of ways, she did. But I still made some mistakes.  As it turns out, it is really easy to get in too deep—whether it’s with debt, or time commitments, or other stressors that we take on willingly. It takes almost no effort to say “yes” to too much. But later, having too much takes a toll. And the cost doesn’t only come out of our pockets:

  • We pay with our time. Having too much means we have to work harder just to stay afloat. We take extra shifts at work to pay down that nasty credit card bill.
  • We pay with sleep (or lack of it). I never realized how my sleep was interrupted by a.) lying awake worrying about money and b.) having crazy dreams about being chased or falling off cliffs.
  • We pay with relationships. Sometimes I had to exclude myself from fun events because going out to eat or seeing a show just wasn’t in the budget. That meant missing out on fun times with friends or loved ones.
  • We pay with our health. Worrying takes a toll on your body. For me, it’s headaches. But our bodies have all kinds of ways to make us feel miserable when we’ve got too much going on.

It’s going to take a while to turn the tide, but instead of paying my debt collectors, I’m starting to pay myself with time for quality experiences, paying my loved ones with my time, and for goodness’ sake, no more dreams about driving over cliffs in the desert! Momma needs her sleep.

Redemption (Dishwasher) Song

1797473_10153115037688971_8500511848191095366_nOur little cottage where we live has a kitchen that is just the right size for us. It doesn’t have a lot of counter space, but it is enough; everything has a place, and there is room for our little table with red chairs where all six of us can and often do sit down and eat together. Compared to my last kitchen, this kitchen is much more compact, and while I have all the necessary amenities, it lacks a dishwasher.

I’ve gone without a dishwasher before, but it was back in our newlywed days, before four kids. I didn’t think I’d survive this! But after two months in the new house, I don’t think I’ll be getting a dishwasher. I don’t want to sacrifice cabinet space for something that I’m starting to believe is unnecessary.

At noon on Sunday, there were a lot of dishes, since we’d just added our lunch dishes to the breakfast dishes didn’t make the cut before church. I gave a little sigh, because I was getting a little tired of doing so many dishes. But the kids and my husband pitched in, and soon the hot water was going, the dishes cleared from the table, and the food put away.

At one time, I only bought the cheapest, store-brand dish soap. Now I allow myself the name-brand stuff, with heavenly aromas. The stuff I have now is scented like pomegranate, and has a luscious color to match. So when I wash dishes, I breathe in the heavenly scent emanating from the bubbles. I look out the big window and appreciate the well-kept yard of our neighbor, Ted. I feel thankful that wherever we’ve lived, we’ve been lucky to have wonderful neighbors. Ted is no exception. If I can keep this up, this trying to frame dish washing as a time of meditation, a time for gratitude, a time to enjoy a moment of calm in the middle of our bustling family, I may never want a dishwasher again. Heck, I may even start to look forward to it!

That afternoon, all six of us busied ourselves to get our kitchen cleaned up so we could go and do something fun with the rest of our day. We worked together and bumped into each other and talked.

At some point, Ben, our 14 year old, picked up his guitar and started singing a little “Redemption Song” by Bob Marley. As my 18 year old dried dishes, he joined in singing:

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery;

None but ourselves can free our mind.

Wo! Have no fear for atomic energy,

‘Cause none of them-a can-a stop-a the time.

How long shall they kill our prophets,

While we stand aside and look?

Yes, some say it’s just a part of it:

We’ve got to fulfill the book.

Won’t you help to sing

These songs of freedom?

‘Cause all I ever had:

Redemption songs …

A glass, a fork, a saucepan. I’m finding my redemption in my little house. One dish at a time.

The No-Return Policy on the Gift of Downsizing

We’ve all had to open a gift we didn’t like at some time or another. Despite the cake, the streamers, the good intentions of the gift-giver, sometimes someone hands you a gift, and a gut reaction takes over. “What am I going to do with this?” “How much time is it going to take me to return this to the store?”

Hopefully this doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. Face it: some gifts are impractical. Or the wrong size. Or we already have one. At a party, you say “thank you” and you try to disguise your disappointment.

Unpacking after a move is a bit like that.

As we preparedgift_guide_photo for our move from a 2,000+ square foot home into a less than 1,000 square foot home, I remember reading a blog that said packing for a move was like wrapping party gifts for yourself: in a week or so, you’d unwrap the present, and you’d have one of two reactions: “Yay! I love that!” or “Aww crap, why did I bring that along?”

As mentioned in my previous post, our family filled two dumpsters of unnecessary stuff to lighten our load before we moved. So when I read that, I figured that wouldn’t apply to me: I was paring down to the absolute minimum, so every box would be a joy to open on the other side of the moving truck.

Not so. I have three moving boxes sitting stagnant in my bedroom right now, to prove my point. Why did I bring that stuff?

Talk about awkward. I mean, if anyone should know what I want for a gift, it’s me!

I can’t call myself a minimalist yet. I’m more like a recovering pack-rat. But with my new tinier house, I’m finding that the best gift I can give myself is space. To live in. I don’t want to store things that don’t add joy to my life. I don’t want to spend my day returning things or disposing of things that are getting in the way of having an adventure.

If anyone reading this is de-cluttering or downsizing, I am here to cheer you on. Give yourself that gift to make intentional choices in your life. Make changes in your life so that you start to unwrap each day as a gift. Make space for new relationships and new experiences. These are the things that always come in the right size. And you never have to return them.

The Ugly Underbelly of Decluttering

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Living a smaller life in a smaller house is something I’ve idealized in my mind. We worked hard for months preparing our large house for sale, and we knew, once we moved to our current smaller house, it would be necessary to pare down our stuff.

We cut our home’s square footage in half—from a little over 2,000 square feet to just under 1,000 square feet. So it would stand to reason that we had to get rid of half our stuff.

It’s easy to say those words, isn’t it? “We’re going to get rid of half our stuff.” Doing it, however, is a dirty, ugly job. There is no easy way around it than to dig in and start pitching.

We practically wore a groove in the road between our house and some of the Goodwill and other thrift shops in our area. Stores in our area received boxes of books, dishes, clothing and shoes from our family. Furniture was carefully loaded into the back of the car and dropped off for donation.

My husband did the bulk of this job. He rolled up his sleeves and dug in. He had the sore muscles to prove it.

“I think I’m going to rent a dumpster,” my husband told me late last Fall. Our house was already on the market. By that time, we had decluttered our house significantly, and “staged” it to appeal to potential buyers. Although our house was the least cluttered it looked in years, sadly, most of the extras had landed in our garage.

I was against a dumpster from the start. We didn’t have that much junk, did we?

Um, yes. We did. The dumpster was delivered to our driveway, a few feet from our garage. Within three hours, it was filled.

A few months later, just a week before our move to our little cottage, we got a second dumpster.

I am not proud of this fact one bit. I’m not proud that I was storing so many non-essential items in our home and garage. It was hard work, not only the physical lifting and dealing with every item, but also the emotional burden of opening boxes and finding old letters, painful memories, or items that held an emotional burden.

I took a photo of the second dumpster as it was hauled away:

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The feeling of weight being lifted from my shoulders was indescribable! I hope this is the only time in my life I need a dumpster. I hope from now on, I will not keep things that are no longer bringing me joy. Better yet, I hope I don’t acquire them in the first place. From here on out, I will try my best to acquire things that don’t need to be dusted or stored: things like experiences, memories and friendships.

Back in Whack

We had to face the facts: we were out of whack.

We were getting by, but we were struggling financially, and it was robbing our peace of mind. My husband and I have jobs that we love, and four children that we love more. We knew we had to make more money so that we could build our retirement while also saving for the kids’ college funds.

Oh—while also paying for music lessons, soccer and ballet.

But even after completing Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University, and paying off all our debt except the mortgage (YAY us!!), we couldn’t keep up. All it took was for a surprise auto repair or an unexpected medical bill, and we were struggling again and sliding back into debt.

Which is why we got to a point in 2014 where we knew we had to make a change: we either had to work and earn more, or pay less. We definitely didn’t want to work more—if anything, we wanted to play more! And we had already cut back on cable, groceries, clothing and eating out. If we were going to cut back, it was going to have to be in a big way.

So we sold our house.

Despite loving our home, and making many precious memories within its walls with our babies, we realized that our house of thirteen years was a beautiful albatross hanging around our necks. While it was providing warmth and shelter and beautiful space for Thanksgiving dinners and backyard shindigs, it was punching us squarely in the gut each month when we payed our mortgage bill.

The past six months have been a time of learning, of letting go, of re-evaluating what is important and what we were willing to do without. We started a journey that we’ve called “unwanting,” because our new version of the American Dream involves wanting less, so that we can live more. This is not an easy task. For one thing, it’s completely counter-cultural. Many people who will hear what we’ve done will say, “That’s fine for you, but I could/would never do this.” Today,  I am starting this blog on the other side, inside the cozy cottage we now call home, and I can tell you that we are no longer out of whack.

We are completely in whack, baby.

In April 2015, we moved from our 4-bedroom, 2-bathroom home of over 2,000 square feet to a cozy 2-bedroom, 1-bath home, coming in just under 1,000 square feet. We have half the space and half the bathrooms, but we also have half the mortgage payment and half the worry.

We still have four kids and a dog. You may think we’re crazy.

Maybe we are.