Finding happiness in a difficult year
September 3, 2017 8:28 PM   Subscribe

Due to a combination of career transition and temporarily high child care costs, i'm going to be poor this year. How can I reframe this in my mind so that I'm not in a miserable deprivation mentality for the next 10 months?

I got hired by the public school system after 10 years of trying and understood that there would be a year or two of paying my dues before I had a stable, permanent contract. I went on maternity leave shortly after completing the paperwork, and during that year, circumstances happened and now I am on my own.

My son will not qualify for day care subsidy until next year for various reasons, and he was just diagnosed with a peanut allergy so I am not comfortable going with unlicensed care. The net result of the situation is that although I will have work this year, it will likely be on a per-day basis, and more than half of my paycheque will go toward childcare. By my conservative estimate, and with a very modest budget for expenses other than rent and childcare, I will be about $200-$400 a month in the hole.

It's not all bad. Rationally, I know that the endgame is not what I do this year. What I do this year will get me on the salary grid, and in 10 more years I will be at the top for my category and quite comfortable. My child will be out of daycare by then and life will be good. I just have to go through this year and get my foot in the door first. It is a necessary part of the process.

I have savings; more than enough to cover the shortfall. Rationally, I know that the reason I accumulated these savings was for this very purpose. Obviously, I'd like to burn through less of the savings as opposed to more. But I'm resourceful person and I'll manage given what I've got. I know that in the long run, we will be just fine.

But in the short run… it's hard not to treat the coming year like some sort of year of deprivation. Knowing that I will be drawing on savings makes me nervous. I'm grateful I have them. Obviously, I had hoped to go back to work in a more stable situation and/or with the benefit of a second income in the family. But shit happens and thank God I had an emergency fund that is very well-stocked. Still, I've been poor before and it sucked, and it's daunting to feel like now, I am taking a child on that ride with me. I want us to have a fun year, a good year, not a year of poverty and deprivation. How can I reframe this in my mind somehow? How can I stop this short term situation from ruining my happiness?
posted by ficbot to Work & Money (17 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
The volunteer work that I do requires an initial minimum one year commitment to one five-hour shift per week.

When you're first starting out, that can sound like a lot, like a scarily large commitment of time, like you're biting off more than you can chew.

Toward the end of the initial volunteer training, when we were choosing the shifts we could take and really looking the commitment in the face for the first time (I take Saturday evenings from 5 to 10 and that works well for me but some people see that shift and think "I'll never have the freedom to go on a,vacation again!"), the founder said to us, "don't look at this as a limit on your time and flexibility. Rather, see it as the opportunity that it is." He said, "think of this year as a Zen practice period."

Although I am a Buddhist, I'm not a Zen practitioner. I do have great respect for the austerity and simplicity of the practice. When he put it in those words, what had previously been in my mind as a limiting factor suddenly switched to being spaciousness and the freedom of my ability to make this choice for myself and know its value at the outset.

Now whenever I foresee a period of austerity or limits or what have you, I frame it that way. It makes all the difference. First, the quiet beauty of the simplicity. Second, getting ahead of the inconvenience by undertaking it as my choice, not as something I was thrust into. Third, understanding that it has an end, which makes short term issues that much more manageable.
posted by janey47 at 8:57 PM on September 3, 2017 [13 favorites]

Your kid wants you, not stuff. I was raised by a single mom and my dad paid child support so inconsistently that it might as well not have been a thing. We were on food stamps on and off for years. I didn't really know any of this until later, because there was always food on the table and we always did fun (for me) things when my mom wasn't at work: free days at the zoo, the beach (I grew up in Hawaii so this was a gimme), going for hikes, etc.

My mom probably dropped too much economic anxiety on me before she should have, but I was 10 or 11 by then, and yours is younger, so just recognize that what they want is time with you. They won't know from expensive or cheap. Just time.
posted by rtha at 9:03 PM on September 3, 2017 [18 favorites]

But I'm resourceful person and I'll manage given what I've got.

If you haven't done it yet, go through the process of setting up a detailed budget for the next year and then tracking how your spending compares. It's not just for planning purposes; it's to switch your mindset to finding victory in sticking to (or beating) the plan, rather than feeling defeat in the year of relative privation. It's like any diet; tracking is the key to feelings of control, intermittent triumphs, and pacing en route to ultimate success.
posted by carmicha at 9:10 PM on September 3, 2017 [7 favorites]

Living within a budget can be extremely satisfying. There's a bit of a rush to the feeling of control when you don't indulge, and you can gamify it a bit for your kid (should we buy one item for $10 or two for $5 each, etc).

Also, living off savings that more than cover the shortfall with the expectation you'll be earning more soon is not poverty in my book, and I'd be carfeful not to pass that view on to the kid.
posted by kapers at 9:32 PM on September 3, 2017 [6 favorites]

My main focus during the three years from 1996 to 1998 was deliberate and considered acquisition of the skill of living happily on an extremely restricted budget. This is a skill, which like any other improves with practice, and I can report that twenty years later I still count the decision to spend time acquiring it before being forced to rely on it as one of the wisest investments of time I have ever made in my life.

I have savings; more than enough to cover the shortfall

Then you're all set.

One goal you could set for yourself after setting up the budget for the coming year, if you want, is to make a deliberate project of identifying, every week, what it was that cost more money than anything else did in that week, and figuring out how to get as good or better an end result for at least two percent less money next time. This doesn't always work, but when it does it's tremendously satisfying.

What I do this year will get me on the salary grid, and in 10 more years I will be at the top for my category and quite comfortable

It really is possible to come to prefer frugality, and to end up feeling kind of sorry for people who are simply not good at it, rather than experience it as deprivation. Having done so will mean that you don't need to spend as if you were at the top of your category in order to be comfortable.

If you use this year to work on learning how to feel genuinely comfortable with a little, and then never allow yourself to become re-addicted to the more expensive sources of comfort preferred by your salaried peers while still making as much as any of them, you'll get to sock away much more in compounding investments and gain economic independence from the vagaries of the job market way earlier.
posted by flabdablet at 10:15 PM on September 3, 2017 [13 favorites]

Small suggestion - once you worked out a budget for yourself, go ahead and set up an automatic transfer from your savings into your checking account. That way, as you successfully keep to your budget, the money will be there without feeling like you are constantly raiding your savings.
posted by metahawk at 11:05 PM on September 3, 2017 [12 favorites]

I've been frugal-by-choice this year, and I'm actually quite enjoying it. It's a different circumstance to you, as I'm trying to pay off some debt as quickly as possible, but I've cut my expenses at least in half. Because I don't have anyone to answer to, and I'm not good at budgeting, I've chosen to track my spending at the end of each pay period. I have a spending goal that I try to stay under, as well as a savings goal (I know that one should inform the other, but due to timing quirks with rebates, it often doesn't).

A couple of changes I've made which have helped:

- Meal planning and doing the maths on some of my favourite recipes. Weekly meal planning has made a huge difference, as I don't spend money on takeaway nearly as often. Running the maths on how much a meal costs has helped me frugalise them, and also helped put into perspective other purchases. I've managed to get my meals down to about $1 - $1.50 per main meal, around $25/week, so everything is measured against that. If something costs the same as a week of meals, then it really does need to make a difference in my life.
- I prioritise socialising with my friends. I try to do it frugally, suggest free events or afternoon tea in the backyard, but I don't want to suddenly lose relationships because I'm saving money. If it wasn't by choice, or if I wasn't single, maybe this would be less of a priority, but part of the reason I've reduced my food budget so much is to be able to go out once a week or so.
- I've picked up some old hobbies that I already have the equipment for, and I've started volunteering. I've taken up sourdough bread making. I'm seriously busier than I've ever been, and I'm feeling more involved in my community.

A couple of good frugal blogs: Notes from the Frugal Trenches, Frugalwoods. Dave Ramsey is also good if don't mind the evangelical Christian perspective. I've also been reading quite a lot about Decluttering and Zero Waste, which are both quite compatible with frugalling, but from a different perspective.

I love not shopping. Seriously, I did a couple of "No spend" months this year, and I love so much not going into giant department stores that go on forever. Grocery shopping does my head in a bit still sometimes, but I'm getting better at knowing where has what cheapest.
posted by kjs4 at 11:45 PM on September 3, 2017 [7 favorites]

Prioritise time with money saving. If you enjoy cooking, then this is an opportunity to cook frugally delicious meals, a delicious challange. If you dont, batch cooking can free up hours of time each week and become an efficiency and logistics puzzle to solve. I get little pleasure out of fancy brunch compared to cheap pizza delivery for three terrible week nights. Stopped buying books for now and only very discounted clothes, but happily paid for a season pass to a local playground. Look at where you spend your time during the week and save your small budget for improvements there, tighten all the occasional things. Good coffee daily in a cheap cheerful mug at home is better than an expensive latte treat once a month.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 12:04 AM on September 4, 2017 [3 favorites]

I've always thought of frugality as a very positive thing. Buying stuff adds to climate change and degrades the environment, and supports corporations (well, except when you buy from independent businesses), so it can actually feel good to do without, like a positive contribution. Having stuff, especially valuable stuff, also creates burdens in your own life. It's better, at least from my perspective, to be unfettered by things that I don't strictly need.

I essentially don't buy anything that isn't food, unless it's something I just can't function without, and then I try to buy it used. If I already have something, even if it's broken or old, but still more or less functions, it pleases me to continue to use it rather than replace it. It also makes me feel good not to need things, to realize I don't actually need them, even if they are often considered normal staples that everyone has. It's kind of an aesthetic and philosophy, rather than a deprivation.

I'm not a minimalist. I have a decor based on old kitschy dish towels and granny afghans, and colorful paint on my walls. I find that very pleasing and homey, and prefer it to decor that is "tasteful" or sophisticated.

I'm not sure how your child would feel about it. I don't have a lot of experience with that. I know that my nephew loved it if I drew something (like a car or a dinosaur) on a piece of paper and then cut it out. It was like a new toy. He also loved to do "projects," which were dioramas inside a cardboard box.

Being frugal by choice is much different than being forced into it by actual poverty. It's a lot easier to see it philosophically if you are not struggling to get by.
posted by Vispa Teresa at 1:45 AM on September 4, 2017 [2 favorites]

If you're going to be drawing on savings, you might feel a real sense of anxiety as you do so - before now, you've been focused on making that account grow, and it's very hard to change gears and let yourself spend it as it's meant to be spent. Don't let it get you down - you have a plan, and it's a good plan! Work on letting that anxiety go, and keep that rational plan in focus, and don't feel bad every time you see that account balance shrinking - it's just temporary, and you're using it to build a bridge to a better future.
posted by Mary Ellen Carter at 5:15 AM on September 4, 2017 [3 favorites]

One of the things that causes the most stress in Western Culture is the abundance of choices.

For example it is very good, if you are gender non-binary to be able to question gender roles, but the downside is the number of conflicted definitions of gender and gender roles that everyone has to juggle. In a strict culture where there are no gender choices you don't have to think about it, or make decisions. They all agree. Dissent is unthinkable. And this reduces our choices. Everyone knows what they can and can't do and agrees, even if it hurts, and that reduces their anxiety. For most people who can adapt easily to a narrow definition this means they don't think so much and don't worry so much.

As a new parent you have just been inundated with a whole bunch of choices to make. Co-sleep? Try rocking or patting? Will calling mother for advice open a bigger can of worms than it will be helpful? Should you cut back on onions in your diet in case it is making your child colicky? You have had your stress level hugely increased. Of course the stress may be mainly positive stress, if you are so pleased by your little baby and confident in your abilities that choosing between co-sleeping and putting your baby to sleep in its own bed is a choice between two good alternatives. But all these choices are still taking up mental bandwidth.

Simplifying your life by reducing your choices is a very, very good way to reduce stress. (Unless you do so by making bad choices that you promptly and rightly regret!) Many people do this by establishing routines. They don't have to decide what to eat for breakfast. They ALWAYS grab a McMuffin. They don't have to decide what they are going to wear in the morning. Monday's work outfit is on the blue Monday hanger in their closet. They don't have to decide how much time they need to get up. They will get up when the baby wakes them up and if that means they are brushing their teeth in the cab on their way to work, they have a choice they are committed to living with.

You have made an economic choice that will reduce the amount of Stuff that you can bring into your home. If you decide you need a convenient hands free way to carry your baby, logging into and ordering the three most promising looking snuggly/sling/babybackpacks is no longer an option. And while this will raise your stress because you can't simply take five minutes and a credit card number, BOOM, problem solved, it will also reduce your stress because you will not have complicated your life by having to track down the missing package that the delivery person left on your doorstep while you were out, discovering that there is a safety recall on some Kohner brand carriers but not all and yours might be affected, not knowing if you left the alternative choice carrier in your car or at your mothers' and a whole bunch of other cascading complications. Instead you will be left with trying to figure out what you already have at home that will make a good baby carrier and what materials you can use. This will likely involve a fleecy baby blanket that you already own, safety pins and a perhaps a t-shirt. But it will also involve a different kind of brain engagement, problem solving for self-reliance.

There is a huge industry in un-complicating people's lives by reducing the number of Stuff they own: Downsizing Divas, Hoarders episodes, planning systems, blogs, magazines, philosophies, religions, diets, you name it. Enough people are finding so much benefit from reducing the stuff they own that companies that sell more Stuff are thriving.

And you are choosing to do this deliberately for the best of good reasons. You haven't bee swayed by a decor magazine with minimalist pictures. You haven't succumbed to Western Guilt. You haven't been terrified into it by discovering that you have hoarder tendencies. You've said, "Yeah, I don't want to spend down my savings. I prefer the cushion of security from emergency funds over the Stuff." So you are self motivated because you are making long term choices.

Here's the thing: Kids get overwhelmed by Stuff. You want your kid to have a complex learning environment that will stimulate his brain growth. Giving him Stuff is the wrong way to do that. If you provide him with Stuff than he will learn to interact with Stuff and it will be only through the parameters that Stuff chooses. Plunk him in front of a gaming system and he will soon learn to navigate the almost infinite world that comes to him through clicking. And his whole world will be through the input of his fingers, his ears and his eyes. And there will no real world feedback.

The right kind of complex learning environment is the kind that requires him to examine, to touch, to smell, to move, to make decisions that could change his environment. Plunk two toddlers down on a blanket on the grass and you are providing them with the right kind of environment. The grass contains myriad little plants and plant features to look at close up. The other toddler gives him un scripted social modeling. Grass feels different. His long range vision gets exercised by looking away when the other toddler or the intensely tactile grass gets to overwhelming or boring. This is what an complex learning environment looks like.

Simplifying your life means simplifying the live of babyficbot, and this is probably one of the most sensory enriching things you can do for him, if you handle it right. You can't hand him the Kohner brand sensory enrichment play mat in six bright primary colours with nine educational activities for pre-walkers. You're going to have to look around the house "Arrgh! I need to hand him something to play with - what can I give him??!" So you're going to wrench the last six tissues out and hand him an empty Kleenex box. And babyficbot is going to hold the box, wave it, bang it, crush it, taste it, suck it, tear it and then you will have finished whatever you needed to do and come back and dispose of the remains of the empty Kleenex box (hopefully) before he can actually ingest any of it. And you will have given him a much more sensory enriching environment than the Kohner brand sensory enrichment play mat, because that thing is supposed to be indestructable. babyficbot will have learned new concepts - hollow goes with lightweight, hollow goes with crush, corners go with more impact, flat sides go with less impact, wet goes with fragile... And the next day you will hand him a ring of plastic measuring spoons and he will learn a different set of concepts, and the day after that you will make him a cave with his blanket and three clothes pins because you needed your measuring spoons back. And all this dead-cheap not using any new Stuff environment will be the best kind of parenting you can give him, even if you had rediculous amounts of money and were paying sensory development coaches to spend time with him using equipment that was designed by the best early learning educational specialists.

And with luck when babyficbot is about four it will be completely understood that all empty Kleenex boxes are kept and reserved for his use because he is building something that might be a robot, but which he insists is an undiscovered Pokemon, using sticky tape and old Kleenex boxes, which is now taller than he is, and had a series of tunnels underneath, through which he shoots his toy cars with much force and rebound and minor paint damage tot he baseboards on the other side of his bedroom wall. And your pre-school teachers will be saying, well you know, his above average intellectual abilities are because ficbot is educated - so she invested in all the best educational programming for him and other parents will be asking you on advice which kids software what to buy.

And when you say that you haven't a clue because babyficbot doesn't spend time on electronics, that you provide him with experiences they will think, Right, one of those parents who spends all her time paying for experiences and taking him places with inexhaustable energy. They will picture the zoo, and early baby swimming classes, and baby art classes, and toddler tetherball - Your kid is one heck of a good shot from all that toy car rebounding he does. When in fact the kind of places you take him are the lane behind the house where you allow him to try to climb the dumpster, and discuss with him what the Do Not Climb Into Dumpster signs might mean, and that time he fell off something on concrete and the parallels between being stuck in a blanket cave and being stuck in a dumpster, and the differences between getting stuck in a blanket cave and in a dumpster.

You have already shown that you are way above average in ability to do resource management. This means that you are exactly the kind of person who can take simplifying your life by reducing Stuff and turn it into enriching both your and babyficbot's lives by using limited Stuff better, rather than getting more Stuff and not getting use out of it.
posted by Jane the Brown at 5:25 AM on September 4, 2017 [11 favorites]

You might also investigate other ways to earn a bit of cash. You probably won't have time as a new teacher and mum, but it can be nice to know that there are options. I've done a bit of babysitting, joined Swagbucks, done some online surveys and sold a few things. Not enough to really make a difference, but it's nice to know that I could step it up if I needed to.

Also, I think it's easier to be frugal now than it was twenty years ago when I was a student. The internet has almost endless resources of free entertainment on it, and is hugely useful when it comes to tracking down free outings and sourcing free stuff. A local free cycle/buy nothing/pay it forward group can be an amazing way to get free clothes and other things that people just want out of their house. Also, food pantries. This is what they are for.
posted by kjs4 at 6:16 AM on September 4, 2017

The internet has almost endless resources of free entertainment on it

The internet costs (me) $60 a month. It is far from free! It's the largest of my monthly bills besides heat in winter.

I'm not criticizing you. What you said is perfectly reasonable. If we already have the internet, then everything it provides without additional cost is indeed free. But not having it is actually an option for the deeply frugal.
posted by Vispa Teresa at 6:22 AM on September 4, 2017 [2 favorites]

Came to say what everyone else has said, that (especially with your safety net) this could be the most amazing year for you. I find frugality deeply satisfying. I love when one chicken becomes a roast dinner, a bunch of delicious sandwiches, a hearty noodle-soup, a pate and a stir-fry. Every bit of that bird gets used, which makes me a little less damaging to the world. You have the capital to be able to make economies of scale (buying a whole chicken, buying a bale of toilet roll) that will let you be more effectivly frugal than an involuntarily poor person might be able to. As others have mentioned, I love the clarity of mind that comes from knowing I can just ignore that advert, or that sale, or that welcoming open store-door, cos I'm not buying anything anyhow. This reminds me to do a no-spend month or two again soon, it's good for my immediacy issues.

Print out the buyerarchy and put it on your wall. Blog your adventure as a mefi Project!
posted by Iteki at 6:40 AM on September 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

I don't have any philosophical opinion on frugality, but I came here to say that your kid will never have any idea that there is anything unusual about this year. He's very young; even if you were really struggling, he wouldn't know it, and you won't be. He will have food and warmth and someone taking care of him, and that is literally all there is to it for him. Sure, he might beg for whatever toy the kids on the playground have, but so did my kid, and I never bought any of them, and he didn't really care five minutes later.

The ONLY thing that will matter to him in this experience is your attitude, and the only thing that will make it hard is your stress level, so the more you can do to be cool with it, the better. This is a temporary choice that will pay dividends in the long run; remind yourself of that and say it over to yourself when you find yourself anxious. Pay attention to your thoughts and feelings and deliberately talk to yourself in positive terms when you start getting fretful about this. "I have a plan, and this is a temporary choice that I've made."

You can do this, and you're doing GREAT. Good luck.
posted by gideonfrog at 7:14 AM on September 4, 2017 [4 favorites]

Your local Buy Nothing group can be a good source of free kids clothes, free toys, and more!

(People offer things they no longer need for free.)
posted by Murderbot at 8:04 AM on September 4, 2017

I am naturally a saver. So spending savings is stressful and unpleasant. Even when I saved it to spend it. I second metahawk's suggestion of making the transfer of $X from your savings to chequing account automatic, like your pay.

In terms of your new spending mindset of 'fun-frugality':

1) You need to tell yourself that $X of your savings is MEANT to be spent each month. I have gone so far as to have a 'fun fund' which is mandated that I HAVE to spend that. If you go under budget in a month, that's gravy. You can start a 'rebuild the savings account fund' with the surplus. But the money appears in the chequing account every month, without you having to gnash your savings teeth.

2) Have you planned for the one-off expenses this year? Insurance (car/house/life), holidays, travel? If not, add these amounts to the budget for that month before you get started. It is frustrating to be rocking a budget, and have one of these expenses crop up without it being explicitly planned for in your cash flow.

3) Are you an introvert or an extrovert? In times of stress (because you are a first year teacher!!), do you want solitude or company? Acknowledge this. If you'll want company, be prepared to entertain at home, or by bringing food out to fun locations, or by setting up a dinner party rota. Being an introvert means recharging your batteries after long days expending energy. Plan for babysitting to regroup away from babe during to the year.

4) Always have snacks with you. You (and baby) will get hungry. Healthy snacks and water mean not having to buy them out of the house, or not feeling deprived when you realize it isn't in the budget.

A frugal life is freeing. When you spend less, you are less financially perilous. You gain the freedom to work by choice, rather than necessity. While you might be frugal by necessity this year, I hope you remain frugal by choice next year.
posted by Sauter Vaguely at 8:35 AM on September 4, 2017

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