Thursday, March 24, 2011

Trimming the Fat

My favorite Borders is closing its doors.
We are all having to make tough choices these days.

When I was in my teens and twenties, I was totally invested in the American Dream. I wanted it all: a generous income, a spacious house surrounded by a white picket fence, beautiful friends, two or three kids, a family vacation every summer, a fantasy holiday every winter. My dream turned into a nightmare in 2001, the year I joined the ranks of divorced, single moms. I have much to be thankful for: a job that allowed me to stay at home with my three healthy boys; a home of my own; family and friends who love me. We even made some memories aboard cruise ships and around the Christmas tree. But these tough economic times have forced just about everybody to look inward - to recognize that THINGS don't really make us happy; that the endless quest for more, more, more takes us down a road that leads far away from financial peace and true security. Indeed, I have come to realize there are three things I want LESS of in my life.

Thanks to the current economic situation, my income has decreased approximately twenty percent in the last year - after all, piano lessons are a luxury, not a necessity - while my expenses have, for the most part, remained steady or actually increased. As a result, my credit card debt has risen steadily every month as I have relied on credit to help me pay the bills when, despite my best efforts, there is more month than money. I have become aggressive about finding ways to reduce spending; we stopped eating out, I clip coupons and shop the sales at the grocery store, I got rid of our land line, cut back on our cell phone and satellite television plans, and reduced the cost of my health insurance premium by almost 72%. I visit stores only when necessary, take a list with me, and avoid places like Target and the mall like the plague.

In essence, I put this family on a "spending diet." There was a great article in the March, 2011 issue of "Oprah" magazine, in which Martha Beck explained that we have a primal instinct to spend. "You see," she says, "our hunter-gatherer ancestors survived by collecting pelts, sticks, fibers, hunks of peat - whatever might keep them comfy in their caves. Thousands of years later, acquiring, just like eating, still flips the switch that tells our primitive brains we're well supplied for hard times." Her conclusion? "To sustain a balanced buying diet, we must flip that switch without actually accumulating more stuff." Makes sense, doesn't it? This month, for the first time since last June, I have a balanced budget; moving forward, I will apply every spare penny towards paying off those credit card bills. My plan is to be debt-free (other than my mortgage) by the time Nathan graduates from high school in 2014.

The sad truth is a lot of the stuff I'm not buying today would end up being the clutter of tomorrow, anyway. Down with clutter! I am weary of all the piles of unread books and unused music collecting dust in my home; the craft supplies I will never use; the junk-filled drawers that won't shut and the garage that I can't park cars in because it is stuffed to the gills with who-knows-what. I am on a mission to get rid of every single item that I don't use or love. I will enjoy what is left so much more, and there will be a lot more space for the things and people that really matter.

There are dozens of books out there with advice on dealing with clutter; my system is simple. I am going through the house, one room at a time, filling bags and boxes with unwanted items - being ruthless in my selection process - and hauling them to Goodwill, one trunkful at a time. My piano studio is getting the treatment now. After I am finished, each room will get a carpet cleaning and a fresh coat of paint. I will keep you posted.

I have struggled with my weight my entire life, and plan to share that story in a future blog. Right now, although I am at a "healthy" weight - at least according to the BMI charts - I know that I look and feel better about fifteen pounds lighter. Menopause and a diagnosis of hypothyroidism have taken their toll, but now that the hormones have leveled off and my thyroid levels are where they should be, I am ready to give up however many glasses of red wine and however many pieces of chocolate are necessary in order reach what I believe is an optimal weight for me. I am doing it the old-fashioned way: counting calories and increasing my activity level. I am keeping a food diary and making a point to go to the gym (I have a $15/month membership at Fitness 19) at least five times a week. Bonus: I won't need to go shopping for new clothes when I am able to get back into some of those cute tops, pants, skirts and dresses already hanging in my closet.

So there you have it. If any of you battle any of these same issues, feel free to share your own struggles and successes. We are not alone.


Julee said...

Yes, ma'am. I'd like to add something, though. I've been taking unworn clothes, knick nacks and books to a consignment shop for sale. While it's minimal, it's a little extra a month and people in need are still getting a great deal. I'm also sending craft stuff to Fireside Stitchery. They have an eBay department that sells craft books and finished pieces for you. I know you have an etsy store, but I don't. You only get 60%, but I've made over $200. BTW, Chris and I just got back from a trip to our Borders which is closing--thanks for making me feel as stupid as I should. I have boxes of unread books. Go for it--I'm proud of your work toward your goals.

SAIDFRAZ said...

You inspire me!

Anonymous said...

I can identify with all three of the issues you describe.

It seems like they kind of all feed into one another, for me anyway. The process of accumulating all the clutter leads to credit card debt. Then, I'm stressed and sapped of energy because I'm overwhelmed by all the clutter and debt. So, I eat junk, which makes me fat. I feel bad about myself because I'm fat, so I buy some more clutter in a vain attempt to feel better. Durnit.

The good news is that I'm also making steady (but slow) progress in all three areas. Occasionally I still slip up, but the overall trend is in the right direction. :) I'll dig myself out eventually, and one day be a normal, healthy, well-adjusted person!

So, you aren't alone in these struggles, by any means.

Libby said...

Congrats on achieving a balanced budget this month!

Pam said...

I hadn't thought of consignments stores, Julee; that's a great idea. I'm sure you did well at Borders so don't kick yourself for that. It's important to buy books; it supports writers! Thanks for your encouragement.

Pam said...

Sherri, you inspire me, too!! :-)

Pam said...

Eric, it really can be a vicious cycle. I know I used to do a lot of "retail therapy," so in a way it's a blessing that my income took a downturn. Hopefully, one day in the hopefully not too distant future when money isn't so tight, I will remember these lessons I have learned. Not only will I be able to pay off my credit card debt, I might even be able to set aside some money for a rainy day - or for retirement. Keep up the good work, and I will do the same!

Pam said...

Thanks, Libby! It's definitely a step in the right direction! :-)

Denise said...

I'm in the exact same place (as always).

I just got my garage cleaned out, after being filled with the junk from my basement. It took 8 months. I do haul a lot to Goodwill but we sell the good stuff on craig's list and all our old books get sold on Amazon: we've made over $100 since the first of the year. It is yard sale season, I've never made less then a couple of hundred bucks doing those in the past. We just had to garbage man haul off several large items we couldn't even move on free cycle. They'll do it for free if you call them.

I've been trying to loose the 10lbs I gained last year and 9 months later have knocked off 5lbs. Will be upping the gym schedule and counting calories. Of course, there's an ap for that, check out "lose it." If you decide to use it we can be weight loss buddies. It was free when I got it.

As far as money goes, the loss of my income has caused us to tighten our belts. I've pretty much employed all the strategies that you have. My kid's don't like it when they have to wait until pay day to get something they need or just have to not have it. I've been totally honest with them about the money and we're working together to turn off lights and find other ways to save.

I've realized that I'm probably a victim of retail therapy as I've been resisting the urge to start new projects which need new supplies or jo just go shop. It is in our DNA. My mantra for years has been less is more. Changing is a process.

Ron said...

Amen! Down with clutter! I hate clutter! Not that I'm a neat freak but I just don't like clutter :-)

Pam said...

Thanks for sharing, Denise. I should probably be more proactive about trying to sell some of the stuff I no longer want or need but it is so time-consuming to list books/ship books sold on Amazon or Ebay and then I get so little money from them. At this point I am probably better off just hauling loads to Goodwill/listing "good stuff" on Freecycle/putting things out on the curb. Otherwise I may never get rid of it. I downloaded the ap you mentioned to my phone and requested to add you as a friend. Realistically, it will take me until the end of June to reach my goal. Jane Austen Book/Food/Movie club days will be "cheat" days. ;-) As for the money, I should have mentioned that my kids have been very supportive. They understand that money is tight, ask for very little, and support me in all my efforts both to save money and to generate more income. As you say, change is a process. Good luck to all of us!

Pam said...

Ron, I am not a neat freak, either, but when my environment starts getting too cluttered to the point I can no longer find the things I need, then I know it's time to do something about it. Thanks for stopping by!

Vanessa K. Eccles said...

Hi. Thanks so much for the follow; I am now following you. Love your blog. My husband and I have been on the Dave Ramsey plan for almost two years now. We've paid off 15,000 and increased our savings over that time, but it has been painful. We did a lot of "spending fasts" and have taken huge measures to decrease our bills - even renting our house out. Anyway, I wish you loads of luck conquering your finances. I look forward to reading more about you. Take care.

Pam said...

Hi Vanessa! Thank you so much for stopping by, and for the follow. I have been through Dave Ramsey's program, and try to apply his principles, although I'm definitely not there yet. One month at a time!