Monday, February 6, 2012

wanting and needing and everything in between: the beauty of a basic budget

There are things I want.
Source: via Stephanie on Pinterest

There are things I need.

There are things I want but don't need.

There are things I need but don't want.

And there are things I want to need but don't need to want.

(I have yet to find an example of that last one.)

The beauty of a fine-tuned, tediously crafted budget

The other night Bob and I sat down and worked tediously through our tedious and extremely tight budget. Did I mention it was tedious? We have a shared Google doc with our budget and lots of tabs. One of the tabs is our queue of things to buy that don't fall into our regular budget categories.

In this queue we have prioritized the expenses that fall outside of our budget.

We have the things we need to buy now (a new windshield to replace the cracked windshield before it shatters.)

Things we want to buy but don't necessarily need to buy them, though they would make life easier. (Such as a steam mop. And a Dustbuster.)

Those are just two examples. The point is that we have gotten really specific and vigilant with our finances. The goal is to take all the guess work out of spending and saving.

While working through this process, I noticed two things.

Thing 1
It's a lot easier to distinguish between want and need when the stakes are extremely high and resources are limited. If you have $5 and you're hungry, you're not going to spend that $5 on a tube of tinted lip balm when you already have three in your bag and spending that $5 means you don't get to eat. No. You're going to buy a sandwich instead.

Last week, I was a guest at my mom's book club. Yes, my mommy got her book club to read Love in the Time of Foreclosure for their January book selection. (Best. Mom. Ever.) Anyway, the discussion was really wonderful. One of my mom's friends brought up Maslow's Hierarchy of Need.
via Wikipedia

She said, "It's easy to be concerned with self-actualization when you're living in abundance."

That really hit home. Especially because I have been thinking about that a lot lately.

Another way of saying that is that it's easy to be concerned with your personal psychological development when you're not flat broke. When you're not in foreclosure. When you're not unemployed.

When you're in that space of needing to fulfill fundamental human needs like shelter, food, water, breathing... you have no room or space to waste on wondering, wanting or any kind of existential concerns. It's all about providing. And the stakes are high. This is survival mode. (Notice that none of Woody Allen's characters are flat broke. At least not Owen Wilson's character in Midnight in Paris.)

Obviously, there are so many reasons why it's not appealing to live every day in survival mode. Especially when it's not your choice. But there are those people who actually choose to live here. Christopher McCandless comes to mind immediately. He was the Emory College graduate who gave away all of his belongings to live off the land in Alaska. Into the Wild is the book by John Kraukauer about Chris McCandless. (I highly recommend it.)

So there is something appealing about only having to worry about our most fundamental needs. About eliminating even the space to want. I definitely romanticized that notion different times throughout my life.

And I experienced the Zen of it when we were selling everything. Yes. It's wonderful to be set free from the material. It can be incredibly freeing if you have the ability to face it with a positive mindset.

Back when we were facing foreclosure it was a lot easier to avoid buying things we didn’t need because we didn’t have the money to even make that choice. We didn’t have to think “Do I really need this?” Because the answer was usually NO. You don’t. And we were so highly focused on the task at hand—saving the house.

Years go by. We begin again. We get back on our feet and begin to build up savings again. We get some room. We’re more comfortable. And foreclosure and short sales and mortgage payments are firmly in the rear view. That's when the wanting begins.

I've begun looking at property listings online. I gaze at houses and imagine a life in those images. I create entire worlds and stories. And then I shut it down. It's easy to do that with something as big as a house. Not so easy with the little things.

Things like a latte at the local coffee shop. A breakfast out. A new pair of jeans. On sale, of course. I want clothes. I hate mine at the moment. Bob and I haven't bought new clothes in years. Literally. Sure, I bought a sweater here and a pair of underwear there. And I've traded my clothes in for a few new items at Crossroads. But that's it. We both really want new clothes right now. But do we need them? Well... that's a little harder to answer.

It's not like we'd be walking around naked without them. So we don't need them for physiological reasons. But we do need them for reasons of esteem. The fourth layer in Maslow's Pyramid. It's just under the top. And this is how we categorize our needs. We don't need it to be safe, but we need it to feel good about ourselves. About our lives. That area can become so hazy so quickly that it requires constant checking in.

And that's what leads us to the second thing I noticed while budgeting with Bob.

Thing 2

When you budget with a fine tooth comb and really track your spending, there are no grey areas.

By budgeting every single penny (as incredibly tedious as it is) you actually eliminate the hazy area. It either fits in the budget or it doesn't. Every fiber of my being HATES sitting down to budget and track our expenses.

But (after a lot of internal and external kicking and screaming) once I give myself over to the process, I find freedom. I know myself well enough to only allow an hour maximum for this type of penny tracking at one time. And that helps. The knowledge that I won't be sitting in front of our spreadsheet for all eternity, but just for an hour.

It's been not only freeing to have this sort of command over our spending, but it's also been great for our marriage. I've been so unwilling to track our spending THIS closely that Bob has felt completely alone in regards to managing our finances. And that is so unfair. And just plain dumb.

For 2012 I'm done being dumb. Financial freedom happens through action. Not wanting. Not hoping. Not wishing or fantasizing. Action. That's it. And for us, that action is sitting down once a week with our budget and putting cross-checking, counting pennies and debriefing with each other on where we succeeded and where we failed that week.

Being able to know the difference between what you want and what you need is critical.

But it's okay to want even when you don't need...

As long as it's in the budget.

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