Paying myself back — or forward?

I started off the year kind of gangbusters with blogging, but soon fell off the wagon, as you know. But I didn’t want that last depressing post to be up here on top anymore. I keep praying for my family and friends and am counting on God and the medical system to take it from there.

I haven’t been blogging, but I have been thinking. The usual “What do I want to be when I grow up?” thoughts, only now “when I grow up” pretty much means “when I retire” — which who knows if I’ll ever really be able to. I just saw a commercial for an investment company (don’t have a clue which one), that asks people to write on a wall what they would do if they could do anything. The thing I noticed during the 30 seconds I was engaged was that so many people wrote down creative things. They’d make pies or be a florist or be a writer (! — I’m guessing not the kind of writer I am). So many people are just itching to do something that has nothing to do with traditional office/trade/factory work. The commercial basically said “Yes, you can get paid to do that — you pay yourself to do it with your retirement money.”

That’s a great way to think about it. All those years of working and paying bills (and yes, saving, because that’s a must) are so you can be in charge of your own destiny. Pay yourself to have the freedom to do what you really want. Because otherwise, you might still decide to be a florist, but are you going to work for someone else? Start your own shop? That’s still a business, and a competitive one I imagine. It’s hard work, even though your products are beautiful (and highly perishable). Same with pie baking — or any kind of food/catering business — not easy either. And a writer? Please. We all know how hard that is — and even harder to make any money at it.

So the bottom line, you need to be financially free to pursue your dreams, but that seems so unlikely. I read some sobering statistics yesterday about women and retirement in this article…I don’t think anyone envisions him/herself destitute or in a nursing home, but the sobering reality is that many of us will end up there. There’s also a slew of articles that say, don’t even think about retiring…that even after you reach retirement age, you should still plan to work at least part time.

It’s hard to think about that — that at almost no point in your life (unless you can’t physically or mentally do it anymore), you’ll have to be “on call,” responsible for doing something someone else thinks is worthy of paying you for.

It’s also hard to balance the idea of delayed gratification and saving more for tomorrow with wanting some rewards for hard work today — especially because tomorrow isn’t guaranteed for anyone and none of us is getting any younger. (If not now, when?)

I stress about money and saving all the time. I’m convinced we aren’t doing enough. It drives Mike crazy.

I also say just about every day that I want a vacation (the beach comes up a lot). That also drives Mike crazy.

How do you do it? How do you approach the live-today-(while-you-can)-or-save-for-tomorrow conundrum?

Sometimes it’s important to work for that pot of gold.
But other times it’s essential to take time off
and to make sure 
that your most important decision in the day
simply consists 
of choosing which color to slide down on the rainbow.
~ Douglas Pagels

If I had a dollar…

…apparently I’d spend most of it.

Our helpful credit card company compiled an annual rundown of our spending in 2013 — all neatly categorized. It was eye-opening and more than a little scary. We use this card as much as possible to get the points, which we cash in to add to our vacation fund. The total was scary, the individual category amounts were scary, the idea that we spend so much money was scary, and understanding that this spending does not include mortgage, property taxes, insurance, or utilities was — is — terrifying.

Of course it all makes sense — it stands to reason if we earn X and save Y there’s a Z in there (for zpending) that’s big scary number. But I never really considered us to be zpendy people. We’re careful to not build up debt. I’m not one to buy pricey shoes or clothes or makeup or manicures (Mike isn’t either). We have gadgets (PCs, laptops, tablet, Kindle), but only got smartphones in the last year and older-generation, used ones to boot, and our carrier is a no-name, cheap one. We’ve taken 4 (maybe 5) non-lavish vacations in 8 years (and that wasn’t nearly enough). I can be a little crunchy/thrifty — I make my own laundry detergent and shower cleaner, wash and reuse plastic bags, avoid toll roads….little things.

And yet…numbers don’t lie. Some spending we can’t do anything about — gas is what it is (and it’s a lot, due to Mike’s long commute every day). Fixer-upperhood is expensive — home improvements/maintenance are never-ending, and copious amounts (Lowe’s & HD cards, paying the occasional contractor) aren’t even on the card.

But on the “maybe we can economize” side, we do give Walmart a lot of money — mostly for food, because Giant Eagle is too dang expensive. Plus we eat out on top of that (and it doesn’t include fast food or coffees that we pay cash for). Should it really cost $6K a year for two people to eat? And yeah, we have a lot of vehicles — not my preference — so there’s car maintenance (not to mention insurance; not on the card). There’s Target and Big Lots (and Sam’s doesn’t take the card, so that’s extra, too.). And geez, I just realized for some reason the PetSmart spending isn’t even on here — that’s odd, considering we almost always buy cat food and litter there. It would have been interesting to see what that amounted to.

So, what’s the lesson here?

Do I need to make a budget? We don’t have a budget for anything, especially not food. We talk about eating out less, and I push for it, but since I’m the one who does all the shopping and cooking, I’m also the one who’s happy to eat out to give myself a break. Frankly, I’m not sure how I’d even stick to a food budget — I’ve never done that (and obviously it shows). We could live off our pantry for quite a while — do I stockpile too much for just the two of us?

And then, on the other hand, I vacillate on the whole saving vs. spending thing. We’re beyond middle age these days, we don’t have kids, we both work, and will likely be working for many years yet. Sure, it’s important to save for old age, and no, we don’t have a huge retirement fund, but what if we don’t make it that far? Should we be so very careful now, foregoing those weekend Egg McMuffins, the pricier organic Greek yogurt, and those flats of summer annuals to save for a future that might never come?

Could we save more? Surely. Should we save more? Absolutely. Will we save more? Probably not, unless one of us loses our job or some other catastrophe befalls us. And you know what? If we do or it does, will I regret the money spent and not saved? Maybe. But it might just as well be that I look back on those less-than-frugal days, those “let’s get 2 of the bottles of on-sale wine” or “let’s stop for Chinese takeout” with fondness.

And who knows, now that I have a baseline “target,” maybe I’ll be inspired to try to make the next year-end summary a bit less scary. But then, that would mean fewer points and less cash back. Which means less for the vacation fund (and more pulled from savings). How’s that adage go again? A dollar spent is 1% (sometimes 5%!) cash-back earned?

We are not to judge thrift solely by the test of saving or spending.
If one spends what he should prudently save, that certainly is to be deplored. 
But if one saves what he should prudently spend, that is not necessarily
to be commended. 

A wise balance between the two is the desired end. 
~Owen Young