We sit, in the western world at least, in the liminal space between One Big Holiday (yours truly celebrates Christmas as a cultural holiday rather than a religious one) and Another Big Holiday (New Year’s Eve/Day). Annual odometer changes are so ripe for “new beginnings” that the question “have you started writing up your New Year’s resolutions?” is a fair one, even if one doesn’t practice it.
As we know, I make lists, and I like to make goals; I have had my brain described as mercurial and that’s pretty accurate: I use goals and lists to keep myself in check. (One of the reasons I don’t really get into competitive sports or games is that I’m already in constant competition with myself I don’t really want to add a new adversary.) And since many of you out there are quite possibly in that “making of lists” mood, I figured I’d share some of the resolutions and plans that have stuck best and that I have benefitted from. Take this and use it as you will; I am not a professional, just a passionate amateur.
I’m nearly 50 so the things I have to contend with — and the problems that money solves — are different from a new college graduate, or a young family. But having been a new college graduate and started a young family, I can provide the following things I did and used that helped:
Track Your Money; Make a Budget: I once had a friend who avoided the mailbox because she knew there were bills in there. The “rationale” was that if she didn’t open the mailbox, the bill wasn’t really an issue. (Yes, yes, my mind exploded too). *Fear of money* is a real thing, and fear of decisions about money is a real thing. In the US our financial education for children and teens is appalling. It’s offered as an elective, in some schools, and in others not at all. I get it if you’d rather not look at where the money comes, and where it goes. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it — this is a fear, or a task, you will need to master because (at least at this point) we are in a world where currency is exactly that.
There’s all kinds of budgeting software out there, like You Need a Budget and Mint. They come with their own downsides and detractions, and when I started out they did not exist; so I used Excel. At one point in my life I was budgeting down to the penny but you can budget to the round number and general idea you are comfortable with. The principal parts of a budget are: how much you expect to earn (income), how much you expect to spend (outgo), and that’s it. Ideally the former is larger than the latter and if not, you work the puzzle to get it to either be even (okay) or surplus (better). You can download your most recent bank statements, import them into excel, figure out what your habits have been, and go from there. (Pro tip: work in small batches. Don’t get draconian and say “I’m never eating out again” — just like crash dieting you will regret it — pick one thing and go after it in increments.) Review it quarterly and update as needed (put an item in your calendar and treat it like a work meeting!).
Get out of Expensive Debt: If you have debt — and everyone does — you need to prioritize it. Some debt is advantageous (e.g., depending on your circumstance you would still write off your mortgage interest) but debt is debt. Identify all the money you owe (cards, loans, etc.), identify its interest rate, and look at how “expensive” that debt is. The higher the interest rate, the higher the expense, so extra cash goes to pay down that higher interest rate *first*. And if you’re really in trouble? Go to credit counseling — they can help negotiate with creditors and reduce interest rates and put things on a payment plan so your credit score doesn’t go down the tubes but you also don’t live on ramen and rice. Those store cards are tempting because they give you a % off at the beginning but they almost always have the highest interest rates, so if you plan to carry a balance (or if it’s even a possibility), don’t.
Shop Around: Your insurance company has to compete for your business. So does your cell company, and depending on where you live, maybe your internet as well. Look around and see what other companies are charging for what services and you may be able to save some cash. Sometimes all it takes is letting your current company know you’re thinking of leaving, and they’ll offer discounts.
Bulk Buying, maybe: If you have the storage space for it, bulk-buying (like what you get from Costco) is great. But you may be in a 600′ apartment and… not so much. However, you may have 3-4 friends *also* in 600′ apartments and if so, you can get a Costco membership and split the purchases. While Costco won’t do this for you — it’s a per-household thing — and while you need to trust your friends won’t stick you with 24 rolls of toilet paper — it’s worth considering.
REduce, REuse, REcycle
Marie Kondo did a bunch for many people (including me, I learned a new way to fold things) but I don’t sit there and hold up my vitamin container and ask if it brings me “joy”. There’s stuff you need to have. Clothes seems to be though the one that gets away with many of us, and so here’s some ideas:
- Clothes Clutter: On New Years’ Day (or some other very familiar “start of a year”, like a birthday or anniversary), flip all of your hanging clothes backwards, so you have to work to get the hanger out (so instead of the curve of the hanger facing away, it faces towards you). As you wear something, when you put it back put it the proper way (facing away). At the end of the year, anything facing you has not been worn, and at that time ask yourself: is there a good reason it has not been worn? (Oh, I dunno, maybe a pandemic rendered all those work outfits kinda useless for a bit?). Then ask if it’s worth another go. If it is, relegate part of your closet to these “unsure” clothes, put them backwards again, and go another year. If after two years you *still* haven’t worn them, and there isn’t a specific sentimental value and/or practical value (I mean, formalwear is a thing), consider donating or consigning.
- Paper piecing: Do you scribble notes a lot? I do. I use the backside of discarded envelopes, or misprinted pages, to jot a temporary note. (Because frankly sometimes I don’t have patience to type it into my phone with thumbs and it’s ephemeral in nature). You can make a specific tray/location for this “second chance paper”.
- Food Foraging: Make leftovers and use storage containers to store it. Tupperware and/or other storage containers can be got for cheap secondhand and/or accommodate your current set with a practically-priced set (bonus: organize your food storage so it isn’t hard to get at and you know where the lids are). Then, store your leftovers oldest-to-newest in the fridge (oldest at front). If you can, take lunch from home.
- Kitchen Kvetching: Declutter your kitchen. I am one of the friends in my group that “cooks a lot” and I was the one to do dinner parties and such in my 20’s and 30’s (and early 40’s). As a result I collected, over the years, a ton of cooking stuff… that I rarely use. I mean, how many casserole dishes does someone need? How many blenders? A friends’ friend recently pulled out all of her kitchen tools onto the counter and laid them out, and picked one (maybe two) of the favorites from the group, and donated the rest –(or if you have good stuff and larger stuff, consider selling on Mercari or Marketplace or Craigslist).
Health is Wealth
I do realize that I’m atypical here – I mean, I’m not the only one in my circle (or family) that has a spreadsheet and chart of my cholesterol levels (and other tests) over the last 15 years, but bear with me: your health is everything. (Overtones of Baz Luhrmann’s Sunscreen here).
- Move every day for 30 minutes. It doesn’t have to be a run or biking — even if it’s a brisk walk (<20 minutes per mile if you can manage it, and/or up a hill or two). It’s good for your heart but it’s also good for your head – you can listen to podcasts, or music, or mull over that issue you need brainspace to mull over. It’s raining? You don’t have a treadmill? Do some basic stretching. Check out YouTube for “bodyweight fitness” and find something do-able.
- Get your blood panel done annually – like my friend and her mailbox with bills, just because you haven’t gone to the doc doesn’t mean there’s nothing to attend to (and by attend to I don’t mean worry about). A regular blood panel will check for lipids, sugar, etc. and provide guidance on some changes — or not– that you may need to make. In the US, even though we don’t have socialized medicine, insurance companies are *required* to cover 100% of the cost of preventative care — which includes a blood panel over 40 and for at-risk folks.
- Wear sunscreen.
- If you want to start some sort of fitness regimen — e.g., regular work outs, tracking time and such — there’s a wealth of stuff out there to help – Strava and MapMyRun have free modes where you can sign up and just track what you do/where you do it. Or if you’re like me and less into the social aspect of working out, you can track it in Excel/Google Spreadsheets. In my 30’s I belonged to a “run club” at work where we basically had an annual goal of N miles per week and were free to track and/or do as much as we wanted. You could leverage others for accountability or not, and you could be as detailed in your tracking as you wanted.
The important thing to remember here is these are ideas for *if you want to do them*, if you identify that you need/want change and if they are appropriate to you at this time. They’re also by no means the only ones out there and, with it being that time of year, the internet is full of lists and opportunities to review. My one last piece of advice is this: you don’t have to do “all the things” and if you try you may go nuts. Pick one, maybe two, and tackle those. If that’s working, maybe pick a third and go from there. Remember: you’re not doing this for anyone else; you’re doing it for you.