When being too frugal keeps you stuck

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I am a big proponent of doing more on less, living modestly, and implementing creative frugal strategies. In this post, however, I’m going to talk about how taking it too far can actually keep you broke rather than lift you up to a better situation.

A couple of years ago, our financial situation was pretty bad. Actually, we were in a crisis following a long period of my husband being out of work, coupled with some bad financial decisions. We were on the brink of not being able to afford to maintain the household another month without getting into debt. There were no longer any cushions or savings, and we were free-falling into poverty. 

I was very conscientious and very dedicated, and my mind kept looping and looping in endless circles, trying to come up with even more efficient ideas for saving money. I gave up on showering when there wasn’t enough sun for the solar heater to do its job, stretched one sack of chicken feed for months, and put off grocery store trips as long as I could.

All of these things helped, don’t get me wrong, but it wasn’t enough and I knew it. I felt helpless. I tossed and turned at night, wondering whether it would make a difference if we unplug the extra refrigerator and what to do if the thrift store doesn’t carry shoes in my kids’ sizes, because theirs all had holes.

What I should have done at that point was getting more proactive about getting paid work, selling my books, and building professional networks that would be useful in the long term. THAT makes a difference. Whether you choose a slightly cheaper oil for baking doesn’t.

True, I was limited. I lived in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of kids, with no reliable transportation and no steady internet access. I remember sitting for long minutes waiting for the HTML version of Gmail to upload and cursing under my breath when it wouldn’t budge.

But apart from that, I was a prisoner of my own rigid conceptions of a father of a family being the sole breadwinner and the mother stretching the income to make sure it’s enough. It’s a great way to do things, but if it doesn’t work for some reason – and it might fail at any time, temporarily or permanently – and you aren’t prepared for the possibility, you’re up shit creek without a paddle. I’ve learned that the hard way.

It took me a long, long time to face the fact that, while I can make a little go a long way, I do need that little. I can’t make do with nothing, or nearly nothing.

And that’s a key point of successfully overcoming financial hurdles. In a crisis, you should sit down and make a realistic, bare-bones budget of the minimum you need to live. If you aren’t reaching that minimal income, you need to focus on getting there. It’s that simple. Otherwise, you may tighten and tighten that belt until it chokes you, and it still won’t make a difference.

It’s GREAT to have the ability to go without frills. So many people have an entitled attitude and would rather live in debt that do without. But the primary focus should still be on not being poor. I wasted a tremendous amount of time on researching ways to pinch a few more pennies, while I could have used my efforts so much better looking up ways of working from home.

I have tried several things and it’s certainly been a learning curve, until I got into editing books for authors (quite accidentally) and acquired a few loyal and happy clients. I also do some content writing and, after a long time, began seeing profits from my own books, especially fiction.

I regret nothing. Whatever hard-earned lessons I had, I’m making the most of them.

For most people, financial wellbeing and resilience will have these two components – making enough money to live and staying within a reasonable budget. Sometimes, when you’re just hunkering down and trying to survive, it’s hard to see the forest for the trees.

If you’ve been skimping and saving and pinching for a long time, you might be so mentally exhausted and so, for lack of a better word, poverty-wired, that it can be hard to step back and evaluate ways that might actually help you improve your situation on the macro level.

Try to take a piece of paper and pencil and brainstorm for a while. What are your strengths? How can you utilize them to earn more money and become more financially secure?

Remind yourself that though things might look hopeless, they will improve. You won’t be stuck forever. You won’t be poor forever. This mindset, I have come to discover, is the most important element in pulling out of the quagmire.

Lots of sunshine

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November days are short, but sunny and breezy – perfect for picking, sorting, washing and drying dates that grow on some palm trees that apparently have been planted for purely decorative purposes. Well, we’re definitely not wasting these. Separate post about it coming soon.

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Look what a great find – a practically ready made deck path which is going to come in handy soon when we have lots of rain and mud. My husband found it discarded in the industrial zone, and we are going to sand and stain it.

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This handsome fellow belongs to our neighbors. It’s a Black Orpington and they have recently acquired a hen too. I will see about getting some hatching eggs in the spring (right now it’s not a very good chick season).

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Six days of creation art!

Cultivating Contentment: a journey to simplicity

It’s August, and it seems like almost everyone is either on vacation or toting their kids to amusement parks, water parks, malls, shows, zoos, movies, and any entertainment venue you can imagine.

Peer pressure, anyone?

We like to have fun as much as the next person, but when you consider what a month of constant going out costs, the sum is staggering. Besides, a day in the car is exhausting and usually saps my strength for the next day or two.

And you know what? It’s never enough, because once kids get in the habit of always being taken somewhere, they lose the taste for simple games and quiet, home-centered activities.

We’ve spent this summer refusing to get pulled into the merry-go-round of “doing something special”, and have passed our time pleasantly enough going to the swimming pool, the library, the local play center, and a few visits to see family.

I also believe it’s entirely possible for people who desire a slower, gentler rhythm to their days, to gradually wean their kids off the habit of always being driven to places, and rediscover the simple old-fashioned pleasures of a quiet neighborhood life. Here are a few ideas:

1. Take full advantage of the free or cheap entertainment options in your area. Are there any parks, museums,  or, if you live in a more rural area, farms you haven’t visited yet?

2. Cultivate a home that is conductive to learning, relaxation, and creativity. Start a garden, even if all the space you have available are some pots on the balcony. Get your children to help you and gradually delegate age-appropriate responsibilities. Chickens make great, easy-to-keep livestock/pets combo in areas where they are allowed.

Keep cozy, clutter-free corners for reading and arts and crafts. Encourage your children to explore new hobbies such as painting, sewing, knitting, etc.

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Above: the scarf Shira (10) has started crocheting in the past few days. It’s a lot longer now than in this picture!

3. Do fun and unusual stuff such as camping out in your own backyard. Hang up a couple of hammocks and let your children sleep in them from time to time. Take nature walks, ride bikes, set up a bird feeder and waterer.

Above all, don’t let notions of inferiority or deprivation creep in. I know many families that really struggle financially but still give their kids expensive entertainment and brand-name clothes and shoes, stating that they don’t want the kids to “miss out”. Well, I firmly believe that having the family finances together, and working towards a financially secure, debt-free future is FAR more important than any fun trip or impulse purchase of today. I KNOW that even if my kids might sometimes grumble about not getting this, that or the other thing their friends have, I am working for their future greater good by saving money and cultivating the habit of being content with simple, basic things.

So I guess I just wanted to encourage you on your journey to a simple lifestyle in the face of the rampant spending that is going on all around. Don’t worry, you’re doing great!

Are you prepared for shifts in economy?

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For the past few weeks, butter has been increasingly hard to obtain in major chain stores around here, up until the point when, last week, my husband failed to find butter in any of the grocery stores near us. Our kids, who are butter lovers, grumbled and complained until I made pancakes for breakfast.

While the butter deficit is a comparative blip among the heavily laden grocery store shelves, I still remember times, during the fall of the Berlin Wall and the crumbling of the communist block when I was a child, that grocery stores virtually emptied out within an hour of being open. People weren’t actually starving, but no basic staple was taken for granted.

It is disconcerting to realize how much we are all really at the mercy of import, global food production, government policies – in short, the economy, which can be capricious. We buy what we can find at the local store, at prices we have no way to change.

Honing one’s preparedness skills is a great investment that doesn’t cost much and may really pay off in the long run, whether in a real emergency or just to save money in the face of rising prices. Here are some questions for starters:

1. Can you grow at least a part of your own food? Do you have space for a vegetable garden, a chicken coop, perhaps a couple of goats?

2. Can you identify wild edibles? Do you know of any untended orchards in your area?

3. Do you know how to preserve food by canning and drying? Freezing is good, but you can’t always count on having electricity.

4. Do you know how to make and/or mend clothes? Can you attach a button, sew up a ripped seam, unravel an old unused afghan to knit or crochet warm clothes for your family from the yarn? Do you know how to weave a simple storage basket from material you can find lying around in the nature?

5. Are you up for doing basic repairs? Can you unclog a drain, drive a nail into wall, install a lightbulb?

6. Do you know how to make your own soap and cleaning products, use herbs and natural remedies to treat minor ailments, recycle wax to make candles?

7. Can you devise a simple plan for developing a network of mutual help and reliance among your neighbors, rather than be wholly dependent on what you can buy or obtain from outsiders/the government? Do you have any useful skills you are prepared to barter (I’ll bet you do)?

All of these aren’t just fun hobbies; today’s quirky hobby is tomorrow’s survival skill! I would suggest it’s never too soon (nor too late) to begin practising.

5 Strategies For Surviving Extreme Poverty

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Extreme poverty looks different in Western countries, but it does exist. If someone is Googling articles like this one, it means they have electricity and internet connection, and probably aren’t starving outright. Nevertheless, they may not know where they are going to live next month, how to pay for the weekly trip to the supermarket, or where to get shoes for their kids to replace those that are falling apart.

Our family has been through financial highs and lows, with extremely long periods of no regular income, but thankfully we have been able to cope by thinking out of the box and implementing some extreme measures. Hopefully, these will help other people who are struggling right now.

Housing – for many people, this is the biggest monthly expense. If you are renting, you may want to consider moving to a cheaper area and down-scaling. If you own your house, you might create a stream of passive income by renting out a room or a unit for Air B&B. Selling and purchasing a smaller house in a less expensive area is also an option. However, if at all possible, do not sell your house just to fund living expenses. I guarantee your money will get frittered away and you’ll be much worse off when all is said and done. We made this mistake once, and I still deeply regret it. Looking back, I’d rather have had us tighten our belts further for a few months.

If you are lucky enough to have supportive family, sometimes your best choice would be to move in with them. I would only recommend this as a last resort, however, because I believe in remaining independent unless there is absolutely no other choice; and, if you do move in with family, I’d constantly work towards having my own place again and, of course, make sure you are pulling your weight as much as you can by helping with chores, bills, groceries, etc.

Utilities – There are many creative ways to save on electricity, water and other bills. Make sure you make your home as energy efficient as you possibly can. This can mean drawing blinds in the summer or painting the roof white to deflect sunlight, or adding extra insulation in both summer and winter to keep cold or heat out. Check your doors and window frames; if you can feel a draft of air, it means your insulation has room for improvement.

Many people labor under the assumption that they are entitled to be toasty warm in winter while wearing nothing but a T-shirt inside, and comfortably cool in the summer up to the point of wearing a light jacket indoors. I invite you to challenge these assumptions. Wear layers in the winter, and cool off in the summer by hanging wet curtains over open windows. Save money by taking shorter showers and bathing two (or several) kids together.

Transportation – What with gas, insurance, repair and maintenance, cars are huge money guzzlers. If you live in an area with good public transportation, consider doing without a car entirely. At the very least, consolidate your errands and, for recreation, explore your area rather than drive far. Rediscover walking and bicycling as alternative healthy local transportation means.

Food – Do not feel tempted to cut your grocery bill by opting for cheap, high-calorie foods full of sugar, white flour and refined vegetable oils. Rather, learn to make the cheapest nutritious foods you can get, and reduce some more by clipping coupons and shopping wisely. You can often find real treasures in your supermarket discount bin – foodstuffs that go for an extremely low price because their expiration date is near or because their packaging is slightly damaged. Bread and baked goods are often sold extremely cheaply at the end of the day, and vegetables and fruits at the end of the week. Swapping with neighbors and foraging help out a lot, too.

Necessities – Thrift stores often carry gently used clothes, shoes, toys, books , household items, and so on, at the fraction of the regular price. Also keep a lookout for great finds people in your area are giving away. Don’t look down upon dumpster diving, either – we have salvaged some real treasures from the curb, from books and games to clothes and furniture.

Whatever you do, do not apply for direct government assistance, the kind that would get social services across your threshold. I don’t know about where you live, but here it comes with the price of being constantly monitored and probed for “parenting capability”. Children have been taken from perfectly adequate parents whose only crime was being poor. Because of budgeting allotment, this corrupt system would rather pay a monthly allowance to foster families than give the struggling parents financial aid.

Keep looking for ways out! Don’t let the present suck you in like a permanent sluggish murky bog with no prospects. This has been my mistake for a long time, just looking at nothing beyond daily survival – no matter how good you get at saving, pinching pennies and doing without, sometimes you just have to stop and think of ways to make a radical change and take a different turn. Always look forward with hope for change, and see your present strait as something that will pass.

Random ramblings on finances

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This post has been brewing at the back of my mind for a long time, and though it’s going to be long and rambling, I do feel that I need to share it.

Before I was married, my husband and I had it all figured out. We would raise our family in a peaceful rural setting and live a very simple life. We would give up the luxuries and extras that come with a second income in favor of having a stay-at-home mother who is always there for her children.

It worked well enough for a couple of years, but then our family hit a rut of unemployment and under-employment, and our financial situation was further worsened by unfortunate decisions that made us lose a lot of money.

I had become an expert on pinching pennies, buying second hand clothes, frugal cooking and baking, doing all I could to minimize the electric bill. We had a vegetable garden, chickens and goats that provided us with eggs and dairy products, and we gleaned what we could from the wild-growing bounty in our area. We ate through the stockpile we made in better days. We stopped going to weddings and other festive occasions because we couldn’t afford to give the presents in money that people expected. As a matter of fact, we could barely afford the gas to get there and back.

Saving money helped. It helped a lot, and it taught me that it’s actually possible to live, and live well, on an income far below average. But it wasn’t enough.

There comes a point when you just need some cold hard cash to pay your taxes and utility bills and to buy some basic groceries, and no degree of frugality can get you around that one. You need some sort of income… And, at that point, we had none.

I was incredibly frustrated. First off, I spent way too much time griping about how things are not the way they are “supposed” to be. Then, when I began to look about me and see what I can do to bring in some money, I saw flexible and convenient positions opening just a short drive away, but they might as well have been on Mars for all the good it did, because I had no car and no public transportation in the area. I didn’t even have the smooth uninterrupted phone and Internet connection needed for most telecommuting jobs.

I did what I could, of course. I got more serious about my writing, both fiction and nonfiction, approaching it for the first time as more than a hobby. I published and sold books and articles. I began providing editing and proofreading services.

Finally came the move here, which allowed us to cut down on gas and car use, and gave us a roof over our heads (we live in a house that belongs to family). We still retained our own house, and were lucky enough to get very good, responsible renters and a steady trickle of income. I now have a reliable Internet connection, which has enabled me to set myself up as an independent contractor with several translation, transcription and proofreading agencies. I am still right here at home for my children, but I now see I can do a lot more than I thought, and it’s incredibly empowering .

A few insights:

1. Being a wife and mother, and running a home, is a full-time  occupation. I really don’t need anything else to have my hands full, but I realized I can juggle if necessary. If I didn’t have to think about money at all, I would just focus on my family and my fiction writing.

2. Looking back, I would probably think twice before agreeing to live in a location where I would be utterly and completely unable to get anywhere and would depend on my husband for every little errand, including the post office, the doctor and the bank. It eventually led to feelings of extreme frustration and helplessness. Remote rural living in a cheaper area can potentially save a lot of money, but when it comes to making money, you can find yourself stuck with no options.

3. It is no use to sit around and mope about how things should have been, what you could have done differently, what your spouse could have done… Just get up, shake off the dust and move on. I wish I had realized this sooner, and had been more flexible and less dogmatic. It would have saved me a good deal of grief.

So what next? The future is foggy, but things are infinitely better already. We have a steady roof over our heads. We live in a place where we are close to everything we need. And it’s still rustic enough that I can hear roosters crowing every morning. Life is good.

Some of the best things are free

Things are pretty crazy here with the holidays and me trying to put the house in order after the move, but I just wanted to share a couple of old photos I came across while browsing through my files… these are our dining table and chairs, delivered to our house by my sister-in-law some 8 years back. Friends of hers got a new dining set and were giving the old one away, and she thought of us – at the time, we were using a table salvaged by my husband from a roadside a few days before our marriage, and some folding chairs. Getting this dining set was a very welcome gift and, all this time later, it’s still going strong.

The table opens to comfortably seat ten people, and has had twelve guests gathered around it on some occasions. I love its rounded corners – so much less painful for little children to bump into. And, because it’s a used table, I don’t get very worked up over every little scratch or nick. I actually find it hard to imagine the amount of stress that I would undergo with expensive new furniture and a bunch of kids who love to jump on sofas and do crafts on the dining table (which also serves, combined, as our craft corner, study corner, bread kneading station, ironing board, etc…)

I wish all my Jewish readers a very happy Sukkot, and hope to post more updates soon!