Putting my Money where my Mouth is

After my last post, I started thinking about our spending inconsistencies.  I gave up on the idea of being an ethically perfect consumer a long time ago, and I’ve accepted that we cannot live in an industrialized world and not live an industrialized life at any level.  However, thinking about our 5 dollar eggs–a bargain to us and just plain unaffordable for many–got me thinking about other areas of our spending where we still suffer sticker shock and look for the “bargain”, choosing to overlook the reasons why the cheaper product is so much less expensive.

I don’t know how all these things are interconnected, but I’m grateful that we seem to be entering a time of more financial security.  My job is finally stabilizing after many years of being contingent and unpredictable.  We recently received a small, unexpected, windfall that allowed us to pay off the biggest chunk of the debt that we have slowly accrued over the last few years.  Psychologically I no longer feel that I need to pay such desperate attention to the bottom line.

So maybe that’s why I’m finally getting the lesson that I’ve read so often but never fully, viscerally, grasped: the old adage, “we can’t afford to buy cheap.”

A few weeks ago, it came time to replace one of our vehicles.  Skipper had been nursing his 2000 second-hand Chevy Venture-with-all-the-seats-gone “work truck” for more months than we had dared hope.  We had wrestled with what to do to replace it; did we prioritize fuel economy and price and just buy a beater that cost pennies to run but might suck up time and money to maintain?  Did we spend less now and then have to replace another vehicle in a year or two?  Did we get a more practical homestead truck even though the commuter fuel economy might not be there?  Did we buy something new even though it would mean taking on debt?  We went around in circles for months.

Finally, with the small windfall taking care of a big debt, we decided to invest in a new small pick-up: a 2011 Toyota Tacoma that gets better mileage than the van, and that Skipper can drive for the next ten+ years.  It should have felt scary to sign the papers, but instead it feels great.  We’ve invested in quality, we haven’t spent more than we can afford, and we haven’t been “penny-wise, pound-foolish”, making the decision on the short term bank balance over long term value.

Yesterday afternoon, I decided I wanted to go shopping for some new clothes.  I don’t do that very often, but 2-3 times a year, I take stock of what I need and do a big buy of staple pieces.  Aside from underwear and t-shirts, the last time I bought clothes for work was at last year’s boxing week sales, and I’ve been feeling like I’m wearing the same 2 pairs of pants and 2 sweaters every day.  As it gets colder, my choices have felt more limited, and suddenly the winter months ahead are looking dreary, style-wise!

So after work, I headed out to a mall to consider my options.  I went through all of my usual haunts, but left them all unsatisfied, not even trying anything on.  I was looking for another pair of warm pants and another sweater, but EVERYTHING I looked at was made of acrylic and polyester.  I realized that I just couldn’t do it anymore.  I know if I buy that attractive acrylic sweater, I’m going to sweat when I wear it, and after 2 weeks, it will be covered in pills and I won’t wear it again.  And it’s not like I was cheaping out–anything that looked appropriate for my age and profession was still close to $100.  And, of course, the frustrating thing about buying most women’s clothing is that all of it is made overseas in questionable conditions, no matter how much you spend.

So I headed to the department store in the mall and started browsing through the designer labels–something I NEVER do, assuming that I can’t afford anything.  I finally found 2 lines that actually had sweaters made with natural fibers: Ralph Lauren and Jones New York.  Both had attractive sweaters made of actual wool and/or cotton, and to my surprise, the prices weren’t really that much more, especially with some sales on.  I bought 2 cardigans and a merino turtleneck.  Can you tell it’s been threatening snow? 🙂

Perhaps my biggest surprise was how unfazed I felt about the decision to spend more to get better quality.  I wasn’t looking for bargains, I was looking for what I wanted.  Because I finally clued in that the wardrobe that I’ve been relying on this winter so far is made up of staple pieces that I have worn for more than a year already and that still look good.  They are not disposable.  And just like with our groceries, I don’t shop regularly.  If I invest in good staples, I don’t have to throw them out and get more, and the simple fact that I don’t have to go into a mall every month saves me money over the long term.

And you know what else?  Just like with the garden, and the truck, shopping for clothes this way actually REMOVES from my life something that would otherwise require regular mental attention. Making decisions based on quality means I spend less time tied up in knots over making decisions.  Yep, I’m reducing stress and freeing up time to spend doing other things.

I was talking to a friend the other day, who had spent some time that weekend with people who were uber-green and frugal.  “They even buy all their clothes at thrift stores!” she exclaimed.  “I just am not willing to do that!”

We talked about the fact that when we make changes in our habits because we feel we have to, or out of fear or guilt, those changes just don’t take.  But it’s amazing how when you make choices based on joy, there is an inevitable ripple effect, and before you know it, you’re changing all kinds of habits without even noticing.  The more I go down this green path, the more I can see that making choices based on joy is the only way to go, perhaps the only way we’re going to get meaningful social change in the world.

I know we still have many inconsistencies between how we live and how we would like to live.  We commute, we live in a larger house than two people really need, we use too much electricity, and we often forget to bring our re-usable shopping bags to the store.  But we are *really* happy.  And the changes keep rippling through.  We shop less and less.  We eat better and better.  We’re investing in infrastructure and thinking in lifetime cycles instead of marketing cycles.  I feel more and more creative and resourceful–the opposite of how advertising is designed to make us feel, and a rebellion in and of itself.  We spend more time on our most important relationships, and feel less guilty about all the things we’re NOT doing.  I’m more focused on forgiveness and acceptance than on anxiety about the unknown and the out-of-my-control.  And as a result, the future has never felt so peaceful.

So how about you?  Are you making changes through joy, without even noticing?  Are you way ahead of me on being frugal by spending more, less often?


8 thoughts on “Putting my Money where my Mouth is

  1. Ha! You have no clothes because you gave them all to me… 🙂

    I think that’s a great realization Toni, both with the truck and the clothing. I hope when I get to the point of renewing my wardrobe, that I can do that too. Except of course, I will *knit* my sweaters.

  2. Thanks, yarnsalad; and I didn’t put it in the post, but when I came home, I started a knitting project… 🙂 ‘Cause you’re right, suddenly all the expense of the wool which used to put me off now doesn’t seem like a price gap! Enjoy all my clothes 🙂

  3. I just love reading your blog posts. I think many of us go through certain epiphanys in our lives where our perspective changes and suddenly our choices are clearer. We have downsized our lives significantly .. twice.. and each time our life got richer and more fulfilling. I am not adverse to spending money – but I want it to be meaningful and my purchases need to have the “wow” factor. Something really well made, beautiful, and useful. A purchase that I am still pleased with more than 48 hours later. I don’t spend money often, but when I do I purchase quality. I also have a rule… that if I buy clothing something else must come out of my closet/drawers so that my cumulative “pile” of possessions remains essentially static.

    The essence of this contentment seems to boil down to wanting what we have, not having what we want.

  4. Thanks for those comments, Laura; you’re so right about these epiphanies. This year I seem to have had a lot of them, and there are more to come, I’m sure! I have often considered the “something in, something out” rule, as well as William Morris’s old adage of making sure everything we own is either beautiful or useful (or both!). But I’m definitely not there yet. I’m better at the periodic purge! But I am trying to apply Morris’s rule more often–if I have to buy something (anything! paperclips!), why not make sure it’s something I will truly enjoy and perhaps even treasure for many years. It’s a good goal.

  5. Unfortunately, the inconsistencies between how I want to live and how I actually do are more numerous than I’d care to count most of the time, but I’ve gotten okay at forgiving myself the discrepancies. Buying quality items is something that I try to keep in mind, although on a grad student budget, for me this is largely possibly only at thrift stores (which I’ll admit that I completely love). Even though it’s relatively inexpensive, I find that focusing on quality is almost as important when buying used – I get easily sucked into buying in quantity, or buying something that would just be temporarily good enough because it’s cheap and available. Now I try to limit myself to quality items that will last well and that I won’t have to worry about babying. Sometimes it take a bit of time, but it’s always been worth it thus far.

    1. notherethenwhere, I have so been on that grad school budget. Almost 10 years of it! And even after having finished my PhD in 2008, it’s taken another 2-3 years to feel like financially things are stabilizing. I have to admit, it’s feeling AWESOME to be on the other side of that hill. Good luck with your studies and your transition, and congrats on your courage and patience along the way.

  6. I guess we are in very different places regarding frugality, mainly because of available budget. We are happy to be putting a new truck on the road, it’s a ’00, is easy for my husband to work on and maintain, we can afford the insurance, it will handle whatever winter weather we get and can pull a trailer so we are as happy with it as you are with the new ’11.
    Safe travelling with your new wheels!

    1. Welcome, Scribneoir, and thanks for introducing me to your blog! You are exactly right that budget makes all the difference to being able to do more than just patch up to survive for the next while. Even 6 months ago, when we were anticipating needing to replace the van, we were really uncomfortable with the idea of financing a big purchase like a brand new vehicle. It’s certainly not something we’ve ever done before! Here’s hoping your new-to-you truck gets you through many years yet.

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