How to Live a Simple and Happy Life
One of the longest and most difficult challenges in life has to be living with a budget. Whether you are paying off credit card debt or student loans, building a down payment for a house, managing a limited income, or saving for retirement, staying on top of your finances can become obsessive and equally stressful. While families and marriages can buckle under this kind of pressure, with determination and a sound perspective, you can create habits that fortify your partnership and make your home a place of happiness.
Born into Frugality, Married into Minimal Income
Growing up, I remember asking my mother probing questions to get a better understanding of the household finances. She would offer, “Your father makes a good living, but we still have to be careful with our money.” No matter how she changed the phrasing, it always implied that there wasn’t a whole lot of extra funds lying around. What in retrospect was probably a stressful time for my parents, didn’t seem to impact the opportunities my brothers and I had to enjoy life to the fullest.
Looking back, we didn’t think anything of it as kids, but my family didn’t move into our very own home till my oldest sibling was 10 years old. Even then, we rotated which siblings shared a bedroom throughout the years. Big pieces of furniture were made, or handed down from friends or family, and then held onto for 15-25 years. Vacations were brief and very calculated. Birthday presents were thoughtful, yet modest. Most of my brothers inherited clothing from cousins and then each other. Home improvements were delayed until necessary and the amount of home décor was kept minimal and inexpensive. Despite this economical lifestyle, my childhood didn’t seem to suffer and this because my parents went extra lengths to make life wonderful.
Following this stage of life, I attended school out-of-state. Through my college years, I learned to live with what I had and to be resourceful. Because I transferred schools a couple times over and pursued multiple degrees, I still had the equivalent of three years of educational expenses remaining when I got married. On top of having these obligations, shortly after our wedding my husband and I welcomed our first child.
Needless to say, my thrifty childhood prepared me well to live on a $30k income while attending school and raising a child in Orange County, California (hello, high cost of living!) In the seven years since, I have received two degrees, had a second child, and added a second income to the household all the while my husband has inched further along in his career. We now have just enough breathing room to save for a home, contribute to a retirement fund, afford minor unexpected expenses, and throw a few dollars toward saving for bigger ticket fun things.
It has been a long strenuous journey and it is not over yet. I have enough experience with a tight budget and student loan and car loan debt to know that it can drain the very color and enjoyment from life, but only when our focus is on money and the lack of it. Here are a few suggestions of habits to create that will reignite the vibrancy of life.
How to Reduce the Impact of Financial Struggle on Your Marriage or Family
1. Get Organized and Donate Regularly
I don’t know about you, but every time I open a closet, a drawer, the door to the garage or look under the bed, I am reminded of how much “stuff” I have. Though I try to live minimally, only buying “wants” during birthdays or holidays, junk still seems to pile up over the years and ultimately gets shoved into places that keep it out of sight and eventually out of mind.
Set some time aside every few weeks to tackle one storage project. I’d bet you will find a shirt you’ve been missing that you can incorporate back into your wardrobe, toys the kids forgot they had that they will be excited to have again, or items that have clearly become obsolete or unneeded. Bring your finds out of the darkness either to enjoy again in everyday life or to donate them to those in need. Helping your family or partner realize how much they already have will help subdue cravings for things they don’t.
2. Discuss Your Goals Monthly
Some authors advocate reviewing financial goals more often, but in my experience, this can be frustrating as our savings usually hasn’t come very far from week to week. You don’t want to be so focused on your finances that you become discouraged by slow progress. However, you do want to take a moment or meet with your partner often enough that you can redirect your actions toward your goals and appreciate the success you’ve had because of the daily sacrifices you make. Giving a high-five, extending a gesture of gratitude, or verbally acknowledging your partner’s efforts in achieving your common goals can be monumental in maintaining a team mentality.
Besides reviewing your spending and saving habits, take this time to dream out loud. How will you re-allocate your debt or loan payment when you are finished paying it off? What kind of home are you looking to buy? What kind of life will you have there? What traveling will you do? What do you hope your day-to-day or week-to-week will be like once you have met your financial goal? Believe that with your hard work, the future you envision will be reality.
3. Focus on People
Whether you are a couple, or a family with children, centering your time on the people you love is sure to make you feel grateful for what you already have.
Start by restricting technology in your home. Not only will you save on canceled cable, conserved phone data, and movie rentals or subscriptions, but you will also be fostering learning and relationship building. Make meals and bedtime a time for one another. Choose more interactive and conversational time-fillers than the popular go to of a family movie night. Have mental and emotional check-ins with family members by asking about high and low points of their day.
Cook leisurely with one another, take a long walk together, visit a relative, dust off and play a board game, or try a wildly fun verbal game, many of which can teach you things about one another that you didn’t know before. Find more of my favorite games at Group-games.com.
Marriages and families can also build unity by simply turning to each other and inquiring, “what can I do for you, today?”
Besides looking for opportunities to do nice things for people inside your home, you can also cultivate happiness by volunteering service outside of the home. How badly I wish I could donate to every cause that pulls at my heart strings, but when your budget is air tight or you are trying to provide for your family, it isn’t always possible. To paraphrase the saying, you can’t pull someone up, unless you are on higher ground. What you can contribute to these causes, however, is time. For anyone who has volunteered, you know it is an extremely rewarding experience. Involving your partner, or your family in volunteering will not only strengthen a sense of individual worth in participants but will also provide a feeling of achievement unattached to your financial picture. You can come to realize that you have a purpose in building a better community and world and you need not define yourselves by how you fit in economically.
4. Encourage creativity
It’s only healthy that everyone uses the right side of their brain every once in the while and don’t resist if this leads to childish behavior. Whip out a coloring book, draw or paint, create a new recipe, bake a favorite treat, hold a cooking competition, learn silly origami, build a fort, or play pretend or in the mud. Yes, you heard me correctly, I am giving you permission to be a kid again. How liberating and harmless if you are still parenting and paying bills on time. Your budget will cause less stress and restriction in your home if you embrace fun, amendable messes and all.
5. Learn to Supplement
Anything you can buy, I can buy… cheaper. I’ve said it before. I’ll say it again: thrift stores are a great asset in living a thrifty life. Most kitchen necessities, home furnishings, and clothing can be found at a second-hand store. If you need to carve out some of your spending in these categories, look here first. If you want to spend little, but live rich start thrifting. While in my household we opt to buy things like major appliances or electronics, couches, and beds new (after saving to buy them with cash), I’m perfectly happy to mix in lightly used lamps, desks, entertainment centers, and dressers. Half the time they are older and therefore higher quality than furniture you’d find at Ikea or Walmart, and you will pay half the price for them.
When it comes to my kid’s clothing, I’ll buy 10-30% from a resale store. I’ll admit that as my daughter approaches seven that options at thrift stores have become more limited. However, as a toddler, I not only found an extensive selection of like new clothing, but she could also care less about new ones. In the years between then and now I’ve learned to shop according to her style and need and she excitedly accepts anything I bring home. To her, new is anything bought at a store and brought home in a bag.
We often feel there are two groups: the haves and the have nots. With the help of thrifting, we can live like a have without spending the money that we “have not.”
Interpret what this means as you may. It could be yoga, journaling, prayer, or just sitting in a quiet space and allowing yourself to think. Choose to divide yourself from your stressors. Most of our financial troubles are, in fact, self-inflicted. They might be the result of poor spending, practiced discipline through saving, an unnecessary acceptance of disadvantages, or the lingering obligation of our investment in our education. Even if we have experienced a misfortune such as job loss, the point I want to make is if you are finding yourself unhappy today, realize that you have the power to make any change necessary to move toward being happier tomorrow and in the future. Meditate on this. Set aside what life is and dwell on what life could be, then get up and chase it relentlessly and courageously.
7. Be Open about Finances
No matter your end goal, vocalize it to friends and family. Recruit their support to help you achieve it if necessary, at very least ask them not to tempt you when you are trying to be wise and conservative with your money.
Also, don’t be afraid to ask or exchange tips on car or home buying or investing and then consider this along with research when making these decisions. Thinking you have to navigate your personal finances without anyone’s help is a false notion. Finances are complex and we should be discussing them and accepting all the insight we can get, even if sometimes it’s only with a grain of salt.
When it comes to your spouse, it may be helpful to discuss big purchases or changes in saving strategies with each other out of consideration. Never EVER get into the habit of hiding spending from one another. Also, as necessary as it may feel, avoid pointing fingers, degrading one another for spending, or questioning every expense. These are recipes for disaster that through conflict can divide the team you’ve worked so hard to maintain. Instead, encourage each other in good practices.
Lastly, teach your children about finances. When purchasing toys or treats, I always discuss cost. This is more tangible now for my daughter who earns money from completing daily chores. We talk about the work she did to earn the money, how much it would take to buy what she wants, and then question if she thinks it is worth bringing it home or saving her money for something she wants more.
I often emphasize how hard her father and I work to be able to give her a safe home, food to eat, clothes to wear, and some of the luxuries she enjoys. I sometimes feel like my own mother when I repeat, “we must be careful with our money,” and continue to detail why. I’ve dealt with some whining. I’m sure it is only the beginning as I imagine, like my teenage self, she will battle her mother for a bigger back-to-school clothing budget. However, I’d like to think that no matter how modestly my husband and I provide for her as she grows, that so long as she knows that we are doing our best, that her sense of pride in the hard work of her parents will trump any feeling of being financially inferior to the Jones’ in her life. I believe that if children truly understand our sacrifice in their behalf, they will strive to choose a good attitude in the midst of any struggle. They will accept hard work, determination, and family as foundations of a happy life and this is a lesson that can’t be bought.
Tailor these tips for your home however you see fit, but understand that ultimately gratitude and love are the key components in maintaining happiness no matter the circumstance you find yourself in.
I wish you success in achieving your financial goals and creating a life that fills you with joy along the way!
Staff Writer at Debt Reduction Services
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