Monday, September 28, 2020

Save Your Brain and Improve Your Life



I recently had a milestone birthday, one I might normally have celebrated with a big party, friends, and family.  But with COVID-19 protocols in place, my husband and I ordered a nice takeout dinner which we ate at home, just the two of us.  The next day, my daughter, son-in-law, and my two young grandsons visited.  We all wore masks and ate at two different tables separated by more than six feet. 


I almost let myself feel disappointment.  I was tempted.  Wow, it's so easy to fall into self-pity, isn't it?  An organization (and book) called A Complaint Free World estimates that the average person complains aloud 15 to 30 times each day.  That doesn't count the negative comments we think.  (Maybe those should be counted too.  After all, isn't thinking about another person when you're married a type of cheating?)


I generally think of myself as a positive, upbeat person, relatively complaint free.  Guess what happened when I started tallying each complaint I made on a normal day?


Maybe you can guess.  I complained that the morning was once again smoky (fire season in California).  I noticed that at least it wasn't supposed to be really hot, like it was last week, and then complained about last week's weather.  I complained about some paperwork I needed to do.  I complained about traffic.  I complained about being interrupted by a number of texts.  I complained about my itching mosquito bites.  I complained about how gray my hair is becoming.  I complained about my knee pain.  I complained that my husband forgot to do something he said he'd do.  Every time I noticed, "Wow, I really complain a lot," and vowed to stop, something else would grab my attention and I'd respond negatively.


Complaining damages our brains and makes us sick.


When we complain, our brains release the stress hormone cortisol.  Extra cortisol impairs our immune systems, making us more susceptible to illnesses, even heart disease and stroke.  Some studies suggest that the constant stress of complaining is linked to shrinkage in the hippocampus, a region of the brain that's involved in emotional control, memory storage and recall, and learning.


Why are we so prone to complaining?  Sure, when I hear about something bad happening to someone else (a friend's parents' house was burned down over the weekend, an acquaintance needs surgery for thyroid cancer), I think, "I have NOTHING to complain about.  Let me thank God for my good situation and pray for those poor people dealing with their afflictions."  And yet, very soon, I find myself complaining once again.


Can I do anything about that?



6 Ways to Stop Complaining


1.  Let go of expectations.

Much of my complaining is because of unmet expectations.  Somehow, I expect traffic to flow smoothly when I have to get somewhere, I expect that a certain issue will resolve itself quickly and with no hassle, I expect that people will always act kindly and rationally and be on time, and I never expect to be sick.  It's a challenge to proceed with no expectations, with an open mind and curiosity as to how things will unfold.  It's a rather Zen mindset, but it does take the pressure off.  In my experience, I began to notice how much I worry about things going wrong, and complain about things that haven't even happened.


2.  Let go of the past.

When someone or something doesn't meet our expectations today, it's so easy to dig up every past disappointment and complain about it.  I'm guilty of this.  But recycling old letdowns does nothing to help today's situation.  In fact, it can make it worse.  And it's really bad for relationships.  Learn to stay in the present.


3.  Remember it's a habit.

Complaining actually changes our brain chemistry and structure.  Our brains are efficient – they're designed to make frequently repeated tasks easier to repeat again (like learning to type or play an instrument).  When we constantly focus on problems, we train our brains to make future grumbling more likely, and our mindset more and more negative.  This is definitely not the default pattern I want to live with.


4.  Spend time with positive people.

Humans are social animals, which means we have a tendency to mimic those around us.  Maybe you've noticed that if one person in a group starts complaining, it isn't long before everyone adds their grievances.  You can even see this behavior in people who regularly listen to negative news sources or talk show hosts.  However, the same is true for positive comments.  Like your Mama said, friends and what you read, watch, and listen to are strong influences – for bad or good.


5.  Search for solutions.

Some things are out of our control, but not everything.  When we constantly complain, we start to feel powerless.  We nurture a sense of hopelessness and futility.  That's why ranting about a problem only leads to anger and exhaustion.  Although I've done my fair share, complaining never solves a problem.  It only keeps our eyes on what's wrong with the world.  It can be helpful to share struggles and heartaches, but not to wallow in them.  It's fine to notice a potential difficulty, but think of ways to deal with it rather than fretting about it.  Take action to make a difference.


6.  Practice gratitude.

It's hard to feel joy when I'm focused on what's not working.  But just like complaining, happiness is a habit.  An attitude of thankfulness stimulates the production of both serotonin and dopamine, improving mood, metabolism, and sleep.  When you focus on what you're grateful for, you actually crowd out negative thoughts and start noticing even more good things to appreciate.


The practice of gratitude will improve your life.


Today is a good day to stop complaining.  It's a good day to take the actions that will produce the changes I want.  I don't need a milestone birthday, designated holiday, pay raise, vacation, or gala celebration to give thanks or notice blessings.  I can do it today and every day.



Photo by Nikhita Singhal on Unsplash





Friday, September 25, 2020

Create a Zero-Based Budget



A budget gives us control over where our money is going, and a zero-based budget gives us a plan for every dollar.



8 Steps to Creating a Zero-Based Budget



1.  Remember what's essential.
If you're struggling to make ends meet, you need to focus on your bare essentials.  These are:

  • Food – You need to keep food in your belly.
  • Shelter – You need a roof over your head.
  • Utilities – You need to keep the light and heat on and the water running.
  • Personal maintenance – You need to keep yourself and your home clean.
  • Transportation – You need to be able to get to work.
  • Communication – You need to be able to keep in touch with work and loved ones.

2.  Know your priorities.
Every human being has the same essential needs, but our dreams and desires differ.  For my husband and I, living on one salary so I could stay home and teach our children was a priority.  For others, retiring before age 50 might be what matters most.  Maybe you really want to keep a horse, or you've always wanted a big, beautiful house with a swimming pool in the back yard.  Only you know what will be most fulfilling to you.  Keeping your priorities front and center lets you pare away expenses that keep you living paycheck to paycheck, unable to achieve what matters most to you.


3.  Write down your income.
Include paychecks, side hustles, child support – whatever comes into your bank account every month.  If you work on commission or as a free-lancer, base your budget on the least amount you can expect to earn.


4.  Write down your monthly expenses.
Start with your bare essentials, then add things like credit card bills, car payments, gym memberships, restaurant meals, manicures, new clothes, etc.  Include a small "miscellaneous" category for those unexpected things that always come up, like the baby shower you get invited to.  Include your saving and giving categories near the top of the list.  If you don't make them important, you won't do them.


5.  Write down your seasonal expenses.
Christmas comes every December, so there's no reason for it to sneak up on you.  You'll probably want to take a vacation at some point.  And don't forget quarterly or yearly bills like insurance.

The trick to these is simple.  Determine how much you want or need to spend and divide it by twelve.  That's how much you need to budget for and save each month.


6.  Add a budget line for fun.
Sometimes you need a treat, especially if your budget is very lean while you deal with debt or save for your Caribbean cruise.  But you don't want to derail your money goals or go on a spending binge.  Fun money isn't an excuse to be wasteful – it's another way to stick to your budget.


7.  Subtract your expenses from your income to equal zero.
At first, you may end up with a negative number.  If you're like a lot of people, you've been spending more than you earn, and now you can see that in black and white.  Don't give up!  You'll need to figure out ways to earn more money, start trimming your expenses, or both.

  • Fund bare essentials first.
  • List other expenses in order of importance.  When you run out of money, that's it.  If things are really tight, the items toward the bottom of the list don't get funded.
  • Removing debt must become your priority.  Not having enough money and paying for things with a credit card is like jumping into a hole and digging it deeper and deeper.  
  • Earn more money by selling something or by starting a side hustle.
  • Cut expenses.  Buy generic, carpool, cancel subscriptions, make coffee at home, go longer between salon appointments or do it yourself, buy clothes at the consignment shop, etc.

8.  Take the long view.
If you've had to make a lot of changes in order to balance your expenses with your income, you might not be too happy right now.  I know it's hard to make sacrifices.  But if you can't live within your means now, you won't be able to do it when you're earning more money.  It doesn't matter how much you make if you're busy spending it all.

When you're focused on making ends meet each month, it's hard to think about the future.  But that's why you want to know your priorities.  Paying off debt may need to take center stage for now, but once you remove it, you free up money that you can use for other things.  At that point, you can start funding your true priorities.




P.S.  If you enjoyed this post, you might be interested in my newest book, Simple Money.  Not only do I give more details about creating and living with a zero-based budget, I also write about how your money beliefs influence your financial decisions, how to buy less and demolish debt, how to feel empowered (rather than poor) as you control your spending, and more!




Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash





Monday, September 21, 2020

The Beauty of Budgeting




"This is your money.  Stop wondering where it went and start telling it where to go."

Dave Ramsey The Total Money Makeover 




To many, the idea of a budget seems restrictive, boring, and old fashioned.  But believe it or not, "budget" is not a dirty word, and a budget is not an outdated idea, but a useful tool for us today.

The process of making a budget helps us focus on our needs, of course, but it also lets us find a way to afford our desires.  A budget doesn't tell us what we can't spend; it's simply a plan for how we choose to use our money. 

Many of us are near-sighted about money.


We pay our bills every month, and manage to afford clothes, restaurant meals, salon appointments, and our morning lattes, but we're always caught short by our annual auto registration fees or property taxes.  Lots of our entertainment requires a credit card, as does any true emergency.  We don't save much for retirement, even though it's inevitable that someday we will need or want to stop working.  And we may dream about something we really want to have or do, but we have no plans for how we might afford it, and we fritter our money away on things that don't really matter to us.

We work too hard to wonder where all our money went.  We shouldn't have to deal with thoughts like Why can't I pay my bills? or Why am I so broke all the time?  And even if we feel pretty comfortable about our financial situation, a budget can maximize our options for achieving our most meaningful and valuable goals.

A budget gives us control over where our money is going.


It lets us pay for our day-to-day expenses, and helps us prepare for quarterly or once-a-year expenses too.  It also lets us plan for those unplanned expenses, like an emergency room visit or refrigerator repair.  And it lets us have fun without resorting to a credit card.

The beauty of a budget is that it helps us pay attention and become intentional about how we use our resources.  A budget lets us make sure that every dollar we earn has a purpose, that we are meeting our needs and using our earnings to satisfy our deepest priorities.

My budget isn't going to look like yours, and your budget isn't going to look exactly like anyone else's.  We can tailor our budgets to meet our specific requirements.

You can create your budget on a piece of paper or with an Excel spreadsheet or an app.  Whichever way you decide, you'll follow the same steps to create a zero-based budget, one in which your monthly income minus your expenses equals zero.  A zero-based budget gives you a plan for every dollar.




Photo by Michael Longmire on Unsplash





Friday, September 18, 2020

Rethink the American Dream



My husband and I moved four times in our first four years of marriage, then bought a house and stayed there for eight years.


When we moved to a larger town for a better job, we sold our first house for about 50% more than we had originally paid for it  I thought we had done well.  But after subtracting the amount we had spent on home improvements over the years, I realized we had actually made far less on the sale.


We rented an apartment in our new town so we could get to know the area before deciding to buy another house.  Our rent was approximately the same as our previous house payment, but of course it didn't qualify as a tax deduction the way our mortgage interest had. 


Imagine my surprise when we filed taxes the next year, took the standard deduction, and realized that it wasn't that much less than our mortgage interest had been.  We had paid thousands of dollars in interest every year in order to save a few hundred dollars in taxes.


I started to wonder if owning a house was such a good investment after all.


We lived four years in that apartment, and bought a house when our children were 8 and 11 years old.  They were excited to finally stop sharing a bedroom.


Six years later, in 2007, we sold that house and made just enough to use as a down payment on a brand new, slightly larger house.  We were a bit over-extended with the new housing costs, but we figured that with cost of living raises and my new part-time job we could manage.


That was a mistake.  In 2008, not only was there no raise, there was actually a cut in pay.  And my new job was cut also.  This was not according to plan, and by the time we paid for our daughter's wedding in 2011 we had serious credit card debts and an underwater mortgage.  Millions of people were in the same situation.


Fortunately, our lender accepted a short sale in 2012, and we moved back into an apartment.


And here we are, eight years later, out of debt, with well-funded retirement accounts and reasonable rent.  Our 800-square-foot apartment more than meets our needs.


We have no plans to buy a house.


I realize that's not the American Dream.  With 80% of the US population preferring single-family home ownership, and only 8% preferring apartment or condo living, we are outside the norm.


In European countries, however, more people live in apartments than in detached houses.  My uncle has lived in Germany for decades, and he and his family have always lived in small apartments.  That's not unusual – 62% of Germans live in apartments.


My husband and I are very happy apartment dwellers.  I think that if you stop to consider the benefits, you might actually agree.



6 Reasons to Love Apartment Living


1.  Less effort

Any living space requires upkeep, but less space means less time spent cleaning and tidying.  Chores don't feel overwhelming, so it's easy to keep up with them.  Vacuuming takes less than 20 minutes, and caring for a mini garden on a balcony may be pure joy compared to mowing, watering, pruning, weeding, fertilizing, and raking an entire yard.


2.  More ease

When we owned a house, I always had a list of repairs and upgrades I wanted to make.  We were always doing something inside or out.  I was constantly thinking of new paint colors, new flooring, new landscaping, better windows, and more.  As a renter, those things aren't my responsibility, and I've learned not to be a slave to my house.

Some people love working on their house, but if that's not how you want to spend your weekends, vacations, and extra money, apartment living frees you from the obligations of home ownership.  It's not lazy, it's an intentional choice to focus on other things.


3.  Less clutter

Apartments are generally a lot smaller than houses, and that means you have a lot less space to accumulate possessions.  This forces you to be vigilant about clutter.  In a house, you might have a basement, attic, garage, or shed where you can stash things you want to keep "just in case."  In an apartment, extraneous stuff is obvious, and so you learn to edit.


4.  More connection

Unlike a house where a family might be scattered in various separate rooms, in an apartment you tend to gather together.  You might use your kitchen table for meals and also as a desk, and spend a lot of time together there.  Even if I am watching TV in the living room and my husband is reading in the bedroom, we're only about a dozen yards apart.  We have breathing space, but we're present for each other.


5.  Less conformity

Our culture tells us that the more we own, the happier we'll be.  Pursuing the American Dream means constantly raising your standard of living.  However, the 2019 World Happiness Report indicates that multiple factors determine happiness, particularly connection and generosity.

As an apartment dweller, you realize that you don't have to get caught in that work/spend cycle just because everyone else is doing it.  You're free to explore other avenues to well-being.


6.  More financial freedom

What trade-offs are you making if you decide to upgrade to granite countertops or if you need to replace your HVAC system?  If your money is always going toward home projects and repairs, then maybe you don't travel as often as you would like, or you don't buy those season tickets, or you don't pay for organic food, or you don't give as generously to causes you care about.  Apartment living lets you build your budget around what's really important to you.



Our way of life isn't for everyone, but for us a minimalist lifestyle in an 800-square-foot apartment has brought more contentment and stability than our years as homeowners.  Challenging the American Dream might be a positive choice for you too.



Photo by Alexandar Todov on Unsplash

Monday, September 14, 2020

MINIMALIST TOOL KIT: Enjoy the Simple Things



Don't get me wrong.  I love the occasional filet mignon dinner.  I enjoy live theater.  It's wonderful to stay at Glendeven Inn on the Mendocino coast.

But my tastes are actually very simple.  I sometimes think I could live on sourdough bread, cheese, red seedless grapes, and minestrone soup.  My Starbucks order is a Cafe Misto (coffee with steamed milk).  My favorite outfit is dark wash jeans and a jewel colored, three-quarter sleeve v-neck tee shirt.  I love library books, crossword puzzles, and the classical music station.  Give me a drizzly day and a wooded path and I'm in seventh heaven.

A lot of people believe that if you're not constantly striving, if you don't have an extensive bucket list, you can never be happy.  I think they've got it wrong.  If you want to be happy, you need to learn to appreciate the things around you, the things you can enjoy every day.  No one is happy who constantly fixates on what she doesn't have, while overlooking all of the good things already in her life.

For a happy life, cultivate simple tastes.


I'm not saying it's bad to have a few extravagant aspirations.  I've already admitted that I have some.  I'm not saying that it's wrong to be ambitious, to have goals.  I'm just suggesting we need to live happily every day, not just on a few high points.  What good is it to attain something if you can't savor your success?  If every achievement just makes you want to climb the next mountain, none of your accomplishments will make you happy.  If every treat just makes you want more treats, so that they become commonplace, you won't enjoy them anymore.  You won't anticipate your special experiences, and you won't pay attention to every detail when they occur.  You'll be spending more and more money, but you won't get nearly the fun that you used to get when a treat experience was rare.

I appreciate a fancy dinner or a special trip when I have those opportunities, but for day-to-day living I have simple tastes.  I suggest you do the same.



5 Benefits of a Simple Life


1.  Every day is better.
Since I have simple tastes, they're easier to fulfill on a regular basis.  If I could only be satisfied with the rarest and most exclusive, I'd either need to be very rich, deeply in debt, or constantly disappointed.

2.  Decisions are easier.
As I wrote in "Why a Uniform Might Work for You," choosing a simple, consistent wardrobe saves time, money, energy, and worry, and lets you feel free, confident, and in control.  When you cultivate simple tastes that let you enjoy an egg and toast for breakfast every morning (for example), or that make an hour of reading aloud your family's favorite evening activity, you aren't pulled in six different directions trying to decide what to do or eat or buy.  You aren't constantly second-guessing yourself.  What a relief.

3.  I'm not a slave to trends, brand names, or advertising.
All of us live in a media-saturated world.  It's hard to be completely unaware of whatever is fashionable right now.  But when I cultivate simple tastes, I don't feel deprived if I don't own the latest must-have item.  I'm satisfied continuing to use or wear what I already have, without feeling the need to run out and get something new simply for the sake of its newness and popularity.

4.  I don't need to inflate my lifestyle.
Lifestyle inflation is the tendency to increase spending on non-essentials whenever your income goes up.  Obviously, if you can barely support yourself, then a larger income that allows you to spend more would be a relief.  But if you're reading this, chances are your current lifestyle is at the very least comfortable.  When my income increases, I don't need to spend more if my tastes remain simple.  I don't need to upgrade my electronics or my car or my house if I'm happy with my refurbished iPhone, my Kia sedan, and my cozy apartment.

5.  I have the means for an occasional splurge.
If I don't spend money on expensive treats every day, then I have more money to spend when I really want something special.  I don't always remember this when I don't feel like cooking, or when Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte season arrives.  But it's really a no-brainer.  When I keep daily expenses simple, and don't fritter away money on stuff I can live without, I have the means to indulge in the things that matter to me.


I'm more grateful and contented when I keep my tastes simple.  I think you will be too.




Photo by Roman Purtov on Unsplash