Sunday, October 29, 2017

The 5 Stages of Budget Living

The grass is always greener on the other side.

I've sat down four or five times in the last two weeks, with the simple goal of writing a blog post. Each time the same thing happens - I open a draft, stare into space, sigh heavily, and close the tab. It's not that I don't want to blog. It's just that the topic I felt so passionate about a few months ago - living on the cheap - has lately felt more like a chore. 

This is not to say I've already switched gears and abandoned my tiny baby budget living blog. I will continue to write sporadically about my adventures in living on less. It's just that I've entered a new phase. Much like Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's five stages of grief, budget living, too, is experienced in steps. Allow me to illustrate. 

Stage One: Denial 

You're living the good life, focusing only on the moment at hand. Delicious dinners at your favorite restaurants. Good wine and craft beer. Flights and hotels to see friends and family. Donations to all your favorite charities. You tell yourself that you're not being completely irresponsible - it's not like you're buying fur coats and fancy cars. You're frugal enough that you can rationalize pretty much anything. Meanwhile, your credit card debt is mounting. Interest fees are eating you alive. Your student loans are so staggering that you wonder if someone accidentally added an extra zero when you weren't looking. Eventually, your worries about the future begin to erode the joy you feel in each moment. Your life is not sustainable, and your denial is no longer working. It's time to face the facts. 

Stage Two: Anger 

The facts are not good, and you are not happy. In fact, you're angry. Angry at the inflation of tuition, which has made Sallie Mae a permanent part of your life. Angry with your parents, who did not teach you how money actually works. Angry about capitalism in general, which forces you to work within an unfair and inhuman system. Angry at your past self, for being young and dumb and irresponsible, and whose mistakes you must now pay off. 

Stage Three: Bargaining 

Okay, you tell yourself. Anger is only helpful if I use it as motivation. I may have made mistakes in the past, but I'm smarter now. I'll only make good decisions from here on out. I'll make a budget and stick to it. I won't eat at any restaurants for the next ten years. I'll ride my bike as much as possible, and wear this cardigan even though it has holes in the sleeves, and skip holidays and birthdays, and eat lentils three days in a row, and start up a blog about budget living. I will embody thrift and frugality and watch my net worth rise like a phoenix from the ashes. 

(In case you were wondering, this is the stage I've been at for the last year or so. Which brings us - and me - to stage four.) 

Stage Four: Depression 

You've been doing everything right, making sacrifices left and right. And it's working, but wow! is it slow going. As it turns out, racking up debt is a lot faster than paying it off. As a consequence, your passion and enthusiasm begin to lag. You're tired, plain and simple. Lentils, which you once lauded for being cheap, nutritions, and delicious, now turn your stomach. Your home, which you once appreciated for its low rent and reasonable comfort, now seems drab and dull. You watch your friends make big transitions - starting families, buying houses, publishing books, going on glamorous overseas trips - and you are jealous. Restless. And - yes - depressed. 

(Hello, stage four! How not-nice to see you.) 

Stage Five: Acceptance 

Acceptance looks different for everyone. In the original five stages of grief, it's described as an understanding that your life will never be the same after the death of a loved one, and that the reality you are left with is your "new normal." While facing your debt and embracing frugality is not even close to the trauma of as losing someone, acceptance is still a key moment. At this stage, you will recognize that budget living is not a phase, but a way of life. You won't emerge on the other side, ready and able to spend like you did when you were younger. You won't reward yourself for paying off debt by buying, for example, a sailboat. Instead, you will continue to save your pennies, watch your budget, and live within your means. This is your new normal. This is your life. Accept it, embrace it, and find joy in hard work and simple pleasures. 

This is the stage I'd like to reach, but I'm stuck somewhere between bargaining and depression. Which is... normal, I guess. On the bright side, writing this out has made me feel a bit better about my debt-free journey, slow as it may be. It takes some of the pressure off, too - I don't have to be perfect or thrilled about my life at every moment in order to share the ups and downs. I just have to be honest - with myself, my readers, and my wallet. That, I can do. 

In the meantime, tell me what stage you've reached, and how you plan to get to the next one - especially if you're sitting pretty at acceptance!