1. Things I Can Save: The Financial Fast

Beginning on Sunday, January 11, Michelle Singletary, a Washington Post columnist, charges her readers to commit to three weeks of scrupulous frugality.

The 2015 21-day Financial Fast is one simple Thing I Can.

The rules are easy (to list, if not to live): Spend only on essentials and do so in cash. In last weekend’s column, Singletary writes,

Here’s a list of what you can spend on during the fast: food (bought at the grocery store), medicine, essential personal hygiene products, items that may be required for your job, your regular household bills such as rent or a mortgage, car payments, utilities, gas and even your credit-card payments. This isn’t an all-inclusive list. The point is you continue to pay for the things you need and the bills you already have.

Here’s what you are not allowed to do during the fast: go to the movies, shop for clothes, buy lunch or coffee at work, pay for any restaurant or fast-food meals, spend on entertainment. The goal is to shut down all conspicuous consumption. You will temporarily stop spending on things you can do without.

I live pretty close to the bone as it is. It’s a breeze to walk away the metro parking fee, and schlepping a stack of provisions in Pyrex frees me up to run other errands on my lunch hour. Even so, I waste a few bucks a week on takeout meals, 7-11 coffee, and apps for my kid’s tablet. It seems like nothing when I’m just clicking an icon or dropping loose change on a counter. Of course, it doesn’t take advanced algebra to add up those nickels. From the back of the envelope here. . .

  • $1.50 for coffee @ 3 times a week = $4.50
  • $1.50 for bagel @ 2 times a week = $3.00
  • $10 lunch out @ 1 day a week = $10
  • $3.50 random snacks or apps @ 3 times a week = $10.50
  • $20 movie ticket, burger, or mini golf with kiddo @ 1 time a week = $20
  • $15 meal/drinks out with friends @ 1 time a week = $15

That’s upwards of $60 dropped on stuff Bug and I don’t need and isn’t good for us anyway. Maybe we’re not talking Monaco money, but it ain’t chump change. If we pack the snacks and go to the park, we’ve squirreled away $3000 a year. Compound the interest even at a modest 3% rate over the next decade, and we creep towards — get this — $40,000.

Can you imagine?

Switching to home-brewed coffee could cover a year of Bug’s tuition. It could increase the value of our home by paying for energy-efficient doors and windows. Or it could send me to a weekend writer’s conference while Bug attends a summer adventure camp.

Minor adjustments now contribute to smoother performance down the line. The Financial Fast doesn’t require going it alone. Singletary sends daily guidance and provides tools along the way. Committing to the fast is just step one. For me, step two is building an actual working budget.

Despite knowing better, I have failed to follow through on what should be a rudimentary household activity. I left my last comprehensive budget behind when I left New York and my marriage in 2010. My reasons are for avoiding the exercise are as coherent as they are bogus. As the daily tug-of-war between chocolate cake and running shoes proves, the drive to dodge wise choices is more powerful than anyone likes to admit. The truth is, I know better. Out of necessity, I built that first financial spreadsheet sometime in 2006. Living on $30,000 as a YMCA camp family with a new baby inspired rather creative approaches to austerity.

I learned then that making a budget and tracking spending can lift the fog of financial anxiety that hangs over anyone trying to support a family on limited means. The obfuscation of my actual circumstances, while presumably a defense mechanism against facing uncomfortable truths, exchanges short-term relief for long-term stress. This is about as poor a deal as most of my spending habits. I don’t need it anymore — the anxiety or the avoidance. As one Thing I Can do, this fast is a chance to shed unhelpful habits and claim a bright future for my family.

Interested? Go to the Washington Post’s Financial Fast site and take the plunge!

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6 thoughts on “1. Things I Can Save: The Financial Fast”

  1. I really love the way you write. Your style is so succinct and every word fits perfectly. Good writing is about economizing, too. Thanks for reminding me how important it is to save money. I have to admit I’m shameless, which is probably one reason I’ve never made the leap to have and raise a kid. In today’s uncertain world, that takes a lot of guts. I’m sure you’re good at doing that, too! (Also, thanks for liking my Spock tunes.)

    1. Thanks! It’s been fun today. I went to two Meetups at restaurants that serve my favorite foods, and I didn’t order a thing. Goals + commitment = easy discipline.

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