Anyone who’s ever lost weight knows that the “maintenance” phase is the hardest part. Getting out of debt and pursuing life-long frugality is no different. Just as dieting is not deferred eating, frugality is not deferred spending. I read posts all of the time from folks who have managed to chip away at some of their debt, only to find themselves maxing out their credit cards again or having to deal with a life emergency without an adequate emergency fund. (I’m not judging – it’s a hard slog for so many people.) Although I’ve ridden the weight loss roller coaster for much of my life, I have managed to stay relatively fit and trim in the debt department. There have been a few times in my life where I gained a little extra debt fluff due to poor spending choices, emergencies, or large but necessary purchases. But I’ve always been successful at paying down my debts in a timely fashion. I’ve also been incredibly lucky in that I’ve been able to hold down jobs for the entirety of my adult life, lucky enough to receive a little parental support when I needed it most, and I haven’t faced spending emergencies that amounted to more than a few thousand dollars. I have been diligent and cautious, but I have also been very lucky.
Truth be told, my financial success story is super boring. I have had full-time employment since I graduated from college. Thanks to scholarships and assistantships, I managed to escape nine years of higher education with a only a small amount of student loan and credit card debt. Although I’ve had brief periods of slightly higher spending since I got a “real job,” my average monthly spending is only a few hundred dollars a month more than when I was a teaching assistant making $20,000 a year. As a spender, I’ve never really yo-yo dieted, and I’ve never had to live on a subsistence budget in order to pay down my debt. Although I got extremely lucky in the student loan department, I’ve also never lived so extravagantly than reeling in my lifestyle felt like a huge sacrifice. What’s my point? Well, when your life is already reasonably frugal and you don’t have any debt emergencies hanging over your head, it makes it very challenging to say to yourself, “I need to do better.”
An Uncertain Time
Rather than optimism for the future, what is currently driving me to save more aggressively is endless ennui and crushing anxiety. Some people are feeling very optimistic about the next 4-8 years, but I’m not one of them. Mr. G works in manufacturing, but in the renewable energy sector. I work in higher education, and rely on federal science funding. I also work with a number of research groups that receive funding from the DOE – funding that is at serious risk under the new administration. I work with dozens of international students who face uncertainty about the J1 Visa program, in addition to heightened concerns about their personal safety in a country that is increasingly embracing isolationist and white nationalist attitudes. I’m scared, to say the least. I also have big existential concerns about what the civil rights landscape will look like in 4 years, what automation means for the future of the economy, and what climate changes means for the future of our planet. Ya know, the usual Monday morning worries.
Add to this our seemingly more trivial but as yet unresolved House Question. Just this week, The House Question presented us with a whole new set of uncertainties that may mean another several months (or years) of indecisiveness. So, dear reader, we are stuck. We are stuck, stuck, stuck in a land of anxiety, indecision and inaction. But, as I joked on Twitter last month, the plus side of being paralyzed by indecision is that you never spend any money – no houses, furniture, renovations or vacations. So, for better or worse, my anxiety is now fueling my “why.” I’ve decided to channel my angst into a self-imposed spending austerity that will fund our future goals (or future unemployment), assuming we are finally able to make some decisions in the next year (or the next administration decides to purge all scientists who disagree with their agenda).
Preparing For Something
Sorry if I sound a bit like an alarmist crazy person in that last section, but the fact of the matter is that I currently feel like an alarmist crazy person. Talking to my friends in academia or federal agencies or national labs just makes me feel more unsettled. So, the first step in my paralysis-induced self-austerity is to increase my cash emergency fund. My really boring goal for 2017 is to have about 12 months of emergency savings at current monthly spending rate.
Since I’m now debt-free, I am able to throw any windfalls, side hustle cash, or tax returns towards my 12-month emergency fund. I’m already about 1/3 of the way there with what was my original 3-4 month e-fund. Once I am finished, my next goals will be to fund a bigger down payment for our next house, or to open a taxable investment account.
Working Towards Clarity
I have a lot of unresolvable questions floating around in my head right now and, unfortunately, the only thing that will bring clarity to many of these questions is time. So, we wait. I’ve also entered “FI maintenance mode,” which feels very uninspiring. On Twitter I mentioned how when I initially discovered FI, I decided that it would be the next “hobby” I would throw myself into. But just like the running thing and the weight loss thing and the many hobbies that came before it, pursuing FI has started to get boring and feel like a slog. I am no longer invigorated by the blog posts of my fellow frugal weirdos, and I don’t have a clear idea of our FI timeline or goals. What is the point of living a frugal lifestyle if I’m having any fun? How is it fulfilling to save for a future that seems so uncertain?
My post-election Season of Ennui is preventing me from achieving any clarity on my “big picture” goals, since optimism and emotional fortitude are not particularly abundant in my life right now. The House Question has too many variables for the time being, and I don’t have the emotional energy to cope with the big picture. So, for now, my answer to my anxiety is to hunker down and save.
Assuming I am being rather alarmist about the next few years, I still think it is a reasonable goal to pursue an über frugal year. If we buy a new house this year – great! My self-imposed austerity just means a bigger down payment or more money for improvements. If shit hits the fan – not great, but at least we’ll be (more) prepared. My decision-making abilities are stuck in neutral at the moment, but that doesn’t mean our path won’t clearer a few months from now. Once we’re finally able to make some decisions, we’ll have the added advantage of having a little more cash on hand to fund them.
When I saw the Frugalwoods post last week about embarking together on an über-frugal January, I was initially inspired to participate and then completely terrified about what I was throwing myself into. I’ve also done Drynuary for the last three or four years, and combining an über-frugal month with a dry month sounded a really terrible idea. (It doesn’t help that I have a stressful work project that doesn’t end until mid-January, and stress eating fast food IS MY JAM.) But I want to do it. I already don’t feel like buying much these days, and I could definitely be eating out less and drinking less alcohol. At the very least, it seems I am determined to get my least-favorite month of the year out of the way so my usual least favorite month, February, feels like a cakewalk in comparison.
For me, 2017 seems foreboding at best and catastrophic at worst. I’m going to save as much as I can, and do as much good as I can. I’m going to try to seek clarity and make decisions. I’m going to keep doing science, and be a safe harbor for my students who are facing persecution. I’m going to speak out against injustices and try not to get arrested. Ya know, the usual hopes and dreams for a new year.
Are you anxious about 2017? How are you coping?