Monday, January 27, 2014

Necessity vs. Choice

image from here
Necessity is the mother of frugality.

When there is no money, devising ways to save comes naturally because it is always on the mind. Reconsidering that cup of coffee at the deli, putting that dress back on the rack, turning an old bracelet into a new necklace, and considering just how many more wears are possible from that old sweater after it's seen better days, are commonplace.

When there is no money, one creates ways to save. There is no other choice.

When there is money, however, saving money becomes more difficult. Getting in the habit of visiting Starbucks, finding an excuse to buy that new dress, casting off the old bracelet to a friend or storage, and tossing that old sweater with barely a second thought, can become habit.

When there is money, one gets used to spending it. The choice makes it possible.

It seems to be a right of passage for New Yorkers to find themselves, at least for a short time, in a place where money is very tight. But after moving past that phase -- likely by a combination of learning where to be frugal and an increase in pay -- it becomes easy to stop thinking so much about money. And if money is not constantly on the brain, it becomes easy to spend easily. Nearly everyone can relate to believing a raise will make life easier, but six months after the raise, not knowing why the raise has not helped. We seem to fill into the paychecks we bring home. Buying more stuff, going out to eat more often, taking more weekend trips.

When we were little, we never bought snacks while traveling. My father would pack up sandwiches, veggies, and water, and that was that. It rarely occurred to me to ask for candy at the gas station, or visit the cafe car on the train, because it just wasn't what I was used to doing.

When I moved to NYC, I didn't buy snacks because I couldn't afford them. But after I got my footing, I enjoyed the convenience of not planning ahead, and it became habit for me to stop for a coffee on the way to the train, and pick up a snack in the cafe car. For years, I spent money on the overpriced items, perfectly happy with myself because I could -- I had the money to make that choice. But once I made a conscience effort to again limit those purchases, it became habit to toss a yogurt and a fruit into my purse as I left the house, and carry my coffee or tea with me from home. When I ended up on Amtrak recently without dinner, I was quite surprised by my lack of planning, and disappointed in myself (and the sandwich I bought). But as I ate my packaged dinner, it occurred to me that disappointment was the wrong way to look at my slip -- what is more interesting is that there was any disappointment at all. Just a couple years ago I would have purchased that sandwich without thinking twice.

So much of being frugal comes down to just paying attention. It does feel like work at first to change spending habits, but after a while frugal choices become frugal habits, and not as much thought is necessary to stay on track. It is no different than changing a habit of not flossing regularly to flossing daily -- the more often it's done, the less often it needs to be remembered.

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