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Part I:
Part II:

WARNING: Parts one and two are also LONG. So, here's the upshot of the first two posts: Part I, wherein our Dufus (me) suddenly wakes up and smells her future burning. The light and breezy attitude toward spending and debt repayment had added up to $60K on credit cards and $23K in car loans. My initial response: GO TO THE MALL AND BUY STUFF!!!

Part II, wherein Dufus discovers that, hey, a budget is a GOOD thing. Especially if it's one you can actually LIVE with.

Hokay. So, I'm sitting there with a belly full of squirming baby girl, looking at the bills and saying it isn't really working. We're doing OK, we're staying pretty much within what we make, but there isn't a whole lot LEFT OVER. We have one little emergency, one little hit we weren't expecting, and the card balances go UP rather than DOWN.

Now, what had caused me to start the process of creating a real budget was a question that had startled me into tracking such things: how much money would I save if I didn't buy something. You can laugh at how dense I was/am, but whenever I had thought about solving a money problem, I always worked it from the 'make more money' angle – never the 'save more money' angle. Hmmmmmm. Was it humanly possible, could it possibly be done, was there any way to live…cheaper?

After my prenatal appointment one morning, I went to the library – not because I wanted to save money by going to the library, no, that would have required intelligence and forethought. I went to the library because they had a much better 'search engine' (aka the CD-ROM card file) than any bookstore I knew of at the time. I wandered up to the keyboard and typed in, “Home Economics.”

Guess what one of the books was? Go on, guess! Guess! Give up? It was “Tightwad Gazette: Promoting Thrift As a Viable Alternative Lifestyle”

This was a whole new world to me. I had managed to get my arms around the concept of deferred gratification. I had even managed to grasp the fine art of HAVING the money before SPENDING the money (although I still needed some work on that front). But this…THIS was…whoa. There were a few items that made my eyebrows crawl right up into my hairline (this was the first time I ever saw the practice of slitting open vacuum bags, dumping them out and restitching them addressed), but overall I found the whole concept intriguing.

There were a few things that were, while painful, fairly easy. We turned off cable. It took a bit of back and forth between the DH and myself, but in the end we decided that cable would be a reward. Once we had gotten ten thousand dollars repaid, we would consider getting cable again (we didn't – we opted to continue spending more quality time with each other instead. I know, I know, SICK and WRONG – but we had come to really enjoy our evenings together sans a television set blaring commercials at us).

Harder, for me personally, was taking the credit cards out of my wallet. It was almost a physical pain. But the evidence was overwhelming – I just didn't have the ability to control myself with plastic. I would charge things that were “emergencies” and then later think, “Well, actually, we probably could have…”

So, I took them out, selected one to keep as our 'emergency' card and put it into the card file, and took scissors to the rest of them. And I cried as I did it. I was so angry, so ashamed of myself, so furious at my complete inability to handle something that should be so basic. I was frightened, too, wondering what was going to happen to us. It felt less like a strategic retreat and a lot more like admitting I couldn't possibly win. But I did it anyway.

This meant that I shifted to a cash-only basis for buying stuff. Believe it or not, a red-blooded American person can, in fact, survive in this country without having a credit card in their back pocket every second of every day. You can use this funny paper stuff at the supermarket, and even the gas station will accept it. I would take out the cash once per week, on Sunday, from our bank branch in the supermarket. This was vital. If I took it out on Saturday, it would be gone by 2:00 a.m. Sunday and we'd be high and dry for the week. We had a few awkward weekends where the DH would want to 'do something' and I'd have to 'fess up that the cash was gone – wouldn't he rather spend a lovely weekend knitting up some tea cozies and listening to books on tape from the library?!

A lot of the ways we saved money was by trying to stretch things out a bit. Instead of getting my hair cut every four weeks, I went to every six weeks. Instead of replacing my harp strings every three months (which was a bit excessive, actually, for nylon strings), I would replace them once a year. I started making a list and sticking to it at the supermarket. Going to cash kept us on the side of the angels, and my ever-expanding and roiling belly (geesh, Eldest was an active kid!) really helped keep reminding me just how important this was – the vision of myself, old and wrinkled up like a slice of apple you find under the fridge, standing on my child's doorstep with my hand either out or clutching a suitcase was enough to get me to take this financial stuff a little more seriously.

But it was agonizing to Shopaholic Me to put things back on the shelf. I'd grab that can or package or tech-gadget and fondle it lovingly. “Do I really need this?” I'd ask. YES! YES! Well, um, not exactly need, but gee whiz, I just…aw, damn it, grumble gripe. <Stick it back on the shelf>

Did I feel deprived? Oh yes. Did I feel angry? You bet. I railed against 'having' to cook dinner when I was tired and my feet hurt. I hated 'lugging' my lunch to work when everybody else just went out. I was tired of scanning through the endless ad circulars, writing down which stores had what items we wanted on sale that week. Bah, humbug! Third world peasants had a better life than me, waaaaaaah! [Yeah, it's OK, go ahead and yell it at the screen: GROW UP YOU LITTLE BRAT!!]

I was developing new habits. The old habits of just buying whatever came in front of my eyeballs that I thought was cool were being replaced by a more thoughtful approach. I developed the habit of stopping, every single time, and asking myself, “Do you need this, and, is there a cheaper way to get it?”

But I still had another habit, a very bad, very sneaky, and tremendously self-destructive one: the habit of resentment. That habit held us back more than I realized at the time. See, when you resent things, when you think of them as being 'a drag' or 'cramping your style' or 'the most hateful thing that has ever happened to me in my whole pathetic life' – you fight against them. Even if they are what you intellectually want to do, you still fight against them. So I would still do things like buy the brand-name cereal, even though I knew the bagged no-name was cheaper and tasted just the same. But I 'deserved' to pay $5 a box for the same cereal! I would 'forget' my lunch and eat out. I would fill up the freezer with junk food instead of making it from scratch, saying that I was still saving money by buying frozen pizza, because otherwise I'd 'have' to pay for delivery!

I resented not being able to live 'freely.' I hated the discipline, the control, even though it was self-control, and was tremendously embarrassed at how often the words, “I can't afford it” had to come out of my lips. I was even humiliated by our homemade gifts to people, thinking that the investment of time, skill and love was a lot less important than the cash outlay. Better to buy my brother a sweater at Gottshalks than to make him one myself, right? Even if the one I make for him will be made with better materials, more care and definitely more love.

I didn't realize just how good I had it until one afternoon when I was sitting at my desk picking at my lunch, a ginger beef with rice I had made for dinner the night before. I was sitting there petulantly thinking that, on the whole, I'd rather be scarfing down a 'fresh' burrito from El Faro's, when my coworker popped her head over my cubicle wall and started to ask if I wanted to go out for lunch.

“Wow, that looks good, guess you don't need to go out,” she laughed. I was mortified, busted yet again with one of my stupid “Little House on the Prairie School of Poverty” lunches. I smiled weakly, choked down what I had in my mouth and said eloquently, “Yeah.” “You make it?” “Yeah, haha.”

She looked at me for a moment, then suddenly let loose with a stream of conversation. She envied me. I just had everything going for me, didn't I. I had a great husband and a darling daughter and a beautiful house. I was such a good cook and I had such a great head for money and she really thought my poise and self-control were amazing. She said she had seen me sitting out on the patio at lunch, watching the traffic on Market Street and knitting and thought it was about the loveliest thing she had ever seen, just so peaceful and so 'strong'. She wished she had that talent. And…and…and…

I sat back and stared at her, my jaw hanging open and my fork poised in their air as though I meant to go on the attack. She was an elegant dresser, ate out literally for every single meal, had a boyfriend who was wealthy and powerful, and went to France for a month every single year. She had the convertible Mercedes and all the bells and whistles to her life that I always thought I wanted for myself. And she's standing there, straight-faced and wistful, describing her magnificent High Rent District apartment as 'a hollow hole' and her boyfriend as a 'mean spirited bastard' and telling me how sad she is because she'll never have half of what I have, never have kids or a house or even be out of debt…

Talk about a slap to the face. I had sat there glowering over the fence and saying bitterly that my life sucked and everybody else's was better. They had more stuff, they had more fun, they had It All.

Wrong. I have it all. I have everything, and more. I have a husband who loves and admires me, and whom I love and admire in return. I have my children to delight and confound me, to continue and complete me. I have skills and interests beyond just eat, sleep, and work. I have a life of tremendous richness and unlimited potential for happiness – if I could just drop the Brat behavior and grab hold of it.

My coworker, about to head out for a thirty dollar 'experience' at one of the downtown bistros, envied me my 'something to do with leftover beef roast' leftovers, padded out with a ton of rice to make it more filling. Standing there in a $400 suit ensemble, she envied me my 'cool' handknit jacket, made out of the cheapest possible machine wash/dry yarn I had picked up on sale at WalMart. Dating a handsome, upward-moving young investment banker who regularly whisked her off to weekends in Paris or Brussels 'on the company dime', she envied me my sparkly-eyed, long-haired help desk manager who would sit there tangled up in yarn on a prime Saturday night yelping, “Honey, help, I can't tell: is this supposed to be a purl or a knit stitch here?”

I think that conversation was for me the beginning of embracing LBYM, not just as an ungainly tool for the immediate problem before us, but as a friend. Have you ever noticed how loving LBYM is? The care and attention it focuses on everyday tasks? From cooking your own meals to refinishing the battered old dresser you scored at a garage sale, everything you do requires the touch of you, the skill and attention of you.

It hit me hard. I had noticed that my husband, the silly twit, actually seemed to think our lives were tremendously better since we had started this 'frugal' trip. He frequently mentioned how much he enjoyed my cooking (liar! Just trying to make me feel better about how poor we are!), and how neat it was that we spent so much time together (yeah right, like YOU wouldn't rather be at the movies tonight!) and how neat it was to not worry about whether or not we were going to have enough money for the next tank of gas, or the next bag of groceries (yeah, sure, right, it's so great that we're going to have rice – AGAIN!).

But he was right. We had comfort. We had enough, which as the old saying goes, IS as good as a feast. We had chipped ten thousand dollars off our credit card debt in that first year, partly by the increase in our incomes and partly from shaving a little bit here and there from our spending. We were…doing good. For ourselves, for our child(ren), even for the world around us, which had to dispose of a lot less packaging and so forth from us.

We were choosing how to spend our money. We were choosing, very carefully and from amongst a myriad of options, precisely what was important to us. Having a house was important to us. Having stability for our children was important. Having a new car every couple years? Not important. A new wardrobe every season? WAY not important. Retiring a week, a month, a year, a decade early, to grab back that time for myself and my DH? SOLD!

That week, when I went out to do our shopping and stood there with my lists staring at the alternatives, checking the price per ounce on cereal and asking myself, 'should we even be eating this stuff in the first place?', I did it for the first time without resenting it. I did it appreciating that I had the option. I did it with a smile, and even a sense of playfulness. Like 'Name That Tune', I was cheering myself on: "I can buy those groceries on just twenty dollars!" "BUY THOSE GROCERIES!"

I did it understanding that this was my choice. This was my Will talking, not my Whim.

Hmm. Chicken, pre-cut: $2.50 a pound. Chicken, whole: $0.75 a pound. I can cut up a chicken (well, at least, I think I can) (a-la Jack the Ripper, the first few times). And I'll bet I can find a use for those parts we don't technically want, too…

NEXT: "H-h-hello, I, I was calling, um, because <gulp> uh, card? rate? high? lower? please?"

…stock! Stored in one cup increments in the freezer, THAT'S what I'll do with 'all the rest' of that chicken!...
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