The Money You Save is the Hardest to Spend

I’ve always been a saver. Ever since I was a little girl and would get a birthday card with some cash in it from a grandparent or aunt, the money went straight into my savings account. That’s just what I thought one did with money: put it in the bank. I was also fortunate to be immune to a lot of the most common and expensive vices. I never smoked or did drugs, I hate coffee, clothes shopping annoys me, and I don’t like the taste of alcohol. There wasn’t a lot to spend my money on. So I saved.

My miserly ways came in handy in college, where I managed to pay for more than half of my education through my own funds (the other half was from college funds set up by my parents and grandparents). But once I got out of college, the money was gone. I was lucky to have no debt, but I also had no cash. I found work, started following frugality blogs, and began to save again.

When I made the decision three years ago to go on this trip, I knew I’d want a good buffer of savings. I needed enough for the trip, plus a buffer for potential unemployment (I didn’t know at the time if taking the trip would mean quitting my job). So I threw together some numbers, and came up with an initial goal: $18,000. The first $8,000 would go in an emergency fund to be used if I lost my job, and the rest was my trip budget. I don’t know if $10,000 was a realistic budget, and I won’t know until after the trip is over. But it was a goal.

I set up an automatic withdrawal to a high-yield savings account at a different bank. The point was to make this money hard get at and therefore hard to spend. Funding for my trip would be one-way. I lived my life, I went to work, I stopped eating fast food, and before long the fund was growing. I tried out the goal function in Mint to see how much I had to keep putting in each month in order to get to my goal on time. My income kept going up, and my expenses kept going down. As it got easier and easier to put money aside, I raised the goal. And that’s when I started to worry.

My trip fund was becoming a very real and very large sum of money. Could I really waste it all on some idiotic dream of driving around the country? I still hadn’t told anyone about my plans. It wasn’t too late to back down. If I didn’t go, I’d get to keep all of my lovely savings.

But for what?

Savings in junior high and high school was one thing, I had college in my future. But what did I have now? A house? A car? I didn’t want either of those. So what was I saving for? I still couldn’t shake the feeling that spending it would be reckless. It was so much money. It took me so many hours of work to earn it, and so many frugal changes in my lifestyle not to spend it.

So I made a deal with myself. It was an idea the man who would later become my financial advisor gave me: Spend it either way. I didn’t have to go on a road trip if I didn’t feel like it. That was fine. But I didn’t get to keep the money. If I didn’t use it to drive around the United States, I’d have to buy a trip to Europe, or get an over-priced car. I’d have to get rid of it somehow. One way or another, that money would be gone by the end of 2013. I wasn’t allowed to keep it.

Once I got rid of the possibility of saving my savings, I stopped worrying about money for my trip. I no longer thought about how much it would cost, and only about what I could do and see. I upped the automatic withdrawal from my checking account and forgot about it. Money wasn’t the point anymore. And there’s no use in holding on to something pointless.

And now here I am. The emergency fund is well padded and my road trip account is well past my initial guess. There’s no way I’ll be able to spend it all on the drive. Since I told myself if I didn’t go on the trip I still had to spend ALL the money, it’s now cheaper just to do it. I managed to make taking an extended trip around the country appeal to my sense of frugality.

More importantly, I’m starting to learn that the point of saving money is to spend it all later. And for me, that’s the hardest part.

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Promises, Promises or The Problem with Productivity

It’s amazing how much time you can waste reading about productivity.

Like most people, I have a love/hate relationship with Reddit. One of the blogs I follow is The Art of Manliness,which recently suggested that the way to handle Reddit was to subscribe to the subreddits that are geared towards self-improvement, such as the subreddits for losing weight, quitting smoking, or getting motivated. I decided to take the author’s advice, and bookmarked all the subreddits he suggested that seemed applicable to me and my current situation (mostly motivation, organization, and productivity). I figured I’d visit each subreddit individually, scroll through the content, and decide if it was right for me.

After about half an hour on r/productivity, I realized that I was reading all the same advice I’d always heard, all in familiar “I don’t have time for this” list form. Ten Things to Jump Start Your Productivity. Top Five Distractions at Work. Eight Ways to Get Organized. Ad nauseam.

None of it is new, whether the advice is for me as a human or me as a writer. Get up earlier. Turn off the TV. Make lists. Write in the mornings. Eat the same thing every day. Make lists. Use this app for tracking your time. Make lists. Don’t let people interrupt you. Make lists. Quit Facebook. Make lists. Make lists. Make lists.

That fact is, the only times I’ve ever experienced a real surge in productivity is when it feels like it just happens. Suddenly I stop doing whatever was holding me back and start focusing on what matters to me. And when people try to give you advice on how to make this magical moment happen, they generally use some version of the phrase “just start.” To someone having trouble starting, this seems like inane and useless advice. If I could “just start,” I would have done it already.

In pedagogy they warn teachers not to get frustrated when they find themselves saying the same thing over and over and never seeming to get through to their students. I learned about it in relation to dance. You will tell a student over and over to straighten their arm during the musical bridge. Straighten your arm during the bridge. You need to keep your arm straight. Over and over. And then one day, the student will raise his or her hand and ask, as though the topic has never come up before, “Should our arms be straight during the bridge?” And you will sigh and nod. But it is not the student’s fault. It’s a symptom of learning. They were always listening, always paying attention. The student’s brain was just working on all the other elements. Maybe it was the rhythm, or the feet. Maybe they were just trying to memorize the sequence. But now they have mastered those other elements and are ready to straighten their arms.

I wonder if the “just start” philosophy isn’t a different name for the same thing. No one has to convince me that getting up earlier or writing every day are good ideas. I know they are. I’ve been told a hundred times. I know I should just start. I should just do it. Right now. But maybe what holds me back from doing what I want to do is that I am not ready to do it. And more importantly, I might not be in control of my readiness. Being ready might be something so terribly subconscious that I can neither see it coming nor force it to speed up. It may come at me without fanfare, and when I look back I will think that I “just started.”

I called this post “Promises, Promises” because I made a promise when I wrote my first post that even if no one was reading my blog yet, I would update regularly. I would update at least every two weeks, no matter what. But this post is now at least four days behind. So much for promises.

Productivity promises so often leave procrastinatory regrets. It’s the new year, so the idea of making a promise only to disappoint yourself should be fresh in everyone’s mind. So what’s the solution for those wishing to up their productivity? It can’t be to wait for your magical ready moment, as that will quickly turn into an excuse not to try. It’s can’t be to “just start,” because such advice is only useful to those who hear it when they are ready to take it.

So I’m not going to give you any advice. That would go against my fun new theory that the moment a person finally turns the corner and becomes more productive has everything to do with them internally, and little to nothing to do with what they read on the internet. All I can do is wish you luck, and make more promises to myself. One day my promises will stick. One day I will be ready. One day, I will just start.