On Spending Money

CalvinI’ve been reading Rod Dreher’s post over at The American Conservative tonight, about how too many Americans are in debt. And I’ve been scrolling through the comments, reading how people have warded off poverty by driving cheap cars and using cheap phones.

This way of living makes sense to me. My parents raised me to avoid debt, and I do. I work really hard every month to keep my expenses low. I pay for all my food in cash, for instance, so I’m not tempted to do that thing where I go, Let’s pick up three more cartons of yogurt because I’m about to run out, and oh! the raspberries are in season and so I should get those too, and let me stock up on my mints and gum, too. When I’m literally running out of cash, it’s hard to justify those expenses.

But at the same time, the comments make me wonder about whether saving every dime, every nickel, every penny (the way that some people imply they do) is really the best course of action, even for someone who’s not rich.

I’m not rich. I’m not going into the details of my financial situation online, but suffice it to say, I don’t feel financially stable at all.

And yet, I’m not saving every penny I could. I don’t subscribe to Netflix, or Amazon Prime, but I do have some expenses I could, if I really had to, do without:

I pay for internet at home. This costs me nearly $60/month.

I knit, and so every month I spend money on yarn – good yarn, because I’ve used the cheap stuff, and it’s not worth the plastic bag I carry it out to the car in. I recently made a child’s blanket: a project which took four weeks and cost around $40, maybe a little more.

I run. Running itself is free, but the shoes cost money: $120 every six months. And last weekend I spent $50 for arch supports to protect my knees. I’ll enter some races this summer, which can cost between $30 for a 5K and $100 for a half marathon.

I want to go on a trip this summer, maybe some solo camping in the Southwest (I’m dreaming, okay?). Getting out of my current city is good for my mental health, but that too will cost money: several hundred dollars in fuel costs, plus some in equipment and food.

I could cut all of this out and save more, hundreds of dollars a year. I don’t have to knit. I don’t have to run. I could not take a trip.

Is it wrong for me to spend money on these expenses, when I could be saving the money for a rainy day?

But my life is much more interesting and richer because of these expenses.

When I have Internet at home, I feel relaxed enough to do things like post on my blog. I write emails to my friends and take the time to comment thoughtfully on student writing.

When I knit and run, I am a better developed person. If I did not do these things, my life would be flat. Actually, I remember a time when I didn’t do these things, and I think I spent a good chunk of my time playing Minesweeper. Especially since I’m single, having hobbies means I use my time better.

Look, the Internet tells us to “buy experiences, not things” – and I think that the world tries to sell us not only consumerism packaged as having more things, like fancy clothes or brand-new dishes and furniture, but also consumerism doing lots of things, being on the move, having adventures. And it’s important to resist the world’s message.

But I also want to take care that I do not fall prey to the world’s other message, that we need to put a great deal of effort into building up a substantial bank account, lots of retirement savings.

Retirement savings are good (I need to get some.) But the truth is, we’re not guaranteed twenty years to slowly use those savings, and there’s danger in making life miserable now in hopes of an uncertain payoff in forty years.

Virtue, Aristotle taught, was a balance between two extremes. In this case, there’s the extreme of spending too much, but also the extreme of spending too little, being so miserly that life is neither interesting nor sweet, but flat.

I don’t really have a conclusion, just this thought: that while cutting expenses and living carefully is important, perhaps some expenses, even apparently frivolous ones, should be kept.



In Praise of Inefficiency

Yesterday I ran out of papers to grade.IMGP7017

No fear, I’ll have at least twenty again by Monday at the latest.

But for today at least, caught up on grading and even on lesson planning, I found myself at loose ends, professionally speaking. What to do?

Ostensibly, I had a to-do list. On it were things like “return student papers” and “plan online composition course”. And ostensibly, I followed that to-do list. I headed down to the library with an armful of student papers to return, and I checked out a few books and send off some emails relating to planning an online composition course.

But I kept getting distracted. 

Without the pressure of getting my grading done, so I could buckle down to lesson planning, there was no pressure to get stuff ticked off my to-do list, and my tasks spiraled into much larger projects than they otherwise would be.

En route to return student papers, I ran into my colleague Steve in the library and picked his brain about how parents regulate (or don’t regulate) their children’s technology usage. (I’d been thinking about it since reading this post by Rod Dreher yesterday). We talked for fifteen or twenty minutes.

And in my office, working on an online version of college writing, all I really wanted to do was find a good resource for teaching students to structure persuasive writing. But there too the task spiraled outward, covering much larger territory. I talked books and pedagogy with a colleague across the hall. I read a variety of writing-related essays on the Internet, including a description of a course on personal essays, a Q&A approach to using sources, and the helpful and hilarious “How to Say Nothing in 500 Words.” I made no discernible progress on the online course. I got nothing ticked off my to-do list. In fact, I added a few things.

So no, I was not efficient today. Nor was I productive.

But being productive and efficient is not, or at least not always, the same thing as spending time well.

We modern Americans, immersed in a world of big data, like to think that only when we produce something that can be quantitatively measured are we doing worthwhile work. And of course, the more of this measurable work we do, the more efficient we are, and the better workers we are.

But good work doesn’t always work that way. A student who writes a ten page paper overnight is very productive and efficient, true. But his paper may not be as good as the six page one that was written over a period of two weeks. (I speak from experience here.)

Not all work can be quantitatively measured. Nor does getting a lot of work done in a short period of time always guarantee that we are doing work well.

Some work needs to be done slowly. Sometimes the things which make us inefficient, which cause us to dawdle and dally, actually make us better workers.

I have friends in graduate school who tell me that when they are trying to grade student papers or plan lessons, they are frequently distracted by interesting conversations with their friends. But surely the richness and depth of those conversations nourish in my friend a rich thought life, the kind that contributes to a much more enriching class for her students.

I just finished reading Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. There, he writes that the best soil for growing fruits and vegetables is that which has been nourished by long, attentive care. Dumping some nitrogen fertilizer on sandy soil will not produce nearly the rich food that spending years spreading animal waste, rotating plants, and careful tilling  does. The natural method is longer, but the natural method results in much sweeter corn and juicer tomatoes.

The same with work. We Americans tend to honor work accomplished the nitrogen fertilizer way: Swig some coffee or Red Bull, power through a couple hours of work, and turn in as much final product, whether that be veggies or research papers, as you possibly can.

But the quality will always, always be better if we spend time over our work.

This is not to say that we should never work quickly. Sometimes working quickly is necessary, and indeed, at some point in the near future, I’m going to need to stop all the distracted reading and research that I’m doing for my online course and actually plan the dang thing.

But nor is good work always done quickly, and sometimes even the things which do not seem directly relevant to our project wind up being nourishing in the end. I did not intend to quote The Omnivore’s Dilemma in this blog post; I just read the book, and now my knowledge of it permits me an illustration which makes the blog post (hopefully) richer.

All I’m trying to say here is that sometimes we (or at least I) can feel guilty for not ticking enough items off my to-do list, or for making slow progress. Without items ticked off my to-do list, how do I know that I’m actually worth something? And so to me, or to people like me, I remember that while our culture teaches us that fast and efficient are better, slow work is better nourished, and much richer.