I’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.