Grains of Sand

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Often, failure involves a culmination of many small missteps or errors. This can make it easy to not realize you’re on a harmful path until it has built up to a large problem.

Unfortunately, success is also often due to a series of small steps. This makes it difficult to stay the course, and it may take a while before it even becomes clear that you’re on the right track.

Many blogs, books, and public speakers have discussed this conundrum. One of their most common examples is coffee. How much do you pay for coffee? Two dollars a day? Four dollars? More? One could say “Well, I really enjoy having my coffee. It’s worth it to me.” But when you look at it from a bigger perspective, I’m not sure how many people would continue to agree with that sentiment.

For instance, let’s say you spend an average of $4 a day on coffee (or sodas, or snacks, or MP3 downloads, or whatever). Just $4 a day is perfectly innocent, isn’t it? You deserve a bit of fun and a treat, don’t you?

Yes, you do. I’m not trying to shame anyone or make them feel like they need to deprive themselves. But over time, I don’t think most people realize just how significant an impact even such little spending can have.

Say you put this $4 a day into an investment that compounded monthly and gave a 4% average return, and you did this for 10 years. (A rather rosy investment opportunity, granted, but not entirely unreasonable.) This would leave you with over $17,000 in the bank, producing $2,150 a year in cash flow! That’s about $180 a month. Not too shabby for free money.

But what if you did this not for 10, but for 30 years? Then you’ll have nearly $81,500 in the bank, kicking out nearly $400 a month in free money. Plus, if there was an emergency, you’d have $81,500 to draw on.

All from just tucking away $4 a day.

Another example is my habit of browsing bookstores for hours and hours, only to buy one book. Not bad, eh? Or so I tell myself. I feel proud because I’m selective, and spend very little compared to the other people in line with a half dozen junky books I know they’re buying mostly on impulse.

But then….why do I have a pile of over 20 books in my “to read” pile? Scratch that, it’s more like 30. Some of them really excite me (or at least, the idea of them excites me), yet I haven’t gotten around to them and they’ve been in the “to read” pile for years. And each of these cost me perhaps $8-15. Ug.

Back when I had a job (ha ha!), I got into the habit of eating in the work cafeteria. $5 a meal…not bad? Some were $5.40…some $6, some $7…And in one month, my bill was $320. Just for lunch. During weekdays.

Then for dinner, I would stop by Subway for a sandwich maybe once or twice a week. My usual foot-long, chips and a soda? $8.69

But one week, I actually went to the grocery store. On a lark, I calculated the cost of one of my more elaborate dinners that week: 6 oz. lean steak (juicy!), grilled veggies with cracked pepper and butter (savory!), and a glass of pretty decent zinfandel (perfectly tangy!). Total cost for the meal: $3.45

If I had that sort of meal each night instead of Subway, there’s my $4 a day right there. If I actually brought a sandwich or other such thing for my work lunches? Easily another $4.

It’s so easy to think “oh well, it’s just a few dollars”, and get ourselves a book here, a coffee there, a convenient lunch now and again, and so on. But it’s really easy to not realize just how expensive such “inexpensive” things add up to.

Okay, I have no clever wrap-up for this post. Let me just say that the whole “grains of sand” concept applies to many areas of failure and success in life, not just finances. Maybe I’ll explore such things at another time. Or maybe not. :P

Pressured Living

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It’s around 9 or 9:30, Saturday morning. The sun wakes me, I stretch and roll out of bed. Shower, maybe shave, dress, and I’m out the door.

Ah, gotta get some work done at the office, eh? Gotta get caught up?

No.

The absurdity usually hits me 3 or 4 hours later. After I’ve checked my P.O. box, maybe stopped for something to eat, browsed the bookstore, picked up some of this and that at the grocer, and suddenly realize I’m browsing XYZ-mart because…what am I doing again?

Suddenly I realize that I’m just “out and about” not because I really needed to do anything or was out of some essential thing, but rather out of some vague urge to be productive and do stuff.

That’s not always bad, but it is bad if all you wind up doing is shopping and wasting time. Every weekend. And probably every evening, too.

Frugal Abundance

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Unfortunately, many people hear “frugal” or “simple living” or a similar phrase, and they often think “sacrifice” or “wanting”.

But that is not the point. Yes, these sorts of practices can lead to simplified lives which may not contain as much stuff, activities, and so on.

But I don’t primarily see it that way. If cutting costs means denying yourself things, watching your life shrink around you until only bland, uninteresting things are left, then you have a lot to learn about being frugal.

Frugality, to me, is simply about finding more efficient ways of doing things.

Sure, sometimes this means not doing certain things you used to do. But that doesn’t mean you have to throw out everything. For example, some people may say: “I know I spend a lot going out to bars with my friends, but that is a really fun and important part of my life. If I cut back on my drinking, it would be a harsh sacrifice. Why should I put myself though such suffering?”

Well, the fact is you don’t have to put yourself though such suffering. Instead of going to the bar, you can buy some cases of beer and snacks and invite your friends over to watch a game, drink and munch on nachos. Not only will you save a ton of money, and avoid having to go out and fight the crowds, but the experience will be much more friendly and personal.

Love clothes and shoes but spend too much money at the mall? You can have quite an adventure shopping consignment shops and thrift stores, or even browsing Freecycle and Craigslist. Interesting finds will be all the more special and neat when you come across them, and again you’ll save buckets of cash. Does the thought of shopping those “used” sources kinda gross you out? Then chances are, you’ve never even tried it before. Give it a shot. You may be surprised.