A friend and I were discussing New Year’s plans the other day. She is resolving to get her debt under control and start saving more for retirement and her kids’ college funds.
“I’m cutting life down to the bare bones this year,” she said. “We’re not spending on anything extra until things are under control.”
So I said, “I guess that means you won’t be taking that trip to California you planned for the spring. That’s a shame.”
“Oh, no. We’re still going on that,” she said.
“But you could put that money toward your other goals. The trip’s still far enough off you could get your money back,” I said.
“Well, but we get so little time with the kids that we need that vacation.”
Hmmm, I thought. Keeping expensive vacations isn’t what I consider bare bones living. I was even less certain that this woman had a good plan when she proceeded to detail and justify all kinds of other expenses that they would be keeping. Pay TV (the kids need entertainment and hubby won’t give up sports), Netflix (kids need more entertainment), and pricey cell phone plans (because the kids have to text) were all on the “keep” list.
“But we’re giving up eating out and recreational shopping,” she said, virtuously. “We’re also giving up some of our favorite treat foods and buying as many new clothes.”
I didn’t say it out loud, but the sarcastic part of my brain was thinking, “Lady, this isn’t bare bones living. That’s hardly giving up anything at all.”
But then I thought that maybe “bare bones” is subjective. To me, bare bones living means giving up anything other than absolute necessities (food, shelter, utilities) and then finding ways to cut down spending on the necessities (using coupons at the grocery store, turning the heat up or down, driving less, selling a car if possible, or even trading down to an apartment or lower cost of living area for housing). It doesn’t mean keeping your sports channels and movie subscriptions.
However, people like my friend have a different view of money altogether. She’s been living a high lifestyle for so long that I’m sure her concessions seem like a big deal to her family. They’re probably appalled at giving up new clothes and meals out. These small sacrifices feel like huge losses to them. And, to be fair, for someone who’s been overspending for years those changes are likely to add up to a fair amount of savings. Probably not nearly as much as they need to reach the goals they want to achieve, but it will be something.
I think that defining what it means to live bare bones (for you) can be one of those things that is useful to do before you really reach that point. It’s like knowing what you would do in a financial emergency or severe weather. Knowing what you would drop and strip out of your budget if you had to (and how you would go about making those changes) is a useful, if not fun, thing to think about. If you lose your job or need to save up money, you’d know what you could do to achieve bare bones living.
There may come a point where you don’t get to choose what constitutes bare bones living. My friend can pick and choose right now because her family isn’t in an emergency situation. They have debt and little savings, but they can still meet their obligations. It’s okay for her right now to delude herself into “needing” to keep certain luxuries. If one of them were to lose a job, however, or get sick, they would quickly find out what bare bones really means. That or they would be crushed underneath their debt load.
Of course, you don’t have to lose a job or become disabled to experiment with bare bones living. You can try to go a month without purchasing any extras while saving on your necessities. It gives you a chance to see how you could survive and can be useful for saving up money quickly. At the end of your experiment you may find that there are things you don’t want to add back into your budget. If, for example, you’re fine without pay TV, the don’t add it back in and pocket the savings. Bare bones living isn’t the same for everyone, but it’s one of those concepts that bears some thought before you really need to know what it means to you.
(Photo courtesy of Jeff Kubina)