Is This Going to Keep Me Alive?

keep alive

Sometimes people over-complicate personal finance when they are in a crisis. They start trying to figure out what they can cut, yet still maintain a certain level of creature comforts. They start doing all kinds of mathematical gymnastics trying to work out whether they can afford this or that, or if they can cut this but keep that. They start flinging justifications around like Mardi Gras beads. But it really isn’t this difficult. When you are in a financial crisis and the poop has truly hit the fan, there’s only one question you need to answer about any potential purchase, any service you’re debating keeping, or any activity you’re trying to stay involved in. That question is this: Is this [insert purchase, service, activity, item, etc. here] going to keep me alive?

Now, this sounds rather drastic, but it really is this simple. Anything you’re contemplating spending money on should be necessary for keeping you alive. By “alive” I mean sheltered, clothed, fed, sanitary, employed, and kept from freezing to death. And this may mean that these are accomplished at a very basic basic level, not the level to which you are accustomed.

What’s the difference between keeping yourself alive and spending too much? Some examples: You may not be sheltered in a 5,000 square foot house kept at a comfy seventy-five degrees when it’s twenty degrees outside because all of that expense isn’t necessary to keep you alive. You may be sheltered in a one bedroom apartment kept at sixty-three degrees. No, it’s not your ideal, but you aren’t freezing to death and you have a roof over your head. You may not be wearing the designer suits you’re accustomed to. Instead you might be wearing someone’s cast off suit you bought at the thrift store. You might need a car so you can keep your job, but it may not be the brand new model you’ve been driving. It might be used and eight years old. What you need to keep you alive is often much cheaper than what you’ve been paying and you’ll find that many “perks” can go by the wayside.

If you’re dealing with a financial crisis, you don’t ask yourself if you want the item. You don’t ask whether it looks good on you. You don’t ask if you can juggle some other payment so you can afford this other thing. You don’t ask if you’ll be able to afford it in the future, even thought it’s a stretch for now. You don’t ask if someone else has one, or if they think you should get it. You don’t ask if you’ll be sorry later that you didn’t buy it, and you don’t ask if not having the item is going to make anyone unhappy. You simply ask yourself, “Is this going to keep me alive?”

Asking just this one question takes all of the ambiguity out of your purchasing decisions. If you’re wondering if you can continue to pay your mortgage or if you should sell the house, you don’t run hundreds of projections about what “might” happen if things get better by such and such a date and you don’t spend hours gnashing your teeth over it. You just ask, “Is paying my mortgage going to keep me alive?” Most likely the answer is, “No,” because, while you need shelter, you don’t need shelter that you cannot afford to stay alive. You can downsize and still remain sheltered, while giving yourself some room to work through your financial crisis.

Do you need cable? No, it’s not going to keep you alive. Do your kids need to be in three sports this season? No, because it’s not going to keep them alive. Do you need a cell phone? Not unless it’s necessary to keep you employed, and then you only get the bare minimum needed to keep your job. Do you need new clothes? Again, only if it’s necessary to keep you employed, decent, or warm, and then you only buy the bare minimum needed to meet those needs and you buy them at the lowest price possible, whether that’s at thrift stores or from discounters. Do you need to eat out? Not unless it’s your only way to get the food you need to stay alive.

One simple question is all you need to take a lot of the stress out of a financial crisis. Sure, it’s still going to be hard to get out of the mess you’re in, but when you stop trying to justify your wants and you stop trying to make too little money cover too many wants and inflated needs, life gets remarkably easier. You free your brain up to do the more productive work of figuring out exactly how to get out of the financial mess you’re in and you see reality much more clearly. When times get better you can start asking yourself some other questions about your purchases, but in the middle of a crisis, you only need to ask, “Is this going to keep me alive?” and answer it honestly with a simple yes or no answer.

(Photo courtesy of James Willamor)

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4 Responses to Is This Going to Keep Me Alive?

  1. greenday says:

    I have a hard understanding how people are able to delude themselves into thinking that everything is a necessity. I have a number of acquaintances that do this. car with all the extras? Necessity. Yearly vacation? Necessity. I just don’t understand this way of thinking.

  2. Miz Pat says:

    This is an excellent reminder of the basics in a frugal lifestyle.

    Your first goal is always survival. It takes a lot of the stress off knowing that.

  3. Minny says:

    My grandmother brought me up and she had been widowed in 1926 as a young woman with four children from ten years to eighteen months old. Small widows pension was all she had and that did not cover the rent. She did lots of things to earn money and the children had to help with the two youngest 18 months and 3 years having to help push the cart used to take washing to and from customers. She knew what kept them alive and what didn’t was a luxury.

    They family lived on starch, vegetables and tiny amounts of meat. No phone, no wireless, only heating a coal fire in one room when it was really cold. When my aunts talked about this time they were not miserable children, two lived to mid 80s and one is still alive in her 90s. The son died at 19 after a motorbike accident.

    Not an uncommon story for anyone living in the 1920s, 30s, 40s and here in the UK the 50s as well. What is a necessity and what a want has become blurred by the feelings of entitlement people have.

    Ramble, ramble – sorry!

  4. Gailete says:

    Cable TV is the thing that people seem to cling to the most and I don’t know why. When I hear women talking that they can’t cut the cable as that is the only relaxation hubby gets, it makes you wonder if getting rid of it won’t help him relax a little more knowing that more is going towards the bills. There are so many ways to keep active and have things to do, and if you are that poor, it means you need to do your own gardening and house cleaning. I’ve never been quite sure what got the notion in many guys heads that as long as they work 8 hours a day, they can sit on their butts while wife who also worked 8 hours, does the cooking, cleaning and childcare.

    When a family is facing financial ruin, the whole family needs to pitch in and help, but lately it seems that families try to protect their children from knowing just how bad it is. Well kids are usually smart enough to figure out that something bad is going on, give them a chance to understand and contribute ideas and help. My son taped that show Downsized from a couple of years ago. The family was flat broke and yet the wife didn’t want her girl to have to give up cheerleading. Then they try to figure out how to be able to afford it and instead of putting that money into the general fund it goes into a want category. Kids don’t die if they don’t get to go to cheer practice – I know I didn’t and I’m still alive and kicking! In that show the woman was the absolute worse money manager I had ever seen. It was like she just didn’t get it and lived like some how things would always work out.

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