One of my goals for 2009 is learning to live with less. Tom has charged me with figuring out some way to save $1000 a month. He is naturally very pessimistic, since we routinely have nothing left over at the end of the month. For the most part, we don't know what we're doing wrong. We're hardly living high on the hog. Our most pervasive and obvious waste of money is the $3-4oo dollars we spend eating out every month. But surely, there are other less-obvious ways to cut costs.
Every time I think about the budget, I'm reminded of the Shaker song, "Simple Gifts." The words are, 'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free, 'Tis the gift to come down where you ought to be...'
As a budding linguist, I have to point out that Elder Joseph (the song's author) did not say, "It's a gift to be simple" but "it's the gift." This implies that simplicity is the only gift, or perhaps, the only good option.
The dictionary says that simplicity means:
The property, condition, or quality of being simple or uncombined. Absence of luxury or showiness; plainness. Absence of affectation or pretense.
And Elder Joseph says that in order to attain simplicity, we must "come down where you ought to be." This makes sense to me. As a society, I think we all overestimate our needs. Figuratively, we put our needs above all else. Bills hang over our heads. Then we get in over our heads until we've had it up to here. To extend the metaphor even further, we're literally drowning in our own needs as they overcome us. To get to where we need to be, we need to limit our needs to what is manageable.
I think we all hunger for a simple life, but life is complicated, and what is simple isn't neccessarily easy. For example, convenience food. We buy it to uncomplicate our lives. But we end up paying more for it, and since it is so thoroughly processed, it lacks the nutrition found in regular food. I have tried to save money buying groceries every way under the sun. I really thought I was on to something when I started clipping coupons, but I found myself buying almost nothing but convenience foods. For a while there, we were living on .99 cent pizzas and sugar free kool-aid, all in the name of simplifying our lives. Sure it was cheap and easy in the short term, but in the long term, what would it have done to our health?
I have a new attitude about food now. I'm going to go back to cooking from scratch. It's more time-consuming, but it's also less expensive and better for us. I made a luscious cheesy potato broccoli and ham soup in the crockpot, and a loaf of fresh-from-the-breadmaker oatmeal bread last night. We ate like kings for very little money, everyone had seconds, and there was still enough left over to have another meal of bread and soup for lunch today. And after one trip to the grocery store, I still have enough ingredients left over to make the meal again.
As far as buying what we need, I think it's important to make a distinction between need and "need." We say "Oh, I need this," a lot. But in truth, a lot of the stuff we buy that we don't need falls into one of three categories. 1) Something that we buy thinking it will make our lives more simple. 2) Something we buy because it's very cheap and we think "I might need this someday. I might as well get it now, just in case." And 3) Buying stuff that makes us feel better in the short term. The only things we really need are the things that keep us alive. Food, basic clothing, shelter, that sort of thing. My new mantra is "Will we literally die without this?" If we won't, it won't get bought.
This isn't going to be easy, obviously. I'm going to resent going without when everyone else I know is able to spend fairly freely. I will probably wonder if it's really worth it, too.
But as the song continues, 'When true simplicity is gain'd, To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd...'
Bowing and bending indeed. It's going to be a struggle to change our spending so totally, but we can put this money to a better use. And Elder Joseph is right. That is nothing to be ashamed of. It is my hope that along the way, we'll discover that our needs are truly simple indeed.