In Pursuit of Zero

We have two kids in college at the moment. One is finishing up, the other is taking off from her first year like a rocket, jumping from Freshman to Junior by way of a full load and a summer semester abroad in Ireland. Having had children early in life by modern metropolitan standards, I didn’t have time or the extra funds to save for college. However, I hold firm to the commitment that my children should not come out of college saddled with debt, so… yours truly is paying for college. As I watch the student debt totals climb, I begin to get uneasy. I know I can pay it off in a reasonable time, but I do not like owing money. The only logical conclusion is to reduce spending in order to funnel more money towards the debt. Hence, “in pursuit of zero.”

Having read up, watched movies, and listened to podcasts on the topic of minimalism, I am wise in the ways. There is a mental shift that has to take place in order to buy less. We get settled into our routines like morning coffee at Dunkin Donuts (yes, this part of America runs on Dunkin), grabbing a bite at the cafe for lunch, or closing out a long work week at happy hour with friends. All of a sudden not doing those things when your income level hasn’t changed feels a bit like punishment. I also find that I tend to buy things whimsically – especially when life isn’t going as expected. Frustrations at work? Oh, I think I’ll work on my upper body and core strength with a new set of gymnastic rings for the garage. To be fair, I do use my new toys. But in reality, I don’t need them.

So it is with essentially no fanfare that this weekend I kick off a fresh pursuit of zero. I’ll start with some analysis of where I’ve been spending my money – this is always a hoot. From there I’ll look for opportunities to reduce subscriptions and then set ground rules for spending like: “No takeout coffee.” Even if I can free up an extra $50 a month to redirect toward paying down debt, I’ll call it a win. While I won’t post exact dollar figures here, I’ll check back in in a future post to report any progress.

On a related note, I find that Cait Flanders’ The Year of Less is the best book on moving toward frugal living. What I thought would be an exercise in throwing stuff out and setting rules about shopping a la Marie Kondo turned into a deep analysis of the factors that drove Cait’s consumerist behavior. While I don’t have much in common with Cait, I applauded her candor and honesty, which inspired me to get out of some of my own mental ruts associated with spending.

Cheers!

Words Are Anchors… Or Only Clouds?

Words matter. We hear it all the time. We experience it all the time. We can be in the midst of a fantastic day and then BOOM, some words happen and we become completely thrown off. Maybe the words were a sharp criticism or back-handed compliment. Maybe they were a flirtation that you never expected. Maybe it was a social media post not necessarily aimed at you, but it hit home so hard that you can’t ignore it. Words anchor us to meaning. If you’re like me, you walk around (or run, or sit Zazen) and ruminate about words from time to time.

In the last few years, I have learned that resilience is perhaps the most valuable skill in my life. Resilience, Emotional Intelligence, grit, mindfulness, whatever we’re calling it this week, is the skillset that we use to bounce back from a setback to be able to focus on what is going on right now.

I mentioned earlier that words anchor us to meaning. To expand on that, think about the words that people have used to describe us or to give us feedback. If you’re like me, at least some of those words have stuck and turned into labels – some good and some bad. But either way, they anchor us and limit our possibilities. I have always been on the thin side with a slight frame, which my family lovingly referred to as “skinny.” Now 40 years later, I still doubt my athletic ability before going out for a long run or a soccer match. Will I be strong enough to compete?

One of the ways I’ve recently been able to build resilience around words is to think of them as clouds. Clouds are amazing. They can be beautiful formations in the sky or a grey blanket between the sun and us terrestrial beings. They can provide life-affirming rain or life-threatening lightening. But as with all of these cases, clouds change. Today’s dreary morning is this evening’s sky-on-fire sunset. Like clouds, words are impermanent. While words may represent “reality” right now and they should be given appropriate attention, the situation can and will change.

Interestingly, I’ve also been thinking about my words; especially, my words for others. Even though I’m building resilience to words by imagining them as wispy clouds moving across the sky, I have to recognize that other people aren’t where I am. So these days, I’m being careful to not anchor anyone with my words. I’m finding that it really doesn’t take that much extra time or care. Instead of, “You always do this,” I’m offering up, “I noticed that this happened when I did X.” I am finding that simple adjustments to my words are enriching my relationships because… words matter.