Thursday, September 2, 2010

Living Happily on a Shoestring: Live Within One's Means

Photo by Bill Adler
by Christine Wilkinson

Just a quick FYI: On September 1st Harris Teeter started Double Coupons (up to $1.98) -- I saved $90.00 yesterday. L.I.G (that's the acronym my daughter gave to all the Life Is Good T-shirts). And now, today's column, Live Within One's Means.

It sounds so simple -- so why isn't it?

The point of this column is how to live frugally but happily. This week's message is less about tips and how-to's; rather, it's about acquiring the mindset and self-discipline needed to truly dig your way out of debt (or better yet, to avoid it completely). It's about finding ways to "need" a whole lot less and give even more. You'll be surprised by the results. When I did so, a kind soul put a chicken in my bank!

I am not Buddhist, but feel I can learn much from its teachings. The first tenet of the Four Noble Truths is that all life is suffering. Life is filled with disease, old age and death. And even when we are happy, others in the world suffer. It's a serious bummer, but hard to dispute. The second Truth is that our suffering comes from our wants and desires. In our consumer-driven, materialistic (oft-times hedonistic) society, we are trained to want so many things (a banana-seat bike springs to mind). My earliest memory of Wanting is how desperately I had to have that cereal prize. I would rip open the box (if I was lucky enough to wake up before my three greedy brothers), tip it on its side, and begin the frantic search. I'd have cereal everywhere (except in my mouth) by the time I'd found it. The joy of getting The Prize was always short-lived. My brothers would be envious (ticked?) and my parents annoyed at the mess I'd made. Today, I honest-to-the-big-guy cannot remember a single one of those prizes.

Wii is my grown-up example. I knew we couldn't afford it, but we often played at a friend's house. For years I had longed for a Wii. Luckily, my father-in-law bought us one last Christmas and for a few days it was pure joy, all we did. But in truth, I rarely touch it anymore. I typically only play when friends are over. My (meandering) point is that we so want something until we have it. Briefly we are sated, but oh-so-quickly a new and equally-dire want appears. I think that's the point: that suffering stems from continuous want. Add credit cards to this recipe and boy-oh-boy, have we got trouble.

From an ancient Buddhist:

The greatest achievement is selflessness.
The greatest worth is self-mastery.
The greatest quality is seeking to serve others.
The greatest precept is continual awareness.
The greatest medicine is the emptiness of everything.
The greatest action is not conforming with the world's ways
The greatest wisdom is seeing through appearances.

I hope I'm not butchering Buddhism, but perhaps the pursuit of material things is not how we derive true and lasting happiness. Our spirits are better filled with serving others and "seeing through appearances."

The third Noble Truth is that we can reduce our suffering by reducing our wants, our desire for material things. My family and I began our journey of radically slashing our spending not as a religious pilgrimage or even based on highfalutin ideology; it was absolutely a save-the-sinking ship move. We simply had to eliminate all non-essential expenditures due to our crushing and cumbersome debt.

It is not easy. It rarely feels noble, but some unexpected joy has come from it. Please see my blog post "Needs vs. Wants". And as always, don't forget to check out your favorite grocery store's specials this week and after you've made your list, go to this site to simply clip and print manufacturer's coupons.:

Please...I would love to hear your stories, opinions, reactions, suggestions, etc. The simplest way is to use the comments section just below my column.


Christine Wilkinson is a veteran middle school teacher, who holds a Master's degree in Education and is currently job hunting. Christine is also a freelance writer who has had articles published in the Raleigh News and Observer and most recently in the Washington Post. She has lived most of her adult life in the DC-Baltimore area, although she recently returned from a three year detour in the South (Raleigh, NC). She is married with a 7-year-old daughter, which prompts her to observe: "While I may be struggling in this economy, I lead a rich life blessed with a great family and amazing friends."


  1. When I was raising a family of 4 children, I used coupons and newspaper ads faithfully each week. I drove from store to store to reap each unique bargain, using my own system to maximize savings (as did my friends).

    Have been an empty nester for quite a while - just 2 of us to feed - and I have fallen far from the careful young woman I once was. What the heck - just 2 of us and money is more plentiful. OR IS IT??

    The paper products, soap and other household items still wear a high markup. And I am paying it through sheer laziness.

    We have a friend (of seemingly unlimited means) whose mantra is: If you watch the pennies, the dollars take care of themselves.

    Thank you, Penny, for a much-needed reminhder.

  2. Wii (sorry for the pun) couldn't agree more. My family's income has been drastically reduced due to unemployment. I visited your blog and am inspired. I hope I can adopt some of your money saving strategies, but you're right that it first starts with a fundamental shift in mindset/priorities.