Regarding the holiday season: I look forward to January. While in recent years, joy over the annual visit by my mom and brother has eclipsed my standard resentment of the Christmas season, this go-round neither can make it and so I feel myself falling back into my usual "Christmas? Ugh" state of mind. What's different this year is how prevalent that feeling appears to be among the rest of the population. Sure, folks are shopping, decorating and partaking in the holiday festivities, but a surprising number of them are simultaneously muttering under their breath about how glad they'll be when it's over. And why? The economy, obv.
Because despite the protests that Christmas isn't all about money, the financial pressures add up. Many of us have to choose between overspending to provide gifts or feeling like losers because we have so little to tuck under the tree. But hey, by the time this edition of the Journal arrives on stands, it really will be almost over, so hooray! Wherever you wound up, the path has now changed to one of recovery. Let's move on to New Year's.
You may be one of those people who doesn't believe in resolutions, but when a person has as many flaws as I do, any opportunity to shed -- or at least attempt to shed -- some of them must be taken. If you find yourself in a similar position, please read on.
What do you want money to mean in your life for 2011? Ideas about money not mattering won't fly. Poverty is not inherently noble. Wondering how you're going to buy groceries and pay off the medical bills is not romantic. Phone calls from student loan debt collectors does not a joyful life make. The goal is to prevent a lack of income from spoiling other areas of your life -- your marriage, your relationship with your children, your ability to connect with friends and otherwise pursue happiness. To do that, you need a fair amount of luck, which will come or not, and an even greater amount of self-discipline. It's contradictory on the surface, but by buckling down and doing the hard work, you actually end up with a lot more freedom. Not taking care of stuff has never led to a more carefree life.
Some problems might be out of your hands. We're living in rather frightening times with regards to job scarcity. Health care reform, improvement that it is, isn't kicking in fast or thoroughly enough. State programs to help low-income families continue to suffer funding cuts or get slashed all together. Whether California itself can be saved from destitution remains to be seen. Some good news: We have a new state senator representing our county and, by all appearances, Senator Noreen Evans is prepared to fight on the side of righteousness (see californiabudget.blogspot.com for a sense of where she's coming from and where she wants to go). We also have the promise of a future improved Open Door clinic network and -- in my experience -- an overall sympathetic clutch of workers motivated to ensure that what safety nets still exist manage to catch those in need. So on the political front, stay informed, advocate for economic fairness and never buy into the mindset that less money equals less worthy.
All of which makes asserting what control you can over your own finances more important. Typically that means save more, spend less -- which can seem impossible if your expenses exceed your income, but let's give it a try. Say just for January. As an experiment. Give all expenditures that aren't vital a pass. Cuddle up with a book (from Humboldt County Library, natch) and a mug of herbal tea instead of going out drinking with friends. Or invite people over and share the cost of a bottle of whiskey, a jar of honey and some lemons. Yes, I'm thinking hot toddies. Yum. Don't get suckered into post-Christmas sales unless you really need a particular essential item: flashlights, shoes, winter coat, soup pot. Try to avoid stores altogether, but if you must go, zip in, get your thing, get out. No browsing! Hit the Grocery Outlet, only buy produce in season and make rice, beans and veggies your go-to meal. Use garlic, chiles and onions in everything: rich flavor on the cheap and good for your immune system, too.
Take a look at your bills. Can anything be reduced? Do you have the smartest cell phone plan? Are you taking advantage of PG&E's CARE program or AT&T's Lifeline option? What's been going unpaid? Can you make a call or six to arrange payments? Insist on keeping them small. Ask for late fees to be cut. If you're ducking bill collectors your credit is already shot, so in a sense, you hold the power because their biggest threat is a moot point. Pretend the hot water and electricity might run out at any moment and use accordingly. Likewise, make the shampoo and laundry detergent stretch. It's the old concept of saving your pennies and the dollars'll take care of themselves. Corny, but true to an extent -- especially if you're the sort of person who runs to Target for dish soap and ends up buying three thermals because they were only $9 each and in such great colors, and, oh, you've been meaning to get a new mop and hey, this might be the one shade of brown eyeliner you don't have -- and if you buy it, you get mascara for half-off, so better throw that in, too ... . Think of the store as an obstacle course of temptation; your survival relies on navigating to your goal without distraction and escaping with only that which you originally intended to buy.
Look -- the stress of looming/unfolding financial disaster weighs a person down like a tenfold increase in gravity. You can only do so much to immediately impact your situation: Behaving in a smarter, more disciplined manner is one step. Try it. Buckle down for January. Let me know how it works.