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Strategic Scarcity

Landon's Money Musings Newsletter: March 2024

We're now in the dead of winter, a time when the summer seems long ago. When the sun shines on my face, it feels precious.

Lately I've been thinking about the ways scarcity can lend itself to care. My grandmother was a farm girl born in the 30s, and my mother was raised by two school teachers with four kids. I imagine this influenced her tendency to, for example, sew together a bath mat out of an old towel which was probably used for years after being purchased second hand.

Katie and I are relatively lax parents who let our children destroy our things, but occasionally we have to put our foot down when it's something expensive. Now, when Alden doesn't want his little sister Ruth to play with something he loves, he'll say, "Stop! That toy is really expensive!" It's interesting to see him absorb the idea that price is equal to preciousness even without knowing the cost of it.

For adults, the price of goods often stands in for its value to us. Barring a special sentimental value, other goods are as disposable as they are replaceable. You might feel foolish mending a sock that would cost a dollar to buy new. But why?

With a little set up in our budgets, we can make a saved sock feel like a free iPad—a pleasure! A journey to unadulterated joy.

Gaining Awareness

Before we can do anything to modify our sense of reality or our delight in saving a few dollars, we have to have some sense of awareness about our current reality.

Do you feel a sense of abundance when you are shopping? Does that abundance feel like gratitude (warm, uplifting) or like apathy? How aware are you of the cost of things?

Do you have a sense of deprivation in your money? How does that feeling square with relative economic deprivation in your social group, in your area, in your country, or in the world?

When you're not paying attention, does your money tend to disappear or does it pile up? Economic and psychological factors are both at play here. If you make tons of money, it's easier for it to pile up, but it could slip away anyways.

The first step is just to check in with how you're doing. Money can be a difficult topic to think about, and tuning in is important.

Decoupling Income and Spending

If you would like to value the objects in your life more, one thing you can do is to have less money.

What I suggest is instead of spending from your income, pay yourself an allowance. If you're strict about not spending more than this allowance, eventually you'll sort of stop seeing the rest of it as yours.

What I suggest is having a main checking account where income comes in and fixed expenses like rent, utilities, subscriptions come out of. Then, pay yourself an allowance to a second checking account. Use this account for everything else—groceries, clothing, coinsurance, manicures. Finally, use a third account as a sinking fund for large lumpy expenses like travel or car repairs. If you do the credit card for points thing, just assign one card exclusively to each account and pay it off weekly.

A side bonus is that you don't rely on external forces to meter your spending. This is a skill that is useful during retirement, or during unemployment, where spending is paid to yourself from your savings and investments. Making this transition can feel very unnatural to people who have spent their lives trying to save. If you've decoupled income and spending, it may come a little more easily when the time comes.

Once you have this setup rolling, you can change it as you like in order to change the way you feel. As an example, my household decreased our allowance by half and all of a sudden I found myself picking the Christmas turkey clean with my hands and making bone broth.

Conservation and Giving

Sometimes it isn't enough to not want to be wasteful. Sometimes in our culture you have to care about the $10 you saved on buying meat and broth later. It reminds me of a line from Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior where an environmentalist grills a working class woman about reducing her carbon footprint, including the suggestion to fly less. She had never been able to afford to fly once.

To me, it's a two for one deal. You incline yourself to take better care of your things and reduce unnecessary buying, and then you leave more room for giving.

As it is today, environmental impact is not sufficiently reflected in the price of thing, but buying less is still less expensive than buying.

Avoiding Masochism

I want to call out that for some people, masochistic self-deprivation comes very naturally. But you aren't bad, and a budget should not be a punishment. It's simply a cup to hold your water - the structure is there to serve you - it is no kinder to make a cup out of cotton balls.

But if the tone of the voice in your head when you are doing this doesn't sound like a friend, then this is probably not the right approach for you.

You want to center joy and purpose in your financial life. Joy in buying the ingredients, joy in the broth, joy in the gifts left over to share with the earth and those in need.

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