There was a time when I lived on an austerity budget.
I had to put the tissues back. I was checking out at the grocery store and slowly watching the numbers go up and up. Unfortunately, the tissues were above my budget. I reluctantly took them off and paid for the rest of the stuff. Bread, cucumbers, milk. That was it.
I walked home feeling upset and discouraged. It was a few months into my unemployment and money was getting tighter by the minute. Tissues were as unaffordable for me as a new car at that point.
Fast forward to a few months later, I had a job. An income. I was watching the numbers on the checkout with a little smile. There was no need to take anything off. Walking home with tissues AND yogurt, I felt like the richest person in the world. Buying tissues felt luxurious and decadent.
Before I had lost my job I had never considered myself lucky to be able to buy tissues. After all, tissues are a “basic need”. It was something you bought and that was that. I never felt grateful or lucky to have those types of things. After that experience, I started having a new appreciation for all the things I had to do without.
I am not a big fan of no-spend diets. I don’t think they are an effective tool in changing your behavior. But I do think going on an austerity budget can be useful for a few reasons. Not to change your behavior but to change your feelings towards the object we buy and the things we classify as a need.
I am always terrified about losing my job and being without again. That is probably why I am so into personal finance and what drives my naturally frugal streak. It’s also why I am very motivated to build a decent-sized emergency fund.
Knowing What you Can Live Without
One thing that calms me down is knowing that I have managed to live on a lot less than I do now and I can live on less in the future. I know that a lot of the things I now consider “needs” are not really “needs”. Of course, one cannot live on air and there comes a point where you can’t cut down any further that you cut.
This is especially true when you live a naturally frugal lifestyle, to begin with. But… it does help to acknowledge that we are very lucky in a lot of aspects- even more, than we think we are.
When you have something every day you start to take it for granted. You start to think you can’t live without it. You start to think that you will go crazy without it. I can never live without good coffee, you declare, knowing full well that, in fact, you actually can live without good coffee. You cannot live without food, you cannot live without clothes, you cannot live without a drink but you can live without good coffee.
There is nothing wrong with spending money on good coffee. We do not need to live our lives depriving ourselves of things we can afford. We do not need to live like we are destitute if we are not destitute. Even if we are destitute, it is ok to use the resources available to us (like government help or credit cards) to treat ourselves to little treats that make life easier for us.
Knowing your Needs vs Wants
I do think that there is a value in understanding where the lines between needs and wants are. Why? For the simple reason that you will enjoy them more. A good cup of coffee is just a good cup of coffee. But a good cup of coffee that you recognize is an extra- that tastes so much better. Gratitude allows us to appreciate what we are given.
Walking home from the store with tissues was one of the best experiences in my life. I felt so happy, so joyful, so free! It was like winning the lottery. I don’t get so excited every time I buy a package of tissues anymore. I have gotten used to it. It has since been relegated as a “need” again.
But every so often I like to stop while I am checking out at the store and remind myself that this wasn’t always possible. That this isn’t possible for so many people. Feeding your family without having to go into debt is a huge privilege and blessing. Living on an austerity budget is not a choice for many. It is their reality.
I have a challenge for you: try an austerity budget.
Try going on an austerity budget. Maybe just for a day, maybe a week. Not because it will save you money. Not because buying things is bad. Not because you are not allowed to enjoy things. Because when you add these things back into your life you will have such a new appreciation for it. It will make you skip and dance for joy to sip your good coffee again.
In times when we are all fearful of the future, fearful for our livelihoods- whether you have lost your job or are afraid that you might- it’s important to take a step back and look at all the good we have in our lives. Look at all the things we have. I tell my kids: we have everything we need and a lot of what we want. This is true.
We have an apartment (even if it is small), we have food (even if we can’t buy kosher frozen broccoli or fancy meat), we have clothes (even if it was bought from a cheap store), we have what we need. We even have so many of our wants! We have books, we have games, we have treats and candy, we have toys, we have phones and computers and fun linen! We have so much of what we want and for that, we have to be extremely grateful.