Before Christmas I enjoyed a lovely evening sitting at an upper end seafood restaurant in Canberra’s swanky new foreshore and marina area, where I enjoyed a seven course chef’s selection with matching wines and gins. It was a beautiful, mild summer evening. Mr Red Sports Car and I were happy and relaxed, enjoying the textures and tastes of each new dish that was presented to us. People at nearby tables were celebrating. It was a happy moment – La Dolce Vita, the sweet life. Yet I feel a bit guilty in admitting I was there.
As a frugalista, I am committed to living on less. And I espouse a low cost lifestyle. So what was I doing swanning around at an expensive restaurant?
Well, for one because I love food and I like eating out. (And I especially liked this restaurant.) I aspire to be the best food reviewer in Australia. On this occasion, my restaurant visit was at the invitation of the restaurant – and yes, there is no such thing as a free lunch (or dinner). That said, I would not have accepted this invitation if I didn’t believe it would be good (and it was). Mr Red Sports Car also likes fine dining and enjoys taking me out. Not all the time: I am not using him for a free meal, either, and these days we more usually enjoy leisurely meals cooking together.
The fine dining scene also affords me inspiration for frugal home cooking and $5 Friday ideas. Some of the best chefs in the world have been inspired by their mothers, and their mothers often had to make something special out of next to nothing. Just because something is cheap doesn’t mean it is bad. Eating local and in season using quality non-processed ingredients is often much nicer in any case than an expensive meal that uses luxurious ingredients carelessly. And homemade is made with love. An example in point is candied orange peel – homemade for 50c or less, this is far and away nicer than the citrus rind found in a lot of those sub par dried fruit mixes you can buy.
But there is a fundamental issue here: the whole point of achieving financial security is so that you can enjoy a good life. Otherwise money is just numbers on a bank account.
I am not saying go out and live a hedonistic life, spending as if there is no tomorrow. You might aspire to die penniless and beyond your means in a foreign hotel as Oscar Wilde did. But for me I want to sleep well at night with the financial security of knowing I can afford to feed, house and educate my kids. And also pay for braces if they need them one day. I want to feel secure knowing that if my job, which I love, suddenly disappeared from under me that I will survive and flourish. I want to feel happy each time I pay my bills because I know I have money to afford them. I don’t want to have to worry about credit card companies calling me at work (I took one of these phone messages for a work colleague years ago and her embarrassed reaction will stay with me for life). And more importantly, I want to be able to have the resources to follow my dreams.
I have a friend who loves Disneyland. LOVES it. After a year of intense saving, she and her two adult daughters spent a special Disneyland holiday in the US. Her daughter has now been accepted to study there. I’m not that into Disneyland myself, but that’s not the point. It is her dream, it is her priority. If that is what she wants, and if she is living her dream, I couldn’t be happier for her.
In the frugalista world, there are many who advocate a Spartan life, of saving nearly all of your money in pursuit of a better tomorrow. To be able to retire early, even if it means working long hours now in a job you hate. But what if you die suddenly tomorrow? Car accidents, earthquakes, tsunamis, heart attacks in the middle of the night. It is a sad fact that it happens. Would you have regrets that you have not lived the life that you want to now.
My ex husband and I had ten properties. We were both on modest public servant incomes (except for a time when I was the only one working). We made sacrifices to do this and we were always saving for tomorrow. We always made our repayments – just – but it was stressful. Not long before we separated, I asked him – why? Why are we doing this? Why are we putting ourselves through so much stress? He looked at me bewildered, because in his family culture (and being a migrant) it is all about working hard, making sacrifices for the sake of the children, and setting up the next generation so that they don’t need to “eat bitterness”. The parents deny themselves only to hand it to their kids on a platter. Being Australian and of a different mindset, I disagreed with this. I don’t want my kids to feel like they owe me something, and I would much rather teach them how money, savings and investment works than just give them things they will not necessarily appreciate. And I also believe that my greatest gift to them is having a mother who is happy.
I talk about mindfulness frugality here. Mindfulness gets bandied about a lot, often by marketing agencies trying to sell things. But really it means being conscious in the moment. So the aim with mindful frugality is to make the right, balanced decisions about what you want to do with your money in the present moment. To strike a balance between enjoying the sweet moments of life, like special seafood dates with matching gin and wines, with achieving your longer term financial goals, i.e. paying off your mortgage and being debt free.
How to achieve these things? Well the answer is in that dirty word that makes people cringe called a budget. Really this is just about setting priorties. But it is sensitive for many people because it requires taking responsibility for the present, to look deeply at where your money is going versus where you would like it to go. And then to be mindful about where the money is actually going. Because really in the end every dollar does count.
So can you have your seafood and eat it, too? Absolutely. Enjoying the sweet life is all about balance and priorities.