Enough

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If you follow me on Twitter, you may have noticed me mentioning a monthly bread-making group that I now attend.

My friend, Lynne, introduced me to this. So far, I’ve baked Apple and Rosemary Bread, soft rolls and a quick-to-make type of breakfast bread, courtesy of The Hairy Bikers. To my surprise, I found that the Banbury Guardian has the recipe and method on its website, in case you’re interested.

Bread group protocols

We meet around the kitchen table of our host, Caroline on the 2nd Tuesday of the month.

Normally, in the style of Blue Peter’s, “Here’s one I made earlier,” Caroline has already prepared a batch of the dough whose recipe we are to make. This is so that we can knead it before it goes into the oven. This is especially useful if it’s a dough that requires a long time to prove. While this bakes, we get on with making another batch of dough to take home.

Towards the end of our measuring, mixing and kneading (and chatting), the first batch becomes ready for us to enjoy with lashings of butter (straight from the oven).

More than simply yeast-based recipes

At this gathering of like-minded women, we exchange stories and develop friendships as we enjoy fellowship and fun together. This invariably involves sharing news of our children or reporting updates on ageing parents, but our discussions are also wide-ranging.

What would 2018 hold?

This week, we shared Christmas and New Year’s stories and repudiated the idea of ‘dry January’ in favour of ‘damp January’, as we sampled a bottle of prosecco that my mum had given me at Christmas. Thanks, mum!

During the evening, our thoughts turned to the year ahead. None of us had made a New Year’s Resolution but one of our friends, Ruth, had chosen a word for the year. This is an idea I’m seeing increasingly: the selection of a word or phrase that might epitomise – or help shape – the coming 12 months.

Ruth’s word was simple, but incredibly powerful. It was ‘enough.’

Enough

This really struck me. What an inspiring choice!

There are so many ways we could apply ‘enough’ to our lives, which would ensure we lived a more intentional life.

We think of ‘enough’ when we talk about:

  • enough to eat
  • enough to wear
  • enough to live on
  • enough to get by
  • having done enough to pass
  • ‘enough is enough’
  • doing enough

No doubt you can think of many more examples.

Intentionality around ‘enough’

I got thinking about this and realised that Enough is the title of Patrick Rhone’s book. Have you read it? I haven’t yet, but maybe I should.

I took a look on Amazon. In the foreword to Rhone’s book, James Shelly explains how Rhone finds the middle ground between the absolutes of ‘unbridled consumption’ and ‘monastic luddism’.

Do I already have enough?

Asking, “What do I really need?” or “Do I already have enough?” is a very good way to check our natural impulses, especially when we are considering a purchase (particularly if it means bringing additional stuff into our homes).

If you shop online for food, checking if you already have enough of a particular item in the cupboard is a sure-fire way of helping stick to your budget, whilst ensuring you have what you need to make this week’s recipes. You’ll also avoid unnecessary food waste.

Hankering after the latest gadget? Ask what you really need. So many appliances or electronic devices have far more functionality than any of us actually require. It may be more cost-effective in the long term to buy a better quality appliance with fewer functions (like our Miele washing machine) than a fancy piece of kit with lots of features you’ll never use.

When simplicity is ‘enough’

In The Lord’s Prayer, one of the best-loved and most frequently spoken prayers in the whole world, the only thing we specifically ask to be given is:

Our daily bread

Whilst ‘bread’ may be a proxy for our most fundamental basic needs, the simplicity of this is beautiful. The ‘staff of life’ is all we need to sustain ourselves. Anything beyond that may be a luxury, even excessive. Through this prayer, we don’t ask for riches. We ask for enough.

Minimalism is about removing the excess from our lives and paring down to a more simple, fundamental way of life. Anything that no longer adds value can be eliminated, enabling us to focus on what really matters (spoiler alert: that’s not stuff).

How lovely that it was at a bread-making group that ‘enough’ was the word for the year. It’s certainly something I’ll contemplate as the first month of the year unfolds.


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Why I’m performing plastic surgery on my credit card

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Many years ago, I applied for a credit card that offered 2% cash back on all purchases. That was pretty generous, so you can tell how long ago that was!

Every month, we would use the card for all of our discretionary spending (that is, anything we bought on a week-by-week basis such a food, fuel and so on). We’d pay off the card every month in full. Then, once or twice a year, we’d get a decent cheque in the post with our cash back amount.

As we always paid off the balance in full, the credit card company actually made little money from us directly.

When I’ve used a credit card

I still have a credit card but I don’t use it for everyday purchases. Instead, I have used it for that one-off, occasional or unusual purchase such as our daughter’s prom dress.

However, because of the ease with which one can use a credit card in this way, there’s always a nagging thought in the back of my mind. Every time I do this (even for a relatively modest single item of expenditure), I‘m borrowing against next month’s income.

In effect, I’m creating a shopping hangover.

A change of heart

So, I’ve had a change of heart. The fact of the matter is this. If we’re going to win with money in the long term, this is what I’m going to do.

I’m going to perform plastic surgery on my credit card. Yes, I’m going to cut it into little pieces and throw it away.

Now, some of you still use your credit card in the way I used to. You tell me that you find it easier to track your spending this way (although, for me, I can’t understand this).

For me, it’s crunch time and here’s why.

What the research shows

Research shows that credit cards are ‘friction free.’ That is, handing over a card is less painful psychologically than handing over actual cash. In an article for Psychology Today, Scott Rick explains that people tend to spend more when they use a card than they do when handing over actual cash: “Experimental research….suggests that credit cards can stimulate overspending: People are often willing to pay more for the same product when using credit than when using cash.”

Indeed, Rick cites a range of psychological factors, which compel consumers to use a card over cash.

Even though I don’t put a lot on my card, I know that when I previously experimented by cutting up my card, I definitely spent less money overall.

Business Travel

“But what about business travel?” I hear you ask?

I once attended a work conference, which across the pond in Anaheim, California. I took my credit card for ’emergencies’ and actually ended up having to use it when I found my employer had failed to pre-pay my bill.

At my hotel’s reception desk, ready to check out, but fully expecting my account to have been settled, I learned that the transaction hadn’t gone through. Worse, the time difference between California and England meant that there was no-one in the office back at home to sort it out. I’ll admit that this was a time when I was glad I had my personal credit card.

However, this does not deter me from my plastic surgery. What I’d do in the future is request a corporate card, rather than rely on my own personal card, which required me to claim this expense on my return. No corporate card? No travel!

But a credit card’s for emergencies!

In my last post, I wrote about why I believe we all need an emergency fund.

In fact, a fully funded emergency fund should contain 3-6 months of expenses. So, if we have a fully funded emergency fund, we shouldn’t need to use the ‘shopping hangover’ method to cover unexpected bills.

The post-Christmas hangover

As the nation anticipates its post-Christmas credit card statements, I decided to do some research on card spending. What I learned really shocked me.

The UK’s spending habits

In October 2017, an article in The Independent warned that credit card lending was on the increase, in spite of warnings about the high levels of UK household debt. In the article, journalist Ben Chu cites regulators’ concerns about the extent to which households are turning to credit to finance their consumption.

Indeed, in the previous month, we saw headlines suggesting the UK was experiencing a ‘debt crisis’, as household debt had increased by 7% in the preceding 5 years.

Going slightly further back in time, the sheer volume of annual card sales is revealed in the UK Cards Association’s report of April 2017. I was staggered to read that, in the month of April 2017 alone, 315 million purchases were made on a credit card (up on the previous year’s figures by 41 million transactions). The overall total of money spent on a credit card that month was £16.8 billion (versus £15 billion the previous year).

What the hell were we all buying?

The report shows we’re using credit cards for a whole range of goods and services from food to fuel, with a marked increase in the use of cards (both debit and credit) over cash in these categories.

What if you have to use a card?

If you listen to Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus’ podcast, you’ll have heard them say quite clearly: “If you have to use a card, you can’t afford it.”

In my case, if I decide to use a credit card, I’m swapping convenience for a shopping hangover. And I no longer want to do that.


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Why we all need an emergency fund

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Happy New Year 2018!

January’s blog post theme

During the month of January, I’m going to be thinking about money, as we have set some specific financial goals for our family in 2018.

It follows that my blog posts may follow a bit of a financial theme in this first month of the new year.

Holiday listening

In particular, I’ve been listening to Dave Ramsey’s podcast over the holidays. Ramsey’s consistent, straight-talking and sound advice has benefited thousands of people worldwide and his simple series of Baby Steps has helped his readers, listeners and YouTube watchers get a grip on their finances and – in Ramsey’s words – “Change their family tree.”

Baby Steps

The Baby Steps help break down Ramsey’s plan into manageable chunks and build momentum. Indeed, the small wins that can be achieved early on in the programme through these Baby Steps help psychologically with motivation.

Baby Step 1

The very first of the Baby Steps is to start an emergency fund of $1000 (or, in the case of us Brits, £1000).

This should be done as fast as you can.

If you’re already a seasoned declutterer, you may find this easier than you think. A good rummage through your garage, wardrobe or loft may yield some excess stuff you no longer need, so you may soon be able to pull together the funds to get started.

If, like me, you’ve already learned to let go of stuff, freeing up unwanted items to contribute to this initial £1k may not be too much of a challenge. It may take only the effort of cleaning them up, photographing them, then listing them online on sites such as ‘Things for Sale in Kenilworth’ (our local community site on Facebook) or eBay.

Why Baby Step 1?

Ramsey’s approach is to establish this beginner’s emergency fund so that if you have a genuine and unforeseen expense, you won’t have to go into debt to pay for it. In a later Baby Step (#3), a fully-funded emergency fund of 3-6 months worth of expenses is put in place, but this starter fund is where we begin.

When you need an emergency fund

Between Christmas and New Year, we had a sudden and unwelcome fall of slushy, grey snow. We came down for breakfast the morning after Boxing Day and noticed something was odd about the hedge that usually sits against the wall by the side of our kitchen window. The supports to the hedge had given way in the wind and snow, so the prickly shrub had lowered itself forward over the border, covering all of the smaller plants and herbaceous perennials beneath.

Thankfully, with some significant effort (and 6 hours’ commitment), my lovely husband managed to shore up the woody stems, drill new supports into the wall, and push the hedge back into place.

However, this unexpected job reminded me that we weren’t quite as lucky when the fence blew down.

When the fence blew down

On the other side of the garden, we share a boundary with our next door neighbours.

One very stormy night two or three years ago, our shared fence decided it was no longer fit for purpose, leading to an unexpected but essential replacement. This cost about £375 per family, which our emergency fund was able to cover easily.

The point of this is that, whilst you’re taking steps to get your finances into good shape, the last thing you need is a mini-emergency to set you back.

In 2016, research by the charity Shelter found that 37% of working families in England could not cover housing costs for more than a month in event of job loss. Ramsey’s approach is designed to mitigate against this and putting an emergency fund in place is a first step in the right direction.

Do you have your emergency fund in place?

If you haven’t done so already, I’d encourage you to get your emergency fund in place.

So, when the metaphorical fence blows down, you’ll have the financial resources to deal with it. Plus, there’ll be no call on your emotional reserves either, as you won’t be stressed about how you’re going to pay for it.


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Why setting intentions might be better than making New Year’s Resolutions

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Even before Christmas, social media channels were alive with thoughts of New Year’s Resolutions.

Review of the Year

Certainly, the period between Christmas and New Year is often a good point to kick back, reflect on the past 12 months and anticipate the year to come. And many of us consider the start of a new calendar year a good point to establish new habits, change old ones or strengthen our resolve to achieve particular goals.

Types of New Year’s Resolutions

New Year’s Resolutions tend to fall into a number of discrete categories. Some are about improving physical wellbeing (e.g. to eat more healthily, lose weight, take more exercise or quit smoking). Others are more career-oriented or are about relationships, spirituality or experiences. It’s no accident that post-Christmas advertising space is filled with advertisements for slimming programmes, diet foods or nicotine replacements. We’ve all seen them.

However, the majority of us who set New Year’s Resolutions find it difficult to keep them and, instead of sustaining success, we find that our ‘get up and go’ has soon got up and gone.

When New Year’s Resolutions don’t work

So, what’s to be done?

I’ve been thinking about this for a little while and I reckon there might be a different way. Instead of going all out on a concrete ‘all or nothing’ resolution, I wonder if setting an intention might be a gentler, kinder way to move towards a desired state?

For me, an intention suggests something fluid, dynamic and ongoing, whereas a resolution seems, to me, all or nothing.

Setting an intention

Setting an intention is deliberate, but rather than being a rigid absolute, it’s about moving towards a goal (continually and repeatedly). So, if you falter, you get right back onto whatever it is you’re trying to achieve.

To reduce sugar

For me, I have a sweet tooth and, in theory, love the idea of quitting sugar as a New Year’s Resolution. The trouble is, this can be a very difficult thing to do when social situations throughout the year often revolve around food in the form of sweet treats (mince pie, anyone?).

Instead, I like the idea of setting an intention to reduce my overall sugar intake, rather than eliminating sugar as an absolute goal. So, yesterday, I experimented a little.

It was Boxing Day morning and we had stayed over at my parents’ home, following a lovely day together for Christmas Day. Mum offered croissants for breakfast but, instead of slathering mine with jam, I had a little butter on my pastry along with my decaff’ latte and enjoyed the naturally sweet taste and texture of this holiday treat.

Likewise, following our return home some hours later, we enjoyed a late lunch at The Almanack, one of Kenilworth’s best-loved and much-frequented gastropubs. Normally, I would have ordered dessert after my main course (I normally eschew a starter because they are too filling) but, instead, opted for an espresso macchiato as the ‘full stop’ to a very enjoyable meal. As you can tell, I’m not giving up coffee any time soon!

To get more exercise

Similarly, you might want to take more exercise, but would baulk at resolving to run 10 miles per week by the end of the month. Instead, set an intention to put on your trainers and step outside the door. You don’t have to wait until 1 January either. What happens after that is up to you, but it’s a move in the right direction.

Some people find it easier and more empowering to embark upon a new activity with someone who can act as an accountability partner. For others, thinking about their future self might be enough to motivate themselves towards a healthier, fitter self. Consider – honestly – what might work for you and set an intention to move towards this new goal.

Resolutions come with a health warning

Whatever we decide, we do need to be careful about the goals we pursue.

In the introduction to her book America the Anxious: Why Our Search for Happiness is Driving Us Crazy and How to Find It For Real, Ruth Whippman cites a University of California, Berkeley study in which participants were asked to rate how highly they valued happiness as an explicit goal and also how happy they were with their lives.

As Whippman writes, the ones who rated happiness as a distinct personal ambition were less happy in their lives in general and were more likely to experience symptoms of dissatisfaction and even depression.

This reminds me of Robert Lustig’s most recent book, which I wrote about here. Don’t confuse pleasure with happiness, says Lustig. It’s easy to conflate the two.

My intentions for 2018

So, I’m going to set my intentions around moving towards a small number of achievable goals, rather than proclaiming a New Year’s Resolution on 1 January 2018. Indeed, I like the idea of experimenting and I might well enjoy a few simple living experiments in the coming year.

But don’t forget, it doesn’t have to be complicated. Keep it simple. As Leo Babauta says, “Simplicity boils down to two steps: Identify the essential. Eliminate the rest.” That might help us stay focussed on what’s important.

Happy New Year!


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Christmas commitments

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This Christmas, I will…

Mend a quarrel
Dismiss suspicion
Seek out an old friend
Share good news
Encourage someone
Listen
Apologise if I’ve been wrong
Be patient and understanding
Re-examine my demands on others
Think first of others
Show appreciation
Be kind
Be gentle
Laugh more
Express gratitude
Welcome a stranger
Gladden the heart of a child

(Author Unknown)

Happy Christmas!

Thank you for being a part of my minimalism journey and for all your support and comments during the year. A very happy Christmas and a peaceful New Year 2018. See you on the other side!

Catherine x

The myth of work life balance

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In June, I was invited to lead a session on ‘work life balance’ for the department in which I work. This was prompted by the results of an organisation-wide staff survey, which showed that this theme was something that staff felt was an area for improvement.

It was great to be able to draw on some of the learning I’d done in my own time – as part of my own journey towards greater simplicity – to help others.

This week, I delivered a further session for colleagues in another part of the organisation.

As the lead up to Christmas is a particularly busy time of year, I thought I’d share my insights here. You may not have time to read the whole post now, but why not pick it up over the holidays, as you reflect on the year that’s just gone by?

Work life balance: Myth or Reality?

In this week’s presentation, I began by asserting that the idea of balance is actually somewhat unhelpful. Achieving perfect equilibrium suggests (in fact) stagnation or stasis. It could be argued that if you’re existing in a state of perfect balance, how will you ever move forward?

In our discussion, I drew on the Marcus Buckingham’s 2009 research in which thousands of women* were polled with the following 5 questions:

1.  How often do you get to do things you really like to do?

2.  How often do you find yourself actively looking forward to the day ahead

3.  How often do you get so involved in what you’re doing you lose track of time

4.  How often do you feel invigorated at the end of a long, busy day

5.  How often do you feel an emotional high in your life?

In depth interviews then followed with those who could respond “every day” to four of the five.

The answers

Instead of some magic formulae, the women in Buckingham’s study who were happiest didn’t aim to achieve balance at all. Rather, they intentionally focussed on the areas of their life that mattered most at any particular time.

These women deliberately threw things out of balance, giving whatever needed their attention their full focus. This reminded me of one of Greg McKeown’s key messages in his book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less:

“What’s important now?”

What this means in reality

So, what does this mean in reality?

Think back to a time when you were planning some really important event, such as a wedding, a work event or some other significant occasion. The chances are, you’ll have naturally ’tilted’ towards that particular activity, allowing other things to take a back seat (even if only in your head). This is a perfect example of tilting or ‘leaning in’ to whatever is important in the present moment.

Tilting can work, even on a day-to-day basis. Imagine you’re leaving work to go to two events (one after the other), as I did on Monday evening. This means cutting yourself some slack when it comes to what you’re going to eat when you get home. Here’s where my 5 Ingredients recipes come in.

Perhaps there are times when you’re needed more by family members such as children or elderly parents (or both)? Again, when this happens, you’ll tilt towards family life more during that period, perhaps putting career development aspirations or even work itself on hold. At the very least, you might make ‘work’ less prominent in your life.

Strategies and Mindsets

As the intentional removal of anything that doesn’t add value to your life, minimalism can help this mental shift.

Back in summer 2016, I was working full-time; still running my teenager to school every morning in the car; had significant non-work commitments and was feeling a strong sense of obligation, as I was pulled in all directions.

18 months on, I have significantly simplified my life, which included systematizing how things run at home; decluttering and paring back my personal space; and reconsidering with my family how we wanted to spend our time.

I now enjoy monthly commitments, rather than myriad ones each week. And our teen now gets the bus to and from school (I can’t tell you what a different that has made to my morning commute).

The biggest single benefit?

In my presentation this week, one of the participants asked me what I felt was the biggest single benefit of doing all of this.

My answer was this: adopting a minimalist mindset has enabled me to have a greater amount of flexibility.

In the last month, my family hosted two Chinese homestay students (visiting PhD students from Capital Normal University in Beijing). This enriching experience was really enjoyable and I would never have been able to do this had my weekly routine not changed.

You’d think this would be difficult in the run up to Christmas, but we involved our guests in the small things we enjoyed during the last few weeks and we were all the better for it.

How do you respond to expectations?

One area I brought up in my presentation was a word about how we respond to expectations, both inner and outer.

This key question, as you will be aware, is the focus of Gretchen Rubin’s latest book, The Four Tendencies.

I think this is a very good question to ask when you’re considering the thorny question of work life balance.

To draw on Rubin’s work, I spoke about the four main personality types, which are as follows:

Upholders respond readily to outer and inner expectations.

They find it easy to meet deadlines and, for example, keep New Years resolutions. Task oriented, they like to meet expectations (either their own or those of others). This is great if you need someone who’ll follow the rules. Whilst at times they might be too driven by the ‘gold star’, they find it easy to create and maintain good habits.

Questioners question all expectations; they’ll meet an expectation if they think it makes sense. I have two questioners in my team. They make fantastic colleagues, because their natural curiosity means that you need a clear and strong rationale when explaining something or when asking them to deliver on a particular task.

Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike. Rebels, Rubin says, are motivated by present desire. But they are likely to resist outer expectations. Rebels thrive when they can be disruptive.

Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves.

As the biggest group in Rubin’s study, Obligers are the people who volunteer, who help, and who deliver for others. People pleasers, they inevitably make time for others but not always for themselves. The secret is external accountability; if someone else expects it, they show up. The risk? They feel overwhelmed and may experience ‘Obliger rebellion’.

So, it helps to understand yourself when it comes to your own tendency. Are you more likely to say yes to an external expecatation? If so, how will this impact on your sense of equilibrium?

Take Rubin’s quiz here.

Technology has to come into it

When was the last time you assessed your technology habits, unplugged or a while or allowed your creativity to be ‘jump started’?

In the first podcast of the new season of their By the Book Podcast, Jolenta Greenberg and Kristen Meinzer discussed an interesting book, whose key thesis is that our relationship with distraction is stopping us from living our fullest life.

Bored

In Bored and Brilliant: How time Spent Doing Nothing Changes Everything, Manoush Zomorodi reminds us to “Take a Fake-ation” to give ourselves time away from digital devices.

Here’s where we create space in our lives to enable us to feel less busy, less stressed, less overwhelmed.

A digital detox can be a useful way to help us find a sense of perspective, if not absolute balance. Your best ideas can come to you when you allow your brain a chance to do its own thing.

That said, certain tools can help avoid a sense of overwhelm and I use them frequently. Evernote is my ‘go to’ external brain whilst Producteev helps me remember what I don’t want to forget….

Twitter friends weigh in!

Earlier this week, Twitter friends joined the conversation when I asked, “What’s your trick to ensure work life balance or do you prefer ‘tilting’ and deliberately throwing things off balance?”

Rachel from The Daisy Pages said, “For me it’s spending less money, then I don’t have to work so hard and can spend more time doing things that I really enjoy 😊.”

Shaun replied, “Rationing device use in this 24/7 officeless age!” Good point, Shaun!

Nick suggested that, “… balancing is what you try to do when your work is not compatible with your life.” Uh oh. Recognise that one, anyone?

And Rae (raeritchie.com) provided her perspective that chimed very well with my own thinking. She said, “I think balance is okay if we think about it over a period of time. It’s unlikely to be continually in equilibrium – more shifting between different points.”

What about you?

So, what about you? Do you agree that the idea of work life balance is unhelpful? Or do you try to achieve a sense of equilibrium by closely guarding your time? By saying no? Or by deploying other techniques?

Do let me know by replying to this post, below!

(*On the Buckingham study, I am unclear as to why this study focussed on women only, but I would wager that the very same questions could also be posed to men.)


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The Life Energy Experiment – One Year On

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A little over a year ago, I conducted a simple experiment. The essence of it was simple and you can read my rules here.

The Life Energy Experiment

The experiment invites you to consider how much ‘life energy’ (or time in paid work) you have to devote to pay for something you want to buy?

As Henry David Thoreau put it, “The cost of a thing is the amount of one’s life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long term.”

As a rule of thumb, I used my gross hourly rate, but if you were going to be 100% accurate, you’d use your net hourly rate (less the cost of getting to work and other work-related costs such as clothing). That really focuses the mind.

Some examples

Imagine your gross hourly rate is £10 per hour (for easy maths) and you work a standard 7.5 hour day. I know that’s a simple way to view this, but let’s take it as an example. You can work out your own figures.

See how much of your life you’d have to devote to earning the money needed just to buy the following things:

  • Take-out pizza from Domino’s – £9.99 = 1 hour of your working day and just moments to consume!
  • New (full-price) coat from Zara – £99.99 = 10 hours of effort (so more than the average working day)
  • Your family’s weekly shop from mid-range supermarket – £120 = 12 hours of paid work (or 1.6 days’ effort)
  • A tank of fuel for a small car – £39.50 = 4 hours of work or half a day in the office! I know that I could get a monthly pass for the bus for just £5 more….

What about things you don’t really need?

Once you’ve started viewing your expenditure through the lens of the Life Energy Experiment, you might hesitate a little as your finger lingers over the ‘Buy it Now’ button.

You might look for ways to achieve the same goals (or to get what you’d like) in other ways:

  • Buying second-hand
  • Borrowing
  • Finding a substitute

Think about the Life Energy Experiment

So, think about the Life Energy Experiment as you go about your Christmas shopping this year.

For me, it’s definitely changed the way I view how I shop and what I choose to buy. And, as Amy from More Time Than Money says, there are times when you look at something and can simply proclaim, “This can stay money!”


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