Be thankful for the present amid planning the future
In 2008, I decided to travel to Europe. I'd never been, and I was just about to make a big change in my career, so the opportunity might not present itself for a while. Thanksgiving fell near the end of my trip, when I was beginning to feel homesick. While eating Moussaka on a patio in Santorini, I missed my family dearly; it was my first Thanksgiving away from home. I pictured the scene at my aunt and uncle's: the turkey on the table, the boys playing video games, my dad and Uncle Danny politely debating politics, the way they do every year.
An American couple at the table next to me wished me a happy holiday as they got up to leave. I choked up a bit, realizing that I'd taken for granted the wonderful Thanksgivings with my family in the past. For the rest of my meal, I reminisced and reminded myself to be thankful for those traditions in the future. It was a great epiphany, except for one thing:
I was completely taking for granted the fact that I was having Thanksgiving in freakin' Greece!
The other day, I saw an Internet eCard that said our brain spends 70 percent of its time either thinking about the past or daydreaming about something that hasn't happened. While I don't know if that's based on anything remotely scientific, it makes a good point — we spend way too much time not enjoying where we are now, at this moment.
I'm incredibly guilty of this, and I think frugal people often are. We're always planning, saving and working toward something. We're prepared for the future, and we value our past mistakes. It's a great mind-set to have, but that same mind-set often keeps me from enjoying the present.
For example, earlier this year, I got a significant raise. Immediately upon receiving this news, I thought, “OK, what do I need? How much should I put into my emergency fund, and how much should I spend on things that I want?” Whether it was saving or spending, my reaction wasn't a sense of contentment with the fact that I was now better able to sustain the life I have; rather, it was a question of how could I improve my life. I'm obsessed with constantly improving, which I don't necessarily think is a bad thing, but sometimes it keeps me from realizing that great things are happening now — like having lunch in Greece.
An aversion to instant gratification
Like most frugal people, I'm anti-instant gratification. You're here, reading Get Rich Slowly, so I'm sure you can relate. I learned about instant gratification at a young age; my parents were very much against it, and they taught me that it's not an option.
As an adult, even if I have the money to buy something I really want, I feel guilty if I don't scrimp, save and wait to buy it. I have an aversion to instant gratification. But it seems like I've gone to the other extreme — I often deprive myself of the things I want for no other reason than to deprive myself. I feel as though I need to pay my dues when the dues are often non-existent.
My computer, for example, is on its last leg. I have enough money to buy a new one, and a new one would make my day-to-day a lot easier (it's already crashed twice this morning). But I've been putting it off, and it's only because I can't imagine the thought of plopping down several hundred bucks without any sort of sacrifice or restraint.
I suppose it comes from a good, frugal-minded place, but it's silly. I should just buy the darn thing and be thankful that I'm in a position to buy a new computer when I need one. But my aversion to instant gratification keeps me from making my life right now easier.
Money represents the future
Whether it's about paying off debt or saving for retirement, money often seems to be a way to gauge the future. My life milestones are almost not measured in years but in how much I have in my savings account.
For example, I recently used my money-tracking program to set up a retirement goal. It asked me at what age I want to retire. Sixty-five, I decided. It then asked me how much I'd like to save each month. I put in that amount, and — lo and behold — it looks like I won't be retiring until 80. My life goals are determined by money, not time; my plans are determined by how much I have saved. But that's just the way it goes.
So it's only natural that those of us interested in making the most of our money are obsessed with the future. And again, that's not a bad thing — you have to plan! But my to-do list essentially runs my life. My mind is constantly thinking in terms of this list. But lately, I've been asking myself: If I'm constantly planning for the future, how often am I appreciating the present?
Family over airline fees
I've been juggling these thoughts for the past couple of weeks, contemplating what I would write about for Thanksgiving. Also within the past couple of weeks, I made plans to fly back to Texas to join my family for the holiday. My boyfriend and I will be separated for Thanksgiving, but I planned to return on Friday and join his family for the rest of the holiday weekend here in Los Angeles.
Well, long story short, a change of plans meant they would be spending the holiday in a different city. My boyfriend asked if I could change my return flight; unfortunately, that meant a costly fee from the airline. After deliberating over the stupid fee and receiving some warm convincing from his family, I decided to just bite the bullet and pay it.
I hate paying fees. And I'd been stewing over it for the past few days, when, outlining this article, I remembered — I should be thankful for what I have right now. I'm lucky to have two families to spend Thanksgiving with. Sure, that fee threw off my budget a bit, but the decision has been made. If I'm still stewing on it, then I'm getting gouged on more than just an airline fee. The more time I spend stewing, the less time I spend enjoying my favorite season and my favorite holiday.
So I've decided I'm letting it go. The definition of frugality says it's about avoiding waste, and I can't think of anything more wasteful than stewing over the past. By the time this gets posted, I'll likely be doing one of a number of things: laughing with my brother, making pumpkin pie with my parents, or having a glass of wine with my boyfriend and his lovely family.
Whatever it is I'm doing, I'll be making an extra effort to enjoy, savor and truly be thankful for the moment.