The Author

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I am a high school English teacher, and mother of two charming little ones of my own. I teach in a high poverty urban charter school, while I live in a typical American suburb that has frequently been rated one of the safest cities in the country. It is a paradox I struggle with constantly, but it is my life.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

2013: Journeying along the road to freedom

At the end of last year, as I did the usual retrospective and introspection that most of us do going into a new year, I pondered a question that was posed in a TED Talk.  The speaker, a young man named Adam Baker, asked...

What does freedom mean to you?

This really had an impact on me because, for some reason, I really did not feel free.

Why?  Well, because I felt like so much of my "free" time was spent tidying up stuff (or feeling guilty about not tidying up stuff) or digging through piles of stuff to find something I needed or wanted.  Plus, I felt like I wasn't and would never be free to do things I want to do -- like travel or go see more live theatre -- because we financially just couldn't afford it.  Too much debt. Too many bills. Not enough cash.

Baker's talk inspired me to make my 2013 goal to collect experiences, not stuff. I realized that meaningful, interesting experiences are what I want in life, and that, if we worked at it hard, we could achieve that.

So... how's it going?  Well! Very well! In 2013, we....

  • Cut our credit card debt in half
  • Began paying down my student loans
  • Bought very, very few new things
  • Sold hundreds (maybe thousands) of items we own
  • Donated several boxes of clothes and toys to charity
  • Became significantly more organized
  • Spent an average of $485 LESS per month than we did in 2012. 

Even though we spent less, we had a lot of amazing experience, which was exactly what I had aimed for, and there have been so many wonderful benefits.  I feel less stressed than I did a year ago, for certain.  In addition, my house is tidier on average and is easier for me to tidy up.  My mom does a lot of this for us, because she is our full-time nanny, but even she has noticed that things have been better.  It used to be that when she came back from a break (being a teacher, I have several of these), she expected things to be messy, but now I find that I can keep up with the cleaning up on my own. I'm not overwhelmed like I used to be.  I spend so much less time looking for stuff I need because there is just less stuff overall and it is so much better organized.  It feels really, really, really insanely good.

How did we sell all of this stuff?  Amazon, eBay, Craigslist, and Facebook.  It takes work, but it is worth it.  It also can't be done in one shot. I have found that mentally the mind just can't go there, even when that mind is determined to sell half of what you own (I don't know that we quite got to half -- maybe 25%).  So you go in rounds. I would typically do a room at a time and fill a box with "sell" stuff and list it.  When most of that box sells, I move on to a new room and fill the box again. Now, a year into this, I have been through most of our rooms multiple times.  You'd think there would be nothing left to sell. Admittedly, it involves more searching now and more thought as the obvious stuff is gone already, but I am still finding stuff to sell on the second and third round through each room.

There are some tough decisions in there, and there is emotion attached.  Like the bike that both my kids loved as toddlers.  Even though T still rides the toddler bike when its out and she sees it, she has a brand new big girl bike that she is really good at riding. She doesn't need the toddler bike, so its time to go, but my memories of it make it hard to put a price tag on (especially because I know it is weathered and worn and will not fetch what I wish it was worth).  Even the never used stuff has emotional ties. I remember looking at an opened toy from last Christmas. I had a heart full of loving intentions when I bought it. I thought it would bring him joy. I imagined him spending hours playing with it, thought it was just the thing, and bought it. Even though it didn't cost that much, a part of me was still hurt that he hadn't enjoyed this thing I put money and love into getting for him. That part of me wanted to suggest he open it and play with it, which he probably would have.  But really... why hadn't he in the first place?  Because he has too many toys!  Because he enjoyed some of the other presents he got last year so much that he plays with them regularly.  I have come to accept the reality of the fact that it doesn't take much to make kids happy. Even kids with a room full of toys have their favorites that they play with daily. The others mostly sit on the shelf.  I am learning to embrace favorites and experiences.  So I take the unopened toy and sell it.

As for spending less, there were quite a few strategies there.  The greatest area where we cut costs was in food.  The majority of that monthly savings was in food. As we became aware of how much we were eating out and how much we were spending, we really scaled it back and began thinking about decisions we made. We realized that a regular Sunday lunch out is not a big treat and does not really mean we need to order drinks. We bring our own straw cups almost everywhere (even amusement parks) so we have a giant cup of ice water, not a dinky plastic water cup, which is both environmentally friendly and more satisfying. We also cut costs in shopping by buying a lot of things used, instead of in stores. When Vinny needed moccasins to be an "indian" in Peter Pan, I turned to eBay for used ones at a fraction of the cost.  If Vinny is invited to a birthday party, instead of heading to Target's toy aisle, we head to re-sale groups on Facebook and search for items that are new in the package.  I've been bought shampoo and conditioner like this.  I also dug through our bathrooms and found that we had literally a bucket full of samples of toiletries from traveling, dentist samples, etc. I forbid the buying of any product in the bucket.  Before toothpaste is purchased, we must double check that all samples from the bucket are GONE.  I haven't purchased shampoo since this past summer (and when I did, I bought an opened bottle with only one washings worth used from Facebook).

These things add up. They add up to freedom.

My daughter has been watching her namesake movie a lot lately (Princess and the Frog), and our entire family has become very fond of singing "Almost There" in a variety of situations.  On the way to the museum today, "How much longer until we get there?"   "Almost there.... almost there"  (Just imagine this sung in a catchy southern jazz tune).  Squeezing lemons for lemonade today -- "How much more juice do you need, Mom?"   "Almost there.... almost there."

The same could be said for where we want to be financially.... "We're aaaaaalmooooost there!"

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