1. SET A GOAL TO CUT YOUR EXPENSES by some concrete number—10%, 20%, 30%, even 50%, and set up a plan to do it. Reducing costs is the fastest way to increase your income–faster than making more money.
2. LOOK AT CASH YOU ARE WASTING without enjoying its benefits, such as lights that get left on, computers that stay on day and night, “phantom loads,” like microwave clocks that use more energy than the microwave itself. If you get to know your electrical meter, and record the setting before and after you shut off those phantom loads, you’ll have concrete proof that you are saving money.
3. Set up a THREE TIER SYSTEM for purchases: a) necessities; b) conveniences; and c) other. Put everything you buy in one of these categories for a week, and examine the list. For example, if you buy clothing, you might have bought socks and new fancy shoes. While most people would put the socks under “a” or “b,” most of us would consider the fancy shoes “other” unless they are a necessity for work. The Great Spending Contraction has begun. Get far enough ahead of it, that you aren’t bit in the behind.
4. Consider BUYING FOOD IN ITS MOST BASIC FORM, and in bulk. For example, instead of buying Pancake mix, buy the flour, shortening, and leavening. This, alone, will not only improve your diet, but cost you a fraction of what the prepared mix would cost. Anything that the “Generals” prepare, (General Foods, General Mills, etc) they CHARGE YOU for the privilege.
5. SIMPLIFY. Examine each purchase, and ask yourself whether some other item would do the job equally well. Consumerism produces specialized products that increase demand. The more specialized, the easier it is to charge consumers a premium price for it. Shaving cream, instead of a good lathering soap. Window cleaner instead of vinegar. Do a bit of research and find out how your ancestors lived without most of the products under your sink or among your toiletries. Then, pare it down, and buy it in bulk.
6. SEEK OUT QUALITY. Seek out highly durable, long-lasting products that may cost more, but are well made and will last a long time. You may find out that the cheaper versions can’t be replaced easily, when they wear out. Buy now for the long term, and not on price alone. I’m finding better quality items being replaced by cheaply made products at the same price. Buy the quality stuff while you can still find it, and make sure it fits Tier A. (See #3)
7. Switch over to a CASH ECONOMY. Just do it. Start out deciding how much money you usually spend using credit cards and checks, and take out that amount in cash for a week, two weeks, a month. If you and your family members spend through it before that period is over, stay home and stop spending, until the next period starts. Consumer research has shown that moving to a cash economy, consumers spend on average 20-25% less than if they used a credit card. Use that research to benefit YOU. Get into the habit of using currency, not plastic.
8. GET THE ENTIRE FAMILY INVOLVED in cutting back Tier “B” and “C” spending. If you’ve set a goal of reducing expenses by 20%, make that across the board, and involve the kids. If this means cutting back on extra lessons, dances, mall trips, etc, give your children a say in which things are cut out or reduced. If you are sincere about your own cutbacks, your children will respect and adjust their expectations as well. If you say you are cutting back, but then buy something in the “C” category, you’ve lost your credibility and you’ll have a family mutiny on your hands. Discuss, as a family, all of your expenses based on these categories, and try to reach agreement, so there are no surprises.
9. Chart out your life travels in terms of MILES, instead of minutes, and then figure out how you can travel those miles in ways other than those using fossil fuel. When someone says “That’s 30 minutes away…” get used to asking “Is that walking, biking, or traveling by car?” It is a psychological shift that we all need to make.
10. Learn how to STAY HOME. It sounds funny to some, but for many people, “home” has become a “pit stop” to refuel (eat, sleep) before we head out again. Learning how to stay home might mean resolving the conflicts you have with your significant other. It might mean having higher expectations for better behavior from your children.
11. SLOW DOWN, relax more, and look for ways of improving your home surroundings. I don’t mean a new sofa. I’m talking about cleaning up that harrowing trip from one room to another because you keep tripping over the rug that sticks up, or putting up heavier curtains in the winter so the room stays warmer, or creating a better area to read, or listen to music, free of distractions. It might mean moving your most used kitchen utensils in a convenient place, so it’s easier to cook. Tell yourself “Home is where I’m going to be spending most of my time,” and check out your emotional reaction. If it’s panic or dread, try to figure out why, and do something about it.
12. “GET REAL” with the people you live with or love. Unfinished business, unspoken animosity, curt and angry exchanges not only make it unpleasant to be at home, it actually impacts your health. Bad marriages wreck good health. Come clean and own up to your own unhappiness, and try to own up to your contribution to the situation. The average troubled couple waits seven years before they seek out help, and often the problems by that point are well-entrenched. Try to fix it yourself, but if it doesn’t work, seek out a trained listener.
13. PUT YOUR KIDS TO WORK. Too many children have very little real “purpose” in family life, and this is a bizarre turn of events in the history of human-kind. If your kids seem focused on their own self-interests, ask yourself to what extent you’ve expected them to take in interest in things greater than their own amusements. If you can’t really say “Boy, I’m really glad I have my son/daughter to take care of X, so I don’t have to do it…” you’ve forgotten how to teach them skills like taking responsibility, being reliable, and the “quid pro quo” of living with people. Your future son- or daughter- in-law will curse you.
14. SHUT OFF THE CHATTER from the computer/ internet/television/cable/ telephone/cell phone/pager/Blackberry/fax machine for some period each day and make a space for you to be with those you love, uninterrupted. Make it a revered time when the most important people in the world are sitting with you, paying attention to each other, talking sincerely, relaxing together. Expect severe resistance and techno-withdrawal. Make this revered time long enough to allow for the “hyperactive” withdrawal to subside, and a sense of quietude to permeate the house. Keep it going (as an “experiment” if you must) for at least a month, and open up discussion about what kinds of things you could do, as a family or as individuals, that would be satisfying or fun without using electricity.
15. SERIOUSLY WEIGH WORKING OVERTIME against using this time to create a more sustainable lifestyle. We are used to thinking about making money as the number one priority, but maybe its time to seriously question this assumption. If some crisis should happen tomorrow, just how prepared are you? Have you put up food? Created a garden of some type? Gotten to know your neighbors well enough to ask for (or offer) favors? Connected with religious or civic organizations offering you a wider circle of support? Resolved your marital troubles? Learned to really enjoy your kids? No doubt, cash is important, but time is our most precious commodity. Consider its use very carefully.
16. Imagine a VISION for a future you’d be willing to live in. You know that line about how humans can’t live without hope? (I know, some of you don’t believe in that word, so let’s use the word “vision.”) The happiest families have a vision of what they are living and working for. This vision sustains them in times of trouble. Go ahead. Imagine the worst. Then, visualize how you can live a satisfying life through the worst of it, and what will make it worthwhile. (Hint: if you don’t imagine good friends and family, live music, simple foods etc, it probably looks overly dreary…) Write about it in a story, with you as the hero, draw it in a picture, sing it in a song. Make it real.
17. MAKE LISTS and MARK ACHIEVEMENTS. Most of us are overly optimistic about what can be accomplished in a year, but underestimate what can be accomplished in ten years. See the broader plan, and pick several projects to start on (that’s right, several…). Do something on each one every day, or make it okay to focus on one for a while, until you tire of it, and then shift to another one.
18. Keep the LONGER VISION in mind, and understand how the interim is likely to play out, based on that vision. Give yourself the space to make decisions now that you know will not ultimately be your future course of action. To make sure you are heading in the right direction, ask yourself: “Is this moving me toward greater self-sufficiency?” “If I am using fossil fuel to accomplish this goal now, is this in service of my learning some greater skill, that I can later apply, to accomplished the goal without those inputs?” For example, if you know nothing about carpentry, power tools can make learning about wood a great deal easier. Once you are comfortable with putting things together, you can later apply those skills when using hand tools. A recumbent bike with a “power assist” can get you out there and riding that bike, so you get into better shape to later ride it without the assistance.
19. Understand how the “herd mentality” is likely to impact you, and try to GET OUT AHEAD OF THE CROWD, instead of being trampled underneath it.
20. PROTECT YOUR MENTAL HEALTH as closely as you do your physical health. Depression, paranoia, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, abandonment, verbal abuse, compulsive behaviors like overeating, gambling, cyber-sex, anonymous sex etc. are all common reactions to stressful times. Keep a tight grip on the loose reins of that mind of yours, and listen to other people who tell you they are worried about you and the way you are behaving. Find people, ideally true friends and family, to talk to about the pressures and ruminations you have—your deepest fears. If you need help, get it now, and make sure that help includes tangible ways for you to handle that stress better in the future. Talk about your mother only if it helps you understand how to live a more productive life TODAY and gets you moving in the direction you claim to want to go in. Make it okay to schedule “mental health” days..lyou know, those days when you are just taking time off from work to smell the roses, sleep late, schedule a ‘melt down,’ or otherwise live life.
21. Learn the difference between “HEALTHY PLEASURES” and ones that will burn out your neurochemistry and destroy your health. Most of us exaggerate our habitual way of being when under pressure, based on our personalities. For some of us, we’ll withdraw from other people and become isolated. For others, we throw ourselves into projects that make other people the focus, and ignore our own wellbeing. Some of us become instantly “action oriented” to manage our anxiety, without stopping to consider the purpose or goal of our actions. Others become immobilized, unable to make the simplest decisions, lest they turn out to be the wrong ones. Some become more self-centered, while others stop considering their own needs at all. Still others become dominated by destructive emotions and stop thinking clearly. Too much intellectualizing is the the direction others take, and this allows very little room for emotional expression or sympathetic connection with ourselves or others.
This is what makes giving “general advice” like “express your emotions” or “focus inward” so risky. Know in which direction to tend to err, and interrupt the pattern before it goes to extreme. Include people in your life that “balance out” those tendencies. If you are a “worry wart,” connect with someone who’s more carefree. If you tend to intellectualize, find an improvisational theater group. If you dramatize everything, befriend someone closer to a “brain” who “thinks” as a first response. And be prepared to be possibly annoyed by the personality difference.
22. Care for something NON-HUMAN. Eighty-five percent of us already do, whether its wild birds, squirrels, gold fish, a dog, cat or livestock. Scientifically, we’ve found out that caring for someone (or something) else is good for our mental and physical health. We’re likely to live longer through a life-threatening disease if we do. Spend time watching or interacting with this non-human, and access another part of your consciousness—perhaps and older, deeper part, and try to relax while you’re doing it.
23. LIMIT THE ‘BAD NEWS.’ If you find yourself checking the news more than once a day, give it a break, for your own sake. Take a “news holiday” once in a while. Go be around something beautiful, like art or nature.
24. Make a list of the ‘TWENTY THINGS YOU LOVE TO DO’, and post it where you’ll see it every day. Write down, next to the item, when is the last time you did it, and whether you want to do it more (M) or less (L) often. Write down if it was something either parent did (P), and whether you’ll still be able to do it at 85 (85). If it costs money to do it, put a dollar sign ($) next to it. If you need to do it with a friend (F) or special friend (SP) note that. Now, rank-order them, just for fun. EXAMPLE:
25. DON’T TRY TO CHANGE THE WORLD. Try just impacting your tiny corner of it. Make your street a nicer place. Plant a few fruit or nut trees. Join a neighborhood group. Expand your community food pantry. Get a regular “rent party” together and pass the hat for those who have lost their job or have unpaid medical bills. Next week, that person might be you. Pick up the garbage you come across, even if it isn’t yours. Remember that the world is bigger than you are, and that you don’t own the Earth or the things in it, you are a part of the Earth, and are owned by it.
26. THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX. Just because people usually list 25 things, be different. List 26. Don’t follow the crowd, walk ahead of it. If they start following you, you’re a leader. If they don’t, you are ahead of your time or you are going in the wrong direction. In either case, enjoy the walk, and break your own rules once in a while.
Author Kathy McMahon was an early contributor to Energy Bulletin.