I turned 58 last week, so I've begun thinking about financial sustainability in terms of retirement. My idea of retirement isn't quitting working, it's having the flexibility to do what I love most--writing, and restoring nature in the places where we live and work--at a pace that feels less like work and more like play.
As I've written here before, I'm practicing being aware of how I use my money, in part because I've had to make some serious and difficult trade-offs after Richard, the love of my life and my husband for nearly three decades, died of brain cancer.
I'm lucky: my parents, my terminally cheap dad and my generous but goal-oriented mom, taught me how to be intentional about my money, aware of how I use my dollars and what that means for the future.
Any of us, whatever our background, culture and current situation, can take steps toward financial stability by practicing thinking before we spend.
Like yoga, meditation or sobriety, working toward financial sustainability is a practice. It takes daily work. Some days go better than others. On the bad days, you pick yourself up, learn from what when wrong and start again, resolved to resume with enlightened mind and heart.
On the good days, you understand that whatever you have can indeed be enough, and in fact, more than enough. That's a wonderful and liberating feeling.
What are some tools I use to practice financial sustainability? One is awareness.
Before I spend any money, whether it's putting a dollar in the tip jar for the employees at Ploughboy Local Market, my neighborhood grocery store, or buying a new pair of glasses (not a trivial expense since I wear progressive trifocals), I stop and think: Is this really how I want to use this money?
In the doing, I acknowledge that money is a finite resource: what I spend in one place isn't available to spend somewhere else. (Which does not keep me from being generous whenever possible. I just think about it first.)
Another tool is paying by cash or check when I can, rather than using my charge card. Yes, credit cards "pay" rewards—as a way to suck you into spending more money. It works; you do. But is that what you really want?
When I have to stop and pull out cash or write a check, I think about what I'm spending. It's harder to be impulsive that way. Which is the point.
That little plastic card (whether credit or debit) makes the transaction too automatic, too far removed from actual money. With credit cards, that can have catastrophic consequences: You are borrowing the money you spend. If you can't pay it off at the end of the monthly cycle, you pay, and pay, and pay.
Sometimes we have no choice; a big expense comes up unexpectedly, and we have to borrow the money, whether from the credit card company or the bank. That's life.
But it doesn't have to be a daily habit.
Financial sustainability isn't something you achieve and then don't have to think about anymore. It grows from the seemingly small decisions we make every day, like buying the fancy drink at the coffeehouse on the way to work.
Five days a week for fifty weeks (assuming two weeks for vacation) and that $4 per drink adds up to $1,000 a year. That's not small change.
Maybe that thousand dollars is worth it. And maybe not. Learning to be conscious and decide is part of the everyday practice that leads to financial sustainability.
That daily practice is a key part of my retirement plan: What I don't spend buys me more time to stop and admire the aspens, and just enjoy life.