Temptation on a drive from work
I was driving home from work last Friday when a familiar craving hit me. I wanted Chinese food. I’d been there before, and I recognized the pre-existing conditions. Days were getting shorter; temperatures had dipped; work had an element of extra stress. The best egg rolls in the world are prepared at a restaurant only a little out of the way of my homeward route. Two egg rolls with plum sauce would do it. Maybe some sweet and sour chicken balls too. But how much would that cost? Probably over $10. Wouldn’t that be a purchase I’d regret? I’m prone to death by a thousand cuts, and wouldn’t this be one such cut? The crunch of the eggroll beckoned until the last possible moment, but I made a left turn onto the highway and steered clear of the restaurant.
Triumph? Not exactly. I still had the craving. And it was Friday. Was life to be devoid of any charm just because I was getting out of debt? Wasn’t it OK to have a treat at the end of the work week? I remembered recently talking to someone who’d said that her friend, an extremely good money manager, treated herself to a 99-cent download of a song at the end of each week – and then I got an idea. At the bargain grocery store nearby, I knew that there were frozen Chinese dumplings for just over $2. I made another left turn. This was triumph. I had my treat, and I got to feel financially wise at the same time.
I’m always amazed at work to see the number of staff and even students who come into school in the morning with a Tim Hortons or a Starbucks paper coffee cup in their hands, often with a little paper bag on the side. Is that a muffin? I find myself wondering with slight longing. Or a bagel? I bring my breakfast and lunch to work, and I belong to a coffee club in which members take turns providing cans of coffee and cartons of milk and cream. I used to spend about $2 per day on treats like muffins and coffee, and every once in a while I’d buy breakfast on my way into work, or I’d pop out for lunch. Not anymore. I do feel an “atta-girl!” pride in having adopted and maintained these financially prudent habits, but I become wistful at times. Even while sipping perfectly good java from the coffee club, I can’t help but sigh at the sight of a happy colleague with a Tim Hortons cup in hand.
I could try to analyze this longing and overcome it, but I’ve found a way to navigate it. There is a woman at work who doesn’t have a car, and almost every day, I drive her home or close to home. She originally asked if she could pay me to help with gas, but I said “No”. She was insistent about contributing in some way, so I took her at her word and made a suggestion. I said, “How about a treat at Tim Hortons once in a while?” And that’s what we’ve done. This week, I had a coffee and a donut. Last week, it was a cheese croissant and an ice-cap. This is the most brilliant arrangement ever!
The question of sweating the small stuff
I know that it’s possible to look at such musings as ridiculously nit-picky. “Buy your egg rolls already!” you might say. And there is a philosophical paradigm that makes my pondering of treats a misguided effort. “Don’t sweat the small stuff,” goes the saying, “. . . and it’s all small stuff.” I’m sweating small expenditures only as a means to an end: to develop new habits to help me get out of debt. And I’m getting out of debt as a means to an end: to have financial freedom so that I don’t have to sweat the small stuff.
In Dale Carnegie’s How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, there is an account of an ancient tree in Colorado that ends up dying an unlikely death. “During the course of its long life it was struck by lightning fourteen times, and the innumerable avalanches and storms of four centuries thundered past it. It survived them all. In the end, however, an army of beetles attacked the tree and leveled it to the ground. The insects ate their way through the bark and gradually destroyed the inner strength of the tree by their tiny but incessant attacks. A forest giant which age had not withered, nor lightning blasted, nor storms subdued, fell at last before beetles so small that a man could crush them between his forefinger and his thumb” (Carnegie). I always thought that Carnegie’s point here was that it is wise to deal with the small things – the beetles – because they can kill you. But most people seem to interpret it as a message against allowing small things to worry us. Hmmm . . .
I think that every person who is trying to pay off debt has to deal with the issue of treats in a way that works for him or her. I do know certain individuals who absolutely never buy treats. They’re the ones who say things like, “Why would I pay for something that I can make myself?” But I for one am not wired that way, and if I thought that I had to shut down that side of life completely in order to succeed at debt reduction, I’d probably give up on my journey out of debt. Fortunately, I’m finding that there is plenty of room for manoeuver in this area, and I’m spending a fraction of what I used to spend on it. I’m choosing to keep the treat factor alive; I’m just modifying it so that I don’t experience death by a thousand cuts – or debt by a thousand lattes. I’m dealing with the beetles so that they don’t do me in.