Contentment

Living within your means: Is it possible anymore?

Is it possible to live within your means? Why would you even want to try?

Living within your means is a nice idea, right? Like staying married to one person your whole life, or working thirty years for the same company, or being able to fit into your old uniform at your fortieth reunion. Nice, grandma-approved ideas, all of them. They worked fine for her generation. And for most of the generations before them, honestly.

Eric and I want to live within our means, we really do. And we’re mostly successful at it, if you take a broad, modern-day approach to the idea. If you take my step-grandmother’s approach, we’re sort of huge failures.

This is what I mean:

Housing

Yes, we have a mortgage. We borrowed money to buy this house because we didn’t have $140,000 in the bank to buy it outright. We could have bought a cheaper house but we didn’t have $90,000 or $40,000 or even $10,000 in the bank, either. And if we hadn’t bought a house, we’d be paying the same amount in rent (for a far less pleasant living situation).

However, when we bought this house we crunched the numbers mercilessly to make sure we could afford not only the mortgage, but everything else that goes with the house:

  • taxes
  • utilities: heat, electric, garbage, water, HOA fees, internet, etc
  • distance to our jobs: car maintenance, gas, etc.
  • exterior stuff: gas for the lawnmower, a lawnmower, landscaping supplies
  • interior stuff: curtains (America! Stop using blankets as curtains! It hurts my friggin’ eyes!), furniture, etc.

This is important, because we’ve seen some friends who’ve forgotten about all the extra stuff, and it’s a huge shock when a person realizes a propane tank can cost $800 to fill, several times a winter.

Vehicles

We have about the same story here. We do borrow for cars, almost every time we buy one. But we stay away from the $50,000 land yachts and head for the $10,000 used section of the lot. Eric spends (literally) months researching each option until he’s happy with the engines, the frames, the recall notices, everything.

AND I MEAN EVERYTHING. And then we buy the car. To date we’ve paid off every vehicle loan years ahead of schedule.

Moment of transparency: As of this writing, we’re seriously considering buying a brand new car. We’ve never done that before. But we like the idea of buying something with no mileage on it, then taking excellent care of it, and driving it for a decade or two.

College

Once again, we borrowed. We could have done a lot better, but we could have done a lot worse, too. I left school with about $8,000 total in debt, and Eric graduated two years later with $22,000. Because we soon had babies and a mortgage, it took us the full ten years to pay Eric’s loan back. This grieves me still. But honestly, there are only so many ways you can spread the resources in early family life.

But compared to today’s graduates who are leaving with over a $100K in college debt and then finding jobs that pay the same amount Eric and I made at our first jobs, we had it easy. I am not at all comfortable with the automatic assumption that going to an expensive four-year school is the best way for most students.

I’d be a lot more comfortable if these kids were forced to do a mock budget for a $30,000 salary that includes a $700 monthly student loan payment.

living within your means, budget

Everyday Purchases

This is where Eric and I don’t do too badly. We track every penny, and I mean that. Thanks to budgeting software we can tell when we’ve overspent in our grocery, eating out, or gift budgets.

We’ve been married for eighteen years, and I can tell you this– it’s a combination of the very large purchases and the everyday stuff that keeps you living within your means.

Obviously, if w’ere going to go with the old definition (and probably the wisest definition), most of us probably don’t live within our means. If we did, we’d be living with our parents and walking to work until we had enough saved for a house and vehicle.


But if you use the broader definition, I think most of us could make it. If we’re able to save wisely and give generously each month, pay our bills, and then add in a few wants, I think we’re on track. It’s not easy, even with the looser definition of the term. But it’s possible with some planning and discipline.

Here are some of my favorite resources for helping me stay on track. I hope you find them helpful!

  • frugalwoods.com: The Frugalwoods have an amazing challenge going on in January of 2017! You’re going to be living within your means by February, if they have anything to say about it.
  • daveramsey.com: The ultimate king of debt-free living isn’t going to take your excuses. Rice and beans, beans and rice, until your debt is gone. Amen.
  • hisandhermoney.com: Tai and Talaat will have you cutting your expenses or growing your income with their podcast and blog.

 

Set Goals for Your Family: 5 key factors in making great decisions

“How do we set goals for our family? It seems like we have so many things we want to do, and we don’t know where to start!”

Last week I posted about the Tightwad Gazette, a book that encourages families to set their most important goals and then gives them frugal tools to reach them. A friend of mine had some questions about the goal-setting aspect of the post. She told me they have a ton of things they’d eventually like to do as a family, but they can’t do all of them. She isn’t sure what goals need to be thrown out and what ones need to be made a priority.

I gave her question some thought all week, and these are the five key ideas we’ve found helpful to set our own goals over eighteen years of marriage:

Pray about your goals.

There are obviously a million good things your family could do, but who’s to say which ones you should attempt?

I like to give God a voice in the proceedings. He has a vested interest in our lives, and he also has the clear vision of where we’re going.

Our family lives in this town, in this house, and in this school district because of questions we asked God more than thirteen years ago. Slowly and gradually, we’ve built a life here. Some days I wonder why, but deep in my bones I know we’re supposed to be exactly where we are.

There have been lots of times I’ve prayed about something and it seemed like God was asleep at the wheel, honestly. But now, looking back, I see his hand. His answer might not come quickly or audibly, but hindsight makes his presence and involvement clear.

Pay attention to recurring themes and dreams.

Good goals come back to you over and over again. They make an impression on you that grows a little deeper each time. You’ll begin to watch the people in your life, and you’ll notice when their choices result in disaster or blessing. You’ll start to notice a theme in what appeals to you and what it takes to reach those goals.

Maybe you want to be able to travel extensively when the kids are a little older. You may notice that families with five or more kids almost never travel further than the next county. Also, one income families probably have a hard time getting to Greece over the summer.

set family travel goals
Exhibit A: Here we have our sum total of two children, standing on a castle top overlooking the Irish countryside.

Or, maybe you want to homeschool your kids. You will probably notice that families who do this successfully rarely live in houses on Lake Michigan. Or, you may also notice their distinct lack of imported sports cars and wine cellars. You would correctly surmise that homeschooling requires intense time management and financial discipline. But you would also see the blessing in that decision, and you would decide it’s worth the struggle.

Notice what goals excite several members of your family, (especially you and your spouse).

I don’t want to say that the kids don’t count in goal setting, but they sort of don’t count. (Well, maybe they get a half vote.) But we’ve noticed that kids naturally adapt to their family environment, and it’s the parents who set that environment. For example, our kids think an afternoon of reading books while wrapped in snuggly blankets is perfectly wonderful. They don’t even hate our jazz.

Our nephews would probably pull their eyeballs from their sockets if they had to live with us. They’d seriously rather die. They’re used to afternoons running through the woods and geocaching and going on adventures.

So ignore the kids and turn to your spouse. Eric and I have each had all sorts of personal goals die a natural death with this test. For example, Eric spent his teenage years running snowmobiles all over their family farm. He might have planned a life like this, teaching our kids to do the same. But it turns out I hate being cold and driving loud equipment through snowy fields, and I wasn’t keen on spending that much money on the hobby. Owning a fleet of snowmobiles is not a Clemence Family goal. (As of this writing.) ((But Eric has a wild look in his eyes today, so we might end up with that fleet by the weekend.))

As for me, I had grown up in an old, white house on a farm. And Eric had gown up in an old, white house on a farm. Of course we’d do the same, right? NO. Turns out old farmhouses are DIY nightmares and we have no interest in mowing that much grass. We function best together in a new house on a quarter acre.

And we lovelovelove to travel as a family. That’s become our new family goal– where can we go next?

set family travel goals
Here we are (with Grandma!) in Ireland last fall. I KNOW it looks like any forest anywhere, but trust me. It’s an Irish forest.

Getting out of debt opens the doors to most of the other goals. Make it a priority.

Seriously. The world opens up when the debt is vanquished. All the best goals for your family hinge on financial freedom, and that requires as little debt as possible. If you need a bigger goal to motivate you through the debt payoff, fine. Dream big and wide. But be relentless about digging your way out of debt first, before you do anything else.

Focus on the short term goals, especially when your kids are young.

I used to plan ahead, and I mean way ahead. Like a decade. But that only exhausted me, because so many things can change in the next six months. It’s nuts to freak out over the next ten years. I think short term goals of a year are the most productive. And even then, I break those year-long goals down into quarters.

Once you have decided your family is complete, once you know you’re done with school and student loans, once you’ve found a community to call home, then the longer term goals begin to make more sense. But trying to plan for retirement or save for a second home makes no sense when you’re trying to decide if you’re having another baby or going back for a masters degree.

Keep yourself sane and stick with goals you can manage with what you know right now. You’ll feel more productive and in control when you’re not trying to manage ten years down the line.

Even after eighteen years of marriage…

Eric and I have still have a constantly evolving conversation about what our next goals are. We never feel like we have it perfectly planned out, and our friends often laugh out loud when we start talking about the future. We tend to bounce from one idea to another, at least verbally. I’m sure we seem like unstable weirdos pretty often.

Our lasting and most important goals, though, have gradually become clear as we’ve communicated, worked together, and been open to reformatting what we thought was the perfect plan. The next goal makes itself obvious, just in time. I bet you’ll probably find the same thing true in your life!

 

Pray A to Z: a book to help us pray like we promise we will

pray-with-purposeWhen a friend reveals a terrible thing going on in her life, we might respond with a hug and “Oh, how hard. I’ll pray for you.”

And then we forget.

We watch the news and our retinas are burned out by the horrible things we see broadcast and we think I should pray about that more.

But we get distracted.

The church emails the really long and detailed prayer list and our eyes glaze over immediately, completely unprepared to pray for Mr. Stone’s prostate surgery on Thursday.

BECAUSE I’M NOT PREPARED TO DISCUSS MR. SMITH’S PROSTATE WITH THE ALMIGHTY, okay?

I’m just not.

Guilt ensues.

We feel guilty about how we don’t actually pray for our friends, family, and community enough, but we have no idea of how to fit that into our lives.

We want to worship and focus on God’s mighty attributes, but the children and the piles of laundry are so much louder than God most days.

Guess what. Someone saw this need coming and they wrote a book for us, and then a copy was thoughtfully provided for us for free here on the blog. It’s called Pray A to Z (***affiliate link) and Amelia Rhodes understands our messy, crazy lives. Her organized brain has categorized our concerns so we can actually pray like we want to do.

pray-a-to-z-coverFrom A (adoption, abuse, Almighty…) to P (pregnancies, Pain, Promise Keeper) to Z (zest, Zion, zeal), we can read through the simple, quick entries to direct our thoughts outward to God, seeking him.

Let’s take a peek inside Pray A to Z

Of course I turned first to the Finances entry, because that’s how my brain works. I loved how this section fits in exactly with what we talk about on this blog all the time:

Father, forgive me for where I have allowed the love of money to creep into my life. Help me remember to put my trust in You, not in a bank account, in possessions, or in what money can do for me. Let my security rest in You, not my stuff. Help me learn to be content with what I have, and not always be searching for the next great thing. Grow my desire to use money to serve You and Your kingdom… (p. 54).

I love prayers that are written out, simply because they gather my thoughts and intentions and express them so beautifully. This book is a gentle way to keep me on track and focused on the right things when I pray, instead of running my brain around like an anxious chicken.

Amelia Rhodes
Amelia Rhodes

Win a copy!

If you’d like to be more prayerful, more worshipful, and more competent to discuss Mr. Smith’s prostate with the Lord (just kidding, there’s no Prostate chapter), this book is exactly what you need. You can click the icon below to be entered into a contest to win a copy for yourself!

Pray A to Z Amelia Rhodes
Amelia Rhodes is fabulous, and I know you’ll love to get to know her. You can find her at her website, ameliarhodes.comFollowing God into the Unknown is my favorite series on her blog, and you can read all about how her family believed God was calling them to downsize and move to a new house. It’s a story of faith, contentment, and rejection of modern culture’s expectations. You’re going to love it; check it out!

The Tightwad Gazette: Timeless Financial Advice for Your Family

What financial advice stands the test of time?

Financial advice must go beyond simple math lessons. The important stuff doesn’t have anything to do with cereal coupons or BOGO sales at the QuickMart. The best financial advice starts in our minds and hearts, giving us the right motivations and perspective on how we’re spending our money.

Years ago I was a fairly hysterical young wife and mother. And I mean hysterical in the “hey, that lady in the library’s budgeting section should be medicated,” not the “ha-ha, she’s funny kind of way.” 

I had a lot of goals for our family and we didn’t have buckets of gold dropping from the clouds. I turned my energy to learning everything I could about frugal living, budgeting, and stretching our income.

The dream that keeps on giving, I tell you

And this is where The Complete Tightwad Gazette  (*affiliate link) came into our lives, for better or worse. I found a copy in our little bitty library, a giant, 959-page tome of light shining into our financial situation. Amy Dacyczyn was a woman not unlike myself– a mother who wanted to raise her family in a certain way, and she was going to require some ninja-level skills to achieve her dreams.

Her dream was to have a big family (six kids!), live in the country in a charming old farmhouse, and not use daycare. This was a tall order, even back in the 80s and 90s.

The Complete Tightwad Gazette is a compilation of all her ninja-level frugal living skills, bound up for us today. But let’s be honest– we’re not living in 1992 anymore. Some of the advice in the book is now a bit laughable. For example, there are several entries on how to save money on stamps and envelopes. I can’t even imagine worrying about envelopes today. There’s also an article on saving money with CD membership programs, and some random advice on powdered milk.


So let’s skip all that and get right to the stuff that still applies to our lives today. Here’s the financial advice from Amy Dacyczyn that changed my life, and my family’s future. I’m confident this still applies for your family, too.

Set your family’s goals, then work relentlessly to meet them.

There’s no point to frugal living or budgeting if you don’t have a goal. Even if your plans are as simple as Save enough to pay off the last doctor’s visit, that’s fine. But the goals and the priorities are the place we all start.

It’s okay to live a counter cultural life to reach those goals.

Listen, it wasn’t normal to have a passel of kids and live in a huge old farmhouse in 1992, either. The Dacyczyns were weirdos even then. But they didn’t care. They were willing to wear garage-sale clothing and become DIY experts to live the life they envisioned. Nothing has changed in that regard.

It takes big and small sacrifices to reach the most important goals.

The most worthwhile goals require more than switching to the cheap toilet paper or using a coupon for coffee. We might have to severely limit our housing costs, our grocery bills, our insurance costs, and then still micromanage the tiny expenses.

It’s worth it in the end.

The Dacyczyns made their choices and lived with them happily. They got their big old farmhouse and raised their big old family there. They drank reconstituted powdered milk and ate produce from their own garden, exactly the way they wanted to live. Your goals might be completely different, but you can revel in your own success when you achieve what’s best for your family.

Those are my favorite bits of the Dacyczyn story. Sure, I benefited from their muffin recipe and giggled at the article on dumpster diving. But really, their life gave me the courage to set our own goals and then to be content with the sacrifices those goals required.

It’s what this entire blog is about, all these years later.

I hope you’ll pick up your own copy of the Tightwad Gazette, and let me know what works for you!


 

The Ms. Mediocre, Slightly Chubby, Often Cranky, Bad Hair Day Pageant

pageant for normal womenIn a move noted as “bold” and “long overdue,” a new pageant arrives on the scene this season.

Viewed by many as the obvious alternative for 99% of human women, the Ms. Mediocre, Slightly Chubby, Often Cranky, Bad Hair Day Pageant offers what traditional beauty pageants lack– common sense and a firm grip on reality.


Competitions are scheduled in the following crucial life skill departments:

  • Chasing a toddler through a busy parking lot while holding two bags of groceries
  • Politely helping your best friend realize her eyebrows have grown out of control
  • Speaking to teenage offspring without using all the swears
  • Messy buns and other half-arsed hair options
  • Yoga pants vs pajama pants: how, when, and where

Interested applicants are encouraged to apply quickly and decisively. Judges expect a torrential onslaught of candidates, as no one has ever shown interest in the common woman before.

Perky, thin, gorgeous women with full and natural breasts will be shot immediately upon application, officials stated in the press conference held early this morning. Shot to death, they clarified.

The pageant is expected to be held sometime in spring, but an exact date is hard to determine, as NORMAL WOMEN HAVE TOO MUCH TO DO TO BE PRANCING AROUND THE STAGE AT A STUPID PAGEANT.


When an official date is scheduled, we will be the first to let you know. Stay tuned for further details.

How to control holiday spending so you can afford to pay your January mortgage payment

control-holiday-spendingAll the shiny things are in the stores! But we want to control our holiday spending, right? Because we still need to afford the rest of our life once Christmas is over.

Today I was in Lowes to buy sandpaper for the cat (it’s a long story and you really don’t want to know), and I took a moment to peruse their lovely holiday decorations.

They have a giant JOY sign that costs $1200. I mean, it’s huge. The letters are as tall as I am, maybe taller. It would look really cool in my front yard, BUT IT COSTS $1200.

Good grief.

It’s stuff like this that wreaks havoc at Christmastime. Of course we’d like the giant JOY sign. Of course we’d like to buy our friends and family everything they could dream of owning. Of course we’d like to put plane tickets to the Bahamas in our sister’s Christmas stocking!

But most of us can’t afford these things. And if you can afford these things, I bet you aren’t actually reading this blog post. You’re too busy rolling in your piles of gold coins.

The rest of us have to get a grip on our holiday spending or we’re going to be homeless and hungry in January. Here’s how we are going to do that.

We’re going to stay out of the stores. Instead, we’re going to go to the library to find excellent, free ideas for holiday fun. There are entire books on affordable holiday ideas! But mostly, we’re going to stay out of the stores. The marketing department of your favorite store has your number, sister. They want to control your holiday spending for you, and they know what makes your heart beat faster. They know what looks so beautiful to you, their ideal customer, that you lose your mind and whip out your credit card. Trust me, they’re way ahead of you. Stay out of their way because your mortgage company will not accept “but the JOY sign was so pretty” in lieu of a payment next month.

We’re going to do some math and figure out the Christmas budget. This is hard and ugly and might involve some crying when you realize you have $20 to spend for Christmas this year. You get an hour to be depressed, and then you will pull yourself together, be proud of yourself for accepting reality, and you will get creative.

photo-1477921749929-1b7a5d38b68a

We will have honest conversations with our loved ones. Maybe it’s our spouse, or our best friend, or our mom. This might be painful. But your loved ones would be horrified to know you’re spending holiday money you don’t have on them. Love them enough to be honest. And also, this honesty might be a life saver for them! Maybe they don’t have enough for Christmas this year, either. Maybe you can have a potluck night instead, or go to a free holiday concert together. But until we’re having honest conversations with our people, we won’t be able to take care of each other in the most loving ways.

We will remember that children do not need an explosion of presents on Christmas morning. If your kids are old enough to understand the concept, begin by helping them understand the family reality right now. They understand and can adapt far more than we give them credit for, and trust me, they’ll be able to feel your stress if you spend too much. Let their holiday be breezy and fun like it’s supposed to be. If your kid is too young to understand money or presents, then please, please, please, go to the thrift store and buy them a few delightful things. I swear to you they’ll never know the difference.

It doesn't have to look like this at your house.
It doesn’t have to look like this at your house.

We will go to church and remember that Christmas was never supposed to be about blinking lights and credit card debt. We will remember a tiny baby, placed in a manger, worshipped by shepherds from the hills. We will feel profoundly thankful and we will tell our Heavenly Father how wonderful he is.

I do know this– Christmas begins and ends in our hearts. If we’re miserable and sad, no amount of holiday spending will buy enough presents to fix us. But if we choose joy and simplicity, no lack of money can ruin the season for us.

So may we choose wisely, and may we choose joy!

***

I found a few ideas on Amazon. Maybe these will help! (*Affiliate link)

Priorities: A worksheet to help you plan the next right thing for your life.

Perhaps you’ve reached a point in your life where you really want to do the best thing for yourself and your family, but you have no idea of what that best thing really is. You aren’t sure what your priorities really are.

Should you work more hours and cushion the budget?

Work less hours to be home with the kids more?

Go back to school? Find a different career? Volunteer more? Volunteer less?

The options are endless and every decision leads to a different place in the future. How are we supposed to find the best path?

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But before we get our knickers in a knot, let’s calm down. There certainly are a lot of choices in every life, but there doesn’t have to be one, solitary healthy outcome.

I’m serious. You can make a lot of different choices and end up in a lot of different places fifteen years from now, but most of them will be good and healthy and fine. You’re going to be fine and your family is going to be fine.

Unless, of course, you take up heroin or chain smoking or bank robbing. Those are terrible priorities. Stay clear of those things and you’ll probably be fine. You might become a doctor with a nanny who takes care of the kids, or you might become a stay at home mom with an Etsy shop. Maybe you’ll own your own restaurant or maybe you’ll cater small parties from home. Fine and fine.

We worry a lot about the future but seldom remind ourselves that it all works out, somehow.

But still, we have to actually make a decision and then act on it, right? Life choices all begin in the same place: mulling the problems and potential solutions over in your mind. We have to find our priorities, and we can’t do that without some serious thinking.

Today I’ve included a little worksheet/graphic for you at the end of the blog. If you like to write and think slowly, print it off and get yourself a pencil and an excellent beverage. But maybe you’ll just bookmark this link and work from the graphic itself; whatever works for you is fine.

The worksheet has one purpose– to help you identify the problem in your own life that is causing you the most pain, and then to identify one priority and solution to start on the path to simple living.

It’s easy to think “Yikes, lady. I have way more than one problem and I want to do all the things to fix everything all at once.”

And I’m here to tell you the truth: Doing all the things will make you all the crazy. . You have to say yes to a few things, the most important things, and then you’ll have to say no to a lot of other things.

This little worksheet will help you think through where you are now and where you want to be. It’ll bring you one little step closer to the next place in your life. It will help you simplify everything.

I was at a conference recently, and the Hope*Writers encouraged us with this– if we get stuck, just do the next right thing. Then repeat and repeat. I hope this worksheet will help you figure out what the next right thing is for you!

 

Printable. Find your priorities

 

 

How to find contentment when your season of life is just really, really awful

How can I be content when this season of my life just totally stinks?

If you haven’t slept eight hours straight in weeks (or years!), this post is for you. If you can’t find contentment because your life is a terrible, awful mess, this post is for you.


If you have bills piled high on the counter and a lot of zeros in the checking account, this post is for you.

It’s also for anyone who is being literally smothered to death by small children, health problems, marriage struggles, or relationship issues.

If every single one of those things has landed upon you simultaneously, then let’s have a nice little chat.

I know you want to have a great attitude in the midst of the struggle. I get it. You’re not trying to mope around and spread gloom and despair. You see that Pinterest meme that says life isn’t about avoiding the storms, it’s about learning to dance in the rain.


And you want to believe that’s possible, but your life is this terrible, complicated mess and all you want to do is have three free hours to nap. And then you want to be able to afford to buy some really cute shoes.

You’re not asking for much.

You just want a little bit of quiet time and a little bit of money to go further than the basics. You’d love to find contentment, but your season of life really sucks stinks and you are sick to death of it.

I’ve been where you are. I was once a young mother with little money, a little house, and very, very little sanity. I felt stuck and crazy, and this was because I was stuck and crazy. There was no getting out of our situation unless a nanny and a trillion dollars fell from the skies.

I had no choice but to plug along, day after day, making the best decisions I could with what I had. It felt like things would never lighten up.

Contentment (and a better life!) can be sneaky

Here’s the thing– while I trudged along through the endless days, things did lighten up. The kids learned to sleep through the night and eat regular food and then they went to school. My sanity returned and eventually our finances balanced out.

I’d like to offer you a miracle cure to fast-track you through this season of life, but I can’t. I can only tell you this secret– it’s the trudging that eventually makes all the difference. Trudging along is really a thousand little choices every day that feel inconsequential all by themselves. Really, no one notices if you wipe a snotty nose a hundred times a day or restrain yourself from that $6 latte again.

You might be tempted to think those little choices don’t matter.

But, my friend, you’d be wrong. It feels like we’re going nowhere, but really every single one of those actions is digging us a little bit further out of the muck.

contentment is found one step at a time

It’s the sum total of all those steps that makes the difference.

One day you look around and realize you’re in a better, more wonderful place. But you wouldn’t have gotten there without the thousands of tiny steps each day. You’ve found contentment, inch by agonizing inch.

We pay off debt with each individual dollar that isn’t spent other places.

We love our children with a hundred hugs and a million kind words. Also, many bags of goldfish crackers and trips to the park.

Marriages are healed with many gentle responses and so, so many words bitten back.

I know it feels endless and hopeless. But don’t underestimate the value of the tiny things in this very season of life. They might be the very things that change the future.

4-decisions-banner

How to find your blue carpet friends (and why you need to!)

blue-carpet-friends-3Are you surrounded by friends who get you? I mean, do you have friends who support you in all your life choices? I think they’re key to living out your calling and dreams, and here’s why.

I have this good friend, Betsy, who is also my hairstylist. Now that my hair care routine requires quite a bit of dye to restore my luscious locks to the color I remember them being at age 25, Betsy and I get quite a bit of quality time together every six weeks.

The last time I was in the shop we started talking about priorities in life, and the toll they take on our finances. For example: choosing to travel as a family and/or enrolling the kids in a Christian school. Both are wonderful options, but neither comes cheaply. We talked about making all the budget areas stretch so we could fit our priorities into our financial picture without taking on debt.

And then we really got on a roll and examined how our friendships can be the key to helping us stay on track with our life choices, or they can derail us in the most dangerous ways.

I told her about how many years ago we’d chosen a completely different preschool for Caleb, because the community at his older sister’s preschool included people who actually went to the yacht club. They drove SUVs the size of my living room. They gave birthday parties for three year olds that cost hundreds of dollars.

I was out of my league in my rusty Chevy and wee little house and homemade cupcakes. So far out of my league, that for Caleb’s preschool experience we chose a little school in a farming community to our south. I felt far more comfortable there, like my life goals made sense to them and then, in turn, to me while I was there.

Betsy understood exactly what I meant, and told me about their friends with blue carpet. “They can afford new carpet,” she said, “but they have other priorities. They just haven’t changed it yet.”

That blue carpet brings something important to their relationship. It’s a statement. A reminder that not everything in life has to be perfect. It’s okay to have financial limitations or life goals other people might not understand.


It’s camaraderie, too. When we can peer into a friend’s life and see tangible proof that they feel no need to have everything matching and new and shiny and perfect, we can hold our our mismatched little lives close together and feel like we’re on the same team. Someone gets us.

On Thursday nights I take our kids to a local youth group and pull my beat up Sienna in next to my friend Kris’s beat up Sienna. We open up our trunks together to try to locate the leaks we both have, leaks that soak our trunk carpets in a good rain. We’ve been bonding over weird things since our college days, but those leaky trunks are just one more piece in the friendship.

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It’s not like friendships start and blossom over things like wet carpet or blue carpet or even brand new carpet.

They blossom when something in me recognizes something in you, and we feel like we’re understood. We might not have the same life goals, we might not have the same blue carpet or old minivan, but we understand that you’re picking your important things and it’s okay for me to pick mine, too.

Friends who support us while we carve out our lives are one of God’s greatest gifts. So, today, I hope you’ll take a moment to notice your friends’ oddities and quirks and mismatched life. And may you say, out loud, how wonderful you think it all is. Your words might just give them the courage and joy they need today.

Flop down on their blue carpet and tell them it brings out the blue in their eyes. Climb into that minivan and say, “Oh, no. Mine smells so much worse than this. This is fine.”

Blue carpet is a way to connect and encourage. It’s kind of precious like that.

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Creative Contentment: how to have fun instead of slowly dying from despair

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I used to think that being content meant I was so blissfully, joyfully happy with life that I lost all desire to change anything.

I didn’t know how much room for change we have, even while living a simple life. There’s so much room in there. So much variety. So much freedom and creativity involved.

Being content is all well and good, but sometimes we get a little bit sick of the way things are.

We yearn for something different. Better.

Then perhaps we mentally chastise ourselves for allowing discontentment to creep into our thoughts. Or, at least this was the way for me. But I’ve realized something important recently– it’s possible to be content while absolutely changing everything.

It’s okay to want things to be different, even while we try to live simply, being thankful for what is.

We don’t have to live in drudgery and quiet despair for the rest of our days, relabeling it contentment and then fading into the gray. We don’t have to put up with clothes that have turned into tatters, or a 2002 Corolla that was a really good deal but makes you sigh every time you look at it.

Let’s talk about how creativity can help us be content and keep some fun in our lives.

For example, we have a house that I love, but there were some things that didn’t quite feel like home in our house. I absolutely knew that I should be nothing but thankful for that place, because millions of people would gladly trade places with me. But I couldn’t escape the nagging feeling that something just wasn’t quite right.

Finally I gave myself permission to start changing things. Even though the cabinets were only a few years old (and I’d picked the dang things out myself) I started painting them. I repainted a few walls for a second or third time. I went to the nursery and bought a few excellent plants to fill in the landscaping. I framed some photos of our trip to Ireland and hung them in the kitchen, right where they make me happy ten times a day.

My goal was to be content with the house. It took a lot of work and creativity to get to that point. Sure, I could have passively accepted everything just as we found it the day we got the keys, but then we’d still be living with bare white walls and really, really ugly bathroom cabinets. Who has the time to live with that kind of hideousness?

Let’s take a look at a more challenging scenario– The Corolla. My husband loves cars. He loves them fast, he loves them quirky, he loves them sporty. The Corolla is none of those things. It’s a four door sedan with four cylinders and a radio that works only sometimes.

Creativity isn’t really going to help him much here. We could get him some fuzzy dice and maybe a pine tree air freshener, but it’s not going to help the gutless engine or the automatic transmission. I think what we need is creative financing so we can trade some vehicles around. I’m happy as a clam in The Corolla, so maybe it’s time to trade the van for something jazzy for him to drive. Or maybe we can adjust some of our financial plans so a different car is on the near horizon.

Maybe he’d like to ride this bike instead of The Corolla?

I think the man needs some hope, super bad. He’s absolutely committed to being a mature grown up about this whole vehicle situation, but I see him shudder every time he looks at The Corolla. I’m not making that up. The gray despair is swirling around his ankles, threatening to suck him under. I love this man; I can’t let him die slowly of a four-cylinder engine.

I don’t want you dying slowly of despair, either. Whatever is going on in your life, I want you to live simply and joyfully. Here’s what you do:

  1. Choose your priority. Whatever it is– staying home with the kids, getting your budget under control, running the organic blueberry farm– identify what’s very most important to you.
  2. Cheerfully make a list of all the secondary stuff that’s bothering you, and then find the antidotes to those problems. Think wide. Think long. Brainstorm with your most creative ideas. Throw out any ideas that interfere with your priorities, but just go crazy with trying new things.

I can’t wait to hear what changes for you! Please, let me know.

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