Friday, July 1, 2011

Create the life you want by making some simple changes

When we added children to our family, I dubbed the time between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. the “witching hours.” During this window of time, our children often become restless and whiny. They’re more prone to fighting, and we’ve had several incidents in which one of them decides to ride the dog or invent new uses for their art supplies.

There may be variations in this “witching hour” scenario—someone starts an empty washer by randomly pushing buttons or systematically drops a bunch of Goldfish Crackers down the heat register—but the end result is the same. Those pre-dinner hours are almost always stressful and frustrating.

As I scramble to decide what we’re going to eat and to start the meal preparation, the house threatens to erupt into anarchy. In the midst of this, I wonder why I don’t give more attention to meal planning. In fact, creating a comprehensive meal plan tops my list of things I could do to make my life better.

Sometimes, when we’re so busy with our daily lives, we might believe that sweeping change is necessary to make our lives better. We might think, for example, that moving to a bigger house would make life easier, but the simpler (and perhaps better) change might be to downsize the amount of items we own. It’s often the smaller, more immediate changes we make that have the most power to improve the quality of our lives.

For me, devoting an hour each week to meal planning would help to restore some of my sanity and to diffuse the evening chaos. When I asked other people what they could do right now to make their lives better, they responded with equally simple changes they would like to make.

In a few cases, people reported that a single event would make their lives better, such as organizing their living space or creating a realistic plan for paying off debt. More often, those I talked to said that consistent changes over time would benefit them the most.

Several people told me that they believed carving out more time for reading would improve their lives. Some said committing to regular exercise would make them happier, and one person told me having more focused time with his children would make him feel more satisfied when he is at home. Eating a more balanced diet topped the list for several people, and a few mentioned getting more sleep. And some, like me, said better meal planning would make them happier.

Significantly, none of the people I talked to mentioned any material possessions that would make their lives better. In fact, most of the changes people wanted to make had nothing to do with money or possessions. The more I talked to people, the clearer it became that we don’t necessarily need bigger paychecks, expensive belongings, or major life overhauls to lead more satisfying lives. What we need instead is to take smaller, more deliberate steps to create the lives we desire.

Being reminded of this inspires me to take the small step of planning meals. My meal plans may not spell out specific menus, but they could list items we have in the house that we could eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Whether meal preparation that day falls to my husband or to me, a general plan will ease the decisions about what to eat. By planning ahead, my grocery shopping could become more streamlined, as well.

What small, deliberate step could you make? Start today, and you’ll be on your way to the satisfying life you truly want.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Spending money on what you value brings real happiness

My husband and I have a good life. We have flexible work schedules and a home in the country where we grow a large garden and keep a few chickens. We’ve been known to float homemade rafts and dangle our toes in the nearby creek with our four children, and to eat s’mores made in our fire pit for dinner.

In general, I’d say we live a slow, deliberate life. We don’t have television reception where we live, and we have no cable. And we have pay-as-we-go cell phone plans because we don’t get service in our area. Our two cars have a combined total of over 330,000 miles on them, and we do almost all of our shopping for clothes and other household needs at thrift stores.

Now, it’s quite possible that the idea of going without cable, weeding a garden and paying 10 cents a minute for cell phone calls might literally sound like torture to you. And that’s OK—because my definition of a good life cannot (and should not) be the same as yours.

Too often, people look around at what others are doing and buying, and decide that those things are necessary for a good life. And so begins a vicious (and often debt-ridden) cycle, where other people’s lives and possessions become the measure of our happiness. The result is that happiness becomes elusive, always just one purchase or activity out of reach.

This isn’t to say that material possessions don’t have the potential to improve your happiness quotient. In fact, I unequivocally believe they do—as long as the things you buy reflect what you sincerely value. My husband and I, for example, value nature and look for ways to spend more time outdoors.

Accordingly, we invested in a 1978 pop-up camper last summer. It’s got brown plaid seat covers, gold linoleum and a few dents here and there, but it suits our family well right now. We also saved for and built a screened porch last winter. We knew we wanted a room that, for three seasons of the year, would shelter us from the weather and keep us sequestered from mosquitos. Both the camper and the porch have improved the quality of our lives by giving us more ways to enjoy the outdoors.

Figuring out what you value isn’t always easy, but it’s worth the effort to do it. Begin by asking yourself a simple question: What is important to me? If you can, list at least five things. The things you list will be your unique values. When you identify them, and start making decisions based on them, you will be happier and more satisfied with your life.

My own list includes beauty, creativity, family, flexibility and, as I already mentioned, nature. With this list at the top of my mind, I am better equipped to make decisions about how I do and do not wish to spend my time and money. Sure, I may still admire a friend’s new car or the fashionable way she dresses, but I don’t value driving a new vehicle or wearing trendy clothing. I have learned that I get genuine satisfaction from spending my money to outfit our camper with the supplies we need for a weekend getaway, or to create a playhouse for our children.

When you understand what you value, you’re more prepared to create a budget that actually works. Your budget will help you focus on spending your money in ways that will help you achieve the good life that you – not your friends or neighbors – really desire.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Anticipating the pleasure ahead adds richness to life

If you were to stop by my house about 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning, you would find me standing at the counter in my kitchen. I’d probably still be sporting pajamas and may very likely be dotted with flour. Our children would be intermittently darting in and out of the room as I rolled out a sticky rectangle of dough. I’d have offers to stir the filling, and I’d be fielding arguments about who got to make the frosting last time.

“Saturday morning cinnamon rolls,” as they’ve come to be called at our house, mark the end of our week. Making these rolls is a simple ritual, but one that is already deeply rooted in my family’s story. It’s what we do together on Saturdays, a tradition that gives us something to anticipate.

As parents, we want to help our children anticipate good things, to celebrate the pleasure of looking forward to moments we have planned. Fortunately, young children don’t need a lot of prompting to relish the excitement of good things to come. At our house, it’s just a simple, “Do you know what tomorrow is?” reminder when we put them to bed on Friday. They squirm and chatter about cinnamon rolls as we close their doors for the night.

The notion of Saturday morning cinnamon rolls may not be squirm-worthy to you, but there is a great deal of value in learning (or rather relearning) the art of anticipation. Anticipation can fuel hope and become a counterpoint to the general busyness, and the sometimes mundane moments, of daily life. Anticipation lets you relish the best of what is to come, and it is a worthy defense against expectation.

Unlike anticipation, expectation tends to leave you disappointed. You don’t have to be an adult long to realize how often circumstances don’t turn out as you might have planned. It happens virtually every day, in things big and small: Your offer on a house is turned down, you get overlooked for a promotion or you don’t get the birthday gift you asked for. And when you’ve expected a certain result that doesn’t work out, you can easily feel deflated, even angry.

Disappointments are a natural part of life, but you can have fewer of them when you learn to shift your focus from expectation to anticipation. You can start doing this by giving yourself more good things to anticipate.

In other words, deliberately plan – and then do – things that will boost your happiness, either as one-time events or ongoing rituals. Organize a picnic with your friends or family. Meet a friend for coffee, visit your favorite bookstore or antique shop, go fishing or start a weekend breakfast tradition, such as freshly brewed coffee and blueberry scones on the porch.

You can also look for intentional ways to savor good things to come. Get a small notebook, or even a small piece of scratch paper. Write today’s date on it and write down something you’re looking forward to today. Next, ask yourself what you are looking forward to tomorrow, next week and next month. The very act of chronicling the things you’re anticipating will help you enjoy those experiences even more.

As for me, I’m looking forward to digging in the dirt when I get home today. Tomorrow, I’m anxious to make headway on a major project at work. Next week, I’m anticipating some of the first fresh greens from the garden. And next month, I’m looking forward to taking a weekend family vacation.

What about you? What good things are you anticipating in the days to come?

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Relaxing without shopping made for a memorable vacation

My husband and I have just returned from five glorious days of soaking in the Mexican sun. At the outset, the goal of our vacation was simple: do nothing. No meal planning or chasing dust bunnies. No worrying about the ketchup handprints on the back door or about getting everyone to bed at a decent hour. Nope. This vacation was intended for lounging by the pool, dangling toes in the water and walking on the beach.

We paid for a trip to an all-inclusive resort so that our expenses would be finite—no leaving in search of a restaurant or something to entertain us. Instead, we planned to settle in and enjoy the best our resort had to offer, which included nightly shows and such personal touches as a chocolate fountain with fruit skewers served in the lobby.

It didn’t take long, however, for our “do nothing” goal to be challenged. In fact, the moment we walked into the lobby, a handsome and plucky hotel concierge tried to arrange a special breakfast where we could learn about all the benefits of purchasing a resort membership. He plied us with offers of a couple’s massage and cold hard cash.

Not long after that, the travel company we used to book our vacation had arranged for a representative to meet us to schedule our return transfer. In truth, he was trying to sell us tour packages.

Add to this offers made to have our photograph taken with the Benito the monkey, with a pair of beautiful macaws and a long-tailed lizard. We could have bought silver jewelry from the young men walking up and down the beach, purchased a new swimsuit from a poolside kiosk or jumped on a nearby boat for a parasailing or snorkeling adventure.

Everywhere we went, someone, somewhere was trying to sell us something. In fact, if I had a dollar for every time my husband and I said “no thank you,” we probably could have paid for most of our trip. And though having Benito the monkey perch on top of my head for a photo wasn’t exactly a tempting prospect, I did find myself browsing the racks of swimsuits and cover-ups near the pool.

In the end, we resisted all the offers to go and do and buy, reminding ourselves that the goal of our vacation was simply to relax. Neither Benito nor a new swimsuit were ends to that goal. Our overarching vacation goal served as a slide rule, of sorts. It helped us to filter through all the messages we were getting and to stay focused on doing what we had set out to do.

Our experience in Mexico reminds me how essential goals are to all of life. They’re really the most effective way to ensure that you remain focused on doing and buying those things that bring you true satisfaction.

At home and virtually everywhere you go, some company or individual is trying to convince you to buy what they’re selling. The messages may be subtler than those of our hotel concierge, but they are present nevertheless.

Decide what you want. Put it in writing and use what you have written to guide all of your spending decisions. My husband and I don’t regret spending a single penny on our vacation, but we probably couldn’t say that if we were staring down a picture of us posing with Benito.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Traveling light saves money, hassle and stress

The last time I was on an airplane, I was traveling with three small children, which necessitated bringing two umbrella strollers, three car seats, and a suitcase full of things like onesies, bibs, sippy cups, diaper rash cream and baby spoons. By the time we reached our destination, I felt like a beleaguered pack mule.

On my upcoming vacation, I’m planning on a much more relaxing flight (reading or watching an in-flight movie, instead of passing out stickers and lollipops for three hours) and I’m only packing what fits in a single carry-on.

I’m getting ready for the first vacation my husband and I have taken alone in nine years. The last thing I want is to be bogged down with too much stuff. By packing light, I won’t be subject to airline baggage fees ($25 per checked item), and I can bypass the check-in counter and the baggage claim carousel, saving myself extra time and hassle. Plus, I’ll be certain to arrive at my destination with my luggage in tow—no lost or delayed bags.

What’s more, by limiting myself to a single carry-on, I will only be able to pack the essentials. This means I won’t be lugging around dead weight (like three extra pairs of shoes), and I won’t need the assistance of a skycap or a bell hop (and therefore I won’t need extra cash for tipping).

While there are plenty of reasons to pack light, it does require extra thought and planning. Travel experts assert that one of the reasons many people overpack is because they fear the unknown. These unknowns become “what ifs.” And ultimately, those “what ifs” result in travelers bringing too much stuff—the proverbial “bringing everything but the kitchen sink.”

Travel often comes with a few hiccups, but minimizing the unknown is one way to help you travel light. To prepare for our upcoming trip, I first got a handle on the type of weather we can expect, and I downloaded a few sample packing lists from fellow travelers. This general information will help me get a more specific idea what I should, or shouldn’t, bring.

I’ve also made sure to review the Transportation Security Administration’s rules on what I can pack in my carry-on, specifically as it relates to liquid and gel limitations. Accordingly, I stocked up on 3-ounce travel bottles and bought trial-size versions of products I commonly use. Having to replace an oversized item that gets confiscated, such as a pricey facial cleanser, could end up being more expensive than simply checking a bag in the first place.

Learning the airline’s carry-on size limitations is another way to minimize unexpected expenses. If it turned out that my bag didn’t meet the airline’s requirements, I would be required to check it and pay a higher fee than if I had prepaid the baggage fee.

Finally, I plan to use a few savvy packing strategies. One of these strategies will be to pack clothing in two colors; I’ll be able to wear those items interchangeably and create several outfits from just a few key pieces. And since the weather is likely to be very warm when we arrive at our destination, I’ll pack light, wrinkle-free separates, because the last thing I want to do on vacation is be uncomfortable (or have to iron).

With a little advance planning, you can pack a small suitcase that holds everything you need—and nothing more. In the process, you’ll save money and will be able to focus on the most important aspect of a vacation, which is to simply relax.