Tuesday, January 5, 2010

A Capital Solution

Until recently, my philosophy has been: "Have a problem? Throw money at it! Have a project? Throw money at it!" Under that philosophy, I squandered more hard-earned money than I care to think about!

One of the most challenging shifts that I am making these days is to learn how to solve problems and accomplish goals while keeping as much money as possible in my wallet.

As I examine my buying behavior, I realize that my old philosophy still tempts me today.

When I hacked off the tip of my thumb last week, my initial impulse was to rush to the emergency room. Sounds like a rational reaction, right? And if money wasn't so tight, I would have done just that. Instead, I sought advice from off-the-clock medical professionals I knew, and checked the internet for advice. Though many advised taking care of the wound myself, I stared at the missing portion of my thumb and felt crazy for not going to the ER.

After the holiday weekend, I had my family doctor examine my thumb, and found out that I was doing everything right, and with continued care, my thumb would be fine.

The ER would have probably cleaned and dressed the wound, and discharged me with a bill somewhere between $500 and $1000 dollars.  In retrospect, skipping the ER was the prudent thing to do, but it took a lot of persuasion by my fiancee to convince me that my injury would not lead to complications resulting in gangrene and sure death.

I am now left with the task of caring for the wound until it heals. My initial impulse was to dash to the drug store and clear the shelves of gauze, bandages, ointments, and whatever new state-of-the-art wound dressing kits caught my eye. I wanted crisp, new boxes filled with shiny, new hermetically-sealed goodies, because as I thought, only the newest products would do a proper job of nurturing my thumb back to life.

My astute fiancee reminded me that we have stockpiles of first aid materials in our cabinets (which we had thoughtfully organized last Spring). My impulse was to discount the items we had on hand, because in my mind, they were old, outdated, ineffective, and by gum, I wanted something new and shiny for my brand-new wound! The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle bandages we had were so passé  - I couldn't be seen wearing something so out of style - I had to at least find some South Park-themed wound dressings to save face.

I started thinking about this mindset and marveling (as well as being horrified), at how ingrained my consumer thinking is. It's like a scarcity mentality. There's a voice in my head that constantly tells me, "You don't have everything you need - you must go to the store and buy the things you lack."

It's like there is this never-ending void that is my state of being, a void which can only be addressed by buying something new and shiny - a void that can only be sated temporarily, at best.

What concerns me even more is this other aspect of the mindset, which states, "Things are valuable and coveted while they sit on the store shelves, but once you get them home and in your possession, they are immediately sullied and lose their value." That's probably true empirically, like the new car that jettisons $10K in value when you drive it off the lot, but it's the emotional belief that causes so much trouble.

Once I pull a product out of the shopping bag, tear open its box (or its infuriating impenetrable plastic blister pak), and place it among my other stuff, its newness suddenly vanishes, the item becomes commonplace, and the burning desire to dash out and buy another new shiny thing is rejuvenated.

My fiancee looked through the first-aid supplies we had on hand, and produced telfa pads, gauze, antibiotic ointment, and first aid tape. She was right. We already had everything we need.

Now there's a mantra worth repeating as often as possible: "I already have everything I need!"

Repeating this phrase is helping me work my way out of the consumer mindset much like an ice climber digs in his or her crampons to struggle out of a dark blue ice chasm (I know, it's a schmaltzy simile, but that's what comes to mind when it's 13° outside).

I'm learning that when faced with a project or problem, the first thing to do is look around. 90% of the time, I find that I already have the resources I need. If I don't have what I need, step two is to try and fashion a solution using available materials. Only when all else fails do I pull out my wallet, and even then, I scour the planet for the best deal, and buy second-hand if at all possible.

I'll leave you with a quote I once read in the book "Hard Times" by Studs Terkel. Terkel spent part of the 1950s interviewing people who had lived through the Great Depression. His book is packed with insights. One woman Terkel interviewed said this: "Security is knowing what I can do without."

I'll add that security is also knowing that most of what we need, we already have.

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