Back when I was younger…
I hated hearing those words when I was younger, much as my children hate hearing them now. “I know, I know Dad. When you were our age, the Internet didn’t exist yet…you did not have a microwave…there weren’t cell phones…you didn’t have cable…”
One thing that I was was very flexible. I ran track and cross-country all four years of high school. Yeah, I was pretty good but if there is one thing that I cannot stand, it is some middle aged guy talking about his glory days as a high school sports star. I wasn’t a star, I was just pretty good.
We stretched for up to a half hour before our cross-country or track practices, and I could do it easily without breaking a sweat, pulling muscles or losing my breath. That was about thirty years ago.
The type of stretching that I am trying to embrace now is to be more content with the resources that I have, stretching them out to meet our needs if not all our wants.
Every day, I think about and stress over money. I want to make more – more money to buy things, more time to spend on recreational activities with my family, more money to support the activities and services that my family does and needs, more money to fix things that need fixing.
Perhaps like you and millions if not billions of other people, I focus on measuring success in terms of the wealth and resources that I am able to attain. I am not selfish about it. I simply want to provide for my family the best that I can.
Instead, the concept of “stretching” is about learning to work with the resources that you already have including time, money, connections, knowledge and objects in your possession.
The past two days, I read Stretch: Unlock the Power of Less – and Achieve More Than You Ever Imagined by Scott Sonenshein. Two things out of the ordinary for me about this: One, I checked it out from the library, which is both good and bad in my case. Good insofar as I did not purchase it, as I have been wont to do when I come across an interesting book. Bad insofar as I still have hundreds of books piled up throughout various places in my home that need to be written about and moved along before I get more.
Two, this book was published this year. Most of the books in what I call the “Change Your Way of Thinking/Improve Your Life/Become Wealthy” genre are from years ago. One thing that I always write is that it does not matter when a book was published unless it is about current events. This book is no better or worse than many that I have read.
There were so many interesting concepts in this book, it is difficult to decide what to share. I had seventeen major points that I learned, but am going to share only a few with you and urge you to check it out of your local library like I did if you want to learn to be more content with what you have than always striving for more.
It’s About Attitude
Stretching is learning a new set of attitudes and skills that comes from a simple but powerful shift from wanting more resources to embracing and acting on making the very most of what we already have in hand.
As alluring as the sentiment of always striving to obtain more wealth, move up at work, purchase better and more expensive objects may seem, it often fails to produce the best outcomes.
Sonenshein calls what most of us do chasing and those of us who frequently rely upon that philosophy as chasers. This runs contrary from most of the other self-help books that I have read, including by top gurus like Tony Robbins and Robert Kiyosaki, who urge the reader to pursue greater wealth by harnessing our own potential and making better use of our own abilities.
Soneneshein writes that when we are already successful and satisfied, complacency sets in. However, as we stay the course the world continues evolving around us – jobs, technology, competitors, family and friends all continue to evolve.
In these situations, our assets and possessions decline in value. Case in point, my family’s cell phones, television sets and cars were just fine a few years ago. But as everything became “smart” as they say or connected to the Internet as I say, many of our possessions have become outdated.
I can still watch any show, movie or sporting event that I want to on my tube TV, I can still call or text people with my phone, and I can still drive to work and back on my old beater Subaru, but as a “chaser,” I want to and plan to upgrade and replace these items in the next few years.
Remember, as I drive an inferior car to almost anybody, watch an inferior TV to nearly anybody, including most people on public assistance, and use an inferior phone, I am still Paying Myself (or my wife) twenty-six times per year on payday and have also squirreled away nearly $200 K for my children’s college education.
Sonenshein urges us not to become complacent, allowing the rapidly changing world around us to make us an inevitable victim to outside forces.
The timing was good for me to read this, as I have been feeling sorry for myself of late with my anxiety-producing work situation. The sooner that I embrace that as uncertainty about the world, my job, and my family’s lives increases, the case for me to stretch what I already have becomes stronger.
The Grass Is Always Greener
I just completed what many a middle aged Middle Class Guy suburbanite like me has spent many an hour doing. Mowing my lawn.
In my case, I only mowed the front, which amounts to around 10,000 square feet of grass, with a push mower. Because I over treated my front lawn last week with Weed & Feed from the Home Depot in an effort to kill the clover which had been overtaking the front lawn, there were many spots where I burned away everything including the grass.
Thus, nearly all of our neighbors’ lawns are greener than ours.
Sonenshein writes that the ways people maintain their lawns tells us a lot about ourselves and the choices we make. When chasing, it is easy to get caught up in pursuing things because others have or want them.
In a study of residents in the greater Nashville area by researchers at Vanderbilt University, they of course found that the desire to keep up with their neighbors motivated homeowners to direct a great deal of resources to get greener grass, a finding that held up after accounting for age, education and property values.
Because our homes represent the ultimate marker of success and are high-profile places to show off that success, the richness of our lawns reflects the wealth of the people who live inside.
It is thinking like this that has led me to spend, or what I consider waste, many hours and hundreds of dollars since this spring in an effort to make my vast lawn look presentable, if not nice. All the time while I mow, thinking how nice it would be to live in a nicer neighborhood but with a smaller front lawn.
Visible markers, like our cars, phones, houses, the size of our office, our incomes and the greenness of our lawns are all things that we use to compare ourselves to others. The more measurable the resource, the easier it is to compare with others.
The allure of these comparisons is that it allows us to gauge how we are doing and, contrary to the author’s basic premise, gives us something to shoot for. For this reason, these comparisons are nearly impossible to avoid.
Although I am a Middle Class Guy in an extremely middle class neighborhood, I do have relatives, friends, colleagues and people who I know through my profession who live in lavish neighborhoods filled with executives, doctors, lawyers and successful business owners.
On Facebook, my wife often points out where her Facebook “friends” are off to, including a former friend of mine from high school and college who retired soon after the age of forty to travel the world after making millions as a self-employed options trader.
The mundane nature of my own life, with a few interesting trips here and there and a few interesting economic development projects at work, would not make for great Facebook posts.
The many posts from my wife’s Facebook “friends” just make me feel bad when I see all the places that they are traveling and all the fun things that they are doing.
There are others, but that is one of the reasons why I am not personally on Facebook. I do administer a page that I created that has over 5,000 Likes, but that is work-related.
I hate Facebook, but it is now a permanent fixture in the world.
Sonenshein cites several studies that show us when “chasing,” we rack up as many resources as possible, not because we have a specific goal in mind but rather just to collect more.
I have personally been guilty of this when it comes to books and tee-shirts, of all things. I could probably open a tee-shirt store, but instead will work at filtering some of them out. I am already working at parting with many of my hoard of books.
For us chasers, the amount of resources that we acquire serves as a measuring stick. It sometimes leads us to get more stuff, but that stuff often does not help us reach our goals and, in some cases, burns us out.
As the gap between the haves and the have-nots continues to widen year after year, the American dream of having more and better things is harder to achieve than it was a decade before. I am beginning to think, but have not yet accepted, that this is as good as it is going to get for this Middle Class Guy.
Comedian George Carlin put it best when describing the pursuit of the American Dream.
Frugal Not Cheap
I am a frugal person, but not cheap.
Sonenshein writes that most people don’t have a positive opinion of frugal people or organizations. They consider them either stingy or poor.
I take offense at that, but not as much as I used to. In January of 2015, my family had a reunion and my mother’s 70th birthday party at my sister’s beautiful house in Uptown in New Orleans.
Over the course of several days in town, my son was commenting on my own lack of traveling and spending more in general. Especially in comparison with my brother and my sister, who travel frequently and both live upper middle class lifestyles. My brother-in-law came to my defense, but it was what my mother called a backhanded compliment.
He told my son that his father is very frugal. “He doesn’t drive a Lexus or spend money on himself.” Something of that nature. I was a little taken aback, not having thought of myself as particularly cheap.
Later on, I looked up the definition of frugal. Dictionary.com defines frugal as economical in use or expenditure; prudently saving or sparing; not wasteful. Well, that fits me to a tee.
Now than two years later, I embrace being frugal, follow some bloggers about their frugality and will also be checking some books out about living frugally in the coming weeks.
Sonenshein writes that frugal people emphasize long-term objectives over short-term pleasures, reuse what they have instead of buying more and feel freer from conventions, making us less susceptible to social comparisons that lead to chasing.
By the same token, I dropped about a thousand dollars over three days a few weeks ago travelling with my family to the Starved Rock area, I hand my daughter twenties nearly daily for her outings to local pools, the trampoline park that she went to last night, local festivals and what not.
I shelled out $2,400 per month to a local private college where our son attends on about a half scholarship and also hand him a few twenties per week for spending, and stock away money from every paycheck into our retirement accounts. I also automatically contribute $400 on the first of every month to our daughter’s 529 account, and it used to be $500 per month for many years.
So please: you can call me frugal, but please don’t call me cheap.
Finally, Sonenshein urges the reader to stop planning every detail and just start moving. Spontaneous action frees us to learn and to adjust our actions to meet our goals.
Too often, we cling to the commonsense appeal of planning, which serves us well when the future is predictable.
When it is not predictable, like in most real life instances, by shifting to acting and becoming better observers of our surroundings, we develop skills to improvise with what we have at hand.
Sonenshein concludes by urging us to change our mindsets from endlessly chasing for more and more, to making better uses of the resources that we already have.
It is something easier written or urged to do than done.
As a middle aged Middle Class Man residing in the Midwest, who has been a good worker bee in the hive for over twenty-four years, this line socked me in the gut: “This change in mind-set takes us away from a dehumanizing rat race for resources that is impossible to win and provides us with a way to make do with and magnify what we already have.”
If you can embrace this line of philosophy, I applaud you. I am going to do my best to embrace this way of thinking, even though I still plan on chasing more as well. If I cannot achieve or obtain the more that I want over the next few years, I suppose that at the ripe old age of fifty I may as well admit that I have not succeeded in chasing and should try to make do with what I do have.
I can only dream now of how liberating it would be to stop worrying about what I do not have, but want to, and to appreciate what I do have.