Friday, February 25, 2011

Before you buy it, ask yourself if you really need it

By Carey Denman

Our 4-year-old son is obsessed with baseball. His face lights up when he catches a snippet of a game on television, or even when he sees a drawing of a ball and bat in one of his activity books. He winds up like a pro and has the kick-the-dirt action of baseball players down pat.

Several months ago, while we were walking through the sporting equipment aisle, he announced, “I need a baseball mitt.” I reminded him that a baseball mitt wasn’t a need, but a want. He cleverly countered with, “If I’m going to play baseball, I do need a mitt.” He was right. He couldn’t play baseball without a mitt, but I was amazed by how quickly and adeptly he was able to spin the situation in his favor.

Of course, it isn’t only children who confuse their wants with their needs; my husband and I are sometimes guilty of doing the same thing. What’s interesting about co-mingling our wants and needs is that we often do so unconsciously. What starts out as a want unwittingly turns into a need.

Take the situation with our home computer, for example. After the hard drive died, we basically had two options: invest in a new hard drive and spend about $200 for the repair, or buy a new computer, which would cost us $400 to $600. At first, we had planned on spending the lesser amount and repairing what we had, but as we looked at new computers and the dizzying array of options available, we slowly began to shift our focus. We started saying things like, “We could really use a computer with more memory.” “A faster computer would be nice.” And, “With a bigger monitor, our kids could watch movies in the kitchen.”

Without really noticing, we had changed our dialogue. When discussing our plans with family and friends, we started saying, “The hard drive in our computer is bad. We need a new computer.” In reality, we wanted a new computer because we got caught up in the idea of all the extras we could enjoy.

I wouldn’t say we’re kicking ourselves over buying a new computer. We had the money set aside to buy it, and we will certainly appreciate increased browsing and download speeds, along with a larger, clearer monitor. Nevertheless, the experience reminds us that it’s difficult to make wise financial decisions when we let our wants become our needs.

Part of that difficulty arises because wants and needs in a consumer-driven society are often relative. Where you live and who you spend time with helps shape what constitutes a “need” in your life. If all your friends tend to communicate with each other via text messages, for example, then you’re more apt to believe you need a cell phone with texting capabilities, too.

A pervading sense of entitlement is another reason we blur the line between wants and needs. When you work hard, you might feel that you “deserve” a vacation, or a massage, a new set of tools or some other special reward. It’s easier to spend money unconsciously with an attitude that says, “I am owed this.”

It’s not always easy to be honest about our wants and needs. Our needs are simple. What isn’t simple is learning to look carefully at our lives and sort through the messages—our own and others—that tell us to do and buy and upgrade. Thoughtfully spending money on what we truly need and want – instead of buying to keep up with trends – can help us keep our budgets focused on what’s most important to us.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Investing your time, creativity can build richer relationships

By Carey Denman

Of our four children, one is particularly “spirited,” which is another way of saying that the boy is an expert at sniffing out trouble. Just yesterday, he was happily occupied with a small, battery-operated vacuum cleaner. When I looked away for a moment, he decided to take the brush attachment from the vacuum I was using, dip it into the toilet, and “help me” by “scrubbing” the floor.

Moments like these often leave me frazzled and worn out, a familiar state for virtually anyone in the trenches of parenthood. This is true whether you’re tending to a newborn, chasing a toddler, running a tween to baseball practice or dealing with teenage angst.

In the midst of the chaos and the fatigue, the busyness and the routines, my husband and I have learned how difficult it can be to connect with our children in deep and meaningful ways. But we have also learned that, above all else, connectedness is what we want and what our children need.

Still, connectedness doesn’t always come naturally for us; honestly, we’ve found that it can be easier to divert or distract our children than to connect with them. In our home, movies often end up being our go-to diversion. Television, video games, the Internet, cell phone apps, a barrage of extracurricular activities, or buying new material possessions can just as easily serve as distractions and time fillers that keep us from building the relationships we really want.

Although diversions do give us an occasional break from the demands of parenthood, my husband and I want to invest in the relationship we have with our children. We try to do this by spending our time and our money in ways that enrich our family.

We often spend time together on simple activities. We pull out board games, do artwork at the dining room table together, include our children in meal preparation (as painful as it might be to wait for a 6-year-old to finish peeling three carrots), and try to engage in the things they love. We drive Matchbox cars and sword fight, sip water from tiny tea cups and swaddle dolls.

In the evenings when we’re all home together, we gather in the living room to read. One of the tangible investments we’ve made in our children is a library of beautiful and engaging books. We’ve received some as gifts; the others we’ve picked up at rummage sales and secondhand stores for a dollar or less.

We prefer investing our money in books and playthings that encourage our children to use their time creatively – and that sometimes allow us to jump in and play with them. We like simple, low-tech items such as new cookie cutters that can be play dough tools, wooden bowls for their little kitchen, thrifted dress-up clothes or paint sets and sketchbooks.

Finding ways to connect with older children can be challenging, but it is just as essential. Start by committing to 30 minutes of uninterrupted time with them. Resist the urge to send a quick text message, answer the phone, send an e-mail, or start dinner. Challenge your children, too, to take a break from their electronic devices to spend time with you.

Being wholly present may take some practice and effort, but investing in your children, regardless of their age, has rich rewards.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Banish winter blues with flowers, friends and fun projects

By Carey Denman

When I pad down the stairs in the early morning light, l instinctively head to the thermostat. On this morning, it reads 11 below zero. I shiver and let the familiar sense of dread settle in, wondering how we’ll spend another day together indoors.

Faced with perpetual gray skies and freezing temperatures, I battle the impulse to hunker down and wait for winter to pass. It’s almost as if I am holding my breath, waiting for spring’s return. Despite these feelings, however, I know I don’t want to let one day blur into the next. I want to do my best to celebrate what I have right now.

In Calvin Coolidge’s words, “We cannot do everything at once, but we can do something at once.” So even if I can’t eradicate all my winter angst in a single swoop, I can make small, deliberate choices to find joy. It’s even possible to do so without breaking my budget.

One budget-friendly way to lift your spirits, according to research from Rutgers University, is with a bouquet of fresh flowers. According to a series of published reports from Professor Jeanette Haviland-Jones and her colleagues, flowers have an “immediate and long-term effect on emotional reactions and social behavior,” for both men and women. In other words, flowers are clinically proven to reduce stress and make people happier. Investing in a small supermarket bouquet can cost as little as $5, but it’s a simple and cost-effective way to improve your mood.

Similarly, making an effort to cultivate relationships is a low-cost way to beat the winter doldrums. Try gathering friends to share a meal or enjoy a game night together. You don’t have to put on a full spread for everyone; you can make a big pot of soup and ask guests to bring bread and dessert to share. Or you can gather after meal time and serve a light snack.

You can easily elevate simple, inexpensive fare to impressive party food. For example, a bowl of popcorn topped with crumbled bacon (and some of the pan drippings) makes a crowd-pleasing snack. Pair this with rich candy bar hot chocolate and gather around the fireplace or the coffee table for a game or good conversation.

Getting outside is another easy, inexpensive way to squeeze some joy out of winter – even if it’s difficult to find the motivation to do so. Take a brisk walk, go sledding, or build a snowman. When you’re engaged in physical activity, your brain is releasing endorphins. These chemical messengers reduce your perception of pain, boost your immune system, and generally promote physical and emotional well being.

Learning a new skill or reviving an old interest can have a similar positive effect on your mood, as I found out when I recently pulled out the pasta maker I inherited from my grandmother. The process of rolling out pasta dough, and then slowly turning the crank on the machine, was almost meditative. I stood in the kitchen and surveyed the long strands of pasta with great satisfaction.

If you’re looking for ways to banish winter doldrums, make a list of three things you’ve always wanted to do or that you haven’t been able to finish. Perhaps you have a craft or cleaning project that has gone undone; now may be the perfect time to finish that novel or reorganize your closet.

When you make it a point to enjoy what you have right now, you might find that, instead of the winter blues, you have a warm sense of satisfaction—and that’s something worth celebrating.