“I Don’t Want to Be Ordinary” — Can This Woman Escape the Ordinary?

Do you want to escape the ordinary? Do you dream of the day you can say goodbye to your job and travel? It's completely possible. Life is what you make it.

A Reader Says: I Don't Want to Be OrdinaryHere’s a recent reader question that grabbed my heart. One reader said:

“I am a single woman with children who believes I can live a great life traveling and making life grand, in spite of the statistics out there. Do you think its possible? Can you offer some saving/investing tips?”

I’m so glad you wrote to me. YES, I think it’s possible to live any life that you desire. I absolutely, completely, 100 percent believe that.

Ignore the statistics. You’re not a stat. You’re an outlier. The upper end of the bell curve. You’re unique.

How do I know that? Because you dared to ask. You wrote to me — a complete stranger — for advice. Most people wouldn’t do that. Most people would sit on the couch watching American Idol reruns.

Most people — regardless of their age, income, family or financial situation — don’t have the courage to dream big. Most people spend the whole day saying self-defeating things like:

  • “I’ll never be rich.”
  • “I could never afford that.”
  • “People like me don’t get to do things like that.”
  • “Good for her, she gets to galavant and have fun, but I have to (fill-in-the-blank with crummy obligation).”

And you know what? Whether you think you can, or think you can’t — either way, you’re right. Life is completely what you make it. Especially if you live in a free, first-world country. Then there’s really nothing stopping you.

Regarding the second half of your question — do I have any saving or investing advice? Of course I do. But I won’t tell you to clip coupons (ugghh) or invest in index funds (though I love ’em!), because those are tactics, and tactical maneuvers are secondary.

The best advice I can give anyone is to align your spending with your values and priorities.

Almost every financial stress that I see is the result of people spending in a way that’s misaligned with their priorities. It leads to staggering debt, bankrupt college funds, meager retirements, and — perhaps most terrifying of all — cubicle jobs. Eek!

But when you can kick back and say, “The most critical thing is food, water, medicine and safety. Let me make sure I can pay for that, not just today but years into the future. And after that, my real dream is …”

That’s the moment when driving an old car no longer feels like a sacrifice. Would you rather drive an Audi or quit your crummy cubicle job? Would you rather have granite countertops, or the flexibility to take a major career risk?

(By the way, I realize I might sound like I’m anti-luxury items. I’m not. I’m pro-anything that’s a conscious priority. And I’m anti-anything that’s not.)

In my own experience:

When I was 22, I wanted to travel more than anything else in the world. I wanted it so badly I could taste it. I thought about it constantly. And I aligned my spending with this top value.

That meant that I lived incredibly frugally. I lived in a tiny, tiny studio apartment (I could reach the kitchen sink from the bed — I’m not kidding.) I drove a car that was older than me. I wore thrift-store clothes. And I saved almost $30,000, which allowed me to travel the world nonstop for more than two years.

But another example:

Right now, my priorities have shifted. I don’t want to do a two-year round-the-world trip anymore. I want to build streams of passive income — so that my money can buy time. I want to live in a comfortable home, work on a MacBook, and enjoy a gym membership — even if it comes at the expense of travel. So my spending has shifted to align with my new priorities.

That’s what it’s really all about. All the details that financial bloggers talk about — insurance premiums, coupons, the price of gas — those are all just details. That’s minutia.

Step back and take the big-picture view: is your money flowing in the same direction as your values and priorities? If so, you’re in the right place. If not, make a change.

It’s as simple as that.

It’s Not “Luck.” It’s Lifestyle Design.

Lifestyle design has become a trendy phrase, but I’m not sure if people understand it. Designing your life means ruthlessly curating. Here's how I do it.

Lifestyle Design

A few years ago I went camping in southeastern Utah with a group of friends.

“I love this place,” I said, gazing at the towering sandstone canyons. Then, ever so casually, I commented, “Hmm. Maybe I’ll come live here for a summer. Just two or three months. Could be fun.”

One of my friends glanced at me.

“You’re lucky,” she said, “that your line of work allows you to live like that. My field won’t let me do that.”

Lucky? What? It’s not luck. It’s the result — I’m sorry to tell you — of sacrifice, work and careful consideration. (And “your field” doesn’t stop you from doing anything. You stop yourself.)

Lose 20 Pounds? Gee, You’re So Lucky!

Some people will characterize any success you experience as luck. If you lose twenty pounds, they’ll tell you you’re “lucky” to have a svelte figure. If you master a skill, they’ll tell you you’re “lucky” to be so talented. If you’re a top performer and compensated accordingly, they’ll say you’re “lucky” to be well-paid.

They have a point: We’re lucky to live in a developed, civilized world. We wouldn’t have these opportunities if electricity, indoor plumbing, aviation, germ theory, smallpox eradication and the Internet hadn’t predated us. (Thanks, whoever invented that stuff. You rock.)

Beyond that baseline, our success isn’t the result of luck. It’s the result of sharp decision-making.

Let’s take my friend’s example. She says I’m “lucky” to work in a field that allows me to be location independent (a phrase that means I can work from anyone on earth with an Internet connection).

But that was a lifestyle choice. I could have picked among a fascinating array of careers: Literary agent. Television reporter. Exotic wildlife trainer.

I would’ve enjoyed these. But I wouldn’t be as free.

So instead, I write and edit online personal finance articles. What?! How random. How obscure. Where did that come from? How the heck did I land a career path like that?

Answer: I decided that freedom and independence trump all else, including stability and glamour. Then I rejected any opportunity that didn’t fit those qualities. That’s not the result of luck. That’s the result of careful cultivation.

(That doesn’t imply that those are the “best” qualities. Those are just the traits I prioritize most. You, my awesome Afford Anything reader, must choose your own adventure.)

Lifestyle Design is a 24/7 Exercise

“Lifestyle design” has become a trendy phrase in the past few years, but I’m not sure how many people contemplate the meaning of those words. “Designing” your life entails ruthlessly curating, the way a boutique owner picks the items that sit on her shelves or a gallery owner selects the art that hangs on his walls.

This demands two tasks. The first task is forgoing fun and glamorous experiences that clash with your dreams. In 2008, I almost accepted a job as an editor at a wine magazine. It would have entailed company-paid trips to Italian vineyards, which would’ve rocked. But I’d be on a short leash. I didn’t want that.

The second task is accepting the drawbacks of the jobs that suit your lifestyle. My location-independent work brims with shortcomings. I’m alone all day, which doesn’t suit my outgoing personality. I’m glued to a computer all day, despite being hopelessly un-tech-savvy. Waah, waah, sucks to be me.

No option is perfect. That’s why prioritizing comes into play. Pick the most important attributes. Find work that matches it. Toss yourself into that field, regardless of whether or not you’re qualified (yet). And never look back.

P.S.: To clarify, I do believe that — to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson — “the harder I work, the luckier I get.”

5 Habits That Help Me Save Without Trying

After I started reading personal finance blogs, I started wondering why I never embarked on a rampant spending spree. Lots of people seem to have a story that goes something like this:

I bought wholeheartedly into the “yuppie” lifestyle … we had a gorgeous dining table, but it was stacked full of credit card bills.

– Trent Hamm, The Simple Dollar

I’m not picking on Trent — he’s a fantastic personal finance writer, and I hope he knows I respect him. But I can’t relate to his experience.

I thought about Trent’s “gorgeous dining table” last night as I ate dinner on a table that cost $12.99 from Ikea’s discount section. My pots and pans are a hand-me-down from a friend on active duty in the Army. My couch was a freebie from a neighbor who moved away.

Hmm. My home screams “college student,” but I graduated 7 years ago. And I share the space with my boyfriend, who finished his engineering degree 10 years ago. We could easily afford “nicer” stuff. Why don’t we buy it?

As I mulled over this question, I realized I’ve cultivated a few habits that — as an unintended side effect — prevent me from developing those “wants” that lead to lifestyle inflation.

Habit #1: I Don’t Own a Television

I know, it’s cliche to be one of those anti-TV hipsters, so let me clarify: I love television. I love The Simpsons, The Colbert Report, and yes — I love The Hills, that show about beautiful rich girls living lavishly in Los Angeles.

But too much TV can lead you to compare your lives with the people on-screen. Why don’t I wear designer clothes like Carrie Bradshaw or live in a mansion in Bel-Air?

Our minds tend to see fictional TV characters as role models. These characters don’t need to be “wealthy” to create unrealistic expectations. Look at the cast on Friends, who were far from rich. Their apartment was designed to feel cozy and normal, complete with cooky neighbors and the occasional leak.

Yet no one could afford such a spacious apartment in lower Manhattan on a waitresses’ tips or a sous chef’s wages. Manhattanites, am I wrong?

My avoidance of the screen extends to movies as well. Watch too many flicks featuring a Range Rover driving suburban family with granite countertops, and you’ll start thinking this is “normal.” This is part of being an “adult.”

By the way, I’m not going to harp about advertising or reality television. Those two genres get picked on enough, so I’ll avoid repeating the chorus.

Habit #2: I Take Pride in My Home

From the way I described my apartment, you might imagine it’s a slummy little dump filled with empty beer cans and stale bread.

Not so. (At least, not usually). I take pride in the home, but I don’t equate “pride” with “expensive stuff.” I sweep the floors. I scrub the counters. I painted the walls sunshine yellow. I grow tomatoes and basil on the balcony and, weather permitting, I open the windows to let in fresh air. I even splurged on a $40 painting I bought on a trip to South America that looks gorgeous against our sunny yellow walls.

Despite having a small apartment with no guest room, friends are always dropping by. In part this is because I’m in a great location, but in part it’s because the apartment exudes an upbeat, welcoming vibe. The collection of free furniture dotting the space adds to its eclectic, fun feel.

Habit #3: I Take Pride in My Appearance

The same goes for my looks: I buy clothes that look good, not clothes that are on sale. But here’s a secret: you don’t need many clothes, especially if you love the ones you have.

Last week I wore the same dress to dinner with the same friend on Thursday night and Saturday night. Hey, if it looks good, why not wear it again? My dinner companion didn’t even notice.

But don’t take my word for it — Stella Brennan, a then-31-year-old sales representative from Wisconsin, decided to wear just six articles of clothing continuously for a month. No one noticed — not even her husband.

Her conclusion — “I don’t need all of these clothes” — merited its own article in the New York Times.

Habit #4: I Surround Myself With Frugal Friends

Don’t misinterpret that — I don’t pick my friends based on their spending habits. But I seem to attract people into my life who don’t spend lavishly. Some friends are trying to climb out of debt. Some are graduate students. Some work just enough to “cash up” for their next overseas adventure. Some are single moms. Some are struggling artists, some work in the nonprofit sector and some had a baby immediately after grad school.

The common trait? None of them throw around a lot of disposable cash. Sure, we all go out to dinner together on the weekends — but not one of my friends drives a fancy car.

It’s natural to want to keep up with the Joneses. Instead of fighting human nature, why not make sure the Joneses are frugal, too?

Habit #5: I Have Big Dreams

It’s easy to spend money when you’re bored. Money can endlessly entertain you: shopping, fancy restaurants, buying and installing a Playstation — there’s no limit to ways you can spend money to fill your spare time.

But I have big dreams — or rather, big goals — and I fill my time by pursuing them. These goals have changed over the years: lose 15 pounds, write a fiction novel, learn Italian. The common thread is that all these goals are extremely time-consuming and none of them cost much money.

Let’s say I spend $200 on software that helps me learn Italian, and I use that software 10 hours per week for 8 months. The amount of money I’ve invested compared to the amount of time I’ve used it is a far better value than if I spent money on short-term entertainment to fill my boredom.

The same goes for losing 15 pounds. Let’s say I join a gym for $35 a month. I go there 3 times a week for 1.5 hours at a time. This means I’m at the gym for 18 to 24 hours per month for a value of $35. This is a tiny time-to-money exchange compared to how much I’d spend to entertain myself by going out for drinks for just one night.

More importantly, when I’m not at the gym or writing a novel, I’m thinking about my goals. My focus is on things I want to achieve — not things I want to buy.

I could sit around all day writing about time-to-money exchanges, but here’s the real reason that most goals (other than a desire to climb Mt. Everest) can help you save money: your energy gets directed towards that goal, not towards entertaining yourself through spending and consumption.

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Quit Your Job, Travel, and Live Remarkably

I just returned from 10 days in the Caribbean, where I was a bridesmaid in a friend’s wedding. This wedding was particularly poignant because the bride and I were together the day she met her future husband.

It happened three years ago. She and I were trekking in the Himalayas. My bum knee was slowing me down, so she reached the hut below Annapurna Base Camp several hours before I did. By the time I limped into camp, she and a tall, tanned Frenchman were tangled in each others arms.

The couple became inseparable from that moment on. We lost track of each other within a few days — I ventured south to India, they headed north to Tibet.

Eighteen months later, I reconvened with the couple in Central Australia to swap travel stories. We had followed the same basic path — a wide loop across Southeast Asia, followed by a jaunt down to Australia, a standard traveler route — but our timing had always been a few months off. They would enter a country just as I was leaving it or vice versa.

Yet we shared a bond from experiencing the same places and enduring the highs and lows of our distinct lifestyle. Our lives were in our backpacks. We had no jobs, no home, no car. Only a map and a limitless imagination.

Another year passed by. I returned to the U.S. after two and a half years of overseas vagabonding, while they forayed into the “real world” by moving to the Caribbean, where they rejoined the world of the employed, waiting tables at an upscale pizza restaurant. When I flew to their wedding last week, we swapped “settling down” stories.

“I write a personal finance and lifestyle blog,” I told them, and they looked at me blankly.

“I mean, I write about how to live the life you want to live,” I said. Their faces brightened. They knew exactly what I was talking about.

“I write about how to use money to create the lifestyle you dream of living,” I said. “I write about how you should cut ruthlessly on the things you don’t care about, so you can spend lavishly on the things you love.”

The French groom smiled. His English is now smooth, solid, after three years of dating my American friend.

“Everyone asks how I could afford to travel for three years,” he said. “It’s easy. Once you decide to do it, it’s easy.”

Other Friends Ask How I Traveled for Two Years.

Our other friends assume I must be rich. Or that my boyfriend must be ultra-rich. Some people assume I held odd jobs during the trip (I didn’t). Others assume I’m in debt (I’m not, and never have been).

Oddly, these same friends don’t bat an eye at someone who:

No one ever says, “OMG, you bought a car? How on earth could you afford that? You must be rich!”

No one ever says, “You’re going to grad school? You must be dating a sugar daddy! What does your boyfriend’s father do for a living?” (He’s a retired sixth-grade math teacher).

People don’t question spending thousands on “conventional” expenses.

But as soon as you spend a fraction of the cost of graduate school on an unconventional life — an exceptional life — the questions (and assumptions) start popping out of the woodwork.

Ignore Convention. Spend on Your Dreams.

If a new car is what you truly want — if every morsel of your soul yearns for a brand-new Honda Civic — then by all means, buy one.

But if you dream of quitting your day job, selling your car, packing your life into a backpack, and buying a one-way ticket to Egypt to see the Pyramids and “go on from there” without a plan … and that’s PRECISELY what I did … then cut ruthlessly in other areas of your life to make it happen.

It’s Not That Hard.

It’s not hard to “give up” driving a nice car or living in a chic apartment. None of these so-called “sacrifices” are tough, because you’re not giving up anything you truly wanted.

The year before I set out on my trip, I lived in a small studio. I mean, a TINY studio. I could wash the dishes from my bed. I’m not exaggerating. It wouldn’t be the most comfortable position for doing the dishes, but it would be possible.

My car had no seat belt. It was almost 25 years old, with 285,000 miles on it, and the fibers on the seat belt wore through. The rust hollowed out sections of the door. Snow blew onto my lap as I drove through the holes in the door. In hindsight, driving it wasn’t the safest decision.

But my bank balance was climbing at a frightening pace. Every month — heck, every week — I’d watch it scale higher and higher. It reached an amount with which I’d be comfortable traveling for one year. Then it doubled.

I was free. And what had I really sacrificed? A car that everyone at my office lovingly joked about? A studio apartment that was perfect for cozy nights in?

I traded the mundane for the exceptional.

And my life has never been the same.

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