Over the last month, I’ve been working on my dissertation. While writing this tome, I’m continuing clinical work at a local VA, instructing two courses, and creating scholarly papers. This might be the busiest moment of my life. And in about a month, I’ll need to hand over a draft to my adviser. And he’ll decide “go” or “no go.” My future depends on it.
The symptoms of this pressure are powerful. I’ve struggled to write, become a nervous wreck, and have unending indigestion. My stomach burbles and gurgles with unease. Simultaneously, Frugaling has been unusually quiet, and I’ve been shocked by the emails from regular readers wondering how I’m doing (you’re so sweet!). I’ve been unable to write as much as I like.
Eventually the dissertation writing will end. But I can’t help but think, I need to succeed. I’m in control of this moment, and I’ve never been more motivated.
Unfortunately, as I’ve focused on this one area, a handful of others things have faltered. Control in one category, has led to failures in others. It’s like my brain can only concentrate on a few things at once; then, it descends into reactive, non-conscious action. My reptilian brain takes over, and I let autopilot handle the controls.
My ideals of frugality and simple living have taken a back seat to this burden. Even after two years of Frugaling, I’m embarrassed to say I still struggle to maintain a budget when the stress hits the fan. With nearly every moment hunched over my keyboard, hammering away at keys incessantly, old habits are returning.
The inner voice says, “I’m too hungry to wait for home. I want to treat myself for writing so much. I need a break – give me that large popcorn.” Me, me, me, me, me. I crave candy, quick meals, and snacks at strange times. Yes, I want that fatty burger and fries. Yum! All I want is to swipe a worry away and not feel guilty for doing so. Suddenly, I can spend $60-70 in a day’s worth of food. Poof!
These moments highlight the complexity of changing a budget and spending less. We can make great alterations to our lives, and still relapse and regress. It happens. And I think I know why.
See, the first 24 years of my life, I didn’t watch spending, create a budget, cook at home, avoid student/car loans, bike to school/work, or look for ways to save. My brain developed a pathway and logic to deal with nearly everything over those years, including when to eat out, buy a car, etc. Frugality wasn’t in the mix, and it got me into 5 figures of debt.
It’s hard to change anything; especially if that’s all you’ve known. The neuronal structure has developed a keen appreciation for certain types of rewards and feedback. Simply put, my brain expects me to spend when I’m stressed. To change this pattern of behavior requires repeated corrective action, recognition of when I’m slipping, accountability from friends/family, and other reward mechanisms.
One of my psychology textbooks curiously likes to say that after about 6 months of change, a habit can stick. Well, I’m here to tell you that’s not always the case. Despite a couple years of successful behavioral change, I occasionally fight to regain control and relapse to old spending.
Various factors work against me. Twenty-four years of bad habits and a society full of encouraging messages about immediate gratification stack the deck. It’s an uphill battle, but I’m better at waging it than ever before.
I might not have perfected my budget but change has occurred. Today, I can realize when everything is falling apart – spending has gone haywire – and stop. Today, I can write this letter of accountability to you all. Today, I can admit faults while acknowledging strengths.
Frugality isn’t about dogma or perfection. We’re on a journey – together – to find ways to save, spend less, and recapture control when we lose it. There’s power in these lessons and the brain – while stubborn to change – does slowly cooperate.