awareness, big questions

Small Things

small things

Before I get started with today’s post, just a quick reminder about #pfmessages – if you would like your contribution to be included in the wrap-up post at the end of this month, make sure to post it or email it to me by December 27th. Anyone and everyone is welcome to contribute! If you don’t have a blog, just send your contribution (ideally 1-3 paragraphs) to me directly at: theyachtless [at] gmail [dot]com. Thanks to those who have contributed thus far!

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Sometimes I just feel very deeply troubled about hairbands. Specifically, about where they’ve all gone to. If you’ve ever had long (or long-ish) hair, you may be familiar with the issue I’m referring to. And if you haven’t, just trust me on this.

hairbands
hairbands

I feel pretty confident in saying that I don’t throw hairbands away very frequently. Yes, they do occasionally break, and they sometimes get overstretched, but generally they’re pretty sturdy. A decent hairband should last many months, even years.

Despite this, I find myself having to buy new hairbands surprisingly frequently. Why? Well, I don’t really know. All I know is that my hairbands continue to disappear, mysteriously, like single socks in the dryer, except much smaller and much sneakier, scurrying off my dresser in the middle of the night on invisible little legs, never to return.

The troubling thing is not so much that they’re gone: CVS has an endless supply of packs of them for under $4.00, so I can always get more. What’s troubling is, where are they? I’ve been vaguely wondering about this for years. Those hairbands haven’t evaporated: they’re somewhere. In a landfill perhaps, or just lying around in dark corners unseen. I try to picture how much space they would take up if I could gather them all into a pile. It’s a rather unsettling image.

Here’s a graph that illustrates the full gravity of this situation. I don’t actually have a very good sense of how many hairbands I’ve bought each year since adolescence, but for the purpose of simplicity, let’s assume that I’ve bought one pack of 20 hairbands in any given year since 1996.

Figure 1: Where the Hairbands Went Each Year

hairband graph
a highly un-scientific graph based not on actual data but just on my general sense of the situation thinking back

Look at all the hairbands that are unaccounted for. This is totally bizarre. I cannot fathom how a hairband could fall out of my pocket or off my wrist or out of my hair without my noticing. It just doesn’t add up.

Except that it does add up.

It was nearly a year ago that I started tracking my spending. Aha—yes, this is in fact not a post about hair accessories, but actually a sort of anniversary post for me. Not the anniversary of this blog, but rather of the beginning of a shift in my thinking about my finances. It all started when a friend sent me this email, exactly one year ago today:

Screen Shot 2015-12-11 at 12.38.49 PM

To make a long story short, reading about Beth at Budget Bytes doing the SNAP Challenge motivated me to started tracking every single one of my purchases in a spreadsheet. I had never paid much attention to where my money was going before, but once I started taking careful data, I realized, oh, that’s where. And I made some important changes as a result.

I’ve heard some version of this story from a number of people. If you haven’t been tracking your spending and then you suddenly start taking data on it, chances are you’re going to gain a lot of new insights about what you’re actually spending it on. And as someone who has worked in a lab doing research for the past five and a half years, I can tell you that data collection is very powerful in many other situations as well. Real life in real time can seem jumbled and haphazard, but things do actually add up, and sometimes all it takes is a little tracking—a little awareness, if you will—to detect trends and patterns and significance. A one-time purchase of a $3 cup of tea may not have huge consequences, but a habit of getting a $3 cup of tea every single day for years? Definitely.

So yeah, I’m still tracking my spending, and I’m continuing to work on noticing where my money goes and deciding if that’s where I actually want it to end up. But I also think that seeing the positive changes I’ve been able to make by being more conscious of this one area of my life is opening up the opportunity for me to reevaluate other areas of my life as well. I feel like I’m starting – starting – to be a bit more tuned in to other types of important questions.

Like where all my hairbands went. Ok, not specifically where they went, but just how they got lost. And the answer is, there’s no magic here. No thieves, no alien abductions, no daring hairband escapees disappearing off my dresser and into the night. Rather, I allowed them to be lost, one by one, because I wasn’t paying close attention to them. And now the equivalent of a large pile of my lost hairbands is scattered across the Northeast U.S., and probably beyond.

Really, trying to add up the sum total of any one thing across a lifetime is very sobering. That lab that I’ve been working in for over five years? It’s in the center of a building and therefore doesn’t have any windows. How many moments have I spent inside that room with no windows? How many minutes have I spent waiting on a subway platform? How many times have I refreshed my email inbox on my phone? How many hours have I spent watching Seinfeld reruns? Anything adds up over time if you keep doing it consistently.

Luckily, good things can add up too. A half an hour practicing the guitar every day, or meditating (if I could actually stick to either of these) would add up over time. One or five or ten hours a week for years can grow a pretty amazing friendship. Choosing to practice kindness and compassion on a daily basis (again, assuming I or we could stick to this) can turn these choices into habits. Whether it’s tiny purchases, or tiny hairbands, or tiny acts of kindness, the concept remains the same. The more we tread the same path, the deeper that path becomes cut into the soil.

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P.S. No more windowless lab for me! I defended my dissertation on Thursday, which means I’m basically done working there. It’s the end of an era. Expect some posts in the near future about post-grad school issues such as Finding A Job, oh, and also Paying Off Student Loans.

P.P.S. In case you’re wondering about that photo in the header, why YES that random bird DID voluntarily jump onto my leg! I fed him a piece of my granola bar. It was awesome. Can’t believe I also managed to get the photo.

Thoughts? Suggestions? Do you think I should switch to scrunchies since they’re larger and therefore harder to lose?
(Just kidding. I will never switch to scrunchies.)

52 Comments on “Small Things

  1. I have short hair, but have a similar calculus with pens. They rarely seem to run out of ink and yet I buy a box and….where are they all? Sometimes I “loan” (=give) them to people, but more often they’re running around in the bottoms of various purses and backpacks and drawers and sitting all over random surfaces in my house.

    Congratulations on making more of a habit out of noticing things — and again on defending your dissertation! Good luck with discerning the next chapter of your life.

    1. Oh my gosh, pens are such a good example! Probably more universally relatable than hairbands. Although with pens I do think that semi-inadvertent theft is an issue (which I myself am guilty of, by the way), whereas with hairbands….not so much since there’s a bit more of a hygiene or grossness issue there.

      Thanks again for the congrats! It’s so weird to be done. I can’t believe how physically and mentally tired I’ve been since then. I’m going to take a little time off soon (after I give my students their final exam on Tuesday, that is. And after I actually write the final exam, which I have not started yet.)

  2. Cute post Sarah!! I honestly don’t think you should switch to scrunchies although yes, they are harder to lose. But let’s face, a scrunchy is not a headband. I wear a lot of barettes and lose them all the time. They are generally small, but I can never seem to find two of the same ones, even though I am sure I bought them in sets of two. Crazy.

    Congratulations on finishing grad school. All the best!

    1. Thanks so much, Laura Beth! It will be excited to see what the next year holds. 🙂

      And yes, I hear you about the barrettes too — I used to use them and had the exact same issue. With hairbands at least you don’t need a matched pair. But they still disappear!

  3. Ah the Latte Factor. It is so true that the little things (like buying coffee or tea every morning) add up to substantial amounts over time. I really like how you related this idea to good habits. Little acts of kindness. Practicing a hobby like guitar or meditation. Trying to save a few thousand dollars might seem impossible, but if you change your mindset to saving a little amount like $10 per day, then your goal becomes a lot more realistic. The same idea applies to exercise. 20 minutes a few times per week can lead to great results in the long term! Personally, I have been trying to get in a daily habit of doing a little bit of reading. It is amazing how quickly you can get through a book reading 30 minutes each day 🙂

    1. Ah, exercise, that’s another good example. So is book reading! Now that my dissertation is finally finished, I’m excited to work on the pile of books sitting in a stack on my night table. I will also say that the very FIRST thing I did when I woke up the day after finishing the dissertation was to go running (something I hadn’t done in months). It’s so important to make time for these positive little things that add up, but sometimes it can be so hard to do, especially when you’re under stress. But I’m going to use these next few weeks to try to press the “reset” button. 🙂

  4. So many congrats on defending! Wohoo!!

    I’m sure you know what this bias is called better than I do, but we *think* that we’re intuitively good analyzers of data, but we’re not (just like we *think* we’re good multitaskers, but we’re not). This point really hit home for me when I read Michael Lewis’s “Moneyball.” One of the anecdote he talks about in that is pro baseball scouts, who typically like to go on gut instinct and “feel,” and think they generally have a great sense of stats and such based on their gut. But, as Lewis points out, the difference between a .250 batting average and a .300 average is only one additional hit every two weeks, which is far too little for most people to recognize. I’m not a baseball person, I just like Lewis’s books, but I found that anecdote so powerful. If people whose job is to scout people in the world’s most stat-heavy game are actually pretty bad at keeping track of things, then I must truly have no idea where my money is going, even though I think I know. And sure enough, we started tracking our spending after that, and it was eye-opening, to say the least.

    Also, I have no idea where the hair bands go either! But I switched to clips a few years ago, and for whatever reason, I’m better at hanging onto those (though I do break the teeth off of them sometimes and have to replace them because of that!). 🙂

    1. Thank you!! 😀

      Yeah, I bet there is a technical term for mis-estimation, but I don’t know what it is. I’ve actually thought a lot about how it kind of runs counter to that phenomenon where if you ask 1,000 people to look at the same number of jelly beans in a jar and guess the number, the average number will be pretty close to the truth (even though many individual guesses will be WAY off). Planet Money did an episode on that where they asked people to guess the weight of a cow. So yeah, interesting stuff.

      I will have to put Michael Lewis on my list for after I finish Julia Child! Also Big Magic and a Laura Vanderkam book, all of which are recommendations I’ve gotten through blogging. 🙂

      1. Sorry to the recommender, but I’m going to put in a “Boo” for Laura Vanderkam. I read much of “I Know How She Does It” just this fall. I was way under-impressed and skimmed most of it. Her conclusions: ‘You don’t work as much as you think you do. You have PLENTY of time.’ If you’re motivated, like tracking your spending, you can track your time use, and it will probably be eye-opening. But to say, ‘Well, if you’re only working 40 hours and sleeping 56 hours each week, that leaves lots of hours!’ ignores eating, bathing, caring for children, commuting, cleaning, laundry, grocery shopping, stopping for gas, random traffic jams, doctors appointments, taking out the trash, emptying the litter box, brushing teeth, and, basically, LIFE. I didn’t like her attitude. The book was also only about women who made at least $100,000, because to her that was a shorthand for “successful.” I think she would find it enlightening to learn how the other 99% live.

        1. Ah, very interesting. I’m really intrigued now to take a look at one of her books and see for myself what I think. I’ve had a few different people tell me that her books are really inspiring, but maybe, as you say, they’re only inspiring for a very specific subset of the population. It’ll be interesting to find out. Thanks for adding your review! 🙂

  5. Oh all the missing hairbands! I’ve had fairly long & thick hair my whole life which typically calls for two thick hairbands to put my hair up in a bun, ponytail, etc. Also – growing up dancing, the amount of hair bands I’ve lost/broken/given to someone else over the years is probably astronomical (and bobby pins…ohh the bobby pins). This is a great point to bring up because there are so many facets of life that if we pay little mind to, we actually have no clue of what may be happening to them in relation to our livelihood! Another example I could think of is chapstick: I am HUGE on chapstick (never really got into lipgloss!). It’s essential to my comfort. I typically stick to the base brand of chapstick but I have one in my purses, travel bags, office desk, car, and the list continues. I used to be more aloof to my supply & would just buy new packages of chapstick all the time in high school (they are always at checkout for impulse buys – dang it!). But now, I recognize that I use chapstick for comfort & health so I need to be more careful towards how many packages I buy & only buy new sticks once I am truly running low. I think this runs parallel to tracking spending! Money does not have to be everything, but when used responsibly it truly can get you to financial independence, help others, and allow you to reach your goals which contributes to your overall livelihood. If people recognized those connections, I feel a lot more people would be apt to tracking their spending and personal finances. 🙂 Great post, Sarah! Even with hair bands you’ve got my brain going!

    P.S. I am about to write my contribution for #pfmessages right now! Be on the look out for that 🙂

    1. Hey Alyssa, chapstick is a good example too! I am also a little bit addicted. I think I currently only have 2 sticks in total: one in my purse and one on my dresser…but I know it’s easy to accumulate them, and I have definitely had periods in my life when I had 5 or 6 in various places!

      Speaking of impulse purchases, gum is definitely another one that I don’t even want to think about adding up…I somehow lost my taste for gum in the past year or so, but before that I was buying packs and packs and packs. It doesn’t seem like much when a pack is only $1.79 or so, but these things definitely add up. :/

      By the way, as you may have noticed, I managed to fix the comments issue that I was telling you about! (Our Next Life and Steve at Think Save Retire get the credit; they helped me figure it out.) Yay — now people will get comment replies much more easily!

  6. I lose so many hair pins and hair ties every year. I really do not know where they go. It seems like I use them so quickly whenever I buy a new batch, however now I just have 1 left of each and I’m practically guarding them with my life haha.

    1. I’m glad you can relate, Michelle! It seems like a pretty universal issue. I feel like there must be a solution…tiny little GPS trackers inside each one, perhaps?? 🙂

  7. My lost thing is kid socks. Fortunately, my daughter doesn’t feel like her socks need to match, but she has a drawer full of mismatched socks. Also, Burt’s Bees lip balm and pens.

    1. Ah, yes lip balm and pens — also frequent vanishers. There are so many things that go missing like this; it’s crazy! I feel like if I can at least get some philosophical musings out of this, that’s one good consequence. 🙂

      1. Same! I don’t even know what happens when you get to the bottom of a tube — I assume there’s just plastic there, but I admit I’ve never actually gotten there and found out!

  8. Congrats on the dissertation!

    I’m actually able to go through hairbands relatively slowly. I guess it helps that I work from home. Fewer places to lose them. But they do still disappear without my EVER having thrown them away. Well, once or twice when I go to trim the accumulated hair off it and the scissors go too deep and cut the sucker.

    Clearly, the only solution is to keep my hair shorter so I don’t need them.

    But yes, the small things always do add up. As I’m reminded each time I check our spending to see why on earth our bank balance is lower than expected.

    1. Oh yes, the accumulated hair issue. This I am familiar with as well. :/ Regarding hair length, I’m always torn because part of me says, oh, if I had short hair I wouldn’t have to deal with hairbands and long amounts of drying time and that sort of thing…but then again, if I had short hair I’d also presumably have to deal with constantly cutting it and styling it. Maybe a buzz cut is the solution? (I did actually consider this once for a couple of months, but in the end I chickened out!)

  9. What budget app/program do you use?

    I’m a huge fan of YNAB and truly believe in tracking every transaction, no matter how small. If I find a penny on the ground I will throw it in my pocket and put it in my app as found money! It’s not so much as the amount that is important, I just think the exercise of tracking every single transaction creates hyper awareness and allows you to be more mindful when it comes to spending.

    I go through rubber bands like no one’s business when it comes to my daughter! I see little warped bands all over the house. I know I should be a little more mindful when it comes to that, but at the low price of rubber bands it’s one thing that we just fit into our budget to buy a new pack every now and then.

    1. You know what? I actually don’t use a program at all. I’ve heard great things about YNAB, so I may switch over at some point, but for me it’s actually a lot of fun right now to make and use my own spreadsheets. In my lab we do a lot of data analysis in Excel, so to me it just seems like the most logical way to keep track of anything. But I DO track every single transaction — including money found on the ground, like you! 🙂 I just keep it all in a note in my phone and then enter it manually at the end of the day.

      Haha, yes, so you and your daughter understand the hairband disappearance crisis! It seems like it’s a pretty universal problem. 🙂

  10. I’m all about the little things! They really do add up. I was able to pay off my $35k student loan from cutting out daily coffees and lunches, yet was still able to afford the big, important things (rent, travel) because of conscious spending.

    The hairband issue is actually a universal girl problem. I bought a pack of 20 last year and had to buy another one a few months ago because they all just disappeared! I only took out 3 this time and haven’t lost one. Maybe it’s easier to keep track when you have just a few 🙂

    1. Wow, Christine, so you really do attribute your debt payoff to little things? That’s so interesting — I feel like I hear both arguments on a regular basis (“Pay attention to the big things, the little things don’t matter!” “No, it’s all about the little things!”). Probably it’s good to pay attention to both, as you point out. 🙂

      Seriously, what is up with the hairbands?? I still can’t figure it out. Sometimes I have one in my hair in the morning, and then I put it on my wrist (I think), and then later in the day I go to put it back on and it’s gone. Crazy! But I think you’re right that if I just had a few (or maybe just one), I would probably keep waaaaay better track of them.

        1. Oh awesome! Haha, I love that I asked you about it and you’ve already got a whole blog post as a response. I will check this out! 🙂

    1. Thanks for the good wishes, DC — I actually defended this past Thursday, so it’s over and done! 😀 I’m working on tying up a few loose ends at my university, but basically this is it. Crazy.

  11. I totally agree about the importance of little things and I LOVE how you mentioned it adds up with the good things too (as a non PF reader this resonates more with me haha.) To go slightly off topic, I think when people are busy they feel like they have no time to do things they love (like paint, or take walks, or read – or whatever floats your boat). But I’m a huge believer that just taking a few minutes everyday to do what makes you happy can change your life!

    On another note, I have loooong hair and my hair ties always break! I destroy them.

    PS: congrats on the new chapter on your life. Good luck with job searching and the fun stuff 😉

    1. Aha, so you actually have an excuse for buying new hairbands! 🙂

      Yes, I think the concept of good things adding up is key…I get a lot more mileage out of thinking in a positive way like that–what could I change in my life if I devoted lots of small increments of time to it?–than on berating myself for buying too many hairbands (or whatever). This is something I’m trying to focus on as I’m thinking about New Years resolutions and that sort of thing. Tis the season. 🙂

  12. As another long-haired woman, I definitely have experienced the disappearing hairbands! However, I was inspired by another blogger (The Non-Consumer Advocate) to watch for lost hairbands when I’m out and about. I just wash them with a little soap and water when I get home. I figure that this way I’m able to offset the ones I lose with finding the ones that other people have lost.

    1. Whoa, interesting! I would never have thought of that. I have to admit that I haven’t seen many of them lying around, but that’s probably because I wasn’t looking. And it makes sense that you could wash them, since they’re basically made of fabric. Thanks for the tip! 🙂

  13. Great parallel you’ve drawn there. The little things do add up and can escape us when we’re not keeping track. I don’t like it when people dismiss the “latte factor,” saving a $4 per day coffee isn’t going to make or break you financially. But that latte rarely happens in a vacuum! Often the latte is accompanied with lots of other little luxuries, or even big ones, that add up to financial trouble in the long run.

    1. Thanks, Kalie. 🙂 Yes, I definitely think the latte factor is an important principle. I can’t believe it took me until this year to start figuring that out! I used to buy a $3.00 cup of tea literally every single day. It’s amazing what tracking one’s spending can reveal…

  14. Nice work tracking your expenses! It’s amazing how much a little attention does to an area of darkness. It all comes into light. Congratulations on defending your dissertation. Best of luck finding a job!!

    As for the hairbands, I’m not quite sure where they are going. Maybe they are coming to my place. I bought a long pack (40 maybe?) of hairbands for my sister’s wedding 3.5 years ago and I’m maybe 10 bands in. I must not be very hard on them. Thin hair FTW! I also constantly have my hair in a ponytail, so perhaps your solution is Ponytail! All day, Everyday!… now if I could only find my chapstick!

    1. Wow, that is amazing! You must be super good at keeping track of stuff. As for the Chapstick, I recommend keeping one in a specific pocket in your purse or bag. That seems to work for me.

      Thanks for the good wishes! I’m currently interviewing…we’ll see what happens!

    1. It’s amazing how they just vanish, isn’t it? Even after thinking about this and trying to be more aware of it, I still can’t really account for most of the disappearances!

  15. I realized a few years ago that my dog sometimes eats my hairbands when he finds them on the floor…so there is one answer. I now have a cat who loves to play with them and will bat them under furniture and into closets where I will never find them again. Also I’m pretty sure if I were to empty all my purses I’d find around 29 of them. But this is such a great analogy and such a weird universal (I suspect) experience!

    I had the usual epiphany about the crazy amount of money leaking out of my accounts (primarily into the pockets of restaurateurs) when I started using Mint many years ago. But this past year I used the income history at the Social Security website to discover that during 2016 I will have earned over one million dollars in my lifetime so far. Think of all that money that has gone through my fingers! It’s truly sobering. All those little paychecks really do add up…

    1. Whoa, dogs eating hairbands — now that is one explanation that had not crossed my mind! I don’t have a dog currently, but I had one growing up, so that could explain a few things… 🙂

      Oh gosh, yes, the restaurant leak, that is my primary issue as well. In October I challenged myself not to eat any restaurant food or takeout, and I literally saved hundreds of dollars. It’s crazy how much this can add up. Luckily, if we’re aware of it we can make good choices about our present and future finances, and those pile up too.

      Thanks for the comment 🙂

  16. This post made me laugh because I stayed at a friend’s recently and I know I have spare hairbands in my washbag. Only I didn’t, so where indeed did they go? I tend to buy them in bulk, use a few and put the rest in the cupboard. But I’m forever taking more out and it’s very rare that I throw them away. What a conundrum!

    1. It’s crazy, isn’t it? Sometimes I think all of our collective hairbands are off somewhere together forming a new society. 🙂 At this point that seems like the only logical explanation — nothing else makes sense!

    1. Hahaha, Angela, I think you may be onto something! I have definitely found a few under the dresser before. 🙂 I should check again!

  17. You’re so right about tracking things. I always made sure I was vaguely within a budget and set goals to grow my net worth, but it wasn’t until this summer that I really started tracking my spending. I definitely had a “holy cow, I eat out way too much” moment the first time.

    Incidentally, I think my hair ties have become friends with your hair ties and they’ve just run off together to an underground lair, full of all the lost hair ties from the Northeast.

    1. Haha, Mel, I think you may be right about the hairbands. There has to be some kind of vast conspiracy going on — how else could so many of them go missing?? 🙂

      But seriously, yes, it’s incredible how much money can just slip through our fingers, and eating out was/is a huge one for me. I actually did a challenge in October where I didn’t let myself buy any restaurant food or takeout, and it was ridiculous how much money I saved.

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