plans, questions, travel

Plans

So, summer is over.

Okay, I know summer isn’t technically over for another few weeks (and not until, oh, 2017 if you live in the Southern Hemisphere). But it is the first day of September. And so I’m taking some time to think back over my summer, and the choices I made during it, and what I learned from them.

The biggest theme of my summer was trying to save money and make extra money, and my efforts have quite literally paid off. My loan balance is down about $8,000 since the beginning of the year, which in my opinion is pretty dang impressive.

How did I manage to do this? Well, mostly by planning my time and activities in such a way that I minimized spending and maximized saving and earning. To illustrate this, here’s a list of the activities that filled up the majority of my weekends and other free time this summer:

  • grocery shopping
  • meal preparation at home
  • freelance writing
  • catching up on email
  • catching up on work
  • reading
  • watching T.V.
  • laundry
  • exercising
  • puttering around my apartment

Notice that most of them fall into one of the following three categories:

  1. Ways to save money (e.g. the grocery shopping, to reduce meals out, and the laundry, so I’m not tempted to resort to an expensive laundry service)
  2. Ways to make extra money (the freelance writing)
  3. Forms of free/cheap entertainment (T.V., reading, etc.)

Very responsible of me, eh? And I was feeling pretty good about doing such a great job of working towards my goals.

Until this past weekend, that is.

My plan had been to do pretty much the same things I’d been doing all summer on the weekends (refer to above list of Responsible Activities). But on Saturday morning, for reasons I can’t fully explain, I changed my mind. And so instead of spending the weekend at home, dutifully washing my clothes, finishing my work, and packing a bunch of cost-saving lunches for the week, I…

  • went swimming in the ocean.
  • went swimming in a tiny lake.
  • went to an outdoor concert.
  • played in the sand.
  • rode around in cars, a lot (thank you Zipcar and Uber).
  • went out to eat, multiple times.
  • got ice cream.
  • got lost.
  • swiped my credit card a bunch of times.
  • took some great photos.

And most importantly…

  • I did these things with people who I really care about.

My main feelings about this past weekend are gratitude that I got to have these experiences and happiness that I now have the memories.

But I’m also feeling kind of regretful.

However, if you’re thinking that I’m feeling regretful because I shirked my responsibilities or because I spent money, you are mistaken. I did shirk my responsibilities and I did spend money, but I don’t regret either of those things at all. What I regret is that I didn’t allow myself to have more weekends like this during the rest of the summer.

Because here’s the thing about all those weekends I spent laying low in my apartment, stockpiling clean clothes and cheap lunches and getting extra work done: I don’t remember any of them. In my mind they all blend together into a hazy fog of grocery bags and Word documents and washing machines. Yeah, one of the numbers in my financial spreadsheet changed from a “5” into a “4”, and that’s good, I guess. But seeing that “4” is not the same as having memories I can hold in my heart. And honestly I wish I had the memories instead.

I’ve agonized over this post more than I’ve agonized over any post in quite a while. There’s something I want to communicate here, and I’m not sure if I can do it. But I’m going to try.

The reason I was able to pay off so much of my loan balance this summer, the reason I set loan repayment goals and stuck to them and achieved them, the reason I kept the same routine for much of the summer, was because I was in a particular type of mindset. I’m going to call that mindset the Planning Mindset. The Planning Mindset is centered around the following activities:

  • planning (duh)
  • goal-setting (requires planning)
  • budgeting (a form of planning)
  • tracking and self-monitoring (so you can plan even better in the future)
  • maximizing productivity (so you can carry out your plan faster)

If you are in a Planning Mindset, you believe that the best way to live your life is to plan things out ahead of time, carefully, and then do them. I’ve been in a Planning Mindset for quite a while now. I made a plan to make a big dent in my loans and I did a great job of following through on that plan.

But an unexamined mindset is not worth having. And in examining the Planning Mindset, I’ve realized that there are a few things about it that I find troubling. Three things, to be exact.

Troubling Thing #1: Not all plans are great plans. I heartily thank my lucky stars that I am not obligated to live out the plan I made for my life at age 12, or the plan I made at age 19, or the plan I made at age 25, or the plan I made at age 31. All of those plans seemed like good plans at the times when I made them, but I rejected each one at a later point for some reason or another. And based on that observation, it’s logically impossible for me to confidently state that the plan I have for my life now, at age 35, is the Best Plan or the Final Plan. Perhaps I’ll change my priorities once again in the future, scrap this plan, make a new one, and be glad I did.

Troubling Thing #2: I notice that the Planning Mindset allows me to indulge in a pleasant illusion that I have almost total control over my life and my future, when in fact I do not. Being in a Planning Mindset makes me feel almost as if my life is a play, and I am an actor who is simply delivering previously rehearsed lines and actions, and desperately hoping that nothing goes wrong. This is actually kind of an alluring idea, especially for people such as myself who are somewhat cautious and risk-averse by nature. But I think it comes with a high opportunity cost.

Which brings me to the third troubling thing about the Planning Mindset.

Troubling Thing #3: At some point last weekend, I think on Saturday afternoon, I realized that this was the first time in a long time that I had allowed myself to be truly spontaneous. Rather than staying in my usual Planning Mindset, I had somehow managed to shift over to a Spontaneity Mindset. This Spontaneity Mindset meant:

  • I allowed myself to make snap decisions.
  • I allowed myself to explore.
  • I proceeded without a clear plan.
  • I allowed myself to change my mind.
  • I didn’t think far beyond the moment I was in.
  • I had few expectations.
  • I allowed each moment to unfold the way it unfolded.
  • I appreciated each moment for what it brought.
  • I had way more fun than usual.

If I had been in my regular Planning Mindset, I would not have had the same experience.

Here’s what the Planning Mindset *might* have allowed me to do:

  • decide two months ago that I was going to have a fun weekend this weekend
  • contact friends in advance
  • select activities, driving routes, etc.
  • make a rough schedule
  • carefully calculate the cost of the weekend
  • evaluate that cost and throw out anything that seemed frivolous or too expensive
  • calculate the new, lower cost of the weekend
  • put that amount of money aside, perhaps in a separate bank account
  • monitor my activities during the actual weekend to make sure I stuck to the plan

That may seem like it would have the same result, and it still might have been a great weekend, but I think there’s an important difference here. This planned-out experience wouldn’t have been true spontaneity; it would have been spontaneity-in-a-box. Like, “Sure, go crazy! But only in the ways that you’ve planned out ahead of time! And don’t spend too much money.”

(Also, it’s worth noting that I did not actually plan this trip out ahead of time, the reason being that taking unnecessary day trips did not seem compatible with my plan. Because why spend your free time traipsing around Massachusetts when you can spend it in the service of your financial goals, right?)

To be clear, the money is not really the issue here. Yes, I spent some money over the weekend, but not that much. And while it would be irresponsible of me not to acknowledge that having disposable income is a privilege that makes it easier to be spontaneous, I also think it’s possible to be in a Spontaneity Mindset without spending any money at all.

What I’m really trying to get at here is an apparent incompatibility in the Planning Mindset and the Spontaneity Mindset. True spontaneity is threatening to plans. And that’s why the Planning Mindset teaches us to refer to spontaneity as “recklessness” or “impulsivity” or “deviation from the plan” or “something I used to do when I was young and stupid” or “something that really reduces my level of productivity” instead of recognizing it for the beautiful and valuable human experience that it is.

I regret spending so much of my time lately in the Planning Mindset. I am weary of goal-setting and trying to maximize my productivity. I aspire to live my life a little more messily, with more mistakes and experimentation, with more self-compassion, and with less anxiety. I aspire to stop thinking of everything in terms of productivity and money and to think more about friendship and art and music and good food and how I can get out of my comfort zone more often.

How I can live more spontaneously while still aggressively paying off my loans remains to be seen, but that’s a question for another day.

For now, I’m just thinking about how the smart, responsible, logical, Planning Mindset thing to do this past weekend would have been to stay home and do laundry.

And how I’m glad I didn’t.

30 Comments on “Plans

  1. I try to strike this balance all the time and fail miserably. Most days, my to-do lists have to to-do lists. Every year, I fall into this huge funk right before the school year starts. My husband rattles off the 97 things that I did over summer break (you know, the three weeks between the end of summer school and real school), and I feel better. Kind of. Sometimes, I feel like blogging only exacerbates the issue. I have this need to chronicle everything and reflect on all the things. Really, life happens outside the bullets on the my to-do list. I try to remind myself of that constantly.

    1. I definitely also feel that blogging can exacerbate the issue. Kind of like how if you spend your whole vacation chronicling everything by taking photos, you have way less time to actually enjoy your vacation.

      Life happens outside the bullets on our to-do lists. Yes.

  2. Sounds like a great weekend!

    I struggle between planning and not planning, although living with others (particularly a 6 year old) adds a fair amount of spontaneity. You just can’t plan for a massive game of Magic High School overtaking your ability to go get groceries. On the other hand, said family makes it difficult to road trip without a plan, something I’ve been itching to do lately.

    1. Ah, that makes sense. One thing that I tend to forget is how different my daily life is from that of anyone who has kids. I only have to plan my own time, which is a huge factor in all of this. Plus, I don’t even know what Magic High School is! 🙂

  3. Planning, strategizing and organizing rear their heads often and appropriately in the workplace.
    Impulse, spontaneity and recklessness are the joy of living.

    Everybody has a disciplined plan until they see an ice cream shop on a sunny day. I find this version much better than the Mike Tyson one.

    Finding your planning – spontaneity equilibrium can be frustrating at times but invariably fun.

  4. I am naturally more of a planner. But we manage to squeeze in so much fun (and free) stuff into our life, that it’s hard to have regrets. Most of the time when I look back I think, “Why did we try to do so much stuff?” I think we could do half of the activities planned and have just as much (if not more fun.) We took a 6 week road trip this summer, and like always I filled it too full. The downside is that my laundry is never done. =)

  5. You can almost feel in your writing what a relief it was to have a spontaneous weekend! If your “norm” is a planning mindset, I think it’s great that you broke away from that. I think the more we push boundaries, the greater gains we will make. I think my default is very similar to yours and that’s what will allow you to keep moving your financial plans forward.

  6. Interesting article, I’d say it’s about balance & perspective, which I see you’ve “planned” carefully :)..
    As much as it’s great to planning, there’s planning that can help you to increase your “passive” or investment income as well, which can allow you to build some spontaneity into the equation..

    Having said that playing devil’s advocate with what I mentioned above then there’s planning that “sets you free” 🙂

    Great job on smashing the debt too & here’s to maybe an occasional spontaneous weekend 😉 ha!

  7. I think those types of weekends are good and necessary to kind of “reset” yourself. When you’re scheduled and planned to death it doesn’t to leave anything open to chance for something unexpected, or time to just dream. Plus it feels like work sometimes, which doesn’t give me a break from my actual job, which requires a lot of planning as well. Sounds like a fun weekend, and here’s to many more!

  8. I used to struggle with that balance too, but like Ms. Montana, have learned to fully embrace my planner tendencies. I don’t enjoy feeling like there’s an aftermath to spontaneous weekends since we still have to have the kiddo’s lunch packed and laundry done before we return each week. So if I plan ahead to have an “empty” weekend where I’ve done most of the work we’d have to have done, then we can be at least a bit spontaneous and enjoy it fully!

    This weekend we didn’t plan anything specific but since it’s a three day weekend, we can have fun on Sunday, whatever we feel like doing, since I’ll prep today and tomorrow. Plus I have to fix the dripping sink, so that’s tomorrow. But Sunday may be a pony ride, a hike, or lunch at the park! Easy and fun.

    1. I hope your Sunday is turning out to be a fun day as you had hoped! Hooray for pony rides and lunch at the park! 🙂

      And yes, I can imagine that having a kid would greatly impact the level of planning you need to do on a daily/weekly basis. I always forget this when I’m writing — that having no kids and only my own schedule to manage is a very particular type of lifestyle.

  9. Do you know your Myers-Briggs type? I don’t believe in pseudo-science generally, but I have found the J vs. P indicator at the end of the type to be a big indicator among my colleagues of who is more of a planner by nature vs. more spontaneous. I’m an ENTJ (bordering on INTJ), and I am definitely a big-time J by nature, meaning I’m all about the plan. It’s been helpful to know that about myself so that I can work on being more spontaneous and open to opportunities while still staying in my comfort zone of planning things much of the time. I agree with you that the two tendencies are hard to reconcile, but if we all know our natural inclinations and try to stretch into the opposite space, it leads to good things. 🙂

    1. Ah, Meyers-Briggs…I wish they had a version that got at the same concepts, but in a sneakier manner. The questions are so straightforward that for me it is too easy to choose the answer that corresponds to what kind of person I *want* to be, rather than what kind of person I actually am. It requires a great deal of metacognitive awareness to end up with an accurate type, I think. I’m a pretty unreliable reporter when it comes my own personality.

      Myers-Briggs aside, though, I definitely agree with you that it’s good to challenge your own natural inclinations — which probably means being conscious about stepping out of whatever your comfort zone happens to be at the moment. 🙂

  10. Sarah, I think it’s especially hard to find the right balance, especially the first few months if a new to you professional career while having a debt-smashing focus. I guess it’s really all about balance. I’ve done better when I routinely intergrate some fun and spontaneity into my schedule. I work full time and have a family, so for things to run smoothly around here there needs to be some semblance of order. We do try hard to have at least one weekend day (or a good chunk of it) devoid of laundry, shopping, food prep, housework. Often it means throwing in laundry before work, or being ok with leftovers for dinner. It’s all about balance- which for me can still be a struggle at times after all these years!

    1. Yes, balance is surprisingly hard to strike, isn’t it? 🙂 I do like your idea of having at least one weekend day where you don’t do any work or errands. That sounds like a nice tradition, especially if it means your family gets to spend more unstructured time together.

  11. Something to be said for being spontaneous – I struggle with not having at least a rough plan in place because I end up doing not much of anything. Sounds like you had some fun and let your mind take a break – something we all need every once and a while. As long as a weekend of good times didn’t erase too much of your hard work (which it really doesn’t sound like it did).

    1. That’s an interesting point about how not having a plan can lead to simply not doing much of anything. I think that’s true for me sometimes as well, but probably less so if I’m outside of my apartment exploring somewhere. In any case, I agree with you that it’s important to let our minds take a break once in a while! 🙂

  12. Thank you for this. I read so much the many years I was in debt that was all about stretching and scrimping and pushing yourself to the max. “You’ll be out of debt before you know it, and then all the sacrifices will have been worthwhile!”. Which is all fine and good if you have a small amount of debt. But, if you have 10’s of thousands of dollars of debt, and only an average salary, you’re looking at years before you’re debt free. Years!

    I’m finally debt free, and it feels great. But, I have to admit, I could have made it here much sooner. I didn’t take a second job, or squeeze every penny till it hurt. I did set a tight budget that would work for me. I put all my regular payments on automatic. From there, my “extra money” was put aside for 1-2 bigger monthly debt payments. Sometimes, that money went elsewhere: Lunch with my sisters. A weekend getaway with my boyfriend. I took a few big vacations, which I saved for in advance (and took away from my debt repayment progress). And I kept a big emergency fund, that admittedly I dipped in to from time-to-time.

    Having the money earmarked for debt repayment made me think a little harder before spending it on something else. But, it was there if I needed/wanted it. It allowed me to be spontaneous, and to not miss out on life, but also encouraged me to think responsibly. And, now that I’m on the other side, I don’t regret a thing. In the grand scheme of things, being debt free a few months earlier wouldn’t have been worth all the experiences I had along the way.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Cindy. It sounds like we have had some of the same thoughts about this. I definitely remember that when I started this process I was much more like, MUST PAY OFF DEBT AS SOON AS HUMANLY POSSIBLE, whereas now I’m all about balance. That’s great to hear that you found a middle path between debt repayment and having fun/experiences, and that you feel good about it in retrospect! 🙂

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