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
- watching T.V.
- puttering around my apartment
Notice that most of them fall into one of the following three categories:
- 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)
- Ways to make extra money (the freelance writing)
- 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.