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Phone a friend

The work I do as a conference administrator for local government is on a freelance basis, so I find out week to week how much work I’ll be doing. Generally the work is fairly steady, but there are some weeks where there are a ton of conferences booked and I’m working like a mad woman, and there are weeks where there are hardly any conferences, so by the time the ones available are shared around the team, there might be little or no work for me for the week. All of this means that my pay can vary a lot from month to month.

I was recently talking to a colleague, working in a different role, who said that she could never work freelance because it required too much budgeting and organisation compared to being a permanent member of staff. You had to be prepared for those times when there was no work, or when you were taking annual leave or sick leave and would not get paid. Yes, so true, I nodded in agreement, but in my head alarm bells were starting to ring. I was a freelance worker, and my ‘budgeting’ consisted of spending what I earned and throwing my bank statements in a shoe box to deal with later. Of course, these alarm bells were not enough to actually spur me into action to start budgeting.

I’ve never really done a budget. They were one of those things that seemed like a good idea in theory, but that is exactly what they remained to me – a theory, not something I put into practice. I remember when I got my first job out of university, and the transition to getting fortnightly pay checks compared to the weekly payments I got from my student loan was a bit of a shock to the system. I would always manage, but that last weekend before the next pay always seemed like a fairly lean time. I remember being relieved that I was not getting paid monthly like a lot of my friends. The idea of only being paid 12 times a year was too depressing.

Now being freelance, I always knew that some budgeting and balancing would be required, but for some reason I never got around to actually doing anything specific. I would make attempts at it, such as downloading a budget spreadsheet and fillings bits of it in, but I never really knew how much to allow myself for all those extracurricular activities. It was also difficult to know how much I was earning as well, as it varied from month to month. It all seemed like too much work and I just never liked the idea of going back over my monthly bank statements to see where I spent my money. I’ve now realised that really it was just another way I was living unconsciously. I didn’t want to know too much. It was much nicer living in my little bubble where I just spent what I earn.

I don’t want to paint a picture of myself as being completely financially irresponsible. I have always paid my rent and my bills, I have always paid my credit card off in full every month, I joined the superannuation scheme at my old work and managed to save quite a bit to put towards my student loan. Despite this, I still feel like there was a lack of awareness about my spending sometimes. Just like with my eating, there were times when I would go on a bit of a spending binge. I would try to hide the evidence of a binge on food, throwing out the leftovers, stuffing the packaging deep in the trash, and I would do the same with my spending. I would ignore the bank statements and would try to think of something else whenever the thought flashed in my mind that I really should be saving. I would sometimes conceal the telltale shopping bags and would always mark down the price of items when someone asked me how much I had spent.

Yesterday I found out that there might not be much work available at the end of August. While I know I’ll work things out and will be able to pay my rent and bills and will have enough to eat, it gave me the push I needed to take responsibility for my spending. I need to be conscious of how much I spend and what I spend it on. And I need to make better choices.

I phoned a friend today who I think of as a bit of a budgeting guru. When we were flatting together she had a detailed spreadsheet of her spending, and when I moved to London and asked her to give me a rough idea of how much her living costs were, she sent me an itemised breakdown of all her costs per month. This was a woman who was conscious of what she spent. My friend gave me some good advice, but most of it boiled down to being more aware of how much you spend, what you spend it on and to a certain extent forecasting what you will spend in the future. She also said that I should develop an ‘emergency fund’, which for me could come in handy when work thins out, but could also be used if I needed to go to the dentist urgently or some such. My friend also told me that despite having this elaborate budget, it did not mean that she always stuck to it, but at least she knew what she was spending.

All of this is pretty sensible and pretty obvious in a way, but it’s been easy for me to ignore it or not priortise it, until I really had to. While I’ve done a lot of work this year about living more consciously in relation to being aware of my feelings, being aware of my body and being aware of what I’m eating, I have neglected being aware of my spending. My plan for the next week is to start looking over those bank statements in the shoe box and then try and work out a realistic budget for the future, prioritising developing an emergency fund. Second priority will be developing my discretionary savings account aka the Ibiza fund, as  I hope to go somewhere more exciting than the dentist this year.

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The year of living consciously

I’ve been living by myself a bit over the past few weeks. My flatmate, high-flying financial whiz that he is, has been off in various places around the world, working and romancing, so I’ve found myself living alone for the longest period I ever have, and while it hasn’t been that long, it’s had quite an impact. My mother has always been reluctant to live alone, and hasn’t really done so  for more than a week, I would guess. I never quite understood this fear, as I’m someone who’s always enjoyed my own company and liked to spend time on my own. I’m an introvert, so spending time alone is how I recharge.

However, even the short period of time I’ve been living alone (probably three weeks would be the longest single stretch over the past two months), has opened my eyes to the good and bad of it. There’s nowhere to hide when it’s just you. It creates a lot of space for introspection and analysis, which is good for creativity and self-awareness, and it’s allowed me room to really start thinking about what it is I want from my life, something maybe I would not have done if I was surrounded by other people.

Of course, it also opens up too much space at times. That analysis can start to overwhelm you, and you can become very isolated if you’re not a natural socialiser. There were days when I’d realise that I hadn’t used my voice at all. I’d cook a great meal and find myself saying, ‘Great meal, Ingrid’ just because there was no one else to say it, or I would start complaining to the TV when there some particularly ridiculous news item. It was like I had prematurely turned into a crazy cat lady, minus the cats.

The time alone also made me keenly aware of the mundane nature of life. So much of our life seems to be taken up by personal admin or work. When you don’t have anyone else to break that routine or do those tasks with, it can all become rather mind-numbing. You go to the supermarket, cook meals, take out the recyling, you wash clothes, you fold the washing, make the bed, vacuum, go to work, come home from work, go to the supermarket, cook dinner. On and on the routine seemed to stretch. It just felt like what was the point in all this? I would go to work so I could earn more money to buy more stuff that I didn’t need and on and on.

I wasn’t sure if this was all the result of me not being in a relationship, or maybe it was some weird biological impulse to make me desperate to procreate so that my family could give my life meaning. What is possibly more likely is that it’s caused by the age and stage I’m at in life. In my my mid-to-late 20s (although I’m definitely more late than mid these days) it seems there’s the biggest variety of lifestyles among my peers. Some people are already married with children, some are single, others are engaged, some are living at home with parents, others live in their own home, some are doing well professionally, others are back at university, others are unemployed. There’s such a range of options at the moment, it can be hard to work out where you fit in and where you want to fit in.

Another part of it is that having come to London, I’ve felt a little lost as to what exactly I’m doing with my life. What is it I want out of life and where to from here? I had always envisaged myself moving overseas, most likely to London. Now I’m here. So then what? I hadn’t really thought beyond that.

A large part of that ‘now what?’ is my career. Which I actually feel needs to be referred to as ‘my career’, with the quote marks, because it still feels like a distant, fanciful concept. I don’t really have a career like a lot of my friends do. A lot of them are professionals and have a specific vocation. That’s not to say they’re necessarily any happier, but sometimes limited choices can make life easier, or it appears that way from the outside. When I go to a job website, I don’t know what section to look under. I don’t even know what my keyword is. I haven’t got many hits from ‘really awesome well-paying job that is fun, not too strenuous, fulfilling, in workplace with lots of cute boys’.

I think I’ve come to the realisation that I don’t even know if I want the traditional career. Instead, a patchwork of interests to satisfy everything I want seems a better way to go about it. The job I’m doing at the moment is quite flexible, so I have time to do other things if I want to and I can work from home a lot. It’s created space for me to do other things, like writing this blog, or possibly doing some volunteer work, that I may not have in a typical career-oriented position, but it’s so far affording me a decent lifestyle.

In fact, my current job has opened my eyes to a side of life that while I intellectually knew existed, I never really had to confront. It’s made me realise  how lucky I have been to have the upbringing and lifestyle I have. It’s an incredible privilege that I can sit here and ruminate over the meaning of life and complain about the mundane nature of supermarket shopping.

So my year of living consciously is really about being more aware of how lucky I am to have good friends and family and a place to call home, in London and in NZ; it’s about being more conscious of my feelings, and accepting them, good and bad, and trying to take pleasure in simple things; most of all, it’s about trying to find a way to inject more meaning in my life by finding some way to effect change, to help people. And while this all sounds very hippy-dippy and like I’m about to start singing kumbaya around the campfire, I’m hoping that this year I find a way to make a contribution.

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Delayed gratification: marshmallows and mind control

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One such morning last week I listened to a podcast of Kim Hill’s interview with psychologist Professor Walter Mischel of Columbia University on Radio New Zealand National.

Mischel is a distinguished researcher in the area of personality. In the 1960s he was one of the originators of what is often referred to as ‘the marshmallow test’. Children aged about four years old had one marshmallow (or some similarly delectable confection of their choice) placed in front of them and were told that they could either eat that one marshmallow straight away or they could wait to eat it, usually about 15 minutes, in which case they would be given another marshmallow.

The point of all this was to examine the children’s ability to delay gratification for a bigger reward. Mischel continued to study the children into adulthood, and discovered that those children who could delay gratification, waiting the 15 minutes so they could have two marshmallows, instead of immediately having one, have generally become more successful than those who couldn’t.

Now, Generation Y tends to be all about instant gratification. We don’t expect to have to wait for anything, be it a reply to an email, a promotion at work, or a new dress. We want it all and we want it now.

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So this idea of waiting for something, of not taking that instant gratification that is right in front of you, is something that is quite foreign for many of us.

It’s a skill I think that I was never particularly good at. I always remember as a child being given I would eat all my Easter eggs in one day. It would often shock me when I would go to a friend’s house and in, say, June, she would still have a half-eaten Easter egg in the fridge.

Or when I was flatting at university, one of my flatmates would buy a packet of Toffee Pops and it would last her weeks. She would just have one occasionally. I would sometimes try to imitate her, and it would go well for maybe a day, or maybe an hour, and then I would mow through half the packet.

That these examples are to do with food is pertinent, but it’s certainly not the only area in which I have sometimes showed a lack of self-control. Some things I like to chalk up to experience, such as with my student loan – you could get a maximum of $1000 to spend on books or study accessories, and I would always get the maximum as a boost to my spending money, as $1000 right now was far more appealing than that delayed gratification of smaller loan in a few years’ time.

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Self-control, will power, self-discipline, delayed gratification, whatever moniker you like to give it, is something I have been working hard at trying to develop, and over the past year I have definitely managed to become better in regard to both money and food.

In August last year, around the time of my uncle’s funeral, I had something of a watershed moment and realised that I really needed to get serious about losing weight. I have struggled with my weight my entire life, and I’m only now fully comprehending that I always will – it’s a lifelong battle for me in the way that sobriety is for an alcoholic. I had spent many months indulging in home baking and pastries from the caff at work, and this, combined with a very sedentary job, resulted in me packing even more kilos on to my already well-endowed frame.

It is now over a year since that time, and I have lost 16 kilos (it was 17, but through a lack of that much vaunted self-control, I’m now back up one kilo). While there are many elements that go into weight loss – just as there are many for weight gain – there is a necessarily strong emphasis on delayed gratification.

I always think of my auntie’s mantra of ‘minutes on the lips, months on the hips’. You can either have that instant gratification of eating that brownie, or those hot chips or that Danish pastry, or you can resist it for the bigger reward, some time in the future, of losing weight, fitting into your skinny jeans, being healthier, living longer, feeling better about yourself.

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I’ve also managed to develop some self-control with regard to my spending. I’ve always been someone who loves shopping, loves spending, loves the finer things in life. Saving was something I only did for a very specific, short-term goal, like going on holiday

When I decided to move to London, I knew I would need to save for a considerable length of time, and that required further developing of that self-control. In the end, I didn’t end up moving to London, but I have continued saving. The original reason for saving may have disappeared or changed, but that self-control I developed hasn’t.

In the National Radio interview, Prof Mischel explains that delayed gratification is something that can be learned or developed with the right strategies and help.

Mischel used the example of retesting some children who had initially been bad at delayed gratification, but that if those same children were given a strategy to help them – such as the researcher suggesting that they visualise the marshmallow inside a picture frame – they would often be far better at delaying. When asked why they didn’t eat the marshmallow in the retest, the children would say, ‘Well, you can’t eat a picture.’ Mischel explains that those people who manage to delay gratification in the marshmallow test did so by the simple art of distraction.

I think there’s a lot to take from this for my own struggles with self-control. So much of it is about trying to strategise, to visualise, to keep yourself distracted from temptation.

And it’s also something that, like most things, the more you do it, the better you get. It’s like with saving – when you first start, it’s so difficult, because you’re used to getting that instant gratification. But the more you do it, the easier it becomes. In fact, it can even get to the point where it becomes difficult to spend money, even when you need to. I now weigh-up decisions a lot more carefully before I spend money or before I eat something indulgent, this has benefits, but it can become mentally taxing.

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There are some days when I decide that I’m going to get a piece of cake or something from the caff, but when I get there, I think about it so long that the desire passes – the moment for instant gratification has been and gone. Although I think the caff ladies must thing I’m slightly nutty, standing in front of the food cabinet silently deliberating the merits of a chocolate croissant.

I think developing my ability to delay gratification is definitely something that will help me with all aspects of my life. It just makes me slightly more contemplative about what my reasons are for doing something, for indulging, in whatever it may be. And that’s not to say I don’t indulge when it’s right (and sometimes when it’s wrong) like today I bought a $200 swimsuit. Gosh, writing that does make it seem indulgent. But I figured I deserved it. And I resisted buying a whole lot of other stuff, so we’ll call it even.

While I think the difference between how my weight loss in particular has gone is that other times I’ve tried to lose weight, it’s always been something that I’ve thought about being done over a short period of time – I just need an iron will for a few weeks or months and then I would get to where I want to be.

But that’s not really effecting change within my personality as I have done now. By doing it over a long period of time, I have actually changed my desires, changed my essential make-up, I think. So today when I decided that I should buy a chocolate bar, I ended up going into the dairy and looking at them, but really thought about whether I needed it, how I would feel without it, and I realised that I was fine without it. And so I walked home and tried on my bathing suit instead.

I’ve still got five kilos to lose to get to my goal weight, and still I think, ‘If I’m just really disciplined for the next few weeks or months, it will happen’ but it hasn’t happened yet. I don’t know if I’ll find that discipline to really make it, as the last few kilos are the hardest, but I do feel like I have changed my relationship with food, and with money, and that I have more faith in my ability to ensure a better future for myself, because being able to practise delayed gratification has wide ramifications.

In fact, in an article on the marshmallow test in the New Yorker, Mischel explains, “What we’re really measuring with the marshmallows isn’t will power or self-control. It’s much more important than that. This task forces kids to find a way to make the situation work for them. They want the second marshmallow, but how can they get it? We can’t control the world, but we can control how we think about it.”

The value of that goes beyond the ability to lose weight, to save money – it’s really about giving you control over your own reality.

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