Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Keeping A Check On Finances Makes For Happier Relationships

It is a fact that financial difficulties and incompatibility in money matters are one of the leading causes for divorce, and the breakup of many families.  Even for those of us who are single, it's an acute cause of stress.

At this particular time of the year, many of us are smarting because it's time to pay the piper for our holiday spending. In addition, we are receiving the inevitable notices of increases in fees for everything from electricity to insurances and homeowners taxes.   It's a great time to grab the bull by the horns and get serious about your budget.

There is help available for this on the internet, and the office supply stores sell many different versions of budgeting books you can buy.  If you want to be thrifty like my mom, design your own sheets and make a year’s worth of copies to keep in a folder.

Total the amounts you paid out for last year’s bills in every category (including annual or bi-annual bills, such as the various insurances, taxes, co-payments to doctors and dentists, estimated car repairs, etc.), divide them by twelve, and the resulting sum will be the amount you have to save each month in order to have the funds available when those items come due.

It is a good idea to deposit that money in a savings account. As you save each month the sum will grow and leaving it in the checking account may tempt you to believe that you have more spendable income then you really do.

I think it may be a good idea to repeat my advice from a previous post on traversing the slippery slope of frequent credit card use, for those who may have missed that column.

Many people use their credit cards for almost all financial transaction because they don't like to carry a checkbook (my husband) or they like receiving those bonus points periodically, for a free shopping trip (like me).

Whatever the reason, you may also be among those who hold their breath, or even wait a few days, before opening the bill with the final tally.

If you have ever heard yourself exclaim any of the following...

Holy s--t! There must be some mistake here.

How did this get away from me again?

How can I keep this from Bill (or Elaine)?

...then you know that overcharging is easy and causes some serious stress. And if you have had enough of it, here is an excellent motivational tool to finally put an end to it:

On a simple notepad, write down the amount of every charge on the same day that you make it. Keep a running subtotal for the entire month. (Make sure you subtotal each new charge, that is the main point here!) Now, whenever you go out the door to go shopping you will know exactly how much you have left to spend on necessities (groceries and gas), and after the final total you will know what's left for the little splurges we all like to treat ourselves to.

Do not trust yourself to keep your totals in your head without writing it down! Memory is a tricky thing, and easily influenced by a strong desire for some tempting purchase. It is easy to fool yourself into thinking you have got more money to spend than you do

So, to stop the stress, write it down, check it and keep it honest!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Don't Fight It, Adjust To The Season

Now that the holidays are over, most of us are experiencing a kind of a slump. All of the partying, feasting and plain hard work has us feeling deflated both emotionally and physically. Some will feel disappointed for putting on a few unwanted pounds, and others will rue outspending their Christmas budget.

Feeling blue is a natural result of all these circumstances. In addition, we are looking at grey skies, and facing cold temperatures and unpredictable weather condition for at least another couple of months. We envy those who live in warmer climates, and those who can get away from it all.

At work, the boss gives his “inspirational” speech about grabbing the new year by the horns, bringing more energy and enthusiasm and more fresh ideas. You are just not feeling it, and you don't feel happy in general.

Maybe you have become more irritable with family members and co-workers and just can't shake the funk. Before you start making drastic changes in your life, or blaming others for your state of mind, consider this:

Loss of energizing sunlight has a substantial negative affect on our sense of well being. Consider that much of the animal word adjusts to this by hibernating, eating stored food and moving very little. Our forefathers followed their example fairly closely. They also stored up food and wood to keep themselves warm, and indoor activities were low key: reading, writing letters, playing music, mending clothes etc. Candles were expensive then, so bedtime came early and with plenty of homemade covers.

Compare that to our lives today. It is true that heating and lighting are plentiful now and we don't have to store a winter supply of food anymore, but the demands on our physical and cognitive energies are the same now as they are in June. We also have to get to our jobs everyday, no matter how difficult that becomes: Shuffling snow, scraping ice, getting into an ice-cold car, dangerous road conditions and parking even more limited due to drifts and snow pileups. Some of us have to wait in the streets for public transportation, unprotected from whatever blows, and then attack our workload with energy and enthusiasm!

Of course we feel low and cranky. Our immune system is being drained and we experience more illnesses than in the rest of the year.

Lets help ourselves as much as possible to make life more pleasant till spring. The winter sun is harsh and gives no comfort, but full spectrum light from lamps is proven to help many who suffer from seasonal light depravation. Light up the rooms you frequent most. Make the kind of meals grandma made and brought you comfort. Don't be careless about wearing proper clothing! Go to bed one hour earlier than you usually do - it does wonders for you the next day - and take weekend naps when you can.

To combat boredom, have comfy get-togethers with friends to watch a good movie. Everyone brings a small warm dish to split work and expense. Have game nights, play charades – you can even have poetry night were everybody reads their favorite poem and talks about their reason why it is so. You can have a karaoke night with themes: all Beatles or country, or whatever will be fun.

Remember to make your entertainments shorter to get more rest, and cheaper to catch up from holiday budget busters. Keep warm.  This too shall pass.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Just One More Resolution for 2012: Relax

Is one of your New Year’s resolutions to calm down, because your physician has strongly advised it, or because you hate how burned out you feel and life isn’t as rewarding as it used to be?

To that end, meditation, exercise and stroking your cat are some of the most popular recommendations by professionals and gurus alike. And you may have tried some of these activities in the past (assuming you aren’t allergic to cats). Meditation might have left you feeling confused and convinced that you must be doing something wrong. You were not looking for a “path” and it wasn't a good fit. Running in the morning was making you feel healthier, but your mind was already at work, preparing the many arguments you were likely to have that day, so it wasn’t exactly a relaxing experience.

So here you are. You need to learn how to calm yourself, but your life is too busy and hectic to take time out for experimentations that you are not particularly drawn to. Is that about it? Well, read on - I'm bringing help.

I do believe that meditation and exercise are wonderful and proven ways to bring about mental well-being and improve health in general. I also know that the majority of people  who give these a first try, walk away sooner than later. Meditation takes dedication and expert guidance, and there is no quick pay off. For the person who cannot stop his or her stressful thoughts while exercising, another solution is needed. Sadly for many who believe they have failed at something that obviously has changed the lives for others, self-judgment will be harsh.

Some individuals even believe that taking any time out for oneself is selfish somehow, and that something important is sure to suffer for it.

So, how do all of us, with so little time, desperate to get away from a mind in overdrive, and body muscles tight enough for “flight or fight” at any minute, get to a place were we can both rest and recharge?

Everyone near my age (thirty something) grew up plugged into earphones stuck in a Walkman. It was the greatest thing - no complaints about volume, and no arguments about what constituted “good music.” The world that “didn't get it” was simply tuned out.

Of course we have updated the equipment with iPods and MP3 players, but you can still use them to tune out and relax anywhere and anytime you can take a break.

This method works so well, because you decide what will truly take you away for a while. You choose the type of music you love, or you can listen to someone read to you from your favorite book. You could listen to the sounds of nature, the chants of monks or even a guided relaxation meditation.

I recommend a cold washcloth over the eyes (or a wet hankie if you are at work) and elevated feet, if possible. Your mind becomes passive during this “tune out” because it is listening.   And the body, no longer getting stressful signals from the brain, relaxes as well -  and that feels so very good.

Finding more peace and relaxation is like trying to lose 50 lbs. Small but steady increments, and keeping the ground you’ve gained, will keep you on the You path.

Try it, it works!!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

For The Year 2012

Although you may not live it consciously, you are the “captain of the ship” you call your life. Not the sea - just the vessel. We do not control which challenges will try us, but we do control how we tackle them. To do this effectively requires having the right tools at the right time.

Insight to your "suchness," and acceptance of who you are right now will give you those tools and smooth the way forward. Otherwise, you live your life like a ping pong ball being bounced around by circumstances -  fearful and apparently helpless. Life lives you instead of the other way around.

The enemy of introspection is the belief in perfection (with everyone having their own idea of what that may be.) Looking inside with a more accepting and realistic eye, we find what is not yet "perfect,” but instead of treating it as something embarrassing, we welcome it as a way to make our lives happier and better.

Being perfect, or even becoming perfect, is a silly game our egos play with us. It is impossible to win, so let's refuse to play! What's wrong with walking the path of learning anyway? Living in denial of our perceived weakness and stumbling blocks causes an emotional disconnect with others, a deep loneliness, and an ever-present fear of being found out.

Small things we discover can have such great results, when we stop playing the perfection game. For example, when my mom retired and moved far away from her lifelong social circle to leave near me and her grandchildren, she bought a neglected 100+ year old house and a large wilderness of a backyard. Her plan was to make everything "perfect," a jewel to be admired. All of her energy (she has a considerable amount) and time were spent on a never-ending job. That, plus a few hours dedicated to quilting to break things up, pretty much summed up most of her life.  
Mom was becoming a homebody, and made no attempts to meet new people and make friends. Having no need to feel pretty, she wore her paint-splattered clothes almost daily.  And her hair, once the object of fussy attention, now did what ever it wanted to. Spur of the moment invitations for a family outing or an unplanned party when friends dropped by were always answered with, "No thanks, I'd have to do my hair -  I'm just not up to all that fuss.”

My mom was becoming a “schlep” (her word, not mine). In addition, she was becoming lonely, although she fervently denied that for the first couple of years. She blamed her lack of enthusiasm for anything new on just being tired from all the work. She insisted she was happy in her new life, just as it was. Of course, I knew better and (as any good daughter would) shared my thoughts with her, frequently.

A few weeks ago, while we were having coffee and talking about all the things that usually happen to New Year’s resolutions, she shared hers with me and I could not have been happier. “You know,” she said, “I have been thinking about why I feel so glum all the time. I have become lazy about my appearance. I have a need to feel pretty when I go out. Call it shallow, but that's who I am. I am lonely and it's my fault. I am well on my way to being an old coot if nothing changes. As you may have noticed I set my hair this morning, I am wearing lipstick and there is no paint on my pants! As of today, and for the new year, I will set my hair first thing every morning, I will come when you invite me and I also want to go to the weekly lectures at the library. It's a new start."

Such a small thing, and such a big turnaround. (If you, too, are someone who declines invitations because you are in a rut - like not having something ready to wear when the phone rings - have an outfit ready to wear only for such an occasion. Eventually, people will stop asking assuming it will be a “no.” Be ready when opportunity knocks. As a rule, we are social animals, and we need those connections to live a balanced life.)

The thing is, only you know - with introspection and without laying blame on others - what it is that keeps you from living life the way you want to.  And just maybe that life is different than the one you sort of drifted into.

So, for 2012, let's get to know ourselves a little better still, with the intent of becoming freer and happier. Forget about being perfect, see yourself with honesty and kindness, identify the obstacle and make a plan.

Happy New Year!