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Living the ‘pre-solvent’ life.

thHere’s today’s neologism, and it’s a great one: “pre-solvent.” It comes from a comment on one a Money Talks News article called “The real reason Americans struggle to save.”

The article cited a couple of surveys that put the fault not in our stars, but in our cards: “Lifestyle spending” and “lack of financial discipline” kept anywhere from 44 to 71 percent of respondents living paycheck to paycheck and/or prevented them from achieving financial goals.

I’d like to point out that underemployment, lack of education and impossible-to-pay medical bills can also hinder the ability to save. But I agree that the “buy now, figure out how to pay for it later” attitude is definitely nudging some folks toward insolvency.

Which brings us to pre-solvency. A commenter named “Y2K Jillian” writes that she and her husband lived paycheck to paycheck for years and loathed the lifestyle. But change happened.

How? “Gradually, gradually.” Which is how I’d bet it happens for a lot of people.

 

Some of those gradual steps:

  • Halting credit card use and paying off existing consumer debt via the “debt snowball” method
  • Joining the company 401k (starting with the exact minimum for matching funds, and slowly upping the contribution)
  • Putting more into savings
  • Keeping a vehicle for 20 years, then paying cash for a newer-model used car
  • Paying extra on the mortgage, finishing just as they retired (early)

You may be thinking, “It must be nice to be able to save for retirement, pay off a mortgage and buy a car for cash.” And you’d be right. Sort of.

Although some people are mired in the issues I noted above, others are yoked to that lifestyle spending/lack of discipline — which means they’re not just mired, but slowly sinking. You can’t get ahead if you spend every dime.

But it’s amazing how much money you find in the budget once you’re not eating out four or five times a week, or buying new stuff when the old stuff still works, or doing just about anything without a clear idea of how you’ll pay for it and still be able to save for a rainy day.

 

‘Our time was worth far more’

About that last: Sure, it’s frustrating when old poops like your grandparents (and me!) harp on the need to be ready for life’s inevitable precipitation.

But if you let lack of discipline to keep you from thinking ahead, then you need to accept responsibility for the day when you’re suddenly soaked and have no financial umbrella.

Part of that preparation, by the way, involves steeling yourself for name-calling.

“Funny how many people we know were disparaging about our ‘cheapness’ and ‘poverty.’ We never felt poor, we felt like we were pre-solvent,” Y2K Jillian says.

“We had agreed years ago that our time was worth far more than gadgets and toys.”

(Hey, me too! See “Surviving (and thriving) on $12k a year: The reboot” for more on that.)

Now that they’re retired, she and her husband are still living below their means, and happily: “Just the other day, we picked up some things at the Dollar Tree, and I said, ‘You know, I wouldn’t buy these things at a regular store if I had $10,000,000 in the bank right now.’ And I meant it.”

I’ve often preachified against trying to keep up with the Joneses, especially since they might be up to their hairlines in debt trying to keep up with the Smiths. Or maybe they’re just trying to prove something to themselves: Look at the great life we have! Everybody envies us! (Even though we have chronic anxiety about making minimum payments.)

 

Time to grow up

I understand that eating out is the new normal, and that people want to have fun while they’re young, and that 24/7 shopping online is a huge temptation.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t enjoy life. That’s part of why we work: to get the things that make us happy. What’s essential is that those things be part of a workable budget, i.e., one that lets you have fun while saving for the near and not-so-near future. That way you can pay for car repairs from an emergency fund vs. putting it on plastic.

That financial self-discipline lets you can also enjoy life later on, vs. struggling to get by with Social Security plus whatever amount you set aside (if you did).

Taking charge of your finances doesn’t have to be onerous. Think of it as just one more thing that grownups do. We at least attempt to eat right, exercise, pay our bills on time, raise our kids/care for pets properly, donate to the needy and, yeah, have a little fun. But we do it with money that’s in hand vs. plasticizing our pleasures.

They say you should create the change you wish to see in the world. Allow me to tack on another adage: “Charity begins at home.” Get mindful about your money and you’ll create the change you wish to see in your own life.

Readers: Do you ever get teased/derided for being careful with money? And do you ever get the feeling that the people doing the criticizing are going to be in trouble later on?

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31 Comments

  1. Tina in NJ

    The only one who comes close is our 20-something son, the one who’s drooling over the Apple Watch. Most of our friends have been through the same trials we have. I keep reminding myself of something a friend with older kids recently said, “You’re only a couple of years away from being smart again.”

    • Donna Freedman

      I love this remark. Thanks for sharing it.

      • Carolina Cooper

        Tina’s remark reminds me of something that I once heard (possibly attributed to Mark Twain): When he was 14, he thought his father was a fool. When he was 21 he was surprised at how much his father had learned in only 7 years.
        I certainly have found that to be true with my own adult children–now that they are in their 30s & 40s they ask me for advice that they never would have sought when they were in their teens or 20s, because what could I possibly know?

  2. Cakester

    I do think that people wonder at my spending habits, or lack thereof. Yet I know that my savings are growing when I hear my coworkers bemoan their bank accounts. The same is probably true for the eccentricities of well off people, generally to stay that way they also have their priorities.

  3. ro in san diego

    As usual, Donna, your article struck a chord with me. I used to get teased about being careful with money until I started sharing pictures of the fab vacations we enjoy. Fortunately I was able to find a part time job that allows me to eat meals out which is the main indulgence I haven’t been able to give up. My husband was teasing me about it until I started bringing him leftovers. He’s chowing down on some of those leftovers now! I like the idea of pre-solvent. I remember those days myself. Being solvent totally rocks!

    • With us it was my husband’s brother. He had a larger house and a $50,000 pick up truck. He and his wife constantly let us know they had more money than us. But they didn’t. They just had more expensive stuff.

      Now we are all retired and we travel around the world yearly, while they are struggling. I would struggle against the urge to literally thumb my nose, but we don’t see them any more. 😀

      • Donna Freedman

        I can understand the impulse, but probably it’s best to take the high road here. As in, “We had nothing to prove to you then, and our current happy life now speaks for itself.”

        Then again, people who blow through available funds tend to use phrases like “It must be nice!” or talk about how “lucky” you are. Nope, just prudent.

        Sometimes living well really IS the best revenge.

  4. A Reader

    The beauty of becoming solvent, something to spur on those who are pre-solvent, is taking advantage of TIME, as in compounding ones’ savings through time and interest earned on those savings/investments.

  5. Vicki

    My favorite comment these days is “It is a different life these days, I need a ….” ( usually upgraded cell phone, better car etc”) . The other thing I notice these days (“these days…sheesh I sound old”) is the use of credit cards to build credit. I have kids in the mindset that in order to build credit “for the future” they need to put everything on plastic. This is excellent marketing by credit card companies, I must say.
    The other comment I get alot around our frugal ways is “I work hard so I DESERVE blah, blah, blah”. Indeed you do but you will also be working hard to pay it off. I guess this is why when I tell friends and family I am about to take an endless road trip for fun with my hubby, kid and dog the usual response is “I wish I could do that” or “I am so jealous”. We worked hard like everyone else and the reason we can do it is we saved hard and this is one of the rewards.

    • Donna Freedman

      When people say stuff like “it must be nice,” it sets my teeth on edge. If I have things it’s because I did without other things in order to pay cash. Gaaahhh….

      Bravo for you for figuring out what you wanted — and what you don’t really need.

      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  6. Alison

    I think of it as the old Amy D. thinking – by doing this myself I am making X amt. of dollars per hour. I also feel that young adults had everything in their parents home: multiple tvs, cell phones paid for, comfy bedroom, their car insurance paid for, etc. that makes young adults reluctant to move out on their own. Then there is the Millionaire Next Door chapter about “outpatient financial assistance” or close to that. Parents giving their adult children money and the adult children just assume they will get it and spend their own money on “stuff”. People on the school playground back in the day thought I was so “lucky” to be a sahm. Not lucky, I worked for it. Thank God for Amy D.

    • Donna Freedman

      I got a copy of “The Tightwad Gazette II” at a yard sale for 50 cents. Amy would approve.

      And I’m with you on the lifestyle-to-which-they’ve-become-accustomed thing: When people move out on their own it can be a shock just to see how much it costs to buy dishes, a broom and toilet paper, let alone high-end phones and wi-fi and other modern “essentials.” It can be easy to fall into debt for the things you think you need.

      It’s a dangerous thing to assume your parents want to subsidize your lifestyle.

  7. Betsey

    It’s great to be 65, own everything outright, and realize that one doesn’t need stuff to be happy. I seem to be the envy of my friends!
    Looking back, I never seemed to the outside world that I was cheap. I used the in/out method of stuff, I drove nice but older cars, I had five smashing outfits for work and a couple of leisure wear outfits for weekends, I used coupons and shopped sales, and never, ever paid full price.
    My daughter made an odd comment once. She claimed that a friend must be rich because she had 5 VCRs and we only had one. Hmm. We lived in a nice middle class neighborhood and her friend’s family lived in a rent-subsidized apartment in a lower class area.
    Thankfully she is now more like me and watches her money carefully. She has learned that to do so is empowering.

  8. Cathy in NJ

    I love the comment by Vicki, “the reason we can do it is we saved hard”. I too have saved hard and had to defend my savings against all threats, foreign (extended family members, sales people) and domestic (my family). It takes a lot of time and large and small repetitive sacrifices to save money. And once you have savings, those who didn’t work hard to save want at it.
    I prefer the company of frugal people. They understand the value of two years free community college and don’t tell me I am short changing my daughter. College is for education, not a life experience and debt stinks.

    • jestjack

      Sorry Cathy gonna disagree with the college outlook. Sent both my DD’s to 4 year schools where they worked hard, earned their degrees in 4 years and thanks to their “4 year college experience”(IMHO) are doing well in their chosen professions. In this neck of the woods I can’t count the number of kids who went to Community College only to find that their credits did not transfer AND it took them 5-6-7 years to get their degrees IF they finished. NOPE…I’ll live with holey socks, discounted meat and old cars so that my kids could get a good education with no debt when they came out….

  9. SherryH

    I don’t remember anyone making fun, though to be fair most of our friends have been through similar financial straits and understand frugal living.

    But when I left my job to attend community college full-time in 2005, at age 35, I got a lot of envious comments from my mostly 20-something classmates. “You are so lucky!” and “I wish I didn’t have to work and go to school!” Well, I was lucky to be able to do that. But the same people also talked about their dinners out and movies, their new laptops and vehicles, the vacations they were going to take. I didn’t talk about eating all our meals at home, treating the kids to the dollar menu once or twice a month as something really special. I didn’t mention our older vehicles and computers, or dropping my son off to school and parking at the college to read my assignments because I didn’t have gas money to go home for that hour. I didn’t bring up my well-worn wardrobe, mostly gifts or thrift store finds.

    I didn’t envy them their lifestyles (well, maybe a little…) but I was annoyed that they attributed mine to luck instead of choice, and seemed oblivious to the sacrifices our family made inorder to support our choice.

  10. Jennifer

    One of the books that was a “kick in the head” when I was younger was the Millionaire Next Door. DH and I soon decided we wanted to be the “stealth millionaires next door,” because we didn’t want to deal with the envy. We’ve been careful, hardworking, and lucky. We’re close and hoping not to screw that up as we near retirement age.

    The other most important book financially for us was “Your Money or Your Life.” The idea that our purchases could be measured in our life hours made me very frugal with spending AND working. Financial independence is where it’s at. Again, close . . .

    Thanks for the reminders to think about these things. I’m teaching my kids that debt sucks and savings equals choices. I’m sure they’ll experiment with the “dark side” of trying to buy enough stuff to be cool a few times before they realize that we’re right, same as I did.

  11. jestjack

    What a timely article….A couple of month’s back I was complimenting my neighbor on his new truck purchase. As my truck is approaching it’s 13th B-day and I WAS considering a new truck I inquired as to the price he paid….His reply…”mid $30’s”…”a good deal”…YIKES! Fast forward a bit and just caught up with the same neighbor who shared that he’s …”beat” as he has taken a part time job to make ends meet…aka…make the new truck payment. I’m thinking some repairs to my truck should make it last another 13 years…MAN …”mid $30’s”… my first house was $41K… and had 2 apartments!

    • Donna Freedman

      I’d be willing to work extra for an emergency or for some really big goal such as rental property or paying down debt. But to take on extra work just to get a nicer truck is not in my worldview.
      To each his own, except…will he be too tired to appreciate the vehicle? Will he consider it worth the trade-off, i.e., hot wheels vs. overall quality of life?

    • A Reader

      I’ve had the same trusty automobile for 17 years, and like it: 360K miles and going strong. Until new cars become much more fuel efficient, I’m keeping my current car.

    • Lisa O

      It is amazing the cost of new cars. I have upgrade cars every 3 years since I started driving. I currently have a car with 36K miles and 10 more payments…plans have changed and I am driving this for another 4 years to put that car payment into my retirement accounts. I love the fact that yours is 13 years old and you are still driving it…maybe my 8 year goal isn’t to short!

  12. I don’t know that I’ve ever been teased about frugality. My mom looks askance when I mention that I shop at Goodwill, but she doesn’t say anything. I’ve gotten a couple of “It must be nice” comments from neighbors but I just look at them and say that I’ve saved and earned my way into everything that I own (in my neighborhood, it is rare for a single woman to own one of the units).

    I have kind of the opposite problem, though. So many people my age, as you state, are just living on the edge and I’m extremely worried about their future. I just grit my teeth when they talk about “I bought this” or “I’ll just put this on the credit card” and hope that when they are ready to make a change, they know to come to me for advice…

    • Donna Freedman

      …and you’ll be ready to give it, i.e., you’re leading by example. The question is, will they be ready to hear it? Or do they think you have some magic formula or two simple steps to make everything all better?
      Being careful with your money is simple but, as SonyaAnn points out elsewhere in the comments, it isn’t easy.
      Good for you for paying your way — and for letting people know that nobody did this for you except you.

  13. Great post!
    We still scrimp and save. We have worked hard not to have credit card debt and use them only for the miles. We are in the thick of it now(saving for retirement) and it is getting old. Sorry to say. We have an emergency fund. WOuld I like it to be more, sure but there are other things to pay. We pay way extra on the house and max out Den’s 401k. It has been tight for years. I see everyone moving up and I feel left behind. I know a frugal soul isn’t supposed to say that but boy does that fresh new house smell entice you. Den and I had a talk and we realized that if he quit putting money in his 401k and we put it towards a new house, we too could swing it. And then the new house didn’t seem so great. When would he have the money to retire? Never. Maybe it didn’t smell so great. I’m sure that when Den can retire we will be so grateful to our younger selves but the struggle sucks. Ok I feel better that I got to vent.

    • Donna Freedman

      Hey, sometimes you get irritated seeing the goodies everyone else seems to have. Knowing that you could have them but are choosing not to is some comfort.

      Or so I keep telling myself. 😉

      But seriously: I think you and I are both pretty happy people, except that sometimes we wish we could fly somewhere on a whim/buy a car instead of fixing the current one/treat our loved ones to something startling. We get over it, eventually. “Frugal fatigue” is sort of like a 24-hour virus: awful while it’s here, hard to remember in a week.

  14. becky

    Recently divorced I had to pay to keep my house. Fortunately, because I had reduced the time of the first mortgage I could afford the second. Still it angers me that I made all those sacrifices to help someone who stole from me to begin with. Now, I am saving, but not as much as I would like. I loaned some money to my daughter, but I am happy to know she will pay it back, she always has in the past. Thinking of putting a new apartment in my house which is too big for us now. However, I’m having trouble finding decent workmen, i.e. reasonably priced and not drunk or crazy. I worry about retiring alone. My daughters assures me I will not be alone. I never wanted to depend on my children. Hopefully I wont have to.

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