Strategic pizza.

Last month I was fried extra-crispy: too many things to do in too little time before I left for a seven-week trip to Alaska. Will Chen over at Wise Bread did a telephone intervention, i.e., I sort of melted down while he was on the line.

Bless his heart – he didn’t start to make bad-cell-reception noises and say that he couldn’t hear me so we’d have to talk some other time. (Like, um, never.) Instead, he listened to me whirl and howl about so many things I wanted to do, so few days until my plane left, so many professional plans but no time in which to bring them to fruition.

Then he gently encouraged me to think about how I’m spending my time.

Am I using an available hour on tactics that will ultimately earn me more money and thus make my life easier, both now and in the future? Or am I soaking pinto beans and re-using Ziploc bags to save a dollar or two today?

Boy, I hate it when a guy 20 years younger than me is light-years smarter. But thanks, Will, because you’re right.

Why on earth was I obsessing about what to fix for dinner? Wouldn’t a strategic pizza delivery have freed up my head for more important things, or allowed me to take a long, hot soak?

I owe Will a nice fruit basket. And I owe myself the favor of being smarter about my time. So do you, whether you know it or not.

Saving, or self-sabotaging?

Not everyone has the option of getting Chinese food or a sandwich at the corner deli. Five years ago, that was me. I was back in college, working a couple of part-time jobs and grabbing extra gigs (babysitting, mystery shopping, medical testing) whenever I could. Meals were made from scratch and as cheaply as possible so that I could pay my bills and, eventually, throw whatever was left at divorce-related debt. I didn’t buy non-essential items and spent as little as I could on the things I did need (clothing, utilities).

That’s not me now. Thanks to a mix of frugality and freelance I can pay my bills and plan for the future. I can even afford to splurge from time to time. Yet I’ll panic over the possibility of spending $2.25 on the bus and opt to do my errands on foot instead.

Never mind that taking public transit would give me that extra hour. Often I’ll be too stubborn to pay $2.25 to travel a mile. It just seems wasteful.

It isn’t wasteful. It’s self-sabotaging. It deprives me of an hour better spent on stillness, contemplation, reading or sleep. As deadlines approach, it causes unnecessary stress.

I know all this. But I tend to forget it. Or, more to the point, I forget to apply it to myself even though I counsel others not to overdo it. No wonder I recently hit the wall.

My most recent post at Get Rich Slowly explores this tendency to take on more than I can handle and to obsess over the finer points of saving money. “Want to save money? Slow down” suggests focusing on doing a few things well vs. a ton of things half-assedly – which includes spending every free moment on extra work or extra frugal hacks. Give it a read and see if you recognize yourself.

Next up: Learning to take my own advice.

How about it, readers: Do you try to do too much? Do you find yourself fretting over a dollar that you feel you shouldn’t have spent (even though you really should have)? How long can you keep up that pace?

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  1. I know exactly how you feel. Having been a teacher(not the best paid job) all of my life and a single parent bringing up a son on my own, I have been so used to living frugally that I find it so hard to take care of or be generous with myself. I have no problem being generous with my son or other people. I do now (at 51)however realise that time is very valuable and I am not going to waste it unnecessarily. I don’t take the bus to save a dollar or two if it is going to take half an hour longer. I take my car instead. I don’t waste time going to two or three supermarkets. I recently purchased a raincoat on line to save searching the malls etc. I do still rinse out ziplock bags and grate , peal and soak etc. Some old habits die hard.
    You have made a great success of your life Donna and maybe it is time now to enjoy some of the fruits of your labour.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Ash: Thanks for the perspective. I know all this but, like you, I had/have a hard time making myself believe it. Perhaps I think that all the travel (frugal though it is!) is all the reward I’m allowed to have, and that I should be making up for it by being uber-tightwad the rest of the time.
      And I am, sorta — I do still eat a lot of pintos, mostly because they’re easy — but I still find myself thinking, “No, you shouldn’t buy a cold drink. Go to the pharmacy section and see if there’s a water fountain.” Technically it is healthier to have water, but dammit, sometimes I want an ice-cold Diet Coke.
      Moderation in all things, including moderation. And there is hope: Last week when I went to the movies I bought kettle corn! Party!
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  2. Ps
    Have you ordered a pizza since?

  3. You’re crossing the threshold from more time than money into the realm of more money than time.

    Or, perhaps more accurately, your time is now worth more than it was. The problem you share with many others, like me, is that as our rate of earning increases, we don’t adjust our decisions accordingly.

    What we need to be careful of is not thinking just about money. There are other costs in all our decisions. E.g., using plastic forks instead of reusable ones because we don’t want to spend the time washing them has broader implications in terms of pollution, geopolitics (plastics are usually derived from oil), etc.

    • Donna Freedman

      @zzzzzz: Paper plates et al. bother me. But since there’s just one of me, washing a plate and fork isn’t a big deal.
      And yeah, I have to figure not just what my time is worth but also how much of it I actually have to spend. If there’s only an hour or two before I have to go to bed, I don’t want to spend it cooking. I don’t want to subsist on a diet of takeout, but some Thai food or, yes, a pizza will no longer break the bank and feels a lot more luxurious than it really is. Small things please small minds.

  4. Speaking of people 20 years younger than you and counseling you to take it easy and slow down. Cough, cough.

    That said, I’m still fighting guilt for not “saving” our twice-peed-on couch by replacing the foam and washing the cushion covers — even though it was starting to look kind of shabby and probably would have needed to be replaced in a year or so anyway.

    So I guess stubbornness runs in the family. I’ve just moved to the next level: taking it easy, but feeling bad about it later. Hey, it’s a start.

  5. BTW, it’s hard to beat $2 for a slice of pizza at Costco, even with a home-cooked meal from scratch.

    • Donna Freedman

      @zzzzzz: And since I know the maitre d’ at Costco, I always get a good table. 😉

  6. What helped me move out of that trap was having a really nice emergency fund. Whenever I would get nervous (and I *still* do this), I would open up my bank account and look at it. Money means security. Security means you can say, “It’s only money.” And you can start thinking about cost-benefit calculations with time. How much would you have to pay me to get me to work an extra hour with market work? That number is bigger now than it used to be. Pizza, within reason, works now when we’re short of time.

    (Also, we totes recommend: Help! My apartment has a kitchen!)

  7. If you wanted a pizza because you wanted a pizza, I would be comfortable with that. Your using the excuse that it easier and faster and you have the big bucks to make, makes me uncomfortable.What about the environment?

    (Never mind that I bought Kisses with foil on them tonight.)

    What happened to your scheming to cook ahead to eat more nutritiously and cheaper? (Never mind I ate at McD for almost free.) LOL

    Seriously, I feel like you are abandoning your strong stance. You know I never had one, but who will I aspire to be like now?

    Because of injuries and health problems, I have given in to plastic, disposables to drink from. When I have surgery, I will give in to the paper plates given to me years ago to test and report results. Maybe I, like you, will one day be making mucho bucks and not have time to cook or the energy.

    See, you wore yourself out with all the single men in Alaska!

    • Donna Freedman

      @Practical Parsimony: I always did eat fairly nutritiously — lots of beans, rice, vegetables, fruit, small amounts of meat and chicken, and now lots of freshly made yogurt. It’s not that I can’t cook for myself. It’s that sometimes my days are so fraught for weeks on end that the idea of adding one more chore makes me want to lie down with a cold cloth on my eyes.
      An hour (or even half an hour) not spent thinking about food may be the time that I can use more intelligently, whether that’s making money or taking a break. Example: A piece I tossed off in less than half an hour recently earned me $250, and the editor wants me to do more. Definitely smarter to use my time in this way than to roast a chicken, peel and mash potatoes, and cut up and steam carrots, and do the cleanup afterwards. If there are no leftovers in the fridge (I still cook for six), then I need to train myself to indulge in the occasional takeout/delivery.
      And I figure all the plastic yogurt cups I don’t throw away will more than make up for the occasional pizza boxes — which get turned into compost in Seattle anyway.

  8. It kind of seems that when you start to make a little more money you have to reevaluate how to be frugal at that stage. Hmm, this gives me a lot to think about. I love being around smart people.

    • Donna Freedman

      @SonyaAnn: Does this mean that I have to buy the next time we hit the food court? 😉

  9. Donna Freedman

    @Nicoleandmaggie: Cost-benefit is something I’m working on — see my response to Practical Parsimony, above. It’s smarter to earn the $250 in 30 to 60 minutes than to cook a meal from scratch. It’s also good for me to step away from the chore now and then.
    And: I’m supporting the local economy. The part of it that sells pizza or Thai food, anyway. 🙂
    Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  10. Now A Country Mouse

    Yep! Last December, while trying to save money and bake home-made goodies for gifts, I greatly underestimated the time and energy I would spend. The costs of my ingredients, (even though I already had some at home), combined with the hours baking and cleaning up afterwards made me realize it would have been cheaper and less stressful to just buy them a $3 box of chocolates.
    My husband did a deprivation intervention just last week. After I had put a peppermint bark Ghirardelli candy bar back on the shelf, I saw it on the belt when we were checking out. He reminded me that it’s just one candy bar and besides, the peppermint bark is only out for a short time. 🙂

  11. Ro in San Diego

    Since landing my dream job three years ago I have given up cooking most evening meals during the week due to lack of motivation to extend my workday one more minute when I finally get home. Even though I consider myself to be frugal I draw the line at being frugal and making myself miserable at the same time.

    My work hours are unpredictable and my commute is too long to reliably have the time to cook dinner during the week. I was stressing myself out too much so I gave in to “take out”.

    The cost isn’t that much greater and that extra time to relax and visit with my husband is wonderful. My husband usually grills a meal at least one evening per week.

    Since I stopped beating myself up over this I am much happier and have time to pursue hobbies on weeknights like working out at the gym and planning for strategic shopping trips using coupons.

  12. Really it is a conundrum for you. You do still need to be tied into the frugal life since that is the basis of your writing and sage advice! But since you are now moving from ‘starving student’ status to time vs. money career woman it creates some conflict. I would love to see your articles deal with that transition as well as the basic frugal stuff. “Wow, I have EXTRA money this month” so starting to research the best programs/values for investing tiny amounts would be beneficial to your readers — like how do you start with tiny amounts per month & not a few thousand to invest?
    I hope you make it through this psychological transition in good health and financial states!!! Love your articles and insights!

  13. Donna,
    You did not get that I was not seriously challenging you? Hey, for that kind of money, who would be inspired to cook? Did you see where I pointed out my similar foibles? You have inspired me. Sorry to hear you are have these issues.

  14. PP: You could make a foil ball from those kisses, and leave it to your grands.

    Donna: I’m at the same crossroads, as are most of the people we (both) know that I keep in contact with. We have done due dilligence, and now we need to learn to benefit from it. Each of us has made a commitment to now add enrichment to our lives in additional ways. Rubyslippers just bought a big freezer so she can pack a half grassfed cow into it. Pepperdoo paid off her mortgage and you know what I’m up to. ( I also bought a Nook to read DD’s book on!) So keep progressing and keep up the good work.

  15. I remember the times I have chosen paper plates over dishes. I thought it was a desperate choice to save my sanity. And no one noticed but me.

  16. Honestly, that kind of freedom, that you and Lynn etc. are talking about is the BEST PART of having done due diligence. I love not having to freak out about ordering a pizza. It’s not just the cost benefit analysis– that’s important to do, of course, but its the freedom of being on solid ground and being able to slip up sometimes. Yes, optimizing your time is great, but when you have money in the bank, and your debt is gone… sometimes you can not do that cost-benefit calculation and know that you’re still going to be ok. Within limits, of course.

    But that’s why a measure of financial independence is so attractive to me. It’s the freedom to stop stressing about every little thing. To cut myself a little slack. And yes, we’ve had lifestyle inflation, often time-saving lifestyle inflation, but we’ve also always kept things in check with a large enough margin that we’re still spending far less than we earn. But we also embrace that growing freedom, knowing that I’m never going to go back to a state of finances in which I lose my ability to digest red meat.

  17. I thankfully have not had this problem. But I was never the frugal goddess that Donna is so I did not have that mindset in the first place.

    I’m with the above poster, coming home and trying to cook a from scratch meal makes me want to rip my hair out and go running naked down the street. I try to do a crock pot meal once a week with leftovers but I admit most of the rest tends to be takeout and I am happier for it.

  18. Wintercat

    Someone wise once gave me a great mantra, which I’ve managed to REMEMBER (a real feat), so it must be a good fit. Now I say to myself, “I do some things better all the time, and other things not so well!”. You have to say this with a chuckle, a motion with your arm as if you’re patting yourself on the back, and the real intent to acknowledge yourself and banish the judging voice. This mantra isn’t an excuse for the things I’m doing “not so well”, but an appreciation of the PROCESS, and a point of stopping to assess. Just STOPPING for a moment helps me because the details of life become COMPELLING and CONSUMING, whether or not they are details you’ve chosen (frugality, self-employment). When I find myself rushing around or losing a day to errands, I try to remember how thankful I am that I’d not in an office, or how content I am in life outside of the “momentary” crush of details.

    Hope this resonates with others.

  19. ImJuniperNow

    Donna! Thank you for this article! It clearly explains all the reasons I stopped subscribing to numerous frugal blogs last year – I couldn’t take that “Drive 40 miles to the middle of nowhere to save 3 cents a gallon on gas even if the tank’s nearly on E” mentality. I got so tired of the “I made this pizza myself at home it only cost $4.99 and the exact cost breakdown of the ingredients is: . .”.

    I work a full and part time job. That’s my choice. I don’t have to feel like I’ve committed a cardinal sin by buying a pizza on my way home for $7 which allows me to relax when I get there. And honestly, I’m a crummy cook to begin with.

    I encourage everyone to read Joyce Meyers’ book “Eat The Cookie, Buy the Shoes”. No matter what your religious beliefs may be, it contains priceless observations and encouragements about enjoying life.

  20. Vicky Fox

    I am slowing down just now after almost 19 months of being spun like a top, and everything is settling down. Donna, you know I clearly understand what it means to “hit the wall”.

    I want to point out that the “Seed of Frugality” that was initially planted in your first video and article, along with support from an extremely dear friend who went through the same experience I did. That support has been so valuable no price tag can be put on it, has brought me now to a place where I thought I’d never be, and that place, is the freedom to have a choice of what the rest of my life to be like. Now I know what it’s like to not have to have a mortgage payment, no bills, other than my monthly generated necessities, an emergency fund that provides a secure saftety net, and above all, the peace and freedom to not have to worry, and to be able to say Yes to what I choose, and No to what I don’t.

    Discipline means doing now what you will be satisfied with later on.

    Prosperity doesn’t just means financial freedom. That’s only one part of it. It also means having peace, joy, good health, people who care about me for who I am and not what have. Being able to enjoy the jourrney is priceless:)

  21. I like your definition of financial freedom, Vicky.

  22. lostAnnfound

    “Food” for thought. Great article.

  23. Donna, watch your own video “Living poor and loving it”. You said then that you were living like this as a means to an end. It didn’t mean that you were never going to allow yourself to spend money. Your frugality and persistence have paid off and you have achieved so much since then. Reevaluating your priorities and preserving your sanity is absolutely the smart thing to do. Sometimes what you perceive as a want might turn into a temporary need because everyone deserves a bit of breathing room. Great post BTW.

  24. My husband and I debate this issue frequently (I come from a financially unstable household whereas he has always had everything he needs/wants in abundance). He cooked a real meal this weekend while I was taking some finals, and when I expressed my surprise he informed me that it is not that he cannot cook, it is just that he values what little down time he gets and would prefer to relax. The value isn’t there for him (and here I’ve thought for five years that he can’t focus long enough to complete a recipe). As time becomes more precious, it is so difficult to assign a value to it and break the frugal habits. We are trying to find that balance so we can continue to grow our nest egg for the future.

  25. Interesting post. Brings to mind something I observed some years ago when I was on the board of the state humanities council: People who have lived through a period of starving-student penury may find it very difficult to shake off the frugalista mindset after they start earning a living wage.

    We had tenured faculty on the board (half the members were academics and the other half community members) who, when asked to donate an annual figure, would plead that they couldn’t afford it. The amount wasn’t much — maybe $50 a month at the outside — but they just couldn’t bring themselves to cough it up. I have a friend who’s earning a little over $67,000 now as a tenured associate professor. She doesn’t live extravagantly, but she still feels broke.

    I think a period of extreme, enforced frugality can have a permanent effect on your psyche.

  26. Vicky Fox

    That enforced frugality period had a clear effect on my psyche, but in a good way. When my husband passed, I didn’t fall into emotional spending trap just to make myself feel better, and kept me out of financial trouble. It was a very good anchor to help keep centered and not jump into foolish situations that I now know would have been bad for me.

  27. We’ve been both dead broke and not-so-broke over the years, and it’s actually easier to be frugal when you’ve got nothing to spend. Is this purchase a matter of life or death? If not, add it to the ‘someday’ list. But having money means having to make choices, and decide between things that are not absolute needs, but more than frivolous wants.

    You used to spend lots of time to save money – now that you’ve got a lot of demands on your time and energy, use the money to save yourself time. And sanity. Sometimes the price of a delivery pizza is money very well spent!

  28. Donna Freedman

    @Vicky: Your ability to say yes to what you choose was hard-earned and most deserved. Kudos!
    The operative word is “choose.” After making some mistakes, you and your husband chose to beat the debt and you did. His death was so shocking that I wouldn’t have faulted you for going into a tailspin. But you didn’t. You stayed the course you’d set for the two of you, even though sailing solo was so hard.
    I admire you so much.

  29. Donna Freedman

    @Nicoleandmaggie: It’s the freedom that I want to keep — the ability to do what I choose vs. what I’ve trapped myself into needing to do. Watching my funds got me this far. Now it’s a question of continuing to watch them, but also to let a little fun into the equation.
    Mmmm…red meat….

  30. We’re gonna post on this the week after next, I think. Look out for it!

    Still have to write the post first, but it’s gonna be about when can you tip from watching every penny you spend to focusing on saving some % of your income first. Probably a lot like that Liz Pulliam Weston article about who doesn’t need a budget. I think they’re related ideas. If you’re saving 40% of your income, you can cut yourself some slack with the remaining 60%. Something like that.

    I’m envisioning it sort of as stages as you get more financially secure, first you start with watching every penny, then you add in things that are closer to needs than wants (ex. red meat), more slack in the budget… then you start optimizing things, calculating trade-offs. Then at some point optimizing is no longer worth the time it takes to do and you can switch to general heuristics or monthly budgeting etc. And these stages have a lot to do with how much money you’ve got in the bank and in investments (passive income) and so on.

    Anyway, that’ll be in a couple weeks, hopefully.

    • Donna Freedman

      @NicoleandMaggie: I’ll look forward to reading what you write. I think it will help those who are in this position and also give others the much-needed shot of “This isn’t forever — you are working toward a goal.”

  31. I like to always keep a frozen dinner or pizza in the freezer for times when I don’t feel like cooking. I also really rely on frozen mixed veggies to throw in a quick stir fry with rice or canned or boxed soup. More expensive than doing from scratch but still pretty quick when I’m in a rush. And there’s also a Subway 5 minutes from here and once in a while it’s really not that big of a deal.

  32. Donna Freedman

    @Marie: I always have soup, but I’ve started to think about frozen foods. Trader Joe’s has some very tasty stuff. I could do the sides from what’s on hand — salad, a side vegetable, fruit — but the heavy lifting would be done by the microwave.
    I know this is smart. But there’s a difference between knowing it intellectually and actually BELIEVING it. I’m a work in progress, for sure.
    Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  33. Pretty much every woman I know tries to do to much. I do try to cook from scratch most of the time because it is cheaper and way healthier for us. But I do keep some frozen egg rolls in the freezer (quickie egg rolls and fried rice dinner) and a box of mac & cheese in the pantry. Sometimes it’s all I can do to resort to the emergency plan!

  34. Vicky Fox

    Donna, now you make me want pizza:):)

  35. Vicky Fox

    And a steak too:):)

    • Donna Freedman

      @Vicky Fox: Have either one by itself. Steak-topped pizza, not so much. 😛

  36. How funny — I’ve been writing about this a lot lately. Our time is FAR more valuable than money, in large part because we’re only going to live 80-100 years, maximum. In other words, our time is limited, but money is potentially limitless. It’s better to be frugal with time than money.

  37. Hey Donna – I don’t know that Will is wiser than you :), but it’s always easy to get perspective from outside your life than in it. It’s very hard to shake ingrained habits, but hopefully you can learn some new ones!

  38. I don’t think I’m wiser, but I’m certainly lazier than you are. =)

    The important thing to remember is that you have this problem because you’re getting a lot more opportunities recently. Getting overwhelmed by opportunities is a GREAT problem to have and it couldn’t have happened to a nicer, more talented person.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Will: Thanks, buddy. And you’re right: an embarrassment of riches, however exhausting, beats a paucity of opportunity any day.


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