Vanilla finances.

Many LOLs were LOLed once I discovered a post called “Vanilla sex: Here, have another helping” on the How To Write Better website.

Writer, coach and humorist Suzan St Maur posted the piece as a way of poking fun at the idea of “vanilla sex,” i.e., conventional, ordinary (subtext: boring) physical love.

St Maur (not a typo – she doesn’t use the period after “St”) wondered if the adjective could be used for other things.

Apparently it can. A few of her examples:


Vanilla Politics: Politicians, usually at local government level, who … hate cutting ribbons and are useless at kissing babies – and expect to justify their existence merely by represent the interests of their electorate.”

Vanilla Friends: Friends who offer you absolutely nothing in the way of valuable social contacts, wild nights out on the town, parties straight out of Hollywood and air-kissing companionship … and simply exist on the basis of always being around when you need them.”

Vanilla Blogging: The sort of blog post that is so painfully original and interesting, it makes your eyes ache for some refreshing SEO over-optimized, spun text that is a comforting jumble of words which makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.”

After chortling a bit, I realized that vanilla can apply to personal finance, too.


Plain and simple

My basic approach to money is vanilla, indeed: I save where I can so I can spend where I want. No sleepless nights wondering how I’ll pay for what I’ve purchased. No periodic purging to get rid of all the clutter.

I have three rewards credit cards. Two are for me and the third is a small business credit card for my LLC. All give me decent rewards without charging me for the privilege of using them. Vanilla, right?

And yep, you guessed it: I never buy anything I can’t cover in full when the bill arrives. Haven’t been in debt since paying off my divorce-related debt and, God willin’ and the creek don’t rise, I won’t ever be in debt again.

Budgeting? So vanilla! I pay myself first because having an emergency fund is important to me. Generally DF and I don’t buy much; if we need or want something, we start by applying the Frugal Filter. After that we look for discounted gift cards and coupons, hit sales whenever possible, and sometimes cash in gift cards from those rewards credit cards and programs like MyPoints and Swagbucks.

Ditto gift-giving: Most of my holiday and birthday presents are courtesy of those rewards points/programs plus clearance tables, after-holiday sales, secondhand bookstores, thrift shops and yard sales. No one has ever said, “Keep your gift – it’s way too vanilla.”

Thrift stores have a lot to do with the way I dress, too. So does taking care of my clothing (cold wash, rack or line dry) As I’ve had foot troubles in the past, I don’t mind spending money on them. But I do mind overspending, so I wait for sales on the black Rockport walking shoes I prefer and buy four or five pairs at a clip through a cash-back shopping site. Black footwear is the new vanilla.


Hearth and (vanilla) home

I can’t take credit for our vanilla lodgings, as DF already owned the place when I moved in. What I can take credit for is helping clean and maintain it, keeping utility costs down by wearing sweaters instead of turning up the thermostat and being content with minimal décor.

When something breaks, we fix it. If we need or want something, often we can cobble it together from what’s lying around. (You should see the empty chile verde tin that he turned into a watering can.) Recycling and composting are regular events. Our home couldn’t be more vanilla if we had our own V. planifolia farm.

We consider it a fun challenge to eat well while spending little. A ton of frugal hacks help us get the most from each food dollar. These include but are not limited to growing a garden (much of it from saved seeds), preserving food, shopping sales, putting scraps into the boiling bag, checking the dented-can bin and the “manager’s special” section of the meat department, visiting the bakery outlet and buying in bulk at Costco. Heck, we even make sure to use every last drop of mustard and other condiments.

Almost everything we eat, from snacks to entrees to desserts, is cooked at home. One of his favorite sweets is homemade tapioca pudding and one of mine is homemade rice pudding – both of which, as you may already know, are flavored with vanilla.

Our technology is, by and large, generic vanilla. We don’t own a television and we don’t play video games. Each of us has a flip phone. We don’t text. Yes, we have the Internet at home but it and my three-year-old laptop are necessary for my business.


Tastes like freedom

The last car I owned was a Chevy Cavalier, which I gave to my daughter and son-in-law when they left Seattle in 2009. Throughout my adult life I’ve applied three criteria to cars: good gas mileage, easy to parallel park, too boring to steal. Kept each one for more than a decade, too. Even my wheels are vanilla.

My vacations are super-modest, if by “modest” you mean “getting to see friends and family and different parts of the country and the world.” I’ve been fortunate enough to get buddy passes from a friend who works for an airline, and to have friends and relatives invite me to house-sit or to stay with them. Because I’m naturally gregarious, I find that staying in hostels a fun and extremely affordable way to travel. All of which smacks of extreme vanilla-ness.

My main retirement account is fairly conservative, which has meant no meteoric rises but also no straight-to-the-basement losses during the 2008 recession. Although I contributed to this 401(k) for a relatively short time before leaving the newspaper industry, it’s become a decent-sized account that will see me through my golden years. I’ve also got Roth and SEP accounts. In other words, my retirement tastes like vanilla.

The result of all this conventional, ordinary living? Unconventional, extraordinary happiness. Of course, this has a lot to do with having found the right partner. Here’s how I described it in St Maur’s comment section:

Vanilla Love. Instead of drama and self-centeredness, it’s a relationship of intimacy, tenderness, kindness and abiding adoration.”

A delicious way to live, if you ask me.

Readers: What vanilla lifestyle tips can you share?


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  1. Best Bun


    Vanilla fine dining. Going to McDonalds and ordering two senior coffees. Sitting with my DH and watching the stream of humanity. Five star experience!
    Happy Mother’s Day.

    Best wishes from Best Bun.

    • Donna Freedman

      Love it! At the McDonald’s near my house, you can get a senior coffee or a senior soft drink for 25 cents — both with unlimited refills. You can sit there all day long, use the wi-fi and sip until you turn beige.

      And if you’re hungry? Order a 50-cent English muffin (hold the meat, egg and cheese) or a Happy Meal (which lately has come with a mandarin orange).

      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  2. Carolina Cooper

    You pretty much covered all of the vanilla hacks, Donna. I loved your comment, “God willin’ and the creek don’t rise.” My Mom (b. 1914 in Alabama) used to always say that, except she pronounced it “crick” not creek.

    • Donna Freedman

      I’m from South Jersey and we say “crick,” too.

      • Cathy in NJ

        My Philly born and raised girlfriend Joan, God rest her beautiful soul, used to say, “God willing and the river don’t rise.”

  3. Lake Livin'

    I loved this post!!!

  4. Make Do Mom

    Vanilla, indeed! Remember, throughout the ages vanilla has been much sought-after. I know this because I read a book on the history of vanilla from the public library. I can walk there from my very vanilla house to choose vanilla (usually nonfiction) books – probably the most vanilla entertainment choice ever. I may be plain-old-vanilla, but my vanilla life is actually its own brand of exotic in this consumer-driven society.

    • Donna Freedman

      I’m with you on the library. It’s a little too far away to walk, but once I’m there I get sensory overload from the “Recent Acquisitions” shelves. All these choices, and I can take three or four (or more) if I want!

      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  5. Carolina Cooper

    I had another thought on vanilla finances, as I saw my real vanilla extract on the shelf (brought back from the Dominican Republic). So much of the vanilla sold today is imitation vanilla. I would love to read a riff by you (if so inspired) on real vs.imitation vanilla finance.

  6. How’s this for a vanilla finance tip: It’s a lot easier to stay out of debt than to dig your way out of it.

    Some debt, like mortgages, student loans, and car loans are hard(er) to avoid when you’re starting out, but consumer debt, particularly credit card debt with revolving interest, is a quagmire.

    Take it from me, kids: It’s far easier to deny yourself luxuries early on than to forego necessities later on because you’re still paying off those bygone treats.

  7. Our whole lifestyle is “vanilla”. My other half and I are a down-to-earth couple who enjoy frugal stay-at-home evenings rather than painting the town red.

    Even our vacations are “vanilla”. We very much enjoy sightseeing, long walks to personally discover new places and taking pictures of everything beautiful. And these are all free activities! 😀

  8. Cakester

    Vanilla may be subtle, but try baking without vanilla and it will be missed. It’s important in cooking and any other vanilla filter. My most recent vanilla victory was the shirt I bought today. I’ll be walking five dogs for neighbors all summer, and I sunburn easily. I wanted a fancy hiking shirt with built in sunscreen, and that is what I got from the outdoor gear thriftstore! I looked it up, $50 new, or $15 to me.

  9. Practical Parsimony

    I like that I have a vanilla friend, no frills, no fancy clothes for him. He owns his modest home and his vehicle. Our conversations give me a thrill. I mentioned something about the balloons Shelley sent skyward. He immediately started talking about what he learned in one of his engineering classes. My mind was buzzing with this vanilla conversations about balloons. Soon, I was looking up and reading everything I could about the way balloons came to be.

    He loves the free clothes I get for him. I wanted some shirts listed in freecycle. This was in 2006 when I first met him. Some of the shirts were sent to my grandson and the friend picked ten he wanted. Now, this is what he wears all the time.

    His job after being an engineer was to work at the service station at Walmart. A man came in one day and said he had lost weight and would he be offended at taking some pants. So, he has really nice pants, FREE.

    It is not just his love of free things that makes his brand of vanilla so interesting. It is his lack of trying to impress.

    I bought him a $45 wallet for $5 on sale after Christmas. He desperately needed a new one. Same with a nice belt, bought on sale for a birthday gift. I even told him the prices because he worries about my spending money on him. He never thinks less of a gift that is on sale or free.

    He is such a vanilla guy. And vanilla is a great flavor.

  10. Dicey

    Does making your own vanilla count toward a vanilla Lifestyle? If so, count me in! So yummy and so easy.

  11. 🙂 Love your definition of “vanilla car.” And other confections.

  12. Stephanie Nelson

    LOVE THIS! And actually, vanilla is my favorite flavor. Now I know why! Donna, keep these thoughtful and clever posts coming, they brighten my inbox!

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