The Recreational Choice

Connie writes in:

I don’t see how saving money really works for a family making minimum wage. Let’s say you have two people who make minimum wage at home so they only bring home about $15,000 each. If the family spends $1,000 a month on housing and $500 a month on their automobiles and $500 a month on food, that’s $12,000 a year right there. That leaves an entire family only $6,000 a year for anything besides the bare essentials. That’s a pretty bare bones life. People are expected to save something beyond that? Get real.

My reaction to that situation is that there are cuts that can be made in almost every element described there. If you’re making minimum wage, there are many minimum wage jobs available in lower cost of living areas that won’t require you to spend $1,000 a month for housing. Buying frugal and fuel-efficient automobiles can keep that cost down and you can trim some off of that food budget with careful shopping and food planning.

That leaves the $6,000 a year for recreational spending. That’s still more than $100 a week in free spending under the budget described. That’s a sizeable amount. It’s just that many people allot that money for things like cell phone data plans, internet access, and things like that. It drifts away into bills that we don’t often think of as recreational, but that’s largely what they are.

The frustration that’s being felt here is with what I call the “recreational choice.”

When we have spare time, we often have an abundance of things we want to do with that time. Most of us usually generate a relatively short list of options for that time based on what we know we enjoy doing, what we’ve done recently, and what ideas for other activities we’ve had recently.

Usually, a lot of options on that short list cost money. We might think of fifteen things we’d like to do on a Saturday afternoon, but ten or twelve of them involve spending some of our hard-earned cash.

If we just eliminate the ones that cost money, it feels really restrictive. We watch ten or twelve of our ideas march right out the door, leaving us with just a few options. A lot of the time, those options might not be the ones we really want the most.

That hurts. It makes spending less money feel like a real sacrifice.

One solution is to simply spread out the recreational spending. I think this is what most people do in this situation. Sometimes, they do the things that cost money, but when there’s no money to be had, they fall back on the free things. Sure, sometimes the free thing is the best option, but it’s not always the best option.

My solution is a little different. I try hard to inundate myself with ideas for free things to do.

I look at community calendars. I look at lists of free ideas for things to do online. I read parenting books that suggest free or highly inexpensive family projects. I check out volunteer options in my community.

I do this so that when I’m faced with an opportunity of recreation time, most of the activities that come to mind are free ones. Those are the ones I expose myself to the most, so they’re the ones that come to mind when I’m trying to decide what to do. I hand my mindspace over to free options instead of expensive ones.

This kind of philosophy works in other areas, too. For example, we’re often drawn to shop for groceries at whatever store we’re most familiar with (or one of the stores in a small set of them that we use). When we go grocery shopping, we just choose one of those stores automatically and, without consciously thinking about it, other stores never even cross our minds. We can break that by actively investigating other stores. We find out lists of the stores in the area, then we make it a point to try those stores. If we find one that’s pretty good, we consciously remind ourselves to go to that store again and again, and before long it’s one of the normal choices, often replacing one of the previous choices.

Spending little money on recreation doesn’t feel restrictive when the ideas that float through your mind are mostly free ones. In that situation, when most of the ideas are free, it begins to feel as though the ones that cost money genuinely have a significant negative to them – spending money. If you come up with ten ideas and seven of them don’t require spending money, it’s easy to apply a pretty strong negative feeling to the other three, even eliminating them. After all, you’ve still got plenty of choices.

It’s all about perspective. It’s also all about the things you learn about and spend your time doing.

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