I’m a little broke. Not as a rule, thankfully, but certainly for now. My property taxes are due, and the credit card bills I racked up over the holidays are rolling in. The financial squeeze I’m feeling is typical for many, and not just because it’s time to pony up. With so many people strapped for cash, small business owners and those trying to survive in the “gig economy” also see their incomes shrink after New Year’s. Welcome to the annual January slump.
That being said, I’ve come to welcome this time of year for the shift in perspective it gives me. Whether I like it or not, January disables my spending reflex. Shopping and eating out are instantly gratifying, but I’m not about to plunge myself into debt for a temporary (and false) feeling of happiness. Cutting back on my spending during the winter helps me remember that there are more fulfilling things I can do with my time.
I began by saying that my low bank balance is a perennial occurrence. That wasn’t always so. During the years following the recession, I was permanently broke for quite some time. My financial situation became uncomfortably tight, and I found that my options for a fun night or day out were severely limited by what was in my wallet.
One of the things that used to perk me up during that phase of my life was a weekly gathering I thought of as The Unemployment Luncheon Club. I wasn’t the only person I knew who was out of work in the aftermath of the financial crisis, and we were all eager for something to do on the cheap. Once a week, I’d meet a few friends for food and conversation at a restaurant with a great five-dollar lunch special. Most of the time, I couldn’t even afford to order a soda to go with my sandwich, but I have fond memories of those little meetings. My best friend and I (she was in the ULC, too) would also get together to make Ramen Surprise (the “surprise” part came from whatever leftover vegetables we happened to find in our refrigerators). Making do with less taught me that creativity is the key to having a good time. If you have a friend or two willing to come along for the ride, all the better.
In the wintertime, I always keep a short list of cheap go-to activities in the back of my mind: matinee movies, board games, Christmas light-gazing. I know a handful of places I can go that are usually free of snow and good for walking. Eventually, I run out of movies and people willing to play Pictionary, so I need to think up new ways to entertain myself.
I go into health-food stores and smell all of the essential oils. I go to clothing stores and try on things I would never wear, just for a laugh.
Weather permitting, there are road trips. I like to fill a thermos with good, strong coffee and drive into the southern Catskills to visit the same mountains I hike in the summertime. It’s a nice change to see the peaks huddled together in their winter coats. When they’re white I can’t imagine them green, and when they’re green I can’t imagine them white. Seeing the change in the landscape from summer to winter reminds me that spring isn’t really all that far away.
This November, I got a booklet of postcards that you illustrate yourself. Whenever I encounter a beautiful moment, I doodle a picture on the front of one and mail it to myself with a note about what had caught my attention. A few days later, I get a happy memory in the mail, and a reminder of why I was rejected from the art program at SUNY New Paltz.
I’ve starting writing letters to people, with an actual pen, in cursive. I had to look up how to make a lowercase “z.” I’m pretty sure I’m screwing up most of the capital letters, too, but nobody’s complained so far.
I built an igloo. Okay, that’s a lie. I built half an igloo and then it started to rain. I did the best I could.
Last year, I thought of an idea that I didn’t follow through with: Bananagrams. I figured that as long as I bought them green I could use a sharpie to write little notes on bananas and then mail them to friends. Who wouldn’t be thrilled to receive a moldering banana covered with illegible cursive lettering in the mail? It didn’t happen (mostly because it’s an idiotic idea), but if anyone out there wants to give it a whirl, let me know how it works out.
Maybe none of these ideas appeal to you. That’s fine. This is my list, not yours. Your list can only come from the things you find entertaining, intriguing or inspiring. Think about the sights, sounds, places and people that bring you joy, and move toward them. Do it, and I promise you this: your budget will never get in the way of your happiness.