I was reading a book in the steamy, hot bathtub this morning when my mind wandered off the page and into my life history. Particularly, for some reason, I remembered the winter several years ago that I never turned on the gas to get heat in the apartment I was renting. That was the winter after my first fiance and I had broken up. I was in terrible financial shape, still reeling from the cancer bills and from general ineptitude with money. In addition to my own car and its payments, I was left with the payments on my fiance’s truck, which I had—deliciously stupidly—put in my name at the bank because his credit wasn’t good enough. (Note: If someone can’t get financing at the bank, you generally shouldn’t offer it, either, unless you’re willing to just kiss that money goodbye.) I had the truck, but I couldn’t get it to sell for a long while. I avoided retrieving and opening my bill-ful mail from my mailbox until the postman began leaving me messages requiring me to retrieve it. My finances every month were enough to make anyone panic, so I did—I stayed under a cloud of nearly constant, heart-racing anxiety, and I experienced full-blown panic attacks occasionally. I didn’t even try to get the gas turned on in my apartment for two reasons: 1) In my drafty, too-large, ancient apartment, I felt sure that the cost of maintaining even moderate heat would blow through what was left of my finances after other bills (and I wasn’t even paying all those bills). 2) My credit was bad enough that I wasn’t sure whether the gas company would even approve me, and if they had, I felt sure it would have been with a hefty deposit. I was at such a low point emotionally that I couldn’t even imagine going through that denial, so I simply avoided it. I bought a couple of space heaters, which I floated from room to room as I moved about the apartment. When I was home, I tended to be tucked under the down comforter in my bedroom, trying to stay warm. Many days in my apartment, I could see my breath; at night, I would sometimes awake with my nose frigid from being exposed to the air or with an exposed hand crunchy from the cold. Everything in my life wasn’t miserable, but I wandered through life with a deep sense of shame at my inability to do something as simple as warm my apartment in winter.
I’ve had quite a few comments and emails from readers of this blog lately extolling my self-control, willpower, and discipline. But the truth is, I doubt I possess any of those things in any greater amount than any of you. What I have these days that I used to lack—and which some of you may lack, as well—is the understanding that the decisions I make in this life need to be consistently based in self-care. That’s not the same as self-control. Self-control means you are whipping yourself into shape and forcing yourself to do what’s good/right/best/admirable; self-care means you are taking care of yourself by doing what will be good for you. It may sound like a subtle difference, but in practice, it’s been huge for me. Self-control is forceful; self-care is nurturing. Self-control is the parental figure inside you who will punish you for doing something wrong; self-care is the parental figure inside you who wants you to have a meaningful, successful life and encourages you to take steps to get there. Understanding the difference in those concepts, and turning my focus from self-control to self-care, has been one of the most pivotal shifts of my life; it’s changed nearly everything in my life.
These days, I save a fourth to a third of my income, every paycheck, despite working in the non-lucrative nonprofit field. I have over a year’s income in savings. I have a good 401k and Roth IRAs working on my retirement. The only debt my husband and I have left is student loans, which we’ll begin to pay off more aggressively after my husband finishes his Ph.D. next spring. Every month, I know there is enough money to go around to bills and allow us to save—except for the months that something requires using a bit of savings, and that’s okay, too, since we have enough saved that it’s not a pinch. Getting to this point, and maintaining it, means we sacrifice in some ways. For example, we share one car, which is a ’91 Volvo with torn seats (it does run well, even after nearly 300,000 miles), and we live in an under-market-rate apartment, where the landlord isn’t great about upkeep and which requires us to go down multiple flights of stairs to the one shared washer and dryer for the building.
We don’t skimp on everything, not by any means: my monthly grocery bill is average for my group of friends, which is to say it isn’t low. I make it a point to take a vacation with my husband at least once a year, even if it requires that I go with him on a work trip. We both get massages once every couple of months. But we don’t do anything that blows up our budget entirely or forces us back into debt.
I was talking about financial health with a friend yesterday, and I told her, “I now know that there’s nothing I could buy that feels as good as the security of making good financial decisions.” In my previous life, before the big switch to self-care, I had tried to self-control my way into making good financial decisions. Like bouts of food dieting as well, I had tried to force myself to make what I perceived as the right choices and if it worked for a while (which it usually did), the part of me that’s a petulant child eventually rebelled against that, and I bought what I wanted to buy when I wanted to buy it. Then I beat myself up over my lack of willpower and self-control at my failure, and I gave up until the next round. It was cycles of self-flagellation at their finest, and I unwittingly set myself up for them each time.
These days, I recognize that it’s not that I need to make myself do what’s right; I need to understand what is good and healthy for me long-term and do it out of love for myself. With my life stretching out before me, I need to make the decisions that will create sustenance, health, and peace to get me through what may come. When I’m tempted to spend on something random, I ask myself why I want it. If there’s a legitimate reason, maybe I’ll buy it. (I’ve certainly bought more clothes in celebration of weight loss this year than in the previous two years combined.) But if my reason is just emotional (especially having to do with coping with negative emotions), I ask myself whether the purchase will bring more happiness into my life than the peace of not having the stress that that purchase—combined with other, similar purchases especially—would bring me. The answer usually reverts me, emotionally and mentally, back to the understanding that there’s nothing I can buy that feels as good as the security of making good financial decisions.
It’s not just fiscal health, of course, though that’s something many of us struggle with. Self-care can mean making good job choices, creating a better life balance, eating more healthfully, exercising, resting more, picking a worthy spouse, breaking off a relationship. There are many elements to self-care, and all of them are important. As I told another friend recently, You are the only you that you have. You don’t get another you if you don’t take care of this one. You are worth that nurturing care; you have it within you to develop the skills to offer that care, and to let it revolutionize your life.