Standing in front of the magazine racks in Fred Meyer, I see glossy after glossy selling beautiful things. Whether it’s designer gardens from Fine Gardening and Sunset, or photo perfect meals from Bon Appetit, we are a nation hot in pursuit of beauty. Even the magazines themselves have evolved from simple information conveyers to graphic art pieces worthy of framing.
So why am I tussling about beauty?
What I’m fretting about is my pursuit of beauty. The retail kind of pursuit. If I lived in a large house or if I was very wealthy, this would not be a problem. After all, the economists want me to go shopping. And I want to support other artists, so why not buy some beauty?
The problem is consumer debt. The problem is that when I can’t use my debit card because I don’t have quite enough cash in the bank, I use my credit card. Why not?
Eight years ago, I was totally tired of working. The toll of self employment at the same job for twenty eight years had reached burnout proportions. I decided to take a break. At first, I went to work as an administrator for a small, local architect thinking that the change would be refreshing. It was not. I’m too used to running the show and to moving my body while I’m working. The combination of sitting all day and the tension of somebody else’s agendas tied me in knots. I did not feel refreshed at all. I felt lethargic.
With a certainty born of self reflection, I knew that I needed a total break. More like a sabbatical, filled with plenty of space for setting a new course. But how would I finance this? I had not been setting aside ten percent of my income and the nest egg from my inheritance had long since hatched and flown away.
And then it came to me: I’ll use my credit card. Years of financial stability had increased my limit to a staggering amount… enough to finance a couple of years of simple living.
I’ve alway been good with numbers. In school, I thrived in my geometry and algebra courses. But I never did the math on my credit card idea. The how-will-I-pay-it-back math. Burnout is not conducive to rational thinking. So off I stumbled toward my time of reflection, golden Visa at my command.
In addition to time off, I did nice things for myself. I got massages, I bought the healthiest organic foods, I even bought a few beautiful things to soothe my soul.
When I finally woke up, I was stunned to discover how much I was going to have to work in order to pay off the debt. More than I had been working before. Luckily, I was able to return to my original business of making custom boat canvas where I earned good money… my sabbatical had confirmed that I still loved creating three dimensional, functional and beautiful objects…still loved working around the water. But there was one complication. Now the physical demands of manipulating large pieces of canvas limited the number of hours I could work. When I did the new math, I started to get nervous. More bills + fewer hours of employment = more debt.
The credit card habit is a difficult one to kick. Particularly when the pursuit of beauty seems so… well… American. So permissible. So supportive. But living with credit card debt is not simplicity. In the beginning, I did the credit-card-shuffle… borrow from one to pay the next until the rotating deadlines were a nightmare. Every week the phone rang with recorded messages urging me to consolidate my debt. The reality was that I couldn’t afford one large payment. I could barely keep up with the small ones.
Eventually, I started a second business… one that was more mental than physical and I created a budget, only I didn’t call it that. I called it a Spending Plan and I renamed my expenses to words that suggested beauty. Rent became Sanctuary. Medical bills became Optimum Health. Car maintenance became I Love Ettie.
At the very heart of my spending plan is, first of all, the idea that I don’t spend what I don’t have. Each week, I see what I have in my checking account and I purchase what I can of my newly named needs. Secondly, it’s also about having a life that is focused on more than just getting out of debt. There is room for some wants in this new plan because contentment is an important ingredient of my financial integrity. Suffering is not motivating.
And I’ve adopted a new mantra: Instead of buying beauty, create it.
When my Material Girl gets antsy, I shop for ideas instead of stuff. Using magazines that others have cast off, and I snip and paste inspirations into spiral notebooks. When I have extra money, I buy supplies for making art. All kinds of art. Whether painting or sewing or carpentry or collage, I’m pursuing beauty in a way that feeds me… that increases both my happiness and my resolve to leave the credit card at home.