Temporary Austerity

Readers, please enjoy this post from deep in Casual Kitchen's archives. I'm taking a break from writing for the next few weeks to work on some other projects.

Unless you've never heard of a place called "Europe" before, you've probably seen the phrase fiscal austerity quite often in the media over the past few years. Usually, it's in the context of fiscally challenged countries like Greece or Cyprus: countries needing to slash government spending quickly and aggressively to fix a severe debt or deficit problem.

Here at Casual Kitchen we use the concept of fiscal austerity too, but we apply it to household budgeting. And for the past two summers we've been doing what we call temporary austerity: each year, for just a few months, we aggressively reduce our spending--and reap the benefits.

How do we practice temporary austerity? We choose, for a few months only, to emphasize things like cooking laughably cheap food rather than eating out, enjoying the summer at home rather than traveling, or inviting friends over for dinner rather than going out on the town. Our temporary austerity might also include enjoying mostly low- or zero-cost activities like running, hiking or playing tennis in our town's public courts. We even make a point to avoid TV and mass media, helping us to be even less tempted to go out and buy stuff.

In other words, for a finite time period, we center our lives around doing things that don't involve spending money, and reject (more than we already do) the default consumerist solution of using money to entertain ourselves.

The benefits of fiscal austerity are obvious, of course. You can ramp up your savings during these months to a level much greater than typical--it works for household budgets the same way it works for Greece or Cyprus. And money freed up during a period of austerity can fund all sorts of great things: future travel, aggressive debt reduction, investments in income-generating assets like dividend paying stocks, or pre-funding some major household expense.

But we also found that austerity involves much more than just saving money. We also found ourselves deliberately choosing to do less during these months, embracing a more tranquil, less busy and less chaotic daily life.

All of which led to a totally unexpected outcome: by doing less, we could do more.

The time we didn't waste on default consumer activity or passive media consumption opened up significant additional time for intellectual pursuits we deeply enjoy--like reading, writing and language learning. We planted basil and cherry tomato plants on the little balcony of our townhouse (we also planted horseradish roots outside our front door, sadly our community groundskeeping service mistook them for weeds and murdered them). Except for the unfortunate horseradish plantings, these were all tranquil, deeply satisfying and practically free pursuits that we could never have done properly if we'd spent the summer rushing around.

But what was most striking about this experience is how it made the past two summers among the best summers of our lives. I never really thought about this before, but it's not only true that the busier you are the more money you spend. It's also true that the busier you are the less meaningful life seems.

Finally, we never felt deprived in the least. Why? Because all along we knew the austerity was temporary. In just a few short months we'd go back to our normal lives.

Ironically, we didn't really want to.

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