Thursday, June 3, 2010

Living Lean

Over the past few years, as my household has reached the point where we're living comfortably below our means, we've begun doing two things with our extra financial resources.

First, we've saved. It's something we've always done, but we're still going about it diligently. For all of the hundreds of financial snake oil salesmen who are out there pitching get-rich-quick schemes on late night cable, there is only one sure-fire way to become economically secure. That way is to spend less than you make, and use the excess to build for your future. Savings and prudent investment are the path to financial well being. Period. Yeah, I know, it's hard to do that when you don't make anything, or you make nowhere near enough to meet costs for food/shelter/health. First things first. But once you make it past that point, you're in the seven fat years. It's time to stock up.

Second, when our rainy day fund fills up and spills over, we make improvements and upgrades. But those upgrades aren't about getting bigger. Even though our humble little 1960s rambler is less than half the size of the average new home in the area, we don't need more space. The upgrades are about making what we have 1) nicer and 2) more efficient.

Two years ago, we replaced our aging, ailing HVAC system. Our house is now more comfortable, and uses around 25% less energy to heat and cool. Last Spring, we upgraded our attic insulation, again reducing heating and cooling costs. Last Fall, we redid two of our bathrooms...mostly because they were falling apart. Showering on one floor shouldn't involve a shower occurring on the floor below. Net effect of our new high-efficiency showerheads and new, low flow toilets? The house looks nicer, but we're also using around 8,000 gallons less water every year.

This year, we may replace our trusty but battered little car. When we do, its replacement will have more power, more gimcrackery, and as many electronic doohickeys as our budget permits. But as a baseline, it will also be more fuel efficient.

That approach does two things. We have that American sense of living better, of enjoying the rewards of our labors. But because that enjoyment is leavened with prudence and directed towards being more efficient, we're also spending less to support our lives. Which means we're saving more. Which means we have more to enjoy. And so on, and so on. It's a self-perpetuating upward spiral of well-being.

One of the things that frustrates me most about our national jabbering about energy use is the lack of emphasis on this rather simple virtue. Listening to folks on the right snipe at efforts to economize and encourage efficiency as somehow bad for America is endlessly frustrating. It shows a fundamental misunderstanding about the greatness of our nation. At our best, we Americans are practical people. We also like to see progress. It makes us feel that tingle of Manifest Destiny in our toes. As we try to figure out a way out of our dangerous addiction to fossil fuels, encouraging this approach to life would seem the rather obvious way out.

It isn't about living large. It's about living lean. And being lean feels good.