Spending on Joy Is a Lifeline, Even When Money Is Tight

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  • Even though money was tight, my mom always budgeted for happy things that weren’t essential.
  • We experienced so much stress related to my father, spending happily was a lifesaver.
  • As an adult, I still budget for joy – it saved me when COVID-19 hit and I was worried about my health.

If you’re worried about saving money, buy yourself a snow cone. I only say that metaphorically.

When I was a kid, if I saw carnival lights on the way to run errands, my mom would always put off our chores so we could ride the whirlwind. We didn’t have any disposable income, but we played games until our arms were full of prizes and bought cotton candy that neither of us liked, just for the joy of walking around with pretty pink and purple puffs.

Joy was the point. My mom kept money for joy as if our lives depended on it. And in a very real way, they did.

My mother made sacrifices so we could afford cheerful “non-essentials”

Much of my childhood was spent terrified of my sociopathic father. The entirety of my mother’s income went into fighting a legal system that handed me over easily to it, ripe for abuse. My mom was so determined to give my sister and me happy memories, like traveling to each McDonald’s in both sides from the Canada-Michigan border to collect each Dalmatian from “101 Dalmatians” Happy Meals, that joy had its own category in our budget.

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To allow me to always say yes to impromptu games of skee-ball and carousel rides, my mom’s breakfast and lunch consisted entirely of stale discount donuts from the grocery store. Her philosophy, that spending money on “non-essential” snacks is actually quite essential, kept us mentally (and financially) afloat.

Any money expert will tell you to cut daily coffee breaks and weekly movie nights out of your spending. When budgeting, these happy “discretionary” expenses are often the first to go. But when I regularly spend money on cheap things that bring me joy, I have no interest in big-ticket purchases like vacations or home improvements that would put me in debt.

I still live by your lesson

My mom’s “joy is a staple” mentality is so innately woven into my approach to finances that in the early days of the pandemic (I’m talking March 2020, when no one knew what was going on and the panic became my only thrill) I had daily smoothies, teas, and baked goods delivered to my door.

I am disabled and immunocompromised, so I started sheltering before it was mandated by the state. If the world was ending, I was sure going to be sharing freshly baked croissants with my dog ​​and cat while it was happening.

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It was certainly more extravagant than a daily Starbucks. When I picked up my treats from the porch, the neighbors looked at me like I was sticking my tongue out at them from behind a first class curtain. I knew what they were thinking: “Most of us don’t have jobs and she’s living the life buying (expletive) Danes”.

But I, too, had lost my job. And he had experience dealing with trauma. I knew I needed a temporary extra boost of joy to get through it. I also knew I would save money in the long run because this was not a stress expense. I wasn’t mindlessly buying shoes for a short-lived adrenaline rush. I was giving myself joy as I accepted being in the “high risk of dying” category of COVID-19 due to my autoimmune disease. And I could afford it in the short term due to changes in my expenses.

Some of the extra expense was easily covered (I didn’t go out anymore, except to walk my dog, Uber rides, acupuncture, and barber appointments were removed from my budget), and the rest was offset by consciously spending a little less each month. While I said yes to treating myself to the semi-regular ice cream, I was more than happy to keep my cheap old Android, rather than splurge on the latest iPhone.

I accept offsets to keep the joy in my budget

I now have substantially more in my savings account than I did before the pandemic. The excess of pastries lasted me for a few months, but I never deprived myself of small stimulating purchases, such as stationery and stickers. The joy they brought me made me resolve to more than make up for the temporary additional expenses. I soon had additional income from exciting new items, as well as a revised budget specific to the pandemic.

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The reason I deliberately budget joy into my expenses is because I know what it’s like when you can’t afford it. I know full well that an emergency can leave you standing on a friend’s porch in the dead of night, gingerly accepting an envelope stuffed with $1,000 in cash so you can pay a rental deposit.

Being disabled is expensive. 28% more income is required for a disabled adult to achieve the same standard of living as a non-disabled person. I had to decide if I wanted to live paycheck to paycheck, like 61% of Americans do, or if I wanted to invest in joy. Like my mom, I chose joy.

I accepted trade-offs, like living in a smaller place and not having a car, and both my bank account and my sanity thanked me. I never have to deny myself the giddy happiness to buy my dog ​​a “Golden Girls” necklace. And every time I come across a carnival, I grab my mom and we buy some cotton candy, just so we can watch it blow in the wind.

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