If I Think I’m Running Out of Time, Remember It’s Just a Thought

I used to struggle with money. It’s not that I didn’t have enough, but I thought that I didn’t have enough.

I’m fortunate to come from family roots where I don’t remember money being a problem. I also wonder if there were some problems that I didn’t consciously know of. It must be challenging to be a parent and to navigate something with such prominent social emphasis but of absolutely no significance to our human needs. We need love, belonging, connection, but sometimes it’s most important for parents to provide money. Okay, we also need food, shelter, and water, which money can buy, but we must acknowledge that money is a means of fulfilling these needs and money itself is not vital to our well-being.

In the case of my grandfather, he needed to provide money to his mother from the age of four or five and subsequently to his wife and children from the age of eighteen. As I grew and watched him excel in business, with nightly checks of the booked orders and his investment performance, scribbled neatly in this annual pocket planner, perhaps I was conditioned to think we – I – need more money, that these numbers were how I should measure my life at the end of the day. Could I afford the 14.95 meal instead of 11.95? The problem was not the three bucks but the fact that I thought of it.

I thought of my university’s salary report, indicating the average starting income of students with my same bachelors degree. And I felt shame knowing that I was earning some 60% even with an additional masters degree. I thought of the period when I took a loan from my parents to pay my first months’ rent when I started working and living on my own simultaneously. I thought of my adolescent years, when I diligently tallied my cash, coins, and bank account on separate printed pages, marking even 27 cents if I received change from buying a CD at Best Buy. Money was something that measured my well-being — until it didn’t.

In the summer of 2019, I took a sabbatical from my work. I was still under-earning my peers and over-working myself. Yet I mustered the courage to take a break, throw $5,000 at a month-long yoga teacher training. I earned a meager €450 a month in a so-called “mini job”. I sat at the edge of a pond and decided to quit my job and leave the city. But I had no plan. I returned to my apartment and lived a simple life: waking, writing, practicing yoga, visiting with friends, exploring the city, and realizing that vast portions of the population were out and about (and not holed in offices) during the day.

And then the fear crept in.

I feel it returning now, my chest tightening, my heart beating, my thumb and first fingers gripping the pen so tightly. It’s called anxiety, and it grew within me like a toxic vine as I watched my bank account gradually decline with each scoop of ice cream, grocery trip, a month of rent, a train trip to visit friends.

Along the way, I was engaged in writing morning pages and exploring Julia Cameron’s Artist’s Way. There came a time when I should start to track my expenses. I did so. My childhood ledger advanced into a budgeting app – which set me back €5 – where I’d input each scoop of ice cream, where the notebook and pen I needed to write with became a fear of enough. I answered the question, “What is my relationship with money, and how was it first formed?” I quit the “mini job” and €450 turned to zero. Spend, spend, spend, and nothing coming in.

I unexpectedly started to receive solicitations in the same period that I finished the budgeting and expense tracking phase. Clients wanted to hire me and to know my rates. I could work 20 hours a week and earn the same as before? With little effort, my bank account reversed its decline. I stopped caring whether lunch cost 5, 10, or 30. I stopped debating whether to save 10% on a flight by costing a longer layover. I let go of anxiety around having “enough” money, and I trusted myself – to enjoy life and to trust that I’d take care of my needs.

Since this renegotiation of my relationship with money, I’ve started a long process of doing the same with time. I try to remind myself, “If I think I’m running out of time, remember it’s just a thought.” (There’s absolutely zero evidence that I ran out of time for anything in my life. My survival is not at stake.) Last spring, I spent five hours with a friend contemplating whether I was willing to separate myself from my employment, and I decided to commit my time to myself. (But I didn’t quit my job.) I explored the difference of intention behind working “for” someone and working “with” a company. (But I let myself become a dedicated follower, waiting for a boss to tell me what to do.)

I’m still renegotiating, but one thing is for sure: I have time. And researchers say time affluence is a vital component of well-being. Lucky me! I believe the opposite of scarcity is not abundance but enough, and I’m looking forward to embodying the belief that I have enough time. Until that moment, I hope you have a day, and thank you for reading!

P.S. I’m super proud of myself. Almost five years ago, I set up a category called “Café: Rumination” for this blog. I expected that my life in Europe would include ample time for sitting in cafés and writing about life. Well, now I can safely say I wrote at least one blog post from a café/bakery! If you’re ever in Berlin, I highly recommend Zeit für Brot.

Comparing Apples to Äpfeln

At the beginning of 2015, I started tracking all of my grocery expenses. While checking out at the grocery store, I started saying “yes,” when asked if I want to receipt. I take the slip home and sum each item into a category: bakery, fruit, vegetables, dairy and eggs, meat and seafood, dry and canned goods, prepared foods, juices, sweets and junk, flowers, and household goods. I also list the grocery store. And I add the items mentally, because brains need exercise, too.

Yes, in this digital age, I track paper receipts in a spreadsheet. (You’re hearing from the guy who tallied his coins, his cash, and his savings on three separate pieces of paper through his teenage years. Yes, his coins.) Why the paper receipts? Truth be told, I drank a lot of orange juice. I wanted to know how much money I spent on orange juice compared to other groceries. The answer: consistently 8-10% of my monthly grocery expenses were orange juice (until I overdosed on sugar in October 2015, but that’s a story for another post.) I also felt that I was losing conscience awareness of my spending habits when declining the receipt, swiping my card, and walking away. Despite using mint.com to track my finances, I wanted more granularity. Not “how much do I spend on groceries each month?” but “how much do I spend on vegetables compared to bread?”

I continued with my pile of receipts and my spreadsheet through 2016, building 24 months of records. Having answered my question, I took a break in 2017.

Earlier this year, a new question surfaced: is Berlin really less expensive with regard to cost of living than Boston? Anecdotally, the answer is an inarguable “yes.” You can get a whole meal – a döner – for 3-4 €. Paying more than 20 € for a meal is kinda “woah!” A beer costs just a few Euro. Rent is far more affordable. But what about Stephen’s groceries? I needed data.

Berlin loves cash and loves to hate card payments. EC (debit) card? Maybe. Credit card? In your dreams! (Germans are rather risk averse, and why accept money that may not exist.) So, in this city, cash is king, and carrying cash is my first point of advice to anyone who visits Berlin. Though groceries can often be bought mit karte, my card payments are few and far between. Most of my expenses are cash, and it’s hard to track any sort of categorical expenses without the complete digital data.

Behold, my “grocery expenses” spreadsheet has returned to life. I started saying “ja, bitte” I wanted my receipt. (I still don’t know the word for receipt, but I know when to say “yes, please.” (Bitte is actually “you’re welcome,” but the fact that Germans say “you’re welcome” as another form of “please” is another situation for another post.))

So, in the spring, I decided to collect my own data, and I have monthly grocery totals for May, July, July, and September of 2018.

Grocery Minimum Grocery Maximum Grocery Average
2015 $171 $348 $250
2016 $142 $271 $183
2018 153 € ($176) 213 € ($245) 179 € ($205)

A few considerations:

  • In each year, I’ve had lunch provided at work on Mondays, Wednesday, and Fridays.
  • I’ve excluded calendar months which I traveled for more than one week.
  • 2018’s bakery (bread) tracking is off, because I willingly go downstairs to the bakery in my building for fresh bread/rolls on many weekend mornings. I’ll pay 0,60 € for a fresh Kartoffelbrotchen every day, because yes, potato bread! (I’ll also buy you one if you come visit :).
  • In 2015 and 2016, I know my average expenses allocated to restaurants were $170 and $133, respectively. I have no clue how I spent significantly less on both groceries and in restaurants in 2016, compared to 2015. Maybe I mooched more. Maybe I was more fiscally efficient with food. I don’t have restaurant expenses tracked for 2018.

So, how much did I spend on orange juice compared to other groceries, prior to October 2015? 8-10% Is Berlin more affordable to live than Boston? My grocery expenses would argue “no, the cost of living is the same.” Perhaps I’ve upped my standards… doubtful, because I did most of my Boston grocery shopping at Whole Foods (hey! I could literally see it from my bedroom windows! and I totally don’t endorse/support them after the Amazon buyout) and I shop at a variety of Berlin supermarkets from low-end to mid-range.

I really can’t explain why my grocery bills average and range similarly. I need to compare the categorical breakdown between countries and months and years, because I don’t know where the money has shifted. Every time I go to the grocery store, I’m surprised at how much food – especially fresh product – I can get for so little money. e.g. today I purchased a three pound pumpkin, fresh ginger, a package of fresh plums, an avocado, blackberries, 3 fresh figs, a jug of multivitamin juice (I’ve been sick!), and a half-dozen eggs for a whopping 8,96 € ($10.37). So, yes, Berlin is cheap, but I’m still figuring out what’s eating my juice budget.

More research is in order. Perhaps I’ll make the same recipe in Berlin and a future visit to Boston, and we can compare apples to äpfeln.