Single parenting and simplifying to thrive, not just to survive

Being a parent is difficult. Being a single parent is ten times more difficult. Not only no one gave you the instructions manual, but all of a sudden, you have also to build yourself as a perfectly balanced, strong, yet loving parent while juggling home duties, finances, worries, work and god knows what else life throws at you, all by yourself.

If you are unlucky enough also to have issues with your ex… well, that’s the cherry on the cake.

I wasn’t expecting parenthood to be a walk in the park, but my parents made it look a lot easier than it actually is. So obviously they succeeded. But I often wonder what my children will think of me, looking back at my struggles, at my screaming, and melt downs, and rigidity in a pathetic attempt to feel more in control when, in reality, I’m shitting my pants at best, and often think: “These are things for grown ups! I’m not ready yet! Get me out of here!”

But do you ever feel ready? Do you always have the perfect answer for a challenging behaviour, or a completely unexpected tantrum right in the middle of the supermarket, or the bitter disappointment of them preferring to stay with the other parent because: it’s more fun there?

And are you emotionally strong enough to take all of this with a Buddhist smile on your face, that illuminates the room like a sunrise?

If I’d have to answer each of these questions, I would say no, to every single one. Absolutely not.

Bloody hell not.

And I meditate every day, and ask myself lots of questions, and I bought all the books, and watched all the webinars that are supposed to magically transform you in the best parent Earth ever witnessed, but hey! they make me feel like I’m lacking, all the time, while I try to be the best version of my broken and totally imperfect self.

Don’t get me wrong: there is at least one glimpse of eternal joy that illuminates every single one of my days being a mum, and I wouldn’t change my wonky life and unruly children for anything in the world. Things like time spent with them having a pillow fight, making pizza from scratch together, watching them play or sleep, them wanting one more kiss and one more hug at bedtime… I make sure I write down every evening every single little happy moment, and make sure, more importantly that I don’t miss them, distracted by the endless Facebook feeds, or Pinterest pins. Otherwise, life slips, unremarkable, through my fingers like sand, while I calm myself down after yet another outburst.

But it’s never in balance. There are wonderful days, and not so good days. I learned the hard way through parenthood that you cannot let the not-so-good days define you as a parent. It’s a journey with no end destination. You will never reach perfection in this hard, hard job. It’s more like the work of a beginner sculptor, chiseling away small imperfections from the wood, trying to polish it so that the initial idea can come out. But you are always a beginner, no matter how many children you produce, because every single one is a different little person, who then becomes a different teenager, then a different adult. You are constantly learning, and as such, you need to appreciate daily the efforts you make, congratulating yourself for putting your best self into it, then let go of failures, after you have taken the point.

Beating yourself up for not being up to the job, for not having done or said the right thing, focusing on past mistakes, doesn’t get you anywhere. In order to move forward, you need to look forward. As a single parent, you have even less point of reference to look up to, you often have to take decisions by yourself, you don’t have a sounding board, and the kids are specially skilled at finding your weak points and make them work to their advantage.

Well, I’m here to tell you that, no matter how hard it is, you can do it. I’m doing it. Some days are a nightmare, some others a piece of cake. Two things are fundamental for me to be the best parent I can be:

a) Stay present: don’t let bad habits get in the way, e.g. yelling all the time; instead, breathe and think whether your immediate reaction is actually the most appropriate one right then. You can practise immediately, and try again, until you always pause before reacting, saying something hurtful, hitting them or whatever.

b) Let go. Let go of expectations, let go of regrets, let go of projections and things that I should have but I don’t, things that they could do but they don’t etc. Just deal with what you have in front of you, with a fresh mind, every day, as much as possible. See your children and your life as they really are. Sometimes I catch myself wanting my children to reason a lot more than their brains are actually capable of doing at this age. Then I remind myself that they are kids, they are meant to push boundaries, and be silly. That’s the way they grow up. I also realised that sometimes you have to change your plans, sometimes you have to be a different parent from what you had in mind before the baby arrived. And that’s ok. I’m not a flexible person by nature: I do my research, and a lot of it, and when I decide the route I want to take, I stick to my guns, forging habits to support me. Food, work, family: this is the way I keep things ticking. However, I learned also to let go of my rigidity, when things don’t go to plan – and they don’t – I resist the urge to scream “But this is not what I planned!!” And breathe, and try to accept the new situation. Not easy. At all. But as a parent it’s a skill I’m still working on, that can give more calm and harmony than just shouting and trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.

Not easy, but it can be made simple. See whether any of the below can inspire you to make your life simpler and more enjoyable.

  • I have a few ground rules, but unless something is vitally important, I remain flexible: choose your battles, instead of nagging them for every single thing. I also try to keep my plans flexible, and always have a plan B. I don’t pack my days to the rim anymore, because shit happens and life gets in the way, so I establish a maximum of two important things or activities to achieve per day, e.g. Food shopping and gym class.
  • I try to give my children limited options (do you want vanilla or chocolate ice cream?) to empower them to start making small decisions by themselves, but I don’t give them complete free rein. That would just destabilise them.
  • Don’t compare yourself to other parents. Everyone is fighting their own battles, which you know nothing about. Be kind to them and to yourself, and just keep focusing on your family.
  • TV is still a huge power struggle game in my household, but I’m experimenting with “time vouchers“, so that there is an objective way of measuring the time spent in front of the screen. It seems to be ok-ish, although I can’t say I cracked it completely yet.
  • I try to spend quality time with my children, giving them proper, full, individual attention, one-to-one, even if just 10 minutes a day, away from phone/others distractions. I think this is possibly the most important thing, that seem to make a real difference. Engaging one-to-one makes each of us feeling supported, and nurtured. Troubles start when there is lack of attention, and let’s face it, nowadays we are all guilty of letting technology distract us from the important things. Having full attention gives children an opportunity to express themselves without misbehaving as a way of making themselves noticed.
  • Connect with them, try to understand why they are misbehaving: is it because of hunger/thirst/tiredness? Are they unwell? Are they frustrated/scared? Are they mirroring our own behaviour? Asking “why” is useful to also calibrate our response, and address the main, underlying issue first.
  • Nurture yourself. That always goes at the bottom of a parent’s priority list. Especially if you are a single parent, time is limited, resources are probably limited too, so pampering or going out seem crazy, irresponsible indulgences. However it’s so important to keep the boat afloat! You are important, you need to recognise it and give yourself a break.
  • Eat well. Choose food wisely. It made a huge difference in my own life and to my energy levels, to cut alcohol down, eat whole foods, limit sugary treats, not eat meat. You don’t have to do the same, but experiment about what food / drink sucks your energy.
  • Sleep. I was very bad at regulating my sleep. I would go to bed at 1am, watching a bit more rubbish telly, and founding myself completely spaced out the day after, like I had drunk a bottle of whisky. Now I make sure at least a few times a week I go to bed very early. Not always possible, but you can only try.
  • Nurture yourself means also pause: how about a warm bath in the evening, when the children are in bed, with candles, music, some essential oils, and a good book? How about a walk in the park by yourself, noticing every little detail, as if you have never been there before? How about a pyjamas evening, with a favourite box set, and tea (or hot chocolate)? How about taking up a new skill? There are tons of free videos online, and even entire courses that you can take up without spending a penny. I’m currently doing an Illustration online course, and I’m loving it. You only need a couple of hours a week to make you feel like you are still growing, and learning, and taking care of yourself, pursuing your own desires. You are not just such and such’s mum. You are you. And need a little bit of time every now and then to feel that, and to recharge your batteries so that you can give back.

No-one can run for a long time on empty.

Mornings…how to beat the beast

Let’s step back to six months ago.

I hadn’t turned yet the big 4-0; I was, like now, working full-time and trying to do my best to keep the children fed, clothed, emotionally nurtured and, most important, alive, mostly single-handedly.

If the evenings were a rush to get both fed, bathed and ready for bed before 8:30 (half because they need their sleep, half because I was so looking forward to watch the next episode of House of Cards), the mornings were a time of the day I totally dreaded.

This is how they went, typically:

Between 6:00 and 7:00 my youngest would either start calling me from his bed, or come to my bed.

I would then drag myself out of bed – I’ve never been a morning person, plus I was going to bed late, between 11:30pm and 1:00am to finish some sewing, watch TV, scroll through my Facebook feed, etc.

I would make breakfast for the little one and try to get my mini-me out of bed (my eldest who, so far, has shown she has a lot of aspects of her personality similar to mine);

20 minutes of trying to wake her up, starting with kisses and ending with yelling and, sometimes, physically dragging her out of bed;

Finally up, she also would eat her breakfast half asleep;

In the meantime, I would have a shower and get ready. They would start fighting. I would ironically shout from the shower: “Stop shouting!!”

My shower often cut short to negotiate and sort out the situation, already my blood boiling away nicely while dripping wet;

Then, in no particular order:

Putting make up on; drying my hair; choosing my outfit; choosing my children’s outfits (often picking them up from the mountain of unfolded laundry that had put down roots on the sofa); often not finding what I was looking for and settling for odd socks; chasing my little one to get his nappy changed, face washed and teeth brushed; shouting 30 times to my eldest from a room to another: “did you brush your teeth? did you get dressed? did you brush your hair?”, while she was happily playing with her dolls and ignoring me; preparing my packed lunch; preparing my eldest’s packed lunch (from scratch, sometimes making pasta or even bread!); changing clothes and nappies in my little one’s bag; putting my gym kit together from the famous clothes mountain for my lunchtime workout (and forgetting socks / knickers / pants); doing the washing up from the night before; checking my Facebook feed; checking my emails and my Whatsapp messages; making my eldest finish her homework.

At this point, already sweating and angry, I would just shout orders, causing more havoc and misbehaviour. Getting finally out of the house, with four bags, two children and my head pounding, I was desperately late, most days. The word I would repeat over and over again, was: “Quick!”

Occasionally, my youngest wouldn’t want to sit on his car seat. That would be the straw that broke the camel’s back,and I would just lose it, and shout at him and even spank him. Then, I would cry in silence while driving and feel crap for the rest of the day.

Did you feel stressed just reading this? Sounds like madness, right? Perhaps your mornings are a bit like this?

Well, if that’s the case, as you can see, you are not alone. I’ve done it literally for years, every day. In a desperate attempt to change, I went to a counselling session, during which the psychologist suggested:

Perhaps you could wake up a little earlier?

It was a slap on the face, and I felt outraged and patronised. What a silly suggestion!! I had never been able to wake up earlier, plus what difference would it make? My children misbehave and I am angry, what has that to do with waking up times?

Well, it turned out, it can have a lot to do with it, and it can make a real difference. Children are in most cases simply a mirror of the adults’ behaviour, so the easiest change you can make to see a difference in your children, is to change your own behaviour. In baby steps.

So, inspired by the urge to change things, I did put my alarm clock at 6am. The first morning I snoozed, and snoozed, until my son came to my bed as usual.

It took a few days to actually get up, without (too much) snoozing. I would then have a shower and start preparing things before they woke up.

Turned out, this wasn’t a strong enough habit, or even motivation. So, I fell back into the old me a few times. What really made a difference, was reading the article by Leo Babauta: The First Hour: Creating Powerful Mornings . Creating a few habits so that the first hour of your day is  nurturing and peaceful, and sets a positive tone for the day: it resonated as a dream in my heart. Having a ‘sacred’ hour in which I would do things that are important to me, not just chores.

I had for some time felt the urge to write about my crazy life. I was feeling unfulfilled, and like I was running on a hamster wheel endlessly. Yes, I would spend my evening in blissful solitude, watching programmes I liked, and sewing or doing other crafty stuff (which helped a lot maintaining my sanity), but I was tired, sad and disappointed in myself.

So, in order to have my ‘sacred’ hour first thing in the morning, I started doing the washing up immediately after dinner. I made our packed lunches the night before. I folded the clothes after washing them. I prepared my gym kit and left it right in front of the door, so I couldn’t forget it (intentionally or not!). I reduced my wardrobe to a capsule wardrobe, so that anything I would pick would fit me perfectly, and it was easier to find. I arranged the kids clothes so they would be easy to find and all coordinated (the konmari method is the most wonderful way to do that). I went to bed early. I started setting my alarm clock for 5am, and mentally preparing for not snoozing. I started my day with a short, ten minute guided meditation, or I just meditated with a timer on Thich Nhat Hahn’s smile mantra:

Breathing in, I calm body and mind.

Breathing out, I smile.

Dwelling in the present moment

I know this is the only moment.

(Since then, I found the Insight Timer app, which is truly wonderful).

After that, I would make myself an espresso, and I would write for an hour or so. Just following the flow of my thoughts, without editing (I also read a wonderful book on creative writing that inspired me to get out of bed every morning to write: Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg). Since last October, I’ve nearly written 50,000 words, doing so a little bit at the time, every morning. Not sure what they will become eventually, but writing has opened my heart and made me think about my rich life, my family, my values and much more.

Then I would have a shower and get ready, with gratitude in my heart. Prepare the kids breakfast, not touching my phone for Facebook or messages until I was in the office.

OH MY GOD, the difference the sacred hour made to my life!!

It didn’t happen overnight, but only after a few days, I already felt the difference.

I’ve got more energy, I’m happier, more compassionate, more patient, more organised, calmer. I’m not perfect, and there are mornings in which the scale still tips towards madness, but all in all, my stress levels have reduced massively, and I feel like a much better mum as well.

I try to focus and listen (actually listen, instead of nodding mindlessly while scrolling my Facebook notifications) to my children: 90% of the time this prevents tantrums and fights, plus they deserve it as human beings. When a tantrum does start, I manage most of the times to contain it by distracting them and offering an appealing alternative. In brief, I’m paying attention, and as a result, the kids are calmer, I’m calmer, and I love spending time with them, enjoying and savouring the moments like never before.

Find what makes you happy. Is that having a long bath? Reading a book? Exercising? Writing? Painting? Just set your alarm clock an hour before you are meant to start your day and do it.

It might just be the best decision of your life.

 

A simple new year

For the last few years, like many others, at the end of December I have set myself new year’s resolutions and grand plans for what I wanted to achieve in the new year: a slimmer body, a business idea I could make happen, a trip I wanted to make…

This time, at the end of a very challenging and insightful year, during which I learned a lot about myself, including that I can lose my temper so much that I scare myself, but that I can also find immense peace and joy in solitude, that I enjoy contributing more than I thought I would, that I found a new passion in writing, and that meditation and the laughter of my children keep me alive… I don’t want to set new year’s resolutions.

Setting very specific resolutions in the past has meant the frustration of failing at them, because I was relying purely on my motivation or inspiration (last year I even made a splendid vision board, but that alone hasn’t brought any real results) to keep them up; because life turned out differently from what I was planning (surprise surprise!), so I got disappointed.

What I want to do differently, this time, is to choose a direction, to follow my values more, and make choices based on those; I don’t want to impose on my life that by September I will have a new business, because last year I did just that and failed miserably. I didn’t put in place the right strategy and structure to achieve that goal, arbitrarily set for a certain date, and of course I didn’t hit the target.

Like almost everyone else, I have overeaten during these holidays, so I will  go back to swimming, walking, yoga and the other activities that keep me healthy and strong…however, I don’t need a resolution for any of that.

The only resolution I need this year is to show up every day. Be present. Be here, be now.

This year, I want to be able to simplify and let go more, let go of attachment, and anger, and resentment, be more present in the moment for my children, for my family and my friends, I want to go slow and stop and smell the roses.

I feel strongly about that, because I know that, if I’m present, I will choose at any time the best thing for me (and my children): the healthy food over the rubbish food, the healthy activity over the unhealthy activity, walking or creating over slouching in front of the TV, fruit over chocolate, kindness over anger. In this process, I might even have a bright idea that will inspire me to start a new business. For sure, I want to write more, so I choose to do a bit of writing every day.

Now, the point is, how do I keep it up? We all know how the best intentions (if we don’t want to call them resolutions), tend to fade when the winter blues kick in again, and there is no Christmas to look forward to.

I discovered a few little tricks that just do it for me.

First and foremost, I make my choices a no brainer. I eliminate obvious temptations: I donate all chocolate and sweets to my office when I’m embarking in a health journey; I put my gym bag right by the front door so that I stumble on it when heading out; I read a lot of motivational blogs, and authors that teach me how to do things better and more efficiently.

If I’m lacking motivation, I tell myself I’ll do that thing “for just 10 minutes”. Most of the times, I keep going, it’s just the inertia of human nature, I think.

I also stack habits together: I write after making my coffee; I say a few words of gratitude while having a shower; I write three things I’m grateful for before switching off the light at night; I set my alarm clock at 5am, and when it goes off, I wake up, sit up and meditate for 10 minutes before I have time to opt out of it.

I say no, a lot. I don’t put a lot on my plate anymore – but somehow I still manage to achieve a lot in the process. I don’t multitask anymore. I try to focus on the task at hand as much as possible, in order of priority, then move on to the next task.

I am a fan of James Clear (in his own words: an author, photographer, and weightlifter, that study successful people across a wide range of disciplines to uncover the habits and routines that make these people the best at what they do.), whose work I have been following for a while. James wrote about the Seinfield Strategy, a simple way of tracking visually your progress on your goals on a calendar. I’ve adopted this method for my writing and meditation since October (these are two of my big priorities right now), and the simple fact of seeing a little stamp on the calendar for every time I write or I meditate, and create a chain I don’t want to break, is a big incentive for me.

I’m not super-motivated every day, but habit and showing up make up for lack of motivation, or tiredness, or laziness. And showing up sometimes means that I find my inspiration on the way, and then I have a fantastic day, or a bright idea for my writing, a little gem I wasn’t expecting at all. I’m not aiming at perfection these days (although I’m a perfectionist at heart, I’m learning to let go of perfection) but I’m trying and enjoying the experience instead.

At the bottom of all of this, I’m trying to keep this way of life fresh every day by meditating. Nothing to do with religion, or spirituality – not yet, anyway. Meditating simply keeps me grounded, and alert to my surroundings, and my heart and mind open to the people and situations that I encounter. In an era of constant distraction, meditation helps me focusing on what’s important for me. I recently discovered this amazing app, which is completely free, and full of tons of content, called Insight Timer; whether you are a beginner or a consumed meditator, I’m sure you will find value in it.

So, I hope some of this inspires you to have a simple year with me.

I wish you all a very happy new year.

 

A simple Christmas

Christmas is only around the corner, but this year is very different for me.

At the end of an year of change and simplification, Christmas has arrived with the daunting prospect of having to buy fancy presents for people because they will buy them for me (or my kids), having to organise elves on shelves, advent calendars, pre-christmas dos, etc.

If you are already into minimalism, you’ll know that the best way to avoid arriving to an event such as Christmas stressed and exhausted (mentally and physically) is to:

1)  Learn how to say NO

2) Rethink your priorities

3) Step back and just give your time and energy to what matters truly to you

4) Make it more about the experience than the material stuff.

I’ve decided that people (my people, my tribe, my family) count more than anything else for me. My children are still little, so I wanted to focus my attention on making their Christmas (and the run up to it) as magical as it gets. So yes, I do move the elves around the house and leave a little note every day with world of encouragement and little kindness tasks (to learn more about the kindness elves, read here) for the day. I do put glitter in front of the elves’ door, meaning that they did go to see Santa overnight. I also prepare the advent calendar so that the children find a little chocolate and an activity to do together every day (making gingerbread men biscuits, singing and dancing to Christmas music, going to see Santa at the grotto, make Christmas decorations, watch a Christmas movie at home with popcorn, etc.). This year, our advent calendar also had a couple of activities involving buying food for the food bank and gifting socks to the homeless. I want my children to feel the magic of kindness, because that warms your heart well more than a brand new plastic toy.

Of course we have gifts, but the rule now is: one toy and one book (from Santa) and some new clothes (from mamma), including new pyjamas to use on Christmas eve. I don’t want them to have lots of super fancy toys that get discarded after an hour  – which has happened in the past, by the way – when other children don’t have anything at all from Santa.

I told my friends that I wanted to do an alternative Christmas, so I invited them to go out with our families to go and see a Christmas display at the local garden centre and have hot chocolate together, instead of buying presents for each other.

I made some gingerbread men with my children for my friends’ families, and we wrapped them with handmade decorations and made them pretty.

I gifted cinema tickets and spa days to my family, and I made a soft toy for my little sister using the fabric from clothes she used to wear when she was 20 kg heavier, to celebrate her incredible achievement this year.

I loved every minute of it so far. I’ve been mindful of where my money was spent, and I thought hard about where to spend my energies too.

My whole family is in another country, so it will be just me and the kids this year on the actual Christmas day, who are actually the people I long to spend my Christmas with. I’m looking forward to the walk in the cold, crisp air on Christmas morning, and to watching the children unwrapping their presents, and to cooking and enjoying some lovely traditional food, and to cuddles and reading books together, and finally, to a glass of wine while bingeing on Bridget Jones, Love Actually and Friends when the kids are in bed .

If you want more inspiration for a simple, minimalist Christmas, check this post by Cait Flanders out.

I hope you have a wonderful, meaningful Christmas.

 

 

A minimimalist’s paradox: what do you do when your are attached to a “thing”?

Calling myself a “minimalist” is probably a little too much. It’s more like a work in progress, and having two young children means that, if you came to visit my flat right now, you’d struggle to see my very good intentions to minimise whilst you trip over a toy.

But I definitely strive to simplify my life. Now, as the original Minimalists say, when you proclaim yourself a minimalist, everything becomes a paradox: that you own a car, buy stuff, earn money from any activity…but hey! we haven’t said we would be retreating to live on a mountain top in chastity and poverty… just that we want to make our life more meaningful by eliminating things that for us aren’t necessary. I still buy clothes, if my old ones are consumed. I still have a job and need to buy ‘stuff’ to live and thrive. I just try to use objects with intention, putting a little more thought into buying and keeping them.

But the paradox for me is that, although I’m trying hard to get rid of the majority of the stuff I own, unless it serves a purpose or add value to my life in another way, I found out a couple of days ago that I could actually cry  for the loss of an object.

I seriously thought I was beyond that stage. But hey…I lost my engagement ring, by being stupid. By taking it off to put hand cream at the traffic light in the car. How silly. I forgot to put it back and, guess what, it fell on the road when I came out of the car.

Fact is, I couldn’t remember how I lost it, for good 12 hours I couldn’t figure out where I put it, until I was in bed, in the evening, and I realised what I had done. Now picture me, like a crazy woman, at 7am in my PJs with a coat on top, driving back to the parking spot from the day before, and looking for the ring, while my son, who is two, picked up dry leaves and said “ring!”

I came back home empty-handed, crying like a baby. That ring was the most precious thing I owned, and meant a lot to me, especially since my partner lives far away. An object, but I felt totally heartbroken. How can you explain that? I was frustrated by my own feelings, but couldn’t help it. Now, the universe is a mystery, and sometimes I feel humbled by how things align themselves…

In the afternoon, I went to see a friend, who by chance lives near the parking spot where I lost my ring. I was chatting to her about it, when she said “oh, my neighbour texted me, she would like to pop in”. This lady, whom I never met before, showed us her beautiful new ring, a present for her birthday. My sad face prompted her to ask me what was wrong, so I told her about my lost ring. She looked at me and asked me what the ring looked like. When I described it she said: “I think we have your ring!”

Then she ran to knock at another neighbour’s door, and brought back the neighbour and MY RING. I was speechless and overwhelmed with happiness, I hug them both, and then they told me this friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend had found it the day before and asked the people she knew on the road if it was theirs by any chance.

A little ring, which could have ended up in a gutter, eaten by a dog, picked up by someone who would take it straight to the pawn brokers… was found and kept and returned back to me.

True, objects don’t have a soul. But this time I learned two good lessons. There are people out there that are honest and strive to do the right thing; I will be forever grateful to these two ladies and they gave me a little more faith in humanity. Second lesson, sometimes objects do mean something. Of course, I wouldn’t have died if the ring hadn’t come back, I would have moved on. But we are humans, and do get attached to special things now and then. Getting rid of absolutely everything would mean for the majority of us losing our roots and feeling miserable.

So long as objects don’t become more important than people, and so long as our attachment to them is kept under control, we don’t have to demonise them. Some objects, which have been carefully selected and serve a purpose, or have a special meaning, can have a rightful place in our lives.

How losing your lifeline can save you: some ideas on thriving on frugal

On the path to simplicity, a big issue for me has been money.

My family wasn’t rich, and economics were a bit of a black cloud over my head throughout my life at home: money was something despised and elusive; when there was some money, it was spent quickly, and it looked like we were always at the edge of bankruptcy, or so it felt.

Growing up, I didn’t have an idea of how to budget: I started working, and I got my salary, which I spent in the first half of the month, scrapping bits of leftovers for the rest of the month, until new oxygen, in the form of my next paycheque, would materialise in my bank account. A vicious circle that was very, very hard to break and which, I have to admit, I still struggle with from time to time today.

I never put anything on the side, and a couple of days before my salary was due again, pasta with tomato sauce and beans in a can was what I ate.

No emergency fund, no savings for rainy days, Christmas or the future. I’m lucky that my employer made it easy to put aside money for my pension, since they contribute the same amount I put in before it appears on my payslip, so I don’t even notice it going out. My ex-husband opposed to this, since we needed every penny in his opinion. Thank goodness I still went ahead and signed for the pension fund.

You see, I always had the intention to put my finances in order. I thought that, the day I would have lots of money, I would put some aside. It never occurred to me that even then I could have started putting money aside, by adjusting my lifestyle and making a few key choices. I tried putting together spreadsheets with income and expenses, but they would work for 10 days max; I would then even forget I had spent two hours putting them together. I lacked motivation and a simple enough method that was a no brainer to follow.

Then everything changed. I separated from my husband. I had a kid to take care of and another one on the way.

I maxed out the credit card I had, buying cheap furniture in Ikea and a small, used car and paying for the deposit towards the rent of my new flat. I also extended a loan I had taken years before. I had to pay huge solicitors’ bills. Life was a mess. By the time I had my second child, I had to sign a debt management plan because I fell in arrear with all the creditors, including the solicitor.

At the darkest of times, especially after my car broke down for good the night my second child was born, and I couldn’t afford to replace it until he was 9 months old, I didn’t have money to buy a bag of carrots for his baby puree. I broke my children’s piggy bank to get the few coins that would make a difference that day.

It wasn’t the easiest nor the happiest time of my life.

I came back to work, but I was still relying every week on Government’s child benefits to do my weekly grocery shopping, because my salary just covered the bills and debts.

I was still on the black book of banks – and I will be firmly there for another 4 years – and didn’t have any emergency fund. The time came, though, that the Government re-did their calculations, and because I wasn’t on maternity anymore, they cut my benefits by two thirds. After paying rent, bills, nursery, debts and other essentials, I was left with around £50 a week, which in southeast England is next to nothing, and that needed to be my emergency fund as well as my food shopping fund, and anything-else-that-cropped-up fund. The day I opened the envelope and learned this, I felt utterly desperate.

My lifeline had gone. Now I had to feed myself and my children with very little money and what if the car broke down? What if I got sick and needed medicines? All these dramatic scenarios crept on me.

I was STUCK. Big time.

So, after the first few days of shock, I decided to make this work. In the end of the day, I still had a job and a roof above my head, I just needed to cut back here and there and try and increase a little my income. I started researching on the internet for bloggers that could help with my quest: how do I budget?

I’ll explain here the methods that have worked for me, and helped me change my ways with money. I’ve used a combination of them at different times, and now I quite like to combine the envelope method with Mindful Budgeting, plus a few shopping bans here and there.

The biggest revelation for me, though, came from losing my benefits. Beyond the practicality of learning to be better at managing my money, I learned not to be complacent, to take control of my finances and, with that, of my life.

So, yes, it was a blessing.

Envelope method

One of the oldest budgeting methods (I read somewhere that it was commonly used by housewives managing their husbands’ salaries when people got paid in cash), the envelope method works simply by assigning specific budgets for different categories of expenses. The one I found the simplest to follow is by Fun, Cheap or Free. In summary, once you have established your income and likely expenses for the month, including savings and debt repayments, you start by taking out the money needed for essential items and regular expenses as soon as you get your paycheque: rent and bills, for example. At the same time, take out any savings, before they are eaten by everything else. Then use just one envelope per month for any budget left, divided in the middle in ‘groceries’ (which includes also any toiletries, kitchen stuff, cleaning supplies etc.) and ‘other’ (under which fall all the stuff you ‘want to have’ rather than ‘need to have’, for example haircuts, gym membership, new makeup, presents, going out money, new clothes, etc.). Admittedly, this category for me was shrunk to a minimum, since I didn’t have a lot of spare money left after rent, bills, nursery fees and groceries were accounted for. You then write down every expense you incur into under the relevant category, for which you have assigned a budget. You can keep the receipts in the envelope. Wonderful to keep in check your expenses, and keep yourself accountable.

Becoming more frugal

I came across the 90-day budgeting boot camp by the Busy Budgeter, a free budgeting programme with an additional checklist of actions you can consider to regain financial health. The whole website of the Busy Budgeter is an endless resource for those that struggle with being frugal and budgeting, so definitely worth a check. In particular, I found the checklist invaluable: it goes through some 200 actions you can look at to cut your expenses or increase your income.As I said at the beginning, I didn’t have a clue, and every time I tried budgeting before, it didn’t last very long, because of lack of commitment or unrealistic expectations. So I started, going through the weekly tasks and the checklist, to save some money and simplify my life: the easiest was to tackle my food bill. I tried doing a weekly meal plan, but I ended up eating something completely different most days for different reasons (for example, I had more leftovers than expected), so instead, I started shopping for fruit and veg at the local market, with a vague idea of what I’d like to eat during the week, and a budget of £10. The market is often cheaper and has fresher, more seasonal products than supermarkets. I would build my meals around what I found at the market, and anything else I couldn’t find there, I would go to Aldi to buy (much cheaper and better quality than other supermarkets), with some odd items bought in Sainsbury’s. I also maximise the use of leftovers. This way, I managed to halve my food shopping expense.

Fear not – I will dedicate more posts on food and savings in the future.

More examples of actions I have taken to reduce expenses / increase income:

  • I started making my own healthy cleaning products;
  • I contacted all my energy and media suppliers and negotiated new deals;
  • I sold lots of stuff via eBay and Facebook selling groups, especially baby equipment and clothes I didn’t need anymore;
  • I cancelled any subscription that wasn’t adding real value to my life (I kept the most basic Netflix subscription, which at £6.99 a month ensures lots of entertainment for me and the children, offsetting more expensive options, and my subscription to Psychologies magazine, because it saves me the fees of a psychologist!);
  • I started selling some of my crafts: rag dolls and toys, and giant knitted blankets, made mainly from recycled fabric and materials;
  • I started looking at free ways to have fun with the children (like baking or watching a movie at home with homemade popcorn) and rediscovered running as a free and enjoyable way to exercise.

The best advice from that boot camp, though, was to wash your dishes and do your laundry every day. Yes, you read it right: the discipline and habit of keeping the basics at home ticking, provides a wonderful mind gym to train your brain to stick with your budget targets, and keep stress coming from mess at bay.

 

Do no use your credit card

I only recently had to take a credit card again, after having repaid my previous, maxed out one. The reason why I’ve taken up one again is that I want to build up my credit. However, it is a terrible temptation, just having it in your wallet, and looking at you saying: “Come on! You can afford it! Look at all this money inside me, it’s spare cash!”. NO, IT BLOODY ISN’T. I still fall into the trap for small purchases when I don’t have cash on me, it’s just easier to tap with the contactless credit card, but then I find myself with a higher than usual bill the month after and think how weak I am to still falling for that trap. Thank goodness, I still keep it below £150 a month, which I pay in full every month now. Would be better not to have it though… still working on that one.

Carry cash instead of your card with you

Then you’ll have to limit your expenses to that money, and can’t use your card. Money in a plastic card never feels real, and so it’s easier to spend.

Have a Spending Ban period

(Two weeks, a month, six months…whatever suits you). During this time, you are allowed to spend on only the very essential, and you will avoid any other expenses. Be careful not to just postpone your shopping spree to after the spending ban! Put the money you saved in your saving account instead. Read more about it on Cait Flanders’ blog here.

Use an app to put your savings away

I personally don’t believe in having several accounts for different expenses, although lots of financial advice points in that direction; it just makes my life more complicated. I only have a saving account and a current account, and I use an app called Moneybox to put aside some money for the longer term. I’m sure there are others out there that are also good, but I found this easy because it can automate my payments, and I only put small amount each week, which for me is the key for financial success – it takes away having to take a decision every time, and it’s only a little bit of money at the time.

I started calling money ‘freedom’

I heard it from Whitney Cummings, an American comedian, and I thought it was brilliant. Every time I feel like buying something that wasn’t planned, I think: “Is that worth 100 of my freedom”? Because that’s what money gives you: not happiness, but choice, and therefore freedom, whether you like it or hate it.

Mindful budgeting

I discovered Mindful Budgeting by Cait Flanders, and through that, how to create a simple budget with clear goals, and keep my motivation to stick to it by being mindful of what’s in it.

Budgeting per se doesn’t work. You need to ask yourself WHY you are doing it. Having a clear goal in mind, something you want to do which is specific with the money you will save, is fundamental, or you soon will lose motivation. Do you want to save to repay your debts? Do you want to create an emergency fund? (Both in my opinion should be prioritised) Do you want to go to Disneyland next year? Do you want to buy yourself a new car because yours doesn’t suit your family? Have that goal in mind. I didn’t set a deadline to achieve my goals in my head, but I’m working steadily towards those, a little bit at the time – goals often don’t work out as we set them, and you don’t want to lose motivation by being disappointed.

The best advice from Mindful Budgeting I find is that you re-evaluate what was the best purchase of your week, and what you could have done differently.

Podcasts and the advice out there

While I wash the dishes, I listen to the Budgets & Cents podcasts, a great, light-hearted series of podcasts on budgeting and money. But there are lots out there you can learn from. Learn from someone that has been there, has done that and has bought the t-shirt, as they say.

Did I not mention a foolproof method to budgeting? Let me know!’

 

 

 

 

 

Find your happy

Researchers at Harvard University have found that 50% of a person’s happiness is due to their genetics, 10% to the environment they live in and their external circumstances, but 40% is unaccounted for: they suspect that 40% is made of the choices that each of us take everyday. I was watching this documentary called Happy last night, and those stats stuck to my head like a chewing gum under a shoe.

It struck me that nearly half of the time you choose to be happy.

Now, I have always been an optimistic person. That’s probably my genetics kicking in. I would say, my mum and my brother are pretty much the same. I always find something good in the bad, a lesson to learn, a justification for bad behaviour. And that certainly helps during rainy days. However…  at times life showered me with such massive piles of crap, especially in the last 10 years, that even the most optimistic person in the world would have needed, in my shoes, to re-evaluate their outlook.

So I read a lot about happiness, and optimism, and for a long while I was determined to use my natural optimism to my advantage and to trial it on the Law of Attraction, i.e. the ability to attract into our lives whatever we are focusing on. We all have experienced at times wishing for something to happen to our life, and somehow, things get moved by the universe and that very thing happens. Or the opposite, focusing so much on the negative, wishing that it won’t happen, and again, that very thing happens. Some say that it is because we attracted that thought into our life, by dedicating our full attention to it, good or bad.

So, I made my very own vision board last January, putting on it pictures of all the lovely things I wished for my life by the end of the year: living with my partner, going to New York, starting the business we talked about so much, starting to meditate more regularly. Guess what? NOTHING happened. Nothing. I haven’t moved my arse from home, apart from the usual back and forth from Italy. My partner and I are still living 2,500 km apart.

Since making the board, the business we just tried to start failed miserably, due to lack of funds. And we lost quite a bit of money in the process. Nice.

Fair to say, visualising without doing nothing significant towards that idea, did nothing to make it happen. I felt deflated and frustrated, but then realised that one of the issue with the law of attraction is that it builds up expectations, when we are virtually impotent in front of life. It just happens the way it wants to happen, and I can certainly stir it a bit here and there, but if I get run over by a bus tomorrow, there won’t be any vision board to help me. Nevertheless, it helps if you actually do something. But what?

I recently read a book titled The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. There are a couple of points from the book that stuck with me.

The first one, is the stoic attitude towards life, described by the author, for which an apparent negative attitude of expecting always the worst actually has the result to make you feel happy. Because rarely the worst happens, you feel relieved at the very minimum. On the opposite, expecting life to throw roses and violets at you instead of crap, is going to disappoint you, sooner or later. As the Buddhists know well, every being is bound to experience illness, suffering and eventually death in their life. You might as well accept it and move on.

Another point from the book that I found quite interesting: it has been demonstrated that setting specific goals makes people a) more ineffective b) unhappy. Because again, life happens and disappointment kicks in when expectations do not become a reality. People become more productive when they have a direction they push their actions towards, but not necessarily specific, time-bound goals. We need to accept we are not in control of our lives, but we can certainly stir it towards our aspirations, with some intention.

Personally, it was also the taking action element I was struggling with massively.

I am a procrastinator. Always have been. Many times I found myself finishing a university assignment at 5am on the deadline day. Snoozing my alarm clock every five minutes, 25 times (this is an actual number, not an exaggeration).

But… out of all the ‘failures’ from my vision board, I have started to meditate more regularly. And, I feel happier that I’ve been in a long time.  Because I found a new way of dealing with my procrastination: habits.

I recently came across Zen Habits by Leo Babauta and James Clear‘s blogs, two wonderfully inspiring readings that I wholeheartedly suggest you take a look at if you are interested in improving your life.

First, I choose intentionally to move my life towards a certain direction. I don’t set a specific or time-bound goal (the exact opposite of the famous SMART goal they teach you in business courses!), I don’t tell myself: I want to meditate every day.

I rather ask myself: How does meditation make you feel? Do you like that relaxed, present, happy self, after having spent a few minutes meditating? The answer is, obviously, yes. That gives me a strong motivation when I struggle to find the willingness to do it.

Second, I don’t rely anymore on ‘inspiration’ to do the things I set myself to do: Nike-like, I just do it. I tell myself: I’ll make a start, just ten minutes (and that’s the third thing, I set myself a ridiculously small goal). Often, I find myself doing a lot more than ten minutes, and I don’t beat myself up if, occasionally, it is only ten minutes: that’s better than nothing.

Finally, I automate as much as possible the activity I want to do, so I don’t rely on a ‘when I feel like doing’ attitude. These days, I wake up at 5am (me, yes, 5am!! The woman who needs to be woken up with a bucket full of ice!) with a wonderful sunrise simulator light (which made a massive difference to my mood and to me actually waking up, instead of ignoring the alarm clock. And, big bonus, I found it super-cheap at Aldi), I open my eyes, I sit up, and I start meditating. No thinking involved.

I now literally intentionally stumble upon the things I have set myself to do when I’m full of good intentions.

A few more ingredients to my own happiness recipe:

  • Accomplishing some of the things I want to do without making my life an endless to-do list;
  • Pacing myself;
  • Spending time with my loved ones being silly and doing fun things;
  • Smiling;
  • Exercising regularly;
  • Enjoying the here and now, whenever I remember (humanly impossible to do it all the time, but it is good to stop and smell the roses now and then);
  • Being grateful for what I have;
  • And something I would love to do more of: contributing to other people’s life.

Phew! I managed to finish this post, and I will probably dwell more into some of the themes above in the future, but I’d be interested to learn what other people do to make their life happier. Do stop and say hi!