The TOUGH-LOVE Approach to a Recession

by Dorothy Ainsworth

We're headed for a major recession, and we need to make some adjustments...financially and psychologically. We've all been living too high on the hog, spending money before we even earn it by maxing out our credit cards and buying expensive houses and cars that are beyond our stretched budgets. In any economy this isn't a good practice. If we can't augment our means, we need to diminish our wants, or at least make a list of priorities and eliminate things we can live without right now.

A recession means money will be tight, and that rude awakening will dictate that you spend it on necessities, not luxuries. Some of us are spoiled, so it might be hard to differentiate between the two. We'll have to get real.

Being creatures of habit, spending can become an addiction, and when it's taken away, we may suffer withdrawals. Next time we're out on a spending spree (if there is a next time), we should ask ourselves, "Do I really need this?" Try to determine whether it's an emotional need, a physical need, or just a bad habit of convincing ourselves that everything we desire is a necessity. In short, "Shop till you drop will have to stop!"

We've grown accustomed to life in the fast lane and instant gratification. We get "necessities" mixed up with "EXCESSities." Our sense of entitlement tends to prevail over our sense of reality. A rational attitude adjustment is not an easy task, but the good news is we are all creatively rich inside if we muster up the gumption to tap into our inner resources. Every cloud has a silver lining.

We can use this time for personal growth. Instead of seeking out external stimuli such as movies and concerts and constantly going places that burn up expensive gas, stay home and read a book...for internal stimulus. An old Chinese proverb says it best, "A book is like a garden carried in your pocket". What best to fill that empty pocket!

We all profess to love rainy days and talk about how we wish we would get snowed in for a week, but have we ever asked ourselves what we would actually do if that happened?

Learn to be with yourself. The real business of life is getting to know one's self. Get in shape...jog, hike, work out. Read voraciously, learn to sew, grow a garden, learn to play an acoustical instrument. Find your inner artist, your inner writer, your inner musician, your inner craftsman, your inner humanitarian. Do good things. Be a big brother to an unfortunate kid, hold babies at the hospital, read to a shut-in. Spend yourself!

Stay home and cook healthful inexpensive food from scratch...like beans and greens. Going out to eat on a regular basis is terribly expensive, a fleeting experience, and a luxury we can live without for a while.

Do your own hair and nails...or don't. Designer fingernails, when you're in a financial crisis, should be the least of your worries! Go natural; Beauty really does emanate from industrious people doing what they love to do, even if their hair is messed up. My son Eric, a classical pianist, is bald...but that doesn't detract even one hair from the beauty and enjoyment of his passionate piano playing!

Not only will we have to cut down on our own spending, but we'll probably have to quit indulging the kids. Yay! It may the best thing that ever happened to them. Instead of deliberately withholding things they want...to try to teach them values...we simply won't have it to give. What we will have is a perfect excuse to inform them that from now on they'll have to "Make do, do without, use it up, and wear it out" (old American motto). Kids are resilient and adapt to just about any situation. After they get over the initial shock, you'll see them drawing upon their own imaginations and ingenuity to create activities and make things they want. They'll learn to entertain themselves. (Now that's a novel concept!)

If I sound a little cynical about spoiled, demanding kids, I guess it's because I am. I've seen far too many family members totally alienated from each other. They all zoom around in separate cars to separate destinations seeking entertainment everywhere but home. Then when they do come home, they grab some food out of the refrigerator, rush to their respective rooms, (replete with PC's and TV's), and shut their doors...with barely a mumble or no greeting at all. I believe a recession will bring family members closer to one another. Everybody will be in the same lifeboat together fighting off the sharks...the loan sharks.

We can show our love for one another by doing things for each other, rather than buying things for each other. Things don't make us happy...feelings of love and self-worth and peace of mind do, but those intangibles have to be earned.

Triumphing over adversity is very rewarding. It might not be much fun at first, but nature is a great equalizer. Your initial investment of struggle and a little pain in the short run will pay off in the long run, like compound interest for the rest of your life. People in denial who continue to live on borrowed time and borrowed money will likely crash and burn.

Without any extra money to spend, we'll discover things to do we have never thought of, or have been procrastinating for years. It's amazing what we can come up with when we don't have our usual options and diversions. The famous Dr. Robert Schuller aptly calls it "possibility thinking."

How about dusting off that old piano in the corner and learning to play it. To illustrate how wonderful it is to know how to play a musical instrument, here's a true account: Recently we had a huge thunder and lightning storm while my son was playing a wild and dynamic Beethoven sonata. It was nighttime, and all of a sudden the lights went out. Eric never missed a beat...he just kept on playing in the dark. It was magnificent! It sounded like an entire orchestra in the pitch-black house. The incongruity of it all was downright comical! When he ended the piece with a giant crescendo...like making his own thunder...we laughed uproariously...in the dark.

That serendipitous lesson made me realize how we should all strive to depend more on the things in life that money can't buy...and never has been able to buy. We need to develop our special talents and desires that emanate from within us, just in case we're stuck at home with no extra money and maybe no electricity. If everything we're interested in has to be plugged in, it's time for a reassessment. How about lively conversations and discussions...with each other (a lost art) or with good friends you haven't invited over in a while.

People who have worked on themselves, developed their creativity, have hobbies and accomplishments, and skills galore are the lucky ones who will stay happy and fulfilled through a recession. They have money in the bank....their memory bank. Their frontal lobes and other cranial vaults have been programmed like computers with skills, abilities, knowledge, and practical experience.

Backwoods Home readers are generally those kind of people...rugged individualists who have chosen a lifestyle of self-reliance, independence, and security. The moral of "The Ant and the Grasshopper" fable lives on in the Backwoods Home philosophy. "The Little Red Hen" is a close runner-up!

I've been in survival mode all my life (subsistence-level income) so my lifestyle probably won't change at all. In retrospect, I feel fortunate I didn't ever have anything handed to me, thus was forced to develop my potential by working at it. I count my blessings everyday with what I have been able to accomplish so far...mainly because I live in this great country of equal opportunity and free-enterprise (capitalism). I simply took advantage of it.

Recession or no recession, I don't believe in handouts from the government (socialism), or handouts from one family member who earned it to another who didn't. I'm a firm believer in the concept that you hurt people by helping them...unless it's an emergency or other extenuating circumstances beyond their control. Or unless they are putting in equal energy in helping themselves and the outcome is in sight. Give a leg-up instead of a hand-out.

In America, even during a recession, our standard of living is so much higher than in a third-world country that there is no comparison. To put it all in perspective, just think about what we already have! When you're feeling gloom and doom, take an inventory! How many pairs of shoes can you wear at once unless you're a centipede?

But we don't have to panic; nothing lasts forever, not even a recession. This too shall pass, and we'll each be a better person for it. Until we were tested, we probably didn't think we had it in us to be so resourceful. When it's over I hope we can give ourselves an "A" on our own personal report cards and apply all those good lessons we learned, to when times are prosperous again. And they will be.

But meanwhile, find the humor in your situation. Laugh a lot! We are not victims...we probably did most of this to ourselves by running up those credit cards and eating dessert first one time too many. We have the body we deserve and the bank account we deserve. The blame game is lame. We need to take personal responsibility for our part in it and go forward with some positive changes.

They say there are three types of people: The ones who let things happen, the ones who make things happen, and the ones who wonder what happened? Which one will you choose to be?