Friday, 18 September 2015

Choose Your Own Priorities

I've written before about the importance of picking your priorities and sticking to them. Planning and organizing your life - and your finances - will be infinitely easier if you have a clear picture of what is important to you and what is not. Once you're comfortable with that choice, all other choices will be much easier to make: spending, saving, setting short- and long-term goals, planning for the future.

My biggest priority is my family, my children. Spending time, making memories, teaching and learning and growing together during this short, precious time that we have before they're grown and off to live their own lives.

With the knowledge that this is the most important thing for our family, the choices we make to organize the rest of our lives are easy. A large family home in the neighbourhood of our dreams would have carried a crippling mortgage, even on two incomes, so we bought a tiny townhome we could actually afford on an income-and-a-half in that same suburban paradise. We didn't want to have to send the kids to daycare, so we gave up the second car, meals out, and lots of little luxuries so I could stay at home with them during the day while working freelance.

We spend our disposable income on the kids' sports and activities, on family outings and annual passes to the zoo and the Science Centre, and on one big family vacation to Disney World every March Break. We do not spend much money on home improvements or new furniture or fancy clothes or cars. Our income is finite and limited, for now, and we choose to spend our money on family life and experiences rather than on things. That is our choice.

I am perfectly happy with that choice and all that goes along with it. I love our home, our life and our lifestyle. I do have a "wish list" - everyone does. There are projects I'd like to take care of around the house - some big, like the new kitchen I have all planned out in my head right down to the tiniest detail, or the front hall reno where we'll blow out the closet and useless closed-in space by the front door into a gorgeously airy, open two-storey entranceway; some smaller, like new armchairs to flank the fireplace in the living room and a new storage-slash-shelving solution for the basement playroom.

But are those projects more important to me than my kids? Absolutely not. I wouldn't dream of missing out on time with my kids in order to go out and earn a few extra dollars to spend on stuff. I wouldn't consider denying my boys their rep sports just to save myself a few thousand dollars a year to buy things for our home. Our kids are our priority; everything else is secondary. And we know that as the kids get older and I am able to work more our income will increase and that wish list will get whittled down.

Normally, I don't think much about the things that we don't do or have in order to do what we do. We live in a neighbourhood of homes in all shapes and sizes. Our friends live a wide variety of lifestyles on varying income levels and with dramatically differing priorities. I'm happy with the choices we've made just as I assume they're happy with the choices they've made. But I was reminded this weekend that not everyone has the same understanding of differing priorities.

We have a bit of an unfinished project in our house. Our big project for the last two summers was tearing out the old back deck and building a brand-new two-storey deck, complete with turned staircase and landing, a pergola on the upper deck and a covered eating area on the lower deck. We engineered and built it ourselves, from the permit drawings and digging the post holes all the way through construction and building department inspection. It was exhausting, it was stressful, it took forever and it cost a small fortune. Along with the second storey deck, of course, we planned a second storey door - French doors off the living room in place of the existing big window. We haven't quite got around to putting in that door, so for the time being, if we want to use the upper deck we either go through the basement door and up the new stairs or step out through the living room window itself.

Is that our permanent solution? It is not.

But cutting a hole in our home's brick wall, constructing a frame and installing and finishing a new exterior door is an enormous project that will involve enormous time and enormous expense. We have neither the time nor the money (nor, frankly, the inclination) to tackle that project at the moment, and with the knowledge that the extra income I'll be bringing in with all three kids in school will mean we can afford the reno and pay someone else to do it, we're perfectly happy living with our deck the way it is for now.

This weekend was one of our annual parties. As the weekend approached and I rushed around cleaning and finishing up all those little unfinished things around the house you kind of forget about until you're entertaining, I found myself wistfully wishing we'd been able to get the door done before the party - and was immediately angry with myself for feeling that way. There was one particular guest, I knew, who would make a point of pointing out that the door wasn't done yet, of laughing over how long it was taking, of reminding us just how long we'd been planning to do it.

And she did not disappoint - it took less than five minutes in my home for her to make a comment. This time, though, instead of making excuses or laughing along with her, instead of feeling uncomfortable talking about money and awkward about having to live on a budget I said,

"We spend our money on stuff for the kids; we'll do stuff for the house when I'm working more and making more."
She looked question marks at me.
"Well, yeah, but don't you just want to get it done?"

And this, I think, is where so many people run into problems with overspending and debt.

Of course I want to get it done. But our income lets us afford either rep sports for our kids or a home renovation. Trying to do both right now would mean digging ourselves into debt. Our priority is always our kids, so the home renovation will have to wait until our increased income can cover both expenses.

We don't live in an impeccably decorated designer house and we don't have bottomless bank accounts to dip into to furnish and finish a flawless home. What we do have are moments and memories with our kids and a happy family home. That is what's important to us. That is our priority.

And because we are happy with that choice, we are happy to live with any consequences that choice might have.

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