I consider myself lucky that I committed to this frugal lifestyle early. It was a natural consequence of defining my life goals and my desired timeline for achieving them. But nobody exists in a vacuum, and when your life goals are intertwined with a partner’s it can occasionally be a challenge to coordinate your efforts. There are articles over at MMM that address the issue of convincing a spouse of the benefits of living below your collective means, but I found that I had the opposite problem… my girlfriend’s zeal eclipsed my own!
Let me be clear: this is not a real problem. Her immediate agreement and genuine enthusiasm was preferable to the alternative. I found myself in a position where I did not have to waste any effort arguing for a lifestyle that I knew was the correct one. I found myself in a position where she was better at living that lifestyle than I! I could count on her to keep me honest and on track, and she has been nothing but helpful. But even though we’ve never disagreed about the direction, occasionally we’ve disagreed about the details. Which brings me to paper towels.
My whole life there have always been paper towels around. These pristine absorbent sheets have always been standing at the ready, nearby, like a cottony tubular sentinel watching over me, waiting for a opportunity to help clean up a mess. I could always rely on these quilted, quicker picker-uppers in a pinch. And in times of need my default behavior was to turn first to those angelic folds. Spilled grape juice? Dirty stove-top? No problem. I had the most versatile tool in my utility belt (or on my countertop). There was nothing that together we could not do.
But at what cost? Disposable paper towels are not free. They are not even cheap. My girlfriend helpfully suggested an alternative: cloth dishtowels. Although I was uncomfortable admitting it at first, she made some good points in their favor. They are cheaper. They are nicer. They are re-usable (just throw them in when you wash your sheets). And so together we made them accessible in our kitchen.
But although logically I completely understood the comparative disadvantages of the paper alternative, for weeks I could not help myself from unconsciously reaching for the paper towels first. After a morning grapefruit I would wipe down the table, expecting to be congratulated by my girlfriend for my thoughtfulness, only to be scolded for forgetting to use the cloth instead. I wanted to change; I really did! Would I ever be able to break free of my habit, in the name of saving money?
And then I had a thought. I took the roll of paper towels off the counter-top and put it under the sink, next to our cleaning solution. This small change made it so much easier to modify my behavior. Having them out of sight and out of the way preventing me from reaching for them first, and gave me those extra few seconds to contemplate my actions more completely. Problem solved.
I have always enjoyed solving puzzles, and my experiences as an engineer have reinforced an attitude I’ve had for as long as I can remember. I’m talking about the optimistic attitude that a solution always exists, even if nobody has discovered it yet. If you truly believe that a perfect solution is out there, you won’t stop looking for it. If you doubt that the perfect solution exists, then you may give up the search and never find it. After all, as an engineer, if I can’t find the solution to a problem then what the heck am I being paid for? Another valuable lesson to be learned from this experience is that behavioral modification is possible, and can even be easy, with the right approach. The best approach surely varies widely across the general population, but having faith that a solution is out there is important, and will help you find it. This principle applies to everything from paper towels to quitting smoking. It might just take a little thinking outside the box. I am reminded of an acquaintance that had a problem with overeating. They snacked constantly and even when they wanted to change they lacked the self-control to simply quit the bad habit. Finally, they tried consistently following up the bad habit with a good one, and resolved to brush and floss their teeth after every snack, even if it was just one bite. Suddenly they found it easy to quit eating as much, finding flossing so often to be annoying.
There is always a perfect solution.