One of my all-time favorite movies is the 1979 classic Being There, starring Peter Sellers. The late Sellers (of Pink Panther and Dr. Strangelove fame) plays Chance the Gardener, a simple minded but lovable manservant who lives his whole life cloistered in the estate of an elderly patron, only to be abruptly thrust into the outside world upon his master's death. Sellers' clueless character is eventually heralded as one of the great economic minds of his time, pointing out through his innocence and simple thinking the follies of the self-deceived "real world" he encounters.
If you're a simple cheapskate like me, you're probably feeling a lot like Chance the Gardener these days. I know I am. With the recent and ongoing implosion of the U.S. economy, quite honestly my phone has been ringing off the hook with questions from reporters writing articles about getting frugal -- and fast -- in order to weather the hard times that are upon us.
I guess we've entered the Age of the Cheapskate, and frugal folks like me, who know far more about hedge trimming than hedge funds, are the new financial oracles. Chance the Gardener, take a bow.
While I've never claimed to be a mastermind of high finance (a critic once said that I am to the community of personal financial pundits what paint-by-numbers is to the art world), I'll wager that the most effective solutions for making it through these complex financial times may in fact be the simplest. I'm not talking about on a macro-economic level, with its nearly trillion dollar federal bailout of credit markets, but on a personal level, in your own life.
When asked for personal financial advice for surviving -- and even thriving -- in these troubled economic times, I keep coming back to a single word: Simplify. Almost without exception, whenever you simplify your life, three things happen. It usually costs less, it's nearly always better for the environment, and -- here's the best part -- it inevitably makes you happier.
Simplify. Drive less by consolidating trips, telecommuting, shortening your work week, walking or bicycling. Stay at home more with family and friends, making your own fun rather than paying to be entertained. Cook more meals at home and eat lower on the food chain. Consider downsizing your house, moving closer to where you work, or living in -- and heating! -- only part of your home in the wintertime. De-clutter your life and boost your finances by selling stuff you don't use or no longer want. Do more things for yourself rather than pay others to do things for you, and maybe then you can even cancel your gym membership.
How is any of that about sacrifice or hardship? It's all about living a better life -- and living lighter on the planet -- by consuming and spending less. Ghandi said it best: "Live simply so that others may simply live." I agree, and think Chance the Gardener would too.
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