How to Be a Grownup with Money

Every once in a while, I read a book that enhances my “grown-up” skills. There are some skills I had down pat by the time I reached adulthood — for example, I was an excellent student — but there were many that were frankly mysterious to me, the lack of which caused me much pain during my 20’s. So, over the years, I’ve taken my “good student” skills and applied them to creating my own course, called How to Be a Grownup. (Of course, like every real course of study, the task is life-long…)

If you are familiar with my music or my writing, you’ll know that I have a strong interest in poverty, debt traps, and self-education around issues of money. So, the first title on my How to be a Grownup syllabus is the quirky and wonderful The Complete Tightwad Gazette, by Amy Dacyczyn. This book is part of what allowed me to pursue music for several years in Austin, living on a very-part-time income. It’s also part of what helped me to stay afloat as much as I did during the first two years I was struggling with Lyme Disease.

On the surface, this book is a household budgeting book, but it also has a number of fabulous essays on what I would call Tightwad Theory — the process and thinking behind how to make good decisions which are A) creative B) economical and C) fit into a long-range goal. Not only do I think everyone who runs a household should read this, I think everyone who runs a business should read it too.

One of the most useful concepts I learned from this book was calculating the “hourly rate” of tasks. We’re all familiar with an hourly wage for work done outside the home…this takes a similar concept and applies it to “unpaid” labor that saves you money.

For instance, if you live in an apartment building where it costs $2 to dry a load of laundry, every time you line-dry it instead, you will save $2. If line-drying one load of laundry takes 15 minutes, then you could do four loads in an hour — for an “hourly rate” of $8, tax-free.

By using this quick calculation, combined with other factors such as your enjoyment of certain tasks, you can decide if a certain frugal activity such as packing a lunch, rinsing out a ziploc bag, or changing your own oil is “worth it” according to your budget.

Once you are able to see tasks with this framework, you can apply it to many other areas of your life, including business. For example, if you’re planning a meeting, calculate the approximate hourly wage of all the meeting participants. If employees at your company are paid an average of $35 an hour including benefits, a meeting with 10 employees “costs” the company $350, so the meeting should be providing $350 of benefit to the company.

There are lots of other great recommendations, such as keeping a “price book” to track which items are cheapest at each of your local stores, and using her methods to calculate the true net value for a second income.

She also talks about the fundamental overlap between being ecologically responsible, and being frugal. In her words, “Economy and ecology are like two circles that overlap about 90%. The remaining 10% is the area where doing the right thing by the environment costs more.” She also gives great advice on skills such as goal-setting, long-range planning, childrearing, and being part of a couple that works well as a team.

Overall, this is a great book for anyone and everyone.