A few years ago, I was giving a talk to a group of MFA students at Columbia College in Chicago about the right moves artists can make with their money, and a student surprised me with the question, “But what if you just want to dance?”
Huh? It took me a second — but then I understood he was really asking, when is it okay to be impulsive?
It probably seems like once you know what to do with your money, there are certain things that are no longer allowed. You can't ditch your steady job to go out on a limb and start your dream business, or play hooky in the middle of the day because the weather is perfect, or just waste your weekend dancing because you should be creating passive income, or rebalancing your portfolio, or shopping for a lower-interest-rate credit card. Once you know what you should be doing with your money, you're obliged to quit indulging in your carefree, ignorant ways... Right?
Is this why we're so dead set against becoming financially savvy?
Well, it simply isn't true — being money-smart doesn't mean never living 'in the moment.’ It doesn’t mean draining all joy and spontaneity from your life. Instead, it could actually mean that inevitable impulsiveness doesn't have to come back to bite you in the ass later.
In fact, defining goals and streamlining financial habits will put you in a better position to absorb some spontaneity and survive to dance another day. I actually don't believe we can or should always be perfectly behaved. Here's why:
Years ago, I met with a couple who were feeling significant stress around money. They were both artists in San Francisco, and money was tight after paying rent on an apartment and shared studio, but they were making it work and covering all their bases.
To ensure they both had health insurance, the wife took a 30-hour/week corporate design job while maintaining her illustration business, and the husband was hard at work establishing a multifaceted art practice. While trying to pinpoint where the tension was coming from, the wife blurted out, “Everything is perfect, except that I need a little extra money to blow, in whatever way I want — I might even have to waste it!”
As it turned out, she had spent months feeling the pinch of being too good, too restrained. Every dollar she earned had a job — and the job was never to dance. So after some brainstorming and negotiation, they decided to carve out a monthly sum for each of them to go into what they called their own, individual f*ck-it buckets.
They took it seriously, and had to cut back in other areas of their spending to make it happen. But as soon as they did, their relief was palpable. Guilt evaporated, dancing was reintroduced into their monthly spending, and the permission to be a little careless was indeed the missing piece that kept them on track.
We can do the right thing for only so long before we have to let our hair down and allow our monkey minds to take the wallet for a little while. But if we've actually planned for it, then no financial crime has been committed.
Over the last decade, I've gained ninja-level frugality skills — cutting spending to the bone by being ultra-clear on my goals, and understanding what a dollar can do when it's saved. But that doesn't mean I don't also need a f*ck-it bucket to stay on track.
I began funding my bucket years ago by canceling a few subscriptions I wasn't using and instead making an automatic monthly deposit of the same amount into a separate savings account. I'm generally so vigilant with my spending that I don't even think about it, and I relish the ability to have my bucket balance grow from one month to the next. But recently I tossed a fist-full of those dollars in the air on one big purchase that hadn't occurred to me 15 minutes before I made it.
I was impulsive — in the best way!
Having not paid close enough attention, I mixed up the dates for the recent solar eclipse. I'd made a mental note months ago that it would fall on my daughter's first day of school, so I was resigned to watch what could be seen from our neighborhood hilltop park in San Francisco, hundreds of miles away from where the real action was. But early one morning about a week prior, I finally noticed the date was two full days earlier than I had thought. Indeed, the moon would pass in front of the sun just one state away, on a day when we had nothing in particular scheduled and would be at home twiddling our thumbs...
Knowing a nine-hour drive would be hell-on-wheels with my six-year old, I snagged the last two seats on a flight from San Francisco to Portland, Oregon, arriving one and a half hours before the eclipse was to begin, returning six hours later. Without a single rental car reservation remaining at the airport, I found a car service to pick us up and drive us into the Path of Totality. And with expedited-delivery solar eclipse glasses on order, we were ready for the ultimate 90-second event. I felt excited and a little ill, but I had no regrets whatsoever about blowing the cash. I'd been filling my f*ck-it bucket for years, so the money was waiting and ready to go when I clicked the 'buy' button. On the other side of that spending spree was a celestial phenomenon that has inspired religions, terrified evildoers, and stopped wars — we had to be there!
And as it turned out, the day was perfect. The weather was clear, and we were picked up by a friendly couple who shared our picnic, and told us stories of art school in Soviet Union as we drove to the shadow of the moon. When the sun turned black and the air became cold, a bright white halo of fire sparkled in the sky — and for a moment I saw a look of pure amazement on my often-unimpressed daughter’s face.
It was a miracle, not only that moon and star aligned — but that it happened close enough to where we live, on a day we didn't have anything planned, when my daughter was still young enough to enjoy an adventure with her mom, while my bucket happened to be full.
With all that in place — I couldn't miss the opportunity to dance.