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I’ve been doing my taxes, studying returns from the last few years and sorting through my bank account statements to make sure everything is in order. Not for the first time, I’m vaguely surprised by how little I make, considering how good I think my life is. But I can appreciate getting paid partially in freedom.

I mean, it helps that I live in a place that is naturally beautiful and that offers relatively inexpensive recreation, where you can get organic produce off alleyway trees and walk just about everywhere. It helps that, personality-wise, I am almost anal in how careful I am with my money. It helps that (because of this) my only debt is my mortgage. And I’m not going to lie — getting to travel for work to places I actually want to go helps too. It provides decadence to what would otherwise be a more austere lifestyle.

But austere only in a certain way — in exchange for a smallish paycheck from editing an eight-issue-a-year magazine, I can write, I can explore the wilderness that surrounds me, or I can leave work early on Friday for a mini-roadtrip somewhere. Or I can take a freelance job and be gone for a week. Or I can cut out if the snow is looking tempting in the winter or the rock is looking tempting in the summer. And I do these things. Even with a part-time job, it’s amazing how little time I have left for things like laundry.

I don’t think this freedom would have been possible if I hadn’t made a habit of doing something I’ll call “respecting the cushion.” You know how driver safety manuals advise you to keep a three-second cushion between you and other drivers (or more depending on conditions) so that you won’t crash into them before you can stop? The same basic principle applies to your bank account. You’re going to suddenly need the plumbing fixed, or suddenly need to visit the emergency room, or suddenly need to replace your alternator. If you’ve got no cushion, you’ll crash in the everyday traffic of life. It’s basic economic sense, but Americans still don’t seem to get it sometimes: You need to keep a certain amount of money on hand for emergencies. You need to make sure you have insurance to cover what you wouldn’t be able to cover out-of-pocket. For most working people, this is not impossible — I make less than $20,000 a year (and again, I have a mortgage and other house-related bills, including property taxes), so I’m not coming at you with advice that’s only fit for the rich.

Respecting the cushion means that about 95% of the time, in matters of non-necessity, even if you want it, you do not pay full price for something. You consider your need for it. You consider the quality of it. You consider the alternatives. If you can’t afford it, you don’t buy it — for yourself or anyone else. This may sound strict or even callous, but I’ve relaxed my standards considerably since my undergrad days, when I lived on $125 per month for rent and $20 per month for food. Let’s just say that if my friends and I went out to eat, I would have ketchup. At home, I ate a lot of potatoes, some flavored with nothing more than pickle juice. You could get a 20-pound bag of potatoes for a few bucks then.

Clearly, this is not exactly a healthy lifestyle beyond the college years (even if it’s still more than what 50% of the world population lives on) and is in many ways socially unacceptable. Most of the time, you can be a cheapskate more gracefully than that.

If you don’t make a whole lot and are trying to correct years of bad spending habits or a grotesque school loan that didn’t pan out like you’d hoped, this is going to be tough. If you’re unemployed, clearly, it’s impossible. But I still think that if I can save money every year, it’s within reach for most working Americans. I know too many people, “fiscal conservatives” and otherwise, who spend their money before the month is out and then complain that it’s the fault of government handouts to lazy people — taxes need to be paid, and if you’re too shortsighted to budget according to your own reality, then consider yourself lazy as well, and part of the culture of debt.

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