AdviceHelp Me Rhonda

Help Me, Rhonda

Is That All There Is?

I think I’m having a one-third-life crisis. I definitely have Everything I’ve Ever Wanted: adorable puppy, grown-up house, well-paying job that I can leave at the office, fantastic 1-year-old daughter, amazing husband. Objectively, things are perfect. But lately it’s just felt… not enough? Is that just what being a grown-up is? I’m incredibly grateful for all that I have, but how do I get over this feeling that I’m missing out on something?


Is being a grown-up living with a persistent sense that there’s something missing from your life? I really hope not. Being a grown-up means hearing that quiet voice that tells you something is askance (and you’re to be commended for hearing it; I think a lot of people ignore it or make themselves willfully deaf to it) and investigating it a little further. The fun of being a grown-up comes from the freedom to pursue the things you truly want, not the things other people want you to want. 

There’s a really, really strong cultural narrative that says house + job + family + dog = happiness. And there’s some truth in that. Having a family is wonderful. And it’s hard to be happy if you don’t have a place to live or a way to earn money. But you’re way beyond subsistence. You’re working on self-actualization, and the cultural narrative doesn’t say much about that. 

When I read your description of your life, the aspect that seemed to be missing was meaningful work. Meaningful work is work you would continue to do if you won the lottery tomorrow. It’s work whose end result is deeply significant to you. It’s work that easily justifies the eight hours a day you spend away from your home and family and leisure. Building a family and raising children is meaningful work, but I get the sense that you’re looking for satisfaction in another arena as well.

At this point, you need to be careful. Now, the consumerist narrative will tell you that spending money—on furniture, vacations, DVDs, clothes, exercise equipment and cars—will fill this gap. But it will not. What I’m about to propose will sound radical, so get ready. I suggest you spend the next year or two reducing your expenses, until your family is living on half its income. When you’re working just to put money in the bank, not to keep a roof over your head, you’ll start to see a lot of previously invisible work options and opportunities. While you’re cutting back/drastically restructuring your finances, think about where and in what areas you might find your meaningful work. 

There is a lot of material on cutting back and finding meaningful work. I suggest starting with the book Your Money or Your Life or Tammy Stroebel’s blog or

Reluctant Table-Swiper

I’m writing this, not so much for advice, but to hopefully publicize a small problem we have in food and coffee places here in Athens. The problem is the unethical practice of table swiping. Table swiping can be defined as walking into the coffee house, seeing there is a line of patrons ahead of you and, instead of turning around and walking out the door to find a place with an available table, racing over to the last table and dropping your stuff on it, thereby cutting in front of everyone who was ahead of you. Today, my wife and I went to Marti’s and were the first in line when a couple of 30-somethings from Athens Regional (they announced it) came in and grabbed the last decent table (a four-top when they were a deuce). I suppose that what is most annoying is that as someone whose scholarly publication record is dependent on afternoon caffeine, I have been forced to become a table swiper myself out of mere self defense. I hate myself afterwards, but I have to publish to feed my family. So, Rhonda, whadda ya think? Aren’t we supposed to make Athens and the world as a whole, a better place, rather than descend to the lowest common denominator? 

The Ethicist


Weeeeelllllll, Ethicist, I’m afraid I’m not fully on your side on this issue. I think what you call table “swiping” might be properly termed “using a table.” Or more fully, “using a table at an establishment where you have purchased something.” 

You and these swipers are trying to accomplish the same thing: securing a place to sit. And I hear your frustration; no one wants to step away from the counter with their cup of coffee or tray of food or picture of a dog/Italian word/retro postcard and not be able to find a table. Some people also prefer to drop their things right away so their hands are free to carry their steamer or wine or whatever. So those people find a table first, then place their order. I think that’s okay.

You say you resent becoming one of these table swipers users yourself. But you’re wrong in saying that you have been “forced” to. You always have the choice to follow your own conscience. As you point out yourself, you could “turn around and walk out the door to find a place with an available table.” 

But most importantly,  let’s direct our ire where it really belongs: at side zoomers, those drivers who don’t merge when their lane is ending, instead speeding past the long line of cars traveling more slowly and then trying to force their way in. Those people are the true violators of the social contract. Fight the real enemy.

Help Me Budget

My goal is to save some money and pay down my debt, but budgeting is so hard! The hardest thing for me right now is sticking to my budget—not because I’m so spendy, but because I can’t find a reasonable way to track what I spend. I used to track every dollar by writing it down on my calendar. But that seems so tedious now. I’ve tried some digital systems, but nothing seems to work well for me. Budgeting is so hard! Do you know a good app or is pen and paper best? My budget also needs to be flexible, because friends’ weddings and other important things pop up randomly.



Do I have a system for you? Hold on, let me put down this Suze Orman book. Yes, I have a system. It’s not an original idea, but it persists, because it’s successful. The key to paying down debt and sticking to your budget is making it easy to do and being realistic about what expenses you have. (So, while writing down all your expenditures creates a detailed record, it’s not sustainable.) 

The system in broad strokes: It’s usually called the envelope system. And it’s attractive in part because you don’t have to write down everything you buy each month. Start by listing your expenses in broad categories—rent, utilities, groceries, etc. Include a category for debt repayment, and be realistically ambitious about this one. Include a category for spending-money and a separate category for what I call “Short Term Savings.” That’s where you put money each month for weddings, gifts, etc. 

Get an envelope for each category, and write the correct name on the outside. Then, when you get your paycheck, put the appropriate amount of cash in each envelope. When that envelope is empty, you don’t do any more spending in that category until your next paycheck. You don’t have to track what you buy in each category; you just have to keep an eye on how much is remaining in the envelope. 

My version uses a hybrid of physical and electronic envelopes. The money you give yourself to spend each week or month, you should continue to get in cash and put in an envelope. Ditto grocery money. Money for bills that has to be saved from paycheck to paycheck or money for short-term savings goes to an electronic “envelope.” That envelope is an account, usually in an online bank (like ING, which is now Capital One 360). The online bank is attractive, because establishing and maintaining the accounts is free and fairly easy. And, most importantly, you can have many accounts (like maybe 26), all with nicknames. So my electronic accounts have names likeCar Insurance” (in which I deposit one-twelfth of my annual car insurance bill each month), “Hair” (so I can have my hair cut and colored. You know, for women’s third shift and all) and “Someday I Will Need a New Car.” It’s also very quick and easy to open a new account with a name like “Thomas’s Wedding when you know an event like that is coming up.

The electronic envelopes hold the money until you need it and, because it takes about two days to transfer that money to your regular checking account, they prevent you from spending it in a moment of weakness. If I tried keeping all that money in cash in envelopes in my house, I’d have it all spent at La Parilla before the bills came due.

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