My Own Secret of Adulthood – Not Everything Needs Doing

I really appreciate Gretchen Rubin. I’ve read all her books. I listen to her podcast. I follow her blog. I’ve signed up for her newsletter. I’ve been a Gretchen Rubin groupie for almost a decade now, with no signs of waning.

One of my favourite parts of the first book I read – her bestselling The Happiness Project – was her section titled Secrets of Adulthood. Here she lists a number of things that, on first glance, appear startlingly obvious. Things like:

  • Turning the computer on and off a few times often fixes a glitch.
  • What you do every day matters more than what you do once in a while.
  • Bring a sweater.
  • Soap and water remove most stains.
  • The days are long, but the years are short.
  • You can choose what you do; you can’t choose what you like to do.
  • Most decisions don’t require extensive research.
  • No deposit, no return.
  • You can’t profoundly change your children’s natures by nagging them or signing them up for classes.
  • By doing a little bit each day, you can get a lot accomplished.

Sometimes obvious things only become obvious (or relevant) with life experience. I think that’s one of the things about Gretchen Rubin’s list. While they seem obvious (and are) you can only properly internalize the messages once you’ve had a chance to live them.

We learn the hard way that wearing cute shoes is not worth the blisters. We learn through trial and error that going to bed early is almost always the best decision.

Maybe that’s why it’s so frustrating to be a parent? Some of the decisions our children make are so obviously illogical, doomed to failure, or strike us as being downright ridiculous. But they’re not adults yet and having that “Aha” moment can’t be forced down someone’s throat – it has to be lived.

Last week, still mulling over the various nuggets of wisdom from Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks, I thought to myself on a particularly overwhelming day: “I cannot get it all done.” Burkeman has assured me of that.

And then, I thought, “It does not all have to get done.

I cannot get it all done. It does not all have to get done.

There are a lot of things I want to do, many things I should do and a nearly infinite array of things I could do. But I cannot do them all. And they do not all need doing.

I was only rearranging in my own mind something I already know and have discussed but still – it felt like an “aha” moment.

My own little secret of adulthood. Now to remember and apply this wisdom. Now that’s the tricky part.

And, for the record, Gretchen is right. Soap and water do remove most stains.

What about you? Any “Secrets of Adulthood” you’re willing to share?

Flexibility Is Only Beneficial If I Use It

It is 10:28 am on Friday, December 3.

I woke up at 3:15 am (ugh, but I did fall asleep around 9 pm, so it wasn’t all bad). After resting for a while, I headed downstairs to tackle a work project. While I didn’t have a set deadline, it was one of those tasks that was going to hang over my head until I got it out the door. I also knew I need two solid hours of uninterrupted time. No contractors, no phone calls or texts or chasing the Inbox Zero dream.

So I put in my headphones and got to work. At 6:30 am, when the kids wandered into the office, I was done my main work responsibility for the day.

By 7:00 am, I was helping the kids get breakfast and prep their bookbags; we even fit in morning reading time around the table.

At 7:30 I hopped back in bed with some Magic Bags and dozed/rested until 8:30 while John drove the kids to school (it was raining, so we skipped the daily walk). I wasn’t feeling that tired, but I knew I’d handle the day better if I had a bit more sleep.

At 9:00 am I whipped up a batch of waffles for supper. By 9:30 I was on a virtual work meeting; it’s now 10:36 am and I’m heading down to the office to work for the next hour or so getting some strategic e-mails out the door.

At 11:45 am, I’ll head to the bus stop to get the kids (parent-teacher interviews, so it’s a half-day). Then we’ll have lunch, I’ll take them to drop off some local Christmas cards in person, and we’ll come home in time for me to finish off some week-end Friday work responsibilities, have supper (the waffles are all ready, hooray!), and then I’ll kiss everyone goodbye and head out the door for a Christmas pottery-painting session with a group of local girlfriends.

I have a lot of flexibility in my life.

For starters, I’ve been working from home for over a decade now. There are drawbacks to this – mainly the fact I never “leave” the office. Work and home management tend to blur and I don’t get to outsource the mess of working materials to another location.

But, for the most part, it’s a net positive arrangement. Long before COVID forced this lifestyle on the masses, my husband and I were doing it from our very tiny apartment (with two little ones in the mix).

And I’ve been thinking more about this flexibility lately. I have, overall, less than I once did in the sense that I have more working responsibilities, especially since I assumed another role at a local university. In another sense I have more than I once did – the kids are both in school and are increasingly independent outside of school hours.

Regardless of where the needle falls from one week to the next, though, this flexibility is only advantageous if I use it.

I’ll feel guilty about going to run an errand at 10 am on a Tuesday morning or fitting in a walk with a friend during normal working hours – but that’s the flexibility my life affords. I also have the flexibility to work a second shift from, say, 7 – 9 pm (or 4:15 – 6:30 am) to tackle a pressing work challenge. One family member, who works in a dental practice, has to be there – boots on the ground, so to speak – at specific times. There is no multi-tasking with home administration; she can’t switch out a load of laundry in between seeing patients (but it also means work doesn’t come “home,” so there is a tradeoff).

It can be challenging to work outside of normal parameters/social constructs (and adhering to them relatively closely has distinct advantages for staying on track), but when I give myself license to fit things in when it’s convenient, I make use of my flexibility muscles. And they’re a gift. When I don’t use them these muscles will atrophy – and what a waste.

Header photo by Michael Walter on Unsplash

I Moved My Deodorant…And It Kinda (Slightly) Changed My World

A pebble in my shoe; an eyelash in my eye. I’ve learned that little things, over time, can become big problems.

*[I constantly have rocks in my shoe – it’s a running joke in my family/circle of friends – but if I thought a little grit now and again was bad, I just finished reading 26 Marathons, a memoir by Meb Keflezighi which includes a horrifying story of running the 2011 NYC Marathon with a Breathe Right strip in his shoe – this was an accident, he intended to wear it on his nose – which ripped his foot to shreds and cost him valuable training time over the long term].

But sometimes little changes on little things can have a big (positive) impact.

We have a small en-suite bathroom in our home and ever since we moved in (over four years ago) I have been storing my deodorant in the top drawer of the bathroom vanity.

From Day 1 this has been a nuisance. I prefer to get dressed in our bedroom, so I either have to go get the deodorant before I’m ready to get dressed (annoying)…or apply it after getting dressed (a recipe for a white-streaked wardrobe disaster).

Then, very recently, I realized I could just store my deodorant in the top drawer of my dresser.

Such a small change, but it’s had a big impact. I’ve been doing this for several months now and I still get a thrill every time I open up my drawer and see my deodorant so conveniently nestled in with my socks (which I have never gotten around to folding a la Marie Kondo).

It reminds me of a story a friend told me years and years ago. My husband and I were moving between apartments and this friend was helping us unbox and organize the kitchen. As I oriented myself in the space – assigning all our plates and mixing bowls new homes – my friend started telling me a story I’ve never forgotten. An acquaintance of hers had moved into a house and one of the volunteer helpers had offered to unpack the kitchen supplies. It was a thoughtful gesture, with all the right motives, and one that was very much appreciated at the time. But apparently, for years, she was always frustrated by how her cups were located in the wrong spot in relation to the fridge, her plates and bowls were in the wrong cupboard for maximal efficiency when unloading the dishwasher. When she finally thought through how she would have arranged her kitchen, she made the necessary adjustments and flourished in her new environment. But it took years of inefficiency to prompt change.

Identify the problem. Then remember, sometimes a little adjustment can have a disproportionately big impact.

Why It Might Be Smart to Fail On Purpose

For as long as I can remember I’ve been aiming for gold stars and A+’s. Competitive at heart, I like recognition for accomplishments and have often worked harder for a commendation than for the result. Also, to my dying day, I will be able to hear my mother’s words ringing in my ears to always try my best.

This can be a good thing, but it’s a slippery slope that can lead to perfectionism and burnout. So I was encouraged by one of Oliver Burkeman’s key takeaways in Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals.

Specifically where he talks about picking something to fail at.

He doesn’t say pick something to de-prioritize. He doesn’t say pick something to leave off your radar. He doesn’t say pick something to avoid. He doesn’t even advise quitting (though that can work, too).

He says to pick something to FAIL at.

I don’t know about you, but those words leave me feeling a bit unsettled. Not only am I failing at something, I’m willfully putting myself in that situation?!

Burkeman encourages readers to consider the brevity of life when they’re making decisions about where to invest their time; he also bluntly lays out that there is never – ever – going to be enough time to do everything we want to/need to/could do. So in addition to taking the time to identify my values and hone in on activities that nudge me toward a lifestyle that aligns with these decided priorities, I should consider failing at something.

This fall I can fail at:

  • inviting friends over for a meal.
  • shopping for groceries on sale.
  • getting the laundry done 3x/week.
  • setting up weekly appointments to run with my friend.
  • getting the leaves raked in a timely manner.
  • making homemade waffles on Friday night (frozen would suffice).
  • staying on top of the library holds list.

I wouldn’t naturally have chosen to “fail” at all of these items. And in reality, it is the same as simply acknowledging that I’ve deprioritized things that have no place (at least given present circumstances) hanging out at the top of my to-do list. But I think applying stronger terminology here – FAILURE is a very triggering word – helps put some weight behind it. And, in a way, it also feels liberating. Having the confidence to say: “I’m going to fail at this, and the decision to do so is my own.”

Isn’t so much of our energy often shunted into preventing failure? This is wonderful and necessary in many areas of life (don’t fail to pay the electric bill or you’ll lose power; don’t fail to put on snow tires or you might get in an accident), but we live in disproportionate fear of failure about things we shouldn’t give a flying you-know-what about.

One of my friends has a particularly unique outlook on life (I’ve been meaning to write about her parenting philosophy for ages now. Note to self – stop failing to write about this). During one particular conversation we were talking about school work and I mentioned the seemingly never-ending effort required to help my daughter stay on top of her daily reading log (which I found redundant and unhelpful). I guiltily admitted to this friend that I was cutting a few corners to make things easier. Her response was something along the lines of: “Oh, we don’t even do that. I told the teacher it was too much of a hassle. I’ve kept the reading log in a basket by the door all term and we haven’t touched it.

What now? You’re failing at this ridiculously tedious system that does NOT encourage me to have my child practice reading skills. Actually…this makes so much logical sense, but I would never have even considered the possibility of allowing my child to “fail” at a Grade 1 project. (Though, let’s be honest. Who is homework really testing at this point? The child or the parent?)

Fail at lawn care, but invest in a new job. Fail at the laundry, but train for a half-marathon. Fail at getting your work inbox emptied each day, but prepare a book proposal.

Or, just maybe, fail at a Grade 1 reading log, but read through the entire Harry Potter series with your kids instead.

Failing, on purpose, could be a way to score a big win.

This Thanksgiving: Good Things (And Good Things I Don’t Have to Do)

It’s Canadian Thanksgiving. We had all the trimmings over the weekend and today I’m going to enjoy chicken noodle soup and leftover pecan pie.

As we sat around the table yesterday highlighting things we were thankful for I felt…grateful. It may seem cliche to list health and family and our home but, really, can we ever be too thankful for these things? It’s so easy to take it all for granted; we assume our loved ones will be with us next year, assume we’ll still be living in the same home, assume we’ll still be enjoying the same level of health.

But, in reality, we’re all a single heartbeat away from a different life experience – from tragedy or disease; new jobs, a different home – and taking the time to reflect on all we have in the present can help, at least temporarily, to pin down that elusive perspective.

Chicken and stuffing and corn and parsnips/sweet potato and cranberry and gravy and punch; pecan pie and homemade cherry cheesecake for dessert. So thankful for delicious food. And name cards with prompts for gratitude.

It has been a relief to ease into the routines of fall and school. Cooler days, longer nights. Bedtimes are slowly nudging back to more reasonable timeframes. I’ve also assumed a new role – one that leaves me working nearly full-time hours. Surprise, surprise: working more hours makes time pass more quickly. I’ve had to increase my efficiency with certain tasks and will almost certainly have to eliminate others altogether.

I recently finished Oliver Burkeman’s book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. I love a good time management book, but this one is a little different. For one, Burkeman spends a significant portion of the book talking about death; he highlights the only time we’re not going to have a long laundry list of to-do’s is when we’re six-feet under. And then he actually argues against many of the time-saving techniques we life hackers enjoy so much. His central tenet: there is never going to be enough time to accomplish everything on our to-do lists. Accept this. Productivity, much of the time, simply leaves us open to accept more responsibilities.

I will never be able to get it all done. And yet, I think I’m often aiming for this fantasy state. I like to imagine that some morning I’ll wake up and be on top of everything. And then have it stay that way. Forever.

This just isn’t going to happen – I should know this by now. Children get fevers, check-engine lights come on, tensions flare. Inbox “zero” becomes full again. The trash I emptied on Friday will need to be emptied again. Taxes will need to be refiled. Such is life.

I also cannot do everything that interests me; there isn’t enough time for that either. I might be able to learn how to play the piano, but I’m probably never going to go through an astronaut training program and reach space (though one never knows when SpaceX might come calling).

Money, time – we face the reality of limited resources. And, ultimately, we’re all riding the sands of a draining hourglass. Four thousand weeks, give or take, by Burkeman’s estimate. This would put me just shy of my 77th birthday.

Which brings us back to good things. Despite what could be contrived as a negative tone (death, productivity is a hoax), Burkeman offers up a solution. Acceptance. Awareness. Perspective.

There is a lot of good in my life. I’m so fortunate to have a loving, supportive spouse; my children are healthy; my parents are alive. We live in a wonderful community surrounded by friends. We simply turn on the tap to access clean, running water. We have money to put food on the table. We worship freely.

But sometimes even good things can distract me from what I truly value in life and where I want to channel my energies. Learning the piano would be a great skill (I love music and I deeply regret my decision to quit childhood lessons) – but do I want to make the time right now? At this point, the answer is no.

And that’s okay.

With that in mind, this Thanksgiving, in addition to all the good things, I’m thinking of:

(good) things I don’t have to do

  • I don’t have to take my friend with a newborn a meal immediately after giving birth. I know I will, eventually, once the dust settles and everyone else has stopped with the official meal train. But I don’t have to this week, when we have company visiting and cross-country meets and a seemingly endless string of e-mails. I can’t do everything and while I could get an extra meal out the door, I’d be cranky and stretched thin to do so.
  • I don’t have to sign Abby up for choir. Yes it’s a great experience, but she doesn’t love it and, frankly, it’s a scheduling hassle. She will survive. There will be other opporuntities to sing.
  • I don’t have to cook from scratch. Boxed cookies will suffice. Mini-carrots are still a vegetable even if I don’t have to wield a peeler. And who are we kidding, I could never recreate our beloved (boughten) pecan pie. Why bother trying?
  • I don’t have to commit to a specific workout routine. I don’t have to run everyday or try the Pilates video my friend recommended.

Happy Thanksgiving. Cheers to all the wonderful blessings and here’s to making the most of our four thousand weeks. Not a single one is guaranteed, and I too often forget the miracle of each one.

Here’s a Thought: Do I Have the Right Tools?

I sometimes (often) put up with minor – or major – inconveniences for a shockingly long time. I wore running sneakers for months past their expiration date when they were giving me painful blisters. I’ve spent an embarrassing amount of time hunting for the one pen that works among the dozen or so cluttering up my desk.

This begs the question – do I have the right tools for the job? Chances are, if the answer is no, the solution could be quick and inexpensive.

Over the years I’ve developed a frustrating sensitivity to the sun. If exposed for too long, I get intense migraines that level me (often combined with crushing fatigue, how lovely). For years I used whatever hats we had lying around, the branded type you get in swag bags at a conference or buy at a tourist trap on vacation; they never adjusted well, weren’t comfortable, and this meant I’d often opt to go hatless – a decision I always regretted. Then a few years ago, I found a soft, slightly elasticized running hat with a fully adjustable Velcro backing. It makes running and every other outdoor activity so much more comfortable in the summer. I now rarely get migraines from being outside in the sun.

For years my parents had a malfunctioning can opener which was an endless source of frustration. It took 5 minutes, pinched fingers, and close contact with dangerously sharp metal to get the contents out of a can of corn. What a simple problem to fix. Buy a new can opener. Why did it take so long?

Most jobs are objectively more pleasant with the right materials. From a good mop for cleaning your floors to a salon-grade blowdryer that dries hair in a fraction of the time, a small investment can make a job easier, more efficient, and far more enjoyable.

And, for some healthy habits, like running or opening a can of veggies to go with your supper, they may even make you more likely to commit to good choices long-term.

Identify the problem. Then get on to the task of fixing it. More often than not, there’s a simple (and inexpensive) solution. A box of new pens, comfortable sneakers, a can opener, a hat.

Don’t Quote Me: What Am I Saving My Energy For?

I’m a huge fan of Laura Vanderkam. She provides me with a steady stream of practical inspiration and many “Why didn’t I think of that?” moments.

Last weekend, in her Week’s Worth newsletter (highly recommend), she discussed a recent family vacation. She described the effort it took to arrange the logistics and identified some hiccups (a toddler wake-up at 3:30 am; a hurricane). Nevertheless, she encouraged readers to prolong the fun of summer by seeking out memory-making events.

Sometimes (often), it’s worthwhile to put in the extra effort. There will undoubtedly be obstacles (even without a toddler in tow) but almost certainly the memories created will endure far longer than opting out of adventure and sitting home on the couch binging Netflix (though a good binge session can be pretty fun).

And then she asked:

In the long run, what are we saving our energy for?

Laura Vanderkam

At various other points, Vanderkam has suggested that when we say we want more time, what we really want is more memories.

I keep circling back to values, but I think I underestimated their importance in determining the hierarchy of my priorities. What do I value? If it’s memories and relationships and connection and adventure then, at the end of the day, what am I saving my energy for when opportunities present themselves to pursue those ideals? Why put the kids to bed early to read a book on how to better connect with my kids when they’re awake?

This reminds me of one of my favourites modern parables. I’ve seen this produced in various formats (without a conclusive attributable author).

It’s a long one, but I think of it often.

the parable of the mexican fisherman

An American investment banker was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked.  Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna.  The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.

The Mexican replied, “only a little while.” The American then asked why didn’t he stay out longer and catch more fish? The Mexican said he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs. The American then asked, “but what do you do with the rest of your time?”

The Mexican fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siestas with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine, and play guitar with my amigos.  I have a full and busy life.” The American scoffed, “I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and, with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat, you could buy several boats; eventually, you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing, and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA and eventually New York City, where you would run your expanding enterprise.”

The Mexican fisherman asked, “But how long will this all take?”

To which the American replied, “15 – 20 years.”

“But what then?” asked the Mexican.

The American laughed and said, “That’s the best part.  When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions!”

“Millions – then what?”

The American said, “Then you would retire.  Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siestas with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.”

I know this parable encourages us to embrace what we already have, but more broadly I think it speaks to identifying what we value. What do we want out of life? What are we saving our energy for?

Maybe it is to announce an IPO. To launch a business and build an empire.

Maybe, like Laura Vanderkam, it’s a trip to Maine.

Or maybe it’s sleeping late, fishing, playing with the kids, enjoying an afternoon nap, and spending evenings in the village sipping wine and jamming with friends.

Frugal Living – How Eating Beef Jerky and Pickles Helped Launch a Startup

What do eating miniature cubes of beef, cheese, and pickles have to do with launching a successful startup (and, for my husband, landing a dream job)? Maybe more than you think.

First, some terminology. There is debate about the linguistics and application of terms frugal (righteous, maximizing value), cheap (unrighteous, miserly), thrifty (a hands-on DIY version of frugality), and stingy (self-focused, uncharitable). I’ve likely been a mixture of all four at various points in my financial history, but I like to think I come down squarely in the “frugal” camp most days.

We all have unique priorities for our money and identifying what’s important is a key component to financial success (retiring at 40 will take different efforts than, say, aiming to eat out once a month at a fancy restaurant). Here’s where frugality comes in – looking for the least expensive way to maximize an experience or opportunity.

My husband and I are part of a growing trend – working professionals that look for meaning and purpose in a landscape with transient positions; gone are the days of 30-year jobs (complete with a pension). Our generation studies longer, assumes more debt, and changes jobs with a frequency unheard of among our parent’s baby-boomer peer group. Some of this is a product of the modern world, coupled with our determination to extract purpose and joy from our careers. For those of us fortunate enough to be picky, it’s generally unthinkable that work be a faceless void serving only to pad our bank accounts – it must fulfill, challenge, and reward. That’s a tall order but we all seem to be pursuing it relentlessly.

University further blurs the lines. What if you have an advanced degree in International Relations (one family member), or are a microbiologist with an MBA (another family member). What are your options? Better buckle up to navigate them all.

With either of these backgrounds you could be a manager and work up to a C-level position; you could specialize in a specific area of your broader field or launch a non-profit. You could become a university professor, go to law school and join a firm, or enter politics. Have a natural penchant for traveling – what about becoming a full-time sponsored influencer? Many choose to pad their tech skills, and why not take some coding classes on the side? If all else fails, what about dabbling in professional poker – I met someone in university who dropped out to do this full-time and Maria Konnikova’s done alright for herself. (Compare this to being a dental hygienist [another family member]. If you move to a new city, take a wild guess at what job you’re likely to look for in the local classifieds).

Many people look to forge their own trail; we may be tired of hearing about the trajectories of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and other self-made million/billionaires who followed their passion, but their stories are undeniably fascinating. We watch people make it big selling fragrances and makeup, custom planners, and flattering underwear (why hello, SPANX). You name it, someone has done it, marching to the beat of their own drummer…and beating the entrepreneurial odds.

Some of these entrepreneurs come from money. The money that funds Harvard educations, weekend homes in the Hamptons, fridges full of champagne (I saw this on an episode of Columbo last week so it must be true), and no need for a paid summer work. 

But what about those folks (most of us/them) without a big influx of cash?

My father still loves to reminisce about his summers spent working at a local dry-dock. In less than 4 months he made enough money to fund his entire upcoming year at university (tuition and board). Whenever he talks about this I detect a measure of pride in his voice, followed by resignation that no such job exists for students these days. 

So how do we make it all work? How do we pursue something we’re passionate about without accumulating crushing layers of debt? I’d argue one of the most important elements to a successful entrepreneurial trajectory (or just general financial independence) – a lynchpin that supports work ethic, raw talent, and divine intervention – is careful stewarding of money.  

I had an unfair advantage – my parents, living most of their life on the salary of a rural Baptist minister – put money away from the time I was an infant. Small amounts (again, rural Baptist minister) but it compounded over time. Birthday money, $10/month into a registered education savings account, random coins found on the sidewalk. With scholarships and summer work placements, I managed to come out of university with money in the bank.

Despite this leg up, we started married life in a tiny apartment, one of the cheapest we could find; we laid towels across the bottom of the door to stop the smoke that floated down the hallway from entering our little space. We rescued art destined for the garbage to adorn our walls. We scoured weekly sales flyers to find the best deal on groceries and those itty-bitty diapers our newborn kept blowing through at an alarming pace. When we spotted reduced produce at the grocery store, that bruised bell pepper became the base of a soup and overripe bananas became bread.

Our clothes came (and still come), almost without exception, from second-hand sources. We started a business with grand dreams and no real idea how to fulfill them. We worked on the side, me in environmental consulting and student services, my husband fixing electronics; at any given time our apartment hosted stacks of computer towers, phones, and laptops in various states of repair.

I’m not going to lie. It got hard. Not single-parent-don’t-know-where-our-next-meal-will-come-from-hard. I don’t know that hard. But as many of our peers bought homes and drove new vehicles, we put our heads down and trudged forward.

A baby meant we qualified for a larger, subsidized apartment. This one had its own entrance and no smoke curling under the door; this time it leaked into each room through ceiling vents. We closed those and opened windows. Shift workers – or that’s what I assumed them to be – living above us scrapped chairs over tile floor each morning at 3 am. Their kitchen was located directly over our bedroom. When our son developed a milk allergy requiring specialized formula, we were pulling $400 a month from our business or, more accurately, $392 after our measly contribution to the government coffers. We weren’t doing much to remedy the local potholes. We qualified for grants to help with his food. In terms of the black-and-white of our bank account, we were living below the poverty line. Yet, we saved. We researched purchases, haggled deals, and bought things in cash.

And we found creative ways to make more money, including stints as human guinea pigs.

First, we participated in a research study at a local university that was examining how people empathize with a partner experiencing pain. John was texting me about these painful shocks he was undergoing in the adjacent room and they recorded my text responses. I literally laughed out loud – it was clearly ludicrous that in 2010 they would be shocking my husband in a university research lab (they weren’t). I didn’t play along, called their bluff, and we walked out with $15/each. Somehow I doubt our material made it into their final report. Or maybe it did – me as the villain, a heartless and cold wife who didn’t care about the agony her husband was being subjected to in the next room.

Another time I ate probiotic powder every day for 6 weeks and was assessed on my memory skills in an assortment of word and number games. Spoiler alert – I am terrible, probiotics notwithstanding, at remembering number sequences.

Most lucrative was our foray into professional taste-testing. I am not making this up.

Over the course of several years we made $1,000s in grocery gift cards debating the merits of different cuts of grass-fed beef and making flax-flour breads at home. We sat around a conference table with a full panel of taste-testers, giving serious thought to whether a cucumber slice should be rated 7 or 8 on the crunchy scale. I have photos of my daughter playing with her beloved stuffed monkey, thinking there was nothing out of the ordinary while I sat nearby in a tiny booth, sliding open a stainless steel door to receive my tray of crackers and gluten-free quiche like a veritable lab rat. She bummed the saltine crackers, designed to cleanse the palate, and fed monkey pretend food out of the little styrene cups my beef jerky and cheese cubes had been delivered in. We tested flavoured maple syrups, salad greens (this was a months-long project – turns out there’s a lot more involved with ranking different types of baby spinach and kale than I had originally imagined), strombowaffles, and even beer.

Coupled with our ability to minimize expenditures (grocery bill with sales, clothing costs by thrifting and hand-me-downs, vehicle expenses by having a single used car and walking as much as possible, housing costs by living in a small, subsidized rental), these other sources of money provided one of the most critical things for a startup – runway. We hear stories of overnight successes but, in reality, even those “overnight” successes involve years of hard work and sacrifice.

That runway gave us time to network. Fail, make mistakes, and learn. Hire Co-op students and invest lots of time into our products and our vision for our startup (and, eventually, a second start-up). We applied for grants and talked to investors and put in one of the only things we could – sweat equity.

Being frugal was a choice. We could have moved for work or found full-time jobs. We had family to fall back on if the going had gotten impossible. We are also blessed to live in a country with incredible social safety nets. But this was less about money and more about the end goal. Financial freedom (no debt) and entrepreneurial itches we wanted to scratch.

My husband knew a very successful local businessman growing up who was known for saving (and reusing) his tea bags. We did that too. A constant mound of chai and orange pekoe showed up in little bowls in our fridge – and for heaven’s sake don’t mix up the decaf with the regular. We bought the ketchup that was on sale and I waited for sneakers in my size to show up at the consignment store when the old ones wore out.

But we spent money too. We went to Denmark as a family of 3 and swam in the Blue Lagoon during a layover in Iceland; we traveled to New York City and took in Broadway shows. Sure, we ate at McDonald’s and tramped through town in our best second-hand clothes, but the memories were no less exciting! Our financial decisions weren’t about deprivation and total sacrifice but about maximizing, stretching, and then reaping the benefits in ways we truly valued.

Ramit Sethi talks about identifying what will make you feel rich. Is it being able to order an appetizer at a restaurant? Is it being able to give a specific amount to your favourite charity? Is it traveling the world, buying a sports car, leaving an inheritance to your children? Maybe it’s bootstrapping a startup…

Rich” doesn’t have to be a particular number in a bank account, it can represent an outcome – and there can be many ways to get there. Ours just happened to involve cubes of beef and cucumbers.