Table for one

It’s never entirely clear what the code is when standing in line in a crowded cafe. Is it okay to claim a table before you have ordered and paid? Yes, if the cafe isn’t full. Is it fair to grab the last spare seat ahead of the person in front of you? Probably not. If I can’t find a place to sit and eat the food I just ordered, I wouldn’t have ordered it.

I was debating about whether I would put my shopping down on an empty table before I was served. There were a couple of spare tables dotted around so I didn’t feel I would be jumping the queue if I did that, and the desire to claim a table was more about relieving myself of the burden of my shopping than about ensuring a seat. But I decided not to, and having paid for my coffee and scone I moved to a table to deposit my bags when someone from behind me in the queue grabbed a chair from the table I was about to sit at, to add to a neighbouring table. I said to take it as I only needed one chair, but then she rather pointedly said “are you sitting here?” to which I replied I was, and she said they were going to put the two tables together.

There was a brief pause. I was being asked to give up my table because a group wanted to put two tables together. The implication was that sitting at the table I had chosen was being selfish because others, plural, wanted to sit there. But was this not equally selfish of them?

I spotted a spare table with only one chair so I said I would move there. I did this rather ungraciously. I moved to a table stuck awkwardly in the busy traffic area. The queue of people formed beside me and the wait staff squeezed past. I had wanted to enjoy a quiet break, and instead I felt like I’d been given a hurry-up to drink up and make way for people who counted.

I could have insisted on staying where I originally was. It’s unlikely anyone would have made a scene. But social pressure is palpable, and I didn’t want to sit there debating whether I’d been selfish or had stood up for myself.

But clearly I did debate it. I don’t know which it was. What bothers me is not that I should give up a table for a group – I have done this voluntarily before – but at the expectation that I should because “it’s only me”.



Single bills

Paying the bills is one of those things you have to do all by yourself when you live alone. You have to manage your money well enough that you can afford to pay the bills, and you have to manage your life well enough that you remember to pay them. 

Money has always been a subject that induces a degree of panic in me. Quite possibly this is due to my parents’, and in particular my mother’s, lasting trauma from experiencing the Great Depression as a child. Money was seen both as a form of security but also as a terribly fickle and untrustworthy adversary who could ruin your life. Thinking about it now, money had all the power over us and we were its slaves. This isn’t a good relationship to have with money. 

Unsurprisingly, I’m no money expert. But the one valuable lesson they taught me, which forms the backbone and quite possibly sum total of my money philosophy, is

Live within your means

You can’t go too far wrong if that’s your one non negotiable rule. I’m surprised at how often it shows up in one form or another on personal finance blogs. And how routinely it is ignored, leading people into stressful and sometimes dire situations. 

Everyone’s tolerance for debt and financial risk and uncertainty is different. I’m highly risk averse. But whatever your risk profile, knowing your numbers is necessary if you’re going to survive on your own dollar. 

It is more expensive to live alone for the simple and obvious reason that you alone must bear the full cost of fixed costs. Things like insurance and rates don’t distinguish based on how many people share a property. I, however, consider these the price I’m prepared to pay for  living in peace and quiet. 

Living within my means to me is living within my money comfort zone regardless of what others consider to be my means.  I get stressed by debt, so I bought a house I felt I could afford, in spite of the bank telling me they’d happily loan me twice what I asked for. 

Almost all other expenses however are more directly a result of how I choose to live. For example, I choose to buy a large flat white every work day because it’s a ritual that gives me pleasure. I know I could save if I didn’t but I’m not buying just a coffee, I’m buying an experience albeit a brief one, and to me it’s worth it. 

In terms of actually paying my bills, I’m fortunate to live in an age and a country where this could hardly be easier. Direct debit and my banking app take care of it. I  have forced myself to establish a routine for paying bills because late fees and reminder notices wind me up. 

I’m in a privileged position I know, because I earn comfortably more than I live on. Of course I could choose to live a lot more expensively and put that to the test, but the point is I am in a situation where money is not a barrier to my solitude, nor is it a source of stress. And I think this is important when living alone. There’s no one to bail you out or back you up, so you really do have to come to terms with money if you’re going to make it work. In spite of the anxiety that thinking about money induces in me, I’ve come to accept that it’s something I need to understand and take control of in order to continue to live alone. 

You don’t have to be passionate

For years, I have been angsting over ‘finding my passion’ with the intention of following it, once found, into career success. At some point I started to believe that it had run away after years of neglect, and I was doomed to live a passionless life in my current rut, working doing things I didn’t believe were my passion because I didn’t know what my passion was.

I think I have finally come to realise, intellectually if not yet emotionally, that ‘finding your passion’ is a bit like looking for happiness. The harder you look, the more remote it gets. It seems instead to be something that grabs you when you’re busy doing other things (much like life happens while you’re busy making other plans).

I’ve tried to figure out my passion by sitting down with a bunch of self help books, making lists of my strengths and weaknesses, skills and talents, and what I enjoyed doing when I was 10. This got me nowhere other than to realise that my current career choice is well matched to my strengths and skills. Which left me thinking that I must be passionless, because, while I enjoy my work, I wouldn’t describe myself as passionate about it.

My father used to encourage us to do something for which we had ‘a fire in your belly’. He was an architect, reluctant to retire, and still interested and up to date with the world of architecture both locally and abroad. He still has his passion for it. I have never felt this about anything work related. I’ve enjoyed pretty much every job I’ve had but I’ve never had that deep drive in my belly to do this one thing.

I recently read Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic. It’s a marvellous book about living a creative life. Her approach is so obvious somehow: just be curious. Be alert to that little prompt that says ‘huh, that’s interesting’ when you are in the middle of doing whatever, and follow that prompt to see where it leads. I love the story she tells about a 90 year old women who, ten years earlier, had got curious about Mesopotamian history and, having spent 10 years following her curiosity about it, was now considered an expert.

I have come to the conclusion that the current emphasis on following your passion is mistaken in two ways: first, that you know in your heart of hearts what your passion is, you just have to listen to that internal voice; and second, once you find it you should monetize it.

You might not know what your passion is until you discover it, which means you need to expose yourself to all sorts of things in the course of a lifetime and yes, by all means listen for that little voice but be aware that it might just be saying ‘huh, that’s interesting’ rather than announcing with exploding fireworks that ‘this is IT’.

Second, you don’t have to monetize it. How many times have I read about Einstein working in the patent office by day and doing ground-breaking physics over his evening cocoa? And still the message didn’t get through to me that you don’t, and quite possibly shouldn’t, quit your day job to follow your passion. As Gilbert says, don’t put that kind of pressure on it. Just enjoy it. Don’t even worry about being good at it, just enjoy it.

That’s all. Do stuff, be curious, and enjoy it. I could do worse than live by those words.




Shopping while depressed

I am a hopeless shopper, and have the wardrobe to prove it. But every few years I become aware that my clothes need replacing and today was The Day.

Over lunch I’d confided to a friend that I’d been running an “experiment” for the last two months to see if anyone noticed that I had been wearing the same basic outfit every day. I said that no one had said anything, to which she added, “… not to your face.” I hadn’t thought of that.

Around the same time I discovered holes in some of my favourite clothes, and noticed a general drabness from too much laundry time. The signs were all pointing in the same direction.

So I dutifully steeled myself for the task and headed into town. The first shop is crucial because it is the barometer of things to come: if I can’t see anything I like that is vaguely suitable, I know the fashion gods are against me and I will find no manna this season.

Fortunately the gods were conciliatory and in spite of there being a lot of people in town on account of the rugby, I managed to find clothes, fitting rooms, and staff to take my money. I came home with a small collection of things that will see me through the next few years (yes, years: most of my clothes I wear for years). You know it’s time to quit when you can’t carry any more bags.

Shopping While Depressed is generally a very bad idea. Ordinarily I wouldn’t have attempted it, but needs must and getting dressed was starting to get a bit desperate. Fortunately it went well. It gave my self esteem a bit of a nudge in the right direction and I found enough that fit and suited me. Sometimes, looking in the mirror and seeing something that feels like “me” can be just the antidote to not feeling like much of anything.

Plus, I got home before the rain set in.