In those circumstances, you're reduced to nothing more than what you need to survive. Life becomes bland, boring and depressing. You say no every time your friends invite you to something, and you make up excuses because you don't want to be embarrassed that you can't even afford the gas to get to the event, let alone tickets or food. Everything that made life fun has gone away, and it becomes harder and harder to motivate yourself and present the right attitude to potential employers. You work your butt off chasing jobs, and at the end of the day, you don't even get to reward yourself for whatever you do achieve.
Just those few little moments of happiness that brighten up your day can totally change everything. Much though I'd love to say that the best things in life are free, and you don't need money to find happiness, it's not entirely true. Some things, you need money for. Not a lot - a few bucks is plenty - but there are only so many invigorating walks you can take before they lose their power to make you smile, especially when you live in suburban Florida and don't have gas money to go anywhere.
2013 is looking much brighter. I'll still be paying off debts for a while, and dealing with some of the neglected maintenance on the house and vehicles, so it'll be a while before any of the big ticket items are going to happen, but there's now room in the budget for a few little luxuries, mostly under $10. I don't see them as luxuries, though. They're something to look forward to. They make me happy, and when I'm happy, I'm less prone to illness, more productive, and more motivated. They're what gives me a reason to keep going.
The first little $5 treat I bought myself, last Tuesday, was a small jar of Marmite. I'm not one of those expatriates who has to have all the comforts of the home country, but I do like to start my day with toast and Marmite. On Wednesday, everything was different. It felt right. It felt like the bad days had come to an end, and things were finally picking up. I felt like me again. Tastes can do that - they're comforting, and they touch a very deep part of the psyche.
My plan is that every week I'll pick up one more little tasty thing for the cupboard. I'm not talking about a bottle of wine or other things that are gone right away, although those are nice too. I'm talking about things that will last for a while, and which you don't think of as luxuries until you can't afford to replace them. A weekly visit to the Winter Park Spice & Tea Exchange for a $5 treat is definitely part of the plan.
- Truffle salt. A little of this sprinkled on scrambled eggs turns breakfast into a delicious taste explosion.
- Vik's Garlic Mix. Add to olive oil, and dip home-made bread into it for a Mediterranean style snack.
- Saffron. Add to fruit salad and it takes it to a whole new level. Put it in a curry, and make a mind-blowing korma.
- Medjool dates. My favorite snack. Regular dates just don't taste the same.
And then there are other little luxuries. Not everything in my life is food-related!
- Some decent shaving oil, so my face doesn't feel like it's been sandpapered. And knowing I can change the blade in my razor as soon as it starts to get dull, not seeing if I can make it last another week, or two, or three...
- New shirts. Sure, I have smart shirts, but they're old and worn, and wearing them to the office makes me feel unprofessional. Two for $6 each in J.C. Penney's sale last weekend? That'll do nicely. I don't need new ones, but I feel better, I work better, and I'm sure that's unconsciously reciprocated by the way my clients treat me.
- Replacing the power supply in the stereo for the hot tub, so we can listen to music and relax. Actually, one of the first things we did was get the hot tub going again. We had it powered down after solstice because we couldn't afford to keep it running, and we couldn't afford to change the water either. The hot tub's not really a luxury either. Both of us suffer with back problems, and a daily hot tub is far cheaper than a regular visit to a doctor or massage therapist.
- A set of steel files. Decent model-making requires decent tools. I managed okay on Kong with just a knife, but the joins weren't as smooth as I wanted. $6 in Hobby Lobby with a coupon, and I'm ready to start making models again. On a similar note, I'll be taking a trip to Office Max and getting them to print out the next cardboard model.
- Going to a dollar movie. One freaking dollar is all it takes for a few hours of escapism. Last weekend, we saw Cloud Atlas. Lincoln and Skyfall will be coming up soon. Eventually we'll be able to afford going to the Enzian again, but for now, this will do.
- Buying a bunch of flowers for my wife. A little romantic gesture can go a long, long way.
As hobbies go, it's pretty damn cheap, but even making things out of paper isn't free.
All the above adds up to well under $100 over the next two months. It's not really a lot of money in the big scheme of things, but those few little items are worth everything to me. It's the difference between enjoying my life, and enduring it.
I was only out of work for a few weeks, although things were tight for a while before that. I was lucky - I had good contacts and a good resume with skills that are in demand. I know how much this affected me in that period. Some people have to go through unemployment for much longer - six months is nothing unusual. I can't imagine how it would feel to go through it every single day for months on end, knowing there was nothing to look forward to except another day of living in a culture devoted to telling me about all the things I can't have, being told by employers I'm no good, and being told by society I'm clearly lazy and useless.
Luxuries aren't just luxuries. They're the rewards we give ourselves for getting through the daily grind. In moderation, they're essentials.