All about the challenges of Midlife Finance

Expecting The Unexpected

How many times have you had a dilemma…and the solution was totally unexpected? 

Overzealous Security Guards

This became clear last night, as we trudged to a Denver Nuggets basketball game with friends. Lo and behold, when we got to the admissions area, guards were out ‘wanding’ everyone. (Must have been a security threat of some kind.) This is Colorado, and many people, our friend Tommy included, carry a jackknife, as a matter of course. He actually had two — which the guards found. He either had to throw the knives away, or trudge back to his car to store them there.

It was pitch dark, bitter cold, and we’d had 6″ or so of snow that afternoon. The game was nearly ready to begin. Tom muttered about how expensive the knives were, disappeared for a bit, then rejoined us. He hadn’t time to get back to the car, so I assumed the knives were in the trash.

That is, until game’s end…when he suddenly stopped outside by a clump of bushes. He’d shoved the knives under the snow nearby, reasoning that no one would be foraging around for anything on such a cold night.

  And he was right.

We have problems throughout life, things that we need to fix or solve. We’re often given standard answers to problems– and dictated ways we ‘should’ respond. What if the best solution isn’t the ‘right’ one, at all?

The Stuck Semi

Another case in point: the stuck semi. A semi driver drove into a low overpass, made it partway, then stopped. No matter how hard he tried to rev his engine or ease out, his trailer was firmly wedged in place.

  He was stuck.

He could have pulled his truck forward, but the cargo trailer would still be there. He couldn’t go backward, and no amount of rocking or pushing had dislodged the trailer.  By this time, traffic was backing up behind the semi, and the frustrated driver was out staring at his problem, watched by an interested crowd. It seemed that they’d all be there for quite some time.

Until a child spoke up. Why not let the air out of the tires, so the trailer would drop down? 

Within an hour, the trailer had been pulled out, tires re-inflated, and a relieved trucker was on his way. Sure, a wrecker could have been called, instead, and the trailer dragged out  — most likely with substantial damage to both cargo and overpass. A simple change solved the problem faster and with less waste of time.

Think Outside The Box

Take a look at the challenges and problems you’re mulling over right now. Is there another solution possible?

Repurposing. This goes for everything in the house, from furnishings to dishes and curtains. An armoire can start out holding clothes…then kids’ toys…then on to silverware and tablecloths with hardly a blink. Kids’ lockers, painted in bright colors, are the new accessory for storage areas, as well as luggage carts-on-wheels for coffee tables, and so on. This look is big right now, called “steampunk” and “industrial chic.” You can find expensive reproductions in catalogs ranging from Pottery Barn to Restoration Hardware. Why not get the originals, instead, from places like Craigslist? Or stick to classic pieces (“Can I use this in more in one place?”) and move them around as your circumstances change.

Break down to the basics. Cargo shipping containers, for example. Sure, they carry product from one market to the next. But in recent years, they’ve been successfully converted into housing, both by themselves, and into larger designs. Dwell magazine and other modern architectural magazines are filled with these funky living spaces. It’s not a new idea, certainly — The Boxcar Childrenwas on many a kid’s shelf decades ago.

What are they, really? A sturdy, reasonably waterproof box.

Maybe you’ve been wishing for a separate office. (Or your teenager would love their own living space.) A cargo container, enclosed with large windows and some kind of door, may be your answer. (Think of it as a construction trailer — or could that solve your problem, instead?) Keep that front open, and use it as a recording space. Or concert shell. Mushroom farm or developing studio for photography. (Think “cave.”) Or perhaps a screening room for movies?

Turn it, open end up, and you’ve got more possibilities. A water storage tank in arid climates, or buried and used as a root cellar. Topped with plexiglass, it becomes a greenhouse. (The ground piled around it helps keep the plants from freezing.)

Or a pool.

shipping container pool
Yes, this is a former shipping container. From theepic.wordpress.com

Dumpster ‘pools’ headlined an “urban country club” in New York City last year, using this idea. (Even more ideas here.)

‘Throwaway’ items can be used to solve housing and furniture needs, including pipes and that versatile source of wood: pallets. Once they’re broken down into slats and pieces, what can you build?  A deck? Shelving? An office table? A screen for the backyard?

Or reverse your thinking. We enjoy a crackling blaze in the fireplace now and then, but firewood delivered in this area runs $200-300 a cord. A glance at the scarred bunk beds no one wanted, and soon we had a sawed pile of maple chunks for the next few weeks. (Think pioneers burning their furniture in a blizzard.) The metal bedsprings became swinging gates for the chicken yard. (You couldn’t tell, looking at them, what their former use was. Honest.)

Get what you need without cash. Thinking creatively can solve the problem when you don’t have the necessary funds for a sudden expense. (Or time to borrow it – see this earlier MLF post.) The dentist may need extra babysitting or clerical help. Or in our dentist’s case — a Christmas present for his wife. He got a handmade queen-sized quilt in return for Husband’s much-needed crown. (I paid for a chainsaw with another quilt, and managed an office for a week while friends were on vacation — in return for one of their pigs at butchering time. That pork gave us fresh, organic meat for months afterward.)

There are other ways to do this. Tickets for Aerosmith or the opera may be available by offering to act as an usher. Headed for a conference? Offer to man a vendor’s booth while the owner takes a break or goes to lunch, in return for free entrance fees and a discount on product. (The owner doesn’t have to pay, either; you’re her ‘assistant.’) Write an article or blogpost, in return for free advertising.

You may be able to pay for things as basic as property taxes with effort, instead of dollars. Many counties have programs that allow you to volunteer at a library or elsewhere, in return for a discount on property tax. (Check with yours.) Sometimes you must be a ‘senior’ to qualify — but that may be as young as 50.

think outside the boxShare. Your lawnmower sits in the garage for weeks at a time between jobs. Next-door neighbor’s mower breaks down. Why not rent yours to them…or swap it in return for using their chipper-shredder? (Or a casserole. Or the use of their scooter on the weekend. Or…) You can co-own other useful tools with friends and family…or make similar arrangements with cars, homes or even your children. Or swap it out — you pick up Friend’s kids from school and take them to soccer practice this week, and they do it for you next week.

 Read — who knows what may spark an idea. Other people’s zany suggestions can really jump-start the meter,  like DoSomething.org’s ongoing “The Craziest Thing I Did to Save Money” contest. College students will do practically anything to solve money problems, it seems, including rarely washing clothes (eww) and living off mayonnaise sandwiches and grocery store samples. But their ideas may prompt one or more of your own. How to Survive Without A Salary by Charles Long is another push to think more creatively.

What’s the point in doing this? Because it saves time and energy, as well as money. (Tom’s jackknives in the first story valued at about $50, after all — a tidy sum just to be throwing away.) It makes better use of resources, and minimizes waste — an important ‘green’ consideration, in today’s world. And it gives you the freedom to save for retirement, as well as bills that do need conventional payment. (Not everyone has an imagination, sadly enough.)

The next time you’ve got a problem to solve, stop, think and consider all angles. The answer might be right there, waiting for you.

6 Responses to Expecting The Unexpected

  1. The semi story reminds me of one of my favorite movies, Sling Blade, where the owner and another employee of a lawn equipment repair shop can’t figure out why a particular piece of machinery won’t start. Carl, the simpleminded character that also works there, is asked to take a look at it, and points out that there’s no gas in the machine. Sometimes people expect that only complicated solutions exist to fix problems, and you need to start off simple, which can often lead to a fix.

  2. Yes, sometimes the solution is the easiest answer. I live in a HOA so can’t add on with shipping containers but can repurpose things within my home all we want. We use a baker’s stand for a linen “closet”.

  3. The best answer is usually the simplest. I’d like to consider myself fairly resourceful and try not to waste…I have a stack of pallets in my yard with a special project in mind!

  4. I try hard to think “simple” FIRST — then expand to more complicated ideas.

    It generally works, if you’re willing to accept you might — just might — be the brightest crayon in the box, after all. We’re conditioned to think of our ideas as the most clever…and the more complicated they are, the smarter they are.

    It just ain’t always true.

    thanks so much, all of you, for writing in.

  5. Oops… I meant you’re NOT always the brightest crayon in the box!

    (Just painted myself a pale yellow, by typing quickly and pushing ‘submit’ too fast. )

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