The Thirty-percent Rule

by Emily Kemme

I heard a story the other day about an older woman who was driving her car with a set of bald tires. A friend suggested she purchase a new set because she was concerned for her friend’s safety on the roads. Instead of buying new tires, the older woman decided to stop driving. When her friend asked her why, she said, “I may not live long enough to wear new ones out.”

In a sense, the story reminds me of a gift from my sister of a box of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans. It also reminds me of recent longings for tangerine espadrilles.

For those of you who aren’t Harry Potter fans, Bertie Bott’s (jelly bean) flavors are a bit off-the-wall. You can equally expect to gum a piña colada bean as one that tastes like vomit. I’ve tasted both bean flavors, because as it happens, they’re exactly the same color.

But the gift of a pristine box of Bertie Bott’s Beans seemed too precious to open. The box itself is really cute, a visual paean to carnivals, childhood, and everything else that’s good about summer and life experienced under a canvas tent.

The box of Bertie Bott’s Beans seemed too precious to open. And yet, what is life if not an experience?

The unopened box of beans had been bouncing around in my purse until yesterday morning when a friend was looking for a stick of chewing gum in her own purse. We were playing tennis and her mouth was dry. I offered mints, and finding none while rummaging in my purse, happened upon the beans.

“You must eat them!” my friend cried, after I explained their sentimental purpose. “It’s bad luck not to enjoy the gift!”

And so we did. And it seemed that the day took on a bit of gilded edging in so doing.

It’s important not to put life on hold

Whenever a new season rolls around, it seems that my inbox swells like a river ready to overflow its banks. While it’s true that the worst example of this phenomenon happens the day after Halloween, I’d bet even money that the blush of spring fosters some of the most persistent dogging of shoppers for their dollars.

It’s easy to figure out why this happens. Who isn’t sick and tired of wearing sweaters, boots, and — much as I love their stick-to-me, make me somehow look thinner qualities of jeggings — I am so ready for flirty sundresses and sandals. Let me breathe!

And that’s where the Thirty-percent rule comes in.

As a matter of budgeting, the common wisdom is to spend no more than 30 percent of your monthly gross income on housing costs. It’s a guideline that’s been in effect ever since 1981, when the federal government established standards to avoid cost burdens. But somewhere along the line, it became established wisdom that it was okay to budget 30 percent for your “wants,” the stuff of which tangerine espadrille dreams are made.

It’s uncanny that most sales blasted into your inbox are for that exact 30 percent off. Planned, you say?

Here’s how it works:

You receive an email notifying you of a sale. The discount offered is only good for 24 hours. Suddenly, it becomes your life’s purpose to achieve a score. “Let’s grab the deal!” your groggy brain tells you — this, because the thirty-percent offer arrives in your inbox at three in the morning.

Fade to scene of sipping coffee at the breakfast table. A laptop is open at your left elbow. Toast crumbs scatter across the placemat.

While scrolling casually through the sale offerings at breakfast, you make mental notes of “maybe’s,” “gotta have it’s,” and “Ha! I’d never wear that!”

Scene: putative shopper has left for work with laptop in tow. Brain has realigned for workday demands.

By lunchtime, your sugar levels have dropped, and you’re ready to take another swipe through what are now glimmering opportunities to buy new clothes to accentuate springtime playfulness, all thanks to the endorphin release you have experienced at the thought of shopping.

Unfortunately, work gets the better of you, phone calls disrupt good intentions to burn plastic, and besides, those tangerine espadrilles look very familiar. Didn’t you buy them last spring and stuff them into the closet? Your mind takes a step back and reviews the contents of your closet. No! You bought the navy blue ones last year.

And besides, that thirty percent rule of budgeting disposable income allows “wants” like tangerine espadrilles to be on the bargaining table.

But then it’s time to make dinner and collapse into bed. “Oh well,” you tell yourself. “Another day, another dollar.”

It’s not about shopping. It’s about not forgetting to live.

The reality is retailers are on to us. They understand the demands of daily life, they get that we are too busy to buy at the slightest provocation. And that’s why, suddenly, that thirty percent discount ad resurfaces in your inbox the next morning. The offer has been extended, the sales levels have not yet been hit. What skin off Macy’s nose is it to recycle their sale? You say no, then change your mind to yes. In a wave of espresso-driven euphoria, you place the order, only to receive a message that the item you want might be out of stock.

And you mutter to yourself, “Really? Because that was a whole thirty minutes ago. Are there that many people drooling over the size 8 tangerine espadrilles that they’re already sold out?”

thirty percent rule

Resigned to a fate of no tangerine espadrilles in your life — ever — you close the window. Serious depression sets in, only to find a trigger finger email in your inbox a few hours later. Renewed and refreshed, that thirty percent is offered to YOU, because YOU are a VIP. Now, you’re hooked. Now you must have those shoes — albeit in another color. Lime green sounds okay. And thirty percent is good! It’s what financial advisors tell us we can spend on our wants, our must-haves, our. . .

But sometimes, an excess of shopping, buying, adding to bulk of our lives and the stash in the basement only adds up to more of nothing. The “wants” don’t always translate to the “needs.”

This isn’t a blog post about living a life of minimalism. It isn’t a question of when do you buy another pair of espadrilles.

But it is about listening to the ticking of life’s clock and in the process, determining that thirty percent balance of “wants,” “needs,” and meaningless inertia. And it’s about not forgetting to experience life off the couch along the way.

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Anonymous April 6, 2019 - 8:08 pm

Wow, Emily! That was really well written, and I’m thankful that I was on the court that day with you! Tennis with Emily is always fun, and last week was especially good! I loved our conversation. I still haven’t opened that purfume…but I plan to soon! You’re right- life is NOW, and nothing to put off! Thank you for the great reminder!😘

Emily Kemme April 6, 2019 - 8:43 pm

Thank you for the inspirational conversation on the court! And I owe you a picture of silverware in use. . .


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