Zen and the Art of Hiding Money


Recently, I emailed a Zen Buddhist priest to ask for some advice about work, money, life — the usual. I used a quote from her book, hand wash cold, in a blog post and wanted to share the piece with her, since it reflected my spiritual and emotional connection to money and work.

After a short note about where I'm at in my career and where I'd like to be, I attached a link to my post. Her response was not what I had expected. But then, I'm not sure if I had any expectations about what a Zen Buddhist priest might write in response to my search for monetary enlightenment.

Part of what she wrote to me was about doing things the "hard way," which is not something I wanted to hear, to be honest, but I took it in and sat with it. One particular passage stood out for me:

I don’t know the alchemy that turns fiction into fact or pain into pleasure. If I did know how to do that, I would be doing things the easy way. But I’m not. I am doing things the hard way. We are all doing things the hard way, as best as we can.

This sentiment echoes Meg's advice to "nut up" in a recent post about frugal living tips, though her advice was coming from a slightly different place. However, the conclusion is the same and what I want to emphasize — change is not easy. And it becomes increasingly difficult to change your saving habits in a tough economy.

But there are some small steps you can take to help you feel less overwhelmed by your financial situation and take control again. For many people, the hardest part about saving money is not spending all of your expendable income. If you have difficulty controlling your spending, hiding or finding ways you can't touch your money is one way you can make sure that there's cash leftover at the end of the month to save, even if it is a small amount. (See also: 37 Savings Changes You Can Make Today)

As you read these suggestions for hiding money, keep in mind that even if you are living on a shoestring budget, you can always find ways to curb spending with a little extra effort. Although it won't be easy at first, you might find that by making a few small changes, saving will become a part of your everyday life, or, as a Zen priest might suggest, as ordinary as doing the laundry.

Hide Cash in a Safe Place

If you are careful about where you hide cash, and don't hide large amounts of it, this is a simple way to put something away for those times when you want to order a pizza or go out for drinks but don't have enough left in your budget at the end of the month. When I get a little unexpected cash, I like to squirrel away some of it and then try to forget it is there until I need it.

The trick is remembering where you hid it. I can't tell you how many times I've pulled almost every book off the shelf and thumbed through each one at least twice to search for twenty bucks that I thought I hid in that book of Frost poems, or was it the one on multiculturalism? Wherever you choose to hide it, write yourself a note or send yourself an email with some sort of code. Recently, I hid some cash in a CD case for the Arcade Fire's album "The Suburbs," and I emailed myself a note that said, "There's money in the suburbs." To anyone else, that could be anything — a random quote or a wish to live in the suburbs. But I knew what it meant, and it came in handy a few months later when I was short on funds.

I also put spare change in a jar that I have deliberately put in a closet, out of plain sight. My bank has a machine that turns coins into paper money, and I've managed to save as much as thirty dollars in change. You may have to get a little creative when thinking of different ways to hide cash, but you will be glad you did it when you are in a pinch.

Use a Short-Term Investment

For larger amounts of money, look into your options for short-term investments. The best place to start is your bank, since they may have additional rewards for certain types of checking accounts or limited offers. Whether it's a CD, short-term IRA, or a Money Market account, you have lots of options regarding the amount of time you want to save the money and the minimum amount you have to put in (usually around $500 for most banks). Investing your money in one of these accounts guarantees that you won't touch it, since most banks charge a penalty for taking out the money early. Just make sure you will not need that money for the duration of the investment.

Cut Up Your Credit Cards

Believe it or not, I have never owned a credit card, and while most people will tell you that you have to own a credit card to earn good credit, this is not true. I have excellent credit. There are other ways to earn credit, such as paying bills on time, and "good" debt such as student loans. Credit card debt is, however, a good way to get yourself into a lot of bad debt and ruin your credit. I am a firm believer in not spending money that you don't have.

If you already have a credit card, cut it up. I'm serious. Go get a pair of scissors and cut it in half. If you feel that you need a credit card for emergency situations, put it in the freezer or some place you can't get to it easily (the freezer is more symbolic than anything, and it works for some people).

Change Your View on Savings Accounts

I am the first to admit that my savings account is really just a backup checking account, especially since my bank offers more incentives for keeping money in my regular checking account. This is another example of "doing things the hard way." Whenever you go online to your account, look at your savings account. Focus on that word, "savings," and challenge yourself not to take money out of it unless you are going to invest it elsewhere or need it for an emergency. Keep in mind that "emergency" does not include sidewalk sales and the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see your favorite band live (there will always be more sales and tours). Although this suggestion has more to do with your outlook on money than practical suggestions for investing, it is a small step toward financial stability.

Put Back 10% of Your Earnings

One of my college professors gave all of his students three pieces of advice:

  1. Read a well-respected publication, such as The New York Times, every day.
  2. Listen to NPR as much as you can.
  3. Put back 10% of your paycheck every month, even if it is ten dollars.

I have followed that advice for the most part, though I don't listen to NPR during member drives and I am less likely to save money when I don't have a lot of income. But I am learning that the things that take the most effort are the things that pay off in the end. So I am challenging myself to start doing this, right now. I urge you to take the same challenge. It doesn't have to be 10%; you can work your way up to that. Start by transferring ten dollars from your checking into your savings account, or put ten dollars in a CD jacket somewhere, or 500 in the other kind of CD. No matter what method you try, it might not be easy, but the best that you can do is simply start.

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Guest's picture

People tend to underestimate the value of all those coins - they can really add up. I keep a jar full of change and when it gets a bit heavy, I take a couple hours and roll them myself. You have to be careful with services like Coinstar because they usually charge a fee for doing the counting. If you do it yourself, you can save that money too! Before you know it, you've got an extra $80 in hand!

Guest's picture

So for 2 hours of effort you maybe saved yourself $8 in coinstar fees!

Ashley Watson's picture

This is true, but some banks offer this service for free for their members, which is why I mentioned the machine at my bank in the article. I guess I forgot to mention that there is no service fee for me. For that, it is worth saving the time to roll the coins myself!

Guest's picture

The key word there is "expendable" income. It's difficult to have expendable income when someone is down to NO income, which is increasingly the case. Personally, I'd be interested in an article on how to live w/o money.

Ashley Watson's picture

I certainly know how to do that as well, at least how to live on very little or fluctuating income. It becomes increasingly difficult to save when you don't know how much you are going to make each month, but there are ways to bargain, grow your own food (when possible), and many other ways to do things you might normally pay someone else to do. Rent and bills, however, are not as negotiable, except in cases when you agree to do chores that your landlord would normally do. You can also check out more Wise Bread articles for ideas. I found this one by one of our writers very useful: http://getcurrency.com/life-style/7-ways-to-split-expenses-with-a-partne...

Good luck, and remember that you are not alone in this struggle.

Guest's picture

It is hard for me to hide money because I invest most of my money back into my business

Guest's picture

The certificate of deposit sounds like an excellent way to 'hide' money. The money is there if you need it, but the risk of forfeiting the interest keeps you from raiding it for non-emergencies.

As for a philosophy of savings, savings is what happens to my money by default. I spend on a few simple entertainments and the maintenance that delays my purchase of a new car (which will, I hope, be in a lump sum). Payments like insurance are deducted automatically. Other expenses tend to serve as their own reminders, like an empty cupboard.

Regarding saving money in the form of cash, I'm sure you're about to get an earful from others about its steady loss of value from inflation. Don't bother hiding bills in a secret stash and risking a family member or friend accidentally throwing it out. If someone breaks into your house to steal things, a couple of missing twenties will be the least of your worries.

But if you're going to keep cash around the house, follow Alysa's advice there and keep it in the form of coins. Dollar coins are heavy enough to remind you when your pocket is getting empty ($56 per pound), yet convenient enough to use every day. Coins also don't rot or get used by mice as bedding material. (The recent NPR story should have inspired you to think of dollar coins!)

Guest's picture

Funny, one of my professors, Paul Lacey at Earlham, gave similar advice . . .

Guest's picture

I usually hide money under my bed for emergency haha!