I Went to the Woods

“You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment.” – Henry David Thoreau

“Put in a category for laundry money.”


“Ok, put in a category for candy!”

Dan looks at me sidewise. “Ok, done.” He types for a moment and voila, there it is, a category for candy.

“Just kidding,” I say.

“I know,” he says, already deleting it.

We nod at each other–the nod of agreement where we’re both saying ok, we are doing a budget. Not just any budget, but a balls-to-the-wall zero-based budget where every single dollar, cent, and haypenny needs accounting for. In other words, goodbye gum, nice lotion, and comic books–basically all stuff I buy on a whim. There’s no “Whim” category and if there was it wouldn’t be big enough. Hence our need for a budget.

We recently bought a monthly subscription to “You Need a Budget” or YNAB for short. And we’ll be taking Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University class starting this week. It’s our second time through.

You see, we’ve both got a little history with debt. Student loans, credit cards, mortgages: we are like most others in our age group in the present day. We have carried some debt of one form or another since we were eighteen.

Five years ago I lived in a cabin in the woods. It wasn’t strictly a cabin but it was in the woods near a lake. I’d been reading Walden and when the cabin fell into my lap, I said yes without hesitation. With Thoreau-ian enthusiasm for living deliberately, to “drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms,” I signed the lease. I wanted and needed to write alone. I was done with roommates (I thought) and their aggressive pint-sized dogs and the ensuing drama. Little did I realize that I had plenty of drama inside. A lot of it had to do with money. Not very Thoreau-like, I’m afraid.










I lived there a month and then calmed down a bit. I was lonely and a little stressed out. Especially when I saw the second month’s rent looming ahead. My paycheck, doled out weekly, couldn’t come fast enough.

“How have I already spent my paycheck before it’s in the bank?” I wondered one Wednesday afternoon. I counted out grocery money and rent and saw to my dismay that there was no way I’d be able to meet my friends for sushi that Friday night as planned.

I went anyway.

I paid my rent. Then to my surprise, my student loan was due the second week, which I’d forgotten about. I stood in the doorway of my cabin in the woods and surveyed my domain–my prohibitively expensive domain.

“What have I done?” I murmured. What would Thoreau have done? Here I was, slap up against my reality. I could not pay my rent and be a social animal, buying expensive lotion, candy, and comic books. I had already pulled out my credit card, dusty from disuse, to pay for fun extras. I wanted a Thoreau-ian existence of deliberate living, but what a cost. My mind went frantically between ideas of self-imposed isolation or doing as I liked and racking up debt.

In the end, I opened up a second checking account and divided my rent in quarters for each of the four paychecks in the month. It was the only way I knew how to insure the total amount. I was justifiably horrified at my credit card statements and chopped up my card the third month of cabin life and tried to live slim thereafter.

I couldn’t go to every concert or sushi date available. I stayed home and read, or walked down to the lake, or invited my friends over. I went on a few sushi dates of course, and sweated through the ensuing weeks til my rent was due. I soon learned I was not like Thoreau. Deliberate living was hard and I wanted and needed friends to soften it. My cabin became a retreat of sorts. My friends and I sat on the floor around the fireplace, talking and drinking cheap wine. I got very little writing done but it hardly mattered. At the time, nothing tasted so good as wine and friends around the fire.

I’m still a renter. I will be for a while yet. With the help of zero-budgeting and YNAB, Dan and I are (literally)  paying for our past debts, incurred both out of necessity and fun. But, we can pay our rent. The rest is hard work and sacrifice.

Elena bio YAH

5 Thoughts.

  1. This was a great read Lane, I was able to envision it all! You little place certainly was cozy and always a great memory. Im so happy that you are able to write freely and express your self because it certainly shows. Love and miss you.

  2. Elena, I love how honest you are in this story AND how funny. Your personality and wry humor shine through your writing in such a wonderful way, from the budget line for candy to this sentence (one of my favorites): “I soon learned I was not like Thoreau.” Ha! So great.

    • Thanks, Kristin! It was fun to revisit this quirky time in my life–so much idealism, so little reality 🙂 Glad you liked it!

  3. I’ve heard recently that Thoreau wasn’t as solitary or as frugal as depicted in his writing – walking frequently to his mother’s house for cookies, having dinner with wealthy friends almost every night, and living in a rather high-traffic park. I still want to be deliberate like Thoreau too, but it’s encouraging to see that even he didn’t attain that ideal 🙂

    • Miah, you’re completely right. His mother also did his laundry–he was a bit of a mama’s boy with lofty ideals 🙂 And yes, he lived in the same area as the other famous Transcendentalists in Concord, MA. All of this I learned after my cabin experiment. His prose and ideas certainly won me over for a while, though 😉

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