Note: This is the fifth installment in a series about how to best use the gift of having more time than money.
One of the gifts of more time than money is the blessing of flexibility that a rigid or over-stuffed schedule precludes. A question you may want to ask yourself is this one: “What is really important to me?” If the answer is family, friends, partner, or some form of community (church, non-profit organization, common interest group, etc.), then you may need to devote some of your flexible and valuable time to cultivating these relationships.
It’s easy to lose your connections if you move, experience a job loss or change, are caring for an ill family member, or have lost a loved one. Think of these relationships like a garden; if they are left unkempt, then they will quickly lose their bloom, become unmanageable, or go to seed. Relationships must be tended deliberately and with great care. Your extra time can be the fertilizer to make relationships blossom and bear fruit, as well as keep you grounded and centered while you assess opportunities or seek guidance for your next life steps.
With family, this time can be wisely spent without spending a lot of money. Instead of heading out to your local fast food joint or expensive chain restaurant, prepare meals at home and strive to eat at least one meal together daily, preferably two. Preparing your meals from fresh, seasonal produce and items that are on sale can be less expensive and much healthier. Involve your children and/or partner in the prep and clean-up and share valuable cooking skills. Even if you don’t count yourself as an “Iron Chef” or first cousin to Paula Deen, you can still do amazing things with websites like www.recipekey.com, allrecipes.com, or busycooks.about.com. Oh, and be sure to turn off the television while you dine.
Summer is a great time to look for free and low cost family activities in your area. Try state and local parks, festivals, and concerts. Many local churches also offer free and fun summer activities for families. Where I live, for example, the art museum offers free admission on the first Sunday afternoon of each month. Take a walk, ride bikes, pack a picnic–the possibilities are only limited by your imagination.
Don’t forget about extended family. Keep the web of connections strong through visits and reunions. Share stories, photos, and memories. If distance and travel expenses make this impossible, then take advantage of Skype. Ask grandparents to record (either audio or video) themselves reading your children’s favorite books for a meaningful and lasting connection. Start a family recipe, e-mail photo, or favorite music exchange. Consider a traveling journal. Send a simple notebook to each family member and ask them to share some stories, memories, photos, or drawings. Pass it on and add to it. Keep it going until it is filled and then gift it to the family historian for safekeeping.
Consider planning a game night and sharing a potluck meal with a group of friends. If you have more time, offer to coordinate monthly get-togethers. Write letters. For the cost of a stamp and some stationery, you can reach out, stay connected, and help to revive a dying art form. If your friends enjoy meals out, but you’re on a tight budget, consider dessert and coffee outings or appetizer gatherings. If you do go out for a meal, ask for a take-home box and make one meal stretch into two. Not only will you enjoy the time out with friends, you can also savor the flavor of friendship the next day with leftovers and memories. Call or e-mail your friends regularly. It can be a short message or a quick conversation, but it means a lot to know you are being remembered and are loved.
It is so easy to neglect the one we love most; after all, that person should know that we love them, right? While that may be true, never underestimate the power of strengthening your relationship ties, especially in stressful times. Schedule dedicated time to be together one-on-one. It can be as simple as a picnic in the park or a walk around the neighborhood. The important thing is that you allow time to talk and be fully present for each other. Remember the power of touch; offer a back or foot rub, hold hands, sit close together on a porch swing. Affirm each other. This is hugely important during stressful times such as job loss, illness, or relocation. Make a conscious effort to say kind things and remind each other of why you care.
The important idea here is to stay connected or make new connections. If you have a church home, be active there. Find one ministry that really resonates with your calling and participate fully. If you don’t have a church home, actively and prayerfully seek one. If you’ve never given a faith community a shot or have bad memories of past connections, prayerfully consider giving it another try and look for a community that is welcoming, accessible, and authentic in their faith practices.
Find a non-profit whose mission you support and volunteer. Even if you don’t have money to support a cause, you do have valuable time and skills. Be generous with them! If you love animals, help out at a shelter. If you want to help alleviate poverty, volunteer for your local Habitat for Humanity chapter, for a food pantry, or after school care program for low-income students. Make a difference in the life of a child through Big Brothers/Big Sisters, 4-H, scouts, or similar program.
Another way to find community is to look for groups that gather around common interests. Almost every community of size will have a writers’ or readers’ group. Check at a local craft supply or needlework store for crafting and knitting guilds. If you have extra cash to spare, sign up for an acting or dance class. Take yoga or Pilates classes. Check out the bulletin boards in your local grocery, coffee house, or community center.
Relationships may begin in a seemingly random fashion, but it takes effort and commitment to keep them growing. Use your extra time to make a difference in the lives of those you love and about whom you care. Plant the seeds of relationship, watch them take root, water and feed them well, and then enjoy the fruits of fellowship with family, friends, and community.