Small savings

In an effort to eventually be financially independent, I try to save as much money as I can.  Conventional personal finance wisdom holds that there are two main ways to save. One is to make more money.  The other is to cut back on expenses. I’ve considered both, but a lot of my focus right now is largely on the latter.

Right now, if I wanted to make more money, I’d need to get a different job (which I’m looking into) or work more.  I’m somewhat disinclined to take on a great deal more work, though.  I already work a lot – possibly more than I should, many days – and I think adding to that just to put more money in the bank wouldn’t be healthy and would likely turn me into a very unhappy person.  Given that we’re currently able to live within our means, I probably won’t be going this route in the foreseeable future.

The other way to save is to cut expenses.  We’ve already made most of the major recommended cuts.   We’ve dropped the landline and signed up for a less expensive Internet.  I’ve never owned a car or had cable TV or a cell phone plan.  Other than for groceries and the odd medication, we do little shopping, and what shopping I do tends to be secondhand.  The rent is inexpensive, I have reasonable rates for our tenant and extended health insurance, and our cell phones are rarely used and pay-as-you go.    Other than that, we don’t really have a lot of ongoing expenses.

This means that the things I have left to focus on in terms of saving money are fairly minor, but I enjoy the challenge of seeing how much I can save in a month just by making what appear to be very small changes to how we live.  I can save two dollars each time I walk or bike to campus instead of taking the bus.   We conserve energy at night by turning off the microwave, TV, and computers which are all plugged into power bars.  I stock up on dried beans, canned tomatoes, and anything else we use regularly when they’re on sale.  Growing veggies and sprouting beans cuts back on the amount of produce that we need to buy.  I round up all of my purchases to the next dollar and save the change.

These are all very small things, but they do add up.  I figure that even if I only save twenty or thirty dollars per month, that’s a few hundred dollars a year extra that I can put away.  In November, walking instead of taking the bus has saved me over $40.  The electric bill’s down a few dollars.  Buying on sale has saved us $24 on toilet paper, plus a few dollars each on dried beans, canned tomatoes, and other staples.  I’ve probably gained another $5 or $10 by rounding up purchases.  This may seem awfully detail-oriented or too small to bother with, but to my mind, it makes enough of a different that it’s worth doing and it hardly takes any time once you’re in the practice of doing it.  As the old saying says, “save the pennies and the pounds will follow”.

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What should I do with my life?

A few days ago, Eric at Root Simple wrote a post called How to Answer the Question, “What Should I Do With My Life?” talking about looking at our bookshelves to figure out what it is that we really want to do.  A few other blogs seem to have picked it up as well, so I decided to have a look at my own shelves to see what they say about my current values and priorities.

Most of my book purchases over the last few years have been focused on greater self reliance and, in particular, food.  Even my academic books – once focused largely on technology and assorted digital things – have made way for more books critiquing consumerism and looking at modern food issues in our society (there are actually some rather compelling links between the two, which is what I’m currently working on).

Books 2Apart from my academic life, I’ve also bought a large number of books that are focused on food in a few different ways.  Some of them deal with the social and cultural implications of food and the issues with our current food system.  I’m interested in everything from critical perspectives on what’s not working through to books about the history of food.  On top of this, I’ve also acquired quite a lot of books on producing, cooking, and preserving food – everything from seed saving and gardening to cooking dinner from scratch and making jam.  Beyond food, I also have a selection of books on skills including knitting, crochet, sewing, weaving, bush craft, basket making, natural dyeing, soap making, root cellaring, house construction, bee keeping, livestock care and feeding, and herbalism.

Books 3As for the rest of them, I have a bookcase devoted to fiction and another with sections devoted to a range of topics: folklore, naturalism, graphic novels, communication and cultural theory, children’s literature, poetry, music, fitness, history, anthropology, finances, and social issues.  I suppose it’s also worth noting that I have a fairly large selection of books on things like happiness, mindfulness meditation, and compassion.  These are fairly recent additions to the shelf, and I think they illustrate my desire for a life that is not only more resilient, but hopefully also happier and more mindful.

Books 1Here’s a selection of a few of my current favourites:

  • The Urban Homestead
  • Living Seasonally
  • Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
  • Forgotten Skills of Cooking
  • The River Cottage Cookbook
  • The Art of Simple Food
  • Tassajara Bread Book
  • Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day
  • The Art of Fermentation
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved
  • Square Foot Gardening
  • The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible
  • Four-Season Harvest
  • The Year Round Vegetable Gardener
  • The One Straw Revolution
  • Shop Class as Soulcraft
  • Your Money or Your Life
  • Less if More: The Art of Voluntary Poverty
  • Living More With Less
  • Mindfulness in Plain English
  • The Places that Scare You

I’ve always had varied interests, which are pretty well represented here.  But the large selection of books that are focused on skills makes it pretty clear to me that I’m looking to do more with my life than just think.  I want to be active and productive and find ways to be more self-reliant.  With that in mind, I’m going to get up from looking at my books and actually get down to making something this afternoon – I’m thinking some whole wheat bread might be in order, and perhaps a bit of knitting.

Fantasy and reality

These days, a lot of my fantasies come down to living a more productive, sustainable life at home.  I dream of a small house on a few acres of land, with large gardens and a chicken coop in the back.  Inside, there’s a fireplace and comfortable couches with lots of blankets on which to read, write, knit, and play the guitar.  There’s a spinning wheel and sewing machine in the corner – sometimes I even wonder about a weaving loom.  In the kitchen, homegrown herbs are hanging from the ceiling, bread is rising on the stove, pickles are fermenting on the shelf, homemade jams and jellies are lined up in the pantry, and gingerbeer and sourdough starters are sitting on the counter next to glass jars of home grown sprouts. While I certainly don’t think I can do everything, I picture making some of our clothing, entertaining ourselves through music and storytelling, and producing as much of what we eat as possible. What I think this really comes down to is that, in my head, I imagine a life that’s based on a really tangible, material kind of productivity.  I envision a home that’s filled with work that is at least somewhat pleasant and feels worthwhile because it meets real needs in a concrete way.

The reality, however, doesn’t quite work like this, at least not right now.  Although I work largely from home, I need to be on campus at least three days a week.  On days when I’m not there, I’m usually prepping for class, grading papers, applying for jobs, or researching and writing articles.  That’s not a complaint – I think my work is interesting and there are lots of things that I enjoy about it.  It does keep me busy enough that I’m often exhausted at the end of the day, though.  Knitting, sewing, writing, and playing guitar are often off the table at this point, and reading seems to be the activity that’s most manageable when i need rest.  The garden has fallen to the wayside more times than I’d like to admit.  And there are nights when it’s challenging enough just to make dinner, let alone keep the kitchen clean, bake bread, tend starters, rinse sprouts, and all of the other things that would need doing to keep up the level of productivity and homemade food that I envision.

I’ve reached a point where I’ve come to terms with at least some of the discrepancies between the fantasy and the reality.  I’ve had a good hard look at what’s possible right now, and I keep reevaluating as I go and my situation changes.  Practically speaking, there’s only so much I can do.  Keeping my job is pretty important since it pays the bills, so I need to work around its demands. Whatever else I do has to fit around this keystone, and sometimes the need to work is simply going to have to take priority over things I’d rather be doing.  There are, after all, only so many hours in the day and so many things that can be done out of a 750 square foot apartment with a bit of grass outside.

This is largely where the “if not here” idea came from (although it was also heavily influenced by Sharon Astyk’s “adapting in place”).  I could put off trying to do everything I want until I have the time and the land and the house and the kitchen and the garden and everything else that exists in my fantasy life.  However, I deeply believe that these are things that are worth doing now, even if things aren’t as ideal as they are in my head.  But even more importantly, they’re things that I can still do now, just maybe not to the degree that I’d like.  I may not make bread every day, but I can probably manage once a week.  I may not make everything we wear, but I can slowly work on a cowl, some gloves, or a pair of socks.  I may not produce everything we eat, but I can cook most of our meals and rinse the odd batch of sprouts or feed a sourdough starter when I have a few minutes here and there.  I may not be a fantastic guitar player, but I can practice a favourite song every now and again.

When I was working on my dissertation, I was often reminded that “the perfect is the enemy of the good”.  I think this idea applied equally well here.  I can’t do everything I want now, but I can do some of it, and that’s still a pretty powerful thing.  There’s no need to wait until I’m in the ideal situation.  I can make this situation more ideal by doing the things that I want to be doing to the best of my ability right now.  And, as each step gets easier and faster, it becomes possible to add in something new every so often.  I probably won’t ever get to the point where I can take care of all of our needs, and I believe that being completely sustainable is, at best, very difficult.  But for now, I can do what I can in the situation we’re in and work towards graducally building the life that I want, whether that’s on some land in the country or here in my little apartment.

Made for walking

River 1This past month, I’ve been walking to and from campus every chance I get.  I’ve also been walking anywhere else I need to go – to medical appointments, the hairdresser, and the bank.  Now that we’re firmly settled into autumn – easily my favourite season – I wanted to regularly spend some more time outside, enjoying the cooler weather, falling leaves, and wonderful colours.  To do this, I’ve started walking as much as I possibly can.  I started in September, with errands to the grocery and hardware store, going to visit friends, and trips to the library.  As the semester geared up and I started spending more time on campus, it made sense to try walking there as much as possible, too, and I’ve been gradually spending more time each week just walking around.

First, I think it’s actually saved me a bit of time.  If nothing else, it hasn’t taken me all that much longer to walk than it has to take the bus.  My walk to campus is about 40 minutes, door to door.  I noticed that although the bus ride is only 15 minutes, I also have a five or ten minute wait – if not more – on either end.  Plus, walking takes the place of the 40 minute run or hour long bike ride that I’d usually take for exercise while still helping to keep me healthy in a very inexpensive way.  On top of that, it’s also saved me a bit of money.  Bus tickets are about $2 each, and although I have no problem paying for transportation, every time I walk saves me a few dollars.  It’s not a lot by any stretch, but since I have to be on campus at least three days per week, it adds up.

Perhaps most importantly, though, it also helps to reduce stress and relax a bit more than I normally would.  Academic life certainly has as many difficult moments as any other job, and relaxing on my way to class and unwinding on my way home helps to manage whatever work-related anxiety I’m feeling on a given day.  It’s a chance to get grounded prior to going up in front of the group and a good way to process whatever happened in class and let go of whatever needs letting go.  The combination of long walks and beautiful scenery – like the river on the way to my doctor’s office, pictured above – really help to take the edge off whatever’s on my mind.

Not walking certainly wouldn’t be the end of the world, but I think I’d lose a lot if I were to stop.  In order to keep it up, I’ve started to consider how to best maintain this practice when the snow starts to fly and the ground ices over, as it so often does in this part of the world.  I love the combination of benefits from this one simple change, though – a bit of money and time saved, and a good deal gained in terms of pleasure and stress relief – so I’m willing to do whatever I can to maintain my walking habit even through the less desirable weather that’s likely to be headed our way very soon.

Off the wagon…

…and back on again.

I planned out my no-spend November – well, as much as there is to plan beyond, “don’t shop, dummy!” – completely forgetting that this past weekend was the annual community bazaar of which I’m particularly fond.  I go every year for a combination of reasons – it’s close enough to walk, I can sometimes get a Christmas gift for my mom (she has a particular set of dishes she collects), the goods are usually pretty good, the prices are great, and I like shopping at places that help to support local organizations.

When I woke up that morning, I debated for awhile.  I really didn’t want to mess up my no-spend month, but I didn’t particularly want to pass on the bazaar either.  It shouldn’t have been hard to give up, but it feels like a bit of a tradition now, I really enjoy it, and it was something I had been looking forward to (even if the fact that it coincided with my shopping ban didn’t actually cross my short-sighted little mind).  In the end, I decided to go.  However, I also decided to extend the spending ban until December 4th to compensate – off the wagon and back on again, I guess.

I exercised some restraint and didn’t come home with the two lamps, rug, picture frames, carafe, and cookie jar that I was considering, but I still came home twenty-one dollars lighter than when I left.  Two dollars went to admission, the rest was spent on a few things that I’m very pleased with – someone had donated a few mid-century modern pieces that had been on my wishlist for awhile now.

BazaarWhen it comes to secondhand shopping, I always start with the housewares.  From a distance, I saw the enameled Cathrineholm casserole dish, so I picked up the pace a little and grabbed it.  I also found an enameled canning funnel in the basket next to it.  One table over, I found a pottery canister with exactly the kind of glaze that I love and, further down, I found three candle holders – an amber glass Dansk one that can double as a vase and two hand turned from what I was told was birdseye maple.  Moving on, I also found a wonderful Peugeot teak pepper mill.  Everything was a dollar.  In the book room, I walked away with a cookbook, a novel, and Annie Dillard’s wonderful The Writing Life for two dollars for the lot.  Finally, I bought two refillable Parker pens and a matching refillable pencil for ten dollars, my splurge of the day.

Did I need any of these things?  No, not really.  I already own baking dishes, candle holders, pens, funnels, books, and a pepper mill  Any justification I make is not going to be all that strong – the best I’ve got is that I liked them, they were far less expensive than they would have been even at a local thrift store, and they’re a marked improvement on things that I already own.  But maybe that’s enough.  I’ve been looking our for that particular glass candle holder, an enameled baking dish, a metal canning funnel, and a better pepper grinder for months.  I’ve also wanted to replace my throwaway pens with refillable ones for awhile now.  And, while I can’t say I truly needed anything that I bought, I’ll use it all and, perhaps more importantly, I’ll enjoy using it, and I’ll do so for a good long time.

Home making

DeskI’ve always been a homebody.  I prefer home to petty much anywhere else and I’d much rather stay close by than go on far-flung vacations.  Over the past few years, home has become increasingly central to my life.  To varying degrees, this apartment has become my restaurant, bakery, grocery store, homestead, yoga studio, gym, library, office, writer’s retreat, movie theater, music studio, workshop, classroom, craft studio, health spa, and probably a number of other things that I can’t think of right now.  In brief, it gets a lot of use, although not always a lot of care.

For a long time I didn’t do much to the apartment other than fill it with thrift store treasures and many, many books.  I wasn’t sure how long I’d be here.  What I thought might be a small amount of time has now turned into eight years, so I didn’t give a great deal of thought to many of the details.  Now, with the degree done and me still here, I feel like it’s well past time to make a few changes.  Ever since I was a child, I’ve loved arranging things to make spaces feel more comfortable and more like home, and I’d like to get back to that again.  Although we could still move at any time, we could also be here for many years to come, and to put off making this space even more functional, useful, and comfortable has started to seem somewhat shortsighted.

I don’t expect the apartment to ever be a showpiece, nor do I want it to be. We live here and use the space, so it’s always likely to look somewhat lived in.  I would like it be a bit nicer to actually live in, though.  Part of this comes down to decluttering, since there’s a lot in here and everything should be easier to manage and clean up after with more things gone.  The other part is focusing on some of the details that I haven’t paid a lot of attention to.  There’s nothing that big or that expensive on the list, but things like moving some of the furniture, rearranging some textiles, and hanging some art (finally!) would go a long way to making this place all the nicer for us to live in on a daily basis.

I think there’s a value in home that is often under recognized.  Home can be just a place for sleep and storage, ir it can be a showpiece.  For me, it goes much deeper than either of these things and become a place of rest, relaxation, and respite from a world that often feels like it’s moving far too fast in the wrong direction.  When my home is clean, comfortable, and well cared for, it becomes a place that I really want to be in, work in, and rest in.  At the same time, I think all of these things are useful in living a more sustainable life – a life based around home can save money, time, energy, resources, and stress.  As simple or perhaps even as indulgent as it might seem on the surface, making my home a bit nicer has value in terms of encouraging me to stay in and find what I need as close to where I are as possible.

No-spend November

In case it isn’t obvious by now, I think about finances and budgets a lot.  Budgeting is a huge element of my efforts to live more simply.  Having a budget keeps me spending within my means, allows me to save money, and makes it easier to figure out how to live well on relatively little.  That said, I’ve been overspending a bit these last few months, with frequent trips to the thrift store and some extra meals out.  It’s not the end of the world and I’m still saving a good bit of money each month, but I’m still feeling the need to hunker down and gather in as the seasons change, and sorting my finances a bit more seems as apt a place to start as any.

I’d actually planned for a no-spend month back in July, but I wound up blowing that pretty spectacularly (well, pretty spectacularly for me, I suppose, which probably amounts to what most people spend on eating out in a month).  Knowing my summer break was over half over and feeling the crunch of the start of the school year, I tried to secondhand shop my stress away, and just kept on going.  You can probably guess how well that worked long term, especially when the bills showed up, the stuff piled up, and my underlying stress hadn’t actually been dealt with at all.  Although I bought everything used for a few dollars at most, I’ve brought home quite a lot of books, blankets, kitchen gear, and other assorted bits and pieces.  Nothing was expensive on its own, but collectively these things add up.

So, this is my do-over.  The same rules as always apply.  I’ll be spending money on the usual suspects, of course – there’s no putting off the rent, power, insurance, internet, medication, food, or transportation – although I do plan to cut back where I can.  But other than that, I simply won’t be spending – there will be no clothing, books, music, or housewares.  The exceptions?  I’m debating ordering the three books currently on my Amazon wishlist that I’ve been saving up gift certificates for – one is focused on self-sufficiency, one on preserving, and the other on making clothing.  The last gift certificate I needed was just delivered today, but I haven’t yet decided if that feels too much like cheating to me.  They might just have to wait until December.

I’m also hoping to use this month as a way to alter my habits.  It’s been far too easy to stop in to the store browse when I’m out for a walk or bike ride and have shopping become a regular thing.  So, rather than just swearing off shopping on its own, I’m going to try to think a bit more about these habits and consciously replace them with new, better, healthier ones.  I’m planning to work in some more running, yoga, meditation, reading, writing, baking, and playing the guitar as substitutes.  My inclination to shop still shows up more than I’d like, and I’m hoping that rather than trying to just ignore it for a set period of time, I can instead dial down the urge for good by shifting the focus.