Style and substance

“Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”  – William Morris

 

For a long time, I swore that I was someone who values substance over style and function over form.  I still don’t think this is necessarily untrue.  I’d much rather have something functional but not so nice to look at than something pretty but useless.  But I’ve recently realized fairly acutely that valuing practicality and utility doesn’t mean that I don’t like nice things, or that I don’t want a home that’s somewhat aesthetically pleasing and relaxing to be in.

One of my recent projects has been revamping my apartment.  I suspect that at least part of the reason I told myself that I preferred form to function for so long was because it excused the fact that my apartment was an ill thought out, overstuffed, poorly arranged mess.  The remedy?  Getting rid of some things, replacing others, and spending a bit of time just making the place look and feel nice.  I spend a lot of time here, and the truth is that making it into a nicer place to be does me a world of good.

I was, however, not really willing to spend all that much on style just for the sake of style.  On top of that, I needed to watch my budget.  I put a good bit of money towards a new bed and it was important to not spend a lot on other things.  I didn’t want to wind up buying whatever was available simply because it was there and it was cheap, though.  As I keep shopping the secondhand market, it’s become clear that it’s important to be selective and to not just buy things that are sort of what I want or need.  It’s easy to justify “close enough” when something only costs five dollars, but it’s not worth it in the long run, so I tried to hold out for things that were both functional and aesthetically pleasing.

Most of my shopping was done through August, when I had the loan of a car from a friend.  Since thrift stores have such highly variable stock, I simply showed up a lot in the hopes that some good stuff would show up. Other than some basic bookcases, I didn’t buy anything that didn’t make me think, “yes, that’s lovely and exactly what I need!”

I was fortunate there was quite a lot of “yes!” happening on these trips.  For furniture, my trips yielded two bookcases ($8 and $10), two chairs with solid walnut frames ($5 each), a metal filing unit ($5), two brass floor lamps ($5 and $7), a brass table lamp ($3), a pottery table lamp ($3), and a pine side table ($3).  I also picked up four down throw pillows ($3 each), a couple of baskets ($1 and $5), linen napkins and placemats (8 for $1), crystal glasses ($1.80 each), candles (25 for $4), and a few pieces of pottery (from $1 to $4).  All told, as of the end of August my apartment revamp cost around $100, excluding the bed.

 

I’ve been thinking of this style as some kind of hybrid of modern, industrial, vintage, and rustic.  It’s probably really just eclectic, but I like it and it leaves me feeling comfortable and relaxed.  Do I need an aesthetic or style?  No, not really.  I’d be fine without it and would function just as well.  If I didn’t have the resources I wouldn’t have done it and would have been just fine.  But, given the choice, it’s nice to be able to have a little bit of form along with my function.  It’s a pleasure to turn on lamps that cast softer light, to appreciate the design and materials of a chair, and to light candles and look around at an apartment that feels much more like home than it has in awhile now.

Sewing machine repair

I started today by biking to the thrift store for a return.  I was thinking that I’d get it out of the way so I wouldn’t have to go and be tempted during No Spend September.  In reality, going today just meant that I just moved the temptation up a day.  But it might be a good thing that I did since I made my last pre-challenge purchase with my store credit: a Janome sewing machine for $5.

In answer to the questions that will almost certainly be asked by my mother, yes I already had a sewing machine and no I didn’t technically need another one.  So why did I buy it?  The price certainly factored in, as did the fact that it’s a brand known for quality.  But, more than that, I’d like to do more sewing and it has features that my machine doesn’t.  It was a tiny bit of a gamble because the store doesn’t have an electrical testing station.  But I got it home and it seemed to do everything well except for one problem – the stitch length dial was stuck between 1 and 3 (it should go from 0 to 4) and when turned it didn’t actually change the stitch length.

Having recently spent $110 on a tuneup and repairs to my grandmother’s sewing machine and heading into a spending challenge, I wasn’t willing to put more money into a second machine when I already had a serviceable one.  But I wondered whether it might be worth trying to fix the new one myself.  If that didn’t work, I could always take it in for repairs when my budget was a bit more flexible.  So I turned to Google, deliverer of helpful instructions, and started reading.  One thing that seemed like a common fix for machines having the same issues was applying heat.  Apparently, over time, machine oil combines with dust and lint and gets sticky, causing jams.  Heating the oil, these sites suggested, could loosen things enough to get them moving again.

I was a bit skeptical.  It seemed way too easy.  But I took off the side panel, got my hair dryer, and gave it a go.  After two minutes, I could turn the dial using a lot of strength.  After four minutes, it turned easily and actually varied the stitch lengths.  I was utterly delighted.

I know this isn’t much of a repair in the grand scheme of things (perhaps more of a “repair”), but I’m so pleased that I was able to get something that wasn’t functioning all that well back into reasonable working order.  The more small actions I complete to repair things and extend their life, the more confident I become in taking on bigger and more complicated tasks.  I doubt I’m ever going to be a mechanical genius or a DIY guru, but it feels good to be able to take care of little fixes as needed and saves a good bit of money and bother.

 

No spend September

August, oh August.  Frankly, you were rather crappy.  And I responded to that crappiness by shopping and spending like someone who was in want of some serious distraction.  I bought things.  Many things.  They are lovely and useful and most were secondhand and inexpensive and I can’t really say that I regret it all that much.  But after all that I feel like I have a few pressing reasons to do a no spend month.  Immediately.

First, I’ve done enough shopping in the last month to last me for a good long while.  I’ve wiped almost everything off my “I want this, but I want it secondhand” shopping list.  I have an abundance of clothes, books, kitchen stuff, craft supplies, and all manner of other things.  I even have a large stockpile of food that could use some rotating through.  There’s no need for me to go shopping.  So I won’t.

Second, I’ve spent a good bit of money.  I didn’t go into debt and barely put a dent into my savings, but I’d like to get back to my focus on living as frugally as possible.  The more I can build up my savings, the better, and I’d like to make some financial changes around things like investing.  Even $50 or $100 a month can make a big difference, and tightening the budget and getting away from shopping will help get me closer to my goals.

Third, I realise that a separation is one of those things categorized as a MAJOR LIFE EVENT, but I no matter how crazy things are I just don’t want to get into the habit of using shopping as a way to distract myself or self-soothe.  I know full well that I was doing a lot of shopping in an attempt to care for myself and get out of the apartment, but there were times when my willingness – perhaps even need, in some of the darker moments – to get out and shop was a little scary.  There are better ways.  I want to figure out what they are again.

Conveniently, September is very nearly here and with the start of the month I’ll also be starting another month-long challenge.  The rules are:

  • Regular expenses like rent, utilities, insurance, and so on are all fine, although making efforts to minimize those expenses is cool
  • No shopping for clothes, books, housewares, entertainment, tools, craft supplies, or any other wants
  • Meeting needs – actual ones, not “but I reeeeaaaaly want it” ones – is also fine
  • Shopping for food is okay, but make an effort to use up what’s on hand first, and don’t go overboard (I’d actually like to see how much I can do with pantry staples)
  • Replacing any necessary used-up toiletries or health items is acceptable
  • Anything desirable that doesn’t meet the parameters goes on a wish list, both to reduce the desire and also to track what’s tempting and why
  • Any money spent in September must be matched by an equal savings account contribution (thereby doubling the apparent cost of everything)

These rules are pretty simple, but then, I’m seeing this as a pretty simple exercise.  I’m going to buy the things that I need, but anything else is off the table right now.  In all honestly, it’s a bit of a relief to have some constraint.  In addition to my own feelings of deserving new things or trying to make myself feel better, I’ve been getting a lot of the encouragement from friends and family to make changes in ways that are often tied to new acquisitions.  I know they care and want me to feel better, but it’s time to lay off the spending and get back to frugal living, and having a self-imposed challenge with some clear limitations should help quite a bit.

 

 

 

More retail therapy

Although most of my extravagantly excessive shopping of late has been secondhand, there have also been a few new purchases, which is a rarity for me.  After using the same rapidly deteriorating foam mattress for well over a decade and a possibly starting to mildew futon for the last four years, I bought a new queen sized mattress.  True to form, though, I bought it on super sale ($500 instead of $1700) and used $150 in gift cards to pay for it.

To go with the new mattress in a different size I also got a bed frame and bedding.  The latter was at the insistence of my mother who actually sent me a cheque to cover the cost of new sheets, pillows, and blankets because she wanted me to have a fresh place to sleep.  She’s long been a proponent of clearing stuff out to clear your mind and has seen the separation as a major opportunity for growth and changing around my life, starting with the bedroom (have I mentioned that my parents are fantastic and have been utterly and absolutely wonderful over the past few months?  I am very, very lucky.)

The final result is, in short, glorious.  I’m usually pretty hard on myself about new purchases, but not so much with these ones.  Although what I spent on the bed is probably the most amount of money that I’ve spent on anything in years, it’s been completely worth it.  I anticipate it will last for many, many years.  But even more importantly, I sleep so, so much better and it’s made such a huge difference to my mood, my focus, and my work.

Decluttering

I’ve been swearing – for years now, it seems – that I need to do a big clean out of the apartment.  Living here for over eight years and frequenting thrift stores as I do has led to the accumulation of a lot of stuff – piles of books, clothing, cookware, dishes, and all manner of other bits and pieces.  Since the apartment isn’t huge, this has meant that not everything really has a place of its own, and things get messy and disorganized really quickly.

Although I’m going slowly, I’ve already started the purging process.  At the end of April, I took 14 bags of donations to the thrift store – two of clothes, two of housewares, and ten of books.  (I didn’t think to take pictures, which I now kind of regret – the pile was impressive.)  While I’m a little embarrassed to have had so much to get rid of and that it barely made a dent in the stuff around here, I’m also really pleased to have it gone and moved on to a charity that will benefit from it and other people who will use it.

This is, however, just the start of the process.  One of my summer goals is to do a good bit of the decluttering that I keep saying that I need and want to do, but never really get around to.  My starting goal is to get rid of a quarter of what I own.  It feels a bit ambitious, particularly for someone who has a tendency to hang onto things, but I suspect that aiming high is the best bet.  Even if I fall short, I still get something accomplished.  On top of that, I find that as I get going the process becomes a good deal easier.

The other side of the coin is that I’m also bringing in less.  I got into a bit of a thrift store habit last year and I’m consciously avoiding that now.  Being out on my bike a lot meant that I was passing thrift stores pretty regularly.  Stopping for a bit of a browse became a common thing.  Admittedly, I got some pretty lovely and useful stuff – handmade pottery, wool blankets, a tomato sauce maker, and many great books – but I have enough and I certainly don’t need any more right now.  While I haven’t stopped going entirely – there are still a few specific things on my wish list – I’m being a lot more selective about what I choose to spend money on and bring home.

My ideal is simply to have a home that is a good deal tidier and more organized and that functions better, particularly in light of some of the projects I’d like to work on this summer.  I have a lot of things that I want to get to work on and having a space where there’s actually some room to work and that’s easy to tidy up would be a real boon.  On top of that, the nicer home is to be, the more time I spend here and the more relaxed and productive I am.  I spend so much time here that putting the time and effort into making it a good place to live is very well-spent.

Resolutions, habits, and goals, oh my

Although the new year is really just a completely arbitrary date, I often find myself wanting to set goals as a reminder to myself of the things that I think are important that I want to work towards.  Having a solid sense of what I want to accomplish still helps me to move forward, and also makes it all the easier to get back to the important things when I lapse or fall of the wagon.  I’m aiming a bit big here, but for the most part, these tend to be also things that I’m already working towards.  This usually means that my goals for the year aren’t really a huge stretch, really just a bit of a formalization of the things that I think are good to focus on.  I also see these things much more as goals to work on and habits to be developed, rather than strict resolutions.  To me, this feels like a gentler approach, which is nice because I don’t really feel inclined to beat myself up over fitting in only one yoga session in a week rather than two.

A lot of my goals are focused on different measures of health – it seems to be the theme for my plans for the year.  After a year of feeling off balance and unhealthy in a number of different ways, I’d like to start nudging things back on track a bit more.  This includes physical and mental health, but also bolstering my financial health, improving my position at work, and an ever-increasing focus on self-reliance.  My hope is that all of these points will feed into each other and help to support a life that’s healthier generally.

Health

  • Meditation – 15 minutes twice per day
  • Cardio – 30 minutes five times per week
  • Strength training – 30 minutes five times per week
  • Yoga – 45 minutes twice per week
  • Water – eight glasses a day
  • Veggies – five servings a day
  • Fruit – two servings a day

Financial

  • Have 20 no-spend days per month
  • Save $3000 towards my emergency fund
  • Save $3000 towards a house or land down payment
  • Save $3000 towards retirement
  • Save $1000 for self-reliance related purchases
  • Open a discount brokerage account
  • Switch health insurance to a better plan

Work

  • Submit two papers for publication
  • Present at one conference
  • Read one new article per week
  • Read one new book per month
  • Write 30 minutes per day

Personal

  • Donate to the food bank once per month
  • Have lunch with a friend once per month
  • Have tea with a friend once per week
  • Try two new recipes per month
  • Have one date night per month
  • Read 12 novels
  • Declutter one thing per day

Self-reliance

  • Do the Riot for Austerity again
  • Grow (and use) one jar of sprouts per week
  • Grow another container garden
  • Bake bread once per week
  • Ferment three different things
  • Learn to make yogurt
  • Can five different things
  • Knit a wearable article of clothing
  • Read at least one book each on peak oil, seed saving, breadmaking, fermentation, food systems, permaculture, and urban agriculture
  • Buy one self-reliance related item that I’ve been holding off on (pressure canner, dehydrator, grain mill, water filter, or garden tools)

Food storage solutions

It pains me to admit this, but today I threw out a relatively large amount of food.  I originally set out to start cleaning, rearranging, and decluttering the kitchen.  I soon realised that in addition to a nice assortment of veggies decomposing in the fridge, I also had a selection of nuts and whole grain rice that were well past their expiration dates, in some cases by years.  Being uninterested in the stomach issues that typically arise from eating mouldy or rancid food, I disposed of the lot.  Some went to my worms and some to the garbage.  As I got rid of it, I realised that I need to make some changes.  I’m good at the accumulating, but not so good at the management.  I tend to bring home a good range of tasty and nutritious food, but I don’t always get the best use of it.

We have a few things working against us.  We have limited space, so things get stuffed onto shelves and wedged into corners in various locations.  It becomes really easy to forget what’s stored where and how much of something we have on hand.  I also have a tendency to get excited about food and buy a lot of new things to try which has resulted in the acquisition of such things as 15 kinds of beans, eight kinds of rice, and dozens of different nuts, seeds, mushrooms, sauces, and seaweeds.  At the same time, we typically cook a lot of different kinds of food which usually leaves us with a lot of different kinds of ingredients and leftover bits and pieces from trying out new recipes or tweaking old ones.

I loathe tossing food, a problem that Wasted Food has a lot of good information on.  Throwing away stuff that once was perfectly good was hard to do.  Shameful is a good word to describe the feeling.  But as awful as actually throwing it was, I’m grateful that it forced me to think through how we store and use food around and to reconsider our current system (okay, okay…our lack thereof).  And so, when I needed a break this afternoon I sat down and drafted a loose five-part plan.

Part one is to use up what we already have. I’d like to not waste any more food if I can avoid it, so I’m going to figure out some recipes to make with the odds and ends and bits and pieces.  Tonight, that meant a dinner of spiced split mung beans and spinach.  The mung beans were the last of the bag and the spinach needed to be eaten before the holidays.

Part two is to figure out what we eat regularly.  The things we stock up on and keep on hand should be the things that we use a lot.  We seem to be doing well with things like rice, cornmeal, oatmeal, flour, lentils, pasta, tomatoes, broth, and sugar, but we still have a bunch of other things that don’t get used all that often.  Focusing on the things that we use a lot of makes the most sense, particularly given out limited storage space.

Part three is to try some new meals.  I need recipes for about ten of those different kinds of beans that I have kicking around, plus a whole bunch of other things (seaweed, I’m looking at you since I’m pretty regularly at a loss on this one).  While I’d like to stick with what we eat regularly, I’d also like to expand our repertoire of recipes that are really healthy and made from ingredients that I know store well.

Part four is to plan for new purchases.  Buying a bunch of food because it’s new and interesting isn’t all that useful if its just going to sit in the closet.  This doesn’t mean we won’t try new things or put them into the regular rotation.  It just means that I have to know exactly what we’ll be using something for before I put it in my grocery cart.

Part five is somewhat longer-term and involves setting up a database of foods that we have on hand.  It’s hard to know how much of everything we have stored, so a system where we can note what’s coming in, what’s going out, and what’s located where would be helpful.  I’m also hoping this will help me rotate food more effectively so we don’t keep opening new bags of beans or rice when there are older ones sitting in the closet – sadly, it seems that good rice doesn’t age quite the same way that good wine does.

This is pretty preliminary and I’ll probably need to tweak it as I go.  However, I’m hopeful that we can establish a system to reduce food waste.  Given the many different social justice issues throughout the world, I find it unconscionable to waste food.  It’s well past time that I find ways to better manage our food resources.

Outfitting a village

I’m generally against rampant consumerism, but these days I find myself thinking about buying things a good deal more than I usually do.  Apart from periods where I put myself on no spend challenges, I do tend to accumulate stuff.  I bring in books, canning jars, kitchen gadgets, yarn, clothing, tools, bedding, and quite a few other things that have proven to be useful as I try to live a bit more sustainably.  However, I also have a wish list as long as my arm that includes a variety of far more expensive items that are not so easily found secondhand: garden tools, clothes drying rack, pressure canner, grain mill, dehydrator, water filter, camp stove, and sun oven.

Lately, I’ve been feeling that I should use the resources that I have to go ahead and make these kind of purchases. The biggest one on my list is still some land – this is feeling like an increasingly pressing concern, but I’m not yet sure where or how given that my job status is somewhat up in the air and we’re not exactly settled.  But for now, I also feel as though I should purchase some of the tools that will hopefully help to make life a bit more sustainable and a bit more secure both here in our little apartment and hopefully in the future when we have our own place.

The real driving thought, though, is that I don’t just want this for me.  I see what I’m doing as acquiring resources at least for my family, if not for a village (as it were).  My parents don’t really share many of my fears about where the world is headed, and my mother actively seeks to get rid of as much as possible.  My husband is more understanding of my concerns, although doesn’t necessarily share them to the same degree.  Many of my friends share similar concerns, but very few are actively making changes in their own lives.  So when I buy reference books, canning jars, garden tools, or a pressure canner, I feel like I’m doing it not just for me, but for them as well.  Knowing that they aren’t taking any steps on their own makes me feel that one of the most important things I can do is plan to help take care of them as best I can.

To be clear, I don’t think stuff is going to save us, and its certainly not going to do so on its own.  I think we need community and knowledge far more than we need more things, but tools can help a lot, and good quality tools can be shared and used to do a lot of good for quite a few people.  While there are certainly times when I just want to save every bit of money I possibly can, it seems to me that if I have the resources to buy tools that may prove to be helpful to a range of people it might just be worth spending a bit of money after all and taking up some of the space in my apartment to store them.

I also see these purchases as a way to hopefully become more self-reliant and to save a bit of money.  A well-made clothes drying rack may be $100, but will save me $2.50 a load, plus the environmental costs.  A pressure canner may approach $400, but if I can buy and can food when it’s inexpensive and have easy meals ready to go, that saves a lot of money on food and possibly even some time at dinner time.  Good gardening tools aren’t that cheap, but they open up more opportunities for feeding ourselves and cutting down on grocery bills.  And, the more money I save, the more there will be left to purchase more tools, or just to help others.  While I want to do as much as possible for myself, I also want to be sure that I can take care of those I care about the most and help to foster the community and resilience that I suspect will become even more important in the future.

No spend November wrap-up

With November over, I’ve had a chance to have a look at the results of my no-spend month. I’ve spent about $150 less than I have for the past few months.  I think this is pretty good, particularly since that also includes the fact that I overspent a bit stocking up on food and toiletries, had two planned meals out with friends, and that we fostered a stray cat for a few weeks and had to buy a few supplies for her.  If I could do this most months, it would certainly add up over the course of the year.

Although the money is a nice reward and marker of success (such as it is is) the focus of the no spending challenge was to really consider my consumption habits a bit more broadly.  Although I don’t generally consume a lot, I’m continually trying to be aware of my shopping and cut back wherever possible.  I’ve dealt with a lot of the low hanging fruit already, so any other places where I can cut back a bit more are welcome.  Doing a no spend challenge every so often is a good way to consider what exactly I’m spending money on and to highlight where I can cut back even further.

With this in mind, one thing I was very aware of was the importance of not just putting off spending until a new month just so it wouldn’t count for November. I wanted to be aware of my spending and cut back more generally.  Putting it off to the future – and possibly spending more or even going over budget another month – just to preserve the illusion of being successful at the challenge wasn’t something I was interested in. It would be a false representation of my spending and would have defeated the purpose of the challenge.  If I needed something – actually needed something, and not just wanted it – I went ahead and bought it.  Unsurprisingly, I didn’t really need that much.

My real weakness for the month was secondhand sales, which also wasn’t much of a surprise.  There were two in November – one that I forgot was happening and one that I didn’t know about until a week in advance – and they account for the remainder of my unanticipated spending that wasn’t toilet paper or vast quantities of rice and tinned tomatoes.  I spent $22 at a bazaar at the start of the month to buy some kitchen items, candle holders, books, and refillable pens.  There was also a thrift store sale at the end of the month. I spent another $19 on half-price books, most of them reference books for things like home repair, quilting, and sewing.  Did I need any of it?  No, not really, and I’m a little embarrassed by these transgressions.  I’m inclined to allow myself a bit of leeway on secondhand sales, though, and I got some great useful things for very little money.

I plan to keep this up as much as possible.  Expenses will always come up, of course, and I can’t say I won’t buy anything unnecessary ever again.  It’s pretty remarkable how effective this kind of awareness is, though.  Knowing that I was doing the challenge did have a positive effect on my spending for the month.  Even with a few secondhand sales, meals out, and extra food and household items, I still managed to spend a good bit less than usual.  Could I be better?  Of course, and that’s something I’m working towards.  For now, I’m pleased with the results of the challenge and looking forward to seeing if I can keep to my new and improved awareness going forward.

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”.