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.

 

 

 

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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)

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”.

Adapting in place

Home4I’ve lived in the same apartment for eight years, ever since I first moved here for grad school. I defended my master’s thesis the day before my doctoral program started and I needed a place to live.  Since I didn’t know if I’d pass, I didn’t want to sign for anything ahead of time.  The management company here held this apartment for me for two weeks before my defense date.  Happily, I passed, took a quick tour the day of the program orientation, signed the lease, and moved in a mattress and a microwave. I lucked out a bit; I knew nothing about the apartment or the area, but I wound up with a place with inexpensive rent, walkable grocery stores, and four major bus routes with stops right outside my door.  I’ve been here ever since, and three years ago J. moved in with me.

Recently, we’ve been presented with the opportunity to move into a new place.  Friends have just bought their first house, and they thought we might like their current rental. We’ve been talking about moving for awhile now, both so we can get a place that’s really ours (since J. moved into my apartment) and one that’s somewhat nicer.  This seemed like a real possibility.  But ultimately, after a good deal of thought and deliberation, we’ve decided to stay where we are, at least for now.

The potential new place would has some clear advantages.  It has more rooms and more space.  We’d be moving from a one bedroom apartment to what is essentially a semi-detached house, with two stories and a basement.  The layout is good, with a living and dining room and three small bedrooms, so we’d have room for office space and for guests.  The basement could make for a good workshop and possibly even serve as a cold cellar for food storage, which is very appealing.

There were challenges, though, as there always are.  First was the cost.  We’d be looking at an extra $200 in rent per month, plus additional utilities, such as water and gas for the furnace. Based on what we were told, this would increase our utility costs by at least another $50 a month, and probably more in the $75 to $100 range.  Plus, on top of the increased monthly cost we’d have moving costs to deal with and, with more space, we’d likely need some additional furniture.  Given that I have an unfilled course for next year that’s still up in the air, extra expenses are not ideal right now.

Second was the fact that I’m applying for jobs, and taking on a new lease would mean committing to a year in the new place starting in October.  This would be a problem if we needed to move (and the hope is very much that we will).  I don’t want to keep putting our lives on hold due to a new job that may or may not come, but the idea of locking ourselves into a new lease now feels undesirable.

Third was the location.  It’s in a lovely neighbourhood, on a shady street with older homes, but it’s less practical for someone without a car than where we are now.  Buses are harder to get to, and it would require two buses to get to work, drastically increasing my travel time and making night classes a good deal more difficult.  Also, there are no grocery stores in walking distance.  Although increased storage space would mean we could stock up more than we currently do, it would still be a hassle to get to groceries in the first place, or to anything else that we might need.  Furthermore, a garden would be out of the question.

As I was considering the possibility of moving, I also pondered whether a move would mesh with the ideas of voluntary simplicity and voluntary poverty that I’ve been giving a lot of thought to recently.  Spending more on where we live could make our financial situation more precarious.  Moving will likely complicate rather than simplify my routines.  Taking on a place with more space will not only not force me to reevaluate what I choose to buy and hold onto, but might drive even more consumption.  None of these changes seems to fit all that well with the life that I’m working towards.

I have to say that it was tempting.  Heck, part of me still wants it, especially the basement storage space and possible cold cellar.  But there are trade offs.  Important tradeoffs.  At the same time, when I actually think about it, I remember that our current apartment isn’t really so terrible.  It’s affordable, stays dry, keeps out most of the cold, and when I’m not actively practicing for my eventual appearance on Hoarders: Urban Homestead Edition, it has enough room for the two of us and our things. We’ll still probably move at some point, for any number of reasons, but for now I’m seeing this as an exercise in adaptation and contentment. Rather than trying to solve whatever relatively minor problems we think we have through a significant lifestyle change, we’ll figure out how to make what we have work for us as best it can.

Choosing voluntary poverty

“Themistocles, when asked whether he would marry his daughter to a good poor man, or to a rich man of less respectable character, replied, ‘I, indeed, prefer the man who lacks money to the money that lacks a man.’” – Cicero

TrailI’ve long been an advocate of actively and consciously making choices to live in a particular way.  For me, choosing to do something makes me feel a lot more positively about it, and I’m more likely to see it as a challenge than a trial.  Choosing to ride my bike as much as possible feels a lot different than if I had no other option, and always shopping secondhand feels better than it would if it were my only choice.  In short, I feel like I enjoy my simple, frugal, and environmentally conscious activities a lot more and get a lot more out of them when I opt into them rather than having to do them out of necessity.

One area where I haven’t been so good about seeing things as a choice, though, is around earning money.  I make enough to live on, especially given our current level of expenses.  But there are still times when I find myself feeling stuck, worrying that it’s not enough, fretting about my job situation, applying for jobs I’m not sure that I want, and generally giving money more power over me than I should.

Despite my views on choice, it never really occurred to me to try to apply them to my money situation to see if that might make a difference.  To be fair, I realise that feeling like I’m making a choice in this area is likely to be more of a challenge.  Shopping at the market or riding my bike really are choices – I could do things differently if I wanted to.  Money and work, however, are a bit more constrained – I get paid a set amount and new jobs are hard to come by in this market.  While I can work with what I’ve got and be grateful for that, I still don’t feel like I have much in the way of options.  But, if I already see other things as a making a choice in favour of my values, why can’t I attempt to shift the frame a bit and do the same here?

Although I may not have the choices that I do in other parts of my life, I can still try look at what I have in a different way.  Recently, I’ve been reading up on the idea of voluntary poverty, which holds that by embracing a life with little money we can not only start to get free of many of the issues associated with the dominant economic system, but live better, more satisfying lives.  Applying this idea to my own situation, it struck me that instead of experiencing my current job as a low-paying and somewhat precarious position, I can see it as an option where I’ve traded in a higher salary for work that allows me to do research that I care about, keep a flexible schedule, and have enough time for other pursuits and interests. If I can see it as making choice – and, more importantly, making a beneficial choice – I hope to feel less like these circumstances are beyond my control and more like I’m making an active choice about how I want to live.

Since voluntary poverty isn’t just about work, I’m already some of the way there.  I spend fairly little, reuse what I have, buy virtually nothing new, and try to grow or make what I can.  These shifts have felt pretty easy and I’ve never thought twice about them.  On the other hand, trying to change how I think about working and income feels like a big deal.  Maybe it’s because how much I earn still feels like less of a choice than other activities.  Maybe it’s because it can be hard to see a way out of the money-based economy.  Maybe it’s the fear of the unknown and the thought that I won’t be able to take care of myself and the people I care about.  In any case, I suspect that the fact that this is something that frightens me and feels far outside of my comfort zone means it’s something that I need to spend some more time on going forward.