Sunday, January 31, 2016

No Spend Month? No Problem!



I read an article recently. Apparently this older couple in Tennessee is making headlines because they decided not to spend any money shopping during the month of January 2016. They saw a movie in which a family didn't eat at restaurants for a year, and they were inspired to see how much they could save by not spending any money (except at the grocery store) for a month. They vowed not to spend any money on shopping or going to restaurants for thirty, whole days.

If I sound sarcastic, that's because I feel sarcastic. Judith Levine's book, "Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping" was published in 2006, and the short film, The Story of Stuff, which showed us the real truth behind our consumerist culture was released in 2007. I'm just wondering where that Tennessee couple has been for the past decade to find the idea of taking a month off from spending so novel. Really? Not spending for a month? How's this news?

It just surprised me that there's anyone left who hasn't heard of and/or participated in these no spending challenges. I mean, some of us have even gone as far as to not spend, not at all, not even at the grocery store, for an entire month (shout out to Northwest Edible Life for the annual Eat from the Larder Challenge). Or we shop at the grocery store, but only for perishables, like milk or butter, and everything else we either have or we do without.

I'm not saying any of this to imply that I think I'm better than that Tennessee couple, because that's not it. We are in very different places. I'm trying to find ways to save money that include line-drying my clothes and heating with free dead wood we forage from the woods behind our house to save on the electric bill, because we've already eliminated the pure luxuries from the budget, and getting our expenses even lower so that we can be financially independent is our ultimate goal. They aren't eating out or getting manicures for a month just to see how much they can save.

Part of the No Spend month for the Tennessee couple was not spending on entertainment, which for most people is a luxury anyway, but it got me thinking. Not spending on things like manicures is just a no-brainer. Manicures are so far down the ladder of need and want for me that .... Well, I've had exactly one manicure in my entire life, and it was a gift for my birthday as a way to get me out of my house for a few hours so that my family could set-up for my surprise party. I didn't go on my own. I was driven to the spa and dropped off at the door. It was fun, but it's definitely not a monthly expense. Neither are salon haircuts. I haven't been to a hair salon to have my hair cut in so long that I don't recall when the last time was. I have a pair of scissors I use to cut my own hair. I have clippers I use to cut Deus Ex Machina's hair.

I guess there are things that other people do with their money that just seem a bit extravagant to me, but I guess it's their right to spend their earnings however they wish.

I'm still, kind of, stuck on the fact that it was an article in my local news, about a family in Tennessee, who is receiving accolades for their great thrift for doing without restaurant meals and manicures for a month.

At the end of the article, the Mom says that her adult children were inspired to make some of the same changes, and so her daughter and her daughter's boyfriend decided to not eat out for an entire year, and the Mom cautioned that "a year is a long time", and asked the daughter if she was really ready to make that kind of commitment.


Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words ... especially when the incredulity has reached the level that the proper words elude me.

Not eating out is as easy as ... not eating out. I got to thinking, though, about the not eating out and the not spending on entertainment, and I thought I could come up with a list of five ways we could have our cake and eat it too. That is, five things that we could give up spending money on, but still have.

So, without further ado, here's the list:

Movies

While there's nothing quite like going to the movie theatre, doing so can be incredibly expensive. With very few exceptions (like, maybe, Star Wars), seeing a film on the big screen isn't a life-changing experience. We all know that renting movies is a great alternative to hitting the theaters. A DVD rental is less than the cost of one ticket. If we want to watch the film with our whole family, DVD is definitely the way to go.

But if we're challenging ourselves to a no spend month, we're not going to be renting DVDs, either.

There is another way to see films without having to pay, and it's by going to one of my favorite places: the library! Libraries aren't just for borrowing books anymore. Our local library has such a huge selection of movies, television series, and documentaries that we could borrow a dozen different DVDs each week, and it would take a year before we watched all of them.

And that's not all! Part of the theatre experience is the community of seeing a film with friends, and yep, it's great to have friends over to sit on the couch, but how about heading over to the library for "Family Movie Night"? Ours has screenings of various films throughout the year, and during the summer, they have an inflatable big screen and show films outside.

Theatre

There is nothing quite like live theater. When Deus Ex Machina and I were first married and living down south, we were able to go to a Renaissance Festival in Waxahatchie, Texas. We saw some amazing live acts, and ever since, we knew we wanted to share live entertainment with our daughters. Big Little Sister went to the Ren Fest with us when she was still in a sling. Precious was an infant (still in the sling) when we saw Stomp! Little Fire Faery was four when we took her to see Cats. We've seen two different Cirque du Soliel shows, and two of my five children have seen a Broadway musical *ON* Broadway.

Going to the theater is a wonderful experience, but it is also expensive. Even a ticket to a show at a small community theater can be pricey. It's totally worth it, but if we're counting pennies, spending $20 for a theater ticket might not work for us.

An option is to be a volunteer. We've been volunteering at our local theater in some capacity for half a decade. We've done everything from acting in shows or working backstage to hanging publicity posters. Usually, we usher, and one of the perks of being an usher is that we get to see the show on the evening we usher. It's a nice perk, and we've seen a lot of wonderful shows. The girls usher, too. It's a family thing.

Eating Out

Personally, I like to cook, and I like to eat what I cook. In fact, most of the time, *I* think the food I cook is far better than most of what I get at a restaurant.

I've also discovered I'm a little picky when it comes to my food choices. Cooking for myself means that my food is prepared exactly how I like it. As such, eating out has become a chore. Aside from the fact that I'm usually disappointed by the poor quality for the amount of money we end up spending, between wanting to avoid GMOs, not eating gluten, and hoping to keep most of our diet local, eating out is a huge challenge. It's best just to eat at home.

The only benefit to eating out versus cooking at home (other than the fact that someone else does the dishes) is that it's convenient. I wonder, though, if eating should be convenient. Nutritionists have spent not insignificant hours studying various cultures' eating habits to try to figure out why some places are plagued with health issues and others aren't. They've discovered what they call the "French Paradox", which is basically that the French diet defies all of the nutritional advice available, and yet, the French are some of the healthiest people in the world. What researchers are discovering is that it's not what (exactly) the French eat, but how. They don't eat a lot of processed food or sugar, which is a plus, but more importantly, it seems, is that when they eat, it's not so much to fill their bellies, which is too often the case here in the US, but rather it's a social activity.

With that in mind, there are some great ways that we can enjoy a meal away from home without spending a ton of money, and also, get a little of that socialization into our meal times.

Soup kitchens are always looking for volunteers to prepare and serve meals. I know most people would balk at the thought of eating the food as a volunteer, the idea being, perhaps, that they are taking food from the mouths of the needy, but that's actually the wrong attitude. Being a volunteer at a soup kitchen isn't just about feeding hungry people, but building a stronger community. Breaking bread with other people in our community is a good thing.

Another option is a community dinner. These are usually open to anyone who is a resident of the community, and it's not based on income or socio-economic status. The point of community dinners is not just to feed the community, but to bring the community together AS A COMMUNITY, and what better way to commune with one's neighbors than to have a meal together?

Be a Guinea Pig

Ordinarily, I would not suggest this as a good idea, actually, but there might be a couple of cases where it's not a bad thing.

Big Little Sister has been experimenting with her hair recently. Her grandmother is a regular at a local hair salon, and so when she decided to go drastically shorter with her hair style, she went to this salon. While she was there, she started talking with the stylist about hair colors. Big Little Sister has this idea of a style that she would like that includes several different color applications. It's a project that would be very difficult for us to accomplish in our bathroom. There's definitely something to be said for having the right tools. The stylist was intrigued and offered to do the color for free. Big Little Sister just needs to supply the dye.

When I was in college, I served as a model for some students in cosmetology school and got free hair-styling. With the exception of a couple of really bad perms, I didn't have a terrible experience allowing students to style my hair.

Manicures

The mother featured in the news article I read lamented the loss of her regular manicures. She admitted that she could do without having her nails done professionally and do them herself, but she stated that her home manicures weren't "very good."

I don't really care about manicures, but it occurred to me that even a home manicure could look really nice and professional. Several years ago, my in-laws gave my daughters a huge box of nail polish and other manicure supplies. It was a neat gift for my girls, and Big Little Sister was inspired to get on YouTube and learn some nail design techniques. If I wanted a manicure, I'm pretty sure I could get a decent looking one for free from a family member, and it would probably look okay, too.



There is a common thread through each of the above money-saving tips, and it's community involvement. I'm not sure how it happened, or why, but in this country, we've stopped becoming personally invested in our communities. Sure, when our kids are young, we might get involved with the PTA or be a room parent for their elementary school class, but that's as far as most of us go. For those of us who don't have kids in school and don't have a religious community, building community often doesn't happen, which is unfortunate.

The fact is that having a closer, more supportive community could make a huge difference in our need to spend money. We may not all have hair-stylists who will do the work for free, and we may not all want to cut our hair at home, and volunteering may not work into our schedule, but there are dozens of ways our network of friends and family and fellow community members could work with us to build a better life. We just have to be open to the possibilities.


Sunday, January 10, 2016

If I Had a Billion Dollars ...

The Power Ball prize is estimated to be about One Billion Dollars on Wednesday night's drawing.

I'll be honest. Last Wednesday, when the pot was at $500,000,000, I bought my first, ever, Powerball ticket. No one won. On Saturday, the pot jumped to $800,000,000. I bought another ticket, and Deus Ex Machina paid for five more numbers.

Then, we came home, and while dinner was cooking, I read some articles about things like "What to do if you win." Some of that stuff was a little scary. One article said that if the winner can remain anonymous, that would be best, because, in the past, lottery winners have not only been robbed, but occasionally, they've been killed.

I can, easily, imagine someone wanting that money badly enough to not care about the health or well-being of the winner.

One billion dollars.

It's an amount of money that is simply inconceivable, and the only way a person could spend that much money in an average lifetime would be to make some very poor and costly investments.

We thought a lot about the kinds of things we would do.

There are a lot of things that I would love to be able to accomplish. I would like to eliminate homelessness here in Maine by offering free/low cost housing, but not rentals. My dream would be to purchase houses or apartment buildings, and then, after a minimum rental period to allow the person to get some stability in his/her life, the tenant would be offered a life-time lease (the equivalent of owning the house or apartment) for a dollar. Money for future taxes on the property would be put into an escrow account.

How much of that billion dollars would a project, like that, take up? Probably not too much, especially if the escrow account were interest bearing. Even the most conservative interest bearing account of 1% annually would earn $10,000 with an initial deposit of $1,000,000. That $10K would, probably, be enough to cover the taxes on the building. So, an initial investment of $1.3 million to pay for a building and any upgrading/maintenance and put future tax money into escrow would barely make a dent in the billion dollar cash prize.

We talked about giving money away, but then, realized that, for some people, giving them money might make things worse. Does the IRS tax monetary gifts? If so, the recipient of our million dollar gift, might find himself/herself in some financial dire straits because of our generosity. So, we thought, a better option, might be to invest in those people by paying off their debts to give them a fresh, financial start, and then, making their dream career a reality. A restaurant for a child who's always wanted to own one. Tuition assistance for a college student with a reasonable cost-of-living stipend (enough to support him without so much he would have a burdensome income tax). Publish a book for a new author. If a friend or family member of mine won the cash prize, and they wanted to give my family a gift, that's what I would want - to be debt-free with start-up cash to be able to pursue my passion and make my own living.

Money isn't always a gift. Sometimes it's a burden. Which is how I started to think of this lottery winning. At first the fantasy was all about the good we could do, but there was no imagining of our lives changing. We all like to pretend that being given that amount of money wouldn't change us, but it would. It would, because it would have to.

After reading that article about lottery winners becoming victims of violent crimes, I realized I'd have to move and maybe change my name. If I'm a target, so are my children, and so they'd have to give up their lives, too.

Is the money worth losing my entire lifestyle and community?

It would be cool to have that kind of cash, and I can imagine how incredible it would be to finally make someone else's dreams come true, but I can also imagine it being an incredible burden.

Things are easier, less complicated, when one isn't in pursuit of a dollar, but in pursuit of a life.

Are you planning to purchase a Powerball ticket knowing that the pot is a billion dollars? What would you do if you won?

Sunday, November 29, 2015

A Room

Over a year ago, we had the back wall and part of the roof removed from our house . It was not a cosmetic choice to renovate, but rather one that was prompted by a phone call from our neighbor the winter before during a really wicked windstorm.

"Hi, this is your neighbor across the road. Your roof is blowing off."

It wasn't the entire roof, but rather the roofing material, and yes, it all blew off. The part that was most annoying - other than losing our roof, was that it was less than ten years old, but was supposed to be good for thirty years. Someone lied to us. No, we don't have any recourse. Sometimes we feel a little like Fletcher, Jim Carrey's character in the movie Liar! Liar! when he's dealing with the impound yard:

Fletcher: You - -LIAR! You know what I am going to do about this?

Motorpool Guy: what?

Fletcher: Nothing! Because if I take it to small claims court, it will just drain 8 hours out of my life and you probably won't show up and even if I got the judgment you'd just stiff me anyway; so what I am going to do is piss and moan like an impotent jerk, and then bend over and take it up the tailpipe!

So, we started looking for contractors, and finally got one to take off the roof.

Then, we spent several months trying to get it insulated, but ran into a bunch of issues with that, because it got cold, the room isn't heated and wasn't insulated, and there's this thing called condensation.

Yeah.

Blown-in insulation doesn't stick to wet walls.

In the meantime some really awesome things happened. I entered a contest sponsored by the Biddeford Savings Bank for $500 to go toward a renovation project ... and I won!

More than a year later, we finally had the drywall delivered. This weekend, we're putting it up.

I am thankful.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Black Friday Special: Recycle/Reuse

There are so many products we could buy to allow us to live a greener lifestyle. Some in the "green" community call those things "greenwashing", and the point is that it doesn't make a lot of sense to try to live more lightly, more simply and more frugally, if one is also purchasing things.

I mean, yeah, okay, it does save money to bring one's own water in a reusable water bottle than it does to purchase a plastic bottle of water. I wonder, though, what did people do before there was bottled water and reusable water bottles. Oh, I remember ... public drinking fountains, or bubblers (depending on the part of the country from which one hails). Do those even exist anymore?

I used to like the cute little reusable plastic cups for cold beverages. I started bringing my own iced tea with me wherever I go. What I don't like is that keeping them clean is really tough. Mold (or something yucky and probably toxic) grows in the threads of the cup and the lid, and get under the seal, and then, since most of those cups are double insulated, sometimes the two layers come apart ... and then, well, it has to be replaced. Planned obsolescence much?

The reusable coffee cups are similar. I haven't had a reusable cup that I've been able to keep and use for the long-haul - and by long-haul, I mean every day ... forever.

So, I found a different solution, and I keep modifying the solution and improving on it.

It involves the plastic straw from the useable plastic cups, a reused glass jar (and I purchased that brand of sauce specifically because the jar lid was the same size and style of a standard canning jar), a reused plastic lid (and I bought that brand of salad dressing specifically because it came in a glass jar, it was organic and gluten-free, AND it used a jar with a lid that was interchangeable with a standard canning jar) ... and a drill.

The lid for the salad dressing is black plastic, but fits perfectly on any regular canning jar. So, I drilled a hole the same size as my straw, et voila, a reusable cup that is easily cleaned and reuses a bunch of stuff that might have been considered trash.



I love that many of the products I can find at the store use packaging that is so easy to keep and reuse. The jars are especially useful, and if I changed the lid, moving the hole closer to the rim, for instance, I could have it serve double duty as a coffee cup and a cold beverage cup.

Hmm ....

I wonder what I can reuse to make a sleeve to hold the jar when it's filled with hot coffee ...?


*Note: I haven't found a jar, yet, that fits in my car cup holders, and glass or metal straws would be better, but for now, I have a completely reused reusable cup and I'm really happy with it.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The Ultimate "Pantry" Challenge

Last November, my daughters had an appointment at the dentist. Next door to our dentist's office is a food pantry. I've been hearing about this pantry for a while, but I never knew exactly where it was.

We're volunteers at the local animal shelter, and my daughter decided that she wanted to do a "12 Day of Christmas" donation to the animal shelter. I decided that I wanted to match her, but take my donation to the food pantry.

So, while my daughters were getting their teeth cleaned, I walked over the pantry, introduced myself, told them what I wanted to do, and asked if they ever needed volunteers. It's turned out to be one of the best impulsive things I've ever done.

Ten months later, my daughters and I are still volunteers. We go once a week and work the entire shift (from 9:00 to noon). We also help out with fundraisers, like the yard sales that are every other week during the summer. Last weekend, we got to go to a Blues Festival in town to sell raffle tickets for the pantry. The weekend before, we were part of the crew that manned a drink station for runners in the Rev3 Triathlon. It's been an awesome experience working at the pantry, and definitely it's been quite an education - for both me and my daughters.

One of the biggest challenges our patrons face is being offered food that's unfamiliar or not terribly appetizing looking. And our patrons actually get to choose what they take, unlike some pantries where the pantry personnel packs a box with x amount of each of the four food groups, and sometimes people end up with cans of creamed spinach and shredded pork, or maybe they get a can of tuna, some Kraft Mac & Cheese, and three cans creamed corn. Each patron in our pantry gets to pick a certain number of items based on family size. Bread, fruits and vegetables are on a take-what-you-need basis.

The problem is that we often have no idea what WE will have, because everything is donated. We have no idea what we'll get from each delivery. It could be a box of rice, which is versatile and goes a long way ... or a case of generic-brand tomato soup.

Sometimes we get odd vegetables that are completely unfamiliar. Like Jicama. I had to look it up. It's a tuber, native to the southwest, and used in a lot of southwestern cuisine. We have a friend from New Mexico. He knew what it was. I still haven't tried it - although I should so that I can give an informed opinion.

I've been having a lot of fun with talking to our clients about what they can do with the food we have available. Last year, we were inundated with tomato soup. One can only enjoy so much soup with grilled cheese, before it gets old. So, I found five or six recipes, and we handed them out. I had no idea that one could make French Dressing (for salads - used to be my sister's favorite dressing when we were kids) with condensed tomato soup.

This week, we have cabbages and cucumbers, because a local farmer donated a lot of it to us ... and I wondered if I could come up with a recipe ... maybe a twist on the coleslaw theme.

I did.

And it's delicious.


Most of the ingredients are things we have at the pantry. The only thing our patrons might have a challenge acquiring are the spices, in particular, cumin, but for those interested, cumin comes in a 2 oz bottle and costs between $2 and $4, but it will last a long time. It's one of my favorite spices, and I use it on everything from steak to chicken ... and now, coleslaw.

The dressing is a play on the Indian Raita and a tzatziki.

Coleslaw with Cucumber-Yogurt Dressing :

1/2 large head of cabbage shredded
1 overly large cucumber, deseeded and finely chopped
1 c plain yogurt
1 tbsp. fresh mint leaves finely chopped (or 2 tbsp of dried could be used)
1 tsp of vinegar (I used red wine vinegar, but any will do ... or substitute lemon juice for a different zing)
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 tsp cumin
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Mix yogurt and spices together until well blended.
2. Add finely chopped cucumber.
3. Toss with shredded cabbage.

Enjoy!

The dressing can also be enjoyed with flat bread and spicy meat.

For this dish, the cabbage, garlic, and mint were from my garden. The cukes were from a local farm. The yogurt was made by a local farmer, who has just started making yogurt. Vinegar and cumin were not local.

Finding interesting, nutritious and tasty ways to prepare the kinds of food that we often receive at our community food pantry can be quite a challenge, but it's a lot of fun to imagine the possibilities.