Wednesday, September 4, 2013

August Results and Necessary Discomfort

Image Source

I came in $294 under budget in the month of August. When my flex fund is $356 per month, that makes my results seem very impressive. Truthfully, I spent more than usual; I bought a new dishwasher. Since my ancient dishwasher failed two years ago, I'd never replaced it. I was happy to wash my dishes by hand, and to cover that space with a curtain and use it for storage, but Labor Day sales made the offer too good to pass up! However, I did have a very successful run in my additional income endeavors:
I set as much of this profit aside as I could, though I did overspend this month on dining out because work was a nightmare for the last two weeks. I barely had enough break time to eat something, I didn't get enough sleep, and there was no time nor energy to exercise. My grandmother passed away in August, and my sister (the one who just gave birth to triplets) had a medical scare. As a result of the stress and poor lifestyle, my skin broke out and all of my clothes were suddenly too tight. I cried every day and even broke down while at work.

Thankfully, that period of time has passed. Time to get back on the horse and ride, right?

Sometimes being uncomfortable is necessary. Life gets stressful or painful or full of uncertainty, and we have to bear through it. It seems to be in the air as of late, as a number of people in my life are embarking on a path of change:
  • The beau left his old job of 9 years without any new prospects lined up because he was so burned out; he just started his new job last week.
  • A friend of mine quit his job after 8 years to move to a rural cabin and start over.
  • Another friend quit a full-time job that she disliked to work freelance full-time, and it has been very successful for her.
  • Yet another friend quit his day job to open his own coffee shop and coffee roasting business.
  • A former colleague quit her full-time job to hike the Appalachian Trail with her husband.
  • A good friend moved across the country for her husband's job in California.
  • Two of my friends were let go from their jobs and are seeking new employment.
  • An acquaintance of mine just got a new part-time job working for a local ice cream company.
  • A longtime friend quit his job to go to medical school.
  • One of my friends was working multiple part-time jobs until recently acquiring one new full-time position.
  • A friend put in notice to transfer because he is moving to Washington State at the end of the month.
  • Yet another friend quit his job with the TSA to teach mixed martial arts full-time.
All of these have happened in 2013, many of them within the past couple of months. Could it be that changes are around the corner for my job, too?


Necessary discomfort can present itself in any number of ways, including these biggies:
  • Budgeting is uncomfortable. Sometimes we have to make do with less income, for whatever reason. It can be daunting to draw up a budget and stick to it because there is no other option at the moment. It means having to say no, or admitting we can't afford something in the short term. Prioritizing so strictly can feel like a sacrifice, but in reality it can bring us closer to our goals in a shorter amount of time. 
  • Working out is uncomfortable. It can push us to our physical limits, but it is often uncomfortable long before we reach that point. Our brains can trick us into thinking that exertion is pain, but we really know the difference between having an injury and just being tired. Just remember:
Image Source
  • Changing jobs is uncomfortable. Whether it's going back to school for a career change, being on unemployment after a layoff, or seeking a new opportunity, there are a lot of unknowns that creep up in a job search. It's definitely easier to stay at a job that we know, even if we know it isn't right for us. Sometimes the discomfort is in staying at a current job while waiting for another opportunity to pop up. It seems that the older we get, the scarier this endeavor becomes.
  • Moving is uncomfortable. Sometimes work requires relocation. Other times, families unite or divide. Finances can force a new living situation. It can involve looking for a new rental, buying a home, or trying to sell one in a struggling market. Whatever the reason, it can be intimidating and draining. Does that mean we should all just stay put and be inconvenienced? No! Grown-ups have to be grown-ups once in a while, and that means enduring periods of discomfort. Which leads me to this...
I bought the dishwasher because I have been quietly planning for several months to put my house on the market. I went through the trouble of refinancing so I could remove my ex-husband from the mortgage and have exclusive rights to do what I wanted with the home. I spent time, money, and resources updating the house for my own sake, but also for resale value. This dishwasher and the house-painting party I'm hosting next week are the final big elements before ultimately listing the house for sale.

I truly love living here. This house is a great place, I love my neighbors and the neighborhood, and the mortgage is actually very affordable for a single-family home. However, I am not a family; it's just me, and an entire house is far more space than I need. This is a logical (albeit uncomfortable!) step for me to take as I continue to simplify my lifestyle and minimize my spending.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Trading In, Or How I Got A New Camera For Free

Photo Credit

I was recently hired as a freelance sports photographer. Great, right? Well, I'm not exactly a photographer; my strength is in video. Many aspects are similar, but equipment is certainly not one of them. I'd need to my work with my own DSLR camera. The problem is, I don't own a DSLR camera. I have a rinky-dink little point-and-shoot, and it's on its last legs (the lens jammed recently and I was only able to fix it by whacking the camera on a table. It works now, but that tells you what kind of shape it's in).

Last week I had my first shoot, so I borrowed a camera from my full-time job and used it with one of my own SD cards. However, I don't know how long I'll be able to continue to do that. It became clear that if I wanted to pursue the photography gig, I was going to have to purchase my own camera.

The point of taking on more freelance work was to bring in extra money so I can replenish my emergency fund as soon as possible and then start saving for my future (family, travel, retirement, etc.), but making a large purchase like this was sure to set me back. My first plan was to ask my parents to chip in towards a camera as my birthday present, but I'd still have to come up with several hundred dollars on my own.

Last week, while cleaning out the basement to price items for my upcoming yard sale, I realized I had a large number of DVDs, video games, records, CDs, and books that I no longer wanted... but I dreaded pricing them all. And after all that work, they might not even sell! Then I remembered that Amazon has a trade-in program for select items that you can ship to them in exchange for a gift card balance. This way, I figured, I might be able to get rid of a large number of these items, then use the store credit to help pay for my new camera!

I sat down with the first pile of DVDs and entered each name on Amazon's site to see if they were eligible for trade-in. If they were, I selected the condition of the item (some prices changed based on condition) and printed off the shipping label provided by Amazon. I taped it to a box I already had in my basement, filled it with the merchandise, and dropped the item off at my local shipping center. The shipping is paid for by Amazon, and if they decide upon inspection that any of my items are not acceptable, they ship the defective item back to me free of charge. How could I go wrong?

A little bit of my time resulted in a very successful trade-in: nearly 50 DVDs and video games, over 80 CDs, and my old professional 3-chip camcorder. It took a few days for the shipment to arrive and process, but once Amazon sent me my gift card confirmation, I realized I had a gift card balance large enough to buy a brand new camera! I am the proud new owner of a Nikon D3200 DSLR, an extra battery, an additional SD card, and a camera bag... with money to spare! I didn't have to pay a dime out of my savings to get a new camera; I just sold stuff I already had in the house.

I also brought a box full of books, the remainder of the CDs, more video games and their consoles to Half-Price Books and got some money from them, too. I have dozens of records I plan to take to a local used music store later this week. I continue to post old toys and collectibles on eBay with success. And then, of course, there's my upcoming yard sale. I hope to find new homes for some of my gently used clothing and shoes, furniture, and kitchen items.

My house isn't empty, believe me! I still own plenty of records and movies, and I kept one video game system. But by simply paring down what I did have, I was able to sell the excess and obtain $800 in Amazon store credit.

 Yes, I just said eight hundred dollars.

Do you have stuff laying around that you're not using anymore? Do you have way too many CDs leftover from your teenage years? Did you get married and now your DVD collection is sprawling with duplicates? Did you beat all of those video games and now you'll never play them again? Yeah, I thought so.

(This post is not endorsed by Amazon in any way. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author based on her unsolicited experience with the trade-in program.)

Thursday, August 1, 2013

July Results and Deciding What You Value

Changed Priorities Ahead
Photo Credit

Summer is usually brimming with activities, and it doesn't have to be a drag just because I'm on a budget. I did, however, have a bit off an off-month in July.

This month, I drove a lot. I was in my car considerably more than usual, driving to freelance gigs and to my hometown and to a distant campground. As a result, I spent 65% more on gas.

I came in under on my grocery bill again. People gape when I tell them I spend $490 each summer on a 20-week CSA share, but the massive amount of produce I get for $24.50 each week is more than enough to feed both me and the beau with minimal additional shopping. Pantry staples like grains are cheap, and buying fruits in season keeps costs down. I don't eat meat-heavy meals, so one steak is enough for the two of us. Groceries used to be one of my biggest hurdles, but I've found that eating lots of produce (fresh when in-season, and frozen in the winter) minimizes both my expenses and my waistline.

I also came in way under budget on my energy bill. Not using my clothes dryer has been one of the best tools for cutting costs! My entire home's energy bill came in under $57 for the second month in a row. I also barely used my air conditioner because this summer has been so cool.

Everything else came in at the budgeted amount... And then, I bought paint. I bought lots and lots of paint.

366:130 "I will call this: Bored In A Paint Store"
Photo Credit
In the next month or so, I'll be recruiting some handy, helpful friends and family to help me repaint the exterior of my home. A local paint store was having a big sale: 40% off all paints and 30% off all paint supplies, so I decided now would be the best time to stock up on what I'll need. I calculated the amount of paint I'd need to cover my home in two coats, plus what's required to paint the window and door trim. The good news is that I'm painting my house white, so any unopened gallons of paint can be returned because they haven't been dyed.

Also, I ate at restaurants far more than usual this month. When work got so hectic that I was lucky to get ten minutes between meetings, I'd have to settle for food on-the-go. Sometimes, when I wasn't too tired to function, I'd prepare something ahead of time and take it with me. I tried to keep costs down by settling for a bagel with cream cheese or a cup of soup with crackers, but dining expenses still add up. I know I could have done better here.

The cost of dining out plus the paint supplies (even on sale) brought me $320 over my July budget.

Normally, this would be a massive "ouch" moment for me. However, I had an especially good month on eBay, and I also received my benchmark check from work. All of these things were a tremendous blessing: I eliminated extra items from my home, the items went to someone who will use them instead of being discarded, and the bonus check was higher than I expected. I decided that, because of the huge paint sale, I would use some of that extra income to tackle that home improvement task now instead of later.

The rest of the money went straight into my savings. I'm still trying to recover the amount I spent on re-financing my home post-divorce. Since February, I've managed to replenish 60% of my emergency fund.  Because of my strict budgeting, my eBay sales, my freelance jobs, my tax return, and my benchmark check, what I initially thought would take me three years to recover is nearly two-thirds complete in just six months.

I've learned that spending reflects what we value. If you go out for cocktails, have spa treatments, go to music concerts, buy clothing and accessories, or purchase restaurant meals too often... then you can't complain about finances when it's time to pay rent or fix your car!  Some people out there legitimately struggle to pay their bills and feed their families and keep a roof over their heads. Irresponsible spending is not the same thing.

Each time I said no to a drink with the ladies, or turned down a night of dancing to a live swing band, or stayed home to cook dinner with the beau instead of going out to a restaurant, I used to think I was making a sacrifice. But you know what? I still hang out with my friends; I just don't buy booze. Yes, this can sometimes draw inappropriate questions, such as "Are you pregnant?" (Seriously, cut that out.), but I am saving several dollars for every cocktail I don't drink, and I'm also not drinking all of those calories!

I've found plenty of cheap and free things to do in this city over the past month: camping in a borrowed tent with friends (we walked on trails, swam in a lake, and played hilarious card games); relaxing at the beach with a picnic lunch and a good book; taking walks in the park; going to the budget cinema; attending free music festivals (Chill on the Hill and Jazz in the Park); watching Netflix with the beau (we like New Girl); using online coupon sites for discounts on activities (like the drive-in movie double feature we saw last week)!

Now, when I see how much closer I am to having what I truly want, I realize that giving up those things wasn't a sacrifice at all. Life is always about choices. What do you really value?

Monday, July 8, 2013

June Results + What I Realized In San Francisco

Downtown Cityscape San Francisco
Photo Credit
With the arrival of more pleasant weather, I decided to conduct a couple of budget experiments. The first was to stop using my clothes dryer. I decided that for the entire summer (and as long into autumn as possible) I would hang all of my clothes outside and use nature's drying power for free! I've heard that the dryer is one of the biggest energy-sucks when it comes to appliances, and I wanted to compare my June 2013 energy bill to June 2012, 2011, and so on.

My June energy bill was the lowest I've had since moving into this house three years ago. It was $31 lower than last year's bill at this time. I took into consideration that last summer was incredibly hot, so it was likely I also used my central air conditioning last year in June (I have not used it yet this summer). My June bill from two years ago was still over $20 higher than this year's June bill. Moral of the story: use the dryer as seldom as possible!

The second experiment was to "eat my pantry" for as long as possible. With few exceptions, I've been only eating the contents of my pantry, fridge and freezer, along with my weekly CSA that started in mid-June. I pro-rated the amount my CSA costs per week and factored that into my monthly grocery budget. Normally I set aside $200 per month for groceries, but by choosing to creatively use what I had on hand (and also reduced food waste in the process!), I came in well under my budget at $115.

I went over on my flex spending by $80 this month, likely due to my travels to San Francisco. Thankfully, my savings in other areas allowed me to come in under budget overall. I feel like the trip was very much worth it, because I gained so much more than I spent.

Part of this was due to the generosity of my hostess, a very dear friend who paid for cab rides and treated me to dinner multiple times. Her roommate was also very hospitable by letting me use her bus pass and spare house key so I could come and go as I pleased. I met several of her friends, all of whom are amazing people. Spending time with this group taught me many things I immediately set to apply to my own life when I returned.

At dinner the first night, a group of us ladies went to a lovely restaurant and ordered drinks. My friend took control of the menu, ordering three appetizers and several entrees for all of us to share. We also got a couple of desserts. When the check came, she put her card in without even looking at the bill (which was likely more than my entire flex spending budget for a month!), covering the tab for all four of us. I was so grateful for her generosity, and immediately wished I could return the favor. Sadly, no matter how carefully I have managed my spending, my expenses and my salary are still too close in number to make that kind of gesture a reality.

The other ladies had all worked together at one point, and the topic of discussion eventually turned to jobs. It was fascinating to hear these women talk about their work as an enjoyable place, as a fulfilling environment, as a group of great people who were friends as well as colleagues. I've felt so discouraged in my job over the past year, struggling to meet with my boss since last July but with no success. My co-workers aren't friendly with each other outside of the office; there are no group lunches or happy hour cocktails on Friday nights. Everyone goes home to their families. In nearly six years at this job, I have not advanced in rank, salary, or in work friendships.

I mentioned my uninspiring job situation to these ladies, and immediately they told me I was overqualified and should seek another opportunity. They graciously offered to give references or use their networks to build connections for me. Would I be willing to move out there? I laughed and said I wasn't opposed to relocation at some point, but I owned a home back in Milwaukee. Their jaws dropped. "You OWN a HOME?!" they gaped in unison. They couldn't believe it! Of course, houses in San Francisco cost over half a million dollars, easily. The Midwest is much more affordable on that front. Still, it just made the glaring differences in our financial situations all the more apparent. These girls were younger than me and likely making six figures, living in the most expensive city in the United States, and enjoying a healthy social life.

I didn't feel envy for these girls; I felt admiration for them. None of them got to where they are by spinning in a circle and pointing to a spot on a map. These ladies all made choices to move here, to seek careers here, to work hard and earn their standings in their fields. There's no reason I am incapable of doing the same. I do know that I can't get to that place if I keep doing the same things over and over, so something has to change.

How can I restore a social life where going out for an occasional cocktail with girlfriends no longer feels like a critical hit to my bank account? The obvious answer for that would be to cut spending, but I've already been doing that for two years. I've made no large gains; instead, I've managed to stay in one place and avoid the "D" word: debt.

What else can I do? How can I feel fulfilled in my career? How can I surround myself with a great team of colleagues who also double as friends? The easier-said-than-done answer is: find a new job.

So that's what I'm going to do. Time to create my version of San Francisco.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

May Results And The Beauty Of One Ingredient

Green Onion   Green Onion
(Photo Credits Here & Here)  

May was a tricky month for finances, at least towards the end. The alignment of payment dates for several substantial bills (mortgage, credit card, home insurance, etc.) did not coincide with the arrival of my paycheck. I ended up having to dig into my savings to pay these off, and will replenish is once I receive my bi-weekly salary check. For the record, I keep very little in my checking account because my savings boasts a much higher interest rate. Sometimes I have to pull money out if the bills and the checks don't line up, but I always put it back as soon as I can. So, officially "on paper," May ended in a tough spot. But after tomorrow, everything will be back on track again.

I basically broke even last month. I didn't have any extra to set aside for savings, and I really hate that feeling. I went over on my flex spending but came in well under my grocery and car fuel budgets. Gas prices have spiked again (Yesterday it was $3.79 per gallon; today it's $3.99 per gallon), so the math nerd in me calculated how many fewer miles I need to drive per month in order to keep my gas budget the same. It's not much; I strive to use at least 2 fewer gallons, which equates to about 45 miles based on my vehicle's fuel economy.

This means I'm going to be freshening up the old bicycle for my work commute! I only live about one mile from the office, but during the school year I often have to lug equipment to various locations for video shoots. Now that summer's here and school will be out, I'll only have office work to do... which means less stuff to transport. One mile is nothing on a bike, and if I ride home for lunch in between, I'd compensate for gas price hikes in just ten workdays. I told you I can be a math nerd!

I'm making additional cuts in the food department as well. My grocery bills are easily the highest bill I pay outside of my mortgage. My food waste has diminished, but I still spend way too much. I end up impulsively buying ingredients for a recipe I want to make without bothering to see if the ingredients are seasonal or if I can use the remaining product in another way. I've had a small bag of hazelnut flour for ages because of this very reason! I can't even see the back of my spice cupboard, and I shudder to think how old some of them are

I'm challenging myself to "eat my pantry" this month for as long as possible. This means I'm going to make meals based on what I already have in my pantry, freezer, and fridge for as long as it takes to empty them out. Completely. Honestly, I've never had an empty pantry or freezer. That makes me very fortunate. But it also means there is potential for more waste (in product and in spending) because I forget what I have and then it spoils. I'll still have to buy perishables like butter and eggs and fresh produce, but I hope to drastically reduce grocery by spending in this way. It will also make me more mindful when I do replenish my pantry: What items will I choose to buy and store? How many do I really need?

I also plan to use this transition as a way to fill my kitchen with seasonal foods. Summer means a wealth of fresh produce and the occasional farm-raised animal products, so the need to go to a supermarket should be virtually nil. I signed up for my CSA through High Cross Farm again this year, and deliveries will begin in mid-June. By then, I hope to have my kitchen heavily cleared out of residual "winter food." I have the opportunity to eat locally thanks to my CSA, co-ops, and farmers' markets... Why shouldn't I strive to eat that way? It's healthier, cheaper, better for the environment, better for local business... and each food item consists of only one beautiful ingredient.

I've tried a lot of challenges over the past couple of years (Whole30, juicing, no spending, Beachbody Insanity workouts, etc.) but I'm most excited about this one. This is a process that will become a lifestyle change. Eating (and cooking with) one-ingredient foods is a tremendous accomplishment in an age of convenience foods and overwhelming variety. Most of human history has required people to eat seasonally and locally, and now people are so used to being able to visit the produce section of any generic supermarket and buy berries in the winter!

I went to the farmers' market for the first time this season last weekend. The beau and I shared a fresh baked apple cider doughnut and authentic lemonade as we meandered through the rows of vendors. He bought a grass-fed ribeye steak and some asparagus. I picked up some garlic scapes (their season is so short!) to use in a pasta recipe. Then we picked up some frozen local soup to take back and reheat for lunch. I left the market feeling like I'd had a wonderful day, instead of the droll of shoving my cart up and down aisles of items that may have been on the shelves for weeks.

It's such a lovely thing to explore the booths at farmers' markets: seeing just-picked produce with the dirt still on it, sampling foods, meeting and speaking to the people who grew the food, learning about the cows and pigs and chickens and bees that the farmers raise, getting recipe ideas for wacky vegetables, wandering down the paths in the sunshine, inhaling the fresh smells of flowers and veggies and breads and soaps. That, to me, is more enjoyable (and natural) than plodding through a crowded space with inferior produce illuminated by fluorescent lights. It becomes an experience, not just an errand. It's also full of surprises because you never know what will be available or what new food discoveries you may encounter. It sparks creativity in meal-planning.

I know eating these one-ingredient foods is a healthier option for my body, but it also feels healthier for my mind to select and purchase my food this way. I'm establishing relationships with other people in my community. I'm seeing where my food comes from, and I can ask questions about how it is grown or raised (something I can't do regarding the beef at the grocery store). Food should be a pleasurable process, rather than a chore or a source of stress. And it's most pleasurable when you feel good about eating it.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Speed Of Savings... When You Do It Right


Since refinancing my house in February of this year--- when I had to put another percentage down towards my mortgage in order to qualify--- I have replenished half of what I had paid out for the process. I've managed to accomplish in three months what I expected would take me one and a half years to achieve.

For those who have never refinanced a home, the owner must have a certain percentage of the mortgage paid off in order to qualify for the opportunity to get a lower interest rate. Since I've only owned the home for three years, I hadn't reached that amount yet. However, interest rates are bottomed out right now, currently at half of the already low rate where I started. For me, it was worth paying a lump sum towards my mortgage in order to get the lower interest rate. It's all equity for my home, and as soon as I replenish my emergency fund with the amount I spent to do this, I'll be saving money. Initially, though, this was no small amount of cash, and my life savings took a major hit.

Based on my salary--- and the fact that I am now a solo homeowner whose mortgage takes just over half of my monthly income--- I worked out a budget plan that involved setting aside the highest percentage for savings I could muster every month. If I did this obediently, I calculated that it would take me about three years to recoup the refinance costs. Even if it took that long, I'd still have over 20 years of mortgage payments where I'd be saving money.

However, the journey to replenish my emergency fund has gone more swiftly than expected. When I received a tax refund, I put that into my savings (minus the amount to pay for my homeowner's insurance). I've been selling stuff--- mostly childhood toys--- on eBay, mostly for the sake of minimizing and simplifying my life. Profits from sales, no matter how marginal, are put into savings. Commissions from freelance work goes directly into savings. Any money saved because I come in under my budget for the month also goes into savings.

Honestly, sometimes it's really difficult to restrain myself. Going out to a restaurant or getting a new haircut sounds awfully appealing without having to budget for it so meticulously. But then I'd be no closer to reaching my goal, and I'd have very little to show for my lack of discipline. It's not about forgetting to have fun; it's about priorities. Believe me, I have plenty of fun without having to buy alcoholic beverages every week.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Whole30: Day 28


Last week's series of events ended up being a driving force behind compromising my Whole30 challenge. Fortunately, I didn't use life as an excuse to completely disregard my health and nutrition, but instead fell halfway between strict obedience and complete abandon. And now, with two days left of the Whole30 program to go, I am officially declaring the experiment to be over.

In the last week or so, I have at some point eaten everything on the list of foods to avoid for Whole30... with the exception of alcohol. I haven't had a drop. I have, however, eaten gluten and legumes and dairy and sugar. For example, when I had a serving of macaroni and cheese or a slice of pizza, I was consuming both bread and dairy products. Neither of them had an adverse effect on me. I also ate some peanut butter, and it too left no ill effects behind. I had one soda, two days ago (and while I thought I'd enjoy it, it was really disappointing in flavor, so I'll continue to have those sparingly). I've even eaten some sweets, like cookies or Nutella and been fine.

However, on Thursday night I ate a brownie at the beau's work event. I selected the smallest brownie on the plate. It was likely made from a mix, and it was dusted lightly with confectioner's sugar. I left the rest of the sweets table alone and was proud that I indulged in my sweet tooth without overdoing it. Twenty minutes later, my stomach was bloated and sore, and the tremendous pressure made it impossible to sit comfortably.

Yesterday, I made my mom a key lime pie from scratch for Mothers' Day. We shared a slice and it was amazing! It's one of my favorite desserts, and it was a labor of love that was totally worth it! But then I went to my grandmother's house and had a brownie there, and later that night had a small piece of peach-apple pie at the beau's house. My stomach went right back to hating me and I was miserable.

The common thread in all of these incidents? Refined sugar.

I know the stuff is not good for me (or for anyone!) and clearly too much of it quite literally makes me sick. This shouldn't be a shocker to anyone, but aside from desserts it is prevalent in a lot of other foods... including condiments, meats, breads, beverages (including milks), yogurts, "healthy" cereals... you name it, there's sugar in it, for many of the brands. And it is so time-consuming and maddening to stand in the grocery store and read label after label to find which foods do not contain added sugar or sweeteners. I've already spent years doing this and thinning out most of the common brands that are guilty of adding all this sugar, but clearly my sweet tooth encourages me to eat more than my body can handle.

I'm terrified that my body's reaction to too much sugar is a warning sign of health issues to come. I have had regular check-ups and recent blood tests, and I'm perfectly medically healthy with no signs of pre-diabetes. I even lost enough weight on Whole30 to take my BMI into the "normal" range for the first time since my knee injury. That's incredible! But now that I've taken some time away from sugar, I can more clearly receive my body's signals when it tells me exactly what makes me so bloated, gassy, and lethargic.

So many people suffer form the same ailments. For years I was told it was hereditary. I've been encouraged to take over-the-counter pills to counteract the symptoms, but all they'd ever do is cover up the problem. I want to fix the problem! And that means I need to get my sweet tooth under control. No offense to anyone with Type II Diabetes, but I don't want it. I don't want to get to the point where I am required to medically monitor my intake, lest I lose limbs or even die from it. My system has made it very clear that I ingest too much refined sugar, and I'm going to listen to it.

Would I do Whole30 again? Absolutely. In fact, I'll likely adopt much of what I've learned into my lifestyle for good.  My sweet tooth was appeased during Whole30 by eating an orange or a handful of grapes. I even occasionally nibbled on a square of very dark chocolate (85% cacao or higher) to satisfy my craving. And it worked! And I'll still have the occasional cookie or bite of cake on special occasions, but it's more obvious than ever that the best foods to eat are those with one ingredient, or meals I make from scratch so I can monitor every ingredient it contains.

So I don't have a gluten or lactose intolerance, and I don't have any nut allergies. I still don't know what caused that allergic reaction in the first week, but I've been told by several people that my body may have just overreacted to the reintroduction of foods I hadn't been eating. I have not had any allergic reactions since then. Instead, it turns out, my body just revolts against too much refined and fake sugar, and prefers whole foods that are lightly or naturally sweetened. My findings are nothing groundbreaking, and nothing I didn't already know... But now it's imperative that I earnestly apply it to my lifestyle, unless I want my gut to live in misery.

Friday, May 3, 2013

April Results & Whole30 Update

91/365 April Fool! 

Financially, April was a break-even kind of month. I likely would have gone over (again, on groceries), but I had a good month of sales on eBay, so it was basically a wash.

Nutritionally, April was a breakthrough kind of month. I'm now over halfway through my Whole30 challenge, and though there have been a few breaches here and there, the overall effect is impressive. I've lost a little bit of excess weight, but more importantly my digestive system has righted itself. My gut no longer hates me, I have more energy, and even my skin is bright and clear. Though I will likely not give up cheese and pasta forever, it's evident that my body benefits from consuming a majority of foods that have only one ingredient (what a shocker, I know).

Emotionally, April was a heartbreak kind of month. Several events transpired that left me feeling emotionally disjointed and lost. Some days are victorious if I manage to put one foot in front of the other. Others have precious fleeting moments of mundane normalcy. Despite my sadness, I am an optimist, and I feel blessed by my wonderful friends and loved ones for their support. Time spent with them is refreshing and uplifting, and I am grateful to them.

Whole30 has been tricky in this third week because I've gone from not having much of an appetite to craving only a warm baguette with butter (definitely not compliant with my temporary challenge). I've decided to indulge and cut myself a little slack, if I need it.

Ever seeking the silver linings in my life (lest I become a sad, bitter person who can't see the world's many blessings), I made a list of some unexpected benefits and encouragements I encountered this week:
  • I went swing dancing at my old stomping ground the first time in over two years. Not only did I actually remember what I was doing, but many people remembered me as well. I felt very welcome, and by the end of the night, I was pleasantly worn out from dancing and conversation.
  • I dove headfirst into my foreign language practices. I've been using Duolingo, an amazing and totally free language program, to learn French. It has been a wonderful distraction tool that supersedes any other emotional crutch like booze, food, retail therapy, etc. Most of my free time is spent practicing what I already know (currently working on asking questions and present-tense verb conjugation) to master it before moving on to the next level.
  • Other free time is spent reading. I took my current book, "French Kids Eat Everything," outside and enjoyed some sparkling water and warm sunshine out on my patio. I even took off my shoes and enjoyed the feeling of cool grass and soft soil beneath my feet. Note to self: wear shoes outside less frequently.
  • The musician whom I crush on in the most nerdy and shameless way and miraculously became my friend (from this story), has been checking in on me regularly to see how I'm doing. He cheers me up by offering uplifting advice and telling me bad jokes... As in, I'm at home all sulky and weepy, and he sends me a message that he's chopping carrots for the family dinner and, oh, here's a joke about cannibalism. He's a genuinely nice guy who would likely do this for anyone going through a rough patch, but it makes me feel special nonetheless.
  • I've been reinvigorating some wonderful friendships instead of isolating myself in Self-Pity Hermit Land. It's doing some nice things for my social calendar.
  • I started writing in a private journal again. A loved one suggested I start a "grief journal," and the effects of getting all of the yuck out of my head and into text has been enormous.
  • I've been going to bed early and sleeping really well. My cat loves all of the extra snuggle time.

How do you cope with setbacks? Do you lose sight of your goals or do you focus on them even more?

Monday, April 22, 2013

Whole30 - Week One Update

I started Whole30 last week in an attempt to figure out if my body's functional problems were related to something I was eating. I was still experiencing some residual effects of the gastrointestinal discomfort for the first day or two, but by Day Three, it had disappeared. By Day Five, my stomach had flattened out. I hadn't really lost weight, but the inflammation in my body from several weeks of distress had finally subsided. It looked like I'd lost a few pounds. I felt great!

The transition didn't leave me with a sugar crash, as I'd anticipated. I had occasional sweet tooth cravings, but I'd temper it with a watered down glass of orange juice or a handful of grapes... and it worked. I didn't believe it would, but it did! (Those who know me understand my love of all things chocolate.) One day, a work lunch featured a taco bar. I loaded up my plate with ground beef, diced chicken, jalapeños, lettuce, tomatoes, and olives. I stayed away form the cheese, sour cream, and taco sauce. I took one tortilla so no one would give me bizarre looks (I didn't feel like explaining myself) and discarded it after my meal. My deconstructed tacos tasted wonderful, and I remained loyal to my plan!

On Friday, the beau and I traveled up north for a weekend getaway at a bed and breakfast. I packed a cooler with food to cook in our fully functional kitchen, so I would be prepared to stick to my Whole30 challenge. After seven hours of travel (and briefly getting stuck in a blizzard), I cooked up a Whole30- and beau-friendly meal: Italian sausage made with pork and chicken served over a sauteéd blend of onions, mushrooms, bell peppers, garlic, and jalapeños, covered in a veggie-lover's spaghetti sauce. The flavor combination tasted like pizza! I didn't even miss the crust or garlic bread.

The next morning, I cheated on Whole30. Our wonderful hosts cooked an amazing breakfast of homemade scones with lemon curd and raspberry jam. Yeah, there was no way I could look her in the face and say, "I'm on a special short-term diet, and even though you got up early to cook this for me, I'm not going to eat it." No chance in hell could I say that to this sweet lady! So, I ate it. I also had a baked egg (I did ask for no cheese on the egg) and a sausage link. I waited for several hours to see if my body would react horribly to my diet cheat, but other than my stomach digesting very loudly, I saw no ill effects. For lunch I got right back on the wagon and ordered a broiled whitefish fillet with roasted vegetables at a local restaurant.

The next morning, our wonderful host made Dutch pancakes (oven baked pancakes with fruit in them). Again, I couldn't say no. I figured I'd get right back on the wagon after another delicious B&B breakfast. But at that point I'd already resigned to the fact that I cheated that weekend and so I justified to myself another indulgence at lunch: a grilled cheese sandwich. They are such a delightful comfort food to me, though nothing about it was Whole30! It came with sweet potato fries and an aioli dipping sauce. We also started lunch with a mushroom appetizer.

Boy, did I pay for it. But not in the way you might think.

After finishing my meal, my tongue started to go numb. The sides and roof of my mouth felt sore, similar to that feeling of burning your mouth on hot pizza and experiencing that tingly soreness the next day. My mouth filled with the taste of metal. What was going on? I was having an allergic reaction! Thankfully, nothing severe happened, and these were my only symptoms. However, they did not subside all day. My mouth was still sore and tasted like metal ten hours later, when I was going to bed. I lost my appetite for the rest of the day, nibbling on only a few kalamata olives to put something in my stomach.

Even this morning--- though the reaction had subsided--- I didn't have much of an appetite. I ate a few roasted almonds for breakfast, and brought an apple and orange to work, but I have yet to touch them. I've been wracking my brain, trying to determine what caused the reaction. I believe it was an ingredient in the aioli, or something in a seasoning that caused it. Unfortunately, because I did not prepare it myself, I can't narrow it down further than that.

I am, however, right back on Whole30. I'm even determined to turn it into a Whole32, to make up for the two days I cheated on during my weekend trip. This morning my gut was back to hating me, proving that I need to stick with this in order to get well. I pledge to be far more strict on my intake now, and if anyone tries to tell me a little cheat won't hurt, I'll remember the penalty I paid the last time I broke protocol.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Listening To My Gut


When I first mentioned how I was considering doing the Whole30 challenge to a few people, it was met with some skepticism. The Whole30 program--- which involves abstaining from sugar, alcohol, grains, dairy products, and legumes for thirty days--- probably just sounded like another fad diet gimmick that involves a temporary deprivation to yield temporary results. I was hesitant to bring it up at all, since I've started a number of healthy lifestyle approaches in the past year but have not followed through on them. The less-than-stellar reaction had me actually questioning my ability to follow through with it before I'd even started.

I can't believe I almost let my insecurities conquer me again.

After about ten seconds, I took a deep breath, and explained the idea behind the challenge. The goal is not for me to find a quick-fix weight loss through choices that can't be realistically maintained. I'm choosing to embark on this journey because it involves eating real, unprocessed food: fruits, vegetables, meats, nuts, seeds, and olive and coconut oils. I want to prove that this can be also done on a budget. The dietary omissions are not for slim-down purposes, but rather to determine the cause of my body's functional issues by using the process of elimination.

For several weeks, my gut has been trying to tell me something. My digestive and excretory systems have been malfunctioning, and not in a pleasant way (see my weirdly popular post relevant to this subject here). What I'd initially thought might have been a "bug" has lingered long enough to arouse suspicion. I started to think that this may be my body's way of telling me that I have a sensitivity or an intolerance to a certain food or group of foods. Though I had not been restrictive in my eating habits for most of my life, I feel that as I've made more healthy food changes over the past year, I've become more in tune with cues my system gives me. Either that, or now those cues are strong enough to speak a whole lot louder.

Eliminating foods that are common sources of digestive issues--- for one month--- will help me to determine if I do have a food sensitivity. Then, as I slowly incorporate these items one by one back into my diet, I will be better able to gauge my body's reaction to them. I have to tell you, quite frankly, that I'm sick of being at work and feeling my stomach cramp and bloat. It's embarrassing, it's miserable, and it's clearly a sign that something is off.

The idea of cleaning out my system is currently far more appealing than the prospect of weight loss... which is saying a lot, because losing dress sizes has been a priority of mine for some time. I'm already mourning the loss of my beloved peanut butter and my comforting bowls of oatmeal and pasta... but then I remember that this isn't forever. It's only for thirty days... that is, unless I discover one of them to be the root cause of this gut rot.

My first day of Whole30 was yesterday. So far, I feel no withdrawal effects, and my stomach has been behaving. If this does work (and if I actually do it, it should work), I'll not only save myself some serious discomfort, but I'll also likely see physical results. And then my insecurities won't have a leg to stand on. What the hell should I care what anyone else thinks, anyway? It's not their body, it's not their digestive system, it's not their choice... it's MINE. And I'm going to keep trying hard to find what works for me.

I'd like to thank the lovely Claire over at The Ascent Blog for sharing her experiences with Whole30 and for being my inspiration to start this venture. (She just got engaged to one of my dearest friends and that makes me so happy!)