Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Breaking The Consumerism Habit

It's Day 28 of the Spending Fast, and I have a serious case of retail cravings. That's right... I actually have a tremendous urge to buy something. This is appalling to me. How did it become so hard-wired in my system to be a consumer that I would feel withdrawal pangs after just a few short weeks of a spending sabbatical?

I spoke briefly on the topic of advertising, how it's everywhere and how nothing that needs to be advertised is a necessary buy. And yet, here I am, feeling like it's been too long since I "treated" myself to a purchase. The very realization disgusts me. Blech.

As gross as it is to realize how much consumerism has affected my life, it's not all that surprising to find it difficult to break away from it. To not spend money is like saying "f*** you" to every advertisement you see on TV, on the web, before Youtube videos, on the sides of buses, on billboards, on our phone when we play Words with Friends, and so on. It's completely counterculture, against what the majority of people around us do, against what the majority of our information media tells us to do. We are programmed by such saturation to believe we really need more things to be happy.

But that only means we will then need bigger spaces to accommodate those things, and ultimately that means we need more money to afford all of that. And the prices of products start to rise because we keep using up the resources needed to make those products, thereby driving up raw costs. And then we need to buy more items to fix these things when they break, clean them when they're dirty, store them when they're not in use (you wouldn't need all those plastic containers if you didn't have any junk to put in them, would you?), and a final resting place for them when you are finished with them. In order to make more money to buy more things, we take on more workload, more hours at the office, more schooling to get more degrees to have more career options...and more debt. It's a very ugly descent, if you think about it.

Plain and simple: The less you buy, the less you need to clean (and by supplies to clean them, and throw out the packaging), the less you need to fix (and buy supplies to fix it), the less you need to store (meaning you don't need to rent storage or you can downsize you living space), the less you throw away (so you're helping the environment and reducing demand for items so new ones don't have to be made from our limited resources), and ultimately you spend less. This saves you time! That means you can work less and do more of what you want to do.

Francine Jay (Miss Minimalist) mentioned something in her book "The Joy of Less" that rattled me and will stick with me forever: she asked readers to imagine tying one end of a string an item you own, and then tie the other end to a part of your body. Imagine doing this for literally every single item. This includes every sock, every fork, every pen, every bathroom product, every DVD, everything packed in those boxes in your attic. Would you feel trapped and weighed down by your possessions? Jay's book goes on to explain in further detail how to pare down your stuff so you can help lift that burden. It's a short read and I highly recommend it for anyone anywhere who buys things (in short, everyone).

It's thinking about this string method that keeps my retail bug at bay. I am not planning to go so extreme that I never buy anything ever again, but it will make me think twice about future spending choices. If I'm going to vote with my dollars, I'm going to save them for what is really important to me. It will take a lot of self-control to avoid going shopping as soon as April 1st rolls around, but like all bad habits, they take time to modify. My goal is to break my consumerism habit, no matter how weird my friends and family and co-workers think it may be.

Why do you feel compelled to buy things? Do you think hard about each and every purchase you make, and how it affects not only your bank account, but also your state of mind, your feeling of freedom, local and national prices, or the environment?

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Spending Fast: Day Twenty-Two

Spring has officially arrived--- though with the weather we've been having, it would seem spring came quite some time ago. I've tried to make the most of it by enjoying meals on the grill and playing catch in the park.

I made two "purchases" using my gift cards. Though I could have made it to the end of the month without milk and peanut butter, it will do wonders for my mood to have them around. I used a little over $5 of my $10 grocery gift card. Then I went to Target and used $6 of the $8 or so left on my gift card balance. I used it to pick up a Pyrex storage container. It's a lovely round glass bowl with a tight-fitting lid, and hold all of the lunches I bring to work. I can stuff a large salad in there, or bring leftovers to re-heat in the microwave (after all, heating foods in plastic containers is risky, since toxins from the plastic can melt into your food).

Despite the gorgeous weather and the seemingly overwhelming success of my Spending Fast thus far, I can't seem to feel confident about my current standings. I am becoming increasingly concerned about my upcoming surgery. The operation itself is less of an issue than the connecting factors.

For example, my to-do list at home has grown quite long. It takes much more time to perform simple household tasks than it used to. I can't carry heavy or large items because my weak knee can't hold the weight and it keeps me off-balance. My knee gets tight because I have to lock it in order to bend over when picking up items I have dropped. I don't have a handicapped parking permit, so I sometimes have to walk to my office from the far lot, which takes about ten minutes.

To compensate for my knee injury, I tend to lean on my good leg more often and sit when I can, as standing makes my both of legs tired (the bad leg due to weakness, and the good leg due to overuse). This has caused my body to shift, and now everything is out of whack. I have chronic pain in my lower back, shoulders, and neck. These body aches have caused restlessness and poor sleep.

Work is also getting overwhelming. Knowing I will be absent for about two months has me scrambling to get as much done ahead of time as possible, yet new assignments keep coming in. Job security is also an issue; I worry that I will somehow be seen as expendable during my sabbatical. Most of the time, my supervisor gets credit for what I do, so many don't know when the work actually comes from me. I'm just not really sure what to expect when I am recovering.

Also, what will happen post-surgery? The amazing beau is stepping up yet again, offering to help me out every day when he finishes work. But what about during the day? My parents live over one hundred miles away. In the early stages of healing, I won't be able to get out of bed to do anything without help from someone. And where am I going to get a temporary bed to install on the main floor of my home? Navigating stairs is out of the question, and the only restroom in my house is on the ground level.

There's a lot to think about, a lot to do, and I feel rather helpless. One of the few elements of my life that actually seems controllable at this point is my (lack of) spending. It's a way of coping with this time of uncertainty in my life.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Spending Fast: Day Nineteen

I attended my aunt's funeral on Wednesday, only to be stuck over one hundred miles from home because I got a nail in the sidewall of my tire. (No, I don't know how I did it either.) Thankfully, my father is an auto mechanic and was able to order me a tire replacement, but said it wouldn't arrive until the next morning.

The bonus about this was that I'd get an awesome home-cooked meal from my mom and catch up on some much-needed sleep by turning in early. The bad news was that I'd be pressed for time to get to my CT scan appointment the next morning, nearly two hours away. I got the tire replacement, an oil change, new spark plugs, and cool contour windshield wipers. I consider them a lovely gift from my dad, since I did not approve for nor ask for these other modifications to my car. =)

$46 in gasoline later, I was sitting in my hospital pajama pants waiting to have my bone scan. I received the equivalent radiation of thirty chest x-rays in a matter of moments, and was sent on my way. Now I have to await a follow-up appointment with the surgeon to determine how extensive the surgery will need to be.

I also polished off the last of my medical deductible with a nasty $630 bill for my MRI visit. From here on out, all expenses will be covered by my insurance, as long as the medical provider is approved by my coverage (and it will be, because I always check ahead of time). Paying that bill was deflating both to my bank account and my stress, because now I know it's over. I got the lump sum done and out of the way... and I was able to do so because I hadn't been spending money on anything else.

This month's additional expenses now include (so far):
  • Medical bills
  • Emergency vet visit
  • One tank of gasoline
I have still not needed to go grocery shopping. I just ran out of milk and peanut butter, and my giant bag of homemade trail mix is winding down. I still have a few eggs remaining, along with some strawberry jam I made using a friend's amazing recipe. I even made orange juice from a can of that weird frozen gunk that has been living in my freezer for who knows how long. Breakfast is still on, everybody!

Last night I made caramelized onion and mushroom risotto, which will provide leftovers for a few days. I wanted to use up the last of the mushrooms as not to waste them. I also recently made pizza using random ingredients as toppings: leftover pepperoni, roasted red peppers from a jar, sliced black olives, mushrooms, and garlic. I even made a really lame snack out of tortilla chips with shredded cheese and taco seasoning. I put them in the microwave to heat them, and called them Sad Nachos, because that's what they were.

Still to come: Spending time without having to spend money.

Thursday, March 15, 2012


One thing I've really noticed now that I'm not spending money: every single advertisement I see is for something that is not necessary. Yes, food is necessary, but I never see advertisements for things like asparagus or berries. We don't NEED to be tempted to buy things required to survive. Everything else is optional. It really is. I don't know why this never fully occurred to me before.

I'd elaborate more on this thought process, but the events of the week have left me absolutely exhausted.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Day Twelve: Hospitals, Hockey, and Haircuts

This has been a bit of a rough week.

My auntie passed away over the weekend. I tried to call her when she was in the hospital, but after being transferred numerous times and being on hold for over fifteen minutes, I finally got a hold of her son just in time for the call to cut out. I asked my mom to please let her know I was was trying to get through to her, and she did. Still, I wish I'd had the opportunity to speak with her myself. Her funeral is on Wednesday.

Loki continues to get sick. She still has an appetite so I'm hoping she can ride it out, but if she throws up for much longer I'll have to take her in again.

I met with a surgeon today regarding my knee. He showed me how he plans to remove healthy cartilage from a non-weight bearing part of my knee and replace the damaged cartilage on my kneecap. The donor space will then be filled with synthetic goo and smoothed over. A cadaver's ligament will replace one of my own. The loose cartilage fragments will be scoped out, along with any remaining fluid due to swelling. Pending a bone scan later this week, I may need to have my leg bones shifted back into place. I'm looking at six weeks of healing time post-operation, followed by at least three months of rehab. While recovering from the surgery, I'll need to put my knee in a dynamic splint that will bend and straighten my knee for six hours a day--- every day--- for six weeks. I will have to take off work and find a temporary replacement at my job. I will have to get a small cot or bed to set up on the main level of my home since I won't be able to navigate the stairs.

My brain was so full worrying about the surgery and funeral and missing so much work that I accidentally left my lunch at home. I found a packet of hot cocoa mix in my desk and stirred it into a mug of hot water. Then someone in the office brought doughnuts and I snagged the least offensive-looking pastry. Crisis averted.

To help lighten the mental burden, the beau and I attended an Admirals hockey game using the free vouchers I won in a raffle at a They Might Be Giants concert. He even treated me to dinner... in a restaurant! It felt like such a treat! We also used a free rental coupon at the local video store and enjoyed some cinematic goodness. He's been very supportive of this Spending Fast, and has been nothing short of tremendous during my whole injury process. That makes everything less daunting.

I also got that haircut I mentioned I'd be splurging on as my (hopefully) only luxury purchase this month. I hadn't trimmed the locks since September and they were getting pretty ridiculous. Now I have a great hairstyle to distract from my knee. So far, this has been the only non-emergency purchase I have made during the month of March.

Still to come: a funeral, a CT scan, a tank of gas, and musings about finding wealth outside of income.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Spending Fast: Day Eight

I'm over one week into my Spending Fast and, with the exception of an emergency visit to the vet, I haven't needed to purchase anything. My car's gas tank is under half now, but I'm hoping to make it to next week before I need to refuel. I'm not feeling the financial crunch in my kitchen at all; in fact, I still have fresh produce in good shape, and I've been really conscious of finishing off any leftovers from previous meals. The other night I made New York Strip pepper steaks with buttermilk whipped potatoes and roasted asparagus. Mmmm, that was a lovely lunch the next day.

I have a $5 gift card to the grocery store that I keep forgetting about. I won it in a work bowling tournament last year and have been carrying it in my wallet ever since. There's a balance of about $8 remaining on a Target gift card as well. I am going to do my damndest to avoid spending money on food for as long as possible, but if I do have to buy some groceries I'm going to utilize these cards first. I'm really wishing I had some bananas. Otherwise, I still have two oranges, a bag of carrots, 5 pounds of apples, several onions, a box of mixed salad greens, some fresh kale, and a bunch of asparagus to work with before I even have to dive into my frozen produce stash. I have, however, been battling a tremendous craving for chocolate croissants. Seriously, it won't go away.

In addition to saving money, I've been improving my quality of time spent. The time and money I would normally spend going out to dinner is now spent making meals together with the beau. The time and money I'd spend going out on the town and having cocktails is now spent watching films like "Enter the Dragon" and working out in the comfort of my own home, for free.

This change alone has had its own perks; I've lost nearly 5% of my body weight since I started my At Home Spending Fast Exercise Regimen for Gimpy Injured People (patent pending). 5% doesn't sound like much, but do the math with your own mass and you'll realize it is more of an accomplishment than you think... unless you're a toddler, in which case you should not be trying to lose weight. And you should also be on TV because you are a child prodigy for navigating and reading blogs.

Point is... I'm not living off of ramen noodles, I'm not bored, I'm not just sitting on my ass, and I'm not hating this.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The War on Waste

How much thought do you put into your garbage can? If you're anything like I was, that process consisted of "Throw stuff away. Take it out when it smells. Repeat." But sometime over the last year or so, I started to think more specifically about not only what I throw away, but how I throw it away and why I'm tossing it out in the first place:
  • Every time I purchase a food that I don’t make or grow myself, there is a package to throw away. A wrapper to discard.
  • When I buy shoes, they come in a box, wrapped in paper, stuffed with more paper and little plastic odor-absorbing balls that say Do Not Eat.
  • When buying furniture or kitchen utensils or toilet paper or underwear it all comes covered in plastic or bubble wrap or cardboard or zip-ties or tape.
  • When giving and receiving gifts we cover the package in more packaging, smother it with bows and ribbons and tags, or shove it into a bag drowning in tissue paper or foil.

And then there is the waste generated by the production of these items: the pulps, the plastics, the metals, the chemicals, the remnants, the by-products, the rejects. Since we don’t directly see this waste, we often push thoughts of it from our minds because to even begin to try to deal with it seems overwhelming.
Maybe it’s not my calling to put an end to all of the unnecessary waste generated by such a consumer-centric society, but I can easily do my part by consciously limiting my contribution to it. This was my life even before the Spending Fast:
  • I have a garden where I grow a small amount of my own produce. I grow herbs and spices in my windowsill.
  • I bring my own grocery sacks and produce bags to the store to save on plastic use. This was hard to remember to do at first but now it's second nature to me. Initially I bought these mesh produce bags for $5, and now I think about all the flimsy plastic bags I'm not wasting.
  • I do not buy processed foods like chips and cookies and frozen pizzas and instant dinners and individually wrapped snacks; instead, I make them myself... and they taste a lot better homemade. Ever made your own potato chips? You can do it in the microwave. Careful, they're addictive!
  • I recycle and sort my waste accordingly. This was a requirement when I moved to a certain part of the city, and plagued me at first. Now I separate glass/plastic and cardboard/paper without even thinking about it.
  • I do not buy magazines or subscribe to catalogs. I read any articles that interest me on the Internet for from the public library. Aren't magazines just 60% advertisements anyway?
  • I don’t purchase products that have gobs of ridiculous packaging. This plague seems to be especially prevalent in childrens’ toys, which is why I don’t buy toys for my nephew. For Christmas I gave him some old toys in great shape that once belonged to me. My old Whoopie Cushion was his favorite gift out of the dozens he received from the family, and it cost me nothing.
  • I make holiday gifts for my friends and family: dinner, cookies, treats, cookbooks, paintings, etc. I wrap them in gift bags I’ve received from others.
  • I have switched to buying mostly digital music and books (though I do have a record collection).
  • I do not buy bottled water. Ever. It is one of the biggest waste producers out there, both environmentally and monetarily. I use a water filter at home and have a portable bottle I refill when on the go.
  • I cook virtually all of my own meals. If I do eat at a restaurant, I patronize local establishments instead of chain restaurants or fast food drive-thrus.
  • I make my own stock from food scraps and chicken bones, then freeze the stock to use for later in soup or risotto. It sounds like a lot of work, but it's as easy as throwing everything in a big pot, filling it with water, simmering it for a while, and straining out the flavorful liquid. It squeezes every last nutrient and ounce of flavor out of the food I buy.
  • I don’t keep things that I don’t really use. It’s just something to lie around taking up space, something I have to clean, something I have to fix if it breaks, something I have to throw away when I’m sick of it. Instead, I give it to someone I know who would enjoy it or I donate it. My attic space is virtually empty.
Could I do more? Of course. I plan to. It takes time to re-train the mind to not want or need to buy things. It took me several years just to get to this point. I still struggle with wanting to buy new clothes and belts and concert tickets and massages and lipstick and vacations. This Spending Fast is hopefully going to help me conquer some of that. This is personally a very significant journey for me.
I also feel I am in the minority when it comes to the simplicity of consciousness of being. It’s difficult to do because it’s essentially counterculture. We are made to feel that we need to give gifts, that we need to buy things for other people and ourselves. Purchasing such items just creates a demand to manufacture more of those products, thereby generating even more waste. And when you have too much junk, you have to waste your time sorting through it, cleaning it, fixing it, figuring out what the hell to do with that basketball lamp that seemed like a good idea at the time.
(Seriously, why do you own this?)
I don’t know about you, but some of the best gifts I’ve ever received were not things, but experiences. This is why I like to travel; I'm gaining so much more for my dollar by encountering new cultures and lifestyles than I am buying souvenirs and trinkets. I find value in the way I spend my time and not my money. Am I a bad friend if I play a board game with her on her birthday instead of buying her scented lotion? Which one would she appreciate more? Will she think I'm a cheap-ass friend? Something tells me she has enough scented lotion anyway.

How about you? Do you take product waste into consideration when you buy? What are some of your favorite purchases? Were they items or experiences? Why do they have such value to you?
Still to come: why do we buy stuff, really?

Monday, March 5, 2012

Spending Fast: Day Five

Up until this point I have spent exactly zero dollars and zero cents on anything! Two nights ago I went to see a play for free. Last night I attended a concert I had purchased a ticket for some time ago.

This weekend was not all fun, however. Unfortunately, my cat Loki had been sick for the past several days. She would vomit foam multiple times a day, and she wouldn't eat. Her spirits were good, but I was concerned enough to call the vet. He made an appointment for this afternoon, worried that her sudden illness could be something serious, like liver failure. Thankfully, tests showed she had a treatable intestinal infection. She was given antibiotics and a half pound of IV fluid. $155.50 later, I have a happy but tired kitty and personal peace of mind.

(Loki looks grouchy, but if you'd been poked with half a dozen needles at the doctor, you'd be grouchy too.)

I also received over $1300 in medical bills in my mailbox today. I immediately called my health insurance company and was pleasantly surprised to find out I had already paid over 90% of my deductible. Most of the bills I was holding in my hand would be entirely covered by insurance. What a relief!

Friday, March 2, 2012

Surgery Looms

On day two of my Spending Fast I met with an orthopedic specialist regarding my knee injury. Upon examination of my leg, she showed me the MRI taken of my knee last week. (Side note: MRI technology is amazing!)

She recommended I proceed by making an appointment with a surgeon. I will need to have the cartilage fragments and fluid scoped out of my knee, which is a fairly minor operation. However, I may also need to have a screw inserted on the side of my knee to hold it in place. If it is determined I should have that surgery, I would not be able to put any weight on my leg for six weeks post-operation. That means I can't drive, I can't go to work, I can't navigate steps, and I can't climb in and out of the shower. Gee, I sure know how to fall like a champ!

The good news is my meniscus, ACL, MCL, and quadriceps are all intact and undamaged. This means that after the operation and rehab, I should be able to recover most of my strength and mobility. Knowing there is a light at the end of the tunnel is great news to me.

This is where preventative measures really came through for me. I've been paying extra for short-term disability coverage at work for the past four years, so I will receive those benefits when I am laid up after surgery. I also have accumulated enough sick days in that time frame to cover the six week spectrum, so I will also be able to receive my full paycheck during that time. This month's Spending Fast should knock off a huge chunk of my annual deductible. Hopefully that will take care of most hypothetical money woes.

The other details--- such as how I will get in and out of bed, who will feed my cat, and which books to read in my downtime--- will work themselves out when the time comes.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Spending Fast: Day One

Sign Of The Times... 
(Photo Credit

"I have always thought the actions of men the best interpreters of their thoughts." - John Locke

The Spending Fast is here! The first day will likely be the easiest, as I have the most resources at my disposal. Since I want to remember how my thought process changes over the next month, I decided to provide a lot of detail in this first Spending Fast post. For example, I speak at length about my meals because I realize now how much thought I had to put into planning my food choices ahead of time.

This morning I flipped the wall calendar to March and stared at the dozens of blank squares, thinking about how I wasn't going to spend money on any of those days if I could help it. My credit cards came out of my purse (save for one in case of an emergency, but it has an extremely low balance and the statements are still mailed to my parents' house, lest I use it and shame myself). Then I went about my day as per usual, only knowing I wouldn't be spending money.

I was greeted right away with words of encouragement from friends, which also helped start me off on a good note. The beau is amazing as well; he even offered to take the Spending Fast with me as a show of support. He does think my $20 grocery limit is a little ridiculous, and it likely is, but that's the fun of a challenge. In fact, I'm even more determined now to see how creative I can be with what I already have.

I went to the kitchen in stratagem mode, scanning the fridge for the most perishable items to use and eat first. Already I was more mindful of how to try to minimize waste. Bonus! I ate a very ripe banana with a swipe of peanut butter for breakfast (because peanut butter is one of my food groups, no lie). I'm very much a fruit-for-breakfast kind of gal.

I meet with one of my friends once every week for lunch. We always go to the same coffee/bagel shop. Sometimes we bring our own lunches there because we like to be rebels. Today I planned ahead and assembled a salad using the last of a bag of greens, sliced strawberries, a handful of walnuts, and some some leftover chicken I roasted the other day, followed by a drizzle of poppy seed dressing. My friend told me it looked like pretty café food. I told her about my spending fast and she thought it was a great idea, as she and I have similar views on most matters and would likely sound crazy to any eavesdroppers.

Around 3:00 I started to get hungry at work. Every time I thought about how dumb I was not to pack a snack, I drank some water. Before I knew it, I'd consumed 24 ounces of water. Another bonus!

The beau came over for dinner, and I made quesadillas--- in an attempt to finish of the roasted chicken--- but I didn't have any flour tortillas, so I made them from scratch. They only require five ingredients and taste about a gajilion times better than store-bought! I have a novelty quesadilla maker that normally inhabits the extreme far corner of my cupboard, but tonight I actually bothered to fish it out. I added shredded chicken, cheese, homemade taco seasoning, and some ancho chile peppers in adobo sauce that were hanging out in a can in my pantry for a while.

At the end of day one, I'm already more mindful of several things, just in knowing I "couldn't" spend any money:
  • First and foremost, I thought more about what I ate throughout the day. I realized it would be smart to plan meals and menus ahead of time. I also realized I didn't snack as I normally do, because my brain went into preservation mode: "Save as much of your food as you can! It has to last the whole month!"
  • I also realized that I don't really have any desserts in my house. As someone who has a major sweet tooth, I briefly wondered about how my body and mind are going to change as the single bag of chocolate chips in my cupboard dwindles to nothing. I'll likely go through a refined sugar withdrawal (which feels like a terrible hangover) and maybe even lose a little weight.
  • Thirdly, I thought about how to waste as little as possible. I don't want to have to throw any food away, and this is something I'm guilty of doing all the time. If I can't go out and buy something to quickly replace it, then I definitely don't want to toss it in the trash if I don't have to. The same mentality now applies to things like paper towels, stamps, etc. The less I throw away, the fewer trash bags I need, which also saves money in retrospect. Saving even a little money means getting that much closer to my goals.
  • Finally, I realized how bizarre this commitment is to many of my friends. Some people I know rarely cook for themselves, and they order takeout or hit the drive-thru or eat in restaurants most of the time. Some folks need to buy their latte every morning in order to function. Some can't fathom the idea of not going out to the bar for a single beer or cocktail for an entire month. What if there's a great Groupon deal? What if those shoes go on sale? What about seeing that cool new movie? I see now that my mindset of preparing all of my meals at home and limiting my social life to free activities is rather unusual. It's very counterculture, and I plan to expand more on this in future posts.