A Shift in the Narrative

winter sun through trees
Winter Up the Lane

Long story short: no it is not possible to spend just $400 per month on groceries. Not for a family of four. Not in Northern Ontario, in the winter. Not while eating a healthy diet. And certainly not while working full time.

I feel a bit bad about leaving you on that cliffhanger, as it became evident very quickly that my ambitious grocery savings goals were a bit over-the-top.

I think I can account for my bills being super low that month by the fact that the kids went away to camp for 4 days, and we also probably ate a lot out of our pantry. It was definitely not a “normal” month, and that record low grocery spending did not continue past September of last year.

One major thing that changed was that I started a full-time contract in November which goes till mid-May. Working full-time means having less time at home–especially less solo time–which means much less time for cooking and baking, especially time-consuming things like tortillas and crackers. Because of this, I’ve been buying a few more convenience foods, and the kids have been eating more cereal!

The up-side is that our overall income has gone up significantly for these few months! Because of our awesome financial skills, we’ve been able to save a good chunk of cash, and we are just days away from paying off our car in full! This will leave us debt-free apart from our mortgage, and we can start saving for a summer vacation, and for some upcoming house repairs.

This is a real dream come true, to pay off our car. Now we are looking at saving up an emergency fund, investing more in the kids’ education plans, and putting some money aside for a future car.

It is a complicated shift in mindset for me, to move from the urgent sense of paying off debt, into a perspective of saving for the future. I have never been very good at this side of things, and have relied in many ways, on the shame and stress of being in debt to kick me in the butt and provide me with the energy to meet my goals. It isn’t being very kind to myself, but it has worked!

Part of me is worried that switching the stick for a carrot will leave me short on motivation. I worry about my ability to keep reaching toward these more positive goals that are more than many people are within reach of.

I also realize–in terms of this blog–that the narrative of “I am saving up for a comfortable future” is much less appealing than “I am working hard to get out of debt”. I see the privilege that is behind that narrative and I wonder if the next part of this story really needs to be told.

so much snow in our yard
Snow in our yard

I remember back when I lived in Ottawa, I had a very frugal friend. We shared many tips on frugal and eco-conscious living, trading cultures and shopping strategies. I felt a lot of kinship with her — until I visited her home. She not only owned her own home in an expensive part of town; she also owned a rental property! I felt my feelings of kinship diminish, and a sense of resentment creep in. Here I was busting my butt just to afford to feed my family, and she was using these frugal skills to build her investments?? What a betrayal! I soon got over my reaction to her apparent wealth (and reminded myself that one never knows what’s going on behind the surface) and our friendship continued for several years. She did have good frugal tips to share!

But I don’t want to do that to you, my readers! Lure you in with perceived struggling kinship only to reveal that I’m actually out of debt and slowly building my own wealth.

And yet, I do want to give anyone reading who is in that difficult place, that place of scraping by, a concrete sense of hope. Hope that if you keep going, if you keep saving and getting smarter and paying off debt, you have a good chance of reaching a place of stability. There are no guarantees in this life: health problems can drop in out of nowhere, moving to another city can erase years of progress, job losses and babies and investing in education, these can all set us back.

But the frugal skills we learn are a kind of insurance because they can help keep us stable through crises, changes and stages of life. And once we have weathered those storms, we will have the luxury of a bit of choice around what to reach for next.

 

 

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A Return to Frugal Living

Return to Frugal Living
“Stock Photography — Canadian Coins” by KMR Photography on Flickr

It’s been a wild ride over the last few years, and I have neglected my blog very badly. I’m so glad it is still here where I left it! Life has taken me in many different directions, down some fascinating paths, and I’ve ended up in a really wonderful place, for which I am so grateful.

I’m currently working part-time at the library, my partner is working at a non-profit within walking distance, the kids are happy at their school, and we are surrounded by family, friends and nature. And boy, have we summered hard this year! The kids agreed it has been the best summer in a long time, filled with swimming, camping, cousins, and even a quick trip to the water park!

Besides our great summer, I am also happy at work–happier than I have ever been in any other job, period. I love my job so much! It combines my life-long love affair with books, with my gifts of welcoming and service. Being part-time, it allows me to continue to spend a lot of time with the kids, and since they are in school, it means (at least from September to June) I can keep my house clean! That is something I still have not managed to figure out when the kids are home.

The other side of part-time work is the salary that goes with it. Work less -> earn less!

But I would rather this situation than a year ago when I was managing the Farmer’s Market, and then I got a full-time contract at Public Health, and THEN I got my part-time library gig! For a little while I did have three jobs, and while we pulled through, the stress took a toll on my health.

My Return to Frugal Living

One of my most useful skills has got to be my ability to “Buckle Down” when times get tough. When I am motivated–and when the need is there–I can cut spending down like no one’s business. My family kinda hates me for it, but I keep the bank accounts in the black, and I love learning more tips–for free of course!–for keeping our hard-earned money safe from overspending.

Unfortunately, to my eleven-year-old, there is nothing more eye-rollingly un-cool than a spending freeze.

Unfortunately for her, I find frugal living utterly fascinating–at least while I have to keep it up. The minute the need goes away, I usually collapse from the strain of it. But luckily while going through it, I am usually able to stay motivated to get through the tough time.

How Blogging Helps

When I first started this blog back in May, 2009, we were an apartment-living two-income family of three in Ottawa, Ontario. This blog helped me transition to the lower salary during my Maternity leave that October, and then it helped us move to living on just my partner’s salary. A couple of years later, I was able to carry out my dream of homeschooling my kids, and continuing as a one-income family.

Many pieces of luck came together, and we were able to move back to Sudbury (our hometown), and buy a house of our own. Here we have survived one-income living, job losses, appliance breakdown, as well as other transitions. While I haven’t been around much over the last few years, the skills I tested and honed on these pages have helped us achieve our dreams, and get the family through many financial ups and downs.

The Next Adventure

Right now I am days away from a really exciting time: getting to be a home-maker, and having time to write! If you read between the lines, you may understand that I am facing reduced hours at work, which requires us to tighten our belts once again.

But to be honest for a moment, beyond my current need to revisit my frugal ways, I have truly missed this space: for sharing ideas, inspiring others, and pushing my own skills and thinking beyond where they were before.

This Fall, I am planning to check in here more often, sharing my newest experiments in frugal living–bigger and weirder than ever before!–plus my insights into green and healthy living, parenting and being a person in this challenging and incredible world of ours.

One Word for 2017

savor-tea-565x510

If you’ve been a reader for awhile, you know that I love New Year’s traditions! I love the idea of starting fresh, of re-focusing and re-energizing. One tradition I have carried forward for a few years now is choosing one word to summarize and bring focus to the goals one holds for the year ahead.

In 2011, my word was Focus.

In 2014, I chose three words: Create, Engage and Grace.

In 2015, my word was Revive.

And this year?

This year feels different. For the first year ever, I really didn’t have anything I was wanting or craving for Christmas or my birthday. What I wanted most of all, was to spend time with my family and friends doing simple seasonal things like sliding, singing carols and making cookies. I was blessed to give and receive some lovely gifts, but it was the get-togethers, and the calm times at home that I will remember.

This past year I’ve come across study after study showing how the practice of holding on to good thoughts, experiences, tastes and even memories, can increase people’s joy and happiness. The very concept here is deep and powerful. Its very nature begs a thoughtful and studied response.

And so, my word for 2017 is Savour.

I love this word, and I love the sense of grateful anticipation that it brings me. Grateful anticipation might seem like an expression that’s looking both forward and backwards, but what I am talking about looking forward to practicing gratitude for all the small gifts each day brings. I don’t take them for granted, but I do know there are a thousand things to be grateful for in each day we live.

Savouring and gratitude are clearly linked, but savouring seems even more joyful, murmuring for us to snuggle deeper into our experiences, breath in the aromas, hug a little longer–and end with a promise of savouring again, in delicious memories. The more we savour the moment, the longer and more clearly it lives inside us.

Savouring brings us inside the moment as we mindfully deepen our awareness of what is happening NOW. It is definitely a mindfulness meditation practice. And in this way it is also a prayer, a turning toward and appreciating the gifts that are given bountifully each day.

Savouring combats worrying, the negative headspace I too often find myself in. Worrying is about the future or the past, while savouring brings us into the positive stuff going on in the present moment. I’ve read–and experience tells me this is true!–that you can’t end a negative thought pattern or habit without replacing it with a positive one: I will aim to replace my worrying with savouring whenever I catch myself.

Savouring is also frugal, as it adds to the value to whatever we are doing. We are doing something nice, and we are aware that we are doing something nice. We are building a conscious memory that we can turn to again and again, so the experience goes deeper, and lasts longer, than if we just sail on through. Sure, the ticket costs the same, but each time we savour the memory–of that meal, that holiday, that moment of laughter shared with a friend–we get more and more value from that experience. Savouring each experience fully leads us away from mindless consumption, saving money and resources in the long run.

Now I know that I am not going to suddenly enter into a permanent state of rapture, savouring each second of being alive. Some things we just have to get through. And really, it can be mentally exhausting to be fully present in each moment! But I look forward to returning again and again to the present moment, and finding new ways to savour the tastes, aromas, sensations and experiences that I may be blessed with in 2017.

Which Way?

fiery-sky-with-wordsSo, this might surprise a few people (especially people who knew me 10 years or longer ago), but I am currently in the process of making a big decision. A decision I never expected to be making: whether or not I should enter the ministry. Like, to become a Christian minister in the United Church of Canada. Not a choice I ever dreamed or imagine I would be facing, but here it is.

It is a very hard thing, to decide–to discern–one’s calling. Is it to parenthood? Is it to secular leadership? Political or community leadership? Is it to freelance work? To being a keeper of the home? (Okay, I’m definitely not called to this one, though it might help us all out a little bit!)

I have many of the gifts that are required by a minister: I am a good listener. I understand the admin work required. I enjoy wrestling with engaging texts, and I enjoy speaking in front of people. I am inspired by sharing my values and encouraging people to believe that things can get better. I also have a handful of people who think I can do this thing, and who are willing to support me through their time, attention and effort.

And yet, I have so many questions, so many concerns. Can I do this work, and still be the parent I want to be? Will becoming a Minister mean that suddenly everything I say will be interpreted through that lens? That people who think all Christians are stupid, or judgmental, or bigoted, will then assume that I am stupid, judgmental and bigoted? Will I ever get to be at home?

That’s a real mix of questions, both mundane and political, but the two foremost concerns are around my family, and my audience. I want to be here for my family, especially with my daughter on the brink of the tender tween years. I don’t want to be taken away with meetings, faraway coursework, or even writing papers. I want to be *here* for both of them, with both of them, soaking up this one chance I get to be this close two two other humans. They are my whole world, and I won’t let a process undermine that.

As for my audience, I really don’t know how I feel about putting on that mantle of Minister. I have come to have great respect for ministers, but that has been a long journey, and a very personal one. I worry that by joining this huge organization called Church, my voice will be heard only by Christians, that people outside of the church will automatically filter me out — like I once filtered out people who called themselves Christian.

(It really is true that as you judge, so you will be judged.)

So here I am, near the start of this journey, trying to decide which way to go. I’ll let you know where my journey takes me, and I’d love to hear about yours.

Fierce Hope

purple-pink-cloudscape-edited

Today
and every day I believe in hope.

I fiercely believe in hope.

I believe in peace.

I believe in abundance. There is enough for all of us: enough love, enough food, enough money, enough hugs, enough jobs, enough. We have enough to share: we have to know what is enough, and we have to share our extra.

I believe in love.

I have seen the power of choosing peace and love in transforming relationships that could have gone sour and stayed there. Instead, they are now supportive and truly joyful. I made a choice, and luckily they responded, but I look back at what I did with pride: I made that. Choosing love and peace worked magic–on me as well as them.

I believe in loving someone first, and getting their story second, if at all.

I believe in forgiveness. The grace to witness failure, and allow things to start again, again and again.

I believe in the richness of diversity. I want to hear the stories, more and more stories, of where did you come from, and how did you get to this time and place, and how are things now? There is enough time to listen, and enough love to care, and enough space for your story and mine to exist together.

Today is the day we must start speaking our values. Writing them down. Articulating them to ourselves, our children, our friends, our neighbours.

Because these things, these simple things–Hope, Peace, Abundance, Love, Forgiveness, Diversity–they are stronger and they are better and they are more worthy than hate, anger, greed, fear, blame, grudges and exclusion.

Today, I hold fiercely onto hope.

Because in the face of hate
it gives us
power.

Goals and dreams

sky-and-trees

Last night my husband said to me, “You know the expression, ‘You’ve never had a problem that x wouldn’t fix’? Well, for you, x is a new blog.”

Predictably, I started another new blog, this one with the goal of working towards a new career as a freelancer. Two days ago, that seemed like a completely realistic and marvelously perfect solution to my life. Yesterday–less than 24 hours later–I was already having doubts.

The truth is: I have no idea what I want to be when I grow up.

My instinct tells me this is one of the biggest myths of adulthood: that we’ve got it in the bag. From where I sit, I just don’t think we’ve got “it” at all, and we can’t seem to find the bag anyway.

Back in 2009 when I started this blog, I used it as a tool to work towards staying home with my kids. I planned my meals and cloth diapered and nursed two kids and made my own bread and laundry detergent, and lots and lots and lots more.

And we made it work. Somehow, between my domestic machinations and my husband’s career growth, we went from two incomes, to one income plus maternity leave pay, to one income plus a half-time income, minus childcare costs, to one plus a half-time maternity leave pay, to–finally–one income living.

On that one income, we went from car-free urban apartment renters with two little wee kids, to car-owning home-owners in a much smaller town, with two bigger kids. Until some big changes happened, bringing us to today: two incomes (though we both work less than 40 hours/week), and two kids in school. We are so fortunate that we made it through the transition of job loss so smoothly: our blessings are many!

Goals and Dreams

I guess you could say we’ve hit a bit of a stride by now, a year and a half after the big changes hit. I have been at my job now for over a year, and with experience, it gets easier. My husband is in a job that uses many of his skills. And the kids are happy every day when they burst out of the school doors into our waiting arms–and yes, we can *both* be at pick-up, almost every day. Plus, we get to walk to school and work, often all together as a family.

There are so many blessings. I mean, I have SO MUCH! A house, car, a beautiful family, both immediate and extended, a garden, and a cat. I walk to work, have enough healthy food to eat & feed my family, and I am healthy and able. I have kind friends and a wonderful church, and my freedom. Running water–both kinds! Safety and democracy! Shouldn’t I be happy?

But I am going to whisper my sinful, shameful secret:

still ache to be at home more, to do more of *my own* thing, and less of *someone else’s* thing.

Maybe it’s an INFP thing, or maybe it comes from a shameful lack of gratitude. In any case, there’s something about my life that itches like an ill-fitting sweater.

All I know is that in order to move forward, I need to have options. In order to increase our options:

We need to pay off our debts.

So, as of today I am re-harnessing the power of my blog! Not a new blog, but this good old blog that’s been with me through so many changes and challenges, losses and triumphs. This old blog that already has wonderful loyal followers, interesting SEO, and a lot of content that’ll be good for me to revisit!

Anyway, since 2009, I’ve never had a problem that *this blog* couldn’t fix!

It all started with dental floss: the story of how I became a Christian

Photo on 2015-12-08 at 6.01 PMI didn’t mean to become a Christian.

I was brought up as a good agnostic, daughter of an ex-Catholic and an ex-Anglican, both of whom had left the church in their teens. I had been inside churches for weddings and one or two funerals, and once with my Girl Guide troupe when I shockingly took communion despite not having been baptized (actually, in retrospect I think it a United Church, so it might have been okay after all!). I conveniently edited out my having received a Gideon’s bible some time in about 1985, in which I pledged my soul to Jesus, and advanced in my years dutifully shocked by the horrors committed in the name of religions, Christian and otherwise.

From the time I was a teen to my years as a progressive intellectual (self-diagnosed), I believed anything to do with Church was about as evil, exclusionary, and judgemental as it can come. I actually felt torn about supporting good works being done by church groups, simply because they were being done in the name of Christ.

Of course I had reason to be sceptical. But I had no idea that there were all sorts of Christians, and all sorts of churches. I never suspected I would find a church that I could join, let alone love.

I think it began with dental floss.

When I lived downtown Ottawa, when I started this blog in fact, I worked very hard to tighten up our finances so that I could afford to stay home. I paid a LOT of attention to grocery prices, and I was lucky to have a friend with a car who was generous enough to bring me to far-flung magical places like Food Basics and Costco. I would be lying if I said it wasn’t exciting.

One day at Food Basics, as we were loading our bags into our respective carts, my friend noticed a pack of dental floss that had been forgotten at the bottom of the cart. He checked his receipt: nope, they hadn’t charged him.

At this point I probably would have said to myself something like, “Oh, it doesn’t matter. It’s only dental floss,” or more likely, “I’ll just pay for it next time I come,” and then forget all about it.

But my friend immediately took it back to the cashier and paid for it. The two of them chatted and laughed about it, and away we went. I was impressed and I told him so.

“I try to live a values-based life.”

Values. Not something I had thought very much about. I mean, I knew what values were, and I knew what many of my values were, but at that point I hadn’t thought carefully enough about my values to apply them to my small day-to-day interactions like this one. I knew to teach people decently, but beyond that I just hadn’t really thought about it.

A few weeks later, we were having another conversation, this time at the park by the swings. He was a stay-at-home dad, and our kids were close in age. We were talking about choosing that lifestyle, choosing to stay home despite the income hit, and he said something that got me right in the heart:

“St. Peter doesn’t look at how big your house is, when you get to the pearly gates.”

On that day, at a time when money was tight, the kids were burning me out, and I didn’t know many people who really understood, or whom I could count on for a word of support; when, if I expressed any doubt or stress, people were more than likely to tell me, “Why don’t you just put them in daycare and go back to work–it’s bound to be easier.” . . . On that day, his words brought tears to my eyes.

Not the idea of the spiritual reward at the end of an earthly life, but the idea that there was a doctrine of thought—a theology—that supported me in my choice to stay home instead of working, a choice that puzzled most members of my family, and which seemed at odds with much of our culture.

My friend said to me that day, “Colleen, I think your values are really in line with some of the main-line churches. I think you might really like it.”

I can’t really say what exactly had changed in my mind from the religious intolerance of my youth, but at that moment, I craved support, the kind of support that would see me through the next few years of being home with my kids. I wanted to find more people who chose their values over their net worth. I wanted to be with people who would think it was more than okay to choose being at home with kids over buying a home.

I was sceptical, but also open. And the next week I decided to go and see for myself.

The first church I walked into was impressive in its size, and probably in the CVs of its congregation, but the sermon didn’t light me up, and the music was lacklustre.

But the second church I entered . . . well, it took my breath away. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I’d come on their feast day, and they were celebrating with a chamber orchestra joining the substantial sized choir, producing the biggest most glorious sound. Thinking back on this, it seems that God opened a door for me, and with that music, cracked open my heart. I sat in the back and wept the whole service.

It wasn’t hard to notice that this was a beautifully different kind of place. Their mission statement spoke of welcoming ALL people, and indeed there were people from many walks of life: people of all ages, abilities, gender expression, sexual orientation, economic status, colour, you name it. The people in the room were the living proof that this congregation practiced what was being preached.

After that first time, I had to go back. I started to attend every week, and after a couple of weeks of observing from the back row, I actually got up the nerve to approach the open table. I had never heard of such a thing, and I had to re-read the invitation several times: that Everyone is welcome to receive the body and blood of Christ in the sacrament of Holy Communion.

It was again a hugely emotional experience—one of the most bittersweet humility—to take the bread, and the wine. Bitter because of what was inside me: a gate, a barrier between me and all that was spoken of, about the Spirit’s Love for all humanity, about God creating us all as beloved children.

But tear-blindingly sweet to take it and to allow the thought: This Is Also For Me.

And did I mention that it was a sung communion liturgy? And that the priest was a former professional singer? Oh, that music . . . I still miss that music.

Yet there was still so much a barrier inside of me, and I still felt so very separate from everyone else in that room. I yearned for Communion every week, and wept at the Anthem, but when reciting the Nicene Creed, and singing the traditional hymns, I gagged on the words that seemed part of an ancient judgemental and exclusionary script.

That changed a little bit a few weeks later when I timidly asked the young woman in charge of Christian Education, “So, does everyone here believe the same things? Does everyone else here believe everything they say and sing?”

“No, not really,” said this young, tattooed, completely cool and normal-looking girl, who wore a cross bravely front and centre:

“Everyone here is on their own journey.”

That metaphor: that overused and worn out metaphor of a journey . . . that metaphor was what let me in. I could sing and puzzle over the hymns. I could read and consider the Creed. I could take what lessons the Scripture readings held, and look for the useful wisdom in the sermon.

That was the beginning of my own journey.

That day with my friend at the swings, I wouldn’t have believed where my path would eventually take me. And I have no idea how far it will take me yet.

But I’ll save those stories for another day.