Confessing my sins

Garage Sale find: a crock for Sauerkraut
Garage Sale find: a crock for Sauerkraut

Well, today was the Great Glebe Garage Sale, and I definitely took a holiday from my no spending month. Here is my list of sins:

We got our bike for our girl, $30 for a Dora 2-wheeler with training wheels. It was more than I wanted to spend, and it weighs a TON, but hey, now we have it. Some better deals were some red Tommy Hilfiger running shoes for her for $1, a few dolls for $1, an old school red bandanna for $1, a Joan Didion book for 50 cents, and a crock for making sauerkraut for $2. Besides that was a plate of cookies for $10 (proceeds going to charity) and a sandwich mid-day for $5. Oh, plus one extremely packed bus ride home.

Overall, the yard sale itself was exhausting, but I’m fairly happy with what I brought home. Afterwards, my friend hosted an amazing brunch.

And now I’m home–both kids melting down and feet aching–it was a huge effort to not just go with the flow of my spendy day and get pizza. No, I chopped and whisked and grated together a little omelette for supper. Can I count that as a savings of $20 that would have been spent on pizza? Does that help atone for my spending sins???


No-Spend Update

So, with two weeks into my no-spend month, I figure it’s time for an update. So far, I’ve only splurged on food items: a lemonade with a friend, some chocolate almonds, pizza lunch at playgroup, a box of Pocky and some Smarties. While technically food is allowed, I’ve been avoiding buying non-essentials, or trying to!

The thing I love about a no-spend month is that it makes me pause and think each time I feel the urge to buy something. I think, “Can I live without it? Can I use something else in its place? Do I really need it right now? Can I get it for free somewhere else?” These are the questions I suppose “should” be automatic when I think of buying something, but I often forget and whip out the debit card.

The benefits of my no-spend month have been:

– a healthier bank balance. For some reason we started creeping into the red last month. Not sure why that was, but in any case this no-spend month comes at a good time.

– feeling good about myself when I come up with creative alternatives.

– teaching my daughter about restraint and waiting. I’ve told her, “We’ll have to wait till June to buy that,” and she understands, because she knows we’re not buying anything in May.

TricycleOne thing I might allow myself to buy this month is a two-wheeler for my girl. She has been dedicatedly “practicing” on her tricycle to get ready for a two-wheeler. She is very determined, and I admire her so much for it. So, I will go to the Great Glebe Garage Sale after all, and I will go early, and I will look for a bike for my girl because I think she’s ready for one.

Back to Frugality

A hand-made doll

As I’ve mentioned on here, I haven’t been feeling very frugal these last several months, mostly since my son was born in October, and also during Christmas and our March/April birthday madness (five family birthdays from March 21st to April 5th!). But those seasons are past, summer simplicity is here, so I feel it’s time to bring back the frugal.

In light of this, I’m making May a No Buying Month, with the following omissions:

– groceries (though I will endeavour to stick to my budget)

– gardening equipment and supplies

– some glass freezer containers so I can start making my partner some microwavable frozen lunches

I’ll try otherwise to hand-make gifts, make do with what we have, and avoid the Great Glebe Garage Sale (though that one will be really hard!). I’ll try to focus on gardening, cooking for the freezer before the hot weather sets in, and sewing some gifts.

What do you think? Is May a good time to do a No Spend month for you?

Reflecting on my “Buy-Nothing” Month

Last month I participated in Crunchy Chicken’s Buy Nothing Challenge. The challenge was simple, to not buy anything other than groceries for a whole month. That meant no meals out, no new clothes, etc. but also no haircuts or other salon services, no makeup, and no entertainment expenses either.

There were a few exceptions: necessary things like school supplies or other purchases, and also “items used for canning and food storage”. This was explicitely spelled out as jars and pectin for canning, which I did purchase during the month.

I did, however, extend this definition somewhat with my first and most major breach of the month, to buy a small chest freezer. Yikes! But let me explain: as many of my readers know, I’m expecting a baby very soon–2 weeks and 5 days to be exact (well, as exact as “due dates” are anyway!)–and I figure one of the most important things I can do right now is to stock up on prepared food that I can rely on for our dinners once the baby arrives and things are turned upside-down. I also bought some zip-lock baggies to store food in the freezer.

I remember two and a half years ago when our daughter was born, we were not prepared food-wise and we ended up getting a lot of convenience items. Take-out pizza, grocery store barbecued chickens, frozen lasagne, etc. Since I got my freezer in early August, I’ve been slowly filling it with yummy food like spaghetti sauce, chili, pesto made with local organic basil, and a variety of creamy soups. It’s so great to know I won’t have to spend the extra money for lower-quality additive-rich food later on.

I made other purchases as well during the month, such as my weekly cookie purchase at a cafe where I meet friends to knit. This is a sanity-saver, as it’s just about the only time I get away from the house and my toddler. Don’t get me wrong–I love spending time with her–but it’s great to be able to escape once a week and not be a mom for about 90 minutes!

Some other things I bought were perhaps less excusable: one lunch out for myself, plus at least two lunches at the farmer’s market when I was not organized enough to pack one up before leaving. Replacement batteries for my kitchen scale (an absolute necessity!!), a stupid $10 sippy cup (in a desperate, failed attempt to night wean my 2 1/2-year old off the boob and onto the bottle . . . didn’t work!), a gift for some friends, and a bunch of second-hand baby stuff, which we got an AMAZING deal on. I’m probably forgetting something, but I do feel I did pretty good . . . until the last couple of days.

For some reason, buying nothing felt pretty easy for most of the month. I had lots of energy to prepare lunches and snacks, and I was okay delaying or redirecting my desires for new fun stuff. We went to the park, brought our lunches, met friends at the park, avoided the mall, ate well at home instead of going out to restaurants, made gifts by hand and gave away jam. For entertainment we went to the library and hung out in our building’s back yard. We watched downloaded TV shows and used our membership to go to the museum. We had fun, and life really didn’t change in any way!

But for some reason toward the end of the month I started to suffer from buy-nothing burn-out. I started to want. I started to NEED! So on August 31st when my mother-in-law came visiting in her Mazda Protegée, I took advantage and went . . . to Ikea.

Utility Cart
Utility Cart

Oh my, but it was satisfying. After a full month (almost!) of not indulging in “retail therapy” I broke down and bought: some new bibs, a “park” potty and a baking kit for my little girl, a children’s rug with roads drawn on it to put in the living room for the coming baby, some light bulbs for our hall light that’s been burnt out for over 2 months, and a tray to serve as the top of my “utility cart” so I can pretend to be a hotel chambermaid as I move through the apartment tidying up. Overall, $100 damage. Way to go out with a bang!

So, what did I learn from my “Buy-Nothing” Month? The first thing I noticed was that our bank account was much healthier than usual (before the Ikea trip in any case!) . The second thing I noticed was that I do have a bit of a retail addiction that works against my otherwise frugal lifestyle. In times of stress I react by buying things. Not for myself (as in makeup or clothes) but for my daughter, or more likely, for the house.

If I can keep a watch out for my triggers, and work through these desires in a less spendy way, that will help me to maintain my frugal lifestyle. For the moment, I’m thinking about doing a buy-nothing week once a month, just to keep myself trained and practice being better organized.

Buy Nothing Challenge — Day 1

I blogged a little while ago about answering Crunchy Chicken’s call-out to folks to buy nothing for the month of August.  I wrote about being slightly worried about it, and having to use the last couple weeks of July to prepare . . .

Well, I didn’t do much preparation.  I mean, I didn’t get my hair cut or buy the blush I’ve needed for months now, or even buy any nail polish to make my toes look cute now that the flip-flops are out.  I’ve bought next to nothing the last 2 weeks, and now am heading into August with a good track record, but a bit of a want list.

On the top of my want list is a chest freezer.  I’ve been debating (with myself mostly) the purchase for a few months now, but a recent weighted pro-con list tells me that this will be a good thing for us for the coming months.  Mostly because it will mean I can cook ahead and stock up on meals so that when tiny baby arrives, we’ll have a few “convenience” items stashed away that are cheap, nutritious, and close-at-hand.  I’d love to get a bunch of local organic meat, and some organic chickens to freeze for busier times, and put up some chili and spaghetti sauce and even some pizzas.  Yep, I’ve got this freezer filled up already, in my mind.  Did I mention I’m probably getting a 3.5 cubic foot model?!

Anyway, this weekend seemed like the perfect weekend to get it.  We ended up not going on our trip to Sudbury so I thought, “I know, I’ll get the freezer and start my cooking this weekend–perfect!”.  Except . . . the Buy Nothing Challenge.  I KNOW the rules allow for “preserving” tools, and I KNOW we are free to confess our purchasing sins, and I also KNOW it’s just a fairly random set of self-imposed rules . . . but still!

I guess the kicker is that we are still paying down debt, and while this is a purchase that will need to come (if it is to come) before the end of September (otherwise, Tiny Baby will be here, and my chance to stock up beforehand will be long past!), we still don’t really have the money for it.

So, I have not yet rushed out to buy the freezer.  I don’t know if I will, or perhaps I’ll wait until the cooler days of September, when I’ll be home pre-baby for a couple of weeks.  The Buy Nothing Challenge has reigned me in.

One other purchase that didn’t happen . . . we walked by a yard sale on the way to the park today and there was a GORGEOUS Mikasa set of a serving bowl and platter–pale yellow around the rim, and a seventies-era floral pattern in the middle, with one bright red poppy in the design.  Beautiful.  And I didn’t even ask the price, because it is Buy Nothing month, and do I NEED a serving platter, beautiful though it may be?  Nope.  I will survive just fine without it.

Anyway, it’s still day 1 . . . is it really true that August has 31 days?????

The “great” depression

I’ve been feeling mildly depressed for the last few days.  I’m not sure why, but I’ve been tired, unmotivated, overwhelmed by small things.  It could be pregnancy fatigue and hormones, or it could be the baking fail I experienced yesterday (why do I trust Internet recipes, WHY???).

When I get like this I get the urge to buy things.  Home appliances, self-care luxuries, shiny electronics.  It’s dangerous.  I know I’m not alone–I believe much of the stuff we buy is often rooted in a desire to feel better, to fix something that feels wrong inside.

So I thought I would share with you one of my techniques for finding a better mood.  It’s rooted in the writings of Dr. David Burns, author of Feeling Good, The Feeling Good Handbook, and the more recent When Panic Attacks, among others. Dr. Burns is a cognitive therapist, and his techniques have been proven through research and clinical trials.

While nothing replaces the power of one-on-one cognitive therapy, when I get down for a few days I find I can usually pull myself out using some of his self-help techniques.

The most basic is the “triple-column system” of writing down your thoughts, identifying the “thinking errors” contained in those thoughts, and then writing a rational response.  You really need to write it (I usually do this on a Google Doc–I insert a table that is 3 columns and 20 rows, though I don’t usually use all the rows); just pondering your problems won’t help.

Identifying the thinking errors is key.  Here is a list of the ten thinking errors:

  1. ALL-OR-NOTHING THINKING – Also called Black and White Thinking – Thinking of things in absolute terms, like “always”, “every” or “never”. For example, if your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure. Few aspects of human behavior are so absolute. Nothing is 100%. No one is all bad, or all good, we all have grades.
  2. OVERGENERALIZATION – Taking isolated cases and using them to make wide generalizations. For example, you see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat: “She yelled at me. She’s always yelling at me. She must not like me.”
  3. MENTAL FILTER – Focusing exclusively on certain, usually negative or upsetting, aspects of something while ignoring the rest. For example, you selectively hear the one tiny negative thing surrounded by all the HUGE POSITIVE STUFF. Often this includes being associated in negative (”I am so stupid!”), and dissociated in positive (”You have to be pretty smart to do my job”).
  4. DISQUALIFYING THE POSITIVE – Continually “shooting down” positive experiences for arbitrary, ad hoc reasons. In this way you can maintain a negative belief that is contradicted by your everyday experiences. The good stuff doesn’t count because the rest of your life is a miserable pile of doo-doo. “That doesn’t count because my life sucks!”
  5. JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS – Assuming something negative where there is actually no evidence to support it. Two specific subtypes are also identified:
    • Mind reading – assuming the intentions of others. You arbitrarily conclude that someone is reacting negatively to you, and you don’t bother to check it out.
    • Fortune telling – anticipating that things will turn out badly, you feel convinced that your prediction is an already established fact.
  6. MAGNIFICATION & MINIMIZATION – Exaggerating negatives and understating positives. Often the positive characteristics of other people are exaggerated and negatives understated. There is one subtype of magnification/catastrophizing – focusing on the worst possible outcome, however unlikely, or thinking that a situation is unbearable or impossible when it is really just uncomfortable: “I can’t stand this.”
  7. EMOTIONAL REASONING – Making decisions and arguments based on how you feel rather than objective reality. People who allow themselves to get caught up in emotional reasoning can become completely blinded to the difference between feelings and facts.
  8. SHOULDING – (Necessity) Must, Can’t thinking. Shoulding is focusing on what you can’t control. For example, you try to enlighten another’s unconscious – they should get it. Concentrating on what you think “should” or ought to be rather than the actual situation you are faced with will simply stress you out. What you choose to do, and then do, will (to some degree, at least) change the world. What you “should” do will just make you miserable.
  9. LABELLING and MISLABELING – Related to overgeneralization, explaining by naming. Rather than describing the specific behavior, you assign a label to someone or yourself that puts them in absolute and unalterable negative terms. This is a logic level error in that we make a logic leap from behavior/action (”he called me a name…”) to identity (”therefore, he’s a jerk”).
  10. PERSONALIZATION & BLAME – Burns calls this distortion “the mother of guilt.” Personalization occurs when you hold yourself personally responsible for an event that isn’t entirely under your control. For example, “My son is doing poorly in school. I must be a bad mother…” and “What’s that say about you as a person?” – instead of trying to pinpoint the cause of the problem so that she could be helpful to her child. When another woman’s husband beat her, she told herself, “lf only I were better in bed, he wouldn’t beat me.” Personalization leads to guilt, shame, and feelings of inadequacy. On the flip side of personalization is blame. Some people blame other people or their circumstances for their problems, and they overlook ways that they might be contributing to the problem: “The reason my marriage is so lousy is because my spouse is totally unreasonable.” – instead of investigating their own behavior and beliefs that can be changed.

You might need more information than this, especially when it comes to writing your “Rational Responses”.

But basically the process is like this:

1. At the top of the page, write the emotions you are feeling, and give them percentages.  So if you are feeling a little bit sad, it might be Sad 10% or 20%.  If you are feeling the saddest you’ve ever felt in your life, it would be Sad 90% or 100%.

2. Create a table with three columns and about 20 rows.

3. In the first column, write the thoughts that are plaguing you.  These might be “She hates me”, “Life isn’t fair” or “He should help me with the dishes.”  Don’t write feelings here, but rather your thoughts and judgements about yourself and the world.

4. For each thought in column 1, read through the Thinking Errors and then write the errors that apply to each thought in column 2.  There might be just one or there might be several.

5. This is the magic one.  Based on the thinking error you’ve identified, in column 3, you write a rational response based on logic, and find a way to replace your flawed thinking with something that makes more sense.

This is the technique in a nutshell.  I’ve created an example that you can view (and use yourself–just remember to “Save a Copy” and make sure it is not public before you start sharing your deepest & darkest!).  Click here for my example chart.

I really recommend reading Dr. Burns’s books for a deeper analysis of the thinking errors, as well as examples of more logical thinking.  He also has other techniques that work best for different problems, like procrastination, self-esteem issues, etc.

This technique works well for mild cases of depression or a persistent bad mood. If you are thinking about or considering killing yourself, call 911 (or your local emergency number) right away. If you have ongoing depression, any place is a good place to start, and self-help techniques are clinically proven to work well, but it can be very helpful to work with a therapist as well.

Let me know your techniques for breaking out of a bad frame of mind!

Buy-Nothing Challenge

You may have noticed on my sidebar, a button that reads “Buy Nothing Challenge, August 2009“.  If you click on the button it will lead you to the Crunchy Chicken’s August challenge, which is (you’ll get this if you’ve been paying attention) not to buy anything for the entire month of August 2009.

The rules are (from the Crunchy Chicken herself):

* No new clothes
* No new gadgets
* No new furniture or housewares
* No salon services
* No makeup
* No tools
* No whatever the hell else people buy

Food is an exception, as are canning and preserving supplies, and I’m assuming bills are okay to pay.  And there’s a weekly “confessional” if you either break down or if you have something planned ahead of time, like a trip (as we have planned for the first weekend in August).  Other stuff, you might want to plan ahead, though obviously going crazy in the weeks beforehand would kinda counteract the point of the challenge.

So yeah, I’ve pledged my name in there as a non-consumer for the month of August. I’m a bit nervous, though I’ve been putting in a whole lot of Zero-Dollar Days lately (where I spend absolutely nothing for a whole 24 hour period–no exceptions).  I don’t know how I’ll do with the challenge: will I panic and rebel against it? will it make me super paranoid about spending money afterwards?

I predict that in many ways it won’t be hard.  I predict that I will be faced with challenges of the “want vs. need” variety, possibly regarding craft or kitchen supplies.  But that just brings me back to working through my stash.  As someone wrote in the New York Times reader-submitted Survival Strategies for the Recession, “Use it up, wear it out, make do or do without.”

So if you’ve got a birthday in August, I hope I either remember it this week, or that you enjoy home-made stuff because that’s what you’ll likely be getting. I’ll update you on how it’s going.  Let me know if you join the challenge too!

Mindfulness Monday

In the past month, two books on this subject have come to me randomly.  One was a free “after hours yard sale” find, and another was put in the “giveaway” area of the garbage collection zone in our building’s basement (something I am grateful to our superintendant for!  It’s our own internal “freecycle”).  One book was A New Earth by Ekhart Tolle, and another was Peace is Every Step by Thich Naht Hanh.  

Talk about synchronicity!  Sure, it took me taking notice of these books to pick them up, bring them home and read them, but they both came to me for free from different sources within a week or so.  The basic message of both books is the same: be mindful of the present moment.  It is all we have.  If we experience it with peace, enjoyment or enthusiasm, these energies will spread through our lives and to everyone we encounter.

So, why are you reading about mindfulness, a Buddhist practice, on a blog about frugality?  I think mindfulness can help to cure the ills of society, one of which is overconsumption and dissatisfaction with what we have.

These books teach that the present moment, right now, is all we have.  When we are carried away with our memories, good or bad, or when we engage in thinking or worrying about the future, we forget that we are alive right now, not in the past or the future.  Right now is the only moment we have to be happy, to feel the fullness and richness of life, to experience joy.

A lot of spending comes from dissatisfaction with where we’re at.  If we consciously decide that “now” is all we have, and thus to experience the richness of each moment, the fullness of life right now, it reduces some of our desires for new toys, new clothes, a new “look”, a new life.  

Some ideas summarized from these two books:

– Use your breath to bring your attention to the present moment.  Feel it go in and go out, and the pauses between.  Focus on the breath and quiet your mind.  Feel peaceful wherever you are.

– Your thoughts are not “you”.  Your thoughts lead you away from the present moment and are quite likely to make you feel worried and anxious.  Realize that you have a consciousness that is deeper than your thoughts, and you can separate yourself somewhat from the constant stream of thoughts that flood your mind.  Your problems will seem less urgent when you create this kind of space.

– Smile.  A smile relaxes your face, sends endorphins through your body, and melts your worries away.  A smile sends positive, peaceful energy into the world.  A smile connects you to the present moment because the only time we can feel happy is right now, today, this moment.

Being frugal isn’t just about denying yourself expensive pleasures.  It is just as much about cultivating satisfaction with what you have, and joy in the present moment.

The Single-Income Family

family1950sThe single-income family used to be the norm.  The dad would work and the mom would stay home with the kids.  Of course there were downsides to this: women had very few options, and having kids AND a job was nearly impossible.  The concept of the stay-at-home dad was unheard-of, not to mention families with two moms or two dads, or other configurations.  There were few choices for families who wanted to do things differently.

These days a common adage is that it’s nearly impossible to live on just one income.  I completely agree that it’s impossible to live Like Everyone Else and survive on one income, but if we take some examples from the past, it might give us an insight into what it takes to do things differently these days.  

– People ate simply.  They didn’t prepare fancy sauces or exotic meats.  There were no specialty cheese shops in most cities, and bread was mostly made at home.

– Stuff was built to last.  Your parents probably have some furniture from the 60s.  It didn’t break after a couple of years of abuse like stuff from Ikea does.  My favourite example of this is a toy we bought second-hand that was made in the 60s or 70s.  It’s a wind-up “record player” music box by Fisher Price.  It doesn’t need batteries, and you can still wind it up and put a record on.  I’d bet it will outlast my iPod and personal computer, as well as my TV and stereo system.

– People entertained at home rather than going out a lot.  There were cocktail parties, fondue parties, all sorts of themed house parties.  While it does cost a bit to entertain friends on a regular basis, it is still cheaper to entertain at home than it is to go out a lot.  

– People didn’t shop for fun.  The “mall” didn’t exist yet, so you couldn’t go walk around it for fun.  There was no Costco or Chapters or Home Depot or Ikea, selling themselves as a fun place to spend the afternoon.

– There were no personal electronics.  No iPods, computers, laptops, Blackberries, video game systems, digital cameras, etc. to worm their way into your home and convince you that you need them as well as their replacement 2 years later after they break.

– There were no cell phones.  This one could have gone with the previous point, but cell phones aren’t just disposable technology; they are also little digital balls-and-chains that you pay upwards of $100 per month for.  Even the cheapest pay-as-you-go plan costs a monthly fee that eats into your bottom line.

– In North America, it was unusual to travel overseas for fun.  Car vacations were a big thing, along with camper vans and motels.  This is still a much more frugal option for vacationing, as we are seeing with the rising trend of local vacationing.

– People lived within their means.  It was very hard to get credit, even to buy a house.  There was no credit card debt because there were no credit cards.  As a result, if you couldn’t afford something, you didn’t buy it.  It was as simple as that.

Now, I’m not saying that EVERYONE lived like this; there are many exceptions to all of these points.  But this reflects what I have learned about my parents’ and grandparents’  generations from, well, my parents.

And I am not saying the past was some perfect golden time we should “go back” to.  Rather, I think there are some frugal lessons in the recent past that we can lift from their historical context and apply to our lives today.  Of course, back then that was “How Everyone Else Lived”, which made these frugal habits easier to adopt.  

These days, it requires going against the grain to live consciously and frugally.  But if you have a goal, like maybe living on one income, it is possible to achieve.  It just takes hard work, dedication and a bit of sensible penny pinching.  Sounds like the 1950s to me!

When it's not really a deal

So, it’s the Great Glebe Garage Sale today . . . and I’ve woken up finding that I don’t really care.  I’m not pooh-poohing this amazing event; it’s a phenomenal way to get out, get some exercise, meet your neighbours and friends . . . and buy stuff.

It’s all too tempting to whip out those bills when the buys are all super-cheap yard sale prices.  Last year I picked up a bunch of Barbies for Madeleine (which have since made their way into hiding until I feel she’s old enough to play with a doll with the body of a sexy woman), a tiny yellow saucepan that has since gone back into the garbage, and a few other things that really weren’t worth it.  

Though I did get my apple clock which has proven lovely and useful for the last year . . .

But this year, it falls right in the midst of our belt-tightening spree, and I am feeling reluctant to go to the bank for cash and then head down there into the fray.  Especially since I have, once again, slept in and missed “all the good stuff”.  

I don’t want to waste my money buying junk I don’t need, even if it’s a really really good deal.  I can’t think of anything we really need, though I’m sure once I head down there I will find a bunch of things I forgot we really needed, and end up spending all the cash I bring.

So here’s my new plan: instead of the Garage Sale, I’ll head to the Herb & Spice for some eggs, come back and make pancakes for Pancake Day, and then head down to the Glebe to do my volunteer time at the BUGs table around 10:30.  That way I’ll have done my good duty, and participated, but not put it ahead of my family rituals.  

And by that time I’m way sure all the good stuff will be gone, so I should be safe from temptation!