Voting With Your Dollars and Food Ethics

I’ve talked a fair amount on this blog already about frugality, health, and sustainability and the way all three of these concepts intersect.  Biking, I believe, is the epitome of this intersection.  Biking saves gas and car maintenance and repair costs, so is good for your wallet.  Biking is exercise that is easily adapted into your daily schedule, so it is a convenient and consistent way to be physically active and thus healthier.  Biking prevents CO2 from being released into the atmosphere by cars so is better for the environment than driving.  Biking is the best!  However, there are some situations in which these three concepts do not overlap as wonderfully, and where there are more items to consider when making decisions about what is best.  One of these is surrounding food.

Food is important.  Food is an expense that we all share and eating is an activity that we do every day (if we are fortunate and, say, not fasting for religious or other reasons).  Food consumes a large proportion of your budget and food is what makes your body!  Have you thought about that lately?  You put something in your mouth and by magical intestinal efforts your body takes out what is useful and integrates it into your being.  It’s easy to forget about this, as it is easy to forget that the food we eat comes from somewhere and, if we shop at mainstream grocery stores, likely has a less-than-ideal origin.

When you buy groceries from a big box grocery store like Rainbow, Cub, or Target the produce that you get has been treated with pesticides.  These are chemicals that are bad for people and bad for the environment.  Food grown with pesticides is acutely and chronically harmful for the farm workers who distribute the pesticides and work in areas where pesticides are used.  Many of these farm workers are paid very low wages due to migrant status and do not have the resources to address health issues that might arise.  Pesticides are bad for you too.  Acute exposure to pesticides can cause death, and long term exposure to pesticides (even in small doses!) can lead to neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s as well as cancer and reproductive disorders.  Pesticides can harm local ecosystems by killing of beneficial microbes and bugs opening the door for invasive species to intrude.  Pesticides can travel far, contaminating drinking water sources.

Buying food from supermarkets often supports companies like ConAgra and Monsanto, which have been criticized and sued for their part in pollution and poisoning communities across the U.S.  They have been responsible for hosts of food recalls due to contaminated meat and other food.  They utilize antibiotics and growth hormones in meat to streamline operations while negatively affecting the public’s health.  They have been known to target and systematically eliminate family farms.

Every single thing you buy is a vote.  Let me say that again, every time you purchase something you are casting a vote of confidence for the way that product was manufactured, transported, and sold.  When you support supermarkets that are not committed to environmental sustainability and health, you are essentially telling them that you support the work that they do and you give them the money to keep doing it.

This makes it very important to consciously vote with your dollars.  Realize that your decisions contribute to the demand side of the supply and demand at the heart of our economic system.  How do you demand safe, healthy, ethical food?  Shop at co-ops, farmer’s markets, or purchase a CSA share.  Learn where your food comes from, how it was grown or raised, and who grew or raised it.  Food co-ops are usually worker owned, providing rewarding work opportunities for people in your community.  They often buy produce from local, organic farms and invest money back into the community in various ways through courses and education initiatives.  Farmer’s markets are great ways to skip the middle man and get to know your farmer and where your food came from.  A CSA is community shared agriculture, where you purchase shares of a farm at the beginning of a growing season and reap the benefits in weekly boxes of whatever your farm is producing that week.  All of these methods allow you to get closer to the production process and support healthy food and a healthy community.

There is a fundamental tension here for people who want to be frugal while still living in sustainable, environmentally ethical ways.  Organic, local food is more expensive than food from supermarkets and is often out of reach for many people.  There are various ways you can address this for yourself.  Buying in bulk and insourcing is a way to reduce your grocery bill in other areas so you can purchase what you need from places you support.  Utilizing farmer’s markets and CSAs are often cheaper options and allow you to get closer to your food source.  Planting your own food in your yard or a community garden is a great way to really get your hands dirty (literally!) and begin understanding what it means to produce food for yourself.

You may say, “I can’t afford to buy organic food or shop at a co-op,” but what you’re really saying is that you value other things more than your health and the health of the environment.  There are certainly people who cannot afford healthy, affordable food and this is an entirely different discussion of food justice, but having access to the internet and time to read this blog means that you likely are not one of these people.  Cutting down on spending in other areas will allow you to act upon your values by voting with your dollars.

Voting with your dollars doesn’t stop at food either.  Everything you buy supports something, you should do some research to find out what that is and then decide whether you’d like to continue supporting it.

In a capitalist economy, your money is your voice.  Spend it wisely.

Super Great Free Alternatives for Pretty Great Spendy Stuff

Being frugal is hard, and one thing that’s hard about it is that there are really ingrained ways in which money seems to seep right out of your bank account.  These manifest in expensive habits that all of us have.  I think my expensive habits are quite similar to many people in their 20s, and they mostly revolve around food/beverage consumption.  I spend a lot of money on groceries because eating in an environmentally sustainable and ethical way is really important to me.  In my last post I discussed insourcing which is a way I’m trying to cut down grocery spending while still being able to shop at the co-op.

However, a big chunk of my spending each month goes towards eating out, going out for drinks, and working or hanging out at coffee shops.  I don’t do each of these things very often, but when you add up how often I do all of them combined, it probably costs me around $100 or more per month.  I’ve come up with some surprisingly satisfying free or much cheaper alternatives for all three things above.

Eating out: My friends and I have taken to hosting dinner parties and inviting each other over for dinner or food-based get togethers.  Hosting get togethers can be expensive, but making sure to plan it ahead of time so you can delegate dishes for people to bring helps a lot.  Another good option is making these into potlucks, where everyone contributes a dish and it costs little more than eating at home.

Going out to eat usually is a limited venture with one or two other people.  When you begin hosting get togethers you end up socializing with more people at once which helps expand your social circle.

Coffee shops:  I love coffee shops.  I like to go to coffee shops to do homework, read, look at people, and just generally feel like I’m part of the community in which I live.  I’m a research assistant which means that the vast majority of my work hours happen by distance, meaning that I work from home or from coffee shops.  Since I realized how productive I can be when I work outside of my apartment, my coffee shop spending has increased.

I started thinking about what it is about coffee shops that I like: I like the atmosphere, I like the ability to focus, I like being in a situation where I could meet new people, and I like spending time at a place that isn’t my apartment.  Then it struck me, libraries.  Libraries are places where people can go to study, with the added benefit of being less busy and less loud than coffee shops so that productivity is likely to increase.  The only problem was that the U of M’s libraries don’t have the right atmosphere and the county libraries I’ve been to either don’t have the right atmosphere or are really busy and can get loud and crowded.  I decided to start researching smaller libraries within 3-4 miles of my apartment and visited the Linden Hills library about a week ago.  It’s 3.8 miles away and the bike route to the library takes me along Lake of the Isles and Lake Calhoun.  Linden Hills library is sunny, small, and quiet (I took a picture of it’s loveliness below) enough to really focus but not so quiet as to be unnerving.  Both of the times that I’ve worked there I’ve been incredibly productive, haven’t spent any money, and have had friendly conversations with other library patrons.

Going out on the town:  Sometime’s you’ve got to let loose.  Whether it be going out for drinks, going to a concert, going dancing, or whatever, spending time out at night with friends is a certainly satisfying way to pass a weekend.  But with drinks costing $3-$5 each and cover to dance nights or clubs, your nightly bill for going out on the town can easily surpass $20-$30.  Here are a couple of ways to decrease this spending.

  1. Free dance nights.  Haley and I biked to Hipshakers at the Kitty Kat Club on Thursday and had a wonderful free time.  There was no cover.  We drank only water and part of a free drink our friend was bought.  We shook our hips, talked, had a good time, and biked home happy and exhausted.
  2. Drinking at home.  Okay, pre-gaming is not the thing to do anymore.  But having some friends over for a couple glasses of wine before a night out is totally okay.  Then, when you’re out, you can just get water, or perhaps one cheap drink and you’ll save money and still not feel like you’re awkwardly sober in a sea of drunken people.
  3. Not drinking. While I really enjoy going out with friends, getting’ my groove thing on and all, waking up in the morning exhausted and tired from a late night out always makes me feel like the day is wasted.  Choosing only to drink one day on a weekend, or maybe one to two days a month, doesn’t mean you can’t go out with friends.  It means that you will just choose to drink water while you’re out with those friends.  At first, it might make them uncomfortable, but they’ll get over it quickly and might feel inspired enough to try the same strategy for themselves from time to time.

I feel very certain that the above things are not only good, frugal replacements, but that they are genuinely more satisfying options overall and will enhance my quality of life beyond just saving me money.

Insourcing: Getting Off Your Ass and Doing Things Yourself (with Recipes!)

Insourcing is taking control of things that you normally pay someone else to do for you.  There are both hidden and obvious ways that you outsource things in your day-to-day life.  When you outsource, you usually have to pay much more for another person to do work for you.  Sure there are certain things that you will need a professional’s help with, but many things are just so ingrained into our way of life and way of thinking that we don’t consider how we could do them ourselves.  When you do things yourself you get to do them exactly how you want, you become more badass, and you save money in the process.

Grocery items are a huge way that people outsource.  You outsource when you buy prepackaged tortellini, hummus, granola, baked goods, bread, cereal, and many other items from the grocery store.  It’s hard to think of some of these things as being actual items that you could make for yourself because you’re so used to putting them into your grocery cart.

Granola is a good example.  One bag of prepackaged granola at Trader Joe’s costs $4.50, which equals about 4 small bowls of granola or $1.13 per bowl.  Making your own granola, though, with homemade granola mixed with raisins, slivered almonds, and cashew pieces works out to $7.02 for two full containers (the smaller of which is pictured).  The first container has lasted me 8 breakfasts already so assuming the other container will last for 6, that’s 14 breakfasts total for $0.50 each, and you don’t sacrifice anything.  Actually I think it’s tastier than the store bought kind, and baking granola at home makes your apartment smell amazing.  Here’s the recipe I used (adapted from chow.com):

3 cups rolled oats

3 tbsp brown sugar

¼ tsp kosher salt

½ tsp cinnamon

1/3 cup honey

¼ cup canola oil (or applesauce, for more clusters)

1 tsp vanilla

In a large bowl, mix oats, brown sugar, salt, and cinnamon.  In another bowl mix honey, oil, and vanilla.  Dump honey mixture onto oats mixture and thoroughly combine, possibly using your hands.  Preheat the oven to 300 degrees (F) and lay out your granola on a baking sheet.  Bake for 20 to 30 minutes, stirring halfway through.  After it has cooled, add in nuts or raisins or whatever you want.

It’s helpful just to notice what you eat regularly that is outsourced.  I eat these amazing sprouted grain Ezekiel bagels that I get from the Wedge, and they cost almost $1 per bagel.  But they’re a really quick and easy meal option and much tastier than bagels I’ve made on my own before.  I acknowledge that they’re outsourced and I still buy them, but at least I’ve considered it.  One way to save money on groceries is by intentionally buying things that are not outsourced.  Rice, oats, beans (especially dried, but I can’t quite figure out dried beans yet), flour, and other things are in a base form and are therefore cheaper than prepackaged pastas, salads, etc.  A snack of oatmeal is much cheaper than a snack of a cereal bar.  If you can buy more of these staple ingredients and use them as-is or make them into something better, you’re going to save money and probably be healthier because you won’t be consuming as many preservatives.

Certain services are very often outsourced.  People pay lots of money to have their hair cut, nails done, eyebrows (and other body parts) waxed, cars cleaned, food cooked, houses cleaned, clothing mended, items repaired, and so much more.  Every item on this list that you learn to do yourself builds up your knowledge repertoire and helps you save money and time for yourself and friends/family.  I’ve taken to having dinner parties for my friends recently to cut down on eating out costs.  It makes my grocery bill momentarily higher, but this is probably offset by dinners that I’m invited to by those same friends.

I’ve cut (and layered!) my own bangs for years now, and have decided to venture into the realm of cutting my own hair.  My first attempt was today, and it was a very small trim, but it turned out really well!  I think it looks even better now than after I got it cut last.  I did go on Amazon today to buy new haircutting scissors, hair clips, and combs but for a total of $33, it’s less than my usual $40 haircuts and I’ll make it back and more as long as this venture can allow me to skip one salon visit.  I’m hoping it will allow me to stop visiting the salon altogether, but the best part is that this way I won’t have to wait 3 months for a haircut and can instead trim it up anytime I want.  It’s scary but fun.  I’ve already offered a haircut of questionable quality to a friend to improve my skills and have been taken up on it.

Today I also made cleaning products.  Many cleaning products are toxic, so I’ve been making my own for years now.  Seventh Generation has some great, ethical, environmentally-friendly products but they are very expensive.  One jug of laundry detergent costs about $12.  I bought some Borax and a bar of soap to make my own for only $10 and the Borax will last for many more batches.  I used the recipe here using Dr. Bronner’s bar soap and my clothes came out smelling fresh and clean.  I couldn’t find washing soda, but you can make your own by baking baking soda on a cookie sheet at 400 degrees for an hour, just make sure to store the washing soda in an airtight container or it might revert back to baking soda.  I make my own all-purpose cleaners but I find that I just cannot cover up the smell of vinegar.  My yoga studio uses an amazing smelling cleaning spray for the mats, and I finally got it from them today.  This recipe is a bit expensive at the front end, since essential oils are expensive.  But it smells wonderful and can also be used as a laundry freshener.

1/3 cup vodka (you can use the cheap stuff here)

5 drops lavender oil

5 drops tea tree oil

2 drops lemon oil

Put all of the ingredients into a 16oz bottle and fill to the top.  Shake before use as the oil will separate.

I’m always asking myself, “What can I make instead of buy?”  There are so many things I’ve been able to start making and stop buying.  This saves money and in most cases is better of the environment too!  Insourcing is awesome, and doing things for yourself will make you feel awesome.  Also, having more money will make you feel awesome.  So go, be awesome.

Negative Thoughts and Obsessions

“It can be particularly helpful to keep in mind from moment to moment that it is not so much the stressors in our lives but how we see them and what we do with them that determines how much we are at their mercy.  If we can change the way we see, we can change the way we respond.” -Jon Kabat-Zinn

Negative thoughts can have an unnerving hold on your mind, and stresses, anxieties, and obsessions can arise regarding anything.  Negative thoughts have obsessive power over people, whether the problems that initiated the thoughts were small or large.  The interesting thing about cultivating a mindfulness practice is that you are able to distance yourself from your thoughts a bit, and can then observe their strength and the way they change over time.  This awareness is vital in dealing with obsessions and negative thoughts.

Sometimes I get sidetracked by negative thoughts, and my immediate reaction is to share these ideas with other people to commiserate or gossip.  However, these thoughts can be like little seeds planted in your mind.  The more you dwell on something, that might otherwise be insignificant, the more you are cultivating and caring for this seed of anxiety, bitterness, stress, or resentment.  As you think and talk about it, it grows, and takes up more room in your mind.  As these seeds grow they get stronger, and therefore gain more strength to draw your mind back to dwelling on them thereby creating a negative feedback loop.

When this is the case, there are a couple of things you can do.  One is to become more self-aware of your thought processes through mindfulness.  This way you’ll be able to take a step back from negative thoughts when they occur.  You’ll be able to understand that you are not your thoughts or feelings, and will be able to think to yourself, “Interesting, I’m very upset about this thing that happened.  I don’t know why I’m so upset or why I feel so angry, but I’m going to accept that this is how I feel right now.  Just because I feel this way doesn’t mean that who I am is defined by these thoughts or feelings.  They are just feelings and they will leave soon.”  When you can bring non-judgmental self-awareness to small obsessions, you can acknowledge them, feel what you’re going to feel, and process them enough to move on to focusing on something else.  The second way to deal with these seeds is to burn them up through physical activity or any other energy generating venture.  While being physically active, you project that energy onto burning up these obsessions and work to create space in your mind that is free of those thoughts.

It is helpful to remember that feelings are feelings, and they are not good or bad.  Whatever you feel is what you feel, and approaching feelings in a non-judgmental way will make it easier to process certain emotions and understand when additional action needs to be taken on an issue.  In this vein, we can further explore this topic by seeing anxieties, negative thoughts, and obsessions as cues to draw our attention to certain things in our lives.  When you feel obsessive about something, it might be a signal from your body that something in your life is not right.  If you try the above strategies and the issue keeps arising, it may be a message to you.  It may mean that you need to bring up hurts or concerns with another person, you need to clarify a relationship, or you need to seriously consider ending a relationship.  When issues repeat themselves in your mind over and over, despite your attempts to bring mindful awareness to them, it might mean that they need to be acted upon in some way.

Obsessions can be your mind’s way of telling you when you are not living in a truthful and honest way.  This may mean that you need to work on not obsessing over small things and growing them into large issues, or that you need to take action in your life to right some relationship or situation.  When you are able to acknowledge the source of obsessions and anxieties, you have an opportunity to make changes in a way that will allow your mind to quiet down and allow you to live in a more peaceful and honest way.

On Being Bold: Bold Moves March

I’ve mentioned the beauty of being present and mindful, but I haven’t mentioned the beauty of being bold.   This is an important category to explore, especially for single ladies who are dating around at present like myself.

My friend Haley and I discussed her plan with a friend to act on “Bold Moves February,” but there’s something about cold weather and a lack of alliteration that made that less-than-appealing.  However, we both decided that Bold Moves March would be our thing, and as March is now over I thought I would report on our success.

The intent of Bold Moves March (BMM) was for us, as single ladies, to put ourselves “out there” in a way that would allow us to meet friends and acquaintances in a more efficient and interesting manner than usual.  The results of BMM for me were: meeting a good study buddy/friend connection to a whole additional group of friends with whom to spend time, meeting a man-friend with whom I had an amazing time but who, unfortunately, moved temporarily to Argentina, and spending a lot of time with the aforementioned Haley and building a wonderful friendship with her.

Every attitude worth cultivating requires practice and strengthening.  Building frugality muscles requires discipline and dedication, and the same goes for boldness muscles.   Walking up to an unknown person in a crowded bar can be difficult, but mastering this skill will make you more comfortable approaching someone in a tame coffee shop situation.  Becoming bold requires effort and risk, but results in increasing your ability to meet people and strike up meaningful conversations in unlikely scenarios.  Here are a couple of things I have learned from BMM: the vast majority of the time, when you approach someone new to start a conversation, they will be receptive to your effort and will relish the opportunity to get to know you.  In situations where this is not the case, you will have a sense of bravery and will feel stronger for the attempt despite any small rejection.

My mindfulness practice has allowed me to contemplate the ever-changing nature of everything.  I’m specifically aware of the transient nature of the wonderful relationships I’ve formed so far in graduate school.  Many of these people will move away, and even if they don’t, our relationships after graduation are likely to change significantly.  I’ve been overcome with acceptance of this fact, but have noted that it is difficult to meet people in Minneapolis without some sort of group membership.  Boldness can help ease the fear of changing relationship dynamics.  When you are bold, you know that you can meet people in all situations, and you can be brave and intrepid on your own.

Despite the end of the beautifully alliterative Bold Moves March, as we parted ways on our bikes tonight Haley and I yelled at each other “Bolder Moves April!” and “Boldest Moves May!”  I hope to continue my boldness indefinitely, and to strengthen my boldness muscle to a point where I feel no shyness talking to any strangers anywhere.