Really, Do You Know Where that Food Came From?

I was a vegetarian for 7 years, beginning in high school.  My senior year I babysat a five-year-old girl every day after school.  She was fascinated by my vegetarianism and often asked me about it.  My reasons for vegetarianism were environmental in nature, and somewhat complicated to explain to a five-year-old.  Once when she asked why I was a vegetarian I said, “Because I don’t like eating animals.”  To which she replied, “Meat doesn’t come from animals, it comes from the grocery store.”

It’s a cute anecdote, but it reflects a growing distance in our society between food sources and the average person’s belly.  I recently stopped being a vegetarian, partly due to ridiculous and unexpected meat cravings and partly due to the fact that I felt confident now in the food landscape to be able to choose meat options that allayed my environmental concerns.  I’ve been getting my meat from the co-op and farmer’s market and have been asking questions about where it came from and how it was raised.

However, meat is not the only animal product that can have less than ideal origins.  Last week I was very fortunate to take a class through the Public Health Institute at the U of M called Farm to Table Study Program.  We spent three days touring farms and food production facilities in southern Minnesota.  It really drove home for me the importance of being constantly curious about where your food comes from.  I’ve always eaten eggs, milk, and other dairy products and, despite being a vegetarian for so long, had not considered the potential environmental and animal welfare components of eating these things.

We toured two egg production facilities and two dairy facilities, and let me tell you, there were stark differences.  The first dairy we toured was not bad by any means.  They had over 3,000 cows in the facility that were not able to go outside at all.  But honestly, they were well taken care of and not skittish around us as we walked by.

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But the next day we toured Cedar Summit dairy.  It’s an organic, free-range dairy.  It felt right.  The calves were not taken away from their mothers right away and kept isolated, like they were at the other.  The cows were able to graze and roam, and all of the facility felt less industrial.  The rancher was very invested in the health of his cows, and it made me feel quite certain that I will be buying their milk exclusively from now on even though it’s twice as expensive as regular milk (plus it’s sold in returnable glass bottles for extra environmental incentive).

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The egg laying facilities were a much more stark contrast.  I was extremely disgusted by the conventional egg laying facility.  We were not allowed to take pictures, but there were about three large warehouses housing 1.2 million chickens, so you can imagine the crowding, small cages, and industrial feel of the place.  We saw the assembly line where the eggs are washed and packed, and many of us noted poor working conditions for the mainly immigrant workers.  The thing that was so striking there was that the sole intent of those chickens lives was to produce eggs, there was no inherent chickenness to them, no ability to peck at the ground or stretch their legs.  I don’t mean to anthropomorphize the chickens there, but there is a visceral animal reaction I had to seeing them housed in tiny cages, the same way I would feel about seeing a human or mammal enclosed in such a confined space.  It felt very wrong.

The free-range egg facility was much better.  The chickens were able to roam and graze and peck at the ground and catch bugs.  There were a few things that people noticed which weren’t ideal, but the overall feeling of the place was so much better.  It felt like a farm, and if you ask me, that’s where I want my food to be coming from.

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One interesting thing we saw at Cedar Summit was the contrast between the pastures there and the neighbor’s conventional agriculture fields.  There was about a three-foot drop between the two fields due to soil erosion on the conventional side.  The rancher was very concerned about what conventional agriculture is doing to the quality of our topsoil.  This is another reason to be concerned about where your food came from and how it was produced.  Did you buy conventional vegetables, or processed products derived from conventional crops?  You might be contributing to increasingly poor soil health by supporting these producers.

So what can you do?  Actually get out in your farming community!  Many local, family farms offer tours or even volunteer days.  Get to know a farmer and develop a relationship.  Many farms around the Twin Cities offer CSA shares for vegetables, or even offer shares for meat, eggs, and dairy products that they’ll deliver.  At True Cost Farm you can order meat ala carte and it will be delivered.  The Land Stewardship Project has a CSA directory where you can look up local farms and find ones you might like to visit, or support next year by buying a CSA share.

When you know and support the source of your food, it will be more expensive.  I’ve already discussed here how to insource to save money when it comes to food, and you can cut down in other areas as well. I figure that eating well and ethically is well worth a little extra work or sacrifice, especially after the things I saw last week.

Putting Food on My Body: Making Personal Care Products

I’m really going to let my freak flag fly in this one.  First, let me preface by saying that I don’t think that my friends and family* perceive me to be a dirty hippie.  I appear to be a generally washed, groomed, and put-together grad school student, perhaps not as fancy as some since I have a penchant for blue v-neck shirts, black skinny jeans, and black canvas shoes.  I just don’t think that people look at me and think, “Man, she needs some SOAP!”  So with that noted, let me draw you into my magical world of making my own personal care products.

It doesn’t seem super necessary at first, right?  I mean deodorant, face wash, shampoo, lotion, and conditioner is everywhere.  You’ve bought and used them your whole life and you’ve never thought of doing things differently.  That’s what I’m for, folks, gonna shake up your mind just a little.

I like making my own personal care products because they’re cheaper, usually a minute fraction of the cost of store-bought products.  Also they’re healthier, all those polysyllabic names in shampoo ingredients can’t be good for you, right?  And I think they work at least as well as, and sometimes better than, store-bought alternatives.  Plus if you do it the way I do it, you’re making less waste since you can usually get many of the ingredients for these products in bulk.

Shampoo.  I’m doing the no poo thing.  It’s where you stop using shampoo, then start spacing hair-washings, to get to a place where your hair becomes naturally oil-balanced, perfect, shining, bouncing, and always well-behaved. These wonderful things have not happened yet, but I’ve seen drastic improvements in frizziness and head itchiness.  Plus I can now go a couple days between washes and I had been up until now, a religious every-day hair washer.

1 tablespoon baking soda

1 cup (8 oz) boiling water

3-4 drops of essential oil

Boil water (helps to keep the baking soda separate).  Put baking soda into a bowl.  Once water boils pour it over baking soda until well combined.  Allow to cool.  Add in essential oils as desired (I use tea tree which is good for itchy scalp/dandruff and lavender which is calming/nice smelling).  Pour into bottle.  To use: pour onto head and scrub in for a little longer than you would scrub in shampoo.  This recipe is for someone who usually would use shampoo.  Since it can be drying, if you don’t use shampoo too often you could try less baking soda maybe 2 tsp per cup.  I’m trying to cut down to wean myself off.

If you’re interested in a more shampoo-ish version, this is something you might try: http://www.crunchybetty.com/not-ready-for-no-poo-try-sorta-poo-with-coconut-milk-and-castille

Conditioner (sort-of): Apparently the acidity of the apple cider vinegar balances your hair when used after the baking soda.  This is what I use most often and it’s worked pretty well.

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

1 cup water

essential oils as desired

Combine water and vinegar and pour into bottle.  Add essential oils as desired.  The ACV smell will dissipate once your hair has dried (I can attest from experience) and supposedly if you add essential oils that smell will remain.

Leave-in conditioner: When I wash my hair I usually use a little of this on the ends after the ACV rinse and then rinse out lightly.  It can make your hair look a little greasy, but it’s good for dry ends.

12 oz water

essential oils

1 teaspoon honey

Boil water.  Combine with honey until well combined.  Allow to cool.  Add essential oils as desired.

Lotion: I use oil and essential oils to rub into my skin.  I’ve used olive oil (super oily) and newly acquired jojoba oil (super expensive) mixed with enough tea tree and lavender oil to smell pretty.  Apparently good, affordable oils are sweet almond and sesame.  I have yet to try them, but all four above oils can be found in bulk at my local co-op (the Wedge).

Face Wash (adapted slightly from here)

2 teaspoons castile soap

2 tablespoons vegetable glycerin

2 tablespoons water

1/2 cup olive oil

2 drops tea tree oil

2 drops lavender oil

Clean, empty bottle

Whisk ingredients together to combine well.  Tea tree oil is good for acne-prone skin as it has anti-bacterial properties.  The face wash will probably separate a bit (just some olive oil separating on the bottom) so make sure you put it in a bottle that seals well and will be easy to shake up.  This wash is a little oily, and doesn’t get your face squeaky clean, but the real dirty hippies out there will tell you that ‘like dissolves like’ and oil is actually great for cleaning your face.

Deodorant: The deodorant/antiperspirant I make can be found here. It’s a good tutorial with pics.  I think it works better than what I was using before, but granted that was the crystal stick and was a deodorant only.  Anyway this deodorant smells really pretty.  One commenter on a blog I read said that after using a similar recipe she smells good all the time and feels like she has ‘sunshine coming out of her pits.’  So you know, that could happen.

Disclaimer: For all of these there can be a ‘detox’ period, especially if your body is used to really intense detergents that get you squeaky clean.  Your hair and face might be slightly oilier, and your pits smellier, for a little while but it doesn’t last long!  If you can get through the detox period, you can totes do this.  Maybe start while you’re camping?  I don’t know, I believe in you.

Are you trying any all-natural homemade recipes?  What has your experience been?  If you’re interested in more recipes with more in-depth tutorials and such, check out crunchybetty.com.  That lady is super crunchy!

*With the exception of my mother.  She cannot stand any grease in my hair whatsoever.  I have actually come to prefer my hair a little dirty.

Learn How to Focus, it’ll Give You More Energy

Do you ever come home from a long day of school, work, bicycling around, hanging with your friends, or you know, generally doing interesting and tiring things, and feel really burnt out but still feel the need to immerse yourself in the internet or otherwise generally waste time?  And do you later realize that the time wasting made you feel more tired?  It’s because when you waste time by watching TV, poking around the internet, or getting sucked into some other form of entertainment, you’re burning up limited cognitive resources.  You’re burning the candle at both ends, friend, and it’s probably why you feel so tired all the time.

Energy is a limited resource.  What’s the point of working an 8+ hour day, getting to and from work, if you get home just to watch TV, end up exhausted, and not have enough energy to cook dinner, see friends, or do things that you really enjoy?  I think there’s very little point.  Then you’re living only for the weekend and 5/7 of your life is lived in an information clogged stupor.

So how do you avoid it?  Realize that you have a limited supply of cognitive resources.  When you spend several hours surfing blogs, checking Facebook, Googling endlessly, you’re burning up your energy supply which means that later you won’t have as much energy to see friends, exercise, cook dinner, or generally do healthy and fulfilling things.  If you realize that your energy is limited, you will begin to understand that spending your time in certain ways prevents you from spending your time in other ways.

Prioritize.  Set limits for yourself.  I personally installed an app to Google Chrome called StayFocusd.  You can mark certain sites as ‘blocked’ and allot yourself only a certain amount of time for each of them.  I get 25 minutes per day for Facebook, Twitter, and the Mr. Money Mustache Forum (what can I say? I’m a frugality nerd).  When I began this, my mind fought against it wanting to waste time and goof around.  The longer I’ve had it (I even cut down from 30 minutes), the less I feel the need to go on those time-suck websites since every time I’m on there I constantly remember that I shouldn’t be.  I also decided to make my bedroom a computer-free zone.  This means that my computer now lives in the living room and is much less available for casual time-wasting, especially since its battery life is terrible.

Energy management is also very important in work settings.  When you interrupt yourself to visit various websites or check your phone, you’re burning up resources that otherwise could have been spent finishing tasks more quickly.  If you’re feeling burnt out at work, do you really think that reading something online is going to make you feel refreshed?  When I’m feeling burnt out at work I do a couple of things, depending on where I am and how much time I have.  If I have a little time I like to take a walk, or go to a private area and do 10-15 minutes of yoga.  If I don’t have much time, I’ll simply sit still and meditate on my breath for a couple of minutes to focus myself, and then return to the task at hand refreshed.

Mindfulness practice can help you refresh your energy and make better energy decisions.  Since I’ve started monitoring how my energy is spent, I sometimes can really see the forces at work in my body.  Recently I came home from a busy day and felt very strongly that I wanted to go read some blogs and watch a couple TV shows on my computer.  I thought, “Man, I’m tired, I want to waste time.”  I actually thought that!  I was able to catch myself then and say, “Okay, I’m tired.  Wasting time probably won’t make me feel better.  Maybe I’ll take a nap!”  And nap I did and it was wonderful.  I woke up refreshed and able to have a great evening with friends.

I now tend to generally plan out my free time a little.  I think about the day and schedule in bicycling, yoga, cooking, and friend time.  It doesn’t give me a lot of left over time to spend on the computer and I feel much better about how I’m spending my time.  I certainly feel like it’s a journey, and no effort is too small.  Once you start focusing more in one area of your life, it will become easier to keep the ball rolling in other areas.  Certainly a regular mindfulness or meditation practice helps, as it trains the mind to become calmer and more centered, but any small effort to make your mind less tumultuous will bring you more peace and energy.

Integrating Exercise into Every Day

Here’s a confession: I used to have a gym membership.  I would shell out $58/mo for my YWCA membership to go work out on the same elliptical 3-4 times a week.  I’d sometimes take a yoga class.  I’d often lift weights.  I got in better shape, lost a little weight, but I NEVER enjoyed it.  I’d blast whatever peppy songs I’d been listening to lately on my iPod while I tried to forget about the fact that I was working out.  While I was doing this, I kept thinking, “This is it?  I’m going to have to waste 4-5 hours at the gym every week for the rest of my life?”  But I’m happy to tell you that this is not the case!  You do not need to be a slave to a gym that sucks up your money and time.

When I quit the gym something interesting happened: I stopped ‘working out,’ I got into better shape, and I enjoyed myself much more.  How?  I started integrating exercise into my everyday life and found that I get much more exercise than I did before, it’s more useful, and I actually enjoy it now.

Working out is boring.  There’s no way around it.  Working out, to me, is any individual activities that take place at a gym.  The sole intent of working out is to increase physical fitness, which is great.  I did it for 1.5 years.  While I enjoyed being more physically fit, I didn’t enjoy having to set aside time each week to spend at the gym plugging away on the elliptical machine and doing the same arm exercises.  It was so boring!

During the time I went to the gym, I biked quite a bit but never had to bike all that far.  I started discovering that biking can be an amazing useful tool to both get you places and serve as your exercise for the day.  Last summer I biked to work for several weeks, 12 miles each way, and was excited about the fact that I wouldn’t have to come home and go to the gym since that served as my exercise.

When I started grad school, I began biking 8 miles round trip 5 days a week.  I got in better shape, felt more fit, and saved time because my commute also counted as my exercise time.  The other part is that I enjoy biking outside; you get to look around and notice what people are doing and what’s happening in the neighborhood.  It’s much more interesting than staring at a wall in a gym.

Utilitarian exercise is also much more sustainable than recreational exercise.  Sure, I love to go for a sunny bike ride around the lake, go for a pleasant jog, or take a stroll downtown, but I don’t always have time to do those things.  On the other hand, I always need to get to school.  Biking is faster than taking the bus and allows me more flexibility in my schedule; therefore it is the obvious choice for school transportation.  Even when I’m not able to do recreational exercise for awhile, at least I’m still getting exercise, and usually a lot of it, because it is well integrated into my life.

I also don’t feel like I exercise all that much.  I do yoga about 5 times per week and I bike 30-50 miles per week, but it never feels like exercise.  When I bike places, it feels like I’m transporting myself while getting fresh air.  When I do yoga, it feels like a mindfulness practice that happens to move my body.  I sometimes think that I need to exercise more because I never register my physical activity as exercise; it’s simply what I do to get around or be happy.

It’s really hard to motivate yourself to do something several times every single week, especially when it’s not something you particularly enjoy.  Finding enjoyable exercise that can become well integrated into your life is a very positive way to ensure that even if you’re strapped for time, or tired, or cranky, you will still be getting the exercise that your body needs, probably without even thinking about it.  So how can you do this?  Get a bike.  Bike to the grocery store, to run errands, to work.  Walk to your friend’s house or to the library.  In the winter, go ice skating instead of sitting inside watching TV.  Spend time doing physically active things with friends: take a walk, go for a run, take a yoga class (hell teach each other yoga moves), climb a tree, or go rock climbing. Some of these things are free, which makes it a great way to be social while being frugal and healthy.

Once exercise is well ingrained into your life, you won’t even notice it’s there.  You’ll start exercising for recreation on top of for utilitarian purposes and become even healthier.  You’ll save time and money not going to a gym.  You’ll be sexier and more interesting.  I promise.

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.

Why Biking is All Sorts of Healthy

Last Monday I got a new bike, my first road bike, it’s so great.  I don’t have a picture of it yet but found a picture online that is very similar, it’s posted above, isn’t it pretty?  I love bikes for all sorts of reasons which relate to the ways in which bikes make you healthier.  The thing I like most about bikes is that they’re pretty much accessible to everyone.  Minneapolis has a plethora of used bike shops, including the Hub Bike Co-op which is my favorite and where I bought my new bike for $250.  Bikes that’ll get you around can be found on Craigslist.  My old roommate used a $20 bike from Craigslist to commute for years.  Minneapolis has the NiceRide system which allows you to rent bikes from kiosks all over the city for commuting and recreation and the fees are $55/year for students and $65/year for everyone else.  This means that for all of the reasons I’m about to discuss, biking is a feasible way to embody your attitude about sustainability, frugality, and heath.

Bikes save you money.  Mr. Money Mustache did a great job of discussing all of the potential and theoretical ways in which bikes could save you money, but I’m going to get a bit more realistic.  Let’s calculate the average amount of fuel burned and money spent for an average American commute in a year.  To do this we’ll have to Google some things:

  • In 2009, the EPA reported that the average fuel economy in America reached 22.4 mpg.
  • The average commute in America is 15 miles.
  • Gas was $3.56 per gallon on average in 2011.

Driving to work every weekday for a year (50 weeks, accounting for some vacation time) at 30 miles/day in a 22.4 mpg car will result in 7,500 miles driven, 335 gallons of gas burned, and $1,193 spent on gas.  And that’s just commuting.  According to the Federal Highway Administration, Americans drive an average of 13,476 miles per year.  Just  replacing half of your non-commute related trips with biking would result in a yearly saving of $475.

You can start your transition to bike commuting slow by combining biking with taking the train/bus or by investing in a bike rack and driving part of the way way and biking from there, this would be a good way to save on parking if you work in a downtown area.  I started doing this a couple summers ago and eventually realized that the whole bike/train/bike arrangement took more time than biking alone, so last summer spent a fair number of weeks biking 12 miles each way to work.

The other obvious remedy for the 15 mile commute issue is moving closer to your place of work, finding a job closer to you, negotiating a 4 day work week (at 10 hours per day) to cut one full day of commuting out of your schedule, or trying to negotiate the ability to work from home.  I currently have a 4 mile commute and find that it’s the perfect distance to get some exercise in the morning and afternoon but not so long that I dread biking it every day.

Bikes are good for your health.  Biking for one hour at 10 mph will burn 540 calories for a 167lb, 37 year old man, and this is a fair bit slower than bikers usually ride.  Assuming you were to live about 5 miles from your place of work, biking 9 months out of the year (accounting for weather and winter), you would end up biking 1800 miles!  That’s far!  Spending time at the gym is quite tedious, and costs money, so biking as a commute would allow you to get rid of that gym membership and make the most of your time.  At $40/month that would be a savings of $480 a year, enough saved to buy a quite nice used bike!

Biking is a great way to spend time with friends and get out into your community.  When you have friends that bike, biking to events becomes part of the socialization time.  Spending time with friends makes you happier than driving someplace by yourself.  Biking is also a fun way to people watch and get exercise on your own.  I biked 10 miles today around the lakes and saw five people I knew in the process which made me feel very connected to my community and left me with a big goofy grin on my face for the majority of my ride.

Bikes are good for the environment.  Looking at our previous calculations, we see that commuting by car by an average American burns 335 gallons per year, which results in the release of 6365lbs of carbon dioxide.  If we cut all of our car trips, including commuting, by half we could save 300 gallons of gas from being burned, 5,700lbs of carbon dioxide from being produced, and $1,070!

Biking places takes initiative, and hard work, and muscles, but there are so many benefits individually and for the environment that I consider it completely worth it, even if I do end up getting stuck in the occasional rainstorm.

The Beauty of Breaking Up

Everyone always talks about how hard it is to break up.  It is hard.  However, every time I’ve broken up with someone, while being awash in sadness and melancholy regret, I’ve also felt a strong pulse of hope and excitement about the possibility of dating someone new in the future.  There is a lot of sadness in breaking up, but a lot of hope too for new relationships, new friendships, and a renewed relationship with yourself.

I may not be very experienced in sustaining relationships but I’ve certainly had experience breaking up.  The vast majority of the relationships and dating experiences I’ve been involved in have ended at my own say-so, not necessarily because I did not like that person anymore, but instead because I knew they couldn’t enter into the type of relationship I want.  This may be the result of them not being nurturing or attentive enough, not sharing my core views of the world, or simply not desiring the same sort of relationship that I do.  Whatever the cause, breaking up is difficult and emotionally draining, but in these situations staying with that person would be much more harmful over time as the incompatibility grates on your spirit.

When you have only dated one person, or never experienced a major break up, the prospect of such an event occurring is a threat to be avoided.  You can get stuck in dating situations if only for the reason that both parties are too afraid of the pain of a break up.  How many times have you heard someone say, “I can’t believe I dated that person for so long,” or, “We should have broken up months ago?”  These are after-the-fact acknowledgements that a couple dragged their feet in breaking up.  All of the time spent prolonging a dying relationship is time not spent healing, growing, learning to be one with yourself, and meeting new people.

Experiencing break ups makes you much more able to let go of attachments in dating situations.  After a painful break up, you realize that you’re strong and you can heal.  I’ve found that a lot of strength comes from knowing that I can break up with someone whenever I need to and this eliminates the fear of a relationship going dead without ending.  This makes starting new relationships less stressful.  You understand that it may well end, but that you’re prepared for that possibility, and you are able to be present and enjoy that person’s company to determine whether there is a fit.  You are less likely to project your own expectations on someone else and instead can learn about who they really are and then determine whether you’d like to continue seeing them.

Another fear I used to harbor was one that a relationship would end and I would be inconsolably sad.  Break ups helped me learn that emotional pain can be overcome and that the presence of such pain gives you a greater appreciation for the small joys in life.  It also helps you not fear that pain in the future and appreciate present happiness more.  One Marion Keyes quote I’ve loved for a long time states, “When happiness makes a guest appearance in one’s life, it’s important to make the most of it.  It may not stay around for long and when it has gone wouldn’t it be terrible to think that all the time one could have been happy was wasted worrying about when that happiness would be taken away?”

The most resounding reason for appreciating break ups is the possibility that they offer for personal growth.  When you end a relationship that’s not right for you, you prove that you really and truly love yourself.  You demonstrate that you love yourself more than you love anyone else and you will put your own needs before any desire for or attachment to being in a relationship.  You will put your own needs above the rapport you have with another person, no matter how much you love them.  The knowledge that you are willing to subject yourself to temporary pain and discomfort to pursue personal truth and self-love will make you more confident in yourself.  This confidence and self assurance will surely make you a more lovable person in both romantic and platonic situations.

Dating someone who does not nurture your true self is draining.  Much time is wasted spent worrying about whether your friend will change and whether they will ever appreciate you and treat you the way you’ve hoped to be treated.  It is important to voice our concerns and stand behind our truths.  Through this process we learn more about ourselves and learn how to love and appreciate ourselves, whether this ends the relationship or not.

I have a very distinct memory of taking the bus to break up with the only person I’ve ever loved.  The entire way there and the entire way back I listened to Silver Lining by Rilo Kiley and still believe that Jenny Lewis’s words aptly embody my message here, “I was your silver lining but now I’m gold.”  You can mean a lot to a person.  However, if there is not a fit, leaving the relationship to strike out on your own will be immeasurably difficult but will result in the sweetest of rewards.