Saturday, May 31, 2008

Bad advice

Funny post from I paid for this twice already - a how-not-to-be-frugal posts as opposed to the frugality basics posts I mentioned the other day. Ben Stein actually wrote a whole book like this, which I kept for a while in the bathroom for quick review. Of course, one of his was "don't buy a house" and we know how that turned out for me....

Speaking of which, we're trying to do a "deed in lieu of foreclosure" with Sovereign, but I can't get anybody in the loan mitigation department to return my telephone calls. I just got another utility bill from the house - how is an empty house using $63 in water, I ask you? - and there's just no telling how long it will take them to get around to sheriff's selling it. The lawyer I've been consulting with (dollar signs roll...) said that we should keep the insurance up just in case the place burns down the day after we let it lapse, which will be a big bill in July if it goes that far, but that we could let the utilities lapse. So that's what we're going to do.

And another consequence of my continued and elongated default is that I keep getting notices from Bank of America (my major credit card creditor) lowering my credit limit. Every time I pay off another $1000 they lower the credit limit to the next thousand. So I'm at something like $7400 now and they lowered the limit to $8000 "due to a major derogatory item on your credit report," according to the letter. No kidding. But I can keep using my card, they assure me, as long as I don't spend more than $600.

This is actually sort of okay, because I don't want to have a whole lot of available credit anyway at this stage, but the issue for me is that, while I acknowledge that I'm going to spend the next few years discovering how people with bad credit live, I can't start rebuilding my credit until this thing with the house is resolved, and it just won't resolve.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Frugality in the 10 commandments

Quite often one of the frugality sites will do a "frugality for dummies" kind of post, which will list the 5 or so easiest things to do to get on the road to frugality. There was one today. Most of these are fairly well known to anyone who has read these kind of blogs for a while, or who has read Tightwad Gazette - make meal plans and shopping lists and stick to them, leave your credit card at home, wait a few days before making a major purchase.

I haven't done one because I'm trying to present this material from a particular angle, even though a lot of my daily posts, the ones that describe my daily struggles, don't differ from most other frugality bloggers.

But there is one thing I can add to the list of frugality basics that I think is unique to my perspective. And that is: Do Shabbes. That is: Observe Shabbat - the Sabbath.

As you will remember from your Bible studies, the 10 commandments contains this directive: Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. This has been developed through the rabbinic process to today, when Orthodox Jews don't spend money, don't turn lights on and off, don't travel in cars, and spend most of the day in community and in prayer.

I'm a Reconstructionist, and my process is to try to discern the values behind the original prescription, then decide whether the way tradition suggests we observe today is in keeping with those values, and if not, to adjust the practice so that observance comes closer in alignment with principle. So I don't necessarily observe according to halakhah (Jewish law), but I do try to observe in a way that respects the underlying values and brings me closer to them.

So the value that I think underlies Shabbat from a frugal-Jewish perspective is this: spend no money. Buy no stuff. Leave commerce and acquisition alone for a day.

Now, I don't observe this perfectly. If we are out somewhere and there's some sort of incidental money involved, like paying to get into the botanical gardens, then we'll pay it and won't feel like we're violating Shabbat. But we don't "go shopping" (not that we do so much of that anyway) or go anywhere where the main activity is likely to involve the spending of money.

I think I mentioned that I was having trouble keeping track of my spending so I put some of my tax refund money into a basic version of Quicken. It has a page that shows your spending on a monthly calendar, and it's such a pleasure, after seeing all the spending on every other day of the week, to look at Saturdays and see no ATM withdrawals, no food shopping, none of that everyday detritus of homo consumerus, the American buyer. Just think: one-seventh of your life can be like that! That's a significant chunk of one's life! And there's the extra added benefit of being convinced that I'm taking what God said seriously.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a hero to so many in so many ways, as usual said it best:

To set apart one day a week for freedom, a day on which we would not use the instruments which have been so easily turned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence of external obligations...-is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for [human] progress than the Sabbath?

Shabbat can be for us what it was always intended to be: to be a day of freedom from technology and commerce. By observing it (either Sunday or Saturday, depending on your predelictions) you too can have a day - many days - on which you can follow what God actually said with that commandment: "Let there be frugality!"

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

More posts about food

Let's see, last time I posted on my food shopping we were at $138 for the week. We went to KC over the weekend and probably spent another $30 on food to bring to DW's folk's house. So that brings the total to $168, which is $18 over.

KC has a supermarket with a pretty large kosher meat section, so we stopped there on Monday morning before driving back. I really went in to get this fake shrimp that we like, we have a recipe for fake-shrimp and tofu in ginger and black bean sauce, but the stuff costs like $9 here so we never by it. In KC it cost $7, which is still ridiculous but better by comparison. So I bought 3 of those, that should keep us for a while.

I also bought some hotdogs, some sausage, some cold cuts and a sandwich for the ride. I made a special effort to avoid Rubaskin's, which I'll explain in another post. Total - about $58. This is obviously not all for this week, so let's amortize it for the month. $58 / 4 = $14.5. That means my food budget for the next four weeks is 150 - 14.5 = 135.5.

Then the meal planning: we didn't make the garbanzo/shroom curry or the abba mac'n'cheese, so they went back on the schedule; then I found a veggie burger goulash recipe in the Linda McCartney book that looks reasonable, and a portabello mushroom and polenta with red pepper relish thing that I found in veggie cookbook that looks really good.

So today I did the main shopping at Dillon's. I bought a box of boca burgers to replenish the pantry for what I'm using in the goulash ($3.50 per box of 4 on sale). I bought the stuff for the portabello thing but then realized that maybe I shouldn't have - the ingrediants for the relish (tomatoes and peppers) is out of season and expensive. If I buy fresh tomatoes at this time of year (I usually only use canned) I'll only buy organic because conventional tastes like cardboard, so you see the thing added up.

So what do you do when you bought stuff for a meal that's too fancy? That's right - Shabbat! So that's our special Friday night meal for the week. But I'll have to make the relish in advance so the tomatoes don't go soft.

The total for the shopping trip was $101. Add $14.5 = $115.5. I still need some tofu and yogurt which is a health food store purchase, and I also reckon I'll spend may $15 or so at the farmer's market tomorrow. So I'm more or less on target, but do have to come up with one more meal for the week that basically only uses things we have in the house. We do have some potatoes that have started to sprout...

Monday, May 26, 2008

Frugal Family Fun in KC

If you're in KC, just about the best thing you can do with the kids is visit the Deanna Rose Children's Farm Stand. I was there with my son yesterday and there are beautiful gardens, animals to feed, petting zoos and chickens and stuff, a couple of playgrounds, a Kansas schoolhouse from the prairie era, and a lot more. And best of all, it's free! They don't even gouge you on the concessions - a popsicle was $1, and there were plenty of water fountains so you don't even get hoodwinked into buying Dasani (another in my long line of biggest rip-offs). You can give a donation (and I encourage you to do so - someone's got to pay for it) and you can do some activities that cost a couple of bucks, but it's a great place and you can't beat the price. I can't recommend it enough.

We also managed to take the kids to see the KC Symphony play a Memorial Day program, also free, with a very impressive fireworks show after. It was a pretty frugal weekend all around, aside from the gas!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

A brief simplicity mishna

Avot 4:12 begins: "Rabbi Meir said, Reduce your business activities and engage in Torah study. " Jewish tradition places a high premium on Torah study, considering it more important than, in this case, business activities. Kehati interprets this verse to mean, "Make the study of Torah at fixed times your principal occupation, and your worldly business a casual activity."

This is in keeping with the principle, articulated often in the not-for-profit world, that you can tell what's really important to you by your calendar and your checkbook - by where you spend your money and where you spend your time. This verse is saying that those should be focused on ultimate values rather than on the temporal. "Torah" here can be interpreted broadly to mean anything that puts one's values into the world, that increases one's quality of life and positive impact, whether that be study, mitzvah opportunities, volunteerism, involvement in civic activities, time with one's children, etc.

Certainly Jewish thought doesn't encourage an ascetic lifestyle, and neither for that matter does voluntary simplicity. What there is, is a sense that there are things far more important than acquiring and "succeeding" in the American, financial sense, and that those things are readily available to us should we prioritize our lives properly.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Shopping challenge update

2nd food run of week made. List: 3 kinds of milk: organic 2% for me and the girls, skim for DW, soy for DS (lactose intolerant). 3 kinds of fruit: grapes at 99cents/lb, apples and bananas. Total: $28. Returned the chickpeas and some rice that DW thought wouldn't be good, for a return of $6.75. Total for week thus far: $138.

I read an excellent post at antithete where she details how she spends $250 per month (month!) on food. A big part of it is that they plan their meals by the month. I don't think I'm up to that yet. I'm still trying to prove that I can plan for a week and get in at under $600 for the month! Once I establish those things reliably, we'll see where we can go from there.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Amy Dacyzyn sighting plus Torah and giftcards

Another article from on frugality in the MSM, this time from the Boston Globe. Best aspect: an Amy Dacyzyn sighting. I kind of think of her as the JD Salinger of frugality: affected so many people, and then disappeared. DW found another interview with her on Simple Dollar.

I'm pretty jealous of the people who were "hardwired for frugality from childhood." My parents basically never talked about money, and they spent it like they had it - eating out 3 times a week, all that sort of thing. I've never been as consumer-minded as they, but neither did I have any "financial literacy," as the phrase goes. That's a big part of why I'm behind the 8-ball so badly right now. Teaching the kids to be frugal is probably the best gift we can give them.

Speaking of which - I probably should make this a new post, but what the heck - my daughter was in private lessons with a young rabbi here, he gives the kids stickers for attending services, leading prayers, etc. and then when they get to a certain level they can trade in the stickers for a small gift. My daughter was pretty into Webkinz there for a while so every once in a while she would come home with another one. I personally don't think we should reward kids financially for Torah study but it was small so I was willing to let it go.

Then at the end of the year she came home with $70 in giftcards, one from a teacher supply store and one from Hallmark. Now, she doesn't even get $70 for her birthday, at least not from us she doesn't, so this seemed way over the top. And who needs $35 at Hallmark? What useful item, that isn't a useless chotchke, can even be purchased there? If it was to a bookstore, or Amazon, I could almost see it - although it would still be over the top. But this borders on crazy.

Of course, she moaned about our reaction to him and he appealed the decision. It seems needlessly tight to take them away from her, especially since it's not our money, but I can't help but wonder what message this sends, on a lot of levels. Basically we're to the point of demanding she spend 10% of the money on purchases for charitable purchases, but I'm not sure what else is worth doing. Thoughts on the subject will be gratefully accepted.

Menu plan

I'm taking this $150 a week thing as a personal challenge. For the second week in a row I planned out 4 meals, but this time I didn't go shopping until after I did so. This week's meals:

chickpea and mushroom curry (Veg Times cookbook p. 269), probably over rice
tofu lo mein (VT p. 347)
"Abba mac and cheese" which is with red sauce rather than milk
"Amy Dacyzyn pilaf" - basically tuna, rice and veg, from Tightwad Gazette 3 p. 247

Then to Dillons, big sale on frozen veg, 10 for $10 for 8 oz. bags, so I bought a bunch. The menu plan helped me not buy things that will eventually be a good meal but aren't on sale, like tortillas, which I know we don't have but don't need this week. I did buy 2 cans of chickpeas without remembering that DW has about 4 baggies of pre-cooked in the freezer, so I may take those back. Esoteric ingredient of the week: teriyaki sauce for the lo mein. Total damage: $117. That leaves appoximately $30 for a later in the week milk, apple and tofu run. We won't even have to worry about Shabbat next week, because we're going to KC to visit her folks.

Shavuah tov! A good week!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Food, glorious food

One area of our budget that we continue to struggle with is the food bill. I've been saying for years that we should not be spending more than $150 a week on food, but DW thinks I'm living on the moon. I recently started to take over the shopping and have been able to hold the line a little better and yet still buy some "frivilous" (spices and sauces and whatnot) things but we still are overshooting the mark. This week: Friday I spent about $80 at Dillons, DW spent about $35 at Walgreens and $50 at the health food store on Sunday, then today (I couldn't get there) she spent another $72. I usually try to make a stop at the farmer's market on Wednesday but obviously we're over $150.

One thing we're trying to do is menu plan a little more. This weekend I went through the cookbooks and came up with 4 meals: a rice, TVP and tomato sauce casserole and a lentil cheese loaf, both from the Linda McCartney book; a broccoli and mushroom manicotti; a seat of the pants pad thai from Vegan with a Vengence. The first two didn't need any ingredients we didn't already have, the second two needed a few, but I think it's okay to buy a couple of special ingredients as long as we're not picking out recipes with all the most esoteric ingredients. (Which is a habit I can get into. ) I made the pad thai with spaghetti instead of the rice noodles the recipe called for. It still came out good.

We're also trying to rely on a pantry system somewhat more. There are a few things we basically have to buy every time we go: pasta, dry cereal (this is a major hit as we only like the kind in the health food section - whole grain, low in added sugar, organic if possible; I buy what's on sale but it can still be $3 a box, and we go through probably 4-5 boxes a week); milk and eggs of course, apples. Now I've been focusing on keeping tuna, canned tomato products and beans, a variety of veggie convenience foods like Boca burgers, and a variety of frozen veggies in the house. Rice, tuna and veggies is a workable meal on a weeknight.

I've been trying to keep track of specials and coupons, particularly on-line offers. Coupons don't really work that well for us because they're usually for name brands and we don't really buy those.

The short version of it is that we really can't afford to spend $600 in a month on food. If we're over $50 every week, that really adds up. I feel like this is the area where we could really see s0me of the most impact in our financial lives.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Wake up and smell the rebate

From Simple Living network, a (justifiably) politicized response to the rebate checks - positioning not spending the money as a non-violent protest against a political and economic system out of control. There are flyers you can print as well.

One thing that gets undersold sometimes in the frugality literature, with its focus on hows and personal whys, is the societal whys, the whys that have more of a political edge. The acquisition mentality is not only damaging personally, it's damaging on a societal level. The more society focuses on getting-and-spending, the more it faces the repercussions of that choice, including the environmental/energy costs, the Walmartization of our economy - cheaper is better, so China is better, quality and slavery be damned - and the endangerment of a lot of people's financial well-being, as we see in the housing and credit crises right now.

The way this whole rebate thing has been framed shows the flim-flam nature of the thing - the government borrows money from the future to give us money that we're supposed to spend on a bunch of stuff we don't need in order to stimulate the buy-buy economy. But an economy based on buying a bunch of stuff we don't need is part of the reason we're in the economic straits we're in. It's like 3-card monte, and if you know that game, you know the sucker never wins. And you and I, my friend, are the suckers.

Every dollar we spend is a vote for the kind of society and the kind of economy that we want. If you want a Walmart society, spend your money at Walmart. If you want a farmer's market society, spend it at the farmer's market. If you want a society that has values other than big screen tvs and the other electronic detritus of the modern age, then put it in the bank, pay down debt, give it to charity - in other words, don't spend it at all!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The biggest rip-off... the world is greeting cards! Went to Dillons on Friday to do some of the shopping and picked up 4 cards for mother's day - one to DW and one to my mom from me, one to DW and one to my mom from the kids. $15!!! And the worst thing is, DW doesn't particularly like them and doesn't keep them. So why did I burn this money ??? The answer: Expectations - my mom taught me that's what's expected.

DW's mom (satisfied with a phone call) has a card design program and does her own cards. I wonder if that would be worth it for us or if it would just make me think that we "need" to upgrade our printer?...

Friday, May 9, 2008

Deficit spending - the government's, not mine this time

The "economic stimulus" check appeared in my account today. Here's how we spent it:
$200 to DW's CC
$400 to my CC

This represents an extra month's payment to both, and makes 3 monthly payments we've been able to make this month. My CC is now around 7600, which means if I keep up the same pace and stay off the plastic it will be paid off in 23 months.

An extra payment to the loan for DW's car. We've backburnered this but it is eating up a lot of interest.

$500 to savings. Making a total of $2000 we've put in there in the last month, which is, um, $1850 more than we had in there at the end of March.

This leaves about $600 remaining. This will be used for summer camps, lessons, etc. and a pool membership over the summer.

You know what? I don't know about the economy, but I do feel kinda stimulated.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Who is rich?

Between Pesah and Shavuot it's customary to read selections from "Pirke Avot" - Ethics of the Fathers - a collection of adages from the early rabbinic period (basically from about the 2d century BCE to the redaction of the Mishna in 220 CE). There are a couple of selections that I've always found very appropos for a simplicity perspective, and I'm going to share a couple of them over the next few days.

The one I'll share now is absolutely my favorite, from chapter 4:1: "Who is rich? The one who is happy with their portion."

I've sometimes heard criticisms of this line because it can be taken to suggest that mistreatment should be abided, but I don't see it that way. I see it as a corrective to the American treadmill of "achievement" and aquiring. You see, nothing that you can buy will make you happy if you're not already essentially satisfied with your life and your situation. This is not to say that one shouldn't try to improve oneself and one's lot, but there's a difference between wanting to improve and needing to improve, as if from a compulsion. And anyway, the core truth of simplicity, it seems to me, is that everything we need and want, we already have available to us.

The text continues: "It is thus written: 'When you eat of the effort of your hands, it will be well with you' in the World to Come." Now, I'm not overly focused on reward in the hereafter, but I know that we can choose - by our attitude - to make life here on earth a heaven or a hell. And I take this line to mean that if we can do the best we can with what we have, the life we live today will be that much closer to heaven.

The Me'am Lo'ez, a commentary written in Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) in the early 18th century, adds:

The master further said, "Who is the wealthy person who can boast of riches? The one who has a good heart, and rejoices in the lot that God has given, wanting nothing more than he has." Such a person lives happily all his life, and is able to serve God properly.
I can't think of a better guideline for the frugal life. The text goes on to point out that avarice weakens the spirit, by "tearing the soul asunder" when one sees someone with more than they have.

The sages teach, "There is noone in this world who dies with even half their desires fulfilled. If one succeeds in amassing one hundred gold coins, she wants two hundred." Since a person always wants twice as much as she has, it is impossible for her to achieve her goal. She may have much money, but there is no one poorer than she.

This kind of envy detracts from the ability to do what is useful and productive; to Me'am Loez this is serving God, but we can also see this as doing those things that make life worthwhile, whether raising one's children, doing charitable work, or even "following our bliss" as the man said. It is these things that cause one to be blessed.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Makin' bread (in the literal sense)

My birthday was the other day, and with some of my b-day money I bought something I've wanted for several years now: a bread machine. I found one for $50 at Target that seems to do everything I need it to do (and another one for $100 that does a lot that I didn't need it to do). If it costs me $20 to buy the ingredients I need to get started, that means I would have to make 17 or so loaves to have the thing pay for itself, based on the bread we buy (whole wheat, no HFCS) costing about $3.50 a loaf. And I just think it's a really cool thing to do!

My dad always had a tendency to buy a kitchen toy, use it once and let it rot in the cabinet after that. Example included a fondue pot and a crepe maker. There have been some (rare) times when I've fallen to this tendency myself ($40 plastic sushi maker purchased at the Green Festival in Chicago last year, can't for the life of me make it work properly, the seaweed always tears). But I don't see any reason why that should be the case here.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Investment advice: Get into dry pasta

The Wall Street Journal suggests that stockpiling food might be a better investment than CDs right now. I am just getting used to the idea of buying more than my immediate needs. For instance, Walgreens had a sale on cereal this week, 2 for $5 on Life, which my kids love. So I bought 4 boxes. This is new for me, but given what's happening with food prices right now, I wouldn't be surprised if we don't see prices like this for much longer.