Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Debt update

The first thing is that DW is getting more hours at work now, which should (I hope) alleviate some of the monthly budget pressures. We really need her to be bringing in $800 to $1,000 per month for the cups to stack properly.

If that's okay, then the debt snowball can go into effect. Our toppest priority debt is my Visa card, which has about $5,300 on it (down from a high of almost $8,000) but at 19.9% interest. That interest, I don't need to tell you, is a killer.

Some people recommend getting a peer-to-peer loan from Lending Club, which usually is between 7 and 9% interest and can be paid off over 2-3 years. Alas, they do not lend in Kansas, and I'm not sure my short-sale-effected credit rating would qualify anyway.

But I noticed on the blog PT Money that Citi is offering a card with 0% on balance transfers for up to 15 months, so I applied. They approved me, but (because of my wounded credit) only for $1,600 and at 0% for only 7 months, after which it goes back to 20%. But it's better than what I've got now, so I did it. I'm expecting a pretty sizable tax refund, so if I pay two months' snowball on Visa 1 with that (my snowball payment on that card is about 3x the minimum payment), plus remove $1,600 to Visa 2, I should be able to pay off Visa 1 at about the time the grace period ends on Visa 2. My calculations are that this will save me the equivalent of about 1 monthly payment, which isn't nothing.

Miriam's Cup

It's too late for this to be useful for anyone's seder this year, but...

One of the most interesting innovations in seder observance among progressive Jewish types over the past, say, 40 years has been Miriam's Cup. Placed on the table alongside Elijah's Cup (which represents the promise of future, messianic redemption) and filled with water (to remind us of Miriam's midrashic role in sustaining the Israelites in the desert), it is, like most ritual innovations, a blank slate on which to draw signficance: the role of women, inclusiveness, creativity, etc.

That's part 1. Part 2 is that progressive Jewish types also get a slew of hagaddah supplements in the weeks leading up to seder, asking us to include various issues in our discussions at the table: human rights, Darfur, Israel-Palestine peace, immigration reform, the Michael Lerner kitchen sink, etc. etc. (Here's a page of them from the Religious Action Center.)

Part 3 is that I'm reading Annie Leonard's book The Story of Stuff, which is fantastic and which I'll review in a further post, but I started thinking that I'd like to add a Stuff component to the seder. But as I was preparing, the Miriam's Cup (which we've had on the table for years but which we've never done a whole lot with, ritually speaking) seemed like it needed something.

So this is what we did: we focused the Miriam's Cup section, way up at the beginning of the seder, on the bottled water issue. I don't know how much you know about this, but bottled water is really Bad. First, it's a manufactured need, in that most tap water in this country is perfectly fine, and if it isn't that's a motivation for political action to take care of it, not to abandon the system. Second, most bottled water is only filtered tap water anyway. Third, it is resource intensive in that it takes extra water and petroleum products to make the bottles, not to mention the transportation to get it where it's going. And fourth, it's more expensive than gasoline, not to mention the disposal of the bottles, which are mostly (80%) landfilled.

Access to clean sources of water is becoming a worldwide human rights issue, if it isn't already, and some say that water will be the oil of the 21st century, with wars being fought over it, and populations moving due to its absence.

The Rambam has a quote which I use quite often, to the effect that God gave us - for free and in abundance - what we need to live: air, water, etc. But if we go after things that we don't need, it makes the things we do need more expensive and less accessible. Here, I'll prove it:

[W]hen one endeavors to seek what is unnecessary, it becomes difficult to find even what is necessary. ...the more a thing is necessary for a living being, the more often it may be found and the cheaper it is. On the other hand, the less necessary it is, the less often it is found and it is very expensive. ... [The Guide III:12]
Bottled water, being unnecessary, is more expensive, and its pursuit makes tap water, which is necessary, more difficult to obtain.

More information and action items on this issue can be found at the Corporate Accountability International website, which includes a link to another great Annie Leonard video piece called the "Story of Bottled Water."

The takeaway message, in case you couldn't get it, is "Don't buy bottled water!"

Miriam is associated with the availability of fresh, sustaining water to a migrating population in a desert environment. It is exactly that kind of population which has the most difficulty getting access to clean drinking water, in large part due to the actions that we in the west take. May Miriam's Cup be a reminder to us that, as is so often the case, the simplest answer is best - for us, for those who travel this planet together with us, and for the planet itself.

Sunday, March 28, 2010


One of the centerpieces of the Passover seder is the singing of Dayenu. I think most everyone knows a little of this, even if not the whole thing. The word "Dayenu" translates as "it would have been enough," and the message of the song fits very well with a simplicity lifestyle. "Each of these good things would have been enough to earn our thanks."

If God had taken out of Egypt and not divided us into tribes, dayenu...
If God had fed us manna but not given us the Shabbat, dayenu...
If God had taken us to Sinai and not given us the Torah, dayenu
If God had given us the Torah and not allowed us to enter into the Land of Israel, dayenu... etc.
This has sometimes striked me as rather forced. Would it really have been enough to take us out of Egypt if the sea didn't split? Even Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev asked what would have been the purpose of bringing us to Sinai and not have given us the Torah.

I found a good insight into this in the Hagaddah for Jews and Buddhists, which I looked over in preparation for the seder this year.

You have to know the difference between more and enough (dayenu). We always want more... more freedoms, more love, more money, more... more... more...

What we have is sufficient. If there is more, it is a blessing and the Creator deserves thanks.
The message of dayenu is that life is not a path to a predetermined end, and the goodness of life is not dependent on where one ends up, either in accomplishment, prosperity, or spiritual achievement. Each step is important in and of itself. The ability to feel gratitude at each and every step on the path is itself a spiritual approach, as well as a necessary precondition of the next step, as well as a defense against believing that the next achievement or acquisition, or the ultimate accomplishment or achievement (whatever we may imagine them to be), are necessary for our lives and our paths to have value. In other words, feeling blessed in the present blessing is not dependent on what comes next.

In my case, if I had been given the opportunity to go to graduate school, and not been given the opportunity to work in the field, dayenu. If I had been able to work in the field but not been able to have a decent standard of living, dayenu. If I had a decent standard of living but not been able to pay down debt or save for college or retirement...

Well, actually, I haven't done those last things yet. And none of the things I've been able to do have been done without difficulty. But it's okay. I'm grateful for what I have been able to do, and for what I have today. When I look at my family, my reasonably happy wife and kids, the community I have the opportunity to serve, it really does feel like enough. It feels like dayenu. And that truly is a blessing.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Another Frugal Passover Hack

Here's one that was pointed out (which is not to say "insisted upon") by DW just today: if you're about to open a jar or package of something that can be eaten on Passover - don't! Why open something you're only going to have to get rid of in 2 weeks when you can hold on to it and have it for Pesah and after?

Because we don't buy things with HFCS, the jelly that I was about to open can be saved for the holiday. If I were to open it, I'd have to throw it away in two weeks and buy another one.

The Story of Stuff

Annie Leonard on Colbert Report. Is there anyone this side of Bill Moyers who has more interesting, out-of-the-box guests, or who gives more exposure to this kind of thinking, than Stephen Colbert?

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On the same subject, go back to the beginning of the show and watch the piece about Pringles. Classic stuff-ism!

And of course don't forget Annie's web-film, the Story of Stuff. It's permanently linked over there on the left. Annie is an American hero!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Simple Pesah Hacks

I posted a request on my Facebook page for suggestions for how to keep Pesah from breaking the bank. Here's what my friends came up with.

Thomas T:
As an outsider who comes from a tradition where the spirit of the rule is as (if not more) important than the letter, I've always been curious about the rule-skirting, lousy tasting, very expensive things like pesadich noodles, cookies, etc. Especially among those ... who only observe the dietary restrictions during seder meals. ... [I]t seems like the raw ingredients of pesadich foods, especially for those whose practice permits kitniyot, are pretty cheap in and of themselves. Plus, you can't eat out at all, which for some families, would make a big difference right there.
Sallie W.:
Don't buy the horrible breakfast cereal -- it is truly bad. Stick with matzah brei or, if in a hurry, a boiled egg and matzah (with butter, of course).

If you're a single person, buy the 5 pound matzah package on sale and split it with friends.
Judy G.:
1) I know a lot of people who throw out all their open condiments etc every year at Pesach, which is a very expensive way to manage one's pantry. Condiments shouldn't be kept forever but even if you don't use them on Passover, you can segregate them and use them afterwards.

2)The extent of the kosher l'Pesach foods available are amazing and ... See questionable--does your milk for that week really need a special Passover hechsher? [MR: answer: no]

3) Do you need all those special Pesach treats? I buy matzah, matzah meal and matzah cake meal and that's it. (Actually, I also buy one box of those awful jelly fruit slices because my husband insists on them and has convinced my kids they are essential.) But the point is--do you need all that special Passover stuff or can you just eat a low carb diet for the week?
If you observe the prohibition on kitniyot, you would want to add potato starch to Judy's list.

Daniel B:
Glass dishes can be kashered. KfP pasta is a waste of money. Don't buy KfP cereal, make Matzo granola.
Most processed foods are a rip off, but especially Pesah foods, which are usually very unsatisfying substitutes for whatever they're supposed to be imitating.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Preparing for Pesah: Eat yourself out of house and home!

Speaking of eating out of the cabinets, my first tip for keeping Passover from breaking the bank actually starts about 3-4 weeks out, which would be now: Don't do a full food shopping, buying a bunch of stuff that you don't need for the next few weeks. Buying a lot of boxes of cold cereal, or pasta or flour products or anything else that you're just going to have to put away or throw away in a couple of weeks just doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

Rather, this is exactly the time to do what I mentioned in the earlier post: eat up what you have in the cabinets. The more you use, the less you'll have to deal with at cleaning time. Remember, throwing away food is a shonda (as well as the antithesis of frugality), so this is exactly the time to figure out what's in all those tupperwares in the freezer, dig around in the back of the cabinets, and eat the natureburger mix you've been "saving" (read: avoiding). (Are you sensing a theme here?)

To get ready for a simple Pesah, the first thing to do, before the holiday even starts, is to eat yourself out of house and home!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Well ok, but I wouldn't call it frugality

Here's kind of a weird one, from a recent issue of Newsweek: Julia Reed makes a bet with friends that she can eat for under $50 per week (apparently she has developed well-earned reputation for extravagance) which she wins by using up expensive ingredients she had bought on previous sprees and trips and had never eaten. Money quote:
The good news about being formerly extravagant is that you have some pretty swell stuff lurking around. There was pasta I'd toted from Italy three trips ago; ditto balsamic vinegar of every conceivable age. There were anchovies and capers, olives, and pickled figs, three colors of lentils, and four kinds of rice. Why, I wondered, had I bought two bottles of walnut oil and one of blood-orange vinegar? I don't know, but it turns out they work really well together on a salad of watercress and endive. Does pasta have a shelf life? Supposedly it's two years, but my four-year-old pappardelle was just fine. Is it too gross to make a meal of the runny Epoisses my mother left at Christmas? Yes, but I found an Epoisses soufflé recipe from Anne Willan that made an elegant supper with a salad.
Although the length of the wager is unclear from the piece, I would venture to guess that most people could probably get through a week or two spending $50 per week on food using just with the things in the cabinets, even if blood-orange vinegar isn't among them. It's probably not fancy enough for Julia Reed, but I know there's some Natureburger mix buried somewhere in our cabinets, waiting for a fallow time.

I would point out that the very fact that she bought and brought home all this fancy stuff and then didn't use it until she'd made a bet is actually a symptom, a symptom of the same disease that I am exhibiting when I buy a book and put it on the shelf without reading it. We don't even bother to get the full use or pleasure out of the things we buy. Buying, having, is more important than the thing itself. In this sense, actually eating the food is a drawback, because then you don't have it anymore. At least a book still exists once you've read it.

But ultimately, this kind of thing is not sustainable. Either she'll get tired of working so hard to put interesting food on the table, or she'll run out of esoteric ingredients. She may have eaten olive and cream cheese sandwiches in college, but I doubt she'd want to do so now. And anyway, a story entitled "Budget Gourmet" should have some hint of ways to actually eat on a budget, not just use up the product of previous extravagance. No?

PS: I won't be linking to Newsweek too much anymore; we're letting the subscription lapse. We've probably taken it for 10 years at least, but DW doesn't like the redesign.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


Stephen Colbert takes down the site that gets your kids to take out real loans for virtual stuff.
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Spending $11 to save $11

Our dog has taken to chewing up the covers of hardcover library books. Never chews up softcovers, and never chews up our own hardcovers, although we have many. Just library books that don't have the plastic covers on them. She chewed up Moby Dick from DK1's school library, which I'm not sure we've come clean about yet, and now she chewed the corners off of Serious Farm by Tim Egan, which is one of our favorite books by one of our favorite authors. (If you have kids, check him out.)

We returned the book and got an email that day from the library saying uh-uh-uh, you need to pay us for this book. They wanted to charge us $15 for the book and $7 for a "processing fee." We know from past experience that if you present them with a usable copy of the book they will charge only the processing fee, so I went on Amazon and found a used hardcover copy ("very good condition") of the book for, get this, $0.01. That's right, 1 penny. Of course, there's the $3.99 service charge, but it still gives us a total of $4.00, meaning that, with the processing fee, my dog's chew toy will cost us $11 instead of $22. We also get a slightly chewed copy of Serious Farm for our trouble.

If I could figure out a way to get my dog to stop doing this, it would cost even less.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

I'm sick of debt

I'm writing today from a place of frustration. I have been pursuing what I think of as a fairly simple and frugal lifestyle for quite a number of years now. I can remember discovering the Tightwad Gazette while I still lived in New York, which is over 15 years ago. I don't buy expensive clothes or a lot of video games or fancy electronic equipment. We have two cars: a 12 year old beater and a 6 year old slightly-less-beater. We very rarely eat out. We don't go to movies very much or other entertainment unless someone gives us tickets. I don't really even give that much to charity, in the great scheme of things. I have thought and written about frugality and sustainability extensively and have tried to apply most of the low-hanging fruit principles of the frugal lifestyle to my own life.

Yet we continue to have a hard time staying within our monthly budget, and we continue to struggle to pay down a substantial amount of credit card debt. I don't understand it, and I'm feeling really frustrated about it.

The thing is, while DW's paychecks have been a little inconsistent lately, she's earning a good deal more now than she was last year at this time, meaning things should be getting easier. I put a few numbers into a simple budget spreadsheet last night, and it looks to me like, counting just our fixed expenses and including debt service, we should be running a surplus of a couple hundred dollars every month. But we're not - we consistently have to take money from our emergency fund to make the monthly nut. The conclusion I reach is there are substantial random (unbudgeted) expenses that are hurting us. And I'm not even really sure what they are.

The reason I stopped working on this blog was because I felt that I didn't have anything to teach anyone because I wasn't getting anywhere. I picked it up again because just letting things go on this way is not going to solve my problem. DW and I have to raise the level of seriousness with which we think about and address this problem.

The first step has to be figuring out where the money's going, and getting to the point where we're living within our monthly means. This means squeezing our monthly expenses, such as canceling cable and changing auto insurers, but is also means figuring out where we're spending this mysterious money that isn't in the monthly plan.

The second thing (well, a related thing) would be to build our emergency fund back up to about $2,000, so that extraordinary expenses - such as auto repairs - don't have to go on the plastic.

And the third thing is paying down this damned credit card debt. I went back and looked a previous posting I made about the debt snowflake, which is where you pay the minimums on all your debts except one, and you put all extra available funds into the highest priority debt. At that time (October 2008) our two cards had about $7,000 each on them, and I predicted that if I followed the snowflake program the debt on the highest interest rate card (mine) would be retired by ... June 2010. Well, I'm here to tell ya, it ain't gonna be. As of March 1, my card at about $5,700, and DW's is up to almost 9. So we've essentially gotten nowhere in a year and a half. And it's because we keep putting non-fixed but reasonably expectable expenses - kids' clothing and shoes, car repairs - on the card. And I of course debted the equipment for the TV transition.

I redid the snowflake the other day, and it's basically the same story as it was the last time: if we do it as prescribed, and maybe throw in another month's payment with our tax refund, my card will be retired in a year, and DW's a year after that. That of course depends on not using them anymore.

To recap, here are the steps:
1 - get our monthly expenses under DW's and my combined income, including debt service and the snowflake payments, and including reasonably expectable ongoing expenses that we've been putting on the cards. This will have to be a combination of squeezing fixed expenses and figuring out and eliminating all the pissy little expenses that don't present themselves so easily.

2 - build the emergency fund back up to $2,000 so there's a some leeway for larger extraordinary expenses such as car repairs.

3 - Discontinuing use of the credit cards and paying them down with the debt snowflake method.

The thing is, when I look at what's supposed to happen after the two cards and DW's car are paid off, there's actually quite a bit of money there, even with ongoing payments on my student loan debt stretching off to the horizon. We make a decent, middle-class salary, certainly enough that we should be able to save a little money and even buy stuff with cash once in a while. Right now, that has to be the goal - and we need to get serious about meeting it.