Putting my Money where my Mouth is

After my last post, I started thinking about our spending inconsistencies.  I gave up on the idea of being an ethically perfect consumer a long time ago, and I’ve accepted that we cannot live in an industrialized world and not live an industrialized life at any level.  However, thinking about our 5 dollar eggs–a bargain to us and just plain unaffordable for many–got me thinking about other areas of our spending where we still suffer sticker shock and look for the “bargain”, choosing to overlook the reasons why the cheaper product is so much less expensive.

I don’t know how all these things are interconnected, but I’m grateful that we seem to be entering a time of more financial security.  My job is finally stabilizing after many years of being contingent and unpredictable.  We recently received a small, unexpected, windfall that allowed us to pay off the biggest chunk of the debt that we have slowly accrued over the last few years.  Psychologically I no longer feel that I need to pay such desperate attention to the bottom line.

So maybe that’s why I’m finally getting the lesson that I’ve read so often but never fully, viscerally, grasped: the old adage, “we can’t afford to buy cheap.”

A few weeks ago, it came time to replace one of our vehicles.  Skipper had been nursing his 2000 second-hand Chevy Venture-with-all-the-seats-gone “work truck” for more months than we had dared hope.  We had wrestled with what to do to replace it; did we prioritize fuel economy and price and just buy a beater that cost pennies to run but might suck up time and money to maintain?  Did we spend less now and then have to replace another vehicle in a year or two?  Did we get a more practical homestead truck even though the commuter fuel economy might not be there?  Did we buy something new even though it would mean taking on debt?  We went around in circles for months.

Finally, with the small windfall taking care of a big debt, we decided to invest in a new small pick-up: a 2011 Toyota Tacoma that gets better mileage than the van, and that Skipper can drive for the next ten+ years.  It should have felt scary to sign the papers, but instead it feels great.  We’ve invested in quality, we haven’t spent more than we can afford, and we haven’t been “penny-wise, pound-foolish”, making the decision on the short term bank balance over long term value.

Yesterday afternoon, I decided I wanted to go shopping for some new clothes.  I don’t do that very often, but 2-3 times a year, I take stock of what I need and do a big buy of staple pieces.  Aside from underwear and t-shirts, the last time I bought clothes for work was at last year’s boxing week sales, and I’ve been feeling like I’m wearing the same 2 pairs of pants and 2 sweaters every day.  As it gets colder, my choices have felt more limited, and suddenly the winter months ahead are looking dreary, style-wise!

So after work, I headed out to a mall to consider my options.  I went through all of my usual haunts, but left them all unsatisfied, not even trying anything on.  I was looking for another pair of warm pants and another sweater, but EVERYTHING I looked at was made of acrylic and polyester.  I realized that I just couldn’t do it anymore.  I know if I buy that attractive acrylic sweater, I’m going to sweat when I wear it, and after 2 weeks, it will be covered in pills and I won’t wear it again.  And it’s not like I was cheaping out–anything that looked appropriate for my age and profession was still close to $100.  And, of course, the frustrating thing about buying most women’s clothing is that all of it is made overseas in questionable conditions, no matter how much you spend.

So I headed to the department store in the mall and started browsing through the designer labels–something I NEVER do, assuming that I can’t afford anything.  I finally found 2 lines that actually had sweaters made with natural fibers: Ralph Lauren and Jones New York.  Both had attractive sweaters made of actual wool and/or cotton, and to my surprise, the prices weren’t really that much more, especially with some sales on.  I bought 2 cardigans and a merino turtleneck.  Can you tell it’s been threatening snow? 🙂

Perhaps my biggest surprise was how unfazed I felt about the decision to spend more to get better quality.  I wasn’t looking for bargains, I was looking for what I wanted.  Because I finally clued in that the wardrobe that I’ve been relying on this winter so far is made up of staple pieces that I have worn for more than a year already and that still look good.  They are not disposable.  And just like with our groceries, I don’t shop regularly.  If I invest in good staples, I don’t have to throw them out and get more, and the simple fact that I don’t have to go into a mall every month saves me money over the long term.

And you know what else?  Just like with the garden, and the truck, shopping for clothes this way actually REMOVES from my life something that would otherwise require regular mental attention. Making decisions based on quality means I spend less time tied up in knots over making decisions.  Yep, I’m reducing stress and freeing up time to spend doing other things.

I was talking to a friend the other day, who had spent some time that weekend with people who were uber-green and frugal.  “They even buy all their clothes at thrift stores!” she exclaimed.  “I just am not willing to do that!”

We talked about the fact that when we make changes in our habits because we feel we have to, or out of fear or guilt, those changes just don’t take.  But it’s amazing how when you make choices based on joy, there is an inevitable ripple effect, and before you know it, you’re changing all kinds of habits without even noticing.  The more I go down this green path, the more I can see that making choices based on joy is the only way to go, perhaps the only way we’re going to get meaningful social change in the world.

I know we still have many inconsistencies between how we live and how we would like to live.  We commute, we live in a larger house than two people really need, we use too much electricity, and we often forget to bring our re-usable shopping bags to the store.  But we are *really* happy.  And the changes keep rippling through.  We shop less and less.  We eat better and better.  We’re investing in infrastructure and thinking in lifetime cycles instead of marketing cycles.  I feel more and more creative and resourceful–the opposite of how advertising is designed to make us feel, and a rebellion in and of itself.  We spend more time on our most important relationships, and feel less guilty about all the things we’re NOT doing.  I’m more focused on forgiveness and acceptance than on anxiety about the unknown and the out-of-my-control.  And as a result, the future has never felt so peaceful.

So how about you?  Are you making changes through joy, without even noticing?  Are you way ahead of me on being frugal by spending more, less often?


Food Prices and the Garden

“$5 a dozen?!”
“You should have seen her eyebrows shoot up!” laughed my friend over the phone. She was asking her Mom if she’d like to buy some eggs from me. Despite my friend’s supportive enthusiasm for the idea, I don’t think her parents will be our next customers. 🙂 That’s ok.

It’s been an interesting few weeks thinking about the price of food.

On the whole, we’re not doing the food production thing to save money. That’s especially clear from our choice to purchase organic chicken feed and scratch (treats) at 30-50% more than a locally produced, high-quality (even non-GMO) feed. It’s also clear by our choice to build new raised beds from cedar, build a chicken coop with mostly new materials, build cedar compost bins, etc. There are MUCH cheaper ways to do all these things, but we have the luxury of outside work, and so expense is not our first criteria (though maybe second!).

At the same time, when I first got the idea to try to produce as much of our own food as possible, part of my motive was to see how much of a dent that would put in our monthly expenses. At the time, the equation of fewer expenses=fewer hours spent working for money seemed clear and important. That first summer, I was unemployed, on EI for half of my regular income, and we reduced our food expenses dramatically. What I learned was how many non-food related expenses we had! I went back to work.

As I’ve focused on food production for reasons other than financial though, something interesting has definitely happened: we’re spending far less money on food.  But it’s not because we’re managing to produce everything we could possibly need–I’m certainly not growing or grinding our own flour, and there are no milk goats in sight (yet).  The biggest reason we’re saving?  We’re not going into the grocery store.

If I ever needed proof that shopping in stores means you always leave having spent more than you intended, I’ve got it now.  Our pantry is full: we have potatoes, vegetables, some fruit, and eggs from the garden, we have cases of  tuna and maple syrup sourced through friends; the freezer is full of seafood.   When we need to go to the store it’s for something specific: milk, bread, flour, nuts.   Which means that rather than doing a once-a-week shopping trip together, we just stop at the most convenient store and pick up the thing we need.  Instead of coming out with a bill for hundreds of dollars, it’s often just $20 here and there.

Beyond this unexpected frugality, I’m slowly realizing that the garden has been insulating us from dramatically rising food costs.  In fact, where I used to track prices regularly at the grocery store, because I pay less attention these days, I’ve only just been clueing in about what most people have probably been anxiously watching for many months.  You just don’t get what you used to for the same money.   But because we’re producing so many of our own staples, those increases have not had a major impact on our overall budget, thank goodness.

So is the garden saving us money?  Is it cheaper to produce your own?  I’m sure that if we were to calculate the money spent on soil, raising chicks for 6 months before they start laying, etc, we are NOT producing our own for less than the grocery store.  But once those infrastructure costs are removed from memory, day-to-day we are definitely saving money.  When January hits and the traditional “hunger gap” begins until May crops begin to produce, we will notice it.  I am highly motivated to keep working on our year-round supplies!

At the same time, it was an odd experience to realize over the last few weeks that the idea of spending $5 on a dozen organic eggs was just too much for some to wrap their heads around–or just plain unaffordable for others.  It was the first time I thought about food prices from the producer side.  It’s all very well for us to put as much money as we have into our food production; we’re not trying to make a profit or any income.  A basic calculation showed that a dozen eggs costs us about $4.25 just for feed; $5 seemed a fair price to account for all the other costs (and a nice round number substantially cheaper than the $6.40 currently charged for organic, free-range eggs at the grocery store).  But when it comes to selling, the old adage is still true: it’s only worth what someone else is willing to pay.

But all of this has me thinking again about whether food is, or should be, a commodity.  The garden has profoundly changed my typical sense of myself as a food “consumer” (in the monetary sense).  But that doesn’t remove food from still being something that we buy and sell and will likely always need to use as a means of exchange.  Once again, transforming my relationship with food is transforming how I feel like I fit into the wider world…And it’s sure fun wondering where that might take me next!