Category: Money, Money, Money

dear minimalism: can I have my home back?

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Back in March I wrote this post about minimalism. I told you that “stuff is just stuff” and that “as a culture we’re drowning in the chaos of our material lives, in our anxiety about getting rid of anything we might possibly regret.”

Then, a few days later, I took a step back and revised my original statement in this post. I argued that not all stuff is just stuff. A lot of material goods are useful to have (like tools, kitchen supplies, etc). I decided that if even if I’m moving towards a minimalist lifestyle I shouldn’t feel guilty about keeping items that I actually use on a regular basis.

When I minimized my life last spring I was preparing to move across the country. Everything had to go that wasn’t a necessity, there simply wasn’t space for anything frivolous. I won’t lie – it felt really great. I felt all the feelings that minimalist spokespersons tell us we’ll feel – liberated, less stressed, calmer, etc.

But then I moved into my new apartment last month and unpacked. Now I take back something I said in my first post about minimalism. I claimed that “For the record: I’ve never regretted getting rid of anything.” That’s no longer true.

I miss a lot of the useless stuff I left behind. 

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affording “real food” might take some work.

Not all food is actually food. Most of the stuff we can buy in the grocery store is chemically designed, processed, and manufactured. In Defense of Food is Pollan’s argument against this type of consumption, describing the reasons why processed food should be avoided and laying guidelines for a healthier diet. The guidelines were the main reason I read the book – I wanted the facts behind what I already believed was a healthier way to eat. Pollan’s simple manifesto? –  “Eat Food, Not Too Much, Mostly Plants.”

You’re better off eating whole fresh foods rather than processed food products. That’s what I mean by the recommendation to ‘eat food,’ which is not quite as simple as it sounds. For while it used to be that food was all you could eat, today there are thousands of other edible food-like substances in the supermarket.

– Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food

But Pollan’s “diet” could not have been sustained a few decades ago. He admits that “There would have been no way to eat the way I propose without going back to the land and growing your own food. It would have been the manifesto of a crackpot.” But that’s beauty of living today. We have choices. Almost every town, or at least county, has a farmers market – and they’re growing in numbers every year. More small farms are in this country than there have been for decades. The “real food” is there. We have the option to eat it. And if you know anything about the benefits of this type of eating for your health and the environment then you would be crazy not to.

Except for money. 

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the “utilities” problem.

I’ve never paid a utilities bill. I’ve paid a lot of tuition, loan, and insurance bills – but never water, electric, gas, etc. Since I started living in apartments in college I’ve always lived where rent “includes utilities.” Sounds awesome, right? In college it makes a lot of sense, landlords want to avoid stupid college kids avoiding utility bills and causing them lots of problems, so they rack up the monthly rate and pay the utilities themselves. This is great… for the landlords.

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Current sublet, isn’t it cute! We have a fence, a yard, and everything.

Currently, David and I are subletting from a guy on vacation (unfortunately it’s more like house sitting but we actually have to pay… oh well). At the moment, we’re searching for a longer term apartment for August 1st. While looking around Durango for an apartment David and I find ourselves debating the “utilities problem” a lot. Rent that includes utilities can make an apartment look more pleasing, but in reality I don’t think it’s helpful. 

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showering on the road, and in life.

Ask anyone who’s lived with me – I take really fast showers.

Back when I was a preteen my dad challenged me to take a four minute shower. Today that’s my norm. My showers are anywhere from three to six minutes. Depending, of course, on whether I’m late for something or it’s a winter night so cold that I require time to thaw.

I just don’t see any reason why a shower should take longer. Sure, it feels great… it feels great while I’m washing, but then it’s time to get out. I don’t believe in wasting water. Four minutes is all I need to shampoo, condition, and wash my entire body – including my ears and my feet (I shave outside the shower, it’s easier to anyways). I lived in a sustainability house in college that allowed an average of two minute showers a day. Now that is a struggle. So, I showered every other day because hey, long hair takes a little time.

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craiglist lessons from a teardrop trailer.

The trailer is the most expensive thing I’ve ever bought on craigslist. I knew I had no idea what I was getting into with bartering and inspecting and all the other normal craigslist things we’d be required to do to make it ours. So I called my little brother. Kid’s been buying and selling shit (mostly trucks and other things on wheels) on craigslist since he was 12 years old, and somehow always makes a profit. He suggested a starting price I thought was a little low, but we listened to his haggling advice and off we went. The following story outlines our “Craigslist Experience” and concludes with someone very useful advice for anyone buying anything on craigslist.

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3 failures of minimalism.

Constantly reading about minimalism while packing compelled me to write about it, but since then I haven’t stopped thinking about it. I got more likes on that post than I’ve gotten on a single post in a long time. Intrigued by this response, I looked even further into minimalism on the web – it’s everywhere! I ran across numerous blogs devoted to personal journeys towards minimalism and similar ideas. People love “tiny houses” and having fewer than 100 possessions – and a lot of people like to follow the blogs of people who live that way.

Minimalism is good, right? Having less stuff is sustainable; getting rid of stuff creates happier, healthier people. Right? For some reason the concept of minimalism started to bother me, even though I knew these writers were doing what was best by them. I took a few days to figure out why, and through debating with David I narrowed it down to three problems: waste, the definition of stuff, and dependence on consumerism.

1. WASTE: Minimalism is often framed as disposal. “Get rid” of everything. Don’t “hold on” to stuff. When you buy one item, “get rid” of another. Less stuff in your house = less stress, more happiness, a better life in the minds of those who believe in minimalism. But from a sustainability perspective it’s extremely dangerous. Instead of emphasizing not buying more things we’re emphasizing throwing things away. In a country where the average person will produce 102 tons of waste in their lifetime we can’t afford to think this kind of minimalism is acceptable.

Minimalism is great if you make sure to:
1. hold on to things that are truly valuable.
2. donate, repurpose, or recycle everything you’re getting rid of.
3. and; when you do buy new things, make sure you know how and where they were created.
4. but; above all else, avoid buying new things.

2. STUFF: Not all things are stuff. This drives me crazy. David and I own many more than 100 things – but the things we own are useful things, not useless stuff. Too often there is a ridiculous effort to achieve # in one’s inventory, whether it be 200 or 100 items. This promotes getting rid of things that are actually useful, which is not only wasteful but counter productive, leading to point #3:

3. DEPENDENCE: I’ve always found self-sufficiency and minimalism fascinating – yet, with little investigation it’s easy to discover that these two things are rarely synonymous. When you own less than 100 items you’ll find it hard to fix things that break without tools, to grow your own food (farm tools, preservation supplies, etc. etc.), and to provide your own entertainment (musical instruments, art supplies, or board games). Minimalist lifestyles often rely on consumerism for access to food, entertainment, and other goods and services – making it a suitable lifestyle only for those with money, another issue I’ll avoid for the moment. For example; without our food processor and canning pot we would have to buy pre-processed foods, without our guitar we wouldn’t be able to play music, without our electric razor David would have to pay for a haircut every two weeks. Of course, there are always ways to decrease the need for these items (such as borrowing tools from a neighbor or renting farm equipment) but many people won’t always be able to borrow what they need – and they need to know that owning those things isn’t bad.

What I recommend is:
1. when getting rid of something, consider what you might have to outsource as a result.
2. don’t get rid of anything that you actually use, on a regular basis.
3. don’t justify buying something solely by trading something else out, it should have another purpose.
4. try not to buy anything that’s new: get something used or just don’t buy it.

Minimalism is not inherently bad, in fact I love the concept. As someone who practices sustainability and self-sufficiency having less unnecessary “stuff” is a great first to decreasing my reliance on consumerism and my impact on the planet. However, I have to be careful that simplifying my life doesn’t translate into waste and dependency. I’m not saying it’s impossible to be minimalist, eco-friendly, and truly independent; but we can’t all be Rob GreenfieldHaving useful things that fulfill the three tenants of independence, happiness, or sustainability isn’t bad – it’s buying useless stuff that doesn’t fulfill those tenants that is. That’s what we need to focus on.

expense tracking for dummies.

School doesn’t teach you how to live. When I graduated from high school I barely knew how to cook, I had never done my own laundry, I had no idea how to take out loans, and I didn’t know what a “lease” actually was. When I graduated from college I still didn’t know how to do my taxes, what repaying my loans would actually look like, or how to set a budget – at least now I know how to cook and do my own laundry…MjAxMy0zN2NlNDhlZTgyZjhjN2Qz_523341a6a9402_rc

My point is: for those of us graduating and getting thrown haphazardly into “real-life” there’s a lot of learning curves.

I still don’t really keep a budget, but I do have a very useful habit of tracking what I purchase. This habit has allowed me to actually save money while working at a farm for most of my time since graduation.

In high school I got frustrated by how I seemingly wasn’t saving any of my hard-earned money. My mom suggested I keep a notebook with two columns – column 1: what you’ve spent, column 2: what you’ve earned. I carried a notebook around with me for a month and at the end of the month I tallied each column up, calculating the difference.

I was astounded, and also disgusted with myself. The accumulated lists showed me how much needless money I was wasting through unhealthy snacks, unnecessary driving, and random shopping sprees. I could no long live “out of wallet, out of mind” – my habits were clearly wasteful. I started saving immediately.

I picked the habit back up after graduation. I find my method more informative than trying to ballpark a budget – I can base my future financial decisions on my ACTUAL spending habits. I know when I can afford to go out to eat, how much I’m actually paying on loans, how gas fluctuations impact my income, how much I have to pay off my credit card, and most importantly, how I can intervene to save more next month. And it’s easy. It’s super easy. You are no longer allowed to be afraid of budgeting because this is so damn easy.

So here is a made up example using Excel.
I like Excel because you can automatically add and subtract things, but a notebook would work too.

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TRICK: To create automatic totals enter the equation “=SUM(“, highlight the column you want to add, and close with “)”. For this example box B25 contains “=SUM(B5:B24)“. Easy if you’ve ever used Excel, but not everyone has.

So. Based on the calculations this person (we’ll call her Suzie) is losing 30 dollars a month. Not great. But take a quick look at her expenditures. If Suzie wants to start saving money it won’t be hard. Here’s a few ideas for her:

  • Skip on the expensive concert: there’s so much free music around! Look for something local.
  • $40 on a T-Shirt!? Go check out salvation army.
  • Eat at Home: You’re spending all of your babysitting money on going out to eat, consider having your friends over to make meals every once in a while.
  • Expensive One-timers: In the month of January you both took a trip to NY and bought an expensive new phone – spread these events out over the months to lessen the impact on your budget.

It kind of looks like I’m telling Suzie to have no fun – but that’s absolutely not my point. If she did just ONE of these things she’d be saving a few hundred dollars every month, leaving her room to have fun in other ways.

It’s important to note that even though she’s used her credit cards Suzie has enough money to pay off her credit cards every month, keeping her credit score high and her interest low.

Suzie has loans and rent to pay, and her job doesn’t pay that much. By tracking her expenses and seeing where she can save, however, she can begin to save money, have fun, and stay out of credit card debt.

This is an extremely simple way of tracking expenses and savings in order to budget from month to month. It might seem so simple that you’re wondering why I’m even covering it, maybe you’re already budgeting with a system that makes this look pathetic. Yet, it would amaze you how many people don’t do this – people who track their expenses “in their head” or through their credit card statements.

If you’re one of those people I urge you to try this for at least one month – Just the simple act of needing to remember long enough to write down what you bought makes you more aware of your habits. Awareness is the first step to change.

If you’re not one of those people, if you are already tracking your life’s expenses, how do you do it? Comment below!

money is/n’t everything.

“Money isn’t everything,” Is undeniably something I have been known to say.

I always hated the concept of money and the harm it can cause. It can be an addiction, a distraction, a crutch. I swore I would live my life without letting money get in the way a long time ago. I don’t need to buy the world, if I have family, friends, health and happiness then I don’t need anything else.

Last night, I was swinging in the hammock and procrastinating from my paper with Martha. She is one our day guards. She is 26, grew up down the road, and has two kids. Despite the differences in our upbringings and futures and the language barrier she is easily one of the best friends I have here. We were sitting in mostly silence, swinging gently through the warm night air and listening to her pop music on my ipod.

“Sitaki kuondoka,” I grumbled quietly, I don’t want to leave.

I’ll miss you a lot, she responded in swahili, playing with the iPod, but you’ll be back soon.

Yeah, then we can vacation in Zanzibar, I joked.

“Tunahitaji pesa mingi kwanza…” She smirked, looking up at me, we need money first…

Well yeah, I’ll work a lot first. I laughed, knowing that in reality it will be a long time before I can think about vacationing in Zanzibar.

We swung for a few more minutes in silence. I looked over and noticed she was staring intently into space.

“Unafikiri nini?” What are you thinking about?

“Pesa,” she said offhandedly, Money. Then she smirked and surprised me with a new english phrase, “Money is everything.”

I laughed, my instincts rushing towards disapproval. Ugh, money. “Hapana,” I shot back, No.

“Kweli?” She turned to me with true surprise, Really?

I got defensive, Money is nothing if you don’t have family or love.

“Kweli?” she repeated. When I didn’t respond she sat up in the hammock to look me directly in the eyes, holding up her fingers to count off on. What if your family is sick? You need money. How do you feed them? You need money. For water? You need money. If you don’t have money you have nothing.

I lowered my gaze, chastized. “Okay,” I mumbled in English. I had no idea how to reply.

“Sema,” she said, still sitting upright, Say it.

“Money is everything,” I repeated. She smiled, relaxed back into the hammock and returned to playing with the iPod.

A short while later she got a phone call from her mother. I need to head home for the night, she declared in swahili. She tried to sound casual but I could hear the hesitation in her voice. The day before, she had left work early to pick up a friend in the hospital with typhoid fever. Going home meant providing medical care.

As I watched her go, my iPod in her ears and her token grin on her face, I thought about what she had said. Money isn’t everything. What a priviledged statement. Of course I can say that, I have never, ever had to worry about health, food and water. So to me, those things seem free. But they aren’t. So maybe money is everything, the base of everything. But I still maintain that family, love and happiness are just as important – and from what I have learned about Africa and this village, here those three things are rarely in short supply.

So really, I should stand by something else. Maybe, “Excess isn’t everything,” or “Less is more,” or “Money isn’t king.” But none of those really work… I will have to think about it. You get the point.

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