Monday, December 21, 2009

Stuff Anorexic

Well, the whole "spend nothing in December" thing is over. I made short-notice plans to go to Houston for Christmas, for two very good reasons. The plane ticket was surprisingly cheap, but it sure wasn't free.

Skipping the work Christmas gift exchange was unexpectedly awkward. I went to the party and all the exchange gifts were put on a table. When one of the organizers got up to start distributing gifts, I slipped away to the bathroom, figuring by the time I got back they would be pretty much done. I forgot from years previous just how long my coworkers can spent chatting about presents. They kept at it for a good ten minutes after my return, and several people asked me what I got, reacting with sympathy or puzzlement (is that a word?) when I said I hadn't participated. I also thought that my boss typically didn't participate, but it turns out I was the sole holdout. Last year, the (temporary) receptionist didn't exchange, but she was a Jehovah's Witness.

I also got gifts from each of the people I supervise, so I purchased some nice candy at the grocery store and will give it to them after Christmas. (Personal problems really made it impossible to purchase gifts in the last few days before I left for Christmas.)

I'm getting even more obsessed with minimalism and reducing my stuff to the lowest possible level. I've had "minimalist phases" before, but I want this one to be the "real one," where I really get my stuff to the level of just the essentials and things I really love. I'm leaving for the airport in a few minutes, and on my way out I'm discarding a few more pieces of jewelry that I wear occasionally but don't love. I've also decided in the last couple of weeks to sell or discard my saxophone, YA book collection, and giant Chagall print. Mostly this is because I don't use these things, but they also happen to be three of my largest and heaviest remaining possessions.

After getting rid of a little more makeup, I think I now have one of the sparest collections of toiletries/bathroom items of any woman in North America. My personal (i.e. not shared with the boyfriend) bathroom items are:
- toothbrush
- comb
- sunscreen
(Discarded--why do I have it if I never use it?)- one bottle of hair goop
- contact solution and contacts (rarely used, but came in handy last month when I broke my glasses)
- two prescriptions
- tongue scraper
- mascara
- silver eyeshadow
- lipstick
- lipliner
- tweezers
- deodorant (rarely used, I don't seem to need it often. This container was a freebie.)
- reusable sponges for that time of month
- baking soda, for washing my face (I keep one container in the bathroom, one container in the kitchen. I didn't purposely get a second container; I think one of them was in the fridge of our old apartment when we moved in)
-hairdryer (rarely used)

I do sometimes wonder if I'm taking it too far. I don't know what "taking it too far" means. As long as I have stuff I don't use, I might as well keep discarding. But I guess I'm concerned that i place too much importance on minimalism--I do sometimes get really tense when things are cluttered or when I'm given things I don't want that interfere with my minimalism.

Monday, December 7, 2009

December: Attempting to Spend Nothing for 23 Days, Including Christmas

I set myself a budget of $1500 for December. I've already paid the rent, all the utility bills, ate two meals out, took the boyfriend to the top of the Hancock Center, paid for Netflix, and bought about 4 years' worth of soap. Buying the soap last night used up the last of the budget. So my mission for the next 23 days will be to use as little money as possible.

Actually spending nothing will not be possible. Technically, we probably have enough food in the house to last until New Year's, but we are out of tomato products, low on cheese, and have only about two cups of white flour, and if I attempted to feed the raised-on-fast-food-and-Stouffer's boyfriend for 23 days on a diet consisting mostly of frozen chicken, whole wheat flour, and artichokes, I think he would rebel and we'd end up eating Domino's instead. However, maybe I can convince him that when we do go to the grocery store, we should buy only those things on our list (i.e., the things we actually "need").

I'm also committed to mailing several books on Paperbackswap. I certainly don't need any more credits, but since you never know how long it will take a book to be requested, I'd like to send those out, for a cost of probably about 10 to 12 dollars.

Typical expenses that I don't need to spend money on this month:

  • waxing (have Nair I can use instead this month)
  • stamps (already mailed bills; shouldn't need to mail anything else until January)
  • Christmas presents?!?--the boyfriend, my brother and sister in law, and my parents have all said they don't want presents this year. I said something to my parents about donating money in their name instead, but I don't think they'd be too disappointed if I don't follow through, or if I did something that doesn't cost money, like write them a thoughtful letter. I don't really exchange gifts with friends at the holidays, and I don't have to participate in the gift exchange at work. So I think, maybe, my only possible gift expense will be small gifts for the people I supervise. Last year, all three of them gave me gifts, and I reciprocated. I will probably wait until a few days before Christmas to see if this is becoming a regular thing, and if it is, I'll get them something small and consumable. I'm not a fan of this kind of gift-giving, and I think it's particular weird for people to buy gifts for the person who is essentially their boss, but I do appreciate the thought and if they get me things I'll return the favor.

Things I may "need" to spend money on:
  • boyfriend's birthday: usually he just wants a nice meal and cake, but if he wants to go out to eat or wants a present, I'll definitely oblige him.
  • meals out with boyfriend on "bad days": there's a good reason right now for me to treat him to an occasional meal out, so if it's appropriate, I'll do this, too. Could be once or not at all in the next 23 days, could be ten times.
  • eating out with friends: I'd like to see a particular friend at least once before Christmas. I should be able to find a way to do this without spending money, but I might take the easy way out and end up going out to dinner with her.

Aspirational Clutter

I've been thinking lately about how much of my stuff is stuff that I want to use rather than stuff I actually use. I want to be the kind of person who wears lipstick, writes letters on Crane's stationary, or wears tailored blazers, but in fact wearing lipstick annoys me because it gets all over glasses, I write about two letters a year, and I don't wear blazers because they're not as comfortable as sweaters.

Other "aspirational" clutter around my house:

  • four pairs of high heels, because someday I will put more importance on looking fashionable than on being able to walk medium distances.
  • a saxophone, because someday I'm going to start serenading my boyfriend at night with romantic saxophone music, even though the only reason I ever played the saxophone was to be part of a concert band, and if I ever wanted to join a band again, I could just rent a sax.
  • a set of family silverware, 12 place settings, because someday we're going to start throwing *really* fancy dinner parties. This isn't exactly aspirational, as I'm quite fine with the fact that I'm never going to use it and am really only keeping it until I get around to selling it.
  • Framed pictures, because someday I'm going to put them on the walls
  • Size 10 pants and a red-checked dress, because someday I'm going to fit into them again
I think the saxophone can probably go. As for the heels, I'm putting on a pair right now.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Black Friday

I think I failed at Buy Nothing Day. Not only did I purchase three shirts and a pair of socks (one of my largest purchases this year in terms of number of items), I also bought a $12,000 CD.

At least I didn't end up "doing" Black Friday this year. I was a reluctant first-time participant last year, and NEVER AGAIN. I still have flashbacks whenever I go into a big box store.

My next goal is to actually figure out what to do with my taxable savings. This is way overdue--I think I was already holding too much cash at this time last year. I have about $46,000 in cash (savings accounts and CDs). I keep hanging onto it with the half-assed idea that I might buy real estate sometime soon. There is that nice first-time buyer tax credit, but in reality even in the best-case scenario it would take me 5-7 years to break even on a real-estate purchase, and at 28 I don't think my life situation is stable enough to tie up my money like that for so long. What if I get fed up with my job and quit? What if we decide we really want to live in a small town? What if DH and I break up (hideous idea, but possible)? Since I left my parents' house, the longest I've lived in one apartment was 2 1/2 years, and given the living situation that was 1 1/2 years too long. Maybe if we can more or less happily manage four or five years in this place it'll be time to start thinking about buying.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Couple of Frugal Tools

I've been using Swagbucks for the last few months. This tool gives you "Swagbucks" for searching. They can be redeemed for a lot of different things, but the best value for most people is the Amazon $5 gift card for 45 Swagbucks. I get about one a month, so it's not a fantasic payout, but it's so easy it's practically passive income.

I use Swagbucks mostly to "search" for sites I go to every day (like Worldcat), since the search function isn't nearly as good as Google. One trick I've learned is that you "win" at least once in your first five or so searches each day, so by doing about five searches on both my work and home computers every day I almost always get at least two or three Swagbucks. If you're interested, please consider signing up using my referral link.

Think Beyond the Bottle is a new resource I just found out about this morning through Fake Plastic Fish. This site tracks water fountains and other sources of free water. It's just getting started, but it's really easy to add sites, and I added a couple. I can see this being very useful--I hate buying bottle water or otherwise spending money just to quench my thirst. I often remember to bring a refillable water bottle, but if I'm out for a while, I need more water than my bottle holds.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Time and To Do Lists

I still halfway believe that someday I will finish everything on my to-do list.

To be honest, I have a lot of to-do lists. And I don't really think I'll ever finish the crazy lists, like clearing out my Netflix queue or decimating my reading list.

But the everyday things, the chores, the errands, the work tasks, the letters to respond to--that I kind of think I might be able to finish. It's like this oasis shining in the distance, a magical time when I might go to bed every night with a clear head and wake up every morning to make a completely new list of tasks, because I've finished everything from the day before.

Right now, I might be closer to that ideal than almost any other time in my life. For the past month or so, I've been consistently productive at work, knocking out not only the routine stuff but that nasty stack of crap-I've-been-putting off, with the result that on Friday I actually COMPLETED EVERYTHING. My email box was empty. My folders of miscellaneous tasks were empty. I had no outstanding issues with the people who work for me or with my boss. My to do list for today basically consists of "check email occasionally" and "try not to fall asleep."

Over the weekend, I went through all the stuff on my desk and basically took care of my personal to-do list, too. Sure, there's a couple things left--an item to return, a trip to the DMV--but nothing I couldn't take care of in a single day of average productivity. Yesterday by 3:00 I found myself actually kind of searching for things to do. I made a pie and kept fixing little things in my novel because even though I'd "put in my hours" for the day already there wasn't really anything else that I felt compelled to do instead.

The funny thing is, having an almost clean slate doesn't really make me feel any more relaxed. I have to conclude that stress is not really a function of what I have to do, but of what's going on in my head.

Friday, November 6, 2009


I now officially own less than 100 books.

OK, 99. But several of them will be Paperback Swapped as soon as I'm done reading them. (And I'm not counting my collection of a series from my childhood. I consider that one item, cause I wouldn't get rid of any of them without getting rid of all of them.) This is down from something like 350 about a year ago.

According to the inventory I made when we moved a couple of months ago, I personally have 444 things. Not too bad, I don't think. Especially when you consider things like "bobby pins, about 20" are listed. (Come to think of it, why am I hanging on to those bobby pins?)

I still have this strong desire to minimize further. But I'm not sure how much more I can do. Books and wardrobe make up most of my stuff, and though I don't have a huge wardrobe, I do like fashion and can't see myself doing a Leo Baubata and bringing it down to seven outfits or so. In fact, right now I want MORE clothes.

I'm sure part of my desire to minimize and simplify is because my personal life is fairly complicated right now. If I simplify my material life, my emotional life will get easier too, right?

It's not like that. But by getting rid of one more thing, I feel a little bit more in control.

Now where did I put those bobby pins?

Monday, February 23, 2009

Welcome to 1932

In 1932, the phone never stops ringing. Everyone is reaching into the depths of their rolodexes trying to find new business. You hear the notes of desperation in their voices. "I'm not gonna lie," they say. "Things are slow right now."

In 1932, you've stopped picking up. You don't have any business to give and you're so tired of trying to say no in the face of dogged persistence.

In 1932, no one returns your calls, either. They have 25% budget cuts, too, and there's not enough money to go around.

In 1932, Linda's husband has been out of work for nine months. He used to do something related to research and IT. Now he thinks maybe he'll try being a personal trainer.

In 1932, you go to McDonald's and hear six people in a row order off the dollar menu. You are the only one ordering a "value" meal. Did it used to be like that?

In 1932, you forgot to sign a new lease several months ago but the landlord hasn't asked. Maybe as long as you keep paying rent he figures it's best not to rock the boat.

In 1932, R. is scared to ask for vacation. They'll say yes but what if they realize while he's gone that they don't need him? He's good at his job but he's only part time--easy to lay off.

In 1932, you print things up on the office printer. You make the copies yourself. You talk about new products to offer and you come up with ways to shave $50 off a $10,000 bill. You're letting all your professional memberships lapse. You try not to think about what will happen if everybody else does the same.

In 1932, your company is holding its annual meeting in Hawaii. It was planned 7 years ago, when it seemed more like 1925. Bad luck, that.

In 1932, you pray that no one will quit. If they quit they probably wouldn't be replaced and then you'd have to learn graphic design or how to sell ads. You especially hope the woman who sells ads won't quit. She works on commission. There's nothing you can do to help.

When you were little, one of your favorite things to play was to pretend that you were poor. In 1932, you pretend that harder than ever. You're still just pretending. It still isn't that bad. You read Material World and What the World Eats to remind yourself of how it could be. You ate oatmeal for breakfast and kasha for lunch and will have pumpkin pie and who-knows-what for dinner. There's chocolate in your bag and shoes in your desk drawer and clothes, so many clothes, in your closet. When you come home the bed is warm and your boyfriend is waiting for you. No, 1932 isn't bad at all.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

100 Things

A small but well-publicized number of people have attempted to whittle down their personal possessions to 100 items. By personal items they mean that if you live with someone else, you don't include the things you both use, like living room furniture or kitchen items. Also, most people doing this don't include books or, sometimes, DVDs, and count, for instance, a week's worth of underwear as one item. Even with these exceptions, 100 things is a *very* short list--a very minimal closet might include 5 pairs of shoes (sneakers, work shoes, hiking boots, flip flops or sandals, dress shoes) and you're already at 1/20 of your total items.

I know full well I could never do this; while I'm pretty minimal compared to your average American, I like having a decent selection of clothes, accessories, and art supplies around.

Still, I was inspired by this idea to see how minimal I could potentially be, so for one day I tracked all the items I used and came up with only 67. It was a weekend and I didn't leave the house except to go to the mailbox, so I presumably used more items around the house than usual. And I included non-personal items like the treadmill and the items I used for cooking (measuring cup, pot, fork, etc.). I forgot to include the stuff I used while sleeping (bed, quilt, sheets), but I did include the blanket I wrapped up in while watching a movie.

This really surprised me. Only 67 items? And this was on a day when I read/browsed through several books (which I counted) and changed my shirt a couple of times based on fluctuating temperature.

One thing I noticed was that my computer serves many purposes. Before the personal computer era, I might have used several more items for activities that I did on my computer (red pen and multiple reference books for editing, DVD/VHS player and tapes for watching a movie that I viewed online, paper and envelopes for correspondence).

I spent most of the day in my office. At the end of the day I put everything that I hadn't used into the closet to see how long it would take me to actually need those things. This was a couple of weeks ago and so far I've only taken out a few things (stamps, scotch tape, crayons. Yes, crayons).

I also decided to start putting a slip of paper in books as I read or refer to them. I'm not planning on getting rid of the ones I don't use, at least not yet, but it will be interesting to see how many of my books I use in a given period of time. If it's ridiculously low I may have to consider doing another book collection purge.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

In Which I Make Kasha Palatable

Tonight I tackled one of the biggest challenges on my weird foods list: kasha. I bought this one-pound bag of misery in the form of a grain product at my neighborhood Mexican/Polish/yuppie grocery store about a year and a half ago for reasons unknown.
Kasha is roasted buckwheat, which sounds innocent enough. I think I saw the word "buckwheat" and thought, "Hey, don't some people make buckwheat pancakes?" It probably sounded wholesome and vaguely Wild West-ish.

Well, for buckwheat pancakes you need buckwheat flour, not whole buckwheat groats, which were the type of kasha I bought. Still, Joy of Cooking called kasha "irresistible," so I tried one of the two recipes in the book, "Basic Cooked Kasha," which yielded something vaguely like brown rice only several times less appealing. I ate one serving and kept the rest of it in the fridge for a decent interval until I could justify throwing it out.

However, I still had half the bag of kasha left, and it lurked in the back of the cupboard like a portent of doom for over a year--until tonight.

The Joy of Cooking recipe used only beef stock and egg, leaving the essential flavor of the kasha basically pure and unadorned. Tonight I added a pound of ground beef, an entire onion, tomato sauce, and the strongest spices I could find that wouldn't clash terribly with the Slavic roastedness of the kasha. When it was finished, I sprinkled it with sharp cheddar to mask the taste even more.

It still tasted like brown rice, but it was good enough to save it from the trash heap. It made so much I'll be eating it for the next week.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

How Little We Use

After purging many of my books about two months ago, I have approximately 244 books. I'm cheating big time with that number; I'm not counting a collection of about 200 paperbacks, nor a stack of books that I haven't decided yet whether to keep or discard.

But for the sake of argument, let's say I own 244 books.

How much do I use each of those books? How much use would qualify as adequate use of the book in order to keep it? Rereading each of them within a certain amount of time--six months, one year, five years--seems artificial to me. Many of my books are nonfiction books that I won't ever read again cover to cover, and others are favorites that I may not read for several years, but will then read several times in quick succession. On the other hand, if I look up one recipe in a cookbook in a particular year, it may not be worth keeping around.

So let's try to judge my entire collection of books based on the amount of time I spend using it.
Say I used each one for an average of an hour a year. That's much less time than it takes to read a book, but since I've already read all of my books and many are nonfiction books that I would use to look up particular facts for a total of much less than one hour, it'll do for an average. If I used each book for one hour per year, I would be spending 244 hours using my books. That works out to a bit less than five hours per week.

Do I spend that much time using my books? Not even close. Do I even want to spend that much time using my books? No; in general, I prefer to spend most of my reading time reading books I haven't read before. And an hour per book per year is awfully low--if I used a piece of furniture one hour per year, or used my computer one hour per year, would I keep it around? No way.

Based on this, I would judge that my book collection is still too large.

Seems like I should be able to apply this to other things--kitchen appliances, clothes. Some of my clothes spend hundreds of hours on my body per year; others see less than 8 hours of use per year.

Or I could calculate the number of items of clothing I have by the amount of time I would have to spend wearing each in order to get adequate wear out of them.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Obscure Interests + Family Far Away + Wanderlust + Limited Vacation Time = Augh!

I don't get how people do this. As R. often mentions, I have a really great job: great benefits, great pay, relatively easy, 35-hour workweek (!), and a theoretically generous 4 weeks of vacation (!!), plus 2 personal days, plus 2 days comp time after our annual conference. Nonetheless, I can't seem to shoehorn all of the travel I *really really* want to do into that time.

I haven't taken what I would consider a real vacation since 2006. All of my travel since then has been for a purpose of one kind or another--conferences, visiting relatives, unschooling camp. I haven't been to a new country since 2005. This is really appalling. I almost dropped out of college to be able to travel more. I lived on peanut butter sandwiches in an apartment with no heat so that I could afford to travel to Egypt! Yet I still haven't managed to get my butt over to India, despite having wanted to go there for almost ten years.

I was supposed to go there last year. Then I found out about unschooling camp and did that instead. I was supposed to go there this year. But I'm committed to visiting my parents in Korea, which really needs to be a two-week trip just to get over the jet lag (the aforementioned Christmas present), and I also want to do unschooling camp again if they'll have me back.

What about next year? My parents should be back from Korea, but they'll likely still be a plane ride away, as will my brother and both my grandmothers. I'll still want to do unschooling camp. That leaves me with maybe two weeks for India. India is huge. All of the major cities and sites are ages away from each other. And who knows if I'll ever go there again? Two weeks is not enough.

Everything requires giving something else up.

Here's what I've got planned out for my vacation time this year:
literary conference in March, where I'm giving a paper
one vacation day in Hawaii after our annual conference
trip to Korea (two weeks)
family reunion in North Dakota (? hoping I can do this over a three-day weekend)
unschooling camp (one week)

Here's what I'm not doing that I would very much like to do:
a convention of fans of my favorite author, happens once every five years
another literary conference I went to last year (probably better than the one I'm going to, but I committed to giving the paper)
National Novel Writing Month in a cabin with a bunch of teenagers (a friend of mine runs this and offered me a position on staff, but I obviously can't)
trip to India
another session of unschooling camp

Each of the things on the second list is a sacrifice for me to not do. Each one relates to a major interest of mine that I have few outlets for. And I don't see any way I could possibly do them all while holding down a traditional job.

Friday, January 2, 2009

New Year's Revolutions

I officially declare January 2009 to be the month of Using Stuff Up. I will be attempting to use up many of the aforementioned Weird Ingredients, personal care items, and a few odds and ends like the last roll of film for my old-style camera. I will also be decluttering in an effort to be able to fit our stuff into a smaller place.

January 2009 is also the month of Finding a New Place to Live. R. and I have been putting this off for almost a year. We've looked at several places but have never really dug into the project. Part of the problem has been that to find a similar place to ours in the same area, we almost certainly would have to pay more. R. really can't afford to pay more and I don't want to pay more. In the last week or so, R. told me that he doesn't think he can afford our place anymore and (without any interference from me, I swear) set a budget of about $600 a month for our new place. This changes the search dramatically, but also makes me much more excited about it. I'm looking into suburbs (! to anyone who knows me), much smaller places, and other alternatives. I think if I found a mobile home in a not-dangerous part of Chicagoland I could talk R. into it. Now that I've finished the draft of my novel and have it with my first reader, I have a half-decent chance of actually focusing on this and finding a new place by February 1st (oh, yeah, I'm writing a novel). I have a lot of research to do. Maybe I should start today, since I have basically no work to do.

What I Ate, 1/1/2009:
Breakfast: homemade mac and cheese
Second meal (eaten at around 4:00): "Soup Nazi" seafood bisque (gift)
Third meal: rest of mac and cheese
Snacks: one piece Walker's shortbread, small candy cane, two Andes mints (all gifts)