Sunday, April 29, 2007

No More Junk Mail

I know Earth Day is over, but that doesn't mean we need to stop conserving. One way to painlessly reduce your environmental footprint is to eliminate your junk mail. The Center for a New American Dream offers this reference page on how to stop soliciters from sending you mail.

Environmental benefits: less paper, less fuel in shipment

Psychological benefits: less clutter!

I also try to send a nice letter to any charity to whom I've donated asking them not to send me donation solicitations by mail. I explain that I do plan to donate again, but I will do so online as my budget allows. Not only is it bad for the environment for them to send me stuff, it also costs THEM money which I would rather them be spending on programs. Sometimes these letters work. Sometimes they don't. Once again, though, small changes add up.

Please post a comment if you've cut off your junk mail!

Saturday, April 28, 2007

My Writing Up Blog

Many of the articles I post over the next few days have been migrated here from my writingup blog. Writingup is a community for bloggers and freelance writers which, I fear, is going the way of the dinosaur. Lately it's been down more than it's up.

My blog on writingup was very esoteric, and I'm trying here to focus in on the areas of my life that I truly value. If you came from Writing Up, please drop me a line. It would be very nice to hear from you.

Scarcity and Waste

How do you drive your car when the fuel light is on? Personally, I turn off the air conditioning, slow down, coast to red lights and – depending on how far away the nearest refueling station is – even turn off my car when I’m stopped at red lights. What if I drove this way all the time? What if I rinsed out dish detergent bottles or turned ketchup bottles upside down, even if there was another bottle in the cabinet?

It seems that having a sense of scarcity causes us to conserve more than we do when we consider ourselves to be in a state of abundance. When we have plenty of something, we tend to be more careless and wasteful with it. It’s good to keep your gas tank above one quarter full, and it’s good to maintain a well stocked pantry of food and health and beauty items, but can these actions cause us to be wasteful? If I have 5 bottles of shampoo that I paid no more than fifty cents each for, I’m much more likely to be okay with some spilling down the drain or with using more than I need to wash my hair. In truth, though, this is a mistake. A stockpile or a pantry is there so that you don’t need to buy full priced items later, not so that you can use more than you need to. Waste is waste, no matter how much you spent on it and no matter how much of it that you have, but no matter how frugal you are, sometimes it is hard to get your mind around that.

Perhaps it is helpful to consider your goods in a larger context. In a global sense, everything is scarce. Our economy is based on scarcity. Increasingly, we, as a planet, have a scarcity of gasoline and plastics, we have a scarcity of food, a scarcity of clean and healthy water. No matter how easily the water flows from your faucet, no matter how much gas you have in your tank, no matter how much food you have in your freezer, these are still not expendable items. Wasting them is a loss to you and to the world. It’s really a shame.

So next time you come to end of a box or bottle, pretend it’s your last. When you’re on your way to work, pretend you’re almost out of gas. Enjoy the abundance in your life, but remember the scarcity in the world, and be frugal.

Stop Procrastinating Tomorrow

Right now I am in a state of contented unproductivity. You know that feeling when you wake up feeling warm and rested, particularly when you haven't in a long time, and you know that you aren't doing anything productive, but you really don't care? That's how I feel right now and I love it.

My other favorite state of mind is when I've just finished some big project and I'm so busy being finished with it that I couldn't possibly do anything else.

I swear, if there were a world championship in justifying procrastination, I'd be a finalist every single year.

I talk all the time about how money saved or earned is not actually valuable unless you then put it to good use rather than frittering it away, but the same is true of time. I save myself time by cutting back on laundry and precooking my meals so that I can spend it aimlessly surfing the web or mindlessly watching television. Not a good plan.

I am certainly not undermining the wonderfulness that is doing nothing. Doing nothing though should be an active process. Doing nothing means staring at a wall, lying in bed, cuddling with my honey. Doing nothing relieves stress. Mindless time wasters cause more of it.

I've tried before to make myself schedules and routines, to write them out, to track my time the way I track my spending, but none of these things really seem to work. The "do it now" plan seems to work for about a day. Any self-motivational plans I put into place fade away very quickly.

Truthfully, I really don't know why. I know in my head that I don't care about TV, that I don't value the time I spend on the Internet. I have a list of things that I want to do that I know I would both enjoy and value, things that would make me happy temporarily and in the long term. Still, though, everyday I find myself zoned out again and filling my brain with uselessness.

I'm not sure whether the solution is to examine why I do this to myself or to simply suck it up and make myself "do it now" every day until it becomes a habit. I need to do something, though, if I'm ever going to make progress toward the life I really want.

I'll start later, though. Right now, I'm enjoying drinking coffee in my pajamas in the middle of the day. In fact, I think maybe I'll go stare at the wall for a while.

Beyond Paycheck to Paycheck, or Why I work my Rear End off and Don't Buy Designer Clothes

I have to say, lately I'm working like a madwoman. I don't like it. I'm tired, I'm cranky, and I'm ending a lot of my days so tired that I can't keep my eyes open.

So why on earth would I do this to myself?

A co-worker of mine at job number one asked me to do something the other day and I said "I really can't, I'm pretty busy. . . " She didn't seem to hear this though, so finally I told her "Look, I have another job after school."

Her whole demeanor changed. She was embarassed, she looked guilty and apologetic. Not what I was going for.

I know I'm not the only person I work with to have a second job. We really don't make all that much money. The difference is, several of my (rather older) co-workers need to do this in order to keep up with their expenses. They can't pay their bills until they've gotten all of their paychecks for the month. They really NEED the money.

I don't.

I don't need my extra job money, or any money I make online, to pay my bills. We are always about a month ahead in our checking account, so that I can pay my bills before I get my paycheck. When I make my budget, I make sure that all of our monthly expenses can be covered by my full time salary and my husband's stipend. So why on earth would I work as hard as I am right now?

Because I never want to need the money that bad. I want to have choices, I want things to get easier as I get older. I don't want to be forty five, with teenage kids, working until midnight because otherwise I can't pay the mortgage. I want my debt paid off, my retirement savings underway, and my future planned while I still feel young and energetic, and while I still have few obligations. I would rather work hard now, and get ahead, so that later my life will be easier. The funny thing is, when you make money and don't spend it, you still have it later (with interest!)

The same co-worker who was embarassed at the idea of me working extra once talked about her designer shoes and handbags. "I deserve it," she said. "You can't take it with you." A few weeks later, she said "Can someone else drive? I can't put gas in my car until after payday."

All I could think to myself was how glad I was not to live that way.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Exercise and personal finance

When you are short on money and time, one of the first things that tends to go is taking care of yourself. You drop your gym membership, you take on an extra job, you spend all of your extra time searching and scrounging for money. You eat processed food out of a bag on your way from one job to another. You sleep less, relax less, and stress more.

This puts you in a very precarious position as far as your finances are concerned.
When you feel deprived, drained, and miserable, you are more likely to burn out or to make poor choices that cause you to mess up your personal finances and lose out on more money in the end. One solution to many of these problems is to find a way to incorporate exercise into your routine. Now, that doesn’t mean you need to join a gym, hire a personal trainer, or spend hours and hours of your day running. A simple ten minute routine consisting of a walk, some pushups or some stretching will accomplish many of these goals, and you will hardly miss that amount of time.

1. Exercise relieves stress.

You may prefer to “relax” by watching TV, stuffing your face, or surfing the web during the few free minutes you can find in your day, but the truth is in the long run these activities just make you more stressed. Exercise actively relieves stress, thus making you much less likely to burn out or engage in “retail therapy.” Bonus: you can’t call the home shopping network when you’re running on a treadmill.

2. Exercise gives you more energy.

At first, it may seem to you like exercise is just making you more tired, but in the long run, you will find that exercise gives you more energy, thus making you more able and willing to take on extra hours at work or do some freelancing at night. It also makes your sleep more restful, so you will feel good after fewer hours of sleep, thus saving you even more time.

3. Exercise boosts your self-confidence.

Confidence is extremely important in personal finance, particularly if you are considering starting your own business, but even if you are only managing your own money and household. You will not feel as deprived or helpless, thus you will be more able to make good choices about your money.

4. Exercise makes you eat less junk.

When you have committed to an exercise plan, you will be much less willing to put bad food into your body, so you will be less likely to eat at fast food places or to buy expensive junkfood. This not only makes you healthier, it saves you money as whole natural foods tend to cost you less money in the short and long term.

5. Exercise makes you healthier.

Between the short term cost of lost wages, and the long term cost of increased health care expenses, your health is your most important investment. Exercise will keep you healthier, thus saving and probably making you more money over the course of your life than just about anything else you can do.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Towards a Simpler Life

Voluntary simplicity is a fascinating and enticing concept. It is a movement that involves, at its very core, the powerful concepts of time, money, and morality, asking you to make choices that will allow you to preserve all three.

Unfortunately, simple living isn’t always so simple. Often, we find ourselves having to choose among the three pillars. For example, hanging clothes to dry is a great financial and environmental choice but at the expense of your already sparse time. Buying organic whole foods preserves health and the environment, but costs money and time. Inevitably, you will find situations in your own life that require you to make these decisions. When that happens, you will need to do some soul searching and weigh values.

Not everything is that difficult, though. There are some tried and true choices you can make right now that will save you time and money, while supporting the values and ends you are hoping to achieve. None of these is revolutionary; I’m sure that every one of you has heard these suggestions before. Hearing and doing, however, are two very different things. Consider my arguments carefully and re-evaluate some of the choices you’ve made in the past. Even one change from the list below will free up time and money for other projects that you do deem worthwhile, while simultaneously making an ever-important impact on the world around you.

1. Wear clothes more than once before washing them.
Saves: time, money, water, energy, chemical runoff
For the two adults in my household, I found myself running at least one load of laundry every day. Now you may love laundry, but personally I can’t stand it. So, one day I decided to hang my dress pants back up when I finished wearing them. Pants, I reasoned, are relatively clean. The next day I did the same. The pile of laundry seemed to shrink magically. I now wear dress pants twice, jeans up to 3 times, and pajama bottoms for several days before washing them. Often I will use pajamas of questionable cleanliness as workout clothes before finally washing them. The same strategy applies for towels: use them for several days, then step them down to “less clean” tasks, like drying the bathroom floor, before washing them.

2. Get a more low-maintenance ‘do.
Saves: time, money, chemicals, self-consciousness
I spend 5 minutes a morning brushing my hair. I spend 8 minutes every other day washing it. That’s it. No heat styling, no chemicals, no product. What I found when I used these tools was that they simply perpetuated themselves: if I heat styled I needed to deep condition. If I deep conditioned, my hair looked greasy unless I washed more often, and used clarifying products. If I washed my hair more often, it started to look limp and needed more styling. Enough! Let it all go. Be natural. (Bonus tip: I don’t use makeup either!)

3. Cook once, eat twice.
Saves: time, money, energy
A great tip, all around. I’ll leave the details for more expert writers, but my suggestion here is, refrigerate the second meal before you sit down to eat the first, or you’ll just eat the whole thing!

4. Shop less often.
Saves: time, money, gasoline, wasted food
I resisted this tip for the longest time. I was a master shopper. If I skipped a week, I’d miss all the loss leader sales. In fact, I often shopped at more than one store each week. Then gasoline topped $3 a gallon and I decided to back off to every other week. Guess what? The biweekly trip didn’t take me twice as long as the weekly trip, nor did it cost me twice as much. And as for those loss leaders? I panicked one day, seeing chicken on sale for $1.87 a pound (my rock bottom price) in a non-shopping week. But what if I run out of chicken before it gets that low again? I thought. Then the simplicity angel on my shoulder whispered, Then you won’t eat chicken. Oh. Yeah.

When you simplify your life, you will find that you are more able to spend time with your loved ones, help favorite causes, and make sound environmental choices. The tips above won’t work for everyone, but I hope that by reading this you will start to challenge your own ways of doing things and determine how each choice you make helps to support your simple philosophy. Let the simplicity angel on your own shoulder tell you what the right thing to do is.

New Beginnings

Money is a tricky topic. We can't talk about it, but we can't not talk about it. We shouldn't obsess over it or ignore it. We always want more of it, but we aren't supposed to be greedy. We are always looking for answers, but we aren't even sure what the question is.

Money, however, is only a means to an end. A variety of ends. It can mean retirement, travel, more goods. It can mean freedom, or it can entrap us with more material goods.

Hi, I'm story. This is the story of my money and my life, the story of how I'm becoming the person I would like to be.