Thursday, February 11, 2016

Edible deodorant; traveling snake

Since I'm going to write about something as ridiculous as edible deodorant, I might as well start off with the sublime:  the final verse from one of my favorite poems (Edna St. Vincent Millay's Travel).  After two verses of describing the sight and sound of trains, she writes,
My heart is warm with the friends I make,
And better friends I'll not be knowing,
But there isn't a train I wouldn't take,
No matter where it's going.
I love getting on a plane, getting on a train, getting in a car, and going anywhere.  I've been really fortunate that the work that I'm doing lately has been attracting enough attention that I've gotten to go on all sorts of amazing trips, and that I'll get to keep traveling even more.
The mountains rise like ghosts from the surrounding land on my latest trip.
I'm getting more and more minimalist these days, and traveling (where I have to carry everything with me) seems to be the perfect place to experiment with the question of "how much do I really need?"  Likewise, I've been trying to figure out how to combine all these trips with my increasing aversion to trash (so counter-cultural).

Which is why, on one of my recent trips, I finally ditched my last container of commercially-prepared deodorant.  It had been in my travel toiletries bag for a year or so; when I used it one morning at a conference in Seattle, I got one of those white smears on my clothes (yuck) and I decided to get rid of it once and for all.  What works at home will work on the road -- I just needed to find a good pair of small containers.

People who read enough eco/frugal blogs will have seen lots of recipes for homemade deodorant, most of which involving mixing stuff together.  I don't actually mix anything: I dab.  Container 1 is the oil*; container 2 is the baking soda.  I dab oil into into my pits first, then add the baking soda the second.
(*For several years, I used only coconut oil, because that's what most of the eco/frugal recipes call for.  Once, K-daughter actually borrowed my "deodorant" coconut oil for cooking up a recipe she was making; I still think that's hilarious!  But recently I've realized I can actually use just any old lotion;  it's a great way to use up those weird extra bottles we seem to have lying around the house.)
The only disadvantage to this system -- that I've found at least -- is that if I have shaving nicks, the baking soda burns.  For me, that's another reason not to mix ingredients; I can put oil only on the nicked sections, promoting healing.
My new travel toiletries "bag".  
At any rate, getting rid of that giant container of commercial deodorant was the latest in a series of "don't need this", and it allowed me to make myself a smaller travel bag.  I happened to have a bunch of very long zippers saved for "someday", and also a pants leg from my sister's jeans (gifted me for a braided denim rug that is also years in the future), and I combined these to make a long, thin, foldable bag that makes me think of a snake.  My travel toiletries snake.
I like how the two hair elastics store on the outside of the bag
to help divide this into sections.

So now,
there isn't a snake I wouldn't take, 
no matter where I'm going.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

What she bought: grocery store and craigslist

I did two shopping events this week: the grocery store and Craigslist.

Shopping trip #1 was to an actual grocery store.  Because I almost never go to this place on my own, my husband inadvertently duplicated my efforts this week.  I'd taken the grocery list off the fridge; I'd taken the cloth shopping bags off their hooks; I'd taken the bag-of-plastic-bags that was marked "return to store for recycling."  So, I thought it was obvious that I'd gone to the grocery store already.

I bought $158 worth of stuff: 10 gallons of olive oil, plus a splurge on bananas and Chunky Monkey ice cream for Friday's Monkey Dinner, and---probably most urgent---rolls and rolls of toilet paper.  I didn't buy a lot of different things, but the things that I bought, I bought a lot of them.

And then my husband, thinking "we have only one roll of toilet paper left in the house", and (not seeing any of the signs that I thought were so incredibly blatantly obvious but apparently were not) did another grocery run, buying milk and cereal and snacks, and buying rolls and rolls of toilet paper.

So now we have rolls and rolls (and rolls and rolls) of toilet paper.  My husband, who was a PR guy for most of his career, loves making puns; he tells me that they're "professional development". And so he'd tell you that our cupboards are overflowing so our shopping wasn't money down the drain; that now we're flush with success; that all that shopping has left him pooped. And of course at some point he'd have to say "and that's no sh*t".  For my shopping efforts, he says "many tanks!", and that he's bowled over.   (Perhaps this is why I don't go to the grocery store more often.)


Shopping trip #2 was part of my twisted resolutions: basically, in trying to cut back on whiskey, I decided to emulate the FrugalWoods and buy a Soda Stream.  Because . . . well, it seems fun and frivolous (especially to my family, who say, "Mom bought a what?!?" -- it's fun to be the kind of person who can be shocking for doing semi-normal things).

I scoped out prices on Amazon for an upper bound, and then I lurked on Craigslist for a month or so.  Most units there sell for $40 to $50.  This past weekend, I saw someone advertising a moving sale with a Soda Stream listed, but no price.  I decided to try to aim low on the price, even though she was offering canisters along with it.  Here's our email conversation back and forth:
Me: I might be interested in the soda stream; I've been scouting around for one for about $30.  What price are you asking? 
Soda-Stream Person:  I would take $15 since I'm including the brand new canister as well as the partially full one.  How's that sound?  
Me:  Um . . . aren't you supposed to try to talk me into a *higher* price?  At any rate, I'm interested.  I have free time today before 5:30 to come by, if that time frame would work for you!
So, I talked her into accepting $30 anyway.  Because, karma or something.  Plus, y'know, our family is already flush with success.

Monday, February 8, 2016

How to tithe: give more, or earn less

I've spent a lot of my life trying unsuccessfully to figure out how to tithe:  that is, how to give 10% of my income to charity.  Even aside from the obviously practical difficulty of taking money away from one set of laudable purposes (say, mortgage, or food, or retirement) and redirecting it toward purposes outside of our own household, there are always a host of other questions.
  1. Is the 10% level of "tithe" somehow magical, or sacred, or holy, or is that number just superstition? Or what?
  2. 10% (or X%) of what? Wages? Adjusted gross income?  Take-home pay?
  3. Does it "count" that we've adopted a bunch of kids -- for example, that last year we spent about a kilo-buck adopting a 23-year-old, or that we have a pair of ravenously hungry teenage boys in the home who are legally and emotionally -- but not biologically -- ours?  
  4. Does it "count" if we pay money for services rendered to an organization that's a designated charity?  That is, does our tuition to the Quaker Local School displace all or part of my felt obligation to donate money to charity?  (oooh -- does it even count double because we pay our tuition bills to a charity AND because the tuition is for our adopted sons?)
  5. How does the idea of "tithe" encompass space (we've given Y a room in our house for a few years, as she studies her MCATs and prepares for med school)?
  6. How does the idea of "tithe" encompass time (my mornings serving breakfast at the rescue mission, my husband's work with the Brady Campaign or with our church's ESL program for refugees, my sons' occasional help in the church toddler room)?
If there are answers to the questions above, I'm not smart/pious enough to know what those are.  I just figure that I'm insanely rich compared to some of those ancient, historical tithe-givers.  (Solomon was one wealthy dude, but he didn't have indoor plumbing, internet, automobiles, antibiotics, or canning jars.  Clearly, I've got it made).

This past July, our income took two big hits.  Hit #1: my husband retired.  Hit #2: I started my sabbatical, trading money for time (I get 3/4 pay).    The net effect is that our 2015 income, as measured on our recently completed taxes, is just about half of what we made in 2014.  That's "half" as in 52% . . . just wanted to put that percentage out there because it seems so stark.

We front-loaded our retirement savings to the first half of this year, when we were both fully employed, and then stopped all retirement savings after August, so the transition from June to July didn't quite drop our monthly take-home pay ├╝ber-drastically.  But still, the past six months or so have seen a lot less flexibility in our finances, and as a result, we did contribute less to charity than last year.   In fact, our charitable giving was only 93% of what it was in the previous year.

So, we gave less to the needs outside our family than we have in the past.  But in one of those odd quirks that comes with percentages . . . the fact that our income was 52% of the previous year, whereas our giving was 93% of the previous year, means that for the first time in my life, I've actually tithed, even according to the most stringent and picky criterion you might apply to tithing:  our charitable contributions (as measured by IRS standards) was more than 13% of our pre-tax income.

I'm not sure what to make of this, really.  "I gave less money, but I tithed, so Yay Me"??  I'm pretty sure that self-congratulation is one of those Woe-Unto-Them sins that I ought to steer clear of.

Having said that, that 13% really makes me smile.  Here, surrounded by W2s and 1099s and INT forms, I'm doing my own little happy dance that, for the first time ever, there's a '1' in front of that number that ends in percentage sign.  So maybe not "Yay Me", but at least, "Yay".

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Out with the goat; in with the monkey!

Monday brings the Chinese New Year; we say good-bye to the Year of the Goat and welcome the Year of the Monkey.

In honor of that, last night my family had one of our much-loved Special Dinners.  K-daughter is allergic to soy sauce, so the only traditional Asian food we had was actually an Asian beverage:  a sweet soda-like thing made with aloe pulp, bought by our host daughter Y.

Instead, we had the "Monkey Dinner".
I didn't take many photos, aside from Baby-A's toy monkey, which decorated the table.  The menu included

  • Monkey Brains (stuffed peppers, with faces carved out of them like Jack-O-Lanterns),
  • Monkey Bread,
  • Bananas
  • Chunky Monkey Ice Cream.   Oh, yeah.
We played "Hey Hey, We're The Monkeys" several times (basically, until my husband begged us to stop), and at dinner we all described things we'd done recently that began with the letter "M".  The dinner was fab -- more fun than a barrel of . . . well, you know.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The problem with knowing how much money you have

For about a year now, as I dole out my sons' pitifully small $5/week allowance, I've been asking my boys to think about where their money has gone and where it's going to go.  As I wrote last May,
"Every week, before the boys get their next allowance, they have to write these three things in their Allowance Journal:
  1. Where their past money actually went in the previous week.
  2. What they plan to do with their next allowance for the upcoming week.
  3. Their current savings balance.
That's all they have to do: reflect, plan, and tally. Then they get their money."
The longer I do this, the more I like it; the feedback of "what I think I'll do/what I actually did" doesn't work perfectly, but developing the habit of a cycle of planning, action, reflection, and then revised planning is going to hold these kids in good stead.

Even as I sat here typing this, J-son just asked me about super glue for reattaching one of the stripes on his shoes; when I said we have run out, his response was, "Then I'll save up enough money to buy it."  Meanwhile, about 10 minutes before, N-son had asked about the amount of money he has in his savings account because "I want to save up for a new phone.  I think I need to start paying for my own stuff." 

These two (amazingly perfectly timed) conversations give both a sense of how far the boys have come and also where the system breaks down a bit.  

For N-son, the issue is benign:  he takes the wording of step 2 fairly literally.  Every week, he gets his $5 allowance and distributes it like this:  $1 to church, $2 to spend, $2 to save.  I push him hard to be more specific on "spend", and he usually amends that into "snacks at school for friends".  But notice that this means he's spending only from his allowance, and almost never from his savings.  He's gotten windfalls of money from Christmas and from shoveling snow which morph invisibly into the savings, completely forgotten by him.  For reasons that I don't understand, the savings is effectively a black hole to him.  He's a wealthy young man, with modest desires.  He's going to be rich, and he doesn't even realize that he has already saved enough money to buy his own phone if he needs to (which he actually doesn't need to; I'll talk him down from that).

J-son with glittery ears
and a handsome smile.
But the main point is, he knows about the $5 allowance, and that amount "anchors" his behavior.  If we skip a week so that the next week he gets $10, he allocates $1 on church, $4 on snacks, and $5 on savings.  He spends a bit less than half of what he earns, not because he needs/desires that amount of snacks, but because of what he sees of his income.

But where N-son sees only his income, J-son sees his savings.  Or perhaps, I should say, "sees his savings disappear".  This kid turns snow into earrings:  the $65 he earned by hard labor shoveling snow turned overnight into a pair of long-desired holes in his head.  And even though he then told me he wanted to start saving up for a moped, the very next day he rechecked his savings balance and took out another $12 for an outing with his friends.  The money he earned from his first job?  Likewise, disappeared.  And as a result, if he now wanted to buy super glue to fix his latest pair of absolutely essential shoes, he needs to wait until his meager coffers are replenished.  

I think this is part of why personal finance is so hard.  Sometimes, like J-son, we have bottomless pits of wanting, and we throw whatever money we get into that pit, hoping it will fill us up.  For him, what I hope is that the process of looking backward at where his money went, and what it actually brought him, will help him make wiser choices in the future.  He's already started learning a bit about how spending money to impress his friends is just as likely to bring grief as happiness . . . that's a good lesson to move forward with.

But sometimes, like N-son, we allow our income to determine the shapes of our lives.  It's not a bad thing to spend less than you earn, but I know that his current approach can feel a little rudderless.  He doesn't fix his eye on a distant passion -- a new drum, a pair of bike shoes -- and use that passion to steer his life, however erratically, toward that guiding star.

And maybe I'm not really talking abut N-son and J-son here.  Maybe I'm really talking about my husband and me.  My guy turned 62 last summer, and he keeps asking, "are you sure I shouldn't start collecting Social Security yet?  Does it really make sense to wait until I'm 66 or 70, when I might not even be able to enjoy the money?"  And I think: if we had the money coming in now, would our lives be different?  better?  Would we spend the money just because we had it, or would we save it toward a larger goal? . . . in which case, it makes sense to wait.  My husband is like J-son; he wants the glitter.  He's got a gazillion plans, even if he's not sure what they all are.

And me, I really want to raise the boys well right now, and then when they're grown, I want to restructure almost everything:  housing, travel, my employment.  That's the siren song calling me, and I don't want to fritter away the chance to do that on less important things now.

So I look at how we spend our money right now, and I think, "that's about right".  We're happy; we don't need more.  Someday, Uncle Sam will start sending an allowance our way, but I can wait for a few years for that day.  And maybe my family can, too.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

What she bought: milk and monkey makings

Monkey brains, anyone?  Per usual, my lone shopping trip for this winter week was to market.  In addition to bringing home scrounged bagels and scrambled eggs, I bought my usual dairy and eggs, and I "splurged" (??) on a half-dozen green peppers that we'll put to use this Friday when we make "Monkey Brains" for our family monkey dinner.  More on that, later this week!
Total spending: $21.

And I love feeling all Miser-y over spending so little money.  Even though I know it's a sham.  Of course, one big, huge part of the reason that I'm spending so little on groceries these days is that my husband likes to drop by grocery stores at all hours of the day and night to pick up one or two (or twenty) items;  because he spends $100-$150 a week on groceries, then there's less for me to have to pick up.

But another huge part of the reason that I do so little grocery-ing myself is less sham-my;  it's because cooking in the winter often looks like this: grab some canning jars full of food that I put up in the summer, pull some dry goods off the shelves, and dump them into crock pots and bread makers with a smattering of spices.  Last night's dinner was soup (turkey stock, corn, tomatoes, and some rice), bread (warm bread and butter! yes!), applesauce, and peach/blueberry crumble (with breadcrumbs that I collect in a canning jar in the freezer).

In the summer, I feel like I spend so much time (mostly happy time, I admit) chopping and prepping foods.  Part of the happiness is just the chance to be near fresh vegetables that grew out of nearby dirt--to me, that continues to be a miracle of miracles--, but another part of the happiness is knowing that the Summer Me is gifting the Winter Me with the chance to have meals like the one we had last night: hot soup and bread on a cold night, pulled together with food that traveled all the way upstairs from my basement.


Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Ground Dog's Day

When I go to the Humane League to try to find a family dog, the main criterion I use is that I want a dog that looks at me.  My family has fallen in love with other dogs for other reasons:  their coats are fantastic; the dogs are bouncy and cute.  But since I'm the dog-spert in the family, I get to choose, and I choose a dog that watches me attentively.

We've actually had some failed dog placements when we violated this rule:  there was an adorable 5-year-old poodle that we brought home who peed all over the house, including right next to his food bowl.  The vet said there was nothing medically wrong with him, and I figured I wasn't talented/interested/patient enough to train him, so he was at our home only one week and then went back to the Humane League.  Smarter people with more time and compassion might have figured out a way to handle it, but a full-time professor with three young kids in the house and a husband who travelled constantly?  Not me.

But dogs who watch me, they're so easy to train -- at least for me.  And Miser Dog is one of the most dedicated dogs I know, following me around the house, curling up next to whatever chair I happen to sit in.  And --perhaps most importantly for our family -- he loves the kids, too.  He's so gentle that I trust him near the smallest kids in our family . . .

My granddaughter, Baby A, is totally fascinated by Miser Dog.
He tolerates and occasionally encourages her.
. . . and such a great companion that the larger kids get down on the floor to buddy up with him, too.
N-son reads his book while Miser Dog does yoga.
J-son and Miser Dog enjoy a beam of sunshine.

Getting down on the floor with a mutt is a great way to get a bit of free love every now and then.

Happy Ground Dog Day, everyone!  I'm spending the day enjoying hanging out with my furry shadow.