Monday, May 2, 2016

frugality vs. convenience

My friend Beth confided, a bit sheepishly, the difficulty she has living a low-trash life in this modern world.  She told me she sort of admires me from afar, but has a lot of trouble figuring out how she might reduce garbage in her own life.  She said, "I'd really like to make less trash, but it all comes down to convenience.  It's just, you go to the store, and there are so many other things you have to be doing, and . . . convenience wins".  She sounded kind of embarrassed about admitting this, like it's some kind of guilty secret.

But what she's saying, I understand: grabbing a single box of cereal (with its lovely plastic liner bag) and a carton of milk (whose carton goes into the recycling bin) seems a lot easier than wandering many aisles and buying the many ingredients that come with making your own breakfast in a low-trash way -- not to mention that you still have to actually spend time making breakfast.  How could frugality trump convenience?

To me, all of this "convenience" has a lot of hassle built in that has become invisible to most people.  Beth (and most other normal people I know) assume that going to grocery stores over and over again is convenient.  How do you give that up for frugal DIY-ness?  But for me, the more I get into my weird lifestyle, the more I see massive inconvenience of the grocery-store kind of life.  The parking lots of grocery stores are unkind expanses of asphalt and obstacles.  The stores themselves are full of glaring lights, insipid music, and advertisements.  The sheer quantity and variety of items for sale (do we really need 87 varieties of potato chips?) means that finding the few things you do actually want is slow and inefficient.   (Seriously, grocery store aisles are almost as bad as TSA lines in airports, as far as I'm concerned).  And the checkout lines can vary in speed so much that the comedian Emo Philips uses them as a metaphor for "eternity".

Here's a different version of "convenience".  Last year, I only went to a grocery store (the kind that Beth means) a dozen times, and four of those times were while I was traveling and used a grocery store instead of a restaurant.  So, in 2015 I only made eight trips from home to a grocery store.

Instead, I go about three times a year to Miller's Amish market,
Trash from my last trip to Miller's, several months ago,
next to a canning jar solar light (not trash).
each time stocking up: about 50 pounds of flour, 25 pounds of oats, sugar, dried beans, nuts, some dried fruit.  I buy giant blocks of local, organic cheese for half the price of industrial grocery store cheese.  All of these food things come either in plastic bags (which I reuse for other food storage) or in large brown paper bags, which I recycle with cardboard or use as garden liners; I store the dry goods in large cat litter bins or glass jars to protect them from bugs and moisture.  I cut the cheese (heh heh) into pound size blocks, wrap the blocks individually, and freeze them.  That way, when I want baking supplies in between my trips to Miller's, I go "shopping in the basement" on "in the chest freezer".

My market backpack, with the containers
I'll return to get refills.
I also do a weekly trip to our local farmer's market to get yogurt, eggs, and milk (all in reusable containers, so the only trash is the plastic seal on the yogurt lid and the milk lid).  Compared to the grocery store, our farmer's market is an amazingly human experience, and it's also faster:  from the time I take my bike down off the hook at home to the time I hang it back up again with my groceries in my backpack, is a half hour.  (I've discovered to my surprise that biking is even faster than driving, sitting in traffic, parking, etc).

And when I'm at home, how do I make breakfast quickly?  I've written elsewhere about making waffles and muffins quickly for our weekend breakfasts.  On weekdays, I tend to have homemade granola mixed with yogurt.  I make my granola in large batches (one to two gallons at a time), so the cooking part of that comes only about once a month, usually while I'm making something else.  A gallon jar of granola compared to a wimpy little box of cereal?  To me, the granola scores big on the convenience scale.

Granola is super easy to make.  The more I make it, the more I realize the main ingredients are oats and oil.  Powdered milk, cinnamon or ginger, and sugar add flavor and/or sweetness, but they're totally secondary.  (I get oil and powdered milk at the grocery store, but I'm hoping someday to find bulk versions elsewhere.   Cinnamon and ginger are MUCH cheaper at market than at the grocery store; plus you can bring your own container and refill it there instead of doing trash).
Great Jars of Granola!

The basic idea behind this kind of shopping comes from Amy Dacyzyn's "Pantry Principle"-- keeping a well-stocked pantry that allows me to make a variety of foods (bread/pretzels/granola/muffins/waffles/etc) can be cheaper and faster than choosing the menu first and the ingredients second.

The point of all this description isn't to say that Beth is wrong and I'm right:  I'm sure that Beth would find my version of shopping incredibly inconvenient if she tried to start it up right now.  "Convenience" is a psychological thing; it's much more convenient to rely on habit and routine than to keep trying new things.  I used to go the grocery store weekly or more, and back then I thought that side trips to our farmer's market were a painful extra excursion.  Reorganizing my life took a long time, a lot of experimenting (not always successful).  Now that I'm used to this new way of living, I realize that it has become easy for me (and, in fact, easier than my former habits).  I'm not saying it'd be the kind of life that everyone would like.

But it *is* a life that, now that I'm used to it, means that frugality and low-trash-ity has become *more* convenient, not *less* convenient, than buying packaged and processed food from the grocery store.


  1. One of our issues with a super stocked pantry is that we don't really have place to properly store bulk grains & other items. Still we are fortunate to visit local coop, locally owned grocery or farmers mkt weekly. My trips to conventional grocery are thankfully minimal - probably the same as yours. I too am always jarred by lighting, colors and smells. & a trip with my toddler reveals how much marketing is targeted a kids...

    1. Yeah, it's nice to have a big basement. When I look at tiny houses, I don't have the "I could never do that" reaction that a lot of people do, except that I always think "but where would I keep my canned foods and flour?".

  2. My grocery stores actually have fun music that you can dance to. Also, we now have Trader Joe's which normally has only one or two of each kind of thing. Also, my local food coop and Whole Foods have spices and many other things available for bulk purchase--and spices are super cheap this way! But your point is well taken.

    People also feel that stopping off for fast food saves time over cooking, also forgetting that the commuting and waiting around takes time.

    I don't really have a lot of space for a freezer and big cat litter bins. However, I never thought of people at farmer's markets using re-usable containers, but that makes perfect sense. I need to check that out!

    And I also store bulk-purchased items in glass jars, though I re-use peanut butter jars and pickle jars and spaghetti sauce jars instead of canning jars. We have a new craft re-sale shop, and I think I might be able to bring my extra jars (that are quite pretty once I remove the label) to them to get them re-used.

    And I am a big fan of cooking way too much food and then having pre-cooked food available at home. Love it! Do you make your granola in the oven or on the stove top?

    1. Jealous of your good music and bulk-available spices! The only bulk stuff our grocery store has is candy. I'd probably go there more often if I could bulk-purchase other dry goods from them.

      Oven granola. I hadn't even thought about stove top, actually! I might try that sometime just to see how it compares.