Monthly Archives: December 2014

The Fall Purge

It’s done!  It took over a month, but the first annual fall purge has been completed.  Here’s a sampling, taken from the playroom/laundry room/storage area:

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And here’s the during:

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As a reminder, here is the “before.”

I learned a lot during this exercise.  I hope one of these tips will help you in your own minimizing!

Apply the rule of five.  Taken from The Get Yourself Organized Project: 21 Steps to Less Mess and Stress, I found the idea of five containers (in my case, trash bags and diaper boxes) to help clean up very helpful.  Each of the containers was given a purpose:  Trash, Recycling, Donate, Items that Belong Elsewhere in the House, and Items that Need a Place Here.  Next time I do this, I will actually label each bag, instead of trying to just remember its contents.  I almost recycled my daughter’s doll, which would not have gone over well…

Go it alone.  No kids present during purges.  Ever.  I don’t know about the kids in your life, but mine are little hoarders.  It doesn’t matter if they haven’t seen a toy in over a year–if they spy it while I am working, they want it.  Plus, having no one else present gave me some much-needed alone time to watch my movies, which brings me to the next point…

BYOE (Bring Your Own Entertainment).  Be it an audio book of The Third Plate or, as was the case with me, movies like Little Women, this offers a welcome distraction to the task at hand.

Remember you are dealing with things, not people or memories.  Attaching meaning to an object is something I struggle with; I kept the pair of socks I wore on my first date with my now-husband up until recently.  (Why socks?  It’s a long story.)  The point is:  don’t substitute things for memories.  Free up space to make new memories!

All in all, this was a worthwhile exercise, and one I hope to do again in the spring.  Hopefully the next one will take less time since there are fewer things to deal with now!

Buy Little Month

Blue Piggy Bank WIth CoinsMaybe you’ve heard of a “no spend” month. I really like the idea of purposefully giving up spending for a specified amount of time.

However, I’m not a fan of the name.  Unless you’re a hoarder who lives on a farm (or doesn’t eat fresh foods), it’s highly unlikely you can spend nothing in a month.

So, I prefer the name, “Buy Little.”

I’m going to be practicing my first Buy Little month in January. The timing is no accident: I’ve started to get back in the habit of outspending my budget and I want to stop that. Add in the excesses of the holiday season, and I can definitely use a budget and habit cleanse.

So what rules will I be playing by?

1. Fixed expenses like rent, utilities, and insurance don’t count. I like having a roof over my head.

2. If I need something, use something I already have. This will mean getting creative with my food options in particular. There are meals to be had in my cabinets and freezer.

3. If I can’t make do with what I have, I’ll shop my own grocery reserves. These are items I bought on sale previously out of a separate replenishing fund. More information on the system I use, check out my friend Rachel’s blog, where I got the idea.

4. If I absolutely need something and I don’t have something that will work, only then will I buy something.

There are 3 budget items that will be a part of my Buy Little month:

Groceries ($50/week) $250
Eating out $40
Transportation $150

That means that I could save up to a max of $440 by not spending. Of course, that’s not likely…especially since I still have to show up for work or I’ll have a bigger budgeting issue. I’m aiming to spend no more than half of my budget: $220. The money I save will go straight towards paying down my student loan.

I’ll be keeping track of everything I spend in January which will be good accountability. I’ll also write a post at the end of my Buy Little month to share what I have learned.

Photo by Ken Teegardin

Teachable Opportunities and the Holidays

unnamed (2)In case you missed it, I have two little ones:  an almost-three-year-old, and a newly-minted one-year-old.

One of the things I’ve struggled with this holiday season is how to effectively convey the spirit and true meaning of the Christmas season to two kiddos who 1) act as if they could not care less, and 2) don’t seem to get much of anything I tell them.

Things really came to a head during a recent conversation with Bean (the almost-three-year-old).  When I told her that Christmas was coming (and her birthday too), the first response I got was, “Presents Mama!”

Now, I know she’s a toddler, and the world obviously revolves around her.  Nevertheless, this was something of a wake-up call for me.  Was this really what she thought the Christmas season was all about?

Both Ronnica and myself have waxed poetic on rethinking gift-giving this holiday season, to say nothing of traditions, but my husband and I felt that more could be done to help convey our values to our kids a bit better.  You might call this a prime opportunity for a “teachable opportunity” for all involved.

This holiday season, in addition to the usual gifts, delicious food and family gatherings, we have put special emphasis on our Christian beliefs, as well as the traditions of others, especially when interacting with Bean. (Peanut is a little too young to absorb much, but he is pretty mesmerized by the tree lights and Christmas carols, so he probably gets more out of things than we think!)

The Advent calendar.  Never mind the fact that behind each door is a piece of chocolate, and that it doesn’t technically coincide with the official start date of the 2014 Advent season.  The point is, Bean is learning that waiting and anticipation are a vital component of the Christmas season, as we contemplate the One who was, who is, and is to come. Each day, Bean opens a door on the calendar, and we do a modified devotion from the book Celebrating Advent: Family Devotions and Activities for the Christmas Season by Ann Hibbard.  The possibilities for honoring Advent are endless; Ronnica also mentioned trying a new-to-me idea of the Jesse Tree, which we will implement next year.  Counting the days on the Advent calendar are a great visual reminder for my visual learner…and provide a tasty treat, too!

The Sunday School Christmas program.  Our church may be small, but its Christian Education program is mighty!  Learning the traditional Christmas carols, such as “Away in a Manger” (actions included!), and discussing what was talked about after each rehearsal have started many good family discussions.  Bean understands the basics of the Christmas story now–a step towards understanding that Christmas isn’t just about the gifts.

Charity activities.  As I write this, we are planning to go as a family to a community card-making event for folks at an area nursing home.  This season offers many opportunities to give back, and we hope this will be a fun, tangible way to expose the kiddos to that.

Discussing other traditions.  We live in an urban area, where Lutheran Christians are just one part of the equation, but even if we didn’t, Bean and Peanut are growing up in an incredibly diverse culture, and we want them to be aware of how others celebrate (or don’t celebrate) the holiday season.  This has been educational for us as adults, too!

How have you turned the holidays into a “teachable opportunity” for the kids in your life?

The Art of Sabbathing

empty bench and tulips

When my schedule changed at work a couple of months ago, I knew that it was an opportunity to change my work and rest habits.

In particular, I wanted to practice the Sabbath. I wouldn’t say that my previous schedule lacked rest, it’s just that the rest wasn’t intentional. In this culture, it’s very hard to be intentional about rest.

As a Christian, I do not believe that we’re commanded to keep the Sabbath but have been given the freedom to practice it as we feel led. For years, I used this freedom to not practice it at all.

Now that I am practicing the Sabbath, I fail more than I succeed. I’m trying not to fall back into my legalistic ways, but I do have some guidelines to help me:

1. The hours of my Sabbath are traditional Jewish Sabbath hours: from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.

2. No work. This includes paid work, housework and avoidable errands. I only cook enough for the meals that I need to eat.

3. No budgeting or spending money.

4. Serving others is permissible.

I would also like to limit my media intake on the Sabbath at some point, but I’m not there yet.

The hardest thing I’ve found so far is not to think about or work on my budget. I hadn’t realized until I did this how much time I spend focused on money. But that’s the beauty of the Sabbath: it draws attention to what we really value. It’s an invitation to turn back to the Lord.

I know that I have a lot more to learn from practicing the Sabbath. I’m excited to see what God will reveal to me through this practice.

Photo by William Murphy

Joint Book Review: The Third Plate

TheThirdPlateThis month we’re reviewing The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food by Dan Barber. Barber is a chef who writes about his journey to discovering more sustainable foods to source his kitchen.

The title comes from Barber’s imagination of the ideal plate of food, 35 years in the future. He pictured the past of American food as corn-fed steak with a side of veggies and the present as a grass-fed steak with a side of heirloom, organic veggies.

The third plate? “I imagined a carrot steak dominating the plate, with a sauce of braised second cuts of beef.”

Barber sees a future where we’ve recognized that we must live on what the land can provide, instead of forcing it to provide the food that we crave.

Barber writes about his journey in four parts: soil, land, sea and seed.

Ronnica’s Take

I have frequent daydreams of living a sustainable life on a few acres of my own. As someone who doesn’t like animals and gagged at the sight of the Thanksgiving dinner being carved, it’s perhaps not the best fit, but I still dream.

Reading The Third Plate has increased those dreams. Even if my garden doesn’t expand beyond my balcony, I want to make good choices of the time and resources I put into it.

As a gardener from Kansas, the first part about the soil was the most eye opening. I had never considered how our farming forefathers decimated the rich soil of the heartland, losing precious topsoil that cannot easily be replaced.

Gardening is great, but I want to consider how else I can more sustainable choices in all my food.

The only downside to this book is that as a chef, Barber’s emphasis is more on the culinary elite than on everyday sustenance served at the family table throughout the world.  Still, there are lessons for all of us.

Amanda’s Take 

One such lesson I took away from this fascinating (albeit a tad elitist and verbose) book is this:  think about where your food comes from.

Take, for instance, the humble chicken.  in the “Land” section of the book, the rise of factory farmed chickens is discussed at length.  While I was aware on a basic level of all that goes on in such an environment (money truly is king, to the detriment of quality!), the history of chicken farming in America was eye-opening to me.

The state of current food systems, such as the chicken, is also quoted as being, “An insult to history” (p. 146).  If even half of what Barber purports is accurate (and his work is supported at length), then this should give us pause.  I know the statistics, interviews, and personal insight certainly made me reconsider the choices I have at the supermarket!

An even more important message I took away was just how connected everything is.  Barber discusses the idea of “Three Sisters” planting method throughout the book–that is, the Native American method of planting corn, dry beans, and squash together, which enables the beans to provide the corn with nitrogen, the corn stalk to provide a trellis for the beans, and the squash to provide a natural weed prevention (since it snakes along the ground).

Such examples can be noted throughout food production; there is no one separate way to do anything, nor should there be.  Everything is connected to each other, for better or for worse.  Be sure to check out The Third Plate:  Field Notes on the Future of Food by Dan Barber for more wisdom and insight into how our food system can–and should!–change.

The First Two Rs

reduce_reuse_recycleI remember as a child in the 90s hearing of the slogan “Reduce Reuse Recycle,” but I never really knew what the first two Rs meant. I just assumed that all three were synonyms of recycling, because that’s all I ever remember anyone talking about.

Even when I started to realize my responsibility towards the world, I primarily focused on recycling. Recycling was something I understood and was comfortable with.

Recycling is a good thing when compared to littering or landfilling. But instead of expending energy in this manner, what if we focused on reducing and reusing instead?

In the last few years, I have gone beyond just recycling and have focused on reducing and reusing. But when I started to do so, I didn’t immediately recognize it was something that I had been encouraged to do since I was young. It wasn’t until the last year when I started to focus on the first R, reduce, that I recognized that there was purpose to the order of the three Rs.

Reducing my consumption should be my first priority. The less I buy and bring into my home, the better. If I don’t buy it, it doesn’t have to be manufactured in a polluting factory and transported by a polluting truck. It’s packaging doesn’t end up in a landfill. If I don’t buy it, I have that money to use for other things like paying off debt, saving and giving. If I don’t buy it, it doesn’t become clutter in my small apartment.

Despite what politics and polls tell us, I refuse to mindless agree to the concept that increased consumption is what is best for our country (let alone our world). Can we be big, bad America without an over-sized economy? Maybe not. And I’m okay with that.

I still have a long ways to go towards reducing my consumption. I find packaging-heavy, nutritionally-light fast food too tempting at times. I would rather buy new clothes than have to weed through items at a thrift shop. I like my comforts.

Next month I’ll be doing a “Buy Little” month to grow myself in this area.

While I should reduce my consumption first, my next task should be to reuse items I am done with whenever possible. I still have work to do in this area as well. Donating items I no longer want is pretty easy, but I want to work at finding new purposes for items that I’d otherwise donate or dispose of. Hopefully this is something that we can brainstorm together as we find new purposes for old items.

What ways have you found to reduce or reuse?

On Healthy, Budget-Friendly Eating

39336_849706160049_7766175_nAs a stay-at-home mom, I am privileged to have the time and resources to develop healthy, tasty, and budget-friendly food options for my family.

This was not always a priority for us, however.

In April of this year, my husband was diagnosed with a blood clot.  Although related more to the fracture in his ankle, this experience absolutely gave me pause.  If such a serious health issue could happen to a man not yet thirty, who could say what other maladies could come up?  How could our weight and other health issues negatively impact the work we were called to do?  Were we really being good stewards of our bodies?

The answers to these questions made all of us think.

Enter healthy eating.  Sometimes I feel like a short-order cook:  Bean has diet restrictions and is one of the pickiest eaters I know, Riley has diet restrictions (and is also very picky), even the dogs have diet restrictions; while Peanut and I have no restrictions (yet), I figured a truly healthy diet wouldn’t harm anyone, so we may as well go all-in.  Thus we embarked on our healthy eating journey–five months in, and still going (pretty) strong!

The parameters:

Less than 25 grams of sugar a day.   Year of No Sugar: A Memoir got me thinking about how many empty calories and health issues stem from refined sugar.  Once I started reading the labels of foods, I was shocked at where sugar was and how much was in our food.  Peanut butter?  Check.  Crackers?  Check.  Bread?  Check and check–high fructose corn syrup was present in high quantities in the brand of bread we usually got.  At least with fruits you got good nutrition and fiber; it seemed that the processed foods were unnecessarily loaded with the yucky stuff.  We had a head-start on this one–none of us drink soda or juice, and candy is a rare treat in our house.

Less meat in our diet.  On average, we eat meat 3-4 times a week.  We implement a lot of salmon, lentils, eggs, and the like to ensure we get our protein and other beneficial nutrients.  Beef is served a couple of times a month now, instead of almost daily.  Chicken and turkey have been in heavy rotation for our meat meals.  Bonus:  a vegetarian/flexitarian approach to eating is also good for the environment!

Cheap.  Our grocery budget is approximately $400 a month for a family of six.  Just because we added a couple high-end “hippie” stores to our bi-monthly grocery trek didn’t mean I wanted to break the bank, especially with only one income.  This was a challenge initially–healthy, quality food that also matches our values (organic, non-GMO, etc.) does not come cheaply.  We have to prioritize what organic goods we purchase, for instance; the  “Dirty Dozen” is top of the list.  Growing our own food helps too!

After only six weeks on this “Common Sense Diet”, I was down to pre-Bean weight, Riley was nearly to his goal weight, and our various “numbers” (blood pressure, etc.) were down as well.

I am sold–it does take more time to plan and prepare these meals as opposed to processed, pre-packaged foods, requires budgeting and shopping around, and we do still binge splurge from time to time–deprivation benefits no one!  But our energy levels, moods, positive example for our kids, and the enormous health benefits outweigh any potential drawbacks.

I will write more about this lifestyle change in the future, but in the meantime, enjoy a favorite lunch recipe, a la Ronnica, courtesy of Whole Foods.

Simply Delicious Homemade Hummus

2 cloves garlic

1 (15-ounce) can no-salt-added garbanzo beans, rinsed and drained

2 tablespoons tahini (sesame paste–can be found near the peanut butter in health food stores)

3 tablespoons lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon reduced-sodium tamari (I substitute liquid aminos–can be found near the soy sauce in health food stores)

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/4 teaspoon ground coriander

Cayenne pepper, to taste

2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley

Put garlic in a food processor and pulse to roughly cop.  Add garbanzos, tahini, 1/4 cup water, lemon juice, tamari, cumin, coriander and a pinch of cayenne (you may add more later to increase the heat), and process until creamy and smooth.  Transfer to a bowl, cover and chill for at least one hour.

We love to spread this on Food for Life pitas!

Debt Loss Motivation

Like many Americans, I’m in debt. The amount of our national debt (at $17 trillion) gets a lot of attention, as it should. But according to the Federal Bank of New York we Americans carry almost $12 trillion in consumer debt. Like country, like citizen.

Sure, some a lot of that $12 trillion is “good” debt like mortgages and student loans. While some debt is certainly worse than other kinds, can we please all agree to stop calling any debt “good”?

I’m currently just over halfway done paying off my student loan debt from my bachelor’s degree.  After you count out the five years my loans were in forbearance, that leaves almost five years that I’ve spent actively paying down the debt.

I’m not willing to wait another 5 years before I’m debt free. Though I don’t make as much as I wish, I believe that I will be able to pay off the remaining debt by my next birthday (one year from today).

So how do I remain motivated, though I’ve been fighting this debt already for 5 years? One of the biggest obstacles to debt loss is motivation. After all, if properly motivated we can do almost anything. But debt loss is a long-term goal, so I have to maintain motivation until it is completed.

In order to get out of debt, I have to remind myself often as to why I am depriving myself short-term pleasures. Here are a few things that I’ve found helpful for motivation:

debt thermometerA debt thermometer

We’ve all seen thermometers for fundraisers. I would never have thought to do one for paying down my debt, but Amanda did one first.

I’ve got mine posted on my fridge so I see it every time I enter my kitchen. One of my favorite parts of making a payment towards my loans is getting to mark it on my thermometer.

Every little bit counts

If you were particularly observant to my debt thermometer, you’ll notice that I made ten payments in two months. Most of those payments weren’t particularly substantial, but like small chops with an axe, collectively they will fell the tree.

More importantly, it feels like I’m making progress. Every time I have unused money in my budget or receive extra income, it goes towards my debt immediately. Paying it at that time instead of in one monthly payment only makes a few pennies of difference, but it makes me want to continue to make payments.

Give yourself some wiggle room

While the majority of my disposable income is going towards my debt, I still make room occasionally for small discretionary things. This is to keep me from getting burned out. I keep these indulgences small and planned so my eye is still towards paying off debt.

After all, being debt-free is the luxury I want.