May 30, 2009

I AM a Frugalista, after all

I received a lot of interesting comments earlier this week from the posts "What do you splurge on?" and "Why are you frugal, or semi-frugal, or resourceful?" These topics will be part of an ongoing discussion about how we are each shaping our lives and responding to individual and global circumstances. Everyone has a lot to contribute based on their own unique perspective.

I'm not sure why I was so hesitant about using the word "frugal" to describe myself. I think it's partly because I have had at least a couple of spendthrift stages in my past, even if they were short. The other thing is I think it does have a little bit of a negative connotation, and some people consider it synonymous with "cheap." But according to Merriam-Webster, the definition of frugal is: characterized by or reflecting economy in the use of resources. There's nothing bad about that. Not wasting resources is both good and necessary, for individuals and for the collective.

Also, when I said I might hesitate in calling myself a Frugalista, I'd forgotten that I already HAVE called myself that, in a post back in March. Blame it on middle age, or wine, but my memory has some lapses these days. I knew I was a Frugalista when I read this Oxford University Press definition: "a person who leads a frugal lifestyle, but stays fashionable and healthy by swapping clothes, buying second-hand, growing own produce, etc." I don't actually grow my own produce, but I'm starting small with an herb garden, two tomato plants, and a lemon tree. And splurging on travel and spa visits doesn't affect my Frugalista status.

So I say "yes" to everything frugal. In my view, like most things, it only becomes negative when taken to an extreme. Now my only question is: What are we going to call the guys who live the frugal but fabulous lifestyle? Frugalistos? I wonder if Natalie McNeal, of The Frugalista Files and the original Frugalista, would have an answer. I think I'll ask her... In the meantime, what do you think? What's the best name for a male Frugalista? Are you a Frugalista/Frugalisto? Please share your thoughts in the Comments section.

May 29, 2009

Food Waste Friday

Another ugly food waste photo. I'm taking part in the Waste-No-Food challenge from The Frugal Girl, and posting these photos does help me try harder to waste less food. Call it positive peer pressure, or just attention and focus, whatever the reason, it works. Check out Jonathan Bloom's blog Wasted Food to learn about how much food we waste (collectively) and why you should care.

So this week we still had some bagged lettuce in the refrigerator when we got our first CSA delivery, and the cornucopia of greens offered made it pretty hard to go back into the bag. My husband made an impressive effort, and used most of these greens on sandwiches when they were a little less than fresh. I have to admit I didn't even try. The beans were also entirely my responsibility, since he hates white beans and I only buy them for one type of salad I eat. I got sick of that salad after eating it a few times, and then these beans just sat there.

Actually, I don't think I even want to buy canned white beans anymore, I hate that layer of goo on top. Another project in this house will be making beans from scratch, how hard can it be? And I love throwing things in the Crockpot, so I'll start doing that soon.

I'm looking forward to our next CSA delivery this Monday. It's a little bit like Christmas for adults. The anticipation of pleasure. I might not be able to stand the suspense, and go online to check what we'll be receiving, the equivalent of peeking in mom's closet as a kid. I'm happy to report that we used up ALL of that produce, even the turnips. I made them once on the barbecue, chopped up and wrapped in a foil pouch, and the other time roasted in the oven with a bunch of other vegetables, and they were delicious.

If you're new to this segment, don't feel bad if you waste A LOT more food than this. That's the case with everyone who starts doing it. I used to buy tons of produce that would rot by the time I went grocery shopping again, and I'd have to dump it to make room for the new stuff. But it's amazing how much less you'll waste once you start thinking about it. And you can really save money by doing this too. Please leave your thoughts about all things food-related in the Comments section.

May 28, 2009

Update on the Mars Chocolate Relief Act

Last Friday I told you about the Mars Chocolate Relief Act, a giant giveaway of chocolate to the first half million people who go to their website every Friday through September. Mars claims it's an effort to spread joy across America.

But then one of my readers wrote in and alerted me to this article, which details how companies like Mars and Nestle partially rely on child labor from the Ivory Coast in Africa to produce their chocolate. I was disturbed by the article and so I looked into the matter further this week.

First of all, I wrote the following email to Mars through their website:

"I registered for my free coupon last Friday and told my readers about it on my blog. A reader responded with a link to this article: (link from above) How do you respond to charges that you use child labor on your cocoa farms?"

The following day, I received an email that read: "Thank you. We have received your email and will respond to you in due course."

I haven't heard from them yet, but this exchange took place last Sunday, only four days ago. In the meantime, I've done a bit of google research and found that like most things in life, the truth isn't so easy to pin down.

It seems that activists have been pressuring the large chocolate companies about the issue of child labor since 2001. And just last month, Mars announced new sustainability commitments. Reading between the lines, they're basically taking baby steps towards doing the right thing. A spokesperson for the International Labor Rights Forum called it "an important first step toward sustainable cocoa farming, but not enough to ensure workers aren't exploited." You can read the entire article here.

So they're moving in the right direction, but it's still better to buy Fair Trade certified chocolate until they make that commitment. Whether you want to register for the free chocolate is up to you. I'm not going to promote it on my blog anymore, but I'm not necessarily committing to never eating those brands of chocolate again. But I WILL follow this story and I appreciate having my attention brought to the issue. I'm going to try to buy Fair Trade chocolate as often as possible. Oh, and one bit of good news is that Cadbury, my personal favorite, has announced it would seek Fair Trade certification by the end of the summer. Maybe Mars and Nestle will follow suit and we won't have to worry that our pleasure might be causing pain to little children halfway around the world. Not to get too political, but - does anyone really buy the extreme free market line that businesses don't need to be regulated and will always do the right thing? They need to have activists all over them for EIGHT YEARS just to get them to stop using child labor?

If you know anything about this controversy or have any ideas or opinions to share, please leave your thoughts in the Comments section.

May 27, 2009

Wine Finds

It's time for another installment of Wine Finds, and with the warm weather upon us, I thought a white selection was in order. We enjoyed our first bottle of Geyser Peak Sauvignon Blanc for the season on Memorial Day. This is our favorite bottle of white wine, it's crisp and refreshing and not too sweet.

Sunset magazine named this wine the "Best White Wine Under $10" last spring or summer. At least that's how I remember it. Looking it up online, Sunset also named it "Our favorite crisp western white under $15" and a "Steal of the Year." I'm so happy I actually read that issue because this has become a staple when we want to treat ourselves and we're in the mood for white rather than red. At $8.99, it's a little bit of a splurge, but well worth it. At least, that's the Trader Joe's price on the west coast.

This bottle has a twist-off cap rather than a cork, but don't be put off by that. From what I understand, it's actually better because corks go bad sometimes. The wineries are having a hard time marketing it, because consumers associate twist-off tops with cheap wine like Boone's Farm. But this wine is a long way from Strawberry Hill.

And as I've mentioned before, I've never taken a wine appreciation class and the only "vocabulary" I know is a word here and there I pick up from a friend. But here's a sample of the reviews of this wine: "Delightful and super-tropical, with mango, honeydew melon, peach, and soft floral notes," "outstanding palate," and "intense and bright, with a mouthwatering acidity and a long, lingering finish." So there you go.

I haven't decided whether to call myself a lush, a wino, or a wineaux, but I do enjoy a good bottle of wine, especially with friends (luckily, hardly ever by myself). And I'm hoping that my years of experience (decades) will be put to use for your benefit with my random, possibly whimsical tips. Please let me know if you try this bottle, or if you have any recommendations to tell us about in the Comments section. And to check out previous installments of Wine Finds, click here.

May 26, 2009

Why are you frugal, or semi-frugal, or resourceful?

After I wrote yesterday's post "What do you splurge on?" it occurred to me that maybe I should have started with the question "Why are you frugal?" Because there's no point in being frugal for the sake of being frugal. There needs to be a reason, which ranges from sheer necessity (for example, you live on a fixed income or you're trying to support a family on minimum wage or you've been laid off from your job) to all manner of lifestyle goals and ideals.

One of my readers suggested that if I was uncomfortable with the term "frugal," perhaps I should substitute "resourceful." I like that. It brings to mind a sensible person, cheerfully making do with their circumstances. Creating a gourmet meal out of forgotten pantry items, making a cozy home in the wilderness, sewing stylish clothing out of burlap bags. Sort of a cross between Marmie from Little Women and MacGyver (ingenious uses for everyday items).

So WHY am I resourceful? There are many reasons, but they mostly revolve around wanting to create a lifestyle that meshes with my values and goals. The values have to do with non-consumerism and protecting the environment and trying not to use more than my fair share of the earth's resources. The goals involve wanting to work less, while at the same time doing work I enjoy and having control over my own schedule.

It all comes down to priorities. Mine have just never been to have a big house, an expensive car, lots of jewelry, or STUFF. They've always had more of an experiential element, and include doing work and activities I love, having time for my husband and friends, and not being tied down to a schedule. Also, living on less lets me feel more in control and less panicked if my husband or I get less work or if the economy takes a turn for the worse. Having money for an emergency and not living on credit means that we're not so dependent on jobs or the economy.

If I gave the impression yesterday that I was frugal just so I could spend money on travel, boots, and spas, that's not the case. I do splurge on some things, but they're not the overall point of a frugal or resourceful lifestyle. Joining The Compact was an extension of the way I was already living rather than a radical experiment, and I've realized that even more because nearly five months later, I've had hardly any challenges or temptations to wrestle with.

I'm not trying to recruit members for The Compact, but I guess in a way I AM trying to relate how simple it is to live on less. Maybe give a little hope to people who are doing it by necessity. How it can actually be creative, invigorating, and yes... fun! Because believe me, if you saw our lifestyle, I don't think anyone would call it deprived. Except for maybe someone like Donald Trump, who I would consider the exact opposite of me. It's hard to believe we're the same species, really. The only thing I can think of that we have in common is a thick head of hair. But then again, his is probably fake.

Why are you frugal, or semi-frugal, or resourceful? Or do you prefer another label entirely? Please tell us your thoughts in the Comments section.

May 25, 2009

What do you splurge on?

I feel a confession coming on...

Since I joined The Compact and started writing this blog, I've learned so much about simple living and frugal living from visiting other blogs. But sometimes I feel a little hypocritical about associating myself with the frugal lifestyle, and I might hesitate in calling myself a Frugalista. I'm not really sure where I lie on the frugal/spendthrift continuum. Because there are some things I really splurge on (even while doing The Compact), they're just mostly not STUFF.

For example, I've read on several frugal blogs that they don't take vacations far from home. Well, travel is one of the passions of my life and I have always done without in order to have funds for my next adventure. When I finished graduate school, I sold my car so I could take a month-long train trip through England and Scotland. It was marvelous. And I never regretted getting rid of my pint-sized Toyota Tercel. It all worked out because when I came back from England, I moved to New York City, where I didn't need a car. I don't know if selling a car when you don't even own a stereo system and using it to fund a European vacation would be considered frugal, but it certainly highlighted my priorities.

Another example is my spa habit. I'm a real water-lover: I love swimming, snorkeling, kayaking, wading, floating, and taking long showers and baths. I find water very calming, and at the same time invigorating. So one of my big splurges is going to the spa for a facial and using all the facilities beforehand: the sauna, the jacuzzi, and the wetroom. I only do this 3 or 4 times a year, but it's not something I imagine some frugal lifestyle people would approve of. But for me, it's part therapy, part indulgence, part beauty routine, and I wouldn't give it up unless absolutely necessary. I'm also hoping those facials will save me money on skin care supplies in the future. Plus I rationalize this treat by reflecting on how spas and bathhouses are de rigueur in many parts of the world even for common folk, particularly in Asia and Eastern Europe.

I used to splurge on books and I honestly don't think that needs any rationalization because reading is such a huge part of my life. But for the past 3 or 4 years I've mostly been buying them used or going to the library. I will buy a new book occasionally, especially if it's by one of my favorite authors or I want to support a friend. But I still usually wait for the paperback.

Occasionally (pre-Compact) I'll splurge on a gift for a friend or my husband if I see the perfect thing that I just know they'll love. I don't feel pressured to spend a lot of money of gifts for anyone in my life, but I like to get a special treat now and then when it's something I know they'll particularly enjoy.

And I have been known to splurge on boots, because I've got a bit of a fixation, but I almost always find them on sale. This snazzy red pair in the photo, my current favorite, I bought on clearance for about $50. Their per-wear price will probably drop below a dollar eventually. But I won't be buying any new boots this year. And I bought those red boots at least two years ago.

So those are my favorite splurges. Does traveling or going to the spa mean I'm a spendthrift? Getting back to the question of where I would place myself on the frugal/spendthrift continuum, if California represented frugality and Maine stood for spendthrift (might make more sense the other way around), I would probably fall somewhere between Arizona and New Mexico. But maybe this analogy is getting too complicated...

I think of myself as fairly frugal, and I have usually done pretty well living on very little money, mostly out of necessity. I think my family would agree: I remember some family lore where one of my brothers bought something for me and the other brother commented, "Well, you know when you buy something for her, she keeps it forever." I think they were making fun of me a bit. I have one t-shirt that's so comfortable and perfect for hiking that I've been wearing it almost ten years and we can never date a photo because I'm wearing it in nearly every hiking picture. And I remember my mom visiting me once and noticing that I still used some towels about ten or twelve years after she and I had bought them together while shopping for my first apartment. She said something like, "Oh honey, you're so funny." But from my perspective, she's a real spendthrift. Who knows how many towels she'd gone through in that time.

So I think I'm fairly frugal, my family might think I'm extremely frugal (although not cheap because I've always given them nice gifts and I like to treat for meals and that type of thing), but I wonder what the frugal community would think of some of these expenditures. Would I have to hand in my membership card if they knew?

I'm trying to be honest about documenting my Buy Nothing New year, and this is something that's been on my mind lately. Even the name of my blog caused me some immediate regret, when I realized it would be more accurate to call it "My Year Without Buying," but it was really too late to change it at that point. The technical steps involved were beyond me, and I didn't want to confuse anyone.

Please write and tell me what you think of my splurges, and I would love to hear what you splurge on. You can leave your thoughts, questions, ideas and opinions in the Comments section. Part of my reason for not buying anything new is to have more money to save, and to spend on things I care about, like travel. And soaking in a hot tub. But I probably already have enough boots.

May 24, 2009

Update on free chocolate Fridays

When I told you about the Mars Real Chocolate Relief Act last Friday, I thought I was doing a good thing. Spreading the word about free chocolate, what could be wrong with that? But a reader left me a comment that included this link to a story about how companies like Mars and Nestle use child labor on their cocoa farms. I was very disturbed by this article and since I believe in being a conscious consumer I wanted to bring it to your attention.

I admit I have heard of Fair-Trade chocolate, and it's usually the type I buy when I grab a bar at Trader Joe's, but I don't think I really knew exactly what it meant. I just had a vague idea that it meant the workers received a fair wage.

I certainly don't want to be subsidizing child labor, so I'm going to look into this before next Friday's giveaway and let you know what I find out.

May 22, 2009

Food Waste Friday

It's time to talk about food waste, and we don't have any this week! Yay! But next week we have to use up all of the fresh produce from our first CSA delivery. So we'll see how that goes. We were diligent about using up the most perishable items this week - the fava beans, the beet greens, the chard, the romaine, and the purple-flowering broccoli, I think it was called. A little bit like eating tiny trees.

I told my husband to get creative and eat anything he saw in the crisper. Today he told me he had a "pungent" onion sandwich for lunch, and when I checked the refrigerator I saw he'd eaten almost an entire head of raw garlic, thinly sliced like an onion! I suppose there's no harm in eating half a head of garlic. That probably satisfies his antioxidant quota for the month. Tonight he was in charge of dinner and I came home to an excellent frozen pizza and caesar salad.

Next week might be more challenging because we still have a lot to use up. But it's been so much fun trying new vegetables and new recipes. The Alice Waters Swiss Chard gratin, which I posted a recipe for earlier this week, was time-consuming but absolutely heavenly. My husband isn't fond of chard or kale, and he loved this and had seconds.

It can be difficult to try to save money on groceries while eating healthy organic food. When you add reducing food waste to the list of goals, it becomes even harder. But sometimes our resourceful side rises up to meet these challenges. And some people are at their best with a lot of restrictions. Check out 30 Bucks a Week to see how one couple is surviving and thriving on a $30 a week food allowance. And if you think they're sacrificing or only eating rice and beans, think again. There's some gourmet cooking going on over there. Particularly if you're a vegetarian, you really have got to have a look. Because eating less meat or going vegetarian will definitely save money, in addition to being healthier and better for the environment. Full disclosure in case that sounds like I'm on a soapbox: I'm not a vegetarian, I just don't eat red meat.

So how was your week, food-wise? Please share your thoughts, ideas, opinions, rants, and recommendations in the Comments section.

May 21, 2009

Free chocolate

FREE STUFF ALERT: Mars Snackfood, the company that makes M&Ms, Milky Way, Snickers, and more is giving away coupons for free chocolate (!) every Friday through the end of September to the first half-million people who log on to their website. You can get all the details by clicking here.

Free chocolate is nothing to sneer at. I'm going to do it... are you in? Mars says it's trying to lift the spirits of a recession-plagued nation in one of the biggest giveaways in history. They claim it's a massive effort to spread joy across America by giving away as many as 7 million full-size packages of Mars chocolate.

The company also claims their chocolate is healthier than other brands, saying they're the only ones who use 100% cocoa butter. I don't know about all that, but I think chocolate is a good thing. My favorite is Cadbury, but I love almost any brand. Let me know if you win a coupon by leaving a message in the Comments section. Good luck everyone!

May 20, 2009

Thrifty Threads

Welcome to the 3rd installment of "Thrifty Threads", AKA "Most Stylish Compact-y Outfit," where readers model their favorite secondhand clothes. A Compact-y outfit is used or recycled, whether it's from the Goodwill, a thrift store, or a consignment shop.

Today's model is Nicole, wearing her beautiful 1920s-style dress in front of her adorable little beach cottage in Santa Monica. She just moved in recently and has already painted the steps that gorgeous color of periwinkle. But back to the dress... It's so cute! She looks just like a flapper, especially with her short haircut and long string of beads. Doesn't she look great? Nicole bought this dress at a thrift store in Santa Monica (she doesn't remember the name) for $20. The label is Pudding Shop, which neither of us had ever heard of. The only thing I could find online with that name was a children's clothing line. But no matter- it's a great dress!

Nicole is a writer who co-wrote an award-winning kid's adventure screenplay and is at work on a romantic comedy script, among other projects. When she's not writing, she's trying to keep up with her incredibly enthusiastic 3-year-old son Lukas. He likes to munch on green pepper as a snack, requested plastic plumbing pipe parts for Christmas, and wants to own a chocolate factory when he grows up. He takes after his mom in the creativity and originality department.

Thanks Nicole for sharing that photo. Readers, it's your turn! Put on your favorite thrift store scores, take a picture, and send it to me. Don't be shy, we all want to see your fabulous finds! You can find my e-mail address on my profile page. It's so inspiring to see that it's possible to be fashionable and get great clothes without spending a ton of money. And if you want to check out the first two installments of Thrifty Threads, click here.

Please leave your thoughts, questions, tips and ideas about secondhand clothes shopping in the Comments section.

May 19, 2009

Abundance theory

This is the festive insulated bag that our CSA delivery arrived in yesterday. We leave the bag at our front door the morning of our next scheduled delivery in two weeks. We can even put the trimmings and unused parts back in the bag and they'll compost it for us.

I thought this was a good photo to introduce an article I read recently about abundance theory. It's from Oprah's magazine, and you can read the entire article here. The brightly-colored bag and the mother lode of produce inside perfectly illustrate the concept.

Abundance theory is all about trusting that you'll find what you need, because there's plenty of everything available. For most of history, and still in many parts of the world, things of value were scarce. So it made sense to live in what's called a "just in case" mindset. It goes like this: "Just in case I don't have anything to eat in the future, I'd better take advantage of this sale on canned navy beans, even though I don't like beans." Most of us know someone who lived through the Depression who has a hard time getting rid of ANYTHING.

But when we live in an abundant environment with an assumption of scarcity, it leads to all kinds of dysfunctional behaviors associated with hoarding and storing. Things like working too much, eating too much, buying too much and spending too much. All these problems and more are the result of a culture of excess.

The article claims that making the mental shift of focusing on the abundance in your environment will cause your life to improve in all kinds of areas that may seem unrelated. This rings true for me because my experiment of joining The Compact has turned into a bountiful adventure. Not buying STUFF hasn't felt like deprivation or sacrifice at all. In fact, quite the opposite.

I'm experiencing an embarrassment of riches in the produce department. And now I just have to make sure I don't waste any of this gorgeous food. I hope you enjoy the article. Please leave your thoughts and ideas in the Comments section.

May 18, 2009

Our first CSA delivery: oh, the bounty

Woo hoo! Our first CSA box arrived today! And here it is all spread out. What a haul. Honestly, I don't even know what some of this stuff IS.

When I joined The Compact, I didn't even know what CSA stood for. It means Community Supported Agriculture, and it's a familiar acronym to people involved in the local food movement. It's basically like going to the Farmer's Market, except the Farmer's Market comes to you. You're supporting local farmers who grow organic produce. The service visits all the Farmer's Markets in the area and finds the freshest offerings each week. Our service (Auntie Em's) even delivers it to your doorstep. Eating local and organic is better for the environment AND for your health.

This adventure of Buying Nothing New is leading me in all kinds of directions I never would have imagined. I know I've said before that I'm not really the type of person who does things Nike-style. I'm more of a deliberator, I like to weigh the pros and cons and take my time with a decision. But in this case, I dove right in. Last week I saw this post over at My Friend Oprah and within two days I was signed up and eagerly awaiting our first delivery. I simply couldn't think of any downside to doing it.

Luckily I asked for delivery every other week, because this is A LOT of produce. All we have to do is leave out the box on our doorstep by early morning the day of our next delivery. Our service also includes a list of what's inside with suggestions for preparation, plus a recipe. This week's is Alice Water's Swiss Chard gratin (recipe follows). Tonight we'll have our friends over for that plus some fresh fava beans spread on crostini. And fresh cherries for dessert! The apricots will probably be gone by the time they get here (I love apricots!)

This week's bonanza also includes spring garlic, purple sprouting broccoli, Detroit red beets, and red scarlett turnips. Any suggestions on what to do with the turnips or anything else you see here? Please leave your ideas in the Comments section.

Auntie Em's Delivery - Recipes

Auntie Em's Delivery - Recipes: Alice Waters Swiss Chard Gratin
4 servings
1 1/2 bunches of chard
1-cup fresh breadcrumbs
2 teaspoons melted butter
2 tablespoons butter
1 onion, diced (or 4 spring onions)
2 teaspoons flour
1/2-cup milk
A few strokes of freshly grated nutmeg
1. Wash and stem the chard. Save half the stems and slice them thin. Bring 2 quarts of salted water to a boil and cooked the sliced stems for 2 minutes. Add the chard leaves and cook until tender, about 3 minutes. Drain and cool. Gently squeeze out the excess liquid from the stems and leaves and coarsely chop them.
2. Toss together the breadcrumbs and the melted butter. Toast on a baking sheet in a 350-degree oven, stirring now and then, until lightly brown, about 10 minutes.
3. Melt 1 1/2 tablespoons of butter over medium heat in a heavy-bottomed pan and add the diced onion. Cook over medium heat until translucent, about 5 minutes. Stir in the chard and season with salt. Cook for 3 minutes. Sprinkle with the flour and stir well. Then add the milk and nutmeg and cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add more milk if the mixture gets too thick. The chard should be moist but not floating in liquid. Taste and add salt if needed.
4. Butter a small baking dish. Spread the chard mixture evenly in the dish and dot with the remaining butter, cut into bits. Sprinkle the breadcrumbs evenly over the top. Bake in a 350-degree oven until the gratin is golden and bubbling, 20 to 30 minutes."

May 16, 2009

May baby steps challenge: mid-month report

A few weeks ago, I wrote this post about May's baby steps challenge, which is to stop those catalogs and junk mail once and for all. We get WAY too many catalogs, and even before I joined The Compact, I only ordered from a fraction of the ones we receive. I'll be working on other challenges throughout the year, like using homemade cleaning supplies, composting, and air-drying laundry, but for May I'm focused on the junk mail and catalogs.

So how am I doing so far? I've already completed the first 3 items on my to-do list for the month. I'll go through them one at a time.

1. Sign up for Catalog Choice. DONE. Finally. I should have done this years ago when I first heard about it. But better late than never. This took maybe 30 minutes. I was surprised that I had to check catalogs one at a time. There's no way to simply say "no catalogs." But I tried to check as many as I could think of that we receive. Hopefully we'll see the results of this within a few months. Incidentally, if you're afraid you'll feel remorse about no longer receiving the Pottery Barn catalog or suddenly get an urge to peruse through Harry & David's mouthwatering photos, you can always go to the site and ask to resume service from that vendor.

2. Put my name on Forest Ethic's Do Not Mail List. DONE. This was actually a petition to create a "Do Not Mail" list similar to the "Do Not Call" list. Then they sent me a thank you for signing the petition and at that point I put my name on a list to stop receiving junk mail. This one probably took only about ten minutes.

3. Go to and "opt out" of all credit card offers. DONE. This one only took about five minutes.

That just leaves item #4, which is: Every time I get a catalog or piece of junk mail, set it aside and call the toll-free number and ask to be put on their "Do Not Mail" list. NOT DONE YET. I did start setting the catalogs and junk mail aside, and two week's worth is what makes up the photo at the top of this post. That's a LOT of junk mail. A total of three credit card offers and nine catalogs.

So I've done 3 out of 4 tasks, and I'll work on making those calls this week. I haven't seen a difference yet from completing the first three, but it might take a few months.

Have you taken the challenge to stop catalogs and junk mail once and for all? Do you want to start now? It's easy! Please leave your ideas, tips, and questions in the Comments section. And let me know if you're in!

May 15, 2009

Wasted Food

Oh dear. This isn't a science project, it's a forgotten sweet potato. Our food waste this week. Poor sweet potato. Although I wonder if Jonathan at Wasted Food would think I should have just cut off the bouquet and eaten the other half. Maybe I should have.

This is pretty surprising, because I LOVE sweet potatoes. Combine a trip out of town with a heat wave and this is what I got. My husband doesn't love sweet potatoes, but I've actually gotten him to eat them by baking them into sweet potato fries...


Cut sweet potato into 1/2" X 3" slices and bake on a sheet lined with aluminum foil spread with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and thyme or rosemary. Bake about 20-25 minutes at 400 degrees, turn once while baking.

You can do the same thing on the grill, just cut into cubes, drizzle with olive oil, a little butter, and the spices, and fold into an aluminum "pocket." Grill about 15-20 minutes.

I hate wasting food but one sweet potato in a week is a lot better than we used to have. It was only a few months ago that I would regularly clean out the refrigerator every time I went grocery shopping. Out with the old, in with the new. I always bought too much produce. Now I buy less of everything, and if we ever do actually run out of fresh produce (which isn't often), it's not a big deal to eat a smoothie with frozen fruit or frozen peas for a day or two.

One big side benefit is that I'm saving a lot of money! Last month I saved $100 (cut our grocery bill for 2 people from $400 to $300). And I think I'm on track to save that much again this month.

If YOU want to waste less food, do your part for the environment, and save money to boot, visit The Frugal Girl to be a part of her waste-no-food challenge. To learn more about the impact of food waste on the environment, go to Wasted Food. And please leave your food-related ideas and questions in the Comments section.

May 14, 2009

How do you measure wealth?

It's interesting that not buying things has made me focus more on what I DO have. And as I get rid of the crap, it's like lifting a curtain or coming out of a fog. I'm really starting to see how STUFF has kept me busy and distracted, and disconnected from the things that really matter.

Because even though I'm trying to live on less income, not buying anything new, and getting rid of things I no longer need or use, instead of feeling deprived, I'm feeling rich.

I'm rich in love and friendships.

I'm rich in health and well-being.

I'm rich in time to design my own schedule.

Some of my wealth is a little more tangible, and adds to my level of happiness. For example, we planted a lemon tree last weekend, and when it starts producing fruit, we'll be rich in lemons. And I'm already rich in citrus because along my walking route I have asked and been given permission to pick as much grapefruit as I like from one neighbor and as many kumquats as I want from another. They both seemed happy to be able to share their bounty.

This recession is making people question a lot about their values, lifestyles, and behavior. I think it will have a silver lining if it makes us question our relationship to the planet and the other people living on it. And if it causes us to use a different yardstick to determine how we feel about ourselves.

So how can we measure wealth? Does it only refer to our bank account? Or is it about other intangibles like love, happiness, friendship, health, and time?

How do YOU measure wealth? Please leave your thoughts in the Comments section.

May 13, 2009

Letting go of the past

I sold this saddle on ebay for $200! Woo hoo! I have finally broken the whammy and put a dent in the formidable $5000 goal I've set for myself this year when I answered Non Consumer Girl's clutter into cash challenge. She's decluttering and aims to raise $5000 this year. I joined her because I thought the cash would be an added incentive for me to really go through my possessions and get rid of some things I no longer use or need.

But I've written previously about my ambivalence towards decluttering, especially my problem with giving up items that have sentimental value to me. And boy this saddle was loaded with memories. Giving it up was like ripping out a piece of my girlhood.

I'm taking a risk here in admitting that yes, I did have a horse when I was a girl. Certain of my friends are very envious of that fact. But I was not a little princess who was given everything she wanted. I was a horse-freak, read every Marguerite Henry book she wrote, drew horses everywhere and on everything. And at the age of 5, I started saving every penny that ever came to me - allowance, checks from my grandparents, everything - and put it in a savings account. Between the ages of 5 and 10, I only spent my money one time that I remember, on a $3 leather purse. And it was a BIG decision.

By the time I was 10, I had saved $300 and started asking my parents about getting a horse. Our neighborhood wasn't zoned for it, and boarding was out of the question financially, so it looked like it wasn't going to happen. But then some friends of the family offered to let me keep a horse in their stable to keep their daughter's horse company. I started looking for a horse and ended up being given a retired gymkhana showhorse who'd been put out to pasture. I spent my $300 on this saddle and other tack.

I had my beautiful horse until I went away to college and no one rode him anymore. He was an expensive pet so my parents gave him to a family with children. Between the ages of 10 and 15 (when my horse-craziness morphed into boy-craziness) I rode him almost every day. He was a tall chestnut with a white blaze and he loved to run. He was so fast we would leave any other horse in the dust, and he was so sure-footed he never stumbled. He could turn on a dime, back up as long as you wanted him to, and even liked jumping. He was an absolute blast. Most of the time we rode around bareback with just a thin pad, but on all-day trips, I would use this saddle.

When my parents gave away the horse, they put the saddle into storage. I always dreamed I would have a horse again someday and use it. When my husband and I bought our home 6 years ago, my parents (rightfully) made me take all my childhood possessions, including the saddle, now that we had storage space. So the saddle became the bane of my husband's existence as he moved it from spot to spot in the garage every time he reorganized.

Since my Buy Nothing New year has also turned into a year of Decluttering, I faced up to the fact that this saddle had to go. I cleaned it up and hauled it to the Equestrian Center to find out what they thought it was worth. I was dismayed to learn that the saddle had been in storage for so long it was no longer safe for riding. It had small cracks in the leather, amongst other issues.

I felt really guilty and tried to donate it to The Autry Museum of Western Heritage. They found they already had a saddle like it in their collection, so thanked me but turned down my offer.

So I finally listed it for $50 on ebay last weekend. I was hoping someone might want to use it for decoration. I ended up getting $200 for it from an old man who wanted to keep it in his living area, to remind him of his younger riding days. I couldn't have asked for a more perfect home for my girlhood relic. And I really can't believe he paid $200 for it.

I feel good about letting the saddle go, maybe the new owner will get more pleasure out of it. And I feel GREAT about the $200. I get to cross it off my to-do list. And best of all, I'm not forcing my husband to deal with my STUFF. He mused about dancing a little jig in the area where it had last been stored, and we raised a toast to the saddle that evening.

What treasures from the past are you holding onto? What are your decluttering challenges? Please share your stories in the Comments section.

May 12, 2009

Lemon tree, very pretty

I hope the title of the post put the tune in your head... We planted a lemon tree last weekend! I am so excited!

We've been wanting to plant one ever since we bought this house 6 years ago, but there are always house projects (it was a fixer-upper) and this one was on the back burner. But I've been dipping my toe into some simple landscaping the past two years, and this spring I thought "Why not put in a lemon tree?"

I thought I'd have to do a tutorial about planting a tree, but the guy at the nursery told me everything I needed to know. It was easy, especially since I had help with the digging. And it has tiny green fruit and little flowers on it already. We'll have our own lemons soon.

Before we bought our house, we lived in an apartment with two old lemon trees. They gave so much fruit I always had plenty of lemons for cooking, and also made lemonade, lemon cookies and cakes, and gave lemons away. We were spoiled. When we moved here I couldn't bring myself to pay for lemons, so I never get more than one at a time just for cooking. We do have friends and neighbors with lemon trees, so we often get lemons from them.

But now we have our own! This one is a dwarf Eureka tree. I know most people seem to like Meyer, but I love Eureka. And since it's a dwarf tree, it will need less water and give fruit sooner. I can't wait for that lemonade!

This feels like a small victory for me. It's a far cry from raised vegetable beds, but with my herb garden and our lemon tree, I'm taking my baby steps approach toward growing some of our own stuff. What will be next?

Please tell me about your gardening triumphs and challenges in the Comments section.

May 11, 2009

One Pot Dinners: Vegetable Curry

I'm a big fan of the Crock Pot. It offers not just nostalgia, but an efficient way to cook a delicious and low-cost meal. The last one pot recipe I posted was Hunter Chicken, and if you want to read that post where I waxed rhapsodic about all things Crock Pot-related, you can click here.

Crock Pot dinners satisfy all my basic requirements of being easy, nutritious, economical, and delicious. And this is my favorite vegetarian recipe. It comes from Prevention magazine again, with a few changes and additions. You can assemble it in about 20 minutes in the morning, and it's ready when you walk in the door at night. Or when you walk into the kitchen, if you didn't leave the house.


1 can (14 oz) light coconut milk
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 1/2 Tbsp mild Indian curry paste (I actually use Patak's hot curry paste)
1 tsp curry powder
1/2 tsp salt
2 med Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1" chunks
1 med onion, halved and thinly sliced
3 carrots, peeled and cut into 1/2" slices
1 half cauliflower head, cut into florets
8 oz green beans, cut into 1 1/2 " slices
1 cup frozen peas, thawed
1 lg red bell pepper, quartered and cut into 3/4" wide strips

1. In Crock Pot or large slow cooker, whisk coconut milk, flour, curry paste, curry powder, and salt until smooth. Add potatoes, onions, carrots, cauliflower, and pepper. Toss to mix. Place beans on top.
2. Cover and cook on low 6 to 8 hours or until vegetables are tender. Stir in peas.

Serve over basmati rice. Garnish with fresh chopped cilanto, red pepper, and toasted almonds, if desired.

This recipe is healthy and low-calorie. Once again, I don't even use the fresh garnishes, but I'm sure they make it even better. I get the curry paste at Ralph's, and you can use any kind of potatoes, although Yukon Golds are very good.

That's my humble Crock Pot offering. And if you haven't discovered this blog yet, check out A Year of Crockpotting, which offers a recipe a day. There are so many I want to try that I can't keep up! Please tell us about your favorites in the Comments section.

May 10, 2009

Happy Mother's Day

Happy Mother's Day to all you moms out there! Enjoy your special day. These photos are from my favorite plant, the Matilija Poppy. It grows like a weed, and hardly needs any water, just a lot of sun. Perfect for southern California. Wishing everyone a sunny day.

May 8, 2009

A tip to reduce food waste

It's food waste Friday, but that's NOT our food waste. It's a moth trap, and I realized I should post about it because these handy dandy items have SIGNIFICANTLY reduced our food waste since I started putting them in our pantry a little over a year ago.

Prior to that, once or twice a year, we would experience a sudden influx of moths, first in the kitchen, and soon in the living room. I'd try to ignore it, but it didn't take long before either my husband or I was driven so mad by it we'd actually EMPTY the entire pantry. We were looking for the source of our drastic drop in happiness: the moth eggs. They'd usually be attached to a plastic bag from Trader Joe's although they'd often be hiding on the inside lid of a box of pancake mix or cornmeal.

By the time they were flying around the house, the pantry had been infested enough to necessitate throwing out A LOT of food. I'd practically be in tears as I threw bags of rice, boxes of cornmeal, and expensive walnuts into the trash. I cringe to think of it now. I started trying out all different kinds of containers, and found some I liked although I think my favorite is still leftover glass Classico pasta sauce jars.

This is all leading up to the MOTH TRAPS. A good friend told me about them and even sent me the link to their website. And our moth problems have practically gone away. We still have to check every month or so to make sure everything is well-sealed and we try to put nuts, rice, lentils, and dried fruit into airtight containers. But the issue has definitely been reduced by at least 90 percent.

So if YOU have moths in your cupboards, it's time to declare war! The company we purchase these traps from is called Gardens Alive! and you can click here to get to the type of trap we use. The price is $9.95 for a package of 2, which is a 6-month supply because each trap is good for 3 months. The company actually recommends another type as their bestseller, but I've found these work even better. Please leave your ideas and questions on pest-related and other food waste issues in the Comments section.

Oh, we didn't have any food waste this week. But I'm not patting myself on the back too hard because it was mainly because we were out of town last weekend so I didn't buy many groceries before we left. Next week might be another story...

May 7, 2009

Non-consumer Mother's Day gift ideas

Mother's Day is just around the corner. If you'd like to celebrate your mom in a Compact-y way, I suggest thinking in terms of handmade gifts, experiences, and food.

Some ideas for handmade gifts:
1) I made a color copy of this collage up above for my brother's birthday recently. I went through an old photo box and chose only photos of my brother and I together (well, our dog Daisy made it into one and Mickey Mouse another). Make a collage of happy times for mom. It can be just a few photos, and any copy shop can make a color copy for you. If you have a scanner, you can make this type of thing yourself.
2) I just sent off a simple handmade card to my mom. I pasted a photo of us on the front and wrote a nice note inside.
3) Plant a simple herb garden for her kitchen window.
4) Arrange fresh or dried flowers from your garden into a bouquet.
5) One of my mom's favorite gifts was a frame I made for her at a place called Color Me Mine. You can go there and decorate a mug or a plate or a picture frame. I painted "Mom is our first best friend" on the ceramic frame and I found a photo when I was young and laughing at something she'd said or done. We both looked very happy.

Some ideas for experiences:
1) A nice walk on the beach, in a park, or any beautiful area not too far from where she lives.
2) Concert tickets for her favorite group or singer. My mom raved about Josh Groban for months.
3) Help her with decluttering an extra room or garage, planting a vegetable garden, or redecorating a room.
4) Bring her somewhere you know she would like but wouldn't go on her own. For my mother, this has included a wild animal sanctuary, getting in a tank with beluga whales at Sea World, and a bike ride on the beach. The sky's the limit! Get your mom out of her comfort zone.
5) Give her an at-home facial. Be sure to include aromatherapy, cold water to sip on, and relaxing music.

And finally, there's always food:
1) If you don't want to fight the crowds at brunch, try taking her out the day before, or maybe an off-hour in the afternoon.
2) Cook a special meal at home.
3) Bake her a cake or a pie.
4) Splurge on some really delicious chocolate she would never buy for herself.
5) Maybe breakfast in bed SOUNDS better than the reality, but it's always sounded good to me. I think this is a perfect choice for families with kids- dad, you can supervise- or moms whose kids are grown up and scattered- dad, you're the chef in this scenario. Be sure to include fresh fruit, a delicious pastry item, and a small vase of flowers.

Not all of these ideas are free, but they're all Compact-y because if you spend money, it won't be for STUFF. Moms: what have been some of your favorite Mother's Day memories? Please share your thoughts and ideas about Mother's Day gifts in the Comments section.

May 6, 2009

Shopping in my closet

A couple of weeks ago I got inspired to clean out my closet (we live in a small house, so my "closet" is actually a teeny closet, 2 armoires, and a small chest) after reading Married With Luggage. The blog is all about how they're decluttering, budgeting, and preparing for their trip around the world.

We're not taking a trip around the world (at least not anytime soon!), but joining The Compact is turning out to be a life-changing event for me. All of a sudden I don't want anything around that I don't absolutely LOVE and NEED. Also, it was time for spring cleaning and changing things out for the season.

Which brings me to these RYKA running shoes. I found these in my stack of shoe boxes, which always house my "out of season" shoes. There isn't room in my teeny closet to have them all out at once (lest you think I'm Imelda Marcos the 2nd, I only have about 20 pairs of shoes total, which I don't think is too bad for a girl).

Those of you who have been reading my blog since the beginning know that running shoes were one of the things I was worried about not being able to buy new. A few months ago I put them on my "exceptions" list, because it wouldn't be safe or healthy to skimp in that area. But I didn't need to worry, because there was this pair which had obviously never been worn right in my closet.

The funny thing is that my last three pairs of athletic shoes have been Merrells, which are usually some shade of tan or gray. All of a sudden I hated that bright white look so I switched brands. Which means that these shoes are at least 2 years old!

So this is either funny or embarrassing, depending on how you look at it. Something similar happened when I was looking into getting a digital camera to take photos for this blog and my husband remembered he ALREADY HAD ONE that he didn't use anymore. You can read about that incident here.

Have you ever found something you'd forgotten about in your own home? Do you ever go "shopping" in your closet? Please share your closet and decluttering stories in the Comments section.

May 5, 2009

Simple Living Newsletter

I'm so excited to tell you that one of my blog posts has been included in the May/June issue of the Simple Living Network newsletter. This is an excellent resource that I've been enjoying the past few months. Click here to read all the great articles, including one by Katy Wolk-Stanley, who blogs at The Non-Consumer Advocate and another by my fellow Los Angeleno Danielle Davis of Less is More Balanced. And don't forget to check out mine!

If you've been reading more than a few weeks, you might have seen it already, but you should still check it out. Because it's a different format. And maybe you've forgotten it. And you'll be so happy to find the newsletter, it really is great.

May 4, 2009

May "baby steps" challenge: stop those catalogs and junk mail once and for all

A few weeks ago, I wrote this post about how even though I'd joined The Compact and pledged to Buy Nothing New this year, I don't feel like a good role model for green living. And I vowed to Go Green this year, using the baby steps method, which works best for me if I want to change a habit long term.

I want to do one challenge per month for the next six months, and it's already May 4th, but there's still plenty of time because I've picked the easiest one on the list. The challenge for May is to stop those catalogs and junk mail once and for all. I should have done it years ago, but there's no time like the present. I'm so excited that by this time next month, we'll get less than half the mail we're getting now, and it will be stuff we actually WANT. Remember when it was fun to get mail?

I hope you'll join me in this baby steps challenge if you haven't already gotten a handle on your junk mail. I have a simple four-step plan:

1. Sign up for Catalog Choice. This will let me choose the catalogs I want to receive. Previously I was down to ordering from one or two, but since I'm doing The Compact I'll opt out of all catalogs.

2. Also put my name on Forest Ethic's Do Not Mail List. This should help with the rest of the junk mail that's not listed by Catalog Choice.

3. For all those credit card offers, I'll register to "opt out" at I already have more credit cards than I need, and actually only use one of them.

4. This may be unnecessary if I do items #1-#3, but every time I get a piece of junk mail I'll set it aside and call the toll-free number and ask to be put on their "Do Not Mail" list.

That should take care of our unwanted junk mail, if not by the end of the month, within the next couple of months. I estimate the first 3 steps will take me a total of less time than it took to write this post. And I might spend 5-10 minutes a couple of times a week calling companies and asking them to remove my name from their list.

So that's the challenge. Are you in? I'll update you on my progress halfway through May. And please let me know if you have any tips or questions, and if you want to join in the challenge in the Comments section.

May 3, 2009

Free audiobooks

FREE STUFF ALERT: Get your 9 free audiobooks from Barnes & Noble now through May 16th. Click here for all the details. I just checked this out and the books include some great authors: Alice Munro, Elizabeth Berg, Mark Twain, and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Thanks to Natalie at The Frugalista Files for this great tip.

May 1, 2009

Food Friday

No picture, because... no waste! Yay. I'd like to thank my husband, for eating every last little portion of leftovers and shrunken tomatoes this week.

We did well this week because I was determined. But over the past two months we have had a lot less waste in general and I think there are 3 main reasons:

1. I'm buying less food. I really am only planning 3 meals a week: one with a healthy fresh fish, one like chili or soup that yields plenty of leftovers, and once a week my husband makes pizza or pasta (lucky me). Our schedules are too variable to plan more than that, so we have to be flexible. The other nights we either eat leftovers, eat pantry meals (I always have plenty on hand for several different choices), or we go out to a restaurant or a friend's house.

2. The Eat Me! section of the refrigerator is still working beautifully. We make sure we put anything that needs to be eaten in that spot before it goes bad. It has its limits because I don't want to put lettuce there, so we still have to keep our eye on the crisper, and some days it seems like the entire refrigerator needs to be jammed into that section, but overall it's been working great.

3. When I first started thinking about wasting less food, from reading Wasted Food and The Frugal Girl, I started labelling our leftovers. That has also helped tremendously because we haven't had any little containers end up in the back of the refrigerator in a state of decay.

I also have to acknowledge that this is easier for us because we don't have children. I really admire anyone who could pull off little or no food waste with kids. That requires a great deal more planning and commitment than I've attempted. So bravo to you moms (and dads!) out there. I also have to say it would be much harder if my husband were a picky eater. He will eat almost anything I cook, and often raves about simple meals. And I'm sure not every husband would go for that "Eat Me!" section. I know a lot of people won't even eat leftovers. Luckily we actually do like them (if we liked the meal in the first place!)

How was your week? Do you have any tips or tricks for reducing food waste you'd like to tell us about? Please share your thoughts, ideas, questions, and concerns in the Comments section. And if you had a lot of food waste, don't be embarrassed. The first step is paying attention.