Friday, November 23, 2012

Black Friday and a Time to Give Thanks

I hope everybody had an excellent Thanksgiving and is enjoying the start of an awesome long weekend!  David and I had a great, quiet holiday.  We went and spent the day with his cousin and her husband, who just recently got released from the hospital after a devastating car accident; it was so nice to just hang out and swap stories and have a relaxing holiday with a few very cool people. 

When we got home, we somehow ended up being invited over to our neighbor's Thanksgiving party.  This would be strange enough on its own, but it's also important to understand that my neighborhood is 95% Latino and my neighbors speak only a little bit of English.  I speak a little bit of Spanish, but I haven't had the occasion to use it in about six years and my vocabulary is pretty limited.  Still, I made a valiant attempt, and they all seemed to find that incredibly endearing, so they invited us to a birthday party on Saturday.  I suspect I may be part of the tamale assembly line by Christmas. 

Anyway.  That was fun and magical and reminded me of one of the things I really, really love about living in "the ghetto" here in Austin: the sense of community and friendliness.

So now that Thanksgiving has come and gone, today of course is America's favorite consumerist holiday: Black Friday.  Needless to say, we're not participating.  We never did, even when we were still buying things, and I don't foresee that changing much in the future.  Tomorrow, however, is Small Business Saturday, and if I were buying things, I might be more tempted to partake in that. 

On that topic, I found this interesting blog post about the moral dilemma of "buying local" vs "buying American" and how the two often do not intersect.  Being a conscious consumer is harder than it might look at first glance. 

So -- how 'bout you guys?  Any fun Thanksgiving anecdotes to share?  Did you try any Black Friday adventures or stay cozy at home? 

Monday, November 19, 2012

Are You Missing Hostess Yet?

I'll save the in-depth discussion of Hostess Company's long-awaited demise for people who are better-equipped to provide that opinion, but I will say this:  Every time I hear the phrase "union greed," my eye starts to twitch. 

I admit to being both passionate and biased on the topic.  I'm fourth-generation in a union family.  My great-grandfather, grandfather, father and brother were/are all union workers, and my grandfather was even named for Eugene Debs

Anyway, I can't say I'm exactly sad about the end of Hostess.  They are certainly an iconic American brand, but that's  not necessarily something to be proud of -- not something to strive for, if you follow me. 

Besides, how can the Nonconsumerist support a food with so many ridiculous ingredients that it takes an entire book to deconstruct the recipe?

Nevertheless, if you're really aching for a little taste of Americana, I've got your back.  Here are some recipes for homemade Hostess products.  These are made with real food (or at least approximations of real food) and are available any time you like, and I guarantee they're way better than the over-processed efforts of underpaid factory workers. 

Homemade Hostess Recipes Listing 

  • Homemade Twinkies recipe from Instructables.  Twinkies are essentially pound cake with a cream filling.  This recipe uses hydrogenated vegetable oil for the filling, just like the Hostess brand; the result will be very authentic but not necessarily healthy.  If you'd like a more real-foods approach, substitute it with sweetened whipped cream.  
  • Homemade Little Debbie Oatmeal Cream Cookies.  These were my personal favorite Hostess product.  These use marshmallow cream and shortening in the filling.  I'm willing to bet you could sub out nearly anything in the filling; the real trick is making a soft, chewy oatmeal cookie. 
  • Homemade Hostess Cupcake.  This is David's personal favorite Hostess product.  As an extra bonus, this recipe looks positively delicious and does not use Crisco, which I count as two major benefits.  
  • Homemade Hostess Snowballs.  These give me fond memories of eating out of the vending machine at work on days I forgot to pack a lunch.  Chocolate cake filled with fluffy cream and rolled in coconut -- is there anything better?  (or, y'know, more packed with calories)
  • Homemade Moon Pies. These were never as popular as the others, but they're a popular Southern treat (and this recipe looks positively amazing). 

Did I miss one of your favorites?  Let me know and I'll track down the recipe.  Better yet, when I get some free time, I'll hit the kitchen and experiment with some real-foods recipes evoking the heart and soul of these snack foods without partially hydrogenated anything.  Until then, happy snacking. 

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Undeserving Poor

The "Welfare Queen", courtesy of MemeGenerator

Allow me a moment on my soapbox, here. 

So, I've been eagerly following Strike Debt's Rolling Jubilee movement.  In just a few days, they've already abolished $5 million in debt and counting.  That's huge.  And I can only imagine what might happen once the people whose debts have been relieved learn what happened and begin paying it forward. 

The unfortunate thing, though, is as I eagerly read more updates and follow the news, I see a whole lot of nastiness spewed all over the Internet.  It ranges from the polite, "I think this is good for some people, but what about the ones who were irresponsible and just bought a lot of unnecessary junk on their credit cards?" to the rather nasty, "If people are too stupid to know how to pay their debts, they don't deserve help." 

This notion of the "undeserving poor" really upsets me.  It's the same as the (equally upsetting) complaints about the "welfare queens" or those people who have shiny new cars and iPhones but buy food with food stamps.  It's ridiculous.  Yes, some people are probably gaming the system.  I won't deny that: Some people are jerks.  But the vast majority of people aren't, and if you took a moment to get to know them you would understand that.

"If You're Poor, Why Are You Wasting Money?"

But here's something in particular I wanted to touch on.  One comment I read recently really struck a chord.  It was from someone who use to work in a check cashing place in a convenience store, and he was saying how he used to see the same poor people coming in every week to cash their paychecks, then waste that money on lottery tickets, cigarettes and beer.

I've seen a lot of people point out that same thing -- people who are broke spending their money on frivolous things -- and use that as a defense for why those people don't need anything.  So let me just take a moment to explain why that happens, and why the "If they're so stupid, fuck 'em" attitude just doesn't work.

"I Need to Use This Money While I Still Have It." 

When you're broke, saving money is next to impossible.  Payday is the only time of the week when you know for sure that you'll have money.  For a few, ephemeral moments, you have purchasing power.  Soon, that will all go away because the money will be eaten up not just by bills, but by debts -- sometimes debts that have already gone sour, have already destroyed your credit and you've been carrying like a rotten albatross for years.  Worse, that money may get eaten up by overdraft charges.  

When I used to work for Petsmart and made a pretty stunning $150 a week  (if I wasn't getting my hours cut), I would sometimes lose whole paychecks to overdraft fees.  Thanks to the way Bank of America would process its transactions, you could end up earning $35 fees on several transactions all back to back even if you'd only really gone over your balance by a couple dollars on one single purchase.  They've since been sued for that, by the way.  Anyway, I finally ended up canceling my bank account and lived on a prepaid debit card for a while -- but the feeling of "If I don't spend this on something right away, it will be taken from me" is hard to get rid of. 

That's the first thing people who have never been poor need to understand, because it may not be intuitive.  If you give someone $5 and say, "Either you can spend that $5 now or hold onto it for a year and I'll give you $100 if you still have it," the obvious responsible choice is to hold onto that $5.  But when you're poor, the answer is often like, "If you still have that $5 in a year, I'll give you $100, but I might also punch you in the gut and take your $5 away at any time randomly throughout the year and there is nothing you can do to stop me." 

"I Deserve to be Happy Sometimes, Right?"

Here's what it comes down to, the single greatest difference between people who live paycheck to paycheck and people with low incomes who never get into financial trouble:  Hope. 

Well, hope, and also education.  If you don't know how to get out of debt, no amount of hope will help you.  But even if you know all the steps, even if you know exactly how to get out of the situation you're in, that knowledge isn't going to help you if you don't genuinely feel, in your heart, that things are going to get better. 

For a poor person, the odds of winning the lottery might seem pretty similar to the odds of paying off debts and achieving financial security: In other words, not fucking likely.  If that's the case, why not just buy the lottery ticket? 

For a poor person, the choice between "Have something right now that will make me feel better about my life instead of taking a chance that I will lose everything to some stupid charge later" doesn't seem too hard.  Instant gratification is, well, gratifying.  Especially when you combine instant gratification with addictive substances -- nicotine, alcohol, cocaine, fast food. 

A Gift of Hope

But if these people are given hope -- real, genuine hope for the future -- maybe it will help to undo some of that self-destructive skepticism.  If they can start to believe, "If I set this money aside, nothing bad will happen to it.  In a year, I really will have $100," then they can finally start making some changes in their lives. 

One of my goals here at the Nonconsumerist is to provide education and real, usable tips that can help people achieve some financial freedom -- or at least financial breathing room.  But all of that education in the world won't do a damn thing if the people who need it most don't believe that life can get better.  And it's especially hard to tell people that life can get better if you're simultaneously telling people, "You're lazy and stupid and worthless." 

When people are already without hope, is it really fair to take away their dignity? 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Rolling Jubilee: Real Answers for Real Problems

A friend linked me to Rolling Jubilee, a social movement that essentially crowd-funds debt relief for people who need it.  Not only does it have a rather cheerful-sounding moniker, this extension of the Occupy movement is actually taking steps to help real people, which automatically makes it pretty awesome in my book.

So, first off:  What exactly is it doing, and how does it work? 

When you have unsecured debt (like a credit card) that goes unpaid, the original lending agency will try to collect that money from you.  Meanwhile, they'll be reporting you to the credit bureaus.  After a few failed attempts to collect the debt, they'll sell your account to an outside debt collection agency (aka, "Collections"), who will badger the hell out of you until you pay them some money.  

Now, here's a few important things to know about collection agencies: 
  • They bought your debt for a few cents on the dollar along with multiple other debts.  They can then buy and sell those same debts to other collection agencies. 
  • The reason why the debts are bought and sold for a low price is because they assume that they won't get much, if any, of the money back.  
  • The longer the collection agency tries to get the money from you, the more it will continue to affect your credit.  This ends when the owner of your debt reports the account either paid or forgiven.  
  • Because collection agencies make their sole profits by convincing you to pay them money, they can get really nasty.  Really, really nasty.  They'll call you at odd hours.  They'll threaten you.  They'll demoralize you.  They'll be, in short, really really nasty. 
  • If the debt is high enough, they'll take you to court.  For amounts under $1,500 or so, they usually won't bother -- but for large sums, you can bet you'll be served with papers some day.  
So, how does this Rolling Jubilee thing work?  

Pretty simple:  The group buys up debts -- in bulk, just like a collection agency would -- and then makes them go away.  The debts stop being reported to the credit bureaus, you stop getting harassing phone calls, you stop needing to pay for things.  Of course, your credit is still going to be damaged from the time it did spend in default, but at least you won't be continuing to pay off defaulted bad debt for a bazillion years.  

Why this is Really, Really Cool

In an ideal world, of course, people would pay off their own debts -- or never go into debt in the first place -- and these bail-outs would be unnecessary.  In the real world, though, sometimes life sucks, and sometimes it's not your fault.  Let me give you a real-life example from my own finances:  
I used to have a part-time job with insurance, which was a blessing considering how rarely that happens. I made about $600 a month and was living with a couple of roommates. I got very, very sick -- a sinus infection with a 105 fever that caused hallucinations, among other things -- and went to the urgent care. I gave them my insurance card and paid the co-pay on the back of the card. The doctor them prescribed me some drugs which I couldn't afford (no prescription coverage), so I took the only prescription I could afford (antibiotics) and crawled home. So imagine my surprise when, several weeks later, I get a letter from the insurance company informing me that the urgent care visit wasn't actually covered and I owed them $300. Remember, at the time, that was half a month's wages for me. That was my entire share of rent. And, no, they wouldn't take payments. (The worst part of this? If I'd been uninsured, the visit would've cost me just $25 thanks to the policies of the urgent care facility.)
 So what do I do at that point?  Do I borrow money from someone to cover for it?  What if nobody can pay for it?  Do I take out more debt to pay for it?  Do I skip out on rent?  Stop paying my utilities?

The truth of the matter is that for many people, living paycheck to paycheck is a reality, and emergencies -- even emergencies that cost as little as $300 -- can be completely devastating.  When people think of debt, they often think of some irresponsible kid running out and buying a bunch of pricey electronics on a credit card, but the truth is a lot more nuanced than that.

Here's the other reason helping people out of debt is a good idea.  People who are struggling to pay off debts can't buy other things.  That means they can't, say, use that money to buy from a local small business.  They can't invest use it to buy a better car to commute to work.  They can't use it to buy materials or capital for a new business.  In other words, they can't use their money to help stimulate the economy.  They're still paying off purchases (or education, or unexpected medical expenses, or whatever) from years ago -- and that hurts every single other person in the economy who doesn't get to benefit from the money they could otherwise be spending.

Where Are They Getting the Money for This?

They accept donations from private consumers who want to hand over their cash for the cause.  They don't make a profit on this, they don't take a cut from the top, and they're all volunteers.  They're just crowd-funding debt relief for anonymous people.  This means that if you dislike the idea or are against it...well, you don't have to give them any money.  Yay!  Think of it sort of like every time a project you think is really dumb goes up on Kickstarter: Other people might fund it, but you can happily ignore its very existence and get on with your life.  

As an added bonus of this Rolling Jubilee, you may even find your defaulted debts paid off for you even if you're not involved -- because the debts are bought in bulk off the open market.  Happy holidays.  

Friday, November 9, 2012

Ways to Minimize Food Wastage

Food wastage is a major problem in America.  As a nation, we throw away about half of all the food we produce.  We spend $1 billion per year to get rid of the food we throw away on top of the $165 billion in wasted food we toss every year.

Not to go too political on you, but just for the record, that $166 billion in food wastage and disposal?  That could be used to feed a whole hell of a lot of people in developing nations -- or right here at home.  Even if you don't care about feeding starving children (and you should), consider this:  Right now, Social Security is adding about $165 billion to the deficit.  Hmm, I wonder where we could possibly get that much money to counter that cost.....

General Tips for Minimizing Food Wastage

  • Make a meal plan and buy only the groceries you need to make the food on your menu.  If you do buy in bulk, only do it on foods that won't go bad, or make a plan for preserving your foods to make them last longer.  
  • If you don't eat a lot of produce, consider buying your vegetables frozen instead of fresh.  The nutrition loss is minimal and you don't have to worry about them going bad quickly.  Focus your fresh vegetable purchases on a handful of things that you know you'll eat right away. 
  • Take steps to extend the lifespan of foods in your fridge.  Keep the refrigerator at the right temperature.  Store things in the appropriate containers.  Rinse berries and other vegetables in vinegar to kill off mold spores.  
  • Don't cook more than you will eat.  If you have leftovers, package them in a freezer-friendly way and be sure you'll actually eat them.  It makes more sense to cook a small portion of something and eat all of it than cook a huge amount of leftovers that you won't eat.  If you're still hungry, eat a snack later.  
  • Keep your fridge clean and relatively well-organized so you can see what you have.  Keep a list somewhere of the food you have in the house and cross items off as you run out of them.  It will save you money on groceries and reduce food wastage.  
  • Stop sour cream and cottage cheese from molding by storing them upside down.  This makes it harder for contaminants to get inside the lid and ruin your food.  

Ways to Extend the Life of Foods Past their Prime

Even if you're careful, you may sometimes end up with food a bit past its prime.  No problem! Plenty of foods can be eaten past their "peak of freshness."  There's a long distance between "super fresh" and "so rotten it will make you sick," and foods in the in-between category can still be used.  
  • Eggs.  Check the freshness of eggs by dropping them in a bowl of water.  Fresh eggs will sink immediately to the bottom.  Not-so-fresh eggs will stand upright on their pointed ends.  Rotten eggs will float.  Fresh eggs stick together better for fried eggs and quiches; use the not-so-fresh ones in baked goods where their texture won't matter so much, or hard-boil them.  
  • Milk.  Milk usually lasts about two weeks past the "sell-by" date on the carton.  If it goes past that point or starts to sour, use it in place of buttermilk in pancakes, biscuits and other recipes.  Sour milk is also a fine starter for homemade cheese, yogurt, etc.  Just do something with it before it curdles on its own and you're all set.  
  • Cheese.  If a firm cheese like cheddar or swiss goes moldy in your fridge, just cut off the moldy portion.  For best results, shave off about 1" of the cheese that was touching the mold, too.  Don't try this with liquid dairy products like sour cream or cottage cheese, though.  
  • Firm vegetables.  Things like carrots, bell peppers etc. can be salvaged if they're slightly moldy.  Just chop off the moldy part.  As long as the rest of the vegetable still feels firm, you should be safe.  Don't try this with soft vegetables or fruits where the mold will penetrate deeper into the flesh.  
  • Produces that has begun to go soft.  If your produce has wilted or softened but isn't yet moldy, hurry and use it in something that will last.  Make a sauce or jelly out of your berries and fruit.  Toss the vegetables into your stock pot.  Yes, you're supposed to make these things with foods at the peak of freshness, but I promise that slightly-sagging celery will work just as well in your mire poix.  
  • Stale baked goods.  You need to throw out moldy bread, but the stale stuff works just great for homemade croutons and bread crumbs.  Stale chips can be rendered back down into masa or used as coating for things.  
These are just a few ideas.  The real hurdle is to be realistic with yourself about whether a food is actually unsafe to eat or if you're just freaking yourself out.  We have it pounded into our heads all the time that food has to be completely and utterly fresh and crisp and bright or we'll die, and the truth is a bit more nuanced than that.  

The best strategy though, as always, is simply not to buy things that you won't use.  Put some thought into it, be careful about what you buy and avoid creating unnecessary waste by using what you get.  Period.  

How 'bout you guys?  Any fun recipes or ideas for less-than-fresh foods? 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Need Some Dinner Ideas?

I discovered a lovely new website today: Supercook.

The premise of the site is pretty simple:  You plug in the ingredients you have on hand, then the site trawls through recipes online and finds things that can be made with the food in your pantry.  Of course, you can do this yourself by plugging in ingredients to a site like Epicurious or Allrecipes, but Supercook is nice because it excludes recipes that you don't have the ingredients for.

You can write in all of your ingredients, but it's probably easier to choose a recipe type and click the ingredients you have from there instead since the way you input an ingredient will make a difference in how it will show up.  For example, "potatoes" will bring up different results than "potato."  Once you get over those simple glitches, though, this is a pretty awesome and powerful tool.

Of course, you can't count on Supercook to tell you every possible recipe that you can make, and you might get several versions of a single recipe.  Nevertheless, this should be a good source of inspiration for you the next time your kitchen goes bare.  Another useful feature:  After you input the ingredients in your kitchen, it will generate a basic grocery list of items that will help you make the maximum number of meals.  Definitely helpful.

Anyway, here's my projected meal plan for the week (with extra options for variety):

French toast
Breakfast tacos
Cheese omelet
Cornmeal mush
Baked oatmeal
*English muffins
Grilled cheese & scrambled egg sandwich
Potatoes & eggs on tortilla
*Homemade granola

Grilled cheese sandwich
Mac & Cheese
Cornbread dogs
Pasta salad
Bean dip & chips
Parmesean pasta
Edamame and mushrooms

Peking Style Chicken
*Asian dumpling soup
-- Fried rice
-- Korean squash
*Cheese potato casserole
*Potato cheese soup
-- Bread bowl
Pasta la vista
-- Maple carrots
-- Stuffed zuchinni
-- Maple glazed green beans
*Lentil soup (shorbat addas)

(If you're wondering, the astericks designate meals that will take a little bit of extra time to prepare because they're predominately homemade or have several ingredients.)

How 'bout you guys -- what are y'all cooking this week?