Monday, June 30, 2014

Do Humans Have Rights?

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness  -- The Declaration of Independence

I've often found that people do not give much thought to their beliefs -- because if they did, they might realize that they're actually monsters.  The more I hear talk from certain demographics of the country, the more I realize that, if they really believed what they were saying, they must also believe that humans do not have innate rights.

Take, for example, the issue of healthcare.

Many people are less-than-pleased with the Affordable Care Act, for a variety of reasons.  I can sympathize.  It's not the healthcare I would have asked for, either (although I'm still very grateful for the opportunity to buy insurance, which I otherwise could not have done).  But in trying to get people to defend their position against it, you run frequently into a wall.

How are people supposed to get healthcare if they cannot afford it?

If you don't want the government paying for healthcare...and the patient cannot afford it...then who pays?

And if it's not paid for......then the person simply dies?

Because if that's what you believe, by all means, say that aloud.  Say, "I believe that people who cannot afford healthcare should die."  Say out loud, "People who can't find work should starve to death." If that's how you feel, then own it. 

I will find that point of view reprehensible.  If I know you, I will probably "unfriend" you in accordance with whatever space we share.  But at least you're being honest, and I can respect that.

Otherwise -- if you accept, as our founding fathers did -- that everyone is entitled to live and pursue happiness, then we need to all work together to figure out a way to make that happen.  Stop pretending that real people's lives aren't on the line whenever policies change, and start thinking with a little bit of creativity and compassion.  We're smart.  We can come up with a solution. 

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Hidden Language of Yard Sales

I found myself pulled bright and early from bed this morning to go on a yard sale adventure with my mom.  Fortunately for me, she had the forethought to bring coffee, as 8AM is pretty damn early for a vampire like myself.  But once I'd properly caffeinated, thus began the quest of searching for signs, getting lost in subdivisions, slow-rolling past sales and picking through boxes of other people's belongings. 

This was really a targeted quest: I'm on the hunt for a proper desk for my office.

But not just any desk.  Because I have looked at roughly a million desks so far, at yard sales, thrift stores, consignment shops, office supply stores and furniture stores.  None of them have been exactly what I was looking for.  What am I looking for, you might ask?  I have no idea.  But I'll know it when I see it!

So anyway, while questing for the Mystical Unicorn Desk, we came across a whole number of yard sales.  I wanted to use my phone to take some surreptitious pics to turn this post into a photo essay, but I didn't really have the opportunity. 

The thing that's fascinating to me about yard sales is how they really give you a window into the lives of the people having them.  It's interesting to see what you can learn about someone from what they're selling, how much they're charging, and how they react to you and each other when you ask questions.  The whole experience was very much an anthropological study, if nothing else. 

Among other things, today we stopped off at:
  • A house clearly belonging to parents of a no-longer-toddler -- the yard was full of baby supplies, including a potty training toilet and lots of baby clothes.  
  • The home of a shoe addict.  There's no other way to explain the two HUGE TUBS of nice shoes out on the driveway.  
  • The home of a lady who clearly has a lot of great ideas that never come to fruition...exercise equipment, foreign travel plug adaptors, various electronic gadgets still in the box.  I almost considered buying the never-opened "set your own combination" locking thumb drive, but thought better of it.  
  • A very cool garage full of strange antique furnishings.  A lot of awesome stuff that I sadly could not justify buying, including a real solid wood high-chair with metal tray.  
  • A church parking lot filled with booths -- my favorite of which being the guys who were selling (among other things) an ornamental katana, two slow cookers, an automatic cat feeder, a PS2 and a hamster.  I hung out and chatted with them for a while.  They seemed like cool folks, the kind I'd be likely to hang out with.  (I very nearly came home with that old PS2, but for $50 I couldn't justify the purchase).  
  • An extremely, obviously Christian household selling stacks and stacks of books -- my favorite of which had a title like "Seducing Our Children: Saving Your Children From Witchcraft and the Occult!" I was this close to buying it out of sheer curiosity, but I resisted the urge. 
There were more, but those were the ones that stuck out in my mind.  Lots of good times to be had.

I did not, however, leave my quest empty-handed.  Though no Mythical Unicorn Desk appeared, I did walk home with a coffee grinder, large crock pot and well-worn copy of The Joy of Cooking, all for $11.25.  Not half shabby if you ask me.

Anyway, that was my adventure in garage sale land.  Did anybody else have any fun anthropological experiences to report? Find any good deals?  Let me know all about it in the comments! 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Moving: Non-Consumer Wins and Fails

Well, I've gotten mostly settled into the new house and have my internet turned on, so I should be back into the swing of things soon. 

Moving itself was an experience (as it always is).  Though I tried to be mindful during the move, some things invariably were sacrificed to the altar of convenience.  All told, the move was full non-consumer wins and fails: 


  • I successfully purged a lot of unwanted items and dropped off a total of about 10 boxes to the thrift store.
  • I gave my perishable and hard to pack groceries to a neighbor in exchange for her helping with some clean-up. 
  • I packed my breakables in dish towels and other reusable materials; I also used some trash bags as filler and can re-use them now as actual trash bags.  
  • I managed to find moving boxes for free at Target (although it got dicey and looked for a while that we'd have to buy them -- it's getting HARD to find free boxes).  


  • We've eaten out entirely too much during the move -- it's time to rein that back in now that the kitchen is unpacked.  No more excuses! 
  • I caved in and bought some convenience items, including some cleaning supplies and frozen pizzas.  
  • We also fell into the lure of half-price shakes at Sonic.  For shame!
One money-spending thing I did that turned out to be a smart idea: Hiring "moving helpers" to unload the truck.  It cost about $80 for an hour of work, but the two guys did all the work for me and saved us the trouble and exhausting work of unpacking the truck the same day we'd packed it and driven it down.  That was money well-spent.

The biggest fail, consumer or otherwise, of the move?

Realizing -- two hours into my drive -- that I had totally left the dirty litter box in the hall closet of the old apartment.  

I'd had every intention of cleaning it and packing it up last and somehow it just...never happened.  Whoops.  That will be a fun surprise for someone later. 

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Imports and Radio Silence, Oh My!

You may have noticed that the blog seemed to have exploded with posts overnight.  That's because I ported in a lot of content from another blog I used to run.  There were lots of irrelevant things to weed out, but a lot of these posts I was very proud of and felt deserved to be shared, either because they contained valuable information or because they chronicled some of my own personal journey into a more non-consumerist lifestyle.  Obviously, I'm a work in progress, and I've got a long way to go :)

Anyway, I hope you enjoy skimming through the archives and taking a peek at these old posts.  Expect silence from me for a couple days until the move is finished and I'm fully settled in at my new place.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Book Review: The Urban Homestead by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen

Click to buy.  This is an affiliate link. 
The Urban Homestead: Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living in the Heart of the City by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen

I picked up this book on a recent library journey.  Of the stack of books I brought home, this was definitely one of my favorites.  It appealed to me both because it's packed with useful information, but also because the voice is a little bit different -- kind of hip, sort of edgy, and missing that self-congratulatory goody-two-shoes tone that often creeps into some of these books.

Of course, "urban homesteading" has its own connotations that differ from other types of frugality or self-sufficiency.  The thing that appeals to me most about urban homesteading is that it's sort of a rebellious act.  Urban homesteaders want it all: We want to embrace the arts of our forefathers without giving up the things we love about the city.  Urban homesteading is all about developing self-sufficiency skills while staying connected to the world, and this book very much touches on that.

The Urban Homestead is an overview or entry-level guide.  It covers a broad spectrum of topics but doesn't go into great detail for any one of them.  You'll need to find another source for really in-depth information, and I wouldn't recommend running out to start any project in here based on the information within these pages alone.  But as far as a guide that introduces you to the realm of "what's possible," this is one of the very best I've read.

A few of the things it talks about:
  • Gardening
  • Composting
  • Foraging
  • Growing livestock 
  • Canning/preserving
It has two authors, and though they generally present a unified narration throughout the book, they're not afraid to give opposing views when a second voice is warranted.  Another feature that I really enjoyed is that they bring in other people's life experiences, with anecdotes scattered throughout.  That adds a lot of voices and different perspectives.

Anyway, if you're looking for something lighthearted, inspiring, a little geeky, a touch irreverent and very much full of ideas, this is definitely a book worth looking into.  If you're already living a sustainable lifestyle or are looking for more advanced suggestions, this probably won't cover any new ground for you -- but you may still enjoy reading it just for the tone and personality.  I give it two thumbs up for sure. 

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Privilege of Frugality

For many years, I've been involved in rat rescue.  Once, I had the pleasure of meeting a fellow rat-enthusiast (a rare event) and we had a long talk about our rodent friends and how much we loved them, what it was that made them so special.

My new friend made a point that I had never considered:  "Rats are just such a bourgeois pet.  In other places in the world, people have to try hard to keep rats out of their homes.  It's a matter of survival.  Here, we're so far removed from that, we can actually keep them as pets.  We can afford to feed and love and cherish something that other people are threatened by."

That stuck with me.  He's right, of course: Keeping rats is the epitome of privilege.

And, in many ways, frugality is also a position of privilege.  

What is Privilege, Anyway?

Privilege is a term that gets used frequently in discussions of race and gender, but it's not limited to those spheres at all.  Privilege is something all of us have, and all of us need to be aware of.  Essentially, privilege is something that you have that makes certain things easier for you than others who do not have it.  If you are privileged, you're operating on "easy mode," while people without those same privileges are operating on a harder setting.

There are several privileges that can make it easier to live frugally:
  • Having some extra money in the bank so you can do things like stock up in bulk when you find a good sale. 
  • Experience with handling money, such as learning money management skills from your parents.  
  • A working spouse with a good enough job to enable the other person to stay home and home-make. 
  • Good health, enabling you to complete projects around the home or simply avoid spending so much on medical bills. 
  • Access to resources that can teach you new skills -- the internet, library books, community classes.  
  • The space to grow your own food. 
  • For that matter, the space to store and cook meals at home, and the knowledge of how to do that.  
In a lot of cases, these are things that can be learned -- and that's one of the things I hope I can achieve through blogging, is helping people learn some of this stuff so we're all on even footing.  In other cases, they're situational problems: You have to solve something else before talking about it is even an option.  If you're living in your car, it's not going to do you a bit of good to learn about how to can tomatoes.  You've got a bigger issue to deal with.  Once you find a way out of your crisis, then you can get up to the next step. 

Owning Your Privilege

Privilege isn't something you need to be ashamed of or guilty about.  It's not something you need to apologize for.  Often, it's something you have no control over -- your gender, the part of the world you were born in, the socioeconomic status of your parents.

But it is something you need to be aware of, and it's something that you need to realize not everyone shares.  That's the crucial part: You cannot dismiss people who do not share your privilege as being "stupid" or "lazy" or "unworthy" because they are working with a different set of skills than you are. 

What you can do is listen to people who have different experiences, and try to appreciate where they're coming from.  And you can use your privilege to help make things easier for others -- whether that means teaching someone a skill that you have, or participating in a grass roots program to make changes to your community. 

We all have voices.  They all deserve to be heard.  And flaunting your privilege silences the voices of the people around you.  So next time you start to lose patience with the way someone else lives, or the questions they ask, or the mistakes they make, try to take a step back and remember that they might not have what you do.  Instead of degrading them, listen to them -- and then think about what you can do to make the world a better place for people like them. 

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Unfuck Your Habitat: A Glimpse at Poverty and Squalor (and what we can do about it)

Today on Facebook I happened to find a shocking and sad gallery -- Google street view photos of Detroit, showing its descent into a post-apocalyptic wasteland

It got me thinking again about a question I've always wondered:  Just why is it that poverty and squalor seem to go hand-in-hand?  Why is it that a low income leads so inevitably to deplorable living conditions in terms of sanitation?  On the surface, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense: Why would being poor make it harder to clean your house? 

But the connection is certainly there, so much so that it's intuitive: When we see a run-down neighborhood, we immediately associate it with poverty.  We have a strong association in our minds between "poor" and "dirty," and I think that's one reason why there's such an instinctive reaction of disgust or disdain toward people living in or near poverty.  There's a huge stigma, an oroboros of filth: We're afraid of being perceived as poor, in case people think that we're dirty, and we're loathe to be seen dirty, in case people think we might be poor.  

Urban Poverty

So what's the deal?  

Squalor and poverty collide for a number of reasons.  Like most things in life, it's not really simple:

  • Poor people can't afford nice things, and they can't afford to replace what they have when it breaks.  Stained clothing, broken-down cars, household damage etc.  
  • Poverty quite often coincides with mental illness.  Perhaps being poor has led to depression, or maybe mental illness has made it impossible to find work.  In any case, people who are struggling with mental illness might have a hard time maintaining their homes.  
  • Similarly, many of the nation's poor are elderly or physically disabled.  These people are not physically able to maintain their homes and can't hire someone else to come in and do it for them.  
  • The "working poor" are probably too busy handling multiple jobs to spend a whole lot of time maintaining their homes.  And if they have small children and/or pets, those homes can get messy quickly.  
  • Poverty and substance abuse sometimes intersect, for various reasons that deserve a post of their own.  Like mental illness, drug use can inhibit your ability and desire to maintain a home.  It also tends to be a social type of lifestyle, so the user might have frequent "guests" coming and creating a mess as well.  
  • There's a lack of infrastructure in truly impoverished areas.  Things like trash pickup and sewer line maintenance tend to require the help of a municipal service.  If that doesn't exist for some reason -- lack of funding, extremely rural location -- then the task may not be completed. 
Regardless of how the mess came to exist, once it gets set, it's easy for it to snowball.  And thanks to our cultural perceptions of wealth and filth, it can be extremely difficult to get out of this position: You feel ashamed, which leads to depression, which makes it hard to get out of bed, much less tackle an ever-growing mountain of filth.

Dirty dishes

What if it's YOUR House? 

Thanks to all the baggage associated with it, most of us without much money don't want to admit to being poor, and we definitely don't want to admit to being dirty.  But the fact is, sometimes you look at your kitchen and realize that you have a towering pile of dishes, or trash that hasn't been taken out, or that your puppy shredded a role of toilet paper all over the hallway and you haven't had the heart or the energy to deal with any of it.

Maybe you even have a mean little voice in the back of your mind saying You are poor and live in squalor.  That's just who you are now.  

And so maybe you believe that voice, and maybe you get overwhelmed, and maybe you put off the hard work because it's exhausting and depressing and your life is already really hard.  

Fortunately, there are a few resources to help people who have slipped into this position, providing actual solutions without judging you for them.  One of these, a project I really appreciate and respect, is Unfuck Your Habitat (UFYH).  The thing I love about UFYH is that they're totally non-judgmental and recognize that people are coming from different backgrounds or might have different limitations.  Yes, it's a little vulgar and irreverent (two things I happen to appreciate, but your mileage may vary), but it's also got some very solid advice.

Here's their mission statement:
And our homes aren’t the only things that need to be unfucked. Our finances, our jobs, our relationships: there’s no end to the things we can fuck up. The important thing to remember is that there is nothing that can’t be unfucked. You just have to do it.

No, I'm not being paid by these guys to write about it.  I just genuinely think it's a cool resource.

If UFYH is a little much for you, you can also check out The Flylady, who's also very practical but a lot more "domestic" and traditional.  Either way, the great thing about these sites is that they offer you some practical steps for dealing with the mess and finding your way out of it.

Part of owning your income -- even when it's minimal -- is being proud of what you have.  You might not have much, but if you learn to take care of it, people will treat you differently and you will feel differently about yourself. 

As you learn new domestic skills (making your own cleaning solutions, minimizing your possessions, composting your trash and reducing your waste), you'll find your home easier to maintain.  But right now, today, if you're standing at ground zero -- don't let the shame take over.  Take a deep breath, and make a plan, and decide once and for all that being poor doesn't mean you have to be dirty. 

Friday, June 6, 2014

On Packing, Purging and Prioritizing

We've recently been blessed with a run of good fortune and an opportunity to rent a house from my parents, which allows us to get into a better neighborhood and larger space than we could otherwise afford right now as well as allowing us to live closer to my own aging parents.  Win-win for everyone.

The move more-or-less coincides with our upcoming wedding as well, which means that we have a very busy, hectic time ahead of us with all the packing and planning, not to mention how quickly your social calendar tends to fill up at times like this.  I've been loving every minute of it, of course, but it is definitely exhausting.

Anyway, I decided to kill two birds with one stone this week and invited a friend of mine over to stay for a few days.  We don't see each other often, so having a couple of days to really catch up was nice.  While she was here, I recruited her to help me do some packing and purging, in preparation for the upcoming move.  Together, we jammed out to some Irish punk music and sorted through boxes, making "keep" and "donate" piles and clearing out lots of trash.  (At one point, I found a day planner from when I was in high school, and a syllabus from one of my college classes -- weird how things can hide and multiply in the corners when you're not looking).

My cat thought he would help with the sorting, too

All told, we reduced the contents of the hall closet by about a third.

My fiance and I had toyed with the idea of holding a yard sale, but I think we ultimately vetoed the plan for a few reasons:
  1. It's overwhelmingly hot here -- it's hit upward of 105 by noon every day this week.
  2. We're in an apartment complex that's not very well-suited to stranger traffic.  
  3. We don't necessarily *want* to attract stranger traffic -- this is not exactly a great neighborhood, and I don't know that I want to advertise to the area that I'm moving and may have some nice things.  
So it looks like I have a few trips to the thrift store in my future over the next couple of days.

All of this packing and purging has been sort of fun, but it has caused a bit of inner turmoil at the intersection of "non-consumer" and "zero waste" when it comes to some items -- namely, the things that I can't donate as they're in poor condition.  I tend to wear my belongings into the ground, and once I'm done with them, I'm never sure what the best way to dispose of them might be. 

Presently, that list of items includes a couch and two recliners -- all of which were either free or purchased cheaply from a thrift store.  All are very old-fashioned.  All also happen to have a number of tears from heavy use and bite marks from a certain mischievous puppy who shall not be named. 

Who, me?

I'll be posting an ad to Craigslist, Freecycle and the local swap meet page on Facebook, but if I don't get any takers, I'm not quite sure what I'll end up doing with these things.  Any suggestions? 

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Economies of Scale

There's a simple economic principle that affects all of us in our day-to-day lives, though we might not realize it at the time.  It's called "economies of scale," and it's one of the mechanisms that helps the poor stay poor while the rich get richer.

First, a basic definition, courtesy of Wikipedia:
In microeconomics, economies of scale are the cost advantages that enterprises obtain due to size, throughput, or scale of operation, with cost per unit of output generally decreasing with increasing scale as fixed costs are spread out over more units of output.
 This is why, for example, a huge factory is able to secure greater profits than a mom & pop handmade crafting venture.  Despite the high operating cost of the factory, its capacity for sheer volume ultimately gives it an advantage -- and the reason for that is that some costs are fixed.

The same principle applies to wealth inequality and the fixed costs of living.

Take grocery shopping.  Regardless of how much money you make, an apple still costs the same price.  To make things easy, we'll say the apple costs $1.  If you have $10 to spend on groceries to get you through the week, that $1 apple represents 1/10th, or 10%, of your grocery budget.  If you have $100 to spend, that same $1 is only 1% of your budget.

This works the same for a number of other commodities -- things like gasoline, electricity, and (until the advent of health subsidies under the ACA, anyway), healthcare.

Here, you can take a peek at a spiffy chart on this very topic, courtesy of NPR.  

And speaking of that chart, do you notice what the biggest difference is between the upper classes and lower classes?  Upper classes have a substantially higher percentage of their money allocated toward retirement, because they have enough disposable income to invest.  And because investment income is the fastest and most efficient way to grow your wealth (just ask Warren Buffet), and because investments are taxed differently from other types of income, rich people are afforded the opportunity to become richer simply by virtue of having extra money.

Okay...So What's the Point?

I mention all of this not to incite you to moral outrage about the vagaries of our tax code (although, if you'd like to be outraged, you're certainly welcome), but because that pesky economy of scale issue just keeps cropping up.

Economies of scale are, by and large, part of the reason why people living in poverty (or near the poverty line) make so many "bad" (or, I should say, short-sighted) financial choices.  When you have a limited amount of money, you have to spend that money as best you can -- and since you can't very well put your basic needs on hold until you can afford them, sometimes "the best you can" isn't so great.

So: If you're hungry and have $1, it's easier to buy a McDouble than it is to buy the fixings for a nutritious meal.  So you spend your $1 so you can eat, then go hungry for a while, then spend your next $1 the same way.  If you get $1 every day for 30 days, you won't have the same options as someone who gets $30 all at once at the beginning of the month.

Similarly, if you don't have money the day that your bills are due, you're going to either pay the bill late (incurring a fee and possible disconnection), or you're going to borrow money (which you undoubtedly cannot afford to pay back). 

The examples go on and on.

But this is just one of those things that people with money can never seem to fully grasp about people without money.  There's a substantial difference between "not always being able to afford what you want" and "having to make short-sighted financial choices because you are literally starving."  And since pretty much nobody who's in position to make policy has ever been in that latter position, it's no surprise that the policymakers clearly don't understand.