Beyond the Occupational Identity

Friday, July 4, 2014

I have nothing to report from my actual life at the moment, decided to look through the archives to see if there was anything partially written but not yet posted that could be finished and put up.

And look, here is something.

I was working on this in the fall as I thought through issues surrounding early retirement and financial independence, about working and not working, and what that all means and where it leads people. Obviously this is something that the early retirement bloggers focus on a lot, and nicoleandmaggie wrote post about how economists define retirement that I thought was interesting. (They also have a good post about the concept of financial independence. UPDATE: And another one about identity and jobs.)

So one of the things I decided to do while thinking about all of this was to re-read part of a book I bought a long time ago, called How to Do Things Right by L. Rust Hills that is a compilation of short works and essays written by the long-time fiction editor at Esquire magazine, who had an interesting and varied career over many decades.

The section I wanted to re-read is called “How to Retire at 41, Or, Life Among the Pursuits.” It was originally published in 1973 as a book called How to Retire at 41: Dropping Out of the Rat Race without Going Down the Drain.

As is often the case when I read an actual book, written before the advent of the internet (or at least before the internet as we know it), by an actual writer, I am struck by how much better it is than so much of what I usually read. Which almost always makes me think I should stop spending so much time on the internet and start reading more actual books.

Hmm…

So I was going to write a nice post about this whole thing, with a point and everything, and hopefully someday I will actually manage to do that, but in the meantime I decided I should just to give you an excerpt from the book. Because it provides some good background and if I ever do get around to writing more, I can just reference this.

The general point, which I’ve been thinking about for a long time, is that one of the challenges of being “financially independent” or “retiring” (sometimes those terms are used interchangeably, sometimes not) is that much of our society is built around work. People typically define themselves by occupation; one of the most common introductory questions in America is “What do you do?” (Which doesn’t mean that it’s not a weird question, it totally is, but nonetheless it is very common.)

Having a job provides a great deal of structure to your life; if you don’t have a job, you need to figure all kinds of things out on your own. And you need to have enough of a conception of yourself that you can give a reasonable answer when you meet new people and they ask you what you do.

About half way through “How to Retire at 41,” the author begins discussing the concept of the “occupational identity” — how you identify yourself with what you do for a living — and considers how one can move beyond that. And I think what he says is worth thinking about.

So here it is:

Beyond the Occupational Identity

Remember that statement of Montaigne’s that we began with, way back when:

If you plan to withdraw into yourself, first prepare yourself a welcome.

We now see it isn’t just a Comprehensive Day Plan you need, or a country place or an old time-consuming boat or an engrossing hobby or whatever (although these help, God knows); what’s needed is some conception of yourself — of, that is, your self — now that you won’t be working. You don’t really realize, until you quit work, just how much of your conception of your self comes from your work — not just from what you do, but how you do it.

Your basic occupational identity — what you did, or “were” — permitted a lot of amplification by the way you did what you were. When you were working, you weren’t (not in your own mind, anyway) just ” an accountant” or “in fabrics” or “one of the salesmen” or “an insurance man” or whatever. You were also the way you did the work: you were the kindly boss, or the efficient second-in-command, or the talented idea-man or the only one in the office who got along with the secretaries, or some such. Whatever you were, you had some sense of yourself doing it, some recognition of the role you’d chosen to play or the role you’d been forced into.

Let’s take fishing, which can be either a work-for-pay occupation or a leisure-retirement pursuit. Say you were a fisherman when you worked, that’s what you did, that’s who you were, a fisherman. Okay, now there’s also the style you used when you were a fisherman. A fisherman-by-trade can be, for instance, kindly like Manuel or whatever his name was (Spencer Tracy) in Captains Courageous; or he can be surly like Ahab in Moby-Dick. There are presumably an infinite number of ways to be a professional fisherman on this kindly-surly scale, and kindly-surly is only one of many polarizations of personality traits, as you know — although, admittedly, perhaps the most important one.

But now, suppose that when you quit work you took up fishing as a retirement pursuit. One assumes here that you weren’t a fisherman-by-trade before, but something else; because you’d never retire from being a fisherman at age forty-one and then take up fishing as a retirement pursuit unless it was just to make fun of me. Say, though, you were (used to be) an insurance salesman, and now at forty-one you can quit work and live off your commissions from the premiums we pay on the policies you sold us years and years ago. You decide to take up fishing as a retirement pursuit. Now the way you fish in retirement is the key thing. You can do it in a kind of elegant, heroic, upper-classy, sportsman-type way — big-game fishing like Hemingway, or elegant dry-fly angling with delicate lightweight rods — that sort of way. Or you can take it up in a kind of messy, kindly, puttery, lower-classish way — in an old rowboat or fishing off the bridge with the neighborhood kids.

You see what I’m saying? I’m saying that once the specific, defining, perhaps confining, at any rate identifying occupation is removed from your life by your retirement from work, then you style or manner, your “you-ness,” becomes the all-important thing, because there isn’t anything much else. The way you do things, the way in fact you do nothing (now that there’s nothing to do) that’s now the only self you have. If when you retire you do some fishing to fill your time, you can sit out there in your rowboat all day long with the pole in your hands, and they’re still not going to say of you, “Oh, he’s a fisherman,” because you aren’t a fisherman. You used to be an insurance man. Now you’re nothing. You’re nothing except the way you do nothing. Everyone thinks of you as nothing — unless you do your nothing in a way that identifies you to people; unless, for instance, you do your fishing (or whatever) in a puttery, kindly sort of way, say, in which case they’ll say, “Oh, he’s (you, that is, are) a kindly soul, just as sweet and gentle as can be.” Or maybe they’ll describe you, identify you, “Oh, he really stirs things up, a kind of troublemaker, but fun to be around.” Personality’s a part of it, of course, but it’s more a matter of individuality, a kind of amplification of personality by consistency of style and manner.

With your occupational identity gone, you have to find another existence for yourself. Remember Thoreau leaning on the fence post, lying on the ice, and so on? Well, now imagine he’s fishing. When he fishes, he fishes as Thoreau, not as a fisherman. He’s not a fisherman, and he knows it. Like him, you have to be able to have the fishing (or whatever the specific nondefining, nonoccupational routine or pursuit you’re up to) removed or replaced, and still be left with enough particularity of how it is done (not what is done) to provide a sufficient sense of self for yourself and others.

Beyond the occupational identity, that’s all there is.

The Holiday Corridor

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

I have to make a small confession before I start this post, which is that I am mildly addicted to reading advice columns. “Ask Beth” was a particular favorite of mine back in the day. I also used to love reading “My Problem and How I Solved It” in Good Housekeeping magazine. I don’t know why, I just dig that kind of thing.

A couple of years ago I read this pathetic letter to Carolyn Hax, proprietress of the “Tell Me About It” column (syndicated by the Washington Post and appearing twice a week in the Raleigh News & Observer, which is where I read it) from someone who had a terrible time with holidays, her immediate family was generally dysfunctional and she had no close relatives. She had tried various approaches — volunteering, inviting people from church, inviting friends of her kids — but none of them had panned out. She and her daughter had spent the most recent Thanksgiving “eating turkey in the kitchen and reading newspapers,” and she felt that they were destined to spend the rest of their holidays that way. She wrote to Carolyn asking how she could help prepare her daughter for coping with this sad life.

Carolyn acknowledged that there were some real problems in the letter-writer’s life that she needed try to address, but also pointed out that the rest of the letter seemed to be her taking things to extremes and wallowing in self-pity.

CH’s main piece of advice was that the letter-writer simply let go of the “traditional Thanksgiving script,” and write herself a new one — that she should look at the holiday as nothing more or less than a day off from work, and take it from there.

The reason this letter struck me is not just because eating turkey in the kitchen and reading newspapers sounds like not a bad holiday to me, but because it reminded me of how worked up people get over holidays, and how difficult it can be for people whose lives might not have turned out quite the way they had imagined, to deal with certain situations.

And I thought CH’s advice was generally good, but I would have added one other small bit of advice, which is that the first thing you need to do if, for whatever reason, you find the holiday season distressing or depressing, is to …

TURN OFF THE TELEVISION.

And possibly the radio, too.

Just take my word on this. You need to kill the commercials.

You can’t avoid all holidayness — you will have to leave the house at some point, and Christmas decorations are everywhere — but if you have the television on you are simply bombarded with it. It’s a lot easier to ignore front yards with reindeer in them and baking displays on the end caps at the local Stop and Shop than it is tune out a continuous barrage of commercials involving people giving each other expensive gifts and attending fabulous parties with a whole bunch of beautiful people who live in perfectly decorated houses and who all love each other.

That’s just all I can say. Turn off the television. I guarantee that you will feel better the instant the screen goes dark.

[Aside on living without television...
If you are at a loss as to what to do with yourself now that you cannot watch television, my suggestions would be to:

(a) read something interesting (may I recommend David Copperfield, it is 900+ pages long, that'll keep you out of trouble for a good long while)
(b) get back to an old hobby (knitting, sewing, woodworking)
(c) acquire a new hobby (ceramics, welding, boxing)

Make holiday cards, paint your house, clean the basement, bake cookies for the neighbors, trace your genealogy, dig holes in your yard and then fill them up. Who cares.

If you like having television for background noise, see if you can substitute listening to music, or talk radio (NPR or whatever else you have access to), or even audio books. Whatever you can do that is commercial free.]

This will help you, as Carolyn advised, to “write a new script.” Because you can now think about what is important to you, and what you want to do, and not get all caught up with what you feel like you should be doing based on what you think the rest of the world is doing based on what you see on tv.

The other advice I would give, which she did touch on but didn’t emphasize quite enough, in my opinion, is …

Don’t worry about what the rest of the world is doing.

If you want to be with people, then be with people, and if you want to eat turkey in the kitchen and read newspapers then do that. You can cook and eat a big meal or go to McDonald’s and buy a Big Mac or not eat anything at all. You can spend the day with family, or with friends, or with your dogs, or by yourself. Or any combination thereof. It’s all good.

And if you’re worried about what other people will think, if they will feel sorry for you or just feel like you’re odd, if you do some nontraditional activity, I would give you the advice that someone told me the artist Laurie Anderson gave in response to a question about what other people thought about her and her art. Laurie Anderson reportedly said, “No one else really cares what you’re doing.”

And that is the truth.

No one else really cares what you’re doing. Just do what you want. All the time. But especially during the holidays.

The Sometimes Phone, Part II

Monday, September 23, 2013

[Okay, I lied. No pictures yet. The summary post with the actual how-to will have pictures. I need to finish rambling on before I get to that. Patience, my friends, patience.]

Okay, so I got the phone, and I had already ordered the SIM card (and it was touch-and-go on whether it would arrive before Tuesday so I paid for expedited shipping … don’t wait til the last minute to figure things out, it costs more. News flash for everyone out there, I’m sure no one’s noticed that before.)

And I will say that maybe I’m just kind of an idiot, but the learning curve on all of this turned out to be somewhat challenging.

You have a SIM card. You have a phone. It’s pretty clear where the SIM card goes, there’s a slot in the back, but it’s not entirely clear which way it goes. Though after I did it wrong, it seemed obvious that of course it would go so the metal circuit-board-ish looking side is on the bottom, touching the phone. And I learned that it is possible to remove the SIM card that you put in the wrong way and put it in the right way without damaging either the phone or the SIM card. Good news there.

Okay, SIM card is in phone. SIM card is facing right direction. Still says “No SIM card.”

Hmmm…

So then I decide to play around with the phone and get that set up.

One of the reasons this whole thing was especially challenging for me is because I have never been much of a cell phone person, and the only time I use smartphones is when I’m sending a message for a friend who is driving — “on our way, be there 10min.” Things like that. So there were a lot of different ways for me to do things wrong, and I didn’t know what I was doing with anything so had difficulty troubleshooting and narrowing down the range of possible errors.

But I persevered.

I set up the Motorola BLUR account. I figured out the wireless network part and stored my wireless network info in the phone so it would connect automatically.

It now recognizes the SIM card. Progress. (No idea whether that was just a timing thing or the phone account needed to be set up first or what.)

Now let’s see if we can get the phone part up and running.

According to the instructions from Ready SIM, all I have to do is text my zip code to 7850 and I will get a text in reply with the phone number that will go with this SIM card (and that I can then link to my Google Voice number, which is the one I give out as my cell number).

I text the code and it looks like it goes but then … I get an error message. Red X in the corner, “Message not sent.” I do this multiple times. The X keeps coming back.

Grrr.

I try googling, but what I’m looking for is completely vague — phone thing not working. Not surprisingly, nothing comes up. I look on the Ready SIM website for helpful hints, “If you see this, it’s because of that, just do this and it will work.” Nothing. Just their slogan — “So easy your mother can do it” — taunting me.

At 5:40pm, I submit a support ticket. I say, “This may be so easy my mother can do it, but my mother is not here, and I can’t get it to work. What am I doing wrong.”

Then I just give up and move on to everything else I need to do before the trip, decide I will deal with it when I get there.

I was going to Portland, Oregon and staying with a friend I’ve known since middle school and her husband, who are both great. I was getting in mid-afternoon and heading to their house from the airport, they would see me when they got home from work.

[Random aside: I love taking public transportation to and from airports, it makes me feel self-sufficient and it's usually like two dollars. In Portland it was $2.50 to take light rail and change to a bus that dropped me off half a block from my friends' house in Southeast Portland.]

I stayed with them last year and knew the lay of the land. I knew they had a wireless network that I could get on, and that I still had the password for stored in my computer.

So I get to their place, no problems, and I get on their wi-fi and check my email (using my laptop) to see if there’s anything I need to deal with and also see if there is any response from Ready SIM.

I have a message from support that says things should work, there is coverage in my area, restart the device and try again. I’m not in the same place anymore, so that seems not so relevant, but I try sending the text again and this time it goes straight through, no problem, right away I get a message in reply with a phone number.

Victory.

I send a text to my friend I’m staying with saying I’m at her house and telling her this is my number for the week so she can enter it into her contacts. I text my friend who I had been sending GAAHHH WHY IS THIS NOT WORKING messages to on Monday to tell her I figured it out. I make a call to the friend I’m supposed to be doing work things with on Thursday so we can finalize plans. All is good.

And I have a phone for the next fourteen days. I get to see how the other half lives.

And it’s … fine. Texting is kind of fun, but also insanely distracting. People think they are doing two things at once when they are texting, they think they are still doing the thing they were doing while also typing surreptitiously in the background, but I am here to tell you that that is not what is happening. You have no idea what is going on around you when you are texting.

Totally distracting.

I got the unlimited talk and text plus the full data plan since it seemed like that might be useful but I discovered that most of the stuff I look up online when I’m wandering around is dumb, I get sucked into stupid things that I could just look up later. Or things that I really don’t need to know anyway. It was way more distracting than helpful. (Maybe if I used it more or had more apps I’d decide it was great, but for starters, it didn’t do much for me.)

The second day of my visit, I’m having a nice relaxing afternoon walking around Hawthorne and I see something outside of an interesting thrift-type store that I want to take a picture of but discover that I need an SD card to take a picture and my phone didn’t come with an SD card.

Hmm… Is that something they sell all over the place, like phone cards? Can I just go into a 7-11 and get one? Or do I need an electronics store, or big box retailer?

Hawthorne is all funky shops and bars and cafés and I’m thinking I probably can’t get one here but keeping my eyes open for any place that seems like it might have something like that.

I walk past this shop called iDope. It sells iPhone accessories and does repairs and will jailbreak your phone for you and whatever else you need done with your iPhone or iPad.

I think, “Well … maybe.”

So I walk in and it’s a small shop with a guy sitting at a desk with two buddies hanging out. I say, “Do you sell SD cards?”

He shakes his head, “No … sorry, I don’t …” and then he stops and says, “Well, wait. What kind? The small ones?”

I say, “I don’t know, it’s for an android phone.”

He opens a drawer and pulls out an envelope with SD cards in it. He said, “Here, try one of these. These are ones that came in with phones.”

I give him the phone and he puts one in and it says it’s good to go.

He says, “I have no idea what’s on it, but there you go. It’s yours.”

I say, “Great. I now have someone’s porn collection on my phone.”

We laugh about that, and I thank him sincerely and head out the door to take a picture of something. And it works! Cool.

And it would have been an interesting story to get someone’s crazy pictures, but it turns out the card was empty. (Probably better, but still, a little disappointing.)

So I’m in Portland and I have a smartphone, with everything that entails (camera! calculator! clock!) and an unlimited talk/text + 1GB data plan.

The Sometimes Phone.

Fun.

[And stay tuned for Part III -- How does The Sometimes Phone work when it doesn't have a phone plan?]

Minimizing Cost vs. Maximizing Value

Sunday, September 22, 2013

This started as a comment in the discussion about the first post in The Sometimes Phone Saga, but I decided it deserves its own post.

I replied to a comment about the pay-as-you-go service I had where I mentioned the idea of whether you should try to minimize costs, or maximize value. Which in the case of cell phones generally relates to per-minute costs — which of course you also want to minimize. But because I changed that sentence in mid-thought, I ended up writing “maximize per-minute costs.” Which would indeed be an interesting strategy.

So, just to highlight this, I’d like to talk for a minute about minimizing cost vs. maximizing value.

This concept applies not just to cell phones, but to everything. Sometimes lowest cost is the best value, but often there are nonmonetary factors (quality, convenience, ease-of-use) that go into making one thing a better value than another.

Often minimizing costs in the short term results in additional costs over the long term. If you buy a cheaper thing that is poorer quality, you will likely have to replace it sooner, so the total amount you spend will be more. But if it’s something you’re only going to use once anyway, then quality doesn’t matter and you should just get the cheapest thing.

So, as with everything, what the best strategy is depends on what you are trying to accomplish. (As I’ve learned asking my CPA father questions about taxes, the answer to everything is, “It depends.”)

When trying to figure out which phone service I should get, I ran into a conflict between figuring out which one would allow me to spend the least amount of money overall and which would give me the most use for the least amount of money.

Most of the time I focus on value; I want to get the most for what I’m spending. In the case of the phone service, however, I went with a different calculation — I looked at what was going to cost me the least amount at the time I was signing up for it, regardless of what I would get for that.

This was partly because I wasn’t getting the phone because I wanted it, or thought it would make my life better, but because I felt compelled to get it by external circumstances (people expecting me to have a phone, people telling me I should have a phone for safety, etc.). But also because the calculations to determine most value for a product you don’t have and don’t know how you are going to use are difficult, to say the least.

There are all kinds of factors to consider when deciding which phone service is going to work best.

  • If you like bleeding-edge technology and want to always have a high-end phone (or if you don’t care about this but are in a line of work where that actually matters), then you should get a contract plan where the cost of the phone is subsidized by the monthly cost of the plan.
  • If you talk or text a lot, or don’t want to have to think about whether you’re talking or texting too much, you should get an unlimited plan.
  • If you don’t really care what kind of phone you use and you don’t talk very much, you should look at a pay-as-you-go service or a no-contract monthly plan and get the cheapest refurbished phone you can get. (And in this case, “cheap” might be “free” — many companies have basic phones available at no extra cost when you sign up for their service.)

And if you don’t really know what you want or need, try to get something that will let you figure it out without locking you in to anything for too long.

Everyone’s situation is going to be different, and there’s not one answer that is going to work for everyone. Though it does seem like there are many wrong answers.

I think a lot of people have a contract phone because that’s what the system is set up for, and so that’s the easiest thing to get. They don’t know how many minutes they use, but they know their phone is important to them. They might worry about going with some company they’ve never heard of, that no one they know uses, or they might think that they need a standard plan because they use their phone all the time, without actually looking to see how many minutes they use or need.

Some alternatives to the standard contract phone from one of the big carriers are no-contract monthly plans and pay-as-you-go options from all the major carriers as well as Virgin Mobile, Net10, Tracfone, Cricket, Boost Mobile.

There is Ting , which adjusts your plan based on what you use.

There is Republic Wireless, which combines wifi and cellular networks to offer low-cost smartphone options using their phones, and services like PureTalkUSA, Straight Talk and Air Voice that offer SIM cards and low-cost, no-contract options for people who want to use their own phone.

So basically there is a lot going on in this marketplace.

If you have a phone that you like, and are happy with the service, and the amount you pay seems reasonable for how much you use it, then just go with that.

But if you feel like you’re paying too much for what you need or use, then look at some of the alternatives, and see if anything out there might work better for you.

(And writing all of this makes me think about how I’ve been joking with friends about working as a “frugality consultant.” It seems like there would definitely be an opportunity for people specializing in phone services — you go to them with six months worth of phone bills and they look at it and talk with you and then give you a choice of options with pros/cons/estimated costs and you pick the one you want.

All you personal finance entrepreneurs out there, have at it!)

The Sometimes Phone, Part I

Thursday, September 19, 2013

[Okay I know this is a ridiculously long story but if you wait for me to figure out which parts are actually relevant and edit it appropriately I'll never get it up. I just need to write and post. I'll put up a summary when it's all written with key points. People who want to know about this but have limited patience for rambling writing can just wait for that.]

I had a conversation the other night with someone I know who doesn’t own a car but sometimes needs one when she travels, and she talked about how complicated that is, that the whole system is designed for people who have cars all the time, and if you don’t, you have to get crazy expensive insurance and it feels like highway robbery. (And for any of you who find yourself in this position, she said that the solution she finally came up with is to use Hotwire, they offer relatively cheap insurance with their cars. Now you know.)

I said this is the same problem I have with cell phones, the system is set up for people to have a phone all the time, every day, not to have a phone when they go out of town, which is the only time I want or need a cell phone.

And that conversation inspired me to finally write this post. Because I think I have (more or less) solved the phone problem — at long last, I finally have a Sometimes Phone.

When you say you don’t have a phone but need one sometimes, people say, “Just get a pay-as-you-go phone.” This is always suggested by someone who knows absolutely nothing about pay-as-you-go phones.

It would be nice if you could get a pay-as-you-go phone and then pay when you wanted to use it and not pay when you didn’t need it then when you needed it again put more money on it. However this is not how pay-as-you-go phones work.

When you get a pay-as-you-go phone, you create an account with a carrier and they give you a phone number and you put money on the phone on a regular basis to keep it active. How often you have to put money on the phone depends on how much money you put on in the first place, and the carrier, and all kinds of other variables that I am not remembering right now because I have blocked this whole thing from my memory, because it is such a pain in the ass.

Every carrier is different and trying to compare plans is extremely difficult. I am like a total superstar at stuff like this and even I am unable to properly run numbers and come up with a rational conclusion.

So I will just say that generally what I found is that in order to get a low per-minute rate, you need to buy quite a lot of minutes each month, at which point you might as well just get a monthly plan because you’re spending the same amount.

For a long time (spring 2003 to fall 2012) I had a Virgin Mobile plan that did what I needed and was pretty cost-effective. I had to put on $20 every 90 days ($15 every 90 days if I linked it to my credit card and had it top up automatically) and the rate was twenty-five cents a minute for the first ten minutes a day I used the phone, and ten cents a minute after that. So how many minutes my $15 or $20 got me depended on how I used the phone. Days that I talked more got me more minutes than days that I talked less.

Some carriers charge a lower per-minute rate but have a flat fees for using the phone — like I think AT&T or T-Mobile charges a dollar for every day you use the phone.

Really the only way to compare is to have a sense of how you are likely to use the phone, then run the numbers for the various options through that scenario and see which one works for you. (But like I said, it’s hard. You definitely need a spreadsheet.)

Because I didn’t need to use the phone very much, I didn’t particularly care about the per-minute rate, I just wanted to have a low minimum. Which is why I liked the Virgin Mobile plan.

But when my phone mysteriously disappeared in September 2012, I looked at it as an opportunity to stop paying $15 every 90 days for something I barely used.

Eighty per cent of my life, I am within arm’s reach of a phone. The other twenty per cent I am taking a break and do not want to talk on the phone. If you want to talk to me, you can leave a message and I will call you back when I am again within arm’s reach of the phone.

The exception to this is when I travel.

Traveling without a phone is often complicated, because everyone expects you to have a phone, so they set things up assuming you have a phone. Okay, call me when you get to town.

It is not actually all that complicated to arrange things so that a phone is not required, but in order to do that, you have to tell people you do not have a phone. And saying you do not have a phone makes you sound like some kind of nut job. What do you mean you don’t have a phone.

So I would like a phone when I travel, so I don’t have to make people go back in time and remember what it’s like to make plans without cell phone, or explain to people I don’t see very often why I don’t have a phone. I’m trying to fly under the radar here.

But I do not want to pay for a phone every month of my life just so I have it the few times a year when I am not at home.

At a nonprofit tech group I participate in, I learned about Google Voice, and that you could get a number that you could send texts from. This was a hugely useful piece of information, it meant that I could use my computer in place of a cell phone. Since I am nearly always in close proximity to my computer, this solved nearly all of my communication problems.

Except if I actually needed to talk to someone on the phone when I am not in a house or office with a phone, or with my computer in a place with wi-fi.

I had a trip in June that I was worried I wasn’t going to be able to pull off. I was on the trip and was discussing it a lunch with a friend whose family lives everywhere (mother in France, sister in London, father in Switzerland, in-laws in Mexico), and he said something that I thought was the usual pay-as-you-go suggestion.

I said, “Right, but you have to pay all the time to keep it active, what am I going to do, get a new phone every time I take a trip?”

He said, “No, not a new phone, just a SIM card. You need a GSM phone. An unlocked phone that you just put a SIM card into.”

After we were done with lunch and I was back to my computer, I looked into it a little bit and discovered ReadySIM, which was designed for Canadians who are visiting the U.S. and want a short-term phone plan to avoid the crazy roaming charges the would get otherwise. You get a SIM card with an unlimited phone plan that is good for 3, 7, 14, or 30 days. The three-day card is $15, the thirty-day card is $40.

I almost made it through the trip in June without a hitch.

I ran into traffic driving from Connecticut to Philadelphia and couldn’t call my friend and tell her where I was. I hadn’t told her I didn’t have a phone (had texted her from Google Voice) so she was calling and texting wondering what was going on. Other than that, I pulled it off (though I cheated a bit and borrowed a friend’s iPad, which made surreptitious GV texting easier).

But then close on the heels of that trip, I had a second trip set up for July which was going to be much more complicated. I decided I needed to try to figure out the phone.

I looked online for “unlocked GSM phone.” A whole bunch of places came up, Best Buy, Target, Wal-Mart. I’m like oh, great, this is going to be totally easy. Everyone has them. Prices ranged from $20 to $800, there were a million options.

Because it seems like this is going to work, no problem, I order a 14-day ReadySim SIM card. I get the full service one (talk-text-data), I’m totally ready, just need the phone.

But I’m totally busy recovering from the first trip. I do manage to stop at a nearby Radio Shack, but they don’t carry any unlocked phones. I’m busy. I take no further action. I have a meeting on Friday that is in the direction of all the Big Box retailers. I’m like this is fine, I’ll just deal with it on Friday.

So on Friday, I go to the Best Buy Mobile store, which is a Best Buy store that just carries phones and phone service, no tvs or refrigerators or anything like that, I’m thinking this is just what I need, and I walk in and as about unlocked GSM phones and the sales person says, “No we don’t carry any unlocked phones.” I say, but your website says you sell them. She says, “Right, we only sell those online.”

Gaahhh.

It is now Friday at 4pm. I am leaving on my trip Tuesday morning, my flight leaves at 9:30am. Ordering online, not a good option. And I was so confident that I could get the phone at Best Buy that I took the bus. Which means I can’t even stop at the other stores to see what they have.

I take the bus home and go online and start looking around and calling to see if anyone local carries unlocked GSM phones. I become obsessed with this. All the while kicking myself for being a procrastinating moron.

I call four or five places, I ask if they have unlocked GSM phones, they say no. (Later I realize I should have just asked for unlocked phones, which I’m pretty sure are all GSM phones. I think people who didn’t know what a GSM phone was just said no because they didn’t know what I was talking about, even if they carried unlocked phones.)

I finally call this cell phone store off Capital Boulevard in Raleigh, I ask if they have unlocked GSM phones. They say, “Yup, we do. ” I said, “Really?” They said, “Yeah, sure. Uh huh.”

I find out exactly where they are located and tell them I’ll be in on Saturday.

After my work shift on Saturday, I drive through a thunderstorm to Raleigh and find the store, which happens to be in the same shopping center as TigerDirect, which I had called on Friday, and they told me they carry unlocked GSM phones, but didn’t have any in stock, they should be getting some in next week. Not so helpful when I was leaving on Tuesday morning.

I walk into the little cell phone store, I ask about unlocked phones, the guy is like “Mmmm … no, I don’t think so. We had one but we sold it.”

Gaahhh, round two.

A discussion ensues among the four people working in the store whether or not they have anything that would work for me and what it might be. They say they have a Windows phone that has never been used or put on a network, that might work. It’s over $250. Way more than I want to spend on something that may or may not work the way I want to. Plus Windows. No. They have one other possible option that is also out of my price range, $350 or something like that.

No go. I leave the store.

I decide to stop at TigerDirect, since it’s right there.

They have a little phone display with a bunch of different options and I look and notice that they do in fact have several phones in stock under the display shelf.

I talk to a sales person and tell him what I’m looking for and we look at the what they have and there are basically two that will work, a small Samsung and a Motorola Droid Pro.

I will say right now that I know people love their iPhones and iPads but I cannot tell you how much I hate those effing keyboards on those things. I hate having to switch between letters and numbers and clearly this is a deeply flawed system that everyone has to make a note about typos as part of their signature. Hello. Not good.

The Samsung was tiny and had a touch-screen keyboard. The Droid Pro had a fairly large screen and a physical keyboard. They were both the same price ($139). I bought the Droid Pro.

Win.

Stay tuned for Part II about how I actually set up the phone and got it to work (with pictures! I promise!)

Too Frugal

Thursday, July 25, 2013

I wrote recently about my mysterious obsession with Get Rich Slowly. As noted, one of the most interesting parts of J.D’s journey for me was when he decided that he was being “too frugal.”

At the time, the statement reminded me of one of my favorite articles in The Tightwad Gazette where Amy Dacyczyn (a.k.a. the Frugal Zealot, or FZ) addresses that very question: Is it possible to be too frugal?

I considered posting a comment on GRS about it, and I considered putting up my own blog post to explore it more fully, but in the end, I did neither.

Lazy.

Though I did write up some thoughts, because I felt like this was one of the more important concepts that Amy Dacyzyn talked about. And it feels like this is a common theme, for people who want to spend less money but aren’t able to get there, to look at people who do spend less money and say, “Well maybe that works for them but it just isn’t possible for me, it’s too much.” (It sounds like Mr. Money Mustache also gets his fair share of comments from people who think he is “too extreme” and that his approach is not workable for the average person.)

So it seems like this remains a question worth looking at: Can one be too frugal?

As FZ notes:

Most people think of frugality only in terms of saving money. Under that narrow definition, the answer would clearly be “Yes, you can be too frugal.” But if you look up frugal in the dictionary, you’ll find it isn’t defined specifically as having to do only with money. It’s defined as “not wasteful,” “economical,” or “thrifty.” These terms can apply to the expenditure of any resource.

All of us attempt to achieve the highest quality of life possible by balancing four basic resources: money, time, space, and personal energy. Because these resources are interconnected in an intricate way, frugality must encompass more than money; we must manage these four things in relationship to one another.

When people think of frugality run amok, they’re usually reflecting on situations when these resources are out of balance and this imbalance hurts the quality of life.

She goes on to discuss the example of “Thelma,” a person whose brother refers to as a real frugal person who doesn’t throw anything away, instead saving items she might later find a use for — bread bags, egg cartons, toilet paper tubes, etc.

Her brother says, “I just can’t live that way. I guess I’m not the tightwad type.”

FZ points out that the problem with Thelma is not her frugality, but that she is out of balance.

While Thelma may save on having to buy plastic bags, her excessive “pack ratting” will cause her to spend far more time and energy than she would otherwise: she needs a larger house (or even rented storage space) to keep everything; she can’t find things when she needs them and ends up spending time looking for them or having to going out at the last minute to buy new things; she doesn’t have space to work on projects that could save much more money than she saves from not buying plastic bags.

In contrast, “a shrewd, successful frugal person constantly monitors how much is stored, never keeping more than the maximum amount of bread bags or Styrofoam meat trays than might be needed at a given time.”

FZ notes that saving more than you need is not inherently a problem, if you have the capacity to manage it: “It’s possible someone like Thelma may save more things than she needs, but because she has a surplus of space, stacks of meat trays might not cause her to be out of balance. Although she might not be saving money by keeping them, neither is she wasting other resources.”

And FZ explains that this lack of balance is not limited to frugal people: “Spendthrifts are frequently out of balance. If Thelma’s brother doesn’t have time to enjoy his new bass boat because he’s has to work overtime (at a job he hates) to pay for it, then he is out of balance as well.”

Which brings us to what I think is the most important point of the article:

In observing both the frugal and nonfrugal, this lack of balance is usually indicated by an expression of unhappiness or frustration about some aspect of their lives — when they complain about not being able to pay bills but aren’t making adjustments in their habits. Regardless of their spending style, I don’t worry about people when they are their families are clearly happy with the choices they’ve made.

When someone labels me “too extreme,” it’s usually because they’ve flipped through my books, picked out some obscure idea that doesn’t work for them, and made a judgment about me. But I’ve never had a journalist come to my home, observe the obvious harmony, and write that I’m “too frugal.” Although their values might be different from mine, they can’t find fault with our choices.

Because we all have different amounts of money, time space, and personal energy and different ideas about what constitutes quality of life, we each must find our own frugal balance.

If you think about frugality as I do, asking the question “Can you be too frugal?” is like asking, “Can you be too happy?

(The article is called “The Frugal Balance” and begins on page 483 in The Complete Tightwad Gazette. It is worth a read.)

Personal Finance Thoughts, Part I

Monday, July 8, 2013

Okay so I’ve been thinking a lot about personal finance lately, and I want to write about it but I’m not sure what direction things should go in. Most of my thoughts on personal finance come from a combination of my own experience and jumping off points provided by personal finance blogs, where I go to read about other people’s experiences, as well as books I’ve read on the subject by personal finance “experts” like Dave Ramsey, Suze Orman, Clark Howard, etc.

So I guess I’ll just start with a few thoughts on the blog part.

For many years, I was moderately obsessed with the blog Get Rich Slowly. I do not know why, except that it was the first “personal finance” blog I became aware of (in 2007, when I was looking for information on Amy Dacyzyn) and just after finding the blog, I discovered the author’s personal blog, foldedspace, where he noted that he was making $4,000 a month in revenue on GRS.

I was like, What??? Who knew that was even possible?

So then I was reading both foldedspace and GRS to see whether this seemed like easy money or a lot of work (answer: a lot of work), and then I kind of got hooked on the upstairs/downstairs thing, the professional blog on the front end and the personal one on the back.

I thought it was interesting that the blogger, J. D. Roth, noted that one of the things that helped kickstart him on his life of debt-free living was the book Your Money or Your Life, which, likewise, was instrumental in helping me figure out a different path for my own life. However I’ve had limited success recommending that book to people, because when you first read it, it seems completely crazy and you’re much more likely to respond with, “Okay, maybe, but this is not workable for normal people,” than you are with, “Hey, this sounds great!”

So it was interesting for me to see someone who had more or less implemented the program, and then become very successful with it and gotten out of debt and started making more money than he’d ever imagined.

[Side note: I read the book in 1997 when I was living in DC, and one of my friends from work read it at the same time, and we were commenting on the fact that many of the stories in the book were about people who had followed the program, cut way back on their expenses, discovered something they loved to do that they were really good at, and then made a gazillion dollars doing that thing. My friend and I were laughing about that, we were like okay, if you're going to make a gazillion dollars, what do you need to learn to live on nothing for? Couldn't you just skip that step and head straight for the thing that makes you a gazillion dollars?]

One of the things I noted in my YMOYL experience was that at some point, the world feels like it flips. You suddenly can live on much less than most people and somehow you always have enough money. It starts to feel like you are living in a parallel universe.

J.D. had so many people following along, and I was looking forward to him getting to that point, hitting the parallel universe, and talking about it and people being able to see how it happened. It seemed like it might turn into something I could point people to instead of the book itself. Here’s what this person did and here’s how it turned out, and here’s where he wrote all about it.

But then it didn’t.

J.D. decided that he was being “too frugal” and started moving back towards living (for lack of a better term) like a normal person.

Later (much later) we learned that right around this time, he sold the blog for a large sum of money. So of course it felt like he was being too frugal, he now had a gazillion dollars at his disposal. And for the next few years, without letting his readers know he no longer needed to focus on getting rich slowly, since he had in fact gotten rich rather quickly, he emphasized “conscious spending” and repeated the mantra “do what works for you.”

It might have been more valuable to most people, but to me, it felt like a missed opportunity. Instead of showing people how to truly have a different life and what that looks like, he worked on helping people with average to above-average incomes choose bank accounts and life insurance policies. Woo hoo.

And now he’s moved on to a whole new life. And Get Rich Slowly is sill there, but it’s not the same. Though all of the old posts are archived there, so sometimes I still send people there for articles about specific topics.

Meanwhile, back in the blogosphere…

In 2011, Mr. Money Mustache came on to the scene, picking up well ahead of where J.D. left off, with a thoroughly YMOYL attitude, even though apparently he came to this approach on his own without actually reading the book.

In theory, I am in support of this.

I’m glad that someone is showing that it is possible to live happily for much less than most people think possible. I think MMM offers a great deal of useful information on his website. I think he has opened the eyes of many people to the possibility of a different kind of life. I like his anti-consumerist stance and that he focuses on the environmental impact of choices like living close to work and biking instead of driving. I like his emphasis on creative problem-solving and continuous questioning to make sure you are always learning, always improving, always thinking about your choices.

All good.

That being said, I cannot read that blog. The tone too often completely gets under my skin, despite the fact that I fully agree with almost everything he says.

I think the persona he has created is smug and arrogant. I think he is unwilling or unable to consider the possibility that his approach to life is not necessarily going to work for everyone, for all kinds of different reasons. Or that many people would not actually even want to live like that. And that not everyone has the capacity to make $50,000 to $100,000 a year and buy and fix up multiple houses, which they can then rent out to provide ongoing cashflow.

He has structured his comments section so that people who don’t agree with his articles or have any questions or concerns about them get a smackdown and are called a complainypants. (Which, by the way, is a great word.) This results in a large group of like-minded individuals gathering together to discuss how great and smart they are, and how much better they are than the rest of the world, who do not live in the enlightened manner in which they live and do not share their badassity. And anyone who doesn’t agree with them is a whiny complainypants. (Or possibly a jealous hater, though I think that term might be reserved for the anti-Pioneer Woman crowd. I might be getting my blog animosity people mixed up here.)

This is not enjoyable for me to read. This is cult-like. It feels like Rush Limbaugh with his dittoheads. (And it actually reminds me of a quote I read a long time ago, I think from Dave Barry, about being frightened by large groups of like-minded people. But I can’t remember the whole quote, and am unable to dig it up, so will just have to leave it at that.)

So…

What is the point of all this?

I don’t know.

Following Your Money or Your Life allows you to live in a parallel universe where everything is cheaper and you always have enough money.

J.D. Roth of Get Rich Slowly was heading in that direction but turned around. But it doesn’t matter because he made a gazillion dollars when he sold his blog so now he always has enough money anyways, who cares.

Mr. Money Mustache does live in the parallel universe but he’s so flipping annoying about it that I can’t read about it. But other people seem to like it. Maybe you would too.

That’s all I know about personal finance blogging.

One of my friends said to me the other day, “You need to write more about personal finance.” I’m guessing this wasn’t what she had in mind.

Sorry, sometimes what comes out is what comes out. But I do have more to say on the subject in general, so we’ll just have to wait and see what comes out next time around. Maybe it will be better.

Is Too

Monday, May 27, 2013

Before I get into the nuts and bolts of the personal finance books I’ve been reading, and the various philosophies that go with the various approaches, I just want to get one thing out of the way.

In the spirit of There are Two Kinds of People in the World, I will say that when it comes to keeping track of things, there are definitely two kinds of people: People who like to track data and people who do not like to track data.

Neither of these approaches is right or wrong, and neither is better or worse than the other.

The benefit of tracking data is that you end up with … data. Data is useful. It tells you exactly what is happening. Data doesn’t lie, it is what it is. This is how much time it took to do that project. This is how you spent your money.

Some people enjoy the process of gathering data, they like to see a story unfold in front of them, they like to have a record of what happened. Gathering data helps some people feel like they know where they are, where they are going, and how long it might to take to get there.

Many people, however, loathe the process of gathering data. They find it tedious and time-consuming and difficult and unpleasant. (It is especially unpleasant when you don’t like what the data says. I ate how much?) It takes all of kinds of energy that they would rather be spending on things they actually enjoy doing.

But just as extroverts have trouble understanding introverts, and don’t see how anyone could possibly rather stay home and read a book than go to a party, people who do not enjoy tracking data cannot imagine that anyone in their right mind could possibly feel differently.

This bias comes up repeatedly in the book All Your Worth by Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi, which I am currently reading. They emphasize over and over again that their approach does not require ongoing data tracking, because, in their words, “That is not living.”

So before I get into my analysis of the book, I just want to offer this public service announcement.

Life is made up of all kinds of experiences. Some of them are wonderful and some of them are awful and some of them are tedious and some of them are exhilarating.

Everything you do is living. Everything you do is life.

Changing your baby’s diaper and watching a movie and fixing breakfast and breaking your arm falling off a ladder and vacationing in Bali and mowing the lawn and talking on the phone and building sand castles and paying bills and playing tennis and watching other people play tennis and cleaning the toilet and going to the French Laundry for dinner. And looking at your receipts and bank statements to see how much you spent, and adding it up and thinking about whether maybe next month you could spend a little less and still be just as happy.

That is all life, it is all living.

And don’t let anyone tell you that it isn’t.

Peanuts

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

peanuts

Hot and Spicy Peanuts

I had total sticker shock in the nut butter aisle at Whole Foods last week.

Peanut butter prices had been rising because 2011 was a terrible crop. But then 2012 was a bumper crop, so I had seen a few articles that said that prices should be coming down, that consumers should see some relief from high peanut butter prices in 2013. But then there was also news about the closure of a peanut butter processing plant due to salmonella outbreak that was likely to affect organic brands, because the kinds of peanuts used in the plant were those used in natural and organic peanut butters (those without added sugar and fat). So then it seemed like that might make some prices go higher instead of lower. But I was still thinking that prices might go down.

The Whole Foods 365 store brand of peanut butter used to be $1.99 and then it was $2.19 and then it was $2.79. That’s a big jump. But still in line with peanut butter prices for comparable products at other stores, and still pretty cheap, so it hadn’t affected how I shop.

I generally like peanut butter in any form — peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, peanut butter cookies, the divine peanut butter cookie, my family Special sandwich – and I really like those peanut butter filled pretzels that Trader Joe’s sells, but I don’t make it to Trader Joe’s all that often and also they are not cheap, I think it’s around three dollars for a small-ish bag. Then at some point I had a revelation that I could just dip pretzels into peanut butter and it would be basically the same thing. Duh. So I started doing that.

Last week I stopped at Whole Foods on my way to work to pick up some snacks, and was thinking that some peanut butter and pretzels would hit the spot. So I picked up a bag of pretzels and headed to the peanut butter aisle and was stopped dead in my tracks by peanut butter at $3.39 a jar. Gah! That’s a twenty per cent jump! Since the last time I bought peanut butter!

I think if I’d been expecting an increase I might have dealt with this better, but I was actually thinking it was going to go down this year. So that really threw me. I decided I didn’t need peanut butter and pretzels after all (I didn’t) and would think about alternatives.

And then that made me think about what lessons were there for shopping on a limited budget. What do you do when the price of something suddenly goes up? What are the options?

You can…

(a) see if there is a brand that is cheaper and buy that instead,
(b) see if there is a different but similar item that is cheaper and buy that instead,
(c) check different stores to see if any of them have the item for less than the store you usually shop at and stock up,
(d) think about whether there is an item that is processed differently that is cheaper, and that you can finish processing on your own to make a comparable finished product,

or

(e) just go ahead and buy it anyway.

If you always do (e), your grocery bill will just keep going up and up. Most people start with (a) because it’s the easiest. I usually go with (d) because I think that buying less processed, cheaper items and finishing the processing myself not only saves money but also often results in higher-quality food.

An example of this would, of course, be buying dried beans and cooking them yourself instead of buying canned beans. But anything you can buy in a ready-to-eat form and also a raw-ingredient form would apply. Often prices of the raw-ingredient form increase much more slowly than for the ready-to-eat form. It just depends on how much time (and energy) it takes to get to the finished product, and whether that’s worth it to you.

There are some crazy expensive artisanal peanut butters for sale in shops around here, and there was an article in the N&O not too long ago about making your own nut butters starting with raw peanuts, and roasting them yourself, which sounded interesting to me. (As you might have figured out by now, I have a thing for making things from scratch that normal people just buy.)

So then I started pricing raw peanuts and I’m not sure if it would actually be cheaper than buying peanut butter.

Whole Foods had a three-pound bag of shelled raw peanuts for around twelve dollars, so that’s four dollars a pound. The Hispanic stores and Li Ming’s have small bags of raw peanuts in the shell for (I think) around $2 a pound. Stone Brothers & Byrd, which is mostly a garden supply store but also carries traditional Southern foods, sells raw peanuts in the shell in bulk for $2.80 a pound.

Roasted peanuts in the bulk section are about the same price as a pound of peanut butter. Trader Joe’s peanut butter was $2.79 a jar (Whole Foods’ previous price), and I was over there, so I bought a couple of jars. But I don’t like it as well as the 365 brand.

I did buy some peanuts from Stone Bros., and am thinking about roasting them and making peanut butter, but in the meantime, I decided to turn some of them into one of my new favorite things — Bill Neal‘s recipe for Hot and Spicy Peanuts.

If you like the spicy peanuts sold in convenience stores, make these. They are along the same lines, but a million times better, because they are fresh fresh fresh, they don’t have all those preservatives in them, and you can decide if you want them more spicy or more sweet or whatever tastes good to you.

The first time I made them, a couple of months ago, I followed the recipe exactly. The second time, I think I reduced the sugar slightly. This last time, I used three different kinds of Penzey’s paprika — Hungarian sweet, Hungarian half-sharp, and smoked Spanish — along with sea salt, Habanero salt, white sugar, and cayenne. And didn’t measure anything at all.

My strategy now is to mix the seasonings together in a small bowl and taste. When it tastes good — a little salty, a little sweet, a little spicy — it’s ready to go. This is definitely a recipe that you can adjust however you want, and it is very easy. The only hard part is not eating all of them at once as soon as they are cool.

Hot and Spicy Peanuts
from Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking

1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp paprika
1/4 tsp (or more) ground cayenne
1/2 tsp (or more) sugar
1 Tbsp peanut oil
1-1/2 cups raw, shelled peanuts
1-1/2 Tbsp water

Combine the salt, paprika, cayenne, and sugar and reserve. Heat the oil in a skillet or saute pan over medium high heat. Add the raw peanuts (in their skins), shaking the skillet frequently to prevent their scorching. When the peanuts are golden brown throughout (after 8 to 10 minutes), sprinkle the combined dry seasonings over all and shake well. Carefully, but immediately, pour in the water and agitate to help the flavorings coat the peanuts. Serve immediately or let cool. These will keep for weeks in an airtight container.

Yeah, right. Good luck keeping those around for weeks. That’s all I have to say.

I’ll let you know if I decide to roast the peanuts and make peanut butter. Still on the fence about that.

The Big Picture

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

[Ed. Note: This is something I started writing in 2009 or 2010 and apparently never posted. I think some of it was incorporated into my explanation of why I don't use coupons, but when I re-read it, it seemed like most of the ideas here never made it out of the drafts folder.

The discussion about how much I paid for a baby bok choy when I did my ramen hack meal made me think of it, and wonder if I'd ever posted it. And I hadn't. And it wasn't quite done yet. But now it is. And I have.]

*****

One of the things that I think might be a little bit different about how I work and how most Americans operate is that I try to stay focused on the big picture.

I don’t worry too much about individual things — how much fat a particular food has in it, or what the per-pound cost of what I’m buying is, or whether I’m getting enough protein at every meal. Instead I try to stay focused on the total. How healthy is my diet over the course of a day, week, month? How much did I spend overall for what I ate, and how good was it? How do I feel?

A few years ago, I did the food for a reunion of my college housemates and when we were looking at receipts to split up costs, one of my friends who does a lot of her shopping at warehouse stores (BJs, Costco, etc.) kept making comments about how much more I paid for things than she usually pays. But I had purchased most of the food for the weekend, and my overall total was far lower than hers. And this is true of our regular lives as well — my monthly expenses are far less than half of what she and her husband typically spend in a month.

One of the reasons I shop at Whole Foods is because I think the food is better. If you’re buying better food, you’re likely to be happier with less of it, and you won’t need to do as much to it to make it taste good, so that will save you time as well.

(One of the books I read over the course of the past year, I don’t remember which, included a theory that one of the reasons people who eat a lot of processed foods tend to overeat is because their bodies aren’t getting the nutrients they need, so they’re driven to eat excessive amounts in an effort to make up for it. I don’t know that there’s any evidence to support that theory, but I thought it was an interesting idea.)

At some point, I decided that trying to get low-calorie everything was silly. As long as the total calories I’m taking in is about right (I’m not very big and I do not have a very high metabolism, so I really should be taking in much less than the recommended “average” 2000 calorie-a-day diet), it doesn’t matter how much each individual thing I eat has. If eating a more caloric item means I have fewer items to eat, that works in my favor. Less money, less time, less shopping.

I started buying whole milk again not too long ago. I drank skim milk for a long time, but I never liked it, and switched to 2%. Then for a while, I’d buy a quart of skim milk and a pint of whole milk, so I could have whatever I wanted — straight skim for nonfat, straight whole for full fat, half whole and half skim for 2% (whole milk is 4% fat), or anything else in between. This is not cost effective, as a pint of whole milk costs almost the same as a quart. But it was less waste and I liked the flexibility.

Over the summer when I was having back problems and wanted to maximize calories per food intake, in order to minimize the amount of effort and trips it took to get food, get dishes, and get everything back into the kitchen, I decided that whole milk and mayonnaise were my friends. Maximum calories, minimum effort.

The problem is that most people are completely bombarded with food all the time, every day, all of it having way too many calories. And it’s nearly always the kind of food you can eat a lot of without realizing how much you’ve eaten. So if you have higher calorie things rather than lower calorie things, you’ll eat even more too much than you would otherwise. But it seems to me that the real solution is not to eat large quantities of lower calorie foods, but to eat less food overall. And have it be better quality.

When people talk about how fruit and vegetables are expensive, I feel like they’re missing the point.

Fruit and vegetables may be expensive on a per unit basis — and certainly they are expensive on a per calorie basis — but they taste good and they make you feel full. Satiety depends more on volume than on calories; I am more full after a seventy-five calorie apple and a twenty calorie carrot than I am after a four-hundred calorie bag of Doritos. (I was horrified to realize that a ninety-nine cents Big Grab bag of Doritos is two-and-a-half servings of a hundred and fifty calories each. Gaahh!) And I will be less hungry later, too. I can’t imagine any circumstances under which four-hundred calories of Doritos is a better option for me than ninety-five calories of fruit and vegetables. Unless I was having some kind of sodium crisis and need a huge influx of sodium quickly.

I feel like people need to step back and think about the big picture, both with what they’re eating and with how much they’re spending. You don’t need to balance every meal (for those who need a pep talk on the subject, feel free to re-read this M.F.K. Fisher excerpt) and you don’t need to try to get every single thing as cheaply as possible. You just need to get it all to work together — what you’re eating and how much you’re spending and how your life overall is working.

So for me personally, I’ve decided that spending approximately a hundred dollars a month on food (food prepared at home, excluding meals out, which is a separate budget item) is a reasonable target. I like to have a number that is low enough that I have to stay focused, but not so low that I have to knock myself out. That number is going to be different for everyone — everyone has different amounts of disposable income and different nutritional needs and different constraints on their time/space/energy.

I shop at Whole Foods for a whole bunch of reasons. The store has a compact layout, so I can wander haphazardly through the aisles picking up things in order of importance, and going back through aisles I went through already to get things I forgot. It is on the way to and from many things, so I can stop frequently and have it work with my schedule. I like being able to buy small quantities of meat from the butcher counter and small quantities of grains, nuts, and dried fruits from the bulk-food bins. I like that there is only one price posted, not one price for people with a loyalty card and a different price for people without a loyalty card. (I do not have any store loyalty cards, and usually they give you the lower price anyway, but not always, so it complicates my calculations about whether or not it’s worth buying something.) I like that when they post a price as two for three dollars you can buy one and it’s a dollar fifty. (Some stores have a different price for single items than for the special x for $x price, which drives me nuts.)

I’m also happy with the quality of the food I get. The prices for the things I buy may be higher than they are in other stores, but my overall costs are still low enough that it’s not worth it for me to try to come up with a different system. If I get to a point where it isn’t working for me anymore — either because I need to spend less on food, or because I know I could be spending a lot less in a way that was nearly as convenient — then I would work on figuring out something else.

But for now, this is what works.

Big picture.

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