Monthly Archives: January 2007

My Shopping List

Today is the first day of my fiscal month. I only get paid once a month on the 15th, so I have to budget carefully to last through the month. I’m not too worried about this next month as I’m not spending as much as I usually do. Since I’m getting paid today, I get to got through my shopping list and decide what to buy.

Ever since the start of the project I’ve been keeping a list of things I feel I ‘need’ to buy. I had the brilliant idea of holding off on buying these things until the beginning of my fiscal month in order to give myself time to evaluate the true ‘need’ of said items. Here’s my current list with items crossed out that I’m not going to get after all:

  • Post-It Notes
  • Electric kettle
  • Tupperware
  • Shea Oil
  • Faucet-mount water filter
  • Dish brush
  • Brush for cleaning laptop
  • Tub stopper
  • Sharpie pen
  • Paper for my printer
  • Findings for jewelry making

My roommate is going to split the cost of the filter and Tupperware with me since they’re house needs. Other items fall under “work” – sharpie pen, paper, brush, post-its – and “Toiletries”. The one item that isn’t obviously necessary is the electric kettle. I have that on the list for cooking purposes – it’s good for more than boiling water. And it’s incredibly helpful when making risotto, which means I’ll stay away from my favorite risotto restaurant. My next step is to look on Freecycle and Craigslist to see if I can get it for nothing.

Last fiscal month we bought a much-needed stand for the microwave we’re getting sometime soon (hopefully for free) and I bought a book about Stretching. Sadly, that last purchase was a complete cheat. The library didn’t have any copies and I couldn’t find the information I wanted online. 15 days in and already I’m being a bad girl.

At any rate, the Shopping List is the best idea I’ve had on this project so far. By restricting my ‘need’ buying to one time during the month I can curb impulses. I may even continue this once the year is over.

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Addendum to Television

I was quite remiss in mentioning two additional ways to watch television shows for free.

The first is to rent DVDs and VHS tapes from your local library. This won’t work for everyone – not all library systems have the financial resources to buy lots of DVDs. But you may be surprised what your local library does have. Check them out.

The second works better for sports than regular TV shows – going out to local bars, clubs, and lounges to watch TV. Though it isn’t as comfortable as sitting on your living room couch, it adds a group dimension to your viewing.

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Television

Getting rid of cable or satellite television probably counts as a project all on its own. For many people, getting rid of cable means getting rid of television. How many cities still have meaningful airwave broadcast areas? The ‘free’ channels may be hard to catch with an antenna and come through fuzzy and unwatchable even if you can. Let’s face it – in America, if you want to watch live TV you almost always need a cable or satellite hook up.

Both cable and satellite cost money. Sometimes a lot of money. Time Warner in NYC is more than $100/month. And now they’re trying to foist the cable/phone/internet package on everyone, making it so expensive to have just one service you bundle them to get a (much needed) break. Satellite may run you as little as $40 and as much as $175 per month depending on the service, how many channels you want, and where you live.

With these services you get well over 100 channels. But the complaint we all hear (and sometimes make ourselves) is that there’s nothing to watch. Just think about how many shows you actually watch in a given week. Now think about how many you really love and how many you just put up with because they’re mildly entertaining. How many hours do you spend channel surfing, going through all 500 available seeking something good? Or, at least, something palatable.

How much time do you waste watching TV?

Not all TV is a waste, of course. There are good shows – dramas, comedies, documentaries, news. TV can enrich as well as entertain. It’s not all bad.

It’s also not all good. For example, I saw a commercial once that revealed what is wrong with our TV-based culture (instead of making me want to buy something to make the experience of TV better, which was the point). In it, a young woman speaks excitedly into the camera about how a cute guy in her office finally asked her out. Oh, how wonderful! He says, “Let’s go out on Thursday night.” “Thursday night?” she says to the camera. “I can’t go out on Thursday – it’s Must-See-TV night! All my favorite shows are on.” How can she miss them? What will she do? At this point, my reaction was: “This is why it’s so hard to get a date, you silly git. You’d rather watch TV than go out and do things with gasp! people.” The solution to her dilemma was not, unfortunately, a smack in the face. It was the acquisition of a DVR (Digital Video Recorder, generic TiVo) so she could record her shows and still go out with the cute guy.

I felt this missed the point entirely.

DVRs are a good solution to the problem of there being ‘nothing on’. Record the shows you like, watch them when you want, and you should never have to surf and search again. That solves one aspect of the problem. However, you’re still paying for hundreds of channels you don’t watch, some you never will. How much is one season of The Sopranos or Lost worth to you? $130/month?

How much money could you save a year if you gave up cable or satellite TV? How much more time would you have if you did? What would you do with that time and that money? How would it change how you relate to people? How would it change how you relate to your family? Things to consider.

For me, TV was taking up too much of my time. And I became a vegetable while watching it, unable to get away once I started. I always fell into the “there has to be something on” channel surfing trap. Plus, I’m a great procrastinator and TV is a great enabler.

I also really resented the growing amount of advertising on TV. Ads creep in, stealing one minute here and one minute there from actual show time. A typical “half hour” show is now 20-22 minutes instead of 24-26 of just a few years ago. Hour long shows get a mere 40 – 44 minutes. 16 – 20 minutes of commercials! What’s worse, it’s often the same damn commercials at every break. No matter how cute or fun or cutting edge a commercial is, it’s not the show I want to watch.

I tried for several years to break myself from the TV habit. But I don’t have an incredible amount of willpower and I’ve always lived in a place with cable or satellite and the temptation was too great. Every now and then I was able to go a while watching limited TV, but could never reach my goal of cutting myself off completely or, at least, only watching the few shows I liked. Then I moved into a new apartment.

When I first met my roommate she informed me that she did not have cable in the apartment. She had a VCR and a DVD player, but no cable. And we can’t get broadcast channels in this area, so the apartment has no TV, essentially. This was great news! Now I could implement my plan of not watching any live TV and, of course, not paying a huge cable bill for a bunch of stuff I didn’t watch.

Does that mean I don’t watch TV shows? Nope. I still watch my favorite shows, just not live.

There are alternatives to paying for cable. There’s paying for the shows you love individually. Almost every show comes out on DVD the fall after the season (or series) finale. If you can wait, you can still watch Desperate Housewives or NUMB3RS, just not right away. There are no commercials on DVD, and for shows with a throughline (like DH or Lost), you won’t have to wait a week from one cliffhanger to the next. Very satisfying.

You can also buy individual episodes of TV. Several networks offer $2/episode downloads of shows through iTunes, available the day after the initial broadcast. You can play them on your iPod or on your computer. Just make sure you take a look at the limits on what you can do with the files. iTunes may not allow you to copy them to a second computer or to a DVD, for example.

I don’t often buy a TV show unless I really, really love it. Of course, I’m not buying any at all this year. Instead, I rent the DVDs. This way I can watch the shows once and return them, then rent again if I want to see a particular episode I loved. Netflix has a huge selection of DVDs, including TV DVDs. But Netflix sucks, so I suggest Intelliflix, instead (click that link and get $10.00 off Superpass plans). You can rent movies, TV shows, games, and ‘erotic’ films. Plus, they have more plan and pricing options. Consumer Reports likes them a lot.

I’ve been struggling with whether renting DVDs is Allowed or not. Is this a necessity? I still don’t know. But I have Netflix for free (because they messed up so many of my shipments) until 2/14, so I have some time to consider the issue. Still, it’s less than cable/satellite and I only pay for what I want to watch.

There are ways to watch TV shows for free, though. Other than going to a friend’s house, that is. Some networks allow you to watch their shows for free via streaming video. CBS, NBC, and ABC all offer shows online. Some you can even watch every episode that’s aired in the current season, some only the latest few. I know in the case of CBS there is one 30 second commercial that plays at each break. This may be true for the others as well. CBS also offers live streaming news.

As far as I can tell, there aren’t any cable networks except for Comedy Central and Cartoon Network that offer full episodes online. If you find more in your explorations, let me know!

There is one last way to watch your favorite shows for free. But it’s illegal, apparently, so I can’t recommend it. Some people in the world download television shows from the internet. These video files come sans commercials of any kind. Some are better quality than others. Many are available a few hours after the show is broadcast. As I said, the legality of this is in question. Television people will say it’s absolutely illegal. Are they lying? Someone will have to enlighten me on the subject.

I often say I have an ultimate goal of not watching any TV at all. I don’t know how true that is anymore. One thing about only watching the shows I want to watch is discovering an appreciation for really good television. I’m not going to waste a rental on a series that’s only sub-par. I’m not going to keep buying episodes of a show that loses my interest. The quality of my viewing is up and therefore I see television shows as less of a waste than I did before. An hour spent watching engaging, well-written, and entertaining television is very rewarding.

Maybe in a few years I will stop watching TV shows. For now, I’m content with renting and streaming. It still means less time spent watching shows and more time for other things. It also means less money spent.

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Book Review: Give It Up! My Year of Learning to Live Better with Less

After reading Not Buying It, I took Amazon’s suggestion to read Give It Up!, too. I didn’t have high hopes for it, though, based on the many negative reviews on the site. Had I not been reading the book in preparation for this project, I would have returned it to the library after finishing the first chapter. For you, my dear audience, I read it all.

Give It UpIn Give It Up!, author Mary Carlomagno decides to eliminate “unnecessary facets of life” by doing a year-long über Lent. Each month she gives up one thing she enjoys or can’t do without. The idea is that, by giving these things up, it will force her to evaluate her dependence on them or otherwise transform her outlook on life.

A lofty goal and a worthy project, but this book suffers from a major flaw: the author is annoying.

That’s an unfair value judgment based on nothing but my own opinion. But, as she is presented to me in this book, I feel it’s a apt assessment. Firstly, Carlomango is an incredibly privileged person (that sounds familiar…), thus, her struggle to give up things like alcohol every night and taxis every day doesn’t resonate with me. And she never acknowledges that this might be the case. Her world might as well be the whole world as far as this book goes.

As I said, the first chapter nearly did me in. January was no alcohol month and Mary’s first step was to reschedule her many appointments labeled as “Drinks With…” in her date book. Apparently no one will talk to this woman over coffee, only over martinis. That’s a red flag right there. She cancels a dinner date with her brother because there’s “no point” in eating food at this very fine restaurant if she can’t have wine. She also discovers that it’s a lot easier to wake up in the morning when she’s not hung over (no, really?) and how catty and annoying her girlfriends are when they’ve had a bit to drink. Her strange cravings for alcohol after Yoga class plus her inability to go 10 minutes without being tempted plus her feeling that she could not have “fun” while drinking club soda all smacked of a serious problem to me. One not easily solved and one that I’m not sure many people have.

Other appalling chapters included August’s ban on taxis in which our heroine discovers that she needs “sensible shoes” in order to survive the horror of mass transit with her toes intact. It also reveals that she regularly (read: at least twice weekly) takes $50 cab rides home because she can’t be bothered to take the train (or is too drunk to). She admits to not knowing where things are in the city in which she works because she never walks but hails a cab instead. An expensive habit at roughly $300 per month.

Some months she chooses genuinely interesting things to give up: elevators, cell phones, television, multi-tasking. Her observations on how people rely on cell phones instead of making definite plans is particularly eye-opening for me since I’ve been trying to bully a friend into joining the 21st century by getting one. The multi-tasking chapter made me mindful of how often I am unfocused because I’m trying to do too many things at once and to work on correcting the habit. So the book isn’t a total loss. The author still manages to be annoying, though.

A book like this – written from one POV about the struggles of one person – hinges so much on who that person is and how well they can speak to the reader. No one can be all things to all people; no book can, either. However, the author’s personality and predilections don’t seem to resonate with most kinds of people. At least, not the way they’re presented here.

My conclusion: another library book. As I said, some of the chapters were eye-opening. If you can separate the wheat from the chaff without tossing the book away in disgust you may come away with food for thought.

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More Thoughts on Food

As a follow up to my post on Food the other day, here are some items I found in the news this week.

The first is an interview with Barry Glassner, author of The Gospel of Food, broadcast on NPR’s Marketplace on 1/9/07.

KAI RYSSDAL: This might not be something you think about when you walk into your local supermarket. But as you wheel that shopping cart down the aisle trying to figure out what’s for dinner, you’re at the receiving end of an enormous marketing campaign. It’s not unlike clothes or cars. Manufacturers trying to get consumers to buy — and to buy into — a certain brand or model to make them feel better about themselves. Author Barry Glassner says food today is way more complicated than just You are what you eat.

BARRY GLASSNER: I think we think that what we eat and what other people eat tells us a whole lot about who they are, who we are. And I think a lot of what we pay for in our food these days is not just the basic food but some kind of image of ourselves that we get by eating one way rather than another.

… the food industry depends on [people spending and spending]. And they do a great job with it. And they do it in some really clever ways so they can get us to pay more for less. So if it’s low-fat or low-carb or low-sugar — whatever we’re into — we’ll pay more money for that.

I think what we’re paying for, for most food these days, is a story. A story about the food, a story about ourselves. That, you know, somehow if I eat something that is labeled as cage-free — in the case of eggs — that I’m saying something about myself. I’m doing something great for the world.

… food has become a lot more like fashion now. We don’t like to talk about that. That’s not widely talked about. That’s one reason I wrote the book, is to sort of expose that. What people like to say is, “Oh, no, no, it’s all about health. It’s all about nutrition. It’s all about being righteous.” No. It’s mostly about who am I, and who am I trying to say I am?

Listen to the entire interview here.

The second item came from All Things Considered: “A new study, co-authored by Harvard researchers and analysts from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, suggests there’s a systematic bias in nutrition studies funded by food companies.”

From the Boston Herald:

“We found evidence that’s strongly suggestive of bias,” said Dr. David Ludwig, an obesity specialist at Children’s Hospital Boston who led the work, which was published Monday in the online science journal PLoS Medicine. The consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest also participated.

Biased science can affect consumer behavior, doctor recommendations and even federal regulation of marketing claims for such products, Ludwig said.

“I don’t blame researchers for this problem. I think most are highly ethical and dedicated to science. The problem is that when government underfunds nutrition research, industry money becomes hard to resist,” he said.

The full audio from ATC is here.

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Book Review: Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping

Since Not Buying It inspired me to start this experiment, and since I used it as a rough template for the endeavor, I thought a review of the book might be useful to others.

Not Buying ItFor anyone interested in our growing consumer culture, bucking materialism, and living simply, Not Buying It may prove an interesting book for you. However, it may also frustrate you and make you angry.

In Not Buying It, Judith Levine provides us with a very narrow and personal view on the concept of not participating in consumer culture. The book is not meant to instruct or provide resources, tips, and support. It’s a personal journal with focus and agenda. If you keep that in mind you might avoid some of the vehement annoyance the reviewers on Amazon display. (Though I should point out that I agree with most of their assessments of this title.)

I think Not Buying It had the potential to be a great book, even if it wasn’t a How-To. But several things got in the way of that.

First, the author decided to embark on her project during a particularly nasty election year – 2004. I found myself wishing that she’d come up with this idea during some other year. Then the heavy political rants might have been avoided. I’m as left-leaning as Ms. Levine (perhaps more so), yet even I got tired of the politics and Reagan/Bush/Conservative bashing. It added nothing to the book and detracted from the very interesting thoughts on how consumerism operates in our culture. I would have liked her to explore the corporate side of the problem, instead.

Second, the author is an incredibly privileged person. She and her partner have two residences, three cars, and between them so much stuff they need to build extra rooms on their house to fit it all. So much that they can go a year without buying and still have too much. Therefore her view on living simply and not buying unnecessary things is a bit skewed. When you already have too much, it’s easy to do with what you have. But that doesn’t resonate with me. That she never examines this aspect of herself is annoying. She does mention the piles of clothes and shoes she owns, some with the tag still on. She doesn’t go farther than mentioning it, though.

Third, the aforementioned nature of the book – that it’s just a personal journal not a how-to guide. The non-how-to-ness doesn’t bother me so much, but the narrow POV of it does. It’s a very inwardly focused book that offers very little to the reader. One person’s personal journey to enlightenment is only so interesting, and this book doesn’t even offer that. The whole thing is very half-hearted, in my opinion. Levine doesn’t delve deep into her own struggles to combat her consumerist ways nor does she offer any real help for other people to do so. It’s very superficial.

Nevertheless, the book isn’t a total loss. If the topic interests you, then this book provides some interesting bits on consumer culture, materialism, and the drive to buy things. Looking at them from the outside did give Levine an interesting perspective. I wish she’d gone the investigate journalism route more often than the political screed or personal journal routes.

Conclusion: Borrow the book from the library, but don’t buy it. It only takes one read to absorb what little of use there is in this book.

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Food

Food has turned out to be one of the most complicated aspects of this project. There’s not only the question of Dining Out, but also what I’m allowed to buy at the store, whether I’m allowed to go to the store, and what to do when I’m out and hungry. A lot to consider.

Though one side effect of this project is to save myself some money, I won’t skimp when it comes to food. All of us need priorities, and good food is one of mine. Good tasting and good for me.

Grocery Shopping

Obviously I’m allowed to shop for groceries. Food is a necessity, after all. However, I still have to carefully consider what I buy and where I buy it.

The majority of Americans get their food from grocery stores or stores with grocery sections like Super Target or Wal-Mart SuperCenter. Still others shop in bulk stores like Sam’s Club or Costco. It’s safe to say that most folks don’t shop at locally owned groceries, but corporate stores like Albertsons, Kroger, or Whole Foods. A small minority buy their food directly from the folks who farm or raise it.

That’s by necessity. The grocery system is a great one. It brings us food from all over the world and in great variety. Even if a certain food is out of season, one can usually find it either fresh or frozen and never be without. This convenience comes at a price, though. Dyed fruits and veggies, produce kept “fresh” by unnatural methods, food loaded with preservatives, and even contamination (e. coli, etc.). As with many things in life, there is some good and some bad to be found in the grocery store issue. My goal is to support the good and avoid the bad by looking for alternatives.

Farmers Markets

I decided to investigate how much of my food and culinary needs I could buy without setting foot in a store. For me, this is not very difficult. Though I live in a city and don’t have a car, I can have farm-fresh food every week thanks to New York’s Greenmarket Initiative. Every week 4 – 7 vendors set up a little market in my neighborhood to sell fruits, vegetables, beef, turkey, fish, honey, eggs, milk, bread, pastries, and tons of other edible delights. These vendors grow, raise, catch, and package their food and sell it directly to their customers.

Most weeks I can get all the food I need for the week at my local market. If I have extra needs, I head downtown.

Our market is comparatively small and only one of many in NYC’s boroughs. Almost every day of the week there is a market running somewhere. The biggest (I think) is the market in Union Square which is open Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. Saturday has dozens of vendors, and the weekdays are well attended, too. In addition to the stuff I already mentioned, I can also buy farm-fresh flour, polenta, wool, cheese, cider, wine – almost anything I might want to eat or drink.

The prices are sometimes higher than the supermarket, but not always. Small operations may mean higher prices but the quality is often better. And I have direct access to the people responsible for my food.

I find that Farmers Market food often elevates my palette. After all, after you’ve tasted artisan, hand-made cheese you won’t soon settle for Kraft slices. It makes me more mindful of what I eat and it forces me to consider the choices I make.

Farmers Markets and You

I’m very lucky to live in NYC where there’s an active farmers market movement and enough farms, apiaries, fisherbeings, and orchards within driving distance to make it work on a large scale. If you live elsewhere, don’t despair! Most major cities have at least one market or grocery co-op thanks to advocates and initiatives.

You can use websites like LocalHarvest and the USDA’s website to find farmers markets, grocery co-ops, and farms in your area. If there isn’t a market near you, LocalHarvest is a good resource for learning how to get one going.

In major cities it may not be a hassle to get to a market. For smaller or suburban communities that may not be the case. This is where you must decide how much you care about buying food direct. It may mean only heading to the market once a month and stocking up. Or it may mean investigating if the groceries near you carry locally grown foods. In NYC Whole Foods does that. It’s not as direct as a farmers market, but still a few steps closer.

Mindful Shopping

No matter if you’re buying food from a farmers market or a grocery store, it’s always a good idea to give a lot of thought to what you’re buying and why. I’ve said before that I’m not allowed any prepared foods. To clarify: I’m not buying any food I can reasonably make myself. I’m crap at bread, haven’t learned how to make jams and preserves, and don’t have a blender powerful enough to make nut butters. Stuff like this is Allowed. Frozen dinners/pizza, hot/cold food bars, deli food, etc. are Not Allowed.

I also keep a careful eye on the ingredients of what I buy. Anything with High Fructose Corn Syrup or Trans Fats are Not Allowed. I try to avoid refined sugars when I can as well. This narrows my choices down by more than you’d imagine.

The next time you go grocery shopping, think carefully about what you’re going to get. Lists are great and can help keep you from buying random foods you don’t need or aren’t good for you. But I also suggest looking for foods that you’ve never had before and trying them out. After all, if I only took things off of my Allowed food list and never tried to expand my horizons, I would just sit around eating broccoli and cheddar cheese all the time. I also suggest not going for a food just because it’s cheaper and, conversely, don’t fall into thinking that if it’s more expensive it’s better.

Cooking

I now have a lot of wonderful food and other ingredients in my house. What am I going to do with them? I have an unfortunate habit of waiting until I’m really hungry to consider my meals. This usually leads to going out for a quick slice of pizza. Or, worse, a bag of chips. Not during this year. I do have a few foods that are ready to eat, but the majority of it requires cooking. Good thing I’m a good cook.

I wasn’t always a good cook. And I may not have considered doing this project if I wasn’t sure I had excellent cooking skills. A few years ago my repertoire of dishes included burgers, chicken, pasta and eggs. Anything I could fry or boil, essentially. I may not have expanded beyond this if some friends hadn’t introduced me to a show called Good Eats on the Food Network. It’s one of the few cooking shows I really enjoy because the host, Alton Brown, is very funny, very informative, and covers a wide array of foods and dishes. (Check out his rant on why the lack of local food consumption contributed to the e coli outbreak.) It’s not all 30 minute meals or high gourmet; Alton provides a mix of dishes, prep times, and difficulties. And he’s very good at explaining things so that I feel I can cook anything as long as I have Alton to help me along.

If you’re going to put Dining Out on your Not Allowed list, being a decent cook is essential. The better you are at whipping up a fantastic meal, the less temptation you’ll have to step out. If you don’t feel you’re a good cook, then I suggest giving Alton and Good Eats a try. If it doesn’t float your boat, Food Network has a lot of other shows to choose from. And if you’re like me and don’t have cable, Good Eats is available on DVD and Alton has three books out that cover basic cooking, baking, and equipment.

One you’re secure in your cooking skills, invite your friends over for dinner or lunch or brunch or whatever. It’s highly satisfying to have people say, “This is amazing! I have to have this again!” about a dish you’ve made. I get a warm feeling every time people compliment my sweet potato pancakes. And I can use them to draw people up to my apartment for bunch or the promise of other excellent food.

Eating While Out

Being a good cook also comes in handy when I know I’ll be out of the house all day. I can make my own snack or lunch and take it along with me. Sometimes it’s as simple as popcorn or fruit. I also have homemade honey nut bars, lotus root chips, and sandwiches. I carry a water bottle with me at all times and refill it whenever I can. I’ll also usually grab a selection of tea bags.

It takes planning to remember I need these items when I go out. It’s essential to keep myself from getting so hungry I need to get food in order to function. If I accidentally forget to bring food and find myself in that situation, I often duck into a grocery store and buy food I can eat as a snack but also doubles as groceries I can take home. The last time this happened I bought a loaf of bread, hummus, and feta cheese to tide me over. We needed more hummus, anyway.

If you have a regular 9-5 job things are a bit easier. Making lunch can become part of your morning routine. Even better if you have a microwave available to you. Last night’s leftovers can go right into some Tupperware and right into a lunch bag. This keeps leftovers from festering forgotten at the back of the fridge.


I will probably spend a decent chunk of money on food this year, even with Dining Out on the Not Allowed list. But I will spend my money with careful consideration. Food is a basic, important need. And nothing is more important than eating things that are good, healthy, and make you feel great.

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