Category Archives: Allowed / Not Allowed

Discussions about things I’m allowed or not allowed to buy

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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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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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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Dining Out

Eating out and ordering delivery food went on my list of Not Allowed early in the planning for this project mainly because it’s not allowed in Not Buying It, which I used as a rough template. I modified this decision after considering that I do live in New York City, after all. Home to some of the finest restaurants and foods in the world. It would be a waste for me to live here a year and not dine out. On the other hand, I do spend a lot of money every month on average foods like pizza, Chinese take out, wraps, pastries, sweets, and coffee or tea from cafes. As I said, a lot. I needed to find a middle ground.

First, I eliminated delivery and take out foods. A year ago I stopped eating at fast food places (McD’s, Burger King, Subway, etc.), so they were already off the list. Though I would sorely miss it, I struck street food as well.

Cafes and coffee shops present a particular challenge for me. I’m a writer and I tend to hang out in these establishments for hours while I work. On a typical day I’d spend up to $15 on drinks and pastries alone. If I wanted real food, even more. Obviously this is unacceptable for this project. It remains to be seen how I will deal with this restriction.

Eliminating these foods alone should save me hundreds each month. And that leads right into what I am Allowed.

Though there are plenty (and I mean plenty) of great mid-priced restaurants in NYC that are very good, there are some places that are just fabulous and have fabulous prices to boot. Every now and then I get a chance to eat at one of these places, but often I cannot because I don’t have the money. Now that I’m freeing up some money, I’m going to choose one restaurant a month to splurge on. Some place with really great food that I’ve either been to before and love or a place I’ve wanted to go. A place I couldn’t afford because all of my money was going into $3/cup tea every 30 minutes. This way I won’t miss out on the culinary delights of the city and still save money.

I’m allowing myself two other exceptions. The first: Desert. In addition to great restaurants are great desert bars, bakeries, patisseries, and artisan sorbet parlors. Once a month I can indulge at one such place.

The second: once a month I attend a reading series/get-together and dinner. It’s a chance to meet with authors, editors, agents and friends in my genre. It’s partly about business, partly about making connections, and partly about meeting people interested in writing and reading. And the dinner after the reading never costs more than $20.

The goal is to cut my eating out expense from $100 – $140/ week to $150/month, if that.

This means more groceries and cooking in my future. I’ll have a reason to try some new recipes and perfect others. I’m a fairly good cook, so I doubt it will be a problem.

Though I will miss eating out with my friends, I’m looking forward to having dinner parties, instead. If I can get my friends to come all the way up to my apartment.

Could you give up eating out, fast food, and Starbucks for a year? Or even a month?

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Allowed / Not Allowed

In the Not Buying It book the author states that her friends revealed their “Consumer Ids” when they would ask her what she was “allowed” to have. When I first started talking about my project I was amused to find that this held true for my friends as well. And they used the same word – allowed.

“You’re not allowed to eat out?”
“Are you allowed to buy wine?”
“You’re not even allowed to go to the movies?”

The way they (and I) frame these statements makes it sound as if the terms of this experiment are coming from somewhere else. People don’t disallow themselves, other people disallow. Right?

I like the word Allowed to describe what I can have or do during this year, so I’ll use it. I’ll even have a category for it. What is allowed and what is not allowed and why.

Drawing a line between necessary and not isn’t as simple as it seems. Food is, of course, a necessity. But dining out is not. I won’t go out to movies, but will I rent them? And, of course, can I still have something on the not allowed list if I don’t buy it?

I knew I would have to write up a firm list of allowed/not allowed at the beginning then modify it until I settled into the project and understood my needs better. After all, anyone can talk themselves into ‘needing’ almost anything. There’s always a justification somewhere.

If you decide to try not buying for a month or longer, you can use whatever term you like. But I suggest you sit down and really think about the parameters of your experiment. You don’t want to find yourself in a situation where you’re not sure if something is allowed or not, and then choose to have it and become demoralized or something. Plus, parameters are good.

This is my current list of Allowed/Not Allowed.

Not Allowed

  • Shopping for non-necessary items such as:
    • Clothing
    • Accessories
    • Electronic Gadgets
    • Software
    • Toys
    • Home Goods
    • Kitchen Items
    • Books (unless for research and that can’t be obtained from the library)
  • Anything from the Container Store
  • Anything from Bed, Bath, & Beyond
  • Taxis
  • Prepared foods
  • Delivery or take-out food
  • Dining Out (except under particular circumstances)
  • Movies (in theater – renting is an unresolved issue)
  • Music
  • Theater
  • Television (i.e. no cable)
  • Concerts
  • Buying food or drink in:
    • Bars/Clubs
    • Cafes/Coffee Shops

Allowed

  • Food / Groceries
  • Toiletries
  • Items legitimately classified as business expenses (more on this in a later
    post)

This list is going to change and grow as I go along. I hope to have it firm by the beginning of February at least.

Taking a look at my not allowed list will probably give you a nice peek into my psyche. What would your list say about you?

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