Monday, July 30, 2007

Economic Survival In Hard Times

This is going to be a long post, and I think a very necessary one. This essay was inspired, in part, by Sharon of Casaubon’s Book, . Now I love Sharon and what she has to say. Most of it I agree with wholeheartedly. But there is one thing that I don’t think she, and most of the other members of the Riot for Austerity, really take into account. And that is the sheer economic reality facing most Americans today. Most of those Rioting are fairly comfortable, and so they can afford to make most of the changes necessary to lower their impact. It’s no real surprise then, that they blithely assume most people can go out and buy rain barrels whenever they want. But that’s not the case. The vast majority of American families are struggling just to make ends meet.

I’m unemployed right now and a graduate student, so I’m one of them. I also know a thing or two about poverty –I grew up grindingly poor, to the point where my childhood was spent on and off the streets. So I know and understand the hard battle for economic survival many people –including myself –are facing right now. Economic collapse in this country didn’t begin with Peak Oil last year, or last month, and it won’t begin tomorrow or last year. It began in the 1980s and has only gotten worse. More and more people get knocked down, or off, the economic ladder all the time. I want nothing more than to save the planet. That’s the honest truth. And so do many others among the working poor. But when the rubber meets the road, reality has to be faced and some hard choices made. If I have to choose between being eco friendly and eating dinner, I’m going to eat dinner. And so are a whole lot of other folks.

That’s why I decided to write this essay. It’s partly about being eco-friendly on a budget and partly about sheer economic survival. (And about merging the two whenever possible.) I’m going to talk about general ways to cut overall costs, about ways to eat well cheaply, and about low-cost (as opposed to outright low-energy) food preservation methods. Some people may know most of this stuff, but my aim is to provide knowledge to the widest audience possible to help people cope.

1.) First, find out where the leaks are. Start a record of everything you spend –and I do mean everything. From groceries to the coke at the office. Include rent or the mortgage payment, utilities, everything. You can’t see where to go until you know where you’re at. And when you realize that you’re spending $100 or more a year on cokes at work, it might make you think twice about buying the next one. I know people are busy, but this step will only take ten or fifteen minutes a week (if that) and the rewards are tremendous.
2.) Cut out the “necessities” that are really conveniences. I’m talking cable TV, high speed internet (or internet at all), cell phones, etc. If you’re really desperate, cut off the phone service. If you absolutely have to be able to be reached, get one of those cheapo pay as you go cell phones.
3.) Raise or lower the thermostat (or turn the system off all together when possible). Standard advice, but still good. Make the change incrementally rather than all at once to give yourself time to adjust. Where I’m at, each degree you raise or lower the thermostat can save you up to $10 a month. (Depending on numerous variables of course.) When the weather’s nice, turn off the A/C or heater and open the windows. Fresh air never killed anyone.
4.) Trip chain, and walk, bike, or use public transit when possible: More standard advice, but still good. This won’t work for everyone, and that’s fine too. After being on your feet all day at the diner or the construction site, you might not feel like biking to the store. That’s fine, but you can stop at the store on your way home. Gasoline is way too expensive to waste.
5.) Line dry your clothes. If you don’t have a clothesline its cold out, you can use drying racks inside or hang them on your shower rod.
6.) Shop discount stores, thrift stores, and yard sales. Big Lots, Fred’s, Family Dollar, and the like are often cheaper than even Wal-mart. Your kid might need new sneakers, but you can get them for five bucks at the thrift shop, versus at least fifteen at the store.
7.) Buy in bulk (when cheaper) and on sale. One of the mantras of frugality is “never pay full price”.
8.) Buy only what you need, and never buy disposables. You need food –you don’t need IPODS, jewelry, new clothing, DVDs, etc. As for disposables, they cost both you and the planet more in the long run. This includes even paper towels. I have three dozen washcloths, bought at yard sales that I use in place of paper towels. They work better and even when I factor in washing I’m ahead.
9.) Buy only what you need, and never buy disposables. You need food –you don’t need IPODS, jewelry, new clothing, DVDs, etc. As for disposables, they cost both you and the planet more in the long run. This includes even paper towels. I have three dozen washcloths, bought at yard sales that I use in place of paper towels. They work better and even when I factor in washing I’m ahead.
10.) Consider moving into cheaper housing. Also consider moving closer to work, or getting a job closer to home. Consider moving in with family or friends for a while, if need be, having them move in with you, or taking in a boarder if you have the room. No, this will not be comfortable, but we’re talking survival here –not comfort. And your situation might not be that bad right now, but six months from now it could be so don’t dismiss the notion out of hand.
11.) Make do, reduce, reuse, recycle: Go without if you have to. Try to find a cheaper (preferably free) alternative to buying something.
12.) Gain new skills. Learn to do something yourself instead of buying it. Also use the skills you’ve got; if you have a lawn mower, offer to mow your more affluent friends/neighbors yards for a few bucks.
13.) Ditch the gas guzzler. If you absolutely *need* a minivan, pickup, or SUV for work, make sure your work is paying for it. And the extra gas. Otherwise, ditch it anyone you can. Get the smallest, cheapest car you can find and fit your family into. (If you have to have a car.) Get something older and paid for. You might have to spend a bit more on maintenance, but the savings on car insurance and payments will definitely offset that. Whatever you do, get rid of the car payment. If you can’t sell the car, total it if you have to. I’m not advocating breaking the law here; but you do what you need to do to survive.
14.) Trash pick and dumpster dive. Don’t make funny faces –I didn’t say climb into a dumpster. Never do that. But if something good is on top or on the curb, grab it. If you can’t use it you can probably sell it. Just yesterday I got a solid wood end table off the side of the road. I could only sell it for five bucks or so, but that’s something. You’d be surprised what people throw out.
15.) Ditch the plastic. In fact, cut the cards up. (Except your debit.) Years ago The People’s Almanac did a study that showed people spend 23% more with cards than with cash. This has since been proven over and over again. If you’re in debt get out. And if you can’t get out (I know it happens, and believe me, I understand) swallow your pride and file for bankruptcy. The new laws really aren’t as bad as they make it sound, unless you make a lot of money.
16.) Never forget the mantra: SMALL SAVINGS ADD UP. A dollar is a dollar is a dollar.

This is getting harder and harder to do, but I am still managing it. Here’s some tricks that I use. I’m no expert and am constantly learning, but these are strategies that work for me. I’m going to post general tips first and then go into specifics for various categories.
General Tips
1.) Use a price book. This was first espoused in The Tightwad Gazette but it still works today. Basically, keep track of the prices for the groceries you buy at various stores in your area and shop the cheapest ones. You might have to change the prices a bit more often due to inflation, but it still works. Only use the stores on your usual routes –don’t go out of your way. If this sounds like a lot of work to you, it’s not. It only takes a couple of hours to pull one together, and then 15 minutes every month or so to update it. Mine only has 50 different items or so, and I can remember most of the lowest prices in my head. Because I have the book, I know that bananas are normally 50 cents a pound in my area. Anything over that is too much, anything lower than that is a sale. When you see a sale on something you use a lot, stockpile it.
2.) Shop loss leaders. A lot of people (me included) get store flyers weekly in the mail and there’s no way to opt out. So I go through them and mark the really good deals. This is what your price book is good for, among other things. Also sign up for those little cards some stores have. I hate them, but they save me way too much money.
3.) Ditch the convenience and junk food. And I mean ALL of it. Not just the frozen dinners; but the potato chips, the cookies, the pudding cups, the bagged and microwavable popcorn (it takes fifteen minutes to pop some on the stove, and its much better). I also mean cold cereal (save when there’s a really good sale), bakery muffins, frozen pancakes, all of it.
4.) Stop eating out. Don’t whenever you can avoid it. Eat at home whenever possible.
5.) Cook at home, from scratch. Don’t hyperventilate. Even if you’ve never cooked in your life you can learn to do so. I did. It’s not hard, it just takes practice. As for time limitations, that just takes organization. Believe me, I’m busy too. I tend to make big batches of food at once and either freeze it or keep it around for several days and eat off it. Sometimes on the weekends I’ll make a big batch of muffins or pancakes and eat off that all week.
6.) Eat simply. You don’t need a four course meal every night. Rice and beans aren’t going to kill you.
7.) Go meatless at least part of the time. There is no reason you should need meat more than 2-3 times a week if you’re eating plenty of other protein.
8.) Go easy on the dairy. You don’t need it everyday, especially if it’s conventional. The antibiotics and hormones in it aren’t exactly good for your system. BTW –and this is heresy in our society I know –I would recommend NEVER eating conventional dairy products while pregnant or nursing, and never giving them to a growing child. There’s more than a little bit of evidence that the hormones in them cause problems, even to the point of causing girls to enter puberty sooner.
9.) Plant a garden. Even if you get one lousy tomato, that’s something. And even if you live in an apartment, you can at least grow sprouts. You can also check to see if your community has a community garden and see about getting a plot. For the disabled, check and see if your community has a free garden that supplies produce in season to poor and disabled residents. Mine does; it’s by the botanical gardens and it’s tended by volunteers, most of whom are master gardeners.
10.) Only buy from farmer’s markets things that are cheaper than at the grocery store. Heresy again, but it’s not going to do yourself any good to support the local farmer if you end up half starving because of it.
11.) Preserve your own food when you can do it cheaply enough. See below.
12.) Never turn down free food.
13.) If really desperate, go to the food bank. It’s what they’re there for. I have never done this, but that’s because I’m single and childless and I figure that no matter how bad off I am there’s someone with kids who needs that stuff worse.
14.) Finally, consider dumpster diving behind grocery stores at the end of the day. Make sure the dumpster isn’t locked or monitored. (Yes, some stores monitor their dumpsters –pathetic I know.) You wouldn’t believe how much food gets tossed on a daily basis in this country. Fresh bread that didn’t sell that day. Produce they’ve had for a day (maybe two) but that’s still good. Whole cases of good stuff because one jar broke. Some stores donate this stuff to food banks, but a lot of them don’t.
Fruits and Vegetables
1.) Frozen is usually much cheaper than fresh. That this should be the case is one of the best examples I know of just how irrational our economy is. Frozen food must be harvested, washed, cut up, packaged, frozen, transported in refrigerated trucks, and kept frozen at the store. And yet a pound of fresh broccoli is often $4 or more, while a pound of frozen can generally be had for a $1 or a $1.25 on sale. Most of it is flash frozen so the loss of nutrients is minimal. You wouldn’t want to eat frozen fruit or vegetables straight up, but they’re good for cooking.
2.) Frozen juice concentrate is cheaper than the bottles. A half gallon of the cheap apple juice in the bottle is normally around two dollars. I can get the equivalent amount frozen for $0.87 or cheaper and mix it up myself. Other juices are the same. Only by 100% juice btw –otherwise you’re wasting your money on corn syrup and sugar.
3.) Potatoes, sweet potatoes, garlic, onions, dried beans, and rice are good sources of calories and vitamins and are very cheap to boot.
4.) Store bought canned good suck. But you can live off of them. Learn to, at least part of the time.
5.) The cheapest fresh vegetable (aside from those in number 3) are carrots. I can get a decent sized bag of the baby ones, year round, for $1.50-$2.00. I try to keep them around for snacks and such.
6.) Most stores make lettuce and salad mixes a loss leader about once a month. Keep an eye out for this.
7.) In season is the cheapest time to buy most fruits and vegetables. I got a little watermelon the other day for two bucks. Tomatoes and such are also cheap; buy twenty pounds at the farmer’s market and put them up for the winter.
8.) The cheapest fruits are generally bananas followed by apples. Both are good sources of nutrition for both adults and children.
9.) Only buy whole grains. The other stuff is empty calories. (Complete with bleach residues.) This is one category where the slightly higher expense is worth it.
10.) Pastas tend to go on sale roughly every other month. Keep an eye out and stock up.
11.) Dried beans are cheaper than fresh.
12.) Peanut butter is one of the best foods you can buy, hands down.
Eggs and Dairy
1.) Use these sparingly.
2.) Find out when your local stores mark down items near their expiration dates. (Most here do this on Sunday afternoons.) You can often get things half price at this point.
3.) Butter and cheese can be frozen without side effects.
I’m not the best person to comment on this, as I don’t often eat meat (and can’t cook the stuff; raw meat turns my stomach). But here’s what I do know:
1.) Chicken is the cheapest meat. Whole chickens are generally cheapest, followed by dark meat and then white meat.
2.) Ground chuck/beef/etc are generally the cheapest cuts.
3.) Meat too is usually marked down when it gets near to expiration. That’s a good time to buy it and freeze it.

There are many different methods you can use, and I’m going to list them in no particular order.

1.) Store foods that don’t need special preservation techniques. Grains, rice, dried beans, and the like will keep just about indefinitely if stores properly.
2.) Freezing. This should not be your only or even your primary source of preserving. But if you have a refrigerator, presumably you have a freezer. You’ll be surprised to find how much food you can cram into the average size freezer. Use square containers (they take up less space) and label everything. I don’t recommend buying a freezer unless you can find a used one cheap that is the right size for your family and is also energy star certified.
3.) Curing. Many foods will keep for months when properly cured and stored. These include potatoes, sweet potatoes, garlic, onions, and winter squashes.
4.) Canning. No, canning need not be expensive. Once you’ve got the equipment all you have to pay for are lids, food, water, and power. And you can still can a lot of food for less than a store bought can of the same item. All you need to can high-acid items is a water bath canner. You can even make one. For low-acid items you need a pressure canner. Both of these can generally be found used for little cost. A brand new water bath canner with rack is about $13. Jars are expensive –IF you buy them. I have literally hundreds of jars, and all of them came from Freecycle and friends. Put the word out and you’ll be surprised what turns up!
5.) Drying. Especially solar drying. You can make a solar dryer from common household items.

I hope this has been helpful. Tackling the subject of economic survival in an essay is a might task –at best, I’ve scratched the surface. Above all, remember that attitude is key: The right attitude can make the difference between thriving and being depressed (or worse.)

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Why I haven't been writing much lately...

Partly it's because I'm at the end of the summer semester and am swamped with school work. (Finals are tomorrow and Thursday.) And partly it's because of a two-week old orphaned kitten I'm caring for that has to be bottlefed every few hours. She's currently sleeping in my lap.

I'll get up a better post in a few days.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Minor Miracles

I know that the world has gone to hell in a handbasket, when I wake up, turn on the radio, and hear stories about car bombs, war, murders, and people suffering everywhere, and I all I can think is “Same old shit.” Then things get worse when I have to deal with other minor, and no so minor, irritations: my financial aid check being almost a week late, the oil leak in my car, the invasion of ants into my house, a broken a/c, flat tires, incompetent people working in a profession where incompetence can literally ruin people’s lives.

It’s things such as this that make me want to throw my hands in the air and say “Screw it! It’s all hopeless anyway!” That’s when I need to sit down and remember those minor miracles in life that make it all worthwhile. Here’s some of them:

-waking up to the sound of rain on the roof for the first time in over a year.
-the smell of fresh baked bread
-cookies still warm from the oven
-a good book
-squash. You plant a seed the size of your thumbnail and six weeks later its coming out of your ears
-birds at the birdfeeder every morning
-sunrise and sunset
-a full moon riding shepherd on the earth and casting pale light on the world below
-3 complete strangers, teenagers dressed like gangbangers, stopping at sunset on the 4th of July to help an old lady and her granddaughter change a flat tire

What are some of your minor miracles that make it easier for you to keep going amidst the chaos of collapse?


Monday, July 02, 2007

Riot for Austerity, Month One

The first month of the Riot for Austerity was fairly quiet at my house. At least, quiet in the sense that I didn’t make any dramatic changes. I didn’t turn off the fridge, or go carless (though I would dearly like to do both). But here are my tallies for the month, along with comments.

Gasoline: I was able to significantly cut down on the amount of my personal driving over the last two weeks of the month. Part of this success was determined effort. But, it didn’t hurt that I’ve been too broke to buy groceries. On the downside I accepted a temporary part time job last week where in I ferry around a lady who’s just had surgery and can’t drive. But at least it will help my income slightly.

Electricity: I’ve been running the A/C about the same as in the first two weeks of the month. It never dropped below 95 here the whole month –and that’s without the heat index. When I was a kid that type of weather happened only in July and August, and never for more than a few days at a time. That’s demonstrable climate change in the space of a decade and a half. Anyway, ole Murphy decided to show me on Friday that I CAN live without air conditioning. My A/C quit working and I haven’t got the money to fix it right now. I’ll make up for the A/C use this winter because I won’t have to heat very much at all given the climate.

Heating: That’s not exactly been a problem, given that the daytime temps have been in the high 90s.

Garbage: I made significant reductions in garbage production this month, with the exception of the cat litter problem. I’ve had a lot of helpful suggestions on that issue, but nothing I can really implement where I’m at. The garbage fluctuated between 3 and 10 pounds all month, which isn’t bad in a two-person household.

Water: I finally convinced my brother to reduce his 20 minute showers to fifteen. (Hey, it’s a start.) And I haven’t had to water the garden much in the past week. Why? Rain!!! Pretty much every afternoon. (Happy, happy dance here in Drought Land.)
Consumer Goods: Okay, I said this wasn’t a problem for me, and it’s not really. After I realized I didn’t have to count what I bought at the church yard sale, my total consumer spending for the month dropped to $10 after discounting. And the only thing I bought that I didn’t really need was a dollar dog toy. (And this has turned out to be a wonderful purchase –my lab mix has spent hours playing with it.) I bought the dog toy, some razors, a bale of wheat straw (discounted 50% by the rules), and an internet phone cord.

Food: My garden is slowly ramping up its production and my meals are becoming more and more local. Sunday night I had a meal that was 99% local –and that 99% came from right outside my back door. Boiled jacket potatoes mashed with organic butter and spices, crookneck squash boiled for about a minute and also dabbed with butter and pepper, and homegrown tomatoes. The only things that didn’t come from my garden were the butter and the spices.

I’m making progress. Slowly but surely. That’s all that matters.

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