Food Stamp Challenge: Thankful Wrap-up

The Food Stamp Challenge ended Sunday afternoon. We broke the bank by just $2, as you can see by the image to the right, which is close enough to the goal that I consider it a success. If you’re interested, you can also look at the full spreadsheet with lists of what we bought and (much of) what we ate.

The week went by pretty much like a normal week. Venessa might tell you otherwise, since the work of planning and purchasing just the right amount of food fell mostly on her shoulders. I’m very thankful that she’s so willing to go along with my crazy challenges! The biggest change was not going out to lunch with my co-workers, which I usually do a couple times a week.

From looking at the shopping list, the secret to keeping food costs down is obvious: buy individual ingredients, instead of ready-to-eat meals and convenience foods. With the exception of “hamburger buns,” almost everything else on the list is either a food item in its most basic form, or a food home-made prior to the start of the challenge*. Given enough time (and my awesome bread machine) I could have made the buns too. Time is really what is needed to turn ingredients into food. I’m thankful that Venessa and I each work sane schedules so we have time for cooking nutritious meals, and being with the rest of the family.

I was talking about the challenge with a friend, mentioning how I aimed to show that living on a very limited food budget doesn’t mean that one needs to make compromises. She mentioned that simply having the money and mentality to make healthy food choices isn’t sufficient for everyone, since some folks live in a food desert. I’m lucky to live walking-distance from an adequate supermarket and work walking-distance from two very good ones, so it didn’t occur to me that not everyone has that luxury. This is yet another thing to be thankful for.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m dropping a lot of thankful bombs, which can only mean one thing: Happy Thanksgiving to everyone! Eat yummy food but don’t overdo it. Remember those who are overworked, not able to get to grocery stores, and getting by on Food Stamps.

* If I really wanted to be tough on myself, I’d also add “wine” and the various dairy products to the list of ready-made food items, since they can both be made at home from basic ingredients.

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Ode to Bicycling

Just your average Seattle springtime bike ride

I mentioned riding my bike to the library in a previous post, so let’s talk a bit more about how awesome cycling is.

Second to meeting my wife Venessa, choosing to commute by bike is the one factor that contributes most to my quality of life, on a physical, emotional, and financial level. My bike is my preferred mode of transportation, a source of recreation, and a cheaper, more enjoyable alternative to a gym membership. I preach the awesomeness of bike commuting to anyone who will listen, and have helped a few people get started. Here are the tips I gave them:

Step 1: Decide if bike commuting is for you

The rewards of bike commuting are plentiful:

  • I’m in better shape than I’ve ever been
  • I get to the office feeling invigorated, my brain is alert and ready to work
  • I get the feeling of accomplishment from conquering hills and routes that were previously too challenging
  • It’s good for the environment
  • Depending on your commute, it’s quicker (15 minutes on bike vs 40 minutes on bus, for me)
  • It’s arguably cheaper than a bus pass and definitely cheaper than a car ride
  • Chatting with other cyclists along the way

There are also some not-so-great things:

  • Safety concerns
  • Riding in the rain 9 months out of the year
  • Worrying about your bike getting stolen, where to put it when you’re at work, what the policies in your office are
  • Getting to work sweaty. Does your office have a shower? If not, how will your coworkers feel about your odor?
  • Your pants won’t fit because your waistline will shrink and your leg muscles will grow
  • No time to read/listen to music (or whatever you enjoy doing on the bus)

Step 2: Pick a bike

Until you’ve been on a few different bikes, you won’t know what type of bike suits you best. If you have cyclist friends about your size, ask them if you can try out their bikes. Otherwise look at craigslist listings for bikes, and give some a spin. For a more humorous look at choosing a ride, see the “Equipment” section on this helpful Bike Snob NYC post

I was very happy with my touring-style bike as a commuting bike. It didn’t have as aggressive a position as a road bike, so it’ll never be the fastest. But it was designed to carry cargo, and it had small gears for getting up hills. I ended up swapping it for a cyclocross bike since it’s easier to commute on a ‘cross bike than it is to race ‘cross on a commuter bike.

My recommendation is to buy a bike with drop handlebars and STI shifters, that can one day accommodate fenders and/or a rack. Other than that, just get the nicest used bike in your price range.

A note on bike sizing: there’s no standard for bike size numbers. Each company measures a different part of the bike to determine the size. You can google for sizing guides with charts but there’s no substitute for getting on a bike and seeing how it fits your body.

Step 3: Bike gear

Some people go crazy with this stuff, but you don’t need that much. What you do need depends on what type of riding you do.

Here’s a list of the essentials, that can all be had for under $50 total:

  • Helmet
  • Floor pump (the #1 way to reduce flats is checking tire pressure every few rides)
  • Little bag (e.g. that goes under the saddle, between two bars of the frame, or in your big bag)
  • Repair kit that fits in little bag: spare tube, patches, a small pump, 2 little tire levers, a small multi-tool
  • Yep, that’s it.¹

You should get a lock if your workplace doesn’t offer bike storage in the building. But before caving in and locking up outside, I’d put up a fight on this point. Mention how much more productive an employee you’ll be knowing that your bike is safe through the day. Some cities have a program, like Bikestation, where you can lock your bike indoors for a yearly fee. An oft-overlooked defense against having your bike stolen is to not have a valuable-looking bike!

Step 4: Route selection

This one’s more of an art than a science. Get a bike map for the area you live in, and plot a route. Remember that the shortest path isn’t always the easiest. It took me a while to stop thinking like a driver. Go around hills. Follow other cyclists to see what they’re doing (when they merge, roads they avoid, etc) or ask them when stopped at red lights. I’ve found that cyclists are very friendly to each other and love to help out. Sometimes a busy road with a bike lane is actually less safe than a side road without bike facilities.

Steps Five through infinity: Ride safe

This is the most difficult one to write about because it literally is a matter of life and death. The first few times I rode through downtown, I got that panic warning from deep in my reptile brain. Same thing I used to get as a child when we had to swim at summer camp (I had a terrible fear of water).

I’m going to keep this simple and only offer one tip because it’s the most important safety thing I’ve learned, but it’s somewhat counterintuitive to a beginning rider: be a predictable part of the flow of traffic

The tendency for a new rider is to timidly hug the right edge of the road, always yield to cars even if you have the right of way, or ride on the sidewalk. Counterintuitively, none of these practices make you or the people around you safer!

You have the same rights and responsibilities as a car so the more you ride like a car, the safer you’ll be. The only legal difference between you and a car is that a cyclist is obligated to ride “as far to the right as safe”. Other than that, you’re just a very slow and slender car.²

For example, when you’re riding on a street with parallel parking, “as far to the right as safe” means “far enough away from parked cars that when a car door opens, it won’t hit you,” even if that means riding in the middle of the lane. Cyclists call this “claiming the lane” and it’s the most counterintuitive of all the safety rules.

“Share the road” goes both ways. So when cars are around don’t be a jerk and run lights, ride excessively in the passing lane, etc.

If you have any questions, feel free to ask. I’d love to convert one of you into a bike commuter!

¹ You can add more gear later after you figure out what type of riding you do most. If you plan on riding…

  • in the dark, add: bright/reflective clothing, front and rear lights
  • in the rain, add: front and rear fenders, and optionally pack a poncho
  • longer distances, add: water bottle and water bottle cage, bike shorts or bike underwear (padded undies that turn any shorts into bike shorts)
  • while hauling lots of stuff, add: rear rack, paniers (bike bags)

² Your local laws may vary.

Peer-to-Peer Investing 101

One of my previous posts was about how any investing can be socially responsible, provided that it’s a means to an end: one no longer needs paid employment and can choose from a variety of unpaid socially responsible activities such as volunteering or tutoring.

I sort of feel like that’s a cop-out answer, so let’s look at one area of investing that I think is very socially responsible: Peer-to-Peer Lending, or lending money to others, without traditional financial institutions (i.e. banks) acting as middleman.

I’ve had, and currently have, P2P investments in a few different organizations. I’ll explain the pros and cons of each:

The first one is Microplace. It’s very similar to the more-popular Kiva, where your money is loaned to small businesses in developing nations. The main difference is that investments at Microplace earn interest, currently around 1%. That’s about the same rate you’ll get from a CD so it’s not going to let you retire or even keep pace with inflation. However, it can be a small part of a well-diversified portfolio since it’s probably not tightly correlated with investments in the US stock market*.

Furthermore, I’d argue that money otherwise earmarked for charitable giving in one’s budget could instead be invested here. Since the money invested at Microplace earns interest, it will begin to compound, enabling you to invest more and more, increasing your ability to do good in the world.

The other P2P institution I have experience with is called LendingClub**. It’s a similar to Microplace, though the borrowers are here in the USA. They’re frequently looking to do debt consolidation, or for starting money for a business. Since the loan amounts are typically in the $10k – $20k range, investors pool together their money in $25 chunks to fund a loan. That way, a single investor can buy dozens of loans to ensure that if one loan defaults, you don’t lose all your money.

Borrowers get lower rates than they’d otherwise get from banks, which has two benefits: immediately, the borrower can free him/herself from the high rates charged by banks and credit card companies. And in the long run, this will cause competition among lenders which will lower rates for everyone.

LendingClub is a powerful but dangerous tool in the investing portfolio. The company brags about returns in the 10 – 14% range, which of course is unheard of in the stock and bond markets. But no return of that level is without risks. I’ve had one loan default on me so far, which is money down the drain. Even so, my average rate of return with LendingClub is over 9%. I don’t ever plan on having more than 2% of my total investment money in a risky product like P2P lending.

Before you put any money into LendingClub, you should research the complex filtering tools and develop an investment strategy. Since I’m lazy, I copied the strategies of folks who have demonstrated success tweaking and scientifically re-checking their own returns. For example, here’s one from a blogger named Brave New Life.

Anyone else have investments they feel are socially responsible?

* In other words, means ups and downs in the domestic stock market probably have little impact on the ability of Microplace loan recipients to repay their loans.

** The link to LendingClub is referral link, that gives you $100 for signing up and making an investment. I don’t get anything.

Food Stamp Challenge Update

As you know, I’m doing the Food Stamp Challenge this week. I’ll take any excuse I can get to make a spreadsheet, so that’s just what I did to track our food spending for the week.

Here’s how I’m making it more realistic: for all foods we’d already purchased or made before the challenge began, I’m adding their approximate value to the list the day we consume them. That way we can finish up leftovers, use bulk goods, etc.

I’m also being very strict and adding stuff like protein powder, wine, and other consumable “food” type items that probably aren’t covered by Food Stamps.

Here’s the spreadsheet so far:

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0Am8qaK8Qf80edEJyNVpIUjBrLVFKSGlESEtxaEoxVEE

We’ve spent $80 out of our allotted $94, though there are a few things I haven’t tracked yet. We probably have enough food to last us the rest of the week, but it’s going to be down to the wire!

You’ll notice we’re still eating healthy foods, with a lot of organic produce. Even if we do break the budget by a little, I aim to prove that living on a very limited food budget doesn’t mean that one needs to compromise when it comes to health, nutrition, or values.

Food Stamp Challenge

My Rabbi challenged everyone in our congregation to do a week-long Food Stamp Challenge, starting on Sunday. This means you go a week spending the same amount on groceries that the average person on food-stamps receives in benefits, which is $31.50. It won’t be a huge stretch for our family, since our grocery spending is already at a pretty low level.

In the interest of full disclosure, we’re cheating and allowing ourselves to eat from the food in our pantry (which is modest though well-stocked). I’m talking about stuff like wheat flour to make bread, not caviar.

We’re planning a shopping trip for Sunday to get the food for the week. To make it more realistic, we also won’t be eating lunch in restaurants at work, which is something we normally do a couple times a week.

I’ll let you know how it goes, maybe with a detailed breakdown of how we fed our family for a week, spending only $31.50 per person.

Is anyone else interested in participating?

Any investing can be Socially Responsible Investing [foundry mailbag]

Last week was Gold Week here at the Foundry, and the past few weeks are turning into Investing Week, a topic that I’m still learning a lot about and totally fascinated by.

Foundry Friend and reader Betsy commented with a great suggestion for a topic, so-called “socially responsible investing” or simply “social investing.” She writes:

I would be interested to hear your thoughts on having one’s investments match their values, even if it means lessening returns.

In fact, Venessa recently asked “Exactly which companies are these index funds investing in?” And we both had an “ew” moment when we read down the list. Most were companies we dislike or distrust, and a few are brands we actively boycot!

So what’s going on here? Is there a way to reconcile the wisdom of diversified index fund investing with one’s personal values? Or does the conscientious investor just need to hold one’s nose while building wealth?

For most people, investing is really going to be a little of both. Apparently there is a way to attain an acceptable level of diversification while limiting investments to “socially responsible” funds, at least according to this academic paper. Maybe this is callous of me, but I don’t really have time to read academic papers, and to pick and choose funds. I have a “set it and forget it” method to investing.

However, there is a bright side. I’m here to argue that one’s level of social responsibility is determined less by the investments themselves, and more by what you do with your life once you’re living off those investments.

If someone lives the Foundry lifestyle and becomes financially independent at age 40, they have the opportunity to spend the majority of their adult life doing whatever moves them. Personally, I plan on spending much of my time volunteering and that’s what lets me sleep at night, regardless of what’s in my portfolio. I know that I have a finite number of years until I reach this goal, and that my investments are a means to a very socially responsible end.

In my next post, I’ll discuss a method of investing that I feel is very socially responsible that won’t replace the traditional index fund investing style, but is a good way to complement it.