Category Archives: living simply

The Anti-Accumulation Holiday [Guest Sermon]

not my synagogue Each week, my Rabbi gives a moving and informative sermon. They’re always top-notch, but this week’s was also very topical for Foundry in the Forest. I asked him if he’d be willing to let me turn it into a guest post, and he was kind enough to oblige.

The holiday of Passover is coming up next week, so Jews around the world are doing spring cleaning: literally, to get rid of the bread crumbs in the cupboards, and also metaphorically to try to rid ourselves of the excess in our lives.

The sermon is long but I encourage you to read the whole thing, regardless of your faith, as the message is universal.

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The Anti-Accumulation Holiday
Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum

I have made it known over the years that the most valuable lessons I have learned in life come from television. But, today, I’m not going to limit my comments to TV. I’m going to start with a television show. But, then, I’m also going to talk about an insight into the Exodus story I learned from a Muslim friend, and how it’s connected to the show.

First the show. There is a show on HBO called “Enlightened” starring Laura Dern as Amy. In one of the episodes, there is a five minute encounter between Amy’s mother, Helen, and Helen’s old friend Carol, played by Barbara Billingsley.

Helen and Carol used to be good friends. They were both married to successful husbands, and they ran in the same circles. They run into each other in the store, after not having seen each other for several years. At first, they are delighted to see each other, and they start to catch up on each other’s lives.

Carol tells Helen about her daughter who is married and has two beautiful little children. She pulls out her iPhone to show Helen the photos. Then Carol asks Helen about her children. Well, Helen has one daughter, who has a child, but she hasn’t spoken to this daughter in years.

Her other daughter, Amy has just gotten divorced from Levi. They used to be the envy of everyone in high school—the energetic, beautiful blonde that all the boys wanted to date, and the handsome, star athlete. But, things haven’t worked out for them. And, now Amy has been demoted from her job and is living with her mother, trying to figure things out.

When Helen tells Carol about her children, Carol makes a feeble attempt at sympathy, but change of facial expression and tone of voice reflect a sense of superiority laced with contempt. “You know,” she says to Helen, “my daughter was always jealous of Amy in high school. Everyone wanted to be Amy. She had it all.” And, it was clear that Carol believed she had won the race. She had children, she had grandchildren who were flourishing. And, the former prom queen had nothing. And, she was happy about it.

The whole conversation lasted no more than five minutes, but it was brilliantly done. Because it showed how a simple exchange between two women who were supposedly friends and interested in each other’s welfare, was really about an intense jockeying for power and position. No one pulled out a gun, no voice was raised even a notch. But, this was war. It wasn’t enough for Carol that she had so much to be grateful for in her life. She had to derive additional satisfaction from the fact that her friend Helen had less than she did, and so she had won.

What causes human beings to behave this way? Here I would like to turn to a story we spoke about a few weeks ago, but which I saw differently because of a discussion we had in our Muslim-Jewish dialogue group this week. We were studying the story of the manna. After our people left Egyptian slavery, and we were traveling in the desert, we were anxious about not having enough food. So, God gave us a guaranteed food supply for forty years. But, God only gave us one day’s supply of manna at a time.

And, there were rules. We were not allowed to save any manna for the next day. We were to take only as much as we needed and no more. And, the Torah tells us that no matter how much we gathered, every one of us had just enough, but no surplus. So, clearly, many of us tried to grab as much as we could, but to no avail.

Many of us tried to save the manna for the next day, but it spoiled. We were only allowed to save the manna once. That was on Friday, when God gave us a double portion, so we wouldn’t have to gather on Shabbat. But, that didn’t prevent the Jewish people from going out the next day and looking for more.

Why did God choose this particular method of feeding the Jewish people at the moment we had been released from slavery? What would have been wrong with allowing us to save up some of the manna, and relieve us of the anxiety that we wouldn’t have enough for tomorrow?

When we were studying this story in our Muslim-Jewish dialogue group, one of the Muslims, David Suissa, remembered that in the Joseph story, there was an opposite scenario. Joseph was the ultimate saver of food. He presided over the saving of food in Egypt during the years of plenty so that when the famine hit, there would be enough to feed everyone.

That sounds so sensible. But, what actually happened? Joseph controlled the entire food supply for Egypt. He rationed out food as he saw fit. Initially, people bought the food. When they ran out of money, they sold their land to the government in exchange for food. When they ran out of land, they sold themselves to Pharoah in exchange for food. Now Pharoah controlled all the land in Egypt and he had a huge slave force.

When we look at life as a zero-sum battle for scarce resources, the result will be slavery. In our fear that we will not have enough, we will want to grab as much as we can. We will horde, we will try to corner the market. And, the result of that kind of unbridled competition is always going to be that a small number of people are going to control a disproportionate share of the resources, and a huge population is going to have little or nothing. The resource could be land, money, oil, water, and even things like friendship, or sexual partners.

The Torah traces human oppression to the propensity of every human being to take more than we need. It’s why the Torah says of the king, ‘The king was not to accumulate too much gold, too many horses, and too many women.’ Because if the criterion of a successful life is having more and more and more—if the more we have, the better we are, that’s a recipe for gross inequality and mass human misery.

When the Jewish people left Egypt, the goal was to create an egalitarian society, How do you do it? You attack the source of inequality—our human tendency to want more than we need. If God had allowed the Jewish people to collect as much manna as they could, there would have been a fierce competition, with the Jewish people stepping on each other to grab as much as possible.

The result would be that a small number of people would control the majority of the food supply. They could sell it at any price they wanted. And, now, once again, you have a slave society. By forbidding the Jewish people from even saving for one day, God was reversing what went wrong in the Joseph story, where hording led to slavery.

And, the way we celebrate Passover is a reflection of this philosophy. In the month before Pesach, it’s a liability to save. You’ll end up throwing things out.

Passover is the anti-accumulation holiday. To get ready for the holiday of freedom, we have to un-save, we have to un-accumulate. We have to get rid of all the extra stuff that we don’t need. It’s a way to rid us of the insecurity that leads us to horde and take as much as we can. Because it’s this compulsion to take more than we need that leads us to be blind to what others need.

It’s no accident that the most popular song at the Seder is Dayenu, which means “We have enough.” To create a truly just society, it is essential that each of us master the ability to take what we need, and no more. Passover challenges us to ask ourselves: what do we really need to be happy and fulfilled?

And, not just in regard to material resources. There are many ways to play the hunger games. We can hunger for attention. We can hunger for applause. We can look at life as a bank account in which we have to continually pile up credits to our name. In our mussar class in the Fall, Ann Trail called them merit badges. The more badges we have, the more worthwhile we are. When that hunger to accumulate becomes obsessive, even in the most polite society, we can end up taking joy in our neighbor’s unhappiness.

Passover encourages us to live more simply, to live more modestly, not only in our physical needs, but in our emotional needs, too: to take for ourselves enough attention, enough praise, enough appreciation, but not more.

Passover encourages us to sing Dayenu, not only at the Seder, but in our lives, as well.

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Who knew that the main theme of Your Money Or Your Life (having enough) has its roots in an old Jewish Passover song?

Thank you to Rabbi Rosenbaum for allowing me to publish his sermon. Happy Passover, Happy Easter, Happy Spring, no matter what you celebrate!

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Last-Minute Frugal Date Night Ideas

Items from a frugal date night As if she was reading my mind, Foundry follower Sally Ashley asked if she could do a guest post on Frugal Date Nights. Just in time for Valentine’s Day! When she’s not reading this blog, Sally writes about romance and personal finance. Her most recent work focuses on how to pick the best finance schools.

So if you don’t have anything planned for your sweetie tonight, and you want to keep it frugal, read on…

How to Plan a Frugal Date Night
Planning a date doesn’t always have to be expensive, and you can have just as much fun on a frugal date as you can on an expensive date. Below are some great ways you can plan a frugal date night and still have a great time!

Hangout at Home
You can plan a fun but cheap date night in your very own home. You probably have food there, so look up some recipes online and cook a great meal for you and your date. More than likely, you have some good entertainment in your home as well. A stereo, television, computer, video game system or just some good old-fashioned board games can be fun on a date. Simply invite your date over to hangout and listen to music, watch a movie and share a meal, or play some fun games.

Attending Local Events
Most every city has local newspapers that list local events and happenings that will be going on in the next few weeks. Some cities have their own websites that list these events. Look in those papers or Internet sites, and search for some local events that you and your date can attend. When you see something that looks fun, and go out and have some fun. Most of the time, these events are relatively cheap or even free.

Visit the Park
A romantic AND cheap date that can be a lot of fun is going to the park. If you or your date has a dog, take your pet along. You can pack a nice picnic lunch and a blanket and sit under the trees and enjoy good conversation while eating lunch. Some parks host events and activities as well. They might have a swimming pool, walking/jogging trails or some secluded areas to get some privacy. If it’s winter, there might be somewhere to go ice skating.

Cheap Movie 
Going out to the movies on a date is ridiculously expensive, and more often than not, boring. Staring at a screen and being silent for over two hours can make it tough to get back into the vibe after the movie is over. However, if there is a movie you both want to see and it is available by rental, check it out and watch it at home. You can pop your own popcorn, have your own drinks and sit down and share a movie together. Every now and again, you can stop the movie to enjoy some conversation or refresh your beverages. If you know your date pretty well, take advantage of the cheaper movie specials during the daytime, or visit the dollar movie to catch a really cheap one. [ed: Even cheaper, borrow a movie from the library for free!]

Cheap Coffee Dates

Meeting up for coffee can be a good idea if you know your date pretty well. If so, you can engage in good conversation the entire time you are there. If you do not know your date well, a coffee shop can be intimidating – trying to find something to say for a couple of hours. If you have a nice coffee maker or cappuccino machine at home, ask your date over for some homebrew, and make your own coffee at home while enjoying conversation, a meal or just watching television together. First dates at a coffee shop are easier if you go on a double-date to help break the ice. Afterwards, you can go to a cozier place alone if things go as planned.

Hopefully, you can use some of these frugal date ideas for yourself. They are easy on the wallet, and they will allow you the opportunity to get to know your date better. You can learn a lot about a person by using one of these cheap date ideas over the more expensive options.
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Thanks, Sally! Readers, how are you spending your Valentine’s Day (frugally or otherwise)? In our family, we exchange hand-made cards for each other, and Mrs Foundry usually bakes a treat for the family. This year I splurged and got her a bouquet of her favorite flowers (even though we agreed on no gifts). Oops!

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.

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?

Frugal School: Junior Year

[Frugal School is my fun way of maintaining a book list. It has 12 books total, meant to be read one book per month. You can check out the introductory post about Frugal School, and see the entire syllabus.]

Junior Year – Getting Frugal

Welcome back to Frugal School. Hope you enjoyed your summer break. Did you get a job for the summer, or take it easy? Unfortunately, there’s no time for you to spend a year studying abroad in Frugal School! These Junior Year books consist of an overwhelming number of tips and tricks that will help many people make frugal choices. Do not read these without a solid foundation from completing the previous years.

tightwad Tightwad Gazette by Amy Dacyczyn
This book is the bible of frugal tips. Atheists can think of it as the yellow pages of frugal tips. Amy, the author, started a newsletter (via postal mail) in the 1990’s, filled with frugal tips from her family and other readers. Her family cut costs down so drastically that her and her husband were able to quit their jobs and live off the income from the newsletter. Just a few years later, they reached Financial Independence, and no longer even needed the income from the newsletter.
live cheap 365 Ways To Live Cheap by Trent Hamm
Trent is the writer of the very popular blog The Simple Dollar. His book contains a tip a day for transforming your lifestyle over the span of a year. Not only are the tips unique and helpful, but the tip-a-day format makes them easier to digest and implement. I think the title sells the book short, and it should really be called “365 Ways To Live Well” since many of his money-saving tips also promote wellbeing and happiness.
urban homestead Urban Homestead by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen
What would a degree in Urban Frugalism be without a book on living self-sufficiently in the city? This book gives step-by-step directions for many of the things you’ll be doing in your own Foundry in the Forest: gardening, keeping chickens, canning/preserving foods, and (my favorite) bicycling.

Hang Dry Your Laundry: Just Do It!

Speaking of laundry… Hang-drying your laundry is so easy, it’s something everyone should do! The sun is just sitting out there waiting for some laundry to dry for free. Even in Seattle, we keep the clothesline up year-round (though it doesn’t get much use from October – May).

We hung some rope from the house to a spare bamboo pole, and then back again, to provide two lengths of clothesline from which to hang clothes. And we added a drying rack for increased capacity. You can also see stuff hanging from chairs and even toys.

We’re blessed with a large deck that has Southern exposure, but there’s no reason you couldn’t do this inside, or on a small scale if you have a smaller yard.

There are plenty of other tips to increase the space on the clothesline: hang clothes from hangers or even an old umbrella frame.

And the proof is in the financial pudding. Dryers are one of the biggest energy consumers in the house. We just got our electricity bill for June/July (when we’ve been able to hang-dry almost exclusively). We used 387kWh per month.

According to the Government, “In 2010, the average annual electricity consumption for a U.S. residential utility customer was 11,496 kWh, an average of 958 kilowatthours (kWh) per month. Tennessee had the highest annual consumption at 16,716 kWh and Maine the lowest at 6,252 kWh.”

So we’re at about 1/3rd the national average. Granted, energy costs are lower for us in the summer, so let’s look at our family’s yearly average (the Seattle City Light bill gives you a nice graph of your yearly consumption), 811kWh per month. Lower than average, but we still have some ways to go before we can beat Maine! In February, our most electricity-consuming month, we use over 4x the amount of electricity we use over the summer!

Not only are you saving money, by hanging your clothes to dry you’re also helping save the earth. I love when those two things go together!

PS: Washington state enjoys the 2nd lowest energy costs in the nation (probably due to all our hydroelectric). But that doesn’t mean you can waste it!

A Supposedly-Frugal Thing I Actually Did Try Again

I previously tried a powdered laundry soap recipe, and concluded that it was too much effort and not worth the trouble for the minor cost-savings. As a footnote to that post, I mentioned a different, liquid recipe that looked promising.

When the homemade powder ran out, I decided to try that liquid recipe. Now that we’ve been using it at home for a few weeks, I’ve concluded that it’s great!

The recipe is from The Duggar Family, and is as follows:

  • 4 c water (heated in saucepan)
  • 1 bar of soap (I recommend Trader Joe’s oatmeal soap, it’s $1 and mostly free of weird ingredients)
  • 1 c washing soda*
  • ½ c Borax
  • 5 gallon bucket
  • Empty liquid detergent container (or any large-ish container with top)
  1. Grate bar of soap and add to saucepan with water. Stir continually over medium-low heat until soap dissolves.
  2. Fill 5 gallon bucket half full of hot tap water. Add melted soap, washing soda and Borax. Stir well until all powder is dissolved.
  3. Fill bucket to top with more hot water. Stir, cover and let sit overnight to thicken. (You’ll either need a very-long-handled ladle or a brave, clean arm)
  4. Next morning, stir well.  Fill a laundry soap dispenser half full with soap and then fill rest of way with water.

Shake before each use, as the mixture will gel. Use ¼ c per load in a front-load/HE washer or ½ c in a top-load/conventional washer.

Cost Savings:

The recipe yields 320 washes for top-load and 640 washes for front-load, so you might want to half (or even quarter) it as a trial run the first time. The ingredients cost about $6 total, so that’s less than $0.02 per load.

We used to use Trader Joe’s powder detergent which is $0.16 per load. We do about 200 loads of laundry a year and I estimate the recipe took about 30 minutes of my time, so I’m saving about $28 for a half-hour’s worth of work, or $56 an hour (more than I make at work). Plus, I know exactly what’s in the detergent and that all ingredients are safe, which is a plus.

In conclusion: totally worth it!

* To make washing soda out of baking soda, bake it for an hour at 400 degrees.

Update: This batch of laundry detergent lasted exactly one year for our family of 5.