Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Road Not Taken

Living a fairly frugal life and voluntarily simplifying our consumption makes our family feel a bit out of step sometimes.  Everyone around us in the 'burbs seems to constantly grab lattes on the go, play with their smart phones and get periodic mani-pedis.  ...Ok, the last one is typically only done by the women in our community.  Technically, not "everyone" indulges in that one.  But you know what I mean.

Our family doesn't miss indulging in those sorts of things.  Honestly, we don't.  But even at church, where one might think that mammon is worshipped less, we seem to be surrounded by people who live a more pampered lifestyle than we do.  It does at times make you feel a bit odd.  It can even play with your mind at times: "What is wrong with us?!"

It reminds me of the famous Asch psychology experiments in the 1950s, which demonstrated the influence of peer beliefs on an individual's own beliefs and conformity to group norms.  The experiment involved a group of college students who were asked a serious of questions.  Unbeknownst to the real test subject, the others in the group were all working in conjunction with the psychologist who was conducting the experiment.  Those other people had been told to answer the questions in the same way.  Sometimes they all gave the correct answer, but other times they all gave the same incorrect answer.  Some of the real test subjects tried to resist the peer pressure and give correct answers--even when all the others in the group gave the same incorrect answer.  However, they couldn't keep it up.  Eventually, about 75% of the test subjects gave up and purposely gave incorrect answers simply to conform with the others in the group. 

I first read about the Asch experiments several decades ago in an undergrad psychology course, but it really impressed me and I think about it not infrequently.  How strong is our human desire to conform to the group and to not be different.  No one wants to be a weirdo!

I'm convinced that is what underpins the "Keeping Up With the Joneses" mentality, which keeps us on a treadmill of overwork to afford our over-consumptive lifestyles.  It is important to recognize what is going on and to get off that treadmill.

And in the 'burbs where pretty much everyone else is on that treadmill, I know that is so hard.  But I want to encourage you that it is worth it.  Our family spends less money now on our needs and luxuries than we have in a very long time--certainly in the adult years of my husband and my lives.  But we are happier than ever.  We cook together, watch movies from the library, and play in local parks.  These are good times.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

To be continued?

But I do want to find time to blog because, truthfully, here in the 'burbs, I feel a constant tension between wanting to focus on those priorities and the societal pressures that push us towards materialism and consumerism. 

My husband has half joked over the years that he wants our family to be a self-contained unit.  I love family time as much as the next person.  But we need to be involved in community and have friends, so we cannot be completely self-contained.

But because of the pushes towards materialism and consumerism, I do wonder periodically if we should be living elsewhere.  But where?

Sometimes I think we should trade our big, modern, HOA-governed house in a well-planned neighborhood for a home in an older, more modest neighborhood.  I have even identified neighborhoods and looked at real estate listings.  But those houses tend to be smaller.  We need a certain amount of space because we homeschool and are in the process of adopting again.  I'd love a smaller home for the upkeep, but it will be a while until we are out of the child-rearing stage and can downsize like that.

Sometimes I think we should move to a rural home and homestead.  But then I remember I am terrified of snakes and scorpions, and I've never even successfully gardened.  Plus all the extra driving would be so time-consuming.  And there are amenities we love about living in part of a large metropolitan area.  We are heavy users of the library system--both participating in activities and checking out books and other media.  And this year, my kids and I have explored the performing arts more.  I found frugal ways to get us to the symphony, opera and ballet.  Very fun!  I don't want to leave those things behind.

And to be honest, I am so tired of moving.  I've moved a fair amount in my life and now I just want to stay put.  I want to bloom where I am planted currently.  I do dream of retiring to a little condo with my hubby some day when we are empty nesters.  But for now, the big house in the 'burbs is the best fit.

So, for better or worse, I foresee being in this house for quite a while.  And I need to ever improve my ability to resist the pressures towards materialism and consumerism.  I'm sure I'm not the only one struggling in that regard!

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Has it been that long?

So, blogging is not my top priority in life.  (Surprise, surprise!)  And this is a blog about voluntary simplicity, which makes me feel like I should never stress about fitting in time to write.  But, wow!  Has it really been over a year since I posted?!  Yikes.

What have I been doing in that time? 

Raising my kids.

Dealing with some health issues (mine and other family members).


Volunteer work.

Blogging is not my top priority, but those things are: family, wellness, travel and helping others.  Anything else is a cherry on top!


Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Kids' Recreational Sports Leagues

So here in the 'burbs, there can be a lot of social pressure to spend money in ways we don't need or want to.  I promised I'd share some real life examples.  Here is one that I constantly find frustrating.  It comes in the context of the recreational sports leagues we sign our kids up for.

Let me back up by saying that my husband and I were never jocks.  But we appreciate the role of athletics in helping kids to grow and learn.  Beyond giving them exercise to be healthy, organized sports teaches them all kinds of great lessons.  Team work.  Perseverance.  Setting goals.  Leadership.  Hard work.  Slow improvement over time.  Empathy.  Respect for others.  For these and other reasons, we have long had our kids in community sports programs for soccer, basketball, volleyball and swimming. 

The cost is typically not that bad because they are run by the cities where we've lived and we get a resident discount.  For the most part, these have been great experiences.  Our kids have learned a lot each time. 

But there are hidden costs in many cases.  Most are socially instigated by other parents.  Let me share some examples.  If you are a parent, this may be familiar to you.

(1) Team Photos.  As I was never in organized sports as a kid, this one caught me off-guard.  But every single team my kids have been on has had a designated picture day.  We all have to get to the field or pool an hour or more early to wait around and then get our picture taken.  There are typically group and individual photos.  The first few times we ordered a modest package of photos.  We did this for two main reasons.  First, we had more income in those days and it wasn't that big a deal to us.  Second, everyone else was doing it and we didn't want to look cheap.  Note that neither reason involved wanting the darned pictures.  We can take our own darn pictures, thank you very much.  I never like cheesy, staged photos anyhow. 

But one year, during the height of the Great Recession, I noticed a single mom of one of my daughter's teammates was holding her kid back, he was the only one on the team not participating in photos.  From some basic stuff the mom had previously shared, it didn't take a genius to figure out they didn't have a lot of money.  Professional photos from the soccer season weren't in the budget.  I felt profoundly sad that that mom and her child seemed to be embarrassed to be the odd ones out and their lack of funds was the cause of that.  That was the last time we ordered the photos from one of my kids' sports teams. 

We still always dutifully show up for the team photo, but we don't take the individual photos.  We could afford them.  But there are always opportunity costs with every purchase.  There are other things I'd rather do with our money than buy overpriced, staged photos. 

And normally I am second to none in my admiration and support of small businesses.  But I take exception when it comes to the professional photographers that take these team pictures.  All the parents feel guilted into buying a package.  It is an extortive way to make a living and doesn't provide much (if any) social good.

(2) Snacks.  I don't know if it has always been this way, but ever since my kids began participating in organized sports, there is an unwritten rule that the kids must be rewarded with a snack after the game.  Heck, sometimes, the unwritten rule says they also get one at half time!  The only exception seems to be swim team.  But that is probably only because food is not allowed by the pool.

Occasionally a coach will strongly recommend that the snacks be fresh fruit.  But usually the parents buy whatever they want and the snacks are highly processed, high in sugar and/or fat.  The kids get cookies, potato chips, snack bars, etc. to eat.  Along with sugary punch or sports drinks. 

We live in a hot climate, so I'm down with orange wedges or grapes at half time.  But anything else, I find wasteful and counterproductive.  There is a childhood obesity epidemic.  A lot of the kids on the sports teams are a bit pudgy. Occasionally a teammate is obese and has trouble even participating. 

In light of the reality, I don't know why we insist in filling kids with empty calories after they just burned some off.  And the snacks are typically processed and sold in wasteful packaging.  Just one team's post-game snack creates a lot of trash, most of it not even recyclable. 

But this is one modern tradition that I cannot get out of gracefully.  Everyone is expected to sign up to bring snack at least one game of the season.  So, I grin and bear it.  And I at least try to watch sales and get the most economical snacks I can find.

(3) Coach's Gift.  Towards the end of the season, invariably some parent takes it upon him/herself to organize a taking up of money to buy the coach a gift.  Our family tends to like to bake some homemade cookies for our kids' coaches as a more personal, less expensive gift.  Sometimes that works to gracefully get out of the group gift.  And other times, the coach has been so exceptional and the suggested donation is low enough that we chip in.  But often, the organizing parent has a particular item in mind and it is premised upon everyone chipping in a fixed amount that is higher that my husband and I think appropriate. 

It is not that we are ungrateful, far from it.  Volunteer coaches have one of their own kids on the team.  They don't volunteer to get a trophy or plaque or gift card.   I think we should always show our heartfelt appreciation for those who volunteer their time for the good of the community.  But I resent pushy parents telling others they "have" to kick in a certain amount to buy the coach a meaningless piece of junk he/she is likely going to throw in a neglected corner of his/her garage (or in his/her garbage can) before long. 

Indeed, this whole tradition is part of a wider modern phenomenon of gift giving that I find toxic.  Holidays have been distorted and others have been invented just to promote gift giving.  We are now always giving people gifts to the point that the act loses its significance.  Moreover, some come to view them as an entitlement.  Someone recently asked me, "What did your family give you for Mother's Day?"  I wasn't sure how to answer, we don't give gifts at all holidays like that.  My kids and I instead volunteered to cook a special meal for some homeless families at our church.  It was a glorious day.  Our project and the time with my kids made me very happy.

(4) Trophies.  So many people these days mock the current generation of kids and young adults because they are being raised or were raised in a culture where prizes have become meaningless.  Everyone gets a prize for showing up.  The modern mindset is that to distinguish some as better than others would hurt some kids' feelings, so everyone gets a science fair ribbon or a sports trophy.  I have a lot of sympathy for those who are disgusted with this modern approach.  But I can tell you that here in the trenches, it is mighty hard to buck this trend. 

My oldest daughter has been participating in organized sports for 7 years now.  We have an entire shelf in our home library just covered with trophies from all the teams she has been on.  She is no Mia Hamm or Brittney Griner.  She tries her best and has improved over the years.  But we're not betting on a sports scholarship for college.  Yet she has more sports trophies than we can store.  Each one was something that every player in the whole league got for just showing up.  On the last day of each season, the league organizers have to lug boxes of the darned things to the games. 

Alternately, some leagues don't provide the trophy, but invariably some parent takes it upon him/herself to organize the purchase of trophies for everyone.  My husband and I always try to resist.  It is hard because invariably we are the ONLY family not chomping at the bit to buy another trophy, and typically there is a group discount that no one gets unless 100% of the players buy a trophy. 

This season we had an experience that really blew my mind.  The parent organizing the trophies for one of my daughter's soccer team asked at the beginning of the season if parents were interested in buying one to be handed out at the last game.  My husband and I politely and immediately flagged we would not be interested.  The organizing parent thanked us for our response, but then asked a number of other times to make sure since we were apparently the only family on the entire team declining to purchase the trophy.  I explained how we already had a ton of them from all the seasons our daughter had played sports and frankly we were out of room.  But this was not enough for this gentleman.  He ended up buying an engraved trophy with our daughter's name out of his own pocket so she wouldn't be the only one without a trophy at the end of season picnic, which we couldn't even attend since we had a prior commitment.  So we have the darned trophy anyhow!  And to make matters worse, it is so huge that it doesn't even fit on the shelf with all the others.  We've had to display it more prominently on a shelf with more space.  Oy, vey!

My other daughter played volleyball in a different league this season, and that league provided trophies for all players on the last day.  I was grateful to not have to deal with the issue of paying for the burden of another trophy.  However, I found it astounding that she and her teammates got a trophy because her team had a losing season.  And not by just a smidge.  Until the last day of the season, her team had not only not won a single match, they hadn't even won a single set!  They had lost miserably in straight sets week after week after week.  But in the current climate, the first place team and the last place team "earn" the same trophy. 

Not only do I find this a waste of resources and not a prudent way to raise kids, but I am just appalled at the environmental impact.  Nothing but parental guilt keeps us holding on to all these meaningless trophies.  But at some point, they will go in the trash--even if it is not until they move out of the house and it seems more socially acceptable to get rid of them.  My kids have tons of these trophies at this point.  Think of that multiplied by all the other kids who get these darned things nationwide.  What a huge landfill need that creates! 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Simply Sunday #15


So, here is something I've done recently to simplify my life...

I organized my bedroom closet!  So simple, but it has really lifted my spirits. 

Though in the last year I've given away a tremendous amount of clothing and reduced by 75% the amount of closet space I was consuming, my closet still felt cluttered.  At this point, I don't want to get rid of anything else.  But the problem was that everything was a huge, chaotic mess.

One problem was that clothing I only use part of the year was taking up room in seasons when I couldn't use it.  As we are now well into summer, I took the opportunity to collect all the winter clothing and put it in one location, out of the way.  That thinned the rest of the closet and freed up more space.

I also gathered together things I need to hold onto, but don't need frequently, e.g., formal attire.  Those items too are now out of my way.

It has felt so liberating to have a de-cluttered, more organized closet!  If I get time, I would like to organize it more.  But for the time being, just getting out of the way out of season and occasionally used items has helped tremendously. 

I feel like I've expanded my closet space simply by organizing the existing space better.  That same reality happens all over our homes.  We sometimes think we need a certain square footage and/or rented storage space to hold all our stuff.  But in truth, we often can make due with less through a combination of being realistic about what we actually use and need, and organizing our existing space more wisely.

I hope this helps!  Have a great day.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Unexpected Gifts

So, our family has gone through three different major simplifying life changes that cut our household income approximately in half.  Each one has been a little scary initially.  But we're frugal and we're savers.  And we've planned a lot before each one of these life changes.  So ultimately we didn't have any real serious concerns.  And we never had any regrets.  Quite the opposite.

But one of the things we've experienced each time was the prospect of cutting out (more!) luxuries from our family budget.  This last major life change was in some ways the most jarring.  It took our family to the lowest income level we've ever had.  Again, we'd planned a lot beforehand and knew it was possible.  But especially in the beginning we really had to tighten our belt.  We didn't go out to eat much previously, but we cut it out completely for a full year.

I'm not into Coach purses, my husband doesn't want a sports car.  Neither of us drinks or gambles.  But travel and eating out are our two weaknesses.  So this was a sacrifice.  But we knew it was not forever.  And frankly, some people never get to go out to restaurants.  We're blessed to have eaten out as many times as we have in our lives.  And we were confident that we would again at another point in our life.

But one thing that was really interesting was that once we began this year long restaurant fast, we began to receive gift cards to eat out. 

One friend gave me a Starbuck's card when I left my job.  I never buy fancy coffee for myself, so that was a real treat. 

Another friend completely out of the blue sent me a gift card for a national restaurant chain.  She was excited for and proud of our major life change.  She was also very thoughtful and realized we were having to cut back to do it, so she wanted to treat us to a night out.  We really enjoyed that a lot! 

Yet another friend recently gifted me a Starbuck's card--just as I had pretty much squeezed the last few cents out of the first one. 

And perhaps the most amazing instance of all this was a total stranger who came up to me and my kids at a grocery store.  He explained that someone had given him a gift card for a national restaurant chain but it was not his cup of tea.  He asked if I'd like to have the card.  Initially, I thought this a strange question, but he was an elderly man and didn't seem dangerous.  :)  It was a restaurant we'd frankly never been to, and our whole family had a terrific time.

Oh, and did I mention that we won a $25 gift card at our local grocery store?!  We never win anything.  We haven't used it yet, but have plans to treat ourselves to a fancy home cooked meal with it.  We're going to splurge on some ingredients we don't normally buy.

These serendipitous gifts to eat out (or eat in as in the last example) were such luxurious treats.  In our year of fasting from restaurants, we really appreciated them.  There is nothing like fasting from something to make you appreciate it more!

And as a person of faith, I see the hand of God in all this.  We never got restaurant gift cards in the past, this was unique and special.  And it came at a time when we most appreciated these treats.  Very special.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Simply Sunday #14

Hi!  I hope you are having a FABULOUS Sunday.

Here is something I have done this week to simplify my life...

I cleaned out some kitchen cabinets! 

My husband had been using multiple shelves as a storage place for leftover party paraphernalia.  Plates, plastic utensils, paper napkins, birthday candles, etc.  Most emblazoned with Disney Princesses or Spiderman.  It was such a jumbled mess no one ever went near it. 

When you begin to embrace voluntary simplicity, you have to avoid the urge to hoard.  My husband and I are frugal and we hate to throw things out that may have use.  We don't want to waste money or consume more landfill space.  So we often hang on to things to use them up when others might throw them out.

That is not a bad habit.  It is in keeping with the concept of voluntary simplicity to use all resources wisely.  But you do not use them wisely if they are kept in a disorganized mess that everyone avoids!  Some semblance of organization is important to make sure you are storing for later use and not just occupying more space needlessly.

So I took some time this week to take down all the stuff my husband had kept on these shelves.  I went through it all, took out stuff that didn't really belong, and reorganized the stuff that was there.  I got the stuff down to just one shelf.  And now it is organized and ready for use. 

In fact, my husband is taking our girls on a father-kid camping trip through our church in about a month.  This stuff is going to be put to good use then.  He'll need a table cloth, napkins, plates and utensils.  It will make his life easier on the trip to use disposable stuff, and we already have these items on hand.  That is what I call a win-win.