Harm Reduction

I’ve taken a harm reduction approach to my eating habits. I don’t buy soda from the vending machine anymore. I don’t go out to eat, except to a nice restaurant once a month with family/friends/husband. I don’t stop at 7-Eleven for chips or ice cream on my way home. If I’m going to overeat, I’m going to do it with whatever not-very-exciting food is available at home. I’m letting myself “binge” on a pint of very rich/sugary/fatty ice cream OR on fresh mozzarella once a week, because when I try to control myself too tightly, I inevitably end up going off the rails for longer than I’d like. I don’t know if this will make a difference health-wise, but I think I feel better this way. This approach doesn’t seem undoable.

Back in Time.

From time to time, I like to walk around the old neighborhoods of my town, the ones that were there before the entire town became a suburb.

There are a handful of streets that are still intact. These retro houses are squat one story affairs on half acre lots, hitch trailers and American made-made cars in the driveway, pink flamingos and white statues dotting the front yard, and a tangle of old, peeling silver maples in the back. It’s a marvel these houses haven’t been knocked down to accommodate two-story, four-bedroom colonials. Whenever I walk down one of these streets, I feel like I’m recapturing a small fraction of my early childhood.

Guilt

I am lucky. Because my mom is providing full-time childcare for my five month old daughter, I didn’t experience too much guilt or sadness when I went back to work. I know she’s in good hands. But over the last few weeks, guilt’s been creeping in. I feel bad that I leave my house at 8:30 and don’t get back until after 7 some nights. It’s just kind of this general guilty malaise. I know my baby is just fine, but I only spend about two hours a day with her during the week when she’s awake. I guess right now, the only thing I can do is focus on making the best of those two hours, and spending quality time with her on weekends.

When I first came back to work, I was feeling pretty smug because I wasn’t overly sad or heartbroken about returning to work. One of my coworkers told me something to he effect of: “The mom guilt is nonstop. It’s unbelievable.” I guess I was naïve to think I wouldn’t experience the same thing.

One Week, no Eating Out.

So I’ve survived a week without buying any non-grocery food items. No vending machine sodas, no lox bagels, fast-casual lunches or Starbucks cappuccinos. I estimate I saved about $75. That’s $300 a month, and basically, a car payment.

We have my dad’s retirement celebration coming up at a nice restaurant this week, and I find myself really looking forward to that. I think that when you’re not spending money on restaurants/coffee shops everyday, eating out takes on a new and exciting significance.

I’ve made a bunch of pre-packaged food, so I have no excuse to go out.

F.I.R.E

I read a lot of blogs about frugality, minimalism and FIRE (financial independence, retire early). These philosophies appeal to me the way kayaking in an Alpine lake or doing a 3,000-mile Wild-inspired hike appeal to me: aspirational, but more theoretical than likely in my life. A common thread I’ve noticed is that these bloggers and/or lifestyle/financial gurus are often able to achieve financial independence by investing heavily in the stock market early in their careers, and then withdrawing a certain percentage of their investments every year to live off of. 

The part that makes me uneasy, the part I have difficulty reconciling is the following: Many of these individuals value extreme frugality and appear to wholeheartedly believe that capitalism and the ensuing culture of consumption it entails are a major part of what’s wrong with America, and, increasingly, the world. Yet, these individuals are often able to achieve financial independence and early retirement by taking advantage of our collective consumerism, the very consumerism they often rail against.  What is the stock market but consumerism embodied? 

I’m not personally against investing in the stock market. I’m not against buying stuff. But is it ethical to achieve your personal financial independence (when rooted in the ideas of frugality, minimalism and anti-consumerism) on the speculation that the rest of us will continue buying so much stuff that the stock market will continue going up over the long-term? Is it OK to benefit from a system you believe is deeply flawed? Sometimes I feel like some of these individuals have shunned “the system” in their day-to-day lives, but depend on the rest of us to continue with our conspicuous consumption in order for them to continue living off of their 4% portfolio withdrawals.

Don’t get me wrong. A lot of the ideas espoused in these blogs are intelligent, inspirational and retro-radical. We really don’t need to buy so much stuff. It wouldn’t hurt us to be more deliberate about our purchases. We can probably live on a lot less than we think. We are destroying the environment with our festering piles of bottomless stuff. 

But to rail against — and simultaneously rely so heavily on — a financial system? Maybe these people are just pragmatic. Or maybe you can have your cake and eat it too?

Frugality.

Frugality has never been my forte. I am by nature careless and impulsive. I’ve gotten better. I paid off $23,000 in undergrad student loans, $10,000 in credit card debt and a $19,000 car loan in a little over two years. But I’m still not a great saver. I recently started reading a blog that has inspired me to become more frugal and less wasteful.

I took an honest look at where my money is going, and it turns out that I’m spending about $400 a month on insignificant stuff that doesn’t mean much to me, like Starbucks, vending machine sodas and mediocre food. I could also save a lot of money by changing health insurance providers, maybe as much as $300 a month. Addressing those two things alone would allow me to save about $8,000 more a year.

I am also wasteful with resources and not particularly time efficient. I let food go bad. I take really long showers. I take a long time emptying the dishwasher and tidying up my room. In the last week, I’ve started to time my daily tasks. I figured out I can comfortably take a shower in five and a half minutes, twelve if I’m shaving my legs. I can get dressed and tidy up my room (including making my bed) in ten minutes. It takes me seven minutes to empty the dishwasher and put the dishes away.

I think I need to cut a lot of the fat out of my life so I have the time and energy to do the things I actually want to do.

Living in the Present.

Living in — and enjoying — the present has always been a challenge for me. I find that I enjoy imagining things like vacations, a new home, a novel idea, an unfamiliar lifestyle, etc. I love exhaustively researching and planning. There’s great pleasure and hope in imagining your life in more ideal circumstances.

I often retroactively enjoy my experiences too. I think a lot about a slow, meandering walk I took at a town park in upstate New York a few weeks ago. I think about the changing leaves, the wooden bridges over small creeks, the vast, marshy fields and the condo developments peaking out from behind the forest.

But while I was on that walk, I wasn’t having a great time. I was probably thinking of something else.

How can I learn to live in the present and focus on whatever I’m currently experiencing? In a way,I guess I’m lucky: I enjoy thinking about the future and reminiscing about the past.