2015 goals: Q3 check in

Just a brief check in on my goals and seeing how they’re going. I neglected to update this at the end of Q2 but they’ve been on my mind lately, so I figure this is a sub-conscious sign I should check-in with the end of Q3 approaching. The original post is here.

  • Quit my job. –>accomplished!
  • Eat healthier AND more seasonally. –>Doing well so far. Sometimes my “carb loading” goes a bit crazy and I get in a funk, but between the garden, CSA, and the excellent farmer’s markets here it’s pretty damn hard not to eat well. The locavorism challenge I’ve started should help keep up the momentum even into the lean months.
  • Do more science and history in homeschooling. –> We’ve made some progress here.
  • Increase home food production. Stretch goal: acquire chickens. –>I plan on doing a garden post-mortem once the first killing frost hits, as I’m still harvest pounds of tomatoes, some zucchini and broccoli, and have a fair number of live winter squash vines yet. As of this writing we’ve offset more than $600 of our food costs, and much of the food has been of a quality that you literally can’t buy – at any price.
  • Increase muscle mass. –> Touching my own body feels strange. I’ve never had this much muscle mass before. My body-fat could still drop appreciably but I’ve really enjoyed the progress so far.
  • Bike an unsupported solo century (100 miles) –> Over our summer vacation to Baltimore, I took a day trip and biked 80 miles RT, nearly all of it on gravel. I’m told this is as hard as 100+ on pavement. So, I (sort of) accomplished it. To be honest? It was miserable after about mile 50. I think I have a bike fit issue, as my arms/back fatigue and get sore long before my “motor” conks.
  • Reduce waste and overall footprint. –>going pretty well, though I’ve definitely relaxed my efforts.
  • Take at least one ‘fun’ vacation (e.g. not to visit family or friends). –> Did this and wrote about it here.
  • Learn how to car camp. Stretch goal: do an overnight backpacking or bike touring trip. –>See above. Backpacking and bike touring will have to wait.
  • Keep writing fiction regularly. Add one more character serial. Stretch goal: get to a point with Einar’s story (or character #2) that I can revise it and package it as a polished e-book. –>Oh dear, this goal has failed miserably.
  • Buy no new clothes in 2015. –>On target. My only purchase has been (badly needed) shoes.
  • Learn the basics of homebrewing beer and/or hard cider/fruit based fizzy adult beverages. –>Nope. Maybe a winter project but I’ll probably be using my personal/hobby $ for other things. I’ve toyed with picking up cider from the orchard to brew, but to be honest? The hard ciders I’ve tried at parties have not been particularly enjoyable (too sweet).

Tart Cherry Zucchini Bread

Tart Cherry Zucchini Bread

If it were up to the other four members of the family, I’d never make any zucchini bread other than chocolate chip. It’s delicious, sweet, and decadent – but a little too much like dessert for my personal taste. Every so often I’ll experiment with variations and 2015’s series of experiments has been using tart cherries. It took a couple iterations but I think I’ve nailed it. It’s not health food but it hits the spot for me with a nice blend of sweet and tart.

Wet Ingredients

  • 3 eggs
  • 1/2 cup neutral flavored oil or melted butter
  • 1/2 cup applesauce
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup yoghurt
  • 2 tsp dry lemon peel. If using fresh zest, that’s about one lemon’s worth equivalent.

Dry Ingredients

  • 3 cups whole wheat flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp baking powder

Fold-in Ingredients

  • 3 cups shredded zucchini (or other summer squash)
  • 2 cups pitted and chopped tart cherries (fresh or frozen)

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 325F.
  2. Whisk wet ingredients together in a large bowl.
  3. Add dry ingredients to bowl and whisk until just combined.
  4. Fold in the remaining ingredients with a spatula.
  5. Scoop evenly into two greased loaf pans or one greased 8×8 or 9×9 baking pan.
  6. Test for doneness by inserting a skewer (should come out clean) after 1 hour, though it often takes up to 1:20.
  7. If using loaf pans, allow to cool on a rack for 10 minutes before flipping the loaves out.

Buying Bananas is Bananas!

We used to buy pounds and pounds of bananas each week. As most of my family knows, as they’ve been subject to my little rants about it, we no longer do this. Why?

64233-banana

On the surface, bananas seem the ideal fresh fruit:

  1. Rarely changes significantly in price – always cheap!
  2. Ripens effortlessly.
  3. All my kids liked it.
  4. Decent nutritional value, particularly extra potassium for muscle cramping and workout recovery.

Here’s the catch. Bananas aren’t in our bio-region. Not even remotely. The incredibly low price of bananas hides the fact that these are a tropical delicacy shipped in from very far away. It’s incredible – in the original disbelief sense of the word – that energy is so cheap and pollution considered so inconsequential that a tropical fruit shipped (to northern states) a minimum of 1,500 miles has become a staple of the American diet.

Okay, it’s one thing for the standard American consumer to buy bananas. After all, reasons #1-4 are pretty damn compelling if you don’t look deeper. But it especially irks me when smart frugal people proclaim bananas as the ultimate frugal food. Are you not capable of seeing the immense hidden/externalized costs?

What got me going originally on my anti-banana crusade was this article in Ars Technica from a couple years ago. Until then I’d never really been aware of the environmental cost of banana production in their home countries. Pesticide loads for any monoculture will be high, but the tropics is a particularly bad place for them. Not only is disease and pest pressure higher, but rains wash and leach pesticides away faster, widening the impacted zone around plantations to an incredible degree. Tropical soils, despite the abundance of life, are naturally poor. Clearing the native cover to plant monocultures depletes soil at an alarming rate.

Many will argue that developing countries need export crops to support their economy. Yes and no. The trouble has become that the same multinationals who product the export crops import heavily subsidized US grain products that have destroyed many small, local farms. In a heavily globalized world, a tropical climate cannot sustainably compete at farming to scale. Widespread clearing of rainforests leads to poor, heavily leached soils. Unless you live in the region, tropical foods should remain (at best) an occasional treat.

Organic bananas are a thing. Anyone who’s investigated the organic label for themselves knows that it tells you nothing about the total pesticide load, either in residue form on the crop (of marginal concern since you should wash produce anyways), or in overuse on the farms themselves (the real reason you should be concerned about pesticide use). Worse, many organic-approved pesticides have broader environmental impact. In the specific case of bananas where fungal disease pressure is high, organic bananas are probably even worse for their home countries since organic fungicides must be applied regularly as a preventative measure, not after disease emergence.

“Fair trade” bananas are also a thing. In this case, bananas become less bad but they’re still bad. In no way could you make the case these should be a staple fruit in temperate climates. A high-volume import crop still carries the immense environmental cost of a multi-thousand mile transportation chain, even if it’s more sustainably-produced in its home country. Small imports like coffee or spices still have the same issue, but in my case I justify it because 1) price per pound is much higher, promising better returns for the farmers; 2) I’m consuming far, far less of these and so the import cost is closer to marginal.

Do you buy bananas? Would you consider re-evaluating that habit? Or have you found the evidence not as compelling as I have?


Getting Past Scarcity to Abundance

Even as our financial picture has improved and our net worth increases, I catch myself quite frequently saying “I don’t have any money.” In fact, despite an above-median income, a happy and healthy household, there was a definite feeling of scarcity. Knowing how much we made versus the average family, I was aware of how irrational it was. There was no reason I should feel this way. Some of this came out of a certain keeping-up-with-Joneses mentality, but we’ve largely gotten past that in the past several years. So why did the scarcity mentality persist? And how can you get past it?

I’ve been thinking on this a lot as my mind wanders during epic fruit and vegetable prep for preserving sessions. Here’s what I’ve discovered so far.

Avoid debt and any fixed cost obligations like the plague. Fixed costs mandate a minimum level of income. They chain you to a certain level of stress, limit flexibility to take time off, and put you in an inherently fragile financial position. Be very wary when accepting fixed cost obligations for any level of time. The benefit should significantly outweigh the financial cost because there’s an emotional cost to raising your minimum level of expense.

Don’t neglect your emotional balance sheet. Money isn’t everything. The scarcity mindset prizes money – and more money – above all. It focuses relentlessly on earning more and spending less. While fixed costs are a danger, relentlessly cutting spending wholesale introduces a new scarcity. Suddenly you aren’t willing to spend on anything. But often, the best decisions for our overall well-being require spending a bit more money: Eating better food. Choosing to grow and preserve your own food, even when it’s more expensive than the same product at a store. Engaging in a hobby or two. Deciding to forgo a second income to have one parent stay-at-home.

So much of what I’ve chosen to do in the past year hasn’t saved money, but it’s added tremendously to the assets column of our emotional balance sheet. I struggled a lot with malaise over the past couple months because I was so aware of how ineffective I’d been at reducing some of our costs – most notably food – until I realized that the money aspect wasn’t everything. It gives us great emotional satisfaction to grow (and buy where necessary), and put up food grown a few feet (or miles) away from our front door.

Allow a bit of “blow” buffer to avoid frugal fatigue — IF that allows your spending and values to more closely align. Especially when in debt, but even at any stage of the wealth accumulation phase, it’s very easy to say you can’t spend money on something. But sometimes judicious, guilt-free expenditures pay dividends on the emotional balance sheet. Spending on gear to improve a hobby. Buying a little food out, or a gift, to maintain social capital with friends and family. Retail therapy this is NOT but the ideal is to align your spending and values 1:1. If you truly want to buy something, you should be able to say yes – every time. If you can’t, examine why that is.

Keep a cash buffer even when in debt. ESPECIALLY when in debt. When retiring debt, the temptation is to throw every spare penny towards paying them off. Fixed costs make you fragile, but so does spending every penny towards getting rid of those costs. What’s going to happen when a sudden bill comes up? Worse, what happens when you have to pass on an incredible opportunity to spend money on an emotional asset-inducing purchase?

With 3 kids and a homesteading-type lifestyle, we have very “lumpy” expenses. One month we spend rather little, but the next we’ll have surprise medical bills, a large bulk food buy, and a trip or activity to pay for. For the longest time I reflexively said “no” any time the topic of spending money came up. We didn’t have a penny to spare – we were in debt! A few months ago we decided to start building – and keeping – a large defensive cash buffer. It’s less an emergency fund – where you try to never touch it – and more a way to even out spending. I no longer freak out if a bill comes up, but more importantly I know we have the cash to carry a large expenditure if a good deal presents itself. Having the cash available allows me to examine the purchase on its own merit – does it align with our values? – and not the binary yes/no of whether we have the money to pay for it, even though we want it. Perhaps paradoxically, I think we’ll overall spend less money this way.

This is the perfect time of year, at least in the northern hemisphere, to think about abundance. The harvest season is upon us. Cheap, incredibly tasty food is easily available. If you’re a radical homemaker or homesteader-type, your stores are building up rapidly. Early and mid-summer sees fits and starts of preserving, but the real meat of lean-times eating are the post-Lughnasadh crops like tomatoes, apples, and winter squash. I was dwelling on how much time it was taking, how little (if any) money I was saving by it, but I was forgetting the immense emotional asset of abundance. Abundance of flavor from prime, local foods preserved with love. It’s a lot of work, but it’s a labor of love. Suddenly my malaise has (mostly) dissipated.

Have you struggled with a scarcity mentality? Frugal fatigue? How did you get past them to abundance?