The role of death

Have you ever focused on how many things must die in order that you must live?

The centrality of death, indeed the life-giving power of death, is a central role of the Catholic faith I was raised in and am reevaluating. Jesus died (many believe) to give us new life in the resurrection. One of his famous sayings was that of the seed that must die in order for the plant to be born. Death and resurrection is critical to the faith, but it was never personal for me as a believer. It was a saying, a tenet of theology, not something I felt in my heart of hearts.

Nature is a brilliant symphony, beautiful yet efficient and wholly violent. Things are constantly dying (or, in the case of inanimate matter, being subsumed and transformed) and being born. Everything is food for everything else. Even we, apex predators, are dirt and to dirt we must return. Do we appreciate how much life we take in order that we live? Do we appreciate the intimate role of death in every meal, every day, every year we walk on the earth?

Those who read my homestead blog know we’ve had a lot of death this year. They upset me, both in terms of emotional trauma and in terms of wasted effort because the animal could not go on and be productive for us. The past few mornings I’ve gone out prepared to find dead (or dying and needed to be put down) kits as we’ve lost two weak ones to the cold weather.  Finding them didn’t affect me as much as the earlier deaths. Was I getting callous? I initially thought so.

Then I remembered that death is absolutely central to our lives. Every day we are killers, not because we are monsters, but because that is what life is. We lose something when we sterilize our relationship with life energy. When we are always presented with sterile food we have no intimate connection with, death can only ever be a terrible and traumatic thing.

Being a homesteader, participating directly in the circle of life and death, has given me a new perspective. Death has a role other than trauma. Death is absolutely necessary. If we participate in it ourselves, we enter into a powerful stewardship role with the life energy we too easily take for granted.

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Optimizing Stewardship Time with Technology

I used to be a die-hard pen and paper budgeter. Transactions were logged daily, mental math was done, and in each budget category I could see exactly what I had spent. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Tracking spending is incredibly valuable. Even if you’re habitually frugal, expenses have a way of moving up and down each month, and it’s helpful to know if you’re still on target. The trouble comes when you want to go from tracking spending for a month to compiling that information in a useful way.

My method of compilation used to be in custom spreadsheets I designed (and redesigned, and tweaked, and…) to give the information I needed. Tracking averages, seeing trends, etc. I thought spreadsheets were superior because I could design them to track whatever parameters I wanted.

Unfortunately, that takes a lot time.

I have no problem spending a little time touching base with money. I am, after all, the steward of the house. In looking to reduce time and simplify my tasks, I could have gone all the way to a more passive tracking solution like Mint to Personal Capital. Those would have reduced the time I spent budgeting, particular in spreadsheet vision, but in reducing that time they would not have solved the issue.

The reason I spent so much time futzing with spreadsheets was because I had a hard time translating past to future. Once the tracking habit is there, past is easy. But there’s a reason they say hindsight is 20/20. Knowing the past is not what the steward should be (so) concerned about. Their job is steering the household through the future. Future planning was always hard for me until I finally gave in to (numerous) recommendations and tried YNAB. $54 (via my link) might seem like a lot for a budgeting tool when there are so many free options about. I’m not even a person to use the “time is money” argument. But YNAB has saved me time; more importantly, it’s provided a great deal of sanity when attempting to pierce the veil of the future.

Obviously it’s not magic. Unexpected expenses crop up, but for me it’s an invaluable tool. And it’s finally given me the confidence to get a little more hands-off with money. Instead of logging receipts daily and paying (some) bills manually, I’ve automated nearly all of it.

  • Auto-Pay: every single recurring bill is automatically paid. I’ve used online payments for years but rarely put any of them on auto-pay. Nearly all debitors have a feature to do this via their website. For the last few stragglers, I used my bank’s online bill pay feature. Tomorrow will be the first time I’ve written a check in months (assuming our permit for chickens gets approved) because it is the only accepted payment method.
  • Importing statements and activity electronically: I still keep physical receipts around when necessary, especially for split categories, but instead of logging stuff into YNAB the day I got it, I’ve instituted “Money Fridays”, a once a week time I download the previous week’s credit card and bank activity, importing it into YNAB. I could do it less frequently, but for right now weekly works well, as there are many months I have to tweak categories or back off planned purchases because other things have cropped up.
  • Simpler finance date nights: with YNAB’s budget screen, our somewhat involved finance dates have gotten much faster. Sometimes the discussion is just as detailed as before, but I no longer have to spend time putting numbers into a presentable format. It’s right there on the screen.

Has it saved money? Yes and no. Our consumption decisions would have been much the same, but giving me extra clarity about the future has allowed me to be more aggressive about debt repayments and savings goals without needing to keep a large unallocated cash buffer.

How has technology optimized your ability to handle money and make stewardship decisions for your household (be a household of one, or of many)?


Church in the Wild

What’s a mob to a king?

What’s a king to a god?

What’s a god to a non-believer?

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Artist: Michael C. Hayes, via deviantart

I am not a fan of Kanye West, except for a brief love affair with the album that the song “No Church in the Wild” is on, but those particular lyrics have always stuck with me. They’re catchy, provocative, and get to a very central element of the human experience: what are we without articles of faith?

I’ve been thinking about faith on and off in this space. My family, and many of my friends, are people of very strong faith. I myself was a very strong believer, and a core inspiration for me has always been Joan of Arc, a woman literally clothed in faith. She was a peasant girl who somehow had the ability to out-fence contemporaries with far greater strength and reach. This is truly remarkable. In addition, a famously lecherous military companion of hers described her as stunningly beautiful, with “perfect breasts” (nudity in a military camp is unavoidable), yet he felt no trace of sexual desire towards her.* I used the word clothed by faith very intentionally in the sentence above.

She is a fascinating figure and at one time I believed I had her as a near-constant spiritual companion. Perhaps I did. I am very accepting of clouds of unknowing. I’ve been thinking a lot about her since the Alchemist shared the image I’ve put in this article. It’s been my background image, and while I almost never minimize windows to desktop, I’ve found myself compelled to meditate on this picture. It also makes me recall that, over Christmas, in a sacred place of almost incredible power**, I spotted this beautiful statue in the otherwise horrifying gift shop:

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I’m happy to have moved beyond my faith then, but finding myself attracted to her once more, I wonder – what part of my faith am I trying to recover?

In modern times, we’re well trained to be skeptical of religious callings. I have no church, nor ever wish to have one. The divine and the sacred can’t be contained in a human institution, especially not any that claim to have a monopoly on perfect truth. I have faith, but it’s a faith that’s more mystery than any positive experience. I have my lovely wife and kids. And I have Joan of Arc, the long-deceased woman who I once called my spiritual wife, seemingly finding a way to re-enter my life.

How am I called to be clothed in faith? I don’t think I will ever have a carved-in-stone-tablets answer. If I have a mission, it seems to me it’s to be a good father and husband. To create a place where the human being in my circle of influence can flourish. To work on my own flourishing. To leave the world a better place than I found it. This is no less than the calling of all humans, to my mind. It is the central article of faith so many of us are missing, and to which so much of the anti-consumerism of the ER community, but even more so the long-term vision of those in the permaculture movement really speaks.

What the words ‘flourishing’ and ‘better’ mean, of course, is part of the delicious mystery. Join me, fellow travelers.

*Regine Pernoud, Joan of Arc in Her Own Words, which is an edited and annotated version of her trial for heresy, and contains fascinating testimony from her and her contemporaries. Note: see also comment from Mindful Riot and my response below.

**The Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. Specifically the side chapels and lower church in the crypt level. I was almost bowled over with the power in this place and can’t wait to visit it again. A quiet, thrumming, sacred power.


Adjusting to YNAB

A lot of folks in the personal finance and financial independence spheres are familiar with the program You Need a Budget (abbreviated to its acronym YNAB). I’ve pooh-poohed it for over a year, trusting my pen, paper, spreadsheet system but after a commenter on this piece pointed out that the program runs almost flawlessly in a WINE bottle* I figured I might as well try it out.

30 minutes later I was hooked. 2 hours later a purchase was all but assured.

This isn’t a formal review of the software. This is basically my reaction to the software, its methodology, and how all of that makes me feel as a steward.

YNAB’s methodology breaks down into 4 Rules:

  1. Give Every Dollar a Job. Because the budget system and 3-month forward view works so well, you can budget forward much more effectively. I have very good data for the past, but counting out future cashflows – even fixed expenses – was always something my system had a very hard time doing. So I had to leave buffers all over the place to account for this haziness. I’m letting things stay a bit hazy for now, but in the future YNAB will let us be more aggressive about debt repayment and post-tax investment contributions.
  2. Save for a Rainy Day. This is something we’ve always done, but YNAB’s way of segregating funds is more elegant.
  3. Roll with the Punches. Oh yeah. We’ve done this a lot. Readers from the beginning (18 months ago!) will know how much has changed.
  4. Live on Last Month’s Income. Previously I kept a Dave Ramsay-esque $1,000 general buffer because we are in debt repayment mode, but we’re going to work up to filling a full month buffer, as it helps YNAB’s system work better. Initially I thought we had this already, but then realized I’d made an error in handling how our primary credit card was imported. We may have the buffer by April, but for sure we will have it by May of this year, and then can resume more aggressive external savings.

How do I feel?

Honestly, a bit humbled and chastened. I realize that, while I’ve made a lot of progress, there’s a lot more I can learn about future planning. Two mornings in a row I’ve woken up earlier than planned, my sub-conscious having chewed on details during the sleep, and spent my first waking minutes correcting errors and tweaking our YNAB setup.

Hubris is a nasty little bugger. I think I’ve let myself get a bit too excited about sustainability initiatives and almost dropped the ball on taking care of the core family financial health. Taking extra care is doubly important now that we are on a single income. Then again, having the mental bandwidth to focus so hard on adjusting our budget system is a possibility space created by me being home. Like all things in life, growth occurs in many directions, and from many sources.

Do you YNAB?

*For non-Linux heads, YNAB lacks a native Linux version, so to run it on Linux you have to use WINE, which is essentially a Windows emulator.