What is enough? Thoughts about spending and debt

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We’ve been staying with my Mom for the last couple of days, and like many times before, I find myself stricken by the contrast between our life and the life of people in town, if only an hour ‘s ride or so away.

My kids are very unused to being cooped up in an apartment 24/7, so naturally, I go out with them a lot. Luckily, there are many beautiful parks in the area where they can run, jump, swing, climb, and take out all their seemingly boundless energy.

One thing that really struck me every time we go out is how much people buy. It seems that possibilities to spend money are endless – clothes, toys, books, any kind of stuff you can imagine, as well as eating out. I hardly know what to think when I see a waitress moving forward with a tray that probably costs as much as we spend on food in a week.

I must be honest, and can’t say the only thing I’m thinking is, “sheesh, how much money are they throwing out, these mindless spenders!” Sometimes I feel a pang of envy, wishing that I, too, could just sit down and order a meal in a cozy cafe without comparing its cost to my grocery budget; or whip out a credit card, walk into a store, and buy heaps of clothes – things that smell beautiful and new and that had been owned by nobody before; and if the size doesn’t fit, why, I can just go to the saleslady and ask for a bigger or smaller one. These are things we have gone totally out of habit of doing, and most of the time I’m not sorry we can’t afford them.

The thing is, judging from statistics on income and poverty, I’m not sure all the people who are caught up in shopping sprees can afford it, either.

Last Shabbat, I participated in a Torah class led by a lady who brought out a variety of very interesting sources, which all seemed to point into one direction, essentially stating that borrowing money and being in debt is wrong from the Jewish point of view, and should be avoided as much as possible. Of course, many people who are not Jewish or even religious at all have come to the same conclusion regardless. The big stumbling block to this principle is, of course, a mortgage, without which buying an apartment is impossible for most Israelis in most parts of the country. When women pointed this out, the lady said that the best compromise she knows of is to take as little a loan as possible and settle for a modest apartment.

Being committed to avoiding debt, we have never taken a mortgage and bought, so far, two houses with cash. They were old and fixer-uppers, and many people would no doubt say they wouldn’t have chosen such a bargain, but I still consider it a good choice. Financial freedom does not come without certain sacrifices.

Would love it if anyone cares to share their thoughts on this.

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Does Self-Reliance Pay Off?

Not long ago, as I was working in the tomato patch, my 8-year-old strolled over and asked, “why bother growing tomatoes? Buying at the store is easier.”

This is a legitimate question, and one many people much older than her have asked. Why should anyone bother growing their own tomatoes, raising their own chickens, mending their own clothes and repairing their own plumbing? Well, one can easily come up with half a dozen ready answers, such as, “it’s fun”, or “I can grow healthier food in my backyard”, or “I like tinkering with my own stuff”, or “I save money that way”, but at the core, this is a conflict between two basic attitudes; one that is for making more money, which can be turned into goods and services, and another, that is for making do with less money, and meeting more of your needs on your own.

Read more on the topic in my latest Mother Earth News post:

“Products and services that are readily available today might not be so in the near future. It is the belief of many wise people that our current economy is not sustainable. I do not have the ability to predict whether we are facing something like the Great Depression in the near future, or simply economical fluctuations, or even nothing at all – but it’s good to be prepared. In case prices go up and store shelves empty, the people who know how to grow their own food, fix their own roof and make a little go a long way will be a lot more comfortable than those who have become used to a lifestyle of frivolous spending.”

Making Things Last

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Part of living economically is not only the avoidance of unnecessary purchases, but also making things last; by “things” I mean anything you would use long-term – clothes, shoes, appliances – as well as your non-perishable grocery store items, such as toilet paper, shampoo, toothpaste, soap, cleaning products, etc.

With clothes it’s really straightforward. We have work/play clothes, which we tend to treat a little more carelessly (and more often than not, we either got them for free or for a bargain), and we have good clothes, such as for Shabbat. Clothes go into the wash because they need a wash, not because they had been worn once. Of course, with children’s clothes, being worn once usually means a wash is in order!..

Doing less loads of laundry means reducing your expenses of electricity, water, detergent, and wear and tear on the clothes and on your washing machine. Line-drying minimizes wear and tear, too, not to mention it also saves electricity.

Good shoes receive regular treatment of shining, oiling and polishing, which makes them last longer. I have a black pair for summer and a black pair for winter, and they are in such condition that I hope they might last years. Of course, for walking, yard jobs and home, I also have sneakers, mud boots, and slippers.

When it comes to non-perishables, I guess disposables should be mentioned. I wish I could say I don’t use disposables, but I will be honest. I do. Sometimes we have friends over and I use paper cups because it’s late at night and I can’t face waking up to a sink full of dirty glasses. Sometimes, when you go out for a picnic, for example, using disposables makes sense. But generally I try to minimize that.

As for other non-perishables, I don’t mean to imply gross things such as that you shouldn’t wash your hair, skip washing your hands, etc. Use what you need – but not more than you need, like the manufacturers of every product would have you do (so that you run out soon and go and have to buy more). Have you noticed the enormous holes they make in toothpaste tubes? If I’m not careful and squeeze just a little bit too hard, half the toothpaste comes out at once.

I used to wash my hair three times a week, and thought I needed it. But then, one winter it was cold and I only washed two times a week, and I noticed that very soon, my scalp adjusted its oil production so that I had the same result as when I washed three times a week. Now I wash once a week, and find it more than enough to keep my hair in good condition. This, obviously, means I use three times less shampoo and conditioner.

It’s important to keep your hands clean, especially when working in the kitchen, but you don’t have to use soap every time. Using too much soap makes your skin dry. When I use detergents – such as for laundry, for floors, for windows, etc – I always use less than is recommended, and the results are very satisfactory. Remember, the instructions on the package are made by people who want you to use it all up and go buy more!

Thrifty finds

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Yesterday our local second hand store threw a huge fair, and I found several nice little dresses for the girls, and one for myself. This morning, up they went on the cheerful sunny clothesline (two leftmost and third on the right). I’m very happy with them. They cost next to nothing, and are of much higher quality than anything I could have afforded to buy new.

Enjoying another nice summer day of homemade lemonade, working in the garden, playing with the baby chicks and hand-feeding Little Pea, our peafowl chick, who now runs to us to get a treat whenever we approach.

I would also like to take this opportunity to thank the amazing people who were among the first buyers and readers of The Landlord. I know some of the downloads came from the blog readers, and I am truly overwhelmed by your generosity. I hope you will take a few minutes to leave a review once you finish reading – it would mean the world to me.

Stockpiling for sustainability

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If you aren’t stockpiling yet, you definitely should. It saves time on shopping, enables one to take advantage of the best deals, and has the potential to tide one over a tough period. In several instances we have eaten our way through our stockpile, relying heavily on it when times were rough.

Read more on stockpiling in my latest Mother Earth News post:

“My husband would see something on sale, and buy several items instead of just one for immediate use. There’s often something at a good price that can be stored for a long time – canned vegetables, pasta, rice, beans and barley, non-perishables such as shampoo and toilet paper. I must admit that back then, I felt a little pang in my heart whenever I saw the grocery bill, thinking to myself that here are things we could do without, taking up storage space. Time proved that I was wrong.”

Top Money Savers

Above: growing some of your own food is excellent, but one must give it time

For those just venturing out into the field of frugality and a more self-sustainable lifestyle, here are some of the things I find most helpful:

1. Cooking from scratch. This really is a no-brainer. As a rule (though there might be exceptions), ingredients cost less than food. Flour is cheaper than bread, vegetables are cheaper (not to mention healthier!) than pre-packaged soup, and whole chickens are usually cheaper than chicken parts (and you can use the carcass for making rich soups and stocks). Dry beans are cheaper than canned ones. Oh and of course you get an even better return of your investment if you grow your own.

2. Making your own cleaning products. Apart from making and using my own soap, I also clean with a mixture of vinegar and water, and the windows, mirrors and taps come out squeaky clean. I will probably look into homemade replacements for fabric softener once my stock runs out.

3. Buying the best quality you can afford. This can be a double-edged sword, because it’s easy to get carried away. Recently, a neighbour of ours wanted to get “the best” antenna for his internet connection. Well, he got something that could probably transmit a signal from Mars. It was ridiculously expensive. We, on the other hand, did a careful evaluation and bought something adequate that does the job. On the other hand, it doesn’t pay off to buy something cheap and of low quality that will soon fall into disrepair.

4. Growing a vegetable garden and raising your own livestock. To this I would add gathering wild foods, or taking advantage of abandoned fruit trees. We do that every year.

A warning about raising livestock – it might take a lot of investment in time and money before these ventures begin to pay off, especially if you run into unexpected trouble. All the chicken owners we know have had their flock demolished by a fox, a mysterious disease or a stray dog at least once. Most goat owners lost does and/or kids because of a kidding that didn’t go as it should have, or else had to pay a large vet bill. These things are heart-wrenching and highly discouraging, apart from the cost.

5. Thrift shops and op shops. A very good idea and there isn’t much to add. There are enough people who have more clothes and things than they can ever need, want or use – and some of that inevitably trickles into thrift shops. I know, because I used to be one of those people! One of my favorite things to wear for yard work a sturdy denim skirt which was priced at a second-hand store at 3 shekels (less than a dollar). I have worn it at least 3 times a week these past two winters, and it’s perfect for working around the house and yard.

There are of course many other great ideas, such as stockpiling, mending and repairing things, revising your internet and phone bills (you might find out you’re actually paying for something you aren’t using, or paying full price when you are entitled to a discount), but time is too short to expand on each of those right now.

It seems to me this often boils down to a difference in attitude – would you rather do it yourself, or pay for the convenience of having someone else do it for you? There isn’t a right and wrong or black and white in this, it’s all a matter of priority in every specific area of your life.

What are your top money savers?

A Guide to Buying Second Hand

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Buying second-hand – clothes, shoes, tools, books, toys, furniture – can save you a whole lot of money and give you high-quality products at the fraction of the cost – if you shop wisely.

An item’s value drops by the very fact of it not being brand-new – if I buy a pair of shoes, wear them once for five minutes and give them away to a second-hand shop, someone else can buy them very cheaply even though they are, essentially, good new shoes. Looking for such gently used items can be a very rewarding challenge.

On the other hand,  there are thrift shops and there are thrift shops. Not long ago I visited one which was packed with stuff, but everything was in such disarray that I was discouraged from even browsing and went away without buying anything.

A good,  well organized thrift store is well worth being put on your local map and visited regularly.  My top tips for making the most out of thrift shopping are the following:

1. Check the quality – there is no guarantee and often no returns in second hand shops, so before you buy, carefully look for any tears, rips, stains, dysfunctional parts, etc.

2. Be a regular.  Ordinary stores are somewhat predictable; second hand ones are full of surprises.  Make it a habit to pop in once in a while so you don’t miss new great finds.

3. Resist the temptation to buy too much because it’s cheap.  Remember, the goal is to save on what you really need, not fill your house with stuff.

4. When buying used furniture,  beware of wood pests.  You don’t want to risk infecting your whole house – getting rid of wood pests is a troublesome and almost futile task.