Category Archives: Your Financial Health

My advice is simple: Spend less money than you earn. My readers are going to be in various stages of financial health. No matter what stage you are at, it is not too late to start…or improve. This section will cover ideas to reduce your costs and encourage you to eliminate debt.

The Great Food Foraging Feast

Something kind of wonderful happens when you open your mind to finding food outside of the grocery store (or farmer’s market or even local farm stand). You realize that food is all around you. All over the place. And it’s free.  Sometimes it in a neighbor’s or relative’s yard and you just have to bring your good manners and patience to pick and harvest–and likely the courtesy of sharing the bounty. Sometimes it’s in your own backyard and you just have to learn to recognize it and let it grow. Often times, though, it’s in the great “beyond” –that other space that is on some property you don’t know to whom it belongs. Yes, you have to be careful. I don’t advocate trespassing–well, not when you know its trespassing.  I also don’t advocate harvesting in places where it is illegal to do so–such as the forest preserves in my area. However, there are a couple of places you can start. Check out http://www.fallingfruit.org. There might be lots of forageable fruit around you just waiting for your clever little hands. Often times these trees, vines, and bushes are found on public or private lands and the poster will let you know whether the activity is condoned.  Also, join groups of people that advocate local food, slow food, foraging and green topics.  What you will often find is people that are willing to share information and, also, their goodies and secrets, be it garden grown vegetables or tree fruit. Finally, just talk about this with friends and family.  They will know a guy who knows a guy… and before you know it, they’ll put you in contact with peach tree ready for picking.

Things I have recently harvested: Sumac berries, wild grapes, apples, pears, purslane, lemons, linden flowers, crabapples and mint.

The sumac bushes were on a vacant piece of property that I walk by multiple times a week. I dried the berries and ground them to be used as a citrusy spice. I also gave some to my friend to experiment with his beer making.

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Apples! I found a lonely apple tree with giant yellow-green apples in front of my local park district office. The apples were just a little higher than I could reach. I found a fruit-picker close by less than a mile from my house on Craigslist (seriously, it was like I was supposed to pick apples from that tree) and went back and picked lots of large, beautiful sweet green apples. I also foraged pears on a vacant lot and made my husband stand by being just a little embarrassed to be seen with me. I made an apple pear sauce that my husband was not embarrassed to eat. However, the crabapples I grabbed off a neighbor’s tree proved too tart for him.  I thought it was pretty tasty, though I did need to add A LOT of sugar.  I made a pretty crabapple, apple crisp.

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I picked peaches from a tree hanging over a fence in the alley behind my husband’s office and I found grapes growing along fences and trees in a trail nearby.  I put the peaches in our morning smoothies and made grape jelly with the wild grapes.

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And purslane is just purslane…once you recognize it it is everywhere just waiting to be added to your salads.  Linden trees are planted in abundance as parkway (street) trees in our subdivisions.  I picked some of the fragrant flowers this year to experiment with making my own tea blends.   It is pleasantly sweet and I need to pick a lot more next year!

Also, earlier this spring, I picked mulberries, sour cherries, black raspberries. All of it was FREE.  I found a wild foods class through a local organization and found out how to identify wild parsnips and learned that I could eat (and enjoy) violets, stinging nettles, garlic mustard and curly dock.

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I wrote very generally about foraging a couple of years ago in my post Picky Eaters (yes, yes, it is a very clever title, thank you) and have since made it a goal to expand my horizons in my “wild” food knowledge.  Not only have I done so, but I have slowly brought my friends and family along for the ride.  When you start to open your eyes to this, you will see food all around you. And when you start talking about it, you make it normal and you allow the people that make the decisions about whether to-pick-or-not-to-pick see how foraging can be incorporated into public green spaces.  You can start conversations about creating local food forests, increasing community garden space, encouraging back yard gardening and supporting plant and food education.  Yes… all of that does happen.  It may not happen quickly, but it has to start somewhere.

In Picky Eaters, I pointed out that Illinois State Park regulations allow people to collect “fungi, nuts and berries on Department owned, leased or managed lands where such collection would not be incompatible with resource management activities…and where such collection is for personal use only and not for re-sale.”17 IAC 1/10(a) (3).

Illinois appears to be a bit ahead of the curve on this one.  A quick search did not yield a lot of results for being allowed to forage on State Park property of other states, though I am sure they are out there.  However, it does appear that much of the National Forest system allows it.  This appears under Region 2’s (Colorado/Rocky Mountains) Frequently asked questions:

Can I pick berries in the National Forest? Do I need a permit? Yes, you may pick berries for personal use without a permit. Strawberries, thimbleberries, gooseberries, serviceberries and chokecherries are all popular berries to pick. You may need to get to them before the bears do though!

Though some specific national forest sites within region 2 limit that to what you can eat that day/night.  Many areas of the National Forest allow you forage more than your “daily allowance” with a permit.  For example, in the Mt. Hood National Forest, you can pick up to 3 gallons a year of berries with a free permit, and for more than 3 gallons, you just need to pay $20.00.  You can also pick mushrooms! See this link for more information.  It looks like you just have to explore your region and the rules.

When knowledge about the food around us becomes normalized, great things start to happen.  It is kind of surprising that the National park is on the forefront of this.  In a research paper funded in part by the US Forest Service, researchers reported that in cities like Seattle, which has a vibrant local food culture, the movement has encouraged the city’s park district to not only maintain old, neglected apple orchards, but also to establish a food forest open to all and to change overall regulations to allow foraging in small quantities.  And Philadelphia “has followed a similar path and is supporting efforts by the non-profit organisation, Philadelphia Orchard Project, to establish public orchards in sites throughout the city, including revitalisation of the Woodford Orchard in East Fairmont Park. The re-establishment of fruit picking in Fairmont Park brings the city back full circle to the late 1800s, when the park’s commissioners welcomed thousands of school children every Nutting Day, a local holiday at the time, to the park to harvest chestnuts, walnuts, and hazelnuts.”

In my own little world, I decided to just start talking about it and learning more about the food around me. I was compelled by this  TED talk by Pam Warhurst.  In the video, she talks about how they just did it.  They didn’t wait around for the city or a local board to do it.  They just started doing it.  So I ripped out a lot more grass and started planting edible landscaping right near the side walk where people can see it and ask about it if I am outside.  When I told some acquaintances I was converting my landscaping to edible landscaping, I got three free raspberry bushes! And my husband told me about the peach tree behind behind his office (in ten years he has never noticed it).   I inspired friends to pick mulberries and wild raspberries and even got the fruits of their labor when they made some wild berry jam.  I appealed to my local library to include more education on gardening and encouraged them to think about putting in edible landscaping.  They recently replaced a dead Ash tree with a nut tree and are putting in a permaculture food garden (Food Forest). I helped plant this Bartlett Pear tree yesterday along with ten other fruit and nut trees!  Next spring we will plant raspberry bushes, perennial vegetables and annual root crops!

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The library also hosted a Produce Swap and Gardener’s social.   Now, it’s not without its challenges.  My community is not intrinsically about green living and local food. In fact, there is no farmers’ market, no garden club, no restaurants that focus on local foods.  It is an odd mix of large cookie-cutter subdivisions, rental properties and apartments.  We have a high amount of poverty and a large Spanish-speaking population. The first produce swap was a failure.  The second one was also a failure–though an interested person other than me walked through the door and a community partner stopped by and chatted with us. We discussed a local school that had planted a garden and talked about making the event more accessible. So, the third event was expanded to include a social hour and garden discussion as well as a swap of plants and seeds.  We had three swappers and one interested person stop by and even though she didn’t have anything to share, she walked away with fennel seeds to plant for next spring.  I gave away a lot of produce and came home with moss for my flagstone mini-patio and lavender.  We discussed a lot of ideas for next year and started an email list. It is definitely a slow process, but I am exited about the possibilities.

Please, please share your experiences with finding the hidden food around you. Share local projects and your personal knowledge! Also, if you know of a place that allow you to pick from an old apple tree or if you know of a trail with grape vines… add it to http://www.fallingfruit.org!

Oh– and as a precaution, never eat something you don’t recognize and know with 100% certainty is edible.

 

 

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Culture Club

Holy cow … I made yogurt. Like, without a machine. You may not think it a big deal–though, really, when was the last time you made yogurt– but I was pretty daunted. I really enjoy cooking. But yogurt was … like, actual chemistry. It was scary to think that we would be consuming milk after we left it in the oven all night. However, we finally decided that paying $7.00 for the really good large container of Fage Greek yogurt was just too much. Sadly, the $6.00 price the prior several weeks was not too much. I don’t know why that one dollar broke the dam, but we had developed pretty high standards for yogurt. We wanted a really thick, high protein, creamy yogurt made without pectin. By the way, have you ever noticed that yogurt has pectin? Not that it’s bad for you, but it makes you feel like you’re eating milk jello. That’s why we eventually started getting the Fage Greek yogurt. It was thick without pectin. It’s delicious but expensive– and it isn’t even organic. So when it was no longer “on sale” we decided to explore other options. Or, rather, my husband looked at me and said, “I thought you said you can make yogurt at home?” I responded that, “well, sure, some people make yogurt at home.” I then immediately avoided eye contact. The truth is I had googled making yogurt at home several times. I had just never felt confident enough to make it. I finally just looked at him and asked if he was willing to experiment and possibly waste $4.29– the cost of a half-gallon of Kalona milk.

This isn’t an article where I regurgitate someone else’s recipe as if I made it. And, really, it’s not even a recipe because you are just applying heat to milk. It’s more like directions. The ones I followed I found on the site The Kitchn. It didn’t require anything fancy– and it worked! It wasn’t completely smooth sailing. After the four hours the author recommends you check on it, my yogurt had not actually become yogurt. When I stirred it, I encouraged my self that it was thicker that the whole milk I had started with, but if that was true it was just barely thicker. I totally thought I had ruined it and wasted a half-gallon of really good milk. I immediately googled “trouble shooting ruined yogurt” and came across sage advice like “whatever you do, don’t stir it.” Well crap. Stirring it was the first thing I did. However, the instructions on The Kitchn reassured me that I could have left the milk soup in the oven overnight, so I decided to see what happened. It was like Christmas when I ran down first thing the next morning to open up my pot. And by golly, I made yogurt!!!

Alas, that was not the end of it. I wanted really thick yogurt and what I had made was regular yogurt,even a bit runnier than regular yogurt. I then had to improvise a method to let the whey drain from the yogurt. I won’t even post a picture of my ridiculous set-up which consisted of a clean, thin tank top to strain the yogurt and several pony-tail holders chained together to wrap the shirt around a bowl. But it worked. It took another day but my end-product is thick, creamy, organic, and, I believe, high in protein.

In the end, I saved money and made a better product. It was easy, though rather tedious, if I am going to be honest. That being said, I didn’t have to do much to it. It just took a while. Nonetheless, my husband keeps telling me it is the best yogurt he’s ever had and that he can’t believe I made it. So, yeah, I will probably add this to my homestead Sunday repertoire. This will have to go on the list of things that are surprisingly easy to make at home. Please, share your list of things that you found surprisingly easy to make at home.

Financial Independence or Bust

I was doing pretty well posting fairly regularly–at least once a month or more. Then September happened and I guess I got pretty somber because my husband said that the post I was working on was depressing, first-world problem-ish and a bit self-pitying. So I tabled the post for some reflection and, unfortunately, as a consequence, I dawdled. And, alas, no September post. (Crap. I will never make money off this thing at this pace.)

In any case, I must really, really want to talk about the underlying theme of that defunct post because instead of talking about making granola or foraging purslane–which is what I fully intended so write about now–I am coming back to the prior post.

Okay– I know you are now just dying to know what the post was about, right? In short it involved the ennui I am experiencing as I await financial independence due to self-imposed financial constraints and the lack of a clear exit date. It definitely had a woe-is-me flavor and I will grant that my husband had a point. Perhaps I didn’t have to go on and on about being bored and deprived of the entertainment and goods that money could buy. And he was right. (It’s okay. He won’t read this so he won’t know I admitted this.) At least, he’s right in so far that if I am bored, it is my fault. There are plenty of free or low cost things I can do to make my life outside of work fuller. I took it like a big girl and decided to learn from his critique– which I may or may not have resented at the time.

But I still think that a lighter version of that previous post contains a valid point of view. (So really, I was right, too). I mean, it seems disingenuous to limit discussion of the road to financial independence to the thrill of paying off the debt, the rush of actually paying it all off, and the beauty of saying the heck with working for other people and being able to live a full life off of your prudent investments. After all, there is real life between the moment you pay off your debt and when you can flip off your boss and quit. It’s actually a pretty wide chasm. If we do it right, this real-life, in-between period will last longer than all the others.

And doing it right–at least for our purposes–means living substantially below our means, which is less than 25% of our adjusted gross income.  I live with a snarky, little good angel on my shoulder that tells me that of course I can wait several more months for a haircut and that I already had a latte this week, and that even I can totally make that at home ….  Really, she’s kind of a little bitch, though I totally can make that at home.  And she makes me feel itchy and guilty at the same time.   I have bought into it, though– the paying off debt, setting aside an emergency fund, reducing our spending and putting every last extra dollar in investments.  Because we didn’t pay off our debt so that we could retire when we are finally eligible for social security (that’s 67 for us, by the way). We did it so we could retire–or at least get really fun jobs without having to worry about our income–far, far before that time.

It has taken me a period of adjustment from the excitement and accomplishment of annihilating the last debt standing to the hum-drum routine of day to day life where the final goal may be yet ten years or more in the future. It is kind of like a road-trip and I feel like the kid in the back seat that keeps asking if we are there yet.  And we are definitely not there yet.  But in between the last time I tried to write about this and this time, I have decided there are two solutions. One is to continue to set investment goals and to continue to celebrate them.  A little bit of cake goes a long way.  Second, I need to go find some free, fun things to do. If I am truly good at this whole financial independence or bust thing, I will do it with style and I will even write a post about my free or low-cost solutions.

Regardless of where each of us are in this life, we all struggle with finding a balance between need and want, not enough and too much, and happiness and sadness. I would love to hear of your own financial goals and the various feelings they have evoked in you.

Extra, Extra, Eat all about it!

Every year I tend to my gardens–some years better than others. I have beds of annual and perennial herbs and flowers, and two raised vegetable garden beds–with plans to add more! There are just two of us and we and we haven’t quite mastered the art of preserving food. Oh sure, I dry some herbs and freeze some fruits and veggies, but mostly we pick as we need to use it. And I find myself wondering “What the heck am I going to do with all of those beets!” And “does anyone need bunches and bunches of sage. Since my compost bin has not actually yielded any compost, I am still at the stage that I feel wasteful sending my edible garden waste to their unproductive demise. So it was with glee that I saw this flyer.
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What a great idea! I am so excited about this and can’t wait to see what I come home with. Why don’t all communities do this? In fact, this isn’t quite my community and I am going to see who I need to talk to about this to get one in my own park district. I’ll make sure to post after I go the first time and let you know if there is any progress with getting one established in my own community.

Please share if your community has creative and economical ways to get not only people to eat better, but like-minded people to get together.

Keep Improving

For whatever reason, I not only didn’t make any new year’s resolutions but I purposefully avoided even thinking about them. It seemed that to make resolutions was almost to admit that there was dissatisfaction in my life. I felt like I couldn’t (or shouldn’t) really complain. I had my health, a job I was (still) enjoying, financial security and the promise of true financial independence on the horizon. Heck– as I am sitting here writing this inside my cozy home after a nice meal, with my husband lighting a fire in the fireplace and my fat cat peacefully snoring on the couch, it occurs to me that life is good. Making new year’s resolutions seems almost greedy.

But what hubris! As if resolutions can only be about making more money, buying stuff, or losing weight. And the truth is that I did actually have goals for the year. There are certain ideas percolating in my head that have been recurring themes. It is time to put them all in one place, though, and broadcast. For how else can I judge the level of gain if I never admit to having a goal in the first place. Blogs are, after all, great big accountability machines.

Life Improvement Goals for 2014.

1) I want to learn more about recycling. How it works, where my stuff goes, where my stuff and garbage might be better utilized. A few months back I was agonizing over paper waste. It soon became very obvious, though, that I did not actually have any knowledge of what happened to my paper if I put it in the recycling bin. And it turned out that recycling it may have been the best solution for it. My goals this year are to tour my local recycling facility and really research what can and can’t be recycled. I will also continue to reduce my household’s consumption of things that will be discarded as waste. Plastic is my new nemesis.

2) I will continue to reduce my sugar intake. I’ve done a pretty good job almost completely eliminating refined white sugar–and sweetener. But… This year, I would like to focus on reducing sugar intake in food I buy such as buns, pasta sauce, and yogurt. Did you know that we are only supposed to consume 6 teaspoons of sugar a day, but, on average, we consume around 22 teaspoons? It’s something I’ve known about for some time, but was struck by again after reading this blog article. Unfortunately, in this fat/calorie obsessed food market, it’s sometime difficult to figure out how much sugar is actually in something. The first step of this process is awareness. Only then can I systematically eliminate and reduce.

3) I want to take more advantage of the nature around me. This includes exploring new areas, helping in conservation efforts, taking tours with experienced guides and learning a lot more about plants. I complain a lot about not living in a place with mountains or beaches, but there is plenty of beauty in Midwestern plains, woods, streams and lakes. There are so many conservation areas, parks, trails, etc that I haven’t explored. I have resolved that I am not allowed to complain until I actually experience it. Plus, now that I know you can legally forage in Illinois State Parks, I am keeping my eyes open!

4) I need to do better at work. I don’t mean in my job performance, but in not behaving in the office the same as I behave at home with paper and other waste because it is not convenient or easy. Even if I cannot change the habits of my co-workers, I need to take responsibility for myself.

My list sounds pretty ordinary, but these are truly the ways I would like to improve this year. By writing them down–and now posting them for the world to see–I am making myself accountable. These are no longer secret half-formed intentions that are easily discarded, but solid goals. I hope that by this time next year, or even during the year, I can report true and meaningful improvement. If I am really being honest, this list is more for me than for you. I have been wanting to your my local recycling facility for a long time. Maybe now that I have a goal, I will make the effort to actually set it up!

I would love to hear about your goals for improving yourself, your household, or your environment. More than likely, if you find yourself saying it out loud, you will find that you conscientiously make more of an effort to meet that goal!

Coffers and Coffee

Once you start the journey to financial independence, you realize that every dollar counts. And that every dollar saved means you are one step closer to financial independence. It’s not even a one-to-one ratio (i.e., a dollar saved is a dollar earned). When you factor in compounded interest, every dollar saved is more than a dollar earned. At least… this is what responsible people would say. Me… I still like nice things. And if I didn’t have a latte every once in a while, I would have brittle bones since I don’t otherwise drink milk. But, before you criticize my latte habit, please know I consider lattes a luxury–not an everyday indulgence (though arguably it’s a slippery slope, going from “I deserve this latte” to “I deserve a week at a luxury spa” (though I really do!)) Without a little luxury every once in a while, waiting for financial independence becomes mundane and intolerable. You can’t just cut out everything you enjoy. Besides, I eat plenty of rice and beans to “make up” for it. However, the virtues of life’s little luxuries and how they fit into the goal of becoming finacially independant is not actually what this post is about. Not completely. This post is about using those little luxuries as motivating factors in how you decide if your efforts at some form of saving are “worth it.”

I am going to buy a latte every once in a while. Probably once a week. It’s just something that is going to happen. But it doesn’t mean I have to be mindless about it. For some time now, I have used lattes as my gauge for the value of savings I can seek. What I mean is that I tend to think of every dollar, or portion thereof, saved as worth saving because the value to me is tangible. A lot of people don’t bother, for example, questioning a grocery receipt for the $1.34 they were over charged on veggie burgers, or returning a screw from the hardware store that is worth fifteen cents. They think it’s not worth their time and energy. But I disagree. See, these things add up. I can put forth a small effort and, very quickly, get the equivalent of a latte–something that I consider a luxury, remember? This is not to say that every time I can eek out a savings of a two to three dollars I immediately go buy a latte. Rather, it means that at that moment when I’m about to walk out of a store and ask myself, “should I bother to go back inside and get the price difference,” the answer is always yes.

This moment when you question the value of your time happens far more often than in the grocery store. It occurs in late fees, service fees, price quotes, being unsatisfied with a product…etc. In my estimation, no fee is too small to not bother making a phone call to request a reversal. No overcharge is not worth your time to question. A discount is always worth seeking. Because, small amounts add up to big amounts.

Admittedly, it is hard to see the big picture. In fact, the big picture may not even help. For example, if all the small efforts you made made a difference of $86 for a year and you took this money and invested it at 5% interest with compound interest, in like 10 years, it’s still only worth about $140. You may just find that it is not really worth it to hang onto that $86 dollars for ten years. But if you think of the fact that this $86 dollars for which you spent some effort to search out savings or refunds gets you about 30 lattes… that become a tangible value that you see as worthwhile. At least I do.

What is your vice and how do you go out of your way to make it work in your savings goals? As always, your input is encouraged.

Twelve Posts of Christmas Reinvented

The inspiration for these posts, quite obviously, is the traditional holiday song “Twelve days of Christmas”. It is a little tune that most readers are probably familiar with and that just may be getting stuck in your head right now. Sorry about that. The song is kind of annoying. But I guess it is interesting and mysterious enough to be a constant source of speculation around this time of year. Indeed, I am not original in repurposing this classic song.

For example, every year PNC posts the Christmas Index. This is an index using the items discussed in the song, adjusted for inflation. In other words, the Christmas Index comes out every year telling you how much you would have to spend today to get your true love each item on the “Twelve days of Christmas.” For a great read on the Christmas index, read this article. The index includes the birds and stuff as well as hiring the dancers and milking maids, etc. Not surprisingly, it is the cost of labor that makes the Twelve Days of Christmas so expensive for your true love.

Many out there have probably heard of the Christmas Index before, and it’s an interesting thing to run across every now and then. However, I recently discovered another take on the “Twelve Days of Christmas.” Author and researcher Olga Kazan has just come out with an article titled “Health Consequences of Actually Living the Twelve Days of Christmas.” This is a fascinating read that starts off with a scintillating history of the song and then launches into the effects of eating the Twelve Days of Christmas, which are surprisingly healthy if you remember to milk, dance, leap, pipe and drum as well.

This article also references another Twelve Days hanger-on… Heal Farm, out of England makes a stuffed bird (inside a stuffed bird inside another stuffed bird and so on…) using birds referenced in the song. Click on the link above to read more about the “12 Bird True Love Roast.” It’s a bit pricy, but it “[w]ill feed around 125 people, takes 10 hours to cook and yields around 4 litres of flavoursome stock.” Even at it’s steep cost, it is still cheaper than the Christmas price index. If you ever get one, please don’t forget to invite me!

Twelve Posts of Christmas–Ethical Gifting

I was recently listening to WBEZ, Chicago land’s Public Radio and heard someone throwing around the term “ethical gifting.” And it wasn’t in a story about ethical gifting, it was just casual conversation thrown about during an end of year donor drive. The speaker tossed this phrase around as if everyone should know what it was. Sheepishly, I admit it was the first time I had come across it. I thought, however, that I immediately understood the term.

When I went to research the term later, I realized that there really is no cohesive application or understanding of the term. Many seem to apply it to green-giving. Then there are those that apply it to practical or useful gifts, and those that use it for creative gifts, anything bought from small shops, particularly if those shops contain goods made by people in under-developed nations. I also saw it applied to gifting with a charitable aim, which sometimes meant buying something that gives some or all of proceeds to charity and sometimes it just meant giving to charity in someone’s name. However, the other thing that popped up quite frequently was ethical gifting in a business environment. At first, I brushed this off as the wrong kind of ethical gifting, but then I realized that this no-strings-attached type of gift giving corporations advocated should be a part of ethical giving, at least, my ethical giving.

So what is ethical gifting? I have concluded that it is different for everyone and that it essentially giving that reflects your values, which we often forget at this time of year in our panic to just buy things for people.  For me, ethical gifting is giving gifts that are immediately useful with a focus on recycling that will produce little to no waste. Yes, sometimes that means I make things, and sometimes they are actually really nice and sometimes my family is just really nice.  I like to support small shops, too–though that can be in direct conflict with getting the best deal on something.  But that is okay.  It is less important to me to be frugal in gift giving than it is to buy a gift that will be useful–and used.  This is a lot easier to justify when you are not buying a gift for every single relative.

For kids, my husband and I look for gifts that are educational,which to me takes precedent over Eco-friendly–though more and more, the two are compatible.  Still, we try not to add mindlessly with piles of toys pulled off box-store shelves. This is sometimes tricky because you want to buy them the fun, hot toy of the year.  The immediate satisfaction they will experience will probably be much greater than opening something useful and will catapult you to the top of the “best aunt and uncle in the world” list.   But then I remember the ethics of corporate gift giving.  My gifts are not to buy someone’s affections or to influence someone’s actions.  They are given being thoughful of both the gift-giver and gift-receiver.

Twelve Posts of Christmas–Music to Your Ears

I didn’t intend to write about this topic, but as I sit here filtering through Christmas music it occurred to me that the way we get our Christmas music fix has changed quite a bit in the last few years. Not too many years past, you either had FM radio or CDs–multi-disc changers if you were fancy. I used to have a 300 disc carousel and player (I spent a lot of money in college). Now, it was not just filled with Christmas music–those accounted for only about 9 CDs– and it also housed my husband’s CDs (he brought the Britney Spears to the marriage.) Regardless, the CD player got used less and less often even though my husband and I really enjoy music. I finally sold the darn thing a couple of years back when I finally admitted it to myself that it just wasn’t the way I was listening to music anymore. There are very few CDs you can listen to anymore from start to finish. And taking out the CDs to listen to in the car was annoying and inconvenient. As I started using iTunes, Spotify, and Pandora I wasn’t even listening to CDs anymore. Oh. You’re not too familiar with all of these? Well let me tell you not only how they can improve the quality of the music you hear, but also, often, save you money–with a focus on Christmas, of course.

Let’s start out with iTunes, which surely everyone has heard of. iTunes is not free. At least not always. However, did you know that almost every week you can download a free song. Just go to “music” and scroll around. And guess what you get in December? Ding, ding, ding. Christmas music. Today (December 12, 2013) you can download Kelly Clarkson’s “Underneath the Tree” for free! But the beautiful thing about iTunes is that you can choose exactly what you want, design your perfect playlist, with your favorite artists. Love “O Holy Night” but want to decide exactly which version buy dozens and dozens of artists is best? On iTunes, you can do that before you buy it! The answer is Mahalia Jackson’s version, by the way. So instead of buying a CD where you really like only half of the songs, you get to search through hundreds of thousand (not an actual statistic) of songs until you get your perfect playlist. And let’s face it. For those of us that love Christmas music, we may add something every once in a while, but we rarely take it away, so once you have your list, you don’t need to spend much more money to add to it. Plus, for those CDs that you do own, there are many ways to download those songs onto your computer to get them on your phone. Then you can pluck your most favorite songs and put them on your Perfect Christmas Playlist.

A coworker told me about Spotify a few years ago. It’s a great site that allows you to listen to entire CDs in addition to playlists. Spotify used to only be available through your computer, and I spent many, many hours listening to Jack Johnson’s entire catalogue of music at my office. Until recently, if you wanted Spotify through your phone or iPad, you had to pay for premium service. It is now free everywhere. What!? This is very exciting. I haven’t used Spotify in a little while because I changed jobs recently and never got around to putting it on my computer. So I didn’t know. I just downloaded it now on my iPad. Literally, just now. It’s awesome. If you know there is an entire CD out there you like, type in its name and chances are it’ll pop up. You can listen to the whole thing. No purchase necessary. And, to make your perfect Christmas playlist, all you need to do is create playlist category and then when the song you love is playing, hit the “+” sign and it is added to the playlist. It’s so easy. My perfect Christmas playlist is being created on Spotify as we speak.

Lastly, there is Pandora. On Pandora, you create stations for the music that you like. As you listen to those stations, you can thumbs up or thumbs down songs. These actions help your station get personalized to you. You can choose broad categories like “Rat Pack Christmas” or “Hipster Christmas” and Pandora will begin playing songs in that genre. And because you interact with it, your “Hipster Christmas” will sound much different than my “Hipster Christmas.” You can also choose multiple artists if you have eclectic musical tastes. My favorite “station” is my Jack Johson/Otis Redding/ Pam Tillis/ Mana/ Norah Jones station. It’s pretty awesome.

Pandora and Spotify do play occasional advertisements on the free service. But they are very brief and infrequent. Both are available in apps for your smart devices to make taking your perfect Christmas playlist EVERWHERE.

My perfect Christmas Playlist (incomplete):

The Man with the Bag– Kay Starr
O Holy Night– Mahalia Jackson
The Merriest– June Christy
Santa Baby– Eartha Kitt
Baby it’s Cold Outside– any version with Ella Fitzgerald
Old Toy Trains– Nick Lowe
All I want for Christmas– Mariah Carey
The Christmas Song– Nat King Cole
Father Christmas– The Kinks
Christmas (baby please come home) –Darlene Love
Blue Christmas– The Perishers
Please Come Home For Christmas– Bon Jovi
Merry Christmas Darling– The Carpenters

Twelve Posts of Christmas–Lightening Santa’s Load

I recently came across this article titled: How 6 families went gift-free for Christmas in MSN Money. As the title suggests, the article highlights how, and why, these families decided to depart from what most of us understand to be Christmas. It struck a chord with me.

When I was a kid growing up with a single mom, Christmas was a much leaner time. Then my mother got remarried and things slowly got better. Better included a more bountiful Christmas. Soon, the family got bigger with the addition of a little brother. We kids (four of us) got older and our buying power improved, presents became more plentiful and substantial. And we added boyfriends and later husbands. And the little brother was eventually old enough to like girls and so there would be a new girlfriend every other year…and the occasional relative or foreign exchange student. And marriage, of course, normally brings in-laws of the parental and sibling variety, and the occasional niece or nephew. Somewhere along the way, Christmas became excessive. We lost focus on the importance of doing things together and became obsessed with getting everyone the right gift and spending the right amount of money.

It’s not surprising that people reach a breaking point. Whether because of the expense, or the emptiness of randomly grabbed gifts, or the stress of needing to buy so many things for so many people, my family realized that the excitement of getting together as a family for Christmas was overshadowed by the expectations of Christmas. Even when we managed to get together we would often be divided with last minute shopping and wrapping. As a family, we turned Christmas into a stressful retail face-off.

A couple of years back, my family almost unanimously agreed that we needed to change the way we did Christmas. We weren’t ready to go gift free, but we needed a change. We reached a fair and festive compromise that would revive the holiday spirit and limit the holiday frustration. Like the families and the commenters in the article mentioned above, there was some push-back and we are still tweaking to make Christmas work for the reality of my family today.

Twelve Posts of Christmas–A Gift for Mother Earth

Not to repeat myself, but… Well, actually, I am fully intending to repeat myself because this is an important topic. I invite each and every one of you to be creative and to use your imagination to wrap gifts in recycled and reused items. As I just mentioned, I previously posted about this, but this is the time of year when we are particularly abusive and create garbage bag upon garbage bag full of stuff that will end up in the landfill. We can do better. I will admit, though, to having been previously very impressed by various family members’ matching presents wrapped in beautiful, shiny, thick wrapping paper. It looks so nice under the tree and everyone knows exactly who it came from. Very fancy.

However, I think you can make beautiful packages with just a little forethought and imagination–and maybe some planning throughout the year. For example, brown paper bags make excellent wrapping paper and a wonderful earthy background for those saved ribbons, scavenged twigs and berries, and home made gift tags. What other materials can you use for wrapping paper? How about old road maps that you haven’t thrown away yet even though you haven’t used them for more than seven years? Or, saved newspapers, park maps or large foldable brochures from an awesome vacation used it to wrap gifts for the people that went with you on that awesome vacation. And save colorful comics for the kids to wrap gifts. Using cloth and fabric to wrap gifts is a popular alternative, too, kind of hobo-chic. For other ideas, especially for creative decor, see these slides from Martha Stewart. Also, did you know that those poofy Christmas bows only look hard to make? Follow this link for step by step instructions. You will amaze yourself.

Now, if you’ve saved decorative boxes or bags, the work is almost all done for you! During this time of year, offices across the country are flooded with gifts that come in fancy boxes and bags. Lay claim to them, as well as all the ribbons and tins. If you don’t they will probably just end up in the trash–and that is what we are trying to avoid, people. You can also make your own boxes. The internet machine has loads and loads of ideas. You can use card stock, backs of notebook paper, the bottom of fancy paper bags from the mall, etc., as material for the boxes. Check out this link for tons of fabulous ideas using salvaged items to make your own boxes.

Yeah, even recycled wrapping will likely get thrown away, filling garbage bag upon garbage bag. Perhaps, a few suggestions? Save the gift bags and boxes for re-use next year, and fold the tissue paper to save for use throughout the year. Helpful hint: if you choose wrapping materials that can be used at other holidays and occasions, you can maximize their use, i.e., don’t get santa clause tissue paper. As to what you cannot re-use, which hopefully will be a smallish pile. Shred the paper and use as packing material or throw it in the compost pile. From what I learned in research for a previous article on paper re-cycling, wrapping paper can probably go into your local recycling program, though you need to do your research. For example, my county recycling, SWALCO,,will accept wrapping paper, but my local Chicago-area Paper Retriever will not.

I know, I know. My intentions to make every gift exchange I participate in zero-waste are impractical–especially at other people’s houses. I was, in fact, unsuccessful last year in swaying anyone to separate the paper wrapping from the ribbons and bows and plastic in order to recycle the paper and minimize the trash. We had a huge family Christmas and produced a lot of garbage that was frantically shoved in bags to try and keep order. However, on a personal level, I have not bought wrapping materials in more than three years. And I know that further change will not happen overnight. I slowly hope to influence my family members, one by one. Even the family member that proudly buys beautiful wrapping paper every year.

When I actually buy some present and wrap them, I will take photos to show you that presents using salvaged materials can be pretty!

Can’t Touch Dish

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I have been experimenting quite a bit with making my own products, mostly for cleaning, though I have ventured into beauty products. Some projects have been a huge success, some have been failures (big ones), and others… I can’t figure out and have no scientific proof that it’s working or not working–though everyone on the internet seems to say it is. In a previous post,  I went through my odyssey to create a safe, cheap, green alternative to expensive and chemicall-y all-purpose surface cleaner.  That was one of my huge successes, by the way. I absolutely love the solution I have created.  If you missed that article…well I just linked to it like five times, so go read it!  As noted above, though, other experiments have been a little less successful, as you will see below. 

In this post I want to talk about the dishwasher and my quest for the right detergent. Let me begin by explaining that while I am sometimes motivated by avoiding harsh chemicals, in this product that was not my primary motivation. I mean, you don’t ever really handle dishwashing detergent, so it is hard to get a sense for its harshness.  It was different with the all-purpose surface cleaner where I was concerned about what was remaining on surfaces, what I was inhaling, and what might unintentionally get on food.  Also, I don’t have allergies, and quite frankly, have never even heard of an allergy to dishwashing detergent like you would for laundry detergent.  It wasn’t so much the chemicals in my dishwashing detergent, it was the cost. The stuff is expensive!  When my husband and I finally committed to our weekly grocery budget, I decided staying out of the household cleaners aisle completely would go a long way towards staying under budget. 

However, I put off trying to make the detergent for a while because my sister-in-law assurred me it wouldn’t work.  Shaking her head in her been-there, done-that wisdom, she said, “no, it leaves stuff all over your dishes.” In the end, it’s not that I didn’t believe her. It’s just that I had decided my situation was different. Maybe it was her hard water, I thought. (honestly, I don’t even know if they had hard water… that just seems to be the go-to excuse with things being washed or rinsed.) Or… maybe she had a different recipe. Plus, I had already purchased Borax and Super Washing Soda for Laundry Detergent, so I pretty much already had all of the ingredients.  And all these people on the internet said it was soooo easy and perfect. So, why not!?

Like always, I hit the internet and found a recipe for the kind of detergent I could mold into shapes.  These recipes were essentially the same as the powder detergents, but added a bit more of a wet ingredient to allow it to clump together.  Recipes on-line were all very similar. They all pretty much used borax and super washing soda and some thing for an acid–vinegar, lemon juice, kool-aid (yes, kool-aid). 20131101-130614.jpgSometimes recipes also used regular baking soda, essential oils, and castille soap. I went with borax and super washing soda, vinegar, and a dash of Sal’s suds–not castille soap because we all learned from my eco-heroine, Lisa Bronner,  in this amazing post that vinegar and castille soap do not mix. I mixed everything up until it clumped like sand for a sand castle and then pressed it into my little molds.

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I have these nice silicone cupcake cups that I used, though I have also used plastic candy molds. Both work well, because the little guys can be popped out when fully dry.  Depending how wet the mixture was, it would take anywhere from a few hours to a couple of days to dry. Like usual, my science wasn’t exact, so it varied a lot. Sometimes I had a sloppy mess from trying to remove the wet detergent from a mold too soon, or when I put in too much Sal’s Suds. More often than not, though, the stuff hardened up and I could place them individually in a re-used jar. And voila! I had loads and loads of detergent for mere pennies.  

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I was so proud of my self.  I felt like I was single-handedly saving the planet and our budget.  But I was pre-maturely smug.  And this is where I feel the internet and many blogs often lead us astray.  They don’t really honestly explore the question about how well something works after someone brilliantly, cheaply, and easily makes something with their very own hands in their very own kitchen for the first time.  You can often get a better sense of how something actually works from the comments to post than from the post itself.  

In my different batches, I would make little changes here and there…more vinegar, less vinegar, added vinegar to the wash cycle, or sometimes vingear soaked in citrus peels for some additional essential oils. I also added sometimes added essential oils, reduced the borax, etc. It really didn‘t matter what I did, my dishwasher left most of my dishes clean, but also left a white deposit on many dishes. It wasn’t necessarily a film (thought sometimes it was) it was more like these white Rorschach-test splotches on some of my dishes that I would have to scrub off before the next cycle or it would get caked on. Was I putting in too much detergent? Or was I putting in too much of one ingredient into the detergent, Borax or Super Washing Soda? I put in less… made adjustments to all of it. I still had the same problem. I don’t have hard water or soft-water, so I couldn’t figure it out.

Still, I was stubborn. I convinced myself, and my husband, that it was not my beautiful, little, pressed pods that were a problem, but our dingy 15 year-old dishwasher. I felt sure that once we got a new dishwasher, everything would be spotless. So, we bought a new dishwasher (Aside–this was not as flippant a decision as it sounds. The dishwasher had not been performing well, was staring to leak, the nozzles were not nozzling and every cycle was leaving behind a lot of dried food particles. Plus we gave it away for free, so it lessened the guilt a bit about replacing an appliance.) We did not buy a top-of-the-line dishwasher, but solid, inexpensive one. I remained in denial for four cycles. And then had to admit that my dishwashing detergent was still leaving white stuff all over everything–though all the other problems were solved. We received two little Sample liquid pods of a name brand detergent that clearly did not leave the same residue behind.

I admitted defeat… except, that I still have some thoughts about this. Perhaps the trick is to make my detergent liquid–or buy a Bosch, which we did not do, by the way. Sadly, I will not buy a Bosch but I will continue to try to experiment with the detergent…partially out of stubborness, but also because the stuff I am now using isn’t perfect, either. I actually switched to store-bought dry detergent (previously I used a name-brand or store-brand gel detergent). The store-brand I now have is fairly inexpensive per wash. However, I have noticed that while it does not leave large white splotches like my home made cleaner did, it does leave a white, cloudy layer on certain items. Especially over time and on plastic.

So I am going to keep experimenting with making dishwashing detergent. I am not defeated.  I am going to look for a liquid recipe. I even bought some citric acid because it was super cheap and is apparently the magic solution to crystal clear glasses. Meanwhile, the little pods I made are actually great for an all-natural scrubbing agent, kind of like a substitute for Comet. In fact, I just used it today to clean the shower.  It worked beautifully.  I also use some as an abrasive to get the tea and coffee stains out of our mugs–because no matter how good the dish washer or the detergent, those do not come off unless scrubbed!

If anyone has any suggestions or comments, I would be happy to hear them! And I will keep you posted on my future experimentation. 

Shedding Light on the LightBulb Moment

Recently I had an article published on the website GetRichSlowly.org. This was an article similar to one published on my blog. Both were titled “Lightbulb Moment.” Not too surprisingly, GetRichSlowly.org had many, many more visitors and followers than LifeImproved.Org (for the moment) and many of those readers felt compelled to post comments. For the most part, people were kind, enthusiastic, and supportive. However, there were some comments that were irritated that I did not give more financial details, or that opined that since I admitted that we had healthy salaries that whatever accomplishments we shared were less than impressive. I get the sentiment. I mean, it’s a much more moving story when a single mother, working three jobs, making $30,000 a year claws her way out of crippling debt left by the death of her spouse. And her beloved poodle. Yeah. I, too, would be very moved by the story. We all love an underdog. Heck, we make movies and write stories about them all the time (See David and Goliath). And there is also something fascinating about peering into the minute details of someone’s life, especially if those details reveal something savory. The problem some people had with my article was that it was too… ordinary, I guess. But these people that wanted more juiciness missed the point of the article and the pulse of my message.

You see, when my husband and I first started our journey, we were nothing special. We were another couple, working on our careers, living in suburbia. We had purchased a house and new vehicles within the previous five years. These things we had “upgraded” as circumstances allowed, moving from our 1000 square foot town home to our 2000 square foot home and trading in our used, cheap cars that we had as graduate students to our new cars befitting our careers. We were moving on up, financing home improvement projects and furniture to fill our bigger home without giving it much thought. We weren’t out of the ordinary. In fact we were extremely normal. Every body was doing it. My generation and the generations around mine were expected to go out into the world and flex the power of our credit. We did not save up $15,000 to buy a decent car. We purchased a $35,000 car with no money down. And even when we could easily pay for a roomful of furniture by waiting and conscientiously saving for a couple of months, we were lured by 12 months free financing. As I have mentioned before, my husband and I always felt very responsible about our decisions because we never borrowed as much as we could have. We were somewhere between Ikea and Crate and Barrel and way south of the neighborhood of BMW and Mercedes. So it was kind of a shock to finally see with clarity that even though we didn’t borrow as much as we could have, that our were not very good financial decisions. By the time we went to see the financial planner in 2009, our debt to income ratio was almost 3 to 1–but our credit was outstanding!

I keep seeing this commercial for a certain large financial services company whose message is that seeing one of their bankers can make your life so much better. In the commercial, a couple is sitting in front of the banker and he asks them what they would like to do with some extra money. The husband immediately responds that he wants a motorcycle and the wife that she wants a remodel. This commercial is interesting for a couple of different reasons. First, the couple has no idea what they want, they just want to borrow more money to buy more stuff. And second, the commercial implies that the banker will help them each purchase both of the things that they desire, they just need to ask.

This brings me back to discuss the point of my article on GetRichSlowly.org. Taking on debt has become entirely too normal. And not just debt for the big, once-in-a-life-time things, like the house or your good family car. We finance dishwashers, and vacations and new cars before the other new car even has any equity. We worry more about our credit scores than we do about our ability to repay debt if anything changes in the precarious cash-flow game so many of us play. So that’s the heart of my story. It wasn’t an amazing feat that my husband and I paid off all of our debt. What was difficult was getting the point that we recognized that we were headed down the wrong road. We didn’t need to get to the point that we lost everything first and hit rock bottom in order swear off debt–though I agree that I probably could have written a tear-jerker of a story about it. I don’t need to see anyone else hit rock-bottom before starting to climb up, either. I will be impressed if you have a healthy relationship with debt and spend less than you earn. And I think that these kinds of stories need to be put out into the universe in order to encourage other people just like us to change their approach to debt so that they can really change the course of their lives.

Picky Eaters

I know little bit about plants.  Okay, okay–I know quite a bit about plants, probably more than the average person. Nonetheless, I am still surprised that many people don’t know how to recognize wild raspberry brambles. I always kind of thought that picking wild berries was a rite of passage of any midwestern kid (I am from Illinois). Yet, I get strange, if not horrified, looks from people when I eat berries straight from the bush, or pick mulberries from the tree. It’s almost as if because the fruit is not presented in a plastic clamshell, there must be something wrong with it. I admit, this is sometimes true. Foraged fruit tends to be less pretty than store bought, and sometimes more…I don’t know…insect-y. But this is good! It means the stuff has not been doused with chemicals. And do we really have to talk about what the FDA considers acceptable for insect parts in the processed foods you consume… we can, if you stubbornly insist you never consume insects. But if you are that much in denial, I don’t want to ruin chocolate for you. Back to the subject. Once you get past the fact that food does not all come from the grocery store, you realize that there is a world out there of stuff you can eat!

Since I am not homesteading or living off the grid, I am not going to eat things that I have to boil a couple of times to get the toxins or tannins out, or that I have to douse with butter and and garlic to overcome the bitterness.  I mean, I don’t have to eat this stuff. The point is, I want to eat delicious, healthy things. If they are free and found in nature, then it’s even better.

Some of my favorite things to forage are black raspberries, mulberries, and apples. Remember, I live in the midwest, and these types of fruits abound in the spring and summer.  However, most areas have lots of food that can be foraged. If you have no idea where to start, go to your library and get a book. Or look on-line. You will find a lot of options and the only trick is to decide how adventurous you would like to be. For example, I keep reading cat tails are edible…but I don’t see myself plucking them anytime soon.

Now, I happen to live in an area that has rural areas, conserved areas, and state and county parks and preserves. I have a few go-to places with wide, open fields that I know I have permission to pick and explore.  But beware, you can’t just pick fruit, flowers and seeds from just anywhere.  It may, in fact, be illegal, if not just rude and tresspass-y.  I recently found out, however, that State parks in Illinois allow people in the collect edible “fungi, nuts and berries on Department owned, leased or managed lands where such collection would not be incompatible with resource management activities…and where such collection is for personal use only and not for re-sale.”17 IAC 1/10(a) (3). From what I understand, though, you can’t go off trail to collect it.

Perhaps this is where I should add the disclaimer that there are a lot of poisonous and toxic plants out there. And many plants that are diuretics. And some plants that give you that woo-woo feeling. Please do your research. Do not pick something you do not recognize.  If looking through a book or website does not give you the knowledge you need, attend a program put on by your local university extension office, conservation district, forest preserve, or state park. Or go with a friend that knows a thing or two about plants, and has a few favorite spots for picking!

Paper chase

Lately, I’ve been putting in a lot of energy into paper. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “[p]aper makes up 28 percent of municipal solid waste (MSW), more than any other material Americans throw away.” Although, according to the hand dryer I used at the rest stop the other day, paper makes up 40 percent of land fills.  I am not sure if MSW does not all end up in landfills, and if that accounts for the disparity in percentages, but, in any case, paper makes up a lot of our waste.  Fortunately, paper seems to be the easiest thing to try and keep out of landfills.  Unfortunately, it also accumulates so quickly! Between the cereal and pasta boxes, mail, business papers, packing and wrapping materials, toilet paper rolls, catalogues and little bits of random paper is tough to keep up with. Even with the outdoor composter and the worm composter (two different systems!) I almost can’t keep up with it. But I am trying.

I am conscientiously trying  to stop using paper as much as possible. Luckily for any future guests, I will not give up toilet paper, but I have stopped using paper napkins and drastically reduced my paper towel consumption.  My mom is not pleased.  And even though I really dislike doing dishes, I no longer buy paper plates.  Admittedly, it took a little while to get accustomed to cloth napkins for daily meals use, but it’s getting less weird with time. I didn’t even have to buy new cloth napkins. I’ve had some for years that sat lonely in the curio cabinet waiting to be used for the three to four dinner parties I might have a year. Now my husband and I use them regularly.

I have also tried to reduce my dry good purchases that come in cardboard boxes such as boxed rice mixes. The cardboard boxes I do end up buying, like cereal and tea boxes, I actually hand shred and take to either of my composters.  I am toying with the idea of making my own pasta.  So far this is ambition and optimism over reality and time, but pasta continues to account for one of my major boxed dry-good purchases, so I will continue to search for a solution.

I save tissue paper for either gift wrapping or packaging for shipped items. In fact, I seek out tissue paper from others. Whenever I am at a present-exchanging event, I go so far as to remove tossed tissue paper from the big plastic garbage bag and fold it up into neat squares that I can save for later.  It’s kind of weird, but most of the tissue is brand new.  People shop at the last minute, grab a gift bag and tissue from the store and “wrap” the present on the way to the party, barely bothering to unfold the tissue paper. I know this to be true because it is my husband’s inevitable method of purchasing gifts.

Mail continues to be a challenge even in this day and age.  I have switched over to paperless on those accounts that allow for it.  I’ve even tried those sites that are supposed to help reduce catalogues and junk mail, but they don’t work. The mail just keeps coming. In any case, I try to machine or hand shred it all, even the catalogues and magazines, to stick in one of my compost bins.  Letter mail gets to be particularly tedious because you have to remove the plastic windows from the envelopes since it won’t compost.  I even put some machine shredded magazines and catalogues aside for future packing material.   The pages are light-weight and colorful and work really well in place of foam peanuts or bubble wrap.

But even with all these efforts, it is still difficult to keep up with the paper.  One time I made recycled paper pots out of shredded cardboard.  They worked brilliantly and next year I plan to make bigger, better pots. But this was one additional use for the excess paper and maybe removed three boxes from the cycle.  There is still so much more.  Neither of my composters can keep up with it and I can only save so much for packing.  I can easily stick it in the recycling, but I feel that this is me being lazy and putting the burden on someone else.  Besides, I am not sure that it will not end up in the landfill anyway and I want to remove it from the system entirely.

Many municipalities have a composting program.  These are wonderful resources for any community, resulting in cheap or free compost for the residents and a convenient place to take your compostable items.  Sadly, my community does not have such a program.  One of the reasons that I took so long to put up this post is that I was sure I would be able to find a composting program in my area that I could dump off my excess paper.  What I found out, instead, is that if there are programs in my area, they don’t accept paper and they charge by the cubic yard to accept your waste.  And the municipal programs in my area restrict the drop-off to residents with purchased stickers, which does not mean me. So annoying.  As often happens when my desire to be both ecologically and financially responsible meet and disagree, I am a crossroads.  Even if I could find a place that accepted paper to compost, I might have to to spend money to get rid of it.

As I was researching local composting programs, I noticed that none of them actually encouraged using paper as composting material.  This was odd to me since I had been giving paper to my worms for quite a while.  I dug a little deeper to see what the deal was.  As to the harms and benefits, I ran across this post which provided a thoughtful answer to the question.  Basically, that guy doesn’t like it.  And his reasons made sense (that while it may compost, it lacks nutrients and may leach toxic chemicals into the compost, especially glossy magazines).  But he also goes on to say that rainwater, animal manure or scraps from produce are also not 100% free of chemicals. He also says that he doesn’t bother with paper because it can be recycled easily.  I tend disagree that just because it can be recycled it is actually getting recycled and that all the recovered material is being sold, but I have to admit I am not basing that on fact, but by a tendency to automatically believe in the inherent inefficiencies of any system. I looked through a few websites pretty thoroughly, including this one about the paper industry to soothe my skepticism.  However, I couldn’t find a straight answer about what percentage of paper that is purposefully recycled and bundled up and sent to a processing plant is actually used as a commodity to produce more paper.  There are only figures about the amount of paper consumed that is recovered, or the amount of paper in landfills,  which isn’t an accurate reflection of what I am after.

So what started out as a righteous, self-congratulatory post about the part I am playing in keeping paper out of landfills became a post full of questions and doubts.  Am I spending too much time thinking about paper? Am I doing the right thing by keeping it out of the landfill and trying to compost it? Does it even matter that I don’t buy pasta in boxes since I can throw it in recycling and have it end up  as a commodity that uses less energy to process than raw wood? I feel like my obsession with paper is kind of like a radish rose–kinda impressive but everyone wonders why the heck anyone would take the time to make a rose out of a radish in the first place. I will have to continue to give this some serious thought and continue to do research. In the mean time, I can always focus on plastic.

Thank you for reading my post.  Don’t forget you can visit my site at http://www.lifeimproved.org for other mind-blowing posts and perspectives–and some fluff.  As always, please feel free to share, quote, praise, and reflect kindly upon my blog!