Minimalism, Zero Waste, Oh My!

About five years or so, I started noticing minimalism enthrall the corners of the internet where I lurked. It started with Marie Kondo I think, with her decluttering prowess and gently folded sock drawers. Less was more; furniture was sleek, simple, and Scandinavian; and that’s without even us reaching the level of hygge.

This pursuit of minimalism for me felt like an outgrowth of my own personal diminutiveness. I was newly graduated, had little more than a suitcase of clothes and a mattress to my name. I didn’t need much of the world and maybe, if I kept it that way, it wouldn’t ask too much of me either. Rather than try to go out and make an impact, I wanted to be as invisible as possible, as light and unimpactful to the world as I could be. Like footprints on the beach.

Minimalism also appealed to my sense of environmental consciousness. Sure, as a member of modern society my carbon footprint was almost necessarily large. But maybe I could make it less. And here was this well-marketed, consumerist-centric way to do it (for, I believe, much of internet-minimalism has morphed into thinly veiled marketing for over-designed luxury products, if it ever was anything else). What could be more easily actionable than to buy something or not buy something else, as the case may be.

Nowadays, I feel myself falling for another trend, similarly pinging at my sense of environmental unease and appeal for nice things: zero waste. Less trash? Sounds good. “Plant-based” products? How a-peel-ing. It’ll save me money? Tell me more!

Here is a list of “zero waste” things I have done already:

  • use reusable cloth tote for groceries and other purchases
  • replaced paper towels with cloth napkins and rags
  • composting scraps, zero food waste
  • replace one-use sanitary pads with reusable cotton pads
  • nix dryer sheets in favor of wool dryer balls
  • mostly purchase used clothing
  • mostly eliminated disposable dish ware
  • purchase vegetables through CSA delivery with minimal to no packaging
  • don’t own a car, generally walk or take public transit
  • improved energy efficiency for the house – solar, heat pump, water saving, LED lightbulbs, insulation

Here are some things I’m considering to become more “zero waste”:

  • bringing my own containers to use for takeout (this feels like it could be a health code violation, more research needed)
  • use bees wax wrap instead of disposable plastic bags to store food
  • eliminate 2-day shipping and food delivery in favor of my own two feet

Here are some things I am interested in changing, but have no idea how to begin (suggestions welcome!):

  • how to get food delivered to my house for game nights, etc. without producing a metric ton of takeout container trash
  • finding sustainable home supplies, especially for items that are regularly replaced, e.g. HVAC filters, vacuum bags, batteries, etc.

And here are the zero waste things I 100% will not be doing:

  • ask my fiancé to give up his car
  • grey water or composting toilets (nitrogen cycle human waste)
  • stop myself from having kids
  • not travel on planes (though I do want to be more mindful of how often I travel)
  • eliminate plastic from my life entirely
  • going vegetarian (though I may change my diet to limit myself to chicken and fish for protein)

Do you try to be a “minimalist” or “zero waste”? What “zero waste” things do you do? How do you feel about these paring-down lifestyle trends?

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Window Shopping: All The Grana Edition

As I mentioned in my clothing roundup posts from last year, I feel like my closet is in a pretty good state. I can go through around three weeks without doing laundry and everything feels comfortable and just chic enough for casual situations and work. There is no absolute need requiring me to buy clothes for the next few months.

That said, sometimes it’s nice to window shop. Imagining what I could buy is like 75% of the enjoyment of actually purchasing an item. And with the internet, that’s easier than ever. I’ll probably have this as a series up here every once and a while to vent some of the idle shopping feelings. No links– affiliate or otherwise. I’m not trying to push anyone to spend where they otherwise wouldn’t.

Here’s what I’ve been looking at lately:

Grana Silk Ankle Pants
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After Xin’s post about these, I’ve been really itching to buy them for work. Imagine it: slacks but with an elastic waist band. And a loose comfortable fabric that breathes. My heart skips a beat just thinking about it. I think I can probably pull it off if I don’t tuck in my shirt, the elastic band look would not go over well with my supervisors. I also like the texture, a nice suede-looking crepe de chine. So often my modus operandi has been to use blouses as the interest piece, but it’s interesting to consider flipping the script. A crisp white button up with silk ankle pants? I can dig it.

Grana Round Neck Dipped Hem Dress

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One of the reasons I would buy Everlane clothing so much is that– barring their general problems with quality, their color game is just so on point. I am not into saturated jewel tones, so the muted colors suited me well: forest greens, brick reds, powder pinks. Grana, on the other hand, has much brighter colors: mint blues, fresh leaf greens, lavenders so vibrant you can almost smell them. It’s not loud exactly, but starting to speak in an outside voice.

The one color I cannot get enough of in Grana’s catalog is this coral though. Classic and cute. And the cut of this dress is just so gently flirty and versatile. I feel like it’s a very lady-in-a-commercial dress. She’s eating a picnic on the beach, twirling in the sunlight, stops by the cafe for a croissant on the way home. She reminds you that you’re young and vibrant, and that maybe you should have something in your closet that makes you feel pretty instead of put together.

As you can tell, I’m weirdly emotionally invested in this dress.

Grana Silk Loose Shorts

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Take all my thoughts about the coral dress and apply it to these shorts.

 

Grana Silk Bomber

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Completely impractical for my life, but also overwhelmingly cool. I like the idea of an all-silk outfit on a summer’s night. Clothes so light and breathable I can barely tell where I end and nature begins.

Equipment Liam Floral Top

Maybe it’s the three days of 50 F weather (after a week hovering near zero plus a bomb cyclone), but I’ve been really crushing on the florals lately. I love the contrast between the front and the sleeves. A blouse of just the sleeve textile would be too loud, of just the front too dowdy. This feels the right amount of off-kilter.

Elizabeth Suzann Linen Pants

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I’ve been searching for a pair of minimalist black linen pants for about two years. Lo and behold everything Elizabeth Suzann. I feel late to the game on this but I really like the lack of adornment on her clothing. It looks simple but versatile. But so expensive with a limited secondary market where clothes cost nearly as much as they are new.

 

Anything you’ve been window shopping lately?

Tax Optimization and Charitable Giving

How are we reacting to the new Republican tax law?

Well, I’ve crunched the numbers and my partner and I will be around $3-4k short of the new standard deduction, not including charitable contributions. This gap will widen over time as we pay down our mortgage and our interest deduction declines.

Since we plan to continue donating 10% of our net income, we can pretty easily surpass this $3-4k gap each year if we give as normal. But it would be more tax efficient to bunch our giving so that we give the same amount on average, but only every other year. Applying such a strategy would net us an average of $385 in greater tax refunds every year (growing slightly over time). Not a life changing amount, but not chump change either.

The big downside to such a plan is that we would, in essence, be “delaying” charitable donations which could be well used by our favorite institutions sooner than later. I put a pretty high discount rate on donations– I think $50 to a cause today is worth way more than $50 to a cause a year from now. Because who knows what the world will look like a year from now. Plus, if we lived our whole lives around financial optimization, we wouldn’t be giving this much to begin with.

Alternatively, we could “prepay” charitable donations a year early. Which, if you believe the stock market will continue its bonanza of 20% annual increases, means we’ll be missing on non-trivial market gains.

So where does that leave us? To bunch or not to bunch?

Since we “prepaid” a lot of our charitable obligation for this year, I am inclined to donate the remainder of this year’s charitable obligation and then “prepay” next year’s obligations into a donor advised fund. From an efficient giving standpoint, I still think it is better to just donate the extra to charity now and eschew the DAF altogether. But from a mental accounting standpoint, having the money under my “advisement” (read: basically under my control except legally?) is strangely comforting. Plus, setting up a charitable foundation in anticipation for our wedding might be nice. Have our guests donate into our charitable pot rather than buying us a toaster oven we’ll never use.

Are you changing your tax strategy due to the new tax law? Will it affect your charitable giving?

Cooking As A Means To Health, Not Frugality

I’ve mentioned on the blog before that I’m a big fan of cooking and an even bigger fan of eating. As a “personal finance blogger” (in name only, really), one would expect that my reliance on home cooking is mostly for finances, but I am here to tell you ’tis not so. I mean, saving money is great and all, but the real reason I cook most of my meals is for my health. The physical kind, not the financial.

I was nineteen when I suddenly and painfully became lactose intolerant. Without getting too much into it, it took a complete overhaul of my food intake to figure out what was going on. I tried various elimination diets. Through trial and error, I learned that, in additional to my lactose intolerance:

  • I cannot eat tomatoes for more than two meals in a row,
  • I cannot eat certain spices,
  • Non-fibrous carbohydrates give me drastic energy spikes and can greatly exacerbate my anxiety,
  • I am extremely sensitive to caffeine and other stimulants,
  • I have mild sensitivity to wheat, and
  • Chocolate makes me break out.

You know how much American fast food contains one of: dairy, non-fibrous carbs, or tomatoes? Like, 95% of it.

So, out of necessity, I started cooking all my meals myself. Obviously from my food spending, I don’t cook everything still. But, I’ll cook most of what I eat. And given my new diet, I figured out what I could make that would not only taste good, but make me feel good.

At this point, I have everything down to a system. I eat 150 kcals of almonds or cashews each morning, offered free at my workplace. Sometimes I’ll drink tea in the morning, but only once in a while since multiple days of green tea can literally keep me awake and jittery at night. Each week I get a delivery of my vegetable CSA, each month a delivery from my meat CSA. Once a week, I break out my podcasts and let myself flow into cooking. This week I set aside four hours to turn a pound of ground beef and this:

Into this:

From the top, left to right: roasted watermelon radishes and beets, stir fry broccoli with peppers and onions, romaine lettuce, sweet potato fries, roasted cabbage, celeriac puree, kale chips, and ginger ground beef stir fry. 

(Obviously I’m a big fan of roasting. It’s almost impossible to screw up! If I ever own a restaurant, I’ll name it Maillard in appreciation.)

Using my prepped food, it’s easy for me to throw together meals. Sometimes I’ll put together a protein with a carb and vegetables and call it a day. Other times i might supplement with some simple cooking. From the above, I was able to throw together a root vegetable salad, beef lettuce wraps, and Asian fusion sweet potato poutine.

Because I’m always getting 8-15 pounds of vegetables a week, I don’t worry too much about my micronutrient intake. I don’t have to sacrifice health for taste, either. Cooking all my meals means I can generally avoid unnecessary fat, sugar, and salt and season everything just the way I like. Instead of a heavy cream-filled ranch, I can throw together my own delicious savory dressing from olive oil, balsamic vinagerette, sesame oil, soy sauce, white miso paste, and just a dash of honey. Shaking smooth until a deep brown gravy forms, it makes for a delightful concoction of tang and umami while still keeping everything feeling light. In spite of and sometimes because of the health-consciousness of my meals, I’ll get semi-jealous sometimes-digs, sometimes-compliments from my coworkers on how my food smells in the office kitchen. Having everything already on hand is also great in that it reduces my daily stress– I never have to worry about planning my next meal.

Note that while I mention how wonderful cooking has been on multiple dimensions– health, taste, daily convenience– I don’t really harp on it being cheaper. That’s because, for about $45 worth of ingredients (including spices and oils), I only make about 10 meals worth of food. Assuming I could buy fast food for $10/meal and that I spend 4 hours/week batch cooking, I only really save $55/week or about $13.75 per hour of my time. While it’s not nothing, the benefit here in terms of cash is dwarfed by the benefits in terms of living.

Why do you cook? What’s your cooking style?

Financial Update – December 2017

Each month I will post an update on my finances to both give you, the reader, some insight into my situation and to give me markers of my progress on my financial journey. My updates consist of two parts:

  • Financial Progress Table – Tracks net worth progress.
  • Spending Table – Compares monthly spending to an average (for me) “bare bones” budget, keeping me accountable for additional expenses.

For now, monthly updates include only my personal net worth and spending. As my fiancé and I combine our finances, updates will shift to cover going values instead.

Financial Progress

Each net worth goal in the Financial Progress table is broken down into undisclosed units of money. My current goal is to reach “Financial Freedom.” By the time I reach this goal I will have:

  • A retirement account that can support us when my fiancé hits 65
  • Two college savings funds funded for four years of in-state public university tuition, room, and board
  • An emergency fund for six or more months of living expenses
  • Sufficient liquidity for my fiancé and/or I to make a career change with one to two years’ runway
  • A mortgage less than two times my gross salary without bonuses

Once “Financial Freedom” is achieved, the focus will then working be towards “Financial Equilibrium”, where the income from investments covers all our ongoing expenses. dec 17 fin

Spending

I’ve created a “bare bones” budget which represents the average minimum amount I can expect to spend each month. This is the minimum amount I need to comfortably live in case of a job loss, emergency, etc. I expect to frequently go over my “bare bones” budget in a number of categories (here’s looking at you, “Groceries & Dining), but I want to remain accountable to myself when I do so.

For privacy reasons, there are two things I do not include in my spending updates: my monthly mortgage and charitable donations (pegged at 10% of my net income).

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Money Summary

In spite of some big end-of year charitable contributions, I managed to just barely stay in the green this month. Mostly because the stock market has been crazy. I’m sure to pay for the progress in due time.

While I was high on the spending front, there are a few ameliorating factors.

For one, since Fiancé has been out of work, I’ve taken over all the utilities, including our once-every-four-months water bill. This skews my individual numbers a bit, even though as a household we’re going along as expected. When we finish joining our financesour new budget will reflect our combined numbers more accurately.

Another big contributor to this month’s spending is the annual fee for my new Amex Platinum card. I will more than make up for the fee in points and benefits, with $450 in comped AA gift cards and Uber rides by the end of January. But, since I won’t be taking out the rewards in cash back (like for my Amex Blue Preferred), it makes sense to track the fee.

Other big purchases made just for the indulgence include my Kobo e-reader and a couple’s massage. Also some food delivery, in spite of my “spend less on food” challenge, because it is <10 F right now in New England and leaving my warm cozy bed covers let alone my house in search for food is hard.

How were your finances in December?

My Goals for 2018

This is going to be a big year. My fiancé and I will get married. If all goes well, the voters will upend our robotic overlords. Yeah, I’m optimistic 2018 will be a good one.

This is also the last calendar year before my partner and I start trying for kids. Which means I want my goals to count. I know life and personal identity don’t stop when you have children, but there’s still a part of my brain that’s like: Embrace the YOLO while you still can.

With that in mind, here’s my first draft at goals for 2018:

  1. Marry and combine finances with my partner. If I hit only this goal, I’ll consider this year to be a win. The hardest part, by far, will be planning the wedding.
  2. Increase net worth 3 units. According to my calculations, I should be able to increase our net worth 2.5 units on my income alone. If my partner finds work by Jan 1, we’ll be looking at something closer to 3.25 units. If we hit the 3-unit mark, that’ll set us up to hit our “financial equilibrium” by first half of 2019. It’ll also mean that our non-house assets will be greater than our mortgage.
  3. Generate another stream of income, separate from my job. Right now I’m able to supplement my income with churning and proceeds from our roof of solar panels (expect a detailed post in a couple months). It’d be nice if I can find another light-weight way to make a couple thousand a year, just to pad our expenses.
  4. Chisel my way to six-pack abs. Pure whimsy and vanity. I’ve never been the rippling muscle type: my muscles are 90% jelly and I don’t think I could do a pull up to save my life. But I have been going to core classes the last couple months to good effect– you can now see the faint outlines of a couple abs right under my rib cage. I feel like if I put work into it, I’ll be able to get myself a six-pack. And this feels like my last opportunity since I imagine I shouldn’t try this while pregnant.
  5. Visit Ireland and Amsterdam. Combination honeymoon and trip to visit our friends while they work abroad. Fiancé will get to connect with his Irish ancestry, plus it’ll be his first time traveling internationally.
  6. Get involved in 2018 governor’s race. It’ll be an uphill slog to get rid of our elephant-in-the-room governor, so I want to help out where I can.
  7. Do one “interesting” thing per month. This is an idea I took from Chris Hutchins who was recently interviewed on the Mad Fientist podcast. In my updates, I will plan out my “interesting thing” for the next month. I’m hoping having a collection of 12 memorable moments by the end of the year will help me feel like I’m living to the fullest in 2018.

Then there’s my “keep on keeping on” list:

  1. Maintain body weight, regular diet and exercise. Due to my CSA, I have been eating healthier this year than I ever have before. I’ve also been pretty diligent about putting in 2-3 exercise sessions per week. I’d like to maintain that trend and keep my body feeling strong.
  2. Continue volunteering and donating 10% of my income. I’d like to continue fostering my relationship with my Little Sis and help her navigate the terrible time that is early teenager-dom. Also, charity.
  3. Read at least one book a month. Stay curious, keep reading.

Looking at this list, I don’t feel like I’m really setting “goals” for myself. “Goals” entail growth. This is more just itemizing the things on my schedule for 2018. Nothing here is terribly outside of my comfort zone, with the notable exception of political canvassing. That one’s going to hurt. Everything else, though, feels like the natural extension of the person that I already am.

Should I get more weird and creative goals? Or I’m just putting too much pressure on myself to live it up in my last moments of unmarried, childless freedom? I think this is likely just a blip of new-years inspiration-envy FOMO, which too shall pass.

What are your goals for 2018?

Object Lessons: Semiotics of Robot Fashion Edition

Nobody has ever confused me for a Bitcoin bull– the ever-increasing energy consumption of transactions and non-fiatness of the currency has always had me wary. But even supporters, and especially new speculators, should keep in mind that the Bitcoin market is unregulated, shallow, and can be heavily influenced by a handful of investors.

What happened to the legacy premium fashion brands? I bought a Tommy Hilfiger sheath dress a decade ago, wear it weekly, and it still looks brand new! I wonder if clothes from the current class of premium brands– Everlane, Cuyana, DSTLD– will have the same longevity? I expect this new wave of brands will cut quality to lower production costs, particularly during the next recession (thereafter losing their hardcore followers). Everlane’s clothing has rapidly declined in quality over the past few years as they’ve expanded. Maybe that’s just the lifecycle of a premium brand.

When people tell me robots will take all our jobs, I read stuff like this bot-generated Harry Potter chapter and feel a lot more secure.

Speaking of robots, Racked explores how we design and dress female androids reflects whether we’re building artificial intelligence or artificial subservience. (Hint: it’s the latter).

Crinolines: an agent for asserting feminine sexual authority and busting class barriers. Who knew? “Crinoline-clad women, in the reactionary cartoonist’s imagination, crushed men beneath their expanding skirts or caged them within steel frames.” Which kind of reminds me of the women crushing things under their heels trend from the past few years.

In case you haven’t noticed, reality is collapsing into a cheap supermarket tabloid: This article from the NY Times on a secret government U.F.O. research program is the best too-bizarre-to-be-fake news this country needs.

I ❤ Kristen Wiig: