A Month of China-free: A challenge.

I look around me and wonder about the provenance of the things we own. Partially, I’m interested in our “stuff” because one of my hobbies is garage-saleing and thrifting – I’d rather buy almost everything used (reasonable exceptions: underwear, cars). Where did it reside before we owned it? Was it well loved or neglected? How can it be repurposed? The thrill of the hunt is fun and you never know what you might find. But I’m also curious about where things come from for political, humanitarian, and sustainability reasons. And what I’ve become aware of over the last several years is alarming: it’s ALL made in China. Insidiously, we’ve stepped onto this train as consumers with a purchasing muscle memory, not bothering to check the destination…and it’s the wrong train. Many of the things I use, value, and decorate with are made in China. I’ve checked. My coffee maker? Yup. This computer. Yes. The outer shell of the cloth diapers I lovingly diaper my kids with? “Responsibly” made there. The Tom’s shoes I wear (yup, that Tom’s – the ones that aren’t just foot coverings but hipster humanitarian statements)? YES, Tom’s are made in China. Start checking the bottoms of or the labels of things – you are going to find something that surprises you, guaranteed.

I’m depressed by the mass quantities of *things* made in China. Cheap plastic crap begets the “more is more” consumerist mentality that pervades our culture, and even worse, this begets the blind eye that is turned on the ethics involved in sending production overseas. Have you read the recent article about a college professor who was jailed in China and forced to work in a labor camp, the products of which were for an unsuspecting American company? China’s judicial system is fraught with shortcomings, and one is that you are guilty until proven innocent. The SCOTUS decision this week is an excellent example of the consumer-fueled rampant corporate hypocrisy that “Made in China” represents. Not only does Hobby Lobby sell things – oodles of things – made there (clearly their Christian values are in deference to corporate profits), but they hold stock in the very companies that produce the contraceptives they object to covering on religious grounds. I feel compelled to depress you, too, with these injustices because knowledge is power. As Maya Angelou said, “Now that I know better, I do better.”

There’s a whole other level to my “Made in China” hyperventilation, who’s surface is hard to scratch. Many products with a USA/Canada/name another country COOL (Country Of Origin Labeling) are sent to China, packaged, and then shipped back to that COOL. Laws governing how to label the trans-Atlantic flights your stuff (and food! – many chickens take this route) takes are lenient or non-existent. You may never truly know how much jet fuel the meal on your plate or the plastic in your “Made in the USA” stuff actually used. Also, China doesn’t have the greatest food safety reputation.

I have little faith that “ethically produced/made” in China actually exists. There is no getting around the serious human rights violations pervasive in this country that are inextricably endorsed by us when we buy from companies that outsource to China. Perhaps a worker gets a living wage, laughable, but possible. But that does not retract from the ever present elephant in the room – China’s complicated and deeply flawed One-Child Policy. It has engendered infanticide, one of the highest rates of abortion in any country, forced abortions and sterilizations, and suicides. In my estimation, it stands in history as gravely horrific as the Holocaust. There is nothing more.


So. Every now and then on Facebook, I see a friend or a farm running a 30-day challenge – decluttering, spending more time out-doors, budgeting and being thrifty. I thought long and hard about something I’d like to do more purposefully and here it is: I will make a great effort to not knowingly buy anything made in China this month and beyond (truly, I’ve been trying to do this for some time now). I don’t want to be part of the chain that ends in a place where human and animal rights are brutally marginalized. We celebrate 238 years of freedom this month…I’ll be doing it by only buying things made in the good ole’ U.S.A. I don’t mean this to be a plague of austerity in our lives, but rather a concerted effort to value where and by whom products are made – I’m aware that some things that we “need” are solely manufactured there, and often the things I buy used are as well. But, I’ll repurpose, reuse, recycle, all to reduce my family’s dependence on things made in China. I challenge you to join me this month.

Happy Birthday, United States.

March: Less Lion, More Lamb

Ok, this metaphor is inherently flawed. Lions are cool (I wore a tutu on my head for some months as a child because I was a male lion), endangered, beautiful big kitties. W likes to hold WV up and pretend he’s Simba. Lambs (and their adult counterparts SHEEEP!), on the other hand (as opposed to cows, and definitely lions), wreak havoc on the root structure of grasses by cropping them too close and killing them. This has lead to anthropogenically intensified erosion in New Zealand (for example), causing the rivers there to be some of the most sediment laden in the world (intrinsic to the topic of my Ph.D. dissertation). However, for the purposes of maintaining the Marchified metaphor, I shall equate lions with destruction and lambs with tender do-gooding. We know the truth.

March was all about reevaluating our home life and reducing or removing certain things from it that are wasteful, not economical, or generally make us cranky. I wanted to make some changes that would be easy for us, as W is pretty much ensconced in his office either working or finishing his thesis and doesn’t have much time to get down and dirty with other creative projects and family extracurriculars. So, my three lambs:

1. We went paper-towel-less. I’ll pause here, while you get in a good eye roll.

Now I’ll brag about how AWESOME being free of paper towels has been (and we’re not going back). For starters, I hated using paper towels. And running out of them. So wasteful of trees and money. I always felt bad when reaching for one to dry my hands (but I still did it, even though we have plenty of kitchen hand towels) – and ended up with a soggy lump of wet-but-clean paper towels waiting to be used for a real mess later. Good for cleaning up WV’s squash eyebrows, true.

cloth paper towelQuestion: Do you know what cloth “paper” towels clean up better? Answer: Everything! From the mess at lunch on the chopping block to WV’s chin to the wet rails of the sink after washing dishes. They are more absorbent (seen here drying washed spinach), they are reusable, they are better for the earth and our family! C’mon, I’ve got to believe you have a few towels you can cut up from bygone room mates and relationships. Join me in cutting them up and wiping up messes! I put them in a small muslin bag and hung it on our paper towel rack. I took our small bedroom trash bin, since we never use it, and put it behind the kitchen trash, and that’s what I’ve been throwing the used towels into for laundering as a bunch. They don’t look terribly pretty, I’ll give ya that, but then again, neither does an expanse of land devoid of trees – and is a paper towel’s role supposed to be aesthetics? My mom totally agreed it was a good idea, when she visited and pointed out that, in the same vein, she uses cloth dish rags around the kitchen. It’s always good when your mom approves. Gave me a much needed boost of confidence.

2. Shoes are banished from the inside of the house.

details (2)If you know me, you know I LOVE shoes. Once in a while, I’ll put on my wedding shoes (at right, *le sigh*) and think to myself, gah, how did I wear these and when can I again?!? I wish there were things I could wear nice shoes to more often. I get giddy just thinking about the insanely expensive shoe parade that is Sex and the City (see #3; a girl has to have a vice, ya know). These days I rotate between my all purpose crunchy mama Toms, all purpose weary cowgirl boots and treading-on-air Mizuno running shoes that I’m breaking in and trying to keep clean (a much-needed gift from my MIL).

But, finally, after a long-standing “let’s take our shoes off once we come inside” fairly unenforced policy, we’ve relegated our everyday shoes to the vestibule. We’d tracked in enough grime and crud…I was tired of constant sweeping up, and the mess o’ shoes by the front door would slowly migrate to the kitchen and living room (cray-cray, I know, but W has way more shoes than I do). More importantly, if you think about it (I did. A lot.) where have the soles of your shoes been?!? They keep your feet from touching the floor of a public restroom (and any other non-home floors); but if you wear them inside and then take them off, you are essentially spreading the germs of the public restroom to your feet…then you get in bed…ok, gross. I’m done with shoes in the house. Socks, slippers and bare feet are welcome, but we are adopting the cultural traditions of Japan, and many other countries, when it comes to shoes. Perhaps I’ll chance upon a nice wire rack to organize them. Further impetus is that WV is about to crawl. The floors need to be clean. Period.

3. “Hey wait, I can use that!” and “Hey wait, I can use that!”

I got to using more food and household items in non-traditional ways I hadn’t before.
These included (you decide if the emphasis is on “use” or “that”):

→ Saving the bones from a roast chicken to make yummy bone broth, thereby eeking a lot more value out of that expensive organic bird. This “lamb” is more like the proverbial Native American buffalo.
→ Cleaning the bathroom with baking soda and vinegar, thereby avoiding harsh chemicals and all that is intrinsic with their use.
→ Finding yummy recipes to use the pulp leftover from our juicing endeavors. That just makes sense. Since I’m prone to buying multiple 5-lb bags of carrots: Carrot Banana Bunt Cake with Cream Cheese Icing.

I’ve enjoyed browsing through the Year of Living Less blog, even though it is defunct. It gets me thinking. We all have our limits, though – while I admire purposeful simplifications I won’t dread out my hair to live without a comb (there was a time in high school I had wanted to…ah well, opportunity missed) or reduce our towel stockpile to the number of people in the house! But I’m really happy about our March’s worth of intentional living. I’m committed to observing my household with a keen eye for what can be replaced with less expensive, safer, and/or more sustainable options (not surprising, how it’s almost always all three), and will keep in mind what I change and find for further posts. I’m taking cues from family, friends, and frustrations. Another thing I’m going to give up is straws. Yes, I love straws, but W pointed out that they are wasteful pieces of plastic and, well, he’s right. Maybe I can get a glass straw? That sounds like a bad idea.

So tell me, what have you changed, repurposed or cooked in your household lately? What are your March “lambs?” Looking forward to hearing and getting some good ideas from ya’ll…

PS: W defends his MS thesis in early April and will be back to blogging thereafter. Send him happy math thoughts!!!

February: Cloth Diapers

P1040222Cloth diapering (CDing) your little one is becoming more and more common (and hip, *wink, wink*). I sense that most people who are reticent to try cloth think that it takes too much time or dismiss it as “a thing a crunchy hippie does.” Neither, I say!!! At least, it doesn’t have to be. It just takes a little reframing and retraining. For February, I’ve gathered many resources for you to browse regarding cloth diapering and documented our cloth diapering motivation, set up, breaking it down into dollars and cents! Cloth diapering certainly has my vote, and I hope it will have yours after reading what it’s all about for this little family.

The Why (a bit of a manifesto):
I’d like to say that my main motivation is minimal environmental impact (originally it was) – however being good to the earth and saving money are tied for second. The main reason I do it is because have you seen the ingredient list on disposable diapers? Usually CD-friendly websites cite enviro reasons and/or cost; but I’ve found an ally here confirming my outcry at “dirty and dangerous” disposable diapers’ chemicals on my baby’s bum. First of all, an ingredients list on diapers?!? That’s a bit obscene. Question everything. We can talk about me being a little over-concerned about toxins in household products some other day (trying not to be a chemophobe), however I’ve backed up my oogy shiver at the thought of disposables with a fair bit of research and gumshoe observation. We did use disposables for a few weeks (“for convienience”) after WV was born and although that little new fangled wetness indicator strip is handy, I abhorred the “absorbent crystals” that cropped up in the wet diaper and clung to my new baby’s skin. I imagined disposable diapering a baby girl would be even more alarming as I wouldn’t want a single one of those “harmless” gummy crystals to get inside of her – I have found that some of the ingredients in diapers were removed from tampons because of their link with toxic shock syndrome in the 80’s…but they’re still in disposable diapers. That just doesn’t make sense to me.

Plastics, superabsorbent proprietary materials, sodium polyacrylate (SAP) and polyacrylate gel, tolune, xylene, ethylbenzene, styrene, isopropylbenzene and trace amounts of dioxins and tributyltin… I DO NOT want my baby’s tushy coming into contact with known carcinogens and endocrine disrupters, thank you very much. Emissions (yes, clean disposable diapers have emissions!) from single use diapers are linked to asthma (the original research). Also decreased sperm count, skin irritations, allergies, and even burns (a la the Pampers Dry Max fiasco, which resulted in a class action settlement) are associated with single-use disposables. And who knows what other touted as harmless ingredients will end up on an “oops, now your kid has three eyes just like his pet goldfish Blinky” list. I’m just applying the principle that “all drugs recalled by the FDA were once approved by the same agency” to disposables. And who would have fingered wet wipes as just as toxic, if not worse? I for one, wouldn’t have…but you can’t make this up, folks. For instance, MSN, a fairly mainstream news source, names wet wipes as one of the 12 most toxic “hot spots” in the household. It’s up there with mold, pressure treated wood, and another one on my own personal hit list, dryer sheets (use non-toxic wool dryer balls!). Hrm. So, this family did away with disposable wipes in favor of home made cloth wipes and wipe solution (affectionately called butt spray). Our next baby will be cloth diapered/wiped from day zero.

Other reasons to CD are: cloth diapers are way cuter than plastic-y disposables, you can get them used on Craig’s List or through swaps, they are often less bulky which provides increased mobility for your little one, it can be a way to meet like minded mamas – there is a burgeoning CD community. AND, I must say, it just feels kinda rad to hang up a load of clean diapers outside and watch the sun work it’s magic – an accomplishment! Here is a really comprehensive list of reasons you might find intriguing along with this fluffier one.

One final plus to all of this: you aren’t beholden to the beckoning fluorescent wasteland of Baby’s ‘R Us, BuyBuyBaby, WalMart or your local grocery store at 2am (or ever) when you’ve run out of something – you always know how much/what’s on hand, and you become more resourceful…if I was to ever run out of wipes (never has happened) I could just make some more! In a pinch anything is a diaper; I’ve used the old diaper-type cloths that I had repurposed as burp cloths, for example, or you could use a bandanna. If you exclusively used disposable diapers, doing that might seem odd or unfeasible – you are pigeonholed, in a way, by consumerism.

The How:
I realized I wanted to CD WV prior to his birth – an old friend, who really influenced my decision to go the midwife and home birth route, showed me how easy it was to CD her little girl at my baby shower. Throughout my pregnancy, I saw the secretary at my midwife’s office CD her little guy (and use home made wipes) – she also added me to several Facebook groups whose purpose was CD swapping, selling and info disseminating. I slowly picked up the lingo (oh yes, CDing has its own vocabulary; see this list of terms), and purchased a few different kinds of diapers – some with snaps, some with velcro, some with pockets, some without. I decided early on that I preferred velcro and a stuffable pouch and haven’t looked back. We use gDiapers, which have velcro tabs gdiaper info that close in back and are composed of a lightweight outer cotton shell (gPant), a snap-in wipe-off-able inner liner and then get stuffed either with a biodegradable (flushable, disposable, or compostable) insert or a reusable cloth insert or prefold. This “system” fit our lifestyle best because we don’t have a washer or dryer and I could see the benefits of being able to dispose of at least a portion of the diaper as we got a hang of things early on in WVs tenure as the greatest kid on earth.

diaper drawer2GDiapers come in 5 sizes that overlap in terms of the weight of the baby using them (NB [newborn], SM, MD, LG, and XLG). I originally got 12 NB and 6 SM ones for the drop-dead awesome price of $80 (and then got three more SM, for a total of 9). We are currently using a rotation of 13 MD and I am building up my stash of LG ones (currently own 3). We never used the newborn ones because WV was too big at birth! I only purchased one at full price (but I had a coupon for participating in a gDiaper trial), and one was a gift. The rest I have collected from Craigslist, Ebay and the Facebook groups mentioned above. I almost always buy unused ones, and the CD community is such that people are quite transparent about the condition of their diapers. I also received an awesome package of hand-me-downs from “The Diaper Fairy,” which included a stockpile of 16 prefolds, which gave us the guts to transition from disposable to reusable inserts a few months ago. I’ve gathered 20-or-so other cloth diaper inserts (including 12 gCloths that actually go with the gDiapers, a few bum genius and fuzzibunz doublers/inserts) and several extra snap-in liners from Craigslist, a freebee table at a consignment store, FB, etc., and we now exclusively use cloth inserts except for when it rains (and I can’t “line dry”) or if we’re on a long car trip or vacay where we’d rather throw out the biodegradable insert instead of hoard a mess of diapers that begin to smell like a barnyard. Although, come to think of it, that might be the perfect way to piss off the TSA while they’re unconstitutionally rummaging through our stuff.

CDingChanging WV is simple and literally takes less time than using a disposable. Here’s our changing table. Nothing fancy. I lay him down, undress/unsnap, attempt to contain wiggles with distracting toys, spritz with home made wipe solution (the liquid is captured by the dirty diaper), wipe with a home made wipe, re-stuff the liner, and sprinkle with home made lavender baby powder. Voila! When we use a disposable insert, I use Boudreaux’s Butt Paste (we call it butt hummus – wouldn’t it be great to serve with carrot sticks on April Fool’s Day?) if I think it’s necessary. Since we began using the home made powder, however, he’s had no rash, so I have pretty much convinced myself that cloth + powder is the way to go. I use a lined laundry bag for dirty diaper storage and a repurposed plastic grocery bag for trash. No need for some fancy diaper geenie thingy – those things scare me. If it’s a messy diaper, I remove the mess promptly to the trash bag or the toilet. W is making me a diaper sprayer device that attaches to the toilet (you know, in his free time… he’ll chronicle its construction in a man post later). Depending on my time constraints I may just wash the diaper then and there. If not, I purchased Bac Out, on the advice of a few people, and spritz it on until I get to washing – although I really haven’t noticed this doing much of anything and won’t be purchasing another bottle once we’re done. When we’re out and about, I have two cloth bags (with a liner) with zippers that can contain a few dirty prefolds.

P1030533To wash diapers, prefolds, etc., I rinse them with cold water, scrub each with a tad of Dawn in the sink with a cuticle scrubber, rinse again, heat up a giant pot (W’s beer brewing pot) of water and boil them all for ~30 minutes, and do a final rinse. I hang them up outside or occasionally will dry them by the heater. If we’re fortunate enough to be at one of our parents’ houses, I’ll use All Free and Clear, put them on an extra wash and rinse cycle and dry them with dryer balls (which makes them nice and soft).

The Cost Breakdown:
Cloth diaper costs are obviously going to vary widely based on the type of diaper you settle upon and how you purchase them. I am estimating (based on email and recall), because I haven’t kept stellar track of each Craigslist transaction (W will not be pleased to read this) that for the 12 NB, 9 SM, 13 MD and 3 LG + the 12 gCloths and other prefolds and liners I have purchased, I’ve spent approximately $326. I’ve been very choosy about purchasing them – both quality and price. I never paid more than $15 for a single gDiaper (outer cover + inner pocket). That said, we knew we wanted to cloth diaper, but we didn’t jump into it feet first, so there were other costs associated with WV’s butt. We did start with disposables (spent approximately $50, and we also got a few packages from friends), then we transitioned to biodegradable diaper inserts with the gDiapers because we were leery of having to hand wash everything but sufficiently done with disposables (spent $458 on gDiaper biodegradable inserts…that’s where they getcha) and now, finally, we are 100% cloth diapering! I would have liked to use fewer biodegradable inserts just because they did cost as much as a regular diaper AND I discovered they also contained SAP in them which, although better contained than in a disposable, really irritated me (pun intended). Total Pierce Household to-date diaper (disposable + cloth) expenditures: $834. I suppose I’ll spend around $75 more to finish buying the large sized gDiapers outers. I’m watching a few on Ebay right now. And then we will NEVER spend another penny on diapers…not for WV, not for future babies…YES!!!

Multiple sources cite, you guessed it, multiple total costs incurred using disposable diapers. I’ve found disposable diapers range in price from 30 to 40 cents per diaper, depending on the size and brand. How long are kids in diapers? I don’t know that yet. Conservatively, if it’s 2 years, assuming an average of 35 cents per dipe X 10 changes per day = $2555.00. Wow. Now, I know that I’m not taking into consideration the intricacies of disposable diaper use with age – as a child grows he/she will presumably use a few less diapers, however, the bigger kid diapers cost more. I also wonder if there is a subtle marketing psychology associated with that pesky indicator strip, encouraging new moms like me, who don’t know better (you look at that thing and it turns blue) to use more than 10 per day.

A mega-box of the “environmentally friendly/sensitive skin” type wipes (which we had been using until converting to home made) costs about $12.50, which comes out to 3.26 cents per wipe. Estimating 2 wipes per diaper change X 10 diaper changes per day = ~65 cents/day, or $237 in wipes per year. That’s almost $500 in dang wipes I’ve saved over a 2-year period. W: “Think of how much beer I could buy!” Of course, those are averages – some diaper changes require one wipe, others not so much. And that’s not counting wipes used for sticky hands, other messes, etc. However, check this: I bought receiving blankets (you could use any soft/absorbent fabric scraps) for $1 at a garage sale. I cut them into 7 X 7-inch squares. Boom. Wipes. I used pinking shears, for a nice edge and you could sew around the edges if you want, but honestly, they are just wiping butts. They don’t have to be fancy. The small amount of baby soap I use to make wet wipe solution is so negligible I can’t calculate an associated cost. The most expensive ingredient in it is Tea Trea Oil – purchase price: $6. I’m sure that will last well beyond 2 years. That is $7 for wipes and butt spray; if you were making new wipes yearly (I might; who knows, they could get ratty) then add another dollar to that for a two year total of $8.

Washing cloth diapers:
“But surely, there’s a cost associated with washing your cloth diapers,” you say? Here’s the silver lining to not owning a washer or dryer: washing cloth diapers pretty much costs nothing but time. I wash our cloth diapers by hand in exclusively cold *brrrr…winter well water*. Our well water costs nothing BUTT if we had a machine washer, I’ve calculated the cost of the electricity used to wash them here. Two loads of diapers/wipes per week (based on cycling through my stash of 36 inserts roughly twice weekly) would ring in at $70/year (our kWh cost about $.12). Cost of a giant bottle of Costco All Free & Clear with a coupon is $14.69 (will last approximately a year).

P1040262Butt friendly, environmentally friendly, and wallet friendly. And we’ll be spreading out this value even further with each subsequent child. After our baby-diaper days are over, I can resell them and recoup some dough…or I could become a Diaper Fairy. I think I’ll do the latter. I feel glorious!!! If you look at this comparison table (below) – you get an even better idea of the true cost of pure cloth vs. disposable – I’ve removed my transgressions with purchasing disposable diapers and biodegradable inserts but added in some items that I know come with the cloth and disposable territories. Have I convinced you yet? No doubt, there is upfront time in making the wipes and butt spray, and the way I wash our diapers, but there is also time associated with going out to buy single use items. There’s even time associated with buying them online and having them shipped to the house (which would cost extra anyway).

cost breakdown

Annnd I do believe I just wrote BUT(T) a grand total of 31 times.

So, there it is. I hope my strong opinions on wasteful, toxic, ugly, expensive single-use disposable diapers and wipes has given you food for thought. Perhaps you don’t have a little one but are thinking of going the cloth diaper route, or are disposable diapering and wondering what it took for one family to make the switch. Short of going diaper-free (as most developing nations and some really hippie parents do), I’m a firm believer: cloth is the best for my baby.

PS: A final note – as you can see, we’re a bit late in getting together our “February” blog post. All my fault. I kept researching and researching. I had numerous panic attacks as I discovered article after article about toxins in disposables. I wanted to cram more and more info in. I started feeling like hyperlinking was a poor substitute for a references section. I must remember: this is a blog, not a scientific paper (and I like it that way!). Gah!!! I had to cut myself off. Maybe I’ll write a formal research paper on cloth diapering someday, haha. Oh, and it’s not a dual-post this time…W agrees with everything I’ve said here (he proofed it for me) and is in the throws of finishing his MS thesis, so, ahem, dealing with a different kind of doo-doo. He’ll be back to the blog soon.

Signing out for now,
Dr. Mom.


January: Spend $50 on groceries. ALL our groceries.

Lila’s Take:

Walter and I decided to come up with a monthly challenge. For January: spend no more than $50 on groceries. That’s $1.62 per day. Who thinks that’s crazy?! We didn’t at first. In fact, I thought that sounded totally reasonable. With the holidays just past, our refrigerator, freezer, and pantry seemed full of leftovers. We always have giant bags of rice, quinoa, and flour on hand. The $50 would be buoyed by the perennial cupboard cans and dried goods that rarely get considered in the process of making meals. In essence we were going to eat our pantry as part of the process of our self-imposed challenge.

We made a comprehensive list of these items and hung it on the fridge with our weekly meal planning list. And then we started! I felt a little breathless in the first few days – it was a slow burn of a wait to see what we would run out of first, what I might need or think I needed. Part of the challenge became just going to the grocery store less – our MO used to be to run to Food Kitty or Trader Joe’s at least twice a week; W and I have unknowingly made independent trips to the grocery store on the same day for the same thing – c’mon, we can be more intentional than that! We clearly saved time and money on gas and impulse purchases by more thoughtfully using what we already had.

By January 14th we’d spent only about $30 during ONE trip to the grocery store and a night out at Pub Quiz, where W had one beer and I wasn’t charged for my DD drink, cranberry juice and seltzer!

Buuut, the problem is we started making exceptions to our rules. These included/sounded like: Seeing a great sale and buying meat to freeze for later consumption (happened on that one grocery trip). “Toilet paper doesn’t count, right? Riiiiight???” What about all non-food, but still grocery store purchases, actually?- trash bags, soap, kitty litter? This grey zone hadn’t been discussed beforehand and was hard to voluntarily define, mid-challenge, mostly because while we knew it would be easier to make such exceptions, we also knew we were only kidding/cheating ourselves. “If I made extra money today then I can spend it on food without it counting, right?” And I know I started getting a little cranky that even one beer was being purchased on our self-imposed, now seeming ridiculous budget. I mean that beer was, like, 6% of our $50! Also, I started glaring at “expensive” things I craved like cheese and grapes. I googled WIC. We didn’t qualify.

Then W found out he needed to go to Florida for a business trip. Me and WV decided to go with him, engendering the next exception question – does his making per diem negate the money we spend on food? Our “exceptionating” was getting out of hand and causing too much needless anxiety. Also, I was starting to feel weird from eating too little protein, which was worrying me since I’m exclusively breast feeding WV. Wet cat food started to smell delicious again (an odd pregnancy craving that I thought I’d gotten rid of post-WV). I wanted to dive into fruit and vegetable displays ravenously chomping like a 400-pound-rabbit in a carrot dream land. I started to take a daily multi-vitamin + fish oil + vitamin D cocktail, which ended a few days later when I looked up a suspicious ingredient – titanium dioxide – which is, you guessed it, toxic. But that’s a subject of an ongoing research project and later post.

Back to our budget. At the laundromat frantically washing and drying clothes for the FL trip we realized we just didn’t have time to make lunch. We decided to split a chicken parmigiana sub from our favorite local restaurant, Tony and Milena’s. That darn sandwich cost $9.80!!! What the what!?! A full third of what we’d spent in 15 days blown on one lunch! I was flabbergasted. They say it only takes a few weeks to form or un-form a habit – well, this not spending money on food challenge had really gotten to me – I felt so wasteful.

Then we went to Florida. The $50 self-imposed limit flew out the window (unless you count per diem as an exception, which we decided not to do; buying food is buying food), although I did make the most out of squirreling away fruit, yogurt and tea from the hotel’s free breakfasts.

So, we failed, utterly failed. I had no idea how much we spent by the end of January (W’s the receipt tracker), but I knew for dang sure it was more than a few hundred dollars – and we iced the proverbial cake of failure by making a Costco run on the 31st. Grr, I’m mad at myself. However, there’s a silver lining to our botched budget breakdown: we learned some important things about what and how we eat. Firstly, in the past we haven’t been nearly as mindful of our grocery purchases. I now abhor spending a restaurant’s price on a meal I could make more healthfully at a fraction of the cost. However/secondly, it’s hard (very hard) to, day after day, come up with healthy, home made meals on the fly when you are sleep-deprived and running on back up brain cells. Inevitably, at the end of the day with a Mt. Everest of dishes to do (from last night), a crying child (no! WV never cries!), a variety of chores glaring at you with beady eyes, three papers to write and publish and a job search, and, oh yea, maybe a shower, it’s hard to start cooking – even though we meal-plan. We often eat diner at around 10pm, actually, because of this. With a little more planning, like instituting a cooking Sunday where we make a crockpot meal for leftovers, freeze some home made pizzas or soup servings for later, and prep others so they are halfway to done for the rest of the week, we could be less wasteful of time, more frugal with money and therefore more successful. Maybe the dishes will get done before WV takes a bath in the sink. We also need to be more mindful about protein – it’s not something we can readily just cut out entirely; however, it’s expensive and there are creative ways to get it. For instance, we made tuna fish nachos two different nights for dinners, which was great, easy and something we’d never tried. I’m grumpy that there are never coupons for produce (although there are coupons for hot pockets galore); produce is essential and probably makes up at least half of our grocery costs. I can’t wait for our garden this year. I will be canning more of our harvest – last year beans and squash went to waste. Also, for some odd reason we ate way fewer eggs overall this month (10) – I think I was subliminally rationing them in case I wanted to bake, later down the line.

So, February? I’m not so naive and disillusioned about grocery costs. Especially after reading W’s take, below. But we can do better! I just know it! Minus Valentine’s Day – we already have reservations at the restaurant where W proposed to me – and of course my birthday, lol! Uh-oh, that’s two exceptions and it’s only February 2nd!

DIRTY   P1030363

Walter’s Take:

I tracked (almost) every penny we spent in 2012. Call me crazy, but I wanted to know how much we spent and on what. I had good intentions to file receipts daily at the beginning of the year, but that progressed into weekly, then monthly, then it turned into “there’s a huge pile of receipts on my desk, I don’t have the time/energy to do this right now.” As the new year started and I was trying to stay on top of current receipts, I was filing receipts from August. I even found a gas receipt from April!

Well, we’re one month into 2013 and I think I’ve got everything filed from 2012. Since we tried the whole $50 for food for the month of January, I decided to run a little report on our food expenditures. My jaw hit the floor when the following chart was displayed on my screen:

Spending Graph

We averaged $764.98 per month on food for both of us – including groceries and dining out. And yes, this also included buying beer and wine both in the grocery stores and in restaurants/bars (not including taxes or tips). That’s $278.19* per month going out to eat and $486.78* per month in groceries. Holy cow! But check the bars from June through September – those were the months our garden was in full bloom!

I started to do some research, and found some numbers that made me feel a little bit better. The 2011 per capita food expenditure for the United States was $352.42 per month (2012 data hasn’t been released). But that’s per capita. So multiply that number by 2 and you get $704.84. And that doesn’t include alcohol. Our average monthly food expense for the two of us not including alcohol comes out to $605.62. Whew, we’re below the national average! But that’s still a lot of money to spend on food – over $20 per day? We thought we could get away with spending less than 1/10 of that!

For January 2013, I can report that we have spent $560.32 on grocery store and restaurant food and drinks. This number includes the money we spent on seeds for our garden, the “let’s buy this and freeze it since it’s a good price” exception, and a Costco run we did on the 31st when we were staying with my parents – we’ll be EATING this food in February, but since we PURCHASED it in January, I felt obligated to include it in the report. An improvement over our monthly average last year, but we still think we can get it lower… If you remove the exceptions, it’s down closer to $350.

And we won’t be spending as much money on buying beer this year. Yesterday I opened my first bottle of a nut brown ale that I bottled on 1/1/13, I have a Pilsner ready to be bottled, honey ale ready to be transferred to the secondary, and since the brown ale turned out so delicious I think I’m gonna brew another batch soon to get the fermentation on it started. Why buy it when I can make it for about half the price?

Here’s to being more thoughtful about food purchases in 2013 and less wasteful with money, fuel, and food!

*I know, these numbers add to $764.97. I rounded.