Writing: What I'm Working On

I thought I'd write about meditation and my mental health today, but it turns out I'm not feeling it. Instead I'd like to write about writing fiction. If I'm using the blog to write about my process, maybe it will encourage me to, you know, have a process. To actually write.

Writing fiction was probably the most important thing that fell away while I attempted to manage people at work. That and my mental health. Maybe they go together, writing and mental health, wherever they go. I could draw more connections there... Suffice to say I'm glad this isn't a blog about management styles.

What if this was the first time in ten years this yellow iris had bloomed? True story!

What if this was the first time in ten years this yellow iris had bloomed? True story!

In the past, I've always been kind of secretive about my writing process. Once I had something written, I shared my drafts, took feedback, and made revisions, but the path that leads to a share-able draft is long. There are so many ways to develop a story. I've tried writing from prompts, writing with a form or length in mind, writing from a character, writing from a "what if?" question, plotting, outlining, etc. But somewhere along the line, I got the idea that those processes should be explored alone, or with a book about writing, but certainly not in public. Also, I thought that ideas for stories should be kept to myself. If I was thinking about writing a prose poem about cats and raccoons, I wouldn't tell anyone, because if I did, I might never write it.

I have no idea where this taboo against talking came from, but I kept my ideas and process to myself. I guess my fear was that if I told the story verbally, I wouldn't feel compelled to write it. I think that warning is probably in a writing book somewhere. 

As it turns out, I can talk about a story all day long and I just get more and more excited about it. Sometimes the idea gets better. And I'm not very good at telling stories out-loud. I leave out important details. I forget what I've said and haven't said, and err on the side of saying less, which tends to leave people confused. Now that I think about it, trying to tell someone about my story ideas probably just reinforces my need to write it, so I can tell it correctly. 

So I've got this idea for a novel. It came from a dream, which is another thing you're not supposed to do, take ideas from your dreams, but I've had some success in the past with that approach. It helps that I like surreal tales, magical realism, fantasy of a sort (Murakami and David Mitchell fantasy, not high fantasy). Dream-like tales. 

This picture could illustrate the story I didn't write about getting drunk on Easter. 

This picture could illustrate the story I didn't write about getting drunk on Easter. 

In his book On Writing, Stephen King comments that he likes hanging out with other writers because they don't ask him where he gets his ideas, because they understand. Ideas come out of nowhere. In the shower, while you're looking for your lost keys, when you're shopping. Some of mine come from dreams. 

When I stopped writing, story ideas continued to come to me for a while, then they stopped. I found them frustrating when I wasn't writing, and the feeling was probably mutual. During this period I wasn't making any special effort to remember my dreams, either. Then last year, I tried to go back to writing morning pages (a journaling practice from Julia Cameron's book, The Artist's Way), as a way to write something, to clear my mind, whatever. But it wasn't working. I wasn't motivated to write them and I didn't do it. Then my counselor mentioned that she had started keeping a dream journal, and that idea clicked with me. If I remembered my dreams when I woke up, I wrote them down. And once I started writing, it was easier to keep going. 

Dreams are like story ideas in that the more you do with them, the more there seem to be, or at least the more I seem to remember them. So in this current period of dream-remembering, at the very beginning of thinking about writing fiction again, I had a dream that seemed like a potentially interesting story idea. It came with a great main character, a fun setting, and a conflict that I have no trouble imagining as part of a larger plot. 

So far I have a couple pages of notes and ideas, but what I've decided to work on first is the plot. I've written every short story I've ever written without a plot, letting it develop as I went, then revising to make it better, but when I tried that with a novel in the past, it didn't work so well. I know other writers do it, but I felt like the novels I tried to construct that way ended up without a good structure, like I'd hung wallpaper before plastering the walls. 

I'm in the process of rereading all the writing books I have that deal with plot, taking notes, and thinking about how I might apply what I'm reading to the story I want to tell. I hope to end up with a solid plot outline, then I'll flesh out my characters and settings, write a good (hopefully) beginning and go from there. I want to avoid the types of rewrites where I have to go back and change something about a character because it doesn't work with a later plot point. Right now, it seems like a lot of my novel-writing problems in the past have been caused by plot failures. Developing the plot first might help, no? 

That's where I am this week, reading books about writing, thinking about plot, talking a little about my story idea, taking notes and planning. I realize I didn't share my idea in this blog post. I guess I'm not quite there yet. 

The End

PS - While searching for a link to The Artist's Way, which I haven't read since the mid-90's, I realized there's quite a bit more religion, spirituality and capital-U Universe in Julia Cameron's work than I remember. I mention this because I honestly don't remember those parts at all, and this book really does deserve credit for helping me figure out that I wanted to be a writer. I guess I took what I found useful and ignored the rest. I should do more of that.

On Failure and Change

It's been just over a year and seven-and-a-half months since my last post. Sure, I've thought about the blog. I've thought about writing posts to update you on the staying power of the various challenges, posts explaining what I've been doing, posts of all sorts, but nothing made it into type. As is the case with most things, I had a variety of reasons/excuses - stress from work, frustrations with responses to my posts and/or challenges, major surgery and corresponding recovery, fewer ideas that seemed good enough to write about, a house full of cats, etc. Yet I continued to pay the annual fee to keep the site up if, for nothing else, than to showcase the logo my amazing friend Sam made for the blog (thanks, Sam!). 

So no blogging, and pretty much no writing at all, for over a year. Much frustration stemming from my job. I started seeing a counselor at some point. I had surgery about a year ago (a hysterectomy necessary because of fibroids; very glad I did it). Toward the end of my recovery, I decided to start lifting weights so I wouldn't be completely worn out by work, and I haven't stopped, which means I've been lifting weights for 13 months, which is definitely some kind of personal record.

So that was good. But still - so much anxiety and stress coming from work! I was actually looking forward to a major surgery because it meant time off work! Then I was really looking forward to our September vacation in Aruba because it would be more time off work! Work sucked!

Not our dog. 

Not our dog. 

And Aruba was awesome. We explored the small island, swam, drank island beer and ate locally caught snapper. I sat on the beach and read book after book. It was ideal. Except I was still plagued by anxiety. One day, I became convinced that our dog, Hazel, had bitten someone and no one was telling us because they didn't want to ruin our vacation. I had no reason to think this. Then I started thinking about tsunamis and wondering if Aruba could withstand one, and then terrorist attacks... Wow, I thought, I have got to talk to my counselor about my anxiety when I get back, because I am ruining an otherwise perfect vacation with paranoid thoughts. What is the matter with me?

I was also between books at that moment. I'd brought my Kindle, loaded with books I wanted to read, books I'd seen on sale that looked interesting, books I think I should read and will burden myself and my Kindle with forever, unless I actually read them. What I didn't have, though, was a reading plan, so anything was up for grabs. I'd read The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, The Girls by Emma Cline, and Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget by Sarah Hepola.

Hmm. In retrospect, maybe it's no surprise I experienced some real-life anxiety after reading those three back-to-back. Nazi Germany, murder and alcoholism, anyone?

At any rate, I decided the next book I read was going to be something I knew nothing about. I didn't remember purchasing it or why, but I liked the title a lot. The book I opened next was 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help that Actually Works -- A True Story by Dan Harris. I read it in two days and it turned out to be largely about how Harris nearly lost his career because of panic attacks, then discovered meditation and everything was okay, better than okay, maybe even kinda great. Life could be great. That was the message I took from Harris's book.

Sure, I've sucked at meditation in the past, but I had to do something. Back in our hotel room that evening, I downloaded the app Harris recommended, Insight Timer, and started meditating. That was September 5, 2016. I've only missed one day since then (a story for another time). Some days my meditation is stupidly short, but the habit is still there. Other days, I can sit for over an hour. Shortly after I started, I saw a recommendation on Reddit for another book, The Mind Illuminated by Culadasa (aka John Yates), a guide to the stages of meditation. I used that for a while, then tried some guided meditations, and now I'm back to The Mind Illuminated method, because it seems to work better for me. 

Almost immediately after I started meditating, my anxiety began to subside. I started building on the good habits I already had in place, adding journaling and better food to my routine, but I was still getting a lot of stress from work. It began to seem to me that I was merely coping with my situation, and I would continue to be coping until I made a bigger change. Making a bad situation somewhat more bearable wasn't exactly what I had in mind, as it turned out. 

But it's difficult to make a job change, so I kept putting it off, until I finally found the nudge I needed. It took the form of an otherwise benign bit of workplace feedback shared by a friend (thanks, Dave!). I talked to Dave in the morning, went in to work a few hours later as scheduled, and told my boss I wanted to step down, stop managing people, and get on with my life. 

If you're reading this, that particular bit of news probably comes as a surprise because I haven't told very many people. I told Eric (yes, after the fact), Dave, and a few friends I thought would understand because they had a good idea what my job was like. I didn't want to discuss it, I didn't want opinions on my decision. I was committed to doing it. But when you tell people you've decided to step down at work, giving up both responsibility and money, that's seen as the kind of failure you want to avoid, but to me it was something to be celebrated and I wasn't willing to mourn the death of my career with anyone. I'd bought back my freedom from anxiety, worth it to me at pretty much any price, and it was celebration time! 

(Two things: First, my experience managing people is exactly that, my experience, and says nothing about the position, the company, or anything other than me and my experience managing people. Some people love it and that's great. They can manage me. Two, I've further rationalized this sort-of secrecy by telling myself it'd be different if I'd changed companies or something. Then I would have told everyone. But maybe not. I still don't really want to talk about it, other than to people who know what my job was like for me, and how easy and stress-free the position I'm in now is by comparison. Also, look! I'm writing! Definite proof of a positive change.)

So there I am these last few weeks, freed from my job stress, happy and excited and full of energy and optimism about the future, and trying to decide what to do next. My ideas gradually shifted from money-making ideas, sped up toward creative ideas, then slammed right into writing ideas, where they are stuck like they'll never move again. 

(I am also entertaining ideas of doing sketches of the cats, but that seems more like a hobby we don't really need to go into that much, but if I get to be any good at it, maybe I'll post them here.)

And that is how I found myself reading someone else's blog post, "10 books that will make you a better writer (and why)" by Shaunta Grimes. In her list, I found a book that sounded appealing and had a low price (I'm trying to be more frugal now that I'm making less money) called Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative by Austin Kleon. 


I read that one in two days, although it's much shorter than 10% Happier, so not really all that impressive. Still, it was what I needed. It helped me get a grasp on what to do next, but perhaps most importantly it helped me realize that what happened next didn't have to be something BIG. I don't have to decide between starting to write a new novel or revising the one I was last working on. I don't have to write a publishable essay about my work transition. I can just, you know, make a little blog post about the shit that's happened. No one reads the blog anyhow. It's a safe place. With a neat logo. 

This isn't going to be a true resurrection of 52 Small Challenges as it was, in that I'm not going to challenge myself with something new every week. I would like to share my current challenges weekly, as in what I'm working on, and update you on some of the previous challenges I undertook, because you really need to see how the laundry room ultimately turned out, and I know you want to hear about the food waste disasters we've had recently. Or whatever. 

I also want to try new things and talk about them, but maybe not on a schedule. I might even share some fiction, if I get to that point. Basically, I want to use the blog to talk about what I'm doing, how it's going, and hopefully hear what you think. Maybe my posts will be dull, maybe they'll be more interesting, but no matter what I think they'll be more true to who I am than what I was writing before. 

There you have it - 19 months of failure, change, progress, and a more hopeful future. And a picture of a cat. 

Lulu Was. Not. Happy. about that time when we had to replace the bathroom sink. 

Lulu Was. Not. Happy. about that time when we had to replace the bathroom sink. 



Third Friday: Food Waste Friday

I truly wasted a few things, although not on purpose: 

A bowl of fish curry (we ate three out of four) and a plate of haupia (a Hawaiian dessert made from coconut milk). I tried, but failed, to consume those things. I made the haupia for a party, but forgot to serve it. Then it turned out to be too much to eat after. 

Also, two and a half hard taco shells, left over from the same party. These started out in a bowl on the counter with a bunch more, which someone ate, but  these few were left behind. 

I composted one tortilla that was starting to get a spot of mold, and put the rest in the refrigerator, where they should have been the entire time. Turned out I should have put them in the freezer, because when I went to eat them, they had iffy spots, so I composted all of them. 

When I was baking oatmeal, I found one completely dehydrated hot dog bun in the baking supplies basket. Weird, right? You can tell it has preservatives - despite being sealed in a plastic bag, it doesn't have a bit of mold. 

Small bits of salads we didn't eat, the dried hot dog bun, and two-and-a-half taco shells that went to waste. 

Small bits of salads we didn't eat, the dried hot dog bun, and two-and-a-half taco shells that went to waste. 

But I saved some things, too. We combined a bunch of leftover bits of cooked meat (two sausage patties, a hamburger patty, some taco meat) with a pound of ground beef to make what I'm calling country fried steak. We breaded it with breadcrumbs made from stale bits of bread I've been collecting in the freezer. It tasted really good, but it's hard to fault anything breaded, fried and covered in gravy. 

I managed to salvage quite a bit of fruit that started to turn, including half an avocado, by adding it to smoothies. And I froze a bunch of fresh-squeezed juice we had leftover from the cocktail party into ice cube trays, which I then bagged up and put in the freezer. I've already added some pineapple cubes to smoothies, and it's nice to know we have "fresh" lemon and lime juice at hand, no juicing required. :)

For me, the most interesting part of trying to not waste food (besides reducing our grocery bill), is figuring out ways to preserve/save/use food that I previously would have thrown away. In the past, I would have never frozen juice or added a brown avocado half to a smoothie. Or combined meat bits into something else. I would have thrown it all away. 

It feels better to not waste food. 

Zero Waste Week - Conclusions

1. Leaving the house leads to waste. I ended up with a cardboard carryout food container when I went out to breakfast with a friend, and straight carryout waste when Eric went to Steak 'N' Shake (don't ask - weak moment). And every time I bought anything anywhere, I ended up with something - at the very least, a receipt. 

2. Minimalism and reuse combined sometimes leads to conflict. If I truly want to avoid things like shopping bags, carryout containers for leftovers, etc., I need to carry more stuff with me. Right now, all I carry in my purse is my wallet, phone, small travel-size hair brush, a couple ponytail holders, lip gloss, eye drops, and some ibuprofen. It's easy enough to add a bag, but if I want to take my own leftovers containers, I either need to carry a larger bag or buy something collapsible. 

3. Frugal grocery shopping and zero waste likewise lead to conflict. At least right now they do. I've got a fairly frugal shopping routine figured out that doesn't take a lot of time, but it's not waste-free by a long shot. None of the stores near my house sell in bulk, so I haven't even checked prices on the things we buy. I'll have to do some research and see what I can come up with. 

4. Ordering over the internet leads to lots of waste. I can only reuse so much cardboard, and that's not very much, actually. 

5. Just thinking about waste can make a difference. I find I'm less likely to take something I don't need. And the more I get used to whatever I'm doing, the more I'm able to do. Small steps add up. 

Reusable sample cup! 

Reusable sample cup! 

6. Sample cups aren't necessary if you carry your own. My friend Margie gave me this little guy, which I'm carrying in my purse. She said she got it at the Dollar Store (6 for $1, maybe?). Certainly not expensive, and much more reusable than paper cups. 

7. Like many other things, it's difficult to make your spouse generate less waste. Eric did a good job for a while not bringing home plastic bags, but he returned this morning with one from Home Depot. With one thing inside the bag. 

Have you tried to reuse more? If you have, what have you learned? 

Week 2.1 Household - Zero Waste Week

2.2 Wednesday Run & Food v. Exercise

It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood, the neighborhood, the neighborhood - remember that song???

It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood, the neighborhood, the neighborhood - remember that song???

This morning, I took the dog out for a quick run before work. The weather this last week or so has been great. The picture doesn't do justice to the beauty of the morning, because the sky was a little hazy and the trees have begun to turn, so you'll just have to trust me. It's really nice out. 

Today was day two of 2-and-1. One thing I love about this slow progression to continuous running is that it never really feels all that difficult. Who can't run one minute? And every week it's just one more minute. No big deal. 

That's the feeling I want to learn to keep about running all the time, not just in the beginning. That it's easy

Another thing I've been noticing is that after I do these easy runs, when I come home I want a smoothie. When I'm training for a long race, I want chocolate cake. Seriously, I ate a lot of chocolate cake back when I was training for marathons. Ask Eric. There were regular grocery store runs for chocolate cake. 

Well, last night I read this Lifehacker article: If You Find Joy in Exercise, You're Less Likely to Look for Joy in Food. Basically, a study found that when people enjoyed the workout they did, they were more likely to choose a healthy snack, while people who didn't enjoy their exercise were more likely to choose chocolate cake (well, that's what I'd choose!). 

Just another reason to keep the running enjoyable and not get all competitive with myself...

Here's what the dog looked like after running today. Notice that she barely made it inside the door before collapsing on the floor. Poor Hazel! Hahahaha...

2.2 New Exercise Challenge: Running

When I run in my neighborhood, this is the view in the final stretch. 

When I run in my neighborhood, this is the view in the final stretch. 

While I've been doing some sort of running for much of the life of this blog (including a 15K last December!), lately I've been walking and hiking instead. Which is fine, except that I've also been regaining a few (15?) of the pounds I lost last year.

The main difference in my lifestyle is the lack of running. I'm still tracking my calories, eating like I usually do (sometimes good, sometimes awful), not drinking any more or less - and when I'm running, it doesn't seem to matter. I was slowly losing weight and keeping it off. But when I'm not running? The other things I'm doing aren't enough. 

My first goal with taking up running again is to stop gaining and hopefully start losing again. While I lost enough weight to get myself out the "obese" category and back into merely "overweight," I was nowhere near my goal weight. 

My second goal with this running program is to learn how to have a sustainable running program. Here's what usually happens: I decide to start running. I think 30 minutes three times a week would be great, and I work up to that. Then I decide to I want to run a race or go faster, so I start making my workouts longer and/or more difficult. Then I decide I need a longer race, and I add more running days. Maybe I make it to my race, or improve my speed, or get the fourth or fifth day of running in, or maybe I don't. But no matter what, running becomes much more difficult, isn't any fun anymore, and I stop doing it. 

This time, I want to keep my routine at a maintenance level, something that's not too difficult, not too challenging, and see if I can't make it stick that way. Maybe I should start calling it a "jogging program," so I don't think I'm doing anything all that great. Just jogging. 

My Current Routine

I'm in my third week of resuming running, which means that I'm running two minutes, walking one, for twenty minutes, then walking ten minutes after that. The first week I ran one, walked two, then I did one and one. Each "week" is really three exercise sessions, however it works out. I think week two lasted a little over a week, but week three is moving along quickly. I'm trying to not pay too much attention to it, other than to make sure I get out there every other day or so. 

The Challenge of Making Habits

If I learned nothing else in doing a year of week-long challenges, it was that making anything into a habit is a LOT more difficult than making it happen for seven days. 

Not that there's no value in trying something for a week, because there is. I did things I didn't think I could do, knowing I only had to keep it up for a week. A week can make breaking down longer tasks much easier, such as decluttering a house, because it forces you to look at the parts, rather than the whole. A week is good for trying something out, not knowing how you'll take to it. 

But building a habit is something different, and it's something I want to focus on with this second year of challenges.

Every time the category of exercise comes around, I'm going to decide what to do based on how my three-times-a-week, 30-minute running routine is going. If I'm doing that, then great - I'll keep it up. I might challenge myself to do my runs in different locations, or something fun along those lines, but I won't increase the intensity or time, and I'm not signing up for any races.

If I'm not doing it, or doing more, then I'm going to challenge myself to get back to it, whether that means starting or resuming, or dialing it back. 

Which makes this a....

Year-Long Challenge

My first exercise challenge of the second year kicks off a year-long challenge of maintaining a a small,  not-too-tough running routine. I'm pretty sure I've had years in the past when I ran all year, but most years, I run for a while then quit completely. I want to see if I can make it last for the next twelve months. 

I might try this with other challenge categories, too. Meditation came to mind right away as something that I'd like to find a way to make a habit. But for now, I'm going to focus on running and not get too far ahead of myself. :) 

Do you have anything you've tried, or done in the past, that you struggle with making a habit? Or have you succeeded? Do you have any advice on how to keep a habit going? I'd love to hear it!

Week 2.2 Exercise - Running

Second Friday Frugal Successes and Failures

Honestly, I haven't been keeping track of frugal activities all month. Usually I rely on recent memory (ha!) for this post, so I guess I'm going to have to start writing down things as the month goes along. 

The Costs of Throwing a Party

Here's a post-within-another-post about having a party:

Party fridge says help yourself!

Party fridge says help yourself!

We bought a mini-fridge for the basement bar in the days before our latest party. When I cleaned up the bar area last month, I really believed a mini-fridge would make it awesome. We had a "found" fridge a while back, but it didn't seal or cool worth a damn, so I'd been looking at new ones. Then we went to Costco and they had one, fridge-only which is exactly what we wanted, for $150. So we bought it. Then we drove it home in my Civic, which is a two-door (note to self: always take a four-door to Costco if you have options). It barely fit in the front passenger seat and I rode in the back, which was weird, but fine. We filled the mini-fridge with things we thought we might need for the party, such as beer and soda, and most of it is still there.

It turns out, based on how the party went, that what the bar really needs is a sink with a drain, not a fridge. I'm  not saying you can't get that at Costco, but it's probably not a plug-and-play thing like the fridge was. 

Also, when we cleaned up after the party, we had more booze than we started out with, or so it seems. Our party was centered around rum cocktails and while we drained a couple handles of Bacardi, we somehow acquired a jug of Jim Beam (or maybe we bought it and I forgot?), a bottle of vodka, some brandy, and several bottles of wine. Also, I ate leftovers from the party for over a week. 

All said and done, we spent $320 on food and beverages for the party, but ended up with lots of leftovers. We had a great tim and hopefully so did our guests! In the end, I'd have to say throwing the kind of party where you truly host a bunch of people at your house (as opposed to asking everyone to bring something) isn't all that frugal, but it is fun, and you end up with some surprise freebies in the alcohol department. 

I also bought more solar LED lights for the back deck. I just LOVE those things. Frugal cause they're solar, not frugal because no one really needs them. Except maybe me. And I bought two strands that aren't even solar. Don't tell anyone. 


After I read this Frugalwoods post - Why Buying a Chest Freezer is Saving us Serious Money - I convinced Eric to dig out our Kill-a-Watt meter and attach it to a couple things I was curious about. 

One was the pool, which I've been curious about the entire four years we've had it, but maybe not all that curious. At the very least, in no hurry to get bad news. More about this in another post, though. 

The other unknown was the refrigerator. We are using an old Sub-Zero, secondhand to us, that we bought for $200. We got it in March of 2012. In July of 2012, we spent $1000 on a new compressor for the freezer. It's been great ever since, except for the breaking of the ice maker, which happened earlier this year. It still works fine, although it shows some wear and tear. And it's huge. It holds so much stuff, the excess holding power is starting to feel like an issue, now that I'm trying to minimize food waste. 

According to Kill-a-Watt, that fridge uses just shy of $300 of electricity a year. A new, slightly smaller, fridge would use less than $100, possibly closer to $70. But three hundred bucks?!? That's a lot of electricity. 

Eric did some calculations and concluded that a new fridge could pay for itself in a little over five years, maybe six. So we're probably getting a new fridge. We're trying to get the best deal, but also trying to get as many credit card points as possible in the process. Right now, we're leaning toward buying gift cards at OfficeMax/Depot with Chase Ink, then using those to buy through the AAdvantage shopping portal. If you have to make a big purchase, you might as well make it pay off any way you can, right? 


I've hardly spent anything on food this month, thanks to party leftovers, but Eric bought stuff to make kimchi. We've been making large batches of things and sometimes we eat all, but other times we do not. I think I'm going to start freezing the things we don't eat after seven days. I fear the frozen meals will die in the freezer, but maybe not. It's better than letting things go to waste in the fridge. 


I bought two sweaters, new-with-tags, at the thrift store. 

Through a series of mis-shipments, I ended up with a new pair of men's running shoes for free. I ordered a pair of women's running shoes from Zappos and they sent me a pair of men's (same style and size). I did a return and reordered (shipping is always free both ways with Zappos - awesome, right?). The second pair came - same thing. Men's shoes, same style and size. So I emailed and a customer service representative put another order in at no charge to me and told me I could do whatever I wanted with the second pair of unwanted shoes. How cool is that? They're a half-size too big for Eric, but I think I should be able to sell them for close to what they're worth, considering they're brand new. 

Zero Waste, Day 3 - On Buying Used

Yesterday, I went clothing shopping at a resale store instead of a "new" store. I found two sweaters I liked, with the tags still on (which I'll recycle, I guess). The sweaters are for my fall capsule. I was ready to build my fall capsule on September 1, but then I realized I shouldn't do it until the end of the month. Also, it's still hot outside. No way am I going out in a sweater right now. But I'm ready for fall!

Another blog I follow is documenting what she already reuses, kind of like I did on the first day. Here's Mrs. M's Curiosity Cabinenet's post, Reuse Cottage Garden Style, all about what she reuses in her garden. 

I considered doing something similar, going through the various areas of my life and documenting what we reuse (in addition to what I already mentioned), but instead I thought I'd talk about how we end up with new stuff. 

30 Days of Non-Consumable Stuff I Bought

The way you don't end up with new stuff is by trying to find what you need second-hand. Thrift stores, estate sales, garage sales, Ebay, Craigslist and the alleys are all good places to look for second-hand versions of things However, rarely is it possible to decide, for example, that you need a black-and-white t-shirt to round out your summer wardrobe capsule, then go to the thrift store, Ebay and Craigslist, and find exactly what you need. Usually doesn't happen. 

She's not the only one wondering why I bought her a costume.

She's not the only one wondering why I bought her a costume.

Over the last month, here are some of the things I've bought new, and whether I think I could have gotten them used (thus helping someone else reuse their stuff, in a sense): 

  • Halloween costume for the dog - Obviously, I should have skipped this, but she looks super-cute, if a little miserable, as a sheep. I need to exchange it for a smaller size, however, which is something I couldn't have done if I'd bought it used. The dog would have definitely been happier had this purchase not happened. 
  • Various phone things (car charger for Eric's car, long cord for my bedside charger and dash mount for my car) - I guess people resell or donate these, but taking the time to find good ones seems like something I don't have time for. Also, we'll use these until they die. 
  • Car air- and oil filters for Eric's car - Can't buy those used, but you can save money doing the work yourself. 
  • Caulk for the house - Likewise, used = gone; less expensive than hiring someone. 
  • Air mattress - Replacing our hole-filled old mattress, which can't be repaired. Can it be reused? I wonder... Perhaps as a tarp? 
  • Running shoes - Buying used defeats the purpose, unless I could find someone reselling my style and size very slightly used, which I couldn't. 
  • Small fridge, ice bucket, and ice scoop - all purchased new before our recent party. All could have been purchased (or found) used if I had started looking in a timely manner. The completely new small fridge is Energy Star certified, for whatever that's worth. On the other hand, there were four ice buckets at the thrift store yesterday. 
  • Vent-less range hood for the stove - We probably should have at least looked at the Re-Store (Habitat for Humanity's resale shop for household stuff) before purchasing, but I ordered it while coughing my head off as Eric seared some sort of spice-encrusted meat. I was stressed, I tell you. 
  • Large glass jar for homemade laundry detergent - Probably because they're breakable, I have never had great luck find large jars secondhand. Small ones, yes. Larger than a quart - no. 
  • Memory foam topper for the bed - Our previous one was four years old and no longer serving its purpose (which is keeping us comfy and from feeling each other's every movement). Buying used would defeat the purpose of having a new one. We were able to reuse the old one as a topper for the air mattress, but it's not easy to store, so I don't see that lasting. 
  • New flipflops - Old ones broke. I probably could have found used ones, but I thought I needed new ones fast. At the time, I didn't think it was fall. Now I think it's fall, but I'll be ready for next summer!
  • Decorative string lights for the backyard - I'll be the first to admit, I have a problem. I love these things! They don't last, but they're pretty. 
  • Replacement glass mirror for the bathroom medicine cabinet - Better to replace one part than the entire cabinet, right?

I think that's all we bought, other than consumables (and my two thrifted sweaters). It feels like a lot! I've gotten used to buying less over the last year, so anytime I am buying something pretty much every week, I feel like I'm buying a lot. 

Downsides to Thrifting

If you keep looking, most of the time you'll eventually find what you need. But it will take time, both in the sense that you might not find it immediately, and also in the sense that you will spend time looking. 

For some shopping, this doesn't matter at all. I've wanted a pastry mat and pastry cutter for a while, but haven't found one second-hand. I haven't bought one new, either, because it's not urgent and I suspect I'll find one used - eventually. When my immersion blender broke, I put off buying one for quite a while, then lucked across one identical to my old one at the thrift store. 

But some things I don't trust buying used, including a lot of electronics. I'm going to buy a new laptop sometime later this year (or maybe next year - picking out a replacement is proving almost more stressful than using the old one). Also on my desk if a photo scanner - several years old now, but purchased new then. I wanted it for a specific project and I wanted to make sure I got a good one, so I purchased it new. When I get a new phone, I'll get a completely new one. I bought a used one once, when the camera on my old phone stopped working, and the "new" used one had almost all the same problems the one I'd broken had, yet I was out a couple additional hundred dollars. Unlike with cars, I think the premium you pay for a new phone is worth the expense.  

Another downside I see is that going shopping, even if it's for used stuff, opens the door for more impulse buys. If I were going to stores for the new things I buy, I'd have the same problem, but I get almost everything I buy new online, where I find it pretty easy to stay focused. 

The downside to shopping online is shipping costs (even if you don't pay them, they're there, in the form of transportation's toll on the environment) and packaging, which is often excessive and not reusable. 

My Recommendations for Shopping: 

  1. Keep a running list of things you need. If it's not something you'll use often, see if you can borrow it from someone you know. If you don't need it immediately and it can be purchases used, wait until you find a used one. 
  2. Go to the thrift stores periodically, but not all the time. Look for the things you need and ignore the rest. Likewise with estate and garage sales. 
  3. Ebay can be good for very specific clothing and shoe needs, and probably a lot more, but I don't use it much. Craigslist can be good for all kinds of things, if you don't mind spending the time it takes to find what you need, connect with the seller, and meet up. 
  4. When buying new, try to buy for life. Research what you buy, figure out what will fulfill your needs and last as long as possible, within reason. Keep the budget in mind, too. Sometimes the middle ground ends up being the best deal. When you've decided on a specific product, do a broad internet search to look for the best deal, and when you've chosen a retailer, search again for coupon codes.
  5. See if you can go without. One thing minimizing and decluttering has taught me is that I don't need quite as much stuff as I thought I did. Now I'm particularly leery whenever I think I need some sort of organizational item. If you  have to buy stuff to keep your other stuff organized, take a good luck at what you're keeping. 

I know what you're thinking now - that was a lot of words to support one cute dog picture! As a reward for making it all the way through, here's another: 

It's tough being a sheep-dog. 

It's tough being a sheep-dog. 

Zero Waste Week: Day 2

On Tuesday, I had jury duty. I get called every two years like clockwork (which I gather is not uncommon in the city of St. Louis - once you've been called, they keep bringing you in). They give you a ridiculously long lunch, too. We were dismissed at 11:30 am and didn't have to be back until 1:15 pm. In the past, I've eaten out on jury duty days, but yesterday morning I packed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a can of soda for lunch. I didn't take a water bottle (what was I thinking?), which would have been both useful and less wasteful than the can of soda. I think my caffeine addiction leads me to do weird things. :)

There are a couple blocks of city park across from the Civil Courts building, so I was able to sit at a picnic table and eat. I took my plastic bag home for washing and put the empty can in recycling. 

We were dismissed early in the afternoon, so I got home before Eric. Eric had made a big batch of pulled pork that morning, so I made some macaroni and cheese to go along with it (for me - Eric can't eat dairy). I used a mix, which is something I've been doing lately for quick meals for just me, but I realized yesterday that it's not the least wasteful meal in the world. There's a cardboard box, which could be recycled, but also the foil-lined packet the cheese mix comes in, which cannot be recycled. Oops. Anyhow, it'd be less wasteful, and probably healthier, to make macaroni and cheese from scratch.

I was pleased to see that the badges jurors wear, which displayed our numbers, are reusable. The badge is printed on the summons (and I hope they recycle those). You just tear it out and insert it into the badge holder. They were very serious about getting the plastic badge holders back, too. 

Photo of the old arch grounds, as seen from Illinois, looking west. 

Photo of the old arch grounds, as seen from Illinois, looking west. 

What I didn't do yesterday that I should have was take pictures. After lunch, I even walked down toward the old courthouse and the arch, where they're completely redoing the grounds to make the park extend over the highway to the river. I think I must have been in shock or something. What used to be a rolling green lawn is now a big construction mess. The arch is still there, of course, but it rises up out of a mess of dirty, construction equipment, and supplies. The new project is called CityArchRiver. You can read all about it on the website. 

And here's what they have in mind, looking east from the city.

And here's what they have in mind, looking east from the city.

Zero Waste Day 1

I did not personally generate that much waste, that I then had to think about reusing, but I did start thinking about how much paper we waste at work - even though it's recycled, it's still waste. Seriously, stop printing emails already! 

Okay, now I feel better. 

Damn cup

Damn cup

Somewhat related: Once when I was writing fiction more often and printing it out so I could edit printed copies (I swear it's different than looking at it on a screen), I brought home a ton of paper from old manuals so I could print on the backside. At one point my demand for used paper outpaced my personal supply. 

What I did end up with was one of these little paper sample cups. I was involved with two of them, but the first one was disposed of by someone else before I could hide it, for reuse or at least a photo. It's food-grade paper, so it could be either recycled or composted, and it's not even dirty. It contained a dry (but tasty) scone for about thirty minutes. 

Ideas I had for reusing it: seed cup for seedlings next year, catch-all for anything... Honestly, I don't have a lot of ideas for this guy. I thought about putting it on the table, see what the cats would do with it. Feed it to the dog. I'm probably going to compost it. 

Compost? No?

Compost? No?


The other thing I have on my hands today is a waxed paper bag that contained those almond cookies our Chinese delivery place gives us for free. Sometimes I don't even eat them, which is super wasteful, but I ate them today. Now I have a cute-but-useless bag on my hands. I'm not sure if I can compost it or not, but I think I'll try. I'll let you know how that works out in a few years, when it reaches the bottom of the compost bin. 


Interestingly enough, sometimes whole potatoes make it all the way through the compost cycle, pretty much untouched by the heat, worms, etc. Whole potatoes come out the other side. What does it mean???

Reusable drinking straws, in use and in action

Reusable drinking straws, in use and in action

On a positive note, I thought of another reusable thing we have that I don't think everyone has - reusable drinking straws. 

We have stainless steel ones and Pyrex glass ones. I got the Pyrex ones first and loved them. They break on occasion, and when that happens you can mail them into the manufacture and get a free replacement, but I never did that. Then I bought the stainless ones so I could be more comfortable taking them out of the house (usually in a smoothie) and now they're my favorite. The straight ones are about a thousand times more useful than the bent ones, in case you wondered. 

I've always made a habit of chewing on plastic drinking straws, biting them flat and drinking through them like that, so I wondered how I would like these when I first tried them. Turns out it's the biting I like, not the results, and you can bite and chew on these as much as you want without anything happening. No one even has to know, because there is no physical evidence of your chewing tendencies.  

The straws come with a long, thin brush for cleaning the inside, in case you were wondering. They don't get gross at all. 

Swamp Thing and his damn little plastic cup

Swamp Thing and his damn little plastic cup

In the interest of being totally honest, I do have one more thing - a small plastic sample cup. I actually brought it home yesterday, with a marimo in it. A friend gave me the marimo in a little glass jar, which we somehow dropped on the floor instead of passing off like we intended. So we put the marimo, which is an adorable little green algae ball that looks like moss, and which I named Swamp Thing, in a plastic cup, where he lived until I could get a replacement glass jar. Which I got today. Which puts the plastic cup up for reuse. 

I'm going to wash the plastic cup and put it in the bin with the paper towels and other party supplies, but I'm conflicted about it. Maybe it could have a second life as a jello shot container. But I really don't want to start collecting things I may or may not use at some point. Ugh, maybe I'll put it in the recycling. 

This is hard. 

2.1: Household Challenge - Zero Waste Week

The first challenge of the second year of 52 Small Challenges is going to be a household one! It's a week late because I skipped a week over the summer. Somehow that seemed better than cutting the first year off at challenge #51, because "52" is actually in the blog name, and "one year" is not. :)

I'm going to participate in Zero Waste Week. It's officially a UK thing, but it can be done anywhere, including here. This is the first year I've joined in, and the theme this year is "Reuse." 

According to Bea at Zero Waste Home (the ultimate authority on such matters)  there are 5 R's of Zero Waste

  1. Refuse - don't get it in the first place (plastic bags, I'm looking at you!)
  2. Reduce - get fewer things/learn to need fewer things
  3. Reuse - THIS YEAR'S CHALLENGE - give something a second (or third, or fourth) life
  4. Recycle - Yay, recycling dumpsters
  5. Rot - Compost is fun!

While I already reuse lots of things (shopping bags, water bottles, etc.), I know I have room to improve in this area. For example, I read today that a Nathalie at Imperfectly Frugal reuses the plastic bags inside cereal boxes for freezing meat. Whereas I just throw those away or add them to the plastic bag recycling, depending on whether or not I think that will work. 

My goal this week will be to document what I already reuse while trying to find ways to reuse more. If I can't figure out how to reuse something, I'll look for an alternative. 

What I Already Reuse

Our napkins - we have to keep this in a cabinet or it becomes a litter box. Damn cats. 

Our napkins - we have to keep this in a cabinet or it becomes a litter box. Damn cats. 

Cloth instead of kitchen paper products: I gave up some things many consider "normal" years ago - paper napkins and paper towels. I keep some in a box in the basement for when we have parties, but otherwise, we use cloth. We have a box of cloth napkins in the kitchen (helpful tip: black napkins are great, because they don't show stains) that we draw from. I was them with the rest of the household laundry. I recently decluttered the box, because it was too full. And all the napkins came from garage and estate sales. They're easy to find used, because people aren't using them. Maybe too easy to find, sometimes. 

Drawer of towels - yes, I do like them better standing up. 

Drawer of towels - yes, I do like them better standing up. 

And we have a big drawer of towels that we use for everything from drying dishes to cleaning up spills. I even use these to clean up cat puke, which was maybe the most difficult transition to make, but I made it. Cat puke is gross no matter what you clean it up with, as it turns out. I pick it up, shake the towel off over the toilet, and throw it in the laundry. So our kitchen towels aren't anywhere near spotless, although I do have a few favorites I tend to not use for anything that might stain them. And I do keep a box of true rags in the laundry room for greasy or especially gross cleanups. And I want to say that, once or twice, I've cleaned up something so nasty I threw away the towel, but that doesn't happen often. 

Interesting side note - my brother also uses dish towels instead of paper towels, but we didn't learn it from our parents. I'm not sure how we ended up on the same page here... Maybe one of us started it and the other copied???

Reusable tissues!

Reusable tissues!

We still use toilet paper and paper tissues, but this week, I'm going to try not to use so many tissues (I'm not messing with toilet paper, not yet, anyhow). I got out my small stash of handkerchiefs, which I keep on hand for hiking, and put them on my desk. So far, I've saved two tissues - or reused a handkerchief a couple times, depending on how you look at it. Until we started hiking regularly, I wasn't familiar with how many uses one can get out of a single handkerchief, and it's more than you'd think. Also, paper tissues and hiking are more frustrating than useful. 

The current bag-drying method interferes with my drinking. :(

The current bag-drying method interferes with my drinking. :(

Plastic bags: I wash and dry a lot (but not all) of our plastic bags. The main thing that keeps me from being better about this is lack of a good way to dry them. Small bags can be hung upside down over almost anything, including the knives in the knife block, but larger bags need more breathing room. I could buy a bag dryer like this for less than twenty bucks, but when I look at them, it seems like it'd be so easy to make one. But I haven't made one. 

Er, as it turns out... While looking for a link to what I was thinking I could make, which involved dowel rods, a board, wood glue and paint, I ran across this one, which calls for a jar, chopsticks, and something in the jar to hold the chopsticks up. They use pretty glass pebbles, but you could use rice, gravel, whatever. So, yeah, I'm making that.  

Shopping bags: I have a stash of reusable bags, which I use most of the time, but not always. Someone in the house (he knows who he is!) is terrible about taking whatever bags they give him at the grocery store. He once came home with a bottle of vodka in a paper liquor bag inside a double-bagged plastic bag. And that was all he bought! As a result, we have a pretty big stash of plastic bags at all times, it seems. I take them to the store for recycling, and sometimes we reuse them for dog poop pickup - I'm not really sure if reuse (which would land them in a landfill, ultimately) or recycling (where I think their usefulness is limited) is better. It'd be easier if they just didn't come home at all!

Water bottles: If you live in St. Louis, Missouri and you're buying single-use plastic bottles of water, you're wasting money and resources. We have great water. And at work, my company filters and chills that already great water, and I can fill up my reusable stainless steel water bottle over and over, at no cost to myself. At home, I drink tap water. When I travel, I take an empty water bottle and refill it wherever I am. While I know our tap water is especially good here, I drink tap water wherever I go. So far, it's been fine. 

Dryer balls and homemade detergent. 

Dryer balls and homemade detergent. 

Dryer sheets: A lot of our laundry (certainly all my clothing) is line-dried, but when I do put something in the dryer, it goes in with felted wool dryer balls instead of dryer sheets. I bought mine on Etsy and they are something like these. I recently started making my own powdered laundry detergent, too, using this recipe, which doesn't involve any ingredients that come packaged in plastic, so I'm happy about that. 

Recycling center with embarrassingly large bag of plastic bags on the right. 

Recycling center with embarrassingly large bag of plastic bags on the right. 

It's not reusing, but of course we recycle - gotta love the single-stream recycling dumpsters in our city! It doesn't get much easier than that. I have two recycling bags that hang on the wall (keeping cat food cans out of the dog's reach) that I've had forever - so long the handles are basically held on with staples. But they work and I can throw them in the washer when they get dirty. It's much easier to carry bags out to the dumpster than a bin, too. 

Compost: And we have compost, which is kinda of reusing, just in a different form. I have a can on the counter (no liner) that fills over the course of the week (and sometimes over the course of an hour, depending on what we're making), and a black bin at the far end of the walkway by the garage. Basically it's in a narrow walkway between our garage and the neighbor's privacy fence, on the back edge of our property, by the alley. We put yard waste in the compost, too, except for weeds. If you compost weeds, you end up distributing the seeds at a later date. Then every spring, Eric shovels out the good, finished compost from the bottom of the bin and mixes it with the dirt from the previous summer's potted plants and we reuse that for the new plants. 

What I Know of that I Waste

Small sample cups: I work in a grocery store where there are samples. I eat and drink some of those samples pretty much every day I'm there. I wish I'd saved every cup for a week as a baseline, but I didn't. This week I'm going to try to use as few as possible and save any I do use. 

Various sheets of paper: I keep a stash of used printer paper and print on the blank side, but I just don't have that much use for scrap note paper, so most of our paper trash (hello, junk mail!) goes straight into recycling. I wonder if I should consider composting more of it? 

Shipping boxes: When we get a package, I usually save the packing material if it's bubble wrap and recycle the box. Every once in a while, I reuse the box, but honestly, I just don't want a bunch of cardboard sitting around. I guess my challenge here would be figuring out ways to order fewer things/buy things locally. 

And I'm sure there are a gazillion more things I waste over the course of a week, but I can't think of what they might be right now. 

Other Things to Think About: 

You can also follow J. Money at Budgets are Sexy because he has started experimenting with a "Zero Waste Lifestyle," an idea popularized (kind of?) by Bea at Zero Waste Home.

You can read more about J. Money's progress in this post, which also includes cute pet pigs and the benefits of early rising. :) Bea has a book out, too: Zero Waste Home. I don't have it - yet - but J. Money seems to be enjoying it. 

Costs and Savings: One subject that comes to mind reading J. Money's posts is that, at least initially, attempting a zero waste lifestyle can cost some money. Things we have bought include: counter compost bucket (our bin was free from a neighbor), dryer balls, cloth napkins and extra dishrags, the jar I'm keeping my laundry detergent in, recycling bags... and it looks like I narrowly escaped buying a drying rack for plastic baggies. :) 

On the other hand, we haven't bought paper towels or napkins in over a decade. Same with dryer sheets. Even with part-time plastic bag washing, we're reusing some of them and avoiding having to repurchase them. So we're saving some money, too. 

Of course, it's not all about the money saved or spent. It's also about learning to be less wasteful, distancing myself from society's constant obsession with germs and bacteria, and being a bit more mindful of keeping the earth in good working order. No doubt it makes little difference if I use a paper towel, but over time, those paper towels add up - not just to a lot of waste, but to more packaging being produce both to package and ship them, transportation costs to get them to the store, then to my house from the store - and it all costs money!

Reuse and Minimalism

Just a quick note on one conflict I find myself facing when I'm thinking about whether I can reuse something - keeping things around "just in case" can easily lead to stashes of things, whether they're jars, cardboard boxes, or plastic bags, that become clutter. I guess the answer to this problem lies in the first two R's: Refuse and Reduce. Which I don't think I'm doing a great job with, at least not right now. 

Whatever the reason one attempts to move toward a zero-waste lifestyle, I think it will be interesting to look at what I do this week that generates waste, what I can reuse, and what I can't. 

Do you try to avoid adding to the trash pile? If you have any tips or ideas, I'd love to hear them!



First Friday Links - Lots o' Money-Related Stuff!

Leaf suspended in mid-air on a recent hike on the Lewis & Clark trails in St. Charles. No suspension was visible to the naked eye and we appreciated its surreal appearance too much to "break" the illusion. If it was an illusion at all...

Leaf suspended in mid-air on a recent hike on the Lewis & Clark trails in St. Charles. No suspension was visible to the naked eye and we appreciated its surreal appearance too much to "break" the illusion. If it was an illusion at all...

This is the first monthly links post, but it's been over a month since I last posted - actually it's been since the end of May, when I went on vacation - and I've found lots of good stuff for you to check out. 

So as to not overwhelm you, this time around I've decided to share only bookmarks related to money, frugality and spending - also known as some of my favorite topics these days, along with frugality and minimalism. 

First off, if you have any investments at all and you are paying attention to what the stock market is doing, you should read Stock Market Meltdown Implications for Everyone, by Financial Samurai.  His response is the most reasonable of those I've read, and most inline with what I think. And, in case you're wondering, I had been sitting on some cash waiting for a market correction before I opened and funded a Roth IRA. Which I did, and then the market dropped some more. But that's okay, because I'm going to keep adding to it regularly. 

If you're less optimistic, you might enjoy reading The Big Bad Bear Case from NorthmanTrader. 

Rich People Like to Read, according to Business Insider. In particular, they like to read non-fiction books that will improve their chances of being successful. I like to read novels, which is, I guess, a very middle class thing to do. But I'm not stopping. 

25 things I learned selling my life possessions (a lesson in minimalism) 

Frugal Rules saved $100 per month by switching to Cricket Wireless, which I think is what we're going to do, as soon as Eric's phone is off contract. In the meantime, we changed over to Verizon's new contract-less system and chopped $40 off our bill, which is better than nothing. 

Becoming a Saver is a deceptively subtle title for what may be one of the best single blog posts on how to move toward spending less and saving more. It gives detailed instructions on what steps you should take if you want to save more of your income and have the option of retiring early. What really stood out for me was the idea that when you're cutting spending, you should always be a little uncomfortable. Cut until you're uncomfortable, wait until you get used to it, then cut again. I love that. 

Here's Sam's post, Why I Kept a Frugal Food Budget.  Unlike Sam, I intend to keep going with my frugal food budget and maybe even cut if further, if I can. 

File under "places I'm not yet ready to go": Cait at Blonde on a Budget is embarking on her second year-long shopping ban and here are the rules. At some point, I might be ready to do this, but not just yet. 

And if you want to compare yourself to others, you can find a list of blogger's self-reported net worths at Rockstar Finance. Also, if you were only going to subscribe to one personal finance email, make it Rockstar Finance. Every weekday J. sends out one post with links to three of the best recent finance-related blog posts. 




Mental Health/Running Update

This is a picture of a slug eating a mushroom next to an acorn. It has nothing to do with anything. 

This is a picture of a slug eating a mushroom next to an acorn. It has nothing to do with anything. 

With something like starting a running habit, obviously one week isn't enough to see real results. But I can say with confidence that simply starting again made me feel better. 

I feel good about having a plan and following it. I feel good about doing something good for myself. And I feel good about the effect running has on my weight. It's the only thing I know that I can successfully pull off that eventually leads to weight loss. 

My goal is to get three runs in every week. The first week, I did that with no problem. This week, I didn't run until today (Friday), which means I'll have to run the next two days, also, if I want to meet my goal. But even if I only get one of those runs, I'll be happy that I didn't quit entirely. 

Although I had reservations about using running as a mental health challenge, I'm now convinced that it's perfectly acceptable, and maybe even better than a lot of the other options. 

Week 51: Mental Health & Running

Update: Eat from the Pantry

I'm happy to report that I've made progress! Other than that moment of weakness yesterday during which we ordered Chinese carryout, my part of which will provide me with three meals, I've  eaten only things from the house. My meals have largely consisted of leftovers wrapped up in tortillas, smoothies, and cereal. I ran out of cereal yesterday, though, so I might have to branch out a little. 

Current fridge on the left; recent fridge pics on the right

Current fridge on the left; recent fridge pics on the right

The volume of food in the fridge has gone down slightly, but the freezer and pantry look pretty much the same. Which tells me something that lasts longer than a week might be in order, if I truly want to make my way through everything.  

It's nearly impossible to tell from the photos, but those large containers on the right side of the top shelf are full of leftover juice we squeezed for cocktails. I'm slowly working them into smoothies. They take up a lot of room, but still taste great. 

All that's missing from the pantry is the cereal and a box of Pop Tarts, as far as I can tell. And my recent straightening revealed that I am now hoarding salsas. 

All I've gotten out of the freezer is some frozen fruit, but I think I added in equal measure. 

And somehow I've managed to gain weight this week. I guess I'm talented at getting a lot of calories wrapped up inside a tortilla. 

The one thing I can say that is certainly a positive is that this was a very inexpensive week for groceries. I spent nothing on food. I might try to keep this up for another week, or indefinitely (until I see real progress) or, at the very least, until Eric catches on. 

Week 52: Diet - Eat from the Pantry

Next Challenge: Eat from the Pantry

My challenge this week is to eat from the pantry. 

In other words, I hope to spend $0 on groceries this week. As I've mentioned before, there's a lot of food already here at the house. I went to Costco last week and stocked up on frozen fruit and veggies, so I don't need fresh fruits for smoothies. We also have a bunch of leftover taco fixings from a gathering we hosted last weekend. I'm pretty sure there's even a pizza or two in the freezer. 

So I'm not going to starve. Hopefully what will happen is I'll clear some room in the kitchen. And then NOT fill it back up with more stuff. 

I've been thinking about a few competing theories on food storage:

  • Buy as you eat: Buy food for the day, daily. The benefits of this include not needing space to store a bunch of excess food, knowing what you're in the mood for at the time of shopping, not cluttering up your space with foods you think you should eat but don't feel like eating, limiting food waste, etc. 
  • Stockpile: Then there's the "the world is going to end" philosophy of having a large supply of food at hand. Anyone who has the time to manage a backstock of food impresses me. But the word "manage" is important. If you're not managing the stock, eating the old food and moving in new food, it's not that great. I don't have time to manage even the small stash of food we have now, and thus it continues to grow. 
  • Meal planning: And there's the option where you have a definite plan for what you're going to eat for the next week, you buy what's needed for those things, and you eat them. I'm not there yet. 

Frugality favors buying in bulk and buying when things are on sale. It also favors cooking from scratch. Being busy favors having easy (usually more expensive) foods on hand, ready to go. 

I'd like to aim for something in the middle. It's nice to have a few things on hand to grab as easy meals. I've already downgraded my pizza consumption from delivery to frozen. We tried making our own, but that requires planning, and lots of times when I want pizza, it isn't planned. 

And while I don't want to buy small quantities of things we eat all the time when I could save money by buying in bulk, I also don't want to have a cabinet full of things we're not eating. I recently pulled out a jar of pickled beets and started eating them. They've been in the cabinet for at least two years. Pickled beets are one of my favorite foods, yet somehow they continued to sit there. That's the kind of thing I'd like to avoid. 

In the interest of decluttering, I thought about going through the cabinet and throwing out anything that had been there for at least a year. But in the interest of not wasting food, I can't do that. I did recently donate some shelf-stable beverages I decided we obviously weren't going to drink. I don't know how effective that is (do the donated beverages actually go to someone who wants/needs them?), but it seemed better than dumping them down the drain. 

The option that ended up making the most sense to me was to eat as much of what we have as we can before buying new things. Perhaps after clearing some things out, I'll have a better idea what to keep on hand and what to avoid. 

I might even consider trying a Capsule Kitchen challenge at some point. Similar to the capsule wardrobe, you choose 33 items and eat those items for three months. Condiments, like accessories, don't count. Maybe I'll do that some time. I'll let you know. 

I took some before pics, to show you what we have going into this, and I'll post "after" pics at the end of the week. 

Pantry, fridge and freezer, all pretty full. 

Pantry, fridge and freezer, all pretty full. 

One Year Review - 52 Weeks of Challenges!

Happy First Birthday, Blog!

The first "52 Small Challenges" post went up exactly one year ago today, on September 1, 2014. At that time I had very little blogging experience, no idea how it was going to go, and high hopes of turning this into something big. 

One year later, I have considerably more blogging experience (but still no idea how to create a graph that I can add to a post, or how to get a birthday hat onto the cat in my logo), some idea how it's going to go (slowly), and high hopes - well, let's just say they've been tempered by experience. 

But I kept it up for a whole year! I'm pretty excited about that. 

Challenges with Challenges

It turns out the biggest challenge of all is not coming up with ideas, motivation, or things to write about. The biggest challenge is time.

Everything that goes into this - planning, executing, and documenting each challenge with words and photos, putting together the posts, general blog maintenance - takes time. That's true of everything in life, I guess, but especially true of blogging. What happens behind the scenes to make even a short post takes a lot more time than you'd think. More than I realized, anyhow. 

When I find the time, it's time well spent. I love sharing what I'm doing and hearing from  readers. I don't have a huge following by any means, so it's always a pleasant surprise to find out someone I know has been reading the blog. And when I see strangers commenting or liking the posts on Facebook, it feels great. 

But it's still difficult to find time to put it all together. I'm more impressed than ever by bloggers who work full-time jobs, maintain households or businesses on the side, and still find time to post every day. This is mostly unrelated, but travel bloggers in particular impress me. I've yet to write a single travel-related review, let alone a meaningful post while actually traveling. But others do it all the time!

Year Two Plans

Going into the second year, I plan to make a couple changes. First of all, I'm getting rid of the "social challenge" category I hated so much, and substituting a "personal choice" category. Anything goes those weeks, including a duplication of another category. Basically, whatever I feel like doing that week, I can do it. Hopefully this will allow me to continue to explore things that don't fit somewhere else, such as not wearing makeup, while avoiding things I'm simply not inclined to do, such as personal social challenges

I experimented for a while with some weekly extras (links, frugal things and Food Waste Fridays), that ended up being too much to do every single week. But I still really like the ideas behind all those things, so I've decided to make them monthly. I might even come up with a fourth regular post, so I'm posting something like that every Friday. First Friday of the month will be links, second Friday will be frugal things, etc. And it'll be a month-long compilation at the time I publish it, so hopefully full of good stuff. But not too much food waste. 

Other Thoughts

The longer challenges (1% savings challenge, capsule wardrobe) although I've posted irregularly at best about them, have been fun, too. In a sea of short challenges, it's nice to have something that continues on, that I don't have to think (or write) about every day. 

The second biggest challenge has been the challenges themselves. I do a lot of things for seven days that I'd like to keep up for many more, but it's so hard to make that happen. First of all, a lot of my spare time is taken up by the current challenge. Second of all... actually, maybe that's it. 

On another blog, I read someone's comment that they hate the word "challenge." The comment-writer was sick of push-up challenges, personal challenges, challenges in general. For a minute, I felt bad for thinking about challenges all the time. But after further thought, I realized I get a lot out of these challenges, and if I'm helping someone else, maybe even just one person, explore more options, then I'm happy with that.

Because for me, that's what it's really about - exploring the world around me. Seeing what else might be done, how else I might go about this "living" thing. And along the way, sharing what works for me, what doesn't, what you I might do, what it turns out I can't do...

Besides, what option do we have? Keep doing the same old things, forever? Or try new things, whether we call them challenges or not? I guess it's obvious what I'd choose. 

regret nothing.jpg

Year in Review

Looking back at the challenges I've undertaken (you can see them all in the index), I can pretty easily tell you what seems to be sticking. 

  • I've stuck with this breathing technique for exercise, which I started using for running and now use any time I feel out-of-breath, whether I'm hiking or climbing stairs. Sometimes I even use it when I'm walking, if I'm with a fast walker or the terrain is hilly. Seriously, I swear by it. If I develop amnesia and forget about it, I think I will feel something important is missing from my life. 
  • I continue to declutter. I've decluttered nearly every space in the house (including the kitchen, basement and officeholiday supplies, laundry room, our book collection, the attic, my wardrobe and the basement, again. And there's been more, but I haven't blogged about it. Other than Eric's half of the garage, I can't think of an area that hasn't been decluttered at least once. There is still work to do, but I find the thought of having less clutter so pleasing, I can think about it to calm my mind if I'm worried about something else. 
  • The $400 food budget and 1% Savings Challenge continue on. It's nice to see our grocery expenses come down and our savings grow. 
  • I am maybe ever-so-slightly more mindful than I was before. 
  • Smoothies happen about three times a week and I tend to feel better on days when I drink them. 
  • The social media fast has had a lasting effect on my social media consumption. I mostly lost my appetite for it, although I still peruse it from time to time.  
  • And the No Makeup Challenge was wildly successful. Entire makeup-less weeks go by. ENTIRE WEEKS. It's crazy. 

There were many things I tried and liked, but didn't stick with, including all the "exercise every day" challenges, but especially Janathon and 20,000 steps, and all the meditation weeks, 

Some were one-offs, such as caulking the bathroom. I'm not doing that again, hopefully ever. 

Others weren't exactly completed, including freezer cleanup and a lot of the creative challenges. 

There were a few I tried but hated, such as all of the diet ones (just kidding) (not entirely). Hate is a strong word, but I do find them very difficult to stick with. 

And then there were some surprises. My biggest successes (social media and no makeup) came from my least-favorite social category, as did one of my most-read posts, which was this one about Scotland and Ireland). 


In the end, I think it's worth it. I tried a lot of things and found a few that stuck and continue to enrich my life, including some I don't think I would have tried if it weren't for the blog. Having a social/exposure element keeps me motivated most of the time. 

Hopefully you'll stick around for another year of challenges! While I'm going to try to come up with new things, I'm sure I'll revisit some older challenges, too. As always, I'm open to suggestions for new challenges. Let's see what another year brings...

Bathroom Update

You may recall from my exciting week of caulking that we didn't caulk the bathtub, mainly because I didn't realize how bad it was until after we'd caulked everything else, at which point we were sick to death of caulking. Well, we recovered and it's finally finished. It looks a lot better and seems to be functioning well, as we haven't had any leaks. 

Before and after - we cleaned up a lot of the surrounding grout (and the tub itself) when we did this project. Next up: new fixtures. :)

Before and after - we cleaned up a lot of the surrounding grout (and the tub itself) when we did this project. Next up: new fixtures. :)

I also declutted the bathroom closet - again. I find that I can go back over the same area and find more things to get rid of each time. Also, if you don't keep an eye on newly-cleared space, it has a tendency to fill back up. And yeah, everyone in the world can fold towels better than I can. I'm okay with that. Did I tell you I shove an entire set of sheets into one pillowcase and call it a day? Yep, I sure do. 

Closet: before and after, top and bottom

Closet: before and after, top and bottom

Stuff that went downstairs on the left, and stuff that went away on the right. And my toes, which I kept.

Stuff that went downstairs on the left, and stuff that went away on the right. And my toes, which I kept.

Some of the stuff in the closet went away completely, either into the trash or donated to the thrift store (I found three curling irons - if you know me at all, you know there is no point to my having three curling irons). Extras, both cleaning supplies and personal care products, went downstairs. I think I've mentioned my hoarding of personal care products before, but I'm making progress! It's all organized in a cabinet in the laundry room and that's where I'm shopping from. I haven't bought anything from the store if there's something in the cabinet that works.

Last but not least, we finally replaced the broken mirror on our medicine cabinet! I broke one of the two sliding mirrors, oh, more than a year ago, and we've been living with one door ever since. It wasn't the end of the world, because we still had half a mirror, but it was ugly. You could see half of the insides of the cabinet at all times, and it led to recurring "we should really fix that" thoughts - every time I went in the bathroom. And that gets old. I guess a little bit over a year was about all I could take. 

Two doors! Also it's quite difficult to take a picture of a mirrored cabinet without taking a selfie. Just sayin.' Toes in the last pic, fingers in this one. 

Two doors! Also it's quite difficult to take a picture of a mirrored cabinet without taking a selfie. Just sayin.' Toes in the last pic, fingers in this one. 

So Eric took the remaining door to a nearby glass place and a few days later, we had two doors again! The days of no mirrors were interesting. The cabinet looked really naked without any doors. And with no mirrors in the bathroom, I didn't really have a good idea what I looked like for a couple days, and I did weird things, such as staring into the cabinet while I brushed my teeth or washed my face, as if I could see a reflection. But I couldn't. But I kept looking. 

When Eric took the old door into the glass place, they noticed that "1963" was stamped on the back, so I assume that's when our medicine cabinet was made. We've considered replacing it more than once since we bought the house, but now I feel like it's a collector's item of sorts. Also, the opening in the wall is an odd size, so replacing wouldn't be all that simple or easy. 

You might think we'd be all done with the bathroom, but there are still a couple little things. The fixtures in the tub are ugly, and the drain closure is missing so it's not possible to take a bath. There is a grout-less gap in the floor between the tiles and the threshold, and it's been like that for a while. Little things, for sure, but we are getting much closer to being finished with the bathroom. 

Follow the evolution of the bathroom - Week Twenty-six: Household - Bathroom Caulking and Cleaning

  1. Caulking Update #1
  2. Caulking Update #2
  3. Caulking Complete
  4. Bathroom Update

$400 Food Budget: May-July

It's been a while since I've posted an update on my food budget, but that's been for no particular reason. Sam at Frugaling, who inspired our monthly goal of $400, decided to end his monthly reporting on food expenses, a decision he discusses here. Not reporting for a few months didn't seem to help or hurt what we actually spent, but it's impossible to say for sure. 

What We Spent

If you just look at grocery expenses, we handily stayed below $400 every month, coming in at $302 in May, $384 in June and $264 in July. Not too bad, and really good in July. I don't think there was ever a point where we felt deprived on the grocery front. We took a lot of lunches to work, ate good food, bought what we wanted and felt satisfied with the lower amount. 

BUT - we also went out to eat. In May, we spent $36 on Chinese carryout, which is not a big deal, but in retrospect, it seems like Chinese carryout should be cheaper. I think we both got appetizers and entrees. In June, we spent a whopping $306 at restaurants. The bulk of this was spent in Chicago, where we went for my company's employee party, and where we ate out for every meal. Although the party itself is free for us, the surrounding activities certainly add up! And in July, we spent $112, which covered three restaurant meals.

A few of the meals I had at restaurants over the last few months: a burger at Stacked in St. Louis, German food in Hermann, Missouri, and a pizza in Chicago (I know, it's not even Chicago-style).

A few of the meals I had at restaurants over the last few months: a burger at Stacked in St. Louis, German food in Hermann, Missouri, and a pizza in Chicago (I know, it's not even Chicago-style).

None of this includes the meals we ate as part of gifts/experiences, which you might recall we're trying to do more of - so if we took you out for your birthday, that entire expense fell under "gifts," not dining out. Also, meals eaten out on vacation went into the vacation budget. These expenses could be accounted for differently, but I find doing it this way allows me to make clear decisions on total cost - how much does a week-long vacation spent camping cost? A trip to the wineries for Mother's Day? Separating out parts of those experiences feels like getting a skewed picture. 

I think I mentioned this before, but earlier this year I started tracking our caffeine-related purchases (soda, coffee and tea) separately, and for the three months we're looking at, those came to $10, $29 and $40. I might stop doing this, if the numbers continue to stay low. 

Total food expenses: 

  • May: $347.39
  • June: $718.67
  • July: $415.91

First, the positives: In 2014, Eric and I spent a whopping $11,374 on food, or $947.83 a month. So far in 2015, we have spent $4,021, or $502.63 per month (if we don't spend any more money in August, which is possible, but unlikely). That's a savings of $445.20 a month! Which is a huge difference. Obviously, that adds up over time. 

Dining Out

The nice thing about tracking expenses is that the data is there if you want to look at it. And the data shows a big drop in grocery expenses in the last half of 2014, which was when I first started thinking about cutting back. It took us until 2015 to decide to cut back on dining out. 

And although we've cut way back on our dining out expenses, it still seems like we're spending a lot when we do go out. I've been back and forth on how much we want to cut back in this category. I addressed this issue a little in my 1% Savings Challenge Update.

Sometimes going out to eat serves an important social function. It's easy to get together over a meal, especially with new friends. Before you know someone well enough to hash out diet restrictions, pet allergies, etc., it can be much easier to meet at a restaurant. Other times, it's fast and easy. We met Eric's dad and brother at a sandwich shop for lunch on a workday a couple weeks ago. If we hadn't been able to purchase a meal out, we would have skipped that altogether. 

Other times, dining out is a luxury that we definitely could skip. Did we really need to eat at four restaurants in Chicago, over two days? Here's how it happens. The party is one night. We take the train to Chicago as early as possible the day of, and come back as late as possible the next day. This leaves lots of time during which we have to eat. We are with friends so we all eat out together. Obviously, one option is to shorten the trip and just go for the party. Which sounds less fun. I find I have a lot of resistance to ideas that sound less fun, at least initially. 

Another option is to spend less when we do eat out. This is an area we've done a lousy job of exploring. I'd go so far as to say we haven't really tried at all. When we go out, we order what we want, almost regardless of price (I say this because if we truly ordered regardless of price, Eric would eat a lot more seafood). We get as many drinks as we want. We don't share. 

We use gift certificates when we have them, and we try to pick less expensive restaurants when we can, but these things are easier to do at home than while traveling. In July, we lucked into happy hour pricing on one outing, and shared cheap appetizers. Generally, though, we don't go out of our way to save when we dine out. 

So maybe that's the next layer of this challenge. Start figuring out what we can go without when we eat at restaurants, without feeling too much of a pinch. The idea of skipping beers and drinking water instead makes me sad now, but what if the trade-off was stopping at the liquor store and buying a six-pack on the way home? I think, unless we were at a brewery, I might go for that trade.

What I'm learning here is that I don't want to completely eliminate dining out. We want to be able to go out to eat sometimes, but I don't want to spend a fortune on it. So the next step is figuring out how we can do it for less. 

Food Budget Posts:

New Challenge: Mental Health/Running

Cellar tour at Stone Hill Winery in Hermann, Missouri

Cellar tour at Stone Hill Winery in Hermann, Missouri

Just when you thought I had it together and could keep up with my challenges... I was derailed by a weekend packed full of social activities. 

We did some fun things: our friends Jean & Kama got married and we hosted a little post-wedding party at our house, then we took the train to Hermann, Missouri and drank some wine (okay, maybe lots of wine). And then there was work, of course. And not much blogging.

Yesterday, I realized I had failed to set up a new challenge. I meant to do it as soon as I got home, but then I also meant to start running again, and only one of those two things happened. 

Congratulations, Jean & Kama!

Congratulations, Jean & Kama!

So today I decided running is an activity that supports good mental health, because it actually is. I guess walking or any other activity is, too, but running is especially good for me. It doesn't matter what kind of mood I'm in, if I go running, I feel better when I'm done. And I don't mean only because I stopped running. 

How running continually falls out my life, I don't really know, but right now, I'm happy to have it back in. And when I say "running" at this stage of the game, what I really mean is I've started a run/walk program. This week, I'm running 1 minute then walking 2, alternating until I hit 20 minutes. Today and yesterday I walked a little on top of that - and got over 20,000 steps today!

Last time I tried to start running again, I didn't follow any sort of plan for building up and my left knee promptly developed a pain that didn't go away quickly enough for my liking. So this time, it's back to my tried-and-true method for getting into running. It's so gradual, I hardly notice I'm building up, but it's never led to an injury. 

And when I finally do get built back up into a regular running routine, this time I'm going to try really hard to keep it simple. I don't want to start signing up for tough races, doing longer runs, or worrying about speed. I want to develop some sort of baseline amount of running that doesn't lead to me dropping it altogether. If I can accomplish that, it really will be good for my mental health. 

Week 51: Mental Health & Running