Living Lightly

Susan Vogt on living more simply but abundantly

Browsing Posts published by Susan Vogt

Days 365+24a MousseToday is Mardi Gras (French for “Fat Tuesday”). Traditionally it is the last splurge for Christians before Lent. This brings up the question of splurging. Is it OK? Is it weakness? Should it be avoided? My own experience with splurging is that it’s a lot like keeping a good diet. Occasional splurges are good for the psyche and soul. By splurge I don’t mean binge eating, drinking, or buying, but rather allowing myself occasional treats so I don’t feel deprived. If I make a private agreement with myself that two cookies at lunch is OK then I don’t feel deprived and tempted to eat more. As you can tell, I’m a pretty frugal person (our kids have a less positive term for it) so sending flowers to someone is a stretch for me when I see what I consider to be exorbitant prices. But I’m training myself to let go of my stingy impulses because sometimes it’s good to splurge on someone out of love – or even splurge on myself, lest I become a dour, bah humbug, self-righteous, stick in the mud. (For those with a spendthrift personality, ignore the above.)

Conveniently, the Lenten calendar provides us with automatic splurge (or respite) days, known as Sundays. Sundays are not counted as the 40 days of Lent so I will not choose anything to give away on Sundays. I may, however, still write a blog reflection.

What’s your favorite splurge?

Being responsible is good. Being prepared is good. But – is it possible to give too much away? Is it irresponsible to give away savings and then be dependent on the government or charity for help if you lose your job or get sick? My first impulse is to say, YES. If I have a choice, that’s irresponsible. Yet I find myself challenged by the scriptures:

He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.” (Mk 6:8-9)

“If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Mt 19:21)

Should we take these words literally, or more as a reminder not to accumulate too much – and what is too much? When I travel (especially with young children) I consider taking along provisions for them to be responsible. It’s hard to know how much is enough and how much is too much? Giving everything away? – Is it irresponsible, or is it dependence on God. How do YOU decide where to draw the line?

Today is Valentine’s Day (obviously not Ash Wednesday) but human needs don’t wait on the liturgical calendar. Today there’s a shower for our pregnant teenage friend. She needs EVERYTHING! Although I had been saving a lot of baby gear for our own grandchildren just in case our own young adults might want them, I keep telling myself this teenager NEEDS this stuff now. I’ve decided that this immediate need trumps the “just in case” principle. I have some emotional attachment to the baby outfits and know that I’ll probably not see them again (like the maternity clothes I gave her), but I’m trying to let go. Too bad I can’t count this for one of my 40 Lenten give-aways; but then, who’s counting? 🙂

I value time. I’m always trying to save it. You may remember that Jim and I are helping a teenage expectant mother with transportation and other daily needs. Yesterday I took her to a doctor’s appt. and grocery shopping which took most of the morning. The day before we made complicated arrangements so I would have a car to pick her up from a hospital appt. (which turned out to have been cancelled but she didn’t know it since her phone is out of minutes). A couple days before that we made two trips to the emergency room after midnight because she thought she was in labor. (Turned out she wasn’t.) I’m happy to do this for someone in need but most of these trips turned out to be unnecessary and all together it equaled a day of work. Since I’m self-employed, if I don’t work, I don’t get paid and I’m bumping up against a writing deadline. I wish it were already Lent so I could count this as a day I gave away TIME.

The other side of regretting throwing something away, is being happy I saved something – for a brief moment. Last Sunday our parish had an African-American Culture Mass. About 10 years ago (when my daughter was a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa) we had matching “complets” made. (A complet is a brightly colored woman’s outfit common in West Africa.) I thought it would be nice to wear it to the Mass. I searched and, voila! there it was in my closet. I wore it. Nobody noticed. That was OK. I decided it just wasn’t me and I probably should have given it away years ago. Lesson? Is this something I would replace if I lost it? If not, it’s probably safe to give away. Anybody have other rules of thumb for what to save?

I was afraid this would happen. Last night I was looking for something different to wear to the weekly contra dance. I thought I’d pull out a long top I made several years ago – you know the kind that is longer than a top but shorter than a dress that’s worn over tights. It was popular about five years ago. Well, I hadn’t worn it for awhile and probably defaulted to the “If you haven’t worn it in two years, give it away” rule, because I couldn’t find it. This was a pretty harmless and reversible loss, since I have plenty of dance outfits, but what if it happens for something I really want – like having an extra pair of snow boots for a winter guest from Hawaii?

In addition to those collection agencies that I mentioned yesterday, other ways for your goods and money to find a good home are:

  • Free cycle It works like Craig’s list but no money is exchanged.
  • Charity Navigator Evaluates the health and ratio of proceeds actually going to the needy
    for over 5,400 of America’s largest charities
  • United Way and other local fund raising/service coordinating organizations
  • Relief agencies like the American Red Cross, Catholic Relief Services
  • Your parish, church, neighborhood thrift store, or someone you know personally
    Now when your children ask how the uneaten food on their plate can get to the starving children in China, you can tell them you’ll take the cost of their food out of their allowance and give it to a good cause.

Now that I’m committed to giving away at least some possessions, who should I give them to? My first thought was Goodwill since that’s where I’ve carted a lot of my stuff in the past. Good, but inconvenient. Recently I’ve been getting calls from Vietnam Veterans of America which has a van that comes right to my house. Convenient but I’d like to give to a faith based organization like St. Vincent de Paul – but their drop off place is even farther away. These are just some of the possibilities. If you have a personal connection, that’s even better.

Most people who are reading this blog and are rich, probably did not come by their wealth dishonestly. (In fact, most probably don’t consider themselves wealthy – at least I didn’t until I rubbed shoulders with people living in American ghettos or parts of Africa or India.)
For the sake of argument, however, let’s say I make over $250,000. Is this too rich? I think it all depends on how much I keep. Do I spend it all on my own family and creature comforts? How much do I give to worthy causes? Is it enough? I struggle with this question and dare not judge others. The best I can say is that the more I have, the more responsibility I have to use it for the common good. Think taxes, service, and philanthropy.

Yes. I believe there are two ways to be “too rich.” The first is if one’s riches were obtained on the backs of the poor or vulnerable. For example, producing a shoddy or environment damaging product, not paying a living wage, capitalizing on people’s vices (like gambling, alcoholism, smoking, pimping…), or using deceitful advertizing seem dishonorable ways to become rich. Persuading people to take out a loan beyond their means to buy a house comes to mind as we all suffer from the collapse the economy due to unscrupulous banking practices. See tomorrow for Way # 2.

Yes. I was talking with a friend who grew up in poverty. She said she made a commitment then to make sure that neither she, nor any of her family, would have to face that kind of want again. In my mind there is a big difference between destitution and holy simplicity. There’s little holy about abject poverty. It wounds the body as well as the soul. When I seek to simplify, I don’t mean to live in squalor but rather to be more intentional about observing what is a “want” and what is a true “need.”

How can such a laudatory plan of giving stuff away induce guilt? Well, yesterday I bought two new turtleneck tops. I only planned on getting one but I could only take advantage of the sale if I got two – for the price of one. True, my current blue and white tops were pretty threadbare and in the winter such clothes are like a uniform to me, BUT did I really NEED them? If I give my threadbare ones away during Lent will that negate any sacrifice since I just bought two replacements? My husband knows that by nature I am frugal. He cautions that I could get too caught up in the minutia of measuring these things out. He’s probably right.

Today I bought Turbo Tax. For the last few years we’ve had a relative do our taxes but this year I decided to do them myself. We used to do our own taxes but then our job situation got complicated and it made sense to have a professional do them. I hope this isn’t a mistake. The idea is that in spending $40 or so for a tax program, we will save a couple hundred dollars. Strictly speaking this isn’t giving anything away or simplifying my life, but if I put the money saved to a good cause, maybe it’s a way of making money because I’m not spending more. Of course the trade-off is that it takes my time to do this and I don’t have a reputation for being good at numbers.
This same principle of “Spend in order to Save” could be applied to paying more for energy efficient appliances or quality goods that will last longer.

To put this “giving stuff away” into perspective, it occurs to me that there are plenty people in this world for whom giving away one thing a day would be a true hardship because they have so little. Jim and I have been helping out a teenage mother-to-be for whom it would be ludicrous to give anything away. We also have friends in Africa and India who would find my Lenten plan absurd. We’ve never been dirt poor but have had times of living paycheck to paycheck. Still it is sobering to realize that middle class folk like ourselves have the luxury of choosing what to give away. Think Haiti, again.

Today I needed two passport photos to renew my passport. Without thinking I went to Walgreen’s to get the photos. It cost about $8.50. Not too much, but only after the clerk took a digital photo and printed it out did I realize that I could have done it myself for about $.50. It would have taken a bit of fussing to figure out how to get it the right size but we already have a digital camera and photo paper. Theoretically, if I had saved the $8, I could have contributed it to a charity – perhaps the same one I will be giving my 1-A-Day household items to. Is it better to save money and give the savings away, or give the goods away? Hmmmm.

This has always been a dilemma for me. Both time and money are valuable and sometimes it makes more sense to spend money in order to save time. For example, I spend way too much time shopping for the best price for groceries, books, or air travel. Sometimes it saves money, sometimes it wastes time I should have spent working or with my family. It’s a constant discernment.

I overslept this morning. Got a new battery when I got home from the retreat. All is well. 2 ½ weeks till Lent begins and I actually have to give something away each day.

My watch broke today. It probably just needs a battery but I’m on retreat this weekend and won’t have time to get a new battery. If a time conscious person like me needs to be without a watch, I suppose being on retreat is a good time for it to happen. Even though I can just follow the group to know when it’s time to move from one activity to another, it’s been disconcerting not to know the time.

… a zipper. Finally, I’m able to actually get rid of something tangible. The zipper on my robe broke today. It’s been going bad for awhile but now it seems irreparably broken and putting in a new zipper is above my pay grade. It’s clear I need to throw out this garment. Today’s dilemma? My daughter left a perfectly good white terry cloth robe in her closet. Since she’ll be in Afghanistan for at least one more year, there’s no way she will use it. BUT, I don’t particularly like this plain robe. Do I wear it anyway rather than replacing it? I’ve put it in my closet and will see if I warm to the idea.

Today I was in the midst of writing an article. I tend to go into hibernation and not want to be disturbed when focusing on my writing. Jim was cooking dinner and realized he didn’t have any salsa. When he asked if I’d run to the store and get some, I remembered all the inconvenient favors he’s done for me and decided to let go of some of my time to help him out. (Since he was cooking dinner for us, it was really helping both of us out.)