Living Lightly

Susan Vogt on living more simply but abundantly

Browsing Posts published by Susan Vogt

In the spirit of end of the year lists, I offer you my 10 Best Living Lightly Tips of 2016. The first 6 are my own. The last 4 come from other bloggers I respect. Most can be read in under 2 minutes.

  1. The Beauty of Empty – 8 practical steps to unclutter any part of your home
  2. 9 Shopping Lessons from Socks – Universal insights from one shopping experiment
  3. 6 Lenten Lessons – Summary of my paper reduction and mindful listening efforts
  4. TIME- Deal or No Deal – How to evaluate discounts. Try this formula
  5. The Multiplier Effect  – Recycling your own stuff is good. Find out what’s even better.
  6. Pre-cycling and Packaging – 5 insights about how using less is often enough and how retailers often try to fool you
  7. The Cost of Convenience (Joshua Becker) – Convenience is good but often there are hidden costs
  8. One Simple Question to Ask before Any Purchase  (Joshua Becker) – But what if I don’t?
  9. How to Get Rid of Practically Anything (Consumer Reports) – A super compendium of where to take all that extra stuff
  10. 12 Sneaky Ways Online Retailers Get You to Spend More  (Jessica Mai) – Be a wise online shopper. Understand the hidden persuaders.

On October 21 my cell phone died. At first I thought it was just sick and I tried to repair it. I’ll spare you all the gory details. Suffice it to say I spent way too much time on the internet diagnosing the ailment, on my landline phone with 3 different tech support people, and one trip to Best Buy before the illness was confirmed as fatal.

Too bad, but not a deal breaker. I knew I had some old phones around the house which I was ready to resurrect. I am embarrassed to say that I found 6 phones which I had intended to recycle but had not gotten around to it. Of the 6 phones:

  • 4 had no chargers that fit. Since a cell phone is pretty useless without a charger, I dismissed those.
  • 1 could be charged but only with a USB cord which had to be connected to a computer
  • 1 had a charger that worked in a household outlet. Yea! It was an old prepaid TRACFONE. No problem. I figured I’d just call up TRACFONE, reactivate it, and pay for a couple months which would get me to Christmas when I hoped I would be given a new phone. Unfortunately, I was told that TRACFONE had upgraded and my phone would no longer work but they would send me a free new one in 10 days. Since I was leaving town in 4 days and wanted my phone at the airport that wouldn’t work.

Everyone I knew well enough to borrow a phone from couldn’t spare theirs for a week. In the spirit of letting go, I decided to try a Phone Fast. I didn’t expect this to be permanent but I was intrigued to see what it would feel like to be phone-free. After all I survived for over 50 years without a cell phone. (Granted most of those years cell phones were not yet invented.) I wondered what I would learn.

Even though my experience might not be transferable to many people, I wanted to try. For example, my husband and I both have home offices with two landlines. I don’t need to go out much. Also, I would be spending 10 days at a meeting in Rome during which I wouldn’t need a phone plus six day on trips with Jim who had a cell phone. Still that left one work trip and 34 cell phone less days to contend with.

What I learned:

  1. It’s possible, but not easy – Although I had had a smartphone, I’m not a heavy phone user. All I really needed it for was phone calls. I had a small camera to take photos in Rome. I had a travel alarm to wake me up. I had my laptop computer when traveling to get email as long as I could get wifi. The lack of a phone at the airport, however, was a challenge because my arrival flight was delayed and I couldn’t reach my pick-up person. My return flight ended up being cancelled. These incidents caused me some stress, but…
  2. Generosity of strangers – I also relearned to depend on other people. I found fellow travelers to be gracious in letting me make several calls on their cell phones to the people who were meeting me.
  3. Expectations have changed – Once upon a time a missed flight might have meant hours of wandering around an airport looking for someone; or possibly never making the connection. People used to have to make very specific plans about where to meet for dinner, a party, etc. Now we just call when we get near and somebody tells us if the group has moved to a new venue. We don’t have to plan as carefully. But, people also expect you to be reachable.
  4. Inconvenience – I was at the grocery and needed some additional information about a product I planned to get. I couldn’t just call home and ask Jim the details. Another time I was in the car, running late. I couldn’t call my host to explain.
  5. Insecurity – I was surprised that I found myself feeling a little insecure driving to gatherings 30-60 minutes away, especially at night. What if I had car trouble? I’m sure eventually someone would stop and help, but I was used to feeling more secure knowing that I could call for help if needed. 10 years ago I seldom felt this insecurity because I didn’t know there was an option.
  6. Cell phones are more than just for phone calls – Although I could get by with a pocket camera and travel alarm, I forgot that I had come to rely on my phone as a GPS. Back to printing out MapQuest before a trip, or, heaven forbid, actually pulling out a paper map and planning my route. It’s nice to have all these functions in one device rather than carrying around multiple gadgets. I don’t text much but sometimes that’s the least disruptive way to communicate short messages. I like to listen to podcasts on my walks.

Bottom line, I got my Christmas gift early (December 8) since I had learned enough from my Phone Fast and I think the kids were tired of my limited communication and hinting that I was ready for an early Christmas gift. If a Luddite like me has come to depend on a smart phone, I guess the times they are a changin’.

How long could you go without a phone? What electronic device would you least like to break, lose, or fast from for awhile? Why?

days-365135-pre-cycling-shampooI recently ran a little contest among colleagues to find out how folks commonly or creatively tackled the environmental trio of Reduce-Reuse-Recycle. Out of 222 responses I was especially impressed with the clever, albeit human energy intensive, submission of Therese Brennan. She saves the used shampoo bottle, buys the same kind again, then pours ½ into the old bottle and adds water to both to fill. She does the same to the girl’s liquid body soap. Hmmm. Takes some conscious effort but doubles the life of the product. I suppose that one could get the same result by just using less shampoo, but maybe Therese knows her family well enough to know they won’t do that, or maybe we all just get into habits of using a certain dose.

Using Less Can Be Enough
This got me to thinking about what other products I could use less of and still get a satisfactory result. Toothpaste comes to mind. I notice that the ads for toothpaste show a generous glob on a full brush. Since I use an electric toothbrush, I can only fit about ¼ of the toothpaste shown in the ads and it’s more than enough for a 2 minute brushing.

The Mystery of Changing Packaging
I also remembered that a number of years ago my laundry detergent increased the cup size for each load. I called to ask why. They told me they had improved the formula by adding some more powder. (I wondered about that.) Just last year I noticed that the recommended amount was decreased. The explanation was that they changed to a more efficient formula. Hmmm.

A corollary to this is that many grocery store items are starting to come in unperceptively smaller packages in order to avoid raising prices. The amount of product is smaller but you may not notice it. Yogurt, hand soap with curves in it, bottles with crescent cut outs, and thinner cereal boxes are examples. The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, AOL Finance, Consumer Reports, and Boston Globe all have reported on this phenomenon but Rick Lax’s irreverent 1 minute video Why Has Nobody Noticed This??? is more fun.

Consume Less Packaging
So being savvy about deceptive packaging is a start, but the bigger issue is how to avoid undue packaging. You probably already take reusable bags to the grocery and avoid disposable water bottles, but what about the plastic clamshell packaging that many technology products come in? What about all the Amazon boxes. (Well, at least they are cardboard and can be recycled.) But I’m now trying to find the balance between over-packaging and convenience. Sure, I could swear off technology, but I’m not going to. I could only buy  local but sometimes it’s quicker to just order on line. We all make trade offs. What are yours?

Pre-Cycling
This brings me to “Pre-cycling.” It’s a cousin to the Reduce part of our environmental trio. The idea is that if I can reduce the amount of product I need or reduce the amount of unnecessary packaging I consume, there would be less stuff to recycle post use.

The Bottom Line
This is all a matter of making thoughtful decisions about one’s lifestyle and contribution to the common good of our neighbors and our planet. Sometimes the choices are easy or trivial. Sometimes they are tough or impractical. Heck I could raise my own chickens and get eggs plus organic matter for my vegetable garden – but that takes time. Besides, how much packaging does a grocery store chicken actually take? Living Lightly can be complicated.

Please share with me what you’ve found works for you and what compromises, successes, or failures have informed your decisions about staying sane and balanced while trying to live lightly.

days-365134-journal-paper-recyclingA success
I couldn’t fit anything more into the file cabinet drawer assigned to NACFLM, my professional family life association. At this same time, a NACFLM committee I was on decided to archive former newsletters. For many years I had been the newsletter editor. Hmmm. I decided to bite the bullet and go through all the old newsletters (which of course are no longer mailed out in paper form). I saved 2 copies of each issue and put the rest in recycling. It took awhile but I felt like I hit the jackpot.

A semi-success (or at least not a total failure)days-365134-old-photos
While looking through old paper photos to find something else, I realized that I had not put any photos in albums since 1994. Around 2004 I started taking mostly digital photos. This left a 10+ year gap of photos stuffed into a box. One night while watching a tedious TV program (I think it was one of the debates) I decided to multi-task. I went through 360 old photos. I decided to keep 77 – which I suppose I will have to scan at some future date when I am consumed with boredom and have nothing else to do. The good news is that I was able to get rid of 283 photos. Some were duplicates. Some were unidentifiable. Some were just such poor quality that they weren’t worth keeping.

News you can use:
Bad: I would have liked to put the old photos into paper recycling, but upon googling recycle old photos,  I found that this would not be acceptable.

Good: It was a sweet experience reviewing those years of my family life. I would not have taken the time if I didn’t need to prune the photos.

Days 112 Extra - Question markA question for all you organized memory buffs: How do you sort, save, throw away photos and other memories?

A question for procrastinators: What’s holding you back?

I like to think of myself as a pretty decent recycler. I put paper, bottles, cans, and appropriate plastics out for curbside recycling. I decline plastic bags at stores and use my cloth bags instead. I take a reusable water bottle to meetings. I take #5 recyclables to Whole Foods. I compost. I even collect neighborhood recyclables that I find during my daily walk. This is good, but I was recently awakened to how to stretch the good.

days-365133-cardboard-recyclingThe other day while I was walking I saw a store that had quite a few cardboard boxes out for the garbage. It was garbage day but not recycling day so I asked the store owner if he realized that if he just waited a week to the scheduled recycling day, these boxes could be recycled rather than go to a landfill. He did not receive my suggestion well but said with a smirk that I was welcome to carry the boxes home and do it myself. There were too many for me to carry so I declined. Later in my walk I was half a block from home and saw a large box with several smaller pieces of cardboard inside. Since I was close to home I dragged the cardboard home, collapsed the box, and saved it for the next recycling day.

This got me to thinking that no matter how good I am at recycling as an individual, it is a miniscule contribution to an important effort. If just one store which receives multiple boxes every day would recycle them, it would make a difference. If several stores in my neighborhood recycled their boxes, it would make a bigger difference. I call this The Multiplier Effect. It doesn’t mean that individuals should give up their home recycling efforts but I now look upon these as basically consciousness raising actions. It has motivated me:

  1. pachamama-logoTo become involved in an environmental group (The Pachamama Alliance) that works to make a more sustainable, just, spiritually fullfilling human presence in our world.
  2. To alert (some would say pester) my own neighborhood stores to save their boxes for recycling day.
  3. To work on helping the institutions that I am connected with (schools, churches, organizations) to evaluate how they go about their business. For example, My taking a reusable water bottle to a meeting is good, but how much better if the conveners of the meeting didn’t buy cases of bottled water for participants when there are water fountains all over the school. Or pitchers of water could be provided with washable glasses. It might be a bit more work but many individuals would start to carry their own reusable bottles.
  4. days-365133-arcadia-powerTo sign up for Arcadia Power which uses wind energy instead of fossil fuel energy for our home electricity use. The multiplier is that I’ve passed this information on to various groups I’m connected with. As more people do this, it also moves our country toward alternative energy sources. It has cost our family about $5 a month extra to buy this wind energy which is handled through our local energy company. (If you care to sign up for Arcadia and get a $25 discount – we also get the same $25 discount – click here. Once you start using Arcadia you can then pass this discount on to others if you wish.)

The point is to look for ways to multiply your effort by getting friends and institutions to do similar actions. Voluntary changes are wonderful, but also consider working on a governmental level. Supporting legislation that multiplies environmental improvements on a national scale can make a world changing difference. Keep thinking bigger – not getting more stuff but more people doing the little stuff. (You can tweet that.)

My next several blog posts will cover various angles of recycling (Recycling, The Multiplier Effect, Paper Pruning, and Precycling.) Let’s start with the easy one – recycling plastics. 😉 This will be a refresher for many people but I’m throwing in some trickier items for the hard core recycler.

The Usual:
Most municipal curb-side recycling programs accept plastic bottles and jugs (along with paper, glass, and metals). They make it so easy. Simply put these items in the bin or cart they provide. Most conscientious people do this. Hurrah! The challenge for many people is making it easy inside the home, i.e. designating a container to hold the recyclables till recycling day.

days-365132-plastic-bagsPlastic Bags:
I’ve known for awhile that plastic bags should not be put in curbside recycling. I didn’t, however, know why. After all, aren’t these all plastics? Then I took a tour of our local Rumpke recycling plant. Wow! Now I get it. Bags gum up the recycling process and nimble humans need to quickly pull the bags off the recycling lines. Most grocery stores accept plastic bags for recycling. (After all, they are the source of much of the plastic to begin with.) Even if you use paper or reusable cloth bags for groceries, you’re bound to collect some plastic bags. And unless you grow all your own food, you make periodic trips to a grocery. What a deal! Just bag up the bags and take them back. Note: Although the plastic bag your newspapers come wrapped in may seem like a waste on sunny days, dog owners tell me it’s handy when walking a dog. 😉

days-365132-plastics-recyclingHard Plastics that don’t qualify for curb-side recycling
Many curb-side recycling companies won’t take hard plastics that aren’t bottles or jugs. That’s because it’s hard to find buyers for these plastics on a scale that allows them to make a profit. But wait, there’s a solution if you make the effort. Whole Foods stores usually accept these “unacceptable” hard plastics. This includes:

#3 plastic

#3 plastic  cards

  •  #5 plastics

    #5 plastics

    #3 plastic cards (like gift cards, luggage tags, credit cards, etc. (Make sure you cut up the credit cards to protect your identity.)

  • #5 containers. This is part of the Gimme 5 program that even accepts #5 plastics (like hard to recycle yogurt containers). The #5 bin is usually separate from the other recycling bin, so look for it.

Whole Foods may have buyers that deal in small quantities or they may figure that getting you into the store will provide them with a profit from other things you buy

Pill Containers:
days-365132-pill-bottle-recyclingMaybe you’re healthy – most of the time. But most everybody has had some of those orange plastic pill containers. What to do? Peel the labels off and send your pill bottles to an international outreach program, such as Matthew 25:Ministries or Evansburg United Methodist Church  (Cincinnati area) or Samaritan’s Purse  (N.C.) Other possibilities include taking them to an animal hospital or an ASPCA near you to see if they could use some pill bottles for pet medicines. Also, reach out to your local community health center or homeless shelter to find out if they’re accepting donations.

Blessed by Less CoverLately, I’ve been having some troubling feelings connected with my latest book, Blessed By Less: Clearing Your Life of Clutter by Living Lightly. It was published almost 3 years ago and won a number of awards. I’m understandably proud of it, but I find myself feeling dispirited by not getting enough credit for it. For example:

  • Another blogger published a similar book with an almost identical cover a few months ago. I respect this author and our take on living simply are very sympatico, so I sent him a copy of my book soon after it was published. Maybe it was just a coincidence.
  • I was listening to a homily about humility at Mass during which the priest, a good friend, focused on the need for us to let go of self-righteousness and become less smug. Hmmm, One of the sections in my book is called “The Smug Factor.” I would have been honored for him to say something like, “And hey! We have an author who covers this concept sitting right here with us. (I, of course, would humbly, with a half embarrassed smile, nod modestly.)
  • Another well-known author (much better known than I) recently announced a “30 Day Give Away” challenge to his readers. Hmmm, sounds like my original idea of giving away 1 thing a day during the 40 days of Lent.

Now all of these could simply be coincidences of people independently coming up with similar ideas. After all, many in our culture have been moving in the direction of countering consumerism and letting go of extra stuff for the past several decades. Hoarders are pitied, not admired. But still, I found myself wanting to get credit for my work. As I took this to prayer, eventually I came to two rather obvious insights:

  1. Stuff-nothingLet go of wanting credit. After all, where did I get MY ideas – probably they bubbled up from a variety of things I had read or heard others speak of. Is any idea totally original? (Note to my publisher: This doesn’t mean I’m declining royalties. It’s fair to compensate writers for the time they put in to create intellectual property so I can live to write again.)
  2. Give credit. Why not replace my desire to be recognized with finding opportunities to give credit to another for a good idea.

Question to ponder: Who can I acknowledge for a talent, a service, a job well done this week? Give credit to others.

Days 365+130 golf clubsWe were robbed last week. Someone took Jim’s golf clubs out of the trunk of our car and my prescription glasses out of the front seat. Our car wasn’t locked and it was in our open garage. Still it felt like a personal violation and it takes time to replace stuff. After allowing ourselves some time for a pity party, I started thinking more deeply about what it means to be robbed and even more about what it means to be a thief.
Of course it’s wrong to steal. The thief not only stole our goods but also our time and sense of safety. Then I started to think about who would do a thing like this. Surely it wasn’t a terrorist or even a mean spirited, nasty person who wanted to make life miserable for another human being. Probably it wasn’t someone who played golf. People who can afford to play golf are usually at least middle class and don’t have to steal clubs. What are the chances that they had exactly the same eye prescription as I do. The fact that we had these things is a sign of privilege.
No, most probably it was someone who needed some cash. Why? I don’t know. It could have been a teen, an addict, a person down on their luck. Whatever the reason this person needed money more than I do – at least these days.
There was a time that both Jim and I had given up golf because it was a sport that was too expensive for our income and too time consuming for parents of young children. We defaulted to tennis at public courts and later to simply walking. But our kids are grown and now we could pay to replace the clubs.
In an ideal world, I’d like to think that a person who “honestly” needed money could just come to our house and say, “Hey, I’m short on food, or gas money, or whatever – and we would just give it to him or her. Several times we’ve hired folks who came to our door needing money to do some yard work or painting. But that’s not usually how our society works. We farm out charity to churches or the government.
Actually, I don’t think that’s a bad idea since when it works well, institutional programs can provide more than a quick fix. They can offer training, social support, addiction treatment, mentoring, and a way out of systemic poverty. But our society isn’t perfect. Some people take advantage of our tax dollars and generosity – and not all of those people are poor. Some are smart financiers or executives who know how to take advantage of tax breaks and human vulnerabilities.
Days 112 Extra - Question markSo what’s a conscientious, well-meaning person to do?
• Hang out a sign saying “Take what you want.”
• Figure our taxes should cover those in need.
• Lock everything up tight.
• Be generous with panhandlers.
• Complain.
OR, spend some time working or volunteering for organizations that provide education, recovery programs, or other preventive measures that will help people in need develop self-sufficiency. It’s a long, slow slog and there’s no one solution that fits everyone. Electing political leaders who understand this is part of the solution.
Meanwhile, I’m trying to forgive the thief and give my money to causes that help, but not hang out a “Just come and take anything” shingle. The poor will always be with us. How do you manage this conundrum in your own personal and spiritual life?

UPDATE: When looking for replacement golf clubs at a used sports store, Jim found his bag and clubs for sale. The store asked for a police report which he provided. Soon he will get his bag and most of his clubs back. The store has the name of who sold the stolen goods to them. We are curious as to whether they will share it with us or the police and what the next step might be.

My last blog post dealt with when is a bargain not a bargain. (See Deal or No Deal) Now I’d like to expand on that by evaluating a few other items that involve weighing time vs. money. How much is my time worth? The bench mark I’m starting to establish for myself is that a discount or sale should not require me to spend more than $1 per minute. For example, if the discount will be $10, it should take no more than 10 minutes of my time. If the sale will save me $60, it shouldn’t take more than an hour to research and claim it. Of course this is a totally arbitrary rule of thumb, but it helps me assess whether it’s worth my time. Some recent examples:

    • Days 365+130 Swarovski bear 1Valuables: I inherited some nice Swarovski crystal. I’m saving a couple figurines but decided to let go of a crystal bear. The going price on Ebay ranges from $20 -$250. I’ve never sold anything on Ebay. It would take me awhile to figure out the system and then securely mail it to a buyer. Meanwhile, our parish just requested items for a raffle. I decided the trouble to sell the bear wasn’t worth my time since I have a worthy alternative.
    • Phone solicitations: I never donate to anyone who calls me on the phone because they almost always call during dinner and we only donate to causes that we are personally involved with. BUT, how do we respectfully respond to these inconvenient calls without cancelling our landline which we need for our home offices? I researched and signed up on the Do Not Call Registry,  but that doesn’t apply to charities and political campaign calls. Why The ‘Do Not Call’ List Doesn’t Stop Annoying Robocalls — And What To Do About It gives helpful background. Still, the time it would take me to find a solution to this is more than I want to commit. My decision? Answer solicitations with this mantra: “Yes, you have a worthy cause but we have already committed all our donation dollars for this year. Good bye.” (The IRS scam, Cardholder Services, and cruise offers don’t require this courtesy.

Days 365+129 air con home croppedAir conditioner: When we installed replacement windows last year it meant taking out a large window air conditioner. We decided to try to live without the AC. The summer’s almost over. It’s been hot. We’re still not sure if we will get a new unit, get central air, or tough it out in the basement “cave.” Regardless, we won’t use the current one because it’s noisy and blocks our view. After delaying for most of the summer, I felt guilty about having a usable air conditioner sitting unused in the garage when many people were suffering from the heat and didn’t have a basement to retreat to. I could sell it to an AC repair company but it only took a short internet search to learn that Salvation Army is one of the few places that will pick up a used but working air conditioner.

Time expended on air conditioner:
3 months = Procrastination
5 minutes = Internet research & 2 phone calls
1 week = Waiting to get back in town to finalize the deal
1 minute = Schedule a pick-up

LESSON: Even nice formulas (like $1 per minute) still need human judgment about when and how strictly to implement. It’s like most decisions in life.

Time - clockIn my never ending quest to save both time and money, I’ve noticed that these two values are often at odds with each other. Saving time can cost money (eating out, hiring someone to clean the house, scouring stores or the internet for bargains) and saving money can cost time (see my 3 recent experiences below).

  • I saw an ad for an all-purpose travel bag that would hold my laptop computer, file folders, and planner, with pockets for my water bottle, pens, etc. Since my current one was wearing out, it looked perfect and was free. All I had to do was receive some literature on reverse mortgages. I figured someone might call me and try to entice me to get a reverse mortgage but I’m hardened against marketers so I figured I’d just say “No.” Eventually (60+ days later) I did get my bag, BUT it took listening to 3 sales pitches, 5 follow-up calls, numerous times on hold, and threatening to call the Better Business Bureau. Was it worth my time?
  • We needed more mulch for our garden. My local garden store had a rebate for a higher quality mulch which would make it cheaper than the regular mulch. I figured I’d just send in the rebate form and get my money back. Not so simple. The online rebate form took me 30 minutes to fill out since the directions were confusing. (2 computer reboots of the form, 5 trips to the garage to find the correct UPC code, and still it would take 6-8 weeks for processing.) All this for a total of $10.
  • It’s not good enough to be good. It takes time. Since I regularly work with children at church, I am certified in two states by Virtus – a child protection accrediting program. It was time for another background check. I filled out the form, the check was done, but one diocese was willing to pay for the background check and the other was not. Apparently they don’t talk well with each other. Eventually it was just easier to pay for the second one myself. (I was starting to get greedier with my time.)

Probably lots of frugal people like me have had similar experiences. I work at home and our children are grown so my time is flexible. I’m also very persistent, so if I feel like I’m not being treated fairly, I will doggedly pursue the perpetrator in the name of justice for the public. Still I want to make good use of my time and I wonder if trying to get the best deal is worth it. This has led me to the following 7 Time vs Money Protocols.

  1. dollar signDo I really need the item, or am I just attracted to it because it is FREE. Skip it. My time is not free.
  2. Do I have the money to pay the full price? Would I still buy this item if it were not such a “deal.” Pause and reflect.
  3. Assess the amount of discretionary time I’m willing to spend on a discount. If it will take more than 10 minutes and I have pressing productive things to do – pay the extra money. (Productive time can include being present to a loved one, playing a favorite game, or taking a needed nap.)
  4. Double the amount of time I expect that claiming the discount will take. It usually does. Is it worth it? What else might I do with this time?
  5. Be respectful and kind, but firm with the sales people I encounter when trying to claim my discount. They are usually just trying to make a living. Contact the Better Business Bureau or Snopes, however, if you suspect it might be a scam.
  6. If catching a good deal is your idea of fun and you have the time to fritter, enjoy the challenge.
  7. Ignore all cruise offers

For more ideas read 12 Sneaky Ways Online Retailers Get You to Spend More and Joshua Becker’s How Refund Policies Encourage Spending (and Reduce Returning).

What criteria do you use for deciding when saving money is more important than time and vice versa. Please comment.

Days 365+128 Heidi's stuffBefore you think I’ve gone over to the dark side and given up Living Lightly by acquiring 11 new items and letting go of none, I must again clarify. Our daughter will soon move back from Kenya to the USA – not to our home but certainly closer than Africa. She has a fellowship in Boston for a year but is not sure where she will go after that. She asked to store some of her stuff until her plans are clearer. So…I’m breaking one of my rules about not storing adult children’s stuff, lest I enable a son or daughter to avoid making those hard decisions about letting go of their own collection of stuff.

Conveniently for her, the family had just gathered for a family reunion near Erie, PA, so Heidi brought 2 large suitcases for transfer back to our house. She then repacked one of the suitcases into 9 colorful blue plastic bags and one satchel.

This brings up the ongoing question of how much should parents allow their homes to be free storage units for their adult children? Here’s my thinking:

  1. General rule of thumb: Once a child has moved out and has their own place, the parent announces a time that said child can transfer all their clothes, sports equipment, school memorabilia, etc. to their own place. It will probably force them to prune their own stuff. Anything left is fair game for the parent to dispose of as they please.
  2. Exceptions: If the child temporarily lives far away (like a gap year or volunteer work in a foreign country) parents may store stuff until they have a permanent place. If a child has a very tiny apartment, parents again may temporarily offer storage space. The challenge is to define “temporary.”
  3. Tough Love Approach: If the parent doesn’t have the heart to implement #1 or has downsized to not need as much space, then a solution is to just move to a smaller home. Announce that all offspring’s belongings will be left on the porch for 1 week. It’s nice to leave a forwarding address for visiting, but not for storage.

But, what about people who still live in your home but are “clutter-bugs” – at least by your definition? I have ideas on this too which can be summed up as “Deal with your own clutter first. They may be inspired to follow.” If not, there are some strategies to encourage other family members to follow your lead but I’ll leave that for a future post.

The Other Side
The other side of parents acting as storage units for their adult kids, is sometimes it works the other way around. Parents sometimes hang on to stuff in the hope of handing it down to their offspring. Think baby clothes for a hoped for grandchild, heirloom dishes or furniture for when they have a place of their own. Consider this – Memo to parents: Your adult kids don’t want your stuff – and take pause. Enjoy!

What’s your experience and tips for dealing with other people’s stuff or stuff you want to hand down?

UPDATE: In fairness to our daughter, I misunderstood and thought we were to store the items in the photo indefinitely. I later learned that actually our house was just a temporary 6 week layover. We stuffed our car and took all the bags and suitcases in the photo plus 1 bike and numerous mementos she had stored with us to her new place in Boston. I stand corrected.

Before you canonize me as St. Minimalista for bringing only 3 new items into our home and getting rid of 71, I must clarify that 56 of the outgoing items were pens and pencils and 13 more were duplicates or older socks. Here’s how it broke down:

Days 365+127 misc

click to enlarge

    THE MAIN EVENT:

  • 1 new pair of shoes in; 1 deteriorating pair out
  • 1 new watering can in; 1 broken one out.
  • 1 new digital scale in; 1 decades old, hard to read one out.

MISCELLANEOUS STUFF:

  • 1 stuffed animal – out. Although stuffed animals can hold memories, we have several and this frog carried no special attachment.
  • 4 barbecue utensils – out. Since our grill is worn out and headed for metal recycling heaven, we have no need of these utensils.
  • 4 pairs of socks – out. These were left over from my “Silly Socks” blog post in which I bought 12 pairs of socks because 10 pairs came in one package. When combined with my current socks and after turning the worst ones into rags, I still had 4 usable pairs more than I needed.
  • 4 hangers – out. As my wardrobe dwindles I don’t need as many hangers.

    All the pencils

    All the pencils

PENS & PENCILS
Since I was on a miscellaneous spree, I decided to prune all the pens and pencils in the house just for curiosity and fun. (You may also call me St. Weird or Compulsiva if you like.) I gathered up all the pens and pencils in the house except for the ones on my husband’s desk. This was not to be an exercise in marital disharmony which would invalidate my claim to sainthood.
Altogether I had:

All the pens

All the pens

80 pencils: Since pencils are hard to break, I only threw away 8 short ones. Gave away 23.
67 pens: Pens go bad. I threw away 22 that no longer worked. Gave away 3.

This leaves me with:
49 pencils
42 pens

pencils/pens to give away

pencils/pens to give away

This probably sounds like way more than any well stocked home needs but we often have folks over for meetings which involves people writing on handouts, plus 2 home offices, plus we are old fashioned enough to still have 5 landline phones and it’s handy to have several writing implements at each phone.

LESSONS LEARNED:

  1. The one in – one out philosophy is good but it’s possible to play games with even a good strategy.
  2. When some items grow old and deteriorate, they may not be worth giving away. It can be insulting to give threadbare socks or raggedy shoes even to Goodwill. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.
  3. Numbers don’t necessarily tell the whole story.
  4. It’s OK to sometimes indulge one’s silly side just for the fun of being a pencil pusher.

Days 365+126 windows in garage croppedWe live in an old house. We love it but part of being old means that the window were not energy efficient. We had storm windows but they were a pain to put in and out each year. We finally made the commitment to replace all of the 100+ year old windows. It took awhile and was a big investment but we’re glad we did it.

Of course we then had 19 windows, storm windows, and screens to dispose of. After checking around we found an organization ReUse Centers that takes material headed for the dumpster and re-uses them to help others build homes who might not otherwise be able to afford it. The ReUse Center partners with Reset Ministries  to train individuals in repairs and by providing them with guided work experience.Days 365+126 windows storm

What has this taught me?

  1. Respect for skilled labor – It takes a lot of knowledge and skill to do quality workmanship in home repair.
  2. Patience – Most home repair takes longer than originally planned.
  3. Sometimes you have to spend in order to save – Although it cost a lot of money which we will probably not totally recoup in our lifetime, it does save energy and lowers our heating bills.
  4. Days 365+126 windows into ReUse truckThere’s a lot of good people around trying to help people get a leg up. Every city may not have a handy ReUse Center, but just the fact that a few years ago somebody saw the need to keep building supplies out of landfills, matched it with providing used but serviceable materials to builders plus a training program for the unemployed or underemployed means that people are looking for worthy things to do. Perhaps you are already involved in such an entrepreneurial project. Perhaps you’re a person who has the skill and time to start one. Everybody can do something – even if it’s just to identify a need and urge someone else to meet it.

I’m a little late with my bi-weekly blog but it’s planting season and the weather won’t wait.

Days 365+125 sewing machine croppedRecently a friend returned a sewing machine I had lent her about 20 years ago. This is nice but I gave the old one away because I needed a machine that could do a zigzag stitch for knits. The returned machine still works well so I did my own version of Craig’s list and put out an email to friends who might want a machine but didn’t need it to do fancy stuff. Success! A friend knew a friend who teaches women how to do quilts. An extra machine would be handy. Isn’t it nice when the informal economy works. People having stuff know people who need stuff.  Freecycle is a more organized version of this but personally knowing someone is nice. Of course this means one has to be rubbing shoulders with folks that have needs. How do you come into contact with folks who may need things you have?

A variation on this theme is my experience with household repair tools. As a Christmas gift to Jim, I had agreed to organize his tools. It took some time but fed into my love of organizing. Of course the natural result is that I found a number of duplicates and even triplicates. Even after allowing for a few extras in case of breakage, losing a tool, or lending some out, we still had the following to give away.Days 365+124 tools

  • 1 electric drill with bits
  • 4 pliers
  • 1 wrench
  • 4 screw drivers

Since the drill was substantive I did the email to friends and nobody bit, BUT they did have advice. Why not give the tools to Habitat for Humanity’s ReStores  which are nonprofit home improvement stores and donation centers that sell new and gently used furniture, appliances, home accessories, and building materials to the public at a fraction of the retail price. Most medium sized cities have one.

Again, a win/win/win situation. I clear out extra stuff, someone gets a needed tool, and I feel good. What are some good places you’ve found to take household goods you no longer need?

Before

Before

OK, technically, I did finish cleaning my desk up by Easter, BUT I conveniently omitted the fact that the file cabinet next to my desk had a lot of paper clutter and odds and ends on top of it too. I had intended that to be part of my Lenten clean up but just didn’t get around to it. Now I finally had some open time so I tackled it.

I found:
*cell phones & equipment (batteries, instructions, cords for old phones)
*old but usable greeting cards
*miscellaneous files (including background on a homeless couple who stayed with us 6 years ago)

After

After

*a lot of dust

It took me about 3 hours to sort through the papers but I think the research I did about what to do with unused cell phones will be more useful to you.

4 Things To Do With Old Cell Phones:
1. Re-purpose it.
Ting  offers some creative uses.
2. Give it to Charity.
Treehugger  lists a number of charities that can use cell phones.
3. Recycle it.
Best Buy was the easiest place for me. (They also take old plastic cards like credit cards.) Click here  for other possibilities.
4. Sell it. Days 365+123 Lent lingers cell phones
Unfortunately, with the rapid enhancements in cell phones, my older phones weren’t good enough for Gazelle . CNET  gives additional ideas for getting cash for your phone. For a video about how this works, click here  (The families featured in the video haven’t caught the “Living Lightly” bug yet, but at least they’re not throwing their old phones in the garbage. BUT, don’t be too quick to sell. Read these cautions about giving away important private info to buyers

1 Thing NOT To Do With Old Cell Phones
Throw them in the garbage. See Why.l

I still have piles of paper on our ping-pong table, aka expanded desk space, but that’ll have to wait for another weekend…or another Lent.

Days 365+120 Lent medical filesMy Lent 2016 resolve was twofold:

  • Paper Reduction. Starting with my desk and including my “desk extensions” (3 file cabinets and the Ping Pong table), my goal was to reduce the paper. The connection to my spiritual life was that I figured clearing the extraneous paper that crowded my life would make me more productive and help me focus on what was really important.
  • Listening Better, i.e Speech Reduction. Since paper reduction didn’t seem quite spiritual enough, I added a resolve to focus on being more mindful of the sacredness of people I interact with each day. This meant listening to others more closely rather than what I had to say. Spiritually, I continue to struggle with pride and self-importance. I figured that focusing on the other would move me toward humility.

How did I do? Although I made some progress, it was not nearly what I had planned – unless you consider not meeting my goals a movement toward humility. 😕 As with any conscious effort to grow, however, I did learn some things.

6 INSIGHTS ABOUT PAPER REDUCTION & LISTENING:
1.  To avoid endless procrastination, choose a:

  • Doable task – Breaking a goal into small steps is better than aiming to eliminate world hunger. Make it something you can measure and succeed at. Reducing ALL my extraneous papers including my file cabinets was too big to do in six weeks. Even limiting it to my desk was ambitious, but doable.
  • Date to start – Pick a time that you have a reasonable chance of being able to start. Sure, life might interfere with an unexpected crisis that changes your schedule, but choose a date that has a good chance of being available – as we say in Kentucky, “God willin’ and the crick don’t rise.” Ash Wednesday made sense to start a Lenten project; but it was undoable since I was out of town.
  • Length of time – If you know you only want to spend 30 minutes, 1 hour, or half a day doing a project pick something that can reasonably be done within that time. Of course you can always extend the time if you’re on a roll and don’t have another commitment looming, but making the task too open-ended can keep you from starting. On days I only had an hour, I picked small “mini drawers” to review. I saved the monster file drawer for an open Saturday.
  • Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Yes, it would be best to pick a doable task, a start date, and an acceptable length of time, but sometimes life isn’t that neat. Eventually, I decided to just start because if I waited for the perfect time and task, I would lose another week. I decided on one small drawer and 15 minutes. It motivated me to go on – later.

2. Start With Empty. Although it can be daunting, it ended up being more efficient to empty a whole drawer or closet and put back only those things I wanted to keep. Not only did it give me the opportunity to clean the space, but I found hidden items tucked away in corners. Most important, I had to make a conscious decision about each thing I decided to return to the space.

3. Sorting Paper Can Be a Spiritual Experience. Going through my old papers became an exercise in deciding what was trivial and passing from what was important and enduring. It was like a mini life review. I noticed people on my Rolodex who had died, businesses that had closed, people who had moved. I noticed that somethings I once thought were important to save were now obsolete or I could get the information online – like old computer manuals and directories. I wonder what things I think are very important to do today, may change as my life circumstances change. See Cleaning My Desk 1  and Dancing & Desk Cleaning 3.  Other papers were sentimental but there was not a need to keep them. I just needed time to be emotionally ready to let them go.

4. Let Go of Guilt. Guilt can be motivating, but often it just blocks energy needed to act. Rather than wallow in guilt about not being able to start on Ash Wednesday, I started a week late. Rather than beat myself up for not doing this summary on Easter, I’m two weeks late. Rather than give up, I’m still blogging. It’s OK. I’m learning to prioritize the important tasks from the less important ones. It also may be a sign that not only is it necessary to let go of guilt but also to let go of some things on my “To Do” list. Sorting the less important from the essential is a life skill that goes beyond paper reduction.

Days 365+117 ear5. Listening Takes Repetition. I like to think of myself as a good listener. After all I’m a trained counselor. Still, it’s hard to put aside my own agenda and really be present to another human. But, I had a plan. Each morning I would review the people I would likely see that day. Since our kids are sprung and I work at home, this was a small number. Some days I don’t even need to go out of the house so I included phone calls. I also included clerks at stores or a restaurant I might be at. I intended to look at each person mindfully and listen fully to what they said, even if it was just, “Have a good day.” Time after time, I would leave a store or a meeting and realize I had forgotten. Unfortunately I received a physical prompt when I got “airplane ear” after a trip (see Listen Up) Perhaps my difficulty hearing people could be a reminder to listen more closely. It helped but changing a habit takes a lot of repetition. With each day’s renewed resolve fewer opportunities slipped by, but it’s a slow learning curve.

6. Always Have Something To Do While on Hold. I am often on the phone with service personnel trying to figure out bills, internet glitches, etc. I’m also aware that as helpful as the internet can be to modern life, things like social media and promotional emails can be time hogs. No matter how lovely the music, rather than listening to it while I’m waiting for the support person to get back to me, I’ve found it more useful to spend that time checking websites that I don’t normally take the time to read.

Another weekend, another excuse. This past weekend out of town travel kept me from continuing to clean out my desk. After returning home and doing the obligatory catch up from the meeting and addressing the coming week’s priorities, I decided to attack the low hanging fruit – stuff on top of my roll-top desk. This included:Days 365+120 Lent medical files

  • Books: I decided that only reference books deserved to be within arm’s reach. Therefore, my “read sometime” books got demoted to other book shelves. This means they may never get read but at least they aren’t taking up valuable real estate on my desk.
  • Medical Reports: We changed from Humana Medicare to Aetna Medicare on January 1. I had always been annoyed by the unnecessary paper that Humana mailed to me each month but didn’t want to take the time to prune through it or call and complain. This made it easy, just pitch 4 inches of paper reports. So far Aetna has not been inundating me with superfluous paper.
  • Days 365+120 Lent Notes to self cropped107 Miscellaneous notes to self: I have a small tin that I’ve been keeping important and/or interesting scraps of paper in for the past 5 years. They were neat, but 107 are too many to sort through even if I could remember what I wrote. I discarded 72. Of the remaining ones, I grouped 17 into Marriage, Parenting, or Meeting ideas. I saved the essence of some of the discarded ones to computer files. Ah, this feels more manageable.
  • Days 365+120 Lent Misc croppedBox, Book End, and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TMC): I’m moving the box and book end to other parts of the house. I pitched the little TMC acupuncture “thingies.” They were 10 years old and for back pain. I’ve been pain free for awhile.

3 LESSONS LEARNED:

  1. Know thyself. Admit that I’m more of an article reader than a book reader and pass the books on.
  2. Let go of unrealistic expectations. Although, I had hoped to not only clean out my desk this Lent but also go through my file cabinets. I’ve barely finished my desk and there are just 3 days to go. It’s OK. Although moving can force pruning, for those of us who have lived in one place for a long time, getting rid of the accumulation can also take a long time.
  3. Getting rid of stuff takes time but the process can be sweet. It took me about an hour to go through the 107 notes. Lest you think this was time wasted, I am pleased to report that most of the time was spent on hold with several medical providers who were trying to help me resolve an overcharge on a bill. Bottom line: Always have something to do while on hold. Checking Facebook is another use for “hold” time. On the other hand, spending some time with old inspirational notes was, well, inspirational.

Days 365+119 Lent contra dance swapI’ve been saving pruning my desk files for a weekend – when I have more time. Unfortunately/Fortunately this past weekend was Pig Town Fling – an annual weekend contradance which “required” my full presence and hosting 5 people. My nod to giving stuff away took the form of donating 2 contra dresses to the dress swap and restraining myself from taking 2 dresses in exchange.

Today I tackled the job I’ve been avoiding – going through my work files which are in neat but stuffed hanging folders in my final desk drawer. It was prompted by a meeting with our accountant to prepare our taxes. This meant I had to go through my 2015 tax records. It’s done but I learned a few things about taxes and old files.

  1. Days 365+119 Lent tax forms & tapesTax receipts: I don’t need tax receipts from 2004. In fact, the IRS says I really only need the last 3 years of receipts. I decided to keep the last 4 years, just to be safe. That cleared a lot of space.
  2. When it’s old but you’re not ready: I found outlines from talks I gave over 10 years ago – all neatly ordered by date of course. I should throw everything out that’s over 5 years since most of it is on my computer anyway, but I’m a wimp and keep thinking I might want to refer to them. Solution – at least move them to the back of the drawer and label anything over 2 years “Archives.” When I’m braver, I’ll toss them.
  3. Decide when to be strong and let go: I don’t need “To Do” lists that are 2 – 20 years old? To be fair, these weren’t active “To Do” lists but often contained notes, old rosters, and other miscellaneous gems. I toughed it out and tossed them.
  4. Some decisions are easy: Miscellaneous conference programs from organizations that I am not currently involved with are not necessary to keep. Who would have thought?
  5. Let go of the pride that makes me think others want my old stuff. Tapes (I mean actual cassette tapes) of talks I gave back when cassette tapes were modern technology, could be discarded guilt free. But wait! What if I become famous and my grandchildren want to hear my actual voice after I die? Be strong, Susan, let it go. They won’t have cassette players around to play them on anyway.

This continues to be an experience of noticing that many things that seemed important to save in one decade, lose significance over time. The art is to notice what has lasting value and what does not. People are important, not the symbols of one’s accomplishments (or mistakes). In time my loved ones and I myself will pass away. The important thing is how I spend my time and relate to people now.

Days 365+117 earThis past week I was away at a meeting so I didn’t have time to go through my remaining desk drawers. I figured I’d focus on my companion Lenten resolution – to listen more mindfully.

On the last leg of my flight to Louisiana my ears popped. You know, that uncomfortable feeling that you sometimes get when a plane is landing and your ears don’t quite adjust to the changing pressure. No big deal, I figured I’d get my normal hearing back soon, certainly within a day. I was wrong. Although I could hear, it always felt like one of my ears was hearing through a fog. This was annoying but not a deal breaker. I kept waiting for the fog to lift and occasionally it would, but then it would come back.

Now, 1 week and doctor visit later, I still have my plugged ear. The doctor called it a sinus infection and ordered some medication. Nothing has changed yet – EXCEPT my attitude. For awhile I would whine to myself wondering when my hearing would get back to normal – certainly any day now. In the meantime I gave myself permission to rest and delay work projects. Then I realized that:

  1. I was lucky to still be able to hear. Some people are deaf.
  2. Even though I still have a cough, I don’t feel miserable.
  3. Eventually my ear will clear up. Stop complaining that it’s not on my time schedule. I don’t have anything crucial scheduled for another week.
  4. Oh yes, and about that listening thing – maybe I can turn this hearing loss to my advantage. I can consider it a physical prompt for me to listen more closely to others. Probably it’s just coincidental that it is happening at the same time I’m trying to make a conscious effort to listen better, but sometimes grace is in the mind of the beholder. The insight to look upon this annoyance as a temporary (I presume) gift can be work of the Spirit. I don’t think God wants us humans to suffer, but since some suffering in life is inevitable, reflecting on the meaning of it has helped me to let go of fretting about my hearing and to use it in a positive way.
Days 365+119 Lent old computer stuff

mostly paper to recycle

So, one week later, I’m home and looking at my lower left desk cabinet. It’s not too stuffed. Surely I can at least tackle that. I did – and found:

  • 2 more obsolete directories
  • 2 files of computer and internet directions from about 2005
  • Several more instruction manuals to computers and other electronic devices I no longer own
  • A Netgear wireless adapter. I’m not sure what it does but my son tells me I don’t need it.

Lessons learned:
1. Listen up
2. The computer industry seems determined to aid my decluttering by making most things obsolete by the time I find where I stored them.

Before

Before

I finally made the time to work on my Lenten commitment to clean out the paper clutter in my life, especially around my desk. It took me 2 ½ weeks to start because I knew cleaning off my desk would be a big project and I had other priorities. This weekend, however, provided some free time. For perspective, the first picture at right is the before photo of my desk.

First, I took everything off the desk. This is what scared me because I knew those files and stacks and scraps of paper had information that needed organizing not just a sweep into the paper recycling bin. This would take time. In fact it took about 2 hours to take everything off the desk (Disclaimer, I didn’t tackle the bottom drawers yet.) and about 4 hours to go through the remaining stuff on the surface and 9 mini drawers.

Emptied

Emptied

This turned out to be an exercise in sorting trivia from what’s important. I suppose that’s similar to life in general. My findings and prunings may seem inconsequential at first glance but upon reflection I’m struck by how many things seemed important to store and keep when I got this desk about 10 years ago and now are useless. For example, I found and discarded:

  • Directories from past jobs, some over 20 years old
  • 2 ink cartridges from a printer that I haven’t had for 10 years.
  • Computer camera that I replaced several years ago
  • The “New User Edition” for Quicken 2003.
  • Paper manuals for Windows XP and Windows 98 SE
  • Paper instructions for installing drivers/utilities/operating instructions for a Dell computer that I no longer own.
  • 14 discs for obsolete computers or programs. (I discarded these after consulting my son and some other young adults who confirmed that I’d never need them. It’s all online now.)
  • 64 business cards for people I can’t remember. (This was about half my cards)

What took a little longer was dealing with 9 scraps of paper that looked like they were cluttering my desk. Actually, I had very intentionally left these in the middle of my work space because each one required some attention. Now I was forced to do something with them, like:

  • I typed some of the information into related computer files
  • One was a reminder to make an eye appointment, so I stopped procrastinating and just did it.
  • File the Christmas gift warranty in our warranty file.
  • Put several items on my master “To Do” list.
 After

After

The 9 mini drawers were relative easy because they were, well, “mini.” Mostly I reorganized them a little and updated their labels.

Then I hunkered down for the big job – those folders. This took the most time but I disciplined myself to only keep the folders I actively use on my desk. The rest can go into file cabinets – once I get to pruning them out, but that’s for another weekend, maybe another Lent. We’ll see.

8 Things I learned through this process:

  1. I was right. It did take a long time. It’s good I waited till I had a hunk of time. It would have been hard to continue my work with files in disarray.
  2. I cut myself a break. I quickly saw that if I wanted to deal with the paper on top of my desk, in the bottom drawers, on the Ping-Pong table, on top of the file cabinets etc. it would keep me from starting. I decided that the stack of monthly medical reports and other misc. paper would just have to wait – another example of the perfect being the enemy of the good.
  3. It feels satisfying to have my main work space orderly. It’s a good feeling; sort of like the feeling after going to confession. I often resist doing it, but when it’s over, I feel like a fresh human being.
  4. Most paper over 10 years old can be tossed. (exceptions: documents and stuff that I will use again, although most of this is probably on my computer now.)
  5. Computer related stuff (manuals, paraphernalia, etc.) have an even shorter life span.
  6. Only by emptying everything out would I have found some of the obsolete items tucked away in corners.
  7. Perspective. Although it took time to go through old business cards, directories, and files, it was an exercise in reviewing my life. I thought about the people I once worked with and the projects that seemed so important at the time. I found myself pondering whether what I’m working on now is worthy of my time? What is necessary but will fade in importance over time?
  8. I will never be 100% done. New papers will spontaneously generate to take the place of my bare center desk surface. But that’s OK. I have a bit better system to deal with it now. I still have those other papers (outside of the photo range) to challenge me during the rest of Lent.

So is this a worthy Lenten effort. I think so. I’m reminding myself to notice what’s trivial and what’s of lasting importance. I’m continuing to focus on being fully present to people who cross my path each day and to listen closely to them. Some times it’s working.