Counting Costs

Comic-about-money

Me, except instead of packets of sugar and ketchup I have a free banana from my staff meeting today and twenty tomatoes from last summer in my freezer

After my last post on the Benedict Option, which netted me a few new followers (hurrah! And if you’re reading this, welcome!), I felt as though I needed to live up to my status as a thought-provoking writer, and write a thought-provoking post.

This post is not that.

One goal of this blog is to engage with larger, thoughtful conversations, like that surrounding the Benedict Option. Another goal is simply to chew through the daily experience of living, and this post falls into that category.

I’ve been working through my budget lately.

A few years ago, I caught myself running short on food money every month, so I limited myself to a certain amount per week: between $40 and $50, for just me. (This sounds high, but when I compare it to USDA stats, I realize it’s about average.) Using a set amount of cash to pay for food-related expenses has stabilized my food spending.

But I’ve also been burning through $200 on “miscellaneous”, which I find difficult to track and keep in check. Curious where the money all went, I tracked my food expenses in April and my miscellaneous expenses in May. The results were illuminating, and embarrassing

Some miscellaneous funds go in big chunks. In May, for my birthday I received an excellent coupon for Mary Kay products, and so I spent nearly $50 on makeup, all at once. More concerning are the little expenses, which add up slowly:

  • Gum: $16.00
  • Nuts: $16.00
  • Yogurt-covered pretzels: $5.00
  • Library fines: $9.00
  • Plants: $20.00
  • Random fun stuff (a pretty teacup here, a few books there, some chocolates): $25.00

For several years now I’ve been increasingly aware of the consumerist society we live in, and upset by its dominance over our lives; through reading Wendell Berry and others, I’ve noticed how shopping helps not only fill up our free hours by also defines who we are. (We’re the kind of person who shops at the farmers’ market or only buys free trade, we go church shopping and career shopping, and we devote hours to websites such as Pinterest which are essentially geared to get us to buy stuff.)

And I’ve liked to think that I’m above the consumerist society. After all, I haven’t had a new pair of jeans in three or four years, and I almost never go out to eat.

But looking at my spending makes me wonder if that’s true. After all, why else would I spent half a week’s food budget on teacups and chocolate if I didn’t feel that having stuff made my life better? And there are weeks when I catch myself stopping at every shop, looking around for good things.

Look at the plants expense in particular. I like to be surrounded by beautiful things; I get one petunia, and immediately I want three more petunias. Right now I’m growing one pot of basil and wondering whether I should purchase a second pot in case something happens to the first. There’s always the desire to have more. 

And so it’s my goal to make do with less, to remember that having a satisfying life has nothing to do with how much stuff I have. This is easy to say, easy to pay lip service to, but surprisingly difficult to do.

I’m not entirely sure how this will work, though I have a few ideas. Maybe instead of daytripping to a city I’ll take my journal and a book to a local park. Maybe instead of shopping around in secondhand stores, I’ll organize my yarn collection. I’ll be more home, I’ll go on more walks, I’ll find the beauty in the everyday and not always be looking for something new.

I read a book recently, Acedia & Its Discontents, and it argued that when we’re bored, when we’re weary of our work, the cure is not to throw off the work and go do something exciting; we must, like the ancient monks, keep at the tasks we are set. This is my hope: that rather than seeking out excitement in the city, I keep at my task here, and find joy in my home, quiet though it is with just me.

I may also cut back on certain forms of media consumption. Useful as websites like Pinterest are, the fact remains that all those pretty pictures make me want to buy more stuff.

The other thing I’m interested by is my food cost. Some trends there:

  • About 10% of my food budget every month, $20 out of $200 and change, goes to yogurt, usually really good brands bought on sale.
  • Nearly 25% of my food budget goes to produce: apples, bananas, berries, onions and bell peppers, and chickpeas.
  • I spent $70 on snack items, including the gum and yogurt-covered pretzels.
  • I spent $10 on wine & alcohol, which was more than I thought but much less than it could have been.

My main goal with the food is to cut back on items which deliver little or no nutritional value: the snack items; and to spend the money on better food, like a meal out with friends or even takeaway from Panera. I also want to watch how much I’m spending on yogurt and produce. Since I’m not about to stop buying yogurt and fruits and veggies, I want to make sure I’m spending money in the right areas.

I’m planning on tracking my miscellaneous and food expenses both through the month of June. Tracking food will be particularly interesting, since farmers’ markets are alluring to me. (My freezer has far too many tomatoes in it.)

BooksSpending

Me again, only at the library booksale. 

So here we are, at the start of a new month. I have money set aside for food, for travel, for some new yarn I had ordered and for clothing, and a little miscellaneous for purchasing ingredients for desserts I make for book club, or gifts for friends, or postage for letters.

The goal is to buy, and be thankful, for what I need.

And apparently, to break my gum addiction.

 

 

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4 thoughts on “Counting Costs

  1. I love the style of your opening, and great post. In 2011 and 2012, I challenged myself not to buy any new books and to only read books at the library. I quickly burned through things I had planned to read and instead read a lot of stuff I never would have picked up. It was a lot of fun. I also made myself donate all the novels I had read so that someone else could read them because I recognized I was hoarding books, which was a really material and kind of egotistical habit. I still feel some regret over the relinquishing of about 4 bookshelves worth of books, but you’re reminding me that it was a good thing. Thanks!

    • I’ve been using the library lots more myself. Thankfully, my library will buy just about anything for me: including Acedia & Its Discontents. I read it, then return it to the library, and some other lucky person gets to benefit. Win all around.

  2. I make a list before going shopping, and stick to it (strictly). This helps me avoid picking up something random that looks good, or looks like a good deal. If it wasn’t on my list I probably didn’t need it.

    Yogurt is a key part of an Indian meal, give it a try if you have an Indian store nearby. It is slightly sour .. with a pinch of salt and some nuts it makes a healthy filling snack. Buying a tub of it and packing it in small containers can make it very inexpensive.

  3. Tracking money is enlightening isn’t it? You might consider making your own yogurt. It is a huge money saver if you consume a lot of plain yogurt, particularly if you like the good stuff. It’s a very simple habit to form and can easily be done with things you already own (though if you find you like making your own, a $20 yogurt maker is an excellent investment).

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