Instead of Professional Development

I have a birthday in less than a month, and I haven’t accomplished as much as I once thought I would by this age.

When I was in grad school, I went out on a couple dates with a nice guy from church. I enjoyed his company, but I told him it wouldn’t work because he was looking for someone to settle down, and I wasn’t ready for that. I wanted to go get my PhD.

That, obviously, hasn’t happened.

There are reasons I didn’t get my PhD, of course. Mainly, within a month or two of my starting to studying for a subject test GRE I was knocked off my feet by a minor financial emergency that consumed fully four months of my attention and hundreds of dollars. By the time I picked myself up, I’d veered away from my intended life track.

On the one hand, thinking about where I am now, I do regret not doing more professionally.

But last night I was talking with a family member in a similar situation, and they pointed out that there’s always a trade-off. A lack of professional progress may mean progress made in other areas.

Here’s what I’ve done instead of, or alongside, professional development:

  • Started running. I run 30-40 miles/week now (depending on the season) and consider myself a runner.
  • Started yoga, just this year.
  • Learned about podcasts and started listening. I’ve even gotten to guest on a couple, including this one here!
  • Learned to make granola. Even my mom likes it (and it has lots of nuts in it!)
  • Learned to bake bread.
  • Learned to knit. I don’t do this as frequently as I’d like to (it’s kind of expensive) but I enjoy being able to make things.
  • Visited family & friends in Georgia and South Carolina, visited friends in Texas (multiple times!) and family in Missouri and Kansas, visited friends in Colorado.
  • Visited Seattle for a conference.
  • Climbed Mt Yale and Mt. Sherman and Handies Peak. Visited Four Corners.

have made some professional progress: I’ve gone to a few conferences, started teaching online, made progress towards a certificate for online education, and completely revamped the writing curriculum where I work (with positive results).

So life hasn’t been all bad. I’ve been blessed in many ways.

I don’t know what the future holds for me, but I do want to be grateful for the things I’ve had.

To Do: 2017

Here are my goals for 2017:

Personal: 

  • Learn to make at least three new cocktails. I know three, currently: the gin & tonic, a bittersweet grapefruit greyhound, and a hot toddy. All of these are yummy, but I’d like to expand my boundaries. Anybody want to come over for drinks?
  • This feeds into my second goal: I want to have more dinner parties. On the one hand, I love making food for people. On the other, I’m highly introverted and reluctant to invite people over. I want to push myself and host a few genuine dinner parties this year. Let’s set the goal at three.
  • I want to take care of my health. Specifically, I want to start flossing regularly and cut my addiction to Brach’s mints. I’ve had trouble with my teeth lately, and I think this will help.
  • I want to start selling, or giving away, some of my handiwork. Over the past few years I’ve gotten into handcrafts: knitting, bread baking, making granola; my hope is to find a way to sell these, or a way to give them away more frequently. I’ve already given away some knitting, including a blanket to Project Linus, but I’d like to formalize this a bit more. And of course, if the opportunity presents itself, I’d like to make money on my hobbies! We’ll see how this goes.
  • And I want to learn to pick up dropped stitches. 

Two less quantifiable goals:

One, I want to improve my bread-making skills. At this point, I’ve learned the basics. Now, I want to try some new and more adventurous things: a sourdough starter, rye flour or wheat flour, bagels or English muffins, homemade pizza. And of course, I want to gain confidence in general; I want to make fewer panicky posts on my Bread Baking group!

Two, I want to do more re-reading. Over the past few years, I’ve really gotten into the Goodreads challenge, amping up the number of books I read in any given year (from 25 to 30, to 45 this past year). Trying to make my reading goal has caused me to re-read very few books, and so I want to return to some of the most formative books in my life: the Lord of the Rings particularly, but also perhaps Laurus, the Divine Comedy; or even just really good books like A Fire Upon the Deep.

A few other wishes in this category: I’d like to travel somewhere new, I’d like to hike another mountain (My aunt & uncle & I picked out Uncompaghre), I’d like to go solo camping.

Professional: 

In this category there are three books I want to read:

  • A Well Trained Mind, by Susan Wise Bauer. This one comes recommended to me by my mother. (She has good taste.) This one is a cornerstone of the classical school movement, and despite a few niggling annoyances I find in the movement, it’s largely solid. I’m interested to see what the book has to say about education.
  • The Marketplace of Ideasby Louis Menand. I can’t recall where I encountered this book, but as universities are going through a fairly massive shift in terms of the service they provide and who they provide it to, this book (I am hoping) will help me understand the context in which I work.
  • Along the same lines, I want to read Education is Not an AppNot only do I teach online, I teach, using technology, to students who are immersed in technology every day. This book promises to analyze and evaluate the progress of education in an increasingly technological world. I hope it will be illuminating.

I want to teach a film in Introduction to Literature. Technically, this has been a goal of mine for the previous three years, but I’ve never made it happen. This year, I think it will; I think I’ll be able to teach Arrival. But if that doesn’t work, I’d really like to teach another film. Film is the primary medium in which my students encounter Story, and so I think it’s important that they be able to interpret it.

I found taking online courses valuable for my professional development, so I would like to take at least one more online course this year.

Spiritual:

I want to memorize a book of the Bible, ideally 1 John. I found 1 John very encouraging and spiritually challenging last year; my hope is that in memorizing it, the words of Christ will abide more closely with me.

I also want to start following the church calendar. Reading Jamie Smith’s You Are What You Love articulated a lot of what I’ve been feeling about the importance of liturgies, of ritual and routine, in enriching life. I have friends on Facebook who follow the church calendar, observing not only Christmas but also Advent; not only Easter but also Lent. Such rituals seem to imbue the season with more beauty and meaning. My hope is that in following the church calendar, I will participate more wholly in the Christian story, and become more attuned to the presence of grace in my life.

My hope is to get following the church calendar underway by Lent, so I can participate in that, and then continue for the rest of the year. If I don’t manage to follow the full calendar, I at least want to establish some personal liturgies for my home, to enrich it spiritually.

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To Do 2016: What I Accomplished

Growing up, I laughed at the tradition of setting resolutions, but when I finished my master’s degree, and was left without the usual goals of Write good papers! and Graduate! I discovered that goals are really helpful in giving my life forward direction and structure. So now I too set New Years’ Resolutions!

Here’s what I’ve accomplished over the last year:

Professionally, I resolved to read up on teaching developmental courses, as well as read John Milton Gregory’s The Seven Laws of Teaching (recommended by my mom). I also made a tentative resolution to pursue the opportunity to teach online and to pursue further professional development for myself.

I’ve done really well in this area. Over the past year I’ve

  • Read Teaching Underprepared Students, by Kathleen Gilbert
  • Read Gregory’s Seven Laws of Teaching 
  • Taken a course in online assessment
  • And taught a course online! I’ve even designed new assignments for it!

I made progress on my personal goals too.

I wanted to get more comfortable baking yeast breads, since traditionally I make Christmas morning cinnamon rolls, and traditionally, I panic about making cinnamon rolls. Are they rising enough? Did I kill the yeast? Is this a warm enough spot for them?

But this spring, I joined a bread baking group on FB and started making my own bread. I regularly post panicky questions (most recently: What happens when you forget to add the oil ?) to the group, but the people there are kind about helping me through my problems, and I’m really starting to understand the process better. And the bread I’m making is delicious! It’s nothing spectacular, just white bread that never seems to rise as high as I want; but it sure is yummy!

Sadly, I didn’t get to make cinnamon rolls this year, as a helpful family member commandeered the process. So I treated my cousins to a chocolate babka instead!

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Babka, or as my cousin Dan calls it, “chocolate goodness”.

I also opened a retirement account and purchased a new car (a blue Toyota Corolla); the car purchase was especially wise since I put nearly two thousand miles on it driving about southwestern Colorado this summer, hiking a 14er with my aunt and uncle.

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Me, my aunt, and my uncle on Mt. Handies. 

But I missed a few things personally:

I never learned to pick up dropped stitches. Just a few days ago I dropped two or three stitches, and when I tried to pick them up, I dropped a few more stitches. So into town I went today, to get the yarn store ladies to pick up the stitch for me.

I never owned a pet. I tried, but it turns out I’m not rich enough for that yet. Back to the shelter my cat went.

I accomplished a few spiritual goals, too: I found a new church home, and I’ve gotten involved, reading Scripture during the morning service and participating in a Friday evening women’s event. I also kept Lent, with a fast from sweets, including Brach’s peppermint candies, to which I’m slightly addicted. Beyond giving me a break from my addiction, the Lenten fast was a good reminder of how much I depend on the Lord’s grace for spiritual life.

But there were spiritual goals I missed, too. I never read Dante again, nor did I finish George MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons. To be fair, I own the Unspoken Sermons on Kindle, and it’s a little daunting to read 19th century religious essays on a tiny iPhone screen!

It’s worth noting that I accomplished a few others goals in addition to the ones I formally set, too:

  • I got my first smartphone, an iPhone SE. I love it!
  • I took up yoga. I also really love yoga.
  • I baked Christmas cookies and delivered them to people in my church. This is a really good way to connect with people personally.
  • I visited Mesa Verde and Four Corners. I’ve wanted to visit Four Corners all my life – totally cheesy, yes, but I’ve always been fascinated with standing on the boundaries of things. Mesa Verde, incidentally, was super cool, much more so than I expected it to be.
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Me at Four Corners. I’m smiling, but it’s like 105 degrees here. 

Now it’s time to look forward to next year; look for a post in the next week or so laying out a few goals for 2017.

Till then, tell me: What did you accomplish this year?

 

Thanksgiving

2016 has been a hard year for me in several ways, personally and professionally.

But in spite of the difficulties I’ve faced, or perhaps because of them, I am acutely aware this week of some of the blessings in my life.

I record a few here, listed in no particular order, as a memorial.

My computer died recently (I spilled a cup of water on it.) Yet I am thankful I was able to get all the data stored off successfully. (I am especially grateful for the help of my colleague’s help with this!) I am also thankful that said computer works when it is plugged in, as this gives me a few months to save up for a new one.

I bought a car at the beginning of the year. It was a tremendously expensive purchase for me and made me nervous, but the car has chugged along unfailingly through the 15,000 plus miles I’ve put on it since late January. It even survived my first-ever car accident, a fender-bender in a hotel parking lot last February.

I recently had to give up the cat I’d adopted from the shelter, as she was facing some health difficulties I couldn’t deal with. Yet I’m thankful for the month I spent with her, especially for all those cold nights with her curled up against my back or legs as I slept.

My parents too recently lost their kittens, yet I’m thankful for the chance I had to play with them over the summer. Just because a blessing is short-lived is no reason to be ungrateful for it.

While finances are always tight, I’ve had money to cover all my expenses and even some professional development. I am grateful for this.

Over the summer I faced down a few monsters in my life, hang-ups that endangered my spiritual and physical well-being. I wrote about them here. Since then, by God’s grace I’ve seen a few victories, and I’ve seen the monsters retreat a little. I am thankful for this. I am also thankful for the passing of time, which which allows me to see with greater clarity how the monsters in my life are being defeated; this is not something I can easily see in the moment. Grace, as I noted then, is not something easily seen in the moment.

The election was emotionally trying for me, and I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m disappointed with the result. But I’m thankful that God is still sovereign, whoever is president in America. I’m also thankful that in the wake of the election, many people have made a conscious effort to be a little kinder, a little better at listening, a little more willing to speak up for the rights and well-being of others. If it takes the election of someone not known for his empathy to get us all to show more empathy to others, then I am grateful for that.

My life is not as exciting as I sometimes wish. But I’m thankful for some of the adventures I’ve had this year: outdoor art fairs, symphony concerts in the park with friends, and apple cider donuts.

Marilynne Robinson (I noted this in a recent post) observes that “we are contemptuous of transient well-being, as if there were any other kind.” And I feel as though this is sometimes true of us, or at least of me, that we feel as though we have to wait until things are perfect before we can be grateful for them.

She urges instead that we not “devalu[e] present experience because it may be overtaken by something worse.” After all, “Dante,” she notes, “had a place in hell for poeple who were grave when they might have rejoiced.”

And so I am determined, in this moment of thanksgiving, to rejoice. There is much to be grave about, true. But let us rejoice all the more over the flashes of light and goodness which eternally pervade the human experience.

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Counting Costs, Part 2

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“Wealth: All I Ask for Is a Chance To Prove Money Can’t Buy Happiness.” from Demotivators

If you’ve been reading my blog for a few months, you know that I work hard to keep track of expenses. This is even more important for me since I’ve opened an IRA (yeah adulting!) and would prefer to save money instead of spending $16/month on gum.

With a new school year only a few days away, I’ve taken the time to plan out some “food rules” to keep my spending on food & household items in check, and still keep my house stocked with healthy snacks and meal items. Specifically, I wanted to keep myself from spending money on stuff that had little or no nutrition, like gum, and I wanted to keep myself from visiting the grocery too frequently, since like most people I usually wind up buying more than I intend to. I also wanted to streamline the grocery and meal planning process, since I’ll be very busy this year, and much as I enjoy cooking, I don’t want to spend thirty or forty minutes in the kitchen.

A new school year always feels to me like a brand-new start, as much a new beginning as the actual new year and a second great opportunity for resolutions.

So here’s the plan. A few new habits I want to develop:

  • I’m going to try a weekly grocery shopping trip, where I pick up most (not all!) supplies for the upcoming week. I’m thinking about Friday night, which I estimate is the night that Aldi’s is least likely to be crowded.
  • I’m going to actually plan meals, instead of deciding on the spot what I’m hungry for and what I have the ingredients for. Because I try to use up food that’s in my house but also don’t really plan meals, I’ve eaten some weird meals and also some repetitive meals (lots and lots of lentils!)
  • I’m going to limit my consumption of sweet stuff to a couple times a week. This is out of concern for my budget’s waistline, not my own. A veggie & chocolate loving runner, I’ve earned the nickname “rabbit with a sweet tooth,” and it’s important to me that I don’t put too big a chunk of money towards chocolate every month.

To go along with the goal of regular grocery shopping, I’ve put some thought into what I buy where. I’ve avoided Aldi’s in the past because invariably, I show up at the register with blackberries and a jar of peanut butter, and wind up waiting behind someone who is doing the grocery shopping for ten people for the next month! But if I figure out when Aldi’s is quiet and buy more than two things there, I can start stocking up on other, cheaper things as well.

From Aldi’s I plan to buy baking goods, coffee, cereal, eating chocolate, cheese, some fruit & veg (berries especially), canned goods, and flavoured drinks. Wal-Mart is the cheapest place I’ve found for toiletries and paper products, though, and there are a few things that are actually best purchased from Hy-Vee: bananas and apples, bought one at a time instead of in the huge bags that Aldi’s sells; bulk grains and pulses like lentils, and milk and yogurt.

I also have a couple new rules about what I’m going to keep out of my kitchen, and what I want to keep in it instead.

On the way out are things I eat way too quickly when they’re in the house: gum, candy-coated pretzels, chocolate-covered nuts, and trail mix (especially the kind with chocolate!).

On the way in are things I eat and enjoy for snacks, but at a reasonable pace: banana chips, baby carrots, hummus, pretzels or chips, non-caf tea, and (maybe) salted cashews.

One final goal that I’m not going to be dogmatic about: I’ve experimented with making yeast bread in the past and gotten much better at it. Rather than purchasing bread, I’m going to try to get in a rhythm of making it regularly, perhaps every two weeks, and freezing what I’m not going to eat immediately. I love bread and I love making it, so I want this to work! But it also takes time to make, and I want to be realistic about my goals.

As for why I’m doing all this: I enjoy food, preparing it and eating it. But I’ve caught myself putting too much thought into my supper plans in the past, when I should be putting more thought into lesson plans or into my future plans. I’ve caught myself expecting every meal to be fabulous when sometimes it just needs to be fuel, healthy and delicious but not so fancy as to take away from other responsibilities.

I have a few personal and professional goals this year that I think will be better accomplished if I discipline myself to spend less money buying food and less time preparing it.

We’ll see how this goes. Good luck to me! 🙂

The Night Before College

Summer is coming to an end, and so last Sunday, I made the nine-hour drive from my parents’ home in Kansas to my home in eastern Iowa. As I drove back towards my college teaching job, I found myself remembering the night before I left for college as a freshmen, twelve years ago.

I didn’t sleep well. The college I chose to attend was half a country away from my parents’ home, out in one of the Southeast states. We drove for two and a half days to reach it. We crossed seven states. The entire journey was more than a thousand miles. And when I got there, I knew almost no one.

The night before we left, we packed everything we could into the car and set the rest by the door, so we’d be ready to go for the morning. We ate a good supper. And then, right before bed, I stood at my parents’ sliding glass door and looked out into the twilight, eastwards across the fields.

My cousin Rebecca, traveling with us as a company for my younger sister, came up and asked me how I was feeling, whether I was ready.

I don’t recall what I answered or even if I had a good answer. Still, I’ve been thinking about that night, and that question, recently, as we gear up for a new school year. This year, my cousin Hannah is starting college. She and her mom are staying with me tonight, then tomorrow they’re moving her into the dorms. Like me, she’s moving a long ways from family for college, and I imagine she’s as anxious and uncertain as I was.

Western culture lacks the coming of age ceremonies that, in older civilizations, marked the break between childhood and adulthood, but the night before college comes close. That night is literally the last spent as a child under your parents’ roof, the last before you move out, take up the responsibilities of adulthood, and seek to build your own life. 

The night before you move away to college is the night before, as the saying goes, the first day of the rest of your life.

No wonder we’re anxious!

So if you’re moving away to college, a few words of encouragement:

You are going to change. You will develop new interests and new skills. When I left for college, I had just started reading fantasy novels; now I’ve taught a course on science fiction. When I left for college, I considered myself uncraftsy, and now I knit and bake bread. I considered myself unfashionable, and I probably was, judging from my hairstyle in the old photographs! But (thanks to my sister’s good taste!) I wear cute clothing now.

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Me in college (I’m on the right.). See what I mean about unfashionable hairstyles?

You’re going to become a much more interesting person, with a much richer life.

You will also become a better person.

The night before I left for college, I was pretty unaware of some of my personal flaws. I discovered those flaws pretty quickly at college. I was intolerant of other people’s messes and judgmental. I was naive and antisocial, preferring to study for tests two weeks in advance than spend time with other people. Now, twelve years in the future, I’m aware of those flaws and working on correcting them.

You will discover your flaws at college, but through the guidance of your new friends and your professors, and your parents’ advice (even over the phone), you will overcome them.

You will have to overcome a lot of other challenges too.

During college, I coped with the stress of bad roommates. During graduate school, I discovered I was a horrible teacher and taught myself to teach well. Since leaving graduate school, I’ve dealt with tight finances and with job rejections. I’m learning to keep a budget.

Adulting is hard, but you’ll learn. Regardless of what challenges you face, whether they be health challenges or money challenges or work challenges, you will get through them.

And you’ll have a lot of fun along the way. 

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International Talk Like a Pirate Day

As I’ve been writing this post, I’ve been looking through old photographs and recalling some of the memories I made on my own, after I moved away to college. I spent a summer in China and another one in Germany, and later I lived in the Czech Republic for six months. I visited the Kansas City Renaissance Festival with friends from graduate school, and with friends from Iowa, I visited Chicago and Madison and the future birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk. I discovered that International Talk Like a Pirate Day is a thing and started dressing up in a piratical costume for class once a year.

So yes, adult life is hard. But don’t let your anxiety get the best of you, because adult life is a lot of fun, too! You have so many good memories to make. 

And most importantly, you will see God’s grace at work.

In my experience, grace is not something I see working in the moment. Grace is best seen from a distance.

When I think back to college, to give just one example, I realize how reclusive I was, how snotty; only in the years since then have I become more patient, more kind, and generous. (Please don’t think I’m praising myself! The truth is, I have a long ways still to go.) But the point is, when I compare the person I am now to the person I was in college, I can see that I’ve changed, even if I wasn’t aware of the change happening in the moment. I chalk this up to grace: God, behind the scenes, working patiently with me over a long period of time.

And perhaps this is the most encouraging thing of all: that God is indeed patient, and will always be gracious.

A lot will change when you start college. You will change. You will face scary things. But through everything, God will be with you, patiently working with you, making you like Him.

Welcome to adulthood.

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Counting Costs

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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.)

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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.