Learning to Make Better Choices, One Chart at a Time

18Oct07

Well, folks, I say why do something if you’re not really going to do it. Right? Right. So I’m introducing more changes. BIG changes. LIFE changes. Because having a baby and returning to work and moving the blog and putting the house on the market and taking it back off the market aren’t enough. I crave more.

But we’ll get to that later. First let’s talk about my closet.

Last week, I ransacked it. I caught about ten minutes of Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style, and watching them pare this woman’s wardrobe down to about six items, I got all fired up. I quit watching as soon as I heard Tim Gunn utter the phrase, “Grooming should be a priority” and hightailed it up to the bedroom for some serious time with my clothes.

If you’d asked me then, I’d have told you that I needed to do some major shopping, that nothing fit, etc. Turns out, I couldn’t have been more wrong. What I realized two naps, fifty-four empty hangers, and three full to-be-donated garbage bags later was that I really just had too much stuff. I realized that all I still needed to buy were two pairs of jeans (I own five pairs of jeans, two pairs of which are now too big and three pairs of which are still too small), a few white long sleeve shirts for wearing under wool sweaters (I trashed all the ones I had because they were not even close to looking white anymore), and two new bras (ditto above re: jeans). I had all the tees, shirts, and sweaters I need. I had all the socks and underwear. It was all there, I just couldn’t see it.

As a teenager, and even through college, I was something of a minimalist. My closets were never full, I always only had one coat at a time, didn’t carry a purse. Since I moved to Ohio, though, and started teaching, and lost some weight, and started liking clothes more and more, I’ve been somewhat proud of my accumulating collection of, well, stuff on hangers.

But all that stuff on hangers ever really did for me was make it harder to see what I had.

So I was brutal: I got rid of all those things that I own that I’ve never liked but about which I have said “I might like it” or “I might need it one day”; I got rid of everything that was stained; I got rid of all the dresses I have from two summers ago that were just slightly too small and thus more than slightly uncomfortable.

In all, I filled three large garbage bags with clothing and shoes to donate. I didn’t even realize I owned so much stuff. I got rid of 75% of my wardrobe, I’d guess, and still have plenty to wear each day.

And it felt so good.

So then last night, we got a gift in the mail from our very good friends in Baltimore. Our friends who own the bugaboo stroller and have his suits and shirts tailor-made by a guy from China but who also use only cloth diapers, wear organic clothing or shop at thrift stores, and use earth-friendly cleaning supplies. Our friends who give wine as a Christmas gift and who made me a small pin that says, “Ph.D. MOM” and one for Brian that said “New Dad.” They’re thoughtful in every sense of the word — they think about how they spend their money, how they spend their time, where their food comes from.

They’re the posterfamily for yuppie/hippie living. They’re the folks you look at and think, yes, I’d be more earth-conscious if I had as much money as they do. Which, of course, is exactly what I said to Brian last night when their gift arrived.

And for the first time ever it hit me what a stupid thing that is to say. Being conscious consumers, thoughtful inhabitants of the earth, doesn’t have to be something you spend big on. And furthermore, by not spending on thoughtless things, you free up more money to spend on thoughtful ones even if they do cost more money.

So I got to poking around. I was curious about our spending habits. I track our budget like a hawk, reconciling our accounts at the end of each month and comparing our actual spending to our budgeted spending. I do this because while we have everything we need and want, money is tight for us and we have to make choices. We have to plan. We live within our means without any debt (other than student loans), but we have to work hard to do so.

But I’ve never tracked where we spend our money.

So I logged onto our online checking info and started digging. Then I played awhile in Excel and here’s what I found:

Spending Categories

In the last year, only .09% (that’s 9/1000th) of our spending went to independent sellers — artists, booksellers, movie theatres, etc. Fully 18.05% went to chain stores. We spent nearly $4000 in the last year at Target alone.

Nearly 15% of our spending goes to groceries, but none of this is local — not the food, not the sellers. Nor do we buy organic except in extremely rare cases. We didn’t spend one dime at a farmer’s market in the last 12 months except for this weekend at the pumpkin patch.

This chart only includes checking — it leaves out any charges made to our credit card, which we use for all travel and for anything we order online. It’s too much work to go through all the statements for that because I’d have to do it by hand — Chase online doesn’t have the cool payee reports that my bank provides. It also doesn’t say anything about where our cash, which isn’t much since we’re both addicted to the check card, goes.

But still. It’s eye-opening. It made me realize how thoughtless I am about how and where I spend my money. Do we really need to spend an average of $76 a week at Target, particularly when we spend an average of less than $1 a week buying locally or from independent sellers? Did we really not make one single charitable donation this year? We’ve been concerned about our budget since we didn’t know exactly how having a baby would affect things — we budgeted more money but didn’t know if we’d budgeted enough. So we didn’t want to give any money away in case we might have to resort to borrowing some money from our parents or using the credit cards at the end of the year if things get too tight. But seriously? That’s a really crappy excuse.

Oh yeah. Then there’s Christmas. Last year we spent $885 on Christmas gifts. The year before we spent more than a thousand. And there weren’t even any kids to buy for.

I am astounded. I literally couldn’t sleep last night. I need to make some changes.

So that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to learn to be a better consumer. I’m not saying I’m going to be a “perfect” consumer. I’m still going to buy my coffee beans from Starbucks because we like them best and because we both worked for them for years and they gave us health insurance and because they grind the beans for our espresso machine meaning we don’t have to buy a lot of lattes and cappuccinos.

I’m going to be more thoughtful. I’m going to research my options. I’m going to learn about buying local foods. I’m going to make gifts and give books that I buy directly from small publishers or that I get at the really cool independent bookstore downtown. I’m going to give cloth diapers another shot. (Actually, we tried Evan’s two Fuzzi Bunz today and he has finally grown into them and they worked great — except for a big leak after a nap, but I could get used to changing them more frequently.) I’m going to stop pretending that making good choices is something only rich people can do.

And I’m going to blog about all of it so that you can join me if you want to. And leave me ideas and suggestions!

*****

Please note: the cellular bill shown above is actually for me, Brian, my mom, and my sister. Brian and I only pay half that. No need to comment on how we’re probably getting a totally crappy deal. : )

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4 Responses to “Learning to Make Better Choices, One Chart at a Time”

  1. 1 hubby

    uh-oh.

  2. I got so stinking wordy I just wrote a post on my own blog LOL. I will not link to you b/c I think this blog is private? But I would like to give credit where due and let people read this great post…if YOU want. Just let me know.

    Julie
    Using My Words

  3. It’s not private. I just wanted to detatch it from my website (which I also use for school). So go ahead and link away! : )

  4. First off, I love the Book Loft! I’ve been there several times, and I still don’t think I’ve explored every nook.

    We’ve taken a hard look at our finances and we’re trying to make some cuts and spend less on junk. And you’re right – keep the things that matter to you the most. If the Starbucks coffee is important to you, it’s your indulgence. We all need a little something that’s just for us.


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