A Very Debtist Birthday

Birthdays are kind of a tortuous thing for me these days. At some point, I think we all kind of went a bit astray and, may I say it, b-o-n-k-e-r-s, with the whole celebrations thing. I understand celebrating an event or accomplishment, but the whole excess consumption tied to each holiday really bothers me. I wanted to do something very different for this year (and hopefully here on out).

Over the past year, Mike and I have been struggling with trying to relate to family and friends that we want celebrations to be centered around less stuff. When we tell them we don’t want gifts, they insist that we must get something. What ends up happening is that they get us random things, or things we don’t even need, and these things literally immediately go to someone else, or get donated to Goodwill, because we do not want more stuff. So then we started to tell them specifically what things we want with an emphasis on the fact that we want to stray from plastic and excess waste. But then the packages show up wrapped in layers of colored paper and plastic ribbons tied to plastic balloons. Those who want to gift us money put them on plastic gift cards. I mean the whole ordeal has just been very difficult.

We have finally come to a point where we have wrangled down the gift giving quite a bit. Our immediate families STILL insist they get us a gift, so we have an agreed upon one from each side, instead of one from each person. My family got me pasta roller attachments so I can make pastas at home, and Mike’s side got me a pizza stone and peel so I can ramp up our homemade pizza game. As for the others, I wanted a solution. It’s so complicated explaining to 30 relatives why we don’t want gifts and then fighting their resistance against our request. It was time-consuming to make a specific list for them last Christmas, and then frustrating to find that our “bar of soap purchased without wrapping” was wrapped in cellophane with bows. I am not ungrateful, but I AM almost near hysterical. When did we all get so carried away? When did celebrations become tied to wayyyy more than just gathering together to relish in the joys of our accomplishments? Why is it so difficult to untangle people’s perceptions of what a party should look like from the actual party?

My vision of a birthday celebration includes:

+ A get together at a park (or beach, or home).

+ Sharing a meal cooked by loved ones.

+ A home-made birthday cake.

+ Sitting around a circle, telling stories or jokes.

+ Taking photos, or sharing old ones.

+ A birthday song, perhaps.

+ Hugs, kisses, and high-fives.

Not much more than that.

This year, I got a little inspiration from Mr. Money Mustache, and we found a way to do our birthday in a very Debtist way. In the past, we would dine out with our friends and families, usually at a restaurant, for our birthdays. Each person’s meal would cost $15-$25 per person. If we weren’t doing that, someone would be throwing us a party, paying $50 for a cake, the same amount for balloons, confetti and decorations that we would trash that day, and so on. I used to count how many presents I would get each year at my birthday or during Christmas, and it would always be more than 20 gifts. I thought to myself, “Wow, what a waste to have people spend ludicrous amounts of money to throw parties and give gifts, while there are people who exist and barely have any food to eat.” So, I spoke to Mike, who feels the same torture as I, and whose birthday is two weeks away from mine, and we decided to do something different this year.

We created a FEED supper instead. The idea is simple. One hosts a supper (or in our case, a brunch) where each guest makes a donation to provide meals for families in need across the country before attending the event. 100% of the FEED supper donations will provide meals to American families through Feeding America. An estimated 42 million Americans are food insecure, meaning they do not know where their next meals are coming from. By coming together “to truly share a meal”, we can help change that.  We wrote our families and friends the following letter:

We can do a world of good.

Hi all,

For us, a simpler birthday is a more meaningful birthday. Instead of asking for gifts or inviting you guys to dine out this year, we request your help in feeding those in need! This year, we are hosting a FEED supper (erm, well, brunch…). For those who are able, we request a donation to FEED and in return, every person who makes a donation is invited to come over to our place on Sunday, July 1 at 10 a.m. for home-made pastries and coffee! I have gotten into quite the baking habit and Mike makes wonderful coffee selections from local coffee roasters. 

This helps to avoid stressful shopping and allows folks to focus dollars where really needed.

The best present for us is getting together with you.

It’s hard to believe that over 40 million Americans are food insecure, meaning they don’t know where their next meal is coming from. We can do something to change that.

Please consider making a small donation before attending this FEED Brunch, where we can celebrate our collective impact together.  

It only takes a little to make a big difference. By giving just $10, you can provide 90 meals to American families through FEED’s domestic giving partner, Feeding America. Our goal is to raise $500, but if we go over, even better!  100% of the proceeds will go towards Feeding America. 

Learn more about FEED Supper at feedprojects.com/feedsupper

We love you, and we appreciate your help in making a difference in the world.

Sincerely,

Sam

The letter links them to a website where they can make a donation of their choice. We have also invited them over to our house for pastries and coffee on a day between our birthdays. It’s something simple, but also something Mike and I are passionate about! We are very excited to see familiar faces, not only to celebrate our birthdays, but also to celebrate our impact!

Even after all of this, we were still asked to go out on my birthday to grab food by friends and family members. It took everything I had in me to flat out decline. It’s so hard to say no because you see the disappointment in their faces and hear it in their voices. But I had to stand my ground, otherwise I would have been the unhappy one. I gave them the spiel about how I did not want to do ANY spending on my actual day of birth. I emphasized the fact that we created the event to bring awareness to the excess consumption that advertising and social media has melded with the idea of celebration. I offered alternatives, such as joining us for a hike, or a bonfire. Interestingly, no one took us up on our offers, not even my parents. My mom was insisting we go out for breakfast at Lola’s Cafe, and when I said no to that, she insisted going to Breugger’s Bagels, because it is a cheap way to celebrate. She said, “We just want to spend time with our daughter on her birthday.” But when I declined again and asked if we could hike or go to the beach instead, she said they were busy. I think doing something so mundane was not considered a celebration, even though the celebration itself is internal, no?

Anyways, yesterday ended up being a good day. After helping my patients at work, and visiting with my family for an hour after work, Mike took me on a three mile hike to circumnavigate the only natural lake in Orange County. We then went home and made pasta. He had previously picked up a Coffee, Whiskey, Peanut Brittle Ice Cream from Kansha Creamery on his way home from work Friday (in a re-usable container, off course) and we dipped into that with a week-old left-over slice of cake from my mom’s end-of-the-school-year party. It was, I think, very reflective of the things I valued and what I envision my life to really be about in the upcoming year. More importantly, it was what made me happy. It’s a slow process, and maybe people will never understand the repercussions of our extravagant, Great-Gatsby lives. At least this year, I didn’t have to contribute.

Recent Reads: A Baker’s Year by Tara Jensen

This post may contain affiliate links. Please see my disclosure to learn more.

Sometimes in your life, you come across a kindred spirit. Usually, it’s at a time when you least expect it, and in the most unusual of characters. Fictional, for example, or in people who you have never met. Despite these peculiarities, you just know that they are of the same spirit and mind as you, even if they are miles away. Tara Jensen is one of these kindred spirits. When I picked up her book and sat it across my lap in a hidden, dusty corner of Barnes and Nobles, I was not expecting to meet anyone kindred that day. But after the first few words, I just knew. Her book, A Baker’s Year, “chronicles twelve months of baking and living the simple life at the Smoke Signals Bakery”, smattered with a few recipes and baking techniques, which is what roped me in in the first place, but it was her story that made me stay. Better yet, she was able to summarize a collection of very deep-rooted feelings that even I was not able to bring to the surface until her words dug them from their graves, feelings which all too entirely shape the view that I have of the world today, as well as drive the actions that I choose to take in my daily living. I think everyone could benefit from her words, even if they are not interested in baking bread for their communities. Below is an excerpt from the book that struck a chord with me so many times over the course of two pages (!!). Below is the story of Camille. 

“Camille came to Madison County in 1972 with her husband, Dave. Dave’s father had grown up here, moving to Detroit at the age of nineteen for a better life. He couldn’t believe Camille and Dave wanted to return to what he remembered as a desolate region with nothing to offer. They were warned not to come, but their minds were set on it. Enraged by the Vietnam War, they wanted to be as self-sufficient as possible and learn directly from those who could still teach the way of the land. Less income meant minor tax payments, resulting in fewer dollars toward war machine. They took on cows, chickens, rabbits, sheep and a garden. “A farm is a big name for what we had,” she says.

What was big was their ambition. It had to be. It was up against a lot. War was a symptom of an entire broken social system fueled by overconsumption. Refusal of business as usual was crucial to Camille. “I know we have to live,” she pointed out, “but we don’t need to do it at this level – we don’t need to destroy.”

Camille had already experienced the horrors of war. In 1944, her childhood home in Normandy was bombed, and although everyone was safe, the devastation left only a corner of the original house. Her family first took refuge in a nearby graveyard, surviving only on milk. There her father decided they would take the two-day walk to his parent’s farm, where he was certain food could be found. In the summer, they returned home to rebuild.

Normal weekly rituals ensued, one of which was a trip into town for bread. One afternoon, her sister returned with more than a sack of loaves; she also bore toys she’d found scattered on the roadside. Thin metal rods, like long pens, with a coil wrapped around the middle. They played with them for days, knocking them on rocks like drumsticks. But they weren’t toys. They were cast-aside detonators, and while her mother was busy with the wash, one exploded in Camille’s hand, causing the loss of her right arm at the age of two.

A decade into their life of resistance, Dave was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The long list of daily chores became difficult to maneuver. The cow jumped the fence. The sheep ran away. The dog chased the chickens into the woods. They allowed their responsibilities to dwindle, eventually eating the cow. “It was part of the economy,” Camille explained, a firmness still in her tone. Despite changes in physical comfort and energy, they were as true to their original intentions as they possibly could be.

After Dave passed, Camille carried on the design of their home and land, every nook and cranny meticulously thought out and crafted. Stairwells fashioned after the golden spiral, massive mosaic projects, wood scraps and windows everywhere: ideals for a gentle society radiate from the walls. “I never had a course in building,” she said, “just an interest. I could look at an old building, I would see that it was still standing, and I would think, That is good.” Although Dave is gone, his presence remains, amidst a host of new and radical projects.

Never short on determination, Camille hired a carpenter to frame a door into a dirt wall so that she might dig herself a basement. Rigging up a bucket, a shovel, and a wheelbarrow, she chipped at the top of the wall, directing the dirt downward into the bucket. When the bucket was full, she’d take it to the wheelbarrow and empty it. When the wheelbarrow was full, she’d haul it outside and dump it in the gully. She kept at the work for days and months until rumors began to surface.

Her apprentice who frequented the local bar came to report back on the widespread speculation about what exactly Camille was up to. “You’ll never believe what they’re saying about you, Camille. They say you are digging out your basement single-handedly with a spoon!”

She chuckled. “Well then, let them think just that.”

I spoke with Camille recently. We wondered if it was even possible for future generations to go back to the land. There is increasingly less land to go back to, and the old-times who knew the plants and the ballads are passing each year. Besides, living the rural life isn’t for everyone. It seems that each spring, a new crop of young homesteaders arrive bursting with ideas, and only some of them make it to the next year for one reason of another. Many leave when they have children, and divorce is common under the stress of poverty. I like living here because it is so unchanged, and yet sometimes I forget there is a world past the blown-out streetlight. This landscape is a jungle that does not bend to human will easily. Some like the challenge. Some don’t.

Yet what we lack in finery we make up for in freedom. We have a choice. We can choose the detonator or the spoon. What will you leave behind? What will your legacy be? Free, gentle, and diverse is the culture I want for myself, my community, and my bread. Be an instrument for peace. Choose the spoon.”

To learn more about the nuances of simple living, or to learn about baking bread, please do go on and read A Baker’s Year. Our society can benefit from her words in more ways than one. 

Refill, Reuse, Rejoice with Plaine Products

This post may contain affiliate links. Please see my disclosure to learn more.

I’ve already said my piece here regarding reducing plastic waste in my daily hygiene routine, by switching to bars of shampoo and conditioner and soap. But what of lotion? What of wintry dry skin, flaking away at the shudder of a cold, harsh winter wind? We live in sunny Southern California, but nonetheless, sensitive, scaly skin prevails in this dry desertland. Surely, there is no lotion bar? At the very least, I have yet to discover it.

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There is, however, the introduction of a new company called Plaine Products. Focused on the idea of reusable containers, sisters Lindsey and Alison Delaplaine created a way to offer shampoo, conditioner, body wash, AND lotion in aluminum reusable bottles. The stuff itself is quite lovely and aromatic, with two scent options. A rosemary, mint, and vanilla combination for the fall and winter, and a citrus lavender for the spring and summer, or so I like to think. Associate with the scents whatever seasons tickle your fancy. I must admit that I was ready for an alternative that would allow me to switch back to liquid conditioners. Bar soap shampoos are fine in my book, but my hair was starting to hang a bit too heavy, giving it a sadder appearance than my cheery personality would like. Nothing Plaine Products couldn’t save. After one day of switching to liquid shampoo and conditioner, the flounce of the hair has been returned. And the lotion has got my skin feeling silky, without my conscience feeling plastic-guilt. It’s a thing, I swear!

The concept behind the refillability (not a word?) of the bottles is simple. It’s a wonder why it is not more widely implemented. A subscription can be shipped to your door in a box (made of 95% post-consumer waste and 5% post-industrial waste), which can act as the same vessel to return your already used and empty bottles back to the company. The bottles are then refilled, thus giving them a new life. You can opt to order the new bottle without the pump, if you already own a pump that’s easily reusable. The box is reused, the bottle is reused, and the plastic pump is reused. Multiply that to account for shampoo, conditioner, body wash, and lotion, and we’ve got ourselves quite an impact. Currently, face wash, hand wash, and face moisturizer products are in the works.

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In an effort to be all around environmentally friendly, the contents are well considered. The products avoid animal testing of any kind, is devoid of sulfates, parabens, and pthalates, and is designed to biodegrade more easily than typical, chemical products. The specifics of the contents can be found here, if microanalysis of such details are your thing, just as they are mine. Proudly vegan, the main component of their products are none other than Aloe Vera. The same extract that my mom would scrape from the plant leaves and weave into our hairs before a night’s rest. Less sticky, less messy, less fuss and crying and wails of discontent (sorry mom!).

I must admit, I do still have to deal with the internal struggle of whether the back-and-forth shipping of subscriptions really outweighs the long-term consequences of the plastic that never degrades. The elusiveness of the topic at large feeds the frustration I feel when well-intentioned actions are unclear in their effects. It’s as if a cloud is purposefully shifted above the whole matter, making it difficult to really measure the impact of hauling our goods versus increasing plastic waste, which alternatively blankets our ability to measure the opposite as well. While we could discuss this topic for a long time and perhaps stay stagnant in our search for an answer, I would like to say that for now, Plaine Products gives us plastic-avoiders a welcome alternative. As does nixing shampoo all-together, a step I admittedly am not ready to make.

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Care to give them a try? Order your first Plaine Products today! TheDebtist readers will receive 10% off of their purchase when the code thedebtist10 is entered at checkout. The shipping was quick, and hassle-free, with an option to subscribe to their products for regularly spaced deliveries, if simplicity is kind of your thing.

This post was sponsored by Plaine Products. All opinions are my own.

Getting to Know: Molly Acord of Fair + Simple

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Molly Acord is the founder of Fair + Simple, a company created around the act of gift-giving. Desiring to give people a simpler way of gifting products that are fair trade and that have a humanitarian impact, Molly created a gift card that can be redeemed for any item in an ethically sourced collection. “Gift giving is my love language, handmade is close to me, and serving others is a privilege. This is where I fit.”

What inspired you to start Fair and Simple?

There was a point when I realized that my buying practices were likely having a negative impact on the world, and I began to educate myself on how to change.  It is so overwhelming, and almost paralyzing, at first.   I was inspired to start Fair+Simple from a desire to make it simple to give a cause-based, socially-conscious gift.

Where does the name Fair + Simple come from, and what does it represent?

The idea for a simple gift card fell from the sky, and I knew immediately it was a calling.  I called my husband, a school-teacher, and right away pitched the idea.  He also received an equally excited call a few minutes later with the idea for our brand name.  Fair means that every gift in our collection is fairly-traded and cause-based.  Simple represents this idea that a recipient of a F+S card can redeem it for any single item in the collection.  When you don’t know what to get someone but you want to shop ethically, you can give a card and let them choose their own gift.

Fair trading | Simple giving.

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What values do you want your company to represent?

We desire to offer a meaningful gift that simplifies our customer’s life, while positively impacting the person behind the product.  We value sustainability which involves both ethical manufacturing and intentional design.

What do you hope to change in the way we as a society consume products?

Gift giving is a unique time to make a difference.  Instead of defaulting to a Starbucks gift card (no offense to Starbucks!) every time someone isn’t sure what to give, I want customers to use that opportunity to support fair-trade artisans around the world who have need.  Instead of careless and easy, it’s careful and simple.

What is the humanitarian impact of the companies F+S supports?

We seek to benefit those in high need.  The gifts in our collection support a series of impact including clean water initiatives, a recovery house for women, fair paying jobs for impoverished people, vocational training, micro-loans, and educational sponsorships.  While I love culturally rich and highly skilled artisan products, my heart is more geared for the marginalized people who have nothing: no skills, no startup money, no market access.

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 Does Fair + Simple look into eco-friendly products as well, or do you focus more on the social impact primarily?

To me, environmental and social responsibility are inextricably linked.   I believe social impact starts at the supply chain.  If you are using natural fabric, that means it starts at the seed and the farmers who grow it.  This extends to how a product is made, how it is used by customers, and how it ends its life cycle.  People and planet are all over these steps.  We have also noticed that the fair trade world is a bit inundated with items like jewelry, scarves, and leather goods.  We will always have these items in our collection where impact is the greatest, but we are currently making strides for some products that support our values for simple living and high impact sourcing.

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How do you go about choosing which companies to partner with?

We look for companies that have both a beautiful mission and product.  I believe women and education are the main catalyst for change in a community, so we primarily work with companies that support these two initiatives.  We also need to have a well-rounded collection, so this plays a factor in which companies are in the collection.  No matter what, the cause of the company must be the main reason why they exist and they need to align with our developed standards of production.  I have a deepening desire to connect customers with the person behind the product, so I have started to work directly with groups where there is a high need.  This includes single moms weaving coop in Peru and a sewing coop in the Philippines! These products are scheduled to launch in the Spring.  I only have so much buying power, so I make it count.

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In a perfect dream world, what is your ideal future in terms of the way consumers and makers interact and trade and purchase goods?

In my dream world, consumers are intentional about purchases.  Over-consumption is obsolete, and people buy what they need and take care of what they have and give where there is need.  Less disposable, less carelessness, less disconnect.  More reuse, more intention, and much more connection.

To help with your gift-giving endeavors, Fair + Simple is offering TheDebtist readers 15% off with the coupon code debtist15“. As always, every item in the collection gives back to a partner company’s mission. Offer valid until March 31, 2018. 

Thoughts on: The Blackest of Fridays.

Today is a sad day, and will likely continue to be a sad day for me for the rest of my life. It is with a heavy heart that I reminisce on past Black Fridays that I regret ever participating in. Growing up, my family held a huge emphasis on acquiring material goods and symbols of social status and wealth. Hence, Thanksgiving was never the real holiday. The real holiday was the day after turkey day, Black Friday, and it consisted of doing only one thing. Shopping.

I remember as kids, we were told to go to bed early on Thanksgiving so that we could wake up early to hit up the stores for their sales. Me and my cousins would all wake up early and, in a flurry of excitement, get dressed and pour over discount advertisements at the breakfast table while we ate left-over food for breakfast. Then we would all hop in vans and be driven to the outlets and malls by our parents and dropped off. We would separate into groups, with me managing the money my parents gave for myself, my sister, and my little brother. We spent the whole day walking, visiting every store and checking out the best deals. We wouldn’t make our decision until the end of the day, when we have exhausted every deal out there and picked the best deal that we saw, or the item we ended up most wanting that day. Some days, we would go to multiple outlets, then return to the outlet with the store with the supposedly best deal. What a waste of gas and precious time. We weren’t going out there to shop for something we actually wanted. We went out there with a mission to spend a certain amount of money that we were given on something that gave us the best-short-term-longing-feeling. And we HAD to spend it that day, otherwise, we would “miss out” on a good deal, and that money would be “wasted”. Talk about experiencing the real FOMO as early as 13 years old.

In addition to being taught awful habits regarding spending money, as well as de-valuing money throughout this entire process, you would not imagine the stress we went through on the blackest of Fridays. First world problems, I know, but seriously, it’s a true problem! We ran ourselves ragged, searching for the perfect thing. I was holding all the cash for my siblings and myself, and they would be running back and forth to me asking for a certain amount of it, and returning the change, and asking me how much they had left. I was a walking calculator zombie, not a human being. And then imagine the amount of thought and aggravation that went into deciding what to buy. The constant doubt of whether I was spending my money “wisely” on the best deal possible. The debate between getting a bang for your buck, or something you actually like (I say “like” and not “want” because I doubt we truly “wanted” any of that stuff. Don’t get me started with “need”). And oh, the comparisons afterwards! We would sit together at the end of the day, at In N Out or some other harmful fast food restaurant, and discuss what we spent our money on and how one deal was better than the other. It would pretty much be a show of who got the best thing, as if that was a measure of our self-worth, as if it was equivalent to our best life accomplishments.

Rather than spend time with each other, we spent time alone, in our own minds, as well as physically. The parents would drop off the kids and the kids would separate from the parents. In order to pursue and peruse our different interests, the kids would break up into groups. A group would enter a store, and then the individuals would look on their own. The only time we ever came together was when we wanted to gather all our resources or divvy up allocated money. Sad, sad, sad, I told you this was sad.

And now, Black Friday begins on Thanksgiving Day in the evening. I think of future generations and wonder what they will learn from all of this. I understand getting a good deal on something you may need, but watching videos of people line up, race through the doors, kick, shove, push, fight, I mean, is that really what life has turned into? It’s like the scene from Mean Girls where the shopping mall turns into a jungle scene. Now that I’m becoming less and less attracted by typical American consumerism, I sit back and can’t help but feel slightly disgusted with my past self. Our day of thanks is slowly turning more into a day of thanks for things rather than for things-that-truly-matter.

This year, Mike and I made sure to set aside time for our family and friends, the only things that really matter to us. We opened our doors and offered our home to everyone, as a way to say, “This is what we want to spend our time doing. The doors are open for you to come into our lives any time.” We have no desire to go out today, on the blackest of Fridays, to shop for ourselves and buy things we do not need. I have no desire to be surrounded by demanding customers and exhausted teenage clerks. I am not trying to depress myself the day after Thanksgiving. We both have the day off, and I think we are going to go out on this beautiful 85 degree weather (in late November! Thank you California) and enjoy the outdoors, at the park or the beach. Something to acknowledge all the blessings we have in our lives. And to spend time with each other, after spending the past few days with everyone else.

If you must go out there and get some early Christmas shopping done (I am still an advocate of getting to do lists checked off), then please consider shopping for meaningful gifts. Companies have started using Black Friday as a way to give back to charities and communities. Consider the following companies, so that at least the money you spend is used for a greater good somewhere where they don’t have money to spend.

 

Pantagonia – 100% of sales* to grassroots organizations working to create positive change for the planet in their own backyards. We’re determined to use every means at our disposal to defend our world’s climate, air, water and soil. In these divisive times, protecting what we all hold in common is more important than ever before.

 

Everlane – This year’s Black Friday fund goes towards building an organic farm in Vietnam, where pesticide use is so out of control that it is difficult to find safe food.

 

Check out more stores, here, and here, if you must. Or better yet, volunteer your time to an organization this holiday season, and give back what you can. Consider making a donation to a charity under someone’s name. More meaningful gift guides to come in the future, perhaps.

 

Frugal Life Hack: Co-housing

There seems to be this taboo in the United States about having roommates after you are married. The general concensus is that once you are married, you two should symbolize your ability to provide for yourselves by living in your own home. When you continue to live with your parents or family, people almost look down on you and judge you, saying things like, “They aren’t capable of living on their own. Why did they get married then?” Couples who live with family members or friends are almost embarrassed to reveal this to others. People who are serious about each other or who are married feel this pressure to hunker down and find their own home. An even greater pressure exists for people to BUY their own home right after they get married, because that’s the next thing to do before having kids, right?

This is not common in other parts of the world. Couples live with families to create communities that act as support for their growing families. Some would argue that most families do this out of need, maybe in third world countries, because they do not have the resources to care for themselves. But this isn’t true. In Denmark, which is known as the happiest country on Earth, there are co-housing communities where there are 20 or so homes in the same area for non-related families. These housing communities were featured on the documentary “Happy”. They work together to cook, and clean, and care for the children. Each family member has a day of the month where they have to cook for everyone, say 40 people in the case of the documentary below. Even though it takes 3-4 hours to cook that one day, the rest of the month, they don’t have to worry about coming home to cook. We deal with stresses all the time about buying groceries, figuring out what to make, cooking every day, doing the dishes every day, etc. Imagine doing that only once a month, and then the rest of the month, you come home, shower, and you have 3-4 hours to relax and be with your kids. There is also a sense of community and support that your family receives. The kids have friends at home that they can grow with, and they have plenty of adults who they know will care for them. This is one of the things that sets Denmark apart, but it is being embraced more and more by other countries such as Canada. What people have started to realize is that the community is really enriching and plays a huge role in one’s happiness. Compare that to the United States, where most families with young children experience a lot of stress and feelings of isolation, countries with communal living tend to report higher satisfaction with life among their citizens.

 

Mike has spent his whole life with roommates, and for the most part, so have I. Rather than “live together” the way most couples do, we spent my last two years of dental school “living together” in a house with 2 of his college friends, and we both had separate rooms. We enjoyed this version of communal living. Each of the four roommates had their own bedroom and we came out and hung out with each other in the common living areas. I lived at home throughout my whole undergrad and I was used to always having people over, eating dinner together as a group, and sharing chores. When I started dental school, I lived by myself for the first year, but I was honestly hardly ever home. Talk about your biggest financial mistake. My second year I lived with one roommate and I realized that I thoroughly enjoyed living with other people. When I lived with Mike and the boys, I realized even more that there was a lot of value with communal living. Whenever I was stressed, there was always some way to relieve it, whether it be hanging out with our friends or talking with them and asking them for advice.

When we decided to get married, we did what any other couple would do, which was find our dream home and move into it, just he and I. We’ve loved every minute of it, but there is just too much space for the two of us. There has been a lot of talk about potentially moving the last few weeks. We have been considering downsizing, looking for smaller apartments to rent in order to save money but also simply for the sake of downsizing. And then I did what I usually do and started re-assessing.

Two of our closest friends just got married last month to each other. They have been renting a house with a third roommate for the past year or so. When asked if they were going to move into their own space, my friend said, “Why would I do that?! My dream is to buy a house and have all my friends live in it in the separate rooms and help me with the mortgage.” Absolute genius, I tell you. They liked living with their friend, and it was a smart financial move to keep living with each other. The three of them wouldn’t have to hassle with finding a new place and physically moving all of their stuff. Nothing changed after they got married, and why did people make it feel like it had to? And just like that the stars aligned.

The day after Mike and I decided not to commit to a potential rental and to continue living at our loft, we learned that my brother’s recently graduated girlfriend found a job in Irvine and is looking for studios in Fullerton or Orange. She was looking at rentals at the price of $1300. We offered her the entire first floor of our three story loft, with her own bedroom and full bathroom for half the price. We are very excited to say that we now have a new roommate joining us around me and Mike’s one year anniversary. We cannot be more excited to welcome someone else into our home! Frankly, I’ve been missing my roommates dearly. I’ve spent hours and hours trying to find a cheaper rental without sacrificing the coolness of our space. And I highly enjoy spending time with our new found roommate. This couldn’t have been a better opportunity. She will have a significantly decreased rent, without the need to buy the usual household items new-grads have to buy when they start living on their own. Mike and I save on rent and can put the extra money towards my student loans. And we will all have additional company and people to hang out with and help around the house. Rather than moving to a new place, we took a step back and moved towards the right direction.

Yet another way we are challenging social norms with the intent of getting closer to living the life that’s right for us. And hey, who knows! Maybe over time, the United States could start to embrace the co-housing community concept too.

This post is dedicated to our friend Chad, who made us see an alternative to the housing strategy. Thank you.

 

About minimalism and letting go.

For the past few weeks, I have fallen into the trap (again) that everyone befalls at multiple points in their lives. The trap of putting living life on hold and falling into the endless cycle of worrying about money. Money is a tricky thing. It enters your mind and takes root, and it requires great force not to allow the roots to delve deeper and deeper into your body and eventually get under your skin. And while money was very easy for me to dismiss in terms of buying things and acquiring social status symbols, it nearly all together consumed me when it became the one thing holding me back from what I thought I wanted: Freedom. After all, I am human. So this blog post is a recap of what ensued the past few weeks, where-in I catapulted from practicing minimalism, to searching for financial independence, and then returning to minimalism and letting the rest go. One step forward, two steps back, and onward with the cycles of everyday life.

I’ve written endlessly about my transition from being a typical compulsive consumer representative of middle class America to being a loosely defined minimalist. A common misconception people have about minimalism is that it requires you to get rid of all your stuff and live with very little. I like to embrace the concept of getting rid of the excess stuff, and keeping the things that hold meaning or things that you love. Our home is far from bare, but I think we’ve done a pretty good job stripping it of its excesses. If it doesn’t pull at our heart strings, it is donated for someone else who could love it more. What you learn from minimalism is that it is a constant reassessment of your life, and as you rid yourself more and more of the excesses, it becomes easier and easier to realize that there are far greater and important things in life than just stuff.

So I entered a stage where I was reassessing other aspects of my life, and I became interested in a community practicing financial independence. As I dug deeper into the specs of the FI community, I was enamored by this idea of financial freedom, and the one thing holding me back from said freedom, is an already previously mentioned and endlessly bemoaned massive student loan debt hovering above our heads. Now we’ve done a great job controlling this student loan debt, decreasing it from our original 25 year plan, to 10 years, and currently, we are on track for 8 years of pay back. Not bad for something double the amount of a mortgage for a five bedroom mansion in other parts of the United States. But I digress. In the past few weeks, this student loan debt had the upper hand and did an equally great job controlling me.

I came upon the realization that we could save a year and a half of freedom by downsizing our current home. When Mike and I first talked about moving in together, we dreamed about living in a loft. When we started to look after I graduated from dental school, we miraculously found a space immediately, located in Orange County approximately equidistant from our two jobs. (“Approximately” because he will adamantly insist that his is a few miles farther than mine. Fair enough.) We fell in love with it immediately, and there was no going back. I don’t even think I thought through the pros and cons. The heart knows what it wants, I guess, and there were no doubts in our minds that we could be happy here. We happened to be the first people to respond to the advertisement and even though there were other applicants, we were given the first opportunity to snag the space. Snag we did.

We’ve been living in this loft for almost a year and a half, and it has been our dream space. 1600 square feet of space and 3 floors for a couple seem excessive, but it’s what we love. We are introverted and usually spend our time on different floors of the house, chasing our own interests and hobbies. We come together on the second floor to watch football or play board games, and we love to host parties and dinners for close friends and family. We often joke that we are so lucky to come home to a vacation home every night. So we’ve been practicing minimalism, a perfect example to show that even though a massive loft is a thing, and it may seem excessive for two, there is forgiveness in the practice because it allows you to keep those that you love. It’s not about getting rid of as much stuff as humanly possible, because it is inhumane and impossible to lead a happy life with deprivation from the actual components that make you happy.

But a life of deprivation is what I started to consider. I found that we could save about $1000/month if we downsized our home, which multiplied by twelve months per year, then extrapolated out to five years, and we are free at age thirty-four instead of thirty-six. I became obsessed about searching for a space that would fit our needs and cut the costs. I would wake up every morning and refresh the Zillow page that was left open on my computer screen from the night before. I was prowling the internet for deals, and killing myself slowly with the stress. I eventually found two contenders that I liked, given the circumstances. One was a vaulted ceiling loft with a deck situated right on a lake. You walk out of a sliding door that spans one wall of the space onto a wooden deck where you can hang your feet into the lake filled with minnows and ducks. All it required was cutting the size of our space by more than half, demoting Mike’s Lotus from a garage to a covered parking spot, and moving farther away from both our jobs to a neighborhood that is old and less ideally situated and more un-kept. But the space itself was nice (so long as you didn’t step outside), and I could live in the smaller square footage. The appliances were all new and the internal was completely renovated and we would be the first people to live in it after the renovations. The second consideration was a beautiful studio apartment, albeit quite small, less than one third the size of our current home (I think it was listed at 478 square feet), and steps away from the beach. In fact, the only thing separating our apartment from the sand was PCH, and a row of homes. Like the other, it was beautiful on the inside, but also stripped the Lotus of a garage and now stripped my Scion of any parking spot at all. It increased my commute to both offices, while keeping Mike’s the same, and we had no laundry unit, nor did we have much closet space. There was also the tiny problem that our furniture did not fit in this studio, and we would have to hang our guitars on the walls to save enough floor space for the couch. I think our bed literally has to sit next to half of our dining table (because the other half of it won’t fit either). Part of me was actually looking forward to sizing down this much, since I have been talking to Mike about tiny homes for a while, and I wanted the challenge of really practicing resourcefulness and mindful living. I don’t know what it is about tiny apartment living that seems so glamorous to me, perhaps because Reading My Tea Leaves makes it looks so easy and fun. We went so far as to look at both places and submitting our applications.

It wasn’t until we got the offer for the first space (the beach apartment), and then the second space (the loft), that I started to get cold feet. Maybe I was already over-stressed to the point that I could not make a decision. The poor real estate agents, we gave them a run around with our “yes, no, yes, no” answers to their offers. I must have seemed like a crazy lady, not making up my mind like that, and poor Mike had to be dragged down with me. Mike was my saving grace throughout this whole process. His only requirement was a garage for his car and motorcycles, and I got him two places without garages and hardly space for both vehicles. But he was on board with trying either space, if it meant making me happy, or otherwise, stopping me from my stressful constant obsessive search for the ideal house. All he wanted for me was inner peace. But when it came to decision time, the stress got worse. He coaxed me into trying to figure out what I liked about each space, and what I did not like. I had a lot of fear that once I moved into the tiny apartment, I would learn that space is more valuable to us than I thought, and it would put a strain on our relationship (introverts unite!). Or that moving into a (possibly) less safe neighborhood could put his other love-of-his-life, Elise (car), in danger. He helped me realize that my fear of regretting the move is an indication that the move is just not right. Compromise was needed if we moved into either home. A hundred percent happiness could be achieved by staying. My mind was continually telling me to move, but something deep down in my chest (my heart perhaps?) was pounding on the walls and screaming no. On the inside, I felt like a two year old toddler throwing a fit, wanting one thing but resisting. Like I said, Mike was my saving grace. He said, “I will move for you, if it means you will have internal peace.” It was then that I realized that Mike did not want to move, and perhaps, neither did I. Maybe it was life’s way of reminding me that sometimes, you just have to let it go. Control freak as I am, I get carried away trying to shape my life course towards one direction, instead of just letting it tread its course the way it was meant to. So, we decided to stay. Giving up happiness was not worth gaining a year and a half of financial freedom. And back I go towards practicing minimalism. And practicing letting go.

The problem with financial independence is that money is at the forefront of the conversation. And as I started to state at the beginning of this post, money is a tricky thing. But minimalism, I can do. Instead of money, it puts happiness at the forefront of the conversation. It focuses on what brings your life meaning and joy. It may not give you financial freedom as early as you would like, but it frees you from being tied to money, even if you are still tied to money. And that type of freedom, money just can’t buy. Call me a failure at being financially independent. Mister Money Mustache will laugh at my face if he ever gets the chance to. Call me fearful of trying tiny living, though I may accept the challenge one day, for it still has a little glamour in my eyes. Call me a faux minimalist, call me whatever label you want, including happy and content to live here another six months more.

So here we are, one step forward and two steps back. Letting go of financial freedom for a few more years, and letting go of trying to control life. Trying to pursue love and happiness. Onwards.

Freedom: Re-thinking Early Retirement

For my generation and the coming generations, I would like to pose an alternative to the “wonderful” idea of early retirement. This alternative is not new, and it was not discovered by me, but it is embraced by many communities, including minimalists, money mustachians, and financial independents. Whenever I ask people my age where they see themselves in twenty, thirty or forty years, many of them respond with a goal of retiring early. That means that between ages 40 through 60, depending on their current financial situation, or their belief in their ability to get out of financial dependence on their job, or their optimism (you pick), they plan to quit their jobs and have a house already purchased, and plan to spend the rest of their days vacationing on a yacht they may have bought or raising their grandkids. This is what our parents did and our grandparents did, and it sounds like a lovely life, albeit too late to make the most of your prime years. But it isn’t for me, and maybe some of you are scratching your heads and wondering if there is another way.

There’s a theory, which I’d call my life mission or goal. Theoretically, this life mission may work out for me, and possibly for you. When I was first asked the question of where I want to see myself in 30-40 years, it was my financial planner asking. Being a financial meeting, my first answer was that I saw myself out of financial debt, and with financial stability. I also said I saw myself working (still) a few days a week, and pursuing all my hobbies and interests on the days I have off. I saw myself physically fit enough to enjoy life, and continuing to travel the world. I would like to have the time to see my family and friends frequently, and never feel dependent on someone else financially or physically. That sounds a lot like retirement, minus the working part, right?

So he clarified and said, “Do you see yourself retiring early?” I had an answer that flew off my tongue before I could even think. “I do not want to retire until I can no longer physically work.” I think that is a very good answer (and not because I was the one who came up with it). Time itself is not the decision-maker, and neither is age. It is our ability to continue pursuing a passion. Now, we all know that dentistry has a short life span for many, because of physical ailments that result from the profession, usually involving back aches and side aches and neck pain and carpel tunnel, and the list goes on. But notice that I did not say I saw myself practicing dentistry, but rather, I said I saw myself working. I believe that working into our 60’s and 70’s will keep us mentally active, physically fit, and spiritually alive, at a time in our lives when we need it most. But if we are financially stable, or hopefully more than stable by that age, then money will never dictate what we do. And once money does not dictate what you do, work can become whatever passion you want to pursue. I mean, ideally work should be your passion now. Who knows if I will still be passionate about dentistry in 30 years?! Quite possibly, I will be doing part-time dentistry for a very long time. I mean, working one day a week as a dentist is not a bad gig. But hey, I could dream big and think, maybe I will be working as a barista at that time. Or making clay pots to sell at a store. Who knows where life will lead me, or you.

But how is working into the wee years of your elderly life sustainable? Burn- out is something a lot of dentists experience. A few years out of dental school, and many of them already hate their jobs. And they’re going to do this for the rest of their career??! It’s sustainable if you never experience burn out (duh!). This can be accomplished in many ways. For example, you could work less hours than the grueling 5-day work week now. Or if you still very much love your job, invest in delving deeper into the practice. The more you pursue a passion, the less it feels like a weight that you are dragging around. Avoid doing something just to go through the motions. Really love your job in its entirety and it won’t bring you down. Most people experience burn out because their job is physically exhausting, without the mental, emotional, or spiritual reward. In other words, they no longer feel passionate towards what they do. When you do experience burn out, switch to doing the next thing you love. Motivation and inspiration are key to fueling your drive to continue working late into your life time.

You may be asking, “Okay, so when do we get to enjoy our lives?” My answer is simple. How about now? What if, instead of early retirement, you do partial retirement, starting now? You get to enjoy life for the entirety of your life, not just for the last little bit when you’re tired and want to sit on a rocking chair on the porch and stare out all day. Think of all the pros of starting to live now. You’re young enough to invest in your future physical fitness by working out now rather than sitting in a desk all day, which will prolong your health for more years down the road. You get to balance work and play. It can’t be all play like in the other model of retirement. Even playing all the time gets boring for me. I have to feel like there is some direction in my life, like I am getting somewhere. It’s the only way I feel alive. I think retirement could possibly turn me into a sack of flour (metaphorically) and bore me to death. So, you gain balance in your life. You get to travel the world, while you can still hike, or at least walk five miles in the city center. You get to spend real quality time with your family, instead of squeezing in time in the morning, before work, and at night, when you’ve exhausted all your energy into your passion. So many parents miss out on their child’s life, because they have to work in order to provide for that child. Maybe we need to start re-thinking of the word provide. Provide food and shelter, sure, but after that what? Time and love. Seriously. Now some of you may give me the money argument. The “you’re-so-lucky-you’re-a-dentist-and-you-make-bank” argument. I started my dental career later than my peers because of the additional schooling with a debt of over half a million dollars, equivalent to a mortgage loan that many of my friends have already spent four years paying off. If anything, right now, I am at the same place as you, or worse, in terms of net worth. But it’s the way you think about money that will really save you. At the end of the day, money is just money, and things are just things, right? Another blog post to come on re-thinking how we view money. Maybe we should start re-thinking everything.

Now I know we are all different, and yes, some may continue to dream about the glorious days of relaxing for years on end. But I tried that already, when I had the gap after dental school waiting for my license. And it drove me nearly insane. Even travelling for three weeks in a gorgeous country with a lot of planned activities every day made me long for something more. I don’t think I can do the early retirement thing. More importantly, I don’t want to miss out on my life. The present moment is the most valuable to me. And hey, I do all the things my working friends do. I am close with my co-workers, and hang out with them outside of work. I practice my skills and learn something new every day at work. I still have set hours that I clock in and clock out for. I work out before or after work. But I also do everything my retired aunts, uncles, and grandparents do. I travel frequently. I dedicate time to pursue additional hobbies. I can schedule coffee mornings and mid-day lunch dates with my family and friends. This weekend, I plan to sit on lake front property and enjoy fall weather on a boat surrounded by family, which is what you dream of too, except I’m not sacrificing my body to get to that point and I am going to do it now, thirty years before you. Then again, perhaps you’ll decide to do it too. Wouldn’t that be nice?

I must admit. There has to be a sense of simplicity to this lifestyle. You can’t go on imagining that you will become a multi-millionaire this way and swim in pools of cash. That kind of lifestyle probably will require you to work tirelessly during your prime years. But give me the simpler one, and I’ll be a happier person. It’s just an alternative, it’s not the way. There is no ideal way to live life. Just an ideal life for you.