Sunday, November 28, 2010

When trying to do what's best for the environment, our wallets sometimes get in the way. And when our wallets get in the way, choosing between long-term and short-term environmental goals gets tougher. What should we do?                                      

Photo by Steve Wampler

A lot of my focus lately has been on finance, what with my working 40 hours a week and trying to write a novel in order to make a couple of extra bucks. This is coming from a guy that envisions a lifestyle where he provides 90% or more of his food needs, plus many other material needs, all without the use of money. I want to grow what I need. Finance plays a role in sustainability, however, on account of the system we are working inside of. Short of stealing a person's home, I'll have to opt to buy the property on which I wish to develop my eventual forest garden (certainly renting is one possibility, but that adds stress for both the forest gardener and the property owner--the owner will want to know if the gardener is going to leave them with a mess of trees they have to dig out of their once-perfectly-acceptable farm land, and the gardener will worry if the property owner will stop renting to them once the forest garden is about to reach maturity). I've definitely had discussions with some readers about wanting to re-localize our economize to better do away with abstract finance, but we just aren't at that point yet. I think it will take a few mindful individuals who have the means to purchase this land before it's paved over, and then act as stewards of that land for the benefit of their communities. As a writer, and as a connoisseur of film, I appreciate the need for such graceful transitions, whether in the arts or in the socio-politico-economic realms.

So. Finance.

My student loan payments just started coming due, and I made my first payment this week. More of them will start coming due in the next couple of months. My 90-day review at work, and the raise that is supposed to come with it, is long past due. I'm doing okay, financially, but I am living paycheck to paycheck, and were I to lose my job or suffer a major medical expense, I would have nothing to fall back on. Money will only get tighter as more and more loan payments get stacked onto my other bills. I'm also constantly stressing about how long it will be before my unemployed roommate exhausts his savings and is unable to to pay his share of the rent (hopefully there is enough warning that I can move back home if this ever becomes the case).

One way that I could help reduce my financial burdens is, as I've mentioned before, to live within a neo-nuclear family. In less fanciful terms, I could get more roommates--though the idea behind a neo-nuclear family is that there is a bond beyond simple shared living expenses. Although, splitting rent and utilities three, four, or five ways would certainly reduce my personal costs.

The other alternative, or at least, one of the alternatives, is to reign in frivolous spending. Recently I've been doing a lot of that, relatively speaking. In my first month at my new job I probably ate out more times than I had the entire time I was going to school. I worked (and am still working) eight hours a day, coupled with two hours of commuting on the bus each day. Once you tack on the other little things I have to do to get ready for work, and the downtime I face when I get home from putting in a long day, I simply didn't have the energy to prepare meals most of those days.

Last month I finally had a system down. I would prepare enough food on the weekends that I didn't have to cook or eat out during the week (though, it did get kind of old eating the exact same thing every day for a week), and when I did have to make a purchase, I would use services on my phone to track where my money was going as I spent it. I gave myself a very conservative budget for eating out and I stuck with it, even though I had used almost all of it up in the first half of the month. It forced me to be more vigilant in ensuring I was preparing enough food to eat each week when I had the time to do so.

But, it fell apart this month. I decided to write a novel in 30 days. When I wasn't working, I was writing. Easily twelve or more hours a day on the weekends, plus getting up four hours before my shift on weekdays so I could write before I left for work. I've been writing during my lunch breaks, on my commute to and from work, before I left for work, and after I got home. So, now I was working 40 hours a week, and then spending at least an additional 44 hours a week, if not actively writing, at least actively developing the story within my head or cursing my writer's block.

I would rush to get something in the crockpot right before passing out the night before my work week began (I'm really sick of soup right now, by the way), but when the weekends rolled around, I basically ate out for every meal. It's been worse than any other month since I started working. And keeping a budget or tracking spending? Screw that! When did I have the time or energy? When I did eat out, I would stuff the receipt in my pocket and promise I'd put it in my phone later.

I haven't entered a single receipt all month.

When I was first trying to figure out how to track my spending on my phone I had looked into and, both of which had apps for my phone. I ultimately went with the PageOnce app. It was a purely arbitrary decision, based in part on the reviews the software had received, but mostly because I didn't want to enter my already sensitive financial information into two separate pieces of software, thus increasing my chances of becoming of victim of identity theft (although, I pity the fool that steals my identity). There was a problem with my choice, though. PageOnce didn't allow me to create budgets, even though it did track my spending rather nicely. I ended up having to install another app in order to create a budget, and then I had to enter my receipts manually. Hence the problem that occurred when I didn't have the time and energy to enter my receipts.

Finally, yesterday, while there was some downtime at work (yes, I do work on Saturdays, for better or worse), I was turned on to the blog of a fellow Oregonian writer. You may have heard of it. It's called Get Rich Slowly. When the author, J.D., decided to start tracking his spending again he went with, and he wrote up a pretty nice review of the service. It allows you to set up budgets and automatically assigns purchases at various stores, etc., to different categories and allows you to tweak to your hearts content. Even though I hadn't wanted to put my details into two separate accounts, I broke down last night and set up my account and created a budget which will go into full effect once December 1st rolls around. Everything is automated, and it will email or text you if you try to go over your alloted budget, so hopefully it's an improvement over my previous system.

Also, it allowed me to see that I had been spending nearly 30% of my income on food. That includes groceries, but also a considerable amount of that is the fault of eating out. I did so well last month on avoiding eating out with the help of a budget, and now that my novel-writing is winding down, I hope I will be able to avoid eating out in the months to come.

I also have a goal set up in Mint to save up a small emergency fund, just in case there are any medical expenses, etc., that I need to cover. If my budget works out, I'll be able to meet that goal in six months.

The next step is to call the companies servicing my loans and switch to a payment plan that is based on my income. If I don't do that, when I finally have to start paying on my final loan, my loan payments each month will be between $400 and $500. In short, more than I can afford. I'll be trying to pay off two or three of the smaller loans first so that there are fewer companies/payments/etc. to deal with each month.

I haven't been clear. I know this. What, exactly, does any of this have to do with sustainability?

Three things.

First, if you have debt or any kind of financial obligations to the "outside world" or "the system," then you have to have a way to make money to pay on those obligations so long as they exist.

Second, if you want to own property so that you can start a garden of some sort, you need to have a plan and set goals that will make purchasing that land a reality.

Third, we have to be conscious of how our sustainable choices effect our wallets.

With regard to the first, I have loans that I have to pay off. That is one of my major priorities right now because I can't pay off my debt with apples and plums--at least, not directly. Before I can think of doing anything other than working full time, I need to make sure I have a plan for managing that debt, or to be free of it entirely.

With regard to the second, I'm creating financial goals. These next six months are going to be about creating a financial buffer in the form of an emergency fund. For the 18 months following that, I will be putting half that amount toward growing my emergency fund, and the other half into a fund for purchasing property and developing a forest garden. After that, it's all about the property fund. If I already have a set amount that I'm promising to put away for these projects, then I won't be able to spend that money on something frivolous.

The third one is the real stickler, though. I haven't bought that bidet yet. We have two rolls of toilet paper left. Do I A) Foot the bill and buy the bidet, ultimately saving money in the long run and doing something good for the environment while I'm at it? B) Buy the super expensive 100% recycled toilet paper that we've been using, feeling good about not buying the non-recycled stuff, but realize that I'm spending an asinine amount of money to wipe my ass, or C) Buy the super cheap toilet paper, cringe at the fact that I'm killing the planet slowly, but hope that what I'm saving my money up for balances that out?

There are other options, of course, but these are the most obvious. Each has pros and cons. And obviously, there's no easy answer because there's an interplay of choices here. If I buy the environmentally horrid toilet paper, I'll be saving money for a very environmentally valiant cause. It's about the net effect. If you kill a bunch of trees to print out fliers promoting an environmental discussion panel which ultimately causes a bunch of people to live more environmentally-conscious lives, was it worth the death of those trees. If the net effect was an ultimately positive one, then, barring any extraneous issues, it probably was worth it.

On that same note, growing organic vegetables is dirt cheap, Buying them isn't so much. I can't grow them, especially not this time of the year, so do I buy non-organic so that I can make ends meet? I generally don't have much of a choice as my wallet dictates what my options are. I could commit to buying organic only, or 90% organic, or 70% organic, or whatever, but then I will never get caught up financially, and that forest garden will never become a reality. I did buy almost entirely organic products this past week when I went shopping. I felt violated when I saw the bill. If the farmer's market was still running, I would never pay that much for food in a week. So, I mostly buy bulk bags of non-organic carrots, potatoes, onions, etc., and occasionally buy organic when I can during the fall and winter months. I have to make being financially smart my goal though.

Are your long-term environmental goals often cut short by short-term goals? Or do you opt to make some really crummy decisions in order to ensure the success of your long-term goals?

Right now I'm trying to ensure the success of my long term goals, and that is requiring me to make decisions that I don't want to. But, I am tracking my spending and dutifully adhering to my goals so that it isn't all for nothing.

What about you? How do you deal with the intersection of money and environment, and do you have a plan to make sure you don't stray too far?

In other news, I dug through some of the old comments on the blog after having been away for so long. Someone mentioned creating forest gardens in public spaces, and at about that same time I looked out of my window and saw a small plot of land that presumably belongs to the church next door, and which sits right next to their parking lot. It's a Hispanic church, and I know that a lot of the immigrants in this area work in agriculture. I also know that they're a pretty tight-knit crowd, and have strong communities. It sounds like a breeding ground for a community forest garden. Perhaps it's something I should look into. I think I might have a contact that can help me find who I need to talk to.

The other other news is that I've noticed that the site is running rather slowly/buggily. That tends to happen when I disappear for a few months. Looks like I'll have to work on it in December to get it back into tip-top shape. You're probably sick of me tweaking/completely redesigning the thing on a whim, but I've yet to find that one design that really does the trick. It's getting there. Thanks for the patience.


Monday, November 22, 2010

I'm not dead, as the title clearly states. This is an update to let you know what I've been up to, and why the long silence (hint: it has to do with the novel I've been writing). New posts will follow in December.                  

Photo by malky

I haven't written in ages, and I really didn't want to leave you hanging. I had a lot of posts that I planned on writing over the summer, but they just never happened. I'm working for the man now, an ungodly forty hours a week. But, I'm also working on the first draft of my first novel: Max After Earth. In my story, the Earth has been so ravished by human activity that when an asteroid (perhaps you've heard of Apophis?) threatens all life on Earth, scientists flee the planet rather than try to find a way to stop the calamity, no longer finding the Earth worth saving. I've written about 190 pages so far, and I'm starting to wrap things up. There's still a lot of editing that needs to be done. No, seriously a lot of editing. But, I'm that much closer to realizing my dream of writing and publishing a book, and it deals with a lot of my favorite topics, including environmental issues, forest gardening, human relationships, and technology. It's interesting to see all of these different thought processes come together in one work of fiction.

To those of you maintaining your own blogs, I'm apologize that I haven't been around to read your, no doubt fantastic, work. Maybe when my book is off to the publishers I'll be able to take a break and do some catching up.

I hope you'll continue to follow me on my journey. Any money that I'm able to make off of my book will be seed money for starting a forest garden of my own, a forest garden which I will be able to use to teach other's forest gardening (both in person and through this blog) and that's something I really look forward to.

Until my next update, which could be some time in coming given the current work load, take care.