Was It Worth It?

March 21, 2012

Wrapping Up, Part 3

“I wonder whether cutting back my personal consumption will do anything more than make me feel better. Is not buying part of the solution—to anything?” Judith Levine, Not Buying It

“You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.” William Blake

I spent some time last week scanning through my posts from 2011—which, with the engagement, wedding, and trip to France, turned out to be a pretty big year for me. In addition to all that fun stuff, I learned a ton. I learned about the outrageous quantity of pesticides sprayed on imported cut flowers. I learned where to find used stuff in my community. I learned how to be a courteous bike commuter. I learned about the growing, mining, and manufacturing involved not just in food, toiletry, and cleaning supply production, but also in packaging, clothing, electronics, furniture, and media production. I discovered new ways to avoid food waste. I rediscovered my interest in writing. I evaluated my use of time, set new priorities, created a calendar, and stuck to my savings plan. And all because of the No Stuff Experiment.

Above I quote from Judith Levine’s book, Not Buying It: “Is not buying part of the solution—to anything?” I’d say, yes, it is. For me, the No Stuff Experiment was a solution to consumer apathy. It was at times a wake-up call (like when I researched cotton farming), at times a refresher lesson (the cleaning product post). It forced me to take a hard look at my values and priorities and to make choices accordingly. Yes, I cheated here and there, and yes, the NSE rules were more lax than are rules for other shopping fasts. As a discerning reader, you are free to fault me for the flaws of my experiment.

And, yet, in spite of those flaws I came away with some important life lessons:

I can’t force my lifestyle onto other people—nor should I. Although, by the end of the year, I was alone in my commitment to the rules of the Experiment, I did this thing with the help and support of many of my closest friends and family. And I think it wore on some of them. I know it wore on Channing. I probably asked a little too much of him in the beginning. I asked not only that he not buy me gifts but also that he not by anything new for our shared home. I told him we couldn’t buy firewood for warming the living room on cold winter nights (remember when we used to have those?); I told him he couldn’t buy me roses for Valentine’s Day; I told him we couldn’t get a new couch. He was displeased but bore with me—for the first few months, anyway. Then the whole engagement thing happened.

Well, eventually, I stopped reminding/nagging Channing (and everyone else) about the Experiment. Shoving the responsibility of respecting my wacky rules onto others just started to seem rude and generally made me unhappy. I rediscovered that the best way to influence others is not with force but with information. Although ultimately none of the readers I’ve spoken to are interested in doing their own shopping fast, every one of them has found tidbits on the blog that convinced them to change one or two tiny aspects of their lives—or that at least made them think about their own consumer choices. That’s pretty huge.

I have way, way, way too much stuff. In December I borrowed a book from Melissa titled Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui by Karen Kingston. This book is full of practical advice, a lot of which I’ve heard elsewhere, and yet it completely rebooted my thinking about clutter. About halfway through Kingston’s book, I realized I had a lot more decluttering to do, and I made this known to Channing. He said, “Haven’t we gotten rid of a lot of stuff already?” Yeah, we have. But…

Think for a moment about all the stuff in your house that you haven’t touched in a month or three months or six months or a whole year. Channing and I have tons of stuff like this—including stuff we haven’t even thought about since we moved in, in 2010: the plastic utensils collected from takeout orders in a kitchen drawer, the extra cheese grater, the serving trays we never use, all the pens and rubber bands in the office (you know, the office I just cleared out in October), the gigantic box of memorabilia from my trip to Australia in 2001—2001!

I know the husband and I won’t get around to clearing this stuff out anytime soon. And you know what?  That’s OK. I am happy, though, that thanks to the Experiment I have become aware of the abundance available to me in my own home. This awareness has made trips to stores like Target, Michael’s, and Office Depot a lot less frequent.

It’s my life. Based on the conversations I had with my Voluntary Simplicity group, I don’t think I’m alone in occasionally feeling like I have no control over how I spend my time. It used to be that when professional, social, and personal commitments piled up, I would either get angry or break down. But these days it’s easier to take a step back and examine why I’m overbooked (the Google calendar helps with this too). Which activities do I want to continue, and which are no longer aligned with my priorities and values?

At the start of this year, I had planned to tackle two major projects: train for a half Ironman and expand my freelance editing business. I quickly realized that spending ten or fifteen hours training every week would not allow much time for the editing business. I am still working a full-time job, after all. So, I had to make a decision about which activity was more important to me. The No Stuff Experiment prepared me to do just that. (For more about the time issue, see my earlier posts in this category.)

I will do this again. OK, so I successfully completed the No Stuff Experiment when I had few responsibilities outside of putting in eight hours at the office every day and paying some bills. What would this thing look like if I were a bit older, lived in a different city or a bigger house, had a kid or two? What would I learn if I gave up the restaurant meals, movie tickets, and consignment shopping in addition to new nonessential material goods? The No Stuff Experiment is something I want to come back to every few years, like a detox or cleanse program for my inner consumer. I’ll have to tweak the rules to accommodate lesson #1 above, of course, but I’m sure I can come up with some new guidelines that will similarly stimulate creativity, problem-solving skills, and self-reflection. Seems like a useful tool for the future me.

Thanks, everyone, for your attention and patience these last fifteen months. I hope you enjoyed the ride as much as I did. I’m looking forward to starting my new blog project, The Rosy Skillet, in the fall of 2012, and I hope you all will join me there. I may also post on No Stuff Experiment every now and again as I come across new information about consumption, clutter, and stuff.

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My Money, My Life

March 18, 2012

Wrapping up, Part 2

In the last five months of 2011, I spent 22 percent less and put 82 percent more in savings than I had in August to December 2010. Even in August, when I made all those exceptions for the wedding, I spent 34 percent less than I had in August the previous year—in part because I didn’t have a lot of credit card debt to pay off in addition to regular expenses.

The biggest surprise as I compared my spending month to month came at the end of the year. In December 2011 I spent a whopping 46 percent less than I  had in the same month in 2010. In 2010 I  bought my bike and a ton of Christmas presents, plus I  stocked up on underwear and other odds and ends before starting the No Stuff Experiment. In 2011 I simplified my Christmas expenses and made no major purchases other than Christmas gifts. (Flights, hotels, tours, and train tickets for the France trip were paid off in November from our joint savings, so they did not factor into my December 2011 expenses.)

What really surprised me in comparing the two Decembers were my food expenses. In 2011, despite my flurry of cookie baking and two holiday dinner parties, I spent 45 percent less on groceries than I had the previous December. How did that happen? I don’t have receipts from 2010, so I’m not certain. I’ll just assume that after a year of closely examining my spending, I learned to budget a little more wisely.

When I started the No Stuff Experiment, I wasn’t too concerned about money. I had eliminated my debt a few years back, and I was trucking along just fine with the little budget I had set up for myself. Sure, I had savings goals. My 2011 New Year’s resolution was to save a certain amount by December, and I was able to keep that resolution in part because I restricted purchases. But, still, money was not a primary motivating factor for the experiment.

In October, when I returned to my simple-living reading list, I picked up the 2008 edition of Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez. I can’t say this book changed my life—or even the way I think about money or work or living. But it did change something. It helped me to reimagine my life with less stuff and early retirement.

Joe and Vicki developed a nine-step program for people to use to examine how they spend money. The exercises are useful, not just for folks with debt, but also for folks like me who are trying to tread more lightly and who are looking for work-life balance. As I mentioned in my last post, in November I started tracking my spending differently. I let go of my monthly budget, and instead now track withdrawals and deposits daily in a new spreadsheet. At the end of November and December, I categorized expenses by type and subtype (e.g., Food, groceries; Food, restaurants; Utilities, phone; Transportation, gas) in a separate spreadsheet, called “Monthly Tabulation” in Your Money or Your Life vernacular. I started to review my spending in each category but felt stymied.

I realized I needed to do my financial planning with my partner. It no longer made sense to establish solo spending/saving goals. So, as of January 1, Channing began tracking his expenses like I tracked mine (he was essentially doing this already), and for the past two months both Channing and I have entered our withdrawals and deposits in the Monthly Tabulation. We spent about a half hour at the end of January and February analyzing our spending and setting goals.

Without getting too bogged down in the details, I’ll say that these discussions have been enlightening for both of us. Channing is now keeping tabs on what he does with the cash he withdraws from the ATM; he’s not buying as many rounds of drinks at after-work happy hours; and in February he paid down a couple thousand dollars in credit card debt. I’ve been adjusting to post–No Stuff Experiment spending freedom. In January, a lot of money went toward stuff, but my food expenses were down. In February, I realized I wasn’t in a race to make up for lost shopping time, and I found a nice balance—more food, significantly less stuff.

Oh, and our savings account? Yeah, seventy-five days into the new year, we’ve already doubled the amount we had in there on December 31 (and have also surpassed the total we had before we took out money for the France trip). I’m proud of us.

(In case anyone’s counting, I have one more wrapping-up post to go.)

Wrapping Up, Part 1

The No Stuff Experiment officially ended when I purchased a crepe pan on January 3, 2012. My new pan, a 10.2-inch De Buyer, is awesome and has already seen good use. So far, I’ve tested two of the four crepe recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, as well as two of the numerous crepe filling ideas therein. And once I tire of crepes—which, let’s face it, probably won’t happen—I can use the pan for omelets, frittatas, pancakes, and the like.

Other than the crepe pan, which I bought in a flurry of post-vacation excitement, my purchases have been pretty tame. I bought underwear, socks, and hose to replace the pairs I wore out (or destroyed) in 2011. The new socks, in particular, brought me joy I didn’t expect; walking to work on that little extra cushion where bare threads used to be is downright delightful. I bought parchment paper to make halibut en papillote, and when I couldn’t find a suitable reusable alternative, I caved and bought (organic) cotton balls. (Happily, this’ll be the last time for the cotton balls; a little additional Internet hunting unearthed this alternative.)

And, finally, I’ve been buying gear for triathlon training. I have registered for two triathlons in Reston this summer, and so, earlier this month, I borrowed The Triathlete’s Training Bible from the library (along with A Year in a Vegetarian Kitchen—a great cookbook). I had already been planning to replace my running shoes, which I buy every six months, and my swimsuit, which is wearing uncomfortably thin in the gluteal region. But, inspired by the advice in the Training Bible, I also invested in a couple of multisport extras: a reflective vest for running and biking in the dark early morning hours and a pair of fins to make swimming drills more bearable (for both me and my lane-mates).

Now that I write it all out, this seems like a lot of shopping. And all I can say in my defense is, thanks to the Experiment, I am a more thoughtful consumer than I once was. For one, I’ve stopped carrying my credit card, and based on the advice in Your Money or Your Life, I’ve ditched my budget in favor of a careful record of daily expenses. If I don’t have money for a purchase in my bank account, I don’t buy it. So, for example, I won’t be buying that $1,000+ power meter the Training Bible recommends unless I can find a heavily discounted used version on Craigslist and a local bike mechanic to install it on the cheap.

For two, I shop with a list—a meticulously edited list of immediate needs based on what I now know I prefer not to live without—and more importantly, I stick to it. The list keeps me from going into a store for hose and coming out with hose plus three new shirts, a sweater, and a pair of pants. Impulsive shopping has been a problem for me in the past—and given the crepe pan purchase, I’m thinking it might still be. However, I’m not as drawn to the fashion on store racks these days, especially after successfully and happily spending twelve days in France cycling through the same three or four outfits, so I think I’ll be better this year about keeping impulses in check.

For three, when I shop, I look for more sustainable or equitable options for each item on my list. This means buying or borrowing used goods whenever possible; buying recycled, repurposed, reusable, local, fair trade, and/or organic, if used isn’t an option; and buying industrial new as a last resort. Duh.

But enough about shopping, buying, and spending money and resources. Let’s talk about what I’m planning to continue going without:

Aluminum foil, plastic baggies, and plastic wrap. I’m done with this stuff—or at least, I’m going to avoid investing my hard-earned money in it. Without my asking, my mom decided to start setting aside aluminum foil scraps for me, and over the year, I also collected a few scraps of my own from takeout meals and the like. I use the scraps on the rare occasions when I can’t find a foil alternative, and this works for me. It’s enough.

Next time I run out of plastic baggies—which should be a few months away, thanks to the small donation Mom gave me over the holidays—I will replace them with Lunchskins. I’m not sure these reusable bags will help with December’s cookie-freezing dilemma, but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

On the plastic wrap front, I recently received a pair of silicone lids from some family friends that have greatly reduced my need for the stuff. I actually use the lids far more often than I ever used plastic wrap; they are extremely handy.

Oh, and as an aside, we still have a few kitchen trash bags in the box from June, and I’m hoping to keep our trash bag use to a minimum again this year.

Physical books, DVDs, and CDs. I haven’t bought a CD in a few years, thanks primarily to iTunes—and now Pandora and Amazon and all the other online music purveyors. My home VHS and DVD libraries have never been that big, but starting this year, if for some reason I want to own a movie, I plan to download it. No big deal.

The more difficult transition in the physical media category will be to ebooks. My husband and I were both English majors; he studied linguistics for ten years and I found a career in book publishing. Clearly we are big readers and even bigger book lovers. But, at the end of last year, both Channing and I decided it was time to embrace a book-lite lifestyle. I put a handful of free ebooks on my iPad for the trip to France, and after Channing finished the second installment of Twilight (his new favorite book series) our last night in Nice, I passed the iPad to him. He was halfway through Jane Eyre by the time we landed at Dulles.

So I think we are ready for the ebooks. I know we’re ready to unload more of our current library. Since we’ve returned from overseas, we’ve emptied an entire bookcase and sold our discards to the local used bookshop for a cool $50 (thanks for the tip, Sarah!). Now we’re only one bookcase shy of freeing up kitchen space for a butcher’s block and some much-needed counter space.

Pouf bath sponges. I had to toss my pouf early in 2011 because it was falling apart and grody. I have since been using a washcloth—and wondering why I ever switched to poufs in the first place. I can throw my washcloth in the laundry every week so it’s always clean, and I probably won’t have to replace it for years. Poufs, in contrast, lose their shape after only a few showers and need to be replaced every few months. It’s a no-brainer.

New furniture. Of the items on this short list, this one is sure to be the toughest. Finding new furniture that suits both my husband and me is a chore; finding used furniture that we both like will probably be close to impossible. Still, Channing’s agreed to shop used first for the several items on our furniture wish list. We’re looking to buy a butcher’s block, couch, coffee table, and dining room table. If you have any leads, let me know.

More wrap-up posts to come…

On Thursday Channing and I leave for our vacation on the French Riviera. I’ll be continuing the No Stuff Experiment there—only food and wine expenses for this traveler*—and then I’ll write a series of two or three wrap-up posts in January. For now, let me leave you with a handful of year-end tidbits that didn’t quite make the cut for full-length blog posts.

First, I must confess that I did a little pre-vacation clothes shopping—at consignment shops, of course. In mid-October, Channing announced that he would not be wearing jeans while we were overseas; I looked at my wardrobe the next day and panicked. (For the record, I think this ridiculous proclamation had everything to do with our recent viewing of the first four seasons of Mad Men, an AMC series with an extremely well-dressed cast. Oh, the dangers of television: it can turn keeping up with the Joneses into keeping up with a fictional 1960s advertising genius and his numerous pocket handkerchiefs.) I had been meaning to hit the used clothing circuit in hopes of picking up a few basics that would help me streamline my wardrobe, so now I decided to look for pieces that I could wear for both work and vacation (think comfortable clothes in neutral colors). Long story short, I spent some time at Chic Envy, the new consignment boutique at Fairfax Corner, and then made the rounds at the vintage shops in Alexandria. I ended up with a couple skirts, a cocktail dress (for office holiday parties and Christmas and New Year’s Eve dinners), and a couple blazers to dress up slacks or jeans.**

Second, to continue my kitchen disposables saga, earlier this month I ran out of plastic wrap and freezer bags. These are two disposables I don’t use a ton of unless I’m displaying baked goods on platters (rather than storing them in Pyrex), transporting food to parties on platters, or freezing stuff (in this case, cookies). The plastic wrap problem isn’t too dire. We have a roll of Glad Press’n Seal under the sink that I’ve been using as a plastic wrap alternative—although the stuff kind of freaks me out. Glad’s website says the seal is made with “the primary [FDA-approved] ingredients typically found in chewing gum” and assures customers that Glad products do not contain phthalates or BPA. I remain skeptical and avoid letting food in contact with the sticky side of the wrap. Oh, I’ve also been reusing the last couple pieces of regular plastic wrap like crazy. And when those scraps aren’t big enough and the Press’n Seal won’t do, I find creative solutions: I took cookies to the office potluck in a shirt box lined with festive tissue paper. Party guests took home cookies in gift bags from our stash from holidays past.

The freezer bags were more of a problem. I wanted to freeze a several dozen cookies over the course of the month and didn’t have enough Pyrex containers to hold them all. So, I took a few bags from Mom’s gigantic resealable bag stash. The woman has an entire kitchen drawer devoted to Ziplocs of various sizes and weights, plus another shelf full of them in the basement. As grateful as I am for Mom’s stockpile (the cookies froze beautifully), it seems a little excessive, no?

Third, I started a post on Freeganism last month, but I haven’t been able to finish it—in part because I wanted to go on a dumpster dive and write about the experience. I keep checking out the dumpsters behind Whole Foods whenever I’m at Plaza America, and there appears to be loads of good stuff out there, but I can’t bring myself to start rummaging. For one thing, all the dumpster-diving tip websites suggest wearing rubber gloves, which I do not own and cannot buy. For another, they suggest going at night with a buddy, and I have been unable to convince Channing that helping me dig through trash is an activity worth his time.

In any case, the primary reason the Freeganism post has not seen the light of day is I can’t write it without making Freegans sound like moochers or freeloaders. They aren’t moochers; they’re resourceful. Freeganism is exciting, terrifying, daring, and maybe a little bit gross. You can read up on Freegans and their philosophy here, here, and here.

Finally, I have started to brainstorm my next blog project, The Rosy Skillet. It’ll be about good meals and the stories they inspire (and how to host a dinner party for sixteen when you have only eight plates in the cupboard). I hope to have the first installment written by March 2012.

Happy holidays, everyone! Thanks so much for reading my musings this year!

*Plus plane and train tickets and hotel stays, but we’ve paid for that stuff already.

**For every item I added to my wardrobe during those trips, I put at least one item (and often two or three) in the donate pile.

(Or At Least for Several More Years)

The other day I read a short article about the projected 2012 release of the iPad 3. This new iteration of the iPad sounds pretty fabulous: sleeker design, better graphics, wireless charging and data transfer technology, etc. I thought to myself, “Hey, I’ll be buying things next year; maybe it’s time for an upgrade.”

Then I remembered my green values—and this short video on electronic waste by Annie Leonard.

Not only does Apple release newer, faster, better versions of its iPods, iPhones, and iPads with astonishing frequency, but it also makes these devices somewhat difficult to maintain. A month ago I took my iPod Mini to the recycler because I couldn’t figure out how to change the battery, which (as most of you probably realize) is sealed inside seemingly impenetrable casing. To be honest, I didn’t even think of replacing the battery until I started researching this post. I’m just that accustomed to the idea that consumer electronics are meant to be replaced, not repaired. Shame on me.

You see, folks, I have grown up in a country where planned obsolescence is the norm. Consumer electronics manufacturers design products or time product updates so that consumers continually spend money on their wares. This strategy is a big problem because most TVs, personal computers, tablets, cell phones, music players, and e-readers are full of various hazardous chemicals, such as lead, PVC, mercury, arsenic, and flame retardants, which have been linked to reproductive disorders and several cancers.* The more gadgets we buy, the more of these chemicals we introduce into our homes and offices—and the more e-waste we create by replacing our obsolete machines.

Twenty-five million tons of e-waste is generated every year. More often than not, this waste is dumped or burned, so in the disposal process all those toxins are released into our air, soil, and waterways. “Well, I recycle my old electronics,” you say. When you choose an electronics recycling program, make sure you do your research. About 70 to 80 percent of the waste given to e-cyclers is shipped overseas, where workers mine the machines for precious metals and then burn the rest. To ensure that your old gadgets are disposed of properly, choose a recycler certified by e-Stewards or conduct your own investigation using this list of questions.

In addition to the problems of toxins and disposal, we must consider the resources consumed as manufacturers create new machines to replace the obsolete ones. As The Daily Green put it, “Our insatiable appetite for stuff drives carbon emissions and pollution.” According to the Product Policy Institute (PPI), the provision and use of products and packaging accounts for 44 percent of U.S. global warming emissions (this statistic covers all consumer goods, not just electronics). The bulk of these emissions occur during the production phase, from materials extraction to manufacturing. PPI concludes that reducing consumption—by repairing broken items, going without, or steering clear of whatever hot new product is making your own stuff look outdated (you do not need that iPhone 5!)—offers the largest opportunity to combat global warming. Well, isn’t that interesting.

On that note, it turns out that a quick Internet search would’ve illuminated the process of changing my iPod Mini battery for myself. Had I known that five years ago, when the thing mysteriously stopped working, I may still be rocking a cute, pink, 4GB antique (or maybe the battery wasn’t the problem?). I will keep this in mind when my replacement iPod (which, at four years old, is still going strong) and my iPad start getting wonky on me.

I don’t mean to single out Apple as the only company—or consumer electronics as the only industry—that indulges in planned obsolescence. The practice has been around since the 1930s, and even light bulb manufacturers do it (see item 9). I don’t think any of our light bulbs have burned out this year (although Channing may have replaced them on the sly), but I have experienced planned obsolescence in the fashion arena. Recall that post in the spring about my urge to update my wardrobe with some newer styles. And then there’s Channing’s continual search for a fast and shiny new car and a bigger TV.

Still, with the constant barrage of updates to computer operating systems, phone networks, gaming systems, and sundry gadgetry, it’s hard not to isolate the electronics industry as an egregious offender. Once again, I’ll close with the moral “Think before you buy.”

Unless otherwise cited, facts are from Annie Leonard’s The Story of Electronics. If you have ten minutes to spare, please consider watching this video and sharing it with your friends.

For (excellent) tips on repairing various household items, see The Daily Green. While there you might also check out this list of things you didn’t know you could rent.

*Apple and other companies have started monitoring and reducing the amount of toxins in their products, as my friend Sarah pointed out in a comment on an earlier post. See this link.

A No Stuff Christmas

December 9, 2011

I started avoiding the shopping mall at Christmas three years ago, shortly after completing my first Voluntary Simplicity group in the summer of 2008. I had always enjoyed the mall during the holidays—the hustle and bustle, the seasonal décor, the shoppers’ enthusiasm—but buying a bunch of stuff from chain retail outlets no longer seemed to jibe with my values. Plus, that summer I had acquired my very own sewing machine and two good pattern books. It was time to put my skills as a seamstress to use.

I’ve made many, many Christmas gifts in the years since—lap quilts, aprons, smocks, coasters, scarves, shawls, handbags—but as rewarding as it is to shape raw fabric or a ball of yarn into something useful, taking on a bunch of craft projects at the end of the year can make December extremely stressful. So this year, with Channing’s support, I’ve devised a different strategy:

1.   Give experiences. This Christmas everyone on my “shopping” list is getting a gift card for some experience or another: a meal at a good restaurant, a day at the spa, or a museum membership, for example. All but two of the cards/certificates I’ve bought are for small businesses (even the little guys allow you to buy gift cards on their websites or over the phone). Not only does this approach avoid cluttering a loved one’s home, but it also saves me a boatload on postage and time. I finished my shopping a week ago having made no trips to the mall or the post office. What’s more, for the first time in our six Christmases together, Channing and I have pooled our resources: we’re giving nearly everyone on our mutual list one gift from the two of us—meaning we’ve been able to give folks tours, trips, meals, and memberships that we wouldn’t have been able to afford on our own. I have to say I’m pretty stoked about some of the gifts we dreamed up this season—maybe because I would take a nice restaurant meal or a guided tour of anything over a new pair of jeans any day (I just hope our family feels the same way!).

2.   Bake cookies. Without those trips to the mall and post office, I’ve freed up my time for baking. And nothing puts me in the holiday spirit quite like cranking up the Christmas tunes, pulling out my stand mixer, and making an organized mess of flour, sugar, butter, and eggs. I tend to overdo it with the holiday cookies—I’m currently six batches into a fourteen-cookie dance card—but I know baking isn’t everyone’s thing. May I suggest, though, that you schedule some time to bake with family and friends this year. Baking cookies with my mom every Christmas is a ritual I don’t plan to give up anytime soon. Not only is cooking with Mom fun, but we also end up with plenty of extras for giving away as impromptu gifts for colleagues, party hosts, and neighbors.

3.   Host a party (or two). No time like the holidays to schedule QT with friends and family. Since Channing and I will be out of town on Christmas Day (see item 4), we have planned special celebrations with our families over the next two weeks. Unlike the usual Christmastime festivities, these dinners will be quiet affairs, during which we can actually enjoy one another’s company without the usual gift-exchange hullabaloo. Plus, next weekend we’re hosting friends who live locally for a big festive dinner. We’ve opted out of Christmas cards this year (because I’m not buying cards or supplies to make cards), so we thought a party would be a great alternative way to spread holiday cheer to our nearest and dearest. To prepare for the dinner, I plan to spend several hours in the kitchen, but if cooking isn’t your thing, you can still invite friends and family over for a merry catered meal or wholesome potluck.

4. Take a Christmas vacation. Channing has been talking about spending Christmas out of town for at least two years, and now, using our honeymoon as an excuse, we’re going for it. On December 22, we’re flying to Nice to spend the holidays in the French Riviera. Sure, traveling overseas is not the simplest option for avoiding holiday-season insanity. It’s expensive. It requires a lot of planning. Jetting across the Atlantic is not exactly environmentally friendly. But the trip has forced us to reconsider how we give gifts (see item 1) and what is most important to us this time of year (see item 3)—lessons we hope to recall when we plan for future Christmases.

At thirty-one, I have not spent a Christmas away from my family until now. Pretty crazy. But breaking traditions every once in a while is a good thing, I think (especially when palm trees are involved, right?). In addition to prompting us to reevaluate how we celebrate, I’m hoping this trip will provide some perspective—so that in the coming years we don’t become complacent or take for granted this annual occasion for feasting and family time.

I’ve seen a lot of buzz about the second annual Small Business Saturday on Facebook in the last couple weeks. For those who aren’t aware, Small Business Saturday, falling the day after Black Friday, is a marketing ploy by the folks at American Express to encourage consumers to shop at independent and locally owned stores in order to boost neighborhood economies. It’s a pretty great idea, but it does seem a little odd that the day was dreamed up by some folks at a large corporation and has a number of corporate sponsors, right?

Well, regardless, Small Business Saturday overlaps with one of my personal guidelines for the No Stuff Experiment: when buying necessary material goods, like groceries or toiletries, or going out for dinner or to the movies, choose local and independent sources over big corporations.

I haven’t stuck to this guideline like glue; in fact, in the last few months, I’ve been a little careless about it. I’m flying Continental/United to Florida for Thanksgiving tomorrow. We stayed in a Holiday Inn in Huntington for Marshall University Marathon weekend.* I regularly buy dry goods, dairy products, and cleaning supplies from Whole Foods.

But, earlier this month, I renewed my buy-local efforts when I found out that a new MOM’s Organic Market had opened just down the road, in Herndon. MOM’s is an independently owned chain of organic grocery stores that started in Beltsville, Maryland, in 1987. Since then, it has expanded to eight locations, two of which are in Virginia (one more VA location, in Merrifield, is due to open in 2012). For such a small space, the selection at the Herndon location is fantastic, and I found nearly everything on my grocery list (save white vinegar in cleaning quantities and plain cow’s milk yogurt). MOM’s has a decent local wine selection and shelves full of organic nut butters, but what’s even better is they have the Story of Stuff playing on a loop on one of the aisles.

It’s pretty darn exciting when a business that shares your ideals—with the mission “To Protect and Restore the Environment”—opens up your neighborhood. I am looking forward to giving MOM’s my business this winter.

But since I will be in Florida visiting family for the weekend, I will not be stopping by my new favorite grocery store on Small Business Saturday. Instead, it’s more likely I’ll participate in twentieth annual Buy Nothing Day, which coincides with Black Friday and this year has an OWS theme. I wonder if Occupy St. Pete will do something for the occasion.

*Got my PR by 22 minutes, by the way: 4:24:00. Woo!