Parenting with Less Crap

April 25, 2011

Guest post by Sarah Goupell

Julie asked me to take a stab at relaying some advice about more conscious parenting, or as I like to call it, “parenting with less crap.” I live with my husband and our 11-month-old son in a two-bedroom apartment and have strived not to accumulate a bunch of baby crap that is going to end up in the dumpster. This keeps in synch with my husband’s and my life philosophy against consuming to excess. I suppose we credit our three-year stint in Vienna, Austria, for giving us a more realistic perspective on what we really need to live. Two people’s lives can in fact fit into four suitcases.

Here are some tips to minimize your global footprint as a new parent and keep accumulation of baby stuff under control.

First, opt for cloth diapers instead of disposables. Economically, you will spend more money up front (plan on about $500), but you will save $500 or more in the long run, especially if you have more than one child. Also, you will really enjoy not having to haul disposable diapers home from the store all the time. Granted, you will use more water to wash the diapers, but at least you’ll keep a bunch of synthetics out of a landfill and won’t consistently give money to an evil corporate entity. Research has also shown that children in cloth diapers are toilet trained at an earlier age (they can feel that they are wet).

Modern cloth diapers are very user-friendly. There is no struggling with cloth triangles and pins. I have tried Bum Genius, Haute Pocket, and Fuzzi Bunz pocket-style diapers. In my opinion, Fuzzi Bunz are worth the extra money. They are made of high-quality, soft material and are highly adjustable with snaps and Velcro. They also have proved more durable. The company even sends replacement leg elastic with each diaper. The Haute Pockets fell apart in the dryer after about three months, and the Bum Genius aren’t as soft and tend to leak more around the leg openings.

To wash the diapers, you don’t have to boil water in a huge steel pot or anything. You do a cold rinse and then a hot wash. We have high-efficiency washers, so we do one full cycle on cold without detergent and then one full cycle on hot with a small amount of eco-friendly detergent. Air dry (best for life of diaper) or tumble dry on delicate for about 45 minutes. It’s pretty easy. I have about 21 diapers and wash them twice a week. However, I do put my son in disposable diapers at night. I got tired of washing the crib sheets nearly every morning.

We also use cloth wipes (we have 30) and a homemade “butt spray” made of olive oil, baby shampoo, and water. Using cloth for both the diapers and wipes requires only one receptacle. Our diaper pail is a galvanized steel farm/utility bucket we picked up at Ace hardware for about $15. We figure we can use it in the garden when it’s done being a diaper pail.

Second, scavenge, borrow, and purchase used goods or make your own new goods when possible. We scavenged and scored big in two areas: high chair and child’s dresser, which we found by the dumpster in our apartment block. If you’re a stickler for aesthetics, scavenging probably isn’t for you, but a lot of stuff can be jazzed up with a few personal touches. I made a new cushion for the high chair that matched our living room décor, and my mom purchased some new knobs to update the dresser. Our car seat falls in the borrowed goods category. Whereas everyone in our birthing class had brand new basket-style infant car seats (the ones the babies will outgrow in six months but that are easily carried around if they fall asleep in them), ours was a hand-me-down from my husband’s coworker. Granted, it was pushing the 10-year-old limit for safety and the cloth pieces were faded, but it suited us just fine. Ask around and see what people you know are looking to clear out of their basements or garages.

As for used goods, we decided to buy a used crib. New ones are astronomically expensive, and think of all the dead trees! We got ours for $50 on craigslist. It’s the “death trap” drop-down style, but we thought outside the box and just fixed the movable side with scraps from our friend’s woodshop and some duct tape. It has not budged since. In the arena of homemade baby goods, I hand-knit four baby sweaters, a couple hats, a couple pairs of warm socks, and a couple novelty items (a ball and a diaper cozy). I also received a couple handmade items as gifts. They have held up very well and their quality and style is unmatched. Purchasing used baby clothing is also an excellent route to take because there is hardly any wear on the stuff unless the babies wearing it are older and highly mobile. I’ve found outfits in new condition for less than half the price. Also, bear in mind, you will most likely get a bunch of baby clothes as gifts and hand-me-downs.

In addition to clothing (if you’ve got the skills), making your own baby food is a great thing to do. In the beginning, when everything is pureed to near obliteration, all you need is a standard food processor and some puree-friendly foods. I was also given some ice trays with lids, which were nice for freezer storage. When you make your own baby food, you are more aware of the food’s origins and can be assured that there is no crap like salt, sugar, and pesticides in the ingredients. I was even able to make quite a few meals with fruit and veggies I grew myself in a community garden plot. Roasted pie pumpkin, steamed zucchini, steamed green beans, raw papaya, raw banana, thawed frozen strawberries, and stewed apples or pears with prunes—all pureed well and were well-received. A lot of books also recommend avocado, but my son still hasn’t taken to it. When introducing meat, I found that beef stew and beef barley soup worked really well. Stews and soups are nice because you can make them for the whole family. Just leave the salt out and add it to the grown-ups’ bowls at the table. Puree the baby’s without the salt.

Lastly, decide what your big-ticket items are going to be. These are the things you want to spend a fair chunk of money on and sacrifice space to because they will make your life easier and/or more enjoyable. For us, it was a fancy stroller that can transform into a bike trailer or jogger with a few adapter pieces. We use the heck out of it, and it does make our life more enjoyable. We rode 20+ miles on our tandem bike with the trailer in tow when my son was only four months old. We also would have purchased a nice rocking chair had we not received one as a gift. In other areas, we went as minimal as possible. For example, instead of buying a rigid plastic baby bath (also outgrown in six months, coercing you to buy the next larger version), we opted for a simple sponge the baby can lay on (a $5 investment). We also eschewed buying a changing table in favor of getting the table-top changing pad. When buying things like crib sheets and towels, two of each is usually plenty. Remember: just because someone makes and sells some baby-specific item, it doesn’t mean you should buy it.


Exception to the Rules

April 22, 2011

When do I make an exception to NSE rules?

When the stuff comes with the promise of lifelong companionship.

This weekend, diamond ring in hand, Channing asked me to marry him, and despite his flagrant violation of my no-gifts pledge,* I said yes, ring and all.

The ring is pretty and sparkly, and I love it. Still, I feel conflicted—but not about breaking the rules. I read chapter 1 of The Story of Stuff only a few weeks ago and learned all about the processes of extracting rocks and metals from the earth. The gold mined for my ring—just my one little ring—likely created twenty tons of hazardous waste. And the diamond was likely mined in an open pit—that is, a huge swath of land cleared of trees and inhabitants and layers of earth until the ore is exposed. Processing the ore involved enormous amounts of water and chemicals, as well as workers potentially laboring under oppressive conditions.

The bit of good news about the diamond is Channing bought it from a company that actually has ethical sourcing information on its website. The company, Blue Nile, adheres to the Kimberley Process, an international initiative to stop the flow of rough diamonds used by rebel groups to finance wars against legitimate governments in places such as Angola, Côte d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, the Congo, and Zimbabwe. The bad news is the Kimberley Process, which has been around for eleven years, is probably not 100 percent effective, especially when it comes to cracking down on human rights abuses at diamond mines. Also, the Kimberley Process certification system is flawed. Several of the initiative’s African member-states have weak internal controls and cannot accurately track the origin of their diamonds. Yet those diamonds may enter circulation with conflict-free certification.

I talked to Channing about all this on Wednesday and asked him what to write. He said, “Write that you’re conflicted, but you’re going to keep it.” Well, of course I’ll keep it. It is the most meaningful thing I own. Channing spent a lot of time picking out the rock and the setting and arranging covert deliveries and pickups. I’ve never been so surprised by a gift in my life. A week later, I am still in shock. The ring is special to me, and I will treasure it. (And, by the way, I’m pretty darn excited about getting married to this guy. He is the most accepting and generous person I know, and he never fails to amuse me.)

I’m telling myself that my diamond came from one of the conflict-free countries that supplies Blue Nile—maybe Australia or Canada—so that I worry only about the environmental damage it caused. Also, I will definitely make careful decisions about jewelry in the future. We do have the issue of wedding bands to confront.

On that note, let me say we’ve already started brainstorming a “low-stuff” wedding celebration: consignment shop wedding (sun)dress, locally grown food, no registry, no gifts, etc. I should have a lot to write about in the next few months.

*Shortly after he presented the ring, Channing said something like, “It isn’t an heirloom and I didn’t get it at a pawn shop, so you have definitely broken the rules.”

The Kindness of Friends

April 15, 2011

If you recall, in January I wrote a couple posts about taking donations. The rules of the No Stuff Experiment are we won’t accept gifts of new items, but we will take surplus, clutter, or used items off others’ hands. In the intervening months, several folks have offered me their unwanted stuff, and I’d say I’ve made a decent haul.

Mary was the first to approach me with an offering: two sheets of red construction paper. With this paper, Channing and I made darling Valentines for each other. We wore them while enjoying a dinner of bœuf bourguignon (Julia’s recipe, made with part of my first batch of beef stock) and watching Love Happens, starring Aaron Eckhart and Jennifer Aniston (don’t let the idiotic but hopeful title fool you—this movie is a real downer).

Shortly after the construction paper donation, I received a (reusable) grocery bag full of surplus yarn from my friend Laurin. I taught myself to knit in 2010 (it was my new year’s resolution), and by the end of the year, aside from yarn needed for two overdue Christmas projects, I had only two or three balls of a very funky mohair in my yarn stash. I was pretty bummed about having to give up my new hobby until I could buy more supplies—and I made my dismay known to Laurin when we saw each other in January. She took the hint graciously, and by mid-March my yarn basket was filled to the brim. Scarfs for everyone this Christmas!

Not two weeks later, I received a garbage bag full of unwanted fabric from Channing’s mom. What a surprise! In the bag were several yards of medium and heavyweight cotton, including a fabulous red giraffe print (oh, the possibilities). What I couldn’t use I donated to the Virginia Green Baggers, a group in this area that makes cloth shopping bags and gives them away for free.* As thrilled as I was to have a bunch of new fabric, I was nearly as excited about the extra garbage bag. We have started averaging about three weeks between trips to the dumpster—trying to make our box of trash bags last. Now we have a little more wiggle room.

The most recent donation was more of a loan. I started playing ultimate frisbee again this spring, and my team wanted to show some spirit by purchasing and wearing matching bright pink knee-high socks during the games. I let the captain (who is actually the guy who taught me how to play ultimate in college twelve years ago) know that I had taken a pledge not to buy anything new for six months and politely declined to join the sock order. But, as luck would have it, his fiancée had a pair of these bright pink socks that she was willing to give me for the season. Now, I know it sounds gross to borrow someone’s socks, but they have been washed (and, I assume, properly sterilized), so I will be wearing them the next time I play. If I get some kind of foot fungus, you can say, “I told you so.”

I am grateful to have been on the receiving end of so much generosity, and at some point I’m sure I will repay my four benefactors directly. In the meantime, though, I have paid it forward. I gave my sister a pair of old running pants, which she wore last weekend in her first half marathon. I gave away some CDs, two grocery bags of plastic food storage containers, a set of pots and pans, two glass baking pans, assorted kitchen utensils, and my 15th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style to some happy Freecyclers. Plus, in February Channing and I made a big donation of clothes, shoes, and other odds and ends to charity. It’s just good karma. Let the giving continue.

*Full disclosure: I sew for this group, and it is special. We borrowed the idea from the Green Bag Lady in Tennessee (with permission, of course). We use only fabric we receive by donation—usually from folks with a fabric surplus but sometimes from people who want to see their old (clean) sheets and curtains and pillowcases repurposed. No money exchanges hands. We’re all volunteers, we accept donations of fabric only, and we’ll give anyone a bag for free, as long as they sign a pledge to use the bag instead of paper or plastic.

Do You Have the Time?

April 11, 2011

Last night, a few hours after our April Voluntary Simplicity meeting, I came across a passage in Haruki Murakami’s memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running that perfectly expressed some of the ideas we had discussed during the meeting. This month’s topic was time, a subject I addressed here only a couple of weeks ago. In the passage, Murakami describes how when he was thirty-three he reordered every aspect of his life around his focus on writing novels. He started going to bed early and waking up with the sun. He realized he could concentrate best in the morning, so he decided to write during that time. He ran and did errands in the afternoon and spent his time in the evening relaxing, reading, and listening to music before bed.

Murakami didn’t just revamp his private, working life, he reconsidered his social life too. He writes, “We [Murakami and his wife] also decided that from now on we’d meet with only the people we wanted to see and, as much as possible, get by not seeing those we didn’t. We felt that, for a time at least, we could allow ourselves this modest indulgence.” He had been running a jazz club for seven years; for seven years he had had to greet whoever walked in the door with “a friendly smile” on his face. So, you (well, those introverts among us, at least) can see why he would want to cut back on his social visits.

Yesterday our Voluntary Simplicity group didn’t talk specifically about “this modest indulgence.” But we did talk about finding time to cultivate our most important relationships. Sally shared a story about spending time with her daughter. She has started driving her fourteen-year-old daughter home from high school in the afternoons. When they arrive home, her daughter makes the two of them a cup of tea, and they sit together in the kitchen and talk or read for a while before the planned activities of the evening. This daily ritual was Sally’s daughter’s idea—one afternoon she asked Sally out of the blue if she would like a cup of tea—and over the past few months it has become a mainstay of the family’s routine.

Such rituals don’t always come so easy. Murakami writes, “I’m struck by how, except when you’re young, you really need to prioritize life, figuring out in what order you should divide up your time and energy. If you don’t get that sort of system set by a certain age, you’ll lack focus and your life will be out of balance.” A few of us in the group occasionally feel out of balance (which is probably why the Voluntary Simplicity group appealed to us in the first place). It can be hard to find consonance in your life when odds and ends and responsibilities and social pressure start piling up. They can distract you from your initial purpose. Murakami endeavored to reduce the noise and set his own priorities. What I like about his story is he leads a simple, deliberate life without identifying it as such. He just lives the way he wants to live. We should all be so lucky.

Although most of us in the group occasionally feel distracted or rushed, we all also enjoy moments of what psychologist Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi calls “flow,” or the “state in which action follows action according to an internal logic which seems to need no conscious intervention on our part. . . . We experience it as a unified flowing from one moment to the next, in which we feel in control of our actions, and in which there is little distinction between past, present, and future.” I’m sure you’ve experienced this; I’m sure you’ve been so immersed in a task you’ve lost your sense of time. For me, this feeling comes when I run or write or sew; Helene once found flow in a two-day art class; Sally, a teacher, has encountered it in the classroom; Judy and Bernice experience flow in their gardens; Nan finds it in the mountains, on a hike. (Several in the group experience flow while cooking or baking, but I find I lose myself more in eating and in the conversations that come when friends or family—or just Channing and I—gather around a really good meal.)

I pulled a couple of lessons from our discussion yesterday. First, we all have only twenty-four hours a day, and it’s up to us to make the most of them. This doesn’t necessarily mean packing in the experiences until we’re used up and burnt out. It just means savoring as many of those moments as we can. Second, the hobbies, the work, the relationships that, as Jay Bookman put it in “Caught in the Current,” “pull together the various pieces of our fragmented self and focus them again on a single purpose, a single goal, a single activity”—they are what’s important. And we should take every opportunity to bring them into our lives.

The whole group was there this month! Thanks to Bernice, Helene, Judy, Mary, Melissa, Nan, and Sally for the thoughts and stories that found their way into this post.

Getting Creative

April 8, 2011

When the group of us did this experiment for three months in 2009, one of the participants shared a story about how she avoided buying a new personal calendar for the year. She created her own—using a spiral notebook she had on hand, some printed calendar templates, and a gluestick.

At the time, I didn’t have any similar stories to share—expanding one’s wardrobe by hemming pants and reaffixing buttons isn’t particularly creative. But in the last month or so, I’ve encountered a couple obstacles that required improvisation.

First was that knit-in-the-round project I mentioned in an earlier post. Like I said, it was my first knit-in-the-round—a handbag—and so I didn’t have any stitch markers (for those who don’t knit, these are little plastic rings that mark the beginning of rounds or where a stitch change is needed in a row). I put off the project for several weeks—it was supposed to be a Christmas present and was already well overdue. I thought I would eventually ask a knitting friend to borrow a handful of markers (I needed four). But when I kept forgetting to ask, I realized I had to just dive in and figure it out as I went. I considered using safety pins, but the needles I was using were too big, and the pins wouldn’t fit around them. At the end of my first row in the round and desperate for a solution, I reread the description of stitch markers in my copy of The Chicks with Sticks Guide to Knitting: “…they basically serve the same purpose as tying a string around your finger to remind you to do something.” Hello, lightbulb! I could tie scraps of yarn in contrasting colors around my needles to mark the corners of the bag pattern. This simple solution worked just fine, and the bag came out beautifully.

I encountered another obstacle when I visited my fabric pile to find material for an apron I wanted to make for a friend for her birthday. I discovered that, although I have a ton of fabric in a variety of styles, colors, and patterns, I don’t have much of any one thing. I thumbed through my pattern books until I found what was basically the smallest possible apron (that wasn’t for kids, anyway). The pattern called for one yard of fabric, but after examining the pattern pieces I decided I could do it with less. I dug up two coordinating fat quarters that screamed “birthday girl” to me and (as Tim Gunn might say) made it work—by eliminating a couple frivolous aspects of the design. Oh, I also had to make do with the thread I had on hand, which didn’t quite match (but brought an extra touch of whimsy to the thing). In my unbiased opinion, the finished apron was perfect, and the great thing about it is, although it’s small, it has one huge pocket, which should come in handy for my friend, mother of a small kiddo and pie baker extraordinaire.

With only three (or maybe nine—who’s with me?) months to go, I’m starting to think about life after the experiment. I’m hoping to make a habit of looking for these kinds of simple solutions before I go out on a whim and purchase what seems like a necessity. Becoming a more conscientious consumer is what the No Stuff Experiment is about, after all. Why buy something new when I already have what I need at my fingertips? Finding purpose (or re-purpose) for the scraps, the trash, and the clutter has so far been the most fulfilling aspect of this endeavor for me.

March Money

April 7, 2011

I finally have some good news to report on the spending front. Last month, I spent 5 percent less than I did in March 2010. Progress!

My biggest savings were in the “other” category, which includes spending on material goods and credit card payments. My credit card payments alone were 57 percent less this March than they were last. Plus, last March I spent nearly $300 on stuff, including crafting supplies and new clothes. This March I was able to put that money toward my car insurance bill—which I paid three weeks early! (One of these days, I’ll bite the bullet, ditch the car, and put that 300 bucks right in my pocket.)

The anomaly this month was the amount I transferred to savings. I put 17.5 percent less in my savings account in March 2011 than I did March 2010. Still, my total transferred to savings for the first quarter of 2011 is 29 percent more than it was for the first quarter of 2010. So, I’m pretty happy with the current savings plan. And, apparently I should be. Channing tells me, if I want to become a millionaire, I should aim to put about 20 percent of my income into savings. (This is a tip he gleaned from Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko’s Millionaire Next Door, which I picked up for him last time I was at the library.) Well, guess what! I am currently putting a little more than 20 percent of my paycheck into savings each month. I’ll be millionaire before you know it.*

At any rate, I’m happy I kept spending down this month and was able to pay off that car insurance bill. The prognosis for April is not so rosy. Between paying taxes and financing Channing’s birthday trip to Kansas City, I’m not expecting huge savings next month.


*If by “before you know it” you mean “not in this lifetime.” At my current salary, it’ll take me more than a hundred years to save a million dollars.