Monday, May 30, 2011

Cents and Sensibility: preparing to repair the slow drip of spending.

Like a slowly dripping faucet that eventually creates a massive pool of water, it's so easy to spend a lot of money very incrementally, not noticing just how much you're spending until you take a slippery step back.

A bit of self-disclosure: I've never put myself on a tight budget when it's come to my discretionary income. Discretionary in this context means anything left over after the bills are paid.

I think it's been established vis a vis the very nature of this blog that I don't do a lot of splurging, but I also don't keep track when it comes to running to the store for a what-not that seems, at the time, essential.

So imagine my surprise when I took a sobering step back and calculated what I spent at the grocery store this month. A bank-balance-crushing 668.17. And I'll spend a bit more on Tuesday, the day before we start to stop spending.

As has been established in an earlier entry, May was a money-sucking month on many levels. We had birthday parties, a graduation party and lots of other savory moments of entertaining in between.

On average, I spend $600 a month at the grocery store. That's $150 a week.

Let's break that down, shall we?

Assume it's a 30-day month, and we have three meals a day. That's 90 meals per person per month. There are three people who live in this magical house, two of whom are ravenous teenagers. That's 270 meals per month. Assuming a budget of $600 per month, the cost of each of those 270 meals would be 2.23.

That doesn't seem extravagant. But that calculation has its inherent caveats.

Take for example Thursday. Logan and I lunched on empanadas at a fabulous hole in the wall dive in north Denver. That excursion was so much fun, and it cost $25.

Example numero dos. Friday night dinner in Greeley at Shawn's. A flavorful pot luck, spiced nicely with great company.

Last night I was treated to tasty homemade pizza and a great conversation with my friend Christine. Cost-free, and completely fun. I just love Christine.

As you can tell, there's a yin to the yang when it comes to entertaining, which also involves inviting people to our house for dinner.

We do that a lot. Next week we start our weekly Peasants Feasts. It's a tasty tradition - we choose a food theme, and whoever feels like coming shows up with a dish and conversation. No two weeks are the same, which feeds the self-diagnosed adult ADD part of me that's easily distracted and thrives on change.

But I digress.

The $600 I spend on food each month has its variables, but the trend of going out and inviting in tends to create a balance.

Those variables will change starting starting the day after tomorrow, when June 1 rolls around and we're committed to the Cents and Sensibility project.

We've done a bit of stocking up (I've got details, but that will come later). We'll get some fresh stuff on Tuesday, fill up the car with gas and pocket $20 a piece, but past that point, all discretionary spending will stop.

Will we go mad?

I doubt it.

If I were taking bets, I'd say we'll run out of gas first. Then Logan will run out of Diet Coke, which will be interesting to watch.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Let's see what happens once we turn the money faucet off on Wednesday.

Like the guest list at next week's Peasants Feast, I have no idea what to expect.

And that's the fun part.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Cents and Sensibility countdown: Unleashing the perfect storm.

One week from today, we start the Cents and Sensibility project. And it couldn't have come at a better time.

Like this year's tornado season has been to those who follow the twists of the weather, May has been the most expensive month in my recent memory.

I could list the events that sucked my wallet dry in May, but that's really not necessary (although if you want a list, please let me know. I enjoy making lists.).

The important, most redemptive thing about May is that May is almost over. The financial tsunami that's defined this month is definitely headed for calmer waters on June 1.

Because a week from today, after we buy a few essentials, fill up the car with gas and pocket a bit of walking-around cash, we're going to see how long we can go without spending anything.

Flipping the calendar from May to June is one of many perfectly timed elements that may make the Cents and Sensibility project a success.

And our circumstances starting June 1 will barely resemble those of May. The rising of the tide when I put all the pieces together make for a perfect storm of potential when it comes to Cents and Sensibility.

Here's my reasoning:

School's out for summer. The slow trickle of money that's been funneled into school-related items and events has dried up for a few months.

The weather's nice. Instead of driving, we'll find kinetic alternatives. It will be interesting to see how far we can go on one tank of gas.

The garden is planted. Volunteer lettuce and arugula are thriving. We'll be able to create fabulous salads soon, simply by walking over to the garden and doing a bit of plucking.

I like to entertain. And who says having people over for dinner has to be expensive? We have company for dinner at least three times a week, and these gatherings are usually thrown together at a moment's notice. Dinner and conversation with friends makes my world turn so much more colorfully.

My son is a great cook. Let's be clear. I'm not a great cook. Cooking is a chore to me.

Thankfully, my 15-year-old son Logan's culinary sensibility has become legendary in my circle. His complex and creative dishes have completely changed my point of view when it comes to how food should taste.

I made dinner the other night, and opted for making pasta with sauce and Italian sausage, with a salad on the side. That used to be standard fare. It completely sucked. The jar of sauce was flavorless. The entire meal, if it were a color, would have been beige.

Logan's  raised the bar, and I'm confident that we'll be eating well during the project, based on his creativity in the kitchen.

Everything seems to be leading to this. If you surf through my blog entries, you'll read about the Scarcity Principle (; about Barb, who's redefined how to look at spending and saving joyfully (; about how the price of gas affects so much more than our mobility (, about the real cost of low prices (

Everything I've written lately has made an imprint.

So. We've got the freedom of summer, the good weather, the garden, the friends, the chef, the research.

One last question: who are the we?

Many of you know me. But let me fill those other folks in, just for a sec. Skip ahead if you know this part.

Single mom. One son is 18, going to college in August. One son is 15, a sophomore in high school next year.

Underemployed, but everything always works. Constantly busy, but content.

That's the super-short version.

And why am I choosing to reel in the discretionary spending for as long as we can?

It's not because of my crazy-expensive May.

Cents and Sensibility is about being conscious of what we really need. Finding alternatives. Being creative.

I'm not putting my family through this experiment as an act of social defiance. I hope this time will instead be an act of cohesion. A time when we realize that what we have is abundant, and enough.

How long can we go? That's the question.

Between now and a week from now, we'll get a few things at Costco. We'll inventory our stock, take a few pictures. And like a worm on the line, we'll wait. We'll see when we really need to buy something. What will be the first thing we'll have to have?

I have no clue. We'll have to wait and see.

It's unpredictable. Like anticipating the perfect storm.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Graduation means more than getting a diploma. At least it does to me.

Like any big event, holiday or anniversary, graduation can be a time for reflection. I decided to do a bit of reflecting today. And yes, I needed a tissue when I wrote this letter to my beautiful son Connor, who graduates from high school on Friday.

May 18, 2011

Dear Connor:

It struck me this morning just how significant it is that you’re graduating from high school. It’s such a passage, not only from Littleton High School to UNC, but a passage from the comfortable routine I’ve come to love.

Let’s be perfectly honest. Neither of us will probably miss some of the things we won’t need to do any more.

I’ll never have to wake you up for school again. We both know how much fun that’s been; especially the squirt bottle phase.

I won’t be packing your lunch any more.

I won’t ask, “do you have any homework?”

There will be no more talent shows to attend, no more school conferences, no more swim meets, no more banquets.

No more picking you up and dropping you off. No more bringing a book or a lunch to school that you forgot at home.

I know it sounds crazy, but I’ll miss those moments. Just like I miss the days when you eagerly reached for my hand and held it tightly when I walked you to elementary school, I’ll miss our comfortable routine.

I hold tight to the memory of these times because I love you. Your buoyancy, your brightness.

And I’ll miss you. I’ll miss your presence. I’ll miss our predictable moments. Even the frustrating times (you can be forgetful and easily distracted, but I think you know that).

You’re such a special person, Connor. You resonate joy. You’re generous. You’re giving. You’re caring. You’re so so smart.

It’s so hard for me to let go sometimes, because it’s all gone so fast. I remember your first day of kindergarten, when you tried to come home before the day was over, just because you assumed you could.

And there’s a part of my noggin that is utterly incredulous that you’re graduating from high school and you’re going to college in a few short months.

It seems like it wasn’t that long ago you were racing around the house with a towel pinned to your shirt, pretending you could fly. I close my eyes and I can see you creating intricate fantasy worlds, playing with little plastic army men for hours, coming up with silly walks down the hallway.

Now you have the opportunity to turn your grown-up dreams into reality.

And I’m so proud of the person you’re becoming.

You have absolutely no idea how much I love you, how I completely honor the time I’ve had with you to watch you grow, how proud I am of your accomplishments, and how much I value the opportunity to call you my son.

I know you yearn for independence, so I know I've done my job well. The best graduation gift I can give to you is being given slowly - I'm learning to let you go.

I think that's a gift you'll appreciate. We both will.

That being said, I know you know I’ll always be here for you, because I love you.

Congratulations, Connor!



Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Cents and Sensibility: Good Intentions. You reap what you sow.

The other day, Logan let me know he needed some pictures of the family for his TED talk he needed to complete for school.


I haven't kept up.

I've actually been quite random when it comes to putting an affectionate chronology to the past.

I directed Logan to The Basket. This is where all photos from the past have been placed. Yes, it would be better if I'd have tucked each reminiscent moment away under perfect plastic in an album, noting each event and its significance.

But that's not me.

And I'm unapologetic.

So this is what Logan and I dug through the other night, trying to sow some seed of family he needed for his school project.

We had so much fun, getting our hands dirty, looking through decades of random moments, events, people. We saw ourselves at different stages. We noticed people we couldn't identify.

Tossed among these images were people who I knew decades ago who I still consider friends. We all look like sleep-deprived versions of who we were, years ago. Age has yet to fully catch up to us. Time has yet to create images of ourselves that we can't identify, despite the passage of time.

That moment was meaningful.

The next day, we planted our garden.

It started out like a photo album, with lots of good intentions of keeping track.

Then our garden became as random as The Basket.

I know the zucchini is planted on the east end of our garden. I know the cucumbers have found station way west. I know snap peas have their place due north, next to the lattice. It's only logical for god's sake.

Past that point, I'm not quite sure.

Except for the tomatoes and the peppers. They're obvious.

Just like our garden, just like The Basket, I had such good intentions to be organized.

But sometimes life becomes unpredictable. Like the intention to chronicle the past.

Like the idea that you'll know what's going to grow.

And where it's going to thrive.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Cents and Sensibility: adaptation.

Yesterday it was my birthday
I hung one more year on the line
I should be depressed, 
my life's a mess
but I'm having a good time.
Paul Simon

I turned 49 the other day.

Ah, the passage of time. So fickle and fast.

Regardless of my incredulity at being almost 50, I decided the minute my alarm clock went off on my birthday that I was going to have a great day, whether I wanted to or not.

And I did. I had a great day.

There are so many reasons why I should have been filled with ennui. My kid turned 18 the other day, and he'll be going away to college in a few months. I've had to grapple with the concept of being old enough to have a kid who's old enough to vote. And I'm adapting to the idea of him going off to college.

My relationship with Mr. Fabulous seems to have ended. There's very little that feels fabulous about that.

And yet, as I mentioned in an earlier blog (, I've been enveloped with a sense of calm, regardless of how quickly or harshly I've been compelled to adapt lately.

It's true that milestones like birthdays and life changes have a tendency to compel a certain level of introspection. And I've definitely given myself full range of motion when it comes to taking a peek at the present as it relates to the past and the future.

But as I've learned lately, it's all about adapting to what's happening right now.

Adaptation. It's essentially all about how we function when we stare into the face of change.

Adaptation is everywhere.

I did a bit of digging, and learned that it's not just me who needs to constantly learn to adapt.

The need to adapt to change seems to be essential when it comes to just about everything.

There's environmental adaptation, which translates into climate change.

Before we identified the concept of climate change, the lovely Florence Nightingale developed a theory of environmental adaptation that's become a standard way to look at caregiving.

There's biological adaptation, which is a process that compels organisms to change in order to fit into a changing environment.


And there's economic adaptation, which we've all had to learn lately.

Economic adaptation assumes that consumers will modify spending based on real or perceived economic conditions. They'll choose the practical over the frivolous. They'll eschew high quality, expensive products for lower quality, cheaper items, in order to adapt to their economic situation.

Highly relatable lately.

And that reminds me of the last thing I blogged about; how low-end products are experiencing record profits.

At any rate, we all do what we can to adapt to changing times.

I'll have to adapt even more than I have recently, starting June 1. I'll have to go from blogging once a week or so to cranking out the copy every day, once Cents and Sensibility starts (

Some things are more pleasant to adapt to than others.

So God bless the goods we was given
And God bless the U S of A
And God bless our standard of livin'
Let's keep it that way
And we'll all have a good time.