Sunday, November 30, 2008

Thanks to our friends with cars.

Things have been a bit rough around our digs these last few weeks. I'm operating at maybe 1/2 capacity due to some serious and stubborn morning sickness. We've all been knocked down by a vicious case of viral bronchitis that seems to have taken the whole neighborhood by storm, and taken all of our sleep and energy along with it.

Cold weather + bronchitis = No biking for Angela = No easy groceries for us.

So we'd like to give a big thank you to our friends with cars, the friends who hardly ever drive them and insist we can borrow whenever we need. Thank you Cindy and David for the grocery trip last weekend (and the food you brought us yesterday), and thank you Sue and Tracy for offering us the car so we can get to Market Basket this afternoon. We love not that we almost never have to drive, but also love that we have generous friends and neighbors who help us out in a pinch when it turns out we need to. Thank you.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Being frugal

Part of the reason that Dorea and I decided to become permanently car free is that we are cheapskates. I’ve always been a tightwad, but I wasn’t always good at budgeting and controlling impulse purchases. Dorea was always good at budgeting, but not as good at penny-pinching. We became big fans of Amy Dacyczyn (if only she had a blog!) when I brought a copy of the Complete Tightwad Gazette home from the library maybe six years ago. Together, we became tightwad blackbelts.

When Dorea and I got engaged, almost six years ago, I had debt in credit cards and student loans that totaled around $40,000. Dorea had a few thousand in student loan debt. We paid off the last of all that debt in the spring of this year. We would have had it paid off even earlier, but we used some savings to put a down payment on a condo re-do the ceiling.

For a long time we were frugal because we had to be. We were both grad students and I was trying to take whittle down a huge debt so that Dorea wouldn’t feel like she was marrying a ne’er-do-well. Then we were a young family with a child to support and only one of us out of graduate school. Then we were both employed but were trying to re-establish our emergency fund after buying a house. And then we were scrimping and saving and putting all of our free cash towards the expenses of getting pregnant as a lesbian couple.

But now we are coasting along and we are starting to lose our frugal edge. We bring in more than we spend without having to try as hard anymore. This is in large part due to the fact that we live in a very small condo (650 square feet) and don’t have a car. But over the past couple of months many of our expenses have gone up:
  • Transportation: We bought a fancy new bicycle, and Dorea doesn’t ride at the moment (at the insistence of her acupuncturist who was instrumental in helping us get pregnant) so we spend more money on public transportation.
  • Food: We’re inching closer and closer to keeping kosher, and right now buy all kosher ingredients for food we cook at home. This means that we spend more for some items. Dorea has been feeling very sick, so we are buying a lot of special foods to keep her happy. And I have been having a lot of stomach problems so we’re buying special foods to keep my tummy happy. That all adds up to about $90-$100 a week, even shopping at the Market Basket.
  • Time-savers and treats: Dorea and I are both feeling tired and overworked and generally put-upon. As a result, we’re instituted a take-out and movie night at our house. The movie comes from the library so it’s free, but our takeout usually costs $20-30, which is a sore blow for former tightwad blackbelts. We’re also spending more of our money at coffee shops, and buying more things like paper plates. Oh, and we’re using paper diapers instead of cloth at nighttime. Oh the shame!!
Now we are starting to feel nervous. We would like to re-do the kitchen in our condo and put in hardwood floors. We’d like to head into our first year as a family of four feeling financially fit and fabulous. We’d like to stop some of our bad habits, while still taking care of ourselves and realizing our limitations. So I've been trying to soak up some inspiration. The Simple Dollar and Almost Frugal are both great for that. And maybe it's time to crack open the Tightwad Gazette in and dig back into Your Money or Your Life. Someday we may have the energy to be frugal once more!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Earning our plural.

Savvy readers may have been wondering about a few things. Why is the title of our blog plural when we only have one kid? Why hasn't Dorea been riding her bike? Why did we make a sappy post about walking H home from the hospital when that was a long time ago? What's up with the two-kid bicycle seat? (10 points to the anonymous commenter)

It's true. If all goes well, we will be a family of four this summer. I (Dorea) am pregnant with our second, due mid-June.

Thus far, I do find pregnancy is cramping my car-free style a bit, mostly since I'm not riding the fabulous xtracycle I obsessed over for so long, and have to spend a lot more time waiting for the T and the bus. But I figure if we can survive and thrive during pregnancy+toddler, and later baby+toddler without a car, we will have truly proven it is possible to be happily car-free with kids, at least little ones.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Self-reliant Living

My mother recently gave us a stack of Mother Earth News from this past year and it has been having funny effects on me. On the one hand, I am lusting after the whole back-to-the-earth lifestyle found in the pages of Mother Earth. On the other hand, my life couldn’t be farther from the life of a homesteader and I like it that way.

I just finished reading an article on simple living in a city (“Simple Ideas for Sustainable Living” from Dec 07/Jan 08). The article itself got me thinking about my own choices in urban living, but I was really most struck by the ad at the back of the article to share your stories of the “self-reliant life.” Is it possible for a life in the city to be “self-reliant?” Would I even want a self-reliant life?

Living in the city we cannot be self-reliant. My family relies on city and state services throughout each day. We have city water, city sewer, and city garbage and recycling pickup. We use public transportation. We have no yard at all (our greenspace is a strip a couple of feet wide on two sides of our house), so we can’t grow vast amounts of produce on our land or raise livestock. We live in a small 3-unit condo building, so creating our own electricity is complicated by the amount of coordination that would be needed.

On the other hand, we share resources to an extent that would not be possible in suburban or rural areas. Most obviously, almost all of our rides in vehicles are shared. The bus and subway systems allow us to share rides with the whole greater Boston area (and we share the use of a car through the Zipcar network). We live on a short private drive and share a number of things with our neighbors. In the summertime we share our neighbor’s bike trailer (which was passed onto them from another neighbor). H has received a number of hand-me-down toys and clothes through our neighbors. In the winter our neighbor with a snow blower makes a dent in all the snow. This Halloween we gathered with our neighbors at the end of our drive to share some cider and give out candy together. We share green space with our whole neighborhood in a park that is a social hub for families with young children in the summer months. We share produce with other city residents through our CSA and local farmers’ markets.

In terms of sustainable living, it is hard for me to imagine that I could be more sustainable in a rural area than I can be right here. I don’t own a car. I live in a 650 square foot condo with two other people. I don’t waste energy mowing a lawn. I don’t have many excess possessions simply because I don’t have space for them. I work less than a mile from my home and most of my transportation is done self-reliantly by foot or bicycle.

On the other hand, living in the city costs us quite a lot. We pay $1500 in our mortgage and condo fees each month, which represents over half of my own take-home pay. We pay $225 each week for our daughter to be in part-time daycare. We pay $10 per hour on the rare occasions that we actually need a car. We also pay the price in terms of our lack of connection to nature. I can’t remember the last time I saw stars. I rarely find myself in quiet woods. The animals I interact with the most are dogs and squirrels and mosquitoes.

Despite my happiness with the city lifestyle, I think you can sense my defensiveness and my desire to continue to lighten my footprint on the earth and increase my sustainability. So what more can I do, aside from moving to a hippy commune? I’ve thought of some things that I might do to increase my sustainability even here in the city, but I have to decide what I have the time and energy for.
  • Growing food. We have an under-utilized and very sunny porch on the front of our house. It is an unheated space but tends to get quite warm during the day even in the winter due to the sun exposure. We’d like to clear out this space and use it for growing some food in containers in the winter. We also do have a very small strip of land around two sides of the house, but it is entirely in shade. Still, perhaps we could do some container plants there that would do well in shade. One problem I have is that when I look at books or websites devoted to urban agriculture all of the projects seem too large for our space and too difficult. So if you have ideas for me, please leave a comment. I’d like to find some baby steps I could take on the path to growing more food.
  • Composting. Our neighbors are experimenting with composting right now, and we may be able to share their composting bin some day in the future (or we could start our own compost bin). We already reuse many of our vegetable scraps in creating broth.
  • Eating more locally throughout the year. We have a CSA during the summer months, and if we were to can or freeze more of this food we could eat it throughout the year. We did some canning with some friends this year and it was fun – I’d like to do more.
  • Spending more time in the outdoor areas in Cambridge and the surrounding areas. We don’t have many natural areas, but we do have some and I don’t visit them nearly often enough. I’ll put that on my list for next summer.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

My friends are your friends and your friends are my....

I've recently started noticing a place where our lifestyle doesn't completely mesh with the rest of the world, and it leads to some social awkwardness. This problem tends to show up when we meet new folks, who seem like they might be the kind of people we'd like to know, but then we find out where they live (say, in the burbs, accessible only by an hours commuter rail ride, if that), and we realize it's just not going to happen. We might manage to arrange one or two T-accessible meetups, but then then invites to their parties come...parties that theoretically we could get to...but it doesn't quite seem worth all of the work to get there...maybe because it would mean driving a zipcar on shabbat (we really would rather not do that), or dragging H on a hideously long train ride and having to beg a ride back into town way after bedtime. And besides, if we go, then we'll keep having to go. If we solidify a friendship with someone in the suburbs, we'll have to keep finding ways to get to the suburbs, or keep making excuses for why we can't get there.

I find that these days I just really don't want to put much time or energy into relationships with people who are far away, using our car-free definition of far. In fact, if I'm being honest, we only actually put energy into relationships with people who are walking distance away, even though we have good intentions of keeping up with our friends, say, a bus or bike-ride away.

From our end, in many ways this is just fine. We have plenty of wonderful friends in walking distance. Our social life is not drastically damaged by a fairly tight geographic boundary on friendship, but it does lead to awkwardness when navigating new friendships or even trying to maintain old ones. Much of the awkwardness is that while our practical friendship radius might be a couple of miles, most people who use cars regularly have a much wider friendship radius, maybe 5-10, or even 20 miles depending on their location, so we may be within their reasonable geographic circle, but they aren't within ours. I hate to see potentially good friendships wither away because we turned down one too many invitations, and sometimes wonder if a more honest approach might be better. On the other hand, we do have a few surprisingly good and valuable friendships that seem to be successfully maintained two or three meetings a year and the occasional e-mail, and we wouldn't have those if we just dismissed them out of hand immediately based on geography.