This Stupidly Easy Tip from My Parents Has Saved Me Thousands of Dollars

giphy.gifSource: Giphy.com

It’s remarkably easy for me to feel ashamed. And the problem when I’m ashamed is that I clam up. And the problem with clamming up is that I don’t get help. But one time I told my parents about a problem and it helped. A lot. (But for whatever reason I never tell them my problems anymore. Maybe I should look into that).

Continue reading

Seven Strategies to Kill Your Excuses for Not Cooking at Home

It’s funny how New Year’s falls during one of the coldest and darkest parts of the year. How can you start exercising when it’s so cold and dark all you really want to do is curl up under your blankets in bed? But one resolution that does make more sense to start when it’s cold and dark is to cook at home more often because it means you get to stay at home when it’s cold! For instance, last week, the cold was so bone-chilling that I wanted to cancel my dinner plans at this hip new restaurant so I could go straight home and eat hot soup under a blanket.

But cooking at home seems like a lot of work, right? Not so. Use these tips to make cooking at home as easy or easier than ordering out .

Continue reading

How to Stay Sane When Everyone Seems Richer than You

via GIPHY

I don’t know why I read fashion magazines. They are created and designed to make you feel bad. I remember reading a blog post about a magazine that airbrushed Heidi Klum’s face. The bloggers were incredulous, questioning who could possibly think that one could improve on Heidi Klum’s face. It just goes to show that no one can ever match the ideal because what’s portrayed is impossible, unreal.

It reminds me a little of reading personal finance blogs. Sometimes I need a break from them because I just feel poor by comparison. And it’s mind-boggling because I’m not reading stories from the rich and famous. Also, I’m not low- or even mid-income. Someone like me should probably feel “rich enough” because 1) I have made six figures for the past five years; 2) I have no debt; 3) I have no dependents and live a simple lifestyle; and 4) I don’t live in NYC or SF.

But every other personal finance article seems to be about someone younger than me, making a quarter of my salary going to fancy travel and dining destinations with their designer purses and saving, what seems like, 100% of their salary. How do they do it? Why won’t they tell me their secrets?

I’m sure it’s good marketing if they don’t tell me. It’ll make it seem like they have some secret money tree that I’ll get the seeds to if I keep reading their blog. But it always turns out that there’s some “airbrushing” involved. There’s something true in their lives that isn’t true for me. It could be a hidden advantage or just different priorities. I just have to tell myself this mantra to make myself feel better: personal finance always makes mathematical sense.

There are no secrets. Everyone follows the same path. Here are some airbrushing secrets I’ve found to watch out for when reading personal finance blogs to save my sanity and tell myself I’m not doing it wrong:

1. There is someone else in the picture.

It seems a little disingenuous when bloggers leave this part out about their budgets, but then again they may be operating on the assumption that everyone is sharing rent with a significant other or getting help from their parents. On the other hand, I’m operating under the assumption that everyone is single and on their own.

Even if you don’t share finances with a significant other, living with someone else is going to cut down on costs, like rent, home furnishing and utility bills. That’s an easy way to cut one’s biggest costs in half (or more if it’s prorated). There are also economies of scale that may make it easier to cut down on food. Also, its not clear to me that each blogger knows what their significant other or their parents or patrons are contributing to the cost of their lives. Maybe it’s an extra grocery run or date night dinners. These costs add up.

Yes, I could get a roommate to cut down on costs but I don’t want to. Also, getting a roommate isn’t the same as sharing all costs with your significant other. I just have to tell myself that we are on different paths and that’s ok. I have plenty of privilege but I pay 100% of my own rent.

2. They have a miraculous rent.

I’ve never been lucky with rent. I always pay the median rent for an average apartment in an average neighborhood. I spent a lot of time looking around for a bargain too but I’ve never struck rental apartment gold for the cost of pewter.

I have known some of my friends to have pretty decent rents and nice apartments for their expensive cities. And for some reason, there are people online with even more miraculous rents than my friends, and of course these people all become personal finance bloggers to shame us all for having high rents. I mean, if you nab a good rent, personal finance would probably be a walk in the park, so good on you. The rest of us aren’t so lucky.

3. They give less to charity.

Sometimes I’ll look at a PF blogger’s budget and compare my own, and we seem to line up, except for their amazing rent. Oh, and the chunk of change I give to charity.

I have to remind myself of this fact all the time when I don’t understand why my budget seems to have holes that others don’t have. Charity is my second biggest line item, after rent. If I gave less to charity, I could buy a designer purse or decent vacation every single month. But I don’t want so many designer purses, don’t need that much travel and I think charity is hugely important. It’s a choice I consciously make. I just have to remind myself of that because in aggregate, I know I could have a lot more money if I kept the money to myself. And if giving up charity spending is the cost of a luxe life, then I don’t really need or want the luxury.

4. They understand the mystical credit card or frequent flyer points game.

Ok so this might actually be a magical money tree that I probably could have grow but have never figured out. I’ve never been able to cash in any of my points or miles for travel. It always seems like everyone is flying around the world for free. I have added up the numbers and, even though I generally fly one carrier, I only have enough miles to do a short domestic flight to NowhereCoolsville. I’m sure other people are milking the credit cards for, I dunno, billions of dollars or first class tickets but me, I don’t fly that much and the points situation never looked promising.

5. They’re not saving as much as I am.

I’ve created faux scarcity in my life by moving most of my money out of checking into my brokerage account. I tell myself it’s safer there in case someone steals my ATM card, but I also just want the money out of sight. Of course, out of sight, can make me feel like THERE’S NO MONEY even when there’s clearly a bunch. I could live the life of fancy fashion and lattes for days, but like in #4, that’s not the life I CHOOSE to live. It’s all a choice.

6. Their salary is extraordinarily high.

Another thing I’ve learned from the personal finance blogosphere is that people’s definitions of “middle-class” income is not in line with other people’s definitions. In fact, it’s a bit odd that people who talk about finance all the time use commonly understood words in very odd ways. I remember once when someone thought being in the 1% meant being in the bottom 1% of income instead of the top. And this person is apparently a person a personal finance blogger.

And so is hat bloggers an make half a million and still all themselves middle claas. So when some personal finance bloggers call themselves “extremely frugal” and live what appears to be a normal lifestyle while saving an extraordinary amount of money, it could be the obvious – they make a TON of money, even while calling themselves middle class and relatable. Middle class sells. It’s just that no one is really policing the internet to ensure that bloggers are really making between the 25th and 75th income percentiles. And when you are really making an income that puts you in the top 1% of incomes, well of course it’s going to be easier for you.

You are not alone in feeling like you’re failing financially

The voyeur in me loves seeing what other people are doing with their budgets but this is the equivalent for me of looking at Instagram and feeling bad about my body. I look at other people’s budgets and just scold myself for overspending even when I’m trying to do the best with what I was given.

I hope this article is encouraging, if only for the fact that even wealthy people like me think we’re missing out or doing it wrong. We get the twinge of jealousy when we read about the luxe lives of others and wonder how they do it. Everyone feels like they’re missing out on some super personal finance secrets privy to everyone else. Everyone feels inadequate in their finances from time to time.

How to Stay Sane When you Feel Poor

I guess if there’s a message to be taken out from this it’s that, we need to focus on ourselves, our own situations and our own values. If we’re meeting our own goals in our own situations, then that’s the best we can do. We can’t look to the sides and think what if because we don’t get to have the benefactor parents, the well-paid significant other or the amazing apartment with below-market rent. We can only play the hands we are dealt.

The other key action we can perform is gratitude. Sure we don’t have as much as others do or seem to. There’s always someone who will have more. On the flip side, there’s always someone who will have less. So we can focus on that. We may have our health. Or friends. Or a job we like with good hours. We may like our attitude. Whatever our advantages, we can focus on those instead of focusing on our disadvantages. We can focus on how far we’ve come instead of how far we still have to go.

We can’t control many things in life but we have total control over our thoughts. Make your thoughts ones that remind you of what’s great and beautiful in your life. Because money can’t (always) buy that.

But if those people with awesome rents can let us know if they’re thinking about leaving the area, that information would be greatly appreciated.

When you read personal finance blogs, do you get jealous too?

Rich

The Personal Finance Community Should Take the Lead on Helping the Poor

I used to date a chef, and while we were dating, I couldn’t help but notice all the charity work in his field. It seems that the culinary community is active and passionate in charities that support the eradication of hunger.

So, likewise, I think the personal finance community should be active and passionate in helping charities that eradicate poverty. (I’m just throwing that out there).

But if you’re going to help a charity, particularly for an issue that has been as well-trod as poverty, you have to have a theory about what efforts are going to work. Otherwise, how are you going to know which charities to support?

Continue reading

2017 in Review: A Life Online and Off

IMG_20170810_181952

The recurring themes in 2017 were Craigslist, art (consuming and creating), experimentation and failure. I picked up some good habits and some questionable ones. I read and learned a lot – mostly about relationships and love, which sounds froufrou but as I get older, I realize how important the froufrou is. I learned to make oil poached shrimp, creme brulee and homemade hummus and peanut butter. I lost 10 pounds.

I like reading articles that expose me to new ideas so I hope this is helpful to you in that way. Or at least is interesting to read. I change a lot about myself every year. I might not be consistently improving – but it’s not stagnant.

January

I remember January 1, 2017 pretty clearly. I had just downloaded the 1 second video app, to record 1 second videos of your day and string them together for a short video. But the Redskins lost in a stunner my first day. I couldn’t think of anything positive to record except the wine that I was drinking. And that wine represented disappointment. It was a memorable but negative start to the year.

I started doing Chinese language lessons every day, starting with Mango and Pimsleur courses through my library. This is a habit I was pretty happy I developed because it helped me from moving backwards in my language learning. Ever forwards, I say. Even if only by a few steps.

I tried to avoid the inauguration hubbub by going to Philly, only to bump into the Women’s March there and also in DC as I arrived in Union Station. Longest line for a women’s restroom I’ve ever seen. I got to see my friend in New Jersey and we went to a great real diner. The kind where they don’t care about organic vegetables or calories. We didn’t even check Yelp or anything.

Continue reading

Why “Frugal” is My Least Favorite F-word

why frugality is my least favorite f-word

What Frugality Isn’t

Don’t you hate it when you share something with a friend and instead of mindlessly complimenting it, and you, by extension, they offer completely valid criticism?

Me too. Please keep mindlessly complimenting this blog. Thank you very much. =D

So anyway, I was a little gaga over The Minimalists’ documentary, which I told my friend about. He texts back: “Lol I’m watching it. It’s funny.”

Um, it’s not funny. It’s deeply moving and profound, I say. So he says:

All these guys are doing is chasing happiness from a different angle.

I was initially taken aback because this wasn’t a clear compliment regarding either me or the film. But after my initial shock and irrational anger subsided, I realized that he wasn’t wrong (ugh! friends who aren’t wrong!). Though The Minimalists’ minimalism was a rejection of consumer culture, there isn’t as much difference between minimalism and consumerism as I had initially thought. Whereas consumerists may compete over who has the most or the nicest stuff, minimalists can compete over who has the least stuff.

And both of these competitions are, let’s face it, kinda stupid.

Why We Can’t Define Ourselves by Our Frugality

Defining yourself by how much stuff you own is weird (“Hello, my name is Lisa and I own 500 things”); equally weird is defining yourself by your lack of stuff (“Hello, my name is Lisa and I don’t own 500 things”). One person has a lightly packed backpack and the other has three overstuffed suitcases, but the kinds of things they pack are similar. If both people enjoy their respective luggage and both get to the same destination, then who’s to say one way is better than the other?

I think a similar line of thought applies to people who define themselves as “frugal.”

Dictionary.com defines being “frugal” as “not wasteful.” But “wasteful” is a subjective term. I see articles by bloggers bragging about their uber-frugal lifestyles and dismissing unnamed others for their perceived extravagance. Spending on designer clothing, going out for drinks with coworkers, having a nice house – these are seen as anti-frugal. Meanwhile, “frugal” people apparently shop at used clothing stores, avoid get-togethers that cost money and flaunt the modesty of their homes – so they can retire and travel the world. If that’s the only way to be frugal, then I’m not interested – because I love get-togethers.

The purported difference between minimalists and consumerists is that minimalists think having nice stuff is wasteful, but spending money on experiences is not. But you’re not  saving money choosing one route over the other – you’re just making different choices with the money you have. And I am uncertain why one set of choices is less “wasteful” than the other. If I save money on travel in order to have a nice house that I get to enjoy with my family and friends everyday, why is that not considered frugality?

Why Everyone is Frugal

There was an article awhile back on Iwillteachyoutoberich that reasoned that spending a lot doesn’t necessarily mean one is wasteful if the amount spent is conscious and aligned with one’s values. One shouldn’t assume that spending on what others may perceive as frivolous is unwise if it’s meaningful to the person who spends it. And MixedUpMoney once proclaimed: we are all frugal.

I believe everyone is frugal (sorry I stole your idea MixedUpMoney!). I’ve never met a person who tries to be wasteful – who tries to pay more and get less, who finds loopholes to pay MORE in taxes, who trashes perfectly good stuff because they like the feel of plastic clogging the Earth’s landfills. Everyone tries to use their dollar to get the maximum good. After all, there are 83 million hits for “how to save money” on Google because everyone is looking for ways to save money and there are approximately 83 million different ways to be frugal.

Everyone is frugal. They just might not be frugal in your eyes, according to your values and judgments. Everyone is trying to obtain the right amount of “stuff” so that they can achieve their goals – but their number of items will be higher or lower than yours. It makes us all look stupid (and sad) if we are trying to out-frugal each other.

Why Frugality Is Not the Answer

The idea of “frugal” v. “unfrugal,” minimalists v. stuff-ists, makes it seem like we have fundamentally different values than people who define themselves differently.  Some may negotiate a deal on a luxury car, some may buy a cheaper model, some may lease  and some may go car-free. You may have your biases about which one of these is the “frugal” option, but in the end, isn’t the type of car you drive less important than where you’re going?

Minimalism and frugality aren’t the destinations – they’re just different cars we drive as we figure out where we’re going.

In the new year, in a very divided country, we don’t need more reasons to be divisive. Of course, tips for saving money are always good and can be helpful. But there is no reason to put down some people’s choices or elevate others’. Personal finance is above all else, “personal.”

Why We Shouldn’t Judge Each Others’ Spending Decisions

We are all striving for the same things – happiness, security, love, meaning.  Our decisions are different, our values are different, our stuff is different, but overall, we are very similar, more similar than we care to remember most of the time. To quote one of my favorite poems by Maya Angelou:

I note the obvious differences
between each sort and type,
but we are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

We are more alike than we are unalike.

Faith, freedom, finances, even failure, and other F-words are useful from time to time. But I’m done with “frugal.” “Frugal” is used as a term to judge one set of personal finance choices as better or worse than others. I’d rather err on everyone having the freedom (best F-word) to finesse their finances to fit their own life. And we can all just fire (another good F-word) each other up along the way.

Wishing you all the happiness, security and love, stuff or no stuff, in the flipping fantastic new year.

 

Gif source: giphy

My Favorite Books and Podcasts of 2017

It’s sometimes surprising that I have a full time job because I consume an inordinate amount of media (it probably comes from being single and not having kids or friends). So far this year, 68 books cover-to-cover, 22 books skimmed and probably 100 podcasts.  I also have a killer library and podcast game, which I will detail in a post sometime.
These are my favorites of the year – many, if not most, of these items did not come out this year. I’m a little slow to the game. And I wanted you to know that I worked hard to cull the list down to something manageable. This list could easily have been (and was at one time) twice as long.

My favorite books of 2017

Books I need to reread, but not in any order:

Rob Bell is apparently a very controversial figure in the Christian world, and I don’t know if his ideas are correct (because any time I mention his name, people seem to get excited about tearing him down), but his book made me thirst to reread the Bible. And that’s uncontroversially positive.
I swear I have the same dream about the white room. Just a beautiful and fun to read book. Sometimes it’s nice to dream.
So this is how you become a James Beard award winning cookbook author. The introduction made me feel so warm inside, I hardly needed the crockpot!
I can’t vouch for the advice for dealing with grief, having never had to do so before, but I thought it was such a beautiful and vulnerable look at how Sheryl Sandberg is dealing with grief.
It reminds me of How to Win Friends and Influence People, but with more practical tips.
Sometimes I marvel that I’ve been on so many long-term relationships without ever really questioning if I understood what a healthy loving relationship looks like. I need to study this book for life.
I am reminded of this book often because of the anecdote in the beginning where the author notes that he graduated in the same class as the CEO of Enron. What happened between the time he was a bright graduate to when he was running a fraudulent company? Bad people don’t set out to become that way but through their choices, and imperceptible and microscopic changes in perception  – we become the person we are today. 
I discussed my thoughts here.
Books that were eye-opening
Pastor Hamilton’s perspective on 2 Timothy 3:16-17 (regarding all scripture being God-breathed) really colors how I read the Bible now.
I wish I had read this before my broken engagement, but hey, I’m learning. I love how proactive it is.
I would say this encouraged me to get outside my political bubble, but I actually know very few people with my political views. In any case, it provides me with hope for civil discourse in our country.
I accidentally taught my nephew a bad word, but it was worth it because this book was interesting. The thing about self-help books is that they typically say the same things, but sometimes you need to read several of them to get accustomed to the ideas and then find the one that finally speaks to you to really get it. I think I’m getting closer, particularly with this book.
Books that I haven’t finished but will go on this list
The idea that my vision can improve is something that I’d never considered before.  But as the author notes, no one expects someone to stay on crutches for the rest of your life.
It’s like that form listicle that is repeated on a million sites “7 habits of successful people” except it’s a million really weird and obscure habits from the world’s most successful people. Some of the ideas are clearly contradictory but it’s a must for people who like to experiment.
Favorite Podcasts
I think about this podcast every time I get on my bike in 30-something degree weather or take a cold shower. I’m getting more resilient.
Also, I love listening to the Art of Manliness and it’s the source for so many of the books I choose to read.
Where Should We Begin? – I’ve Had Better
People tell me I should be happy to be single because of podcasts like this. It still makes me yearn a bit that these people have the project of a relationship, even if they’ve let it get so far away from them. They still have something to fight for, and if they didn’t still want to fight for it, they wouldn’t be in therapy. But yeah, it’s pretty tough.
I saw  Esther Perel at Sixth and I, and wow, she’s just so brilliant, I could listen to her talk for days.
The Robcast – Pete Rollins- An Introduction to Love – Parts 1-3
I know so little about love. These podcasts were a deep dive into, what must be for others, basic concepts of love. Like for most people, people are just objects, but when we love, we make these people into “subjects.” They become fully formed in our minds and stand out from other humans because of our love. I also loved what Rollins says about how loving gives our lives meaning – how if we love, we can’t really not find meaning in life.
The James Altucher Show – Tyler Cowen – What the Future Holds
I took Cowen’s Complacency Quiz and got Trailblazer, even though I’ve moved all of 20 miles away from home. So I clearly liked this podcast because he says that I’m basically going to make America great again. =D But really, anything that involves getting out of our comfort zones is totally up my alley.
What were your favorite books and podcasts of 2017?
*Disclaimer* this post contains affiliate links. These views are mine and I was not paid for them.

 

Three Reasons Your Budget Sucks

b324c919dcf5e5116da05ad4e924d834
Let’s face it – following a budget sucks. Setting the monthly food budget, for instance, may be easy but following the budget requires a never-ending slew of decisions and judgments.  Caviar or foie gras? (maybe these aren’t your actual choices, but it makes it more fun to think about). What’s a good price for caviar? If I get the caviar, can I still go out to dinner at Le Bernadin next week? And so it goes.

Budgets are cruel dictators, mean CEOs. They don’t care about us, the little guys, the minions that are carrying out their wishes. But even though we may all complain about how arbitrary and unhelpful our bosses are (I know I do), we may not all question our budgets. Even the best laid plans need to be evaluated and revised as conditions change. Budgets are no different and this is the perfect time to determine whether your budget is ailing from one of the following three woes that make it a sucky boss.

1. Your budget sucks because it’s based on someone else’s life. 

I looked at my food spending for 2017 and I was aghast and how large a number I saw. Then I thought, well what should the correct number be? So I looked at what I spent last year. I went to Google and compared my spending by city and then according to USDA guidelines.

And what I determined: who cares what they think?

I always wonder how people come up with their budgets. Every time I look at sample budgets, people are spending $400 on rent (whoa that’s low) and $300 on entertainment (whoa that’s high) and I throw up my hands and think, who are these people and where do they live? There’s no way I can use that person’s budget as a guide because their life is nothing like mine.

How to Get Your Budget to Align to Your Life

I’m not saying it doesn’t matter at all how your spending compares to others, because it can be useful in benchmarking in areas you don’t get enjoyment from spending more  (like insurance, cable or utilities), but for areas where it’s discretionary, if I’m happy with my food budget, and I’m meeting my spending goals, then who cares what other people do or think? No one sees this budget but me. No one is affected by this budget but me.

It’s really great (amazing even) when you set goals for yourself and then achieve them. But it doesn’t make any sense to meet other people’s goals. You have to set your own goals.

2. Your budget sucks if you’re not growing. 

I hear that the 50-20-30 budget is very popular (that is 50% needs, 20% savings and 30% wants) but I don’t really understand why. Why are those the right numbers? And are those numbers supposed to stay the same as you age?

Let’s say you’re an exceptionally wise young person and you follow the 50-20-30 budget religiously while making $30,000 after tax. So $15,000 needs, $6,000 savings, $9,000 fun. Let’s say that over time you double your income to $60,000 after tax. So $30,000 needs, $12,000 savings, and $18,000 fun. Wait, why do your needs double just because you make twice as much? And wow $18,000 is a lot to spend on wants. That’s $1500/month.

If you get skilled at following your budget, it’ll only get easier when you make more money. But that’s the trap of lifestyle inflation. Having the same budget year after year is like lifting the same weights over and over. As you get stronger, it gets easier to lift the weights. Good, right? But you didn’t start lifting weights because you wanted an easy activity; you started lifting waits to get stronger. Lifting the same weights doesn’t help you get stronger. In fact, at some point, you’re probably just risking injury.

How to Grow Your Budget Along with You

If you’re saving the same amount or percentage of money as your income increases, yes, you’ll be following a budget, but you’re basically treading water. Can you imagine watching someone tread water for the next 30 years? At some point, you’d just have to ask them, with all that energy being exerted, wouldn’t you rather go somewhere?

Part of the reason you follow a budget is because you want to save money, ideally enough money to have options in the future. The more money you save, the better your future could be and the faster you can get there. I think part of the reason is also to condition yourself to a certain lifestyle. You’ve learned all these skills to save money so why not keep them fresh?

Finally, things get more expensive as you get older so you often really do need to save more over time. To do that, you need to keep shifting your budget goalposts. Over time, you should be getting lower numbers on many budget metrics (like fast fashion and novelty electronics) so that if you have to increase costs on rent, insurance, and family needs or downshift your career, you have options.

3. Your budget sucks because you’re just looking at the numbers. 

I know what you’re going to say. Of course I evaluate my budget by looking at the numbers. A budget is basically just a spreadsheet of numbers.

I mean, kinda.

But let’s say I look at my budget and I see the following metrics:

Coffee Shops: Up 50%
Restaurants: Up 30%
Vacation: Up 100%

Clearly, my budget is going haywire, right? I need to tamp all these down in order to save money.

But if I think back on the year, I know I went to coffee shops more often because it became a ritual with my coworker, which makes my workday much more enjoyable. Restaurant spending increased partly because I made a habit of going to fancy dinners with a friend, who was recently diagnosed with cancer.  His treatment has made him lose his sense of taste – making me cherish the memories more.  And I took 3 weeks of vacation this year – and I don’t regret any of it.

How to Look at Your Budget Beyond the Numbers

Your budget is literally, just a sheet with numbers and letters, an estimate of your income and expenditures for the year. But metaphorically, your budget is a description of your life and your values. It’s a record of the choices you made. And the choices you make create the person you become.

This is what’s so exciting about evaluating my budget (to a personal finance nerd like me). I can look at my budget and see what I value. I can look at my budget and see what direction I’m heading in.

Yes your budget may be going up in certain areas and that might not be a concern so long as you know why it did that and if it’s a conscious decision. If your budget for gambling or drugs is increasing, well you may want to look into that.

I think it’s important to measure your budget holistically, not just by the numbers. For me, I like to see if I like the way I’m living and if I’m getting better both at budgeting and at becoming a better person every year – more compassionate, more curious, more alive. I think I am. And my budget reflects that.

What did I miss? What are other ways to evaluate if one’s budget sucks?

 

 

Gif credit: Justpo.st

Cook at Home: Save Money, Save the Country

When I was just starting out as an adult, my mother chastised me for eating out too often (which was never more than a few times a week). She said eating out would make me sick and fat. I didn’t know if she was correct, but since that time, if I ate out more than twice a week, her voice would haunt me and I would eat at home for weeks as penance.

My mother has always been my food role model. She worked full time but still cooked dinner from scratch every night (we ate leftover too). We would often eat around 8pm but we never ever ordered delivery and we would only eat out once a month. So it’s not even that I could fall back on being a fancy lawyer to prove I didn’t have enough time to cook – she always cooked and she had way less time than I do. Plus I was handicapped by lacking familiarity with the concept of delivery.  It was cook or starve. So I cook most of my meals, but it’s not to save money; it’s to avoid the wrath of my internal mother.

It also helps that I love food. I saw this documentary about Asian Americans’ love of food, and it rang true for our family. Asian culture is all about the food. Part of it is taste and part is adventure but there’s also the inevitable element of community. I grew up in a Chinese church that would serve the most disgusting fried rice for lunch. But it was cheap and more importantly, because there was food, everyone in the church stuck around. This is how I got to meet the people in my church. Even today, the only reason I get to know anyone at a church is because I attended functions that involved food. There’s something about sharing food with people that brings people together in a way that business meetings, for example, cannot.

Something I had noticed in my reading of the Longevity Plan was the idea of sharing every meal with someone else. It’s much rarer these days as people are staying single longer and are getting takeout and staying in. Even when people are coupled, they might only eat with each other. There’s less of a community aspect to eating.

My mother used to throw these big Thanksgiving dinner parties where 40 people from church would come. It was utter chaos. And even though my mother is an avowed introvert, she loved throwing these parties. She loved hosting and giving. Those are some of my most fond childhood memories. If I look back, nearly every great memory involves food. Why would I want to shortcut my relationship with food when it has given me so much?

Michael Ruhlman basically shares the same sentiments, when talking about his late father, Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America:

He carried the deep, intuitive understanding of the power of food to connect people, knew that food was not simply a device for entertaining or filling our bodies and pleasing our senses but rather that it served as a direct channel to the greater pleasures of being alive, and that it could be so only when that food was shared with friends and lovers and family.

51w48hB6f6L._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_

But it’s a love that’s becoming more elusive in American culture. Women look down at cooking. People are too stressed and busy to cook, and sometimes even to eat. They’re obsessed with nutrition, convenience, and speed – i.e. everything but taste.  There’s also this weird meal prepping craze that basically turns your preparation of food into an assembly line. I realize it saves time and money, and encourages one to eat at home, but I would literally rather starve. It seems so cold and lifeless.

And what’s wrong with making time to cook food? We’re a culture that is obsessed with famous chefs and cooking shows, but won’t take the time to carefully prepare something that we should nourish our bodies. You might as well tell me how to be more efficient in the time I spend gossiping with my friends. It’s not that I need a lot of time, but what would I rather be doing?

As Ruhlman notes, it’s our lack of priorities that has led to the disarray in American eating and cooking habits. But once we realign the priorities, we find we’ll get the nutrition, the weight loss, and the savings.

Here’s my diet plan: Cook it yourself. That’s it. Eat anything you want – just as long as you’re willing to cook it yourself . . . . The only way [increase the proportion of nutritious food in our diets] is for society to recognize the long-term benefits of carving out the time to cook. That’s all it really is: being organized and making time. You never hear people say, “You know I would really love to shower more, but I just don’t have the time.”

The shower comment rang so true to me. And this is basically my diet in a nutshell. In my kitchen, a nutritionist would be appalled to find such staples as bacon, butter, regular flour, nonorganic vegetables, many types of real sugar, and condensed milk (not that I eat these things together). I’m sure diets revolving around “real food” would also be dismissive of my diet. I mean this isn’t the healthiest of the healthy, but it’s all real. Everything is made from scratch – like bread, pie crusts, peanut butter. It’s not super processed. It’s not grab and go. It requires me to slow down and to appreciate the ingredients.

Also, bacon is delicious.

There’s so much else in Ruhlman’s book bout the history and business of shopping for food and how grocery stores are reacting to new trends in culture by making more prepared foods (because again, Americans don’t cook), and how all of this is affecting us and our futures. I love everything there is to know about food. (I mean, I read a book about grocery stores). But this book made me think of the past, of my culture and what we’ve lost, and what we stand to lose in the future. I also got all teary-eyed when he was talking about his father because it reminded me of my parents. And nothing reminds me more of my family than the act of cooking food.

What’s your favorite food memory?

You Are What You Give: A List of Charities Worth Supporting

In case you need some inspiration about which charities to which you should direct your year-end donations, these are the ones I support:

Groceryships 

I read about this charity from goop, Gwyneth Paltrow’s magazine. They are simultaneously tackling obesity and hunger by offering “grocery scholarships,” cooking classes and support groups so that families can learn about nutrition and cooking and be able to support themselves – and each other – through cooking. I’m such a cooking at home enthusiast, this really spoke to my heart. I visited their graduation ceremony and it was really moving.

DC Books to Prisons

A DC-based charity that speaks to my compassion for the imprisoned and my love of reading. They receive letters from all over the country requesting books to read. This is the most bare bones charity I’ve ever seen. The books, the storage, and the packing materials are all donated and volunteers read the requests and pick the books. I’ve been to one of their volunteer events and they’re even stingy about how much tape they use! All your money goes to postage. Give people a second chance and the chance to better their circumstances. PLUS I love their newsletter. The thank you notes really get me teary eyed.

Modest Needs

I’ve been supporting this charity for years. It helps people who are a financial emergency away from poverty by directing funds to help pay for the potentially devastating emergency – which can run the gamut from cancer to leaving an abusive home situation to delayed paychecks. PLUS, you get to pick the person you want to support and you often get a lovely thank you letter.

Polaris Project

Human trafficking is that one cause (besides prison reform) that just makes me spend all my money to fight it. The founders came to my college when they were just starting out and I was really impressed.

Sixth and I

Ok so my charities are a little DC-centric. I love this place. It’s a synagogue that puts on the most amazing book talks and events. I’ve seen Esther Perel, Atul Gawande, Joshua Radin, Tim Ferriss and Amy Tan just in the past 6 months. It makes me a little sad I’m not Jewish.

Evermore

This is a charity that I volunteer with that is trying to change how society interacts and supports families who’ve lost a child. It’s a pretty random choice for me, having never had a child, but the founder is pretty inspirational.

Other ideas: your library (the link is to my local library, where I’m a lifetime member), your church (my church, which does so much to help the community), your local homelessness help organization, your local PBS station (because they are the ones that run the Great British Bakeoff!), NPR.

I think giving is so important, not only to make the world a better place, but also to show appreciation for all that the world has given us and to get us out of our own bubble and to build empathy. I have a relationship to most of the charities I support and it keeps me grounded.

What are your favorite charities?