Monday, June 22, 2009

Frugality Essay I- What We Eat and Public Health

You want to save money? Then take care of yourself. There is a relationship between private health, and private wealth. Given this reality, there is a relationship between public health and wealth as well. We as a country spend an enormous amount of money on medical care. Can we as a country reduce this cost? What is our role as individuals? This is an enormously broad subject, but the implications are significant enough where I think we should at least begin the conversation. There are a few ideas that I would like to explore and discuss regarding frugality and health, but this essay will focus on frugal eating and personal health.

Some people erroneously believe that eating healthy means eating expensive. I would like to challenge that notion and give some examples of frugal and healthy eating choices.

1- On Obi’s frugal list of healthy foods are whole grains. As a recovering Mormon, I remember well people with cans of wheat in their basement (two years supply). You want to save money and improve your health, open the cans and use them as a surprisingly inexpensive and filling food. But don’t think wheat is all there is. I’ve come to really appreciate rye, barley, oats, triticale, spelt and other grains. And you would be surprised how adaptable whole grains are for inclusion in your diet.

Everyone knows that oatmeal is a healthy breakfast alternative. There are a wide range of choices that are relatively inexpensive. This morning, I had rolled rye that I purchased at Whole Foods. I estimate the cost of a good sized serving, including soymilk and berries, at $.1.05. Compare this to something from the drive-thru at McDonalds. Another favorite of mine is 7-grain mix either from Whole Food’s bulk bin or Bob’s Red mill. You save money if you can find it at Whole Foods.

I boil whole grains and use it in yogurt, as a substitute for hamburger, and as a filling addition to canned soups. I also make whole grain bread. For a Democrat in Utah, pounding whole wheat bread dough can be very therapeutic. And the smell you get from home made whole grain bread is well worth the effort.

2- Anyone who has read my blogs know I’m full of beans. And that, is a good thing. Yeah, I’ve been known to rattle the neighbor’s windows a time or two, but in so doing, I’ve got sound nutrition in an inexpensive package. Beans are extremely adaptable and you can add all kinds of home grown veggies into them, such as tomatoes, spinach, corn, peppers, onion, etc. Also, add some boiled rye or barley (see item 1) and you’ll get a very complete protein without the addition of expensive and fatty meat products.

As a Mormon missionary, I had $250/month to live off of. That included rent. A favorite we came up with was “slumgraten”, which was beans mixed with anything else you had left in the kitchen. It was filling, nutritious, and cheap. You want to save money, stay full, and eat healthy, open a can of beans, whether black, pinto, garbanzo, etc.

3- Don’t read the leaves, drink them, and tea-leave me, you won’t be sorry (pretty weak, I know). I admit, this is an uncomfortable subject to bring up with the Mormon crowd, but if D & C 89 were to be re-written today, it would probably say, drink tea, and ban the soda. Tea is loaded with anti-oxidants and both black and green tea are rightly viewed as healthy drinks. Add a little fresh citrus, and it is even better for you. But let’s do some comparison shopping.

Obi wan loves his diet coke. However, when times are tough, an area I can save a lot of money is by shunning the cola for tea. Here is how it plays out. I can get a 44 oz. refill at Maverik for $.95 or get a 12 oz. bottle for $1.25. Let’s compare to tea. I recently bought 100 Lipton tea bags on sale for $2.50. So a cup of tea costs a whopping $.025. Well, since I like my tea strong, I steep two bags for a whopping $.05. Now admittedly, I got a good price, and you might prefer one of the premium teas. Let’s say you found a really expensive tea with 20 bags for $4. That is still only $.20/cup. That is still over six cups for the price of one bottle of soda. Now admittedly, you may want to sweeten your tea, but even so, the cost of the sweetener is insignificant compared to what you would pay for soda.

Green tea, arguably the most healthy tea, is a bit more. I paid $3.45 for a box of 40 tea bags. That is still much more inexpensive than soda. Just remember, that steeping your own tea is the only way to save money here. Bottled teas will cost you as much or more than soda. But making tea is not rocket science. A cup of water and a microwave is all you need.

4- My last suggestion for now, is to rethink your landscape. Many edible plants are also quite attractive and can be used in your yard. Herbs such as basil, oregano, chives, and many others both add flavors to dishes while looking good mixed with flowers. Fruit trees are a great idea (excepts out on your curb or near paved areas) and often look very attractive in the spring. Apricot, peach, cherry, as well as less common trees and shrubs like serviceberry, look good while also providing fruit. In the right location, grapes also provide an adaptable and edible vine.

Teach your kids early and often which plants are edible and which ones are not. Some flower’s leaves actually taste good and are edible like agastache foeniculum and other members of the mint family. Asparagus is an attractive plant when it isn’t producing succulent spears. Experiment with different edible plants and give your children space and opportunity to grow their own food.

I hope this is a good start on our journey towards practical frugality. Eating healthy won’t eliminate trips to the doctor’s office, but will reduce the risks associated with chronic ailments. Medical costs are the leading cause of bankruptcy in our economy. Let’s take care of ourselves and teach our children good principles in nutrition as well as frugal living.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Frugality: A New Paradigm for Life

There are certain parallels in history that provide lessons for us. One of those lessons is the need for frugality, no matter what your circumstances. As this decade winds down, I’ve been thinking what defines the last decade. I recognize the risks involved in defining a period, because there are exceptions and inconsistencies that need to be given their due weight. But when I think of this decade, I think of entitlement and excess.

We saw this at both the personal level, as well as the government, a sense of over-reaching that was careless and costly to our long-term future as a people and Republic. To some extent, I don’t know whether to attribute this to excessive optimism, or pathological delusion. One of the books which so categorized the period, and influenced to a great extent, neocon economic and social policy was “Dow 36,000.” In this book, the notion exists that the markets are on an upward trend and it is best to get on board. There is no underlying growth in productive capacity or production behind these phenomena, just an increase in the value of existing assets as bid up by a public with greater access to markets and with a demographic population bubble desperately saving for a retirement (baby boomers) that is looming in the near future.

This in retrospect was faith-based economics. Ultimately what creates wealth is productivity and production, not the bidding up of existing assets well above what their return on investment suggests. Economic faith, without a foundation in works, creates a soufflé, ready to collapse under the weight of any shock or crisis in the kitchen. So was it with this paradigm during 2008. Both at the government level, as well as the personal level, Americans lived beyond their means. Cuts in taxes were made without any plan to lower spending. Americans racked up credit card debt in order to keep up with the ever increasing variety of electronic toys available. Much of it was financed on the basis of rising home prices, unrealized gain on existing assets (people's home values). People sought to catch the wave of outer rim of the bubble, Using equity gained from their old home, to buy a bigger new home, with the intention of using ever increasing equity to build their future. POP!! You know how that went.

So where do we go from here? Conventional wisdom suggests that we “stimulate” the economy in a most Keynesian of fashion. It is true, that demand will stimulate production, but we must be cautious where the benefits of that production go. Is it to retail employees at Walmart, or to manufacturers in China or the Philippines? Is it to provide second or third homes for the wealthy, or is it to update sewage systems, water systems, and roads?

Ultimately, what I’ve concluded is that Americans have become somewhat spoiled and entitled. The time has come for the resetting of priorities in our personal lives and as a government. This doesn’t mean we have an inactive government. Our strength as a country comes both from the public and private sectors. But we need to think strategically as a people, and prioritize wisely where we deploy our finite resources.

To some, this may sounds like retrenchment. I rather like to think of it as realignment. It is a realignment of our objectives and our culture. Whether it will work or not, I have my doubts, but I am going to explore this paradigm and discuss ways that we can as individuals, and as a nation, restore our foundation in the areas of economics, health and quality of life. It may be an interesting voyage, but I’m willing to see where the trade-winds take us.