Give yourself credit: The financial and life trade-offs of trying to conserve

I often suffer from the “shoulds,” which means that when I embark on a project like saving money or living green, I think I must do everything perfectly or else. Then, this weekend, we went to a party at a friend’s house. They offered good company, a spread of delicious foods, and balloons and bags of thoughtful party favors for the children. The spirit was one of loving generosity. We left feeling restored, touched and loved.

I was depressed the whole next day.

Why? If I do eco perfectly, I can’t go to or host a party like that. (Ban the balloons. How dreary.) If I am cheap, I can’t do the hosting either. I love being generous. But the fact is, I don’t think most of my friends and relatives consider a jar of jam a sufficient gift. Not that they are ungrateful — more like they get a quizzical expression, like “Why are you giving me a jar of jam when I can buy jam at the grocery store any old time?”

My response is to often give a card, give nothing, or give an experience. Last year for Christmas I knit my mother a pair of socks that she seemed to toss aside. This year I’m planning to take her to see a musical instead.

More than that, people enjoy something special. A gift means you’ve been thought of, and the recipient’s most-wanted item might not be used, biodegradable or waste-free. For the ultra-green, even giving a card is deemed too much. That wasted paper! The carbon exuded by the postal truck that delivers it!

What about that party? According to the “shoulds” of green life, we should have biked, perhaps used public transport or not gone at all.

  • Bike: I keep hoping to find a used tagalong for the bike, but I’m not looking too enthusiastically. (I hate biking on city streets. I hate wearing a helmet, and I hate not wearing a helmet, because it sets a bad example for Little Cheap.) My friend’s house is six miles from ours, so if we biked at 15 miles per hour, the bike ride would have taken us about 25 minutes each way. Travel time = 50 minutes. Cost = $0
  • Bus: We would have had to walk about 4 blocks, take one bus, transfer to another, get off and walk about 6 blocks. Attend party, turn around, repeat. The bus time would have been 36 minutes each way (assuming buses arrived on time for our transfers to work – not always a given, especially on a Sunday) with an additional walking time of about 15 minutes each way. Total = 1 hour, 42 minutes travel time. Cost = $9 roundtrip for the family. According to the rules for the 90% reduce project, public transport counts as 100 miles per gallon (per person, I think?). So, carbon emissions = 6.8 lbs. for the family.
  • Car: In real life, we drove. Travel time = 30 minutes round trip. Gas used = 0.6 gallon. Cost = $1.73 roundtrip for the family. Carbon emissions = 11.4 lbs.

At the party, I spent a long time discussing green living with another family. They are major solar boosters — and I agree, but solar isn’t in our budget right now. (They did mention that solar hot water heaters are more affordable than a complete solar system.) They also suggested a local source of raw milk products. I don’t particularly care whether my milk is raw, but I would love to find a local source for fresh milk. Unfortunately, with the raw milk shares offered, we’d have to buy a gallon a week at a higher rate than I currently pay for organic Colorado milk ($7 per gallon vs. $5.29 per gallon), and so far, we don’t consume that much. (We might be able to if we up our yogurt consumption, if Little Cheap does switch to cow’s milk, or if I start making my own cheese.) And the fresh butter that sounded oh so good costs $10 a pound. I just can’t go there right now. Can’t I get a goat for my own backyard?

One thing this family and I were able to agree on immediately was that even when it feels like you are doing a lot to change your life, to live more consciously, to adapt like crazy and downscale, it’s never enough. That alone opens our eyes to how intense the American way of life is and how much we normally use.

Finally, on Monday, after some internal debate, I wound up buying a big stack of cards for upcoming birthdays, for Grandparents Day, to welcome a baby. I know my family values things like cards, and I want to honor them with something they like. Hopefully they’ll recycle them afterward.

And the world won’t end. Not this year, anyway.


5 thoughts on “Give yourself credit: The financial and life trade-offs of trying to conserve

  1. alottaerrata says:

    I consider myself very lucky to come from a very crafty family, and while not ever member is with me on the green way of life, they all value a homemade gift. The downside is, they are all far craftier than me, and so their gifts always kick my gifts tail end. *sigh*

    I was also raised as a “yankee” which is how my mother says cheap. So they’re cool with saving money too. And when I tell them that if they want to buy me a gift, a used book will be just wonderful, they look at me a little funny, but understand.

    I do like the idea of sharing experiences, because good memories are the best gift there is.

  2. Josh says:

    Nothing will ever beat homemade jam it is made with the purest love. Anything that comes from the hard work of a family is a gift that should be treasured. I have alway valued your gifts as they remind me of how thoughtful you and your family are. The items that are store bought mix in with everything else in our home and often we find ourselves not remembering if we bought it, or was it given to us. That had never happened with gifts that have been made for us. My uncle just recently got a new job in Florida and so they had to pack up, throw away, or store all of the stuff they had accumulated since living in Colorado for 30+ years. I have always regarded my aunt and uncle as large consumers and even though they move on to another state to consume he left me with this advice;

    your money on doing things not buying things. You will remember the things
    you did, but forget the things you bought. Plus you will never have to pack
    or throw out the things you do.


  3. cheaplikeme says:

    @alotta – Lucky you! I can’t say my *whole* family doesn’t appreciate homemade, but certain prominent members (ahem) have a hard time with cheap. My sister will laugh when she reads this.

    @Josh – hi! Great advice. The more you accumulate, the more confusing it becomes to get rid of things. We are succeeding in letting go of the randomness, but it’s the miscellaneous that’s hard to figure out — champagne glasses, anyone? They’re beautiful. We never use ’em. Maybe one day? Who knows…

  4. Julia says:

    don’t be depressed! you’re my hero! the last time i was at your house, you sent my family off with a batch of incredible home made cookies, not to mention that dynamite pumpkin bread you made me last fall.

    your generosity inspires me!

    just turning on the oven gives me hives which is why i have to pay too much $ for others to do the work.

    the party was an extravagant and wasteful venture, but i needed an opportunity to get drunk and feel guilty.

    two of my favorite things…


    ps. thanks for the kind words about excessive party!

  5. Justin says:

    I found a site that helps the environment by reducing the amount of postal junk mail you have. It saves a lot of trees too! It only costs $2.95 a month for this service. You can cut down on the number of credit card offers, catalogs, flyers, sales promotions, and inserts. They will even plant a tree on your behalf when you sign up! Let’s all do our part to help the environment. Here’s the URL.

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