Updated on 03.05.10

Frugality and Moving On to New Values

Trent Hamm

Over the last few days, I’ve had several interactions with readers who are heavily concerned about the healthiness of their food and other chemical items they bring into their home. In general, these people subscribe to the “five ingredients or less” school of eating, meaning they don’t bring home any food item that has more than five ingredients in it. They tend to prepare most meals starting with raw foods. They also tend to use vinegar, homemade soap, and baking soda for most of their household cleaning tasks.

In other words, they are heavily focused on minimizing the number of preservatives, toxins, and other chemicals that come into their home.

The question on their minds is what can they do to save money while also subscribing to these values? My answer is kind of a surprising one.

The convenient part with this approach to modern life is that some things are in fact cheaper. Using vinegar and baking soda for most cleaning challenges is a great way to save some cash. During peak growing seasons, eating mostly raw foods can be a big money saver – trust me, during the peak of sweet corn season in Iowa, it can be very inexpensive to eat.

However, most things are much more expensive with this approach. Fresh foods out of season can be very expensive. There’s also a major time cost, as you’ll be doing lots of food preparation work yourself that would go far beyond what other people would do (like making pasta out of flour and eggs, for example, instead of popping open a box to boil it), as well as some preparation work for home cleaning supplies.

By choosing this kind of approach, you’re inherently adding not only to your family’s food and home care costs, you’re also investing a significant amount of time in keeping it up. Since food and home care are pieces of a family budget that everyone has, by making this kind of choice, you largely cut yourself off from money-saving and time-saving tips in that area.

Here’s the thing, though. If protecting your family in these areas is one of the key values in your life, that’s completely fine.

Most people really only have the time, passion, and resources in their lives to really follow through on a small number of key values in their lives. For me, those key values are my family and reading/writing. In some way, virtually everything else I do with my time and my money is in line with one of those two values.

If you’ve made the choice to live that sort of healthy, chemical-free lifestyle because it’s a central value in your life, that means that you’re devoting some significant amount of time and energy to it. You’re more careful with your shopping. You’re more careful with your food preparation. You’re more careful with your household cleaning. That eats up attention and time, but that’s absolutely an awesome use of your time and energy if it’s something that you truly value.

The key thing is to recognize that it is eating a significant amount of your time and energy and that energy and time have to come from somewhere. If you’re spending your time on these things because that’s what you value, it means you’re not spending time and energy on other things.

Maybe you have a huge DVD collection, but you don’t find yourself watching movies any more because you’ve moved on to new values.
Maybe you have a beautiful car, but you don’t get the same rise out of driving it that you once did.
Maybe you have some exercise equipment in the garage that’s just gathering dust.

If you’re living a life in line with where your values are now and not where your values were ten years ago, then it’s perfectly fine to not have the time and energy for those old things. Instead, you should focus on converting what you can of that old value into your newer values. Sell off your DVD collection. Downgrade your car. Have a yard sale. Cancel your memberships. Get rid of your cell phone.

What I see, time and time again, is that people have a short-term passion for something, invest money and energy into it, then grow tired of it and move on, but they don’t let go of the vestiges of that passion. They keep paying the bill for something they don’t use any more. Things sit around and gather dust and fill up a closet.

What are those things in your life? What passions have you moved on from, but still hold onto the material elements of?

Wouldn’t your life feel more complete if you cleaned out your attic, sold that stuff, and invested it into the things you value today?

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  1. kat says:

    Eating healthy doesn’t always mean expensive. I can buy bulk organic oatmeal at a per pound price cheaper than the name brand and as cheap as a house brand. Many bulk items in my local health food store are surprisingly cheap-whole grain pasta is generaly less per pound than name brands made from white flour with “added nutrients”. I found if you use the sale flyer you can eat just as cheaply as buying the processed stuff.

  2. I really value chemical free foods but want to stay frugal so I buy the in-season fruit and veggies and grow as much as I can. In the winter, it’s citrus and squashes among other things and they’re cheap and abundant. In the fall it’s apples, pears and carrots. In the summer there’s a huge surge.

    I invest a little bit of time in finding out what’s in season and then I benefit monetarily from it by savings. I get meat from my family that raises pigs, cows and chickens so it’s chemical free, local and free range. It’s easy to find sources if you really want to.

    I’m one of the people who uses baking soda, peroxide and vinegar for cleaning too. haha. It’s so cheap and now that I’m pregnant it’s hugely safer.

  3. Johanna says:

    First, there’s no such thing as “chemical-free food” or a “chemical-free lifestyle.” Everything is a chemical. I know what you mean by it really, but that expression is one of my pet peeves.

    Second, what additives are there in pasta out of a box that aren’t in flour out of a bag?

  4. MP says:

    I don’t think it costs more to use only non-processed food, or it hasn’t in my case. I’ve been doing this for over thirty years, so maybe I’ve just learned how to do it better. I don’t regularly make things like pasta because there are healthy alternatives on the shelf. I do use canned tomato products out of season, but they can fall under the “one ingredient” rule if you shop carefully. It’s never necessary to buy “fresh foods out of season”. Most fresh food is better in season anyway. Even in the winter there are plenty of choices. My husband and I eat for about $50 a week. Most food that takes a lot of time to cook, such as beans, can be done while I’m doing other things. I can mix up some pizza dough or hamburger buns and let them raise while I catch up on my reading. And the freezer is my friend. It doesn’t take a lot of extra time to make more and freeze some. I can take out frozen soup, beans, or bread dough, and have something healthy to eat in less time than it takes to wait at a restaurant.

    As far as cleaning supplies go, I find that using less is the way to go. I have found that my HE washer works better with only 1 tablespoon of detergent. Only washing clothes when they are dirty is also key. Water works well for a lot of housecleaning. When chemicals are necessary, a little goes a long way. It doesn’t take more time or money.

  5. J says:

    What I learned is that you really can’t do everything, and with the the Internet in our lives, everyone wants you to do everything, and do it RIGHT NOW. Sign my petition, look at this funny video, get mad about this issue, live your life this way, don’t do that — do this. You’re right, you’re wrong …. you are being lied to. Look at this funny video!

    What I got from all this mess is that YOU need to set the course that works for you. If you want to live without chemicals, then go ahead and do so. It might cost more, but who does it really matter to? People gravitate to blogs (and websites and Twitter feeds and Facebook groups) where they can find people who rabidly agree with each other, and they get some new friends who will always agree with them, so they get caught up in the hoopla.

    Like most any other thing, this can be a good and a bad thing. People with rare diseases now find groups online for support and information, while at the same time people can be out spreading misinformation, and they gain the mantle of “trust”. For two concrete examples, look at climate change and autism/vaccinations. No matter where you stand on the actual issues, the Internet has played an enormous role in both of these issues.

    How does this relate to habits? I’ve actually “turned off” from a lot of the sources and sites I used to frequent. If I hear about something new or novel, before rushing into it, I’ll look around for some counterpoints rather than just rushing into making a life change. I’ll take some bits of a new idea and see how it can work for me. For instance, after reading Michael Pollan’s books, we decided to enroll in some local CSA’s — one for vegetables and one for beef. But we haven’t stopped buying bananas, coffee or fresh fruits and vegetables in the winter, either — but we do buy less of those things when the CSA’s produce.

    The bottom line is that you need to figure out the path YOU want to chart in life, and there are no lack of other people who will tell you what you should be doing with yours.

  6. Karen M. says:

    Buying “in season” is the key here, as far as cooking this way. Asparagus costs an arm and a leg in March because it is not in season at that time. Learn to love cabbage and squash in fall and winter, asparagus in the spring, sweet corn in the summer, etc. This is how I cook, and I find myself looking forward to dinner all the time, because I know that I will only have some of these vegetables for a short while.

    And… how many times are we going to sell that big pile of DVDs?

  7. Vicky says:

    Let’s not pick on the DVD collection :p

    I’m an avid 100-movies-in-a-year movie goer, and the majority of those come from my very selective, slowly growing collection. Some of them are… irreplaceable, even.

    Sometimes I find that time is 100% of what prevents me from doing things. For example, pizza. For what it costs me to get a decent frozen, and the half hour it takes to cook it – it’s cheaper and faster to get one from our local pizza place (Hungry Howie’s) that’s freshly made, and only $4.99. Even making a pizza isn’t cheaper than that, when you add in the cost of using your oven to cook it, and time involved.

    With vegetables I still buy frozen because I tend to just not use fresh before it goes bad; and that’s just wasted money. I only make it to the store once every 2-3 weeks, and I can only spend about $115 each trip for two people – so what I buy can not go bad.

    Beans though. Man, life saver! Make a huge bag, put them into the freezer in small containers (about the size of a can) and you are good to go for months!

  8. Christine T. says:

    Very true, you can’t do it all. I have been spending a lot of time preparing meals from scratch etc because of unexplained abdominal pain and it has taken me a while to understand that something else in my life has to give. Yesterday I finally got a diagnosis, my gallbladder is full of stones and sludge. Gallbladder is hugely influenced by diet (I’m 34, 115 lbs, healthy, 9 years in the military) so even if eating fresh foods and such is not part of your core values I would recommend doing the best you can in that area without devoting huge amounts of time.

  9. prufock says:

    Frozen fruit and veggies is an often-economical choice, and doesn’t have a lot of preservatives.

  10. Des says:

    I think this post is quite disingenuous. Boxed pasta falls under the five-ingredients-or-less rule without even trying and, as another poster noted, so do most canned vegetables. The post also does not answer the readers’ question of how to eat healthy for cheaper, which I would expect this particular blog author to be able do well. It sounds more like a thinly veiled justification for why the author “doesn’t have time or money” to eat healthy foods, which is obviously untrue. MP’s comment above was spot on. DH and I eat (nearly) vegan and “additive-free” and our grocery budget runs between $160 and $240 a month for two people, all while working 50 hour weeks and running a side-business. Not only can it be done, its not really that difficult. And if you love food and cooking, all the easier.

  11. jgonzales says:

    So many people here are focused on the food aspect that they missed the point here.

    Trent used food as an example because people had been asking about it a lot lately. His point was our values and clinging to things we no longer find valuable.

    Our passions and values take time and money. Sometimes we hold onto things that no longer mean as much because we look back and see what we put into them.

    Ten years ago, I was very much into the goth style of clothing. I liked everything a size too big and in black or other dark colors. Now, I’m not at all into that. Instead, I prefer bright colors and clothes that fit. I could still hold onto the clothes from before (they still fit) because I spent a lot of money on them. Yet I’d never wear them because they aren’t my style now. It’s smarter for me to give away or sell those clothes rather than simply holding onto them because once I held that value and spent good money on it.

    It’s all about keeping your priorities in order for now and being willing to give up what isn’t of value anymore.

  12. Gretchen says:

    Really, don’t most people know by now that out of season fresh is the most expensive way to buy produce?

    Although I’m also confused by #2. You say you grow your own food, yet “value chemical free foods.”
    Wow. I’d love just one summer 100% chemical free. Even organic farmers use chemicals.

  13. Barbara says:

    While I understand the point of the article, I would suggest that eating extremely healthily is not in and of itself expense. You like fresh produce? Great!! condition yourself to eat the fresh produce that is in sason, and develop a teaste for it. Frozen produce and many canned goods do in fact meet the healthy rule, as do many kinds of pastas, basic broths and so on. Also, frankly, cooking at home does not have to be labor intensive. More importantly, cooking at home is often done while doing something else, hence my lack of patience with the so called “time factor”. While I am making soup from scratch on Saturday afternoon I may also be watching college football, helping a kid with a homework, or pushing a load of clothes in and out of the laundry room. So I have little patience with the “time factor.

  14. Moby Homemaker says:

    We do our best to buy organic and healthy when it is affordable–fruits, meats and fish.
    Since the recession lay offs hit me, the biggest change in consumption values I have had, unfortunately, is going from snobby microbrews to good ol’ PBR. I doubt there is any organic value there….helluva lot cheaper, though.

  15. Kathy says:

    Eating healthier is not expensive. If you spend more on healthy and unprocessed foods, you save money on health care costs. I believe that much of what ails us physically as a society (diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity, etc.) is preventable or at least manageable by eating well. I believe that you should try and manage your health by diet and exercise and if that’s not enough, THEN you should see your doctor about medications. I don’t want to change the subject, but I believe that part of health care reform starts with us taking responsibility for our own behaviors. But that is for another topic.

  16. Jeannette says:

    The cost of eating healthy is hugely dependent on where you live…geographically…and what is available to you.

    And that varies dramatically. I live in NYC and I think a lot of food is way overpriced, yet, when I’ve traveled to other places in say Florida, California, etc. where many things are actually grown locally, I’m shocked that prices are often even higher.

    We have fewer options for some things (fresh, locally grown–yes, there are co-ops and farmers market but they require both time and money that many of us simply do not have) and more options for some others (products from all over the world if you have the time to traipse all over the city to stock up on non-perishables), but the actual cost in time and $$ to get them is not low.

    And if you want organic, well, you are paying for it, even if you are very selective in what you pick.

    And if you live in the “poorer” neighborhoods, those individuals have very little choice in what is available to them. (And no, they cannot go back/forth on public transportation, which is not cheap, to buy at the farmers’ market, which has high prices.) There are now a number of initiatives in place to make healthy food both more available and affordable. In some places, there may only be one supermarket, with low quality food and very high prices (the poor are the first to be gauged in everything.)

    People carry on about the “cost” of obesity, but people refuse to believe that healthy food DOES generally, in a lot of places in this country, cost a lot more than people have or is available to them. It’s easy to diss on others when you are able to buy whatever you want, whenever. Way too easy. I’m pretty fed up with the self-righteous, judgmental types who look down on others. Don’t judge, try to understand and try to help!

    It’s fascinating when you read articles about folks who actually tried to live on food stamps, etc. and what they could or couldn’t buy and how awful they felt when they had to eat high-carb diets and give up all their good-but-unaffordable foods.

    Even a diet of frozen veggies and canned beans exceeds what a lot of people can afford. And good protein (other than beans) is not cheap, even if you only have it once or twice a week.

    It’s too bad that we don’t have the opportunity/resources/space for community gardens to grow food for more people. But that only takes care of a few months in the summer.

    We need more Alice Waters’-type initiatives in cities all over the country.

    And cheaper ways to bring in fresh foods to the cities and other places that dont’ have them.

    For those who rightly note that it is our responsibility to eat well to be healthier, please know that some people need lots of help, beyond the information on “how to choose” and that the real help is jobs, higher incomes and simply put, more money to buy healthy food–and plenty of places to buy such food in their neighborhoods.

    Yes, there is often a lot of “unlearning” of old (often culturally based) habits in terms of dietary choices. But eating healthy all the time is not easy for most folks. You cannot live on beans alone. And though we are vegetarians, we know that some people absolutely need meat in their diet to feel well (Just because it personally makes us sick has to do with our systems. Everyone is different.)

    FYI: Not everyone who is obese is living on diet sodas, junk food and snacking junk all day long. Some people actually eat very modestly, of fresh foods and are hugely careful with their diets. There are folks who have other health issues (like taking meds for other conditions) that bulk them up. Try being them in this judgmental society where a fellow citizen thinks it is THEIR divine right to judge and criticize others.

  17. gail says:

    Eating PROCESSED foods is what is killing us. Forget about eating “organic”…if it comes in a box, can, etc., try to limit the amount.
    And I totally agree with #16 Jeannette: fresh produce and “in season” foods are not readily available, nor affordable, to lower income people in poor neighborhoods. Farmer’s markets are overpriced and not accessible to everyone.

  18. Vanessa says:

    This just depends largely on what your definition of “healthy” is. I grew up quite poor and am currently a student living on a part time job and student loans (that only pay my tuition). I live in a very low income area in a small town. Fresh and frozen vegetables and canned and dried beans are readily available, cheap and healthy. I feed just me at my college apartment on about $20 per week. And I eat quite healthy, with the occasional cookie or chips for a snack. Back home, where I am on weekends with my husband and kids, we spend less than $100 for 3 and 1/2 people (me being there only on weekends. So that works out to a total of $30 per person per week. And we eat very little in the way of processed foods (unless you count canned vegetables, which I don’t because they lack added preservatives and other chemicals). We do not spend a significant amount of time on food prep either, 30 minutes max on dinner and 10 on breakfast + lunch.

    It is only when you start demanding “organic” food that you run into price and availability problems. And I don’t think that will make the difference in the vast majority of nutrition related health concerns, especially obesity. What low income areas really need is education about proper nutrition, not legislation and initiatives.

    Finally @Johanna, the term “chemical free food” is incorrect, that is true. But understand that it is just short hand for “man-made chemical free food.” No need to get all worked up over nothing.

  19. Helen says:

    Oh, this is SUCH a timely post for me. I’ve been trying to move forward with some life changes for quite a while, but those vestiges of former passions seem to have a heck of a lot of weight in them.

  20. Sarah says:

    You can also eliminate chemicals in foods by not eating processed grains and other highly processed products in the first place. Just stick to fruits, veggies, nuts and meats. You also won’t have to spend forever in the kitchen making your own version of processed foods (like pasta).

  21. almost there says:

    I am reading Pollan’s “In Defense of Food” right now and find it enlightening.

  22. Bill in NC says:

    Frozen veggies, organic or not, are a healthy bargain when fresh veggies are not available.

  23. Steffie says:

    What we value often changes because of what changes in our life. Getting married, having children, buying a house, saving for college and retirement are all things that happen and change our perspective. I am currently trying to figure out how to pay for college for 3 kids at the same time as planning my retirement. Or at least slowing down and enjoying life more with travel etc. So buying a fancy new phone or a gazillion dvds is not in the game plan right now. Fixing up my house so I can live in it until I die is part of the plan now. Once you realize what is important to you now and in the future you’ll be able to make a plan. (And I am saving some of my dvds so I can watch them later)

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