A New Definition of Luxury

What does luxury mean to you? Wealth? Power? Possessions? Or... the ability to focus on what you really care about?

What does luxury mean to you? Wealth? Power? Possessions? Or... the ability to focus on what you really care about?

It was earlier this year that I really noticed, in a personal way, that buying things didn't feel like a luxury any more. 

It was just after the holidays, about 10 months ago, when a friend introduced me to a lovely store that sells vegan, organic, sparkly makeup that I (still) love - Lush is the store, in case you're curious, and they don't test their products on animals, for a wonder. After my first visit, I acquired enough eyeliner to last me until now (and probably through the end of next year, at this rate). I enjoyed shopping there. The people were very friendly and helpful. But when I went home, in spite of the sparkly delight of the eyeliner, something didn't feel right.

So I thought about it.

I thought about how much I would enjoy the fun things I'd bought. (I still am enjoying them.) I thought about the experience, the people, the help they had offered in finding colors I liked. They were perfect models of friendliness, helpfulness, everything you could want in customer service. Incredibly personable. So... why did I feel so dissatisfied? 

Over the next few days, I realized that in some way, buying things I didn't really need, no matter how much I would enjoy them, felt like a trick. It felt like I had lost something, not gained it. 

I don't know if the reason I felt this way is out of the thrift that our grandparents knew intimately during the Depression. I don't know if it's years of training myself not to buy things I didn't need, because time is money and I want time for myself and my family, and spending money feels like it takes time away from my family. I don't know if this is a feeling that everyone has after going shopping, and they keep the feeling a secret because it feels like a betrayal of our consumer-driven society to mention - hey, that doesn't actually feel good. Why are we going shopping again?

I may not know the exact combination of reasons I felt dissatisfied. There are many. But I did find something that helped me feel better. And if you sometimes feel oppressed by a perceived need to buy things, I'll share in case it might help you too.

The day I realized how dissatisfied buying extraneous things made me feel, I jumped into an experiment. My goal was to not purchase any material goods for one month, starting that day, except for food. I was lucky in that I happened to have a big enough stash of toilet paper and toothpaste to get me through the month with plenty to spare. I didn't have a plan in place for what I would do if I ran out of basic necessities, other than vague thoughts of picking up a few extra napkins from a restaurant somewhere.

The only things I ended up spending money on were food and gas, that month. And I had a fantastic time. I went through old clothes and got rid of some I haven't worn in years, and repurposed others (mostly into bags). I used up old bottles of cleaning supplies or got rid of them instead of giving up and buying new ones. I spent time watching my favorite movies at home with friends, and going out for more walks, and getting into fantastic conversations. I had absolute freedom every time I walked into a store, because I had already decided that I wouldn't buy anything - and oddly, that freed me to appreciate everything completely free of pressure to trade my time for possessing it.

I called that month luxury month, and it was one of the most relaxing months I've experienced in my adult life. After 30 days, I felt so comfortable not buying anything that I kept it going for almost another month (until I needed shampoo). For almost 4 months in 2013, spread out through the year, I didn't buy a single material good. It felt fantastic, better even than my early experiments of buying only used stuff, which I've made into a remarkably fun lifestyle choice at this point. Next year I'm planning to aim for 6 months of that kind of luxury.

Coming up on Black Friday as we are, I'd like to suggest an alternative way to spend the morning after Thanksgiving this year. Why not give yourself and your family or dear friends the immense gift of a cozy morning making breakfast together, reading aloud or watching really good movies, catching up and relaxing, playing a game? Why not step back for a week, or a month, from the cycle of spending money, and focus instead on spending good time with the people you care about?

For me, the idea of the luxury month cuts straight to the beating heart of what I live for. I want to have a good life full of creativity and satisfaction, find ways to help other people do the same, cultivate strong relationships, and have a good amount of fun along the way. We all need to make money to keep the day-to-day living part possible, unless we're in that lucky 1%. But I don't want to make money just so I can stand outside big box stores at 5 in the morning trying to spend it. For me, it's the conversations, the connections, the friendships, and the loves that make everything else worthwhile. And this year, those connections are exactly what I'll be focusing on during Black Friday. 

May you find a definition of luxury that works for you. I'd love to hear about your reactions to this kind of experiment. And if you're inspired to try a luxury month yourself, I'd love to hear about what challenges and successes you experience. Thanks for reading!

Ecological Footprints: the Big Picture

Chances are you've heard the term "ecological footprint" or "carbon footprint." But did you know that taking this kind of quiz can help you understand your impact on the planet, and prioritize changes in those parts of your life that have the greatest impact? Here's how it works.

When you take an ecological footprint quiz, you answer a bunch of questions about the way you currently live - everything from how much you spend on heating or cooling bills to your travel preferences to your diet. At the end, using a bunch of aggregated data (usually tailored to your region), the quiz will generate not only a "footprint" for what activities like yours require of the planet, but often a sense of how this fits in the larger picture. One of the quizzes I like best shows how many earths would be needed to support humanity if everyone currently living used the resources you do.

Every one of these quizzes is slightly different, but they do tend to agree on the big things. If you travel by plane, that's almost certainly the most damaging single activity you're engaged in, and reducing it (if you have viable alternatives) could be the single most important step you take in reducing your impact on the planet. And that's why I think it's worth taking one; they give you a glimpse of the big picture, and they show that a relatively small number of changes in your day-to-day routines can make a real difference in your personal impact on the planet we share.

Drawbacks: carbon footprint quizzes aren't terribly accurate or precise. By definition, they deal with big picture data. But most importantly, they don't point out the real benefits associated with changing those daily routines - increased health when you replace a commute by car with one by bicycle or train, more local connections when you go to the farmer's market, lower costs for your municipality when you choose drought-tolerant landscaping instead of a lawn that needs regular watering. Those added benefits and win-win-win situations - and the harmonies they bring to lives with too much discord - are the real reason sustainability is catching on, and the reason so many people are passionate about it.

Quizzes: The Center for Sustainable Economy has a comprehensive ecological footprint quiz at www.myfootprint.org that I recommend starting with. You can find a number of alternates by searching for "ecological footprint quiz". If you're really curious about how the quizzes work, try taking them a few times and just changing a few of your answers. Just switching from buying "most" things used to "all" things used can make a surprisingly big difference.

Need help with your budget? Try Mint.

I've been using Mint.com to keep track of my budget for almost 5 years now. It tracks purchases on all my bank accounts, categorizes them, and helps me track spending month by month. It's decently intuitive to use, and I've never had a problem with the security it offers. And it's entirely free. 

Mint has some features that, to my mind, make it very worth the minimal time it takes to set up. For example, it has sent me alerts several times when my bank charged fees I wasn't expecting. (I was able to get them reversed.) It tracks when my bills are due so I don't miss any. It also offers advice tailored to the way I spend, lets me know when spending in a given category is unusual, and - best of all - makes it really easy to set goals and track progress towards them. Whether you're saving up for a vacation or trying to get out of debt, the easy visual progress towards that goal can be a really helpful motivator.

The best reason to use Mint, to my mind, is that it directs your attention at what you're spending money on. Credit cards make it all too easy to buy without considering the actual impact of what you're buying down the line. Using Mint can help you consider what you really want to do with your money, reclaim your spending habits, and get out of debt that much faster.

Drawbacks: The main drawback is that it does take time to set up and manage all this financial information in Mint. While Mint will automatically categorize your purchases, it doesn't always categorize things correctly. If you buy things from the same places, you can set rules that govern how Mint does its categorizing, but buy from a new vendor and it's likely to end up somewhere unexpected. Keep a weather eye on Mint, especially for the first few months! I've gotten into the habit of checking it every couple of weeks to make sure things aren't too out of place, but checking once a month would probably be a little more efficient. 

There are a couple of other minor drawbacks, like the fact that you can't actually move your money around from within Mint, but for me, they're significantly overshadowed by how much easier Mint makes it to track spending from multiple accounts. And it's entirely online, so there's no need to make extra storage space in your house for more pieces of paper you'll never look at after you file them. Now that's a good deal.

What's Home Harmonizers doing for the planet?

At Home Harmonizers, caring for the environment isn't just a job. We all know protecting our home involves more than protecting habitat, or wild places. Human life and human society depend on a healthy environment. By protecting the planet, we're ultimately protecting ourselves and our children. That's what sustainability really means.

The core mission of Home Harmonizers is to share tools that help us live more sustainable lives, while enjoying more comfort, fun, and a greater ability to focus on the things that really matter to us. Sustainability should be built into our lives, not tacked on as a chore that we try to remember to do once a week, like taking out the recycling.

But it's not all big picture stuff. Home Harmonizers is committed to minimizing its environmental impact in all aspects of its operations. Here are some examples.

The web hosting service I use, Fatcow, uses servers powered by wind energy. The company that makes my business cards, Moo, uses paper from sustainably managed forests. Even the case that the business cards come in is made from recycled pulp. The company laptop was not bought new, but as a refurbished product. I don't rent a dedicated office space, or have my own fax machine, or even my own printer. Not only does this choice keep my costs down; it also means that Home Harmonizers is a uniquely mobile and low-impact company. 

Oh, and speaking of mobility, I never travel by plane on work-related trips. Trains are a remarkably pleasant way to see the country, and they offer a great environment to get work done in, with far fewer carbon emissions that plane travel causes. While I do travel by car for some projects, I always try to use vehicles that get 30 miles per gallon or better. While in Chicago, I use the local non-profit car-sharing service, I-Go, and take advantage of the hybrids they have stashed around the city.

Home Harmonizers also offers clients help with the day-to-day aspects of sustainability. At no additional cost, I deliver your electronics that are ready to be recycled to Best Buy - they've finally started accepting old electronics for free! I take all your donations to secondhand stores, where they can be resold and reused if at all possible, and send the receipt for a tax-deductible donation back to you. If you're interested in lowering your monthly home energy costs, I can recommend some top-of-the-line companies that offer home energy audits.

So, what *else* can Home Harmonizers do for the environment? That's a question I ask myself regularly, and that question is how I stumbled across my first web host, Fatcow, and their 100% wind-powered servers. If you come up with other ideas, I'd love to hear them!

Nice crowded little footer from my first webpage. Ah, Fatcow, you were lovely.

Nice crowded little footer from my first webpage. Ah, Fatcow, you were lovely.

Moving? Test your new commute with Abogo.

If you've ever commuted by car, you know what a pain it can be. Recent studies have shown that people tend to underestimate the impact a long commute has on their happiness. While a big house in the suburbs may feel more like success, that extra hour (or two) you spend in traffic every evening adds up. Fast.

So, if you're thinking of moving, it pays to consider your transportation costs. That's exactly what Abogo helps you do.

Abogo was developed to help you uncover the hidden transportation costs of living in areas that are more (or less) accessible. Their website uses a mix of household-level and regional data to deliver accurate estimates of what people in your neighborhood spend on getting around. 

It's incredibly easy to use. Just type in the address you're interested in. Abogo generates a "dollars per month" rating for transportation costs associated with that specific address, along with a regional average that lets you compare your address to others near you. The carbon footprint of all that transportation is calculated too. They recently added a really neat tool that lets you track the impact of gas prices on that "dollars per month" rating. 

Drawbacks: Some of Abogo's built-in assumptions may not apply to your household, so you may not actually be getting an accurate estimate of transportation costs for your commuting patterns - especially if you don't own a car, or don't use it as often as the tool expects you to. I've found the most useful feature to be the comparison of your selected address with the local area: it lets you determine which areas are cheaper and more convenient to get to, and make a choice of where to live that really works for you over the long term.

Here are a couple of sources, as requested. If you search for "commute happiness correlation" you'll find more articles and perspectives than I've listed here, though many refer to the same study as #1 does. 

  1. http://scienceblogs.com/cortex/2010/03/30/commuting/ which refers to the actual study, here: http://ideas.repec.org/p/zur/iewwpx/151.html
  2. http://www.npr.org/2011/10/19/141514467/small-changes-can-help-you-thrive-happily


Freecycle: free, easy, neighborly

Freecycle is one of those beautiful ideas that I wish I had thought of myself. It's a simple premise: a network of volunteer-run websites let neighbors post things they want to give away, and things they need, and exchange them. And it's all free.

To get involved, just google "freecycle," click "browse groups," and sign up in your area. They ask that you start out by offering something for free. It can be something as simple as a three-ring binder, a book you've already read, or office supplies. Or it can be something big that you don't want to worry about carting out of the house - a dining room table or an old by

I've used Freecycle many times, both to give things away and find things I need, and it's worked really well for me. My best find was a beautiful old wooden desk that needed to be sanded and refinished. That was 5 years ago, and that free desk is still one of the most beautiful pieces of furniture in my apartment. I also picked up some great free lamps and curtain rods, all from people within a couple of miles of where I live.

Drawbacks: Sometimes people don't show up on time (or at all) to take the free stuff I offer. There is a temptation to get frustrated when people don't show, but really, it's their loss. To make sure I don't lose time waiting for them, I've started telling people when to show up instead of asking for times that work for them.

There are plenty of similar resources out there. Maybe your area has a Facebook Buy, Sell, or Free group. Look around, see what you find, and don't forget to let us know how it works!