Sunday, January 31, 2010

Pics! Of Shy Ocean

Yea, I'm very shy, which is why I don't use a photo of myself in my profile anymore. Having said that, am aware that people relate better when they've a face to imagine. Makes the other half of the conversation more human, I suppose.

So here I am, trying to take photos of myself today in the bathroom mirror. Click the thumbnails for a larger view.

Had just cut my hair and showered, so my hair is still wet. I confess to having stained my lips a bit. Otherwise I'd have looked deathly ill.

Clearly, there's a measure of vanity still left. Think I'm pleased with that.

ETA: Hard to believe, but that IS a clean mirror. Dust it off everyday. Still the camera picks up bits. Sigh.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Food Bank Culture Limits Choice

I used to buy day-old bread, buns and rolls; over-ripe produce; and non-food products whose packaging was damaged, e.g., toilet paper, cleaning supplies and personal hygiene products such as toothpaste and toothbrushes. All these would be substantially marked down in price.

That option no longer exists in my community, except at the local corner store whose prices are already marked well above supermarket levels.

For the past several years, all my local supermarkets have sent such items to the food bank. Which means people of low income must go to the food bank, go without those products, or pay a regular price for them. I understand a similar phenomenon has happened in other communities.

There are those of us who don't appreciate the choice the new food bank culture has forced on us, that of going to our local food bank or going without. There used to be a third, dignity-preserving alternative for those who could still manage it.

For some, visiting the food bank isn't an option. In the words of one WISE storyteller, Sheree:
I just can’t. It’s begging to me. I can’t beg my family for anything, I can’t beg society. I did all kinds of begging when I was growing up: Please don’t hit me, please love me, please look at me as a person. Now I won’t beg anybody for anything. Policies of Exclusion, Poverty & Health, p109.

Anytime I say to someone that I can't go to the food bank, I get back comments loaded with judgement: that I should 'swallow my pride', that 'the food bank is there to help', that 'there's nothing wrong with it'. On and on it goes.

Well, pride is one of the few things I've left, I don't want help, and that solution isn't right for me given issues they know nothing about.

I'm sick of people expecting a justification for this or any other decision I make. Those who do this should think carefully about the position of privilege from which they make their judgements. I include other people in poverty; there's class consciousness at work at all levels.

Why is it that the more financially destitute a person is, and the more of themselves or their independence they try to hang onto (think of homeless people who refuse to go to shelters), the more they are judged as inadequate or somehow deficient?

ETA: A reader sent a link to this. There's a "gleaming new food centre" for the Greater Boston Food bank.

A Day in the Life: Supper

As food and rent prices continue to rise and your income remains the same; as you cut back on everything else and still there's no room, you're left with only one choice: Cut down your food expenses or lose your shelter.

As with breakfast, supper for me is - with rare exception - the same everyday: a lentil soupy concoction with rice or pasta.

I make a batch of it in a pot and it provides me with meals for eight to ten days.

  • 1/2 cup dry green lentils. The local grocer sells them in bulk at $0.21/100 grams or $2.10/kg. I buy one kilogram at a time. (Red lentils are sold at twice the price.)
  • 1 small can tomato paste. I buy the NoName brand sold at the local Canadian Superstore. Regular price is $0.54; sometimes it's on sale for $0.50. I used to use a large can of tomatoes but that became too pricey. Tomato paste delivers the same nutrition and flavour; it's just minus the chewy pulp.
  • 3-4 cups cooked rice or pasta. Rice is cheaper, even with the price having gone up so much, and I understand it's better nutritionally. If you can manage it, use brown rice instead of white. Beware of false economy. I buy Basmati rice. While an expensive variety, it absorbs much more water than regular rice does. If you've pasta, you can substitute that in place of rice.
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon or lime, including the pulp. Use the real fruit, not juice extract. Realemon or Realime are more water than juice.
  • Optional: 2 cups of frozen veggies. The dish has a nicer consistency, adds important nutrients, and fills your belly more if you can add this. I buy frozen veggies only if they're substantially reduced in price, however. It's a great treat when my budget can manage it.
  • Optional: 1 tsp. tumeric, if you have it. Check out the bulk bins. It might be cheaper than in the little bottles, but be careful to comparison shop. Food sold in bulk bins is often higher priced than when sold pre-packaged.
  • Optional: 1/4 to 1/2 tsp. cayenne, if you have it. Same advice re purchasing in bulk.

Pour lentils into a container of cold water and soak for 24 hours. Drain. Sprout the lentils for two days. (You can skip the sprouting and just cook the lentils, but that's less nutritional.)

To sprout the lentils,
  1. Line a colander with a clean cotton cloth. I use an old handkerchief.
  2. Pour the drained lentils into the colander.
  3. Rinse the lentils thoroughly under a cold tap.
  4. Fold the corners of the cloth over the lentils. Pour cold water over cloth to soak it.
  5. Let water drain through the colander. Put aside for 24 hours.
  6. Uncover the lentils and repeat steps 3 through 5.
  7. Do one final rinse of the sprouts.
Once your lentils are sprouted, pour 1-1/2 litres, or quarts, of water into a saucepan. (Less water, say 1 litre, will thicken the consistency, but the dish won't last as long.) Add the tomato paste and optional tumeric and cayenne. Heat to boiling.

If you're using frozen veggies, add to boiling water, reduce heat to simmer, and cook covered for ten minutes.

Remove from heat.

Add the sprouted lentils and stir.

Add the cooked rice or pasta. Add lemon or lime juice - don't skip this step; the juice is a natural preservative. Mix well.

Store refrigerated.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Bulk Bin and Checkout Prices

Beware those bulk bins in your grocery store.

One would suppose that products sold in bulk, sans packaging, would be less pricey than the same goods sold in boxes, cello-bags and vacuum cartons, or in boxes of individually-wrapped single servings. But one would be wrong.

In just about every case, unless the bulk bin product is on sale, the price is HIGHER, oftentimes MUCH higher. Even with sale prices, be very wary.

Take oatmeal, for example. (I've a particular interest in oatmeal of late.) My local grocer sells quick oats in the bulk bin for $0.29 per 100 grams. That's $2.90 per kilogram. The current regular price of a 3kg cello bag of Robin Hood Quick Oats is $6.99. The same weight purchased from the bulk bin is $8.70. The bulk price is 25 percent higher.

The situation is worse for tea bags. Not long ago, I did a comparison at another store, between the bulk bin price for regular orange pekoe tea bags and the price of a 144-bag box of a lesser brand (read, 'cheapest') of the same tea.

Don't recall the exact prices but have never been able to forget this: the bulk bin price for tea bags was double the regular price of the 144-bag box.

Also be aware, before you go to the checkout, of the price of everything you buy. Include an approximate calculation for items that must be weighed - use the scales in the produce or bulk section of the store to check the weight of the food you're buying.

Then keep your eyes glued to the checkout screen to make sure the prices match. More often than not, a purchase will include an item whose price is higher than advertised.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

A Day in the Life: Breakfast

For as long as I've been in the poverty well, I've had oatmeal for breakfast.

You see, I've always known about the benefits of good nutrition - hence oatmeal and not, say, a donut - and the importance of having breakfast. Anyone of my acquaintance in like circumstances knows this; which I hope dispels another myth about people in poverty.

Given the affordability issue, oatmeal has been the best choice for me, if bought in large 3kg bags, not in boxes of ten or 12 single-serving instant and/or flavoured packs.

I rarely buy anything that isn't on sale, oatmeal no exception. The most I've paid for the 3kg bag of oatmeal is $5.99. If I can make the bag last for ten months, which I do (despite the shelf life being nine months after date of manufacture), my breakfasts cost me $0.60 per month or two cents per day. I make the bag last by using 1/10 cup (10 grams) of oats per serving, not 1/3 cup (40 grams) as recommended. I'm 59 years old, below average height and have a small skeletal frame; I don't need as much as someone larger or younger. Granted, I should probably up the amount, but a life at this level is all about choices among limited options.

So now I face a dilemma typical for someone living in the poverty well. I've been watching sale flyers for months as my oatmeal supply has been dwindling. No sales on oatmeal. The current price of the 3kg bag of oatmeal locally is $6.99. (Sometimes it's as much as $7.99.) I won't pay $1.00 to 2.00 more for it; that money could go to something else, like lettuce or a few apples.

This morning was my first day without oatmeal. (I had a Ryvita cracker instead.) Not only did I miss that warm bowl of stick-to-the-ribs goo, but I missed the ritual of making and eating it. Which highlights a key point: Routine or small rituals can soothe a life when everything else underfoot is unstable.

ETA: Given I've had to cut back my food intake over the past year, I've been losing weight. Haven't been concerned, since I'd gained 20 pounds over nine months from taking the wrong dose of thyroid medication three years ago. Still, it may be time to start getting concerned. Not only do I now fit into my old jeans, which I wore in my dance-teaching and mail-delivering days, but there's this study, which suggests "extra pounds" may be beneficial to seniors.

Then again, the study also says that, regardless of weight, seniors who lead a sedentary lifestyle are more subject to early death. But if you live in the poverty well, you must walk or, if you're fortunate, ride a bicycle everywhere; hence, a sedentary lifestyle is just about impossible for the still able-bodied poor.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Dishwashing Liquid

I've been running low on dishwashing liquid for several months. My technique to make it last has been to pour what remains into a liquid soap dispenser and use only a drop at a time. Then, when what's left gets too low to be sucked up by the plunger, I add water. Again and again. The stuff is so diluted by now that I'm using more drops.

Being loathe to spend any portion of my $67 per month 'discretionary' budget (what's left after paying shelter costs) on dishwashing liquid and the situation having become dire, today I wrote a WANTED post to my local ReUseIt place.

Jan 24/10 15:00
WANTED - Hand dish detergent - Duncan (Cairnsmore)

Have you (hand) dish detergent you no longer use, perhaps because you don't wash dishes by hand anymore and instead use a dishwasher? If so, would welcome the detergent you've got left.

and got the following response:

Jan 24/10 15:38
RE: WANTED - Hand dish detergent - Duncan (Cairnsmore)

Well hello i am to your rescue again, i have 5 bottles of dish soap you can have. 2marrow about 12:30 ok.

We ReUseIt Networkers are a community (I'd just given away two items that same day). This man had responded to a couple of my previous WANTED requests. By now, we don't even have to state the pickup location.

So now I can stop worrying about spending $2.xx for dishwashing liquid and can use the money instead for food.

Since I acquired a FREE, NEW Swiffer WetJet mop back in the summer, I've been on the lookout for WetJet pads too. Cleaning floors on my hands and knees just isn't working for me anymore. Haven't been as lucky in regard to the WetJet pads and I refuse to buy the darn things. Am thinking washable alternatives; they're better for the environment anyway.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Difference Good Footwear Makes

For ten years, I've had the same two pairs of shoes, one black to stand in for casual occasions and one pair of runners. For about seven of those years, both pairs have had great slashes across the soles, where you flex the ball of the foot. Until a month ago, I hadn't any boots and the socks I purchased many years ago were the cheapest I could find.

The condition of my shoes was easy enough to ignore in dry weather, although my socks would get dirty quickly given the regular contact with the sidewalk. Naturally, in rainy or snowy weather, the situation was vastly worse and I wondered at times, disheartened, why I bothered wearing the shoes at all. My feet would get soaked the moment I put foot to ground.

Anyway, I've lived with this situation over the years because I've had no choice. As for the socks, I never knew what it might feel like to have nice ones, socks that aren't scratchy against your skin or ones that have cushioning to massage your feet as you walk.

My footwear situation began to change six years ago. A pair of Rockports, in excellent condition, found their way to my door, courtesy of a kind neighbour. Although the Rockports aren't intended to be worn in rainy or wintry weather, for the first winter of use they kept my feet much dryer than the other shoes. However, because I've no choice but to walk long distances and frequently, my feet did get wet and I find the shoes now are more soluble - probably because I've been unable to spray them with the stuff you're supposed to treat leather shoes with. Anyway, to preserve my Rockports, I've gone back to wearing my other shoes in bad weather.

The situation changed again four years ago when my friend Ronnie gave me two pair of socks she could no longer wear. Her feet were severely deformed due to rheumatoid arthritis; not only did she need special shoes and orthotics to place in them, but also special socks for her sensitive skin.

I was grateful to get the socks because my old ones were terribly worn, but I didn't think much more about it until I put on a pair a few days later. Then I went over the moon.

It felt like I was walking on air. Literally, I felt buoyant and the relief was tremendous. The socks were SO soft and had cushioning under the ball of the foot. My sore, aching feet weren't sore and aching anymore - just from being encased in a decent pair of socks. And I WANTED to walk now, rather than dreading it.

Then, a month ago, my son sent me $50 to buy a pair of winter boots.

That's a photo of my new boots. Regularly $90, they were selling for $45. This1 is the review I wrote on the website.

"I've chronic back pain due to a bad hip from an old injury, and related scoliosis and arthritis. Without access to transportation, I've no choice but to walk everywhere I must go. Wearing these boots substantially reduces the pain during these walks. I even feel less pain for awhile afterwards. The excellent rubber sole grip not only increases my confidence when walking, but the strong ankle support prevents my lower calf from slanting forward; thus it corrects misalignment in my posture and so also improves my gait. The pressure is eased from the area where I experience the most pain. I am thrilled to bits with these new boots. I only wish I could wear them year-round."

I meant every word. Not only do the boots correct my posture and gait, thus reducing my pain, they keep my feet warm and dry.

My son has said he will pay for similar footwear for the spring and summer season. Am keeping my eyes peeled for good deals.

Socks, well, I'd still love more of those high quality ones. In the meantime, I limit how often I wear the ones I have.

By the way, Daphne and I will be attending the rally for Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament. I wrote the following update this morning to Twitter:

I've shoes w/ great slashes in soles. Wonder if I shd bring them 2 #CAPP rally? #shoethrow #budgetslashes #rebelleft.

1 That link no longer directs to the correct page. ISears may not sell that particular style or brand of hiking boot anymore. Too bad. I've received several comments about them from people wanting to get a pair for themselves.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Barriers: Tele-communicating, Part 3

Continued from Part 2

If the restrictions described in Part 2 were lifted, then the issues discussed in this section wouldn't apply or be so onerous; yet someone living in the poverty well daily encounters such barriers, whereby reasonable logical workarounds meet up with intransigence.

As things stand, the very poor must deal with the assumptions and out-dated practices of government and private organizations. These come down almost always to a) the requirement that you - citizen, constituent, client, customer - have a phone number, while at the same time b) your having a phone number has NOTHING to do with the information or service you are trying to access.

Example 1: You are trying to make a purchase online which you will pay for using your credit card. You've filled out all the web form's fields but one. It's the phone field, which the web designer has made mandatory. (Web designers inevitably do.) Unless you enter a phone number there, your form won't go through.

This is a consistent requirement of online merchants. It is associated with the practice of credit card companies to have a phone number on file for all credit card holders. Merchants verify the credit card by matching the card holder's name, address and telephone number on file with the credit card company. If any one of those don't match, you are unlikely to be able to make the purchase.

Telephoning the merchant - using your new SkypeOUT service! - doesn't rectify the problem. The merchant will say this is a requirement of the credit card company.

It isn't, strictly. I've made online purchases using an obvious dummy phone number, e.g., 123-456-7890. However, to avoid more hassle, I've now resorted to using the old number still on file with my credit card company (on the friendly, sotto voce, advice of a customer service rep there). It doesn't appear to matter that the number is no longer mine. In other words, I have to engage in a dishonest practice, something I am loathe to do, in order to get the same service as anyone else.

Example 2: You are trying to lodge a complaint and get service from a local merchant with respect to a sale item that was out of stock virtually before the sale began. (This situation, affecting different items in different departments, has happened too frequently in recent months, which suggests misleading advertising or an abysmal failure in the stocking department.) After being passed from one person to the next, you finally reach someone with the authority to make a decision. She says she will check to see if the item is now in stock. If/when it is available, it will be put aside for you. The following conversation takes place:

"What is your phone number?"

"I can't be accessed by phone. However, you can reach me by email."

"Well, we always use phone."

"I can't be accessed by phone. Doesn't your company use email?"

(Audible sigh) "This is highly unusual."

"Which means you can't send me an email?"

"Well we haven't done it in the past."

"So you won't send me an email?"

"Well, can't you use a phone?"

By which point, I wield the following club:

"I write a popular blog. It's read by many people. I use Twitter and have xxx followers. I write about stuff like this."

(Another audible sigh, a worried one) "Alright, what's your email address?"

I get this kind of reaction all the time, whether I'm making a call or having the conversation in person and this is one of the rare times in which I eventually get cooperation. Of course, if SkypeIN were allowed in Canada, the issue wouldn't arise.

Example 3: You want to make an appointment with your doctor. Although your doctor's office uses email, it won't accept requests for an appointment by that means. Therefore, if you haven't SkypeOUT (which was my situation for two years - no headphones and no $30 for the Skype subscription), then you must walk to the doctor's office to make the appointment.

Alternatively, you're trying to reach your veterinarian about your sick cat. Although they use email, they won't accept email queries or emailed requests for an appointment. They do accept faxes. If you haven't SkypeOUT, you must therefore go through a convoluted process of communicating with them. You use a free Internet-based fax service to send them a fax. Upon receipt of the fax, the veterinary office responds by email.

Example 4: You're trying to get assistance from a government office - say, Revenue Canada or the BC government, about a tax rebate. You've been going around in circles on their website trying to find out how to contact them. Eventually, you come upon their support section. Only phone numbers are listed, no email addresses. You haven't SkypeOUT.

Alternatively, you do have SkypeOUT and so you make the call. Either all lines are busy and you're asked to leave your phone number or, for some usually unspoken reason (pigheadedness?), you are required to give a phone number in order to receive further assistance or service. When you're unable to provide a phone number and ask instead to be contacted or have your existence verified by email, you get the same reaction as in Example 2. Only the reaction is worse; it almost always is from bureaucrats. (Elections BC was a welcome exception; they couldn't have been more helpful.)

Moral of the story: There are reasons the poor stay poor and poverty numbers are growing. There are reasons why people in poverty struggle to maintain their dignity. There are simple ways to overcome these obstacles: all it takes is political will, common sense on the part of business and nonprofits, and an ounce of compassion.

In the meantime, people of low income must persevere and keep pushing back at the barriers imposed, usually unthinkingly, by others. We've the toughest job of all: to keep surviving while working to adjust people's attitudes and society's ways.

Barriers: Tele-communicating, Part 2

Continued from Part 1

Weighing all the pros and cons, the decision to go phone-less was the right one for me. However, there were Canada-only barriers to deal with, which imposed unfair restrictions on the use of VOIP technology. That's where Skype comes in.

Skype offers three levels of service.

With the first, Skype allows free voice communication between Skype-enabled computers; you download and install the free software, then use your computer together with connected headphones to make and receive calls with other people whose computers also have Skype.

SkypeOUT, which I have, goes one step further. It enables you to make calls to telephones anywhere in the world free of long-distance charges. The service for calls to the US or Canada costs only $30 per year; that's the subscription I have. To anywhere in the world, it's $12.95 per month.

SkypeIN, the premier Skype service, is used in over 25 countries, including the USA, UK and Australia. But not in Canada.

With SkypeIN, a person without a phone can still get a phone (aka, online) number, which is an important equalizer for the very poor. It makes it possible for people to use their phones to call you and for you to leave a phone number where required (see Part 3). In other words, with today's technology, it doesn't matter that you answer or make a call using your computer or phone or mobile device. The device for connection isn't, or needn't be, an issue ... except in Canada.

The Canadian telecom giants won't give people phone numbers (which would be associated with computers' ISP numbers I suppose) unless they've a landline or cell phone to which those same telecom giants will provide service. The CRTC, the regulator for radio, television and telecommunications in Canada, permits this monopoly to persist.

Part 3

Barriers: Tele-communicating, Part 1

So much of life in the poverty well comes down to making choices, which is exhausting in its own right. This is another post about choices and the consequences of the ones we make.

I had to make a choice between having a phone or having an Internet-connected computer. Each service was costing me about the same amount to maintain, all things considered. My tiny budget couldn't manage both, so I compared how often I used my phone to how often I used my computer.

I logged my calls, incoming and outgoing, and experimented to see how long I could go without making a call. I'd been phoning out no more than once or twice a week and at times could go a month without making a single call.

I've never been a phone chatterer and am not someone with a wide circle of friends or family, so a phone wasn't important for social reasons. I'd almost exclusively been using my phone to get information or to make appointments. I'd been paying upwards of $40 a month for that service; without questioning it, having absorbed society's message that a phone was a necessity. That brought me up sharp as I began assessing how much each call was costing me.

I was getting much more use out of my Internet service and would be online for several hours each day. My computer was by far more valuable to me than my phone in terms of connecting with people; in fact, loner that I was, I'd acquired many online friends who were important to me. Plus there were my two blogs, Challenging the Commonplace and the podcast site of the book I researched and created for WISE; occasional web design contracts; listservs and discussion forums I participated in; book sites; gobs of information only accessible through the Internet; and VOIP technology that enabled free or extremely low-cost voice communication, e.g., Skype, that could, in theory, perform the same function as a phone.

Hands down, there was no competition. Since every business and government office, and my small circle of friends and family were also Internet-enabled, I chose to rid myself of the phone and use the Internet for all my communications needs.

Sound reasonable? It did to me and I got along just fine, not once missing my phone. It surprised the heck out of me, especially having felt strange, in fact terrified, when making that call to cut off my phone service - as if I was casting myself adrift in unmapped waters around an unmapped island.

Happy with my decision and my new life begun without a phone, what I could have done without were the unfair restrictions by Canada's telecom giants - aided and abetted by our federal government - with respect to VOIP technologies. I could also have done without certain assumptions and out-dated practices maintained by governments and by non-profit and for-profit organizations. Except for these issues, I was sailing quite happily in the bay of my virtual island.

Part 2

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Getting a Bank Account

... can be a challenge for people without sufficient identification.

It's not as straightforward as simply getting or maintaining one's identification. Think of the fees to renew most types of government-recognized ID. People of very low income haven't room in their budgets for such expenses. I have been unable to renew my Canadian citizenship card or passport, which I should have done in 2003. The fees for renewal are $100-plus and the application must be accompanied by a new photo, an additional $10 minimum cost.

All of which means that when a service to which most people have access requires that one have ID, people of very low income can be blocked from having equal access. Banking is one such case.

Now there's news of the Toronto Dominion bank relaxing some of its restrictions. People in British Columbia receiving government social benefits are being encouraged to get an account, rather than being blocked from doing so.

It's about damn time.

It's also about damn time, governments waived all fees, subject to a person's income, for the renewal of necessary documents. After all, it's governments' own rules that make certain documents mandatory.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Silver Linings Savings Plan

Saving money while living on a small income can be daunting. It is for me. However, having a little stashed away gives me some vital security and independence. It matters less how much I've saved than that there's money nearby for emergencies. When you live on the edge, that's essential.

While my offspring were at home there was a beautiful crystal decanter on the kitchen counter, which I found at my favourite second hand store. It was for dimes only, because they took up less space, were less missed, took a long time to fill the container and resulted in the highest overall amount when counted. Leaving it in plain sight reminded us to check and see if any tiny shiny dimes were lurking in a pocket, begging to be added to the growing pile. The contents were for specific reasons, the main one being a ten day stay at a summer camp for both children every year.

During my working years, I had income tax deducted as a single person. That resulted in a larger return at year end, since my total income from various part-time employment was usually too low to be taxable. I used the money to pay off a yearly lump sum of my mortgage without penalties. I arranged for a bi-monthly mortgage payment and shortened the amortization from the initial 25 years to ten years as soon as it was financially possible to do so.

I also committed an extra ten percent of my net income each pay cheque into a special 'house payment' account I had set up with the credit union. Then I invested that in eco-friendly ventures. Despite the unavoidable dips into the pot for renovations/repairs to my house/mouth/auto, it has grown over the years.

Such steps to maintain control over my tiny income have empowered me with a sense of self-pride in what I can accomplish. Equally important, I feel beholden to no one.

After taking care of the big money items, I make good use of the remaining income. I plan a budget and stick to it. I even allow for enrichment, such as an occasional spray of fresh flowers to grace my home during the gloomy mid-winter months, a trip to a favourite art supply store, or a few dollars to share with a friend.

All things considered, my life in the lowest decile of income isn't a bad one, largely because I have taken ownership of it.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Making Hardship a Lifestyle Choice

When reading this post by Daphne, I was reminded of raising a similar issue in a conference presentation we did a couple of years ago. We spoke then of how long-term poverty changes one's values and the way one looks at things.

When life becomes unbearably narrow and sparse, you either pack it in, resign yourself to a life of hardship imposed from without, or you change your outlook. Through working on changing your outlook, your values and your lifestyle choices, you learn to adapt to even the harshest of circumstances. Essentially, because you can't - for whatever reason - change your circumstances, you change yourself and how you perceive those circumstances. You make those circumstances your own rather than perceiving what life has served up as beyond your control. You re-view them as choices you have freely made despite the possibility they were forced on you by circumstance, a situation you equally learn to ignore.

This technique makes survival possible. It returns a measure of quality to your life and control over how you live that life. In a very real sense, it's like the victim of sustained abuse who learns to dissociate. Dissociation makes life more bearable for the the target of abuse. Without dissociation the abused couldn't endure.

Sound simple, this changing of oneself?

It isn't. For me, it took a serious, agonizing, three-year breakdown before I was able to come out the other end in an OK frame of mind - still as poor financially as before, but also considerably changed personally. All the previous veneer was gone. I cannot, for example, be anything but blunt anymore; the automatic censor, put in place by upbringing and a society that expects you to be polite and generally accepting of its norms, no longer functions.

For those interested, here's the paper Daphne and I presented to the Jobs and Justice conference in March 2007.

Jobs vs. Mutual Aid: Taking back the meaning of 'work' in community

We were speaking then on behalf of the storytellers of the now-defunct WISE, a group I founded and was led by and for women in poverty. Its first project, Policies of Exclusion, Poverty & Health: Stories from the front became an instant success and well-known in academic circles and the nonprofit sector. It was quickly followed up by a book of the same name, which I produced myself and is now in podcast form.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Getting and Giving

... without environmental cost or any money spent.

"One person's trash is another person's treasure." So goes the old saying.

Well, if you've ever had something to throw away and thought, "gee, I wonder if so-and-so would like this," then you've glommed onto the idea behind ReUseIt, a network of individual freecycling groups around the globe.

The ReUseIt Network is a grassroots and entirely nonprofit movement of people who are giving - and getting - stuff for free in their own communities. At last count, ReUseIt had almost seven million members in 4,870 groups in villages, towns, and cities throughout the world.

There is no cost to become a member or to participate and no item seems too outrageous, including the kitchen sink. ReUseIt members post items for offer or wanted, then sit back and watch the replies come in, usually within hours.

Through my local ReUseIt group, I have given away old software, clothes and books. Among the things I've received are: rice cooker, food dehydrator, two woks, frying pan and spatulas, coffee grinder and, most recently, a wooden knife block set. All without money ever changing hands.

Whenever I need something, I immediately post a Wanted message to my ReUseIt site before ever thinking of buying. Whenever I want to give away something I no longer use, I post an Offer; usually within an hour, someone has responded who has been looking for exactly that item.

Which brings me to a key point. Too often, when your income is abysmally low, you can't give or help others as you would normally. This causes a lot of distress in people for whom giving is part of who they are. ReUseIt enables people of low income to give, to pass on items they no longer need to others in their community who do.

It's not even about affordability. In fact, ReUseIt makes a point of saying that it's about recycling and saving the local landfill from more unwanted stuff and packaging. ReUseIt Networkers aren't beggars or skinflints. We are people of conscience who are trying to save our environment and help others at the same time.

Check out the ReUseIt Network! If you're looking specifically for the Cowichan group, here we are!


When you're living in the lowest decile of income, coffee or specialty teas are rare treats. They usually come in the form of a single cup, served at a Tim Hortons or other local gathering place. So imagine my excitement when reading tweets last month - I'm an avid Twitter fan - that London Drugs was offering a 400 gram bag of Saltspring coffee to the first ten people who retweeted their message.

I retweeted. I won a free bag of coffee!

The last time I won anything, it was a pogo stick. I was eight years old.

I won a second time, the next day, the prize a bag of Ethical Bean coffee.

And the next day, it was Marley Coffee!

Together I won 1.2 kg of premium coffee.

London Drugs didn't stop there. They also offered one-day-only super coupons to the Twitterverse. By 'super' coupons, I don't mean just pennies off the featured product. I mean up to $4.00 off one of those bags of coffee.

I wish more retailers and manufacturers would follow the example of London Drugs and the coffee makers. It's a clever promotional campaign that offers free stuff to people who help spread the word about a product or service.

As to the coffee I won, hilarity followed when I received the coffee December 24th. All three bags contained coffee beans, not ground coffee. Yes, I understand that for freshness, beans are better than ground. Alas, on December 24th, I hadn't a coffee grinder.

As is my habit on discovering yet one more thing I don't have, I placed a Wanted post on my local ReUseIt site. In the meantime, not to be outdone I did try using my new/old blender. Coffee dust and bits flew everywhere, escaping through heretofore unknown gaps at the blender's seal. I ended up wearing a lot of it.

Never mind. On December 28th, I received a new/old coffee grinder. Within minutes, a mug of coffee sat before me. With nostrils flaring to inhale the aroma, my eyes rose heavenward in ecstasy.

Food Factors

For working poor people, like me, food and shelter are always at the top of the list in the 'have-to-haves' department. With little money to go so far, the learning curve is steep. To supply my family with nutritious food, day after day, has been a challenge, to say the least.

To meet the needs of growing children, I made sure fresh fruit and vegetables were a constant. Snacks consisted of these almost exclusively. No pre-packaged junk food found it's way onto my kitchen shelves. Ditto for those handy dandy frozen condensed juices. Water is a best choice for beverage and costs nothing.

Some say fresh fruit is too pricey to serve all the time. It isn't, if that is the only choice. There are always sales on for certain items; neighbours and friends with fruit trees (and vegetable gardens) that share the abundance of their crop when in season and trades to be made. I, at one time, blanched and froze excess fruits and produce for consumption over the non-growing months.

Grains and protein are integral for complete nutrition. Most of us consume far too much protein, causing many of the health issues we see today. After much research and soul searching, I chose to provide a vegetarian diet for my small family, slowly changing to vegan over the years. I now embrace a raw vegan diet for myself, as my offspring have gone on to live their own lives elsewhere.

Meals made at home save a lot of money. Preparation time is spent with family creating a hands-on appreciation for nurturing your body, fostering teamwork and learning safe and sanitary habits in the kitchen that (hopefully) will last a lifetime. Without the television as a distraction, meal preparation becomes entertainment with the immediate reward of eating the food prepared. Even the youngest of children will participate, if given positive encouragement. In my opinion, the hassle is worth the effort in the long run.

I cannot understate the amount of personal discipline I undertake, daily, to stick to the program and live within my meagre, miserly means.

Maximizing Your Credit Card

No, by the title I don't mean MAXING OUT your credit card. I mean taking full advantage of what your credit card can do for you.

This post is for people with iron control over their impulses. It is not for everyone. It is especially not for people of low income who cannot resist buying things whenever an opportunity presents itself. If that describes you, then a credit card isn't for you and if you have one, get rid of it.

Most credit card companies offer accounts that carry no charges, no interest and no annual fees, provided the outstanding balance on the card is cleared by each month's due date. For people of low income, this is the only kind of credit card you should have. Then apply the advice below.

Dos and Don'ts
NEVER buy anything on your credit card that you haven't the money to pay for when you make the purchase. DON'T RELY on getting money that is owed to you, in time to make the payment. That isn't how people of low income (anyone, in my view) should be using their cards.

USE the credit card to buy goods and services that you would buy anyway with cash. USE it to earn reward points that can be redeemed either for gift cards or for items that you otherwise wouldn't be able to purchase.

CLEAR THE BALANCE every month by the due date. Otherwise, you can get into serious trouble very quickly.

Haven't a credit card?

Not a problem. Credit card companies want people to have their cards and use them. Ergo, they make it really easy to get one. Even people of extremely low income and without a credit record can obtain a credit card with a $500 limit, provided they have an address. I did.

On returning to Canada at age 50 after a three-year absence, I had to start all over again establishing my credit rating. Before leaving, I'd had a pristine credit record that I'd built up over decades and an old credit card limit that had risen well into five figures. Yet there I was, three years later, re-acquainting myself with my favourite financial institution, the same one I'd used for most of my working life - and being presented with a piddling $500 credit card.

Clearly, I had some work to do. I used that card at every opportunity and paid off the balance each month. In the meantime, as before, the credit limit began its incremental rise and I accumulated reward points.

Benefits of Reward Points
I prefer to redeem my points for gift cards. Recently, I cashed in 9,000 points in exchange for two Sears cards that totalled $75. With gift cards, you can buy goods or services, sell them at a discount, or re-gift them. If you use your gift cards to buy goods or services, multiply your benefits by waiting until the items are deeply discounted.

In other words, if you use your credit cards wisely, you can earn yourself a bit of money or get items you wouldn't be able to afford otherwise.

The key is discipline; if you've any doubt about your ability to control buying impulses, then don't get a credit card.

Choices One Makes

Friends and acquaintances often ask why I have so little furniture, no TV, few appliances, clothes or other material items most people think they could not possibly live without. And why, they ask, don't I indulge in a coffee while away from home. Why don't I buy some books, instead of going regularly to the library? Why indeed?

Having raised children and gone through a seemingly enormous amount of stuff that eventually became bedraggled and had to be tossed out, I finally refused to replace things. And found that I liked it. Not having to worry about water stains on a wooden coffee table is to have no table at all. Owning two towels, one facecloth and one set of sheets means more room on my tiny storage shelves. Silverware for a place setting of four is plenty. Ditto the dishes. And so it goes.

Living with a minimum of material possessions is not for everyone and, for me, it wasn't an overnight decision. I started out by admiring objects that were out of my price range and thinking hard about whether or not I really, really wanted it. Soon that turned into 'Do I really, really need it'? Next, I assessed the numerous articles in my home. Emptying kitchen cupboards, dresser drawers and closets became cathartic. With each box that went out of the house, it seemed I had more room for myself. I began to feel lighter, freer.

The choice to unburden myself of material stuff has changed me. Gone is the longing for things I know I cannot afford, now or ever. And should the opportunity arise that I could indulge in acquiring things - even things of beauty - I'm sure I would pass.

Poverty, anyone?

Imagine having to scour the paper for store coupons that allow you to save fifty cents or eight cents, or to get two items for the price of one. Imagine piling them up, then planning a trip to town to shop at three different stores to take advantage of those coupons. Imagine taking two very young, very active children with you, parking and then trekking around town on foot to three grocery stores to shop.

It is what we did and have done for the past 30 years.

Making 'ends meet' is not just a phrase. It is a way of life for many women. We are two of them. It has become a challenge to meet on a daily basis. We're not whining, just stating facts.

Make no mistake, we have worked throughout our lives, except a brief period when one of us was faced with cancer.

Over the years, we have managed to put nutritious food on the table, a roof over our heads and provide clothes for ourselves and our offspring, always putting them first, as is the case for most 'single' women raising children alone. And we have chosen a minimalist lifestyle to go along with that.

We have concluded that there are many tips we can share that show how to live well on a household income below the poverty line.

By 'poverty line', we refer to that measured by Statistics Canada's Low Income Cut Offs (LICOs). Statistics Canada breaks down household income into five categories; the LICOs delimit the lowest quintile.

For the purposes of this blog, we stress that our total household incomes are even lower than the line marking off the lowest fifth. Each of our households is in the lowest tenth income bracket. That puts us one step away from living on the street, in an automobile or couch surfing.

In some communities outside major urban centres, life lived at or near the LICO is equal, or comes close to a middle-class lifestyle. Where you live matters.

Welcome to economicus ridiculous

This blog is intended to fit in the consumer advice category, but with a twist.

Daphne and I plan to include, among other things:

  • discussion of systemic and societal barriers that people in households of very low income come up against daily - and what we do about them.
  • tips and tricks for getting by on next to nothing.
  • heads-up about free stuff, discount deals, and other opportunities to save, maybe even make, a little bit of money. (No envelope stuffing, no "make money at home" scams; we promise.)

We're pros at stuff like this.

Distinguishing economicus ridiculous from other consumer-oriented sites will be its uncommon perspective. Any consumer advice column or blog I've read that is produced by magazines, newspapers, etc. target and encourage a certain upper middle class point of view.

By contrast, this blog will be written not just from the perspective of two women who live far below the poverty line; it will also encourage minimalist living. In other words, this consumer advice blog is at heart anti-consumption.

That the lives of Daphne and I are of the miserly minimalist variety isn't something that's wholly our choice. However, given that these are our lives, like it or not, we have chosen to be creatively inventive in an effort to improve our miserly lot. We will provide tips to help our readers in like circumstances take similar action and also hope to educate readers who are financially better off about the realities of poverty, Canada style.

Why 'economicus ridiculous'?
For our new blog's name, we began right away playing with Latin phrases like reductio ad absurdum, homo economicus and the idea of a forced, but ultimately chosen, minimalist lifestyle. And of course, we wanted the title to convey what the blog was chiefly about: money, spending, surviving on next to nothing. We knew the title alone, which we wanted to keep snappy, wouldn't be able to say it all and that a sub-title would be necessary. We therefore worked back and forth on both. We also wanted the title to be rhythmic and use letters that sounded alike.

With these conditions, it seemed best to coin a new, pseudo-Latin phrase. Ergo, we came up with economicus ridiculous - economicus to represent our money focus and ridiculous to highlight the absurdity of anyone having to get by on so little in a country of such vast wealth. (I toyed with dropping the 'o' in the last syllable of 'ridiculous', but thought that might annoy readers who reflexively cringe at seeing words misspelled.)

We also thought right away of minimalism as a useful descriptor for our lifestyle; it fits with 'spartan', 'bare', 'empty' and the general absence of stuff in our lives. Hence, we sought other 'm' words that would work well with it and convey the correct meaning. The successful candidates were 'maximizing' and 'miserly'.

The final decision was which of the candidates to use for title and which for sub-title. You see the result above.

NB: Most of our posts assume people to have a fixed address. Daphne owns a house. I rent. Low-income renters and most low-income homeowners face the constant threat of losing their housing, since so much of their income is consumed by it. Nonetheless, having a fixed address that is acknowledged by the municipality opens doors to us that are shut to people without similar housing.