Better Me, Better World: Year in Review

Tomorrow starts a brand new year, with 365 exciting opportunities to do something you’ve never done before. How cool is that?? I know I’m pretty happy about it. I’m happy to start something new but I’m also happy to post the results of our year long Better Me, Better World project. We had two goals this year – to live simply and strive toward zero food waste. Here’s how we did on both:


Better Me Goal: Live simply. Prove that we can live a happy, healthy, and prosperous life with less.

Yard Sale Puzzles

Last January, we set a budget and for the most part, we stuck to it. There were some splurges along the way, mostly at yard sales and the Farmer’s Market, but we had no extravagant expenditures. Even when I had to get a new cell phone, I bought one that was two generations old and on sale. Our vacations were cheap. Our fun dates out were frugal. Our fun days staying in were also filled with cheap activities – knitting, coloring, putting together yard-sale puzzles, watching free documentaries, and reading. This year, we read 52 books between the two of us.

Frugal living allowed us to save $7,166 toward retirement, travel, and emergencies. Our net pay from my job was $29,778.72 this year. We received another $3,557.32 from side hustles, gifts, and proceeds from our decluttering efforts. While I know saving 22% of one’s income is something to be proud of, I still feel conflicted when it comes to money. This is something I plan to work on in 2019.

Another of our Better Me goals was to eat a mostly plant-based diet, with no more than 10% of meals containing meat. I’m pleased to say that only 8.8% of the meals we consumed in 2018 contained meat. We had a total of 322 completely meatless days. As the year went on, we made a few other adjustments to our diet. We started taking a harder look at ingredients and buying more organic, non-GMO products when possible. (Our rule of thumb on fresh produce is that saving a fruit or veggie from becoming waste trumps where it comes from. In other words, dumpster finds don’t have to be organic or non-GMO.)

Hiking in Lafayette, TN

We (or rather I) attempted to be more active. Angie already does some sort of stretchy resistance band/jumping around the room routine 2-3 mornings per week. My thoughts are with her, but my body is usually sitting at my desk. To trick me into exercising, Angie would often tell me that we were going to walk to the dumpster or the thrift store or go to the park for a picnic (followed by a walk). Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy being outdoors. I enjoy hiking and paddling (both of which we did this year) but if you call it exercise, my brain refuses to allow my body to participate. If you call it play, we’re all in though. And if you call it yard work or gardening, I will stay outside all day – hauling compost or raking leaves or pruning plants – until my muscles are as sore as any athlete. With that being said, we did try to take more walks this year. I’m not sure how far we walked/hiked though. We were up to 110 miles at the beginning of August when my fake Fitbit died. I have yet to replace it.

Self-score: A-

I always think there’s room for improvement when it comes to living more simply. There were times this year that we used our wallet instead of our brain to solve a problem and in every single one of those cases, the problem got worse. For example, we spent $160 on 2 pair of barefoot running shoes because we read that it was a “more natural” way to walk and would reduce stress on our feet. Within just a few weeks, I went from sore, tired feet after a long walk to full-blown plantar fasciitis. It was awful! Then there was the matter of the folding kayaks. We thought owning a kayak again would get us out on the water more often. The first time I tried to fold my origami kayak, I nearly passed out from heat exhaustion. It took 4 people 30 minutes of wrestling with plastic to get it set up, only to have it collapse inward in the water. We ended up selling both pair of shoes and both kayaks at a slight loss. The better path would have been the $25 super comfortable hiking boots I ultimately bought on sale at Academy and renting a kayak for the afternoon.


Better World Goal: Zero-food-waste. Prove that one couple can have an impact in reducing global food waste.

Volunteering with SoSA

When we first set this goal, our plan was to simply continue our food rescue efforts (aka dumpster diving) at the grocery next door, possibly interviewing other dumpster divers and talking with management about their food waste policies, but their remodel in the spring shut down the store for 3 months and for a while thereafter, it seemed as if the amount of food being tossed out was improving. Not to be deterred, we opted to go in a different direction and help reduce food waste through volunteer work. In April, we worked with Compost Nashville to direct food waste into its proper receptacle at VegFest. From May through July, we worked with Society of St. Andrew to glean the Nashville Farmer’s Market after market day. Through our efforts, we rescued and donated 133 pounds of produce to our charity of choice, the Nashville Rescue Mission. Overall, SoSA volunteers gleaned 11,520 pounds of food from farmers’ markets in Tennessee during the 2018 summer and fall season.

Throughout the year, we did keep an eye on the dumpster next door. Our total dumpster haul for the year was 348.11 pounds. The majority of this was comprised of fresh produce, breads, and 3 spiral-sliced hams. We shared our finds with 10 individuals. A few non-perishable items were placed in the Blessing Box, a brand-new free pantry outside of the Baptist church down the street.

We also had the opportunity to talk with a few key folks in our community about food waste this year. During Grit, Grace, Grub, a culinary scavenger hunt hosted by our city’s Chamber of Commerce, we spoke at length to the manager of one of the local chain restaurants involved. She was impressed with our project and even brainstormed a few ideas with us on how she could reduce food waste. Our biggest success though was when we were contacted by the executive chef of a full-service 76-suite independent living (55+) community that was just opening an hour north of us. His board wanted buffet style meals served 3 times a day and as a new facility, he was concerned about the potential for food waste, since full occupancy could take at least a year to achieve. He had been told that donating cooked food was illegal and he wanted to know what his options were for reducing food waste. We talked to him about the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act of 1996 and he presented our information to his board. The facility now donates their food overages to the local homeless shelter and battered women’s shelter.

At home, we continued to plan our meals and source local foods first and reduced-to-clear items second. We scored well with both, and with our tiny garden, which produced cowpeas, squash, tomatoes, blackberries, snack peppers, jalapenos, radishes, cilantro, and green beans this year.

We also increased our composting efforts, adding a new finishing composter (made completely out of rescued materials) for year-round composting. In total, we turned 115 gallons of food and yard scraps into dirt for the garden. Though we did not have a zero-waste year, we did manage to reduce our food waste to only 15.73 pounds for the year (for our family of two). About ¼ of this waste came from a problem with our refrigerator/freezer door that defrosted several items before we knew it. Maintenance replaced the fridge and we salvaged what we could, but I was afraid to eat the meatless meatballs and bay scallops after they had been thawed.

Self-score: A

I think we could have done a little better on our food waste but I’m not going to complain too much about having less than 8 pounds of waste apiece. (The average American wastes 250 pounds of food per year.)

How was your year? Did you reach or exceed your goals?

What if I Don’t Want More Money?

I was at the end of a very hectic week when the head of the non-profit where I work called. She wanted to ask for my help on a tech project – something I gave up doing a few years back. She opened the conversation with a simple and often used lead-in: “I don’t know what your life looks like right now, but…”.

She didn’t wait for a response, but if she had, I might have said something like this: On Monday, my niece gave birth to a high-risk baby who is awaiting heart-surgery in the NICU at Vanderbilt. While she was in the hospital for four days, we kept our 3-year old great-niece. We took her home – which is a 3-hour round-trip drive – on Wednesday night, only to have my mom text with a 9-1-1 emergency while we were still half an hour away. We rushed to my mom’s house and rushed her to the ER, where I spent the next 5 hours (until 2 AM) watching her get poked and prodded as they worked to bring her out of hypertensive crisis. The next day was a blur of picking up prescriptions and checking on various people and Friday was spent at the doctor’s office with my mom. Like I said, a very hectic week…or was it?

Having had some time since then to reflect, I don’t know if it was actually hectic or typical for my life these days. In any given week, I may have to take my mom to the doctor 1-2 times, pick up groceries and prescriptions 2-3 times, and work on some project that some one else deems “the most important thing” of the week, like painting Mom’s laundry room door. Betwixt this, I also manage to work 32 hours, make dinner when it’s my turn, read books, write posts for this blog, and spend quality time with Angie, doing the things that make us who we are. I think this is the nature of life when you have older parents and you are the sole caregiver. Yes, it is frustrating sometimes and yes, it’s hard to balance all the spinning plates, but then there are those moments, when you are faced with new options, that you realize, you’d choose this same life again. Every. Single. Time.

But, for as much as I would choose family over work…I haven’t yet figured out a way to say no when I’m asked for help. It’s in my nature to be helpful. I feel guilty when someone asks me for help and I don’t oblige, even when doing so goes against what I want to do. And like a lot of people I feel afraid; afraid that I’ll be fired, and the next job might not be a good one. Sure, there’s a part of me that knows that’s not true but nevertheless, the thought is there. So, I agree, and then I get angry. Angry at myself for not being able to say no. Angry at myself for trading my most valuable asset – time – for something I have zero interest in. Tech projects don’t excite me. The prospect of working more hours doesn’t excite me. Money doesn’t even excite me. The things I love to do are usually free (or super cheap) so mostly, I just want enough money to pay the bills. Employers don’t want to hear that. And even if they did, I don’t know how to even begin to tell them.

For as good as I am at expressing my ideas in writing, I completely suck at speaking my own truth. I recently tried to talk to my mom about my feelings about work and money and it totally backfired. Here’s a person that I’ve talked to for 40+ years about everything from Jesus to jelly beans and I couldn’t make my words make sense. The conversation ended with her nearly spitting at me as she yelled, “well I don’t know how you expect to live without money when you love to go on all those expensive vacations!” It was as if my disdain for money was an affront to everything she believed in. As if saying that I didn’t want to work my life away meant that her choice to have a career was wrong. We are all different. Why is this so hard for folks to grasp?

Side note: the most expensive vacation we took this year was to Florida, where we spent a week just steps from the water…in a campground. Transportation, food, lodging, entertainment and a new pair of flip flops cost a whopping $263. But I digress…

I don’t want to carry around society’s fears or my own family’s fears about money – that there’s never enough and you have to work yourself to death to provide. I believe less money doesn’t equate to all the bad things people imagine. I believe less money actually means more freedom. If we choose a life where money is not our primary consideration, it becomes easier to say no to excess, to consumerism, to stuff, to unrealistic expectations, to the American Dream Delusion, and most importantly, to tech project and other jobs we just don’t want to do.

Most people who subscribe to minimalism, choose to live with less in order to have more money; money to do more of the things they love, to pay off debt, or retire early. I’ve been hard-pressed to find examples of folks living with less simply to have less money. I think I want to be one of those people. Or maybe I don’t. All I know right now is that seeing lives lived for the sole purpose of earning money makes me question the meaning of our existence.

Can we ever learn to peacefully coexist with money? What does living within one’s means actually mean anyway? I’d love to hear your thoughts on work and money; and stay tuned for future posts about this subject as we spend some time in the coming months figuring out our own relationship with the two.