Sunday, December 30, 2007

Keeping the heat off & other ways to save money by competing against yourself

The calendar is about to switch into 2008, and I still have not turned on the heat in the apartment this winter!

This has certainly been helped by the fact that Washington DC is warmer than Chicago. (And that since it's an apartment building, I don't have to worry about freezing pipes.) But it has not always been easy. There've been more than a few days when not only blankets, but also sweaters, fuzzy slippers, and tea or hot chocolate have been needed to keep me warm. And getting dressed in the morning is usually a bit uncomfortable.

But it's worth it. It's not so cold that I'm miserable. I kind of like the experience of snuggling up cozily in a quilt that protects me from the chilly air. The coldness in the morning does a good job of getting me out the door, rather than dawdling and being late to work. I like saving money. I like improving my environmental impact. And... I want to see how long I can keep this streak going!

I'm hoping I can go the whole winter. Then maybe two. Someday I'll be telling people "I haven't turned on the heat in years!" Or if I don't make it, I'll certainly remember the date I gave in, and will try to beat that next winter.

Maybe I'm more strangely competitive (with myself!) than others, but this same approach has helped me do better in other ways, too, from bringing my lunch into work to staying on track with exercise. It's harder to give in to a temptation and tell yourself "Well, just this once won't hurt!" when it ends a streak and starts you over again from scratch.

I've done this on my own for awhile, but it reminds me of something I read recently at LifeHacker-- Jerry Seinfeld's Productivity Secret-- which involves marking an X on a calendar every day you reach your goal, and then telling yourself "Don't break the chain!" I typically track my success in my head rather than visually, but I can see the attraction of watching your streak grow before your very eyes.

Sooooo... 1) Do you keep the heat off/low during the winter, and if so, do you have any tips for keeping warm and keeping your hands off the thermostat? 2) Is it only me, or do you also try to motivate yourself through streaks/chains/records you can be proud of and then try to top?

Thursday, December 27, 2007

What to do with those unwanted holiday gifts

[I'm enjoying the company of family this week as well as trying to take some time to relax, so I know my posting's a little light.  In the meantime, here's a rerun of a post from last year.  The goal of having "less stuff" in your home and in the world doesn't end with the gifts you give-- it also means figuring out how to make good use of the unwanted stuff you receive, which would otherwise be pure waste and clutter.]

'Tis the season to be staring at a pile of gifts that make you go "Huh?" or "Ugh!" If you're like me, they're usually destined to end up in a bag or box or the top shelf of some closet getting dusty, to be forgotten or ignored save a cursory look-through in Decembers to come. But this year I'm trying to be proactive, so I'm thinking through the best ways to deal with unwanted gifts:
  • Return them. The lines may be long, but if you know where your gift came from, you can trade in that odd-looking sweater for one you'll actually wear, or switch the 4-in-1 gadget for something you might use. And if you have a gift receipt (or get lucky at a store with a generous return policy) you can even get cold, hard cash in return. Just be careful to check the return policy at the store in question-- it's tempting to wait and skip the post-holiday returns rush, but there may only be a limited window in which returns will be accepted (especially if you don't have a receipt).
  • Regift them. Ah, re-gifting, a frugal favorite. But unless you have a wonderful memory, now is the time to write down who gave you what this year! It's sad but true that in a year's time, when you're sorting through your regift stash and thinking, "Oh, this doohickey is just Cousin So-and-So's taste, she'd love it," it's probably because Cousin So-and-So was the one who picked it out for you. If you mark the names down-- use Post-Its, make a list, whatever-- then you'll know not to give the gift back from whence it came, and you don't have to deal with either a) the embarrassment of a mistake or b) the nervous brain-wracking-- "Did Grandma give this to me or was it Jane, or Chris?"-- that holds you back from regifting the items to anyone at all.
  • Sell them. I've never tried this myself, and I'd hate to get caught by the giver, but I hear that there's a growing trend of selling unwanted gifts on eBay or other auction sites.
  • Donate them. Instead of or along with the above, there are of course many fine charities that will appreciate many of the things you'd like to get off your hands. For example, I don't know if I'm the only one who gets endless bath-and-body sets at the holidays, but there are many girls and women out there who'll get much more pleasure and use out of them than I will, so I can direct them towards low-income families, imprisoned women, domestic violence shelters, or elsewhere. Maybe the decorative tchotchkes could brighten up a shelter or the home of a dislocated person. Clothing is always a great donation, especially when it's brand new. And places like Goodwill will take all sorts of things.
(Of course, ideally you should stop the problem before it starts by talking to repeat offenders about ending your gift exchanges altogether, or communicating your preferences and tastes more clearly. But you probably agree that it's a lot easier said than done!)

What do you do with unwanted gifts? Do you have any good tips on trying to avoid getting the darn things in the first place? And if you have any funny stories about terrible gifts or regifting gaffes, leave them in the comments and we'll all enjoy them!

Friday, December 21, 2007

Give me your feedback about Money and Values!

As we head into the new year, I want to make some blogging-related New Year's resolutions, but instead of deciding for myself what I should be trying to do in 2008, I'd rather hear from you about what you'd like to see.
So please, tell me what you do and don't like about business-as-usual here at Money and Values, and what changes you'd like to see in the future.
What do you think about the topics I write about?  Which are your favorites, and which do you skip over?  Do you want me to write more (or less) about socially responsible investment?  Living more frugally and buying less stuff?  Being a conscious consumer?  (And what issues specifically... fair trade?  the environment?  buying local? something else?)  General financial topics?  Are there things I've written about already that you'd like to read more about-- and are there things I haven't covered that you'd like to see?
What style of posts do you prefer?  Informational posts about a topic?  Personal thoughts and musings about issues?  Relevant links to news or other blogs?  Short posts, long posts, or something in-between?
How about the frequency of posts?  I know I write less often than most bloggers-- is that a problem for you?  I'm never going to be the blogger who posts every day, but I can try to do shorter posts more often-- or mix in some link roundups-- if that's important to readers.
I really hope you'll comment and tell me how I'm doing, and what I could be doing better!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Greener shipping for online shopping

I was looking around Global Exchange's fair trade store online and came across some tips for greening your online shopping. Two of them were things I'd never really thought about before, but will be keeping in mind from now on, and hopefully you will too:

  • Choose ground shipping. According to Global Exchange, air shipping generates five times the emissions as shipping by truck. (Six, says the Natural Resources Defense Council.) And according to this New York Times op-ed, overnight shipping is especially bad because nighttime flights cause twice the pollution of daytime flights.
  • Ship your packages to your workplace. If you're in an office of reasonable size, there are probably other deliveries scheduled every day, which will mean less emissions than a truck making an extra trip to your house.
And as to whether it's worse for the environment to shop online in the first place? Apparently it depends-- the physical warehouses for online "stores" use less energy than traditional stores, and many cars driving to a mall can be worse than one truck hauling goods a couple hundred miles. On the other hand, many of these products will be traveling quite a distance. According to one study, if the package is coming from more than 750 miles away and/or your brick-and-mortar alternative is less than 2 miles away, it's better to drive the store in person. (And if you can walk, bike, or take public transit, that'll increase the in-person advantage.)

Something else to keep in mind: online purchases tend to use more packaging than similar products at your local store, which means more energy and resources to create the packaging and more waste in the end. So try to look into the packaging practices of online retailers (many socially conscious online stores are better about it), and be sure to reuse or recycle the materials you receive-- for packing peanuts, there's even a hotline you can call (800-828-2214, or visit the website) to find one of 1,500 sites nationwide that will accept the peanuts for reuse.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Socially Conscious Online Shopping Guide: Sites and Sales

Disclaimer: If you're looking to order gifts online, please take a good long moment to consider if you can substitute one of a dozen other ways to give more meaning and less stuff-- which will almost always be more socially conscious than ordering new stuff online.

However... if you're going to end up buying new stuff anyway, there are a growing number of great sources online for gifts that are socially conscious and can connect with your values, whether those values are about the environment, fair trade, local business, etc. Read on!

  • Click here to jump to a list of almost 40 sites currently offering holiday sales, out of the almost 3,000 businesses listed in Co-op America's National Green Pages.
    • To be listed in the Green Pages, businesses must demonstrate that they: "Actively use their businesses as tools for positive social change; Run "values-driven" enterprises that operate according to principles of social justice and environmental sustainability; Are socially and environmentally responsible in the way they source, manufacture, and market their products and run their offices and factories; And are committed to developing and employing extraordinary practices that benefit workers, customers, communities, and the environment." To browse the whole National Green Pages, click here. You can use it to find both websites and brick-and-mortar stores.
  • Click here for sites that focus on workers/producers rights-- sites selling products that are fair trade, union-made, sweatshop-free, made in worker cooperatives, etc.
  • Rather than Borders or Barnes and Noble, why not buy from local bookstores? If you can't do it in person, you can order online at, which links small local bookstores, and even offers a gift card that the recipient can use at any of the hundreds of participating stores. (Or if you really must shop corporate, at least install Rovr so 4%-10% of your purchase goes to charity.)
[FYI: Out of the 50+ links on this page, there are four that I have affiliate codes for, and those links will use my affiliate codes. I hope you don't mind!]

What's On Sale

Justice for Workers/Producers
  • Fair Trade (just a few of many, many options)
  • Worker Co-ops and/or Union-Made (via SweatshopWatch):
    • DeMoulin Brothers is an all-union manufacturer who makes band uniforms, as well as formal menswear, including tuxedo pants, jackets, shirts, and bow ties. Their workers are members of UNITE HERE Local 546.
    • Fuerza Unida was founded by former Levi's workers in San Antonio, Texas. They formed a unique women's sewing cooperative that makes shirts (huipiles), pillows and canvas bags.
    • Fair Trade Zone/Nueva Vida is a worker owned cooperative in Nicaragua, which produces t-shirts and camisoles. You can buy their women’s wear products through Maggie Organics
    • HatCo's workers are members of UNITE HERE Locals 128H and 129h
    • Just Shirts sells “quality thoughtfully–designed clothing produced under sweatshop free conditions.” Just Shirts sources all of their products from a worker-owned cooperative in El Salvador.
    • Justice Clothing is a one-stop shop for union-made and sweatshop free apparel. They are constantly on the hunt for new lines, styles, and manufacturers who meet their strict criteria, and hope to add an expanded line of house ware products in the near future.
    • Kenneth Gordon makes men's dress shirts. All with Made in USA labels are by members of UNITE HERE Local 2647.
    • Leather Coats Inc. is your home for leather outerwear and accessories. Check out the USA Union Made section. Their workers are members of UNITE HERE Local 73.
    • Protexall is one of the only union-made uniform companies around. They also carry a line of casual men's wear, including pants, shirts, and jackets. Their workers are members of UNITE HERE Local 920.
    • Rage Baby, ALL of Rage Baby's t-shirts are made by the Fair Trade Zone/Nueva Vida a worker-owned cooperative in Nicaragua.
    • Sterlingwear of Boston makes Navy style pea coats. All products are union made by members of UNITE HERE Local 1.
    • Traditions Fair Trade is based in Olympia, Washington and sells men’s dress shirts, sneakers and leather shoes made in four worker-run factories in Argentina.
    • Union House sells union-made clothing made in the U.S., and offers hundreds of clothing items, from denim, golf shirts, jackets, overalls, sweats, underwear, to socks. Screen printing and embroidery available.
    • Union Jeans has a wide selection of your everyday needs including denim shirts. Their workers are members of UFCW Local 1099.
    • The Working World sells buttoned shirts, shoes and other products made in democratic cooperatives in Argentina.
Want other options, including a wide, wide variety of eco-friendly, organic, recycled, etc products? Please search Co-op America's National Green Pages. And if you have great recommendations for other sites, list them in the comments!

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Holiday Gifting: 14 Ways to Give More Meaning and Less Stuff

Now that we're in the middle of Hanukkah, and Christmas is right around the corner, it's the time of year when gift-giving is on everyone's mind. I don't know about you, but it drives me nuts to give and receive so much meaningless stuff, just out of tradition. It's bad for the environment, it's stressful to have extra clutter in the house, and it emphasizes material objects as the way to show people you care about them. Ugh!

So I keep trying to figure out different ways to keep the good parts of holiday gifting-- the spirit of generosity, the expressions of love and friendship and appreciation to those we care about, the desire to make others happy-- while trying to decrease the commercialism and materialism and excess "stuff" as much as possible. (Which often goes hand in hand with a more frugal, less costly holiday, too!)

Here are a wide variety of different approaches:

Give to fewer people

  • Make no-gift agreements: If you and a friend or relative are on the same page about not wanting gifts, you can take the simple approach of crossing eachother off your gift lists. (This can also be adapted into a pact to take any of the approaches below, like agreeing to give to charity on eachothers' behalf, exchange favors, or share an experience.)
  • Give gifts to fewer people in your circle: In a family circle or a group of friends, you can pull names out of a hat so that everyone gets and gives one gift each, rather than shopping for everyone. This cuts down on the number of gifts dramatically, while still maintaining some of the traditional gift-exchanging feel.

Give to a good cause
  • Give donations in others' names: If there are causes that are important to your gift recipient, how about making a donation in their name? Often you can get a card sent as an acknowledgement of the donation. Sometimes your donation can translate into a gift membership to the organization. And an increasing number of non-profits are set up so that your donation is the equivalent of a tangible "item" like a cow, a stack of blankets, a water treatment kit, etc-- try standalone organizations like Oxfam (one of many!) or check out the multi-organization site Changing The Present, just for starters.
  • Give a charity gift certificate: If you don't want to pick the cause, you think your recipients would rather select the organization themselves, or you just want a gift certificate to hand over, try Just Give, a pretty TisBest charity gift card, or other sites where you pick the amount and your recipient picks the non-profit which benefits. (Be sure to shop around to check out the fees and administrative costs at each place, so you know how much of your money's actually getting passed on to the organization.)
  • Give a product connected to a donation: You just know that some of your intended gift recipients won't be satisfied with a "look, I made a donation for you!" card or receipt. But you can still buy them a product where the proceeds go to a good cause, or make a donation that comes with something as a thank you. The World Wildlife Fund is a great example; you can make a donation and in exchange your recipient gets to "adopt an animal," complete with cute stuffed animal, photo, and certificate. A number of places like UNICEF sell gift items and use the proceeds for their organization's mission.

Give non-"stuff" gifts
  • Give experiences: There are all sorts of experience-based gifts that will be just as appreciated as physical items, or even more so. From tickets to concerts, movies, and plays, to admission (one-time or yearlong) to museums, national parks, and theme parks, to spa visits, to gift certificates for restaurant meals, and more, your options are only limited by your creativity. And these kinds of gifts are often especially meaningful if you plan to share the experience with the gift recipient, because you're giving the gift of quality time together as well.
  • Give favors: From babysitting to cooking to back massages to crafting lessons, offering your skills and assistance is a great way to give something that will be truly appreciated but that doesn't involve buying physical stuff. And since it costs you your time rather than money, it has the bonus of being super-frugal.
  • Give expressions of your love and friendship: It really depends on you and your recipient, but a heartfelt letter, poem, song, etc can be profoundly meaningful and appreciated, expressing your thoughtfulness and caring directly rather than trying to do it indirectly by purchasing something.
  • Give food and drink items: Consumable items may be "stuff" when they start out, but eventually they're used up, leaving less clutter and less waste. This is one of my favorite type of gifts as a recipient, especially when it's in the form of treats that I wouldn't buy for myself. A nice variation on stand-alone food and drink items is the "package-the-ingredients-for-a-recipe" route, which can be really fun and creative. And of course, you can bake or cook items yourself.
  • Give online/electronic gifts: To give credit where it's due, I never would have thought of this if I hadn't read it at, but it's an interesting idea. Gifts like a Flickr pro account, iTunes songs, or access to subscription-only websites don't involve any clutter or waste.

Give non-purchased stuff
  • Give used: Whether it's toys and clothes for kids, outfits that don't quite fit you, books you've read and are done with, video games you've beat, or anything else you've already used but others would appreciate, give a thought about whether it's an appropriate gift. Obviously the condition of the item will make a big difference, but we have these cultural ideas about the importance of ripping open the packaging of something brand-new, and that could use a lot of debunking. For example, there's no reason that the holidays have to be about new store-bought gifts for kids, with hand-me-downs relegated to backroom exchanges. And one of my favorite sweaters was passed to me by a relative who it didn't fit anymore; if it had been an official holiday gift, it would have been just as appreciated as any new sweater I've gotten.
  • Re-gift: As long as you keep good records so you don't give gifts back to the people who gave them to you (or were there when you got them), there's no shame in re-gifting. Why should you buy something new while perfectly good gifts waste away on a back shelf somewhere (or worse, get tossed in the trash)? Of course, you shouldn't do it if you think it will be as unwanted by the recipient as it was by you, but people's tastes differ, and some people will use things others find useless.
  • Give homemade: Okay, so homemade gifts often rely on a certain amount of purchased materials, and can be just as clutter-y as any other gift, but they usually involve less waste and less expense than other items and have a lot more meaning attached to them. And there are some great ways that the crafty can actually recycle products into homemade gifts, too-- This Recycled Life is one place to get some ideas.

Give better stuff
  • Give fair trade, organic, recycled, sweatshop-free, green, non-corporate, etc: If in the end you do decide to buy new things to give certain people, why not try to give items that fit your values (and those of your recipients)? Take a look at this post, which links to a ton of great websites where you can find these sorts of gifts, including discount codes for holiday sales!

What am I missing? What are your favorite ways to give greener, saner, more frugal gifts during the holidays? Please share!

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Carnival of Ethics, Values, and Personal Finance

Hi, and welcome to this month's Carnival of Ethics, Values, and Personal Finance! I hope you enjoy the posts below, share them with your friends and blog readers, and get more involved with the Carnival by linking to it on your blog, submitting posts for next month's edition, and signing up to host. Now, without further ado...

That concludes this edition. Submit a post to the next edition here! And have a wonderful holiday season...

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Monday, December 03, 2007

Almost 90% of Americans see themselves as socially responsible/conscious consumers

According to a recent survey by BBMG, 88% of Americans say the labels "conscious consumer" or "socially responsible" fit them well (and more than a third say the labels fit them very well)-- much higher than I would have guessed. (PDF here; article summarizing some results here.)

Of course, there's a difference between thinking of yourself in a certain way and actually acting on it. BBMG estimates that only about 30% of Americans actually involve their values and ideals in their purchasing-- 10% who go out of their way to do it consistently (the "Enlighteneds," as they title the group, which is a little silly-sounding); and 20%, the "Aspirationals," whose social and environmental priorities sometimes win out and sometimes are sacrificed to concerns like price and convenience.

Still, 30% is no small segment of the population. And the survey found that a much larger percentage of adults would choose to buy from a more socially responsible company if the products' price and quality were the same. 90% would do so if the company manufactures energy efficient products, 88% if the company promotes consumer health and safety, 87% if the company commits to environmentally-friendly practices, and 87% if the company supports fair labor and trade practices. (That last one surprises and pleases me-- I am used to hearing people talk a lot about the environment, and a lot less about buying fair trade and not exploiting the workers who make our products. I'm really glad to see evidence that most Americans care about that too, even though "price and quality being equal" is a big caveat, )

How do consumers decide which products are socially and environmentally responsible? According to the survey, 52% of consumers use certification labels to help them be socially responsible, 53% use magazines and newspapers, 24% get information from family and friends-- and 41% use the internet (hey, that's me!)

On a personal level as a blogger about money and values, this is a very motivating sort of survey to discover. Being a conscious consumer is really important to me, and so I really enjoy writing about it and sharing it with others, but sometimes I feel like I'm shouting in the wilderness here... that there just aren't many other people who care the way I do. But if it's true that almost 9 in 10 people want to be conscious consumers, that a third of people are really committed to putting that into practice, then it's so exciting to think about how many people are open to these ideas and what I can do here at Money and Values to spread information and build community around it!

So what do you think? Do these results surprise you as much as they did me, or do you think that 88% of people calling themselves conscious consumers is about right? Does that label fit you?