Friday, May 30, 2008

100+ countries agree to ban cluster bombs; what does your money have to do with it?

More than 100 countries have just come to provisional agreement on an international treaty to ban cluster bombs-- a particularly egregious type of weapon whose casualties are mostly felt by civilians, often young children.  The United States is not among them, but the United Kingdom (the 3rd largest user in recent years) has gotten on board for the first time; and although other big users of cluster bombs, like China, Russia, Israel, India, and Pakistan, aren't signing, it's still a sign of a growing international consensus against their use. 
What does this have to do with you and your money?  Well, since some countries continue to buy and use cluster bombs, companies are continuing to manufacture them.  And those companies may use money from your bank account or pension fund to produce the weapons; your returns may be partially due to the profitability of selling such weapons.  Clearly the ultimate solution is to address the demand for these weapons politically-- but in the meantime, do you have moral qualms about supporting the supply of such cruel weapons?  (For me, it's less about the practical impact of denying them my money, and more about a very emotional sort of revulsion.)
If you don't know much about cluster bombs, here's the short version: tiny "bomblets" are released in midair, falling more or less indiscriminately over their target area.  Not only does this cause civilian casulties on initial impact, but estimates are that 5%-25% of the bomblets land without exploding, often causing injury or death when they're later handled by civilians days, months, or years later.  Handicap International studied over 11,000 cluster bomb casulties and found that 98% of the victims were civilians, about a third of them children (like 5-year-old Ahmad, who died after handling a bomblet in a public park in Lebanon; read his and other stories here.) 
If you use a major bank, your bank is probably financing the production of these weapons.  The report Explosive Investments (PDF) documented financing for cluster bomb manufacturers by banks like Bank of America, Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase, Wachovia, HSBC, ING, and dozens of others.  (ING has a policy on cluster bombs and other "controversial weapons," but it has some big loopholes.) Many pension funds are invested in cluster bomb manufacturers as well.
So if this bothers you, what can you do?
  • Move your money to an ethical/community development bank or credit union.  Most of these banks, like ShoreBank (in the U.S.) and Triodos (in the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium and Spain) have policies that avoid investing in cluster munitions manufacturers (and other unsavory/unethical ventures.)  And you don't even have to sacrifice returns; ShoreBank has a competitive high-yield savings account, currently offering 3.30% APY. (Read more about community development banking.)
  • Make your feelings known to your bank.  If you're not willing to switch, you can still send e-mails or make calls letting your bank know how you feel about this issue.  And if you are switching you should definitely contact the bank and tell them why you're taking your money elsewhere.
  • Work on getting your pension fund divested from cluster bomb producers.  The government pension funds in Ireland, Norway, and New Zealand have recently ended their investments in companies that produce cluster bombs; if you get involved, maybe yours'll be next. Even if you're not personally participating in the pension fund, if it's controlled by your city, state, or country then you can still make your opinions known as a citizen.
If you're looking for non-financial options, you can get involved with organizations like the Cluster Munitions Coalition; sign their international petition here.  Here in the U.S., check out the United States Campaign to Ban Landmines.  Even though our country won't work internationally on the ban, progress is still being made.  In fall 2007 Congress passed a one-year ban on exporting cluster munitions with failure rates above 1%; work is needed to make the export ban permament and to ban the actual use of cluster bombs. 
What's your take on issues like this? Like I said before, I don't have high hopes that keeping my own tiny pile of money out of the reach of cluster bomb producers makes much practical difference.  But I just have a gut negative reaction to the idea that my deposits fund more of these weapons being made-- I feel almost dirty thinking about it.  I've always used socially responsible options for my savings account, but this has got me thinking about alternatives to my Citi checking account-- even though it only ever has a small balance, it'd be nice to be free of that connection.  On the other hand, it's definitely true that you could drive yourself crazy thinking about how many unpleasant things you're supporting financially in one way or another... What do you think?

Monday, May 26, 2008

Monday round-up, now with more ways to make your voice heard!

This week's round-up is heavy on "things you can do" and light on "awesome posts from the last week," but I think the former is important too!

  • Own stock in Exxon? On Wednesday, join the Rockefellers and vote your shares in support of four shareholder resolutions that call on Exxon to reduce emissions, research alternative energy sources, study the impact of global warming on poor countries, and remove the CEO as chairman of the board (the guy who has both positions now, Rex Tillerson, is very anti-environment and resistant to looking at energy alternatives.)
  • Own a Fidelity fund? On June 18th, nine more of their funds are holding votes on the genocide-free investing principles (read more here.) The Fidelity funds that've already had votes have drawn about 20-30% shareholder support. Still more votes lie ahead, both at Fidelity and elsewhere.
  • Own other mutual funds or individual stocks? Try this really nifty proxy search engine to learn more about what votes are happening and when (and how your mutual fund voted/will vote.)
  • Click here for simple instructions to send an e-mail telling Congress (by way of No Impact Man) that you support strong climate change mitigation policies. The deadline's Friday (May 30th), and if you send the e-mail you've even got a chance to win a prize.
  • Also, the Festival of Frugality was at The Financial Blogger last week; check out Save The Planet – Stop Shopping at Bean Sprouts.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

15 tips for a frugal, relaxing, earth-friendly vacation that's car-free!

Last month my sister and I vacationed in Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco-- using only public transportation and our feet! Some of the people we told about our plans were totally shocked, as if it had never occured to them that people could travel without driving. But it worked out very well for us... and not only did it make the trip cheaper, but also more relaxing and enjoyable.  (Driving is stressful enough on its own, let alone in the middle of a strange city!  And I'd rather spend my time waiting for a bus or train than be stuck in traffic or circling endlessly for a parking space.)

If your travel plans are focused on cities, then public transportation (combined with a reasonable amount of good old-fashioned walking) may work better than you think to get you where you want to go. Yes, some cities do have totally lousy/nonexistent public transit, but there are a lot whose systems are just so-so and yet do a perfectly good job of connecting you to most or all of the attractions you're interested in, not to mention the many cities with genuinely excellent public transportation.
Don't let nervousness about riding an unfamiliar public transit system hold you back! I've found repeatedly that doing a little basic research ahead of time is all you really need to get the hang of virtually any city's system. (Actually, I've also generally found that even when I'm unprepared and skip many of the steps below, I'm still able to get by fine in a strange city's transit system!)
  • Start by getting a feel for where your target attractions are in the city-- which are close enough that you can walk between them?  Many cities have clusters of attractions downtown and/or in other areas of the city.  Are any of your destinations walkable from your hotel/hostel, or the airport/train terminal/bus terminal that you're arriving from?  And if you're using Google Maps to do this research, you'll be able to see which locations are near train/light rail stops.
  • Visit attractions' websites and click on Directions; many of them will tell you "We're 5 blocks from train station X, and buses Y and Z run right by our doors."  (Although just because there aren't public transit directions listed doesn't mean you can't get there via public transportation, especially if you're willing to walk a little farther than they'd be comfortable advising you to.)
  • Choose lodging wisely so that you're reasonably near public transportation (or your hotel will shuttle you to a transit stop.)  Don't be afraid of a bit of a walk, but do investigate in advance whether you'll feel comfortable walking it after dark. (Hotel reviews on rating sites will often give you some idea of this.)
  • Find the "trip planner" function that's on almost every city's transit website, and play around with it. Don't worry too much about the exact times to start with, but just get a feel for which trains/buses run between Points A, B, and C. Once you've got that figured out, you can check out the frequency of each of those trains/buses and their hours of operation. And based on that info you can put together a tentative itinerary, in which each leg of the journey seems reasonable.
  • Get advice from people who've been there.  If you've got friends from the area (or who've visited before) that's great; if not, there's a multitude of great places online to get advice, including travel-specific websites and the general but wonderful Ask Metafilter.
  • Pick up or print out maps that include transportation routes, and key bus schedules.  They'll help you adjust your plans on the fly.
  • Figure out ways to get internet access mid-trip so you can make adjustments with maximum information on hand. Your hotel/hostel may have internet access for free or cheap, or you can try an internet cafe or maybe even a local library.
  • Don't be afraid to ask questions if you're lost or confused. Sure, some people may be rude to you. But most transit employees and random passersby will be friendly and generous in helping you figure out how to get where you need to go. (I can attest to this from the locals' perspective, as I've been known to interrupt people who seem confused in order to try to help them find their way!) 
  • Pack your walking shoes and really experience the city by walking through its neighborhoods and taking in its scenic views; walking from one attraction to another can be deeply enjoyable in and of itself.  And getting good exercise via a nice long walk can lift your mood all day (not to mention helping you burn off some of the tasty local food you've indulged in!)
  • Sometimes transit is an attraction in itself! In Seattle, we took a ferry to Bainbridge Island and back-- $6.70 roundtrip-- rather than take get our Puget Sound city views from a fancy cruise. And we nearly took the San Francisco cable cars (part of the SF public transportation system) as well.
  • Look for tourist transit passes (one price for all day or multiple days), but do some quick math to check that you're likely to come out ahead versus paying per ride.
  • Keep an eye out for free transportation options.  In both Seattle and Portland, our rides in the downtown area were free.  In Chicago, they don't do that, but they do have free trolleys running between all the major attractions downtown during summer months.
  • Don't fear the occasional cab. I very rarely actually take a cab... but if you're thinking of ditching the whole car-free plan because one or two special attractions aren't transit-accessible, you should run the numbers and figure out if taking a taxi is a better plan. 
  • If you want to get out of the city, investigate bus tours. One reason a lot of people like driving is that you can expand your itinerary to see attractions that are in the general vicinity of your target city. Well, often there are guided tours of those attractions that depart from the city (we considered a tour of Mt. St. Helens leaving from Portland, for example.)  So hunt around, compare prices, and figure out if you might be better off scheduling the tour rather than renting a car. 
  • If you can't do no car, try less car! If you really want/need a car for certain parts of your trip, that doesn't mean you need one for the whole time. Rent one for a day or two and then return it.
What are some good cities where tourists can rely on public transportation?  Well, at the very least, I can tell you from personal experience that you'll do fine in Chicago, Washington DC, New York, Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco.   (I hear that Boston and Philadelphia, among many other cities, are great as well.)  And London and Dublin were easy too, although it almost goes without saying that most European cities have great transit systems...

Do you typically use a car or public transportation while vacationing in cities?  What factors affect your choices?  What cities can you add to the list that're easy to enjoy without a car?  Any other tips on making car-free vacations as pleasant and frugal as possible?

Monday, May 19, 2008

Carnival of Personal Finance #153: the Q & A edition

Welcome to Money and Values, where I'm pleased to host the 153rd edition of the Carnival of Personal Finance!

Do you have questions about personal finance? We have answers! Presented in Q&A style, here are almost 100 great posts from fantastic bloggers with their take on some of the most interesting and important personal finance questions out there. Take a look and find answers to questions you might not have even known you wanted to ask...

(Posts are of course the individual opinions of each blogger and are not definitive financial advice or consensus answers to the posed questions.)

Editor's Choice

Q: What do I need in order to have a happy retirement?
A: Four Things You Need For Retirement (Lisa from Greener Pastures)

Q: How can I make sure that my actions and measures of success match my priorities?
A: Mind vs. Brain Part II: Priorities, Pursuits and Productivity (Kent from The Financial Philosopher)

Money Management

Q: Can I end up financially worse off after getting a pay raise?
A: The Negative Effect of Pay Raises: Be Careful How You Manage Your Pay Raise (Ben from Trees Full of Money)

Q: How can I teach my kids about money management?
A1: Use an allowance system: Our Allowance System: New and Improved (nickel from FiveCentNickel)
A2: Teach them about purchasing items: My Son's First Real Purchase (Shadox from Money and Such)
A3: Demonstrate by example: Thanks Mom For The Financial Training (Super Saver from My Wealth Builder); Teaching Kids About Money: Lead by Example (dad from Raising4Boys)

Q: How should I create an emergency fund that fits my needs?
A: Emergency Fund Options (Todd from Harvesting Dollars)

Q: Should we get life insurance for a stay-at-home spouse?
A: Insuring Mom (or Dad) the Homemaker (Henry Stern, LUTCF, CBC from InsureBlog)

Q: How much life insurance should I purchase?
A: How much life insurance do you need? (Chief Family Officer from Chief Family Officer)

Q: What are some ways that women can succeed at personal finance?
A: How to Be a Woman (squawkfox from squawkfox)

Q: What things can Star Trek teach me about finance?
A: The Ferengi Rules of Acquisition (Preet from

Q: Could my money or items be declared "unclaimed"?
A: Your Safe Deposit Box Isn’t As Safe As You Think It Is (BeThisWay from Are You Going To Be This Way the Rest of the Time I Know You?)

Q: Can focus sometimes be a bad thing financially?
A: Where Is Your Focus? (FFB from Free From Broke)

Q: What are some important ways that planning ahead can help me out financially?
A: Plan Ahead: 6 Steps to Secure Your Financial Future (Madison DuPaix from My Dollar Plan )

Q: What documents/tools do I need for estate planning?
A: Estate Planning (Enoch Ko from The Wealth Accumulator)

Q: How can I make my finances more convenient and comfortable?
A: Automate Your Finances, Feel Comfortable (Jason from Online Savings Blog)

Q: Are there personal finance lessons I can learn from Grand Theft Auto IV?
A: What GTA IV taught me about personal finance (Seb from Pinching Copper)

Q: How can I take ownership of my financial situation?
A: 10 Things That Bring Success in Personal Finance #10 Part 1: Take Ownership (PT from Prime Time Money)

Q: What are some key personal finance principles and guidelines?
A: I have a confession to make (Steph from The Debt Hole); Saving 101 (Allen from Good Money Blog); The 10 Commandments of Fiscal Fitness (GP from Innstyle Montana-Your Home on the Range); 7 Personal Finance Planning Tips (Ryan Taylor from Millionaire Money Habits)

Q: How do I balance a checkbook, and do I need to do it?
A: Balancing a Checkbook (David Ning (MoneyNing) from Personal Finance with Money Ning)

Q: What personal finance principles can I learn at yard sales?
A: Personal Finance Lessons Learned from Yard Sales (Shannon Christman from Saving Advice Blog )


Q: What are some ways to save on energy costs?
A: Slash your energy costs with these 6 money saving tips (Jacob from All About The Ben)

Q: How can I have a frugal, safe barbecue?
A: Summer Barbeque Safety and Savings (Debbie from American Consumer News)

Q: How can I be environmentally friendly without spending lots of money?
A: Budget-Friendly Ways To Save The Environment (Frugal Babe from Frugal Babe)

Q: What are some affordable ways to get exercise?
A: Moving More for Less: Frugal Fitness (Grey from Frugal Fu)

Q: How can I spend the least and get the most selling my used car?
A: How To: Sell A Used Car: Episode 1 (NtJS from Not the Jet Set)

Q: Is there an affordable way to compost in an urban/suburban area?
A: I Just Paid a Stranger To Mail Me $29 Worth of Worms (That One Caveman from One Caveman's Financial Journey)

Q: How can I be smart and frugal about getting a new cell phone?
A: 5 Mistakes I Didn’t Repeat When Buying My Cell Phone (Stephanie from Poorer Than You )

Q: How can I get free or cheap furniture and decorations, and maybe even make some money, if I live near a college?
A: How to Furnish or Re-Decorate for FREE! (or pretty darn close to free) (Shana from Smart Easy Money)

Q: How can I save money on car insurance the smart way?
A: Getting Your Car Insurance Right (SmallNotebook from Small Notebook)

Q: How can I save money on over-the-counter drugs?
A: Your Mate Is Sick, So You Wind Up Broke. (MoneyKing from The Money Kings)

Q: How can I live frugally in an RV full-time?
A: Living cheap... in an RV (Mike from Living the Cheap Life)

Q: What websites can help me save money?
A: Using the web to save money (Luke from Money & Fitness Blog)

Q: How can I save money by talking to customer service representatives?
A: 20 Minutes Can Save $180 & Tips for Receiving Better Customer Service (Penelope Pince from Our Fourpence Worth)

Q: How can I save money on gas?
A: 12 Ways to Save Money on Gas (Aryn from Sound Money Matters)

Q: What are some ways to cut spending that don't hurt too much?
A: 10 Ways To Reduce Spending Painlessly (Momma from Tales from the road less traveled)

Q: Is there a stress-free way to plan out meals that doesn't end up wasting ingredients?
A: It's Time for Dinner (Mrs. Accountability from Out of Debt Again)


Q: Should I be concerned about going over budget sometimes?
A: A Good Budget Is Not An Iron-Clad Contract (paidtwice from I've Paid For This Twice Already); The Best $50 I've Spent in Awhile (Ashley from College of Cash); Not being frugal with my wife (Biff from basic financial)

Q: How should I make a budget for house-related expenses?
A: The new super sexy House Budget! (J. Savings from Budgets are Sexy)

Q: Is there something I can make that will help me keep track of bills?
A: How to Make Your Own Bill Organizer (Debbie the Debt Destroyer from Destroy Debt)


Q: How can I keep in touch with customers of my small business and keep them loyal?
A: Email Newsletter benefits for Small Business Owners (Debbie from American Small Business News)

Q: How much money do MBAs make?
A: What Can You Make As an MBA? (GBlogger from Can I Get Rich On A Salary)

Q: How should I act with my employer when I quit my job?
A: How to Resign Gracefully (Patrick from Cash Money Life)

Q: How long will it take me to find a new job?
A: How Long Should It Take to Find a New Job? (FMF from Free Money Finance)

Q: Should I/my kid go for a bachelor's degree?
A: Are College Degrees Overrated? (vh from Funny about Money)

Q: What are the most common reasons employees are unhappy with their jobs?
A: Unhappy with your job? You’re not alone (glblguy from Gather Little by Little)

Q: Why are older people still working and what are the most common jobs they do?
A: Working Past Retirement: Job Seekers Over Age 55 (Silicon Valley Blogger from The Digerati Life)

Q: What's the difference between hard and soft credit inquiries, and what're their effects on my credit score?
A: Hard vs. Soft Credit Checks and Your Credit Score (Credit Addict from

Q: What kinds of hidden charges might I get from American Express?
A: Sneaky Fees from American Express Charges (Smarty from Growing Money)

Q: I've recently graduated from college; what do I need to know about credit cards?
A: Best Credit Cards for New College Graduates & Young Professionals (Ben from Money Smart Life)

Q: What does "no interest for 12 months" really mean?
A: No Interest For 12 Months Does Not Mean No Interest At All (David from My Two Dollars )

Q: Why do stores want people to apply for store-brand credit cards?
A: An Interesting Conversation About Store Branded Credit Card Applicatons (NCN from No Credit Needed)

Q: What are the current trends of Americans using credit cards?
A: Until the nation is broke, viva la credit card (AndyS from Saving to Invest)

Q: What are some strange things people have done with credit cards lately?
A: Hookers playing ‘Halo,’ charges from the grave and more: Wacky credit card stories (Emily Starbuck Gerson from Taking charge)

Q: What and when was the first effort to make credit widely available to the average person?
A: The Origin of Credit (Ricardo Bueno from The Industry Report)

Q: What are some of the best cash-back credit cards?
A: Best Cash Back Credit Cards (Sun from The Sun's Financial Diary)

Q: What do I need to know to manage my credit cards successfully?
A: Successfully Managing Your Credit (Clint from Accumulating Money)

Q: What can I do to improve my credit score?
A: 5 Steps to Take If Your Credit Score is Hurt By Non-Credit Card Debt (Margaret from You Might as Well Burn $5!)


Q: If I go into debt to pay for college, should I count on coming out ahead financially?
A: Student loans are not "good debt" (bluntmoney from Blunt Money)

Q: How can I develop self-discipline to accomplish my goals?
A: Learn to say NO (Bob from Christian Debt Help)

Q: Is a home equity loan a good way to pay off debt?
A: Home Equity Loans: Why They Don't Make Sense as Part of Debt Reduction Plans (Debt Freedom Fighter from Discover Debt Freedom)

Q: Should I pay off my mortgage as quickly as possible?
A1: No! Contrary to popular opinion, paying off your mortgage is the dumbest move you can make... (AJC from How to make $7 million in 7 years)
A2: Yes! Pay off Your Mortgage Early (Toblerone from Simple Mom)


Q: What are the differences between investing billions and investing thousands?
A: Don't Invest Like Warren Buffett (Kyle from Amateur Asset Allocator)

Q: Are there good dividend investments that don't show up on the usual lists?
A: Dividend Conspiracies (Dividend Growth Investor from Dividend Growth Investor)

Q: Are companies with increasing dividends over time a good investment?
A: Rising Dividends = Rising Returns (Dividends4Life from Dividends4Life)

Q: How many investments does the average investor need?
A: Money's Only 7 Investments You Need is Wrong (Kevin from No Debt Plan)

Q: What's more important, the amount of dividends paid out or whether the amount is growing over time?
A: Dividend Yield or Dividend Growth? (The Dividend Guy from The Dividend Guy)

Q: What's the current situation with I Bonds?
A: May 2008 I Bond Rates Go to 0.0%, Total Rate 4.84%-What Does This mean? (RC from Think Your Way To Wealth)

Q: What is diversification and why is it important?
A: Working Backwards: What's DIversification? (Ryan Suenaga from Uncommon Cents)

Q: What are some great U.S. money market funds?
A: The Top 25 Best Low Cost US Money Market Funds (The Skilled Investor from The Skilled Investor Blog)

Q: Is it better to spend my time trying to get the best investment returns or spend that time working?
A: Labour vs. Investment Income (Mr. Cheap from Quest For Four Pillars)

Real Estate

Q: What cities are doing well in these tough financial times?
A: Is Your City Recession-Proof? These 10 Are! (FIRE Finance from FIRE Finance)

Q: Are more people getting stuck in their homes because of falling housing prices?
A: Upside-down, still paying, and stuck (mbhunter from Mighty Bargain Hunter)

Q: How can I use online real estate tools wisely?
A: How to Use Internet Based Real Estate and House Hunting Sites (Dan Melson from Searchlight Crusade)

Q: What's it like to have a real estate agent sell your house?
A: Using a Real Estate Agent to Sell Your Home (JS from Smart Money Daily)

Q: How should I handle offers and counteroffers?
A: Home Pricing (Brooke from Dollar Frugal)


Q: How can I earn money besides a job?
A: how to make money without a job and why you should (Steve from brip blap)

Q: How can I file a claim for the diamonds class action settlement, and how much will I get?
A: Diamonds Class Action - How Much Can I Get Back? (Sean from Financial Ramblings)

Q: What do I/my kid need to change to keep winning new scholarships after starting college?
A: Updating the college scholarship resume (Paula Wethington from Monroe on a budget)

Q: What do I do if I'm in or witness to a car accident?
A: Near Collision (Bryce from Save and Conquer)

Q: Is "MicroTrends" a good book?
A: Everyday Finance Book Review: MicroTrends (Dan at Everyday Finance from Everyday Finance)

Q: What would happen if Indiana Jones were filing his taxes?
A: A Memo From the Office of Steven R. Lawlor, CPA, to Indiana Jones (RwR from Riding With Rickey)

Q: What are some of the typical personalities of wealthy people?
A: Six Ways to Get a Ton of Money & the Attitudes That Go With Them (Beyond Paycheck to Paycheck from Beyond Paycheck to Paycheck)

Q: What ways of thinking might help me become a millionaire?
A: Get The Millionaire Mindset (Money Millionaire from Money Millionaire)

Q: Is it our patriotic duty to spend our stimulus check?
A: To Stimulate Or Not To Stimulate? (The Happy Rock from The Happy Rock)

Q: Could higher gas prices have some benefits?
A: Higher Gas Prices: A Blessing in Disguise or America's Wakeup Call (Dorian Wales from The Personal Financier)

That's all for this week! I hope we've helped answer some of your questions; please submit your post for next week's edition of the Carnival.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Eat less food: save money, be healthier, and feel just as satisfied (or more so!)

Do you think your portion sizes at mealtimes are just the right size for you and if you ate any less you'd be hungry and unsatisfied? Are you sure? There's some stunning research out there showing that how much we eat is strongly impacted by external factors, and it suggests that by tweaking some of our practices we could eat less without feeling like we're missing out, which could result in some major benefits-- for our wallets, for our health, and for the planet.

It shouldn't be surprising to suggest that we could be eating less, considering that today's Americans eat more food in larger portions than we did just a couple of decades ago, and more than people in many other countries (like France) currently do.  If those amounts work perfectly well for others, they should work for us. So why don't we just eat less? The answer appears to be connected to the size of the portions we're presented/serve ourselves, and the pace at which we eat our food.
The size of the portions we eat both at home and in fast-food restaurants has been growing and (unsurprisingly) the amount that we think of as the typical or appropriate portion has grown along with it.  That would be fine if we typically just stopped eating when we're full-- but the evidence strongly suggests that we don't.  (This seems to change in early childhood; in one study, three-year-olds ate the same amount regardless of portion size, but five-year-olds ate more when presented with more food.)  From drinking more soup from a bowl that secretly refills itself, to eating more (stale!) popcorn from a giant tub than a smaller onethe basic human decision about how much food we should put in our body is apparently highly dependent on external cues.  (For Americans especially: a recent survey found that Parisians say they stop eating when they feel full, while Chicagoans typically say they stop based on when their plate is empty, others at the table stop eating, their TV show is over, or other external factors.)
And yet, those who eat more due to external cues are often exactly as satisfied and full as those who eat less.  Those bottomless-bowl eaters, who on average ate 73% more soup than those with regular bowls, didn't end up feeling more sated than their lighter-eating counterparts.  Neither was there a difference in reported fullness between subjects in another study who ate more macaroni and cheese when more was presented to them, or those in yet another study where subjects ate more from a 12-inch than an 8-inch sub sandwich.  
Obviously there's a tipping point-- at some point, eating too little will leave you hungry-- but the question is, where on the spectrum are you?  Are you sure that you're eating the smallest amounts that are right for you, or are you responding to external cues and then falsely assuming that because you feel full (and not over-full) you must have picked the right amount? 
Why not try altering the external cues to see what'll happen?  Serve yourself smaller portions from smaller serving dishes onto smaller plates or bowls.  Leave the evidence of what you've eaten-- the chicken bones or candy wrappers or peanut shells-- in front of you rather than out of sight; and keep the serving container out of sight and out of reach so you have to work to get it.  Make unit bias work for you by pre-defining your own portions-- divide up your food into individual baggies or tupperware so that you're more likely to later conclude that the portion you see is the amount that's just right for you.
And you can work on shifting from external to internal cues, too, by trying to eat slowly and pay attention to your own sense of fullness.  In one study, participants who were served a giant plate of spaghetti were asked to either eat quickly or slowly, and to eat until they felt comfortably full.  The slow eaters ended up eating less, yet they were actually more satisfied and less hungry-- both immediately after eating and an hour later-- than the quick eaters who ate more food!
So try this:  start serving yourself smaller portions. Eat slowly and savor your food.  Give yourself plenty of time to register how full you are (about 20 minutes is the typical estimate.)  And if you're still hungry after all that, you can always go back for more.  But instead, you may find the quantity of food you eat diminishes... and as a result, you're probably saving money, improving your health, and easing your impact on the environment.
Have you tried to eat smaller portions, eat more slowly, or used other methods to eat less and still be satisfied?  How'd it go?  Do you know of any other tips and tricks to try along these lines? 

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Free ice cream, free iced coffee, how to be an urban gardener, and all about the food crisis

Friday, May 09, 2008

World Fair Trade Day is May 10; celebrate with the World's Largest Coffee Break & more!

Tomorrow, May 10th, is World Fair Trade Day, and people across the United States are planning to set a world record by getting together tomorrow afternoon for a giant "Fair Trade Coffee Break." (Although if you're not a coffee-drinker, don't despair; it looks like many/most of the gatherings include other fair trade products like tea, wine, chocolate, and fruit... at least one place is offering fair trade bananas dipped in fair trade chocolate, and I'm totally jealous!) There are over 100 events going on in locations across the country; check out the listing here for one near you.

[If you're asking "What's fair trade and why should I care?": the short answer is that fair trade is about ensuring decent pay and humane, non-exploitative working conditions for the people who grow/harvest/make our products; for the long answer, check out my previous posts on the subject.]
I'm participating, and I think it's a fantastic idea for a whole bunch of reasons:
  • Meeting great people in my area who are into fair trade and being conscious consumers.
  • Standing up and being counted as a fair trade supporter-- all the gatherings are listing the number of attendees for purposes of setting the record-- and I bet there'll be press coverage that will let people know how many of their friends and neighbors showed up and believe in fair trade.
  • Free samples of delicious fair trade foods-- what's not to love?
  • Helping inform people and maybe make some converts-- hopefully our events will look like so much fun that we'll pull in people off the streets to ask questions and join in!
  • Film showings-- my local event is showing Black Gold (about the coffee industry and the effects of fair trade), which I've wanted to see for a while but haven't gotten around to. Many other events seem to be showing this or other films.
  • Fair trade flowers for Mother's Day on Sunday-- it seems like at least some of the events will have flowers either for free or for sale, which is great timing! (If they're not at your coffee break, you may also be able to find them at your local Whole Foods or Trader Joe's or other supermarkets; it's a pretty good bet that some of your fellow attendees could point you in the right direction to find fair trade flowers locally.)
So look for an event near you. I'm going to this one in DC tomorrow from 3 to 5pm, near the U Street Metro, which features coffee, tea, chocolate, cookies, and a movie; if you're in the area and want to come too, shoot me an e-mail so we can meet up and chat while we're there! And if you go to one of these events tomorrow, please do come back and leave a comment about how you thought it went.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

How and why to express your values to companies: the new ClimateCounts scorecard & much more has just released their new scorecard on companies' climate change policies-- the extent to which companies are measuring, disclosing, and reducing their contributions to climate change. This PDF pocket guide gives you scores by sector of 56 major companies. You can quickly see some dramatic differences; for example, in the Electronics category, IBM leads the pack with a score of 77 out of 100, while Apple trails with only 11. Coke (61) beats Pepsi (37). And while McDonalds only scores 27, Burger King and Wendy's are both worse, at dead 0. The highest scorer overall is Nike (82.) You can read more details in these profiles.

This scorecard is just one of the tools I use to understand the social and environmental impacts of the companies that make the products I buy (and the ones I invest in via mutual funds.) Others include the Corporate Equality Index's ranking of LGBT policies (my post here), 100 Best Companies to Work For (my post here), the Better World Shopping Guide, and certifications like fair trade, union-made, certified humane, and organic. (I also try to buy from small and local businesses when I can; not only does this express my values in itself, but makes it much easier to communicate my values directly to the local owners.)

Why's it important to me? When I buy products, I try to be as conscious as possible about the way they were produced. As the end user, they were essentially produced for me-- and so I feel that the items produced in my name should have the most positive or least negative social/environmental impacts possible. It's too easy for everyone down the line to deny any responsibility (the company can say they make their choices because of what I as a consumer/shareholder demand; I could just say "the company makes all the decisions, I just buy things, I can't help it!") So I use rating systems like Climate Counts to be more conscious of what companies are doing, and hence what the effects of my own choices are.

But I also want to tell companies about my values and let them know that there are things more important to me than money, so they don't make choices based on the false assumption that my #1 priority is the lowest prices (or the highest stock returns.) There are a few different ways I try to send that message:
  • Buying from companies that do better in the areas I care about. I think this is important, partially just as a principled act of taking personal responsibility, but also because if enough people do it, it can affect companies' choices. The challenge with this strategy, though, is that generally the companies don't know why you are or aren't buying something.
  • Investing in mutual funds that push for the things I care about. My retirement money is in socially responsible mutual funds, ones which push companies they hold stock in to act in more socially and environmentally responsible ways. So my retirement savings give those funds more weight to bring their shareholders' values to the table in discussions with companies, and more votes when shareholder resolutions on corporate social responsibility (CSR) come up. Traditional mutual funds are usually pretty bad about CSR resolutions, as you can see here-- many of them pratically never support them (Vanguard voted yes on 5% of CSR resolutions in 2007, Fidelity only 2%) and even those with the best records (like TIAA-CREF which voted yes on 40%, Schwab at 36%, or Goldman Sachs at 24%) are still pretty poor. [See
  • Actually directly telling them what I care about! One of the neat things about the website is that on the profile pages for each of the 56 companies, there's a link at the bottom that says "Click here to tell this company you think Climate Counts!" It gives you a form to e-mail the company to tell them that you read the information about their record on climate change, and that you consider yourself a climate-conscious consumer. There are other organized campaigns, like Co-op America's actions (tell car companies to improve fuel effiency! thank magazines for using recycled paper! and more!) Or you can just look up the right e-mail address and tell companies your thoughts all on your own (when it's a local business, it's even easier and more personal.)
Do you try to express your values to companies, and how? If you don't, why not? What do you think are the best strategies, and are there things I'm missing? (I left out lobbying politically for regulations and/or incentives, which is really important but is more about our roles as citizens than consumers/investors.) Are there other good sources of information that you use to inform your decisions?

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Carnival of Ethics, Values, and Personal Finance

Hurry over to Greener Pastures and check out Lisa's superb edition of the Carnival of Ethics, Values, and Personal Finance. Not only does she organize dozens of great submissions and highlight six great ones as her favorites, but she also intersperses it with info from the Better World Shopping Guide about the best (and worst) of responsible businesses.

Do you want to host an edition of the Carnival? Send me an e-mail (my address is in the sidebar) and let me know! And click here to submit posts for next time.