ATM Book Club Week 8 (Chapter 7)

I’m running an informal book club devoted to All the Money in the World here on the blog. You can join at any time; there are links to previous weeks at the bottom of the post.

Chapter 7 is called “The Chicken Mystique.” I think the idea for this chapter had been brewing in my head since I read Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle a few years ago (I reread it this spring). I think I found that book — in which Kingsolver recounts a year of feeding her family locally grown food — fascinating for the same reason I found the Boxcar Children fascinating, and the Laura Ingalls Wilder books fascinating. I like the idea of self-sufficiency, and of being connected to something from start to finish. Marx wrote about the alienation people experience from being a cog in the machine; part of the appeal of gardening or chicken raising is seeing a whole project through. I also find the idea of cashless living appealing: foraging, gardening, tinkering, and so forth. As a writer, you never count on being well-paid. I learned years ago how to live on very little money if I needed to. Even now, loading groceries out of my cart at the check-out register, I can tell you within about a dollar what the total will be. And then there is the green aspect. Growing your own food is likely better for the earth than the agricultural shenanigans involved in bringing corn products in various forms into our supermarkets.

But I realized that the “Chicken mystique” is another one of those false choices that skew the debate on various topics. Specialization is still the magic that makes our economic world go ’round. If you like edible gardening or chicken raising, great. But if you want to live a green life and don’t want to support the industrial food system, there are other options, like buying from farmers directly, or through certain food supply networks or even from stores where you can talk with the manager about where he sources his goods. Appealing as I find the whole cashless living concept, I also know that time spent foraging is time not spent writing about people who do such things. And I’m much better at the latter.

Kingsolver partially addresses this critique in her book, by the way, which I realized upon re-reading it. She noted that people do things in addition to work, and that from-scratch cooking (and I assume gardening, too) can be one of those things. She’s right that many people waste a lot of time, and claiming to have “no time” to cook is a total crock if you’re also, say, watching Jersey Shore. But I’ve been studying my own time a lot over the past few years, and I’ve realized that growing my own vegetables and raising chickens and much from-scratch cooking does not rise to the level of top priority in the way that my core competencies do. Between the three children, the books, the other writing, the running and (until recently) the singing, I’m not really wasting much time. I don’t want to take time away from those things to spend more time on food chores. Kingsolver, after all, had a book contract to write about her small scale farming. She was still focusing on her core competencies too.

Anyway, on to this week’s questions: what frugal practices do you find worthwhile or not worthwhile? Do you dabble in any cashless activities, like swapping, bartering, or edible gardening? Why did you make that decision?

Links to previous weeks:

ATM Book Club Week 1 (intro)

ATM Book Club Week 2 (Chapter 1)

ATM Book Club Week 3 (Chapter 2)

ATM Book Club Week 4 (Chapter 3)

ATM Book Club Week 5 (Chapter 4)

ATM Book Club Week 6 (Chapter 5)

ATM Book Club Week 7 (Chapter 6)

photo courtesy flickr user floodllama






22 thoughts on “ATM Book Club Week 8 (Chapter 7)

  1. Our review on All the Money should go up next Monday, but one of the things we didn’t understand is why growing tomatoes fits in with raising chickens or sewing your own clothing. Tomatoes are almost as easy to grow as basil (which is to say I cannot kill them), and the rewards are tremendous. Especially if you’ve got just picked tomatoes, basil, and fresh mozzarella (with the cheese from the grocery store). A little aged balsamic vinegar (also from the grocery store) and you have a meal that’s easier to make than sticking something in the microwave.

    1. Spoken like a true gardener! I wrote on my blog just today about my decision to NOT plant a garden this year, because the two years previous were utter failures.

      My son put a couple of plants in the ground recently and they’re coming up. I truly believe that some people just have a green thumb, and some don’t, and for the latter there will be struggle.

      1. Except that I’m not a gardener and I spend very little time on gardening or outside at all. For one thing, I’m allergic to grass. I also do not have a green thumb and in the past regularly killed plants, even in the Midwest where it is nearly impossible to do that because soil conditions are so good. So no, not spoken like a true gardener.

        Tomatoes are just not that difficult, period.

        1. @N&M- we shall see. We transferred all our tomato shoots from the indoor pot to the garden yesterday. They look limp and lifeless. Hopefully they become more vigorous soon!

  2. I think you hit the nail on the head when you talk about priorities, which is the thing I loved about 168 Hours as well.

    Some people just *like* doing those things – keeping house, gardening, raising chickens, etc. I’m not sure all of that can be justified by the frugality argument – a lot of it is the hobby aspect as well and the satisfaction one gets out of doing those things.

    My friends with the chickens feel the same way as N&M does about her tomatoes. (And I will admit, fresh eggs are AMAZING. I had no idea.)

    I am just getting started on figuring out how we’re going to spend less money, as today is hubby’s first official non-working day after our vacation.

    For us, one of the big challenges will be eating at home (which I think you addressed in your book, too). We spend a TON of $$ eating out and need to change that. So there will be more cooking, but maybe not totally from scratch 😀

    1. It’s not a “like” thing with the tomatoes. It’s that they seriously do not take much time. You buy baby plants at the grocery store. Put them in the ground. If you feel like it add a little water when you do it. Leave them alone. Wait. Then some time later you have tomatoes.

      In fact, if you don’t pick all of them them, you end up not even having to plant tomatoes the next year because they reseed. Then all you have to do is go outside and pick when you feel like eating a tomato.

      It is seriously not much effort. We’re talking like an hour total of your time throughout the entire process. Less time, in fact, than going to the farmer’s market in many cases. Chickens, I understand, could die if you don’t feed or water them on a regular basis.

      In drought, sure, the tomatoes could die if you don’t water them, but it has to be pretty bad. And then you’ve still lost less than an hour’s time and a very small number of dollars for tomato plants.

      1. @N&M – we are in fact growing tomatoes again this year… but maybe I’m doing something wrong because I have not found them to be any better than the heirloom ones I can get at the store. Actually, they don’t seem to be nearly as good. The big ones got eaten by insects before they ripened, so only the small ones were particularly edible. But maybe this year will be better! And I will time myself to see how long it takes. My husband decided to do the yard work himself this year, and the hours spent at it are ticking up (though the kids do like watching the lawn mower. My 2-year-old loves the “John-Deere” — said as one word with emphasis on “John”)

        1. I think the key is: “Heirloom ones I can get at the store”

          Many parts of the country you can’t. Especially if you don’t have a Whole Foods! We have to drive an hour and a half to the city to obtain heirloom tomatoes. The ones in the grocery store tend to be mealy imports from the Netherlands, which I do not understand, especially during tomato season.

          Re: different parts of the country– we’ve grown tomatoes in pretty inhospitable parts. Our current area has terrible soil and punishing summers. It was too hot for the tomatoes to fruit much of last summer, but they came in with a fall crop at the end. Again, no extra work just waiting to see if they fruited.

          According to an NPR story on Florida I heard last year some parts of the country it gets wet and there are mold problems, but it shouldn’t be that big a deal for non-industrial growers. Especially with different varieties focused on different conditions. (But we just get whatever the grocery store is selling.)

        2. When pests are a problem, we pick the tomatoes when they’re dark orange and let them ripen on the picnic table or deck.

          Tomato sweetness seems to be heavily related to night-time temperatures and day length. Iowa produced great tomatoes, as do most of the states south and east of it. Oregon has poor tomatoes, due to cool springs and cool nights.

          I would expect your tomatoes to taste like local heirloom tomatoes. The people who really benefit from buying tomatoes are people in Colorado Springs and similar cool, high-altitude cities who can have them hauled from the hot, arid plains that aren’t too far from their cities.

      2. This depends heavily on your climate. In Iowa or other parts of the country with hot weather and rain in summer, your comments are largely true. In other climates, where it’s too cold, too dry, or too hot, it’s not true. We probably all do what’s easiest in our climate, if we do anything.

  3. For me, the biggest worthwhile money-saving activities have to do with cooking at home. Eating out is crazy expensive for our family of six, so planning a menu is my #1 tactic. It helps me buy groceries wisely, and having a meal decided on ahead of time also keeps me from ordering takeout.

    1. @Kristen- I think I’m going to need to start meal planning. We don’t eat out or do take-out much but we’re getting really bored with our rotation. And I think my 2-year-old will wind up being less adventurous with eating than he would be because I make meals to the 4-year-old’s tastes (and he’s the picky one). Regardless of the expense, when we were on vacation this week and had to eat out basically every meal, I was reminded what a hassle it can be to eat with lots of kids at a restaurant. Silverware on the floor, people running around, kids shuffling between different laps, etc.

      1. And that is totally why we stay somewhere with a kitchen for vacations longer than 2-3 days. Because dining out with a toddler is such a crapshoot. There were *many* days in Ireland where we scrapped lunch or dinner plans out because of behavior issues before we even left the house 🙂

        1. We were staying in a Disney resort, so every restaurant is used to kids, but it was still incredibly stressful. We had to wait 35 minutes for a table at Cape May Cafe (despite having a reservation — I intend to get around to writing this in reviews various places because I am still mad) and by the time we sat the kids had burned through their patience. Cue the circling around the table, the throwing silverware on the floor, etc.

          1. Oh yikes, that sounds awful. I live in fear of what’s going to happen once we venture out to eat with 2 kids instead of just one 🙂 Of course, by then we’ll (hopefully!) be eating at home nearly all of the time 😀

  4. I don’t find it worthwhile to keep the thermostat set at uncomfortable temperatures. I know plenty of well-heeled people who engage in this practice, but keeping the thermostat at 72 year-round is a small bit of ordinary comfort the absence of which I would feel acutely. Plus, I read and write for living, and uncomfortable temperatures make it impossible to concentrate–and layering in the winter won’t keep one’s hands and nose warm!

    1. We played around a lot with this and found the bigger savings to be setting the thermostat very low (or high) when we’re not home (it’s on a program), and dropping it a few degrees at midnight. Not enough to be freezing cold, but it does save a bit on the bill and we don’t notice @ night.

      Heat comes back to normal when we wake up in the morning.

  5. I have a garden and cook from scratch but it has little to do with frugality. It was part of my method for checking out of the American food system in some significant ways because it caused what David Kessler (The End of Overeating) called “conditioned hyperovereating.” Eating and living more like my farmer grandparents fixed that for me.

    My tomatoes consume a few hours. I buy seeds from, start them in cow pots, transfer them to bigger pots, and finally put them outside. I have produced some delicious tomatoes, however!

  6. It’s been worth it for us to buy most of our clothes at thrift stores, and to wear hand-me-downs (that are very carefully edited for style, of course.) I get compliments all the time on my ridiculously cheap purchases, and I also enjoy the treasure hunt feeling of it. I like it so much I’d still do it even if I became uber-rich.

    One cashless practice that has worked well for us is the childcare swap. We found a local family with same-aged kids as ours (2.5 and 4.5-ish) who all play well together, and about once a quarter we get to enjoy an entire Saturday of kid-free bliss. Then when it is our turn to watch all 4 kids we find it’s a lot more manageable than a typical day with just our 2 kids.

    1. @hush – the childcare swap sounds like a great set-up. I’m not sure what I’d even do on a kid-free Saturday!

  7. OK, now I feel like an even worse gardener, because I regularly kill basil!

    But my arugula grows great. That would be because it is a weed. So my rule for gardening is, if it isn’t a weed, I don’t try to grow it. I’ve never tried growing tomatoes.

    I also tend to only bother growing things that I only need in small quantities, but can only buy in large quantities. Of course, I can’t really grow them in small quantities, either, but some how the wastage bothers me less when it is in the garden, and not my fridge.

    I don’t think I have any frugal tricks at all. I think that makes me sound terribly profligate. But there it is. We live within our means, and have only a mortgage for debt, though, so it doesn’t stress me out. Right now, I care about time more. In grad school, I had lots of frugal tips! (I made my own granola for breakfast cereal, for instance. It turns out, it is very easy to do that.)

    1. Your basil may just need water– SoCal is extra dry so it needs special attention. When we lived in SoCal we kept the basil inside (in the, um, bathroom) so we’d remember to water it. It is amazing how parched it can get and still be revived. But it isn’t equally low maintenance everywhere. (We kept it inside on the east coast as well.)

      Basil also dies after it flowers (you can nip the flowers off to prolong the life, but we never remember), but that’s ok because it makes new little basil seedlings that grow on their own. SoCal is pretty dry though so unless you’ve got a sprinkler system going it may not spontaneously regenerate.

      Oh, and basil doesn’t like to get watered at night. Apparently it turns black. That’s a tip from our friends who live in Northern CA. (Their lettuce grows just great though!)

      Tomatoes haven’t had so many rules for us as long as we have a patch of land outside, but growing them indoors is more of a pain because you need bigger pots and more sun.

      And that is the extent of my gardening knowledge. (Not quite true– I grew a lot of stuff in the Midwest, but anything will grow in the Midwest.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *