Category Archives: Money & Stewardship

A Virtual Food Audit

A few years ago, a friend lent me the book A Life Stripped Bare, in which a family spends a year trying to live ‘ethically.’ They went about this in a very creative way by basically asking a handful of wise ethically-minded people to “audit” their lives. The people came in and basically went room to room, cupboard to cupboard, discussing items, energy choices, etc. I thought it was a very creative way to learn about these things, and as a concrete examples person, it helps me when things are specific.

So, I thought I’d try my own experiment. On my most recent shopping trip, I bought most of what I might buy during a grocery run, and I snapped pictures of everything as I put it away. I’ve posted the individual items up in a private photo album. What I’d like to do is invite a handful of auditor’s who are knowledgeable on food issues and ethics to view the album and comment on items. Anyone interested can comment below or email me and I’ll invite you to the album.

My hope is that I get specific concrete input on the food choices I’m making and move toward changing those that need changing. I plan on making the album public, or a summary of the album after the ‘audit’.


For this that are interested, here is what I’m thinking would be a good system for this audit.

I made a facebook album, so the viewer can like or comment on each item. If the auditor approves of continuing to buy a particular item they will “like” the item. If they don’t choose to “like” the item they need to put some comment specifying why not. Comments can be left for a range of things, so they won’t necessarily count as negatives always, but at least the likes will serve as an indicator of support for an item.

I did not put specifics as to the quantities of items that I usually buy. There are some that are only an occasional meal option for my family, but in an effort to make it more universal advice and input I want to leave it to comment on the specific item, not the quantity or frequency of consumption.

We’ll see how this goes.

Sorting Out My Food Values

In my last post I wrote of some of my hesitations and concerns about the food movement. They where not major concerns but simple annoyances or critiques that I’d felt. The conversation that ensued was wonderful and I really appreciate those who took the time to reply to what I’d written and engage in some dialog. They were convincing arguments and I appreciated them. I’m willing, like I said before, to make changes in my families food choices. In thinking through it further, I recognized some values I have that seemed, at least in my head, to counter making changes in my food choices.

I think I’ve traditionally thought of food choices as being related to two specific values: personal health and environment. Eating healthy is a way to make choices for your immediate family to have better personal health and avoid the obesity epidemic and related disease. Eating organic and/or local is better for our environment, less pesticides, gas used on factory farming, shipping, etc. Oh, and third, free-range meat and eggs as an animal rights value. I know there’s more to it then that, but that would be the quick summary of how I’ve thought about the food choices.

I’ll try to keep these brief, but below are some of my values that I’ve found in conflict with making food choice changes.

Most of the ethical decisions I’ve made related to my lifestyle cost less money then the alternative. Biking rather then driving for example or sweatshop-made clothing for thrift store items. Rather then buy lots of fair trade chocolate instead of slave-made chocolate, I just rarely buy chocolate at all, it’s a luxury item after all. None of these things increase my costs. We can probably just chalk this up to being extremely frugal, or cheap, however you want to look at it. I think this is one of the reasons that I find the switch to more expensive food options as difficult, because unlike almost all my other ethical choices, it will consistently cost more.

Opportunity Cost
This is one of the main reasons that I’m consistently looking for ways to spend less money, the opportunity cost of that money to do good for others. I’ve previously used the example of the end scene in Schindler’s List when he recognizes his watch could have bought the safety of more Jews. The opportunity cost of the watch had significant value, people’s lives. I feel the same way when I think about what our finances could be going to. If I could spend $30 a month extra on organic foods to ensure the health of my immediate family or I could sponsor a child to ensure their provision through life, I’d probably go with the child everytime.

People First
I think, whether or not you believe in Global Warming, caring for the planet is an important factor in the decisions that we make. To a lesser degree, I think there is some merit to treating animals with care. However, the thing that vastly trumps those values in my ethical system is people. So, issues of slave labor, sweatshops and worker rights will win out over environmental concerns every time. And I know that they aren’t mutually exclusive, that environmental impact is often a direct cause of terrible working conditions, etc. It’s the human impact that will dictate my decisions far more then the effect on environment or animals.

I think that’s enough for now. The exercise above is not to make an argument against changing my food choices, but rather, laying them out so that those who are more well read on the subject can help point me in the right direction and help me walk through making changes to my families food choices.

A Brief Post About Financial Stewardship

ps2Last spring, the church we go to was been doing a series on finances (Full disclosure: I’ve only heard two of the sermons in the series).

In all my time of attending church and listening to sermons (about 1997 till today), I’ve rarely heard a sermon that really lays out practical thoughts or ideas about money. It always boils down to being a “heart issue”, that is, it’s basically between you and God and that your heart is in the right place. Even if there is mention of the “tithe 10%” scriptures, it’s never issued as a command or standard in the church. Pastors rarely say “if your a Christian you should be giving away ten percent or more of your income,” and if they do it’s balanced or padded with “heart” talk

What I’m getting at is that it just doesn’t seem like there is much straight talk about finances in the church at all. I would love for a pastor to get up and say, even with qualifiers that it’s a “heart issue”, exactly how much their family’s cost of living is, and why they chose that amount and what financial stewardship looks like in their life. I’m wondering if others have heard sermons at all like that, or even close to that. (The close example I can think of is Ron Sider discussing the graduated tithe his family does at the end of Rich Christian’s in an Age of Hunger).

It reminds me of part of one of the finance sermons I heard last March. It was really good, I love the kind of stuff the pastor says. He went off about how big corporations have ripped off the grassroots origins of Hip Hop and used it just to make money. He’s tearing into how gangsta rap has affected both the urban centers and suburbs and a lot of “wickedness” is going down as those big corporations make money off the rap and the blame is placed on the artist and the urban culture. And then he says this:

“Nobody saying to Sony, “I’m not buying a PS3 because thae same company that makes PS3 is also pimping these kids and having them sign these contracts and making money off the stereotypes of black people. Now, I have a PS2 at home, which makes this kind of a complex statement. Just cause I failed at it don’t mean it’s not right!

Somebody has to set a standard, somebody has to set an example of what this righteousness with resources looks like.”

Now I missed the other sermons after that, and I don’t know him personally, so I’m not sure what he’s decided to do with his PS2. But, I do appreciate him being honest about it. And the point isn’t really to call out the pastor on this, but to say I really wish I’d see two things: 1) That kind of honesty and practical application of faith as it relates to finances/resources and 2) pastors, churches and communities that were going a step further and making collective decisions (or at least discussing them) regarding resources and choices in supporting brands, etc.

Q: Have you heard sermon’s or had mentors that laid out practical thoughts and application of faith regarding finances and resources?

[photo credit]

(P.S. Take the one minute survey to help me pick topics for 2010!)

How Much Is Enough?


If I ever had the opportunity to preach a sermon, I think this just might be the question I would pose. It really feels to me like money and all the issues surrounding it is the greatest hinderence to our americanized Christianity truly being a radical faith that it was intended to be. There are a ton of Bible verses I could point to, but I’ll just use one chunk of a letter from the apostle Paul to Timothy.

7For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. 8But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. 9People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction…

17Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. 19In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life. (I Timothy 6)

There are plenty of other verses that would lend support to this, but I can’t escape the simple straightforwardness of this message and that it seems directly applicable to us in the United States. We should be content with “food and clothing” and we should be “rich in good deeds” and “generous and willing to share.” So obvious, and yet, what does that mean for us?

Does food and clothing include shelter? If so what kind? Should we purchase a home? What about a vehicle? Is there a point that we can say “this is enough” and simply stop accumulating wealth and possessions beyond that point? Is there? Is it something we can only decide individually or can a local community church make a collective decision? What about larger bodies?

This is clearly not something I’ve come to a solid answer or decision on, but rather something I’m constantly struggling with and have been continually disappointed that it doesn’t really seem to be brought up in church.

You’ll hear the occasional sermon on financial stewardship, and the pastor might be so daring as to call church goers to give a 10% tithe. And it’s rare, but you might even find a pastor who will point out the scriptures warnings of the dangers of riches and wealth. But I don’t think I’ve ever heard a sermon where a pastor will take a stab at defining what “rich” is. No one ever puts a number to it. And we can talk all day about tithing 10%,  but has anyone ever tried to define how much is acceptable or necessary to live on, to spend on ourselves?

These are my questions. I don’t have answers, but I think it’s a conversation worth having. Where do you stand?

Child Marketers: Exploiting Children Like It’s Their Job

“They even follow them into the bathroom. I interviewed a number of people who sat and watched children take baths and showers, watched how they interact with shampoo and soap and health and beauty products as that category is called, in order to go back and write a report for their clients on what to do with the packaging. It’s creepy. It’s just absolutely creepy the way children are being dissected and put under the microscope by marketers.” –Juliet Schor, referring to Child Marketers, in Consuming Kids

It’s no secret that your kids are being marketed to, you and I can point to ways we ourselves were marketed to, but it hasn’t caused the concern or action it probably should. It really is more then innocent marketing, our children are being exploited for profit without interest or concern for their overall well-being, simply for the bottom-line. This should bother us.

An estimated $15 billion dollars is spent each year marketing to children under the age of 18 in the United States. Given that there are only 74 million kids in that age group, that means corporations are spending roughly $200 per child in advertising. You’d better believe they aren’t blowing $200 on your child without knowing they are going to make far more then that back. And if your one of those invincible, unfettered-type who haven’t let advertising affect your purchasing, then that means they are making double their money off the kid down the street.

This isn’t the same as marketing to adults. Most children under the age of 10 don’t understand persuasion. They don’t understand that the smiling kids on the commercial are paid actors following an elaborate script with the soul purpose of making them want a product. They don’t understand that when they’re told by their favorite character that this junk food is fun or tasty or cool that it’s a deceptive scheme, not an honest opinion. We know when we see a celebrity or athlete promote a product that it’s an advertisement (that doesn’t mean it’s any less effective), but children don’t. Imagine you discovered that everything your trusted mentor (maybe a pastor) had ever said to you was in an attempt to get you to purchase certain items. You’d be shocked and appalled wouldn’t you?

This is something we as parents need to be proactive about. We need to be aware of the influence marketing and advertising has on our children and how we can combat it. We also need to be aware of how we can be advocates against this exploitation in our schools and daycares as well as in the media. The blame and ‘responsibility’ is often put on the parents, but the marketers and corporations bear responsibility too.

“It’s akin to a owner of a large fleet of trucks announcing that ‘our fleet of trucks from now on is going to be barreling down the road, especially where children are, at 150 miles an hour. Parents watch out. It’s your job to take care that your children don’t get hurt.’ No one would argue, in that case, that the owner of the fleet of trucks doesn’t bare any responsibility at all.” –Enola Aird, Consuming Kids

Thrift Tip: Unlimited Minute Cell Phone Hack

(I’ve decided to start a brief series on money saving ‘Thrift Tips’. It’s practical and I love learning these types of things from others so I figured I’d share mine too)

168108824_8022e0b076 The last thrift tip was a general overview of how we do phones in our house, but I mentioned a great cell phone tip I wanted to share today. Unfortunately, this only applies to T-Mobile MyFaves, Verizon Friends & Family or Alltel’s My Circle, sorry everyone else.

So, here’s the trick.

I mentioned yesterday that we use Grandcentral Google Voice as the number I generally give out to others, and that Google Voice calls are forwarded to our cell phones. Well, this is how I’ve managed to make the incoming calls free using Google Voice and MyFaves.

  • You can set incoming calls on Google Voice to display the callers number in the caller ID or Google Voice’s number, I choose Google Voices (there is still a call screening after you answer so you’ll still know who it is before you actually connect the call).
  • Then, you set one of your MyFaves numbers to be your Google Voice number. And “viola!” any call coming through that number counts as a MyFaves call and is unlimited!
  • In addition, when checking voicemail messages on Google Voice (also free since your calling one of your MyFaves numbers), you can press ‘2’ to connect the call to whomever left the message. I simply keep as new one message from each of the people that I call frequently and I’m able to make an outgoing call to them for free also! (you can even automate this by saving the number with necessary pauses and numbers to go through the voicemail menu).

Now, this might simply be a terrible teaser post, since it turns out Google Voice is not open to new sign-ups yet. They just switched from Grandcentral (bought by Google 2 years ago) to being branded as a Google product. So, my guess is I’ll be getting invites from Google to pass on soon. If you want to be on my list, leave a comment. There are some competitors out there, but I’m not sure that any of them do the same thing. That’s it for the phone related thrift tips. If you have tricks you’ve used let me know!

[photo credit]

Thrift Tip: Saving Money on Phone Bills

(I’ve decided to start a brief series on money saving ‘Thrift Tips’. It’s practical and I love learning these types of things from others so I figured I’d share mine too)

phonesI’ll start with the big one, Phone Bills. Seems this is often a big monthly payment for most people. Almost everyone has a cell phone these days, and there doesn’t seem to be an easy way around those cell phone bills just ballooning with fees and monthly charges. So, there are a few options I’d suggest…

  • Don’t have a Cell phone. We managed this till 2005, but we have friends who still don’t have one. It is honestly possible to survive and even thrive without being constantly reachable.
  • Have one Cell phone (per couple). We managed this till this past December. It was rare that both of us would be at a place where we didn’t have a way to call the other.
  • Do a Family Plan with your family (or friends). This can cut down your cell phone bill considerably. Adding an extra line to most plans is around $10 (from what I’ve seen), so you divide the bulk of the cost evenly and the more phones on the plan the more spread out the fees are.

I’d highly recommend the above options to begin with. And now I’ll give you a brief run down on what we do. Actually, upon writing this post I realized it’s a wee-bit long on the explanation so I’ve split it into two posts. This first post is going to cover a basic overview, and the second will be about our minutes- saving cell phone trick.

  • We currently have two cell phones, but we’ve done family plans with our respective families. Since they are who we talk to the bulk of the time, having the same cell company (thus free minutes) ends up saving the whole family money, on top of sharing the cost of the plan. Still, if you can live with one I’d recommend that.
  • We have a home phone line through our Internet connection, but it’s not a typical VOIP service like Vonage or others. I found something called “MagicJack” online which is basically a phone line that you plug into a usb port on your computer. You get an incoming phone number (in your local area code), unlimited calling and free long distance, and you plug a regular phone into it. As long as your internet connection is solid and you’ve got a stationary computer you can leave on with a usb port your in good shape. The cost? $20 a year (plus $20 for the device). We’ve had it for the last year and the only time it hasn’t work was when our internet has been down or functioning poorly. Compared to a typical landline that’s dirt cheap. And this helps us keep our minutes on the cell plans way down.
  • Additionally, the number I usually give out to folks is one through a service called Grandcentral Google Voice. It’s basically a call forwarding number, so one call there rings our house and cell phones. If it’s after 9pm or the weekend (free cell minutes), or were out and about, I can answer on my cell. Otherwise we can answer on the landline and save those precious anytime minutes. Voicemail messages can be checked easily from any phone or I have them emailed to me to listen to online. Google Voice is also a key component of my other big phone thrift tip, which I’ll get to on Wednesday.

Tomorrow: YouTubesday (everyone’s favorite)

Wednesday: Thrift Tip #2 Unlimited Minute Cell Phone Hack (spoiler: this only works for T-mobile MyFaves or now Verizon’s Friends and Family or Alltel’s My Circle)

[photo credit]

Customer Complaint: T-Mobile’s TLC Companion Flight Promotion Is a Nightmare

(regular readers: please excuse me a moment while I vent)
You know when you have great customer service? It’s great, and yet we take it so for granted. I actually emailed a Verizon rep the other day thanking them for how helpful they were, having been reminded of it because of the terrible customer service I’ve had recently. Let me tell you about it.

In December, T-Mobile ran a promotion that if you renewed your contract you would receive a free companion flight when booking a plane ticket. I browsed the fine print, they had the destinations I need, didn’t blackout the dates I needed, you have to book through their agents, but they would price match competitive sites like Orbitz. Everything cleared and so we went ahead and renewed our contract. That’s when the headaches began. Here they are in chronological order:

  • 1/4/09 Calling to renew my contract took almost an hour. I was disconnected multiple times and was given three different phone numbers till I reached a customer service rep who could actually renew my contract for me. Why I got disconnected and why they couldn’t simply transfer me to the right person, or put the specific number on their website, is beyond me.
  • 1/10/09 A few days later and I receive an email saying I couldn’t register for the companion flight promotion because my contract was not renewed. What?! I called again and had the same painful process of being passed around multiple times. T-Mobile said it was their booking partners (TLC) mistake, TLC said it was T-Mobiles fault. Eventually, I found a T-Mobile customer service rep who took the time to look at my account and saw that no one actually renewed my contract. Fortunately, the rep saw that I had called before and went ahead and renewed my contract effective the date I had called, so I was still eligible for the promotion.
  • 2/4/09 I receive my booking PIN after their 30 day waiting period and promptly send in a price match request, complete with screenshot for a US Airways flight for $268 round trip. They respond requesting my booking PIN so that they can proceed and I send it to them. The quick email response assures me I have the write email address and there appears to be smooth and quick communication, I rest easy (Big mistake). Their website says it will take two business days to get a response. No response comes.
  • 2/15/09 I submit the request again including screenshot. It’s met with an automated reply.
  • 2/19/09 I’ve still not heard anything back so I submit a price match request again. This time the automated reply says I need a screenshot of both the T-Mobile booking site and the price match site I found. I take screenshots and send them in. Now the matching site I found has the ticket listed at $312.39. But, compared to the $414 ticket at the T-mobile site, I figure it’s worth waiting to hear back.
  • 2/20/09 I start calling. One of their requirements is tickets have to be booked 30 days in advance. I’m trying to get tickets for April 2nd, so that only leaves a week before the 30 days cut off. The customer service rep informs me that it will actually take 5-10 business days, not the two originally promised on the website. There is no manager available to speak to and they apparently do not have the contact info for the price match department. I simply need to wait for their call.
  • 2/24/09 I call again. I’m informed now that it will take 10 business days to get a reply. They assure me that my original request will be honored and I don’t need to worry if it’s past March 2nd. Again, there is no manager available when requested.
  • 2/26/09 I call again. This time I’m told it’s 10-14 business days.  I explain my situation, my frustration, the run around I’ve been getting. I ask to speak to a manager. Again, none is available, however, they appearently have a voicemail box. I leave a message.
  • 3/1/09 Unwilling to trust random customer service reps, I attempt to book the tickets on the T-mobile companion flight booking site. Though over $100 more then what I was expecting to pay, I attempt to book the tickets. The tickets, though listed as available in the search, come up with an error stating they are not available. I try the four different ticket options listed and each one has the same error. My suspicion is that somewhere in the computer code for the booking site they didn’t account for March having 31 days and started listing April 2nd flights as unavailable, just a guess.
  • 3/2/09 I call again. I speak with Brian (ID#64024). He says there is nothing he can do. His supervisors are not available, he can only book tickets through the same site that I can, he has no contact info for the price match department and his only explanation for the computers is that they remove flights at 8pm EST. When asked for a supervisors name, he says there is a bunch of them, he mentions “Kim” and “Leah”. He puts me through to the same voicemail box I was given the previous week and I leave a message.
  • 3/2/09 I call again the same day and the supervisors are never available.
  • 3/3/09 I start early. I get a hold of Eric (ID#LS48), turns out he is one of the supervisors, lucky me. He has quite a bit of attitude, but he gives me a little more information. Kim is apparently the lead manager for that TLC location. TLC stands for Travel Leisure Corps or TLC Worldwide Marketing. He also promises me he’ll send an email to his supervisor about the situation. Why could none of the other customer service reps could do that?
  • 3/3/09 I continue calling and asking for “Kim”, finally I reach a gentleman named Caren (ID#64044) who is very helpful. He tells me that Kim is actually in their Boston office, and the number I have is to the South Dakota office. He doesn’t have the Boston number, but he’s given me enough information to try and find it myself. He also looks at my account and sees that “Ashley” is listed as my booking agent, however she and the whole price match team are also located in Boston. He sends her an email explaining the situation.
  • 3/3/09 I google TLC in Boston and find a listing. But the numbers don’t work. I google the building their address is listed in and get phone numbers from the operator. I call the number [617-788-9600] and reach an automated directory, no receptionist. Punching in “Kim” shows that there is only one Kim listed in the directory, a Kimberely Sley (sp?). I try the extension, no answer, but I leave a message. I try again and try “Ashley” again one person listed, Ashley Survelle (sp?). Her extension also has no answer. So close, but yet so far.

And that’s where I currently am. Still no plane ticket. And while early February I was looking forward to two plane tickets for $268, a happy trade for a renewed two year contract with T-mobile, I’m not so happy anymore. If I can’t get this resolved in the next day or two I’ll have to bite the bullet and pick up those two plane tickets for about $700+. But you can be sure I’ll be sending the bill to TLC and T-Mobile to reimburse the difference. I have no clue who TLC is, but T-Mobile’s name is being quite tarnished by the terrible customer service people are having with this promotion. Just Google TLC Worldwide Marketing to read others horror stories.

Hopefully this story will have a happy ending…

[I’ve opted against posting my screenshots]

Ask The Readers: How Does Your Annual Spending Compare?

I figure a lot of folks are doing their taxes these days, so it might be a good time to ask a budget and spending question. I’m curious as to how your annual spending compares to the Federal Poverty Guidelines. Here are the 2008 stats, find the number of people in your family and look at the column on the right.

2008 HHS Poverty Guidelines

in Family or Household
48 Contiguous
States and D.C.
Alaska Hawaii
1 $10,400 $13,000 $11,960
2 14,000 17,500 16,100
3 17,600 22,000 20,240
4 21,200 26,500 24,380
5 24,800 31,000 28,520
6 28,400 35,500 32,660
7 32,000 40,000 36,800
8 35,600 44,500 40,940
For each additional
person, add
3,600 4,500 4,140

I don’t know how many of you keep close track of your monthly spending, have a monthly budget or anything like that, but if you do, follow the steps below and fill out the survey questions.

  1. Find the Poverty line for your household size on the chart.
  2. Take your monthly or annual budget.
  3. Subtract from your monthly or annual budget any school loans.
  4. If you have a mortgage, subtract the Principal and Interest portion, and only include the taxes and home insurance. (Anything you’d continue to pay even after you no longer had a mortgage and completely owned the home).
  5. No compare your budget and the Poverty Guideline.

How do they compare? Fill out your answer in the survey below (it’s anonymous).

I know, kind of a bizarre question. I’ve posted on this topic before, but I’m working on some more financial related posts/articles and wanted to do a quick reader survey. Thanks for humoring me. Definitely post comments if you have any on the topic.

Economy Straight Talk

So, the economy stuff has been on my mind lately. Both the big picture of the effect on our nation, and the local picture as it affects our community, neighbors, family, friends, and us. Often though, what I think about is the church.

I realize I often cast pretty radical and extreme visions for what I think the church and/or ‘Christians’ lives should look like. I’ll be the first to claim hypocrisy in my inability to carry it out at times as well. But, I can’t help but look at the current state of our country and feel like we as a faith community have again missed an extreme opportunity to be a radical “set apart” community that the world couldn’t help but recognize.  Instead, our churches are facing the same economic slump as everyone else. For all our “Christian” financial planning and preaching, we, on a whole, have been living beyond our means and far beyond our basic needs, just like everyone else.

I also find it ironic when Christians choose to speak about on the political front. I received no emails of concern or outrage when the government threw together a 1 Trillion dollar bailout in October, but now I’m getting emails left and right. I see two possibilities: 1) after seeing the first ones dollars disappear in thin air we are a bit more skeptical, or 2) it has something to do with the political party of the current administration. Who knows, I just find it ironic when we choose to jump into the political ring. On that related note, I was extremely convicted when I came across my xanga post after the 2004 election (sorry, you’ll have to dig up the link yourself), let’s just say I was as shocked as some of my conservative friends in ’08.

Seeing and hearing about people around me lossing jobs, others being let go, foreclosures and the rest, I can’t help but wonder what is the churches response. Or, what is my response? We are pretty secure in our job and home position, so how do I live out my faith and convictions in these times? What role do I play? I think I have the same tendency as everyone to start stockpiling for safety and thinking only about me and mine. But, I think our faith challenges us to live differently, but I’m not sure myself what that looks like.

Any Ideas?