Cardamom-spiked chewy granola bars + life talk (deep work, frugality, minimalism)

Hi all. Hope this writing from a dreary and rainy Pittsburgh day finds you well.

Also, as promised: my second blog post for the month! I know some of you may find this to be a rather low bar, but it’s definitely something that is keeping me under a not insignificant amount of pressure.

This month has been such a good one for me. I have been internalizing many things and attempting to integrate them into my life with as much success as possible. Three concepts have made an impact on me this month. 1) Deep work 2) minimalism and 3) frugality. I want to talk about each of these and my engagement with them in this post.

As I mentioned in the last post as I was/am reading Cal Newport’s work. I also deeply recommend everyone read his blog Study Hacks, which, contrary to its name, is not only about studying. His most recent posts have been really poignant and compelling for me in light of the news surrounding social media of late. I am still on a pretty complete Instagram fast, which has been really helpful for me. Newport’s most recent post (from this morning) actually has several really excellent stories about folks who took time off social media and made massive strides in other areas of their life with their newfound concentration in absence of scattered focus. Newport suggests taking a month off of your social media accounts and then, kinda like Whole 30 or other elimination diets, considering which of them, if any, you want to integrate back into your life after the elimination period.

Instagram is something I think I want to keep in my life. It’s also my primary social media as I don’t really use FB that much. It means a lot for me to be able to share my food with others on a more regular basis and in a less committed way than just blogging on here. Although, that thought has also been under recent interrogation in my mind. My biggest issue with Instagram is the amount of time I spend on it doing aimless things (i.e. scrolling/looking people up “just to see” what they’re doing/following rabbit holes, etc.) If I could sum up my March with one word, it would be “Intentionality.” How am I using the things in my life? What purpose are they serving? Do I have a reason to be doing what I’m doing right now, or am I just bored? Could I be directing my energy in a more positive direction than what I’m doing now? This month has shown me how much more energy and time I could have if I would spend more time cultivating an awareness around what I’m doing when I’m doing it, and the intentionality of then changing the behaviors that are not serving me.

None of the tendencies attendant with my Instagram usage are in any way providing a positive answer to those aforementioned questions. In almost every case, I could be using my time better and more strategically. My current “plan” is to continue using Instagram at some point in the future (as of now I’m pretty much OK being off of it) but to limit my time using it in the same way some people have taken to limiting their email obligations at work: having set times of the day to deal with it. In other words, my plan is to give myself 4-5 times of the day (with potential to shorten) that I can go on there, scroll, post, interact, learn for a limited time (10 min.) After that time is up, I won’t be back until the next window. This is specifically meant to curb my tendency to check back obsessively after posting something to see how others are interacting with it–which, by the way, is rarely more meaningful than a “like”– and is why I’m also still keeping my options open to getting rid of the service completely. Maybe it would just be better for me to spend more time curating a post of the food I’ve made that week in a post here rather than on Instagram. It’s an evolving thought process.

The bottom line is that I want to arrive places I mean to arrive, not at places whose leading path I don’t remember. A massive, life-long fear of mine is regretting my life choices. I fear making decisions (sometimes inadvertently or passively) that will end up undercutting me down the line. I think it’s okay not to know the answer to everything, but I think it’s equally important to be on a continuous journey towards knowing what it is that you want, who you wants to be, etc. Essentially, it’s important to have some type of goal you’re working towards. I believe an integral part of this is by meaning to do the things you do, meaning to spend the time you spend, meaning to have the relationships you do. Living your life on purpose, in other words.

On this track, I’ve also become interested in two, I believe related, other areas: minimalism and frugality. Neither of these things do I plan to embrace hook, line and sinker, but they are both really striking a chord at the right time in my life. I watched a documentary on Netflix (recommended, of course, by Cal Newport) on minimalism. I have many critiques about this documentary being socially inaccessible in many ways, costly, and white male-centric. Almost everyone in the documentary is white and well off, or previously had a job where they were paid upwards of  six figures. They sought minimalism to gain meaning in their lives from all the stuff they thought they needed that they could previously afford. Also, they are mostly men without many ties in life. Personally, that disconnected narrative is not one I find compelling.

It is important to note that the lifestyles exhibited in this documentary are not the way that everyone could arrive at minimalism and that minimalism in general is deeply connected to your income and what you can afford to get rid of. I also do not believe that there is as strong a connection between a minimalist lifestyle and morality as is suggested in the documentary.

Caveats aside, I do think there’s a great argument for your version minimalism. The documentary has many shots of people trampling each other to get into big box stores on Black Friday, which I do think exhibits some of the worst traits of humanity. Even though I think this presentation is a bit more binary than necessary, I felt convicted by many aspects of the argument, specifically feeling like you need things because other people or advertisements told you do. I haughtily thought subconsciously that I was in some way immune to this being a child who grew up with extremely penny-pinching parents in a home without a TV where we only ever (ever) bought second-hand clothing. I simply didn’t think it was my tendency. But this year, I made more money than I had in the past. It’s no great sum, but it was certainly more than my pittance of a salary with Americorps in Denver last year. As a result of this and also of my Instagram experiences following people who were extremely successful at getting me to buy things (looking at you Lee from America [of course, my expenditures were my choice!]) I found myself very easily convinced to buy many things that I probably did not need in pursuit of a certain lifestyle. (I also want to shout out Juli for seeing this process happening in my life and not judging me or attempting to educate me. It’s very helpful to have a patient partner in your life.)

Though my experience was very small scale, it did feel a lot like a version of what the documentary was talking about in terms of things bringing you happiness rather than experiences and relationships. It sounds so rudimentary, but upon reflection this month, I have considered if my life is measurably better after adopting a few expensive habits. The answer is a qualified yes. Yes it has, but in easily replaceable ways. Supplements that I take I think make me feel better because I feel like I’m taking care of myself. It has been about self care, not necessarily about the actual purchases themselves. This is replaceable insofar as cooking for myself, taking a bath, sleeping early, and doing my free YouTube yoga are also self care– but they neither cost money in themselves nor require buying new things to feel good about myself or like I’m part of the right group.  Also, this thought process had me thinking about another rule around Instagram usage (from which, seriously, most of my purchases were inspired) where I delete a slew of people I am following who I KNOW are causing me to think thoughts like “Hmm, maybe that would be nice!” about things I didn’t even know I “needed.”

All of this talk about intentionality really began to snowball when I discovered Frugalwoods earlier this month. (Juli has been so annoyed at me for constantly using the word “frugal” but I can’t help it! I have started typing “fr*gal” when I mention it in writing to her.) All of these thing have resonated so deeply with each other and it really feels like a huge step in my life of doing the things I actually want and working towards goals with clear-headed purpose and drive.

So, Frugalwoods is a blog written by Elizabeth Willard Thames, who recently wrote a book about her path to financial independence through “simple living.” This couple is extreme, but I love and am completely inspired and compelled by their story. They are 35 years-old, with two girls, and for the past two years have been essentially retired (financially independent) on a Homestead in Vermont. They save around 71% (!) of their income each year by making frugal choices at all times (i.e. not eating out, shopping second hand exclusively/relying on community for needs, eating all their leftovers, cutting each others hair, insourcing rather than outsourcing work, and many more strategies like investing, renting previous homes, and bartering and trading.) I could and sometimes do read their blog for the better part of the day off and on. (Also thanking Juli for her patience here when I send her sometimes upwards of 10 links per day about fr*gality.) There are so many resources and stories on the blog that are so helpful for someone trying to kickstart a frugal life, including goal setting and starting anywhere.

Most of all, frugality completely fits into my intentionality paradigm. Though I don’t spend very much money these days (even when I was spending more than usual), I do notice that I let a lot of food go bad because “I just love cooking so much and have to try  a new recipe most days.” This is an excuse for food waste, which I am convinced at this point there is truly no excuse for. (Also something my parents ingrained in me growing up that kind of loosened the past few years.) The issue is that I am only one person and it rarely works out that I eat all my food or am able to give what’s left to friends or to an ever-cooperate Juli. This month, I have chosen to do the Uber Frugal Month Challenge and what an amazing journey it’s been even just in the past week.

Yesterday, on my way home from work, I had a desire to stop at Trader Joe’s to make sure that I had everything that I needed (groceries are my #1 expenditure and can totally be cut down while still eating foods I enjoy, albeit cooking slightly less.) I actually found it totally freeing and relieving to think to myself, “It’s OK if I don’t have everything that I need, it will work out either way.”  It’s been very calming for me and a huge stress reducer. I am learning to love what is enough, not what is perfect every time. While that may sound totally normal to you, it is a massive departure from my typical personality around these things. I am always overbuying in order to make sure that I have enough things because I’m so afraid I won’t have the food I need to make the dishes I want. I am afraid of being unprepared and somehow not fulfilling my self-declared “home cook” identity if I am not always making interesting and amazing things. But, I haven’t grocery shopped once this week. I have gone back to baking my own bread and kindled (for the first time ever) an appetite for scrambled eggs. I have put together a small list of things that I would like to buy (i.e. lemons and tomatoes) that I know I will use based on careful consideration of my actual eating habits this past week. I also am interested in buying more frozen vegetables so that I will have more available on a fall-back basis. But, in the main, my goal at this time is to “eat down” most of what I have.

As much as I enjoy cooking, this has actually freed up a huge amount of time for me as well to do other things like reading and yoga, which are other things I really care about. I have also utilized the freezing method for meals that I have made too much of and just don’t want to eat again for at least another week or two. The amazing thing is that, every time I have made a meal, I have had plenty to work with and more than enough food in the end. It’s simple a matter of perspective and values that will likely save me upwards of $100 a month, which is $1,200 a year that I can use to pay my student loans and get to a point of saving my extra money (my big goal of intentional frugal living is to be debt-free by 32.)

That said, I think in both minimalism and frugality, there’s more than enough room to make it my own. I cleaned out my closet last weekend and donated a bunch of stuff to Goodwill, returned borrowed clothes to my sister, my mom, and Juli. I also returned a huge number of library books I had taken out and was not reading to tidy my physical space in the hopes of also tidying and freeing up my mental space. Spoiler: it worked! I also knew that I wanted to switch up my work clothing routine, so I swapped a bunch of stuff with my mega fashionable sister, Emily, and now I have basically an entirely new repertoire of clothing– for free!

This is the direction I want to be going in. And while I will probably still shell out $10 for a haircut and money for the nicer ingredients here and there, the spirit of frugality and intentional spending will, I think, be hard to remove from my psyche at this point.  I want to make it my own, and sustainable for my own situation. But having some hard lines is also forcing me to be creative in new ways. It’s really amazing to feel like you have much more control over your finances, that you actually don’t need to spend all the money you thought you did just because you have it. My mantra is “eyes wide open” to see what’s happening around me, who I am now, what I’m doing, and where I am going. I want to make sure I am heading places on purpose.

With that in mind, here’s a recipe for these granola bars that I’ve been taking to work a lot recently that have been easy on the wallet. I happen to have an entire drawer full of Indian spices, but if you don’t, you could easily just use cinnamon instead of cardamom. In fact, I’ve found these granola bars to be very versatile. I ran out of old fashioned oats, so I used some leftover oat bran, which I think worked out great. I’ve shared these at work and they’ve been a huge hit, which I think has to do with molasses. I have also been told that these would be good with some white chocolate drizzled on top, which I really want to try one of these days! Let me know how you like it and what additions you might make.

Thanks for reading, friends.

Cardamom-spiked chewy granola bars (adapted slightly from Bowl of Delicious) makes 8, Nature Valley-size bars, 16 brownie-sized bars

Ingredients:

1/4 cup coconut oil

1/4 cup molasses/maple syrup/honey

Dash salt

1 cup old fashioned oats

1 cup dried fruit (I use blueberries, cranberries, etc. Can also use figs or others)

1 cup nuts (I use anything from cashews, sunflower seeds, almonds, walnuts…)

optional extras: dash of vanilla extract, 1/2 tsp cardamom powder, 1/2 tsp cinnamon/nutmeg/cloves…

Method:

  1. Heat the first 4 ingredients and any additional add-ins in a small sauce pan on the stove until they start to bubble up.
  2. Add the nuts, fruits, and oats at this stage and stir until combined.
  3. Continue cooking for 3-4 minutes until everything is well combined and equally covered with spices and sticky goodness.
  4. Dump into an 8×8 baking dish lined with parchment paper and press into the corners. I use plastic wrap that covers the whole top of the bars and push down firmly until everything is mashed down and there are no cracks or uneven spots.
  5. Push the plastic wrap on top and then place in fridge overnight, or at least 2 hours. I have also frozen these things for a shorter period of time when I was in a rush– worked just as well.
  6. Remove the pan from the fridge and cut into the sizes that you want and put into a Ziploc bag. Will keep stored in the fridge for probably 2-3 weeks, but normally I eat them all in a week’s time.
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