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Monday, November 30, 2015

The Less is More Project: Week 48 - Consumer self-defense

Kanko, Flickr

Minimalist or not, all of us do have to go shopping at least once in a while, even if it was just for groceries.

This time of the year, most of us will multiply their purchases in preparation for the end of year holidays.

It might not feel like it, especially for those of us who spend a good amount of time in stores and have become pro shoppers, but as a consumer, and despite our illusion of choice, we are rather vulnerable. The smartest of us are at the mercy of numerous marketing tactics, each one more cunning than the last.

How do we fight back and avoid wasting our precious money on less than precious items? Let's be prepared.

Location, location, location: Know that you are more likely to buy items located at eye level, at the end of aisles, and by the checkout. Especially if they are colorful and/or sparkly. Do you need those items, or are you having the exact impulse that marketers are looking for? Did you come to the store with that item in mind? You might be better off leaving it there, and if it is still haunting you a month or two later, then go back and buy it. My strategy for those situations is that I usually shop equipped with a list, whether it's for food, clothes, presents, or anything else.

How much will you appreciate it once it's in your home? Objects have a lot of appeal when positioned strategically in a store, in their new, bright and shiny glow. They lose a lot of that appeal once in the house and after a couple uses.

Quantity: Bigger is not always better. What's the best value? If you're going to use a lot of something, bigger packages are often worth it. But not always. To compare accurately between the small, the medium and the big packages, you'll have to be good at mental math. Plus, sometimes, it's better to just go for the amount you can actually consume, instead of buying more just because it's a good deal... and ending up wasting half. (Or feeling like you have to finish it - this is particularly insidious when food is involved.)

Quality: Are brand names better than store brands? In some cases, yet. In some cases it makes no difference whatsoever. When it comes to clothes and outdoor gear, it's usually a good idea to go for quality... but that does not mean you have to buy new. Second hand, high quality items can last quite a while, and often look nicer than new, but low quality, items.

Is the price fair? Studies show that minorities pay more for the same products. For example, equivalent health/beauty products are significantly more expensive when they target women buyers. Women (and ethnic minorities) also end up paying more for the same car, among other things. Are you okay with that? What can you do to vote against this unfair practice?

Preparation: Processed foods come with a higher price tag than foods you will prepare and cook yourself. Would you pay someone $30 an hour to shred your cheese? Because that's the cost it comes to when you calculate the price difference.

How much of your effort is this worth? How many hours do you have to work in order to acquire this item? (Calculate using your net income, not your gross income). I know someone who uses that strategy whenever he sees something he likes: Is this something that's worth an hour, a day, or even a full week of my work?

Do you really want to spend that much? Marilyn Monroe might have sung Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend, I suspect that, as a group, diamond jewelry retailers embrace the saying more than women. Don't feel you have to spend an awful amount on the people you love. Or if you really can and want to spend, pick activities over objects, so that you can create memories together.

Does this item you are about to purchase agree with your ethical standards? Is it fair-trade or was it produced in a sweat shop by underpaid (and possibly underage) people? Does it contribute to intensive deforestation or pollution? Is it good for you? (if it contains added sugar, perfumes, dyes, or simply a lot of plastic, you might want to reconsider).

Remember that a good deal is only a good deal if you need the item, and that although sales are tempting, you will save 100% on any item if you don't buy it.

If you are lucky enough to have leftover money and aren't sure what to do with it, please consider donating it to a charity!


All my holiday shopping is done - mostly a few presents for the kids. It was completed before Black Friday (I don't buy a thing on that specific day). I like to shop early because I know I make better choices when I have time ahead of me, as opposed to feeling rushed to buy something, anything. I also find it less stressful to shop when the stores aren't full (and the clerks aren't overwhelmed and tired). 

Speaking of stress, getting the house ready for the holidays also feels less stressful now that I have been decluttering for so long. Everything has a reason to be in the house, and everything is in its place. Cleaning around that is quick and easy.

Project 2016 is in the making! In the next few weeks, we will report on how 2015 went: struggles, successes, and lessons learned. We will then be ready for a new challenge! Stay tuned, and to make sure you don't miss anything...

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Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Less is More Project: Week 47 - Home stretch

Steven Depolo, Flickr

One month until Christmas, and less than six weeks to the New Year. The American Thanksgiving and Black Friday constitute "shopping season kickoff": retailers typically earn a generous portion of their yearly income right before and during the holidays. Meanwhile, simple consumers like you and I dish out an equally generous amount of money from their pockets - or, more precisely, from lending entities (credit card debt, anyone?).

On top of the expenses incurred, many factors contribute to our heightened levels of stress in times when we should either be celebrating, reflecting on the year that's ending, or preparing the one to come.

We are stressed because we want the house to feel, look, smell and sound warm and welcoming for family and friends. But who has time to clean and decorate? 

We are stressed because we want to put special foods and drinks on the table. But what if we don't enjoy cooking and baking? 

We are stressed because we want to find the perfect present for that someone special (or those "someones specials", in many cases). But why are some people so hard to please? (And what about those who "already have everything"?)

We are stressed because we want to look good for the holidays. But shopping for clothes is exhausting, and good hairstylists aren't cheap. 

We are stressed because of all the other season-specific obligations, be they work or family related.

Wasn't this supposed to be the season to be jolly? 

Or was this intended to mean a "jolly ole bag of nerves"? Because if so, we are being remarkable at it.

It doesn't have to be that way. This year, I am delighted to have been invited to contribute to Bethany Rosselit's initiative, the Simplify the Season calendar. Along with other, bigger names such as Adyashanti, Seth Godin, and Tara Brach, I wrote a piece on how to "Simplify the Season". 

To receive the calendar (which will entitle you to all the Simplify the Season articles), you simply have to subscribe via this link, after which you will receive one post per day during the holiday season (beginning this Friday). Bethany has set the price at the pocket change amount of $2. If you were to chose to donate more, the entirety (100%) of the proceeds will be forwarded to an entrepreneur in a third-world country (more details to come on onlinelifecoaching.info). Because 'tis the season for sharing, isn't it?

Bethany Rosselit, onlinelifecoaching.info


I set foot in a shopping mall! Christmas is coming, and the children will receive presents this year as any other year. To simplify the shopping, we asked them to make a list, and to review the first draft to come up with the items they really, really want. 

Then we put said list through the "four gift rule", and decided to get them: 

  1. Something they want (a toy/game of their choice - right now they are obsessed with Lego)
  2. Something they need (new, good quality mitts for the harsh Canadian winter to come, for example)
  3. Something to wear (they grow so fast that it won't be a luxury)
  4. Something to read (easy, since they both put specific books on their lists)

And then some chocolate, because Christmas is not Christmas without chocolate.

Whereas between us adults, instead of gifts we will offer each other some quality time: going out to a restaurant or to see a play, for example (but hush! the details are a secret!)

Your turn to share about your struggles and victories of the week! What did you resist? Did you donate or get rid of anything? Did you face any challenge? Please comment below! And...

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Monday, November 16, 2015

The Less is More Project: Week 46 - What it keeps you away from

Mike Licht, Flickr

"All over the place from the popular culture to the propaganda system, there is constant pressure to make people feel that they are helpless, that the only role they can have is to ratify decisions and consume." (Noam Chomsky)

Watched a Noam Chomsky documentary. 

First reaction: isn't it surprising that he would be considered a dissident, since a lot of what he says is just plain common sense? This must be another manifestation of "the truth hurts" phenomenon. 

Second reaction: Chomsky's take on consumerism underlines the fact that consuming takes our attention away from the truly important matters. While we focus on things we own or want to own, we are not focusing on issues that deserve our time and energy.

On Sunday I was giving a talk about "Children and the new technologies". I approached it from a similar angle. Demonizing screens in general and the new technologies in particular is bound for failure, as people usually become defensive rather quickly when they feel their addiction is under attack (not mincing my words here). So I started by acknowledging the benefits of being able to carry a phone + a camera + a computer in one unique portable device, as well as the wonders of having access to any and all information at the tip of our fingers, anywhere, anytime (plus the ease with which we can communicate with each other). The problem, I said, is not limited to what happens while we are using the new technologies; it also involves what does not happen. Regarding children in particular, one thing they definitely are not doing while staring at screen, big or small, is move. And movement is vital. Especially for children.

Children present at the talk commented on how hard it is to get their parents' attention when the latter are looking at their phones or tablets. Could the devices that were supposed to bring us closer literally constitute a screen between us and our family members, preventing us from truly interacting?

What do you think is taken away from you while you focus on money and stuff, be it fashionable items or electronics?


For an obscure reason, many of this week's conversations with friends and family members revolved around their struggle with debt: student loans, credit card debt, and various monthly payments that are putting a damper on their well-being. What struck me is that most of the individuals I talked with are far from living in poverty. 

Why do you think well-off people struggle with debt?

Your turn to share about your struggles and victories of the week! What did you resist? Did you donate or get rid of anything? Did you face any challenge? Please comment below! And...

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Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Less is More Project: Week 45 - Social sustainability in the suburbs

Quebec City, 2015. By JSM

"A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one's neighbor - such is my idea of happiness." (Leo Tolstoy, Family Happiness)

Moving to Nova Scotia eight years ago, we bought our first house. Our real estate agent recommended a certain area, partly based on the school's good reputation. We also liked the nature feel (big lots surrounded by large wooded areas). We chose a house that seemed to fit our needs, wants and hopes. As we were soon to discover, however, the building, the land and the neighborhood might be important pieces of the puzzle, they are not the only ones. One of the best surprises, after moving here, has been the neighbors themselves.

Moving away from everything and everyone we knew could have been painful, but we adapted rather well, and what made the biggest difference was the people who live around us.

We were not the only ones to notice. I recently read the following post on our neighborhood's Facebook page, where people can share information, ask questions (or for help), and generally stay connected: 

"Love love love this neighborhood!! People are so friendly!! Any time I have been looking for anything I get pretty much an instant response and through that I met such awesome people!!"

If it sounds cheesy, it's not. This quote illustrates very well how it feels to live here.

The best thing about great neighbors is that they keep getting better. At first you introduce yourself to each other, occasionally help each other (babysitting, pet-sitting, house-sitting, garden-watering, or the classic "can I borrow three eggs and a some flour?") Occasionally, you offer each other small tokens of appreciation. I've received special deliveries of lobster, freshly fished clams, freshly hunted moose or deer, leftover birthday cake. I've shared homemade muffins and soups.  I've traded fruit and vegetables from the garden. We've helped each other shovel snow. Adults look out for children. Older kids look out for younger ones. 

As time passes, courteous interactions turn into full-blown friendships as you find yourself discussing life for hours on end over a cup of coffee. We go for walks (or runs) together. We have barbecues, bonfires, pool parties.

Eventually, it gets comfortable enough that you can walk over in your PJs to share a glass of wine (been there, done that).

Eventually, you become close enough that you confide in each other about your hopes, dreams, worries, fears, or secrets.

But our community is even more than a warm and welcoming place where one easily makes new friends. It's also its own little local economy in itself. 

Many of us run a small business. For some it's in the building trades. For some it's the making of jewelry, foods, gifts. Some of us offer services: childcare,  piano lessons, tutoring, translating, home decorating. Most of us run those small businesses from home. This promotes family life and flexibility. And because many of us use each other's business when we need a good or a service, our neighborhood almost qualifies as a self-sufficient mini-market. We don't have to go very far to find a small, locally owned (by a friend) consignment store, preschool, hair salon, spa. Some of those services or goods are bartered, which reinforces the feeling of a communal, self-contained system.

Above the location, the house, the school and all other aspects of living here, this might be my favorite feature about this neighborhood.

What do you like about your neighborhood? Does any part of it contribute to living a simple life?


Just saw an add (on social media) about a service that delivers a box of goodies to your dog every month. I can barely imagine how much junk you are left with at the end of the year! 

Soon I will have to go shopping for Christmas presents. After almost eleven months of buying close to nothing, I'm not sure how to feel about it. I will try and keep it simple. 

How do you manage your Christmas shopping?

Your turn to share about your struggles and victories of the week! What did you resist? Did you donate or get rid of anything? Did you face any challenge? Please comment below! And...

Become a follower of the blog/subscribe by email (top left corner of this page)!

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Less is More Project: Week 44 - Back to the basic... foods

SweetOnVeg, Flickr

"I don't confuse my digestive system, I just season simple food with hunger." (Richard Proenneke)

Notwithstanding the fantastic legacy of French and other cuisines, despite the culinary techniques that are still being developed around the world as we talk, there is something to be said about very simple foods.

Even if I grew up with a fantastic cook for a mother, and even if some of my all-time favorites food don't quite qualify as simple, I like to say that I could live on a monastic diet: homemade vegetable soup and bread, artisan cheese, fresh fruit, some seeds (with the occasional glass of wine). Left to my own devices I gravitate toward a plant-based diet. What makes the biggest difference in taste isn't a long preparation, but rather choosing fresh ingredients and combining them in the right proportions.

Interestingly, I so happened to meet two other foodies, in the past week, who also advocate for simplicity. 

One was a passionate Family Studies teacher, who despite her enthusiastic knowledge of molecular gastronomy, was quick to point out that in the kitchen, the simpler, the better.

The other was Lauren Marshall, ex Top Chef contestant, with whom my friends and I had a cooking class which was 100% vegan, and used fresh, local foods almost exclusively.

This was refreshing. In grocery stores (as opposed to farmers' markets), I cannot help but think, as I navigate the aisles: "This is not food - how dare they claim it is?" and "What a useless object to have in a kitchen - I would never buy it".

When it comes to food, simplifying is good for the wallet, for the environment, and for our health. "Real" food comes without (or with minimal) packaging, without an ingredient list, and without advertisement. All fresh produce qualifies. And have you ever seen an ad for plain lentils or pumpkin seeds? Ask yourself how often you consume those kinds of foods.

Don't get me wrong. I do like fancy (as in fancy restaurant food paired with fancy wines); I do like exotic (e.g. mangoes in Canada); I even like some fast, unhealthy food (Poutine! Chocolate ice cream!)

But in my daily life I like to keep it simple. I like to know that my food was created respectfully and ethically. I like to know that my food is contributing to my health. It all boils down to mindfulness. Interestingly, mindfulness is the latest trend in weight loss (see this recent article from the Washington Post).

By approaching food mindfully, we will not only benefit our health, but also the environment: 

"An estimated 40-50 percent of U.S. food is wasted along the chain from farm to table. We're destroying the environment with industrialized food production, a good portion of which just gets driven to landfills, where it rots and releases even more methane." (Juliet B. Schor, True Wealth)

Even when we consume all the food we purchase, the excessive packaging leaves a less-than-pretty trace long after we are done: juice boxes, K cups, individual wrappers... they are a sad testimony of our bad habits.

Perhaps it is because we do not truly have to work for what we use and consume?

"If we all had to grow our own food, we wouldn't waste 40% of it (as is done now in the US). If we had to make our own tables and chairs, we wouldn't throw them out the moment we changed the interior decor. If we could see the conditions in which a pig is slaughtered, it would put most of us off our BLT. If we had to clean our own drinking water, we sure as hell wouldn't shit in it." (Mark Boyle, The Moneyless Man - A Year of Freeconomic Living)

And is it really just a matter of big bucks?

"People always tell me organic food is only for those who can afford it, but it's not. If you care about what you put in your body, keeping chemicals, pesticides, synthetic fertilizers and additives out of our food is more important than having a couple of hundred television channels."  (Mark Boyle, The Moneyless Man - A Year of Freeconomic Living)


The new car proved useful this week. On Thursday, we had a storm, so I drove to work. It was nice to get there almost entirely dry. It's in the little things...

My frugal habits are becoming consistent... and strong. I hesitated before buying a new toothbrush! 

Your turn to share about your struggles and victories of the week! What did you resist? Did you donate or get rid of anything? Did you face any challenge? Please comment below! And...

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