Spending Double Returns for Lent!

So I didn’t do very well in my experiment. I caved in. I wanted stuff. I had a bad day. Probably. I don’t actually remember why this failed or fizzled out, but it did. But I have decided to resurrect the experiment for lent with the following rules:

I must pay a 100% ‘disposable income tax’ on all of my expenditure throughout Lent, excluding:

  • Rent and bills (but including any excess)
  • Fair trade or organic products

That means every time I go to Tesco to buy my lunch it will cost me £5 instead of £2.50. Every beer I drink will cost me £7 instead of £3.50. It’s not going to be easy, but I think it will be worth it.

Why do it?

I think we are too materialistic as a culture. I know I am. I also don’t appreciate the value of what I have or know what it really feels like to find something ‘expensive’. Beer costing me £3.50 seems OK, but for it to cost £7? That’s a lot of money. I hope that in doing this experiment I will loosen the chains of consumerism around me and deepen my relationship with God.

Where will the money go?

I have decided that any money raised by my lenten experiment will be given 50/50 to Christian Aid and Myeloma UK. The former is because they do so much great work all over the country, and the latter because since my father’s diagnosis I have become increasingly aware of the need for more and better cancer research.


The easy life vs. the hard one

So I’ve gone through my second full week of my self imposed 100% tax. And it hasn’t been too bad. I’ve racked up a few quid I owe here and there down to the odd day forgetting to make lunch or what have you, but I’ve actually noticed my spending go down on things that I don’t need. Instead of going to the chippy late at night, I’ll make myself a sandwich. Instead of buying a new bass guitar, I’ll get out my old one and play that a bit more instead.

This experiment has made me really grateful for what I have. I am learning to rediscover the things I already own instead of needing to constantly acquire new things. But even if I had none of those, I still have a roof over my head, running water, health and security. These are things that those suffering in East Africa simply do not have much, if any of at the moment.

In a weeks time I will be posting a summary of the costs my experiment has run up for me, and giving the money to the people I have pledged it to. I really hope that some of you will be prepared to give, too. Our fellow human beings – people with real lives enduring real suffering – need it.

Click here to donate.

Old Habits Die Hard

This is harder than I thought it would be.

After a week of challenging myself to siphon off 100% of my non-essential spending, I must admit I am finding the challenge difficult. Both to keep track of, and cope with.

So far since Monday I have incurred the following costs:

  • £2.80 for lunch on Tuesday
  • £2.99 for lunch on Wednesday
  • £3 from 3 10-minute showers
  • £3 for some beers I bought last night
  • 60p for a chocolate bar on Monday evening
  • £3.50 for a magazine this morning
  • £0.90 for a bottle of drink this morning

That’s a total of £16.79 in 4 days, averaging at £4.20 a day. That’s a bit of a shock to the system! I definitely need to cut back on that.

The biggest hitter (unsurprisingly) is food. I’m always buying food. I should learn to be better prepared. It doesn’t take long to make lunch, or remember to pack a snack. The £3.50 magazine was an interesting one – I woke up this morning on the wrong side of bed, so I bought it to cheer myself up. I wonder if there are cheaper and/or better ways to do that (but that’s a whole new blog).

The other thing that surprises me is that a part of me resents the idea of giving the money away.
There are two reasons I can see for that:

  1. I don’t want to give it away. It’s my money, I earned it and I need it to sustain the lifestyle that I currently have. I live at my means, and I like it.
  2. I don’t know the people I am giving it to. I have no experience of them, their lives, their plight or their needs. So my heart is not pulled as much as I would like it to be.

I suppose the first of those two is a point of character building. I need to de-construct my selfish approach that focuses on over-consumption (beyond the means of the planet and a fair economy). That’s going to take time and experience to work through. But I will press on with that.

The second is a bit more difficult. I could travel out to Africa to help – but I would just be another westerner coming in for a couple of weeks, and then disappearing again. I wonder how much of a help I would actually be. Then again, if it enables me to care for them in such a way that my heart hurts when I, my culture or society do anything that hurts them – maybe it would be worth it. What do you think?

Cost versus benefit

So I’ve been keeping an eye on my disposable income for just under a week now. I definitely haven’t noticed a huge shift in my spending habits – at the moment I seem to be simply accepting the extra money has to be given away. There are a couple of reasons for that – firstly, I spend a lot of time during the week at work, so I don’t have much of an opportunity to spend lots of money, but secondly, I wasn’t giving away much in the first place when I felt I ought to have been – so in a way I am simply doing what I had always hoped I would do.

I have noticed that I have become more mindful of my finances. I think about how much food costs, then I think about how much time somebody spent creating what I had eaten, how much they had been paid and so on.

I’ve been an advocate of fair trade for a while now. I try and keep my clothes fairly traded, and I’m always looking for new ways to spend my money in a just way where I perhaps have not been doing so previously. Certified ‘Fair Trade’ goods guarantee not only a fair price but also a premium that goes towards developing the economy in less economically successful countries – an aim not too dissimilar to my own experiment.

I’ve recently become more and more aware of how as a culture we expect products and services to be ‘cheap’ and it rarely enters my mind that prices should also be ‘fair’ (though often ‘cheap’ and ‘fair’ cannot be easily matched up). Does it really stand to reason that fair trade is too expensive?

A simple case study: You buy a pair of Jeans from ASDA at £2.50. At least 20% of that is going to be profit for ASDA – 50p. Delivery and storage is going to cost ASDA around 20p of that. This leaves us with a total of £1.80 or $2.50 per pair for the supplier.

The supplier uses a minimum of 1.2m of fabric at a cost of about $1.70, so the factory has about $0.80 left to pay overheads and then its workers. I’d vouch that around $0.50 at most of each pair of jeans actually transfers to a worker.

Jeans are not made in fully automated factories, which means that they take time to make. Especially where there is cheap labour that is more cost-effective than using machines. How long would it take you to make a pair of jeans? An hour or two? an hour if you were good? half an hour if you were experienced? Maybe 20 minutes if you were really good?

Say you could make a pair of jeans in 20 minutes – from start to finish – you would earn $0.50 in 20 minutes. That’s $1.50 an hour.

$1.50 an hour.

Yes, the living wage in those providing countries is lower, but it still doesn’t tend to match up. And in any case, the gulf in wealth seems crazy to me.

So I can buy cheap – and I am lucky that we have the option to buy cheap – but why would we, when it means such a raw deal for the producers and their employees? I could buy more expensive brands, but often the reality is that their mark-up is greater.

Only one option then, really…




Sensible Saving

I’m afraid there won’t be any financial mishaps to report on today, as I’m away and busy for most of the weekend without much use of my wallet! Probably a good thing. Anyway, I have been thinking a bit about savings lately so I thought I’d share an idea I had.

In our western capitalist culture, we happily make money out of money – we call this ‘interest’. A lot of cultures have rules against this philosophy – Islam, Judaism and by extension Christianity being three examples.

In a populist nutshell, the philosophy of ‘no interest’ is rooted in the idea that money should aways pay for something – that way, prices stay relative to commodities and don’t vary according to greed, desire or exploitation. At least that’s the vague idea, anyway.

I think I probably agree with this model – it makes sense to me that we shoudln’t continue trying to make money out of money, as it’s where a lot of our financial mess of recent years seems to have come from.

I have savings – because I can afford to and because I think it is sensible. There are various things I might need to buy in the future – a car, an engagement ring, and perhaps even one day a property.

Those savings gain interest as they are kept in a bank account. I bank with the Co-Operative bank, who are fairly good with their ethics – but I still don’t like the fact that I earn interest. So I have chosen to give my interest away as well.

That doesn’t amount to much for me. Maybe a couple of pounds a year at most. But there’s more that we can do.

Kiva (www.kiva.org) offer micro finance loans to people in need in developing countries. Micro finance is “financial services to low-income individuals or to those who do not have access to typical banking services.” Kiva allows you to loan $25 upwards to start ups or needy businesses.

That’s a loan, not a donation.

I firmly believe in ‘trade not aid’. It’s good to give money to those in need but it’s better to give them the ability to generate their own income. As one of my favourite authors writes:

“We give people fish, we teach them to fish, we tear down the walls built up around the fish pond – and we find out who polluted it” – (Shane Claiborne).

So here is my proposal. Instead of having your money sit around in a bank that is most likely to spend it on arms trading or oil, give it to people in need – don’t worry about the interest or loss of money from inflation – treat that as a donation. Maybe start at just $25 a month, if you save more than that. You’re going to get it back eventually.

Go on, head on over to Kiva now and make a difference to someone’s life.

Debt Ceiling

All this debt ceiling talk is driving me crazy. Here we are, in a world where people are suffering because of a lack of water and America needs to borrow more money to provide for its needs. Sorry, what?

America. The world’s biggest country. The worlds biggest superpower. The world’s empire, the world’s new Rome. Needs to borrow money. To survive.

How upside-down-crazy is that? Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for the government supporting those in need the most with medical provision. I love the NHS in this country and I am all for Obama’s reforms. But the fact that they have to borrow trillions upon trillions of dollars just to pay their debts shows just how materialistic we have become. So materialistic that the world’s ruling empire can’t sustain itself without someone else helping out.

When you compare that to countries where there is no welfare, where running water is a welcome surprise not an expectation, where sanitation barely exists, where politics is beyond corrupt (oh, wait…), where the few prosper and the many suffer in conditions that even those in relative poverty in the west would never dream of having to endure – well, there is no comparison really, is there?

The First Stumble

Not surprisingly, I have already made a minor mockery of my intentions. This morning my shower was definitely in the 10-minute ball park so that’s £5 I owe to charity, on top of £3.05 for a coffee whilst out shopping. So that’s £8.05 so far…

Being more aware of my finances has proved quite enlightening – just in terms of how much things cost. The bus I caught into town earlier cost me £4 – which I could almost argue is un-necessary because I could walk it in just over an hour. I had to pay for a drink and a sandwich for dinner which was £2.50 (should have planned my day better!) and the bridge toll to Wales was £5.70. So in a day I’ve spent over £20 just in cash.

What puts that into perspective is that someone living in crisis hit sudan is now earning less than $10 a day. What puts it into even more perspective is that in any given day, I pay about £16 in bills as well. So there I am, spending nearly £50 in one day (and earning twice that) whilst some are living on less than $10. Yes, some things are cheaper, but the gulf in quality of life is reflected in the difference in cost too.