On Mindful Spending and Going Against my Values

Encapsulating My Values

Let me begin with the basis for this episode: I am on a weekly food budget. Each week, I challenge myself to spend no more than $80, including restaurant meals. It is, I think, a reasonable budget for a single person who’s also a food enthusiast. I force myself to be careful and creative with my shopping, with the goal of coming in UNDER budget (carry-over can be “banked”, so to speak). Additionally, I track my food spending—item by item. NOT $7.98 at Pay Less, but rather $3.00 for avocados, $2.50 for cottage cheese, etc. I do this for several reasons. One, to learn to live with less. Generally, I’m quite good at living below my means, but I felt there was still room for improvement. If I know I have to enter each item on a spreadsheet, I think twice about buying, asking myself if I really need it. Two, it’s part of overall expense-tracking. And three, it makes me think about my spending in terms of my values.

So, What Happened

Last week, I was pretty close to my $80 cap. And I wanted yogurt (a common ingredient in a nofunlatte breakfast). And I wanted to make my own yogurt (a common activity in the nofunlatte household). The problem? I had no milk.

For the record, I do not practice a 100% organic, local lifestyle. But that is still important to me. We can get caught up in perfection, realize its unattainability, and simply throw up our hands in frustration and quit. So, I try to do reasonably well, operating on the Pareto modified Principle, where 80% of my purchases are “good” and not sweating the other 20%. Yes, I try to buy food that reflect my values—health-promoting or organic or fair-trade or local or produced by someone or some company with ideals similar to mine. So far, so good. So, I went to a local grocery store, a little short on time, and calculated that I could not buy any local or organic milk with what I had left. Instead of making a choice to forgo milk until the following week or just go over the budget for once, I scanned the refrigerated section for a cheap quart of milk. And what I found was a half-gallon. For 69 cents. Yes, 69 cents. And I bought it.

A Lesson Learned

I bought that milk, even though the cheapness of the price was gnawing at me. I took it home, put it in my refrigerator, and tried to think of a valid excuse for buying it. I could not think of one. I knew I had compromised my values. And that, my friends, was a very good lesson. The remorse from that purchase meant that I would not make that choice again. The few dollars I saved? Paid for them with the uncomfortable feelings of guilt.

Ironically—or, perhaps, a nudge from Providence—I read a ’poignant blog post the next night, a post on the difficult road that dairy farmers face. Dairy farming, never an easy way to make a living, is in crisis, with farmers not even breaking even. Some of this has to do with changing tastes, as Americans (and yes, this is a US-centric post) drink less dairy milk and more alternative milks (e.g. soy, almond). But a lot is due to the conglomeration of the dairy industry, with mega-producers dictating the rules, quashing the small farmer. Some are turning to cheesemaking, in an attempt to create a value-added product. Some are leaving farming. And sadly, some are committing suicide.

America: Land of the Cheap

Cheap food, that is. Yet, according to USDA data, Americans spend approximately 6.4% of their income on food, about the lowest percentage in the world. And while I’m not sure if this figure represents actual food purchases and not restaurant meals, it probably doesn’t matter. The point is, I know that I’m already getting a break by buying in the country with the cheapest food. I am informed and I know better. Buying this didn’t fit my carefully considered values. And yet, sadly, I let myself be seduced by a 69-cent half-gallon of milk.

An Addendum and Explanations

First, I am not suggesting that people who are struggling to feed themselves and/or their loved ones ought to “overspend”. For them, that milk might’ve been a good source of protein that week. Second, this post is not an invitation for vegans (or their flipsided brethren, paleo diet adherents) to proselytize—I am fully aware that for many, a dairy-free diet works well. That is not the point of the post. Rather, I suggest that readers consider their spending—and their food spending in particular—in light of their carefully thought out set of values.