So it’s tax time (at least for us!) and we’re also in the process of assessing finances now that we’ve been in the new house for a while. That’s led me to ponder what things really cost. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about things in terms of the following:
- What it costs me to work (which, after a week like this, is probably A LOT!!!)
- What it costs to live sustainably (spurred in part by my search for a new car and in part by an assessment of our spending on things like cloth diapers, compact flourescent lightbulbs, and organic foods that cost more than the convetional versions, but have a real value to us)
- What we really get enjoyment from with regards to spending money and what we spend for purely convenience reasons (of course, we want to make cuts in that second category).
The facts of our situation are that, frankly, I don’t want to work much longer, but I have nearly a third of an acre of bare dirt that needs landscaping, a car that is in the shop getting $1200 of repairs but will inevitably still need to be replaced in the next two years, and two children that need me more than I need to work.
So what does it cost? For every scheduled hour I work (my “office hours” are basically 8-3 Monday, Tuesday & Wednesday), I pay $22 an hour in child care between Gabriel’s preschool and Lily’s sitter. Wow. That’s a lot. When you consider another $12.40 an hour in taxes, I’m paying more per hour than many people make gross. OK, so I’m lucky that I have a great salary, but that’s not the point of this post.
The point is that although I can add a little “whew!” factor in for getting the mental stimulation of work, the extra spending money, and a little break, our family also pays. It pays on days like yesterday when I worked until 10pm. Sure the hours after 3pm were pure profit because I wasn’t paying childcare, but they were also hours that I talked on the phone while I was watching my kids (how else do you think Gabriel ended up face down drinking muddy puddle water???) or while I should have been planning a delicious and nutritious dinner for them (they ate boxed Mac N Cheese, organic & whole-wheat, but not exactly ideal!), or while I should have been sharing some much-needed down time with my husband, who also has a TON going on at work right now and is not just resting on his laurels waiting around to help me with my insanity.
The car payment on my current car ($0) is just right, especially if I hope to ever stop working. But, the car is not gas-efficient (at about 30mpg, it’s better than many, but not as good as a Hybrid!), and as I mentioned it’s in the shop getting things like a new “cabin air filter” (???), dashboard light bulbs (which cost $0.02 a piece, but $115 in labor to install!) and a timing belt. But how do you calculate what the real cost is of a gallon of gas? Do I need to factor in the price of the war(s) in the Middle East? The cost to the environment not just of drilling for the stuff, but for burning it up? The cost to our health and the health of our children when the cheapest “food-grade” preservatives, skin emollients, detergents, candles, air fresheners, perfumes, or fertilizer on the market are made of by-products of the processing of crude oil and at the same time allowed in some cases to be marketed as “natural” or at the least “safe” because they were, at one point, a million years ago, tangentially a plant?!?!
With this in mind, if the strength of my convictions were the only thing at play I’d probably ditch the car altogether and go for a bicycle, but honestly that Prius is looking more and more affordable to me at the moment!
I’m fairly sure I’ve both blogged and gabbed about how everyone ought to find local sources for their food, organic when possible, at least fresh & unprocessed when not. But what does that really cost? So let’s talk about the dollars first, and the politics second, shall we.
Time for full disclosure: We pay a lot to eat primarily organic & local food. We’ve tried various things like food preservation, CSAs, and buying bulk/unprocessed to lower the cost of our grocery bill and the fact of the matter is we spend $1200 on average per month for a family of four to eat organic. If you survived on that organic whole-wheat boxed Mac-N-Cheese, frozen organic pizzas, and other processed foods, it would quickly go up from there. I do things like making my own yogurt, preserving all of our jams and most of our fruit juice, and making my own big-ticket items like sun-dried tomatoes and pesto. Oh, and we don’t eat meat, so if you added the cost of organic meat to this bill, it wouldn’t be cheap. Of course, I’m basing this average cost on the past year, which is a year that included a lot of visitors, a huge move, and no vegetable garden (because of the move), so perhaps I’ll find that amount going down in the future, but I doubt it will move much.
But what does it cost to eat the conventional American McMeal? Well, according to Michael Pollan, author of previously mentioned The Omnivore’s Dilemma, it takes 10 calories’s worth of oil to produce each calorie of commercial #2 commodity corn (we’re not talking sweet corn here, we’re talking about the high-fructose corn syrup, food additives, and animal feed type). That corn goes in ever-increasing quantities into our processed foods (soda is approaching 100% corn these days and McDonalds McNuggets have more corn than chicken in them) and into feeding the cows that produce the beef that some of us eat.
The chemically intensive way that corn must be farmed to produce at the rate required for a farmer to make a buck strips the land of nutrients and pollutes the local groundwater, not to mention the barrels of oil that it uses. And even with the chemical-heavy methods, corn farmers are not able to sell their corn for as much as it costs to produce it, creating a cycle of subsidies (talk about costing the regular old tax-payer like you & me!!!), debt, and, more and more frequently, farmers who either lose the farm or have to take a full-time job elsewhere to make ends meet.
I prefer to look at this from the vantage point of how it benefits the local economy & environment to support local food even if its cost is a bit higher. First, the feeling of community fostered by a CSA or a trip to the farmer’s market is a sweet reminder of a simpler time. That in and of itself makes shopping local worthwhile. Then there’s the aspect of supporting that local farmer so that he or she won’t have to sell out and start growing commodity corn. I also like the idea of my dollars staying here in Colorado instead of wandering as far as New Zealand. And how about connection to the land and insurance that your kids won’t grow up thinking that their produce, like too much of their other food, comes from the factory. Oh, and the taste, the taste, the taste! And did I mention variety? I think I’ve made my point…
Environment & community aside, let’s look at the health costs. What does it cost your pocketbook to pay for fad diets, stomach stapling, or treatment for diabetes or heart disease (these last two are on the rise at about the same rate as obesity in this and other first world nations)? What does it cost your quality of life?
So what’s my point in all this, besides working it out in my own head? For me, personally, the cost is a lot more complex an issue than the amount that I pay at the checkout or the check I write to the sitter each week. I’d like for us as a culture to be done with turning a blind eye to the true costs of the products we use, the food we eat, the gas we pump into our cars, and the time we needlessly spend away from our children, and start thinking of the real costs to the environment, to the Earth, and to our collective consciences.
If you’re still with me at this point, you either totally agree, or are about to send me a virtual fire bomb 😉 Either way, thank you for reading and letting me vent about what things cost.