Friday, September 21, 2007

My All for You, My God

In some ways, this money saving experiment is bringing me closer to my husband. When we first got married, we'd do everything together, including grocery shopping. Come Saturday, there we'd be at our local Safeway, me with the cart and him with the calculator.

Yes, you read that right. My penny-pincher brought a calculator with him every shopping trip so we could tally up our purchases and know before we got to the checkout line exactly how much we'd be spending.

I didn't get it. Not at all. My mother never did that. Even when my parents had two mortgages, a struggling business and a daughter in private high school, my mom still went to the most expensive grocery store and put whatever she wanted in her cart: papayas, red leaf lettuce, wild-caught salmon, imported Genoan salami. In fact, the grocery store she shopped at was so snooty they carried the bags out to your car for you.

When I was in college, I realized how naive I was in the ideas of price comparing or choosing an item that's on sale. My roommate and I took a trip to Meijers, where she happily put a generic brand of shampoo in her cart. "I love it when they have these," she smiled. I looked at her in utter confusion and she explained, "They take the formula of the name brand stuff and bottle it themselves to save you money."

I remember looking at her cart, then at the shelf, and reaching for the Pantene. She got annoyed with me. "Tienne, it's the SAME thing." I shook my head. "I don't want to risk it. I'll pay more for the real stuff."

So you can imagine that walking around the store with my calculator-toting husband was an alien experience for me. He taught me how to read the labels on the shelf. That "price per unit" thing? Wow! You can really tell which item is the cheapest. I'd never even looked at it before. If I needed canned tomatoes, I went and bought the Del Monte brand. Contadina might have been cheaper, but who cared?

My husband. And now that I've made the committment to keep our weekly food bill under $100, I care, too. It's been so much harder than I thought it would. Turns out that $106 bill I was getting didn't include running out for bananas, jam and milk midweek, or eating out at CiCi's Pizza with the kids, or deciding I wanted a bottle of wine for our dinner guests. I now carry a calculator with me to the grocery store and I am fastidious about recording every item that goes into my cart.

Some things I've discovered (which will no doubt be obvious to anyone who's ever been on a budget): Name brand stuff is ridiculously overpriced. I try to buy the store brand every time. I'm not letting go of my preference for organic, though. Luckily, my store has lots of organic items, including among their own line. I think I'd be able to buy alcohol if I didn't buy organic. The difference is amazing. Organic cheddar is $6.99. The Kraft brand is $2.39. Vegetables are the same way, often twice as much for the organic as for the conventional. But I know too much about our agricultural industry to be swayed by the price. When it's available, I always pick organic. I just have to save money elsewhere.

Meat is more expensive than beans.
This is a big no-brainer, of course, but it really hammers home to me how much money we save by eating mostly vegetarian. This week I bought a family pack of 8 chicken thighs (cheaper than the breasts) for $7.41. That'll give us two meat-meals. An equivalent poundage of lentils would cost me $3.38, and let me tell you, 3 lbs of lentils would last for 8, maybe 9 meals. There's no way I could do this if we ate meat at every meal, as when we were first married.

Substitutions are your friend. I haven't had the money to buy chili powder for weeks now. I don't know when it's ever going to happen; a jar costs $6 and there's very little wiggle room in my weekly budget. So whenever a recipe calls for chili powder, I substitute a roasted, canned chipotle pepper. A can of chipotles in adobo sauce costs $.59 at the Albertsons and contains around 9 chipotles. One is more than enough to add flavor and spice to any Mexican dish I'm cooking, and they last forever in the freezer. Cheese is another expense where I've discovered ways to cut back. Ricotta is $7, but an equivalent amount of low fat cottage cheese is only $2.69. I'm sticking it into a veggie lasagna anyway, so it doesn't matter.

Make it at home whenever you can. The list of things I no longer buy at the store is growing each week, mainly because I don't have money to spend on prepared food and thus must prepare it myself. I make my own yogurt, mayonnaise, salsa, chocolate sauce, peanut butter, applesauce and breadcrumbs (you knew there was a use for the ends of bread loaves, right?) Really, I should make my own bread, but I have issues with yeast. For whatever reason, I can't seem to buy any that's still active, whether I try the refrigerated glass jar or the little packets.

Anyway, it's hard, but I'm learning a lot and doing well so far.

I'm not doing as well with my attitude. Simply put, I resent this. I want to buy wine. Chateau Ste. Michelle Riesling. Sonoma Valley Chardonnay. Bella Rossi Chianti. I miss my wine. I want to buy goat cheese and fresh herbs and sun dried tomatoes packed in flavored olive oil. I miss the fun sides I used to put out with all my meals. If I made a lasagna, I'd have garlic bread and salad, too, and the salad would have two different kinds of lettuce and roasted pine nuts and golden raisins tossed in with it. Now we just have the lasagna.

I miss going through my cookbooks and being inspired by a picture and saying, "Oooh. I want to try that," then going to the store and getting everything it calls for. I miss having chips and dip to snack on during the week. I miss having whipped cream and pecans on hand to jazz up my desserts.

Nothing has changed between now and three weeks ago except that now these sufferings are designed to pay down our debt. Am I really so petty? When I choose a sacrifice, I do it with joy, but when it's imposed upon me I am resentful, complaining, sulky and depressed. Perhaps more than anything, God wants me to learn how to do joyfully what He wants. Perhaps this is so hard for me not because I'm giving up alcohol, but because I'm giving up control.

Well, sacrifice is not meant to be easy. What is it to say "Okay, God, my husband's out of town this weekend and I've got both these kids to myself, so tonight I'm going out for pizza. I'm going to eat this pizza for you, God, to glorify and praise you." If only God wanted us to eat pizza for Him! Darnit. I could do that easily.

Real sacrifice, true sacrifice, ought to be painful. If it's not difficult, we're not doing it right.

So I can take heart at least that I'm on the right path now. Because this is difficult. And painful. The reward in it isn't so much happiness and fulfillment as much as it's the satisfaction of knowing that I am obedient to God's will. It doesn't feel good, but I know it is good.

Still, I'm annoyed every time I have to deny myself something I want.

Less self. More God. That's what I need.

Picture credit.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Ask and Ye Shall Receive

I want to thank everyone for their insightful and supportive comments, especially for the recommendations to read up on St. Frances of Rome (could there be a more perfect patron saint for my situation!) and to wait for God's time in finding a solution to my problem.

For a while now I've been praying that God will guide me, and He has. Through Scripture, through the words of the priest at daily Mass, through conversations with people, the insights on my friends' blogs and the inspiration of the Saints, He's spoken to me.

My son's Godparents, both good Catholics and close friends of mine, gave me The Story of a Soul by St. Therese of the Little Flower, which I've been reading off and on. (It's one of the books by my nursing chair, so it entirely depends how cooperative my youngest decides to be as to whether or not I get to read any of it each day.) So many things have struck me in her story, but foremost above all is the simple, faithful, all-encompassing love she had for God, even as a very young child. She wanted nothing so much as to love Him and serve Him. Loving Him and serving Him brought her joy.

That's how I feel about the poor. I have an inherent love for them within me that's been there since I was a child. I don't try to help the poor because I believe that it's good and right to do so (though it is,) or because God instructs us to care for those in need (though He does.) I do it because my love for the poor rises up and shakes me into action. I recognize this now as a gift. God wants me to serve the poor, of that I'm certain. He would not have put this drive in me for no purpose.

But the key is that I serve Him in the way HE wants, not the way I want. Some of you have touched on this in your comments to me, and I've really taken them to heart. I think it's telling that my gut reaction to Jen's idea of fundraising was "God no, NO! Anything but that." and to Anna's suggestion to step back was "But then my husband WINS."

This isn't the reaction of someone who's seeking to serve God and follow His will. It's the reaction of a hyper-controlling, uptight, Type-A personality. My way obviously isn't working right now, so I need to find a new way. God's way.

I read once that the Mongols (or perhaps the Huns?) were so successful in battle because they were taught to fight like water, finding cracks in the defense and working their way through bit by bit until they overcame. This image has been churning around in my head the past week or so. I feel like my desire to help the poor is the current of a river -- it's flowing intensely within me right now, urging me on. And I keep running up against the dam of my marriage. It's making me frustrated and swelling my resentment of my husband. The force of my drive to help is causing me harm.

And God is gently trying to redirect this river, opening up channels to provide relief and continue the flow of water to where it's needed. Am I really going to keep butting up against the dam when other avenues exist?

I've talked again with my husband about our money situation. We had the exact same circular argument we always have, just with different words. For him, it all comes down to our debt. For me, it all comes down to our choices. We can't work together unless we're on the same page, and he's made it quite clear that he can't change to meet me.

So I must take on his focus as my own.

I can commit myself to doing everything in my power to pay down our debt. I can forgo all things for myself, including pizza (woe!) and gifts. I can do my best to save money wherever and whenever I can, including on our grocery bills and clothes for the kids. After all, I'm doing all that stuff anyway. But instead of fighting my husband to send the money we "save" to the poor, I can turn it over to him for our debt.

In some ways, this is all semantics because I don't really have a choice as to what I do. I have to save money. I can't give money to the poor. So it seems almost self-delusional to now claim that I'm doing these things for God. But a true Christian spirit is to take the things God gives us and turn them back over to Him, to accept with love and grace the burdens He places on us and to carry them cheerfully for Him. I cannot change my situation, so I will instead change my attitude. What a beautiful gift for God -- my heart and will instead of my money!

The hardest part, and I still don't know how I'm going to handle this, is what I do when my husband makes a decision I completely disagree with. These don't come very often, thankfully. I'm blessed that my husband is even more frugal than I am and would never just go out and buy $20,000 of home entertainment equipment on a whim (yes, I do know someone who has done this.) But I can't force this commitment on him. If he wants to spend five hundred dollars traveling to our alma mater for a football game, my sacrifice is to say nothing to him about it and go on quietly working to save money on my own.

I feel this is where I'm really going to have problems. I'm not very good at letting things go. Or with trusting God. Or with patiently waiting. And the underlying marital disconnect is still there. I just need to find a way that it doesn't affect me as much. I think making this sacrifice will help. I'm doing it partly for my husband -- this debt is obviously very important to him. I'm doing it partly for the poor, in the hopes that once the debt is gone we can move towards a lifestyle that incorporates giving generously to charity. But I'm mostly doing it for God, in obedience to the path He's setting out for me.

It's here that I'm so inspired by the example of St. Frances of Rome. What she wanted most in life was to be a nun, yet she spent all but 4 years of her life carrying out the domestic tasks required of a noblewoman's wife. Through it all she found ways to serve God, often doing things she hated, like attending a party with her mother in law. Like it or not, this is my path. I can choose to go where God directs me, or stagnate and grow angry forcing my own way. I choose God's path.

I have a new mantra, in addition to the one I say to help me be a better mother ("Mary, my model, be with me and guide me.") It is "My all for you, my God." I hope the frequent repetition of it helps remind me that everything I'm doing is for Him and worthy of being done with joy.

Picture Credit