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Most of what we buy or consume requires trade-offs. When it comes to some of the most important features–convenience, thrift and environmental friendliness—we often settle for one or two out of three.
A book and a few Web sites devoted to the “zero waste” movement have convinced me to try a little harder on the third count.
At first I was skeptical of claims that the typical American produces more than four pounds of garbage a day. Just observing our household patterns, though, convinced me that we’re generating a lot more trash than I thought. And too much of that trash either wasn’t being recycled or couldn’t be recycled. (We’re not alone…I found this rubbish map from the Economist showing the U.S. and Norway, of all places, are tops at producing trash.)
I’m not ready to go to some of the lengths that the truly devoted advocate to reduce our trash to what would fit in a Kleenex box. But we’re taking a few baby steps:
We’re finally getting a composter. We composted on the farm where I grew up, but it was a pretty simple chore. Compostable food scraps went into a bucket Mom kept under the sink. Every few days it was my job to take the bucket and a shovel to the garden to bury the scraps. They disappeared almost magically. We never turned up an eggshell or coffee filter later on. The small lot we live on now doesn’t allow that kind of “lazy composting,” but the city of Los Angeles offers a $20 composter I’m going to try.
I’m remembering to take my reusable bags to the store. They’re way better than the flimsy plastic bags grocery stores provide (and that LA is about to ban). But I managed to ignore that until a lovely, expensive bottle of olive oil fell out of tear in one of those flimsies and shattered on our driveway. Now my groceries come home in strong, resilient, reusable totes that don’t let the contents roll all over my car.
I’m thinking about packaging before I buy. There’s usually a choice between recyclable and not. Surprisingly often these days, you don’t have to pay more for the greener option. This extends to fast food outlets. Carl’s Jr., a favorite burger chain here, wraps its food in paper and cardboard. McDonalds, by contrast, continues to use Styrofoam and non-recyclable plastic. The purists would bring their own plates, cups and cloth napkins to a fast food joint, or avoid such restaurants altogether, but for now I’m content to pick Carl’s.
We just had an almost-zero-waste BBQ. I’d convinced myself you couldn’t have a party without filling a trash bin, but I was wrong. I made pitchers of lemonade and cucumber water instead of providing bottled water. We used cloth napkins, regular cutlery, and real plates and glasses for the most part. The plastic cups for the kids were recyclable (as were the beer and wine bottles). I even managed to skip the Styrofoam trays that usually accompany meat: We bought some lovely tri-tip roasts from a local butcher, who wrapped them in paper. At the end of the night, the only thing that went into the trash were the hot dog wrappers. It was fun, and the cleanup wasn’t that hard.
Some resources if you’re interested in learning more:
“The Zero-Waste Lifestyle: Live Well by Throwing Away Less” is a book by Amy Korst that suggests ways to reduce, reuse and recycle that range from the easy (like remembering those tote bags!) to the advanced (Diva Cups, anyone?).
Zero Waste Home is the blog of Bea Johnson, who wrote a book by the same name. I especially like the posts where she talks about zero waste and raising kids.
The Nonconsumer Advocate is a perfectly delightful Portlandian named Katy Wolk-Stanley who describes herself as a “library patron, leftovers technician, Goodwill enthusiast, utility bill scholar, labor and delivery nurse, laundry hanger-upper, mother and citizen.” Her commentary about some of her more absurd Goodwill finds—found under the heading “Goodwill, Badwill, Questionable-Will”—are particularly hilarious.
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Dear Liz: I co-signed a credit card for someone and the person defaulted on payment. I started making payments but could not continue because I became unemployed. The debt started at $15,631.23 but has gone up to $17,088.08 because of interest and fees. I previously had to go to court because my bank account was frozen. I recently got a notice about this again. Should I file for bankruptcy or try contacting the attorneys who are seeking payment? I am working part-time and have a tight budget. I don’t have anything saved and am living from paycheck to paycheck.
Answer: You should have gone to a bankruptcy attorney the first time you got sued.
Many people try to ignore their debts or hope that collection agencies will be lenient. That’s not a good strategy at a time when collectors are increasingly willing to file lawsuits to get paid, said Gerri Detweiler, director of consumer education for Credit.com. Once collectors have a judgment against you, they can freeze your bank accounts or garnishee your paycheck.
If you don’t have anything saved and can’t come up with any money for payments, you have little leverage in dealing with a collection agency. Bankruptcy may be your only recourse to get these collection efforts to stop.
A bankruptcy attorney can let you know whether you are “judgment proof,” which basically means that you have and make too little for a creditor to collect on any judgments. If you are judgment proof, you may not need to file for bankruptcy, but you may have to deal with frozen accounts and regular trips to court when a collector oversteps.
You can get a referral from the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys at http://www.nacba.org.
The only silver lining of this situation is that you’ve provided other people with a clear lesson in why they shouldn’t co-sign a credit card or any other loan for someone else.
Dear Liz: I am wondering about what percentage of your income should your rent be. Ours at the moment is 35% just for rent, not including utilities or anything else.
Answer: In high-cost areas, people regularly pay 40% or more of their income on housing. That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.
When you spend a big chunk of your income on rent or mortgage payments, there’s often too little left over to save for the future, pay off the debt of your past and live for today.
There are no hard-and-fast rules for what’s affordable, but limiting your housing costs to about 25% of your gross pay or 30% of your after-tax pay will help ensure that you have money left over for other goals. “Housing costs” include rent, utilities and renter’s insurance if you don’t own, or mortgage, property taxes, property insurance and utilities if you do.
If you’re much over these limits, you should look into ways to reduce your costs, earn more income or both. Otherwise, you’re likely to continue to struggle with an unbalanced budget.
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