This is the next post in my series on how to save significant money by cooking at home. In this post, I will tell you that you should spend some money so you can save some money. A counter-intuitive idea to be sure.
Let me backtrack a bit first. You can cook almost anything with elementary and inexpensive cooking gear. In 2012 I had several recently divorced men in my psychiatric practice. When they moved from their homes into apartments, they knew to buy a couch, big screen TV, and other creature comforts. However, they purchased little to no kitchen equipment and spent what discretionary cash that they had on restaurants and fast food. I made a Saving Savvy video for guys in similar situations, and in it, I looked at the minimum equipment that they would need to go beyond reheating and to start cooking. I’ll link that video at the end of this post for those who are interested.
However, today my goal is to get you cooking, and the easier the process is, the more likely that you will not only try cooking but also sustain cooking. It is only when you do the latter that you will see the many benefits of cooking for yourself.
I am a gadget fanatic, and one of the activities that give me pleasure is exploring the pros and cons of electric and mechanical creations. Many years ago I bought a sewing machine. I can’t sew so such a purchase would seem odd on the surface. However, my buy was with intent, it was just that my purpose was different than the obvious. I wanted to understand how such a complex machine worked. It is with a similar zeal that I have explored the potential of small electric cooking appliances. How do they work? Are they worthwhile time savers or simply shelf warmers. What else can they do beyond their commonly used utility?
The microwave oven is one of the appliances in my holy trinity of necessary kitchen gadgets. If I were suddenly forced to leave my house with only the clothes on my back one of the first appliances that I would buy for my new dwelling would be a microwave oven.
The microwave oven is an amazing, versatile, and inexpensive appliance. Everyone knows that you can reheat leftovers and make bag popcorn in a microwave, but many believe this is where the device’s utility ends. This is not the case.
When I was a single resident, I discovered that a microwave oven could be used to make all sorts of food. Meats like fresh fish and chicken can be cooked to deliciousness. Vegetables can be done correctly. Baked items like muffins or cakes can be successfully created. Rice and pasta take about the same amount of time as on the stove, but you don’t have to watch the pot continually.
The process of microwaving is most similar to steaming, and so you can’t expect your foods to be brown, but there are many workarounds to make your dish look appealing. However, since a microwave is super quick, it is not the right choice for foods that require long/slow cooking to tenderize (like stews).
Smaller amounts of food cook quicker than larger amounts making the microwave perfect if you are preparing for one or two. A microwave can be a kitchen in a box if you live without a formal kitchen.
When microwaves were new and expensive, they came with thick cookbooks that not only were chocked full of recipes but also had a lot of useful general information on cooking methods. Unfortunately, newer microwaves usually just come with minimal information. It is definitely worth your while to learn basic microwave cooking techniques. Buying a microwave cookbook or researching on the internet can be the right places to start.
As amazing as microwave ovens are the device has detractors. Some dislike them because they expect a microwave to do things (like brown foods) that it is incapable of. Others have a fear that microwaves are bad for you. This latter group often sites information whose only authority is a rumor. The next section of this post tries to address some of the concerns that people voice when it comes to microwave cooking.
Search the internet for the dangers of microwave ovens, and you will come across countless “authoritative” sites that say the wildest things. Here is just one quote from a website called “Health-Science.”
Continually eating food processed from a microwave oven causes long term, permanent, brain damage by “shorting out” electrical impulses in the brain [de-polarizing or de-magnetizing brain tissue]
Now, someone is going to read this and believe it. I’m telling you that as a physician the above claim is not only ridiculous, it also makes no medical sense.
Let’s spend a little time talking about the science behind the microwave oven and some of the common concerns about cooking with this device.
Microwaves are part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Various parts of this spectrum include radio waves, visible light, and ultraviolet light. When living tissue is directly exposed to concentrated electromagnetic energy, it can be damaged. An example of this would be getting sunburned from spending too much time in the sun. However, we are continually exposed to a lower level of this energy daily, besides, many of the devices that we use create this type of energy. Your cell phone, your computer, your radio, and your TV are just a few examples of devices that generate low levels of electromagnetic radiation. No one would advise you to directly expose yourself to highly concentrated microwave energy. Microwave ovens contain this energy in the cooking chamber, which is a metal box. Your smartphone exposes you to significantly more microwave energy than any microwave oven.
Microwaves heat food mostly by energizing the water molecules in the food. The active water molecules start to vibrate and rub against each other. This movement creates heat by friction, just like rubbing your hands together creates heat by friction. It is this friction heat that actually cooks your food. Most other cooking sources (like your stovetop) provide energy indirectly to the food which makes these devices less efficient and slower. Since the power is applied directly to the food the only residual heat in the oven is a byproduct of the hot food, as opposed to a heated cooking element (like the burner on a stove).
Let’s explore some common microwave oven concerns:
Microwave ovens cause cancer FALSE I have heard many variations on this theme, but the basic idea is that foods that are microwaved cause cancer. I think that this idea is because folks are confused by the term “ microwave radiation.” Radiation just refers to how energy (or particles) are emitted. The sun radiates heat, a radio tower radiates radio waves, and so forth. Nuclear radiation is very different from microwave radiation, and it is dangerous because it contains so much energy that it is ionizing, and can damage cell components like DNA. Microwave energy is non-ionizing, and its effects on food are just to cook it like any other source of heat.
Microwave ovens denature the protein in foods TRUE I read a blog where a woman refused to use a microwave because she understood that cooking food in a microwave denatures the food’s proteins. This is absolutely true, and on the surface, it sounds scary, but it isn’t at all. Proteins are twisted chains of amino acids. Heat in any form can untwist these chains to some degree which changes their properties. When you fry an egg on the stove the albumin protein in the egg white is denatured and goes from transparent and liquid to white and solid. Denaturing is what cooking is all about and is in not exclusive to microwave ovens.
Microwave ovens destroy the minerals and vitamins in foods. MOSTLY FALSE When we talk about the minerals that we need to survive, we are mainly referring to salts of elements like calcium or magnesium. These type of elements are fundamental, and they do not change.
Vitamins are organic compounds needed for healthy cell metabolism. Prolonged heat can destroy vitamins, and any cooking method has this potential. However, since microwaves tend to cook faster than other cooking methods they actually can have a less adverse impact on vitamins than other cooking methods.
Microwaves don’t brown food TRUE Microwave ovens produce heat by energizing water molecules which then vibrate and create heat by friction. This process is similar to steaming food and does not provide the dry heat that is needed to brown. There are many tricks that a cook can use to make a microwave cooked food look more appetizing. Coating chicken with BBQ sauce, topping a meatloaf with catsup, using a naturally dark cake batter (like chocolate), or running the cooked food under a broiler for a few minutes are just some of the techniques.
Microwave ovens don’t cook evenly TRUE The pattern of microwaves in a conventional home oven is uneven which is why most microwaves have rotating platters. However, you still may need to stir food or rearrange items during the cooking process to have them cook more evenly.
Microwave ovens cause EMF (electromagnetic field?) sickness FALSE I read a post on a website that said that microwave ovens caused EMF sickness and listed a bunch of generic malaise symptoms (like fatigue). Remember, that microwave ovens are designed to be a Faraday cage (a device that does not let electromagnetic waves out). Cooking a frozen burrito is considerably different than working on a microwave transmission tower!
It is dangerous to cook chicken in the microwave FALSE Just like in any other cooking method you need to make sure that chicken cook to the proper temperature and then is allowed to rest for a bit before eating. I could find no credible reports that could confirm that properly cooking chicken in a microwave was dangerous.
Microwaved baby formula is bad for the baby TRUE…but It is not recommended that you warm up a baby’s bottle in the microwave. This is because microwaves heat unevenly and portions of the milk could be overly hot.
Microwave ovens can cause heart attacks FALSE Decades ago you would see signs around public microwaves warning pacemaker wearers about the danger of being too close to a microwave. Since 1971 all microwaves have to meet stringent guidelines as far as microwave emission, and the FDA now advises against such warnings.
We are surrounded by sources of electromagnetic radiation from devices that range from your cell phone to your computer. Modern pacemakers are very shielded from external sources of radio waves, so don’t worry.
What about microwaves causing heart attacks? I think that non-experts made the wild leap between the old pacemaker warnings and myocardial infarctions. There is no link.
Microwave ovens are dangerous for pregnant women and can cause infertility in men. FALSE This rumor exists because strong EMFs may have a negative effect on developing babies and may cause a reduction in viable sperm counts. Remember, microwave ovens are basically Faraday Cages, they don’t release EMF. Typing with your laptop on your lap is potentially a much higher source of EMF for those regions, but before you get too concerned about this, there isn’t good evidence to support even these claims. Don’t worry, be happy.
Microwaved water kills plants. FALSE True urban legend. By the way, why would anyone microwave water for plants anyway?
Whether you choose to use a microwave or not is up to you. However, make your decision based on fact, not fiction. In our house, the microwave oven is a constant and convenient appliance that makes our daily cooking chores easier and faster.
In the year 1900 less than two percent of meals were eaten outside the home. In 2010 more than fifty percent were. Less than one-third of all families will sit down together for a meal more than 2 times a week. Forty-six percent of Americans eat their meals alone.
Research has shown that people who cook/eat at home are happier, eat fewer calories, and consume less sugar than those who eat out. Eating as a family improves family communication and cooperation. Children feel more emotionally stable when their family eats together at home.
Preparing your food at home can save significant money. If you use a restaurant delivery service, you may be paying up to five times the cost of making the food yourself. The simple act of bringing your lunch, as opposed to buying your lunch can save the average person up to $2000/year. Even fast food dining is significantly more expensive than making your meals from scratch. Food prepared at home can be customized to your particular needs, and cooking simple meals is not only delicious; it is easy.
With so many reasons to cook why is it that so many people choose to eat out? Lack of time seems to be a significant factor. If you work more than 35 hours per week, you are less likely to cook: if you have a long work commute you are also less likely to cook. In addition, the less you cook, the less likely you are to cook. This latter fact may be due to lack of skill, confidence, available staple ingredients (an empty pantry), or cooking equipment.
Julie was our main chef when the kids were younger. She eventually returned to the paid workforce, and our dinners were transformed from homemade to frozen pizza, fast food, and delivery. Our kids were in an uproar, as they sorely missed home cooking. After some thought I took on the cooking challenge with one caveat, I would not do it alone, I would also teach my kids how to cook, and this is how “Cooking with Dad, Thursday,” started.
I have to admit that I had some initial fear about returning to the kitchen, and it did seem overwhelming in the beginning, but I eventually got my sea legs. What seemed difficult soon became second nature, and it has been fantastic fun to cook with my children. We plan our meals, shop, prepare, and clean up together. Over the last 4 years my kids have become both confident and competent in the kitchen.
It is important to remember that cooking becomes more comfortable over time. With experience, you understand what to look for when you prepare a dish. Don’t be discouraged if your first few attempts don’t go as you had planned.
Here are some suggestion to help you transition from being a meal buyer to a meal creator. The ideas below can benefit you if you are cooking for one, or an entire family.
Buy a basic cookbook Why buy a cookbook in a world of internet recipes? General cookbooks are full of information for a new or returning cook. They define cooking terms (do you know the difference between mince and dice?). They educate you about the different cuts of meat. They show you what to look for when a dish is done, and much more. Also, their recipes are pretty foolproof, and they generally use readily available ingredients. I like the general cookbooks from Better Homes and Gardens and Betty Crocker.
Follow the recipe When you are just getting back into cooking, try to follow the recipe for the best results. Once you get comfortable with cooking, feel free to substitute, add, or omit as you see fit.
Have the right equipment You only need basic equipment to cook just about any dish. In my next post, I’ll explore that equipment, and I’ll also look at small appliances that could ease your workload and speed up your prep-time.
Gain cooking skills. Practice is the most critical factor here. For additional understanding read your cookbook, watch YouTube videos, or ask your mom (or dad).
Have the ingredients When you start to cook, you may become discouraged with the lack of ingredients that you have on hand. Purchasing your initial stockpile of staple items like spices, flour, oil, and sugar all at once can make it seem like cooking at home is more expensive than going out to eat. However, it is important to remember that you are stocking up. Staple items go a long way and make many meals. Buy only the basics at first, and build your larder a little at a time to reduce sticker shock.
Start simply Instead of immediately committing to making three meals a day, seven days a week, start slowly. Commit to cooking one or two days a week. Or consider only making breakfast at home, or packing a lunch every day. As you gain confidence and efficiency expand your cooking commitment to other days or meals.
Have a plan To arrive at a destination, it is always best to know where you are going. Devise a workable meal plan. One option could be to eat a particular category of food based on the day of the week. Taco Tuesdays, Pasta Thursdays, Soup Saturday, etc. Having a little structure makes weekly planning much more manageable.
Understand yourself Can you eat the same thing for lunch and dinner? Can you eat the same meal 4 days in a row? Know your personal preference, so you don’t waste food. If you hate eating the same thing several days in a row freeze your leftovers for a future meal. If you can eat the same food every day, make a big batch one day and reheat and relax on the other three.
Divide and conquer You can save money by baking an entire chicken, but only if you don’t eat the whole bird in one sitting. When I was a resident physician, I had almost no money. I had to make every penny stretch, and I had a minimal food budget. I didn’t have the money to prepare food in quantity, but in those days there weren’t any cookbooks out there for single people. However, there were some books for cooking for two. I would make a double meal portion and immediately split the second half of it into a Tupperware container that would go in the fridge. The next morning I took that half to work for my lunch. I had a great meal that not only saved me money, but it took almost no time to prepare.
Don’t leave leftovers in the fridge with the idea that you will eventually eat them, plan ahead. Consider dividing up your leftovers in microwaveable containers. Some can be refrigerated for successive days, other portions can be frozen. Consider other uses for your leftovers. That leftover roasted chicken can be portioned off for a casserole meal, and its carcass could serve as a base for a soup to be served at another time.
Save money with combinations Just about every culture has delicious ways to stretch meat. Soups, casseroles, stews, and stir-fries are just some examples. You should try to employ these foods in your meal plan. They are easy to make, ingredient flexible, and soul-satisfying. Some of my absolute favorite meals growing up were combination foods.
Learn the art of the sandwich A cheese sandwich is OK, a grilled cheese sandwich is yummy, a grilled cheese, ham, and tomato sandwich is a dinner.
Consider breakfast for dinner Breakfast food cooking is easy and straightforward. There is no reason that you can’t have scrambled eggs and toast for dinner, or homemade waffles, or French Toast. My kid’s absolute favorite meal that Julie makes is Swedish pancakes (crepes). Making them is labor intensive, but dirt cheap.
Consider alternative breakfasts Sugary cereal in a bowl is… well, it is crap. You can eat anything for breakfast, including yesterday’s leftovers. Some simple, cheap, and quick options include: quick oatmeal (not instant) made by the bowl in the microwave in under two minutes, or apples with peanut butter, or toast with peanut butter and banana, or scrambled eggs (which can be done in a cup in the microwave if you are making a single portion), or homemade muffins or quick bread… and the list goes on.
Make meat a condiment Meat is costly, and we all probably overeat the stuff. You can reduce the amount of meat that you use in a combination dish and still have a great dinner. Hamburger is the perfect meat stretcher as it can be combined with other ingredients to create meatloaf, meatballs, and a hundred different dishes.
Consider meatless meals I grew up Catholic, and in the day we weren’t allowed to eat meat on Fridays. This never posed a problem as my mom had dozens of delicious meatless recipes that ranged from mac and cheese to homemade mushroom soup. Consider making one or two days a week meatless. You will have a more varied diet, and save some money.
It is OK to substitute once you have a little cooking experience Don’t have noodles? Toss in rice, or broken up spaghetti into your homemade soup. Out of fresh vegetable for your casserole? Consider using a bag of frozen. No one is the boss of you!
Ponder having a prep day A lot of people who regularly cook will prep on Sunday. They may prepare a big pot of something or a large casserole that they can serve for several meals the following week. Conversely, they may freeze some of it, so they have a stockpile of food at the ready. Others will prep up ingredients that can be combined into many different dishes. They may brown hamburger, or cook up chopped vegetables to use during the week as a base for other recipes.
Use it up Before you go shopping, shop your fridge and pantry first. Plan your meals on what you have. If something is still good, but nearing the end of its prime make sure that you cook it and not waste it. Items like somewhat stale bread can be converted into breadcrumbs, croutons, or French Toast. Overripe bananas can be quickly turned into banana bread. Softening veggies can be tossed into a soup or stew.
Avoid portion distortion Know what a regular portion/meal is and try to stick to that amount. You will not only save money, but you will be healthier.
Learn how to bake Baking is simple and rewarding. Don’t pay $3 for a muffin or cupcake, make them for pennies. When I stopped eating concentrated forms of sugar a few years back, I stopped eating muffins. However, I missed them, and so I found a variety of excellent muffin recipes that were no sugar added. I would make a dozen and freeze them. In the morning I would take out one or two and give them a quick zap in the microwave. They tasted like they were just baked and I had my muffin fix.
You can make cookies and freeze them in portion sized ziplock bags. You can also freeze the raw cooking dough in cookie-sized balls on a cookie sheet. Once frozen place the balls in ziplock bags. Take out what you want and bake… instant goodness.
I read a post from a mother who would make triple batches of cookie dough which she would freeze into cookie balls. Every day, when her son came home from school, she would take out a few and bake them in a toaster oven. Her son had freshly baked cookies every single day. I’m sure that she was mother of the year in his mind.
Consider cooking entirely from scratch at times Sometimes it is clearly cheaper and/or more flexible to make a dish entirely from scratch. Sometimes it is just more convenient to use some prepared foods in your recipe (like condensed soup), and the cost difference isn’t that great.
Find your comfort level. However, the advantage of thoroughly cooking from scratch lies in basic ingredients. If you have flour, you can make cakes, cookies, gravy, bread, pancakes, waffles, biscuits, muffins, and dozens of other things. If you have a cake mix you can just make a cake (yes, I know that you can mod cake mixes… but, hopefully, you get my point).
Singles, be kind to yourself If you are a solo eater, it has been shown that singles who eat out tend to lack core nutrient foods like vegetables and fruits. Do yourself a favor, and start cooking!
As I mentioned above, I cooked most of my meals when I was a single medical resident. I found ways to streamline the cooking process, and I think that I ate better than most of my more affluent cohorts. I learned a lot of tricks to accomplish my cooking goal. If I needed a little hamburger for something, I would defrost and crumble a frozen hamburger patty. I became a competent crockpot cook. I found that I could cook surprisingly good food in a microwave (no kidding). I would make extra of inexpensive accompaniments, like rice, and use them in future dinners so I could save prep time. Solo cooking doesn’t have to be a drag.
No kitchen, no problem! I’m trying to reduce my grocery bills because I’m retired, and would prefer to spend my money on other things. However, for many spending less on food isn’t an interest, it is a necessity. If you are on a limited budget, you may also have a compromised housing situation. You may be renting a room, or live in a makeshift basement apartment. Perhaps you reside in a tiny studio flat that only has a mini-fridge and a microwave. You can still make your own food using the cooking equipment that you have or by purchasing some inexpensive small electric appliances.
A while back I read a blog about a woman who lived in a very tiny NYC studio. She didn’t have a kitchen, but she did have a few very inexpensive appliances. She had a hot plate, a small rice cooker, a coffee pot, a toaster oven, a dorm style fridge, and a small microwave. Her building’s wiring was so old that she could only run one appliance at a time or she would blow a fuse. She would typically make enough food for 5 days in one sitting.
On the particular week of her post, she had tofu scramble with sautéed onions and peppers for breakfast. She pre-cooked the vegetable and portioned out the tofu so she could quickly fry up a daily hot breakfast. For lunches, she premade a mock tuna sandwich filling, which she then loaded onto her bread on the morning of use. Her dinners that week consisted of a homemade stir fry accompanied by rice. Five portions of her stir fry were divided into Tupperware, as were 5 portions of cooked Jasmine rice. Lastly, she made a pot of coffee and stored it in her fridge for a daily morning cup. She had a very tiny sink in her bathroom (and no kitchen sink), so she washed her dishes in the shower. Her example may be extreme, but it does illustrate that if you have a will, there is a way. She was able to eat vegetarian, shop at Whole Foods, and stay on budget.
Small electric appliances make it possible to cook for one, or a crowd. Every year I cook our Thanksgiving turkey in a Nesco Roaster, and we have anywhere from 15-20 people for dinner. Using the roaster frees up our oven for all of those yummy side dishes.
Mindset matters If you think of cooking as drudgery, it will become drudgery. Find the cooking style that works best for you. Listen to music or a book on tape while you are preparing food to make the time fly. Prep with someone and turn cooking into social time. Celebrate the fact that you are eating fewer preservatives. Think of cooking as a job where you get paid (by saving money) instead of paying out more cash for cold carryout. You won’t need to work that second job because you will be spending less.
Reassess You may come up with a great plan, but a theory is different than practice. If something doesn’t work, feel free to change it.
Progress not perfection As I have said in previous posts, we are not perfect, and we don’t live in an ideal world. Any changes that you make are good. If you go from always eating out to making dinner two nights a week (even if one of those nights is leftovers), you will save money. If you go from always buying lunch to packing a lunch, you will save money. Just do something!
This is part two of my series on reducing your grocery costs.
I returned to cooking regularly a couple years ago. A few years before then I decided to make dinner for two of my kids. I found an interesting recipe on the internet, and I planned some side dishes. I went to our local Jewel grocery store to buy my ingredients. The dish required unusual olives, special spices, and choice meat. I also bought bread crumbs, fresh vegetables, and Parmesan cheese for a side dish. I purchased salad fixings, French bread, and a frozen appetizer. The grocery bill was about $85, and I recall thinking at the time, “Wow, we could have gone out to dinner for this price!”
I had always thought that making food at home was less expensive than going out. However, my above experience seemed to prove me wrong.
Is it less expensive to eat out? I consulted with multiple sources when I was writing this post, and the consensus is clear. It is significantly less costly to make your own food than to eat out. This fact is true whether you are eating in fine restaurants, or buying fast food. Also, in many, but not all cases making food from scratch is less expensive than buying it partially prepared.
So why was my dinner so expensive? The recipe that I chose used a lot of ingredients that were exotic and expensive. Items, like one use spices and other unusual ingredients, were purchased and their remains were never used again. Instead of seeing what things we already had that could be substituted, I went out and bought everything new.
I think the above is a common problem for people who think of cooking as a special occasion event. However, if you do a little planning, you can save significant cash by cooking at home.
In my last post, I talked about saving over 20% of your food cost by not wasting food. In this post, I’ll explore ways to reduce your grocery bill directly. I’m sure that you have heard some of these ideas before. My effort is to put them together in one convenient post.
As humans were are imperfect. We don’t need to be perfect shoppers to save money. Pick and choose from the following tips that fit your own personality and style. Feel free to add and subtract from these suggestions. Remember, any positive change in behavior will yield more money in your pocket, and it is better to make a few lasting changes than to attempt radical changes that you won’t sustain over the long run.
To coupon or to not coupon? That is the question. My wife sometimes uses coupons, but I rarely do. Yet, coupons can be a useful way to stretch your grocery dollar. It makes the most sense to save coupons for items that you regularly use. Use a paper clip to secure them to your grocery list, so they are at the ready.
Cycle your way to savings. Grocery stores rotate sale prices on food items in a 6-week cycle. If you can learn about your store’s sales cycle, you can save some extra cash. Non-perishable items are easy to stock up on. You don’t need to buy a case of pasta sauce to save money, you can still benefit from just buying an extra jar or two when they are on sale.
It’s OK to be at a loss. A loss leader is a sales strategy where a store will actually lose money on a food product in the hopes of attracting customers who will come in and then buy other more costly items. Sometimes a loss leader may be constant, like an always low price on milk or eggs. Customers may think that the other foods in the store are at bargain prices and transfer their grocery shopping to that store.
Sometimes loss leaders are temporary or seasonal. I recently went to the store to buy corned beef and cabbage for St. Patrick’s Day, and I was happy to find great prices on most of the items needed to make that traditional dinner. If I had chosen to do so, I could have picked up another bargain corned beef brisket to pop in my freezer for a later date.
Become avoidant. A surprising amount of floor space in a grocery store is utilized for non-food and junk-food items. Products like dish soap and garbage bags can usually be found cheaper at big box stores. Junk foods like chips, soda, and other snacks can occupy more floor space than staple items, and their purchase can quickly escalate your check out bill. If you don’t go down an aisle, you can’t buy the things in that aisle.
Take a kiddie holiday. If possible, shop without your kids as they secretly work for grocery stores, and will do anything possible to get you to buy things that you don’t need.
Never wear a “growl” fit when you go shopping. If your stomach is growling, you will buy more. Never go hungry to the grocery store!
Pen your grocery dreams. One of the most important things that you can do to save money is to write a shopping list and stick to it. Studies have shown that if you do this, you will spend much less. If you are like me, you won’t be in the embarrassing situation of going to the store for a gallon of milk and returning home with $100 of groceries and forgetting the milk!
Using a list forces you to check your onboard house supplies. Using a list makes you do at least some meal planning. Using a list protects you from impulsive purchases.
All rules don’t apply to you. Certain processed foods can actually be less expensive than some unprocessed foods. Frozen vegetable and frozen fruit can be significantly cheaper than their fresh versions. In some cases, they may be more nutritious as they are quickly processed and haven’t spent long periods degrading in a warehouse or on a shelf. Canned fish is much less expensive than fresh fish. Canned vegetable, including canned tomatoes, can also be real bargains.
However, you still need to be a savvy shopper. Basic frozen kernel corn may be downright cheap, but your price advantage could disappear when you opt for the same item upscaled with butter sauce or other additions. Stick with the unadulterated version for the best price and the greatest flexibility. Another great thing about frozen produce is that you can use only what you need, and reseal the bag for another day.
Back to basics. Some fresh vegetables and fruits and always good values. Bags of Russet Potatoes, broccoli, onions, sweet potatoes, carrots, green cabbage, bagged spinach, and butternut squash are usually economical. Bananas, oranges, frozen berries, cantaloupe, kiwis, and apples can also be good values.
I love Honeycrisp apples. Unfortunately, they cost about $3 a pound where I live. I did a Google search to find apples that are similar to Honeycrisp, and several other varieties popped up. One of them was Fuji apples, which happened to be on sale for $0.99 a pound at my local market. In other words, they were one-third the price. Are they as good as Honeycrisp apples? No, but they are not bad either.
Staples-that was easy! Flour, sugar, cooking oil, and other stables are inexpensive. You should have them on hand as they are the foundation of many meals. Beyond the price, I find little difference between the house brand and the name brand.
Other essential items like milk and eggs are real bargains at most stores. Dried pasta is often a dollar a box. Foods like oatmeal, rice, and dried beans/lentils are super values. Although canned beans are cheap, dried beans are more economical. Cook them in a slow cooker overnight and portion/freeze them for future meals.
Say cheese! Cheese is a beautiful addition to many dishes. Check prices, but you can usually save money by buying it in a block and cutting/shredding it yourself. Pre-shredded cheese is usually dryer, less flavorful, and has cellulose added (think wood) to prevent it from clumping in the bag. If you love a particular type of cheese, consider buying it at a warehouse club. My friend, Tom loves Gouda and buys a big wedge at Costco for roughly the same price as a little slice at the grocery store.
Where’s the meat? One great way to save on meat is to eat less of it (more on this in a later post). Beef is usually the most expensive meat, followed by pork then chicken. You can sometimes save money by cutting up meat yourself. A whole chicken can be less costly than the sum of its parts, but make sure you check the price per ounce first. Remember, it is often possible to substitute one meat for another.
On a recent shopping trip, I picked up a package of turkey lunch meat for my son. One pound was over $5. Thirty feet away was a freezer case filled with frozen turkey breasts at $2.50 a pound. It is easy to put a thawed turkey breast in a crock-pot and let it cook on low for 5-6 hours (or until done). Some of the breast can be carved for sandwich meat, some cubed for a salad or an easy stir fry, some can be shredded for bbq chicken sandwiches, and so forth. Freeze what you won’t consume in few days in meal-sized portions.
I just watched a video where a woman purchased a ham for less than a dollar a pound. In 17 minutes she cut it up into 11 potential meals for her family. She had slices for sandwiches, cubes for main courses, crumbles (remnants) to add to eggs, and the ham bone to make a bean dish. Each meal size portion was sealed in a Zip-Lock bag, and all of the bags were kept together in a larger Zip-Lock bag. By immediately portioning out her food she assured herself that none of it would go to waste.
The above technique can be applied to any other “bulk” purchase. I bought a large package of chicken thighs in preparation for making homemade soup. Half of the chicken was kept in the refrigerator for the soup, and the other half was frozen for a future meal. Total time for me to split the chicken up? About 3 minutes.
Bulk up Many stores now have aisles of bulk food where you can buy the exact amount of an item that you need. Also, prices can be less, and you avoid a lot of random packing. These aisles are great for singles or couples who often have limited space, limited money, and limited time.
Water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink? Water is good for you, and it is free! You don’t need to buy exotic sounding bottled water that has its true origins in a municipal water supply. If you don’t like the taste of your water consider using an inexpensive filter to de-funk it.
According to a 2016 US Department of Agriculture study, Americans spend more money on soft drinks than any other food item. People may be drinking less soda, but they have replaced it with special waters, and other expensive non-alcoholic drinks. In this category, I would also include a lot of fruit juices, which are basically sugary flavored water. Giving up pop could save you over 7% of your yearly food bill!
Store crazy. Where you shop can have an impact on the overall cost of your groceries. Where I live, we have costly stores (like Whole Foods and Standard Market), expensive stores (like Jewel) and less costly stores (like Aldi, Walmart, and Costco). Baring a discussion on quality differences, if you want to save money shop at a less expensive store.
You can save money even if you shop at only one store, especially if you get to know that store’s sales cycles. However, you may save even more money by shopping for the best values between two stores. In our area, a local greengrocer chain (Fresh Thyme) offers great produce, which is often on sale. Costco is fantastic if you want a bargain broasted chicken, large quantities, or convenience foods like a stack of frozen pizzas. Walmart and Aldi are the places to go for cheap basic groceries in more normal sized quantities.
Be agnostic…brand agnostic. You may like the taste of a particular brand. However, if you stretch your taste boundaries a little, you can save big money. We sometimes used condensed mushroom soup as a base ingredient in casseroles and slow cooker meals. Campbell’s Mushroom soup is an economical 0.99 cents a can, but the Walmart version is an incredible $0.50 a can. When all the other ingredients are added, no one will know that you went with the house brand.
I eat an enormous amount of peanut butter. I buy large jars of the house band at around seven cents an ounce. The brand name versions range from nine to thirteen cents an ounce, and the gourmet premium peanut butter is an astounding fifty cents an ounce! I’m sure the gourmet brand tastes better, but not seven times better.
Expand your vision. Grocery stores place more expensive items at eye level and cheaper items above or below eye level. If you want an in instant bargain look up or down.
One ounce at a time. Packaging is often deceptive, and a box’s size is not a reliable indication of the volume of its content. Most stores will list a price per ounce (or unit) of a product which allows for easy cost comparison. If your store doesn’t do this just use the calculator function on your phone. Divide the cost of the item by the total ounces. Lower is cheaper.
Best value and cheapest cost have different meanings. Sometimes the cheapest isn’t always the best. I recently bought a very inexpensive dishwashing liquid. It smelled good and was nice and thick. Unfortunately, it didn’t do a perfect job cleaning, and I had to use almost triple the amount to clean the same number of dishes as I would have used with a better product.
When I was growing up, I recall my father buying an entire case of an off-brand canned spaghetti. In those days I liked the Chef Boyardee stuff for lunch. The off brand that he bought was absolutely terrible, and I wouldn’t eat it (which is saying a lot). It would have been much better to have just waited for a sale on the brand name.
Spice up your life. The use of herbs and spices can turn a mundane dish into a memorable one. However, spices can be expensive. You can often find a better price by buying the same seasoning in the store’s ethnic aisle. Likewise, ethnic stores can be an excellent resource for spices. Avoid buying spices in a giant container from places like Costco. Will you really use all of that nutmeg? Spices in bags can be significantly less expensive than the same quantity in a cute little bottle.
Learn to substitute. Fresh spices taste great, but you can certainly use dried ones with good results. Remember that dried spices are more concentrated, so only use about ⅓ the amount that you would use for fresh. You don’t have Italian Seasoning? Use some Oregano. Out of garlic? Substitute some garlic powder (not garlic salt).
Spice/seasoning combination products are often more expensive and more specialized than individual spices. If possible, stick to the basics for greater flexibility and cheaper costs. Do you really need to buy cinnamon sugar when you can make it in about 2 seconds, and for next to nothing?
We’ve got an app for that! Some apps will find coupons, determine which store is selling an item at the lowest price, and keep track of your grocery list. You can use your web browser to check a store’s weekly ad, so you know what is on sale before you walk in.
Is bigger better? I always thought that buying in quantity saved money, but that is often not the case. Buying in large quantities tends to make me use more, waste more, and eat more.
How many times have I bought a large box of something only to find that I didn’t like it. My wife, Julie is quick to remind me of my warehouse store purchase of some abysmal breakfast sandwiches that languished in our freezer until I finally threw them out.
Sometimes a bigger item may actually cost more per ounce. At other times it may be the same cost as a more convenient smaller size.
There are times when buying in bulk can be a good idea. Do you eat rice every day? Are you a regular baker? Is cheese a central part of your meal life? If you are going to use it, why not save a few bucks by buying in quantity.
Dig deep. Stores bring the oldest products to the front of the shelf, for obvious reasons. If you want your food items to be the freshest (and last the longest) reach towards the back.
Become a member of a secret society. Stores follow protocols, just like any other business. Perishable items that are nearing their expiration date are usually purged on a store-specific schedule. Learn this secret time and save big.
Yesterday’s bread is often discounted early the next morning. Meats and produce nearing their expiration date can be deeply reduced in price. Use them in a day or two, or freeze for future use.
Most stores have a clearance section for items that they are trying to offload. You can find great bargains here but use some caution. There is a reason no one bought that peppermint flavored Spam.
Oh, you impulsive you! Your grocery store wants you to buy, and they would love it if you purchase high margin items. We have all stopped to grab a free sample. An item that can taste delicious in a tablespoon sized sample may be less impressive when you get home and try to eat a bowl of the stuff.
Stores use music, colors, posters, eye-catching end-caps, and just about anything else that they can think of to get you to buy more. Resist!
Portion distortion When tourists visit the US from other countries, they are often shocked at the huge portion size of our meals. We associate supersizing with value, but is that really the case? Eating regular sized meals not only save money, but they are also healthier for you. Buy less and save more.
It’s not a fast, it’s a feast. If you are desperately low on cash, your main grocery buying goal should be to achieve basic nutrition at the lowest possible cost. However, most of us have a little extra money to spend. If you feel that you can’t get by without some soda or chips, buy less than you usually would and build a “treat” cost into your budget. Consider snack alternatives. Homemade popcorn (not microwave popcorn) is super cheap and tastes much better than the old stuff they sell in bags.
Be as flexible as a Yogi. We eat 21 meals a week, they all don’t need to be Pinterest perfect. Substitute and experiment, within reason. Fusion taco bars have sprung up in my town, their selling point is the use of unusual, but tasty ingredients placed in a taco shell. Substitute shredded cabbage for lettuce? Why not. A sauce instead of cheese? OK. Leftover pot roast instead of ground beef? Sure.
Every meal doesn’t need to be nutritionally balanced as long as you meet your daily requirements during the rest of the day.
By allowing yourself to be flexible, you open yourself up to a new saving horizon.
I am hardly perfect when it comes to grocery buying, but I am genuinely trying to become a better grocery buyer. Why don’t you join me and adopt a couple of the above suggestions to see if you can become a more savvy shopper?
Monday night, at 8 PM, and I scan the kitchen. There is one, another one over there, I find more in the fridge.
A couple of over-ripe bananas, and a soft tomato on the counter. A few slices of dried out delivery pizza, and a half-filled Tupperware container of homemade soup in the refrigerator. On the fridge’s door, I spy some milk that has gone bad. I take a look in our bread bin and come across a third of a loaf of very stale bread.
I gather my waste together for disposal. The milk carton gets washed out for recycling in mostly an ecologically symbolic gesture. The other items find their way into the garbage. Perfectly good food turned into waste. Do I feel bad or guilty about this waste? Sadly, no. I’m so used to throwing out food that my weekly kitchen purge yields about the same amount of emotion as cleaning the toilets.
On average Americans waste about 20% of all the food that they purchase, or almost a pound of food a day. This is in a world where about 800 million people are chronically hungry. In fact, the amount of food wasted in the US could feed 2 billion. That is a sobering number. Also, wasted food consumes 30 million acres of land and 4.2 trillion gallons of water to produce.
In general, all farming has an impact on the environment. Food waste has increased by 50% since 1974, and in fact, food waste now accounts for 19% of landfills. This organic material decomposes to produce greenhouse gasses that have a direct impact on climate change.
There is no good reason to waste food, yet I do it week in and week out. For me, there are a variety of reasons. Sometimes I will impulse buy an item and not like it. Other times I’ll make too much of something and grow tired of eating it. I’ll leave leftovers in the fridge because I have a taste for something else. I’ll forget that I bought something. The list goes on.
When I was actively working as a doctor, I didn’t really think about the cost of groceries. Now that I’m retired I am trying to change my food behavior. Eliminating food waste would put thousands of dollars back into my pocket every year. Money that could be spent in better ways.
I know that there are many simple things that I can do to achieve this goal. I should think about what food we have in the house to eat, as opposed to what I have a “taste” for. I should break meal stereotypes. Who says I can’t have leftover soup for breakfast or waffles for dinner? A cheese end can be added to a frozen pizza instead of being tossed. Stale bread can be made into French Toast. A soft tomato can be tossed into a pot of chili. These no efforts steps can go a long way in drastically reducing what food I discard.
Altruism can sometimes elicit a change in behavior, but cold hard cash is often a more powerful motivator. I would urge you to consider your food waste. A little planning and a slight change in behavior can help pay for a vacation, start a rainy day fund, or pay down a credit card bill.
My 50th birthday coincided with another significant event, a need to buy a car. I had always purchased conservative vehicles, but I had a secret desire for something grander. I wanted a doctor’s car, and in my mind, that meant a Mercedes.
I accepted the fact that this was strictly an emotional purchase, and that it symbolized that I had arrived as a professional. The Mercedes that I purchased was dark metallic green with a tan leather interior. I thought it was beautiful, in an understated German way.
I felt like every driver was watching me as I drove it off the lot, and my chest swelled with pride to own such a luxurious vehicle. That euphoria faded with the realization that my Mercedes was intrinsically no different than the Ford that I previously owned.
After my car’s warranty expired, I was gobstruck with the enormous expense of maintaining my Mercedes. When I would bring the car in for a simple repair the cost would escalate as the dealership’s customer service writer would always find something else that needed repair. I would bring the car in for an oil change and leave paying a $1000 bill.
After a few years, I had enough of my luxury experience and traded in my low mileage doctor’s car for a simple Honda. The Honda delivered, while the Mercedes only promised. The experience was an excellent life-lesson.
The news has been abuzz with a new celebrity scandal, this one involving parents cheating the system so that their underperforming kids can get into selective colleges. The scandal consists of a man named William Singer, and his sham non-profit organization. Individuals of power and means paid Mr. Singer enormous amounts of money for him to work his magic with their unscholarly offspring. His deception went above and beyond ghostwriting personal essays. He created false identities, photoshopped prospective student heads on stock photos of athletes, had test proctors change answers, and bribed various university officials with cold hard cash. He claims that he has helped over 700 students cheat their way into college.
It would be naive to think that he is an island unto himself. Common sense dictates that this case is just the tip of a much more massive iceberg, its specifics made more interesting because celebrities, such as Felicity Huffman, and Lori Loughlin are involved.
I have a daughter who is a freshman at a large Midwestern university. When my wife asked her what she thought about the above scandal she seemed insouciant noting, “How is that any different from donating money for a building which then gets your kid accepted into that school.” She was, of course, correct. People with clout have always had a higher chance of getting their children accepted into a selective college, as opposed to those who lack influence. In fact, a legacy applicant has a three-fold better chance of getting admitted into a selective college than an applicant who doesn’t have such lineage.
I recently read an NYT’s article on the heels of the above story. It involved 4 excellent students and their efforts to get into highly selective colleges. One of the case studies currently is a student at the high school where my kids have attended. This girl achieved a near perfect SAT score and had a GPA of 4.8 out of a possible 4.0. She was active in clubs and organizations. She was involved in leadership positions. Yet, she was rejected by her first choice, Harvard. I can’t imagine that there was anything else that she could have done to have been considered. When you look at her impressive credentials and compare them to lesser students who were accepted, it makes you wonder about the real value of such an education.
There are over 5300 colleges and universities in our country, yet many students feel that they have to attend only a selective few. In a world where college tuition and fees are extraordinarily expensive, these colleges go above and beyond and hit new heights as far as costs are concerned.
Does attending these schools significantly impact the future of a college student? This is a complicated question, but the bottom line is generally, “no.”
At this point, you are probably recalling the frequently quoted study that noted that students who attended the most selective colleges have been shown to have significantly more earning potential than those who attended the least selective colleges. This statistic may be accurate, but the cause and effect association is not as direct as you may think. Other important factors need to be added in. For instance, the caliber of a student at a highly selective college is likely higher, as is their socioeconomic position, and their family connections. In fact, if you take a look at the wage gap between students from highly selective colleges vs. less selective colleges the earning difference disappears with students with similar SAT scores.
Other statistics worth noting is that the majority of CEOs from the top 100 Fortune 500 companies did not attend an Ivy League school. When Wall Street recruiters were asked where they found the best candidates, it wasn’t from Ivy League schools; instead, they listed the University of Illinois, Arizona State, and Purdue.
Most universities are bursting with highly academic faculty; there is no shortage of PhDs in the college world. An undergraduate experience includes a wide diversity of classes, usually presented at an introductory level. Is there a significant difference between English 101 at a local college vs. a highly selective school?
We are currently dealing with an artificially created frenzy where admittance to an ultra-expensive highly selective school becomes the ultimate prize for both the student and their proud family. However, I have to think that an education at such an institution may feel similarly to my Mercedes experience. The initial euphoria can quickly give way to frustration once you realize that you are paying 4-5 times the cost for something that is not 4-5 times better.
As parents, we need to help our kids see the reality of their life decisions. College shouldn’t be an experience, like a holiday vacation, it should be an education for the future. Part of being an adult is making wise decisions, including the value and benefit of a school.
For the ultra-rich spending hundreds of thousands of dollars is insignificant, but such a debt can be life-altering for a typical 21 year old who has graduated only to find that this overwhelming burden is preventing them from realizing their personal American Dream. Adult life does not start in college, it happens afterward. That is the time when our offspring need to be free to explore options.
It is my hope that the above scandal helps potential students and parents alike examine their higher education goals, and to explore all rational options. There is a big difference between true value and hype.
I like routine, so these early weeks of retirement have been confusing and a bit scary for me. My life roles are changing, as our my time obligations. I am in a metamorphosis, but it is still unknown if I’ll emerge from my work cocoon as a butterfly.
My title of doctor has always garnished a certain level of respect from others, and over the decades I have gradually assumed that being treated respectfully was the norm. I know that many individuals don’t have such privilege, and my change in status has subjected me to people that demonstrate a lack of relational humanity. These experiences have been disturbing, but empathy building for me.
Case in point, dealing with Medicare.
Medicare charges good earners a significant penalty/surcharge based on that individual’s previous income tax (This surcharge is called an IMRAA fee). At the beginning of this year, I had to decide on my Medicare insurance plan, and I made that decision with the help of an insurance broker. I chose to contract with an Advantage program based on my general good health and the fact that we also needed to secure additional insurance for the rest of our family. Advantage plans tend to be less expensive than regular Medicare and they include Part D at no additional cost, or so I thought.
Based on my 2017 income tax Social Security charged me a substantial penalty for Part B of my Medicare insurance. I understood this and made my first payment last month. I then received notice that I was going to be penalized for not having Part D insurance when I turned 65 last year. I didn’t have Part D coverage because I had insurance through my employer. This typical scenario seemed to be incomprehensible to our government, and I had to fill out forms and provide proof that I was not trying to secretly defraud the USA…Gads!
Monday morning I received my April bill for my Part B. I opened up the envelope to find that it was over $200 more than last month. I was confused as it seemed like that Social Security placed me into even a higher penalty category, and besides, they were charging me for Part D. I immediately called my new insurance provider, and the customer service rep could only suggest that I call Medicare directly. I placed my call to Medicare and got the usual, “Due to the high volume of calls…” message with and a warning that my wait could be a long as 15 minutes.
I was on hold for almost 30 minutes before Latisha picked up. The name Latisha means joyful and happy, my customer service representative definitely did not fit that description. Latisha was outright rude, and her demeanor was accusatory and condescending. “We know how much money you are making because we are directly connected to the IRS,” she barked. She offered no information on how to appeal such a decision, or why I was now being charged for Part D. It was an alarming call which gave me insight in how people can be treated when the customer service agent has ironclad job security and no repercussions for callous behavior. After being subjected to her abuse, I said to her, “Latisha I want to inform you that I have agreed to take a customer satisfaction survey at the end of this call at which point I will clearly state how you have been treating me.” I could hear a bit of anxiety in her voice, and her outright condescending manner softened slightly. She is a person who should not be working with seniors.
Unfortunately, I am now stuck with a huge Medicare monthly payment and no known recourse at the moment. It disgusted me the way she treated a senior, and I can only imagine how she intimidates less secure callers. With that said, I was not about to let her rudeness dominate my emotional well being that day.
Tuesday morning at 4 AM my friend, Tom pulled up in his white Ford Flex. I donned my coat, slipped out the door, and climbed into his passenger seat; off we went. Tom stopped for gas and then pulled into a Dunkin Donuts and got both of us coffee. We were on an adventure as he was driving me to a favorite breakfast diner which was over 2 hours away in Wisconsin. His generous gift of time was a continuation of my 66th birthday celebration. After a delicious omelet, we traveled the 2 hours back home. Our trip symbolizing friendship and our willingness to take care of each other.
Now back home I had to deal with a concept new to me, open time. I have been busy most of my adult life, and I have always had to deal with a lack of unstructured time, not an abundance of it. There were things that I could do, but they were wants not needs. I started to feel guilty, as I now had free time while my wife, Julie had to work. In the past I identified with overworking, and in many ways my constant drive to accomplish things gave me validity. I tried to think of some major project to work on; I resisted that urge. I felt tired, and I decided to take a short nap. Thirty minutes later I awoke feeling refreshed.
I decided to tackle a fun project: How to interface my computer to a two-way Amateur radio. As is usual with such projects things didn’t go smoothly, but eventually, I was able to solve the connection problem and program the radio. There was a particular joy in having the time to approach the problem, take a break, and then resume. In the past, I would have focused on how to solve the problem as efficiently as possible. My new project timeline turned this activity from stress producing into fun. For me, there is nothing as exciting as learning something new.
After my radio adventure, I had another urge to be productive in an effort I to justify my lack of paid employment. Guilt was on the rise. The house was reasonably tidy, as I had cleaned it on Sunday. I put a few dishes away and swept the kitchen floor. It was then time to meet my sister, Nancy.
I pulled up to Panera Bread at 6:59 for my 7 PM meeting and met Nancy in the parking lot. We were restarting our weekly creativity night after a brief break caused by mutual travels and an unwanted upper respiratory infection.
Nancy was upset at the beginning of our meeting. Her feelings precipitated by a disappointment perpetrated by an acquaintance. This led to a conversation about people who we can depend on. For both of us, the number was small but reasonable. In the end, we concluded that we were both fortunate to have people in our lives who we could depend on, and even though our close connections didn’t consist of legions, their numbers were indeed more significant than what many others have. I suggested to her that she focus on those people who care about her rather than wasting energy wondering why a random unimportant person failed her.
We proceeded with our meeting of conversation and study as I munched on a half of a Cuban sandwich and a cup of chicken noodle soup. I was happy to re-initiate our weekly get-togethers as I enjoy spending time with my sister. It felt good to have this structure re-enter my week. At the end of the meeting I said to her, “Nancy, I have no idea what to write about this week.” She offered a few suggestions, but none of them rang true. I decided to write about my present state of mind, and that flow of consciousness is what I am inking on paper now.
This Wednesday morning I found myself questioning if I should go on my morning walk. It was raining, and I was still tired from my previous day’s adventure. Lacking a defined work schedule when I woke it took me a few moments to realize that it was Wednesday, not Saturday. I forced myself up and meandered to the bathroom to prepare myself for the day.
I located an umbrella and headed out the door. When I reached Starbucks, I ran into an acquaintance who had picked up his coffee and was heading out the door. “You’re late today,” he said in a joking manner. “Yeah, I guess the rain slowed me down,” I responded.
I procured a Tall Veranda and found my usual table at the front of the store. Out came my computer and earbuds and I started to type this post. I rarely know what I’ll type when I start this process, I just sit and let my fingers do the talking.
Tom and I had spent a lot of time together on Tuesday and I didn’t expect him to be at Starbucks today as he was working on a project that was geographically in the opposite direction of the coffee shop. Since I anticipated his absence, I had planned my morning accordingly. Tom used to have a habit of pulling away from me when he got too emotionally close. I am familiar with that pattern of behavior, as I have been known to do the same thing. However, we have both become more secure in our friendship and this pattern is now rare.
Some of the morning coffee regulars came up to me and engaged in conversation. Kathy stopped by to congratulate me on my full retirement and told me of a ski trip that she just took with her husband. John came up to me to also congratulate me on my new status. He is an executive for a large corporation who is dealing with the immense stress of being in such a position. We chatted a bit about my new life and his current work situation. I then continued to write this post, but soon it was time to return home.
I now sit at the Ram dealership as Violet the van’s instrument panel has been flashing me a request to have her oil changed. So here I am in the dealer’s showroom finishing this random post of an ordinary few days in the life of a retiree.
I have been awash to so many feelings over these last few days. Anger, at being treated as a non-person by Medicare. Guilt that I am not longer filling every moment with work for pay. Sadness, at my changing status from doctor to citizen Mike. Peace, as I am no longer responsible for the lives of others. Confusion, over what to do with my new found free time. Euphoria, over having free time to be confused over.
I am becoming aware of a need to expand my horizons. I much prefer having intense relationships with a few people rather than causal relationships with many. However, it would be unreasonable for me to expect those currently close to me to completely replace the social connections that I had garnished from my worklife. My experience this morning at Starbucks suggests that there are people out there who would be fine with spending time with me, and that the major limiting factor in this social regard is me.
My siblings have their own lives, my kids are busy with school and friends, my wife works, my friend Tom has a construction business to run. So where do I look to expand my horizon? I don’t necessarily need additional intense relationships, but I should probably explore more casual connections. Clubs, volunteering, social groups, all are possibilities. I am awash with both fear and excitement, and I’m OK with having both feelings. Onward, one foot in front of the other. Every day is a new adventure and offers the potential for personal growth.
It happened just about a week ago. I knew that it was coming, but I still was surprised. That’s the way life is.
My last day of work was anticlimactic. I was working from home and signed off my enterprise level conferencing system with little fanfare. My workplace had already had a reception for me the week before.
That was a Thursday, and I spent Friday gathering my thoughts, spending time with my friend, Tom, and packing for a mini trip to Arizona. Julie was taking me to Tucson to celebrate my retirement as she felt that a trip would be an excellent transition tool.
Early Saturday morning we arrived at Midway airport and started the arduous process of preparing to fly. Fortunately, we had pre-check, and we breezed through the TSA. I have to say that I don’t really like flying. I don’t have a fear of airplanes, but I find the whole process unsettling. Julie understands this, and we now arrive for flights with plenty of time to spare, which helps ease my mind. At 6’ 3” I am cramped in tiny airline seats and on two of our three flights I had big guys sitting next to me who did not understand the concept of personal space. In the past, I would try to squeeze myself onto the far edge of my chair to give them as much space as I possibly could. However, my attitude has changed. I don’t want to be even more cramped, and if they have no problem pressing up against me, then I have no problem pressing up against them. It is a dog eat dog world when you fly coach.
The actual trip was delightful. I have been to Arizona many times, but this was the first time that I was there during winter. The temperature in the mornings was cool, but by afternoon the temperature was a perfect 70F.
It was wonderful to visit with my Kathryn, who will be graduating college from the U of A in a few months. Julie got to attend a book fair, and I was able to wander with a camera in hand and photograph Tucson and the surrounding areas. It was a peaceful and delightful trip.
On my return, I helped my friend, Tom with a couple of things and spent several days photographing a house that he just finished building. Last Friday I was the event photographer for a daddy/daughter dance. Today (Sunday) I saw an excellent production of “The Producers.” As you can tell, I have been busy.
I don’t expect every week to be this hectic, and I’m learning to go with the flow. I’m lucky as I rarely am bored. I always seem to find something to occupy my time.
I’m still having dreams about work, and I still have not accepted the fact that I’m now on a permanent vacation. It is all a little frightening but in a wonderfully frightening way. Week two is now upon me, and I can’t wait for that adventure to begin.
My birthdays have become important markers for me over the last few years. Their significance is less about my ever growing age, and they are more about a reflection of my previous year and a projection of my future one.
Last year I retired from private practice, but I continued to work 3 days a week for Rosecrance in Rockford. I also turned 65 and had a big party. Julie had asked me if I wanted a celebration get-together and she was surprised that despite my introvert nature I said yes. It was a most significant day as guests took the time to write remembrances of me that are now part of a scrapbook for my children and grandchildren.
Last year gave me two additional days of free time a week that I had initially planned to use in a concerted effort to improve myself and change the world. Reflecting one year later I did not change the world last year, but I did improve myself, just not in the ways that I initially envisioned.
Goals, like learning a foreign language and improving my guitar skills, fell by the wayside. Learning a language seems almost impossible with my poor auditory discrimination. It is likely that I will eventually focus more on my guitar playing, but I’m just not feeling it at the moment.
As far as changing the world is concerned, I think my grandiosity got the better of me. I believed that I could focus my passions for photography and writing, and combined these passions with my knowledge of human behavior to create a product that would have some sort of impact. I’m reassessing this goal, but not my passions.
It appears that my impact on others is much more significant when applied locally, rather than globally. This is something that should have been obvious to me as this has consistently been the case throughout my life.
I continue to write, and I believe that my overall writing has improved throughout this year. However, it is unlikely that I will be nominated for the blog hall of fame. I write now for the pleasure of writing, and to leave a chronicle of my life and ideas for my children and grandchildren. If my words impact a reader, all the better.
My photography has continued and is flourishing. I am doing a tremendous amount of architectural photography for my friend, Tom. Other photo opportunities are also presenting themselves, and in the next few weeks, I’ll be the contracted photographer for a Daddy/Daughter dance and a 50th wedding anniversary church service and reception. I have to say that I love the variety of doing different types of photography. Each presents its own kind of planning and method. My photos won’t be on any magazine covers, but I’m getting tremendous pleasure creating them as I think that they are serving a purpose higher than my own self-serving pleasure.
I feel most at peace in nature, and one of my goals has been to give myself the ability to experience the outdoors in the most cost-effective way reasonable. I don’t want the barrier of money to stop me from getting out among the trees. I am pleased to report that I am moving forward on this goal. Last summer I purchased a bare cargo van, and I have been in the process of converting it into a useable camper for one or two. Such a vehicle opens up many cost-effective possibilities for discovery. Last summer I had the initial interior shell installed by Wayfarer Vans in Colorado Springs, and since then Tom and I have been outfitting the van with vents, solar panels, and many other refinements. I now have a fully self-contained off-the-grid camper at the ready. I have already used it to travel on a few small trips and in May I will use it to meander to Arizona. Later in the summer, I will mount a trip to Glacier National Park. I am hoping that these trips will not only be soul cleansing, but they will also give me a chance to do more landscape photography. In addition, I am interested to see how my writing will change when I’m surrounded by pine trees instead of concrete.
I am doing things that were not part of last year’s plan. I’m learning more about construction; something that I enjoy immensely. I am also picking up a hobby that I abandoned over 15 years ago, Amateur Radio.
You may recall from previous posts that I have always loved radio, and as a grade school kid, I was building complex radios to exploring the airwaves. My private psychiatric practice was located by a lot of technology companies, and it wasn’t uncommon for me to treat scientists and engineers. In 1999 I had some knowledgeable experts warn me about the uncertainty of Y2K, and I eventually took them seriously. I felt that it would be important, not only for my family but also my local community, to have a way to communicate in a scenario where traditional communication lines were down. The apparent solution was Ham Radio, and I set myself a goal to obtain my radio license. In short order, I got a Technical Class license, then a General Class license, and finally the coveted Amateur Extra license. In my typical compulsive manner, I explored and bought radio equipment and practiced the art of using that equipment to make over-the-air contacts. My primary interest was in long-distance communications, but my small suburban lot didn’t have space for a proper antenna. Add to this reality my very long work schedule and the responsibility of raising young children, and I abandoned the hobby after about 3 years. I felt that I would never return to it.
I mentioned that I am planning a trip to Glacier National Park this summer, which has no cell coverage. Julie will remain at home during this trip, and I was thinking about ways to keep in touch with her. I explored the tools at my disposal, including my Amateur Extra license. In many ways traveling to a remote location is similar to having your community communication grid go down. No phone lines, no internet, no cell service. Ham radio could provide a communications solution. Unfortunately, Julie doesn’t have an amateur license, and so it would be illegal for the two of us to communicate over their air. However, there are options and the one that I plan to deploy is called Winlink. This is a protocol that allows the sending and receiving of email over the Ham radio bands. The recipient gets an email via their email client and can respond to that email just like they would any other email.
I have not been active in Amateur Radio for almost two decades, and I have forgotten much of what I had formally learned, so I’m now in the process of giving myself a crash course in electronics, radios, and communication law. You may think that my efforts are unnecessary and excessive, but that is the way I roll. I love learning and growing in knowledge.
Last week I had a much quieter, but equally lovely, birthday. Last Thursday Rosecrance also had a retirement reception for me. It was wonderful to be recognized, but also a bit sad as I’ll be leaving people that I have become fond of.
This week I will work today and tomorrow. This Friday my work life as I know it will be over. Some of my current activities may eventually fade from interest, but my life history tells me that there will always be new interests to take their place. Every day has become a new adventure and soon every day will be a Saturday for me.
Some years ago I committed myself to work out regularly. I started my exercise journey by walking, but several years ago I transitioned from this to using a personal trainer at a gym. The big draw for me to go to the gym was that I would typically coffee klatch with my friend, who also went there at the same time.
I enjoyed going to the gym, but it wasn’t my favorite type of exercise. Eventually, I got injured and around that same time, my friend got tired of going. It was time to re-think my routine.
I returned to walking, which is an exercise that I love. I typically walk between 3.5 to 4.5 miles on any given morning, and I usually start in the pre-dawn. During my walk, I can think, pray, or meditate. I time my walk, so I arrive at my local Starbucks when it opens for the day.
I bring along a computer on my walks, and Starbucks is where I write this blog. My friend, Tom often stops to visit, but when he doesn’t, I now know enough regulars that I can always engage in a little conversation. For me, walking outdoors is an ideal exercise, but it does have its pitfalls.
The main barrier when I walk is the weather. In northern Illinois, we have four seasons that are often dramatic. In the last few years, our winters have become milder, but this has posed a new problem for me as it isn’t uncommon to have warm days of rain/sleet/melt followed by cold days, which results in super slippery ice formation.
Bad weather would be an easy excuse for me to stay in bed, but as I tell my kids, There are no emergencies for those who are prepared. In today’s post, I want to share with you the gear that I use to walk in just about any winter weather. I’ll give you what I wear on a typical winter day, a bad winter day, and a horrible winter day. Your mileage may vary depending on your needs and climate.
About Gear Quality
It is easy to say, Buy only the highest quality winter wear. It is true that better quality gear works better and lasts longer. However, it is also expensive. I take a balanced approach. The more regularly I use a winter gear item, the better the quality.
I have a great Cabelas down coat and several different types of footwear that are pretty decent. I wear these items every time I go out, and I need functional items that last. However, I only wear thermal underwear a few times a season. In that case, I opted for an inexpensive but reasonably rated pair purchased from Amazon. I know that they won’t last as well as Under Armour gear, but I don’t need them to.
Several layers of clothing work better than one heavy layer as each layer traps air, which serves as insulation. Layers are typically lighter than one heavy layer and they can be removed or added as your situation changes. Consider layers when you walk in the winter.
What I wear
Typical Day: Stocking cap and jacket hood.
Bad Day: All of the above, plus a thermal face mask.
Horrible Day: Trooper hat, hood, face mask, scarf protecting mouth and nose, inexpensive ski goggles.
Typical Day: flannel shirt, Cabela’s down jacket, scarf on the chest.
Bad Day: The above plus a hoodie.
Horrible Day: Thermal undershirt, flannel shirt, hoodie, Cabela’s down jacket.
Typical Day: Gloves
Bad Day: Gloves
Horrible Day: Gloves with hand warmers
Note: I usually like good ski type gloves, but I always lose them, and I’m usually stuck with the crappy gloves that I never seem to lose (go figure).
Typical Day: Jeans or pants
Bad Day: Jeans
Horrible Day: Jeans plus thermal underwear.
Note: After recently walking at -24F with a windchill of -50F I have now ordered a pair of snow pants.
Typical Day: waterproof hiking boots (Vasque) or ducks, or Bogs (depending on outside wetness), warm socks.
Bad Day: as above
Horrible Day: As above, plus a double pair of warm socks or good wool socks.
Ice cleats for shoes
There are several brands of ice cleats; I use a one called YakTrax. They have been an absolute game-changer for me, and without them, I would probably stay in bed about 30% of the time. Ice is my most feared challenge, but I’m relatively confident going out when I’m wearing cleats. I highly recommend them.
An umbrella is surprisingly useful in winter and can turn a miserable sleety/snowy walk into an OK one. I only think about umbrellas when I need them, and most of the ones in our closet were bought as impulse purchases at big box stores. They fail in every way that you could imagine, and they are frustrating to use. They should be avoided. Last year I bought a Totes standard umbrella, and I have not looked back. Cheap umbrellas fail when you need them the most, brand name offerings will save you money in the long run.
There is nothing more miserable than walking in wet shoes. Besides, wet shoes and warm feet create the perfect environment for smelly bacteria and fungus. No one wants to clear a room when they take off their shoes. Several years ago I purchased a shoe dryer. This is a simple and inexpensive device that consists of a circulating fan with two arms that you hang your of shoes on. The interior breeze quickly dries wet shoes and yields happy, fresh springtime feet.
Thoughts On Shoes
The most important foot factor is comfort when it comes to walking. For me, comfort means dry and well-supported feet. I have three different pairs of shoes to accomplish these goals. You may require only one pair, or you may need more than three. Footwear is entirely a personal choice.
Vasque Waterproof Hiking Shoes
I bought my hikers at The Shoebox in Black Earth Wisconsin. I was hiking in cheap hikers in the rain and ruined them and so I went shopping. I was interested in getting a good pair of shoes and wanted one that wouldn’t get soaked. My shoes have a Gore Tex lining to keep my feet dry. However, there is a dark side to this technology as once water gets in (via the top the shoe) it has a hard time getting out. A shoe dryer comes in handy for this problem.
Generic Duck Shoes
I bought these classic waterproof shoes on Amazon and mine are serviceable, but slightly too large. They serve my purpose well enough that I don’t feel a need to replace them. These are great when there are puddles or light snow as they have a higher water barrier than my hiking shoes.
For many years I wore cheap, pull on boots for snow blowing. They were junk and were guaranteed to spring a leak within 2 winter seasons. About 10 years ago I bought a pair of Bogs boots, and I’m still using that pair today. Bogs boots are well made, and they slip on easily. They don’t offer the support of my hiking shoes, and so I only use them when I’m dealing with poor conditions, such as newly fallen deep snow. If you are planning on being away for the day, I would advise that you bring a second pair of shoes to change into. In a typical indoor environment, Bogs make your feet hot, sweaty and uncomfortable.
I am a multi-tasker, and I often write when I arrive at Starbucks. I bring a small messenger bag with a shoulder strap when I walk. In it, I carry a lightweight laptop, a spiral notebook, pens, earbuds, a book, and a couple Zyrtec for my allergic friend who occasionally forgets to take his at home. I really like having a grab-and-go bag that doesn’t require any additional early morning thought.
Other Important Items
You don’t need to take a lot when you walk, but I would advise taking your cell phone, as well as ID and some cash. Other items (like Bluetooth headphones) can be added based on your particular walking style.
High Vis Gear
I have to be honest, as I don’t currently have any High Vis gear. I took a short pause writing this and logged onto Amazon and just bought some. High Vis gear is cheap, and it isn’t necessary to get anything elaborate. Any hardware store will sell you a vest for a few dollars and for a few bucks more you can get jogging style gear that is sleek and very reflective. Some items even light up.
When Not To Walk
I am ready to walk in almost any condition, but there are rare times when I opt to stay home. I recently walked when it was -24F with a windchill of -50F and I was well prepared. However, I lost my ice cleats on that walk, and because of this, I felt it would be dangerous to walk the following day. As soon as a new pair of cleats arrived, I was walking again. The question of when not to walk is contingent on both the weather and the individual. Use common sense when embarking on any adventure.
If you don’t want to face the elements, you can also walk indoors. Many health clubs are reasonably priced, and park district gyms often will allow residents to walk for free. You can also tool around a shopping mall or big box store if they are available in your area.
You don’t need a lot of fancy gear to walk in just about any type of weather. However, you need to plan accordingly. Walking is free and offers benefits beyond exercise.
Editor’s note: I wrote this narrative several weeks ago, but I was uncertain if I would publish it, as it includes a lot of personal information Based on these concerns I took the unusual step of having Julie read it so she could offer her opinion. She said that I should publish it, and here it is. She advised that it should be read, not just skimmed. Mike
Both sets of my grandparents came to America at the turn of the last century. I’m not sure how many governmental hoops that they had to jump through to be admitted, but I don’t think that there were that many. Their biggest obstacle was a lack of money. My grandfathers came to the US alone and saved for years so they could afford to send for their wives and children.
They took on the jobs that no one else wanted, and they worked tirelessly for low wages. They lived in crowded and unpleasant conditions. They went without. My grandparents sacrificed because they believed in the American dream. They wanted more for their children, and they knew that their peasant roots not only cast them, but also cast their offspring to a life of limited options.
With the reunification of their families, their hardships continued. Without a good command of the English language and sparse formal educations, they took any job that they could get. My maternal grandfather worked as a custodian in a bookbinding factory, my paternal grandfather worked as a laborer for International Harvester. It is likely that their co-workers considered them inferior because they were foreign. Perhaps they saw them as stupid, dirty, and lazy.
My grandparents came to America because they wanted more, not less. More for their children and grandchildren. They emphasized hard work and focused their children on the American dream. They imparted on them strong values. They stressed the importance of education.
My father became the chief engineer of one of the largest high schools in Chicago. One of his brothers was an electrician, the other an assistant foreman. His sisters worked in offices and factories until they married and started families of their own.
My mom was a stay at home mom. Her brothers became factory workers, engineers, a CEO of a manufacturing company, and a founder of a financial institution. One sister worked as a telephone operator, the other as an accountant.
My generation advanced further with almost all of my cousins earning a college diploma, and many getting advanced degrees. Our former peasant family now includes university professors, scientists, health care providers, teachers, financial investors, business professionals, bankers, writers, a professional entertainer, social workers, a lawyer, a speech pathologist, and even a former opera singer. None of these careers would have been possible if our grandparents remained in Slovakia. We advanced to the level that we were capable of, and we were not limited by our position in society. Along the way, we contributed to our country. Our careers allowed us to create new jobs, to educate, to heal, to discover, to help, to entertain. My family benefited greatly by being allowed to come to America, and we gave back significantly. Our country is a melting pot where new mixes with old. Fresh ideas mingle with classic thoughts. Innovation is celebrated, tradition is respected.
The story of immigrants is not that different from the story of working-class men and women who were given the ability to attend college via the GI bill after WWII. Just like the immigrants, they brought with them enthusiasm and new ideas. Just like the immigrants, they were given an opportunity, and they gave back. Just like the immigrants, the country benefited as much as the individual.
This inclusion lesson is often repeated but typically ignored. When we are inclusive all benefit when we are exclusive many lose. At one time women were excluded, as were blacks, Catholics, Irish, Italians, Jews, and countless other groups. What would this country be like if their contributions were ignored?
Tom was born in the Polish town of Turin. His father owned a lot on the outskirts of town where he planned to build the family home. Initially, he constructed a small 3 room utility building and moved in with his wife and Tom. This was supposed to be temporary housing until the main house was built. Unfortunately, the ground was never broken on that house.
The utility building was elementary. It had electricity, but no hot water. The kitchen sink drained into a tank that needed to be emptied, and the toilet was located in an outdoor shed. The toilet used a wooden holding box, and when Tom was old enough, it was his job to remove the waste and bury it in the backyard.
Tom’s father was a brick mason, and he appeared to go to work most days, the problem was that he didn’t bring home any of his earnings. It was likely that much of those funds were spent on alcohol, a substance that fueled his dad’s anger.
His mother worked a variety of jobs to make ends meet that ranged from sewing linings into purses to custodial work at a factory. She was frustrated and angry with her husband’s habits and physically took that frustration out on Tom.
Tom not only grew up in poverty, but he also grew up on his own. He remembers being a very small child who was left alone and afraid as his mother worked the night shift. He recalls washing his pants and waiting for them to dry, as he only had one pair to wear. Tom had to learn to problem solve and take care of himself, there was no one to help him.
Things may have been stressful at home, but Tom had dreams. He was a bright student who did well in school. He had a goal to become a doctor, and he dreamt about being a surgeon in America. In fact, his nickname was, “Medic,” during his early school years. However, something changed when he entered the 6th grade.
Tom says he just gave up, and he wasn’t sure why. Within the same breath, he notes that things were getting worse at home. Tom checked out in 6th grade, and because of his lack of academic interest, he was slotted away from a university education and into a technical school. His future was now cast, his dream of becoming a doctor evaporated into fantasy.
The technical school was simple, in fact too simple, and Tom was bored. He would attend classes three days a week and then go into the field for the remaining two. “They sent me to a factory to be trained by factory electricians. The electricians would set up some electrical circuits incorrectly and then go on their rounds telling me that I should try to figure out what they felt were difficult problems. I found that the solutions were obvious. I would fix the circuitry within minutes and then read the newspaper until they returned. I was bored out of my mind.”
His initial three years of technical school grew into six with advanced electrical training which Tom said he did mostly to avoid getting drafted into the brutal and punitive Polish army. He graduated but never worked as an electrician. He saw the limitations of his life in Poland. He could possibly get a small sales job, perhaps he could be hired to work maintenance in a factory. His life was condemned by events that happened when he was 12 years old.
In those days the Polish government controlled the banks and thereby controlled the exchange rate for the conversion of Polish Zloty to the world standard US dollar. The official exchange rate was artificially high making it very difficult for the average Pole to acquire the dollars necessary to buy luxury items, as dollars were the currency of choice. Tom saw this discrepancy and entered into a new business, which he refers to as his career in banking.
He would stand in front of the bank and offer a better exchange rate than what was offered inside. His actions weren’t illegal, but they weren’t sanctioned. Despite being officially frowned upon his customers included government officials and even a few members of the Polish secret police. “They wanted the best exchange rate too,” said Tom.
In a year and a half, Tom had saved several thousand US dollars. Life was good with plenty of cash, and he even purchased a Polish made Fiat. But he was quick to realize that his golden days of banking were temporary as the government was in the process of normalizing the official exchange rate.
Tom didn’t want a life as a factory electrician, and there was no future in banking. He needed to think outside the box and looked to do what many other Poles had done before him. A friend had returned from the US where he had worked for several years. His pal told Tom of enormous salaries for minimal work. Tom says, “I knew that he was a bullshitter, but if what he said was even half true working a few years in America could change my life in Poland.”
Tom developed a plan. His friend’s brother in the US invited him to come to America. He would come, work, and save every penny. “If I could save $20,000 a year I could have $100,000 in 5 years and return to Poland to start my own business.” The only Visas that were available were tourist Visas, and even these were hard to come by, but by some miracle, Tom got one and boarded a plane bound for Chicago. He didn’t speak a word of English, and he had no real skills.
The LOT jet banked over Lake Michigan giving Tom a clear view of downtown Chicago. He was awed by the skyscrapers and the lights of the city and felt both excited and afraid. His Polish friend’s American family arranged for some temporary accommodations, and his number one priority was to find a job. He had $4500 in his pocket; that money would only last so long. He had no real skills, he didn’t speak English, and he didn’t have a work permit. The only jobs available for such individuals are the jobs that no one else wants, and that is precisely what Tom got.
Tom was hired to be the assistant to the maintenance supervisor at GM’s training center. His primary qualification was that he didn’t speak English. His boss was extremely verbally abusive and would go crazy if his underling would dare talk back. Tom couldn’t talk back because he couldn’t speak English. Naturally, that that didn’t stop his boss from blowing up. Screaming transcends all languages.
Like many immigrants, Tom knew that he needed to make his own way and he was determined to keep his job. If his boss expected 100%, Tom would give him 110%. Other workers at the plant saw his efforts, and they started to befriend him and teach him words in English. Now in his 20s, Tom was more than happy to be a student again, and he took every opportunity to practice his new language. He supplemented these impromptu lessons by listening to the radio and trying to mimic the announcer. “In the beginning, I had no idea what I was saying. I think it took me about two years to understand the language well, and longer than that before I was comfortable having a real conversation.”
Tom continued to do his job at 110%, and eventually, he became friendly with his boss who acknowledged his efforts, but then the job ended, and he was without an income. Examining his options he decided to try his hand at starting his own business, and he became a small scale remodeler. “Other Polish guys were doing this, and I just followed their lead. I knew that I needed to work and I felt that I had learned many skills working at the training center. I was up for the challenge.” He placed ads in local papers and started to do small remodeling and home repair jobs. Tom is a likable person who goes above and beyond for his customers which helped him to get word-of-mouth business. His social demeanor attracts friends, and soon he was connecting with quality tradesmen who would later become his subcontractors.
Tom started to buy tools, a habit that continues to this day. There is always some exciting innovation that seems to catch his eye. He is a lifelong learner who likes discovering something new and interesting. One skill led to another, and he moved from small scale remodeler to larger construction jobs. Eventually, he became a general contractor. Just like when he was working at General Motors, Tom learned from those around him, and he has become competent at just about any building task. He enjoys learning new things, but he also feels that he needs to know how to do any construction job so he can make sure that his subcontractors are delivering their best possible work.
In the 1990s the US government wanted everyone to have a social security number. Despite being a Polish citizen, Tom got a social security number and a driver’s license. Just like every citizen, he paid taxes and obeyed the law. The only problem was that he wasn’t a citizen and didn’t have any of the benefits or protections of being one.
I asked Tom when he knew that he was going to stay in the states and he replied that he never had an aha moment. “I procrastinated about going back to Poland, and one thing led to another. I slowly realized that I had become an American and that there was nothing for me in Poland.” By embracing America Tom had assimilated, and he didn’t even realize that he was doing it.
In the mid-1990s a lady hired him to build a back porch. That lady’s name was Daphne, and she is now Tom’s wife. They have a son name, Charlie who is the apple of Tom’s eye.
We can choose to let our past determine our future, or we can decide it on our own. Tom chose the later path and has worked hard to be a present and engaged father. He wants his son to know that he is valued and loved. He wants his son to feel safe and to have a normal childhood. He wants more for his son; he wants Charlie to have options. “I don’t care what he does as long as it is something that he wants to do. I do hope that whatever he does makes the world a better place on some level.”
I write this chapter with some trepidation, as this is Tom’s story, not mine. However, I feel that it is necessary for you to know a bit more about me to understand the entire scope of this work.
Some of you know parts of this story from previous writings so this chapter may be one of repetition. I am not writing this chapter to gain pity or sympathy. The reality is that I presently have a wonderful life with people who genuinely love me and care about me. I have been able to accomplish just about any goal that I have set for myself, and I feel that I have made a positive impact in this world. Life is good!
I work with individuals who have had horrific childhoods, my childhood was not horrible. In fact, on the surface, it seemed just fine. I lived in a house, I had two parents, I had 4 siblings, and I even had a dog. My dad told me on a regular basis that I was fortunate because I had the best father in the world, and I believed him.
I did have 4 siblings, but they were much older than me, and their interests were focused elsewhere. My mother was kind and very smart, but she was chronically ill and often near death. My dad told me that I was causing her stress and that this stress would kill her. I was afraid to get sick; if I bought a virus into the house, I was told that my mom could catch it and die. Once, as a small child, I developed abscesses on my backside. They continued for weeks as they oozed infected and noxious pus. I never told anyone and treated the infection as best as I could on my own. I worried that my mother would discover my infection when she did the laundry, but I was never questioned about it. I was grateful for this latter fact as I felt that I must have done something wrong to get such horrible and painful boils. During my childhood, I assumed that any problems at home were due to me. I just didn’t measure up. I was not good enough. I was an oddball who didn’t fit in.
I don’t think my father was a bad person, I think he was just done having kids before I was born. His way of motivating me was not congruent with my personality. I already felt different, and so I was willing to accept any criticism as fact. I didn’t realize that I was dyslexic, and I agreed that I was stupid when I couldn’t read in the second grade (I eventually developed my own technique to read). I have never been very coordinated but I looked like a football player. I accepted the fact that there must be something wrong with me because I wasn’t athletic, despite looking like an athlete. I also accepted that what my father called me was true: fat pig, piece of shit, dumb ass, lazy, useless. I’m not trying to be dramatic by stating these facts; I do think that I was a great disappointment to my father, which is why he reacted so negatively towards me. He had a different attitude towards my sister who was very pretty and also very popular. Seeing these contrasting attitudes sealed the fact that there was something that just wasn’t good enough about me. People characterized me as sweet, sensitive, and kind, not tough, strong, and athletic. I was hardly the kind of boy that a dad would want to brag about.
I learned to be as invisible and as independent as possible. I felt that I could only depend on myself, and when things went wrong in my young life, I blamed myself and tried to figure out a solution.
Despite the above, there was a part of me that felt differently, and that part was fed by outside adults and events in my life. Why would a nun tell my parents that she thought that I was smart and talented. “God has plans for Michael. There is something very special about him,” she said. How could I take an achievement test in the 5th grade and score at the 11th-grade level if I was stupid?
Despite being shy and an introvert I had friends, and one of them soon became my best friend. His name was John, and I saw him almost every day. Our relationship was more that of brothers than friends. I helped John and John helped me. We supported each other as we faced grade school, then high school, then college. He was the person who I could talk to about most things and not feel like I was defective or odd. He didn’t seem shocked if I told him that I was afraid of something or that I was feeling inadequate. In fact, he often had the same concerns. With John, I started to realize that many of my fears were typical of boys growing up, and they didn’t mean that something was wrong with me.
These positive experiences made me question my negative self-assumptions to a degree. The nuns wanted me to go to private high school, but my father decided that I would go to Gage Park High School, which was not only poor academically, but also dangerous. “If you really want to learn you can do it anywhere,” he said.
The week before I matriculated to high school I had recurrent nightmares about going there. I would wake up in a cold sweat, and short of breath. The following mornings I would convince myself that my dreams were the result of my anxiety, and not prophetic.
Unfortunately, my nightmares were realized, and I sought the help of a person in authority who then betrayed me. That betrayal threw me into a traumatic tailspin which caused me to shut down emotionally. My sister Carol recalls that time, and noted that my mother had commented to her, “I’m really worried about Michael, something must be terribly wrong.” My mom never inquired how I was doing, but even if she had, I would have likely said that I was fine. I believed that I had brought the problem on to myself and it was totally my fault.
Formally sweet and trusting, I became angry and cynical. I no longer trusted adults and I no longer sought out friends. If someone wanted to be my friend they had to reach out to me. Even then, it would take a very long time for me to trust them. I was grateful that I was an introvert as I could always find something to do with myself. I no longer gave a shit about school. Despite my attitude, there were teachers who would seek me out, be kind to me, and support me. In different ways, they said that I was special and unique, not weird or odd. They told me that I had the ability to achieve any goal that I set my mind to. Part of me believed them.
I started to examine my life, and I began to see a pattern. Bad things were happening in my life, but I always was given a lifeline to keep me afloat. A nun’s comment, a best friend, some caring teachers. I became aware of something else that was happening in my life. I called that thing, “The Force” when I talked to others about it, but I feel that in reality, it is the hand of God.
This Force can be mild, or so strong that it is virtually impossible for me to resist it. It has directed me my entire life, and when I listen to it, I move in the right direction. This Force has changed my view of the world and my concept of a Higher Power. I see God in my life not as some powerful regal being on a golden throne, but as an entity that has a direct interest in my well being. I have had traumas in my life, but I have always been given the resources to cope with them. Out of those traumas I have become more empathic, caring, and understanding of others. I have become an excellent problem solver, independent, and very, very strong.
After graduating from high school, I decided that I needed to be my own person and that I would pursue my life as I saw fit. I could no longer be a chameleon who gave everyone what they wanted from me, I had to be authentic and genuine to myself. I would succeed or fail based on my actions, and I wouldn’t blame the past for not reaching my goals. I was going to move forward, and no one or nothing would stand in my way. I put one foot in front of the other, and I didn’t look back.
In 2015 our home was almost 30 years old, and the bathrooms were falling apart. We could wait no longer, and I started the process of finding three contractors to give us estimates on the work.
I already knew of one contractor that I wanted to contact, his name was Tom, and he did a job for us 2 years earlier. We had a disastrous re-roofing done that was literally peeling off the house 8 years post installation. Julie had found Tom’s company on Angie’s list, and based on its excellent reviews we contracted with him to remove the old shingles and replace the roof.
Tom was the best contractor that I ever had worked with. He went above and beyond to get me the color of shingles that I wanted, and when the job was completed, he cleaned up every inch of our front and back yards. He even used a magnet to make sure that there were no errant nails left behind.
There was a quality of Tom that I couldn’t explain. Despite our limited contact I really like him. This made no sense to me as after the high school incident, it typically would take a very long time for me to trust someone. I felt a sense of connection with Tom, which was also very odd. But the job lasted less than a week, and both of our lives moved forward. I thought to myself, “That guy must be a helluva salesman if he was able to to get a cynic like me to trust him.”
One Saturday, in the spring of 2015 I gave myself the task to contact Home Advisor to get the names of contractors to bid on my bathroom job, but first I was going to spend 5 minutes catching up on Facebook. Up popped a photo under the Facebook byline, “People You May Know,” it was Tom. He had never popped up prior to that time. I was a bit startled, and I remember mumbling, “OK God, I was going to call him anyway.” This felt like a joke, as at the time I really didn’t think that God was picking my bathroom remodeler.
Tom was the first contractor to do an estimate. I had a rough idea of what I wanted to do with the bathrooms but hadn’t told him yet. He whipped out his iPad and started to show me what he thought should be done. It was exactly what I had wanted, only better. I had an idea of how much I wanted to spend, and I asked Tom what he thought the cost of the job would be. My opinion, which was based on a number that popped into my head, and his amount were the same. I knew that by protocol I should get two more estimates, but I signed him on the spot.
The bathroom jobs were complex and involved moving walls, building a new closet, and a variety of other tasks. The overall project took many weeks. Tom would come every day to check on the progress of his subcontractors, and by coincidence, this was often at times when I was free. Brief contacts over tile selections became more extended conversations, and I looked forward to his visits. During one of those conversations, he told me that had had 6 other jobs going on simultaneously. This completely shocked me as I was getting such a VIP service that I was sure that I was his only active project.
The remodel was reaching completion, and I was feeling that I didn’t want our connection to end. I don’t initiate friendships, as I said above, and it takes me a very long time to trust anyone. Why was I was sharing things with this contractor that I didn’t share with other people?
I’m not very good at asking someone to be my friend, as I have no practice at it. I sat Tom down and started to babble. My efforts were sincere but cringeworthy. Tom replied, “Sure I’ll be your friend, but I don’t think anyone has ever asked me to be their friend quite like you just did.” After he left, I felt a rush of fear and embarrassment. “He is probably telling his buddies about what just happened, and they are all laughing at me,” I thought. That was not the case.
Like in many friendships, Tom and I talk a lot. Early in our friendship, we were talking about something when suddenly I was overtaken by that Force feeling that I get. The feeling was powerful but seemed utterly ridiculous, and I tried to push it out of my consciousness. The harder I pushed it down, the stronger it pushed back. Finally, and to my great embarrassment, it erupted from my mouth. “Tom, I’m having this overwhelming feeling that my job is to protect you. You are younger than me, stronger than me, and your life seems to be going well. Why in the world would I need to protect you?” I was shocked at what was coming out of my mouth, and I felt that if he didn’t believe that I was crazy when I asked him to be my friend he surely would feel that I was nuts now.
I had deliberately turned away from him when I said this as I didn’t want to see him laughing at me. When I did look in his direction I didn’t see disdain, I saw deep thought sprinkled with sadness and moistened eyes. After a few moments, his sad expression faded and we moved on. The feeling of embarrassment lifted completely from me.
We were already helping each other in a variety of ways, but those efforts did not explain this command, and it took a few more weeks before the truth would be revealed.
Several weeks later we were sitting in his office on 5th Avenue, talking and drinking coffee. In some obtuse way, the topic of citizenship came up. “Are you a US citizen?” I asked. “No,” said Tom. “In fact I’m illegal.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Tom had been in this country for over 25 years. He was married and had a kid. He owned a house and a business. He was responsible and law abiding. “What!” I blurted.
Tom said that he never got around to it. One thing led to another, one year to another. “It’s OK, don’t worry.” He told me. “Are you outta your mind!” I retorted back.
Obama was president at that time, but it still seemed like things were not going well for immigrants. “Tom, you have a wife and a young kid. They could deport you, and you might never see Charlie again. Have you thought of that!” It was clear that he had thought of that, but he said, “Don’t worry, I’ll be OK.” Now I knew why I was getting the feeling that I needed to protect him, he was in real danger.
Dear reader, I need to reveal to you a part of my personality. Given enough provocation, I can be relentless and unyielding, and this is especially true when I feel that someone I care about is in danger. Just ask my wife and kids, and they will confirm this.
Rome was not built in a day, and it took some time before Tom moved into action. I continued to serve in my role as a “pain-in-the-ass” motivator (Tom’s term). This is a method that I can’t use in my psychiatric practice, however useful it may be. Tom did all of the real work, which was both tremendous and time-consuming. Each phase of the process took much longer than it should have, and there were long silent periods where one document had to arrive before the next step could be attempted. All in all, the process was started almost 3 years ago.
In December Tom and his wife were summoned by immigration. Tom asked me to print up some photos demonstrating that he had been with Daphne for all these years. This request was on short notice, and interestingly I had precisely enough photo paper to complete the task and not one sheet more, probably just a coincidence.
Tom told me that the investigator said to him, “If you get your residence card I bet the first place that you will visit is Poland.” Tom replied, “Actually, I want to go to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls.” Tom had long ago crossed the line to being an American, he just didn’t have the paperwork.
A week ago Tom received his permanent resident card (green card). In three years he is eligible to apply for full citizenship. Of course, he is planning on doing this.
The Power Of Connection
Two people who on the surface are very different. Two people who beneath the surface are very similar. Two best friends.
What is the power of connection and why is it so important? In the above narrative, I told you one of the ways that I have helped Tom. I did not tell you the countless ways that he has helped me. I will have to save those for another post.
I was sitting at a business meeting with Tom and a salesperson, who was trying to sell him SEO services (internet search engine optimization). I have done SEO work for Tom, and so I know a bit about the topic. I kept asking the young man questions while I pointed out some of his hyperbole and inaccuracies. Finally, and being very frustrated he looked at Tom and said, “Who is this guy?” Tom looked straight back at him and said, “Mike helps me, and I help Mike.” I could not have come up with a better answer of how I would define our friendship.
Tom came to America wanting the same thing that my grandparents did. He wants the same limitless future for his son that they wanted for their children and grandchildren. Tom may have been here without a green card, but he was no criminal. He paid his taxes, but couldn’t really benefit from them. He built things for others, created jobs, and raised a family. He just wanted a chance to prove himself and to have a life that was determined by his own abilities. He didn’t want to be limited by decisions that he made when he was 12 years old. He is a bright and creative individual who deserves to be able to express his talents.
Tom needed me, as my unyielding persistence drove him towards the formidable task of applying for permanent residency. My friend John moved away years ago, and I needed a best friend. Someone who I could see almost every day. Someone who would accept me for who I am, and not judge me. Someone who I could talk to about my fears and feelings of inadequacies. Someone to do guy things with.
Tom is not a number or a label, he is a human being. I’m sure that his story is not that different from many others. They want to have a future. They want to live up to their potential and succeed or fail based on their abilities. They want their children to have the chance of a better life.
I understand that the United States can’t solve all of the problems of the world, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t tackle some of them. So many of our resources are spent defending ourselves from others. How much could be invested in extending ourselves to others?
We are more powerful as a country when we embrace diversity, that is a proven fact. Yet, it is easy to hate those who are different from us and to unrealistically blame them for our troubles. Once you accuse someone of your failures, you become powerless to make change for yourself. Diversity brings new ideas and new energy to the table.
Most of our families immigrated to this country at some point. What would your life be like if your ancestors were denied entry?