"To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; This, is to have succeeded." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Modern Man According to the Media

Sexism in the media is not a new topic. It's been a problem since the dawn of corporate advertising, but is often discussed in the context of sexism against women. Today I want to shine the spotlight on sexism again men in advertising. Before I start though, I want to make clear that by drawing attention to sexism against men, I am not downplaying the problem of sexism against women, which is a serious issue, but an issue for another post. I understand that even in the ads I'm highlighting below for sexism against men, there's also pretty blatant sexism against women. I understand that this continues to be a pervasive problem, but I also believe that sexism is sexism, regardless of who is being stereotyped. It's not a competition, and even if sexism against women is more prevalent than sexism against men, it doesn't make sexism against men any less important. So, with that little disclaimer out of the way, let's begin.

When I think of the portrayal of men in contemporary advertising, I can think of two primary stereotypes. In ads that are trying to market products to women, men are often portrayed as the dependent, bumbling, inept husband who can hardly even dress himself without the guidance of his wife. In advertising that aims to sell products to men, men are typically portrayed drinking beer, watching sports, and surrounded by supermodels - feeding the stereotype that this should be every male's fantasy.

This ad below from the 1950s makes it onto a lot of 'top 10' lists as one of the most sexist ads of all time. It's not surprising - the sexism is blatant and obvious - and I'm sure we can all agree that this ad would never be allowed today.

But wait, let's take a look at another more recent ad, a TV commercial this time:

Maybe it's just me, but I'm not seeing a huge difference between the phrase "You mean a woman can open it?" and "So easy, a man can do it". Well, except for the fact that the first ad ran in the 1950s, and the second ad ran in 2009. The second ad was also reported to the Advertising Standards Authority. 700 times. Despite these complaints, the ASA ultimately ruled that the ad "was light-hearted and comical", and "did not portray either gender in a way that stigmatised, humiliated or undermined them by using harmful stereotypes".

Now I enjoy a good parody. I think poking fun can be totally harmless if done well, But I do have a problem with double standards. A lot of people argue that this is 'obviously an over-the-top parody' - and I would agree in this case - IF I genuinely thought the same ad could run with the roles reversed and still pass for parody. To me, this doesn't say witty satire about gender roles in the modern age, it says tasteless low-budget attempt to use conventional stereotypes to sell a product. And if you do see this as a parody, a parody by its nature is making fun of something, so that reinforces the fact that the portrayal of men as helpless and incompetent is prevalent enough in advertising to warrant satire.

I'm trying to think of a context in 2010 where an advertiser could get away with using the phrase "so easy, a woman can do it" - even if it was intended to be satire - and I can't say anything's coming to mind. If you ran an ad about power tools or barbecues or do-it-yourself oil changes or any other stereotypically 'male' domain and used that line to sell it, there would be outrage and I have a feeling the ASA wouldn't call it comical. THAT is where it becomes a problem for me - that the standards aren't being applied consistently.

I don't have it in my blogging budget to actually film my reinterpretation of that commercial, but here's my rough breakdown of how it would go.

A woman is standing next to her car with a vacant expression on her face while her angry-looking husband stands next to her, rolling his eyes and tapping his foot angrily, holding a bottle of motor oil. Suddenly he slams the bottle against her chest, while a voice-over says "X Motor Oil - So easy, a woman can do it!". Meanwhile, the woman begins changing the oil in her car with an overjoyed expression on her face while her husband continues to glare at her menacingly. The ad wraps up with the voice-over repeating the tag line, while a disclaimer goes across the screen saying "No women were hurt in the making of this ad". Maybe I'm wrong, but I honestly couldn't imagine an ad like that even making it to air, let alone passing the screening of the ASA.

Sadly, this isn't an isolated example. Here's a few modern classics:

Pushing your partner out of a moving vehicle and leaving them lying in the dirt? Totally hilarious - as long as it's a woman pushing a man out of a car. This ad never would have made it past the brainstorming session if the roles were reversed and the ad featured a man pushing his girlfriend out of a moving car.

Ah, the classic "I do everything around here because my husband and children are useless slobs" sales pitch, which for some reason continues to successfully sell products to women.

Because we all know dads can't cook...

And then there's just this.


Again, reverse the roles. Would an ad featuring a man walking with two naked women on leashes be allowed? No. Yet, this ad ALSO received multiple complaints for sexism, and the complaints were all thrown out by the advertising authority because the ad "represented a satirical comment on a patriarchal world".

To me, equality of the sexes is about equal respect, not equal disrespect. Equality is not about fighting to see who can be more offensive for the sake of payback or revenge. Objectifying men won't make up for the fact that women have been objectified for centuries. It's a twisted, backwards reaction to a serious social problem. Marilyn French once reflected that "men seem unable to feel equal to women: they must be superior or they feel inferior". I wonder if that's what fuels the problem on both sides - an inability to truly grasp the concept of a world where there is no dominant gender, where women and men are actually equal, not constantly battling for superiority? In order for progress to truly be made for equality, we need to learn what equality actually feels like, and fight the notion that there always has to be somebody winning and somebody losing. 

Monday, December 20, 2010

Shaming Ourselves

It's time to talk about shame. About how we use shame in our everyday lives to validate our own choices by invalidating others. About the fact that somebody else's choice doesn't have to be wrong for ours to be right. I've talked before about the importance of choice, and now I want to talk about using that power to choose responsibly and respectfully. Choice is everybody's right, not a right reserved for those who make the same choices as us.


This problem certainly rears its ugly head among both genders, but I find it's especially prevalent among women. I don't think the problem is new in the age of the internet, but the anonymity of the internet certainly makes it more obvious.

It plays out in so many ways. You want to be a stay-at-home mom, but fear being judged, so you immediately need to defend why being a stay-at-home mom is better, at the expense of those who make a different choice. Suddenly being a stay-at-home mom is the virtuous choice, while being a working mom is selfish. Or in reverse - you want to be a working mom, but in a desperate attempt to distinguish that choice as the best, stay-at-home moms become lazy, or submissive, or betrayers of feminism. This shaming of other women results in everybody feeling guilty or insecure in their own choices. It benefits no one.

And it doesn't just affect parenting. It affects every aspect of our lives. If you choose to get married young, you'll constantly hear statistics about how young marriages are more likely to end in divorce. If you get married when you're older, you'll hear all about how hard it will be to have kids or how 'all the good ones will be taken' if you wait too long. If you want one child, you'll hear about the latest study that shows only children are lonely and self-centred. If you want 8 kids, you'll hear about overpopulation or the depletion of the world's resources or welfare-dependence. And don't even get me started on what you'll hear if you don't want to get married or have children, full stop. You want to raise your kids in the country? Oh, but they'll miss out on all the cultural opportunities that the city offers, and the lack of diversity will make them ignorant or racist. You want to raise your kids in the city? You can't do that, it's dangerous to raise your kids in the city, and they won't learn good values.

It's bred out of defensiveness. People become defensive because others insist on being judgemental.

But here's the thing, we become judgemental and defensive, which perpetuates this cycle, when competitiveness takes control of our lives. I've written before that marriage isn't about keeping score, but I think it's also important to point out that life isn't about keeping score either. What's 'best' should be what's 'best for us', not 'best in comparison to everybody else'. The choices that everybody else makes are their business, and theirs alone.

We also put unrealistic expectations on ourselves. The constant quest for perfection, for the 'best' life and 'best' choices is enough to make anyone second-guess their decisions. And by second-guessing our own decisions, we become desperate for validation that they're the 'right' decisions. And the easiest way to assure ourselves that they are the right decisions, is to prove to ourselves and others that all other decisions are the 'wrong' decisions. Can you see how this quickly perpetuates a vicious, competitive cycle of right versus wrong in a world that's really not that simple?

Not everybody is guilty of this, but a lot of us are, at least to some extent. The next time you catch yourself saying - or in this modern age - typing something that bashes another individual's choices for their own life - ask yourself whether you're really being constructive, or just trying to build yourself up at their expense.

I've used this Howard Thurman quote before, but I'll use it again, because it's one of my favourites and very relevant to this topic: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive". Live your own life. Stop keeping score. You'll be happier for it. 

*Disclaimer one: I use the term 'working mom' because of how it flows, not to insinuate that stay-at-home moms don't 'work'.

**Disclaimer two: I'm not suggesting that every woman does this, and when I say 'you', I don't mean you specifically. Again, it's used for the overall 'flow', not to specifically point fingers :)

Friday, December 10, 2010

Financial Management for the Newly Independent Part 2: Our Favourite Tips

In part 2, we'll talk about some of the everyday money-saving tactics my partner and I use to make the most of the money we do have. Some of these tips take almost no effort, and others are a bit more labour intensive (but worth it, in our opinion).


Groupon and Dealfind
One of my favourite tips is not for shopaholics, or people with no self-restraint :) If you think you can control yourself from purchasing things you don't need, I highly recommend you sign up for groupon.com or dealfind.com, or both, if they're both available in your area. I use Groupon the most, so I'll explain that one in more detail. Basically the way it works, is you sign up and select your city (or city closest to you, if you're rural like us), and provide your email address. Then, every day you get an email from them with the 'deal of the day', which is always at LEAST 50% off the regular purchase price of a good or service in your city. If you want that particular deal of the day, you go to the groupon site and purchase the coupon, and then print it out and take it to the business in question in exchange for the item in question. It's called 'group'on because a certain number of people have to purchase the deal before it becomes effective, but in my time using it, I've never seen the minimum cut off not be met. This site can get you huge discounts on meals at restaurants, groceries, services, and so on. The reason I say you need self-restraint to use it, is that you're only actually saving money if you're using it to buy things you would have bought anyway. So for example, if you normally eat out at a restaurant once a month, it's worth it to buy one groupon a month for restaurants if they come up (there's one deal per day, it's not always for restaurants), and you are saving money, but if you don't normally eat out, then you're spending extra money that you wouldn't have otherwise spent.

$5 Jar
Another tip my partner and I recently started using is a $5 jar. Lots of people have change jars, but they take a long time to add up. My partner and I made a jar that we keep on our desk for $5 bills and toonies. At the end of each day, we put any $5 bills or toonies we have in our wallet in the jar (unless it's reserved for something specific, ie. you know you need milk tomorrow, and you're saving the $5 for that). The money adds up quickly, and we use it for any large expenses that aren't in our usual budget (like a trip to Barrie to see my partner's family, or Christmas shopping). We found that the small bills and toonies in our wallets typically went to non-essential expenses, like stuff from the vending machine at work, or picking up a magazine at the store (we've since subscribed to our favourites, much cheaper) - so both our wallets and our waistlines benefit from not having those toonies or bills in our wallet, where they're easily accessible.

Our next few favourite tips are good for both our finances and the environment, a cause that's important to us. Double benefit!

One of the easiest way to save money around the house is to make your own household cleaners. All those bottles of surface cleaner, glass cleaner, bathroom cleaner, kitchen cleaner, etc, add up, and they don't last particularly long either (at least not if you like a clean house). A 2.5L bottle of white vinegar on the other hand, costs about $3, cleans just about anything, and lasts forever. 1 part water mixed with 1 part vinegar will clean and disinfect just about every hard surface in your house (except marble!), from the kitchen, to the bathroom, to your floors and windows. And most importantly, the 'vinegary' smell vanishes as soon as it dries, and just leaves a natural clean smell. Lemons are also great, especially for polishing metals and cleaning up soap scum or hard water deposits. Baking soda is also a great cleaner for really tough stains. Sprinkle baking soda over the stain (say in a really dirty oven) and let it sit, then scrub it off with steel wool and warm water (obviously don't do this on surfaces that are easily scratched). Our total cleaning arsenal costs us only a few dollars a year, and keeps harsh chemicals out of our house.

Break the Consumption Cycle and Reuse!
From early childhood, we learn the phrase 'reduce, reuse, recycle', but many people forget about the first 2 parts, and focus on the recycling. Recycling's great of course, but reducing and reusing are essential parts of the cycle as well. In a culture that's obsessed with having the latest 'it' thing, it can be hard to break away from consumption and constantly buying new 'things' for your home. One thing we found suprising was how quickly the desire to constantly consume faded when we got rid of television. It wasn't a decision we made specifically to avoid consumption, but that was the side effect. I didn't realize how much being constantly bombarded with 'buy me!' ads was affecting me until they were gone. Now everything in our apartment (except for our bed) is second-hand, the 'reuse' part of reduce, reuse, recycle, and we love it. It's eclectic and it doesn't necessarily match, but it works, and we really enjoy scouring kijiji and antiques markets to find that perfect piece of furniture when we're in need of something, and it's fun to repurpose something old into an entirely new creation.

Learn to Cook
Chris and I love to cook, so that makes this last tip a little easier for us than it would be for someone who doesn't know their way around a kitchen. For many reasons, financial, ethical, environmental, and health-wise, we started making most of our food from scratch. Pre-packaged foods are expensive, as are pre-made sauces, baked goods, pre-seasoned meats, etc. Making food from scratch can save you a lot of money, especially if you learn to eat in season and locally, which is also good for the environment. Making certain things from scratch involves a certain level of commitment to save you money. For example, making bread from scratch saves you a lot of money IF you do it regularly enough to justify buying all the ingredients in bulk. If you don't, homemade likely costs the same or more than buying it at the store (although it tastes much better and has no preservatives, but that's another story).

Since this is a cause Chris and I are committed to, it's worth the labour for us, but it won't work for everybody. If you truly hate to cook and bake, this tip simply won't be practical for you. However it's a great money-saver for the chefs or chefs-in-training out there. We eventually hope to make everything completely from scratch. We're learning how to can and preserve, and are very fortunate to have access to a good sized plot of land for next summer so we can grow a lot of our own produce. We bake our own bread, and are learning how to make other bread products, like tortillas from scratch. We make all of our sauces and marinades from scratch as well, and enjoy having creative control over the flavours. We're learning how to make our own soups and stews, and learned a great tip for making stock economically (and without all the sodium!). Every time you cut up a vegetable, there's often little bits left over that you don't eat (like the end of carrots). Instead of tossing these out, throw them in a container in the freezer. These are perfect for making stock! Once you have enough saved up in the freezer, you can toss them in your slow cooker (or in a heavy pot on the stove if you don't have a slow cooker) and make an extremely economical, low-sodium stock that you can use for soups, stews, gravies, and marinades.

Anyway, there's the (wordy) overview of our favourite financial tips - if you have a favourite tip that wasn't included here, please share it in the comments! I love learning new ways to be frugal :)

Financial Management for the Newly Independent Part 1: The Basics

Being frugal or thrifty often gets a bad rap, and is seen as a boring or stifled way to live your life. It doesn't have to be that way. My partner and I live a fairly frugal lifestyle, without sacrificing a rich social life, comfortable home life, great food, or travel. I thought I'd share a few of our favourite tips for living a happy, frugal life. This is a long post, but this information has completely changed my financial situation for the better, and I believe it's worth explaining in detail.


Our Situation
First of all, a little about our own financial situation. We are by no means wealthy. One of us makes a couple of dollars above minimum wage, but has benefits, while the other makes a few dollars more, but has no benefits and is in a higher tax bracket, meaning our take home pay at the end of each month is not substantially different. Combined, we have about $35,000 in student debt, and as of March 2011, we will have no consumer debt (very excited for that milestone!). I acknowledge that we have certain financial advantages - we have dual income, we live in a rural area, which significantly reduces our housing costs (our lovely home would cost at least double what we pay if it was in an urban area), our driving records are flawless and as a result we have very low insurance rates, but I still think the majority of the following tips are applicable to everyone, regardless of how similar or different your financial situation is to ours.

Understanding Money
First and foremost, a basic understanding of banking and finances is essential to good money management. Do you know your credit score? More importantly, do you know what financial decisions affect your credit score, and which don't? Did you know that opening a new credit card lowers your credit score? Did you know that closing an old credit card lowers your credit score? Did you know that holding a balance of more than 30% of your credit limit on your credit card really, really lowers your credit score?

Of course, you can't simply never open or close a credit card to protect your credit score, but timing is everything. Opening or closing a credit card will cause an immediate hit to your credit score, but it will almost immediately start improving from there. This means it's a poor financial decision to cancel or open a credit card immediately before applying for a big loan, as your credit score will be lower than usual when applying for the loan, meaning your interest rate will be higher. A difference of only a couple of points in your credit score can cost you literally hundreds of thousands of dollars over your lifetime on a big loan (like a mortgage) so a basic understanding of credit and credit scores is one of the most important financial steps you can take.

Another key financial concept to understand is compound interest. Compound interest is when interest is added to the principal (meaning the original money you put into a savings account), and then that interest that's been added to the principal ALSO earns interest, and then the interest on the interest earns interest, and so on. This has a ripple effect, meaning the earlier you start investing money in savings, the faster that money increases in value. Here's an example. If you started putting $100 a week into savings when you were 25, and you were getting a 6% return on investment (which is a high interest return in this economy, but that's not really the point here), you would have $868,146 upon retiring at 65 (40 years later). However, if you waited only 10 years to start saving, and started saving the same amount at 35, you'd have $437,604 at 65, or roughly half of what you'd have if you'd started only 10 years earlier. The younger you are when you start saving (no matter how little you're saving) the faster that money will multiply.

Saving vs. Debt Repayment
A word about saving. No matter what your financial situation, you should always have an emergency fund. While you should always make at least the minimum monthly payments on all your debts, any extra money should go into savings until you have at least $1000 for emergencies in the bank. After that, whether you should be investing more of your money into debt repayment, or into savings, depends on your specific situation, and your interest rates. In our case, putting a substantial amount of our monthly income into savings, while only making slightly above the minimum monthly payments on our student debt, makes the most sense for us because the amount of compound interest we'll earn on the savings we invest in our 20s significantly outweighs the amount of interest we'll PAY on our student loans, which have a low interest rate. This is NOT the same for everyone and you need to either calculate it for your own situation, or talk to your banker to figure out which is best for you. For some people, especially people with high levels of consumer debt (which tends to have very high interest rates), you're better off focusing on debt before savings, at least once you've got your emergency fund established. Figure out what's best for you and do your research, rather than copying our model exactly.

Getting Organized
Now, on the topic of saving - a lot of young people in fairly low income brackets often believe they can't afford to put any money in savings. For some people this is true, but for many it's not. The first step in establishing whether or not you actually can afford to save is to get your finances organized. My partner and I honestly believed we had no extra money that could go into savings, until we signed up with www.mint.com, now we save almost 1/3 of our income every month. I know I sound like an infomercial at the moment, but hear me out. Mint.com allows you to link all of your bank accounts, credit cards, loans, etc to one site, so you can see all your finances clearly laid out in front of you (it's safe, and was recommended to me by my bank). It tracks all of your transactions, and allows you to categorize all your spending, and then lays it out in tidy graphs so you can see where most of your money is going. The very first thing my partner and I realized, was that almost 1/4 of our income was going... well, we don't know where. Almost 1/4 of our income fell into the category of 'uncategorized' - meaning we couldn't remember where it was going - likely to things like coffee at work, lunches bought in the cafeteria instead of brought from home, little impulse purchases at the grocery store - basically 'stuff' that hadn't added any value to our lives, but was eating up a lot of our income. We also realized we were spending an obscene amount on groceries.
Mint.com helps you set up really effective, straightforward budgets, and by doing this, we realized that once we had budgeted for all of our essential expenses, as well as a bunch of fun expenses like dinners out, shopping, and so on, we still, in theory, had a lot of money left over. This was the money that was getting wasted each month, so we opened a high interest savings account and started putting that amount directly into savings each month, right on pay day, before we could miss it. And frankly? We haven't missed it. At all. We don't even notice it's gone, yet a third of our income is going into savings each month, bringing us rapidly closer to our goals of travel, and eventually buying a house. And all it took, in our case, was organization. I highly recommend everyone at least try it. Worst case scenario, you find out you really don't have any money left over for savings, but best case scenario, you discover you do!

Since this is getting very long, I'm going to break it up into 2 posts. Now that you've got the basics, the post following this one will talk about some everyday money saving tips that we use that have really worked for us.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The (Non) Pursuit of Happiness

I read some simple, yet powerful words today. "Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be." Abraham Lincoln.

There is an awful lot of truth in those words. Save for exceptional cases where mental illness interferes with one's ability to choose their own happiness, the average person has a lot more control over their happiness than they choose to acknowledge. Every day we're given the opportunity to make a choice. We can choose to focus on everything we don't have, and be miserable, or we can choose to focus on everything we do have, and be grateful. What you find very quickly is that choosing gratitude by default leads to choosing happiness.

Photo: my own

Many people spend their lives pursuing happiness without recognizing that happiness is an entity to be created, not acquired. It is a shift in mindset, not a shift in income, health, love, or social status that makes us happy. When we take responsibility for our own happiness and acknowledge that we are the only ones who have the right or power to influence our own happiness, everything else in life will start to fall into place.

Many people drift from day to day without ever giving a second thought to happiness. They often only think about it when they're in a negative state of mind and lamenting their lack of happiness. So many people spend their lives worrying about filling other people's needs, filling the world's needs, while abandoning their own. One of my favourite quotes of all time, a quote by Howard Thurman says: "Don’t worry about what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and do that. Because what the world needs are people who have come alive." 

Photo from: www.aarp.com

This quote can be applied to just about every aspect of your life. The people you love will be happiest if their loved ones, you included, are happy. It is not selfish to be happy, it's quite the opposite. Happiness is contagious. It has been scientifically proven that people who surround themselves with happy, positive people show a dramatic increase in their own level of happiness, whereas if the same person surrounds themselves with unhappy, negative people, they report a substantial drop in their overall happiness. This means choosing happiness is not only beneficial to your own health, but also to the health of those you surround yourself with.

Simply stating that we should all choose to be happy may come across as oversimplifying the world's problems, but before you knock it, I dare you to try it. Don't go to bed at night until you've taken a few moments to think about what you're grateful for, rather than wasting those precious quiet moments on negative thoughts or worries. If you do this every night for a month and don't feel any happier at the end of it, I'll be genuinely surprised.

I think James Openheim said it best when he said: "The foolish man seeks happiness in the distance; the wise grows it under his feet."