How to “Marie Kondo” Your Kitchen

Kitchen gadgets are similar to children's toys. They are fun to try when they catch our interest, but inevitably there will come a day when they no longer bring us joy. Although it would be ideal if we could continue using everything with care and respect, if an item has completed its role in our life, then it's time to thank it and bid it farewell.
--Marie Kondo, from Spark Joy

The modern kitchen is full of specialized junk that only serves a single function. Avoid this! For example, instead of putting your spoon or ladle on a spoon rest, put it on a plate. Instead of cooking rice and eggs in dedicated rice and egg cookers, use a pot.
Jacob Lund Fisker, from Early Retirement Extreme

One of Marie Kondo's central themes is to respect your possessions: to respect each possession by using it, not derisively putting it in some drawer somewhere and forgetting about it, or letting it sit ignored in some corner of your home, collecting dust.

Now, I don't mean to be a downer on Marie Kondo in any way. She has influenced me substantially and I consider her way of thinking about possessions to be quite beautiful. But in my opinion, her discussion on kitchens and cooking gear was among the weakest portions of her two books.

The problem with a kitchen is you have to populate it with the dishes, pots, pans and utensils you use, not just the items that spark joy. Many of these items are merely functional and little more. It's not like you can decide "hey, my spoons, forks and knives don't spark joy, I thank them and bid them farewell." Then what? Eat with your fingers?

Likewise, while it's an intriguing idea to have a favorite joy-sparking bowl, a favorite joy-sparking glass, a favorite joy-sparking spoon, and so on, does this mean I have to also have a favorite joy-sparking everything in my kitchen? And what about everyone else in my home, since they use these items too? If you have a family and a fully equipped kitchen, you're definitely going to have a lot of "regular" plates, glasses, utensils, etc., that don't spark joy, but rather just... are. This is the equipment that gets used, and used heavily, when you're doing your best to feed your family.

This minor weakness in her otherwise excellent books made a bit more sense when she basically confessed to her readers that she didn't really cook, and that a typical meal for her was something along the lines of ramen in her favorite bowl with her favorite chopsticks. My understanding was she was living a bachelorette life when she wrote her first book, after which she got married, had two kids, and probably hasn't looked at her kitchen in the same way since. I'd be very interested in hearing how she balances the admirable aesthetic ideals of her books with the need for a functional kitchen that can feed four.

But here's where Jacob Lund Fisker and his paradigm-shattering book Early Retirement Extreme comes in to help out. Fisker typically focuses on avoiding the economic waste of purchasing items in the first place. This goes double for overpriced kitchen "unitasker" gadgets whose functions you can already perform with multipurpose items you already own.

Fisker might look askance my rice cooker (technically it's a unitasker), but I use it nearly every day and it's far easier than using a pot. And, further, at times he takes things to a level I don't quite want to go to. For example, he's openly discussed the merits of not owning a fridge, a degree of minimalism I'm just not ready to embrace.

Then again, most ideas can be applied to the level at which they help us, or they can be taken to an extreme. Typically, extreme examples of new ideas appear in our minds (usually in easily mockable form) because our egos are trying desperately to maintain the status quo.

However, what both of these writers illustrate convincingly is how most of us have many, many items we can easily eliminate with no loss of capability in our kitchen, freeing up space, making our kitchens more orderly, and making it easier and more enjoyable to cook meals at home. Most of our kitchen gear obeys a sort of 80/20 Rule (a rule that shows up in many, many life domains): a smallish portion of your kitchen tools and items get the vast majority of the use, while the bulk of your kitchen equipment gets used rarely or not at all.

A textbook example: here at Casual Kitchen, we've got a set of fancy schmancy carbon steel knives that on one level are kind of cool, but on a more pragmatic level they just never seem to get used. Another example: I have two very old, sentimental casserole dishes from my parents' kitchen that I use at most once a year (usually I use my own, newer casserole dishes instead).

If I were to really be honest with myself, I'd admit it: I'm treating these possessions derisively. If I'm not going to use them, it would be far better if I gave them to someone who will.

Back to our 80/20 Rule for a moment, where the bulk of our stuff gets used rarely or not at all. Clearly, we can easily identify the "used not at all" kitchen equipment... and dispense with it. But what about "rarely"? What about something you've used, say, once in the past year? Or once in the past three years?

This is where we go back to Marie Kondo's litmus test to decide: Does it spark joy? If yes, keep it. If no, bid it farewell. Therefore, those two sentimental casserole dishes from my parents' kitchen? They spark joy, and I will keep them forever.


READ NEXT: A Superior, Yet Less Expensive, Solution

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You can help support the work I do here at Casual Kitchen by visiting Amazon via any link on this site. Amazon pays a small commission to me based on whatever purchase you make on that visit, and it's at no extra cost to you. Thank you!

And, if you are interested at all in cryptocurrencies, yet another way you can help support my work here is to use this link to open up your own cryptocurrency account at Coinbase. I will receive a small affiliate commission with each opened account. Once again, thank you for your support!

Using the “Just Noticeable Difference” Against You

I wanted to share a quick idea with readers from a useful book: The Plateau Effect by Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson. The idea is of the "just noticeable difference," and it shows up in intriguing ways in the consumer products world. Knowing about it--and how it can be used against us--adds yet another defensive tool to readers interested in consumer empowerment.

First, what is a just noticeable difference? Sullivan and Thompson write:

"Psychologists define it as the amount of change in something it would take for us to notice the change. The just-noticeable difference has its own law: It takes a specific percentage of change in the intensity of the stimulus for someone to notice, and that percentage is constant for a given stimulus. It's the word percentage that's important here. For example, if you stared at a pile of four rocks, walked away for a while, and then came back and saw that there were five rocks, you would likely notice the difference. That's a one-rock change, but it's a 25 percent increase in the number of rocks. Now let's do that mental exercise with a bigger pile. What if someone added a rock to a pile of a hundred rocks? You're unlikely to notice the difference as that's only a 1 percent increase--well below the just-noticeable difference."

Given this, let's explore one of the consumer products industry's sneakiest tricks: the stealth price hike. This is a when a company slightly reduces the size or weight of a product while maintaining the price. It's long been a staple technique of food and packaged goods companies--a technique that helps explains certain oddities in the grocery store: like why a 16 ounce can of beans is actually 14.5 ounces, and why cereal comes in weirdly light 11.8 ounce boxes and so on.

Okay: if you were a consumer products company, and you wanted to sneak a stealth price hike onto consumers, how would you do it? Here's how: You'd figure out what the Just Noticeable Difference was, and reduce the size just a little bit less than that.

And in order to be an alert and empowered consumer, someone who is mindful and aware of possible games being played around you, you will want your JND to be as small as possible, so you'll be attuned to stealthy pricing tactics like this. You'll be able to notice them and punish the company instantly by practicing brand disloyalty and switching to a competing product.

Here's another example: Imagine you are a consumer products company offering a "jumbo" size or "bonus" size product. You want to grab consumers' attention and make sure they perceive it to be a tangibly good deal. What would be the proper incremental size change? It would need to be slightly above the just noticeable difference. But not any more than that! Otherwise you'd be giving away incremental product at no incremental profit.

Give the frog a thermometer
It's bad enough that others use the JND concept against us, but it's far worse when we use it against ourselves. It's how we discover one day--to our horror--that we've somehow gained 20 pounds, or that we've gradually accumulated a big pile of consumer debt. These are the results of years of gradual, incremental activity, all of which happened below our just noticeable difference. To borrow the metaphor from Sullivan and Thompson: we had a 100 rock rockpile and we added a non-noticeable rock to it over and over again. We never really noticed, until "suddenly" the rockpile had a thousand rocks on it.

Which brings us to a useful tool we can use to protect ourselves from being fooled by JNDs: that tool is to establish clear, objective milestones and metrics.

Vegans and vegetarians please skip this paragraph: Everyone knows the story of the frog and a pot of boiling water: if you put a frog into a pot of already-boiling water, he'll jump right out. But if you put a frog into a pot of cool water and slowly, gradually, heat it up, he'll never notice. Those incremental changes are below his JND! He'll sit there and eventually boil to death.

So, give the frog a thermometer. Make it so you have a concrete and measurable way to catch these JNDs while they happen, and before they get out of control. A few examples:

* Periodically weigh yourself or track your BMI, and document any changes.
* Keep a training log where you measure yourself against basic fitness metrics.
* Maintain a price book for consumer products prices.

In terms of financial goals (saving for retirement, saving for a child's education, etc.), your "frog thermometer" would be to document specific, concrete financial milestones in advance (by year end 2018 I want to have $10,000 in my child's college fund, by year end 2019, $17,000, and so on), and then track your progress against these milestones. This approach can work for debt reduction and weight loss too.

Conclusion
The more meta you can be about JNDs, the better. Try to be mindful of where JNDs are likely to be used--and more importantly, be mindful of where they might be hiding, unperceived. Give yourself a frog thermometer and you won't be fooled again, by yourself or by others.


For Further Reading
The Plateau Effect by Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson






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You can help support the work I do here at Casual Kitchen by visiting Amazon via any link on this site. Amazon pays a small commission to me based on whatever purchase you make on that visit, and it's at no extra cost to you. Thank you!

And, if you are interested at all in cryptocurrencies, yet another way you can help support my work here is to use this link to open up your own cryptocurrency account at Coinbase. I will receive a small affiliate commission with each opened account. Once again, thank you for your support!

Money Sundays: Beware Buying Stocks on Margin

Readers: I originally wrote this post for a now-defunct website. I thought I’d share the insights here at Casual Kitchen for those readers interested in investing and personal finance.

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Margin buying is a tool that both individual and professional investors can use to boost their returns. However it can be a risky tool, and if overused, margin debt can be disastrous.

First you need to set up what's called a "margin account" with your broker. Usually these types of brokerage accounts will have minimum capital requirements, in some cases as much as US$25,000.

Let's go through a simple example of how margin borrowing works. First let's say you want to buy stock in XYZ company, which trades for $100 a share. You have enough capital in the account to buy 250 shares already ($100 x 250 = $25,000). But let's say you would like to buy MORE stock than that. With a margin account, you can borrow money from your broker to fund the purchase. This is called "buying stock on margin."

The "initial margin" required for a margin account purchase is 50%. Thus the broker will loan you funds for your investment, but you must have initial collateral in the account to equal half of the stock you want to buy. Thus a $25,000 margin account balance can theoretically give you "buying power" for $50,000 worth of stock. In return for this, the broker will charge you margin interest rates on your loan balance. Generally, margin interest rates range from 8-10%.

Let's look at an example of how using margin affects your returns. First we'll take a best-case scenario where the stock actually goes up. Let's say XYZ stock goes from $100 a share to $120 a share over the course of one year. If you had bought the stock with only your own money, your $25,000 in capital would have grown to $30,00 (250 shares x $120 per share), or a profit of $5,000 on your $25,000 initial investment. Congratulations, you just earned 20%!

But what if instead you had maxed out your margin account and bought $50,000 in XYZ stock?

First, you would have purchased 500 shares of XYZ stock at $100, using $25,000 of your own money and $25,000 of the broker's money.

After a year, when the stock was at $120 per share, you would have 500 shares XYZ at $120, or $60,000. Then you would need to subtract out $2,250 in margin interest expense (I'm assuming the broker charges you 9% interest for the margin borrowing). This leaves you with $57,750 in capital. Again, recall that you have invested $25,000 and you have borrowed $25,000 from the broker to make the initial $50,000 investment.

Let's assume you sell the stock now, and return the $25,000 to the broker. You've earned $7,750 ($60,000 minus $2,250 in interest expense, minus the $25,000 you borrowed from the broker) on your initial personal capital of $25,000. Congratulations even more! In this example you've earned 31% ($7,750 divided by $25,000). The extra borrowing power from the broker juiced your returns meaningfully, even after paying the added interest expense.

Sounds great, doesn't it? Well, like almost everything in investing, there is no free lunch. Stocks can go down too. For example, if XYZ stock that you bought in the margin example falls to $75 per share, your 500 shares will be worth only $37,500. But the problem is you still owe $25,000 to your broker. So that $12,500 loss ($50,000 minus $37,500) comes entirely out of YOUR pocket. Thus the $25,000 of your own money that you invested is now worth only $10,250, because you need to pay back the $25,000 to the broker AND pay the $2,250 in interest expense.

Thus with a 25% decline in the price of XYZ stock, you've lost 59% of your personal investment! And if-heaven forbid-the stock falls to $54.50, your investment will be totally wiped out after paying back the margin loan plus interest.

As they say on Wall Street, margin works both ways. It can eat you alive. When you use margin to buy stocks and they go down, your capital will be exposed to severe risk. Many investors learned this lesson the hard way during the 2000-2002 and the 2007-2009 market corrections.

Happy investing, and use margin with great care!

The All-Time Best Technique for Saving Money on Groceries

Want to make it easier to save money on food? This simple three-part shopping technique helps you save money at the grocery store every single time you go:

1) Have a flexible grocery list.
2) Have a collection of favorite recipes in your head (or on your smartphone).
3) Have a "treasure hunt" mindset for genuine screaming bargains.

Let's get into the details:

1) A flexible grocery list
If you bumble into a grocery store with a fixed, rigid grocery list, you're at the mercy of the prices the store offers you on that day. If you "need" ground beef, or butternut squash (or whatever), you're gonna end up paying whatever the store makes you pay. The worst and most costly form of this error is to "need" a totally out-of-season ingredient (e.g., fresh raspberries in the middle of winter), when the quality of the item is lowest and the price is highest.

In these situations you become a lowly price taker--you're stuck paying whatever price they ask, no matter how high. You might as well beg the store to separate you from your money.

Prices for any given product in your grocery store always fluctuate, and often fluctuate dramatically. If you stay flexible and ready to pounce on foods that are attractively priced--and only those foods--you'll be a price maker. In this case, you--not the store--decide the price you'll pay for something by not being rigid about when you buy it.

Next, we'll integrate Step #1 with our next step, Step #2:

2) A handy set of family-favorite recipes in your head (or smartphone)
When you see attractive sale prices on a given food item, the next step is to build recipes around that food. The easiest way to do this is to memorize your family's favorite heavy rotation recipes.

Of course, we live in the smartphone era nowadays, so readers can rely on their smartphones rather than literally carrying the recipes around in their brains. Either way, the goal is the same: structure what you eat that week around whatever foods are on sale.

Let's go over an example employing Steps #1 and #2 using my inside voice:

"Hmmmm... I see potatoes are on sale big time this week. Only $1.00 for a 5lb bag, and buy one get one free! Whoa. Okay what recipes can I build around that? Vegan Potato Peanut Curry? I already have tahini, peanut butter and garlic at home... let's see, spices too, I've got turmeric and cayenne already. I just need a 29-ounce can of diced tomatoes and I can make a huge double batch. It'll last all week!"

A sidenote to smartphone users: your memory isn't totally off the hook. As you can see, you'll also need to have some idea of what's sitting in your pantry back home that you might use to complete these recipes.

Here's the central principle: Build your meals based on what's on sale, rather than walking into the grocery store with a rigid list of ingredients for a rigid meal plan and paying whatever price they ask.

Another quick example, again using my inside voice:

"Stewed and canned tomatoes are 2/3 off this week, and I noticed a good sale on boneless, skinless chicken thighs. Hmmm, okay: I've already got unsweetened chocolate at home, and plenty of spices. This would be a good week to make some Chicken Mole, and it will feed us for a few days, easy!"

And so on. Once again, the idea is to combine your internalized knowledge of a set of basic (and ideally Laughably Cheap) family-favorite recipes, and match it with whatever happens to be on sale at the store. Result? A hilariously low grocery bill and plenty of healthy homemade food.

Now, let's move on to Step #3, which is essentially Steps #1 and #2 on steroids.

3) A "treasure hunt" mentality for genuine screaming bargains
Periodically a grocery store (or for that matter any retailer) will have a ridiculous sale on something. Perhaps it will be a buy one get two free (67% off) sale, or a manager's special on food that is about to pass its sell-by date.

About two months ago, I found a manager's special on Italian-style spicy sausage links, more than three pounds for the hilariously cheap price of $2.17. The meat was a day from its sell-by date, but so what? A sell-by date means nothing if you can freeze the item! I took it home, froze it, and we're still working our way through it, months--and many, many recipes--later.

Likewise, I wrote a post long ago about a pernil I prepared, featured in Daisy Martinez's wonderful cookbook Daisy Cooks. I was wandering through the meat section with my treasure hunt mindset on, and found a pork shoulder for the hilariously cheap price of 49c a pound. Which meant the 4.5lb pork shoulder I bought cost only $2.27.

These are minor and nearly silly examples, really, but they both illustrate the central principle: at some point over the course of a year, practically everything in a given grocery store will be offered at substantial markdowns. Make that the moment you buy.

One caveat: Keep in mind stores often use loss leader or doorbuster pricing in order to draw people into the store, with the condescending but unfortunately all too accurate presumption that once you're there, you'll spend money on other items too. The store therefore makes up its losses on the doorbuster item and then some. You, however, as a sophisticated consumer who knows to play chess, not checkers, with doorbuster pricing, will be way ahead of the game. You'll know to pick up the sale item and only that item, and then walk out, metaphorically (or literally?) rubbing your hands with glee for the legitimately great deal you just got.

Just like any other retailer, your grocery store is subject to various cycles and idiosyncrasies. Sometimes they misjudge demand. Sometimes they (or their suppliers) inadvertently ship excess inventory. Sometimes products simply need to be moved because the sell-by date approaches, and the store wants to make a little cash flow off of soon-to-be-worthless inventory.

A savvy consumer who remains alert to situations like these has a true treasure hunt mindset, and by combining the steps in this post, she can feed a family on a fraction of the cost of a typical, rigidly-structured grocery trip.


When shopping for groceries, knowing many recipes by heart allows one to tailor what's for dinner to whichever loss leaders are on sale, rather than venturing out with a shopping list and having to buy single missing ingredients.
--Early Retirement Extreme, by Jacob Lund Fisker


READ NEXT: Why Bad Blogs Get More Readers
AND: Should You Give Advice Encouraging Others Not to Spend?



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You can help support the work I do here at Casual Kitchen by visiting Amazon via any link on this site. Amazon pays a small commission to me based on whatever purchase you make on that visit, and it's at no extra cost to you. Thank you!

And, if you are interested at all in cryptocurrencies, yet another way you can help support my work here is to use this link to open up your own cryptocurrency account at Coinbase. I will receive a small affiliate commission with each opened account. Once again, thank you for your support!


Good Games

We might start by considering the all-too-black-and-white words themselves: "success" or "failure." You are either a success, a comprehensive, singular, over-all good thing, or its opposite, a failure, a comprehensive, singular irredeemably bad thing. The words imply no alternative and no middle ground. However, in a world as complex as ours, such generalizations (really, such failure to differentiate) are a sign of naive, unsophisticated or even malevolent analysis. There are vital degrees and gradations of value obliterated by this binary system, and the consequences are not good.

To begin with, there is not just one game at which to succeed or fail. There are many games and, more specifically, many good games--games that match your talents, involve you productively with other people, and sustain and even improve themselves across time.
--Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos

Jordan Peterson, thanks to his excellent new book 12 Rules For Life, has me thinking, metaphorically, about the various games playable and available to us in life, and how useful it is to think about the world in terms of games. It takes some of the existential pressure off of life, somehow, and it helps you reframe "failure" into "I'm still learning, I'm still working at this, I want to get better."

So what kinds of "games" are there out there that we can play?

Frugality is a game. Getting better at it means you become better able to financially protect your family.

Cooking is a game. The more you "play" it, the better you'll eat and the healthier you'll be.

You can even combine the games of cooking and frugality to make a entirely new game. In fact that was exactly the focus of this blog during its first years.

Blogging is a game. Is this blog a success? Not really. It's not all that widely read, it doesn't make all that much money, it's never had a post that went truly viral, etc. So, no, it's not a success--not by most peoples' definition at least, and certainly not if I were to use the "binary, malevolent analysis" Jordan Peterson warns us not to use in the quote above.

But then again: I've kept at it here for more than ten years, and over that time I've learned an extraordinary amount about writing, to say nothing of learning deeply about all the topics I've covered. There's no better way to learn how little you really know about a subject than to write about it--and this goes double for subjects you think you know well. So, is Casual Kitchen a success?

Investing and personal finance is a game. In fact, thinking of it as a game is an excellent device to help manage the often insurmountable fears many people experience as they begin. It's just a game! Invest a little, learn a little, invest a little more, learn a little more, continue and get better.

Fitness is a game, a game with many, many intriguing subgames. Tennis is a game I've played for years, but a few years ago I began to experience a type of "failure" in tennis: I started bumping up against opponents who were better than I was, and who were improving at faster rates than I was. Some players I used to beat I could no longer beat, some I couldn't beat ever, and my ego didn't like it. At all. And I started to get disaffected (I can't think of a better word) with the game. Certainly, I had all the egoic reason in the world to quit, or to just play easier opponents, etc.

But then, in order to help recover my fitness, my footspeed and my "fight" in tennis, I started up another fitness game: weightlifting. Specifically, I started compound lifting (deadlifts, squats, different types of presses, etc.). This new game had its own rules, standards, failures and successes.

Of course whenever you start a new game, your expectations are low, you are happy to learn, your progress is rapid at first, and your ego doesn't get in the way quite so much. This, again, is why thinking of life in terms of games is so helpful.

Heh. Then again, with weightlifting, my ego did get in the way early on, imagining how idiotic I must have looked doing my first halting deadlifts of a bar with exactly zero pounds on it. But I somehow defied my ego, fought through the imagined-yet-all-too-real embarrassment of being seen as weak, and this opened up an entirely new game that I found deeply satisfying. And, ironically, deeply frustrating all over again as I got better at it and started to see my once-rapid progress start to level off.

Which takes us to yet another game, a type of meta-game: the games we play with our egos. Or perhaps better said: the games our egos play with us.

All of the games I've discussed above have offered me satisfaction and frustration in varying degrees, depending on behavior--or misbehavior--of my ego. Of maybe it's more accurate to say depending on the degree to which I listen to my ego or do the opposite of what it wants me to do.

Which brings me to my conclusion: The more I do the exact opposite of what my fearful and loathsomely persuasive ego wants me to do, the better all these games tend to go.

Finally, let me recommend 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos to readers. It's a generous gift that Jordan Peterson wrote this book, and it's well worth reading.


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You can help support the work I do here at Casual Kitchen by visiting Amazon via any link on this site. Amazon pays a small commission to me based on whatever purchase you make on that visit, and it's at no extra cost to you. Thank you!

And, if you are interested at all in cryptocurrencies, yet another way you can help support my work here is to use this link to open up your own cryptocurrency account at Coinbase. I will receive a small affiliate commission with each opened account. Once again, thank you for your support!