A Story About Paying Off Debt and the Obstacles Along the Way

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Holiday Sadness and Money Wins



The Holiday Blues


Whewwwww. Two days after Christmas, and I'm kind of ready - okay, no, very much ready - for this holiday season to be over.

Don't get me wrong: I enjoy many aspects of the Thanksgiving-Christmas-New Years trifecta, including the lights, the food, spending time with my immediate family, more food, and yes, the presents (this is the time of year when I get new running clothes, so I can't help but feel excited about the gifts under the tree).

But parts of it were just... a lot. We had visitors over Thanksgiving, which was exhausting. My workload has been relatively high (for me): I had to take advantage of extra hours while I could, which meant working 7-8 hours every day this week except Christmas Day.

Most blah of all, this season has felt lonely in a way that I was not anticipating. I'm sure part of it has to do with the isolation of working from home, but after three years of living here, I feel like we should have more friends, or at least friends that we see on a more regular basis. I feel like our social fabric should be stronger than it is. We should be out visiting! And partying! And celebrating! With other humans! And... we didn't. We weren't.

I visited cats. We partied with a laser toy. Does that count?

I found myself wondering whether it's worth it to stay here. As much as I love the physical beauty that we appreciate every single day, this place is freaking expensive, and people can be a bit shut off. Do I want to pay this much money to feel like a social outcast? Would it be worthwhile to move to a more affordable and larger city with more job and social opportunities? And how great would it be to live in a place with a personal finance/FI community? (Yes, I know I could create one, but I don't want to lead and organize a group. Been there, done that. No thank you.)

Absolutely zero decisions were made. If I had to make a bet, I'd wager that no decisions will be made anytime soon. I mean, maybe I just have a touch of seasonal depression, and maybe my outlook will change when the days get longer.

But those were the things I thought about, and it kind of sucked.

Obviously, turning the page on a new year doesn't make those questions and issues disappear, but we need to be able to consider them without the extra pressure of the holidays. Now that they're almost over, I'm already feeling like I have a little more breathing room.

Next week, my work hours will drop to half time. Although that means less money coming in and a tighter budget than we've been keeping over the past three months, I'm looking forward to giving some space and time to my creative side. I'm excited to figure out what I want to focus on in 2020 and develop some goals. I need to put together a training plan for the TransRockies Race. I'd like to get more involved in local trail and environmental organizations (which might help with the whole I-have-no-friends thing). We're also gearing up to fill out some home loan paperwork, just to see what we qualify for (does not address the friend thing, but it might help with housing costs, if we're lucky).

And if finances gets tight and I need to find another job, well, I'll have some extra time to get that sorted out.


Winning, December 2019 Edition


Fun fact: this post was supposed to be about December money wins.

I'm way off track.

To get this post back to where it's supposed to be, I'll share that we did have some good financial stuff happen this month:

(1) Now that our campground membership is gone, we can devote another $100/month to the student loan. In December, we paid $508. It's still a very long, slow road to loan payoff, but at least we picked up the pace a little. I'm hoping we can continue paying this much. If our rent goes up again in May (sigh), we might have to reconsider.

(2) We increased Fortysomething's retirement contributions by 1%. Happily, his paycheck decreased by only about $20. After we let the dust settle on the holidays, we'll revisit retirement contributions and possibly increase them by another 1% in the new year.

(3) I convinced one of my petsitting clients to abandon Rover and pay me directly. Man, it was NICE to keep that 20%. I made $200 from one booking over the holidays! I'm going to check with my other regular to see if she'd be willing to cut out the middleman (middleapp?) as well.

What about you? How was your holiday? Do you ever have the blues during what's supposed to be a festive and celebratory season? And what about your December money wins?
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I Just Spent A Lot To Do A Thing


Hello, $76K readers.

Welcome back.

Now that you're here, please allow me to take a minute to just

scream.

*ahem*


AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH

FYI, that was a good scream. A happy scream.

Because I have MADE A PERSONAL/LIFE/FINANCIAL DECISION after weeks (I mean it, weeks) of agonizing and obsessing.

(First off, a disclaimer: YES, I involved my family in this decision, and YES, everyone's on board. We've talked about it to the point that Fortysomething's like, I don't know how many ways to tell you that it's absolutely fine, why are we still discussing it.)


Do You Want To Know What It Is?


Okay.

Here, watch this:


That's right, people:

I'M GOING TO RUNNER SUMMER CAMP IN COLORADO!

As of last night, I'm signed up for part of the Transrockies Run 2020, a multi-day stage race across the mountains of Colorado. This race has an outstanding reputation not only for the scenery, but also for the logistics. Registration includes pretty much everything: accommodations (a tent each night), breakfast and dinner, a shower truck, and luggage transport from one stage to the next. Also, beverages (aka beer). People rave about the experience. The race definitely attracts high-caliber runners, but it also welcomes average runners of all ages and body types who just love the sport and want to cover some major distance in a beautiful place.

The full experience is six days long and covers a total of 120 miles, but I'm signed up for the three-day option: 21 miles the first day, 13 miles the second, and 24 miles the third. At altitude. It'll be a challenge, but I think I can do it. (The six-day option averages 20 miles a day for six days in a row. I'm not ready for that. It's also way more expensive.)


So How Much Does It Cost?


...What's that you say?

You want to know the registration fee?

*cough*

*cough cough*

Something in my throat, sorry.

What now?

Oh.

It's... well, it's expensive.

To cut to the chase, the total cost is about $1400. That's why I've spent so long talking myself out of (and then into) signing up. I think the price tag makes sense - again, it covers the race itself, food, tent rental, five nights of camping, and sports therapy stuff - but whewwwww.


Why Am I Doing This Thing?


If you've read even just a few posts on this blog, you probably know that I'm pretty obsessed with running. It's weird, given that a) I'm not fast, b) I'm not agile, and c) I'm a perfectionist who likes to do things she can excel in. When people picture runners, they conjure images of lean, gazelle-like Olympians.

But I am not lean. I am not quick. I have more in common with a fire hydrant than a "real runner."

Typically, I don't bother doing things I'm not that good at because it damages my sensitive little ego. But for reasons I haven't fully deciphered, I love running despite myself. I love who I am as a runner. I can't tell if I turn into a different person when I put on my running shoes or if I just morph into the best version of myself, but either way, especially as someone prone to mental illness, it's good for me.

Whereas other aspects of life easily make me crumble, as a runner, I am determined, consistent, persistent, pragmatic, and surprisingly cheerful. In my snail-like way, I get out there and keep going. I can continue putting one foot in front of the other even when the experience is painful and/or boring.

I've been running for more than 20 years and have had only one injury (I overtrained, and my IT band rebelled).

So in my mind, by my own standards, I am a runner, and a pretty successful one at that.

Running a multi-day stage race is something I've been wanting to do for at least a decade. The Transrockies Race has been on my radar for a couple of years, but I've been particularly aware of it since registration opened up several months ago. Given the reputation of this event, I was intrigued. But I also felt that signing up would be completely unreasonable and selfish given that we could be saving that money or using it for other things.

I shoved the thought out of my head, but it kept coming back, over and over again.


Once Again, Finding Balance


In order to pay for this race, we'll have to dip into savings. That's what gave me so much pause.

We've spent the last two years paying off debt and building an emergency fund, and to throw so much at one experience feels like we're moving backwards in a way. We've got momentum now! Shouldn't we just keep saving and investing and gaining financial ground?

Once again, I find myself trying to find that balance between planning for the future and making the most of the moment. I am 41 years old. I am healthy. I can easily take a week off from my part-time job to go run in the woods. And while I hope I'll be able to keep running for the rest of my life, while I hope that I could make this same choice any year and not just this year, nothing is guaranteed.

After four decades of life and watching random and terrible things happen to people you love, that fact really starts to sink in. The phrase "Make hay while the sun shines" takes on new significance.


Don't Just Save The Fish, Eat The Fish


Part of my hesitation in signing up was the thought that continuing to add to the already-stocked emergency fund would be a smarter move. But that started to feel strangely icky.

It took me a while to figure out why:

Would I rather throw more money into an untouchable account intended to cover us in the event of future problems, or would I rather invest in something that excites me and makes me feel alive in the here and now?

Would I rather prepare even more than we already have for the nebulous bad stuff that could be awaiting us somewhere, sometime down the road, or would I rather focus on the more immediate things that I so clearly care about in the present?

The former seemed like the smarter move, but it also made me feel deeply depressed, as if we'd just be sitting around waiting for the other shoe to drop. That was the part making me feel blurghy: the notion that we're supposed to hoard money and deprive ourselves of things that bring us joy, spending the cash only when truly awful and expensive things to happen to us.

Fortysomething and I are into survival reality television. We recently watched a season of Alone (a show about surviving alone in the wilderness) in which one of the participants spent weeks conscientiously drying and storing fish for the winter. In the meantime, he allowed himself a mere half a fish every 48 hours. One day, the medical team came in for a routine check and discovered that his body mass index had dipped below 17% - an indication that he was actually starving.

When they evacuated him, the guy was severely emaciated, had something like 40 whole fish hanging in his shelter, and was screaming promises that he'd eat more if they'd just let him stay.

Point being: there has to be a balance between preparing for the future and nourishing yourself now. You can't sacrifice present-day you for future you; that defeats the whole purpose of preparation.


Moving On From Sunk Costs


Aside from the adventure and the challenge, the other reason I want to run this race is because I need something new and big to focus on.

Since leaving an academic job in 2016, much of my brain space has been taken up by thoughts of finding work, hating work, quitting work, feeling like a job hopper, feeling like a failure for not using my degree, and feeling like graduate school was a pointless endeavor. I've been sad about all of the knowledge I won't use and all the so-called friends I've lost now that we aren't in the same career field. I've obsessed about wasted time.

In other words, I've been focused on the things that didn't pan out despite enormous investments in time and energy - the sunk costs. And that's okay. It's okay (and necessary) to grieve.

But at this point, I'm ready to invest in what is working in my life instead of agonizing over my perceived inadequacies. I'm ready to place my focus on what I can mostly control.

Preparing for this race - because it will take a lot of preparation - is a way for me to redirect my attention so that I don't get stuck in the Land of Shoulda Wouldas and can keep moving forward.

I don't know where my "career," such that it is, is going, but this race gives me a better sense of where my life is going.

ANNNNNNYWAY, that was very long. Thanks for reading the whole post. Thanks for letting me dig into my thoughts. Thanks for listening. (And if you have annny interest in living in a running camp for four days and crewing for me, let me know.)
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19 For '19 Goals: A Wrap-Up


Way back in January of this year, I posted an ambitious, finance-heavy list of 19 goals. I called it "19 for '19". (Had it been 2017, I would have posted 17 goals. 2010? Ten goals. You get the picture. I'm going to be in real trouble in 2050.)

When I developed this list, I was feeling optimistic. We were building our savings. We were paying off debt and ramping up on investments. Plus, I had a fancy new job in the works.

We were on a roll! Prepare to be crushed, goals!

And then... Then, life did its thing. My "career" (if you could call it that) exploded in a spectacular, irreversible way. Or perhaps more accurately, I felt the need to start over and blew it all up. I left The Worst Job Ever and became a quitter without a plan.

I spent a few random months as a lady of leisure. I learned some Italian, took daily afternoon naps, watched every documentary that caught my attention on Netflix (might I recommend The Dawn Wall and Losing Sight of Shore?), and walked dogs for what amounted to pocket change.

It was fun. It was not lucrative.

I started to think that perhaps we should scrap the entire goals list. I mean, it's tough to meet your money goals if you have no money. Everything felt so uncertain.

By the end of July, I had a new part-time job that I liked for the most part. Money started trickling in again - less of it than before I quit, but enough. Somehow, it all worked out okay, and somehow, we ended up meeting many of our goals anyway.

So here are the goals in review, along with an assessment of how these priorities evolved throughout the year.


Success!: The Goals I/We Met


1. Quit my job. I quit a well-paying but mindnumbing job in January of 2019, took a week off, launched into The Worst Job Ever, and walked out three months later. Technically, I met this goal twice. Bonus points!

A few weeks ago, I actually saw an ad for the mindnumbing job. Same company, same position, same responsibilities, and I had to ask myself: do I regret leaving, especially considering that I left for a total disaster? Could I ever see myself going back?

Answers: no, and NO. There was a reason I was so desperate to get out of that job. True, I was compensated fairly, but I was also bored out of my mind, and management treated me and my perfectly capable coworkers like wayward children who needed constant supervision and feedback. It wasn't as bad as The Worst Job Ever, but it was still pretty terrible. The money wasn't worth it, and I'm glad I left. 

2. Paid off my student loan. We paid off the last $3500 in March. Getting rid of one of our student loans was so motivating. It was a bright spot during a dark, insomnia-ridden spring.

3. Paid off our remaining medical bills. We had a balance of $1300 for my kid's 2018 appendectomy. We paid that off in March, too.

4. Saved $10,000 in our emergency fund. We crossed this threshold in October. Of all of the goals on the original list, this is the one I most wanted to achieve. When I quit my job, I was skeptical that we'd be able to do it. I thought we'd end up depleting our cash stash, not adding to it. We were able to accomplish it thanks to a combination of extra hours at my new (well, new-ish) part-time job and some good bonuses for Fortysomething.

5. Paid off our campground membership. I definitely didn't think this was going to happen, but then... surprise bonus to the rescue! We were able to pay off the $1700 balance in November. Lesson learned this year: Fortysomething's got some good bonuses.

6. Attended TWO financial retreats! I had an opportunity to go to the Lola Retreat in Los Angeles in February and CentsPositive in Seattle in October. The main thing I took from these experiences is that I want to have more of them. I WANT TO DO ALLLLLL OF THE RETREATS. The women I met at these events went above and beyond my expectations in terms of how genuine, kind, openminded, and supportive they were, and talking finances in a women-only environment was incredibly empowering.

7. Attended a mini family reunion at Disneyland and visited family. Disney happened because we were invited to mooch off my family, and we did. Like, you want to give us this amazing thing? We will not argue or decline! And I'm so glad we went, because Scrooge McDuck here (me) ended up LOVING Disneyland. I can completely understand why people go back every year and spend hundreds of dollars to do it. We won't. But I want to.


Things That Did Not Happen


I mean, I had 19 goals on the list. No way was I going to check all of them off. Here's what fell to the wayside or had to be put off:

1. Achieve a positive net worth. We fell just short of this goal in 2019. That's okay. We're only about $4000 away at this point. SO CLOSE. As long as we continue to contribute to Fortysomething's retirement fund and make monthly student loan payments, we'll likely get there in 2020.

2. Max out my HSA. Once I left my job and decided to sign up for short-term health insurance instead of ACA insurance, contributing to an HSA was off the table. However, I still have about $800 in the HSA from The Worst Job Ever.

Can I just say this? I may have been at that gig for only a couple of months, but I am SO GLAD that I dumped enough into my 401K and HSA to get the company matches for those benefits. The whole experience was terrible, but knowing that they had to give me some extra money and couldn't take it back (because it vested immediately) was a silver lining.

3. Each day, meditate for 10-15 minutes, work out, and drink 64 ounces of water. Why do I continue to make health- and fitness-related goals? By now, I should know that I'm more successful with this sort of thing when I don't put it in writing. That said, I was very consistent with running. On average, I ran 5-6 miles most days of the week. The meditation and hydration, however, fell through the cracks while I was working at The Worst Job Ever. I didn't have the headspace to make it all happen, and then later I just didn't feel like it.

4. Get my passport renewed. It didn't happen but it WILL happen in early 2020. I need to stop procrastinating on this. 

5. Comment on or share three posts, four times per week, and make $100 on the blog. I increased my bloggy interactions, but not to the extent I'd originally planned on. I'm a slacker. As for making money off the blog:

*SNORT*

I tossed this goal out the window as soon as Adsense stopped working on my site. But whatever. Adsense, you suck. I DIDN'T WANT TO BE YOUR FRIEND ANYWAY. Also, I was (and still am) too lazy to figure out how to fix the problem because I was (and still am) too lazy to make money off this blog.

6. Read two books per month and log them on Goodreads. ...Do I even have a Goodreads account? I can't remember. In lieu of this goal, however, I did attend every single meeting of my book club. As a committed participant, I read approximately 1/3 of the books and sampled all of the wine.

7. Worry less. This is called Me Being Delusional. This is called Setting Myself Up For Failure. New 2020 goal: worry all the time. I can do that!

Here's the nice thing about goals: they can really help you see where your priorities lie. That's how it is for me, anyway. If I work towards the goal, I know that it means something to me. If I don't, it's likely because I don't actually give a shit and just wanted my list to look nice and well-rounded.

Stay tuned for a 2020 list in January!

What about you? How did your 2019 goals pan out?
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What I Learned From A Week Of Reducing My Plastic Use And Trying To Be A More Conscientious Consumer


Last week, I participated in the Tread Lightly, Retire Early Plastic Free December Challenge. The general goal of the challenge was to find ways to reduce plastic use, something I'm on board with one thousand percent. My family has developed and maintained a solid collection of environmentally-friendly habits over the years, but this is one area where I've long felt we should be able to do better.

Right away, I knew we probably wouldn't be able to go all-in on the challenge because plastic is so omnipresent at the one place we visit on a regular basis: the grocery store. There, plastic is everywhere. Plastic fruit cartons. Plastic bread bags. Plastic hummus containers. Plastic-wrapped lunch box snacks and cheese sticks. Meat in plastic. Cheese in plastic. Cereal in plastic. Yogurt in plastic. Inexplicably, sometimes even canned goods are bundled together in plastic.

It would be almost impossible to avoid plastic entirely unless every single person in the family was on board and willing to make major sacrifices - and I didn't want to ask them to do that, especially during a busy work and school week, and especially because I'm not the one who does the grocery shopping in our household. My partner does.

So instead, I decided to modify the rules and develop my own goals for the week while still maintaining the spirit of the challenge.

Here's what I came up with:

1. Continue implementing the environmentally-friendly actions that are already regular habits in our family (see below)
2. Buy milk in cartons instead of plastic bottles
3. Purchase dry goods from bulk bins, using plastic-free, reusable bags
4. Make more homemade food (such as bread, granola bars, and yogurt) to reduce packaged, processed stuff
5. Avoid all animal products


Current Enviro-Friendly Habits


As a family, we already make the following planet-friendly choices:

1. We drink water from the tap and use reusable water bottles. The water where we live is regularly monitored, safe to drink, and tastes great, so we don't see a point in buying it. Each family member has their own designated water bottle, and we've gotten accustomed to carting them around with us.

(Sidenote: I have a real problem with the bottled water industry because it takes a limited natural resource that should be available to everyone and commodifies it. Bottled water is absolutely necessary in some cases - for instance, in areas where drinking water is polluted - but for the most part, it's a total racket. Clean, safe water should be a right, not something that is transformed into corporate profits.)

2. We bring cloth bags to the grocery store. We have about 10 bags that we cycle through on a regular basis. At this point, it's a habit. If the occasional plastic bag sneaks into the mix at checkout, we don't sweat it, but cloth bags are so much more durable and so much better for the environment (assuming you're actually using them and not, you know, dumping boxes and boxes of them into a landfill).

3. We own only one car and fill the tank only about once a month. We can do this because (a) we live in a small town, so all of our usual destinations are close by, (b) my partner walks to work, and (c) I work from home.

4. I'm a vegetarian, and my partner and son have cut back on meat. Meat is an energy- and water-intensive product, so to us, limiting our consumption makes sense.


So How Did The Week Go?


I succeeded in maintaining my current habits and avoiding animal products. The only non-plant based food I consumed was half of a cheese pizza on Friday night. (I was really hungry and pizza is my favorite food.) We also met our milk container goal: my partner opted for cartons this week. They still contain plastic, but as far as I know, they contain less plastic than traditional plastic jugs. So... yay?

I completely bombed, however, at bulk binning. I visited a local organic grocery store that frequently boasts about its reduction in single-use plastics. It seemed like the perfect place to deploy my reusable cloth bags for items like beans, rice, and nuts. Turns out that the store has completely done away with its bulk bins and now sells - and I quote - "prepackaged bulk bin items." In other words, they wrap all of their products in plastic and sell them in pre-measured portions, just like every other grocery store in town. The produce section was tiny, and the rest of the establishment was pretty much a sea of processed goods. There was something extra depressing about shopping at an all-natural grocery store that's failing so hard at being good to the environment.

Not worth it. I won't be back.

I didn't get around to making bread or granola bars, though I'm hoping to do so this week. I did, however, try my hand at making cashew yogurt. This recipe turned out to be a smashing success! You just soak some cashews, blend them up with a little water, mix in a tablespoon of yogurt starter, and then let the nutty concoction sit in a low-temperature oven for 12 to 24 hours while the fermentation gets rolling. The yogurt is tart, tangy, and delicious, and it takes almost no time to mix up the ingredients. Best part: not having to spend $6 on a plastic tub of vegan yogurt.


What I Learned


1. I already knew this, but the Plastic Free Challenge underlined the fact that the grocery store is a minefield of single-use plastic. Even if you arrive at the store fully outfitted with your own bags and containers, you'd be hard-pressed to avoid plastic entirely. Berries? In plastic. Salad? In plastic. Cereal, rice, and other dry goods? Plastic (unless your store is still on board with "unsanitary" bulk bins). We could probably curate a wider array of non-plastic-packaged options if we were willing to visit multiple stores every week, but... we're not.

2. We're already making some excellent, easy-to-implement consumer choices. Obviously, there's always MORE one could do, but at the very least, we're grabbing the lower-hanging enviro-friendly fruit on a consistent basis, and that's something.

3. Consumers could make more environmentally-friendly choices if corporate entities offered more and better options. How often are we told that we as consumers are the ones holding the power when it comes to improving the health of our planet? How many times are we told that if we just use less water and less plastic, buy less stuff, drive less, etc. etc., the Earth will be a healthier place? How many times are we told that it's up to us? (Thanks for this link, Done by Forty.)

But how are we supposed to make better choices if our only options are mediocre ones?

Take the organic grocery store: I don't want to buy my almonds in a package. I want to pour some raw almonds into a cloth bag that I can take home, wash, and use again. That shouldn't be hard. But most stores where I live give me no way to do that. I'm practically forced to purchase all of my dry goods in plastic.

4. We need to stop pretending that consumers are entirely responsible for our environmental problems. I know this is going to sound totally depressing and defeatist, but the week made me feel a little less hopeful about the future. There's only so much that individuals can do. We need government involvement and legislation (especially for environmental issues that don't care about arbitrary, human-crafted boundaries), and we need corporate buy-in. We need the entities with the real power to use their power in a positive way and stop passing the buck to the little guys (us).

It's unfair and disingenuous for corporate and government giants to put all environmental responsibility on consumers. They need to take action and make changes, too. From a big-picture perspective, it's imperative they get involved.

In other words, we need systemic environmental change.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying that you shouldn't make good environmental choices as an individual. You absolutely should, especially because your choices have positive impacts in your community. The less waste we create and the less plastic we use, the less crap that will end up in local watersheds. The more we walk or bike or bus instead of drive (if/when that's an option), the better our local air quality will be.

But unless the ginormous companies and corporations that are most responsible for this mess start cleaning up their processes and/or make it easier for us to create less waste, on a broad scale, I don't see how we're going to move the needle in a meaningful way.

I worry that the danger in putting all responsibility on the consumer is that it sets us up for complete and utter failure in the long run. It lulls us into thinking we're making progress when in fact, if we zoom out, we find we're being driven in the opposite direction. We must force the government and corporations to take just as much responsibility as we do. We need to change the narrative if we want to heal our planet.


Habits I'll Maintain


Aside from the long-term habits we've already cultivated, I can see myself making three changes after this week:

1. Eat an almost-vegan diet from here on out. I've never loved meat (the one good thing that comes from growing up with a parent who regularly served undercooked chicken and pork), so vegetarianism is pretty easy for me. However, I was surprised by how little I missed eggs and cheese this week (except on my beloved pizza). I plan to continue transitioning to a mostly vegan way of eating.

2. Make my own yogurt and make more of my own bread. The yogurt-making process is so easy and the savings are so obvious that it's worth it. As for bread, the only trouble with homemade is that my kid loves it and can eat half a loaf in one sitting. But flour is relatively affordable, so okay.

3. Pay close attention to the environmental platforms of political candidates and vote for those who have clear, actionable, meaningful plans to help the environment and mitigate climate change. If the environment is truly a priority for me and if I truly care about the well being of the planet for future generations, then the environment has to be a top consideration when I'm deciding how to vote.

What about you? Did you participate in plastic-free week? How did it go for you?

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