Is feta cheese a necessity? What about hearts of palm or olives?
These were among the pressing questions my family faced in January when we embarked on a month-long journey to cut all -- well, almost all -- discretionary spending.
Plus I put our food budget on a diet: $70 a week for a family of three. Knowing the experiment would begin on New Year's Day, I planted a vegetable garden in November, and by January it was paying dividends: tomatoes, basil, peppers, beans and collard greens.
The idea of a no-spending month had been swirling around in my head ever since I read Judith Levine's book Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping, which chronicled a year without unnecessary spending.
I wanted to simplify and yes, save money -- a noble goal considering the Commerce Department's announcement earlier this month that personal savings in 2006 had fallen to the lowest level in 73 years. Americans' savings rate of -1 percent was the lowest since the Great Depression.
Levine embarked on her experiment as a way to tread more lightly on the planet and, as she says, recommit to "citizenship, not consumerism." Still, she managed to save $8,000 in the process.
That meant going cold turkey on her copious book purchases, a year without movies, and philosophical debates with her significant other over whether wine should be on the must-have list. "I'm Italian. Wine is like milk for me, " Levine's partner Paul Cillo told her.
Before my experiment could begin, I had to get buy-in from my family. Anticipating the most static from my 17-year-old daughter, Ali, I started with her. She didn't like it. But I promised any savings would go directly to her college account, and she finally gave in -- grudgingly: "Well, I don't see where there will be that much difference. You're already cheap."
My husband, Clease, wasn't entirely enamored of the project either, but agreed to go along.
So we set the parameters. We would pay the bills, buy food, feed the cats and pay for the cost of commuting to and from work but cut out unnecessary products and services.
A few categories were off limits from the start.
My daughter is a competitive figure skater. So what about coach's fees, practice ice, music for skating programs? In my house, necessary. School and art supplies? Necessary. The weekly housekeeper? Well, yes I could get along without her for a month, but then I would hire her back -- right away. So she continued.
Bottled water, soft drinks, the movies, eating out, manicures, coffee breaks, new books, that cute T-shirt, convenience foods -- we would do without.
When I phoned Levine in Vermont to find out what she missed the most, she was quick to answer, "ice cream." And for her partner Paul, it was Q-tips. Ice cream? I certainly wasn't crossing ice cream off my list, and really, Q-tips are a necessity.
Dec. 31, 2006 was our last day as spenders. I gloried in our last meal out: a late lunch at Scotty's Landing after the King Mango Strut (free entertainment by the way).
Here's how our month shaped up: Jan. 1: My home is officially a no-buy zone. Everyone is on vacation, and my husband is talking about driving down to the Keys. But I know how that will go. It means eating out and maybe picking up a Hawaiian shirt or a patio item, and before we know it, $100 is gone. So I make a batch of brownies instead.
The top of the kitchen trash can has come loose. "We need a new trash can. Let's get one of those nice aluminum ones, " says my daughter. "Remember we're not spending any money, " I remind her.