Jan 30, 2020

Sugar free diet muesli review

The most common reasons that have led to the increasing adoption of breakfast cereals in India is that they are easy to make, quick, instant and convenient. Many of us prefer muesli for breakfast as the "perceived health factor" is higher. We might even choose the sugar-free version.

Muesli is typically made with grains, nuts and dry fruits in the proportion of 80:10:10. Let's look at the ingredients list of 3 popular diet/unsweetened muesli brands.

Baggry's no added sugar - diet muesli doesn't contain any nuts or dry fruits. Rolled oats and wheat flakes are the primary ingredients but the dietary fiber is only 3 gm per 30 gm serving. This is because the two ingredients are so highly processed that they are stripped off most of the fiber. Also, there are a couple of antioxidants that might increase the shelf life of the pack but what they do to our body needs to be understood.

Kellogg's muesli no added sugar contains a mix of grains with wheat and corn contributing to 40%. The dietary fiber here is only 2 gm per 40 gm serving. Do note that sulphite is added to dry fruits to maintain color. Sulphites are a trigger of asthma attacks.

Soulfull's diet millet muesli contains only 10% ragi. It contains unwanted ingredients in the form of stabilizer, palm oil and antioxidants. No nuts or dry fruits present. Though the brand claims that it contains 50% rolled oats, the dietary fiber is only 2.8gm per 30 gm serving.

In all these 3 brands, the sucrose value might be 0 but what about other forms of sugar - glucose, fructose, dextrose etc?
Highly processed, super expensive, low fiber, unwanted synthetic ingredients. Is this what we want to consume for the sake of convenience?

What's the alternative, you might ask? I have a super quick, filling, healthy and local recipe. 5 min is all it takes to fix this bowl of breakfast.
1/2 cup of organic red poha - wash and sprinkle water on it. Let it rest for 2 min.
Meanwhile, chop 2 bananas and an apple.
To the soaked poha, add grated coconut, 1 TSP of organic jaggery powder. Mix well, add chopped fruits, raisins, soaked chopped almonds and cashews. Filling and healthy no-cook breakfast. You can also add crushed, roasted peanuts.

Jan 24, 2020

How to reduce expenses through Home Budget Planning

As I mentioned in an earlier post, "Lifestyle" is a topic I wanted to write more about. The lifestyle we choose dictates multiple areas of our lives - our health, our food choices, clothing, weekend activities, our hobbies, where we live, where we work, how long we work, what BS are we ready to tolerate etc.  In the Tamil movie "Velaikkaaran" (Sivakarthikeyan one), there is an amazing scene where the hero would wonder how the expenses of his family have suddenly increased ever since his income increased. The following scenes where a salesman sells a stabilizer for an LED TV and how the hero thinks about past conversations about our mindsets are just brilliant. Here's that particular scene if you haven't watched it. What I'm trying to convey here is well narrated in this scene.

The rigor with which we focus on increasing our income is so high, but most of the middle and upper-middle-class families don't seem to have the same rigor when it comes to reducing expenses. I'm saying this, purely out of my observations. I'd be so glad if this wasn't the case.

Financial planners and personal finance-related thought leaders even go to the extent of saying "Stop thinking about expenses, think about investments". Choosing the right Investment portfolio is extremely important for securing our future, but at the same time, our future lifestyle depends on our present choices. I heard this quote many years back and has stuck with me - 
"Luxury once sampled becomes a necessity".

My point is that if we put some thought into what our current lifestyle is and how our expenses add up, we can plan out a strategy to cut down our expenses so that we can make better choices in terms of our job/career/life in general.

Do we really need Netflix?
Do we really need to take Uber/Ola every single day?
Do we really need to have that fancy meal costing Rs.2000 per person?
Do we really need expensive branded clothing to show who we are?

Only when we are aware of our monthly expenses, we can ask such questions and decide for ourselves. Given the numerous temptations, sales and discount offers running almost every week on every single e-commerce app, we can easily succumb to such deals on things we don't really need. And as our expenses keep rising, we try to increase our income, fight for that pay raise/promotion, accept all possible ridiculous work hours, take loads of stress etc.

Let's assume, you are convinced with my rationale so far and want to reduce your expenses. Here's a plan I suggest:

  1. Open a Google spreadsheet or excel. List down the broad categories of expenses. Add/update the categories listed below as per your family's requirements. Once you have listed them down, mark each of them under two categories - Fixed (F) and Variable (V)
    1. Annual
      1. Term Life Insurance Premium (F)
      2. Medical Insurance Premium (F)
      3. School Fees (F) 
      4. Car Insurance Premium (F)
      5. Locker Rent (F)
      6. Streaming services (Amazon Prime/Hotstar) (F)
    2. Monthly
      1. House rent (F)
      2. Maintenance (F)
      3. Electricity Bill (V)
      4. Water Bill (V)
      5. Househelp / Maid salary (F)
      6. Cook salary (F)
      7. Internet Bill (F)
      8. Mobile Bill (F)
      9. Landline Bill (F)
      10. DTH Connection (F)
      11. Streaming services (Netflix, Google music etc) (F)
      12. Milk (V)
      13. Newspaper (F)
      14. Groceries (V)
      15. Fruits & Vegetables (V)
      16. Eating Out (restaurants/order-ins) (V)
      17. Car cleaning service (F)
      18. Fuel charges (V)
      19. Commute expenses (Ola/Uber) (V)
      20. Gym membership / Yoga classes (F)
      21. Library subscription (F)
      22. Entertainment (movies, events) (V)
      23. Household item purchases (V)
      24. Personal care purchases (clothing, shoes, accessories) (V)
  2. Sit down with your spouse, look through past 6-month or 12-month credit card statements and other bills. Add approximate values for each month under the identified categories. Don't worry if you don't have the exact numbers. It is okay to start with some approximate figures for now.
  3. For those listed under the variable category, take an average of 6-month/12-month values. For eg, your monthly groceries average to around Rs.8000. Eating out expenses average to around Rs.5000 etc.

  4. Create another worksheet for Budget Planning - Variable Expenses.  Copy the expenses analysis sheet with ONLY the variable categories and the average values calculated. So now you have all the variable expense headers and the average values for the past 6/12 months.
  5. For the next month (say Feb 2020), think of a plan on which categories you can possibly reduce your expenses and how much you can reduce it. For eg, if your eating out expenses average is Rs.5000, see if you can bring it down to Rs.4000 in Feb 2020. Do this exercise for all variable categories and commit to a number before the beginning of the month. That's your Feb variable expenses budget.
  6. Collate all the daily cash expenses quickly in a notepad or an app. Once every week, sit down, look through your credit card transactions, cash expenses and update the expenses incurred under each category. For eg, the Budget for eating out expenses is set to Rs.4000. At the end of Week 1, you realize you have already spent Rs.2000. For the next 3 weeks, you would be more careful in not exceeding the remaining Rs.2000. 
  7. Do this work diligently every week. It doesn't take a lot of time if most of your transactions are via credit card. 
  8. At the end of the month, see if you have remained within the budget or exceeded the budget. If you have exceeded, identify the categories where you have exceeded the most. If required, adjust the budget to a reasonable limit for the subsequent month.
  9. Repeat steps 5 to 8 every month. Set a budget/spending limit for each variable category, track your expenses and analyze how the expenses fared at the end of the month.
  10. Regarding fixed expenses, for some categories, it is a binary decision. Should we need it or not? For eg, we decided to stop buying newspapers. So that category is no longer relevant to us. We take a monthly subscription for Netflix and renew it for a month once every 3 months. From my personal experience, it is easier to cut down variable expenses THAN fixed expenses.
Hope this approach is helpful to some of you. 

Many financial planners compute retirement corpus based on your current monthly expenses and then using inflation as a measure, they forecast a lumpsum amount needed by the time you turn 60. When I went to a personal finance workshop, the amount predicted by the instructors was a huge figure. They then go onto share about how much our income levels need to rise to save this amount. I felt quite perplexed at the end of the workshop. If our monthly expenditure is the key factor that determines this retirement corpus, why not simply reduce this value, keep our needs simple and not spend on extravagant/unnecessary stuff?

Jan 22, 2020

Triggers that push us towards junk food

The sequence of events from yesterday evening helped me understand the triggers that push me towards buying/eating junk foods. This is just a personal observation. Triggers might vary from one individual to another. So it makes sense to first observe our thoughts and emotions before we succumb to the temptations.

I had an early lunch yesterday and had a cup of tea around 3PM. I didn't eat any snack and took D to an activity class around 5PM. While waiting in the center, I was reading an informative book on my Kindle (a serious, non-fiction book on the jobs-to-be-done framework loaded with insights). I read for an hour and had made good progress with the book. My stomach started grumbling around 6PM. The class got over at 6:20PM and we headed to a nearby grocery store to pick up a few things. As usual, D wanted to buy her quota of ONE junk food per shopping trip. 

While she picked up a pack of cream biscuits, I was looking at a pack of tapioca finger chips and drooling over a pack of butter biscuits (that white colored small cookies we used to get in the bakery shops in the 90s). Off late, I've been feeling quite nostalgic and a strong yearning to get back the simpler times of childhood. These emotions were pushing me towards these packets. As I took a pack of the butter biscuits, I read the ingredients - wheat flour, sugar, shortening etc. Better sense prevailed and I kept it back but with a tinge of disappointment. I applied the same ONE JUNK FOOD rule and decided to buy the tapioca finger chips for myself. It's been a long time since I had it and used to be my favorite during college days. I came home and had dinner along with a serving of these chips. Here's what I learned from this experience:
  1. Never go hungry when you are stepping out for some errands. Carry a snack OR eat something at home. 
  2. Mentally stimulating work (reading/coding/writing etc) can increase our appetite levels. So plan accordingly and carry healthy snacks. I'm not sure whether our appetite levels change depending on whether we are reading a fiction book vis-a-vis a non-fiction book. Something to experiment on :-)
  3. Never step into a supermarket when you are hungry. The junk foods that you like will scream at you - "Pick me, pick me"
  4. Before you buy something, pause for a moment and ask yourself - "Why am I tempted by this? Is it ONLY because I'm hungry? Or is it something emotional that's pushing me?" More often than not, our emotional needs are what drives us most into using junk foods as comfort OR a way to avoid uncomfortable thoughts.
  5. Acknowledge the emotions for a second and then decide if you still want to buy the pack. Those few seconds of self-reflection might change your decision.
  6. Read the ingredients list. Our conscious mind and our intellect might bring us out of our temptations. I say "MIGHT" because the decision is dependent on how strong our emotional pull is.
  7. If nothing works, allow yourself to pick ONLY ONE JUNK and not more than that. Enjoy it without any guilt.

I firmly believe that self-reflection and self-awareness are powerful tools to observe our habits and our choices. It is even more important in today's time-starved world where we run on auto-pilot most of the time.

Jan 13, 2020

Intentions/Focus Areas for 2020

At the beginning of every year, I identify a few focus areas to work on and note them down. They are not really resolutions per se, but more to do with broad guidelines. This year, I wanted to try a new technique to align my focus areas around a verb. What's that ONE verb that I really want to focus on this year?

MINIMIZE - yes, that's my verb for 2020. This verb is applicable to different areas of my life, not just with respect to physical belongings.

I have been focusing on leading a minimalist lifestyle for the past 3 years. Though I don't buy a lot, I have been holding onto many things due to various reasons - sentimental value, future potential usage, loss aversion etc. This year, my plan is to consciously reduce, declutter and organize my home. I may refer to Marie Kondo's book but I don't plan to follow every step along the way.

So yes, MINIMIZE my belongings. That includes my books too.

As I'm writing this, the images from the Australian fires are heart-wrenching. The news that around 500 million animals are dead is just unbearable. Climate change is real and no one can deny this fact. 

Climate change is a global problem, that requires interventions by policymakers, corporate behemoths and regulators. 

As an individual, I will continue to reduce my carbon footprint as much as possible. I have been doing many of these but I'm going to be more conscious about them this year.

MINIMIZE the number of times I take Uber/Ola. Opt for BMTC bus when commuting inside the city.
MINIMIZE the dry waste items I dispose on a weekly basis. Opt for packaging-free shopping (groceries, fresh produce etc)
MINIMIZE the number of times I order take-outs/home deliveries.
MINIMIZE the number of times I order from e-commerce sites.
MINIMIZE my electricity bill and water consumption.

"Lifestyle" - this single term impacts many aspects of our well-being - our health, our relationships, our goals, our habits and also what we do to our planet. I have much to write about on this topic. Will do so in subsequent posts.

In relation to MINIMIZE, these are the areas I want to focus on:

MINIMIZE the number of clothes I buy this year. I reduced this quite a bit, but I still need to be more conscious.
MINIMIZE the groceries and vegetables I stock up. I do tend to go overboard sometimes.
MINIMIZE the number of restaurant visits. We have brought this down significantly but can still do better.
MINIMIZE my family's monthly expenses.
MINIMIZE the number of books I purchase. Opt for second-hand or Kindle versions. Re-read the good books that I have already read.
MINIMIZE the time I spend on social media and the Internet. Tough one but extremely important. 

So these are my intentions for 2020. I will be sharing how I'm progressing in my efforts through my blog and Instagram posts. 

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