Thursday, August 30, 2012

Working From Home Could Save the World

I left my full-time work and became a stay-at-home mom (SAHM) in 1997. In 1998, I started a home-based secretarial service and became a work-at-home mom (WAHM). Then, friends and family wanted to know more about what I do and how it was possible to earn money and be home full-time. So, I started researching, and I learned a lot, much of which I posted on my, then, business website, including this information about the benefits of off-site employees.

A 1999 article published by the Society for Human Resource Management stated:

"Employers can save more than $10,000 annually for each worker they allow to telecommute or work from home, according to a national study." In addition, the article estimates that employers enjoy a 22% increase in productivity from their telecommuting and home-based workers.

Companies that encourage telecommuting have enjoyed additional benefits:
  • Increased retention (employers estimated a savings of over $7,000 in employee turnover by retaining telecommuters);
  • Reduced cost of equipment and facilities (AT&T estimates it saves $6,000 PER EMPLOYEE in real estate costs alone);
  • Reduced absenteeism (with more flexibility in work hours, home workers can take care of life's little surprises - appointments, emergency child care needs, car repairs - on their time, not the employers).


The following post (*edited a bit from the original) was first published here on: TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 26, 2008

Cutting Edge

In December 2007 only about 23% of economists said the US was in a Recession.

By January 2008 more than 40% admit that it's likely that the US is in a Recession.

For people who've been paying attention, that the US is in an economic recession isn't news.

Then, the other day, I saw a news story featuring a woman who wanted to tell stay-at-home Moms that it is possible to stay home full-time with their children AND earn a living working from home.

And for me, this definitely wasn't news. It's something I've personally been saying (and living) for the past decade, and authors like Lisa Roberts, Sarah and Paul Edwards, and Cheryl Demas have been saying and wrting about since the 1990s (before the dotcom bubble burst, in fact).

In 2001, I was interviewed as a home-based entrepreneur, and I'm quoted on p. 380 of the Roberts' and Edwards' collaboration The Entrepreneurial Parent.

In my mind, the news about the recession and the news article promoting home-based employment are linked.

As the recession worsens, possibly leading to a Depression, which we're fast approaching, and may already be at the brink of, jobs will be lost, and unfortunately, in our culture, we need to make a living, which means, in our culture, make money. While we likely need a lot less of it than most of us think we need, there is still a need for some - at very least, to pay for shelter, because while some people have been successful at building make-shift housing on public land, most of us end up with either a rent payment or a mortgage.

Two things happened recently.

First, a couple of days ago, I published a post about my vision of the future of suburbia. It is my hope that we will start working closer to home ... or more specifically, that more people will take the plunge, stop that little voice in their heads that insists they need some outside employment, and say, "Yes! I can!" to being self-employed, from home.

And, second, two days ago, I received in the mail a copy of the book Your Money or Your Life. The first few pages talk about how, overall, most Americans are really dissatisfied with their lives, because most of the living they do is at work.

I published a marketing piece (some of which is quoted above) on my website a few years ago about why businesses should hire contractors, like me, for their administrative needs. It was written more than eight years ago, and given climate change and Peak Oil, there are a lot of things I could add to the piece. Not only is allowing workers to work from home more cost effective, but these days, it's more eco-friendly, too. There are ways that individual homes can reduce environmental impact that just aren't feasible in a huge, public building.

Take bathroom facilities, for example. When people wash their hands, they want something to dry them with. The choices are paper towels or electric hand dryers. In my home office, we have neither. We use cloth towels. And it works, because it's just my family and our friends. There are no strangers (clients) coming into my home and using the facilities, and so I don't have to provide special amenities for them.

There are other areas, too, like heating and cooling. I don't use air conditioning, and I can keep my heat below 65°. I'm not sure a huge office building would be able to do something like that.

And health. I don't know when the last time was that I was sick with a cold, and I haven't had the flu ... ever, that I remember. The air quality in my drafty house is far superior to that in the average office building.

Honestly, with the exception of the lingering Puritan belief that unless closely monitored by the management, the average (adult) worker will waste company money rather than actually doing his job, there's absolutely no reason to hold fast to the cubicle model, especially considering that, with modern technology, most administrative jobs (and many, many others) can be done from home.

I saw a statistic that said American businesses use some 80% of the total emissions for the US. If we were able to send just half of the cubical workforce to a home office, imagine how much energy we could save?

In short, working from home generates those much-needed jobs, which improves the economy, and the overall environmental impact from business is significantly reduced by having home-based employees. Based on those two facts alone, working from home might just be the answer we've been seeking to save the world.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Being Home Saves Money

As a follow-up to my last post, I wanted to highlight some of the other benefits of working from home - or just being home - that are often overlooked when one is thinking about jobs.

The most important is the cost of having a job. I know it seems kind of counterintuitive to believe that it costs money to work, but it does. Consider that the average commute is sixteen miles, which is thirty-two miles, round trip, per day times five days equals one hundred and sixty-two miles per week. The average "worker" spends almost an hour, per day, driving to and from work, which amounts to five hours per week, and two hundred and fifty hours per year. In dollars, that's almost $2500 per year of time wasted on a commute (at $10/hour).

In actual dollars of cost, if we say that the average driver gets 25 mpg and gasoline is $3 per gallon, it costs almost $1000 per year - in just gasoline - to get back and forth to work. There are other costs involved with owning a vehicle, however. Insurance costs, on average, $1500 per year. Then, there's the annual taxes/registration that's around $100, and a car payment and/or maintenance and upkeep, which can be thousands of dollars per year.

So, just to own a car to get one back and forth to a job can cost as much as $5000 per year. At $10 per hour for 40 hours per week for 50 weeks (allowing for two weeks of vacation per year) is $20,000 annual gross income. Just the commute costs one-quarter of one's income.

Then, there is the cost of childcare, which will add $5000 to $11,000 per year to the cost of working outside the home - and that's just for one child. If there are multiple children, double it, and between the commute and childcare for two kids, it no longer makes sense to work at a $10 per hour job.

There are other expenses, too. Most jobs require employee-purchased uniforms or "work" clothes. Even fast-food restuarants, notoriously the worst paying of all low-wage jobs, require that employees buy shoes and pants for work.

And, then, there are the costs, that we never, ever, consider calculating into the cost of working equation, and those costs are not easily quantified, because we live in such a convenience-driven society that the idea of self-sufficiency is almost comletely an alien concept ... or something those hippies do.

The fact is that, if I stay home and cook meals from ingredients that I've grown here at home, I've saved my family thousands of dollars on food. If I mend our clothes rather than buying new ones, I save us money on replacement costs.

There are dozens of other ways that a SAHP (stay-at-home Parent) can implement frugal practices that save significantly over what that parent might earn in the workplace. The problem is that our society does not value saving money as much as we value spending money, and so, we've made this push for everyone to get a job.

With everyone working, more (usually low-wage) jobs are created to accomodate those working parents. And the result is that we're working to pay someone else to do what we can (and should) be able to do for ourselves, if we didn't spend hundreds of hours per week working to earn the money we think we need to pay for those services that we could (and should) do for ourselves.

If we could stop racing around that treadmill and honestly evaluate our needs versus our wants, and really calculate those things we pay for that we actually need to survive, I know we'd find that we could work a lot less, and enjoy our lives a lot more.

But don't take my word for it. Sit down. Pull out a piece of paper and a pencil and make a list of expenses. Cross off anything that doesn't fall into the "necessity" categories: shelter (include utilities like water and electricity - but with the understanding that both expenditures can be reduced significantly with some lifestyle modifications) and food (which can also be reduced with lifestyle modifications).

That number, the cost of shelter and food, is the baseline - the absolute minimum that must be earned.

And then ask, could that money be earned doing something other than participating in an expensive commute and/or a low-wage corporate job?

As Yentl proclaims, "Nothing's impossible!" and working from home is an option for anyone who is willing to take that first, scary step through the wardrobe into the unknown. Who knows what riches lie on the other side?

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Coming Home

I started blogging - right here - in December 2005*. I started my blog as a way to discuss and share my experiences as a home-based entrepreneur, WAHM (work-at-home Mom) and SAHM (stay-at-home Mom), because I believed then (as now) that the best way to fight low-wages and dead-end jobs was to promote working from home as an alternative to those soul-sucking jobs.

There was a time when working from home was the norm and other types of jobs were the exception. The at-home business dynamic changed in the early part of the 20th Century, and we all thought that our ticket to the good life lay in the ability to get a "good job." What we're discovering, however, is that the harder we work for someone else, the richer that someone else gets, and the more we end up struggling just to enjoy our lives.

We're fed the lies that a "good job" equals "the good life", and we toil away at these corporate jobs, hour-after-hour, day-after-day, year-after-year, until we reach the pot-o'-gold called retirement, and then, we wait to die.

The idea of being self-employed, especially now that the "affordable" health care tax has passed, is pretty terrifying, but also it feels like an unattainable possibility for most people, and I think that's because there's a mistaken belief that working from home means doing administrative work or making crafts to sell at Fairs or on eBay, Etsy or Zibbet, and I think too many people feel unqualified to do those jobs, or simply can not see how that job would make them enough money to support their lifestyle.

The reality is that there is no job, except, perhaps, mining for raw materials, that can't be home-based.

My butcher works from home. His "shop" is in an outbuilding next door to his house. His son, who lives across the street, works with him, and when they're particularly busy, like during the summer chicken harvest, I've seen his wife, and assorted other young relatives helping out. It's truly a home-based, family enterprise - the kind of work/life environment that made this country the Land of Opportunity.

My mid-wife worked from home. She had an office in the loft area over her attached barn/garage. She had everything in her office that can be found in a standard OB/GYN office, except the I'm-a-god ... er, Doctor mentality. Since the birth was going to take place in my home, there was no need for her to have rooms for me to recuperate following the birth of my child.

I have several friends who are photographers, and none of them have a photography studio. The benefit of using a home-based photographer, over going to a studio, is that the photographer is willing to go on location, for about the same price as the photographer with the studio. Having done both studio sessions and on-site sessions, I have to say that I much prefer the latter. There are so many more opportunities for creativity, and frankly, the pictures were a lot better, and captured the essence of my family in a way that a blank background can not. Plus, the price was a much better deal ;).

Our music teacher also works from home. He didn't always, but through a series of events, eventually moved his teaching to his home studio. It's worked out for his students, and it's worked out for him. In fact, I'd say that we get a higher level of music training from his home studio, because he's able to have all of his equipment - some of which couldn't travel with him when he taught elsewhere.

On a country road, not far from my house is a cute little home-based used book "store", and I put store in quotes, because it's not really a store. Essentially, it's a storage shed with books. Books are $1 for hardcovers and $0.50 for paperbacks. There's a money box (and a security camera), but there's no cashier. Customers pull up, browse books, calculate what they owe, and drop the money in the box. I guess they've done okay - at least well enough to keep the used book shed up and running for the last decade. They probably don't earn a large income, but it's probably enough. If it weren't, they wouldn't keep doing it.

The possibilities are endless, and the only barrier is a willingness to step outside that box and imagine.

If you could do your dream job, what would it be?

What's stopping you from doing it?

*In 2009, I archived my blog on my local computer and deleted my old posts, starting over again a few weeks later, which is why my oldest post is in 2009, rather than 2005, when the blog was actually started.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Everything Eats. Everything Gets Eaten.

What we've managed to create here at Chez Brown is an incredibly diverse eco-system in which everything eats and everything gets eaten.

For example, Little Fire Faery found this Tobacco Hornworm on the tomato plants today.

She came running in to tell me that there was a hornworm that was being eaten by maggots. Having read about this sort of thing before, I knew that it wasn't maggots, but rather wasp larvae. The wasp laid its eggs inside the hornworm, and the maggot-looking growths are the pupae of the wasp.

I knew there were hornworms out there, but I've never considered spraying my tomatoes. I'm also pretty lax about trying to pick them off the tomato plants (they actually blend pretty well with the leaves). My girls usually find them, when they're found, and they get fed to the chickens. Personally, I like this approach better. Do nothing, and the wasps take care of the (potential) problem.

Because this hornworm has been parasitized, he will not eat my tomatoes.

And, then, I can eat my tomatoes.

Everything eats. Everything gets eaten.

It's a pretty amazing thing to witness such a huge diverse system on such an incredibly small piece of land.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Invasion of Privacy - the Last Frontier for Advertisers

I've been spending more time than I should on FaceBook. It's not even that I'm much of a fan of the social media, but it's insidious - like commercial television - and just, kind of, sucks you in. Which is one of the key reasons I don't watch commercial television.

Recently, I posted a link to a list of big Ag companies that own organic labels. The fact is that a lot of the food we think is good for us is really no better than the stuff that doesn't pretend. It's alternately infuriating and disheartening, and my usual response is to avoid it all - regardless of the label.

In response to my post, a friend quipped "Is nothing sacred?" and my response was "not when money is involved."

So, it was with that commentary flitting around in the back of mind that I switched over to the morning news and found this article about a pair of entrepreneurial brothers who want to start printing advertisements on toilet paper. Wow. Really? I reckon it takes the whole practice of taking the Sears and Roebuck catalog out to the privy to a new level.

Personally, when the toilet paper I buy starts coming with ads, I'm not buyng toilet paper - regardless of how Deus Ex Machina feels about cloth wipes. It's bad enough that ads infiltrate nearly every waking moment, but to even have the only quiet time I get during the day interrupted by a constant barrage of consumerist banter would just be too much.

Is anything sacred? Good question, indeed!

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Step Away from the Panic Button

There's an article making its way around the Internet right now. The article is about the unsettled weather we've been having, specifically the worldwide drought conditions, which have resulted in crop failures all over the globe. The article warns of potential, future, food shortages, and, worstcase, of food wars.

The reality is that the type of scenario the article tells us could happen is not unlikely. In fact, when we, here in the US, were experiencing our housing bubble burst and the doubling of the cost of gasoline per gallon, and the subsequent economic collapse with the ever increasing unemployment rates, in other parts of the world, they were rioting, because the price of a loaf of bread increased by so much that many people couldn't afford bread - one of their dietary stables.

Around that same time, we had a price spike in the cost per pound of flour. I mentioned it here, on my blog, with a link to the type of flour I regularly purchased (King Arthur, at that time), and my blog was visited by a PR person from that company, who left a comment about how the price of wheat (because of a drought that affected the wheat crop that year) had tripled, and they hadn't had any choice, but to raise their prices. Flour went from about $0.69/lb to around $1.80/lb. It's since gone back down, and really, for me, it was not a big deal. It was just something I had observed and was commenting on.

But for a lot of people around the world, who depend on bread/flour as a dietary staple, it is and was a big deal.

That's what the article was saying. It's also what a lot of people around the blogosphere have been saying for the past five years. We've seen prices in all things inching upward. I hear, more and more, people complaining about the increased prices at the grocery store.

At the same time, I also hear about crazy low prices on some items. The retail price on lobster here in Maine is about $4/lb. Lobsterman, the guys who are out at oh-dark-thirty doing the back-breaking work of pulling traps, are making about $2.50/lb for their catch.

It's craziness.

Most people I know, who know lobsterman, are worried about how they can possibly be earning a living right now, because their fuel prices are what our fuel prices are, and they're barely (if at all) making enough to cover the cost of the fuel necessary to set their traps. Maine law requires that lobster traps be set from a "vehicle", and while that vehicle dosen't have to be motorized, I can't imagine a real lobsterman, with hundreds of traps, out there in a row boat.

And that's the way the market fluctuates. We have a surplus and low prices on lobster here in Maine, but come December, we may have not much of anything. We can't know, and because there is this huge unknown, the only way we can insulate ourselves against these market fluctuations, is to be ready, be vigilant all of the time.

I've heard a lot of people really panicking about the article, and so I thought the best thing to do is to talk about some alternatives to curling up in the fetal position and wishing it all away.

We're nearing the end of the growing season here in Maine (and, perhaps, the whole northern hemisphere - at least everyone north of the 40th parallel). Mind you, there are still a lot of harvests left - corn, pumpkins, tomatoes, melons, beans - but if one hasn't, yet, planted those long-growing crops (soybeans, for instance, need over 100 days from seed to harvest), there's just not enough time left - this year - to grow them, and I think that's what is making people freak out - the knowledge that this emergency is headed our way, and they didn't/couldn't get a heavily producing garden in the ground in April.

Still, I don't think it's time to panic.

In fact, I think it's never be time to panic, and even when one has not or has only minimally prepared for an emergency, keeping calm is the first requirement. In a true survival scenario, the minute one starts to lose control is the minute that person starts to die.

So, let's not freak out, but instead, let's think about the options.

First, there is time to plant some things with some assurances that there will be a harvest. Leaf lettuces (like the stuff in "spring mix" from the grocery store) and spinach can be grown in shallow containers. They are cold loving plants and will need some protection from the intense sun and will need to be kept very moist (not marshy wet, though). Kale is another one that can be planted and will actually do better as it gets colder. I was at a local farm stand in January a few years ago, and the proprietor had just harvested kale that morning. She had simply brushed the dusting of snow we'd had off the top of the plants and harvest them for the market.

Maine-resident and organic gardener, Eliot Coleman, has written a lovely book on ways to grow food year round in places like Maine. His book, Four-Season Harvest gives all sorts of information about season extension techniques, and even lists plants that can be grown in really cold places. Coleman has a second book on the same topic - The Winter Harvest Handbook: Year Round Vegetable Production Using Deep Organic Techniques and Unheated Greenhouses - but I don't have a copy of that one, yet.

The key, according to Coleman, is to keep the plants protected - not from the cold - but from the wind and snow (and just FYI, even though Coleman spends a great deal of the first book talking about his very clever greenhouse design, growing edible plants well into the dark time of the year doesn't require a walk-into greenhouse, like his).

The second step is to start thinking smart about storage food. The key here is not to try to store food for the rest of one's life, but rather to think seasonally, because, while we can't be sure of a lot in this life, we can be pretty sure that the Earth will continue to rotate on her axis and that we will continue to experience seasons that are relatively the same as we've come to know them, i.e. here in Maine July is the growing season. January is not.

So, if the garden was dismal this year or didn't happen, for whatever reason, there's still time to make sure there's food in the pantry. Concentrate on long-storage, calorie dense foods, like pumpkin (or other winter squashes), potatoes, apples, popcorn, and dried beans. With a few grocery staples, like flour, spices, and sugar, and eggs and milk, one can make a variety of wonderful foods. All of those long-storage crops are fairly versatile.

Potatoes, for instance, can be baked, boiled, or fried or combined with meat or other vegetables to make a pie, soup, or a stew (in fact, if one took advantage of the lobster prices here in Maine, and stored up potatoes, there could be some really fancy lobster bisque on the winter menu). With a little flour and an egg, potatoes can even be turned into a pasta (gnocchi).

What makes many of those long-storage foods even more amazing, though, is what happens when the world is starting to warm up, when the foods are starting to get a little mushy and not quite so edible anymore, when the potatoes look a bit like something from deep in the ocean with their long, tendril-like growths. Then, those foods can be taken out into the garden and planted, and the cycle renews itself.

Three years ago in the late fall, I bought hubbard squash from the farm stand - because it looked really cool, and I wanted to try it. We put it in our cold storage (i.e. in a box on the bedroom floor), and it stayed there until March, because I didn't really know what to do with it. By March, I figured we'd better eat it, before it went bad, and I found a really awesome recipe for baked hubbard squash.

We dumped the insides of the squash into the compost pile. The "insides" of the squash are seeds.

We ended up with several "volunteer" squash plants and harvested 180 lbs of squash in the fall ... all because I'd bought a squash that looked interesting.

Depending on the source, gnarly potatoes, dried beans and popcorn can all be planted in the spring to grow new plants, which goes a very long way to ensuring food security.

The next step would be to start thinking about future crops that can/should be planted now.

Sunchokes are a good choice. They overwinter in the ground and are considered a late fall/early spring food. In fact, once the stalks die back, they can be harvested as long as the ground isn't frozen. Ones planted right now, could be harvested *next* October (and then, again in the spring). They're incredibly prolific, native to New England (they were a staple in the Native American diet and brought back to Europe, where they were given the misnomer "Jerusalem artichoke").

Garlic is another choice for planting now or in the fall for a spring crop.

Berry brambles could be planted now and harvested next summer, too.

And then, there's the looking-beyond-what's-available-at-the-grocery-store.

But that's a whole other topic in, and of, itself.

The point is that panic is not the option. Stay calm and start planning.

And if you're local, and you know a lobsterman, buy his lobsters straight from him. Offer him $4/lb, which is way cheaper than the grocery store, and a lot more than he'll make selling it to retail outlets. It's a win/win.

Oh, and if you know a local lobsterman who'll sell me a dozen lobsters, let me know. I need them by Saturday :).

Friday, August 3, 2012

Explaining Why

While my daughters will and do help us forage, they aren't always as enthusiastic to try the new food as Deus Ex Machina and I are. Getting out and foraging is just fun, right now, and really, Deus Ex Machina and I aren't hardcore about the process. He and I are very focused when we go out, with a certain goal in mind (i.e. fill this container and then we go home), but we're okay if the girls lose interest and do something else, like playing lion versus gazelle in the tall grass.

The other day we watched a movie that was set in New York City in the 1930s. The family in the movie was struggling just to eat. There was never enough food, and they were always on the brink of having their electricity disconnected. Eventually, they did, and there were no lights and no heat (except when they could scavenge wood to burn from a billboard sign).

During one, particularly brutal scene where the little girl asked for seoonds and was told that she needed to save some for her brothers, I mentioned that the reason we were learning to forage was so that we never had to worry about that sort of thing. Even if we can't afford to buy a lot of food, if we know what to look for, we can find something to eat.

I don't know if my girls heard my message or not, but I imagine, at some point in their lives, they will remember these days of foraging with a tiny little smile about how fun it was to go out and play while Mom and Dad hunted for food.

At very least, there are a lot of good stories :).

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Stuffed Shells ... Or Something

We've been harvesting and eating milkweed pods. Problem is that the season is marching on, and the little pods, the ones that can be boiled and eaten like green beans, are getting bigger.

With a proliferation of milkweed pods, too old for boiling, but still edible, I started looking for other options, and I found some recipes for stuffed milkweed pods, but none of them were what I was tasting when I thought of "stuffed." What I wanted was something like stuffed shells.

So, I made them, using a recipe for lasagna swirls and some advice/information from the The Forager's Harvest: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants.

Basically, I opened each milkweed pod and took out the white seeds and silky stuff. This I put into a pan with a bit of water and boiled (per the information in the The Forager's Harvest). Then, I boiled the "shells" until they were bright green - about ten minutes.

While everything was boiling, I grated about a 1/2 cup of cheese into a bowl with a whisked egg, and added some seasonings.

After ten minutes of boiling, I took the shells out of the water and let them cool. I added the seeds and silks to the egg mixture, and when the shells were cool enough to handle, I stuffed them - like pasta shells.

I put them all in a caserole pan, and topped it with a meat sauce (tomato sauce with ground meat and spices :) and some cheese and baked it at 350° for about fifteen minutes or so.

It was delicious, and exactly what I've been craving ever since someone said "stuffed shells."

In the same area where we harvested the milkweed, we also harvested 5+lbs of blackberries. We'll freeze these to use later ... and maybe tomorrow, I'll whip up a blackberry cobbler.

It's getting easier to add foraged food to our meal plan, and really, a couple of hours per week to forage is infinitely cheaper than going to the grocery store ... and even growing it in my yard. The real challenge is not finding food to forage, but recognizing it as food once you find it :).

Stuffed milkweed pods ...? It's a keeper.