Thursday, July 27, 2017

I Went Out and Bought Some

I joined a Facebook group for people who are trying to cut their personal consumption.  There are some great comments and discussions. 

One of my favorite questions so far has been a stay-at-home Mom who was asking about work from home jobs - not MLMs.  As I was answering it, I realized that I have worn many hats over the past two decades spent as a work-from-home mom.  I've done a lot of different jobs - some that paid cash, some that paid in freebies - all interesting to some degree.  I'm thinking my resume must look pretty awesome for someone who hasn't had a full-time job for the past twenty years. 

Most of the comments are really testimonials from other frugalistas who are sharing their non-consumer wins.  My favorite one of those had to do with toilet paper.  As many of my long-term readers may know, I was strongly advocating for dispensing with TP here at Chez Brown and replacing it with family cloth and a bidet. 

The thing is I've used a bidet, of sorts, and I know how much better it is and feels.  Many years ago while I was delivering my oldest daughter, it was common practice for doctors to perform an episiotomy.  For the uninitiated, an episiotomy is a cut - with scissors - of the skin between the vaginal opening and the anus.  The logic behind cutting that skin is to prevent it from tearing.  A straight cut is easier to stitch up than a jagged rip.

So, without asking my preference, the doctor called for Novacaine, gave me a shot, and then proceeded to snip.  I was - mostly - lucid.  When the nurse asked him if he wanted to put those scissors in the box to be sharpened, I had a moment of panic.  Thankfully, I was a little too preoccupied with trying to deliver my baby to comment to them that while I was focused, I wasn't deaf.

Anyway, the point of all of that is that when I went home a few days later, I had stitches to care for, and using toilet paper was not an option.  I used a spray bottle filled with a solution of warm water and soap, washed the area after eliminating, and patted myself dry with toilet paper. 

It was a manual bidet, and it felt amazing on those stitches.  It was also a much cleaner, albeit more time-consuming (because I had to fill it with water and soap each time) option.

I would be thrilled to have a bidet in place of toilet paper.   As none of my family members have ever experienced an episiotomy, the response from them to my suggestion to invest in a bidet has not been met with the same enthusiasm that I have for the appliance.

On the FB Group page, there's a great deal of advice regarding what to buy and where.  Many of the folks on the list don't purchase new things - ever.  Mostly I agree with them, but I do make an exception for certain things.  One of them being canning jars.

We use canning jars for a lot of things.  I can in them - of course.  We use them for drinking glasses.  I use them for storing dry goods - like sugar and flour.  I use them for packing our lunch food when we're going to be eating out. 

I have just about every sized jar that's made from the tiny jelly jars (perfect for repacking a single serving of yogurt from those big, bulk containers) to half-gallon sized jars (great for storing smaller portions of flour or making sun tea).  I also have a lot of gallon sized jars, but they don't use the same lids as other canning jars.  

I have a lot of canning jars, but it's something we use, and something we use a lot.  So, canning jars really have become one of those things that I can't have too many of.  When we shop for store-bought "canned" foods, I always look for those items jar, and I will purchase the brand that is in a jar that can be reused as a canning jar.  That is, the jar lid needs to be a regular-mouth canning jar size.  I've gotten really good at identifying which products come in those jars.

My favorite is a refrigerated salad dressing.  The jar it comes in can be reused as a canning jar, and it's cute and a little fancier than a regular canning jar, which means I can give them as gifts.  The lids are plastic, but they're reusable for putting on jars in which some things will be stored.  I have also drilled straw holes in the plastic lids so that they can be used on canning jars as to-go cups.  We have reusable straws.

But here's the thing.  I don't buy *used* jars at the thrift store. 

Sounds crazy, right?

The problem is that canning jars have become this uber chic home d├ęcor item.  Pinterest (which I haven't, yet, joined) is full of cute crafts featuring canning jars, and every time I see one of them I think, "but, then, how would I use the jar for canning?"  It's personal issue, for sure.  One time, we bought some gel candles for a fundraiser.  The gel candles were in a pesto-sized canning jar.  When we had completely used the candle, I seriously considered trying to clean out the jar so that I could reuse it.  I didn't.  But I thought about it. 

Thrift stores are on to us, for those who haven't noticed.  Especially the national chains, like Goodwill.  In fact, Goodwill's mission is NOT to bring low-cost goods to the public.  Rather, their mission is one of creating jobs and community enrichment programs.  They fund their programs by reselling donated clothes, shoes, books, and household goods.

There was a time when going to Goodwill was, literally, a treasure hunt.  First editions of books for pennies, cast iron pots and pans for a fraction of the cost of new, designer label clothing at $2 each, quality furniture, bargain electronics, collector's items, and so much more.  There was a time when one could walk into a Goodwill store and walk out with a painting worth thousands of dollars, if one knew what to look for.

That sort of thing doesn't happen anymore.  These days, Goodwill has a presence on the Internet on resale sites, like Amazon Marketplace.  It is someone's job to sort through the donated goods and list the items that can be sold online in those Marketplaces.  Their asking prices are competitive (more than they would get in the store), but because everything is donated to them, they can undercut everyone else.  As soon as I saw that Goodwill was selling books on Amazon as a used bookseller, I got out the used book game.  I can't possible compete, since I don't have a source for free books.

Not only has Goodwill decided that they should be the beneficiary of any mega-cash items, but they've started really hiking up their prices on the every day kinds of things, too.  Like canning jars, which they sell by the piece for $1 or more.

I agree with the whole non-consumer philosophy.  Buying used is usually the more conscience choice.  There are so many things to consider when purchasing a new item, including the environmental impact of making something new (natural resource depletion), but also the human cost of cheap stuff. 

But there is also a need to balance my personal economics with my consumerist habits.  The best idea is to not purchase anything and just try to make it myself or do without. 

That said, we have to eat. 

Here at Chez Brown much of what we eat is what we grow or what is grown during the summer, which means we have to preserve it.

The best way, for me, to preserve food is by canning it.  It's the most easily accessible way to use the food and the most simple way to keep it for use later.   At one point, I estimated that I needed, at least, 200 cans of food to last until the next growing season.  That's a lot of jars.   

This time of year, canning jars are on sale, and yes, I buy them new, when I find them on sale.  Today, I purchased twelve pint-sized jars for around 80 cents each - less than the cost of a single jar at Goodwill, and since my home-canned food is cheaper, even counting the cost of the jar, it's a better deal than purchasing salad dressing and spaghetti sauce and reusing the jar. 

I also bought more lids - both reusable plastic ones and BPA-free metal canning lids to be used with the rings, of which I have plenty. 

Canning jars is one of those items that I don't hesitate to purchase new if I can find a good deal.

What items will you purchase new?

Easy One-Pan Meal

Meal time is the bane for many a frugal household.  Cooking from scratch takes time, and eating out costs too much. 

But we have to eat. 

And then, there's the clean-up.  Oh, my!  So many hurdles to living the good life ... and eating it too!

The fact is that we can have it all - easy, convenient and low cost. 

To wit:  Tonight's dinner is a one-pot(ish) meal. 

Tools:  One Dutch oven and a double boiler.

Food:  Potatoes - enough for one per person;  eggs - enough for at least one per person;  broccoli; grated cheese or a quickie cheese topping.

Scrub potatoes and eggs (if you're like me and have farm-fresh, unwashed eggs.  If yours come from the grocery store, you won't need to wash them). 

Place potatoes and eggs in the Dutch oven with enough water to cover eggs. 

Bring to a boil.

Reduce heat to medium and cover. 

Cook until potatoes are almost fork tender.

Remove eggs, peel, and set aside.

Place broccoli in double boiler in the Dutch oven.

Cover and cook until broccoli is just tender.

Remove potatoes from the pan, place onto serving plates and cut in half.

Top with broccoli and cheese sauce (or other desired topping).

Top eggs with butter or season to taste.


Easy.  Fast.  Filling. 

And a fraction of the cost of eating out.

In August and September, when I harvest my potatoes, that meal can be nearly free (minus the cost of the seeds, feed for my chickens, and electricity to cook the meal). 

What's your favorite easy-peasy, not-gonna-eat-out-tonight meal?

Friday, July 21, 2017

Budget-friendly, Eco-friendly Living Advice for Millennials

I was just reading an exchange about tiny homes.

The logic behind a tiny home has to do with:  the desire to own a home by young people who may not be able to afford a conventional home; the desire to live with less stuff; the idea that a tiny home equates to a "greener" lifestyle (which I don't, necessarily, agree with).

I won't disagree that having less stuff is a better option, but sometimes the "stuff" serves an incredibly valuable purpose and allows an individual to be a bit more self-sufficient.  For instance, my canning supplies take up a lot of room, as do my canned foods.  In a tiny home, there wouldn't be anywhere to store all of that canning apparatus.  Indeed, there wouldn't be anywhere to store all of the food, even I, with my tiny yard, grow and preserve for winter.

So, living in a tiny house does not, necessarily, mean one is greener, as there's not a lot that's much greener than growing one's own food (except maybe foraging one's food).

This isn't a criticism of tiny homes.  Personally, I love them for their aesthetic and for their efficient use of space.  I really love all of the incredibly creative storage options (except for those tiny-house dwellers who just stuff their belongings in a separate storage shed, which seems to negate the whole tiny-house ideology of living with less), and I think, in homes that are more traditional sized, if we had better storage options, we wouldn't need garages (which most people use for storing stuff other than their cars), storage sheds, basements and attics.

Here at Chez Brown, we don't have storage (no basement, no garage, no accessible attic storage space, and no out buildings), and we only have two closets.  So, we use a lot of creative storage ideas, like shelves above the windows and bureaus for kitchen storage.  I was just gifted a buffet for my dining room. It's the perfect addition to the space, and even though we added a piece of furniture, it makes the space feel bigger.  The added bonus is that I was able to almost completely empty one of the cabinets in my kitchen by putting some things in the buffet, AND I was able to fit all of our extra dishes* in the buffet, which gave me some room for extra sheets and blankets that were in a clutter-pile in the office.

*A note about the "extra dishes":  in talking about green living, one point is to make our lives as non-disposable as possible, which means no paper products.  Here at Chez Brown we never buy paper towels or napkins.  I have cloth for both.  We also don't purchase paper plates - even for parties.  In fact, when my oldest child and only boy (henceforth known as Mocob) decided to get married in Maine and entrusted me with the details of the wedding and reception, I purposely purchased plates at the thrift store rather than getting paper.  Extra dishes isn't something someone in a tiny house could even consider, but reusable dishes are much greener than disposable ones.

The thing is, building something new, even if much of what is used to build it are reclaimed or recycled materials, is never as eco-friendly as the home that's already standing - unless that home is in irreparable condition, that is.   In which case, carefully deconstructing the structure so as to save as much of it as possible, and then, reusing those materials and new, energy efficient materials to build a new structure on the same footprint as the old structure might be more eco-friendly.

That's not what this is about though.  This commentary is about exploring options for young people who are looking into home ownership, but wish to be thrifty and eco-friendly, and I submit that the best way to accomplish both is not to build a new, tiny home, but rather to co-habitate - preferably in an older suburban neighborhood that is somewhat walkable, or at least has easy access to employment and other amenities.  My current neighborhood, while not really walkable for several months each year (because of snow, and the fact that there aren't sidewalks and the traffic on the road moves pretty fast), it is accessible.  I'm six miles from the grocery store, two miles from the train station that can take us as far north as Brunswick and as far south as Boston, and a half mile from a biking/walking path that can take us from Kittery to Portland.

The suburb where I lived when I was in junior high is similarly situated, within an easy commute of many amenities, including a military base (about a half hour drive) and a community college.  

The house is over 1700 sq. ft, and the lay-out (an L-shaped configuration), could easily be split into three, small housing units.

The small end of the L could be tiny apartment #1, which would be in the former den (with an attached laundry room) and the huge, eat-in kitchen.  The den (with a fire place) would be the main living space and have a pullout couch, daybed, or futon.  The laundry room would be converted into a bathroom.  It would take minimum work to make it into a livable space for one or two people.    

Apartment # 2 would consist of the former living room and the dining room.  The dining room would be converted into a small bathroom and kitchenette.  The living room would have a daybed or pull-out couch ... or for the very handy, there's a great wall space against which one could construct a Murphy bed.  

Apartment #3 would be in the section of the house where the three bedrooms make up the large part of the L.  It would be the largest of the three apartments, and could even be a one-bedroom.  The walls between the two smaller bedrooms and the hall bath would be removed to allow for a large open-concept living room kitchen area.  The master bedroom could remain intact as is, with the bath off the bedroom and the huge closet spaces.

So, how is this better, you ask, than just building tiny houses?  Well, three friends could form a company to purchase this house.  The Zillow value is $136,229, and the estimated mortgage is $504/month.  Imagine that?  Split three ways, the mortgage is less than $200 per person, which is significantly less expensive than rent, not matter where one is renting.

And the living space, even chopped up the way I described, would be twice what one would have in a tiny home, even for the smallest of the spaces.

Further, the house is on a quarter acre lot, which would allow for gardening or some animal husbandry (my family had pet rabbits that lived outside when I lived there).

There's also a carport, which could be converted into living space or storage, or it could be an awesome outdoor living space for all three units to share.  There is also a storage unit onsite at the back end of the carport.  This storage space could be encompassed into Apartment #1's bathroom ... or it could house a washer/dryer that all three units could share.  One washer and dryer shared by all three units is pretty eco-friendly.

For people who don't want big houses and want to be more eco-friendly, purchasing an existing structure with a group of friends and turning it into a co-housing situation with individual living spaces is a much better option than trying to build something brand new.

It's also a lot cheaper, depending on the cost of housing where one lives.

And with the quarter acre, there are a lot of awesome opportunities for the frugal/green-minded to thrive.


As an aside, I ended up in a conversation yesterday, with a woman who wanted to argue semantics rather than points.  We were saying the same things (ish), but she wanted to nitpick my word choices rather than my point.  Whatever.  I'm sure I've done the same to other people.  Karma's a bitch.

But ...

The conversation starter was a budget that was developed by a company in an attempt to justify their low-wage jobs.  One of the items on the list was a rent payment of $600.  The people who were railing against this budget stated that there's no where that one can find a rent payment that low.

I submit that they are wrong - well, maybe not about the rent payment, but I did find a house one could purchase with a mortgage that was less than the budgeted amount.  It's a nice house, too - three bedrooms, two FULL baths, a den, a formal dining room and living room, an eat-in, recently remodeled kitchen, hardwood floors, and a deck into a fenced yard.

While I really bristle at the motivation behind the budget plan and the notion that an employer has either the right or responsibility to tell employees how to spend their money, I do believe that the budget is not entirely inaccurate.  With careful and conscientious choices, one can live on a lot less money than we are told we need to be both comfortable and happy.

In Alabama, one can find a suburban 1700 square foot, three bedroom, two bath house for less than $600/month, and if one has roommates, or one is willing to split the house into separate housing units, one could live quite comfortably on a minimum wage income, which is fortunate, because from looking at the Google map views, it appears that the area has been built up considerably since I lived there, and many service-industry jobs appear to be within the radius of my ramblings as a child - i.e. within walking or biking distance.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Frugal Floor

I bought a magazine today.  I know, I know.  Buying magazines goes contrary to all of the frugal advice out there, especially when I can (usually) get it from the library for free (at my library, we can borrow last month's edition.  The current month's edition we can read at the library, but we can't borrow it and take it home). 

We were getting some screws at the Tractor Supply Store, and it was next to the register - you know that spot where they know you're going to impulse buy. 

And I did.

Fact is, I don't actually feel guilty for the impulse purchase.  First, because the magazine I bought is Mother Earth News Wiser Living Series, and the edition was titled "Guide to Living on Less and Loving It."  And, second, because even though most of the articles were things I already know or do, there were some tidbits that were valuable to me.

In particular, there's an article about lye soap-making (which, as it turns out, I could have read for free online :( ! ), and while I probably won't follow the author's soap-making advice or technique, it might encourage me to make some more of my own.  I have everything I need to make lye soap, including a great recipe, which I've used before, and it worked out well. 

There's also a great article about pruning standard-sized fruit trees for small spaces.  My peach tree will need to be carefully, but aggressively, pruned this fall, because it is growing too big for the space it occupies.  In the future, using the techniques described in that article, I could even add a few more fruit trees to my landscape - small as it is.

There was an interesting (in a not-useful-to-me way) article about how to save money.  It wasn't useful, because ALL of the tips were, what I've come to refer to, as the low-hanging fruit of the money-saving lifestyle changes.  The article recommended things like, making your coffee at home and putting it in a reusable to-go cup rather than purchasing coffee from a coffee shop, cutting the cable, and line-drying rather than using a clothes dryer.  Those suggestions are so five-years-ago - at least here at Chez Brown.

In fact, we've been pinching pennies in every place we can, and when the best advice I can get from the money-saving articles is stuff that I've been doing for a really long time, I start to think that I'm pinching my pennies a lot harder than most people. 

But it's not just about pinching pennies, because as every frugalista knows, in most cases, when one saves money, one is also doing something positive for the environment.  Take the above examples.  If I make coffee at home and put it in a reusable cup, I'm not creating more garbage.  If I line dry my clothes, I'm saving electricity. 

Being frugal is also very green.

So, when we started the renovation for our backroom, we talked a lot about how we wanted to do things, and, of course, the answer was as inexpensively as we could without compromising on quality.

Home improvement is expensive, and even just refinishing a room (new walls, ceiling and flooring), can be pretty pricey if one isn't careful.  We had many discussions and took a very long time finding our supplies. 

The first place we saved big was on the wall color.  Mr. Field and Stream has worked as a painter, and he recommended a particular primer, which is really expensive for just regular folks.  Thankfully, I was able to get it at the contractor's price. 

Then, there was the question of the wall color.  I found a great deal on "oopsy" paint at the hardware store.  The color on the lid looked like a beige color, which looked fine to me.  I bought two gallons of it for $10 each, and then, the guy at the hardware store gave me a third gallon of paint (different color) for free.  When we started painting, Deus Ex Machina read the color name.  It's "Golden Retriever."  Perfect for this household of dog lovers! 

Good quality flooring is exceptionally expensive.  We knew we didn't want carpet, and I hate linoleum.  I also didn't want laminate of any kind.  I wanted real floors. 

We knew we wanted tile in front of the door, because our farm is in the backyard - through that door.  Originally, the room was carpeted, and all of those years of coming into the room from the backyard with wet or muddy feet caused the subfloor to rot.  It was replaced and the door was moved.  We decided that to protect the subfloor and hopefully not have to replace it again, we'd tile it.

Deus Ex Machina found some tile for free on Craigslist.  It's my favorite style of tile.  I like the 1' x 1' size, and I love the blue color.  There's enough of it left to tile the small hall area between the kitchen and our office. 

For the rest of the floor, we decided we wanted wood.  Wood flooring is crazy expensive. 

So, instead of spending hundred$ of dollar$ that we don't have on the kind of floor we wanted, we decided to use reclaimed wood from pallets that would have been thrown in the trash.  Imagine all of that perfectly good wood ending up in a landfill somewhere. 

Not only will it look gorgeous once we're finished, but it also appeals to the recycler in me. 

We still have to sand it, seal it, and stain it.  Then, we'll be putting up a tongue-and-groove wood ceiling and building a custom frame for our bed ... and moving back into the room that we starting fixing going on four years ago.

There are a couple of other money-saving choices we made in the room that I'll discuss later - when we get those things put into the room. 

Of course, the absolute best part about moving back into the room will, actually, be discovering how much progress we've made toward decluttering. 

And I can hardly wait to see how empty our nest feels when everything is put into its place.