Tuesday, July 27, 2021

How to be a Frugal Carnivore

Thirteen years ago, I dragged Deus Ex Machina (and our daughters) kicking and screaming down the Locavore path.  

Finding local produce, especially during the summer, proved pretty easy.  We have always had a garden, and so we are able to provide some food for ourselves, but not everything we wanted.  Much to our delight, we discovered, even back in those days, before eating local was what everyone does, there was a thriving local farming community.  We had a Farmer's Market, a smattering of PYO farms for fruit and berries, and farm stands were, and still are, on every corner from late June until early October.  We could get all of the corn, potatoes, cabbage, strawberries, blueberries, and apples we could carry.  

We also found seafood (mostly lobster), and a couple of sources of local milk and cheese.  The local dairies also, occasionally, had beef, but it seemed like prices per pound were a lot higher than we were paying at the grocery store. 

Which was fine.  We adjusted.  I got creative.  We still ate meat at nearly every meal, but the portion sizes got much smaller, and there's no such thing as waste.  Every bit is used, and yes, we do leftovers.  

Once we were well and good on the locavore path, we started looking for ways to stretch our growing season so that we could have that locally produced food year round.  We have learned many ways to preserve the harvest.  My favorite way to preserve vegetables (and eggs) is through pickling/fermenting.  I learned how to can everything from strawberry jam to chicken meat and broth.  We have a dehydrator and know how to use it!  

We also started looking for bulk purchases.  Finding a local place to purchase 50 lbs of potatoes all at once was a happy discovery.  

And, then, we discovered cow-shares and pig-shares.  Basically, we hire a local farmer to raise an animal for us.  It takes pre-planning, because we have to agree to the share well in advance of receiving the meat, and we don't know how much we'll get.  Sometimes we don't get anything, like the time we ordered a turkey, but all of the birds succumbed to black-head disease.  We had lobster for Thanksgiving dinner that year.  

Buying a meat-share is a form of Community Supported Agriculture - we give the farmer a down payment to raise the animal, and then, when the animal reaches butchering age, we pay a price per pound of hanging weight.  And we pay the butchering fees.

The butcher that most of my meat-share farmers use is the same butcher we have always used for our chickens.  After almost thirteen years of seeing me every summer, they know my name, which is kind of cool.  They also know that I am a good, solid customer, and the result is that if I say, "Hey, if you hear of anyone who has an extra ____share they'd like to sell," I will get a call and be able to stock my freezer.  

This past week, I was out at the butchers a couple of times.  Last week, I picked up our cow-share, and a couple of days later, I dropped off and picked up our chickens.  

Their facility is a few miles from me down some beautiful, windy, country roads with more trees than traffic.  I dislike driving during the summer here in my tourist-y area, because there are just too many cars on the road being driven by too many people who are here on vacation - with all of the entitled attitude that brings, but this drive - being off the tourist path - is kind of nice.

As I was meandering under cool shade of the tree-lined blacktop, I started thinking about the beef and chicken, which started me thinking about the cost.  

Above I mention that we had grown accustomed to paying more, but when my mind started wandering and those numbers started adding up, I realized that we are, actually, paying less.

Pound for Pound

To get an idea of what other people pay for "locally raised, sustainably grown" beef, I found this local butcher shop.   The butcher I mention as "my butcher" above is not a shop, but a service.  They do not sell meat.  They process the live animal, which I (or my farmer friend) provide, and I am purchasing their service.  

For a chicken, the cost per pound will depend on the size of my chicken.  The larger the bird, obviously, the more cost savings, for me.   On average, our chickens weigh 6lbs, fully dressed out.  When I have my chickens butchered, I get a whole, frozen bird.  I also get the hearts, livers, and necks (for soup).  Everything included (chicks, feed, and butchering), I pay about $1.50 per pound for the whole chicken.  

The above linked butcher shop sells whole chickens for $2.99/lb.  The cost for chicken portions, like legs and wings, varies.  The breast meat is $9.99/lb.   

We're not, necessarily, talking apples to apples, because my birds are raised, by me, in my backyard.  I know where they've been and what they've done.  I know they haven't been given antibiotics or other questionable pharmaceuticals just to keep them alive long enough to reach butchering age.  They spend time outside walking around in the yard, eating grass, and catching bugs, and drinking from the garden hose.

But for a cost analysis, this shop is about as close to what I have in my freezer as I'm going to get.  A six pound chicken at this shop is $17.94.  I save  $8.49, per bird, by raising my own.  We raised 27 birds this year.  Over the course of the year, by raising my own, I have saved my family $229.23.  

What I've found is that sourcing local beef has the same sort of cost savings, just in pounds per meat.  

We just purchased a quarter cow.  Our portion was 180 lbs, and it worked out to around $6/lb.  Most of it is ground beef, which means, yes, I paid $6/lb for ground beef, which seemed like a lot, but the butcher shop linked above advertises their 80/20 beef at $6.99/lb.  I don't know what the ratio of beef to fat is in the ground beef in my freezer, but what I do know is that it is so lean that I need to add olive oil to keep it from sticking to the pan, and I NEVER have to drain the grease off my taco meat, because there is none.

But that's not it.  I paid $6/lb for beef:  ground beef, tenderloin, T-bone steak, filet mignon, sandwich steaks, stew meat, rump roast, chuck roast ....  All cuts, from the lowliest of the low to the high brow choices, are $6/lb.

I averaged the price per pound for the different cuts of meat at that butcher shop above, and the average (adding up all of the prices per pound for the different cuts they offer that are also in my freezer) cost per pound is $18.18.  So, if we use that number and say that I was going to buy all of the same cuts that I have in my freezer, 180 lbs of meat at that butcher shop would cost $3240.  Including butchering fees, I saved over $2000 by purchasing a cow share. 

Just by raising our own chickens and by purchasing a cow share, I have saved my family $2229.23 per year. 

But that's not all.  

We save in cost per pound for the meat, but that's not where the savings ends.

Shopping Habits

Buying in bulk, like a quarter of a cow at a time, and raising our own allows me to spend less time in the grocery store.  This past year, I also started purchasing online and in bulk, which means visits to the store are even fewer.  I haven't been to the big grocery store in months.  I have visited a locally owned, small boutique grocery store and the small, locally owned town grocery store (mostly catering to tourists, but there are regular groceries there, too) a few times per month over the past year. 

According to this article, consumers spend an average of $5400 per year on impluse buys, and 70% of respondents list food as their biggest impulse.  

I don't know that we are, exactly, average.  I do know that we spent a lot of money on groceries, when I had to shop in store, and I was going to the store every week.  Sometimes more often, because we "forgot" something, or we wanted a meal for which I didn't have all of the ingredients, or we wanted some quick food (which I don't normally purchase), and we were just going to run in and get some frozen pizza.  The "how's that working for ya?" question is a good one right here.  

How that worked, for us, was that we would spend less money eating out, but we spent a LOT on groceries, and even more, because every single time we stepped into that grocery store, there was the potential, and usually the inevitability, that we would spend more than we had intended.  A trip for a couple of $9 pizzas could end up costing $80, on top of the $250 to $300 from the previous "weekly" shopping trip.

Buying meat in bulk from a local producer means that I can purchase non-perishables, pet food, and toiletries (like toilet paper) in bulk online, and I can get all of our produce at the farm stand, which means what I need from a grocery store is pretty much, nothing.  If I allow for a quarter of the "impulse" buying, because I'm spending only a quarter of the time in the store, I have saved my family $2362.50 so far this year by limiting my visits to the grocery store.  At the end of the year, our savings - if we did, indeed spend the average - will be $4050.

In short, between the cost-per-pound savings and the limited impulse buys, we are saving $6250/year.  

The average hourly worker in Maine earns $18/hour.  That works out to 347 hours or over 8 weeks worth of full time work to earn the equivalent of what we save annually by purchasing in bulk, raising our own, and limiting our shopping trips/impulse purchases.  

Wow!  Who knew being a carnivore could be frugal?*

*And also, since all of our meat is locally sourced, we are eating more sustainably and eco-friendly than the average American.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Cleaning Up

 I have some very talented and creative friends.  

One of my friends has been making soap.  She has become very passionate about it and very good at it.  In fact, she has become such a talented soap-maker that she no longer buys soap.  My favorite of her recent soap-making related quips was to quote her son, who lamented the fact that his mom no longer buys "normal" soap.  Hers is better.  So, why spend the money?  I will admit my admiration of her.  She's pretty amazing, actually.

She learned to make both a bar and a liquid soap, and even better than just keeping her family washed, the liquid soap can also be used for the dishes and the laundry.

I have made my own soap using lye and lard (I included a recipe in my book, Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs: the Thrivalist's Guide to Life Without Oil*), but I never learned to make it into a liquid for laundry and dishes.  I guess I knew that my soap could be used for whatever (grated bar soap can be dissolved in water and mixed with borax and washing powder for liquid laundry soap), but it just never occurred to me to take it beyond washing my body.  

Soap can be expensive, and while there are definitely cheaper options than the one we use, as I've aged, I have developed some pretty significant sensitivities.  If I don't want to end up an itchy mess, I have to be very careful about what I smear on my skin.  

For personal hygiene, I have been buying Dr. Bonner's bar soap through their website.  I buy 10 bars at a time at a cost of about $5.05/bar including shipping.  It takes a week and a half to get here.  

Buying it locally doesn't save me much more.  The bars are around $4 each at places like Rite Aid, but I can't always get the flavor I want.  Since Dr. Bonner's isn't a brand that flies off the shelves, most places have a very limited selection of scents and only stock the most popular scents.  I can almost always find peppermint.  I almost never find almond, which is my favorite, especially during the winter. 

We use about five bars of soap per month for four people, two of whom use it full-body, including hair.  It works out to about $26.45/month for soap (buying it online). 

My friend is also making the liquid soap, which can be used like the Dr. Bonner's concentrated liquid.  According to their website, "Dr. Bronner’s 18-in-1 Pure-Castile Soaps are good for just about any cleaning task. Face, body, hair & dishes, laundry, mopping, pets" - basically everywhere in the house.  And it's diluted for most uses, which means a 32 oz bottle should last a while.  Thirty-two ounces of Dr. Bonner's concentrated liquid soap is $18.49 from their website (not including shipping).  It's about the same at the grocery store. 

I have never used Dr. Bonner's exclusively for the above listed tasks, because it's expensive, compared to other cleaners, even diluted.  According to this dilution cheat sheet on the Dr. Bonner's website, one would use 1/2c of Dr. Bonner's per load of laundry, which works out to eight loads of laundry per 32 oz bottle.  I mean, that doesn't sound right, to me, and, at over $18/bottle, it certainly isn't cost effective as a laundry soap, if those figures are accurate.  

I reckoned that making my own soap could save us some pretty pennies.  So, I asked my friend to teach me to make her soap.  She was delighted to help me, and we set a date.

She stopped by for a few hours the other day with some soap making supplies: a whisk, a dedicated plastic container for mixing lye, some potassium hydroxide (a.k.a. potash (KOH) for making liquid soap), and some molds for the bar soap.  I had purchased coconut oil and lye (Sodium Hydroxide, NaOH), and I always have a good supply of essential oils, which are optional and can be omitted, if the soap maker prefers.

The process was so simple.  Basically, melt the coconut.  CAREFULLY, mix the lye or potash with water (it gets hot, so great caution is necessary!).  Blend the two, and stir, and stir, and stir ....

After much stirring (my friend uses a stand mixer, which she sets and leaves so that she can do other stuff while the soap is processing), the liquid soap compound takes the consistency of marshmallow fluff.  It is, then, transferred to a container (I reused a polypropylene container that had originally been used for mixed nuts) and sequestered (my friend's word, which she said means just putting it out of the way for a bit).  Overnight, the mixture thickens from a fluff consistency to a mashed potato consistency, and according to my friend, it's done!

My friend advised diluting 3:1 (water/soap) for a liquid soap that can be used for whatever purpose.  If wanted, essential oils are added at this last stage, just before use.  It actually smells like soap - clean and fresh.  I think I like it without any essential oils, just the way it is.  

The bar soap was pretty much the same steps.  Melt the coconut oil.  Mix the lye with water (again, carefully, because it does get hot).  Allow to cool.  Mix lye water with coconut oil and stir.  When it thickens to the consistency of pancake batter, add essential oils and pour into molds.  We used a silicone bunny-shaped mold, and I was able to remove the soap from the mold the next morning.  It will have to "cure" for another two weeks or so before we use it. 

The recipe my friend used measures in grams.  I used a handy-dandy internet converter.  It's, basically, 30 oz (840g) of coconut oil (I found 15 oz bottles of coconut oil for $3 each at the dollar store); 1/4lb (114g) of lye (Amazon lists a pound container for lye for $11.99); and 234g of water (about 0.99 cups).

The bar soap recipe makes around 12 standard-sized bars, which (excluding the cost of the essential oils), works out to $0.75/bar.

By teaching me to make this soap, my friend has saved us around $255/year on bar soap.

I won't know how much she saved us on laundry and dish soap until I get a good sense of how quickly we go through that container, but every little bit helps, right?

Being a real housewife is not a TV drama.  It's also not "just" about doing laundry and making dinner.  We, "Real" Housewives, are economists, whose the goal is finding ways to be financial savvy in our home care.  

Where I live the average hourly wage earner makes $18/hour.  One has to work for 20 minutes to buy one bar of Dr. Bonner's soap.  That's a third of an hour, just to buy a single bar of soap.  

While it is true that I spent more than 20 minutes making my soap, I was also able to do other tasks while the soap was setting up (i.e. it doesn't require 100% of my attention for the whole process).  After measuring and mixing the ingredients, for instance, I could take a couple of minutes to put the clothes on the line, or go out in the garden and harvest cabbage for dinner, or go out in the farmyard and collect eggs.  All of those tasks also save us money.  

Contrary to what some may believe, Housewifery** is an incredibly skill-based "profession", and like so many industries that are hurting for skilled and talented workers, there are very few of us left who are knowledgeable in the true art of keeping a house.  When we lose our homemakers, we will all be dependent on other people to do the task of taking care of us, which means longer work hours and, ultimately, a lower quality of life.

The further we, as a society, get from being able to do such simple things as making soap, the more time we will spend trying to make money to compensate for our lack of skill.  


*This is not an affiliate link, but if you purchase a new copy of this book from the publisher's link, I do receive a residual.  

**This is NOT an affiliate link. I am not affiliated with Amazon and make no money if you choose to purchase this book.  

Monday, July 5, 2021

Face Masks and Rice Packs

Deus Ex Machina works at a corporate job in a manufacturing facility.  His employer is still requiring face masks.

At the beginning of the Pandemic, I made a bunch of masks for my family.  As the pandemic wore on, I made a few more to cut down on having to launder them as often.  Over the course of the last year, I have made just over a half dozen different masks for Deus Ex Machina to use at work.    

He has been wearing those masks, one a day, every day, five days a week, for more than a year.  

The masks are holding up surprisingly well, given how much they are used, but recently, we learned that his employer does not have a plan for going full mask-free, and so, I made him a few new ones today, with a very summery vibe - one for each day of the week.  

These are all reversible (two of them have the same color fabric on both sides) and are made from a quilter's weight cotton fabric - breathable, but with a tight enough weave to keep out virus particles - as was recommended last year when everyone was making homemade masks.

Since I have a sizeable fabric stash (much of which was given to me by a dear friend who is no longer quilting), and I save elastic from everything, I didn't need to purchase anything to make these.

If Deus Ex Machina had been purchasing masks, he would have paid, for a comparable product, $4 each.  Today's five masks would have cost $20.  I made them, excluding my time and the electricity for my sewing machine, for free. 

Over the year of making all of these masks, I have cut out extra mask panels on a few occasions, and so I had several fabric rectangles in my stash.  I was looking at them today, thinking, I should sew them all together.  I would have the beginnings of a quilt.

Then, I walked into the kitchen to get another cup of coffee.  

Many years ago, we bought a set of lavender infused rice packs, which we store in the freezer.  When the girls were young the rice packs were dubbed, "Cold Things."  Every bump or bruise called for the getting a "cold thing" from the freezer.  In our house, they're better than band aids for curing what ails you.   And we use them for everything from keeping cool on those wicked hot summer nights when it's hard to sleep in our non-air conditioned home and the fans just aren't doing it to a cold compress o his forehead when Deus Ex Machina has one of his migraines.  

Suffice it to say that our "cold things" were well used, and as a result, over the years they've gotten a little ragged.  One of them even developed a hole, which someone tried to stitch closed.  It still lost a few pieces of rice with every use.  Also, recently, I noticed that several of them had something sticky on them, probably from something that leaked on them in the freezer.  I hate touching sticky stuff.  

But I was at a loss as to how to clean them without compromising the rice that was in the pack.  I mean, I couldn't just throw them in the washer. 

I was planning to replace the old fabric ... at some point.

This morning, after I made Deus Ex Machina's new summer masks, I walked in the kitchen for some coffee, and there, on the counter, was one of the sticky cold things.  

So, I grabbed it and brought it out to the table where I had my sewing machine set up.  I, quickly, sewed four mask panels together, cut open the old cold thing, and transferred the contents into the new cover.  I also added a handful of dried lavender flowers we just happened to have in the cupboard - leftover from some salve or soap project were were doing in the past.

All total, I made three new rice packs using leftover fabric from my mask making, rice from the old cold things, and a handful of dried lavender leftover from some other project.

Out or curiosity, I looked up the cost of a new lavender infused rice pack.  I found these for $19.99 ... EACH.  

Today, I saved $79.97 for the rice packs and masks that we didn't have to purchase.  

Friday, July 2, 2021

How a non-wage earning Housewife MAKES More Than a Minimum Wage Worker

We have this great family story.

When Big Little Sister was three or four years old, Deus Ex Machina worked for a company that made the equipment used by the CD manufacturing industry to put the shiny metal on the discs.  It was a fascinating process, and the machines were pretty cool looking, too.

He was, rightfully, very proud of his work in assisting with the engineering of this machine, and so he brought us into the facility for a tour so that we could see it in action.  It was impressive.

A few days later, out of curiosity and to see if Big Little Sister understood what he did for a living, he asked her, "Do you know what Daddy makes at work?" 

Without skipping a beat, she blurted, "Money."

I think about that ... a lot ... because money is something that I don't make a lot of, and sometimes I feel the weight of a society that doesn't value people who don't earn a wage.  I've heard it in exactly those terms from more than one person, who intimated that my value - or lack thereof - was connected to whatever I could make in dollars.  I make very few dollars, and so I am not worth all that much, to our society, according to those people.

The fact is, though, that I make a lot of stuff, like:

Just those things listed is $73.12 worth of goods.  

The minimum wage in Portland, Maine is $15/hour.  Someone working for minimum wage would have to work almost five hours in order to pay for those items I make.  

In the doing of those things, in the "making", I SAVE money.  If we subtract the cost of the breakfast sandwich, I saved $54,47, because I didn't pay for the materials to make any of those items.  It was all recycled.

It got me thinking.  The fact is, my being a full-time housewife saves a lot of money (overall), because I can do things, make things, sew things, iron things, plant things, grow things, clean things, cook things ... that we would, otherwise, have to pay someone else to do.

The average annual income for an hourly worker here in Maine is $39,327.   Assuming that's full-time, the average hourly rate in Maine is $18.90.  When I was working outside the home at a local community theater, I earned less per hour.  My job as a fact-checker pays more per hour, but I don't and won't get as many hours as I worked at the theater.  So, there will be less money.

But if I am home more, then, we save more, because I can do all of those things that we might end up paying someone else to do, and there are no job-related expenses (like gasoline for the car I needed to travel back and forth to work, which I don't need for that purpose now, because I don't have to drive to work).  

Today, I made Deus Ex Machina a breakfast sandwich ($9), packed his lunch ($7.50), did some housework ($40/hour), and ironed work clothes ($3/pants; $1.50/shirt).  The total "saved" today was $61.  A person making the average hourly rate here in Maine would have had to work three hours and 22 minutes to pay someone to do what I did today. 

Oh wait!  I also did some sewing ...

... but that will be another blog post.

I challenge you to calculate how many hours you must work to pay for some basic products and services.   Then, consider if your job costs more than you could save, by doing those things yourself and not earning a wage.