Thursday, October 28, 2021

Throwback Thursday: Mavis Asked, I Answered

Five years ago, I answered the challenge from fellow blogger, Mavis Butterfield of 100 Dollars a Month, to share ways my family saves money without sacrificing our quality of life.  

I don't know whether my family would agree or not, but I just think that we have had an amazing life, and frankly, I don't think my children have ever wanted for anything, in spite of the fact that,  we are pretty frugal.

Most of the things in the article are things we still do, and in many ways, we've even gone further down the path of frugality than where we were when I wrote this article.  For instance, I still don't purchase commercial cleaners, but I also learned to make soap.  So, the savings there is even greater, because I don't need to purchase those expensive Dr. Bonner's products anymore. 

Here's the article from 2016, which was posted on Mavis' blog.

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Like more than two-thirds of Americans, I didn’t grow up on a farm. Both of my parents did, and like most people of their generation, they hoped to give me and my sisters a better life, which, for them, meant one where I would go to college so that I could get a good job with which I would earn enough money to support a middle class, suburban lifestyle with the goal being that I wouldn’t have to struggle or work as hard as they and their parents did.

Like many people in my generation, however, I grew up feeling something was missing in my life, and while my parents had worked very hard to get me off the farm, I wanted nothing more than to get back on it. Unfortunately, because in my early adulthood, I’d followed the standard American Dream (college, a career, a house, cars, kids, and pets, i.e. loans, mortgage, credit cards and debt-up-to-my-eyeballs), I was kind of stuck with a mortgage and a lifestyle that I just couldn’t, easily, walk away from.

So, I took Teddy Roosevelt’s sage advice, and I started doing what I could with what I had where I am. At first, part of my motivation was to make my life more eco-friendly, but ultimately, my goal was to live more simply, which would translate to needing make less money, which would translate into not needing to struggle so hard in a job I hated (in William Wallace’s words, FREEDOM!). In short, most of our lifestyle changes were all about saving dough to get us out of debt so that we could quit working for “the man” and focus on doing what we loved.

To be honest, most of the time we don’t feel like we’re saving any money. Most of the time, it feels like we’re right on the edge, and so I don’t, often, feel like I have any great how-to advice when it comes to pinching pennies, but when I read articles on money-saving tips, I realize that my family also does a lot of the things that other people do, and in some ways, we go a step beyond. So, I thought I would give it a shot.

As an intro, I live on a quarter acre suburban lot in southern Maine. I share my life with my ever-patient husband, who works full-time as an Engineer in Maine’s small, but growing, technology industry. He would rather be sitting by our fire pit, carving chess pieces and boiling maple sap to syrup, or walking through the woods hunting mushrooms. We have five children, two adults who have kids of their own, and three younger daughters, who’ve made this lifestyle transition with us, mostly happily. We share our small home with four big dogs, three cats, seven rabbits, and a flock of suburban chickens, who keep us supplied in eggs and eat all of the ticks in the yard.  (update: all the kids are, now, adults, and the animal count has changed - fewer dogs, fewer rabbits, and a Parrot).

We have several beautiful walking trails near our home. We like to take the dogs out for long walks.

I’m thankful to Mavis for challenging me to take a good, hard look at our lifestyle choices. This has been a very fun exercise, and I hope it’s useful to someone else, too ;).

1. How do you keep your food budget in check?

We pinch pennies for a lot of the things we buy, but for the most part, our food spending is not one of those areas where we choose to save money by buying the cheapest food. We like food – good, quality food – and we have a food sensitivity, which means we have to avoid certain food additives anyway. We almost never purchase pre-packaged or boxed foods, because too often those foods contain ingredients that don’t meet our personal standards and/or they contain ingredients we can not eat. When we shop for food, we look for items that are local, “in season”, organic, whole food, and/or contain no GMO ingredients. Keeping spending under control is a real challenge when what we buy is often a lot more expensive than some of the other choices out there.

As such, being able to save in other ways on our food budget is incredibly important and so we’ve learned a few tricks a long the way.

a. We trade convenience for quality. A local farmer has raw milk for sale on his farm. The caveat is that we have to actually GO to the farm and pick it up ourselves and supply our own containers (buying right off the farm is a legal option where I live in Maine). Raw milk pre-bottled at the health food store can cost as much at $10/gallon. We get it for a lot less, because we’re willing to take the less convenient route by going to the farm.

b. As long as the food meets our standard, we don’t pass up the opportunity for free or cheap food. Last winter, my daughter saw a deer get hit by a car. In Maine, the person who hit the deer can, legally, take that deer home, after it has been tagged. The driver, in this case, did not want the carcass, and so we were able to take it. We paid for butchering (although in the past, we’ve butchered it ourselves), and ended up with 100 lbs of “organic” meat for under $2/lb. In addition, we are often offered free, locally-grown produce when someone’s garden is over producing. A few years ago, a co-worker offered my husband plums. He said that his plum tree was producing like crazy, and there was more food than he could use. We ended up with several 5 gallon buckets full of plums and made jelly and wine.

c. We try to be as self-sufficient as possible. We live on a quarter acre in suburban southern Maine. We raise most of the vegetables we eat during the growing season, plus chickens for eggs and meat, and rabbits for manure for our gardens and for meat for us.

d. We store what we harvest. There are a lot of ways to preserve food, and we’ve tried most of them. I didn’t start canning until I was in my 30s, but since then, not only do I can everything I can get into a jar. I’ve also salted fish, cured meats, fermented both vegetables and fruit juices (wine), and dehydrated herbs, fruits, and meats. When we first started storing food, preserving was a seasonal thing, and I had to make a decision about what I was going to do with it right when it came into my kitchen. Now, I know that I can take some time. I can freeze the excess of berries now, and later, when life slows down (Ha!) I can make preserves. I can take thinly cut meat from the butcher out of the freezer and marinate it and dehydrate it anytime I want. It takes some of the pressure off of getting it all done at once and has really expanded our ability to save money, because we can purchase more, in season, freeze it, and then, deal with it all later, to make room in the freezer for other things.

e. We buy local food in season. During the summer, we spend a lot of time at local farm stands and Farmer’s Markets. We also purchase meat we can’t raise in bulk from local farms in the form of a pig share or cow share. We pay the farmer for the animal (not the meat), and a local butcher to process the animal for us. It’s a flat, per pound rate for every cut, and so we pay the same per pound price for hamburg that we pay for filet mignon. It works out to a pretty good deal, and it gives us a nice variety of cuts to choose from.

f. We learned to accept the gift of nature’s bounty. There is a plethora of wild foods, and over the years, we’ve learned to identify, harvest and store what we are freely given. Our first wild food of the calendar year is maple syrup. We started almost ten years ago with three taps, and we now tap more than twenty trees – some on our neighbors’ land (with their permission – and we share the syrup). Maple syrup is incredibly expensive, and we save a significant amount of money per year by harvesting this wild food ourselves. We also harvest and eat: wild greens, wild game (like turkey, which my husband bow-hunts), fish, clams, berries, invasive plants like Japanese Knotweed, milkweed, some wild mushrooms (chanterelles, black trumpet, and lion’s mane), hazelnuts, and a few others. Many of those wild, free-for-the-taking foods are gourmet delights that cost a great deal of money in the store.

g. We barter. We taught a class on tanning rabbit hides and earned a bagful of local produce and some loaves of artisan bread. We traded rabbit for goat cheese. We traded duck eggs for homemade granola.

h. Finally, we don’t waste food. We use every part of everything that we can. A chicken is cooked and eaten for several meals and the bones are cooked into broth for soup later. Apple peels are made into vinegar. Pumpkin seeds are roasted and eaten. Seeds that aren’t eaten are saved and replanted next year.

Saving money on food could be difficult for us, because we like to eat well, but by making conscious choices and taking a little more time and care, we can eat well and not break the bank.

Any tips on saving for saving entertainment costs? Preferably ones that don’t require you to sit at home alone like a shut-in…

We love the theater. My youngest was a nursing baby when we saw Stomp! live. Her sister was four when we took her to see Cats. We took our girls to see the Cirque de Soliel, twice. My children have seen the Nutcracker Ballet. We bought tickets for a series of plays based on children’s books (including Curious George and Imogene’s Antlers). Two of my daughters and I even saw the production of “Anything Goes” (starring Colin Donnell) at the Stephen Sondheim Theater on Broadway in NYC. Unfortunately, tickets are incredibly expensive and going to the theater is not something we can afford to do as regularly was we would have liked.

Luckily, we discovered the perfect solution. We became volunteers. Our community theater is always looking for volunteers for a variety of jobs from set building and costume designing to hanging promotional posters. Volunteers are paid in comp tickets. They also need ushers, and as part of the usher staff, we are allowed to stay and see the show, for free. Our community theater does four shows per year, and for the last three years, we have seen every show in every season, except one. My entire family volunteers. The people at the theater call us “The Browns”, like we’re a collective, and we joke that we run in a pack. If you see one of us, we’re probably all present. My youngest daughter has been a volunteer usher since she was ten.

Being willing to work as a volunteer has opened up many opportunities for us to enjoy local entertainment venues. As a volunteer at our local food pantry, I had the opportunity to attend the Blues Festival, for free, because the pantry had a donation booth that I was working during the festival. In the fall, our community group hosts a haunted hayride. We volunteer to work as actors in the hayride, and we get free tickets so we go on the ride, too.

Every year there are dozens of agricultural fairs here in Maine. One of the biggest and most well attended (by people from all over the country) is the Common Ground Fair in Unity, Maine. One year I found out about an opportunity to volunteer to man a booth that was sponsored by a local foods group. I had to “work” for an hour, and our admission to the fair for the day was free.

Every community has volunteer opportunities, and sometimes spending a few hours working will yield an equal amount of free entertainment.

How do you stretch your dollar when clothes shopping?

First, let me admit that I hate shopping. I hate the flash and shiny of the stores that are designed to make me discontented with my beautiful life. After fifteen minutes of looking at all of the colors and patterns and too many choices, I get a niggling headache.

What really irritates me is after I’ve checked out, because these days, there’s always that note at the bottom of the receipt that tells me how much money I’ve saved. Um, no, actually, I SPENT money. I tried explaining that to a cashier, once, who was very excited to show me that I’d saved $50. I said, “Actually, I spent $30. If I wanted to save money, I wouldn’t be shopping.” She didn’t understand.

Unfortunately, with five children (two of whom are adults, now), I’ve had to learn to push through the discomfort and get the job done. There was a time when we looked for the cheapest clothes we could find (again, dressing five kids is expensive), but what we found was that the less expensive brands meant that we were replacing clothes and shoes more often, and so we had to change our tactics.

After many years of being disappointed and spending a lot of money, I figured out how to be smarter in our buying choices. The first thing I did was to avoid shopping centers except when we absolutely needed something, which means that we don’t impulse shop, which means we have more money for things we actually need.

The second thing I did was to learn to shop at the best time, which is when no one else is. My children joke about February 15 being “candy day”, because it’s the day after Valentine’s Day and all of the candy is on sale. The same wisdom applies to clothes shopping. If we wait until the end of September to back-to-school shop (and because we home school, we don’t really need to back-to-school shop), we can get some great deals on clothes. Just after Easter, my daughter needed some new clothes for the theater (black dress slacks or a black skirt and white top). Winter clothes were marked down to 85% off the sticker price, all of the Easter dresses were on sale at half off, and many of the spring clothes were also at bargain prices (30% off or better). We were able to stock her up on shirts and jeans for the upcoming warmer season, AND find a new ushering outfit for less than $70. The receipt said we saved $60.

I also learned to love second-hand, which was no small feat. Growing up in the suburbs during the late 70s and early 80s, thrift stores, like the Salvation Army Store, had a reputation of being for “poor people”, and at that time, being “poor” was viewed as a moral shortfall. My mother avoided second-hand stores. We were even loath to accept hand-me-downs from friends, even though we weren’t wealthy and could have benefited from some quality clothes. These days thrifting is an art form. Everyone does it, and everyone brags about their incredible thrift-store treasures.

The first time I voluntarily purchased clothes second-hand was when my, now, nineteen year old daughter was a baby (which, roughly, coincides with the beginning of the shabby-chic movement). I had just relocated to Maine and my very practical and thrifty Yankee in-laws introduced me to Goodwill. I was an immediate convert, and I’ve enjoyed browsing the thrift stores ever since, and I know where every Goodwill within a 20 mile radius of my house is located. I even have a 10% discount card to Goodwill. For someone who has the time to look a little more closely, there is an opportunity to find high quality, designer label clothes at rock-bottom prices. My favorite find is my 100% wool coat that I have been wearing for six years. I paid $5. It’s still in perfect shape. I usually pair it with the dog-fur scarf my daughter knitted for me out of, yes, fur we collected when we brushed our dog, and we had spun into a super soft, beautiful chocolate colored yarn.

Of course, even buying new-to-me clothes still costs money, and the best way I’ve found to save money on clothes is to wear the clothes until they just can not be worn anymore, which means learning to repair them. I love my Merino wool socks, but one pair costs over $8, and I can only wear them for a season before they get holes in the bottoms of them. A season, for me, is seven months of continuous wear, because it’s cold where I live, and I wear socks most of the time. I learned to darn my socks so that they last a little longer. I repair clothes that can be repaired, like ironing a patches in my ten year old jean jacket so that I can keep wearing it, dying shirts that have stains instead of relegating them to a rag bag or “work clothes”, and having shoes resoled instead of buying a new pair (resoling my Birkenstocks cost me $40. A new pair costs more than $100).

And, finally, there is something to be said for learning some skills associated with clothes making, like sewing and knitting. My daughter knitted my dog-fur scarf for me, and I’ve been wearing it for six years. Our dog passed away in 2012, but I still have that scarf, which serves as a beautiful reminder of our companion and pet. While I don’t knit very much or very well, I do sew. For my first two pregnancies, I made all of my own maternity clothes. For many years at Christmas, I would make pajama pants for my husband and daughters. I’ve made dance costumes, toys, and quilts. I’ve made play dresses and dress-up clothes for my daughters. I’ve made skirts for myself. Last summer, using some old shirts, I made a pair of underwear and a new skirt. The best part of making my own clothes is that I can tailor them to fit my body, which is just a half size wrong for most off-the-rack clothes, which are usually just too tight or just too loose.

What are your tips for being a gracious host to family and friends without breaking the bank?

I love to host parties. We have an annual “Brown Summer Party”, which can have as many as fifty invited guests. Having parties during the summer is perfect, for us, because we keep the guests outside, which means that we don’t have to do a lot of decorating, because my garden, full of blooming flowers, provides most of the d├ęcor.

I never ask my guests to bring food (although many of them will, and it’s fun to see the wonderful and eclectic selection of food). We will provide the main dish. The food we provide is usually home made, often from stuff we’ve grown or gathered. We love to cook fancy tasting and sounding food, that’s actually super cheap. One of our favorites is Naan (which is grilled flat bread, and bread is just flour, water, yeast, sugar and salt) served with grilled vegetables and meat on a skewer (Shish Kebabs – super fancy!). With a couple of pounds of inexpensive meat cubed and marinated in a home made marinade, seasonal vegetables cut into bite-sized pieces, and some bread, we can serve all of our guests a super-fancy, super simple, super inexpensive, super delicious meal. For beverages, we serve iced tea (home brewed for pennies, even when we use organic sugar), hand-squeezed lemonade, and our home brewed wine or beer.

We save a ton of money on dishes and napkins, because we always use real plates, canning jars for glasses, metal forks and spoons, and cloth napkins instead of one-use paper or plastic. All of the dishes were bargains. They were either given to us over the years by friends or family members who were cleaning out, or purchased cheaply at thrift stores specifically for our parties. We keep them in a plastic bin in the back of a closet, and they don’t take up any extra space in our kitchen cabinets. We also have extra cloth napkins and table cloths, and special table decorations (like candle holders). These things make our parties extra special, and because we can reuse them over and over again, have saved us a lot of money over the years.

We hosted my son’s wedding reception on our lawn. It cost less than $300, most of which went to pay for tables, chairs, and the tent. I purchased a script for a Mystery Dinner, and his wedding reception was a completely unorthodox Mystery Dinner party with a three course meal, including a Leg of Lamb (in our freezer from a lamb we’d purchased from a local farmer) that was served by his younger siblings and their friends.

Last fall, my daughter was cast in a our community theater production of Jekyll & Hyde. After the show one night, she invited the cast and crew over to our house for an impromptu cast party. We had all been at the show – my daughter was on stage, and the rest of us were ushering – and suddenly, I had a dozen people to feed. I hadn’t had any time to plan for a party at my house, and so I took a quick inventory, and then, started slicing. I made a plate with apple wedges, sliced cheese and pepperonis, crackers, and kalamata olives (pitted). We also served chips and salsa, and popped a couple of bowls full of popcorn. Everyone had a blast, there was plenty of food, and it didn’t cost me a thing, because it was food that we already had in our pantry.

When it comes to parties, what I’ve found is that cooking my own food is so much easier than trying to plan around ready-made food I can buy. Veggie trays from the grocery store are very convenient, but for $15, I can purchase twice the food from my local farmer, and a simple dip using a mayonnaise base with a splash of red wine vinegar and a couple of teaspoons of herbs, is much better, and much healthier, than the preservative laden concoctions that come with the veggie trays.

To vacation or not to vacation? That is the question.

I live in “Vacationland” two miles from the beach, within five miles of four amusement parks, and mile and a half from the drive-in movie theater. There are three campgrounds in my town, if I really want to pay someone, but for no extra money, I can pitch a tent in my front yard and have the exact same experience without having to spend half a week packing, and then another week unpacking and cleaning.

There’s cross-country and downhill skiing, snow-tubing, and ice skating in the winter, hiking year-round, canoeing on huge inland lakes or kayaking on the salt marsh tidal river (or if I’m feeling adventurous paddling out to one of the islands off the coast, or even more fun, to the old Civil War fort out in the bay).

There are lighthouses to visit. I can think of six different museums right off the top of my head – half of which I can get to by bicycle. We even have several “period” villages where we can experience “life as it used to be.”

I live a couple of miles from the train station where I can ride the rails from Brunswick, Maine to Boston, Massachusetts, and then, take a bus to South Station in Boston and head down to NYC or even Washington, D.C. for a day trip (sleeping on the train on the way back).

The short answer is that I don’t vacation, because the only place I could go that wouldn’t have something that I already have where I live is to visit family.

All of that said, I know that everyone doesn’t have the same environment or amenities that I have. I live in a tourist-centric community, and my entire community caters to having people visit here on vacation. I can feel like I’m on vacation and not spend a dime.

But I also think we tend to ignore what our own communities have to offer because we’re always looking across the fence at that green grass over there, and ignoring the verdant growth beneath our feet. I homeschool my children, and when they were young, as part of our study of geography, we traded flat travelers with other homeschoolers around the country. The point was to “host” the flat traveler, taking him/her on adventures around our community so that the other family could see what was here, where we live. They did the same with our flat traveler. What I discovered is that there are so many amazing things to see and do in every community, and I think most people don’t realize that, right around the corner, there’s a very cool thing. We often can save hundreds of dollars, just by “stay-cationing” and exploring what’s in our own backyards.

List the top things you can do without, WITHOUT sacrificing quality of life.

As I was compiling my list of things we do without, without sacrificing quality of life, I realized that they all start with the letter C. What’s great about all of them is that, not only am I not sacrificing quality of life, but I’m actually improving it, because by not having/using any of these things, we’re saving money.

There are probably a lot more things we eschew without suffering, but these are my Top Cs:

a. Cable. I know a lot of people are dumping their cable service, because it makes sense. With online streaming options, like Netflix and Hulu, the only benefit to having cable (for non-sports people, like us) is that the shows are current. We don’t mind being a season or two behind everyone else. Some people still use cable for their home-based Internet service. When we disconnected cable television, we were using a DSL service through the phone company. When we disconnected our landline phone service, we also discontinued DSL, and we are now using mobile Internet service. The overall savings (allowing that we were also paying for cell phone service, and the landline was redundant), per month, is more than $70.

But there was an additional, often overlooked, benefit to cutting cable. When we discontinued cable, we also gave away our television set and all of the peripherals. We have laptop computers and LED computer monitors (which use very little electricity, comparatively), and so we can watch DVDs and stream online programming. After we stopped using our television and permanently disconnected the ghost loads from the DVD player and the VCR, our electric bill was noticeably lower.

If we discontinued Netflix, and borrowed movies from the library or used the free streaming service from our local library, we could save an additional $15/month with no loss of quality of life.

b. Clothes dryer. I put up my first clothesline in 2007, bought an indoor drying rack a couple of years later, and gave away my electric clothes dryer more than five years ago. We line-dry/air dry all of our clothes, all of the time, even during the winter, and yes, on clear, sunny days (especially those precious blue-skied days following a severe winter storm) with two feet of snow on the ground one can drive by my house and see clothes freeze-drying on my line. We save a lot of money both on the electricity it costs to operate a clothes dryer, but also on wear and tear on our clothes. The dryer heat is tough on clothes and causes the fiber materials to break down more quickly. Our clothes last longer, because they aren’t exposed to the extreme heat of a clothes dryer.

c. Commercial cleaners.  I can’t remember the last time I purchased a product geared specifically toward cleaning a toilet or a bathtub. Most of the time for cleaning, I use baking soda or vinegar and a good scrub brush. The closest I come to a commercial cleaning product is Dr. Bonner’s liquid soap, and I’ve been known to use it for everything from washing my hair to cleaning the toilets. For washing clothes, we make a powder detergent with washing powder, grated bar soap (usually Dr. Bonner’s), borax powder, and some essential oil. It works just as well as a commercial detergent, and costs much less.

d. Cosmetics (i.e. toiletries like shampoo and deodorant).  The best deodorant I’ve ever used is baking soda and corn starch mixed with coconut oil and an essential oil (like lavender or Patchouli). I store it in an old commercial deodorant container, and the only draw back is that I have to store it in the refrigerator during the summer because the coconut oil liquefies. I also don’t use commercial shampoos or conditioners. I use the same soap on my hair that I use on my body, usually Dr. Bonner’s and almond scented is my favorite.

Instead of perfumes, I use an essential oil. I’ve made my own lye soap, which I really liked using. It’s on the list to make more soon.

When it comes to saving money, the best thing one can do for oneself is to learn some skills. Cooking, sewing, gardening, and soap making are all fun projects, and really, it doesn’t take much longer to lay-out, cut-out, and stitch up a simple skirt than it does to hop in the car, drive to the mall, find a parking place, pick through the hundreds of choices, none of which are ever exactly what we want, pay for the purchase, find the car, and drive back home. It really is less a matter of time than it is a cultural habit that tells us we are better if we work to pay for things that we could make ourselves, if only we took the time. In the end, the best way to save money is to do-it-yourself rather than paying someone else.



Monday, October 25, 2021

Home Cooking in the Crockpot

My crockpot has been getting a workout these last few weeks.  This week was the last week for the Adult Ed classes Deus Ex Machina and I were taking this fall.  We had two - Qigong on Wednesday nights (which will continue mid- November) and Country Line Dancing on Thursdays (which will resume in January, hopefully!).  Both classes were a hoot, and really, line dancing is some crazy good exercise ... if you do it the way I do - lots of hips and flailing arms :).  

There's no time to eat before class with work schedules being what they are, and so we eat after, but there's no time to cook dinner after class, if we hope to eat before 8:00pm.  So, I've been putting our dinner in the crockpot for the past several weeks, and it's been amazing.  Honestly, that crockpot has, totally, paid for itself - just in the savings from not eating out.  We won't even add the cost savings from the fact that there are always leftovers that Deus Ex Machina takes to lunch.

We've had a lot of different meals.  My favorite is to throw a pork roast with seasonings for Carnitas.  The meat is served with corn tortillas or chips, lettuce, grated cheese, salsa, and sour cream.  Sometimes I will cook rice to serve with it instead of the corn tortillas.  

Really, any roast in the crockpot is a good choice.  Beef roast topped with a tomato sauce, peppers, and onions is Yankee Pot Roast, and served over mashed potatoes.

Another favorite is to add stew meat, potatoes, carrots, onions, and spices for beef stew.  The other day, I had to drive to work because my daughter needed a ride to her job, and I came home at lunch and threw stew in the crockpot.  It was done by the time we got done with our Qigong class.

Sometimes, though, I just want the comfort of a good Mac&Cheese, but to make it the right way, which is not from a box and includes baking it, can be time consuming.  Really good Mac&Cheese includes a lot of cooking terms: boil, grate, mix, bake ....  

I found a crockpot version that is so simple, I can't even imagine doing Mac&Cheese any other way, now.  And there's no need to pre-boil the pasta.   Just throw everything into the crockpot, close the lid, wait an hour, stir, leave it alone for another hour or so, and serve, and it's AMAZING!

The original recipe called for Velveeta cheese, which I don't ever use.  So, I adapted it for my kitchen, and because I wanted it to be a full meal, I added ham and broccoli, both of which are optional and can be left out. 

Here's my recipe, using gluten-free penne or macaroni, and no Velveeta cheese.

Creamy Crock-pot Mac & Cheese

Ingredients:

12 oz pasta (I've used Penne and macaroni, both of which came out really good)

14 oz shredded cheese (I used a mix of cheddar, Monterey Jack, and Pepper Jack)

4 oz Feta (an additional 4 ounces of a shredded cheese would also work)

3 1/2 c Half and Half

1/2 c butter, cut into 1" slices

1 lb ham, cubed (optional)

1 c  chopped broccoli pieces (optional).

How To:

1.  Put pasta topped with ham and broccoli in the bottom of the crockpot. 

2.  Put butter on top of pasta, ham, and broccoli

3.  Add shredded cheese.

4. Pour in with Half and Half.

5.  Cover with lid and cook on high for one hour.

6.  Stir well.

7.  Replace lid and cook for an additional hour.


The only worry is to check the pasta to make sure that it's not overcooked and mushy, but even if it is a little well-done, it's still creamy and delicious, and so much easier than dealing with multiple pots and baking pans.  

I like simple meals that taste really good and don't use many dishes ... because I love to cook, but I hate washing dishes.  

Friday, October 22, 2021

Changing Habits/Saving Money

I've been watching all of the news about shortages and scarcity and increasing prices.  The "theys" have been telling us that *we* just need to get used to higher prices.  Sure.  Okay.  The problem, for a lot of people, is going to be that they can't "get used to" higher prices, because they are already living at that edge where the paycheck just only might reach to the end of the week.  More likely, they're good until Wednesday, but by Friday night, they're looking for a deposit.   

According to this article, more than half of the American population is living paycheck-to-paycheck, which means higher prices are going to set them back.

The options, as always, are to cut expenses or make more money.

In the last month, Deus Ex Machina and I have done both.  


Here's how:

DIY - Car Maintenance.  Saved $20 - cha-ching!

I learned a new skill the other day, and, frankly, I'm embarrassed that it's taken me this long.

It started with blue lights in the rearview mirror on a long stretch of highway in Maryland.  Deus Ex Machina was driving.  

"The reason I pulled you over is that you have a brake light out," the very kind officer told us. "If you were a resident of Maryland, I would give you a work order citation, and you'd need to have it fixed by xx/xx/xx, but since you're not a resident of Maryland, I will just give you this reminder slip to get it fixed as soon as you can."

That was in May.

I think we forgot.

Two weeks ago, a very kind man pulled up next to us and called out his window, "You have a brake light out!"

I was pretty sure I had a bulb somewhere, which is what I told Deus Ex Machina back in Maryland.  

And sure enough, in the console, there was a bulb.

So last weekend, Deus Ex Machina said, "Let's change that bulb", and he grabbed his wrenches, led me out to the car, popped the trunk, and walked me through how to change the bulb.

Then, we checked and discovered that another brake light was out (the one in the rear window).  I did not have a bulb for that one, and so we ordered a couple of LED replacements.  Three days later, he showed me how to replace that one.

Et, Voila!  All of the brake lights now work.  

The bulbs cost, maybe, $12 (the LED bulb was a little more expensive, but should also last longer).  The labor was free.

To have someone else replace it would have cost us $20 in labor fees.  

By learning to DIY that particular task, we saved $20.


Bake It! - Savings $2.50.  cha-ching

It doesn't seem like such a big deal, really, but as we've discussed here over the last several months, even something as small as $20 can have a big impact on our budget.  I save $24 a year on snack cakes by baking a cake and sending it with Deus Ex Machina for lunch.  

Today, Deus Ex Machina took a piece of homemade apple pie to lunch.  It was in the freezer.  

A whole apple pie (not gluten free) from a local bakery is $24.  If we cut it into 6 pieces, that's $4/slice.  A piece of homemade apple pie is around $1.50.  So, by giving Deus Ex Machina a piece of my homemade apple pie, we saved $2.50.  

That doesn't seem like such a big deal.

But that's the problem.  We often don't think that spending $2.50 is such a big deal, until we stop to add up all of those $2.50 purchases.


Changing Habits - Savings $752 annually.  CHA-ching!

I have recently started a part-time job.  It's a total fluke how I got the job, but I am incredibly thankful for this opportunity, and it really does feel like serendipity.  I am an assistant librarian at my local library.  Isn't that a hoot!?

I work two days a week (this week it was three, because I was covering a shift for another employee).  

I have been walking the two miles to work.  Deus Ex Machina picks me up at the end of the day, because we get off at, roughly, the same time, and my job is on his way home-ish.  

He has also been driving our more energy efficient car, rather than his truck, because it costs about half the amount to fill up the car as to fill-up the truck, AND the car gets around 32mpg versus the 18mpg the truck gets. 

His job is just over 30 miles, round-trip, per day.  Which means he uses about a gallon of gas, per day, in my car versus the two gallons of gasoline per week that he was burning driving his truck back and forth.  The savings is about $15 per week in gasoline.  If gas prices go higher, so do our savings.  

From his job to mine adds one mile to his commute (including the drive from my job to our house).  So, two days a week, he adds a mile to his commute to pick me up from work, but since I walk the two miles to work in the morning, instead of driving, we are actually saving six miles per week (it would be a four mile round trip drive, if I drove instead of walking). 

I won't be able to walk to work once it starts to snow, but if I drive Deus Ex Machina's truck and he continues to drive my car, he will continue to enjoy that $15/week savings in gasoline.  It will cost around $1.43 per week in gasoline (at $3.59/gallon) for me to drive back and forth to work two days a week.  If I come home at lunch, the cost will be $3 per week for gasoline.  I will need to drive for approximately eight weeks.  

Our total annual savings from changing our habit - his driving the car instead of the truck, and my walking to work - is about $752 or about $62/ month.  

So, maybe, $62 doesn't feel like a lot, but ....

The average hourly wage here in Maine is $18/hour.  A savings of $62 per month works out to 3 hours of work, saved.  The bonus is that I am getting an amazing amount of exercise and having a lovely start to my work day, and Deus Ex Machina gets to drive my zippy little sports coupe rather than his big, clunky truck.  

Seems like a winner of a deal to me.

Although ...

... I might need to get a new pair of cold-weather shoes that I can walk in, which will be expensive.  If I do get a new pair of shoes, it will be a pair of Birkenstock clogs, at a cost of around $145. 

The other day at work, I was joking with my colleague that I have a pair of shoes that are older than her son.  He's in the 2nd grade.  I am not ashamed to have been wearing the same pair of Birkenstocks since 2006.

Most people have a love it or hate it relationship with Birkenstocks, but the fact is, they are a really good shoe, especially for the thrifty-minded.  According to this article, not only are the shoes superior for foot health, but the same pair could last, "virtually forever."  So, an initial $145 outlay, with an $80 repair bill every 5 to 10 years, means an annual cost of about $22.50 over a ten year period.   A good pair of sneakers, which need to be replaced every year, costs $85.  One pair of Birks saves $62.50/year on the cost of shoe replacement. 

Now THAT sounds like a good deal to me!



Monday, October 11, 2021

Ingredients are the Prepper's Gold Standard

This was an interesting article.  Basically, what they're telling us, is that we should get used to shortages.  

A follow-up article quotes the head-honcho of Kraft Heinz, warning us that we should "get used to higher prices." 

Shortages of certain foods and higher prices for the ones that will be available.

I guess we've been warned ... ??

In truth, the Prepper community has been sounding the clarion call for a very long time.  


The article on shortages was interesting, because they mention a couple of highly processed items, like Rice Krispy treats, which will become scarce, and it, sort of, made me laugh.

A couple of weeks ago, I did an analysis of the cost of purchasing individually wrapped, highly processed, snack cakes versus making my own cakes and sending pieces with Deus Ex Machina to lunch.  It saved $24/year, which isn't a lot, but as Melonie pointed out, thinking in terms of what I could NOW buy (like a tank of gasoline for my car) rather than focusing on the tiny annual savings, gave those values a higher ROI.  

When I read that article and thought about not being able to purchase individually wrapped Rice Krispy treats, I will admit that I didn't have even a tiny bit of anxiety.  The fact is that I don't really purchase Rice Krispy treats anyway.

I mean, I guess I like Rice Krispy treats, but the fact is they are so easy to make, I can't imagine why anyone would purchase them premade, except as a convenience if one is out and needs a quick bite, but to purchase them as a storage item, or as snack food, seems a little ... wasteful and silly.

A few weeks ago, Precious decided she wanted to make Rice Krispy treats and asked me to purchase rice krispy cereal.  At the time, I figured one batch, and she'd be done.  Then, she wasn't, and I ended up making a few more stops at the store than I wanted. 

Then, I just picked up a bunch of bags of tiny marshmallows from the grocery store, but in an effort to save some cash, I purchased the cereal, in bulk, from the online bulk foods warehouse, Boxed.com**, where I have been getting most of our groceries for the past several months.  

Then, she was done, but we still had a lot of cereal and marshmallows leftover.


Buying in bulk is an interesting experience.  I end up with far fewer items than I would get when I would shop at the grocery store, but what I've found is that I have a lot more choices.  

I know.  That sounds counterintuitive, but bear with me for a second.

I purchase mayonnaise in huge 46 oz containers from Boxed.com.  That's a lot of mayonnaise, which is good, because I use mayonnaise as a base for a lot of other stuff.  I like mayonnaise on my hamburgers.  I use mayonnaise on my French fries.  Add a little bit of Siracha, and it's amazing for a topping on a buffalo chicken wrap.  Add a few seasonings, and I have a salad dressing, a dipping sauce for vegetables, a sauce (like tartar) for fish, or a cole slaw dressing.   

I don't purchase salad dressing anymore.  I make my own.  It takes about three minutes to mix up.  My simple recipe is:

1/2 c mayonnaise
1/4 c cream or half&half
1 to 2 tbsp wine vinegar or lemon juice
1 tbsp garlic powder and onion powder
1 tsp salt and pepper
herbs (which ones will depend on what kind of dressing you want)

More mayo and less cream makes it more of a dip. 

For a ranch or house style dressing, I add dill and chives (from my garden).  One recipe I saw for ranch includes equal parts mayonnaise, sour cream, and milk (or buttermilk), which has quite a nice flavor.

The amounts given in the above recipe are approximate and to taste.  Mostly, I've made this same sort of dressing so often at this point, that I no longer measure.  I just dump everything in a canning jar, add a lid, and shake well.  Et voila!  Salad dressing.  

A bottle of ranch salad dressing is $3.99, and in the end, all you have is ranch dressing.

Buying mayonnaise as a base for my homemade salad dressing gives me a lot more choices than just salad dressing.  The key is to see the possibilities and to be willing to experiment.  

When Precious wanted to make Rice Krispy treats, I didn't hesitate to get the ingredients for her.  Rice crispy cereal is cereal, which can be eaten with milk, and maybe some fruit, for breakfast.  Marshmallows can be fire-roasted and used for S'Mores, or added to hot chocolate for a creamy treat.  Many cooks will top sweet potatoes with marshmallows.  There are a few uses for both the cereal and the marshmallows beyond *just* rice crispy treats.  And then, there are other options, like this twist on the "treats" - just add peanut butter! 

In short, when I saw the *warning* of shortages with the listing of the types of shortages we might be expecting, it was a laugh-out-loud moment, for me, because those things listed, mostly, are things we, preppers, can often reproduce at home using ingredients that we've either stored, purchased locally, or produced ourselves.

This weekend, Deus Ex Machina and I visited the PYO apple farm, where we picked 44 lbs of apples, at a cost of about $1.13/pound.  I will make applesauce today, which I will can, and I will probably make applesauce several more times this week, along with dried apples, and maybe a batch of slow-cooker apple butter while I'm at work tomorrow.

I might even make an apple Bundt cake (maybe using this recipe or some variation of it).

So many options.   

My mantra is "store ingredients", and that attitude and practice has proven incredibly beneficial to me and my family.  

In these coming times where we might be experiencing shortages and higher prices, stocking up on ingredients and transitioning to a more DIY lifestyle, especially in the kitchen, will become even more important and more valuable than ever before.  While we are still in the midst of the growing season, consider heading over to the farmer's market and "stocking up" on some fresh, local produce.  Grab some eggs from that local farmer and pickle them, or do some baking and store the cakes and muffins in the freezer.  

And consider buying ingredients in bulk from someplace, like Boxed.com, and learn to cook with whole ingredients.  

===========================

Each morning, I write my to do list on the chalkboard in my kitchen.  One of the things I planned to do today was to "prep soap."  A few weeks ago my friend taught me to make a liquid soap base, and "prep soap" means that I put the soap base in a jar, add hot water to dissolve the base, and add essential oils, and then, I use it for whatever it's going to be used for.  Today's soap prep is for the dish soap and laundry soap, which I have been making from that potassium hydroxide base my friend taught me to make.

One of the items that was scarce last year was soap, and this year - and hopefully for evermore (as long as I can find potassium hydroxide, I guess) - that will no longer be an issue for me, because I learned to make my own. 

Soap making isn't difficult, and even if you mess up (which I did), it's still usable.  As long as the saponification process takes place, you have soap.  My last two batches of liquid soap base were imperfect, but usable.  One of them was scalded.  It still soaps up, and I'm using it to wash dishes and laundry.  The other "base" was not fluffy like it's supposed to be.  I guess I may have either over-stirred it, or added too much KOH.  It's still usable.  I can still dissolve it in water and put it in my soap dispensers.  

The next batch will be better.  

Or not.  

The point is to keep trying.

And having ingredients to make soap means that I don't have to worry if Dr. Bonner's experiences shortages, because I have everything I need to make my own. 

And there is nothing quite so empowering as knowing how to take care of one's self.




**This is not an affiliate link, and I get no compensation if you follow the link and make a purchase at the website.   


Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Tools


We have accumulated quite a collection of tools in the years Deus Ex Machina and I have owned our house.  Most of them are fantastic and are used regularly - like my canning supplies and other food preservation equipment.  

A few, though, we purchased for a specific reason, used them, and then put them aside and ... well, honestly, I, kind of, forget about them. 

Several years ago, I decided that I wanted to learn to make incense, and we found a sweet little kit through Rose Mountain Herbs.  I made a few cones, some of which I used myself, and some I gave as gifts at Christmas.  Then, I put the kit in a cabinet and forgot.  The other day I was chatting with my friend and mentioned I had purchased some incense sticks.   She said something about making my own, and I remembered that I could do that!  I can!  So, I went looking for the kit and found it, and she and I may get together in the near future to make incense ... like we made soap.  

When I was making incense, the most difficult part was using the Barbie-doll sized mortar and pestle that came with the kit, and so after making that incense, Deus Ex Machina purchased a real mortar and pestle for me.  



It's a gorgeous marble set.  We also bought one for him at the same time.  His is white and also very pretty.

I guess we used them a couple of times, and, then, they ended up in a cabinet.

When I talked with my friend about incense making, I remembered my mortar and pestle.

Later that same day, I was dealing with a salt crisis.  I love Maine Sea Salt, but it is a very coarse salt with huge grains.  It's lovely on something like salted caramel, when one wants those large coarse crystals.  Not so great when I'm just salting my dinner.

I have a grinder, but the Maine Sea Salt isn't big enough for the salt grinder to work.  Right?  The salt crystals are too big to salt my food, but too small to grind in the salt grinder.

Which is when I had my epiphany, because those crystals can be ground with my mortar and pestle.

And that's what I did.  I used the mortar and pestle to grind up the salt, which I, then, put into a salt shaker.

Having tools is good.  

Maine Sea Salt is more expensive than the grocery store brands, but I like the local aspect of the salt for a lot of reasons.  Buying local means I reduce my personal carbon footprint - which is important to me.  So, I didn't save any money by purchasing the Maine Sea Salt.

I did save money by using the tools we already have rather than trying to purchase a new salt grinder, which may or may not work.  

So, I will call this a win for $aving, because I avoided a new purchase by remembering that I already have the tools I need to get the job done.  Win!




Monday, October 4, 2021

Online Thrift Shopping? This is a thing?

I'm going to be honest.  I actually don't enjoy shopping, just in general.  I don't know that I ever, really, have, especially for clothes or household goods.  

I used to enjoy grocery shopping with Deus Ex Machina on Saturday mornings.  It was a whole experience.  We would drop our daughters off at the dance studio, and then, go to the grocery store together.  We were there on the same day at the same time, and we discovered there were dozens of other shoppers who did the same thing.  We started to recognize people, and they, us.  We found out that the employees also recognized us regulars and would give them nicknames.  Like the "no pants lady" who always wore a thigh-length, white turtle-neck sweater (no leggings or pants, though) and flip-flops - even when it started getting really cold.  I always imagined that she was a reclusive writer, and grocery shopping was one of those necessary evils, because she needed coffee, but she would have preferred to have stayed at home working on her book.  

Deus Ex Machina and I were the "fun couple," because we joked and laughed a lot.  

Then, our lives changed.  

There was no more Saturday morning dance class drop off.   

There were new jobs for both Deus Ex Machina and me.  

The pandemic happened, limiting the number of  people allowed in a store, and so only one of us could do the shopping.  It fell to me, which was unpleasant on so many levels, including losing my "fun" partner.  I started looking for other options for getting groceries into my house, and finding grocery delivery services solved the problem of having to go to a physical store, but there are other things we need, besides groceries.  

At the beginning of the pandemic, many stores closed down, not that I was heading over to the mall for an afternoon of retail therapy anyway, but for a few weeks, between March and sometime in May 2020, while everyone figured out how to respond to this health threat, the second-hand clothing shop I used to go to was just shut down.  I didn't know if it would reopen.  They didn't know IF they would be able to reopen. 

They did open back up with limited hours, limits on the number of shoppers allowed at a time, and curbside pick-up available.  Like every where else last year, masks were required for in store shopping.

For the record, I'm not an anti-mask person.  I wear it, when required, but it is not comfortable, and I do have a difficult time with it.  

First, I wear glasses, and not just glasses, I have progressive lenses (which are fairly new to me to begin with.  I've only been wearing prescription glass for about three years, and my first pair, ever, were progressives).  For those who don't know, basically, a progressive lens gives me two places on my glasses to look out of.  I have one prescription for seeing things that are up close (like this computer screen) and one prescription for seeing things that are far off (like when I'm driving).  The mask interferes with my ability to see the close up stuff, because the way the mask sits on my face changes the way the glasses sit on my face.  I have to read labels at the grocery store, because sometimes gluten is hidden in the ingredients (did you know that gummy bears are made with "wheat sugar"?), but the way the glasses sit on my face with a mask on makes doing that very difficult.  And then, the glasses fog up, and I can't see anyway.

Second, I have two big dogs and three cats, all of whom shed rabbit-sized puff balls.  All of my clothes are covered in fur.  It's just a part of my life.  With no dryer to remove the fur and lint, those things stay on the mask.   When I get the mask on, I invariably inhale a hair, which starts to tickle, and then, I need to cough, and well, don't cough in public these days.  I'm pretty sure there's a tangle of pet fur in my lungs.

So, if I can avoid wearing a mask, I do.

Which has made online shopping my best option.

Amazon is like the online Walmart.  My opinion about Walmart and the fact that I haven't shopped there in more than a decade, is well known.  I don't shop on Amazon, if I can help it.

I have purchased items, if I know what I want, direct from the manufacturer - like Dr. Bonner's soap.

But I was having a hard time with the whole clothes shopping thing.  Did I mention that I don't like shopping?  I enjoy, even less, shopping for clothes for myself (although I will happily shop all day for clothes for Deus Ex Machina).  I never try things on, because I just don't like taking off my clothes in the store - even in the relative privacy of the dressing room.  I think it's just too cold in most of those stores.  Or ... I don't know.  Is that a two-way mirror?  Silliness, but there it is.  

So, I don't try on the clothes, and I bring them home, and too many times, they don't fit.  Or the style looked good in the store, but not on me.  Then, I can either take it back (I hate shopping, remember?  I hate returning items even more), or I can leave it in my drawer until I start thinning my clothes and then donate the never-worn item a few years later.  

Sometime during the pandemic, my daughters signed up for this service called StitchFix**.  It's a pretty interesting business model.  Basically, you sign up giving them your style preferences, and they will select clothes that match what you say you like to wear.  They charge a $20 "styling fee" to send the box to you, and then, if you choose to keep any of the items, they will apply that $20 toward your purchase.  

It sounded fun, and so I signed up.  My first box was a disaster.  Nothing in the box was anything that I would ever wear.  I sent it all back.  They sent another box, right away, at no extra charge, and I ended up keeping two things - a lovely faux-wrap dress and a pair of white capris jeans.  The funny thing is that I would never wear white pants.  But those jeans were so wonderful and fit me so well, that I kept them, and I've worn them half a dozen times. 

What's also nice about StitchFix is that they are committed to being socially and environmentally conscious, but the clothes are new, never-been-worn, and while new clothes are nice, I have a hard time with the ethics of the fashion industry, in general.  If I can get my clothes second-hand, I will.  In fact, until 2020, all of my clothes were second hand - except shoes (which I will repair rather than replace) and my undergarments, which I always purchase new, because ... sanitation.

I was watching a Do It on a Dime video recently, and Kathryn was talking about this clothing service that she uses.  It's, basically, the same model as StitchFix - order a "goodie box", and at regular intervals, they will send you a box of clothes.  You try them on in the warmth and comfort (sans the possibility of two-way mirrors) of your own home.  Keep what you like and return (in their self-addressed prepaid envelope) what doesn't fit your body and/or style.  

The difference between StitchFix and the service Kathryn mentioned in her video is that ThredUp is an online consignment shop.  Get that?  It's USED clothes, and members can both purchase AND sell clothes.  It's exactly like my local brick-and-mortar designer clothes consignment shop, except I get to try on the clothes here at my house; I don't have to sort through the thousands of clothes they have available to find the one or two things that might fit my body-type and style, because I have a personal stylist who does that for me; and I don't have to worry about things like masks and that girl who keeps crowding me, because I've been standing in the sweater aisle for longer than 30 seconds.  

Thrifted clothes without having to go to the store??  I'm calling it a WIN.  I ordered my first goodie box from ThredUp this morning, and I'm looking forward to seeing what they send.

If you have used either ThredUp or StitchFix, I'd love to hear about your experiences.


On a side note, Deus Ex Machina and I stopped in at Goodwill the other night looking for an old tent for a project we're working on.  We didn't find a tent, or anything else we wanted.  What we did notice was how crowded the store was, and that plates, which we used to be able to purchase for less than $1 each are now 3/$8.  The price more than quadrupled.  I didn't look at any of the other prices.  It's crazy!  

Everything is going up.  Even the Dollar Store has decided to raise its prices.  Everything is no longer just $1.  



**This is a referral link.  If you sign up for StitchFix using my link, I will get a $25 credit toward my next purchase with them.  ;).