Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Frugality Creep

Frugality became an important issue for me about a year and a half ago when my husband and I took on two mortgages (one for 50 acres of farmland, the other for the home we live in) totaling about $400k. Suddenly I felt the need to start saving money everywhere I could. I read blogs and books about getting out of debt, doing it yourself, voluntary simplicity, and modern homesteading. At this point the smaller of the two mortgages is completely paid off; we own that farmland free and clear. But we still owe the bank for the roof over our heads.

I'm still looking for ways to save money. But I've incorporated many more ideas and techniques than I ever imagined I would when I first started thinking hard about ways to save money. All the suggestions and recommendations you get from frugality websites and books can be overwhelming at times, no matter how willing you are to change. We're creatures of habit, and change is easiest to take - or to make - in small doses.

I started first with simple household things, like hanging up every single load of laundry to dry inside, installing compact fluorescent lightbulbs, and turning off the hottub. We stopped eating out and cooked all our meals at home. But after all the easy and obvious changes were made, I was still looking for more ways to save money.

I took Amy Daczyczyn's advice and tackled a new skill at the beginning of 2007: baking bread. I didn't expect world class bread, but I was hoping to beat what's available in the stores near us. Truth is, after a few so-so results, I learned fast. I found it easier and more enjoyable than I expected to. So now I not only make all of the bread we eat, I barter it too. That's not a situation I would have predicted when I started looking for ways to save money. I thought that I'd make some of the bread we eat, but continue to buy some from the store.

We gardened on a small scale last year, and cleared another enormous garden bed this spring. Given how quickly food prices are going up, I'm glad I had this planned out already and that the seeds and seedlings are already in the ground. The garden plot takes up a very significant chunk of our backyard, and reduces the amount of grass we have to cut: savings in groceries, gasoline, and time spent on a boring chore. I imagine that we'll buy very little produce for the remainder of the year. Depending on the yields I get, I may even sell some produce to local restaurants or at a roadside stand, after I've canned what I think we'll use over the winter. Again, this expanded food production wasn't something I had envisioned when my attitude began to change.

Another unforeseen change is that we now have four Red Star laying hens. We built a mobile pen and a mobile coop for them, mostly out of materials salvaged from dumpsters on building sites. We started dumpster diving for wood and other items without any specific building projects in mind. But I built sawhorses for ourselves and for friends as a Christmas gift with 2x4's pulled out of various dumpsters. The hens now get moved every morning in the rotational grazing system popularized by Joel Salatin. We move them around the perimeter of the garden and in the fall we'll probably put them in the garden itself where they'll help fertilize and work the cover crop into the soil. The four hens we got were scheduled for "retirement" (the stock pot) earlier this year at two years of age. Our girls apparently never got that memo, because they still pump out eggs at the rate of one egg per hen per day. The eggs are huge, fresh, nutritious, and so abundant that I can sell a dozen now and then. The girls eat dandelions, purslane, prickly lettuce, and other weeds quite happily, along with our table scraps, and they return that to us in eggs! The grazing system we use means even less of the lawn gets cut on a regular basis. Really, it's hardly a lawn any more. It's now our "pasture in training." The kicker is that I bartered for these four hens and a bale of hay with just two of my organic loaves of bread.

My ambitions are not yet satisfied in terms of self-sufficiency or frugality. I've started building a solar cooker now that the days are getting hot again. I'd also like to start a vermiculture trench (earthworm "farming") to improve our composting system and enrich our garden soil on the cheap. I liked both of these ideas when I first read about them, but there were many other more immediate changes to be attended to. Now that keeping hens, hanging up laundry, and baking bread have become routine for me, I can tackle a little bit more change. That's what I call "frugality creep." Incremental changes over time seem to work best for me. If I had tried to make too many radical changes too quickly, I would have failed. I look forward to seeing where the creep has taken me by this time next year.

If you're new to frugality, balance the need to make serious money-saving changes with an awareness of what's feasible for you and your family right now. Make the common sense changes immediately, especially those things that are once and done, like switching to CF lightbulbs. Then start with the daily, weekly, or monthly tasks that save money without needing skills you don't have, such as hanging laundry and making sure the tires of your car are properly inflated at least once per month. After those are part of your routine, follow your own interests for acquiring a skill that helps you save money. In my case baking was the obvious first skill. For you it might be sewing or auto maintenance. Try to pick a skill that interests you, that you are otherwise paying someone else to perform, and also one that won't require you to invest in expensive tools (borrowing them is okay). Stick with it a while even if you see only mediocre results at first. These skills are worth money for a reason: they're difficult to acquire. From there you'll likely see your own frugality creep.


Heather said...

Hi! I've read several of your posts, because I started looking for price comparisons for local grocery stores. I'm a transplant to SE PA, and was pleased to see that you also live here - meaning you might actually have some relevant info, as opposed to much of the other crap I've found out there. What grocery store have you found to be consistently the cheapest? Are there any farmers' markets or produce stands around (not in the city)? Any other suggestions for this apartment dweller? Thanks for any help!
Heather - hahn_heather@yahoo.com

Kate said...

Hi, Heather. Believe it or not, I've found Wegman's has the best prices for many of the things I buy, which includes a lot of organics and ingredients versus prepared foods. The analysis I've done for BJ's tells me that they don't always have the best unit prices, and it's not a great deal at all given the annual fee. Amelia's food outlet carries little of interest to me, but I'll check it out and occasionally get lucky with organic products.

Of course, the point of doing cost comparison is to gather the information on what you buy. So you may find another store offers better deals for you.

Farmer's markets are a crapshoot in terms of raw price. Often the foods are more expensive, though not always. But in my opinion it's worth it for the higher quality and support of local producers. Roadside stands tend to be good deals, but sometimes offer food not produced locally. Local agriculture is something I try very hard to support. Farmers work hard and deserve to earn a living for what they do.