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.

Monday, May 26, 2008

$50 a Month for Groceries

Food prices have been going up, and everyone who's paying attention has felt the pinch. We're foodies in my house, and we cook from scratch most of the time. We also have a very well stocked pantry, a large garden just getting started outside, four laying hens, and a chest freezer that's so full it's difficult to navigate. So at the beginning of May I decided that we would have an experiment this month: $50 for groceries, for two people, for the whole month.

I figured we would still need to buy milk, other dairy products, and a few cooking staples such as onions and garlic. (We've got garlic in the ground, but it's not mature yet.) Aside from these few things that we can't provide for ourselves and we can't do without, we'd be eating from our reserves and the current usufruct of our mini-homestead. Despite a few missteps, I'd say it's worked pretty well. But I should explain all the exceptions and wheretofores.

First of all, I bake all the bread we eat and I also sell breads. It so happened that I ran out of flour this month. I bought 100 pounds of flour wholesale and did not charge this against our grocery bill. Why not? you may fairly ask. Because the money came out of my egg and bread money, the funds I get for these items that I sell occasionally. I keep the money in an envelope, and pay for chicken feed and baking supplies out of it. In other words, our eggs and bread supplies pay for themselves, with a little of my labor thrown into the bargain. I had the cash on hand and will replace it with a few more bread sales.

Secondly, my husband travels almost half time for work. He was home more than gone in May, but even so he had some grocery expenditures that are simply too difficult to incorporate into our grocery experiment. I pack a great deal of homemade food for him so that he's not tempted to eat out much. He has my baked goods and fruit for breakfast every morning, and I send frozen homemade dinners along with him too. So those meals do count as coming out of our stored food assets.

Thirdly, when I do buy groceries, I buy organic or at farmers markets. This means that my food dollars are buying smaller quantities of more nutrient-rich foods. But I didn't count any non-food grocery store purchases against my $50 limit. Toilet paper and soaps don't come out of the freezer.

Here are some meals I've put together this month out of foods we have on hand:

Mirin-glazed salmon with sushi rice and garden lettuce salad

Tomato and spinach strata with garlic toasts

Thin crust pizza with bacon and fresh sage from the garden

Homemade bagels

Chard, frozen spinach and roasted potatoes with cream and Indian spices, served with basmati rice or sourdough crepes

Pasta arrabbiata with peas and parmesan
Sushi rolls with leftover mirin-glazed salmon
Smoked whitefish chowder with bacon and peas
Pad see ew (Thai rice noodles with pork cutlet, cabbage, egg and hoisin sauce)
Sushi rolls with garden lettuce and tamago (sweet egg omelet)
Peach sourdough pancakes
Kheer (milky Indian dessert with leftover basmati rice)
Chocolate-hazelnut sourdough crepes
"Cheater's" huevos rancheros (eggs fried/cooked in salsa)
Roesti potato cakes
Scrambled eggs with caramelized onion and shredded zucchini

As you can see, we're eating pretty well and I haven't busted out many of the frozen roasts yet. We're working on the salmon first.

It's May 26th and so far I've overspent my monthly food budget by about $2.50. I still have plenty of food to eat, but I will probably need to buy milk before the month is out. Yet this month-long experiment has been good for me. My meal planning has shifted quite a bit. Rather than simply following my whimsical foodie moods, I start by taking stock of what's on hand. What's out there growing in the garden that needs to get used? What can I make with what I've got? How long can I go between runs to the grocery store? What's at the bottom of that freezer? And what am I going to do with all these eggs? It's not unusual for me to eat an egg as part of two meals in a day now. Good thing our pastured eggs are lower in fat and cholesterol than the ones from the store. The pantry is looking a little less chaotic, and the refrigerator a lot less so, but the freezer is still almost full. (Partly that's due to me stockpiling bread so that I needn't bake so much over the summer.) I've made fewer trips this month to the grocery store and a lot more to the garden. And the bottom line is I've eaten extremely well.

True, we're not really surviving on just $50 of groceries. We're eating out of previous purchases and what we're producing right now. But using up what we have is the point. Even in a non-cycling chest freezer food will eventually go off. I don't want one bite of that food to go to waste, which means we need to get serious about using it up. I recognize that what we're doing, or trying to do, isn't feasible for everyone. Not everyone has a big pantry, space for a big garden and laying hens, or a freezer full of food. But maybe you have a few things tucked away that you've forgotten about. Why not see what meals you can make of them. Think of it as an opportunity to get creative. Necessity is, as they say, the mother of invention.

I've been so impressed with my own changed mindset and very near achievement of my goal that I'm going to set the same challenge for myself for next month. This time I won't be lured into buying even the cheap store-brand soda that seemed like a frugal deal. I do regret that this experiment leaves me feeling tightfisted even when it comes to local farmers markets. I like to support local and sustainable producers. But nothing is more local than my own substantial garden. It should produce a good deal more for us in June than it has so far in May.

Related Posts

June Report
July-August Report
Four Cornerstone Meals for Frugal Living

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Dirt Under My Fingernails

I love gardening. It fills me with a peace I find in no other activity. On perfect days like today, with a light breeze, hardly a cloud in the sky and the thermometer at 70 degrees, it feels like a crime to be sitting inside typing on the computer. But I've earned my little break.

This morning I planted 28 row feet of seed potatoes. I still have almost that much more to plant this afternoon. But since this is work I voluntarily undertake for my own benefit, I answer to no one for the rate I work at. After digging the first row and planting it, I sat down in a lawn chair, just under the shade of our apple tree to contemplate my work, and the rest of the garden as well. My cat came and joined me, writhing on the grass in contentment with the glorious day.

Over the last week, I've planted a few dozen chard transplants and celeriac seedlings, moved a few volunteer sunflower seedlings from the area where I fed the birds this winter, planted pumpkin and melon seeds in nine mounded earth piles, seeded another 13' row of mixed lettuces, planted all our popcorn and six bush zucchini seedlings, about a dozen sunflower seeds, and a fair number number of Cherokee Trail of Tears beans. This lineup includes several types of plant that I've never grown before. It should be an interesting year for the garden.

I'm working mostly in an enormous new bed we cleared this spring, about 45' x 37'. It's ambitious of me, but I wanted to see what we can manage to do on our modest 2/3 acre lot. I'm also approaching it as a test of how much gardening work I can sustain without too much grumpiness or exhaustion. I want the garden to remain a source of pleasure and peace for me, and not become a dreaded task. We'll see if keeping up with the cultivating, and putting up much of the produce for winter, proves that I've bitten off more than I can chew.