Thursday, July 31, 2008

Four Cornerstone Meals for Frugal Living, Plus Two Bonus Desserts

Recently, I posted about my $50 per month grocery challenge. It's a personal challenge to myself to cut our grocery budget right down to the bone. I've been following this challenge for three months now, and I didn't make it in either May, or June, or July. But I came somewhat close each month. I know that may sound completely infeasible to many people, so I thought I would offer a few of the recipes I often fall back on for extremely cheap but tasty meals. Let's be clear: I like saving money, but there's no question of us going without wholesome, healthy, and tasty meals. We like to eat far too much, and I take too much pleasure in cooking. We may have ramen noodles once in a while, but we don't subsist on them.

So here are four recipes for cheap, filling, and yummy meals. All of them are flexible, in that they can accommodate a huge variety of ingredients. Each one of these recipes is easily tailored to your own tastes, to what you happen to have on hand, and they can all be made suitable for vegetarians. Most importantly, they're complete meals that are easy to make.

Strata - I think of this dish as a more homely, crustless version of quiche. I like it because we tend to have the basic ingredients on hand nearly all the time. It's easy to make, and can be served for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. If you have access to day-old bread at a reduced price, this is a great way to use it up. Leftovers are decent, but not my favorite.

Toast enough slices of bread to make at least one complete layer in your casserole dish. Slightly stale bread is fine to use. If you wish, rub the toasted bread with a clove of garlic. Spray your casserole dish with cooking spray, or butter it. Layer in the toast and any leftover cooked vegetables or cooked meat that you have. If you have an onion, it's especially nice to slice it up and caramelize it, adding the cooked slices over the bread. Add some shredded cheese and stewed tomatoes if you have some. Grind some pepper over the ingredients. Beat two eggs and add a cup of milk. If this is obviously not enough liquid to cover the ingredients you have, add more eggs and milk in roughly this proportion. But if you have only one cup of milk and three eggs, that'll work just fine. I've made this with milk mixed up from dry milk powder and it's fine so long as there are whole eggs in the mix. Add some salt to the egg mixture and pour it into the casserole dish so that it mostly or completely covers the ingredients. Top it with any fresh herbs you have around that need to be used up. Bake it in a 350 degree oven for at least 45 minutes, until cooked through.

Make ahead option: You can assemble strata up to 24 hours before cooking it. Cover it with plastic wrap and refrigerate. If the bread is floating in the egg mixture, weight the top of the plastic wrap with another casserole dish or a plate to keep everything submerged. When ready to cook, proceed as above. I think strata actually benefits from sitting in the fridge for at least a few hours before being cooked.

Stir-fried rice - If you've already got leftover rice, this dish can be prepared very quickly. You can make it taste very good with the simplest ingredients, including frozen vegetables. So this dish is good to make year round, or whenever the budget is tight. Leftovers are great.

You'll need soy sauce, a beaten egg or two, frozen peas and/or other vegetables, freshly ground pepper (preferably white). If you have hoisin sauce or oyster sauce, and ginger, garlic and scallions, you're in for a treat. Small quantities of fresh or leftover cooked meat can be added, but it's not necessary. If you want to add raw meat, make sure that it is cut into very thin slices or small cubes. If you've made rice freshly for this dish, put it in a bowl and spread it out to cool and lose some moisture for at least an hour. Leftover rice is actually preferable. The best thing to cook in is a large cast iron skillet. Non-stick pans aren't great, because they can't take the pre-heating.

Heat your largest skillet over high heat for 8-10 minutes before you begin to cook. You want the skillet very, very hot in order to simulate the heat of a wok. When the skillet is smokin' hot, add some cooking oil and swirl the pan to coat the cooking surface. Add whatever seasoning vegetables you have, such as onion, garlic, ginger or scallions. Stir them only for a few seconds and then immediately add any uncooked meat you want in the dish. If adding raw meat, stir it only until it begins to lose its raw color and then add the cooked rice. Stir the rice around so that it heats through, scattering the ground pepper over it liberally. If you have cooked meat to add, add it now along with the vegetables. Continue stirring until the ingredients are warmed. Then make a well in the center of the pan, pushing the ingredients to the edge of the pan. Pour the beaten egg into the middle and allow it to sit for about 10-15 seconds undisturbed. It will begin to set. While the egg is cooking, pour soy sauce and hoisin sauce or oyster sauce (if you have some) over the ring of rice and other ingredients. Then stir all the ingredients back into the egg, mixing in the added sauces and continue cooking for about 1 or 2 more minutes. Serve warm.

Make ahead option: See to it that you already have leftover rice on the night you want to prepare this dish. If you're still ordering take-out or eating in restaurants, you'll often get far more rice than you need. If you're practicing more frugal dining habits, just put the rice on to cook the night before you plan to eat stir-fried rice.

Soup - This has got to be the ultimate frugal meal. Soup leftovers are generally better than the first servings. There are so very many soups that can be made with so many different ingredients, that I'm not going to bother to give an example here. Chances are high that just about any ingredient you have on hand, cooked or raw, can be made into a soup. Dry pantry goods (like rice and beans) and long storing vegetables (like potatoes, cabbage, and parsnips) are excellent foundations for soup. If you have any leftover ingredient, whatever it may be, try entering its name along with the words "soup" and "recipe" into google to get some ideas. It would be the rare ingredient that didn't return some results.

Plan ahead ideas: Keep your pantry stocked with liquid broths and bouillon cubes, as well as a variety of beans and grains. I especially like whole spelt in vegetable soups. It gives a lovely nutty, chewy quality to thin broth-based soups. In Italy, many simple vegetable soups are garnished with extra virgin olive oil and a little bit of grated parmesan cheese.

Korean Vegetable Pancakes - Of the four recipes I'm listing here, Korean pancakes are not the fastest to make. But they're fantastic when you have a lot of fresh vegetables coming in from the garden. The batter is incredibly quick to mix up, but they take a little time to cook on the stovetop. I include them here especially because this is an easy recipe that would be ideal for training a child who is of age just to start learning how to cook. Also, their versatility is a godsend to gardeners coping with an overflowing garden.

You can buy a mix at a Korean grocery store, or make up your own mix at home. Use just about any vegetable you enjoy, and incorporate some of those spicy condiments you have lying around in the fridge. You can add meat if you want it or have it on hand, but it's really not necessary. All you need is the pancake batter and some cut up or shredded vegetables to make a complete meal. Panfry the batter and you've got a hot and filling lunch or dinner. Leftovers are best if eaten within about 24 hours.

To make your own mix, combine 1 cup of flour, 1 well-beaten egg, and 1/2 teaspoon of baking powder. Next add in your sliced or shredded vegetables. I like to add ginger, garlic and some sort of onion. Cabbage and other thick greens are best when blanched with a little boiling water before being added to the batter. Zucchini and carrots can be grated in. Corn cut right off the cob is nice too. If you like spicy foods you can add some hot sauce directly to the batter, or plan to serve that as a condiment with the pancakes. If the mixture looks too thick, thin it with a tablespoon of water at a time until it looks right. It should be at least as thick as normal pancake batter. When the ingredients are thoroughly mixed, heat a skillet over medium heat for two minutes. Add a little bit of vegetable oil, and scoop about 1/2 cup of the batter into the oil, flattening it to a disk no more than 1/2" high if it mounds up in the center. Cook it for 5 minutes on one side, then flip it and cook for an additional 5 minutes on the other side. You may need to add more oil when you flip it.

Minding the pancakes while they cook is an ideal task for a responsible child, say age 9-10 and up. They only need to set a timer, flip the pancake, and possess a little common sense. Serve warm with any condiment: soy sauce, Thai spicy-sweet dipping sauce, ketchup, or anything else you enjoy.

Make Ahead Option: The pancakes are acceptable as leftovers, and will keep for up to three days, fully cooked, in the refrigerator. But they will lose their crisp exterior texture. To speed up last minute preparation, keep the prepped vegetables you'll use for the pancakes in a grab bag in your refrigerator. Buy the packaged mix to make things go faster.

Bonus Round: Easy and Economical Desserts

Bread pudding - This is basically a sweet version of the strata recipe given above. If you have some jam, you can make butter and jam sandwiches and fit those into your casserole dish. Otherwise, just use the bread on its own. Add some dried fruits like raisins, apricots, or whatever you have on hand. Add a couple tablespoons of sugar, and a small amount of cinnamon to the egg and milk mixture. Then assemble and cook as directed in the strata recipe.

Kheer - This is an exotic sounding but simple dessert that I like to prepare when I have too much leftover rice. It hails from India, where it is usually made with basmati rice, but any rice will work. All you need to do is heat milk gently in a pot and add the cooked rice. Stir in some sugar and powdered cardamom if you have any. If you want, you can add raisins. The consistency is usually quite soupy, so it's okay to dilute the milk with a little water. The starch from the rice will add body to the liquid. Just let everything warm up together and the sugar dissolve, and the cooking is done. In India they often include toasted almonds or pistachios in this dish. I omit them just because nuts are pricey, and I don't miss them. Kheer is commonly served cold as a refreshment on hot days. Hot or cold, this simple dessert pleases just about everyone. I've made it with condensed milk, well diluted, and that works fine.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

My Cheapest Hobby: Dumpster Diving

A little while ago, Trent at The Simple Dollar posted about making your hobbies more frugal. I'm lucky in that the hobbies I am naturally drawn to happen to be very cheap, and even money saving, activities. I love to cook, and recently took up the art of baking. I find gardening very rewarding too. But sometimes I need a little more adventure, as well as a change of scenery. That's when I get the itch to go dumpster diving.

Dumpster diving is done for all sorts of reason and by all sorts of people. The motivations for it include environmental concerns, financial need, and pure entertainment. Some people want to reduce the amount of stuff that ends up in landfills. Many dumpster dive for food, toiletries and other items because they need or want to save money. They are either comfortable with the risk or they don't have much choice. For others, it's just something interesting to do on occasion with some free time. A few dumpster divers get hooked by the thrill of the hunt and sense of adventure. Plenty of divers combine several of the above motivations.

Individual divers take various approaches and dive for many different sorts of items. I used to live in a wealthy college town. At the end of the school year the pickings were ripe around the student housing and dorms all around campus. In the upscale neighborhoods, one might find free appliances in working order on the curbside any time of year. On two separate occasions I found rusted but fundamentally sound cast iron skillets sitting outside with the trash. I took them home, re-seasoned them, and still use them today. Dedicated divers develop their own expertise in local "resources." By visiting a wide range of dumpsters on a regular basis, it's possible in some cases to learn the schedule and predict when the dumpster will be full or empty, when it will contain freshly discarded food or other specific items. Others take a more casual or opportunistic approach. Some "divers" never climb inside a dumpster at all, but just take what they can grab from the top. I've seen people "diving" only for aluminum cans or other scrap metal they intend to sell for a little cash.

Personally, I haven't worked up the nerve to dive for food. I've heard the horror tales, and I'm just not that brave. Instead, my husband and I dive for building materials, and we are frequently astounded by what we find. The new housing market hasn't totally collapsed where I live. There's still a fair amount of "development" going on. And the house sites are nearly always unoccupied on weekends, especially Sundays. We've found usable lumber, roofing shingles, twisted up belts of perfectly good nails, five-gallon buckets, metal tools with busted wooden handles, and even a new porcelain pedestal sink in perfect condition in construction site dumpsters. If the house is being built in an area where there are already other houses around, it usually becomes a magnet for stuff other people want to get rid off. I've found antique blue glass bottles, a real slate blackboard in a wooden frame, and a neon orange adult-sized snowsuit in perfect condition in such a dumpster.

For people who keep themselves on a very strict budget, dumpster diving is like a bonanza. Everything is free, and every dive is something different. There's no doubt about it: dumpster diving is cheap fun for frugal folk. Whenever we go dumpster diving we have to make some tough decisions. Invariably we find more stuff than we have room to haul. So we sort through the lumber and reject the smallest and most damaged pieces, cherry-picking our finds until the car or the bed of our beater truck is full. If we hit an especially rich dumpster, we may even make a second trip.

I've made well appreciated Christmas gifts from materials I fished out of dumpsters. And we built our chicken coop and pen partly with with salvaged materials from our weekend adventures. We'll be building our retirement home at some point. Literally building that is - we plan to do as much of the hands-on building as feasible, only contracting out highly specialized jobs like the foundation pour, the rough in plumbing and the rough in electrical. So there's a good chance that we'll be able to use some materials we've salvaged ourselves. We're keeping an open mind about the design of our home so that we can incorporate as much salvaged material as we like. In the meantime, we store our finds in a shipping container on our land.

Dumpster diving is exciting, but there are are some obvious caveats. Dumpster diving is risky and illegal in some areas. It always, always pays to have your tetanus booster shot up to date. Exercise extreme caution when climbing in to a dumpster, and before doing so, make sure you'll be able to climb back out. Make a good visual inspection and enter at your own risk. You may encounter rusty nails, broken glass, or even discarded syringes. Contents may shift around dramatically as you walk over them. Wear protective clothing, and dive with a buddy if you plan to climb inside. The worst that's ever happened to me while diving is a splinter or a bruise, but I'm aware of the risks every time I dive.

Rules of ethical diving. Check your local regulations to make sure dumpster diving is not illegal in your area. Never pick up anything that contains anyone's personal or financial information. If there are signs or fences indicating that you are not welcome, heed them. If you are challenged by someone while diving, whether they are law enforcement, owners or employees, be polite and non-confrontational. If asked to leave, do so quickly and never return to that dumpster. (You may be able to avoid trouble by saying you were looking for cardboard boxes. Few people will object to this, but it won't work if you've already hauled out a bunch of other stuff.) Leave the site in the same or better condition than you found it. If there is any question whatsoever about whether or not something was intended to be discarded, leave it as you found it. Finally, if you start to acquire a surplus of items through your diving, consider giving away what you can't use to someone in need.

Got any diving questions, phobias, or success stories? Share them in the comments!

Monday, July 28, 2008

Garden Bounty

We're now officially at that point of the summer when it's a struggle to keep up with the food coming out of the garden. Here's a basket full of food that I harvested a few days ago. That's a head of Savoy cabbage dominating the basket. Tucked in front of it are a few leaves of white cabbage, and strewn among its leaves are a handful of Peacevine cherry tomatoes. There's a zucchini waving hello from the back, and plenty of purple basil on the side.

I've been making batches of pesto from our green and purple basil varieties, as well as from our overgrown sage bushes, every few days. It all grows so fast! There's a batch of chard out there just waiting for me to find the time to pick, wash, blanch, chop and freeze it. I'm still waiting on supplies for my pressure canners to arrive, but when they do, it's borshch time. We're still waiting for the beefsteak tomatoes to really start producing. There are tons of large fruits out there. But they are agonizingly slow to ripen. When that happens, I'll be making a super-easy roasted tomato sauce with however many tomatoes we can't eat au naturel. Absolutely nothing, by the way, beats an open-faced sandwich of perfectly ripe Brandywine tomato and purple basil with mayonnaise on toasted homemade, no knead bread. There are a few golden weeks each year when this is all I want to eat. I get heartburn and canker sores from all the acidity, but I don't care. Fresh tomatoes are a seasonal crop; I don't bother buying or eating them outside of those few precious summer weeks.

Soon the melons will ripen, the potatoes will need digging and the beans will need shelling. In the fall we'll have leeks, celeriac, and still plenty of kale and some cabbage. I hope to have parsnips too. The arugula sylvetta, in its wide open coldframe, is just getting around to reseeding itself now, which thrills me because it means we'll have some delicious greens (my favorite kind for sandwiches and pizza) through much of the fall and winter.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

I'm About to Run Out of Toothpaste

Last fall I cracked open a new tube of toothpaste, the last of three 6.5 oz. tubes I bought in bulk at our local not-worth-the-membership-fee warehouse club. (I've since let the membership lapse.) On a whim, I wrote the date on the crimp at the end of the tube. I wanted to see how long it would last me. And it is just me, because I use a different brand of toothpaste than my husband does. That date, in case you can't quite make it out, is 9/17/07. That's more than ten months ago, and there are still a few portions left in the tube.

My toothpaste portions are tiny. And usually I only brush my teeth once a day. Before I get reamed about this, I'll lay out a little personal medical history. In the time since I opened that tube of toothpaste, I've seen the dentist once. At my last cleaning this spring, I finally got some great dental news: my gingivitis was gone! I've struggled with chronic gingivitis for years. I took up daily flossing about five years ago to combat it, but it's been a long struggle. Other than that, my mouth is in great shape. I have all the teeth I was left with after extractions for overcrowding in my teen years, have never had a root canal or crown, and I haven't had a cavity in at least 25 years.

So what gives? I use a small amount of toothpaste only once a day. But I brush my teeth for at least three minutes, and that's after flossing - every single evening without fail. I don't use any mouthwash on a regular basis. I'm no medical authority whatsoever, but I believe this longer brushing routine was what allowed me to clear up the gingivitis problem. This is great because the dentist had suggested that I consider buying a sonic toothbrush if the problem didn't clear up soon. I looked into it and the cheapest I could buy one of those for would have been $100. That would have meant using electricity to run my toothbrush, and more expensive replacement brushes. Still, gingivitis is not a completely trivial problem, and I was seriously considering buying one of those brushes until I got the good news. The best news is that it doesn't cost me anything to brush a little longer, manually.

So what are the frugal angles here? Well, aside from avoiding or at least postponing seriously expensive and painful dental work, and saving on a fancy-dancy toothbrush, I made a tube of toothpaste last the better part of a year. And when it's finished, here's what I'm going to use before I buy any more.

These are all from little courtesy toiletry packets my husband picked up while traveling, and that one Burt's Bees tube is from a sampler pack that I got in my Christmas stocking last year. But there's a point here. I'm writing this silly post on toothpaste to make the case that little things add up. "But it's only toothpaste." you say. "That won't get me out of debt!" Alright, that's true. The savings from using small amounts of toothpaste and little free tubes isn't going to amount to a whole lot.

The larger picture is that I've made a game out of frugality, and this is one little part of that game. I feel rewarded, and sometimes even smug, by these tiny feats of frugality. And psychologically that's very important, because it keeps me going. It helps to pat myself on the back and feel a sense of accomplishment. Maybe it's silly. Maybe all those tubes of toothpaste are only going to save me a dollar. But it works for me. The value of that dollar saved is more than a dollar earned because of the intangible bonus of motivation to continue conserving our financial resources, to continue looking for new ways to save a little bit here and there.

I'm not going to grandstand on appropriate portions sizes for toothpaste. But I am going to encourage everyone who reads this - all six of you - to have faith in the little things. To quote Gandhi on a much more serious subject, "Almost everything you do will seem insignificant, but it is very important that you do it." And my addendum is that it's also important to give yourself a lot of credit for doing it, day after day.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Last Night's Dessert

After the thrill of gleaning yesterday, I was in for a treat for dessert. My husband has a wicked way with fruit crumbles. And since he refuses to write down his recipe, he's basically on the hook whenever there's a suitable fruit in the house. In June it was cherries. Last night it was our gleaned blackberries. And he also used some gleaned hickory nuts in the topping. It was divine! Those two in the back are going to be breakfast this morning.

I was particularly proud of this little feat of cheap eating, since it helped us with July's $50 Grocery Challenge. We'd been tempted by fresh berries at the farmer's market, but I remembered my aunt's offer to pick her berries while she was away. True, we spent some gas getting to my aunt's place. But it was on the way to the hardware store, which we needed to visit anyway. Also, you may note that the individual crumbles were cooked in the toaster oven, so we used less electricity to cook them, and we didn't heat up the house so much. I froze the raspberries we gathered yesterday so as to prevent spoilage in this delicate fruit. They'll get used later for some other special treat.

Frugality, for me, has nothing whatsoever to do with deprivation, want, or lack of pleasure. It's much more about creativity, and to a lesser extent, trading cheap convenience for a sense of adventure, self-sufficiency, and accomplishment. We ate very well last night. (Our dinner was a dish of pasta with our garden vegetables, eggs from our hens, and a tiny bit of leftover cooked bacon.) It didn't cost us very much, but it was delicious. We went to bed with the satisfaction of having fed ourselves from our own labor.

Friday, July 25, 2008


Today my husband and I spent about an hour picking blackberries, raspberries wineberries, and black raspberries from my aunt's berry bushes while she's away on vacation. Of course, I had her permission to do so. I loved the change of scenery, and getting free, perfectly ripe, organic berries. We're going to make some of these into a dessert with some peaches from the farmers' market. The rest we'll freeze. There aren't enough, alas to make it worth the effort of making jam. But we'll use these up with absolute glee, and it'll be worth the few scratches we sustained. (Blackberries, by the way, are far more tenacious of their point than raspberries.)

Now's the time of year to keep your eye out for fruits and other food going to waste. I've got a free basket at the end of my driveway to distribute any oversized zucchini that escape my attention in the garden. Don't be shy about asking a neighbor if you see food going to waste. Many people are happy just to have someone use up what they can't or won't. And many times you'll be saving them yardwork as well.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Creative Frugality at Its Finest

Why am I not surprised that this happened in San Francisco? We need more of this sort of thing. This guy got a free haircut while providing interactive entertainment and engaging his community.

I'm not brave enough to do this myself, as I don't favor a very short haircut. But this is strangely heartwarming to my frugal self this morning. Kudos to Bilal Ghalib for thinking out of the box!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Planning Ahead for Holiday Gifts

I dread the holiday gift-giving season. There are several reasons for this. First off, I don't enjoy shopping of any kind, unless it's for cooking ingredients. Not many people on my list enjoy getting cooking ingredients as gifts. Believe me, I've tried, and found those ingredients in their cupboards months or years later. Secondly, I don't enjoy getting gifts from other people unless it's something I really want or will find useful. I would always prefer to receive no gift at all, rather than get something I have no interest in. I feel badly that someone has spent money or even a little time on getting me something that I never wanted and for which I can only muster socially polite appreciation. And I absolutely hate the fact that the gift-giver felt so obligated to conform to the custom, even though they didn't know me well enough to pick something I'd appreciate (or know I'd be perfectly happy with no gift at all). I've tried communicating this to people as politely as possible. It seems though that the almighty holiday gift giving spirit is impervious to all logic or social pleas. Lastly, the indifference that results from too many gifts - those I give and those I receive - bothers me. I've stopped giving my nephew anything for his birthday or Christmas, because he gets far too much on those occasions. Instead, I give him stuff at random times during the year.

Still, as much as I resist and resent the holidays, I do find myself trying to come up with gift ideas throughout the year. This year I have a few ideas for do it yourself gifts. I like these ideas because they won't cost me much money, but they will show my affection because they involve my time and effort.

So here are a few ideas I've been keeping on the back burner for homemade gifts.

Homemade vanilla sugar and/or vanilla extract. I while ago, I purchased a quantity of vanilla beans to make my own vanilla extract, after noting how terribly high its unit price was. While vanilla beans and vodka - the only ingredients in vanilla extract - are expensive, they're still a lot cheaper than the finished product. Following these instructions, I made a large batch for my own use and have enjoyed baking with it. The rest of the beans from my order have been stored in cane sugar to preserve them. That sugar now packs an incredible wallop of vanilla flavor. While I might not have enough nice bottles to make a lot of vanilla extract, we have plenty of canning jars to hold vanilla sugar. Slap a nice ribbon on the lid, with a handwritten label, and there's a cheap but thoughtful homemade gift. Even people who don't cook much can usually find a use for vanilla sugar. This is the cheapest and easiest of my potential gift ideas.

I got into making solid perfume shortly before I kicked into frugal mode, and spent a small fortune on essential oils and botanical extracts. Making solid perfume is a pretty easy process, but people seem fascinated when I give them some and tell them I made it myself. And it's not just women either. My male cousin expressed interest and perhaps even a tinge of jealousy when I gave his wife a batch scented only with grapefruit essential oil. He said it smelled nice and he'd happily use something like that on his hands at night. The stuff can be called solid perfume, but, containing beeswax and jojoba oil, it's also a lot like a salve or a balm. I have enough materials to make gifts of this stuff for several people.

Garden stepping stones. I found an easy project for making stepping stones with botanical designs on them in a garden DIY book called Garden Patterns & Mosaics. I experimented by making a few of them last summer. All that's required are some simple wooden frames, mortar mix, and some pretty foliage to press into the surface to make the design. This wouldn't be everyone's cup of tea, but I know a few people who might like to have one or two of these for a pathway or their gardens. I'm going to make a few more of these this summer and see if I can turn out some nice enough to give away as gifts.

Ultimate sawhorses, made with scavenged 2x4's pulled out of dumpsters. Last fall, looking at all the wood we'd dumpster dived for, I figured the obvious thing was to find a plan for some sawhorses. I hit the jackpot with this page, which although it wildly underestimates the time needed to build the sawhorses, does give good instructions for the novice carpenter. I first made a pair of these for myself, and they are indeed rock solid. Then a family member wanted a pair, which I duly built. Now there's another person who could use a pair. If we can find enough halfway decent wood in dumpsters this year, I'll seriously consider making another pair. I also found some other nice but simple woodworking projects in the book, Dream Backyards, at my local library. There's a nice design for a planter box. It would be a great use of scavenged materials as a gift for someone who enjoys container gardening.

Baked goodies. I'm a pretty good baker and cook. Good enough that family members pay me for various breads and prepared foods for parties. So I know they want these items. Therefore it's a no-brainer for me to gift them a few loaves of bread, scones, holiday cookies, or whatever. Maybe not the most exciting gift they receive, but at least I know they want it and will use it. And it costs me very little in materials.

What about you? What creative strategies do you have for giving gifts that don't cost a fortune but are genuinely appreciated by the recipients?

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Cautiously Stepping Into Pressure Canning

I've mentioned before that we have an especially large garden this year. It's much bigger than anything I've ever attempted before. So I anticipated that I would need to store at least as much of that food as we eat fresh. To that end I finally acknowledged that I would have to seriously consider canning as a storage method. I weaseled out of this last summer because we had a new chest freezer and a much smaller garden. What little preserving I did went into the freezer because I knew I wasn't set up for proper canning. But the chest freezer filled up alarmingly fast with a side of lamb and a side of pork, some fresh summer vegetables, as well as apple cider and apple butter from our own tree. And then this spring I stockpiled lots of homemade no-knead bread so I wouldn't have to bake any over the summer.

That's the rub with canning: it really needs doing during the hottest part of the summer. And where I live summers are formidable. But with a stiff upper lip, I placed an ad on craigslist looking for canning supplies such as tongs, jars, and a pressure canner. I lucked out right away with a call from someone who wanted to give away two old pressure canners. Free is my favorite flavor, and it's always in the budget! Even better, there was a pair of canning jar tongs included in one of the boxes. Then I picked up about 70 canning jars for just $5 from another caller.

So far, so good. But I still needed to buy the disposable canning lids, a canning funnel, and a magnetic thingamajig to fish hot lids out of simmering water, all of which set me back $27. And since I have no idea how old the sealing rings are on the (quite old) pressure canners, I decided it was a safe bet to replace those. I ordered two new sealing rings for $20, including shipping. So far I'm out $52 for my canning set up. This is not a huge amount, but neither is it insignificant. At least not to me. True, most of it went to buy things that can be used again and again. But even so, I look at that figure, and it's money that is now gone forever. I know it will be a complete waste if I do not follow through with some serious labor. Just to break even, I need to put up a quantity of food whose ingredient costs are at least equal to $52. Any food canned over and above that amount means money saved; I'll start earning a return on money spent out of pocket, and on my own labor in gardening, cooking, and canning. After inventorying my jars, I find we have 57 quart jars and about a dozen jars of other miscellaneous sizes. If I filled all those jars, I think we'd be in the black this year on the canning front.

I've decided that salsa, tomato sauce, borsch soup, and possibly beef stew would be my main canning projects for the summer. Our garden is well stocked with salsa ingredients, and my husband eats a ton of the stuff as a snack food. Tomato sauce is always good to have on hand, and I have a simple roasted tomato sauce recipe that's very quick to prepare. We love borsch soup, that hearty Russian classic that is as good warm in the wintertime as it is refreshing and cold in the summer. We have cabbage and beets from the garden, the primary ingredients in this soup. I put some away in the freezer last year, but it got eaten up pretty quickly. So this year I plan to put up at least three gallons of the soup.

I watched my mother can strawberry jam and dilly beans with the water bath method when I was a child. I vividly remember the steamy, sweltering kitchen. But she never used a pressure canner. So I have no mentor to help me figure out the pressure canning process, which frankly makes me a little nervous. But I do like to read, and I have good reference books on canning as well as the owners' manuals for those free pressure canners. I feel that learning to can is a valuable frugal skill. So I'm going to tackle it, even if I'm a little nervous about it, and dreading the additional heat.

Wish me luck. And if you have any advice, please feel free to leave it in the comments! I'll post updates of my experiments, whatever triumphs or failures are mine, along with recipes that work well, if any.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Shop Your Pantry

I've run across the injunction on several financial/frugal blogs to "shop your closet" instead of going shopping for new clothes. I'm not a clothes horse and but for one brief period in my life, I've never had much urge to buy fancy or expensive clothes. I wear casual, functional stuff. So controlling my wardrobe expenses has never really been a challenge for me.

But I realized that while I've been pursuing the monthly $50 Grocery Challenge, I've been shopping my pantry a lot. I've posted before about how to stock a pantry so that it serves as a springboard for a huge variety of meals. Well, now I'm taking full advantage of that. One way to look at this is that I'm cheating on my own challenge because I'm just using up stuff I've stockpiled. That was especially true in the first month, when I blew through a lot of our favorite shelf stable foods. But another way of looking at it is that we're making a concerted effort to reap the benefit of money we've already spent and to reduce waste. Is it an exercise in spending less, or an exercise in cleaning out the pantry? It's a bit of both, I suppose.

It's been a challenge to find uses for some things, particularly jars of spicy condiments. But it's also been very satisfying to come up with great meals that use up what we have in the pantry. Of course, right now we have the bounty of our garden produce. So we're also shopping the garden.

It seems like there's been a fairly significant shift in my thought process around cooking. Instead of sitting back and exploring my own cravings and whims as a starting point for meal preparation, the first thing I do now is take a look at either the garden or the pantry to see what's available. In fact, with the garden it's not so much what's available as what really needs to be eaten.

It may sound as though this stifles creativity, but it really isn't so. In fact, my creativity gets more of a work out when I try hard to come up with something new to do with cabbage, zucchini, or whatever we have in abundance. Creativity is an invaluable skill for anyone who wants to live a more frugal life, and not just in the kitchen but in almost all areas.

If anything, my impulsiveness is what gets stifled. It may be true that we limit our choices somewhat by imposing the requirement of eating what is fresh and in season in our own garden, or of building a meal around something out of the pantry. There's ample compensation though in the high quality of the food. What could be better than a meal of fresh, perfectly ripe garden produce? The satisfaction of eating what we've gone to such efforts to grow is enormous. Even building a frugal meal around pantry items gives me a sense of satisfaction in not letting anything go to waste. For me, that's more than enough to compensate me for not following a culinary whim that would necessitate a special trip to the grocery store.

Friday, July 18, 2008

$50 Per Month for Groceries - Second Report

A while back I posted about a personal frugal challenge, to spend only $50 per month on groceries. There were a few clauses and exceptional circumstances to this limit, but it was a working goal in May and June. I thought I'd post an update on how the challenge went in June, and let you know that I'm continuing it this month.

We missed the mark in June by about $20, spending almost exactly $70 on groceries for the month. As usual, dairy accounted for a significant part of the total. We buy organic milk and cream, going through 1 1/2 to 2 gallons of milk per month, and one or two pints of cream. Even though we used a $1 coupon each time we bought milk, it's still pricey.

The big shift in June though was that the local farmers' market is now in full swing, and I simply could not find it within myself to say no to locally grown fruits and berries. We don't eat a great deal of fruit, because we try hard to eat seasonally. And other than apples and melons, neither of which is close to ready yet, we don't grow any fruit ourselves. So it's very hard to pass up the opportunity to get something that's an annual treat when we've mostly gone without fresh fruit since last summer. Then there's the added bonus of directly supporting local farms, something that's personally very important to me. Yet even just buying a pint of cherries, blueberries, or strawberries each week accounted for at least three dollars. It doesn't sound like much, does it? But 4 weeks x $3 is $12, and that's almost 25% of our food budget goal for the month. We also bought some locally produced cheese, which turned out to be excellent, at the farmers' market.

There was a significant offset in costs thanks to our garden though. In June we had far more lettuce, zucchini, kale, chard, cabbage, and fresh herbs coming out of the garden than we could keep up with. A good bit of produce got put up for later consumption, and this will be an ongoing task throughout the summer. So we had little need for fresh produce other than onions and garlic. And of course, our laying hens continued to provide us with nearly free eggs.

The other budget buster for June was, once again, soda. I don't want to blame this one on my husband, because heaven knows I drink plenty of the stuff if it's around. But I will say that the purchase happened when I sent him off to the grocery store alone. He saw a "good deal" and couldn't pass it up. So we spent a whopping $22 for five cases of soda. Clearly, this stuff is a menace to our frugality efforts.

I had been drinking homemade watermelon shrub from last summer as a substitute for soda, but we ran through our supply of it rather quickly. My husband also got into the habit of charging a container of tap water with his CO2 tank leftover from his homebrewing days. He was using that and some fruit juice to make himself mixed drinks. As much as he liked this, he succumbed to the temptation of a promotion, and we're now back to drinking soda by the can. I can see I'm going to need to put more thought into good substitutions for soft drinks.

Things are more or less on track for another shot at the $50 Grocery Challenge for the month of July. The garden is now producing tomatoes. And we harvested about 90 heads of garlic. So we're pretty well set to go without needing to buy any produce, other than a little fruit, for this month. I'll let you know how it goes.

Related Posts:
Four Cornerstone Meals for Frugal Living
$50 Monthly Grocery Challenge: How it Might Be Done

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Our 12-Month Mortgage Reduction Goal

Right now my husband has a very well paid job. But it's a contract job and the contract will end a year from now. After that, chances are very high that he will take a substantial paycut, possibly as much as 50%, though we hope it won't be that severe. We're very fortunate that his current salary is high enough that even half of it would be enough for two frugal people to live on comfortably in our part of the country. But going from a great paying job to a decent paying job is always an adjustment.

Knowing this, we've devised a game plan for the next year. With a significant amount put away for retirement, and no debts other than our mortgage, we're well situated for reduced financial circumstances. Still, less than two years into the 30-year term on our mortgage, the remaining principle owed is over $200,000, and that's with some extra principle payments already made. Our goal then is to throw every extra penny that we possibly can at our mortgage over the next year. Specifically, we want to knock an extra $50,000 off the principle, over and above what would be paid down by our obligatory monthly payments. Let's look at the mechanics of how this is would work.

A simple division of $50,000 by 12 months gives us an additional monthly payment of $4167. Ouch! That's a hefty chunk of change, and an ambitious repayment plan by any measure. We know this is a difficult goal, and we recognize that we may not succeed, though we're certainly going to try our best. Because of the way mortgages work, we don't quite have to come up with that much money each month in order to meet our extra $50k principle reduction goal. But this early in the term of our 30-year mortgage, most of our regular monthly payment is still going to interest. So we don't see the power of compounding working in our favor very much yet. Still, as we make each extra monthly payment, a larger and larger portion of our regular monthly payment (about $1450) will be applied to our principle balance, instead of interest.

Our lender has a nice amortization calculator on its website, with all our information automatically calculated. If your lender doesn't have an automated calculator on their site, you can find one that anyone can use here. You'll have to enter the details of your own mortgage though. We used the calculator to figure out what our balance would look like a year from now under a few different payment plans. With no additional payments at all, the reduction of our principle balance after one year would amount to just $4000. With an additional monthly payment of $4167, our principle balance would go down by $55,700 after one year - just slightly more than our goal requires. (Remember, our goal is an additional $50,000 reduction. So the total reduction needs to be around $54,000.) To find the "sweet spot" - the lowest monthly amount that would let us reach our goal, I plugged in various amounts for the additional monthly payment, narrowing in on that total reduction of $54k.

After a little trial and error, I found that we could meet our goal with an additional monthly payment of about $4050. That's still quite a lot of extra money to come up with each month. In fact, it's about half of our net monthly pay. We have enough breathing room in our monthly budget already that we can fairly easily come up with $3400 per month to contribute to this goal. The remaining $650 per month is going to be a real stretch for us though. There's a strong temptation on my part to raid our cash emergency fund to achieve our self-imposed goal. That $12k currently sits in a relatively high interest savings account, so that it's easily available to us at any time. But even a high interest savings account doesn't match the interest we're paying on the mortgage. The math suggests we'd be better off putting that money towards debt reduction. However, that would leave us without an emergency fund, and vulnerable to increased debt if we run into an unforeseen financial crisis. So, as tempting as it may be, we're leaving that money where it is.

The obvious adjunct to paying more money each month is to try to secure a lower interest rate through refinancing. I tried this recently and we were turned down, even though our credit rating is excellent. Partly this is because we already have a fairly good interest rate, and partly because real estate values have taken a bath since we bought our home. According to the loan officer I spoke with, the automated value now assigned to our home is $33,000 less than we paid for it. We could contest that evaluation by paying for an individual appraisal. But even then we might not secure a better rate of interest. So for now we sit tight. But I'll be keeping an eye on interest rates. If it looks like we could get a better rate, we'll definitely try again.

Our purpose in this plan is threefold.
First and foremost, we want to get out of debt as quickly as possible. Secondly, by devoting so much of our take-home pay to this debt, we are in a sense preparing ourselves for the day when that money is no longer available to us at all. In other words, we're training ourselves to live on a much smaller monthly budget. Thirdly, by reducing our principle balance and increasing our home equity, we're positioning ourselves well for refinancing our mortgage or even taking a home equity loan somewhere down the line, if we should need it. The home equity loan scenario is a likely one, as we would eventually like to build our retirement home. The money for that construction might very well have to come from the equity in our current home.

A year from now, we may have to go back to making just our minimum monthly payments on the mortgage. But whether we succeed in our ambitious goal or not, we will have made a significant dent in our principle balance, and a larger portion of each of our regular monthly payments will be applied to our principle, instead of lining the coffers of the lender. We won't feel like losers if our principle reduction over the next year is "only" $45,000 rather than $54,000. Instead, we'll feel a sense of satisfaction that $600 of our $1450 monthly payment is being knocked off our principle rather than the $360 it would be had we not attempted this goal at all.

Note: I posted an update detailing our revised approach to this goal.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Save Heating Oil During the Summer Months

A great many homeowners in the area I live in rely on heating oil to keep their homes warm during the winter. The most common arrangement is an oil-fueled water furnace that heats water for baseboard radiators, and sometimes radiant heat floors. Seems like a no-brainer to save on heating costs during the summer, no? But there's a simple way to save more oil, beyond just not needing any heat for the home. Because in most cases, the temperature for the hot water that comes out of the tap is controlled by the same setting as the water for the radiators.

I've found myself lately taking very tepid showers, trying to cool down during the hottest period of the year. I don't take truly cold showers, but I'm guessing that the temperature that feels good right now is somewhere around 80 to 85 degrees F. Given that the house can be as hot as 80 degrees during the day, there's no risk of a chill. But the wintertime setting for our hot water is 160 degrees. For our personal use, we don't need water anywhere near that hot. Our dishwasher heats our water to an appropriately scalding temperature on its own. And I use cold water for nearly all our laundry.

So the simple fix is to lower the setting on the furnace as soon as we no longer need to heat the house. Our gauge actually has two settings, a kick-on setting for the lowest acceptable temperature, and the kick-off setting for the highest necessary temperature. I set the kick-on temperature as low as it could be set: 110 degrees. And the kick-off temperature is a mere ten degrees higher. The water that comes out of the tap is still plenty hot for washing dishes, so I don't worry much about sanitation. If we cook anything particularly bacteria-laden, like meat, we either put the cutting board and kitchen tools through the dishwasher, or sterilize them with bleach. We eat so many vegetables during the summer anyway, just trying to keep up with the output from the garden. In other words, there's no downside. The savings may be small, but it costs us nothing but a minute or two of time to accomplish.

I have no idea how much oil this simple switch is saving us, but at more than $4 per gallon for heating oil, it's something worth doing. I only wish that I had thought of it earlier in the warm months. We've got at least a few more months before we'll need to raise the temperature to effectively heat our home.

If any engineers or heating specialists out there know a way to calculate the savings, please let me know!

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Eighteen Random Tips to Survive an Economic Slump

Lots of people are feeling the pinch of rising food and fuel prices. Recession jitters and higher unemployment have many people keeping a nervous eye on their monthly income. My particular view of frugality comes from my position as a housewife with a background in professional cooking and an interest in self-sufficiency. In no particular order of importance, here are a few suggestions for cutting costs when it counts. Please add your own survival strategies in the comments!

#1 Stop eating out. Restaurant meals are luxuries, not necessities. Even if you make no effort to grocery shop economically, buying and preparing food for your own meals will save you a bundle, week after week. You don't need to be a gourmet or an expert cook to make good food at home, though it certainly helps. If you need help learning the basics, check out a good introductory cookbook, such as The New Best Recipe, out of the library. For the best return on your money and time, shop the sales, eat vegetarian a few times per week, and make sure none of the food you buy goes to waste. Take dinner leftovers to work for lunch.

#2 Pack the kids' lunches for school every day. Amy Dacyczyn, mother of six, nails this in her incomparable The Complete Tightwad Gazette. There are ways to put together cheap, healthy lunches that your kids will eat. Do not resort to buying snack pack items for them; they will be more expensive than the school lunches. You will need to do some prep work to achieve this. Start by buying refillable juice containers. The old trick for keeping juice or milk cold until lunchtime is to put a small amount of the beverage into the container and freeze it overnight. In the morning, fill the container the rest of the way and the frozen part will keep the rest cool as it thaws. Ask your kids for feedback as to the temperature of their drink until you get the amount to freeze just right.

#3 Strategize your home's energy consumption. In winter, layer up and turn down the thermostat. Close off parts of the house that don't need to be kept warm all the time. In the summer, keep the blinds drawn on sunny sides of the house. Install an attic fan for cooling the house more cheaply than an air conditioner can. As in the winter, close off any room that doesn't need to be cooled if you run an air conditioner. In general, cool or heat only as much of your house as strictly is necessary. During hot weather, use a ceiling fan or other fans before you reach for the AC controls. Install compact fluorescent light bulbs throughout your home. Reconsider any electrical appliance that runs automatically or on a timer.

#4 Drive less. Never drive the car for just one errand at a time. Try to schedule all of your errands and appointments for one day of the week if possible. If you live in a densely developed area, consider biking or walking whenever you can. Carpool to work if you can. Carpool with friends or family for occasional shopping excursions to more distant stores. Get in the habit of asking friends and family if they need anything when you make a trip to such places. With luck, they may learn to reciprocate, saving you trips. Carpool with other parents if your kids need running around for their activities.

#5 Re-evaluate your insurance policies. When was the last time you checked around for competitive rates? An hour spent on the phone could end up saving you several hundred dollars per year. Even if you plan to stay with your current insurer, review your policies. If you're driving your car less than previously you may be eligible for a mileage discount. Raise the deductibles on your plans as much as you can without putting yourself in jeopardy of a serious financial crisis. If you have some breathing room in your budget, set aside an extra $500 in your emergency fund to cover car repairs, then raise your deductible by the corresponding $500. You'll have the funds to cover the expense while also reducing your premium.

#6 Use your local library. Libraries are a treasure trove of resources and free entertainment. Are you paying for a Netflix account? Just as an experiment, put it on hold for a month and see how far your library's collection can go towards replacing that source of entertainment. Remember that most public libraries will try to find books and sometimes DVDs or VCR tapes that they don't have in their own collection by using the inter-library loan system. If you can develop patience you'll probably be able to read 95% of the books and watch 95% of the movies that interest you for free.

#7 Rally the troops. Get your kids and your spouse on board to conserve household resources by using just as much toothpaste, shampoo, soap and other toiletries as is really needed. You don't need an inch of toothpaste or a palmful of shampoo. Tell the kids you'll pay them a dime for every time they catch an adult leaving lights on around the house unnecessarily. Look for creative ways to encourage yourself and everyone in your household to conserve money. Play a board game together in one room, rather than running lights and entertainment appliances in every room of the house. Challenge the kids to come up with a new way to save money each week. Reward the best idea by preparing any homemade meal of the child's choice, or by indulging in a favorite dessert. If anyone in your household stays in hotels as part of work-related travel, bring home those complimentary toiletries and use them up before paying for any others.

#8 Hang up your laundry to dry. Rig up something inside for cold weather or rainy days. Put the laundry in the dryer only for a few minutes on "fluff" (unheated) once everything is already dry. No stiff towels! Read more about my laundry strategies.

#9 Put the kids to work. Shifting to a frugal lifestyle is going to entail more planning and effort in many aspects of your life. If your kids are past the toddler stage, assign them regular, age-appropriate chores to help make the transition more manageable. Cooking, doing the dishes, and other cleaning tasks should be shared around. See item #2 for a perfect opportunity to teach them some self-sufficiency. Let them earn their spending money by doing household work above and beyond their regular chores. Keep a list of such "above and beyond" work so they could choose a task at any time. Keep the pay scale minimal. When you teach them to associate money with work, you're teaching them a valuable lesson. They should have so little money available to them that they have to think carefully about what they really want to spend it on. Teach frugality as you practice it.

#10 Dilute, dilute! If you buy frozen orange juice, add a small amount of extra water to the pitcher when you reconstitute the juice. A small amount won't be noticeable, but you'll get a small extra serving. The same thing goes for liquid soap if you use it. I find that the regular strength soap is so dense that it often falls right off my hands and into the sink. Diluting the soap a little helps prevent such waste, extends the product, and also keeps my hands from feeling dried out so that I need to put moisturizer on them. I also extend each half gallon of fresh milk I buy with one cup of milk made up from powdered dry milk. I got some coupons for free bags of the powdered milk, so I'm extending our fresh milk for free. Again, a small amount of extra water in the milk goes unnoticed, since we mostly have our milk with tea and granola.

#11 Reconsider your hairstyle. If you're paying for haircuts or other hair treatments, you should rethink these expenses when hard times come. In a very few career fields, a professional cut may be necessary to project a certain image. This is never the case for young children, and most adults could get away with maintaining their own hair. Cutting a child's hair can be as straightforward as crew cuts for the boys and all one length for girls. If your girl wants bangs, these are also ridiculously easy to maintain. Women and teenage girls can also learn to maintain their own cuts if the cuts are simple. If you have a short cut that needs frequent maintenance, grow it out to a length that is easier to take care of yourself. Yes, there may be an awkward stage as your cut grows out. That's what barrettes, hats, and scarves are for. Paying for perms and color treatments should always be regarded as a luxury, especially when these services are provided in a hair salon. Home kits are more economical, but they should still be viewed as wants and not needs. Assuming you were paying for a very cheap cut four times per year, cutting your own hair will save you a bare minimum of $60 annually, per person.

#12 Reuse everything you can. Start by washing ziploc bags and aluminum foil. Aluminum foil is very easy to wipe down and clean. Just dry it in a drainage rack with the dishes. I dry my ziploc bags dry by hanging them over glass bottles or clipping them by the corner to the refrigerator with a magnet. Think twice or thrice before throwing something away. Can it be repaired? Repurposed? Do you know someone who could use what you no longer need?

#13 Start gardening, or expand your garden. When times are really tough, it helps to move towards greater self-sufficiency. Obviously, gardening is not an option for everyone. But even a sunny window can provide space for a few herbs and vegetables, such as lettuce. Just look at what this woman did! Container gardening works great for tomato plants. If you have a bay window, any amount of lawn, a porch, or even a parkway strip in front of the sidewalk, you can grow some of your own food. Don't defeat the monetary savings by spending a fortune on fancy containers, an AeroGarden, or other expensive gadgets. All you need is halfway decent soil, a simple container, water and seeds or plants. If you already garden, think about adding more edibles to your beds. Give a vegetable crop any space you would normally use for annual flowers.

#14 If you still have a job, review your employee benefits package. Are you familiar with every benefit your employment provides to you? Ask for a copy of these benefits if you don't already have one. You may have a life insurance policy that you're unaware of. If you're paying for another life insurance policy separately, there may be an opportunity to save by eliminating a redundant policy. What other benefits are you eligible for that you're not using? Could you use them to save money or improve your life without any extra expense?

#15 Have faith in the small things. It's always hard to see the value of saving small amounts of money, especially when we feel forced into frugality by difficult circumstances. It feels great to save a large chunk of money by cutting our insurance premiums. But there are only so many ways to save large chunks of money. And a dollar saved is a dollar earned. Small amounts of money saved over and over again will make a difference to your bottom line. I'm completely convinced that at the end of the year the many little savings add up to every bit as much as our few one-fell-swoop, large-dollar-amount savings. The same goes for debt repayment. Sending an extra $5 each month with your mortgage payment may seem like a trivial amount that will not make a difference. It will make a difference. It may not look like it, but your little gains here and there do have the power to alter your situation for the better. Stick with it and take pride in your efforts.

#16 Develop a new frugal skill. If you have any free time at all, start learning a new skill. Even if you have just an extra hour or two throughout the week, that's enough time to read a basic orientation book (from the library of course) on a skill that you'd like to learn about. (And if you're watching any amount of tv, or playing video games, there's your opportunity time.) For me, the obvious choice was making bread, but for you it might be basic plumbing or sewing. Try to pick a skill that doesn't require you to invest in costly tools or pay for expensive classes. When you've mastered one skill, go on to another one.

#17 Turn your passion into income. What do you love to do? What can you do better than most people? What do you know about in depth? If you have a well-developed talent or an area of specialized interest, look into opportunities to share that talent with the world in exchange for money. Community colleges and adult education centers offer an amazing array of non-credit courses. In almost all cases, you won't need any teaching credential to teach such classes. Call up the office and see if there's room for a class or two in your area of expertise. All it takes is a little gumption, a little confidence, and some preparation. Don't sell yourself short before you even try. If you have a lifelong passion, chances are excellent that you're qualified to teach others about it in some way. You may find an appreciative group of students who will enroll in your classes again and again. I know a dog lover who taught herself about dog training, and now teaches obedience classes in a public park on a regular basis. It's good money for something she loves to do.

#18 Pay off your debt, and don't accumulate any more. Every frugal blogger out there talks about debt reduction/elimination. Obviously, the importance of getting out debt, especially credit card and other consumer debts, cannot be overstated. 'Nuff said.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Homemade Non-toxic Bug Spray

Reality Sandwich recently posted an article on permaculture, addressing ways of combating insect damage in the garden. While the principle of encouraging greater diversity in the garden as a means of controlling insect pests is great, sometimes I'm just not willing to sit back and watch a crop of plants I grew from tiny seeds be devoured by anyone else but me. I'm not giving up this year's kale crop while I wait for the beneficial predator insects to notice the abundance of prey in my garden.

My favorite vegetable right now is kale lacinato, also known as dinosaur kale and by a bunch of other names. It's delicious to me, and to a number of hungry insects as well. Fortunately, it's a sturdy plant and it stands up very well to a fairly potent insect repellent that's easy to brew up at home. I promised a while ago to share my recipe for this effective, cheap, and non-toxic pesticide. So here it is.

To make this spray you'll need the following: a large mixing bowl, three large cloves of garlic, a teaspoon of chili pepper flakes, and a bar of glycerin soap. You'll also need a clean spray bottle for application.

Place the bowl in your kitchen sink and turn on the tap. Wash your hands with the bar of glycerin soap and rinse them off, letting all the water and soap suds collect in the bowl. Next, peel and crush the garlic cloves, so that they are well broken and flattened. Put the garlic in the soapy water and add the chili pepper flakes. If the bowl is not full, add more water so that there is at least 2 to 3 quarts of liquid. Let this steep for 24 hours and then strain it into the spray bottle. If you have more than will fit in the bottle, label and refrigerate the mix. It will keep for several weeks.

This spray can be applied liberally to kale lacinato, and should be re-applied approximately every 10 days as new leaves continuously form. I apply it to the heart of the plant, where the new leaves form, and also to the undersides of the larger leaves, where most insects seem to like to hang out. I also try to reapply the spray after heavy rains. I have also successfully used it on savoy cabbage, which seems not to mind the spray either. DO NOT apply this spray to Swiss chard. Chard apparently has a more delicate constitution, and it will literally curl up and die in response to this spray. I still see a slight amount of insect damage to the kale and cabbage, even when using this spray regularly. But it's a level of damage I can live with. I still get to eat most of the leaves.

I usually prepare the kale by rinsing it well and then blanching and shocking it in ice water, before going on to sauté it. It might be a slightly laborious cooking process, but it serves a few purposes. Firstly, it washes off any trace of the soap from the spray. Secondly, it washes off and/or kills any small bugs or caterpillars on the leaves. (And yes, there always are a few in each bunch.) And thirdly, it makes the leaves very tender and able to absorb flavor better than if the leaves were sautéed directly from the raw state. It also freezes beautifully after blanching and shocking. I put up most of the kale I grow for consumption during the winter months. I eat more chard during the summer.

Got any homemade gardening solutions to share? Let me know.

Monday, July 7, 2008

A Day in the Life of a Frugal Housewife

Yesterday was a fairly typical day in my frugal life. I get up and tend to our four laying hens first thing every day. While I was out there, I poked around a bit in our large vegetable garden, just to keep an eye on things. I ripped out several handfuls of purslane, an edible groundcover that has volunteered enthusiastically in our garden. I fed that to the chickens as part of their daily dose of green things. (Purslane, as it turns out, contains a higher concentration of omega-3 fatty acids than any other land-based source. All that good stuff passes through our chickens and right in to their eggs, which makes them extra good for us.) Then I came inside for breakfast, which yesterday was a Spanish tortilla of leftover baked potatoes, some spicy garlic-chili sauce, and eggs from our hens. I washed it down with some sun tea, made up in a big batch about once a week. Instead of using a paper napkin, I used one of our cloth napkins that we've had for years. My total cost for this breakfast was probably less than 50 cents.

Then I baked a sheet of focaccia from dough I mixed the day before. It was topped with fresh herbs from our garden. There was a possibility of selling half of it later in the day, but that fell through. If I had sold half the sheet, I would have more than recouped the total cost for all the ingredients, including the herb plants I bought at the farmers' market.

I cleaned up the kitchen and included washing a few ziploc bags as part of the cleanup. I throw out any bag that has held raw meat, but I'll keep the ones that held things like fully cooked hot dogs or cured lunch meats that were in another opened bag inside the ziploc. The to-be-washed bag pile is unending in our home. I only have so many places in the kitchen where they can drip dry, so it's a chore I need to stay on top of.

The sliding glass doors that lead to our porch had been looking kinda grimy. So I cleaned them using a 50-50 mixture of tap water and distilled white vinegar. (I buy the store-brand stuff by the gallon - very cheap.) I used the squeegee that we keep in our shower, and pages torn out of last year's phone book. The pages are just the right size for this chore, and they leave no streaks. Nor do they leave any little paper fibers behind, the way some paper towels will. When I was done with the doors, I cleaned my windshield wipers with the same solution. Then I poured the vinegar and water mixture on our brick walkway where some weeds push up through the gaps. The acidity will kill some of them (non-toxically) and make it harder for others to grow.

After my cleaning chores, I went next door, where my husband had seen someone dumping aluminum cans in a dumpster a few days ago. I spent about 5-10 minutes fishing out about three dozen cans from the mostly empty dumpster. The neighbor won't mind. No one lives there and the owner simply uses the dumpster for scraps from his small construction jobs. He has to pay to have everything hauled away anyway. The aluminum will probably bring me a dollar when I next take aluminum cans to the scrap metal dealer.

I put in a load of laundry to wash with my homemade laundry detergent. Later in the afternoon, I hung the wet clothes to dry slowly on my indoor laundry lines and a wooden drying rack. Total savings over store-bought detergent and using a dryer probably comes to more than $1.

Lunch was a simple sandwich of garden lettuce and aged goat cheese on the focaccia. After lunch I took a break and did some reading on a frugal topic: solar cooking. I thought about some simple things I might try cooking in the parabolic solar cooker I made, the next time we have some reasonably clear weather.

In the afternoon I did some weeding and garden work, mounding up more dirt around the leeks to make them produce a longer white section, and around the potato plants to encourage production of more potatoes. Then I harvested a large batch of lacinato kale for blanching and storing. This was a fairly labor intensive process, but it means clean and healthy green vegetables for us this winter.

After that hot work, I took a shower. I used soap, shampoo, and conditioner picked up by my husband in hotels during his business travel. Since I didn't have to appear especially presentable for the rest of the day, I let my hair air dry instead of styling it. My wet hair helped keep me cool on a warm day too.

For dinner I went to the garden once again. I picked some zucchini blossoms, lettuce, and herbs for our appetizers, and cabbage leaves for our main course. The zucchini flowers were cleaned, stuffed with a mixture of cheese, egg, bread crumbs, garlic and herbs, then dredged in beaten egg and flour and pan-fried. Served on a few lettuce leaves, they looked pretty and tasted great. The shredded cabbage leaves went into a simple risotto, which we enjoyed with glasses of cheap three-buck Chuck Shiraz. Dessert was a small serving of day-old bread pudding made with my homemade bread, powdered milk, and eggs from our hens.

After dinner, it was time to tuck in the girls to keep them safe overnight from predators. They were back in their coop, which I secured tightly.

My last frugal duty of the day is dental hygiene; flossing and brushing thoroughly keep my mouth healthy and help me avoid those avoidable, expensive and painful dental treatments. Health is the first wealth, and looking after one's health is always a frugal pursuit. My ablutions done, I indulged in some escapist reading with a library book.

-So there's a snapshot of my frugal life. There's a good mixture of active, passive, and preventative frugality packed in there. My active frugality included making my own meals, gardening, fishing out those aluminum cans, putting up some frozen vegetables for the winter, and hanging my laundry up to dry. Passive frugality was represented too: I didn't drive anywhere, partly by choosing to prepare meals from what was available rather than dreaming up a dish that would have required going to the store. I didn't doll myself up after my shower as there was no need to. And I avoided using store-bought paper towels or napkins with simple alternatives. Reading library books is also a passive sort of frugality when the alternative would be to pay for books or some other paid form of entertainment. Cleaning my windshield wipers, protecting our hens, and taking care of my health falls under the category of preventative frugality. Killing a few weeds with vinegar could also be considered "frugal" in the sense that it may save me a little weeding time and effort down the line, without much invested effort at all right now.

How do you practice frugality throughout your day?

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Our Daily Bread

I've posted before about learning to bake bread. But I realized recently that I've never posted about No-Knead bread (NK for short). Apparently, this revolutionary method of bread baking hit the foodie world like a tsunami after an article by Mark Bittman appeared in the New York Times sometime in late 2006. This was just before I became interested in learning to bake a good loaf of bread.

At first, I dismissed the idea, thinking that such an easy and simple technique couldn't possibly produce a loaf of bread with a great crust and interior texture. I was sure that doing it the traditional way, with hand kneading and plain old fashioned effort, would contribute something wonderful that would be lost if too many shortcuts were taken. Eventually though, after a few so-so results of all my hand kneading, I figured I had nothing to lose by giving the NK a shot. I already had a cast iron dutch oven, so there were no up front costs for me.

My first time making NK bread convinced me. This was going to be my standard bread making methodology from now on; I was never going back. I've eaten bread in the San Francisco bay area and in Paris. If you have too, you'll know what I'm talking about. I can say in all honesty that NK bread would be able to stand up straight with its shoulders back among the ranks of breads produced in either of those locations. It's not the very, very best bread I've ever had in all my life. But it's damn close, and it's ridiculously easy - and cheap - to make at home.

As of this writing, organic bread flour costs well over $1 per pound, even when buying in bulk. The NK loaves I make use exactly one pound of flour. Usually I make multi-grain loaves that contain both wheat bread flour and whole spelt flour, along with mixed rolled grains such as rye, barley and oats. All together, my materials cost is somewhere around $1.40 for all organic ingredients. That produces a 10" round loaf that weighs about 1.75 pounds, for a unit price of 80 cents per pound. See if you can find any freshly baked loaf of bread that sells for 80 cents a pound, let alone one made with organic ingredients. And we'll let alone the quality issue as well.

Breadtopia has a fantastic tutorial on baking NK bread, with both text and video, so I won't bother to repeat the instructions here. I'll just say that if you have a dutch oven and even a little bit of time, you can make this bread. Truly, a seven-year-old could make this bread; it's that easy.

For better frugality, we invested in a second dutch oven so that we could bake two loaves simultaneously. So now we get twice the output of bread for the energy required to heat our oven up. Now that the hot summertime is upon us, baking is the absolute last thing I want to do. Fortunately, I planned ahead this year and stocked my chest freezer with about ten loaves of our beloved NK bread during the cold months of the year.

I didn't think, when I started learning to bake, that I would end up baking all of our bread. But that's how it is for us now. It's one more thing that we never have to run to the store for. That cuts down on wear and tear on our car and saves us gas too. One more thing we can do for ourselves. One less skill we pay for someone else to develop.

Give No Knead Bread a try. I think you'll be impressed with the flavor, the savings and with the ease of preparation. It's a can't lose experiment.