Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Putting the Gardens to Bed for the Winter

We've never done it this late before, but the weather was perfect.  (A few years, we've totally skipped this step and I've regretted it in the spring.)  We put our garden beds to "sleep" for the winter on November 30 in the span of about two hours, with the little man in the pack on Daddy's back.  So we got some family time outside to boot.

How'd we do it?  We tried the lasagna gardening method, which was super easy to prep.  We started by laying out our layers of newspaper in the gardens after cutting back the old plants (and weeds!).  We collected these newspapers from friends and from our days of purchasing the Sunday paper and now we're using them in the garden, which means that we're totally saving green in both senses of the word.

The next layer was about a two inch layer of our compost.  Our composter was bursting at the seems from our kitchen scraps, yard waste, and what came out of our gutters after cleaning them.  It felt great to be able to almost empty the composter and put that black gold to good use!  We still had a few whole egg shells and citrus peels in there, but hopefully after composting some more over the winter, it'll be good to go in the spring.

Then, we added a layer of straw.  We'd purchased this straw bale about a year ago, and hadn't gotten around to using it as mulch between our raised  beds as intended, so we used it here to heavily mulch these beds.  We probably added a 3-4 inch layer of straw to each bed.  If we have time, I'd like to add a layer of leaves to the top when we clean out the ditch and culvert below the driveway.

I'm hoping that by doing all of this in the fall that our beds will be ready to go in the spring.  I'd love to plant one with raspberries, one with rhubarb, and one with asparagus.  We did go ahead and plant the bed that had basil in it over the summer with garlic for the winter, so we'll see how that turns out in the spring.  I'm hoping it had enough nutrients in it to support the garlic.  I've never planted it before.

And, can I just say how good it feels to have that bale of straw out from in front of the house and some of those newspapers gone from the basement?!  And they're being put to good use... even better!

So, what about you?  How're you living and saving green in your gardens this winter?  I'd love to hear from you!

Monday, December 1, 2014

December Menu Plan

This month is all about making the most of what we have so we can spare a little cash for holiday baking.  We'll be making the most of the pre-Thanksgiving sales by using potatoes, cranberries, winter squash, and turkey in lots of things.


We'll be having lots of muffins this month:  Cranberry oat muffins, espresso muffins, gingerbread spice muffins (all from Muffins A to Z, which I checked out for ages from the library before purchasing my own copy), The Prudent Homemaker's lemon poppyseed muffins, pumpkin (or winter squash) muffins, and my family's berry muffins.  We'll also be having bagels from Panera (thanks to gift cards), egg sandwiches, and baked oatmeal (from Simply in Season).


To use up the turkey, we'll have:

  • turkey soup (with barley, rice, or noodles) with homemade bread and herb butter
  • turkey tacos with winter squash, refried beans, and homemade peach salsa
  • barbecue turkey burritos or sandwiches with spinach salad
  • confetti fried rice with turkey (a great way to use up those tiny bits)
*We'll also make several batches of homemade turkey stock using the three turkey carcasses we've got in the freezer now (we gleaned a few).  Just put the carcass in the crockpot, fill with water, add an onion if you have it, and cook on low all day.  Then strain it and pick the meat off to use in soup, casseroles, or fried rice.

To use up the winter squash/sweet potatoes, we'll have:
To use the cranberries, we'll have:
  • whole wheat pancakes with cranberry apple crisp and bacon or eggs
  • open faced meatball subs with cranberry/tomato sauce
To use up the potatoes, we'll have:
  • slow cooker potato soup with bacon and cheese (using homemade turkey stock)
  • loaded baked potatoes with broccoli and cheese
Other fillers include:
  • jambalya with steamed veggies
  • broccoli and cheese soup with garlic toast
  • pesto pizza with veggies
  • spicy thai noodle stir fry (my riff on this recipe)
  • tuna casserole with peas or broccoli

As usual, lunches will be leftovers.  We'll be getting our order of fruit from the high school orchestra in a few days, so we'll have those grapefruit and tangelos to fill in lunches and breakfasts.  

Holiday Goodies

The holiday goodies we'll be baking/making this year include:
  • rosemary olive oil bread
  • chocolate dipped peppermint jo-jo's (these are from Trader Joe's and they're fabulous on their own, but even better dipped in white chocolate)
  • muddy buddies/puppy chow (people call it either, but it's the same peanut butter, chocolate-y goodness)
  • muffins for the work crowd
  • citrus marmalade
  • candied grapefruit peal
  • sand dabs --a family favorite, my uncle eats them by the triple batch, and Benny's not far behind! (some people call them wedding cookies, basically butter, powdered sugar, vanilla, and pecans rolled into balls or crescent shapes)
We'll save some green by using what we have on hand, buying ingredients in bulk, and using the slow cooker like the work horse that it is.  We'll also save some energy on our heating bill, since the oven will be running more, and we'll batch cook as much as possible.

How's your December shaping up?  Are you keeping dinners easy to make time for holiday baking?  I'd love to hear from you!

Monday, November 24, 2014

Increasing Your Earnings to Decrease Your Debt (or Increase Savings)

We've been working really hard over the last few years to eliminate all our debt (mortgage is next on the list, I think) and increase our savings for retirement and other long-term goals.  We've trimmed all the fat from the budget--and some would say we've gone beyond that into sacrificing.  Now, we're on to finding avenues to help us increase our earnings so we can meet our goals even faster.

Find Professional Development that is Free or Pays You

I've gotten in the habit of only accepting professional development opportunities that are free that sound fabulous, or ones that pay me.  For example, NCCAT (the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching) offers seminars to teachers for free.  You have to pay your travel, but they help with sub cost, and house and feed you like royalty.  This is a great way for me to get a little R&R on someone else's dime, while also getting some great PD that keeps my license current.

This past summer, I was accepted into the Governor's Teacher Network, which pays me a significant stipend for producing professional development for other teachers.  I can get some credit for completing their online course, while also getting paid.  The NEH has great summer opportunities for teachers all over the country and world, and they pay you to go.  I'm applying for one of their workshops this summer.  If I get accepted, it will be great because we have family in town, which means less money will be pulled from my stipend check since I won't stay in a hotel.

Now, I realize that you may not always be able to implement this strategy, and it may not work for all fields, but for teaching, this has been great.  It also helps me to make sure that I'm not giving up valuable time with my family for mediocre PD.

Ask for a Raise

As a state worker in a non-union state, I can't exactly do this, even collectively with other workers.  However, it is a strategy that works for people in other sectors.  I was blessed this year that with pay scale adjustments, I received a raise of about $150 per paycheck.  (Though I know others with different levels of experience actually had their pay reduced, which is another discussion entirely...)  If you work in a job where you can ask for a raise, and you haven't had one in a while, consider if you could request one.  Or maybe you need to work a bit harder, develop your skill set more over the next six months, get the boss's eye, and then ask for one after he sees how hard you're working.

Work a Side Gig

I recently accepted a job tutoring a younger student after school.  It will take a significant portion of my planning time, but the extra pay was worth it.  I tried to be reasonable with my fee, knowing that not all families can afford professional rates, but also knowing that my skill is more than just babysitting.  If this tutoring continues, it will add almost an extra $200 to our monthly income, which will really allow us to pay down the home equity line faster.

Many people could work a side job like this in whatever your field of expertise might be.  Maybe it's teaching music lessons, or doing yard work for someone who hates it, offering a  design consult to someone who lacks color sense, babysitting, or something else entirely.  What could you do to make an extra $20-$50 each week?

Sell Your Stuff

Or someone else's... We're not shy about taking people's cast-offs.  We find that we'll either put them to good use, or we can make a little extra cash by selling the stuff on eBay or Craigslist.  It's important if you're going to do this that you know your product.  You can't mark stuff up too much, otherwise it'll never sell.  You also won't make much if you sell it too cheaply, and it won't be worth your time.  I know some people scour yard sales and thrift shops for stuff to resell online, and have made a business doing it.  We're not to that level, but it is a strategy that has helped us pay for the "extras" we'd like, but aren't necessities, like our CSA share or new bedding.

Sell Your Space

We've rented an upstairs bedroom in our home for several years now and will begin renting our basement apartment soon.  There have been lots of benefits to this arrangement outside of finances, but the primary reason we did it was so that we could use the rental income to pretty much cover our mortgage payment each month.  I realize that not everyone may be comfortable with renting a room in your home, but we have found that it's led to some wonderful relationships that we never would have found otherwise.  As long as you're selective about where you advertise, and about who you interview for the space, then we've found it to be a great bonus in more ways than one.

All in all, I figure our extra income streams actually amount to about $800 or more per month, which is pretty impressive, since a few of them (like rental income) are pretty passive.

What could you do to increase your earnings?  Here's to living and saving green!  I'd love to hear from you!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Cutting Christmas Costs without the Cutting the Celebration

We've had to cut back on our overall budget in several ways, but holidays was one easy place to trim quite a bit.  I love the holidays; the decorating, wrapping, celebrating, and baking.  But our culture often tells us that the more we spend on these things, the better.  Here are a few ways we trim the budget, while not trimming the spirit.


Several years ago, we bought some lighted garland at an after Christmas sale, so it was deeply discounted.  That same year, we bought some plastic metallic ornaments, snowflakes, etc.  We use these each year to decorate the handrail to upstairs and the mantle.  I use a lot of my silver plated stuff to sprinkle in on the mantle to add more sparkle, which I already had.  Much of this stuff is sentimental too:  Grandma's silver candle sticks, a set of pottery candle sticks given to us by my aunt, a silver platter we bought at an antique store on a date one time.  I use wired ribbon to weave through things too, which can be reused each year.

We have several artificial wreaths I decorated over the years which we store in plastic bags.  This is the easiest decorating ever... just pull the bag off and hang it on the door!

Outside we do very little.  Most of this is because we don't know if it will blow away or get covered in snow or ice for weeks on end.  We do put window candles in our windows, and some years, we scavenge tree trimmings from friends to use outside.  These trimmings I stick in some all-weather flower pots (not pottery, they will crack if you have big temperature fluctuations) and fill the pot with water.  Then, the water will freeze, holding the branches in place.  You could do the same with holly branches, etc.  These just end up being more festive if we have snow fall.

Wrapping and Cards

I've gotten in the habit of saving large pieces of wrapping paper and gift bags for years.  Now we have a substantial stash, so we reuse these.  Often we reuse the wrapping paper for kids gifts, since this paper is more likely to be torn.  We also reuse tissue paper for stuffing gift bags and for wrapping stocking gifts.  My great aunt, who grew up in the Depression era, has mastered wrapping without tape, which is a skill I have yet to learn, but would love to.  These strategies save us lots of money, as well as save valuable paper resources.

We save the fronts of gift cards and Christmas cards to use as gift tags or upcycle into new Christmas cards.  I also make hand-stamped Christmas and thank you notes, which saves a ton of money over buying gift cards.  I use my ink rewards from Staples to "buy" cardstock and envelopes, so I have only the cost of the stamps and ink invested.  This year, we'll take advantage of some of the great photo deals out there on photo sites to print a family portrait to give with Christmas cards.

Gift Giving and Celebrating

When it comes to gift giving, we're all about homemade. We make jams and jellies throughout the summer and fall to give.  I've also found some recipes for homemade soup mixes, which are fun to give with a loaf of homemade bread.  Giving bread is cheaper than giving cookies because there's less sugar, chocolate, or nuts involved, all of which are expensive when compared to the cost of a bulk bag of flour.  We also make homemade vanilla extract for the bakers in the family, and I put away a few pounds of herb butter in the freezer made from herbs we grew this summer.  For some friends, they'll get a loaf of homemade French bread and a stick of herb butter.  All of these are gifts that come from the heart and are genuinely appreciated, and they cost us far less than buying something for everyone on our list.  Giving a gift certificate for services is also fun.  I gave my mom a gift certificate for a bread a month, which was really fun.  She didn't use it every month, but she did enjoy it when she took advantage, and it was nice when she was entertaining for her to not have to worry about that, but just call me to bake a loaf for her.

We also get creative about how we purchase gifts that we need to.  We use Amazon credit, I'll use Recyclebank points to give magazine subscriptions, or we'll purchase used and upcycle.  We might buy some picture frames at the thrift store and remix them into something that suits the recipient, and give a family portrait that way.

You can also get creative with celebrating.  We do lots of potlucks this season, where everyone brings their favorite holiday side dish.  Sometimes, we've done a Feliz Navidad theme, which is kind of fun and a nice departure from all the same kinds of foods.  By going potluck, it takes the pressure off the host and means everyone got at least one thing they like to eat.  By hosting, it means that we get to enjoy everyone getting together, and it's far cheaper than eating out with everyone (and less chaos since most of us have kids).


I save on baking this time of year with the same basic grocery strategies we use all year.  Buy in bulk, use coupons, shop sales, etc.  This time of year is a great time to stock up on baking necceties, though.  There are always sales and coupons for spices, brown sugar, nuts, etc.  I try to save a portion of November's grocery budget just for stocking up on baking supplies so I don't have to buy them later in the year.  I'll try to buy enough brown sugar this month with coupons and sales to last us for the year.  We'll stock the freezer with fresh cranberries this time of year so we can make cranberry muffins, bread, and cranberry chutney throughout the year.  We love all these things, and the chutney is great on bagels with cream cheese or mixed into oatmeal.  The chopped frozen cranberries are also great in popsicles or cooked with cabbage as a side dish.

How do you save green at Christmas?  I'd love to hear from you!

Friday, October 31, 2014

You Eat for $100 a Month?!

This is often the reaction we get from friends when we tell them our grocery budget.  Their next comment or question is either, "We could never do that!" or "How do you do it?!"  Since we're all about the can do attitude here, I'll address the second question today with a few simple strategies.

Meal Planning

There is never a week that we don't know what we'll eat.  We may not plan the exact day of each meal, but we always know what we'll have throughout the week.  This plan is built around what we have in the pantry and fridge/freezer, what's on sale, and what we're in the mood for.  Meal planning helps us save money by being aware of what we need to use up (dairy, produce, etc.) and not letting things go to waste.  It also means we don't buy things that we don't have a use for.  Keeping popping corn and ingredients for homemade cookies on hand helps us control the snack/junk food budget significantly.

Using Coupons

We used to use the Grocery Game for our couponing matchups.  When we went to a single income family, we decided to skip the subscription and find another source.  We found Southern Savers, which is almost as good and has served us well for the last year and a half.  The great thing about both of these is that they match up coupons and store sales for you, so all you have to do is choose what you want from the list and print your list.  We use either printable coupons, ecoupons loaded to the store card, or Sunday paper coupons that my grandmother gives us.  (We used to purchase a Sunday paper, but that got cut too when we went to one income.)  Any given month, we figure we save at least $50, and often more, by matching coupons and store sales.

Buy 'Real' Food

Buying real food means 10 pounds of potatoes, not frozen or refrigerated pre-cut ones.  Buying real food means buying a peach we peel instead of one packed in a can with syrup.  It means buying flour and sugar to make our own muffins, bread, crackers, etc. instead of paying a premium for some commercial bakery to do that work for us.  Buying real food means making our own salad dressing with oil, vinegar, and spices instead of buying one with an unlimited shelf life due to the number of preservatives.  Does it often take a little more time?  Yes.  Is it healthier and cheaper?  Absolutely!  I figure we save at least $50 a month by buying the real stuff.

If you're just getting into saving on groceries, employ this one strategy.  It will save you money and it will be far healthier for your family.  A few easy places to start are with salad dressings and condiments, cooking your own rice (instead of boil in a bag or quick cooking), making homemade pizza dough, or homemade popsicles.

Buy in Bulk

You have to be smart about buying in bulk.  Take a realistic look at what you use and how often, and gauge your bulk purchases from that.  If you're not into baking, a 25 pound bag of flour will go buggy before you use it, and will be a waste of money.

Some things we regularly buy in bulk are:  flour (bread and all purpose), rolled oats, sugar, rice, dried beans, Hershey's syrup, butter, vegetable oil, in season produce, spices and nuts (store in the freezer for the longest shelf life).  Since we bake a lot, and enjoy it, we use the flour pretty quickly.  We get our rice at Walmart sometimes, though I've though about buying Basmati rice at the Indian store in Durham when we visit next (it's generally cheaper at ethnic stores).  I did stock up on brown rice at HT when it went on sale 10/$10 a while back.  We use Hershey's syrup in coffee drinks, so we go through it pretty quickly.  Dried beans are purchased at Walmart, Costco, or another wholesaler.  Butter and oil are purchased at Costco, as are spices and nuts.  Produce we buy in bulk to dry or freeze, often bell peppers, peaches, and strawberries top our list.  It's cheaper to buy them in bulk when they're in season and fresh, and it's so nice to have them for cooking and baking in the winter months.

Eat Less Meat

I know for some it's tough to believe, but we've really embraced the weekday veg routine and really only eat meat once or twice a week.  Even then, it's usually a small portion, like in a stir fry or on a pizza.  Eating less meat has really freed up our budget to buy more dairy and fresh produce, including fruit, which is key now that we have a little one who begs for fruit.  (His favorite is bananas, which he's mastered the ASL sign for!)  We've found some creative recipes for lentil sloppy joes, black bean enchiladas, and bean burgers, which we really like.  Since we love stir fry and pizzas, it's easy to add a little meat or do without.

Soup Once a Week

Unless it's high summer and Benny can't stomach the thought of soup after a long work day, But otherwise, we do soup once a week.  It's easy to do in the crock pot on busy nights, which conserves energy too.  We have a ton of great recipes.  There are always leftovers for another dinner or a few lunches.  The broth, noodles, or rice stretch the other veggies and any meat, so it's really budget friendly.  With crackers, toast, or cornbread, you've got a complete meal, especially if you add a side salad or a little dessert.  What's not to love?

So, there are our "secrets" to sticking to our $100 grocery budget.  Do you employ all of these?  Some?  Only one?  I'd love to hear from you!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Gleaning to Keep the Budget on Track

We've always enjoyed gleaning and foraging for food.  I suppose it comes from liking the outdoors and enjoying the time outside in the sunshine.  It's only become more fun now that we have a little one to share this with (though sometimes he eats more of the harvest than we come home with!).

A few of the things we consistently forage or glean are blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, apples, and sometimes peppers or zucchini from a friend's garden.  We can consistently count on gleaning blackberries from the roadside in our neighborhood.  We seem to be the only ones who pick them, aside from the wildlife, so we can generally harvest several gallons over the growing season.  We also glean blueberries from my aunt's property (they no longer live here full time), and raspberries from friends who are overrun with them.  We put these in the freezer or use them to make jam for gifting and for winter enjoyment.

We gather apples from friends' trees for apple pie filling, apple crisp, and applesauce.  We generally freeze the applesauce, though you can also can it in mason jars.  There are also many local apple trees along public sidewalks, so gleaning would be an option there as well.  This year, we put several gallons of applesauce in the freezer to use for winter fruit and for baking.

Sometimes, we have friends who ask us to "garden sit" for them while they're gone on vacation over the summer.  This leads to all sorts of wonderful bounty, mostly squash, zucchini, and peppers.  We've also "chicken sat" for friends, which means that we collect several dozen eggs over the course of a week or so (they have 14 hens).

Recently, I've begun expanding the idea of gleaning to other areas.  I realized that we're always the ones to ask for the turkey carcass after holiday meals, which yields a lot of yummy stock and enough meat for a batch or two of soup.  Last year, we were gifted with four turkey carcasses after the Thanksgiving pot luck at church, which was a wonderful gift when we were just getting used to a much stricter budget.

When we have Sunday dinners at Mom's house, I will often save veggie scraps and bring them home to make veggie stock.  She will sometimes splurge on mushrooms or other veggies that are typically more expensive and out of our budget, so it's nice to use the trimmings for a savory stock.  I'll also save the broccoli and cauliflower stems from her house to add to our freezer bag for soup.  Broccoli and cheese soup is just as tasty with the "trunks", and broccoli isn't always a cheap veggie, so it's not something we make often, though we love it.

At school, kids often throw away unopened milk cartons.  They're required to take the milk as a part of a "healthy, balanced meal," but it amazes me how many of them eat very little of what is actually on their tray.  I volunteer to take any unopened milk to use at the house, or if I have an abundance, I will take it by the food pantry at church.

The same gleaning principle can be applied to bread.  I have a freezer bag I keep in the freezer with the ends of loaves of bread, cracker crumbs, etc.  When the bag is full, I buzz the whole contents through the food processor to make bread crumbs for a variety of meals (pecan crusted chicken is probably our favorite, but you could top any casserole).  By keeping it in the freezer, it means the bread won't go stale or moldy while I'm waiting to collect enough to do something with.

It always pains me to see people just throw away these remnants, since they can yield such tasty meals.  I know it's from ages gone by, but saving these things isn't a skill that we should lose just because it's convenient to pick up something at the store.  Often, gleaned produce is more nutritious (because it's fresher) and/or organic, which makes me feel better about feeding it to my family.

Gleaning can also go beyond food into the realm of clothing.  I've learned to just ask friends for hand-me-downs for the little guy.  Often, they're more than willing to clean out their closets and unload the "junk" on us.  I've also used this strategy for maternity clothes in the past, which are often worn only a few times.  I have a few friends whom I love their style, both for themselves and their kids, and just being willing to ask means that I have cute clothes for myself and little man.  I don't mind trading some baked goodies or homemade applesauce for clothes, and often this is for a busy mom who really appreciates something homemade and wholesome for her family.

These basic principles really allow us to stretch our food and clothing budgets.  I know there are others in other parts of the country who can glean other foods (I saw on The Prudent Homemaker how she had recently gleaned olives).  Do you ever go gleaning?  If not for yourself, maybe for Second Harvest?  I'd love to hear from you!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Last Week's Frugal Accomplishments

Frugal living has become a lifestyle for us, often with things we don't even think about anymore.  Here's a list of last week's frugal accomplishments, most of which are second nature now.


We didn't run the heat or AC.  We put an extra blanket on the bed when we needed it at night.

Our tenant paid her rent for her upstairs room on time and cleaned her space prior to leaving for fall break, so we didn't need to clean upstairs.

I found a few clothes in storage that little man can still wear from last year.  He poked a hole in the toe of some pjs that I need to add to the mending pile, along with a pair of jeans he's worn a hole in the knee that need a patch.

I carpooled to work a few days last week to save on gas.  This also meant I could plan with her during the drive, saving on time too.

We used some evening time to work on projects downstairs so we didn't have to pay someone else to do these small tasks (cleaning, installing door hardware, spackling, etc.).  We're in the last 5% stretch to getting it done, so we should be renting that space out by the end of the month (know anyone interested?)!

We took walks for after dinner entertainment, when the weather allowed.  When it didn't, we worked downstairs or played upstairs with the little one.


We washed our cloth diapers and wipes and hung them to dry on the drying rack or outside on the line.

We washed all other laundry in one large load in cold water and hung it to dry inside or on the line.

Groceries and Cooking:

We prepared all meals at home and took advantage of three community meals at church.

Sunday dinner was with my mom, as usual, so she paid for most things, and I cooked while she played with the little one.

We ate mostly meatless meals, except for BLTs one night, which were made with all local ingredients.

We made bread in the bread machine.

Breakfast for the week was 13 bagels from Panera, which we purchased with a gift card we had.  We bought cream cheese at the grocery store for cheaper than we could have included it as a "bagel pack."

We cooked acorn squash in the crockpot and processed it for the freezer (just mashed it up and put it in a freezer bag).  We used this to make "pumpkin" muffins Sunday morning.

It was super doubles at Harris Teeter, so we participated and purchased some things for free with coupons and some discounted diapers and wipes for a baby shower gift.  We got some peanut butter for 50 cents, which was a steal, and a boon to our pantry since little man is loving peanut butter right now.  We spent about $30 and saved over $50, so pretty good considering the bulk of that was disposable diapers and wipes we don't usually buy.

We cooked chick peas in the crock pot for a soup and a warm squash salad.

We "gleaned" extra apples from the food pantry at church, which got too many for clients to take.

I harvested a few herbs from the garden to season meals.

I planned out our bulk spice/baking order for next month, which will save us on these items in the long run.  We order from San Francisco Herb Company, and have been pleased with the quality.  We plan to order more sesame seeds, poppy seeds, pumpkin seeds, loose tea, and a few herbs.

We purchased some vodka to make vanilla for Christmas presents.  We'll use vanilla beans we purchase in bulk to make this.  I'll make vanilla sugar with the old beans from our vanilla jar.

I picked up our last week of CSA share on the way home from work (saving on gas and another trip out).  We were able to process some of this for the freezer to use later this winter when we don't have these fresh veggies coming in on a weekly basis.

We had free eggs from a friend, which we brought them some winter squash in trade for.  We used the eggs in baking and for egg and cheese breakfast bagel sandwiches.

What about you?  What did you do last week to meet your goals?  I'd love to hear from you!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Minimizing stuff to maximize family time

We've really been working over the past year to minimize the amount of stuff (junk, nicknacks, etc.) in our house to be able to ultimately maximize our family time.  Doing this has definitely simplified our lives in so many ways, sometimes more than we imagined.

Finishing out our basement has forced us to go through a lot of stuff.  We even found boxes we'd moved in several years ago and had never unpacked!  Needless to say, most of that stuff went to Goodwill for a nice tax deduction.  And it's so freeing to not have all that stuff hanging around in the basement.  I also unearthed several picture frames that I've repurposed around the house for cork boards (using recycled wine corks), hanging pictures in little man's room, and I'm thinking of using one or two more for homemade chalk boards since he's in a chalk loving stage right now.

The craft room downstairs is now dedicated to all things crafty, with lots of shelving that will soon be painted and put to use holding craft supplies.  I also plan to mount a decorative shelf to hold some family china, etc. to pretty up the space some.  It will be nice to unpack those boxes of china that were in the basement and really be able to look at all those nice pieces.  There's extra space under the sink down there for many of my canning supplies, which is a nice bonus.  And I'm going to use some old fabric to make some curtains for some of the shelving to be able to hide pantry staples, painting supplies, and sewing projects.  (That old fabric was in another basement box.)

Cleaning out has also allowed us to make a bundle selling stuff on eBay.  We've sold some handmade items I had stashed away, electronics, gaming stuff, Mary Kay supplies, some collectible items, and a bunch of other random things.  Whatever we weren't successful at selling after a few auction postings went to Goodwill for another tax deduction.  We did find that selling things in lots helped with the smaller stuff, if you're thinking you might try your hand at it.

We've worked on cleaning out our closets too, both little man's and our own.  This has freed up space, which is a huge blessing in our house where closet space is at a premium.  (How did we build a house with no linen closet?!)  Since we anticipate Wubby sharing a closet with a one-day sibling, we want to get that closet as functional as possible for two kiddos now.  We're hoping next summer to tackle building some open shelving in one end of that closet, and adding another hanging bar on one side to double the hanging space.  Cleaning out ours has been a slow process, at least for me.  I have to look long and hard at some things and be realistic with myself about how often I wear something and if I'll really miss it.  It would be great to sell some of my clothes at the next consignment sale, especially the nicer ones.

The ultimate goal with all of this cleaning out has been to make it easier to find what we need when we need it.  This has definitely been true with the tools dept. in our basement.  It's also make it easier to find our holiday decorations, clothing items for little man as we rotate into new sizes, etc.  By finding things sooner and knowing exactly where stuff is, we end up saving time and having more time as a family.  Renting out the basement means that we'll also be able to free up more time to spend together as a family, rather than committing to working more than we'd like.

We know we're frugal beyond many of our peers (paying extra on our mortgage, keeping to $100ish for groceries a month, making our own cleaners, bread, etc., not eating out, eating little meat), but it allows us to worry less about our debts.  We know that by doing this, we're giving a huge gift to our child by modeling good financial (and environmental) stewardship for him, and it ultimately will probably allow us to retire earlier than some peers, meaning more family time overall.

How are your decluttering efforts helping your family?  I'd love to hear from you!

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

October Menu Plan and a No-Spend Grocery Month

I'm finally getting back to posting here!  I kind of got off track with being home for the summer, taking on more professional responsibilities, and learning to navigate life with a toddler who's into everything.  I've missed this blog!

For our October menu, we'll be basing it around the last of our CSA subscription (I think we have three more weeks left) and our pantry, fridge, and freezer stash.  Since it's the fall, we know we can count on potatoes, winter squash, winter greens, and root veggies like beets and carrots in our CSA. (If you're local, we love Creeksong Farms!  Jeff has been awesome!)  We're trying to spend as little of our grocery budget as possible this month so we can stock up on holiday sales for things like baking items, cranberries, and meat.

So, here's the plan for the month, making the best use of what we have.

Breakfasts:  baked oatmeal using homemade applesauce and dried fruit, lemon poppyseed muffins, whole wheat banana muffins (using bananas we got for free over the summer that are now in the freezer from a food pantry surplus), egg and cheese sandwiches (yay for free eggs from friends!), grits with cheese and roasted tomatoes (using the last of the CSA tomatoes), and toast and jam using this French bread

Dinners:  swiss chard soup with grilled cheese or garlic toast, winter squash and chick pea salad, veggie stir fry, black bean tacos or quesadillas, vegetable soup with garlic or cheese toast, pasta with pesto and salad, fried rice with egg and sesame seeds, chili and cheesy corn bread, loaded baked potatoes, rice pilaf with herb butter and roasted veggies and applesauce, potato soup with cheese and bacon, winter squash chili with black beans, breakfast for dinner (eggs, bacon, grits, applesauce), pumpkin pancakes and fruit from the freezer and applesauce, corn chowder and corn bread

Lunches will of course be leftovers, though sometimes on the weekend we do have breakfast for lunch.  Sometimes we add in yogurt or cottage cheese and fruit as fillers.  Since we won't be purchasing these this month, we'll fill in with applesauce that we've put up in the freezer.

Snacks will be roasted squash seeds (like pumpkin seeds), homemade cookies, toast and jam, and applesauce.

The only thing we'll need to purchase at the grocery store will be milk, some fruit for little man, and any freebies we find with coupons.  We're pretty well stocked on cheese, flour (yay, Costco), oil, rice and beans.  We try to buy all of these at their rock bottom prices.  The lowest price I've seen for an 8 oz block of cheese locally has been about $1.80.  We may buy some Halloween candy on sale at the end of the month to fill out stockings for Christmas.

I'm looking forward to the challenge of a no-spend month again, and it'll help free up a few hours over the month to finish up some house and yard projects before winter sets in (and it's looking like it'll be a big one around here).

What about you?  Are you spending less this month in preparation for holiday sales?  Are you trying to reign in your grocery spending by buying in bulk?  I'd love to hear from you!

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

When to DIY and when not to

Cooking has become a passion for me.  Art and crafting always have been one.  Now that we're homeowners, it's so much fun to DIY something, especially when we know it will save us some cash.

But where do you draw the line?  When does DIY go from passion and fun to not-worth-it drudgery?

For everyone, that answer is a little different.  For us, it generally boils down to time and money constraints.

Here's an example:  I love homemade flour tortillas.  They're warm, and yummy and fresh.  But for weeknight cooking with a little one, they're not very practical right now, even though I know it's far cheaper to make them from scratch than to pick up a pack of 8 or 10 for a buck at the store.  The homemade ones don't keep very well, I've found, and don't work as well for things like enchiladas because they're not quite as flexible.  So, I'm willing to give up my love of the homemade ones for the convenience and time on a weeknight.  (But I love going to a friend's for taco night and whipping some homemade ones up when there are extra hands to help with the little Wubba.)

I love reinventing furniture, which often entails painting it.  But I've learned that it's not Benny's favorite thing to do, especially when there are lots of spindles involved.  So, I'll save up some cash and save Benny's sanity by not bringing home one more project for him, and we'll pay a painter friend to use his sprayer to spray the furniture.  I still get a deal by getting the chairs I want (most recently we found $7 all wood chairs, so we snagged six for the basement craft room), and it still costs less than buying new.

When something veers out of our expertise, we hire it out.  Plumbing and electric work fall into this category, though we've rewired table lamps ourselves no problem.  Our dishwasher seal needs replacing?  We find the seal online for $30 and do it ourselves and save the repair guy fee of $75 or more.

When I find a recipe that looks intriguing and like something we'll love (hello these soft pretzels and rolls), then we find time to make them.  It might mean a little time in the kitchen, but it's fun for us, and it means we might have a new favorite snack that costs a fraction of the grocery store variety without all the preservatives.

What about you?  Where do you draw the line with DIY?  Are you an expert plumber or do you love sewing (that's my summer project)?  I'd love to hear from you!

Monday, May 26, 2014

The perks of rental property and cohousing

For many people, the idea of owning rental property is overwhelming or scary... or both.  We certainly didn't go into home ownership thinking that it would become the primary income for one of us.  But over the years of hosting interns and having paying tenants, we've been able to build some amazing friendships and get ahead on our savings.

Renting our our upstairs guest room and bath, the larger of the two bedrooms upstairs, just seemed to make good financial sense when we really thought about it.  What good was it doing us to be paying $250 a month (the approximate cost of that space by the time we factored in its portion of mortgage, utilities, etc.) for it to only be used a few weekends out of the year?  After we got comfortable with the idea of co-housing, we realized this was really the only way to go for us.  By renting that space out for somewhere between $350-$400 a month, we're able to cover those expenses, plus put some extra into retirement savings and Wubba's savings account.

When we built our home, we always knew we'd finish out the basement into an apartment to use as rental space.  The one bedroom apartment is scheduled to be finished at the end of June, along with a great outdoor space, and we can't wait!  Because this space is totally separate from our home, with a separate entrance and dedicated parking, we know we'll be able to make about $550-$600 a month by renting it out (we could make more if it had shared laundry).

When we're consistently renting out both spaces, it will almost cover our entire mortgage payment, which means that we can contribute more toward that payment of our own money.  Thus, we'll be able to pay off our mortgage earlier than planned (we're already working toward an early payoff by contributing an extra $100/month), which will save us a huge amount over the long haul.  (If you haven't looked into it, do yourself a favor and do so!  It's amazing what a little extra payment will do over the long term, probably saving you over $100,000.)  Of course, this is key to our plan of having a stay at home parent for the next several years.  But it also means that if we continue to do it, then early retirement could be a possibility for both of us, which would be amazing.  And the rental income would be a great supplement to our retirement income, and might even mean that we'd need to save less overall, if we were to redo our projections with this income in mind.

So, what does all this have to do with green living?  Well, we know that by co-housing, we're collectively using fewer resources.  With the upstairs tenant, we share kitchen space, which means that person isn't purchasing kitchen tools, pots and pans, plates, glassware, etc.  It also means that when you consider all that goes into a building, we're using fewer resources in terms of building supplies, etc. rather than having the tenants living in their own single family homes.  We could go on and on about how this facilitates resource sharing and using less resources, but you get the idea.

There are also some wonderful side benefits for us; things we didn't initially anticipate, but have been wonderful for our quality of life.  1)  We're not having to do as much maintenance with the upstairs space, as long as we're choosy about our tenants.  They are required to clean and maintain their space, so it makes our regular cleaning load lighter.  (Of course, there's the cleaning after they move out if they don't do a sufficient job, but we hold their security deposit for just that reason.)  2)  We've made some wonderful friends this way, and it's been fun to learn from other people.  We often share recipes, pick up book recommendations, etc. from our tenants.  It also means that we've got a built in network of people to stay with when we travel.  (Seattle or NYC anyone?  We've got couches or floors to crash on in both locales.)  3)  For our kid(s) (we plan to have at least one more sometime in the future), it means they will share a bedroom.  While this may be tight and lead to a few arguments, we know from lots of anecdotal evidence and scientific research that young children especially tend to sleep better and have a stronger relationship with siblings if they share sleeping space.  4)  It's forced us to declutter and get rid of junk.  We just don't have the storage space anymore.  And it's been a total blessing.  We've been able to sell some of our junk on eBay, and donate most of the rest, which comes back as a tax deduction.  And it's meant less stuff we have to maintain, store, or generally trip over.

It's certainly not for everyone, but we know it's made a huge difference in our quality of life and our financial picture.  Have you ever considered owning rental property?  Co-housing?  Or maybe your college dorm experience was enough for you to write off living with a stranger forever... I'd love to hear from you!

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Gardening: A Frugal and Green Hobby

This spring and summer we've been working on refining our gardens a bit.  Over the years, I've planted lots of "pass alongs" from friends and coworkers, some of whom have moved on to other parts of life or the world, who've brought me starts and splits from their perennial gardens.  After several years of doing this, we finally have some flower and herb beds that are starting to look lush and established.

Of course, as with anything around the house, there's room for improvement and we're always wanting to tweak something.  I have a few plants that I want to move, namely some forsythia that's gotten too big for it's spot and splitting some herbs.  We were gifted two hydrangea plants from a family funeral that I'll plant in the shaded garden behind the house.  I seem to need to split the hostas about every two years, so it's time to do that again.  And we need to add some more mulch to the beds along the edge of the driveway.

We're almost there with our hardscaping, which is so nice.  Those "bones" help a lot and it's something we wish we'd paid to have someone do up front, rather than doing it piecemeal as we have.  Oh well, hindsight... We've got a few more stepping stones to add out back and we need to get a new load of gravel for the driveway.  We're hoping to save some cash on that by having it done by the same guy who will bring it in for our gravel road and combining the jobs.  The patio under the front deck will be finished after we finally finish the basement apartment, starting with gravel and then we'll add the stepping stones.

We've saved some cash already this season by hiring a friend to bring in a load of leaf mulch from the landfill.  It's been a great way to revive our flower garden and was so much cheaper than buying the mulch and paying someone to spread it.  (Now that we have a little one, we're finding that it's more of a time vs. money issue than it used to be for us.)  We might get another load spread in the fall for the other beds, maybe of hardwood mulch that will compost over the winter.  Many local areas do municipal composting like this, and it's a great free gardening resource.

Continuing to compost has really helped us out too.  Not only does it cut down on stinky trash, but we estimate that it saves us about $75 a year because we're not having to purchase bagged compost for veggie beds or container plantings.

Once we get the gutters cleaned out, we'll compost that leaf litter and install our rain barrel.  This will help us water the flower beds with captured rain water, rather than using precious ground water from our well.  We may need to wait until after the patio and driveway have their gravel in to do this, but it will be nice to finally use this.  And it was gifted to us by a gardening friend, so it was free!

We're really enjoying using our fresh herbs this year.  We made an herb butter for the turkey we roasted last week and regularly use the lemon balm and mint in tea and baking.  The sage and oregano are wonderful additions to rice, and along with a handful of green peas and chopped pecans make a fabulous pilaf from plain jane white rice.

How are you using your garden lately?  Has it become a frugal hobby for you, saving you cash on your herbs and veggies?  Do you love your fresh cut flowers or watching those gifted plants from friends bloom each year?  I'd love to hear from you!

Friday, May 2, 2014

May Menu Plan

Can you believe it's May already?!  Wow, April flew least for us, especially with spring break and Easter in there.  And now we're in the midst of planning for graduations, Mother's Day, and rapidly approaching the end of school.  So, to the May menu plan...

First, we need to inventory the fridge, freezer, and pantry.  I know we already bulked up on rice, beans, and pasta last month, so those will be some staples around which the meals will be planned.  We also still have a turkey in the freezer that we bought on sale at Thanksgiving that we'll cook this month.  That will provide much more than a week's worth of meals by the time we make soup, enchiladas, quesadillas, turkey tetrazinni, etc.  We're also now getting our free, free-range eggs from friends who have chickens (we often trade baked goods for eggs), so we can plan lots of egg based meals like quiche or breakfast for dinner.

We'll plan produce around what's available on sale at the local grocery store, but the farmer's market also opens this weekend (yay!), so we'll see what we can snag there too.  Our CSA begins in June, so it will be really nice once we've got that rolling in, but until then, we'll rely on our local sources.  Little man loves his fruit, so we have to have at least bananas or dried fruit around for him (and we enjoy it too).

Breakfasts:  sticky buns (these are the. best. ever.), lemon poppy seed muffins (love these because I can make them w/ pantry staples), cappuccino chip muffins (from a library cookbook--uses leftover coffee), egg and cheese sandwiches, toast and jam, whole wheat banana nut muffins (from Joy of Cooking--they are Wubba's favorite), oatmeal with dried fruit and nuts

Lunches:  leftovers, fillers: pasta salad, yogurt, muffins

Dinners:  turkey enchiladas (I riff on this recipe a bit--obviously since turkey is in no way vegan-- but the avocado cream sauce is to die for), turkey soup with rice or barley, turkey and rice casserole with broccoli, turkey quesadillas, turkey sloppy joes, beans and rice with cheese, dinner salad with salmon and hard boiled eggs, loaded baked potatoes, whole wheat pancakes with fruit, pesto lasagna, veggie stir-fry over noodles or rice

Snacks:  oatmeal chocolate chip cookies (we like this recipe but often substitute chopped nuts for the craisins or other chocolate for the white chocolate), popcorn, homemade popsicles (they're great made with overripe fruit and yogurt or leftover coffee and evaporated milk), cheese and crackers

We've got a few special things to make this month for graduation parties, which I'll post about later (don't want to ruin any surprises).  We'll also probably end up with a few free meals or potlucks with friends and family, which help to stretch the budget too.  We should be able to do all our regular meals plus the special things without going over our $100 grocery budget.

So, what's your spring menu plan like?  I'd love to hear any frugal recipes you'd like to share!  Here's to living green and saving green in the kitchen, even for special days!

Friday, April 11, 2014

(Re)use it or lose it

By now you know that we are all about repurposing items around our home.  Not only is this green because it keeps it out of the waste stream, but it often keeps us from having to purchase something new.  This means that there's more money in our savings account.  Here are a few things that we've repurposed recently.

Spray bottle:  Rather than purchasing one for our homemade shower cleaner, we repurposed one from some laundry stain remover we had used up.  This has been great!  We use it daily, and it's held up well.  When you repurpose bottles like this, it's important to relabel them clearly so that everyone in the house knows what they're now used for.

Mason jars:  We use mason jars (or large spaghetti sauce jars) for storing all kinds of items.  They're great for storing grains in the fridge that we don't use as often, and we use them for storing brown sugar, dried beans, and other pantry staples.  I'm really digging the old vintage blue glass ones right now, so I'd love to find a few of those at garage sales or thrift stores.  They make pretty casual summer time flower vases too.

Plastic food containers:  We often repurpose plastic sour cream containers and the like for lots of things.  They are great containers for holding water for painting projects.  The larger ones also make good containers for holding paint if you're painting trim in your house.  We also use them to start seeds for the garden, by poking holes in the bottom for drainage.  Lately, though, we've found that our little one loves the small ones.  He's got a drawer in the kitchen dedicated to his kitchen things, and these are perfect for him to throw around and play with, and it saves our regular ones from getting as beat up.

Paper bags:  We rarely use paper towels, but when we finally ran out of a roll this week, I used a piece of a brown paper bag to drain bacon on.  It worked great, and it saved a trip to the store for a roll of paper towels.  The larger ones also make fun gift wrap if you cut them apart, and of course you can use smaller ones for lunch sacks.

Rubber bands:  We save our rubber bands from produce.  These get used to seal all sorts of things, but they also make a good makeshift child lock if you have a kid who doesn't yank too hard on the cabinet doors.

Produce bags:  The plastic bags from produce purchases get reused in our home for storing our homemade bread.  We used to purchase bread bags, but we've started using these instead because they're free and generally pretty clean.  Usually we can reuse them a few times before they get a hole in them and have to be tossed.

What about you?  Anything you reuse that others might toss?  I'd love to hear from you!

Friday, March 14, 2014

Frugal Accomplishments this week, and a recipe

This week, I feel like we've done really well with living frugally.  Here's how it's played out:

Grocery shopping on Sunday was only sale, coupon, and need items.  (Well, ok, I did splurge on a $1.99 box of clearance junk cereal for me.  I'd been craving some for about two months.)  We stocked up on cabbage, which is on sale around St. Paddy's Day, and keeps in the fridge for several weeks.  I also found some bell peppers on the discount produce rack at 3/$2.50, which is really good for grocery store prices around here.  It's hard to find them for less than $1.00/pepper.

We were also given some eggs and cheese by my mom, which was a nice treat.  Now I probably won't have to buy either until the end of the month.  When I got to school on Monday, I found the conference table covered with leftover concessions items, including a whole box of bananas.  The items were available to anyone for a donation of their choice, so I took a whole bag of bananas and a few other snack/breakfast items for the week for a small donation that fit our budget.  The bananas were mostly frozen for later use in bread and muffins.  Of course we used our reusable shopping bags, which we got a five cent credit for at one store.

Made a crockpot of cabbage, tomato, and ground beef soup.  I usually make this with ground sausage, but all we had was the beef.  It was a great way to stretch a half pound of meat, and we love cabbage in soup.  We supplement the protein by adding beans, this time pintos.  But usually, I prefer red kidney beans.  (I'm listing the "recipe" below.)  This lasted us for lunches all week, and dinner on Tuesday night.  By cooking it in the crockpot, it means we used a fraction of the energy of the stove top.

Made enchiladas with more pintos, turkey from the freezer, half of a sale pepper, onion, and cheese and flour tortillas.  (Most of these were bought on sale or with a coupon.)  I used store bought enchilada sauce.  This made enough for dinners and lunches to fill out the week.

Benny made a loaf of whole wheat bread in the bread machine.  This was great with soup and for toast for breakfasts.  We also made muffins early in the week using raspberries we had in the freezer from the summer, which we picked for free from a friend.

We were a one car family this week, since the Jetta was in the shop again, and found it really worked for us, especially since I carpool to work  We're slowly thinking that perhaps we could do this full time.  We'll continue to evaluate and see.

We didn't eat out, buy anything extra, or splurge (aside from my cereal) this week.  We went ahead and scheduled all our bills for the rest of the month, so they're all set to be paid.

Made a birthday card instead of buying one.  Made a loaf of banana bread as a gift for a friend.  Found a coupon code for a photo book for a birthday gift, so it's much less expensive than we originally thought, but still a very thoughtful gift.

Found the code for our tablet and realized that we still have a week before the warranty runs out.  This is great since the touch screen junked out earlier this week.  Benny's taking care of the details; we're hoping to get a replacement.

We sold about $70 worth of stuff on eBay, so we're that much closer to cleaning out and having our CSA money. Yay!

What about you?  What were your frugal accomplishments this week?  How are you living and saving green?

Cabbage, Sausage, and Tomato Soup:

1/2 head cabbage, chopped into about 1 inch pieces
1/2 lb ground sausage or beef, browned
1 small onion, chopped
1 24 oz can diced tomatoes
1 15 oz can kidney beans or 2 c homemade
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp garlic salt or minced garlic
generous tsp of ground pepper
fennel seeds if not using sausage

Combine all ingredients except beans in crockpot.  Cook on low for 8 hours.  Add beans about 4 hours into cooking time.  Serve with homemade bread or saltine crackers.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

$100 a month grocery budget update

When we transitioned to basically a one income household, we tightened our belts a bit and committed to a $100 a month grocery budget.  We knew this would be tight, but we were committed to it in order to make our other savings goals a reality.

So, now that we're about eight months in, we can definitely say that it's tight, but do-able for us.  We've been diligent about keeping grocery receipts and entering them into our budgeting spreadsheet, so we know where we stand.  There have been a few months that we went over budget, like around the holidays, but there are also months where we were significantly under budget.  January was one of those where we tried to eat from the pantry, freezer, and use gift cards to purchase food (such as Panera cards for a dozen bagels for breakfast for a week instead of one lunch out).  We came in under budget for January by $40, which was awesome considering it was really six weeks since the December paycheck that came in before the holiday break.  But on average, we're sticking to our budget, and it's allowing us to continue saving for retirement and for emergencies.

How are making it work?  We've decreased our "extra" spending, so there are no more chips, crackers, store-bought cookies, or convenience items like frozen pizzas, in our pantry or fridge.  Our snack food of choice is now popcorn popped in our air popper.  Any beverage other than milk or water is not something we purchase.  We have been given some juice by friends and some beer and wine around the holidays, which have been nice treats for family pizza nights and dates.  Pricey dairy products like cheese, sour cream, and yogurt are carefully portioned out to last.  So, when I purchase a bulk package of mozzarella cheese for pizzas, I know that it needs to make eight pizzas, and we make it stretch for that.  Yogurt is only something I purchase for 15 cents a carton or less, so by carefully matching coupons and sales, I can get a few cartons a month.  I'm also contemplating making our own yogurt in the crock pot, which will make organic yogurt a lot more accessible to us and not as cost prohibitive.

Keeping pantry staples on hand is important too.  By having powdered milk, flour, sugar, flax seed meal, yeast, and corn meal, I can always whip up bread or corn bread, even if I don't have the eggs.  (You can substitute one tablespoon of flax seed meal and three tablespoons of water for one egg and get most recipes to come out just fine, and they even have more omegas than some eggs do.)  We always have canned tomato sauce, canned diced tomatoes, and lots of dried beans of various types.  This way, we can always come up with a soup, chili, or sloppy joe recipe from the pantry.

We also try to be very intentional about meal planning, and because of that, grocery list planning.  Going to the grocery store once a week, if that, cuts down on the opportunity for impulse spending.  If we can go two weeks, so much the better.

We've found that eating this way can be a challenge, but it's also forced us to be more creative.  We've found a fabulous lentil sloppy joe recipe that we might not have otherwise found.  We love our new recipe for lemon poppy seed muffins and recently found one for coffee chocolate chip muffins that both make great week day breakfasts.  We've had some great pizzas and stir fries with whatever we have on hand in the freezer.  By adding barley, rice, or pasta to soups, we get more nutritional content and can stretch the stock and veggies a bit further.

How are your budget challenges going?  Do they force you to be more creative?  Any creative meals you've come up with just cooking from the pantry and freezer?  I'd love to hear from you!

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Cleaning Green

Since having our little one, we've definitely streamlined our cleaning (not the we loved doing it so much that we spent hours on it before!).  We're in the process of implementing a cleaning schedule, including the diaper washing rotation, and have found that incredibly helpful.  It is super nice that Benny's home and can do some of the cleaning during the day, so that we aren't doing it all in the evenings or on the weekends.

Perhaps the most pivotal thing we've done is to really streamline cleaning the bathrooms.  I've never minded cleaning the counters or toilets, but I LOATHE cleaning the shower.  I always liked the idea of the shower sprays that keep a clean shower clean, but I hated the chemicals in them and knowing that they were going into the air and water each time they got sprayed.  And I know it'd stay cleaner if I dried it after each use, but I had trouble remembering to do that in the morning rush.

But now, I have a solution, literally.  And it is so. simple.  One repurposed spray bottle.  One cup of white vinegar.  One cup of dish washing soap (I used Seventh Generation Lemongrass and Clementine).  That's it!  I heated the dish soap in the microwave a little to have it mix better with the vinegar, and you shake the bottle prior to each use.  Using this has majorly cut down on our time cleaning; no more scrubbing on hands and knees with homemade cleaner or Borax.  Now, you have to start with a clean shower, so that might be the challenge, but man is it worth it!

So, now we can literally clean the bathroom in 10 minutes on a weekend morning while the muffins bake for breakfast.  (Of course that doesn't include the deep cleaning of blinds, windows, etc., but a quick once over sure does help!)  And I love that it's totally green and low cost.

What about you?  Have you done anything to streamline your cleaning routine?  I'm on the hunt for a homemade stain remover to get tomato stains out of a little one's favorite shirt... any ideas?  Here's to living and saving green!

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Cash from Junk: Paying for our CSA share

It's no secret that we love our CSA share.  The farm we work with, Creek Song, is fabulous and always provides great produce.  It's wonderful that it's all organic and it is always super fresh and great for our family.  This year, we decided that we wanted to purchase a full share so that we could can and freeze some of the extra produce to use in soups, stews, and stir fries throughout the winter.

However, the $500 share fee wasn't in our $100/month grocery budget and we didn't want to use our savings to pay for the CSA.  So, we had to come up with a way to pay for the share that wouldn't dip into our savings.  Enter:  Raygan's closet, or more accurately, the junk we've stored in his closet.  It has become abundantly clear over the past few months that our little guy is growing and will need the closet space sooner than later, which meant our junk had to go.  Since we're giving up about 800+ square feet of our basement and upstairs for rental income, this space is now out for storage.  So, we evaluated... did we really need the junk?  How much of it had we actually used in the past year or so?  If we hadn't, we sorted it... keep (mostly if we saw that it had reasonable future use), donate (if we saw that it didn't have substantial cash value), or Ebay (if we thought we could sell it for $20 or more online).

Slowly, we've weeded through a box at a time, mostly in evenings after dinner and on snow days.  We found more than we thought that we could sell, including old phones, crocheted items, maternity and baby items, gifts from students, and some old Mary Kay inventory.  We tried to set a goal of posting 3-5 items a week.  This meant that we weren't overwhelmed with trips to the PO and that it was easy to post items during Raygan's naptime.  It's worked out that we've been able to make our regular weekly trip to the PO and take items to mail then, so it hasn't been any extra fuel cost added to the budget.  We're still fine tuning the shipping costs, but all told, by the end of this month, we're sure we'll have our $500 CSA fee, if not a little more to put into our savings.

It's so nice to know that we've turned our junk into some cash for our food for the summer.  And we love the bonus of having the extra space in Raygan's closet.  (Built in shelving there soon, anyone?!)  Plus, it's great knowing that none of our junk went to the landfill, but it's either getting repurposed in our home or finding a new life in someone else's home.  

Have you had success selling on Ebay or some other site?  What closets have you been cleaning out?  I'd love to hear how you're living and saving green!

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Five Frugal Habits for Today

As I reflect on today, I realize that there are tons of things that I incorporate into my day that are frugal that are completely second nature to me now. I don't even think about them, and they've become such a habit that they're an automatic part of our budgeting process now. Perhaps one or two will be something you can incorporate into your routine to save a buck, some of our planet, or both.

1. Homemade breakfast (and all meals). Today we had toast from homemade bread and grapefruit that we purchased in a bulk case from our local Rotary club. The bread is from the french bread recipe from The Prudent Homemaker. (Her site is one of my new favs, btw.) We both had hot tea with breakfast, which we purchased with coupons during Harris Teeter's Super Doubles (good through tomorrow). All told, I think we probably spent fifty cents total on the meal for the three of us. Later in the day, we both had other meetings after church, so we took our lunch instead of going out to eat. This was made easier since I had pre-packaged our soup for the meal into portable soup mugs, and we took some bread to go along with the soup. (The soup was turkey soup, which I'll share the "recipe" for later in the week.)

2. Take advantage of potlucks and free food when possible. Our church always offers a great little breakfast and coffee bar on Sunday mornings. So, generally, we eat a light early breakfast on Sundays and then take advantage of this offering to fill the gap. Since I'm still nursing, I'm always hungry, and there's usually a good selection of healthy fruit and breads available, as well as coffee and cocoa. We take our own travel mugs so we have some after the service too, although our church does use reusable coffee mugs instead of disposable (thankfully, though I'm still pushing for a composting bin on site!). The coffee bar volunteers also know that we're always open to leftovers, so the past few weeks we've gone home with some leftover fruit, which has been a wonderful and welcome addition to our weekly breakfasts (and often includes fruit I wouldn't ordinarily purchase, such as more expensive grapes or strawberries). We also applied this principle to our church's Thanksgiving potluck, where the church provides the turkey. The cooks knew we did a lot of from scratch cooking, so they offered to send us home with four turkey carcasses. Unfortunately, I only had freezer space for two, but we brought home two and have been using them for turkey stock, soup, and casseroles since.

3. Carpool and combine errands whenever possible. Yesterday, this wasn't quite possible for us, since we both had meetings in different areas of town at the same time, but almost always we ride as a family to church and combine that trip with some errands (grocery store, etc.). Since we've been having to do a little more work to the Jetta as it ages, we're doing all we can to get in the habit of being a one car family. It helps that I carpool to work, and now that Benny's home with our little one, the idea of being a single car family is a little more realistic. If we did make the switch, it would save us on car insurance. We continue to weigh the options here and try to decide what's right for our family, our planet, and our budget.

4. Compost your organic waste. This has become such a habit for us, and it truly saves tons of stuff going into the landfill each year. It also saves us some cash by creating nice fertilizer and potting soil for our gardening needs. I'd estimate that it probably saves us $40 each year on supplies, and would save more if we had to pay for garbage pick up (we take our own to the dumpster, recycling center, or landfill).

5. Hang clothes to dry. We use cloth diapers, which means we do a good bit of laundry (at least one load a day). Despite the volume of laundry, we still always manage to hang our clothes to dry, except the occasional load of sheets or towels in the winter months. We make good use of our drying racks, the clothes line in warmer weather, and rod/trim above the laundry closet. We have gotten into the habit of doing the diapers at night so that they can dry under the ceiling fan in the living room while we sleep. This way, we can stuff/fold them first thing in the morning so they're ready to go. The same strategy would work for other clothing items hung on a drying rack.

There are tons of other things we do throughout the day that are frugal, but this is just a sampling. I hope it inspires you to take a look at something you already do in a new way. I'd love to hear from you! Here's to living green and saving green at home!