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!