Monday, October 31, 2011

October Summary Advice

. . . and here's the October summary.

October 1 Make connections with friends and neighbors
October 3 Let your kids make their own mistakes.
October 4 Cook Zambian Squash for dinner.
October 5 Don't let stockpiling morph into clutter.
October 6 Try to give away 100 things (1 and 2).
October 7 Play the "left-over" lottery.
October 8 Waste money by feeding more kids.
October 10 Spend less on soap.
October 11 Wash your hands.
October 12 Use a plunger to unclog drains.
October 13 100 thing update (3 and 4).
October 14 Decorate kids' bedrooms with your own art.
October 15 Wait until next time, instead of impulse buying now.
October 17 Bring fruits and vegetables to fast-food restaurants.
October 18 A temporary appliance fix can buy time for a more permanent fix.
October 19 Reuse food in quiche or soup.
October 20 Donate blood.
October 21 Kids' actvities can be family unfriendly.
October 22 Make an earring holder.
October 24 Make a list of reasons to be disorganized.
October 25 Nip and tuck big pants.
October 26 Do preventative shopping to avoid expensive purchases.
October 27 People are more important than things.
October 28 Eat your food.
October 29
October 31
Pajamas and coats make great halloween costumes.
Buy used shoes, if you dare.

More Used Shoes

A post I wrote back in August on "used shoes" got a lot of attention recently when a Montreal-based Craig's List linked to it.  One person (Frédéric Deslauriers) posted a lengthy and well-considered comment, and he asked if I could respond to several questions.  So here are his four questions (at least, as I distill them), and my answers.
  1. Does history matter? (He writes, "It appears to me that such an issue as the use of hand-me-down shoes might have been around for so long that we forgot why it is we do things that way.")
  2. Since absence of evidence (that used shoes cause damage) is not the same as evidence of absence, is there any existing research showing that used shoes do not endanger their wearers?
  3. How do I respond to the risk of fungus?
  4. How do I respond to the risk of structural problems?
Phew!  Here are my answers, imperfect though they may be, but I'll do my best.

1.  Have we just forgotten the reason we worried about used shoes?
It may well be that long ago, used shoes could cause foot problems.  But even if that were so, things have changed so much in the last century that those conditions no longer hold in the same way.

For one thing, shoes used to be so expensive that most people bought just one pair (or maybe two) and wore those exclusively.  Loretta Lynn famously sings in her "Coal Miner's Daughter",
"In the summer time, we didn't have shoes to wear. But in the wintertime, we'd all get a brand new pair." 
Loretta Lynn and even her wealthier contemporaries didn't need shoe organizers to help keep the floors of their closets neat:  they wore the same shoe over and over and over again.  But now when I go to yard sales, I see shoes that clearly get occasional use at best.  Some shoes (especially women's shoes) are still in their original box, never yet worn.  Even kids' shoes appear in such multitudes that you can tell some shoes hardly ever got to go outside and play.  An occasionally-worn shoe is different from an always-worn shoe.  When I buy used shoes, I go for the "gently worn" ones.

Similarly, my kids and I don't wear the same pair of shoes every day.  For what it's worth, none of us are in the situation of forcing our feet to conform to one pair of shoes day in and day out.  Even men who wear the same pair of leather shoes to work each day will often switch into a completely different kind of shoe for exercise, gardening, or other kind of intense foot activity.  That is another important difference compared to the past.

But another, huge factor is that shoe construction has changed dramatically.  Matthew Werd's "Athletic Footwear and Orthotics in Sports Medicine" notes that
Initially, marathon runners of the early Modern Olympic Games competed in heavy boots or shoes with leather uppers and soles, allowing for little plasticity.  With the increasing popularity of the running events, the Spalding Company addressed the need for running shoes among the public and advertised a high-cut, black leather shoe with a reinforced heel and a sole of gum rubber, but the outsole did not last long and further improvements needed to be made.
Can you imagine running a marathon in leather boots?  The lack of synthetic materials made shoes much less resilient, much less likely to adapt to a human foot.  Comparing modern used shoes to historical used shoes is like comparing apples and pine cones.  History has little to say about the kinds of shoes I see at a yard sale today.

2.  Is there any positive evidence (as opposed to absence of negative evidence) that used shoes are okay?
In recent years, there have been a few stories/studies coming out that cast doubt on the "need" for new, expensive shoes.  I'd love to be the cheerleader, but I don't know that this evidence is overwhelmingly convincing, at least not yet.  Just google "barefoot running" to learn more than you want to about why some people believe that any shoes are bad.  The barefoot running movement is controversial and I don't know enough to say whether it's on the right track or not.

Recently, a British study involving 43 volunteers found that inexpensive running shoes were actually better (in the sense of minmizing plantar pressure) than expensive shoes.   The researchers did not test used shoes, however.

3.  What about fungus?
Fungus is a problem caused by wet shoes (new or used).  Dry the shoes out, and you'll be fine.

I think "fungus" is one of those issues people bring up to give thrift a bad name.  Many, many people rent shoes at bowling alleys, ice-skating rinks, and roller-skating rinks.  When people PAY to wear shoes that many other people have worn recently, they don't worry about foot fungus.  When people SAVE MONEY by buying used shoes that one other person wore a while ago, all of a sudden there are health concerns.  Faugh.

4.  What about structural issues?
Quick:  Which shoe is more dangerous for me to wear?  A $2000 pair of Gucci boots, or a $1 pair of yard-sale boots?  A few years ago, I actually got to test this out myself.  I was featured in a New York Times Magazine fashion spread.  A team came down from New York City; it took about 8 people almost three hours to get me presentable and dolled up in a fashionable outfit, which included those  I-kid-you-not Gucci boots.

My make-up and hair people asked me several times if I wanted to take the boots off ("We're not going to shoot for a half-hour, and I know those are uncomfortable!").  Since I was sitting down and not standing, I just left them on.  But if I'd tried to walk around for any length of time, they would have hurt a lot.  Meanwhile, my low-heeled yard-sale boots fit fine and were easy to move around in.

The most important part of shoe wear is that the shoes fit comfortably and support you well.  For kids, make sure that there's at least a half-inch between the kid's toe and the shoe's toe, and toss shoes that have too much wear.  Gently used shoes can fit just as well as new shoes can.  In fact, if buying new shoes is so costly that you only do it once a year, then new shoes could wear so much, or your kids' feet could grow so much, that the new shoes would be worse than buying several cheap pairs of used shoes that fit properly.

Deslauriers notes toward the end of his comment:
Basically, I think we can say that it is definitely possible, with the use of good judgment, to find hand-me-down shoes that will do just fine. That being said, some people would rather not take that chance because the problems that could occur if a mistake is made are severe and could result in long term, irreversible consequences.
Millions of women wear high-heeled shoes, doing well-documented damage to their knees.  (I know it's bad for me, but I wear high-heeled shoes, too).  As before, I think it's worth asking: do you worry about risk when the shoes are cheap and ignore the same risk when the shoes are expensive?  If so, examining THAT attitude might be the best way to save both your money and your health.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Halloween costumes

My favorite halloween costumes for kids are the ones they want to wear, in one form or another, all year long.  When my daughter was young and she wanted to be a Disney Princess ( . . . wait:  she's graduated from college and she STILL wants to be a Disney Princess! . . . ) um, anyway, when she was young I found a sort of frilly yellow nightgown with an image of Belle or Ariel or someone on it.  Y'know, one of those Disney girls.  My daughter loved it and wore it for several years, at all times of day and night.

For several years I made fuzzy coats for my kids:  cat-shaped coats for my pre-school daughter; dinosaur-shaped coats for my toddler son.  Those were essentially free (I made them with scraps left over from other projects) but incredibly time-consuming to make.  But coats have the double advantage: not only can kids wear them all winter long, but on Halloween night, they don't have to cover up the coat with a coat to keep warm.  Princess pajamas suffer when they're topped with a parka.

Last year's ninja outfits for the boys have gotten lots and lots of happy use.  The only disadvantage is that if the boys get too quiet, I have to be careful walking by closets:  I could have ninjas jumping out at me.   This year, my dragon ninja will wear the same costume.  My spider ninja will magically transform into a vampire . . . perhaps his cape will keep him warm.

Friday, October 28, 2011

You don't have to like it . . .

Several years ago, I was in charge of making lunch for a bunch of kids, including the kids of one of my friends.  I began doling out all the food I'd prepared for their enjoyment/consumption, when my friend's daughter told me, "I don't like watermelon".

"That's okay, honey," I reassured her.  "You don't have to like it; you just have to eat it."  She looked at me quizzically for a moment, said "okay," and ate the watermelon.

We all thought that was hilarious (even that guest).  That phrase, "you don't have to like it; you just have to eat it!" has since become a sort of a catch phrase in our family. We've used that phrase with other guests occasionally, but we use it with each other more often.  Most recently, a 7-year-old friend declared he didn't like mushrooms.  I responded with our catch phrase, and he responded by doing a small double-take, deciding to eat the mushrooms, and then declaring that he liked them, after all.

I've heard people talk about throwing up after their parents forced them to eat a particularly detested food.  I'm not talking about that -- I'm not into sadism, I swear.  I also carefully avoid food allergies.  But I do very strongly believe that the food that I serve is good for my kids, and that they should eat this healthy food.  They don't have to like eating healthy food; they just have to eat it.  But the kicker is that, usually, they DO like it.  My sons have grown to be really proud of the fact that they eat a wide variety of foods.  They know it's something that sets them apart.

We're going slow with this mantra as we introduced our third son to our family last weekend.  He ate a lunch-time pizza faster than anyone else at the table.  But at dinner time, he picked and poked at his sweet potatoes -- a foreign food, as far as he was concerned.  He's going to learn to eat everything by the time he moves in, but I know that's hard to do at age 12.

Eating well has both financial and nutritional value.  If I'm really going to be able to feed three active teenage boys (plus our honorary daughter, plus my athletic husband and me) and not go broke on the food budget, I'm going to have to avoid expensive convenience foods.  We're going for lots of beans and potatoes, for in-season vegetables, for home-grown stuff.  And the boys are going to have to eat it, not just move it around the plate and ask for different food an hour later.

Kids might not like homework, but they should do homework.  They might not like getting exercise, but they should keep moving.  They might not like vegetables, but they should eat vegetables.  The difference between these three things is that hardly any kids learn to enjoy homework, but exercise and vegetables are things that all my kids have learned to love.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

When our things own us

  • Earlier this summer, I got to enjoy that all-American past-time: waiting at home for half-a-day for the repair guy to come look at our dishwasher.  
  • I have a friend who just bought a new car.  She used to park her old beater-car on the street in front of her house, but now she's going out of her way to find new places to park the car because she's worried that this new one will be attractive to thieves.
  • I know a guy who used to keep huge piles of newspaper all over his home.  He didn't like how messy the stacks of papers looked, but he couldn't throw them away because he'd paid for them but he hadn't read them yet.
I've become increasingly sensitive over the years to the way it's easy for us to become a slave to our possessions, to realize that our things can own us just as much as we own them.  I've been thinking about the whole possession thing a lot as we transition new highly active boys into our household.

A hole that my very strong
boys made "by accident".
There are so many ways in which I want to live in a home that has a certain "nice" look.  I've found myself aching for a new, not-scratched-up kitchen floor.  Instead, I'm patching holes from where the boys 'accidentally' wrenched something off the wall.

As our plates and forks and knives slowly break or disappear from normal wear and tear, I've fantasized about starting over with a new, matching dining set -- something tasteful, sturdy, yet elegant.  Then my husband and I discovered that the reason we seem to be missing soup spoons is because the boys had been sneaking peanut butter jars into their room at night, eating the whole jar with a spoon, and then tossing the evidence (both jar and spoon) in the trash.  Maybe tasteful and elegant have to wait a few years.

To do item this week:
patch the wall.
The kids aren't being malicious; they just love wrestling and eating.  We're working hard on teaching them to respect property, but we know that this is a learning process, especially for kids who have spent the first decade of their lives in a different home than ours.  Still, as we teach our children to respect property, we have to balance the needs of our children with the needs of the house -- the needs of people with the needs of things.

Someday I'm going to redo the kitchen, and it'll be gorgeous.  I really, really do want to live in a beautiful space.  But I know that if I have a gorgeous kitchen, I'd go ballistic/depressed/resentful if it got messed up or damaged.  So for now, I'll put my energy and love into the creative, energetic, stronger-than-they-realize children around me.  And I'll keep trying to live in a place that I own, a place that doesn't quite yet own me.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Preventative shopping

Given my druthers, I'd never go to a store.  (Gilbert & Sullivan would ask, "What, Never?" "No, never!"  "What, Never?"   "Well,  . . .  hardly ever."  Oh, geez, I love the H.M.S. Pinafore!)

One of the things that pushes me into stores in-spite-of-it-all  is what I'd call "preventative shopping".  When I know my family will be wandering through expensive areas, I try to go to "normal" stores to stave off those high-price purchases.  Here are some examples:
  • I never (well, hardly ever) buy commercial cereals.  But when I'm getting ready to travel long distances with my family, I buy oat-based cereals to make trail mix.  I'm trying to head-off the purchase of as much expensive airport food as I can.
  • Similarly, before long car drives, I'll go buy extra bread, PB & J, and other preservative-laden grocery store foods, so we can minimize the number of road-side restaurants we have to stop at.
  • The boys seem to have a need for a new pair of shoes every month -- this has a little to do with how the shoes wear, and a lot to do with their felt need for variety.  So instead of letting my boys drag me to expensive so-called-thrift-stores in the winter, I stocked up on extra shoes at yard sales this summer.
  • If I had no men around me, I'd be almost exclusively vegetarian.  But my husband and my several sons love meat.  They wax rhapsodic:  Chicken, oh chicken!  Lamb!  Beef!  And my husband buys whatever corporate meat he can find when he feels the need.  So I've started contacting local dairies and turkey farmers, buying sausage and hamburger in bulk, so there's good meat at home in the freezer, ready to cook up into manly meals.
As we get ready to bring E-son into our home, my husband is aching to buy him lots of stuff. Already he's bought the kid an army hat, a bike helmet, and an Under-Armor shirt.  I'll be keeping an eye on the yearnings and yens of these guys, to see if I might be able to stave off some large expensive purchases with strategic preventative shopping of my own.  I'll keep you posted.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Big pants

Here's a quick fix for pants that are a little too large around the waist.  At two or three places around the waistband, pinch the pants in and stitch that pinch together along a line about one inch long.  This fix takes probably 2 minutes of hands-on time.  (Using a belt would work, too, but somehow I don't seem to like wearing those; my son keeps losing his).
Seen from the outside

One pinch

Two pinches

I've used this fix on hand-me-down jeans that I got from friends, as well as on those still-a-bit-too-big school pants for my son.  When my son grows bigger, I can use a seam ripper and remove the stitches, allowing the pants to grow along with him.  (With my son's pants, I might also hem up the bottom of the pants, and then let out that hem as he gets taller; that takes a little longer).

Still no clever ways to fix those pants that are a little too small around the waist!  Sigh!

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Secret to being Organized

The secret to being organized is that there is no one secret.  I help a bunch of my friends organize their spaces or their finances; I just get a kick out of making sense of a jumble of things.  I inherited my love of organizing from a mom who was hyper-organized and frequently tyrannical about it.  (That kind of up-bringing had its benefits, but I wouldn't recommend it to everyone, for sure.)

But for my friends, I've noticed that the hardest part of organizing is overcoming a feeling of shame that they aren't organized in the first place.  And that sense of shame really surprises me.  My friends are totally cool people, and I've just been thrilled to have a reason to hang out with them.  (And I get to organize stuff, too!  Wheee!)  My friends get to help me with my own shameful issues -- things like forgiveness, and compassion, things I'm not anywhere as good at as I'd like to be.

And so, for my friends A. and P., I'd like to offer this list of disorganization.  This is a partial list of reasons we don't do the things that we think we should.  And the vastness of this list shows why being perfectly organized doesn't have a single fix, in spite of what all those self-help gurus say.  There is not "a secret" to being organized (aside possibly from having the right tyrannical mother); instead there is a vast array little tricks and tips, each of which might help with one aspect of this list, but will be utterly useless on others.

Miser Mom's Abbreviated List of
Why we don't do the Things we think we should do

Issues of Memory/Recall
Sometimes we know what we want to do, but then the task slips our minds.
  • We forget about dates we've made with others.  There's a reason that doctors call to remind people about their appointments.  
  • We forget self-imposed tasks that don't have a specific time or place.  At one point, we knew we needed to return the library book/wash our son's game shorts/call the pest control guy, but then we forgot.
  • We almost instantly forget externally-imposed tasks.  We'll have a conversation with someone who will ask us to do something -- write a memo, make a phone call, drop something off on our way into town.  It's hard to remember something on the fly like that; I often have to ask people, "could you send me an email to remind me?"  Half the time I ask that, the other person forgets to do it!
Issues of Information
Even when we remember what to do, sometimes we don't have the right information at hand to do it.
  • We're not sure of the next step:  how should I go about fixing my waffle iron?  How do I get started adopting a kid from another country?  What exactly is this form asking me for?
  • We need information from someone or somewhere else: a balance from the last credit card; a telephone number for my neighbor's favorite plumber.
  • We need information from our own files, but it's not easy to get at it -- our auto insurance NAIC and the car mileage are not sitting on the desk where we're filling out that registration form.  The model number for the dishwasher is on the dishwasher at home, but we're trying to make repair calls from work.
  • We need information from our own files, but we're not even sure where we put that information!  So before we can register our kid for summer camp, first we have to go through paperwork and find all those old health and insurance forms . . .  a simple task just became much more complicated. 
Issues of Capability
Even when we remember what we're supposed to do, we might not actually be able to do it.
  • We might not have the right skills for the project -- for about a bazillion years, I was the Jack-the-Ripper of garden plants.  Nothing green survived my touch.  That made gardening just a little difficult.  (But I tried anyway.  My 3-year-old daughter told people, "My mom has a PhD AND a compost pile!")
  • We might not have the tools to do the project -- a recent busted water pipe comes to mind.  I like plumbing, but I knew I couldn't dig around in our walls the way a professional could.
  • We might not have the space/structure for the task.  One of my friends wants to organize all her papers, but she doesn't have filing cabinets.  We got a start on organizing her paper work by bringing over banker's boxes, but eventually she'll need something sturdier and easier to use.
  • We might not have the time for the task.  Grading a pile of 50 math papers takes me seven hours.  If I have meetings all day long, I know I can't get them done on the weekday.  I either give up my weekend, or my students get the papers back really late.  But I know I can't grade math papers during the weekend AND clean the garage, too.  Something's gotta go.
Structural Issues
  • Sometimes, we have the time and capability, but we're in the wrong place.  You know you need to send an email, but you're away from the computer.  You know you need to return the library book, but you're not in the car.  
  • Sometimes, it's just the wrong time.  I need to send that cool birthday card I just got, but not until close to the person's birthday.  I know that around Thanksgiving I want to buy cheap flour and butter, but right now it's October.  Meanwhile, the birthday card is cluttering up my desk, and flour keeps fluttering around in my brain.
Decision/Priority Issues
And then there's the case of not even knowing where on that list to start.
  • Decision fatigue is a huge problem.  We might face a huge list of things to do, and then every time we almost start one task on the list, we wonder if we should really be doing something else on the list instead.  
  • We can be conflicted about whether this thing on the list is even something we should do.  Should I repair the waffle iron that broke AGAIN?  Should I buy a new one instead?  Is it fair to my children to spend the next hour exercising and ignoring them?  
  • We can have a "should" on our list that we don't really want to do.  I have a friend who feels she really, really should organize her arts and craft supplies, but she is worried that the first step in organizing is de-cluttering (throwing stuff out), and she doesn't want to give up things she spent so long accumulating.  So she's beating herself up for not doing something she doesn't even want to do.
This kind of conflict can eat at us, and it leads to inaction on everything else on the to-do list, as well.

Motivation Issues
  • Some tasks are so huge that we dread the enormity of them:  That overflowing garage.  The calculus exam my students have put off studying for.  The huge pile of receipts, invoices, pay stubs, and more, that somehow need to become a tax form.
  • We can be immobilized by our need for perfection.  We think, "If I can't finish this task all the way, if I can't do it perfectly, then I shouldn't even bother starting now."
  • Sometimes the task is simple, but we're just too tired to do it.  We come home from work, and we just don't want to cook a meal.  We need to call our dad/the cell phone provider/our kid's teacher, but we just want to sit and vegitate instead.
  • We can be distracted by other things.  Television, video games, writing blog posts (um . . . ) can suck up all sorts of our time without our even noticing it.

And more . . .

But I think I'll go spend time with my kids now.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Hang it all (earrings version)

There are all sorts of commercial earring holders out there, but many people have figured out that it's really easy to make your own.  I've seen beautiful earring connections hung on lace, with the lace hung over a dowel rod.  I used to have a lace version myself with an embroidery hoop stretching everything out.  It got so old and dusty that I just ditched it.  My current earring holder is functional but not so pretty; it contains the remnants of a drum lid that my boys destroyed, plus some army netting my husband brought home.

I think it's really funny that these guy things I salvaged are now my froofy girl wall decoration.

I liked making this earring holder (not just because it's not as dusty!) but because it typifies several good frugal habits:

  1. Organize by hanging things.  
  2. Use what you have, instead of buying something new.
  3. Humor is more helpful than perfectionism.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Kids' activities

My boys are coming home with brochures:  can they sign up for wrestling programs?  Hip hop classes?  Karate lessons?  Soccer teams?  These brochures all end up going into the trash (or, more specifically, the paper-recycling bin).  I don't want to spend the money -- that's stating the obvious -- but even more, I don't want to sacrifice that much time.

Here's my rant.

I go to a lot of conferences where people talk about whether their work places are "family friendly".  I think that's a reasonable question for employers to consider.  But it's been my experience that a lot of kids' activities are just as family un-friendly as many workplaces are.  I came to that realization when my daughter was about 10 years old.  She was really into dance, and the one dance class I signed her up for blossomed into 3 dance classes each week.  Parents had to sit outside the dance room.  So three nights a week, I'd drive her to dance classes and sit by myself, away from my daughter and also away the rest of my family.

She was also on various soccer teams for a while.  I'd take her there and stand on the sidelines, watching her exercise, while I myself got further and further out of shape . . . bleah.

Enough was enough.
  • The next year, I signed us both up for a inter-mural team at our college.  She was the youngest person on the team and I was the oldest, but we got to play together and we had a lot of fun. 
  • I hired a friend who teaches dance to come over to our home for "family dance classes".  We cleared out the garage, invited the neighbors, and learned the swing.  Great!  It was fun dancing with my 2-year-old son and my 50-year-old husband at the same time.
My boys take weekly drum lessons, and in January they'll join a church-league basketball team.  I'm not a total party pooper.  But I still pick-and-choose their activities carefully, and I still try to value family time over paid kids' activities, even though family time is free.

Rant done.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Giving health

I saved somebody's life this week.  Woo-hoo!

Actually, it doesn't feel like I saved someone's life.  I had the usual interview about how boring my life is (no, I haven't lived in exotic countries; no, I haven't recently exchanged bodily fluids with men who have exchanged bodily fluids with other men; no, I haven't gotten a tattoo.)  My blood pressure is normal; my pulse was fine; my hemoglobin levels were good.  Then I gave blood.

Then I got to eat chocolate and peanut-butter crackers . . . Mmmmm . . . I got a sticker that said, "Kiss me; I gave blood today."   I made sure my husband saw the sticker and took appropriate action.  I'm feeling like I got the best end of the deal.
All just a reminder to me to be grateful for my own health.  Even though health care is expensive, it's still true that good health is something that money can't buy.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Turning old food into new food

One of the best ways to spend less money on groceries is to actually eat the food that you buy.
  • It's expensive to buy food that sits in the refrigerator until it rots; so having a good use-it-up plan helps save money.  
  • It's expensive to buy food you don't like or won't eat; so learning to cook and enjoy a variety of foods saves money (last summer, I finally discovered a beet salad I like).
  • It's expensive to make more food than you can eat and then throw away the rest; so eating dinner leftovers for lunch the next day helps save money.
But my favorite food-saver is turning old food into new.

Soup is a perfect example of this; turkey bones go right into my "cauldron" after Thanksgiving dinner, and the stock we make lasts us for many months after this.  The broth left-over from cooking beans has served us well, too.  Miscellaneous vegetables, leftover rice or pasta, and even bits of cheese all add to the flavor and heartiness.  I add a small amount of spices -- curry is one that goes over well, and chill/paprika is another favorite flavor.

Another vegetable-collecting food that my kids go wild for is quiche.  A crustless quiche recipe that feeds our whole family uses only 3 eggs, with a lot of scraps of vegetables or meat. (Also in this dish, 1 cup of milk-ish stuff like yogurt or cottage cheese, 1 cup of flour, 1/2 cup cheese bits, and 1/4 cup water.  Bake 30 minutes at 425 degrees).

And when I make a new loaf of bread, I slice the whole loaf at once, then add the collected crumbs to a bag in my freezer.  When the bag starts to fill up, I add the crumbs to a mixture of chopped apples, sugar (1 tsp-1Tbsp per apple), and a bit of butter (1-2 Tbsp per apple) to make apple crisp.  If I feel the mixture needs more crumbs than I have, I add uncooked oats.  I'll either bake or microwave, depending on what else I'm doing that night.  This makes a really filling-but-cheap dessert; it's healthy enough that my kids ask for (and I give them) thirds.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Waffle repair waffling

About a year ago, we had three waffle irons.  We make a lot of waffles in our family, but three waffle irons is a lot, even for our family.  A friend told me she needed a waffle iron, so I loaned her one of mine.

And then there were two.  We used our two waffle irons happily for a long while, but this summer the heating element burned out on one of the irons mid-waffle.  (Icky mess).

And then there was one.  About a month ago, the plastic pieces holding the hinges broke.  We were in the rush of early-morning school preparation, so I broke up some spare chopsticks to stuff in the hinge holes as a temporary fix.

Still one, sort of . . .

Most of my previous waffle irons were gifts or hand-me-downs, but I don't have a birthday coming up soon.  I haven't seen used waffle irons at yard sales or in thrift shops, either.  So it looks like the only option for is to buy a new one, from a store, which would run me about $40 or $50.

And here's where the Miser Mom anguish starts.  Because, on the one hand, a chopstick-repaired waffle iron leads down the path to the kind of life where miserliness overwhelms quality of life.  I've seen that kind of thing before:  a lamp that the owner warns you you have to turn on just-so, or it will shock you.  Chairs you can't sit in because they're not sturdy, that the owner is going to fix "some day".  Doors you're not supposed to close all the way, because the doorknob doesn't work so you couldn't get the door back open.  And maybe, chopstick-waffle-irons.  Is $50 really so much for an appliance we use several times each week?

On the other hand, there are a lot of things I could spend $50 on, most of them the things that I have gotten so used to I don't see until guests come over.  Doorknobs, faucets, area rugs, book shelves, garden tools, . . . the list, if I sit down and start to write it out, seems to go on for page after page.  I could go into debt quickly with that kind of thinking.  So I decided to live with the tackiness of my chopstick-infested waffle iron.

It turns out, in this one case, that what the repair actually bought me was time to think.  It took a week or two, but I finally looked up the name and telephone number of the maker of my appliance.  I spent a bit of time pushing telephone buttons; I finally got through to Keith at Black-and-Decker.  I described my problem to him, and he offered to send me two new hinge caps through the mail, for free.  Thanks, Keith!

So, now that the hinge caps have arrived, I have a waffle maker that works well and looks normal, too.  This is exactly the happy ending I had hoped for.  But I'll also be putting out the word:  if anyone has a waffle iron that doesn't see much use, I'd be happy to give it a good home.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Eat that raw?

Our soon-to-be new son came to visit with us this past weekend. I've read that one of the hardest things to get used to in a new culture is the food -- I can testify to the fact that one of my most vivid memories from a trip I made to Spain decades ago was trying to eat squid-ink-rice (it was black). So I know that this new kid is in for a bit of a difficult time as he adjusts to our eating habits.
An aside here on names: to preserve my kids' anonymity, I've been saying "older son" and "younger son". With three kids, this kind of naming system will be tough. So I'll describe my oldest from now on as "J-son", the youngest as "N-son", and the new boy as "E-son".
At any rate, after a weekend of my husband and the boys spending a lot of time together biking around and shopping for sports equipment, it was my turn to drive the kids to the drop-off point. The social worker had chosen a Burger King as the transfer spot. Since I avoid chain restaurants whenever possible, this was the first time I'd been to a Burger King since . . . well, probably since before I went to Spain.

We arrived early, and even though the boys had already had peanut butter sandwiches, of course they started telling me they were still hungry. So I hauled them off to a grocery store across the street and told the kiddoes they could have any fruits and vegetables they wanted. The other kids swooped down on carrots, a half-melon, grapes, and a cucumber.  E-son chose candied apples, and I decided to be a softy and let that count.  (I got a lot of hugs for that one!).
Later as we were eating all these veggies and fruits at our corner table at Burger King, E-son looked at J-son's carrots and asked, "You mean, you can eat those RAW????" Welcome to the family, guy!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Shopping with children

If you're a parent shopping with kids, you're probably familiar with the "can-I-have?" questions that pop-up on every trip.  With food, the "can we buy this?" question is fairly easy for me to deal with on a health/budget basis:  "No, that has too much sugar in it", or "No, I'm not going to pay $3 for something we can make from scratch at home", or even the happy, "Sure, let's grab a bag of apples!"

With my daughter, the thing that always caught her eyes were the toys.  Oh, man, it's hard to tell my kid she can't have any toys.  But even though I wasn't a thorough miser-mom back when my daughter was young, I still wasn't enough of a patsy to cave in for every little pink plastic cereal container, flashing ring, or set of hair ties.  I came up with a response that worked so well, that she'd start answer herself even before I did: "Yeah, I know, I know, . . . we'll see if I still want it next time we come here."

That notion of waiting-until-next-time is a great idea for me as well.  It doesn't work so well at yard sales (because I can't go back to the same yard sale next week), and it doesn't work well with my boys in stores (because nowadays I shop so seldom, they know "next time" could be months from now).  But for my own shopping, I've come to learn that if I didn't think I needed that amazing step-ladder before I came to the store, there's a good possibility I don't need it now just because I've seen it.  And if a week or so passes and I realize I really could use it, I can always go back next week.  (Or because it's me, next month.  Next year??).

This past year, between my summer stock-piling and my husband's love of shopping, I probably end up at a grocery store with the boys only about once every other month.  They don't beg or whine with either parent, but the boys clearly have figured out where their own best interests lie as far as who should take them along.  One of the last times I was pushing my cart past the bakery section, my youngest son gazed fondly at the candy-covered glazed doughnuts, and said wistfully, "Mom, . . . don't you think it would be nice if . . . if Dad were here?"

Next time, honey.  

Friday, October 14, 2011

Spider-Man Bedroom

My younger son loves Spider-Man.  As a sort of gift/treat for him, about 2 years ago we re-decorated his room with a Spider-Man theme.  The real value of that theme for me is that Spider-Man has some basic colors (red, blue, black) and easy-to-draw motifs.

I hate buying plastic junk, so we definitely didn't go out and buy a suite of special TM-branded merchandise. It helps, though, that we had purchased a few yard-sale Spider-Man toys:  a few dolls, a lunch box, and a handy talking "computer".  A Spider-Man poster that I use in teaching my mathematics classes (no kidding!) came home to reside in his room as well.  (In an earlier post, I describe how this poster is part of our passive solar cooling strategy).

But aside from that official Spider-Stuff, the rest of the decoration was paint, rope, and brain-storming.  For example, with the use of leftover red spray-paint and masking-tape to mark off "windows", we turned his shelves into "apartment buildings".

Next I turned to the bed and its old, worn comforter.  I re-covered that old quilt with a black sheet (purchased cheap) and some red rope found at the hardware store, and I sewed the rope right onto the quilt in a spider-web shape.  This "new" quilt cost about $5.  The black is even more striking than I thought it would be, and I think it will keep the room from seeming too little-kid-ish for a longer time.

A black office-trash can salvaged from elsewhere in the house, together with some fabric paint, had the same motif.  Halloween spiders graced his lamp until they were lost in the usual melee.  Fabric paint is also great for decorating lampshades, by the way.

The remainder of the red rope, together with about $3 worth of hardware, became the envy of all his friends:  the giant spiderweb!  It does double-duty as a stuffed animal holder.

Not every super-hero my kids like would work so well.  Spider-Man has easy colors, and he also has a bunch of signature accessories (city buildings, webs) that are easy to draw.  My older son loves Bionicles, far beyond my current artistic abilities. I keep asking, "Are you sure you don't like sharks?  Or race cars?"  No luck.  So his room is still un-themed, and likely to remain so for a long time.

Hmm . . . maybe I can convince him that cardboard boxes are a theme?  Dust bunnies?  I'll keep thinking . . . 

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Two give to others

I got the usual packet in the Inter-Office mail last week, full of stuff from my employer and United Way.  Since I can donate automatically through my paycheck, back in August I called this (fondly) "thought-less giving".  I described it this way:
You might not know--as I didn't during my first few years at my job--that you can direct money through United Way to not-for-profit human service agencies that are not on the United Way list. Such an organization might be a religious organization such as Catholic Charities or the Jewish Community Center or even a church that has a daycare center or a food bank. There are also other organizations not in the United Way brochure that you may name as recipients, such as Planned Parenthood.
I used to wonder why United Way gets to work with my college but other places don't.  Slowly it's made it through my thick head that United Way doesn't directly serve the community; rather, it connects people who want to help their communities (either with money or with time) to the organizations that do serve the community.  I'm slow, but I catch on.

Our version of the 100-thing challenge (in which we try to de-clutter by giving away 100 things to people who actually want them) progresses slowly.
2. Math book to the Harbaugh Club.
3.  Aloe plant, in a spare pot, to the Harbaugh Club.   

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The all-purpose plunger

The toilet plunger is one of those tools that deserves a better name.

Just the fact that it starts with the word "toilet" makes it sound filthy, whether or not it actually is.  And it's a much more useful tool than the name implies.

My family lives in a fairly old house; when we moved in we had three pre-teen girls plus me and my husband.  Our various shower and sink drains were constantly getting clogged with girl-hair.  As you can imagine, we tried a lot of different, often-expensive things.
  • My husband was a fan of buying Drano and other chemical cleaners.  We also went on a kick of trying biological (enzyme) cleaners.  These worked okay but not great, and we kept having to go out and buy more.
  • I have a plumber's snake and serious wrenches that my father had taught me to use (thanks, Dad!).  But taking apart old rusty pipes to get at a clog has its own difficulties and costs.  We've had to replace a few pipes thanks to my vigorous repairs (whoops). 
  • We've occasionally gotten so frustrated we've hired profe$$ional plumbers.  Ugh.
And then, last year, the boys came downstairs to complain about a clogged sink.  I had a moment of inspiration (or was it my dad's long-forgotten lesson coming back to me?).  I grabbed the . . . um . . . sink plunger, pushed hard a few times, and the clog was gone.  A few days later, I got to use my . . . er . . .  shower plunger.  Worked again.  

I'm sure my dad tried to teach this technique to me long ago, and I feel a little like a slow student for remembering this so late in my adult life.   Speaking of students, unfortunately, I don't think this tool will help me grade the student papers that have backed up all around me.  Time to get back to work.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Washing hands

About a gazillion (give or take a million) studies have shown that the most effective way to prevent colds is to wash your hands.  My sons' school teaches kids ways to wash their hands, but by the time the boys get home, the method they've learned turns into this:
  1. Turn on the water full blast, and get at least one hand wet.
  2. Put soap on one or more hands.
  3. Wander around the bathroom, with the water still running full-blast, while you sing all of "Happy Birthday".
  4. Turn off the water, grab a paper towel, and throw it in the trash can.
Forgive me for being cynical. I'm glad that my school is trying hard to prevent infection, but I hate the sound of wasted water running through my home. So I offer this alternative method. I include pictures of my sons' hands, in a blatant attempt to make them think they'll be famous for their hand-washing techniques.

1.  Turn on the water. Get both hands wet; then turn the water back off.

2.  Put soap on at least one hand. Rub your hands together until there are bubbles on both of your hands. Cool! Bigger bubbles are even better! Don't forget that your wrists are part of your hands.

3.  Turn the water back on. Rinse both hands off. Turn the water back off.

4.  Shake your hands dry. Being silly while you shake your hands earns extra points. Don't hit your brother while you're shaking your hands, or you lose points.

After you shake your hands, you can dry them further with a towel.

This all sounds petty, but the truth is that young children need to be taught how to do basic tasks.  I love the way my sister taught her pre-schoolers to blow their noses.  She'd have lessons where she'd line her whole class up, and they'd practice,
  1. blow into a tissue.
  2. pinch your nose with the tissue.
  3. pull AWAY from the face.  
Do NOT smear back and forth!  Pinch and pull, kids; pinch and pull!  Then throw the tissue away.  What a difference these lessons made to the faces of her kids. No one knows snot like a preschool teacher, that's for sure.  

Monday, October 10, 2011

On my soap box

In one of my posts about using up toothpaste and deodorant, Dorothy recently left a comment that ends this way:
. . . Do you also mix your liquid soap with water to make it go further? Not that I want to start a miser war...
Ooh! Oooh!  I've been SO looking for an excuse to talk about soap.  No, really!  These tiny little things are the utter joy of my life.  If you're not really a miser and you don't care about picky little details, just go away now and come back later when I write about grand philosophy.  But if you love to compare and contrast, if you want to get support from like-minded penny pinchers, if you obsess about your own persnickity daily habits, then read on.  And then give me your own ideas!  

My very favorite soap-extentder is dish soap:  I add about a teaspoon of liquid dish soap to a squirt-bottle of water, and I keep this next to the kitchen sink.  We use the dishwasher for most of our dishes, but we wash occasional pots-n-pans by squirting them with this mixture, scrubbing, and rinsing.  A bottle of store-bought liquid soap lasts me longer than a year this way.

We have hand-washing soap dispensers stationed at the sinks around the home.  The containers themselves are things my son and I made as Christmas presents one year.  I refill these by buying large bottles of liquid soap, or sometimes bubble bath (which can be cheaper). In fact, this weekend I bought 1/2-gallon of bubble bath for $8; a similar amount of hand soap would have cost at least $9.50.  Do I dilute this?  Sometimes, yes.  Not always, though.  Tell me more, Dorothy!

And then there's my shower soap.   In many ways, this is a tribute to my mom, a devoted Girl Scout camper.  She taught us to make outdoor camp showers with water stored in old bleach bottles and soap stored (hung) in cut-off panty hose.  I save all the bar soap that I get from hotels and as gifts, and I toss them into one leg of a fish-net stocking that has seen better (and racier!) days.  Ooh-la-la!  This lathers up really well.  And I love the juxtaposition of getting clean by using something that used to be, well, not quite white-as-snow.

As for the rest of my family, my husband isn't quite so obviously risque.  He and my sons shower with regular bars of soap, generic versions of "Irish Spring", a choice driven mostly by my own post-shower reaction to the way my husband smells.  This post-shower reaction may, or may not, involve fish-net stockings.  My oldest son, a self-declared 'ladies man', is angling to get shower gel from several people for Christmas, and he'll slather on about a quarter of a bottle at at time, so he can attract the babes in droves.  He says: more donations welcome. 

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Another mouth to feed . . .

A week ago (last Saturday), my husband, my two sons, and I met the child who is likely to become our 3rd son.  We drove out to Penn State, about 2-3 hours away, and met up at a restaurant.

(A plug for a great restaurant here:  as usual, I searched on the internet for "locally owned restaurant State College".  We settled on Mario and Luigi's.  The food was fantastic, and we fed 6 very hungry people for a little over $100.  How hungry were we?  My husband and I had done a half-marathon earlier in the day, so we were famished.  And my kids are not shy eaters, let me tell you!  We decimated three appetizers, three pizzas, and three more entrees.  The only normal eater was the social worker.)

Okay, so bringing in a new child into our household isn't exactly a great way to conserve our limited resources.  You could say we're going to make better use of the spaces in our home, I suppose.  This new boy is larger than both of the current sons, so we're not taking advantage of him as a way to use up the other boy's hand-me-downs, despite what one son suggests.

Bleah.  We're going to go ahead and waste scads of money on expanding the brood.  The new kid is still a bit dubious about what it means to be part of our clan (with good reason!), so we'll start moving slow.  We began with food at a public meeting place.  Next week, he'll come spend the weekend at our home.  We'll have a few more weekend visits, and then see about moving the kid in with us.

Aside from eating a lot, the other great moment came when my husband opened up his computer and started showing pictures of Black Hawk helicopters, hand-to-hand combat, and all those things that the peace-first parts of me avoids as much as possible.  Not so the boys.  They glommed on to my husband; if they'd had pads of paper and pencils, they would have taken notes.  Pretty soon I'm going to be vastly out-numbered, but at least I'll have my own corps of body guards.

Updates will follow as appropriate.

Friday, October 7, 2011


With two pre-teen boys in the house, I don't seem to ever have to worry anymore about what to do with leftovers.  It's more like I need to use a shovel instead of a serving spoon to ladle out their meals, and by the end of dinner our leftovers consist of a half-slice of bread and a smidgen of something else.  But I can remember those distant days when my three daughters were the children around the table, somewhat more finicky, and definitely not as voracious.

So here's a left-over game that I haven't gotten to play in a long time.  When the fridge is starting to fill up with those random, miscellaneous containers that could altogether make up one meal, I pull them out.  Things that need heating, I heat.  Then I put a serving plate under each item, and I put a small piece of money between the food bowl and the serving plate.  Everything goes out on the table.

At dinner time, we pass the food by passing the plate (with the money and then the bowl on top of it).  So nobody except me knows whether the green beans come with a penny, a quarter, or even (rarely) a dollar.  The person who finishes the last food from the bowl gets to keep the money, whatever it happens to be.

The daughters all loved this game.  They'd make pacts ("if you eat the some of the beans for me and let me finish them, I'll give you the potatoes").  They'd eat the last little bit in a bowl just to figure out what was hidden underneath.  They'd try psychology ("Mom wouldn't have put a lot of money under the hamburgers; that one's just going to be a penny.").

This turned left-over night -- a night I remember suffering through as a kid -- into one of our family "fun" meals.  I really miss it.  But unless I get a different serving shovel for the boys, I don't think it's going to happen any time soon.

Coming up Saturday:  Another mouth to feed.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

100 things

I really admire people who can take an idea to an extreme and show that extremes are possible.  One of my favorite blogs to read is the intermittent Zero Waste Home, from a family that has no trash can.  Wow.  But living with a guy who loves to drink his coffee in paper cups, and who brings home plastic grocery bags, and who buys things that come in plastic or cardboard packaging, means that we have trash cans like normal people do.  Given a choice between people and things, I go with people all the time.  (But if my husband ever leaves me for another woman, he can take the trash cans with him!)

Another extreme idea that affected me deeply (and my husband, actually) was the "100 Thing Challenge", started by a guy (to be specific,  his blog is "A Guy Named Dave"), in which he attempted to pare his own personal belongings down to a list of only 100 things.  Even my husband wanted to wrap his mind around whether such a feat might be possible for us . . .

. . . um, no.  Not really.  The list of reasons why we'd never make it was far too long, including psycho-babble terms like "need for abundance" (for example, I like having piles of buttons and fabric around just in case), "possessions as identity" (my husband's C.S. Lewis collection alone contains more than 100 books), and of course the miserly life style (my yard-sale approach to buying clothes means that I stock-pile clothes for use far into the future).

On the other hand, we really appreciated the notion of de-cluttering that the 100 Thing Challenge represented.  So we decided we'd try a different approach:  we'd try to GIVE AWAY 100 things.  We decided this when there were about 100 days before my husband would be shipped off to Iraq, so this meant we'd try to give away about one thing a day.

Our rules were pretty mushy, making sense probably only to me:
  1. Giving away money didn't count.  Our money doesn't clutter up our home, after all.
  2. Anything we gave to a person or a group who wanted that specific thing counted as an "item" on our list.  Giving random things to charity (such as Goodwill) didn't count. 
  3. If we gave a pile of things (a stack of linens), we counted that as one thing.  
Each time we gave something away, we tacked a small card up on our bulletin board:  "13: towels to Stanley's ministry", or "25: pots and pans to Rob and Michele".  I don't remember how far we got . . . I don't think we made it half-way.  But it was a great experience for us all.  It made us think about what we have in terms of the ways we could share it, making us feel occasionally uber-wealthy (look how much extra stuff we have to share with the world!) and occasionally grungy (would anybody every really want our old, beat-up beach towels?).  Our daughters got into the challenge in a way that surprised us; they'd call up from college to tell us they'd just given something of theirs away, so we could add it to our list.  Our friends who knew about this felt less hesitant to ask for favors, knowing we had this goal.

We're thinking about starting this idea up again.  We've begun an inventory of the recesses or our closets:  old suitcases, clothes beyond what we want, too-many sewing notions . . . if we do take this on once more, we'll have to start looking soon outside ourselves and looking for needs in our neighborhood.  We already have our first "Thing":
  1. train-shaped birthday candle holders to my little buddy Catherine and her baby brother Tony.
Hmmm . . . . anybody out there need a bunch of trash cans?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Stockpiling, hoarding, and clutter

On one hand, we've got healthy and good things stored up around the home.
  • The garden vegetables are almost all in now; the rows of jars in my basement will last my family all winter long.
  • The large freezer is full of bulk-bought hamburger, turkey sausage, and bags of home-shucked corn.  We won't have to buy meat again for 6 months, if we plan carefully.
  • Yard sale-ing is done; the pile of school clothes in the storage closet ought to be enough to keep me from having to run to the store before the yard sales start in earnest again next May.
Stockpiling:  Here are the
things that I own.
These stockpiles of food and clothes are things we bought at low, summer prices, so they cost less than their winter-bought counterparts.  We bought all these things during the summer when my school is out, so I also had more shopping time.  To me, these are good examples of stockpiling.  It saves money and time, over the long run, but it takes up space.

But on the other hand, it's easy to slip over the line from stockpiling to hoarding.  My sewing closet has begun to overflow with things that I might or might not use some day, but it's hard for me to get rid of those things.  One of the big differences between hoarding and stockpiling is the time-frame:  I know we'll eat that spaghetti sauce this winter, and I know my kids will grow into those clothes.  But the sewing notions?  Um, I might need them sometime . . . maybe? . . . And meanwhile, the sheer mass of sewing stuff is taking space away from things that I actually do want to use, right now.  Time to pare that closet down, and say good-bye to a bunch of the things in that collection.  It's hard to do.  I have to keep reminding myself I could always get things like that again, if I needed to.
Hoarding:  Here are the things
that own me.

Because hoarding leads to the awful vice of clutter.  Clutter is all that stuff I have that gets in the way; it gets in the way whether I need it or not.  It's last week's newspaper mixed with tomorrow's report; it's the kids' toys and my sunglasses and the book I was reading all piled on the couch where I want to sit.  It's the pantry shelf full of food I don't ever want to eat, in a kitchen full of hungry kids looking for snacks.

Stockpiling (bulk purchases followed by wise, careful storage) is a vital part of any saving money strategy.  But like any virtue, it can become a vice when I overdo it.  

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Zambian Squash

Lately, the boys have started praising things they like with food words as praise words.  My younger son declares his "catch phrase" is "pesto!", and my older son marks his own happiness with the exclamation, "McDonalds!"  (That's especially funny because we never eat there).  Food-as-praise makes sense, because they're both getting to the point where they eat a lot.  I'm fortunate that they'll eat anything, so I can serve nutritious meals that are cheap.  (True story: one son recently begged for fourths of kale, while the other pouted because there was no more after his thirds. )

Here's one of my favorite filling-but-cheap three-ingredient dishes:  Zambian squash.
Prepare squash:  Cut, de-seed, and bake squash (pumpkin works great, but so does any other winter squash).  When the skin begins to brown, remove the squash from the oven, let cool, and peel (or just scoop the good parts out of the shell).
Mix with peanut butter and salsa.  Heat in the oven or crockpot, and serve with rice or potatoes.
Why do I like this recipe so much?  For one thing, winter squashes are abundant and cheap this time of year.  I haven't had much luck, though, with serving squash to my family, so I did a lot of hunting for recipes that our family liked. (My mom's ratatouille--essentially half squash and half garlic--is a bit of an acquired taste. . . . yeah).

I stumbled upon a variant of this recipe in the More with Less Cookbook, tried it, and loved it.  I realized that many of the things on the MwLC list of the ingredients were really the basis for salsa, which we also have piled up on our shelves this time of year, thanks to the garden.  If you don't have cheap salsa, substitute the original ingredients from the recipe (I quote:  "onions, tomatoes, and seasonings").  A piece of advice:  don't skimp on the peanut butter!

This recipe works really well in a crock pot, which makes it great for pot-luck suppers.  The mix of ingredients sounds really strange, but for almost everyone who has tried it, this dish has been a real hit.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Letting kids make mistakes

My sons have a lot of difficulty with impulse control.  It's hard sometimes to know how much freedom I ought to give them -- freedom to make their own decisions and their own mistakes.  This past week in particular has felt like a bit of "controlled devastation".

They borrowed my Dixie Chicks CD (with my very hesitant permission), and it disappeared into their bedrooms.  In one evening clean-up extravaganza, I unearthed the CD, much worse for the wear: it no longer played.  Natural consequences say that they have to pay to replace it.  That's not so bad; I'm pretty sure they'll think twice about borrowing the next CD when I remind them how much money the last one cost them.

The bigger dilemma I had this week was over birthday money.  My older son turned 13, and he received $60 (in cash!) from his friends.  I had the obligatory "we give to charity" talk, and he agreed to set aside $5 for our church.  But I let him pocket the rest . . . was that a good idea?

On the one hand, I could force him to do the "right" thing and put most of it into his depleted savings account.  (Maybe he shouldn't have borrowed the CD; maybe he shouldn't have tried to fix his bike with my rubber mallet, either).  After all, he was just going to school and home again: what could he spend his money on?

On the other hand, how is he going to learn to make money decisions if I keep making them for him? So after the obligatory "we share" talk, I let him decide how much to put aside in savings.  He handed me $10 to put in his account, and he pocketed the rest.

The pocketed $45 didn't stay pocketed long; he bought candy and snacks and power-ade and goodness-knows-what-else at school.  Five days after he got his birthday money, we went to the drum store to buy new sticks, and he begged me to buy the glitter ones ($16.95) or the electric light-up ones ($20.75).  His pockets were empty.

We had a long, sobering discussion out in the parking lot.  You can guess how it went:  "You can spend your money on stupid things like power-ade at school if you want, but it IS stupid.  And if you want to do stupid things, you aren't allowed to complain that you don't have money to buy nice things like glowing drum sticks."  He wasn't very happy.

Later that night, he said, "Mom, if I get money for my birthday next year, could you put it all in my bank account?"  I don't actually believe he'll remember this next year.  It's a hard, hard lesson to learn, both for kids AND for adults.

And it's hard to know whether I'm teaching it the right way.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The lawn mower saga

A year ago, my hyper-active son begged to be allowed to mow the lawn.  What, I thought, could go wrong?  Don't I want to train my kids to help with chores? Don't I brag all the time about how I rear my boys to be useful?  I swallowed any misgivings I might have had, and said yes.

My son ran over a rock.  Not a tiny little rock;  12-inch tall rock.  And our sturdy, several-year-old, ultra-reliable lawn mower died on the spot.  So much for the wisdom of having the kids help.

The next step in the Miser-Mom-mantra is "repair it myself".  I took apart the pieces of the mower that I could understand.  I peered at them.  No inspiration happened.  The mower was dead.  So much for do-it-yourself.

Step 3 of saving money is to be patient and wait for further inspiration.  I was fortunate to have winter intervene, so I had several months to wait for inspiration to strike.  Nothing.  So much for patience.

April came, and then May, and the grass started growing.  The mower was still dead.  The grass got long enough to be a bit embarrassing, and I had to take action.  The first thing I did was to borrow a mower from a friend on our block -- a temporary fix, but enough to keep our yard from alarming the neighbors.  And the second thing I did was to drop some serious money on a new lawn mower. $igh.  It wasn't on sale; it wasn't pre-owned.  The only thing that made this new lawn mower even remotely "miser-mom"esque is that it's a battery operated one, so I don't have to go out and buy gas to fill it up.

But the "friend" angle of this story is an important one.  I have a friend, June, whose job takes her into lots of farming areas near us.  She offered to cart my old lawn mower off to "Fisher Engine Repair", an Amish-run, lawn mower repair place she knew about.  I figured I had very little to lose.  Fisher took the lawn mower from her, and then they kept it all summer long.  Every once in a while I'd call, and they'd explain that they hadn't gotten around to looking at it yet.  Last week, they finally called to say they'd found the problem  There was a small rock lodged in the motor.  (No kidding!  Wonder how it got there?)  They dislodged the rock and sent the lawn mower back with June, to me.  Total cost, $14.

So now, a year later, we have two lawn mowers.  Maybe this will save us time (allowing us to have two people working at once).  Maybe this will save me money (forestalling the next lawn mower purchase).  Maybe not.  But the lawn mower would have been junk without my friend June stepping in.  It's good to be part of a larger community, that's for sure.