Friday, November 30, 2012

A fond farewell

Here it is, post 450 of 450.  The last promised post of the Miser Mom blog.  I'll say all the standard yadda-yadda about how much fun it was.  All true;  take that for granted.  Ditto on how much I'll miss posting and reading your comments.  I'm not sure it's really good for me to write about myself (me-me-me) regularly, but I admit I get a very selfish satisfaction out of writing about my kids and my penny-pinching ways, and I've very much appreciated the pats on the back I get from other people.

So, now that I'm moving on, where do I go from here?  What lies in store for me once I turn my back on this blog?

Well, if all goes according to plan, here's the Miser Mom future.

Winter 2012-3:  We've been planning for my husband to be deployed to Afghanistan for a year, but it's looking less and less likely that he'll get called up.  We'll know for sure in January -- at that point, either he heads overseas for 10 months, or he doesn't.  Because he's so incredibly ancient (in army terms), there's no way he'll be deployed in future years, so it's now or never.

March 2013:  I run the DC Rock-n-Roll marathon with my girlfriends.  To spend this much money and time on a single race is sheer selfishness (in a studly, athletic way), but I can't wait anyway.

Summer 2013:  We finish paying off the home.  After a few more months to build up an emergency fund, my husband becomes financially independent.  Perhaps he retires; perhaps he negotiates a reduced presence at work.  Either way, by that point we know we can live on my salary alone, should we need/want to.  Jubilation ensues.

Sometime 2013:  We adopt X-son from Haiti.  We've filled reams and reams of paperwork, and yet we have absolutely no guarantee that this will work.  In fact, I'm expecting that there will be even more crazy paperwork and expense and delay in the future.  But I'm pretending this is going to happen this year anyway.  More jubilation.

Fall 2013 to Spring 2015: During these two years, I teach and work on my book.  Oh, yeah, and I train like crazy in the pool, on the bike, and on my feet.  We get all three boys through the early stages of puberty and into high school.  Because of all my bike riding (woot!), EITHER we downgrade from two cars to one, OR we keep the Prius and trade in the other car for a van that can transport our big family and many bikes to various races and other places.

Summer 2015:  My sabbatical starts.  My guy and I do an Iron-Man-length triathalon.  Either jubilation or hospitalization (or both) ensues.

Fall 2015:  We pack up and head to Rwanda for six months.  Why Rwanda?  It seemed like a good idea to my husband, and I couldn't come up with any good reason to say no.  Rwanda, then, it is.

Spring 2016:  Back in the U.S., together with my colleagues, I finish our book on projective geometry applied to perspective art.  Oprah's Book Club will not list this as a "book of the week".   The New Yorker will not review it.  I'll be happy anyway.  Again, jubilation.

Spring 2018:  The boys graduate (God willing) from high school.  My husband and I begin searching seriously for a new, smaller home in the city.   And we turn, in a serious way, to financial independence for me, too.

Threaded through all this wishful thinking, sometimes more apparent than in other places, is the theme of joyful (even jubilant) denial of immediate personal gratification for the sake of an even more jubilant serving of others.  That's the reason I started this blog.  It's also the reason that, 1.5 years later, I'm leaving it.
So thanks much to you all, with especial thanks to Dogs or Dollars, and to Rozy, to Penn, and Grumpy Pre-tenured people, to Carrie H, and Escorpiuser.  Big hugs to my protege, Waste-Less Grad.  Y'all are terrif.  If (ever?) I come back and do intermittent follow-up posts, it's because I feel both gratitude and obligation to you guys.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Workin' on my Ph.3.

I blather on occasionally about giving money away.  You might suspect that this is important to me, and if so (surprise!) you'd be right!

That doesn't mean I'm good at it.  A 10% tithe?  That's been my noble goal, in the same way that not overeating at Thanksgiving is a noble goal, and riding my new bike a lot is a noble goal, but so far I've fallen far short on all three.  I'm a flabby giver.  But I don't want to make excuses like it's the turkey's fault I over-ate, or the bike's fault that I'm sitting on my duff.  And along the same lines, I'm not about to kid myself and think that a 10% charity goal is unreasonable, just because I haven't reasoned my way there yet.  You might say I'm still working on my Ph.3.:  my Phrugal Philosophy of Philanthropy.

Here's what the dissertation looks like so far.  Here are three secular reasons why I think charity is so important to my own frugal well-being.

1.  Giving well takes practice.
It's been harder than I would have thought to do good things with our money, so if I'm going to hand out large amounts of money someday, I'm glad I started practicing by handing out small amounts of money now.
  • We used to donate semi-regularly to a preacher my husband had heard, a man who travels to all sorts of impoverished countries.   I was dubious about this guy, but my husband was enthralled, hence the donations.  Finally, after I read one of this guy's brochures aloud to my husband (claiming to have instantly healed hundreds of people in a revival meeting merely by the laying-on of hands), we agreed together to direct our funds into some relief organizations that had more verifiable, if somewhat less dramatic, impact.  
  • As a more benign example, we used to donate canned goods and household goods to our local women's shelter.  Then one weekend we volunteered to help with repair and cleaning work there.  The director sent my family down to the basement to sort things out.  Imagine your own hall closet at its messiest, and then imagine a whole basement of stuff like that.  The shelter had gotten bags and bags of miscellany from warm-hearted people like us.  One bag might contain hats and a lamp; another canned food and pairs of shoes and soup spoons . . . it was an organizational nightmare.  We spent all day sorting, putting things on shelves, labeling things carefully.  There were huge amounts of canned food, but since it was all jumbled together, most of the women in the shelter couldn't find what they needed and went out and bought food themselves . . . after all, grocery stores stay organized, even when pantry shelves don't!  After this experience, we donate our used household goods to places that actually have the staff to sort it.  We don't donate canned food anywhere, but we do give money to the shelter and the local food bank so they can buy their own.
2.  Weighing my needs against other peoples' needs reminds me which of those are really "needs" and which are "wants".
  • If my own sheets were getting a bit worn but K-daughter didn't have a bed to sleep in, I wouldn't tell her to wait a few years for her own bed so I could have nice sheets and and pillows myself right now.  No, I'd make my own sheets last a bit longer, and I'd set aside some other money, and I'd make sure my daughter could sleep in her own bed at night.  Well, kids (and grown-ups) had their whole houses washed away by hurricane Sandy.  So should I replace my 6-year-old sheets or instead use my "sheet money" to help find beds for my neighbors?
  • If J-son were hungry (and he always is), then I wouldn't tell him to wait a month or so because I haven't been to a nice restaurant with my husband since September.  No, I'd feed J-son right now (and I always do).  In the city I live in, one-in-five children is 'food insecure'.  Nationally, that ratio is one in four.   So do I need to eat out at a restaurant this week?  Wouldn't I rather know that children in my city have access to food?
  • If N-son got strep-throat, I'd give up time and money to go to the doctor and pay for meds and get him well again.  I wouldn't make him wait until I'd gotten to see the latest Lincoln movie that I really need/want to see.  But children all around the world are dying of preventable diseases, some of which cost less to treat than my co-pay for strep.  Doesn't it make sense to give up movie money to help save a child's life?
I'm not saying that I live with no luxury or that I give up everything nice for myself -- far from that.  What I am saying is that I weigh my luxuries against other peoples' needs, and that, very often, this keeps me from buying myself stuff just for the sake of buying myself stuff.   And when I don't spend as much on myself, that just so happens to free up money I can use to help others.

And this little argument segues nicely into . . . 

3.  I only have eyes in the front of my head, and I go where my eyes lead me.
  • My husband often complains he's a slow bicyclist because he sees those first 18 racers finish ahead of him.  But I, watching the race from off to the side, see the 60 people behind him who just wish they could be good enough to finish in the top 20.  He doesn't have eyes in the back of his head, so even though he knows those slow-pokes are there behind him, he mostly forgets they exist.
  • For most of my day, I'm surrounded by people who make as much money as I do.  There's a certain lifestyle that naturally "goes with" this much money.  It's easy to get sucked into thinking this lifestyle is "normal", and then to spend up to it.  (Some of my husband's former colleagues used to complain about having to travel to Europe back in coach instead of business class -- what hardship!).  But thoughtful giving of time and money to people who earn less money reminds me of the luxury that my life really is.  (Traveling to Europe by plane is pretty darn special, even back there in coach).  Looking at the needs of others resets my financial "normal needle" to a lower (and I'd say, healthier) level. 
  • In the same way that my husband sees only the cyclists ahead of him, if I keep my eyes mostly on materially successful people, I'm tend to feel like a material failure, no matter how many people I know are worse off than me.  Some of my friends and colleagues, I visit their beautiful, well-appointed homes, and then I come back to my home, and everything I own seems dingy and messy.  It's hard, really, not to be a little depressed.  But then I spend time with another friend who is avoiding collection agencies, or I volunteer overnight in a homeless shelter, and my own home seems like a cross between a safe haven and a magnificent palace.  Generosity to others does the opposite of making me feel deprived: it makes me more content with my own life.
And this last sentence is perhaps the biggest reason for generosity of all.  It's as counter-intuitive as believing that getting up at 6 a.m and running several miles is going to make me feel like I have more energy.  And it's true that, the first couple of times I went running, I felt miserable, just like when I first started giving away money, the donation felt like a blow to the budget.  But long-term, the effects of both exercise and generosity are just the opposite of that first initial sacrifice.  In fact, this is a big enough reason that I think I'll say it again, and end the post here.
Generosity to others doesn't deprive me of things I really want;
instead, it makes me more content with my own life.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The obligatory coupon post

Coupons?  That's the question lots of non-frugal people ask me when they hear that I'm a bit of a penny pincher.  And the answer is really "nope".

Not that I'm against other people using them, mind you.  I'm not about to start up a coupon-bashing rant.  It's just that they don't seem to apply to my own personal situation much.

For one thing, many of the places I shop don't take coupons.  Yard sales don't take coupons.  (Hmm . . . how much is 50% off on a matchbox car that ordinarily goes for 25¢?)  The Amish organic store where I buy my flour and nuts doesn't take coupons (or credit cards, either, for that matter).  Ditto for Habitat Re-Store and most thrift shops, at least as far as I know.  And ditto for Craigslist.

By the time we whittle down my shopping to what most people would call "real" stores that sell new, commercially produced things, it's a pretty small part of my purchasing budget.  There's our local hardware store.  There's the drugstore where I get my boys' prescription meds.  There's . . . actually, I guess that's about it.  And there are not a lot of coupons on jigsaw blades or ADHD meds in my Sunday paper.

But even considering coupons for things I might actually buy (like lunch at a local restaurant), I have this odd sort of squeamishness.  An idiosyncrasy, if you will.  It's this twitchy feeling that the coupon doesn't actually save money, even if it saves me money.  That is, the coupon just means someone else is paying for what I buy.  And I have this odd aversion against feeling like I'm passing the costs of my life onto the shoulders of someone else.  I feel like, in the interests of true frugality, I ought to bear the financial brunt of the decisions I make, so that I'll think about making those decisions wisely.

Again, I'm not offering this rationale as Truth with a capital T.    I just explain this because so many people have asked me about coupons, and I so figured I ought to provide some kind of a peek into the Miser Mom pocket.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Three gifts and a moral

Gift 1.  A gift from my boys to their grandpa (my dad):  wax covered pinecones to use as fire-starters in his fireplace.
This is an annual tradition.  One year, I managed to get big pinecones in March while I was traveling, so later that summer I could melt wax in my homemade solar cooker.  This year, we stuck with local pinecones that ripen (if that's the correct word) in November.  We covered the dining room table with newspaper, melted the wax in the crock pot, put on some Christmas music, and had a pinecone fest.
The wax, I got from yard-sale-purchased candles.  The fact that candles are so cheap and so abundant at yard sales tells me that I should never buy these for someone as a gift.   Except, of course, unless we're using them to make waxed pine cones.

Gift 2.  Next year's gift to my kids, nephew, and nieces:  family heirlooms.
I've been storing "keepsakes" -- an old christening gown, napkins with hand-tatted lace edges, my grandmother's veil, and such -- for almost two decades now.   They're stashed away carefully so they won't get damaged, and they're stashed away at all because I figured someday the next generation would want them.   
Well, I'm done with stashing.  It's time to let the next generation in on the fun of figuring out what to do with delicate-but-basically-useless relics of our family history.  I'm going to talk to a curator friend of mine about how to best present them (should we frame some of these?  put the gown on a baby-doll and stand her in a glass case?  store the napkins in a special box?).*   So there will be some expense on preservation/display.  And I'll do a bit of curatorial work, writing up some information about the pieces and the people they belonged to.  But mainly, there will be a general gleeful purging of my own storage nooks.  
[*Suggestions from anyone out there are VERY MUCH WELCOME.]

Gift 3.  A gift "from Santa" to the boys.  Grumble.
Okay, I'm not giving them grumbling.  But I'm going to grumble anyway.  I got an email message on the day after Thanksgiving from my husband's army unit about a family holiday party coming up in December:
Remember....Santa will visit and give each child a small gift provided by the parents, so we are asked to bring a $10 wrapped gift with a tag clearly showing the child’s full name, soldier's full name and unit to help make it easier for Santa to give out.  The wrapped gifts should be turned in to the Family Readiness Group (FRG) on the drill floor . . . 
This message has two big problems with it.  One:  I seldom spend as much as $10 on my kids.  Lest you pity them, J-son is avid about playing with his latest birthday present, a giant K-nex set that makes towers that reach to the ceiling, $4 at a yard sale.  N-son won't put down his own recent birthday present, an electronic game toy, $1.  So $10 for a store-bought gift is right out.  There's no way they'd like it even half as much as the inexpensive-yet-quality stuff I buy them from a yard sale. 
Two, and even more important:  shopping season is OVER for me.  I'm not going anywhere near a mall or toystore until after February unless it's an emergency, and an Army Santa is not an emergency.     
Instead, I ransacked my storage areas.  I found a stash of fake-fur from long ago teddy bear projects.  I'd been saving this material, hoping someday to make giant furry blankets (a family tradition -- my mom made one for me when I went off to college), but good fake fur is much harder to get now that so few people sew.  So I decided to use some of this stash to make two furry pillowcases.  (This choice is partly motivated by the recent teenage-boy-tendency to lose their pillowcases and sleep on the bare pillow each night.  What's up with that?  Yuck!  I'm hoping this will help curb that bad habit).  Luckily for me I happened to have fur in the boys' favorite spiderman/bionicles decorating colors -- so, yes, the boys are black and blue. (!)  I lined each pillow case with satiny fabric in a contrasting color.   

Total time: 1 hour (about the same as going to a store this time of year, I'm guessing from complete ignorance).  Total cost: $0.  

& a Moral:  Sometimes when you're thinking about giving gifts, it's better to start by thinking "what do I already have around me?" than to think, "what could I go out and buy?".   Clean out your yard and your house, not your wallet.  Heh.

Monday, November 26, 2012

131: Gratitude is more than attitude

Thanks to Thanksgiving, we shelled out $136 this week.  We bought cranberries imported from far-away states, a large turkey from our local Turkey Lady, lots of good local dairy products, frozen ice cream and frozen peas from origins unknown.  Probably we bought coffee and certainly someone bought some vitamin water bilge.  The 36-week grocery average continues to hover at  $131/week.

I spent large parts of Thursday cooking, and then I spent more time Thursday and much of Friday "putting up" food.  Getting ready to be thankful together takes a lot of work.  I like doing a lot of work, mind you -- I'm not complaining.  In fact, I'd like to offer this as a sort of a philosophy:
Gratitude is more than attitude.   

My kids get a little grossed out by the sight of the naked, uncooked turkey awaiting its stuffing.  I know they shudder even more at the details of making soup.  It's ooky indeed, I agree, and reason enough to become vegetarian.  But they're not vegetarian; they want to eat meat.  And even back in the day when I myself was vegetarian (but my then-husband was not), it was me who did the soup making.  Because gratitude is more than attitude.  It's being so grateful to this bird who gave up its life, that you're willing to be a little uncomfortable with the ooki-ness.  You appreciate as much of the bird as you can.

Our large turkey made all of these things for our family:
  • A Thanksgiving meal for 8 people (some years, fewer people; most years, many more).
  • Leftover turkey for days.
  • 12 quarts of turkey stock, canned in my borrowed pressure canner.
  • Three shepherds pies.
  • Ooky dinner for the dog.
  • Ooky dog treats (frozen in an ice-cube tray for easy separation).
  • A large pot of Texas Turkey Tomato soup.
And without someone being willing to do the ooky soup part, only the first two items on this list would have been possible.

The last entry on the list (the Texas etc.) was a typical Miser Mom recipe, tossing together a bit of turkey stock, some leftover "Texas barbecue sauce" (hence the name), a bit more leftover tomato sauce that was going nowhere because of the pre-eminence of the rest of the leftovers, a whole bunch of celery that was sitting on the counter whispering "eat me now", and a cup or two of rice just to add body.  Salt and onions got thrown into the mix, too.

 J-son and I taste-tested this recipe at lunch on Saturday, and while we ate it we watched Carole King sing "Turkey Chicken Soup With Rice".  The verdict:  worth singing for.  We nearly--but not quite---finished off the pot with the whole family Sunday night.

It's one thing to stop whining for a little while and spend some air time saying, "I'm grateful for . . . ".  That's a big first step, not only for kids but also for lots of us (um, especially for me).  It's so easy to get caught up in the "It's all so stressful!" mode of thinking, and it's healthy to pause and remember that, after all, Life Is Good.

So, I say I'm grateful for the food on my table.  I say I'm grateful for the people gathered around the table, too.  But you wouldn't much want to hang around with someone who said "I"m grateful for you" and then ignored you.  It would be even worse if that person forgot to check in with you before you got moldy and then tossed you in the compost bin.    (Oops, I guess the people/food analogy doesn't work as well as I thought).   At any rate, checking in on the contents of the fridge and boiling up the last of that beautiful bird is part of the whole "Life is good to me" ritual I want to observe.

And so, I like the effort of Thanksgiving because all that cooking (and more cooking, and then even more cooking) reminds me that actions speak louder than words.  That lip service can be acted out via elbow-grease service.  That paying attention to that turkey on the tray or that celery on the counter -- that using it, and eating it -- is one small way to live out our gratitude.  

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Your tax dollars at work: Math version

I've been putting off this post for a while, thinking hard about how (even, whether) to include it, because it doesn't really fit in well with much of the theme of the rest of this blog.  But time's a-running-out, and it's getting to the point of Now or Never, and I finally decided that means Now.

The reason I've been hesitating about this post is that the money I'm going to describe is pure selfishness.  I've mentioned previously that we got a tax credit for adopting J-son, and that we get on-going support for his care, and that my husband gets moolah and perks for serving in the military.  All true.  And all of these ways that you (and your tax dollars) have subsidized my family are much appreciated, but they're side-effects, as it were.  We didn't seek out this money; we wanted to adopt a kid and to zoom around in helicopters, and the money came in without our even asking for it. 

But what I'm about to describe is different.  Because about a year ago, I asked the National Science Foundation to give me even more of your hard-earned money.  I asked, not because I need it, but because I want it.  In fact, it's not even really the money that I want, it's the cool professional prestige that comes from getting a grant proposal funded.  I told the powers-that-be that this money would help me do some cool math . . . but the truth is, I'll do that math with-or-without the money.  (The NSF knows that.  They know that I'm in it just for the bragging rights, and they know that the more money they send my way, the more bragging rights I have).

But since I got the bragging rights (thanks, NSF!), I figured I might as well 'fess up and explain what the money's for -- both from the math side, and also from the Miser Mom side.

How do you draw reflections of things
 (whether triangles, pens, or cows)?
Math side first, sort of deliberately vague:  I think that artists don't know much math, and (even worse) that mathematicians don't know much art.  When an artist tries to draw a 3-d object on a 2-d piece of paper (or computer screen or movie screen), there are lots and lots of interesting questions that come up, and some of those are good math questions.  I want to widen the bridge (made of geometry) that connects these two disciplines.  My area of math comes up with questions like these ones I've added on the side.

How do you draw shadows of things?
I think that this topic can lead to lots of new interesting research areas for mathematicians, especially now that computers are helping us to draw and to recognize objects.  I also think that this will give us a cool way to teach math to people who think they're no good at it.  Geometry rocks!

The math side is cool, but I think I'll leave it aside for now.  (If you really want to learn more, search for "mathematical perspective" -- the last time I checked, a book I helped write came up twice on the first search page).

How does an 18-year old with no art experience
learn to draw something that looks "correct" like this?
Where does your money go?
Technically it's not just me who gets this money.  I'm working on a team, and the several of us all get to split up the dough.  But first, a bunch of your tax dollars will go to the colleges/universities that hired me and my colleagues. After all, our employers give us the space and equipment to do our work, so it seems only fair that they should get to share in the prestige.  A bit more money goes to paying an "evaluator" who comes in to see whether or how well the project actually works.  Quality control is built in to the process.

But some of that money comes directly to me and to my co-conspirators in this project.  For my part, that'll amount to about two month's salary.  I'll get some of that next summer, and the other part the summer after that.  Where will that money go?  How will I spend your tax dollars?

Well, of course, I'm only guessing at this point.  But here's the current plan.  First step, as always with a windfall, is charity.  I've taken to plowing money semi-anonymously into our student math club; I've also become increasingly aware of our local food bank.  So first fruits will probably head to those two places.

And the rest, I'll sock away for 2015, when I go on sabbatical [right after the triathalon, or so she says].  The money will help me extend my sabbatical from one semester to a full year, which will in turn allow our family to spend one of those two semesters in the country of my husband's choosing:  Rwanda.

Rwanda is not a country known for its excellent math research, although I figure I'll get to teach/do some research while I'm there.  In fact, it's sort of famous for a not-so-pleasant 1994 genocide in which almost 800,000 people were slaughtered.  But apparently, since then, it's been rebuilding itself and has (this is what attracts my husband) excellent roads for bicycling.  So he thinks we ought to go there and bike around and live in a majority-black culture with our black sons, and we will ride our bicycles, and I'll do math.  And maybe that will actually happen, because after all, life is an adventure.  And maybe it won't happen, but either way, socking away that money will give us the choice.  And that's what your tax dollars will go for.

Friday, November 23, 2012

How I built my own hanging bike rack

Our family has a lot of bikes.  [Wait; I'm actually going to go count . . . okay, we have thirteen bikes for the five people here at our home; we also store another bike for our next-door neighbor.]  Fourteen bikes take up a bunch of space, as you might imagine.   A bunch of space, a bunch of clutter.  We keep four of those bikes in the garage, but the other ten are in a kind of a mud room that serves mostly as a giant bicycle parking lot. A parking lot with constant traffic jams.

Before I got the Sudden Painful Death Machine, the traffic jam that occurs in our bike parking lot didn't bother me, because it was all my husband's space.  But once I had to navigate that space myself, I cared a LOT about what a tangle it was.  Isn't that always the way it goes?

And so on Wednesday, using some of my time away from my students, I constructed a bike rack. It took a while to figure out what design to use, but once I had the layout in my head, the actual construction time was only about an hour.
(Side note: In the middle of the construction, I had to take a break to go to the hardware store to get new jigsaw blades, since it turns out that C-son had broken them all this past summer.  Sigh.  And -- since K-daughter had the car -- how do you think I traveled to that hardware store, 4 miles away?  Yes!  On the SPDM!  My first bicycle-based shopping trip!  Yes, yes, again yes!).
Here's the new bike rack: essentially three 2-by-4's bolted together with a bunch of bike hooks hanging from the cross-bar.

 I used the jigsaw to make a notch in each of the upright 2-by-4s; the cross-bar sits in that notch.  I screwed on some scrap wood squares for a bit of side-to-side stability.

I also screwed on these space-ship-looking scraps of wood (leftover from a trash-picked computer desk that the boys eventually demolished).   These are what keep the contraption upright.
The whole thing is fairly stable, even though we could pick it up and move it around if we wanted.  (That's the way I was hoping it would be, but I'll admit I'm just a little surprised that it actually worked so well.)  Total supplies: three new 2-by-4's, four pieces of scrap wood, two bolts with nuts and washers, and 12 screws.  Plus, six bike hooks.

I'm going to add another upright and another cross bar to extend it a few feet; now that I know this works, I'd like to add some space for a few more bikes.  (Right now, it holds 6 bikes; I'm figuring I can get up to 10 of them hung up here).  And I'll add some hooks on the cross beam to hang helmets.


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Granola: How to not follow a recipe

After Monday's post on granola vs. potato chips, I got a request for my granola recipe.  I told my daughters about this, and both of them immediately got the giggles, because it's sort of a family joke that I'm the least recipe-following person they know.  I tend to just toss things together in a pot, mix it together, and then pronounce a name.   Some of our recent meals have included "Pittsburgh Pasta!" Or, "Carolina cauliflower soup".  Or "Oregon Oatmeal Rye Bread".  And usually, if you ask me a day later what went into that concoction, I'll just say, "There was . . . um . . . pasta, and . . . um . . . leftover artichoke hearts . . . and . . . um . . . STUFF."   'Stuff' is my favorite ingredient.

But there is a method in my mixing madness, and I think I can explain a bit of this with granola as an example.

The first time I try a dish, I follow an actual recipe fairly closely (well, closely for me).  If you don't want to muddle through my own granola meanderings, you can skip right to this recipe for granola, which I got long ago from the Tightwad Gazette.  But if you do a quick web search for "granola recipe," you'll see there are a gazillion of these around, all different from each other.  And the sheer variety of granola recipes is a sure-fire sign of this:  YOU'RE NOT GOING TO MESS IT UP IF YOU CHANGE THE RECIPE.  Tweak, tinker, or experiment boldly -- granola is a hearty concoction that's not going to let you down.

Part I:  What goes into granola?
  • A bunch of grain.  It's "grain-ola", after all.  The usual base is oats (regular oats, not quick oats).  Oats have a good fat body, and they're cheap.  But some recipes also add flax, rye seed, etc.   When I make up a (large) batch of granola, I tend to use a whole cardboard container of oats -- that's about 10 cups worth.
  • Oil.  This helps to keep the granola from sticking to the pan (although it doesn't work completely), and it also helps the oats to bake up a little crispier.  I use vegetable oil, because it's cheap and I have it in my baking center already; I tend to use a bit less than a cup, or thereabouts.
  • Sweet stuff.  Many recipes I've seen call for a mixture of honey and brown sugar.  Honey is so pricey that I've experimented with using only brown sugar, and also with using plain white sugar.  Both variations seem to work fine; the flavor varies a bit, but it all tastes good enough that kids (and their teachers) love it and want more.  For 10 cups of oats, I use about one-and-a-bit cups of sweet stuff, although many recipes call for about twice as much* as that.  
*Yes, that much sugar sounds disgusting.  But that's because we don't realize how much sugar goes into our store-bought cereals, or into jams or syrups.   This recipe makes a LOT of granola (about thirty servings), so the amount sugar per bowl of granola is fairly modest.
  • Nutritious/Vitamin-y stuff.  Some recipes add wheat germ or flax seed.  I add powdered milk (about one cup), partly because that's what my Tightwad Gazette recipe called for, and partly because I already have that in my baking center.  
  • Flavor/Decoration stuff.  This includes spices (cinnamon is a winner), or coconut, dried fruit, and/or nuts.  This is definitely an area where I play around depending on what I have at hand.  If you purchase dried fruit (other than raisins), you're likely to pay a bundle for it, which will drive up the cost of the granola.  I'll sometimes add raisins; I've also started drying strawberries, peaches, and apples that we get for cheap during the summer and saving these just for winter granola.  But most of this stuff is optional; don't feel compelled to get fancy.
Part II: The mechanics.
  • Save most of the flavor/decoration stuff for the end, after everything is done baking. The exception is the spices (cinnamon!), which goes in the oven with the rest of the party.
  • Begin with a large bowl or even a large baking pan, in which you mix together all the dry ingredients (for example, oats, dry milk, sugar, spices).
  • Then add the oil, stir it all around.  Make sure the pan that's going into the oven is oiled.
  • Bake at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for about a half hour, stirring occasionally to make sure the mixture doesn't stick, and also to make sure it browns evenly.  
The granola should turn a nice golden brown.  If it starts turning black, it's overdone -- whoops!
  • When the granola comes out of the oven, you have a short grace period when it's not yet going to stick to the pan.  Once it starts cooling too much, the sugar will start to crystalize.  This will make clean-up tricky, but even worse, it means that you'll lose some precious granola because it will cling like steel-reinforced-concrete to the pan.  So transfer the mixture to another container while it's still warm.  (For reasons I don't understand, my granola sticks to the hot pan, but not to a cool cardboard or glass container).
  • Getting hot, sticky granola off of a wide, flat baking sheet into a skinny round container is an interesting challenge.  For many years, I had rebel granola escaping onto counters and even onto the floor.  Now, instead, I put the whole pan into a large clean paper grocery bag, or else into a clean pillow case.  That is, I stick the granola AND the baking pan into the bag.  I tilt the bag/pan upright and scrape the granola off the pan and in the bag.  After I remove the now-granola-less pan (score!), I add the flavor stuff, mix everything up and then cleanly transfer the granola from the bag into a container.  I think the bag idea is genius, if I do say so myself (and I do say so).  Yes!
Part III:  Some random, happy observations about granola.

$.  Homemade granola is much cheaper than any breakfast concoction you can buy pre-made in the store.  It's cheaper than pre-packaged cereal, even cheaper than store-bought granola.  Unlike home-made bread which goes stale or molds in a few days, granola stays good nearly forever, as far as I can tell.  It's seriously frugal.

$.  It looks much fancier than it is.  Which means, it makes great gifts.  (If I were gifting the granola to people, I'd even splurge a bit on the flavor/decoration ingredients, probably adding nuts or -- depending on the person -- chocolate chips).

$.  If you've never made granola before, then you don't know the total sensory joy of hot granola.  Fresh out of the oven, this makes a fantastic dinner accompaniment; there is always rejoicing from my boys when they smell granola baking.  It's a wonderful smell.

$.  Every new batch of granola can be a little bit different, so every new batch of granola . . . can get its OWN NAME!  Appalachian apple granola.  California coconut granola.  Summer sesame granola.  Even (when you're running out of ideas last minute), "Great Granola".  The possibilities are endless.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Planning to spend and save; time and money

I'm writing the bulk of this post Sunday night, after the end of my weekly internet sabbath, although I'll tweak this post a bit on Monday and Tuesday before I hit the "publish" button on Tuesday morning.

The internet sabbath day is one that reminds me of all the non-e-things around me, a reminder I find I need regularly.  Probably because of the lack of e-distractions and i-distractions, late Sunday is a good time to plan, too. I get to make lists, and I love making lists.  For some reason, this week I've been struck by the distinction of planning for things where the planning is what makes things those things happen (on the one hand), and planning for things that are going to happen anyway (on the other hand).

Is that confusing?  Maybe some simple examples are in order.  The triathalon I'm hoping to do in the summer of 2015 is -- in some very important ways -- a sheer invention on my part.  It didn't exist in my world even a month ago.  It doesn't actually have to exist in the future . . . but I am trying, through planning and will-power and whatever-else-it-takes to make it happen.  I've bought a bike (the Sudden Painful Death Machine).  I've started thinking about training.*   In fact, part of my Sunday sabbath this week has been planning for what kind of training I'm going to want to do in the year(s) ahead.  It's the Future Wishful Tense of planning.  It's the planning itself that is going to make the triathalon a reality (or not).  It's an arrow I've shot into the future.
* Part of finding the time to train, as I wrote before, will be letting go of this blog.  Today's is my 442nd post; at 450 I'm going to stop blogging and turn into a hyper-obsessed athlete, or so I tell myself.
I'd put our special Family Dinners in the same category of invention-planning:  the Valentines Dinner, the Zoo Dinner, the Money Dinner, the Siete-de-Mayo Dinner, the Pirate Dinner, the Halloween Dinner -- they're all creations sprung from my head  some time last December, planned out so that they'd become reality during the year.  And -- to be a bit more serious -- retirement is definitely in the same category.  If you don't think about it, imagine it, plan for it -- if instead you just do whatever's in front of you -- then retirement just isn't going to happen.  Planning for a wished-for future is an important part of my life.

But most of my Sunday sabbath planning is in a different category.  It's the planning of anticipating certain-to-occur needs, needs that will come smack me in the face whether I plan for them or not.
  • Will the boys need more meds soon?  If so, call the doc on Monday and get the next prescription before we run out.  
  • What does the week's dinner situation look like?  Figure out when to pull things from the freezer and when to soak beans, so I don't spend extra time defrosting things.  
  • Are there big deadlines coming up?   Plan some time in the week to work on these projects so I'm not late, or (God willing) not even rushed.  
The first kind of planning is figuring out how to spend time (or money).  The second kind of planning is figuring out how to save time (or money).

And I love them both.  For example, as I turned the page in my daily planner and found my annual Thanksgiving shopping list just sitting there waiting for me, I gave myself a little high-five/gold-star for having organized my butt off several years ago.  Now that I have a list I carry over from year-to-year, the brain-power I would have spent getting ready to shop for this annual dinner is available for use for bigger purposes, like for designing a bike rack that can accommodate the SPDM and all my husband's and kids' bikes, too.  By Tuesday, I'll start following my annual Thanksgiving meal recipe (as much as I ever follow a recipe).  Again, an hour of advance planning several years ago, combined with a few minutes' combing through the cupboards, freezer, and calendar, mean that I'm feeling confident and relaxed about the cooking extravaganza to come.

And all of this reminds me that a day of rest -- a day of removing myself from the immediate concerns of the present -- brings with it a special gift.  It's the gift that reminds me, every week, that I'm able to look just a bit into the future, to prepare for that future, even to help shape that future.  (It's why the Big Guy declared the sabbath "holy": there's a really big future out there to think of, He says.)

A while back I wrote this to end a post, and I think I was pretty funny, but accurate:
Calendars aren't classy. Schedules aren't sexy. Lists seldom inspire lust (unless they're in my husband's lap). But I couldn't live the good life without them.

Monday, November 19, 2012

$131: School snack saga

N-son came home from school Wednesday and said, "my teacher says I have to bring a bag of potato chips to school on Friday.  We're having a party and I have to bring potato chips."

Call me a horrible mom, but we don't have any potato chips in our home.  Haven't for years.  Call the authorities and report me for abuse, but there it is.  And I'm not about to go out and buy some expensive, processed fat-and-sodium-delivery system that comes in non-compostable wrapping just because my soon-to-be-13-year-old tells me his teacher says I should.  Pencils?  yes.  Paper?  for sure! Potato chips?  No way.

N-son was obviously anticipating that his teacher's say-so was something like a papal dispensation, so he was a bit crestfallen when I delivered the bad news that, no, we were NOT going to go to the store and hunt for salty snacks for his class.  Instead, we looked through our cupboards and whipped up a batch of homemade granola.  I put it in a cardboard container (previously containing grits), that we redecorated with the name "Great Granola".

And then I sent N-son off to school with his granola, and waited to see what happened.

Now, you might love potato chips, and I'm not going to say you shouldn't.  But there are probably things that you do that many other people don't; or else there are things that other people don't do, that you do do . . . and so every once in a while you butt up against popular expectation.  Potato chips are just one of those thing that I don't do, and here was someone who didn't even know me assuming that I'm a normal potato chip person.  But I'm not; I just think they're vile  ---  but that's not the point of the story. The point is that I sent a mildly nervous N-son to school with granola instead of potato chips.  It was a lesson in bucking expectations.  And he wasn't sure what would happen.

And here is what happened:  his teacher loved the granola.  In fact, his teacher had fifths of granola.  In double-fact, N-son called me on my cell phone during the middle of the day to see if we were allowed to leave the container at school so his teacher could have more.  The granola was, in triple-fact, great.

Which goes to show, sticking to our values and sticking to our guns and being just a little bit different from the rest of the world doesn't have to be the end of the world, even for a susceptible almost-13-year old.

The flip side of the granola story is that this week turned into a huge grocery shopping week.  We bought more than 100 lbs of food from Millers (50 lbs of regular flour, 10 lbs of rye and wheat flour, 40 lbs of potatoes, 10 lbs of nuts, plus some apples).  From the regular grocery store, we bought coffee, and lots of peanut butter, and a few assorted odds-and-ends.

And, just in case you're feeling too bad for N-son, we also splurged on 3-dozen chicken wings, per his request.  (This was our first chicken purchase in over six months).  We splurged because today is his 13th birthday, and chicken wings was his request for a special birthday dinner meal.  Two of my three older daughters will be back from Virginia to help celebrate.  One of my students who has become close to the family will join us.  As of today, all of my kids are teenagers or older.  I'm feeling just a tad proud and nostalgic.

We spent $223 on food (mixed in with some cleaning supplies) this week.  This brings the 35-week grocery average back up to $131/week.  131 is prime -- indeed, it's a Sophie Germain prime, named after the french mathematician Marie-Sophie Germain, who was, herself, willing to defy societal expectations.  Back during the time that society figured that women couldn't/shouldn't be interested in mathematics, she made huge contributions to an area of mathematics called "number theory", so much so that there are whole sets of numbers named after her.

And I'm guessing (though I don't know this for a fact) that Sophie Germain liked granola, too.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Black Friday and black hearts

A week from today, so everyone tells me, is the biggest shopping day in the U.S.of A.  A shopping day so popular that people camp out overnight by their favorite stores.  A shopping day so momentous that the media is deployed for live coverage.  A shopping day so portentous that economists sharpen their pencils in anticipation of analyzing this year's spending data.

Not my holiday; but mostly because it's more like my every day.
And in another corner of the world, frugalistas and eco-nuts like me get ready for the yearly rant against corporate greed and personal materialism.  The shopping starts on the sacred Thursday this year!  For some stores, it even begins on Wednesday!   A rant would be therapeutic, perhaps even appropriate, for people like me.

But this year, I declare pax.  Peace.  A truce.  I shall remain rant-less.

It's not that I'm planning to go mall-diving myself, mind you.   I don't go to the mall on the other 364 days of the year, either, so I'm certainly not subjecting myself to the cacophony of a Black Friday Mall Experience.   But I'm not going to let myself get myself het up over what the commercial world or my neighbors decide to do.

For one thing, giving into a rant against this day this is damaging to the eternal soul.  Pride (in the sense of superiority complex) is the most vile of mortal sins, after all, so feeding the old "I'm-better-than-those-losers-who-go-to-the-mall" ego trip is my own quick One-Way Ticket to Eternal Damnation.  (I mean, if you believe in Eternal Damnation, which I do*).
* My own current belief is that E.D. is best summed up by John 3:19, which describes "the condemnation" as knowing what we're supposed to do (e.g., love our neighbor) but choosing to do the opposite anyway.  That is, virtue may or may not be its own reward, but sin becomes its own certain and terrible punishment.  I'm not a theologian, however, so this is probably far from correct.
Even if you're not a believer in E.D., though, you have to admit there's something troubling about acting as though life is like Disney movies, where some people ( = Belle and us) are virtuous and act entirely for noble purposes, motivated by the higher good . . .  while other people (= Gaston and those shoppers) live entirely on animal impulse, motivated by greed and power and conquest.  Well, I'm not a fan of Disney movies, and I don't believe that all black Thursdays participants are pawns of an evil corporate empire.  We're all more nuanced than that.  And I'll admit that some of my friends actually like the shopping experience, and they have decent reasons for going that I don't entirely understand, but I trust them.  (Sort of).

In fact, I have managed to make it through an election season relatively sane, despite folks from "my" side of the fence accusing my Republican friends of being heartless (47%, anyone?) and brainless (knowing no science) dolts, and despite folks from the "other" side accusing hippies like me of being leeches who prey on hard-working tax payers.  Enough, I say.  I'm not ready for another Us-vs.-Them, Good-vs.-Evil division.  Finger pointing is so yesterday.  I'm ready to find that ground that we have in common.

But even if you believe that you are right and the Black Friday tradition is an embodiment of all that is wrong-Wrong-WRONG with our corporate/consumerist/materialist culture [hint: I agree with you], then I share this wise parenting advice:  Any attention, even negative attention, is a reward.  Any rant you dish up is an excuse for the other side to defend its position.  Any argument you give is an opportunity for the other side to refute you and misrepresent you.  How much more devastating it is to ignore the event and to focus, instead, on the people and things that really matter to us.  To give a mere, "how nice for you" response before turning to our gathered family and saying, "Now, boys, do you want to wrassle in the living room, ride bikes, or rake leaves with me today?"

We all agree: let's be grateful for those gifts we've already been given, as well as for those gifts we may someday receive.  Black Friday is no excuse for a black heart. 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Pesto and Pasta (no pests allowed); luscious lentils.

A simple joy:  cooking with kids.
Earlier this week, J-son asked to be allowed to make Pesto for dinner some night.  But of course, cutie!  He needs a bit of help in the focus department (no, you can't go wrestle with your brother while the water in the pot is boiling), but aside from that, he can go it solo.

Earlier in the week K-daughter and I made lentil burgers that turned out surprisingly spectacular.  Having had bland, mushy lentil burgers in the past, I was totally surprised at how enthusiastic the kiddos were about the meal.   N-son took me aside later to say, "when I grow up and move out on my own, I'm going to make lentil burgers for my kids, because they're delicious and cheap!".  [Here's the recipe that I sort-of followed].

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A 21-Trash Can Salute

We're 45 weeks into 2012.  My family has put exactly 21 garbage cans at the curb this year.   (For those of you who really like numbers and measurement, those were 32-gallon cans).

The cleaning/purging that our family went through during the summer contributed a bunch of those garbage cans; so I think it's safe to say that we're in a comfortable holding pattern of producing just less than 1 garbage can every other week now.  Getting to this point was one of my "industrial resolutions" that I made last New Year's.

On the one hand, I'm proud at how low we've gotten our trash output this past year.    On the other hand, I'd like the amount of garbage we throw away to be lower yet.  But since the blog is winding down, slowly-but-surely, it seems like as good a time as any to share some of the stages of our trash-reduction journey.
One week's worth of kitchen trash.
Stage 1:  Recycling for beginners.
When I was growing up, all trash that left our home did so in one big (actually, 3 big) garbage cans.  But nowadays, recycling isn't just for hippies like me: it's everywhere, often mandatory.  The trick, many studies have shown, is to make recycling easy by having a recycling container next to each trash can.  If you have to walk each tin can or plastic bottle out to the garage (or even across the den and into the kitchen), you're less likely to recycle it.

But even so, a bit of brain power is needed -- you can see the above trash pile has a recyclable plastic container that my kids put in the wrong bin.  So practice doing recycling right.

Stage 2: Compost.  
Choose a spot out in the yard for food scraps and yard waste.  It can be as simple as just a pile on the ground, or a bin made from wooden slats, or a circle of chicken wire.  Do NOT do what I first did, and pile it up next to a fence you actually like, because the pile is going to rot, and it will rot the fence, too.  Indoors near the kitchen sink, keep an easy-to-carry container where you toss all food scraps (vegetable peels, scrapings from the dinner plates, etc), and when that container gets full/stinky, empty it out onto that compost pile.

Our compost pile reduces the amount of trash that goes in our trash can by a little bit.  But it reduces the stinkiness of the trash can A LOT!  To illustrate this (literally), take a peek at the picture above.  I took my family's kitchen trash can that had been filling up for an entire week, and I emptied it on my dining room table.  It's clearly a pile of trash, but it's clean trash, if that makes sense.  Not stinky at all.  I stuck it all back in the trash can after I took the photo; we probably won't empty that can for another week.

Food that rots outdoors (mixed in with leaves and grass clippings for good luck) eventually turns into dirt.  Really nice dirt, in fact.  Gardeners call it "black gold".   My daughter once told one of my friends, "My mom has a PhD and a compost pile!".  That's how proud I am of mine.

Stage 3: Stop buying things that you're just going to throw away.
Break the paper napkin habit: use cloth napkins (with different napkin rings for each member of the family, so you don't have to launder as often).

Once we'd mastered cloth napkins, we went for these other switches:
Stage 4: Recycling for experts.

We started carrying our home office paper to work, where I can recycle it.  But the truly huge trash-reduction breakthrough for our family came when we found a place 2 blocks from our home where we can recycle cardboard.   That one change alone cut our garbage-can-output by almost half, mostly because cardboard in a regular trashcan is bulky.   You can see from the pile above we're not perfect about that -- the milk carton and chinese food carton both can go in the cardboard bin.

Around the edges we recycle scrap metal (a guy from our church makes money by disassembling electronic items and selling the scrap metal).  And we dispose of hazardous waste like lightbulbs, paint, and batteries with our local waste authority.

Stage 5:  Reduce the amount of packaging your stuff comes with.
I'm guessing for most people, this will be the hardest thing to deal with, because it usually means changing the stores you go to and the way you shop.  But packaging accounts for the largest volume of household trash -- if you look at my own pile of trash above, it's a collection of bags, boxes, and containers.  So reducing packaging is essential to reducing trash.  Here are some ways I reduce our packaging load (although, as the pile above shows, I haven't come close to eliminating it).
  • Yard sales.  Sing that yard sale song!  Frugality and ecology go hand-in-hand when we buy used clothing/housewares/etc.
  • Instead of buying processed food, we buy ingredients (in bulk) and cook from scratch.
  • Organize a baking center, so it's easy to make a quick breakfast.
  • Buy from a farmer's market or roadside stands, instead of getting your fruit and vegetables packaged in plastic and on styrofoam trays.
  • Find places that allow you to trade in/refill jars.  (Our spice stand at Market refills my glass jars directly; our dairy stand uses glass jars that they can sterilize and use over again).  
  • Freeze or can summer produce in reusable containers.
Stage 6: Reduce the amount of trash people give you against your will.
This stage is a pain the tuckus.  But I've taken to calling catalog companies, waiting FOREVER on the phone line, and finally reaching a live human, so I can ask to be taken off their mailing list.  I've done this with almost 30 different companies now.  And we don't get nearly as many catalogs as we used to.  But I'm not convinced the payoff is worth my time.  

Similarly, my newspaper box has reduced (but alas, not eliminated) the plastic bags that come around my newspaper.

And that's that.  As I said, we have a way to go.  But for a household of five people, four of whom aren't nutso about garbage like I am, this is probably a good start.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Moving the Normal Needle

You know how you get into the mind-frame that everyone who does less than you do is lazy or ignorant, but everyone who does more than you is a nut or a zealot?

Okay, maybe you don't get into that mind-frame, but I do.  People who exercise less than I do, I'm all too ready to dismiss as lazy or out-of-shape.  On the other hand, people who exercise more than I do are clearly fitness freaks.  People who shop in malls are obviously spend-thrifts, because I myself live a perfectly happy mall-free life.  But the people who raise their own chickens?  That's too much work (I know, because I don't raise my own chickens).

Completely aside from the moral/spiritual/jerk-i-tude aspects of carrying these values around in my head is the challenge this creates for me when I want to change myself.  Sure, I'd like to throw away less trash, . . . but buying things that come with packaging is just the way things are; that's normal.   Sure, I'd like to train more for the triathalon, . . . but I don't have time to do that now; my current schedule is normal, and I'm not sure I'm ready to be one of those fitness freaks.

I've heard the reluctance to change as "not wanting to move out of our comfort zone".  But I've done enough different things in my life to know that just about any zone is as comfortable as any other, once you're used to it.
  • Back when I was learning math, word problems were really really hard.  But now, I love the puzzle aspect of a good math challenge.
  • When I married my husband, I was a pretty ordinary consumer who fed my kids hot dogs and mac-n-cheese.  After a bunch of financial pressures and some awesome tightwad inspiration, I've converted into the most frugal, least packaged-food-person in any circle of friends I could gather.  
  • Three years ago when I started running again, I did part of a trail run with some folks and I was sore for days.   But now that I run regularly, it's a joy to head out for a long jaunt with the girlfriends.
  • Twenty years ago, I was happy as a clam to be a single mom, and determined as all-get-out to stay that way.  Now I'm a married mom of many.
Not all shifts in my life have been so inspirational:
  • Back in the day, I used to read books like crazy.  I'd have as many as 8 books in progress at a time, and I could wolf them down like  J-son wolfs down pizza.  Now, the books are on the shelf and my laptop is my bedside companion.  Now I'm an e-mailing, blogging, internet woman.
So, I think for me it's not so much a question of comfort zones as identity zones.  Do I want to be one of those eco-nuts who carry cloth napkins around and refuses paper napkins?  (Well, nowadays I actually do that, and I no longer think it's nutty.  In fact, I think you should do that, too!).  Sitting on my . . . um, on my desk chair . . . all day has been pretty comfortable for me.  But it's also been my identity, my persona, the place that "normal needle" points on that scale of personality.   Do I want to be one of those exercise freaks who does push-ups in her spare time?

I'm starting to realize that maybe, I do.

Is that normal?

Monday, November 12, 2012

$128: War-n-peacenik

The average food costs in the Miser Mom household continue to fall as predicted.  My guy spent $76 on assorted frivolities (peanut butter, ice cream, and such).  I spent $18 at Market, mostly for dairy products, but also for a bit of splurge on some post-election Pretzel Doughnuts from the Achenbach stand --- Amish donuts are a treat for the kids.  This brings our weekly grocery costs down to $128/week.  

The weekend was a weekend of juxtapositions.  Such as, J-son deciding to brush the dog's teeth, and the dog (sort of) allowing this to happen.

Such as, K-daughter, N-son, and J-son performing the closing song at a long evening gala of music at my college.  It was a gala that one of my students put on to raise money for children in Rwanda, a country we hope to visit 3 or 4 years from now.  Most of the evening was GREAT.  My kids were the last of many performers to take the stage, and they . . . well, they were cute.  And not quite professional.  But they got a standing ovation because of the cuteness, and they're still abuzz from that.

I rode the Sudden Painful Death Machine (my new bike) for 15 miles.  Only 97 more miles, and I've got the bike portion of my impending triathalon covered!  So it looks like I'm just about as good on my bike as the kids are at music, but I don't get the standing ovation afterwords.  I'm not as cute, apparently.

Speaking of cute, it was veteran's day this past weekend.  I got to hug a soldier.  And my soldier got to hug a hippie peacenik.  We're good for one another.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Furnace explosion!

My furnace did not explode.  The title is overly dramatic.  But I did run into a snag when I tried to get more bang for my buck (so to speak).  And the amount of money we expected to spend spiked dramatically, too.

I wrote a while back about how we'd looked into converting our oil boiler to a gas burner with a simple conversion kit (professionally installed).  After a bit of back-and-forth, my husband and I agreed to pony up the money and go ahead.
Our heater guys showed up right on time,
with lots of equipment.

Taking a peek into our oil boiler.

Our conversion guys came over right on time on the expected day, but about an hour into the project, they ran into trouble.  The chamber in our oiler boiler had a hole in it.  For reasons that I don't understand (I'm a theoretical mathematician, not an applied mathematician), our oil boiler is still on the verge of safe, but converting the system to gas would cause leaks (at the least) and explosions (at the worst).  We could all die.  So we stopped the project, sealed everything up, and regrouped.  Here were our choices:

  • We could fix the chamber on this 25-year-old boiler and proceed with the conversion.
  • We could replace the oil boiler with a regular gas boiler.
  • We could replace the oil boiler with a high-efficiency gas boiler.

Looking into the chamber:  the inside is crumbling.
We chose the last option.  I am, after all, an eco-nut.  And  the eco-option isn't that much more expensive than the other options, given the decrepitude of our current system.
Looking closer into that hole.
 It looks like . . . a messy hole.

Then we faced questions of who should do the replacement.  Our current oil/gas guys -- the ones who found the hole in our chamber -- gave us a quote of $10,000.  That seemed high from what I could read on-line, but all the other people we brought in seemed so very smarmy that I had to wash my hands with extra soap to get the grease off once they left.  (That's figurative, not literal).

So $10,000 it is.  Plus $81 for the building permit from our County Municipal Office.  Plus a few hundred bucks for carbon monoxide detectors in every bedroom and landing.

This is a lot of money for heating a home.  But I think it makes sense to spend money to conserve heating fuel.  As much as I love pretending that my fuel-efficient Prius is the miserly way to conserve a planet's resources, I know that the true fuel user isn't the car I choose to park in my driveway; it's the house that the driveway leads up to.

 In theory (say the guys who are doing the work), this gas boiler will reduce our home heating bills from their current level of $2000+/year to about $600/year.  Time will tell if this holds true.  Work is scheduled for December 10 and 11, just after the semester ends.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Why bother to save money?

Why bother to save money?

Being frugal can be fun; I believe that.  Natch -- I live and breathe frugality!  But I know that being frugal can be a bother;  for proof: ask my husband.  Heck, back in the day when I shopped at the mall, I would have told you that yard sales were too much bother for me.  Times haven't changed, but I have. So if shopping is fun, it's worth it to ask, why bother to count those pennies?

Some of us have no choice.  Or maybe we have a bit of choice, but low income or high debt means that frugality is our most powerful tool for making ends meet.  One of my favorite bloggers who sings this particular song is the courageous Poor to Rich; I get a big shot in the arm from her bubbly, can-do cheerfulness, and I get a decent dose of humility because of her candid honesty in describing what it's like to live the life of the working poor.

But let's look at people like me.  People who -- to be honest -- make a bunch of money and who bother  to be frugal not so we can pay the utility bill, but instead for our own funky reasons.  What reasons might those be?  Even more importantly (to me), what reasons should those be?

Potential answer #1 (contributed by my husband as I read him this post):  To get more stuff?  This, I reject.  We have too much stuff already.

Potential answer #2:  To keep one parent at home?  Me & my guy, we're working toward this (see P.A.#3 below).  I've got a lot of respect for this answer, even though it doesn't really apply to my situation.  It was Amy Dacyzyn of the Tightwad Gazette, after all, who got me started on the road to being a disciple of the famous Frugal Zealot, and staying at home with her kids was the pad that launched her own frugal adventures.

Potential answer #3: To retire early?  Or, put another way, to achieve financial independence from your job?  I got hooked on this idea (even though I love my job) through the excellent book Your Money or Your Life, and (even though I love my job -- did I say that already?), we've made this a goal for first my husband, and eventually a decade down the line, me.  And recently, I've become the latest woot-woot fan of the high-energy, macho-frugality blog, Mr. Money Mustache, who describes his frugalist technique for retiring at age 37.  Did I say woot-woot?  Yes, I did!  I'll say it again -- woot!

But as I pored over all his old posts, agonizing at his retired-ness while I (a decade older) still toil away at the salt mines for my salary, feeling inadequacy and envy mount up with every post I devoured, I came upon a post that popped the bubble.  In this post, he described his yearly expenditures ($30,482).  And of that, a mere $374 (or 1.2%) went to charitable donations.


Now, I'm not trying to knock down another person.  Mister Money Mustache is not me, and I'm not ready to second-guess why he spent/donated/saved the way he did.  Indeed, in the next year his expenditures went down (to $28,453) while his donations rose (to $1,886, or 6.6%), and I'm in admiration of the jump, if not of the totals.  But seeing those numbers reminded me that for *me* at least, the goal of the frugal life is not primarily any of the reasons listed above.  My reaction explains a big part of why my husband and I aren't both stay-at-home parents, living on our savings.  It's because I keep giving money away.

So here's yet another reason to be frugal -- maybe not your own personal reason, but a reason to consider.

Potential answer #4.  To share the wealth with people who don't have the same access to resources that I have.  To be a conduit of the "good stuff".  To relieve a bit of other people's hurt, by giving up our own stuff till it hurts.  To let poverty and hunger bother us, bother us to the point that we're willing to bother about spending less on ourselves and more on others.

It's just a different kind of woot.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Personal Care Parsimony

Whenever I check out a new blog on frugality, I find I get lost quickly.  I want all the good tips up front, but they're (understandably) mixed in and buried throughout the blog.  With the imminent wind-down of Ye Olde Miser Mom blog, I figured it might be a good idea to round up some of my favorite -- and also some of my not-so favorite -- personal care practices in one place.

Here goes.  From top-to-bottom (er, or perhaps it would be better to say, from head to toe), here are some ways to save -- or not -- on personal care.

Hair Cutting:  I'm buzzed about this. (free for me; clippers for the men-folk run us $40, plus $10 for new blades every 10 years).
  • Electric clippers let me cut my husband's hair quickly and easily, both faster and cheaper than going to a barber.  (At 10 Watts, a set of clippers costs essentially the same as using scissors, but they're much easier to use).
  • Electric clippers and a bit of a razor also let me experiment (with permission) on my sons' heads.  I get to be a hair artist!
  • For many years, my daughter and I cut each other's hair.  With really long hair, you don't need to be super talented to do a good job.
  • Now that my daughter is grown and gone, my running partner cuts my hair.  Free + Fun = Freaking Win!
Shampoo:  Could use some bounce. (~$30/year)
  • When I got my mom's old shampoo dispenser, I'd thought about trying home-made versions of hair care.  It turns out, though, that my mom's dispensers dole out shampoo and conditioner in helpfully tiny amounts -- so my existing stash of bargain-brand shampoo/conditioner has lasted several months, and so I haven't tried to convert to home-made.  This is complicated by the fact that . . .
  • Every few years, my scalp starts molting, and this has been one of those years.  My dermatologist suggested I go for an expensive dandruff shampoo.  I resisted for a while, but finally gave in.  I'd love to find a cheaper (and less plastic-y) alternative, though.
Hair elastics: Got this all tied up.  ($0/year)
  • Store-bought hair elastics are expensive.  But walking around a college campus, I see them on the ground all the time.  Pick them up, wash them, and wear them!
Make-up:  Holding pattern. ($4/year)
  • I use bargain-brand mascara, purchased from yard-sales.  (For those of you who aren't frequent yard-sale goers and who are worried about contaminated products, you should know that some people sell stashes of never-opened Avon or other products at much lower-than-store prices.)   When I don't wear mascara, people ask me if I'm tired, and I hate explaining that it's the lack of make-up, not the lack of sleep, that makes me look dead.  Hence, I use eye mascara at a cost of about $2/year.
  • Occasionally, when I'm going to be photographed, I'll used a bit of foundation, mostly because I have rosacea and so if I don't put on foundation I look like a lush. Cost:  $2/year. 
Rosacea meds: meh.  ($40/year)
  • So, my dermatologist prescribed Metrogel for my really red nose.  I looked up the bad side-effects of this dread disease, and the main problem (aside from red skin) seems to be "low self-esteem", a complication I fortunately seem to have escaped, but I use the ointment anyway. I am open to alternatives; I just haven't found them.
Toothpaste:  No news is good news. ($0/year)
  • The toothbrush is my friend.  So is floss. I don't use toothpaste, and my teeth are doing just fine.  I swear.
  • But if you do use toothpaste, here's how to get the last of it out of a tube.
  • I visit my dentist twice a year, and she raves about my teeth.  She gives me a toothbrush and floss every time I visit her, and that basically takes care of my home care.  So I suppose I could also say I spend $140 on toothbrushes, but get two dental visits for free.  Woo-hoo!
Perfume: Smelling sweet.  (gift)
  • I love the cheap brands of perfume (Charlie!  Windsong!  Maja!)  This is a kindness to the sweet people who gift me with this perfume.  And my actually liking perfume is somewhat of a gift to my gift-givers (seriously, what would you buy for a miserly woman who seems to want almost nothing?).
Edible deodorant:  Stunning success. (less than $6/year)
  • Here's an idea I totally stole from Dogs Or Dollars (she listed this as an experiment that turned into a success) and that I have just loved for over a year.  Get a jar of coconut oil (drug stores and health food stores sell this).  Most of the year, coconut oil has about the consistency of soft lip balm; it's not runny like regular oils until summer heats things up.  I also made myself a little jar of baking soda.  In the morning, I use my fingers to dab on a bit of coconut oil, and then baking soda.  This works great; plus it's low trash and it's low cost.  I figure at the rate I'm going, the outlay of about $12 for supplies will last me 2 or 3 years.  
  • (I just re-read the D-o-D posts.  She mixes these ingredients together in one jar; I don't.  I figure, either way is a score).
  • Even if you use store-bought deodorant, you can melt and re-use the last little bits in a container fairly easily. 
Soap: feeling bubbly.  (?20?/year?)
  • Bar soap is unfairly neglected in the modern world, so it's fairly easy to stumble upon a cheap stash at yard sales.  
  • At hotels, I don't do the grabby "take as much as I can" dance.  I use at most one bar of soap per hotel, but once I open that bar up, I make sure to bring it home with me so it gets used.
  • I gather up slivers of soap in a stocking, and hang that up in my shower.  
  • For liquid soap, I buy large containers in bulk and use those containers to refill smaller dispensers.  This is less expensive and creates less trash than buying many smaller containers.
  • Sometimes "soap alternatives" (such as bubble bath) are cheaper than bulk liquid soap itself.  
  • Washing our hands correctly is one of the most frugal ways we avoid expensive/painful illnesses.  Soap and water is cheap. The flu is a pain in the . . . well, in the whole body.
Shaving:  Obnoxiously happy. ($13 this year; in the future less than $3/year??)
  • I just switched over to using a metal razor.  On this subject, I'm like a reformed smoker who is completely delighted with the lower cost and reduced amount of toxins/plastic.  Razor companies, I've got your corporate number!  I'm not playing your multi-blade, multi-dollar game any more!!  Hah!  Perhaps I am too giddy to be trusted on how well this is actually working. (But as far as I'm concerned:  score!)
Sunscreen: Do not do as I do. (less than $10/year)
  • I use sunscreen on my face during the summer, but I don't mind if it's several years old, and I probably don't put on as much as other people would recommend.  (See, for example, my rosacea above).  My sisters berate me for how lackadaisical I am. They are almost certainly correct.  There it is.
Nail clippers
  • For some reason I don't understand, my kids lose theirs over and over.  So I bought each kid one set of nail clippers.  On each, I threaded a small ribbon through the hole at the end, and then I used an embroidery needle to thread the small ribbon through the paw of one of the kids' stuffed animals.  The bigger the stuffed animal, the harder it is to lose the nail clippers.
Lotions and gels: a slippery subject ($ = not sure.)
  • Mostly, I do bulk buys of lotion for my sons' very chalky skin.  When I get out the lotion, the boys yell and run away, and then I chase them all over the house until I pin them down and lather them up.  Not particularly effective skin care, but definitely worth every penny for the family entertainment value.
  • Also, we use petroleum jelly instead of antibiotic cream.
Paper products.  (???)
  • I'm not sure how much our family spends on toilet paper.
  • I'm also not sure how much our family spends on tissues.  
  • But I'll counter that lack of knowledge with this:  rags.  You can blow your nose into a square of cloth made from a t-shirt even more comfortably than into a tissue.  You could launder the square of fabric, or if you're totally grossed out, you could just throw it away!  (After all, you were just going to toss that stained t-shirt in the first place, right?)  We have attractive looking rag-baskets in several strategic locations in our home.  I even have rags instead of tissues in my car now.
  • Cloth rags are also helpful in bandaging wounds.
Feminine hygiene.  The Keeper is a keeper!  ($3 - $37/year, depending on the dog).
  • I have two words: menstrual cups. Love 'em.  Unfortunately, so does my dog, so store them away carefully.

Showers: the phantom frugality menace (less than $50/year per person)
  • We don't see stores boasting 2-for-1 sales on hot water, and we don't clip coupons for 25¢ off our next shower.  But hot water can be an even bigger expense than shampoo and soap, so it's worth thinking about how to use less water or not-so-hot water.  The simplest way to save money is to lower the water heater thermostat to 120 degrees Fahrenheit, if you haven't already.
  • Next easiest:  plug the drain to keep the warm water in the tub while you shower. Toasty toes and a warmer bathroom result!
  • Moderately advanced:  install a low-flow shower-head.  Bonus points if you get one with one of those little cut-off valves so you can turn off the water while you soap up or shave.
  • More adventurous: install a water heater timer, so you heater stays on only while you're home.
  • Summer fun:  buy a black hose, and shower al fresco.  Solar energy is free!
And finally  . . .

Foot massages. Good for the heart and sole.  ($0/year)
  • To which I can only say, "Ahhhhh.   Thanks, guy!"