Frugal Tuesday: Learn a New Skill!

The Little Hippie House had a couple of mature loquat trees on it when we moved in, and we have since planted nine other fruit trees on the property. The rest of our trees won’t bear fruit for another couple of years, but the loquats have given me an opportunity to learn how to can my own food. A lifetime of apartment-dwelling had left me without this particular skill, and figuring there’s no time like the present, I jumped right in.

As it happens, loquat jam turns out to be one of the easiest things I could have chosen to start with: loquats are in the same family with apples and pears, and are naturally high in pectin. To make the jam, I literally only needed to add water and sugar and leave it all on the stove for a few hours before running the stick blender through it and pouring into sterilized jars to self-seal as it cooled down! As a bonus, the fruit turns a gorgeous crimson color when cooked, and it tastes like plums. Super-yum.

Not everyone needs to know how to can their own food, but like me, you might be curious about how to preserve food and to control what goes into the things you eat. Or you might have always wanted to learn to do your own oil changes, mend your own clothes, or cook a favorite meal that you usually eat out. Find something this week that you’ve been wanting to learn to do, for yourself and decide to learn it. Like my canning experiment, you might end up having a lot of fun and saving some money in the process!

What money-saving thing have you learned to do recently, or what do you want to learn? 

 

Frugal Tuesday: Use Dried Beans!

Beans are cheap. Dried beans are cheaper. Like 70% cheaper than canned. And with none of the pesky BPA that lines many cans. Cooked beans can  also be frozen, to make them nearly as convenient as canned beans. If you’ve been putting off using dried beans because you always forget to soak them overnight, you’ll be glad to learn that that requirement has been debunked: you can start with dried beans right from the pantry and have a delicious finished product in 1-3 hours on the stove, depending on the variety. Which happens to be just about the amount of time needed to do a load or three of laundry, so it’s win-win. Or you can use your slow-cooker and come home from a long day’s work to a delicious dinner that’s crazy inexpensive

The Internet abounds with recipes for cooking dried beans, but this past weekend, I used this Tejano Pinto Bean recipe from The Food Charlatan. Actually, I adapted the recipe to use some of the stock I made from our Thanksgiving smoked turkey carcass, which made the beans smoky and awesome, and amazing on nachos!

Do you have a favorite dried bean recipe? Please share in the comments!

 

Frugal Tuesday: Celebrate at Home

Mr. Vega and I celebrated our first official anniversary yesterday, having married on last Leap Year on February 29. We had high hopes for an exotic weekend away to celebrate this special day, but we couldn’t have predicted that our fourth/first anniversary would find him in school full-time, and me at a new job with no time off accrued.

Taking a page (literally!) from Gretchen Rubin‘s book, I arose earlier than usual to try my hand at my husband’s favorite breakfast: Eggs Benedict. Not only did Alton Brown’s recipe turn out beautifully in our little hippie kitchen, but Mr. Vega was sufficiently surprised and delighted that the day felt like a success despite our disappointment at not being able to make a bigger deal out of it.

I snagged some opening-weekend tickets to Batman v Superman at our favorite movie theater, and returned home at the end of the day to discover he had surprised me with a potted mini calla lily (my wedding bouquet was made entirely of those flowers!), and a very frugal but also meaningful-to-me gift.

Maybe for our second– or is it eighth?– anniversary, we’ll be able to pull out all the stops, but for now, learning to be happy with whatever life brings us helps us enjoy our special days no matter what our external circumstances are like. And that, more than having tons of money or time to blow, makes us feel richer than anything.

Frugal Tuesday: Juice It!

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The other day, we found ourselves with the quality problem of having more fresh fruits and vegetables than we could reasonably consume before they went bad.  Noticing that some of them had already passed the point of being super-delicious for eating, Mr. Vega brought out the juicer and made some delicious green juice for us to drink. Super-yum. Bonus points for finding other uses for the pulp (zucchini muffins anyone?), or at least composting it (we did).

What do you do with produce that’s about to go bad?

Frugal Tuesday: Freeze it!

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Years ago, Nigella Lawson blew my mind when she suggested freezing the rest of any wine still left in the bottle, to use for cooking later. Poured into a freezer bag and tossed in the freezer, it makes a sort of slush that is easily measured for use in recipes. I tried it, and I haven’t looked back! You can freeze all sorts of things: bread, milk, grated cheese, casseroles, Chinese take-out… even fresh herbs in olive oil or broth, poured into ice cube trays. Do you like iced coffee? Coffee ice cubes are a game-changer!

Frugalista extraordinaire Donna Freedman has mastered the art of freezing food scraps in a “boiling bag “to be reincarnated as broth later. If you like soup even a little bit, this practice will ruin you for canned soup forever. Luckily, soup freezes well, too.

If you’re not freezing your leftovers, or your little bits of ingredients that are left after using what you need for a recipe, not only are you wasting food and money, but you are depriving yourself of the enormous convenience of having just-enough tomato paste, pesto, or other fantastic things to take your weeknight cooking from adequate to awesome.

What’s in your freezer?

 

 

Frugal Tuesday: Grow Your Own

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I always thought I had a “black thumb,” but it turns out that gardening just takes practice! I’m not even close to being a Master Gardener, in fact I’m still very much a novice, but the more you do it, the better you get.

If you are new to gardening, know this: You will kill plants, and many of them! It’s okay. The planter pictured above cam with strawberry plants in it. We didn’t do a great job with the berries, and have re-purposed the pot as an herb garden. Each plant you kill adds to your list of Things Not to Do, and it will start to happen less and less.

Find out your gardening zone, look up the best times to plant in your region (hint: there are several ideal times each year, not just one), experiment with seedlings and try growing things from seed. If all you have is a balcony or patio, get some containers. If all you have is a sunny window, try growing some herbs. If you don’t have that,  consider joining a community garden, or try what my friend does and Stealth Garden! Seriously, she’s got a culinary herb garden hiding in plain sight among her apartment building’s landscaped shrubbery… some of her more astute neighbors even help themselves– with her blessing– to a trimming now and then! There may be an overlooked bit of soil on the property where you live or work where you might be able to plant a small Stealth Garden (or Stealth Plant) of your own.

Grow what you like to eat (or to make herbal tea out of, or to smoke, providing that it’s legal to grow where you live). To get the most bang for your buck, figure out which fresh fruits and vegetables you pay the most for, then try growing them yourself. It’s so much nicer to walk outside with a pair of scissors to get fresh herbs than to pay $3 for a plastic-wrapped sprig of already wilting thyme, oregano, or rosemary.

Give it a try. In a world of over-processed, over-packaged, nutrient-deficient food products, gardening is a revolutionary act. And a delicious one at that. Why not try it?

Frugal Tuesday: Batch Cooking

Taking an afternoon to whip up a batch of burritos, or really anything that freezes well, isn’t always my first choice for weekend fun. But every time I do it, I’m glad I did. Having some grab-and-go breakfasts, and also some lunch or dinner meals ready and waiting, keeps us eating more healthfully and also saves us from the siren song of takeout or delivery.

This weekend, we made breakfast burritos, and my comfort-food favorite, bean & cheese. What are some of your favorite make-ahead meals?

Frugal Tuesday: Use it Up!

Yesterday I made a honey-lime vinaigrette salad dressing directly in the nearly-empty honey jar. 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar, 1/3 cup olive oil, and the juice of two limes… the recipe called for two teaspoons of honey, which was about how much was left in the container.

It went beautifully with our grilled chicken and pineapple salads!

How do you get the last bits of product out of their containers?

Full-Time Work “Fail,” Personal Finance Win!

Last Tuesday was my final day of work at the full-time job I started seven and a half months ago. I did everything I could to make a go of it, but nine-hour days and the lack of autonomy inherent in a full-time position just isn’t for me, it seems.

Fortunately, we have our financial life arranged so that the hardest part of my decision has been saying goodbye to the co-workers I’ve come to love (and even that isn’t entirely true, as I’ll continue working there on an hourly basis). The money part isn’t so scary. Here’s why:

We have a fully funded emergency fund. Although we won’t have to use it, it’s comforting to know that we could maintain our lifestyle exactly as it is for a few months with zero income. Which, of course, we won’t have to. It took us nearly all of 2012 to get that money in the bank, but the peace of mind it brings is worth every hour of hard work we did to get it. We also maintain our hidden emergency funds, which go a long way when times get tight.

I had been unable to bring myself to actually quit any of my part-time gigs, so it’s going to be relatively easy to simply increase my work there, as well as in the freelance world. Doing occasional work for other employers has kept my options open, so although I am leaving a job, I am not unemployed. And although it would be uncomfortable, we have designed our lifestyle so that we could, if need be, live entirely on half of our income (I’m phrasing it this way on purpose: this was also something I did as a single person. Having a partner is lovely, but not a requirement for living beneath one’s means!).

We bought a house a couple of months ago, which could seem scary, except that we made sure to buy something we could afford, even if times got tight. Buying a small fixer-upper means that our house payment and utility bills aren’t much more than they were when we were in an apartment.

I know that we are fortunate to still have health benefits provided through Mr. Vega’s employer. Not everyone has that. But we have paid for our own insurance before, and have maintained a budget that could be arranged to do it again, if the need arose. It would mean giving up some luxuries, but first things always come first around here.

None of this has been easy: we like a night out as much as the next folks, and we’ve never had a “real vacation.” We’re happy that all of our relatives happen to live in vacation-worthy locales, but we haven’t visited as much as we would like to, because of our commitment to living debt-free and with a prudent reserve. There is so much more we’d like to do, and see, and have. But there is nothing we want enough to stay in jobs and situations that aren’t right for us… For that reason alone, the hard work and sacrifice has all been worth it.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to start cooking the beans for tonight’s dinner…

How We Became Average Americans (And What We’re Doing to Stop It!)

Last year, Mr. Vega and I were living in a 486-square-foot apartment in a not-so-perfect neighborhood tucked into the vast urban sprawl of Los Angeles. We had a thriving container garden on our balcony, and we supplemented the soil with compost created by a colony of red wriggler worms that also lived in a container on our balcony and fed on our fruit and vegetable scraps and coffee grounds. Our meals were all organic and made-from-scratch, often in a slow-cooker, and supplemented with green vegetable juice fresh-made daily. We kept a batch of kombucha brewing on a kitchen counter, a small bottle of organic vanilla beans and bourbon (otherwise known as “vanilla extract”) in a cupboard, and a bigger bottle of cherries, sugar and bourbon (otherwise known as “cherry bounce…” if you haven’t tried it, you might want to!) under the kitchen sink. Our refrigerator was a smaller apartment-sized unit, and we liked it that way, because it was harder to overlook what we had put in there and let it go to waste. We did our laundry twice a month, two loads at a time in our building’s communal laundry room, and hung about half of that to dry on a rack out on the balcony.

We were weird.

We seemed like perfect candidates to move to Austin, Texas… the city’s motto is “Keep Austin Weird,” after all! Housing prices in Los Angeles were proving pretty unforgiving, and we had our hearts set on homeownership, so we packed up a U-Haul and headed eastward, towing one car and shipping another. We had come out a month earlier and secured jobs and an apartment, but because we didn’t know the area, we chose an apartment in a more expensive part of town than our old place in L.A. This one came with a much smaller balcony, and we moved in mid-summer, too late to start a garden. It also has an in-unit washer and dryer, which came in handy, as we weren’t used to the longer drying times required for hanging laundry in the humid air of central Texas. We also weren’t prepared for how we might have to adjust our home-fermenting efforts: my first batch of kombucha grew a healthy layer of mold, and I haven’t found the motivation to try again. Although our apartment in Austin has 50% more square footage than our last place, the storage options are not well-designed, and so the kitchen is much less functional. And we still haven’t learned how to cook on an electric stovetop without burning things!

After a lifetime spent working freelance and part-time jobs, I took full-time work about six months ago, in addition to keeping a couple of my part-time gigs, so that we could save for the house we came here to buy. While I’m glad I did, I now find myself without the time or energy to shop, prep and cook like I used to. Week after week, we found ourselves letting our fresh food languish in the standard size fridge while we stopped for takeout or reached for convenience foods, and without a compost bin, 100% of our food waste has been headed to the landfill. We decided to fill our freezer with some Trader Joe’s frozen options, just to get us through the transition… not ideal, but healthier and less expensive than takeout, or most of the big-name convenience foods. After Mr. Vega sustained a sports injury that makes it difficult for him to walk without pain, even the trek to our closest Trader Joes was proving difficult to fit into my busy schedule, and I found myself shopping at the chain grocery store nearest my workplace, buying and consuming the very products that we’ve avoided so diligently for the past few years. There’s a bit of a vicious cycle going on here: our busier schedules and poorer nutrition means that we have less energy to shop for and cook the healthy foods that would give us, well, more energy! But at the end of a typical 9-hour workday, all we really want is to eat something that we don’t have to cook, lie on the couch and watch TV. And we’ve gained weight. Like most of America, we are now overworked, overweight, malnourished, and trying to function in a state of near-constant fatigue.

Our expenses have gone up, too. Living in a “safer” neighborhood in Austin costs us more in rent than our dodgy-but-familiar part of Los Angeles. The landlord-tenant laws are different here, so our rent is about to go up $200-$400 (the amount would depend on the length of the lease we sign). And our incomes decreased considerably when we left the West coast. We’re fortunate to still be earning enough to give us some margin, even with our current spendy lifestyle, but we’re keenly aware that adding children to our family, needing to care for aging parents, or experiencing a health crisis of our own would change the balance considerably. From where we sit, it’s very easy to understand how some “low monthly payments” for anything that makes life easier would start to look pretty good to a lot of people right about now.

Now we’re average.

What’s keeping us going is the knowledge that our situation is temporary: We’re currently in escrow on our first home. It’s a two-bedroom house, not much bigger than our current one-bedroom apartment, and we’ve got a healthy down payment so our monthly payments will be about the same as our rent. It’s got a couple of fruit trees in the front, a big backyard for gardening, a good-sized kitchen pantry, and a covered deck where we can hang our laundry but still have it protected from summer showers and the grackles that are ubiquitous here. There’s also a gas stove, more counter space and the opportunity to buy whatever size refrigerator we like. If all goes well, in a few months we’ll be collecting rainwater, composting, eating home-grown vegetables again, and playing host to bees, bats and butterflies. We’ll feel more comfortable inviting friends over for dinner and game nights, because there is ample street parking and zero chance of upstairs neighbors complaining about the noise we make when the conversation gets boisterous at our dining table. It will take some effort to keep our tired bodies moving after we come home from a full day’s work, but I think we’ll be able to do it, because we know from experience the good financial and physical health that any amount of urban homesteading can bring. And loathe as I am to do it, because I’ve come to love the people I work with, once we’re settled and have made a few improvements to the house I’ll be able to leave my part-time job and keep my workweek down to a more manageable five days a week instead of six.

We are not wealthy people, but we have had the luxury of working less-than-full-time, or at least of keeping flexible hours, for most of our working lives. Our year of living like “average” Americans has brought me a lot of compassion for people with fewer options. I now have answers to some of the questions in my head that start with “Why don’t they just…?” This experience has taught me that “they” probably don’t exercise the options I’m thinking of because “they” are exhausted and feeling unwell, and there isn’t always someone else to pick up the slack. I’ve learned that an unexpectedly busy week means that fresh fruits, vegetables, and even meats are likely to go unprepared and uneaten, so it’s easier to just not buy them in the first place. I’ve discovered that something as simple as a poor apartment design can have a big effect on a family’s ability to maintain healthy habits. I can see how a weeklong disruption in a steady income could throw off a working parent’s finances in ways that, if you throw in a few late fees and re-connection charges, could take years to recover from.

Living in this country, in this economic climate, is a real struggle for the average American these days. Working flexible schedules, growing and cooking your own food, staying out of debt, and maintaining a healthy work-life balance can go a long way toward making life easier, but those choices aren’t available for everyone. And they certainly aren’t options that I’ll ever take for granted again.

Have you been able to stay out of the “average” American cycle of work-spend-work? What choices have you made to accomplish that?