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? 

 

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Frugal Tuesday: Check Unit Pricing!

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Bigger packages are often labeled as “Economy Size,” and while that’s usually true, it isn’t always the case. Around here, we’ve gotten very comfortable standing in the aisle at the grocery store, calculating prices per unit on our mobile phone calculators, to see that our hard-earned money is going as far as it possibly can. Sometimes, as in the photo above, the store is kind enough to do the math for us, but if they hadn’t, I would have been happy to take an extra moment to do it myself. By choosing the larger bottle of raw agave, I would have saved 41 cents over the same amount of product in two smaller bottles. And I could have kept another nickel in my pocket by choosing the lighter syrup. That might not seem like much, but we go through one large bottle a month at our house (What can I say? We like our coffee sweet!), so over the course of a year, that single choice would save us around five bucks. Multiply that sort of tiny savings by the number of items in your grocery cart each week (10? 25? 50?), and you might start to understand why small economies can matter so much. Simply paying attention to the unit price could save you hundreds of dollars a year!

I’ve recently started a grocery price book — actually a Google Drive spreadsheet– which helped me to recognize that the prices above, while better than our regular grocery store, are still much higher than what Costco charges for the same product under a different brand (Truthfully, I wasn’t even grocery shopping when I took the picture… I was picking up something else at a store we don’t frequent, so I snapped a couple pics of items we commonly purchase to compare prices later).

Finally, be careful to not be lulled into a false sense of security because you’re shopping at a “discount”or “dollar” store: Many years ago, my roommate at the time came home with a box of plain white envelopes from the dollar store, and I had coincidentally picked up the same exact box at the office supply for fifty cents. She was a much more careful shopper than I was back then, so we were both surprised at my accidental savings!

Does price per unit factor into your shopping practices? What surprises have you found?

 

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!

 

Spring is Coming…

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The tomato, pepper, and eggplant seedlings we started a few weeks ago are doing well, and the bigger, outside garden is in sight! Our first real attempt at growing in Central Texas was a Fall/Winter garden, and it’s done pretty well. We’ve got plans to build a couple more raised beds and see what the Spring brings us. In a couple of weeks we hope to be sowing carrots, cucumber, kale, beets, bok choy, and summer squash directly into the planters, in addition to transplanting these little guys.

It feels fairly ambitious for us: 50+ square feet of raised beds…. we’re planning to expand well beyond that eventually, but after years of apartment living, we’ve never had that much space to  grow food in! It’s exciting to walk outside and grab kale for a salad, or herbs for a recipe… I’m dreaming of the day I can make a whole meal out of what we’ve grown!

Ironically, we’ve had some difficulty harvesting: I’m working 45+ hours each week, rarely getting home before dark, and Mr. Vega’s full-time school schedule and home-improvement projects keep him hopping. I’m not a fan of Daylight Saving Time, as a modern concept, but I sure am looking forward to it this year! Meanwhile, my husband finally found time to grab the plants that had begun to bolt and make them into a fresh vegetable juice for us…he even juiced the carrot and beet tops, and it’s delicious!

I’m looking forward to longer daylight hours, time spent both in the garden, in the kitchen making some proper meals out of these beautiful plants, and out on the newly screened-in porch my handsome husband has worked so hard to create.

What are you looking forward to this season?

 

On Self-Reliance

Daisy Luther over at The Organic Prepper recently posted a piece called Self Reliance Strategies for Small Spaces, Temporary Locations, and Rentals, which got me thinking about how the Little Hippie House is doing on that front, and how we might improve. I know the word “prepper”sometimes conjures some extreme ideas, but there are more similarities among hippies, preppers, homesteaders, and even gentrifying hipsters than one might think. Our politics vary widely, but most of us share a vision of being as self-sufficient as our circumstances allow. We’re tired of relying on a broken, profit-based supply system to meet our basic needs, and would rather do it ourselves wherever we can.

Working toward self-reliance serves a variety of purposes, from tiding a household over till payday, to making sure the food you eat is free of toxins, to surviving the zombie apocalypse that even the CDC has (jokingly) acknowledged could happen. And self-sufficiency is scalable: In our 486 sq. ft. apartment, we had a balcony garden for herbs, tomatoes and peppers, about two weeks of water stored, and plenty of beans and grains stored in pretty containers. We knew how to turn off the gas to our apartment building in the event of an earthquake, and we had some ideas about how to evacuate from our city in the event of a large-scale natural disaster or civil unrest (not unheard-of in Los Angeles).

We’re still settling in and working on our self-reliance at our new home in Austin. We’ve planted a backyard orchard with nine varieties of fruit, and our little winter garden was fairly successful. Spring will find us expanding the garden to include warm-weather crops, and doing some edible landscaping out front, and adding rain gutters and barrels for water harvesting. Like California, Texas experiences frequent and severe droughts, so it’s important to us to have a cost-effective way to keep our little urban farm alive when the next one hits. Having been through several job changes over the past few years, we have learned that keeping a well-stocked pantry is nearly as important as our emergency fund, and it also comes in handy when we’re just too tired (or sick) to make it to the grocery store!

You don’t have to be a “crazy prepper” OR a “crazy hippie” to appreciate the security and satisfaction that self-reliance brings. One of the beautiful things about about it is that it’s not limited to preparing for one particular outcome: Maintaining a vegetable garden is just as wonderful when we are living in financial abundance as when times are tight. Being able to water it with collected rainwater benefits the planet and our wallets. Living close enough to bike or walk to work means that we can take advantage of our mild southern climate and stay employed regardless of gas prices or whether our cars are running. And the list goes on.

Which aspects of self-reliance appeal the most to you? What have you been working on lately to increase yours?

 

 

 

 

Frugal Tuesday: Start Your Seeds!

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It’s that time again, in most of the northern hemisphere… If you haven’t already, grab a shallow container, some lightweight growing material, and some seeds and let’s get growing! Of course, you can always pick up some seedlings at the nursery in a few weeks and start your gardens that way, but several packets of seeds usually cost less than a couple of baby plants. By starting with seed, you can get a lot more for your gardening dollar… and did you know that you can buy seeds and plants with food stamp benefits? That’s right: Food stamps grow gardens!

We are not the most masterful gardeners here at the Little Hippie House, but we do know that the more you do it, the better you get. And so we’ve started seeds for two kinds of tomatoes, hot and sweet peppers, and eggplant. Everything else, we can sow directly into the garden after the season’s last freeze.

What’s in your gardens this season? Are you growing anything from seed? 

 

It’s Time: The Grocery Price Book

I first read about grocery price books over at The Simple Dollar, years ago. Not being into spreadsheets… or math… or shopping, it didn’t seem to me to be a terribly sexy project. The other ways in which I managed to trim my expenses were successful enough that I usually had enough room in my food budget to buy whatever I wanted whenever I wanted without much thought. When Mr. Vega and I began to focus more on whole, real, organic foods, our grocery bills went up, and I just felt happy that we could afford to eat the way we wanted to. After all, we were debt-free, saving for a house, and even had money left over for travel and fun.

Since my husband traded his full-time sales job for life as a full-time student, however, we’ve had to tighten our belts a bit. In January, we managed to wrestle our food expenses down to just over half of what we’re accustomed to spending… mostly by eating out much less than we had been. Also, one of my favorite bloggers, Brandy over at The Prudent Homemaker, is diligent with her food expenses: She keeps a detailed price list of food she buys to feed her family of nine, and her monthly shopping lists are terrific guides to seasonal low grocery prices. Simply following along and stocking up on some things when she does has been tremendously helpful!

But each home is different, and no one solution works for everyone. Our household in Austin, Texas, comprised of two adults with full-time outside commitments, two cats, and a nascent garden, is quite different from hers in Las Vegas with seven children, a work-at-home spouse in addition to a full-time work-outside one, and an abundant home garden that is the result of several years’ worth of effort. And both her home and mine will be different from yours, with your brand-new baby, or giant dogs, or busy travel schedule.

And so the time has come for me to buckle down and invest a bit of time and energy into learning exactly what our most-purchased items usually cost, what a good deal really looks like (because fifty cents off sounds great, but what if it’s normally sixty cents cheaper at the store down the street?), and seeing how much more space we can get in this recently-contracted budget of ours.

I’ve sorted through our shopping lists, and created a spreadsheet on Google Drive listing sixty items we purchase regularly (conventional wisdom suggests starting with a list of 15-20 things, but once I started, I kept thinking of more!), and I’m actually looking forward to learning where the best prices are and seeing how much money we can save. Grocery store sales generally run in 8-12 week cycles, so I reckon it will be Spring by the time I have a good handle on this, but check back and I’ll share how it’s going!

How do you keep track of grocery prices in your area? What patterns have you noticed?