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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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? 

 

Our January 2016 Budget

I created my first budget about ten years ago from a template I found in Dave Ramsey‘s book The Total Money Makeover, and after years of practice, it’s become habit for me to make a new budget every month.  I get asked on a regular basis to help people set up their budgets. I’ve been able to sit with a few friends, but time and distance prohibit me from helping individually every person who asks. Every household is different, so every budget needs to be different, too. Also, it’s important for me to say here that I am not a financial planner or adviser, and that everyone needs to be accountable for making informed choices about their own money. That said, since it can sometimes be helpful to get an idea of what other people are spending on and saving for, we have decided to share our budget. I’m showing where our money goes as a percentage of our take-home pay, both to maintain some privacy and also because it’s more practical: Regardless of the dollar amounts, it’s a good idea to try and save some money each month, meet your basic needs, have a little fun if you can afford to, and return something, however small, to the communities and organizations you care about.

Here’s how it breaks down this month for us:

  • Giving 3%. This category is on the small side this month. Not being religious, we don’t tithe, and we only have one gift-giving occasion in January. The balance of this category will go into donation boxes of non-profit institutions we visit this month. We also make an effort to contribute to charitable organizations and relief efforts throughout the year, and volunteer some time to causes we support. 
  • Emergency Fund 10%. Our Emergency Fund is currently big enough for us to survive for about four months with no other income. While that felt comfortable for us when we had one spouse with a full-time job, and one with several part-time and freelance income streams, now that we are down (for the time being) to one partner with one full-time job and a very little bit of part-time work, we are working toward having a year’s worth of expenses set aside for emergencies. By my calculations, at the rate we are able to save, it would take us about six years to reach that number! Because we anticipate returning to our 2+ income status in a couple of years (thereby returning to a smaller Emergency Fund), we’ll probably never hit our temporary goal, but we’re aiming to set aside 10% of everything we bring home in the meantime. 
  • Tax & Insurance Fund 10%. We maintain a separate account where we amortize our annual term life and auto insurance premiums, and set aside money to pay taxes on any 1099 income. 
  • Mortgage 25%. Our only debt is this 30-year fixed-rate loan, and we made a 20% down payment to avoid PMI. If we don’t pay anything extra, the payment (including principle and interest as well as escrow for property tax and insurance) is a quarter of our current take-home pay. We REALLY wanted a 15-year mortgage, but if we had done that, our currently reduced income would be more of a crisis than an inconvenience, so I guess we made the choice that was better for us. Still, we’re planning to get it paid off just as soon as we can.
  • Utilities 3%. This includes electric, water, natural gas, sewer and trash pickup. We are constantly looking for ways to reduce our usage, and hope to continue to see this number go down.
  • Mobile phones 3%. Our mobile phones are recent-release smart phones with high-usage packages. Admittedly an indulgence, we switched providers last year to save about $250/year over what we used to pay, and this expense would be the second cut we made in a financial crisis (the first is coming up below).
  • Home Improvement 2%. The Home Improvement Fund is one of the last budget categories we pay into right now. We are making continuous minor improvements at the Little Hippie House, and hoping to save enough to replace the aging roof, remodel the bathroom & kitchen, tear down a load-bearing wall, and install new floors. That all could take quite a while, but we’ll keep chipping away at it, as our finances allow.
  • Cable/Internet 2%. Cable would be the first thing to go in the event of a financial crisis, and I suppose our internet would have to slow down a lot if things got tight (or maybe not: Google Fiber is slowly making its way into our neighborhood). But it’s another indulgence we’re comfortable with for now.
  • Transportation 1%. Our transportation expenses will be ridiculously low this month, in part to one of us being a stay-at-home spouse, and the other one working just a few miles from home. Having paid-for cars that won’t need servicing, inspections, or registration in January helps a lot, too! (Remember, though, that our car insurance falls into another category… this number would double if we included it here)
  • Food 11%. Food is the big budgetary challenge for us this month, but we’re determined to make it work. When our income is bigger, we normally spend about double what we’ve allotted for January! This month, we’re planning to minimize meals out, work our way through the frozen holiday leftovers, and take advantage of our upcoming small winter garden harvest. In addition to feeding ourselves this month, it’s my hope to use 5-10% of our weekly food budget to build our home food store… I really love going to our little chest freezer for a gallon of milk or to our garage for a jar of peanut butter instead of having to run to the market when things run out!
  • Pet Care 1%. This category this month consists entirely of canned food for our two cats. We have more than enough kitty litter and dry food to get through the month, and their annual veterinary visits aren’t until March. 
  • Clothing 2%. We aren’t planning any clothing purchases this month, but we’re setting a little aside so we can do a Big Shop in the Spring. 
  • Entertainment 3%. Entertainment is the one area where we consistently  underspend! Every month, it’s a challenge to get ourselves out to the movies, a play, or to hear some live music. We’re still working on that, for the sake of balance.
  • Personal Care 9%. Our Personal Care budget should really be called “MY Personal Care budget,” as Mr.Vega gets an inexpensive haircut every other month or so, and is in the process of growing an Epic Beard, so we no longer buy him razors or shaving cream. Because I’m in the process of Changing Looks, hairwise, this month, this category is more than double what it usually is.
  • Education 6%. Even community college costs something, at least for now: there are a lot of political promises being made on the campaign trail to change that. That will be lovely if it happens, but in the meantime about 6% of January’s pay will go for tuition. 
  • Vacation 7%. Last summer, we went to a five-day music & arts festival that we just loved. It’s time to buy tickets for the next one, and because it’s an out-of-town camping trip, we count the tickets as a travel expense, rather than “entertainment” (and this part is a little weird, but because the event is limited-capacity, tickets are sold lottery-style, with each person allowed to request a maximum of two tickets. We each put in for two, and if we get all four, we’ll sell the extra pair at face value and recoup half of our expense. But we’re sending payment for four tickets in January, so that is what we have to budget for).
  • Professional Development 2%. My new job will reimburse me for this training after I complete it this Spring, but registration is first-come-first serve, which is why I’ll be paying for it this month.

So there you have it: our January budget, with every dollar accounted for. There’s plenty of room for improvement, but we’re not unhappy with it. Feel free to share in the comments how different it is from (or similar to) yours… I’m always curious to learn how other people are doing it.

Frugal Tuesday: Check Your City’s Webpage

Many cities and utility companies have money-saving programs that residents are unaware of. In Los Angeles, we were able to find free mulch and compost, free large-item pickup tags, discounted worm composting bins (in exchange for attending a 2-hour class). Here in Austin, discounts on composters are also offered, as well as free paint, mixed from people’s hazardous-waste drop-offs! We have taken advantage of numerous opportunities for rebates offered through our local electric company, and just this past weekend, we got a couple of free shade trees for our Little Hippie House through an energy-company partnering with TreeFolks.

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Take a few minutes to browse around and see what your city or utility company might be offering that you can use… you may be surprised by what you find!

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?