Self-Sufficiency Series

Showing posts with label frugality. Show all posts
Showing posts with label frugality. Show all posts

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The power of willpower

A few months ago I received an email from a woman named Laura who had a question, and we fell into an email conversation. She told me a bit about her and her husband's story. They were living near Philadelphia and longed to move to north Idaho and start a homestead. As we chatted, I found myself deeply impressed -- not only by their attitudes and hard work in starting a home business, but by Laura's impeccable English (she immigrated from Romania when she was 18). They were working hard toward their goals -- learning, saving money, paying off debt, living frugally... in short, doing everything right.

A couple days ago, Laura dropped me an update: she and her husband are now the proud owners of a piece of property in the area! As you can imagine, they're thrilled to make the move and get started turning their new place into a small farm.

Laura gave me permission to post the following. I think you'll agree that these folks are taking the right approach toward moving rural.

As she says in her email, their story should be encouraging for all those who want to make such a leap. I wish them every happiness in their new home!

This has been our dream for the past two years... in preparation for it we have learned to can and "garden" on our tiny balcony, started cooking everything from scratch and stopped eating out, we have gone out to yard sales every weekend for an entire summer in order to gather cheap tools and watched many eBay auctions to get what we needed to start our homestead at a price we could afford. We saved every extra penny we earned from our jobs and worked very hard to build our businesses so we could afford to work from home when we would start our homestead.

We are now at the point where we will be able to sustain ourselves between our businesses and our savings and are confident that we can make it work. It'll still be a stretch but we now have confidence in our ability to be frugal. It is incredible to see all of our hard work finally paying off. We are beyond excited to begin this new stage in our lives.

If you'd like to share these last paragraphs with your readers, you are more than welcome to. If you do, I hope this will act as an encouragement to anyone who has a big dream of homesteading or living differently from the mainstream. We have gotten plenty of strange looks when people hear of our dream but we pushed through no matter what and now we are so glad we did. There were moments when we weren't sure if we were ever going to make it happen but it was all worth it in the end.

Thank you, also, for your wonderful advice and for conversing with me over e-mail for so long. It helped us narrow down where we would like to rent, and it also convinced us of just how nice and friendly North Idahoans are. I am very excited to be meeting more people there and making new like-minded friends in the area.


Congratulations to Laura and her husband!

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Homeschooling on one income

I just received a comment as follows:

"Patrice: Slightly off topic -- can a family of six homeschool with one parent staying home on a $35K a year income? Thank you for your reply."

Of course they can. However I'm having a busy streak at the moment (getting ready for the preparedness expo, expecting visitors, writing deadlines, etc.), so I'm going to open this up for discussion and invite readers to give their thoughts.

C'mon, folks, let's help her out. How best can a large single-income family homeschool on $35K a year?

Monday, November 4, 2013

A different answer to the economic downturn

A few weeks ago I read an article entitled Living on $5,000 a year, on purpose: Meet America's 'intentional poor.' It discussed those individuals who saw fit to withdraw from the consumer culture and live on very little money.

The idea of paring down to virtually nothing has, I confess, always fascinated me, even as I handle the day-to-day commitments endemic with a farmstead.

The article quoted Dan Price, who wrote a book entitled Radical Simplicity, which I purchased a few years ago. His ideas are indeed radical, but I can't argue with some of his logic. To quote the article: "I like being able to do what want to do. I don't believe in houses or mortgages. Who in their right mind would spend their lifetime paying for a building they never get to spend time in because they are always working?"

While this is sound logic, I can't agree with one aspect of Mr. Price's lifestyle choice: to live apart from the woman with whom he sired two children, because he couldn't hack civilization. Not good.

But judgment aside, this new crop of "intentionally poor" seem just as idealistic as the intentionally-poor hippies two generations before them. Like the hippies, participants in this movement look for other means to define themselves besides a career or a fancy house or an expensive car.

Yet many can't make it on their own; most are involved in mooching to some degree off others. "We saw how mortgage companies screwed people," says a young fellow who calls himself Banjo. "The economy is a joke. We travel all over, and people help us out." Banjo also admits that he can return to his childhood bedroom. (In other words, his parents help him out.)

I dunno, somehow it seems intellectually dishonest to bolster one's "intentionally poor" lifestyle by mooching. At least Dan Price earns his money, rather than sponging off others.

The distinction between the "intentionally poor" and the truly poor is, clearly, one of choice. "[N]o matter how bad the job market is," notes the article, "there are clear distinctions between those who have the privilege to opt for poverty and those who are poor through no choice of their own.

I suppose there's something to admire about those who decide to live with so little. Even their sponging is, presumably, mooched from volunteers. (My admiration ends when their decision to take public assistance begins.)

Whatever your views on this intentional poverty, one thing is fairly clear: if/when this country experiences a REAL nasty unpleasant downturn, these people will at least have the street-smarts to survive.

Friday, August 2, 2013

The advantages of frugality

This is our twentieth year for our woodcraft business. Not many crafters reach this stage, particularly those for whom their craft supplies their primary income. Many crafters must find outside work in order to survive, and slowly their craft becomes either a hobby or at best a distant secondary source of income.

But we've managed to hang on, sometimes by the tips of our fingernails. The financial insecurity of the craft world has taught us one very important thing: frugality. Twenty years ago we had a choice. We could either be thrifty and work at home, or we could spend money and find a 9-to-5 job. We chose to be thrifty. We've remained so ever since.

As it turns out, a thrifty lifestyle offers advantages to everyone. Consider the following.

My dear friends Wendy and Tim, with whom I stay whenever I'm in Portland, have an unusual lifestyle. Wendy is a writer and Tim is an actor. There is no finer recipe for financial insecurity than the combination of those two occupations.

Tim's case is particularly interesting. His specialty is Shakespeare and he's done a lot of theater work in his time. He's also done advertisements and occasional television appearances. I've known Tim for nearly as long as I've known Wendy, so it's been interesting to watch his struggles over the years as he labors to do the work he loves.

But unlike high-demand Hollywood actors like Johnny Depp, most actors struggle to find work on a day-to-day basis. Last year Tim did quite well; this year, not so well. That's why I was happy to hire him to help me run the booth while in Portland; a few day's work is the least I can do to thank them for putting me up during my stay.

When Tim can't find acting work, he turns his hand to a number of odd jobs or other means of producing income. He's hard-working, honest, and willing to do almost anything. These are important quality traits in anyone, but especially for someone who has chosen an insecure field (like acting) for a career.

But Tim said something interesting last week. He said over the years, more financially successful friends have urged him to give up acting and get a secure nine-to-five job. Steady jobs are actually tough for actors, because they must often drop everything and rush to an audition at a moment's notice. Tim's flexible hours from odd jobs is far more suitable for keeping his acting options open than a steady desk job would be.

Because he refused to leave acting, the income gap between him and his wealthier friends grew quite wide.

So he's resisted the steady employment and chosen instead to keep pursuing the acting, even if it means financial insecurity. As a result, he and Wendy -- like Don and I -- have honed the art of frugality to perfection. They are thrifty and careful. They live within their extremely modest means. And both Tim and Wendy have, as a result, been able to pursue the careers they love.

But then an interesting thing happened. Many of the friends who urged Tim to give up acting in order to be more financially stable, have lost their employment in these hard economic times. They are staggering around, lost and insecure, desperately applying for jobs to keep their heads above water. They have no idea how to cut expenses or live frugally. It's not just that they don't know how; but they also resent it like crazy. They see frugality as a deprivation rather than a creative challenge. They are resentful and hurt.

Tim said that frugality has allowed him to pursue the field he loves. Frugality has allowed him to float, buoyant and light, on the rough waves of a tough economy, while many others are desperately struggling to keep their heads above the water.

Something to think about.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Patching pillows

Speaking of frugal living, I finally got around to doing something I've been meaning to do for months: patching my pillow.

When Don and I were married in 1990, we received a set of "feather-down" bed pillows which I absolutely loved. I don't know what happened to Don's pillow, but I've used mine for over two decades (and please spare me the lecture about how unhealthy this is; I love my pillow).

But it's finally starting to develop some holes, through which little downy feathers are forever poofing out. One big hole...

...and one smaller one.

Being too cheap frugal to buy a new pillow, I decided to patch it. I used the square of thin batting I used last week for a temporary tea bag. This material is more like thin interfacing than batting.

Since it doesn't fray along the edges (plus it's quite tough), I didn't have to hem it or fold over the edge; I just doubled it up and sewed it on.

I also noticed some additional small holes starting to form. I guess I have to face reality; it's time to sew a new pillow. I'll use a thrift-store sheet and cut it to size, then re-stuff it with the same feathery contents (a hint from my mother: do this outside, not in the house).

But until I get around to doing that, at least my pillow is patched and won't leak feathers. And since no one will ever see the patches, I didn't have to worry about neat picture-perfect stitching.

This is in contrast to a couch pillow that split a seam a couple months ago, and on which I did do neat stitching.

So what do new feather-down bed pillows cost these days? How much did I save?

At last, somebody's doing it right!

I confess I get sick and tired of news profiles of "frugal" people who do absurd things like going a week without shopping (oooh!) or (cough) going a month without spending (after being allowed to stock up in advance). There's even a book describing a year without (discretionary) shopping (be sure to read the reviews).

Well at last the news folks got it right. They profiled a young couple who is living -- very well -- on $14,000/year. Good for them!

These folks are doing it all right: cooking from scratch, paying everything with cash, buying bulk, etc. They also homeschool their two children (here's their blog).

I say, more power to 'em. At an age where most people spend themselves into debt, this couple is doing whatever it takes to stay out of debt and live richly. They're passing these skills on to their children. My gosh, we need more folks like them. They've got their heads screwed on straight.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Saving seven hundred dollars

Our chest freezer was in trouble.

To be fair, this chest freezer has been an outstanding appliance. We bought it in 2000 when Montgomery Wards went out of business. As I recall, we walked into the rapidly-emptying store during their liquidation process and asked for their biggest chest freezer. I don't remember the price, but we came home with a 24.9 cubit foot Frigidaire. That was when we still lived in Oregon.

We transported it all the way to Idaho in 2003 (filled with half a cow, as I recall -- our logic was it was easier to move the cow in the freezer than on the hoof) and since we had no place to set it up inside the house, we parked it outside on our side porch. We didn't realize this was the wrong thing to do, since this meant it was in full sunlight during the first half of the day. In warmer weather, this made the motor run too hard. Sure enough, about four years ago the motor died. Horrors. But we engaged the services of an appliance repairman, he fixed it up spiffily, and he told us the freezer would last much longer (and run more efficiently) if we moved it to a shady spot. So our chest freezer now sits on our north-facing front porch.

Anyway, a few months ago we noticed the freezer lid was falling apart. Some of the plastic screws had worked their way out, exposing the insulation within. The insulation somehow managed to absorb water, then it froze, swelled, and pushed more screws out. The plastic liner came loose. The lid would no longer close. Ice began accumulating inside the freezer itself. Thick ice.

The contents stayed frozen, but the motor was running more often, indicating efficiency was decreased. Did this mean our faithful freezer was done? Did we need a new freezer?

We just had to go through the necessity of buying a new refrigerator. The second-hand unit we bought five years ago finally died -- kaput -- and we lost a lot of food (it's astounding how fast food rots without the blessings of refrigeration). We have a lot of meat in the chest freezer and didn't want to lose it (though let it be known that in the event of a long-term power outage, I am prepared to can it all).

So we priced chest freezers and found they cost around $700. Yeah right. Like we have that kind of money sitting around. Right now all spare money is going into Younger Daughter's mouth.

So Don, clever fellow, decided he would repair the lid. However he really couldn't do much until cold weather came, since the freezer would be without its lid for several days.

This week's cold snap afforded him the chance to remove the lid. He took the screws off the hinges and brought the lid unit inside. Meanwhile we draped blankets over the contents of the freezer to hold as much cold air in as possible.

Don removed the fiberglass insulation and draped it over the shower curtain rod in the bathtub to drip-dry. Took two days. There was a LOT of water in that bundle of insulation -- no wonder it swelled. I wished I'd gotten a picture.

Here the insulation is finally dry, and Don has replaced it in the freezer lid. He's getting the inside plastic cover ready to go back on.

Re-affixing the plastic lining. Some of the specialized plastic screws have gone missing, so he divvied up the remaining screws evenly around the perimeter.

After asking at the hardware store for what kind of adhesive would withstand sub-freezing Idaho winter temperatures, he came home with some general purpose auto adhesive, which he used in place of the missing screws. He also re-affixed the perimeter gasket with this adhesive.

Here's the lid, totally repaired.

However we couldn't re-install the lid without first taking care of the massive ice building up in the freezer itself.

Besides, it was past time to clean out the freezer anyway. You know how it goes: you stash leftovers (forgetting to label them) until they become unknown fossilized mysterious objects. And meanwhile, the good stuff gets buried.

So I unplugged the electric cord, then totally emptied the freezer. I chucked the fossilized mysteries into a garbage can, and stacked all the meats, cheese, etc onto the porch. Then out came the trusty rubber mallet to whack away at the ice. Ice fractures under compression, so whacking works well.

I used a square shovel to carefully scoop the ice into a box, which I dumped into the driveway. Because the shovel is metal, I have to be careful not to scratch the freezer's interior.

At last the hard work was done and I re-packed the contents, roughly sorting by category (you can't see them, but there are cardboard boxes holding such things as cheese, deli meats, ground beef, etc.).

I didn't plug the freezer back in, however, until we could get the lid back on. For the time being I covered it with blankets again.

Then Don and I carried the refurbished lid back out and fitted it onto the freezer once more. It was a bear to get the screws in the hinges, but he managed at last.

Ta da! Total cost of repair: about $5 for the automobile adhesive. Thanks to my smart husband's ingenuity (and frugality), we saved around $700.

Hopefully we'll get a few more years out of this faithful appliance before we're forced to buy a new one.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Frugal tips

Every so often I go on a frugality bender in which I become quietly obsessed with spending less money than before.

The trigger for this latest bender is the end of our busy season. Sales at the Kansas City Renaissance Festival weren’t as high as we'd hoped (the weather wasn’t cooperative) and since we depend on those sales to get us through the winter, we’ll be tightening our collective belts for the next several months. This is nothing unusual; it’s happened before.

Over the years of self-employment, we were forced into becoming students of thrift. When we started our home woodcraft business nineteen years ago, we had no choice: we could either be thrifty and work at home, or we could spend money and find a 9-to-5 job. We chose to be thrifty.  We've remained so ever since.

Recently I came across a frugality-related blog with an entry dating to 2006 in which the blogger listed 25 ways she saves money. She then linked to other bloggers who formed their own lists as well. It was wonderful to read through dozens of frugal lists. Frustratingly I didn’t save the link and can’t find it again, but I thought it might be interesting to recreate that concept.

Below are 25 ways we save money (well okay, the list came out to more than 25, and I’ll probably add to it as I think of more things, but you get the picture). Since we're rural, not everything we do will apply to everyone, but these are some of the ways we stay thrifty.

• We buy staples in bulk, usually from a wholesale grocery store but sometimes from Costco. This includes things like sugar, brown sugar, beans, rice, brown rice, flour, whole wheat flour, cornmeal, etc. I buy tea in bulk ( as well as coffee beans (in large amounts at Costco, where I also get them ground). Other things we buy in bulk include over-the-counter medicines (aspirin, ibuprofen, allergy pills, etc.), dog food, toilet paper, even dish towels (a bale of 60 “shop rags” at Costco will last me through several years of hard use in the kitchen).

• We don’t use a clothes dryer. Years ago when we lived in Oregon and our girls were babies, Don installed a clothesline for me and I was astounded by how much money it saved on our electric bill. During appropriate weather, I dried everything on that clothesline, including cloth diapers. When we moved to Idaho, he installed a clothesline and I used it until it broke. Then my dear husband made me a hanging clothes rack which suspends from the upstairs ceiling, and it works so well that I never bothered asking if he could re-install an outdoor clothesline. Line-drying our clothes has literally cut our propane usage in half.

• We use as few disposables as possible. When we became preppers, we quickly realized that we were too dependent on disposable items – paper towels, Kleenex, feminine hygiene, disposable razors, paper plates, etc. We began phasing most disposables out of our lives. The above-mentioned shop rags have largely replaced paper towels. The girls and I use Enola Gay’s washable feminine hygiene products. We use cloth napkins and never buy paper plates or plastic cutlery. I use aluminum foil sparingly, and re-use it whenever possible. I have never bought plastic wrap; instead we use plastic containers with fitting lids, or those “shower cap” gizmos that fit over anything.

• When we choose to indulge ourselves, we keep the indulgence as low-cost as possible. For example, I enjoy a glass of wine in the evenings. But I’ll buy wine in five-liter boxes rather than expensive bottles.

• Our entertainment is home-focused. This isn’t hard to do, since the nearest movie theater or coffee house is an hour’s drive away. This means we rent movies, or read books, or go for walks, or visit neighbors, or otherwise come up with low-cost methods to keep ourselves entertained.

• Public transportation isn’t an option where we live, but working from home allows us to eliminate a commute. We combine trips to the city with other errands, and we map out our routes to make travel efficient and use less gas.

• We’re not married to labels. We buy generic or second-hand whenever possible. The few “name brand” items we’re devoted to are usually because it was originally the cheapest option and we’ve just gotten used to using that brand (such as Suave shampoo).

• We don’t watch TV. We don’t get reception and don’t want to pay for any of the expensive options to bring that trash into our house. This also serves to cut down on commercials and the lust for junk that commercials cleverly inspire (especially in children).

• I use our Crockpot (slow cooker) and bread machine constantly. Crockpots are the world’s greatest invention for busy people. If you throw the ingredients in for a stew or soup or roast before you go to work, your meal is finished by the time you get home. And I’ve hardly bought a loaf of bread in the last fifteen years thanks to my hard-working bread machine. Crockpots and bread machines can be bought for pennies on the dollar in thrift stores.

• We don’t have smart phones and we keep our cell phone plan (and usage) to a bare-bones minimum (none of us are fond of talking on the phone anyway). This way we can take advantage of the cheapest cell phone packages since we don’t want any of the extra bells and whistles. A couple years ago, we canceled our long-distance coverage for our house phone, so we can only make local calls from our landline.

• We keep our electricity usage low. We’re fortunate enough to live in a climate where we don’t have to use air conditioning in the summer, and since we use a wood stove exclusively in the winter, we don’t have heating or cooling bills. We’ve switched to CFLs in certain light fixtures (namely, lamps which are unlikely to get knocked over) which helps reduce our kilowatts. Our electricity bill averages $45/month to run a farm, woodshop, and home. (A little higher in the winter since we use a stock tank heater so the cattle can drink ice-free water; and a little lower in the summer when the days are longer.)

• I try to keep staples on hand for making our favorite meals, and try to cook from scratch whenever possible. We also make nearly all our baked goods: bread, English muffins, biscuits, cookies, etc.

• We’re a low-maintenance family. The girls and I don’t cut our hair (or if we do, we do it ourselves). I trim Don’s hair every couple of months, but since I’m admittedly bad at this, he goes in for a proper haircut about twice a year. We don’t buy clothes that require dry-cleaning. We don’t dress fashionably or go to salons or get our nails done or other unnecessary stuff (we live on a farm, remember!).

• We drink mostly water – and I don't mean bottled water. Soda is a rarity (though Don does enjoy diet Coke sometimes, blech). So is juice. We drink tap water, or milk. Fortunately our water is delicious, but if it wasn’t, we’d get one of those sink filters in order to avoid buying water.

• We have cheap friends, and I mean this as the highest compliment. Our friends don’t delight in shopping or otherwise spending money. Instead they enjoy the same home-centered things we do: a cozy cup of tea, a nice walk, a potluck dinner. Having cheap friends helps a lot.

• We buy used. It would never, ever dawn on us to buy a new car (even if we could afford it). Nearly everything we buy (except socks and underwear) comes from thrift stores. God bless thrift stores, they’re wonderful.

• Don is remarkably “handy.” When necessary, he can turn his hand to plumbing, wiring, repairs, construction, etc. It’s astounding how much money this saves us.

• Along the lines of being handy, we have tools to do necessary jobs. For example, our bathtub is highly susceptible to clogging, no matter how diligently we empty the hair trap over the drain. So we have a “snake” which can unclog a drain plug up to 25 feet down a pipe. Don has lots of tools like this and – even better – he know how to use them.

• I’ve rediscovered some of the domestic arts that save us a lot of money, such as canning, gardening, cooking from scratch, baking, etc. If I sewed, we could save even more. We try to avoid hobbies or pastimes that cost money.

•We heavily use our local library. Unfortunately this small rural facility is extremely limited in what it stocks (it has no magazines and only a couple dozen movies, for example), but we can always request books of interest. If nothing else, this allows us to “test drive” a book and see if it’s a worthwhile volume to purchase. (Ahem. Books are our weakness.)

• Our mortgage is low. When we were house-hunting in 2003, we knew we couldn’t saddle ourselves with a mortgage higher than we could afford. For Pete’s sake, we make our living selling crafts – because of the constant possibility that our business could experience a downturn, the last thing we needed was a high mortgage. It took us three years of diligent searching across four states to find property cheap enough that also fit our requirements – land for cattle and a garden, woods for firewood, an outbuilding (for use as a workshop as well as a barn), and a fixer-upper home. This careful shopping allowed us to keep our mortgage payments (including insurance) under $700/month. By keeping our credit rating high (paying our bills on time, minimal debt, etc.), we were able to qualify for a low fixed-interest rate.

• We use leftovers. Leftovers are some of our favorite meals. Often I’ll cook way more than we can eat in one meal solely to have leftovers for the next few days. If you don’t like using leftovers by themselves as a meal, consider combining them into soups, “leftover pie,” quiches, stir-fries, stews, etc.

• As self-employed entrepreneurs, we were priced out of conventional health insurance. We had little choice but to give it up. Even the highest-deductible catastrophic insurance was costing us a bloody fortune – nearly $10,000/year – and when we received notice that our premiums were increasing yet further, we simply couldn’t afford it. Since we’re blessed with good health, we dropped the insurance and instead got Aflac coverage for hospital, cancer, and accidents for about $150/month. We also took some of the money we were pouring down the rat-hole of useless health insurance and started our own medical emergency fund.

• We have a hot-water-on-demand propane water heater. We can’t take any credit for this since it was in the house when we bought it, but oh my goodness we love it. We have endless hot water when we need it, and we aren’t wasting propane or electricity by keeping a huge water tank hot all the time. Great money saver.

• Our appliances are the most basic we can find. Our refrigerator is small and doesn’t dispense ice or water. Our washing machine is very plain. We have no dishwasher. Our range is unsophisticated and inexpensive.

• We don’t upgrade. We use our items until they break beyond repair or are worn out. This includes computers, telephones, clothing, footwear, tools, etc.

• An idea I got years ago from The Tightwad Gazette is to keep a price book. This allows me to cross-compare prices of items across different stores. At this point I pretty much have things memorized so I don’t use one any more, but I remember an interesting incident that happened when Older Daughter was a baby. Our finances were so tight that disposable diapers were out of the question, though I did keep a few on hand for traveling. Another new mother tried to tell me she couldn’t afford a washing machine, which is why she used disposable diapers. I whipped out my price book in which I had recorded the cost of disposable diapers across numerous regional stores and convinced her that if she used cloth diapers, she could purchase a washer and dryer within a couple months. (I don’t know if the argument worked.)

• We keep our vices to a minimum. While we indulge in an occasional beer or glass of wine, we don’t gamble, use drugs, smoke, recreationally shop, etc.

Anyway, these are some of the ideas that came to mind on how we save money. I’ll add more as they come to me.

And here’s what I’d like to do: If you keep a blog or website, write your own list of money-saving tips, post it on your blog (cross-referencing this blog post as well), and send me the link. I’ll put up a post linking everyone else’s tips. That way we can generate a huge amount of cross-traffic AND get a lot of spiffy new ideas by reading everyone else's money-saving tips into the bargain!

Frugality Tips from Other Bloggers