When To Blow Your Budget

On a hike this summer

Yesterday I bought my oldest a pair of shoes. Platform Ugg booties to be exact, for $150, full price, at Nordstrom. They had asked to go get some concealer, and so we went off for a very rare trip to the mall. On our way out we spotted them, tried them on, bought them instantly.

It was neither planned nor budgeted. They were far out of the normal price range of anything I would buy for a 13 year-old. I don’t think they have taken them off since, they may have even slept in them. The delight on their face at their height and comfort could have been measured in kilowatts.

For me, it was a bit of a way to exorcise some anger at learning that last year a former friend had bullied them, hard, in an approach called relational aggression, which is the pointing, whisper campaigns, talking about someone loudly in their hearing at the cafeteria lunch table, etc. Hard to track or prove, it had been an undercurrent in an already hard year. When it popped up again last week at a shared extracurricular activity, I finally got the full story.

Of course the other child’s mom went into deep denial (Not her baby! We must have misunderstood!), and as there went 11.5 years of social niceties and casual friendship, so did all of my give-a-s**t about it.

I did what any Mom would, I documented, I notified the school it had happened and asked for future monitoring, and I informed the parent that we would be watching, closely in the event that her commitments that it would stop proved themselves not worth the air they were promised in.

And then I took my oldest child to Sephora, got what they needed plus a little, and then as we saw those shoes on the way back to the car, I figured my husband would forgive me (sorry honey, I should have called) and I bought them. Not as a te absolvo to myself for not realizing that their reluctance for school and stress was something bigger than the loss of the friendship compounded by a fall consumed with the loss of their uncle, but because as a result of that and other things makes them think they don’t warrant their parents spending money on them. So they don’t like asking for things.

So I damn well did spend money and reminded them they are worthy of attention, money, and to feel good about themselves. If that was received as parent-y gibberish or it landed I don’t know, but there was a day wreathed in smiles (also hugs as they reveled in their ability to be taller than me).

We’ve been being extremely careful for months and months now. We filled the year with trips and that plus some fairly major unexpected expenses and all the deposits and architect fees we put into the renovation have made things tighter than usual. Add to that inflation and we’re just being super thoughtful before we spend any money on nonessentials.

And this was a nonessential, but in the end…also kind of essential.

Money really can’t buy happiness after a point. Given how often Elon Musk whines on Twitter I observe that no matter how wealthy you get, you can’t escape yourself. Often I feel as much or more delight hiking or sitting with a book as I do in the bigger experiences. I love to travel, and I used to like shopping a lot, although I really don’t now. But sometimes money buys not just a pair of shoes, but a demonstration of value, an experience of real joy along with the stuff.

And that is worth a broken budget once in a while.

The Cheap Girl’s Guide to Inflation Eating

Water lilies on the Ipswich River

It’s hot. Really, really hot. As July draws to a close (how did that happen already!?) we are lucky to be at the cooler end of the heat dome that has covered a huge chunk of the US over the last week, but it’s still 98 degrees here today. And we are in extreme drought conditions, so I’m working hard to keep the plants and animals alive. It’s supposed to rain some tomorrow, and I’m grateful just thinking abut it.

Our CSA is in full swing, and we are working to keep up with using the produce. I’ve got my first batch of basil pesto in the freezer, and more to come soon. It’s almost time for me to make zucchini fritters in bulk to freeze, and shred and freeze zucchini for winter meals. I picked the first cherry tomato out of the garden, too, and that will all ripen soon enough. It looks like we may have a banner year for squash again.

Our summer has been busy and the gardens became a weedfest while we were off doing our things, so I’ve been getting up early to try to clean things out and get the last of the compost spread.

Over the last couple months we’ve pared down what we buy at the grocery store and are really trying to use up what we have. Inflation is impacting us for real.

I admit it, I’m not the world’s most frugal person, but I used to be, and I’m leaning in again, not just because of inflation, but because we’re almost 10 months into our 10-year plan to save, pay off debt and be ready for retirement. While we’ll still travel, something I value highly, and our renovation will be with an eye to the long haul, for the most part we’re just not spending on anything other than food and bills. (And this spring I bought pansies. Lots and lots of pansies because they are so pretty) .

Ok, well the kids both needed new shoes and clothes too. But I’d be lying if I said the state of the economy wasn’t on my mind, enough so that we’ve contemplated whether it might be more financially prudent to move than to renovate this house. I know, I know. Leave Sithean? I can’t even. But I also acknowledge that in order to fit us the dining room is now a master bedroom, and there’s no room to move and nowhere to put anything. The decision process is heavy on our minds.

My son raised money at his lemonade stand for games but also for charity, and he and I went over to my hometown outreach organization to bring them the $20 that he had set aside. Their food pantry demand continues to spike, especially with the cost of everything rising, so even a little bit helps. We are fortunate enough to be able to afford to eat healthy and delicious food, but we are being thoughtful and careful with what we spend.

So how are you going to keep eating well through all the economic uncertainty? Because you are. And so are we.

First, as I mentioned, I’m buying less. I try to run out of things before I replace them, and I’m trying to be conscious of what I can substitute. Today I made homemade macaroni salad (this recipe is so delicious) but I didn’t have sweet peppers so instead of what it called for I added celery, onion and chopped up cucumber. Was it as colorful as the picture in the original recipe? Nope, but it was still lick-the-fork good. We might still buy salmon, which somehow became cheaper than beef, but instead of frozen and in bulk we’re buying just enough for a meal.

Second, we’re using up the stuff in the freezer. I’m inventorying what we have before we shop all the time.

Third, we’re meal planning. Even if we sometimes veer off the plan, it’s always with an eye to using things up. As soon as the weather is cool enough to roast a couple of chickens I’m going to use one of Fed and Fit’s weekly meal plans to make several meals for the week, since our Walden Local Meat share has been delivering whole chickens regularly lately.

And we’re eating very well. Last week I marinated chicken in a mixture of shallots, garlic, oregano, paprika, salt, pepper and lemon juice and served that over pesto orzo (last summer’s homemade pesto from the freezer) with sundried tomatoes, fresh basil from the plants on the porch and burrata, which I had bought in a fit of hunger the prior week. I toasted some walnuts and threw them on top of the orzo and it was incredibly good.

For recipes: I am hooked on this blog and I can’t wait to try her lentil sausage skillet recipe – ThriftyFrugalMom
I also can’t recommend enough the recipes in the Good and Cheap cookbook, which is available as a pdf for free! It’s designed for someone who lives on SNAP benefits or $4/day for food.

For grocery shopping: Bulk is almost always a cheaper option if you can squeak it in. I found 4 lbs of steel cut oats for $10.82 on Amazon, and that will last for a lot of meals. I don’t make homemade oatmeal a lot, but it’s cheap, filling and good, so I’m going to start. Bulkfoods.com is a great source for lentils and other bulk grains but definitely shop around.

If you can, try ethnic grocery stores around you. I use a fair amount of Ghee in cooking, and the Indian grocery store is far more frugal. Same for bulk rice and lentils – I buy Basmati and Sushi rice in 10 or 15-lb bags and store them in mason jars. Even fruits and veggies can be much, much cheaper here. Especially if you buy in season.

I’m not going to wade into the meat vs. meatless perspective, but I will say that there are cheaper proteins than beef and chicken. And breakfast for dinner (my favorite pancake recipe is here and it makes quite a few) is almost always cheaper than other options.

Other than oatmeal, here’s a few things i suggest keeping on hand for easy, cheap meals:

Tortillas & Shredded cheese for quesadillas, burritos, etc
Dried beans (really easy, especially in the crock pot or instant pot)
Rice – filling and you can add spices and a few veggies to it for a really good meal
Lentils. These things are the best. Quick cooking, nutritious and tasty, and cheap, cheap, cheap. I guarantee you will find this Dal recipe addictive.
Flour and potatoes: making almost anything from scratch is cheaper, add a little cheese and make pierogies in giant batches – filling and super good.
Onions – I use them in everything, they are vitamin C and flavor powerhouses
Bananas – if you need a quick fill of your stomach these are amongst the cheapest of fruits. Banana bread is also cheap and delicious if they start to get brown.
Melons also go a long way. I can get a cantaloupe for $2.99 and it adds fruits for lunches for days
Pasta can be added to almost anything and even though prices are up, it’s still pretty cheap and a pound goes a long way. I don’t recommend all the carbs all the time but add some chopped onion and a drained can of solid white tuna to sauce (I’m serious) and it’s a great dinner.
Milk
Eggs
Bulk yeast – do not buy the little packets, get a pound at a time and bake! Well, when it’s cooler.

Of course spices are great and these too are way, way cheaper in bulk. If you can save up for a couple bulk spices each month you will fill your pantry.

The last thing I will suggest for saving money on your food is gratitude. Feeling grateful for a plate of food is something I never stop feeling, even if it’s not what I thought I wanted for dinner.

The moon over Moosehead Lake, Maine



Saturdays in the Kitchen

Picture of our walk – photo by Eli 5 Stone

As January rolled in with our first snowstorm and kid snow day, so did a critical phase of what Eli and I are referring to as our ’10 year plan’, our combined target of some big goals, like adoption, which we are just in the waiting phase on, and some really big house renovations, and a parallel track to financial independence. In order to achieve our goals it’s going to require serious focus. And in 2022, that means tightening our belts and evaluating all of our expenses.

I’ve found that spending less feels onerous without a goal, and only minimally painful with one (or more). And we are going for strategic use of our money, with travel a priority, but focused on trips where we can use hotel, airline and car rental points or the RV, as much as possible. Our recent loss of my brother in law, still fresh and painful, has taught us not to wait to make memories, but like with all things, balance and a plan for the future – a plan that there will be a future -is required.

I sat down to start this post the other night with a glass of inexpensive wine, and a bowl of Half Baked Harvest’s One Pot Hamburger Helper , which uses up a lot of my frozen shredded zucchini, as well as a bunch of the fancy leftover Christmas cheese and is filling and warm and yummy. I used cassava pasta instead of traditional pasta and added a splash of white wine for flavor, but this recipe is good, healthy and uses up what’s in the freezer and the pantry.

Because if you preserve something you really need to eat it. Past me was admittedly terrible about this, forgetting things in the freezer and fridge, current me is getting much, much better at it. For us, meal plans, batch cooking and planning ahead are the only things that work. And because our lives get so busy, cooking ahead saves us a ton of stress.

Yesterday Eli and I went to the grocery store and then I spent about 5-6 hours in the kitchen. I made Anadama Bread, a double batch of Butternut Squash Lasagna with Garlic and Rosemary, chipotle turkey stuffed sweet potatoes with spinach, and a pot of healthy Butter Chicken with mashed cauliflower for Saturday dinner. I also took some of the last of the beets we had from our farm share, and peeled and chopped them small, coated them in olive oil, salt and pepper and roasted them at 375 degrees until slightly crunchy. Roasted beets are a no-recipe recipe that both Eli and I love.

We have lunches now to take us at least until Wednesday, between the stuffed sweet potatoes and a pot of French Onion Soup I made on Friday night. We have a squash lasagna for the freezer, which will reappear on a night where no one has the time and energy to cook and provide lunch leftovers for a few days, and we had a great dinner from about 20 minutes of effort.

Later this morning I will return to the kitchen and prep tonight’s dinner and Monday as well. Tonight is a simple batch of parmesan-crusted chicken, with broccoli and popovers on the side, and Monday is likely the bulgogi I prepped and froze in December, with a side of couscous and edamame. Eli takes meal prep Tuesday and Thursday so the next time I’m on duty is Wednesday, but we’ll see how the leftover situation is then, we might need to eat down what we’ve made, or we may pull some chili from the freezer.

We’ve tried batch cooking and eating the same thing for days, but generally that isn’t popular here, and it doesn’t help us when we have highly variable meats that arrive from our local meat subscription, or when we have to plan around garden/CSA produce, also highly variable, so we try instead to rotate meals that we enjoy that allow us to use up the food we have. And I go looking (and get inventive) when I need new recipes for when we have something to use up. Right now our pumpkins and squashes need using, so the squash lasagna and stuffed sweet potatoes served multiple purposes.

We’ll be eating stuffed spaghetti squash probably once a week for the next few weeks too, as we have a plethora of them that we grew, and they won’t last forever. I’m holding on to some tomatoes that I froze in the fall to make a giant batch of sauce later this month, and that will turn into spaghetti and meatball dinners and probably lasagna and homemade pizza too.

Come February, it will be time to go to work on the sweet potatoes and keeping onions we bought back in October before they reach the end of their life. By early March, when we start our seeds most of the pesto will be gone from the freezer and we’ll be mostly beholden to the grocery store for our fresh fruit and veggies, although my plan is to plant some greens next weekend to supplement with lettuce for salads and greens for stir fry. In April and May the farm stands will open again, and we’ll maybe wander into Boston to Haymarket to supplement now and again if time allows. By then we’ll be back in the garden as well, and by June the garlic scapes will be turning into pesto again. But for now, the unhurried afternoons in the kitchen keep us warm and well-fed, and are part of what has become our annual cycle of food use here at Sithean.

Bird Feeder in the Snow by Eli 5 Stone

Eat What You Have…and Eat Well

Iguana Island, Turks and Caicos

After 16 months of isolating from almost everything and everyone, we rolled the dice – with 3 out of 4 of us fully vaccinated, we went on vacation for a week. A big, splurge-y vacation to Turks and Caicos, complete with snorkeling, a day trip on a boat to see Iguanas and snorkel shipwrecks, and meals out on sandy beachfront outdoor restaurants. To keep it as safe as possible, we put my son, the only one of us that can’t yet get vaccinated, in the window seat on the planes and rented a house with access to a private beach in order to limit the people around us.

We returned home pleased with ourselves but very tired, and having spent more than we had all together in multiple preceding years on trips, which are mostly local for us. Still, it was on the pre-adoption list to bundle us all off to an exotic locale (which was supposed to be Paris last spring, but alas, pandemic) and this was just perfect for us – just enough of being in the world, but also somewhat isolated.

It was also enough traditional expensive vacation fun for several years. Our RV will hold us for a good long while, quite contentedly. I love to travel, and although beach vacations aren’t my typical thing, they are good for the soul now and then. And I discovered Conch Fritters, which are otherworldly.

After we got home we did our usual grocery stock up, and prepared to tighten our belts to hit some of our big goals over the next few years. We have a couple RV trips this summer, but cooking in is the name of the game most of the time, and once we’re there, most of the things we want to do are free or pretty cheap.

So – the kids have their first passport stamp of each of their lifetimes, we have a house full of groceries, and now it’s my job to both stretch everything, and start to clear out the freezers.

They are full to the brim, so that’s going to take a while, but it should be fun. Supplementing will be easy – we have our CSA just starting up, which includes a fruit share, the garden will start producing shortly, and we prepaid 6 months of our local meat delivery service. We’ll still need milk and some basics, but it’s my plan that we’ll be able to eat on what we have until the end of July.

In order to do that, meal planning, and the shopping I did for the next 6 weeks, falls into 3 distinct ingredient categories.

Staple meals we cook regularly, such as enchiladas and Bulgogi

A few special meals, based on recipes I want to try or create

Simple, seasonal meals

The last category is the really important one if you want to use up what you have and save money. I love cooking blogs as much as the next person, but if you try to make meals with specific, new ingredient lists all the time, you will end up spending a lot of money. It’s the simple, seasonal or sale stuff that will really save you.

For example, as part of our monthly meat delivery, we get a fair amount of sausage, more than we consistently eat. So tonight I took a package of sausage, put a can of diced tomatoes over it with a little salt, pepper and lemon juice over it, and baked it at 375 degrees for about 35 minutes. To this I added deviled eggs that I had made earlier in the day, a cucumber, tomato and onion salad, and some sauteed cauliflower rice.


I bought the cucumber and cherry tomatoes for the salad, but we had the eggs, cauliflower rice, sausage and diced tomatoes from previous shopping excursions, along with all the condiments we needed. The leftover salad will keep for a couple days, and serve as the basis for my lunch tomorrow at least.

Other than the deviled eggs, which take about 8 minutes to prepare, and the salad, which took less than that, there was really no work, and at the end a healthy, filling dinner was on the table.

There’s lots of tricks to saving money on food, but the ones that work for me are to keep it simple, and to plan ahead. I had spent a chunk of our plane ride home making a meal plan, so I knew what I was going to cook. I’ll spend a chunk of the weekend making food for the week, so it will be ready when we’re hungry.

What are some other meals we’ll make? We’ll, it’s grill season, so a basket of seasonal grilled vegetables along with our protein of choice will be a frequent thing. When it’s not too hot, popovers or bread to go with it. For bread that’s already been baked, put a little olive oil on the bread and grill that, too. Chicken leg quarters have been piling up in the freezer, so I’ll take a bunch out and marinate them, and cook them for dinner and lunches. This weekend I’ll make and freeze some pizza dough for Friday pizza night (it’s on my list to try to make tandoori chicken pizza for our next foray into the odd and possibly palatable). Homemade paninis are on the list too, especially when there’s the opportunity to choose your filling for each kid. Tacos, enchiladas, stir fry, and, when tomatoes are finally in season later this year, gazpacho. Lots of salads of varying kinds.

Will these meals require cookbooks and recipes? Some, maybe. I’m always on the lookout for a good marinade, or use for CSA and garden produce, which is how I learned to make Garlic Scape Pesto and all sorts of other things. But often it will be simple.

Which is exactly how summer should be.

RV Economics Part 2

As I mentioned in my last post, RVs are cheaper than say, a second home, but not as cheap as, say, a tent-camping vacation. I love tent camping, but for right now, communal bathrooms and showers are a nonstarter. I look forward to a time when we can take the tent out. Maybe the backyard first.

Another thing too – tents are, at this point in our life, great for a night or two, but it begins to get a little old after a few days, as I haul dishes to communal sinks for washing or hope I dropped enough quarters into the shower to get all the soap out of my hair. Maybe someday we’ll do more back country camping again rather than drive up sites, but for our child rearing years, we’re bound to some conveniences.

For longer vacations, we’ve typically rented homes through VRBO.com, interspersed with a night here and there at hotels with a water park.

In lodging terms for a week, this tended to range from $1600-$3500 for about 6 nights on our annual trip to the White Mountains, depending on where we rented and what amenities it had. Food, transportation, and other costs are on top of that lodging-only fee.

Since 2016, that lodging alone amounted to well over 1/3 of the purchase price of the RV. So in this particular case, the RV costs are replacing at least one trip’s worth of lodging.

Now, that’s based on purchase price. We still have to keep the battery charged (electricity bill at home), buy propane, and we’ve had to stock and furnish it with some kitchen items, bedding and other basics – ok, we didn’t HAVE to. But honestly it’s easier, and I recommend it. Even after a few years, the cost of ownership won’t be zero. But it will be far, far less than our vacations have cost us.

This year, for 5 nights in New Hampshire, we’re paying $362.50. That includes water, sewer and electric hookups for all nights. Eli and I also have a long weekend planned in Rhode Island, where the total cost is about $170. So this year, for 8 nights in the RV, we’re paying about $66.56 a night to stay in it, plus the cost of gas, propane and anything else we need. We’re not going to get a ton of use out of it this summer because once adoptive kids arrive, we’re home bound for a while. We might take it out to see my older Sister and her family in the fall, but that’s uncertain, and wholly kid-dependent. By next year we can start to think about more intensive use.

So we knew this going in – that we were purchasing something with significant up-front cost and limited use the first 2 seasons. Last year because we picked it up in the fall, and this year because we have other life things going on. So why do it last year, long before we could really start to use it to our fullest benefit?

Because this is a long-game purchase. Right now, before we adopt, we have more time than after. The learning curve on the RV is reasonably steep – Eli spent long hours learning how to navigate, back up and park it. We had to invest our time, in stabilizer blocks, winterizing gear and the basics for making it usable. And now, while we’re not exactly experienced, it, we now know things like if we don’t remember to switch off the water pump switches in the bathroom the battery will die, and what we need to do to get it usable.

By trip 2 last year, Eli and I had figured out how to get us up and living quickly after we arrive at a destination. I take the inside, he unhooks the Pathfinder and gets our water/sewer and electric set. On Thanksgiving night in 2020, we were sitting down to dinner probably 35 minutes after we parked, in large part because we did 95% of the food preparation before we left home.

When we take it out this year, we’ll have those lessons and experience under our belt, and finally be able to spend time using the little outdoor grill and awning as well, things that it was a little chilly to manage last fall. We already learned that bringing the RV literally anywhere for less than 3 nights isn’t worth the effort to set up, and to bring at least twice as many dish towels as we think we’ll need.

We also learned that in this case, the relatively small size of the RV was a good decision. The 24DBS we bought really fits us well. It’s roomy enough to be content to hang out in, and small enough so that getting out for walks and hikes and swims and to explore don’t get lost with the amenities. We’re hoping this remains true as we adopt. We looked at larger RVs that were larger than most apartments, which private rooms and all that but at the end of the day, that would have required us purchasing a truck to pull, was substantially more money and it just wasn’t worth it. Could we live in it? Probably not. But for vacations and other uses (it served as our homeschool classroom for a chunk of the fall) it’s brilliant.

All this accumulation of experience and knowledge will allow us to use our mental and physical energy to ensure our family is happy and that our stress is minimal, and our enjoyment maximized. This is going to be especially important as the children that come to us and augment our family will likely be dealing with significant trauma, and the kinds of disruptions to routine that vacations cause can be tough. Easing the adults into vacation mode will ease them as well.

In addition to site rentals and electricity here at home, insurance and registration runs us about $250 annually for our little tow-behind travel trailer. It’s my estimate that by Season 3 in 2022 our we’ll get about 3- 3 1/2 weeks of use of it and it will cost us less than $80/month including site rentals.

The other component is that when it’s not in use for our vacations, it will be our guest house. While it won’t have running water, we can host guests to sleep May-October. And while we don’t intend to rent it out for others to use on their vacations at this point, we may loan it occasionally.

Still, when you add the purchase price, operating costs, our pending plans for a solar rig and composting toilet so we can go boondocking, It’s going to take about 7 years to pay for itself. We intend to have it for at least 20. For me, that 13 years of almost-free vacations is the ultimate frugal win. We’re not super frugal, but we are super practical, and this is truly going to be both.

In 20 years, we’ll be 67 and 70, and at that point I suspect our needs will be a bit different. If we still have an RV, it would need to have an engine at that point, and we’ll just tow a small car or figure out alternatives. But what we’re going to want when we’re that age is hard to know, so for now we’re focused on the life we have.

RV Economics Part 1

Chilling Out

The last several weeks have been cool – it’s still quite chilly in the mornings and evenings, and there’s been a lot of rain. I like the rain, and I love that everything is green around me, but I would love just a bit more sunshine. Fortunately it’s coming, as is summer.

And that means we’ll take the cover off of the RV and begin to use it. We bought it last year, but it’s a purchase that we’ve both thought about for years both individually before we were together and afterwards, jointly. Once we decided to do it, we moved fairly quickly, but only after significant research. As RV sales are booming and it’s a way cheaper investment than a second home (bonus: you can take it anywhere there’s a road) I wanted to talk about how we decided on ours, what the cost were, and how we’re thinking about it one year in. If you’ve been thinking about diving in to the RV world, I hope this is helpful.

First, what we bought. We own a Prime Time Tracer 24DBS travel trailer that can sleep 8. After looking around for a used Airstream – new not really being in the budget – and day-tripping to Vermont to drool over a 1960 model with stained glass windows that would need a completely new interior, we realized that with our current and growing family, plus our time limits, the time to refurbish an Airstream wasn’t now. Once we made that decision, our options shrank. We have a Nissan Pathfinder that can tow a maximum of 6000 pounds, and we knew we needed the ability to sleep a lot of us comfortably. And I wanted a u-shaped dining area so we could all sit and eat together. At the end of the day, only one make and model fit exactly the kind of layout we needed, the 24DBS.

Then we set out to find it. Last year the RV market went crazy in the pandemic, and finding this one model was a challenge. There just wasn’t any within 500 miles on the used market, and the ones that were out there weren’t much – if at all – cheaper than new. but we did find a new one about 90 minutes away from us. One. We went to look at it, and noting the folks lining up to look at it after we went in, we bought it on the spot. While new vehicles aren’t normally what we want, I’m totally comfortable with our decision for a few reasons:

  1. We bought from a nationwide dealer, RV Camping World. This means that there’s likely to be a service shop within a reasonable distance from wherever we go, and as newbies, that’s nice to know
  2. Because we were new to this, the hours Eli spent with their folks going through the details of how to hook it up to the Pathfinder and all the features stem to stern were invaluable.
  3. They installed our tow hookup as well, so we only had to go to a single place

This decision isn’t for everyone, but for us, with limited time and zero knowledge, it was absolutely the right decision. We have no regrets, and expect to enjoy our RV for many years. While new isn’t necessarily right for everyone, spending months looking and long road trips during a pandemic weren’t the right things at the time.

After doing a bunch of research, we decided if we were all in, there were some things that would make our lives easier that were worth the upfront costs.

  • Beddys. These things are great, and in the tiny, cramped spaces around the beds, make everyone’s life easier. They have regular BoGo sales and are super cute and easy to maintain. After reading rave reviews by every RVer that has invested, we went all in. Plus the kids got to pick theirs.
  • A completely automated hook up with backup camera and secondary electronic brake in the car. This makes navigating so much easier for Eli, and was worth every dime.
  • The Camping World roadside service plan. While this is not a necessity, it gives me a ton of peace of mind, and it’s also good for the vehicle pulling our new vacation digs.
  • An inexpensive set of knives, bowls, flatware and plastic drinking glasses that live in the RV
  • A percolator coffee pot that doubles as as backup to our house coffee pot
  • A covered bamboo bowl set (well, my big sister bought me one of them, because she’s wonderful) for salads and serving

All in, the ‘extras, were about $3900 on top of the $28,985 purchase price, but I will say that after having made many ‘pennywise, pound foolish’ decisions over my life, these up front adds have been worth it.

For the rest, we repurpose extras pans and dishes from our kitchen to cook with. This year, I may buy a cheap stick vacuum for the interior, as well as a towel rack, and Eli bought a toilet paper holder (please note that this is not something built in, and to avoid soggy toilet paper in a super small RV bathroom, you’ll want to invest) eventually we’d love to move away from the heavily brown interior and do a bit of slipcovering and redecorating, but generally we’re set.

So let’s talk about using it. So far, we have not added solar or a composting toilet, which will allow us to move away from RV parks and into the backcountry, what RVers call ‘boondocking’. It’s in the plan, but by the time we bought it, had the hookups installed and got it home, it was September of 2020, so we used it a couple of times and then winterized it.

We used it twice for a total of 5 nights last year. The first was a weekend in New Hampshire in October to try it out. We stayed in an RV campground with a wonderful staff, and when we realized we also didn’t have a sewer hose, another thing that doesn’t come standard, they got us set right up. We learned from this trip how much gas the Pathfinder uses hauling it (a lot, we now carry a gas canister at all times) and how to use it. The kids really loved it, and so did we, a not-insignificant outcome for something we’d bought without ever so much as renting a camper in our lives.

Eli and I then took it to Maine in November and spent Thanksgiving weekend. We learned a lot that weekend as well – such how quickly the propane tanks empty when you need the heat on, which we learned by waking up and being able to see our breath, to be grateful I’d brought extra blankets, and a much-needed reminder that advance meal prep is a great way to ensure you don’t eat out when you are starving after a long hike.

RV sites with full hookups, i.e. water, sewer and electric range from about $46 a night to about $90, infinitely cheaper than your average hotel room. Given that we had been spending about $200/night on hotel rooms and house rentals on vacation, this is a substantive savings. But it will still take a long while to amortize those savings against the cost of the RV.

I can tell you though, it was worth every dime.

Next time: The cost of RV vacations and getting it to pay for itself

Looking Ahead

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Back in early 2014, before moving to Florida, moving back 2.5 years later, getting divorced and starting over with not even a fork to furnish an apartment (I took my clothes and a few small items, that was about it), and some major financial whacks over the head since then  – 50 foot pine falling on the house, appliances dying, major dental bills, etc.  In the before, I was deeply frugal, and within 10 years of paying off my mortgage.

But I was also pretty unhappy.

Fast forward 6 years, and I’m very happy, but for a long time I, and then Eli (who was also decimated by some health issues over the years) have been rebuilding our lives from a possession/asset/financial perspective.  Some of this was absolutely self-inflicted, and that’s okay.  You make choices, you live with them.

This summer, as we reconfigured the house as a first step to both accommodating all of us home all the time due to Covid-19 as well as ensuring we had places to sleep for more kids as we start our journey to adopt, we hit a point where we had actually basically acquired most of the things.  Sure, we still need a generator and Eli some more tools and all that, but basically, we’re done other than some budgeted-for home maintenance, like taking down more scary pine trees around the house so they don’t fall on us and dealing with the basement water issues.

Which leaves us in a place where we are free of all debt except the mortgage, and can turn our efforts to more long-term goals.  While sometimes it’s hard for me to look back and see 6 years of financial shakiness and upheaval, I can also look at what we’ve both accomplished, and feel incredibly proud.  Not only have we settled in here for good, we’ve also constructed a life that is exactly what we want it to be.  Can we hike, camp and canoe, 3 of our favorite, no-added-charge activities?  Yes, yes we can.  Garden, chickens?  Check.  Living spaces that are comfortable and make us happy?  Check.

This because when we do spend money, we employ foresight, and invest in things that will bring us joy for long periods of time – the garden, the chicken coop, and so on.

When we took out the canoe last weekend for it’s maiden voyage – because a canoe was not just a canoe, we also needed a rack for the car, a rack to keep it on here, paddles, life preservers and so on, so it took a bit of time and investment to get it to a place where we can use it on autopilot, I thought a lot about goals and foresight.  Upfront spend and elbow grease were required here – I ordered the canoe with backs on the seats because we’re already in our 40s and I know our backs aren’t likely to improve with age – we have a canoe we can use for 20+ years.  Eli built a rack that allows him to simply slide the canoe on the car, no lifting required.   The sheer joy we both felt as we (ok, mostly Eli) paddled down the river is now replicable over and over, without costing another penny.

So what’s next?

Well, so that’s the interesting thing.  We have some major goals and projects in the time ahead, and we’re already planning for them.

First up, is to cut our expenses down to the bare minimum so that we can save as much as humanly possible.  This is going to require us relentlessly reviewing every dime we spend, from my $6.99 weekly bottle of wine – which is actually really great wine – to what we spend on food, entertainment, and even whether we can save on electricity and water.  We’ve started talking through each expense.  Eli is naturally frugal, I used to be, and we’re going back to our roots to see just how much we can save and conserve. Frugality is the path that will allow us to maximize our dollars, and minimize the time it will take to achieve other goals.

Second, and deeply important, is to structure our lives so that we can ride out Covid-19 for as long as it lasts.  This means freeing up Eli from pounding the pavement for one-time illustration jobs as much as possible so that he can work on some more long-term creative projects.  The idea is that these pay off, but even if they don’t, we won’t know unless we try.  But also we’re freeing up Eli so that he can be more present for the kids, because my job isn’t that flexible during the day, and their Dad has to be physically at his workplace.  It also means budgeting in our babysitter at least through fall, as I have my doubts about schools reopening, or if they do, staying open.  The idea is that she is teacher some of the time, with our support and guidance,  if we have to switch to a fully homeschooled structure.  This costs us money in the short term, but we view it as an investment in their future.

Third, we have 2 house-related goals.  The first is to pay off the house as fast as we can, and the second is, in 2 1/2 years, to do some really major renovation.  This is our forever house, and we’ve spent some real time and money with an architect making a design that is meant for that.

And no, I didn’t type those two goals in reverse.  The house payoff goal is independent of the renovation goal.  Both are obtained by saving more, spending less – and slowly ratcheting up what we overpay on the mortgage.  Ideally, we manage both in cash, but we’ll see where we land.  We know what we have to do, it’s still just a little fuzzy to us how we do it.  But most things become more clear over time, and we have a time limit: no more house payment by the time Connor goes to college.  We’ve got time, but not a ton.  Still, like most longer-than-5-year goals, this one will evolve.  In the meantime, we continue to amp up our mortgage overpayments and watch what we spend.

Last, we have some other savings and spending goals.  Up our emergency fund to a full year of expenses.  Give, because we’re blessed and we can.  We currently support our local food pantry with a monthly donation and sponsor 3 children through World Vision, which is a great charity.  We certainly want to do more.  And once we have that full year of expenses  we’ll probably start to build out a fund for other projects. We may eventually buy an RV but we’re not sure.  We’re going to see how life plays out.

Goals are good for marriages, in my opinion.  Sharing goals and finding a path to get there together feels good, and strengthens bonds.  When, over 9 days Eli and I reconfigured 3 rooms and turned Connor’s new space into a room fit for a growing boy or two, we felt pride and partnership.  Setting goals together, like adoption or renovation, is next-level teamwork.  This doesn’t mean it all goes perfectly – did we bicker about whether my weekly wine expense was a grocery item or should come out of my personal spending money budget – sure we did.  Did we bicker while painting?  Oh yes.  But in general, this is teamwork above all, and we know that at the end of the day, both of our perspectives make it better.  And working together we accomplish so much more than we ever could alone.

These are BHAGs – Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals – that we set to challenge ourselves to meet over time, without getting distracted by the day to day.  Will there always be a cute sweater I want or a tool he wants?  Sure.  Will we ever cut out ice cream as non-essential spending?  That’s probably a no.  But slowly, little by little, we’ll position our lives and our finances so that we knock these goals off the list and strengthen our relationship as we go.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How To Manage A Grocery Stockpile

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So I’ve been reluctant to write this one, mostly because I don’t like the idea that I might be seen as a doomsday prepper.  And because local food is important to me, but I am still working on moving the needle even further to the home front, so I didn’t want to be a hypocrite.

But then there’s the Covid-19 virus, that is disrupting lives and the economies in 50 countries.  While it’s a flu, sure, it’s also spreading rapidly, and we don’t know how it’s going to evolve.  So I took a page out of Scientific American’s playbook and did some large-scale shopping.

A few caveats here before I proceed.  We almost always have our pantry and freezer full.  Why?  For a few reasons:

  • It’s an emergency fund you can eat.  If something goes badly in your financial life, it’s protection while you triage funds and make plans.  It’s come in handy for me more than once
  • It’s another kind of protection too, the kind that lets you know that what’s for dinner is possibly only limited by your imagination and saves on takeout
  • I travel, and Eli needs to feed the kids and himself while I’m gone, so we need a solid supply of food

I admit a filled pantry gives me a sense of safety.  I grew up in the ‘we don’t have a lot of extra’ crowd, and I spent a good deal of my early life burning the candle at both ends to make ends meet and keep a roof over my head.  Add to that having experienced both divorce and job loss, and I have a good bit of experience with the benefits of a full larder.

I don’t do it perfectly, and we forget about stuff with reasonable regularity (chickens are great helpers with that) but in a time where being prepared is probably a good step to performing your civic duty, here’s how we do it on the regular, and what we’ve done to be ready for the potential that we’re all stuck at home for a bit, sick or no.

The first thing is not to run out and buy a bunch of freeze-dried prepper food.  Unless you really like backwoods camping, and you go through it, while some of that stuff is tasty, you don’t have to switch up your eating patterns, and as a matter of fact, you really shouldn’t – it may seem like a good idea to buy lots of shelf-stable stuff, but the idea of food is that you eat it, and so you should focus on the things you eat regularly.

I admit, that when I’ve stocked up and the house resembles nothing so much as a grocery warehouse suited to feeding a small army, I tend to feel a little chagrin about just how much overkill it is.  But after a long day at work, being able to make almost anything we want for dinner with minimal effort is a pleasure.  We’re all really busy, not having to run to the store for things here and there all that often is nice.  But that too, requires management.

So first, getting the stockpile.  The best way to do it is to buy extra when things are on sale – if pasta goes to $0.79 a box, I buy a bunch, for example, and about every 3 months I hit a big-box store for things we consume in volume, like beans, butter, tortillas, shredded cheese, and so on.  If you intend to stockpile for the Coronavirus, I would just recommend doing your usual shopping, but more so.  If you normally buy 3 boxes of pasta every couple weeks, buy 6.   Have enough for 14 days of isolation, and then a little.  Importantly, buy the things you like to eat.

Second, make a meal plan.  Get ingredients for your favorite meals, and get extras – you can always make food and put it in your freezer.   I’d recommend 2-3 weeks worth of planned meals and the ingredients, that’s 15 breakfasts, lunches and dinners.  The reality is that 15 days of planned meals typically lasts longer because you are eating up leftovers and sometimes no one is hungry around meal time, or a bowl of cereal sounds like just the thing.  I tend to think a 3-week meal plan will keep us for a month, but your mileage will vary based on how well you measure your intake.

Third, get flexible.  If you always buy fresh, consider frozen or canned in the mixture.  I personally don’t like veggies I haven’t preserved myself, unless they are things like baby corn or bamboo shoots, but I have a can of peas in my pantry for either a curry or just because the kids like them.  While canned peas aren’t the finest in nutritional value, whatever gets you through a few weeks of potentially no school seems like it’s worth it.

Fourth, get snacks and treats.  Unless you are a no-snack person or have no kids, trust me, after about a week trying to juggle working from home with kids who are bored out of their skulls because they have no routine and no friends can come to play….you are going to think that a few ice cream sandwiches and homemade cookies are the least of your worries.  I find it’s worth it to have the raw ingredients because a couple hours in the kitchen here and there with the kids is a lifesaver – it’s helping them to learn to cook or bake their favorite treats, it keeps them occupied, and once you invest in the basics, homemade is cheaper.

Fifth, as much as you can stock up on fresh foods, there’s only so much that you and your family will be able to eat before it goes bad.  There will be a point where salads and sliced fruit gives way to the frozen stuff.  It’s not ideal, but you will live, I promise.

Sixth, and in the Covid-19 case specifically – have the conversation with your household about the stocking up.  Why, what you are buying and aren’t, what happens when the strawberries run out, etc.  My daughter told me we could be isolated for weeks as long as we didn’t run out of Trader Joe’s Orange Chicken.  This I can make happen.  Find out what counts.  In my household, we adults fear running out of coffee almost as much as illness (I’m kidding – sort of).   So coffee is a key part of our stockpile, and I think we will end up with about 6 pounds of it in the house when our next Amazon delivery arrives.  6 pounds won’t last forever, but it should take us through a few weeks.

For a situation like this, I recommend setting a budget limit for yourself.  Otherwise it can rapidly get out of hand.  Trying to prepare for every single situation is fruitless.   I also recommend that at least once a year you go through your stockpile and inventory it – even mentally – clean out and organize.  I wipe down shelves, put like items back together, and take any stale crackers out to the chickens for a treat.

What do you buy?  Again – you know what you like to eat best.  But if your brain is shutting down at the idea of what a potential stockpile looks like, here’s some tips:

  • Shelf-stable milk or milk alternatives, such as Soy, Almond, etc.
  • Canned or frozen veggies, the ones you like
  • Coffee, wine, beer, juice – the things your family likes to drink
  • Condiments
  • Snack food – we have some chips, but also popcorn kernels, chocolate chips for cookies and raw ingredients for several desserts
  • Cooking oils, such as olive oil, butter, ghee, etc
  • Easy to access foods and prepared foods.  If you all get sick, no one is going to want to cook
  • Raw ingredients for at least 2-3 of your household’s favorite meals

Lastly, as you stockpile, remember those that live at the margins.  If you have enough to be generous, remember there are those who cannot afford to stock up, and reach out to your local food pantry or Meals on Wheels – for those who are housebound and have little, an extra bag of groceries is a lifeline.  And if nothing happens and you find yourself with a surfeit of food, donate then.

And remember when you get home from your stockpile trip(s) to wash your hands.  I hope all of this is overkill, but if it isn’t, know that your efforts are going to help keep you and yours safe.

 

‘Use What You Have’ Eating

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I woke up this morning to a dusting of snow on the ground – the sun is glowing and the sky is cloud-free, and other than a little wind blowing, it just added a sugar coating to a glorious morning.

We’re about 5 days into the spending freeze, and a good chunk of the grocery money is already used up.  I budgeted $450 this month just to see how that worked, which is about $100-$150 less than we usually spend.   That budget includes most of our meals – Eli works from home 100% of the time, and I do about 65% of the time.  We rarely eat out, although I tend to have to when I travel, which is reimbursed.  We pack the kids lunches 50% of the time, and breakfasts for all of us are home-based most of the time.  We try to eat healthily, and our meals include lots and lots of vegetables.

I spent $75 yesterday at Trader Joe’s on both food and wine (it’s a spending freeze, not a life of bleak deprivation).  Add to that what we’ve spent on things that arrive automatically and we should be ok, although this will be tighter than our usual.  All we really will need is lunch meat, milk, and fruits and vegetables and a few  staples.

Next week our Walden Local meat food order will arrive ($167), although because of the holiday and so many meals away from home, we still have a lot left from last month.  We have some Amazon Subscribe-and-Save items arriving as well ($132.66) that will come in handy, especially the 30 lbs of organic flour that arrives 2x a year.   And gets used, I might add.  At about $1.42/lb, it’s more expensive to buy organic flour by a fair bit, but knowing that I’m minimizing our pesticide consumption helps.  The next step is to get our flour locally, which will increase our costs but support a local, truly organic grower, but not yet. Add to that the food we’ve put up and purchased, and I think we’ll be in good shape, even though there’s a lot of January left.

We still have most of the sweet potatoes, a lot of regular potatoes, onions and 2 big butternut squash from our Thanksgiving weekend stock up.  We’re also completely buried in fresh eggs, so fritattas, deviled eggs, quiche and lots of other options can be both breakfast and dinner.  So long as we employ some creativity, we should eat well and healthily for the month.

Our biggest risk area for the budget is snacks – I plan to make some homemade granola bars next weekend (this recipe is great, even without the coconut, which is not my favorite), and there’s always cookies, popcorn, and homemade guacamole with some tortilla chips.  Plus I stashed some Nutella-and-Breadstick snack packs for when the kids are completely frustrated by the lack of appealing snacks later in the month.  It’s probably not a flawless plan, but it’s pretty solid.

Last night we finally used up the spaghetti squash that we came home in November with – I halved it, scooped the seeds and then baked it with olive oil, salt, pepper and a few cloves of garlic until it was soft.  Then I filled it with a mixture of cooked ground lamb seasoned with garlic, and then mixed in goat cheese and pesto, and I topped it with a little shredded cheese.  Spaghetti squash ‘boats’ stuffed with almost anything are a favorite of mine.     I had no idea that my husband had never experienced spaghetti squash when I bought it, but he was so impressed by both Mother Nature’s ingenuity and dinner generally that we’ll be adding it to the list of things we grow and buy in bulk this year.

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And on that topic, I’m thinking next weekend I might start some winter lettuce indoors to cut down on what I’m buying.  I don’t usually grow much in the winter, but it’s a pretty low-effort endeavor to grow stuff from scratch, especially in small quantities.

When you are trying to eat what you have, it’s the time to use cookbooks and food websites as a starting point, not in order to follow recipes precisely.  For example, find a recipe for stuffed spaghetti squash and then modify based on what you have rather than what the recipe says exactly.   Tonight for dinner I need both kid-friendly food and to start to tackle the red peppers that have been sitting around for a few days.  I pulled some beef bulgogi from the freezer, and that, along with a salad and some quick and easy popovers will cover down on dinner tonight and likely leave Eli some leftovers while I travel.  Those red peppers will be sliced up along with cucumbers for the kids, who consume both without question.

I have mushrooms  that need to get used up when I return as well, so I’m trying to decide whether to saute and freeze them now, or wait until I get back and turn them into something interesting, like a new variation of stuffed mushrooms, perhaps using more of the ground lamb that comes with our meat share.

Key here is to use cookbooks and web recipes for ideas.  I’m lucky enough to have a freezer and my pantry completely full, so my options are great.  But I’ve had times in my life where all I had was some flour and yeast, cheese and spaghetti sauce, and a few onions, and I made some really good homemade pizza with caramelized onions, which fed me until the next paycheck arrived.   I’ve used solid white tuna as a cheaper alternative to ground beef in pasta sauce, and it’s really good.  Surprisingly good.

Food writers, bloggers and chefs are always on the lookout for the newest and the freshest ingredients, and I love that – I have learned so much from so many about things I never thought I could cook at home, and flavor combinations I wouldn’t have ever considered on my own.  But the reality is that it isn’t how most of us truly eat – most people have budgets, food preferences, limited time to cook, kids who will try a very few new things.

But what we all have is the ability to be limitlessly creative in the kitchen – the worst that can happen is that what comes out isn’t that great, and the best that can happen is you pair flavors you like and come out with a new greatest hit.

 

 

 

 

 

New Year Spending Freeze

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2019 took it’s last bow, while we ate a combination of takeout and homemade Asian food and finally got a chance to put on our matching family penguin pajamas.

2020 came in with a gorgeous orangy-pink sunrise.

Today is for sleeping in, removing the last of the Christmas decor, and our most important New Year’s Day task, setting our goals as a family for 2020.  Those penguin pajamas that I’ll spare everyone a picture of?  They were on 2019’s list, the kids having determined that we needed to have a set of matching ones. Other key goals were ‘have a family picture done’, the wedding, and Connor’s perfect addition of ‘share our love’.

Every year we make a list, and every year we try to get to all the things.  This is an acheivable list – not ‘Mom becomes and Olympian’ but things like ‘more family dinners’, ‘do something new on vacation’.  Our first year at Sithean the list included meeting our neighbors, which we’ve done rather successfully.

In addition to the fact that I intend to mostly live on broth and salad for a week or so, to offset the heavy foods the holidays brought with them – I enjoyed them all, but I need something lighter for a while, today kicks off a major initiative for us – a Spending Freeze.  From now through April 15, we’re only buying groceries and things we absolutely need.

So what is a spending freeze?  It’s not a financial diet (diets fail), it’s merely a course correction.  We have all the things we need and many things we don’t.  We have a lot of big, big goals coming up in the next couple years.  We’ve accumulated some debt, which I hate.  Our pantry and freezer are completely stocked.   And over the 3 years we’ve been here at Sithean, clutter has crept in.

It’s time to clean out, not add more.  Ending mindless spending is one way to do that.

For 4 1/2 months, we’ll focus on the things we need, such as food, and make lists of the things we might want.  Since we won’t be buying stuff, we’ll have time to really consider if we want it.  Every purchase needs to be weighed against questions – do we need it?  Can we get it without spending?  Can it wait?

But surely there are things that will come up?  There are. 

K’s 11th birthday will be an exception, although her big gift is already purchased.  I have a little cash set aside for things like book fairs for the kids, and Easter is in there too.  Car and house maintenance that must be done, will.  I ordered our garden seeds early, along with some much-needed tomato cages, and pre-ordered 2020’s fruit trees, because those are time-sensitive items.  I can’t start seeds in mid-April and have a successful garden.  

But for the rest, it’s going to require creativity.  For Eli’s birthday in early April, it means I need to create or find for free a gift, a challenge that I need to start thinking about now.  It means I’m not planting Cranberry bushes until 2021, because those didn’t make the priority list.

If Eli and I find we really need a meal out, we have a couple gift cards we can use, but otherwise it’s home for us for a while.  Which is great – we love to cook, we have lots of food to use up, and honestly if we get tired, there’s nothing wrong with the occasional bowl of Cheerios for dinner.

The key here is not to feel deprived.  We are doing this so we can have other things, not giving spending up because it’s what we ‘should’ do.  This is the path to way more opportunity in the future, not a diminishing of our present.

Happy Frugal New Year to all of you!

 

 

 

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