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

IMG-3284

 

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

IMG-2493

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

IMG-2167

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.

IMG-2166

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

IMG-2116.JPG

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!

 

 

 

How to Simplify Your Life – Stocking (and De-Stocking) the Pantry

big churn

Today,  I wanted nothing so badly as to just have a very large, calorie-intensive italian meal delivered to me.  Whatever it was, it needed to involve lots of food slathered in sauce and ricotta cheese.  What can I say – it’s cold outside, and  I wanted Eggplant Rollatini and a lot of things to go with it.  I was hungry, more than a little, I certainly didn’t feel like cooking dinner, and I definitely wasn’t interested in anything I had in the house.

Even with my near-limitless pantry options, I get bored.  And unmotivated.

So when I pulled some meatballs out of the freezer, added them to tomato soup, and then tossed in some chopped, frozen kale, and added a cheese quesadilla (melt some cheese on a tortilla, fold, eat)  I felt virtuous on a couple levels.  First, because I really don’t need the calories from a large Italian dinner right at this moment – this was a loose take on it without the guilt.  But secondly, because this is food I have already bought and paid for.  Part of my effort to eat down the pantry over the next few months is pure housekeeping.  But there’s another, no less important part of this – to offset the myriad expenses that have popped up as Eli and I combine lives with some budget sanity.  Avoiding take out for one night will hardly offset the money we just put into a slightly used Nissan Pathfinder, or cover the cost of a new chicken coop with a predator-proof enclosed run, but I truly believe that attention to the small leaks of money is just as important as the big successes.

That doesn’t mean we never intend to eat out or pick up ready-made food again.  Just this weekend Connor and I ordered Chinese food, because that was what he wanted more than anything for our special weekend.  And I fully believe in prepared food -sometimes from the store, but often from my own freezer, like the meatballs in my soup.  But part of simplifying your life is learning to be content with what you have.  And today, that contentment consists of not having to drive to pick up food when there is plenty available right here.

I believe strongly in having a full pantry for a number of reasons.  They are, in relative order of importance:

  1. It is an emergency fund you can eat.  In times where paychecks might be spotty or income inconsistent, even the most well-prepared of us will want to tighten the belt.  A full pantry is a buffer against times of having less
  2. It offers options to the perennial question of ‘what’s for dinner?’
  3. If stocked properly and over time, it’s variety of the inexpensive sort – out of my pantry I can whip up Thai, Indian and lots of yummy favorites, like my Simple Lentil Sausage Soup

Stocking the pantry is simple.  Focusing on the things you eat, buy them at the most affordable points.  Some foods go on sale cyclically, such as baking supplies in November and December.  Others you have to watch sale flyers for.  Some things, like my favorite wine, that also happens to sell for $6.99 a bottle at Trader Joe’s, I buy half a case or a full case at a time – not just for the case discount, but because I am not the only one that likes it, and it sells out quickly.

By the way, a great skill to cultivate in life is to like the cheap wine just as much as the expensive stuff.  Cheap doesn’t have to mean bad, although you may have to taste a few bad ones to encounter something you like.   I know a lot of people who only like ‘good wine’ and while I do too, I cheerfully enjoy the not-so-fancy too.  Which leaves a lot more options open to me, and is a lot less painful, budget-wise.  

When pasta goes on sale for 69 cents a box, I might buy 10 boxes.  And then not buy any more for a while.

I admit, I’m lazy about it.  I’m imperfect about watching sales, and sometimes I end up paying more for bulk than I would individually – I try to be careful, but it does happen.  I have also learned that you will never get the best price in one place – one of the grocery stores I tend to find the most expensive has the best loss leaders around.  So long as I stick with the sales, I do very well there.

I also strongly advocate periodically eating through what you have in your pantry and freezer before restocking.  It will force you to be creative after the first week or so, but it will also be kind of…fun?  I found some Stone Crab meat in my freezer that I bought a month or so ago and promptly forgot about.  Apparently we’re having crab cakes pretty soon.  Eating down your food supply gives you a chance to clean the fridge, the freezer, the cabinets, as well as making sure the investment you have made with your wallet in your cabinets doesn’t go to waste.

What do you keep in your pantry, and have you ever skipped the grocery store to clean it out?

Journey’s End

In Florida, where I lived for a few years, most of the houses are in communities, gated or otherwise.  One, in West Palm Beach, was named ‘Journey’s End’.  Whether their target audience was simply the elder end of the snowbird set, or they helped people speed the path to their maker in order to ensure consistently available housing inventory was unclear to me, but I could never go by it without a giggle.

When I moved to Sithean, I had some goals set in my head.  At the top of the list, though, was ‘Never move again’.  After 5 moves in just over 2.5 years and some serious life transitions, the kids and I needed stability and predictability above all.  While a little updating couldn’t hurt, and it was definitely in need of basic maintenance, the house has stood for 168 years, and it will almost certainly outlast me.

Most financial advice around housing presupposes that you will, at some point, move, and therefore things like market value, financial return, and renovations with an eye towards selling are 99% of the commentary.  But when you buy a house to live in for 40+ years, it changes your perspective.  All of a sudden, the things ‘the market’ might prefer don’t really matter.  That isn’t to say that one should jettison good taste, but honestly, if you like something and want to do it, ‘what will the next owner think’ isn’t an issue.  When there is a next owner, I fully intend to have become compost for my peonies.

Hopefully not very soon.

To pay off the mortgage early or not is a debate in finance circles as old as time.  It’s true you may be able to grow that money faster in stocks, which is what most financial planners would say.  Most of the frugality-focused financial folks, on the other hand, loathe debt and recommend reducing housing costs by paying off the mortgage early.

I see both points of view, but it’s my take that there are those of us who are comfortable with mortgage debt, and there are those of us for whom outsized interest payments and owing someone the roof over our heads makes our skin crawl, and you should behave according to which type of person you are.  I am, without a doubt, the latter.

I hate debt, but my decision to work towards being mortgage free also has more specific reasons.  My oldest goes to college in 9 years, and my younger child will follow her a few years later.  I want to be able to help them, and without a mortgage payment, that should be comfortably possible.  I may not have it knocked off for my daughter’s turn, but by the time my son launches, I intend to have the house owned by me, outright.  This was number 2 on my goal list when I moved here.

Today I have no idea how that happens.

Ok, I do.  You toss money at it until it’s gone.  For a time when you take on a mortgage, you pay more interest than principal.  As the mortgage matures, that situation reverses, and you pay more principal than interest.  The quicker you reduce your unpaid principal balance, the less interest you pay, and the faster you pay your house off.

But logistically, today, my plan isn’t feasible based on the calculators I have run.  I’m not even a little worried about that.  I mean, in the dark of night when I wonder how it’s all going to work out, sure.  But generally, nope, not concerned.   What I have learned over the years is that calculators are one thing.  Deciding you are going to do a thing and then working towards it is quite another.  While ephemeral determination is not something you can take to the bank, making a plan and figuring out how to get there as you go along is absolutely critical to getting what you want.

A critical rule of goal-setting – first, decide what you want to do.  Then figure out how to do it, adapting as you go.  For long-haul goals, you have time to experiment.  For this particular goal I have 1 and 3 year plans that involve all ‘found money’,  unexpected windfalls, and a percentage of income going towards it.  Once I get through the next 36 months, I should have a good sense of how much I need to modify my goals to meet my target.  Or modify my target if I must.

Most critical though, is to listen to your gut.  My gut tells me that I am at my best when setting my sights on a few big goals, with some smaller ones along the way.  I’m focused and determined, and more often than not I get where I need to be, even if the route takes longer than I had hoped.

Should you pay off your mortgage?  Only you can answer that – no one else has to live your life, not your financial planner, not the money advice columnists, no one but you.  Your inner voice should guide you on the big things, and this is no exception.  But if you do decide to, don’t worry so much if the numbers aren’t clear when you get started.

“If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it’s not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That’s why it’s your path.”

― Joseph Campbell

Sithean in flower