Thursday, May 16, 2013

CREDIT CARDS? Yes, credit cards. And dehydrator plug, shameless, one each.

Fair warning, this is a braggathon :D

Husband and I decided that since we dehydrate most of our produce, and we can't necessarily rely on the weather to accommodate the solar dehydrator (build your own or you can buy this one), it would make sense to buy an additional electric one. Here is the dehydrator I already have and since it fits the trays I have from my previous one, which lasted me about 20 years, I'm sticking with it. (Read this as an endorsement, and I'm not even getting paid for it ;) )

It's just under $50, and considering that just with how many banana chips are consumed here at Pinch Manor I can make up that cost by making our own in under a year it's completely worth it. Not to mention the lack of additives I put on mine, different soapbox, though.

Now what does that have to do with credit cards you might wonder...

I got it for free. FREE, FREE, FREE to me, anyway. (I LIKE free, it's right up there with easy)

Because the cc I use for our gasoline, groceries, clothing, and incidentals gives me points. And I just used some of those points to buy the dehydrator. 

If you are going to use a credit card, use one that gives you points. And commit to not carrying a balance. That's the other trick we are (mostly) diligent about. I don't use this card to buy things we can't afford, I use it to buy those things I was already going to have to buy and I pay it off when I pay the monthly bills. No balance means no interest, so those points I just used cost me nothing but a bit of effort setting up the card with Amazon.

Happy Pinching :)

Procrastination and why I'm not beating myself up over it this week

According to the Farmers Almanac we should have had our last frost on or before April 28th. So basically and according to that I am currently about 3 weeks behind schedule on planting and transplanting.

We had a frost warning for the 12th of May. Hooray for procrastination, 'cause if we had had all of the little plantiwuzels in the ground that would have sucked mightily. So my procrastination and the fact that my plants are still very much mobile worked quite well for us and I'm completely shamelessly taking credit for that.

It's also why I don't ever put the hot weather plants in early. I wait at least a few weeks after the last average frost date before planting them out, because this is the Midwest. Don't like the weather? Wait 5 minutes, it'll change.

Also, look: New cat we are trying to integrate into the household, so that instead of lethal injection he can have a forever home. Doesn't he look just miserable?

That's it for today, because it is still planting season ;)

Happy Pinching

Friday, May 10, 2013

Quick post, because it's raining and I'm not actively grubbing around in the dirt this very second

I've said this before and I will likely say this again (a few hundred times), it's planting season at Pinch Manor. 

This means that basically if I am not sleeping, eating, doing the things that happen surrounding the eating of food, taking care of the chickens or scrubbing half of my yard off my skin, I am either digging, pulling, planting or otherwise engaged in the garden. Unless it rains. A LOT. As in, yesterday evening I stopped planting stuff because the lightning actually came close enough to scare the hubbin and he came out and yelled at me. 

The reason for this seemingly inordinate amount of work is the layout of our garden. Not big enough to use farm equipment (not that we would or could afford to), but big enough that planting one of our 37 defined beds takes about a days worth of time. Hand weeding, broad forking, raking, soil amendment, seeding out or planting seedlings, then in some cases mulching and trying to keep the weeds and pests down continually, and sometimes re-seeding when something flubs. It's the decision we made to trade our time and labour for money we do not spend on motorized tools (does that make my salads handmade and artisan? YOU BET!)

Peas and Garlic a few weeks ago *

That actually sounds like more work than it is, but it definitely is exercise. It's also fun and really incredibly rewarding when you can go into the back yard and pull a ginormous amount of fresh leafy greens and vegetables and chow down on a dinner that was still in the ground a few minutes (hours, tops) ago.

Nothing tastes quite like that.

And frankly, yes, it's a bit of work, but it's being done after the day job is over and by about end of May it's basically going to be a waiting game as things grow and do their thing. Weeding, squishing bugs and occasional watering will be all we have to do between end of May and beginning of August, the time we lovingly call 'benign neglect season', which is a needed recovery period before what is known as "OH DEAR G-D, why is everything ripe all at once", accompanied by frantic cutting and canning and dehydrating and freezing and lacto fermenting and eating things while they are still warm from the sun and generally reveling in the glory that is a productive garden, while at the same time replacing the spent summer crop with the fall plantings for the next round.

It's an incredible feeling as case after case of canning jars are filled with produce grown right here, by us, knowing that we will eat this well into the next year, until the garden produces again. Being able to re-connect to this cycle of nature has been more than a learning experience, it's been a healing journey.

Because 6 years ago I killed mint. Forget about keeping a tomato plant alive. I am now on my 4th generation of one particular variety of tomatoes here, saved seeds and cloned cuttings and all :) And if I can do that, so can you. It helps to remember that plants want to grow and basically know what they are doing, so let them. And now, when I look at a seed, I no longer see an adversary to be conquered, I see a tiny little miracle, all the ingredients for a giant, green, lush plant contained in something the size of a pin head, an ally in our quest to be self-sufficient and healthy.

And on a sadder note: Sorry little strawberry seedlings. I left you out in the rain and most of you drowned. I'll try to do better by your follow-up crew. 

That's another part I finally understood: when something dies in its little plant infancy, that's not a failure or a disaster (unless it was the last bit of seed of one variety and I now have to buy more to start over, that I tread like a majour catastrophy, talk about white whine), not every seed survives in nature to become a plant and reproduce in turn, that's why plants produce hundreds and thousands of seeds every year. One tray of strawberry seedlings didn't make it. I'll seed out another one and go from there. There will be strawberries, even if it's not this year :D

That's all I have for now,
Happy Pinching

*Yes, that's twigs for the peas to climb on (FREE and we can burn it when we're done) and that's a whole mess of dandelions dotting the  grass next to it. No harmful chemicals at Pinch Manor, so we have a colourful yard with wild violets, dandelions, some as yet unidentified white flower that creates a simply stunning white carpet effect for about a week in spring, red, white, purple and pink clover (I'd love to find some blue clover, but alas not yet), and clumps of chives throughout the grass. No green, poisoned and poisonous desert here.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Budget insights, aka the financial clueX4

Had a conversation with a friend today during which I came to realize something that kind of just happened as part of a process, but that has been a huge part of making our budget work. I thought I should share that one, but a bit of background first:

Our household budget is currently US$ 17,500 a year. That's after taxes, net money going out for the necessities. Housing, food, clothing, utilities, transportation, in short, the basics.

We live in a rather nice, middle class neighbourhood, own our home and have a scant acre of land; as do most of the homes around us; so we have some options not everyone has when it comes to how we can go about this, like having a garden and planting edible perennials that will not bear fruit for a few years.

I have said this before, and I think it is important to include this little tidbit of information, that the budget you see me talk about is not our household income, but what we have been able to reduce our expenses to. We did this over the course of a few years and for several reasons:

1. We want to be debt free, so the more money we can throw at our debt, the better for us. Money not spent on essentials can go toward that

2. We want to retire at some point (don't we all?), so once the debt is gone we don't want to increase our spending (the cuts we have made are not painful, so why change things?), but rather throw all available cash at retirement savings (in addition to what we are doing now)

3. I really am not kidding when I say that Scrooge McDuck was my childhood hero. I never understood Donald and frankly thought that Mickey was a jerk. Don't get me started on Minnie or Daisy

4. We wanted to not only be sure that we could pay the bills on one income, but pay them comfortably and without worrying. $17,500 net requires us to have a pre-tax income of $23,334 a year, which equates to somewhat less than an hourly wage of $11.50, not an unreasonable expectation for mid to late career college educated adults. We are comfortable with this level of expense and think we can maintain it.

The thing is, we went from spending a bit more than $65,000 a year to $17,500 within less than two years. Sometimes I think about that and I am just amazed, 'cause I have no idea how we did that.

Yes, actually, I do:

  • We re-financed the house a few times to take advantage of lower interest rates.
  • We shopped around for car and homeowners insurance to get the best rate and we check that rate every 6 months or so. We could squeeze this one more, but having full coverage on our vehicles is important to us.
  • We squeezed the cell phone bill to see if it would bleed, turns out it does.
  • We use a credit card for running expenses, pay it off at the end of the month and cash out the points. I spend some time each month looking for point deals, because pennies count. Quadruple points on gasoline? Yah, sure, you betcha!
  • We don't heat or cool the house excessively, and keep the temperature in the house at about 60 in the winter and about 75-80 in the summer, we don't run the central heat or air conditioning at all if the weather allows for open windows, for us that is anywhere between 45 degrees at night to about 90 degrees during the day. And even then, I open and close windows and curtains to minimize heating and cooling and use the fireplace heater and fans as much as possible
  • I absolutely refuse to waste food and feed us by averaging less than $1 per serving. You'd be surprised how well we eat on that budget ($21 per person, per week and I buy the chicken food out of that). And yes, it means I cook from scratch and preserve leftovers and surplus whenever I can.
  • Over the course of the last 3 years I have slowly build up balances on my utility accounts, so that I am about a month/month and a half ahead on those bills and have put us on our own 'budget plan', meaning that I pay the same amount every month, regardless of what the bill says. Some utility companies offer this service, but I found their amounts are significantly higher than what I have found to be our average, so I do not recommend this. Do your own math and start paying a bit more every month ($5, yes, you can), so that if you are tighter than you expected one month the lights stay on without late fees.
The bit that I had a moment about today was this: 

I consistently went over budget when all of our money lived in one account. And I mean consistently, every month. I tried going with cash only, that didn't work, I tried giving us allowances, that didn't work, we fought about it, we discussed, we brainstormed, we promised, we committed to each other, we tried, we failed and failed and failed... until we split some accounts and it worked and has been working ever since.

We now have 2 checking accounts, 2 savings accounts and a credit card we pay off every month that we use to compartmentalize the budget. 

When I have to go online and actually transfer money out of the vacation savings account (that is what it is called on my online bank screen) to cover that months grocery card (that's what that one is called), you know I take a long hard look at why we went over budget. Sometimes it's because I got a really good deal and stocked up, sometimes it's because I got lazy and bought bread instead of baking it myself. Guess which one makes me cringe. Oh, and because *I* would want to know this: Any surplus I can squeeze out of the grocery budget goes into the vacation savings account, that's why that is the one I draw from when I screw up, and it also serves as my motivation to be extra frugal. 

Yes. I trick myself into being frugal and sticking to the budget. It works. Don't judge. 

That's all I have for now,
Happy Pinching

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

What's happening at Pinch Manor?

Weeeeelllll... A lot, actually.

Planting and seeding out season is still in full swing, so we're putting something else in on a daily basis and will continue to do so for the next few weeks. In the interest of full disclosure, I'm a bit behind the ball on the potatoes, didn't get the tomatoes and peppers seeded out quite as early as I had hoped, forgot most of the ornamental kale until last night, think the quinoa was largely decimated by some UFO* and have a sneaking suspicion that the buckwheat drowned, so some of  that will have to be re-seeded and some of them will go in late.

Since we are planting and seeding, we're getting truckloads of soil amendment (OK, it's horse poop from a local stable) and working them in, along with the contents of the compost heap(s). My husband actually shovels tons of poop at my behest, it must be love :D

Yes, that's a gallon bag of crushed eggshells, I save them all year long, so this is what I have at the beginning of Spring 

Sprinkling crushed eggshells over the plants to try to keep the slugs at bay. 

No, those are not rabbits, those are radishes,  they taste completely different, now go defend the territory and stop chewing radish leaves. You don't even like radishes.

With the emerging of the spring plants there comes the emerging of the pests that feed on them, so there's a bit of squishing bugs, drowning slugs and encouraging cats to kill rabbits (and stop trampling the plants) going on, too. This year we broke down and bought a live trap for the neighbours resident woodchuck. He has a trip in his future...

Last night we found the first raccoon in the tree over our back patio, the joy we feel cannot be expressed in words, but let's just say we hope this baby moves on and finds a territory elsewhere. We have chickens after all. If not, there's another future resident of the live trap and traveling varmint.

Oh, yeah, chickens: They are still living in the garage, because we have not finished their coop. As soon as we stripped the old walls off it started to rain and it simply will not stop. It's like it's Spring in the Midwest or something. That's an afternoon worth of work that needs to be done when dry because power tools.  Here's me crossing my fingers for a few nice days, soon, so we can do this without killing ourselves.

For that same reason I am sort of hampered in my laundry doing efforts. It's above freezing out, so I refuse to run the dryer for anything other than unmentionables, so it's a race when I know I have a few hours of no rain to get a load on the line to dry. And by it's a race I mean that I drop everything else I am doing and run the washing machine, then compulsively check the weather forecast while cursing a blue streak.

Throw in planning and planting the permanent edibles; two quinces, 4 hardy kiwi and 5 raspberries this year, and they have all moved a few times now, at least on paper; and we have a full plate. And to my delight (no, really, I am truly tickled about this, it makes me squee) husband, who acted like a cat getting a bath about edible landscaping at first, now wants to plant a hops hedge (there's a post there at some point) in the, get this, front yard. SQUEEEE. He finally gets it. Edible and ornamental are not mutually exclusive. I think it's the berry bushes shading the central air unit and the first two trees blooming that did the trick.

Here's to hoping that this effort starts to feed us this year, because that is kind of the goal/point. Get to where I can go grocery shopping every 3 months or so and cut the budget down to meat, dairy and some grain.

On a (sort of) related note: We looked into the freezer and that thing is WAY too full to go into harvest season, so hubbin and I decided that we will do a 'let's live out of the freezer' stretch of indeterminate duration. Possibly going to combine this with a money fast to try to re-set the budget, since there have been some changes to the finances. So look for posts on what we eat and how much we spend, because even if we go on a money fast, there will be fuel put into the cars and coffee and creamer in the pantry. Thems the rules, I can go without just about everything else if need be, but the hubbin has to get to work and we both have to have coffee, because orange isn't our colour. There certainly are worse addictions to have.

That's all I have for now,
Happy Pinching

*Unidentified Feeding Outrage

Thursday, May 2, 2013

What's in the dehydrator today

Todays dehydrator load:

3 trays of onions, chopped fine, for use in cooking soups and stews
3 trays of cherry tomatoes, cut in half, most likely destined for a nice chili
2 and a bit of a tray of mushrooms , probably going to be part of a stew or cream sauce at some point
and remainder of partial tray of cubed green pepper, those were supposed to be part of a salad, but I wanted to fill the tray, so now they are likely to be part of some kind of stew or soup.

It's a light load, I usually do not like to run the dehydrator with less than the full 12 tray load, but I didn't feel like boiling potatoes and I didn't have anything else laying around, so this is it for tonight.

What I am processing here started off as 
4 large onions
4 lb packs of cherry tomatoes I just wasn't going to be able to eat before they went bad (And I got a killer deal, so I fully intended to preserve them somehow)
2 packs of mushrooms (were going to be part of a pork roast sauce, but we had burgers instead)
and the larger part of 3 large bell peppers

I probably spent around $12 on what I have here (OK, garden, any time now), and if it hadn't gone into the dehydrator by the end of the week it would probably have wound up in the compost, so I'm calling it a win. Food not thrown out is money saved. And yes, I did get some killer deals on this stuff :)

That's all I got for tonight,
Happy Pinching