Simple Living

UH Budgeting Boot Camp: Building a (Food) Budget

Seeds, plants and soil all cost money, building a coop does too and those canning jars don’t come cheap.  But we urban homesteaders feel it’s worth it.  We are in it for the food.  So we have to find a way to make it work.  How do we eat well without breaking the bank?

This week we’re going to talk about budgeting, particularly budgeting for food and how to eat sustainably.  It’s not the funnest skill for me, but it is an essential one.  We could not do the things we do around our urban homestead without it.

When Rick and I started this journey, we had just had a baby and I decided to stay home with him, cutting our income in half.  We thought we’d be ok financially, but I had to get my appendix removed three weeks after H was born and medical bills ate through our savings.  Soon we were using a credit card to make ends meet.  And then one month we couldn’t pay off the balance.  And the debt racked up faster than we could have imagined.

Eventually, we cancelled the credit cards and started trying to get it under control.  But there were months where we were looking at choosing between gas and groceries.  Now, when I hear people talk about being “broke,” I think about those times.  The only way we made it through, all the while feeding ourselves, was budgeting.

Budget is a four letter word for many people (often those four letters are D-E-B-T).  But I have really come to understand that a workable budget is the only way to survive.  I’m not a natural budgeter.  I’m much more of an instant gratification person.  And people like me often have a hard time sticking to a budget.  I have a really hard time keeping the willpower up for an entire month (or few months), and tend to want to reward myself for being so good all month long by blowing my money on something silly.  I know I’m not alone.  It really helps me to trick my brain into doing some sort of project or challenge that is a budget in disguise.

One things that really helped me during that dark time of choosing between food and fuel was Crunchy Chicken’s Sustainable Food Budget Challenge in 2009.  The idea was to see if it was possible to eat sustainably on a food stamp budget.  I was successful at the challenge, but at the end of it I noted that,

I don’t know if this would actually be possible on food stamps because the majority of our savings came from food saved from the CSA last summer, the hog we bought whole last fall, things we saved our money up for so that we could have a year of sustainable eating on our tight budget. That and two years of practice at cutting the grocery bill each week a bit more, while still making fresh meals for my family.  Things like eating out, coffee shops, and convenience foods have not been in the budget for a long time.

That’s right I had already been at it for two years, and I had some secret weapons up my sleeve; a whole hog and a CSA membership.  So in talking about budgets, I’m also going to tout the benefits of joining a community supported agriculture farm.  I am not exaggerating when I say that this one thing saved us.  Seriously.

More on that in soon, but first, how do you make a budget?  There’s a lot of places online you can learn to do this.  Just find something that works for you without too much brain damage.

I am NOT an expert, this is just what we do.  I start by writing down on a piece of paper our income and all of our expenses.  My husband gets paid weekly, so I do the math and figure his income for the month.  Then I list out each bill we have.  I know financial experty people tell you to save money and pay yourself first.  That’s all good and fine, if you can do it;  if you can, you should, but for about five years, we couldn’t.  Anyway, I deduct the expenses from the income.  The rest of the money that is not going to a bill is what we have left to split between food, gas and whatever else you like to spend your money on.  Hopefully, you can save a bit too.

I try to be realistic about what we need to spend for each category.  Using a computer program for this really helps (like Quicken or Quick Books or whatever) that allows you to see how you’ve been spending in the past.  I might try to trim down certain things, like eating out, but I’ve learned that I need to leave us a little wiggle room.  A budget is not a diet.  You can’t go into it thinking about what you are depriving yourself from or you surely won’t stick to it.  Also, it is not permanent.  It can change month-to-month until you figure out what works for you and your family.  Lately, I’ve been using Erica’s Budget Fun Cards, because I like checking boxes.

The savings is key for us.  We don’t have much cushion built up yet as we’re fresh off of paying off those rotten credit cards and still are working on knocking out Rick’s student loans.  But we try to set aside a little every month to pay for some seemingly big-ticket items, which in reality save us lots of money.  Once we have a number for what we want to spend on food every month, we have a starting point.  I don’t follow all the experts that say your food should only be 5% of your budget.  Honestly, that is ridiculous.

Our food is easily our largest expenditure after our mortgage.  But we have ways of keeping the month-to-month food bill manageable.  Things like buying meat in bulk, the CSA membership and buying 300 pounds of peaches are financially tough to swallow all at once, but saves big time in the long run.  Those bulk items pay off in spades, particularly in lean financial times.

Tomorrow, I’m talking money savings in the food budget department.  In the mean time, do you budget?  Do you buy in bulk or have tips for saving on the food bill?  What questions do you have about eating well on a budget?

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Categories: CSA, Food, Simple Living, Urban Homesteading | Tags: , , , | 6 Comments

2011 on the Bike

Happy birthday today to my Hard-working Husband, Rick!

I want to take a minute to say that nothing, and I mean nothing, would ever get accomplished around the homestead if it weren’t for him.  I’m really great at the ideas, but Rick is the hard worker that actually makes the ideas turn into something real.  He works hard all week at his job and then he comes home to work hard here on weekends, and I’m so grateful for him.

Last January, I asked Rick to set the odometer on his bike to track how many miles he rode for the entire year.  Then I promptly forgot all about this until last week when he gave me his final numbers.

In 2011 Rick rode 378.83 miles on his bike.  Most of these miles were commuter miles; riding to and from work.  Since I had a baby in July, we didn’t do much recreational riding as a family.  His office is 2.67 miles from our house and his average speed was 11.4 miles per hour.

Most days, due to traffic, he can get to his office or home faster on the bike than if he drove the car.  A fourteen minute commute, mostly on the bike path.

We estimate that he rode his bike to work about 70 days last year.  It’s not clear, because there have been days when he didn’t ride to work, but came home at lunch with his work van to get his bike and then rode home.  But that’s almost 20% of the year commuting on two wheels.    (!)

Rick saved about 20 gallons of gas, about a tank and a half in our car.  His total time spent on the bike:  31 hours, 47 minutes and 43 seconds.

He might argue that it’s actually not work to ride.  I think he likes it.  At least a lot more than driving in traffic.  He’s already had the bike out this year (yep, with snow and everything), and I think he’s going to try to get even more miles racked up for 2012.

Thanks, Rick for all you do.  Especially for supporting my habit of starting crazy projects…  and then finishing them for me.  You are the best!  Happy birthday!!

Categories: Simple Living, Sustainability | Tags: , , | 6 Comments

The ‘Sham’ in Shampoo

The other morning I stumbled into the bathroom well before the kids were awake.  “Yay!”  I thought, “I’ll get to take a shower today!”  But then I remembered.  I was all out of shampoo.  And I forgot to get more last time I went to the store.

My spirit, unwilling to be dampened, I decided I’d try that whole baking soda for shampoo/apple cider vinegar for conditioner, thing I’ve heard about.  I mean, really.  I use all natural soap, natural toothpaste, natural household cleaners, homemade laundry detergent.  I can do homemade shampoo!  Yay for less chemicals!  Yay for clean hair!

Except baking soda in your hair is gross.  Really, really gross.  I almost titled this post “The ‘Poo’ in Shampoo.”

I mean, I know it was the first time I tried it, and maybe I did it wrong.  Maybe I just need some guidance?  If you do the baking soda thing, let me know.  I did a quick Google search, and I mixed up baking soda and water according to the recipes I found.  Basically 1 Tablespoon soda and 1 cup water.  I also mixed up the apple cider vinegar and some water.

First, I tried what they all said to do.  I wet my hair and poured the baking soda mix into my hair at the roots.  I massaged it all around and rinsed.  I have really thick hair and by this time it felt all tangled and I was having doubts about the vinegar thing, but that part was actually uh.maze.ing!  I had put the vinegar mix in a squirt bottle and it completely detangled and smoothed my hair, pretty much instantly.  “Yay! This will make such a great blog post!”  I thought.

I got out of the shower, and went to dry my hair and it was all smooth and sleek and shiny!  WOW!  I blew it dry.  Gorgeous.  Well.  Almost.  It looked all greasy at the roots.  It felt all greasy at the roots too.  Super greasy.  Not oily, greasy.  Worse than before I got in.  Maybe I got carried away with the vinegar?  Hmm.  The kids were still asleep, so I decided I’d give it another go.

I decided to sprinkle in baking soda dry at the roots.  I worked it all around and it looked like the grease was all absorbed.  But also like I had grayed out my hair, since my hair is quite dark and there was now a fine white dust on it.  So I hopped back in the shower to give it a rinse.  And I could feel the greasiness about ten times worse than what it felt like before.  It was not the vinegar that caused this.  It was totally the baking soda.  I gave up.  I scrounged around the bathroom until I found some tiny, little bit of shampoo in a travel bottle.  I used it.

I will totally keep that apple-cinder vinegar thing.  It is awesome.  But the baking soda for cleaning your hair – a total sham.

Categories: Simple Living, Thrift | Tags: , , , | 12 Comments

Winding Down for the Season

We’re playing catch up here as the harvest season comes to a close.  This is my favorite time of year, but it is one that works us the hardest.  As the weather cools off we find ourselves wanting to move inside.  We want to settle down with a cuppa and a warm blanket or cozy up to a nice bowl of hot soup.  Unfortunately, all that coziness will have to wait just a few more weeks.  Winter is the true sleepy season.  Fall is the season of work.

We have most of the harvest put away finally.  Sunflowers and corn are hanging to dry, onions and potatoes are stored, canning is finished, summer produce is put up in its various forms.  We have garlic to plant this week.  I am actually doing a little garden redesign as we are pulling plants when the freezes hit and kills them off one by one.  The tomatoes are still, unbelievably, hanging on.

I am hoping to get some of our kohlrabi to over-winter so I can get seed from it next fall.  The plants are from seed from Slovakia that was smuggled through the mail to my in-laws.  The variety is very large – 8 pounds or more without any woodiness.  Our plants are bulbing up nicely, and they might just be one of the few big successes this season, but the seed is hard to come by.

An Independence Days update is in order, I think.  I last did one in August.

Plant something – Planted a few hardy mums.  Garlic will hit the dirt this week – nothing else is on the docket though.

Harvest something – eggs, tomatoes, peppers, kale, chard, kohlrabi, over 60 gallons (maybe even 80) of compost.

Preserve something – tomatoes and corn frozen, a couple of ducks in the freezer (thanks to Rick!!), the above mentioned canning, drying, dehydrating and such.

Waste Not – compost and recycling, scraps to chickens, etc.  Reused old t-shirts for a Halloween costume.  Working on other sewing projects from the scrap box – including some napkins and even two quilts!  Been mending things, not throwing them out.

Want Not – My friend Annie gave us some cloth diapers, and I used an old flannel baby blanket to make some extra wipes.  Got some great hand-me-downs from some friends for the baby girl.

Build Community Food Systems – Participated in both the Denver Botanic Gardens and the Denver Urban Homesteading chicken coop tours.  Baby sat for some friends in exchange for a couple of pullets (we got the great end of that deal)!

Eat the Food – yes.  :)

Although my summer garden was a huge flop this year, I am happy that I put down some bok choy seeds and some late season peas this summer.  I might get one more harvest before we put the garden to bed completely.  I actually planted some other things too, but the second round of kale, spinach and beets never came up and I didn’t get any replacements in the ground in time.  I feared for the bok choy after the chicken coop tour – it got somewhat trampled since a few people didn’t seem to realize they were standing in my garden on my baby brassicas.  But it has survived, and even if it doesn’t get huge, I might get some baby heads out of it yet.

Still, I find myself drawn indoors.  Completing sewing projects (mostly mending) that I’ve put off for months.  Starting other projects.  Getting my craft on.  A few moments of inspiration have led to some things getting done in the handiwork department.  Halloween is coming and costumes need making.

We had a family dinner last week.  I’ve been spending more time with my sister lately and I am enjoying this time with her.  We decorated sugar skulls for the Mexican Day of the Dead.  The holiday begins on November 1st, which is Henry’s birthday, and we are big Halloween fans around here, so we did our Dia de los Muertos early this year.  (More on this later, I promise).

Life these days is transitioning from the mad rush of summer to the slower pace of fall.  Rick’s big-game hunting will mark the last of the harvest here, and that is coming in the next few weeks.  In the mean time, we are quieting down.  The canning pot is back in it’s spot in the basement.  H is focusing more on indoor play and learning.  It’s funny how we naturally move in these rhythms.  From outside in the sun and mud to inside quiet games at the table.

Categories: Food, Garden, Independence Days, Simple Living, Urban Homesteading | Tags: , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Putting it All on the Line

I am in love.  My clothesline is actually making me happy.  I find the few quiet minutes it takes to hang the clothes up both meditative and satisfying.  Wait.  Did I just say laundry makes me happy?

This isn’t my first clothesline, but so far, it is the best.  Granted, it’s new, so I don’t know how it will stand the test of time.  But I really love the design.  Which is funny.  I actually wanted a traditional, two post with lines stretched between set up.  I envisioned my kiddos running between the sheets as they hung on the lines.  But we’re short on space, so we went for the umbrella style.  And I love it.  Here’s why…

It holds a lot.  A LOT a lot.  Like four or five loads.  Maybe more.  More clothes than I have clothespins for.  All the cloth diapers, inserts and wipes, all the kids’ bedding, all of my clothes and towels, tons and tons.

It spins.  This means that I can hang the whites on one side and the darks on the other.  Then I can rotate it so the whites get bleached by the sun, and the darks stay in the shade.  Awesome.  Also, I can stand in one place, with the sun behind me, to hang and turn the line as I fill each side instead of moving around or staring into the sun.

What are you hanging under there? In the past, I would hang lots of items, but not everything.  I never hung our unders up, for example.  I didn’t want the whole neighborhood ogling my ultra sexy nursing bras.  ;)  But with the new line, that’s just not a concern.

The trick to hanging the tightie-whities is pretending you’re wearing them – they go under all your other clothes.  That’s right, if you don’t want the neighborhood to know if the husband wears boxers or briefs, keep them on the inside.  Those t-shirts and dish towels are totally concealing the undies from prying neighborhood eyes.

Clothesline?  What Clothesline?  I can take it down and put it away if we’re having a garden party or something.  Not that this has happened, but it’s a nice option.  Also I think taking it down in the winter to protect it from the weather will probably make it last longer.

It is pretty and it smells good.  Ok, that is true of drying clothes outdoors, no matter what kind of line you are using.  But that doesn’t mean I don’t still love it.  Nothing smells so nice as sun-dried sheets.  And I really love how laundry looks on the line.  I feel like I’ve accomplished something when I see a full line fluttering in the breeze.

Do you hang your laundry out?  What do you love about it?

Categories: Simple Living, Sustainability, Top 5 | Tags: , , , , , | 10 Comments

Handmade Halloween – No Sew Pterodactyl Tutorial

Last year I posted two Halloween costume tutorials and they were a big hit.  In fact, they’ve been the biggest hits on this blog for the last month or so.  But last year, the costumes were easy.  E was a garden gnome, and H was a bat.  This year, H upped the ante – he wants to be a pterodactyl.

A pterodactyl.  Seriously.  How am I supposed to make that?!  H certainly keeps me on my toes.  Here’s what we came up with.

You’ll need:

  • a large piece of poster board
  • approx. one yard of fleece fabric (or an amount that will fit your kid’s arm-span)
  • hot glue gun and glue
  • scissors and hole-punch
  • duct tape, preferably in a fun color
  • five 9″x12″ pieces of felt in a variety of colors.  I used 2 red pieces, 2 orange pieces and 1 yellow piece.  These are not pictured.
  • a helper who wants to be a pterodactyl

Originally I was going to use spray paint to decorate the costume, but after trying it on some scraps, I decided to go with felt instead.  Just disregard that can of paint there.  ;)

So, the Ptutorial:

Roll the poster board into a cone shape, centering the bottom point over your kiddos eyes and making sure he can still see.  Tape the cone so that it will be the correct size to fit his head.  This will be sort of a hat.  A cone-hat.  It’s ok if there is a little wiggle room, since you will be making ties that will be on the inside of the cone-hat.

   

Punch two holes in the cone-hat near your kid’s ears, using duct tape to reinforce them (the holes, not the ears).  Keep in mind that the back of the cone-hat is heavy, so the holes will need to be in a place that will keep it balanced on his head.  Also keep in mind that he has hair under the cone-hat where you are punching the holes – unless you want to give him a weird hole-punch hair cut.  Yep, that’s the way we roll.

Cut the salvage edge off your fleece.  Cut this strip in half.  Cut one half in half again, and set the other half aside.

Thread the two pieces of the first half through the holes in the cone-hat.  Knot them on the outside.  Use a piece of duct tape to secure the knots to the side of the hat, so they will be as flat as possible, but won’t slip through the holes.

  

Wrap the tip of the cone-hat in duct tape.  Extend the tape past the end of the cone and give it a bit of a curve.

Cut your fleece in half along the fold so that you have two relatively square pieces.  Mine were each a yard long.  Use one piece to wrap your cone-hat.  I let a bit hang over the edge in the back of the hat, so none of the poster board would show.  Use the hot glue gun to secure the fleece to the poster board, trimming off any excess fleece as needed, and making sure your curved duct tape tip pokes through the top.

  

Where the fleece overlaps the point on the front of the hat, fold it over and glue it to the underside of the poster board with the glue gun.

Your hat should now look like this:

Set your hat aside and have your kiddo lay down on the second piece of fleece. I took this picture and then decided to turn the fleece the other way, 90 degrees.  So the wings will be wider, rather than longer.  Make sure your kid is at the very top of the fleece, and then mark where his armpits are and cut two slits in the fleece, about two inches long.  Fleece is very stretchy, so don’t cut these too big, or too close to the edge.

  

About two inches in from the edges (where his hands would be) cut two more slits about an inch to an inch and a half apart for each hand.  Again, not too big, they will stretch.

Cut the bottom of the fleece into a wing shape.  Folding it in half makes it symmetrical.

   

Have him put his arms through the armpit holes like he was putting on a jacket, then his hands through the hand holes so that his wrists are through and he can grip the fleece in each hand.  Now, measure where his waist is and cut two small slits about two inches apart in the center of the wings.  Thread the second half of the salvaged edge strip through these holes so that the long ends can tie around your kid’s waist.

The wings should now look like this (H is holding them up – not wearing them yet):

Now, using the felt, make dinosaur-like designs to decorate your wings and hat.  This is easy, since no one knows what dinosaurs really looked like!  We did these oval, spot thingies for the back/outside of the wings.

  

And wavy, red and orange stripes for the front/inside of the wings and for the hat.  Attach all your felt decorations with hot glue.

Now, dress your kid in some dinosaur-hue clothing appropriate for the weather where you trick-or-treat.  We used brown pants that we already had, and a greenish shirt.  If I can track one down before the 31st, I might have him wear a yellow shirt instead, because every knows pterodactyls wear yellow shirts

Have your kiddo thread his arms through the wings, tie his belt (under his shirt), and tie on his hat.  Notice that I covered the back of the belt with a dino-spot.

Voilà – pterodactyl!

Ka-kaw, ka-kaw!

Happy Halloween!

Oh, and if you are like me, you should just buy double the fleece you need, because you are going to make the first wings too small.  But this is actually a good thing, since all pterodactyls live in family groups…

Categories: DIY, Thrift | Tags: , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Boiled Weeds

Quick tip this morning before I get to peeling roasted chiles.  A few weeks ago Rick discovered something that should have been quite obvious.

Boiling water kills weeds.

In the past, when we’ve done some canning, Rick takes the boiling water out and dumps it on the weeds growing between the cracks of the sidewalk to kill them.  One day we realized this water would kill not just the weeds poking through the cement, but the weeds in the garden too!  (Duh!)

Be careful with this – boiling water will kill any plant, good or bad.  But if you need an easy, cheap, chemical free weed killer – boiling water will do the trick!

Any other obvious tricks out there that we don’t know yet?  I’m sure there are a billion.  Please share them here!!

Sometimes it’s the little things.

Categories: Garden, Thrift, Urban Homesteading | Tags: , | 5 Comments

Peach Picking 2011

I finally got some of our peach pictures sorted through.  We had such a fun time picking this year.

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We’re quite lucky the Bracken’s don’t weigh us before and after leaving the orchard… I think E ate his weight in peaches!

Categories: Food, Simple Living | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

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