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Maple Sugaring

It’s time to tap the trees in our neck of the woods. Not that we have woods (much to our chagrin). All it takes is a maple tree or two, a few pieces of simple equipment, and a love of pancakes dripping with real maple syrup.

Actually, scratch that last prerequisite. We rarely ate pancakes before we converted our suburban yard into a sugar bush. I couldn’t convince Neil to eat pancakes when we first married, which was rather disappointing as I find them delicious. I had resigned myself to a life without pancakes, when lo and behold! Neil started making syrup.

Sugaring, like most of our other pretend to be farmer hobbies, snuck up on us. Neil’s friend encouraged him to try it and gave him a couple taps & buckets. That was six years ago, and we now look forward to syrup season and yield enough to last the year.

How It Works

  1. Sap flows when temperatures are above freezing during the day & below freezing and night. For us, this usually happens sometime in February or March.
  2. Drill a hole in an adult maple tree. “Sugar maples” yield a sweeter sap, but all have sap that can be boiled down into syrup. The hole should be about 1.5 inches into the tree slightly angled toward the ground. Use the recommended drill bit for your spile (5/16 for plastic or 7/16 for the old style metal). Then gently tap in the spile in with a hammer.  The bucket hooks onto the spile or tube is connected and is covered to prevent rain or snow from getting in.collecting sap
  3. Collect the sap. Check your buckets about once a day and collect the sap. We store it in pitchers or clean milk jugs. Store it as you would milk, below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Or you can freeze it. When you’ve collected a few gallons, get a fire going outside. You can use a “turkey burner” with propane or a wood fire with the pan set above on something like cinder blocks. Of course, the wood fire using free firewood is much cheaper, though less convenient. The wood fire also harkens back to sugaring parties of pioneer days.

    Splitting wood for the fire.

    Splitting wood for the fire.

  4. Boil it to  7.1 degrees Fahrenheit above the boiling point of water in your elevation. This will take a while—the sap to syrup ratio is about 40:1. We switch to a small pan at the end to finish it. You can take the temperature with a candy or meat thermometer. The legit method is to use a hydrometer. There are also a host of non-technological “how it looks when falling off the spoon traditions,” but I’m not so good with that type of subtlety. Watch out! It burns fast. We know from experience.

    Liquid gold.

    Liquid gold.

  5. We filter through a cheesecloth into glass jars while it is still hot, which sufficiently sterilizes it for storage. Let it cool completely, then freeze whatever you won’t use within the month.
  6. Make pancakes! Or whatever you love to eat syrup on. My favorite recipe is Fluffy Pancakes. We also like Maple Almond Granola and it can replace the honey in Playgroup Granola Bars.

Why We Make Maple Syrup

Considering our very infrequent pancake consumption before sugaring, I have no illusions that making syrup has saved us fat stacks of cash. Confession: we actually used to buy the deplorable imitation syrup since we didn’t use it often. After purchasing equipment, it’s probably just starting to save money compared to buying the real deal. However, it’s also a pastime that fits the bill for us–it’s productive, kid-friendly, happens outside, and isn’t expensive.

We love that it’s a thrifty throwback hobby. Anything described in the Little House books is guaranteed to get me excited. Except the grasshopper plagues and scarlet fever, of course. And what’s not to love about the sheer efficiency of using what you already own?

Another reason I love making syrup is that it’s a sign that spring is just around the corner. It’s a great excuse to get outside at the end of winter, enjoy the slightly warmer days, and make use of your yard before it’s time to plant the garden and raise chickens. It’s become a talking point with the neighbors, and they’ve even graciously allowed us to tap their trees.

It’s also a great hobby for families. Our son loves checking the buckets, helping collect the sap, and hanging out around the fire while it boils down. And of course, the kids love eating pancakes.

Pancake breakfasts have become a hospitality staple in our home. Inviting people over for breakfast can be less expensive, easier to schedule, and more casual than a dinner invite. And who doesn’t love carbs drenched in sugar?

What You Need

Sugaring requires no special skills! Anyone with a maple tree, a big pan, and fire can make the magic happen. Here’s the full equipment list if you’re interested:

Happy maple syrup season! I hope you consider putting your untapped potential to delicious use if you have a maple tree.

What are your burning questions about boiling sap? Do you have a similar hobby?

How to Save on Maternity Medical Expenses

Having a baby costs a lot of money. I know plenty of parents who joked about how they were still “paying off” their kid, i.e. maternity hospital bills, well into the child’s toddlerhood.

For my first pregnancy, we had a hospital co-pay which made the whole endeavor less expensive. But when our second child arrived, we had a completely different plan: a high-deductible HSA. We chose the plan hoping to have another child that year and had crunched the numbers to determine it was a prudent choice. It was, in part because the company was offering a $2000 HSA stipend. But we still became much more cost-conscious since we were essentially paying for more of our medical expenses directly from our own pockets. The great side-effect was that I become more proactive and informed about my care.

The first thing I did was start questioning some of the procedures at my first prenatal visit. Were the many blood tests (that I’d just had two years ago) covered fully by insurance? They were, so test away.

But my practice had also added an early ultrasound “for dating” as a routine procedure. This was not the case when I had my first, and since I knew when I got pregnant, I didn’t feel I needed it. With the second baby I also felt comfortable waiting to schedule my first appointment until I was far enough along to hear the heartbeat. This made the ultrasound less necessary, as well. In the end it saved me at least $250.

I know others who received the ultrasound (some practices require it), but were strategic about timing it in the same calendar year as their due date so it would count towards the deductible.

Of course, if your pregnancy is high risk, you might need to see your practitioner sooner. There are some problems, such as low progesterone, for which early interventions exist. But in a textbook pregnancy they don’t even test hormone level changes (at least at my practice).

Near the end of both my pregnancies, I was told I needed an ultrasound because I was “measuring small.” In both cases it was user error, because in fact I measured perfectly. The first time, it was a simple matter of the intern writing down the wrong number. In the second, I saw a different practitioner and he just didn’t seem to take the same careful measurements as the person who had been measuring me for months.

In both cases, an ultrasound was ordered. Intrauterine growth restriction is a real, serious problem that can be minimized with early delivery, so I didn’t want to write it off, but I also felt that careful re-measurement by a nurse-midwife was probably all I needed. In both instances, I checked out perfectly and saved another $250 on ultrasounds. Why make use of expensive equipment and procedures when a simple tape measure will do the trick?

I also turned down early screenings for genetic disorders. While these decisions are very personal, I think helps to understand that screenings do not provide a yes or no answer to whether your child has the disorder (though some tests do); there is nothing that can be done medically to fix the problem; and if you’re not willing to terminate the pregnancy, it might make sense to save yourself the worry and expense.

It’s often confusing to figure out whether a procedure is covered by your insurance. If you’re not sure, ask for the diagnosis and procedure codes and call your insurance before accepting it. Since some tests in pregnancy are time-sensitive, you may want to ask at your first appointment which procedures will be offered throughout the pregnancy, or at your next visit. I’ve found that using these codes has helped me get much more concrete answers from the insurance company than even inquiring with the procedure’s name.

I also researched hospital charges and discounts, since my practice and insurance were compatible with two area hospitals. I’d heard from a friend that one hospital offered a 30% discount if you requested to pay your bill upon leaving the hospital. In my case, the maternity bill was prepared, but the newborn’s bill wasn’t ready yet. So they said to call and inquire about the prepay discount which had been noted on my account. In the end I saved around $1000 by asking for this discount (and having the money in the HSA ready to go).

So having a baby is going to be expensive, no doubt, but you can minimize the cost by becoming informed about what your insurance covers, why a procedure is being offered, and what discounts are available through your local hospitals. This, paired with saving in advance, can make bringing home that bundle of joy a little more joyful.

Have you found ways to reduced maternity costs? What are some ways to save up ahead of time?

Beyond Rice & Beans: Budget Dinners that Aren’t Boring

Masala Spiced Roast Chicken (recipe below)

Has someone ever told you about an easy, delicious recipe that you have to make? As they describe it, you realize the ingredient list will easily run you $40 for a single meal. Of course you can make easy, delicious food if it involves lots of fancy, expensive ingredients. Almost anyone can do that.

At the other end of the food conversation spectrum are the ubiquitous thrifty suggestions of rice-and-beans or pasta. Both tasty in my opinion, but it gets rather boring. Certainly there has to be something in between.

If you’re looking for good ways to stick to your budget in 2018, your grocery bill is a great place to start. Food is one of most people’s top three expenses, up there with housing and transportation. And of the three, it’s probably the most flexible, the easiest to change without major effort. (Like moving!) I believe with a little planning, effort, and willingness to try new things, most people can reduce their food costs substantially.

If you’re keeping things simple for breakfast and brown-bagging it for lunch, dinner is probably your budget-killer. It’s easy to get sucked into spending a lot on fresh, healthy food. And I’m all for fresh, healthy food. But it doesn’t have to be outrageous. I’ve shared my foundational food principles already in:

20 Frugal Food Hacks

Hospitality Hacks

Say Good-bye to Meatless Mondays (protein price per serving comparison chart)

Cut Your Grocery Bill in Half Parts 1 and 2

Not Your Mom’s Meal Planning—approaches for speed-meal planning and keeping things simple.

Naturally, food preferences and dietary needs/priorities are as varied as is food itself. The ideas below are not the absolute most healthy, least expensive, or quickest options available—but they all strike a great balance with each of these factors. I vary our less expensive meals with more interesting, exotic, sometimes easier, and sometimes more involved dishes. Creating your own list of thrifty, easy, tasty stand-bys can go a long way toward lowering your grocery budget and dinner-time stress. Here re some of my go-to meals:

Juicy Roasted Chicken

Masala Spiced Roast Chicken

Any on-sale bone-in chicken that you cook with a simple, inexpensive sauce or seasoning is a good thrifty dinner option. Grill, bake, or sauté with BBQ, honey mustard, teriyaki, jerk seasoning, lemon butter, balsamic, etc.

A word on side dishes: While proteins are important, sides are also an area to watch spending. Fancy accouterments like cheese, nuts, herbs, and exotic grains, spices, or out-of-season produce add up quickly. We tend to stick with thrifty stand-bys like baked or roasted potatoes (white or sweet) rice, or noodles; steamed vegetables; and simple garden salads.

Chicken Noodle Soup

Lime chicken tacos

Fall-off-the-bone chicken thighs I use any fresh or dried herbs I have on hand.

Mujaddarah Incredibly simple, delicious Middle Eastern dish.

Sweet potato burritos A seemingly strange combination that is so tasty!

Peanut Butter Noodles Knock-off Thai vegetarian dish. I add stir-fry veggies to it and double the sauce. Can be vegan if you sub for water for chicken broth.

Potato soup I use real cheese instead of processed.

Cincinnati style chili I make this with ground turkey instead of beef.

Chicken Taco Soup

White Chicken Chili Use a fresh jalapeno instead of canned.

Masala hard-boiled eggs (egg curry) Way more exotic than breakfast for dinner. Don’t knock it till you try it. Everyone I’ve served this to loves it!

Butter chickpea curry (not authentic; for better recipes see Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cooking or Vegetarian cookbook)

I have found it worthwhile to “invest” in the pantry items for Indian cooking and a few favorite authentic Chinese and Thai dishes. Buying these items at the Asian grocery (or directly in India!) is by far the least expensive route. Shopping with an international friend knowledge about the cuisine is extremely helpful as they know which brands to buy! The upfront cost of a few spices and sauces pales in comparison with restaurant spending on similar dishes.

I also have go-to recipes for hosting that are a little more impressive than what’s listed above, but still fairly inexpensive. We just hosted two large (13-15) person family dinners over the holidays, and the meat for each cost only $7, respectively! Clearly I didn’t serve prime rib, but people praised the food and ate seconds. Maybe they were just being polite. I’ll let you judge these recipes for themselves:

Turkey

Butter Chicken

Thai curry (Maesri brand curry paste mixed with 1 can full fat coconut milk + water as needed. Add vegetables and protein of your choice; serve with jasmine rice. Many Asian groceries carry it.)

Grilled pork chops with sweet & spicy dry rub. I can’t find the recipe I used but it contains Montreal Steak, brown sugar, and we substitute habanero powder for cayenne!

Grilled chicken tacos with chipotle marinade This is NOT a chipotle copycat recipe but it’s equally delicious in its own right—maybe better. I make the marinade in large batches (3-4x) and freeze it.

And my go-to bread recipes are always a hit:

Crusty White Bread—super easy, can be made ahead, large batch, good for every day or holidays.

Amish Dinner Rolls—a little more involved, good for holidays.

Do you have trouble sticking to your grocery budget, or meal planning? What are you favorite frugal dinners?

Christmas Gifts That Keep on Saving

Still shopping? Me, too. And who wants to gift junk people don’t need? Forget about jelly of the month club. Give gifts that will keep your frugal friends and family members saving all year long.

  1. Rechargeable batteries. Keep powering toys, flashlights, and other gadgets with less cost to you and the environment.
  2. Glass storage containers. Packing lunch and storing home-cooked leftovers is so much easier with the proper containers, and glass ones are healthier and easier for re-heating food.
  3. Cloth napkins. I love cloth napkins, not only for their cost effectiveness, but because they work so much better than cheap paper napkins.
  4. College fund contributions. This is the gift that keeps growing with the child, and adds value throughout his or her life. While toys and clothes begin depreciates as soon as a kid touches them, compounding interest will grow your gift over the next decade or more. And it’s tax deductible if you contribute directly to the fund.
  5. Wool. Barring wool allergies, wool sweaters, socks, or scarves are a great way to help a frugal gift recipient stay warm throughout the winter, ‘cause you know they’re too cheap to turn up the heat. Wearing wool saves us hundreds of dollars a year in heating costs, and of course we buy it at thrift or outlet stores. (But you might not want to give thrift store socks for Christmas. Just sayin’.)
  6. Camping gear. Open the Door to a Lifetime of Vacation Savings by lowering the entry cost of camping. We save over $1000 a year on vacations by camping, but wouldn’t want to without our tent, camp stove, air mattress, and sleeping bags.
  7. DIY reference materials, such as books on gardening, DIY home repair, cookbooks, backyard chickens, honey bees (our next venture) or any other book supporting a money-saving hobby or endeavor. Here’s my favorite Indian cookbook.  And my favorite bread-baking book: Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day book. These are the types of books that I’d rather own than get from the library since we consult them so often.
  8. A bike. Biking for frugal transportation seems to have made a comeback via the illustrious Mr. Money Mustache. At least, this is what sold Neil, and since then he saw fit to gift me a bike (purchased on Craigslist). You can read about my embarrassingly ungrateful initial response on my personal blog. I’ve repented, and this year my other wish (besides cloth napkins) is a bike hitch so I can haul the kids around in our (also from Craigslist) bike trailer. Helmets are also a good gift for anyone whose brains or beauty you wish to preserve.
  9. For the new parenttemporal lobe thermometer: This thermometer is so quick & to use, my kids like getting their temperature taken. It also seems more sensitive than traditional ones.

    miracle swaddler: This blanket gently helps keep those arms swaddled much longer than other styles.

    white noise: A small, portable white noise machine is ideal for travel, even if it’s just to put your baby down to sleep at a friend or grandparent’s house. It’s also great for hotels and camping.

    rechargeable batteries: Battery-operated toys are bound to enter your house. This set will save you loads in the long run.

    12. For the handy man: (suggestions from Neil)

    drive socket set: I’ve been preaching this to anyone who will listen lately, once you go 1/2″ for automotive work, you won’t go back. If you or a loved one will be doing any work on their car in the near future, I cannot recommend highly enough to get 1/2″ drive sockets. Most people use 3/8″ drive, and it’s nothing but frustration and busted knuckles.

    wire strippers: These auto-stippers are a tool you didn’t know you needed until you use one. They perfectly strip wire of any common size without breaking the conductor. Much better and faster than using scissors or traditional strippers.

    loupe – LED illuminated: These loupes are really fun. Easy to use and show the kids stuff close up. Bugs, carpet, newspaper, wood, all fun when viewed through a loupe.

    wood-splitting ax: This Fiskars Axe is the only way I am able to split my own firewood. I am not a giant lumberjack; I cannot wield a 8-10# maul for a few hours at a time. This thing is light, swift, and well designed. It makes splitting wood fun.

    drill bit set: Get these if you own a 1/4″ drive impact driver. Makes it into a small electric impact gun. Very useful and fast for backing out bolts/ nuts.

    13. For the home chef:

    pressure cooker: I never knew how amazing pressure cookers are until I received an electric one as a gift. It has saved dinner on more than one occasion when I forgot to thaw meat, or got home later than expected. It can cook bone-in frozen chicken pieces in less than half an hour. It also makes meat way more tender than other cooking methods.

    instant pot: I don’t have one of these, but I’ve heard it’s the pot to end all pots. It’s a programmable pressure cooker, slow cooker, rice cooker, yogurt maker…you name it, it can do it. It’s priced very reasonably compared to purchasing one or two of these other devices. If I didn’t already own a pressure cooker and slow cooker, this would be on my wish list.

    good knife: A good knife makes cooking sooo much more enjoyable–and safer.

    14. For the kids:

    K’nex, Legos, or Duplos: My son spends countless hours playing with these building toys.

    Narnia book seriesLittle House book series: Classic children’s books make a great gift kids and parents will like.

    Craft supplies or Play-dohReplenish crafty consumables.

    Zoo or children’s museum membership, sports class, Highlights magazine subscription: keep them entertained throughout the year with fun activities or subscriptions.

    15. For the fit (or those aspiring to be): For those skipping the gym membership, my favorite workout videos are Zumba,  Ballet Beautiful, & P90x.

    16. For the whole family:

    Whirlypop: We make all our popcorn in this stovepop popper. It makes excellent kettle corn as well.

    Board games such as the Busytown Game (for younger kids): This game has the whole family work together to win.

    Book sets such as Narnia book seriesLittle House book series

    DVD sets such as Narnia, Harry Potter, or Star Wars

    Museum or zoo memberships.

    17. For the tea drinker: hot pot, Yorkshire English breakfast tea.

    Happy shopping! I hope you find something for everyone on your list.

What other gifts keep on saving? What is the most useful gift you’ve ever received?

 

This post contains affiliate links. 

Shopping Hack: Minimize Impulse Purchases with Subscriptions

Target: we all know it’s a total mom trap. You go in for diapers and milk and are forced to walk by Starbucks, jewelry, purses, women’s clothing, and baby clothing just to get to the diapers. Then you must either pass by the toys or home goods to get to the milk. Your senses are bombarded with trendy, minimalist-chic décor in the season’s latest hues before you emerge with your items, now only to pass the beauty and cosmetics aisles. And somehow when you go back next week for more diapers, they will have new merch to allure you.

The average woman goes in to Target with 4 items on her list and leaves with 17. I just made that up, but I think it’s about right.

What if you didn’t have to go to Target (or Walmart, or wherever you go) nearly as often? Did you know Target will send you that stuff for free? Actually, they’ll take 5% off the price and deliver for free to your doorstep. Okay, not milk. But I get most of my household items through subscriptions to Target and Amazon.

I don’t like subscription services that mindlessly suck money out of my account each months, such as gym memberships, Netflix, Blue Apron, magazines, mystery boxes, and the like. But I do love subscription goods since I have to buy them anyway. And I mind as well avoid the mom trap.

Amazon

Amazon is my favorite when it comes to subscriptions because they offer 5-20% off. 20% of diapers and wipes if you sign up for Amazon Family. 5% off all items in the subscribe and save store. 15% off all items if you subscribe to 5 or more items in a month.

Here is a list of items I am or have subscribed to from Amazon: batteries, tea, coconut oil, toilet paper, paper towels, dish soap, dishwasher soap pods, shampoo, conditioner, sunscreen, freezer bags, diapers, artificial tears, Aquaphor, and even baker’s yeast.

Some items in the Subscribe and Save store are packaged in bulk, requiring you to buy multiples of the same items. Others can be purchased as a single item. They sell name brands, so some items aren’t cheaper than similar off brands. Just price check next time you’re at the store (or online for big box retailers).

You choose the frequency, and you can cancel at any time. You can even do it for a one-time purchase that you want to save 15% on. I just guess the frequency at the beginning, because it’s easily adjusted on a monthly basis before the items ship. Amazon sends a reminder email a few days before shipping, allowing you to skip delivery on items you don’t need anymore. I spend 5 minutes or less per month checking whether I need the scheduled items or not.

Target

Target offers 5% off many household and toiletry items. I’ve subscribed for toothpaste, hairspray, laundry detergent, shampoo, tampons, tissues, tea, and hand soap. Fewer items are packaged in bulk so it’s easier to subscribe to items you won’t go through quickly. And they even offer subscriptions on some of their store brands.

The items do not have to ship together, and there are lots of frequency options. Target also sends an email before an item ships, in time for you to cancel if you don’t need it. You can skip deliveries or modify the frequency at any time before shipping. And the item doesn’t have to meet a minimum spend to receive free shipping.

The Perks

So how do subscriptions minimize my consumption? I’m much less tempted to buy trendy, cute junk if I just don’t go to stores. Just imagine how many fewer impulses you’d make or even think about if you cut the weekly Target run out of your routine. There’s a great benefit to reaching a point where you can just go into a store and buy only what you need. If you’re not there yet, subscriptions are a great way to fast from in-store browsing. And after a while without making an impulse buy, it’s easier to accept that you really don’t need those extras.

Once subscriptions are set up I’m also saving time—as much as a couple hours a week that would be spent running errands, not to mention needlessly perusing clearance racks. Of course, I also love saving 5-20% off normal prices.

What about the environment? Is all that packaging and delivery ruining the earth? Surprisingly, it’s actually more efficient and better for the environment than the traditional retail model.

Although I’ve banned myself from shopping bans,  subscriptions would be a great way to complete a successful ban as they could help limit spending to essentials.

And speaking of packaging, few things excite my kids more than getting a new cardboard box to play with. No joke.

The Drawbacks

The main downside is that you have to plan ahead. Subscription items do not enjoy two-day shipping. Amazon keeps the same date each month when you’ll receive your items. Target’s is a little less organized, but you’re going to wait a few days vs. just going right to the store.

Could this lead to unnecessary online shopping? It could, but let’s face it: if you can’t see it, feel it, try it on, and it’s going to entail some hassle to return unwanted items, I’m a lot less likely to buy it. Also, if you stay in the Subscribe and Save store on Amazon, there’s pretty much only boring household stuff. If online shopping is a greater temptation for you than being in a store, by all means, keep running your errands.

For items that are not available for subscriptions, I love Target’s “pick up in store” feature. Whether it’s an item you want from another store but don’t want to pay shipping costs, or you don’t want to walk through all of Target, it’s great to show up at customer service and pick up an order. It’s the very definition of avoiding impulse buys.

I realize buying one or two items this way might just be inconsiderate. But if you only need two items, what are you doing in a big box store? Go to the drug store or grocery store, where you might pay a dollar or two more, but if you come out without $40 worth of excess junk, you’ll still be way ahead.

Do you use subscriptions for shopping? What other perks or drawbacks do you see?

The Most Valuable Card in Your Wallet

Yum.

If you don’t know me, you might think is going to be a shameless plug for associate credit card links. But if you know me, you probably know what I consider the most valuable piece of plastic in my purse: my library card.

First off, I pay $81 per year for the privilege of using the library and I intend to get my money’s worth. Secondly, the library exemplifies an original sharing economy. It’s environmentalism, frugality, and minimalism circa the 17th century. These concepts aren’t new, they’re just recirculating with things other than books, movies, music, audiobooks, video games, puzzles, puppets, games, robots, and electronics. That’s right–all that and more may be available at your local library.

Confession: I used to do something insane. I used to buy every book I wanted. Sure, I bought them used on half.com or other discount sites. I loved books, I was an English teacher, and I valued books, so I bought them all.

Then I ran out of shelves.

Which drove me back to my favorite place since childhood. The library. And I learned how to get nearly every book I want from this wonderful institution.

Before I go any further, let me address the common objection: Of course there are books you should buy and own. I still buy books. I buy them if no libraries in my state have them (which is pretty rare). I buy them if I just really want to own that particular book, or maybe it’s a workbook or devotional or reference. I buy books that I got from the library and wanted to read again, and deem worth of shelf space.

You want to highlight? Underline? Make notes? Get a notebook. Write down the most important parts. Write down page numbers. You’ll remember it better if you write it down than just underlining.  Make a copy of the most helpful page or two. You’ll find these faster than if you had to search through a whole book. If you’re tempted to copy every other page, you’ll know you need to buy it.

I can’t tell you exactly how to get almost every book from your library, because it varies by state. But I can tell you some avenues to explore and questions to ask your librarian.

The Hard Stuff

If you want a hard copy of something, inter-library loan is the way to go when your library doesn’t have it.  Ask your librarian about the inter-library loan system. Ask if you can search college and university libraries as well as other public libraries. On my local library’s web site you can go right from your catalog search results to view the holdings at nearly every library in the state by clicking on the inter-library loan system. Then you request it by submitting your library name and personal card number.

The best value in inter-library loans is textbooks. After my freshman year of college I bought very few textbooks because I found them through inter-library loan from other college libraries. I was able to renew the books for a whole semester. I’m sure availability of up-to-date textbooks will vary with different courses of study, but for education and language arts topics, I found lots.

I also got the hard-to-find Muppets Family Christmas on VHS through inter-library loan last year, and watched it with all my sibs. The librarian was like, “It’s a VHS. Are you sure you want it?” And I was all like, “Heck yes, I want it. This tape goes for $95 on ebay!” Actually, I just said “Yes, thanks.”

Next Step Digital S#!^

Libraries know digital is the way to go now. Ebooks, audiobooks, movies, and music are all available digitally. Apps like Hoopla, Libby (formerly Overdrive) and Freegal make borrowing digital media easy. And automatic returns means you couldn’t get fined if you tried.

Libby has a limited number of copies, so you might have to sign up on a waiting list. Hoopla has no holds. Both allow a certain number of borrows per month per library card. Freegal allows you to stream albums or songs and temporarily download 3 free songs a week.

There are many good children’s materials available this way, as well. Digital audiobooks frequently saved my sanity last year. I’d stream a Boxcar Children audiobook for my son’s afternoon quiet time and he’d be happy as clam in his room for up to 2 hours!

I’ll leave you with the words of Arthur (the Aardvark): Having fun isn’t hard when you’ve got a library card!

How much do you love the library? What other awesome library apps are out there?

Preschool and Preserving Produce: Late Summer on the Burbstead

How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the messenger who brings good news, the good news of peace and salvation. Isaiah 52:7

 

To wrap up our whirlwind August, Neil left for a 13-day trip to India. Back on the burbstead, the following happened:

I took the kids camping. I’ve never camped with them solo before, but I was hardly alone, as we were camping with over 100 people. I had four people show up to set up and tear down my tent, and plenty of people helping look after my kids. Not to mention all the other kids there to occupy them. Saturday was rainy at times but they had fun and it cleared up in time for the tradition of potluck and Bible teaching, followed by fun times around the campfire. The next day was sunny and we enjoyed time at a Great Lakes beach. We stayed for sunset on the lake next to a lighthouse.

I also tried my hand at canning our bounty of tomatoes, using the water bath method in my biggest pot. Which is not very big. Neil has canned salsa the past couple years but he was not going to be back before our harvest rotted. We’d already devoured several batches of fresh salsa, eaten lots of tomatoes in salads, and given away tomatoes to just about anyone who would take them. And I still had at least five large colanders full of tomatoes with some more yet to ripen.

I decided to can whole raw pack romas, and salsa. I was exhausted by the end of the day, with only six jars of each product to show for my effort. Although I felt very accomplished, I also wondered whether canning was really worth the effort. A couple days later I borrowed my brother-in-law’s large pot for canning which made the process so much more efficient. I canned another 10 jars of salsa. Yum!

The next morning my daughter started preschool, and that meant I started  too. I’m volunteering at a preschool in a community with a large refugee and immigrant population. When I asked if I could bring my three-year old along, they were enthusiastic about the idea of having a fluent English-speaking peer in the classroom. And I’m excited for her to go to school with a diverse population. We also want to find ways we can volunteer with our kids sometimes in hopes that we can model our values.

The following weekend we attended Neil’s grandfather’s 100th (!) birthday party. Getting the kids dressed and out the door to that party was the hardest thing I did while Neil was gone. My son acts like wearing a polo shirt is cruel and unusual punishment!

The day after was another big event: our church’s annual baptism party. Getting to this is always challenging because you need everything from coats to bathing suits. Still, packing up our four bags of gear was easier than getting my kid to wear a collar. Thirty people got baptized in the lake after sharing how they became a believer in Jesus.

Neil made it home safely Monday afternoon. He’ll tell you all about it soon, but he had a great trip. We are both exhausted, but we wouldn’t have it any other way. Here was one of his favorite moments, meeting a child we sponsor:

We’ve still got watermelons, tomatoes, and hot peppers growing in the garden, but everything seems to be slowing down.

We’ve also got the bee hive to deal with. After a successful summer of beekeeping just two days before Neil left, the hive was robbed by another group of bees. It was crazy—our usually calm hive had bees flying everywhere, fighting each other. Being the fearless beekeeper he is, Neil suited up and went out to try to get the lid to seal better. I think it helped but not sure how much damage had already been done. Not sure what’s next. I’ll keep you posted.

How is your summer wrapping up? How did your garden grow (if you have one)? Any new endeavors this Fall?

Which Shoes Do I Buy? Rethinking the “Quality” Card

The minimalism movement suggests making high quality purchases that will save time, money, thought, and the environment. The idea is to “invest” in quality clothing, gear, and home goods so you don’t have to shop or think about replacing them for a long time. It’s savvy and appealing, but is that pair of shoes actually going to last “forever”? And are marketers using “minimalism” to get us to spend or even consume more?

Take shoes, for example, since we all have them and wear them every single day. Unless you’re my 3-year-old, who might get through a day completely barefoot now and then.

It doesn’t take much worldly wisdom to figure out that cheap shoes are awful. I swore off Payless shoes at the ripe old age of 17 and have never looked back. I do not hate my feet that much.

That said, I owned a pair of shoes from Walmart that lasted 7 years. They cost all of $20 and were perfectly comfortable.

So how do those $80 Clark’s (insert Keens, Merrills, Birks, or whatever you’re into) stack up again my $20 Walmart shoes? The Clark’s would have to last 28 years to be a better value. Just thinking about that makes my arches ache.

Now let’s chat about undies. A $10 pack of 10 women’s Hanes will last at least one year. If you are spending $30 per pair for “durable” undies, you’d have to wear them for over 30 years to outperform the Hanes. Please do not wear the same panties for that long!

Yes, this is anecdotal evidence, but it offers a cautionary tale none the less. The claims of high quality and durability may not live up to the price tag—or the hype. I believe marketers are ploying consumers with the minimalism/quality card. Here are some points to consider before spending all your dollars on a better garment, gadget, or gear:

A numbers game. How many pairs of “high quality” garb are you “investing” in? Sure, your stuff will last a long time if you have fifteen pairs of expensive shoes to choose from. My BFF has foot problems that require her to wear shoes like Dansko clogs or Birkenstocks. She wears these almost exclusively, so they aren’t going to last 20 years. If you wear them out because that’s all you wear, you might be getting a better deal than the person who has them around forever but doesn’t get regular use.

Baby maker? I would highly recommend NOT purchasing “forever” items if you might ever have children. (After kids I suppose is different.) Most women I know have changed shoe size during pregnancy. Your joints and muscles loosen during pregnancy and the bone structure of your feet, hips, or even ribs can widen, never return to their original size. Not to mention the rearrangement of flesh! I escaped two pregnancies without a change in pants or shoe size, but my ribs (of all places!) are now wider, thus rendering some of my “forever” dresses unwearable.

Know thyself. Ask: am I really the person who will wear this forever? If you really enjoy fashion trends, timeless items may not be for you. If you’re going to feel like a nerd wearing shoes that are 5 years old, don’t spend a lot of money on them! Even pieces that attempt to look timeless may feel dated long before you get your money’s worth, especially if you’re influenced by the ebbs and flows of style.

Who wants to live forever? Your undies don’t. Don’t overspend for durability on items that you DO NOT WANT TO USE FOREVER. You do not want to wear the same underwear or athletic shoes forever. That’s gross. And why do you need a $500 stroller unless you’re planning a very large family? Do you know how many used Gracos are on the market in perfectly good condition? They last just fine. Don’t go crazy on high quality baby gear. That phase is over before you can even use all the gadgets you got from your shower.

The things that really last forever are from your parents’ and grandparents’ generations. I have some 1970s Tupperware, for example. That stuff is indestructible! I should know, I’ve broken more than one Pyrex 🙁

Nothing is guaranteed. That’s a bit over-dramatic. But read the fine print and take brand’s guarantees with a grain of salt. They can use weasel words or vague promises that actually guarantee nothing. For example, one quality clothier promises “customer satisfaction” on products, but that doesn’t exactly mean they’ll replace your decade-old bathrobe when it wears out. Policies can also get watered down over time.  Craftsman is the perfect example. Now that Sears sold the brand, Black & Decker is free to change the replacement policy.

Know what you want? Shelling out more for that “forever” item can also put undue pressure on purchases that I believe can lead to materialism, or an undue focus on stuff. If you’re decisive and know what you want, this may be less of a concern. If you’re like me and can’t figure out what the perfect style is that will stand the test of time while also matching the rest of my stuff, it might not be worth the mental energy.

When it’s worth it. If it’s comfort and functionality you seek, the high quality items might be more for you. But don’t get bamboozled by the empty promises or brand prestige. Run the little equation I alluded to before. How much can you get a less expensive but decent equivalent for (considering secondhand where appropriate) and how long can that be expected to last? How many times more does a quality product cost? Is it really four times better and/or will last four times longer? Read reviews, ask people for recommendations, and guestimate based on your experience. Naturally you’ll put more thought into larger purchases than small ones.

Sometimes it’s a no brainer. For example, I limped my $2 thrift store boots through the winter before deciding that having cold, wet feet is bad way to save money. I purchased good quality boots for $45 at the end of the season. I don’t expect them to last 20 times longer than my thrift store sieves, but having warm, dry feet really is 20 times better than not. It is, after all, the purpose of boots.

I did not consider it worthwhile to spend $100+ on knee-high, -30 degree-rated boots, because I do not live in Wyoming. I’m not wading into standing water or working outside in sub-zero temperatures. I just need to get my kid to the bus stop. It cracks me up seeing moms stand around the suburban library in Hunter boots that have never stepped off pavement.

We’ve spent more for quality on a select few items, but have found that our discount, off-brand, used, or freebie items often do the trick just fine.

How do you decide when to spend more for quality? What low-cost items have you found surprisingly durable?

Saving Hacks For Summer Fun with Kids

One way to save: vacation during hurricane season!

Are other mom’s fun-filled Facebook posts leaving you feeling lame? Maybe you can’t—or choose not to—afford all the most expensive children’s attractions and high-end vacations this summer. That certainly doesn’t mean you can’t have fun with your kids and make great memories.

We strike a balance somewhere between a zero entertainment budget and heedless spending on all things fun. We also fall between the extremes of a frenzied death march of “fun” outings, and confining ourselves to the backyard.  Here’s what we spend on summer fun by employing the art of the alternative plus a few hacks. And don’t miss my tips on the children’s museum membership you must get.

Swimming

Nothing says summer vacation like swimming. I was beyond lucky to have grandparents with a pool who lived just a few miles away. If you’re not so blessed, there are often many wonderful alternatives to expensive pool memberships. Believe me—I’ve found them all because 1. Our city doesn’t have a pool and 2. The closest private pools cost $400 or more to join!

For the little ones, check out local splash pads and wading pools. We frequent neighboring cities who have these amenities. My kids also love playing in the sprinkler, kiddie pool ($12, local auction site), playing with the hose, creating a slip and slide from things we already have, and water balloon fights. And no, we don’t live in the desert. I figure  my infrequent showering make up for what we’re wasting.

We’ve also been known to sign up for a free 2-week trial at local fitness centers that feature a pool in order to get a few swims in. If each parent does this at different times, you could get more free visits.

Last year when my son took swim lessons, I took my daughter swimming. I just tried to stay where he couldn’t see me. Our local library also offers three story times at a local pool throughout the summer. After the story time you can swim for as long as you want.

This year we signed up for a pass to a local lake. The summer pass for me and my two kids was a mere $45. I’m a pool girl at heart, but $45 instead of $400? The pool can’t be 10 times better!

The last two years, we’ve received free water park tickets from friends. A normal one-day admission for one person runs $70, but we went for the price of renting a locker.

So that’s how we swim. Here’s how we zoo.

Zoos

Let me just confess that I hate the zoo. Maybe because growing up, my family only ever went to the Tucson Zoo in July.

Maybe it’s because you walk and walk and walk and walk, pushing a stroller with no kid in it, chasing kids who are complaining about all the walking. Only to have them look at the animals for five seconds before going to smell fake animal poop (true story). Or watch other kids walk by. And then ask for snacks. Again.

Maybe it’s because when you leave the zoo you’re always so hungry, thirsty, tired, sweaty, and have to pee sooo bad, and the kids are in a similar state, except they might wear diapers.

Nevertheless, I take my kids to the zoo. I have two great hacks for buying zoo passes at this zoo. I don’t know if they’ll work at your zoo, but it’s worth looking into.

  1. Buy a companion pass instead of a family pass. We buy a pass for two named adults and a specified number of unnamed children. The twist is that the adults aren’t my husband and me. Instead, a friend and I are on the pass, plus 7 kids (random). Then, we pay $5 extra for an unlimited one guess pass. So with each visit, we can bring a guest. We don’t have to go together, and if we bring our husbands they are covered by the pass. And if I want to bring a friend and her kids, they’re also covered by the guest pass. For this we each pay $50 for the year.
  2. Buy a pass every other year. At the beginning of last July I purchased a pass that is good until the end of this July. It covers the better part of two summers. Which is fine for me, because did I mention I actually hate the zoo? So I’ve spend $50 on zoo passes in the last four years.

Most zoos offer reciprocal memberships wherein you can visit other zoos (fml) for half-price. We’ve done this sparingly, but our $50 zoo pass has saved us close to that much on admission at larger (fml) zoos.

Museums and Science Centers

Now we’ve come to the real gem. Here it is: buy a membership to a podunk museum like this one, and inherit the most amazing reciprocal museum and science center admission benefits. Check the list of reciprocal memberships to determine 1.) if there is a closer museum to you with inexpensive membership prices and 2.) if there are museums/centers near where you live OR near where you plan to vacation.

We have visited the museum we hold the membership to exactly once in the last year. We have saved around $200 on other museum and science center admissions, mainly while on vacation.

The bottom line: find the cheap museums and zoos with awesome reciprocal benefits.

Vacationing

We are able to take more family vacations because we travel affordably by camping. It means we drive instead of fly, cook instead of going out, and pay $100-200 per week instead of per night for lodging. We tend to camp near beaches—oceans or Great Lakes will do—and bike, hike, swim, do campfires, and visit local attractions. And my kids are still excited by playgrounds.

We also use travel rewards for flights and hotel stays, but with a family of four who has fairly low expenses, we don’t rack them up fast enough to be jaunting off to the Caribbean regularly.

There you have it–all my best tips and tricks for saving on summer fun. Now it’s your turn:

What are you tips for saving on summer fun? What are the best value memberships or passes that you hold?

Chasing Chickens: Summer on the Burbstead

If You Can't Outrun It, Outsmart It

“Mom, there’s a chicken in the front yard!” my son ran in from playing in the back yard to report. I left my guests for a moment and went outside to find two chickens on the loose.  One chicken escaped our closed gate and was in the side yard. Another was all the way in the neighbor’s backyard. I got the one if the side yard back using my only chicken-herding technique: walk behind it in the direction you want it to go. Apparently chickens don’t like being stalked.

I headed over to the neighbor’s yard, counting on this method to work again. This would require opening the neighbor’s gate. I thanked God their two Great Danes weren’t out—and I was expressing gratitude on my behalf, not the chickens’—and hoped the neighbors wouldn’t notice. We never see them, and I have no idea what they might think of my suburban chicken-chasing antics.

To my great dismay, the fence was zip-tied shut. No doubt for the Great Danes. Now, I don’t mind jumping a fence one bit. But the zip-tied fence meant that I was not going to be able to use my one, sure-fire chicken-herding method. And I do mind catching and carrying full-size chickens.

Lest you think I’m some hardy, homesteading type of gal, let me set you straight. I am not comfortable around any animals except my own children. I can scarcely tell a weed from a plant. Actually, I can’t. I prematurely pulled a garlic plant Neil put in our front flower bed.

Sure, I pick up the chickens when they’re babies. Even toddlers. But after they hit that awkward, adolescent chicken stage, I try not to touch them. So here I am, chasing a squawking, flapping chickens around my neighbor’s yard, trying to dodge piles of Great Dane poop while my kids watch me.

And if you didn’t know, chickens are fast. Especially these free-rangers. I asked my son to get me a bucket to catch it in so I wouldn’t have to touch it. It quickly became clear that wasn’t going to work. My son offered to try. Good burbstead boy! I went inside to get his shoes (because poop), and when I came back the chicken was nowhere to be seen.

I imagined the poor, lonely chicken roaming the neighborhood, regretting his own wanderlust. I looked down the street but there was no sign on him. Oh well, I thought, there’s nothing for it now.

I described the incident to Neil when he got home. He went out back, counted the chickens, and insisted they were all accounted for. Gulliver had found his way home.

The Black Rangers breed was much more interesting than our previous breed. But the longer we had the chickens, the bolder they became. One day they climbed the deck stairs and pooped all over the deck. We had to start barricading the bottom of the stairs with lawn chairs. Three of them escaped the gate again before we realized they were squeezing under, and secured it with rocks.

But this was just the beginning of our chicken-chasing ventures. Neil arrived home from work on a 90-degree day with 15 minutes to load up the chickens and take them to the friend’s farm where he processes them. We chicken-proofed the back of our station wagon since our trusty Farm Focus was replaced with the $200 Scion XB, which has a lot less room in the back.

Neil corralled the chickens into the box quickly by putting food in it—something they don’t normally get on slaughtering day. He had only managed to get a couple to the car when our son jumped into the box when its door was open, and they all ran out. At that point they knew something was up and weren’t going to flock back into the box. Neil, wearing his winter boots that double as muck boots, tried chasing them but we quickly learned just how fast chickens are.

“If anyone can see this, they must be laughing their heads off,” Neil remarked.

Two days later our neighbor posted the theme featured above.

We worked together to use our chicken-herding technique, cornering them in positions Neil could grab them. After what felt like an eternity, he had wrangled them all into the station wagon and was off.

In related news, Neil “accidentally” purchased a chicken coup off a local auction site. It was a steal, and we could use it for our meat birds next summer, but getting layers is also on the table. If they’re as ornery as the male Black Rangers, I’m not sure I’m up for it. At the same time, it was a lot more fun having chickens that explored instead of just eating and pooping in the same place every day.

If you’re wondering, raising our own chickens costs about the same as buying whole chickens at the store, and much less than purchasing local, humanely-raised birds. For answers to all your burning questions about backyard chickens, including the price calculations, please see Are You Too Chicken? To Raise Backyard Chickens.

For more on our suburban “homesteading” endeavors, see Rocking the Burbstead: How We’re Homesteading on 0.1 Acre.

And why do we do this crazy stuff? Check out How Do You Uncube? A Philosophy of Hobbies.

Would you ever consider raising backyard chickens? What do you think–should we get layers for eggs?