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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? 

The Art of the Alternative

We’ve all read a statement like this one: If you pack lunch instead of going to Chipotle every day, you’ll save $1650 per year. That would be $158,000 if you invested it for 30 years!

People like to frame money choices in terms of opportunity cost, or the power of perpetuity. And for good reasons. It’s true that your latte habit + your chipotle habit + your new car habit could mean you’re never going to get out of debt. But when we state that your lunch-out routine is going to cost you $160,000 over the next 30 years, a lot of us just shrug and think, Oh well. That’s probably not that big of a deal in the scheme of things. Because in real life, few of us are good at making epic financial decisions every day at lunch time. When we’re hungry, no less!

It’s helpful to look at the big picture, but sometimes we need to focus on the details a bit more. What if you could have a delicious lunch AND gain $160,000? We all have to make trade-offs. But it doesn’t always have to be about the trade-off. What if you could find something nearly as good, just as good, or even better than what you’re currently spending on? In many cases we can have both with just a touch of effort, planning , or creativity.

[Here’s the Chipotle chicken copycat recipe.]

Out of the box thinking is key to learning the art of the alternative. Normal people jump at the easy, obvious consumer solution, regardless of the price tag. Smart people don’t. They fix. They re-purpose. They thrift. They trash-pick. They accept that Life is Not about Your Preferences. But to sustain their low-cost lifestyle, they also must learn the art of alternative. And they actually enjoy the process of brainstorming and discovering solutions quite a bit. It’s gratifying in a way that standard consumerism can never be.

Allow me to illustrate the art of the alternative. And I want to hear your examples in the comments.

  • We’d love to have the woods as our backyard. But we live in the suburbs, 20 minutes’ drive from a national park. Our solution? Drive to the park, hike in the woods.
  • We’ve also dreamed of owning a bit more land for hobby farming. For now, we’re Rockin’ the Burbstead on our 0.1 acre of backyard. For us that includes chickens, bees, maple syrup, fruit trees, a wood pile, and a garden.
  • And we love the beach! Instead of pricey peak-season visits to tourist beaches, think March camping at a Florida state park with a beautiful beach. Think summer trips to the Great Lakes. Think off-season, rewards-fueled trips to whatever beach we can get to cheaply.
  • I’ve never met an Asian cuisine I didn’t like. Yet going out gets expensive. We still do on our monthly dates, but I’ve learned a number of good dishes from Madhur Jaffrey’s Quick and Easy Indian Cooking and a descriptively titled cookbook, Chinese. My international friends have helped me learn, too. Hint: do not buy “curry” sauces from the regular grocery store. Find a good Asian grocery in your area.
  • Are you an entertainment lover, or just a fan of a particular show? You don’t need cable, or even Netflix. You need a library card. Our friends check out a stack of DVDs each week in lieu of paying for any cable or Internet (!).
  • You’re frugal, but also aesthetic, so you don’t want your clothes or furniture looking like they’re from some grandma’s garage sale? Two words: buy used. Nowadays you don’t have to garage-sale your life away searching for the perfect piece. Search Craigslist. Try Facebook buy-sell-trade pages and other local resale pages. Go to the thrift store. Of course, garage sales are perfectly wonderful, too.
  • Your kids want to play sports, but it’s getting too expensive? At the early ages, explore barter-and-trade options. My mom used to clean my gym in exchange for a discount on my gymnastics fees.
  • If you love to travel, learn how to travel-hack using credit cards. Get into a good hotel points program if you travel for work. But also, start camping. Borrow some gear or just buy the basics. It’ll open the door to a lifetime of low-cost travel. Did you know Disney World has a camp site?
  • I loved my fancy-schmancy gym membership, but when it got too expensive, I did everything from exercise videos in my basement, to a women’s fitness class at a church. It was harder than anything I’d ever done at the gym! Pretend to Be Fit!

The beauty of the alternative is that you’re not missing out, and you don’t feel deprived. It’s a sustainable way of living because you’re satisfied with your solution. As a bonus, you’re also defying the absurd suggestions of consumer culture–that you are useless, helpless, and incapable of doing anything besides spending all your money.

So what alternatives have you come up with? Does anyone else enjoy the act of finding alternatives, too?

Learner’s Edge Review: Continuing Education for Teachers

A few months ago I almost asked my readers: should I keep my teaching license? But as I drafted the post, I knew I already had my answer. Although I don’t necessarily plan to return to full-time classroom teaching, I could see myself still working in the field of education in a variety of ways. I don’t know for sure what type of work I’ll do once my kids are in school, and that’s why it seems better to keep the teaching license rather than let it expire.

To keep it, I need 6 college credits every 5 years, and that runs out for me in one year. Most teachers take graduate classes, but for my first renewal I took online undergraduate classes through a community college or regional branch of a state university, since these were the most affordable options. (I’m not planning to pursue a Master’s in education.)

I finished my last round of coursework before we had kids. I needed a course that was online and flexible. Because completing an entire thought, let alone a homework assignment, is challenging with two little kids.

Through my search, I came across a company called Learner’s Edge. It’s was created by teachers to provide graduate level continuing education classes for teachers. All classes are online, self-paced, and offer credits through regional partnering accredited universities. After reading reviews about the company I decided to try a course.

I can’t say enough about the great experience I had. If you’re a teacher or know a teacher who needs continuing education credits OR wants to earn a Master’s degree in education, I highly recommend Learner’s Edge.

First off, the classes are a bargain at $425 for three graduate credits. That’s the same price as a three-credit undergrad class at my local community college. Secondly, the window for semesters is huge. For example, registration for my “summer” class ran from January 15-April 15, with all coursework due by August 15. That means you get up to eight months to finish your self-paced coursework. This is flexibility to the max, perfect for busy teachers and/or parents.

Learner’s Edge offers a wide selection of courses depending on your teaching area. They even have classes recommended for those who aren’t currently teaching. In that case, you’re encouraged to draw on past classroom experience for certain assignments. There were plenty of customer reviews of the courses, which was helpful in choosing what to take.

The company mailed the textbook to me within a few days. All the assignments for my course were posted in an online portal, so I knew from the beginning what I was in for. In addition to the textbook the teacher added a few interesting videos and links to articles.

Overall, I found the assignments to be useful. If you’ve ever taken an education class, you know this is high praise. I didn’t feel like I was obliged to regurgitate the same buzzwords ad nausea um. The coursework required reasonable degrees of extension, research, and application, without feeling overwhelming or like busy work. The content was relevant and interesting. In fact, I’ve already been able to apply it in everyday life.

Another huge plus for my particular class was that the student forums were optional and not part of the grade. I’m all for peer interaction and did comment on the forums, but sifting through the repetitive or overly opinionated comments of others while racking my mom-brain for something original to add is not my favorite.

The assignments were graded in a very timely fashion, within about two days for my class. And the grader’s comments were personal in the sense that the grader responded to particular parts of my work, and also offered additional resources or ideas based on what I had written. It felt mutually professional– another rarity in the field of education, in my experience. It was mostly for “completion.” I didn’t get a letter grade until the last assignment, for which I did slightly more work to earn an A. Because, what teacher doesn’t want an A?

I have one more class to take in the next year, and it will definitely be from Learner’s Edge. I thought about diving right into another one, but we have a lot going on this summer and I’m trying to be a fun mom J Again, I realize many of my readers aren’t teachers, but you most likely know someone who is. I’d encourage you to share this resource with them because it is the best solution I’ve found for teacher’s need for useful, flexible, and affordable continuing education.

What is the best way to meet continuing education requirements in your field? Any teachers out there with experience with Learner’s Edge or other good ways to earn CEUs?

Building Community Without the Commune

J. Money of Budgets Are Sexy recently sent me an interesting article about one nun’s experience of communal living. In her order, the sisters all take a vow of poverty in which they choose to contribute all their income (many have “secular” jobs) to a common pot, and own all possessions collectively rather than individually. It had some cool takeaways for anyone, and it also got me wondering: is communal living trending?

Because I’ve also been hearing buzz over Rod Dreher’s latest book, The Benedict Option, which suggests communal living in less extreme forms. We, too, have dreamed of buying a large property with friends, living in separate houses but sharing outdoor chores and using the property to serve the larger community.

It seems the idea of communal living is back in vogue after a generation of building decks in the back of the house instead of porches in the front. And attached garages so you never have to see your neighbors, unless serendipity strikes during the half-minute walk to the mailbox.

It’s true that a sharing economy has emerged, along with a rising movement toward minimalism/simplicity. People are going “back to the land” in various ways.  The idea of communal living may be more of a dream than a reality for most, but there are practical ways we can all build community. I imagine this is what people are actually longing for in the most individualistic culture ever.

I’ve lived in close community perhaps more than the average person. First it was my family of five kids, plus all ones my mom babysat and neighbor kids coming to play. In college I always had multiple roommates. After college, we lived in an apartment building where several of our married friends resided. I started calling this place The Commune because they said the gas bill was split evenly among the residents (it wasn’t).

When the rent increased people started moving out. So we moved in with friends. While we didn’t pool our incomes or anything like that, we did share a shower and kitchen.

A year later we purchased a home on the same block. From there, we set out to continue building community. We invited all our immediate neighbors to our house-warming party. Which, by the way, is the best way not to have the cops called if the party gets too loud. I also took cookies to our neighbors within a week of moving in. Thank goodness they weren’t home. The cookies were a little on the crisp side, and I learned later that my neighbor is a pastry chef.

But enough about me. Here are a list of other ways we can practice community and sharing without getting all Animal Farm:

  • Swap babysitting with other parents.
  • Make errands more efficient. If you’re stopping by a store, text your neighbor to see if they need anything.
  • Share tools. Why does everyone need to own a ginormous extension ladder? How often do you actually use some of your tools?
  • Share skills. While you’re sharing tools, why not share your skills? Whether it’s baking, crocheting, or rebuilding your ant-eaten home, sharing DIY skills is invaluable.
  • Share meals. Invite people over for dinner. Or brunch. Or a fire-side s’more. Just remember to aim for hospitality rather than entertaining. That makes everyone feel more comfortable.
  • Share baby gear. Even before you’re done having kids, sharing is caring. I’ve borrowed and lent out everything from clothes to carriers.
  • Give stuff away. Even if you could sell something, consider giving it away in order to build community. When I think of all the ways people have shared with me, I’m more likely to dismiss the few bucks I might get for an item and just pass it on.
  • Share life. At some point it makes sense to go beyond small talk and discuss real life. That point is different for every relationship, but being there for people (and having others to lean on) is what community is really about.
  • Share money. Be generous. Give to good charities. Support your local church. Treat someone. Take the tool that money is and use it for good in the lives of others as well as your own.
  • Share faith or values. For us the deepest sense of community comes from our church. Did you know the word church literally means the assembly? It’s not about the place. It’s about people coming together. And the word fellowship actually means to share or to have in common. Much of the sharing described above happens in this context for us, and it’s a source of great joy.

As I type this list, countless examples  of sharing come to mind. My neighbor who has clothed my son for the last year or more, and just sent over cupcakes this evening. Our friends down the street who gave us a shop vac for our house-warming present. And much, much more. I’m at once humbled and motivated to continue striving to share and build community.

For Further Reading: Frugal Friends Don’t Let Friends…

What are other ways of building community? What do you think of the idea of communal living?

We Bought a Car for $200

We sold our rusty but trusty Focus last weekend.

I’m always a little afraid our site title will be taken too literally. We don’t claim to be “extremely frugal” or living at the poverty level. But if there’s one area we veer pretty far from the norm, it would be our vehicle purchases. Perhaps a good way of describing it would be “pretend to be a teenager.” Because who besides a student drives a $1000 car?

While I wouldn’t assert that everyone should follow suit, allow me to divulge the thinking behind the thrifty approach to vehicles that’s served us well into our 30s, carseats and all. Perhaps you’ll find something that will help next time you need a car.

Would foregoing car ownership altogether be the cheapest option? Yes! But this isn’t a good fit for many, including us. Instead we’ve tried to minimize what we’ve deemed a necessary expense.

Who Wants a Hooptie?

We’d been preparing to replace our rusty but trusty 2002 Focus for a while. This meant we had money in our car fund and Neil had his eye out for the type of car he wanted in the under $5000 price range. He was strongly considering flying south for a weekend and bringing back a rust-free vehicle. Before a free weekend materialized, his coworker told him that his neighbor wanted to sell a car for $500 max—a 2004 Scion that needed a clutch.

After contacting the owner, Neil got a ride from his coworker since the location was an hour away. Neil, usually a hard-core haggler, wasn’t trying hard to get the price down. Because it had some problems in addition to the clutch, the owner thanked him for taking it for $200. No, that’s not a typo. That’s $200–less than what most people pay for a bike or a stroller.

Neil got the Scion home without incident. He could replace the clutch himself for around $300, but that could take the better part of a weekend. A mechanic friend quoted him at $500 for the job and we decided it was worth it to outsource. (See–not extremely frugal.) The total for all repairs came to $800. So you could say we bought the car for $200, or spent $1000. Either way, it’s a steal.

Neil listed his other car on Craigslist and within the week it sold for $750. More on that below.

Uncommon Sense for Car Buyers

Having the option to buy a car for $200 is hardly reproducible but it wasn’t totally random either. I picked Neil’s brain and unearthed the secrets of a frugal car-buyer, most of which fly in the face of conventional wisdom.

  1. Don’t drive your car into the ground.  While we believe in driving cars for a long time, but we don’t drive them into the ground–anymore. We jumped Neil’s 1985 Ford F150 twice on the 5-mile trek to the junkyard. Later we were a one-car couple for a month while searching to replace a dead car, the free totaled vehicle he restored and drove for years. This is when we bought Neil’s beloved 1990 Dodge Shadow, a $750 car he sold years four later for $500. My 1992 Brother still drives it. Most grown-ups (including us now) can’t tolerate the inconvenience of a truly dead car, and that urgency tends to spur people into overpaying for vehicles.
  2. Don’t pay for less miles. Not only do we not see the point in buying a new vehicle, we don’t see why we’d pay much more than $5000 for any vehicle. Beyond $5000, you’re most likely just paying for lower mileage. We actually prefer cars that have lived a good life 100,000 miles, at which point some major repairs have been done and depreciation drops off dramatically.
  3. People do notice you drive a clunker–and that’s a good thing. Getting connected with the $200 car wasn’t entirely random. A couple years ago, a different coworker had a car he wanted to get rid of. Neil bought it for $1800 and sold it for $3500. All he put into it was the price of the temp tags and about an hour’s work. Neil works at an engineering firm that employs lots of young grads who drive nice cars. He sticks out in his rusty 15-year-old vehicle. Being known as a scavenger/grease monkey is ideal when someone is looking to offload a hooptie.
  4. Less rust is worth it. If you work on your own cars and live where it snows, it’s worth starting out with a rust-free vehicle. Getting a $50 airline ticket somewhere south and driving back in a solid vehicle is a good idea if no one tries to sell you a car for less than the price of a bicycle.
  5. God provides. The timing of both cases of Neil’s two most recent vehicle purchases was uncanny. In the first, the $1700 profits covered the exact balance due after fund-raising for my India trip. In the second, we’d been actively planning how/when to replace the Focus. We’ve found time and time again that God provides in unexpected ways as we follow Him.

Car ownership is expensive, to be sure. But it doesn’t have to a $20,000 proposition. It doesn’t even have to be $10,000. You can save a lot by recalibrating your view of what a reliable used vehicle can cost. And how sweet would it be to never have a car payment again?

For further reading check out How I Spent Less Than $8k on Cars in 17 Years of Commuting.

What is your approach to vehicle purchases? Has your frugal reputation ever scored you a great deal on something?

Sugar, Fire, and Love: Winter on the Burbstead

A local winter sunrise.

As the season comes to a close, it’s time reflect on this winter on our burbstead. Winter is our least “stead” and most “burb” season, but we make the most of our .3 acre plot by splitting wood, making fires, and tapping our maple trees. And we get to enjoy the fruits of last season’s harvest with our own chickens, canned salsa, and pickled jalapenos. Our maple syrup also lasts the year and pancakes are a Saturday morning tradition here.

Maple Sugaring

Why do we tap our trees? Because they are there. One of our two maples was afflicted by ants while the ants were also eating our house. We stopped tapping it since it isn’t healthy. Fortunately our wonderful next door neighbors let us tap their maple tree. Of course we give them syrup in exchange.

The weather this winter made for a strange sugaring season. We must have tapped at the right time because I’ve never seen the sap flow like it did those first couple of days. After a good first week, the temperature was all over the place. For a while it was in the 60s by day and not dropping below freezing at night, which is necessary for sap flow. Then it was too cold for a stretch—it has to go above freezing during the day.

Liquid gold.

We just kept our taps in and waited it out. Sap can be refrigerated or frozen while we’re waiting for a full pan for boiling, or if our schedule requires us to prioritize suburban activities over homesteading ones.

This was the first year we did not lose any syrup to mishaps like burning or spilling. We’re bad burbsteaders 🙁 But that’s the beauty of burbsteading—we’re not actually living off the land, so there’s no pressure while we figure out things like how quickly syrup cooks at the end. We learned to bring it in from the outside to our stove at the end for close monitoring.

All told our yield was over a gallon. For more on making syrup, check out our creatively titled post, Maple Sugaring.

Wood

Our wood pile is getting low, meaning we’ve enjoyed lots of lovely fires in our fireplace. It has a heat exchanger insert which greatly increases the fireplace’s efficiency. Neil did some tests this year to measure the heat output for different amounts of wood burning in the fireplace. Conclusion: we’ve been wasting a lot of wood by stacking it high in there. The “smaller” fires are more efficient. Again, all part of the burbsteading learning curve!

Our five-year-old often alerts us when the fire needs a log—and he really knows whether it needs one or not. It’s quite helpful and adorable.

Neil splits the wood himself and gets it for free from tree lawns, the city leaf and wood pile, and has been known to knock on doors when someone is clearly having a tree cut down. For more on getting free firewood and fireplace efficiency, check out Fuel Your Way to FIRE with Free Firewood. Neil also received a nice kindling hatchet as a gift for being in a wedding. Which brings us to…

Weddings

Since fall, Neil was the best man in two weddings, and we attended a third one as well. This means wedding festivities—showers, bachelor parties, rehearsal dinners, and of course the big day—were a common calendar items for us this past season. Neil’s bachelor parties and toasts were a hit, and I believe his days as a best man (these were not the first) are over as all his dearest friends are now married.

Most people go through a season of life when they’ve invited to lots of weddings. Then the majority of their friends are married off, and they might just go to the occasional cousin’s wedding. Not so for us. Though the wedding frenzy has slowed some (one summer in college we went to seven!) we spent several years in youth ministry and those kiddos are now grown up and getting married. Add in the cousin weddings, and some friends who found love after the post-college wedding peak, and we’re still in this space. Let’s just say our annual budget’s “gift” line item accounts for this and always gets put to good use.

Another wedding happened to be on St. Patrick’s Day, and the bride and groom asked if I would lead an Irish dance. I sometimes plan “flash mob” type dances, and I took a whole nine months of Irish dance during high school. My credentials were satisfactory for this carefree couple, and I rounded up a troupe of about 10 to perform a simple reel to a Riverdance tune. I was just impressed I found any willing participants.

Our peas are planted so it’s officially spring. I’ll keep you posted on our garden, bee-baiting ventures, and baby chicks in the next burbstead update!

Review: $30 Verizon Wi-Fi Smart Phone Plan

Big news: I got a smart phone.

I know, I just extolled my dumb phone in In Praise of Old Technology. But when Neil got a mobile upgrade at work and got to keep his iPhone 5s, it seemed like the right time to make the switch.

I knew it was inevitable. I was having problems receiving texts that contained emoticons—which comprised a lot of texts from a lot of my friends :). It rendered the whole message unreadable :(. I also couldn’t respond to group texts.  And I got lost on the way to basically anywhere off the beaten path.

There were other things I LOVED about having a dumb phone: no temptation to waste time online, my kids couldn’t ask me for constant entertainment, and my battery life was amazing. Once after a vacation I didn’t unpack my phone charger until 5 days had passed!

Anyway, my time had come. Now what phone plan to get? I’ve had Verizon for 10 years. Don’t judge me. Every time I start thinking about switching to a less expensive provider I hear awful things about it from a friend. Since Neil’s always had his phone paid for by his employer, who also discounted my dumb phone plan for a while, I’ve never been motivated to change.

I’m definitely not one to scoff at small savings that add up in perpetuity. But this is one area I’ve been willing to pay $5-10 more per month to avoid 1.) the cost of purchasing a phone and 2.) the hassle of changing phone plans. Because let’s face it, dealing with phone companies is a hassle.

While we’re on that point, let me clarify: I’m not in any way affiliated with Verizon. My recent experience with them has been a hassle. But I do think this little-known plan I’ve stumbled upon is pretty sweet—too good to keep to myself.

The plan is a $30 per month, prepaid Wi-Fi only smart phone plan. Talk and text are unlimited, of course.

This plan is not clearly visible on their web site. To find it, you have to begin the process of signing up for a different prepaid plan, and then go to the  shopping cart page where  you can downgrade to the $30 Wi-Fi plan.

Why it’s awesome: Almost everywhere has Wi-Fi now. It automatically connects to my home network. If I’m somewhere without Wi-Fi and really need it, there’s probably a McDonald’s or somewhere nearby where I can get it.

Thirty dollars per month is the same price I paid for my very first cell phone plan when I went off to college 14 years ago. I realize the market has changed a lot, but the fact that I haven’t increased this expense is nice!

I’m also not tempted to be browsing the Internet needlessly while out and about. I won’t bother getting on Wi-Fi unless I actually “need” to. Hey, price-checking is necessary! Plus, I’m usually surrounded by people (including my husband) who have data plans so I can just be that annoying person who asks questions and lets someone else look up the answer. (I consider this a great way to serve my husband since he loves looking at his phone!)

For directions I use the GPS on the Google Maps. I downloaded a map of my area—and it’s a big map. While offline, it can search nearby for open-ended destinations like “library” or “Indian restaurant” (both important!) and find it without an address. Then it offers offline directions, map, and navigation just like an old school GPS.

Having those maps downloaded is actually better than using Verizon’s network because it’s not dependent on signal strength. Just last month, we were driving back from a church retreat in the middle of nowhere and Neil’s phone service wasn’t working as we left. Because I had the map saved, Google maps app navigated us without a problem.

Drawbacks: sometimes there is no Wi-Fi available. This requires more planning ahead, including downloading maps, coupons, and other information ahead of time. You could probably get something similar for $5-10 less with a different provider.

I recommend this plan for anyone:

  • Interested in switching from a dumb phone to a smart phone
  • Who is home a lot and is paying for Wifi there, or has access to free Wifi most of the time.
  • Values having very reliable phone service.
  • Who (like me) reguarly gets lost in the middle of nowhere and doesn’t have a GPS.
  • Who comes by a good free smart phone and is ready to make the change.

Someday I may want data, at which point it’ll be time to shop around. For now, I’m happy with my Wi-Fi only plan, great service, and being able to keep my phone.

Would you ever consider a Wi-Fi only plan? Any recommendations for data plans with reliable service?