Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Striving for self-sufficiency: Not quite reality

Quiet garden

One thing I have learned by being a homeowner on the property I chose is as hard as I strive for self-sufficiency, I cannot quite make it in suburbia. Oh, I have made modest gains in supplying my own food, decreasing the amount of lawn, using rain water and decreasing my use of potable water, but I only occasionally eat homegrown food. I still rely heavily on grocery stores for the main share of my food.

And while I compost my food and yard waste, some spoiled food still makes it into the garbage bin. Plus I need to import composted horse manure to supply most of my compost needs in the garden. I still buy most of my seeds, buy the seed starting medium but am able to reuse items around the house for seed-starting containers. While I use all the leaves I can on my property, I still need more leaves to chop and use for mulch. This is where neighbor's piles come in handy. Both imports mentioned here (leaves and compost) are gained through hard work and minimum distance traveled, but still need to be brought onsite to accomplish what I need done.

I have planted all the trees on my property and unfortunately, none of them will be for food use. However, they were planted to shade the house and reduce cooling costs in the summer. As we are undergoing record heat in May where it feels more like July, this is definitely something I desire. Too bad the payoff is in the future, not the present, but the four additional trees will add value when I sell my property. The fifth one is too far away for shade, but does add beauty as it flowers in the spring. Another item reused extensively are the rocks I discovered as I dug all the holes for the trees. While the rocks jarred my arms as my shovel hit them, I have been able to line the bottom of potted plants, hold down newspaper, cardboard and straw, mark the location for succession planting and edge a foundation bed with the limestone. I have a modest suburban rock pile, but it has served me well.

However, I keep as much as I can onsite, only occasionally exporting items (rose bush and raspberry shrub trimmings with plans to rectify the situation this year) and importing vast quantities. However, I am decreasing my reliance on the conventional system for my needs by outsourcing to curb shopping, growing my own food, generating my own fertilizer (compost), using gray water and rain water, reusing items rather than choosing disposable ones, shopping secondhand and being frugal. All these actions align with my personal values. So while I still commute daily to a job in my gas-guzzling car and rely on this form of transportation over most others, I strive to make all I do at home count and slowly increase my self-sufficiency even if I know I cannot supply all my needs onsite.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Adding more to the retirement account

Strips of paper with IRA, 401K and Retirement inscriptions

In an earlier post, I talked about my salary increase. I realized two weeks later that I had not increased my 401(k) contribution. This was not a terrible thing, but with an increased paycheck comes the potential for increased taxes. Plus investing more in my retirement will likely benefit me in the future. Therefore, I increased my 401(k) contribution by 1% and saw a modest decrease in my take-home pay. With some changes to my automatic savings, I was able to cover the difference and build my retirement investment more quickly. Since this money comes out pretax, it does affect my final tax burden so I should see a modest reduction now as well as investing for the future.

Have you increased your retirement contributions?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

One friend's strategy: Open an IRA to reduce taxes

Crossword puzzle and pencil

My taxes and I get along quite well, usually getting a refund back more than having to pay to the government. (I do try not to get refunds, but so far, not quite there.) However, not everyone is so lucky. One of my friends found that when she figured her taxes for 2009 that she owed more than she wanted. Of course, she had waited until April 10 to calculate what she owed the various governments (she and her husband work in two different states). Currently, she and her husband rent, have one child and are resident aliens. However, when she calculated what they owed, she was not pleased with the total. In fact, she told me she was opening a traditional IRA to reduce her tax burden.

I can only speak in general terms because I do not know how much she owed or how much her tax bill was reduced by opening and contributing to an IRA. However, she reduced it enough that the refund from the state covered what she owed to the federal government with a small amount left over. I have not gotten to this point, but I know this is one strategy to reduce tax burdens rather quickly especially as in my friend's case, taxes are not figured until the last minute. This may be why people can contribute to a Roth or traditional IRA until April 15.

Our tax situations are different. I am single, have a house with a mortgage interest to deduct, contribute to charity and to my 401(k). She is married with a child, rents her home and contributes to her 401(k). To further reduce her taxes, she plans on continuing to contribute to the traditional IRA and possibly opening a 529 for her child.

Is contributing to an IRA a tax-reduction strategy you could use?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Frugal tip: Start a coupon club

Scissors and coupons

Two of my colleagues and I discuss coupons and grocery sales, noting how much we save combining the two at least once a week. From our talks, I have learned my two colleagues have easily saved more than they spent when using coupons. When I mentioned to one of them that every time I visit my mom, I sort through her coupons to find ones I could use, she said "Hey, I can bring my coupon circulars here if you want to look through them." I readily agreed and the departmental coupon club was born.

What is the coupon club? Those who receive the Sunday paper bring in the coupon circulars and offer it to others to look through. In our club, these coupons sit on top of a cabinet centrally located in my department and anyone is welcome to look through and clip coupons. At the end of the week, the coupons are recycled and Monday brings a fresh infusion. It is a kindness for those like me who do not get a Sunday paper and gives access to a second coupon for an item if available from the other person. For example, I saved $8 on my contact lens solution because the flyer had coupons for the brand I used. I made sure to thank my colleagues for bringing in their coupons so I could save such a significant amount.

How do you start a coupon club? Find like-minded individuals willing to bring in their flyers to share. Ask around at work, consult with neighbors or friends to suggest pooling resources and getting the most out of the coupon flyers. Our club mainly consists of three people and only two contribute flyers. The arrangement is casual and seems to work without conflict. Your club can be similar or even involve a social environment (e.g., a lunch with friends and coupon exchanging). Not everyone is going to use the same coupons and it maximizes everyone's savings at the store.

Will you start a coupon club?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The life of a scavenging gardener

White Impatiens

Much of my attention currently is focused on my garden. I am happily harvesting asparagus from my patch between the sidewalk and street, eyeing up the healthy rhubarb plants and looking forward to my first black raspberry harvest. I am also planting annual crops, figuring out among all my gardening spots where to put all the seeds I want to sow or plants I have started. I am also looking to fill in the native plants in the garden at the front of my house.

What do I mean by scavenging? Much of my recent venture was determined by craigslist. Because I had a rectangular recycling bin that was no longer needed for recycling, I wondered what to do with it. I had the brilliant idea to use it as a big planting pot as it had four holes in the bottom that would work for drainage. Also, I use five-quart ice cream buckets in various capacities around the house, but there gets to be a point where they are no longer fit for hauling stuff to the compost bin. Well, I have wanted to dress up the step to my front door. What if I use the ice cream buckets to plant annuals like impatiens? Plus I just used up paint in a metal can. That would work too! And hey, I could dress up the plastic and metal with some spray paint.

I found someone giving away garden soil on craigslist. All I needed to do was provide my own method of hauling said soil. So armed with my trusty shovel, two five-gallon buckets and two thick plastic bags that previously held either mulch or cat litter, I made my way to the person's home. As if digging and moving dirt was not work enough, his house was on a hillside so I had the challenge of hauling bags and buckets up an incline. This dirt haul was complemented by $1 per plant bee balm another person was selling off craigslist on the honor system. I chose two and stashed them in my car for later as I was getting plants and dirt over the lunch hour.

I also share a company-sponsored garden plot with three other people and wanted to get my sweet corn in the ground. However, I had forgotten my nitrogen-rich dried blood. Because I had access to two coffee pots and the leftover coffee grounds, another source of nitrogen, I decided to use the available two filters of coffee grounds. I mixed it with the composted horse manure (hauled for free a couple weeks ago) and planted four hills of corn in the garden plot after work. This was a good choice as rain started overnight.

When I finally reached my home, I layered my free dirt with composted horse manure in the recycling bin, the holes covered with rocks from around my house, likely uncovered when digging holes for my trees. I planted the last set of my onion plants and watered well. Finally, I dug two holes for my new bee balm plants and installed them with a boost of compost. I did encounter lava rock, a legacy mulch from a previous owner. These I plan on lining the bottom of my ice cream buckets once painted.

I still have dirt left from my haul, but less than I desire. With a bit more time, my scavenged dirt, inexpensive plants and repurposed materials will yield more food for me and more beauty for my home.

What will you reuse or repurpose in the garden?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A new perspective on changed behavior

Teenage girl (16-18) shopping for clothing in thrift store

Sometimes I do not realize how much I have altered my behaviors until someone asks a simple question. Recently, I was enjoying lunch with a friend and she asked me where I shop for clothing. Only a few years ago, I would occasionally go shopping with her, usually to the outlet mall. In reply, I shrugged and said the thrift store was my main shopping venue.

Note, I have never really enjoyed going to the mall and as much as I liked some of the offerings of the outlet mall, I had to drive over 30 minutes on the interstate to get there. Driving places just for shopping has never been my idea of fun. Instead, I make once weekly trips to the thrift store and am surprised at what I find. It is a treasure hunt and an exercise in patience because finding what I want and need can take weeks or even months, or I can find something I know would work well with my plans. Oddly enough, I enjoy discovering a new item or finding something I have searched for.

Buying secondhand hits two of my values: living frugally and lessening my consumption footprint. I surprised my friend with my answer but the truth is in my spending plan: I can afford most things I want or need on $20 a month and usually carry over sums to the next month. I am affordably dressed, few people know I have purchased secondhand unless I tell them and I like tallying up the number of pieces of an outfit I am wearing is from the thrift shop or garage sale. My pride and accomplishment in this feat only encourages me to find other ways of acquiring items with fewer effects on my spending and increase my sustainability.

What have you done differently?

Friday, April 23, 2010

Did you celebrate Earth Day?

Food in grocery bag

I got up on April 22, the 40th Anniversary of Earth Day, and began my normal routine. I used the bathroom, practicing "if it is yellow, let it mellow" philosophy and using cloth wipes. I checked some of my favorite internet sites (e.g., my Google account), had some breakfast and took my shower, shutting off the water in between rinsing. I used some of my remaining rain water from Autumn 2009 to water my vegetable seedlings in their repurposed containers, and placed the seedlings in my greenhouse purchased used from craigslist. I brought my lunch with me (leftover dinner from two nights ago) and a treat for my work colleagues (organic corn tortilla chips with homemade taco dip; components were in reused plastic containers).

While I did not explicitly celebrate Earth Day, I continued to practice what aligns with my personal values: reduce, reuse, repurpose, recycle. Yes, I still use cloth handkerchiefs, collect items on a neighbor's curb, get composted horse manure for free from a nearby farm and take care of my car so it runs as long as possible before I need to replace it. All these things I happened to do on Earth Day. The composted horse manure enables me to increase the tilth of my soil so I am better able to grow food on my suburban property. The items I recruited from the curb will go for other household projects including storing chopped leaves in the fall. I took my car in for its semiannual checkup and found there was something to be concerned about but will not immediately affect the use of my car. This enables me to save longer for my next vehicle and broaden my choices when I did need to buy a newer car. All these things I would have done normally but happened to take place on Earth Day.

Everyone has a list of several ways to celebrate Earth Day. I just look at the individual choices I make every day and what more sustainable activities I have incorporated into my life. Green living is more than a day-long event. It is a lifestyle, considered choices in what is purchased, how it is made and what is really needed. If we made just two thoughtful choices a day (no, I don't need a bag; I brought my own and hey, do I really need that overpackaged, processed food?), this would build a foundation to greener and more considerate living for all of us.

What did you do differently on Earth Day?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Managing the food stocks

Canned Asparagus

Not only do I strive to be frugal in spending money and maximizing my savings, but I also make sure that the inability to access the grocery store is a minor inconvenience rather than a catastrophic event. Over time, I have stockpiled various foodstuffs in my pantry and my freezer, making sure I have an array of items that can be used in the course of creating meals or dealing with emergencies (e.g., storm knocks out power and disrupts travel). I keep potable water in gallon jugs in my basement, canned and dry goods in the pantry, perishable items in the chest freezer, at least two weeks worth of food for the cat, and a variety of items for personal hygiene, cooking and other uses.

However, the all these items need to be managed. Most canned and dry goods have an expiration date on them to indicate when to use them and items in the freezer do not keep forever. In fact, frozen food does lose its flavor over time. Thus, at least twice a year, I sort though my pantry and my freezer to ensure I am rotating out the older items and reassessing how much space I have for new items. Past due frozen items I make sure I use within a few weeks. Canned and dry goods, if unopened and within two months of expiring, are added to the pantry donation pile. This way, the food goes to someone who can use it and I use up the older frozen foodstuffs before the new.

I encourage you to check your pantry and see what you are using and what you might want to donate to the food pantry. And if something is still good and you are no longer interested in eating it, add that to the pile as well. Keeping your food stores stocked with items you will use and are likely to eat is more helpful than having that can of beans just because you feel you should use it.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Trying to keep up

RIght now is the time several homeowner projects are demanding my time. I love my rain barrels, but before I could install them, I needed to paint the siding they block when in place. Why? The exterior paint was cracking and to keep my home in good shape for the future, I needed to scrape off the loose paint, prime the surface and then put on two coats of paint. Each time I went outside, that was 30 minutes invested in painting, not including set up, ensuring all the tools were there and mixing the primer and paint. Luckily, the weather cooperated so painting done in two days.

Then the rain barrels needed to be installed. No rain is predicted for the next two days, but my area is dry and I will need all the reserve supply I can get for my garden. However, I had not cleaned the gutters and organic debris in the rain water collection barrels is not a good thing. My elderly neighbor was kind enough to loan me his ladder so I carefully made my way up and down to remove the leaves and debris from my gutters. A quick rinse with the hose and I am ready for rain to arrive.

Of course, being spring, I have several seedlings in the greenhouse, garden beds to prepare and sown peas peaking through the soil. The tender greens mean I need to protect them from dastardly rabbits who enjoy seedlings as snacks. So after some grassy trimming and some moved fencing, I had successfully enclosed the garden bed.

All this work I have done demonstrated I was prepared for all the tasks I needed to perform. Since I had previously painted the exterior of my home, I had enough painting supplies to apply any primer or paint needed. I also had a gallon and a quarter of paint expressly for repainting the exterior because I need to maintain my home's wood siding. Thus, I just needed to retrieve the items from my basement and I was in the painting business. The rain barrels were washed last fall and stored in my garage. It was an easy task to switch the diverter on my downspout to active and hook up my rain barrels.

As for protecting my gardens, because there were plants last year I needed to protect that this year are more mature, I had enough fencing and posts to cover my newly planted peas by cannibalizing what I had. Having all the supplies I needed on hand (with additional items on hand) and a kind neighbor, I was able to just tell myself "get started on this task today" and the project was accomplished.

Now I just need more composted horse manure and some time before the rain and I will plant more of my garden!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Psst! Do you want to buy something else?

Shopping bags on store counter, close-up

Recently, I made a combination trip to the grocery story, the pharmacy and the vet office to pick up some needed items. I hit the grocery store first and since my list was short and I prefer go in, get what I need and leave, I was done in a few minutes. However, the pharmacy was not open yet so I recalled my previous hunt for an item at the hardware store ended with me empty handed and a suggestion to visit Wal-mart. Now, I am not a fan for many reasons and don't typically enter the store. In fact, my last trip there was the first in two years.

This trip was an unwarranted one--I had not planned on going--and an eye-opening one. Because I was only looking for one item and wanting to kill some time, I found myself realizing the bright colors, the presentations, everything was encouraging me to pick up more items--because they were pretty and not that expensive. I was taken aback at just how blatant the consumerist lifestyle was. Wandering in the cleaning aisle was overwhelming. As I make my own detergent and use baking soda and vinegar, the bright packaging seemed garish to my naive eyes. I realize now because the Wal-mart store was lit so much brighter than my grocery store, all the colors seemed more vivid and eye catching. Not to say I did not succumb to the siren call to spend. I came away from the store with one item I needed (more 5W-30 for my car), something I could use if not the most eco friendly (a refill on my lint remover) and one item I did not need but decided to buy anyway (a pack of three canvas bags I could use to make gift bags). And unfortunately, not the item I was looking for in the first place.

Because I confine most of my spending to the second hand store, I did not realize how retail stores that sell new stuff are really trying to sell their stock. Because I still watch television and do feel some influence of the advertising even if I generally react with skepticism, I had forgotten about the direct sell in the stores themselves. Yes, I am aware of the way grocery stores leverage their space to encourage spontaneous purchases. I know I am not perfect, but a list really helps keep me from impulse purchases. Plus, I am only focused on finding the items I want instead of what else there is available to purchase.

So confronted by the reality of American consumerism, I could only ask myself if I really needed this item in hand? The engine oil--yes. The lint roller--no, but my current one was only out and this was a refill, something I had not purchased in over five years. The three canvas bags--no, but $1 per bag was cheap and I had decorative items at home to personalize them and give them as gifts to nieces or nephews. Plus I was reminded I could make bags as gifts for others with all the fabric I have.

So be wary when you enter any store. A retail shop does want to part you from your money and once inside, you are subject to their displays until you leave. Wal-mart received three times the amount of money than I should have spent and that was only in the fifteen minutes I was there. They did their job well and I learned I need to work harder at resisting the sales pitch.

How much do you overspend in any store you enter?