Thursday, July 31, 2008

Those unruly worms!

Earlier this month, I was so excited that my vermiculture experiment was going well. I harvested my first batch of black gold and was looking forward to more. However, after harvest, the worms decided to rebel. How can silly little worms rebel, you might ask. Ah, they are wriggly little nippers, I respond.

Prior to worm casting harvest, the worms stayed in their layer of newspaper, consumed cat waste and made nary a peep. Now, I have to chase worms back down to the bed and retrieve them from the collection basin below. Even after a couple days of light treatment (red worms are light phobic and nestle quite nicely in their newspaper bed when exposed to light), they are still making a run for the lid. I have not had this much trouble with the slimy little buggers since I first got them.

Hand-in-hand with the fleeing has been the reduction in eating. I did not anticipate that rearranging their bedding (and their position in the box) would cause them to decide they wanted a different home. Once the worms were settle, they stayed, I thought. They are disabusing me of that crazy notion.

How will I manage? Well, I plan more light exposure and lining the bottom of the upper bedding chamber with sheets of newspaper instead of shredded paper. If that does not work? I will have to accept the chase and retrieve method as a weekly duty. And just when I thought the worms were less trouble than the cats. At least not all of them are running for the outside at once. It's always a few that have to cause trouble, right?

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Dealing with a monthly paycheck

When I first started working for the company with which I am still employed, I was completely thrown by how often my paycheck was deposited into my checking account: biweekly. For many people, this is commonplace. However, for the six years prior, I had received a monthly paycheck. I liked this because I knew what my income was for the entire month and that it had to cover all my expenses (hopefully with a bit added to savings). One paycheck gave me a total I needed to keep under when planning for the month, and I created a budget that accounted for all the money I was given on the first of the month.

Now, I have embraced the biweekly paycheck because I save two and live on the money from 24. I like the extra boost to my savings without much pain and have adapted to having at least two influxes of money in my account each month. However, my spending plan is still created monthly and I tally up savings in a month-to-month basis. Here are a few tips to keep within a monthly paycheck plan that have served me well:

Ignore the last three digits on the paycheck.
If I was paid $803.47, I created a $800 budget. The extra money could be directly saved in a separate savings account or left in the checking account as a cushion. While amounts under $10 do not seem like much, it is a start to creating some extra money for emergencies.

Account for regular and irregular expenses.
It took me some time to learn this lesson, but it is important. If a spending plan has categories like rent, utilities, food and gasoline, do not forget to add categories like gifts, car repair, car insurance, pet care, clothing and others that crop up in a predictable fashion (e.g., car insurance) or go in streaks (e.g., birthday gifts or school clothes shopping). Be realistic about these category amounts as well. Do you spend $20 or $100 on each person? In the case of gifts, multiply the amount per person by the number of people you buy gifts for and divide by 12. Round up if it is not a whole number (e.g., total is $11.53 so designate $12). Look at past vet bills or credit card statements to get a handle on the amount of money spent on a category and figure out an appropriate monthly amount for the spending plan. As always, round up to to give a bigger cushion. No numbers are fixed, even car insurance, but by giving these fluctuating expenses room in your budget, you are less likely to abuse savings accounts or credit cards.

Automate deposits and transfers.
In the beginning, I had my paycheck automatically deposited into my checking account and then manually transferred money to my savings account later. Strangely, I did not save as much as I had planned. I am comfortable using the web-based interface at my credit union so I quickly setup an automatic transfer to my savings account each time I received a paycheck. I was stunned how much money I saved using this automatic method. Out of sight, out of mind. However, be sure to record the transfer if deposited to your checking account so as to not spend the money. Other people have had great success by having their paycheck deposited to their savings account and transferring a set amount to their checking. Use whatever method works better for you.

If you are still receiving a paper check, ask the teller (or ATM) to divide the money between checking and savings accounts when you deposit the check. I highly recommend electronic deposit. It saves you time and gasoline since you do not have to go to the bank and in my case, the money is immediately available on pay day.

Refine the budget.
No budget or spending plan is set in stone. Adding up all the money spent on a monthly basis may be an eye-opening experience, helping to reinforce how well or poorly money is being managed. If overspending is an issue (with possible credit card debt), figure out which categories to reduce spending and plan to start paying off the credit card. If you are spending less than you earn, see if you can add a bit more money to the savings account. Do you want a house? Remodel or update a room in your home? Have you started saving for retirement? Do you want to travel the world? After saving for emergencies, define a savings goal you would like to work toward. Even moving a few dollars among the categories because the Netflix subscription was ended in favor of prioritizing grocery spending to buy more local and organic foods.

Figuring out where your money is going is the first step toward taking control of it. With a monthly paycheck, the limit to your spending is listed in black ink. It would be even better if spending was below that number. Use the number wisely, keep a cushion for the future and plan for expenses as well as you can. Unexpected emergencies will happen and the less money you spend of your income, the greater your ability to deal with financial pressures. In addition, a spending plan will help smooth out monthly finances so it is not feast at the beginning of the month when the paycheck is received, and famine at the end when waiting for the next paycheck.

Update: Welcome to those readers from the Carnival of Money Stories #71-Wander Around the World with Me! If you liked my post, please explore my blog or subscribe to my RSS feed.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Summer garden report

I have talked a lot about my garden but not really discussed the results of all my repurposing and frugal garden ideas. Recently, I have begun harvesting strawberries, green bush beans and cucumbers. So, to brag a bit about my success, I have taken a few pictures of my fruits and veggies.

I harvested a couple strawberries prior to the one pictured, but this is the first that was undamaged by earwigs or partially eaten by other animals. While most of my gardening techniques are organic, I used Sevin powder around the strawberry bed to get the perfect strawberry pictured here. I planted 50 Ozark Beauty everbearing strawberry plants, had 13 take, cut off blossoms and runners until July 1 and started to get strawberries about three weeks later. As an everbearing plant, the strawberries bloom and produce fruit throughout the summer rather than just in June. I have to survey the territory every day to check on ripeness. Right now, three more strawberries are nearly ready with just some white left and there are plenty more blossoms and small white berries waiting to ripen.

I received a surprise on July 22: my first two green beans! I knew the plants had bloomed, but did not really look at the plants until recently. I happily harvested the two beans and stored them in the refrigerator. The picture below contains four days worth of beans and the newly harvested strawberry. I had forgotten how fuzzy green beans are and enjoyed them for dinner with onions and a bit of bacon. Yum! The strawberry tasted wonderful for afters.

These beans were picked Sunday, July 27. My bean plants may be hitting their peak. I only have six plants producing so the numbers I am posting are not going to be impressive. Part of my reasoning for planting beans and some of the other plants is trying them. Do I like to grow them? Do I like to eat them? If the answer is yes to both, I will keep them on my list for next year when I expand my garden. I can plant more because I liked what I had. More plants means more work and more harvesting, but essentially doing a test plot helps me focus on what I can do and what I like.

While I have not taken pictures of my cucumbers, I do know I will try a different variety next year. The dual-purpose bush cucumber I purchased was not very bushlike and is a bit too spiny for my comfort. It is a robust producer and I may end up giving away the seeds to someone more interested in cucumbers than I. I definitely only need one plant to produce the cucumbers I will use. I have not touched the six I have harvested with at least ten on the vine!

My late-planted peas are slowly growing, my onions are holding their own even as they were planted in May and eaten by rabbits, my tomatoes are growing (even if I have blossom end rot on a goodly share of them), and my Jacob's cattle bean is starting to bloom and produce tiny pods. Hopefully, I will love the onions, enjoy the peas, can the tomatoes and see if I like growing my own beans for cooking.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Recipe Monday: Green Beans, Onions and Bacon

There is a recipe in the family cookbook that uses several of my favorite food items and combines them together to make vegetables more palatable: bacon, onions and cheese to disguise the green beans. However, I am now harvesting my own green beans and since I liked the recipe, thought I adapt it for small-scale use. The recipe uses 32 ounces of green beans; I had 8 beans from my garden.

1 slice bacon, cut into six pieces
handful of green beans, ends removed and cut into thirds
2 tablespoons white onions, chopped

A cast-iron skillet was heated on medium to begin frying the bacon. Onions and green beans were added when the bacon was starting to cook. Stir to cook onion and green beans; turn bacon pieces to cook evenly. Remove bacon if done before beans; otherwise, spoon out the mixed greens, onions and bacon onto plate. Scale recipe as needed for amount of green beans and taste.

I found this recipe was quite quick and easy. The bacon cooked in about 10 minutes; the onions and green beans less. Granted, using bacon fat to cook is not healthy, but I wanted to eat the beans without a strong bean flavor. Whether it was my choice of green bean to grow or my palate is unused to fresh green beans, but I enjoyed the mild green bean flavor even without the accompanying slice of bacon. With this taste of my own garden harvest, I am considering planting more green beans next year.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Managing my income

Despite having a spending plan and savings goals, managing my income is a full-time job. Why? Because I am as tempted to spend on items I do not need like any other American, and new priorities shift the targets for my savings goals.

For example, a share of my paycheck is electronically transferred into my general savings account. Unlike other savings goals, this account holds money for emergencies, overages and large home improvement purchases. Because this account has many potential holes in it (e.g., I had a larger vet bill than expected and and ordered two replacement windows), the reserve amount can fluctuate dramatically. While I have a house savings fund, it does not cover purchases that total more than a few hundred dollars at a time. Among window purchases, unexpected bill totals that my spending plan cannot handle and even overspending, my savings account numbers have dropped in half. This is my most immediate liquid savings and necessary for me to have at least $2,000 to handle most money emergencies.

Despite having 20 categories in my spending plan, I still overspend. I have been abusing the prepackaged food lately, pushing hard against the grocery spending allocation. I needed to use money in my eating out category to cover the money I spent on groceries this month (mostly for snack cravings). I cheat myself of little bits of money, but these numbers do add up. Since I live on 41% of my gross income and save 30% (the rest of my income lost to taxes, FSA, health, dental and disability insurance), I do not want to lose the savings cushion I have because I cannot control my food spending or decide "yes, I want that new MacBook Pro and darn the consequences!"

However, having a plan makes it easier for me. I have no debt but my mortgage, which I can comfortably afford. A spending plan ensures I have enough money for the mortgage, utilities, gasoline, insurance and all the necessities (and wants) of modern life. With the numbers staring at me, I know that I only have $4.25 left in my miscellaneous category so I better keep my spending low for the next five days until August's spending plan kicks in. If I keep abusing a category or two, my 30% savings rate plunges.

A spending plan is only the first step. I also have to decide what to do with unexpected money. This may come in the form of bonuses, selling items on craigslist or ebay, or cash rebates. My current plan includes padding my auto savings account, adding small bits to found money account and starting a farm account to save for my future small farm purchase. Saving for a car is my immediate priority so I make regular contributions, but the found money and farm account are only funded occasionally rather than with each paycheck. Deciding where the extra money goes keeps me from spending it and helps me save toward my future goals.

Since I am focused on saving money not just as a cushion, but also for specific goals, it makes it easier for me to weigh potential choices. While I still need to work on the small things, asking myself if I really need another plastic container, I understand that if I want to go to a Caribbean island for vacation, I have to sacrifice at least one of my savings goals and some of the fun in my spending plan. Am I willing to do this? No, I would rather have replacement windows installed in my home than a trip to Jamaica.

Managing my income is something I do every day. It is not just setting up a spending plan or making sure I save a bit each month. It is automating my savings, subtracting the money I spend from my ledger daily, planning for windfalls and keeping my focus on my short-term and long-term goals. The more I stay on track, the more my income works for me and my future rather than me working for income to support a debt-riddled, inflated lifestyle.

Update: Welcome to those readers from the 164th Carnival of Personal Finance: City Slickers Edition! If you liked my post, please explore my blog or subscribe to my RSS feed.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

I love garage sales!

This year, the garage sales acquisitions have been sparse but fruitful. For example, I can visit five garage sales on a Saturday (my usual bargain hunting day) and leave them all feeling like I wasted my time. Other times, I find several useful or wanted items (although I was unable to find a used, functional watering can for the garden). With my vow to buy clothing secondhand plus the need to find gifts for seven going on nine nieces and nephews, garage sales visits are important to me. I have a limited budget for gift giving, and I am interested in seeing how much used clothing I can purchase in my size.

How has this year treated me? Better than I expected in the clothing realm. There is a certain satisfaction in wearing an item purchased for only 25 cents (a shirt, nightgown and two pairs of knit shorts for a total of $1 at nearby city-wide garage sale). Usually if I find a garage sale with clothing in my size, I purchase multiple items. However, it is rare to find both items in my size and clothing I like. Still, I am proud of my $1.25 denim capri pants and like to have more shirts to wear for working outdoors (50 cents a piece). I recently found a garage sale that I had patronized a year ago and found clothing in my size. Not only did I find more items to purchase (a lovely purple sweater for winter, looked new for only $2), but I found a t-shirt for one of my nephews.

Since I know some of the clothing sizes for my nieces and nephews, I have been looking for low-wear items. Oddly enough, only my niece who is ready to move into the size 6 clothes is the only one with clothing-based gifts. With the exception of the t-shirt I just found, I have been unable to find clothing for my nephews or older niece. Where is the size 12 girl's clothing anyway? While it has been feast or famine, I have been able to find books and games for my assorted relatives of a diminuative size. Some show more wear than others, but all tell great stories (with no commercial hook like Disney) or explore skills all children need to learn. My stock supply of gifts is back where I like to be and means I do not have worry about spending money around Christmas time for the children.

In addition, I have been looking for gardening tools and just found a Garden Claw for $7. It will be nice to break the soil into smaller bits before planting. Or I may find I do not need it. Either way, I did not want to buy the tool new. My trusty shovel does most of the soil work, but mixing in compost, manure or other soil amendments is not easy. I am still hoping to find a few more gardening items before the end of the garage sale season.

At the beginning of the garage sale season, I made a list of items I wanted to find and have fulfilled about half the list. Of course, I always find other things I do not need, but decided were useful or I could put to use. There is always room in my spending plan for finding a few extras like a human-powered lawn edger and a small storage container. In fact, I consider garage sales part of my entertainment for the week and enjoy finding that great bargain.

Why do you shop at garage sales?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Buying extra, just in case

One of my life philosophies is "always have a backup". Of course, this philosophy is not completely applied (e.g., I have no children to "replace" me) or taken to silliness (I refuse to admit how much shampoo and conditioner I have sitting in my cabinet), but in general, it has served me well. This is a philosophy I practiced when I was a laboratory researcher (having more reagent on hand meant I could do the experiment and not wait for my order to arrive) as well as in my home life.

How far have I extended this philosophy? I am completely covered in the personal care products. I usually purchase two or three deodorants at once, just bought enough razor blades to last at least a year and purchased two additional bread makers so I do not have hunt one down if my trusty Toastmaster TBR2 gives up the ghost. How foolish, you are thinking, having TWO bread makers in the basement? Ah, I declare, wait until you hear my story!

A total of four bread makers have passed through my hands: the one I own and use weekly, one that I gave to my sister when she got her own apartment and the two spares in the basement. I paid $20 for my bread maker in October 2006 after responding to an ad on craigslist. On a local electronic classified site, I found my sister's bread maker (horizontal loaf as all of mine are) for only $10. It came with a manual (unlike mine) and was even made of metal--the entire body! I thought it was a great deal as I had not seen a bread maker for under $20 on craigslist (usually $30-$50).

Then, I was at the local thrift shop and found another horizontal loaf bread maker and lo and behold, it was only $9.50. Not only was it a good deal, I thought "I should have a back up in case of breakage". Since I only occasionally see the bread maker style I want, purchasing a spare would prevent me from having to hunt one down in my hour of need.

About a month or so later, I was doing my weekly shopping at the local thrift store and found yet another bread maker. Not only was it the best price I had seen to date ($6.50), but it was the revised model of the one I am currently using. The footprint was smaller and the TBR15 with its horizontal loaf pan could serve as parts replacement. Thus justified, I bought another bread machine and lovingly stored it in my basement for the future.

The three bread makers in my possession worked well when I decided to make pizzas for the family dinner I hosted. Actually, I only needed two to supply the pizza dough, but I did not know until the end of the meal.

In addition, my mother borrowed a bread maker to see if she wanted to make her own bread. Some of her coworkers were talking about using bread machines and she wanted to try. This way, she did not have to invest much money into the effort and I could have sold one to her if she wanted it. (She does not.)

Furthermore, a friend mentioned she wanted one as she gave her old one away so next time I see her, I intend on giving her one as a very belated housewarming gift. Afer this, I will still have one spare bread maker. I could give one away without feeling any pain since I had a backup and a spare. I like being prepared!

(Side note: I did run across a craigslist posting where someone was giving away a bread maker for free. I resisted contacting the poster.)

Friday, July 18, 2008

The once-a-month grocery list

As I have mentioned earlier, the key to shopping once a month is meal planning, a grocery list, calculator and a large grocery store. The meal planning keeps me focused on what I truly need to buy for one person, the grocery list makes sure I get all the items needed to prepare meals and my calculator tells me if I am overspending. The large grocery store benefits me with a wide selection of items and the power of bulk pricing without a membership fee.

While I discussed the necessity of keeping track of items that run low or run out using a magnetic pad on my refrigerator, I have not explicitly explained how my final grocery list is generated. When the items I decide I want to prepare for dinner are complete, I compare the required items for the recipe with my pantry and freezer. I am not perfectly organized in either area, but I have a good sense if I have a can of crushed tomatoes. However, I will have to check if it is the 15 ounce or 28 ounce size. This makes sure that the only items on my grocery list are the ones I either do not have or do not have enough of to create the meal.

I have small stock piles of various foodstuff including rice, beans, cans of tuna, cans of soup, various cans of tomato products, flour and other baking supplies. With the meal planning, my current stock and items that have or will run out, my grocery list is well populated. My grocery list to feed a single person for at least one month includes:
  • One or two fresh fruit items

  • Granola bars

  • Two or three vegetables including white onions

  • Assorted meat products (bacon, ground meat or meat pieces)

  • Meat substitutes (veggie crumble)

  • Cheese products (cheddar, mozzarella and American)

  • Dairy (milk, sour cream, yogurt, butter)

  • Eggs

  • Frozen juices (concentrate)

  • Four or five frozen entrees

  • Soda (two 2L bottles)

  • Distilled water (for the cats)

  • Baking supplies (leavening, sugar, salt, spices, flour)

  • Prepackaged fruit (canned, applesauce)

  • Soups (condensed)

  • Cereal (generic, bagged)

  • Condiments (mayo, ketchup, salad dressing)

  • Treats (pudding, cookies, ice cream or chips; only one or two of these selected)

  • Toilet paper

This list is not all inclusive especially for all the meals being prepared that month, but the basics of what I buy every month. I usually have enough of an item it is not critical I purchase it immediately. For example, I have two cans each of condensed cream of mushroom, celery and chicken, the base for many casseroles. Recently, I opened a can of condensed milk and put it on my to-buy list as I have only one in the house at a time. Few recipes I use call for this item.

For many people, the dairy items are fewer than what I consume. I drink at least four gallons of 1% milk, eat 32 ounces of yogurt, use 16 ounces of sour cream, slather on 3 pounds of butter and consume 3 pounds of cheese. However, these products, as delicious as they are, are also expensive. Select items you enjoy eating, but compromise on how often you eat them if your spending plan does not allow for all of them.

My grocery spending is about 4.5% of after-tax income. [The after-tax income takes into account the pretax contributions to my 401(k) and Flexible Spending Account.] This allotted amount is solely money I spend at the grocery store for food (excluding nonfood items and eating out). Ten months out of the year, I hit this number or below it. If I exceed this number, I subtract the amount from my eating out budget. It has been harder to hit this number recently, but I also have not been cooking from scratch as often as I had previously.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Surprise at my last gas tank fillup

As noted previously, I carefully monitor the gas mileage on my car. Lately, the trend has been going down (from 32mpg to 30mpg to 28.5mpg to 25mpg). I am not sure what I did at the 25mpg fillup, but I did not think that I drove in the city that much.

My car is rated 26mpg for highway miles, which I drive at least 75% of the time. After seeing the 25mpg, I was wondering what I had been doing wrong. Can you guess what my next fillup gave me? A number I have never seen on my car. A number achieved by driving 55-65mph on the highway (depending on the speed limit, which I drive). That number: 35.7mpg, nearly 10mpg more than my car's rating and 3.5mpg higher than I have reached before. I had to do the calculation twice to make sure I was not introducing any errors.

Believe me, I will continue to drive at the speed limit to keep trying for these numbers. And I did it in a 1997 Dodge Stratus. Take that Toyota!

Following my gardening passion

I have begun reading more green living blogs including Little Homestead in the City as I seek more ways to live a greener life. The idea of converting the ubiquitous (and bland) suburban lawn to a productive garden really appeals to me. Of course, the Dervaes family has the advantage of farming year round in Pasadena, California, not an option in the Midwest. However, the idea of urban homesteading, converting lawns to gardens has really attracted my attention for many reasons.

Being satisfied where you life is one way to combat the keeping-up-with-the-Jones mentality. While I crave a country retreat, I can begin to move toward a more sustainable, independent life by converting more of my suburban lawn for growing fruits and vegetables. While I have not worked out all the details and am not sure how rain gardens and veggie gardens will coexist on my small plot of land, the best way I can determine if raising crops for myself and possible sale is viable is by doing, not waiting and trying when it is my livelihood.

I am pretty excited about expanding the area I can grow food. Part of the difficulty is the size of my property. I have one large tree and planted four additional trees that will grow and cast shade on only 0.165 acres (including the driveway and house). Planning for the present and the future is not easy so I may take the short-term benefit over the long-term changes in the light that falls on my property. Certainly growing my own food in the age of rising gasoline and food prices benefits me.

However, I need to refine the plan. I have put in several requests at my local library for various books on gardening, terrace gardening, converting my suburban lawn to a garden, raising chickens and other topics that affect my future pursuits, both immediate and long term. While I have scavenged some wood to build more raised garden beds, I am waiting until I have read some books and consulted with others before constructing the 8' by 4' frames, the size I think I want. My brain is filled with ideas for a black raspberry bed, an asparagus bed, what vegetables to plant in the new raised garden bed and if I can fit a few fruit trees on the property. The only idea I can implement within the next month is stealing more rhubarb divisions from my mom (with her permission) and planting them on the slope in the front yard. It will not take up the entire front yard slope, but it will give me a start on edible landscaping with the benefit the plants grow large enough I can remove a good swath of lawn to cut. Bonus for me!

I have lots of planning and much sod removal ahead of me. Plus, I will need topsoil to add to my raised beds and lots of composted horse manure amend the soil I have and will import from the family farm. Truthfully, many things have drawn my interest and then my motivation to see the idea through has waned. So far, I am really excited about the garden I have and wished I had more space to plant more things. I may change my mind over winter, not implement the idea in 2009 or other factors will change my mind. This new idea, adding to my growing capacity and becoming more self-sufficient has great promise and I am not one to back down from a challenge when my intellect, interest and passion are engaged, as they seem to be right now. I will continue to report on this idea as it develops in my life and throw in some ideas gleaned from the various books I plan to read.

Do you have plans to put in a garden or expand what you have? What are your reasons for doing so?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

My regrettable chest freezer purchase

Recently, I purchased a chest freezer. I was motivated to buy a freezer as I was hitting the capacity limits of the freezer in my refrigerator and then I go on a "make-freezer-jam" spree. I had wanted to purchase a used chest freezer for a while, but was running into two major obstacles:
  1. Finding one of the appropriate size

  2. Getting the freezer to my house

My first preparation step was to measure the width of the doorway to my basement. If it did not fit, I could not purchase it. Then I did research on three retailers that delivered: Best Buy, Sears and Home Depot. After figuring the maximum freezer width I could have was 34 inches, I settled on a 5 cubic foot freezer.

To address the electrical issues, I had an electrician come in and wire a new outlet on a separate circuit for the freezer. He reassured me that my initial concerns were correct: putting a dehumidifier and a freezer on the same outlet was asking for trouble. Total cost of three new outlets, bringing the basement wiring up to code and installing two lights: $230. This is a good price and one less thing an inspector will note on his report as "bad" when I sell the house.

Reassured the electrical supply was adequate for my new house guest, I went back to the web sites, and did a survey of prices. Since I had only seriously looked once before the electrical work was done, I only had one price for comparison. I was thrilled because the freezer I was interested in was reduced in price by $20. Hurrah for me--I get to save money. While Home Depot had a similar price for a 5.5 cubic foot model, their delivery was only to my threshold. I needed delivery to the final location of my chest freezer-my basement. Sears was my second choice (and had the $20 savings). I choked on the delivery charge ($65), but wanted the freezer so I accepted the price. With purchase price, delivery and tax, it came to just over $237. This was more than I wanted to pay, but I had no idea what the delivery charge would be before I decided to buy the item.

So I have the freezer delivered, life was good and then I realize my first error: the width listed on the freezer was for the long side, not the short one. Depth was the measurement I needed to account for when fitting through my door way, and would have allowed me to get an 8-10 cubic foot freezer, a capacity range I wanted. The one I purchased is adequate, but for maximum use, I would have needed at least 7.2 cubic feet for all the items and garden produce I want to store in the chest freezer.

The second error: I should have taken more time to shop. I went to three days after my freezer was delivered, and found my same freezer back at retail price ($40 more than I paid). However, they were offering a rebate for free shipping up to $75--starting one day after I had mine delivered. Since I decided I wanted a freezer and purchased it in a week, I had not systematically tracked the sales and rebates involved with them for any appreciable period of time.

So, what was the end result? I have a chest freezer, but smaller than I wanted. Because I did not read and understand the measurements correctly, I short changed myself for the long term. Since my window between deciding to purchase and actually purchasing was small, I sacrificed $25 for immediate gratification. Research and patience would have gone a long way to saving money and purchasing the right chest freezer for long-term satisfaction.

Lesson to be learned: take more time to research a purchase and ensure I understand the dimensions and my real limitations.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Recipe Monday: Pizza Casserole

I like pizza and I enjoy casseroles (hot dish for other regions of the USA) so this recipe in a school fundraiser cookbook intrigued me. It was not too complex, I generally have the ingredients on hand and it made a tasty dish! If you have browned hamburger in the freezer, it even saves you a bit of preparation time.

1 pound hamburger
2 cans tomato soup (no water)
1/2 teaspoon garlic salt
1/2 teaspoon onion salt
1/2 teaspoon oregano
1/4 teaspoon pepper
~1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese
8 ounces cooked noodles

Brown hamburger before adding the rest of the ingredients except for noodles. Simmer 10 minutes. Layer the sauce with the cooked noodles and cheese. Bake for 1 hour at 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

I love cheese so I use 1.5 cups cheddar cheese and 0.5 cups Parmesan cheese when I use this recipe. I have successfully used both egg noodles (medium size) and macaroni noodles in the casserole. Enjoy!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Update on my vermiculture experiment

Earlier this year, I decided to purchase a Pet Poo Converter and some red worms, and compost my two cats' poop. My experiment started in March 2008 and I finally decided to harvest the worm castings in my compost unit. It looked dark, rich and nothing like the shredded newspaper with which I started. Since many sites I consulted when starting noted concerns about using cat poo in composting, I decided to refrain from using the worm compost in edibles and limit its use to my landscaping plants. I have plans for edible landscaping, but most of the items currently planted in my yard are for decorative, wildlife or shading purposes.

In particular, one of my trees, my mountain ash, was late in leafing out this spring and has not yet bloomed like its counterparts have. While many web sites advise against fertilizing trees, I decided to add compost around the tree since it is not the same as adding a powdered fertilizer, which is a quick shot. Compost releases nutrients over time and will hopefully enhance my tree's growth.

In harvesting the worm castings, I chose the passive method: move the well-used bedding to one side of the composter, add in fresh bedding and only feed the worms where the fresh bedding is present. Three weeks later, I decided to remove the finished compost from the worm bed. Note that this was not a quick scoop up and use chore. No, despite moving the feed over to one side, many worms were still present in the compost I wanted to remove. In addition, I found many teeny, tiny worms in the compost. While this is a great thing as my worms are reproducing, the babies are much harder to see and thus, I took time to look at each handful of compost to remove the tiny worms. (I did decide to wear gloves when sorting through the compost and saved myself from the girly "Ew! I touched a slimy worm" reaction.) Since I wanted to preserve as many babies as possible, the careful scanning and moving to the good side of the worm bed took time. Regardless, I know I did not move them all, but if I moved at least 50% of the number present, I will call it good.

A few interesting things I noted as I meticulously looked through the compost:
Like humans, worms do not like to deal with cat hair balls. I found quite a few in the finished compost. Of course, these are not exactly like the ones I clean up on my carpet...
The crushed eggshells I added to the worm bed do not really seem to be necessary. I found many left in the finished side. No worries, the trees and plants like eggshells too.

So, what was my end product? Half of my worm bed yielded the compost in the picture below:

Beautiful, black, crumbly compost just begging to be used immediately. So, I spread it under my 28-inch tree and called it good!

To give you some idea of what I work with for my Pet Poo Converter, here is a shot of the closed lid, what rests on my basement floor:

And here is the bed now after removing the finished compost and replacing it with freshly shredded and wetted newspaper. I use only black and white newsprint for the worms. Much of the black crumbly stuff on the right side is due to me moving worms, tiny or otherwise, from the finished compost side.

So there you have it: my productive worm bed and their black gold. I am really excited this project is working out and the worms are happy to consume and reproduce. There is still the compost tea in the bottom of the worm bed I have not yet used, but since my rain gauge says we had 2.5 inches of rain in the last two days, I will wait before diluting the compost tea and watering my plants.

Edit: I checked the bottom of the worm bed four days later and was surprised to find many of my worms had escaped from the top section of the unit. I ended up having to move them back by hand onto the bed and cursing their rebellious existence. Why could they not stay where they belong? So much for only compost tea collecting in the bottom.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Poor food choices and their consequences

Recently I have been feeling overwhelmed and consequently, have not been doing as much as I need to. Oh, I take care of the garden and begrudgingly mow the lawn, but the indoor chores tend to slide more often. Even with food coming in every week with my CSA box in addition to my supplies from the monthly grocery shopping trip, I have not been cooking or creating meals from scratch. My lunches are sandwiches or a frozen entree, my dinners are as simple as possible (and tend to dip into the chips and dip area more often than not). What are the consequences of this neglect of my more frugal moves?

Increased cost
Prepackaged foods whether a frozen lunch entree or deli sliced meat will add cost to each meal. While these options are less expensive than a lunch purchased at work, the cost is lower taking leftovers to to work for lunch than preparing a lunch every morning (and usually a bit quicker).

Wasted food
I am especially guilty of this regarding my CSA box. Much of the reason all of it does not end up in the compost bin is because I give it away. Many of the greens do not get me excited, radishes are not my thing and I am not enthusiastic about eating lettuce and spinach. Since I am not cooking as much, I tend not to experiment with some of the items I receive and they are relocated to make compost rather than feed me. This is not the best use of my locally grown produce.

In addition, I have also thawed meat that sat too long in the refrigerator before I remembered I was intending on making meatballs or some other dish. This is expensive and wasteful.

Poorer health
Despite my vow to eat healthier and exercise more, I have reverted to old habits rather than adopting new ones. Many prepackaged foods have more fat and sodium than recommended, and may lack many nutrients needed by the body. Decreasing my bottom line and adding to my rear does not help me get closer to my goals.

So, what can I do to rectify this? First, I need to organize my kitchen (messiness is always a barrier to cooking) and choose a recipe to make. With my time and energy constraints, finding something to cook can be a challenge, but trying something new is fun as well. I plan to look up recipes the night before and get out items to thaw if needed. With an organized kitchen and recipe in hand, I will cook the meal (hoping there are leftovers for one more meal, lunch or dinner the next day).

If there is a weekend looming, cooking can be made an even higher priority. I usually have more time available so cooking long-simmering sauces or dealing with multiple preparation steps are less onerous. Making a list is important so I will have to decide what to make and post the resulting list in a prominent location.

The hardest part: not stopping by the store for the craved chips or sweets. By making a vow to only eat something I have made and supplying myself with a variety of items to eat, I lessen temptation and improve both my diet and my financial bottom line. Making time for cooking will only help me keep within my spending plan rather than exceeding it.

Do you have similar food challenges?

Friday, July 11, 2008

The advantages of electronic bill pay

I have a confession to make--I still pay bills using a check. I know it is old fashioned and so 1980s, but there you are. In fact, up until last month, I had paid my utilties, phone/DSL and wireless accounts electronically, but sent a check for my mortgage and credit card payments. However, I decided to take advantage of my credit union's free bill pay service to begin to pay these latter two bills. There were two reasons for this change:
1. I save myself the 42 cent stamp to send the payment.
2. I can schedule when the payment is sent out.

I am leery of my credit card company having direct access to my bank account especially when I was recently informed of some unauthorized activity on my account. (Is this what I get for switching to a well-known credit card company?) My mortgage company has an automatic payment service, but it is an assigned date every month. Frankly, I like having control over my money to the point that I dictate when my money is used for bill payment, not the company. Using the bill pay service via my credit union allows me to keep control of my money, but retain the advantages of electronic payment.

My paper checks will still be used albeit rarely. My once monthly grocery trip is paid for using a check (tradition more than necessity as the store now accepts debit cards), occasional workers are paid with a check (e.g., I just had some electrical work done in my basement), and other sporatic events that may arise. Not only does using electronic bill pay save me money in the short run (i.e., not using a stamp), it saves me money long term as the checks I have purchased last longer before I need to purchase another set. Who knows? By the time I need to order new checks, they may be obsolete!

Monday, July 7, 2008

Recipe Monday: Peanut Butter Cookies

While I am not much for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, I do still crave peanut butter. Many times I eat it straight from the jar (one of the joys of being single), but other times, I want something more. Enter peanut butter cookies--yummy, sweet, small and hard to eat just one. I crave sweets as well so making my own cookies helps. It is also cheaper and more satisfying to make your own. This recipe is taken from the family cookbook. Hopefully, I will not be disinherited for sharing.

1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup margarine
1/2 cup peanut butter
1 egg
1 1/4 cup flour
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt

Mix sugars, margarine, peanut butter and egg. Stir in dry ingredients. Shape dough into 3/4-inch ball. Place 2 inches apart on ungreased cookie sheet. Bake at 375 degrees Fahrenheit until set but not hard, about 10 minutes. Cool slightly before removing. Makes 3-4 dozen cookies.

I usually line my cookie sheets with parchment paper that I reuse several times. Whether the recipe calls for greased or ungreased sheets, parchment paper does the job. I also invested in a stand mixer ($60 on sale) and it works well for making cookies. While the recipe does not explicitly say it, an electric stand mixer can be used for all the dough mixing.

Of course, I like to test the quality of my cookies by eating them still warm, and drinking milk to wash them down. The cookies are tender, and are a nice sweet treat to add to the lunch you take to work!

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Measuring the green in my life

I like to reflect on how my behavior has changed to reflect a more green philosophy on life. While I am far from perfect, the steps I have taken have been green in more than one fashion, better for the environment and my pocketbook. Some of the ways I have chosen are not without their frustration, but seeing where I am and where I would like to be give guidance to my actions. Therefore, where do I stand now?

Green behaviors fully integrated into my lifestyle:
Composting including food and cat waste
Purchasing used items including clothing, gifts, furniture, cookware and more.
Growing my own vegetables and fruit
Harvesting rain water
Collecting water in bathroom and from washer for reuse
Bringing my own bags for store purchases
Reusing and repurposing items (e.g., plastic jugs)
Recycling items I cannot reuse or repurpose
Driving the speed limit and combining errands (saves gasoline and carbon emissions)
Planting native trees and plants around the house
Cooking and baking from scratch (minimizes packaging I throw away)
Mowing my lawn with an electric mower
Eliminating chemical treatments for the lawn and yard (with the rare spritz of Roundup or sprinkle of Sevin--none so far this year)
Drying my laundry outdoors
Buying only renewable energy from my electric utility
Flushing the toilet only when necessary
Installing compact fluorescent bulbs when incandescents die in light fixtures
Using cloth napkins, handkerchiefs and towels rather than paper products

Green behaviors I am working on:
Buying and using locally grown food products--I find these a challenge as I am not as fond of vegetables as others are, and new types of veggies overwhelm my ability to eat them. Plus, farmer's markets are more expensive than grocery stores.
Reducing the amount of plastic I buy--So many items are packaged in plastic, I find it difficult to avoid bringing it home with me. I seek alternatives (e.g., buy the mustard in a glass jar rather than plastic), but many times I grab an item before realizing the extent of the plastic I brought home.
Carpooling--This has been a challenge as finding a carpooling buddy has not been easy. I have a potential driver, who I will pay for each trip. However, we have only carpooled once and it will take some time to establish a relationship for the long term.
Turning off lights and other electronics not in use--Generally, I am good about this, but I do forget. Practice makes for better behavior!
Making and using my own cleaners--I used the last of my toilet bowl cleaner and am looking forward to using vinegar and baking soda in the bathroom.

Green behaviors to pursue:
Reducing the clutter in my home--Frankly, I have too much stuff. Some should be given away, others could be sold. Regardless, simplicity in the home will only encourage me to minimize what I own, maintain and clean, while reducing my ecological footprint.
Learning to make items myself--While I can competently sew, I do not know how to knit, crochet or can food. In an effort to be more self-sufficient, I would like to make more items myself like socks and can foodstuffs I have grown.
Installing a rain garden or two--I keep talking about this, but have not executed plans. This year, I have gotten closer to creating one, but will likely begin smothering grass in late summer/early autumn to set the foundation for placing a rain garden next spring.

I have a good start on some basic green behavior, but looking around my home and at my list above, I have a distance to go. There are so many other areas to explore like sustainability (e.g., do I use peat moss, which is readily available but destroys bogs when harvested, or coir, which is renewable but more expensive?) and very difficult choices like installing solar collectors for heating water and generating electricity. Money plays a factor in my choices and I have to weigh my current economics and future finances against a return on investment I will not see for decades.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Carpooling, here I come!

Last summer, my twice weekly carpooling came to an abrupt end when the man I was carpooling with left me stranded at work. I was angry about the situation and decided to just end the carpooling relationship rather than trying again. It had been nearly a year we had driven together without incident so I was hurt over this lapse. Not long after, gasoline began its meteoric rise, and I began seeking alternatives to driving every day. Currently, I have one work-at-home day every two weeks and have gained some extra money from work for a high speed internet connection at home. However, that still means every day I go to work, I have to drive.

Enter craigslist and its rideshare listing. I started looking at this section when a posting to my company-specific bulletin board yielding nothing. When I did not see anything that matched my criteria on craigslist, I posted an ad of my own seeking a carpooling partner part time. I found carpooling a couple days a week gave me some break in the pocketbook, and I drove one fewer day a week. So a part-time gig would work well for me. No one e-mailed, and so I was stymied.

Luckily, I kept looking at the rideshare listing and found someone from my town who would be going my way to work. We ended up corresponding via e-mail and did a test run. It worked out well for both of us. I get tired of driving myself everywhere and she preferred to drive. We settled on what I would pay her for driving me, I found my carpooling buddy easy to talk to and she knew people from my old high school!

While I wish I had access to public transit, I have found a substitution. Now I am looking forward to carpooling again with someone who prefers driving and does not mind me paying her for the opportunity to ride with her. Plus we are a little kinder to mother earth, extend the life of my car, and lessen the frustration for other drivers with less traffic on the road. A nice situation in which to be!

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Analyzing my net worth for June 2008

Last month, I was excited by the increase in my net worth and projecting only good things for the future: meeting my $100,000 net worth goal for the end of 2008, even exceeding it. I bragged about how I achieved my net worth increase of 2.61% in this market. Well, it has come to bite me in the rear end. Yes, in June, my net worth is down -2.61%. Ironic, no? So what caused this karmic drop in my monetary value?

It's the market, stupid.
Yes, both my 401(k) and Roth IRA decreased in value from the month before even with continuous contributions every month. I had not realized the stock market had dropped that much in value, but the numbers do not lie. In looking at my 401(k) value, it is down 8.9% for the year to date. I know it was only -4% last month so June really knocked down my stock portfolio.

My car isn't getting any younger.
This was the third of my quarterly adjustments in my car value. As this is a depreciating item, I decreased the number listed for my car's value. Lowering the value of my car is expected, but merely compounded the lower asset total for the month.

Otherwise, my cash position is better than last month, my two savings bonds gained a bit of interest and a CD that I had at 5.25% rolled over to a 3.30% APY. I wonder if I might see 5% or greater returns any time soon. I need to focus on being more frugal, resisting the temptation to buy things just because I can afford it and keep on saving. I made some changes to my auto insurance and that will give me additional savings for my future car purchase (and further increase my cash position in July). Hopefully, this month will break even or increase in value over June.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Referral love for June 2008

Many thanks to those who sent traffic my way. I have seen a recent uptick in traffic to my blog, which I am happy to see.

I participated in the Festival of Frugality #129 with my article Repurposing items for the garden. Thank you to all those who chose to follow the link and explore my site.

Top Five Referrers:
1. Festival of Frugality
2. MoneyNing
3. Frugal in the Fruitlands
4. Frugal for Life
5. The Simple Dollar

And special thank you to litlefallofrain for her link to my article Simplify my existence! and sending some of her flist my way.

Top Articles for June:
1. Recipe Monday: Rhubarb Torte (love that seasonal fruit!)
2. How to rollover (or move) your IRA (inspired by Google searches)
3. The foibles of saving money
4. Analyzing my net worth for May 2008