Saturday, June 20, 2009

Taking on more than I realized

In my previous post, I talked about how I had picked strawberries, was making jam and had plans for more strawberries and more jam making. Well, I picked nearly 20 pounds today and picked up four quarts at the farmer's market on Thursday. Needless to say, I am overwhelmed and wondering how I can get it all down. Until I have managed my oversupply of strawberries, I will be absent.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Jamming with strawberries

Where I live, it is strawberry picking season. I have been harvesting from my own patch and supplementing my small quantities with a u-pick strawberry place, the one I visited last year. So far, I have picked 10.6 pounds and harvested ~1 quart from my own patch. My plans include harvesting at least 20 pounds more of strawberries at the u-pick farm. Quite ambitious for a single woman so what do I plan to do with all those strawberries?

After picking my first quantity of strawberries, I came home and made a batch of strawberry freezer jam (three pints total). I was so thrilled to finally have some strawberry jam in the house and could not wait to share with my friends and family. Just in time for birthday gifts! I also froze about 96 ounces of strawberries for later use. I love jam but I do not need to have all the jam made now. However, it would be interesting test to see if I had purchased enough jelly jars to handle all the jam.

I had tried the reduced sugar freezer jam last year and thought the result was all right. Since strawberries are sweeter, I have higher hopes for the flavor but this second batch of 3.5 pints of freezer jam was stored for later eating.

There was one last package of pectin left in my house and I decided to take an adventurous leap. At Christmastime, I asked for and received the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving. There are many different recipes for jams and jellies in the book and after a looking it over, I decided to try the strawberry rhubarb cooked jam. This would not only be my first foray into cooked jams (aside from childhood memories of my mom making it) but also the first time I was using my hot-water-bath canner I purchased from craigslist.

Other than some uncomfortable splashes from the hot fruit, I managed to get through the preparation, cooking and canning steps. In fact, all six of the half-pint jars sealed almost immediately after removal from the water bath. And my sample said the strawberry rhubarb jam was excellent. Now I can save some freezer space and know that I am able to can successfully. I wonder what jam I will make next--after restocking pectin of course.

Do you have any jam-making plans?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Gardening can be discouraging

I have spent a lot of time over the three and a half years I have lived in my house digging, planting and otherwise altering the landscape to my liking. In the last two years, I have become more serious about raising my own food. Despite all my best efforts (and many of my lazy ones), it is still an uphill battle.

I have killed one tree only 12 inches tall because I did not water it enough. I have planted hostas that may or may not have returned the next year; ditto with phlox and a daylily. I have a half-hearted attempt at a return from one of six nodding pink onions I planted. My butterfly weed has pulled a vanishing act (hardy native plant--yeah right) and I only imagined planting all those tulips and crocuses.

However, the most frustrating is trying to grow your own food and pests have decided to interfere. My beans, mostly bush type, are looking quite tattered. I have no idea what insect is the cause. The tops of my good-looking carrots are looking shorter and more naked--is an adventurous squirrel or another animal getting through my fencing? My cucumbers are looking stunted and a corn plant was sacrificed to the appetite of one of those bunnies I see running through the neighborhood.

I put up more fencing, I tried to protect the carrots by caging them (no free-range carrots for me) and I am hoping I see some beans this year. At least the lettuce, tomatoes, onions, garlic and potatoes are looking good. The strawberries have been nibbled on but are mostly intact.

Why do I list all these incidents? Because it can be frustrating. Weeds are a constant battle. Successfully growing what you want among items you are not so fond of is a challenge. I just keep trying at the homestead, keeping plants as healthy as I can and experiment with compost topdressing, more mulch, liquid fertilizer and judicious watering. I try to learn from my errors and try again, even if weeds get the better of me. It will all work out, right? The bean harvest just may be lighter than I hoped for.

Like my financial plans, I keep doing the best I can and examine my progress at the end of the year. If nothing else, I have shaved 15 minutes off my lawn mowing time.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Sometimes prudence does not win

I have been saving for a new computer and looking forward to this time next year when I would purchase a new MacBook Pro to replace my iBook G4. My Quicksilver G4 Tower despite being older, is not slated for replacement. I plan on keeping it as long as I can access all my electronic accounts and use the hard drive as a back up. However, after dealing with unexpected veterinary bills that added up to $700, my iBook G4 decided it was time to freeze because the cooling fan stopped running.

While alone, the fan does not seem like a big issue, I did not realize what the problem was at first. Unfortunately, I started seeing errors regarding start up files and the iBook was starting up suspiciously quickly. Frugal Pursuit goes into panic mode, starts backing up files to the G4 Tower and the backup hard drive. Then she realizes how addicted to using a portable Mac to access the web and visits the Apple Store to see what refurbished MacBook Pro models are available.

The bottom line: I spent $1,528.70 for a refurbished 15 inch 2.53GHz Intel Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro. After I receive the new computer, I will transfer all content onto the new Mac, confirm all the information is present and then sell my iBook G4 either on craig's list or on eBay. Someone else may want to tinker with the computer and I get it out of my house.

The MacBook Pro is a want but I have a nearly nonfunctional iBook and an insatiable desire for Web surfing on my sofa. While I do have to dip into savings for the new purchase, I should not have to buy a new laptop for another four years.

What do you think of my purchase?

Friday, June 12, 2009

Planning for a shady future

When people talk about the responsibilities of being a homeowner, items like mowing the lawn, cleaning out the gutters, replacing appliances and repairing roof shingles or siding are usually discussed. Still tangible but not directly related to the home are the trees around the property; specifically the mature trees. When I purchased my house, it had only one tree on the property, likely planted when the duplex was built. This means I have a ~40 year-old green ash tree on the southwestern corner of my house.

When I took ownership, one of the first things I did was plant another shade tree, Tilia americana or a basswood in Fall 2006. Aside from the Japanese beetles that like to defoliate the tree, my originally ~6 feet-tall tree is now nearly 9 feet tall. In the intervening years I have planted a total of four trees, all of different genuses and varying heights but always less than six feet. While some are slower than others (my Sorbus americana or mountain ash [excruciatingly slow] versus Ostrya virginiana or hophornbeam [definitely growing]), I knew I was planting for the future and to maximize the diversity on my small lot.

My first spring in the house, I had noticed that my mature tree had some dead branches and was worried the part overhanging my roof would pose a danger. After talking with three arborists, I hired one to trim my tree and lighten the load from the ends of the branches. The arborist I chose estimated I may have 20 good years left in the tree, assuming no other factors like weather intervene.

Last summer, I noticed the western side of my tree had leaves that looked scorched and were dropped early. While I had some concerns, I did not seek the advice of an arborist. In the face of slow leafing out and almost nothing on the western side this spring, I did ask an arborist to stop by and look at my tree. He diagnosed anthracnose, a fungal disease. While a healthy tree can live through this disease with some support, my tree is more like a shrub with no leader stem and many branches with leafy weight on the end. Furthermore, there is an open wound on the tree that may not be healing all that well. On top of all this, emerald ash borer is now present in my state. These factors lead the arborist I consulted to suggest I plant a tree right next to the green ash so there is an established tree when it needs to be taken down.

While there is no way to know if my tree will survive another five years or more, I was worried that the lone mature tree on my property was under threat if not in dire straits. Lacking a mature tree does affect the value of my home. However, I had already chosen another tree to plant just in case I had to select one to replace the ash tree. Therefore, I visited a local nursery, picked out an Acer saccharum (sugar maple) and planted it seven feet from my green ash tree. It stands about nine feet tall and based on my research, should be a good shade tree for the property.

I had hoped that my ash tree could last until I sold the property but having a new tree in place, ready to take over when other needs to be removed will help diminish the loss of my sole mature tree. If conditions are ideal, the sugar maple can grow up to 12 inches a year. If the ash tree lasts long enough, the sugar maple will make a worthy transition from small tree to shade tree.

Have you encountered similar tree-related issues?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

How I deal with overspending

I talk about my spending plans and my savings goals but rarely talk about breaking the budget. Most times, my spending plan keeps me on track to ensure I spend less than I earn. However, there are also times I just do not keep within the spending limits of my category allocations. How do I handle this situation?

Minimize the excess spending.
This is always the best strategy even if it may not be the most realistic. I estimate I overspend ~5% of the time so this reduces the chances of spending too much. I also try not to go more than a few dollars over the spending plan allocation. Again, this can be a challenge but I try to reduce the chances I need to steal from my savings account to fund my overspending.

Keep the overspending in the same month's budget.
This is where I start playing with several categories allocation. For example, if I exceed the limits of my personal care category, I see if there is any money I can use in miscellaneous or even entertainment. Yes, I do stretch some definitions but I am trying not to use my savings. If overspending occurs at the end of the month, there may not be enough left in other categories to fund my shameful excess.

Use the next month's allocation if the same month cannot fund the excess spending.
Yes, I do spend into the next month if I see no other way around my overindulgence. In May, I did exceed my grocery limit and could no longer use money in my eating out allocation. Therefore, I subtracted the amount from my June grocery allocation. I do not recommend this because the overspending can carry over too far. If the category is exceeded in the next month, I suggest either taking the money from savings before compromising another month's spending, or rethink the amount allocated in a particular spending category especially if this category tends to run over more than twice a year.

Raid the savings account.
This is the last resort because the reason for the spending plan is to keep my spending in check. However, I sometimes have to admit defeat and just steal from my savings account. This is not ideal since overspending does not constitute an emergency. As long as this happens two times or fewer in a year and does not exceed $100, I forgive myself the excess. More than that, I start to take a closer look at why I exceeding my spending caps and what do I need to do differently.

Any thoughts on overspending and how to handle it within a spending plan?

Monday, June 8, 2009

Coming soon: Changes to my city's garbage collection

One of my personal goals was to attend a city council meeting where I live. While I have not made it to a full council meeting, I recently made it to a special meeting of the Public Works Committee. Why did I care about the Public Works meeting? It was discussing changes in refuse and recycling pickup in my city. Four different contractors were competing for the city's contract, which is set to expire January 1, 2010.

Our current garbage and recycling handler is the largest in the United States--Waste Management. They manually collect garbage and recycling curbside with unlimited pickup. What does this mean? Residents are not charged extra for discarding lots of items on the curb. For those of us who put out a garbage can once every three months, we subsidize those who put out garbage weekly. In an ideal world, I would rather have a pay-for-what-you-discard plan.

However, the meeting was about the four potential contractors giving a short presentation and answering six questions posed by the city council. All four put in bids for automated collection of garbage and recycling; two put in bids for manual collection including the city's current contractor. Automated recycling means each address would have to get two new bins, store them and wheel them out on collection day. The size of the containers ranged from 32 gallons to a whopping 96 gallons. When I asked a contractor why give someone license to discard 96 gallons worth of stuff, he answered, "large families need it" and informed me about the unlimited pickup. I was skeptical about this "necessity". When I was growing up, I was one of five children and we did not discard enough garbage to fill up a 96-gallon bin in a single week.

The main lesson I learned from this meeting: garbage and recycling collection by contractors is not a simple process. The meeting was sparsely attended for an issue that affects the entire city. All the contractors emphasized how using automated pickup increased recycling efforts by over 10%. Two contractors informed the audience that the automated collection bins helped beautify the city with our garbage neatly contained in the plastic bins and picked up automatically. I can vouch for the messiness of manual pickup since I have found items by my curb that I never discarded. Yet, we would have to pay for these brand new bins and still deal with the old ones we have. Not the greenest endeavor for the planet.

While I appreciated learning more about how garbage and recycling collection works, I was discouraged by the fuel surcharges, the size of the bins and the emphasis on being greener via recycling without any consideration for the pollution generated by 25 ton garbage trucks that stop and start constantly. I have my personal pick for the contract I would like to see filled but the smaller, family-owned operation with their own recycling plant will likely be outbid by the larger companies. I will see what happens later this month when the committee votes on the matter.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Referral Love for January-May 2009

I have not offered a thank you posting for a while so I shall rectify the matter immediately!

There have been many kind people and blogs that have mentioned Frugal Pursuit and driven additional traffic to my modest postings. I appreciate the links from blog home pages and tweets of my offerings. Thanks to all those who have commented; I enjoy hearing from my readers. To save you the frustration of visiting my blog and finding I have not posted yet again, please subscribe to my RSS feed. This is an easy way to get updates without the time-consuming visits to my URL.

Top Five Referrers (excluding search engines):
1. (I swear these cannot all be my visits!)
4. (Have subscribed to the RSS feed and enjoying the posts)

Top Five Articles for 2009 (YTD):
1. Creative reuses for plastic bags Thank you to @lighterfootstep for tweeting my posting.
2. Roundabout mortgage payment with escrow
3. Eating what you want for less Thanks again to @lighterfootstep for the tweet of my post.
4. A brief overview of Roth IRAs I am always looking for more information on retirement accounts; the popularity of this post shows I am not the only one.
5. Getting my 2009 tax refund now

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Being prepared in an unstable world

The only debt I currently hold is my mortgage debt. I live off less than 50% of my gross income from my current job and can comfortably afford my mortgage and other expenses. If the worst comes along, how prepared am I to pay for my necessities?

Keep an emergency savings of at least three month's expenses.
This is in place with additional savings if I raid the accounts that are funding my savings goals. This means at my current expense level, I can afford to draw down my savings before I run into financial troubles. Of course, there are expenditures I can cut in the face of no income that would also help stretch my savings.

Update your resume.
Unfortunately, I am not prepared. I have two things working against me: complacency in my job and laziness. While I have thought about updating my resume, I have not translated this into action. There are always other things (gardening, my cats, other issues) that arise and distract me from this task. The way to turn this around: decide to take action and make it a priority.

Maintain your network.
Keeping in touch with your neighbors, friends, acquaintances, current and former colleagues will only help if you lose your job. The more people you can ask for help, the more likely you are to find something because they know something of you. My network is rather small but I leverage it as well as I can when I need help. While I have yet to do this, make sure your LinkedIn profile is up-to-date and your virtual network ready to tap. In this market, the want ads are sparse and finding job leads are difficult.

While I believe my job is secure, it behooves me to be prepared in the event I am downsized or I find an opportunity I want to pursue. A current resume with a great network and several months of expenses saved are a good basis for continuing that mortgage payment and other financial obligations without wondering where the money will come from.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Decorating the outdoor space for less

Before, I listed some ideas that would help a new (or not-so-new) homeowner in decorating and furnishing the interior of a house without going into debt. However, there comes a point where the inside is not all that needs to be refurbished. What about the green(ish?) space outside? Here are a few ideas that might get the creative juices flowing

Throw yourself on the mercy of your neighbors.
Well, maybe not literally as that might get you an unwanted reputation. However, neighbors may have been around the suburb, city, countryside for a while and have some plants that might need dividing. You might inquire if you can have some plant divisions in exchange for helping refresh their garden beds. You get something to plant around the house out of the deal, and a neighbor is happy that she had some garden work done and a sucker to take that plant off her hands. Plants that can be divided include hostas, coneflowers, daylilies, bleeding hearts, rhubarb (why not go for edibles?), chives and many more.

Shop curbside.
If you have never scavenged and live in a semiurban to urban area, you are in for a treat! People throw out the darndest things--garden hoses, rakes, lawn mowers, lumber, chairs, fencing and so much more. If you can make minor repairs, many of these items can be yours and functioning with minimal cost. Find a bench that has seen better days? Sand it down and paint it; now you have a seat for under the shade tree. Scrap lumber can mean a new raised bed for flowers or veggies. That leaky hose that someone threw out can become your drip irrigation system. Just add holes and lay it where you need it.

If the repair is outside your capability, offer the item on craigslist for free and let someone else have the joy of fixing it. You might even work out a deal where you pay a small fee and they fix it for you!

Check the classifieds (e.g., craigslist).
If curbside is not your thing (I urge you to try it as it is difficult to beat the price), shop from the comfort of your own home. People offer a wide array of items on craigslist and other free electronic classifieds. Plants, trees, animals, rusted old farm equipment, items the owners cannot figure out--all there for you to find and pay a small fee to bring home. If your neighbors' selection of plants do not satisfy you, I know you will find more on craigslist. Try the farm and garden section for most of your outdoor needs or use the search box if you dare. I have been lucky enough that some people will deliver items that I cannot fit in my car.

Use word of mouth.
People love being helpful. Ask around at work or the hardware store or wherever you can strike up a conversation about working outdoors or gardening. Someone will know someone else who has a son who runs a lawn mowing business. You lack a lawn mower but a neighborhood boy can help you out. The guy at the hardware store may recommend someone who hires himself out for small outdoor jobs or his truck for hauling things. Your work colleague may know where to get free mulch and compost in town. A neighbor might be in construction and bring you some scrap items you can assemble into a fantastic sculpture. Place a call to city hall and ask about whatever you want to know around town.

There you have it--a few strategies to keep the costs of lawn maintenance and installing foundation plantings and new trees from stressing the savings account. Remember, some creative thinking can allow you to see the potential in that pile on the curb or that worn-out bench on craigslist. Whether you are working on the interior or exterior of your home, you can beautify without heavy use of the credit card. Happy homeowning!