Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Enjoying fresh and local fruits and veggies

Baskets with fresh produce

The weather is really warming in my area, to the point that we may get near the record high temperature (the record is 80 degrees Fahrenheit on Thursday with a forecast for 77 degrees that day). If gardening is not your thing and you enjoy locally grown greens, please keep in mind Community-Supported Agriculture or CSAs. This is where you purchase a share of a farmer's future harvest now, and he or she provides you will a box of herbs, fruits and veggies for ten+ weeks. While many popular farms have filled all their orders for the season, there are always a few organic farmers looking for more people to join. And your health insurance may give you a bonus for healthy eating, decreasing the cost of your share. To locate a CSA near you, visit the Local Harvest Web site.

Since I grow my own produce and herbs, I am only looking to supplement what my garden provides. Therefore, I use the farmer's market to add to my diet. I can get fruits, veggies, herbs, meats, cheese and more at the small farmer's market close to my workplace. The main one in the area, one of the largest in the country, has an even wider selection and I know many people choose to do most of their grocery shopping each Saturday at the farmer's market. Whether you are looking for a little or a lot of locally grown food for you to choose from, a farmer's market is a great place to start. Talking with the farmers who grow the food or create the product is an engaging experience. If you are unfamiliar with the location of available farmer's markets, visit the Local Harvest Web site for more information.

Remember, if you cannot grow it yourself, a CSA share and farmer's markets are your next best bet for locally grown and sustainably produced food.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Using greener cleaners

Man scrubbing floor

I have written many times about greener living and I have only increased my commitment to doing more as every year passes. Overcoming some of my squeamishness (e.g., worm composting) is never easy but determination counts for much in this area. One area that I am inexorably replacing commercial items with simpler, greener ones is my cleaning products.

I have to say, cleaning the bathroom is merely something I have to do--occasionally--when forced. However, a mix of vinegar and baking soda works for nearly all surfaces in the bathroom: sink, faucet, tub, tub walls, toilet. For the toilet seat and mirror, I use a dilution of vinegar (50% vinegar/50% water by volume) to spray and wipe off with a sponge and newspaper respectively. The vinegar smell dissipates soon after use and does not linger like chemical scents.

For stubborn stains in the toilet bowl, I have found a pumice stone (e.g., Pumie Scouring Stick) works great without a lot of scrubbing. I heard about this from other people looking for alternatives to chemical cleaners and found Pumie brand at my local hardware store.

I use the 50/50 vinegar spray liberally on counters, tabletop and stove top. Vinegar + baking soda is great for the sink and while I have not tried it, should work well in the oven too. Making a paste with the vinegar and baking soda is great where you want more scrubbing action and more vinegar when you need less.

I make my own laundry detergent and only use vinegar to soften my laundry. In fact, I find the chemical-embedded dryer sheets have scents too strong for my nose. I gave away the last of my dryer sheets and have not looked back since. I also used oxygen-based bleach if I want some extra cleaning power in the laundry as it is kinder to laundry and the environment than chlorine-based bleaches.

I prefer to sweep than mop, but when a good floor cleaning is necessary, I use hot water with some vinegar for my laminate and tile floors.

One gallon of vinegar costs me $1.60 and a 4 pound box of baking soda was purchased for $2.70. Both of these items cost less than any all-purpose spray and bathroom cleaner and toilet bowl cleaner and other item thought necessary for cleaning. Being green and frugal has a nice sound to it, yes?

Monday, March 29, 2010

Gardening the scavenger's way

Quiet garden

Gardening is a wonderful pastime. You spend time outside doing physical activity, enjoy some fresh air, take pride in the beauty and bounty you planted and maintain. Right now all I can see is all the work I have to do: adding more mulch and compost, getting the seedlings started and planning where to put all the plants. I have written previously about low-cost gardening ideas (here and here) with a few more options to keep input costs down while maximizing enjoyment.

Coffee grounds
I am not a coffee drinker, but I had read much about the nitrogen boost that coffee grounds can give gardens. I have access to a couple coffee pots at work so I collect the grounds, filter and all, at the end of the day. I put the coffee grounds in a bucket and compost the filter. Acid-loving plants enjoy coffee grounds, but modest amounts of coffee grounds are also welcomed by other plants.

If scavenging from your colleagues at work is not your cup of coffee, visit local coffee shops. With gardening season coming into full swing, many places will save the grounds for anyone who asks. Win for you (nutrients for the garden), win for them (organic material not going into a landfill).

Grass clippings
I mulch my grass back into the ground when mowing as I like returning the nutrients to the soil. However, many people see grass clippings as nusiance and catch the clippings and leave it on the curb. This is great material for mulching garden beds. Keep an eye out for homes where people pile they grass clippings for collection and come back with a rake and containers in which to put the grass. Leave the curb as neatly as you found it and keep the spot in mind if you need more.

Grass clippings (and coffee grounds) are great on the compost pile as well. If you have plenty of leaves, paper, cardboard or other carbon-rich items, add some nitrogen-rich material like fresh grass clippings and coffee grounds. The pile will break down faster and available for use in the garden.

Odds and ends on the curb
People get rid of many items that can be repurposed in the garden. Right now, I am looking for pole-like items that I can use to support my pole beans. It could be lengths of lumber, broom handles or PVC piping, but all would be welcomed to build a tripod structure for my beans to climb. Other bits that can be useful and found on the curb include metal head boards (for trellises), metal poles (for anchoring fencing or keeping hoses out of the garden bed when dragged around), reclaimed furniture (for outdoor use) and the list goes on. If your neighbor is throwing away something, imagine how it might be used to enhance your outdoor space.

Repurposing items
I have started a variety of seedlings in my basement. Most of them were sowed in repurposed containers (e.g., yogurt) and drip trays (e.g., styrofoam takeout trays). The commercial starting trays do take up less space, but I prefer to use what I have on hand. I have been collecting yogurt containers since last year and am grateful I had more than enough for my purposes. Many bits of plastic packaging like the kind that are affixed to cardboard back, are flat and can be used as watering trays so I can water from the bottom. I like this because most of that plastic has no number and cannot be recycled. Anytime I get more use out of something that is disposable makes me feel good.

Milk jugs and 2L soda bottles can be used as mini greenhouses after seedlings are planted outside and it gets chillier than the plant likes. Just cut off the bottom and slip it over the plant. When the weather is warm, remove the cap; when it is cold, put it back in place. With warm enough temperatures past the threat of frost, remove the bottle or jug and enjoy the growing plant.

I am looking forward to the garden this year as I really miss all my fresh fruit and vegetables. Using up the last of the frozen veggies make me even more eager to get out and grow more peas and beans. Reducing the costs of gardening with creative scavenging and reuse makes me proud of what I can do without spending money.

Do you have more suggestions?

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Saturday, March 27, 2010

Decluttering the piecemeal way

Cluttered home office

Clutter is the bane of my existence. I have too much stuff that just ends up collecting dust and the "I need it just in case" instance never comes. Culling is never easy, but a recent family onslaught (e.g., hosting a family gathering) prompted a major clean up in my home. Well, that and starting a to-do list of items that I needed to tackle. Here is how I accomplished my first pass at decluttering:

Give it away: This was done in two phases: donations to a local charity shop and then offering items for free. I had accumulated several paper bags worth of stuff that I meant to donate but I finally took the time to list each item and its worth before taking it to the donation center. This now adds to my itemized deductions. I gave six feet of books (mostly Star Wars novels) to my brother who will enjoy them and gave away almost all my videotape collection, mostly TV shows and movies I recorded myself. I also managed to give away most of my scrap fabric collection for a church's use.

Sort through it: There was clothing I was not wearing or no longer liked, fabric I was never going to use, papers no longer needed and bins reclaimed in giving away the VHS tapes. With extra bins, I could sort through my fabric collection, put away the Christmas-themed fabric, and cull various items. It also reminded me I had several pieces of clothing that I had set aside for repair. These actions reduced the clutter around my sewing machine. Many items were sent to the basement for storage until needed (e.g., box fan and electric heater).

Also, the newly opened bookshelf space--was partially filled in by books that were stacked on or in front of the bookshelf. Less clutter and easy access to frequently used books on preserving and gardening--bonus for me!

Fix it: That clothing I "found" in the long-neglected to-be-repaired pile? I fixed all of it, washed and sorted the items back into my closet and dresser. That freed up a lot of clutter from one room. However, having all these new items in my closet also reminds me I need to think about a second round of clothing culling.

Just do it: Keeping a list of what I needed to accomplish (cleaning, decluttering, moving items around) and marking them off gave me a sense of purpose as I noted my progress. Plus, I uncovered a lot of floor space that I did not know I had and hey, I have a kitchen table at which several people can eat!

However, this is only my first effort at decluttering the home. While seeing more of my house rather than my stuff is easier on the eyes, my next steps include focusing on specific thinks in each room (e.g., all the papers stacked in my computer armiore) and asking if I truly need to keep the stuff or not.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Every gal needs to have a little fun

BYU v Kansas State

Raise your hand if March Madness means NCAA basketball rather than the desire to get out in the garden. For me it is both. Well, I don't actually watch the basketball games, but I like to participate in the annual tradition of choosing which teams will progress through their brackets and add a little friendly wager to sweeten the pot.

My first experience with March Madness was in graduate school. One of my fellow grad students asked if I wanted to join the pool and I asked what it was about. After a short explanation and a piece of paper of my own, I made my best guess who might win based on the ranking and the teams' season tally (and who rejected me for graduate school). For a person who does not follow collegiate basketball, I ended up in the top three and took home more cash than I put in. I have enjoyed playing every since.

While I only played once more in graduate school (and did not win the second time), my ears perk up when I hear people around me talk about NCAA pools and brackets. Last year was the first time in many years I entered a pool and while I did not win any money, I was one of five people still in the running to win it all at the final game.

This year, I am not so confident that winning is in my future unless other people's brackets are even more messed up than mine. However, with 51 other people playing in the pool, I doubt I will reach one of the top three positions that win money. However, it is only $5 to play and I view it as entertainment for two and a half weeks. Not much that can entertain me for that long and at that price. So I will keep crossing out my invalid picks in red and highlighting the ones that made it in green and see where my choices lead me.

Go Kansas State!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

How I fully funded my Roth IRA

Crossword puzzle and pencil

For the past three years, contributing the maximum to my Roth IRA has been one of my financial goals. This is one half of my annual retirement investments, which also includes my work-sponsored 401(k) with a 3% match. My Roth IRA account resides with T. Rowe Price and is comprised of three index funds. Not only have I given the full contribution for the last three years, I am looking to fully fund my Roth IRA within the same calendar year rather than using the grace period until tax day the following year. How did I do this?

I do my taxes at the beginning of February so I can quickly get any money I am owed back from the government. This year, due to my itemized deductions as well as tax credit for four energy-efficient window replacements, I received a larger-than-expected refund from the federal government and approximately the same amount back from the state as I have for the last two years. Combined, this money was able to finish funding my 2009 Roth IRA, fully contribute to my 2010 Roth IRA (based on the amounts automatically invested each month) and still have a bit left to fund other savings goals. This is not a typical situation for me, but meant that I did not have to increase my monthly Roth IRA contributions to fully fund the account for 2010. This is the first time since I opened my Roth IRA that I was able to contribute the maximum amount in a calendar year.

As a result, I opened a third bond index fund to complement my extended market index and my international index funds. I want to keep a diversified portfolio and feel that adding a small amount of bonds to my investment choices would be beneficial. This is less than 10% of my Roth IRA and and even smaller fraction of my total retirement investments so for someone in her late 30s, I am not going too conservative.

At this point, I am looking forward to my 2011 Roth IRA which hopefully, will have an increase in the maximum contribution amount. It has been stuck at $5,000 for the last two years. If my tax refund is similar to this year's amount, I should also be able to fully fund my Roth IRA and contribute to my savings goals as well.

Have you opened a Roth IRA and have you made the maximum contribution?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Learning something new: Candle making

Close-up of Candle

I like learning new skills whether it be making something I never have before (e.g., my own bread), building something new (e.g., raised garden beds) or discovering something I can do myself (e.g., making laundry detergent). Two items on my to-do list include making candles and making soap.

For the candle making, I just recently took on a project. Interestingly, one of the blogs I follow had a post on crock pot candle making. This seems a simple enough procedure: chop pieces of wax, put in glass jar, heat in a crock pot and add wick; cool and use! And hey, I frequent a thrift store and found an old 70s-looked crock pot that would do perfectly.

Now, I was not creating candles from scratch. I still had a length of candle wick from earlier melt and pour experiments, as well as lots of leftover pillar candles that I did not burn completely. I also had a glass container from a previously burned candle, washed and dried. So I chopped up the leftover candle wax, put in the glass jar, placed it in the crock pot and let it heat per the post. What do you know? The wax melted and I could add the wick. Now I have reused candle wax in a glass jar for many more hours of burning with a scent I enjoy.

While I do not recommend collecting partially used candle wax for years as I have just to make some new candles, this is one way to extend the life of jar candles you have and reuse wax. It is a simple project and if you are like me and enjoy lighting candles every once in a while, it has immediate utility. And hey, reusing glass jars and having a few more candles on hand in case of emergency is a great thing. Plus, this project is mostly hands off aside from chopping up the wax and adding the wick. You can clean or do your bills or work on another project as the wax melts.

As for soap making, still on the to-do list.

Will you try making your own candles in a crock pot?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Starting the day out right

Close-up of breakfast burrito

Breakfast is one of the most important meals of the day. Oddly enough, there seems to be a parallel between what I have for breakfast every day and choosing to live a more sustainable life. Disclaimer: I am far from perfect with my monthly trips to the grocery store and choices that do included processed food stuffs. However, breakfast is one where the quantity of processed food has diminished.

Growing up, breakfast meant boxed cereal, a glass of orange juice and a multivitamin. This did not change much during my college years or my graduate school years, but I began mixing it up with some pancakes. I know the pancake recipe by heart and can easily whip up a batch that lasts me two to three days when I store the leftover batter in the refrigerator. I have dabbled with oatmeal, but kept coming back to pancakes. When I began making my own jams, I found two slices of toast, buttered and slathered with homemade jam and a glass of milk (plus multivitamin) were a yummy breakfast.

As I look back now, I was moving ever so slowly away from prepackaged breakfast products to more homemade items: pancakes, jam on toast (using home-baked bread) and now to to more homegrown, sustainable items: breakfast burritos. While the tortillas, cheese and salsa are store purchased, I have been enjoying fresh free-range eggs and organic sausage in my burritos. In fact, burritos have overtaken other breakfast foods as my favorite. And yes, I make these breakfasts prior to going to work each morning.

Why do I mention my breakfast? It is not just to brag about how wonderful my homemade breakfast meals are; it is also to demonstrate that breakfast has evolved both to be more tasty and align with my personal values. The gains are modest, but I derive great satisfaction in using eggs purchased from a colleague at work and frying up some sausage from an organic farmer while making my own breakfast. Furthermore, the things I am still purchasing also shows me where I need to work. This year, I plan to make my own salsa and fruit syrups and possibly my own flour tortillas thus, taking another step forward in my sustainability journey.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Spending and the charity thrift shop

Used pots and pans on store shelf in thrift store, full frame

Lest you think all my behavior is about being good (staying in my spending plan and saving over 40% of my income), I bring you one of my downfalls: the charity thrift shop. I prefer to buy used for many reasons: being frugal, lower environmental footprint, the good work done with my money. However, my weekly trips usually mean I walk away with something that I need (want) when I stroll through the store.

My latest trip found me leaving the store with a new pair of sandals (I wanted ones with straps for the front and back of my foot), a pasta maker (I want to try making my own), a ceramic pot for plants (it's pretty and I can find a use for it), a cobalt blue glass (my plastic ones are cracking and it's a great color), baby powder (I am running low on the small container I have) and a metal watering can (I have been looking for one and hate how easily the spout on the plastic one broke when I kicked it against the garage wall). Of these, the most useful ones are the watering can and the glass. The rest were optional.

This is how most of my purchases run. I don't need more pots or canning jars or candles or soaps or dishes, but I get them for the just in case/like them/trying something new/possible future gifts. Even if I buy used from a charity thrift shop, I am spending money and it means more clutter, more unnecessary stuff and less money even if I do not spend more than I allocate each month.

My behavior would not be so bad, but I do not always carry through on plans. The stick blender I purchase over a year ago still collects dust rather than mixing up a batch of cold-process soap. I have not using my crockpot much and it's better if I do not discuss all that fabric I bought for all those gift bags I never made. My best move would be not to spend money every time I go to the thrift shop, no matter how good the deal is. However, I like patronizing the shop and would rather make poor spending decisions there than other places.

Am I justifying my existence or a pompous, preaching windbag about my spending habits?

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Funding ten hungry savings accounts

Coins in a Glass Jar

I have many goals in my financial life including saving for a newer used car, saving for a future farm in the country, saving for charitable donations and saving for life's unexpected events. This requires various levels of funding, all of which are important. How the heck do I deal with the demands of ten different accounts?

Well, each account is for a different purpose.
1 and 2. General savings: This funds emergency spending overages even if the fault is only mine, large veterinary bills, larger-than-expected car repairs, maintenance and upgrades to the house, or any other unexpected event that required money. This is funded in three different ways: a savings account at my credit union, three CDs at my credit union and a savings account with Emigrant Direct. I allocate money every pay period to add to the savings account and when it gets large enough, either fund a CD or transfer it to the online Emigrant Direct account.
3. House savings: This funds my basic home needs including gardening supplies, outdoor appliances (e.g., lawnmower), tools and low-cost house maintenance and repair (e.g., paint or energy assessment). Any costs over and above this account will draw from my general savings account. I fund this account with an automatic transfer each pay period.
4. Gasoline hedge fund: This fund is for money leftover in my gasoline spending allocation that is subsquently split between this account and my car savings account. Rather than worrying about increasing my spending allocation as gasoline prices go up, I can use the money saved in this account to supplement my spending allocation until the price per gallon goes down far enough the spending plan covers it.
5. Car savings account: This fund is solely for buying a newer car. My current vehicle is running well, but I would rather have money and possibly avoid a car payment than be caught without a plan. My car has 136,000 miles on it and is 13 years old. It has some time left on it (my goal is to reach at least 150,000 miles) but I allocate money each paycheck and each month add to the funding with half of the remaining amount in the gasoline spending as well as odd bits of money here and there from rebates and small bonuses.
6. Charity savings: This fund is for any charitable giving. It is much easier for me to give spontaneously if I know I have x amount in my charity savings account. I am able to fund three charities regularly and still have extras for unexpected giving. I save a small amount each month and sporatically add money in small amounts.
7. Car mainentance: The money in this account solely arises from extras in my spending plan. When I had over $200 available from not spending anything, I decided to open a savings account to earn a bit of interest. This is the first line of defense against car repair expenses and hopefully will mitigate any demand on my regular savings.
8. Found money: This is a catch-all fund. I have purchased a chest freezer and partially funded a new computer purchase with money from this account. The current goal for this account is a potential vacation later this year. Funding comes once a month and looks to be on target with the $700 goal I set.
9. Utilities fun: This is also an account funded by leftovers from my spending plan. This collects money from my natural gas and electric/water utilities if I spend less than I allocate. Winter I typically use the full amount I allow in my spending plan and even had to use some of the money in this account twice. Like the gasoline hedge fund, this account holds money I can apply to any unexpected utility expenses.
10. Future farm: This fund is for the farm in the country I would like to find and buy. This goal is two years away so I wish I could save more. However, I allocate money monthly and have been sending more irregular income (refunds, temp job money) to this account. I would like to save more as I suspect my needs will be great in this area, but so far have done well for being one of many goals I am funding at my current income level.

The main drawback to so many accounts is having multiple demands on a finite amount of money whether it is my regular or sporatic bonus income. Balancing all of them is a delicate act, but I manage to see positive growth in all of them. My main concern is the farm savings account and what I can do to increase the amount in there. This may mean a second job where the money will only go to the single account.

Do you have any thoughts on my strategy?

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Debating the allocation of unexpected money

Part of what motivates me is my plans for the future. However, my finances require a balancing act. For example, I received a little extra money this month. Do I:
1. Add to my car savings account?
2. Add to my future farm account?
3. Contribute to my charity account?
4. Donate to my regular (emergency) savings account?

This necessitates some negotiation with myself. What is my priority? Well, the car and future farm are my main priorities. What to do with the extra money? Well, I can add it to either account or split it between them. What if it is only $2? Then I will put the money in my future farm account and next time there is extra money, add more to the car savings account.

Striking a balance is hard. I debate which account is more deserving so many times, the extra money gets shuttled to a different account each time, to make it more "even" or "fair" in my mind. It is easier to keep focused on a single goal, a single account. I feel I sacrifice saving for other things if I only put money in one account. And life, like everything else, is a balancing act. Funding that life is no different.

In total, I have ten different savings accounts, all for different purposes and funding different goals. More than half my money is in ING Direct accounts and the rest split between a brick and mortar credit union and a second online bank. Many more accounts and I may get overwhelmed, but I see the progress in each account albeit slowly when I do my monthly net worth calculation.

Next post, I will break down my savings accounts and what purposes they fulfill.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Emerging from retirement

I thought in September 2009, I was done with this blog. While my writing attention turned to NaNoWriMo and other endeavors, there was a part of me that missed this. I kept having thoughts about "oh, I could write about that", but then remembered I "retired" from the blog.

Well, I have banished the mothballs and plan to start posting again. For those of you who hung on, occasionally find me and still have not unsubscribed from my RSS feed--Hello! Here is to continuing the journey and hoping to hear from you.