Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Striving for self-sufficiency: Not quite reality

Quiet garden

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 24, 2010

Adding more to the retirement account

Strips of paper with IRA, 401K and Retirement inscriptions

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

Have you increased your retirement contributions?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

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

Crossword puzzle and pencil

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Frugal tip: Start a coupon club

Scissors and coupons

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

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

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

Will you start a coupon club?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The life of a scavenging gardener

White Impatiens

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

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

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

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

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

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

What will you reuse or repurpose in the garden?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A new perspective on changed behavior

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

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

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

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

What have you done differently?