Friday, March 27, 2009

Yay! Progress!

We made good progress in this last pay period. I felt that we were both disciplined in our use of finances, as there was very little "blow" that took place. Ideally there should be no "blow" but we are human. Anyway, we paid down $517 on our debt and still had enough cash to pay for some repairs and other needed items. My paycheck is about $900/biweekly. I would love to see all $900 go to debt. Getting there!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Batch Cooking for the Busy Woman

I mentioned in an earlier post that batch cooking, or cooking more than one meal in one session of cooking, is one of my biggest sanity-saving tips. I thought I would share how I fit a session of batch cooking into my busy schedule.

As a homeschooling mom who also works outside the home, my time is at a premium, and I also have health issues, so a big day-long session of cooking once a month usually doesn't work well for me. I have done it only a time or two, and while I loved all those meals once I was done, I found I dreaded the big day so much that I just never got around to doing it. What works better for me is doing several smaller sessions throughout the month. I spread the work of that session over several days.

Today, I went to the store just to pick up some water. I broke one of my cardinal rules of shopping and decided while I was there to buy some chicken (Beloved is not a chicken fan; he is out of town; chicken was on sale at a decent price; I love chicken; haven't had chicken in forever; let's buy chicken). I wandered over to the chicken and was blessed from heaven to see package after package of bone-on breasts that had just reached their sell-by date, marked down to 59 cents/lb and thighs marked down to 71 cents. All just for me. I bought it all, over 75 pounds of chicken!

Because it was at its sell-by date, I decided to process most of it immediately. It was a busy day, so I got out my biggest roaster pan (left over from a broken Nesco Roaster), skinned all the breast pieces, sprinkled them with salt, onion powder, and garlic, covered the pan with foil, and placed them in the oven. After an hour I turned the temp down to 225 and left the house for errands and a doctor's appointment. About 40 pounds of meat was in that pan, but it only took me about 15 minutes to prepare it.

When I got home, the house smelled wonderful. We had a simple meal of hot chicken with rice from the freezer. I spread the rest out on two cookie sheets to cool. When it was cooled, I deboned it, put the bones back in the roaster with two cut-up onions, about 8 cloves of garlic, a bunch of chopped up celery, and some salt. I filled the roaster with water, added a couple of tablespoons of vinegar (to help the bones leach calcium), covered the pan with foil, and put it in the oven again at 225. That probably took me another 15-20 minutes. I will let that cook all night. Tomorrow I will strain the broth and make some soup for lunch with the broth, chicken, and leftover rice. I'll make enough to freeze at least one batch.

I also have 25 pounds of thighs to deal with. Tomorrow, I will look through my freezer cookbooks for a couple of easy recipes using chicken thighs. We can easily eat 6 pounds of thighs at one meal, so this will supply four meals. We'll have one for supper and freeze the other three. Cooking those four meals won't take me any more time than cooking one.

On Friday, I may or may not deal with the chicken breast meat cooling in my fridge right now. If I am up to it, I will find a few recipes and cook it all up. If not, I will just dice it up and freeze it in meal sized portions. I probably have enough for about 8 meals. I also bought 10 pounds of hamburger today, and I plan to make some spaghetti sauce with that. We'll have spaghetti for supper, and cooking up enough sauce for four meals also takes the same time as one.

What I am going to do with the breast meat is an unknown at this point. But by Friday night, I will have an extra five fully cooked meals in my freezer, plus a bunch of broth and diced chicken ready for a quick meal. If I am extra energetic, I may just cook up those chicken breast meals tomorrow or Friday and that will mean 14 meals in my freezer for just a few hours of work.

Other strategies that work well are to cook up a HUGE pot of beans or rice and freeze them in one quart containers or can them in a pressure cooker (the beans). Yesterday I was feeling lazy, with Beloved out of town, so I just had my daughter thaw a couple of bags of black beans, and we ate them with sour cream, salsa, and cheese, either in a bowl with a piece of cornbread, for us celiacs, or on a whole wheat tortilla. (Ever since I saw "Napoleon Dynamite", I love to tell my kids to make themselves a "dang quesadilla," pronouncing the "l". I know, I am easily amused.)

Anyway, that's what works for me. Any task you do in the kitchen, ask yourself if you can double or triple the results without doubling the effort.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

How Low Do I Go?

I had someone criticize me for doing family wipes and yet spending $500 to send my girls on a "vacation," as she called it. It got me to thinking about just how far one goes to get out of debt.

I think I live a pretty frugal lifestyle, the credit card debt notwithstanding. I was living a frugal lifestyle even AS I was getting in to debt! The main reason my husband and I are in debt is a lack of planning and a lack of communication between us. So my question is, do we "punish" our children by making them quit music lessons or miss out on a good educational opportunity just because mom and dad have a hard time getting our act together?

I say no, personally, and so I use cloth wipes and let my daughter continue her music lessons. If you read all my posts, you can see that my children pay their own way for many of their activities. They work hard and have lots of responsibilities.

Is there a compelling moral reason for me to quit the music lessons (and the TeenPact and the life insurance and the many other rather radical suggestions I have been given) just so I can pay my debt off 2 months sooner than I would otherwise? And if so, can I really stop there or does that moral reason encompass our mortgage as well? Should all outside spending beyond food and clothing stop until every last cent is paid off?

I guess I don't see it. I want to be out of debt, very badly, and I want to be able to quit, or at least cut back, work. But I don't see being in debt as a sin or a sign of moral weakness. The weakness or sin is the lack of communication in my marriage. We are working on that.

I am interested in hearing others' point of view on this question.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Life keeps knocking me for a loop

We made no progress on our debt this past fact we went a little backwards. Hopefully it will be for the last time, since I think beloved has finally got the travel money thing taken care of. His credit card debt increased because he used it for travel but didn't pay it back. Now he has taken the reimbursement for his travel out as cash and will use that for his next trip, and I will slowly chip away at that balance increase. I hope he can remember to keep taking out the cash as it comes in.

On the home front, we had several expenses come due that we did not have the cash to pay for, so had to use the old plastic. It is discouraging, but again, hopefully will not happen again. Our daughters attended TeenPact and had a wonderful time. It was totally worth the expense, but the $500 tuition came off the credit card, not out of the bank. My girls were already scheduled for this before we made the decision to accelerate debt payment, so I was not going to take that away from them. The other expenses were also "from before." I think we may be past the hump for those types of things. We'll see.

There are other problems that are costing me money right now. Namely that my migraine headaches have increased in frequency to the point that they are greatly interfering with my life. The prescription medication I use, Imitrex, also seems to be losing its effectiveness. I cannot tell you how discouraged I feel today. I seem to have been blessed with a body that just does not work right. I know....."God don't make junk"......but I seem to have gotten junked up after birth for sure.

For as long as I can remember, I have had health problems. Headaches, stomach problems, body aches, fatigue. I can remember having such severe headaches as a tiny child. Most doctors told my parents I had a nervous disposition. Thanks a lot! At the age of 35 I found out I was intolerant of gluten. Following a wheat free diet has helped greatly, but sometimes I wonder if I am too damaged to ever get completely better. I have worked so hard to overcome so many health problems...I eat a healthy diet 98% of the time...and just when I think I am making headway, some new thing comes along. Kinda like with our debt!

The newest problem is migraines related to my....ahem...advanced age and hormone fluctuations. I have had four fairly severe migraines in just the past week. That is the most yet and I cannot function as a wife and mom at that level. My medication didn't seem to make much of a difference either, another discouragement.

So I am off on another quest to improve my health beyond what diet and exercise seem to be able to accomplish. Just in the last three days I have spent nearly $300 on supplements and hormone creams. If this works, I have to keep buying the stuff at least for a few years, and insurance does not cover supplements. If it doesn't work, I will need to seek the help of a practitioner like a naturopath or chiropractor, again not covered by insurance.

My health problems have put a burden on our finances for most of our marriage. It is so discouraging. I wish I knew a permanent answer.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

How we do "Family Wipes."

It has been a very busy week around here, and I am still recovering from the Daylight Savings Time switcheroo. On Sunday morning, I had to report to work at what my body was telling me was 4:30 AM, and my body is still not happy about that! My two teen-aged girls are gone all week to TeenPact and, oh my, am I already missing them terribly.

I have been planning for awhile to tell about our Family Wipes adventures, and now seems to be a good time. We began to use Family Wipes a couple of months ago. I had actually thought about doing it a long time ago, before I even read about it on the internet, but when I was looking for a way to slash our expenses, the time seemed right to implement it. Now I am the kind of gal, that, when I make up my mind about something, there is no turning back, even if I had to drag everyone kicking and screaming along the way. I also do not believe a family is a democracy. I am "she who must be obeyed," so there was no discussion. I just got everything set up and then made the announcement to my children.

I will never forget the literal wail that arose from Sweetness.
"Mooooom, noooooooooooooo!"
She then did not speak to me for the rest of the day. But, true to her name, she was back to her sweet self the next day, but she warned me, "No-one outside our family must know of this." I promised her and have almost kept that promise. I have told one equally crunchy and insane friend who got very excited about the idea, and I made her promise not to tell anyone else.

The verdict three months later is that, well, they still would rather use toilet paper but are used to the whole process now. I take care of the washing etc so for them using a piece of cloth and dropping it in the basket is not much different (or so I keep reminding them) from using paper and dropping it in the toilet. My husband has not yet brought himself to use them. I don't know what the hangup is, but I am being patient. I am sure he will come around eventually. As for me, even if all our financial challenges disappeared tomorrow, I think I would keep on using them because they feel nice.

So, on to the nuts and bolts. For the wipes, I went to a thrift store and bought a set of queen-sized flannel sheets. I wanted a brown print (for obvious reasons) but had to settle for a dark blue and white plaid. I spent one evening cutting the flat sheet up into squares that are about 6-8 inches. I did this very non-carefully, but they came out pretty even. I did not take the time to hem the edges but if one wanted to do that, one could. I just wanted to get the show on the road. I still have the fitted sheet in reserve for when we need more wipes. So basically I got about 250 wipes for about $2.50. I also purchased three net lingerie bags

with the toggle type drawstring closings. These go in a garbage can with a swinging lid. The wipes go in a cute little basket on the back of the toilet, and after use they are dropped in the can. The mesh bags were $4 apiece and the garbage cans were $8 apiece. The baskets were each a dollar. So my start-up costs were $44. You could save more if you found the supplies on sale or used. I wasn't that patient!

Here is a picture of what it looks like in our girls' bathroom (and you do not know the bravery it took to post a picture taken in our actual house).
Here is a closer look at the set-up.
When laundry time comes, I just remove the lid from the garbage can, cinch up the laundry bag, and throw the three bags in the laundry. I use my regular one tablespoon of homemade laundry soap, but I do wash these in hot water. I run them through the fast cycle on our front loader, which takes 30 minutes. I usually add any rags that need washing.

Then comes the most tedious aspect of the whole process, and that is hanging them out to dry. I use two racks to hold our week's supply for a family of 7-8. It probably takes me half an hour to get them all hung out. They dry very quickly and in a few hours are ready to stack in the baskets. I do believe that if I machine dried them, the smoothing out and stacking would take longer, and my wipes would also ravel badly and not last as long, so I will keep line drying them.
To answer the questions I KNOW you have:
-No, they don't stink. I went into this figuring they would and planned to wash at least twice a week. I went back to once a week because I realized it was simply not needed. One day something was stinking in the bathroom, so I washed the wipes, thinking that was it, but the stink remained. I was a brave one and actually brought the empty but not rinsed bucket up to my face and took a good whiff...NO ODOR. The stink was coming from something in the regular garbage can. I am sure that if I left them for weeks on end, they would develop an odor. I just don't plan to let that happen.

-Yes, they feel nice. Try it out, the chicken way. Take a piece of toilet paper and rub it on you face, as hard as you would if you were "wiping." Now rub a piece of flannel there. Feel the difference? Now imagine this same difference on the most tender part of your body. Aaaaaahhhhhhh.

-No, the cost of washing them does not compare to buying TP. I wash a load of rags almost every day, and I just add these in with that.

-Yes, it's worth the work. I estimate I save about $15/month by not having to buy toilet paper. Subtracting start-up costs, I will save $120 the first year and $180/year after that, more if the cost of TP goes up. If someone wanted to give you $180 once a year, would you take it? I sure would, and I have!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Works For Me Wednesday: De-gassing Beans

We are a family with rather....ahem......SENSITIVE digestive systems. For that reason, I have rarely cooked beans, because I get way too many complaints about the side effects, and buying Beano cancels out any savings I might have realized. The my younger children spent a week with some friends who eat beans a lot, and they reported that Michelle "knows how to cook beans right." So I picked her brain, tried her method, and IT WORKED. So now we can eat beans with only minimal side effects. Yes, still a little bit of gas, but not enough to keep you from going out in public. Hallelujah!

1) Soak the beans at least overnight, the longer the better. I always add a couple of tablespoons of baking soda, not a tip Michelle gave me but I read it somewhere a long time ago.

2) After soaking, pour off the soak water and rinse well. You can also change the soak water a time or two, but I haven't tried that yet.

3) Now cook the beans a long time, the longer the better. A crockpot works well, but I have also just simmered them in a kettle for hours with good results.

4) Here is the SECRET WEAPON: Bury a whole plain potato in the beans as they cook. Apparently the potato absorbs the carbohydrates from the beans that cause flatulence.

5) When the beans are done, carefully fish out the potato. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT eat the potato, unless you want to single handedly contribute to global warming through increased methane gas production.

That's it! Your secret weapon against the gassy bean is the lowly potato. If you have other secret weapons, I would love to hear them.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Grocery Savings

This is a brief summary of how I have been able to slash my grocery bill by more than half. I feed our family of 7-8, including four teenagers, for $200 every two weeks. I've done tons of reading and gleaned the best strategies for what will work for my family. I should say at the outset that we have a number of food sensitivities in our family. My daughter and I can't have gluten, and I do best with as few grains as possible. My daughter can't have cane sugar in any form. If we didn't have these restrictions, I am sure we could do even better.

1) Buy in bulk. Sometimes you can do better just waiting for sales, but other times it pays to buy in bulk. I never see brown rice, dry beans, wheat berries, etc, go on sale for less than bulk in my area, so I always buy them in bulk from Azure Standard. I usually spend about $100-150 per month there. They are a great source of bulk organic produce as well. I buy my organic apples, oranges, potatoes, and onions there for less than what I can usually find conventional produce at our local grocery store. BTW, when I say buy in bulk, I do NOT mean Sam's Club. There are a few things there that are a good deal, like the large cans of crushed tomatoes, but often I can beat them using loss leaders or Azure Standard. You have to know your prices. I don't have a price book written down, yet (hangs head in shame) but I have a good one in my head.

2) Make everything, and I do mean EVERYTHING from scratch. And not just things like cream soups and spaghetti sauce. I have started making home-made tortillas, peanut butter, yogurt, etc etc from scratch. With a little bit of family cooperation it doesn't take that much longer and the savings are significant. It is worthwhile to invest in appliances that make the job easier. Remember, the Proverbs woman had her servants. Mine are my appliances! The nice thing about making things from scratch is that you can make organic versions for less than the store bought non-organic versions. Eating organic as much as possible is important to us, but we would go broke in a hurry if we bought the many organic convenience foods available.

Because I am gluten intolerant, I have my 10 year old son bake our bread. I pay him a quarter a loaf. It is worth it to me not to get sick and he loves earning some money. His bread is really great too!

3) Meal plan from the pantry. I never used to meal plan, and I admit I don't really like to do it now. But my family loves to see that list posted on the fridge and anticipate the good meal they will have. Best of all, my older children will often pitch in and start supper when they know what is on the menu. But, rather than plan my meals and then go shopping, I just shop the sales and to restock my pantry, and I plan my meals from what is in my pantry and freezer. I should add that we are a meat-eating family. We eat meat every day. I buy the loss leaders and we also buy bulk meat from local producers.

4) Bulk Cook. I am a working mother of six homeschooled children. I defy you to find very many women who are busier than I am. Quite often, I used to feel sorry for myself, or just plain worn out, and that is when the frozen pizza and hot pockets would appear on the table. By always at least doubling what I am making, I always have a meal in the freezer that my children or husband can pull out and heat up. This is really my secret weapon! It is no more work to double a recipe than to cook one batch. Every once in awhile I do a big OAMC cooking session, but most often I do mini sessions every few weeks when I bring home a bunch of meat from the store. Even cooking six batches of chili is not much more work than cooking one.

5) Shop the sales, mostly the loss leaders. I don't do coupons because I rarely buy anything that comes in a box or a can. By mostly buying loss leaders and the lowest price produce each week, I can save more money than coupons, and the work they entail, ever would.

6) Quit using paper products. We use cloth in place of napkins, paper towels, and....yes....toilet paper. No, it is not gross. One queen sized flannel sheet, bought at the thrift store for $5, will take the place of toilet paper for at least a year.

7) Make your own cleaning and beauty products. So far I have made laundry soap, Dishwasher soap, and deodorant. Soon I will branch out to toothpaste and shampoo, as soon as we use up what we have. Again, it is much cheaper to make your own than to buy the organic versions, which is what we were doing before.

8) Learn to be satisfied with simple food. There are women out there who make a home-cooked breakfast and lunch as well as supper. More power to them, but I will probably never be that woman. My children are old enough to fix themselves eggs and toast or oatmeal and I tell them they need to be satisfied with that. There are people in this world who eat the same three or four foods day in and day out because that is all they have. We are blessed with such abundance in our nation. For lunch, there is nothing wrong with a peanut butter sandwich or leftovers.

9) Limit the goodies, as a continuation of #8. For most of the history of man, desserts and sweets were only consumed on feast days or special holidays. I don't get having an abundance of sweets and desserts available every day. You can go too far in the opposite direction, I realize. My mom limited our diets a great deal when I was growing up, and my brother and I went wild when we left home, and have battled weight problems because of it. But now I only make dessert once in awhile, and my children will bake cookies or a cake only once or twice a week as a snack. We use almond flour, which costs $4 a pound, so you can see why we limit it.

Future plans include having a garden and learning to dry food. That should make next winter's meals even nicer. I am also working on wasting less food and getting a better handle on what is in my freezer and pantry. I have lots of room for improvement there!

Monday, March 2, 2009

Our monthly bills.

To put things in perspective, it might be helpful to list what our basic monthly bills are, for a family of 8, including one in college. My husband's salary does meet these basic bills, with absolutely no wiggle room.
Mortgage: $800/month
Natural Gas: $77/month
Electricity: $87/month
Water: $40/month
Car Insurance: $68/month
Life Insurance: $88/month
Groceries: $440/month
Car expenses: $200/month
Music Lessons: $100/month
Giving: $160/month

Total: $2060/month

My husband's take home pay from his job is $2167 per month. You will notice there is nothing in that list about medical expenses, homeschooling, travel, etc. When I said, no wriggle room, I meant it! My husband also has other income which comes to about $400 per month. It arrives once a year and in the past we have just used it for Christmas or to pay off bills. We will have to be much more wise about its use from now on.

We do live in an area of the country where living expenses are pretty reasonable. But then salaries are also low.

What I am doing right now to save money.

We are trying to live on half of our income. We are not being completely successful as of yet, mostly because we don't have any savings to take care of unexpected expenses, but we have made a lot of headway. I like to read what others are doing to save money, so I thought I would list the basic things I am doing, and I will elaborate in future posts.

1) GROCERIES- This is the biggest area of savings. I have cut our grocery bill from about $500 every two weeks to $200 every two weeks, more than half. To do this, I am combining the many ideas I have gleaned from the web and my reading. I will post more on this later.

2) Phone and Internet-I consider the Internet to be pretty much a necessity, especially with homeschooling, so I searched until I found a way to cut the expense and still keep the internet. The answer was VOIP. We have not quite cut the landline but I expect to do so in the near future. Before, we had basic phone with a basic DSL service, and we used calling cards from (1.5 cents a minute). All this came to $65-$75 a month, depending on how much we called long distance. that is pretty cheap, but I wanted cheaper. What I found was cheaper and BETTER! We got higher speed wireless and bought a Magic Jack for our phone service. Now, for $150 in start-up costs, our internet with unlimited local and long distance calling is only $37 per month.

3) Hanging out all my laundry instead of using the dryer. The first few months this didn't look like it was going to save more than a few dollars. Then this last month our bill dropped by $25! I am going to guesstimate that our average savings will be...

3) Washing everything in cold water and keeping the thermostat on 60 degrees. I can only estimate what this is saving us. The month we started doing this, the cost of gas rose astronomically, but our bill stayed the same. Our bill is still $73 per month. So for fun let's say....

4) WATER- We are doing many things to save water. We bought a front load washer, which not only saves us water usage, it also prevents us from having to pump out our septic tank every 3 months like we were having to do. So the machine paid for itself in a year. We also installed all low-flow toilets. The old ones were broken and needed to be replaced anyway. The first month after my husband did these things, our water bill dropped from $6o per month, to $30 per month. It is back up to $40 now due to an increase in water. I have just started having everyone limit showers to 5 minutes. Too soon to know how much water that saves.

5) No paper products.....period. That's right, none.

6) I am making all my own beauty and health products and cleaning supplies. I don't know how much this is saving. Sometimes we bought this stuff with the groceries and sometimes separately. But it is helping me stay in my $200/biweekly grocery budget, so I will just leave it at that.

7) We cancelled our garbage service. We will recycle everything we can and haul the rest. If we keep our garbage below 150 lb every two weeks, it will be free.

8) We cancelled our paper delivery. Waaaaaaaaah. This has been the harderst and we may end up getting it again, when the credit cards are paid off.

Those are the basics. There are other things I would like to try. This summer we will be adding a garden. I would like to build some solar collectors and also do solar cooking. I know there are other ways to shave off a few dollars here and there and every bit helps. If you have any input, please share! As for now, the grand total is................drum roll..................

I bring home $880 every two weeks. This savings gets us almost halfway to me staying home. The other half can be mostly made up by being wiser in how we spend. I may not be able to quit work completely, but I can certainly see myself being able to go to registry (I am an RN) and working as needed. Even that would bring about a huge improvement in my state of mental health. Our biggest expense is housing. Our mortgage payment is $800/month. We have a really good interest rate so probably won't be able to jump on the refi bandwagon. I am hoping beloved will want to look for something less expensive. We have about $50-$60 thousand of equity in this house so could downsize a bit and get a much smaller mortgage.

Menu Planning Monday

First, a cause for celebration.....I have a SINK! And countertops! For the first time in a YEAR, I have a fully functional kitchen! YAY! I do have to be careful of the countertops for about a week, as they have to fully cure, but we can use them lightly, and, better yet, no more dishwashing in the bathtub!

I do have some details of painting etc to finish up this week, while my beloved is gone on a business trip, so the menu is going to be simple.

MONDAY: Pork roast and potatoes....this was supposed to be for yesterday while I was working but the family forgot to cook it. When I got up this morning, Sweetness was in the process of putting this in the crockpot! She is definitely my sweetness.

TUESDAY: Lasagna, per family's request. I have not made this in forever.

WEDNESDAY: Pasta with Peas (from the depression cooking lady on You-Tube)

THURSDAY: Chili and cornbread

FRIDAY: Pot roast with potatoes and carrots in the crockpot

SATURDAY: Spaghetti

SUNDAY: Life Group Sunday...we are having Breakfast for Supper and I think we are supposed to make pancakes.