Saturday, September 29, 2012

Coupon or not to coupon?

I've read articles about Coupon Queens; I've heard about TV shows that showcase extreme couponers. You probably have, too. So - do I use coupons? Should you?

The short answers are: occasionally, and maybe.

The thing about coupons is that they're trying to sell you something by making that something a little less expensive. The hope of the marketer is that once you've tried their product, you'll either like it well enough to buy it again (full price) or you'll recognize it and buy it out of habit. They probably don't care which.

I have a few problems with coupons. For example, I might find a coupon for, say, Cascade dishwashing powder. Swell, right? I mean, I use my dishwasher. According to my mother, I come darn near to violating the laws of physics or the universe or something with the kinds of things I run through my dishwasher. However, the store brand of detergent works just fine for me, and is less expensive than Cascade, even with the coupon. It's always tempting to use the coupon for the rush of getting something less expensively, so ALWAYS do the math!

As another example, let's say I want to serve potatoes for dinner. I might find a coupon for Betty Crocker Potatoes au Gratin, but I seriously doubt I'll find a coupon for a 10-pound bag of spuds. I can't even say that I "prefer" spuds... it would never enter my direst nightmares to use a simulated food-like substance like boxed potatoes. I shudder at the very thought. There's another coupon that's useless to me.

A corollary to the boxed potato example is that if the item is not something you'd buy and USE anyway, getting it with a coupon is no savings at all.

However, very rarely, I blunder across a coupon for something I actually want. Sometimes it's for an ingredient (chocolate chips, say) and other times it's for something like Milano cookies or Pepperidge Farm cheddar goldfish. Oh, how I love those fish! Then I'll dance for joy and use the coupon.

Best of all is when you can use a coupon for something that's on special at your local store - if I have a coupon for $1 off two packages of Milanos, and my store has them buy one, get one free... I'm golden! Also, some stores in certain places double the value of coupons. Around here, coupons under $1 are routinely doubled, and periodically the stores will have a few "double your $1 coupon" coupons in their weekly flyers. Those are really nice if you have a coupon for your favorite... whatever - toothpaste, cookie, other brand name treasure.

My final thought on this is this: it's almost ALWAYS less expensive to buy ingredients than to buy whatever products are offered on coupons. I'd rather buy chicken, broccoli, and cheese, and make my own chicken/broccoli alfredo than buy a frozen dinner with those ingredients. I'd rather buy flour, butter, and sugar, and make my own cookies than buy Keebler's cookies. The added benefit there is that I know that there is no high fructose corn syrup or hydrogenated fats in what my family and I are eating. Yes, actual cooking does require a modicum of planning, some time, and a very little bit of skill. It's so worth it! My mother always says that if you can read, you can cook. I'm inclined to believe her - but I'm understandably biased. But honestly, friends - it just ain't that hard to chuck a few things into my crock pot! Cooking is a life skill, and I encourage everyone to learn it and practice it.

Is anyone interested in recipes? I don't think of anything I make as especially fancy, but as I always tell guests, nobody starves in my house.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Sorry, the TV's off for the day (week, year)

As a kind of a follow-on to my last post, I want to add in another whole category "that to which I say no." That would be my television. If I had even a modicum of computer/YouTube savvy, I'd find a clip from the Harrison Ford/Julia Ormond remake of "Sabrina" and show you where Ford's character says, "No, I don't want to buy another network. There's never anything good on TV anyway!"

There are loads of reasons why I don't watch TV. In passing I'll mention a few: the interactions in many shows are demeaning and stereotypical; the fast-action, flashy cinematography is disorienting and implicated in neurological developmental damage, leading to shorter attention spans in children; the language is rude, crude, and nothing I want to listen to, nor have my children hear and think normal and acceptable.

The thrift-applicable reasons for shutting off the TV are the real focus of my thoughts here today, though.

First - the cable bill. Talk about a racket! I get only the very most basic cable, and that in a package that includes local phone service and cable modem access to the internet. It still runs almost $100 a month. When I inquired with my cable provider about adding two additional channels whose content I found acceptable, they told me that I couldn't pick them out a la carte, only in packages. I guess that enough people find that acceptable for them to get away with it! I told them to pound sand. I can't see paying another $30 a month to get two channels that I might watch once a month or so.

Second - the opportunity cost of the time. I am always appalled when I read statistics about how many hours the average household has the television on per day. How do folks get anything else done? Or... do they get anything else done? The hours I don't spend in front of the tube I spend reading, tending my livestock, working in the garden, knitting, cooking, baking, and enjoying the company of my children.

Third - and this applies especially to households with children - marketing. There aren't many things that I think I want. There aren't many things my children think they want. But I listen, and I hear other children wanting all manner of "stuff" - fast food, cheap plastic crap, new clothes (and by 'new clothes' I don't mean socks, underwear, and enough changes of clean clothes to get from laundry day to laundry day - I mean, poorly made, high "fashion," trendy garbage that pretends to be actual clothing) and other status symbols that are simply made-up "needs" that some marketing slob decided to push so that come huge corporation could make more money.

Fourth and finally - attitudes. This ties in with marketing, I suspect. I mean the kind of attitude that pretends that new stuff will make us happier/prettier/more desirable. I also mean the kind of attitude that demeans those who opt out of consumerism as somehow weird. I know my 7th grade daughter struggles a bit with this - she tells me that the more time she spends with other girls in the middle school, the more she feels that we are 'weird.' I do my best to explain to her that in 2012 terms, yes, we are weird. However, in the longer term, we are the normal ones, and her peers are the weird ones. I'm not sure how well she's absorbing that message, but one can only try.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Just Say No, Thank You

This adage applies in SO many ways!

"Would you like to supersize that?" - No, thank you.

"Would you prefer Stoli to the house brand?" - No, thank you.

"Look at my new widget! Don't you wish you had one just like it?" - No, thank you.

"But your car is three years old! Wouldn't you rather drive a new one?" - No, thank you.

"Will you be ordering dessert to go with your meal?" - No, thank you.

There are just too many different ways to benefit from this attitude. Part of the mindset is about gratitude - what I have is fine, thanks, and I don't want or need more or newer. Part is about choosing to consume less, whether of calories, or of prestige, or of resources. Part, too, is about saving money. Each of these examples offers an opportunity to be grateful for what we have, to be mindful about how we consume from our environment, and to be thrifty. Sounds like a winner to me!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Just a quickie today

I kind of feel like I'm reaching for low-hanging fruit here, but so be it.

I read recently, and no, I can't remember where, so I can't cite it, that in the US, we now spend more treating obesity than on food. EDIT: Great minds, apparently... Sharon Astyk wrote about this same topic today right here. I swear I didn't read her post until after this one was published.

With all that we understand about nutrition, health, the dangers of carrying excess weight, the health consequences of poor dietary choices, we are still increasingly increasing. Now, I know that much of this has to do with lack of access to healthy food, lack of education about food, lack of education with regard to meal planning and preparation. I get that. But for someone like me, there's really no excuse. So while I hope that those other factors can be ameliorated, and am doing my small part to make that happen, I'm addressing myself here to others like myself - we who know, yet do not act.

Eat more vegetables and fruit. If they're expensive, make room in your budget. Leave the potato chips or bottled water out of your grocery basket, and get some veggies. If you drink coffee, make it at home and carry it with you in an insulated mug, instead of stopping for coffee at a premium. Use the funds toward actual food.

Plan ahead. It's a pain in the posterior up front, but having a meal plan is SO liberating! If you can't force yourself to plan one, then just grab a blank calendar page, or a blank piece of scrap paper if you don't care about pretty, and keep track of what you have for dinner for a week or two or four. Once you get some idea of what you *have* made, it's much easier to plan what you *will* make. If there's take-out in there, because you were tired or short of time, planning ahead can rescue you from those emergencies. Furthermore, if you make dinner at home, YOU control what goes into it. If you eat take-out, you almost certainly get lots more calories and fat.  Plus it costs a lot more than cooking at home. Is time a challenge? Make friends with your crock pot. I know this sounds like a lot of work, but the relief of looking at the calendar at 6 AM and knowing what's for dinner is immeasurable. Sometimes it might mean chucking the fixings into the crock pot, but that's ok. It really doesn't take very long. (if it does, amend your recipe!) You have the bonus of being greeted by the scents of the food cooking as well - and that's supposed to increase your digestion... something about the smell causing your digestive juices to flow more abundantly. No, I can't remember where I read that, either. Good thing I'm not in grad school any longer!

In keeping with "plan ahead," make your time work for you. I've read over and over about how it's much more fuel efficient to do all your errand-running in one trip. It's also a LOT more time efficient. And, if you plan it right, you might even be able to plan your errands such that you can use your bike, or combine public transit with the shoe-leather express. By doing some of this kind of planning, you can free up funds (gas money), time (doing all your errands at once), and possibly even get some exercise in as well. You can re-direct the time and funds toward planning what you're going to eat - and the benefits snowball.

Now - so that you know that I have some cred in this regard, I'll share with you how I managed to keep my family fed decently while raising four children by myself and going to graduate school.

Every August and December, I dragged out a calendar, and planned meals for the entire semester. Once I finished the plans, I made a shopping list and bought everything I'd need (except for fresh produce and milk) and put it all in the freezer or pantry. I am absolutely positive that this planning enabled us to eat actual meals instead of cold cereal or sandwiches! Yes, it was kind of a nuisance. Yes, it was a pretty large expenditure up front (which could be mitigated by following weekly grocery store flyers and stocking up on staples when they're on sale). But it was totally worth it. The money I didn't spend on pizza or Chinese take-out more than made up for the initial outlay.

Monday, September 17, 2012

It's so obvious... but not always easy

After - I wasn't clever enough to take a 'before' picture

I had a mountain of firewood on my driveway that was too long to fit into the firebox of my cookstove. Not only had I paid for something I couldn't use, but it was blocking access to part of my yard, meaning I had to schlep stuff the long way around the house. That gets to be a nuisance when you're moving 500 pounds of animal feed, let me tell you. I didn't particularly want to have to hire someone to cut it down for me... I mean, I already paid for the wood once, right? It's not like I have spare cash floating around, alas. Plus, I don't have a chain saw, and I don't plan to obtain one. It's a safety thing for me. So - what to do?

Well, raise your hand if you've never heard that it's more blessed to give than to receive. I hope we all know that. However, if we're too stubborn/proud/short-sighted to ask for help, then how will the givers be able to experience that blessing? I had to get over this many years ago as an effectively single parent with four small children. Good thing - because it wasn't long before I was an actual single parent with four small children. I could not have managed daily life, much less graduate school, without the help of many, many friends. And though I often felt awkward about asking, to a one, everyone I asked for help said yes, and seemed glad to have been asked.

The cut-off ends all piled up
I asked for help with my woodpile. I put up a post on Facebook asking for some time from someone with a chain saw, and yesterday, someone came and cut it all to size for me. And, though I made a (really nice!) omelet for lunch afterward, he wouldn't accept anything else by way of thanks. Not even a jar of jam or a quart of applesauce. Wow.
Woodpile - many rows deep

The new wood is a different color

Now, this man is not anyone I had known before Facebook - he's a FB friend of the brother of a schoolmate of mine. And yet when I asked for help, he said yes. Think about what kind of answer YOU might receive if you ask for help!

The natural corollary to this is, of course, to be someone who says yes when others need help. After all, it's more blessed to give than to receive!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Brief thoughts on tying together the Livestock and Dinner posts

This occurred to me just now as I was sorting tomatoes for freezing; I'll cook and can them later when the weather is cooler.

As a body, Americans waste an appalling amount of food. Alas, food is wasted every step of the way. Crops rot in the field, due to weather, or insect damage, or disease, or just bad timing for harvest. Gleaning efforts in many places - including Amherst! - seek to recover some of the bounty lost in the field. Once harvested, potentially edible food is chucked for numerous reasons... it's the wrong color or shape, for example, and doesn't meet the 'standard' for saleability or further processing. I'm sure there are means of recovering this waste, but I am not familiar with them. Once food is shipped to stores, some items are bruised, or spoiled, or otherwise imperfect. Chuck! Some stores allow farmers to collect this 'waste' for livestock use (note: look into this!). Food is put out on display, and sometimes, is not bought in a timely manner. My local Stop & Shop will package up slightly post-mature produce at a discount for quick sale - I love buying bananas this way, as they're less expensive and ideal for banana bread/muffins. At some point, I suspect, more of this produce is tossed. While there are means each of us could take to redirect some of this loss, I want to focus on the food that actually comes into our homes, and how livestock can help us make use of every last bit.

I doubt that there's a single person among us who has never 'lost' something in the fridge or at the back of a cupboard, or had an infestation of pantry moths (SO disgusting) or ants. What do you do with the leftovers that nobody's going to eat? What do you do with a five pound bag of flour or oatmeal that's lousy with bugs?
Option 1: toss it in the garbage. Boo! Hiss!
Option 2: compost it. Better...
Option 3: take it out to the chickens (or rabbits, or goats) and let them consume it and turn it into meat, milk, eggs, and/or manure. I like this one best!

Although I'd love to tell you that I never, ever waste food, I'd be lying, and you know it.

I have pulled partial bags of frozen vegetables from my freezer and sighed because they're freezer-burned. I have forgotten bags of lettuce. I have faithfully kept leftovers from dinner and despaired when nobody wanted to eat them. So... I take them out to the hens and goats. They don't mind! It's awesome!

Then there's prep waste... for instance, I made spaghetti sauce on Monday. I cooked down a bunch of tomatoes and ran them through a Foley food mill (LOVE this tool, btw) and had only skins and seeds left over. Now, I could have tossed those, or composted them, but instead, I took them out to the hens. Yum, yum, yum, they cackled! There wasn't a speck left when I went back later. We celebrated a friend's birthday here this week, and after we'd gobbled up all the cake, there were still crumbs in the pan. Out it went, with whatever else needed to go out, and the chickens cleaned it up very nicely... made it much easier to wash, too. I cooked, juiced, and drained my grape crop a couple of weeks ago, and was left with skins and seeds. I hope I got all of the useful bits - I will be making jam soon! I took those out to the hens, and to my amazement, they just scoffed at them. The goats, however, thought they were fabulous.

This won't save the world, but it will reduce waste, reduce feed bills, and reduce the nagging guilt we all (should) have over our part in food waste. Considering the magnitude of my animal feed bills (I use about 1,000 pounds of layer pellets per month for JUST the hens... then there's rabbit and goat feed, too!) anything I can provide my girls that nourishes them and reduces both waste and cost is a HUGE plus.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Making dinner be also making lunch

Yes, that's a complicated title - grammatically dodgy, but work with me here, ok?

My daughter just started middle school (eek!). The first day of school, she brought home information from the cafeteria that detailed all the costs - regular school lunch ($2.50), french fries ($2.00, available only WITH a lunch), and a la carte items ranging from 80 cents to $1.50. Amanda was aghast when she realized that buying JUST lunch for 180 days of the school year would total up to $450. If one added in the fries and something off the cart, it could be as much as $990 a year, or almost $6,000 for all of middle and high school. As the saying goes, that starts to add up to real money!

Some families don't think anything of $5 or so a day for lunch. After all, that's less than most restaurant lunches would be, and many working folks eat out every day. However, since this blog is about thrift, I thought I'd share my response to the cost of school lunches.

My four children each have their particular tastes. Three love grilled cheese; one can't stand it. One likes ham and cheese sandwiches; the other three prefer peanut butter and jelly. Three love oven baked chicken; the fourth only likes it cold for lunch the next day. However, I've heard alleged that variety is the spice of life. Therefore, I try to keep sandwiches in reserve for times when there isn't anything I can warm and put in their thermoses for lunch.

That brings me to dinner menus. Now, I cheated... I handed a four-week calendar to my children and told THEM to fill it in. That way, they got to choose what they would have for dinner, and they took responsibility for planning ahead for leftovers of meals they particularly like to re-run in their lunchboxes.

What I ended up with is just what I wanted... a reusable dinner menu that provides building blocks for yummy lunches. You'll notice that there's a lot of pasta. I stock up when it's not too extortionate... I remember when my go-to price was 20 cents/pound - now it's advertised as 'on sale' at $1/pound! However, the store brand 3-pound box of both spaghetti and elbow noodles is $2.89. 1 1/2 pounds of pasta makes dinner for five plus 8-10 lunches. I have never tried to make up a lunch using leftover mashed potatoes, but I have used rice.

When I'm ready to put together lunches in the morning, I start by boiling a kettle of water. I have a whole bunch of one-cup-capacity thermoses I've picked up at yard sales and thrift stores over the years. I pre-heat the thermoses with the boiling water, so that the warm food goes into a warm container, and doesn't cool off immediately. I put whatever food I'm serving that day into a Pyrex measuring cup and warm it in the microwave. Then I use a canning funnel to fill the thermoses without making a mess of the rims. I put the lids on (the 'keeps closed' lid and the 'use as a bowl' lid) and then turn to the rest of the lunchbox. If there is pasta involved, I need a small Gladware or Tupperware container of parmesan cheese. I keep a stash of plastic cutlery that we've received at various times and that I've washed for re-use. I pour a drink into another insulated container, add some fruit and a sweet, and it's lunch. By the end of the school year, the sweet is often store-bought, but so far I'm trying to bake a couple of times a week so they can take homemade sweets. My younger two (10 and 9) have discovered the joys of scooping banana muffin batter into muffin cups, which is great for me, since that's my least favorite part of the baking!

Week 1:
Monday - roast chicken and mashed potatoes
Tuesday - beef burgundy, cooked in the crock pot, served with egg noodles
Wednesday - breakfast for dinner (scrambled eggs, homemade pancakes, bacon, fruit)
Thursday - rabbit with special sauce, cooked in the crock pot, served with rice
Friday - sandwiches
Saturday - oven baked chicken and mashed potatoes
Sunday - spaghetti

Week 2:
Monday - chicken pieces and summer squash pennies simmered in broth, served over noodles
Tuesday - meatloaf and mashed potatoes
Wednesday - children eat dinner at their father's
Thursday - chicken cooked in broth in the crock pot, served with rice
Fri/Sat/Sun - children are at their father's

Week 3:
Monday - beef burgundy, cooked in the crock pot, served with egg noodles
Tuesday - chicken pieces and summer squash pennies simmered in broth, served over noodles
Wednesday - spaghetti
Thursday - oven baked chicken with mashed potatoes
Friday - rabbit with special sauce, cooked in the crock pot, served with rice
Saturday -  chicken cooked in broth in the crock pot, served with rice
Sunday - spaghetti

Week 4:
Monday -  chicken pieces and summer squash pennies simmered in broth, served over noodles
Tuesday - corn chowder with bread
Wednesday - children eat dinner at their father's
Thursday - breakfast for dinner (scrambled eggs, homemade pancakes, bacon, fruit)
Fri/Sat/Sun - children are at their father's

Lunches: PB&J, or noodles with chicken broth/summer squash/bites of chicken, or bites of rabbit meat with sauce mixed with rice, or beef burgundy and gravy over egg noodles. Parmesan cheese, milk or water, diced cantaloupe or raisins, and a muffin.

Inexpensive and yummy! And no complaining about their lunches, because they chose them.

What do you like to make/take/serve for lunch?

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Livestock and gardens work together to multiply productivity

Lincoln is still weeping here!

Today I'm going to write for a while about livestock in addition to gardens. Having livestock adds immeasurably to the productivity of my little farm. We produce our own milk (dairy goats), meat (rabbits and chickens), and eggs (laying hens). From the gardens, we produce tomatoes, potatoes, green beans, broccoli, spinach, lettuce, kale, chard, cucumbers, and zucchini. We have perennial plantings of raspberries, peaches, apples, jerusalem artichokes (sometimes called sunchokes), grapes, and blueberries. How can these work together toward thrift?

First of all, think about the waste. The primary waste from the livestock is manure, and that feeds the garden soil, making for great growing conditions. Rabbit manure in particular is fantastic for the garden. It's a 'cold' manure, meaning it can be used in the garden immediately, without composting it first. So - no storage, no delay. I've also found over the past several years that rabbit manure is just amazing for retaining water in the garden. It acts almost like a sponge. This summer we have had long periods without any rain at all (not that I'm complaining... it was much worse other places!) and my gardens have done really, really well. There is one bed next to the driveway that doesn't have much rabbit manure yet, and it's the only bed I've had to water. And even so, I think I've watered it four times all summer. The manure from the barn is great, too, though I use it differently. It's hay and wood shaving bedding mixed with chicken and goat waste. I have used that mostly as a thick mulch, to keep weeds down, and to help reduce water loss from evaporation.

Next, consider the 'waste' from the gardens. Around here at least, the primary waste product is weeds. SO many weeds.... When I want to share some greens with the rabbits, I use two buckets - one for plants I can identify as safe for rabbits (pigweed, lambs' quarters, crab grass) and one for everything else. I did try just giving them everything I pulled out, but I noticed that a bunch of junior rabbits in growout looked bloated afterward, so now I am more selective. The rabbits each get a fistful of the weeds I know they can eat. The rest of the day's weedings I put in the pasture for the hens and the goats. For instance, I had dozens of volunteer cherry tomato plants this year. I've been working on getting them out of the way for weeks, it seems! When I dump those plants into the pasture, the hens come running, and the goats saunter along behind them. The hens gobble down the fruit, ripe or not, and then start on the leaves. The goats eat the leaves. Yes, I've read that nightshade-family plants can be bad, but in small quantities, my critters do fine. By the following day, all I have left are stems. As another example, I've had some mammoth lambs' quarters grow here. The goats ADORE them. If I want to give the goaties a real treat, I'll bring in some of those.

Combining livestock with gardens doesn't make for free anything, but it sure can reduce costs. I don't fertilize my gardens, and I almost never have to water them. I still buy feed for the animals, but every bite they eat from the waste from the gardens reduces the amount of purchased feed they need. It all helps! And the results are delicious, and in many ways much more satisfying than anything I could buy.