Saturday, May 7, 2011

frugal dream home

I have a vision, probably not possible between zoning laws and owners' associations, of my ideal home once my youngest is on her own. It certainly wouldn't be to most people's taste, but it would suit me perfectly.

I want a tiny bit of land, one that has not had the topsoil removed, about 50x50, completely fenced. Near the middle, I'd put a very small house, about 20x16, with a "screen porch" that connected it to a shed. The front yard would be just wide enough for a path and dwarf fruit trees, with a wide open path from the front gate where a scooter could be parked, etc. The back yard would be entirely in garden beds and paths, with a small central area, about 8x8, to sit and enjoy the garden.

The inside of the house would be simple but carefully designed. The bathroom (shower only) would be adjacent to the kitchen and share a single sink. The bed would be built-in with shelving at the bottom and storage underneath. The walls would be lined with built-in shelving and windows placed to catch the dominant summer breezes. The materials would be the most durable and lowest maintenance I could afford.

The yard would be more than enough to grow (intensively) all the fruits, vegetables, and herbs I wanted while being a manageable size, and I would never need to mow. There would be enough waste produce to keep a couple of hens for eggs if I really wanted them (tempting mostly because the taste of really fresh eggs is incredible). With such a small house, I could keep it spotless without devoting too much of my time to it.

This would be plenty of house for me. But sadly, this is virtually impossible to do in the US now. Banks, owners' associations, and property tax entities don't want truly minimal housing. Banks see them as too small to be worth their time. Owners' Associations see them as inviting in the "wrong" kind of people and pushing down property values. And the property taxes wouldn't be very high on them. And I admit that an entire neighborhood of homes like this would probably result in crime and run down homes, a problem for which I have no solution because any time you concentrate the poor in a single area, you're also concentrating the people with the most pressure to commit property crimes in that area as well.

I can't help hoping that someday, though, I'll find someone with a large piece of property near potential employment who'll give me a long-term (hard-to-revoke) lease so I can do exactly this.


Frugal living is mostly about attitude and creative thinking. Sometimes that creative thinking can defy traditional ways of thinking or doing things.

For instance, as those who are familiar with me already know, I'm a fulltime college student with my youngest who is also a college student living with me. We live in a rental as I expect to have to move again, either when I finish this degree or when I finish my graduate studies, and we looked for the cheapest, reasonably safe, rental we could find. The one we're in looks run down, but the landlady actually is very good about taking care of the important things quickly (and if you've never had the AC go out in 100+ weather in a home with no screens on the windows, then been told by the landlord that it wasn't an emergency, you'd know how to value important things over appearance).

There's one important drawback to this apartment---no washer connections. However, it came down to a matter of simple economics. The cheapest apartment with connections was at least $50 a month more than this one, and we'd still have had to buy a washer. Even if I stayed put for 6 years and bought the washer used for $150, that would have been an extra $75 a month, plus the water and electricity. Compare that to maybe $10 a month at the laundromat.

We do laundry once every two weeks, and wash out some things by hand. We added a heavy shower rod over the center of the tub and hang clothes to dry on hangers on it and on the regular rod. Underclothes are the obvious ones to wash out by hand, and in fact I'm told bras will last longer if you do. But sheets and pillowcases also are relatively easy to wash out by hand. I use a small dishpan, fill it about half way with hot soapy water and leave the sheet or pillowcases to soak for at least an hour then scrub and rinse. Wringing the water out is easy. I drape it over the extra shower rod then twist it until I can't twist any further. Don't do that with stretchy fabrics, though.

These are tiny savings, obviously, but if we didn't, we would have to do laundry every week because we wouldn't have enough room to dry everything. And it's a lot less work than most people assume. If you have a place for a clothes line, this is much easier. A clothes line is the ultimate "solar" powered appliance too. If you use a safe biodegradeable soap, you can use the rinse water on flower beds and possibly even certain vegetables, saving money and conserving water.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

de-cluttering and the frugal person

Decluttering is something that often come with difficulty to a frugal person. We tend to want to hold on to everything because we might find a use for it.

However, remember that holding onto something, unused, until it's unusable is not thrift. It's waste. So, if you have a coat that you really know you'll never wear again because it doesn't fit or you hate the color or it's too out of fashion, find it a home. You might be able to sell it, but unless you really can expect to make some money out of it, it's probably faster and less hassle to donate it. Plan regular days to do some decluttering, whether it's a once or twice a year big cleaning, or one evening a month to clean out a closet or cabinet. 

Any clothes you haven't worn in a year probably should go. The exceptions might be specialized items like maternity clothes that you expect to wear again and possibly something you particularly love that's JUST half a size too small. I actually have about half a dozen suit jackets in a storage tub because I don't need them for work right now. But eventually I probably will, and at the least, they'll keep me going while I slowly replace them (avoiding the major expense of buying an entire new wardrobe at once).

Any small appliances that you haven't used in 6 months probably can go as well. A lot depends on the item. A small hand mixer might be worth holding onto if you use it once a year for a lot of holiday baking. A special hand drink mixer that you can only use to make a few drinks that you don't even like that much is probably a dust collector. The same with pots and pans.

And make sure to clean out the pantry too. Check for expiration dates, even on your staples, and use the oldest items first. Any time there's a food drive, check for foods that are close to their date, and give away the ones you know you won't use in time. For me, this is the "feel good" side of my bulk buying. If I overestimate, it will go to feed someone worse off than I am, while still staying within my budget. And I rather like donating food since I know what it will be used for.

Be realistic. Yes, you probably loved that copy of Masters of Orion I. But you haven't had a 3 1/2 floppy drive in 6 years and even if you did, it would never run on your current system. VHS tapes. Rolls of film that are way past their expiration, for cameras you no longer own. Cameras that you no longer use because you have and use a digital. Fabric that's been waiting over 10 years for you to turn into that lovely quilt (find it a home before it dry rots). Yarn you meant to use for learning to knit, in a color that you'll never use with anything in your home.

Remember, it isn't thrift if it goes to waste.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Work ethics

This is a little rambling, but I was thinking about it today. You hear a lot of people talk about "work ethics" in American culture. I'm sometimes amused at just who does the talking because it's often someone that I've witnessed doing questionable things themselves but that person objects when anyone is given any flexibility or eliminates meaningless work.

Many years ago I worked with three people, all of whom would make the "work ethics" complaint. The senior person of the group usually spent several hours a day at work doing work for the professional organization she belonged to outside of work, and a lot of the rest of her time in conversation (usually complaining) with people. Another spent a lot of time in gossip, taking personal phone calls, and doing things for a second job. The third was one of the bitterest people I've ever known (unfortunately the one I shared an office with) who was furious that I'd been hired in over her as she had a degree and I did not. But the truth is, I had the experience and skills for the job. Her degree had nothing to do the job she was in, and while she spent more work time on work than the other two, she was incredibly inefficient, barely competent, and, mostly due to bigotry, lacked the ability to work well with the people we were supposed to be helping.

I generally did more work in a couple of hours than they did all day and always had my work done. This aggravated these co-workers who felt if I had time free, I obviously had an unfairly light work load and should take over some of their work. Initially, I did let them push some of their work onto me until I saw how they were really spending their time. Rather than letting it erode my own work ethic and rather than enabling them to do even less work, I asked for and got special projects, several of which got recognition that they resented.

These three talked constantly about work ethics, which I find far more amusing now that I've been free of that poisonous atmosphere for years than I did then. Most of the people we provided work for were not really aware of how little time they actually spent in productive work, but the original manager did know how much work I was doing, and so to an extent, shielded me from the poison. When he was replaced, I made plans to move on, and did.

I am, to this day, baffled at people who not only do as little work as they can get away with, but then complain that those who do work aren't taking up some of the work they aren't doing. But it seems to be as common as dirt, and one of the main things most people seem to get out of their education: figuring out JUST how much they have to do to be acceptable and doing only that much. It's a sad side-effect of a culture in which children learn early on who is likely to make it into that tiny percentage who are "good enough" and even those kids quickly learn that for some of them, no achievement will overcome their disadvantages.

Sadly, it's not the person who does the most or best work who is rewarded financially much of the time. I know too many brilliant, hard-working people who've seen others hired in over them who are completely incompetent, but have "connections" and end up doing all the work for this person (and get none of the credit or reward), a lingering remnant of the 19th century (and earlier). I've also found that the people with poor work ethics are usually the ones who want everyone treated exactly the same: no flexibility in work schedules, promotions on a set "schedule", etc.

However, don't let things like this erode your work ethic. A good work ethic really is valuable, and eventually an employer will recognize and value it. Employers who fail to value high quality and quantity of work should have to suffer the consequences of those values, frankly, and deserve little or no loyalty. If an employer has a high turnover, there's probably a good reason, where an employer with a low turnover probably values and rewards real work. More, your work ethic usually carries over to your money ethics as well. Someone who is honest in one is almost always honest in the other. It's a matter of respect. More, someone with a good work ethic is generally willing to do the things necessary to keep expenses within the income (barring major emergencies).

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Naming names

You may have noticed by now that I don't generally name specific brands or stores. There are several reasons for this but most of them come down to the idea that I don't think it's going to be generally relevant to most people. There are stores and brands I won't use for reasons that have nothing, directly, to do with frugality. And my local prices may be completely irrelevant to yours. I may occasionally name one for special reasons of quality, though.

One area that I may occasionally make a comment about is a particularly good or bad experience with a store or brand, and I won't name one for a bad experience unless I've given them the opportunity to correct the problem (and I'll try to include their response here).

So, today, I'm going to name one as an example of amazingly good response to a complaint. At the beginning of February, we had a day with a combination of time sinks (i.e. extreme cold weather, exams, papers, and exhaustion), and we decided to call for pizza, something we only do a couple of times a year. Because of my digestive problems, the only one in town that makes pizza I feel safe eating is Blue Baker. They're pricey, but they make particularly delicious white pizza.

I called and was told they were fairly busy so it should take 45 minutes to an hour. Around 65 minutes later, I called to check on it, in case the driver was having trouble locating us (very common). I was assured that they were just running a little slow, and 10 minutes later we got a call from the driver saying he had just reached our street, and we guided him in and got the pizza. We opened the box and discovered it was completely cold.

I didn't really care that much about the slow delivery. Things happen, and I'd rather the driver be late than in an accident. But the fact that we'd paid a high price for cold pizza bothered me, so I sent a polite e-mail to the company about it. I had a response from the local manager within HOURS, apologizing, telling me that they would look into what happened that it arrived so late and cold, and asking for my address and order total.

Within hours of responding with that information, I had another e-mail, and within a couple of days, I had what appeared to be a hand written card with another apology , a check refunding my pizza total, and two coupons for free items in the hope I'd consider giving them another try.

I find this remarkable, almost stunning, customer response. No excuses, no waffling, and far more than I'd expected. It's not as if we were regular customers either; their computer records had to show that we'd only had pizza delivered 2 or 3 times in a year and a half. And yes, we have since used one of the coupons plus the refunded price of the pizza to buy pizza from them again. Delivered hot and delicious and much faster, and it pretty much ensures that if we do call for pizza, it will be from there. My one hope is that no one got into serious trouble over the late, cold delivery that night; after all, things happen.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Odd thoughts on college

As I've mentioned, I'm a full-time college student at the moment. So if my posts are a bit disjointed or late for the next couple of weeks, I apologize. But finals come first.

I find it interesting to look at college through a frugal older person's eyes. Each of my university courses costs between $850-$1100, around $23 per hour of class time. If I value what's being taught THAT much, why would I miss a single class unless I had no choice? (And in fact, I have not missed one in the two years I've been going.) Yet there are a lot of students who miss at least half of their classes, at least if it isn't in their major. 

At the same time, I've been a bit baffled when professors have chuckled when I pointed out an error in scoring on a test and told me that my grades were so high, it didn't really matter, did it? Interestingly, the ones who've said that have been the same ones who've talked about the US as based on equality of opportunity and rewarding excellence. Grades are a kind of merit pay for students' work, and isn't telling someone their grades are high enough the same as telling someone they make enough?

As we head into finals, many of my classmates are scrambling as they realize that they've skipped or done poorly on important assignments or tests, studying frantically for the final in order to (they hope) pull up their averages by a letter grade. One professor commented this week, just after the third deadline passed to submit the single essay required for the course, "Some of you chose not to submit an essay, a controversial but valid choice. At least it pushes up the grades for the rest of the class." By the way, this professor got well-deserved applause at the end of his last lecture, to a lower-level class mostly of non-majors, the ONLY time I've seen a professor applauded spontaneously in two years.

In another class, the professor commented that some people, who'd gotten high scores on the assignments (not difficult but worth 55% of the grade) and well above the class average on the exams didn't need to do much more than show up for the final. But other people had failed to do some assignments entirely and done poorly on the exams hadn't paid attention to the fact that the final is only 15% of the grade.

I like being in the first category. I've had any number of students who vocally wondered why I studied so much and worked so hard early in the semester, even for trivial assignments. That's because I like going into finals without pressure on me, knowing that showing up for the final ensures me at least a B. And I take advantage of most extra credit opportunities even when I clearly don't need them. I described it to one amused professor as emergency savings just in case something happens.

Which goes back to my comparison between pay and grades. (I should note, btw, that I don't think grades necessarily reflect who knows the subject best, but they do reflect who was willing to do the work, which is why I like to compare grades and pay.) There are people who spend less than they make and save up for rainy days. And there are people who spend money they don't have and wildly juggle things to stay afloat or scramble to fix things. Students seem to be like that. You have the ones who work hard and "save" a cushion. And you have those who"get by" with only as much work as required, and sometimes, it turns out, less.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Growing potatoes

An idea for those who want fresh produce without digging a garden bed, especially if you have lots of leaves or hay to put to use. This also can get very high production for the space needed.

Grow potatoes in a barrel or (clean) garbage can. I haven't done this myself, but I have known people who did. Put a few inches of soil and compost at the bottom of a barrel with a few drainage holes. Put in 3 or 4 seed potatoes (get real seed potatoes; this won't work with potatoes from the store which are treated to discourage sprouting). Cover them with several inches of hay, straw, or leaves (mix leaves with compost, sawdust, hay, or straw) and water well. Water every two or three days (enough to wet things down without waterlogging it). When shoots start pushing up through the mulch, add several more inches and wet it down. Keep repeating this. When the plants get close to the top of the barrel, just make sure it gets water. After 3 to 4 months when the leaves start turning yellow, "harvest" by dumping the barrel over and shaking the mulch away from the potatoes. It can be a good idea to do this near a compost pile or garden bed because the "bedding" material from around the potatoes can be added to the compost or used as mulch now. I've heard of people getting 50 pounds or more of potatoes from a single barrel, but I don't know if that's exaggerated or not. 

Just to repeat one warning: don't try to use potatoes from the store even if they sprout (unless you've bought them from a really good organic store). Even if they sprout, they rarely survive. At least the first year, buy real seed potatoes (and learn how to store properly if you want to save your own seed potatoes). Cut them into pieces with at least two eyes per piece and allow to dry for a day or two before you plant them. And while you want them to stay moist, potato plants will rot if they get too much water. This is a good opportunity to try some of the non-Irish potato varieties that tend to be pricey if they're even in the store.

The plant needs some sun once it's over the top of the barrel, but keep in mind you don't want the potatoes to cook in the barrel either if you live in a hot climate. Warm climate gardening can call for planting at different times of the year from other areas, and you may also want to place the barrel to get shade during the afternoon or partial shade most of the day.