Friday, August 28, 2009

Re-thinking the Revamp

G and the kids have been away for the week, but I can't say I have had much time for thinking, as this was one of my busiest weeks of the year at work. Still, tonight I took some time for myself (though I really didn't have the time), and I got to thinking about this blog.

I am not sure that I ever had a sense of what I wanted to do with my blog, but it may be that it has simply run its course.

When I first started writing, I knew that I didn't have enough of a focus to ever really get a readership beyond a small circle of family and friends. The blog was simply an outlet. Many times it has served as an emotional release, like a journal but with the comments of loved ones to periodically cheer me on. At times it was a release for my generative energy, an opportunity to express myself creatively through writing. And of course, on plenty of occassions it has also been my soapbox.

It allowed me to at least begin to speak out when I felt particularly disturbed by the things being said by an anti-adoption advocate who hangs out on one of my parenting discussion boards. It allowed me to speak about neurodiversity as I discovered the joy in celebrating how my brain, and my son's brain, are wired.

I could tell myself that it is a good way to keep in touch with my family and friends, but it would be narricistic to believe that to be the case. I don't post photos of my kids, and I always feel when I post their cute stories that I ought to be writing about something else, something more interesting to the "masses" and less in violation of the children's privacy of development.

The truth is that one of my best friends in the whole wide world called me some time ago and I had difficulty calling her back because of the time difference (NEVER underestimate the problems with time difference from coast to coast...I feel very isolated from old friends here), so I posted to her here instead. She had asked for an update, of course, so I am forgiving myself at least of that, but I didn't reach back out when I should have...thinking my post would suffice for the time. Many months later I learned of her brand, spanking new divorce. I am not sure how to process that, but I know that I have become overly reliant on this vehicle of communication with friends who deserve more of a two-way.

For a couple of years I have written on this blog without the slightest attention to the notion of attracting a "readership." I've been thankful for those of you who have accompanied me on parts of my life's journey through the blog, and have enjoyed reading your blogs in turn. But a few weeks ago I finally caved to the curiosity and went to Google Analytics to find out more about who was reading my blog, and I realized that it was actually mostly me.

Since this last spring, I have been working on strengthening a marriage that had gotten a little stretched at the seams and whose contents had shifted inside the package despite the fact that I wanted everything to stay put all neat and tidy the way I had arranged it. G and I are doing much better. In fact, we may be stronger than ever, but dealing with that meant I also had to begin to face some of my demons. In a major way. Demons I knew I had, and demons I didn't know existed. I am still facing off with them. And now I am considering seminary, and my world is simply changed. Things I thought I knew to be true no longer seem to be true. Things I thought not to be true have become real.

What I need to do now is to practice deep listening. I need to be fully and completely present in hearing others. I need to open my heart to learn, and I need to pay attention.

Something tells me that the months to come will require me to be still. To be disciplined. To be focused. And to rediscover that I can be a friend.

So I think this will be it. I think I am done.

I may start a new blog, or revamp this blog down the line. Of course I have ideas. I always have ideas. Topics of focus. Styles of writing to practice. Formats. But it's not a time for decisions right now.

If you are a UU reader or otherwise religious person who wants to continue to hear what I am doing in my vocational life, you will be able to find me this year at But it's not really a blog as much as it is an online newsletter.

Merry meet, merry part, and merry meet again!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Post on Spanking...and Worsening Neurological Symptoms or Simply Inattention?

Two things. First, I have written a long post about spanking and "the mainstream." As in, cultural shifts in the way we think about spanking...which as far as I am concerned is a vile practice. I had plans to follow that post with another about the flip-side of increasing societal intolerance for spanking, which is that I think struggling parents have difficulty finding help when they need it most. I would love to expand on that for you.

But then I re-read my post and also re-read this post over at Anti-Racist Parent and listened to this podcast and realized I needed to do some additional reflection on what constitutes "mainstream." So, my thoughts on spanking will have to wait. Meanwhile, I am thinking that is likely a positive development, as I recently decided that I would make a far greater effort to write shorter pieces. I wouldn't have achieved that with my spanking post, but perhaps with some time and thought it can be shortened.

In other news, I have been experiencing a disturbing neurological development this evening. It has to do with task planning and task completion. It looks something like this:

I think: I want to go find some Julia Child clips on Youtube.

I type:

No, no, that's not right.

What? Youtube. Youtube. Not Yahoo. Youtube.

Finally I end up at Youtube website, staring at a blank screen, uncertain for several moments of why I was there. Ah, yes, Julia Child...

Anyway, spooky, huh? It has occurred three or four times this evening, including in preparing myself some dinner. The family is staying with MIL for the week, as a last "hoorah" of summer, so I am here at home by myself. I go to the kitchen and decide to make myself potato salad. Put some potatoes in a pot to boil, return to computer. A half hour later I think, "I am hungry," so I return to the kitchen, go to the fridge, and get out some leftover pasta. It is only upon taking the pasta to the counter to put it on a plate that I see the pot boiling away on the stove and remember what I had started out to do.

Am I being particularly absent-minded this evening, without the wife and kids here to keep me grounded on the planet, or am I experiencing a worsening of symptoms?

I want answers, damnit! I am so tired of hope for a diagnosis followed by things like, "Oh, your abnormal EEG was actually a normal abnormal variation." What on earth does that even mean?! For f*cks sake!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Reminders for Staying Cool

(pictured in a photo with mild color saturation and tinting is my sweaty son M, working to stay cool while still having fun outside...yea, my camera seems to be working for now!)

It's hot where I am. Is it hot where you are? If so, I have some reminders for you. It's all common sense stuff that we all do, but its so easy to forget to do basic things like keep hydrated...which at best leads to headaches and stuff, and at worse, can make us sick.

Your Home

Have all your windows and shades/blinds/curtains open at night, and close them early in the morning. You can open them back up when that area is shaded for the afternoon, or once night falls.

If the hot air is already starting to come in when you go to close the windows in the morning, or if it is particularly stuffy or humid and you have some shade, close the shades/blinds/curtains but not the actual windows.

Thick blankets can also do the trick if you don't have shades/blinds/curtains or if they are too thin to make a difference.

Avoid opening and closing doors.

Don't use any electrical appliances during the day. Don't run a dishwasher, put in a load of laundry, or vacuum. Wait until night to cook, if you can't limit your foods to cold foods only. To the extent possible, keep computers turned off.

If you have fans and can afford to run them, run them constantly rather than turning them on and off. Place fans near open windows during the cooler hours of the day, so they draw in cooler air from outside.

When you have a window open, whenever possible open a window on the opposite side of the room for cross ventilation.

Keep all lights turned off during the day.

Shut doors to rooms you won't be using (such as bedrooms), if they tend to be hot rooms. Consider relocating your activies, including sleep, to your coolest rooms. Leave doors to cool rooms open.

Your Body

Drink TONS of water. Whether you realize it or not, you are losing a lot of water in this weather...way more than is obvious. If you don't like water, try adding a little lemon juice or something.

Cold water feels great in hot weather, but water that is closer to our body temp may keep us cooler for longer.

Limit any drinks besides water. They'll make you think your thirst is satiated, but they won't hydrate you as effectively. Do not drink caffeinated drinks at all if you can avoid it.

Do low-key activities during the day. Wait for the evening to do higher gear activities. Limit your time heading out of your house to the evening, or spend some of the day in air conditioned buildings such as a library (but remember that once you're cool in there, your home is going to feel much hoter!).

Consider getting cool with a cool shower or cold pool or sprinkler...the warmer the water, the sooner your body will heat up again. Consider getting yourself as cold as you can...and stay wet for as long as you can rather than drying off right away.

Carry some folded heavy paper or anything with which to fan yourself...with or without also carrying a spray bottle of water. Or get one of those personal fans, with or without a spritzer.

Minimize clothes. ;-)

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Question About Re-Vamping My Blog

Is there a way to put aside old posts, in a folder or something, so they are still accessible to folks doing a search or whatever...but they don't get in the way of a new style?

Friday, August 14, 2009

Home Economics 101: A Month On $40 For Family of Four Part III

This part could also be subtitled: Shopping

Alright, now in terms of shopping, in addition to the few tips I snuck into the last part of this series, here are the only other suggestions I have:

  • Don't spend any time in stores. None. Avoid stores like the plague. Especially non-grocery stores. Go when you have to, get what you are there for, and get out. Don't go to Target or any similar department stores, and certainly don't bring "plastic" with you (INCLUDING debit cards).

  • Shop with a list and pay in cash. Seriously, I thought that we had an incredibly tight from-scratch budget before, with few expendables, but I still saved myself a little money switching to cash.

  • Don't bring the kids with you when shopping. If you must bring kids, go at their cheeriest time of day when you are both well fed.

  • If you do bring the kids, and they ask for something off the list, don't say "we can't afford that" (a mistake I made until recently). Instead, per the suggestion of the author of Debt Proof Your Kids, say, "we don't choose to spend our money that way." Otherwise, they associate their situation with deprivation, and thus money with happiness. This will make them hungry to acquire. When the kids want something, now we talk about choices. I've learned this also helps me stay accountable for my choices, and highlights for me any area in which I am making choices that aren't consistent with my intentions, limits, desires, or values!

  • And if you have to bring the kids, put the kids in charge of cash. I've started shopping with $1 bills and quarters. For each item, I now count out each dollar and quarter from my purse (where it is stored in envelopes) and my kids put it in a gallon-size Ziploc to keep track of the money we spent. Aside from being a good math and economics lesson, this keeps the kids busy while we are shopping, helps them understand the choices we make and why we make them, and helps me keep myself accountable.

  • Shop for what you have! I know that sounds strange. I don't mean that you should buy what you already have, but rather you should shop for things to go along with what you have. When most folks sit down to make a grocery list, they decide first what they want to eat. *Then* they look at what they have, and write down anything that is missing. You can't afford to do that. Assuming you are going no more than thirty days on $40, even if you put every cent into food and NOTHING else, that gives you about $1.33 per day. If your family eats only three meals, that's about 44 cents per meal. For most of us, snacking is critical to good health, so you can put away at least ten or twenty cents per meal to go into other food costs. That gives you no more than 34 cents per meal, generously. That's around 8.5 cents per person in a family of four. Put another way, in 30 days, you need to plan for around 90 meals (360 individual meal-servings for a family of four) plus snacks. Even with all your money going toward food, you clearly can't get by unless you make full use of whatever you can scrounge from your cupboards and fridge. So look at what you have, and think "how can I make this stretch the farthest?"

  • Even though you should shop for what you already have, you should also try to use what you have first. Let's say you went to the food bank and they gave you a can of peaches. There are a few ways to make use of it. You could open up that can and have it for snack one day with your kids. Chances are, that snack isn't going to be satisfying on its own, so you'll probably have something else with it. So you've used the peaches, and something else, and then the whole thing is gone and all you've had is a snack. Alternatively, you could also set out to shop for what you have. But be careful if you do because it would be easy to start thinking that you've got to build a whole meal around peaches. If you are building your meal around peaches, rather than a more bulky item, chances are it will be more expensive. As a third alternative, you could pair it with something more bulky that you have on hand (and I do pray you have something on hand), such as rice. So maybe you have a rice stir-fry with veggies and (grilled?) peaches. Even if you had to buy a veggie to add to it, you'd still have avoided the expensive danger of starting to think of building a meal in terms of its least bulky item.

  • If at all possible, use your money during the month for produce only. As I've said, one of my ground rules involves eating a balanced diet. Try to put aside a few dollars each week-- or whatever you can afford-- for something fresh to add to your stock. Fresh produce runs out quickly when there is no money to spend, and unfortunately, it is unavailable at most food banks. It's the kind of thing you have to plan to replenish weekly.

  • Assuming you have some form of transportation, if you have had money in the past, your regular grocery store may be out of your budget. For one thing, just because a store is big (a big box store that has groceries, for example), doesn't mean it is the cheapest. If you can, when you are out and about, check out alternative stores. Look for stores that aren't as "pretty" or well-maintained. If a store isn't putting money into its image, it probably has a smaller profit margin. Avoid stores in middle or upper class areas of town. Obviously, stores can get away with charging more if they know the folks shopping there have the money. Look for stores that very prominently advertise acceptance of food stamps.

  • That said, a store that carries more groceries is usually (not always, but usually) a cheaper source of groceries than say, a corner store or a store that carries only a select few grocery items. No matter how run down your corner store is, it isn't ideal usually to plan to get your milk there.

  • Often, you can get certain things at a low cost in one store, but other things at a lower cost in another store. It can be tempting to "store hop" and shop at two or more stores for the best deal...if you have the transportation. If you are going to do this, do it in a planned and very strategic manner. Avoid taking unnecessary trips. Combine trips whenever possible. If you drive a car, think about gas. If you are in a car that gets 20 miles per one gallon and gas is about $2.60 per gallon, you are looking at a 13 cent expenditure per mile. That doesn't seem like a lot, but when you have only $40, remember that this is more than what you have per person for each meal. Going five miles will cost you 65 cents. I am assuming that you are not buying more than $10 of food on this grocery shopping trip. After all, that is a weekly allowance if you have managed to spend ALL your money on food. So when you go to that store that is 2.5 miles out of the way (5 miles roundtrip), you likely have no more than $9.35 to spend. If you only save 10 cents on tomatoes, it isn't worth it. This is also the case if you are taking the bus-- assuming that you pay for it-- only moreso, as even with a bus pass, you've likely spent way more than a $1 per day on bus fare.

  • Speaking of store hopping, if you have a dollar store near you and you haven't been there in a while, don't forget to re-acquaint yourself. Some things are a rip off at the dollar store. If you really compare prices, you will find that the dollar store is relying on your not knowing what things cost at the regular grocery store. Or they are selling smaller packages so that the price for the amount you get is as high if not higher than in a regular store. Be especially cautious with groceries at the dollar store, and anything sold in packages of one. That said, there may be household necessities that you can get for a great bargain. Or things that you can't afford in the amounts sold at the regular store. Sometimes in a $40 month, you can get enough toilet paper or toothpaste to sustain you, simply by shopping at the dollar store.

  • In a previous post, I mentioned sharing the benefits of a membership warehouse with someone else. Let me talk about a one-time type manifestation of that. On a $40 month, you can't afford to go to a membership warehouse even if you have a membership. Everything there is going to cost $6 or more because it is in large quantities. You won't get pasta for under $10 for example, even if you do end up with enough pasta to last months. However, if you know someone who is shopping at such a warehouse and you are comfortable enough to share your struggles, you might ask if they would let you buy a small amount of their groceries off of them. This way, you can benefit from the bulk rate without paying the initial cost of buying bulk. Sometimes this will pay off, and sometimes it won't. For example, let's say they purchased $10 of enriched pasta and there were ten boxes in their package. That works out to about $1 per box, which is roughly the cost of a package of pasta at the grocery store. The only benefit to them is that they've stocked up. It isn't a financial advantage to anyone. However, if they bought whole wheat pasta for $10 and got 10 boxes, that definitely is less than the cost of whole wheat pasta if you buy one box at a grocery store. If you can afford to give them a dollar for a box of pasta, it would be a financial benefit to you. However, do consider how far you can take one box of pasta for your family (consider ways to bulk it up and use less pasta per meal). It may or may not be something you can afford on a $40 month.

  • Whatever amount of money you have, whether it is exactly $40 or it is $52.33 or whatever, think in terms of percentage. $2 is five percent of what you have for the whole month. $4 is a whole ten percent. When you are spending money, think in terms of that percentage as you try to navigate priorities.

  • It bears repeating one more time: cash, CASH, and ONLY CASH. No debit cards. Too easy to "bounce" your account on accident. With cash in hand, you know you have the money. No credit cards. They will dig you deeper into your hole. You CAN survive. You can even thrive. You CAN.
  • Wednesday, August 12, 2009

    Meeting With the Assistant Director of Admissions at Harvard Divinity School

    Somewhat spontaneously (as in, I was thinking I'd do it closer to fall...but my questions were building too rapidly), I called and set up a time for an "informational meeting" with an Assistant Director of Admissions at HDS. I am going TOMORROW!

    While this is an "informational meeting," and is likely to have 3-5 other students in attendance, it is also listed on the admissions page under the question "does Harvard Divinity School require an interview as a part of the admissions process?" The answer is basically "no, but we encourage you to come in for a small group informational meeting with an Assistant Director of Admissions."

    So, nerves time. I'd like to know how to make the best of this opportunity. Any suggestions?

    Should I bring my transcripts and specific questions? Should I try to present like I would at a job interview?

    Tuesday, August 11, 2009

    Re-Vamp My Blog?

    I am thinking I may revamp my blog shortly. Different format, possibly more refined topics, and more graphics.

    What do you like reading on my blog?

    Friday, August 7, 2009

    Another Ah-F**k!

    Pause from my especially long-winded, possibly ridiculous home economics 101 posts.

    I had another "ah-f**k!" moment related to my divinity school application. Harvard has updated its admissions page. It now lists the application deadline as January 11th. That's good. Now I know.

    The problem? It also lists the GRE as a requirement for the application. It previously specified that it was required only for some of the programs, but not for the M.Div. Not sure if that was an error, or if the requirement has actually changed since last year, but I specifically noted the absence of the requirement a few months ago because it seemed odd that it wasn't.

    So there you are. It was odd, and the situation is now remedied...for Harvard, that is. For ME, it introduces a total moment of F**k! F**k! F**k!

    Besides the obvious:

    1. I was already behind in my schedule to complete the application materials. I am really struggling...REALLY struggling with my personal statement, and I haven't even begun my other essays let alone other components of the application. Heck, I don't have all my transcripts.

    If this was the only thing I had to worry about that would be one thing, but I am also behind in a major way at work. I don't think I've ever been this behind in August, and I'm really not sure I can pull the fall off. I am scared. I don't have time-- AT ALL -- to add studying for the GRE to my plate. Not at all.

    2. I have incredibly big-time test-taking anxiety. In fact, despite my 4.0/4.0 record in college, I actually took an alternative route into college (starting first as a "guest student") partly because I had avoided the SATs at all costs after taking and doing poorly on my PSATs. I can handle tests, somewhat, in an academic setting when something like entry into a school isn't hanging in the balance, but an admissions test. No, no, no!! I can't deal.

    3. I don't know if I can just take the general GRE or if I have to take one of the specific ones. The list doesn't say, and even THAT stresses me out. But on top of that, just the general GRE costs a whopping $150! To take it one freakin' time! I can't even afford the reduced test fee of $75. Heck, I am going to have to save my pennies to just submit my applications to the two schools at which I am applying.

    4. I already worried that my application was weak on demonstrating my academic strengths. I only took two graduate level courses during my time as an undergraduate. I was not well-rounded in my studies (or my extracurricular activities). I took more 100 or 200 level classes than I remembered taking. I attended two community colleges and a total of four schools (I wish I could just explain on my application what a difference that made for me financially). All my math and science classes were at community college...not that this is a big thing for seminary, but it shows I wasn't challenging myself as fully as I otherwise could have, that I wasn't taking on academic challenges. I have no language courses in my background AT ALL. Plus, I am still trying to make sure I am actually going to be able to get academic letters of reference, since my professors are MIA. Now this?! Now freakin' this?!

    5. It's a computer test, not a paper test. I don't do well at all on computer tests, not even at the DMV for crying out loud!

    I am about a half inch away from dropping my application to Harvard entirely. ENTIRELY.

    Monday, August 3, 2009

    Home Economics 101: A Month On $40 For Family of Four Part II

    Subtitle of this part (part 2): FOOD!

    Now we're coming to the hardest part of living with little money. You can't let anyone go hungry, and food is your most important priority. But beyond utilities, it is also the biggest expense for most folks living on a low income.

    This is why there are so many programs focused on getting food to people who need it. The problem is that most of those programs are also short on resources.

    In order to best advise you, let me share some of my assumptions. This way, if something doesn't apply to you, you can figure out the easiest way to take your own personal situation into account.

    When you discover you have only $40 to last the month, you may have just been paid. If so, congratulations. I say congrats because this also means you are likely to have done at least a little grocery shopping recently and that while your fridge and cupbards might not be full, they will have some new "stock."

    The hardest scenario of course is if you are on your second, third, fourth, or fifth month with $40 or $50, and your cupboards and fridge just haven't had any chance to recover.

    But my assumption for our purposes is that most folks who discover they only have $40 to last a month are looking at a situation somewhere in between. Perhaps you have half a carton of a half-gallon of milk left, some rice, a few carrots. But you don't have eggs. Or you don't have beans. When I am giving advice, I am assuming that you aren't using my tips as any more than a jumping off place.

    My tips come from having looked in my own fridge at various times, and having figured out how to make a meal out of meager random odds and ends. So if you haven't done so already, go to your fridge and go to your cupboards. Take inventory of what you have. Start looking up recipes that can make use of the random can of olives and that little bag of uncooked barley that you bought back when times were better. It's time to get creative, and my list is really as much for inspirational purposes as for tips.

    Getting Help

    Knowing that sometimes, it might come down to this, I want to throw a couple notes in here about getting help. Your stops along the way might include:

    • Friends, neighbors, and relatives
    • The food stamps program and/or WIC, though fair warning: many folks in need may not qualify or may qualify for a very low amount of assistance only
    • A foodbank and/or Dollar-a-Bag programs

    If you are trying to get help from foodbanks in your area, it is helpful to call ahead. It's great when you can find a bank that serves your whole county, has accessible hours, and has a lot of goods and you can just go in and grab what you need. Unfortunately, in most locales, that won't be the case. Call and find out:

    • Whether they serve folks where you live (some larger foodbanks divide up their distribution centers by zip code, for example)
    • What proof of ID and/or income might be required
    • What other information will be collected
    • How often you can receive help
    • The type of food and amount of help you can expect to receive
    • The hours and days of operation (usually very limited, and unfortunately it may be during workday hours)

    As I've mentioned, many foodbanks these days are short on food. They will give out a very, very small amount to sustain you for a meal or three. Also keep in mind that though beggars can't be choosers and you will surely eat what you are given because you need it, the food they give you is not usually going to be the healthiest. Many foodbanks, if not most, do not have produce, dairy, or meats. Applesauce will be the type with added sugar, canned fruits will be in heavy syrup, and tuna helper will be as good as it gets for boxed meals.

    I only say that so you won't be surprised. There is nothing worse than worrying about whether your family will go hungry and then realizing when you go to get help that little help is available, and that which is available is not going to be very helpful in reducing your risk of nutrient deficiencies. Do get the help, but don't go in expecting much. Instead, focus on planning your life around the below type of tips.

    One More Assumption

    Another assumption I have made for this post is that while one's first concern, when experiencing hunger, is usually filling the belly, most of us are also worried about making sure our bodies stay healthy through financial hardship. There are a couple ways to survive on $40.

    The easiest way is to fill up on sugar and fat laden foods because they make you feel fuller. While prepared foods that resemble something healthy (take canned soups), for instance, are expensive, there are a lot of prepared foods that don't resemble anything healthy and are sold pretty darn cheaply. Which makes them alluring when you don't have money. And despite what nutritionists say, that our bodies actually become more hungry more quickly with these foods, if your body is not accustomed to wholesome foods, the truth may be that you won't feel full until you do have them.

    Fitting with my "groundrule" that living poorer (more frugally, for those who have a choice) should mean living better, I am going to assume that you want your kids and yourself to be as healthy as possible, to get all the nutrients they need. Clearly, that can't happen if you're busy trying to feel full again. Instead, I suggest you go through withdrawl from your usual diet and adjust to a new one...a healthier, more wholesome, more nutrient-dense diet. And I am going to bet that it WILL be healthier and more wholesome even for those who have a great diet already (unless you are have a REALLY, REALLY great diet!).

    And a Quick Public Safety Announcement

    Some people dumpster dive for food. I personally don't believe dumpster diving for food is safe. If you want to do that, research it throughly and be very, very careful. While dumpster diving for certain items is probably safe, under certain conditions, dumpster diving for FOOD is an extremely hazardous activity in my opinion. I don't recommend it even with caution, and I urge you not to do it at all if you have children. However, if you have connections at a grocery store and are able to obtain the foods directly from those people before the foods leave the backdoor and head out to the dumpster, more power to you. Just be sure to carefully sort through these "finds" and make sure you are not eating food that is truly on its way out. (You'll get some gems, since many stores through away things like milk on the day of expiration, and it still probably has a little "window of safe" on it.)

    Now, My Tips

    • We make ALL foods from scratch. Yes, it takes time. My wife G can tell you. At times it's very taxing. But yes, if you really have only $40 to your name, you'll find a way to make the time. And G and I have decided that even if we have money, we want to live this way so we can actually do things like save. Here are a sampling of foods that many families who make most foods homeade still buy from the store that we make from scratch:

    -->bread (ever notice how expensive truly whole wheat bread, without corn syrup, has become?) including pita bread, biscuits, and bagels

    -->tortillas (and chips, for a treat)

    -->salad dressings, dips of all types including hummus and salsa, and spreads, including sometimes peanut butter

    -->sauces, including sometimes apple sauce

    • We rarely buy canned foods. Soups are made from scratch at home. Beans are made from bags of dried beans. We do buy canned diced tomatoes whenever we see a good sale because this is a good food to use in order to bulk up and add flavor to inexpensive meals. We also buy canned and/or frozen corn and canned olives once a year in bulk (hard to grow in a small yard where we live, for one thing).

    • All that said, "from scratch" is not always cheaper. We can have fun making our own butter, but it actually costs less to buy it from the store. I'm not sure about yogurt and cheese...that's something we plan to try soon. For now we just don't buy yogurt when the cash flow is low, and we buy cheese on a very tightly monitored cheese budget. We also plan to begin making our own pasta noodles, though I have to say I think our diet is more well-rounded when we can't depend on having pastas.
    • It's more of a long-term thing, so won't work if you are down on cash for only a month and plan to resume a previous lifestyle later, but some vegetables you can grow even if you have little more than a small patio. Assuming they aren't genetically engineered, tomatoes can be grown from the tomato seeds of the tomatoes you eat, in a couple of pots...including plastic ones that you may find in-- for example-- your neighbors trash. We have some other projects coming up: You can easily sprout your own sprouts in a jar in the kitchen from dried lentils, etc. Potatoes and onions might not be that expensive, but when money is short, who cares. Save whatever you can, wherever you can. They are easy container garden items, and all it takes is having a potato or onion that is getting old.

    • Consider whether you and a friend can share resources. We don't have a yard to speak of, but we have a couple raised bed gardens that we planted with friends of ours, in our friend's yard. She had wanted a garden for a couple of years, but didn't feel like she could do it on her own. We didn't have much know how, but were willing to help figure it out. Win-win. We all put in some labor, though honestly our friend put in much more since it was at her house and she saw it everyday. Now we have peppers, squash, lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, peas, and all kinds of things growing! By the way, there are some folks on YouTube who have instructional videos on raised bed gardens, including ones you can create with whatever you can find.
    • If you can gather together money for it at some point, you can also share a membership to a bulk warehouse such as Costco or Sam's with a friend. This reduces the membership cost, and if you are both planners, you might be able to buy some items you wouldn't normally buy in bulk, and then split them. If you don't split the membership experience though, bulk warehouses are not a good idea at all for a $40 month. As much as you need food, getting, say, 100 pounds of carrots just isn't going to work for you because you don't have the money to spend on just one type of food like that. I'll have more notes on shopping in a future part of this series.
    • On a similar note, consider any and all resources available to you. Some friends of ours know somebody who has a couple of well-cared for organic eating cows and is able to get us raw milk every now and then for a price that is close to the same as non-organic pasteurized milk in the store. Only problem is that we have to arrange for someone who lives out by him to pick it up, which is why it isn't our regular practice.
    • We don't eat meat, so I don't know much if anything about saving money around meats. I DO know that diary is *expensive.* Especially if you are trying to do organic (which is recommended, as many pesticides are stored in fat tissue among dairy animals...dairy should rate higher on your organic priority list than produce) and support sustainable and humane dairy farming practices. If you know somebody who has chickens, see if they'll sell you eggs. Unfortunately, with only $40, you can't stick with organic all the time. See what the costs are. You might be able to do organic some of the time depending on your source (sometimes the costs will be comparable), but I've found that most $40 months pretty much nix any hope of organic aside from what comes out of the garden.

    • Do not eat eggs during a $40 month. No omelettes, scrambled eggs, or egg sandwiches. You'll run out of eggs right away. Save your eggs for baking. Use baking recipes that use minimal eggs.
    • Except for making something like pizza, use a cheese sauce rather than straight cheese. Cheese is super expensive and milk and butter is expensive but less-so than cheese. You can make a fine cheese sauce with a little cheese, some milk (try it also with powdered milk mixed with water), a little butter, and a little flour. Cheese sauce goes a lot farther than cheese.
    • If you have to use cheese rather than cheese sauce, grate rather than slicing when possible. Do this even if you are eating a sandwich. You'll use far less cheese.

    • When baking/cooking, consider using a powdered milk bought in bulk. It may be cheaper (though not always, as powdered milk can be surprisingly expensive) and will allow you to save your regular milk for drinking or oatmeal and so forth. Try to avoid drinking milk, and consider diluting your milk mildly (don't tell the kids!) if you do drink it.

    • Buy more of the types of produce that last longer periods in the fridge. When you are low on cash, you'll want to use less at one time, and spread your resources out longer. Cauliflower, for example, is a superb vegetable for this purpose. Carrots and tomatoes also do pretty well. Apples are long lasting and can be used in a variety of dishes either cooked or raw. Once sliced, just use a little lemon juice on it to keep from browning.

    • Read up on produce storage, including how to store produce when it has been partially used. Storing foods properly will extend their life, allowing you to eat them more slowly.
    • Avoid using all of anything on any one recipe. Half or cut into 3/4 the amounts originally listed in the recipe for ingredients on which you're running low. Get creative. Learn to adjust recipes to make up for less of one ingredient or another.
    • Don't throw anything out. If things look like they are about to "turn," freeze them. Freeze all kinds of fruits, which can later be used to make everything from sorbet to popsicles to slushies to smoothies. Vegetables can be frozen before or after blanching, depending on the type. If you are practicing low-cost living in anticipation of a lean winter, see if you can start the winter out with a freezer full of fruits and veggies.

    • Free yourself of the idea that no snack foods or an empty fridge means you don't have food. Plan ahead for snacking. While a full fridge and freezer run more efficiently in terms of energy, a relatively empty fridge doesn't mean you are starving. It may just mean you are cooking from scratch.
    • Discover what low cost foods, easily stored foods, are particularly filling for your family. Things like oatmeal or a hearty couscous dish or rice and beans. Make big batches and keep them in the fridge, readily available for meals-on-the-go. dw cooks up pintos, makes a batch of refried beans, and makes a big bowl of rice almost weekly. She also makes tortillas (which can be stored in the freezer if humidity is an issue for you right now). Because we buy our rice in great big bags when we do have the money, and beans in the biggest bags they come in, meals of this sort may just be pennies.
    • Some produce costs nearly the same amount year round, such as bananas or potatoes. Other food definitely offers a financial benefit if bought in season. So, if you *do* ever have a month with more money (or you are only practicing or getting ready for a lean winter), buy more seasonal stuff then and use your freezer to help keep your nutrients flowing in leaner and off-season months.

    Things That Are Helpful to Stock Up On When You Have Some Cash

    This will vary depending on your personal diet, but I've found these are helpful items that can go far in preparing foods from scratch:

    • Large bags of whole grain (not enriched, which means at one point it was stripped of nutrients) rice
    • A variety of large bags of beans, such as black beans, pintos, lentils, garbanzos/chickpeas, kidney beans, butterbeans, etc.
    • Flour in the biggest bags you can find and afford. This is very, very important. You'll use it in a variety of filling foods. It helps to have a selection of types including bread flour, unbleached all-purpose flour, and whole wheat or white whole wheat.
    • Yeast
    • Dry milk
    • Couscous, if you can find someplace that sells it in bulk rather than in those expensive little boxes of prepared couscous meals
    • Oatmeal (not the little packets, but the big containers of non-flavored oats)
    • Seeds and nuts, when you can find a very cheap source for them (they are often good sources of supplementary protein, and they can be used to make spreads)
    • Cheese, which can store well over extended periods if stored properly

    Sunday, August 2, 2009

    Home Economics 101: A Month On $40 For Family of Four Part I

    The Subtitle of this part (part 1) could also be "Disclaimers."

    Over the next week, I will post a very basic home economics lesson on how to survive a month on $40 for a family of four. That works out to $10 per week, approximately, or $10 per person.

    I know there are folks who have this figured out even better than I ever will-- much better (especially folks intentionally heading off the grid)-- so this blog feature won't be anything new for some of you.

    But, hopefully it has a few tips someone can make use of. What I can promise is that my methods, as basic (and for some perhaps, common sense) as they are, have been tested by experience. I have been able to survive on $40. In this economy, I realize many people are experiencing financial hardships they have never faced. I hope this blog post is useful for people who are going through a rough patch or are anticipating an extra lean winter.

    So, now, the explanations, disclaimers, and rules:

    What I Mean by $40

    • Your rent or mortgage is paid, and this is what you have leftover to get to the end of the month.

    • You still need food, gas for your car or other transportation, and additional life basics. You may or may not have managed to pay your utilities, yet.

    For the Novices

    As would be common sense, having a meager amount of money is going to be most difficult for those who are used to a lot more. I won't claim that I am perfecting the notion of "surviving comfortably" because the truth is that if you are used to something else, $40 or $50 won't be comfortable. But it can be done with minimal ill-effects. Your kids may not even know the difference. So for those of you who are new to having so little cash, here's a primer with the basics:

    • Pay your rent or mortgage FIRST. Even if you have to go to churches and other charitable organizations and beg for $20 here and $30 there to make the payment. Everything else can be figured out, but going homeless is really hard on people.

    • Buy your food second. You need to be well-nourished if you are going to make smart decisions. Yes, feed your children first. But feed yourself too in the best way you can.

    • Your health and the health of your children is still first priority. That includes dental health. Inquire with your state about subsidized health care programs, and if you need health care, go get it. If there is one type of debt that is worth it, it is medical debt. And you may be able to get help paying it later. Remember that hospitals can't turn you away for treatment due to an inability to pay. You can work on payment plans later.

    • Don't let your utilities slip. Trying to feed a family without electricity (let alone trying to keep depression at bay) is really tough, especially on a tight budget. Getting on a payment plan with utility companies sometimes is your best bet, but if there will be some months where you can't make even the small payment you've arranged to make (say $10 or $20), you may lose the utility faster once on the plan. In some cases, if you believe you may have more money the next month, it is better to let the bills slide. Generally one month won't cause alarm with most companies. Even if you can just pay one utility every month, pay that one and let the next slide to the next month. Or better yet, pay a little on all the utilities. If you are paying *something* the companies will generally want to be helpful to you. But pay as often as you can, as much as you can.

    • If you need to, get help. Don't be ashamed to visit your local food pantry. You likely won't receive much (many pantries these days will give out one boxed meal, such as an instant pasta, a can or two of vegetables, plus something like a jar of applesauce as a typical offering), but it might be enough to ease the hardship a bit. If desperate, go to a soup kitchen or see if a relative is willing to clean out their pantry.

    • No, you can't eat out. No, not even fast food. If you seriously only have $40 that is not an option. Do not use credit. You don't need it, and it will just dig you deeper in your hole. If you have credit of some type, rip it up...make it inaccessible as far as you are concerned. You *will* feel deprived if you are used to, say, being able to do things like grab some drive through after a late night at work. It *will* feel crummy, but you will normalize to it if your situation doesn't change (or in the case you are doing this to prepare for possible financial collapse) and it won't feel so bad later.

    • Finally, don't do anything stupid like driving your car uninsured. It will cost you more in the longrun.

    The Groundrules

    Everybody has their own groundrules about surviving on low cash. You may have your own. These are a few of mine:

    • Everybody still eats fresh fruits and vegetables, and sources of protein. One way or another, we will not eat Ramen for weeks on end. I am the provider in my family. No one in my home is going to be malnourished. Period. (In fact, when money is tighter, it is probable you'll eat healthier than you ever have. You'll start planning snacks instead of grabbing processed junk. You'll make more homeade food. Etc.)

    • Foods are not rationed out. We eat until we are filled, and we don't judge one another about it. However, taking three servings of the same dish is not usually an option. If after you eat one (or in some less frequent cases, two) servings of something you are still hungry, you may eat more of something else, particularly foods that we happen to have a lot of at that moment.

    • Done well, living poorer (or for those who have a choice, more frugally) should mean living better. It really should.

    Stay tuned for part 2: "FOOD"