Saturday, February 23, 2008

I can think of a lot of ways to be frugal, but most of them will actually involve food in some way. Yes, you can cut down on the energy you use and carpool to work, or sit in semi-darkness at home, but the easiest way to save money, for a family at least, is by cooking.

I know that it may seem odd, but even learning to make your own sandwich meats can make a large difference. My son heard the Mackenzie Brothers on the radio back in the fall and has been calling Canadian Bacon (a type of ham) "back bacon" ever since. About the same time, I purchased a large manual meat grinder intending to make sausages and bratwurst since they are so expensive to buy. I started gathering the necessary ingredients, one of which was a quick cure mixture found on the bottom shelf at the grocery near the salt. Morton makes a very nice one called "Quick Cure" that works like a charm. The package stated that the website has recipes. So I looked it up. Low and behold, Canadian Bacon was one of the recipes. Very easy to make, a pork loin, 5 days and a smoker. The smoker was no problem since my husband got me the smoker attachment for my grill as a Christmas gift. I cured my pork loin in a ziplock bag in the refrigerator for the 3 to 5 days the recipe called for, then I rinsed all of the remaining salt from the meat and took it to the smoker. I smoked it for about 4 hours, until a meat thermometer said it was done (180 degrees) and brought it in. I cut it in thin slices like for a sandwich and it was just incredible. About that time the kids came in from school and we wound up eating about 3/4 of a pound of the meat immediately. I bagged up the rest of it and froze all but one bag, to use for sandwiches. So, ham for sandwiches for less than $2.00 a pound.

The Morton site also has recipes for other cured meats like salami and pepperoni. Those are made from hamburger and can be cooked in the oven. Very easy to make. And they are about half the cost of store bought meats. My next project will be to try to make bacon.

I realize that most folks just don't have the time or inclination to do this sort of thing. But think about it for a minute. If you make your own sandwich meats, you know how fresh it is, you know what is in it, and you can feel good about serving it to your family. Can you say those things about the food you get from the deli? Or how about those little pressed plastic packages from the grocery store? Just how long has that stuff been sitting on the shelf? And the cost! I can find ground beef for around $1.89 a pound. Sliced hard salami is around $3.59 for a 12 oz package. I can seriously justify the savings when we eat as many sandwiches as we do. And it freezes well. I can make up 3 or 4 pounds at a time and split it into 1 pound bags and just take them out of the freezer one at a time.

Making your own food is very satisfying and oddly liberating. I don't have to run to the grocery store every time I need to pack the kid's lunches. I know what they are eating and when I find the meat on sale, I stock up. Freezers are wonderful things.

It may take a little bit of time, but int he long run, it is definitely worth the effort.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Money for Nothing

I have been thinking a lot about the effects money, or the lack there of, has on us as humans. The saying that money can't buy happiness is true, as far as that goes, but it can buy comfort. A comfortable home, good food, things to make life easier. But that isn't happiness.

And what is happiness anyway? For someone living on the street, it could mean a hot meal and bed to sleep in. For a CEO of a multinational corporation, it could mean a new acquisition in a previously untapped market. But are those things really happiness or is it just momentary pleasure? I like to think that happiness is being content with everything in your life, from your home to your wardrobe and ending with your bank account.

I find that the things that make me truly happy have absolutely nothing to do with money. A spontaneous hug from my teens makes me happy. A kiss good morning from my husband makes me happy. Watching the birds playing in the birdbath makes me happy. Planting seeds in the earth makes me happy. Watching a plant burst from the soil and struggle to make a flower makes me happy. Giving someone a gift that I have made with my own hands makes me happy. My family enjoying a meal that I prepared makes me happy.

Having money left in the bank after I pay all of the bills does not make me happy, it gives me a feeling of satisfaction, but not one of happiness. Buying a new TV does not make me happy. Nor does wearing a new outfit. Or being the first to see a new movie or to eat at a new restaurant. All of those things just don't do it for me. I guess I am just not into the "stuff" collecting. I have seen people work long hours and then spend all of their money on eating out or keeping up with the Joneses. And I just don't get it.

So I don't have the latest model of cell phone that can send videos and take pictures, or use a GPS in my car. Why do I need those things? What possible good would they do me? I have a basic phone that can make and receive calls and that is about it. My truck gets me where I need to go and if I get lost, I have a $2 map under the seat. And if the map isn't good enough, I can call for directions. I do not need a digital voice to give me turn by turn directions to within 4 inches to my parent's house. Of course, the directions to my dad's place is more like "...then turn off the paved road, and then after about a mile, you pass the hay field on the left..."

I guess what I don't understand is the overwhelming drive some people have to collect money just so they can spend it. Yes, it is nice to be able to have pretty things and fast cars and a big house, but I just don't need that. I can be happy without all of the "stuff" that most people take for granted. I have my family, a roof over our heads, food in the pantry, good friends to visit with, and the knowledge that, regardless of technology, I actually want the things I have, not just have the things I want.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The High Cost of Living

When I got my gas bill for December I was shocked. I couldn't imagine having used $160 in natural gas when my bill for November was only $49. I chocked it up to having a water heater that was on the fritz and running the furnace too much. So I turned the heat down to a point where it was chilly in the house and just wrapped up.

Then I got my bill for January. $190! What is going on here? We got the water heater replaced, have turned the furnace down, even had a few days that we turned the furnace completely off and the bill was even higher than the previous month. Needless to say, I am not happy. So I took a closer look at the bill. Hidden in the fine print is a happy little policy. They charge as many different fees as possible.

There is a customer charge of $9.75. The is the joy I have for the privilege of being their customer. They say it covers the cost of reading the meter, issuing bills, maintaining the gas lines, postage, blah, blah, blah. AND that even if I don't use any gas for the month, I still get the joy of that charge. Whatever.

Then there is the distribution rate charge. The first 50 CCF(hundred cubic feet) is charged at $0.34655 and any over that first 50 is charged at $0.16664 for a total on this bill of $31.33. That charge is described as..." Recovers any of our costs of doing business not recovered thru the customer charge or base amount. These costs include taxes, salaries, depreciation, interest, etc." Now correct me if I am wrong, but shouldn't that all be covered in the customer charge? or in the rate charge for the product itself?

Now we move on down the bill. Gas Supply Rate. This is the only thing on the bill that I can see being an actual charge. This is the gas that I actually used. Danged expensive if you ask me, but there you have it. $127.46. OK. I will owe that I guess. But reading the fine print on that particular item just pisses me off too. "Gas Supply Rate is comprised of three disticnt types of gas supply related charges. These three charges are commodity, gas demand/inventory and LUFG. These charges are subject to change occasionally - up or down- depending on the supply of gas and current market rates, The GSR amount represents your share of (gas company) actual costs for the gas." So if I am reading this right, I am being charged the going rate of the fuel (commodity), a charge for storage by the gas company(demand/inventory) , and the LUFG whatever that is. That particular cost is $o.95119/CCF.

Now, in a nutshell, I am paying to be their customer, I pay a fee for being billed, and I pay a fee for the storage of the fuel until I actually use it. Hmmmmm, something isn't right here.

But let's continue.

Weather Normalization rate $0.55. I can deal with that amount. At least until I read the fine print. Arkansas customers are just lucky I guess. "The weather normalization adjustment lowers a portion of of your bill when the weather is colder than normal or up slightly when the weather is warmer than normal. Weather normalization adjustments apply only to bills issued November thru April." Now according to my bill, the average temperature for the billing period was 2 degrees colder this year than last year. That should mean my bill should have been credited instead of billed. Hmmm, am I getting screwed again?

But wait, do I see a credit here? A base rate adjustment of $0.17? Oh goodie! Hold on right below that is something called an EE cost rate and it is $0.50. No explanation for what that is either. And below that is a municipal franchise adjustment of $7.20. So there is a charge because I live in town, too? This is getting to be way too much.

Then there are the sales taxes broken down by state, county and city. Death and taxes are the only things you can count on. $14 and some change for that. Total bill is $191.19.

Now here is the real kicker. They have recently(within the last 10 years or so) found huge amounts of natural gas in our state. The regional gas company is pumping this gas out of the ground as fast as humanly possible and distributing it into a 3 state region. But being here in
Arkansas, you would think our rates would be lower since they don't have to pipe it so far. Wrong again. The gas company is trying to get legislation passed that can charge us the same rates as Louisiana and Mississippi by saying it isn't fair if our rates are lower. But! they are not paying the state any extraction taxes for the privilege of raping our resources. So the gas company is getting our resources for dirt cheap then turning around and charging us everything they can get away with, without the state getting anything but sales tax out of it. And people wonder why Arkansas is 49th in everything.

This is just another example of how big business is going out of it's way to pillage and destroy in the chase for the almighty dollar. The people who can least afford it are the ones who have to pay the most. It just makes me sick.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Garden vs. Grocery store

I was browsing thru a seed catalog the other day and was really struck by how cheap it really is to grow your own food. Granted, there are other expenses besides just the seed. The most obvious being the cost of your time to do it. But even if you don't invest a lot of time into growing your own food, it is still an amazingly simple way to save a lot of money on food.

If you live in an apartment, you can still grow some of your own food. Place a potted tomato plant in a sunny window and when it blooms, set it outside for a few days to be pollinated. Or you can pollinate it yourself with a cotton swab. If your apartment building has a flat roof, ask your landlord if you can grow a container garden on the roof. You might even be able to convince a few of your neighbors to join you.

Lettuces, spinach, onions, carrots, parsnips, turnips, even potatoes can all be grown in containers inside without the need of a pollinator. Things like beans, peas, squashes, melons, and cucumbers can be grown pots but because they are vines, will have to have some heavy duty support so that they grow up instead of out. I have heard of people growing watermelon on an apartment balcony by tying the vine to a cast iron trellis and supporting each melon by tying it up with a piece of pantyhose. I guess it would work but I have never tried it.

Right now, I have carrots growing in a window box in my kitchen window. Granted, they are the short, finger length variety, But I will still have fresh carrots for a fraction of the cost to buy them.

Lets take a peek at the seed catalog. Bell Peppers. If you decide to buy a bell pepper at the grocery store, it will cost you anywhere from 50 cents to $1.50 each, depending on the size and variety. This particular seed catalog has packets of bell pepper seeds for $1.95 - $2.95 for 25 seeds. Over the course of the growing season, each pepper plant could produce anywhere from 1 pepper to 25 or 30 peppers. That would be just 1 of those 25 seeds. And they can be grown in pots very easily. Like red peppers better than green? Let them fully ripen before you pick them. Green peppers are just the unripened version of red or orange or yellow peppers. And if you become overrun with peppers and cannot find any one else to take some? Chop them up and spread them on a flat pan in the freezer. After they are frozen, put them in a freezer bag to use in recipes. Really good in meat loaf that way.

While all of this is well and good, but unless you are going to go for a full blown garden, you cannot expect to completely stop buying vegetables. But you can grow a few items that are really expensive in the store like the peppers or tomatoes. They are very high yield for the amount of space they need, fairly easy to grow and really expensive to buy. Garden centers will even have them as plants in the spring if you don't think you can manage to get the seeds to sprout. Just make sure the pots you put them in will be big enough for a mature plant. It will look weird having a little plant in a big pot but they will grow fast and having to transplant them again could shock the plant and you may not get any fruit from them. Better to plan big.

If you want to get adventurous, there are even fruit trees available these days that can be gown indoors. I have seen a tree that will bear lemons, limes and oranges all from one tree. It gets about 6 feet tall and can be grown in a container. Before you dive into that, keep in mind that fruit trees can take several years to mature and you will not get so much as a bloom until then. And they will need some outdoors time for the pollination.

Blue berries are a good choice for containers as well. The biggest plants only get between 5-6 feet tall ( but there are smaller ones available for porch pots) and will produce berries in the second or third year and continue to produce for the next 20 or so years. Not a bad investment for a hedge in the front yard.

I realize that not every one will want to grow their own food. But there really is nothing quite like the feeling you get by picking and preparing something that you make yourself. And the taste difference is staggering. Really fresh produce just can't be beat. And just how much fresher can you get than 5 minutes from plant to table. And the cost savings on those expensive tomatoes and peppers (or peas or lettuce, or whatever) really adds up. Especially if you buy organic.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Debt, Debt, and more Debt

For the last several months I have been scouring the web for tips on how to live well on less money. I have found a lot of good ideas. And some that are a little bit out there. But they all say about the same thing. Get rid of your debt.

I know that for some people that sounds nearly impossible. As a society, we have all gotten used to the instant gratification that comes with being able to buy whatever you want on credit. You find that great pair of shoes that are on sale for only $75 and you whip out the Visa or "Store" card and buy them on the spot. But if you don't pay off the balance every month, and how many of us can actually do that, you wind up with interest that will make those $75 pair of shoes cost well over $100 in the long run. And did you really need another pair of strappy black heels anyway?

With the way the economy is headed (and the credit crisis, housing crisis, and unemployment going up) a lot of people are beginning to realize just how over-extended they really are. If your house payment, car payments, utilities, and credit card bills are more than your income for the month, you are in big trouble.

Credit card companies are the world's biggest scam. They offer credit to just about anyone on the hope that people will buy more than they can afford to pay off every month. They make billions of dollars a year off of the interest. And the real kicker is that if you are ever late getting your paying in, they can legally double, or in some cases, triple your interest rate, making it even harder to get it paid off. Trust me, I have been there. And it really sucks.

I have found a couple of ways to get out of debt that don't involve bankruptcy. I will use our situation as an example of what not to do, or how to fix it if you already have.

When my husband and I first got married, we each had a credit card(visa) and I had a department store card. We didn't use them much, only for necessities like getting the cars worked on or replacing worn out clothes. Then I got pregnant with my daughter and my husband got a new job in a new town. So we had to move. No one would hire a pregnant girl so I couldn't work and we had the expenses of moving and setting up a new household. Visa time. Well, since I was pregnant before he got hired, the new insurance considered it a pre-existing condition and wouldn't pay the doctor visits. So that was $200 a month out of our already slim budget. Utility deposits, rent deposits, moving expenses, gas back and forth to get everything moved, all of that left us eating mac and cheese and ham sandwiches. And it also raised our credit card bills. By the time my daughter was born, we had bought the house we were renting, so we also had closing costs and insurance to pay. We were almost $2000 in debt in a matter of a couple of months. Now we had diapers, formula, baby clothes, doctor visits for the baby in addition to my hospital bills for the delivery on top of the student loan payments that were coming due, house payment, car payment, utilities, and the credit cards. So more credit card debt was building up.

By the time we finally decided that it just had to stop, we had 5 credit card with high interest rates (almost $22,000 in debt), 2 gas cards, 2 department store cards, a car payment, a house payment, and 2 kids in daycare. Even with minimum payments on the cards, the total everything combined was more than our monthly income. Then we discovered the Debit Card.

That was actually a wonderful day for us. It allowed us to completely stop using the credit cards. If we didn't have the money to cover it in the bank, we simply couldn't buy it. We were 13 years into a 30 year mortgage so we refinanced the house for a lower interest rate, cashed out enough equity to pay off 4 of the 5 credit cards(boy was it fun to cut up those cards) and continued to pay on the last one until we got the truck paid off. Then we began to apply the amount of the truck payment to the payment we were making to the credit card ( an extra $334 a month) and finally started getting that one paid off. A large cash gift from the Mother-In-Law took care of the rest of it.

Wow! No more credit card debt.

I know that most people cannot expect a large cash gift, but there are ways to get out of debt without going crazy.

1) STOP USING CREDIT CARDS! If you cannot afford to pay cash for it, do not buy it.

2) Actually sit down with all of your bills, bank statements, loan payment books, and a calculator. Make 3 columns, one with income amounts with every dime that comes in from every source for the month, one with the payment amounts due for the month not counting groceries, and the last column is for the amount of outstanding debt left on that bill. Add up each column and see if your bills are more than your income. Also compare your income to the balances due on all of that credit. You may be shocked to realize that you have $15,000 in credit card debt and that if you only make minimum payments every month, it will take you 12 years and $50,000 in interest to pay it off, if you don't add any more to the balance. That is an eye opener. And a real motivator for getting out of debt.

3) When you pay off a debt, you do NOT have extra money each month. Use that payment on another debt. If you paid off a debt that you were paying $250 a month on, like a car payment, you now add $250 to the highest interest payment that you have. Keep doing that until that debt is paid off. Then you take the combined payment amount (say...$550) a month, and add that amount to the next highest interest bill. And you keep doing that until everything is paid off. This is actually a fast and rather painless way to pay off your bills. You are not used to having the extra money anyway, so why not use it to get rid of debt.

Now, this is not a step by step guide for getting out of debt. There are a thousand different ways to do that, and just as many opinions on which way is the best. But you cannot get out of debt by using credit to make all of your day to day purchases. You have to make the decision to get out of debt all by yourself. No one can do it for you. If you are not willing to give up those shopping sprees or eating out every night, then no one can help you.

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