Sunday, June 23, 2013

Where did June go?

This month has just flown by!  I started the month with big resolve to live more frugally...and life did its very best to thwart our efforts:

1. It's a five weekend month...which means our grocery bill will automatically be higher than a four-weekend month, since that's when we do our shopping.  On top if that, we seemed to run out of diapers, wipes, paper towels, and toilet paper all at once, which meant a major trip to Costco.

2. Somehow we ran out of home-cooked food and steam two weeks this month, which meant extra trips to the cafeteria (for me) and McDonalds (for Mr. Homesteader and also for family breakfasts when we ran out of eggs.) 

3. I attempted to give up my beloved soda in the middle of a coup made by Wee Homesteader, who has been waking up four or more times per night all month, instead of what used to be two or three.  So I've been extremely tired and looking for caffeine and comfort in Dr Pepper Ten.

4. We attempted to start the process of switching banks to avoid $55 a month in fees we're paying at Bank of America.  Our application to my company's credit union was sent back due to missing paperwork (that they didn't ask for in the first place), so we lost a month going back and forth.

5. We had to replace Mr. Homesteader's computer so he could start doing freelance at home again.  His old one had reached its capacity to process the large file types that he works on, coupled with a malfunctioning fan that had the computer shutting off every 15-20 minutes.

6. DMV license renewal for my car and massive late fees because we never got the first notice.

7. My department was restructured late last week and the changes are not pleasing to me in the least.  I have a new boss that nobody seems to like, and I *loved* my old one, and I have to learn all new accounts and deliverables come July 1st.  Made for some down days and a few indulgences in retail therapy.  As of this weekend, I have a new perspective on it and am ready to dive in...but retail therapy leaves a trail that must be reckoned with.

8. Several other miscellaneous expenses that came up throughout the month.

Sigh.  Looking forward to the electric bill (did I really just say that???) to see how my experiment panned out...maybe there will be a bit of good news in that envelope for once!

On the positive side, there were many yummy meals with recipes to share, and planting of vegetable gardens - yay!  Stay tuned...

 San Marzano Tomatoes!

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Miracle cream

One thing I think most, if not all, parents of diaper-wearing children can relate to is a case of incurable diaper rash.  Little Homesteader was really easy in that sense for the longest time.  And then, all of a sudden, last summer, he broke out into so bad of a rash I couldn't even believe it.

We tried EVERYTHING.  We bought so many creams and lotions and combinations thereof...I couldn't even tell you all of them.  We must have spent hundreds of dollars trying to cure that rash.  Little wailed during diaper changes.  He was just starting to talk and would bawl, "All done!!!" It was heartbreaking.  It finally cleared up after about a month.  A very long month.

Last fall I was introduced to essential oils by a good friend.  I've never been big on modern medicine, though I have lucked out with relatively good health and have the luxury of making that statement.  So it's only natural that I fell into essential oils.  Okay, I became slightly obsessed.  Maybe extremely obsessed.  

One of the first things I read about was making over your diaper bag.  There was a recipe for diaper cream and I thought, "Why not?"

The recipe goes like this:

1/2 oz beeswax
3 1/2 oz fractionated coconut oil
2 drops melaleuca essential oil
2 drops lavender essential oil

Melt the beeswax over a double boiler and stir in the coconut oil.  Let cool a bit and then add the essential oils.  Stir to combine and pour into a 4 oz glass jar (hint: use an old baby food jar).

Well, after the experience I described above, I had a healthy skepticism about yet another diaper rash cream.  So I quartered the recipe.  Since we were past the baby food stage, I used some plastic containers I bought cheaply.  The next time Little started to get red, we put a little of the cream on the budding rash before bed.

The next morning, there was no sign of the redness.  At all.

And the same thing happened the next time.  And the next.  And the same thing happened with Wee Homesteader.

I think the key is in the beeswax.  Every cream we tried just soaked into the diaper, whereas this one seemed to stay on the skin and really protect against any wetness while the melaleuca and lavender soothed the pain and worked on the underlying cause of the rash, and the coconut oil calmed the irritation.

It's pretty much a miracle cream in our house.  I put it on cuts and dry skin and burns and anything else.  It's like my Windex, if you will.

And I'll never spend hundreds of dollars on chemical-laden creams again!

A fresh batch - one for home, and one each for school!  It will harden to a white paste as it cools.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

La Pasta!

A friend and I always greet each other with an exclamation, "Pasta!" It stems from the business trip to Brazil where we first met, to audit one of our company's manufacturing facilities.  One of our contacts (who didn't speak English) came looking for something, "blah blah blah la pasta blah blah blah la pasta!"  Neither of us knew what "la pasta" was, so she just scoured the room until she found a blue 3-ring binder.  She held it up in the air and triumphantly declared, "la pasta!!!"  It has been a joke between us ever since.

But this post is actually about pasta - the food variety.  You'd never know it by the content of this blog thus far, but I'm actually quite obsessed with knitting.  However, ever since Little Homestead came along, I haven't had much time for knitting, or any of the other arts I love that have to do with knitting.  I still dabble in a couple side businesses that have to do with knitting (here and here), but I don't get any actual knitting time.  

So I've concentrated my efforts on things that I love that help my family - cooking, home decorating, finance, etc.  And some of them actually go hand-in-hand, like finance and cooking.

One of the ways I'm trying to help keep our expenses down is by cooking at home more and eating out less...especially at work.  When I was job-hunting after our move to CA, I really got into making things from scratch - different kinds of bread, bagels, and other baked goods.  I learned many substitutions for dairy so I could make some of Mr. Homesteader's favorite meals that he could no longer eat due to his milk allergy - his grandma's chocolate covered cherries, green bean casserole for Thanksgiving, macaroni and cheese, etc.

Last week Mr. Homesteader was watching Diners, Drive-In's, and Dives and saw a thick tomato sauce that had his taste buds salivating.  After much thought and preparation, I attempted to make such a sauce for him.  I combined several recipes I found online as well as had honed over the past couple years of cooking for the family. 

Spaghetti with Meat Sauce

Garlic, 1 head
Roma tomatoes, 10 medium
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Carrot, 1 medium, chopped
Celery, 3 small stalks, chopped
Onion, 1/2 large, chopped
Tomato paste, 1 small can
Red Wine, 1/2 cup
Beef Stock, 1/2 cup
Italian Seasoning, 2 tsp
Cinnamon, 1 pinch
Ground Beef 1 lb
Spaghetti, 1 lb
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 400.  Cut the tip off the head of garlic to reveal the tops of the cloves.  Peel back the outer wrapping.  Place on a small sheet of tin foil and drown in olive oil.  Wrap up.  Place on cookie sheet and bake for 30-35 minutes.  When it's done, unwrap and squeeze to get the garlic out of the head.  It should just smoosh out and you can add it into the tomato sauce below.

Slice an "X" into the end of each tomato.  Put into boiling water for 60 seconds, then remove into an ice bath.  This will make the skins peel off the tomato uber-easily.  With this batch, they were peeling themselves off as I took them out of the water.

Once the tomatoes are cool to the touch, peel the skins off and quarter.  If you want, you can also seed the tomatoes.  These ones didn't have a ton of seeds (at least, I don't notice them eating the final product, but next time I will probably squeeze out the innards when I'm cutting them up...just to see the difference.
Put the quartered tomatoes into a dutch oven on medium/medium-low heat.  Cook for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes are broken down.

In the meantime, chop the carrot, celery, and onion.  Put into a pan with extra virgin olive oil over medium heat and saute until tender.  Add in tomato paste and stir to combine.  Let cook for a few minutes to let the tomato paste "wake up".  Add the red wine to deglaze and let reduce a few minutes, to cook out the wine flavor.

When the tomatoes are broken down, stir in the vegetable mixture and the garlic and let cook for another 30 minutes for the flavors to combine.  Using an immersion blender, puree the mixture until as smooth as you desire.  Add in the beef stock and spices and continue to cook on low for 2-3 hours, until the color has deepened and the sauce is thick.

Brown the hamburger meat and add into the sauce.  Cook the pasta according to the package directions.  Combine with the sauce and enjoy!

I pretty much nailed it the first time out.  Which generally means I'll never be able to make it just right ever again. Knowing me, I'll continue to tweak it just a little each time, anyway.  I already have my eye on subbing out the cinnamon for some cloves, and maybe adding some bacon.  Oh, and making tomato paste from scratch, natch.  In time, I'll end up with two completely different recipes.  But for now, lunches this week have been very, very yummy.

Monday, May 27, 2013

It's Electric!

I'm conducting a little experiment this month that involves our electricity bill and this handy contraption:

Predictably, our electric bill skyrockets every summer.  Summers in our corner of Southern California don't usually get started until June or July, but when the East Coast starts seeing those wonderful fall temperatures in September, our summer is only getting serious.  I recall many 90+ degree days in September last year...and I may have blocked out some in October as well.  

Last year our electric bill (which also includes water and sewer, mind you) saw dollar amounts in the 400-range.  I was astounded!  Granted, our gas bill is minor at $20-30 most months, whereas I set aside $200-300 per month for heating oil in New Jersey (purchased mainly in October through April) on top of the flat-fee electric bill that never quite seemed to cover how much electricity we actually used, leaving us with a $200-300 bill at the end of the year and an even higher monthly rate the following year.  But, I digress.  Or do I?

Electricity is expensive!  And we seem to consume enormous amounts of it.  

In April our electricity bill was $208.  In May, which has contained several 90+ days already, it jumped to $285.  We had consumed 28% more electricity and 26% more water than last year.  Insane.

Following the mindset of being tired of just giving my hard-earned money away and not really understanding where it goes, I decided to try an experiment -a two-part experiment.

It begins with turning up the thermostat.  I've always been one to love sleeping in the cold, bundled up under big fluffy blankets.  And looking back and forth between our thermostat set constantly at 68 and our $285 electric bill, I now feel stupid.  

After Wee Homesteader was born, I have not been able to get to a comfortable temperature at night no matter how low the thermostat is.  So rather than giving up my paycheck, I'm giving up the game.  I took the duvet out of the duvet cover and we're now sleeping under just the cover and a bed sheet.  (I can't sleep sheetless - I just can't.)  

Suddenly, I was freezing at night!  With some big reluctance on Mr. Homesteader's part, I have eeked the thermostat up to 72, one degree at a time (and plan to eek it up a couple more).  I often wake up shivering during the night and find he has eeked it back down to 70 or 71.  I have, however, given up the goose on turning the air conditioner completely off during the day after we came home to a 90 degree house and had to put the kids to bed just an hour later at temps of 85 degrees - even with all the windows open to a 70-degree outside temp (and the neighbor's ill-timed barbecue.)  We still don't know how that happened, but it's now set to 85 while we're at work, though it's rarely hot enough (yet) to even need to kick on.

But that's not all.  

We do a ridiculous amount of laundry -upwards of 6-8 loads every weekend...more if we're washing sheets and towels, too.  Yep, we pretty much do laundry all day, all weekend.  The dryer runs almost non-stop from Saturday morning to Sunday after bedtime.  We have a gas dryer, but I'm not entirely convinced that saves us much electricity.  

So I pulled a drying rack* out of the garage (I have quite a few of them I use to dry freshly dyed yarn and fiber - more on that later, though) and set it up out on the back lawn.  I dried sheets, the duvet cover, and many loads of laundry that first weekend.  I wasn't uber-convinced that the electricity savings would outweigh the inconvenience of taking the wet laundry outside and attempting to hang it up without dropping the clean clothes in the dirt (I'm a bit of a clutz, you see) - especially after Mr. Homesteader worried about his allergies that first night under the duvet cover.  But when I moved the drying rack indoors to overcome the allergy worries, I hit gold!  I don't know how much, if any, our electricity savings will be, but I am highly enjoying hanging laundry out to dry in our bedroom - who would've thought?!?!

At least every other night, sometimes more often, I put a small load of laundry in the washer when I take Wee Homesteader into the bedroom to put her down for the night.  It washes while Mr. Homesteader gives Little Homesteader a bath and puts him to bed, and then I take the clean clothes out and hang them to dry while Wee sleeps.  

You know what I found out?  It's SO peaceful.  

No heavy, wet clothes banging around in the dryer, causing the "will that wake Wee/Little up?" worries.  

Not to mention a few minutes to reflect on my day and unwind a little before crawling into bed.  

Or that, because of the limited drying space, I'm now doing little bits of laundry all week, leaving only things like sheets and towels for the weekend.  And, hey, it might even save us some money on kids' clothes in the future if I'm washing fewer clothes more often.  We always seemed to be running out of clean clothes, especially pajamas, under the old system - now they're a-plenty!

Extra work hanging them to dry?  Not really!  Any extra time spent with the wet laundry is completely offset by how little time it takes to fold them up when they're dry.  And by eliminating the frustration of having piles of clean laundry sitting on the floor that we just didn't have time to fold before the weekend was over.  If I don't have time to put clothes away, they sit nice and pretty on the drying rack instead of wrinkled on the floor, mocking me in all their unfolded-ness.

An I weird?  Undoubtedly.  But I am Mrs. Homesteader, after all.  I love this stuff!  And hopefully June'a electricity bill will reflect the changes.  If not...I think I'll still hang our clothes to dry.  

*Confession: I didn't know how to actually use a drying rack for its intended purpose and had to figure it out.  Would you believe there are NO YouTube instructional videos (at least that I could find).  It's the first time YouTube has ever let me down.  I found that hanging our shirts and pants on hangers on the shower curtain rod in the kids/guest bathroom and ended up using the drying rack mostly for kids clothes and undergarments.  

Monday, May 13, 2013

Cookie Cookie Cookie Starts with "C"

Yes, these are two cookies I actually baked. 

I work in a large office in Burbank, CA.  Just an elevator ride downstairs is a cafeteria whose food can sometimes rival just about any restaurant I've ever eaten in.  The food prepared is all natural, organic, cage-free, antibiotic-free, etc, etc.  And yummy.  Did I mention that part?

In my third trimester of pregnancy last year, I became addicted to their chocolate chip cookies.  I started out buying just one to accompany my tuna melt (yeah, yeah, yeah, mercury and all that.)  I ate said cookie and tuna melt at my desk while racing away the clock, trying to get through my ever-growing to-do list.

As the 4th quarter progressed, and the work kept piling up (as it tends to do in a retail environment at this time of year), I occasionally had "two cookie days", on which I was so stressed, I bought (and scarfed) two cookies.  It didn't take long for those two cookie days became every day.

I went on maternity leave after Thanksgiving.  Wee Homesteader was born on Christmas Day and I returned to work from my generous-by-USA's-standards maternity leave in late March.  Guess what I did on the first day?  Bought a cookie at lunch time.

As the days wore on and work became more stressful again, the two cookie days started creeping in.  By the end of April, I was back up to buying two cookies a day.

Now, I'm an accountant.  I may not necessarily be one by trade anymore, but it's in my blood.  Can't help it.  Will always be there.  I love to analyze.  Especially numbers.  In a recent quest to become more financially independent, so that some day I may be able to retire "early" and fully pursue my homesteading passions (of which you will learn more about as this blog goes on), I decided to take a microscope to our finances.

As said accountant, I have naturally been tracking our spending in a series of Excel spreadsheets that I have pored over, honed, and refined since the fall of 2006, shortly after we bought our first house.  At that point, we had a mountain of debt to pay off that accumulated through a cross-country move, a (modest by today's standards) wedding, another long move, the purchase of a house, and a few bad spending decisions. 

I took a balanced approach of paying off debt while concurrently building up a nice nest egg.  We tackled our large credit card debt (which I had transferred all to one card using an interest-free balance transfer offer), one vehicle, and one of my three student loans (the largest, with the highest interest rate.) We saved for several nice vacations, an emergency fund worth three months of expenses, generous birthday/anniversary/Christmas presents, car emergencies, lots of home improvement projects, etc, etc. 

As I began to tackle the second student loan, the grueling pace of our New York lives started hounding us - bosses who bullied, long, grueling commutes that took up to three hours on snow days, work travel that kept Mrs. Homestead away from home for three or more weeks straight, the list goes on (and on and on).  Thus began what I like to call our "dark period."  We stopped paying off debt, stopped saving money, and started spending. 

We took a long trip to England in the fall of 2009, where we rented a car and drove the countryside for nine days.  Despite using hotel points for the entire trip, we spent quite a lot of money - upgrading our car so we could have a Sat-Nav system (we had incorrectly assumed our GPS system could upload UK maps), pricey meals out, and shopping.

Oh, the shopping.  It was during this trip that my love affair with Burberry began.  And Swarovski crystal necklaces.  Quickly followed by a Coach shoe affair upon our return stateside.  And Banana Republic.  And Helzburg Diamonds.  Mr. Homesteader bought a classic car and began overhauling it.  Which required tools.  Lots of tools.  And spare car parts.

And then the recession finally hit Mr. Homesteader's industry.  His cushy (though demanding) work-from-home freelancing gig dried up.  Little Homesteader was born, and we suddenly found ourselves with no family, hardly any friends (we had no time due to all the working), and a baby.  It was HARD.

We took a trip to visit the extended Homesteader family in California, and Mr. Homesteader took an out-of-the-blue interview with a company in the San Fernando Valley.  They offered him a job pretty much on the spot.  Which he accepted, pretty much on the spot.

I had some work commitments that held me on the East Coast for a few months, so Mr. Homesteader worked remotely during that time and then we packed up and moved cross-country.  I didn't have a job, but wasn't worried.  I had my hands full with Little Homesteader and we were pretty sure we could make it on Mr. Homesteader's fancy new salary until I could find one - it had never taken me longer than a month to find a job.  Only this time, I was going for the dream job.  I had had enough of the bosses-who-bully syndrome I had experienced on both coasts for the past ten years across four jobs.  It took a while.  Like six months.  During which time our savings were decimated and the credit card debt racked up because we were rendered completely incapable of giving up the spending habits begun several years earlier during our "dark period".

I found out I was pregnant with Wee Homesteader the same day I found out I had scored my dream job.  We decided to celebrate by trading in my fully paid-for truck for a brand new luxury car that would hold two car seats.  The intention was to use my fancy new salary to pay off the car before Wee Homesteader was born, but you can guess how that went. 

This brings us back to present day.  The credit card debt is all but gone (just awaiting a tax refund that will wipe out the remainder.)  But our spending, still carefully tracked, is ridiculous.  In April, we spent $640.73 eating out, mostly caused by lunches and snacks purchased at work (ahem, cookies), twice-daily trips to McDonald's for sweet tea and hashbrowns/french fries, weekends eating out two or three meals per day, etc, etc.  Not only that, but we also spent $1,010.08 on groceries and miscellany.  Mostly fueled by unnecessary trips to Target on the weekends.

That's just insane.

Obviously, the biggest place to start changing is here.  Those dollar sweet teas add up mighty quickly when you drink two a day, every day, even on weekends.  To the tune of $60+ per month.  Especially when you add in a few dollar hashbrowns or some french fries, to the tune of another $100+ per month.

And the cookies.  Oh, my sweet, yummy chocolate chip cookies. I tried giving them up entirely, in the name of losing the remaining ten baby pounds.  I lasted about two days.  So I decided to start making them at home.  And thus begins the Cookie Project.

Now, remember I'm an accountant.  Who loves to analyze.  And especially LOVES Excel.  So I created a spreadsheet.  It uses the assumptions that I purchase two cookies per day, at a cost of $1.10 plus tax each, for a total of $2.40 per workday.  I plotted out how many work days per month for the next year, and then used that for the remaining years of my five year "project".  I calculated an average cost of $.53 per four cookies (because my home-baked cookies are much smaller than my cafeteria-bought cookies) brought to work each day.  I also assumed that the remaining $1.87 per-day savings would be put into a medium-yield interest bearing account earning 5% at the end of each month.  (I admit to not knowing much about investing, but I took an average of all these mutual funds, of which one or two will likely be where the savings is actually invested, and came up with over 12%.  In this economy, I'm not comfortable with this number.  So I pulled 5% out of thin air because it's my blog and I can if I want to.)

In this fictitious world I've created, at the end of August 2018 (which is my basis for all future savings because this is the point Wee Homesteader will be leaving daycare and our entire financial circumstances will drastically change), I will have $2,862.80

I will have spent $710.20 making cookies at home.*

I will have forgone spending $3,216 in the cafeteria.

This is a total out-of-pocket savings of $2,505.80.

And an investment gain of $357.

Now, one could argue that I've left out such costs as electricity for the oven and Kitchen Aid mixer, or other minute costs such as parchment paper for the cookie sheets, or water and soap to clean the cookie sheets without said parchment paper, or inflation, rising costs of ingredients, rising prices of cafeteria-bought cookies, etc, etc.  Or what happens if I tire of chocolate chip cookies and decide to make peanut butter cookies.  Well, that's just too many variables for this Homesteader.

I calculated my rough cost-per-cookie using bulk-purchased flour, sugar, and brown sugar, as well as organic vanilla, vegan margarine (used due to Mr. Homesteader's milk allergy) and generic chocolate chips (our store brand happens to be vegan) from the local (chain) health food store, and eggs from Costco.  I threw in an additional few cents for baking soda, salt, and anything else I forgot.

Regardless, I do believe I will continue baking cookies at home and take my $2,862.80 to the bank!

I wouldn't be a true Homesteader if I didn't share my recipe:

1 cup (2 sticks) softened margarine (or butter, for those not allergic to milk)
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
2 eggs
2 tsp vanilla
2 1/4 cup flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 10 oz package semi-sweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 375.  Beat softened margarine (or butter) until creamy.  Add in eggs, one at a time, and beat.  Add vanilla.  Scrape down sides of the bowl to ensure everything is incorporated.  Add flour, baking soda, and salt.  You can sift the dry ingredients together in a separate bowl, but I just dump everything into the mixer.  Mix until just combined.  Stir in chocolate chips by hand.

Drop cookies by the almost-tablespoonful onto a cookie sheet (I line mine with parchment paper for easy cleanup).  Bake at 375 for 10-12 minutes until your desired level of done-ness.  I like mine golden brown on the edges and chewy in the middle, and find 11 minutes works every time.

Makes approximately 4 dozen cookies.

*This number is only for the cookies I consume at work.  Other cookies are obviously consumed at home because I'm addicted to sugar and hello, they're *right there*.  Also, Mr. Homesteader consumes more than his fair share because he's allergic to milk and therefore never gets to indulge in store- or restaurant-bought sweets, resulting in any baked good I make not containing milk to be consumed almost immediately.