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.