Money-Saving Resolutions

New Year’s Resolution Time!

It’s starting to get a bad flavor, isn’t it?  It’s starting to be synonymous with guilt-ridden and unrealistic commitments that are broken within a month, and are a burden on your friends and family until you do break them.  I resolve to lose 50lbs in 30 days.  I resolve to get back into the jeans I wore when I was 13.  I resolve to reverse my Type A personality, maybe reorganize my whole thought process.

I’m reluctant to even use the word “resolution.”

I’m even reluctant to voice my goals, after watching this video:

But I know that this recession isn’t going to go away in 2012.  Maybe it’ll get better, maybe it’ll get worse.  But I will not get to live the lifestyle I enjoyed five years ago.  And so far, we haven’t had much more than a skiff of snow in Reno.  Which means that food will be very expensive next year.  Whether we buy it out of California or pay for water to grow it ourselves, it won’t be cheap.

So I’ve thought long and hard about what changes I can make (and impose on my family) to save a few dollars.

Stop drinking soda.

We all have vices.  Admit it, so do you.  And even if you don’t have that morning latte from Starbucks, or that half-pack of cigarettes a day, there is probably still something that you can do without.  For us, it’s a Super Big Gulp of fountain diet soda from the 7-11 down the street.  But… $1.28 for over 2 liters of soda is such a deal!  Sure… if it’s something my body can metabolize for my benefit.  $1.28 times two adults, times… maybe 20 days out of the month?  That equals the internet bill PLUS the Netflix account.

And then there’s that awkward moment where the grocery cashier watches me unload a half-cart of produce, a few gallons of milk, some wholegrain flour… and five 2-liter bottles of soda.

 

Build a graywater system.

I’m not talking about a big, fancy pipe system that collects used shower water and filters it.  I’m talking about 55-gallon reservoir, and a few buckets fitted with a dripline.  How much money can we save with that?  I really don’t know.  But I DO know that I spend $75 more per month on water when I have a vegetable garden.  Last year, I set a 5-gallon bucket in the shower.  Family members allowed the warm-up water to run into that bucket, then they lifted the bucket out while they bathed.  A shower a day per adult, plus at least one a week per child COMPLETELY provided the water needs of a 20-unit bucket garden in all months except for July.  If I also make the family wash the dishes in dishpans, then pour the water on the garden, and if I channel the laundry water (without bleach) into the reservoir, could I possibly water my entire garden?

Here’s the link to make a dripline irrigation system with recycled buckets.

 

Concentrate on food storage.

Produce is rather cheap in the summer, especially if you grow it yourself.  In the winter… it’s pretty much broccoli, carrots, and navel oranges.  But think about this when you buy potatoes or onions… Potatoes are a nightshade plant, which dies back during the frost.  Supermarket potatoes are primarily grown in Idaho or Maine.  I’ve never lived in Maine, but in Idaho, the last frost can be as late as June 15th, with the first frost in early September.  That leaves 3-4 months to grow potatoes.  And these are not a hothouse crop.  So when you buy a bag of Idaho potatoes in May, when do you think those were dug up?  This is the same with onions, sweet potatoes, and winter squash… and why they are so cheap (and low-quality) right before the harvest is due to come in.

What I’m saying here is that certain foods store VERY well in a dark, cool closet.  Other foods store great in the freezer, or in home canning.  Stored properly, they can last you all the way until produce is cheap again.

This year, we plan to grow corn, green beans, shelling beans, onions, early-season winter squash, and a lot of spinach.  All of these either freeze well or store well in a cool, dry environment.  If I go out and pick green beans, and have more than I need for my family that day, I can blanch the rest and stuff them in a freezer bag.  Easy!  And though I really love my fresh lettuce, it’s just not something I’m going to look kindly on after a month in the freezer.

If you don’t have a garden, you can still buy your food when it’s OUTRAGEOUSLY cheap.  And store it.  Because you just can’t find sweet corn for 8 ears/$1 during the winter.

Image

Never stored your food before?  Don’t know how long it lasts in the freezer?  This site is great.

Don’t waste my food money.

You hear this argument all the time… “Junk food is cheaper!”  And, if you want to follow the latest health trends, it is.  A value-menu burger can be $1, the same price as half of a red bell pepper in the winter.  But do you really need to compare burgers to peppers when determining your health?  I could start an entire post on why eating healthier is NOT more expensive.  Those posts are all over the internet, from other authors.  If you want the information, I can help you find it.  But here’s the digest of it:

Healthy foods don’t have to be red bell peppers and acai berries.  You can also have radishes (currently 4 bunches for $1 at my neighborhood supermarket) or pinto beans (currently 59 cents a pound.)  You can buy heartier bread, and use fewer slices.  You can go meatless for a few days a week, and use the money you saved to buy your grass-fed beef.  Or take a few minutes to read up on entire cultures where the cuisine revolves around local, affordable, and healthy food grown in that area.

And those unhealthy foods that get me a few macronutrients, maybe my protein and carbohydrate counts for the day?  That’s about all they provide.  And though I can get a package of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups for 59 cents at the dollar store, the peanut butter in those babies isn’t going to keep me satisfied for very long.  A chocolate bar isn’t going to get me anywhere.

Image

If you want more information, start with this great link I found.  20 simple ways to eat healthier on a budget!

Limit my internet time.

No, I don’t pay by the hour for internet.  But I’m also not out working in the garden if I’m on Facebook.  And, each month, my darling family spends a weekend helping me catch up on the housecleaning, the gardening, the yard work… everything that has fallen WAY behind because I just don’t have time for it after I’m done with my paid work.

How much time can you possibly spend on the internet, even if you are a “productive member of society?”  What would you do if you had three more hours a day to catch up on work, or maybe start that new hobby that you’ve been considering for so long?

Image

I’m not the artist here!  But this picture cracked me up.

Use less gas.

We drive a 1997 GMC Yukon.  Do I need to explain further?  Our bikes work great, and so do our feet.  Alternative transportation is trendy right now.  Plus, if I wear enough holes in my shoes, I have a good excuse to buy another cute pair.

Drop a size.

Wait, wait.  Don’t crucify me yet.  It has nothing to do with body image.  (Ok, maybe it does, a little.  More than a little.)

But here’s my reasoning, and this is MY reasoning for my special situation.  I have a complete and very nice wardrobe in my closet, all size 14.  Probably worth at least $1,000 if it was brand new.  And I’m a size 16.  See the obvious solution?  Lose a size, save $1,000.

And how will I lose it?  Maybe if I stop drinking soda, spend all my food money on the high-nutrition items, spend less time on the internet, and vow to use less gas, I’ll just find that I also have a like-new wardrobe.

Springtime Herbs, Already?

What’s the best thing you can grow if you want to improve your health but have almost no gardening space or knowledge?  My vote is herbs.  They’re one of the most expensive items in the produce department.  And one of the easiest to grow.  And the health benefits?  Well, I don’t have enough space to go into all of them.

Last year my herbs included cilantro, oregano, basil, chives, spearmint, lemon balm, parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme.  Yes, that was intentional.  I actually went out and bought thyme seeds so I could complete the quartet.  And as we enjoyed the flavors dinner after dinner, my daughter learned the words to Scarborough Fair.

And today, while I cooked a quiche with four fresh herbs, she asked me to play the song.  But alas, I need to replace my rosemary.  It didn’t make it through the weather.

But look what did!

Chives, oregano, and tiny lemon balm leaves.

Nothing else is ready to harvest.  The onions are barely an inch tall.  The lettuce and chard are just budding.  But I have oregano, thyme, sage, chives, and parsley.

The first four are perennials.  And one of the parsley plants lived through the frost.  How easy is that?

I mentioned health benefits.  These are just some of the health claims of the herbs I grew last year, taken from Nutri Herb and The World’s Healthiest Foods.

Oregano: Antifungal, antimicrobial, and source of vitamins A, C, and K.  Contains antioxidants (four times more powerful than blueberries,) iron, manganese, and omega-3 fatty acids.

Oregano and sage.

Cilantro: An anti-inflammatory, digestive aid, and for treatment of bad breath, it has also been found to lower cholesterol.

Basil: Anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and good for cardiovascular health.

Chives: Keep pests away from other garden crops.  Also, as part of the allium family, they’re good for the lymphatic (disease-fighting) system, and for prevention of cancer.

Spearmint: Good for stress and headache relief, and to help the digestive and respiratory systems.

Lemon balm: Sleeplessness, depression, anxiety.

Parsley: A rich source of Vitamin C, parsley is also good for circulation and rheumatoid arthritis.

Flat leaf Italian parsley, ready to come back for the season.

Sage: Good for indigestion, flatulence, insect bites, and topical infections, sage can also boost brain function.

Rosemary: Can lend antimicrobial properties to the foods you cook.  It’s also a mild appetite suppressant, good for the immune system, and asthma attacks.

Thyme: An astringent, antiseptic, and antifungal, thyme is also a good source of calcium.

Thyme beside baby onions. You can see lettuce and chard seedlings behind the thyme.

Did I mention that I grew all of these in the small spaces beside my other food plants?  I had no large space reserved for herbs.  And, several times during the summer, I advertised free herbs on Facebook because they had produced far more than my family needed, and had to be cut back before they went to seed!

So today, we enjoyed a vegetarian quiche flavored with fresh herbs.  That’s just the beginning.  In addition to those I mentioned I’m growing two kinds of basil, shallots, fennel, and dill.  Most of these will be in between other plants, or in buckets set on the driveway.

How easy is that?

The Bucket Report: Dodging the Weather

As I write this, at 1pm on April 8th, the sun is shining on the patio.  It’s also 38 degrees outside.  Last week, we reached 83 degrees.  I think Mother Nature reserves Reno as a whipping child for all the other places that have chosen to abuse her. 

No, really.  I like it here.  There are far fewer bugs in Reno than any other place I have lived.  We have poor soil and it rains about… oh… five times during the entire summer.  But we have few bugs.

While the wind blows the snowflakes around the budding trees, my potatoes sit nice and cozy in the bay window.

The potato buckets sit cozy with the houseplants.

This is the result of the global buckets we are trying out this year.  And if this past month has been any indication, it will be a tremendous success.  The potatoes are just three weeks old. 

Already past the tops of the buckets.

On March 12th, Russ took all the white plastic buckets we had gathered so far and converted them into global buckets.

5-gallon buckets sit with other gardening supplies.

You can buy these buckets for $3 at most hardware stores.  We would rather get them for free.  And you can get them all over the city, if you know where to look and aren’t embarrassed to walk up to a deli counter and ask for leftover buckets.  Stores go through these like crazy.  They arrive filled with pickles, pineapple chunks, icing…  And much more, I’m sure, but those are the labels we’ve seen so far.  After the stores use the pickles or icing, they toss the buckets into the trash compactor.  Goodbye, perfectly good bucket.

That is, most stores do.  If you go to Whole Foods in Reno, you may be lucky enough to find a stack of buckets at the north entrance, beside the green shopping baskets.  There, I’ve just given away my secret.  And you can’t ask the deli to save them for you, as I have done at the Savemart in my neighborhood.  You have to make it there before someone else grabs them.  Hurry up, because more people are learning this secret.

Each planter takes two buckets.  The bottom bucket is the water reservoir.  The top holds the soil and the plants.  Drill a few holes in the bottom… some for drainage, one for the watering tube, and one for the plastic cup.  The cup wicks the water from the reservoir into the soil, and the tube is used to fill the bottom bucket.  As long as the plant is past the seedling stage, you can mulch the top of the bucket and just water through the tube.  Within a month, I’ve watered my potatoes once.

You can go here to learn how to make them.  We used electrical conduit for the pipe, at a cost of 50 cents for six feet.

To plant the potatoes, we put about four inches of fertile soil in the bottom of nine of the buckets and planted four seed potatoes in each bucket.  While they sprouted, the buckets stayed in the bay window with the tomato and pepper seedlings, with a few plant lights to help out.

The bay window, full of seedlings on March 26th.

 On March 26th, two weeks after planting, the potatoes had barely peeked through. 

All Blue potatoes

Yukon Gold potatoes

 

On the same day, Mother Nature threw another hissy fit, but the potatoes were perfectly safe.  

Just a few days away from April.

A week and a half later, the potatoes had reached the top of the bucket.  We add soil whenever the plants grow six inches above the dirt, and will keep adding soil until the dirt reaches the top.  The potatoes get to go outside and play when the weather is warmer than 40 degrees, and it only takes about two minutes to take everyone outside, thanks to the nice handles already on the buckets.

However, today, they have to stay inside.  It’s for their own good.  I’m sure they understand.

Playing out in the sun with the lettuce, spinach, and tomato seedlings.

Paydirt

Today I had a few extra dollars.  So I went to Walmart to find the best deal on dirt.  Yes, dirt.  In Nevada, two of our most precious gardening commodities are water and dirt, two of the things I try to keep my kids and dogs from tracking into the house.  But if you attempt to garden here, without amending the soil in any way, you’re going to grow something that looks like this:

Nevada dirt

Our soil is very alkaline and extremely clay-heavy. To get a good humus, you actually need water plus green matter to decompose. In Reno we get a little bit of water in the winter, mostly in the form of snow, but the elements just aren’t right for any kind of soil that will grow a good, healthy garden. Good dirt is rare enough here that we plan to build a composter this summer. But my potatoes-in-a-bucket need dirt now.

Potting soil?  That would be great!  But we already have nine 5-gallon-buckets for potatoes.  We also plan to have at least 25 more global buckets containing tomatoes, squash, bell peppers, peas, cucumbers… Well, we just need more dirt. If we filled each of these buckets with potting soil, we would spend at least $80 on dirt.  At least.

So we made it.

In another 5-gallon bucket, I had my husband mix:
1 part storebought garden soil
1 part topsoil from my existing garden
1 part horse manure (from one of my clients’ corrals)
1 part storebought compost (which is more composted wood than anything. Few nutrients.)
2 cups storebought perlite, to help with drainage

Our resulting mix:

Good dirt

Isn’t it pretty? It looks like fudgy chocolate cake or Oreos, all crumbled up into a bowl. That’s a good thing.

The cheapest price we found on garden soil today was $2.75 for 2 cu. feet, which would fill one of our 5-gallon bucket planters if we didn’t stretch it out a little. We’ll probably find a cheaper price later in the season, but right now the selection was a little sparse. The perlite cost $6, but a small bag will be enough to help the drainage in all of our pots this year. The compost was about $4 more, for about 5 cu. feet.  So far, we have spent less than $20.

I have to take a second and mention that this storebought compost is not the “black gold” that you’re going to read about on organic gardening sites. To get the really good compost, you either need to make it ourself or get it from somebody local who has also made it. The garden store compost is mostly decomposed wood. This will really help with the drainage, but it won’t add the kind of nutrients that you would get from composting your kitchen waste.

If you live in my area and you’re going to make your own mix of dirt using existing topsoil, I recommend finding some that is already partially amended, or some that comes from an area close to the river.  Anything you find far from a riparian system is going to be mostly clay, which will bind together and won’t drain well. You can use a little, but don’t depend on it too much.  We learned this last year when a friend brought us a truckload of “good dirt,” finely sifted and free of rocks.  It was great for landscaping, but it was still mostly clay.  When we tried to water it, the water sat on top then ran off, leaving thirsty little plants.

Manure is basically plant matter that the animal has partially composted for you.  But be sure to only use cow (steer,) horse, chicken, sheep, or goat manure.  Don’t use anything that comes from omnivorous animals.  It’s easy to understand why when you realize that those animals eat the same foods that we’re supposed to cook before we eat.  I don’t want to have to worry about e. coli on my spinach or salmonella on my tomatoes. 

This same rule can apply for composting.  I only compost plant-based material, with the exception of eggshells.  Fats and meats don’t decompose as well, and can encourage the growth of the wrong kind of bacteria.  I realize that not everyone does this, and I don’t want to put down anyone else’s techniques, but I choose to feed my animal-based scraps to my dogs.

Next year, we won’t have to spend as much on dirt.  I can store this year’s dirt in a pile, throwing in some leaves, carrot peelings, or eggshells in the fall, and let it break down over the winter.  But by using the manure and the existing topsoil this year, we can stretch the dirt enough to fill all of our global buckets, grow some worthwile produce, and not have to buy a bag of potting soil per bucket.