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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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Backyard Chickens: They’ve Started!

When I got my first egg last week, I snapped a cell phone picture and flashed it around to my friends.  They called me amazing.  Though it was a great ego boost, I wasn’t the one that laid the egg.  Now THAT would have been amazing.

Don't worry... they get bigger.

My 6-month-old pullets had started laying.  It was a tiny egg, compared to a white storebought egg, but it was only the first.  The hens aren’t even fully grown yet.

Four days later, a second hen laid her first egg.  Today, I got three eggs.  One hen left to go.  Right now, I’m averaging about an 18-pack of eggs per week.

The breakfast lineup, 3 from today and 1 leftover from yesterday.

Backyard chicken farming is growing in popularity, as people realize how easy and rewarding it is.  Cheaper?  Well, that depends on what you look for in your eggs.  If you normally buy the white, mass-produced eggs from the cheapest grocery store possible, you’re pretty much going to break even.  But if you look for a little more from your food, you’re going to win by raising your own.

See? It's my duty.

The USDA released this poster in the 1920s, back when people were encouraged to work more to provide for their families, rather than pay into the economy to do it.  (Sorry, that was a rather biased opinion.  But we’re currently using that bias to help us survive in this economy.)

In the coming weeks, I’ll add a couple more blog posts dealing with how you can raise your own chickens, especially in an urban environment.  For now, I’ll focus on the nutritional value of the eggs themselves.

I’ve already received offers from several of my clients, asking to buy my extra eggs.  As one client said, “I pay over $5 a dozen for free-range eggs, and I can’t always guarantee that they’re really free-range.”  To that client, something like this is important to her:

4 months old, enjoying a grass salad.

Or this…

Mmmmm... overripe tomatoes!

(She’s in her Halloween costume.  We’re not quite so earthy that my children run around in medieval costumes on a regular basis.)

Why do people choose free-range eggs over regular eggs?

First of all, let me clarify something.  “Cage-free” means “not kept in a cage.”  It doesn’t mean that the chicken is out playing in the sunshine, or that it has any more allotted space in the barn.  Cage-free chickens may still live in a cramped and filthy environment, wading through feces, unable to really exercise.  “Free-range” means the coop has access to the outdoors.  It doesn’t guarantee how often the chickens get to actually go outdoors, or the quality of the outdoor environment.

To really know how your eggs were produced, you need to research the supplier.  The most credible suppliers will show pictures of their farms, guaranteeing the environment of the animals.  The most credible suppliers are also the most expensive.  Just saying.

So there’s our first reason: humane living.  Now, chickens are simple animals which don’t require a lot of fancy accommodations.  They need to be clean, they need access to healthy food and water, and they need exercise.

Is humane living important to you?  What qualifies humane?  Does it matter to you that the chicken is allowed to eat its natural omnivorous diet, which includes greens and bugs?  (A “vegetarian” diet is NOT a chicken’s natural diet.  Bugs are one of their favorite snacks.)  And are you willing to justify the cost of your food by these criteria?

How about a second reason?  Nutrition.  Now, there are several differing opinions on this.

This article says there is no nutritional difference.  (I have to note that this author is also a naysayer to the natural-foods industry in general.)  This article also doesn’t define what kind of “free-range” environment the chickens in the study lived in.

This article from Mother Earth News lists several nutritional components that the previous article doesn’t even go into, including omega-3s, vitamin D, saturated fat, and cholesterol.

I’ll give you a third source of information…

One of these eggs is not like the others...

When I felt the shells, they were smooth and glossy, not textured like hardened leather.  (A leathery shell, which will later harden, indicates a calcium deficiency in the chicken.)  While cracking the eggs, I noticed that the shells were twice as thick.  And here you see a much darker yolk color, compared to a conventional egg… orange coloring in foods usually indicates increased levels of beta carotene, vitamin E, and/or iron.

And how about another reason to raise your own chickens…

Fresh eggs on homemade 7-grain bread.

Mmmmmm… what a spoiled husband I have.

It’s Not Really Robbery…

…Because they’re not lying.  You’re just not reading the labels.

Are you paying extra because you don’t realize what you’re buying?  Here are some of the largest ripoffs in the supermarket, and how you can avoid paying extra for them:

Some organic produce: Ever wonder why organic bananas really aren’t that much more expensive than conventional bananas?  It partly has to do with the lack of natural predators to the banana.  And what’s worse?  You don’t need to eat organic bananas.  If you remove a thick peel before eating the produce, you’re already throwing away the pesticides.  This includes bananas, mangos, pineapple, onions, avocados… I can go on.  So what needs to be organic?  The “dirty dozen” are peaches, apples, sweet bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, pears, imported grapes, spinach, lettuce, and potatoes.  The least contaminated are onions, avocado, sweet corn, pineapples, mango, asparagus, frozen sweet peas, kiwi, bananas, cabbage, broccoli, and papaya.  And organic wool clothing?  Um… that’s going a little far.

Hormone-free poultry: Last Thanksgiving, I counted at least five Facebook friends who felt better about their dinners because they had spent extra money on “hormone-free turkey.”  The truth?  Since the mid-70s, the USDA has regulated that hormones can only be used in beef.  No pork, no poultry.  So why do some poultry companies still advertise “hormone-free?”  I’ll let anyone who has ever paid more for their chicken answer that for you.  Antibiotics, however, fall into a completely different category.  If you don’t want antibiotics in your meat, make sure it says “no antibiotics” on the label.  Because, chances are, a farmer gave that animal some medicine to keep it healthy before it reached the slaughterhouse. 

Really? You don't say!

“Cage-free” chicken or eggs: Have you ever seen Food, Inc.?  I did, and it wasn’t nearly as left-wing as I expected it to be.  The living conditions they portray for chicken and beef are very realistic.  “Cage-free” only means that the chicken is not confined to a cage its entire life.  The bird can still have the same allotted space per animal, giving it only a few inches to walk around.

 

All natural products: Ok, I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again.  “All natural” is a marketing phrase.  So often, I’ve heard people say, “It’s all natural, so it’s safe.”  Rattlesnake venom is all natural!  Plus, define “all natural.”  If a human has picked a spinach leaf and stuffed it in a plastic bag, is it still natural?  What about the seafood pulled from the Gulf of Mexico during the BP oil spill?  That was rather natural seafood, with rather natural (and organic) crude oil all over it.  Next time you see these two words on a food or cosmetic label, just pretend they don’t exist.  Because that’s about all they mean.

Fruit drinks: Contains real fruit juice!  Right.  How much fruit juice?  And what else is in it?  Usually water, high fructose corn syrup, and maybe a bit of added wheat starch.  If the label contains the words “drink,” “beverage,” or “punch,” keep reading the label.  Check how much fruit juice is actually in it.

 The label tells you how much actual juice you get.

Cartoon characters: I read in a related article on grocery ripoffs, “You know there’s trouble when the food needs a mascot.”  These are normally sugary products, and most of the money you spend on them goes to marketing.  My kids constantly ask for brightly-dyed high-fructose yogurt with the right cartoon characters.  They’re getting older, so at least they understand me now when I argue that I don’t want to pay for a label.  But they still beg for it.

Laundry products: We can go both ways on this.  You can pay less for a bottle of bleach, only to read the label and find it has been diluted with water.  Or you can pay extra for a “concentrated” liquid laundry detergent and end up using just as much because you don’t pay attention to the lines on the cap.  Detergent companies stumbled onto something great when they realized this.  They offer less detergent, in a smaller bottle, and you buy more of it because you don’t realize how little it takes to do a load of laundry.  The most powerful cleaning agent in your washing machine is the water, and the force of the water as it agitates through your clothes.  The soap gives the dirt something to stick to, and it really doesn’t take that much to break the surface tension of the water and lift the dirt.

Shrinking containers: Look at the bottom of your peanut butter.  Is the container flat, or does it have a concave dimple?  That dimple allows the manufacturer to reduce a few ounces and sell it to you for the same price.  And they’re sneaky about it.  Your soft drink may come in a bottle that looks identical to the old one, but through brilliant design holds much less soda.  The doubly brilliant part?  They also slap a “value” label on it, and you really do think you’re only paying a dollar for the same thing that was a dollar five years ago… but also contained four or six more ounces back then.  The key to avoiding this trick?  Read the product volume.  It legally has to be there.  Balance the price with the volume to determine which product is a better deal per ounce. 

Now with two fewer servings!

Brand names: My ex-husband once worked at a cereal manufacturing plant.  They made flaked cereals, extruded (ring-shaped) cereals… all the popular shapes and sizes.  And partway through the manufacturing process, they stopped to switch box labels.  Often, they would stop long enough to switch the brand name box with a generic box.  That’s proof that it’s often the same product in either container, and the brand name just takes your money.  Alright, what about non-cereal products?  Does the egg carton claim they use genetically superior chickens, or is the milk from a creamier cow?  I agree that there are certain products that are only good if you use that particular brand.  I do buy some name brands, for these products.  But there aren’t that many.

Fillers: It’s the difference between 100% Parmesan cheese and the other stuff.  It’s what they use to make expensive potato “crisps” that come in a tube.  It’s why imitation crab is so much cheaper than real crab, and why celiacs shouldn’t eat it.  Buying a product that was “made with real maple syrup” may be less expensive than 100% maple syrup, but consider the amount of maple you’re getting compared to the amount of high fructose corn syrup you’re getting.  If you compared those two ingredients on their own, in the quantities you receive, you’ll probably realize you’re paying extra. 

At least it tastes a little like crab.

Light and fluffy: You may like your bread light and fluffy.  And often, the fluffier bread has fewer calories.  But what do you think makes it fluffy?  Air.  That’s what makes whipped yogurt, or slow-churned ice cream, have the nice texture.  If you don’t mind paying for the air, go ahead and indulge in the fluffy product.  I like my air to be free.

Do you have any other grocery ripoffs to list?  Please feel free to comment!