Monday, June 30, 2014

Resourcefulness Across Generations

We are just back from our trip down south (more on that soon!) and I noticed an interesting difference among the generations in my family.

My grandfather built the house that he and my grandmother live in, some 50+ years ago. He and some friends dug out a foundation, framed the house, and built it, each nail, each brick, each shingle. He was not a carpenter or builder by trade (he was a bus driver), but he had the skills and knowledge to build an entire house.

My parents bought a house that need a lot of work - it was dated and had some weird architectural features. They did the majority of the work themselves. My mother built in bookshelves, removed popcorn ceiling texture, handled painting and wallpapering. My step-father built a floor to raise a sunken room up to the level of the rest of the house.

Peanut and I have some problems with the popcorn ceiling in our bedroom, as I mentioned. Before we went on our trip, I had a professional come out to give me an estimate on what it would cost to fix. Peanut and I had discussed doing the work ourselves, but we were intimidated by the project - it's messy, difficult, and unpleasant work, and we don't know whether there's asbestos in the building materials. For Reasons, only Peanut would physically be able to do the work, which means it would take a longer time than with two of us working. We learned from doing the drywall in the basement that we Do Not Like that kind of DIY work, and we're concerned that we wouldn't wind up doing a good job on the ceiling. So our default assumption was to call in a professional.

I'm a little disappointed at this. I mean, my grandfather BUILT A HOUSE. Which is still standing. And it wouldn't surprise me to learn that he built it for close to the price that this contractor would charge us simply to remove popcorn ceiling texture. And just two generations on, we are so wimpy that we are calling out the professionals for what's not even a renovation, but little more than a repair.

On the other hand, we have a better, more consistent standard of living than my grandparents enjoyed. Paying for a professional to do this would not break the bank, or even touch our emergency fund. It appears that there is water damage causing the crack in our ceiling, and we are well out of our depth in terms of fixing that. The building materials that were used at the time when the ceiling was originally done are now known to be toxic, and we don't know the proper way to deal with disposal and protecting our health while dealing with it. And perhaps we are spoiled, but we don't like the idea of our house being a project zone for weeks on end while Peanut works full time and then comes home to work some more on the house.

I would like to have more DIY skills than I do, but realistically, after working on our basement, I've got a pretty good idea of where my own limitations are, and an appreciation for getting a job done right the first time, even if it costs more than doing it myself. I would like to be as self-sufficient as my grandparents, and someday I hope to have the time to do the kind of work my parents have done on their house, but for now, I think I have to be okay with paying to fix the kinds of things that are "need to fix" like a ceiling leak.

Sous Chef: Salsa Chicken

Click to pin salsa chicken!
Ah - a winner!

I made this salsa chicken recipe on a night when we planned to have company, but bad weather caused a change of plans. Just as well, since it was so tasty, Peanut and I might have decided not to share it!

This is a crockpot meal, which is awesome because it's one pot, no fuss, hardly any mess. It was super simple to throw together, and we all loved it, including Baby M. I served it with black beans and rice, and we all had seconds. 

This is going into regular rotation!

Monday, June 23, 2014

Sous Chef: Braised Salmon and Smashed Potatoes

This week it's a two-fer! I made quick-braised salmon with wilted lettuce (from Everyday Food) and smashed potatoes (from Pinterest) and they were awesome!

Well, I will say that I might skip the lettuce next time. Wilted lettuce is okay, but there are so many other flavorful veggies out there that I might do asparagus or beets or something with a kick. But braising salmon - my mind was blown. I like salmon okay, but I'm a little squicky on how undercooked fish is supposed to be. Braising totally took care of that for me, and it was easier to clean up as well. The only downside was that I bought the fish with skin on, not having read the recipe carefully, and then I had to take the skin off. Next time I will ask for the butcher to do that when I buy it, because that was gross.

The potatoes were super simple - boil for ten minutes, smash, shake with olive oil and salt, sprinkle with dill and bake till crispy. Yum.

Baby M and Peanut were both fans of everything, it was quick to throw together (aside from skinning the fish), and fairly healthy. No leftovers on this one!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Frugal Things I'd Like to Try

For all the things we do to be frugal, there are a bunch more that I'd like to try but for whatever reason haven't put into practice. Here are some that I want to do someday:

Grow a substantial amount of our own food. We have a small garden, and it gives us a bit of produce, but nothing that really cuts down the grocery bill. I'd like to grow enough tomatoes to make and can tomato sauce and salsa, for example, or not buy produce at all during the harvest season. We're not there yet, although we are doing a little better each year.

Sell electricity back to the power company. I'm not sure this is possible given our climate and house location, but I'd love to have solar panels and generate enough electricity to sell some back to the power company.

Never shop at a chain store again. I've been trying to buy used items, shop at locally owned businesses, and otherwise keep my money from flowing upstream into large corporate coffers, but it's really hard to do that and be frugal, especially with kids. Not impossible! Just hard, and I've not been up to the challenge yet. Grocery shopping would be my biggest challenge - there are a couple of local convenience stores, but I haven't found any place that could replace my regional chain for most staples.

Drop to one car, or even no cars. It was nice being car-free in New York City but it's not as practical where we are now. We could easily get by with one car (and do in the winter) but we can afford two cars right now and we are enjoying having that freedom. It would be nice someday to live in a very urban environment again, but we'll see if that ever comes to fruition.

Keep bees. Why not? I've tasted fresh honey from someone's backyard hives, and oh, man. It's incomparable.

Air dry all laundry. I air dry a lot of my stuff - only underwear and socks make it into the dryer from my hamper. More of Peanut and Baby M's stuff goes into the dryer, along with towels and sheets, but when it's nice out I still try to hang what I can outside. Our basement is too damp in the winter for this to work well, though, so I guess I will have to wait until I live somewhere warm and windy for that to happen for everything.

What are some frugal things you'd like to try? 

Monday, June 16, 2014

Sous Chef: Falafel Pitas with Yogurt Sauce

Falafel with yogurt sauce - click the picture to pin!

My favorite New York City street food was falafel, but I've never tried to make it. Recently I decided to whip some up from scratch.

The pin here is NOT the recipe I used for the falafel itself - that one is lost to time and space, and it's a good thing because it didn't work. It called for a can of mashed chickpeas and some spices, mixed up and made into patties. Well, friends, mashed up chickpeas do not make patties - they just fall apart. So I improvised, and added an egg, and some flour, and got some patties and fried them up and they were fine. I think next time I will try this falafel recipe.

I did make the yogurt sauce here, though - I know tahini is traditional, but I hate tahini sauce, so I tried this. It was super simple, and pretty good, except it was awfully sweet - that's when I realized I had bought VANILLA yogurt instead of plain. Oops! (In my defense, it was a bad container design - the lid of the container does not say vanilla, it's only on the front - and the way yogurt is presented in my store and my fridge, I only ever see the top!)

We had falafel in pita sandwiches with lettuce, tomato, and red onion. I'll try it again, but this time with plain yogurt!

Friday, June 13, 2014

Stuff I want to spend money on: house edition

One of the reasons I was thinking about what we're spending on house maintenance is that there's so much that I want to do to the house, and I just feel like we're pouring money into it. Well, clearly, we're not, but for posterity, here's a list of things that I really want to spend money on for the house.

* Remove popcorn ceiling upstairs. This one might wind up being done sooner than later, as a bit above our bed has started to crack and it's going to fall eventually. We're investigating taking care of this ourselves, but we're pretty sure there's asbestos, and I don't think we're equipped to handle that properly, especially with a kid with lung problems in the house (plus, removing popcorn ceiling texture is awful work!). We're going to price it out and see if we can afford to just have that part fixed or removed now, or maybe do all of it (two rooms plus a landing and stairway), or try a little fix and hope it holds til we've got more cash on hand.

* Fix the front steps. The flight of stairs leading from the sidewalk to the house has been cracked and in not great condition since we bought the place. We'll probably need to fix this someday.

* Refinish hardwood floors and replace all carpet. Having a refluxy baby did a number on the floors in this house. This stuff will have to be done before we can ever sell the house, but I think we'll live with it until we are done with having little kids around.

* Redo the backyard. We have a lovely landscaped backyard, but the longer we're here the more problems we find with some of the stuff that's back there. Certain plants seem invasive and need to be eradicated, there's a totally dead tree and one we wish would die, a lilac bush that's overtaking some power lines, parts of the yard are inaccessible and should be landscaped, other parts should be unlandscaped and turned into a vegetable garden, a slate step needs replacing, a set of stairs needs a new railing to be up to code, and I'm sure I'm forgetting things. Peanut and I have differing opinions of what should be done where and when, and since he does most of the yardwork he really should get the final say. At any rate, all of this stuff is "nice to do" when we've got the time and money.

* In my wildest dreams, completely redo the kitchen and upstairs bathroom. Not gonna happen, probably, but nice to think about. I had wanted an island or breakfast bar in my dream kitchen, and mine has neither, and I wince to think about sharing the only full bathroom with a teenage girl - no counter space! But it's all easily manageable for now.

Any home projects you're dreaming of? 

Thursday, June 12, 2014

How much does it cost to maintain a house?

When we were looking at buying a house, I did a lot of reading. I found that in general, books and websites advised prospective homeowners to consider maintenance costs in addition to their mortgage payments. Most experts break this down as a percentage of home value, usually 1-2% per year. Trent at the Simple Dollar cites 1% (the number his family uses), though I've seen other blogs recommend as much as 4%. Money Smart Blog breaks this down further into figuring the value of your land versus the value of the structures and basing the amount on the life expectancy of each component that will require maintenance - but that got way too complicated for me.

We decided to keep it simple, and just build a large enough emergency fund to cover major maintenance costs to our home, rather than having that as a separate fund and putting aside a specific percentage. The way we figure, replacing a furnace or broken window counts as an emergency. Fixing a basement damaged by flooding is covered by insurance, and the deductible is an emergency. Replacing stained carpet or adding a patio would NOT be emergencies, and we would save up for those purchases outside of a home maintenance fund anyway.

Recently I wondered whether that 1% rule seems valid. We've been in our house 2 1/2 years now, and we've had some big and little emergencies with regards to maintenance. Here's where we stand:

Home value when purchased: $230,000 (the assessed tax value is less than that, but we'll go with purchase price since that's the number I always remember offhand)

Maintenance costs: $6,584.28 (this includes a new furnace after rebates, a bit of work on the old furnace, two visits from the plumber, deductible and out of pocket expenses for fixing the basement after it flooded, lightbulbs and other bits and bobs for the house and necessary equipment for taking care of the yard - so lawn mower supplies but not flowers, for example)

This is 2.86% of the value of our house. BUT! That's over 2.5 years. So clearly, the 1% average is true for us so far. Neat! The big outlay for the furnace has felt really huge to me since we made it, but seeing it average in with our other expenses makes it hurt a lot less.

In comparison, we made mortgage payments of $38,559.71 during that same time period, so it's good to know that our house is not exactly a money pit.

How much does it cost to keep up the place where you live?

Monday, June 9, 2014

Sous Chef: Herbed Ricotta Pasta with Zucchini and Corn

Click to pin!
This week's Sous Chef recipe comes from one of the many, many, (many) copies of Everyday Food I've been collecting for a long time. I love zucchini, and I was really tired of pasta with red sauce, so this pricked my interest.

Prep: This comes together really easily. It takes only a few minutes longer than pasta does to boil, so it's quick to get on the table - maybe 20 minutes start to finish. In the recipe from the magazine, it makes use of zucchini that was grilled earlier in the week, so if you're able to do that, it's a one-pot meal, too! I never had that ready to go, so I just sauteed the zucchini while the pasta cooked, and it worked fine.

Taste: I think this is a really tasty dish, and fairly healthy  - I use full fat ricotta but you could sub low-fat with no problem. I subbed dried herbs for fresh ones, simply because that's what I had on hand, but I bet with fresh this would be amazing.

Reception: Baby M thought this was awesome (toddler friendly!) but Peanut thought it was just okay. He's not crazy about corn, but I think he felt, as I kind of did, that while this is good, it needs something else to make it a meal. It's not quite protein-y enough for a main dish, but awfully filling for a side dish. It'll stay in my repertoire but I'll have to figure out a filling second dish to serve it with. Suggestions?

Anecdata: Makes enough for two adults with one meal of leftovers. Reheats okay; cheese gets a little gritty as opposed to the smoothness when it's fresh out of the pot.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Going on a road trip!

We've been planning to take Baby M south to see my family for some time, and back in March we toyed with the idea of driving. Well, that's for real now, and I'm starting to hammer out a budget for it.

Rental Car 
We chewed over whether to put the wear and tear on our car or spring for a rental car, and after looking closely at the gas mileage we've been getting on ours, we decided to rent a small SUV. It'll get about the same gas mileage but it will be so much more comfortable. I tried to Name My Own Price but didn't get any good deals for such a long rental, so we booked directly with Avis. I will try to find a coupon or something to bring in when we pick up the car. I verified that our car insurance will cover the rental in full, and our credit card company will cover the deductible as well. We have roadside assistance through our family cell phone plan, so we should be set here. Expected Cost: $363. 

Our next biggest expense, and an unavoidable one. Gasbuddy's trip cost calculator estimates $247.62 roundtrip at today's gas prices. Since we'll be driving around locally at our destination, I'll estimate at least one extra tank of gas and call it an even $300 expected cost. 

We'd thought of driving through the night to save on this cost, and if it were just the two of us I think we'd do it, but since we've got a baby in the back seat, safety trumped expediency. We expect to spend three, or possibly four, nights in hotels on this trip. I'll look for Priceline deals or coupons on the road, but we'll budget $300 for this as well.

Finally, a category where I might actually be able to save some money! I'll be packing a lot of our own snacks for the drive - we have to take a cooler for Baby M's medicine and blended food anyway, so we might as well stock it with healthy (and some junk) food to save us money on the way. Fruit, granola bars, beef jerky, water - any other suggestions? We will probably stop for at least one "real" meal per driving day just for a sanity break, but hopefully we'll get breakfast at our hotels to balance out that spending. All of Baby M's food will be coming from our pantry. We'll try to make food instead of going out when we're at our destination, although in reality I know we'll be eating out quite a bit there as well.

Um, what else might we spend money on? Maybe we'll go to a movie, while we have grandparents to babysit. We will have to have someone take care of our cat and garden while we're gone, so a nice gift is in order there. We've already ordered a car charger for our phones, so I guess you could consider that $3.99 as part of our trip expenses. I might pick up some dollar store toys for Baby M to distract her from the long hours in the car, but otherwise I think I have everything covered.

Anyone have road trip tips for me? It's been a long time since I've done this. Snacks to pack or avoid, ways to entertain a baby in the car, or great podcast suggestions welcome!

Sunday, June 1, 2014

June Goals

1. Set a budget for our trip, and stay within it. Rental car, gas, hotels, food on the road, and incidentals - I think we can accomplish all of this for less than $1,500. I'd like to do it for less than $1,000, but I don't want to get too carried away.

2. Aside from the trip and a few planned outings, don't eat out. Peanut goes out for lunch once a week, but I have been throwing caution to the wind and letting other people cook for me too often. Time to rein it in!

3. Finish two quilts. I have two quilts very nearly finished - they need just a little touch-up work by hand. I want to get these off my to-do pile! (I'd say it's for the thrill of accomplishing things, but really, I've got such fun new stuff to work on, and I won't let myself start a new project until these are DONE. But that's boring, so instead I avoid my sewing room altogether and waste time on Reddit.) Let's get creative up in here!