Saturday, February 6, 2010

February is Budgetary Diet Month

I started writing this weeks ago, early in the month.

We are used to operating our living expenses with a certain amount of cushion, but since the little girl arrived, our budget has been thrown all out of whack. In addition, December and January are always hard months financially. Not only do we have to get through the shopping and gift-giving season intact, but January slams us hard with insurance premiums, car registrations, and large heating bills. And then there is everyday life to fund. It's not unusual to have an overdraft or two! ack!, although it always comes as a surprise - noooo! Our credit union is very supportive and forgiving, but still, it's not a happy place to be to have saved funds being transferred around. It doesn't help our savings, either. We like our savings and want to keep our balances happy.

This year, we will get purchases back under control. So this month, February, we are restraining ourselves from unnecessary and extraneous purchases. We are going on a budget diet!

I got this idea from Magpie Girl's year-long clothing diet and American Family's budget diet last year.

We are of course continuing to pay for the kitchen project that needs to be kept moving along, but that's an investment that is all coming out of savings anyway. We also have some baby-related expenses that we purchase to keep ahead of her, for instance, we will likely need another baby gate sometime soon. But enough with all the add-ons!

Of course, food is always a necessary purchase, but we are buying only modest staples that will be kind to the budget. No wild purchases of extra special foods. No stocking up on non-immediate needs.

My real weakness is clothing (to some degree), fancy food, chocolate, and items for the baby. Well, I have lots of so-called gazingus pins, those things that we always feel compelled to buy, even if we already a drawer full at home, or have thrown out or piled up more than we will ever need.

But I resolve to stay strong!

Some of the purchases off the list:

One of those lovely, chic scarves I've been coveting for the past six months.
More socks or pajamas for the baby.
Dance shoes I've needed new ones for the last two years! boo-hoo! My feet are not happy.
Any clothing for the two of us, including new pants for myself, new shoes, or new shirts that actually fit. Or clothing for dancing which actually fits. I've been eyeing several things, but I am restraining myself.
Music CDs. Although I know of several friends who have had new releases coming out, we are just going to have to wait.
Having our trees in the front yard pruned. I'm hoping to make this a March project.
Color ink for the printer.
Any new books, such as making baby food or whatnot.
A dish drainer. Our old one is finally falling apart, but it's still functional enough for a bit longer.
New fabric for curtains. Also, new curtain rods.
Any new tea mugs. I resist mightily.
Any new toys or books for the kiddo.
A Sesame Street DVD.
Ice cream. No over-priced small servings, just bowls from the cartons we already have in the freezer.
No more fresh/flash-frozen salmon. I can get it on sale at the co-op sometimes, but even on sale, a few fillets can kick up the grocery bill considerably. I have other fish in the freezer to work with.
Renewing our newspaper subscription. Waiting until next month because I can.
A new changing table/storage unit for the baby's room. We do need this, but we are hanging on for a while longer.
A new bookcase for the living room. We've been talking about this a lot, but it's not an immediate need.
New spices. Lots of my old ones are kinda dingy, but at best, I'll replace them a few at a time.
New spice containers.
Extra juice. Extra calories and extra dollars on the weekly food bill. One kind of container of one kind of juice is enough, really.
Any new pens, new markers, new colorful index cards. I've already got enough to work with. Really.
Bulk packages of any office or household supplies.
Fancy cheeses. Again, something that is best not indulged in every month. Sigh.
Fresh-baked cookies or danishes or croissants from the co-op. Ditto. Drool and sigh.
Large checks for charities. I am sometimes willfully generous, but a number of those at once can be bad news.
A major tune up for the truck. Although it does need it.
A duo-headset for watching movies at night. This was actually to be a Valentine's Day present from my husband, but I convinced him to hold off a few more weeks.
New household tools!!! Ahem. Do we need a handheld jigsaw? Oh, right - I guess so.

And there's even more that I can't even remember right now.

Needless to say, I have not had any sushi in weeks. Nay, months! Although if I did manage to schedule a lunch with any of my friends, I would not turn it down. But basically, I will try to stay away from Target, Costco, and IKEA. And sushi. I will make my list and stick to it.

Some things that stay on the list:

Chocolate Well, we can't give it up entirely, but we can cut back. When we eat up our portion, sorry, it is GONE.
Greens. Mmm, greens. Just not the fancy things out of season.
Extra food purchases for a local school's food bank. I can certainly afford to contribute some cans of tuna and jars of peanut butter.

How has this been working?

Not badly. When we remember something we need to get, we jot it down on the little white board on the fridge. Then before we go out shopping, we compile a list of *everything* we'll need to remember, arranged by store. That helps a lot by keeping me focused on what I am looking for and avoiding purchases that are not on the list.

Then I only go to stores and sections in which I need something! When I get entranced by something unnecessary Oo, shiny cute blouses! Books! Cheeeese! , I remind myself that I'm not buying extraneous items this month. More than once, I have put back a number of things after I found myself absent-mindedly picking them up and walking away with them in the cart. When I DO see something that we might actually want/need, I write it down or make a mental note. Maybe later, it will still feel important, but for now, Nonono!

I also look over our receipts every so often. While I'm separating the totals for different categories for the budget book, I'm also seeing what items have inflated our spending. It's true that certain unavoidable expenses for the little girl are pretty steep, but did I need to get that expensive cleaner or that many bars of chocolate in one week? Often not. Looking over the receipts has also shown me that the cost of our basic groceries are not too, too bad. Fruit, vegetables, and other basics (in season) are often not that expensive. It's when we add the extra snack foods or the extra-special something-or-other, or The Best Organic Produce, or items that we don't actually need right now, that the totals get inflated.

Purchases that have slipped through:

An almond croissant (new recipe and on sale), and a small book for the little girl. I also bought a couple of boxes of girl scout cookies from the daughter of a friend. I also bought a modest wedge of fresh asagio cheese, but it was on sale, really! I guess I can hold off on chocolate, but cheese and books are still a weakness. Also: library late fines. Ahhhhhhh!

Despite my slip-ups, I have resisted so. many. other. things - both large and small - that the month has felt like a success overall. A couple more days of restraint, and we'll reassess our balance. I have to think that this habit of financial restraint might be worth keeping.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Green Peas & Toasters: Where Quality and Thrift Collide

Where do quality and thrift collide, you ask? For me, it's at green peas and toasters.

Let me tell you this saga.

I love green peas, frozen, not canned. I have fond childhood memories of simmering them in water until their skins puff up and they are just tender, neither too hard nor at all mushy, then sprinkled with a grind of black pepper. Even now, I can eat a huge plate of them in one sitting. But a couple years ago, my green pea experience started being tough and tasteless. I would start to dig into a serving, and find myself unable to eat them. Bleh! I was baffled and disappointed. My lovely peas! I just could not eat them. I thought this might be leftover food sensitivity from my pregnancy, but the tasteless peas lingered. I finally gave up on ever eating greens peas again. If I was just going to keep throwing away plates of peas, what was the point?

I mentioned the sad situation to one of my foodie friends. She said - "Oh, they are probably irradiated. The heat makes them tougher."

Now, I had not heard of irradiation toughening vegetables. After all, it's supposed to help increase shelf life, not decrease quality, right? But whatever the cause of it, I realized that it wasn't me; it was indeed the peas. It was a sad, sad day. I love peas!

But anyway, I started looking for alternatives. I tried different varieties. I tried I don't know how many different brands in hope of retrieving my earlier experience, but nothing really lived up to my ideal. Damn tasteless peas!

The only brand that came close was an organic label from Oregon, sold in small expensive bags at my local food co-op. I took a breath and bought a bag on sale for under three dollars!

Well. They were good. Really quite good. Good enough to eat on a regular basis. Other than being nearly a dollar a serving, of course. I would have to restrain myself and eat only one serving at a time, which for me is a very modest portion. I couldn't justify eating the whole bag at one sitting at that price! (I've eaten gourmet muffins for that price, but those are huge portions and a different story.)

So I'm thinking to myself: is this a dilemma for the modern age? So many things have been getting cheaper and cheaper -- cheap clothing, cheap food -- but they are not really better at all. The quality that one used to be able to expect as a matter of course is not only harder to find, but much more expensive. And so to have the same quality one had before one will have to pony up the cash to support it.

Which reminds me of cheap clothing. I am still astounded at the common tendency to throw away clothes after a year or two. Who does this? I'm still wearing some of my clothes from twenty years ago, and they have held up all this time, some of it just recently starting to fray. I thought it was just our disposable society at work, but apparently, it's true - all that cheap clothing doesn't hold up at all. What is this crap clothing? It's the new normal, I guess. That's "prosperity" for you - you think you are getting glitzed out, but it all goes threadbare in a year.

Ah. So to buy really excellent, decent quality clothing (if one can find it), one will be paying some big bucks, apparently. Same things as with the peas.

I am not willing to buy all organic food any more because I just can't afford it, but I need my green peas. I'll dole it out like gold bullion or high-end chocolate.

Did they pick these peas by hand? Sing them lullabies? Pay off the agribusiness mob? For two-thirds of a cup per dollar? Okay, okay, I'm sure that's what it actually costs to produce quality food these days, living wage and organic practices and all, and it's worth it, but oh, my!

Lesson learned: to get something of quality, sometimes you just have to pay the true price of its value.

That brings me to toasters.

I had a very nice toaster once upon a time. Wide slots, useable settings, even heating, quiet yet distinctive pop-up. Must have been twenty-some years ago. One day, the toaster died, and I went off in search of a replacement. I found plenty of inexpensive toasters, so I bought one. You might guess where this is going. Yes, that toaster lasted me about fifteen months before it too died. Now I do eat a lot of toast, but this was ridiculous.

Off I went to look for yet another new toaster. The really good high-quality toasters with metals sides and innards were upwards of US $130. I love my toast, but that was not in the budget. I looked a little closer and noticed that most of the toasters available were made of cheap, flimsy plastic. I could not find a decent toaster without plastic! They were all just as flimsy than the toaster that had just died.

In disgust, I stomped off, refusing to buy any of that crap. I made toast in my broiler for more than a year, and it was good if a trifle inconvenient. Piers Anthony wrote a funny philosophical short story once about the simple pleasure of toast through the space ages, but I digress...

Flash forward a couple years, and I was browsing through a thrift store and spotted a toaster. An older toaster with some life left in it. It was modest, a bit beat up. It was metal! I took it home for seven dollars, and I've had it ever since. It is now even more beat up, but still it keeps going. I don't know what I'm going to do when that one finally kicks the bucket. Does anyone know how to fix toasters any more? I mean, fix toasters in this country where it's cheaper to buy something new than to fix a perfectly good appliance. pause to roll eyes

It's true; I had my sewing machine cleaned and refurbished a couple years ago, and it cost me at least as much it would to buy a brand new machine. But, as the repair mechanic noted with a touch of awe, it has metal parts, and "you just can't find that any more." I told him there was no way I was giving up my old machine. I think he was pleased. I know I was delighted.

Lesson learned: if you are lucky enough to have anything "old fashioned" yet well-made, hang onto it for dear life, or you'll be stuck with a steady stream of cheaply-made plastic crap.

I think this is just the way it is these days: a profusion of cheap goods and a small selection of really quality goods for those able to discern the difference and willing to pay.

And why are so many of our goods getting cheaper and, well, cheaper? I'll leave you to contemplate the variety of likely reasons. Too big of a conversation for this post. I'm no economist, but I've learned a few things from green peas and toasters.

Monday, February 1, 2010

*8 Things on My Bedside Table

Hiya, People. Long time no write. So let me get to it.

Here's another *8 Things* theme from Magpie Girl.

*8 Things on My Bedside Table

1. Alarm clock. I live with a compact travel alarm. Very light, very cleanly designed. The next thing about it is that it has a graduated alarm.

It starts out softly peeping. Peep-peep, peep-peep. Then it gets a little louder. Bee-beep! Bee-beep! Then it progresses to Be-be-be-Beep! Be-be-be-Beep! And then even louder. And finally (if I haven't woken up enough to turn it off yet, it screams at me. Beebeebeebeebeebeebee!

2. Large glow-in-the-dark stars and moons. I like how they continue to glow after I've turned out the light.

3. Half-egg shaped ceramic stoneware pinch-pot by potter Jim Thompson. This is the perfect shape to cradle in my palm.

4. Eye pillow. Just the right weight for tired eyes. Covered in vivid cranberry silk.

SP-Restful Pillows

5. Photo of my husband from early in our relationship.

6. Box of facial tissues.

7. Hand lotion. I am greedy for the little sample bottles of hand lotion from the Hampton Inn. Lovely stuff. You can't get it commercially other than by staying the night, so I am eking out the ones I have. Right next to the little bottles is a huge bottle of Aveeno hand lotion. My husband and I both adore Aveeno moisturizing products. Although they can be a little pricey, we haven't been able to talk ourselves out of buying them, because give us results!

8. A very small, glossy print of one of Mary Cassett's mother-and-child paintings, cut out from a calender I had some twenty years ago. Before I was a mother, this reminded me of the tender feelings of parenting. When I was trying to have children, this kept some snuggly baby energy in my life, even when it was too painful to think about. Since my daughter has come into my life, it still sits propped up on the photo of my husband because it still has lovely energy.

Now, I actually have tons more nearby and at hand because I really have a bedside bookshelf, but let's stick with the top. :)

How about you? What sits on your bedside table?