Random ramblings on finances

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This post has been brewing at the back of my mind for a long time, and though it’s going to be long and rambling, I do feel that I need to share it.

Before I was married, my husband and I had it all figured out. We would raise our family in a peaceful rural setting and live a very simple life. We would give up the luxuries and extras that come with a second income in favor of having a stay-at-home mother who is always there for her children.

It worked well enough for a couple of years, but then our family hit a rut of unemployment and under-employment, and our financial situation was further worsened by unfortunate decisions that made us lose a lot of money.

I had become an expert on pinching pennies, buying second hand clothes, frugal cooking and baking, doing all I could to minimize the electric bill. We had a vegetable garden, chickens and goats that provided us with eggs and dairy products, and we gleaned what we could from the wild-growing bounty in our area. We ate through the stockpile we made in better days. We stopped going to weddings and other festive occasions because we couldn’t afford to give the presents in money that people expected. As a matter of fact, we could barely afford the gas to get there and back.

Saving money helped. It helped a lot, and it taught me that it’s actually possible to live, and live well, on an income far below average. But it wasn’t enough.

There comes a point when you just need some cold hard cash to pay your taxes and utility bills and to buy some basic groceries, and no degree of frugality can get you around that one. You need some sort of income… And, at that point, we had none.

I was incredibly frustrated. First off, I spent way too much time griping about how things are not the way they are “supposed” to be. Then, when I began to look about me and see what I can do to bring in some money, I saw flexible and convenient positions opening just a short drive away, but they might as well have been on Mars for all the good it did, because I had no car and no public transportation in the area. I didn’t even have the smooth uninterrupted phone and Internet connection needed for most telecommuting jobs.

I did what I could, of course. I got more serious about my writing, both fiction and nonfiction, approaching it for the first time as more than a hobby. I published and sold books and articles. I began providing editing and proofreading services.

Finally came the move here, which allowed us to cut down on gas and car use, and gave us a roof over our heads (we live in a house that belongs to family). We still retained our own house, and were lucky enough to get very good, responsible renters and a steady trickle of income. I now have a reliable Internet connection, which has enabled me to set myself up as an independent contractor with several translation, transcription and proofreading agencies. I am still right here at home for my children, but I now see I can do a lot more than I thought, and it’s incredibly empowering .

A few insights:

1. Being a wife and mother, and running a home, is a full-time  occupation. I really don’t need anything else to have my hands full, but I realized I can juggle if necessary. If I didn’t have to think about money at all, I would just focus on my family and my fiction writing.

2. Looking back, I would probably think twice before agreeing to live in a location where I would be utterly and completely unable to get anywhere and would depend on my husband for every little errand, including the post office, the doctor and the bank. It eventually led to feelings of extreme frustration and helplessness. Remote rural living in a cheaper area can potentially save a lot of money, but when it comes to making money, you can find yourself stuck with no options.

3. It is no use to sit around and mope about how things should have been, what you could have done differently, what your spouse could have done… Just get up, shake off the dust and move on. I wish I had realized this sooner, and had been more flexible and less dogmatic. It would have saved me a good deal of grief.

So what next? The future is foggy, but things are infinitely better already. We have a steady roof over our heads. We live in a place where we are close to everything we need. And it’s still rustic enough that I can hear roosters crowing every morning. Life is good.

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Some of the best things are free

Things are pretty crazy here with the holidays and me trying to put the house in order after the move, but I just wanted to share a couple of old photos I came across while browsing through my files… these are our dining table and chairs, delivered to our house by my sister-in-law some 8 years back. Friends of hers got a new dining set and were giving the old one away, and she thought of us – at the time, we were using a table salvaged by my husband from a roadside a few days before our marriage, and some folding chairs. Getting this dining set was a very welcome gift and, all this time later, it’s still going strong.

The table opens to comfortably seat ten people, and has had twelve guests gathered around it on some occasions. I love its rounded corners – so much less painful for little children to bump into. And, because it’s a used table, I don’t get very worked up over every little scratch or nick. I actually find it hard to imagine the amount of stress that I would undergo with expensive new furniture and a bunch of kids who love to jump on sofas and do crafts on the dining table (which also serves, combined, as our craft corner, study corner, bread kneading station, ironing board, etc…)

I wish all my Jewish readers a very happy Sukkot, and hope to post more updates soon!

Creative conservation

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It’s been a long time, but I still love this article.

“I turn empty tissue boxes into space shoes for kids. I’m the one who thaws the frozen foods next to the boiling tea kettle, who warms my lunch on the hot dashboard of my car instead of in the microwave. I bucket brigade my bathwater to the rose bushes. I invented and patented a valve that allows one to irrigate gardens with used shower water. Like my father, I’m a toothpaste squeezer, brushing with the last dregs of elusive paste throttled from the very corners of the tube.”

Often, when I talk about our choices of frugal life, I’m asked, “and can’t you, indeed, afford this, that and the other thing..?” – it shows how much definitions of “can afford” and “can’t afford” vary. Some people will only make a major purchase if they can pay for it in cash. Others will consider taking a limited loan which they can return within a reasonable amount of time. And some will say they “can afford it” if their bank will allow a loan high enough to cover the cost of the purchase – without ever considering how they will pay their debt off.

So, when someone who just bought a nice big apartment in an expensive location, and signed up for being in debt for the next twenty years of their life asks us, “can’t you afford this?”, I think to myself – you’d say we can. We say we can’t.

Furthermore, even if we can afford something, it doesn’t mean we will buy it. We will consider how much we really need it (as silly as I feel for pointing this out, it wasn’t always obvious to me). Perhaps we’ll decide that, even though buying this or that wouldn’t put us under financial strain, we’d better direct our money elsewhere. It’s all a matter of priorities.

Image source: Leave Debt Behind

On supporting local economy

farmer's market

I’m passionate about supporting one’s local economy, in particular local farmers and artisans, but sometimes prohibitive prices make it difficult. Read more in my latest Mother Earth News post:

“When it’s possible and our finances allow, I’m usually willing to pay more for a locally made or grown product of superior quality. How much more? I’d say about 20% above what I’d pay in a chain store for a similar product of comparable quality. This, when I see a justifiable reason for the higher price – such as extra input of time, care or cost of materials.”

I’d say it goes both ways: customers ought to be willing to pay a little more, and farmers/artisans charge a little less, for this to work. I really struggle with myself when I find myself forced to support a large chain store rather than a small local business due to financial constraints.

Stockpiling with little space

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Following a post on stockpiling, one reader commented that she would like to stockpile but doesn’t have the space. Many people, including us, have a problem with storage space. My kitchen is just a small area where we managed to squeeze a refrigerator, a countertop gas stove and a toaster oven. I barely have room for the bare essentials in my kitchen, let alone keeping a stockpile. I don’t have a pantry either.

Read here about creative solutions for stockpile storage. Personally, we keep our stockpile in a cabinet in the guest bedroom. An unorthodox solution, but it will have to do until we have a nice big kitchen with lots of cabinets.

Our stockpile was not created deliberately, it just grew; most often, my husband would see something on sale, and buy several items instead of just one for immediate use. There’s often something at a good price that can be stored for a long time – canned vegetables, pasta, rice, non-perishables such as shampoo and toilet paper. I must admit that back then, I felt a little pang in my heart whenever I saw the grocery bill, thinking to myself that here are things we could do without, taking up storage space. Time proved that I was wrong.

I was always of the philosophy that buying something you didn’t plan to buy was still spending money, even if the price is very good. It is indeed a fine line between stockpiling wisely and becoming a pack rat. Unhealthy foods, snacks loaded with salt and sugar, are never a good deal even if they happen to be very cheap. And luxury items won’t help you stretch your budget, no matter how you look at it.

Yes, it’s true that we bought more than we needed at the moment, but back then, we could spare the extra cash. I was very glad we did when time came to cutting back costs as much as we could (even though we always did our best to live frugally).

All over the world, people are struggling with the results of a major recession. People who didn’t imagine it would ever come to that, now have to think twice before buying food. I know it’s unpleasant to think about such possibilities, but it may happen. Being well stocked up on the essentials makes the tough times pass more easily.

Expecting Expenses

There is a whole industry built around anxious new parents (and grandparents!) of baby “must-haves”, the sole purpose of which is to make people shell out money. We’ve been lucky enough, so far, to spend remarkably little in our babies’ first year, compared to what is considered average. Here is how we did it.

I would strongly encourage you, before you buy anything new, to look at baby stuff people are willing to pass on, or sell after a brief use at the fraction of  its cost. Most baby things only get a very short and gentle use anyway, if we’re talking about a small family. We got a lot of things from family, friends, and off online swap lists/second hand shops.

If you know people are planning to give you gifts for the birth of your baby, make a list of what you need and pass it around, or simply tell them what you need – otherwise you might be stuck, for example, with a myriad of toys your baby won’t look at for another year or so, but without things you’d find truly helpful to have right now.

I stay at home and breastfeed, which automatically eliminates the costs of daycare and formula. We don’t use bottles or pacifiers, and I comfortably do without all the nursing-related accessories such as specially designed nursing clothes, nursing covers, nursing pads, etc. I do love my nursing pillow, which I got from my sister-in-law, but I wouldn’t buy one otherwise.

Some more specifics:

Car seat – if you have a car, of course. That’s something I wouldn’t get used, because of safety reasons, unless you’re absolutely sure it wasn’t involved in anything that could cause it damage. We chose something very simple, straightforward, and inexpensive. It does its job just fine.

Someplace for the baby to sleep – we got a used baby bed (if you do that, make sure it’s safe – no nails sticking out or something like that). It came with a mattress in very good condition, with a washable cover. We paid a fraction of what we would pay if we bought it new. But with our two youngest, so far, we have co-slept most of the time.

Baby bath tub – I know some parents wash their babies in the sink and/or shower with their babies, but I personally have found the bath tub to be tremendously helpful. However, when I’m at my Mom’s, I bathe my babies in a large old pail that I place on the bathroom counter. Mom bathed me in it when I was a baby, so that pail has served as a bathtub for 5 babies now!

Entertainment – Very small babies don’t really need much in the way of entertainment. Mobiles, in my opinions, are hugely overrated – my babies always preferred to be placed wherever they can observe real people doing real stuff. Even later on, you won’t need that many toys. Better keep a few and rotate them. A large number of toys is an insane waste of storage space, since little ones get bored with them so quickly.

Prams/strollers – Not strictly necessary but I’ve found it to be very helpful. We never bought a new one. Sign up to giveaway boards and look for people looking to pass theirs on, or spread word to friends and family. For older babies, it’s even easier. Some months ago, we actually found a perfectly good lightweight folding stroller someone had just thrown out for some reason.

Slings/carriers – Some people say they can’t do without their slings or baby carriers, some say it’s a waste of money and space. It’s very difficult to know in advance what will work for you, so it would be ideal if you could borrow a sling/carrier you consider purchasing, and try it to see if you like it. Again, this can be bought used, and you could make your own baby wrap from simply a very long, wide and stretchy piece of fabric (you don’t need to sew for it, just hem). I love my carrier and take it whenever we travel, but the downside is the summer heat – it can get uncomfortable with a little one pressed so close for a long time.

Oh, and of course, everything is passed on from child to child around here! We didn’t have to get a single new item for Hadassah, because we have so much stuff left over from her three older siblings. She doesn’t seem to mind. :o)

The photo above is of Shira as a baby. It’s hard to believe she is 9 years old now!

Frugal Finds

Above: this armchair, a really great find by someone from the family, ended up finding a home with us because we happened to have an extra bit of space in the living room.

Someday (perhaps when I’m a Granny) I might sit down and compile a little book titled “How to Get Good Furniture for Next to Nothing”. Can you visualize this? Chapter 1: The Landfill. It seems to me this has the potential of a bestseller, doesn’t it? :o)

 
Basically, whatever it is that you need, you can be pretty sure that it either lies abandoned somewhere and just needs a little dusting off, or someone somewhere is looking to give it away or to sell it for a fraction of its store price. It might take a little search and effort, but very often it’s just a matter of looking about. Why bother, you are asking? Well, the money-saving element is obvious, but there are other advantages to not following the want, grab, pay routine.

* You get satisfaction in giving new life to items that were discarded as “useless”. And sometimes, surprisingly, the “old junk” is actually something of much better quality than what you can buy for a reasonable price today. I’ve seen old furniture that looks like it will endure for eternity, but today, I get the feeling manufacturers say, “let’s make junk so it breaks down sooner and people will have to buy more from us!” Thus, if you use the old instead of buying new (when you can) you are withdrawing your financial support from a wasteful industry.

* Since your “new” acquisition cost you nothing or next to nothing, you can get creative with it. Basic carpentry skills can often be applied to making shelves from discarded bits of wood, and you can experiment with paint, varnish, gluing a mosaic of glass or pottery onto an old coffee table (I’ve seen this done very artfully) or whatever your heart desires. Lovely slipcovers and seats can be sewn, knitted or crocheted for sofas and chairs.

* You get the additional benefit of not having to fret as much if your children spill something on the sofa or vomit all over their bed. And as we all know, it will happen. I’ve been to many homes (with resident children) where people have bought their furniture new, and after a surprisingly short time it doesn’t look any better than our “oldies”. I remember Susan Schaeffer Macaulay in her book, “For the Family’s Sake”, told about an old table she had. “It was my luxury,” she writes. Was it such a fancy expensive table? Oh no; it was an old giveaway, and its surface was all ruined, so the children could comfortably draw, paint, and get creative with playdough on that table. And when it’s covered with a lovely tablecloth, it looks good as new.

Of course, if money isn’t a consideration at all, it’s nice to just walk into a store and get yourself whatever new gorgeous set of table and chairs your heart desires. But many people who have very little, waste too much of the little they have on things they could have gotten for free or nearly for free, and that is a pity.

OK, I’m on a roll here. If I don’t stop now I’ll press right on to Chapter 2: Give-away Websites, so I’d better get off my soapbox and wish you good night.