June was Solitude which not only meant being alone (which I love) but being quiet and alone (which is more difficult) but it started a new habit that is half simplicity and half solitude.

I tried in May to cut down on my computer usage for simplicity’s sake, but it just kept calling back to me.  By the end of the month, I had cut back on much of my surfing time, but it was still a draw and a distraction.

Now I’m just shutting the computer off.  It doesn’t sound like much, but this is from the girl who didn’t used to power down her laptop for months on end.  It would would be constantly available at my fingertips to answer any question and provide distraction from boredom.  I think I thought of it because Brent and I were talking about various kinds of addictions and I mentioned that everyone has something they’re prone to – just some are more destructive than others.  My mind immediately flashed to my laptop.  While it may not be ruining my life, it does sometimes keep me from living a more awesomely.

So now I shut it down from approximately 9AM to 5PM.  The times are flexible depending on if I’m actually doing work or if I actually have done all my work for the day.  I’m getting a lot more reading done, more card games with Andrei, more time in general to do more awesome stuff.

Although, now that Solitude June is over, I’m glad to have my fave podcast back for when I’m doing housework.  But I’m trying to limit it to one per day.  The silence maybe is growing on me.

These are all super simple and I make them all on a regular basis.  These are all really summer meals for when veg are cheap and plentiful.  For winter we make a lot of “leftover soup” and “leftover chili” with whatever half-cans we have jammed in the back of the fridge.

  • Fajitas – saute peppers and onions and chicken (or steak if it’s on sale), wrap up in a tortilla with some sour cream and cheese and guac and there you go.

  • Easy stir fry – saute 4-5 cups of vegetables (a bag of coleslaw mix is great for this), add 3 T soy sauce, 2 T lime juice, 1 tsp each of ginger, garlic, cumin and tumeric, and 1 cup of coconut milk.  Let simmer until veggies are cooked.  Serve with grilled meat or tofu.

  • Quiche – cut up some veggies, pour in pie pan (shell or not), mix 4-5 eggs and some milk and pour on top of veggies.  Sprinkle some cheese on top and bake at 350 until eggs are set (35ish minutes)

  • Quesadillas – smear a tortilla shell with refried beans, sprinkle on some cheese and chicken and whatever else you like.  Bake under the broiler or fry on the stove until brown and crispy.

  • Ramen might kill you on its own, but before we quit pasta we used to make this – Ramen Noodle Upgrade – add some veggies and it might even be healthy-ish!

  • Beans and rice, baby – taco seasoning and some tomato sauce.  Top with sour cream and cheese and it really is that good!

  • Google some other country and “traditional” or “authentic recipes”.  You might find some weird ones, but every country has their version of cheap food that the commoners eat.  They’re often very good and worth a try.

  • Ways to make existing meals healthier for cheap:

    • Buy a bag of frozen berries and mash them up for your pancakes/waffles.  I don’t even add sugar anymore – we just spoon them on as is.

    • Shredded carrots can be added to most everything – soup, pasta, salad, tacos, muffins…

    • Make a mexican style coleslaw for your tacos instead of shredded lettuce – lasts longer in the fridge and healthier too

    • Store lettuce in glass jars – it really works to keep it fresh much longer than you’d think.
  • Learn how to substitute.  Green peppers are cheaper than red peppers.  We don’t drink milk but we do use plain coconut milk in our coffee, so when a recipe calls for a little milk, I just use what we have at the time.  The recipe calls for garlic powder and also salt?  Garlic salt!  Heck, if I’m in a desperate hurry and the recipe calls for real garlic, sometimes I’ll use garlic salt for that too.  We hate pinto beans and regularly use black beans instead.

  • Know *why* your family doesn’t like a recipe.  I hated egg salad and potato salad growing up, but I realized later that I just hated Miracle Whip, which my mom used.  Once I started using Hellmann’s (or generic equivalent), I liked those foods again.  I don’t like kidney beans and Brent doesn’t like pinto beans, but we both like black beans.  I don’t like fresh whole leaf spinach, but I like frozen chopped spinach and sometimes baby spinach.  Andrei doesn’t like eggs for breakfast, but if I put enough veggies and cheese in quiche, he’ll really enjoy it.

  • On the other hand, there are some foods you just can’t avoid or substitute.  So when Brent goes out of town, Andrei and I have mushroom stew parties.  When I’m gone, they make meat fest.  Saturday night date night involves something spicy or blue cheese or something Andrei won’t eat.

  • Learn how to make your favorite restaurant meals.  Sometimes they are expensive even to make at home, but it’s still cheaper than going out.  Andrei even asked for homemade taco pizza instead of going out on his birthday.

  • Know your splurges.  For me it’s fancy cheeses and Triscuit crackers.  For the boys it’s expensive yogurt and Brent likes sparkling water.  When these things go on discount, we all celebrate.

  • Learn how to stretch a meal.  Maybe the recipe didn’t quite make enough to fill everyone up.  Or maybe you hope to have leftovers for tomorrow’s lunch.   Frequently Brent ends up working around dinnertime and he and his volunteers are hungry so I’m throwing frozen veggies or leftover hamburger in a soup just to make another serving or two.

  • Find some meals that use up almost-bad vegetables.  We always have some softening vegetable in the back of the fridge that needs to be used up.  This calls for chili if it’s a pepper or tomato, or stir fry if it’s anything else.  It also helps to have these meals in mind if you see a great deal at the store and can change your meal plan mid shopping trip.

  • Divide up snacks into the actual serving sizes.  It’s not cheap or healthy to grab an entire bag of trail mix and mindlessly eat the entire thing.  But if you can just grab a baggie with a reasonable amount, your food will last much longer.

  • Figure out how to make leftovers edible.  No one was super excited about the tomato bean stew I made the other day, but we discussed pureeing it and turning it into a chili base.  Yum?  Who knows, I guess we’ll find out!


Tips for saving time

  • Dried beans are a huge money saver.  You can get about 5 can sized servings from a 1 pound bag of beans.  And they are not really that difficult to make.  Here’s my lazy way of doing this.  Before bed, I put the beans in the crock pot and cover them with 2 inches of water.  In the morning, I drain the water, put the beans back in the crock pot and cover with 1 inch of water.  Cook on high for 4 hours or low for 7 hours.  These times are not set in stone.  I’ve forgotten and cooked beans for 10 hours before.  No one died.  The one thing is to not undercook them because no one eats crunchy beans.  When they are done, drain them and let them cool in the strainer.  After they are cool, I put them in glass pint jars and put them in the freezer.  You could also put them in freezer bags, but the point is putting them in can-sized servings so when the recipe says a can of beans, you can just grab a jar/bag and let it defrost for easy use.

  • Chopped onions and peppers can be frozen too, although they make our freezer smell.  I think that’s unique to our freezer and wouldn’t happen with a regular house fridge.

  • Find a like minded family and start a Meal Swap.  This really only works if you’re willing to be real with them and be like family.  For us it goes like this.  Every Wednesday without fail, we go to our BFFs house for dinner.  On Thursday they come to our house.  Thats it.  It’s not fancy company food.  It’s what we normally eat, with extra for a few more people.  It means not having to meal plan for one day.  It means not having to cook and clean for one day.

  • Here’s one from Brent – if you’re going on a road trip and want to pack lunch to save money, pack something extra special.  I used to only pack normal everyday sandwiches, but our last vacation we stopped and got some grocery store sushi.  Everyone was really looking forward to dinner and not dreading it because it was special – but still cheaper and healthier than eating out.

  • I don’t feel I have the time for a price book, but I do have some general idea what things cost.  I know if meat is less than $3 per pound, buy it up.  If berries are around a dollar a pound, buy and freeze, buy and freeze.  I know the things we buy every week and I can see a good deal if it’s there.  I’ve even been considering taking a tiny road trip to Trader Joes because their coconut milk is half the price of my grocery and I want to stock up.

  • Honestly my immersion blender has saved me a ton of time – I use it for all kinds of things – even stuff it’s not meant for like pancake batter or beating eggs if I’m really lazy.  Not sure it saves much money, but I love it so I have to give it a mention.

  • Meal planning is the bane of my existence.  I hate doing it but I take the time (about 30 min every week) to make myself do it.  It does save time at 4PM when you forgot to start dinner and you are in a rush.  Don’t be a slave to it though – if you blow it off and have sandwiches one night – that’s just a meal already planned for next week!

 

I mentioned the other day about our church’s 90 day debt pay-down challenge so that is the inspiration of this series.  One of the things that I find easiest to reduce is our grocery budget.  You see immediate pay off, and it’s something that is a significant expense.  I would estimate we spend close to $6000 per year on groceries, and if we could just reduce our weekly budget by $20-$30, that would save more than $1000.

It doesn’t matter if you live in an apartment building with no yard, or have a thriving farm and gigantic house.  It doesn’t matter if you work 2 jobs as a single mom or stay home with unlimited time.  There are always things you can do to be more frugal.  You don’t need to garden, have a second freezer, bake your own bread, stay home and cook all day, keep a grocery price book, or clip coupons for hours.   I don’t do any of these things. Sure all those things might help, but sometimes it’s just not going to happen.

What you do have to do is change your thinking.  Expand your mind to think about other cultures and times.  People feed their families in every country, without microwaves, frozen food or even electricity.  Mamas have been cooking and working hard as they crossed the country in covered wagons, while their husbands were out of work during the depression, all alone sometimes in the middle of nowhere.  And if they did it, you can.  True, it’s nice to have modern conveniences, but I often tell myself, “If Laura Ingalls Wilder did fine without it, then my kid will be fine too”  All mamas want the best for their families, but sometimes the most convenient or decadent is not the best in the long run.  I know this is not especially happy but if you start slowly and move always in a more frugal direction, it will get easier.  Baby steps.

You will never arrive at “frugal”.  There’s always some place to find a new recipe or idea.  Find some blogs that talk about money and/or cooking.  Keep practicing.  Try new things.  If it doesn’t work, make a sandwich instead and chalk it up to experience.  But enjoy the journey and keep your eyes on the goal :)

In order to simplify…

June 28, 2013 — 1 Comment

Take two things you own, and find one thing that fulfills both purposes.

We used to have 5 plates and 4 bowls.

Now we have 8 plate-bowls aka soup plates aka pasta bowls!

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I’ve been looking for them for a while, at Goodwill and such, but never found anything suitable.  Finally we made a trip to Ikea and found the perfect thing.

Big enough for a plate, curved to be a bowl.  If you’re sitting on the couch, your food won’t roll off the side, and finally matching dishes for everyone!

Score!

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was a king who’s hobby was to trick the gods and outsmart them.  In return, his eventual punishment was that he was sent to push a huge boulder up a mountain every day, only to have it roll back down to the bottom right before reaching the top.  Lather, Rinse, Repeat.

Life sucks like that sometimes.  I clean the same dishes every day, only to turn around to have them dirty again.  I pay the same bills, and just when I have enough for an emergency fund, the truck breaks down or something goes wrong.  And if we keep going on our life with the same focus in mind, we’re going to end up like Sisyphus.  Do all that work, only to see it undone with one “day off” or catastrophe or vacation.  We say that when we get a raise, we’ll pay off the debt, or when it’s not so hot, we’ll start exercising every day.  But really we’re just trying to trick ourselves.  And we push that boulder as punishment.

Right now our church is in a 90 day debt challenge.  We’re trying to pay off as much debt as possible within the next 90 days.  I don’t want to be like Sisyphus anymore.  I don’t want our debt to cycle over and over and we pay just above the minimum forever only to see the balance not really changing.  Brent and I wrote down 10 things we were going to do for the next 90 days to try and raise funds for our debt payment.  And they’re really hard!  But the only way to get out of the cycle is to put through that extra effort.

I’d rather push back really hard right now than be burdened by the same boulder 5 years from now.

Epilogue: 4 years later

June 12, 2013 — 1 Comment

I don’t have a whole lot of first memories for Andrei.  I don’t have memories of him rolling over for the first time to pulling himself up to taking off running.  I didn’t hear his first words.  When he learned English it happened so fast that there was barely three months of cute babbling talk to endear me.

But he has been homeschooling since the day he came home.

My imaginary kids that I homeschooled in my mind (before I became a mom, we were all perfect, right?) were supergeniouses.  They loved learning.  They never balked.  They knew three languages before age 10.  They impressed and delighted everyone with their articulation and deep knowledge of the world.  They read and read and never watched TV or cared about anything but books.

So the first year of real life homeschooling was a bit of a shocker.  I was trying to teach Andrei to read within a year of coming home.  He was 8, and barely even had a good handle on the language, but all I could see in my mind was “HE CAN’T READ!!!” and we worked on it every day – through tears and yelling and failure and giving up and trying again and giving up again.

Then showed me Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone movie at the library.  And I said what every homeschooling parent says – “You can’t watch it until you read the book”.  He explained to me in his broken English that he had already seen the movie already – in Russia – and proceeded to explain the entire plot.  “Nope,” I still said, “gotta read the book”

So the beginning of 4th grade I bought the first Harry Potter book.  He was going to read it whether he liked it or not.  It was his first chapter book.  He cried, I cried, the book was thrown, torn, and abused.  But at the end of the school year, he had read the whole thing – out loud, on his own.  And we had a huge party and watched the movie.

I remember thinking – is he going to be in high school before he gets through this series?  Is he actually ever going to do this?  Would he fully understand and appreciate all the nuances and subtly of the story?

“Now I can watch them all, right mom?” “Nope, kid, gotta read the books first”

In 5th grade I told him he was going to start reading one per semester, so better get busy.  When he got to the fourth book in the spring, it came in the mail and he cried.  It was over 700 pages long!  I assured him it was the longest one of the series and I knew he could do it!  It took him well into the summer but we got through.

At the beginning of 6th grade, the fifth book came in the mail and it was even longer!  Oops!  Well, if you read the other one, you can do this too – I know you can!  We started school early that year because he was so excited to start the book.

I started hiding the books after reading time – partially so he couldn’t read ahead, and partially so I could…

I sat rapped with attention when he got to That Chapter in book six (yes I still have readers that don’t know the ending) and we discussed and cried and theorized.

In March, book 7 came in the mail.  It was a behemoth.  One chapter a day, and when he was done with the book, he’d be graduated into 7th grade.  He started trying to trick me by not pausing between chapters and trying to read extra, but I always caught him.

This week we were scheduled to finish.  I told him if he read two chapters per day, we’d be done before going on vacation – could he do it?  YES!  And yesterday, I couldn’t do anything but listen to him read.  The pinnacle, the ending to it all – and when he pretended to not stop at the chapter ending, I pretended not to notice.  And he read through the end (six chapters in all).  And it was only 4PM so I told him we weren’t done with school and I cued up both the movies and we watched them both right then and there.

So I don’t have first memories of him.  I didn’t see him from babyhood into toddler into young man.  But this was a pivotal thing for us – we started and finished – together.

Andrei, my wonderful boy, my brave, brave man.

Living Sacrifices

June 9, 2013 — 1 Comment

I appeal to you therefore, brethren, and beg of you in view of [all] the mercies of God, to make a decisive dedication of your bodies [presenting all your members and faculties] as a living sacrifice, holy (devoted, consecrated) and well pleasing to God, which is your reasonable (rational, intelligent) service and spiritual worship.
Rom 12:1

I was always confused by this verse.  I pretty much thought it meant we all were doomed to live like monks and have horrible lives in order to properly please God.  A living sacrifice meant giving up everything you ever wanted, every dream or desire you ever had, every past time or love or hobby – in order to spend your days in prayer and fasting and study and misery.

So I put the verse away into the “too hard” box in my mind, along with “Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.” or “And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.”

Recently I read the verse again.  And our Bible reading plan paired it up with  “Roll your works upon the Lord [commit and trust them wholly to Him; He will cause your thoughts to become agreeable to His will, and] so shall your plans be established and succeed. (Prov. 16:3)” – which everyone knows means that if you say you’re doing something for God, it will be the right thing, and therefore you can make your own choices and do what you want, right?  So it seems to be the opposite of Romans 12:1.

Confusing!

But then I read verse 2.  Perhaps that’s the main part of this message?

I appeal to you therefore, brethren, and beg of you in view of [all] the mercies of God, to make a decisive dedication of your bodies [presenting all your members and faculties] as a living sacrifice, holy (devoted, consecrated) and well pleasing to God, which is your reasonable (rational, intelligent) service and spiritual worship.  Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed (changed) by the renewal of your mind [by its new ideals and its new attitude], so that you may prove what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God, even the thing which is good and acceptable and perfect [in His sight for you].

What’s the sacrifice?  Our view of ourselves.  Our view of our path.  I think many times we think we know the way we want our story to go, and we think that’s how God is calling us, but maybe we don’t have the right mindframe to see God’s true path for us.  Maybe we don’t see ourselves the way God sees us.  Part of transforming and renewing our minds is seeing ourselves as God sees us – capable, responsible, beautiful children with adventures to attain.  *Now* it fits with Proverbs 16:3 – when you commit your story to God – to His version of your story – He will bend your thoughts in His directions and you will succeed in what you set out to.

Here’s another blog post from Sarcastic Lutheran that illustrates the same point about Zechariah having to change his mind about his story – here’s my favorite quote:

“Zechariah says, Um, are you sure because seriously…my wife is, like, Old?

To which the arch angel says “human, please!” and he then proceeds to made Zechariah mute until all these things had taken place, like he said they would. It was like a 9 month time-out for Zechariah. He couldn’t talk the entire time which is actually kinda awesome.”

Renew your mind – accept God’s story for you – it may not be what you think it is!

Cold Shower Update

June 6, 2013 — 1 Comment

So I’m a little more than halfway through my cold shower challenge and I would like to say that it still sucks.  It would probably be helpful if the temperature would warm up a little around here, but we’re still using our electric blanket at night in June.  So I have to go from already being a little cold to being super freaking freezing.  And then being cold again for a couple hours or so afterward.

So you’d think I’d be counting down the days until I could crank on the hot again.  Nope, I’ve discovered I actually like it.  I like the shock when the cold water hits my shoulders.  I like the breathlessness when rinsing my hair and its like a icy waterfall on the back of my legs.  I like sticking my face in the stream as the last thing I do before turning the water off.  It’s horrible.  And I love it.  (I’m sure Freud would have fun with this post)

I did think of one thing that makes it a little better.  Instead of setting my timer for 5 minutes and then obsessively checking it every thirty seconds to see if I had maybe heard or not heard it go off – I made a playlist of songs that are about 5 minutes long and pick one to rock out to every day.  Because who can really be grumpy when Love Shack is blaring?  It has an added benefit of that on rushing mornings, I use the same playlist as a timer for Andrei (he gets two songs).  He’s partial to Bon Jovi though.

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Plus, it makes the pool seem warm no matter what the temperature is. :)