Frugal Tuesday: Use it Up!

Yesterday I made a honey-lime vinaigrette salad dressing directly in the nearly-empty honey jar. 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar, 1/3 cup olive oil, and the juice of two limes… the recipe called for two teaspoons of honey, which was about how much was left in the container.

It went beautifully with our grilled chicken and pineapple salads!

How do you get the last bits of product out of their containers?

Frugal Tuesday: Homemade Kombucha

Several years ago, my hippier-than-thou (well, hippier than I, in any case… I aspire to his hippie greatness) brother introduced me to the wonderful, sweet-sour elixir known as kombucha. It’s good stuff, said to be filled with all sorts of probiotics and other life-giving properties. For me it was love at first sip, and before long, I was spending $4 a bottle on some of the delicious brews put out by GT Dave’s, Buddha’s Brew, and others. Some health food stores and farmers markets even let you bring your own growler, and buy kombucha waste-free, just like beer. But it still ain’t cheap.

You know what IS cheap? Tea bags and sugar. Which is all you really need to brew your own kombucha. Well that, and a “mother,” the colony of yeast and good bacteria that hang out in some sweet tea and magically transform it into a healthy beverage. Fortunately, the “mother” is easy enough to make, using a bottle of raw, unflavored kombucha. Do it right, and it could be the last bottle you ever buy.

I follow this recipe from The Kitchn, and it turns out beautifully for me every time. In hot and humid central Texas, my kombucha likes to ferment quietly on a shelf in my clothes closet, where it is safe from mold spores and fruit flies.

IMG_3259(You can actually see the “mother” hanging out on the bottom right of the jar… just doing her thing…)

I’ve been experimenting with fruits and juices, and second ferments, and have come up with some pretty good flavors. And best of all, it no longer costs four bucks a glass!

What do you make at home that you used to buy?

Full-Time Work “Fail,” Personal Finance Win!

Last Tuesday was my final day of work at the full-time job I started seven and a half months ago. I did everything I could to make a go of it, but nine-hour days and the lack of autonomy inherent in a full-time position just isn’t for me, it seems.

Fortunately, we have our financial life arranged so that the hardest part of my decision has been saying goodbye to the co-workers I’ve come to love (and even that isn’t entirely true, as I’ll continue working there on an hourly basis). The money part isn’t so scary. Here’s why:

We have a fully funded emergency fund. Although we won’t have to use it, it’s comforting to know that we could maintain our lifestyle exactly as it is for a few months with zero income. Which, of course, we won’t have to. It took us nearly all of 2012 to get that money in the bank, but the peace of mind it brings is worth every hour of hard work we did to get it. We also maintain our hidden emergency funds, which go a long way when times get tight.

I had been unable to bring myself to actually quit any of my part-time gigs, so it’s going to be relatively easy to simply increase my work there, as well as in the freelance world. Doing occasional work for other employers has kept my options open, so although I am leaving a job, I am not unemployed. And although it would be uncomfortable, we have designed our lifestyle so that we could, if need be, live entirely on half of our income (I’m phrasing it this way on purpose: this was also something I did as a single person. Having a partner is lovely, but not a requirement for living beneath one’s means!).

We bought a house a couple of months ago, which could seem scary, except that we made sure to buy something we could afford, even if times got tight. Buying a small fixer-upper means that our house payment and utility bills aren’t much more than they were when we were in an apartment.

I know that we are fortunate to still have health benefits provided through Mr. Vega’s employer. Not everyone has that. But we have paid for our own insurance before, and have maintained a budget that could be arranged to do it again, if the need arose. It would mean giving up some luxuries, but first things always come first around here.

None of this has been easy: we like a night out as much as the next folks, and we’ve never had a “real vacation.” We’re happy that all of our relatives happen to live in vacation-worthy locales, but we haven’t visited as much as we would like to, because of our commitment to living debt-free and with a prudent reserve. There is so much more we’d like to do, and see, and have. But there is nothing we want enough to stay in jobs and situations that aren’t right for us… For that reason alone, the hard work and sacrifice has all been worth it.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to start cooking the beans for tonight’s dinner…

The Contingency Fund

One of the things we’ve learned from watching home improvement shows on television is that in any project, things will go wrong. Things will break. A simple appliance installation will balloon into the need to open a wall and re-wire part of the house. Your intention to do everything yourself will transform into needing a professional on-site ASAP.

When we found the house we wanted, we were annoyed by the clause in our apartment’s lease that required a 60-day notice to vacate. As it turns out, we will be moving into our new home on Day 59 of that period, because we’ve encountered a few unexpected problems.

Mr. Vega decided he wanted to scrape off the ugly acoustic ceiling before we moved in. Our internet search for “how to scrape a popcorn ceiling” yielded the suggestion to test for asbestos before doing that kind of work on houses built before 1980. We found a local lab that could rush the results for $75. We found out we were indeed the proud owners of a toxic ceiling that would cost $2500 to have professionally and safely removed. Ouch.

Fortunately, we had prepared in advance to expect the unexpected: in addition to our down payment and closing costs, we made sure we had about 5% of the purchase price set aside to make the place feel more like home. We also maintain an Emergency Fund, but as the asbestos only poses a health risk during removal, we agreed that Ugly Ceilings are not an actual emergency. Still, we’d feel better having the job done before we move our furniture, our pets, and our own lungs into the place, so we went ahead and had the work done.

Then when the gas company came out to connect the gas and inspect the appliances, they discovered that the stove that came with the house was leaking gas, which meant they weren’t allowed to connect it. The appliance repair men said it would be an expensive fix, and as it wasn’t a good stove to begin with, we had it hauled away, along with the old, moldy fridge that was in the house. We were lucky enough to find an inexpensive, well-reviewed fridge with a freezer on the bottom and in the smaller “apartment size” that we prefer, but we decided to splurge on a professional-quality gas range, to the tune of about $1800 (which is a great deal for the kind of stove we’re getting, but it’s not pocket change!).

We’ve got some other issues, like non-existent insulation in our central Texas attic, a colony of ants that have chosen that attic as the place to build their home, and a central air condenser unit inexplicably– and quite dangerously– perched on the roof that is not designed to hold that kind of weight. While some of these issues could become emergencies, they aren’t yet, and we’re grateful for our Contingency Fund. It will be completely drained before we even move in, so we’ll have to postpone our plans of replacing the old drafty windows with double-paned ones or installing a rainwater collection system, but we’ll still have our Emergency Fund, and we won’t have gone into debt to fix the problems.

We Did it…

… We bought a house! Our first house. And we’re pretty excited.

Four years of hard work, paying off debt, saving money and one cross-country move later, and we have a house! Right now, I’m going to say that it has all been worth it. We made a 20% down payment and bought the house for exactly market value, which is kind of a bargain in the real estate frenzy that is Austin. So we’ve already got a good amount of equity, and our net worth hasn’t changed. Which is strange and wonderful, considering we just handed over almost all of our savings except for our Emergency Fund.

It’s small. As in 800 square feet, 2-bedroom/1-bath, single-car garage small. Buying a smaller, older house allowed us to stay within our budget, which was several thousand dollars less than the current median home price in Austin, but still stay close to downtown and some of our favorite South Austin neighborhoods. Having a smaller house also means, of course, that it will be less expensive to cool and heat as well as being easier to clean. We want to replace both the roof and the flooring at some point, and those things will also be cheaper because of the house’s smaller footprint.

The lot is a relatively large 1/4 acre, which gives us plenty of room for gardening and entertaining. And there is plenty of room for the house to grow, if we ever decide that a third bedroom or a second bathroom is a necessity. We’re planning to build a compost bin ASAP, planting a mini-orchard of fruit trees, and even considering getting a few chickens.

Built in 1968 and used as a rental property for the past decade, it’s going to need a fair amount of work. We see that as a benefit, though because it was another thing that kept the asking price low, and also because we can do most of the improvements ourselves, to get things exactly how we want them. Some of the first things on our list are high-efficiency appliances, double-paned windows, and a rainwater collection system.

There are train tracks just behind our back fence, but it’s in a “quiet zone,” which means the trains are not allowed to blow their horns except in emergencies. Houses that abut train tracks are generally considered less desirable, which helped with the affordability factor, and honestly, I find the sight and sound of freight trains nostalgic!

The neighborhood is funky and eclectic… No cookie-cutter houses, and most importantly to us, no HOA. Homes in our new neighborhood have interesting creative decor and landscaping: some of them even have their vegetable gardens in the front. We were also pleased to spot a few harbingers of creativity and a laid-back vibe in the area: free-range children!

This is the thing we’ve worked so hard to do, and we’ve been able to do it on our own terms, so we’re very happy. We’re looking forward to what lies ahead, as we continue our journey toward self-sufficiency and financial independence.

How We Became Average Americans (And What We’re Doing to Stop It!)

Last year, Mr. Vega and I were living in a 486-square-foot apartment in a not-so-perfect neighborhood tucked into the vast urban sprawl of Los Angeles. We had a thriving container garden on our balcony, and we supplemented the soil with compost created by a colony of red wriggler worms that also lived in a container on our balcony and fed on our fruit and vegetable scraps and coffee grounds. Our meals were all organic and made-from-scratch, often in a slow-cooker, and supplemented with green vegetable juice fresh-made daily. We kept a batch of kombucha brewing on a kitchen counter, a small bottle of organic vanilla beans and bourbon (otherwise known as “vanilla extract”) in a cupboard, and a bigger bottle of cherries, sugar and bourbon (otherwise known as “cherry bounce…” if you haven’t tried it, you might want to!) under the kitchen sink. Our refrigerator was a smaller apartment-sized unit, and we liked it that way, because it was harder to overlook what we had put in there and let it go to waste. We did our laundry twice a month, two loads at a time in our building’s communal laundry room, and hung about half of that to dry on a rack out on the balcony.

We were weird.

We seemed like perfect candidates to move to Austin, Texas… the city’s motto is “Keep Austin Weird,” after all! Housing prices in Los Angeles were proving pretty unforgiving, and we had our hearts set on homeownership, so we packed up a U-Haul and headed eastward, towing one car and shipping another. We had come out a month earlier and secured jobs and an apartment, but because we didn’t know the area, we chose an apartment in a more expensive part of town than our old place in L.A. This one came with a much smaller balcony, and we moved in mid-summer, too late to start a garden. It also has an in-unit washer and dryer, which came in handy, as we weren’t used to the longer drying times required for hanging laundry in the humid air of central Texas. We also weren’t prepared for how we might have to adjust our home-fermenting efforts: my first batch of kombucha grew a healthy layer of mold, and I haven’t found the motivation to try again. Although our apartment in Austin has 50% more square footage than our last place, the storage options are not well-designed, and so the kitchen is much less functional. And we still haven’t learned how to cook on an electric stovetop without burning things!

After a lifetime spent working freelance and part-time jobs, I took full-time work about six months ago, in addition to keeping a couple of my part-time gigs, so that we could save for the house we came here to buy. While I’m glad I did, I now find myself without the time or energy to shop, prep and cook like I used to. Week after week, we found ourselves letting our fresh food languish in the standard size fridge while we stopped for takeout or reached for convenience foods, and without a compost bin, 100% of our food waste has been headed to the landfill. We decided to fill our freezer with some Trader Joe’s frozen options, just to get us through the transition… not ideal, but healthier and less expensive than takeout, or most of the big-name convenience foods. After Mr. Vega sustained a sports injury that makes it difficult for him to walk without pain, even the trek to our closest Trader Joes was proving difficult to fit into my busy schedule, and I found myself shopping at the chain grocery store nearest my workplace, buying and consuming the very products that we’ve avoided so diligently for the past few years. There’s a bit of a vicious cycle going on here: our busier schedules and poorer nutrition means that we have less energy to shop for and cook the healthy foods that would give us, well, more energy! But at the end of a typical 9-hour workday, all we really want is to eat something that we don’t have to cook, lie on the couch and watch TV. And we’ve gained weight. Like most of America, we are now overworked, overweight, malnourished, and trying to function in a state of near-constant fatigue.

Our expenses have gone up, too. Living in a “safer” neighborhood in Austin costs us more in rent than our dodgy-but-familiar part of Los Angeles. The landlord-tenant laws are different here, so our rent is about to go up $200-$400 (the amount would depend on the length of the lease we sign). And our incomes decreased considerably when we left the West coast. We’re fortunate to still be earning enough to give us some margin, even with our current spendy lifestyle, but we’re keenly aware that adding children to our family, needing to care for aging parents, or experiencing a health crisis of our own would change the balance considerably. From where we sit, it’s very easy to understand how some “low monthly payments” for anything that makes life easier would start to look pretty good to a lot of people right about now.

Now we’re average.

What’s keeping us going is the knowledge that our situation is temporary: We’re currently in escrow on our first home. It’s a two-bedroom house, not much bigger than our current one-bedroom apartment, and we’ve got a healthy down payment so our monthly payments will be about the same as our rent. It’s got a couple of fruit trees in the front, a big backyard for gardening, a good-sized kitchen pantry, and a covered deck where we can hang our laundry but still have it protected from summer showers and the grackles that are ubiquitous here. There’s also a gas stove, more counter space and the opportunity to buy whatever size refrigerator we like. If all goes well, in a few months we’ll be collecting rainwater, composting, eating home-grown vegetables again, and playing host to bees, bats and butterflies. We’ll feel more comfortable inviting friends over for dinner and game nights, because there is ample street parking and zero chance of upstairs neighbors complaining about the noise we make when the conversation gets boisterous at our dining table. It will take some effort to keep our tired bodies moving after we come home from a full day’s work, but I think we’ll be able to do it, because we know from experience the good financial and physical health that any amount of urban homesteading can bring. And loathe as I am to do it, because I’ve come to love the people I work with, once we’re settled and have made a few improvements to the house I’ll be able to leave my part-time job and keep my workweek down to a more manageable five days a week instead of six.

We are not wealthy people, but we have had the luxury of working less-than-full-time, or at least of keeping flexible hours, for most of our working lives. Our year of living like “average” Americans has brought me a lot of compassion for people with fewer options. I now have answers to some of the questions in my head that start with “Why don’t they just…?” This experience has taught me that “they” probably don’t exercise the options I’m thinking of because “they” are exhausted and feeling unwell, and there isn’t always someone else to pick up the slack. I’ve learned that an unexpectedly busy week means that fresh fruits, vegetables, and even meats are likely to go unprepared and uneaten, so it’s easier to just not buy them in the first place. I’ve discovered that something as simple as a poor apartment design can have a big effect on a family’s ability to maintain healthy habits. I can see how a weeklong disruption in a steady income could throw off a working parent’s finances in ways that, if you throw in a few late fees and re-connection charges, could take years to recover from.

Living in this country, in this economic climate, is a real struggle for the average American these days. Working flexible schedules, growing and cooking your own food, staying out of debt, and maintaining a healthy work-life balance can go a long way toward making life easier, but those choices aren’t available for everyone. And they certainly aren’t options that I’ll ever take for granted again.

Have you been able to stay out of the “average” American cycle of work-spend-work? What choices have you made to accomplish that?