Monday, September 21, 2009

Money Monday: September 21, 2009

The rubber is starting to hit the road around here, and not all of us are particularly happy about it. And “not all of us” should be pronounced, “almost none of us.” Seems like every day, we have a “last.” The last box of mac-n-chez. The last bag of spaghetti noodles. The last can of green beans. The last watermelon.

My husband is the only one who seems mostly unaffected by the slow but inexorable emptying of the conveniently-packaged quick-hunger-solutions from the pantry. This is because he’s the kind of guy who will cheerfully eat what happens to be on hand, and not worry too much about what isn’t – his “favorite” food tends to be whatever he’s currently eating.

The kids, however, are not enjoying the lack of Chez-Its and are alarmed by the rapid depletion of the marshmallows. Also, some of these things feel to them a bit like taking a giant step backward in their own self-sufficiency – making a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese was simple enough for them to do themselves.

Making a cheese sauce from scratch is a tad more advanced in the cooking department. And oh by the way – we’re out of elbow macaroni. So, you know, if you want that specific form of pasta under your sauce, you’ll have to figure out how to make it.

Without a pasta extruder because I don’t own one of those.

Hey kids, I’ve got a great idea! Let’s learn to love fettuccini!

And for me, well. It’s one of those profound learning experiences…which of course is putting a positive spin on how it actually feels, which is something like this: OhmyGAH, what was I THINKING this is CRAZY I can’t handle it and WAH!WAH!WAH!!

Seems like everything is taking more time these days. Like laundry wasn’t already bad enough in terms of sucking time out of my week, now each load takes an additional five minutes in gray water hauling. Doesn’t sound that bad, except that we’re doing at least ten loads a week and often more like fourteen. An extra hour a week fiddling around with the laundry starts to feel pretty burdensome, pretty fast.

And of course now that I’m recycling the gray water, I’m hand-watering the roses, trees and front lawn.

You know, in all my free time…speaking of which…with a new set of crops in the ground just barely starting to sprout, weeding is once again an epic chore.

And of course, there’s also that whole part where food needs to be prepared from scratch, either to eat or to be put up for later. In exchange for the ‘almost instant’ spaghetti sauce later, I’ve got to spend the better part of a whole day cranking the food mill and stirring a pot of slowly evaporating tomato juice until it gives up a good 50% of its moisture and becomes a thick tomato sauce at last.

And now that the last bag of store-bought spaghetti is gone, if we’re going to have it I’ve got to get out the pasta machine and spend an hour or two making it. Mix, rest, roll, rest, cut…then cook or dry for later in the week.

The Christmas craft fairs I’m hoping to use to get some cash money in the petty cash box are coming fast. If I want to snatch one or two of them this year to help defray the clothing expenses that are coming at me like a speeding freight train, I’d better get my crafty-ness in gear and start building up inventory!

Which I’ll get right on, as soon as I patch this, mend that, sew up these and finish knitting the pre-winter sweaters for the Denizens…

To make a long story short (too late!), time has suddenly become an insanely precious resource.

When I manage to get a little emotional distance on the issue, I have a good laugh on myself about it. Dog is my witness, I thought this wouldn’t be all that hard.

After all (I said smugly, forgetting that yea verily, arrogance goeth before comeuppance), it’s not like we do much “convenience food” as it is. I’ve baked from scratch for years. Meals start out with ‘raw’ ingredients that have to be stewed, simmered, broiled or casseroled, right?

How hard could it be to also manufacture what few snack foods I actually buy?


There are times I look at my kids and wonder how it was that I didn’t think they ate all that much. The baking I have on tap for today is going to take a dozen eggs, eighteen cups of flour, a gallon and a half of milk, three pounds of pork, six onions, fifteen pounds of tomatoes, a wide assortment of carrots, green beans, zucchini, potatoes and anything else I find languishing in the crisper, a cup of popcorn, about a pint of cooking fat and six additional potatoes for the potato crisps I’ll be putting into said cooking fat.

That will give us snacks and lunches for up to five days, although we’ll be out of bread by Wednesday morning and probably the popcorn and potato crisps will also be gone. (Which is just as well, because in the absence of preservatives those things don’t last as well as the store-bought versions do.) So I’ll be doing about half of all that again on Wednesday or Thursday, and likely another bread baking over the weekend.

So, what does all this have to do with money?

Well. Something new and rather exciting happened this month. I took only half my usual household allowance into the household checking account on the first of the month - $750 instead of $1,500.

I still have $430 left, with only nine days left in the month. And speaking of the bill payin’ account, guess what else? We have an unprecedented $1,800 left over in that account as well.

This is the tremendous power of even a modified spending fast like the one I slapped on us back in August – but this one has the added benefit of not having an end date looming.

There’s a nasty thing that often happens with a spending fast, which is that the day after it ends you rush on out and buy all the stuff you didn’t buy during the fast, and all that precious, hard-won money evaporates so fast it doesn’t even have time to sizzle as it vaporizes.

The one we’re on right now has no specific end date. The things I haven’t been buying as they’ve been used up are not on the radar to be replaced – so we get to keep the money we’re saving indefinitely, roll it into other things like accelerating the payoff on our debts or replenishing our savings.

This is pretty hard work, taking things to this kind of level. It gets a bit frustrating (a bit?!) sometimes, trying to keep up with the demand.

But honestly, this feels like a lot of other things I’ve gotten through in my life so far. Learning to play the piano, getting through college, paying off tens of thousands in debts, figuring out how to make a self-sustaining homestead out of less than an acre of suburbia…there’s a learning curve involved, a period of time where you feel…well, you feel like you’re trying to ride a bald-tired motorcycle up a greased ramp. The wheels are spinning like mad, but you’re just not getting anywhere.

But eventually, something clicks. You learn how to shift your weight, which way to lean, how to get those tires to grip and move you forward. You start to realize that the tires aren’t as bald as you thought, and the grease isn’t all over the ramp – it’s just that you haven’t seen where the dry patches are.

Right now, I don’t have a good routine for all this extra work. I’m fire fighting – running from flare-up to flare-up stomping for all I’m worth.

But I’m also taking notes. What works, what doesn’t. How much of what things I need to make at a time to get the best possible balance between not being in the kitchen all the danged time and having snack foods around that are actually EDIBLE.

Things will click. I’ll get this down. My ancestors somehow managed not only to feed much larger families than this, but did it completely off their own land.

It’s a little (a little?!) extra crazy right now. I’m more frazzled than usual and feeling the pinch of less time, especially in the email-checking and Facebook areas.

But it will get better, feel easier, become automatic and even second-nature; and I’m sure eventually I’ll get to the point where I can’t remember why I thought all this was soooooo hard.

In the meantime, I’ll warm myself by the glow of the positive numbers in the checking accounts.

They do wonders for a bruised up psyche.


RobinH said...

I enjoy reading your posts in part because it gives me even more appreciation for my own childhood- (my mother did the intensive-gardening-food production thing for many years).

But also I am terribly impressed with your persistance and ingenuity. I have a pretty good idea of just how much work this all is. Picture me applauding wildly at the news of financial rewards finally starting to materialize for you.

In the tomato sauce department there are two things you might consider if you haven't already: One is to grow some paste tomatoes. If you used paste tomatoes and only paste tomatoes, you'd actually have to *add* water to get a sauce- mixed with regular tomatoes, they are a real time-saver on the evaporation front. And another way to deal with the evaporation issue is to roast some of the tomatoes beforehand- not much of a timesaver, but it requires less monitoring than stovetop de-watering.

Lydee said...

keep talking, i'm listening because i think deep in my heart, i've contemplated this move at my house as well. very interesing about how much money you've saved.

Another Joan said...

Have loaded a lot of motorcycles over the years: excellent image!! Also: best day yet to come? The one when your Denizens say that "KD" tastes "funny" and can't they please have real MacCheese?? Yesssss!

(formerly) no-blog-rachel said...

Yay you! I'm totally impressed.

17th stitch said...

I'm very impressed by your determination but I have to ask... given that macaroni can be had for about $0.60 a pound (at least around here), is it worth your time to make pasta from scratch? How do you figure that part out?


Meghan Conrad said...

Regarding the tomato sauce, have you tried making a roasted sauce?

I used to do more or less what you're describing: food mill, simmer, simmer, simmer, and then I realized that roasting required *way* less work.

Take a big pot and fill it with a layer of tomatoes, then a layer of onion and garlic, then more tomatoes and a drizzle of olive oil. Throw it into the oven at 350 for an hour, or 250 for longer, or 400 for not as long. Let it cool, and then remove the veggies with a slotted spoon. You can run them through the blender, throw it on the stove, simmer about fifteen minutes while you add spices and the like, and then you're done.

The roasted tomatoes will give off most of their juice, and then the slotted spoon will ensure that the liquid stays in the pot instead of joining the meat in the blender.

The liquid can be reduced and frozen, then used to flavor rice or whatever. It makes delicious sauce with much less work.

Leoal said...

Oh my god. You are my hero.

RobinH said...

Another rec for you- there's a fairly new book out called Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day- it's a wet-dough, no-knead recipe that you just mix and store in the fridge for up to 2 weeks, baking as needed. I've tried it, it's great bread, and it really is a bunch faster than standard kneaded recipes. It's supposed to scale well, which sounds like a great boon. The master recipe is on their website.

(And my verification word is "epolenda" which totally sounds like something to eat.)

Steph B said...

Will you marry me?

Okay, just kidding....mostly....but I do think I want to be you when I grow up. Your determination and persistence are amazing. If you could bottle some of that and sell it you'd have a plump little retirement account in no time.

SuperM said...

I second the vote for the Artisan bread book. It really makes life easier for bread baking and we swore off store bought bread for about 3 months last year before the peanut gallery staged a rebellion because the sandwhich bread wasn't "squooshy enough." Sigh. Still use it for everything else though.

cellowingnut said...

I'm really enjoying your posts and am trying to adopt some of your changes in my own life. (I would love to do all, but I'm living in a tiny apartment in chicago and there is only so much that can be grown in the windows). I do tomatoes, green beans, peas, lettuces and it's pretty successful. Keep posting the good and the bad, but I think that it will get easier!

Science PhD Mom said...

I second the number crunching vis-a-vis pasta. Plus you have to factor in the value of your time. What is the demand on Etsy or these craft fairs for your stuff? If you could knit a pair of socks that sell for $12 in two or three hours, versus making 4 lbs of dried pasta...well, you've saved $2.40 making the pasta, but you missed the opportunity to make $12 knitting a pair of socks, or hand dyeing some yarn! See what I mean? Make sure you're valuing your own time and effort highly enough in your cost crunching analysis, or you'll be tired with less to show for it. Love all your hard work though, and I'm astounded you can keep us posted via the blog, too!

Ridgely said...

Kudos to you and the kiddos and the hubbie. Herculean effort! Check out GOOD NEIGHBORS, the BBC comedy about living off of the land. I'm pretty sure Netflix has it, if that's in the budget. It will cause you to laugh and will encourage you! Hang in there!

Ms. Packrat said...

If you have a Kitchen Aid you might want to check out their outlet store on their web site. They have the pasta making attachments, including noodle and macaroni extruder ...

I have the totally tiny condo kitchen, so owning a KA is Out Of The Question, but I lust after one and exploit my friend's large kitchen and KA frequently.

Firegarnet said...


Regarding the mac n cheese and the denizens-would it be possible to freeze individual meals amounts that they could reheat themselves? I've never eaten mac n cheese but my husband freezes his homemade stuff and reheats small portions...

Christi said...

Re: the water-schlepping - is there any way to run a garden hose out the window and siphon/drain the laundry water that way, or something similar? Depends on how the house is laid out, but it might be worth thinking about.

I'm in awe of your cooking, too. I've read the Tightwad Gazette and some once-a-month-cooking sites, but the Teeny Tiny Kitchen has no room for doing a lot of that (or much of anything else). I'm dreaming of a garden next year.

Anonymous said...

RE: snacks. when I was growing up, for snacks we could have carrots, celery, or fruit. No baking/cooking involved. Maybe you can "wean" your kids in that direction.