Friday, 29 April 2016

Weekly Column: Save the Environment, Save Money, too!

If you follow these columns, or if you’re thrifty by nature, you may have noticed that being frugal sometimes means more effort on your part. Save money on food by cooking from scratch, go through your statements and cancel fees, shop around for insurance, make a menu-plan and use coupons--there are many ways to save money when you are willing to do some of the work yourself. After all, wouldn’t you take on an extra hour or two of work per week if it was well paid? Then why not make the same effort to trim your budget?

Although this might infringe on leisure time, it prevents the sense of boredom and “entertain me” attitude that too much leisure time can cause.  Let’s not forget that when we have leisure time we often spend more. If we purposely start filling our spare time with little habits that save, it needn’t feel inconvenient or like work at all. An added bonus is that reducing spending quite often reduces waste and, in turn, can be very good for the environment.

Reduce Waste

Have you considered how much money you spend on things that you use once and throw away? Is there an alternative to this wasteful practice? For instance, have you got worn out t-shirts or towels that can be made into rags and reused rather than buying disposable wipes? Sandwich bags, paper plates and plastic cutlery exist only so that we save time on dishes—how about saving money instead? If you don’t have a potable source of drinking water at home, or if you prefer bottled water, consider that you can refill five gallon jugs of water for $3 at a water store as opposed to the high cost of individual bottles that need recycled. 

On the subject of water, it really makes sense to reduce consumption in the home and teach your kids not to waste this valuable resource. Turn off the tap while you brush your teeth, don’t leave water running the whole time you wash dishes, and only use your dishwasher or washing machine when you have a full load. Have a look at your metered water bill, if you have one, and make it a family challenge to reduce your consumption and thereby the bill. Washing clothes in cool water saves on heating the water, and using a clothesline in summer gives you a bit of exercise while the sun and breeze do the rest. If you don’t like crunchy towels, give things five minutes in the dryer before hanging them out.

Save Energy

You can save on energy costs by turning your heat down a degree or two in winter. Wear socks, sweaters and snuggle under a blanket in the evening. Likewise, keep your home cooler in the summer by closing blinds, take advantage of shade and breeze by opening windows until the sun hits them. Use air conditioning as a last resort and when you do, keep it a degree or two warmer than usual.

If you have a spare refrigerator chugging away in your basement or garage, consider whether running it is worth the cost. The extra storage is nice but if it isn’t holding anything essential you can save by simply unplugging it. Food will continue to cook awhile in a hot oven even if you turn it off a few minutes early to save power. Once you remove the food, leave the oven door open (consider the safety of small children and pets first!) to take advantage of the heat.

If you are planning to be away for a few days, turn your water heater to vacation mode so that it isn’t continually reheating the tank full of water while you are away. Finally, have a look around your home and note how many chargers, electronics and appliances are plugged in that are only occasionally used. Take the kids around the house and take turns pointing out things that can be unplugged. Encourage your family to use less power and finally understand why your own parents preached at you to “shut off the light when you leave the room!”

Get in the Habit

You might say that frugal habits such as these won’t make a difference in your financial situation, and perhaps that is true. It is likely, though, that they won’t make your problems any worse and they might give you a sense that you are doing everything you can to live consciously and reduce unnecessary spending and waste. If you have extra time, spend it doing more for yourself, learning new skills and being choosy about where your money goes. Reducing waste and “going green” is a great place to start.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

2016 Garden Plans

I am finally getting excited to work in my yard this spring. Our snow is gone and it's starting to feel like it is time to get planning. My real, overarching goal this year is to focus on low-maintenance when possible. I have a few new areas to plan out and I don't want to spend my summer weeding anymore than necessary. This will mean a focus on mulching and mulching some more!

Because we don't eat many potatoes, and because my mom always has waaaay too many, I've decided to forgo planting spuds and save that garden space for other edibles. I also want to get my raised beds more productive with more compost and the use of plastic window panes I've acquired and row covers to extend the season. So I am hoping for more productivity without too much more input :)

This is technically our third summer here. I am really pleased with how the yard is shaping up. We have a beautiful view to begin with, so I just want to have a natural flow from what I have planted and built to the natural surroundings. There are three main areas where I grow annual and perennial flowers (focus is going to be on perennials) and two main edible garden areas. This summer I plan to start a bigger garden out by our lane way where the ground is more flat (this really depends on borrowing a tractor and my Husband being here to help). This does add a bit to my work load where weeding is concerned, but for this year my focus is on getting the spot worked up with a rototiller and planting root crops for... (drum roll!)....

2016 pigs

Our three pigs! The pigs certainly deserve a post of their own, and soon, but I'm struggling to find time to write with Husband home and all of the work that we have to do. The focus for the new garden area will be weed control, cover crops and root vegetables for ourselves and the pigs to eat.

In other gardening news, I'm just tickled to see some asparagus shooting up already. I also have chives a few inches tall and some strawberry plants have survived the neglectful conditions they are subjected to. Perennial food gardening is so rewarding in the spring. How delightful to already see some growth and anticipate food grown here--so much tastier than what we can buy in a store :)

Second year of asparagus. Planning to eat some this year!
With my focus on low maintenance/ natural looking landscaping, I plan to put some shrubs and flowering trees near the house (but not too near) to disguise how tall it looks perched on this south-facing slope.

My plan is a flowering plum or two and possibly a variegated dogwood
to the left of the deck stairs to "lower" the deck or at least help it blend
into the surroundings. We also need to finish the deck pillars and install, work, work!

Because it is such a nice micro-climate on that south side, we have built some cold frames and I plan to surround them with stepping stones and perennial herbs. For weed control I also want to have creeping thyme grow among the rocks to (hopefully) prevent unnecessary weeding. Here's hoping!

As you can see, the lawn is sparse as we just got that topsoil hauled in
last summer and I hadn't decided what I was doing in that space.

It will be so handy to come down from the kitchen to grab herbs
while I am cooking :)
I have one rock border to finish. I began work on it in 2013 once the house arrived, but it has me stumped. Perhaps I just can't visualize what I want to see there because we still need to parge the foam basement wall. We plan to get that job done soon so hopefully inspiration will strike once I'm not distracted by the ugly wall. Like the south end of the house, I want to grow things of varied height for visual interest and to draw the eye away from that blank basement wall.

Notice the damage our rescue dog has done to our lawn area. SIGH.
We are trying to teach him that the grass next to the house is not his toilet
area. He's doing better now that the snow is gone but the battle is ongoing!

I feel busy enough with animals and kids that I don't want to expand my yard work if possible. Besides the pigs and us expecting baby lambs any day now we are also getting chickens to butcher in the fall. So I feel like I have enough on my plate! There is a lot to learn, most of which can only be done on the job. It's important to me that our animals and birds are well cared for so that will be highest priority. Also, I want to do a better job with what I have--particularly in watering my trees and edging/mulching in the fall so that I don't end up with so much weeding etc first thing in the spring. On the other hand, I don't want to beat myself up because I know I always try to do my best and there's no point fretting about what didn't get done last year. It's a new year and I'm looking forward to recording our progress here!

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

A Garden in Every Yard

Edited to add: This is another weekly column :)

A Garden in Every Yard

So you are home more these days…perhaps you are looking for hobbies to pass the time but are realizing that a new hobby can cost quite a bit. Or perhaps the high cost of produce has you wondering how you can reduce your grocery spending while continuing to eat healthy. Have you considered a garden?

my very first garden ever

During both world wars, “Victory Gardens” were encouraged as a way to feed the population at home and free up trucks, boats and trains for shipping goods and weapons to the troops that needed them. Whether the small city gardens contributed much to the war effort is a matter of opinion (farmers were already growing most of their own produce, and many still are) but undoubtedly they boosted morale and taught a generation to grow their own food—something the area could still benefit from today.

It’s Not Exactly Free

It could be argued that gardening won’t save you that much money. If you have a south-facing balcony you could have some containers but the pots and soil will cost you. Garage sales, kijiji and second hand stores are a less expensive way to find pots and gardening supplies. You can direct sow seeds or visit a locally owned nursery to purchase seedlings, or purchase an edible mix already planted for you. If you have a yard and an area that you would like to convert to garden space, ask neighbours on the block if anyone is interested in rototilling a spot for you. Whenever possible, barter and trade to find a mutually beneficial reward for labour. If you happen to have a tiller and the time, you might consider doing some tilling for hire but find out where phone lines are buried before you start. Although any other lines should be buried deeper, you might want to “call before you dig” if you decide to relocate fences or start working on a water feature!

Plant A Row

If you are already a gardener, plant a row for the food bank or for friends that would appreciate some home grown food. It would be very generous to offer some of your garden space to a family that would like to have a garden but doesn’t have a yard, but do this very carefully. The idea of a garden might sound thrilling in spring but, when the flies and heat set in and the real work of weeding and maintaining the space become a reality, you may find yourself doing all the work so that weeds don’t go to seed in your garden. 

Discuss your expectations and set some “ground rules” before you agree to such a plan. Although a risk, there is also the possibility that you can help someone learn to grow their own food and develop a lifelong love of gardening. They may go on to help feed themselves and many others with the knowledge that you share. That is a huge contribution to your community and one that should be commended.

Depending on how you go about growing your own food, you may not notice a bunch of savings (at least in the first year). But by endeavouring to grow some of your own food you are removing yourself from the consumerist trend where people are too busy working (and playing) to know where their food comes from. Gardening is a distraction from other costlier pastimes. Rather than a weekend of shopping, clear a spot and get to work. Many people find gardening relaxing, and good exercise. It is also a way to afford organic food, and composting your vegetable scraps eliminates waste. The fresh air doesn’t hurt, and it is entertaining to watch for plants sprouting up. Sunflowers, pumpkins, beans and peas are especially rewarding for little gardeners to grow. Teach your kids that they can grow their own vegetables—it might encourage them to eat more green stuff!

Gardening is a hobby that leads to a healthier and, often, more frugal lifestyle. Visit the library to learn more, and shop locally to source your seeds and plants. Visit local u-picks and greenhouses and take a stab at a 100-mile diet. Learn to prepare freshly picked food, and preserve your harvest whether by fermenting, drying, pickling, freezing or canning. Use social media to share the excess or donate to the food bank. Take this opportunity to learn new skills and visit neighbours while you work outside. Notice how you feel after time spent working in dirt as opposed to a day at a desk under fluorescent lights. Although it might not be for everyone, and to each their own, gardening at home might be the hobby that keeps you busy, entertained and fed all at the same time. Can’t complain about that :)

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Don't Waste It

I found this image today, while I should have been doing more important things. It sums up how I feel about food.

I have a post planned on the subject of waste...but at the rate I'm going it may never get written. I have a lot to do outside and since I began binge-watching the show Nashville in the evenings I'm finding it hard to get everything done. The show is not my usual style but I am strangely fascinated by it and have more than a small crush on the character Deacon. He can write a love song for me any day, but I digress ;)

I turned 39 on Sunday. I usually try to say something profound or at least meaningful on my birthday, but I just didn't feel it this year. Perhaps I've been mentally preparing myself for the approaching milestone, 40, to the extent that I am numb to it all. Perhaps, and more likely, I am just kind of over the age thing, and look at the passing of the years as another reminder to be grateful, try hard, and take nothing for granted.

On the subject of food I've had decent luck with my little grow light operation. I have a second set of plants under it, the first having been moved to the small greenhouse stand which we set up  in my mom's dining room this year. She has more space and better light.

Yard clean up is underway now that we are getting some nicer days without as much wind. I'm feeling overwhelmed already and that convinces me that the focus this year must be on low-maintenance gardening. Mulch, mulch, mulch, and hire someone to do the mowing if it all gets to be too much. There's a chance Husband will be away most of the summer working and I am not sure how I will get everything done. But I am trying to let go of the expectation that everything be weeded, trimmed and mowed all at the same time. That would be nice, but I have two kids and some animals now and I have to be realistic. Maybe someday there will be time to get everything perfect, but that will mean there are no little boys here to distract me from my work. So I am in no rush for that to happen. Every day passes by so quickly I need to remind myself that we are doing this--raising animals and food--for fun, because we enjoy the work and the challenge and because we want our kids to learn it. I am so fortunate to get to stay home and do all the things that I am interested in. This is an experience that many would love to have but cannot, and I am determined to savour our days together without stressing that I am not getting everything done. Like the sign says, don't waste it!

Friday, 8 April 2016

Local Families Are Seeing Some Changes—Daddy is Home!

This is another weekly column...For the sake of a wider audience I feel I should explain that it has been the norm for many local families to have one parent or the other work on jobs that take them away for weeks and even months at a time. Parenting at a distance can be hard, and returning home when no one is used to having you there can also cause stress. Many people are now unemployed and thrust into a home life that functioned without them and the adjustment can be difficult. This column was meant to gently remind couples and families (in 800 words) to support each other and find things to do that won't add to the stress by costing money.

Families affected by the recent slump in oil prices are seeing their dynamics change. While at one time fathers of young children were out of town for extended periods, a set schedule, or even just regular hours every day, many are now experiencing unemployment. In some cases, mom has returned to work and there is a role reversal happening. For others, both parents might be home and struggling to get used to being together 24/7 when they are accustomed to being apart. The loss of income is stressful, as are the changes happening in homes all around us.

Faced with unemployment, many families with preschool aged children no longer need the day home or daycare that their children once attended. Rather than being away most of the week and having exciting weekends together, people are adjusting to the hum-drum of being together most of the time, and having to do so on a budget. None of these suggestions are meant to insinuate that dads aren’t already doing these things for their families, or that it is only men that have been laid off. Anyone caring for children can use some fresh ideas to keep them busy. If you are new to “stay at home parenting”, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • ·         At one time or another you probably wished you could be home to be more involved in raising your kids. Although not ideal, this is still an opportunity for you to be the parent you aspire to be. Stay positive, be present, and get actively involved in your child’s life!
  • ·         Dads, it is not emasculating to provide childcare, meals, do the shopping and cleaning for your family. It may be hard to adjust, no one could argue that, but stepping up to the plate when called upon—no matter the job that is asked of you—says more about your manhood than how much money you used to make. Treat this as an opportunity to learn new skills and your family will love and appreciate you for it!
  • ·         Moms and kids, don’t forget to be appreciative and tell Dad he’s doing a great job. Approach this new lifestyle as a team and help each other through the rough patches. If you have patience and a sense of humour you will make happy memories together—if you give in to frustration and impatience, you will quickly see that behaviour reflected in your child’s.
Whether it is mom or dad at home, if you are not used to spending the day with children it can be overwhelming. Here are some suggestions to help the day run smoothly:

  • ·         Within reason, keep the routine similar to what it was before you took over. If kids are used to a snack, craft, story or nap at a certain time, providing these will give a sense of continuity and that “everything is going to be okay”.
  • ·         Include the kids in some household chores—do not park them in front of the TV and expect to have a hassle-free day.
  • ·         Get outside whenever possible, especially if tantrums are becoming a problem. Always react calmly and with love--easier said than done! —but remember that you are the adult and must show the child the proper way to act.
  • ·         Make a plan for the day—even if you don’t stick to it and even if there’s not much to do. It helps to feel motivated if you have a few activities planned.
  • ·         Get together with other kids. Meet at the park or check out the great free programs on local town websites. Don’t forget the library where there are stories and crafts 3 mornings a week and games 1 Saturday a month. Search online for schedules and more activities in the community.
  • ·         Practice gratitude. Talk about the best thing that happened today and what you are most grateful for. Your kids might be worried but can not express how they feel. Reassure them; let them know that you will eventually return to work but that you are looking forward to the extra time you get to spend together now.

Families come in all shapes and sizes and kids can be a handful even when everything is going your way. Throw in some added stress and it can become a hard job. If you are struggling, ask for help. No one should judge you for trying to do your best for your family. Try to schedule some time for yourself and time as a couple to get a break, and get involved in the community. Try to find the positives in this gloomy situation—hopefully you can work together to develop a new, happy routine. Join me next week for some great “free” activities to keep the kids busy!

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Hallelujah! A Pleasant Customer Service Experience...

I am not being paid or rewarded in any way to write this post, but I recently had a great experience dealing with a company and I felt it only right to give them some credit. Too often nowadays we see reports of faraway companies (here's lookin' at you, Broan. Ahem!) that make it intentionally difficult to contact them, they don't believe what you tell them, and it is incredibly hard to send things back or God Forbid ever get your money back for a dud purchase.

This was not the case with Kitchen Aid or, more specifically, Whirlpool. I have wanted a stand mixer forever and finally in 2014 I went searching at Boxing Day sales and got the Professional 5 Plus from Kitchen Aid (bought at the local Canadian Tire). It was on a good sale and also had a $50 mail-in rebate so it was a good time to buy. This machine really upped my bread making game--and pizza crust. It died on me a few weeks ago and it actually threw a wrench into my routine because all winter I've done my baking and laundry on Mondays and I found that I didn't have the confidence to tackle bread and buns without the mixer. But I digress.

I contacted the company online and heard back from them within a few days. I expected it to be a hassle and also thought I'd have lost the receipt by now (I recommend that everyone start a "receipts to keep" folder of some kind, if you don't have one already. I have one and, imagine that, this time I actually used it and found the receipt no problem). The machine had one year warranty and because I purchased it in December of 2014 and it died in March of 2016 it was not covered but they replaced it anyways, no questions asked. Have you ever heard of such a thing?! I am really impressed!

The customer service rep that I dealt with said as a one time only show of good faith, and to keep my business, they would replace the mixer and I would have a year's warranty on it starting on the day they shipped it. They sent me a shipping label with which to return the old machine (I did not have to send it away first). So when the new machine arrived I simply had to put the old machine and it's attachments into the new box along with my contact info, tape it up, put the shipping label on the box and drop it off at Purolator. I actually haven't dropped it off yet but the next time I'm in town I will. It was that simple.

As far as the quality of the machine goes, it's strange that the new mixer sounds so different from the old one. The old one used to squeal so loud that no one could talk or watch TV while it was being used. I couldn't hear the door bell over it. Perhaps the old one was flawed from the beginning. This new one is very quiet but doesn't seem very powerful, so I don't have high hopes that it will last any longer than the old one. The price of these types of appliances is so high but they are always on a sale where you can save $150 or that makes me wonder if their value is actually the sale price and they shouldn't actually go on sale for the $100 or more less. Nothing is built to last and it saddens me that these big, heavy, expensive mixers are actually disposable. What is wrong with the world? If you are in the market for a stand mixer, read customer reviews and talk to your friends. I wish that spending $350 or more on a mixer meant you would have one for life, but I am positive this will not be the case for me. Can you recommend a good machine?

All that aside, this post was meant to compliment the experience I had dealing with their customer service and about that I really can't complain at all.

Friday, 1 April 2016

How Much is Really Enough?

I was sent a link to a great article the other day. I hope you have a moment to read it and think it over. It echoed many of my own sentiments about children and "stuff" and even made me question some of my own attitudes towards what is sufficient and what is excessive--whether it be lifestyle, possessions and most definitely the expectations of the young. Because remember, the two year old who is used to having the flashiest and fanciest gear eventually becomes a 16 year old who understandably expects the same.

We live in the countryside near where I grew up. I have many relatives in the area, most of whom are still actively farming. I am lucky in that there are many families around that buck the consumerism trend and share hand-me-downs, garden produce, budgeting ideas and best of all, down to earth ideals. If I was surrounded by materialism and felt the pressure for my kids to "measure up" I might not find it so easy to maintain a simple, frugal life. That is not to say that the pressure doesn't exist or that I don't sometimes give in. I used to worry a lot when other kids would come to play here because we don't have the fanciest toys. That is, until I saw 5 town kids show up and have the time of their lives catching grasshoppers in yogurt containers for hours on end. That's when I realized that kids are kids and they need to think up their own entertainment sometimes. I remember those being the best times together when I was young. I was pleased to hear, recently, about a nearby town where the children never tease each other about their appearance or possessions. If all there is at the park is a broken down pink bike, even the older boys will hop on and ride it. These are not the rich and trendy kids, you see. These are the kids interested in having fun together who, thank goodness, can see beyond brand names and labels and status symbols. So how about you?

When I think of what I want my kids to have "enough" of, I immediately hope they are always getting enough fruit and vegetables, enough time outside, enough exercise. Do they do enough to help out, are they kind enough, am I a good enough parent? Conversely, I don't want them to have "too much" junk food, too much TV or screen time, or have the expectation that things will always come easy. I think by giving them "too much" it will give them the sense that they will always have everything they want. But what if they don't? How much of a shock is it to a new college grad that can't find work, burdened with debt, used to having every gadget and convenience available? Talk about a rude awakening. I read recently that many people are unable to retire because their children's debts are sinking them.

There are definitely times when I say we have given the kids too much. Every year I swear that next Christmas will be smaller and hear myself complain that "they don't appreciate it anyways". But that is not a fair estimation of my children or anyone's children these days. It's not that they don't appreciate it, it's that they've never gone without it. They've never had one favorite, monumental toy because we've been able to give them more, and more, to excess. In one way, we've deprived them of the fantastic joy of waiting and wishing for and finally receiving that one cherished prize, whatever it may be. We equate possession with joy, "stuff" with love and often give toys rather than our time. I wonder what happens when you remove financial transactions entirely. Instead of fleeting excitement that ultimately gives way to boredom, I want my kids to know the pleasure of a job well done, the anticipation and reward of saving for what they want. I'd like them to experience going above and beyond the call of duty to help someone even when there is no foreseeable payment. I want them to get off on doing good things.

This morning I snuggled a lanky 4 year old up in a fuzzy blanket and rocked him for almost an hour when I really should have been busy with other things. It was quiet, I sang to him like when he was a baby, and I tried to memorize each freckle on that adorable little face. Because I know there is one thing that I will never have enough of, and that is time.