Hosting a neighborhood party for $12.58

Last month, we went to our neighborhood block party and met a bunch of new families with young children like us. When we first moved into our home six years ago, there were really no young kinds around, but fortunately that’s really started to change in just the few years since we’ve become parents. 

At the neighborhood party, a group of us decided that we wanted to start more regular meet ups for those of us with kids so our children would have lots of friends within walking distance as they get older (and so will we!).

We’ve made friends with a number of our neighbors, and there is something extra awesome about just walking down the street to meet up with someone instead of having to take transportation into account. Bonus, if you forgot something, you can just run home for a quick minute!

So I set up our first “parents and kids” neighborhood get together last night at our house to take advantage of the last of the summer weather and our giant sandbox. Our house isn’t exactly huge but our front yard is plenty big for a gathering, so I figured I would host the first night when we wouldn’t have to worry about cramming everyone inside.

More than enough room in our outdoor “living room”

Since I knew I would be cooking for 6-10 adults and a handful of kiddos, I wanted to cook a dinner that I knew most people would enjoy but also wouldn’t cost an arm and a leg. I settled on an adaptation of this Cajun red beans and rice recipe. It’s been one of my favorite crock pot meals for years now and one that can easily be scaled up for a larger group.

My sous chef hard at work
Cajun Red Beans and Rice (adapted for 12):

  • 1lb package of dried red beans $1.62
  • 1 can kidney beans $0.89 (or don’t be like me and plan ahead and buy more dried beans)
  • 3 small sweet onions $1.00 bulk (or FREE from the garden)
  • 1 large red bell pepper $2.00
  • 5 small bell peppers $2.50 (or FREE from a coworker’s garden)
  • 32oz organic chicken broth $1.99
  • 5 garlic cloves $0.10 (or FREE from the garden)
  • 3 TBSP* $0.05 Cajun seasoning (I use this recipe)
  • 2lbs hot italian sausage $4.99
  • 1 TBSP olive oil $0.05
  • 8 cups of water
  • 4 cups rice (uncooked) $0.99

*I use a locally smoked paprika and solar evaporated sea salt, which I really think adds extra flavor. I also usually add more than 3 TBSP and go heavier on the red pepper flakes and cayenne, but since I was feeding more people than just our family, I wanted to make sure I didn’t make it too spicy.

Soak the dried beans the night before (I put them straight in the crock pot so I have one less dish to clean). The next morning, add in chopped onions, bell peppers, garlic, chicken broth, and water and cook in crock pot on high for 6 hours.

I then cook up the sausage in the evening about 2 hours before dinner, though you could do this the night before and just add them in closer to the end. I cook the sausage separately in a bit of olive oil so that there isn’t a ton of extra fat in the meal, but it also works well enough to just drop them straight in the crock pot first thing in the morning with the rest of the ingredients. Once the sausage is mostly cooked through, cut up into small pieces and add to the crock pot.

About an hour before eating, add the Cajun seasoning. For whatever reason, the seasoning seems to get diluted the longer it’s in the crock pot, so I find I can use less of it if I put it in near the end. Now cook your rice in a separate pot. When the rice is done, serve red beans and sausage on top of the rice.

We ended up having 8 adults and 6 kids for dinner (4 of the kids were old enough to eat food) and this meal made PLENTY for all of us. I did request that the other families bring something to share, so we had cornbread and veggies and hummus dip to supplement the meal. Even without those adds, though, this would have been more than enough for all of us to have a satisfying meal. There ended up even being enough leftovers for four more generous servings, so I got to have this meal again for lunch today.

Total cost for 16 servings:  $12.58 (or $16.18 if I bought all ingredients from the store).

While I know there are plenty of recipes out there that work out to less than $0.79/serving, it’s a quick and easy way to feed a large group of people without worrying about the cost of the dinner. You could also make it cheaper by leaving out the meat (blasphemy in my house!) or adding in more vegetables. I usually include celery but I didn’t have any and didn’t want to make an extra trip to the store. I love this meal and it’s never any kind of sacrifice to eat it again for lunch the next day 🙂


We pulled out our folding table (that was still covered in dirt from our camping trip two weeks ago) and set up the food buffet style. Everyone served themselves and the adults sat around in folding chairs while the kiddos alternated between eating on our large, foldable picnic blanket and playing in the sandbox and other toys in the front yard. 

Just make sure you have enough shovels for everyone

We all sat around and talked until it started to get dark and cold and the kiddos needed to head off to bed. Everyone packed up their strollers and headed home down the street. Since no one had more than a five minute trip home, we were able to extend the evening until the very end. 

Just make sure you have enough shovels for everyone

I had a ton of dishes to do last night since we don’t buy paper plates, but it was worth it to feed everyone and get to know our neighbors a little bit better. While our hosting days are probably limited until the spring, we plan on house hopping to the other ones down the street for monthly gatherings through the fall and winter. 

Aftermath the next day

If we get lucky and have another good snowfall this winter though, our street is the place to be for sledding, and we have plans of setting up a hot cocoa table at the top of the hill, taking note from our older neighbors who used to set up a bonfire over the storm drain and have a bar for the adults to keep warm while the kids played in the snow.

Second birthday snow day
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Actually using the emergency fund

Ever since I first started working, I’ve always kept some amount of savings in my bank account out of a sheer desire to never spend more than I made. While in high school and college, my income was minuscule, but so was my necessary spending, so I was able to save up a decent amount of money for the time. It was enough to pay for my college books out of pocket and all of my sorority dues, so my student loans ended up a little smaller than they could have been otherwise. I had to be very careful though, because my parents made a deal with all of us that as long as they were paying a portion of our college tuition, we were not to get a credit card, so I really couldn’t spend more than I earned even if I had wanted to.

Once I graduated college (even before walking at graduating), I hopped into my car and drove to South Carolina for my summer internship and my new boyfriend who would soon become my husband.

Crazy just-barely-not-teenagers in love
While I ended up finding an internship related to my environmental science degree, my primary goal had been to find ANY job near the Marine Corps base my boyfriend (now husband). I succeeded with that part, finding an awesome naturalist internship on an island 45 minutes away, so we rented a cheap apartment in between the two. The internship was a lot of fun, but it paid a stipend of $750/month – plus free lunch – for full time employment. Most of the time I ended up working around 45 hours a week, which works out to $4.17 an hour, plus a sandwich and a bag of chips each day. I was just rolling in the money.

It may not have paid well, but I got to drive boats to relocate venomous snakes, so I’d say it was a fair enough trade
It didn’t take me long to realize I couldn’t manage half of our $575/month apartment, even after renting out the second bedroom, since I soon would have to start paying a minimum $308/month on my student loans. And so I found a second job as quickly as possibly and started working 7 days a week. The second job only made $8.50/hour and didn’t require my degree, but it felt like a ton of money in comparison, and I was able to start paying slightly over the minimum once my student loans came due a few month later. Looking back, I realize I could have easily deferred my loans due to financial hardship, but it honestly didn’t even cross my mind, and I’m sure glad that I didn’t, because starting payments immediately set me up for having them paid in full less than 4 years later.

That time in my life is the closest budget I’ve had to stick to, and my bank account dropped to $243 at one point. While I realize I’ve been extremely lucky that this was my low point – and my net worth was very much negative as well – to have that little in the bank and no credit card to fall back on was really terrifying for me and something I told myself I would never, ever experience again. And I haven’t.

Fast forward eight years, and our emergency fund has continued to grow through my husband’s college days, the purchase of our house, and the birth of our son. While it has mostly stabilized these days because I would rather have the bulk of our savings working harder than bank account interest, we also haven’t really had to touch it by generally living below our means and having a buffer every month for when the inevitable “emergency” pops up. 

Both of our incomes have steadily increased since we moved home from South Carolina, and we’ve done a reasonably good job of fighting lifestyle inflation, though our 21 year old selves would be staggered to know how much money we make now.

That said, it has been a really expensive summer of house maintenance and car repairs. Since I wrote that post a month ago, the truck needed new ball joints and serpentine belt ($500 since my husband did the work himself) and we’ve spent over $2,500 on vet bills and medications to keep our dog alive, and while I don’t regret spending that money on her even one bit, it means that this month has been even more expensive than the last few.

Ever since we opened our first credit card together in 2010, we have paid the balance in full every single month and have not paid a cent of credit card interest. We have taken free airplane trips with our miles credit card and have gotten countless $50 Home Depot gift cards from our rewards card, which has helped to bankroll the cost of home ownership, but I feel very strongly that these rewards are only worthwhile if we pay them off every single month. As soon as you start paying credit card interest, which is something ridiculous like 20-29%, all of those interest payments quickly eat up any rewards you earn from using the card in the first place.

This month is the first month in a VERY long time that I’ve been concerned that we may not be able to pay off all of our credit card bills in full when they come due (Friday and next Tuesday) because we’ve had such high expenses over the past few months. The last two months, I was able to get creative and pay them off, but it was dicey. This month, after an additional $3000 of unexpected expenses, the numbers don’t look so good.

Monday night, the three of us took a walk through the trails behind our house, and we – well, the two grown ups – were talking about our recent crazy expenses, and I was telling my husband that I might not be able to pay the cards off in full like I always do. He trusts me to take care of the financial details, so this has always been fully in my camp. He’s always been careful with his money, but he just used debit cards before I came along so he didn’t have to worry about balancing out a credit card statement. 


Talking it through with him on our walk, I mentioned frustration that I would have to then dip into our emergency fund savings to pay off the cards, and he just laughed at me. “That’s what they’re for.”

Right.

That’s why we HAVE an emergency fund and don’t spend to zero every paycheck. It’s there to be used in case of emergencies. It’s been so long since I’ve really had to dip into our savings that it just felt wrong to need to do so. Thanks to my husband, he was able to pull me around to reality and have it really sink in that using that money when we need it is completely okay – in fact, it’s the whole reason we keep it there in the first place. 

While I’m not happy about having to transfer that money over today, I’ve relaxed a bit with that realization that we are still in a good place and it will be okay to touch those funds. Plus, I was considering just paying the credit card interest instead of paying those funds, which makes absolutely zero sense, but shows how adverse I am to using those backup funds. Thankfully, I talked that one through and will be paying them off after all. Our savings accounts will just be a bit sparse for a little while. 

This month we’ve really bucked down on our discretionary expenses, and I’ve been focused on cooking meals from the garden and the pantry and avoiding the grocery stores for as many days in a row as I can manage. While I’m not sure I’m ready for a full month of an “eat from the larder” challenge, I’m consistently getting better at throwing together meals from what we already have on hand. 

Leftovers for lunch – hot sauce is key

So far, this month has been considerably cheaper than the past three, and I expect to put a good part of the money back into our emergency fund next month. Again, I realize we are in a really great situation financially and this is seriously a small stress compared to what most people go through, but for someone who almost always has things under control, these past few months have been really big stressors.

Cross your fingers for us that there are no more big months through the end of the year, and we should be back to smooth sailing in no time.

 

What to do with a 1/4 cow: Easy beef and pepper skillet recipe

I’ve been making an effort lately to cut down our grocery store visits, partially out of a desire not to leave the house again once I’ve gotten home for the day but also to get our grocery bill under control. We’ve had some pretty nasty air quality lately due to the bad forest fires all over the northwest (our clothes line drying outside had to be re-washed because they were covered in ash), so it’s been easy to want to stay inside once I’ve gotten home from work. Here’s to hoping the fires get under control soon – we’ve only seen the barest hint of what it’s like for those living right near the fires having to evacuate their homes. 

Days of hazy forest fire skies

However, staying home in the afternoon means making do with what ingredients we have on hand, which is a very good thing. Outside of our mortgage, we spend more on food than any other expense. While I won’t compromise on buying high quality, local ingredients, our food costs are pretty ridiculous. Avocado toast has gotten us to love weekend breakfast at home once again and we’ve cut down on ordering out, so I’ve decided it’s time to tackle our dinner costs. 

We live less than a ten minute walk from the grocery store, so it’s really easy just to pop in to the store for “just a few items” for dinner, but it seems we never leave without spending at least $20-$30. Meal planning hasn’t worked well for us as we tend to change our minds about what we want to eat more than a few days out, but we can definitely do better on the average cost of our dinner – I’m always impressed when I see dinner recipes under $2/serving! Both my guys eat a LOT of food, so we tend to eat 5-6 “servings” for the three of us, and if I’m lucky, I’ll have some leftovers to take to work the next day. 

Since we bought a quarter cow in July from a local farm, our freezer has been quite full of beef, so it is the start of many of our dinners these days. 

Checking out the farm where our beef comes from
After getting home Tuesday afternoon, I went straight to the freezer to thaw out some of the ground beef, and then went online to look for recipes. I Googled “ground beef, peppers, onions” to find a recipe that could be made just from ingredients out of the freezer and my garden. I looked at the recipe for a Southwest Beef and Bell Pepper Skillet and decided I could make a similar recipe to the one listed. 

Homegrown tomatoes are on a completely different level of taste from store bought

Quick recipe, adapted to the ingredients I had on hand:

  • Brown 2lbs ground beef, drain fat. 
  • Add in three chopped small Walla Walla sweet onions and various hot peppers out of the garden and a few cups of tomatoes (assorted cherry and Cherokee Purple). 
  • 3 cups beef broth. 
  • Bring to a boil and then add 1.5 cups of rice. Simmer until rice is soft. Add a pinch of salt to taste. 
  • When everything is cooked, add 1.5 cups of shredded cheese and mixed thoroughly. When the cheese is melted, dinner is ready. 
  • Top with freshly picked green onions and serve with hot sauce. 

So proud of these green onions – first bunch I’ve ever grown to a real size

This was a quick and simple weeknight meal but it was delicious and both my husband and son went back for seconds – and there was even enough for me to take two lunch portions to work for the rest of the week. Even better, the only ingredient that didn’t either come from my garden, our local cow purchase, or within the northwest was the rice, and nothing was pre-made. Those kinds of meals are always especially satisfying. 


We’ve had a really expensive last few months thanks to a bunch of overdue house projects and then had a surprise $2,000 vet bill when we had to rush our dog to the vet with heart trouble so our budget really doesn’t have a lot of room for food expenditures right now. 

Thankfully our dog seems to be doing okay for now, but we’ve had some ongoing expenses for her with follow up appointments and all of her daily medications. One thing I CAN control though is how much we spend on food, and meals that don’t involve a shopping trip are very much appreciated right now. While we did previously spend some money on the ingredients that didn’t come out of the garden, we don’t have to spend any THIS month, and that really helps. 

I’ve started considering an “eat from the larder” month to really cut down on our food bill and reset our thinking about how much we need to spend. Thanks to NW Edible for doing this challenge annually – I’ve always been excited to read about this, but then I never follow through. If you’ve done this in the past, what do I need to consider before taking that step? My biggest concern is that we would end up eating a lot of meat and carbs with very little fresh fruits and vegetables – apparently I should have done this at the height of gardening season! 

Labor Day truck camping trip 

 Since most of our camping is done in the Pacific Northwest, off season is rainy and somewhat cold, so a tent isn’t the most fun way to travel. We love to travel outside of peak season though, and it starts to get expensive spending money on lodging. AirBnB is a great alternative to hotels ($40 off your first night if you haven’t used them before) but we like to travel often, so we wanted a cheaper option. Tent camping can be free or almost free, but I’m not so hardcore as to enjoy it in a downpour, so we looked to other options. We had originally been toying with the idea of a small trailer for off season camping for this reason since my husband already drives a truck, and it is used for construction so it couldn’t have a permanent camper attached to the bed itself.

We went camping back in June and my husband had thrown together a wood frame and tarp over the truck bed for us to try out instead of our tent, and we found we enjoyed that way more than we would have expected. While it had no ventilation, insulation, or latching mechanism, it gave us a sense of what it would be like to camp in the bed of his truck.

Hobo camping at its finest
After that camping trip, we realized that a truck canopy would likely do everything we wanted out of a trailer for a fraction of the cost, and it would be much more maneuverable. The truck bed gives us a warm(er) and dry place to sleep, and we may eventually attach an awning to the side for cooking, but that is really all we were looking for out of a trailer. We found a great used canopy for $1100 including taxes and install (would have been $2000+tax and install new) and bought a truck bed air mattress that covers the wheel wells for $200. For $1300, we have basically what we want for off season camping, instead of thousands of dollars more for a small trailer. I expect the canopy will pay for itself in the first year or two by giving us an option for off season camping instead of renting a room or cabin like we have in the past. While the canopy is most important to us for off season, it’s also a great way to camp comfortably in the summer as well.

My husband is currently in charge of a custom home build, and so at this point in the construction cycle, he has a hard time taking very much time off as he needs to be around for inspections and day to day questions. Since a week off is pretty much out of the question at this point and I don’t generally like to travel without him, we have been taking more long weekend trips instead of longer vacations. Three day weekends like Labor Day are great since no one is working anyway and we can tack on an extra day or two to make a bit longer of a trip out of it. This Labor Day weekend we took the Friday before off work and packed up the truck and headed out Thursday afternoon. Our final destination was an hour up rough gravel and dirt forest roads, we we decided to stay the first night at a KOA instead of attempting the rough roads after dark. Traffic wasn’t terrible except for some construction that meant we had to sit for twenty minutes at a time waiting for the pilot car to return, and we got into town a little after 7pm. We grabbed a quick bite to eat then set up the truck and crashed for the night.

When in Bavarian town, you get beer and brats
The KOA was entirely worth the $39 tent site fee and it meant we got one extra shower Friday morning before heading out to the dry dusty mountain camp – though I didn’t pack any shampoo so it was water only. This was our first trip with the trunk canopy and truck bed air mattress, and the first night made it clear that we were happy with our choice. The air mattress covers the wheel wells in the truck bed so we had plenty of room for the three of us side by side. This will obviously change once our son is older and bigger, but for now, it was plenty of space.

First thing Friday morning after we packed up at the KOA, we headed off to the grocery store for a few final supplies and then drove to the camp site where we would spend the next 4 days. My husband’s godfather had gotten to the area a few days before us and had scouted out the best spot on the mountain (he retired early at 56 and is a huge motivator for me – he lives well on a small income and enjoys life to the fullest). We spent the rest of the day setting up camp and exploring the area and generally enjoying time out away from any other people. That afternoon, we went up to the fire watch tower a couple of miles away and got a stunning view of the area. Unfortunately there are a ton of wild fires raging right now, and the watch tower gave us a great view of all the smoke that surrounded us in all directions. We lucked out though and stayed above the hazy air at 5000′ and were rewarded with some absolutely insane sunsets.

Alien planet

We had some friends join us on Saturday, and we all hung out, hiked, and generally enjoyed the weekend. My husband and the other guys went out hunting in the early mornings and late evenings but otherwise we all spent time around the very large camp area. Camping with other families is fantastic – my son got to play with his friend who is only 15 months older than he is while I got to chat with his mom. We packed a ton of food with us and ate extremely well the whole trip (fancy ramen, tacos, frittatas, etc) but otherwise spent no money.

Breakfast the last morning – eggs with leftover taco meat

Dispersed camping is allowed for free in national forests and bureau of land management land for up to two weeks at a time, so we paid no fee to camp for the weekend. While this means that there are no toilets, showers, or other amenities, dispersed camping often means you’re far enough off the grid to see few other people, and it is our preferred method of camping. While the shower at the KOA the first night was much appreciated, we would pick dispersed camping up a dirt forest road every time. For the four days we camped out, the only money we spent was the gas to get up there and the food we ate. While we did spend a little money when we were in town at either ends of the trip before heading home, we spent very little overall. Our very favorite vacations are spent outdoors with our favorite people, and this trip was exactly perfect. As my son said again last night – “Idea! Idea! Another adventure!” we are all ready to go out again, and now that we have the truck canopy set up, I see us camping happily year round regardless of the weather. And now I’m off to plan our next adventure.

 

 

 

Keeping the roommate after having a child

When first bought our home, we bought near the top of our limit allowed by our lender (my husband was in school on the GI bill and the bank didn’t consider his living stipend to be income, so we had to qualify on my income, which wasn’t very high at the time). Our mortgage came to 35% our gross income, which would make us considered to be “rent burdened” based on the national affordability calculation that your rent/mortgage shouldn’t be more than 30% your gross income. While we could have managed that ourselves, we decided instead to rent out two of the bedrooms in our three bedroom house, which dropped our portion of the mortgage payment to 30% of our income. We were 23 years old at the time, so finding friends to move in with us was easy and a lot of fun. While we occasionally had minor issues with roommates, it was overall a good experience and definitely saved us money over the years.

Our long term plan was to keep roommates until we would start trying for our first child. The normal expectation is that once you grow your family, there isn’t room in your house for anyone else. We bought a “starter” home with 3 bedrooms, 1.75 bathrooms and 1350 square feet, so it seemed to make sense that we would want the room for our growing family once there was more than just the two of us. We were young though, and not ready to start our family, so our shared home continued for the first three years after we bought it. Over that time, we refinanced once (dropping our monthly payment by $160/month), paid off my student loans, my husband graduated and found a career job while I continued to receive raises as mine, and so our mortgage payment got more and more affordable over time. Concurrently, rental costs exploded in the Seattle area and are now growing faster than any other US city and home ownership looks the same. Because we fixed our interest rate, our mortgage keeps getting smaller and smaller compared to what we could buy now, and our home would now rent out for considerably more than we pay. Even so, we’ve kept our rental costs flat for our roommates because it’s been more important to us to have great roommates than make a ton of money on the deal.

Fast forward to spring of 2014, and one of our roommates moved out to live with her boyfriend, and we found ourselves with an empty bedroom for the first time since we bought our house three years before. Since we were thinking about trying for a baby in the near future, we decided to leave the room vacant, and by the end of May, I was pregnant. Our one remaining roommate had been living with us for almost two years at that point and was open to staying even under threat of living with a crying newborn. While we had previously expected to ask everyone to leave once I got pregnant, our roommate had become more like extended family than simply an income source – we’ve gone on vacations together, eaten many many meals together, and he occasionally joins us for holidays with our extended family. My mom and grandmother even buy him small Christmas presents every year. While I wouldn’t advocate for just anyone renting a room out while growing their family, because of the special situation we have, it has continued to work.

Playing video games together while Mama gets work done

When we got home to spend our first few days with our newborn son, our roommate cooked us dinners so we had one less thing to worry about. While we may not have a true “village” like centuries past, we do have a little more than the typical nuclear family, and for that I am very grateful. Our roommate is perpetually single and had never been around babies or children before, but he is now someone I can lean on the odd days I have to work from home due to snow or sickness and our son loves hanging out with his “uncle.” This past winter, I had two weeks back to back of sickness and snow days, and our roommate was the only way I was able to get any work done from home with a needy toddler. Over all, continuing to have a roommate after having a child has been an improvement to our lives, not a detriment, something that I would not have foreseen before we ended up in the situation ourselves. A great roommate can turn a money making situation into a positive cohousing choice that we’ve made even though the money is quite small compared to our overall monthly income. Our mortgage is now 16% of our income and dropping his rent would only bump this up to 17%, so having him continue to live with us is really about all the only reasons beyond a simple rent check. 

Medication for our dog to be given every 12 hours

We’re now getting ready to go on a camping trip for the long holiday weekend, but since our dog was just diagnosed with heart disease and now needs medication every 12 hours, we would have had to cancel if it wasn’t for our roommate situation. Instead, our roommate with be holding down the fort and taking wonderful care of our old dog, and I won’t worry – too much. He takes wonderful care of all of our animals while we are gone, and since we have quite a few (we are now down to two dogs, a cat, a ferret, and a corn snake), we would have a hard time traveling as much as we do if we had to pay for a house sitter every time we went away for the weekend. He now works evenings, so we see him very infrequently and only on the weekends, but our coliving continues to work mostly smoothly – in case he sounds perfect, I had to start charging a cleaning fee since I was doing all of his dishes! We trust him when we are away to care for our very loved animals, and he has really become more like family than I ever would have expected. Whether he continues to live with us for only 5 more months or another 5 years or more, we will look back at this time as a very special situation where we were able to share our lives with another person.

I call it “hiking with toddler”

 

 

 

Summer garden 2017 recap

It’s been extremely hot the past few months for the Seattle area (high 80s the last couple of days) and we’ve broken the record of days with no rain, so it feels a bit of a relief to be leaving August behind. We’ve lived in South Carolina, so while this weather may not be hot and miserable to the same degree, it’s too warm for those of us who grew up in the temperate, rainy Northwest. I’ll take an overcast, 50 or 60 degree day over 90 and sunny almost any day. Though don’t ask me that in April after we haven’t seen the sun for months on end.

As this summer wraps up and we head into fall – and hopefully cooler weather – it feels good to have had another successful gardening season. The last few years have been a bit more reserved as we adjusted to gardening with a small human, but we still had a great year for produce. Largely in part thanks to the perennial plants I started 3-6 years ago, we ended up with quite a bit of produce over the last few months. The last few months we harvested asparagus, rhubarb, herbs, garlic, and all types of berries with just a little bit of pruning and additional compost, along with the more typical annuals – carrots, onions, tomatoes, peppers, squash, lettuce, etc. Things are starting to slow down now as the days get shorter, even though they aren’t cooler yet. While we do plant a little in the fall (garlic, onions, overwintering carrots), most of the beds lay dormant and gardening tasks quiet down for the year.

Drowning in raspberries – we went back and picked again the following evening

In addition to canning some of the produce for an early start on Christmas presents, I also gifted my dad homegrown raspberries for his birthday in May (though he had to wait until they were ripe to actually get his present). Raspberries are hands down his favorite fruit and they are insanely expensive, even in season. Every time I brought him a container of raspberries, he raved that they were the best he had ever eaten. No matter what it is, grocery store produce can’t compete with home grown, and even farmer’s markets come in a far second because they have to pick ahead of time in order to have their berries for sale the day of the market. When the berries come straight from the garden, it can be just minutes or hours before they’re eaten, and the shorter the time from vine to mouth, the better they taste.

When my mom’s birthday came around in mid-July, the experience with the raspberries made it easy to decide what to get her, and I specifically planted two Sungold cherry tomato plants in my garden for her gift. My parents are in the middle of a building their home and so they haven’t started a garden yet at their new property, but they both love fresh garden produce and have had large gardens in the past, which made it really easy to decide what to get them this year. I honestly don’t think we could have done better for birthday presents this year, and it cost us nothing other than the time to pick the produce.

My mom’s birthday present – her very favorite Sungold cherry tomatoes

Picking garden produce is extremely satisfying, and gifting it to others who really appreciate it makes my heart happy. While my parents might have a garden next year (definitely the one after that), it was the perfect gift for this year. Their gifts were free, consumable, and offset purchases that would otherwise have been made from the grocery store (and likely from large conventional farms driven in from across the state at minimum, from a different country at worst). I honestly think I get more satisfaction giving away my garden produce to people who enjoy it than I do even eating it myself. And I enjoy growing my own dinner quite a bit. That, and I get great pleasure in reading the prices of organically grown local produce at the grocery store or farmers market and calculating how much we’ve saved. I mulch and deep water the garden and partially water from a rain barrel, so we keep our water bill low year round and thus don’t pay much to water our vegetables.

$6.99 for a tiny box of tomatoes!

In all, we probably gifted my dad $50 or more in raspberries and at least as much in tomatoes to my mom, saving us some money on birthday presents and gifting them some really delicious produce. By being mindful about the gifts I give – and giving is non negotiable and very important to me – I’m able to give better presents for less money. It just takes a little more planning and effort than running to the store last minute to pick up a gift that no one wants or needs. And by giving food that’s excitedly accepted, I know that the gift won’t eventually end up in the trash.

Picking green beans

Lest it seem like we give away all our produce, we do grow quite a bit for ourselves as well, and have harvested potatoes, garlic, tomatoes, blueberries, strawberries, onions, and beans in the past week alone. Along with the quarter cow in our freezer, we are able to create whole meals out of what we’ve grown in our yard, plus a few spices (and even some of those spices are local – like the best sea salt you will ever eat. There are few things more satisfying than knowing exactly where every ingredient came from for the meal you’re eating.

My son loves to be out in the garden and we recently planted a pot with “his” beans and checked it every week and watched his baby plants grow until they were finally large enough to start picking last night. He was so proud to pick something he grew himself and had to run inside to show his daddy right away. While he’s usually a good eater in general and not picky, especially for a toddler, he tends to pick around his vegetables to a certain degree. When we’re out picking fresh produce right out of the garden, he munches happily since he’s able to pick it himself. Hopefully through gardening with his mama, my son will grow up with an appreciation of where his food comes from and an interest in growing some of his own. At very least, he won’t be the college student who has no idea what a carrot top looks like or how an asparagus grows out of the ground. For now, though, it means we all get more time outside digging in the dirt, which makes us all happy.

Dirty hands after planting fall kale and green onions

Fancy frugal date night

Last Friday, my husband and I went on our first weekend date night in MONTHS and it was awesome. My husband was given two preseason Seahawks football tickets as a work “bonus” from one of the suppliers he does a lot of business with, so we decided we had to take advantage of the free entertainment. We enjoy watching the Seahawks, but we hadn’t been to a live game in 4 or 5 years (since the last tickets we were given through work) because we can’t stomach the huge cost for seats. Instead, we usually just stream them online at home, which can be plenty of fun with a group of friends anyway, and a whole lot cheaper. 

$340 for two preseason tickets. Nuts.

While we have friends who choose to spend money to go to one (or more) games per year, there are a lot of other ways I can think of spending $340 – that could easily cover a long weekend trip or an extra payment off our portion of an investment property. And when we only attend a game in person once every 4 or 5 years, it’s that much more special because it’s such a rare experience. That, and everything is more fun when it’s free 🙂

We had also received a gift card last Christmas to Daniel’s Broiler, a fancy steakhouse in downtown Seattle, but since we are never in the area, it sat unused until now (along with the free evening of babysitting that accompanied it from my parents). When we made plans to go to the game, we figured this would be the perfect time to use the gift card as well since the football stadium was only a few miles from the restaurant.

We got a late start out because my husband was running behind with work, so we ended up calling a Lyft in order to get downtown in time for dinner before the game. Calling a car instead of taking the bus saved us an hour, so it was worth the $25.94 extra over the cost of the bus (Lyft – $32.44 vs bus fare for the two of us – $6.50 at peak time). Driving into downtown Seattle at rush hour can be crazy making, and we would have had to pay $7 to park at the restaurant and then $20-$40 to park near the stadium, plus the cost of gas and wear on the car, which ends up being a lot more than I would have expected. Plus, leaving a parking lot after a professional sports game is also no fun when there are suddenly 20,000-40,000 people trying to leave at roughly the same time and it can take half the time just getting out of the few blocks around the stadium. Round trip the distance is 38.6 miles, so per AAA, it would cost us just over $22 to drive my efficient, hybrid car for our date night. Conservatively, we had $49-$69 to work with for bus/rideshare costs without spending more than it would be to drive. (Don’t be like me and make sure to use a code to get $5 off your first ride if you haven’t used Lyft before – I made this mistake the first time I used the app and paid more than I needed to. Once you’ve used it once, they have no incentive to give you the discount).

Apparently I should have taken a photo from our dinner at Daniel’s Broiler, but it was really good and we were more focused on eating than taking pictures 😉 They came out first with some lovely bread with butter salted with Himalayan sea salt. We only ate a little of that to save room for the rest of the meal – if you go to a steakhouse, especially one of the top ranked restaurants in the city, get the steak. I had a glass of wine and we split the steak tartare as an appetizer. This is a menu item we really love – and wouldn’t make at home – so we generally order it when it’s an option. They didn’t disappoint (though we have a restaurant closer and cheaper to us that has the best steak tartare, hands down). I ended up getting an appetizer of teriyaki steak strips and a salad because I wouldn’t eat 8oz of steak, which was the smallest portion they had, and since we were headed to the game afterward, we wouldn’t be able to take any leftovers with us. My husband got a steak and baked potato, and it didn’t disappoint. Total bill after the gift card: $67.

Since Seattle passed the $15 minimum wage law, Daniel’s Broiler (and all the other high end restaurants) now have a flat 20% tip included in your bill, so it was a little strange just signing the receipt without putting in a tip. I usually tip 20%, but it was odd not to have the option. Service was great so I can’t complain. Not ordering a ton of drinks or the fanciest items on the menu really keeps things reasonable, though we won’t be back any time soon thanks to the overall cost of the restaurant and the distance to our house. If you get a chance to go though, it’s definitely a steakhouse worth visiting.

Waiting for the bus to the game. My husband wore his free second hand jersey (I left mine at home for no good reason). 
After dinner, we hopped on the bus across the street ($5.50) and headed to the game. We ended up being 15 minutes late to kickoff due to dinner and a late bus, but since they were free tickets and it was a preseason game, we weren’t in a hurry to make the very start of the game. As we walked to our seats, I was shocked to see that beer was $10 for a BUD LIGHT. We skipped drinking anything at the game because there is no world in which it is worth drinking $10 water-beer. Though at least now they only offer one size after the fiasco that showed the small and large beers had the same amount of beer but different price. Either way, $10 can get you a growler fill of Mac and Jacks to drink at home, which is way better beer and you get four pints instead of (maybe) one.

2000 junior Sea Gals performing at halftime

The seats were great (charter seats are the first row on the 3rd level) and we had a great view of the field. One awesome thing about preseason games is the weather. We watched the game in short sleeves and I only put on my sweatshirt after halftime. Summertime in Seattle is way more fun for outdoor sports. The second and third string players took over in the third quarter and it was getting late (our weeknight bedtime is the same as our toddler’s – 8:30-9:00pm), so we decided to leave a little early and beat the worst of the crowds. We were tempted to take a Lyft on the way back, but decided it wasn’t worth the wait or cost, since there were tons of people streaming out of the stadium already. Instead, we walked a few blocks and waited for the bus, which took us most of the way back for $5 (instead of $30+) and then we had to take a Lyft the rest of the way back to my parents’ house because the bus doesn’t run out that far in the late evenings. If I had paid more attention, we would have parked at the transit center and would have avoided the last 3.5 mile trip back to the house (and the $12 cost). Regardless, I’m glad we chose to take the bus/Lyft over driving in for the evening.

All in all, we had an awesome, fancy date night at a really reasonable price.

  • Transportation: $55.08
  • Dinner: $67 (after $100 gift card)
  • Tickets: $0 ($340 value)
  • Babysitting: $0 (easily $100+, and he got to spend the evening with Nana and Papa)

In total, we spent $122 on a date that would have cost a MINIMUM of $662 and likely a lot more than that if we had spent money on drinks. I can’t imagine us ever spending that much on one evening ever, so we really appreciated the opportunity afforded to us. It blows me away how many people DO spend that kind of money on one night, even when they don’t have the money for it.  There is a balance between enjoying your time now and making sure you have plenty for the future when it hopefully comes, and this was one of those nights that definitely checked both of those off. We probably won’t go to another Seahawks game for a good 4 or 5 years, but I’m sure we will have a great night when we do – and never for full price.

Old timer (dog) troubles

First day home – January 2011
Our dog Ellie just turned seven years old last week. SEVEN. I feel like we just brought her home last year. We adopted her when she was five months old and “only” fifty pounds. We tend to be suckers for the animals that are less likely to be adopted (ferret with adrenal disease, bearded dragon missing a foot, toes and part of a tail), so when we went looking to adopt a dog, it’s not surprising we ended up with Ellie. Elmira (her full time – we kept it but shortened it) was found abandoned on the side of the road in eastern Washington, and her mom and most of the litter didn’t survive. She did, but with scars thanks to distemper and mange. Her teeth have never been great since distemper messes with enamel and she has spotty patches without fur from the bout with mange. Going into it, we knew she might have some additional health challenges, but we adopted her anyway.

5.6 miles round trip hike
Ellie has a very sensitive stomach and gets car sick, so we had to work to find a way to get her to travel places with us (even a 10 minute drive to the vet would involve her puking). Thankfully, Dramamine has helped her immensely and has stopped the car sickness, though she does tend to drool a lot while in the car. Over the years we’ve taken her hiking and camping, and she’s always kept up with us. When she was younger, I would take her on five mile runs with me and my husband would take her trail running, but as she’s gotten older, we’ve stuck mostly to walks and very short runs.

A year and a half after we adopted Ellie, we brought home Sasha, another rescue puppy who had been found running on the streets and is missing some of her bottom teeth – likely early trauma made it so they never grew in. She’s been a constant companion to Ellie and a watchdog over our son. Since we both work during the day, Ellie has been much happier with her puppy sister to keep her company.

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Lounging on the couch, her favorite pastime
While she may be part Labrador Retriever, she has played fetch only once in her life, is absolutely terrified of water, doesn’t care much for food or treats, and would prefer to hang out on the couch than run around outside. She loves all people and most animals (our cat Blue is her BFF) and is generally a very happy lovable girl. She’s been a wonderful addition to our family and we’ve been lucky to have six and a half wonderful years with her so far. She’s part Great Dane as well, though, so she’s already an old lady at seven years old and has started slowing down a bit in the last year or so. I’ve been in denial though, as she is still – and will always be – my puppy girl.

Early last week, we noticed that Ellie was breathing heavily and wheezing from time to time, especially after barking or running outside. I had originally hoped she was just hot, or some other minor irritation, but by Wednesday morning, it was obvious there was something really wrong with her. I called the vet and got her in to an appointment that afternoon. She was acting happy to see everyone and didn’t seem to be in pain, but her heart was beating so quickly that they had a hard time even measuring her pulse rate. At that point, our vet told me to take her straight to the emergency room so a specialist could take a look at her. He keep repeating that he was “so glad we brought her in,” which definitely got me really worried. Our vet’s office is amazing though, and our vet stayed on the phone to get in contact with the emergency clinic, gave them an overview over the phone, and sent over all their paperwork in advance of our arrival there. They also waived the fee for our visit with them since they were just sending us on our way. Our vet might be pricey, but they are awesome and I feel like they always do their very best for our furry creatures.

We got to the ER around 4:30pm, and an hour later, a vet came out to talk to me and tell me that they suspected heart disease. We talked for a while and I came away convinced that if Ellie responded well to medication that she would still have a good quality of life. While I am willing to spend money on emergency services for my animals, I refuse to drag them along in pain just because I’m unwilling to say goodbye. While she won’t be allowed to go on runs any longer, as long as the medication works, she should be able to live a good life, for however long that is. Since she doesn’t like running anyway, I wasn’t too worried about that stipulation.

Unlike people hospitals, veterinary emergency clinics require payment up front of the low end of the expected costs, which ended up being about $2,000 for Ellie (expected high end was $2500). As I signed the paperwork allowing for her care, I was so thankful that we are in a place financially that we can afford to hand our card over for that size of an unexpected bill. While it means that things will be tight around here for a few months, I was able to pay the bill at the time required so that she could get the care she needed to save her life. My heart breaks for those who have to put down or give up an animal because they don’t have the funds to cover emergency costs. Animals can bring great joy into our lives, but they definitely aren’t the most frugal choice to be made, especially if you choose to care for them as a family member. I have never spent $2000 at one time on anything other than my college education, house, car, and the medical bills associated with my son’s birth, but I paid it willingly now to take care of our dog. I firmly believe if you choose to bring an animal into your home, they have come to their forever home and will be treated with love and care for as long as they live. She may have only cost $75 to adopt, but she is well worth much more to keep her happy and as healthy as she can be. 

After paying the bill, I left and headed home and waited to hear the full results of the tests. The call came a few hours later that they had confirmed that Ellie has dialated cardiomyopathy (an enlarged heart), which means she won’t ever fully recover from this, and she likely has only 6-12 good months left with us (a few years if we are very lucky). She’s now on a handful of pills to reduce the fluid around her heart and to help her heart pump, but we were able to get the medications at Costco for $48, so the ongoing cost should be more reasonable than the up front emergency care. 

New morning pill routine

When we went to pick her up, the vet informed us that the emergency care actually came in $13 UNDER the estimated low end of costs, so we had a small amount put back on our card. While it’s not typical to be relieved by an unexpected $2,000 bill, it was much better than the $2500-$3000 than I had expected.

Ellie is now home and resting and being pampered and loved on. She’ll go back for a follow up next week, and I’m crossing my fingers that we received some good (decent) news. I can only now be thankful that we are able to afford to take care of our girl and hope that we have some really good time left with her.

Girls’ night in

Paint and wine studios have popped up all over and are extremely popular in my city. I first splurged on one years ago for a close friend’s birthday gift (Groupon, half price), and it still came to over $50 for the two of us, including a couple glasses of wine. We went to the studio, where the tables were all set up with blank white canvases on easels and aprons were available to protect our clothes. Paint tubes and brushes were laid out and a simple snack buffet sat in the corner. We also got our glasses of wine since they were part of the Groupon deal, otherwise glasses were $7-10 per glass. Then the instructor set up and the class began. We decided we weren’t super interested in painting the picture chosen for the evening, so we chose our own designs and looked them off our or phones. Maybe a little silly since part of the price we paid was for the instruction, but it was nice to have the set up regardless. We ignored everyone else in the studio and just painted and chatted for the rest of the evening. We had a great time, and since Groupon had a good deal on it, the price wasn’t bad for a birthday and night out and it was definitely worth the trip. 

Of course, after that evening I put the painting away into a closet and promptly forgot about it. We might live in a smaller house, but there are still places to hide things in storage, as I seem to find out every time I go through our closets.  A couple years later as I was setting up my son’s room (and purging our house in preparation of his arrival), I found the painting again and decided to put it up in his room. I figured the artwork was good enough for a baby’s room, and it was free decoration regardless. We’ll see if he still wants it up there when he’s 15 😉

My “masterpiece” on the right – my sister’s on the left

Since I haven’t been to one in person recently, I looked up the cost for the one closest to me, and I was shocked to see the price is $40/person and drinks are not included. While it’s a great time, and they cover the cost of the canvas, paints, and brushes, that is not a cheap evening. 

When that same friend’s birthday came up this year, she hosted a paint and sip night at her house for the second year in a row, instead of going out to celebrate. As we get older (almost 30 now, ha), I’m finding that more and more often my friends are interested in smaller, more intimate evenings at people’s houses instead of a loud bar or event, which means we’re able to have better conversation and deeper connections with the few people we do spend our time with. I’m not sure if this is true in general, or if I’ve just gotten lucky with my group of friends. I don’t see them as often now that I have a kid, but when I do, we tend to make the most of that time together. And it’s definitely the time and conversation that we’re looking for over what we do with that time. 

Before I headed over, I mixed up some homemade taco and creole seasonings and put together a gift bag along with some of the jam I had canned the previous week. Like me, she prefers homemade presents (she’s previously made me unpaper towels and cloth diaper wet bags – thankful to have a friend who can sew!). And she wasn’t the least bit surprised when I didn’t bring a birthday card because I hate them and never give them to people 😉

Homemade taco mix – refilled our jar at the same time
For the birthday party paint night, there were 5 of us who got together, so if we had gone out to a studio, that would have been $200 plus drinks (easily another $20/person, so $300+ total). Instead, we brought cheap bottles of wine and snacks from Trader Joe’s and had a better dinner than had we just eaten what was at a studio. My friend has a ton of paints and extra canvases, and she found a YouTube video that we could follow along for instruction. 
The best part about using a video instead of following along live is that you can pause and rewind when you get busy chatting and distracted from the actual painting. It took us a good three hours to get through an hour long video, and we had a great laid back time. Nights like these remind me how much I need ladies nights, especially since they happen so rarely now. 

The best kind of frugal nights are the ones where you don’t “miss out” by choosing the cheaper option but instead have an even better time and you just happen to spend less (or no) money. A night that cost us each maybe $20 (including dinner, drinks and supplies) was one I enjoyed and will remember way more than a night out to a bar that can cost exponentially more. Quality of the company and the confort of the location well outweighs a more expensive event. 

My final product

Comparison is the thief of (early retirement)

All you hear in the news is how everyone has so much consumer debt, student loan debt, mortgage debt, and that retirement is further and further away due to the economy/bad choices/etc.  Looking around at our coworkers and most of our friends, this seems to be mostly true. Lots of expensive cars, trips and toys on credit cards, and student loans that often didn’t equate to equally good jobs. The housing market in our area has exploded in the last few years and those who can think about buying are mostly pushing further out to afford a bigger home.

I graduated college at 21 and got married six months later. We bought our home at 23 at the bottom of the market, and my student loans were paid off at 24. My husband and I both work “career” jobs and don’t struggle to pay our bills or worry much about emergency expenses. When we compare ourselves to “most people” our age, we are doing amazingly well. We are comfortable and know most would love to be in our shoes. While we’ve made some good choices and stayed out of debt, this success has allowed us to get complacent. As our incomes have grown, we’ve stayed comfortable and allowed our spending to grow with them.

Taking a walk to the park on a laid back Sunday
And then I started reading online blogs about financial independence, and realized that maybe we could do a lot better. I had never really considered an alternative to the traditional work story, and we were comfortably within what we would need for that path. Until I realized that wasn’t the only path – MrMoneyMustache “retired” at 30, Frugalwoods became financially independent in their early 30s, and RetireBy40 beat that goal by two years. Since we’re in the last months of our twenties and a long ways off from financial independence, they’ve blown us out of the water. Comparison here isn’t the thief of joy, however, because they show what’s possible and what’s better than the story we’re usually told. I always do better when I have a higher benchmark to measure myself against, and only get in trouble when I start focusing on how much better I’m doing than others. There’s no use in measuring against someone who will be stuck working a job they hate until they’re 70 because I know that’s not where I want to be. Better to benchmark ourselves against those who reached financial independence in their 30s and 40s. We may not be ultra ultra frugal like some of these bloggers, but there is considerable room for improvement that can get us there well before the typical 65.

Perhaps we want to be here full time when we’re 45 – I want the option to be able to decide
Reading stories of early retirees has also gotten me to realize that “retirement” doesn’t need to mean sit around and do very little with your time. I’ve started to consider what we might want to do and where we might want to be if we weren’t tied to a traditional job. While financial independence looks to be a good fifteen years out for us, it’s sparked dreams and ideas that look very different from what I might have otherwise imagined. Perhaps we will stay right where we are at and continue our careers. Or perhaps we will pick up and move to the islands once our son graduates high school. Financial independence means WE get to decide. Financial freedom to choose our own path.

Since learning about the financial independence / retire early movement, I’m sometimes upset with myself that I’ve “wasted” a decade in which I could have been making even better financial choices. I’ve always been careful with my money, but being ultra frugal hasn’t been my fallback. This means I’ve definitely spent more money and time on things that weren’t worth it. That is part of being human, though. Everyone can look back and see clearly what they could have done better. And I do realize that I’m taking control of this now and not waking up at 60 years old, still at my desk, and realizing I’m trapped with no way out. Instead of being frustrated that I’ve wasted years comparing against the typical consumer, I’m going to take this new focus and do the best we can now. When you know better, you do better.