Category Archives: family

Step Up To The August Challenge: Gallon Challenge

It’s August, and that means it’s time for another monthly challenge. This one is really going to stir the pot: the Gallon Challenge. I’m not talking about the fraternity hazing ritual, where you have to drink a gallon of milk in an hour (don’t ask). This challenge is about limiting yourself to a gallon of gas for the month!

You’ll quickly realize that this challenge seriously penalizes those with less fuel-efficient cars. Good! It’s time to feel the pain for making an inefficient car choice. Don’t feel too bad, I’m in this group (our car only gets 20 MPG), so I’m making some pretty major lifestyle changes to make sure I only drive 20 miles this month.

The biggest change is getting the boys to summer camp. The round trip is 7 miles, and there’s 10 days of camp. That obviously won’t work. My first thought was to take the bus, but that would take 40 minutes, with a transfer. So I decided to take matters into my own hands, or shall I say “feet.” I contacted Bike Works, a local non-profit dedicated to getting more people biking. They have a loaner program where they’ll loan out all sorts of bikes. For a small donation, I got this Sun Atlas cargo bike for the two weeks that the boys are in camp.

Riding it is a blast, for me and for the boys. I find that our commute is much more social, not to mention the amazing workout that I’m getting! Isaac looked pretty proud rolling into camp the first day on the back of a cargo bike.

So that’s the challenge. Who’s up for it?

Fine print: Use your car’s average MPG to figure out how many miles you’re allowed to drive (e.g. 20 MPG = 20 miles). Family vacations don’t count (you can consider that fuel consumption to be in the “vacation” category). Decide for yourself if you count being a passenger towards your miles. Maybe you can count that for half miles? Let me know what you decide.

How Urban Homesteaders Figure Out Their Food Costs

Yesterday I had lunch with a friend who’s a Foundry in the Forest reader, and she commented on my family’s food budget, which is a modest (though not totally low) $922 a month, including groceries and dining.

While talking about it, the fact dawned on me that we sneakily get food through other spending categories, namely “gardening” and “chickens.” I did a blog post on the actual cost of a dozen eggs from backyard chickens.

We also have a modest garden, which Venessa puts a lot of work into. Like the chickens, it doesn’t save us any money vs buying comparable products at a farmer’s market, but it’s a fun pastime that keeps us in touch with nature, and gives us some very fresh and tasty veggies every season.

So in the interest of full disclosure, here is our true monthly food spending (averaged over the past year), for a family of 5:

Groceries:* $656
Entertaining:** $33
Restaurants: $233
Chickens: $31
Garden: $6
Total: $958

Our non-restaurant food spending has decreased over the past few years, even taking inflation into account. Not sure how we did that.

* This still puts us well below the “thrifty” spending plan as outlined by the USDA.

** I keep keep a separate category for entertaining, since it’s fun to have friends over to eat, or to buy a friend a drink at a bar. I like to see how much I’m spending on social stuff like that as opposed to just buying food for myself.

Happy Independence Day!

Happy Independence Day! Due to the magic of blogging, I’m relaxing with family and friends while this is posted.

Just as the founders of our country worked for independence from a system that didn’t allow them to live their lives the way they chose, I declare my independence from commercialism, wastefulness, and anything else that’s keeping us from living the lives we want to live.

Have a fun and safe holiday!

Mrs. Foundry gets down to business

Big news in the Foundry family. Mrs. Foundry in the Forest is opening a food cart here in Seattle, along with a friend of hers. It’s called How Pickle Got Out Of A Jam. They’re still working on the menu, but the guiding principle is “food you can eat every day” (as opposed to the standard food truck faire: burgers and BBQ).

She’s been testing out the entrepreneurial waters for the past couple years, as Infamous Pastries, making delicious wedding cakes and other treats for sale. But now she’s taking it up a notch. They’re planning on having a truck running by the end of summer.

They’ve already started the business out on a frugal note, scoring a fixer-upper truck at a bargain price. It’s going to sit on the curb outside our house, where we’ll pour sweat equity into it with every free moment. Even though I’m not officially part of the business, I’m excited to tear that thing apart and spit polish it ’till it shines. Maybe they’ll let me add some sweet rims

You can follow along the adventures on their blog and twitter accounts.

On a more scrumptious note, if you’re in the Seattle area and want to eat an unforgettable meal this summer, check out their pop-up dinner schedule, a series of prix-fixe dinners hosted by the future food cart chefs, to help them hone their menu and food-prep skills. Hope to see you there!

Turn onesies into t-shirts

Lillia is potty training now, so she can’t wear onesies any longer. It would be a shame to get rid of them, so we just cut off the bottoms and turned them into regular t-shirts. Bam! New wardrobe!

That zig-zag pattern is accomplished by cutting with pinking shears, and it helps prevent the fabric from fraying. If you don’t have a pair of pinking shears, get a solid used pair and they’ll last forever. They probably feature in a craft project at least once a week around here.

(Dudes, I know it has the word “pink” in it, but they’re just scissors with sawtooth blades and that’s pretty manly when you think about it.)

When it comes to timing your retirement, only two questions matter

The names in this true story have been changed to protect the innocent.

At our Mother’s Day BBQ, the conversation turned to finances and Facebook’s IPO. The consensus among family members was that nobody was going to buy IPO shares in the company. But Aunt Marsha told me that a friend of hers was considering moving her entire 401k savings into shares of Facebook, at which point I almost choked on my BBQ Salmon. I explained that putting a large portion of capital into any single company is too risky, and advised Aunt Marsha’s friend to put the money in a low-cost index fund, and keep it there.

Then Aunt Marsha said, “Thanks for letting me know, because she’s got a lot of money in her 401k. Like $30,000.” Keep in mind Aunt Marsha is almost 60 and her friend is approximately the same age. We got to talking about what it means to have that amount saved up for retirement at that age, and I explained the following:

Anybody can retire at any time they want, but there are two variables in the “can I retire?” equation:

A. How much do you plan to spend per year in retirement?

B. How much do I have saved up?

If the answer to Question A is 4% or less than the answer to Question B, then hand in your pink slip! Otherwise, you don’t necessarily need to keep working (but you probably will need some more capital somehow). You can:

1. Minimize spending.

2. Maximize income.

3. Increase savings rate.

4. Go into partial retirement (which will probably reduce spending but will also reduce income). I’ll write about this last one (including a book review) later.

A Supposedly Frugal Thing I’ll Never Do Again (or: How To Make Your Own Laundry Detergent)

This conversation happened over google chat yesterday…

Venessa: please buy laundry detergent on your way home
Joe: no need, I’ll just make some
Venessa: ok

So I was officially on the hook for making laundry detergent myself, lest the dirty laundry start to pile up. And we’re potty training Lillia these days, so we’re talking major laundry.

I found this recipe by Trent at The Simple Dollar, which I planned on doubling*. Seems simple enough, and we already have all but one ingredient: washing soda.

Luckily, I found out from Penniless Parenting that you can make washing soda from baking soda. It’s as simple as 2NaHCO3 —> Na2CO3 + CO2 + H2O. Or “bake it for a while at 400” for the non-nerds.

But how long to bake it? The blogger at Penniless Parenting is strangely mum never timed it, so I don’t know how long it takes to turn baking soda into washing soda. I timed it while mine was cooking and I found that it takes a little over an hour to turn 2 cups of baking soda into washing soda at 400 degrees. I put it in an oven-safe pie plate and stirred it every 15 minutes or so.

While that was baking, I’d like to tell you that I was grating the soap since that would have been a sensible thing to do. But that would be a lie, because I was actually hanging out with Venessa.

I grated the soap later, and put all the ingredients together. This was actually the worst part, unless you enjoy borax and washing soda in your nose, throat, and lungs. Personally I don’t. I guess this is how cocaine addicts feel, with all the dripping and the white powder.

Trent claims that making laundry detergent saves him $37 a year vs. generic powder. We use Trader Joe’s powder which is $10 for 64 loads, or $0.16 per load. I estimate the batch I made took about 30 minutes to make, and made about 48 loads at a cost of about $0.05 per load.

We do about 200 loads of laundry a year, so I’m saving about $22 a year for 2 hours worth of work (4 batches), or $11 an hour and 4 facefulls of borax.

In conclusion: not worth it.

PS: The lady with 19 kids has a recipe for liquid laundry detergent that looks like it’s worth trying.

Update: I tried the liquid recipe mentioned above, and it’s pretty good!

* Instead of using two bars of soap, I used one large bar of Kiss My Face Pure Olive Oil soap. Pros: it only contains olive oil, water and salt. Cons: it’s really sticky and gooey. (Additional con that I just discovered while making this recipe and blogging about it: Venessa thinks it smells like baby crap. And now our laundry is going to smell like it for 48 loads.  Oops!)

New Kicks

On the way to work today, I walked pass this line of people waiting for a shoe store to open so they could buy the new Air Jordan shoes. The folks at the head of the line had been there overnight.

I remember when I was about 12, a new version of Air Jordans came out. I begged and pleaded with my mom to buy me a pair. She finally gave in and bought them while I was at school one day. I came home and tried them on. I looked at myself in the mirror and realized I looked ridiculous, and had her return them the next day. I bet I never even apologized for making her go out of her way to the shoe store twice.

I’m sure there’s a moral somewhere in this blog post. I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader.

A closer look at grocery costs

In my last post I discussed the average American “consumer unit’s” yearly spending on (among other things) groceries.

According to the survey data, Americans spent about $125 per person per month on groceries. So the average 2.5 person unit spent $312 per month.

On the other hand, the USDA keeps detailed monthly statistics on how much it costs to buy a pre-selected list of groceries, enough to feed the average child, teen, adult, senior, etc.

When I looked at the most recent data available, I noticed that something didn’t add up. That $312 per month from the spending survey is lower than even the thrifty “family of 2” plan provided by the USDA, which allocates $374 for a couple with no children. There’s no way the average American unit can beat a “thrifty” shopping plan. It looks like a case of “Lake Wobegon syndrome,” where every family is above average. And I was feeling pretty good about our family’s slightly-above-average grocery spending, so maybe it’s too early to toot my own horn.

I sent an email to Mark Lino, Economist at the USDA to see what gives. Since it’s a holiday weekend, I doubt he’ll get back to me right away. I’ll keep you posted.

Until then, you can see a nifty spreadsheet I made to add up what a family of our size, with our age ranges, should be spending according to the USDA. You can make a similar one by replacing our age/gender groups with the ones for your family. Here’s a screenshot:

Here’s a link to a Google Spreadsheet so you can copy it and play around with the data:

The USDA updates the chart every month, as food prices change. I’ll update the spreadsheet each month when I do my Your Money Or Your Life activities.