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No Big Box 2011

This challenge was born via my hatred for Walmart, and other similar mass retailers. As I said, I believe these businesses do not have our best interest at heart, nor that of their employees.  They do not contribute to my community or the landscape in a meaningful way. So, why would I want to give them my money?

In 2011 we started a resolution about voting with your feet and your dollars. We would not give them our money. Not a single cent. We would boy-cott the Big Box. One of our better planned exploits, really. Probably because the rules are easy.

No shopping at Big Box stores including; Walmart (duh!), Target, Best Buy, Lowes, Home Depot, and Macy’s to name just a few.

For a couple of reasons, we specified two exceptions;  Costco and Amazon.com.

I’m not going to lie, part of the rationale behind these two choices was my own convenience. I knew this was doomed to failure, if I didn’t have some sort of fall back strategy. Like it or not there are some limitations to what your local mom and pop can provide these days. Also, we had an active Costco membership, with months remaining. The frugal side of me was not about to waste that.

Beyond my selfish reasons, both of these companies are based locally. That means they don’t just provide crappy retail jobs, but well paying corporate gigs that contribute to the health of my local economy (whether I like it or not).

In addition, both have proven themselves to be leaders in their market. They are innovators, and they are at least decent corporate citizens.

Here we are. 10 months into this.

What have we discovered?

  • Some categories are certainly more difficult than others. For instance hardware stores. Small True Value stores often don’t have everything you are looking for. Many of them don’t carry lumber. However, the lumber yard doesn’t carry plumbing supplies. Multiple stops are usually involved in our home improvement errands.
  • Things are definitely more expensive. Things I think are going to be a $5 part, often turn out to be more like $10 or $12. This could just be my perception. More likely, these smaller shops get less discount and have more over head, so yeah, it costs more. If that little extra is going to pay a livable wage for a business person, I’m ok with that.
  • We shop less. Adding this ‘limitation’ into the mix takes a lot of options off the table. We can’t just run down and grab some doodad because we have an itch. We’d have to figure out where to find it, or order it from Amazon, from a reputable seller no less. Making it just that much harder, puts things into perspective and gets the creative juices flowing. Often we brainstorm an alternative or find we don’t need it after all.
  • It’s amazing the things you can find at Goodwill. Most of our housewares are now 2nd hand. From our new metal colander to a garlic press to soap making supplies. Much like hardware, housewares can be hard to find an independent alternative for. Luckily, thrift stores are usually bursting at the seems with this stuff. Not something I’d ever browsed before. It is incredibly easy to find what you are looking for, and then some. I now take the time to browse my local Goodwill for all kinds of things beyond just clothing.
  • Relationships and good advice. I haven’t made any new BFFs (yet), but we’ve gotten great advice at a number of local spots from people who truly seem to care and are interested in our business. We are now recognized at a couple of these local businesses. Not sure if that’s good or bad. In general, I’m not chasing down disinterested employees to ask a simple question. I’m interacting with owners and people who know their wares. It’s refreshing.
How have we done?
  • So far so good. We have not had to resort to Big Box (other than the exceptions) even once. In fact, the exceptions aren’t that heavily used, particularly Costco. I have thoughts about canceling our membership and excluding that next year. We will see.
  • We’ve expanded. Why avoid Big Box, but be ok with franchises, chains and corporate food? While that wasn’t in the original plan, it was an easy step to take. We have gone to some family dinners and work lunches at corporate dining establishments, and made a trip to the outlet mall early on, so not as hard and fast as the No Big Box. Still, we are evaluating decisions for what they add to our community.
I see no reason why we wouldn’t complete this challenge with flying colors. It’s become habit now. Next year, it won’t even truly be a challenge. Unless, of course, I decide to change it up.
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Once A Month Shopping: The Dramatic Conclusion

This is the first month summary to my Once A Month Shopping Experiment. 

Ok, so not entirely dramatic. How about enlightening?

First of all, the title of this little experiment is  deceiving. I didnt really shop once this month. I made exactly 4 shopping trips. One trip was super arduous, but the other 3 were a piece of cake. There were also a couple of stops at specialty shops to pick up completely unnecessary ‘wants’. Those were fun, and I do not count them as chores. Other than that, I followed the rules of 1 stop per week, taking less than an hours worth of time.

Let’s get down to the nitty gritty details. Drumroll please….

Money Spent: $725. Exactly. That includes fancy cheese and stocking up on chocolate, and 1/12 of our organic cow. In fact, without said organic cow, we would have been at $649 (!!!). That was the ‘high water mark’ originally set. Obviously, we didnt make it. Money = Fail.

Time Spent: 7 hours. This is generous. I’m counting the initial 1 hour of planning, plus the 3 hour terrible shopping trip. Then grossly exaggerating the time spent the rest of the 3 weeks at 1 hour each. That 1 hour would include time to review the menu for the week, make adjustments, and write it on my handy-dandy kitchen chalkboard. Time = Success

Lessons Learned

Again, let’s break it down to…

Money: We spend too much on groceries. I know, duh, right? What a huge revelation. But then, maybe we actually don’t. I am pretty on top of my finances. Still, tracking everything to this degree was interesting. I am struggling with how to decrease this spending without sacrificing quality and our personal morals. Fancy cheese, cheap wine, and chocolate aside we are not wasting food. Nor are we overweight, nor are we eating a bunch of processed crap. We eat nutritionally dense, whole, local foods, and we pay a real price for them. I can focus more on hunter-gathering and growing our own to bring our costs down. Other than that I might need to accept this ceiling as an actuality. There are lots of things I am willing (and do) cut corners on. Maybe food just isn’t one of them. I am certainly no extreme couponer. Who wants to eat that crap?

Time: It means so much to us. This experiment greatly improved the quality of both my weekends and my weekdays. Weekends weren’t eaten up by planning and list making and shopping. Weekdays were on auto-pilot, and I wasn’t worried about brainstorming for next week’s plan. Even The Husband, who was skeptical about this whole thing, commented about how nice it was to not have our weekly/daily conversations about what we were going to have next.

I am still ruminating on these lessons, and how they play into the adjustments for next months plans. I’m going to post our menu for next month to show how exotic we don’t eat. Stay tuned…

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Ugly Garden Gets a Makeover

Just in time for Fall, Ugly Garden got a little spruced up.

You may remember the fencing for ugly garden was repurposed from our very friendly neighbor. Since it had been sitting along side his house for who knows long, it was in need of a little paint. This has been on my agenda for, oh, just about the entire summer. I finally managed to get it done before the rains started in earnest.

A white fence, such an improvement.
A white fence, such an improvement.

You will notice that the Hoop House is rocking its cover now-a-days as well. Fall crops seem very happy with this arrangement thus far.

Happy Veggies
Happy Veggies

My little metal bin that never seems to want to grow much of anything has finally found a willing resident; Miners Lettuce! I’m tickled with this arrangement since I *lurve* egg salad with a Miner’s Lettuce accompaniment.

My rain barrel search is off to a fruitful beginning. I scored one for $30 last week (they are typically $80). It needed a few minors modifications (spigot and hole in the top), which The Husband tackled with ease. You will note its not quite operational yet, since we are lacking gutter pieces. Hopefully, those are coming home with The Husband today.

This will hopefully be the first of 3 rain barrel I’d like to put into duty before next years growing season. Since the first one was so easy to find, I have high hopes for accomplishing this without paying anywhere near full price.

Last, but certainly not least, one pug-dog. None too happy about the addition of rain and wet to his morning potty routine.

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Part III: 2 Jobs, 1 Nightmare

Welcome to Part III of my ‘There and Back Again’ series. This is meant to provide background on the ‘Dogs or Dollars’ journey  of the past 3 years. Please take a moment to read Part I: The Layoff and Part II: The Leap

The Husband has always been a blue collar kind of guy. Early on, I thought this would change. That someday he would sit at a desk just like the rest of us. I was wrong. He likes to build things, big or small. He likes to be outside and work with his hands. He’s good at it.

But, the trades, they are fickle. You deal with a lot of fly-by-night operations. Mostly no insurance or benefits, and you have to be careful or you’ll get burned.  To circumvent all this, some years ago, he joined a union. After an apprenticeship, he would have a guaranteed hourly wage, health insurance, a vacation fund, an annuity. You know, the “real job” stuff I always dreamed of.

It’s still one of those jobs where, if you don’t work, you don’t get paid. And subject to project time tables, supply shortages, and flaky people. Every now and then, you end up with an unexpected day (or week) off, unpaid. Just Because. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. It can’t be helped. It is the nature of the beast.

That’s an occasional thing. The exception not the rule. In the 5 years leading up to The Leap, work had been stable for The Husband. In fact, he’d worked primarily for one company that whole time. Plus, if work ever got really scarce, there’s this magical place called ‘the union hall’, where they give out jobs each morning.

We were ready for The Leap. I would quit the Corporate America job I so loathed. He would be the bread winner for a while. We’d be a blue collar family. We had a healthy emergency fund and medical through the union. What more could we ask for? We’d both have jobs we wanted and less money, and be hap-hap-happy! about it.

In February 2010, just 6 months after we put all our eggs squarely in the Union basket, The Husband was laid off.

No big deal. He’d trek down to that magical union hall and get another job. Trek he did, and put his name on the list. Along with the 500 (literally) other individuals in his union who were very suddenly out of work. This was unprecedented. What was going on?

The economic slow down was late to hit our  little PNW bastion. When everyone else was already reeling, we naively thought it had skipped us. Things couldn’t get much worse, so we were mostly safe, right?

Commercial construction, The Husband’s bread and butter, suddenly dried up. As most of the existing projects neared completion, no one was financing new ones. For those 500 people down at the hall, 2 to 3 jobs a day would typically roll in. Sometimes as many as 6, but often 0.  Getting a new job used to take days. Now, there were people sitting there for months.

This was my Worst Case Scenario. The Husband collected unemployment checks, which were about 1/2 of his normal income. I brought home 1/3 of what I’d previously made in Corporate America. The Big Fat Mortgage now represented more than 50% of our monthly take home.

Needless to say, while all this was happening, I remained calm, cool and collected. Of course. I wouldn’t be running around tearing my hair out, bearing mountains of guilt for quitting my cushy corporate nightmare. Because, really, what would that accomplish?

Well, if I could have helped such behavior I would have.

It certainly seemed like a good idea at the time; My spiral of worry and doom and gloom. Again, this was worst case scenario. To some degree, I was prepared. I even had a budget all drawn up for just this circumstance. We buckled down. We scrambled. We sold stuff. I bumped up our savings. The Husband put the word out to our friends and family that he was available for hire. This resulted in a boom of side work. After his daily trips to the union hall, he built fences and railings and helped a friend remodel. Engage overdrive.

Unfortunately, overdrive is unsustainable for any length of time. You run out of things to sell. There are only so many projects your friends want done. Usually this kind of effort would see us through until work plentiful again. Not this time. Weeks were turning into months.

After 2.5 months this, with no end in sight, I sent casual email to my old boss. You know, just checking in, doing fine, if you had any part time contract work, I’d be interested. Very casual.

A month later, I got the phone call. After much paperwork and rigamarole, I finally start back with my original, pre-layoff employer in May. The Husband had been out of work for 5 months.

This was a part-time, short term (3 month) contract to do mostly off-hours work 2 or 3 times per week. I would show up at about 4pm or 5pm, after finishing my day at the Pet Store, and work until 11pm or Midnight. Sounds fun, right? (Note: Sarcasm) It paid 3 times my hourly rate at the store. With this job, I could make up for The Husbands lost income.

Now, we were still paying our mortgage. We weren’t behind on any bills. We just didn’t have a whole lot of extra for unexpected, big ticket items; like vet bills or car repairs. I’d been treading very carefully and had managed to avoid touching the Emergency Fund. The 2nd job would give us breathing room. No more walking around on egg shells.

I went into this gung-ho. I was fortunate to have the opportunity. Pet Store Boss Lady was in the know, but less than thrilled. I told everyone, including myself, that this was short term until we were back on our feet and/or The Husband went back to work.

Only, The Husband didn’t go back to work. At the end of August they renewed my contract for another 3 months. Similar story in December, when they renewed my contract again until March. No work for The Husband and a minimum of 50 hours a week for me.

During this time, my gung-ho ran out. I went into survival mode. I slept, I exercised, I ate and I worked. I had 1 day off per week, and I focused on making it as low key as possible. I became very hard to get a hold of. I started to resent all other demands on my time. As this wore on, I wore out.

Boss Lady desperately wanted me to quit my other gig. To commit to just the Pet Store, as was my original intention. She wasn’t going to fire me. During this whole dark time, regardless of the triple-rate, that is where my loyalties laid, with the Pet Store. Somehow, I continued to improve there. I got better and better at my job. I loved it. I wanted to be there. I drug my feet leaving to go to Corporate America. I kept the amount of time I spent there to a minimum, just to pay the bills. Financially this made no sense. It was so much more about heart than head.

How could I cut that Corporate lifeline though? That would be burning a bridge; a bridge I was actively using. Even if The Husband went back to work, who knew how long it would last?

There I sat. I couldn’t quit the job I wanted to because I needed it financially, and I wouldn’t quit the job I wanted to keep, because, well, I didn’t want to. Stuck. With no sleep and no time. No way out and no room to think. And so it went, for a year.

 

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Money Saving Monday: The Fruits of my Labor.

2 hours of picking Blackberries on your lunch break equals…

8 jars of jam to be used as Christmas presents (and for my own enjoyment), plus 1 Husband-made Blackberry pie, which accompanies last nights Tongue Tacos. They were tasty, I gotta say.

The Blackberry return on investment, not too shabby.

If that’s not enough, the mushroom kit we bought a few weeks ago, is going gang-busters!

I’ve harvest 3 large clumps (Think: larger than adult hands) and we are off to our 2nd round of growth. Oyster mushrooms are lovely on Friday Night Pizza, and will be making an appearance in several of this weeks dishes. At this rate, this kit will more than pay for its $20 price tag.

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Sunday Spending: Tongue Tacos.

This is my weekly update to my on-going Once A Month Shopping experiment.

Speaking of experiments, when you order a 1/4 cow, you sometimes get a tongue. What do you do with a 3lb cow tongue? Apparently, you make tacos, according to the Husband. Tacos la Lengua to be exact. I am assured this is a tasty dish, often found on Taco Trucks. In leiue of grocery shopping tomorrow, we are cooking up a batch (plus some carne asada for the faint of heart. stomach?) and inviting over a group of friends.

Back to our regularly scheduled programming, this is week 3 of 4. We are in the home stretch. Interestingly enough, Trent over at the Simple Dollar, wrote about cutting down on his grocery store visits. For him, its been a big money saver recently. I’m planning a recap/lessons learned for the month. Let’s just say, I do no think the same will be true for us.

As I alluded to last week, we didn’t make it until Sunday. Oh, no. We made it all the way to Tuesday, before the coffee filter supply gave out and circumstances became desperate. Needless to say, we made a trip to the local co-opish grocery.

$54 spent, including $6 Chinook Book coupon. Other than coffee filters, we got bananas, chips, onions, mayo, tortillas, and a couple of items for the above mentioned tongue feast, as it is a deviation from the menu.  There are definitely some staples  not adequately accounted for in the beginning of the month shopping, which we were in need of.

We did  ‘stock up’ a bit, knowing we wouldn’t be making another trip for 10 days. But we should sail through this week and make it to the end of the month, without being quite at Old Mother Hubbard status.

Like I said, working on the recap, and menu for next month. The Husband and I were singing the praises of  our grocery store-less weekend just this morning. The current thought is that, with some tweaks, this is definitely worth repeating.

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The Emergency Fund(s)

Over the years I’ve cultivated a rather elaborate Emergency Fund System, involving multiple accounts, and what I consider a a healthy safety net. The birth of this system, in its current iteration, began with The Layoff. Funny, how a major shake up puts savings strategies and priorities into perspective.

See, my primary Emergency Fund (also known as the Off-Shore account because it makes me feel exotic) is large. Most financial ‘experts’ may say too large. I’ve heard it all before. Blah, blah, blah better returns in the market. Yadda Yada  inflation is just eating away at it yadda.

While that logic may be sound(ish), it doesn’t help me sleep at night. Having a nice, fat Emergency Fund does. So I leave Off-Shore where it sits, and every now and again, it gets another infusion of cash.

For me, the whole point of the Emergency Fund is not to spend it. Part of taking care of Off-Shore is to protect it from unnecessary pillaging. Off-Shore is linked to our checking account, but not at our brick and mortar credit union. I’m ok with it being just a little more difficult to access.

By my math, without making a single change to our spending, Off-Shore represents 6 months worth of expenses. In actuality if the poo hit the oscillator, it would be more like 9 months to a year.  This is our true Emergency Fund. This is the lost your job-somebody died-no income-cant pay your mortgage money. This is the money I never want to touch. It represents the vast majority of our cash savings. Someday it will come in handy. I just know it.

How do you protect your primary Emergency Fund?

Enter elaborate system and a small population of  ebbing and flowing slush funds.

At any given point in time, they look something like this.

Account #1. Base $500  I get a promotional interest rate on and mostly ignore.

Account  #2. Carries a balance of between $1000 and $5000. (or $0)

Account #3. Carries a balance of between $0 and $1000.

These are linked to our Primary Checking Account for ease of money transfer. The system works like this.

I focus my deposits on growing either account #2 or #3. For example, right now the balance on #2 is $3000. Balance on #3 is $0. I am actively contributing to #2. When its balance reaches $5000, I switch to depositing into #3. Once I have $1000 in #3, the balance of #2, will be shipped off to the Off-Shore account. The process begins again. This time with me actively growing account #3 until it gets to 5K. Rinse. Repeat.

This system accomplishes many things. A couple of them being most important to me.

  • Never leaves me with less than $1500 cash on hand. Usually there’s more, but this is a minimum I am comfortable with. It’s enough to cover car repairs, vet visits, unexpected bills, etc., without dipping into the Off-Shore Account.
  • These accounts are feeders to the Off-Shore Account, and keep my long term savings growing.

By working in 5k increments, I  have an attainable goal to strive for. I am always trying to get to that 5k. It’s a game I play. It doesn’t really matter how long it takes to build it up. Although, Ive certainly had races to see how fast I can get to the magic number.  Rolling that chunk up to Off-Shore never gets old. Since Off-Shore carries a larger balance, normal deposits don’t make much of an impact. 5k however, is a satisfying number.

Because of this systems, our budget consists of a lot of money ear marked for savings. This acts as a great cushion. When the inevitable mini-crisis does happen, paying for it usually involves redirecting funds intended for savings, rather than actually decreasing the balance on a slush fund. At the very least, the blow to the account usually isn’t as harsh.

We’ve been operating under this model for years now. This is in addition to targeted savings accounts intended for specific goals. But, that’s another topic entirely.

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Hunter-Gatherer

Am I.

Black Gold
The Indian Summer here has been gorgeous this week. I’ve spent my last 2 lunch hours on the trails adjacent to my office picking black gold. A little over 2lbs per day. 

As you can see my bounty runeth over. What will I do with them? Thoughts of jam or pie or both are swirling in my head.

My co-workers make cracks along the lines of ‘Congratulations! You just saved yourself a $1.50.’ Which is both false (It’s about $15 worth of berries per trip) and totally beside the point.

More importantly, I spend an hour in the sunshine, moving, stretching, sweating just a little, and letting my mind wander. It’s a much needed change of scenery from the grey cubicle monotony. Even if I end up with a couple scratches.

I highly recommend it.

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An Ode to the Chinook Book

Oh Chinook Book..

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…

You provide me with valuable coupons to the local businesses I so adore. That in and of itself, it’s enough really. Sure your sticker price is $20. At that you are a bargain. Yet, somehow you always find your way to me at a discount. I appreciate that about you. This year I came across you  for $15, plus your new little companion mobile coupons. That double the coupons. Thanks friend.

Sure, right now there will be a frenzy of using up those valuable store coupons. $5 off $25? $10 off $50? 2 for 1 coffee drinks? Yes, please. The husband and I have even been known to split up our purchases to take full advantage of your bounty in minimal trips.

Unlike some of those ‘Other Coupons’, retailers are happy to see you. Your discounts are not too deep to cause resentment, but I can still feel like Im getting a deal.

I strive to take full advantage of your charms.

Like trading cards of yore, I swap you with my friends. I give you to friends with different circumstances who are more likely to use particular coupons than I am. I’m always happy to offer up your services, and sing your praises. I’ve even been known to use you as a birthday gift or donate you to a local group. Because who doesn’t like saving money with my pal Chinook?

I know you aren’t available in all cities, just yet. You’re fickle that way Chinook. It makes me feel all the more lucky.

Right now, I am particularly basking in our friendship, as I use up the 2011 book, and daydream about  2012. Oh, the times we’ll have!

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