Archive | November 2014

Public Service Announcement: Clean Your Bike Chain

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My Local Bike Shop is a delightful place and conveniently located right by the YMCA, my most frequent biking destination. Every time I’ve tried to come through the doors with my trailer, someone has rushed to assist me. The salespeople are pleasant and not too pushy and the mechanics, though terse, are not unfriendly.

Still, I would rather not give the LBS any more of my money than absolutely necessary, so I am trying to learn something about bicycle repair and maintenance, one modest step at a time. So far I have learned to remove my front wheel and replace an inner tube (or install my new Innova studded tire, which scoffs at slush), but hey, it’s a start.

Last week’s goal was to clean my chain. I had some rattley sort of noises coming from my chain and was not particularly optimistic that cleaning it would help much–it didn’t look all that dirty–but it seemed like an obvious first step. My bike is about four a half years old (though I was pregnant or caring for an infant much of that time), so it was definitely time.

The best method is to actually remove the chain, but that was a bridge too far for me this time. Another method is to scrub the chain with a toothbrush. We already had this White Lightning chain cleaning kit*, though, that Mr. FP had bought, so I used that. The design of the thing was cumbersome and the little bottles of cleaner it came with were hard to use, but even allowing for all the time I spent spilling the cleaning fluid (both from the bottle and from the cartridge) and then cleaning it up, I probably saved time and got it cleaner over using a toothbrush.

My cleaner, smaller-looking chain. Alas, I did not think of taking a "before" pic.

My cleaner, smaller-looking chain. Alas, I did not think of taking a “before” pic.

The results were surprisingly impressive. Giant chunks of black crud fell off. The chain suddenly looked… smaller. Most importantly, the rattling noise disappeared. So if you’ve been putting on new layer after new layer of grease to your chain and putting off degreasing it, procrastinate no more. It won’t take long and you’ll be glad you did.

What are you learning to do this week? Have you ever degreased your bike chain?

*Our kit came with four bottles of cleaner, actually–I think we bought it at Walmart. I would not count on the two-bottle kit actually cleaning two chains, because we managed to use up and/or spill all four bottles just on two cleanings.


Can a Paycheck Mom Be a Frugal Paragon?

It’s official: I’m an employee again! Having finished my master’s of library science back in December, I started sending out applications as soon as we knew where we were moving to. And I sent out a whoooole lot of applications, most of which were ignored completely. Finally, a chance playground encounter led me to a valuable contact who really stuck her neck out for me (meanwhile, I volunteered at her library) and got me a couple of interviews, and I finally landed a part-time entry-level professional librarian job.

I really think that for me, personally, right now, having a part-time job is the best thing for both me (I count, too!) and my family. It will bring in some welcome extra money, even when the not-insubstantial child care bill is paid (partly because my new employer has such generous part-time benefits, we’ll be saving close to $300 a month on benefits and actually getting more coverage). By an even wider margin, it will increase our income, which we’ll need if we do look at buying a house in the next year or two. And it will get me started on a career that I can continue to develop as the boys get older.

Full-time would, I think, have been a little uncomfortable for all of us right now. Too many long days for the boys, no time for laundry and meal planning and all those thousands of little tasks.

The catch is that the money will only work out if I continue to be a Frugal Paragon when I’m at home. If I slack off on the grocery budgeting, yogurt-making, laundry detergent-making, home mending, etc., then my job won’t pay off. If we can’t make one car work and we buy a second one, then I’ll be working just to pay for the car.

So either I’ve found a brilliant way to have just enough career while still being a part-time homemaker, or I’ve bitten off way more than I can chew! Stay tuned to find out which one or make your predictions in the comments below. Or tell how YOU are balancing your career with your other interests and your domestic responsibilities.

The One-Car Winter Challenge

Getting along with one car was easy for the first few months. The weather was lovely all fall; even into November, there were almost no days requiring more than a heavy sweater or light windbreaker. Saturday, for instance, I biked to the gym in shorts and a sweatshirt.

Then… winter came, and it came hard and fast. Can we still make it work with one car? Our financial position improved markedly when we sold our CRV, and I hate the idea of giving up our gains. We don’t have enough cash to buy something we would really want to drive, meaning we might have a car payment. Then there’s the insurance, the taxes, the gas (having a second car would make it too temping to drive in marginally bikeable weather), and the maintenance–according to, for instance, a 2009 Honda Fit (the kind of thing we might buy) would cost us close to $30K over five years.* It would certainly delay our short-term goal of owning a home in a year or two.

The first big test came Tuesday, when it was fourteen degrees outside. Mr. FP had to work, I was home with the kids. There were basically three options:

  1. Badger Mr. FP into taking the bus to work so I could have the car.
  2. Stay at home all day with the kids.
  3. Bundle up, get on my damn bike, and take us all to the YMCA for pilates and a change of scenery.

Option #1 might not have been effective and would certainly have bred resentment. Option #2 might have resulted in damage to the furniture and/or my sanity. So I chose option #3.

You will probably not be surprised to hear that my bike was the only one on the rack at the Y! The ride was actually

Snow book and ski glove

These boots are great, but the gloves made it too hard to work the brake, so I am returning them to Costco.

not as bad as I expected, but I do want to get some better gear. Some parts of me were overheated, some were too cold, and my gloves were too stiff. The kids, fortunately, looked comfy as could be in the trailer, which has a windscreen, except that their puffy coats made it hard to fit them in.

Wednesday and Thursday, I needed the car because there was snow on the ground (Big Brother’s preschool was closed Tuesday, but he has to be dropped off normally, making staying home not an option). Cold is one thing; snow is quite another. I bundled the kids into the car and drove Mr. FP to work, once by design and once because he missed the bus. (He took the bus home.)

So far, so good. Now, let’s be honest: I am not our primary breadwinner, and I do not have full say whether or not we get another car. But I can control my own attitude and use it to further our goal of staying a one-car family. So here are my mini-goals:

  1. Do not ask for the car on any day when I could safely bike.
  2. Do not complain about winter biking.
  3. Do not complain about driving Mr. FP to work in a pinch, and don’t make him late getting the kids ready.

I’ve already invested a little money in good multi-purpose gear, most notably some really nice Merrell boots on which I dropped $90. But as Grandma FP remarked, I can buy a lot of boots for the price of a car payment.

Who else is biking this winter?

*Realistically, we would pay less than this, because we don’t drive as much as the average person, but the number is still instructive.

Homemade Yogurt: All the Other Bloggers Were Doing It

My kids eat a lot of yogurt. I mean, a lot. My mother used to buy them YoBaby when we would visit, for a treat, but she had to give that up when they wanted two and three cartons—each. They easily go through an entire quart-size carton of plain in one long weekend visits.*

As you can imagine, even plain yogurt by the quart adds up when you are buying up to two quarts a week. As I struggle to get my grocery bill down, it seemed like a good time to reconsider my position that homemade yogurt was not worthwhile. After all, all the other bloggers were doing it. Not just the Prudent Homemaker, with her nine mouths to feed on a shoestring budget, but even Mrs. PoP at Planting Our Pennies, who works full time and could clearly afford to buy yogurt. Maybe they’re onto something.

The potential savings were significant, if not huge. I usually buy yogurt for $2.78 per quart, although I sometimes find it on sale for $2.50 or even, once, $2.25 (I had to buy five quarts for that price). The milk we buy, on the other hand, is anywhere from $2.08 to $2.49 per half gallon, depending on where we happen to be shopping. That would make my per-quart cost more like $1.04 to $1.25, plus a spoonful of old yogurt (about nine cents).

My first few efforts were, as I suspected, a tremendous pain in the ass. I heated the milk in a pot on the stove up to 180 degrees, which was time-consuming, then had to wait for it to cool down to exactly 110 degrees, which takes a surprisingly long time and requires constant monitoring. Then I kept obsessively checking it during the day to make sure I was keeping it warm but not too warm.

Something had to change. Two key realizations pulled it together for me:

  1. Ultra-pasteurized milk does not have to be heated to 180. You can heat to just 110 and go straight to the next step.
  2. You can heat the milk in a glass jar in the microwave. Fewer dishes to clean (no pot) and much easier. Plus, it won’t burn the hell out of your pan if you forget about it.
This is regularly pasteurized milk, so I propped up a meat thermometer for easier monitoring as it cooled off.

This is regularly pasteurized milk, so I propped up a meat thermometer for easier monitoring as it cooled off.

So here’s my method so far:

  1. Fill a glass jar nearly full of milk. I’ve been using an old forty-ounce jar that used to contain Costco strawberry spread.**
  2. Heat the jar in the microwave until the milk is 110 degrees, if it’s ultra-pasteurized. If I happen to have milk that is just regularly pasteurized, then I do 180. I do longer increments at first, say a minute, and then shorten the intervals as it gets warmer. Each time the microwave bings, I stir the milk (to prevent hot spots as well as skin formation) and check the temperature. A candy thermometer would be good, and maybe I’ll get one, but I’ve been using an instant-read analog meat thermometer.
  3. If necessary, wait till it cools down to 110. Then I pour a little milk into the old yogurt carton (if I am starting from commercial yogurt) and mix it with the last dregs of the old yogurt, generally a couple of tablespoons’ worth. Pour the milk/yogurt mixture back into the jar (don’t stir!) and cap it.
  4. Put the jar someplace warm. I sometimes put my oven on “warm” for a few minutes, then turn it off and put the jar in. Or I often put the jar in a sunbeam, since I tend to mix this up in the morning.
  5. Wait a long time, at least eight hours. Last time I forgot about it and it went more like fourteen with no ill effects.
  6. Pour off any visible whey and put in the fridge.

Now, here’s something you need to know about homemade yogurt: It is very thin. I have just been using it that way. The kids don’t mind, and anyway I usually use it for making their overnight oatmeal. I just omit the milk and use extra yogurt. I tried straining it once, but I (a) made a giant mess and (b) let it sit too long, winding up with a teeny tiny portion of extremely sticky yogurt and a whole lot of whey for which I had no use. I’ll probably try straining again in the future. I like Greek yogurt for myself. Since I buy this for either three-fifty or four dollars a quart, I can lose some volume and still save money.

Do you make your own yogurt? What’s your favorite method?

*They are happy to eat plain yogurt with Cheerios or fruit in it, and I have found, too, that plain yogurt is much less sticky in the clean-up phase than commercial sweetened yogurt.

**Coincidentally, this is an excellent thing to spoon into your yogurt. Like fruit on the bottom yogurt, but much cheaper!

Our Great House Debacle

In 2006, Mr. FP and I were, for the first time ever, both fully employed. We were 25/26 and had been married for five years. We were tired of living in apartments, so we decided to buy a house. And we wanted to have a family in a few years, so we bought a four-bedroom house.

Three years later, we no longer wanted to live in south Georgia, where both our house and our jobs were located. According to conventional wisdom, this should not have been a particular problem. We had lived in the house for over three years, and it was a nice house in a desirable school district, so we should have been able to sell it and turn a small profit. We put the house on the market, got jobs out of state, rented an apartment, and moved away, confident that the place would sell soon.

White built-in bookcases.

I don’t miss having four bedrooms, but I do sometimes miss these bookcases, which we had custom-built… with money that should have gone toward our mortgage!

But you can add, right? 2006 + 3 = 2009 and looming housing crash. We had no idea, and our real estate agent appeared to have no idea, that the rules had changed. We were underwater on our house; we owed more than it was worth. To make a long story short, after eight or nine months we fired our old agent, stopped paying the mortgage, and pursued a short sale. We found a buyer quickly at that price, the bank approved the short sale in record time, and the whole thing was over in a few months. The bank wrote off the missing money and the federal government magnanimously agreed not to charge us taxes on this forgiven debt.All Categories

What we had done wrong: Bought a house with only 5% down, allowing the slightest market fluctuation to put us underwater. Did not pay down the balance like we were supposed to do to get rid of our PMI. Bought a house in a place before we had lived in it long enough to really commit. Made a precipitous move out of the house.

What we did right: Kept our retirement accounts. Even in the darkest moments of this whole debacle, our net worth was never negative. When we ran out of liquid money, we did not cash in our 403(b)s. And we never attempted to rent the house out as a stopgap. Had we done so, there’s a good chance that the mortgage company would have refused the short sale (seeing it as an investment property) and we would have wound up in foreclosure.

Aside from the retirement accounts, we lost every penny that we had ever possessed. We had made some bad financial decisions in the past, but none of them really mattered, because if we had had more money, we just would have lost it, too. We also, of course, lost our good credit, which we are still rebuilding. I don’t indulge in much regret, as every “error” is part of what led me to where I am now, but I do regret–and feel ashamed–that I borrowed money and didn’t pay it back.

The funny thing is, I couldn’t get pregnant in that house. Tried for a full year, charts and Robitussin and the whole nine yards, nothing. That yellow-painted bedroom just sat empty. Didn’t get pregnant until we were living in a one-bedroom apartment and going broke. We moved into a rental duplex in my hometown when I was four months along. Around the time the short sale went through and our credit was a goner, my nephew was born. My sister was on maternity leave and we spent lots of time together, having lunch with our grandma and taking the baby for walks. I remember that fall, if you will pardon the schmaltz, as one of the happiest times of my life, and I remember Mr. FP remarking that I had started laughing a lot more.

Turns out I was just as happy to bring home my babies (after all that waiting for Big Brother, Little Brother turned up unlooked-for a mere sixteen months later) to a duplex as I would have been in that big house. We thought we needed to have everything All Set, but there’s really no such thing anyway. We do hope to buy a house again in the future, but we’ll do so much more cautiously–make sure we like the area first, put more down, and buy only as much house as we need.

What debacles did you pass through on your way to better things? Would you go back and change them if you could, or were they too important as stepping stones?

Calico cat using scratching post.

Kitty Paragon first joined us in our big house. She seems to like our cozier rentals just as well.