Saturday, January 13, 2018

Getting ready for baby

Being pregnant may be one of the oddest states a person can ever be in. You are never alone, and you know it. Even if you manage to forget for a time (usually only in the first couple of months), there is always something that pops up to remind you. You realize that you can't do something you used to be able to, or you tire more easily, or you catch a whiff of something that sets your stomach off.

Pregnancy affects everything, absolutely everything. Blood, bones, teeth, eyes, hair, digestion, skin, nails, tendons, muscles, hormones, mind, stamina...everything. Pregnancy is like a science experiment you conduct on yourself, one that changes every time you go through it, and you're fairly confident of the outcome but that's not certain either. A healthy, live baby is only one possible outcome and every pregnant woman who is willfully, joyfully pregnant lives every moment with the knowledge that things might not go right. Miscarriage is far more common than is acknowledged in general society, stillbirths happen, and babies can be born with conditions that range from the mildly inconvenient to the major but fixable to the not fixable but livable to those which mean a child will never live to see adulthood, or even a year. So you hold your breath through the first trimester, waiting for those confirmations that all is well. A strong heartbeat, an ultrasound. You hang onto even the worst symptoms, knowing that they signal all is going along as it should be.

The second trimester brings some relief, both from symptoms and from the fear (since miscarriage is unlikely) but there are fewer overt signals that all is well until, sometime between 16-22 weeks, movement is felt. Fluttery little signals that many first-time moms mistake for gas or hunger pangs. Still, even after movement there is the fetal anatomy scan to be gone through, to check for anomalies. We were far less stressed out about it this time, laughing and joking with the ultrasound tech, but it was still a relief to hear those magic words, "She looks perfect!" I know people who've had a tech quietly leave the room, only to have a doctor enter a short while later to say that all is not well and to discuss options.

Still, for most who reach that point things will be perfectly normal and healthy. Which doesn't mean it's easy. As you grow more confident in your pregnancy, you're also getting bigger and less capable of doing things you usually take for granted. Everyone begins to comment, to question what you're doing. "Are you sure you want to stand on that step-stool?" Your growing belly is evaluated and commented on endlessly. "I bet you're having a boy. You look like you're carrying a boy!" Thanks, stranger on the bus.

The third trimester brings on a slew of new and uncomfortable symptoms. I'm not sure if I'm really more uncomfortable this time than I was last time, or if I've forgotten just how uncomfortable I was during my first pregnancy. Things are definitely different. The only thing that has remained consistent is my rampant heartburn, for which I take safe medication pretty much daily. But while I'm not getting the leg cramps that, last time, woke me screaming out of sleep at least a couple of times a week, I instead feel like my pelvis is being crushed from the inside. Instead of having to change which side I sleep on, in agony because my hips feel like someone was hammering on them while I slept, this time my hands and feet are swelling (edema) more. When people ask how I'm doing I always answer, "Fine," but if I was being honest I would say, "Everything hurts, and I'm tired." One of those things will begin to change for the better when baby is out, which adds to my natural impatience to meet this child.

And the comments get even worse the bigger you get. Last time my least favorite thing to hear was, "Wow, you're huge." As if I didn't know that? This time it's been a range of mildly annoying comments, from the people who tell me I must be having either or a boy or girl, depending entirely on how they perceive I'm carrying this child, to a coworker telling me that I seem to be managing my weight gain well. I'm sure you can imagine how much I wanted to yell at him that it's inappropriate to comment on a coworker's weight that way, pregnant or not. I actually preferred the random woman on the street who muttered that I'm a "whore", because that at least made me laugh. (Still does, when I think about it.) Don't even get me started on the people who randomly touch my belly because they "just can't help themselves". HusbandX pointed out how rapey that excuse is, because in no other circumstances would it be at all okay to touch a stranger's abdomen without their consent. Reminder: being pregnant does not make a woman's belly public property.

We weren't entirely sure we were even going to have a second kid. There was certainty in the beginning. We had a plan, after all, a number of kids we'd agreed on before embarking on the whole project. Then the Munchkin was born and I told my spouse we wouldn't even discuss a second kid until she was at least two. When she turned two, we were jobless and living with my parents. Not exactly a great time to dream up having another kid. And did we even really want another one? I like to joke that our Munchkin is a four parent child. That is, the ideal number of adults to watch after her at any given time is four. As anyone who knows her knows, she's more than a little handful. She's exhausting. Wouldn't a second kid make life that much harder?

We went back and forth. I tried to talk myself out of wanting a second kid so very, very many times. It didn't work, clearly, and we finally agreed (among other reasons) that our kid was the sort of kid who needs a sibling. This last year has also shown us the importance of having siblings. I can't imagine living through my dad's death and taking care of my mother without having my brothers. This is not to say that every kid has to have a sibling, we know and love many only children and respect all the varied reasons their parents have for not having a second kid. But we realized that our sociable daughter would love to be a big sister. And it's true--she's been talking about "the baby sister you're making for me".
A baby shirt my brother and
sister-in-law got for us.

So into all of the chaos of 2017, because we hadn't taken on enough projects, we also need to get ready for this baby. However, the prep is far less onerous than most people make it seem. Just like every other transition in life, our society has deemed this time to be one in which rampant consumerism is necessary. There are endless lists of what you "should" buy for baby, all of which seem to assume that you have an endless amount of money to spend on things your child might use once or twice before they outgrow it or their development makes it unnecessary. To me, this is a mask for what people are really feeling at this time. Despite knowing that we will have a healthy baby, there are still so many unknowns. How will this birth go? What will baby be like? Will she sleep, or will she be like her big sister was and torture us with sleep deprivation and crying whenever she's not in my arms? People cover up this anxiety with actionable items, like decorating a nursery and buying All The Things. This is not to say that you don't need anything for a baby, far from it, but most of it doesn't need to be gathered before a child even enters the world. Clothes, a safe place to sleep, and food are pretty much what a baby really needs. The rest is just stuff to help make things easier for the parents.

With our first we started with the assumption that when we needed to put her down we would do so on a blanket on the floor. She hated that. By the time she was two months old we bought a (used) bouncy seat to put her in so that I could at least go pee without the background of infant screams. $10 very well spent. This time around we're keeping to the same loose plan. We kept much of the stuff from the Munchkin's babyhood, just in case we decided to go ahead and have a second, so we have clothes, baby blankets, books, toys, carriers. We have a bassinet and a crib, a pump and some bottles and a nursing pillow. The only prep for those items was to wash them, since they'd been in storage totes for years in most cases.

What we haven't bought are any of the big things. We sold that bouncy seat when we moved and haven't bought a replacement because who knows if this kid will require one? We haven't bought a swing or exercauser or even a play mat. We haven't bought a monitor. If we decide later on that we need any of these things (and remember, babies have been born and raised for millennia without *needing* these items) then we can always get them after the baby is born. Why stress about it now?

I kept my maternity clothes, so I didn't need to run out and buy all new clothes. When I discovered a lack in my wardrobe I sent out a call to my Buy Nothing Group and one woman offered up some clothes. Not all of them were my style or terribly flattering, but I picked out the pieces I wanted and have been wearing those. I'm getting ready to pass along all of my maternity clothes to a friend who is pregnant with her first, and the ones she doesn't like or want will go to a women's shelter. Why should any of us buy a whole wardrobe for roughly six months? Taken all together I've needed maternity clothes for less than a full year between my two pregnancies, yet it would be easy to spend thousands of dollars on new maternity clothes.

It would be hypocritical to say that I haven't bought anything, or that I haven't bought any new things. I needed new maternity/nursing bras this time and "splurged" by getting three (last time I only had two) as well as a nursing tank top. I bought cloth pads for the postpartum period, since I hated both buying and wearing disposable pads for weeks on end last time. Aside from the expense and the waste, the chafing was real, and who needs to be even more uncomfortable after just having a baby? No one, that's who.

One of the only things bought new for baby herself were some cloth diapers. We've loved using cloth diapers with our first (who is finally growing out of her nighttime need for them, hurray!) and it wasn't even a question of whether or not we would use cloth again. However, the diapers we've been using were hand-me-downs, and they're falling apart. The covers are losing their waterproofing and elasticity, the inserts are falling apart and not terribly absorbent anymore. I made extra inserts out of old towels just to get us through this last little bit of nighttime diaper needs for the Munchkin, but for a baby who will be in diapers full time we needed all new ones. My in-laws generously purchased the ones I wanted as a gift, and they're so cute I'm actually excited to use them.

My biggest preparations haven't been in what we've bought. We've slowly been building up some easy meals in our freezer, from breakfast (baked oatmeal muffins and banana bread muffins) to dinners (soups and these potstickers). I wrote a giant list of freezable foods a while ago, knowing that I would likely only get around to about half of them or even less. But having any wholesome meals in the fridge to help make parenting while sleep-deprived just a tiny bit easier, that's a huge win. Huge.

The other biggest transitions and preparations have been about me. I miss being just me. I'm so happy to be pregnant and to be having another baby, but I miss myself. The last time I got on a bike I would not have been able to get on if it wasn't a step-through, because I can't lift my leg high enough to swing it over a saddle anymore. Then my belly wouldn't fit between the saddle and the water bottle holder. When I finally got up, my balance was so shaky I thought I was just going to fall over. I cannot trust my own body to do the things I'm used to doing. I can't walk for too long because then my feet hurt and begin to swell, which also happens if I sit in a chair for too long. I've spent far too much time on the couch with my feet up, watching Netflix, because I can't do the things I'm used to doing. It's hard. The mental fortitude it's requiring is wearing me down as much as the physical pains are. I am so ready to be done, for this baby to be on the outside. .

Even with that, however, I'm glad to be going through this. Adding a second kid is even more exciting, in many ways, than the first. I get to not only welcome a tiny new person into the world but we get to watch our older child transition into her role as Big Sister. We get to watch the two of them play and interact and grow as siblings. Even knowing that there will be tough moments, I'm looking forward to this. When asked, the Munchkin has told us that she can't wait to hold and hug and kiss her sister. She's complained about the wait (I completely agree) and told us that she's always going to play well with her sister. We've gently explained to her what babies are like and how the baby will affect things for all of us. We've read books about babies and what it's like to bring home a new baby. We know that the reality will involve some hard lessons still, and that there will be some jealousy. However, the fact that she's so excited to be a big sister is confirmation that we made the right choice. No matter what hardships come our way from a newborn baby, it will be so worth it for the whole family.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

House efficiency projects

One of the many and varied reasons we bought a house was to have more control over our living space. This includes, not surprisingly, how efficient we want the house to be. I like efficiency and admire it in basically all forms. Efficiency of movement when someone gets into the flow of their work (think chefs in a kitchen) or time management are really impressive for a reason. I find efficiency in our built environment to be just as awe-inspiring.

In the past we've lived in places which were horribly, horribly inefficient. The dry cabin with thin walls and minimal insulation. Our last apartment in Fairbanks, where we could feel cold air from under the front door. (I made a long rice bag to put by the door to stop the draft, but it shouldn't have been necessary if our landlord had been even halfway smart.) It has been frustrating to know that we couldn't do much about the inefficiencies.

Now, though. Now we can! Such a good feeling.

It has started small. HusbandX set up a cord for me (which can easily be taken down) to line-dry our clothes. I've been doing this for years because it not only saves on electricity costs (massively) but it's also really hard on clothes to put them through a dryer. I don't particularly like shopping, and the clothes I do have I tend to like. Go figure. So, I want to keep them nice for as long as possible. Line drying our clothes is one of the easiest ways to do that. All summer I hung out our clothes (and sheets, and blankets) to dry, which they did remarkably fast. Even through the fall I was still drying our clothes out there, taking advantage of the sunny days to do so.

This doesn't mean that we eschew the dryer entirely, unfortunately. Towels still go in the dryer and the Munchkin's diapers have gone in the dryer. This will change, since we got new diapers for Baby #2 and they line dry amazingly well. Even with the diapers and towels, however, we've been averaging one load in the dryer a week. If I'm washing diapers, I hunt around for any towels that also need to get washed. two loads in the washing machine (one of which is very small) can easily be combined in the dryer.

The one thing I never line-dry outside: our underwear. For everyone's sake. I just hang that up in our rooms on hangers in the closets, or the Munchkin's on the knobs of her dresser so they're easy for her to put away when dry.

We're still trying to come up with a good way to line dry everything inside during the wet winters, something that doesn't take up too much space because, really, who wants to dedicate tons of space to that? I only wash about one load of clothes each week anyway. (Seriously.) We have a few ideas for the laundry room but, since it hasn't been a problem so far, those plans have been held off for a little while as we focus on other things. For now, I'm using a clothes rack and a mostly empty closet down in the office to hang dry our clothes indoors. Sheets can get dried, and rather quickly, over the shower curtain bar in the bathroom.

Next on my list, the city of Seattle has a program for residents to buy compost and yard waste bins. Instead of shipping out our compost, we could do it right here at home! These are a bit cheaper than they would be if purchased elsewhere, and they have instructions for how to make them rat-proof. I ordered two compost bins and a yard waste bin. Then, I reduced the size of the yard waste bin that the city empties and hauls away. (Savings: $6/month.) I was originally going to see if I could get rid of the yard waste barrel entirely until I realized that I still need it for the invasive plants I yank (bindweed and blackberries) and that animal food scraps such as bones can be composted by the city, which they can't/shouldn't be at home.

This decision is only saving us a minimal amount of money per month, but since I garden there will be benefits to it far down the road. I won't have to buy compost for my garden beds, saving me both time and money as well as effort. Having the compost right there means that I don't have to drag bags of it, or carry shovels of it, all around. Having compost in my garden beds also means both less frequent watering and greater nutrition in my produce. Wins all around!

Along with the yard waste barrel, however, I reduced the size of our garbage can. I've been on a mission to reduce all of our waste (both garbage and recycling) for several years. I can't claim to be anywhere near zero waste (bummer) but it has been remarkably easy to make a few small changes that have led to giant reductions in waste. We only generate one small bag of garbage a week so I figured that even when our friend moves into the downstairs apartment and my brother moves into the spare bedroom we still won't be producing all that much garbage. When we moved in here we had a large 64-gallon garbage cart, which alone cost $72.90. Ouch. When I changed the size of the yard waste barrel I also moved us down to the 20 gallon "mini can", which will fit about three garbage bags a week. Our total cost for waste removal is now $33.15 a month, less than half of what garbage alone was costing when we moved in.

Waste rates are also going up around here on April 1st of this year. The more garbage can you need or want, the more your rate will go up. This makes my reduction in garbage bin size even more worthwhile.

I didn't do anything about our recycling can because recycling is free. My only other option was to add a second cart, and we really don't need that.

We started replacing bulbs with LEDs. Any lights that have gone out, and we've actually had a few do so since we moved in, and a few others have been replaced with LEDs because they just weren't good lights. Lights that get the most use have also been replaced with LEDs, and the Christmas lights we bought are all LEDs. With the price having fallen so much (and the automatic rebates Seattle residents get) there is absolutely no reason not to do this.

We also gave the Munchkin a nightlight in her room. One of the outlets has a cover on it which detects when it's dark and an LED turns on automatically. It's dim, but just enough light to take away some of that fear of the dark. She loves it, and we love that we don't have to remember to turn it on and off. Nor can she play with it, which if you know our kid you know she would totally do, so it's not in any way a toy. We're trying to figure out a good place in the hallway to put another light for those midnight bathroom trips or scary dreams that send her racing for our room.

There's a program around here called Trees for Seattle. They give out free trees! The goal in doing this is multifacted: to reduce the heat island effect in Seattle by improving the canopy, to clean the air, to clean the water runoff, and to reduce traffic speeds and noise. I'm sure there are others that I'm forgetting. Mature trees also bump up property prices and, in our case, produce fruit. Yep, we got a free self-pollinating cherry tree. Squee! I'm so excited. Cherries are my favorite fruit (well, they vie for that position with peaches) so having our own source of cherries is pretty much a dream come true. The fact that we didn't even have to pay for this tree rather blows my mind.
My cherry tree!

There is a lifetime limit of six trees per household, so choose wisely. I only asked for the one tree this year because I'm still trying to figure out what I want to do in terms of landscaping. We can make our property even more efficient (in terms of light, heat, water usage, food production, etc.) by implementing good landscaping and trees are a major part of that. This first year, though, to reduce overwhelm I've decided to push most of that off. Besides which, I'd like to know how our house does in all seasons before I make major changes. It would be pretty sad to put a light-loving plant in what turns out to be a shady area most of the year, or a plant that needs dryer conditions in a swampy area of the yard.

I'm embarrassed to admit how long this one has taken us. When we moved into this house it had a leaky faucet in one of the bathrooms. My original plan was just to fix the leak. I even went so far as to buy a kit to fix it, but then we talked more and realized that we hated the faucet anyway. It was cheap, and looked it, and it was old so it was getting gunked up and hard for the Munchkin to use. We decided to just go ahead and replace that faucet, as well as the one in our bathroom. That one doesn't leak, but it does squeak every time we turned the knobs. It's loud enough to wake us up sometimes.

However, making that decision never lead to action. We briefly looked at faucets, priced some out, never came to an agreement about what, exactly, we wanted, and let the whole problem stagnate. So the leak continued, for months. Finally, I got fed up. I went in there with the replacement parts and got all set to do it. Then I realized that not only did I not have the wrench I needed, my brother having taken it, but there was a big lead warning on the side of the replacement parts. Since I'm currently gestating a tiny human, I figured that calling in help was required. I called my brother, who brought over the wrench and the know-how and the strength, and I basically sat back to watch him work. But hey, now I know how to do it!

We also discovered in the course of this work that the hot water does not completely turn off to that sink, so we added one more project to the giant list of to-dos. We also discovered that the bathtub upstairs leaks into the bathroom downstairs. An easy fix with plumber's putty, but yet another issue to work on. I suspect that plumbing will be a frequent issue with our older house going forward.

Thankfully, the previous owners installed a low-flow showerhead in the main bathroom and a dual-flush toilet in the master bathroom. I'm certain we'll find other ways that we can and should reduce our water usage, but having some of them done for us is quite nice.

We got an energy audit. Again, this is free through our utility. Most of what they told us was stuff we already knew: increase or replace the insulation in the attic, check out the elderly fridge to see how much electricity it's using each month. Things like that. However, we found out that there's no insulation in the exterior walls. Fixing that will not only increase the efficiency of our house, it will also make things quieter. I've added that to our incredibly long list of projects we'd like to do.

It was wonderful to have an expert come and assess what was really worthwhile to button up our home for all seasons and weather. He flagged the big-ticket items that would be the most worthwhile and, in many ways, it was nice to see how few there were. Of them, most items were flagged for potential problems down the road. Our furnace is a bit older and he recommended getting it serviced, as well as looking into replacing it sometime in the next five or so years. This will give us time to save up money for the replacement even as we budget for the other upgrades and changes we need to do. The insulation is the biggest priority, naturally, but we also have to balance the resources of time and money so I don't yet know when we'll get around to that. My hope is that at least one of the insulation projects can be done this year. Our utility not only has a list of reliable contractors, but also gives rebates of up to half the cost. Yay!

In the midst of all these things, we've been dealing with lots of other projects too. We finished painting upstairs, for one. (Huge thanks here to a friend who helped us the whole way through.) HusbandX and a friend replaced the garbage disposal, for another. It hadn't worked since we moved in and, at the end of summer, we got a massive fruit fly infestation that we realized was coming from the drain, where food particles had gotten stuck. Ew. They searched online for parts but the old disposal was so old that no one sold any of the needed parts anymore, so replacement it was.

HusbandX cleared the most-likely-asbestos-filled popcorn off the ceiling downstairs. It was easier work than he'd expected, at least the actual scraping, but still a major hassle. He wore safety gear and had to thoroughly clean everything down there all by himself. Nasty work. Then he had to texture and paint the ceiling (again, our friend came to help with the painting) so it was quite the project.

HusbandX, his dad, and his brother built us a kitchen island. It massively increased the amount of usable counter space and storage we have in our kitchen, and is far cheaper than remodeling. Since we don't have any sort of a pantry, this extra storage space is allowing us to get many things off the counter which otherwise didn't have a home. It also has a cabinet dedicated to all of our kitchen towels and rags, complete with a laundry basket for the used and dirty ones, which is so handy.

We discovered one night that a sink downstairs was clogged and almost overflowing. It was quite obviously connected to our kitchen sink, because there were food particles from what we'd put through the garbage disposal floating around. We tried plunging it and using drain-clearing chemicals but neither worked so, for the first time ever, HusbandX got to snake a drain. Drain snakes can be rented and are far cheaper than hiring a plumber, which would have been our last resort if the snake hadn't worked. Thankfully it did, because I was dreading having to find a reliable plumber. This was also the same night our child decided, while we were busy trying to figure out the sink issue, to put an entire roll of toilet paper and a book into her bath. It was quite the night.

This has all happened, of course, around jobs and family obligations and illness and holidays and whatnot. And, it's been happening while I'm increasingly ungainly, unable to help, and tired. The bulk of the credit goes to my spouse, then to our families (particularly my middle brother) and friends for helping out. I get, at best, mild credit for figuring out what rebates are available to us and doing the very lightest of work. I mean, I can still change a lightbulb.

And we still have a long way to go, in terms of making our house actually efficient. There are smart power strips that we can get through our utility for $10 each, rather than the retail cost of between $70-$80. Those should save a fair amount on electricity costs, since they can be used on entertainment centers and, I think, on computers. They monitor the devices to see if they're actually in use and turn them off if not.

We'd also like to get either a programmable or smart thermostat. This will cut down on some of the arguing over what temperature to set the house at. Despite the reputation women have for always being cold, I often find that it's women who want the house's temperature lower. HusbandX wants to be comfortable wearing shorts inside the house year-round and I want to be able to wear my sweaters. He also hates getting out of bed when it's cold and I don't mind so much. A programmable thermostat would mean that we wouldn't have to keep turning it up or down depending on who's home and what time of day. Several brands of smart thermostat are reduced in price through our utility, so those are worth looking into. We just haven't taken the plunge to actually buy one yet.

Another efficient use of our land is for food production. My spouse has completely nixed the idea of backyard chickens (boo!!) but plants are a go. We just don't know yet where we want to put them. We already have some strawberry plants, but we need to order and plant some raspberries and blueberries. The raspberries have a particular space earmarked for them, one that's decently well contained so we wouldn't have to worry about them spreading and taking over, but it will require removing some other shrubs (that we don't like anyway). Hopefully by the time planting season comes around I will be sufficiently recovered from childbirth that I can do a fair bit of the work.

There are further things that we want to implement but won't get to any time soon. Rain barrels, but we need a new roof first. (Sometime in the next five years.) We want to put solar on our house, and will probably start small by just putting a few solar panels on our shed, which faces south and gets good light all day long, even in winter. The house will have to wait because, even if it will save us money in the long run, the initial outlay of funds is not something we're prepared to do right now. Instead, we're focusing first on what we can do to reduce our consumption of heat, electricity, and other resources. That will not only help make eventual solar more worthwhile (selling extra to the utility company is even better the more extra you have) but will also help bring forward the day when we can afford to go solar. That is truly efficient.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Merry Christmas, honey! I got us...more debt!

Tonight on my way home from work I realized for the first time, after months of waiting at this same bus stop, that there's a jewelry store across the street. I realized this because it had a big holiday ad in the front window. "Merry Christmas! Financing available." Those two phrases, stuck together, seem so incongruous. Why would you ever want to buy something that's both extravagant and unnecessary if you need financing to do so?

Then I realized, I am apparently not like other people. That, to me, does not sound like a gift at all. If my spouse were to put us into debt just to get me something sparkly for Christmas, I'd be pretty damn unhappy. But people do this all the time. They get their kids mounds of gifts, financed by credit cards, because that's what their kids expect. They get their spouses lavish gifts because, again, that's what's expected. Right?

But who sets these expectations? When I was growing up, my parents always made sure that we each had a number of gifts. Even with four kids, we got quite a few gifts each year from our parents. There was one year when, to my everlasting shame, I got fewer gifts than my brothers and ended up pouting a bit. My mom explained that my gifts had been more expensive than the items my brothers got, and a lightbulb went off. I was young enough to not have realized that my parents tried to keep spending roughly equal between all of us, rather than the sheer number of gifts. I pondered and apologized to my mom later that day, feeling incredibly ashamed and greedy about something I suddenly realized didn't matter at all. That was the day that the number of gifts I got stopped being any sort of metric by which I judged my holiday.

HusbandX also grew up with piles of gifts under the tree for him and his brother, and that was our combined normal. However, when we first started dating we were old enough to realize that we could do holidays our own way and poor enough to not have much money to spend on one another. We gave small gifts, more concerned with the gesture than the monetary output. I was sent flowers that first Christmas, a fact that I obviously still remember. (I dried some of the rose petals to keep!)

As our relationship evolved--we moved in together, realized that we wanted to spend our lives together--our gifting relationship changed too. As our future became one that we knew would be shared we began to think less in terms of what each of us would want and more in terms of what we both wanted, and what would help further our goals in life. One memorable year we pooled our money and gifted ourselves a food processor. It never got wrapped and put under the tree, but I think of that Christmas every time I pull it out of the cupboard.

Many years, we haven't gotten each other anything at all. Heresy, I know. But we realized that gifts are not our love language. We prefer kind words, service to each other (doing the dishes so that the other spouse doesn't have to is a major currency of love in our house), and time spent together. Gifts are nice, but not necessary. When we do get gifts, they tend to be either something that we wouldn't splurge on for ourselves or special events. This year, my spouse got me tickets to go see "The Nutcracker" with his mom and aunt. I have loved ballet since I was a very small child, spending days with my grandparents and watching ballets they'd taped off PBS for me. Every time I hear the music for "The Nutcracker" I think of the performance by Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland, dancing in front of the TV and forcing my grandfather to do the lifts with me. My wonderful husband knows how special this is to me, and that going to see it will be better than anything I could get wrapped and placed under a tree.
The first Christmas tree in our
new house!!

For other family members, sometimes we do gifts and sometimes we don't. Last year my siblings and I decided that it would be far better to do charitable donations than to give gifts. This year we're doing gifts, but I am doing charitable donations on behalf of my parents. Hot tip: until December 31st an anonymous donor is matching gifts to the ACLU. Also, my work will match one charitable donation, up to 30%, so my other donation (to the Electronic Frontier Foundation--my dad would have loved that) is also getting a bump. It's important, at least to me, to be charitable all year, but if you can only do a little bit then you should know that around the holidays you can frequently find ways to make your donation more impactful.

If neither of those options suits, sometimes the best gift is simply time. Every year we gift time with our daughter to my in-laws, because that's the most special thing we can give the three of them. We were both close to our grandparents and, when we discussed having kids, we readily agreed that we wanted our kid(s) to have that same special sort of relationship. Though it's bittersweet to be away from our girl for weeks at a time, we know it's precious and important too. The memories they make are irreplaceable.

"Mommy, I want it!"

Just as we set the tone for giving gifts to each other, we also set the tone for how our child perceives gifts. In the beginning, this was easy. We didn't get her any Christmas or birthday gifts for the first two years of her life. Shocking, right? We knew that family would be getting her gifts, and we also knew that--just like every other child in the world--she'd have far more fun with the boxes and wrapping than she would with any gifts she was given. Babies and small children don't understand presents and don't particularly care.

For her third birthday and last Christmas we got her some very small items, but she still was a bit confused by all of the hullabaloo. Very happy to rip open paper with impunity, but bemused as to why.

Now that she's four, she finally seems to be understanding holidays. Maybe she remembers last year well enough, or maybe she's taken in enough cultural excitement from her friends at school. In the lead-up to her birthday she kept talking about presents. There was obviously an expectation that she would get things. I had to make a run to Target and she kept pointing stuff out. "I want that! Ooh, I want that!" I reminded her quite a few times that her birthday was coming up, that maybe she'd get these things for her birthday.

She did not. However, I don't think she felt the lack. Her birthday fell on a Saturday so we had her party that day. Before the party we gave her one of her gifts, a bunch of Mega Bloks I'd found at Goodwill. She already had some that my parents had given her the Christmas before, and had complained a few times that she didn't have enough for what she wanted to do. Now she has LOTS, and she loves to build with them. During the party, children and parents alike were playing with the blocks, and they haven't lost their allure in the weeks since. It's not an exaggeration to say that they get near-daily use.

Our other gift was a toy box full of dress-up items. I'd gotten the box itself for free from a local Buy Nothing/sharing group from a family that was looking to get rid of it. The clothes I scoured Goodwill for in the week after Halloween. I went on the perfect day, as they'd marked all of their Halloween stuff down by 75%. In addition to the costumes I bought three "fancy" purses, I found some gloves in a trunk I'd inherited from my great-aunt, and I put in a couple of shawls I happened to own but (almost) never wear. All told, her birthday presents cost us less than $40 and she doesn't care at all. One of the dresses is obviously used, has a big visible stain on the skirt, and the edges are fraying. It's her favorite one, though. When we gave this box to her, her best friend was the only kid left from her party. The two girls went through 8 different outfit changes in about half an hour. We counted.
Free toy box. It's cute enough to store in our living room.

I'm not saying this to brag that we do things better, but simply to show that gifts do not have to be elaborate or expensive to be special. The most important part about these gifts is not where or how we got them, but what they inspire and what parts of our child they bring out. We wanted gifts that would inspire her imagination. We wanted things that would challenge her and bring out her resilience, which the blocks definitely do. ("Why do you think that tower fell over? Where do you think that bridge needs supporting? Don't get upset, figure out how to make it better. You can do this.") They're also toys that she can play with with friends, so when she has them over we might end up with a mess of blocks and clothes all over the living room but it will have been time well spent. Sharing and bargaining and collaboration will be learned when playing with these things as a group.

I'm not anti-gift. I would feel absolutely Scrooge-y if I didn't get my child anything for Christmas at this point. However, that doesn't mean that I think she "deserves" a giant pile of presents under the tree. After all, that may be the least important and even fun part of the holidays. There are so many other things for a kid to get excited about: cookies and special foods. Pretty lights all over the place. Decorating the tree. Christmas carols. Seeing the decorations and displays when out and about. Wreaths. Stockings and Santa.
One of the few gifts we've bought: matching nightgowns
for our daughter and niece. They'll love being "twins"!

Most important, family time. This year we get to have both of our families together, so we're expecting at least thirteen people for Christmas day. Just as special, we get to host at our new house. The Munchkin has been talking excitedly about getting to play with "my friend, my cousin" and seeing all of her uncles as well as her grandparents and great-great-aunt. It's going to be loud and crazy and so, so much fun. The part that concerns me the least is the gifts, because they will pale in memory compared to the laughter we'll share and the fun we will create.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Privilege and personal responsibility

I've been pondering, for a long time now, what constitutes personal responsibility. Obviously I can make certain choices that benefit myself and others that don't, and nearly all of these choices will impact people who aren't me. If I choose to eat cheeseburgers every day then my family will have to bear the burden of my poor health and shortened life, the healthcare system itself will pour resources into keeping me alive, and the world will face the ecological problems caused by all that beef consumption. But could I make that choice? Sure. Would it be a good one? Not for me or anyone around me, but the fact still stands that I could make that choice if I was so inclined.

When people talk about "personal responsibility" many people have the unspoken underlying assumption that it also implies a responsibility to others, most especially to those around you. After all, if you are responsible for yourself then others don't have to waste their time, energy, and resources taking care of you. It is, in many ways, a privilege just to be able to take care of yourself. However, I've been seeing more and more the idea that "personal responsibility" is just about an individual. You don't owe anything to anyone but yourself! Or, so the idea goes. Eat those cheeseburgers! You got yours, who cares about anyone else?

I see this even more in how people spend their money. Even if no one will say that they have this idea, spending all of their resources without putting any money by for things like life's inevitable disasters--everything from hurricanes to broken bones--means that they care more about their immediate desires than their future, no matter how stupid those immediate desires are. It really bothers me that so many people out there, people with high incomes and plenty of advantages, still 'can't manage to make ends meet'. Just do a search for it and you'll come up with hundreds of articles like this one and this one. Frankly, I think their definition of "struggling" and mine is vastly different. You see, I sort of feel that if you go out to eat for every meal and hire a maid service and a lawn service and buy expensive clothes that sit in your closet, that's not really 'scraping by'. If you have the means to save money but choose instead to squander it that does not make you an object of sympathy.

On the other hand, the ability to save money, any money, is often a privilege. I can't very well tell someone who's working a minimum wage job without healthcare that it's easy to save money with just a few simple tricks. For many people out there, frugality is a necessity. For even more of those people, credit cards are the simple way to get what they want and not have to practice frugality. That's the worst of all worlds, because it's neither privileged nor personally responsible. This is not to say that all credit card use is stupid, immoral, or what have you. That's merely to say, buying things on credit when you know you can't pay it back is willful self-deception that harms not only those who practice it but also everyone who ends up bailing them out. (Friends, family, or society - through bankruptcy.)

When I was a little girl, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents. They were part of what has become known as the Greatest Generation. They both lived through the Great Depression, and they came of age during WWII. Both my maternal grandfather and grandmother served in the military at that time. I didn't understand what all of this meant until I was older, of course, but I saw the myriad ways those major events left their marks on my grandparents, in particular my grandmother. She saved just about everything because it might be useful "one day". Plastic bread bags? Drawers full of them.

I do not aspire to be like that. However, the ethos they shared to not waste things has also left its mark on me. I remember watching my grandmother scrape the very last bit of egg white out of the shells as she used them and, to this day, I do that myself. I didn't even realize how odd it was until I read a story from a Jewish woman whose grandmother did the same thing. When she asked her grandmother why her grandmother answered that her husband had starved to death in a concentration camp. How could she ever waste food? That has, obviously, stuck with me. The ability to waste food is very much a privileged position to be in and the US sure takes it to an extreme.

When I put it all in the bigger picture, it makes me mad. How many children's lives could be saved by simple things like mosquito nets, rather than going to clothes that will be donated or thrown away with their tags still on?  How many kids in my own neighborhood are going hungry while others buy things they don't even want or need, or are wantonly throwing away food? How many communal resources (water, energy) are used to make the goods that people buy that they don't even really want?

Which circles back to what we owe others, and what constitutes personal responsibility. You've earned your money, who am I to judge how you spend it? Excellent point! ...But that squandered money does impact me and my family and my community. Do I get a still not get a say? Where is the line drawn between what we owe to ourselves, and what we owe our families, and what we owe to our communities? To the global community? Do we all have to become minimalists or suffer judgment?

I am a parent. What do I owe my child, vs. what I owe other children? I can afford to get my child into swimming lessons. At a heated pool! Luxury, amiright? And she loves them. She loves water to the point that she's not at all afraid of it. She'll dunk herself in and come up gasping, spluttering, without that healthy fear of drowning that a parent would want her to have. She's ready to go right back into the water without the least sense of danger. So in many ways, swim lessons are a calculated expenditure. She gets fun, we get to worry a little less that she'll drown one day. But...not all kids get swim lessons. What right does my child have to get swim lessons when there are kids in our community who don't even get enough to eat? What do I owe my child, vs. what I owe my community? Is it personal responsibility to ensure that my kid grows up knowing how to swim (a valuable life lesson) or is it privilege because not all kids (particularly children of color) get lessons or know how to swim? Why do lessons when we could (theoretically) teach her ourselves?

There are so many different ways to approach this question and in the end, it's always unfair. It's unfair that many of the people who could benefit the most from a little extra are the very ones the system has made it harder for. We can tell people all day long that they need to be personally responsible, but at the end of the day some people just can't be due to circumstances beyond their control. What do we owe them?

I think about these questions pretty much daily. I have a nice house that I can afford to heat and light up and still put food on the table AND save money for the future. To say that it's fortunate undercuts how hard we've worked to be in this position. It erases all the years when we really, really didn't have much. We know what it's like to be a bit poor, to scrounge and scrape and always be close to disaster. It's part of what makes me so keen on not living like that ever again. I don't want my kid to eat soup that's maybe kinda gone bad already, hoping it doesn't make her sick, because we can't afford to waste food. (Yeah, that's actually something I did.) I don't want my kid to wear a hat and gloves and a blanket indoors because we can't afford to heat the house. (We did that too.)
As strange as it might seem, what begins of
necessity can sometimes turn into a privilege.
I dreaded the thought of walking to work in conditions
like this, but soon loved it.

Even with those experiences, however, we don't really know what it's like to be poor. Our privilege is that we always had a backstop. We could ask our parents for a loan, had we really needed it. We could have gotten a loan from the bank, or depended on credit until we were flush again. In many ways, our poverty was self-induced because we could have changed it but didn't because of pride or knowledge that taking a loan would mean more challenges later on. We struggled through and always knew that those times were temporary. So many people out there don't have those luxuries. For so many people, poverty is all they know and all they will ever know. I don't want all those other people to have to live like that either. What do I owe them? What is me being responsible for my family, and what is taking more than my fair share?

The world is not fair. It doesn't take a genius to understand that if your raises and "cost of living" adjustments don't actually keep up with inflation, you're losing money every year. Life gets that much harder. Those with the most money, who need it the least, are seeing all of the gains. This is so blatantly unfair and absurd that it baffles me. The only thing we can do to fight against it is to scrape and save, yet the very systems that make the rich get richer also make it harder for those on the bottom to save anything at all. It is, in many ways, a privilege to be in the class that can scrimp and save.

Read that last sentence again and take in the absurdity of it. It's a privilege to scrimp and be able to save. What the hell is wrong with our society? We're so rich and yet most of us really are not. We have more material goods, true, but that hasn't translated into more security or more happiness.

One of the reasons I chose to focus this blog on frugality is because I think that it can help equalize the world in some ways. I think of my frugal nature as a giant middle finger to the companies, corporations, and practices that I hate. I can pick and choose where to spend my money, and my family's wants and needs are low enough that we don't have to spend money with companies we find unethical. Even when we do buy from large corporations whose interests don't serve mine, I'm not mindlessly shopping.

When a person is frugal, whether by choice or by necessity, they are forced into the knowledge of what their values truly are. After all, I doubt that anyone sets out with a goal to waste money. So many people just fall into that trap, though. A few dollars here and there can really add up and, soon enough, you're wondering how you spent your entire paycheck. It's easy to get caught up in the feeling of not having enough money. However, frugality forces you to examine what your values are and only spend on those things. When there's only so much money, it's easy to know what's worth spending your money on and what isn't. Wool socks will help make keeping the heat in your house lower more bearable, and they're far cheaper than heating an entire house or apartment. (She writes while wearing warm and fuzzy socks with the heat turned down.)

If you're forced into frugality, you spend only on your values because that's all you can afford to do. If you're frugal by nature, it's because you realize the power of your saved money is more important than fleeting desires you might have. I could turn the heat up in my house and keep it tropical in here all year long. But I'd rather save that money and spend it on, say, swim lessons for my kid. That will add far more value to our lives than heating a mostly empty house would. And I haven't even gotten to the environmental (read: societal, global) benefits that come from such measures.

If those of us with plenty of resources choose to use them meaningfully, to know what is enough and what is superfluous, then I think the world would be a much better place. I think we would be happier, have more to share, and that there would be more to share because we wouldn't have some living with way more than they need while others go without. We each have a responsibility not only to ourselves, but to each other. That's part of what it means to be a social species. The choices we make impact those around us for good or for ill, including the ways in which we choose to spend our money.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Oatmeal, about a thousand different ways

I feel a bit foolish writing this post right now. For the first time since sometime before the Munchkin was even in utero, I bought breakfast cereal. I don't even mean a little bit, I mean multiple boxes each week for a few weeks. I stopped eating cereal a long time ago for many reasons: it's expensive, the packaging is wasteful (since the plastic bags can't be recycled, ugh), and it's not even all that great for you. But, BabyX wanted cereal* so cereal we got.

However, for years now my usual breakfasts have been something that is cheaper, can be taken on the go without getting soggy, doesn't have to come with crappy packaging, and is very healthy. Oatmeal. It's the frugal person's secret weapon. Or, well, one of them.

First, the packaging. We go through a lot of oats. The Munchkin and I eat them for breakfast, and HusbandX doesn't always eat breakfast but generally has some mixed up with a protein shake later in the day. I put them in cookies. I put them in bread. We go through so. many. oats. By far the cheapest source of oats that we've found in our area are from the bulk bins at the grocery store. I even have reusable cloth bags so we don't have to use the plastic bags from the store. (When we remember the cloth bags, that is. Ahem.) This gets rid of all that ridiculous packaging and, because we're not paying for a brand name and cardboard or plastic, they're far cheaper than what you can find pre-packaged. (Don't even get me started on those silly individual servings that are both terrible nutritionally and horribly over-packaged.)

How cheap are the bulk oats? They're usually in the area of $.99/lb. I calculated it out once and discovered that the serving of oats I generally eat costs somewhere in the sub-ten cents range. Not bad at all, particularly for something so yummy, filling, and good for me. When I can, I tend to buy the organic oats, however, and those are slightly more pricey at a totally-not-going-to-break-the-bank level. Even when I "splurge" (or rather, when the organic oats are available in bulk) I can get a week's worth of oats for my family for about $3.

And, wait, did I say that it could be taken on the go? Easily? Yep! I don't generally eat breakfast at home on work days. I'm not a morning person so getting myself up and out the door while looking semi-presentable (or with the tools to make myself presentable in the office bathroom) is enough of a challenge. I set everything up the night before, including everyone's lunches and having my clothes for the next day picked out and easily accessible. So, naturally, my breakfast is prepared before and I take it to work with me to consume there.

Now, there is one caveat to how cheap oatmeal is. I mentioned HusbandX's protein shakes earlier. Well, he's not the only one who prefers his oats made with something other than plain water. I pretty much never eat just oats, because that's bland and it gets really, really boring day after day. I also like variety in what I eat. Sure, I can eat leftovers for days on end, but once the leftovers are gone I'm ready to move onto something else. We have a wide range of meals we cook so that we almost never make any single meal more than once a month. We might have it for anywhere from 2-4 meals in a row, but then it won't repeat for a while. I like to do the same with my breakfasts. I'll get on a kick where I make a certain kind for the entire week but then I move on to something else. Cinnamon raisin? That was last week's flavor. Should I do chocolate cherry walnut, or blueberry vanilla almond? So many choices!

So here's how I keep eating oats every day without being bored:

Instant Oatmeal in a Mason Jar

I've seen people make little baggies of their own "instant oatmeal packets" and, while that's a great way to do it, I still don't like the waste of all those little baggies that generally get used once and then thrown away. Instead, I make mine in a mason jar. This becomes an extra win because then I don't have to rely on a bowl, I just add hot water and shake. Mason jar lids aren't reusable for canning, but they can be reused pretty much infinitely for storage or in place of cheap plastic lunch containers. (I do throw them out when they show signs of damage.) You can also buy some reusable caps, of which we have a few and really like them. (We own both those types.)

In a half pint mason jar, half a cup of oats is pretty much the perfect serving. Even with some add-ins it generally leaves enough space for the necessary amount of hot water. Just fill to full, cap, and shake. You'll still need to stir when you open it but it should be pretty much good to go.

For a larger portion of oats, which is what I need these days, or if you have more add-ins than can reasonably fit in a half-pint, a pint-size mason jar is obviously better. However, the amount of water needed will have to be eyeballed and figured out through trial and error.

Some of my favorite ways to make oatmeal in a jar:

-About a tbsp of butter and a tsp of honey (eyeballed)
-Cinnamon and raisins (because it's a classic for a reason)
-Dark chocolate chips and almonds
-A bit of jam
-Fresh fruit and either coconut oil, butter, or milk (depending on the fruit) -- think peaches 'n cream
-Any dried fruit plus a variety of nut that matches (dates and walnuts, peaches and almonds, etc.)
-Strawberries with honey (a favorite of the Munchkin's)
-Dried tropical fruit and coconut oil
-Peanut butter to taste (for me, lots) and for those that like them, bananas would go well
-Savory salt, butter, and topped with a fried egg (less workable on work mornings, but still doable if I have enough time to cook an egg right then)
-More savory recipes (some of which could totally be dinner instead of breakfast, or in addition to!)

You can see how it would be easy to keep this from getting old. I can make one jar or several jars at a time and just grab them in the morning before I go. When I get to work I add hot water and voila: instant breakfast. Super simple.

Baked Oatmeal

This is one I've been experimenting with a lot more lately. The first recipe I tried was rather uninspiring. I kept intending to experiment with other recipes, but I also didn't like the idea of having an entire pan of this in the fridge. Portioning it out just seemed like such a hassle.

Then a lightbulb went on. No one says you have to make baked oatmeal in a big pan. Would baking it in a muffin tin work? So I experimented. Lo and behold, success! It's been wonderful. Not only do they work for breakfast, it's also a super easy and healthy snack to give to the Munchkin, or to pack in her lunchbox for preschool. Her school is entirely nut-free, so we sometimes have a hard time figuring out healthy ways to get enough calories into her. These work.

My favorite recipes so far have all come from Budget Bytes. The pumpkin goodness, could anything taste more like autumn? Yum! I've also experimented a couple of times with my own flavor combo by using the applesauce base (used here) and putting in my own flavors. Cherries, walnuts or almonds, and (a few) dark chocolate chips is always a winning combination for me.

These can also be frozen. Make a giant batch, or several different batches, and freeze some for later. I take them out the night before so they have plenty of time to thaw, then pop them in the toaster oven or microwave at work to warm them up. Or, if I'm really ravenous, eating them cold isn't much of a hardship.

Oatmeal Banana Bread

I don't actually like bananas. Even the thought of eating a banana has me making faces. However, for some reason I can tolerate them in banana bread. This works out really well because the Munchkin loves bananas, begs for bananas at the store, but really only wants 1-2 in a week. HusbandX will eat them sometimes but doesn't always notice we have them, so we generally have at least one banana quietly going bad each week. I rescue them in a bag in the freezer (hint: peel them first, if at all possible) until I have enough and the inclination to make something out of them.

I already posted my banana bread recipe, and I'm here to say once again that it works well in muffin form as well. It also freezes beautifully, especially when baked as muffins, so you can make it well ahead of when you actually want or need it. Freezing it in muffin form also allows you to pull out just the number you need, rather than an entire loaf of banana bread.

Leftover oatmeal pancakes

On weekends, when I have time, I generally go the super easy route of just cooking up oatmeal the regular way in a big pot for myself and the kiddo. (That is, on mornings when I'm the parent getting up. HusbandX does his own thing.) However, sometimes we eat it all and sometimes we end up with leftovers. Since I find reheated oatmeal rather odd, even with a bit of water or milk to help the texture, it generally doesn't get eaten in our house.

Cinnamon raisin pancakes.
At least, not as oatmeal. Discovering that leftover oatmeal could be used to make pancakes was a revelation. So yummy! When we're just tired of oatmeal in oatmeal form, or as muffins, pancakes are the way to go. I store any leftover oatmeal in the fridge in a jar and generally at the end of the week we have enough to make a batch of pancakes. Sometimes a big batch of pancakes. These have helped see us through many a hectic morning, and the Munchkin will always eat pancakes. (She had one for 'dessert' tonight.)

Most of the time I make our oatmeal on the weekend plain, and add in the flavorings/toppings that we want individually. Sometimes, though, it's just easier or more convenient to add those things while cooking. Dried fruit, for one thing, will plump up and I prefer the slightly-re-hydrated texture better than the super chewy one it has if you don't add any moisture back. I just take that into account when I'm making the pancakes. If I added dried blueberries to the oatmeal, I add more to the pancake batter (or fresh or frozen blueberries) and, ta da, blueberry pancakes.

Pancakes are yet another item that freeze well. If, in some alternate dimension, my child were to decide that she was sick of eating pancakes it would be super easy to freeze them for the next time she asked for pancakes. It's also helpful to keep a few stashed in the freezer in case I forget to make breakfast ahead of time. (It's happened.) Or if I get sick and just can't do life. (That has also happened.) Just please do yourself a favor and freeze them individually. Having to thaw a giant stack of pancakes is a pain in the butt. You don't need to learn that lesson the hard way because I have done it for you. You're welcome.

Oat Bread

I know a lot of people who, for very valid reasons, are avoiding bread. Even my spouse does not particularly care for bread. (Poor man, he clearly has dysfunctional taste buds.) I, on the other hand, love bread. LOVE IT. Sometimes nothing quite hits the spot like a great slice of toast. And since I learned many, many, many years ago how to make bread (thanks, Mom!) it's easy to have a fantastic slice of bread with only a small amount of effort. The learning curve on bread can be rather steep--my own bread-making history is littered with under-risen, under-cooked, over-salted, and yeast-murdered loaves--but short. Well worth the (minimal) time and effort, at least to me. And, yes, it can be frozen for later consumption. Are you noticing a pattern here?

I really like oats in bread because they add a lot to the flavor without taking away from the texture, and they add more nutrition as well. Yummy + healthy is hard to beat. For a really good, basic recipe that's hard to mess up try this one.

Smoothies and Shakes

The first time I heard about adding oats to a smoothie I thought, gross. It did not sound appealing. Why would you want grains in a smoothie? But I've done it occasionally and, actually, it can be pretty good. I often find that a smoothie alone for breakfast just doesn't keep me full. Fruits and veggies are all very well, but it needs something else or my stomach is grumbling at me within an hour. I also need something to round it out or I end up with stomach pains. (From all the acid in the fruit? Maybe?) Adding oats or oat flour and a bit of yogurt helps tremendously, and the texture ends up being still good. (To me. YMMV, and I won't blame you if you hate it.)

There's also the super lazy way that HusbandX takes. Protein powder in a mason jar with a serving of oats, or oats ground into flour. Add water, mix, and drink.

Overnight Oats

This one is last on my list because, frankly, I don't do it that often. It's not that it's not just as healthy and delicious as the other options, it just doesn't seem to work as well for our family. We don't always have the ingredients on hand, and sometimes when I have made them they've been pushed to the back of the fridge and forgotten until they've gone bad. Worse, the kiddo likes them sometimes, but not always, and she can't generally eat an entire one so a lot goes to waste. So I don't make these as much, but I would be remiss if I didn't include them in a master list of ways to make oatmeal ahead of time for easy, frugal breakfasts that can be taken on the go.

These are generally made in mason jars, same as my instant oatmeal. Having some half-pint mason jars around, even if they're only used for making breakfast**, is really handy. They last longer than plastic, have a greater diversity of uses, don't have any claims about toxicity or nasty chemicals, and they're far less likely to leak than any plastic container I've ever tried.


If you're wondering what's with all the stuff about food lately, there are several reasons. First, I'm pregnant. Food is on my mind a lot, and not only because I'm hungry. (I'm not that extra hungry.) Getting good nutrition is important both right now and after the baby's born, so it's something my mind is extra focused on. Oatmeal also helped me out an unbelievable amount last time, because it helped with breastfeeding when I struggled with it. I'm keeping that in mind as I figure out what to eat to support myself and the bebe-to-be.

Pregnancy also means that I'm extra tired. I am, quite frankly, all about convenience right now. We've been busy, life has been hard, and I just don't have the reserves to deal with even more. But I also don't want to sacrifice our real goals in the name of short-term convenience, so I've put a lot of thought into how to do more with a bit less energy. Batch cooking breakfasts when I have the time and energy has been, without a doubt, one of the best things I've done recently. I transitioned to a new work schedule at the same time the Munchkin started preschool, both of which things could have really thrown me for a loop. In some ways they have, and we still have a bit of adjusting to do, but knowing that I have breakfast nailed down has helped me feel overall more ready and able to take on the new challenges. If nothing else, I can point to that as a self-reminder that I haven't dropped the ball on everything.

Eating well on the cheap is also on my mind because babies, in case you didn't know, can be rather pricey. They don't have to be as expensive as society claims they are (more on that later) but since we have crappy and expensive healthcare in the U.S., the medical bills alone can be staggering. So many appointments leading up to birth, the big hospital stay--possibly with surgery to pay for--and then a bunch of appointments for both me and baby after birth. Yeah, that's a lot of money spent on medical bills. It's well worth it to me/us, or we wouldn't be doing this again. However, it is the sort of thing that makes me take a look at the ins and outs of our money once more to make sure we're spending in line with our goals. We like food, but we don't need to spend thousands of dollars each month to eat well.

Last, I'm focusing on food because it's fall. In the spring my mind turns to salads and fruits and all the yummy things I didn't eat all winter because they weren't in season (and therefore just plain sucked in both quality and price). Now it's autumn and my mind is turning to comfort foods. Oatmeal, warm and filling, is high on the list. Baking is a great way to pass rainy days indoors with the Munchkin (not that we've had too many of those around here yet) and having breakfasts pre-made for weekdays really does make life less stressful. That seems like something worth passing on, right?

Food can be one of the easiest ways for people to start saving money. And it's crazy, because you absolutely don't have to give up eating out entirely to realize the savings. I know quite a few people who buy breakfast along with their coffees each morning. Depending on what they get that can be $10+ every single day, just for breakfast. $50 a week, a little more than $200 per month. For breakfast. That sure makes my $3 in oats for my entire family for the week seem like a crazy deal. Even with all the extra stuff we add to our oatmeal we couldn't spend $10 a day each if we tried. I'm pretty sure there are times when we don't even break $10 on breakfast for the week. That, to me, is well worth the minimal effort we put into making this meal.

*This has been my first 'real' pregnancy craving. I've had a few others that were prompted by something else. A coworker had a bagel at work one day and I thought, "Ooh, bagels!" I was able to put that off for a few days, though, and one bagel sufficed. However, breakfast cereal became something I HAD TO HAVE. I had multiple days of eating 3+ bowls of cereal and wanted it for pretty much every meal. I was even hiding away from my kid to eat cereal in private, so she wouldn't ask me to share!

**We also use them for canning, obviously, and freezing, and as dry goods storage. When they're not being used in any food storage capacity, we use them as drinking glasses. The half-pint size makes a perfect drinking glass for the Munchkin. She feels like a grownup with the real glass but it's not likely to break if she accidentally drops it. In fact, we've never had one break that way and they get dropped or knocked over plenty. However, if you don't can and don't have kids then obviously the utility of them will go down. I still maintain, though, that they are excellent for all kinds of food storage and transportation.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

When life hands you...bananas?

I have a confession to make: I hate bananas. Really, hate them. Which is such a shame, because they're filling and nutritious, and cheap. They're the cheapest fruit out there, at least that I've seen. But, alas, I hate the slimy things. The taste, the texture, the whole package.

Except, that is, in one form. Banana bread. Not just any banana bread, either. I found a recipe a while ago for blueberry-oatmeal banana bread. I tried it, loved it, then tweaked it just a bit. I lowered the sugar content (totally unnecessary to have a full cup of sugar in it!), upped the baking powder while dropping the baking soda entirely, and voila. An amazing, easy, and cheap recipe. It's so quick and nutritious that I relied on it more than I care to say after the Munchkin was born, particularly after I went back to work. Since I breastfed her, I felt like I was constantly hungry, but having two thick slices of this, with butter, and two scrambled eggs for breakfast each morning kept me full until lunch. And I lost the baby weight, one of the big goals of pretty much any postpartum mom.*

Nowadays, I'm using it more because it's super, super convenient. It's also fun to make with the kiddo, and I don't feel guilty about feeding it to her since it's got so many healthy ingredients. Whenever we've got some bananas about to go bad or a few in the freezer which should be eaten up. It saves more than just bad bananas, too, since you can use either fresh or frozen blueberries. If you've got some berries about to turn, throw them in the freezer until you want to make this.

Food waste is a big deal on so many levels--budgetary, environmental, even social justice. After all, it's true that there are plenty of people out there who are starving. Even kids at your local school might be needing free breakfast and lunch and the rest of us just casually toss away food. We are not by any means perfect in this regard, so I'm not trying to point fingers or get holier-than-thou. However, it is something we work hard at. It's something we've decided is important enough to actively fighting against in our house  and still, sometimes things get tossed in the garbage. A few small steps--freezing food when we can for later use, using scraps or otherwise "waste" food, and planning our meals ahead--save us so much time, money, and effort. They might not save the world, but we can all do our part.

If you're like me and don't really like bananas, or you've got some serious budget constraints, you can also sometimes purchase bananas from the store which are about to go bad. One of our nearest grocery stores has a section for fruit that's about to turn (mostly bananas) that they sell for cheap. Sometimes, when I know I'll have time to use them right away, I'll get enough of them to make at least one batch of this banana bread.

Blueberry Oatmeal Banana Bread

3 large over-ripe bananas
1 egg
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp nutmeg (optional)
1 cup oats
1 cup whole wheat flour
2 tsp baking powder
Blueberries, approximately 1 cup

Mix the wet ingredients, then toss the dry ingredients in and combine. Lastly, add the blueberries. Bake in a loaf pan at 375 for 45 minutes. Due to the berries and high moisture content, unless you're going to eat it all in about a day and a half I suggest storing it in the fridge.

Alternatively, bake in muffin tins (I grease the sides so I don't have to waste all those paper cups) for about 30 minutes at 375. These are fantastic to take on the go if you're rushed in the mornings, and they can be frozen. If you don't feel like you'll get through an entire loaf before it goes bad, make it into muffins and freeze most of them. Even if you don't remember to pull them out until the morning of, they reheat beautifully in either a microwave or a toaster oven. It's also way easy to pack them in a child's lunchbox if you thaw them out the night before. I do this as the Munchkin's "treat". Much better than a granola bar or something equally sugary.

A few suggestions for alterations:

I've used blackberries instead of blueberries and that was fantastic too. I bet raspberries would work well also.

Since I know a lot of friends and family are gluten-free, eating Paleo/keto, or just trying to cut down on carbs, I haven't tried alternative flours with any success. My one foray into using coconut flour didn't turn out well. I'd never used it before and didn't realize that you can't do a 1/1 conversion between wheat flour and coconut flour, so I ended up with a chalky mess, even after adding a bunch of water. The Munchkin and I had a few bites, then I threw it out. Fail. Maybe someone with more experience baking with alternative flours would be able to make it work, though.

This recipe is also really easy to make vegan by substituting 1 flax "egg" (1 Tbsp ground flax + 1 Tbsp water) instead.

When I was breastfeeding, I struggled with low supply for a long time so I made a lot of lactation cookies. I didn't like how much sugar I was consuming, however, so I started looking for alternatives. I realized that this was a perfect recipe to convert. Each time I made it I added 1 Tbsp of flax, 1 Tbsp of nutritional yeast, and enough liquid or oil (coconut oil, butter, milk, water, depending on what I had available or felt like adding) to give it the proper consistency. It helped me out so much.

Pardon the totally not Pinterest-worthy picture. I snapped
this one morning just before doing the preschool
drop-off and rushing to work.

*Don't judge us, it's for so many reasons beyond being thin, such as being yourself again or not having your joints hurt, or feeling sexy and pretty again, or just wanting to be fit and healthy for yourself or your kid. Losing the baby weight is important.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Our house

It's been well over three months since we officially moved our stuff into our new house (although we are still only spending weekends there for the foreseeable future, as we work to get my mom settled and deal with my dad's estate) and it's still a bit of a wreck. In a good way, if you can believe that.

Our house has felt like our home since the first day we spent in it. We woke up after the first night and there was no strangeness, no questioning of where we were. Even the Munchkin seemed all right with it. Success! But, there's a lot of work that needs to go into really making your own home, even when you know you've found the right place.

Can you guess where the china
hutch was?
I've seen advice not to do any work on a house right after you move in and, frankly, I'm calling BS. That might be just great for some houses and people, but not for us. Not for this house. We don't have any major remodels planned but there were details we went into the offer knowing we would change immediately. The more we stay there, the more we realize it's been a great decision not to wait. The sellers did some very nice work in the house (like the bathroom tile), but they also did some rather shoddy work as well. It's the shoddy work we're trying to change.

We're not starting with anything major, just some paint. Painting the walls before we get completely settled is one thing we agreed on. If we waited, it would just be more of a hassle because we'd have to move furniture around, take pictures off the walls, etc. Best to it while we still have very little furniture to be moved, and nothing on the walls. It's also summer right now and we wanted to take advantage of being able to open windows and have the walls dry quickly. One of our friends, who has a background in design, offered to help us and that's been a major boon since I'm not supposed to paint while pregnant. (I'm actually kind of bummed about that. I like painting!)

One of my favorite changes so far is that we let the Munchkin pick out the color she wanted in her room, so that she would feel ownership over it. She hasn't gotten to experience that over the last two years in my parents' house, with us constantly having to tell her, "That's not yours, please don't play with it." It's important to us that she feel like this room is really hers, somewhere she can be comfortable, and it's working. She likes to tell people all about her new room, with its purple and blue stripes, and the pictures we're going to hang on the walls. She has a bedroom set that belonged to my grandfather when he was a little boy, so there's a bit of family history too. She even plays quietly in her room occasionally!

I won't detail everything we've done or will be doing, because that's boring. As we've gone along, though, it's made me realize how much I loathe shitty DIY. I respect DIY, it's obviously something we also do, but if you're going to do something then you should do it properly. Don't cut corners. Either you or someone else will just have to re-do it later on down the road and that's such a waste of both time and effort.
"I'm sure I'll hit the stud at some point."
- Person who drilled here, probably

On the other hand, if they'd done a good job then this house likely would have been out of reach for us. It's amazing how many people can't look past a bad coat of paint to the possibilities underneath. We decided that our house was a good deal because so much of the major work has already been done. There are new windows, for the most part, and carpet was torn up to reveal the original wood floors beneath. These are just two examples of the many things that were done well in our house, and they're far more expensive and more work than a few coats of paint.

We have a few more projects slowly getting done or on the list. One of my amazing and wonderful brothers volunteered to take the popcorn off the two ceilings which had it. This is another task that I can't do, because the popcorn possibly contained asbestos. My brother has to wear a breathing mask and he's been going at times when the Munchkin and I wouldn't be around to breathe the dust. I'm so grateful for all the work he's putting into our home, which he's basically doing just because he's a really nice guy.

Making a house into a home you're proud of doesn't require a ton of money, just some careful thought and planning. We have bigger plans for later on, things to make the house suit us even better or to make it more efficient. For instance, one project for this fall is to put more insulation in the attic, where it's rather thin. I imagine we'll also go around with a thermal detector to figure out where to do air sealing work. Eventually, we want to get a programmable thermostat, and we've already begun replacing some lights with LEDs. These are not particularly costly fixes and they'll pay us back in the long term. Anything more major can wait until our lives aren't quite so stressful and busy. (That time will come, right?)

I managed to get porch, hammock
trees, and paw prints all in one.
Lest you think our house is all work and no play, one of the first things we do each weekend is set up our hammock in what is quickly becoming one of my favorite spots. The porch was a feature I liked but not one I set a priority on when we were looking at the house. Now, however, it's where we spend a good portion of each weekend, relaxing. Though our street gets a fair amount of traffic our porch seems like an oasis of greenery and calm. And to make it truly ours, the dog stepped in a tray of paint and left her paw prints all over.

The secret way we frugalized buying a house in Seattle

The one feature of our house that not everyone knows is that it has an apartment in the basement. There's a second kitchen, and two large rooms (plus bathroom) that can be easily separated from the rest of the house and rented out. A mother-in-law apartment like this was something that we had thought of when we were talking over house features we wanted in our home. It was a feature that ended up on the "would be nice but not necessary" list, in part because we figured that finding a house in our price range that included one was a bit of a pipe dream. Nope!

Our goal in life is not to become landlords. We're not going to start buying up properties to rent out. However, having this area to help offset the cost of our mortgage somewhat will be quite nice. I had originally thought that, should a family member need it, it would be nice to be able to offer a place to stay that had some separation. (My full thought was that if my dad needed it after my mom passed away, it would offer him independence but would also keep him close. Obviously, that's no longer a concern.)

I also like the efficiency aspect to it, since our house would be far too large for our needs without it. The same day we looked at this house we saw another one that was similar, it just didn't have the apartment. We really liked that house too and talked about putting an offer on it, but we would have been paying just as much mortgage-wise on that house, without being able to get any money via rent.

We won't be charging maximum rent for the space, since it's more important that we have a friend in there, someone we can trust, someone we get along with, rather than squeezing every penny we can out of a stranger. We had a few people in mind and, luckily, the first friend we talked to was excited about it. I won't talk about him much, if at all, for his own privacy, but we've met a few times to talk about expectations and this sounds like this will work out well for all of us. He gets to pay less in rent and we get not only a little bit of money to help offset the cost of our mortgage but also someone we can trust.

He hasn't moved in yet, because the apartment has the other ceiling with popcorn. We want to get that taken care of before he moves in so that we don't have to upset his life to take care of it later on, or make him live with asbestos. I'm genuinely excited to have him move in, however, and a bit anxious to move forward with this. We haven't gotten to see this particular friend nearly as much as we would like to since we moved down here. We have set up boundaries so that we won't be hanging out with each other constantly, but it will be nice to at least say hi in passing and to easily hang out when we all feel like it.

We are also going to be renting out a room to my brother. Well, "renting". He needs to go finish his epic around the world bike tour, but when he comes home we've promised him a room. We're working out a deal where, for at least a few months, he lives here free in exchange for some childcare. This would allow him time to get some personal projects and other things done, and it would help us out of a bind.( The Munchkin's preschool hours don't quite fit with my work hours.) We'll see how things shake out, but I'm also excited to have my brother with us. We get along quite well so I'm not worried that we'll cause a family rift or anything. And, my daughter thinks the world of her uncles. Having one of them around full time, which she's used to at this point, will help ease the upcoming transitions.