Tuesday, July 26, 2011


For me, a big part of being a good homemaker is to create a happy, healthy, relaxing home on a minimal budget.  You don't have to make 100 grand a year to have a classy home.  It just takes time, ingenuity, and patience.

One of my favorite new resources is Freecycle.  Definition: "Freecycling, also known as Free Recycling, is the act of giving away usable unwanted items to others instead of disposing of them in landfills."  I've made some great finds on Freecycle since I signed up four months ago.

  • My husband wears weird pants sizes.  I have not yet found any jeans in that match both is length AND his waist.  However, his waist size is common, so whenever I see jeans given away in his size, I make them into shorts.
  • I accepted some sheets that were being given away.  They were in excellent condition, with a modern clean floral print that wasn't overly feminine.  I'm making them into curtains for the living room.
  • An older wheelbarrow, which is going to save my back with gardening.  It also helps a lot when I carry a heavy load of wet laundry out to hang on the line.  
  • I am now the proud owner of several pairs of very nice, nearly new shoes in my size.  I've always admired pretty feminine shoes, but am too practical to have ever bought them for myself.  But now, for the first time in my life, I own four pairs of pretty, feminine footwear.
  • I've gotten three garbage bags full of clothing - most of it in my current size.  Since I'm losing weight, I've stored the smaller sizes in my closet - I now know that I shouldn't have to buy a whole new wardrobe for each dress size I lose.
  • A rice cooker, which saves us money as we now feel comfortable buying rice in bulk.
  • Plant cuttings - including willow switches, which means I won't have to spend any money on basket-making materials this fall when I start to teach myself how to weave baskets.
  • Free tickets to Six Flags.
And today, I received a remarkable find on Freecycle.  My husband has been wanting a kindle ever since I received one for Christmas last year.  Now, all our "extra" money is having to go towards vet bills for our new puppy, and he was a bit disgruntled that he wouldn't be able to get himself a kindle for his birthday.

I figured chances were slim, but I put a request out on Freecycle anyway.  My request was answered this morning by a nice woman who had an e-reader gathering dust - she hadn't used it in six months.  I figured it was an older model, but more than sufficient for Sean's needs, so I arranged to pick it up this afternoon.

You can imagine my shock when I opened the bag and found a color touch-screen multimedia e-reader.  This thing looks brand-new - and I don't just mean it's condition.  It looks like something that is currently being sold at stores!  I did a bit of research when I got home and found it is a fairly new e-reader, less than a year old and very popular.  I'm so excited, I can't wait until August to give it to my husband - I'm going to present it to him tomorrow when he gets home from work.

Freecycle goes both ways.  I'm able to post an offer about items I no longer need, but that are still usable and in good condition.  It makes me feel great to be helping other people, as well as keeping good items out of the landfills.

Geography lesson

A few days ago, my husband and I impulsively decided to go to a Border's store that was closing.  Everything was on clearance, and although finances are crazy tight, Sean said I could spend $15 on whatever I wanted. My first thought was to get the Ishmael trilogy by Daniel Quinn, but evidently it's a popular book series - it was already gone.  I wandered the fiction and non-fiction areas but nothing jumped out at me.  I considered getting a couple of puzzles for the kids, but nothing just seemed to click...

I found a book called "Plunge into History" that looked interesting, and I thought the kids might enjoy reading it as well, so I picked that up.  Left me with about six dollars, and nothing was really looking good.  Then Sean pointed out the maps.

I've been wanting to get a map of the U.S. for a while now, and this was a nice big map - three feet by five feet.  It was two dollars more than my six remaining dollars, so I went to put the book back.  But Sean stopped me and said he'd  be willing to pay the extra two dollars since I had chosen something educational. The kids were thrilled with their new map, and spent about 25 minutes pouring over it when we hung it up.  But I knew it would become a boring, everyday poster if I didn't use it regularly. During the school year, that won't be so hard, but how to incorporate it during the summer? 

That's not as hard as you might think.  This year, we had to order new backpacks for all three kids.  I pulled up the shipping details this morning and discovered that Jacob's backpack had already shipped out from Lexington.  So I showed him the online shipping details and then asked him "How far away do you think Lexington is?"

He went STRAIGHT to the map, and found it in seconds.

Jacob pointing to Lexington, Kentucky.
He's excited - he discovered that the backpack is now in Itasca, IL (about twenty miles away).  It will probably arrive today, and so he keeps running to the windows every time he hears a vehicle drive by.  "Is that my package? Aw, drat, it's just the neighbor's car."

I'd love to homeschool, but I know it's not the right step for me at this point in my life.  But that doesn't stop me from encouraging learning at home!  My kids are at the top of their classes, mainly because Sean and I have taught them that learning is fun rather than a chore to be dreaded at all costs. 

How do you encourage education at home?

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Food Insecurity

I came across this statement today while reading a news article:

"According to a 2009 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 14.7% of American households were "food insecure" at least some time during that year. "Food insecure" means all household members did not always have access to enough food for an active, healthy life."

Nearly 15%.  Sit here and think about that for a minute.  America is supposed to be the richest country in the world.  The American dream was - and still is - a driving force for immigrants who want a better life for their families.  Recent estimates by the World Health Organization classified 74% of Americans are overweight.  And yet 15% of our citizens are unable to access enough food to stay healthy??

What scares me the most about that statistic is that it is two years old - which means the info was gathered in 2008-2009, at the beginning of the recession.  Three years later, how much higher must that number be?

The article I was reading was about Holly Hirshberg.  In 2008, Holly's husband lost his job, and her family had to depend heavily on her garden to provide for their needs.  After realizing just how helpful her garden was, she started The Dinner Garden, an organization that provides free packs of seeds, enough to feed a family of four.  "If you have a willingness to garden, we can help you find a way to do it," Hirshberg said. "The seeds do all the work. You put them in the ground, they will grow. ... With just a couple minutes a day, you really can grow a lot of food for your family."  In 2001, Holly was invited to speak at TED San Antonio.

I went to check out the Dinner Garden site, and again my mind was blown to find this message:  "Please note that due to incredibly high demand, we have a waiting list of over 45,000 families while we wait for additional funding for supplies. The wait may be over a year."

That statement says a lot about America's economy, doesn't it?

Friday, July 15, 2011

Tricia's tip - seed depth

This morning I got a bunch of free pots at a rummage sale.  I spent the afternoon planting seeds.  This is my second time planting seeds, and I ran up against the same problem I had last time - how do I know what the right depth is?

Last time, I eyeballed the depth, but near the end of the planting I had a sneaky suspicion that I was going too deep.  I sent one of the boys in for a ruler, and sure enough, I was planting the seeds more than twice as far as they should have gone.

Is it any wonder that only two of my seeds sprouted?  (I planted twelve, originally).

This time, I gave the matter a little bit of thought.  At first I thought "Well, if I take a stick out of the yard and cut notches into it at each half-inch, that would work as a guide"....but that seemed like an awful lot of work.  Then I thought about making the marks with a marker rather than notching the stick.

Then I remembered that I had some cheap wooden chopsticks in the junk drawer.  Eureka!  I took a chopstick and marked it every half inch, and I got my seeds at exactly the right depth.  I'm far more confident that my seeds will grow properly this time.

Thursday, July 14, 2011


We live in a suburb of Chicago, which you may recall has the nickname "The Windy City".  Lake Michigan affects the weather patterns in this area, making good weather even better and bad weather even more severe.  This past Monday was a perfect example of that.

Around 7:40 that morning I let the cats out - the sky was still overcast but the air was still.  I couldn't smell any approaching storm either.  I came back inside and started on a new blog post.

I was writing the second paragraph when the entire north wall of our house shuddered as though it had been hit with a giant's fist.  Simultaneously, my computer screen went dark.  The still weather that I had seen just five or ten minutes before had completely disappeared.  A strong wind was whipping branches and bending large trees in half.  My cats were pawing at the door and screaming to be let back in.  And the wind began to howl like a freight train.

I let the cats back in and yelled for the children to get into the hallway (the center of our house).  With a loud crack of thunder, rain began to fall - I could see out a window that the rain was driving horizontally.  The sky turned black and lightning flickered.  For a few moments, it was sheer destruction outside.  Our cats cowered under our arms and the puppy was crying - and Hansel, our foster dog who had lost his family in a tornado earlier this year, was so terrified he wet himself.

And then, after about 8-10 minutes of terrifying storm, one last powerful blast shook the house...and then the wind went still.  It was stunning, almost as though someone had flipped a switch and turned the storm off.  We waited a couple minutes to see if the calm was temporary.  The sky lightened, the sun came out, and birds started singing, so I figured it was safe enough to leave the house. 

Branches - some small, some large - littered the yard and the street.  One of our neighbors had lost a tree.  I grabbed the camera and took a few pictures of the damage.

There was no sign of lightning damage on this pole - the wind alone brought it down.

This branch brought down a wire - you can see it on the sidewalk.

This tree brought down another wire, and was resting on several others.
I didn't get far - barely a block away a city official told me it was too dangerous to continue.  There were several downed wires and he was not allowing anyone to pass.  I went back home.

Our power was still out.  As the day wore on, conditions became dangerous.  The temps got up into the high 90's, and the sun was pounding down out of a clear sky.  I kept the house cool by spraying the roof down with water every hour (word of this technique passed down, and soon every neighbor was outside on the hour, watering her roof.).

Updates continued to trickle in via phone.  Over three quarters of a million people were without power.  Estimated times for the power to be fixed varied from a few hours to several days to more than a week.  Without power, the traffic lights wouldn't work - and if you've ever been in the Chicago area, you can just imagine the insanity of no street lights.  Traffic was backed up for miles, and commutes that usually only took twenty minutes were taking over two hours.

Jonathan, bless him, took it upon himself to find ice.  He rode his bike around and eventually found a store that still had ice left.  He brought home three bags of the stuff, and I credit his actions with saving the hundreds of dollars of meat in our freezer.  He had even brought enough ice to fill the cooler, so we could have cold drinks.

If you watch the news - national news, not just local - you'll discover that power outages are becoming more frequent with each passing year.  The grid just can't handle the demands of the population - and all it takes is one freak event - in our case, a storm - to completely knock it off-line.  One of my long-term goals is to get off the grid - to have my own source of cheap electricity without having to depend on others. 

We were without power for over 30 hours.  It was a long time to be without power, but at the same time I'm relieved it wasn't longer.  From what I understand, some areas are still without power.  I'm grateful that ours was restored as quickly as it was.  Thanks to the ice Jonathan managed to find, we didn't lose the food in our freezer.  But we lost almost everything in our fridge.  If we had our own power source, this wouldn't have happened to us.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Recipe of the Week : Amish Bread

One of the bigger changes I've made in the last year has been to bake our own bread.  "Why?" I can hear some of you moan.  "Why on earth would you do such a thing when bread is so easy to buy at the store?"

Well, for a couple different reasons.  First of all, additives.  Have you ever noticed that store-bought bread stays edible for a very long time?  This is due to additives that extend the shelf life of the product.  In some people, like myself, regularly eating these additives can caused physical pain (I have fibromyalgia).  So I try to stay away from such things whenever possible.

My second reason was price.  Four years ago, I was able to go to my corner store and buy two loaves of bread for a dollar.  Now, the cheapest bread I can find is $1.99 per loaf - that's four times the amount I'm used to paying!  And it seems lately that the price is increasing even more.  When I did the math, I discovered that a loaf of homemade bread costs less than a quarter (when you buy the ingredients in bulk).  So homemade bread is cost-effective.

And let's be honest...nothing says "home" like the smell of fresh-baked bread!

When I started out, I experimented with many different bread recipes, trying to find one that suited our family.  After much trial and error, I settled on the recipe below:

Amish Bread
2 cups warm/hot water
2/3 cup sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons active dry yeast

1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/4 cup veggie oil
6 cups flour

Mix together the warm water and the sugar until the sugar completely dissolves and the water appears clear (I tend to use hot water for this step - as hot as I can get it out of my tap.  I've found that it cools to just the right temp by the time the sugar has dissolved).  Add the yeast and stir to dampen.  Let mixture sit for five minutes, until the surface of the water develops a creamy foam.

Add in the salt and oil.  Work the flour in, one cup full at a time.  Once too thick to mix with a spoon, turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead the rest of the flour into the dough.  Once dough is smooth, form into a ball and place in an oiled bowl, turning dough to coat.  Cover bowl with a damp cloth and allow dough to rise until doubled (takes approximately an hour).

Punch dough down.  Knead for a few minutes and then divide the dough in half.  Form each half into a loaf and place into two well-oiled loaf pans.  Cover with a damp cloth and allow to rise for about 30 minutes, or until the dough is an inch above the rim of the loaf pans.

Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.  Allow to cool before slicing.

This recipe is wonderfully adaptive.  You can exchange any portion of the white flour for wheat flour - I love to go half-and-half.  You can exchange the sugar for honey to add sweetness.  You can roll the dough flat and sprinkle with cinnamon/sugar mix to make a swirled cinnamon loaf.  My kids have even dyed the dough to make Rainbow Bread:

This recipe also makes great hot dog buns and hamburger buns.  Just form the dough into the shape you want and cook it on a greased cookie sheet.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Are two-income households really better off?

While discussing the subject of homemaking on my facebook page, my sister left this comment:

" I feel like I am not a good enough mother sometimes because I am NOT a stay at home mom.  I work 32 hours a week (I'd like to work 40 but my employer will not work with my availability as I have to be done by 4:30 everyday to get my daughter), so I have 1 extra day off a week.   It's not enough though!  Not only do I not work enough, but I don't get enough work done at home.  Yes, sometimes I am unmotivated and exhausted!  But most of the time I feel rushed.  I struggle to work in cleaning and grocery shopping, unless it's my day off.   Even then I feel like I am neglecting my child because I cannot play with her as much as I want to because I am cleaning for hours, then we rush to the grocery store, then I occasionally make dinner (Hubby is a better cook than me).  So, not only am I tired all the time, but I feel like an inadequate mother, and an inadequate wife for not working and making enough money, AND an inadequate wife for not doing enough around the house!  PLUS, I have no 'me' time. And now, I have baby number 2 on the way! I hope it comes more naturally with time and experience, but for now it never seems to be enough. I would love to be a stay at home mom, but then I would need a rich husband lol. Then I would seem like a gold digger! It really is the ultimate catch-22" 

The situation my sister outlined in her post is, sadly, all too common in today's world.  Both parents work, both parents are stressed out, and both feel guilt that they aren't able to do all the things they want to do.  Our society tells us that a family can't function without two steady incomes.  It's the only way to be secure and to make ends meet, right?  It's become the norm.  But do two incomes really offer the security we think it does?

I don't think so.  And I'm not the only one with that opinion.  In their book "The Two-Income Trap", authors Elizabeth Warren and  Amelia Warren Tyagi argue that two-income families are almost always worse off than their single-income peers. 

In this interview with motherjones.com, Amelia Tygari states "
those families (with two incomes) certainly make more money than a one-income family did a generation ago, (but) by the time they pay for the basics -- an average home, a health insurance policy, a second car to get Mom to work, child care, and taxes -- that family actually has less money left over at the end of the month to show for it.".

When you factor in how much that second job costs your family (paying for a second car, child care, and assorted other work-related charges), is it really bringing in enough money to make the stress and exhaustion worth it?  In our family, we decided it wasn't.

I've been a stay-at-home mother for three years now.  We are not rich people.  Last year, my husband's income was around 30k - just barely above the national poverty threshold for a family our size.  Would another source of income be nice?  Oh, yes!  But in our eyes, the benefits of having a full-time parent at home outweighs the benefits of a second income.  By staying home, we are able to be a one-car family - so no second car payment, and our gas bill is lower.  Child care costs are non-existent.  I have time to cook from scratch, which is not only healthier for our family, but cheaper.  This year I've started gardening, and I anticipate that in a few years, our garden will provide hundreds of dollars worth of fresh produce - thus, reducing our grocery bill. 

And just because you stay home with the children doesn't mean you can't bring in an income.  Author Wendy Brown makes an excellent point in this blog post about being a WAHM (work-at-home mom).  There are multiple ways to earn money while staying at home (which I know all too well - I used to run a daycare out of my home).  Wendy has a lot to say on the subject, and her blog is well worth following - and her book is a great read as well. 

Wendy also linked me to this cost of working calculator, which is a great tool to figure out how much that second income is costing you.

I know this was the right move for our family - how about yours?

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Hello, and welcome!

Lately it has seemed as though things have spun out of control.  Our banks were so far into debt that they would have failed had our government not stepped in.  The housing market and stock market have dropped alarmingly.  Gas prices are high, and peak oil seems imminent.  Millions of jobs have been lost, and our economy has suffered.  Earlier today, President Obama spoke about the recession, saying "People may not have been prepared for how long this was going to take and why we would have to make some very difficult decisions and choices. And I take responsibility for that."

Even the weather seems to be acting weird.  Deadly storms, floods, droughts, volcanoes, earthquakes, and tsunamis - everything seems more intense, more frightening.

Now, more than ever, we need a safe haven - a place to go where you know you are safe and secure.   My husband and I are starting small, but working our way towards financial independence and home ownership.  This blog is going to outline my journey to create such a haven. 

Some of the topics that are going to be addressed in this blog are urban homesteading, being a housewife, cooking healthy food from scratch, and learning the skills that are, for the most part, no longer taught to young women - how to be a good steward of the home.