3 cheers for cloth diapers

When it comes to babies and saving money, it can feel a bit daunting considering how much stuff is touted as essential.  Having a three month old and a four year old, the sheer magnitude of “stuff” could easily be overwhelming.  One of the ways we’ve found seriously effective in saving money is cloth diapers.

With our first kid, I knew we wanted to use cloth because who wants to cover a $20 bill in baby poop and throw it in the trash?  Not us. I did lots of research and talked to friends who paved the cloth diaper path before me, and I realized that we could make it happen.  I also realized that prior to disposable diapers coming around in the mid-1900’s, the ONLY diaper option was cloth.  Convenience can both cost and complicate things.

I started looking around on Craigslist and garage sales, and found great deals on used diapers.  There are also some diaper swapping/info sites where people sell or even trade diapers.  Trading can be effective when you need to swap out sizes.  I couldn’t let the idea of getting used cloth diapers turn me off to the idea.  New ones can be very expensive, which would have made the whole money saving endeavor pointless.  I always wash used diapers a couple times before I use them, so I’m very comfortable that they’re totally safe before they touch my baby’s booty.

I stocked up on pocket style cloth diapers as I saw them available in different places, and spent a total of about $300 for everything.  Now that we’re on to baby number two, we’re using the same diapers, and haven’t had to buy any disposables.  It also helped that my aunt gifted us a diaper service subscription for the first few months, but we’re using our own diaper stash now and have saved a bunch of money.

I remember as a first time mom it was very intimidating, but then I saw patterns for making cloth diapers out of old t-shirts, and leftover fabric.  I mean, we’re talking about absorbing and containing pee and poop.  There are certainly things that make cloth diapering more convenient, but let’s make good use of rocket scientists and save their work for rocket science, not cloth diapering (because it’s not rocket science).  It’s actually fun when you get into it.

Certainly, getting into a good wash routine is key, but I figure I would have spent something like $500/yr on disposables, so I’ve already saved $700 having used the cloth on my oldest.  Not having to buy disposables for my son saves even more (something like $1000-$1500 depending on when he potty trains).  And, if we have more kids, the saving will continue.  I’ll resell them when I’m done, to make back at least a portion of what we spent and we’ll almost come out even.  We could say that it will all come out in the wash (pun most definitely intended).

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Homemade vanilla creamer

In our attempt to transition to more of a whole foods diet, there was one thing (among a few others) that I have not been able to give up: vanilla creamer in my earl gray tea first thing in the morning…you can thank me later.

I know that there is no redeeming quality (except maybe water) in this ingredient list for vanilla creamer, none of which are actually vanilla or cream: water, sugar, partially hydrogenated soybean and/or cottonseed oil, and less than 2% of sodium caseinate (a milk derivative), dipotassium phosphate, disodium phosphate, mono- and diglycerides, natural and artificial flavors, cellulose gel, cellulose gum, color added, carrageenan.

Isn’t it funny the trouble we go to, to make something as simple as vanilla and cream so complicated.  Since giving up soda last year, I knew this was next on the list.  I definitely believe that some things are fine in moderation, but I also know that little things make a difference (sidenote: don’t you love when bits of wisdom don’t seem to align…just proves that we’re all at different stages of the journey).

I decided to make the switch, but I wasn’t just going to add vanilla extract to milk and call it a day.  I’ve tried adding milk along with vanilla flavored syrup and it definitely did not work out, so my mission was to find a recipe that tasted like the store bought version and was easy to make using only a few ingredients that I could pronounce.  I came across a whole variety.  Some use coconut oil, others use sweetened condensed milk, but I found the winner here at Deliciously Organic along with several other flavored creamers that I HAVE to try. C’mon, Cinnamon Streudel Creamer?  Peppermint?  My mouth is just watering at the thought.

This recipe for Vanilla Creamer uses milk, cream (I used half and half), vanilla bean or extract, and the secret ingredient: maple syrup. 

Visit the website for the specific recipe, but I just heated the milk, half and half, and maple syrup (it will seem really sweet but obviously the flavor gets toned down when added to a drink, you can add more or less than the recipe states) over medium heat, stirring occassionally until it’s just starting to give off steam.

You don’t want it to come to a boil.  Just get it hot enough so that when you add the vanilla seeds and bean pod that the heat pulls all the flavor out.  So, once the milk/cream/maple syrup is heated, turn off the heat, scrape the vanilla seeds out of the pod and add the seeds and the pod (or just the vanilla extract if that’s what you have) to the heated milk.  I put a lid on the pot and let it steep for about 30 minutes.

After that I put a coffee filter into a small strainer and put it over a bowl.  I poured the mixture into the coffee filter and let it drain so the vanilla seeds wouldn’t get in my tea, then I poured it all into an old store bought creamer container that I had washed out and kept just for this purpose (the outer shrink wrapped label comes off really easily and then it’s just a clear creamer or small snack container).  You could also use a glass jar.  I stuck it in the fridge and added some to my tea this morning, and even put a little over my baked oatmeal…oh my goodness.  I might just drink it on its own, except then I’d have to make another batch for my tea.

If you don’t think you’ll drink it within a few weeks, just pour small amounts into ice cube trays and put one into your coffee mug before you pour your coffee (or tea).  It will melt super fast, and then you don’t have to worry about it going bad in your fridge.

Not only does it taste better, but it actually cost me about half of what I would pay in the store for all of those ingredients that are scientifically engineered to taste like vanilla and cream, and yet are actually neither of the two.

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My bug named Ginger

Ever since I gave up drinking soda pop I have felt great.  It was a little hard in the beginning, but I kept telling myself that it just wasn’t worth the energy swings, heart palpitations, and extra cost, so I called it quits and have been quite happy with iced tea.  There are times, however, when something a little fizzy and a little sweet sounds mighty fine.  In my recent reading about fermented and traditional foods, I came across the idea of making a “ginger bug” as the base for homemade carbonated drinks so I decided to give it a try.

I started by following this recipe: http://sustainableeats.wordpress.com/2009/04/18/homemade-soda/

I put a cup of filtered tap water in my jar with two teaspoons of chopped up ginger and two teaspoons of white sugar.  I covered it using my standard method for all my ferments…a coffee filter over the top held on by the ring of the jar lid.  It’s a tighter seal than a rubberband over a cloth, but still gets the air that’s necessary for success.

Every day for three days I stirred it twice a day, and at one of the stirrings added a teaspoon of ginger and a teaspoon of white sugar.  After a day or two I could hear the carbonation after I stirred it, but by the evening of the third day I could hear the fizz before I even stirred so I knew it was ready to use.

If you do this, keep in mind that you’ll want to use organic ginger (if possible) with the skin on.  The part that really gets the carbonation going is in the skin, but the actual ginger adds a nice flavor as well.  I did a rough mince of the ginger.  I started to grate it but realized that it kind of turns into a paste, and I wanted to be able to strain the liquid easily but leave the ginger.  Bigger pieces facilitate that.

Keep in mind that fermentation is a combination of art and science.  There’s a finesse to those little micro-organisms that create healthy bacteria, and sometimes they’re a bit picky.  Don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t work the first time.  If it doesn’t seem to be getting fizzy but doesn’t actually smell like it’s gone bad, it may be salvagable with either more time, putting it in a warmer spot, or giving it a little more food.

Once it’s ready, you can either use it right away or put a lid on it and stick it in your fridge to go to sleep.  Feed it every week or so with ginger and sugar, and take it out a day or two before you want to use it, waking it up with more ginger and sugar.

You’ll have to check back to see how I actually used it and the utter deliciousness that is sitting in my fridge right now.

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Ode to the public library

Public library, how I love thee.
Let me count the ways…

  1. Books to check out, for free, all the time
  2. Still just 25 cents per book per day if I’m overdue
  3. Automated phone message reminding me if I’m overdue so I can return books and not rack up fees
  4. Friends of the Library bookstore where I took advantage of the “Everything 10 cents” blow-out sale and got 4 book and 5 DVDs (two Veggie Tales, Winnie the Pooh, Blues Clues, and Thomas the Train) for a total of $0.90.  Are you kidding me?  90 CENTS!!
  5. Special kids areas and activities where I can bring my daughter for a fun get-to-know-the-library experience
  6. Being able to place holds on books and have them transferred from other libraries to my nearest one for a quarter.  That’s cheaper than the gas it would take me to drive to another library.
  7. Having access to all kinds of resources that I can review before deciding if I want to buy any of them (used, of course).  So far I’ve purchased two used books off of Amazon for $2.00 each that qualified for super-saver shipping with some other items I purchased bringing the total to $25.  I checked out a whole bunch from the library and decided those were the two I wanted.  I didn’t have to buy them to review and then try to return them.
  8. I can check books out on my Kindle app for my phone or iPad
  9. 2 renewal opportunities giving me a total of about 9 weeks with each book (if I haven’t read it or started it within 9 weeks it’s time to return it anyways)
  10. Getting to enjoy all of these books without having to make permanent room on my bookshelf for them

Reason 11-1 million (or more): Each individual book, resource, video, and other media  that’s available to enrich us and spread the joy of reading and learning.

If your local public library isn’t your BFF, it should be.  Get to know it, love it, check stuff out and return it on time.  Your life is about to change. BAM!

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Bread in the oven

I can’t think of a more comforting aroma to fill a home than that of bread baking in the oven.  The end result being warm slices of heaven, slathered with butter (or not) to start or end the day on a high note.  I love making homemade bread.  The amount of work is so worth it, not just for the cost savings, but the health benefits of not adding a variety of preservatives and extra ingredients, and getting my daughter involved in the process to see how food is actually made.

I’ve used a variety of recipes for my bread, but recently found what I consider the winner.  There aren’t a ton of ingredients, it has a good crust and crumb, I can switch it up depending on the type of flour I have on hand, and my family loves it.  It’s not too sweet or too sour, a perfect neutral flavor for all kinds of uses (french toast, sandwiches, garlic toast, cinnamon sugar toast).

The recipe I use comes from: http://www.feelgoodaboutdinner.com/2012/04/easy-whole-wheat-bread.html

I don’t modify the recipe at all and use olive oil as my oil of choice for that ingredient.  It has never failed me and I’ve even doubled the recipe with great success.

If you’ve never made homemade bread before, this is a perfect recipe to get started.  Don’t let it intimidate you.  Follow the recipe, make sure you use good yeast, don’t let it over-rise when it’s formed into the loaves (compromises the internal structure of the bread if it gets too puffy) and it will turn out great.

There are as many yummy bread recipes as there are bakers.  If you have a favorite I’d love to try it.  Just add it to the comments.

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How we cut the cable cord

I used to work for the cable company.  Cable is awesome and Dish is icky.  When I stopped working for the cable company I got a rude awakening to retail cable prices, and suddenly cable lost a bit of its shine.

Even when we had to start paying for our cable, internet, and phone (it was a very rude awakening), it seemed like we couldn’t live without it.  To make things worse, we had the cable box with DVR so we never had to miss “our” shows.  We justified it because we never went out to the movies, or on expensive dates, and we didn’t have kids at the time so we weren’t neglecting more important responsibilities.  It was just a way to unwind at the end of the day.  Still, we were spending A LOT to unwind.

I actually called a couple times trying to cancel, but my heart wasn’t in it and I gave in to their retention tactics.  I mean, these were former co-workers I was talking to.  If I cancelled would my friends be able to feed their families?  So, the lure of a few free months of movie channels and an internet upgrade kept me locked in to cable. Then, our daughter was born.

After baby came along our priorities totally changed.  Not only did we not want her to end up sitting in front of the TV (although I think kids are born knowing who Elmo is), we wanted to force our creativity a bit in the entertainment department.  Maybe, gasp, read a book?  Or, a walk from time to time?

It took some time to work up the guts to call.   E was 10 months old when I finally made the decision that I wasn’t going to be swayed.  I only cancelled the TV because we did use our internet all the time and couldn’t guess our neighbor’s Wi-Fi password, and we kept the phone because we wanted people who came to babysit to be able to call 911 if the need arose (it never did, but it was kind of like insurance…worth it for the one time you might need it).

After I cut the cord, I actually felt lighter.  I no longer felt this invisible commitment to watch everything on our DVR before I erased it, or burdened when I would open it up and see that it was almost full with “Top Chef” reruns from a season I never watched in the first place.  Of course, there were a couple shows that I missed at first, but we found some of them on Hulu.com so we could still watch whenever we wanted (for FREE).  The shows that weren’t on Hulu weren’t worth the money we were paying each month for cable, so I let them go.  I mean, it is just TV, but it still wasn’t easy.

We got an HDMI cord so we could connect our computer to our TV and still watch shows from Hulu on the bigger screen.  We also didn’t end up watching as much TV, so we did more actual stuff.  When we moved earlier this year we stuck with our “no cable” mantra, and didn’t even call for internet until after we’d lived here for a couple months.   We signed up under a promotion they had for the first year, and we didn’t get a phone line put in because we only use our cell phones, so we pay $25 per month for our internet when our combined cable/internet/phone bill back in the day was over $150.

One reason we kept our landline at our prior house was so babysitters could call 911. We’ve found, in living here, that we take Bugaboo to other people’s houses for babysitting instead of having them come here, and for the one day a week when my mother-in-law watches her we got a pay-as-you-go phone that costs $2 per day on any day you use it, but there’s no per minute charge on those days.  She doesn’t have her own cell phone and we also wanted a way to get in touch with her when she was at our house.  So, she can use the phone whenever she’s here and even if she used it each time she watched Bugaboo (which she doesn’t) it would only cost us $8/mo instead of $20/mo for a landline.  As is, she only used it once in January, so it cost $2 this month.

Now that we’re in a house instead of condo, we put an actual antennae on the roof and get regular public broadcast stations.  It still gets blown around from time to time with the wind, so Hubs goes up and adjusts it every once in a while, but I hear that happens from time to time with Dish and ours is free (the antennae cost $20, but no monthly fee).  And, there are way better shows on public broadcasting than I thought.  We get about 70 English speaking channels, but there are way more that we could get if we spoke other languages.  There are cooking shows, crafting shows, sports channels, and Sesame Street, and all free.  Granted, I miss TLC and Discovery Channels from time to time, but I wouldn’t have time to watch “my” shows anyways now that my time is preoccupied with my little one.

If you’ve thought about cutting the cord and need a pep talk, I’m happy to chat and tell you all the things I’ve done with the time I used to watch TV.

Life opened up when I broke up with cable.

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What to do with K-cups

A couple years ago, we must have been feeling super rich and decided to get a Keurig coffee maker from Costco.  I don’t even drink coffee, so all the better that my hubby can make one cup at a time without having to brew a whole pot.  I use it for tea, hot chocolate, and other non-coffee drinks, but there are a couple downsides.

First, they sell pre-filled K-cups that you put in to make your coffee/tea.  Those can add up fast, averaging around .50 cents each unless you find them on sale.  It’s cheaper than Starbucks, but more than a couple scoops of grinds in a traditional coffee maker.

Second, the end result of the used K-cups are all these little plastic things that end up in the trash and feel like a huge waste.

The cost and the waste can accumulate quickly depending on how frequently you use it, so we came up with a couple solutions.

We bought a refillable K-cup from Amazon that has a snap-on lid.  We just fill it with grinds, put it in the Keurig, and brew a cup.  Then, we add the grinds to our compost heap (you could also sprinkle them directly in your garden).

For the times when we still use the pre-filled K-cups, I take off the foil top and put it in the recycle bin, dump out the grinds and tear out the mini filter inside to add to the compost, and then use the remaining plastic cup to start seeds for my garden.

They’re the perfect size for starting individual seeds, each one already has a little hole punched in the bottom for drainage from the Keurig machine, and you don’t have to waste of ton of planting medium on each seed.  They hold just the right amount for tucking in a seed and letting it grow until it’s time to pot up or plant out in the garden depending on the plant.

They usually last through a few seed starts before they crack, and when that happens I rinse them and put them in the recycle bin.

Any other ideas out there for how to use the K-cups after the coffee or tea is brewed?  Maybe attach them to a cardboard box and spray paint the whole thing red for a Lego style Halloween costume, or use a sharpie and write the name of your plants on them to use as temporary, stackable garden markers (I did that to keep track of where I planted my different types of tomatoes).  Anything else?

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Whip it good

I’ve been wanting to try my hand at homemade bath and body products for a while (homemade cleaning products are next), and I heard that coconut oil is great for a lot of things other than just cooking.  The idea of slathering myself in coconut oil didn’t sound too appealing, so I started looking around for SUPER easy DIY lotion recipes.  I came across one that only uses two ingredients, shea butter and coconut oil, and looked luxurious…shazam.  So, I ordered this shea butter  from Amazon, and already had some coconut oil in my cabinet.

I used this simple recipe from Soap Queen and I love it.  I used raw shea butter, which is yellow, instead of the white refined shea butter that she used, and I didn’t add any essential oils (although I might next time…I just didn’t have any).  I whipped it with my hand mixer and it got light and airy very quickly, but I continued whipping it for a few minutes to make sure I incorporated as much air as I could.  I use it for lotion when I get out of the shower, cuticle/nail cream, a hair conditioning mask every couple weeks, lip balm in a pinch, and I slather it on my feet before bed and throw on a pair of socks.  It takes a few minutes to soak in, but it doesn’t leave me feeling like an oil slick, and my skin loves it. It has also stayed whipped even though the temperature of my house definitely gets above the melting point of coconut oil (mid-70’s F).  On warmer days the lotion is a little softer, and on cooler days it’s more firm, but it maintains the whipped form either way.

If you’ve wanted to start small and easy with making your own lotion, this is definitely a good one to try.

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Homemade bagels

There are times when making things from scratch is totally worth it, and times when it’s not.  In my book, bread products are always better when made with love at home, and these bagels are no exception.  Yes, it takes a few steps, and more time than just running out to the store.  But, they’re less expensive (less than $1.50 for eight bagels…18 cents each), use fewer ingredients, and still have that yummy, chewiness that bagels are all about.

I used this recipe from Allrecipes.com and they turned out great.  I used some farm fresh eggs from one of my dear friend’s backyard chickens and had a delightfully delicious breakfast sandwich the next morning.  I only wish I had made more bagels because it’s one of those recipes that’s really easy to double or triple.  Once you’re already in the bagel making mood you might as well crank ’em out.  Next time, though, I’m adding toppings…sesame seeds, cinnamon raison, blueberry, everything bagel, the options are endless when you make them yourself.

Any suggestions for toppings I should try?

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Generosity amidst hardship

It’s really easy, during any transition, to go into hunker-down mode.  Almost instinctively we try to save, build reserves, and (dare I say) hoard to make sure we’re protected from storms that could be on the horizon or just around the corner.

When Dan lost his job a couple of months ago, we were tempted to hold tightly to what we had.  Separate from being wise with our resources, his job loss would have been an easy excuse to get out of being generous with other people.  What we decided, though, is that we wouldn’t let this set back keep us from the experiencing the joy that comes with giving.

I know it’s cliché to say that it’s better to give than to receive, but we both know that generosity is designed to build our own character and we want our daughter to see and experience the gift of giving.  It’s only through hard times that we really get a chance to grow in certain areas, and this is a season when we’re growing in faith and trusting that what God is doing in our hearts in the area of giving could not be done at any other time.

Generosity looks different depending on what you have to give, but don’t always default to the easy thing.  We have a surplus of avocados, so I can certainly offer those to friends and family, but it’s easy to give away something we don’t need (or want).  The hard thing is to dig deep and hold loosely even to those things we really like.

We’re learning what generosity looks like for us during this new season.  But, we continue to look back and see that even when we give things away, somehow we always end up with more than we started with.

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