Tips for a Newbie Gardener?

Whew!  This month has gone by incredibly fast!  It’s hard to believe we are just a few days from April.  What happened to March?!

Thankfully, the month has been full of good busyness – getting ready for the baby by clearing out our office, which will become my son’s room, so his room can become the nursery.  We’ve been doing well on ebay selling off our business, and although it’s slow going because of the sheer amount of product we have, we are seeing the numbers go down every day, and in February, our first full month, we made over $1000.  (Of course, after Ebay and Paypal take out their fees, you can expect at least a 10% drop!)

So our newest project is our garden.  We have 4 acres, most of which was corn field.  This summer, part of that will become a nice veggie and herb garden!  Now, when we lived in Minnesota I grew flowers around the outside of the house, but the soil was so rich and peaty there that you could plant anything and it would grow with no effort.  When we lived in coastal North Carolina, I had a vegetable garden that consisted of zucchini and snap beans – they did wonderfully considering the sandy soil and hot weather – until we went out of town for two weeks!  When we came back, there was nothing left of the garden but shriveled, sun-burnt plants!  It hadn’t rained once while we were gone.

I feel like I’m taking on a lot, expecting to do a much larger garden with all the basics – carrots, cabbage, potatoes, squash, tomatoes, etc.  I think we can do it.  I love getting out in the soil (and I’ve already planted bulbs out front) and since the ground is already broken up from the fields, all we’ll have to do is add fertilizer and plant each seed according to it’s instructions.

But I’m scared that I’ll miss something.  So…any tips for a newbie gardener?

Cheap Spaghetti from Scratch

To go with my previous post about cooking from scratch to save money and eat healthier, I figured I’d share some of the recipes my family really enjoys that are inexpensive, healthy, and easy to make.  One of our favorites is spaghetti and meat sauce, with a small twist.

Spaghetti with Meat Sauce

Ingredients:
Whole wheat spaghetti noodles ($1)
1-5 ounce can tomato sauce ($0.40)
1-3 ounce can tomato paste ($0.25)
1 jar of grape jelly (to taste) ($2.50)
1 pound ground beef (optional) ($3.29)
Spaghetti Seasoning packet ($0.75) or the individual ingredients

Boil noodles.  Brown ground beef if you desire it.  Once beef is browned, add tomato sauce, tomato paste, and enough water to form sauce. If you are unsure, add just a little water at a time until sauce is thick but still fluid.  Add 1-2 large spoonfuls of grape jelly to sweeten the sauce or leave as is for a saltier sauce (Olive Garden sweetens their spaghetti sauce with jelly, according to my husband’s research!)  Add seasoning, and simmer until well-mixed and warm.

Not including the jelly (because you don’t use the whole jar) this recipe will cost about $0.78 a person and will serve at least six servings.  However, if you have a husband who eats like mine, it will be a normal serving for me, one for our son, and that leaves two large “servings” for hubby.  It also reheats in the microwave wonderfully.

We often eat this with garlic toast (butter some bread, sprinkle garlic salt on top, and toast in the toaster oven or broiler until lightly browned) and corn or broccoli.  A simple dessert of chocolate pudding with frozen strawberries is a wonderful and cheap dessert!

Buying from scratch when you can’t afford organic

One of the things I’ve struggled with lately is the idea of putting certain chemicals in my body through the food I eat and the personal care products I use. I’ve really been trying to get away from over-processed foods, especially since I’m currently pregnant. When you start to research some of things that are put into our food from raising the animals or plants to the creation of the final product, it really is quite scary!

I can buy organic foods at our local Walmart and our Giant Eagle grocery store, but the prices are sky high. Walmart isn’t too bad – I can buy a can of organic spaghetti in a can for $1.29 – but selection is extremely limited. The same exact can at Giant Eagle is $2.99 (but they have an incredible selection!) For the record, the same can of spaghetti circles in a well-known non-organic name brand is about $0.89 at our Walmart. Both stores are five miles from my house.

I can also make a 40-minute trip (mostly country roads, so it’s about 15 miles) to the nearest natural foods store, and find every variety of organic food possible. The same can of Annie’s Organic Spaghetti in a can would be about $2 at this store, but the distance is prohibitive, unless I’m already out in that area.

So what do you do? You want to avoid those additives – growth hormones, genetically modified foods, preservatives, artificial colors and flavors – but how do you do that when you simply can’t afford the price or the distance?

I’ve found I can avoid a lot of these additives simply by buying ingredients to cook from scratch. Buying flour, baking powder, sugar, and cocoa to make chocolate cake may have some pesticides or genetically modified components, but you won’t find the preservatives, artificial colors and flavors, and other additives you find in a boxed cake mix. (Speaking of other additives, why is there high fructose corn syrup in that non-organic spaghetti-in-a-can?)

It’s also cheaper to buy organic flours and sugars than it is to buy the organic boxed cake mix – but it’s almost always cheaper to cook from scratch – organically or not.

The biggest arguments I hear against cooking from scratch are time and knowledge. I often hear that cooking from scratch requires more time, but I can’t say I’ve really had that experience unless I’m comparing cutting up fresh vegetables to put in a stirfry compared to simply pouring in a bag of prepackaged veggies and meats and heating. Most of the time, it is just as quick to prepare a meal with fresh foods as it is to prepare a box meal.

I also hear people say they don’t know how to cook from scratch. Cooking can be tricky, but it’s not that difficult. A good cookbook goes a long way – I particularly like the old Good Housekeeping, Betty Crocker, and Better Homes and Gardens cookbooks. If you can find an old copy, grab it up! It’s full of every imaginable recipe – and all from scratch.

When you can’t buy organic – buy from scratch. Less processing = fewer chemicals, additives, fats, sodium, etc. You control what you put in your body – you may not be able to completely eliminate bad things like growth hormones, pesticides, and GM food, but it will be a great improvement on prepackaged foods.

A Little Savings Can Go a Long Way

My son has discovered money.

Now, he’s only two, and he hasn’t figured out money will allow him to take all those toys home from the toy store. But he does know two things:

1. Coins can be put in a video game or crane machine for a bouncy ball.

2. Coins can be put in a bank (though I think the pleasure lies solely in the actual act of putting the coins in.)

In fact, we just went to Cici’s Pizza last night, where the all-you-can-eat salad and pizza buffet is only $5 a person. In the back, there’s a game room, and it’s been a tradition for us to go and spend a quarter to get a small bouncy ball. After this, my son is usually just as happy “driving” the race car simulation game as anything, and we just let him play on the introduction without putting money in!

But I’ve noticed that when we get home, my son really likes to put his coins in his bank. Once his coins are all deposited, he begs us for more. So I’ve taken to saving my change to give to him.

And while saving change seems like a small thing to do, it’s actually very effective, especially when you are saving for something! I actually have my own change bank, which I emptied out right before we moved. After just a few months, I had $40 when I emptied it!

This was effective, but it was so easy to raid my piggy bank when I knew I’d want a Pepsi from the church vending machine or when we were taking the toll highway. I didn’t have a goal to save for, so the change was available for every whim. I’m sure I would have saved more if I hadn’t been playing the Viking!

Giving the coins to my son changed that. It’s absolutely gratifying and terribly fun to see how excited he gets putting a few pennies and nickels into his bank. And I feel like when it’s in his bank, it’s his money, so I don’t dare take any!

I don’t know what we’ll do with the money – maybe we’ll save it up for something big he’ll need in the future, but because it’s his it will stay there – except for when we go to the bank and deposit it into his savings account.

I’m still using my coin bank, but I’m also still raiding it. What would motivate you not to spend the money? Where could you put your extra coins when the day is done so they actually add up? If you don’t have a child, would a picture of what you are saving for motivate you to keep your hands off? What about a bank you’d have to break to open?

Victory! CitiBank Personal Credit Card Paid Off!

Woohoo!  This is our first real debt removal victory.  Yesterday I put the final $114 towards this credit card with my husband watching.  It feels good!

Our December bill listed our balance at $2261.81.  We’ve been putting everything we can towards this debt.  I am simply amazed that in 4 months worth of payments, we eliminated over two thousand dollars! It really makes me think we can continue to do this.

So what we have left as far as credit cards is around $10,500 on the other Citibank and $6000 on the Chase card.  I’m unsure which one to work on next.  The Citibank has far more and a higher interest rate.  Plus our shipping costs for our ebay liquidation are still being charged on this card, so I want to make sure we don’t get too close to the limit (we have about $2000 left on our limit.)  But the Chase card would be eliminated much faster, and I think our low interest rate expires in November.

It feels wonderful to have one fewer bill each month.  With recession looming in the future, I don’t want any debt hanging over my head – it’s just one more thing that could really ruin a person!

February-March 2008 Progress Post

So I’ve decided that since we’re already halfway through March, this is going to reflect everything we’ve paid up until today. (And seriously, where does the time go?)

Personal Credit Cards:

Citibank: Was: $1212.73
Now: $114.17

This was all snowflaking from our business sales on ebay! Wow! That’s $1098.56! (And today I transferred that last $114 from my Paypal account. As soon as it is in our checking account I’ll pay this card off.)

Business Credit Cards:

Suntrust:
Transferred to our Business Citibank for a better interest rate and a much better bank.

Chase: Was: $6138.80
Now: $6040.50 (I paid $150, finance charges of $24.79 )

Citibank: Was: $10,556.49
Now: $10,617.85 (I made a payment of $330.00, finance charges of $50.44 – and the reason it went up so much is because we charged 340.92 to pay for shipping for the business)

Total Credit Card Debt:
Original Debt: $18, 954.86
Last Month: $17,481.67
Current: $16,772.52
Monthly Difference: $709.15
Total Paid Off: $2182.34

Accessible Savings Account:
Current: $7,396.96

The huge amount in our savings came from a refinancing – All but about two hundred of this is earmarked for our new septic system. We still need to come up with another $6000 or so to cover costs. We’ve been talking about, and I’m not sure what the plan is, except to save as much as possible. It’s likely we’ll have to finance it, because if we put this off anymore to get more money together, we will get in trouble with the county health department – they have a law here that all septic systems must pass a particular test or be replaced when the home changes owners, and our’s is old enough it’s almost guaranteed to fail.

So I may not be posting much, but I’m still getting rid of this debt!

The Great Clothing Swap – Swango.com

My son is growing!  Suddenly, almost overnight, his size 18 month pants and shirts are all too short!  And not just a little – I didn’t notice until one day I put a shirt on my son and the sleeves were a good inch above his arms.

Now this I was not expecting.  We’d purchased 2T clothing from the end-of-summer clearance racks, so we have plenty of t-shirts and shorts.  But it’s still March, and I’m sure some of you are looking out the window at the same thing I am – a foot-and-a-half of snow, and more swirling down.  So we’ve been keeping our eyes out for 2T pants (he has lots of shirts that still fit.)

So today, when I found an online clothing swapping site called Swango.com I was very excited. I see lots of clothing for the whole family, although at the moment there isn’t a lot of maternity. :P

Just like many online swapping sites, the site works on a system of credits.  Each item you list will initially earn you a free credit, with a maximum of ten free credits.  When you sell an item, you and the buyer split shipping costs, and the buyer pays a $0.99 transaction fee that goes to swango.com.  I really like the fact that Swango uses the transaction fee to cover making the site run smoothly (by using paypal checkout) and also donates part of it to a charity that provides clothing to families in need.

You can use the credits you earn to “buy” clothes!  A brand new Gap onesie I’m eyeing would cost me 2 credits.

Swango, of course, is just one way to swap clothing – Ebay, Craigslist, freecycle, thrift stores, family…there are so many others.  And the benefits to swapping instead of buying new are plentiful:

~ swapping keeps clothing out of landfills – because if you never purchase new clothes, you never have to dispose of them!  Plus, you save the chemicals, raw goods, and other parts of the manufacturing process.

~ it’s cheaper!  It’s often just a couple dollars (compared to tens of dollars for new) or even free

~ swapping in many places means you will get something that is almost as good as new.  Swango.com previews listings and may reject those they feel are not in good condition.  I can’t tell you how many clothes I have inherited off of freecycle that were brand new, and many that were just as good as they would look after my son wore them a couple times!

All that said, I can’t wait until summer and garage sale season.  I haven’t found a really good thrift shop that carries clothing around here yet, but the garage sales are great!  Now, if only this snow would melt!

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