Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Living Smart Living Small: Groceries Edition

Friends, Readers - let's talk groceries. We all have to eat, and we (mostly, most of us, most of the time) want to eat well. Doing so in a small house and on a budget can be a challenge, but there are lots of ways to make it easy (as pie? that you made yourself...)

Living Smart Living Small Seven Steps to Savings on Savories 

1. Shop at Aldi.

This is my NUMBER ONE piece of advice to help drop your grocery budget. We were struggling to keep under $175 a week for a family of four at our local branch of Big Name grocery store, but now have very little trouble staying around $125 a week now just by switching to Aldi. And, at those savings, I figure that my 15 minutes of bagging my own groceries every week just made me at least $100 an hour!

Occasionally I will need a product that Aldi doesn't carry, or another version (like dishwasher detergent - the powdered kind works waaaaaay better, costs less, does not come in a plastic container AND lasts longer). I shop around online at big name stores to see where I can get the best deal.

2. Cook at home. 

If you're into living smart AND have read any of my posts, I shouldn't even have to remind you, but just in case, I will.

Eating out on any kind of regular basis is one of THE quickest ways to kill your budget without even realizing it.

The good news is cooking at home can be fun and enjoyable. It also tends to be healthier - and you'll get more choices because [cue drum roll...] you will make those choices yourself at the grocery store each week!

Bacon - YUM! See how much fun it can be to cook at home?!
For us, a family of four, including two kids with huge appetites (already!), three of us with food allergies and one of us with GI issues, eating out has become almost always a hassle. Fortunately, hubs went to culinary (yeah!) and I also like to cook, plus our kids get involved (for better or for worse, sometimes both and we wouldn't have it any other way). Oh, and we live in the woods, so most eating out experiences are easily 25+ minutes away... so let's just say that cooking at home has become part of our Living Small lifestyle.

That being said, we have many weeks that get super busy with work, school and play, and cooking seems to be the last thing on anyone's mind, while eating is still the first. On weeks I know I'm going to be swamped, I take a few hours on Sunday afternoon and cook up a storm. I've been known to make lentil meatballs, meat meatballs (that's a thing, right?!) and a roast chicken in one night. Roasting the chicken with celery, onion and carrots gives me the basis for my soup, so that's easy too. Anything leftover after two or three days goes into the freezer for future meals.

3. Bring your lunch (and snacks) with you.

This goes along with #2 above. Because, if you're already cooking at home, you might just possibly have some leftovers hanging around that you can toss into your work bag and enjoy again with your wonderful friendly coworkers.

And, if you don't, let me just introduce you to my friend PB&J! Still good after all these years. Goes great with an apple and a thermos of coffee.

4. Buy in bulk.

This is a tough one for small and tiny homeowners, but it can be done. I'm about to buy 25 lbs of gluten free oats and save roughly $60. I'm looking for someone to split it with, so I only have to store half of that but will still recognize substantial savings.

5. Go vegetarian.

Or, at the very least, eat less meat. And you don't need to replace it with fancy pre-made vegetarian food. Stick to legumes (lentils are CHEAP, my friends!) or tofu for protein. Get fancy with your recipes and trying new things - my latest is making lentil "meat"balls. It cost me less than $3 to make 3 dozen, so $1 per meal. See? Super cheap!

6. Buy whole chickens.

Whole chickens are THE best. Cook it once, eat it twice - plus, use the bones for soup. So, three meals in one! (Have I ever mentioned that I also love saving time?!) And they cost less per pound than other cuts.

That also means that red meat takes a back seat in our house. We do love our classic burgers once in awhile, but steak is saved for a very, very special occasion and usually grabbed if and only if it's on sale.

7. Try intermittent fasting (IF). 

**Obviously this is not a health blog, and I am not any sort of dietitian or doctor so please check with your healthcare provider if you have any concerns about changing your diet.**

If you haven't heard of IF, I'd say it's one of the latest buzzwords to overlap into the FIRE community. And of course there are LOTS of ways to do it, and all kinds of ideas about what is best for your body, but essentially it means eating during a designated time period and not eating outside that time. For most methods that means skipping one meal a day.

For me, I've chosen to skip lunch. I'll eat a power breakfast (two eggs & veg, like peppers and onions or whatever we have in the fridge) and then stop the daytime snacking and wait for dinner. Whenever I'm hungry, I drink a cup of herbal or decaf tea and get back to work.

I don't do this every day, but I can generally follow my plan during the work week without too much trouble. My experience is that I feel better eating this way, and it's helped me be more conscious of what and how much I ingest.

Other Reads to Whet Your Appetite

These are some ways that we have been consistently able to save money on food, while eating healthy and heartily for all our family. There are lots of other amazing tips out there in the interweb. For more inspiration, I'm linking to some posts from some of my favorite blogs on saving some bucks at the grocery store:

The Frugalwoods' guide to frugal, healthy eating

Mr Money Mustache's post on killing your $1000 grocery bill

Early Retirement Extreme's post on grocery shopping

I'd love to hear your tips and tricks and read any posts you have to share, because learning is fun - almost as much fun as saving money!

Monday, December 9, 2019

The Case of Too Many Toys

Or, How We Decreased Our Kids' Toys So They Could Have More Fun.

I recently made a surprising observation in our quest to live small. And because of this, I decided to run some (easily reversible and non-judgmental) experiments with my kids and find out more about how they relate to minimalism in our house.

My kids, who are 7 and 4, spend a lot of time playing outside in the great northern wilderness we call home, but for rainy days they also have a play space inside, with a stocked bookshelf and a toy box  full of (mostly intentionally chosen) toys that encourage creativity and community during inside playtime. I mean, we try. Cooking, woodworking "tools", a medical kit, various types of blocks, animals, baby dolls. We thought we were keeping it simple.

But over several days I noticed that both kids were very quickly shuffling through the entire toy box, dumping most of it on the floor, and then coming to me with request after request after request for entertainment. I would send them back to their toys and encourage them to play with a specific one, but it would last merely minutes before they were back at my side. Strange, I thought. They have lots of toys that I know they love to play with. Why aren't they staying engaged in their play?
Playing outdoors is THE best!

I spent a lot of time thinking about why they might not stay focused on their play with toys we know they love. It's true, they are both young and children of their ages often move from one thing to another until settling into something they consider fun. But this wasn't happening - there was no settling. None of their toys were bringing them joy as I had seen them experience in the past.

So one night I sat down at the toy box, and I dumped everything out. EVERYthing. I sorted through each piece, put sets back together, and took more than half the toys to the basement in a carefully labelled box.

When I was done, it sure looked neater, but I immediately felt a twinge of guilt and maybe a little nervousness. Would this deprive them? Would they cry and ask where this or that toy was? Was quantity and choice where it's really at, and I'm getting this all wrong? What would happen in the morning?

The sun rose, we ate breakfast, got them to their schools, and otherwise had a very normal morning. When both kids came home, they went to the toy box. Each of them took out a toy and started to play with it. Five minutes later, they were still playing. And, I'm happy to report, this went on for some time before they came to me - not for entertainment, but for a snack (a very common occurrence in our family! Snack time happens easily six times a day here. Anyone else relate?!)

So far, so good. The next day, more of the same. Happily and engaged, they were playing again!

Our experiment showed us that less truly is more when it comes to toys. Even with the path we were following - where we've turned down hand-me-down toys because we couldn't see our children actually enjoying them, and we thought we were keeping the amount to a minimum - it turns out that we had to go one big step further.

We kept that box in the basement for a month or so. Anytime there was a request for a toy they remembered and couldn't find, we'd bring it back upstairs. We'd pay attention to what each kid was spending their time on and which toys were getting repeatedly overlooked, and we'd bring those no hitters downstairs for a break until they were requested again.

We're now on a roll. Even though we rarely buy toys outside of birthdays and holidays, our kids end up with a slowly accumulating assortment of play things from family and friends. Every month or two, we take time to switch out the toys they have, leaving the favorites and bringing back some they have missed.

I'm certainly not the first person to recognize that fewer toys are better. Studies show that fewer choices results in more prolonged and deeper engagement in play. Our experience has shown the same, and our kids are more settled, more engaged, and happier playing with the few things they love.

So now, right before each Christmas, we - GASP - entirely empty the toy box. This gives our children space to focus on the new toys they get. They get a few, and that's enough.

And during the holidays and birthdays, we unapologetically ask for experience gifts for both our kids and ourselves: tickets to live events, museum visits, special days spent with family, lessons, and the like. They take up little space in our house and yet fill hearts with joy that lasts much, much, much, much longer than any material good, however well-made, could.