Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Bricks and Mortar Method To Financial Sustainability

Like many writers in the sustainable homemaking space, I'm guilty of writing more about saving and extending resources than I am about gaining more, particularly when it comes to money.  Oh, sure, I write about how to get more produce out of your garden or more fleece when you go to the fabric store, but I don't spend as much time as I might on how to make more money.  This is an oversight on my part, because part of the sustainability equation is increasing your resources.

Think of it this way:  "sustainability" means nothing more or less than a system that can keep going for the foreseeable future because its rate of use of its resources does not exceed how quickly the resources are made available.  If we were talking about using our cars, we would say that our driving habits were sustainable if we could make it to all of our commitments and errands with the gas we can put in our tanks on our gas budget.  When gas prices go up, we either have to decrease our driving or increase our gas budget to keep the system sustainable.

The same is true with your income, and for this, I like to think of my approach as the "bricks and mortar" system of making money.  Full disclosure:  I am speaking from the perspective of a small business owner, but I think those of you with full-time or part-time employment can adapt this system as well.  Certainly, I use this thought process no matter where my income comes from.

Your income derives from two sources.  First are the "bricks."  These are the building blocks of your financial fortune, and you can't build your financial fortress without them.  For me, each metaphorical brick is a large project; each brick represents a commitment to a large chunk of work that will pay well.  I need to be sure that I have a steady stream of bricks coming in, so for me that means cultivating good anchor clients who will feed me a reasonably steady stream of work over the course of a year.  (Some of them read this blog, so let me go ahead and say, "thank you!")  If you are employed full-time, your bricks might be your biweekly paychecks or your base number of hours you are scheduled to work each pay period.  An adjunct professor might think of each class she teaches as a brick.  The point is, your bricks are your large chunks of income that are more or less dependable.

This is where most of us stop, but the strength of your fortress lies not only with your bricks, but with your mortar.  To really have a sustainable income, you need to fill in the gaps with other projects and income sources that can help you hold things together.  For me, a lot of my "mortar" comes from my smaller clients (income-wise).  These are the clients, some long-term and some one-time, who send me smaller projects or one-off opportunities.  When I feel like I have a gap between "brick" projects, you can be sure I make the rounds of old and new clients who might have some "mortar" available.

My mortar is also made up of extras from my "brick" projects, like add-on projects from clients who might be having a seasonal rush or need extra help.  Also, I get my mortar from my Etsy shop, Carrot Creations.  You could easily do likewise by picking up a part-time holiday job, selling some garden produce, or doing any number of other interesting short-term projects, like becoming a poll worker on election day.

As I read the financial news, I see an economy that is changing here in the U.S.  I think more and more of us will be constructing our own financial empires with multiple jobs and projects that we knit together to make a  sustainable income.  Your reaction to that might be dread, or it might be excitement.  For me, I like the challenge of putting together a sustainable income; I just need to mind my bricks and mortar.
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Friday, November 23, 2012

Coupon Code for Carrot Creations

Happy Thanksgiving to the readers of Fast, Cheap, and Good!

If you've followed me this year (or even if you haven't!), you know the value of sustainable living.  Part of that is supporting small businesses who make products with care.  I hope you find my store, Carrot Creations, to be a good example of this!

In honor of Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday, I'm offering a 10% off sale for the readers of this blog.  Just use coupon code CYBER2012 at Carrot Creations.  Here you will find a great selection of yoga socks for your winter yoga, dance, and Pilates practice, plus fleece socks to warm up your feet and other sustainable living products.

Thank you for joining me on this journey!

11/27  Thank you for participating in my sale!  This coupon code is now closed.  Please watch the blog for future specials.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

How Much Does a Garden Grow: October

Well, it is nearly Thanksgiving, and I am grateful.  I'm grateful for a garden that so far this year has more than doubled my financial investment into it, which is a darn sight more than my other investments have done.  I'm grateful for the chance to be out in the sun and the soil.  And I'm grateful that my garden continues to produce as the fall ends and the winter begins.  

In October, the garden finished up its outdoor harvest.  A couple of pounds of potatoes.  Some peppers.  Some greens, some beans, and the first of the leeks.  A few potatoes that grew up as volunteers.  Basically, a couple of pounds of produce.

In October, we moved the gardening efforts inside in earnest, with the next few months dedicated to the things we can get from sunroom containers and outdoor cold frames.  But I will be especially grateful when it is time to fork that soil again.

2012 Tally to Date
157.8415 lbs. total harvested
$8.22 value of harvest from October
$465.31 value of harvest for 2012
$196.65 expenditures for 2012
$268.66 profit to date
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Friday, November 16, 2012

The Winter Garden

Well, the summer plants and vines are all on the compost heap, the extra produce is stored or preserved, and our garden has shrunk to the size of the sunroom, the cold frame, and the sunny windows.  It is time for winter gardening.

Winter is such a sad time in the garden, but it is also my chance to get just a bit more produce out of my gardening efforts and add more fresh vegetables to our diets.  Plus, having something living and growing helps make it easier for me to get through the long winter.

So what do we have growing on the microfarm as Thanksgiving approaches?

Root crops:  As you can see in the photo, I have a pot of garlic merrily growing in the sunroom.  I don't need more garlic; in fact, I harvest more garlic each year than we will ever eat.  But I'm curious to see how big these might get in a pot of really great soil in sunroom.

Also, the container potatoes finally sprouted and are growing in a large pot in the sunroom.  I've already gotten to put an extra layer of soil around their stems and need to do so again this weekend.  My hope and plan is to get one container going, then start another container with any sprouted potatoes from the bin, etc., etc., so I always have a rotating crop of potatoes.

Greens:  My greens are really failing this year.  Last year, I was able to grow a crop of lettuces all winter long in the sunroom; this year, both large containers of greens I brought inside from outside have withered and died.  I will plant again.

Outdoor crops:  We have a cold frame filled with little leeks that are doing fine.  There are also some carrots out there that will probably overwinter so I can harvest in spring.

Herbs:  We have two large sage bushes that we can harvest from most of the winter if our supply of dried sage is used up.  There is also a thyme plant that I cut back in the fall but which appears to be making it through the initial cold weather just fine.  On the feverfew front, I have a plant that is pretty happy on the windowsill, just waiting to help me avoid headaches.

What are you growing this winter?
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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Quick Sweet and Sour Beef

Well, I hesitated to post this, not least because this is one of the least photogenic things I've ever cooked.  Meals that look like stew are, at the very best, only a passable photo subject, and this one cooks up looking downright nasty.  Somewhere, there is a photographer that knows how to take a beauty shot of beef stew, but I am not that person.

But this is a truthful kind of blog, and I did want to share this idea because I have now made it, at Mr. FC&G's insistence, twice in two weeks.  This, friends, is Quick Sweet and Sour Beef.

It is very simple.  Take a package of stew meat or another cheap cut, put it in the Crock Pot, cover with a jar of peach salsa, and cook.  I cook mine on high for four hours, but you will have to adjust for your own slow cooker; if you are leaving this while you go to work, 8-10 hours on low is probably perfect.

The slow cooking plus the acids in the salsa soften the texture of the meat, so you can get away with using cheaper cuts.  I like this, because I'd much rather buy a cheap cut of grass-fed, hormone-free beef than a better cut of CAFO-raised for the same price.

The peach salsa gives it a nice sweet and spicy flavor.  Mr. FC&G has been devouring this over spaghetti, but I think it would go very nicely over brown rice too.

The Analysis

Fast:  I think this takes less than 60 seconds of hands-on prep time, plus your cooking.

Cheap:  The whole point is to use a cheaper cut of meat and then cook it "low and slow," as they say on the cooking shows.  This will get less expensive next canning season, because it looks like I'm buying a peck of peaches and laying in some homemade salsa; right now, we are buying jarred salsa.

Good:  It has the endorsement from Mr. FC&G, and it is saving me from meal prep during a week when I am very busy with work.
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Wednesday, November 7, 2012

How Much Does a Garden Grow: Herbs and Spices

Herbs and spices are tricky to measure.  I typically don't account for any of the fresh herbs I use, even though those would really drive up the total of my garden.  This year, I was able to add fresh oregano, basil, thai basil, sage, dill, thyme, and mint to my dishes, all by walking out into my garden.

On the other hand, I do try to account for the herbs I dry or otherwise would have to buy in dried form.  That netted me nearly $30 in herb savings, namely:

Dill:  At the beginning of the year, I harvested 12 oz. of volunteer dill, and I harvested a few more batches of "purposeful" dill for the rest of the year.  This gave me about two spice jars of dried dill put away, which would have cost $3.39 each at the store if I had bought the organic spice.

Thyme:  Likewise, I have a full jar of dried thyme that would have cost $3.39 at the store.  I have the possibility of harvesting and drying more, because the plant is fairly cold hardy.

Basil:  Basil was fairly tricky, because I used a ton fresh, and I froze a lot in oil.  Sometimes, I count this by the price of prepared pesto, but this year I used the price for fresh greens, because my store didn't have those little clamshells of "fresh" herbs.  I had 12 oz. of fresh basil that I I froze.

Lavender:  My 3 oz. of lavender buds will keep the house smelling nice this year and keep me from buying potpourri.

Feverfew:  Even though I eat my feverfew fresh, I priced a $7.89 bottle of 180 capsules that would be my option if I weren't growing it myself.

My other mystery is how to count my St. John's Wort.  I grew a ton of it and hurried to make the extract, and I really benefited from taking it, mood-wise.  Unfortunately, it didn't play ball with the rest of my system, causing some female side effects.  In retrospect, this makes sense as women sometimes take St. John's Wort as a hormone replacement herb during menopause; I'm not at that point, so those warnings didn't seem to apply to me.  But certainly my system was confused, and I had to discontinue.  Right now, there is no price in this tally for St. John's Wort.  

So here we stand.  Going into the month of October, we stand at a $260.44 profit for the year, with October still to account for.

2012 Tally to Date
155.404 lbs. total harvested
$29.58 value of harvest of herbs
$457.09 value of harvest for 2012
$196.65 expenditures for 2012
$260.44 profit to date
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Thursday, November 1, 2012

My Sustainable Car

I've had a great deal of fun on Facebook today celebrating my car's 15th birthday.  Fifteen years ago, I took delivery of my brand new car.  I was so thrilled to get my navy blue sedan; I've always loved four-door cars (in obvious rebellion against my strictly-two-door parents), and I so much wanted a car in my favorite color.

In the intervening years, she has served me well, lasting until I can (hopefully) see the day when I can retire her to the garage and keep her as just as a fair weather, pleasure-only vehicle.  Hey, Papa FC&G shows a 1994 car in area car shows, so a 1998 isn't that far off!

Our culture expects consumers to get a new car every two to five years, which may be good for the auto industry but is bad for your pocketbook and your sustainable lifestyle.  A couple of the benefits of keeping your car way past the trade-in expectation are:

No car payments for years:  To be honest, I wrote a check for my car, so I've never had car payments.  God willing and knock wood, my plan is to never go into long-term debt for anything smaller than a house.  But even if you take five years to pay off a new car, keeping it for 15 would mean a whole decade without payments.  If you put even half of that money into a savings account, think of how much you would have.  For example, let's say I typically budget $400 a month for a car payment.  If I spend a decade without making that payment and save half of it each month, I would amass $24,000 before interest.  That's a good way toward another new car, a room addition on your house, or a year's tuition at a decent college.

Safety from knowing your vehicle:  My car and I have been together so long that I know if something is wrong just by how the engine sounds.  I can tell how fast I'm going from the vibration of the seat (although I do check the speedometer).  I know exactly how big of a parking space I can fit into and still comfortably open the doors, and I know how much room to allow for stopping on dry pavement.  This all translates into better driving.

So, how can you make your car last for a decade and a half?  My method won't work for everyone, but here's what has made my car into my lifelong companion:

I drive very little:  OK, this tip will not work for those of you in certain geographic situations, but I have always lived my life around avoiding driving.  It isn't that I am purposely being miserly; it is just that driving bores me to tears.  I've never been one of those people who can't wait to slide behind the wheel; even as a teenager, I thought cars were transportation, not entertainment.  Therefore, when I chose jobs as a single woman, I would only consider jobs located within about 20 minutes of where I wanted to live.  If a job would require a 30 minute commute, I would either turn down the job or consider moving.  I just don't want to spend my life in a car, no matter how cute it is.  In fact, one of the top motivations for starting my own business and working from home was that I could go days without getting into a car, except maybe for a brief shopping or gym errand.

I drive so little that, years ago when I did a calculation of how many years it would take me to recoup the cost differential between a new traditional car and a new hybrid car in fuel savings, I came up with something like 20 years.  Things have certainly changed, with lower relative prices of hybrids and higher gas prices, but by keeping to a very moderate driving schedule, I can drive what I want with no guilt.

My Dad is a car guy:  As I mentioned, Papa FC&G is a car guy extraordinaire.  He shows a car, and he has always enjoyed detailing and working on cars.  He is the only man I know (but not the only one *he* knows!) who thinks Q-tips are a car detailing tool.  I once bought him a glorified dental mirror so he could check the undersides of engine parts for dirt and grime.  So trust me, he doesn't let me forget my routine maintenance, and he makes very good suggestions about mechanics to use if I have a problem.  Not everyone has a car-guy father, but I'll bet most of you have a friend who can give advice (if you don't care for such things yourself).  Also, it helps to keep that maintenance record that came in your original car manual filled out, and pay attention to such things as suggested maintenance at given mileages.  Dropping a couple or a few hundred bucks once in a while is a small price to pay to keep your car running well.

I protect my car:  This car has never sat out overnight (except for very occasional emergencies), but even before I had this car, I always tried to find a way to shelter my vehicle.  At first, I did have to leave my car out, but I tried to park in relatively sheltered locations overnight (I got very good at knowing which way storm fronts blew in over certain apartment complexes and which parking spots seemed to get less snow).  As soon as it was financially practical, I rented a carport, and later, a garage.

Even if you can't garage your car, I can tell you one way to protect your vehicle that everyone can do:  Set a rule that NO ONE eats in the car.  Yes, that means you, the car owner, too.  I hate the smell of fast food that lingers in a car, and I hate the chance of spills on upholstery and greasy fingerprints on the steering wheel, although I am always guilty of there being mascara and lipstick on my steering wheel from me touching my face while driving.  Growing up, it was a hard-and-fast rule in our house that if anyone needed to eat or drink anything, we stopped the car and got out for that to happen, either at a restaurant or a rest stop.  This is my biggest rule for my car today, and it has the added benefit of making us all a little more mindful about our eating.  If you have to stop to eat, you may as well make good choices about what you are consuming.  And maybe you don't really need to consume anything at all.

Do some detailing once in a while:  Papa FC&G is going to laugh at me for this, because I am not nearly as good as he is, but I will say that it is a good idea to get out once in a while to wash your car, vacuum the inside, and clean the various surfaces and windows.  You'll feel good about your car's condition, and it will keep the finish from being damaged by road salt and the like.  (Pro tip:  Never use a slick cleaner like some of the tire polishes to clean your gear shift, steering wheel, or foot pedals, because they could cause your hands or feet to slip off at an inopportune moment).

So there you have it.  When I took delivery of my car, I planned to replace her at 10 years or 60,000 miles, whichever came first.  Clearly, 10 years has come and gone, and we certainly won't hit 60,000 for some time yet.  I no longer want to replace her, although I wouldn't mind a cute little playmate for her one day.  My car has lasted 15 years with a shiny finish and a bounce in her step.  I hope she's around for 15 more.

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