Monday, October 31, 2011

parade o' gifts...sidelined

Aw, dudes, I am so frustrated with myself right now. I finished up an adorable baby package for my bro-and-sis-in law who are expecting their baby girl in two weeks (squee!), and then wrapped it up without taking any pictures.

I ask you, what kind of blogger does that?!? I am so lame.

Oh well, I can still tell you about it. Along with some store-bought Gerber gowns and a Captain America little golden book (the dad is a pretty big fan...has a C.A. tattoo, even), I made this sweater in pink, some coordinating booties, and a small quilt.

The quilt...oh, I wish so much I had photographed it. Those of you who have hung around here for many years might remember this quilt. Gosh, was it that long ago already? Anyway, I had all that fabric separated from my main stash, and a lot of it already cut into 2.5" strips, so I figured I'd use it for a baby girl quilt. But when I opened the bin, I found lots and lots of finished quilt blocks, leftovers from that original quilt. Score!

So I made a mini version, using a 7 X 7 layout. The blocks are 6" so it ended up about 42" square. I used the same franken-binding from the original, too...still had several feet of it so I just added strips. It came out so sweet and cute. *kicking self for forgetting pictures*

Mmmmkay, that's done. Tomorrow, Halloweeeeeeeeeen! I have a bee and a ladybug to show you!

Friday, October 28, 2011

parade o' gifts (part 1)

Yeah, so, um...Hubs was gone on a work trip all week and got home at midnight last night...and a good thing, too, because I was just about at the end of my parenting rope. I don't know how those of you with traveling spouses do it. I bow down to you.

So I'm a little cranky. And also tired, because I don't sleep too well when he isn't here. I stayed up way too late each night working on a Christmas gift for my nephew. I mentioned it awhile back, and now it's almost done:

I love looking at this - it actually helps a great deal with my crankiness because I'm the queen of unfinished stitchery, typically, but this one is going to get done! I worked it each night until my eyes burned and I started making mistakes, and I was tired enough to fall asleep. 

I need to finish my nephew's name, work a few backstitch outlines (the propeller, the sail), and then carefully steam out all that awful hoop-burn. And frame it.

Now to go hem a halloween costume and finish up some baby gifts for our new niece who will arrive anytime...and then there are a few more Christmas items to work on...this time of year the crafts all sort of blend together, the end of one flows right into the start of another. I still need to make a rough list of all I hope to accomplish. 


Monday, October 24, 2011

walk it like you talk it

So I've been really curious about homemade laundry soap for a long time. Like, a long, long time. Years.

This weekend I finally went for it. Detergent is pricey, peeps! Is homemade cheaper? I'm going to find out. Does it work? So far - and I've only washed 5 loads - the clothes seem clean.

I will admit that there were a few moments, as I sat on my basement floor grating a bar of soap into a recycled yogurt container, when I wondered if I'd gone off the deep end. But then I felt super awesome scooping a tablespoon of my homemade mix into the machine.

I used 2 cups of Borax, 2 cups of washing soda, and one grated up bar of Dr. Bronner's castile soap in tea tree (chosen both for scent and anti-bacterial properties of tea tree oil). Some recipes say use 1 tablespoon per load, some say I split the difference and have been using 1.5 tablespoons in large loads. I knew it wouldn't make suds, but I still watched for them anyway. Nope, no suds. But the clothes do seem clean, they have only the faintest scent of the tea tree oil when they come out of the machine, and really don't smell much after the dryer.

I noticed the towels seem slightly less "fluffy" - I can see the individual loops in the towels more when I am folding them. Also, the whites are slightly less blinding because homemade soap is just that...soap. It is not detergent and lacks the surfactants and whiteners of commercial detergent. But then I thought about the kids my daughter goes to school with, and how I've noticed they often have two different socks on, or one sock inside out, or dingy socks from being washed with darks and colors. And I relaxed about it, because who cares if her white socks don't blind you when you look at them?

I still have a small box of Tide for the tough jobs that my soap won't handle...and again, I just started this experiment so we'll see how it goes. My son has an oral-motor weakness that results in a lot of drool-soaked shirts, which, after sitting in the laundry basket for a few days, can really stink. I've found, up to this point, that only super-expensive Tide gets them back to wearable condition. But who knows? Maybe I can come up with something better (and less expensive).

So far I've spent 10 bucks. But I've only used a fraction of the Borax and washing soda. I'll have to purchase new bars of soap once in awhile, and I'm keeping a rough tally of how many loads I wash so I can see if this is a savings or what. (I'm a stay-home mom of two kids, one of whom is in school...I can manage to keep count of my loads with a scrap of paper and pencil next to the machine, it isn't hard.)

I know, I sound like such a weirdo. Bear with me...I'll report back with my findings.

Friday, October 21, 2011

breaking the habit

I've been experiencing a really introspective couple of months.

The first week of September my husband and I embarked on a new and very strict budgeting plan for our family and our future. A little helpful info: we are the only ones in our generation of family and most of our friends who live on a single income. It is a good income, but after taxes, 401K contributions, and insurance premiums (which are all deducted from Hubs' base pay), it's actually a fairly modest amount of money for this part of the world. And we are very avid news-watchers and we pay a lot of attention to what is happening in the world and our country. Both Hubs and I have developed a healthy fear of "the future" and feel it very, very important to save as much as we can, or at least avoid debt at all costs. We are working diligently to pay down our student loans (I know, again with those g-d student loans), and have begun paying extra on our mortgage each month to shorten the payoff time and reduce total interest paid over the life of the loan (we believe we will cut off 7 years with the small additional amount we are paying).

Anyway, our new plan centers around a little whiteboard that hangs on the fridge. We went over our spending with a fine-tooth comb to find out exactly how much we "spend" per week (dividing things like the yearly total electric, gas, mortgage, etc by 52), then subtracted all the relatively unchangeable ones from our weekly net income. What was left was our groceries-household supplies-medical-and-discretionary amount. It is a pretty small amount!

So on the whiteboard we have two columns. One is "discretionary" and each week it starts with a set dollar amount that we chose based on what we think we spend on un-categorized "stuff" like copays, PTA membership, school pictures, haircuts, etc. - things that change, ebb, and flow and are not the same week to week. This is also the column for take-out pizzas, starbucks drive-thru runs, etc. The other column is straight-up groceries. And that number is also pretty small...less than $100 per week for our family of 4.

Some people might think $100 is a lot. But if you break it down and think about it, that's $25 per family member for 7 days. Break it down further and it's $3.57 per person per day. Seriously, right? That is not a lot of money living in America in 2011.

Each time either of us spends money, it is written on the board and subtracted from that original number. At the end of the week we cheer ourselves if there's anything left, accept it if it is $0, and vow to do better if we've gone into the negative. Occasionally it happens...we had a week with a couple of medical copays that took a big chunk of column A, and that's ok. We have a little cushion in savings to deal with it. That is not the problem.

The real problem, it turns out, is breaking the habit of unconsciously spending. I was chatting with a friend about finances, in general terms, a few months ago and I stated that it wasn't the nickel-and-dime stuff that was harming our finances, it was big things like surgical copays (often several per year anywhere from $500-$1000 each), and surprise repairs needed on our 10 year old car. And to an extent that is true, but it is also the smaller spending. It is the Target run, that evil, evil thing we all do where we go in for contact solution and come out with $50 worth of stuff. We ALL do it, we can't seem to help it, and you just know Target corporate loves us for it.

It's also definitely the coffee drive-thru, the McDonald's run when I just can't face making lunch, the take-out pizza, and yes, the spontaneous yarn purchases, even though they are "cheap" craft store yarns.

When you create a system of obvious responsibility, like Hubs and I have with our little whiteboard, you start to understand your spending habits quite a bit. For example, I have long been in the habit of constantly monitoring the cupboards and fridge, and immediately replacing things either when they run out or just before. No interruption of service here, nosirree. Things are pretty constantly stocked in our house. Now, we keep a pretty simple fridge and pantry. I have friends with entire closets and several basement shelves PACKED with foods they'll probably never use, because they don't shop with lists, or whatever. I've gone shopping with one girlfriend who basically just wanders the aisles, never sure of what her family really needs, so she always overbuys. We're not like that. I use a list and coupons and try to only buy what we'll actually use. Interestingly, this friend and I both eye each other with total awe. Neither of us can fathom doing it the other way.

But the thing is, with the constant replenishing, I never had a real handle on what I spent. I thought I knew, but it turns out I was waaaaaaayyyy off. Now that I am writing it down and subtracting it each time I shop, I am pretty shocked at what I was spending.

It has changed the way I work in the kitchen, and also the way I approach all my shopping. Turns out I have a bad, bad spending habit that needs to be broken. I would go so far as to call it an addiction. I can feel it, it is painful, breaking it is difficult beyond belief. But it's working, slowly but surely. It's only been about 7 weeks but I'm adjusting my attitude. All my son's long underwear still fits from last year, so despite how adorable this year's designs are (at Target, naturally), only Daughter got a set because she actually needed them. AJ will make do with his size 3T until he actually outgrows them. Daughter's drawers are overflowing with clothes, and she does not really need anything right now. So I will stay away from the racks, I will quit plotting and planning what I want to make for her. Homemade stuff is not a moneysaver if the children don't actually need the stuff.

I was browsing at Joann's this week because of those midnight madness coupons, but I just couldn't find anything I wanted to buy. Seriously, this is a major thing for me. I stared at the yarns, I fondled the fabrics, I perused the notions...but no, I just kept thinking about my husband at his desk, the whiteboard on the fridge, the retirement savings we want to have, the house we want to pay off....and as I held the skeins of yarn in my hand thinking how cute AJ would look in a sweater made from it, I realized that first of all, he doesn't need any more sweaters as he has several, and second, every time I put a homemade wool sweater on him these days, he cries and says, "take it off!" So I put the yarn back.

Lifespan being what it is these days, and Lord willing we meet that number, Hubs and I (and all of us) will need to make enough money in the first two-thirds of our lives to support us in the last third. Think about that...if you want to retire in your early 60s and have a nice lifestyle, you have to earn and save all that money NOW.

Take-out pizzas are not worth screwing up our retirement. Starbucks is definitely not worth screwing up our retirement. Hoarding yarn is not worth screwing up our retirement.

That doesn't mean "never shop." It doesn't mean "never buy anything ever." For us it just means "evaluate this purchasing decision really carefully in light of our goals." Sometimes a take-out pizza is a great thing. Sometimes going out for coffee with your friend or spouse is just what you need. And if my kid needs a new sweater I'm definitely going to be all over it, making something warm and lovely with wool purchased using coupons.

And right now it means taking a beautiful, crusty loaf of wheat bread out of the oven, which will be served with our dinner of Farmer's Breakfast to use up leftover ham, the potatoes that are about to start sprouting, the eggs that were on sale this week, and the little bit of cheddar that's left. I wanted to go to the supermarket this morning, but that column is at $0, and I know I can make it until Sunday with what's on hand. Now I just have to make it a habit.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

a new sweater for me

Sorry for the long absence, but I've been knitting feverishly on several projects at once. I started a sweater for myself a month ago, and got really hooked on it so I've spent all my free time working madly to finish it. If you saw my house you could totally tell I've been blowing everything off in favor of knitting (it's a mess, seriously). 

Before I share the photos, I need to point out that my photographer is 6 years old and takes photos by carefully, carefully setting up the shot, then jerking the camera and yelling "CLICK!" while pushing the button. So you can imagine how hard it is to come up with at least one or two decent shots. She tried hard, so I'm grateful...this sweater really needs to be shown while being worn as the pattern does not show up well laying flat.

It hasn't been blocked (I finished late last night) but I can see it needs to be. The pattern is available here for free. It's a good pattern, but not for a beginner. The chart is not numbered, and is a bit difficult to follow. I changed it a tad by lengthening the sleeves - I started with 41 stitches instead of 51, and then just followed the directions as written, increasing to 61 stitches and knitting plain rounds until I got the right length. The sweater is knit from the bottom up, then joined so the yoke can be knit in one piece. I also did not bind off the underarm stitches. Instead I put the required number of stitches on holders, then grafted them together when I was finished knitting. And finally, rather than knitting the garter edges called for, I chose to skip them and add 2X2 rib button bands after knitting the entire sweater. I think it's a neater finish.

Isn't the pattern pretty? I am so pleased with the way this came out! 

And guess what I used to knit it? You got it, cheap reasonably priced wool. This sweater took just under two skeins of Lion Fishermen's Wool in Brown Heather. I got it with coupons at Joann's, making it $5 per skein. I actually bought 3 skeins, figuring I'd need that much for an adult sweater, but I didn't even break into the 3rd. The buttons are faux leather, so they were only $1.25 for a card of 3, and I bought 3 cards with coupons. 

So the total cost of this very warm, heavy wool sweater was $13. I'm just sayin'.

And knitters (crocheters too!), if you're not checking out the Garn Studio website you are really missing out. They have hundreds of free patterns available, and I especially recommend the baby patterns. They'll knock your socks off.