Lifestyles of the Destitute and Obscure

dazzling and interesting on a shoestring

Category Archives: frugal living

Fancy Cafes are Overrated

sideboard.pasteriesI’m a working mom who stays home with the kiddos for part of the day because now they are all in school. Seventy percent of my paycheck goes to preschool but at least eighty percent of my sanity is intact.

So while the twins are at preschool, I’m working. I had fanciful visions of going to the local chic café, ordering a cappuccino and a scone and working on my laptop… until I nearly froze in their rustic hardwood floor and vaulted ceiling eating area and spent $8 that I didn’t really have. That was nearly satisfying until I couldn’t send an email because the wifi was so blasted ineffective. Back to the warm, quiet and free library.   So now I work off-line in the car with a pre-packed snack, my favorite coffee brewed strong enough to resemble used motor oil and a lovely wool blanket that kept me warm in Colorado and still snuggles my daughter. It even doubles as a picnic blanket in the spring and summer. A fine investment if I do say so myself.

So goodbye dreams of fancy workspaces; the best one is my trusty minivan and the good ol’ fashioned public library.
I make better scones and when I can one day afford my own espresso machine, I can put my six years of barista skills to work and make a better cappuccino. Who needs hardwood floors and antique forks?

To make your own workspace that much cozier, take one of these scones with you and I promise that your cubicle, car or park bench will feel more like a chic suburban café.my.nepenthe.

Orange Oat Scone Recipe bogarted from the book, My Nepenthe: Bohemian Tales of Food, Family, and Big Sur which they borrowed from Stars Bakery in San Francisco (now loooong gone). And so the karmic circle of baked goods passes this recipe along to you.

Ingredients:

3 cups flour

½ cup turbinado sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 cup (2 sticks) cold butter, cut into small pieces

2 cups whole oats

zest of 1 orange (or ½ teaspoon of dried orange rind)

¾ cup heavy cream or buttermilk

¼ cup coarse sugar or turbinado sugar for sprinkling on top

 

Preheat the oven 350 degrees Fahrenheit and line a baking sheet with parchment.

Combine the flour, turbinado sugar, baking powder, and baking soda in the bowl of a food processor. (I use a battered medium sized bowl and a 25 year-old pastry cutter and that seems to work just fine. Also, you can measure out these dry ingredients and set them aside easily if suddenly you find you need to run a carpool or referee a sibling squabble. You can do this really quick and then finish up the mixing and baking when you have a little more time.)

Add the butter piece by piece, pulsing until pearl size. If you’re using a bowl and a pastry cutter, then cut the butter until the flour and butter mixture is fairly uniform and mealy and the butter pieces are very small. Transfer the dough to a bowl if you used the food processor and stir in the oats and orange zest.

Stir in the cream or buttermilk until just moistened. (I ‘make’ buttermilk by measuring out my milk and then adding 1-2 tablespoons of white vinegar. Let it sit for about 5 minutes and then voilà, you have buttermilk.)

Bring the dough together with your hands and gently pat into an 8-inch round. Cut into triangle shapes and transfer to the prepared baking sheet, separating them so they do not touch. Sprinkle the tops with course sugar. Bake for 12-15 minutes, until lightly golden brown. I always rotate my baking sheet about 2/3 of the way through because my oven is crappy and I want to make sure all the items get baked evenly.

**There are a number of variations and substitutions, including switching the orange for lemon zest and then adding 2-3 Tablespoons of poppy seeds. You can also add 1 cup of dried currants, raisins, cranberries, cherries or blueberries as you bring the dough together. Seriously, the possibilities are endless.

Note: Check out the cookbook from your local public library and ooh and ahh over the photographs of the bohemian ‘60’s and ‘70’s (there’s even a belly dancer!) and all the wonderful, whimsical décor. It is a lovely cookbook as well as a collection of history and style.

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Opening Day– Giants Baseball

Small local folk celebrating Opening Day in their own special little way.

Small local folk celebrating Opening Day in their own special little way.

For Ms. Destitute, the sound of spring is the crack of the bat, the static of the AM radio and the voice of John Miller. Of course, we’re not tailgaters with season tickets (though we do have family friends who are very generous about sharing their tickets—thanks Steve and Karen!) but we express our fanaticism in our own way. DSC_2075

On the San Francisco Giants’ opening day last week, I dressed my smallest baseball fans in their Giants onesies to show their pride at the local playground. Oh, okay, so it’s really me showing where my loyalties lie, and using my children as adorable accessories… but, really, aren’t they adorable?DSC_2078

Since we don’t have cable television, for reasons both of principle and money, we listen to the game on the radio. And since we’re so strapped for cash, we don’t even listen to it on the internet—you have to have a paid subscription to ALL the games in Major League Baseball. I don’t care that much about any of the other teams to make it worth it, even if I did have the money.

So we listen to the radio talents of John Miller, Dave Fleming, Duane Kuiper and Mike Krukow on KNBR.

Not actual size, but close.

Not actual size, but close.

Ahh, that to me says SPRING! It isn’t just the score and the game being played that make my eyes tear up a bit (allergies not withstanding) but a touch of nostalgia as well.

I can remember lying in the back of my family’s 1972 Buick station wagon (complete with brown naugahyde interior) and driving home from a family road trip with the sound of John Miller’s voice coming through the single speaker. I was born in Virginia and lived there until I was almost seven, and in the early 80’s, John Miller was the radio broadcaster for the Baltimore Orioles. I never became an Orioles’ fan– that would have led to much disappointment and eventual disillusionment– but I’ve always been a fan of John Miller’s voice. It lulled me to sleep in the back of the car, it was the soundtrack to my teenage days of (topless!) backyard sunbathing, and now it keeps me company in the kitchen during my favorite months of the year.

Here’s hoping that the recent World Series champs will make it to the end again, not only because we love our local boys (when did pro athletes all become younger than me?) but because it gives us that much longer to turn on our trusty little transistor and listen to the guys in the broadcasting booth.

Happy baseball, everyone, and GO GIANTS!!

Other fun and Spring-y stuff:
Spring Cleaning

Herbs to Grow Yourself Part. 1

And Part 2

Homemade Granola from an Empty Pantry

DSC_1580Think the cupboard is empty?  It’s amazing what you can make when you really look around the kitchen.  You can make something out of nothing.  Here’s what I do when I want granola:  Granola is one of the most expensive over-rated items on the grocery store shelf.  Do you know how easy it is to make?  So easy, really.  And the variations are endless.  The only two things you must have are oats and oil—peanut or canola oil is best.

My grandfather used to make his own granola with these basic pedestrian ingredients, but you can swap out the peanuts for almonds or the raisins for cranberries, or any other chopped nut or dried fruit, depending on how fancy you want to get, or what you happen to have on the shelves or in your nearly empty pantry.  Put it on yogurt, eat with your favorite cereal and dairy or dairy substitute or heat it up to make fancier oatmeal.  Plus, when you make it, you get the added benefit of having your house smell all toasty and cozy when it’s cold outside.

Here’s my Grandpa Alden’s list of ingredients for granola:
4 cups old-fashioned oats
1 ½ cups coarsely chopped peanuts
1 cup sunflower seeds
1 cup wheat germ
½ cup bran
3 ½ ounces flaked coconut
½ cup peanut oil
½ cup honey
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup raisins

As you can see, the ingredients are cheap and healthy, though not for the peanut allergenic.  I made this recipe for my family, and my husband thought the peanuts were weird, because he has a somewhat European sense of breakfast food.  I don’t particularly like flaked coconut, either—it’s a texture thing.  We also happened to have a rather large amount of flax meal, leftover from a pumpkin pie recipe gone terribly wrong.

DSC_1651So here’s what I did to make my own granola recipe:
4 cups oats
1 cup chopped almonds (to replace the peanuts, though they do cost a bit more)
1 cup flax meal
½ teaspoon ground ginger
½ cup canola oil (to replace the peanut oil, since that’s what we’ve got)
¼ cup honey
¼ cup maple syrup (to replace ½ the honey, because we were poor in honey but rich in syrup)
½ t. vanilla extract
1 cup chopped dried apricots

As you can see, any nut or dried fruit can be swapped out, you can add any number of lovely fall spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves) to the dry ingredients and the ½ cup of honey can be traded for any sort of sweet, sticky medium—agave, maple syrup or any combination of what you’ve got, provided it doesn’t get too weird.  The flax meal or bran could be any combination of these or some other roast-able ingredient to add a bit of flavor, health and digestibility.

mix.granolaOnce you’ve got your ingredients all decided on (I always pull everything out and put it on our tiny acreage of counter before I begin, that way I don’t discover that I’m missing something halfway through the process) here’s how you’ll mix it up:
Combine oats, nuts, flax meal (wheat germ, bran, etc.) and coconut (if you like it and have it) and spices (if you choose) in a large bowl.  Heat oil, honey (or other sticky stuff to equal ½ cup) and vanilla to just below boiling—you’ll start to see bubbles form on the bottom of the pan, when you do, take it off the heat.
Pour your sticky stuff over the oat mixture and toss/stir it all to coat the oats and stuff thoroughly.  Spread it all evenly into two (or three) roasting pans (in my Grandpa’s recipe they call them ‘jelly roll’ pans, which just make me think of Leadbelly songs… but I digress).
Roast it all for 30 minutes in the oven at 300 degrees, stirring it up every 10 minutes to have it cook evenly, or until it’s a light brown (or a little darker as I prefer, or if I’m in the middle of changing diapers and forget to take it out in time).  Remove from the oven and let it cool, then stir in the dried fruit.

Voila—your very own homemade granola!

Love Those Hand-Me-Downs

As the mother of two new babies, there is nothing so helpful and appreciated like hand-me-downs.  The purpose of hand-me-downs is two-fold:  I receive much-needed clothing for my growing critters and somebody easily cleans out their closet.  I honestly don’t know what I’d do without the generosity of so many friends and their older children.  And I certainly don’t know where (and can’t afford) to buy such cute, cute clothes.  Image
Those clothes that were originally worn by oldest are then passed on to the consignment store in hopes of serving one last purpose as a few bucks in cash.   A few of the generous free-bees make it into the consignment pile, too, but for the most part, I try not to be stingy with the karmic circle of generosity, and I pass it along to the next needy mom or donate them to a nearby charity.  Please note that my motivation to accepting cast-offs is not to turn them around for a hefty profit—the last time I checked my balance at the consignment store it was less than enough to order a pizza.  It helps pay down my school debt and bought me a dining room chair, from a consignment furniture store, incidentally. And most of it is used to clothe my two babies.
I have received more gracious gifts than I can practically use.  Here’s how I add a little organization to the chaos of tons of baby clothes:

  • For instance, my summer-born babies will not likely be wearing summer rompers at 6 months; it will be cold by the time they get that big.  So I pass it along.
  • In my house, shoes don’t go on children who aren’t walking.  They are terribly cute, but I only save a pair or two of the hand-me-down shoes (for special Easter-like/picture-worthy occasions) and give them to the consignment store, because most parents can’t resist Mary-Janes or Converse in size 2.
  • I organize appropriate items in boxes by size, and those that are too small get organized by season (spring and fall) for sale or donation.

The best way to give and receive hand-me-downs is to be involved in a moms group, or church group with other mothers.  Neighbors are wonderful connections as well, since we can easily see their crammed garages and pregnant and then un-pregnant bellies.  It helps, of course, to be in a group with kids at least six months older (the givers) and about six months younger (the receivers) in order to make the perfect circle.  But I have been blessed enough to receive gifts from friends of friends, hundreds of miles away.  What a wonderful, wide-spread village!

Being well-connected, organized, generous and grateful are all essential in the great recycling circle of hand-me-downs.  Believe in them and their usefulness and you may never have to buy kids’ clothes again… well, maybe not never, but certainly less.

Stay at home mom vs. working mom– or both

Ms. D is currently on maternity leave of sorts (more on that subject shall come later) and is recycling a bit of writing she did for a mothers’ group a couple years ago.  She hopes you continue to enjoy the subject, despite the fact that the writing is not current.  You may look forward to more of Lifestyles’ wit and charm in the future, as soon as she has enough sleep to operate the articulate parts of her brain.  Cheers.

My husband was at work a few months ago, talking with a customer who was shopping with his toddler.  The two fathers exchanged a few pleasantries about their kids, and then the other dad asked my husband when his wife’s ‘shift’ began, meaning when did my husband go home to take over child-rearing while I got ready and went off to work.

“Oh, my wife doesn’t work,” my husband replied.  “She’s a full-time, stay-at-home mom.”
“Wow,” said the other dad.  “She’s lucky.”

Ah, yes. Lucky.

When my husband recounted this little exchange, my first reaction was to refrain from verbally ripping his head off in self-righteous anger, since after all, he wasn’t the one who naively blurted out such a loaded cliché.  Instead, I took a deep breath and asked if he could instead tell people that I was a dance instructor.  This would alternatively categorize me as a part-time-working-stay-at-home-mom, and come closer to increasing my title to an entire line of hyphenation.

Do I feel lucky– lucky to be living back at my parent’s house again, at the age of thirty-five, this time with husband and child in tow?  Or am I lucky to be a stay-at-home mom (this command-infused label makes me feel a little like a dog in obedience school) because the cost of full-time daycare far outweighs my wage-earning potential?  Am I lucky to stay home and do the laundry, the vacuuming and the cooking, all while being responsible for the developmental, social, and physical well-being of a toddler, all in a manner that is both entertaining and efficient?

Lucky—like I tripped over a four-leaf clover and ended up with this life, or like I didn’t have any particular opinion or power over what happened.
Did my lifestyle ‘happen by chance’?  It sure doesn’t feel that way to me; I vaguely recall having an active part in creating it.  Luck is where you find it, or maybe it is what other people have that you don’t.  Luck is the name we give to something when we don’t have the courage to call it hard work and sacrifice.

But do I want to be considered unlucky?        

My cousin is a paramedic and her husband works for the county sheriff.  When her little girl was three months old, she had to go back to her twelve-hour graveyard shifts.  She and her husband work lots of overtime hours in order to pay down the debt they accrued to buy land and a house in which they could raise a family.  When she found out that I wasn’t working after having my first child, she gave a half-sigh and said knowingly, “Oh, you’re so lucky.”  Perhaps I am, but she’s lucky enough to own a home in a community where she can raise her children and where they all can live for years to come.  My cousin also is extremely lucky to live next door to her mother, who cares for her the children when both parents are at work.
Perhaps I am just old-fashioned, or perhaps I am setting a new trend.  Mostly, I just feel poor, and this is the way my family and I have chosen to live, so that we can provide for our child and ourselves in the best way possible.  Every bit of it, however, is a choice.

So, am I lucky?  You bet I am.  I am lucky to have a fully engaged part in raising my own child, and lucky that her dad is there when I have to go to work.  Her grandparents are lucky, too, that they get to spend two years of her life under the same roof (a roof that they have heaven’s graciousness to provide) and get to watch her learn, and grow and explore.  I am extremely lucky to have a career, however small, that I could easily return to after having a baby, and about which I am still quite passionate.

Lucky?  I guess, but I planned it that way.

shamrock courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Budget Solutions

‘Fail to plan and plan to fail,’ goes the saying that I saw on my friend’s fridge when I was in high school, and while I probably rolled my eyes and thought it was silly at the time, these days, it is a mantra I do my best to live by—just short of squeezing all the fun out of life.
When it comes to finances (a lot or a little of them) planning—aka a budget— is the best way to make sure that you end up with food on the table and don’t go bankrupt.  This goes for Ms. D and her family as well as AIG and Freddy Mac.

Thanks to library school, I was finally forced into really learning how to use Microsoft’s nifty little Excel program, which saves a lot of paper and pesky calculations.  If, like me, you’ve been a bit slow to familiarize yourself with Excel, there are a myriad of useful tutorials to bring you up to speed—or at least to a functional level.
Here are a couple options I used:
http://people.usd.edu/~bwjames/tut/excel/
http://www.microsoft.com/mac/excel/getting-started-with-excel

Using the Excel formulas, I can total up our income (one solid paycheck, one variable and any other randomness I can rake in) and then itemize our expenses, which remain fairly constant. Using our bank’s online checking and direct deposit of our major income certainly helps, too, because that way I know what’s coming in as well as what’s going out.
There are a few strategies I follow to help us keep from overspending, also known as losing track of what you’ve got.  It’s nothing fancy, but by planning and sticking to these parameters, we stay mostly out of debt and stretch our miniscule income to cover what we need.  For instance, I write as few checks as possible, and everyone else besides me, the CFO of the family, deals primarily in cash.  That’s the beauty of cash—you can see exactly what you’ve got, and once it’s gone, it’s gone.  All three of us (soon to be five) have cash allowances stashed in our own labeled envelopes to cover whatever our little heart desires, and in the case of my young child, doled out for anything from art supplies to underwear and presents for friends’ birthday parties.

Our methods are neither complex nor complicated, and I’m sure I could be more technical with my spreadsheets and penny-counting, but it’s quick and manageable and allows us a little fun.  It’s planning enough to keep us from failure, and as our income increases we’ll stick to our plan, so we continue to know where our money is going.

Do you know where your money’s going?  How do you keep track of it?

And furthermore, if you want to get your kids started on being budget and money savvy, check out this great blog post by Intentional Jane.

WIC program– Making it Work for You

How does the government seek to support the Destitute and Obscure?  Well, I signed my lil’ ol’ self up for the WIC (that would be Women, Infants and Children) program, with all my documentation in tow—sonograms, blood tests, power bill, passports, proof of (lack) of income and first-born child.

As a WIC participant, both my child and I receive checks that I can use at the local Safeway to buy certain wholesome foods.  At least that is the general idea. In practice, however, the selection options aren’t that good.  I get $17 total for the two of us to buy produce, and I buy organic, so that gets me a red pepper, an avocado and about two separate weeks worth of bananas.  We eat A LOT more produce than that.  The only other option I have to buy organic is tofu, which I do, and we get two blocks per month, which takes care of two meals for my family.  I have options to buy juice, bread, lots of cereal, dry beans or lentils, peanut butter, canned fish, milk and eggs.  And one block of cheese per month.  None of these options can be organic, which translates to the following:  bread made with high-fructose corn syrup (um, really?!  In bread?) cereal that can contain high amounts of sugar, dried beans that are too time-consuming for me to use (okay, that’s pretty much my own thing) peanut butter that will contain sugar and/or high fructose corn syrup unless I get the ‘natural’ variety, which I do, and dairy that is loaded with hormones, antibiotics and heaven only knows what else.  The juice is sugar regardless, so sometimes I buy it and sometimes not, but they allow for the two of us to get up to six 32 ounce bottles of it.

So, in this review of items, the WIC program seems to be pro-sugar and supportive of lots of processed cereal.  The inability to buy organic dairy is what irritates me the most, considering California’s Senator Diane Feinstien has introduced legislation that would ban the use of subtherapeutic (and already intensive) use of antibiotics in the dairy, egg and meat industry.  It seems that a state-run program should follow support this legislation, but no.  It’s the politicians (at the state, not national level) who make the rules (not the mothers, children or WIC nutritionists) about what I can or cannot buy with these checks.  It seems like a great idea—to offer low-income moms and kids free food— and for some, it may improve their nutrition and the ability to provide for their families, but it doesn’t go the extra mile.  Maybe more like an extra inch or two.

Here’s how the savvy Ms. D maneuvers these obstacles and stays on track with her highfalutin nutritional ideals:

  • I don’t get the eggs, bread or milk… oh well.
  • Since I can’t get organic cheese, I buy Tillamook, which is rBGH (recumbent bovine growth hormone) free and uses vegetable rennet.  This takes most of the hormones out of my cheese, and it’s yummy… and I wish I was allowed to get more.
  • I get canned salmon and make salmonloaf with it—yummy and cheap.  Recipe to follow.
  • I buy Cheerios (the plain kind) and while they aren’t as good as the Whole Foods brand, both my kid and I eat them—with organic milk bought somewhere else.
  • I buy the ‘natural’ peanut butter—Adams, and Laura Scudders both make a version I can purchase.
  • I buy the frozen orange juice and have it when I need it.
  • I use my produce check mostly on bananas, which I realize aren’t particularly environmentally sound, but they aren’t local regardless of where I shop.  The organic produce at my Safeway is a bit sub-par and never local.

It may save us a little bit of money, maybe $20 a month, which is something, but when I factor in the fact that I have to drive 20 minutes to the WIC office and spend a couple hours of my time per month to save the money, I begin to wonder if it’s really worth it.  The hours spent at the local WIC office aren’t just waiting for the slow, overburdened grind of a government agency to process my checks.  In addition to showing proof of my pregnancy (do think I swallowed a basketball?) and my health, I have to attend short classes about baby care.  Perhaps I am being a bit snobbish, but um, I know what it means when a baby cries.  I know how to breastfeed.  I’ve done my own research, I read at least 50% of what’s been written on the subject by experts and non-experts alike and not least of all worth noting— I’ve done this baby-thing before.  I already have a child.  But I suppose they have to cover every possible range of informed or uninformed mom, and I try my best to check my attitude at the door.  I try, really, but I pride myself on being well-read, and I don’t like to be herded into the shallow end of the informed.

The WIC program, like any other government-sponsored program does the best it can with the funding it’s got—which is never much—and progresses at the snail-pace of legislation.  It’s come a long way over the years, but it’s still woefully behind in terms of nutrition.  With all the recent journalism  and research about processed food and nutrition moving at a dizzying pace, WIC is getting left in the dust.  I appreciate the help, believe me I do, but my first consideration is the health of my family and that of the environment, second being saving a few bucks.  I’ll save another way, not at the expense of our long-term health.

My Grandma’s Salmonloaf

I don’t know if my dear grandmother made this recipe up, or whether it comes from one of those curious 1950’s cookbooks, or even further back to the war-time cookbooks with all the meat alternatives.  In any case, it was passed down to my mother, and she taught me how to make it once I had a family of my own.  It’s cheap and easy, delicious and nutritious, and like meatloaf, you can put it in a sandwich the next day for lunch.  You can garnish it with a bit of lemon juice, but we use ketchup or tartar sauce in my house. 

1 15 oz. can of salmon (usually pink or sockeye; it’s better than the red salmon)
1 sleeve Saltine crackers (watch out for Nabisco brand—they contain high fructose corn syrup.  Why, I’m not quite sure.)
milk
1 egg

Start with the fun part: smash the Saltines in a plastic bag.  Smash ‘em to smithereens—nice pea-sized crumbs, not dust.  Open the can of salmon, pour the liquid into a measuring cup and set aside.  Then move on to the nitty-gritty part, which is dumping the contents of the can of salmon into a bowl and going through and meticulously removing all the skin and most of the big bones.  Messy work, but it all the skin and bones down the garbage disposal.  It’s okay to leave a few of the little bones, as they’re already cooked down and they’ll cook down even further when you put it together and bake it.  Plus, you get a bit of added calcium.  My mother nibbles on them while she prepares the recipe, but I’m not quite that bold.  Now, with cleaned hands, add just enough milk to your reserved salmon juice to make ½ cup of liquid.  Note: any milk substitute will work here if you don’t do cow’s milk.  Add the egg to the liquid and mix it all up, then add to the salmon.  I mix it with my hands, because I’ve already gooped them up once, so why not do it again?  When the liquid and the salmon are mixed together evenly, and all the fish chunks are broken up, add the crushed crackers and mix those in—again, I use my hands.
Press the whole mixture to a greased (I use olive oil) loaf pan and bake at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes, or until the top is vaguely browned.

Books to Live By– Part deux

The following is a part deux of a short, but ever-growing list of books that Ms. D feels belong on the shelves of Destitute and Obscure homes all over the world.  They are practical, savvy little tomes to use as a reference for life.  As before, feel free to make suggestions for making this list longer and more diverse.  All links here should take you to Powell’s Books in Portland– a one-of-a-kind, definitely NOT Amazon used and new bookstore worth supporting if you order online.  Otherwise, please go to your local, lovable INDEPENDENT bookstore to fondle or order your own copies.

The New Frugality: How to Consume Less, Save More, and Live Better by Chris Farrell
This book is written by an expert, and it’s completely readable.  Chris Farrell is the Economics editor for NPR’s Marketplace Money, so he has a clue about money, and more than a few about life.  In the book, he explains the merits of different forms of investment, from all the reasons why an employer-sponsored 401k continues to be a good idea, and how exactly to start saving for your child’s college education— itself a priceless investment.  Best of all, it’s written in plain English (the language I speak) and has those nifty little sidebars with bulleted lists and resources.  It really couldn’t be easier to understand, whether your Destitute and Obscure or otherwise.  One of his best examples of ‘the new frugality’ would be to invest in a high-end, well-equipped bicycle and ditch the car (especially the second car).  While a grand or more may seem extravagant for a bicycle, it’s not so much when you figure that you won’t have to put gas in it (aside from making sure you’ve eaten a healthy breakfast) give it an oil change, or worry about the mileage and its Kelly Blue Book value.   This book is a great how-to of living economically without all the mind-numbing jargon of your Economics class.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver, Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver
This is a lovely family story of the ‘eating locally’ movement, aka ‘grow your own’.  It should also be noted that the Kingsolver/Hopp family did all this on a fairly large plot of land in a part of the country that receives rain during the summer.  It’s lovely to read about but not entirely do-able for everyone.  And for the most part, they’re not expecting you to be almost-pro farmers, either.  The suggestions for eating locally and seasonally (which you can do, thanks to your local farmer’s markets) are wonderful, and accompanied by simple menus as well.  I highly recommend, if circumstances allow, listening to this book, since Ms. Barbara reads it herself in her lovely, soft-spoken and ever-so-slightly lilting southern voice.  The book is not only informative and directive, but a wonderful story, too.  Absorb whichever layers suit you best.

Thrifty: Living the Frugal Life with Style by Marjorie Harris
What I love about this book, besides the huge amount of helpful tips and details, is that it’s handy and stylish.  What could be more Lifestyles of the Destitute and Obscure?  And furthermore, she redefines ‘thrifty’, condemned the idea that it be synonymous with ‘cheap’—a word that makes me cringe.  “Being thrifty requires a brain; being cheap doesn’t,” says Harris.  My thoughts exactly, thank you.  She has all kinds of amazing ideas she has gathered, as well as lots of thoughtful insights from her friends, about being thrifty at home, while travelling, and in fashion as well.  Originally a writer of gardening columns, Harris also has a ton of recommendations for gardening and cooking, too, including a book entitled Thrifty Gardening: From the Ground Up.  She advocates my all-time favorite must-do tip for grocery shopping and cooking—shop with a list (for heaven’s sake!).  And her idea of having dinner guests is right up my alley, too.  “My theory about entertaining is that if you have one lovely thing to eat, masses of candles, enough wine and great company, you can’t help having a spectacular time.”  Words to live by.

Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual by Michael Pollan with illustrations by Maira Kalman
I will read, with delicious pleasure, anything that Michael Pollan writes.  And if it’s got pictures, then so much the better.  And pictures by Maira Kalman!  How can this handy little book be anything but a joy?  (She illustrated a great edition of Elements of Stylefor which you will find a handy little review if you click on the highlighted title/linkage.)  This is a wonderful book to cruise through and live by, post snippets on your wall and steal from in order to make quick, witty Facebook posts, such as Rule #22— ‘It’s Not Food if It Arrived Through the Window of Your Car’ or one that most can’t help but love, Rule #52—‘Have a Glass of Wine with Dinner.’  Food Rules makes a great gift and a fun read-aloud while enjoying that glass of wine with dinner and entertaining friends (see Marjorie Harris’ recommendations above).  Maira Kalman’s pictures of food, including a Thomas Jefferson’s colander full of peas, make the reading even more delicious.

When company comes over– aka we live here

If you come over to our house to share a meal, you will be able to share what I planned for our family’s meal—not a fancy creation for which I scoured some elaborate entertaining cookbook.  If there’s more than one of ya’ll, you may be asked to bring a salad, bread, dessert or libations—we have two grocery stores near our house if you need to stop there.  My young child will sit at the table with us, because this is how one learns table manners and how to interact politely with strangers.  And if you stay long enough, you will be able to change your table manners and conversation after those young ears and absorbent mind go to bed.  You are more than welcome at my house, but we live here.
I might have vacuumed and I did make sure that everyone’s socks are out of the living room.  I probably folded the afghan and draped it over the back of the couch.  But I did not erase all signs of our life.  You will not see my living room photographed for House Beautiful.  I live in a rental apartment, so we will not be featured in Dwell for our chic and environmentally-friendly design concepts—though you may note that we use eco-friendly dish soap, because we will not stop you from helping with the dinner dishes if you insist.  You will also not have to worry about spilling your drink on the designer furniture or getting fingerprints on the fine artwork.  We live here, and as our guest, we expect you to settle in and act like you live here, too.
If the weather is nice, we may sit out on the balcony and enjoy watching the sunset over the city skyline, and then you may notice my husband’s bicycle—our ‘other car.’
If you need to use the bathroom, you will see what kind of toothpaste we use.  You can explore our books and see my husband’s entire record collection.  He’ll even take your requests if you see something there you’d like to hear. 
You can see that my desk is cluttered, much like my mind, but at least you know it’s being used.

We are not shy or embarrassed about our home, as we are not shy or embarrassed about ourselves.   This is who we are, and we live here.

Thrifty home decorating with a splash of the unusual

After moving in, buying new beds, getting a few hand-me-down furniture items and trying to settle into our new apartment, the ship came in with the household possessions that had been in storage for the last three years.  And so, our new possessions met our old ones and thus blended into what is now known as our home.

The majority of what was in storage was the accumulation of years of hunting down fashion items when I had multiple jobs, no kids and thus, more disposable income—though still not much.  The household items are proof of the love and generosity of our family and friends who spoiled us with a deluge of beautiful, quality items at our wedding.  Take my silverware, for instance—a pattern chosen for it simple durability and sturdy in your hand.  It feels like a legacy when you eat with it. Or the fact that Wusthof knives and Le Creuset pots are only a part of my kitchen because they were gifts.

We combined a whole lotta bargain hunting and thriftiness with bits of minor splurge here and there.  I found a super fancy pink duvet and sheet set at a garage sale for $10, plus the expense to have it dry-cleaned. I splurged on the rug in the bathroom, because I can’t get a real, live cat yet, and because it’s just kind of quirky.  It would, however, be ridiculous and terribly uncreative if I chose (or could afford) to decorate my entire house with the uber-trends of Urban Outfitters.  I’m not too cool for school, just too old.
The couch and chairs were craigslist and estate sale finds, respectively, and miraculously look like a matched set.  We paid less than $150 for all three, thanks to a little wheeling and dealing and cold, hard cash.

The desk was my grandfather’s, and held in storage by my parents for a couple years.  It’s outfitted with a power strip and filing clip that my handy Grandpa put there for his convenience.  To honor that, the black and white photograph he took of my grandma (his wife of nearly 60 years) takes its customary place atop the attached bookshelf.
The enormous painting that graces an otherwise undecoratable wall is from yet another estate sale and cost us the bargain-basement price of $100.  It is an original artwork by a lesser known Mexican artist, Mario Joel, and while we couldn’t come up with anything when we Googled him, the painting adds a bright, unusual and slightly haunting element to the house.

It goes well with the smattering of New Zealand Maori artwork that hangs around the rest of the house.

While it is not common to find large, original artworks for such prices as the Mayan work here, fun and funky framed pictures are easy to come across at thrift stores and add a charming and quirky element to kitchens and bathrooms.


As further study in contrasts, our TV is an ultra-modern, high-tech version atop a bargain of mid-century Swedish design—a console with double sliding doors and just the right shade to blend in with the set of ‘Mad Men’.   My husband used his best craigslist ‘prowl and stalk’ techniques for this one.  He accidentally stumbled across the large blue-painted bookshelf that sits opposite the painting, but he was smart enough to snatch it up when he found it—just one of the reasons I married him.

Very little of our household furnishings are new, save the beds and the gifts, but I like it that way.  Everything has a history—well-known, like my grandparents’ desk and dining room table—or more mysterious like the Aztec/Mayan painting.  It is, however, recycling at its most basic and most necessary.  I may never own a brand-new couch, but it’s hard to argue with the fact that this one matches our chairs and is graced by a handmade afghan and a beaded Hawaiian tropic throw pillow.
Style is what you make it, and what you can afford, but most importantly it is what defines your home as belonging to you—even if you’re a renter.  Know what you like, know where to find it, and know when something finds you.  I love the way my house is decorated, because it cannot be replicated by anyone else, and it looks and feels like me and my family—aka, a home.