Monday, February 29, 2016

A Self-Sufficient Life in 2016: 5 Final Tips

We've reached the end of our Self-Sufficiency blog series, my lovey readers. It's been wonderful hearing from you and learning with you over the past 8 weeks. I hope you had as much fun reading as I did writing!

To round out our time together, I have five final tips to hopefully send you on your way toward a secure, independent way of life. Let's do this!

Bounty Preservation
I think we can all agree, I am a little nuts about food. The one piece of advice I always try and drive home with the majority of my sustainable lifestyle posts is to grow your own food. I don't care if it's one dinky cucumber that you grew in a coffee mug on your counter, I just want to motivate everyone who stops over to Flaws, Forgiven to try, just try, to grow something, anything, for consumption. Did you know you can eat Dandelions? They count.

Assuming you've tried/are trying to grow you own food, I thought it would be nice to provide you with some resources for preserving your precious bounty. I live in a cold-weather climate and my growing season only lasts about 4-5 months, give or take a few weeks. This means the plants I choose grow fast and plentiful - if I get a bumper crop (meaning, a ton of produce), there's no way I could eat it all before it went bad. I also really like to eat things other than potatoes, carrots, and other root vegetables all food preservation it is!

Some homesteaders swear by dehydrators. Others love to freeze. I am pretty big on canning, mostly because it doesn't involve any plastic and doesn't depend on refrigeration. I like the idea of having safe, chemical-free, healthy food to eat even when the power goes out. I picture me and my girls all huddled in the living room spooning canned beans and corn onto our dinner plates while the candlelight flickers and the jar of apple pie filling waits to be opened for dessert and I feel comforted. I'm a weirdo, ok?

One of my all-time favorite things to can is bone broth. You can check out my bone broth post here. I make one huge batch a couple times a year and those jars last me about as long as a kid-filled house can hang onto their health in the wintertime. In an effort to keep my bone broth pantry stocked, every 3 months or so I buy some chicken backs when they go on sale and use my crockpot to simmer them down overnight. I get a smaller batch than the one listed in the post above but it works and is easy and I love it because canning rules.

So on to the resources!

This fall, fingers crossed, I will be canning up a storm and not dealing with the chaos my own mind creates. I'll be writing and smiling and taking pics to share with you guys here. In the meantime, if you're interested in seeing pictures of life around Dancing Feathers Farm (that's the name I gave my backyard), check out my Instagram page.

Kid Hands Rule
Repeat after me: our kids are not weak.....our kids are not weak.....our kids are not weak. I think the most underutilized members of the family are our little ones. When I was young I moaned and complained about vacuuming and dusting and washing the dishes. I still moan and complain about vacuuming and dusting and washing the dishes. But boy am I glad I know how to do it.

My kiddos love to help out. They are skeptical at first, and sometimes whine (ok they always whine), but once they get moving and working on it, they get excited to be helping out and actually doing something that not only makes Mama happy, but makes them proud of themselves.

Now I know what you're thinking. My oldest kid wants to be a farmer, so this is applicable to her. But what about the video game lover? The book reader? The TV watcher?

Can I please tell you a little secret? My oldest kid is all of those things. If left to her own devices she will always try to A) play video games first, B) watch TV or movies, and C) read books. She doesn't inherently want to be outside pulling weeds. Most of the time she cries when I ask her to and sometimes she'll throw a royal fit about how "hard" it is. I make her do it anyways...because this is what life is about. If you want to eat, you need to work for it. If you want to be happy, you need to make your own happiness. If you want to be strong and healthy, you need to move your body and get to know nature.

These are lessons kids don't understand and will never understand until someone they admire shows them the truth and magic behind the realities of life. 

Yes, it sucks to pull weeds....but check it out! A worm! Yes, it sucks to create your own fun instead of sitting around watching TV, but hey! Did you know that if I pump my legs just a little bit differently, the swing will float even higher into the air? Yes, it sucks to get up and out when you just want to curl up and bed down but check it out! The tulips we planted last year are sprouting!!

Use your kids, people. Use them for more than just a chore list on a wall. Use their own little hands to show them the world and teach them about all the wonders within it....and get some help while you're at it.

The only reason I know about any of this stuff is because I read. I read Mother Earth News. I read blogs. I read Pinterest pins. I read emails from bloggers I subscribe to. I read books from the library. My mama sends me newspaper articles sometimes and I read those.

Read. Read all the time. Read nonfiction, too. Head to a section of the library you've never been before and read those books. Type in some keywords in Google and read a link on the 3rd page. Subscribe to news feeds and turn your online time from tweets and character-limited phrases to genuinely helpful, fun articles and resources. Join a forum and read the posts there.

The world of self-sufficiency is ever-evolving, which is funny to me since so much of what I strive to do is rooted in the past. People are incredible and are always thinking of new ways to do things, creative ways to solve problems, innovative ways to live. Read about these things and soak it up. Print it off. Bookmark it. Never ever stop.

Ok I can't say it enough. If you're going to grow, or plant, or in any way ever try and build a self-sufficient life from the earth, learn some basic permaculture techniques. Permaculture is not just about gardening, or homesteading, or animal husbandry. Permaculture is learning how to exist within nature instead of in spite of it.

Permaculture principles are based around a cooperative, self-sustainable approach to life - you provide the tree with a good place to grow, some plants around its base to keep it healthy, and some attention to it's natural needs and trends, and you will literally reap the fruits of your labor.

Trees, natural curves in your topography, the food chain, daylight, water flow, your inherent patters throughout the day....each of these things are considered when using permaculture to organize your life, your ecosystem.

I dabbled in permaculture when I built my herb spiral and my maintenance-free food garden and can I please tell you, I am in love. The entire principal revolves around the natural shape and function of things, so most if not all of the things you build will remind you of nature, the woods, the streams. It is exhilarating and clarifying and so, so fun to build and look at.

Geoff Lawton is arguably the greatest permaculture guru on the planet, but Joel Salatin also uses permaculture principles on his farm out east. And I absolutely love, love, love the permies site.

If you don't already know about permaculture, check it out. I'm begging you.

Avoid the Muggles
This is my final and last tip (cheyah rite).....for this blog post at least.

Non Self-Sufficient people usually don't understand Self-Sufficient people. They love you, and will support you, and will be sad for you, but they won't understand why you're crying over broken eggs.

Because you see, when you lose your vegetables to drought, or chickens to predators, or some of your canned pickles shatter on the floor, you might cry. If you're anything like me, you will weep like a little baby because the self-sufficient life is hard and painful and difficult and unless you do the work, you don't understand the sacrifice.

I lost two more of my chickens late last year, leaving me with only two chickens to last the winter. I was heartbroken and shared my doubts with my homesteading group on Facebook. I received close to a thousand responses (I kid you not). This was one of my favorites:

You will eventually stop mucking all this stuff up. Instead you'll be mucking something else up. When you're homesteading or farming, you're do many, many, complex, inter-related things. you'll never be good at all of them. It's not like working a normal job where you only have to master a few skills and little knowledge to be good.

There is a secret, though. Don't talk about the bad, the deaths, the failures with people who have no frame of reference and won't understand. We lost an alpaca a few days ago. It sucked. He had a bad skin infection that I hadn't noticed under his rather thick fleece until it was rather advanced.

I was treating him, it seemed to be getting better, then he died. I actually think it's possible he may have choked, as he always was a grain "scarfer," but because he was in pain was eating in a strange position. But, see, I got the neighbor to help dig the hole, mentioned it to a few homesteading friends, but didn't say anything to the "muggles."

So, if you haven't been doing it long, you think everyone does it better than you, because you don't hear about their stumbles, trials, and tribulations. But, rest assured they had them, and continue to.

Meanwhile, learn from what you can, and celebrate the successes. You were able to put down your injured chicken yourself, in the rain. You had the knowledge, he tools, the gumption, and the courage to do what had to be done. Many people couldn't. Perhaps you couldn't have a year ago. You are learning, growing, improving, and becoming less dependent on others to make your way through the world.

This is the type of incredible support you will get from strangers who get it. Find people like you and interact with them. You don't need to become besties....just go to them when you need understanding. Love the muggles in your life but lean on people like you when you are in the weeds. Find your Ron, Harry.

And that, dear readers, wraps it up. Done. Finito. At least until next week...when I'll announce my spring blog post series :) Stay tuned! And as always, thank you so very much for reading :)

Did you miss a Self-Sufficient Life series post? Don't worry! Here's what we've covered:


Monday, February 22, 2016

A Self-Sufficient Life in 2016: Phase 7: Time Management

I've enjoyed writing this series so much and I'm so excited to see new faces and read all the wonderful comments you've been leaving. We've only two weeks left in the series and I thought it was high time we talked about.......well......time.

Gardening, cooking, making money, cleaning, raising kids, raising animals, exercising - a self sufficient lifestyle is demanding! How can one person expect to fit each and every element of a self-sufficient lifestyle into a 24 hour day?

The answer - it's not possible. Yep. That's my magic advice. You can stop reading now. I'm kidding. 

In all seriousness, dear readers, you're going to have days when you feel like you've done nothing productive. Kids get sick. Animals get sick. Dinner turns out awful. It rains. This is life. Even the most organized, motivated person on the planet is going to have a bad day.

There are ways to combat an unproductive day, however. You just need a little time-management creativity.

Synced Calendars 4 Eva
I only have two children....but between the two of them, I am barraged by an endless parade of events. Class parties. Test dates. Band concerts. Grandparents Day. Snack Day. Sing-a-longs. Play dates. Actual parades. It seriously never stops...and this is coming from the mother of a toddler and a 4th grader who is only allowed to participate in one extra-curricular activity at a time because of my personal belief kids shouldn't be overloaded. Regardless of my efforts, we are a busy family.

And I am terrible at keeping track.

I once (i.e., 2 weeks ago) kept my kid up late finishing Valentines so she had them in time for her class party the next day...only to find out I was a week early and kept her up late for no reason. And I should've known. I hadn't put the party in my Google calendar.

Yep, that's right. A synced online calendar that allows me to import events on my phone or desktop and syncs them across all devices is the only way I can remember what needs to be done each day. When I start my day and log into the computer each morning, I pull up my email and my calendar first. Even before Facebook.

If you find yourself struggling to remember meetings, garbage days, seed sowing dates, or birthdays, consider getting an online calendar. The alerts alone may save you a night of panicked Valentine-making.

Organization Station
Nothing is more frustrating than going to pay your bills and realizing you don't know where the stamps are. Or those free return labels you got last month from the Humane Society. Or a pen.

Try keeping all of your bills in one central location, preferably next to a computer where you can check your account balances online. A bill station next to a computer is also helpful for those who want to track spending in Excel. Keep your mailing supplies close by and heck, tape up a calendar with some pretty pictures on it for motivation and quick date checks when your computer is turned off.

Walk yourself through your daily processes and try to keep elements of your processes in logical locations....for example, my bathroom cleaning supplies are in my bathroom closet, not under the kitchen sink with the rest of them. I keep scissors in three different locations in my house - the basement/laundry room, the computer desk, and my kitchen. I tape client info jotted down on sticky notes to the inside of my computer desk so I don't need to sift through emails. I have hooks right next to my back door for coats, purses, and bags because that's the door we use as a family. Try to think about your schedule and arrange your items to match your movements.

Prioritize Like a Boss
I'm not going to sit here and tell you that you have as many hours in your day as Beyonce. Truth be told, we are vastly different from one another and our ability to handle life shouldn't be compared to anyone else. I think there's a certain level of motivation that comes from knowing the greatest souls on earth only had 24 hours in each day....but then there's the part of me that thinks, cool...but now what?

Well. Now we prioritize.

Sit down with a cool notebook and pen and physically write out the things in your life that require time. Include everything, even irregular commitments that may not need to be done each day (like hosting Christmas). This may feel overwhelming at first but don't worry, it gets better. Let's call each item you write down a "time-sucker."

Next, grab some colored highlighters (or in my case, crayons) and start to group your time-suckers. Make a color for family. A color for social life. A color for money. Home. Health. Self Improvement. Color code your time-suckers into distinct, very simple not make a color for things like "PTO" - that would fall under family - or "new clients" - that would fall under money. Keep the categories high-level and try to limit them to maybe 5-7. Leave any time-suckers that cannot be categorized alone.

Now quickly, without thinking too hard about it, make a color key in the margin of your paper. Place the colors in a vertical line with the most important category in your life at the top, the least important at the bottom. Do not allow yourself to feel guilty if money is high up on your list. Sometimes we have all the love we need and the majority of our time is spent worrying about keeping a roof over our kids' heads. Nobody will see this. Be honest with yourself. And realize priorities can change - you can repeat this exercise at any time.

Now next is the fun part. Look back at your time-sucker list. Cross off anything that isn't highlighted. I mean it. Put a line right through those things. They are not important, you see. It's fantastic that you like to check Twitter 40 times a day, no judgement from me, the Facebook queen. But Twitter doesn't even begin to fall into the most important things in your life. So cross that sucka off.

Now move on to your color-coded time-suckers. Is one particular color sticking out? What is taking the most time out of your life? Compare the most prominent color in your time-suckers list to the ranked color key off in the these line up? If so, you rock and your time is well-delegated. If your answer is no, that's ok. We're gonna fix it.

Scale your time-suckers. What I mean is, give yourself a number, like 10, and write it next to your top category. Now reduce that number by 1 and write it alongside your second category. Continue until your categories are numbered.

Mine looks like this:
Family - 10
Self-Improvement - 9
Friends - 8
Health - 7
Money - 6
Home -5

Now start counting your colored time-suckers and force yourself to cross off enough time-suckers to comply with the number allowances listed in your key. So for me, I prioritized an allowance of 10 Family time-suckers (I only had two listed, whoops), but only 5 Home time-suckers - I had to cross 11 Home-related time-suckers off my list! Seriously!

This is eye-opening. If purple equals family and is your #1 priority, and social life is yellow and is your #5 priority, you should have more purple than yellow on your list. Do it. Cutthroat.

And no guilt. This is YOUR life, not your friend's, not your mother's, not your neighbor's....yours. Your time should reflect your priorities because you will never have enough time to do it all. And if that means not hosting Christmas because you want to use that time to make life magical for your children, then so be it. No ragrets.

RIP Netflix
Dang you, Netflix, I love you so bad.

One of my biggest challenges with time management is the ease and simplicity of relaxing these days. It is way too easy to curl up on the couch while my kids are sleeping and get sucked into endless TV series.

The problem with this relaxation method, though, is that no matter how good it feels at the time, I always end up feeling unproductive, guilty, and frazzled afterward. Like "Jen, if you'd worked on your book instead of watching Mad Men, you might not be so pissed about needing to work a job you don't like to make money right now." I'm not saying it won't be hard. This entire self-sufficiency challenge is hard. But it will be worth it.

Try coming up with relaxation methods that check two boxes at yoga (relaxation and health), or reading (relaxation and self-improvement), or gardening (relaxation and food and health), or sewing (relaxation and clothing and self-improvement) or trying a new recipe (relaxation and food and health), or playing a game with your kids (relaxation and family), or joining a volleyball team (relaxation and social life), or making homemade candles to sell (relaxation and money).

I love Netflix, I really do, but Netflix doesn't fit into any of my top priorities. It's simply a time-sucker. It's gotta go. After I finish Mad Men, of course.

Get Help, Shorty
So I find it dang near impossible to clean, cook, watch the kids, and work all at the same time. I wish I could, but I can't, at least not well. Everyone needs a little help sometimes. I know, I know, this is a self-sufficiency post, as-in, SELF, moi, nobody else....but even homesteaders depend on others from time to time. Community is important so lean on it if you need to.

Does your neighbor have a snowblower? Ask him if he'll snowblow your driveway in exchange for some cookies or fresh chicken eggs. I promise the cookies will take less time than hand-shoveling your whole driveway. Not feeling the kids today? See if you can enroll them in a daytime activity through your local park district or swap a playdate with another mom (even better, organize a playdate at grandma and grandpa's house - cha-CHING!). Not sure you can hack a full week of work? Take a vacation day because who cares. Or if you're like me and you don't have vacation days, swap shifts, move hours around, and rearrange your calendar so you can get the day off that you need. It's ok to need help sometimes. Take it where you can get it.

Work Smarter
My last boss would tell me pretty consistently that if a task was taking me too long, I wasn't doing it right. "You don't need to work faster," he would tell me, "you need to work smarter." I always wanted to punch him when he'd say that. I would always be on like hour 7 of a problem I couldn't solve and he'd sneak up behind me and be like "Work smarter."

It's true, though. I hate to say it, but he's right. Sometimes we need to step back and view the problem as the teacher instead of the student, especially when we're just starting out and we're lacking confidence.

Just because the recipe says you need to add butter doesn't mean you need to. And it's certainly not worth the trip into town to grab some. Figure out another way. And yes, it would be easier to skip sanding and just slap on some primer and paint...but do you really want to be repainting in a couple months because your paint peeled right off? And is an hour commute actually worth the money you make at your job, or can you ask for a raise or find something closer to home? Do the kids really need to do a cheap craft at their holiday party, or can you talk the PTO into letting you take them outside for a scavenger hunt? Work smarter. Challenge the standards. Make your own rules. And hopefully save yourself some time.

What are your favorite time management tools? I'd love to hear about it in the comments down below. Thank you, lovely readers, for reading :)

Did you miss a Self-Sufficient Life series post? Don't worry! Here's what we've covered so far:

Monday, February 15, 2016

A Self-Sufficient Life in 2016: Phase 6: Money

Ahh money. This topic ranks #3 on my least-favorite things to talk about. I can't stand money...not only because I never have "enough" of it, but because it is the root of so many evils, so much pain. Money, though, is a major motivational force behind a self-sustainable life. I always think to myself, "Worst case, Jen, you can at least grow your own food and make medicine from nature." It offers me a small token of comfort in my overly-anxious world to know I'd be alright, at least for a minute, if a zombie apocalypse was at our door.

Ironically, the decision to become self-sustainable so you don't need as much money Fruit trees, garden beds, seeds, animals, sewing machines, and property - they are investments. There's ways around investment shock of course. Repurposing, recycling, things like that. I know some real die-hard self-sufficient families who've built homes and lives from the free stuff all around them. I'm not at that level, though. I still need cash for stuff. Like tea. And chicken mugs. And hardware cloth.

A while ago, back before my divorce was imminent, I wrote a blog post featuring ways you can make money outside the rat race. They remain valid, fantastic ideas (*ahh-em), ideas I'll be leaning on heavily in the months to come....but lately I've found myself working the opposite angle - defensive spending. I find saving what little money I make is almost as important as making it.

Electricity and Gas and Water and Garbage - Oh My! 
Utilities kick my sweet little ass each month. If the electricity bill is low, it means it's winter and the gas bill will be high. If the gas bill is low, it's 102 degrees outside and our electric air conditioner is pumping like Arnold. I live on a well, which means I don't pay public water usage fees, but my well pump, well bladder, and water filter run by electricity. And I do pay someone each month to come take my trash whether I produce garbage or not.

In a perfect world I would live in a straw bale cottage on a hill next to a rolling creek that spun my water wheel while I sat sunbathing with my solar panels, my kids "flushed" compostable toilets, and my wind turbines swooshed through the air.

But that is not my life right now. Maybe someday.

Until then, I manage my utilities the best I can.


  • Energy-efficient light bulbs
  • Turn lights off the minute sunlight starts to streak the sky 
  • Reduce the use of the a/c in the summer by utilizing cross-ventilation
  • Use a special switch that, when turned off, does the equivalent of "pulling the plug" on all computer add-ons (printers, monitors, speakers)
  • Limit clothes drying - use a line on nice days and dryer balls made of wool the rest of the time. Side note: Those little dryer balls save at least 20 minutes of dry time and they replace those crappy chemical-laden dryer sheets. Score!

  • Set gas-powered furnace thermostat allowances in the fall so you don't get tempted to crank them up each winter
  • Use plastic on drafty windows and heavy curtains when possible to help seal out the cold
  • Keep that gas-powered oven open after you're done and let that leftover heat warm the house
  • Caulk cracks and leaks in your home
  • Use door draft stoppers and weather stripping
  • Limit showers to once every-other day or on days when you're REAL stinky. Honestly the human body does better when it isn't dehydrated by steaming hot water every single helps your hair, your skin, your private zones, your nails, the environment, and of course, water bills. 
  • Wear your jeans 2-3 times before washing and use the lowest water level possible for each load of laundry
  • Turn off the sink when you brush your teeth or when you rub your soap/oil onto your face
  • Have a "flush with #2 only" rule for your toilet. Don't freak out. Pee is water that's passed through your kids'/significant other's body, that's it. Some cultures drink it, ok? I think it'll be alright if it sits in a covered, porcelain bowl for a minute.
  • Use that leftover pasta water to water your plants (let it cool first!)
  • Stop buying disposable products. I reduced my paper towel use by getting cute "unpaper" towels from Etsy. I don't use disposable feminine hygiene products at all anymore which is honestly the best. I use regular plates and bowls instead of paper whenever I can. 
  • Recycle and reuse. That plastic spinach container would also be awesome for fermenting chicken feed. Jus' sayin.
  • Compost. Stop throwing out your leftover produce! Remove those horrific plastic stickers before tossing in the compost bin, though. They don't compost. 
  • Donate your unwanted clothes and bedding and furniture. Garbage-picking is hip and trendy now, too, so when I have something big to toss (like a huge unhooked antenna the previous owners left on my roof) I leave it on my curb and viola! By morning it is gone. 

We just talked about creating our own source of food. But my number one way to save money on groceries? I meal plan like a boss. Seriously. Every Friday night I grab my meal notebook and list the days and the dinner for the day. I don't plan breakfasts or kiddos typically eat either cereal or oatmeal each morning with some fruit if they're still hungo. Lunches are also typically the same foods each day...either turkey or ham, some bread, cheese or yogurt, spinach, almonds, fruit, and if they eat all that, some "special" crackers (organic bunny crackers). Dinnertime is when I get creative.

  • Keep the staples stocked, especially during sales. My freezer almost always has a frozen ground meat and a frozen veggie of some sort. My pantry almost always has broth, tomato puree/sauce, or rice. I keep it stocked this way because gosh forbid I forget an ingredient and can't make my planned dinner, I at least have the makings of a full meal on-hand.
  • Use the same ingredient multiple times. I never eat an entire avocado in one dinner, but if I can use half for dinner on Tuesday and the other half for dinner Thursday, I'm golden, baby. I can justify that cost. I'll do this a ton with expensive perishable ingredients, like bell peppers.
  • It's ok to repeat! My kids get pasta once a week. They get some sort of sausage-veggie dish once a week. We have homemade pizza night every Friday. This is ok! They don't get sick of it and it helps my meal planning fly by. 
  • Invest in some awesome cookbooks. I love the Fannie Farmer Cookbook, Farm-Fresh and Fast by Fairshare, a CSA Coalition, the Moosewood Cookbook, and Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. These books offer simple, seasonal recipes that allow me to walk in the door with whatever I could find at the farmer's market and be fully capable of creating a delicious meal for me and my kids. 
  • Make a list and that is it. So many times I head to the grocery store and find myself wanting to slip into the past, where snacks and "easy" frozen foods dominated my palate. Don't do it. Make your meal plan, make your list of things you need only for that meal plan, and then don't get anything else but the things on your list. That is it.
  • Experiment with farmer's markets. Can you buy your entire list at a farmer's market? Would it be more expensive or less? Give it a shot. How flexible are the items on your list? Can you use potatoes instead of cauliflower? Do these farmers offer Community Supported Agriculture shares? Would it be cheaper to get your produce that way and plan your meals around the produce you're given? This is your money and your food. Work with your community farmers to get your needs met. I promise, you'd be considered their dream customer if you did this.

Gifting Your Time and Effort
Christmas, showers, and birthdays once made me very nervous. I was afraid if I didn't get the best present, the most memorable gift, I would be considered "cheap" or "poor" or *gasp* "a bad friend/daughter/sister." I've since given up on that theory. I've decided homemade gifts, like my Triple B Balm, actually showcase my love for the recipient as they take my time, attention, and love to create. Do they save me money? Yes. But they require so much more than a $20 bill on a counter. They mean more for me to give and, I hope, more to the person receiving them.

  • "Experience" gifts are awesome. Take your daughter to the city instead of throwing a huge party.
  • Cook your girlfriend dinner
  • Offer to be DD for a night out
  • Watch kids and pets so the person you are celebrating doesn't need to
  • Build, design, clean, or counsel

Pay Yourself First
Now this one is straight from Suze Orman. I'll never forget sitting in Germany on my crappy Army-supplied, who-knows-where-this-couch-has-been housing sofa, watching Suze on TV and it was like she was talking directly to me. "Your kids have the chance to get student loans. Nobody's going to give you a loan to retire!" My kids don't have college savings. In a perfect world, of course, they would. But they don't. I put whatever measly amount I can (right now it's $20 a month) into a retirement account....for me. I suppose it should be more than that, but I consider some of the homesteading things I pay for "investments" in my future. I consider home improvements investments for my future. These are all things that will potentially help me live better, with less, when I am old and gray. 

Stashin' for Sales
I do not coupon, typically because I do not remember them, I cannot keep track of them, and I don't like to stray from my list unless I absolutely must or I need a staple item.

Instead, I electronically garage sale. I'm a member of about 5 different Facebook groups dedicated to "garage sale" communities around my area. I scan Craigslist every Thursday. People post some really fantastic, incredible deals on these sites. I love it.

The downside? Even a $75 dining set costs $75. I don't typically have $75 just lying around and in these situations, jumping on the sale is key. There are 10 people just a mouse click behind you.

So I do two things:

  • Keep a list of items to Be on the Lookout for. I keep my Be on the Lookout list on my phone so I always have it with me. I note anything from shelves and furniture to photography and plumbing services. 
  • Keep a Go Time stash. This is the only way I can afford nabbing the low-priced items I see. They literally are gone within minutes, especially if they are selling cheap. If you know you need a new couch, set aside a fraction of the cost it would take to buy new and make that your "highest" number for sales sites. This allows you to have the cash on-hand while also setting a budget for yourself.

Do it Yourself!
Two weeks ago we talked about how learning basic handiwork around the house can help you be self-sustainable. This is true for many elements of your home, not only your furnace and appliances.

  • Out of Windex? Make your own cleaning products. I personally love using concentrated all-purpose cleaners and mixing them in a spray bottle with water, but rubbing alcohol, lemon juice, vinegar, and essential oils function the same way and are cheaper
  • Make your own clothes. This is one of my goals for the year. I received a sewing machine from my mother-by-love this year for my birthday and I am so, so excited to try it out. The price of organic fabric, even with shipping costs, often pales in comparison to the cost of organic bedding and clothing. 
  • Last week I shared ways of keeping yourself and your family healthy by making your own products. Many of the posts I linked to last week have a cost breakdown. Some items are cheaper, others are not. I am finding I buy ingredients for my homemade stuff twice a year....vastly different than purchasing stuff once or twice a month. Even with shipping and the increased base price of the items, I am saving money by making my own.
  • Create your own entertainment. Turn off the lights, light candles, and enjoy a crockpot dinner by candlelight followed by board games and mad libs. Teach your kids how to write basic plotlines (main character, setting, conflict, resolution) and see how many awesome stories they come up with. Paint together. Cook. People watch. Chicken watch. Earthworm watch. You don't need fancy restaurants and theme parks to enjoy the weekends.
  • Learn how to change your own oil, filters, and wiper blades. And how to change a lawnmower blade. 
  • Mow your own lawn. As a newly-single woman, I am terrified of this for some reason. I don't mind doing the's the front, where people can see me. I always pity the poor, sweating, awkward woman pushing the mower along her's awful because I'm a bit of a feminist. We can do anything! ....except mow the lawn. I don't know why, it just makes me sad. And I don't want people to pity me. So I'm going to figure out how to be the hottest lawn-mowing woman on the planet. I'm going to find a way to rock the crap out of that lawn. And you can too.

Money isn't fun. Making money is stressful, even when you're doing something you love. Saving money is stressful, even when you're good at cutting back. Once the initial startup costs associated with a new way of life taper off, however, you'll find a sustainable, self-sufficient way of living helps with both. Or at least makes it so you don't care nearly as much about money at all. How wonderful that would be! :)

How about you, dear readers? Do you have any money-saving tricks you'd like to share, or unique ways to make money? I'd love to hear about it in the comments down below and as always, thank you so much for reading :)

Did you miss a Self-Sufficient Life series post? Don't worry! Here's what we've covered so far:

Monday, February 8, 2016

A Self-Sufficient Life in 2016: Phase 5: Health

"Hi, Mrs. Ludwigsen? This is the school nurse. Can you come pick up your daughter? She hit her head and requires stitches."

I went from working-from-home pj's to jeans and a t-shirt in 2 seconds flat. I don't think I've ever buckled my youngest in her car seat that fast. Together we flew to the school where my big girl was lying in the nurse's office...and definitely in need of stitches.

Don't panic, Jen, I said to myself. Don't panic.

I swept her up and got both girls in the car. I started the engine, buckled my seat belt, and then froze. What now? This was my first real emergency on the new insurance policy. I knew only two things right at that moment: (1) - an ER visit was an automatic $500, plus whatever we owed out of our $6,500 deductible and (2) - if I didn't go to the "right" immediate care center, I could end up paying the entire bill altogether.

So I did what any mom would do while her toddler is watching her big sister bleed from a gaping wound on her head. I sat in the school parking lot and called my insurance.

As anyone knows who's needed to call his or her insurance before, there is no such thing as a "quick" eligibility check. First you've got the automated maniac. Then you're got to press buttons and read tiny numbers off a plastic card. Then you get a representative who transfers you or gives you another number to call. Then when you finally get the person who has the unfortunate pleasure of speaking with you today, they can't spell your name right. Or find the immediate care center you're asking about. Or confirm you have immediate/urgent care benefits at all. Or they confirm the benefits, but then tell you the nearest immediate care center that is in-network is over yonder at the good old hospital...which has an emergency room, not an immediate care center.

So after throwing my phone into a lake I decided screw it, my kid is bleeding, I tried to do the right thing by my insurance, but they are morons. It's go time. I drove to the nearest facility, one that is so closely associated with the hospital the representative recommended that the hospital name is actually written on the building, and hoped for the best.

We had to go there twice. And the charges from the first visit (when we had the stitches put in) hadn't processed through insurance by the time we had to go back (to have the stitches removed). But don't worry, I, thinking like the good, smart medic I am, decided continuity of care (meaning, obtaining follow up appointments at the same place that originally treated you because it's typically better to see the same doctor for the repeat visits than to see a physician who is treating this injury/illness for the first time) was valued in America and it made sense to just go back to the center.

Of course, six weeks later I was punching myself. We received the explanation of benefits showing the facility charges were covered, but the actual physicians within the immediate care clinic were not contracted with my insurance plan. They were out of network. So 9 stitches, $650 left after insurance for facility fees, and $500 in non-covered physician fees, and my big girl's lil' forehead is all healed up with the faintest scar. 

Now this is a side note: I applied for financial assistance. The doctors didn't have any programs, but let me pay off my medical bill per month with no interest. The facility, I knew, had a fantastic financial assistance program. I sent in close to 30 pages of materials documenting the changes I'd made in my career and the amount of money we had coming in VS going out (hint: they are not equal numbers - paycheck to paycheck is a good way to describe my current influx of currency). Another 6 weeks passes and glory be to heaven, I received an approval letter. I owed $32. $32 after assistance! I danced! I called the customer service line immediately to pay my $32 and celebrated and laughed at the grumpy lady on the other end of the line.

But then, two weeks ago, a letter. Another charge for $650....and I owe $450 of it? I dialed the hospital billing line with a shaky hand and after much back and forth about whether or not I was ever approved, the representative finally admitted one of the charges had been overlooked because it was pending with insurance when I applied for assistance. "That can't be right," I told her. "I had an explanation of benefits showing they'd processed that charge. I included it in the application I sent you had a copy, too, when you considered me for assistance!" Many ma'am's later and a few discreet cuss words and I'm currently back at square one. They are reviewing my account and it's very possible I will need to either re-apply and gather all new, updated materials or pay the $450. 

And this, ladies and gentleman, is why taking charge of your own health is important. I am a healthcare professional with a Bachelor's in Healthcare Administration and over 5 years of experience in the healthcare billing world. I know insurance....and I am tripped up by the red tape, the representatives who don't understand what they're looking at, the insurance regulations, and the high cost of healthcare. 

Now I'm not crazy. I know stitches cannot be avoided when your kid biffs her face. But outside of emergencies and chronic conditions, many human ailments can be treated without spending your entire savings account. 

Preventive Visits
Almost all insurance policies cover preventative care at 100%. Use these benefits, people. Go to as many preventative visits as your policy allows. Get the physicals. Get the labwork. Get the vaccinations. Let the doctor check you out because more often than not, early detection saves lives. And money. 

Know Insurance Terms
I wrote a little blog post about health insurance a few months ago. Understanding health insurance is critical, people. I know it's intimidating....but can you really trust your doctor's office or insurance company to handle your medical billing affairs? They see hundreds of thousands of patients, all with different medical policies...whereas you have one. Just one. Learn some of the basics so you can keep up!

Read Your Policy Now, Not Later
Read your policy. No, I'm serious. You can do it. Get a paper copy and a cool highlighter. Check for things like "visit frequency" and "limitations." Do not assume your doctor's office knows when you can get another flu shot or well-baby exam. You need to track those dates yourself and compare them to the limits of your policy. Some insurance companies only allow physicals up to certain age. Others only cover labwork every 5 years. Still others set limitations on what types of services are considered medically necessary. Read and if you can't figure it out, call and ask. If I'd done this step prior to little-miss-stitches-time, I would've known ahead of time the doctors at my nearest immediate care facility were out of network. Likely would've saved me a couple hundred dollars. 

Shop Around
Did you know patients without insurance can sometimes receive a self-pay discount? 25% of the bill written off right then and there. Sometimes that 25% discount is more cost-effective than actually submitting your charges through insurance. All doctors set a "fee schedule" each year. This fee schedule determines how much they charge for each procedure or office visit. These fee schedules change and of course, each insurance company has their own fee (also called reimbursement) allowances. When your doctors sign a contract with your insurance company's patients (and are therefore considered in-network), they essentially agree to give their services to the insurance company at a discounted rate. And lemmie tell you, some doctors charge more than others for the exact same procedure. If you don't have insurance (and even if you do), price the doctors in your area and take the costs into consideration before seeing anyone for an appointment. Sometimes it's worth the extra $30 for plush chairs and mood lighting....but sometimes, I just want to pee in the cup and go home.

Exercise and Eat Right
Nope, not going to tell you how much to exercise. Or when. Or how. Just make time to move your body. And no, grocery shopping doesn't count. You've gotta actually be focused on raising your heart rate a little. You can walk around. You can dance with your kids while dinner cooks. You can even watch TV while you do it. You know the drill. Just do it. 

And we talked about the importance of healthy, sustainable food a few weeks ago. Food is a delicious, delectable component of life. Choose your food (and therefore, quality of life) wisely.

Herbal Medicine
I once thought herbs were strictly for cooking and smoking. I've come to realize herbal remedies, while sometimes thought of as "too hippy' for the general population, are actually quite effective.

I created some cough syrup, immunity-booster, and depression-fighter this fall using stuff from my backyard. Next year I hope to make more - I didn't realize how awesome homemade immunity booster is as a gift! 

Part of my main motivation behind becoming self-sufficient was due in large part to my continual struggles with my mood swings, weight management, skincare, and chronic strep throat. Traditional medicine wasn't working for me. I would take antibiotics, Accutane, face washes, expensive face washes, diet foods....I mean I did all the All-American things they say to do when you have trouble with hormones. I was still getting breakouts...I was still starving while overweight....I was tired all the time.....and I was still getting sick. The very first green smoothie I ever made was blended because I was sick of being sick. And guess what - I haven't gotten strep throat since I started drinking green smoothies. My skin looks pretty dang good, too, and I've found if I drink one when I start to feel a cold coming on, the cold doesn't last as long and I don't spend as much time wishing I were in bed surrounded by empty Kleenex boxes. 

Do yourself a favor and just check it out. You don't need to change out every medicine in your closet, but if you can save a trip to the doctor by simply smooshin some yard weeds in a jar of honey, it's worth a try, right?

Clean Out the Chemicals
In addition to decreasing my reliance on a Walgreens-like medicine cabinet, I've switched a whole slew of personal care products from store-bought to homemade in an effort to avoid chemicals. Chemicals suck, plain and simple. 

The toothpaste recipe is perhaps my favorite. I was a dental assistant for years and never thought I would stoop to brushing my teeth with clay and coconut oil....but can I please tell you, it's freaking awesome. I love it and so do my kids. I also use clay on my armpits. It's true. Best deodorant ever. I wash my face with an oil blend. It is also quite fantastic. The lotion (which is actually a salve, one very sweet lotion-salve-expert told me) is awesome and I sell it to people and give it to new moms. I've washed my hair with homemade shampoo, baking soda and apple cider vinegar, eggs, and most recently, homemade shampoo bars from my favorite lady ever. I've even gone as far as replacing my female products with reusable, sustainable options (which, to be completely honest, is way easier than I thought it would be, super affordable, and definitely something I will eventually need to post about. Maybe....).

I also make my own laundry detergent because it's cheap and not filled with weird substances that seep into the fibers of the clothes and pillowcases that surround my babes. I use wool dryer balls instead of sheets. I've started making my own glass cleaner and all-purpose spray. I am kinda obsessed with un-paper towels. Clean the chemicals out of your home and you reduce getting them into your body....and you save some serious cash when you stop buying disposable, pre-made everything. 

Go Outside
I mean it. Sitting in your house all day, or behind a desk, or behind the wheel is enough to make you insane. Go outside for 5 minutes, just 5 minutes. Just to check the weather. Or see the stars. Or get your mail. Step outside and if you like it, stay out longer. It nourishes your body and your mind to be outside. Create a little oasis for yourself somewhere outside (this can even be a stair with a bit of sunlight slanting on it and a magazine...or a park tree.....or heck a chair outside of Starbucks). Enjoy the air for a minute, or 10, or 30, if you can. 

Health is a combination of nature, nurture, and chance. Sometimes you come from the best genetics and best habits and still get sacked with chronic disease. Sometimes you come from a family filled with lung cancer and smoke 2 packs a day and you live until you're 90. Everyone's definition of health is slightly different, but one thing holds true: If you feel unhealthy, you can take steps toward improving your quality of life. You don't need to live like a sick person. You can improve your health one small step a time...start by loving your body and committing to taking charge of your health, be it in the heart, mind, or soul.

What about you, dear readers? Do you have any health tips and tricks that you fall back on when the going gets tough? What areas can you improve? Which ones do you rock? I'd love to hear about it in the comments down below and as always, thank you so much for reading :)

Did you miss a Self-Sufficient Life series post? Don't worry! Here's what we've covered so far:

Monday, February 1, 2016

A Self-Sufficient Life in 2016: Phase 4: Home

You could live in a 4-bedroom house in suburbia or a studio apartment above a pizza place and the same idea would hold true....nothing, absolutely nothing compares to the feeling you get when arriving home after a long day. Your couch. Your bed. Your walls and doors. It may be a little chaotic if you're like me and you've got kids and animals everywhere, but that's ok. You're home.

Humans need shelter to survive the elements, true. But a home is more than that. It is a place we can retreat, a place we can inject our personalities into, a place we can find those we love.

You know how they say some pets and pet owners look alike (remember 101 Dalmations??)? Well I think our homes are kinda similar - our homes are extensions of ourselves. One of my very good friends is super simple and often anxious - her house is minimally decorated and always clean. One of my favorite blogging buddies, Rachel, travels the world and moves often. Her homes tend to feature photographs of her family, treasures from lands far away, and things that make her super excited (like gas stoves!). And my home, while a constant work-in-progress, is a blend of gifts from family and friends, incomplete DIY projects, windows to my backyard, and kid stuff. Our homes wrap us up and make us feel safe. When we need to get away and rest, or eat, or clean ourselves, we go home. Comfort. Identity. Safety. 

But sometimes our homes stress us out. Sometimes rent is raised, or property taxes go up, or lawn care gets out of control, or roofs leak, or mice move in. Sometimes our home feels more like a trap, a box, than a place of peace. Sometimes we can't make our mortgage payments, or afford to fill our fridges, or shower in our broken bathrooms, or deal with our neighbor's thumping bass at 10PM on a Thursday. I sometimes find myself standing with my fists clenched against my sides, brow furrowed, wishing with all my heart I could just say damn the man and move to the middle of nowhere and sit in a cabin in the woods with canned green peppers and ice cream and maybe 3 chickens and that's it.

But then I think about how the goal is to be self-sustainable...capable....well-versed in solving life's little problems. So I try to follow a few easy methods of regaining a peaceful home. These things put the "Jen" back in "Jen's House," and help me keep reaching for a life surrounded the by things, people, and places I love.

Put Stuff Away
This one sounds easy but it isn't. When you eat a sammich, put the lunchmeat and bread away. I know, I know. You really want to eat the sammich. But before you even take a bite, put the stuff away, run your hand over the counter, and brush the crumbs into your palm. Toss 'em or lick 'em, your choice. Then eat. I promise, the sammich will taste way better.

Open your mail right after getting it out of the mailbox. I will literally stop at my recycling bin outside and toss the junk mail before it even enters my house. Bye, Felicia. Wash your dishes every night....or, if you're like me, make your kid do it (another post in this series will detail how to enlist those little hands!). Hang up your coat, remove your shoes in the house, teach your kids to do the same, asks guests to follow suit, can even teach your dogs to pause at the door to get their paws wiped.

Putting stuff away is the easiest way to avoid what I call "psychotic physical clutter," or PPC. Just sitting in a room filled with clutter will make you feel sick. It's true. It's one of those weird brain things. Look it up.

You do not need all those magazines, Jen. Nope. You really, really don't. Or those pants from high school. Your hips will never be the same and you know it. Nope, don't need all those birthday cards, either. Or that super old notebook from Jr High with all the doodles all over it. And the box of notes you saved from the pre-texting days of your youth. 

You know what I need to do when I notice crap piling up in my room, my kitchen, my basement? I need to sit back and think, "Will I want to look at this stupid vase when I'm on my deathbed? If a tornado raced through here, would I grab this stupid vase? Is this vase more important than my sanity?" And when the answer is no (because it is always no), I flip on my cold, cutthroat heart and I donate it. Yep. I cut myself off emotionally and realize I don't love things, I love people.

And then I donate the thing...or many Goodwill or one of those "leave it outside and we'll pick it up" placed like the Cancer Federation. I am always tempted to save it for a garage sale but you know what, I will never get what I think it's worth and by the time I actually hold the garage sale, I will have too much stuff to even see my garage. So I donate thousands of dollars worth of stuff each year. Things I bought. Things my family bought for me. Things my friends spent their money on. Yep, I will donate those things and not at all feel guilty...why? Because downsizing the immense amount of stuff I collect is good for me...and anyone who gives me a gift cares more about me than the object they gave me. 

Another way to do this? Move into a smaller house. Easy-peasy. No room? No stuff. *sighs* someday!

Learn Basic Repairs
I fixed my furnace once. Seriously. It wasn't turning on one morning and it was like 40 in the house and so I went down there, read the little indicator lights on my furnace, and then YouTubed videos made by HVAC dudes. I used a screwdriver to remove this little stick sensor from my furnace, rubbed the stick with some fine-grain sandpaper per the video dude, then put it back and whammo, heat. Still one of my proudest moments to date...and it was just a silly furnace thing. But you know what? I saved a call to the furnace guy that day. And I saved money. And that feels awesome.

Learn how to do some basic stuff around your house. Figure out how to check the electrical box, snake a drain, troubleshoot heating and cooling issues, check the wear and tear on your roof, and run your lawn mower. You don't need to be good at it, you just gotta be willing to learn and solve some of your own problems. This is self-sufficiency, yes? You know how I make it fun? I pin home repair tutorials :) This Old House has a Pinterest page, people! 

Budget Home Maintenance
I typically wait until a problem occurs before finding the money to fix it. This hasn't bitten me in the butt so far, but it's coming. One of these days something major is going to happen and I won't have the money to fix it and I will end up floating down the street in an upside-down umbrella while a river of my own sewage or something flows under me. Taking $20 a week and putting it into an envelope for emergency home repairs would be awesome....but I think we can take it one step further.

Take the time to perform preventative maintenance. Change your furnace filter. Clean out your gutters. Cut back plants near your foundation. Actually go up in the dark, scary, gross attic with a super-bright flashlight and look for signs of water damage or little critters. Clean your oven. Inspect the caulk around sinks and tubs and patch any holes (yes - you can do this!). Prevention takes time and is annoying but it can save you in the long run!

Prioritize Projects
I have notebooks filled with pictures of remodel ideas. I quite literally want to do close to 10 home projects at any given moment. 

A good friend once sat through my long list of "I want to's" and she sat back and very calmly asked if I planned on living in this home into retirement. I gasped. Of course not. I will be living in my earthen-carved hobbit hole by the time I am retired. She guessed as much (clever girl) and suggested I focus on projects that would significantly add to the value of the home. Would bumping a wall out and expanding the kitchen be awesome? Yes. Would it get me my remodel money back? Not likely, not in this neighborhood. Simple things, like updating countertops, sinks, and getting a non-crumbling back porch would make much more sense from an investment perspective. Yes, my bubble may have burst a little...but her words helped free up my brain for the projects that really, truly need to get done.

Conserve Energy
I mean it. Don't just sigh and scroll past this one. I mean really, really try to reduce your energy bills. Do it for your planet. Do it for your bank account. Do it because candlelight is cool. Just do it. 

Turn off your lights. Unplug appliances that are not in use. Caulk windows. Open curtains on south-facing walls in the winter....close them in the summer. Experiment with different temperature settings on your thermostat. Considered warming your home through alternative means, like a rocket mass heater - those things are seriously incredible. Just try to make a dent, no matter how small. Give it a try. Each mini-step you take in reducing your energy consumption brings you that much closer to freedom from the grids and ties with corporate energy conglomerates....and well on your way to self-sustainability. 

Never Stop Dreaming
I'm obsessed with cob, cordwood, and strawbale houses. Honestly, if I knew back then what I know now, I would've bought a plot of land and built my house from the sand and clay and straw around me instead of taking out a $145k mortgage like everyone else. I would've sunk my whole body into some mushy wet clay and built all these awesome curved windows and used bottles for window holes and built-in benches and crazy river rock mosaics and living roofs. 

But I did not do that. And instead of feeling sorry for myself, or wanting to punch myself in the face, I'm going to hold onto my bucket of dreams and take some steps, however little, to making them a reality. 

You're always going to want something you don't have. That is the very essence of being human. There's nothing wrong with it - it's the motivating force behind our lives, to strive for more. Combine that motivation with a well-balanced sense of gratuity, and I'd say you've got yourself a pretty stable little mental state. Don't let your circumstances prevent you from reaching for what you want. Don't stop believing on this journey. Oh yeah, I just did that. 

Our homes are so much more than shelter. Some homes are made of four walls, others of four ventricles, but regardless of what you call home, know that you alone have the power to change your surroundings. Make the most of it.

What do you consider "home?" How can you become more self-sufficient with your surroundings? I'd love to hear about it in the comments down below and as always, thank you so much for reading :)

Did you miss a Self-Sufficient Life series post? Don't worry! Here's what we've covered so far: