Frugal Thinking

forest-path-238887_1920iThe sun is poking through the clouds, shining with unusual intensity for a cloudy day directly into our dining room. The house is quiet – only the animals and I are awake. I am sitting at the keyboard, thinking. This is what I wanted more of when I quit that crazy job. Time to just think. It’s been a year now, and that anniversary as well as the lack of padding in our bank account has made me ponder my choice, which still feels right. I’ve never had a job that felt like such a good match to my skills, and because there is room to grow in the organization, I believe that our income situation will improve in time. In the meantime, Mari’s only home for two more years. I want to make those happy years, not two more years with a stressed-to-the-limit mom.

I met my friend Mary to walk and talk yesterday, and our conversation turned to how I have more time now. I definitely do, though its source is not really obvious. One hour of daily work time saving has been given to sleep that I didn’t know I was missing until I felt the resulting change. I am not spending hours each week on a job hunt, as I was for much of 2018. Overall, it’s hard to say whether reduced stress or the changed work environment is the most significant factor.

My previous job required “deep work” for the entire day.  Every task, every day, required problem solving in a different situation, resolution in a timely manner, with close to zero tolerance for error. But all day long I was interrupted by someone in person or by phone, text, or page at least every 15 minutes. Sometimes it was something that could have been asked in an email. Sometimes it was production staff asking me when I would be done using some equipment (I managed to never say, “Sooner if you stop interrupting me.”). Sometimes it was actually something urgent. Every day when I came home, my brain was exhausted – and then I would still continue to receive texts and emails and ponder unsolved issues, often in the middle of the night. My coworkers were similarly stressed, which multiplied the effect.

Now, I am still interrupted for most of the day, but I have at least an hour every morning with close to zero interruptions. The deep work I do comes in concentrated bursts, and there is no manufacturing urgency. When I leave for the day, I am done. I don’t have to make tentative weekend plans around the possibility of being called in to fix something. I have mental energy left in the evenings to learn new things, to begin creative projects, and, most importantly, to be available to my family in more than robot mode.

It is still difficult to catch up with friends due to everyone’s different schedules and time demands, but when I do, I can to settle in and enjoy the time, rather than being stressed about what I’m not getting done. Yesterday, Mary and I walked for an hour on a day with weather that can only be described as perfect (yes, in January!). Both the outdoor time in the sunshine and the discussion were therapeutic.

So, life is very good, but there is some threat of financial strain. To minimize that I will be renewing my focus on frugality, continuing to seek ways of saving on a regular basis. My budgeting approach is somewhat casual except for one rule, which covers just about everything: don’t spend if it’s not necessary or if it’s not in line with family priorities. (I have a formal budget in a spreadsheet, but I don’t look at it very often… it helps that I have a strong memory for numbers.) Our default when something is necessary is to first consider if something else can be substituted or repurposed, which results in many fun creative experiments and a lot of learning. I was considering some sort of formal budget challenge, but after reviewing expenses from the past year, think that I would rather just focus on that one rule, and allow that energy to go to new learning instead.

Is frugality part of your simple living path?
What tools do you use to maintain a frugal lifestyle when there are so many anti-frugal influences every day?

Weeknight Meals, December

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A weekend dinner!

Some years ago I witnessed this exchange between two acquaintances, as we all picked up our children at 6PM from an activity:

“I guess now I have to decide what’s for dinner.”

“I’m going to get a pizza on the way home.  We had Subway last night.”

This really surprised me, because, in those years that I worked only about quarter-time, I saw DIY tasks, particularly cooking, which has the potential to save a huge amount of money, as part of my contribution to our living on one salary.  I thought that everyone would have started a crock pot dinner or have a plan for something quick to cook on their arrival home (“scrambled eggs and fruit” is one of my last-minute plans… but it beats fast food!).  Since returning to full-time (or more) work, I’ve honed my previous routines to save time.  Continue reading “Weeknight Meals, December”

Work Week Routines Part 2: Food

veggies

During the years that I was a SAHM, I learned to cook. I had been cooking for over a decade by that time, not including my undergraduate years of pasta and sandwiches, but meal preparation prior to really learning to cook was time-consuming and exhausting and also created massive piles of dishes.

 

By “learning to cook,” I mean

  • cooking without a recipe, just creating things based on what I have on hand
  • looking at a recipe, and knowing what would need to be changed to meet our preferences
  • reading ingredients, and mentally compiling the aroma and evaluating it

Although I generally like to cook, I am not excited about it Mondays through Fridays after a full day at work. As in the routines mentioned previously, I’ve also tried to minimize the daily brainpower needed to get everyone fed.

Here’s what works for me:

Meal plans: I shop weekly, locations selected based on what we need and what’s on sale. Considering what’s on hand and the week’s evening schedules, I sketch a rough meal plan.

Freezer cooking: We have a freezer in the garage and it is one of my major timesavers. I use it to freeze:

  • extra servings from meals
  • sauces or other meal components
  • garden produce
  • any ingredients that are convenient when frozen, such as ginger cubes or cooked rice
  • foods with short shelf life, such as nuts and cornmeal

The night before a busy day, it is heavenly to go “shopping” in the freezer and find something to thaw in the fridge.

Make lunches: We all eat homemade lunches every day, and we all eat very different lunches every day (since there are only 3 of us, that’s manageable). Here’s what we prepare:

  • Mari’s Pasta: Pasta for dinner turns into a few extra lunch servings, packed for school in an insulated food jar.
  • Thom’s Meat and Potatoes: I cook large batches of meat or sausages, and slice before freezing, placing waxed paper between slices as needed. Each Sunday I remove a few servings and place in a container in the fridge. He has this with rice or potatoes and microwaves everything at lunchtime. Fresh vegetables are always available – carrot/celery/pepper/radish sticks or a salad.
  • My Lunch Salads: I prep salads 3 days at a time, on Sundays and Wednesdays. My salads are always different and might contain any vegetables I have available, plus beans or roasted tofu, nuts or seeds or avocado, berries or other fresh or dried fruit, and potato or grains. I put them in plastic containers ready to grab from the fridge.

(I know, 3 different lunches isn’t really simple.  But it keeps everyone happy.)

Vegetable prep: We eat a lot of vegetables, and they require work before going into any recipe. When I have about 30 minutes of time, such as on weekights after an easy dinner, I’ll work on veggies for the next night’s dinner or for our lunches. Fresh vegetables last longer when cooked, so I prefer to cook all the vegetables I buy within a couple of days and then use them throughout the week. For stir fry, I chop and freeze mushrooms and peppers, and other veggies I cut fresh.

Cook vegetables for many uses: I batch-cook my various vegetables individually, without seasoning, to use in different dishes. For instance, fresh zucchini or mushrooms can be roasted or sauteed and then stored in the fridge or freezer. Once cooked, they can be used on sandwiches, in salads, in chili, in omelets or frittatas, etc. I season the final dish and the vegetables just need to be added with enough time to heat through.

Buy frozen fruits and vegetables: Frozen berries are perfect for smoothies or yogurt parfaits. Frozen vegetables have no waste and no prep time.

Bread baking shortcuts: I bake all of our bread, using a few different methods that I’ll detail in a future post.

Please share your food shortcuts!  I am always excited about maximizing my kitchen efficiency.

Simplifying the Work Week

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Now I know why my aunt always crashed at the end of a workday. Photo circa 1970.

As we drove by a strip mall this morning, Mari said in a disappointed voice, “Oh, that says School of Music. I thought it said School of Magic.” I was disappointed, too. I’d love to have a place to learn time dilation without the constraint of relativistic conditions.

The best trick I’ve found is minimizing everyday decisions through routines. Although it’s hardly a substitute for magic, it can stretch the hours and keep my brainpower available to more important tasks.

I spent nearly 3 years in a job with long days, a long commute, and expectations of being available by text evenings and weekends.  I had no time or energy to do anything in the evenings, and because of my work schedule bedtime was a serious priority, even on the weekends.  I didn’t see many of my friends during the entire time I worked there.  I have changed jobs now to achieve better balance and lower stress, but any full-time job plus personal responsibilities results in many hours consumed.

I learned to prioritize every minute that was available to me outside of work. I gave up  a lot of perfectionism around the house and in the kitchen. Weekends are precious and I minimize errands as much as possible. In addition to stretching my time, this has an added bonus of decreasing spending. I created many routines to minimize the constant decisions and to smooth my exhausted transition daily from home to work.

Summer break is winding to a close now, and I need to revisit these routines in the coming week to lessen the shock that I will feel very soon!

Routines that work for me:

Car: I fill the gas tank on weekends, even if it’s half full, so that I never have to think about stopping for gas during a commute.

Clothing: Sometime on the weekend when I am putting away laundry, I  assemble 5 hangers of clothing for the week, based on the weather. All clothing items and accessories are there for each day, ready to be grabbed from the closet when heading for the shower.

Food: The night before workdays, I plan the next day’s food and ready lunches for packing. I don’t want to think about “what’s for dinner?” when I’m driving home. I have so much to say about food routines that I will save other ideas for another post.

Workday morning: I do exactly the same things, in the same order, every morning. Specifically, I grab my hanger of clothing, put it in the bathroom, run downstairs and start the electric kettle, take a shower, make my tea, care for the pets,  pack my meals, tea, and water bottles, wake Mari for school, and leave. I keep my work badge in the same place in the car so that I don’t need to remember it in the morning. For 2 years, I left the house at 5:30AM.  I was usually tired and did not want to awaken anyone else in the house earlier than necessary.  I leave in the daylight more of the year now, but this keeps me on track every day.

At work: I do particular tasks at certain times of the day, and always make a rough plan for the next day before I leave in the afternoon. I take copious notes, both written and electronic, to make follow-ups easier whether the next day or the next month.

Exercise: I prefer activities such as gardening, hiking, kayaking, biking, etc., but short, frigid, and icy winter days preclude most of them. When I have a break at work, I run up and down as many stairs as I can, and I walk after lunch. When I get home, we always walk Ms. Beagle, and this is a good winding down routine. Sometimes in the winter I take a Zumba class – it does wonders for my mood and back.

Sleep:  Relaxation time is mandatory relaxation in the hour before I go to sleep.  For me, this is reading with a purring cat on my lap, usually alongside Mari who reads or does homework with another cat.  I often have insomnia in the middle of the night and the next work day is difficult, but manageable if I get to bed on time to get a critical solid few hours of sleep before I’m awake.

There it is. Life, scheduled. Some may find it too regimented, but I find that planning the necessary tasks leaves me more time to enjoy.

How do you streamline your work days? I’d love to hear your strategies!