What a week, and not just because it was 60 degrees yesterday and then snowing this morning! All of our plans have been scrambled as the Covid-19 was declared a global pandemic. The stock market crashed and rebounded sort of. Whole countries are locked down. Sports seasons were cancelled and schools were closed. Universities plan to finish their semesters online. Our church announced that they were suspending church meetings and activities worldwide. Anxiety has gone up as people wonder what will happen and who they need to worry about. Groceries are flying off the shelves. Next week the kids are home for spring break and Steven's job has asked everyone who can to work remotely until the end of March. With all this excitement, we decided to end our 100-day limited spending budget challenge this week and I did my regular shopping plus some extra to refill our reservoir of items that were getting close to running out. Like I said two weeks ago, you don't drain a reservoir in a drought just to see what the bottom looks like.
It's much easier and a lot less stressful to just keep a constant level in the reservoir than it is to drain and refill it dramatically. We should have planned to end our challenge this week even without all the panic. It's good timing to end as we change from winter to spring over spring break. We saved enough to pay for some summer activities and fancy dresses for events the girls hope won't be cancelled. We're in a good habit of eating out of the pantry too. It's a good thing we still have a full freezer, because it looks like we will be doing another eating at home challenge for the next while. If you are wondering what kinds of things were getting low in our reservoir, we bought a lot of apple juice for our green smoothies, frozen orange juice, frozen fruit and veggies, potatoes, a bunch of citrus fruit, carrots, and tortilla chips because we missed those. We bought laundry soap and personal hygiene products like shampoo and toothbrushes cleaning supplies. I filled back in the spice cupboard and bought brown sugar because we love to bake. We wouldn't have run out of anything if we had completed all 100 days of the challenge, but didn't want to risk running out and being sick or quarantined at the end of the challenge. It was really nice to be able to buy a few treats like tomatillo avocado salsa and hummus again. I also splurged and bought a bunch of Easter candy too, just in case it decides to flee the stores with the bottled water, toilet paper, and dried beans.
Now we are switching gears to focus on the garden. I have planted thousands of seeds and lots of strawberries for our garden and the spring plant sale. This year more than ever I am inspired to grow a great garden. Unlike grocery stores, the food in my garden doesn't tend to have a run on supplies. Well, we did have a racoon family that had a tomato tasting party in the garden last year, but I digress. Usually, if we plant it I can count on some good yields. We grew enough food in the garden last year to save us about $3000 off our regular budget. That is like 2.5 months of pretty much free food, or another way of looking at it is that the garden gives my monthly budget a $250 boost. That is a huge help and a great investment! It's also a good way to get kids outdoors and doing something. I'm really grateful we have so many spring projects to work on since we will have so much time at home.
Friday we took the day to clean up the flower gardens and orchard. The girls cut down all the spent flower stems and made big piles that Robert ran through the shredder. I'm sad the voles girdled so many of our fruit trees, but Katie and Robert sure had lots of fun cutting the dead trees down. A lumberjack contest kept things interesting. Steven and Robert ran the shredder until sunset making fresh mulch for the beds. I picked up bits of trash that had blown in over the winter and found a pile of garlic that I had pulled up last year now sprouting. I picked the best pieces and planted them back into the garden beds so we can harvest even more this fall. Sunshine and fresh air combined with dirt and good hard work is a good recipe for a great day. I got a little sunburned, it's been months since I've spent that much time in the garden.
The seasons change with or without us
Thomas S. Monson said:
"We live in turbulent times. Often the future is unknown; therefore it behooves us to prepare for uncertainties. When the time for decision arrives, the time for preparation is past."
When I started to write today I wondered what to write. I could tell you that toilet paper and beans are in short supply and their are long lines everywhere, but it's not very helpful, since those moments of preparation are past. The stores will stock back up eventually, but by then life will be on to the next thing. The events of our lives roll in and out just like the seasons. Some things will be easy to plan for, others will catch us by surprise. In some ways this coming year feels like a great adventure. Everything will be great if we are ready for it, but dangerous if we are not.
Roald Admundson the Norwegian polar explorer had great success in his adventures part because he prepared for potential problems and obstacles in advance. He said it this way:
"I may say that this is the greatest factor: the way in which the expedition is equipped, the way in which every difficulty is foreseen, and precautions taken for meeting or avoiding it. Victory awaits him who has everything in order, luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time, this is called bad luck."
Halfway to the south pole would be a really bad time to run out of supplies. I don't think they have a Costco there. Even if they did, I'm sure the prices would be much higher than you could get if you had planned ahead and didn't need something in an emergency. Last minute flights, after hours urgent care, and same day delivery all cost an arm and a leg. Sometimes literally. Planning ahead is infinitely preferred.
So what is the next part of our adventure that needs to be planned? As we look ahead to this summer there are lots of uncertainties. "Will our activities be postponed or cancelled?" "What happens if...(fill in the blank trauma of choice)? What can I do? Well, I know for the next little bit I have a whole lot of help at home so we will be utilizing all that spare teenage muscle and skill to work on the garden. This week we will set up the greenhouses, build an in-the-garden greenhouse, trellis the blackberries and pull up the rest of the damaged fruit trees. I'll plant more seeds and clean up more garden beds. The kids can help clean out and organize the garage and a dozen other projects. We'll organize the house, do some online shopping for winter and fall things that are going out of season now, so we won't have to worry about finding them next fall. We're working on a schedule so we can be productive with our time and trying to keep it fun.
Speaking of planning ahead, we remembered at dinner that it's Pi day. I remembered this morning when I decided to wear my Pi day t-shirt, but forgot about it soon after. Mental note that planning goes better with a written list :) Anyway, one of the kids remembered a razzleberry pie that got missed in the freezer, and cooked it up. Sadly, by the time it was finished baking it was too late to eat it, so we will eat it tomorrow. Yes, that was a tough sell to send them to bed without pie. Not planning ahead is trouble. However, being flexible to plans changing is also a great skill. I solved the dilemma by promising they could eat it for breakfast instead. Probably with whipped cream. We eat oatmeal a lot. I'm sure it will balance out. Planning ahead would have saved me serious parental bonus points here. It's a skill that needs more polishing apparently. I should write that down.
By planning ahead for the garden now we will have strawberries for sky high strawberry pies and jam, fresh green peas and bunching onions and lots of greens in just a few months. The rhubarb is already growing again so it's time to use up what we have left in the freezer. We'll make freezer jam with the strawberries and package the new rhubarb for fruit leather, cakes and pies. We're already looking ahead a year in lots of ways. We'll be filling up the reservoirs because it looks like the weather is unsettled. We'll be preserving part of all the harvests, and drop by drop we'll fill back up the reservoirs. Then whatever happens, we will have eaten well all summer, worked hard in the sun, and spent good time together as a family, a with any luck (dedicated planning and preparation) we will gave a great harvest too.
As I started to write this blog post, everything in the house is quiet and dark. The sky is dark and not even the birds are up yet. This has been an early to rise week! Every day I have gotten up between 4:00 and 5:30 a.m. on purpose. Why? Well, I substitute taught my daughter’s early morning seminary class twice, then I saw my son off early for his service mission assignment in Omaha, NE on Wednesday. He has to be there by 8 a.m. and it’s a two-and-a-half-hour drive. Thursday morning was jazz band and school prep. I like to take the time to plan, ponder, and pray before everything gets busy. If I take a few minutes at the beginning of the day and write down my thoughts and impressions my day goes much better.
This week for our budget challenge I'd like to say I did some great money saving thing, but in reality, I was too busy to even go shopping because it is seed planting time! Although I might plant peas outside now, most of the seeds that I’m planting are for our spring plant sale. They need to be planted now, placed on heat mats and under grow lights and then spend time in the greenhouse getting bigger before they will be ready to plant outside. No worries, we are still 2 months away from prime garden planting time.
I've had a busy week though. I took one day to bake oatmeal bread and cookies for school lunches and meals, but other than that we were all about fast meals. With the weather warming, I moved from hot oatmeal to granola with fruit for breakfast. I outsourced the main meals to the kids to cook. We had burritos and several kinds of pasta and Robert went the second mile and made red beans and rice from scratch in the Instant Pot. Fairly instant food is in order when the spring rush starts. I didn’t even go grocery shopping until this morning.
The news cycle has been exciting this week. The stock market is having bipolar swings up and down about a thousand points each day and there is continuing worry about a possible pandemic. It’s hard not to be concerned when the news has a new historic something to report on every night. I like history. When I’m planting seeds, I often have some historical documentary playing in the background. This week I watched one on the stock market crash of 1929 and another on the Spanish flu of 1918. It's good to have some historical perspective. They seriously did not know how to quarantine or wash anything in 1918 so they had way bigger problems than a hand sanitizer shortage.
Gordon B. Hinckley was a child of the Great Depression. When he graduated university, unemployment was 33 percent. He saw the financial turmoil, bankruptcies and knew the suffering that was part of that experience. He didn’t want us to repeat those hard times again and offered the following warning in 1998:
"So many of our people are living on the very edge of their incomes. In fact, some are living on borrowings. We have witnessed in recent weeks wide and fearsome swings in the markets of the world. The economy is a fragile thing. A stumble in the economy in Jakarta or Moscow can immediately affect the entire world. It can eventually reach down to each of us as individuals. There is a portent of stormy weather ahead to which we had better give heed."
Yes, it does look stormy again, and more frequently. Excessive debt is a big part of our nation’s financial fragility then and now. It is good counsel to be thrifty, stay out of debt, and save a little. Dave Ramsey calls his get out of debt and stay out of debt financial advice, the same advice your grandma would give you. He and other financial experts and your grandma all know that debt is not the path to prosperity. Albert Einstein is attributed with saying it this way:
‘Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. He who understands it, earns it ... he who doesn't ... pays it.’
Speaking of investments with high yielding potential...Let's think about the garden! We planted peas today. It might be too early, but the weather was so nice, and the seeds were a little old, and the kids really needed an outside job to do, so it was worth a small risk. We'll see what happens.
How can a garden be such an important part of a diversified investment portfolio? I'll tell you! Ezra Taft Benson was a farm boy from Idaho born in 1899 who became the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture during the Eisenhower administration. He saw firsthand the suffering and hunger in Europe after WWII. He saw people loading up with anything they thought was valuable in the mornings to take trains to the country to try to buy food. He said they were willing to do almost anything to get food. He reminded us that:
"There are blessings in being close to the soil, in raising your own food even if it is only a garden in your yard and a fruit tree or two. Those families will be fortunate who... have an adequate supply of food because of their foresight and ability to produce their own."
It's not just old fashioned advice from people who lived through big troubles. Having a garden really does help. It’s an investment. Fruit trees and berry bushes and vines take years to grow and produce, but they have a small purchase price compared to the fruit I can harvest over time if I put in the small amount of work into planting and caring for them. Unlike the stock market, my garden is not subject to the same volatile market swings. Not all our garden investments have turned out. We have had bear markets and recessions too. More like vole markets that caused a huge downturn in yields. But on the whole, we get better harvest every year. We eat as much of the harvest as we like fresh and then preserve the rest. Fresh berries may go on sale in the store, but when they are grown in my garden, they are almost free. I do have to watch out for birds and other pests, but it is much easier than hoping they get shipped from California and end up on sale when I need them. We turned most of the strawberries last year into freezer jam which we are still enjoying now 9 months later. Those are some sweet investment yields!
Just like other investments that earn interest, gardening takes time and consistent learning, and endurance during downturns (pests, hail, etc...) We have learned lots of different methods and strategies over the years to improve our harvests. Equipment to dehydrate, freeze, and can food have been bought a little at a time as we could afford it over the years. You could not go out and learn all you needed to learn about gardening in one season, and it would be prohibitively expensive to buy all the things you need to preserve food all at once. You would get burned out, something wouldn’t grow well, and you might surmise that it is better to just buy everything at the store where you can get pretty much anything you want. I know this. Our first tomato after the purchase of a shovel and hose cost us $50! But shovels do last a long time, and we grew lots more tomatoes after that and the shovel and hose were helpful in many other projects too.
Here is my two cents of advice adjusted for inflation in 2020. Start small. Start with something you like to eat. Start with something that might be expensive in the stores or a variety that isn’t widely available like a unique tasty tomato. Start with something that grows well in your area. Plant a variety of things so that if one thing doesn't work out others will. Talk to someone who gardens and ask questions. Plant people are nice people. They will help. Join a Facebook group on gardening, or sign up for a community garden spot and talk to other gardeners. They know what grows well and what doesn’t and they can help. Little successes will encourage a next step and you will feel better knowing you have provided some of your own food. It is a feeling of security.
Food security is defined as the state of having reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. Stores operate on a just in time principle. That means they order when it gets bought. That way they don't have to keep large stockrooms anymore. This is all very efficient, but it also means they can quickly clear out in a panic. Prices go up and down according to availability. Growing a little of your own is a good way to diversify the food portfolio. Safe in my freezer and store room the food we grow is not subject to market swings, panics and price changes. That is real food security!
This weeks small garden investments were cleaning out some of the garden beds and planting peas radishes, winter kale and spinach chard. Steven dug out the raspberry beds that got phytophthora root rot and prepared them for flowers this summer. (I'm working up to a cut flower garden this year.) I potted up the strawberries for our spring plant sale and planted lots of tomato and pepper seeds as well. Steven also pruned the grapes, raspberries, and blackberries and put sulfur down on the blueberries to acidify the soil. We bought the stuff to finish the in-the-garden-greenhouse and the blackberry trellis. It's a little work now, but it will be a whole lot of delicious flavor in just a few months. Everyone ought to have a garden! The earlier you start the more time you have for your investments to grow!
The early bird gets the worm. Early to bed early to rise makes a man healthy wealthy and wise. Idioms and rhymes help us learn. Here's one for today since I have been up and going since before daybreak and the sun has now set. If its been a tough week for you, hang in there. The sun will rise again soon and things always look better at sunrise.
A noble heart, like the sun, showeth its greatest countenance in its lowest estate.
—Sir Philip Sidney
This week my youngest daughter made a goal to exercise. Since she is eight she declined doing a Jillian Michaels workout or lifting weights. She resolved to spend more time at the park. This is a great goal. Since she is still little she needed someone to go play or "workout" with her. I volunteered. She rode her bike and I looked around for interesting pictures. I love how the ice looks on the pond. I'm also very excited to see it melting around the edges. Something about this picture of last years bird nest by the side of a frozen pond spoke to me.
We have birds all over the place now. They are in the middle of a spring housing tournament. Every morning the sparrows sit and squabble over my fireplace vent. I can hear them discussing the pros and cons and flying in and out to check everything out. "I like the walls. It just needs a new coat of paint." "I'm not sure the master is big enough for us" "It has great access though, and what a roof!" When a bidding war breaks out in the middle of breakfast though, I just turn on the gas fireplace. In just a moment or two the bidding war ends and all the birds fly back into the trees. Some housing markets are just too hot.
The sparrows are a rowdy crowd, they have to talk about everything. I have also seen a pair of mourning doves, and a cardinal couple checking out this year's available lodgings. It is a big responsibility to settle down and decide to raise a family, and choosing a spot for a home is a big step! I imagine the bird nest in this picture was a great spot. Beachfront property with the cool breeze off the pond. The nest is still in great shape even after the winter winds. I'm sure that as things turn green again, someone will claim this spot again.
How do birds recognize a good spot to build? It isn't all instinct. Apparently they need to practice. I watched a young robin build a nest in a most impractical spot last year. Even with no previous nest building experience, even I could tell that that nest was going to fall off of that branch. We got a little wind before the nest was even finished, and it fell. He found a better spot. It takes perseverance as well. Another robin wanted to build a nest under my deck. I kept pulling down his pile, and he kept putting it back up. Guess who won? He did. I still don't think they should build there, (don't put all of your eggs in that basket!) the babies have a hard time there, but I haven't figured out how to communicate my concerns.
Maybe birds don't have as many concerns as we do. They don't worry about the stock market or global pandemics, or supply shortages. On the other hand there is avian influenza. They also have to be concerned about hawks, great horned owls and eagles right here (they sit on my roof). I guess there are also dogs and cats to worry about too, not to mention other birds trying to get your nesting spot. Maybe they worry about food supplies too. Birds certainly deal with lots of variability in food and weather and other problems. It can't be easy, and yet they come out to sing as soon as the storms blow over and the sun comes out. And they'll all band up together and chase the hawks and crows away when they have baby chicks in their nests. Cheerful and brave! Maybe I can learn something from them.
Speaking of weather and economic difficulties, this week has been exciting don't you think? Our "nest egg" has taken a hit with the sinking stock markets and there are lots of worries in the air. All of that worry made us wonder about out budget challenge. We have been spending very little and using up our stores from last summer's garden. We still have plenty of stocks in the freezer and pantry, but it made me wonder if we are in the right spot. Travel restrictions, supply shortages and other concerns keep popping up. I pondered reservoirs.
I grew up in the mountain west. Reservoirs were everywhere. There is not enough rain all year to take care of everyone's needs, so reservoirs have been built to hold the water that will be needed during dry times. Lately, sometimes the dry times have been close enough together and long enough to have even the biggest reservoirs be at low levels. Here in the Midwest, we have plenty of rain, sometimes too much. Reservoirs can also help control floods by releasing the water at just right amounts to protect the cities downstream.
Not all reservoirs are lakes however. A reservoir is a supply or stock of something that will be useful. We have turned our backyard into a food reservoir. Some of that is saving water. We planted the slope of the backyard to control water. Steven keeps adding rain barrels to collect some of the rainwater so we have a buffer in dry weeks. Since it is planted and mulched most of the rain that we get stays in the yard and gardens. We don't have to water as often anymore. The gardens produce better every year. The trees and flowers invite birds and beneficial insects. We provide housing and food, they eat bugs I don't like and a few things that I really do like. It's okay, I can share. We can't make everything though. Well we could, but I have to balance my available time, money, and energy. Just like you wouldn't want to run a reservoir dry just to see how much is in it, we don't want to run all the way out of things before we restock. I can do math and figure out how much is there and how fast we are using it.
For those of you who wonder just how fast the reservoir empties for a family of eight mostly teenagers; the flow from these reservoirs are fast, in both food and money. We have saved over $2000 in groceries over 60 days by spending so little, but it really isn't sustainable. Spending so little just lowers the levels in the reservoir. We'll save on impulse buys and by making lots of homemade foods we'll eat better, but sooner or later we have to fill back up, or we will just run dry. A realistic but still tight budget is about $100 per month per person for food and consumables. You would get more per person on food stamps as a comparison :) You'll still have to be careful, but if you grow a garden, keep a food pantry, buy basics on sale, and cook mostly at home, you can make it on that. Any lower than that and you are just running out. We decided not to run the the reservoir dry just to prove we can. Like the gas tank in your car, some things you just need to keep more than half full so you don't run into more trouble by running out.
Enter the semi-annual Costco and Sam's Club stock up run! We are still doing our challenge, but due to the economic weather forecast and other global concerns, we decided it would not be wise to run the reservoirs dry. We took our 2nd exception to stock up on a few things. Steven teases that since it is Leap Day, it wasn't really a day that we planned for on our challenge so it doesn't count, but if your interested it took about $700 of the $2000 we saved to fill us back up to a comfortable level. We didn't really buy very much food. Laundry detergents, tissues, paper towels, shampoo and toothpaste, vitamins, cough drops, oil for the van etc. I'll post a picture below. (I had already put away the almond milk and frozen fruit) We still have plenty of food in the freezer and pantry, but I feel better knowing our toilet paper and toothpaste won't run out.
Even with this big outflow from the grocery budget the savings are still filling up. All of this fit into our regular budget of $125 per month per person. At that rate our pantry reservoir stays full and the savings fills up, slowly, but every little bit helps! If we total up all the things we have been able to do over this last year, saving, and budgeting and being intentional, we are thousands of dollars ahead of where we were this time last year. Little drops add up! And no worries! We have 40 days left of the challenge. We'll be back on track tomorrow. If we spend $56 a week for the rest of the challenge, even counting today's expenses we will have only spent $1500 on groceries and consumables in the whole 100 day challenge. That works out to $1.87 spent per person per day, or about 63 cents per meal! That's amazing!