Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Analyzing the Family Budget

It's good to take stock periodically and review your budget to see if you're spending the family money wisely. But sometimes, you also need to stop and evaluate how far you've come in making progress. When I was starting to fret over the bottom line this past month, I stopped and made a list of things that we were doing RIGHT; things we had already done to cut back.

And I was pleasantly surprised! It lifted my spirits a bit, just knowing we were making progress. (Imagine what the budget would be like if we HADN'T made these changes!) Here's a few things that I believe have made a difference...

How We've Cut Back on Expenses

Converted from propane to natural gas. This required an initial investment, but we started saving about 1/2 on our monthly bill right away. Over time, the conversion will pay for itself and save us big money!

Zoned the house for efficient heating. We have a two story farmhouse with all the bedrooms downstairs on one side of the house. The upstairs is just a large bonus room. A door at the top of the stairs can be closed to keep the heat from traveling up the stairwell and out of the main living area. Another door (a single french door) was installed between the entry and the hallway. The duct work was cut off so the two areas are now totally separate heating zones.

The living area is strictly heated with a wood stove and the bedrooms on a very small heating unit on a timer for only a small portion of the day. In time, we hope to install a second stove and turn off the heating unit entirely. (The current wood stove could not heat all of the downstairs sufficiently, so this option seemed best).

Cut out the air conditioning. Since we live in the mountains, we only get a couple of weeks each year that seem a bit unbearable. So instead of running the A/C, even on those hot days, we've opted to just open up the windows. We built several screen doors as well to allow for even more air flow and it really makes a difference. I've learned that if you open up the house in the early morning and close it before the temperature gets above 75 or 80, you can trap the cool air for most of the day. Then open the doors again in the evening as soon as it cools down, and you can bring the indoor temperature down for bedtime.

Cut down on the dryer use. With the installation of my lovely clothesline (thanks to my sweet husband!), we now use the dryer for about 1, MAYBE 2 loads a week... bath towels. I also have a very nice drying rack in the laundry room and I hope to install a ceiling mounted drying system for winter drying (I have 12 foot ceilings and heat rises! Best to make good use of that.)

• Make our own laundry soap. We've been doing this for about 2 years now and it's worked great! A load costs just about 3 cents and cleans really well. (My recipe can be found HERE).

Make almost 100% of our cleaning supplies. I'm down to just one cleaner that I still purchase and as soon as I can figure out a suitable solution for it's replacement, that will be gone as well (small steps, right?). Instead, my cleaning closet only contains baking soda, vinegar, Borax, Zote soap, and other natural items I can purchase in bulk for a fraction of the cost.

• Cut off the satellite TV. Instead of spending lots of $$$ on channels we never watch, we pay less than $16 a month for Netflix and we watch when we really want to see something at a much more convenient time. There are many more family friendly choices as well. And if we only watch one or two movies for the entire month, we're still saving over going out to the movies and certainly saving over the cable/satellite choices!

• Use the public library more. We're a family of bibliophiles and if there's anything we L.O.V.E. spending money on, it's a good book! We've nipped that in the bud for the most part. Now we really only buy reference books (just in case!), an occasional classic, or something else that we know we'll read again and again. AND, before we buy any of the above, we try to check it out at the library FIRST to make sure it's a good choice. Yes, they're really getting to know us down at the library (and our very unusual reading selections!).

• Driving less. Well, sort of. We're really trying! And by being conscious of the fact that we need to drive less, we actually are making less trips to town. With the distance (and dangerous, narrow road), it isn't possible to use a bike, but by careful planning, combining errands, sharing a ride, etc., we're getting there!

• Eating out less. This has been VERY hard. Not that we eat out all that much, but because my goal was to eat only one meal out a week. While I can't think of a week we've achieved that, just having the goal has helped tremendously. We've been much more diligent to plan or come up with something at home.

Eating more beans. Although I can't say we've had a lot of bean meals this last month, we definitely have had more the other 6 months of the year. And we'll continue to do so once the heat wave is over. (No one is all that hungry in the heat anyway!). We're getting pretty creative with bean ideas.

Buying meat in bulk. While we could certainly eliminate meat or buy a cheaper quality, the fact that we were paying more at the store has made bulk meat purchasing a frugal alternative. (Read about our bulk meat purchase HERE).

Make all our own bread products. I've fudged on this and bought about 6 loaves all year long (usually for a special occasion). The rest of the time, I buy my own grain, grind it, and make our sandwich bread, biscuits, rolls, etc. I've even learned to make English muffins in the GNOWFGLINS Sourdough class. If we don't have some made, we do without. Talk about motivation!

Growing our own vegetables. Let me be clear... we are not growing ALL our food. Not yet. But every season is one step closer. And in the meantime, it's making a difference. It's amazing how your attitude about food changes, too. You get what God provides that day! And any food that comes through our door... we're being extra careful to utilize it by canning, dehydrating, or freezing if we can't eat it right then.

Raising our own dairy products. Having chickens and goats means no more store bought eggs, milk, half-half, yogurt, or other milk related items (if I get them made!), including ice cream. We've started making our own raw goat milk ice cream and it's wonderful!

Cutting back on electronic purchases. When we started looking into going off grid, it was apparent that we needed to first cut back on our electric usage. Every chance I get, I'm trying to opt for a non-electric alternative. So while we still have electronic devices (and will continue to do so), we're at least trying to consider where we want to actually spend that power. And it's starting to show on our electric bill... YAHOO!

Cutting our own hair. I'm the only person in our family that is still paying for a haircut. The girls have let their hair grow long and I trim it about twice a year. We also invested in an electric hair clipper and I cut my husband's hair (if he doesn't get to it first - yikes!).

Reduced gift-giving at Christmas. Oh, I do hate to sound like Scrooge, but truthfully, our Christmas budget was waaaay out of line. Over the last 5 years, we've steadily cut back. And this year... we're slashing it! Gifts will almost all be hand made (mostly food) and our emphasis will be to participate in a local charity, Operation Christmas Child, and Samaritan's Purse via their Gift Catalog (similar to Heifer International).  

So there's the list so far. I think I left off one or two things, but these were the big areas that I think are really adding up for significant savings. I realize, not everyone can do all these things; and perhaps you've cut back in an area I can't. But by posting this, I'm hoping that it will help you look around and see areas where you've already cut or perhaps where you can in the future.

In time, we want to continue to trim other categories, like clothing (we don't spend a ton anyway), but let's be honest... there are few budget items, that have actually INCREASED.

Ways We're Spending More

Animal feed & needs. You've heard the saying, "There's no such thing as a free dog". That's a true statement. Animals cost money. Do I think it's wisely invested? You bet! Chickens, goats, bees... even dogs and cats. All serve a purpose on our homestead and all contribute. But they have to be sheltered, eat, and have regular care. So, yes... we're spending more in this area.

Almost 100% organic, non-GMO food. We're paying in advance for our health care! My earlier post, Why You Should Shun Cheap Groceries covers my thoughts on this subject in detail.

• Homesteading projects. Did I already mention animal housing? Yes... that costs money, too. Barns, mini-barns, coops, fencing, animal runs, animal protection, the clothesline I mentioned above, and so on and so on... There's always a project that needs attending to and yet, I see this as an investment. My husband likes to build really well, one time, so most of these items should last for many, many years.

Preparedness. Stocking up? Yes, some. But it's more than that. Self-sufficiency, emergency needs, medical... It's one of those things that's easy to say we'll do "someday". My monthly Preparedness Challenge helps me to stop procrastinating and we're actually making progress. A little each month is easier on the budget, but it still costs something.

• Increased cell phone and internet bill. Ouch. What can I say... I like to blog. Seriously, we have made some choices as a family that have increased our cell phone and internet usage. For example, three of our children do school through on-line schools, so it is what it is. Some budget items are unique to each family and I've just had to swallow hard to get this one down, cause it isn't going to go away. Would I like to run away at times and join the Amish? You bet! But then again, I'd miss all of you!

Looking through your own budget, what's been your biggest money saving change?


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