Monday, April 18, 2011

A Twist on the envelope system

I know that credit cards is an area we need to do some work on...we are good about paying them off every month, unless they are on a limited time interest free plan (for those we plan out how much to pay each month so they are paid off before the no interest period ends). But, I know that we spend more using the cards than we would if we used the "envelope" system, as evidenced by the fact that we dip into our savings more often than I'd like to pay them off each month. I'm thankful that we've pretty much always been able to maintain a reasonable amount in savings each month (though admittedly not the 9 months living expenses that is now recommended!) so that we've never been forced to live paycheck to paycheck, but at the same time the danger in that is that I especially sometimes use that cushion as an excuse to spend when I shouldn't.
We did the envelope system early on in our marraige when we were living in an apartment and saving for our first was amazing how quickly our savings grew when we had a goal set and limited ourselves to spending only what was in each envelope (now we did sometimes take money from one category to spend more in another, but we stuck to the rule of not taking more money out of the bank than our pre-set amount). It wasn't long before we were moving into our first home!
Here's the thing...the reason we use the credit cards is to take advantage of annual reward checks and earned points which we redeem for cash cards. Besides charging things like food, gas, etc., we also have some of our bills automatically charged on the card to get the most out of the reward programs. We use two main cards (we do have a couple of store specific cards but only use those to get extra sales or interest free months for bigger purchases and again they get paid off before we pay any interest). Our Costco/American Express card, which actually yields two annual checks (one from Costco that always covers our executive membership fee plus provides extra money to spend there, the other from American Express to spend at Costco...did you know that you can cash the American Express check at Costco intead of spending it there?...did you also know that records of all purchases at Costco are maintained on their computer system so you don't need your receipt to make a return and if an item goes on coupon a bit after you purchased it, you can just go in and give them your card and ask for the coupon amount to be credited to your card...this recently paid off big time for me when tires we'd purchased 6 weeks prior ended up having a $70 off coupon). Our other card is a Visa that offers points that we cash in for Visa Gift Cards that we can then spend anywhere (I like this one too because its pretty easy & straight forward with little/no restrictions). I get a special satisfaction in knowing that while most people are being ripped off by credit cards, they are actually paying us to use them, but like I said I know that the danger in using them is that its easier to spend more when you aren't handing over cash for a purchase which is what inspired me to try a variation of the envelope system.
So, here's my plan as a compromise of the two systems...I've purchased a coupon holder which will be labeled with budget categories. Inside each section will be an index card with the monthly allowance written for that category. Wherever possible I'll purchase gift cards/gift certificates with my credit cards for each category. I'll keep a pen & calculator in one section. Before spending in a category, I'll review what I have available & then make a note of what was spent so I know what's left. The exception here will be gasoline...we'll keep nearly all our month's allowance for that expense in cash in its section since nearly all gas stations now charge more for credit (though when we make our monthly shopping trip to Costco in the city, we'll use our Amex since you can't pay cash & they don't charge any extra for using the card). And of course online purchases are another category that will require using a credit card...this is something I do more than perhaps those who live in larger cities for the simple fact that we don't have a lot of shopping options here in our small community and I can often score better deals and save time (and aggravation of dragging 3 kids from store to store) by shopping around and using coupon codes. On a sidenote, before you make a purchase online, always do a search for coupon codes...some stores even let you use more than one code and many more are starting to do free shipping, some with no minimum purchase. Another section that will typically contain cash is a vehicle maintenance section...I'll pick a specific amount to place in their each month and it will continue to grow so that we have something to help take care of/offset vehicle maintenance and unplanned repairs. One other nice thing about the coupon holder will be that I can put money made from selling our organic eggs in there to then utilize for buying chicken feed.
I think this system will work as long as I force myself to stick to the rules. Using the coupon holder will also help me keep the receipts better organized which will help me when I evaluate where the money went and also can provide a spot for me to hold coupons/notes about specials in the corresponding categories. I'm looking at starting this new plan hopefully by June 1st...I'll need at least a month of feeding/caring for our new goats to see how it effects our budget (money spent on food/routine supplies vs. money saved on dairy products). I'll let you know how it works.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Never a dull moment...

Life with farm animals (ok, and children) typically means there is rarely a dull moment. The other day one of our red star chickens decided to get into the back of our truck to scratch around the various yard branches, weeds, etc. that had been loaded in preparation for a trip to the dump...I had noticed it out the window at some point that morning and thought to myself, "silly chicken we've got over 2 green acres with plenty of bugs, but apparently you think there's something better in the yard waste pile".
Well, imagine my husband's surprise when later that morning he got to the dump and starting unloading and came across our chicken! The dump is at least a 15 minute drive from our house so I'm thankful that the chicken had the sense to hide low during that trek and that our dump requires loads to be tarped & tied. I would have hated to lose on of our friendliest and most productive chickens! Lucky chicken got to ride shotgun all the way back home!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Coming soon...

We're thrilled to be bringing some LaMancha goats to our little homestead in just two weeks (I had to laugh when I read another blogger comment on the fact that some people impulse buy shoes, but she impulse buys farm animals...I can so relate)! Its something that we've wanted for some time now, but thought might have to wait a year, and so to prepare/cram, I've been reading lots, researching more, and getting some great hands on practice/instruction from more experienced goat owners (even got to feed/milk goats for a local friend while they were away for a few days recently which was a huge confidence booster and helped me put what I've learned to practice).
At this point, here's what I know we're getting (though I can't promise that an extra young doe might not sneak into the truck on pickup day...remember the impulse comment?): an older doe that's been freshened (still got some good years in her & should make a nice foundation doe for us), another doe with her young doe kid in tow, and a young buck. Yes, we're going against what many recommend and starting out with a buck...we have our reasons though (other than the fact that he's very handsome) & are aware of the challenges that come with keeping a buck (and we have a local wether we can lease to keep our little guy company if need be). Here's a sneak preview of our little Jack Frost...
And here's a headshot of Dark Rain, our older freshened doe...
I promise there will be no shortage of pictures once we've got our goats home!
The to-do list is, predictably, a bit overwhelming at this point, but I did manage to finally get the bulk of my supplies ordered from Hoegger (again, goat sitting was a big help in deciding between what I truly needed and what was just fancy my friend reminded me, its a lot like having a baby in that you are sometimes made to think you need all sorts of fancy gear, when in fact you need just a few key items).
In the event that we don't have their pasture areas ready in time (cause we're taking a little trip while we don't yet have to find a goat sitter), we've got barn stalls just about ready as a backup (we even got electricity ran to the barn & automatic waters working in the stalls in the last couple of days). Still high on the priority list is a homemade milking station and a trip to the farm supply store for hay & water containers, goat minerals, and a bit of grain mix to get me through until my next Azure co-op delivery (I plan to make my own grain mix daily to keep it fresh & all organic, while still being cost effective by purchasing barley, oats, & molasses from the co-op). Thankfully I was warned by a friend of the current alfalfa shortage in CA, so I bought 4 bales just in time which will hopefully last me us until the new crop comes into feed stores next month.
And I'm not the only one anxious to bring the goats home...after having a fresh supply of raw goat milk from the days I was milking for our friend, my two oldest children were NOT happy to be back to drinking cows milk from the store again ("NO, we want goat milk mom...its creamier & much better!").

Sunday, April 10, 2011

More chickens

We got a call the other day about someone wanting to get rid of 1 year old chickens...the price was right, FREE, so off I went to pick them up (all 23 of them!...though we may not end up keeping all as another local family whose lost a number of their to dog attacks may be taking some). Lets just say they probably think they died & arrived in chicken heaven (compared to where they were), or they most certainly will feel that way once we start letting them free range (though their coop/run area is quite large).
This presented an excellent opportunity to finally integrate the Red Stars & White Rocks who seemed ready since they'd been intermingling during their daily free ranging on the property. This also put the need for a second coup area even higher on the priority list. The run was completed by the time I picked up the new chickens, but no coup yet, so I moved the new chickens into the existing coup & run that first night and transferred the red stars to the barn stall that the white rocks had been temporarily calling home. The next day my husband, with the help of my dad got the coup built just before sunset (well, the roof was covered as side vents sealed up the next day since the rafters leave enough space for ventilation).
Needless to say the chickens seem to much prefer their new digs over the barn stall and they are getting along great (they save their skirmishes for the new chickens in the old adjoining coop space). Once they'd layed their eggs I let them out to free range (wanting to make sure they knew where the eggs belonged since the previous days juggling really confused them a bit) and they all managed to find their way to the new coop come sundown. I like the fact that the new coop is higher & attached, but not inside the run...I think we might enclose the underneath portion later & add a run to it for young chicks that aren't quite ready to be integrated into the group, but need to start socializing with them & get outside.
The new chickens...I'll start positively & say that they are an eclectic bunch and I've enjoyed searching my chicken catalogs to identify the breeds. We're happy there are some easter eggers in the bunch for some egg color variety. Now, not so positive...well, you know that old saying, nothing is ever free?...So far, they have yet to impress when it comes to laying, and unfortunately of the eggs they've laid, we've come close to losing half to egg eating (despite me running out to the coop a ridiculous amount of times/day to collect eggs). They are eating up my organic chicken feed like its their last meal (which is especially annoying since my I can only get it from my co-op once/month and my alternative is much higher feed store prices) and since the food isn't necessarily going to egg output, they are pooping insane amounts. I put golf balls in the nest boxes to see if it might help (they keep kicking them out...could that be a chickens way of flipping the bird?)I pulled 7 of the chickens out of the bunch & put them in the barn in the hopes that reducing their numbers might improve the situation. Now those 7 gave me 6 eggs the next day, but unfortunately I caught one of them in the red star/white rock coop eating an egg (the door was open so they could free range)! The last thing I need is for them to pick up that bad habit! So, I've decided that I'm going to try a few more things...maybe pull some more chickens out, add more nest boxes, let them free range here and there...and if things don't improve then I'll be making room in my freezer since I'm not particularly attached to this bunch...there are some nice heavy breed birds in the bunch and the little ones will make good soup!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Garden Dreams

So sorry for the lack of posting. I really want to try to be better about that but all of a sudden it got beautifully warm here (though unfortunately they are forecasting snow), which of course has lured us outside to work on the long list of projects we need to get done around here leaving little time for blogging. Here's the garden area freshly tilled by hubby.
We've been dreaming of a big garden at the new place ever since we first laid eyes on the property, about a year ago. At that point, it consisted pretty much of a mixture of overgrown weeds with beautiful poppies mixed in (plus, luckily, a nice variety of trees).

Later all that green turned to a golden brown & made us very nervous late last summer when a nearby brush fire forced us to leave in a (luckily brief) mandatory evacuation only one week after getting the keys! Needless to say, my husband has spent many many hours (if only we had a tractor) clearing weeds the past several months, so as we see hints of spring things are looking much better here on our little homestead.
Back in January, we planted 7 bare root fruit trees (2 golden delicious & 1 pink lady apple, 1 peach, 1 pear, 1 nectarine, & 1 plum).
Hoping all goes well with those, as we plan to add more next year.
Meanwhile, I've been trying to glean off the knowledge of some of the areas veteran gardeners to improve our chances of success this year. The owner of my favorite local organic farm was gracious enough to spend some of her valuable time sharing her knowledge relating to what to grow, when to plant, etc. Last month I attended a garden club meeting where I got a couple of great ideas and most importantly spent an enjoyable time talking with other local homesteaders. Unfortunately I wasn't able to make last nights garden meeting but am hoping to get some notes from the presenter, Mona. On a recent Saturday I spent nearly two hours in a free class at a local nursery taught by a favorite blogger of mine, Amy. I learned so much & feel a lot more confident about our garden's potential! Among other things I now know how to be more prepared to give our garden a fighting chance against the many quail, rabbits, & gophers that have all been exploring our newly tilled garden some shopping & work to do for that of course, but I'm starting to feel more confident about gardening here in the mountains. Prior to attending that class, I liked the idea of doing some raised beds in our garden area, but now I'm eager to start at least 4 of them which will make crop rotation simple. We'll be planting directly into the ground as well (we've actually ordered a big roll of Agribon fabric & plan to use pvc pipe to hoop some in ground rows to allow us to plant a little earlier & protect the plants until they are bigger & stronger), but I'd like to continue to add more raised beds each year until they make up the majority of our garden space. I ordered a bunch of seeds but have been a bit nervous about attempting to start them indoors since I don't yet have lights set up, but after reading some recent posts of fellow bloggers, I'm going to give it a try utilizing the light from the amazing number of windows in our house. I think I waiting too long to start most of my tomato plants unfortunately, so I did buy a few of those from a nursery.