Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Small steps toward my dream cultivate happiness

By Carey Denman

For as long as I can remember, I have loved old, white farmhouses. I moon over their clapboard siding and steeply pitched roofs, their mullioned windows and gracious front porches. I love them even more when they are surrounded by white picket fences, with red barns nearby.

Fueled by my farm infatuation, I have spent many hours trolling real estate sites looking for my own little white house with a big red barn. I have also been known to endlessly blather to my very patient husband about apple orchards and milking goats.

However, I began to realize that the more time I spent imagining my life in a white house, tending to my Nubian goats, the more restless and discontented I became. In fact, focusing on what I didn’t have was making me noticeably unhappy.

When I look closer at the situation, I recognize that I’d unconsciously gotten caught up in the “I’ll be happy when” mentality. I’d made my happiness conditional, believing that somehow being there—wherever there might be—was better than being here. What’s more, my conditional happiness was based more on romantic fantasies than the gritty realities of farm life.

Unfortunately, getting caught in the trap of conditional happiness is easy. What isn’t so easy is learning how to quiet the “I’ll be happy when” messages we send ourselves. These are the messages that say, “I’ll be happy when I get a promotion.” Or, “I’ll be happy when I get a new car.” The fact is that if you were unhappy before you got the promotion or the new car, you’ll very likely feel the same way after the initial buzz of achieving these things wears off.

For me, acknowledging that I was postponing happiness for a pipe dream was essential. (Again, enter my very patient husband, who helped me realize this.) Once I did this, I was better able to appreciate what I have right now, which includes a small acreage with a creek running through it, a neighborhood filled with people willing to help one another, and a sizeable garden that produces hundreds of pounds of produce every summer. I’m continuing to expand this list in a gratitude journal I have been keeping.

Although I may not be able to have a full-blown farm right now, I recognize that there are some intermediary steps I can take in the meantime. Building a small chicken coop out of reclaimed cedar and getting a few laying hens was one of those steps. We’ve been collecting over a dozen of our own farm- fresh eggs every week, and we have enjoyed watching our hens strut around the yard – a pastime we have dubbed “chicken TV.”

Other plans include ordering some dwarf fruit trees for our existing garden and expanding the variety of other produce we grow. (One of those new varieties we’ll be planting is stevia, an herb known for being a potent sweetener.) We also bought a bundle of posts that we plan to use on the back portion of our property to build a fence for some animals (which are yet to be determined).

Instead of feeling stuck because I am waiting on happiness in my white farmhouse, I’m focusing my energy on creating a farm-like atmosphere for myself and my family right now. I’ll take satisfaction in the flowers and vegetables that emerge from my garden this year, and in delicious eggs from my own hens. This kind of happiness costs me very little. It only takes determination to look for the good in what I have now.

Friday, March 25, 2011

My simple garden gives us beauty, food without fuss

By Carey Denman

My life is complicated, with four kids and one very stubborn hound dog, and so I resist things that require fuss. I don’t buy clothing that needs to be dry cleaned, or even ironed for that matter. I don’t grow finicky houseplants or prepare recipes with long lists of ingredients. I won’t even wear a hairstyle that requires frequent trips to the salon.

In general, I make choices designed to keep my life as simple as possible. Not having to run clothing to the dry cleaner, for example, means I save myself time and money. The same is true for preparing uncomplicated meals at home.

My garden is no exception to my keep-it-simple mantra. Sure, it’s possible—even easy—to make gardening complicated, by growing varieties of plants that need pampering and by worrying about things like soil temperature and PH, for instance. But again, I avoid all the fuss. Instead, I get seeds in the ground when the weather becomes pleasant, and I grow tough-as-nails plants that can tolerate a little neglect.

I work with simple and inexpensive tools—a hand trowel, a spade, a hoe, and a rake—and use composted manure I collect from my neighbors’ horses to fertilize my garden. As for my garden beds themselves, they are built with rocks foraged from our property, and the paths are lined with reclaimed woodchips.

When I started gardening, I didn’t exactly know what I was doing. Though I had read a few primers and absorbed garden wisdom from my parents over the years, I had no formal instruction of any kind. Instead, I literally just dug in and got my hands dirty, learning as I went.

I quickly discovered which plants thrived in my garden, and I decided to “love what grows,” abandoning specimens that didn’t perform well or that seemed to require extra care. I also recognized that perennial herbs and fruits are good investments; my chives and rhubarb come up in early spring and produce all summer long.

Now six years later, I have a large garden filled with sturdy perennials and with beds devoted to growing fruits, herbs, and vegetables. And from May until September, I am able to gather fresh produce by taking a few steps outside my back door. (As an added bonus, my children will eat anything that comes from our little plot—even onions.)

This year, I spent $48 on new heirloom garden seeds, which I’ll plant alongside seeds leftover from past years. For the first time, I’ll be collecting and saving the seeds from these heirloom varieties, which means I’ll have an even larger return on my initial investment. I’ll also be devoting more time to learning about companion planting—placing certain plants next to one another to improve plant growth and to repel pests.

I started gardening with only a willingness to learn and a desire to use the resources available to me. Together, these two things have made it possible for me to enjoy a frugal hobby that is good for me and for my family. By keeping my garden plan simple, I enjoy the benefits of homegrown food, without having to spend more time or money than I want to.

If blooming flowers or picking garden-fresh tomatoes seem alluring, I encourage you to dig in and try it this spring. Start with the space and resources you have; perhaps a friend or family member will even give you some seeds or transplants. Investing in a garden, big or small, can bring you a lot of satisfaction without breaking your budget.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Some Great News from a Great Organization

Some Great News from a Great Organization Which We are Proud to be a Part of!

Washington, DC - NeighborWorks America, one of the largest community development corporations and the sponsor of one hundred full-service Home Ownership Centers around the U.S., today announced that more than 16,700 families became homeowners last year through the efforts of NeighborWorks organizations.

Despite a tough housing market in 2010, NeighborWorks organizations succeeded in helping homebuyers navigate the complicated process and obtain mortgages that they could afford for the long-term.

“Last year was a tough one for working families who dreamed of homeownership,” said Eileen Fitzgerald, acting CEO of NeighborWorks America. “But with the help of NeighborWorks organizations, many families who stayed on course were able to purchase their own homes. And they’ll be able to stay in those homes for years to come.”

NeighborWorks organizations help families attain homeownership in a variety of ways including homebuyer education and grants for down payment assistance. NeighborWorks organization homeownership efforts are supported through grants from NeighborWorks America, state and local government programs and the support of the private sector.

A list of NeighborWorks HomeOwnership Centers can be found at:


Monday, March 14, 2011

Healthful snacks can be good for you and your budget

By Carey Denman

At our house, it’s not uncommon for our children to be eating one meal and already asking about what I’m serving for the next one. And my family’s food-centric ways aren’t limited to meals. Snacks are supremely important, too—even for the baby who doesn’t yet talk but who pounds on her highchair when she’s hungry between meals.

With four children, who each eat at least two snacks a day, I’m serving up a minimum of 56 snacks a week. Providing this many snacks stretches my creativity—and my budget. An extra challenge is providing healthy snacks that don’t require a lot to time to prepare. (Serving 56 snacks over the course of a week already takes a significant amount of time.)

Though the kids moon over blue yogurt in tubes and little boxed lunches with cheese and crackers, we try to avoid prepackaged (and expensive) snacks like these. Instead, we try to focus on giving them whole foods—although to be honest, they aren’t exactly gobbling up celery and carrot sticks when I serve them.

To help us keep our budget in check and to encourage the kids to eat more healthy foods, popcorn has become our go-to snack. I simply heat a tablespoon or two of canola oil in my 8-quart stock pot and drop in a half-cup of popcorn kernels. I put the lid on and stick close to the stove, shaking the pan on the burner when the popping begins to slow.

In less than five minutes, I have a bowl of warm popcorn that costs about 25 cents to make. Even drizzled with butter and a little salt, homemade popcorn is far cheaper than any microwave popcorn—and much better for us.

Popcorn also lends itself to many easy additions. These include dried cranberries, a tablespoon of apple or pumpkin pie spice, a few tablespoons of powdered sugar mixed with a little cocoa, freshly grated parmesan cheese and Italian seasoning, cinnamon and sugar, mini chocolate chips and—our current favorite—a few handfuls of mini marshmallows. Dropping the marshmallows on warm popcorn makes it taste like a popcorn ball, without any of the work.

Fruit and yogurt smoothies are another household favorite that meet the criteria of inexpensive and healthy fare. I scoop up past-their-prime bananas when my local grocery store discounts them to 25 cents a pound and store them in the freezer in their skins until I’m ready to use them.

When I need to prepare a quick snack, I defrost a banana long enough so that I can remove its skin. I drop it, along with a few spoonfuls of plain yogurt, into the blender. Sometimes I add other frozen fruit or fruit that needs to be used up, with a little honey or raw sugar. Smoothies are flexible enough that I’m generally able to use what I have on hand. Last time I made them, in fact, I even dropped in some spinach, which was stealthily camouflaged by the blueberries I added.

When my own ideas for snacks run low, I can turn to sites online for a wealth of healthful snack ideas. The Mayo Clinic site (www.mayoclinic.com), for example, suggests stringing chunks of fruit on wooden skewers to make fruit kebabs. Parents magazine’s site (www.parents.com) touts cheese as an excellent snack, and suggests serving chunks of it to children on “skewers” of pretzel sticks. Or, if your children are reluctant to eat fruits and vegetables, Parents’ site recommends preparing zucchini bread or carrot muffins.

With a little imagination, snack time can be fun, delicious and budget-friendly for you and your children.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Warmth and better meals some rewards of cutting our food budget

By Carey Denman

Last summer, after my husband and I did some honest budget-crunching, I revealed that we were spending an average of $800 a month on food for our family of six, with approximately $200 of that amount going toward meals out. (Some months, we discovered, we spent close to a $1,000 on food. Ouch! )

At first when we realized what we were spending, we decided to cut our food budget in half. It was a drastic move that forced us to rethink how we were using our food dollars. We started using cash and reconsidered buying many of the items we thoughtlessly threw into our cart. While I’m glad we reached a new level of consciousness, we all ended up feeling deprived—and crabby.

We realized that, while were capable of spending half as much as we once did, we honestly didn’t want to make such a sweeping change. Instead, we decided to slowly increase the amount we were spending on food, until we arrived at a level comfortable for us. As of now, we’ve determined that we’re comfortable with spending about $500 a month on groceries.

Two notable changes have taken place since our food budget revelation. First, by shopping more carefully, we have freed up cash to help us reach one of our financial goals, which was our original motivation for changing how we shopped. That goal was to install a source of backup heat, which we were able to accomplish in early fall. We now have a small gas stove in our living room, a place where we’ve been curling up and spending lots of time together on cold winter nights.

Second, as we’ve become more aware of how we’re spending, we have become more conscious of what we’re eating. We’re eating out less and preparing more satisfying and nutritious foods at home. We’ve also cut out most prepackaged foods, including things like frozen pizza and pudding cups, and we have switched to an almost all-organic diet.

Seeing our food budget through new eyes has definitely been a learning experience. Not only have I had to learn to shop differently, but I’ve also had to sharpen my skills in the kitchen. The first time I made cooked chocolate pudding from my mother’s old recipe, it was so runny that it was more like chocolate sauce than pudding.

To be honest, it’s taken some adjusting on the part of our children, as well. We don’t buy the super-sweet 8-ounce containers of yogurt or microwave popcorn anymore. But we do enjoy plain yogurt sweetened with a little honey, and popcorn made in a kettle on our cook stove. Finding suitable substitutes for the pricier convenience foods we once ate has helped with the transition. Getting my children more involved in meal preparation has helped, too.

Having my children work alongside me does take extra time (and patience), but when they’ve made an investment in what they’re preparing, I’ve found they’re much more likely to eat it. I suppose you could say buying and preparing wholesome food is the same for me: it takes time and a little bit of patience.

Still, even while I may be devoting more time to shopping or spending a few more minutes in the kitchen, we’ve enjoyed the tangible (our new gas stove) and intangible (increased energy, improved health) rewards in a way that makes this kind of conscious spending feel like a worthy pursuit.