Real Home Economics

Ages ago, I read the book Radical Homemakers, which discussed a subset of the population that was foregoing traditional jobs and choosing to live off the land and produce the things they consumed themselves. I was largely dissatisfied with this book, mainly because the author didn’t seem to have a good understanding of economics. She liked to call the economy the “extractive economy,” one that extracts your labor from you and doesn’t give you much back. She extoled the value of making the household a unit of production, instead of consumption. Except she never seemed to acknowledge that there are a lot of things it makes more sense to buy than produce yourself. And if you can get a job that pays more than turning your household into a unit of production (especially if you don’t enjoy all the work that comes with it), it makes more sense to have that job than to make everything yourself. However radical it may be.

Now I have finally found the book that discusses making it yourself vs buying it: Make the Bread, Buy the Butter. The author, Jennifer Reese, was laid off from her job in 2008 and decided to figure out which things actually were cheaper (or better quality) to make at home because it obviously isn’t everything.

And it’s hilarious. Then again, watching suburbanites turn from city-dwellers to wanna-be homesteaders is always funny–I should know. I am one.

Reading her book has made me crave goats again. I really do want a goat, but since my goat would probably be a milk goat and not a meat goat, I’m holding off. I know I don’t have the time to milk a goat or learn how to play midwife to one or breed it or deal with subsequent offspring or make cheese/butter/whatever from the milk.

So that needs to wait. However fun making my own Camembert or mozzarella might sound.

This book has, however, made me feel more determined to get pigs. My husband and I discussed getting them this past spring, but we were woefully behind on everything we wanted to do anyway and decided not to add any additional livestock. But now we’re a bit caught up. And I’m out of pork. And we have about 5.5 acres of wooded area I’d love to see opened up a bit more.

I’ve been reading up on raising pastured/forest pigs and decided we should get 3. I know one person who would be interested in buying one pig from me (dead, of course). One pig would be for us and the third we would have to find someone to buy. I found a blog from a pig farmer in Vermont who seems to know what he’s doing and he wrote (and updated) a post on finishing your own pigs and it was very informative. Basically, pig chow, no. Forest/pasture, yes. Maybe I can embarrass myself and ask around at local stores/supermarkets/bakeries and find out if I can get their waste foods (bread, fruit, dairy) to feed the pigs as well.

The farmer recommend dividing up the area you want your pigs in into 6 small areas and rotate them between them, spending a week at each one in order to make sure it’s been well torn apart. I know exactly the area in our woods I want them at, too. The area and hill behind the pond, where we had loggers remove our pine trees. They left a ton of fallen lumber and branches there, which have been rotting for about two years now. We’re thinking about putting swales in there, a permaculture thing suggested by some of our friends (who are very into permaculture) and then planting our orchard on top of that. But the area is now overgrown with various plants and small trees. Having pigs open that up for us would be awesome. Maybe they’ll help get rid of our blackberry plants, too. Who knows.

Other than that, Reese has informed me that amazon.com has the cheapest vanilla beans ever and I just ordered half a pound of them for $36. I was also planning on making strawberry jam from u-pick strawberries this summer (Alpha wanted to see how it’s made), but her book informed me that homemade strawberry jam tastes just like store-bought and is therefore, not worth it. So I’m now going to make Strawberry-Rhubarb jam with Rhubarb I got from a friend who doesn’t have (or want) anything to do with it.

And I’m going to make my own vanilla extract. This is exciting!

Some notable quotes from the book:

“If rather than a lush green garden, you want your outdoor space to resemble a Third World village, I suggest getting some chickens, who will methodically denude the landscape of every blade of grass, low-lying weed, and wildflower. And i you want to rid yourself of shrubbery and small trees as well, get a goats. Very soon you will have the adobe patio of your dreams.”

“Where is that sweet spot between buying and making? What does the market do cheaper and better? And where are we being deceived, our tastes and habits and standards corrupted?”

“Are you nuts? If so, make it! (re: Vermouth)

“Chickens squabble. Chickens have minds of their own, however small. Not so the ducks, who waddled in lockstep formation around the yard, wing to wing, all day, every day, muttering. They were like a Hare Krishnas, always chanting in a gang.”

Stupid Suggestions to Save Money

I have a bad habit. Every time someone talks about someone who is tight on money, I reflexively suggest the plant a garden. I need to stop doing this because, while gardening might be a great way to get outside, get some exercise and get some fresh, organic vegetables, it is not necessarily going to save you money. Unless you’re a really good gardener, gardening is going to cost you money. You might not have to spend much money on vegetables anymore, but let’s be honest: how much money do you really spend on vegetables each month? Enough to make the money you spend on dirt (if you have to buy dirt), seeds, seedlings, organic bug killers and compost, not to mention your time (which is valuable). You’d be better off buying vegetables from the grocery store and…getting a job.

This isn’t the only bad suggestion I’ve made or heard others make as a way to save money.

Whenever people discuss how being poor makes it hard to eat healthy, invariably people suggest the poor eat “beans and rice.” Because beans and rice are apparently the solution to everything. The issue is: they don’t taste all that great unless you add a lot of spice to them. You have to soak the beans. Seriously. You have to soak the beans. And they take a long time to cook. And, quite frankly, if I had a choice between buying beans and rice to cook at home and a Big Mac, I would take the Big Mac because the Big Mac is that much more delicious and contains something that resembles meat more than beans and rice do.
And we used to eat beans and rice! In the 3 years surrounding Alpha’s birth, we ate one meal a week that was bean based to save money because we were broke. This usually ended up being the meal neither of us really looked forward to and I ended up eating most of the leftovers before discarding them all together. We were hard up for cash because my husband hadn’t yet found a permanent job in the US and I quit my job when I had my son (thinking that DH would have a job any minute!). Our income was near zero and we were living off savings. In other words, the solution to our problem wasn’t “Moar beanz and rice!!!!!” it was, “MORE MONEY!”

I’ve also made my own laundry detergent to save money. This works pretty well–it is cheap compared to most laundry detergent (unless you coupon and buy on sales, etc)–and it’s better for the environment. But it takes time. And it doesn’t necessarily get your clothes as clean as actual laundry detergent. As far as the meager amount of money you save doing this, it’s also not really worth your time. Unless you’re the Duggars, you’d be better off getting a job and buying the detergent. Better value for your time.

Then there’s hanging your clothes out to dry. I personally love hanging my clothes out. It gets me out of the house on nice summer mornings and I find it meditative. In the winter, it adds moisture to the air in my house. The stiffness of the clothes doesn’t bother me. I’m so used to line drying that I have a hard time believing jeans that can’t walk by themselves are actually clean. My sister fell in love with my rotary clothesline when she visited and got one at home. I encouraged her because it would “save money and electricity.” Then my brother-in-law pointed out that after the cost of the clothesline, they’d have to line dry clothes into their next several reincarnations to recoup the cost because electricity is dirt cheap where they live. Because I’m surrounded by hippies, it’s twice as expensive where I live. So I’m saving twice as much money! Go me! But if you live in Germany, where electricity costs 30 Euro cents per kilowatt, you’re line drying unless you’re rich and have money to burn. Or your maid’s time is way more expensive than the cost of the electricity to run the dryer. If you have a dryer in Europe (and a significant number of Europeans don’t), you use it on an emergency basis only. The end. But for the average American, the time it takes to hang out clothes is not worth the potential “savings” in the electric bill. It’s a dumb suggestion to save money.

Though when we lived in an apartment and had to pay $1.50 each time we did laundry to semi-dry our clothes, it was totally worth it. We were both unemployed, so we had plenty of time to violate the house rules and hang out our laundry on our balcony. But it would have been more worth our time to…actually have jobs, instead. Oh well.

Sewing your own clothes is another great way to save money! Except it’s not. There is no way you can be produce more clothes more cheaply than someone in Thailand. This is why Thailand/other places in Asia make most of our clothing these days. Sure, the occasional novelty outfit you sold yourself is good fun and sewing your own clothes is a great way to make sure you have your clothes exactly how you want them. I know I’d love to have a pair of custom jeans (as in, custom made not by me). But on the whole, sewing is not going to save you money. You will have earned more working and buying a similar outfit than you will have saved by sewing it.

Canning is another activity that will not save you money. It will result in you saving more vegetables from your garden (and maybe help get your garden a little less in the fiscal red), but it’s unlikely you will actually end up canning a quart of tomatoes for less than you could actually buy them at the store.

I started baking my own bread again to “save money.” We used to buy the sprouted whole grain Ezekiel bread at the grocery store, running $5 a loaf. But I decided, hey. I have a bread pan. I have hard wheat grains in my basement. I have a grain mill. I have an oven. Let’s go! Then I thought, “but if I had 4 bread pans, I could make a months worth of bread at one go and freeze the rest in the freezer, thus saving precious time and electricity.” Then I remembered how hard it is to get even slices with a bread knife. “I really need a bread slicer. A proper one, like my host family has!” And then I remembered how homemade bread doesn’t stay fresh as long as store-bought bread since it doesn’t have preservatives. “I really need a breadbox, too!”

I started looking on craigslist for these sought items, convinced they would transport me to bread making heaven and save me $20 a month. I couldn’t find them on craigslist (though I did find some antique breadboxes being sold as parts of china sets, which just made me want to spend $200 on a Pfalzgraff China set). I looked for them new, but at that price they would break the bank and baking bread at home was definitely not worth it. So I decided I could do without.

I baked one loaf in my huge oven and tried to convince myself that I was totally saving money and the time I spent making the bread would definitely be worth it. I also told myself I was educating the kids in How To Bake Bread. I hope I was convincing.