Sunday, October 2, 2011

I'm cheap. Seriously cheap. This has been a frequent theme throughout the past two years or so; I doubt it comes as a shock to anyone who knows me on any level at all.

How cheap am I? Well, I bought my sister's Christmas present the other day. In a thrift store. For $3. If it had been more I would have seriously considered walking away from it. (Please--no screams and comments about how selfish I am. She KNOWS I buy used things for her because she's the one who started it. She is the queen of thrift stores and garage sales. I kneel in her presence. She can haggle like you cannot believe. She could talk a Bedouin camel trader into giving her the beast in question for a smile and the slightly creased postcard in the bottom of her handbag. I'm cheap, but she is miles ahead of me. Come Christmas I will find under the tree a large box full of fabulous loot from her forays into thriftland, all of which will be vintage, retro-chic, and utterly perfect--and it will have cost a total of $2.50. And I will hang my head in prodigal shame.)

How did I become so cheap? Well, to massacre the immortal words, "Some are born cheap; come achieve cheap; and some have cheap thrust upon them." I was born with a latent cheap gene, which finally evinced itself during my college years (when my food budget ran to $5 per week. Thank goodness for food-service jobs!). But what really sent me happily down the frugal freeway was buying a house.

We bought it from my parents, at very favorable terms, but there was still a huge gap between the money we had and the money we needed. We had two options: make more money, or slash our expenses dramatically. The first was not much of an option. My husband was already gainfully employed, and I was not--and could not be, because our first child had been born with severe developmental disabilities. All my time went into caring for him. ALL my time. And I was pregnant again.

So the only real route was to cut our expenses to the bone. We examined everything that had to be paid for with some form of money: food, supplies, clothing, living style. And we discovered that a lot of the things we were paying for were actually non-necessities, in the strictest sense of the word. That is, if a natural disaster had hit at that moment, we would not die from a lack of those items. Discomfort was a possibility, but not death.

That became our line in the sand. Air-conditioning? In the day, yes--necessary. At night, no. (We slept with ice packs for several months.) That winter we shivered without central heating and piled on the sweaters. (We bought one small space heater to place in our son's room, then, since I'm a worrier, we took turn sleeping on the floor in his room to make sure the heater didn't start a fire. The floor was hard, but toasty. And, yes, I did this while pregnant.) Diapers? Cloth, not disposable. Food? Vegetarian, basic staples, and lots of creativity. New clothes? None for us, homemade for our son. (Remnants were cheap, and I copied the patterns by hand so I never had to cut them apart and thus buy another to use in a bigger size.) Home decor? I couldn't live with blank walls, that would be death to the spirit for me, so I painted one picture to hang over the fireplace, and to fill a large empty wall took some old wooden hangers printed with hotel names from cities I had visited, and hung them in rows. We had only one car. We did not have cellphones or cable.

In the process I learned everything I could find on making a small budget stretch. I devoured Shattering the Two-Income Myth, and made The Tightwad Gazette my daily consultant. I begged tips from my frugal aunts. I sought out stories from the Great Depression and World War II, figuring that people had made it through those experiences with wisdom I could use.

It's been exactly eleven years now--to the day--since we moved in, and cheap became our lifestyle of choice. We're still cheap. We spend more these days--we also have four more children. But my mantra has become the rhyme my grandmothers used to repeat to me: "Use it up; wear it out; make it do, or do without." Trust me--you can get far more usage out of something than you expect at first.

So, I'd like to experiment with sharing some of my frugal moments. What's the use of being cheap if I can't have a little fun with it? (Hey, don't worry. I figure I can be snarky, and sharp
-tongued WHILE being cheap. It's a working theory--let's just see how it plays out, okay?)

Drum roll, please. (Ratatatatatatatatatatatatatatatatatat)

Make-Do Monday

We just reclaimed out master bedroom. (After five+ years of "loaning" it to our sons, whom we figured were safer on the ground floor in their earliest years.) Gasp not, gentle reader, we did not splurge on luxury fittings and decorator redoes. Actually, we used the leftover extremely pale yellow paint from re-painting the living room--improving the color-flow throughout the living space, as a cable-show designer might snootily say--and our largest expenditure was for laminate flooring. (69 cents per square foot. Whoo-hoo, big spenders!) Everything else was stuff we've had in our room for ages. (Cedar chest my dad made me for high school graduation, dressing table my parents gave me when I was an insecure 16-year-old. My parents have been EXTREMELY generous furniture- and all other ways-wise.)

Slight problem: Our bedside tables were being used elsewhere (living room and laundry room--long story), and we needed places to stash stuff that would otherwise fall to the ground with loud thuds when we dropped them.

Our solution:

We had bought some IKEA Trofast frames for our sons to use as dressers. They worked, but the boys outgrew them quickly. And since the soul of frugality is to use what you already have, I thought we could re-purpose them as bedside tables. So we added legs, cafe curtain rods, and some curtains I whipped up from fabric my mom gave me years ago (thanks, Mom!). And suddenly, we had very useful, very capacious, very CHEAP pieces of bedroom furniture.

Here's a view of the interior:

Look at all that stash space!
(Ignore the fact that one of the bins is askew. Not even I am perfect. Cheap, but not perfect. And would you take a gander at that babe in the picture. Me, circa 1997. Sigh.)

I got a place to put by bedtime book and reading glasses, with a clean, simple look (I hate fussiness; it tends to cost more), for a minimal price. Waste not, want not.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

I've said it before, and I'm sure I'll say it again (probably some time in this post) that motherhood isn't for wimps. But I'm getting ahead of myself--that's the moral of the story. Perhaps I should tell the tale before I moan the moral, no?

Where to begin? Hmmm. . . . I became a mother twelve and a half years ago . . . There've been quite a few times when it seemed like perhaps my children weren't suited to my calling in life. (I'm suited to it; it's the kids who don't get it. Amateurs.) For instance there was the great three-year-old-with-a-tool-kit debacle of 2004. (One deadbolt down, four stripped screws.) There was the poo on the playground incident. There were many, many, many other occurances when I figured surely I was on some cosmic version of Candid Camera. (Seriously, if there is some Celestial gag reel being made for the Judgement Day cast party I will be a major star in it.)

But today. . . . Today makes me wonder if my true calling in life is as an Alpine hermit. The quiet. The solitude. The distinct lack of "Mom--he's breathing too loud!" It would be just me and the mountain goats, and between you and me, mountain goats smell a whole lot better than my kids sometimes do.

Deep cleansing breath . . . in . . . out . . . once more. . . .

Okay. I'm steeled and ready. Today. [Deep breath.] We have a microwave. For some inexplicable reason it is a constant source of deep fascination for my children, which I can understand on some level. In go ice shards of a pasty hue, and in five short minutes golden savory chicken chunks emerge. (That's usually what our amazing piece of modern technology and design is used for: chicken chunks. Six thousand years of human development, and we employ its pinnacle for non-discernible poultry parts. Our civilization is doomed.)

As soon as they can teeter on a step stool (or a series thereof), my children want to press the microwave's grease-smeared touchpad. They yearn to hear its hum. They itch to control the source of all yumminess. And then they think 60 minutes is an appropriate length of time to melt a slice of cheese onto bread.

So when I returned home from taking a small feminine child to piano lessons and her brothers greeted me from the backyard fence, and the acrid smell of charred electronics wafted from the exhaust fan vent, I had a good idea of what I would find inside.

I was right.

My house was filled with a smell I know from experience won't be eradicated without time, strenuous cleaning, and the help of possibly toxic chemicals. I've turned on every bathroom vent in the house. Bowls filled with white vinegar now dot our interior-scape. And in desperation I pulled out the only smell-masking substance in the house: pine-scented room spray left over from Christmas.

Now my house smells like a forest fire.


I told you so: motherhood is not for wimps.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

You know the axiom, "Don't judge a book by its cover"? (Which is severely overused, particularly by teens with blue hair and pierced septums who always insist that you--the person with semi-natural follicles and un-holey nostrils--are judging them by their appearances. And that, by the way, is pretty much the purpose of such physical alterartions--to get attention through glaring idiosyncrasies. Note to the dyed and pierced: We see you. Heaven forbid we should accurately read your meta messages and consider you as a slightly different species of exotic and mildly deranged bird.) [Please note: I do not have biologically-related teenagers in my home--yet. My tone may change dramatically in a few years. But it probably won't.]

May I submit a more accurate, more personally-applicable, aphorism? More accurate because, frankly, EVERYONE judges books by their covers. (That's why publishing houses allocate so many resources to cover design. As a veteran used-book-finding-under-time-limits-type person, I know that sometimes the only thing you have to go by is the cover--and maybe a few laudatory blurbs on an inside page.) And more-personally applicable because, well . . . just keep reading, if you dare.

Here it is: Never judge a house by its exterior.

But why is such advice necessary, you may ask. That, my friends, is a explanation best given in pictorial form.

This is my house. Lovely, no? I especially enjoy the roses over the gable. Pity they only bloom once a year. In March. When the chaste trees--those dead-stick-like things in the foreground--look more like tumbleweeds on steroids than the purple-bloomed charmers they are later in the year. Anyway, most people, driving by mi casa would think, "Well there's a perfectly adorable cottage-style revival with intriguing landscaping." (These are very kind-hearted passers-by. I believe the neighbors who put up with us refer to our house as "the jungle in the middle of the block." ) "Oh," the unknowing observer would say, "I'm sure the interior is as gracious and inviting as that welcoming blue door."

Ha Ha, kind people--because inside, this ostensibly well-appointed home is in fact an interior-decorator's hall of horrors:

Eek! It's been eviscerated!
Why? Why was this brutal mauling necessary?
And what, what is that horrible galvanized monstrosity lurking
behind the feeble protection of a single stud?

Gasp! The mantel has leprosy and has been quarantined!
(And, yet, the piano practice must go on in this torture chamber. I like to think of it as a demonstration to the children of just how far we're willing to go to get the desired results. Just a kindly tip, kiddos--Heed it or else.) [I'd also like to point out the stenciling above the windows, done in a fit of ennui-inspired redo-ing, and a morality tale for almost a decade now.
Let this be a warning: Friends don't let friends decorate bored.]

Shriek! The quarantine failed--the pox has spread to the entry!
Blue tape! Blue Tape, STAT!

Chaos and confusion everywhere!
Rugs on sofas! Sewing machines invading dining tables!
Furniture placed with neither rhyme nor reason! Books both helter and skelter!
Oh, the humanity!

Only a miracle can save us now.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Vroom, Vroom

I confess, I have an addiction. And it's my father's fault. He's the one who introduced me to my compulsion of choice. But if I'm going to admit to something so shameful, I should follow the appropriate steps. So let's do this right.

Hi. My name is Melia, and I'm a Top Gear fan. I watch it on YouTube. I watch it at my parents' house. I search it out via Google. I need a fix at least every other day. I've seen every episode at least one--some more than five times. Like the race to Blackpool, or the amphibious cars challenge. Those were awesome. Oh, am I getting off topic? I guess so. Anyway, I love it because it makes me laugh--and because it captivates my toddler sufficiently to give me ten minutes of peace at a pop. And it's educational.

How so, you ask? Well, I can now speak somewhat coherently on the characteristics of the Bugatti Veyron. I can discern between a Ferrari and a Lamborghini at five paces. Those are vital skills in some settings, I'm sure. I have no idea what those settings may be, but when I find myself in one, I will be ready.

Furthermore, this knowledge is applicable to my life. No really. Stop laughing. True, I no longer drive. And even if I did, a half-million dollar supercar would hardly be a practical. Fun for a carefree weekend, yes, but not helpful for a mom who spends most of her time hauling things like multiple children and big packages of toilet paper around. You know, those things don't even come with luggage racks on top, so no possibility of stashing superfluous humans or tissue purchases there. But, because of my addiction I have recently made a discovery: my stroller is a Porsche.

Think about it: a Porsche has two seats, so does my stroller. A Porsche is open-roofed (well, some of them are), so is my stroller. A Porsche draws attention from crowds, so does my stroller. Here's the kicker: a Porsche's engine is at the back. My stroller's engine--that would be me--is also at the back. True, my stroller has more carrying capacity than a Porsche, but in all the really essential things like number of wheels, ability to steer, and transportational capability, they are the same.

So, the next time you see me walking down the street with my hair blowing in the wind as I stylishly stroll along with my convertible two-seater, I give you permission to be just a wee bit jealous. After all, I am driving a Porsche.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


A lot can happen in five months and four days. A LOT.
For instance, one could give up homeschooling after four years and six weeks.
One could learn that all one really wants to do in the morning is take a really long walk to exhaust the dog or to take care of one's errands.
One could start eliminating all excess (or at least most of it) in one's life.
One could do all of these. That's what I did.

Let me explain--because, really, after a multi-month blog silence, some information is in order.

I loved homeschooling. Really. I loved the freedom; I loved the time with my children; I liked the possibility of them finishing the chores on their lists. But I have a son who is not only intelligent and curious, but also very good at pushing buttons--especially the ones marker "drive Mom crazy" and "drive Mom ballistic". I'm not going to name any specific infractions or repeated errors in judgement. I'll simply say that hazard pay was a consistent negotiating point when my husband and I discussed the budget. So, I would wake up every morning, full of zeal and determination to keep my cool, and within the space of not more than twenty minutes (thirty on a particularly determined day--or right after General Conference when I had been once more admonished to "love the sinner") I would be a wild-haired, bug-eyed, spittle-flecked raving lunatic. I'm pretty sure that's not the way education is supposed to work.

One day (I believe it was a Tuesday, sort of warm, but partially overcast) I had had it, as in HAD IT! (Moms will get this. Dads will shrug and chalk it up to hormones. That's why most of those who are reading this are moms.) The die was cast: "I am putting you boys into school, so help me all that is holy!!!!" They started on the next Monday. (There was a delay while we convinced the school that we were responsible parents with wonderful children who desperately needed their school. It required some red-tape cutting, some ego-massaging, some smooth talking, but it worked.)

It was an interesting transition. At first, I had no idea what to do with myself. For a major chunk of time I had defined myself and my life by the educational process taking place in our dining room: I am a homeschooling mom. Now I was adjective-less: I am a _________ mom. With nothing to fill in the blank. I moped around for the first week, stewing in my own perceived failure. (It was September in the Desert Southwest--stewing is inevitable even on good days.) Then I started walking.

At first I walked the dog. She had been chewing up household items: rugs, toys, furniture, and I thought the exercise would use up some of her energy. It worked, and I liked it. So I started finding new reasons to walk: books needed to be returned to the library, or there was a sale on toothpaste at the store. Almost anything became a good reason to drop the laundry basket, pack up the toddler, and head onto the pavement.

My walks started getting longer--two or three miles at first, then four; now we're up to around five to seven. Anything else doesn't seem worth the time. Mileage, people; it's all about the mileage. It's amazing how much I can get done on foot. (I'm not looking forward to summer, since I know that will put an end to my mobility, but it's been nice while it's lasted.)

It's also been good for the budget, since there's only so much one can fit into a two-seater stroller. (Twenty loaves of 50 cent bread is about the limit, although I did fantastically the other day with bread and Valentine's Day supplies, but I was in some sort of stroller-packing zone.) So I've stopped buying anything that wasn't strictly necessary. Apparently I had been buying frivolously, because I was able to cut my spending by one-third. That adds up. In the last five and a half months, I've been able to save up enough to take the family to Disneyland, to send the kids skiing for a day, and to sign them up for a week-long summer arts camp--all of which I would have said was impossible last year. Granted, there are days when the total age of my clothing equals that of my children, and I'll never be as glamorous as I want to convince others I am. It's a trade-off.

So really, what I've done is stripped life down. (Notice I did not write I've stripped down. That would imply less clothing, and there is no way in Tahiti that will ever happen!) I've eliminated some of the things and practices I considered necessary for years. And I like it. (Of course, there may be a day when my son comes to his senses and we can homeschool again. Then we'll have to change again. Change is good.)