Hard working vinegar


I was so excited when Joshua wrote about how he uses a vinegar solution as a weed killer because

  1. I may need some weed killer as I have my first yard and do not know what I am doing with it at all.
  2. I love using vinegar around the house because it is cheap and not full of chemicals.

The two ways I regularly use vinegar around the house are as a glass cleaner and as a solution for washing our hardwood floors.  I love that these cleansers are easy-to-make and inexpensive.  Better yet, I got these recipes from Martha Stewart’s Homekeeping Handbook, and if they are Martha-approved, they must be good.

Glass cleaner: 1 part vinegar + 1 part water.  Cleans spots off my mirrors and glass with a little elbow grease and leaves a pleasant vinegar smell behind.

Floor cleaner (wood floors): 1/4 cup vinegar + 1 quart of warm water.  Change water frequently–as soon as it gets dirty.

Have any other uses for vinegar around the house?  Please share!


Imperfect outdoors

It was a cold but sunny Sunday in mid-February.  Although our weather forecast called for highs only in the upper 20s, when I opened the door to stand in the sun, I felt energized.

“Honey, let’s go for a walk to campus!” I said. I could pick up my supermarket inserts and we would get our 15 minutes outside and then some.

We bundled up the children and ourselves, put the littlest guy in the wagon and set off.  Pete with his sunglasses because they helped him avoid seeing our neighbors’ “scary chimney.”  Somehow with the sunglasses, it is less scary.


But I had made a miscalculation.  It was colder than it had seemed.  The boys were not wearing mittens.  The sun went behind the clouds and the wind starting blowing.  Snow started swirling around us.  I gave Pete one of my gloves to wear, while he put the other one in his “hand pocket.”  By this point, we were closer to our destination than to home, but everyone was frigid and little guy was crying.  We urged Pete onward and began to run.

Finally, we reached the over-warmth of the library.  But the supermarket circulars and other newspaper inserts were mysteriously missing.  Dejectedly, I nursed John in the student lounge, where the comfort and warmth knocked him out into a deep, deep sleep. Going back into the wagon for the return trip would enrage him, so he would have to be carried home and I hadn’t brought a sling or other carrier.

Although I debated sending Matt back on foot to rescue me and the kids with our car, we started this ill-fated walk together, so we would finish it together as a family.  Pete was bundled into the wagon this time and John was zipped into my coat.  Once again, as we began our walk, the sun shone, only to quickly disappear as the wind and snow buffeted us cruelly. Finally, we staggered home: cold, but victorious.

But we got our 15 minutes outside!

Snowed on, but sleeping peacefully.

Snowed on, but sleeping peacefully.


My winter csa box, complete with two heads of cabbage.

My winter csa box, complete with two heads of cabbage.

We’ve had a lot of cabbage in our winter CSA share this year and have already enjoyed three huge pots of various cabbage soups (including this one) and made colcannon twice, so I was looking for a different way to use yet another cabbage.  Suddenly, it came to me: crock pot halupki!

If you have a Polish or Russian grandmother in your family, chances are you’ve had stuffed cabbage, also called halupki or golumpki.  Traditionally, this is a dish of ground meat and rice stuffed and rolled into large cabbage leaves and slowly baked with tomatoes or tomato juice.  My Polish grannee would make this from time to time and hers was the best, but it sure took a lot of time.  First you had to boil the cabbage leaves and make the meat stuffing, then you had to cool the cabbage leaves, stuff each one with the filling, and bake. One day, I will have time to make such a time-consuming, but delicious meal for my family, but not now.

Instead, I searched the web for a crockpot recipe for undone stuffed cabbage. In my heart, I believe that someone has perfected this recipe, but I could not find one that was both easy and like my grannee’s, so I made my own recipe.  I used tomatoes that I had frozen whole from the summer, but canned would work just as well.  Here is my easy recipe:

Jen’s Lazy Crock Pot Undone Stuffed Cabbage Recipe

  • 1 lb ground beef
  • 1 onion
  • 1 head cabbage
  • 3/4 cup brown rice
  • 2 cans tomatoes and their juices(diced/whole/crushed whatever) or 7-8 whole tomatoes, chopped or crushed
  • large splash of vinegar
  • 1 TBSP sugar
  • 1 TSP salt
  • 1 cup water or stock
  • salt and pepper

Brown beef with onions.

While beef cooks, combine tomatoes with vinegar, sugar, and salt.  Core and chop cabbage.  Place half of cabbage in crock pot and top with half of tomato sauce. Top with browned beef and onions.  Sprinkle rice on top of beef mixture, then top with remaining cabbage and remaining tomato sauce.  Pour in cup of water or stock.

Cook on low for 8-10 hours until cabbage and rice are done.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.

It tasted better than it looks in this picture!  I went back for thirds.

It tasted better than it looks in this picture! I went back for thirds.

UPDATE: Digital Diet

Well, since my original Digital Diet post my wife and I have taken some very positive steps toward disconnecting ourselves as well as lowering our monthly expenses. So we have:

1. Sold extra, unnecessary electronic devices. iPhones, Apple TV and more.

2. We cancelled our home Internet

3. I successfully unlocked an iPhone and it is now on the Straight talk network for half of what Verizon cost

Since we started we’ve made about $225 selling some things and we are now saving $150 per month. More cuts to come.

Feeling Abundant

Frugal living can lead to frugal burnout.  Sometimes it is hard to see or imagine real or fictional people spending money on vacations, cars, clothes, food, or activities, even though I am happy with my life and I am choosing to not buy things so that we can pay down debt and I can stay home during this season of our lives.  I’m very thankful that my family is in a position where we have choices and I don’t take it for granted.  Even so, the daily messages to spend, spend, spend, get to me too.  Not having TV and mostly watching Netflix has helped tremendously because I don’t see many advertisements.  Also, I try not to look at catalogs or window shop at real or online storefronts unless there is something I am seriously planning to buy.  But I have also found a few positive actions I can take that help me feel the abundant side of my life.

Borrowing tons of books from the public library.

Nothing makes me feel richer than lugging home a bunch of books from the library.  My local library recently started offering an RSS feed where I can browse through all the newly purchased books.  I request whichever titles are remotely interesting and then they call me and tell me when they are ready to pick up.  Not everyone knows this, but most libraries offer interlibrary loan programs.  Even though my library is fairly small, if they don’t own a book, I can ask them to borrow it from another library in Pennsylvania.  Occasionally, I keep a book too long and have to pay a few cents in fines, but it is worth it and far less expensive than buying even a few used books a year.


Sharing with others.

I’m always pinching pennies.  But being able to share some of the rewards of pinching pennies with people and organizations that we care about is great too.  Lately, I’ve been enjoying bringing meals to families with new babies.  I loved getting meals when we had a new baby and I love being able to give this gift to others. The act of giving of my time and food to others reminds me to be grateful for time, food, and family.

Discovering fun things to do for free.

Matt and I have been finding and doing fun free things together since our first “official” date: ice skating for free at college.  Over the last 10 years, both before and after adding children to the mix, we’ve cataloged hundreds of free activities including holiday parades, free zoo or museum days, library programs for adults and children, free university sports and cultural events, community festivals and concerts, neighborhood walks, visits to state parks, picnics, backyard camping, using coupons or gift cards for free coffee or other treats, free tours of public or historic buildings, mother-to-mother support meetings, sports or board games, and sharing meals or playtime with friends. In fact, we’ve found so many free or almost free events to choose from that it is an exceedingly rare month that we would spend $15 on entertainment.  Our social calendar is so full of nature walks, parades, concerts, library visits, and so on that we don’t (usually) feel left out of the more costly choices out there.  Of course, not all experiences can be had for free, so we’ll continue to use the money we save to afford museums, zoos, travel, and so on that require a fee.  You had better believe I’ll be looking for a coupon though!

First batch of sour cream


Loving raw milk and loving frugality have inspired me to creative heights of dairy transformations.  I’ve mentioned my yogurt-making in passing, waxed poetic about my kefir-love, but even more excitingly, 2013 has witnessed both my first batches of mozzarella and my first batch of homemade sour cream!  Can you tell we like dairy in our house?

Of all of the dairy culturing, straining, and incubating, making sour cream has been the absolute easiest one I’ve tried, and the homemade variety tastes amazing.  The short version of how it works: you put a buttermilk culture into cream and let it sit at around 77 degrees for 12-16 hours.  Then you eat it.  Simple, right?  The only required piece of equipment is a thermometer. I used a cheese-making one that came with this mozzarella and ricotta making kit, but I think you could also get something like this if you don’t have one lying around already.

Here are the more involved steps I took:

First, I bought a buttermilk/sour cream culture from Cultures for Health, a company I had learned about from several of the “real food” websites I follow.  There are two different types of buttermilk cultures.  One is an heirloom culture which you can keep using over and over again to make buttermilk for the rest of your natural life.  When you want to make sour cream, you would just take some of the buttermilk and put it into cream.  Voila!  Sour cream.  But, this one wasn’t going to work for me because I use raw milk, and to keep the buttermilk culture “pure” and working properly I would need to home-pasteurize some milk every week to culture my buttermilk. Plus, I would need to be regularly consuming buttermilk to keep the culture going.  I have my kefir going and I don’t want to replace any of our kefir with buttermilk, so the heirloom culture was a no go for us at this time.

Brilliantly, Cultures for Health also sells a “direct set” culture.  This culture only works once, so you don’t have to worry about culturing it over and over, although it isn’t as economical. The buttermilk/sour cream culture comes in an 8-pack, so when I want to make sour cream, I take out one of the 8 packets and use it.  When I want to make more buttermilk or sour cream, I take out another packet.

Second, I got my cream together.  One of the reasons I bit the bullet and bought my sour cream culture is that I finally developed as easy technique to skim off the cream from my raw milk . . . .with my turkey baster!  I HATED transferring my milk to a bowl, letting it sit, skimming, and still getting milk with the cream!  With my turkey baster, I opened a couple of my half gallons of milk and basted out a cup of cream from each one until I mostly filled a quart mason jar.  If you aren’t using raw milk, then you would only need to buy some cream at the grocery store or dairy.

Third, I heated my cream to 77 degrees.  I did this by heating it on the stove in a saucepan.  This is where the thermometer comes in.  If you are using pasteurized cream, the directions are a bit different, but all of the instructions come with the culture.

Fourth, I stirred in the contents of one direct set culture packet and let the culture do its work.  I put the milk back in the mason jar, which I covered with a piece of cloth fasted onto the jar with a rubber band.  Because it is supposed to culture at around 77 degrees, I set the jar a few inches away from my crock pot which was making bone broth, thinking that this would keep it about the right temperature in my 62 degree house.

Fifth, I opened the jar the next morning after about 16 hours and tasted the goodness.  It was thick and creamy and quite delicious.  Best yet, I made an entire quart of sour cream for only $2.83, which included the cost of buying and shipping the culture and the cost of the cream.  This is a very good price for 64 oz of sour cream.  In fact, it is slightly less per oz than a 3lb tub of Daisy’s available at my local Sam’s club.  And remember that my cream was skimmed from my raw milk.  If you buy a less expensive cream, you could enjoy even more of a cost benefit.

A delicious experience was had by all each time this sour cream came out of the fridge!  If anything has been holding you back from making your own dairy products at home, I definitely recommend giving sour cream a try.


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Jen’s 3 favorite money-making schemes

Are tricks to earning a little bit of extra cash crunchy?  I debated on writing this post, but decided that little inflows to our budget resulting from the schemes I describe below are exactly what helps this one-income family stay afloat all while increasing our food budget to get higher quality, ethical, safer food and paying down debt.  If an extra $10 a month is worth a few minutes of your time, then please read on to learn how I help defray the costs associated with our crunchy lifestyle.

A good money-making scheme should be quick and easy with a high enough rate of return to justify your time.  And I love a good money-making scheme!  I’ve tried so many things over the years to make a little extra cash on the side.  One of the weirdest ways I made money in college was “selling” my blood plasma, although it’s not for those who don’t like needles.  I’ll never forget, it was the summer I quit smoking and the anticoagulant they mixed with my red blood cells and pumped back into me put a metallic taste in my mouth and a slight buzz ever so reminiscent of nicotine.  Awww . . . the memories!

The worst money-making scheme I ever tried was delivering phone books   My friend, Christin, saw an ad in the paper for this gig and enrolled me in her crazy plan because I needed the money as badly as she did.  We showed up at a local hotel where we picked out some routes and loaded up Christin’s car.  It was winter in Ithaca, NY, and, although delivering a phone book via the Burger King drive-through was fun, fending off scary barking dogs, suffering falls down icy stairways (Christin) and driving over a curb resulting in serious damage to Christin’s car, was not.  After hours and hours of hard work over several days, I don’t think we made $100 a piece, and Christin spent more money on car repairs than she had netted.  Moral of the story: don’t deliver phone books.

As a stay-at-home mom, I now confine my “money” making to saving money by savvy shopping and selling the odd thing online.  But I have found a few easy ways to earn money or valuable gift cards that I think are worth my time.  You certainly won’t get rich with these schemes, but they help us stretch our budget a bit farther each month.


Swagbucks is a website where you are awarded points for doing certain activities.  Once you earn enough points, you can redeem them for (among other things) gift cards to MANY retailers and restaurants, including Amazon.com, Starbucks, and more.  Mainly, I earn points by searching with the Swagbucks search engine (instead of Google) and by going through links on Swagbucks to buy things at online retailers, like Amazon, Target, and Shutterfly.com.  You can also earn points by watching videos, signing up for free or paid subscriptions, printing coupons, playing games, answering surveys, and the list goes on and on.

I’ve been experimenting with Swagbucks since last fall and I find that it is better for me to just earn a few points every day by searching with Swagbucks instead of Google.  With my minimal efforts, I earn a $5 Amazon gift card about every 4-6 weeks.  Since I would be searching online anyway, it takes only a few extra minutes of my time per month.  As of this writing, I have no “referrals” which are people who you helped to sign up with Swagbucks.  Once you get referrals, you earn the points that your referrals get through searching on Swagbucks, but not points earned any other way.  By getting referrals, you can really up your earning potential.  But for me, it has been worth it even with no referrals.

Bing Rewards

Bing Rewards is another search engine that rewards you with points for doing online searches and the points can be redeemed for gift cards.  Every day, I can earn 1 credit for every 2 searches on Bing.  The best part is that I can do all those searched in about 2 minutes by searching for something general, like “corn recipes” and then quickly clicking the links under Related Searches on the right side of the screen.  Matt and I both use Bing Rewards to earn a $5 Amazon.com gift card every other month so we “make” $60/year in gift cards with this scheme between the two of us. Matt calculated we are “getting paid” about $9/hour to run these searches, which is a good rate for me right now since I just do it when I feel like it.  You make 10 points for every referral you get, which doesn’t make a huge difference,  but every little bit counts.

Earning Cash Back on Credit Card Purchases

This scheme is not for everyone.  If you aren’t accustomed to the discipline of paying off your credit cards each month, do not try to earn cash back on your purchases.  Cash back on purchases is never worth it if you are paying interest or late fees!  Also, do not try this if you know that paying with credit cards makes you spend more money.  Matt and I budget down to the cent every month and the majority of our credit card purchases are necessities, so we’ve found that this is an excellent way to earn a couple hundred dollars a year.

We’ve maximized our earnings by using a couple of cards that provide “bonus” points for spending money in special categories.  One of our cards gives us triple points (3% cash back) on Amazon.com purchases and double points (2% cash back) for gasoline and grocery store purchases.  The other card gives us 5% cash back on special categories each month like gas stations, drug stores, or hotels.  By shifting as much of our purchases as possible to these cards and paying off the balances every month without fail, we make significant extra cash every year.  For example, just by putting our heating oil, monthly Internet bill, cell phone bill, and trash pick up service on our credit card, we earn $22 a year for doing next-to-nothing.

So these are my favorites, but are there any other easy, legit, money-making schemes out there?