Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Being Not a Pioneer Woman

I've had this phrase in my head for a while, as a self-description. Probably because of the television show with the same title: Pioneer Woman. But, from what I can tell from her cooking show and books, she means good ol' down home traditions. So, that's not quite what I'm feeling for myself.

I think that I'm a throwback to my Depression-Era ancestors.

The Great Depression was a terrible time, but the values our Great Grandparents learned is something we can aspire to. Every item was used until it was worn out, and then turned into scraps for quilting or scrubbing. The need to not throw anything away is similar to our reminders to reduce, reuse and recycle. In Seattle, this is made fairly easy - we can compost with our garbage pickup, and have cut our landfill waste in half with our recycling services, which are easy to use. Our consumer culture dominates our world, and we are constantly inundated with messages to BUY THINGS! I try, periodically, to put myself on spending freezes, to remind myself that I have plenty of clothes, plenty of crafty things to be creative with, plenty of pens and pencils and paper and shampoo - and that the desire to go out and buy "something" is more an impulse to be shopping based on a culture that equates acquiring things with happiness. I try to spend those times using up what I have already.

I've always had a pathological need to not waste anything. Not in a scary hoarder way. [I actually am not very sentimental about things, and can happily recycle or donate most possessions if I haven't thought about them or used them in a while. I have a few baby toys, clothes I can't part with, and pieces of furniture that travel with me, and many few file folders of letters and cards that I won't give up. My husband says that I don't buy clothes, I rent them from Goodwill.] My family are all thrifters. I can't remember not being aware that, if you take the time to look, you can find really nice quality things for a fraction of the cost of buying them new. It's partly economical (I can't afford a silk beaded dress in a store), but the more time my job sends me to multiple thrift stores in a day, the more I see just how many perfectly good items there are 2nd hand in the world. So why do we keep manufacturing things, when the world is bursting with good, usable items that haven't worn out yet?

This also extends to food. I'm not in my backyard composting and growing vegetables, but I am trying to "shop around the outside of the grocery store" to fill my diet with fresh foods instead of processed items full of preservatives. When I can, I shop at one of several farmer's markets for locally grown items. At home, I try to use up every scrap of food by transforming it as many times as I can into another dish. Right now my Easter Ham is bubbling away on the stove becoming "Ham and Navy Bean Soup." This, again, is partially economical. Foods that you prepare from scratch are better for you, yummier, and cheaper than pre-made anything. Case in point: If I send my husband (good man - shares the cooking, but shops like a guy) to the store to "get something for dinner" - he decides what he wants and comes back with two pieces of specialty meat, a tub of pre-made mashed potatoes, a tub of side dish or a loaf of garlic bread, and a bottle of wine. These items by themselves are frequently $35-40. In my mind, it's silly to spend that kind of money on food and STILL have to do the cooking. At that point, you may as well have gone to a restaurant. When I go to the store, I look in the freezer to see what meat we've frozen from the manager's special, check to see which produce is near spoiling, and see what staple sides I have in the pantry. Then, I do an ingredient search on and see what dish can be made from what's lying around the house. I then go to the store for any missing ingredients: usually a couple of potatoes to mash, some spices (if you don't use them frequently, you can go to the whole foods section and buy a teaspoon or so from the tubs there, instead of a whole jar), and walk away having spent less than $10 for the same meal. (And PS, if you're cooking for two - a whole loaf of garlic bread is dumb. Just buy a hoagie from the deli and DIY)

After years of stretching every penny because I didn't have very many, the habit to spend as little as possible to get the best quality has stuck. Here's some of my favorite ways to stretch my dollars

1. MAKE SOUP - Soup are incredible for using scrap foods. Throw anything that's leftover into a pot: veggies, beans, rice, meat - and add onion, stock cubes some spices and a bay leaf, and you've turned a few handfuls of nothing into as many tasty meals as you can freeze for later.

2. DONATE TO VALUE VILLAGE - Every time you donate, they will give you a coupon for $3 off your $10 purchase. Take one bag each time you go, and amass a coupon collection. Combine this with their sale tag of the week (50% off one color), and only spend $10 at a throw, and you can walk out with quite a few items for your $7.

3. USE COUPONS AT FABRIC STORES - You can find a lot of what you need as a crafter at thrift stores. The big chain stores are just bursting with people's donated stashes. (The little church run places aren't great for this - they have retired volunteers who take the donated scraps and make things for the store to sell) I find bags of quilting scraps, half skeins of yarns, knitting needles, and yardages of fabrics. When you do need to purchase new items at fabric stores, collect coupons from their mailers, the website, emails and auto text messages. As long as the numbers on the coupons are different, you can use as many of them at a time as you want. Use every coupon you can, even for small cost items like thread. Fill in with on-sale items if needed, but generally the full price item with a coupon will be better value than the sale item. The savings are huge over the long run.

4. MAKE POT PIES - another great way to use up scrap foods, anything tastes yummy inside of a flaky pastry crust. DITTO FOR QUICHES.

5. COOK FROM SCRATCH - That tub of mashed potatoes? $5. Two potatoes, some milk, butter, salt and pepper? About $1 to make it yourself, and you can make two portions to eat right away, instead of 6-8, half of which will be forgotten in the fridge.

6. THRIFT FOR QUALITY, NOT NAME BRAND - Thrift store employees are taught to recognize name brands that can be priced for higher sale - but mostly at the teen buying level: Gap, Old Navy, Banana Republic, XXVI Forever and H&M. These items will be more expensive than the silk blouse (no label) next to them, or the couture item (Cache) that they don't recognize. Running your hand along the racks, you can "feel" for quality (no mistaking wools, silks, cottons and linens compared to polyester blends) instead of shopping for labels, and walk away with a very expensive, timeless wardrobe for less than you would have spent on a Gap tee, and those Old Navy jeans.

This morning, I began my day reading This Article on Etsy, about building an eco-friendly business. I liked the scope of the article, because it wasn't too strictly defined - allowing for ANY combination of recycling, vintage, combination of used and new materials, or making completely organic products under the banner of "Eco-Friendly."
When you’re adopting eco-friendly practices, there might be trade-offs – and there often is not only one right answer. “It’s a direction, not perfection,” notes Andie of Andie’s Specialty Sweets.
My shop on Etsy, which I've finally started in earnest, is in that direction. I sell some vintage finds, some things handmade completely from scrap materials, and some combinations of new and used materials. There's nothing wrong with buying new, but I try to do it sparingly, and to only purchase things that I know aren't available second hand. I like that the article praises those who create new items with new, high-quality materials, as building the heirlooms of the future - valuing art of creating something new, and non-disposable.

I favor the idea of grass roots efforts towards being a less instantaneous, less disposable culture. Some people are called to drastic things like The Man Who Quit Money or Only Eat Local Food, but we can all make small changes in the direction of being more frugal, using things up, wearing them out, donating the unused, and even neater - being Creative in the way we live.