Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Money-saving Tips from the Experts

Every time a TV-news program runs a teaser about “easy ways to save money” or “how to trim your budget,” I stick around and wait for the segment to start. These fluff pieces are useless to me because I’m already doing exactly what the “experts” are suggesting, but I really enjoy pointing and laughing.

We don’t buy Starschmucks [image, by the way, is a still shot from a NSFW-language cartoon], eat out very often, or buy expensive cuts of meat at the grocery store. When we go shopping, we pay cash or use debit cards – nobody in this family owns even one credit card. We also clip coupons and take competitors’ circulars to Walmart for price matching. We do a good bit of our cooking from scratch; it’s not hard to make things like cornbread and cake from the staple foods in the house, and it’s cheaper than buying pre-made versions or mixes.

The family plan (cell phones) isn’t very expensive because we each contribute equally to it – and that ends up costing us less than having our own, individual accounts. We also don’t have, or use, crap like Internet on our phones, because we don’t need or want it. Our satellite-TV package is almost nonexistent because we can’t be bothered to pay outrageous amounts of money for Shotime and other channels from the higher-priced packages. There’s talk around here of dumping the satellite, and that’s probably going to happen soon. The general consensus is that, if we really want to watch something, we can get a Netflix account.

We rarely go to movies; buy CDs or DVDs; or buy the latest and greatest toy (cell phone, for example, or a Nintendo). Mom and I – the biggest readers in the house – buy new books once, maybe twice, every year. For the most part, we buy second-hand books from various places, including the local flea market. (The local library is not very good. They have only a few shelves of books, and many of them are romance novels. Mom and I have read our way through all of the interesting books, so we don’t bother going there anymore.)

Every vehicle in the driveway is paid off. The newest car out there is a 2000 model. We take care of most maintenance and repairs, and have a family friend help us when we can’t figure things out on our own. The cars have good insurance policies, which does cost money, but we’re surrounded by crackheads who don’t have insurance or, in some cases, drivers licenses. It sucks that we have to protect ourselves when they’re the ones who are breaking laws, but that’s reality.

Mom cuts our hair, because she’s pretty good at it and because the set of electric hair clippers that I bought are about the same price as just one haircut. Kid Sis dyes her hair at home when she’s in the mood for a color change. None of the three women in this house pay anybody to do anything to our nails or legs or whatever.

We repair our own appliances when they break. When something is beyond repair, we find a gently-used replacement. Mom recently bought a refurbished, basic washing machine for about a hundred bucks (it came with a guarantee) because the old one just wouldn’t work anymore. This is an older, simpler washer, which Mom insists on having because she stands a better chance of being able to repair it. Newer, more-complicated washers are more difficult to fix, and the parts tend to cost more.

There’s no such thing as public transportation where I live, and we’re too isolated for carpooling to work. We couldn’t coordinate a family carpool anyway, because our schedules are so different. One of my brothers goes to a college that’s about thirty miles away in one direction; I attend a school that’s fifty-plus miles away…in the opposite direction.

Most of our clothes come from thrift stores or garage sales. When we buy new stuff, it’s from the clearance rack. I haven’t paid full retail price for a pair of sneakers since I was in grade school. We do, however, buy new undergarments because we really don’t like the idea of wearing somebody else’s underwear – even if it’s been thoroughly cleaned. But we don’t go to expensive shops to get that stuff, so it’s not like we’re investing a few hundred bucks a year in undies. Please.

There’s no H/V/AC system in our home. When we want heat, we build a fire in the wood-burning stove. When we want to cool off, we open the windows and turn on fans to circulate the air. We’ve also been known to go hang out in the hammock, underneath the trees, when it’s extremely hot. Our electric bill’s not too high because of these “alternate choices.”

News reporters tend to stick to those types of money-saving tips. Even when a teaser for “radical ways to save money” comes up, the advice is still mostly useless to us. Society’s idea of “radical” is to drive an older vehicle…which we’re doing. Their idea of “extreme saving” is to ditch credit cards…which, again, does not apply to us. Their concept of “going really far to save money” is to move into affordable housing…which is exactly what we did.

The sad part is that these “tips” actually apply to some people. America is full of overgrown children, in that we never matured into financial responsibility. We want what we want, and we want it now. It doesn’t matter if we have to rack up debt to get the toys – we’re going to get them, and they will make us happy for about, oh, ten minutes. We’ll work for years to pay off the credit-card charges associated with those fun, shiny things, but at least we won’t be a bunch of losers like those sad sacks who pay cash for everything, and buy only what they can actually afford.

And we aren’t even trying to keep up with the Joneses anymore, as the old saying goes. Instead, we want to be the Joneses. If we aren’t the very first family in the neighborhood to get the newest Escalade…if we aren’t the first to give our kids the latest and greatest video-game console or cell phone…if we aren’t the first to put in the brand-new swimming pool, eight-zillion-inch flat-screen TV, or twelve-billion-channel satellite dish that receives signals from frozen green men on Pluto…we aren’t doing our jobs as Americans.

We’re in our current mess because we didn’t grow up. We are irresponsible, as a society, and we don’t want to admit that we’re facing the consequences of our choices. We want somebody to save us, just like Mom and Dad did when we were children, because we just can’t stand the idea of having to actually take in our belts a notch or two and get down to the business of getting things back on course.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Get Brass While You Can

Edit (3/18/2009, 10:51 p.m.)

So an anonymous comment informs me that this has just been reversed. Wonderful. But the fact remains that Uncle Sam wanted to do all this crap. Everything that I wrote about stocking up and keeping an eye out for materials still applies, because you really don't know what they'll pull next, or when.


Apparently, DOD Surplus must now destroy the military’s once-fired brass instead of selling it to We the People for reloading purposes. This ends a long-standing surplus arrangement that, for quite some time, has given people brass for military calibers.

You’re probably going to say that the military’s primers are crimped, making them difficult to remove and, therefore, a big waste of time. That’s true of some calibers, but not all. Besides: those who would, until now, find a way to work with the military brass are now going to buy the “rest of the stuff.”

So now, there won’t be as much brass available, meaning that the price of what’s left will increase. Oh, and We the People will pay to destroy the once-fired brass; Uncle Sam does not, despite what the dumbest Americans believe, generate his own revenue. You and I are going to pay to destroy perfectly-good brass, which civilians could reload and use more than once.

And if you’re pissed off because the two-front war we’re currently fighting is costing us a huge fortune, the price just went up. The government was raking in some money off the brass, but that won’t happen anymore because of this new requirement. The brass can still be recycled as scrap metal, but that’s not nearly as good as selling off the metal as once-fired brass. Uncle Sugar’s going to recoup less of John Q. Taxpayer’s money now and, more likely than not, will continue wanting plenty of cash to kill terrorists.

As far as firearms control goes, this is a pretty-good idea. (A pretty bad idea if you’re on my side of the fence.) Obama and Friends know what they’re doing. They don’t have to go door to door, confiscating your firearms. That would be too risky for them, you know. Some little group of patriots might be deeply bothered by the idea and, you know, respond in a less-than-peaceful manner.

Instead, the tyrants stay in their little ivory tower, signing pieces of paper that give them just a little more control over their subjects. They’re going to keep doing this until they either run out of ways to control us, or we get sick of it and kick them out of office.

This is not a new phenomenon, either. Politicians have been trying to wrest freedom from our hands for years, years, years. Both of the two “parties that actually matter” are guilty, and they were doing it long before Obama was even born. He’s merely doing his part to make things worse, that’s all.

So, continue doing your best to get your hands on ammo and components. Now isn’t a great time to have a military caliber unless you’ve been stocking up for it, but oh well. There’s nothing to be done about that now but to grab extra supplies as best you can and work with what you have.

But stock up anyway, folks. If you haven’t made a good-sized dent in your ammo and component needs yet, get busy. Dad's in charge of that aspect of preps here at The Homestead. He spent the weekend out and about, seeing what he could find to top off the stash. We're basically set, but could always use more.

If you’re still trying to acquire the actual firearms, I’d suggest avoiding the military calibers. You really don’t need those in the first place. I know, I know: it’s really tacti-cool to hang a whole bunch of accessories from an AR-15’s quad rail and make the thing look like it came right out of a S.W.A.T. van. Though I’m all for the right to embrace our inner mall ninjas, I’m a bigger fan of functionality. No firearm is useful without ammo, and rising prices – along with the now-reduced brass supply – tends to make the plastastic wonder a really-expensive club and nothing more.

All of that applies even if you don't reload. Companies that buy surplus casings for reloading and sale to civilians won't be able to get their hands on the government supplies anymore, so they'll have to fight over what's left.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

It’s Been Quieter Since the Economy Started Sucking

When my family and I moved out here, to the middle of bloody nowhere, eighteen years ago, things were relatively quiet. We occasionally heard one or two people riding around in the area on ATVs, and we sometimes heard some noise from the trailer park behind our property. There’s a drag-racing track a few miles away and, on weekends, we heard the jet cars that the owners invited out to entertain the crowds.

However: for the most part, weekdays were quiet. People were at work and kids were at school. During summer months, there was weekend noise, but you expect that because families tend to be outside more. But most of the time, there weren’t many noises other than what nature created, and it was wonderful. I could sit outside and listen to birds, squirrels, and – at night at least – coyotes.

And because the occasional ATV rider…and the drag strip…were here long before we moved in, we were cool with all that. So our weekends weren’t as peaceful as our weekdays. That’s part of life. It would be insane to be pissed off about something that existed before you showed up, right? Right. I don’t feel sorry for people who buy homes near airports, then whine about the noise. If you didn’t want to hear jumbo jets all day and night long, you should have bought a different house. Duh.

However, a few years ago, some guy bought a buttload of acreage a couple of miles from The Homestead. Nobody in the community knew about this sale until the guy started working – and even then, we didn’t know what was happening, exactly, because he never made any announcements, introduced himself, et cetera.

We heard heavy equipment working, nonstop, from sunrise to sunset. People were clear-cutting acre after acre and moving dirt around to build…a motocross track. This earthen monstrosity turned out to be a practice track: a place where every dirtbike-riding person in the entire county could show up, pay a small fee, and ride all day long if they so desired.

I freaking hate dirtbikes. They make ungodly amounts of noise, and they’re a complete waste of time and money. One of my brothers owns one, and I despise the thing. Whenever he cranks it up, I have to listen to that infernal engine, which sounds like a cross between an anemic sewing machine and some high-school kid’s souped-up rice rocket. The high-pitched noises, which I can hear even when my door and windows are closed and my music is playing at high volume, make me homicidal. If I were given the chance to destroy just one noisemaker, it would be the dirtbike.

My brother does, however, have every right to his toy (which, incidentally, is for sale because he needs the cash for something that’s actually useful). And the guy who decided to open the motocross track near us has every right to his business. I’ve never considered trying to take away their rights, because that would be a nasty thing for me to do.

I do not, however, have to like or appreciate the noise and other annoyances that the dirtbikes have created.

The track is open seven days a week, from sunup to sundown. The owner’s children are homeschooled, so they can hop on their dirtbikes and haul butt up and down their track pretty much whenever they want – including early morning, when I like to stand outside and enjoy the birds and other wildlife before dragging my butt to school. The business owner and his family live on site, too, so they just walk outside, fire up their dirtbikes, and go.

And, of course, the rest of the dirtbike owners in the community show up to spend the day riding. Sometimes, as many as twenty, thirty dirtbikes are going at once, and the noise…well…even though there a couple of miles between the track and The Homestead, we still hear that crap.

You see…this gentleman did not have enough common courtesy to install any sort of noise suppression. He could have easily constructed mounds of dirt around the perimeter of the track, which would deflect a good bit of the ungodly noise. He could have also used cement walls, much like we see beside highways that cut through communities. Hell, he could have left some trees on his property to muffle the sounds, even. He could have done all sorts of things to keep as much of his noise as possible to himself, but he couldn’t, and still cannot, be bothered. Screw us, right?

That’s the part that bothers me the most: the guy’s utter lack of concern for the people who lived here before he bought his property. I’m thrilled that he has the right to open a business and all that, but I have to live here. I was already living here long before he showed up, and a little bit of decency would have gone a long way toward making me more tolerant of his track.

However, there is an upside to the economy sucking. The track has been nearly silent almost every day over the last several months. Back when gas was nearly four bucks a gallon here, I didn’t hear even his own kids on their dirtbikes. Beautiful. Just…beautiful. Life was almost back to normal out here. I could actually hear birds again, at least on weekdays.

Now, business is starting to pick up again, little by little, because gas isn’t quite two bucks a gallon. I do hear dirtbikes again, but it’s mostly on weekends, when I’m already drowning in noise from the racetrack. I think that I can suppress my homicidal urges as long as the problem’s mostly limited to weekends.

But if the economy continues to suck, and the track goes under? I won’t be sad at all. His business will be just one more non-essential service to close down, which is what one can reasonably expect with the current economic conditions. If he doesn’t have a backup plan by now, he’s obviously not paying attention.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Cheap Firewood

My family and I have used wood-burning stoves here at The Homestead since we moved here about eighteen years ago. Our 1960s-model trailer doesn’t have a central heating or AC system. We yanked the inefficient furnace and scrapped it out, which left more room in the hallway and put a little money in our pockets. Burning firewood has proven to be quite a bit cheaper than paying nearly two decades’ worth of heating bills!

Depending on your circumstances, firewood can be cheap to acquire. Where I live, in the middle of Texas, much of the countryside is heavily wooded. We have plenty of oak trees on our thirteen acres. If we cut down trees as they die, we usually have enough firewood to keep us warm in the winter and fire up the smoker to prepare the Thanksgiving turkey. (We also use the smoker during warmer months for everything from burgers to hot dogs to chicken.)

Even so, we supplement our own firewood supply when the opportunity presents itself. My brothers sometimes get calls from friends and neighbors, asking them to come remove dead trees. Occasionally, the job pays cash, but the real reward is the firewood.

We don’t have much money, but we were able to start collecting firewood with just a few hundred dollars’ worth of equipment. You don’t have to have an expensive setup if you’re basically healthy and able to learn how to do firewood-related tasks.

We use a chainsaw. I’m a huge Stihl fan because these saws tend to last for years if you take good care of them and don’t try to make your particular model do more than it was designed to do. These saws are kind of pricey, yes, but they perform so much better than the crappy saws that Lowe’s sells.

Alternatively, you can use an axe or hand saw to cut down trees. This requires more work, yes, but it’s inexpensive. The gas-powered saw won’t be useful to you when the fuel supply dries up anyway. I’ve cut down a few trees with a single-blade axe. It’s tough work, but you can do just about anything if you’re bent on staying warm. Besides: while you’re actually chopping down that tree, you won’t be worried about the cold at all, now will you?

We use the pickup to haul firewood up to the house from the woods. Depending on where we cut the wood, we might or might not be able to park the truck very close to the site. However, a wheelbarrow lets us move a fairly-large load of wood from the site if the truck’s parked too far away. A good wheelbarrow currently runs about fifty or sixty bucks where I live, incidentally, which isn’t a bad price when you consider how useful the thing is.

We use single-blade axes to chop our firewood. You can, however, buy a splitting maul – basically, an axe with a big head that, I’ve been told, makes lighter work of this log-splitting thing. Splitting by hand is slow, tough work, but even I can do it – and I’m a lightweight weakling. When we use the axe, we don’t spend much time chopping because it’s so labor intensive. We typically chop enough for a couple of days at a time, then go do some other constructive thing that doesn’t require as much work.

One thing to know about wood, though, is that different types are more or less difficult to split. I’d rate white oak somewhere in the “medium” range, for example, because it’s not too hard or too easy. That’s what we burn around here, it being so plentiful and all, so I’m glad that this particular wood isn’t a complete nightmare.

An axe ran us about fifteen dollars. We also bought two splitting wedges, which were about ten dollars each. They’re well worth the investment, because some wood is just too tough or knotty to split with the axe. Our wedges have lasted for nearly twenty years now, so I would say that the twenty-dollar bill we forked over for them was well spent.

Alternatively, you can just use the splitting wedges. Buy a small sledgehammer to drive them into the firewood and you should be good to go.

Axes and wedges need occasional sharpening. This is fairly easy to do, but takes a little practice. A whetstone and a little work will get your tools back in shape in no time once you figure out what you’re doing. Check out the sharpening FAQ to your left for excellent information about sharpening all sorts of blades. (The link, incidentally, doesn’t go to anything that I’ve done or written. I just learned a lot from the FAQ, that’s all.)

Chopping firewood is slow work when you first start learning. It took me a good ten minutes to split one log when I started. I improved with practice, as did my brothers. Even my sister can split firewood with an axe if we need her to do it.

Even though I’ve spent a good bit of this section praising the mighty axe, there is nothing wrong with a hydraulic splitter. One of my brothers took a job at a rental yard a couple of years ago. Once a year, he brings home a gas-powered model. Mom and I, along with my sister, take turns splitting firewood. With the machine, we can get enough wood to take us through most of the winter season. Typically, we still have to chop some by hand, but any wood that we can split with the borrowed tool saves us work!

Renting the splitter might work well for you. If you cut down plenty of trees before you rent the tool, you maximize whatever amount of time you have with the splitter. You don’t have to maintain or repair a rented splitter, and using it gives you a huge pile of wood in a fraction of the time that it would have taken you to split those logs by hand.

You can also, of course, spend a hundred bucks or so on a manual hydraulic splitter. These do require some effort on your part, but not as much as you put in with the axe and wedges. My Dad refused to buy one of these, though, when my siblings and I were kids, claiming that hand-splitting wood builds character. (I wish to note that, after Dad taught us how to do the job, he stopped doing it. Interestingly enough, it seemed as if Dad developed just the right amount of character as soon as my sibs and I were able to take over.)

Even if you’re on a tight budget, you can still collect your own firewood. You don’t have to invest much money in basic hand tools, and the job will become easier and faster with practice. But if you do have the ability to get the modern tools, I’d go for it. Piling up a good bit of firewood for the winter, but still practicing your “old school” ways on the side, will help you stay warm and, at the same time, prepare for a day when you might not be able to do things the modern way.

Useful Links:

A Mother Earth News article about splitting firewood. Be sure to read the comments, as many of them offer good advice.

A story about a gentleman who spent a decade chopping and selling firewood.
“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
-George OrwellAnimal Farm