Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Trim The Fat Tuesday: The Haircut

You may or may not know this about me, but I have short hair:

It's my default style, and most of the years of my life it has been more or less this length, give or take a few bobs and a stretch of luxurious long layers courtesy of my pregnancies. It's super easy and makes the most sense given my personal combination of fine, straight hair and laziness.

Still, what you get in ease of styling (typically a product-free five minutes of blow drying), you pay for in upkeep. Short hair needs to be cut every six weeks, and when it's fine, it needs to be cut by a real pro (for which I happily pay a premium). 

But it's been short for the last five years, so clearly there's room for a change in both style and cost if I

Decrease my trips to the hair salon to just once every two months.

This pretty much requires me to grow it out, because there's no way to keep a pixie-ish 'do looking decent this way. That's ok--I could stand for a change, and this gives me a good little push in the (dreaded) growing-it-out direction.

(By the way, if you have suggestions about styles for stick-straight, fine hair, post links in the comments--I'm open to new ideas, especially since I haven't actually given this all that much thought. I'm also wide open to any suggestions about getting through the awkward middle stages. I haven't done this in a while.)

Moneywise, the simple change from getting a haircut every six weeks to every eight weeks saves me about two trips to the salon a year. At $50 a pop (not including tip, which I typically just filch out of the entertainment envelope), I save $100 a year, or roughly $8 per month.

That's not huge, but it's better than nothing. Also, I already cut Tiegan's long hair for her, and I suppose if I grow mine out really long, she could cut it for me and I could save a lot more money. I used to cut Jonas' hair for years, but now he suddenly wants to get it done "for real." That's ok--I'm only on the hook for his upkeep for another eight years, and boys haircuts are WAY cheaper (which is kind of unfair).

Although, I must say, I got really good at his hair. Maybe Kirk would let me take a scissors to him too? I'll keep that on the back burner in case we start running out of money-saving ideas in a few months…

Savings per month: $8

Monday, April 21, 2014

Farm Fresh Easter Eggs

Last year we had some serious trouble hard-boiling our Easter eggs. They weren't finished in the center and were impossible to peel without gouging out big pieces of egg white that stayed attached to the shells. This is because fresh eggs have a much stronger membrane (the part between the shell and the white), while store-bought eggs have been sitting around long enough to let the membrane separate a bit. (You can read a very thorough, more scientific explanation here.)

This year, we vowed to do better.

Although the internet is full of ideas about how to make fresh eggs easier to peel (ice bath, pin prick, baking soda, steaming), the varied comments left by others on ear method led me to believe that there's no magic bullet here. You just have to plan ahead.

And since planning is my strong suit, that's what we did. Back in March, we started a separate box to save our clean, unpecked eggs for Easter. It was full by the end of the month, and we left it in the back of the fridge for 2-3 weeks to age for boiling.

Notice that the lid has been torn off this carton--the extra airflow helps let gas escape from the egg and allow the membrane to loosen up. 

To boil, we placed them in a large pot filled with water to cover them. Once the water comes just barely to a boil, turn down the heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Kirk then turned off the heat and let them sit for another couple minutes before draining. 

The kids painted a dozen eggs with Q-tips and food dye. There are only nine left in the picture because they were eaten fro Easter breakfast after having been hunted down out in the garden.

As always, we use most of our hard-boiled eggs for deviled eggs, garnished with chives:

Making them look like small, unhappy people is not a requirement, but this one was so much fun that it might be the start of a new tradition. More info on Kirk's recipe for deviled eggs here.

The process of aging eggs in the fridge to boil them isn't hard, but it does require planning. That means that deviled eggs will likely always be a seasonal delicacy for us--something to be enjoyed in spring when the eggs are rolling in and we are looking for things to do with them. 

On the other hand, maybe we just should always have a half-dozen on reserve in the back of the fridge for boiling, which would allow us to enjoy egg salad, hard boiled eggs in salads, etc. Perhaps a special box would keep greedy breakfast seekers at bay. Worth a shot!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Herbal Apothecary: The Aloe Harvest

Yes, you read that correctly. As our temperatures ricochet between 75 and 25 degrees, we've been experiencing high winds for several days. I know, I know--it's always windy here, so what's the big deal? Well, this go-around was enough to take out the cable, a massive tree limb, and our poor, domesticated aloe plant.

It was great to have the windows open over the weekend, but on Monday the wind really picked up, and our aloe ended up on the floor, with three smushed leaves. The photo above shows the plant after I trimmed off the broken leaves, which is why it's now kind of lopsided.

Two leaves I cut down to the base, but this one was only broken at the tip, so I decided to try to save most of it. Aloe leaves heal themselves pretty quickly, so it should be ok.

I wasn't planning to harvest aloe while the plant is still so small, but it would be a shame to waste the leaves that the wind so efficiently delivered to me. Turns out that I also needed to make some more soap, so…project time! Let's roll.

Harvesting the aloe vera gel from the leaves turns out to be a messy project, but that might just be because I'm not that good at it (yet). I also think that it would be much easier with bigger leaves, but you take what you get. Here are the steps I took to get at the gel:

1. Cut the aloe leaves as close to the base of the plant as possible. If you're really good, you can get an outside leaf off without cutting it at all--it will just separate from the plant. I managed to get one to break off this way, but the rest I cut with kitchen shears. 

2. Drain the sap. Also leaves have resin (which I think smells terrible, by the way) that is reddish or yellow. It's thick goo that needs to drain out or it will stain your hands and keep on smelling bad (I can't really describe it, but I hated it. Maybe it's meant as a deterrent to animals who would try to get at all the water the plant stores inside?). The draining is easy if you just put the leaves cut side down in a glass and wait.

3. Fillet the leaves:

I cut the leaves in half the long way, although you can see in the photo above that when it gets skinny, it's easy to slip off and leave some of the skin.

At this point they will leak goo (by this I mean healing aloe vera gel) all over your cutting board:

Try your best to scoop it up to save it, but don't be too disappointed when it's too slippery to manage. I feel like I lost quite a bit to the board.

4. Scoop out the gel.

I just used a spoon to scrape down each half of leaf, pressing all the way down to the outer skin:

There's loose, wet goo, but there's also a solid, gelatinous piece in the middle. You can sort of see some of the broken, solid pieces toward the bottom of this photo of the gel from the first leaf I did:

You can also see that I missed some resin (reddish orange) and a few bits of the leaf (green). If I were planning to try to save this in the fridge, that might shorten its life, but I was going to use it right away. (If I were planning to save it, I'd also add some Vitamin E from a capsule, but I didn't bother here.)

5. Crush up the solid pieces of aloe with a mortar and pestle to make a smoother consistency of gel.

Ok, soap time! 

As I have before, I used an organic melt-and-pour base, but this time I added all of my fresh aloe vera gel:

This is about 8 ounces of soap base and about 1/4 cup of aloe vera.

Then I whisked in pulverized calendula and comfrey:

This is just like the herbal soap I've made before, but now with aloe. Also, you can see that there are still a few white chunks of aloe that I should have been more diligent about processing. Oh well.

I also added some essential oils for scent at this point (a few drops each of lovage, rosemary, bergamot and just a tiny bit of rose). 

Once it's all mixed, it gets poured into molds to cool:

I used twice as much calendula as comfrey this time, and I really like the orange color that it gave the soap.

I also really like the texture of this soap. All that aloe makes for a very smooth bar that just glides over your skin. I don't think I'll have enough to add it every time I make soap, but I'll definitely make this again when I do have more to harvest!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Trim The Fat Tuesday: The Entertainment Budget, Part 2

Sorry if this is super lame, but I'm going to repeat myself.

Cut back the entertainment budget by (another) $40 per month.

It's true, we've already done this. But that's no reason not to do it again.

Now our entertainment budget is actually $80 per month less than it was at the beginning of 2014 ($40 cut in January, and another $40 cut now). And I have to say, just like we never really felt that tiny trim back in January, I don't think we're going to notice this one in April, either.

So our battered "Entertainment Envelope" is a little thinner, but that's a good thing. (As I mentioned before, we are on a cash-only basis with eating out and going to movies, so that we stay squarely within the budget we've allowed ourselves. This envelope stays on a desk in the living room where everyone can easily see what's left to spend, which helps us plan ahead and make decisions together.)

And even though this is a repeat, I think it goes to show that if you're really trying to cut back on spending and/or saving up towards a goal, you can always do more. If I had done $80 all at once, we would've been grumbling about it, but doing it in two small bites was a piece of cake. 

The lesson here: keep checking out that budget, and re-evaluate your spending on a regular basis. You might be surprised what you find to cut that you once thought you couldn't live without!

Savings per month: $40