Interdependence and the Single-Car Family

The road to Kasese

In the upper-middle class suburban sprawl where J and I grew up, most of the kids at least had access to a car through high school. J and I entered marriage with two cars, but pretty immediately we spent six months in an impoverished corner of Uganda with no car at all, so when we got home and J’s dad talked about how much he’d enjoyed driving J’s little Echo, we sold it to him. (I recognize how privileged this is from a global perspective, but then again, our position was hardly unique.)

Boda boda life in Uganda

In over a decade since that initial decision, we’ve kept just one car, even as we upgraded from my gramps’s Accord to a hatchback, from the hatchback to a minivan. When we went to buy our first home, we intentionally chose one in town, close to campus, allowing J to easily walk or ride his bike to work, and with a park out back so we had plenty of at-home entertainment.

Still, here and there over the years the only way we’ve been able to attend certain things is through the generosity of friends who do own two cars. We would have missed parties and out-of-town events without these other people being willing to give one or the other of us a lift. At least once I would have missed work if a neighbor friend hadn’t loaned me back the Accord we’d sold him. I used to feel guilty because our choice means we rely on others, but then I decided that might actually be a strength.

Four wheels and freedom (from others)

There have been seasons, when we were low income in grad school, or when I was laid low by pregnancy, when we relied more heavily on others. Sharing a van now helps us maintain that reliance. Just because the system would be much less tenable if everyone we knew dropped down to one vehicle doesn’t mean it’s foolish (or worse, arrogant) of us to do.

Instead, we who are in the rare situation not to have so much vulnerability thrust upon us should look for opportunities to trust. Maybe your exercise in interdependence, in trusting in God’s Providence, is waiting to borrow kid snow gear from friends instead of just buying it, or trusting you can borrow camping supplies from your neighbor. Maybe you do something that terrifies me, like cohousing, or leaving your doors unlocked as a matter of principle, like friends of ours in New England. Maybe it’s as small as building your weekly menu off a farm share or the close out grocery instead of controlling every aspect and getting huffy when the big box store doesn’t carry that one ingredient, in or out of season.

Of course in twelve years of single cardom we’ve quarreled about whose need for the vehicle trumps the other’s. I have no idea if we’ve saved much money than keeping an old second beater, as we’ve spent comfortable spending more on our house location, really good soles for J’s shoes, and (too) many bikes. Certainly we’ve spent more time in the car together so we can drop someone off. (Probably not the worst thing, actually.) Quite possibly we’ve annoyed a person we’ve asked for a ride by our importunate request.

Inter-reliance runs those risks. The fortresses we build ourselves to protect against ever appearing mendicant prevent those risks, but introduce others: loneliness, a lack of resilience and flexibility when disaster and need do inevitably strike. We can pretend toward independence when everything is going well and never ask for any help, believing we never will need it. Or we can take baby steps toward trusting others with our needs, one rideshare at a time.

Frugal Accomplishments from the Month of April

Schoolwork in pajamas. We NEVER do schoolwork in pajamas, but I guess this is our Pandemic Normal.
  • I mean we are all saving from the things that were canceled that we wish weren’t, among them for me the Motherwell Charlotte Mason retreat. But let’s not get too bleak and move on to the things I’ve intentionally accomplished.
  • I used Gap rewards to buy new pajamas for the kids, since that’s pretty much all they’re wearing during quarantine, a maternity shirt for a newly pregnant friend, and a dress for myself, as a treat since I was supposed to currently be in maternity clothes myself. The total came to $11. I am really missing thrifting and this was a pleasant approximation.
  • From scraps and bits I’ve made dandelion green pesto, candied violets, chicken stock, meatballs with bacon (from an unsuccessful roasted uncut bacon venture) and bread crumbs (from frozen ends of sandwich bread and sourdough). Most of these have also been free entertainment/education for the kids, too, as they’ve helped me.
  • I’m still enjoying the bounty I lugged home from a local pharmacy’s going out of business sale just before the pandemic broke: greeting cards, Easter basket craft kits, batteries and vitamins were among my biggest wins at 75% off.
  • As the warm weather approaches, I’m sorting out castoff clothes for friends and pulling from the basement things I’ve saved in future sizes, and we will swap with porch drop offs, no contact required. As a bonus, we decided that both Pip and Scout can still wear last year’s sandals.
  • On a walk around campus we found a bunch of tulips beheaded by a severe thunderstorm the night before. The girls and I gathered them up and distributed around the neighborhood in jam jars.
And then I washed the grit from them in the salad spinner.
  • In clearing grass from around my raspberry plants, I discovered new volunteers from the main plants, and in digging, realized they were a sort of sucker situation. I tried to carefully separate them from the main plant with plenty of root, and if they make it, I have three new raspberry plants. I also learned how to use a similar method to score free blackberries from roadside clippings, so I’ll try that, as I killed all my blackberries from last summer.
  • I signed up for the local college’s seed library. Next month I’ll pick up hollyhock seeds and Brussels sprouts seeds, and in exchange I’ll leave behind Mexican sunflower seeds. I also dug up and left out for neighbors day lilies, which continue to be the bane of my gardening existence.
  • I bordered new garden beds with rocks from a vacant lot in the neighborhood and bricks that I keep excavating from the site of our old shed.
  • We had switched Roo to a floor mattress at the beginning of quarantine when we found her sneaking out of her crib, but it wasn’t a permanent solution because mattresses will mold on a bare floor. So I looked into a sort of slatted platform like we have for Scout’s floor bed but a crib-sized one was as expensive as a toddler bed — and a twin mattress. So we just bit the bullet and ordered the twin mattress she’d eventually need anyway, used the old bed frame from the basement and figured out a way to fit three beds into their postage stamp of a bedroom.
Their room is basically impossible to photograph because it’s so tiny.

Don’t Let Hand-Me-Downs Get You Down

 

Excellent hand-me-down winter wear

When I was eight months pregnant with my firstborn, I was on my way into the university health center with J when we ran into a very slight acquaintance of his. Upon learning we were expecting a November baby, she exclaimed, “I had a November baby last year! Come by my house! I’ll leave bags of clothes outside for you.”

I was floored that someone I didn’t know would gift this poor grad student so generously, and still more so when I arrived at her porch to discover heaping trash bags full of lovely little things. I hadn’t yet learned the rule of motherhood: stuff, stuff, ever going in and out of the house.

Since then, I’ve learned to embrace the constant inflow and outflow of Stuff. I try to pass along things we are done with, and in turn, to accept and make good use of what we are given. A lot of that has to do with organization, so I thought I’d outline my approach.Read More »

Frugal Accomplishments for the First Couple Weeks of October

Recently I’ve been reading and enjoying the Prudent Homemaker’s recurring series, “Frugal Accomplishments,” in which she tracks her budget-saving measures over the course of each week. (I think I first discovered her through the also excellent blog, The Big White Farmhouse.)  I come from a frugal family so many of these steps come naturally, but J and I also are careless budgeters, so we still have a lot to learn. Here are some of our recent highlights, though, since I’ve enjoyed reading others’:Read More »

In Praise of Animal Fats

J and I have never been vegetarian (well, I think J was one Lent), but for a very long period of time, we weren’t eating very much meat or many vegetarian dishes.

I’ve heard it called “flexitarian,” but for us it just translated to “can’t afford meat as main dish.”

Recently we celebrated our comparative prosperity and invested in a quarter of a cow. This led to a carnivorous celebration called “Beef Week,” but also made me think about how we used to stretch meat.

Thekitchn.com is historically a good resource for thinking about meat as a condiment, not the main event. Here are some of the techniques we accumulated over our grad school years:

  1. Chicken stock. Our mainstay. If you can’t roast a chicken yourself yet, you can save up a couple rotisserie chickens or ask to take home the turkey carcass at Thanksgiving. (You weirdo.) Then you chuck it in the slow cooker overnight or in a stockpot for a couple hours and you end up with something rich and salty and nourishing with basically no effort. Use it in soups, especially cheap simple ones like this polenta soup where it will really shine. Or make your rice fancy by using it instead of water. (And if you don’t know how to roast a chicken, consider this slow cooker method.) Store leftovers in the freezer in 1- and 2-cup bags or jam jars for easy thawing. (Bonus: the gelatin in a good bone broth is really good for you, though I can’t say the same about bacon grease.)
  2. Bacon grease. People are generally secretly excited about this. Bacon by itself is an excellent way to make an otherwise vegetarian meal special (as with lenticchie con ditalini, baked potatoes, many soups) but you can save the grease (call it “renderings” if it makes you feel better, you foodie) in the fridge and use it for salad dressings, greasing cornbread pans, giant skillet cookies, and sautéing greens with vinegar.
  3. Duck fat. J recently called this an “essential oil.” We like it for roasting vegetables especially. It can be hard to find, though sometimes it’s affordable on Amazon.

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Eat me with bacon fat. Or duck fat. Mmm.

 

Bedroom Planning for Three

We made a choice when we moved into this house to prioritize shared social space and minimize rooms lost to bedrooms. In practice, that meant that at first, J and I took a tiny bedroom upstairs, giving Scout our big, weird closet as a “closery” and assigning Pip the identical bedroom across the hall. It worked well, dealing with nocturnal disturbances, because we are all so close to one another.

We moved Scout in with Pippin sometime in the winter, and things went swimmingly. Despite a friend and mother of four promising kids sleep soundly in shared rooms, I was still shocked and awed every time someone would throw up overnight (my kids are barfers), and the other wouldn’t even wake up.

I never shared a bedroom, and boy, was the adjustment to a dorm a doozy (sorry, Megan!). J shared with his brother till he was a teenager. But some of the children I love the best in this generation are stacked two and three to a room, and seem to be surviving and thriving just fine.

As we enter the third trimester countdown (always a little spooked now that this baby might be a 36-weeker, too), I recently picked up a Ikea Kura bunk bed at a yard sale for $25. I had first read about the beds’ flexibility on Camp Patton, and soon found the Internet is chock full of interesting customizations.

We were on a bit of a budget after our summer of exciting, scary purchases, so I set out to use as many hoarded gift cards as possible to outfit Scout’s big girl setup.

  • Bed: $179 for $25 (used)
  • Sheets, waterproof mattress protector, pillow, duvet: $73.62 brought down to $0 by sale, Target gift card and Visa gift card
  • Duvet cover: $31.05 brought down to $6.05 by Visa gift card
  • Mattress: $105 minus $25 Amazon gift card, brought down to $80 (I probably could have gone lower with this, offsetting with more gift cards, but it was just too bleak to spend fun money on a mattress of all things)


That brought the whole project down to just over $111, instead of a projected $388.67 — which would have been much higher if I gave into my deep and abiding (though unrequited) love for Land of Nod bed linens.

There is room, now, for Roo’s crib when we banish her from the closery, when she’s sleeping more soundly through the night, and room for books and hijinks, too. Scout has transferred seamlessly into a big kid bed, which flies in the face of all expectation and just goes to show you that you get the kid you get, and can’t claim credit for much. In time, I’m sure we’ll have to experiment with new arrangements as the kids form preferences and alliances and a need for privacy, but for now, I couldn’t be happier.

Pippin sneaks upstairs with a roll of Scotch tape and adds his art to his bedside and his sister’s.

The tape stash and his treasure box (i.e. All the weird paper junk he insists on keeping)

Roo’s corner. We obviously still need to move that bookcase but the room was clean so I had to photograph fast.

(And for context, the way the room looked when we moved in:

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Yikes.

 

Big Scary Purchases

I’ve had a mantra this summer as we’ve made several big, scary purchases:

It is my privilege to get to make these decisions.

When it’s overwhelming to decide on grouts. When there are delays in installation. When I’m learning how to drive a much bigger vehicle.

I sometimes find the language of privilege a little exhausting. But after years and years where frugality was a cornerstone of life, it is a novelty, if not an outright blessing, to be getting to shell out on these big, scary purchases that will, I hope, improve the life of our family for years and years to come.

There have been road trips where we crammed into our clown car with two small children, a dog, and quite a lot of associated kid stuff, and that was fine, because we then didn’t have a car payment, but now we have the option of financing a little when we could buy outright and enjoying enough space for our totally alarming amount of juvenile travel junk. There have been years where getting rid of all the mold in our various basement apartments was a (plumbing) pipe dream, so it’s kind of a privilege to wait around for the mold remediation guys now.

This can, of course, be argued further. Many Americans don’t have a reliable vehicle at all, much less the opportunity to upgrade to one spacious enough for their family. Many people long for children and would give anything to contend with the amount of junk that often accompanies parenthood. Or push beyond: not only am I lucky not have to have a moldy sink, but in the global perspective, I’m dang lucky to have running water in my home.

In that past life, I was never very patient when people would talk at length about their intense struggles to find the perfect shade of burgundy curtains or whatever. Like, does that really count as a legitimate frustration? In practice, this now mostly means that sure, I’ll talk your ear off about quartz versus soapstone if you’re in the market, too, but otherwise, I’ll keep my burdens of privilege to myself. So maybe we’ll have to go a few days without a kitchen sink this summer. So maybe J had to spend a day of vacation negotiating with used car salesmen when he’d rather be doing practically anything else, and we would have preferred a vacation to England over budgeting necessary home repairs.

It is certainly a pain in the butt to be a grownup and a homeowner, but right now, it’s better (for us) than the alternative.

The agony and the ecstasy, et cetera
 

Idolatry, Control and Ownership: The Story of the Toy Closet

 

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The toy closet: a place of great joy and mystery, usually child-locked to save us from utter ruin

This week I dropped a lot of nice toys off at the local thrift shop and felt…scared.

What if we need them again? What if I’m not grateful for the generosity of the people who love my children? Are these even really mine to give away?
It’s scary going, but I’m finally beginning to see these thoughts for what they are: my attempt to control things with things.
My husband knows how to treat yo’self. He will buy himself nice things if he’s going to use them, and sometimes those nice things will get broken or lost, because he is basically a boisterous human border collie.
I am not that way. In Divergent terms, I’m Abnegation, 110%. I am good at caring for things and saving them, often past the point of usefulness, as my childhood hoard of pristine sticker sheets attests. If someone gives me a gift, I want to honor the gift and the giver by keeping it forever. If it belongs to my children, I — ludicrously — want their permission before I give it away. (Refresher: my kids are 3 and 10 months.)
J buys himself things and I, mostly, don’t. (With the exciting recent exception of a new bite guard we’re getting me with our hefty tax return: PARTY ON.) And it’s easy to see that self-denial as virtue, if you’re already inclined in that direction.
But as I get older, I begin to see that strict frugality, that unwillingness to let go, for the handicap it most certainly is. I want to protect my family by being prepared for everything, and by saving money so that I’m never vulnerable. It’s squirrelly thinking, and bogs me down so that I can’t accept life as it comes, and the generosity of people as I need it. I don’t want my kids to be this way, and everywhere I look are gentle suggestions that it’s better for children to be weighed down with less physical junk.

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Has 1000 toys, prefers to play with diaper boxes and the infant bathtub. You know.

So I am experimenting with being freer with belongings, not just in terms of the bulging toy closet. When I’m packing for a trip, I try to remember just the one or two items we each must have in order to function. When I’m weeding baby clothes, I try to give away a bit beyond the point of comfort. I push scenarios out of the way: twins or another truck lover or Pippin remembering, six months later, about his second-string garbage truck, long since handed on. God has provided for the kids thus far, and I can’t protect hypothetical future offspring with a hoarded wardrobe, much as I’d like to.