Despite the fact that February brought us immense snow and even though it’s sleeting as I write these words… spring is, according to our spending, somewhere on the horizon.
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Last spring, we made our own maple syrup from our own maple sap from our own maple trees for the very first time! This year, we intend to replicate that sweet success. Sugaring season happens in early spring, which makes February the prep month. We’ll tap our maple trees in March and hopefully have some sap on the boil by mid-month.
Every year we get a little better at homesteading and every year, we learn from our mistakes. Then, we proceed to make an entirely different set of mistakes the next year. Based on this, we bought stuff we didn’t have for last year’s sugaring operation that we noted would be nice to have this year, including: a synthetic cone filter, a hydrometer, a hydrometer cup, and parts to make adjustable legs for our maple sap evaporator. Wondering what these things are? We wondered the same.
Here’s what we learned and why we bought what we did:
1) Synthetic cone filter: this is used to filter finished maple syrup to remove minerals that precipitate out of the syrup. If not filtered, these minerals settle to the bottom. Last year we didn’t filter, so our syrup was sandy on the bottom of the jar. Not a major issue (we just don’t pour our syrup very fast) but, the filter was pretty cheap and will allow us to have clearer, more pristine syrup.
2) Hydrometers: measure the density of maple syrup and provide an easy way to know when your sap has finished boiling off into maple syrup. We boiled without a hydrometer last year and used a meat thermometer to gauge when the sap completed its transmutation to syrup. That approach worked OK, but it’s flawed in that the temperature of the sap can be impacted by external factors and a meat thermometer isn’t as precise as the tool meant for the job: a hydrometer.
3) A hydrometer testing cup: allows the hydrometer to float freely in the sap, which is what’s needed for accurate measurement.
4) Parts to make adjustable legs for our maple sap evaporator. The evaporator (we have the Sapling model from the Vermont Evaporator Company) is what we use to boil our maple sap into maple syrup. In order to do this accurately–and avoid burning the pan and/or the sap–the evaporator must be level.
Syrup-making is an outdoor activity and we don’t have an inch of level ground on our land–no poured concrete or asphalt–which means the evaporator must sit on the earth. No problem, we thought, we’ll just level out a patch of ground and set it up! Trouble is, sugaring happens in the spring while snow is melting and, when snow melts, the ground shifts. Despite leveling a spot and setting down a few cinder blocks, the evaporator kept teetering off balance and requiring shims of wood underneath its little evaporator feet.
That approach worked and Mr. FW could be seen shoving shards of wood under the four legs of the evaporator every 15 minutes. Fun as that was, this year he devised a system to install adjustable legs onto the bottom of the evaporator so that it can be leveled more easily and with greater precision.
5) Fire bricks. Another downside to boiling sap outside is the fact that a lot of heat gets lost through the sides and bottom of the evaporator. To mitigate some of this heat loss (and hopefully reduce the amount of fire wood we have to burn), we bought 21 fire bricks and lined the interior of the evaporator with them. These should help keep more heat inside the kettle drum of the evaporator and make our sap boiling more efficient. We got the fire bricks for $1 a piece off of Craigslist; they’re around $4 new so this was another saved Craigslist search for the win!
Somehow, February is the time to order seeds for our vegetable garden. Since Vermont is cold (and where we live is particularly cold), our growing season is mercilessly short. Given that, we (and by “we,” I mean Mr. FW) start most of our vegetables from seed indoors so that they have a chance to mature and, you know, actually produce fruit before the fall frosts set in. This year, we’re trying out yet more and yet different crops! I’ll give you a rundown of what we’re planting in an upcoming installment of This Month On The Homestead.
Cooking and Baking from Scratch
This is turning into a very homestead-y expense report! I bake our bread (in a bread machine I bought for $5 at a yard sale) and I’ve found it’s cheapest to buy my yeast and vital wheat gluten in large quantities online (affiliate links). Since I keep both in the freezer, they don’t go bad.
Two other from-scratch items made in our kitchen are hummus and roasted chickpeas. Mr. Frugalwoods helms these operations and he starts both with dried chickpeas, which we buy in a 50 lb quantity (it’s two 25 lb bags, if you must know).
50 pounds is a lot of chickpeas and that bag usually lasts us over a year. His recipes for both are simple, delicious, and dirt cheap. If I had a chickpea for every time someone asked me for his hummus recipe, I’d never have to buy chickpeas again. And so, here you go, folks:
Mr. FW’s Healthy, Hearty Homestead Hummus
- Garbanzo beans aka Chickpeas (we use dried beans because they’re cheaper, but canned beans would work just fine too)
- Garlic (1 clove)
- Salt (to taste)
- Lemon (the juice of three lemons plus zest their rinds)
- Water (until the texture is right)
- Olive Oil (until the texture is right)
1) Cook garbanzo beans with garlic, salt and bay leaves (if using dried beans).
2) Put desired amount of garbanzo beans into a food processor.
3) Chop 1 clove of garlic and add to the food processor. You can do a rough chop since the food processor will do most of the chopping for you.
4) Add salt to taste.
5) Squeeze three lemons and add their juice. Zest the rinds of all three lemons.
6) Turn on the food processor.
7) Add a small amount of water as you start the blending process.
8) Pour in olive oil as it blends.
9) Periodically stop the blender and stir to ensure there are no clumps.
10) Blend it to your desired consistency.
Voila! Hummus. As you’ll note, there’s no tahini in our hummus because tahini is expensive and we happen to like our hummus without it.
Credits Cards: How We Buy Everything
Mr. Frugalwoods and I purchase everything we possibly can with credit cards because:
- It’s easier to track expenses. No guesswork over where a random $20 bill went; it all shows up in our monthly expense report from Personal Capital. I spend less money because I KNOW I’m going to see every expense listed at the end of each month. Here’s a more detailed explanation of how I use Personal Capital for my expense tracking (and other stuff too).
- We get rewards. Credit card rewards are a simple way to get something for nothing. Through the cards we use, Mr. FW and I get cash back as well as hotel and airline points just for buying stuff we were going to buy anyway.
- We build our credit. Since Mr. FW and I don’t carry debt other than our mortgages, having several credit cards open for many years helps our credit scores. By the way, it’s a dirty myth that carrying a balance on your credit card helps your credit score–IT DOES NOT. Paying your cards off IN FULL every month and keeping them open for many years does help your score.
For more on my credit card strategy, check out The Frugalwoods Guide to a Simple, Yet Rewarding, Credit Card Experience. I also wrote this guide on how to find the best credit card for you.
If you want a simple cash back credit card, here are a few good options that don’t have annual fees:
- The Capital One® Quicksilver® Cash Rewards Credit Card. This one’s good because it offers a flat 1.5% cash back on all purchases. There are no categories to keep track of, you just get a straightforward 1.5% cash back on everything you buy. Nice, easy, and fee-free! What this means is that if you spend, for example, $1,000 on this card in a month, you’ll get $15 back. Plus, if you spend $500 in the first three months of having this card, you’ll get $150.
The Chase Freedom Unlimited is also excellent and also offers a flat 1.5% cash back on all purchases–with no categories or restrictions–which makes it super simple to use. This card also offers you $150 if you spend $500 in the first three months of having it.
- The Fidelity Rewards Visa (which is the card I have) offers 2% cash back on all purchases, with no categories or restrictions, but the downside is that it requires you to have a Fidelity account. If you’re already banking with Fidelity, then I think it’s a great deal, but if you’re not (and you don’t want to open a Fidelity account), I’d go with either the Capital One Quicksilver or the Chase Freedom Unlimited.
The best way to find a credit card that’ll work for you is to search for it yourself; I have a guide to help you do just that: The Best Credit Cards (and Credit Card Rewards)!
Huge caveat to credit card usage: you MUST pay your credit card bills in full every single month, with no exceptions. If you’re concerned about your ability to do this, or think that using credit cards might prompt you to spend more money, then credit cards are not for you–stick with a debit card or cash. But if you have no problem paying that bill in full every month? I recommend you credit card away, my friend! (note: the credit card links are affiliate links).
Cash Back Earned This Month: $39.39
The silver lining to our spending is our cash back credit card. We earn 2% cash back on every purchase made with our Fidelity Rewards Visa and this month, we spent $1,969.73 on that card, which netted us $39.39.
Not a lot of money, perhaps, but it’s money we earned for buying stuff we were going to buy anyway! This is why I love cash back credit card rewards–they’re the simplest way to earn something for nothing.
Personal Capital: How We Organize Our Expen$e$
Mr. Frugalwoods and I use a free, online service called Personal Capital to keep track of our money.
Tracking expenses is one of the best–and easiest–ways to get a handle on your finances. You absolutely, positively cannot make informed decisions about your money if you don’t know how you’re spending it. If you’d like to know more about how Personal Capital works, check out my full review.
Without a holistic picture of how much you spend every month, there’s no way to set savings, debt repayment, or investment goals. It’s a must, folks. No excuses. Personal Capital (which is free to use) is a great way for us to systematize our financial overviews since it links all of our accounts together and provides a comprehensive picture of our net worth.
If you’re not tracking your expenses in an organized fashion, you might consider trying Personal Capital. Here’s a more detailed explanation of how I use Personal Capital (note: these Personal Capital links are affiliate links).
Yes, We Only Paid $18.88 for Cell Phone Service (for two phones)
Our cell phone service line item is not a typ0 (although that certainly is). We really and truly only paid $18.88 for both of our phones (that’s $9.44 per person for those of you into division). How is such trickery possible?!? We use the MVNO Ting (affiliate link). What’s an MVNO? Glad you asked because I was going to tell you anyway. It’s a cell phone service re-seller.
MVNOs are basically the TJ Maxx of the cell phone service world–it’s the same service, just A LOT cheaper. If you’re not already using an MVNO, switching to one is an easy, slam-dunk, do-it-right-now way to save money every single month of every single year forever and ever amen. More here: My Frugal Cell Phone Service Trick: How I Pay $10.65 A Month*
*the amount we pay fluctuates every month because it’s calibrated on what we use. Imagine that! We only pay for what we use! Will wonders ever cease.
Where’s Your Money?
One of the easiest ways to optimize your money is to use a high-interest savings account. A high-interest savings account gives you money for nothing. With these accounts, interest works in YOUR favor (as opposed to the interest rates on debt, which work against you). Having money in a no (or low) interest savings account is a waste of resources–your money is just sitting there doing nothing. Don’t let your money be lazy! Make it work for you! And now, enjoy some explanatory math:
Let’s say you have $5,000 in a savings account that earns 0% interest. In a year’s time, your $5,000 will still be… $5,000.
Let’s say you instead put that $5,000 into an American Express Personal Savings account that–as of this writing–earns 1.70% in interest. In one year, your $5,000 will have increased to $5,085.67. That means you earned $85.67 just by having your money in a high-interest account.
And you didn’t have to do anything! I’m a big fan of earning money while doing nothing. I mean, is anybody not a fan of that? Apparently so, because anyone who uses a low (or no) interest savings account is NOT making money while doing nothing. Don’t be that person. Be the person who earns money while sleeping. More about high-interest savings accounts, as well as the ones I recommend, here: The Best High Interest Rate Online Savings Accounts.
Expense Report FAQs
- Want to know how we manage the rest of our money? Check out How We Manage Our Money: Behind The Scenes of The Frugalwoods Family Accounts. We also own a rental property in Cambridge, MA, which I discuss here.
- Why do I share our expenses? To give you a sense of how we spend our money in a values-based manner. Your spending will differ from ours and there’s no “one right way” to spend and no “perfect” budget.
- Are we the most frugal frugal people on earth? Absolutely not. My hope is that by being transparent about our spending, you might gain insights into your own spending and be inspired to take proactive control of your money.
- Wondering where to start with managing your money? Take my free, 31-day Uber Frugal Month Challenge. If you’re interested in other things I love, check out Frugalwoods Recommends.
But Mrs. Frugalwoods, Don’t You Pay For X, Y, Or Even Z????
Wondering about common expenses you don’t see listed below?
We pay bills in full the month we receive them. That’s why you won’t see monthly payments for things like car insurance or property tax. These expenses show up as the full annual (or bi-annual, etc) amount in the month we pay them.
- We don’t have any debt (other than our mortgages) and we paid cash for our cars.
- Our health insurance is paid for by Mr. FW’s employer (who he works for from home).
- Here’s how we make charitable contributions: How We Donate To Charities Like Billionaires and also How We Make Meaningful And Tax Efficient Charitable Donations.
- Here’s an overview of how we save for our kids’ higher education: How We Use 529 Plans To Save For College
- We live on 66 acres in rural Vermont, so our utilities and expenses are different from traditional urban and suburban homes:
- We don’t pay for water, sewer, trash, or heating/cooling because we have a well, a septic system, our town doesn’t provide trash pick-up (we take it to a transfer station once a week in bags we purchase from our town), we heat our home with wood we harvest ourselves from our land, and we don’t have central air conditioning (we use window units during the hottest parts of the summer). There are, of course, costs associated with maintaining these systems (such as having our septic system pumped and inspected) and those expenses show up in the months we pay them.
- We have solar panels, which account for our low electricity bill.
- For more on our rural lifestyle, check out my series This Month On The Homestead as well as City vs. Country: Which Is Cheaper? The Ultimate Cost Of Living Showdown.
If you’re wondering about anything else, feel free to ask in the comments section!
Alright you frugal money voyeurs, feast your eyes on every dollar we spent in February:
|Daycare for Littlewoods||$760.00||Read about our childcare decision-making process in this post.|
|Clothing for Mrs. Frugalwoods||$284.54||Dresses, sweaters, and long underwear tops to round out my non-maternity/non-nursing wardrobe.|
|Household, farm, garden, and miscellaneous supplies||$260.64||Thrilling items such as: toilet paper, shampoo, laundry detergent, dishwasher soap, over-the-counter medications, dental floss, and more.|
|Gasoline for cars||$236.00||This was a lot higher in February on account of the weather and our need to drive the truck more often. Usually, we default to driving our hybrid Toyota Prius, but since it doesn’t have 4WD, we have to drive the truck in order to get out of our driveway on super icy/slushy days.|
|Maple sugaring supplies||$143.05||We tap our maple trees to make our own maple syrup and the sugaring season is almost here! We bought: a synthetic cone filter, fire bricks, a hydrometer, a hydrometer cup, and more spouts.|
|Vegetable garden seeds||$88.45||Purchased from Sample Seeds and High Mowing Organic. It’s almost time to start our vegetable seeds (indoors) for transplanting into our garden in late May.|
|Bulk dry chickpeas (50 lbs)||$81.95||50 pounds of dry chickpeas, which we use for making homemade hummus and roasted chickpeas. This bag will last us a little over one year and yes, this is the cheapest price we’ve found.|
|Massage for Mama||$80.00||From my monthly massage/childcare co-op.|
|Tail light for our Toyota Tundra||$73.45||Our Toyota Tundra needed a new tail light. We bought this one and Mr. FW installed it himself (affiliate link).|
|Internet||$72.00||We really, really, really love our fiber internet.|
|Date night!||$69.50||My husband and I go on one kid-free date night per month. Read all about it here.|
|Approximately 9 months worth of service for our landline||$50.00||Since we don’t have cell service at our homestead, we have a landline phone through the VOIP.MS service. This amount will cover our usage for about nine months.|
|River Roost Brewery (cans)||$48.00||Beer from a fabulous local brewery, River Roost. Highly recommend if you’re ever in the area!|
|Gin and caramel vodka||$47.98||For our weekend drinks nights! Since giving up drinking Mondays through Thursdays, I find I really look forward to our special weekend cocktails!|
|Horseback riding helmet||$36.03||I recently started horseback riding with a friend who has horses and, to be super safe, I purchased this helmet for myself (affiliate link).|
|Diesel||$28.69||Diesel for our tractor|
|Lunch out with the kids||$27.09||I took the kids out to lunch in between doctor’s appointments and they had a blast. They actually did pretty well and both ate about a pound of turkey during the meal…|
|Yeast and vital wheat gluten||$26.01||I bake all of our bread (using this recipe) and this is the best and cheapest yeast and vital wheat gluten I’ve found (affiliate links). I’ve tried this recipe without the vital wheat gluten and it doesn’t come out as well.|
|More AA rechargeable batteries||$25.41||We got these AA rechargeable batteries from Amazon, which work well (affiliate link).|
|Used books||$25.24||A mixture of used kid and adult books for our family of readers.|
|Cell phone service (for two phones)||$18.88||This is so cheap because we use an MVNO called Ting (affiliate link). MVNOs resell wireless service at discounted rates (but it’s the same service).
MVNOs are basically the TJ Maxx of cell phone service.If you’re not using an MVNO, check out this post to see if you can make the switch. The savings are tremendous
|Parts to make adjustable legs for our maple sap evaporator||$18.52||Another item to prepare for maple syrup making season!|
|Utilities: Electricity||$18.35||We have solar (which I detail here); this is our monthly base price for remaining grid tied.|
|More AAA rechargeable batteries||$13.77||We got these AAA rechargeable batteries from Amazon, which work well (affiliate link).|
|Rooting hormone for our vegetable crop||$4.81||Rooting hormone for our vegetable garden (affiliate link).|
How was your February?
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