Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Joy of Living ... on a shoestring

Welcome to my semi-regular (and hopefully not semi-abandoned, as my blog has generally been) blogging topic of living on less.  I suppose I was raised to think thrifty: as a child, my only reference points in neighbouring cities were the locations of different thrift stores or discount stores.  As a play-at-home mom (er, I mean stay-at-home mom), I've been picking up more ways to live within our means, and I would love to hear any thrifty tips from you.  
My aim is to live below our means and yet to be generous with what we have been given.  After all, my "shoestring" bugdet looks more like a string of pearls budget to most of the world's population.  I want to save money, but not if it means passing on a more significant cost to somebody else.  Saving a few dollars on something that was made by a child worker or in a sweat-shop is not a bargain.  Figuring out how to do that isn't always easy.  
Spending less isn't worth risking your health either.  The money that you save won't be able to help you when you are in poor health.  I spend what some people would consider to be an outrageous amount of money on things like non-toxic shampoo and healthy foods. But I've just adjusted my thinking: this is what these items cost.  I'd rather pay twice as much for an organic apple than an apple sprayed with something designed to kill insects.  I'm a lot bigger than an insect, but I think it might eventually kill me too if I eat enough of it.  Seriously.  I'd rather spend $5 making homemade burgers at home than eating a 99 cent hamburger at McDonalds.  The question is not why helathy food costs so much, but why does the unhealthy food seem to cost so little?  To where do those costs "disappear"?
Valuing your health over spending less money often goes hand in hand with valuing the environment as well.  Generic laundry detergent is cheaper than eco-friendly detergent, but all our collective saved money won't be able to buy a new salmon run.  
I wasn't kidding about the title of this entry; there really is an enjoyable aspect of being thrifty.  It allows you to be very creative!  On to the tips for today!  

Make it yourself!
There are so many ways that this can be applied.  Sometimes I get so accustomed to buying something that is pre-made, or pre-assembled, etc., that it never even occurs to me that it could be made from scratch.  Take salad dressing, for example.  There are oodles of delicious recipes for salad dressing on the internet.  From simple to exotic, they are fresher, tastier, and usually a lot more healthy than store-bought dressings, which often contain preservatives, artificial flavours, and food colouring.  What exactly is artificial flavour anyways?!  My favourite dressing at the moment is this French dressing:
The quantity given is very large, so reduce it to the amount your family needs.

Last Fall, when my son was old enough to start eating bread, I pulled out our dusty automatic bread maker from the closet and started making bread again.  In addition to the lovely aroma of fresh baked bread, we now have soft, preservative-free bread that costs a fraction of the cost of store-bought bread.  My only hesitation to whole-heartedly recommend the bread maker is the teflon-coated loaf pan in which it bakes.  The bread-maker is my only remaining item in the house that is coated with this nasty chemical.  I'm pretty sure that store-bought bread is baked in the same type of equipment, so I don't know that it really makes a difference.  I'm going to see if I can take the dough out of the machine before it bakes and bake it in a glass or silicone loaf pan in the oven.  I'll keep y'all posted.   If you've ever made home-made bread, you know that it goes stale fairly quickly.  Hence the preservatives in the store bought bread.  Surrender to the staleness and make something that calls for stale bread.  I found and modified a great recipe for bread pudding that almost tastes like pumpkin pie.  Message me if you would like the recipe!

Try your hand at something crafty.  Even if you think you aren't the type, you might find that you enjoy it and/or you have some undiscovered skills.  If you can part with your creations, hand-made gifts are always more personal and usually more thoughtful than store bought gifts.  There are plenty of free patterns and tutorials on the internet to get you started on any craft from origami to spinning wool to making sock puppets.  Here are a few things I've made for my son lately.

The pattern for the whale can be found here:
Pattern for the felt duck:
Pattern for the crocheted bookworm:
(You have to sign up for a free account at LionBrand to get their patterns)
The stegosaurus and alligator are from the book Toys to Sew by Claire Garland, which you can find in the Fraser Valley Regional Library catalogue.

Thrift Stores 101
My mom was onto something when she had us shopping at thrift stores before vintage was chic.  Yes, it takes more time than going to the mall and pulling something off the rack that is exactly your size.  But there are some great benefits to thrift stores:

  1. You are recycling.  The items that you buy are finding a new home in your home instead of the landfill.
  2. Thrift stores usually support a worthy cause or charity.  So even when you splurge, at least you are also helping someone, right?
  3. You can afford to buy things you normally would not (or should not!).
  4. It's like a treasure hunt.  If you enjoy it as much as I do, you can even count it as part of your entertainment spending in your budget.    
  5. You can drop off your used clothes and household items while you're there.  It's like a big inbox and outbox. 
  6. Everything is pre-washed so you can rest assured that the cute shirt you picked out isn't going to shrink and turn midriff-baring on you.  But don't confuse pre-washed with clean...most finds can still use a good wash before you wear them.
  7. Children, and especially babies, grow out of clothing so quickly that it is usually in pretty good shape when you buy it.  
  8. Sometimes old stuff works better than new stuff.  A solid, hand made wooden bookshelf set will serve you better than a brand new fiberboard deal from the big box stores.  Of course, you have to watch for things like lead paint and other safety concerns.
I've only come to fully appreciate thrift stores in the past two or three years.  I always wondered how my sister was able to find such amazing deals at thrift stores when I would leave empty handed.  Here are a few conclusions that I have drawn about my change of heart about thrift stores.
  1. You have to really dig in.  If you are squeamish, just keep in mind that you can wash your hands later.  Or even have a shower later if the thought of trying on the clothes grosses you out.  Every piece of clothing is different, unlike regular stores where you can just look at the mannequin and find one in your size.  You have to really rifle through the racks and look at everything.
  2. Shop often and resign yourself to the fact that sometimes you won't find anything.  It's actually a good thing, because it makes it even more exciting when you do find something.  
  3. It's okay to buy some things brand new.  Everyone has their limit on what they are willing to buy used.  I like to break in my own running shoes, so I've never bought used shoes.  There are bags of half-used containers of cosmetics and toiletries that I don't even like to walk past.  A sweet older lady asked me if I knew where to find the women's underwear in the thrift store today; she has different limits than I do.  Limits can change over time and circumstances, so I try not to judge!
For inspiration (and a wee bit of bragging), here are a few of my recent finds:

A framed print from one of my favourite artists, Roy Henry Vickers. ($2)

A Sophie la Giraffe.  I paid over $20 for the one on the left online, and 25 cents for Sophie on the right at the thrift store.  If only I had run into Sophie #2 first.  Oh well, now I have twins.  If you aren't familiar with Sophie, it is a toy from France made with all natural rubber and child-safe dyes for the markings.  I bought Sophie #1 when my son was teething and I couldn't stand the sight on him gnawing on cheap plastic toys.  He still likes playing with it now.

All of these clothes for under $2, including a sweet North Face running shirt for me.  Now I just need to start running.

These Thomas the Train toys plus a set of Thomas duplo for $2.  

Can you tell my son is fascinated by trains?  A thrift store gave us these puzzles for free last week for some reason.  I'm not sure if it's because my son is so cute, or because they appreciate the fact that I singlehandedly keep them in business...

Happy thrifting!  And post some tips of your own if you'd like.


  1. Oooh....I'm totally on the same vibe as you. We do stuff as naturally as we can...which sometimes involves spending more money (like organic fruit, shampoo, etc.) but am ready and willing to do it cheaper (garage sales, Craig's list, etc.). To save money right now we are borrowing a ton of baby stuff from friends (like those infant car seats they only use for a few months) as well as trying to grow plants from seed (cheaper than buying). Sometimes if I'm looking for a specific item, a Canadian coupon site like will come up with a coupon or good deal (i.e. old navy maternity jeans for 11 bucks or a free adjustable and stylish nursing cover). I think we should have a chat sometime and talk about being thrifty!!!

  2. P.S. Such cute toys! Where did you get the patterns?

  3. Andrea, I couldn’t have said it better! I love this post and can relate to nearly everything you’ve mentioned (excluding buying baby clothes!) Another positive aspect of shopping at thrift stores is the fact that most of the people working at them are usually volunteers, and therefore they often have a great attitude and are more than willing to help you out. (And they’re usually older ladies who are always ready to start a conversation about anything and everything!) I’ve been using thrift store shopping as my therapy during the semester, especially when exams come around. I find it extremely relaxing to riffle through clothing racks, look down the “miscellaneous items” isle, and try on a million clothes that look like they’ll fit when they’re on the hanger, but never do when I put them on! (Mainly, I’m just avoiding studying!)

    Regarding the bread baking, I too love the smell of freshly made bread! It brings back memories from when I was younger and would come home off the bus and smell my dad’s bread baking all the way from the end of the driveway. He would usually make six or seven loaves at once in the oven and then freeze the majority of them for the future. Although nothing beats bread straight out of the oven, thawed homemade bread comes close sometimes! But I’ve tasted your freshly baked bread and it rivals nearly all others I’ve wonder Oliver loves it so much!

    Perhaps I will bump into you at one of our favourite thrift stores in the near future! Happy hunting and baking!

  4. Katherine - thanks for the link to bargainmoose; I hadn't seen that one before. Good tip about growing plants from seeds too. Do you have a garden?
    I edited my post with info about the patterns.

    Leah, you're right about the people who work at the thrift stores. Sometimes they give me a heads up on new things to look at in the store! That's when you know you're there a lot!


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