Camping it up · el cheapo · water you paddling?

Day 853: News From Camp

I opened an email from camp this morning. It read:

R wants to stay for the rest of the season. Please let me know if this is ok with you.

Contrast this with what N wrote, then crossed out, on his latest letter to us:

Is there a way for you to take me out of camp early without breaking the rules?

At least R is having fun.


N (and possibly R, I haven’t got confirmation of her extended session yet) comes home on Sunday. K leaves for camp on Monday. In between, we have to unpack N’s stuff, wash the bedding so K can take it, and then pack all of K’s stuff in the duffel bags N brought home.

K seems to have grown again; and as she has no older siblings providing hand-me-downs, we had to go buy her some, so we spent yesterday morning at Value Village. In the end I spent $200 and got her:

5 quick-drying short-sleeve shirts/tank tops (one from Lululemon)
4 pairs quick-drying capri leggings (one from Lululemon)
1 pack of socks (6 pairs, new)
1 pair of sweatpants
2 super-comfy pajama sets (one new with tags)
1 very warm hoodie
2 bathing suits

… plus 6 books, and a weighted blanket (which R and N have both requested) that can cost upwards of $200 new.

It was a very satisfying shopping trip.

The only things we couldn’t get at Value Village were wool hiking socks. I spent almost as much on those as I did on the rest of her camp wardrobe combined. I’m still reeling from the sticker shock.


In other news, I went kayaking at Professor’s Lake again today. I definitely chose the right location for the girls’ horseback riding camp.

Costa Rica · el cheapo · Keepin' it real · Travelogue · Worldschooling

Day 607: Last minute deals

Built-in playmates. Parenting in a group. Better meals.

So many advantages come with sharing a house with friends. I just listed the obvious ones; less obvious, but equally exciting (to me) is the fact that I’m learning new tricks for booking accommodations.

Maybe you already knew this and I was just clueless, but on those vacation rental sites (you know which ones) you can negotiate your price—assuming conditions are good for negotiation. For example, we’re looking for a place starting on Monday, which is five days away. Many (if not most) hosts whose homes are still available would rather make some money than none, so when we message them asking if they’d accept X dollars for the eleven nights, they often accept the offer. So far I’ve been offering around half of the list price—just to see what happens. Out of five listings, one accepted my offer outright; another accepted the price in exchange for slightly reduced space; a third met us halfway between the list price and our offer. One said “No way! That’s cheaper than the Holiday Inn!” and another took down the listing. I’m thinking that a 60% success rate isn’t bad at all.

For Mr. December, this is what “living on the edge” looks like. He has never left travel arrangements this late before. And shockingly, we’re both still very chill about it. When there’s plenty of inventory, you don’t care precisely where you end up, and you’re not afraid to bargain, the world is your oyster.

Costa Rica · el cheapo · Homeschool · Kids · Travelogue · Worldschooling

Day 604: The Reading Pool

Since we started homeschooling, I’ve done lessons on the trampoline, on our attic swings, and at the park. Today I can add a swimming pool to my list of classrooms.

E has been very resistant to doing her reading program so far on our trip. This morning I had the advantage of a real, live classmate for her; but to sweeten the deal I told her we could do reading in the pool. She jumped at the chance (no pun intended.)

I wrote words on E’s clipboard (which doubles as a whiteboard.) The kids had to read the board out loud before they could jump in. Then they got out and came back to me for more words. Today’s lesson also included a “bug hunt” activity; instead of doing it as recommended, I hid each bug card somewhere around the pool, and the kids had to run around and find them. They loved that.

It gets better.

This afternoon when I was done teaching the kids, I took a glass of ice water and my Kobo and went to read by the pool. Then I spotted the very shallow mini-pool—the one the fountain empties into—and thought, Why not? I sat in about 12 inches of water and started reading. Then I discovered that one side of the pool was lower than the others (to create a waterfall into the main pool,) and I used that as a headrest. That’s how I kept cool, my kobo stayed mostly dry (it’s waterproof, but I don’t really want to test it,) and I had my drink close at hand. It was decadent.

I know, I know, this is all fine and good for anyone who has access to a beachside villa with a swimming pool. Don’t despair, there’s a cheapskate way to get the same effect: get a kiddie pool from Canadian Tire, set it up outside, and enjoy the cool of your reading pool.

community · Costa Rica · DIY · education · el cheapo · family fun · gardening · Homeschool · Travelogue · Worldschooling

Day 590: Down on the Farm

Finca Blanco Y Negro, Turrialba, Costa Rica

Ed. note: this is a continuation of yesterday’s post. If you haven’t read it yet, go ahead and do so now.

We pulled into the driveway of Finca Blanco Y Negro (Black and White Farm) and were greeted by two women and a very enthusiastic child. E seized the opportunity for a new friend immediately: within minutes, she and this little boy were chatting—she in English, he in Spanish, neither understanding the other—as they explored the farm. The rest of us introduced ourselves and met Maria and Paola, the sisters who own the farm (the little boy, E, is Maria’s son.) It was decided that we’d tour the farm and then eat lunch, rather than the other way around.

Over and over, I was struck by how much research and thought went into running this farm. Blanco Y Negro isn’t a high-budget operation; in fact, part of their vision is to make organic vegetables accessible to more people than just rich people and hippies, and to develop new techniques that other small farms can use to grow organic produce. So when they were planning their mushroom-growing operation and saw the cost of all the “required” equipment, they set out to learn the reasons behind all the expensive recommendations. Then they found cheaper solutions that work just as well. Instead of a completely dark grow room, they put thick black garbage bags over the mushroom containers; in place of an expensive sterilizer, they boil the hay for three hours in a huge boiler to eliminate all microorganisms before using it as a growth medium. They built the mushroom greenhouse on the slope of the hill so that they can easily hose down the floor to keep it clean.

The kids received their first challenge in the mushroom house: who could find and pick the largest mushroom? They all scampered off, looking at every row of hanging bags to find the winning fungus. In the end, I think R might have found the biggest one. Not that it really mattered: all the mushrooms, big and small, were taken to the kitchen to become part of our lunch.

Have you ever heard a flock of ninety chickens? Just hens, mind you, no roosters at all? They are loud. As we stepped into their yard, the chickens crowded around the gate, saying “bawk?” as if to ask what we wanted. The kids got to pet a chicken, and we saw where the chickens turn kitchen scraps into high-quality fertilizer. Then we proceeded with our mission: to collect eggs for lunch. Mr. December and the kids eagerly headed into the henhouse to swipe the eggs. The chickens appeared unperturbed.

In the next pasture over, some black-bellied sheep were eager to munch on the long grasses we held for them. Then we went to see the composting shed—far more interesting than you’d think. In addition to a classic compost pile, they also have various barrels full of fermenting liquids which they use to deter insects from around the vegetable beds and to add beneficial microorganisms to the soil. Paola cracked open one barrel for us to see the bubbles forming on top of the liquid. It smelled like olives.

We explored the vegetable garden and learned about pest control without any pesticides, synthetic or natural. The results spoke for themselves: I’ve never before seen a head of lettuce with absolutely no holes or ragged edges on its leaves. The kids had a chance to plant some celery, beetroot, and arugula, which they did with more enthusiasm than I expected; N even came up with a way to streamline the planting process, by having one person place the seedlings in the correct positions while two others did the actual planting. E and her new friend worked with N and planted several rows of veggies in short order. Meanwhile, K indignantly stated that similar plants should be put together instead of mixing them up; she went to the opposite end of the row and diligently planted some celery.

The adults stood around and chatted. When Maria learned that we were homeschoolers, she got really excited: she’s also homeschooling her son, but it’s a pretty new concept in Costa Rica and she gets lots of pushback from… well, pretty much everyone. So we talked about our homeschooling experience and the homeschool community in general.

Poor R—she was sitting inside the farmhouse by this time, because all kinds of things on the farm were triggering her allergies (it hadn’t even occurred to me to bring her allergy meds with us.) Not to worry, though—Maria offered to find some of the allergy meds she had for her son so I could give R a dose. Wonder of wonders—it was the exact same prescription medicine R takes. I gratefully took the bottle and spoon and went to offer R some relief.

Finally, it was lunchtime! My kids were obnoxiously picky (we might need to have another talk about trying foods that are offered when you’re a guest somewhere) but Mr. December and I thoroughly enjoyed the tomato soup with local cheese and mushrooms, hard boiled eggs (they don’t get any fresher than that,) spring mix salad with beets (which I’m not usually a fan of, but it was delicious,) homemade bread with roasted garlic, and grilled vegetables. The kids deserted the table pretty quickly because Maria’s son called them over to see his kittens; all four of my kids were smitten and spent the rest of the time cuddling the kittens—even R, who declared that any allergic reaction she had would be worth it. Even dessert, which was homemade ice cream with berries on top, only held them for a few minutes before they went back to kitten wrangling.

We loved our time at the farm. By the end, I felt like we were visiting with friends. I was pleased when Maria shyly asked for my contact information—we exchanged numbers and I extended an invitation for them to visit us in Toronto. I hope they take us up on it.

bikes planes and automobiles · el cheapo · hackin' it · whine and cheese

Day 563: I don’t get it.

The air travel industry drives me nuts.

If I search for flights from Ecuador to Toronto (one way,) I can get a flight that goes through Miami for $3100 (for the whole family, not per person.)

Now, if I search for the same flights as above, but separately (Ecuador to Miami, and another search for Miami to Toronto,) the total price is $2100.

What gives?

Interestingly, when I clicked on “book through the airline,” the American Airlines page opened up for me… in Spanish. It seemed to think I was searching from Ecuador. I tried to search for that flight with my country set to “Canada—English,” but the page crashed every time I did that. In the end I decided that there’s nothing wrong with a flight ticket purchased in Spanish; Google translated the page for me, I filled in our details, and we got our cheap(er) flight.

I still don’t get it, though. Don’t get me wrong—I’m thrilled that an extra hour of searching saved me $1000 in after-tax money (easiest $1K I ever made,) but it seems just a little bit absurd, doesn’t it?

Even weirder: I just went and did the same searches again so I could get a screenshot for this blog post… and got completely different (higher) prices on the two separate flights this time around. HOW????? and WHY????

I think my head just exploded.

DIY · el cheapo

Day 522: Where everybody knows my name

I’m a friendly sort of person. Where Mr. December would go into a store, pay for his stuff, and get out, I’ll be chatting and smiling and asking how the cashier is doing. I do it because it makes me happy, not because it gets me any benefit… but sometimes I actually do reap the benefits of friendliness.

I went to my happy place—Lowe’s—because I needed plywood to make the drawer fronts for the library. I had actually called in my order to the Pro Desk (they call me a pro!) so they could have it cut and waiting at the front for me; but when I got there, my order wasn’t ready. As it turned out, the phone number on my account is my landline which I never use and which has a full mailbox; they had tried calling me three times to tell me that they didn’t have the product I’d ordered.

So there I was at the Pro Desk, asking one of the associates who knows me why the website said the plywood was in stock when it really wasn’t. She took a walk through the sheet goods aisle and offered me a few different options to replace the plywood they didn’t have. I approved one and we walked over to the cutting area together to find an associate to cut the board; but just as he started off towards aisle 51, I spied something between the back of the track saw and the rack of wood behind it.

“What’s that?” I pointed. “It looks like the kind of thing I’m looking for.”

“It’s scrap,” they told me.

Scrap!? It was a piece of ¾ inch plywood with sanded sides, at least two feet by seven feet. Who on earth bought the rest of a sheet and left that beautiful piece behind?

“I’ll take it,” I announced.

And that’s how I scored some free ¾” good-one-side sanded plywood. I asked the associate at the cutting area what they usually do with pieces like the one I’d chosen. “It’s sad,” he said, “but it usually goes in the garbage.”

So I’m a little happier because I didn’t have to spend $90 on a full sheet of plywood, and the earth is happier because that’s one less perfectly good product going to waste. Win-win.

When I got to the cash another guy who knows me asked whether I had been given a price for the partial sheet. “No,” I said, “It was from the scrap pile.”

He looked to the first woman I’d dealt with for confirmation.

“It’s Sara,” she told him. “She can have it for free.”

I have to say, I felt kind of special. I love the folks at the Pro Desk.


Next, I needed paint. So I called up our local paint store, where the three employees have helped me with a lot of paint-related needs. One time, the manager gave me a mini-lesson in painting technique for getting a brushstroke-free finish on cabinet doors.

It was the cheerful young man who answered the phone with a jaunty tone of voice. I ordered the paint I needed and told him I’d be there in half an hour. When I went to pick up, we chatted for a while and he made some notes in my file of which room or project the paint was for—handy if I need to go back later, I guess. When I left, he opened the door for me and wished me a great afternoon and good luck with the project.


Back at home, I set to work cutting the drawer fronts and installing the mounting hardware on them. Then I removed the fronts from the drawers and took them downstairs to start painting. They’re downstairs in the Makery, awaiting more coats tomorrow. And here I am at my desk, reflecting on how much I like to shop where everybody knows my name.

DIY · el cheapo · Keepin' it real

Day 497: Oops.

The photo I posted yesterday of me with the wrecking bar was, as commenter Rose suggested, related to the window seat. Before I could upholster the back and sides of the seat, I had to remove part of the windowsill so that it wouldn’t dig into our shoulders when we leaned back. It was really hard to pry the moulding off, until I could see into the crack between the moulding and the rest of the windowsill: then it was obvious that the tiny nails holding the moulding to the wall were quite long. No way could I pull them out all the way without damaging the surrounding wood in the process—hence the wire cutters. I’d pry from the top with the pry bar until I could fit the wire cutters in, then clip the nail. Once that was done it all came out easily.

I ended up doing four hours of manual labour yesterday, between the prying and the templating and cutting a new (slightly slanted) back out of plywood. I actually felt pretty badass—I love building things.

This morning I bought the fabric and foam for the window seat. I’ve decided on an upholstered back instead of adding back cushions like we had before, on the theory that it will be less messy this way. I can always add extra throw cushions later.

By this point you may be wondering what the “Oops” title was about. Right? Of course right.

After creating templates and double-checking dimensions, I was dismayed to discover that the fabric I had cut for the seat back was just a little too short.

“NOOOOOOOOOO!” I howled like a comic book villain who’s been thwarted once again.

It would have been insanely complicated to take the whole thing off and reattach it, and might not even look good given what the tacking strips do to the fabric. I only had enough fabric left to finish the seat cushion and upholster the second side, so I couldn’t redo the whole thing. I decided to work on something different and come back to it.

I’m proud to say that I came up with a solution that looks pretty good. I’m not even telling you what the solution was; if you can’t see it, then I don’t need to point it out. I’m just telling you because I’m proud of myself. Also because I’m the queen of keeping it real, as they say, and I think it’s important that you know that most of my projects have at least one major oops moment in the process.

I’m not sure how I like the fabric; I eventually chose it because nobody hated it, and E and Mr. December liked it the best of the bunch. It’s an outdoor fabric—helpful when it’s sitting in a west-facing bay window and getting lots of lovely sunlight that will fade almost anything it touches. It happened to be on clearance, so I ended up paying $35 for just under six metres. If I decide in two years that I hate it, I can redo the whole thing.

I’ve pretty much finished the back and sides, and have only to cut and cover the seat cushion. At one point I wanted to make sure I chose the perfect fabric and had the whole thing done perfectly; now I just want to get it done, period.

better homes than yours · DIY · el cheapo · hackin' it · whine and cheese

Day 495: Cheap Imitations?

“I have big plans,” I informed Mr. December. “I’m going to rope K into my crazy, harebrained scheme and we’re going to do it when you’re out of the house.”

You might be wondering why I told him at all; I was wondering the same thing two seconds after I finished speaking. That’s me, though: when I’m excited about something, I can’t keep my mouth shut. Except for that time we threw my parents a big surprise party for their anniversary… but that was really, really hard.

Back to Mr. December. “Does it involve wrecking a perfectly good table?” he asked.

How did he know? “Maybe a little…” I admitted.

I don’t know if I ever told you that we have a new-to-us dining room table. It’s not the fancy epoxy table, and it’s not the custom wood table with the tree-shaped legs either. I’ve known this table for most of my life, as it’s been sitting in the boardroom of my Dad’s office for the last twenty-five (or so) years. It’s the exact size and shape that I wanted, and it was free, which means I can throw my table fund into twelve beautiful (and matching) dining chairs.

Besides, you know I’m happier when I’m hacking furniture, right? This table is—like most office furniture—really nice wood-look formica over particle board. But I have big plans here: remove some of the laminate (probably a meandering river down the middle, but who knows) and pour a very thin layer of blue epoxy into the resultant gap. I think it would look extremely cool.

Speaking of cool, my mum brought these beautiful chairs to my attention:

Image description: a chair with chrome legs and a transparent blue plastic molded seat. There are ripples emanating from the centre of the seat. It looks like water.

When I saw them—and when Mum told me how comfy they are—I started looking for them online. I found what I thought was the right chair on Overstock and Wayfair; but when I read the reviews, many of them said the chairs weren’t very durable. I found this strange since my Aunty (in whose kitchen the above photo was taken) told me that the chairs still look untouched even with all the abuse her dogs and birds dish out.

So I ran a Google search on the photo of the chair. Sure enough, there appeared to be two different companies making a nearly-identical product. Of course, I couldn’t tell which was which except by the dimensions; in typical Wayfair manner, they’ve given the chairs a name that is completely different from the model name on the manufacturers’ website. Sure enough, though, one of them is slightly bigger and presumably more durable. It definitely gets better reviews than its doppelganger.

This kind of thing makes me crazy. It’s obviously designed to make it impossible for customers to comparison-shop, and in that it succeeds; but if I ordered a set of chairs and they turned out to be the cheap imitations, I’d be pissed.

So how am I supposed to know? According to the online retailers, I’m not. I guess this means I have to email actual bricks-and-mortar furniture stores around here and ask if they still carry these. And if not… do I take my chances and order 12 online? Or do I order just two online and risk them selling out before I can buy more?

el cheapo · whine and cheese

Day 492: I don’t subscribe to this model.

Warning: I’m about to date myself. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you’re a young’un and you should just sit down and listen. Okay?

Remember how in the good old days, you could go out and buy music and then it was yours? You held it in your hand, you could take it home, and then thirty years later you could pull it out and play it. (Why yes, I do still have my copy of Madonna: The Immaculate Collection from when I was twelve.)

Now everything is by subscription: we pay every month and in the end we actually don’t own anything. If the world went post-apocalyptic tomorrow, I could still listen to all our CDs. But if the internet and everything in it went down, and I had no CDs, there’d be nothing to listen to. I don’t own my music, even the stuff I paid for.

It actually bothers me less with music than with computer programs. Apparently you can still buy (and own) Microsoft Office 2019, but there will be no more updates. If you want a more updated version, you have to pay to maintain a subscription. Thank goodness for Google Docs and Sheets.

There are a lot of niche-type programs I use. I subscribed to PicMonkey so that I could do some more advanced image editing to make K’s bat mitzvah logo; I kept it because I do find my way onto it every now and then for other small projects. Is it useful? Yes. Is it ten-dollars-per-month-if-I-want-to-keep-access-to-my-original-files useful? No, probably not. I should really look into just buying a copy of PhotoShop… assuming one can actually be bought, and not just subscribed-to.

I use music notation software to arrange our ensemble pieces for homeschool. I’m making do with the free version, because I can’t stand the thought of another subscription. I did actually subscribe to a music education program, but at least we’re using their resources all the time. I have a Kobo Plus subscription because, with four Kobos, it’s a lot cheaper than buying those books for our whole family; it’s even cheaper than the late fees we’d incur if we borrowed hard copies from the library. To be fair, we also borrow e-books from our library through overdrive, and that’s great, but the Kobo Plus subscription is worth it for us.

But you see the problem: almost any niche interest or hobby that I have can be improved by using software, but I have to subscribe to it forever and ever, or I lose my stuff. These companies have got to be making a mint off this.

So no, I do not subscribe to this subscription model. Bring back actual ownership, I say (shaking my fist wildly.)

See? I’m dating myself.

Camping it up · el cheapo · Keepin' it real · Sartorial stuff

Day 462: Quality over Quantity

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know about my goal of using Amazon less (because of their unethical business practices) and local, fair-trade vendors more. Sure, the products are more expensive (often by a factor of 3 or more,) but that’s okay because Mr. December and I would rather have a small number of high-quality things than tons of cheap stuff.

But what happens when our values collide with necessity?

When I got the summer camp packing list, my first thought was, “My kids don’t have that much clothing!” We do laundry either once or twice a week, which means that in any given season we need maximum eight of anything—shirts, pants, socks, underwear, whatever. When we travel, we aim for just four days’ worth of clothes, and we do laundry every three or four days. We just don’t need that much stuff. Besides, as I once read somewhere, “Wearing different clothes everyday is an American obsession.” If the clothes aren’t stinky or visibly dirty, they can be worn again.

Mr. December would go farther with that and say that it doesn’t matter if they wear dirty clothes at camp. And they don’t need four sweaters, he’d argue, because the kid can wear all of their t-shirts at once to keep warm. Also, if their shoes get wet they can just wear wet shoes for a while. Problem solved.

I agree with him, to a degree. It’s camp. You’re in the woods. It doesn’t matter if there’s a stain on your sweatshirt from yesterday’s dinner. Just wear it.

(We used to wear the same clothes for a full week on our canoe trips, only changing our underwear and occasionally washing our t-shirts in the lake. Yes, we stank. No, none of us cared. And now my Mum is reading this and cringing. Sorry, Mum!)

I also tend to agree that kids don’t always need doubles of everything. It’s good for them to learn that no great misfortune will befall them if they have to wear sandals while their running shoes dry out. A little stoicism wouldn’t hurt these kids, I assure you.

Alas, the way laundry is done at camp my kids will only have about half their clothes with them at a time, so they do need at least twice as much as I would have thought reasonable. And since the kids just don’t own that much clothing, there’s lots of shopping to be done.

Ideally I would like to steer clear of fast fashion and things that were made in sweatshops, and instead invest in responsibly-made clothes. But first, things that go to camp might get ruined by the industrial laundry service or might not come back at all. That’s not the place for clothes that could be described as an “investment in a few good pieces.” Not to mention the fact that since I’m not willing to stand in line to get into a thrift shop, the cost of outfitting three kids with fifteen days’ worth of ethically-made clothes would be staggering.

I think you already know that reality steamrolled my lofty sartorial-ethical goals completely. It grates on me a bit every time I go back to my old, cheap standbys… but obviously not enough to make me want to spend ninety dollars on a single bathing suit that might not come back home. I’m trying not to sweat it; once all the camp purchases are finished I can go back to choosing quality over quantity.