DIY · el cheapo · Fibro Flares · Homeschool · whine and cheese

Day 412: The Devil’s in the Details

Fun fact: in Hebrew, “shed” is the word for “demon.”

Not-so-fun fact: It’s pretty much impossible to find a prefab shed that meets my needs.

Coincidence? I think not.

Last autumn and over the winter, Mr. December and I discussed having the kids design and build a shed with us as part of their homeschooling: it would involve geometry, arithmetic, and physics, and they’d get firsthand experience in how houses are built. But that plan seems a bit laughable right now, when just installing three display cubes on N’s bedroom wall has resulted in more elbow pain… and we still have another five to install. Don’t get me started on the pile of IKEA furniture in E’s bedroom that has yet to be assembled and mounted on the wall.

It’s an odd twist on one’s eyes being bigger than one’s stomach. The idea of building a shed from scratch excites me, but these days it’s feeling pretty likely that I’d go into a fibro flare somewhere around the second or third day of construction and be unable to finish the job. A prefab shed seems like a decent compromise: we’d get to do some building without having to think about (and then execute) things like stud spacing and roof pitch.

I’m encouraged by the fact that my kids now do useful work without arguing about it first. Tonight K finished cutting up all the branches Mr. December pruned off our plum tree; N bundled them neatly, tied them with twine, and put them at the curb for pickup. Their competence gives me just a little hope that they could make themselves useful for shed building, too.

But first I’ll have to find a shed to build, which is harder than it sounds. Most of the prefab sheds have six-foot sidewalls, which is a bit low for my purposes (woodworking; using giant saws on big, long pieces of wood.) For eight-foot walls I’d have to go to a custom shed place, which puts the price up around $10K for a 108 square foot shed. Or we could go with the alternative: build our own shed from scratch… which I’m pretty sure would be its own unique form of torture.

bikes planes and automobiles · el cheapo · Keepin' it real · well *I* think it's funny...

Day 380: Anti-Theft System

There have been a lot of car thefts in our area lately. It seems that every few days someone else posts on the neighbourhood Facebook group that their car was stolen, and the comments section is soon peppered with discussions of Faraday cages, The Clubâ„¢, and other anti-theft measures. Despite all this, I have no fears of my car being stolen; you see, I have my own patented anti-theft system that I use for my car and my cellphone.

Here’s how it works: my stuff is functional but old-looking (and usually just plain old.)

Our car is a 2012 minivan with peeling paint and a dented side panel. It’s a workhorse that hauls lumber, bikes, and people. It’s pretty comfy to boot, with seat warmers in the front and a separate heat/ac system for the passengers in the back. It’s served us well for the past nine years and we plan to drive it for at least another six.

My phone is a 2016 iPhone SE. I bought it used in 2017 and immediately covered it with the most waterproof, shock-proof, me-proof cover I could find. It’s not new, pretty, or flashy, but it takes good photos and serves as my external brain; I don’t need or want anything fancier.

My anti-theft system works because, as Mr. December drily observed, even thieves have standards—and apparently, their standards are higher than my own. Just further proof that lower standards are the key to happiness.

el cheapo · Kids · parenting · The COVID files

Day 351: Spending Their Own Money

“Can you buy me more Robux?” says one of my kids every month.

In case you don’t know, Robux is a currency used in the game Roblox. As far as I understand, my kids are mostly using their Robux to upgrade their avatars (on-screen characters,) and maybe to play certain upgraded games. Whatever they’re using them for, the kids seem to need more Robux every month or so. And since we’re the bank where they keep their money, we have to be involved in the transaction.

There is no way Mr. December and I would choose to spend our money this way; but we decided long ago that if our kids have their own money (from birthday and Chanukah gifts, mostly,) they get to decide how to spend it. It’s better for them to learn about money and value and utility now while the stakes are low; when you’re a kid, being flat broke just means being without spending money (as opposed to lacking money for food and rent.) We’ve accepted that they’re going to spend some of their money on things that we think are foolish: that’s part of the learning experience.

There are still times when we get the urge to say, “No, we won’t let you buy that.” There are things we view as a colossal waste of money, and Robux is one of them. But if our philosophy is that they have to be able to choose what to do with their own money, then we have to stand back. That does not mean that we won’t give them our opinion, though.

“Seriously? That’s a lot of money to spend on a video game that you might not even like anymore in two weeks.”

“Do you feel like that’s worth it?”

“That’s a lot of money. Abba has to work for an hour to earn that much.”

“Why don’t you think about it for a few days and then if you still want it, you can buy it.”

That last one was Mr. December, this morning, trying to impose a cooling-off period on R. I thought that was a pretty good strategy: it’s still her money and he’s not saying no, just suggesting that she think about it.

When I think about it, though, it’s not such an unreasonable spend. How different is her buying Robux from her going to a movie with her friends and buying popcorn too? That’s $20 (including tax) for under two hours of entertainment; she’ll certainly get a better hourly rate for the Robux, considering how many hours (SO many hours) she spends playing Roblox. If I think a movie with friends is a reasonable expenditure, why not Roblox with friends—especially when it’s the only way she can even “see” her friends these days?

el cheapo · Keepin' it real

Day 340: It’s here!

The doorbell rang half an hour ago. Under my watch, E answered and accepted the package: a flat box wrapped in plastic.

I opened it up to find my dress, wrapped in tissue paper, and a surprise gift: a tape measure and a face mask.

I had to try it on right away; if not for me, then for E who insisted it must be time for a “fashion show.” So upstairs I trudged to swap my sweats and t-shirt for my new trapeze-hem shift dress.

Here were my first impressions:

The fabric. You guys, this cotton knit is so comfortable that I didn’t want to take it off! It’s a nice thick knit: definitely not any chance of being see-through, and it drapes beautifully without being clingy. I love it.

The pockets. The dress I chose has a huge kangaroo pocket in the front which is pretty much invisible if my hands aren’t in it. My only complaint here is that the pocket is too low for me to comfortably rest my hands in it. That said, its location ensures that you really can’t see any bulges when the pocket is full, so I guess that’s a win.

The quality of the work. The stitching looks good to me. No complaints here.

The fit. Here’s where it gets a bit confusing for me. The dress fits, and is very comfortable. The sleeves are exactly what I ordered—elbow length—so the fact that I don’t love how they look is really my problem, not theirs. To me, the hem is lower than “just below the knee.” Would you agree? And the silhouette is fine, but if I take it in just a little bit at the back it’s definitely more flattering. The sleeves are another thing: on the website they looked quite fitted, but on me they’re kind of loose.

The dress as is. Kind of looks like a beach cover-up. Super comfy though.
The dress if I take in just a few inches around the natural waist. A much nicer shape, I think. Does the length look to you like “below the knee” or “mid-calf”?
This is what it looked like on the website when I ordered it.

I’m not quite sure what to do: return or keep? They have a no-hassle return policy, even for the custom-sized dresses. I could probably re-order with different hem and sleeve lengths and it would be a bit better, or I could order a different style that has more shape. On the downside, I’d have to pay return shipping to Oregon, which would probably set me back at least $30. At that point, is it worth returning? Or should I shorten it and take it in a bit and chalk it up to a learning experience? And are the things I don’t like about it really the manufacturer’s fault, or did I just pick a style that isn’t exactly as flattering as I’d like?

I took the dress off because I still might return it. But I so wanted to keep it on because it was by far the most comfortable dress I’ve tried on in years.

So, readers, what should I do with this dress?

el cheapo · Keepin' it real · The COVID files · waxing philosophical

Day 331: It’s hard to leave the jungle

And by “jungle,” I mean Amazon.

Over the last year or so Mr. December and I have discussed reducing our Amazon use.

(Cue laugh track here—reducing Amazon use during a pandemic? Oh, I am so hilarious!)

But really, we’re trying to find ways to support smaller businesses, or, failing that, Canadian businesses of any size. It’s not that I have a particular hate-on for Amazon, it’s just that I think it’s never a good idea to put all your eggs in one foreign-owned basket. I will say, however, that I realize that Amazon employs a large number of people locally and those people benefit from my Amazon use, so it’s a balance.

The thing is, I’ve been seriously spoiled by Amazon for the last twelve years.

I remember when Mr. December and I took baby K to California for a week to combine a visit to friends with a business trip. We didn’t own a travel crib yet, and we knew we’d need one. Mr. December suggested that I order one on Amazon and have it delivered to our friends’ house. The next day, I got an email from our friend that it had arrived.

One day? I was flabbergasted. Things arrive in one day? Here it takes two weeks!

When Amazon started their subscription service in Canada, it was a godsend. I placed my order once… and for the next two or three years, diapers and wipes showed up at my door on a regular basis. For a mom with three kids under the age of five, this was a big deal—no more shopping and schlepping! It definitely improved my quality of life.

Over the last decade I’ve bought hundreds of things from Amazon, from the mundane (dishwasher detergent and hair elastics) to the unique things I couldn’t find anywhere else (like Dimwit, my adorable reading lamp.) It’s been great—but now we’re trying to change our shopping habits.

There’s just one problem: Amazon is so good at what it does. Where else in Canada can you get a playground swing in January? Or fifty assorted rubber ducks? Amazon was the only place I could find kosher jelly candies for K’s bat mitzvah without leaving the house (we were in lockdown, remember,) and nobody else had a small bag of regular sand for our science experiment about igneous rocks. I can’t count the number of times I’ve spent hours looking for something online in all the Canadian stores I can think of and ended up ordering off Amazon.

Before you ask, it’s not a price issue; we’re willing to pay more to support local businesses. It’s sometimes a simple availability problem, and sometimes it’s a question of delivery time: I don’t usually need things tomorrow, but it would be nice to get them in fewer than three weeks. But sometimes, the actual experience of ordering is so terrible with Canadian companies that it feels like a punishment just to order some toilet paper.

Canadian Tire is a great example. Many times I’ve tried to order from them for shipping to my home, but wasn’t allowed to put the item in my cart because the local store didn’t have it in stock. I can sometimes get around it by selecting a different store as my favourite and then putting the item in my cart, but that’s an extra few steps I’d rather not take. And if one item is in stock in my closest store, but the second item is only available at another store that doesn’t have the first item, forget it.

My pretty new tea infusers, each with its own matching drip tray. From Amazon, of course.

I haven’t even gotten into the insane amount of choice that Amazon offers. It opens up a whole other world of products. Two weeks ago I decided I’d like to use the loose leaf tea in our pantry; I couldn’t, though, because I had no tea ball or tea strainer. I looked online at a few Canadian retailers: Kitchen Stuff Plus, Canadian Tire, Hudson’s Bay, even a few smaller kitchen supply stores. They each had a simple mesh ball on a chain. When I got to Amazon and entered “tea ball” in the search box, I got an astonishing variety: tea balls shaped like submarines or aquatic animals, reusable silicone tea bags, even a tea ball shaped like an elephant with its forelegs and trunk peeking out over the top of the teacup. With that kind of colourful variety available, it’s very difficult to choose the boring old mesh ball, no matter how Canadian it is.

It’s ridiculous to expect smaller local companies to compete with Amazon; their advantage lies in the personalized service they offer. But if larger Canadian companies just made a few changes to their online shopping platforms, it would be far easier to support them. I’ll gladly pay a bit extra for products that weren’t made in China, or for shipping—even if it takes a few days more. But I’m less and less inclined to pay in time and frustration because Canadian retailers haven’t put enough thought into their online customer experience. It’s 2021, guys. Time to get with the (virtual) program.

el cheapo · family fun · Homeschool · mental health · The COVID files · whine and cheese

Day 332: The Impossible Dream

I’ve developed a new internet addiction: Air BnB.

Ever since we started homeschooling, Mr. December and I have been enthralled by the possibility of worldschooling—travelling the world for months at a time and homeschooling along the way. Inspired by the bloggers of Millenial Revolution, one of whom used to be Mr. December’s coworker, we’ve been turned on to the idea that there are parts of the world that are safe and way cheaper to live in than Toronto, while letting the kids experience a totally new culture.

The current “stay at home” order has definitely exacerbated my wanderlust. As I type this, it’s minus ten degrees celsius and snowing. It’s probably normal to want to get away from this weather even without a pandemic. Of course, it’s basically impossible right now. Except…

“Honey, look at this!” I call to Mr. December. “Looks like Croatia is still open to tourists! Look at those gorgeous beaches! And we could rent this four-bedroom villa by the beach for $2100 a month! How crazy is that?”

Four bedroom home near the Dalmatian coast in Croatia. What’s not to like?

Thailand and Bali aren’t open to tourists right now, but I took a look at rentals for those places, too. In Bali I found this insanely cool house with four bedrooms. These people must be kindred spirits: their kids have a jungle-themed bedroom with a gorgeous wall mural and cargo nets for climbing and relaxing; there’s a pool outside with a waterslide; there’s even a trampoline. I think we’ve found our people… for less than $3500 a month. I wonder if they’d be open to a house swap? I bet their kids would love our attic.

Pics of a home in Bali; Gorgeously landscaped pool with a concrete waterslide that looks like it’s part of the stone wall, jungle themed kids’ room… looks like we’ve found a family as crazy as we are.

In Thailand I focused my search on Chiang Mai, a city in the north with a large population of worldschoolers and other expats. Even when I narrowed the search to “4+ bedrooms, wifi, swimming pool, under $3000 a month” there were still eighteen places to choose from. The one that caught my eye just happens to have the same house number as ours, which is just kinda neat.

A single-family home in Chiang Mai, Thailand; private swimming pool; a garden.

We’ve done the math and the research: we could probably rent out our house (perhaps to a doctor from overseas who’s doing a residency at one of the downtown Toronto hospitals) for $6000 to $8000 per month for six months. Any of the places I discussed in this post are at most half that expensive, which means that we could even come out ahead, financially speaking—not that finances are the most compelling reason to worldschool. Not by a long shot.

Look, I know this isn’t going to happen for a long time. They just extended the “stay at home” order here and the government has announced dire projections for a third wave of COVID if we open up too early. Even if I was completely immune to the open scorn we’d surely endure by travelling when the government has asked us not to (Mr. December is immune, but I don’t think I am,) I’d still be a bit leery of travelling right now. And if we were going to travel with the kids, my first choice would be Israel, which is leading the world in immunizations. But Israel is still closed to tourists, and I fear that when they open it will be to tourists who’ve been immunized. If that ends up being the case, we as Canadians will be screwed: our government has been ridiculously slow in procuring vaccines and getting them to the populace.

In the meantime, I can fantasize. It might be one of the only things keeping me even a little bit sane. If not for the tantalizing hope of future travel, I’d spend my days ruminating on the fact that we’re doomed to spend the next year or so in our little box, separated from friends and family, going nowhere and doing nothing. In the face of that probably reality, who wouldn’t fantasize?

el cheapo · Keepin' it real · well *I* think it's funny... · what's cookin'

Day 325: I really need to stop shopping at Costco.

Is it just me, or does every Costco order end up costing $400?

I just need fruit and vegetables and some milk, I reason, shouldn’t cost me more than $100, even at Costco.

Then I realize that I need flour… might as well get two bags because it’s the softest, nicest flour I’ve ever worked with. We go through about a bag a month anyway.

And we’re almost out of coffee beans, and since only Costco seems to carry this brand, I’d better order them now, because I don’t do Costco very often. Hmmm… might as well order two. Future Me will appreciate that.

I need cream, of course, and milk. I buy two of each because we’ll definitely use it all before it has a chance to go bad, as long as the kids have cereal most days.

Thinking about cereal makes me think of oatmeal, and that’s when I realize that I only have a quarter of a bag of pecans (a favourite topping in our house) left. This time I resist the urge to buy two, though. A whole bag will see us through about four weeks.

And then there’s meat, because I just realized that our downstairs freezer is absolutely empty, and I’d rather just do everything in one big shop.

I’m starting to see the problem: at Costco, every food item seems to cost either ten or twenty dollars, with the exception of milk. So apples plus oranges plus grapes plus tomatoes equals almost forty dollars. Yes, I’m getting a lot of fruit for that price, and I might not need to shop at all next week, but boy does it all add up. And even though I’m stocking my freezer with a month’s worth of chicken and beef, I’m still unconvinced that the next grocery bill will be any lower.

As I’m clicking around, I notice the “non-food” section. Good idea, I think. Do we need anything? Printer paper? Pyjamas for the kids? Socks?

And then I see the iPad. We do NOT need that. Although… actually, that could be kind of useful. In the end I resist, because we really don’t need it. But holy cow, is it easy to buy unnecessary stuff when it’s all conveniently in front of you!

With that in mind, I go back through my cart and take out a few things. Croutons, because we don’t have lettuce and I won’t buy lettuce from Costco because it would go bad before I ate it all. Naan, because I’m really not going to make tandoori chicken this week and there’s plenty of other bread in the house. And the blueberries, because it’s February—how good could they possibly be?

So it is that I manage to keep my total just under $400. I wouldn’t say that I’m particularly proud of myself—it still feels like a lot—but I’m resigned to it. At least I didn’t buy a six-pack of grand pianos…

el cheapo · hackin' it · Keepin' it real

Day 307: The Free Economy

I scored some new dining chairs today.

I happened across a post on Facebook offering these four chairs, brand new in box, for free. Since the fasteners on our IKEA chairs (circa 2001) have been tightened repeatedly and still feel rickety, I expressed my interest. That was last night. By noon today I had driven two kilometres to pick them up, and at seven this evening I assembled the first one. We’re trying it out now to decide whether we like them enough to keep, or whether we should pass them on to the next interested party.

This is not my first foray into what I call the Free Economy (or sometimes, the Curb Economy.) Many of my acquisitions have been from the curb on trash day or from a “free to a loving home” post on Facebook.

The comfiest chair in our house is a fully upholstered Dutalier glider that was put out at the curb on someone’s moving day. A couple of tiny stains aside, it was in good condition and certainly looked and worked way better than my decrepit wooden glider. It was just at the end of our block and one of the moving guys graciously offered us the loan of his dolly to roll the chair home.

We’ve found two IKEA children’s tables (plastic) on the curb in our neighbourhood. One was covered with marker scribbles; if I was more pretentious I would say that it had a “distressed finish.” Whatever you want to call it, I was glad I wouldn’t have to get upset about the first marker lines to mar the perfect tabletop.

Just when I was trying to teach E how to ride a two-wheeler, someone offered a free Balance Buddy on the neighbourhood Facebook group. It only took a couple of weeks for her to learn, and then the bike training handle was passed to another neighbour.

The most comfortable couch we own was free, courtesy of a friend for whom style will always trump comfort. After her renovation the couch had “the wrong form factor” (I think that means shape,) so it had to go. The colour isn’t so great in our living room, but I’m willing to put up with a slight deviation from our colour scheme because this couch feels so decadent to sit and lie on. The kids have already informed me it’s never leaving our house.

The list is extensive and I won’t belabour the point. From the wooden tea chest that holds board game parts to the training bras I needed to buy, I’ve benefited repeatedly from hand-me-downs and curbside finds.

When Mr. December first heard I had claimed these free chairs, he commented that surely there must be someone in need who couldn’t afford to buy them new. I pointed out that if I passed on the chairs, there was no guarantee that the next people in line for them would be any more in need of them than we are. Besides, here was a risk-free way to try this style of chair. If it didn’t work for us, we could then pass the chairs on to someone else.

I think that some people still associate hand-me-downs and curbside shopping with being poor. But in some circles it has always been about sharing, reducing consumption, and keeping stuff out of landfills. Besides, participating fairly in the free economy means that you give as well as get. True story: when Mr. December moved out of his student hovel, we dragged to the curb the ugly hand-me-down sofa that some roommate’s grandma had given them. We went back inside the house to get the next thing destined for the curb; by the time we got outside again the couch was gone. A few moments later I was standing in Mr. D’s living room, looking through the window… when I saw through the neighbour’s window that they now had the couch—the free economy had worked its magic.

I’ve given away furniture, toys, clothing, and even scrap wood to people who wanted them. One friend of mine gratefully took some Masonite off my hands for an upcycling project; another friend just posted that she’s looking for picture frames of various shapes and sizes, and I happen to have a pile of unused frames in our basement storage room. She can take her pick.

When the universe give me such an abundance of things, I feel free to share with everyone around me. And if I accidentally give away something I’ll end up needing… well, I have confidence that someone somewhere in this city will be giving that something away one day soon.

el cheapo · Keepin' it real · snarky · whine and cheese

Day 295: Murderers.

My children are murderers, I tell you. Murderers!

The broken bodies of their victims are strewn across the living room, their cords severed and frayed, their headbands snapped. Poor things. They never stood a chance.

And what’s my role in all of this? I have to bring in new victims when the current crop are all dead. Today’s shiny new headsets are tomorrow’s junk. It’s a sad cycle.

Image description: close-up of several pairs of headphones, each broken somehow: a severed cord, one has exposed copper wire, broken headband, disconnected earpiece.

It’s not that my kids are maliciously trying to ruin every set of headphones I buy. It’s just that things happen. E leaves the computer quickly to go to the bathroom, forgetting that she’s wearing headphones, and the cord stretches to the breaking point. N, ever fidgeting with whatever he can get his hands on, plays with the cords until he’s peeled off the outer coating, exposed the wires themselves, and frayed the wires beyond repair. Or someone sits on a pair of headphones that were left on a chair, and the headband snaps. The kids are clearly not setting out to ruin their headphones, but somehow that’s always the end result.

I’ve bought cheap headsets so that I wouldn’t be upset about having to replace them. I’ve bought expensive headsets, hopeful that their higher-quality construction would protect them. They’re all useless now.

I’ve never bought cordless headsets: I avoided them because I assumed that the kids would wander away from the computer, take off the headsets somewhere else in the house, and promptly forget where. I still think that’s a valid assumption, but I can’t just go on luring unsuspecting headphones to their deaths: I need to try something different.

So today I ordered our first ever cordless headset (for the kids; I have my own), and it arrived this afternoon (curbside pickup.) It’s set up and functional. I hope it’s longer-lived than its wired predecessors; I guess time will tell.

DIY · el cheapo · hackin' it · The COVID files

Day 243: When Hoarding Pays Off

I spent part of my day yesterday with a spreadsheet, taking inventory in our basement. Mr. December felt that today was the day to do it—he thinks that we’ll be seeing shutdowns soon and wants to be prepared—so we counted cans of beans and calculated kilos of rice and so on, so that I could then go and order all the stuff we don’t have.

While we were down there we started talking about finding a different way to organize the canned beans. We decided we need a FIFO (First In, First Out) system, which I then found for sale on the internet for Too Much Money. I mean, we can afford it, but it seemed ridiculous, so I did what I always do in these circumstances: I made it myself. The best part? I used old scraps of wood and masonite that I saved from other projects.

Remember when Mr. December and I broke the bed? I saved the broken slats all those months ago, and yesterday I ran a few of them through the table saw to create dividers for the rows of cans. A few more of the bed slats performed a supporting role in the rack. A scrap piece of plywood turned into the two sides, and various odds and ends of trim came in handy for edging the shelves. Here’s what it looks like so far:

See, you put the cans on the top shelf and they roll towards the back of the shelf, then drop through to the bottom shelf and roll to the front. The oldest cans will always be the first ones we reach for.

I spent the rest of the day working on the puzzle I blogged about yesterday. Mr. December asked me where it’s going to live while we’re working on it. I had no idea, but I went downstairs to where I keep all my extra stuff and came back up with a cabinet door. I stuck felt pads on the corners so it wouldn’t damage the floors when we slide it under the couch. Then I grabbed my glue gun and ran a bead of glue around the edge of the door so the puzzle pieces can’t slide off.

As you can see, we’ve made some serious progress on the puzzle (although looking at this picture, it looks to me like one or two of those pieces are in the wrong place. The colours don’t match.) It’ll still take us a week or so to finish it, so I’m glad we can now stow it and pull it out easily.

I guess Mr. December and I are both kind of hoarders in our own way. He’s a bit of a crazy survivalist prepper, and I’m the kind of person who says, “I’ll save it—it’ll come in useful someday.” But is it still hoarding if the stuff actually ends up getting used?